Archives for posts with tag: Deep Desert

DR. GENTLE AND I spent the first week of our allotted production month spitballing in my (our) Room.

 

“It could be a … ”

 

“No,” I’d say.

 

“What about a … ”

 

“No,” I’d say.

 

“Oh, I know … what if we had these two … ”

 

“No,” I’d say, growing frustrated with him, and by extension myself, since I’d so far failed to come up with anything better.

 

Room Service trays piled up around us and my bill at the Front Desk became one more thing I was refusing to think about.

 

Every day around 4, Dr. Gentle would ask if he could go to the health center and blow off steam, and I’d say, “No,” then regret it, then a few minutes later say, “Ok, fine.”

 

I’d watch English-dubbed Kurosawa films on pay-per-view while he was gone, one eye on the duffel bag of cash, half-expecting it to turn on me after so long unused. I could picture it climbing out of its shell and onto the bed, somehow wet, dripping green sludge, forcing me to eat my inability to spend it.

 

Dr. Gentle would come back sweating and happy and ask, “what did I miss?” and I’d point to the TV screen, where usually the first Kurosawa would just be ending, or the second ramping up.

 

*****

THIS FALLOW PERIOD COMES TO A FORCED END when Dalton calls on the Room’s landline and says, “The kids are getting picked over. If you want any, I’d suggest you get yourself to the school today.”

 

This gets through to me. “Why don’t you watch something,” I tell Dr. Gentle. “I’m going down to the health club to blow off steam.”

 

By the time I come back, flushed and grateful — does one ever regret going to the gym? — there’s no time to shower before the school closes, which Dalton has called back to inform Dr. Gentle is at 3pm sharp.

 

So, sweaty and spent, I grab a Powerbar from the kiosk in the lobby and we hurry across town.

 

The school’s abandoned, though whether this is just because it’s summer I can’t say. I’ve never thought about life in Dodge City in quite those terms before.

 

Nevertheless, we push our way inside, following the yellow paper signs on the wall that read CASTING with arrows pointing first to the left and then, after rounding a corner, to the right.

 

We come down a half-flight of stairs into a cavern with a more permanent sign outside that reads ART ROOM in English and Braille. Posters of waterlilies, haystacks, and Picasso, shirtless and feral in his studio, adorn the walls.

 

No one’s around, not even Dalton, whom I’d somehow expected to see here. No one but six glum children sitting on carpet squares inside a wire enclosure like bored llamas, surrounded by wrappers and crumbs.

 

They barely look up when we enter and begin to circle.

 

“So which one’s you?” Dr. Gentle asks, after we’ve seen them from every angle.

 

I stop short, clear my throat. “Excuse me?”

 

Dr. Gentle shrugs and does one of his self-deprecating smiles. “Nothing … I just meant, er, don’t you want to cast one of them as you and the others as your friends, so the movie can be about your years growing up in Dodge City?”

 

I can’t tell if Dr. Gentle actually thinks I’m from here or if he’s just having this idea now, but it’s the smartest thing either of us has said since this whole process began. It only seems obvious because it should have been.

 

“Oh, right. That’s what I meant,” I say. “That’s exactly what I had in mind.”

 

Dr. Gentle shrugs, seemingly happy for me to take credit. “How about this one? Were you a fat kid?”

 

He points to a fat kid in goldenrod corduroys and a purple shirt with a dinosaur egg hatching over its front pocket.

 

Was I a fat kid? I can barely remember. Then I think, yes. Yes, I guess I was. I must’ve been.

 

“Okay, you,” I point at the fat kid. He doesn’t respond until I walk directly into his line of vision and snap my fingers. Then he yawns and leaves his mouth open.

 

“What?” he says, his voice high and phlegmy.

 

“You, you’re cast. You’re gonna be in a movie! Isn’t that great?”

 

He yawns again and begins to pick his nose.

 

I feel myself losing my cool and decide to leave the area before I lash out. “Bag him up, Dr. Gentle.”

 

“What?” Dr. Gentle asks, pulling me back from the precipice of mania.

 

“I mean, here, give him this and tell him he’s hired.” I pull five 20’s from the duffel bag and hand them over.

 

It’s exciting to feel anger rise in me, approaching the edges of my body without going over. As if I were capable of the kind of hyper-masculine rage I’ve seen Blut Branson exhibit. As if, all along, that had been latent somewhere within me.

 

I wait by the rotten-smelling milk cooler, trying to remember my own school days, wherever they were, whatever the schoolhouse looked like then. Did I ever have art class?

 

 

*****

BACK AT THE HOTEL, we install the fat kid and the three others we’ve hired in the health center, abandoned except for a custodian refilling the water cooler who hurries away when he sees us.

 

“Okay,” Dr. Gentle says, hoisting the duffel bag with our cash onto his shoulder, appointing himself its de facto guardian. “So let’s start blocking out scenes.”

 

I try to think back on what in Amarcord moves me most. The deranged man in the tree, the peacock in the snow, the Grand Hotel the townspeople are never allowed to enter …

 

“Okay,” I tell the fat kid. “Let’s rehearse a scene where you’re in your room, dreading another indoors summer alone with your Primal Father, when you hear that your cousins will be visiting from California this year.”

 

Now I see the direction my film will take: it’ll be an origin story arguing for the legitimacy of my presence in this town, making it seem as though this were the site of my upbringing and gradual coming of age.

 

A propaganda film, in a sense.

 

There’s something I have to shore up here, some backstory for myself that I have to get clear on before going any farther into time, and this seems like the place to start. If I tell my story convincingly enough, I might come to believe it. And then I’ll know who I am.

 

And by knowing who I am, maybe I’ll finally know what to do.

 

*****

“LET’S FIND SOME CREEKBEDS,” I say after our third day of rehearsals, mustering Dr. Gentle and the crew out of the health center and into the parking lot behind the Hotel. “Some cornfields. A candy store. A comics store. The old train station where I used to sit on lazy Saturday afternoons and wait for the Silver Bullet to roll through. The rack where I used to wait salivating for the new month’s dime novels to be unloaded off the truck. The ones I read in a day and stuffed under my bed, into a paper-mass slowly growing into a lifelong imaginary friend. All the halcyon signifiers of a ruddy American childhood in some imagined Dodge City of the 50’s, gathered here at last, all in one place, projected across the drive-in screen for all to see.”

 

I stop to catch my breath, expecting something to happen. When nothing does, I clear my throat. “I’ll scout locations with the kids,” I say. “You go to Town Hall and get the equipment from Dalton. We’ll meet at the fairgrounds at seven.”

 

Dr. Gentle nods.

 

We depart, the fat kid who’ll play me followed by three others — two girls and a boy, who will play my cousin Anne, my cousin Denny, and my best friend Corinne, all names and roles I’ve made up on the spot.

 

*****

OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKS, we film the canonical scenes, all set during the summer when my cousins and my best friend and I were all between 9 and 13, and we had the experiences that made us who we then became. In my case, this meant creeping out of the shadow of my Primal Father and into the loose but authentic skin of my future self, a sentient, autonomous being at large in an entropic universe.

 

The Rubicon Summer, after which none of us would be the same.

 

With Dr. Gentle behind the camera and managing sound, I direct the kids in poignant scenes of loss and discovery — they see their first dead body, crushed under a trailer at the back of the fairgrounds; their first sexually-entwined couple, on a bench we drag to the center of an otherwise abandoned clearing in the woods to one side of the park at the edge of town; they try alcohol in the lot behind Giant Chinese, sipping at a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam we plant in a trashcan for them to find; they discuss ghosts and eternal life while lying under the stars by the edge of the dry canal that runs through town (which we refill for the sake of the shoot); they meet a wildman with a permanent erection and glowing red eyes scuttling from rooftop to rooftop in the most trailer-trash part of the Outskirts; they find a suitcase full of money (all the 20’s from our production budget wrapped around stacks of 1’s) in the burned-out hulk of a Volkswagen and have to decide what to do, devolving into mutually deceitful factions when no consensus can be reached; and, finally, they skinny dip together in Meyers Pond, leaping into the air on the count of three to display their nascent genitalia for a split second, concretizing their heretofore fluid notions of sexual difference, the harsh reality of being one thing or the other.

