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ANOTHER LONG SPELL OF AMBIENT MEDIA CONSUMPTION as I roil in a crater in the heart of my mattress, eschewing any thought that lands with too much smack of real life. Off and on I notice myself considering becoming a filmmaker, though I’m careful not to formulate any concrete idea of what this might entail, nor to consider the odds of there being a place for me in Dodge City’s increasingly insular and self-referential film industry, if that’s the right word for what goes on here.

But I do watch a lot of films, many of them TV movies.

The only one that sticks with me sufficiently to reproduce here is one that played, I think, very late last night and then again early this morning (or else was very, very long and repetitive), starring a pedophile on a regimen of highly-specialized psychotropic drugs.

The moral premise of the film was that pedophiles and child molesters are radically different beasts: both have the same innate, societally abhorrent urge, but one resists it with all its might, while the other gives in, either gladly or under substantial duress. The first category, according to the film’s drowsy narrator, “is to be commended for its efforts to deny its basic wiring, while the second is to be punished to the full extent of the law.”

The name of the male character in this film escapes my memory, so I’ll call him “George,” while the female character, his girlfriend, has a name I remember: Chloe, after an Atom Egoyan film I’ve been meaning to see, though I’ve heard it’s not that great and there’s no reason to think it’ll play on Dodge City TV anytime soon.

George, a pedophile of the type that’s determined to deny its wiring, has been prescribed a trial dose of a psychotropic drug designed to induce temporary hallucinations in which adults appear to him as children, so that he might perform the typical sex act with a consenting adult while at the same time accessing the sense of peace and inner wholeness that only sex with a child affords him.

I remember feeling his pain, however hard I must have found it to empathize with its source. This man too, I remember thinking or hearing the narrator say, is after all a human being.

The plot twist comes early: Chloe — who, until now, has been unaware of her boyfriend’s practice of selectively transforming her into a child — accidentally ingests one of his pills, left out on the bathroom sink, believing it to be one the anti-depressants that she has long insisted she doesn’t take, but in fact always leaves out on the bathroom sink in order to take just before sex, when she needs them most.

When she returns to the bedroom and witnesses George transforming into a child before her eyes, she is naturally (not being a pedophile herself) shaken up. She pulls away, desperate to find her bearings in a room that’s closing in on her, fast ceasing to feel like home.

She crawls backward as her boyfriend — fully-aroused at the sight of her as a child, still under the impression that all is proceeding as usual — pursues, knocking her into a bookcase which falls on them both, rendering them unconscious for a five-minute period of screen time, during which I pass out as well.

*****

WHEN OUR CONSCIOUSNESSES RESUME, the two of them have entered an almost sweet regression into early childhood infatuation, though fraught in this case with the memory of intercourse rather than a faint, unvoiced premonition thereof.

I can tell that not only do they look like children to each other, but, thanks to their shared perspective on the other’s regression, they feel like children as well.

regressionheads

Like a co-ed sleepover gone slightly off the rails, I think.

THE MIDDLE ACT finds them in a state close to bliss, living in their apartment as if it belonged to a much older cousin, someone cool and grown-up and out of town, who would be glad to guide into the mysteries they’re just starting to long to explore if only he or she were present.

They raid the pantry for Frosted Flakes and Swiss Miss, acting like they’re on the world’s longest snow day and nothing’s impossible.

I phase in and out during this section, part of me waiting for the other shoe to drop, part of me fearing it never will or that it already has. I’m wondering if the pill she took will eventually wear off and she’ll be forced to watch George revert to being a man, like some terrible switch-out has occurred and she’s now in a situation she very much shouldn’t be in, while he goes on taking the pills so that she remains child-sized in his eyes, or if they’ll both grow addicted, endlessly re-upping their newfound perspective on the other, until one or both of them OD’s, if that’s possible in this case, or until their supply runs out, which surely one day it must.

Perhaps an excess of these pills will culminate only in a mutual regression to apparent infancy, each squinting in the dark to make the other out.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS comes from further out of left field, drawing me back out of myself for the third act: Chloe is so overcome with terror at the conflicted nature of her relationship with this man she sees as a boy that she becomes convinced he has killed her father:

THE ONLY REASONABLE CONCLUSION SHE COULD’VE COME TO!!

reads an unexpected title card in the center of the screen.