 

At the end of the summer — the end of the Movie — they go to the circus one last time, walking past the rides in the early autumn twilight as the clowns and trapeze artists break down the tents and pull up the stakes, preparing to say goodbye.

 

When the new school year begins, my cousins will go back to Petaluma while my best friend Corinne is moving away with her parents on short notice. Even she barely knows why, or where. Somewhere up north … Misconsin, Winnesota … something like that, as we called them then.

 

Leaving me alone to grow up in Dodge City with only my memories of this one magical, melancholy summer to speed through middle and then high school in the House of my Father, and then into adulthood, through odd jobs and debt and uncertainty, eventually to take up the mantle of filmmaking, first as a fledgling, trying out techniques, searching for my voice … and then, finally, as the Greatest Director this town has ever known, a force of nature fit to take on the legacy of Blut Branson himself, to …

 

“Okay? Should I turn this off? Um … I’m turning it off now?”

 

I look up and see Dr. Gentle powering the camera and mics down. Still high on my Branson fantasy, part of me wants to scream at him to keep filming, but I resist. He’s done nothing wrong. The film’s wrapped. I’ve made my Amarcord, cementing myself into the Dodge City past as firmly as I ever will.

 

I nod. “Let’s get these kids some Dairy Queen then send them on their way.”

 

*****

THE DAY OF THE FILM FESTIVAL ARRIVES.

 

After a frantic week of editing in the A/V room at the school, helped by some old man whose name I never learned but whom I referred to privately as ‘my beloved first film teacher,‘ we have a rough cut ready to screen.

 

Unsurprisingly, it’s accepted into the Festival, along with everyone else’s.

 

The surprise is that it was selected to screen first. The Opening Night gala. Black Tie, Red Carpet.

 

Dr. Gentle and I dress up in rented tuxes and get to the drive-in early, ready to field interviews and pose for pictures, but aside from two reporters from the Dodge City Eagle who ask us where we get our ideas, there’s not much doing.

 

Many of the food and drink vendors from the last time we all gathered here are back, or here still. Everyone’s milling around, eating meat off dripping paper plates.

 

Then it’s time to begin. Dalton strides through the grass in front of the screen, takes a cordless mic from his suit pocket and says, “Alright folks, here’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The time for our collective mythology to be refreshed. The long draught of Branson’s absence is over. The dawn of the New Branson is nigh. Please enjoy.”

 

He turns off the mic, slips it back in his suit pocket, and walks back into the grass as my film starts up.

 

*****

FOR THE NEXT HOUR AND A HALF, I’m the closest thing Dodge City has to a genuine Fellini. My vision matters, my version of childhood touches the canon and begins to redefine in.

 

It’s an incredible rush. It’s like everything I’ve worked for all these years is coming to fruition. Like I’m passing through the narrow gateway between being no one and being someone.

 

I’m so deep inside this feeling that by the time I hear my name, I have the feeling that Dalton’s been calling it for a while.

 

I snap to, rolling to my feet when I sense that he’s motioning me into the circle of light beneath the screen.

 

When I get there, he claps me on the back and produces a second mic from his other suit pocket.

 

I take it and tap its head to test if it’s on. It is.

 

“Well, that was just extraordinary,” he says. “I had no idea you were from here.”

 

I nod, then say, a little timidly, “Yeah.”

 

“Well, I’m sure the audience has questions. Why don’t we cut right to the chase here and open it up to … ”

 

AS I REMEMBER IT, this is the exact instant when I look out on the crowd and see, instead of hundreds of rapt faces, a tall lurking madman in torn jeans and a cowboy shirt.

 

He’s like the raving king from Kurosawa’s Ran, his beard tattered and white, his eyes full of hate and hellish vision.

 

Branson, I think. Back from the Desert.

 

“H-h-hi Blut,” I stammer into the mic, just before he grabs it out of my hand and pushes me back into the screen.

 

The crowd is riveted on him like a field of sunflowers on the sun as he clears his throat and begins to speak. “You’re all probably wondering where I was. I know it’s been a while. I did time in Dead Sir. I went down in that swamp and did some thinking. I came to some conclusions. I got my strength back.”

 

Here he pulls off his cowboy shirt and his jeans, and then, naked, begins to peel his skin away, starting with his face and working his way down. It comes off like wet paper, piling up by his feet.

 

Beneath, he’s thin, strong, young, wearing a sleek tailored suit and white sneakers.

 

Probably younger than me, I think.

 

“I saw things down there,” he continues, his voice supple and fresh now. “On my film set in the Desert, and then down in Dead Sir. I got some things straight in my mind.”

 

He kicks the pulp of his old self into the grass. I can smell its porky reek from where I stand propped against the screen.

 

“I came to understand that what all of you here, tonight, consider to be the real Dodge City is nothing but a simulacrum. A Movie set at best. A version of someone’s memory of Dodge City that you’ve all tried to convince yourselves is real. I believed it too once, but no more. No! No, I tell you tonight. This is not the real Dodge City. This is the traitor’s Dodge City. The American Babylon.”

 

Here he turns to look at me, unrepressed violence in his eyes.

 

The return of the Primal Father, grown superpotent, I think, remembering my Freud, or my Lacan, whoever it was that said that way back when, in a book I read on a bus, or in a bus station, once. If you knock me down, you better kill me, says the Primal Father in a rare moment of weakness. Because if you don’t, I’ll come back twice as strong and three times as angry.

 

“No, good people. The Real Dodge City, the genuine one, the one you all deserve to live in, where life is good and full of meaning and still in its early days, is in the Deep Desert, past the horizon, past Dead Sir. Follow me and I will lead you there. Follow me now.”

 

With that he drops the mic and strides back through the grass.

 

As he goes, the people — my audience — rise entranced to their feet and fall in line behind him, their backs to the screen.

 

I watch them go, Dr. Gentle among them. He was only ever in it for the Desert travel, I think. He was never tied to me in particular.

 

Even the kids who played me and my cousins in the Movie follow. Even Dalton follows. Even Big Pharmakos, who I’m just now noticing in the crowd, follows.

 

Soon it’s just me and the pulp of Branson’s old body, left in the shadow of the empty drive-in screen.

 

*****

SO THIS IS MY KINGDOM, I think. My dominion.

 

I have won the mythic struggle, I tell myself, as I walk out of the drive-in field and into the empty lots and warehouses of Branson Entertainments.

 

I explore the sound stages, the mixing boards, the recording booths. The intake room where I was interviewed before my location-scouting mission to Kazakhstan.  The means of production are mine, I think. All of this, relinquished, left in my charge.

 

I am the Minotaur in the labyrinth.

 

Emboldened by this thought, I show myself into the office where Branson made all his directorial decisions, modeled after the glass enclosure where the dwarf-director in Mulholland Dr. sat in his wheelchair and commanded his goons.

 

I get in the wheelchair now — Branson-sized, naturally — and lean back, putting my lips to the microphone that wraps around the chair’s edge.

 

I clear my throat and whisper, “Play.”

 

The entire wall across from me lights up and begins to boil with static. Closing my eyes, I imagine I’m watching a Movie detailing my future here in Dodge City, just as my Amarcord detailed my past.

 

In this future Movie — entitled The Real Blut Branson — I am the great exalted visionary and Dodge City is full of my acolytes, the false Branson abandoned in the Desert, cast off as the charlatan he is and always was, my flock returned to me, my eminence unquestioned now, beyond usurpation.

 

I nod off. When I wake up, the Movie’s over. Yawning and stretching without leaving the chair, I clear my throat and whisper “Rewind.”

 

 

END VOL 2.

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I’D LIKE TO BELIEVE I’ve spent enough time in the Deserts around Dodge City to realize that, while they’ve never fully consumed me, they’ve also never spit me out as I was. In fact, they’ve never spit me out at all until I’ve consented to, in some non-trivial capacity, change.

 

So the past two months of Desert travel with Dr. Gentle have been sufficient to knock loose in me the following revelation, qua non-trivial change: why not rejigger the stakes so that, by the time we make it back to Dodge City, I’ve become Blut Branson and Dr. Gentle has become me?

 

I mean, given that I can’t return as myself, why not return as someone better?

 

As this thought takes shape and substance within me, I begin to draft a treatment for what I hope will be my first film as Blut Branson, now that the burden of being me has evaporated, or, to be more precise, has been shunted, however unwittingly, onto Dr. Gentle.

 

Rather than counting for nothing, my earlier, aborted film project will, in this new scheme of things, count as a sacrifice to the old power structure — so that, now, with the Real (and I should instead start saying ‘Old’) Blut Branson busy Directing what I’d once hoped would be my first feature — the one he stole from me on the set I was forced to abandon two months ago — I see no reason not to unburden myself further by stepping in here as the Real Blut Branson, the one and only, at least until the Old One comes back and tries to fight me for his name.

 

So until then, call me Blut.

 

“Okay, tell me your life story,” I think I hear Dr. Gentle say at this exact moment, though I admit I may be conjuring this out of him, or simply misreporting what I wish I’d heard.

 

Nevertheless, taking this as an invitation to talk through my still-developing concept for the film I’m tentatively calling ‘The Real Blut Branson’ — which, if completed, will stand as my actual first film as well as a sort of mythic origin story for the person I wish I were and am looking for the courage to pretend I am — I pick up in speech where my thoughts are now leaving off:

 

“Diagnosed with a terminal illness,” I begin, “Blut Branson (played by me) retreats to a hospice set up in his childhood home, deep in the heart of Dodge City. Here, he decides it’s time to reveal the full truth about himself, the 3% that he’s so far left out of his harrowingly autobiographical filmography: for his final film, he’ll Direct an entirely unfabricated biopic about himself, shot on DV in the most straightforward possible style, a style-without-style, if you will, revealing his true origins, the agony of his early years, his fraught, ambivalent reaction to fame, and his subsequent reclusion and even more subsequent reemergence.

 

“There are, in short, certain things he’s determined not to take to the grave. But first he has to choose who will play him in this film-within-the-film, as he’s far too sick to both Direct and play himself at the same time, though as a younger man you’d better believe he would have in a heartbeat.

 

“As it turns out, Dodge City is full of Blut impersonators … indeed, his influence is so pervasive that every citizen is an impersonator to one degree or another, many of them unwittingly.

 

“Some would even go so far as to claim that all aspects of Dodge City life — going to school, going to work, going shopping, coming home — are, in their own ways, forms of Branson impersonation, if by ‘impersonation’ one also means ‘worship.’ He has cast such a voluminous shadow over the people of Dodge City that there is no means of existing there outside of it. So the people of Dodge City are, in this sense, more a fungal than a vegetal race, living as they do always in Branson’s fertile dark.”

 

“Why not call the town Branson then?” I think I hear Dr. Gentle ask.

 

“Because there already is a Branson, and it’s a fairly specific place. Anyway, as I was saying, the 3% of the truth that hasn’t yet been revealed by his films is the only margin of creativity these impersonators are given — the only window through which they might insert their own subjectivities and inhabit his story as actors, rather than audience members. Without this window, impersonation would be mere recapitulation, sterile and automatic.”

 

Dehydration is making it hard to go on speaking at this rate, but I’ll try.

 

“Now that his days are numbered, however, Blut decides to close this gap by setting the record fully straight. To preclude all speculation once he’s gone by leaving behind a filmed testament so canonical it will be impossible to question any aspect of his life once it is no longer, in the conventional sense, underway.

 

“In short,” I slow down here, making sure Dr. Gentle receives the full point of what I’m trying to say, “Blut Branson wants to make it so that only a dogmatic impersonator can take his place after he dies, weeding out any upstarts who might put their own spin on his legacy in the vast Wild West of the future.”

 

*****

WE TRUDGE ONWARD in silence while I lick my teeth, trying to wet them enough to go on talking. Eventually, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be:

 

“So it falls to Blut to select an official impersonator to vest with his legacy, since the biopic he’s making will end with this impersonator — played by you in the film I’m planning to make, Dr. Gentle — accepting the burden of being ‘The Real Blut Branson,’ taking a solemn oath to continue the master’s filmmaking career and thus, in essence, deny that the Old Blut ever died.

 

“The early scenes of my film,” I continue, “will detail the process by which Blut winnows his impersonator from a horde of applicants, Directing each one in a few sample scenes from his life — ‘First Kiss,’ ‘Going Away to Film School,’ ‘First Job Interview’ — trying to determine which vessel he ought best to reveal the full truth about himself and then live on through.

 

“But soon he finds that those impersonators who most clearly bear the traits that make him who he is — self-pity, melancholia, past-hauntedness, loneliness, shyness, luridness, sleaze — are so distasteful, when viewed in the harsh of light of the audition room (the kitchen of his childhood home/hospice), that he can’t bear to cast any of them.

 

“He can’t handle the truth,” Dr. Gentle says.

 

I go on without acknowledging this. “Just as he’s about to vanish entirely into despair, Blut agrees to see one last audition. All or nothing. The atmosphere inside the hospice is like that scene in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, if you remember, where one guy comes into the nursing home and shoots the other guy in the face while he’s visiting his mother, except in this case the tension is palpable from the start of the scene rather than coming as a surprise at the end, as it does in the film. And, of course, Branson’s hospice, as I’ve said, is set up in his childhood home, rather than in a nursing home in Belfast, so … actually, this isn’t like that, sorry.

 

“All I mean,” I’m getting flustered here, as I do when I feel myself coming to the point, “is that Blut was literally at death’s door, or in death’s living room anyway, when you walked in.”

 

“Me?” Dr. Gentle seems disturbed, like he’s heard me talking all this time without grasping any of what I’ve said.

 

I nod. “Right. Because you’re going to play the impersonator who derails Blut’s plan to cast himself with an authentic lookalike. You’re the proverbial breath of fresh air in this story. The mystery element that saves it from predictability and stagnation.”

 

Dr. Gentle looks at me warily.

 

“Can I go on?”

 

He nods.

 

“So, as he’s dying, Blut (played by me) meets one final impersonator (played by you). He’s immediately moved by this impersonator’s grace, his unthinking self-confidence, his seeming immunity to introspection and looping neurosis. Most of all, he’s moved by the impersonator’s seeming imperviousness, even obliviousness, to the whole audition process. This impersonator barely seems to know that he’s here with hopes of being cast in a film, let alone one revealing the Truth about Blut Branson.

 

“The audition lasts less than 5 minutes. Despite the total lack of resemblance and the disapproval of his producers, Blut chooses this last impersonator in a fit of whimsy the hospice nurses wouldn’t have imagined he still had in him. He casts you, Dr. Gentle, as the Real Blut Branson.”

 

As I describe this process, imagining myself playing the dying Blut, the volume of my voice fades in my ears as the volume of my thinking takes over: there’s something about you, Dr. Gentle ... something about you that makes me want to cast you … and that thing is that you don’t know who the Real Blut Branson is, nor even the 97% real one … you come from outside that whole paradigm, from some other town, or no town at all … you’re living proof that there is an outside, that the Dodge-City-Mindset isn’t the only one.

 

Which is why, I catch myself continuing, it is my duty to rope you in. To quash your difference by engraving your face onto a film created squarely within the confines of the Dodge City Film Industry … thereby turning your innocence into yet another form of Branson-worship, rather than allowing it to go on existing as some external, unaffiliated thing.

 

*****

“Is there more?” Dr. Gentle asks, after what I gather has been an overlong silence.

 

I shudder and come back to myself, realizing I’d rather not go on because I no longer like the direction my thoughts are headed. But Dr. Gentle’s so expectant I can’t leave him hanging.

 

“Yeah,” I say. “Now, the film goes off in a new direction. No longer will Blut close the 3% window of mystery on his life before dying. Rather, his plan is to open it further. To die with, ideally, 100% mystery about his true nature — stretched as it will be between the Blut people think they know and the Blut-impersonator they will see onscreen — firmly in place. So the people of Dodge City will never know for sure what kind of soul, if any, their idol and guiding light really had.

 

“From here, the film details the process by which Blut prepares to hand over his legacy to his successor, high on the fantasy of being transformed into a totally other type of man, one far less hobbled by doubt, while also regretting that the conditions which have made his art possible will cease to obtain if he undergoes this transformation: the actual font of his genius will run dry if he entrusts its safekeeping to you, no offense, Dr. Gentle.

 

“All this time, remember, his illness is progressing, clouding his judgment and further blurring the already-blurry boundaries between past and present. So he doubles down inside his childhood home/hospice, determined to Direct the biopic and then die without ever going outside again. He’s even designed a burial plot for himself deep in his winter coat closet, beside the ashes of his beloved pug Sparky.

 

“So, Directing from his childhood bed — itself a poignant symbol given all the times he was sick in this bed as a child without its being, as it is now, his deathbed — he retells his life as if he’d been you, Dr. Gentle, all along. He films scenes from every stage of his childhood, adolescence, and young manhood, all within this same house, or on sets built to resemble other houses while still being situated within this one. In the process, he begins to forget that this mild-mannered cipher isn’t really him.

 

“In his last days, he enters a kind of third-person trance, in which he believes he’s watching himself from a disembodied outside perspective. The illness makes his whole body numb, so he can’t feel anything except what he imagines his impersonator feels. He’s like Dr. Mabuse Directing sleepwalkers from his asylum, if you see what I mean, Dr. Gentle, except in this case he’s Directing you.

 

“Meanwhile, on the streets of Dodge City, the other impersonators celebrate the final days of Blut’s myth in one last Carnival-style pageant before the full truth is revealed (as they still believe it will be) through the biopic’s broadcast, to which a ticker on every TV channel steadily counts down. When this happens, the impersonators plan to march en masse into the Desert, alone and unwanted, sundered from their lone source of relevance and replenishment, believing that a Dark Age will then overtake Dodge City, one in which all impersonation will have been reduced to rote blasphemy.

 

Not one of them suspects that the actual film will have the opposite effect.

 

“But perhaps,” I say, looking at Dr. Gentle again, sweat I can’t afford to lose pouring off me, “you, as the chosen impersonator, have your own mysterious agenda. Since you doesn’t even know who Blut is, perhaps you have some other reason for trying to impersonate this dying man to whom you bear no resemblance. I mean, why did you show up at that audition, really, if you didn’t know what it was for?”

 

“What audition?”

 

“Maybe it’s more than a neutral favor you intend to pay your symbolic father, maybe what you really want is to … ” I catch myself rambling worse than usual here and think I know why: I’ve slipped into talking about me and the Old Blut, rather than the new me-as-Blut and Dr. Gentle-as-me.

 

The conversation has glitched back to its origin, like a bowling ball that the reversion machine has spit back out at the start of the next round.

 

*****

I KIND OF LOSE IT HERE.

 

“At the very end, as it’s all going dark,” I hear myself say, feigning composure, “with the faux biopic completed and about to air, Blut can’t stand to see the source of his art run dry: he has to somehow torment or terrify this impersonator into finding a wellspring of insecurity within himself, before it’s too late.

 

“Otherwise there will be no more Branson films and Dodge City will enter a Secular Age for which, let me tell you, it’s far from ready.

 

“The idea of replacing himself with a cheery, well-adjusted avatar, which had until recently seemed so compelling, now seems a fate worse than death. So, fighting through the delirium, coughing up any painkillers the nurses try to feed him, Blut calls his crew back together and demands the film be reshot.

 

“It doesn’t matter how. All that matters, Blut thinks, is that he die while the film is still in progress, so that its release will forever after bear the tag Uncompleted Final Masterpiece, thus leaving it open to specious interpretation and Internet whinging, as all the key final masterpieces seem inevitably to end up being, many to their benefit.

 

I feel myself reanimating the Old Blut as I speak, suddenly doing all I can to avoid killing him, even in speech, even in thought.

 

“Overall, my film’s about the perverse desire to have it both ways: to be both well-adjusted and also a great artist with the kind of warped personal language that only develops through a lifetime of alienation. You know? And, on top of all that, to be both alive and dead. To overthrow the whole paradigm that forces us to choose.”

 

Now I’m panting, my mouth drier than the cobblestones of Pompeii, my eyes trying to water and finding it harder than it sounds. The thing I have to make sure never to stop asking myself, I think without saying it, is how much do I really want Blut Branson dead?

 

Given the chance — which it’s looking like I have in this case been given — am I really ready to go on without him, taking over the full burden of the Dodge City Film Industry, with all that that presumably entails?

 

What scares me more than I care to admit is the possibility that my ambivalence about killing him comes not from an emotional quirk in my own nature, but rather, somehow, from Blut himself — as if he were Directing me from afar, forcing my thoughts to conform to his even as I believe my intention is to come, finally, into my own.

 

“How free from him can we ever really be?” I hear myself ask, thinking, he’s like some vengeful woken spirit rushing across the Desert to silence me.

 

Dr. Gentle stops, eyes filling with mellow concern. “Free from whom?” He looks up at the sky, like it’s God I mean. I think I know what his answer in that case would be.

 

*****

SOON AFTER this break in the conversation, a distant skyline comes into focus.

 

As we keep our pace up, it only grows closer.

 

The Desert is nothing but a distance that exists for as long as it takes to reach a certain decision, after which the next location rolls out to take its place, demanding only — and this is no small thing — that one do whatever one spent one’s time in the Desert deciding to do.

 

Now the skyline resolves, predictably, into that of Dodge City, and soon enough we’re in its Outskirts, myself and Dr. Gentle, Don and Sancho, a Branson impersonator and his understudy, or the Real Blut Branson and his impersonator.

 

I can see the whole town unfurling around us, ready to serve as the set for the shoot of the film still tentatively entitled The Real Blut Branson, my first mature Directing gig, assuming I find it within me to step up to the plate and see it through, whatever the psychic consequences may be.

 

“The first order of business,” I tell Dr. Gentle, treating him for the time being simply as my assistant, “is to build a scale replica of my childhood home so I can cozy up in bed there and begin to pretend I’m dying.”

THERE’S NO QUESTION THAT THE TIME TO ABANDON WHAT I’D BRIEFLY REFERRED TO AS “MY FILM SET” HAS ARRIVED. Even if Blut Branson hadn’t commandeered it quite so aggressively, the simple fact of his presence would in short order have goaded me into leaving.

 

So here I go.

 

Head hung, I march into the distance, leaving him to make whatever he will of the set I’d once hoped would serve as the locus of my feature film debut.

 

Ashamed, as usual, of my cowardice, I decide to cross the entire desert. If I make it to the far side, I figure I’ll be glad to emerge into whatever place happens to be there.

 

All I know is I’m not going back to Dodge City, at least not willingly.

 

Maybe, I think, as the last lights of Branson’s set vanish behind me, I’ll manage to leave this part of the country for good, thereby setting a new adventure in motion … one that, I hope, will have little or nothing to do with the Dodge City Film Industry.

 

Or any film industry at all. Those days are — if I have any say in the matter — well and truly behind me.

 

I walk in a straight line for what feels like longer than all night, but there’s no shift in the dark overhead. I’m hoping this isn’t the kind of desert where it’s night all the time.

 

*****

TIME TO SLEEP. I find a declivity in the sand and settle into it, staring up at a sliver of moon.

 

As soon as my eyes droop shut, I feel a pair of hands tugging at my sleeve. I keep my eyes closed, hoping it’ll go away if I don’t acknowledge it. But this only works in certain stories I’ve read, and maybe in other parts of the country, in other deserts.

 

Not here. My sleeve goes on being tugged until I open my eyes.

 

When I do, I see a mild-looking, grey-haired man wearing a headlamp. It illuminates his features like the text on a page under a flashlight. ‘Mild through and through’ is my read on him — ‘a  man either with no malice whatsoever in his system, or with malice so deeply buried and so well integrated it casts no shadow on his surface.’

 

Defenseless as I am, I decide to assume the former.

 

“Dr. Gentle.” He extends his hand. I take it and he tries to pull me up, but he’s too weak. I end up pulling him down instead. I close my eyes against his headlamp’s glare and crawl out from under him, get to my feet, and then help him to his.

 

When we’re both standing, he laughs and adjusts his headlamp. “Phew,” he says. “For a minute there, I lost myself.”

 

I tell him not to worry, though I can’t say he’s made a heroic first impression.

 

“Look.” He points his headlamp at a tethered donkey, which moans at the dawning awareness that soon it will be responsible for two riders.

 

Though I’d like to ask where he’s headed and make a show of considering whether to travel there with him, I’m not exactly in a position to act like I have a route of my own mapped out.

 

So I climb aboard, behind Dr. Gentle, and off we go, our donkey wheezing pitifully beneath us, one of us Sancho to the other’s Quixote, though I can’t yet say which is which.

 

*****

AS WE SLOG ONWARD, the sun starts to rise in the distance. I have the suspicion that it isn’t cresting the horizon on its way toward overtaking the sky, as usual, but rather that we’re approaching a country where it’s always day, leaving the one where it’s always night behind.

 

I decide to keep this suspicion to myself.

 

“So, Dr. Gentle,” I say, hoping to change the subject, “what exactly’s your deal?”

 

“Well,” he begins, turning around on the donkey to face me, “people around here call me the Gentile Cronenberg.”

 

Around where? I think. But I just raise my eyebrows, encouraging him to go on.

 

“As you likely know,” he goes on, “all souls are divided at birth between Jewish and Gentile aspects. These are not, as has been popularly assumed, singular properties that manifest in individuals to the exclusion of the other. At least not at first. Before a soul reaches maturity, there is a pitched battle between these two manifestations. Only one can achieve dominance.”

 

“And the other?”

 

His face slackens under a weight of sadness. “The other, well, exists in a sort of under-expressed limbo. A half-life, you might say. A living byproduct of the process by which a soul becomes most fully what it is.”

 

“So this byproduct of the soul becomes another person?”

 

Dr. Gentle nods. “Correct. A new person is born, sometimes in adulthood, once the Jew/Gentile battle, within a given soul, has reached its conclusion.”

 

“So in your case …”

 

“In my case, the battle was won, in no uncertain terms, by the illustrious Jewish filmmaker David Cronenberg. I, well … I’m what’s left. The runoff. The Gentile Cronenberg. A small-sized person, and I don’t mind saying it. I was born in my mid-thirties as a Youth Pastor named Dr. Gentle. With no soul of my own to speak of, I’ve pledged my years on this earth to shepherding the souls of others across this vast desert.”

 

He sighs and looks me over for understanding, which I feign.

 

“I content myself in the knowledge that I am not as badly off as the Jewish David Lynch. Now there is truly a man with nothing to live for.”

 

I nod, beginning to feel my feigned understanding harden into something real. Or maybe it’s just the look on my face that’s hardening.

 

 

“Are we almost there?” I ask.

 

“Where?” Dr. Gentle looks at me with extremely concerned eyes.

 

I shrug. “I’d assumed there was somewhere we were going.”

 

He turns back and grips the donkey’s reins and mutters, “They always do.”

ALL FIGURES WE EVENTUALLY COME TO REGARD AS GREAT have an origin story, as they do not, to the best of my knowledge, walk fully formed out of nowhere, even if, in the retrospect of their greatness, they often appear to have.

 

Just before my negotiations with Blut Branson at the peripheries of the Movie set in the Desert reach the point of violence, he takes me aside and tells me his.

 

“Believe it or not,” he begins, immediately inducing me to doubt whatever he plans to say, “I was once a regular guy like you.”

 

“Years before your time, decades really, Dodge City was a lot like it is now. They say nothing lasts forever, but there’s an inertia to towns like this that makes you wonder. In any case, all those years ago, I found myself hanging around here, not doing much of anything. As I say, a lot like you.”

 

I open my mouth to speak up for myself, but he continues before I can.

 

“I had dreams, sure, but I was fairly certain they’d die inside me, unhatched like slowly rotting eggs. I saw no other fate for dreams. Thus, I felt no real guilt about letting mine go soft like those of my forefathers.

 

“But something happened. As I believe is often the case with Great Men like myself, an event outside the purview of my Will provided the impetus that set me on my course. Or, more accurately, the true extent of my Will first manifested from a source outside my body.

 

“A great Melancholy came over Dodge City. Over the course of one summer – this must have been 1972 or ’73, as I remember a copy of Ballard’s Crash making waves among my several literate friends and me – all of our small, private melancholies merged. Through a crack in the dreamspace or perhaps in the literal sky, the idea began to overwhelm us that we were not hovering in separate melancholic spheres, like balloons dispersing above a parade of the living, but rather joined beneath a banner of Universal Melancholy. A Power outside ourselves, we thought, feeling fear and relief merge into a feeling without a name. Of course, I did not yet know that Power was Me.

 

“Soon, by the logic that thought tends inevitably toward action, a physical banner was hung by a crew of volunteers. Stretching across Main Street, it read WE ARE SAD.

 

“Summer wore on, June’s soothing warmth yielding to July’s oppressive heat, and this Universal Melancholy took on a more definite form: as we all sat together in the square, sweltering and trying to gather our thoughts under that banner, we realized what it was: the sadness of parting. The awareness that we would all, one day, have to say goodbye. On this day, whenever it came, we would see one another for the last time. Assuming we all died or drifted apart one by one, these partings would be serial, ongoing, unresolvable. There could never, it seemed to us in those gruesomely hot July and then August afternoons, be an end to our Melancholy. There would, much to the contrary, likely come a period when we would have to part with someone we loved almost daily.

 

“As we returned home each night to twist and shiver in our sheets, we thought, when will the day come after which I will never see my friends again? Has it come already? Was today the day and so my terminal aloneness is now?

 

“Eventually, the not-knowing grew so profound that a new fixation took hold of us, every bit as forcefully as the Melancholy had: as summer gave way to autumn, we thought, with no room for negotiation, Let’s just leave.

 

“Just leave?” I ask, realizing I haven’t gotten a word in this whole time. It’s scary how overpowering Branson’s voice can be: I hadn’t, until just now, even managed to think in my own.

 

Branson nods, snarling slightly at the interruption. “Just leave. We decided that all of us, one day in September, would simply walk out of town, dispersing into the Desert, never to meet again. We wrote a Declaration stating as much, and sealed it in a vault in the Records Room of the Town Hall. Packing nothing, we’d decided to shake hands in the town square and take our leave. And that’d be it, no more fear of the unknown future moment when this leave-taking would have to occur. We’d realized we had no power to stave it off, but we did have the power to determine its location in time, and we’d resolved to use that power to make it happen now.”

 

“So you did?” I’m determined to speak more, for fear that otherwise Branson will entirely erase me from the interaction, nullifying any future chance I might have to assert myself as the Director of the Movie whose crew is frozen just beyond where we’re sitting, like the Movie itself has been paused.

 

“One morning in September, we did exactly what we said we were going to do. We left the town behind, chanting Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye as we marched under the WE ARE SAD banner, never to congregate beneath it again. For a few minutes, we remained visible to one another, but after each walking a mile in our own direction, we’d dispersed to the point where we were alone in the Desert. No one was on the same trajectory as anyone else. The worst had come to pass, and here we still were … or, I should say, here I still was, since the others were well and truly gone.”

 

He pauses here, looking over at me, evincing, if I’m not mistaken, relief at finding himself less alone than he was in the story he’s telling. A rare moment of vulnerability, quickly suppressed.

 

“But that wasn’t the end?”

 

He shakes his head. “It wasn’t even the beginning.”

 

*****

“I WANDERED THAT DESERT for what felt like and may well have been 20 years,” Branson continues, after making me wait so long I fear the silence may be permanent.

 

“Eating snakes and tiny rat-like mammals, drinking from cacti and the occasional standing pond, I wandered and thought, bedding down in caves or under the open sky. For the first 10 years, I thought about what my life had been. I assumed it was going to end in the Desert, so I thought back on what I’d done and seen – basically, nothing. I, like you, had led a wasted life, not even a flash in the pan.

 

“But then, somewhere around year 11, the balance shifted. I realized – in what you call a Moment of Revelation – that I wasn’t going to die out there. Not yet. If I’d survived that long, I figured, I was bound to survive longer. Without my having meant for it to, my life in the Desert had become sustainable. I was still young, I realized; time was still on my side.

 

“So, for the next 10 years, I turned my thoughts to the future. I stopped asking myself Which hole would you like to die in? and started asking, What would you like to do with all the time you have left? It was a curse and a blessing, as they say, to be fraught with a future I hadn’t planned on having to account for.

 

“As the years wore on, I started thinking about Movies. All my memories of my youth and upbringing in Dodge City, and of the great Melancholy that had come over us all, took on a cinematic dimension. I started to think, All of that … all of what happened … what was it all if not a Movie?

 

From here, it was only a short leap to the crucial thought: “And if it was all a Movie, who Directed it if not Me?”

 

 

He pauses again, staring off into the Desert where we’re sitting, which I realize is the same Desert he wandered through all those years ago, coming to the decision that set him on the path whose conclusion he’s by now almost reached. All things that seem far away are actually nearby, I think. Everything’s superimposed. I open my mouth, but he continues before I work up the courage to say it.

 

“So, for the next 10 years, I wandered deeper into the Desert, growing more and more charged with ambition. An ambition I’d previously refused to admit to myself I now admitted freely, proudly even, feeling it swell in my gut as I shouted at the night sky. “Nothing can stop me from becoming what I’ve decided to become, because if anything could, it would have by now,” I shouted.

 

“Like so, in the spring of 1995, I arrived in a town. After all those years of sand and dust, I crossed a line out of nowhere and into somewhere. It seemed at once miraculous and inevitable, like I’d simply reached the point I’d been approaching all along. Like I’d conjured this town through pure force of mind, in my first conscious Act of Direction, but also that the conjuring was no less predetermined than God’s conjuring of the universe.”

 

I clear my throat, this time forcing myself past fear. “And the town you reached was Dodge City?”

 

Branson smiles, eying me like I’m an intelligent 5-year-old. “Well, at first I wasn’t sure. I walked through a town that looked familiar, catching the eyes of people who looked familiar too, though it was hard to tell for sure. I had been so fundamentally changed by my years in the Desert that, even if it was Dodge City, it no longer struck me in the same way.”

 

“What was the difference?”

 

“Well, for one thing, the banner had fallen down. And now I saw potential where before I’d seen only stagnation. All these people, whether they were the old population likewise returned from the Desert or a new population who’d filled the void we left behind, looked at me with reverence, awe. All modesty aside, I could feel myself emitting a mythic charge. They knew they were products of my mind, and thus slaves to my Vision. Alive solely to play the roles I cast them in.

 

“I was the Man Returned. Resurrected. These people looked at me like a man out of Scripture, at last incarnated in Flesh rather than merely in Word, grown wise and courageous enough to take my stand. Here He is … they thought, and I thought, Yes, here I am.

 

“And like so you took control of Dodge City?”

 

Branson smiles again. “I didn’t have to. I was Dodge City, and Dodge City was Me. Everything and everyone there lives by the Grace of Me.”

 

He doesn’t add ‘including you,’ but I can tell he knows it’s what I’m thinking.

 

 

“Those people were mine. Absolutely mine. I began work on my first Movie that day. With an entire town’s worth of free labor, production went fast. Before long, Branson Entertainments was up and running, an enterprise fully coterminous with the Dodge City Film Industry. Soon we had our first Movie in the can, playing on every screen in town. Then our second, then …”

 

“Then the rest was history,” I say, wondering if I’m any more capable of resisting the power of the Great Man before me than those original stunned townsfolk were. And if I’m not, I wonder what’s left … I wonder if maybe I too should disappear into the Desert, ready to die there unless fate intercedes.

 

Maybe what worked for him will work for me.

 

Next time I look up, Branson’s gone, setting up a shot on the Movie set that I realize is now unambiguously his, as it always has been.

IT’S WELL KNOWN among those who follow the lives of the Great Directors that, from 2005 to 2011, Blut Branson was dead.

 

Though no one knew where his body was, exactly, no one, not even Big Pharmakos, was optimistic or superstitious enough to consider him still-living. All anyone ever told me was that one day he stormed out of Dodge City, echoing David Lynch with the claim that “Movies aren’t really my bag these days,” and sent no further signal.

 

I’ll admit that I’ve had a similar thought on occasion, what with today’s seemingly infinite, and infinitely disposable, online content streams competing endlessly for our diminishing attention … it’s almost enough to motivate one back into literature, a party that, poorly attended as it’s been since the end of the 19th century at the latest, hasn’t grown any more poorly attended in recent years, contrary to claims made by certain experts between 2008 and 2012.

 

Anyway, the set of the film Branson had been working on became a paralyzed village on the outskirts of Dodge City, the cast and crew hanging around, eating craft services until they were all gone and then beginning to eat each other, waiting for instructions, refusing to accept their project’s demise.

 

*****

TO BACK UP, in fall 2011, I was in my apartment on Dana St. in Cambridge, MA where I lived before moving to Dodge City, listening to Fresh Air when a Q&A with Branson, whose films I’d discussed in my college thesis, came on. Believing him to be dead, I snapped out of my slight torpor, becoming for once in my life fully alert.

 

The first thing I noticed in this new state of attention was that the broadcast was structured like an old-school audience call-in radio show, where Terry Gross kept stopping to announce the phone number, inviting listeners to call in with “those burning questions you’ve always had for Blut but never known how to ask.”

 

Various people from around the country called in to ask “where do you get your ideas?” and “who the heck was that guy behind the dumpster?” And one woman who wanted to know if 35 was too late to embark upon a creative career (“You’re still a baby!” enthused Branson, his tone unusually warm) — until, strange as it seems now that I’m writing it, I heard my own voice come on the air.

 

I perked up even more, checking myself for signs of splitting or doubling. “What about your unrealized Zoos of the Infinite Blue Horror Hole script? Any chance of that seeing the light of day?” I asked.

 

“Well,” Branson began, as Terry Gross coughed politely in the background, perhaps aware that we were straying into uncomfortable territory, “now that you mention it, I have been thinking that maybe …”

 

Thus began a long, sometimes frightening discussion of Branson’s great unrealized project. The thing I didn’t understand until much later was that this broadcast was actually from 2005, the year before his supposed death, and that it had come back on the air in 2011 to cover a rare medical absence on Terry Gross’ part.

 

So, in 2011, I ended up re-listening to my 2005-self discuss the legendary “lost Branson masterpiece,” which in the intervening six years I’d come to think of as my own idea, one of what has often felt like an infinite number of unrealized projects, riding with me from town to town.

 

Listening to the broadcast in Cambridge in 2011 provided a much-needed jolt of fresh air, no pun intended, into what, I’ll admit, had become a fairly stagnant period of time.

 

“The idea,” Branson explained, “is to consider an infinite recurrence of zoos: endless sets of higher, or supposedly higher, species watching the behavior of lower species, while one of them is imprisoned and the other is free. Each zoo spectator is the zoo animal for the next-higher species, so that each is at once knowing subject and unknowing object … but what’s interesting to me is the idea that it’s not the behavior of any given species that entertains the next higher species (and by proxy the film’s eventual viewer, if it were ever to be made), but rather the attention that each species pays to the lower species … the mode of attention, if you will, the specific qualities of it, the nature of each species’ prurience and perversion when it comes to the lives of those less fortunate  … do you see?”

 

“Yeah,” I heard myself say, Terry Gross coughing again in the background.

 

 

“Of course, stories where characters believe they’re the zoo visitors only to discover they are in fact the zoo animals are a dime a dozen, but what sets my idea apart is its infinitude … how the pairs magnify out, across spacetime, to a dizzying level of complexity, as the creeping suspicion that there can never be an end of zoos begins to dawn on the viewer.”

 

I sat on my bed in Cambridge nodding, listening to my 2005-self wait for Branson to continue.

 

“The only real problem,” he continued, after a lengthy pause, “is that I don’t yet have a suitable linking concept … nor any real characters to speak of. But the set in Dodge City is built and ready to go.”

 

“Then how will you work through the next phase?” Terry Gross interjected, a tad confrontationally, probably attempting to regain control of her interview subject.

 

“That,” said Branson, his voice harsh and defensive again, “is the kind of question that can make a filmmaker disappear.”

 

Which, of course, is exactly what he did, not long after.

 

*****

AT THIS POINT the broadcast went dead, but no matter — I was already scribbling in my journal:

 

Patchwork of childhood influences — all the fairy tales I absorbed as a child were, for me, literally true — my parents and teachers were trying to make me into what I needed to become in order to take Branson on, the minotaur in the labyrinth of my own influence … the giant between me and my becoming.

 

Now I’m liberated, on the prowl, like a samurai hero figure who doesn’t yet know his own power, or his own freedom to wield that power … Somehow I need to create for myself an avatar within Branson’s world, a better self to be as I explore his baroque imagination …

 

And thereby eviscerate him from this inside out …

 

The last line in that journal entry was: “Looks like I’ll be moving to Dodge City to take over the set Branson abandoned.”

 

Little did I know then that he’d come back from the dead barely a month after my arrival, but oh well. At least I shook off the torpor of Cambridge, and academia generally.

 

*****

NOW, THE DAY BEFORE HALLOWEEN 2015, with Branson having been back from the dead for four years, I happen to reread this journal, which I’d forgotten about until now.

 

Taking a beer from the fridge in my Room — where I’ve been deposited after my return from Kazakhstan — I walk out to the balcony and look across town, all the way to the lights of Branson Industries … and I wonder if the set he abandoned when he supposedly died is still there, out in the desert …

 

 

Stuffing my notebooks into a backpack and finishing my beer, I decide to find out for myself.

 

As I ride the elevator down to the lobby, I try to tally up all the time I’ve wasted here, and decide, as the elevator doors ding open, to make the film myself. Whether or not it’s exactly what I’ve always imagined myself doing, it’s what I’m going to do right now, I decide, trying to make my voice sound non-negotiable in my head.

 

The guy and I set out. The one who killed himself for everyone but me. He doesn’t appear to feel called-upon to explain anything along the “why me / why him” axis.

 

I don’t force the issue.

 

It seems clear that there’s no real debate around the thing to do being to wander on. There isn’t any “toward / away from” material to work with, since, aside from the node upon which he and I were introduced, there’s nothing at all here to distinguish anywhere from everywhere.

 

We don’t even have at our disposal a time of day or night. That’s all former-world stuff (and maybe next-world stuff too).

 

Just before we stop standing around, he says, “Here’s my decision,” in such a way that I can tell that, in the process of telling me what his decision is, he’ll also be making a completely new one.

 

As it turns out, he doesn’t say anything else. He seems to know his point has been made.

 

Now we’re walking.

 

He starts extemporizing about someone called “Bob Preston.” I’m about 85% certain he means Bob Dylan, but I’m wary of correcting him … warier, I think, than I thought I’d be.

 

This feeling frames him differently: until now, I’d wanted to see myself as about 10 to 12 years his elder (were he still alive), and thus about 1.5x further along in life, not quite on a mentor-level but a solid step up.

 

This no longer seems like it’s necessarily so. There’s a menace about him, as he goes on and on about Bob Preston, that I can tell I need to keep a safe distance from. My confidence in thinking of him as my “Sidekick” further wanes. “How about Comrade?” I propose to myself.

 

“What?” He asks.

 

“Bob Comrade,” I reply, not thinking altogether clearly.

 

“Bob Preston,” he corrects, pausing for a moment to make sure I’ve got it before going on.

 

*****

MINUTES, DAYS, something like that, pass.

 

We’ve managed to snack, but now thirst gets us in a real way.

 

We’re both heavily under the influence of where we are.

 

PERFECT TIMING: a well appears before us.

 

“A mirage,” says my Comrade, but he’s wrong.

 

This time, I’m not afraid to tell him.

 

“This time, I’m not afraid to tell you you’re wrong,” I tell him.

 

“Tell me what?” he says, a moony swoop on his face.

 

But it doesn’t matter. Since we’ve gone on walking while thinking and talking, we’ve made it to the edge of the water.

 

We look into it.

 

As it turns out, we’re both wrong: it is neither a mirage nor a well.

 

It is a deep, deep pit, filled with water. It’s about the width of a manhole, the water level just a foot or so beneath the lip of desert sand it’s punched into.

 

We creep right up.

 

Peering over, we see that it’s stuffed heavy with bodies, floating single file the way they say people get racked up the steepest, iciest part of the climb on Mt. McKinley [some family friend told me this once].

 

Looking down, I can see the top of one head and the insinuation of a great many more bodies beneath it.

 

The funny thing is that the topmost one is not at the surface of the water, the way a floating body seems like it ought to be. There’s a full body-length of unoccupied water-space.

 

Something trembles in me at the thought of this — a premonition of way more coming my way than I should responsibly be having a premonition of. It’s like the feeling when too many coffee beans rush out of one of those wall-mounted dispensers and you know they’re going to overflow the bag but you can’t push in the handle to stop the flow quickly enough.

 

At this point, my Comrade, who doesn’t appear to be looking where I’m looking, offers the following:

 

“That’s where the corporeal victims went.”

 

He pauses, giving me a chance to look, as if he’s just drawn my attention to something I hadn’t noticed.

 

He goes on to describe — obliquely as hell — the nature of these corporeal victims. A tone of shame creeps in, like the fact of there being corporeal victims at all is something he wants to downplay.

 

It seems like he means the corporeal victims of the Dodge City Genocide, but something in the way he says it makes me think that perhaps it’s a Group Suicide he means instead — the one he took part in for everyone but me.

 

He dips his foot down into the space reserved for him. Without his having to say it, I understand that’s what the body-length between the surface and the topmost body is … and I wonder if, for everyone else in the world, for whom he’s dead, they would see a body there. Perhaps it’s only me that sees an empty space in this Mass Watery Grave (MWG).

 

I feel, without knowing why, hugely glad that this empty space is there. It seems like, if the MWG were full, some awful circuit would be completed; some flip switched, a horrible machine sprung into action.

 

Like setting out to dig to China in the backyard one day and actually succeeding.

 

“If the pit were Full,” I say, and he shushes me in such a way I can tell he knows just what I mean.

 

*****

MUCH LATER, after we’ve recovered from the MWG (I’ll admit we both sipped a few mouthfuls from its surface-area, to ward off total thirst-death), we come upon an encampment.

 

Two encampments.

 

“Movie sets way out in the desert,” he says. “Just let you stew on that.”

 

The encampments strike me as more conceptual than actual. Maybe these are the real mirages.

 

The first is a kind of slanted-Hollywood type set-up wherein there’s a special rule on the books such that everyone who auditions for any part in a movie has to get it.

 

The truth of this is apparent in the air; no one needs to tell me.

 

So the director either has to choose the very first people who audition and turn everyone else away, or — as is more common — make hundreds upon hundreds of iterations of the film, with all these different casts.

 

What we’re standing around in now is the run-off or long-term effect of this. There’s trash everywhere, people shuffling around reciting lines that they haven’t quite memorized or that haven’t quite been written yet, a few very old and exhausted-looking directors roaming through the human stew, trying to direct for a few seconds here, a few seconds there.

 

My Comrade and I have the feeling of cattle drivers stopping in a rare town along our route to barter for supplies and get our equipment worked on. Or traders plying the Silk Road.

 

One of those directors comes up to us, looks us over, mumbles one thing, then mumbles, “Oh forget it.”

 

Instead of walking away, he stands there in front of us for a long time.

 

“30,000 Movies,” he tells me in confidence, later on.

 

*****

FINALLY, we get enough of that.

 

We make our way into the other encampment, where the rule is: every ordinary person who ever wished to switch places with a celebrity has gotten their wish.

 

There’s a strange mix of people with celebrity shells — Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Schrader, Lindsay Lohan, James Deen — but emitting a dull, dead-looking vibe, clearly stupefied inside — intermixed with completely ordinary people radiating genius and drive, as if a dude who worked at Foot Locker in Tempe, AZ were internally possessed by the selfhood and memory and well-oiled thought patterns of Bret Easton Ellis or Dan Chaon.

 

My Comrade and I mix in this society for a little while, managing to con a can of Sprite off the very docile and confused shell of Josh Ritter, then we move on.

 

*****

OUR LAST STOP before calling it a night is a tableau in which a 10-year-old boy sits watching 70’s-style local championship wrestling on a TV set up completely alone atop a sand dune.

 

There is no power cord.

 

The TV is on mute, and the boy is utterly glued to it. The wrestlers have those Mexican-style full-head facemasks on.

 

Nearby is a bed in which two middle aged bodies sleep.

 

This jogs a memory: earlier today, in our Coming Clean phase, my Comrade told me that his one joy, as a young child, was to watch local wrestling on TV at midnight on Saturdays.

 

If he did copious chores and stayed on his best behavior all week long, his parents would consider letting him watch in their bedroom (the one TV in the house), on mute, while they slept.

 

We look at the tableau of this exact scene now, posed in the desert. It seems to me that we must be entering a realm in which our lives, or just his life, will be arrayed, museum-style, for our edification and entertainment as we continue to make our way deeper in.

 

“Is that you as a boy?” I ask my Comrade, mostly just to confirm that he’s seeing what I’m seeing.

 

He looks where I’m looking, then at me. “Don’t get too cozy,” he says. “This is a one-time thing.”

 

SO MUCH FOR THAT.

 

We roam more.

 

I can see now that we will never “return to Dodge City.” That kind of ending belongs to another genre.

 

Dodge City — or some city — will, rather, simply grow up around us again, after enough wandering and down-time, as if inevitably, like a fungus. It will be the case, for a while, that there’s nothing but endless desert in every direction, and then the other thing — the us being in Dodge City thing — will take back over, and have its turn as the case, until the desert comes back yet again.

 

It’s not like a super-complicated alternation to get the hang of, once you’ve been around a little bit.

I’M DRIVING ALONG WITH and or being driven along by Internethead. Out to the desert to face down the Ghost Detritus of the Dodge City Genocide, whose legacy has gone so long unseen.

He drives fast, with little apparent regard for the territory. We are soon well beyond the highway entrance and the cluster of signs that tell you what fast food and motels to hope for when coming to town for the first time. We pass a Dairy Queen whose parking lot marquee reads, “Another Day Too Sad For Words $1.99.”

I can tell this will be the last establishment we’ll see. I wish we had stopped for a snack. The dark miles beyond this feel like discovering new hours in the night, the first time you stay up later than you ever have before.

Internethead’s face bulges peacefully, not showing off for anyone. It’s made its point, at least taken its stab. It may still burst, but it won’t be a purposive event.

Things right now are, strangely or not, rather boring, like Internethead and I have known each other a long time, like two hitmen or some duo with a show we take on the road, and now we’re just logging the middle miles among millions.

Like one of us will point something out and the other won’t respond … and then he’ll point something out, not expecting a response.

We get off one road after another … it seems we’re always getting off roads and never onto them, though we go on driving.

The oldest of all old Grandaddy songs plays five or six times in a row on the radio, the reception getting steadily worse. It feels rigged, like the same song is playing again and again to make a point about how much worse the reception is getting the further out we get — as if otherwise the fact of this growing distance would be lost on us.

WE ARRIVE.

It’s almost an exact replica of something from Lynch: the ranch in the desert, the broad-shouldered guy in the hat by the gate waiting for us, some message to impart or threat to make.

We pull up a steep hill, all gravel and loose dirt, requiring some fancywork with the brakes and steering wheel, and come to a stop in a cloud of dust.

It settles; we wait; Internethead’s bulge bulges. I play through a quick memory of a night in Krakow when I saw some kids on a backstreet draw knives …

THEN WE’RE out of the car, standing up, coming through the gate as the big man ushers. Closing the gate, he checks the driveway, making sure we weren’t followed.

Once inside, I realize, unambiguously, who it is: SUICIDE SAM (or, the SON OF SUICIDE SAM, which, according to the rules I’m trying to intuit, is I think the same thing).

“Hi,” I say, remembering the scene a few weeks ago where I was lured out to his encampment, outside of town, and died or almost died.

He just smiles. He and Internethead appear to know one another from a venue other than this one.

We begin to stroll. The air is thick as hamburger grease.

The whole place looks like a disused film or TV set, with traces of not just Lynch but Terry Gilliam, Frank Miller, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, Vince Gilligan … ha, now I’m just listing names. But, in all seriousness, it’s a patchwork of a place, equal parts “just weedy” and “immaculately honed to some unrealizable diabolical vision.”

I can’t tell if anything has ever actually been shot here. There are spotlights set up at intervals, dim, like they have no OFF-switches so have been on for years, all through the blazing bright days, helping burn the sand we’re now walking over.

*****

FOR A WHILE, we were moving through tangible human constructions — ranch style stuff, dog kennels, fencing, arrays of tires and engines — but now we’re in open desert.

The air gets even thicker, and I can see Internethead’s bulge attain a new closeness to popping.

Just pop, I wish in its direction. It responds by bulging even further, like an ear stretching out to read my mind.

The air is so thick we can barely move, like that dream-flying that’s a kind of swimming through a soupy, all-surrounding substrate.

“Feel that?” asks Internethead.

I admit that I do. I reach out to wipe my arm, pull away a thick smear.

It only proliferates as I rub one hand against the other.

Suicide Sam is looking away from us, like he’s going to say his piece later on. Internethead continues, “The Ghosts of the Ghost Detritus, as promised.”

He looks at me through a film of air so thick it’s almost a crowd. “Here’s where they all ended up. This is what the Genocide turned them into … the way of all flesh.”

I had until this point suppressed the feeling but now I can’t: the charge in the air is erotic. There’s a crackly, arousing liveness, or litheness, everywhere.

Internethead looks at me and I’m ashamed to realize that he knows I’m feeling it. He smirks.

“This is what the Genocide produced,” he says emphatically, admitting neither happiness nor sadness at the fact.

It’s cloying all over my skin — hard to express the feeling, an encroaching, densening, slimy, good-feeling influx of Ghost Porn.

I try again to scrape it off (thicker than dish soap now), but my hands are trembly and the pads of my fingers feel huge, magnified out of usefulness.

So I just let it flood me. A totally disembodied, objectless pornography — could be worse, thinks a certain non-trivial part of me.

“Could be much worse,” replies Internethead, or Internethead’s bulge, which, I swear to God, truly can hear my thoughts.

THEN SUICIDE SAM TURNS ON ANOTHER SPOTLIGHT — this one apparently mounted with an OFF-switch — and the desert comes alive with pornography. It’s everywhere, in all directions, gnashing itself into a fit.

“The fate of all Ghosts,” he says with a smile. It’s like the longest, hardest outtake from Penthouse’s Caligula you’ve ever hoped to see.
“Porn sets in the deep, deep desert,” mutters Internethead. I’ve started to distrust his voice, no longer able to be certain whether it’s speaking into the world at large, through his mouth, or straight into my mind, through his bulge.

I’ve lost a friend, I think.

*****

“ALMOST THERE,” says Suicide Sam, after the spotlights have been turned off. Internethead has disappeared, coinciding, it would seem, with my renouncing him as my friend, which does little-to-nothing to diminish my paranoia about him.

“Almost where?” I ask, but too late, as the outside world kills my question on the vine: it’s clear that we’ve arrived at a hut.

“Prepare to make a new friend,” says Suicide Sam. “Go knock on the door.” He nods at the hut.

“Why don’t you?” I ask.

“He wouldn’t hear me,” he replies, gravely. “He’s dead.”

No point in stalling, I think, so I go up and knock on the door.

No answer. I knock again. Etc, etc.

Finally, a very disheveled-looking young man, younger than me, comes to the door, and looks upon me with great fondness and relief.

Disturbed, I look away from him and back at Suicide Sam who, clearly, cannot see this young man.

“What is this?” I ask.

Suicide Sam smiles, still clearly aroused from the Ghosts. “He’s yours,” he replies. “Committed suicide not long ago. Stipulated in his Note that you’d be the only person he’d still be alive to.”

I look back at the young guy, and it’s clear that he can’t see or hear Suicide Sam. I feel very weird, stretched like this between two mutually exclusive beings.

“He what??” I ask, aware that I’m just floundering now.

Suicide Sam repeats, “He’s dead, but not to you. He put it right here in his Note, addressed you by name. He said, ‘Goodbye everyone except …’ ”

Suicide Sam hands me the Note, and I read it through. Sure enough, it refers to me by name. I look the young guy over again, trying to determine if I know him.

“It’s never too late to make a new friend,” demurs Suicide Sam, disappearing back into the desert dark. The layer of Ghost Porn sighs as he presses back into it.

*****

SO NOW IT’S JUST ME AND THIS DEAD GUY, who’s not dead to me, it would seem.

Maybe he can be my sidekick, I think, looking him over, trying to assess if it’s possible that, in fact, it’ll be the other way around.