This dead father, the narrator informs us, is none other than George, the man she used to live with and now cannot find.

Falling into her psychic disturbance, the boy-George mimics her fear, behaving as though his mother, Chloe, is also gone, replaced by this girl-child he can’t help but lust after, despite the competing depth of his desire to wail in her arms.

The memory of their parents lingers in the apartment, growing so oppressive it forces them out into the hallway.

NOW THE CLIMACTIC JOURNEY BEGINS: they fall to roaming the massive apartment complex, charging from room to room, knocking on doors, squeaking in baby voices at the neighbors, begging to be taken in or given a clue as to the nature of their orphanhood:

ALONE AND UNLOVED!!

reads another title card.

By this point, they’re convinced that they’re brother and sister.

It’s a tribute to the director’s generosity of spirit, I suppose, that he never has them turn hostile and assign blame to one another. They remain united in their search, convinced that a tragedy has befallen them both in equal measure, scouring the building from top to bottom, then spilling out into Dodge City, off the screen, which remains blank, since the movie has ended, or I’ve fallen asleep.

*****

AS I SLEEP, I hear them knock on my door, as I knew I eventually would. I get up slowly and let them in, saying, “Sit. Sit here for a while.”

They do, still naked on towels on the the footstool I’ve set out for them, looking exhausted and shaken up. I let them sit like this a long time, the TV silent between us, as I put the kettle on to boil, though I have no teabags or instant coffee.

I wait for the boiler to click before venturing to ask what I’ve wanted to ask since the TV Movie began, which is, “Got any more of those pills?”

I’m afraid they’re about to say, “What pills?” but instead they nod and each hands me one, from separate vials, like they’d each had their own prescription all along.

“Are you our father?” they ask, and I realize, with the pill on my tongue, that their doses are wearing off. Soon I’ll see them as children but they’ll see me and each other as the adults that none of us wants to be.

“Not for long,” I answer, getting up and taking a new pill from each of their vials, putting one on each of their tongues like a communion wafer and taking the kettle off the boil, pouring three mugs of hot water for us to wash them down with.

IT’S TAKEN A MONTH TO PRODUCE THE FIRST BLUT BRANSON CRITERION DVD, but now it’s spring and the Release Party is upon us .

 

What’s more, two of his most celebrated shorts have been included as special features — 2 Old Ppl, about two best friends who, upon growing old, discover that one of them has turned into two old people while the other has turned into none; and Our Beloved Carefree Child Was Murdered, about a man whose profession it is to accept responsibility for having murdered teenagers that actually committed suicide, so their parents don’t have to feel guilty about not having been there for them.

 

In advance of the Release Party, the entire downtown is converted into an Anything-goes Zone. Professor Dalton has been on the prowl with Big Pharmakos since last night, drinking, finalizing his speech, and fending off paparazzi demanding to know whether the rumor that Branson himself might appear has any basis in fact.

 

THEN, BECAUSE WE CAN’T WAIT ANY LONGER, THE RELEASE PARTY BEGINS. We’re tearing half-naked through the streets, eating fresh-killed hocks of goat and lamb, crushing boxes of wine on our faces and lapping it off one another, bellowing at the smoggy sky as the Criterion Truck pulls in. We hurl ourselves upon it, tearing open the back before it’s stopped moving, burying ourselves in DVD’s, basking in the canonization of our first genuine saint.

 

The Truck opens beneath us, spewing boxes like confetti. We’re buried, writhing in glory, heedless of suffocation.

criteriontruck 1

It’s all good until a slimy bursting overrides our glee and we fall silent as hundreds of repressed babies tear through the women among us. They rise from their mothers’ shoulders, armpits, faces, and scalps, crawling out of the afterbirth to push aside DVD’s and howl at the lights of Dodge City, the first they’ve ever seen.

 

SOME CONTEXT: 17 years ago, Professor Dalton pioneered a non-abortive family planning technique whereby fertilized embryos could be shifted out of the mother’s womb and into another part of her body — the shoulder, the armpit, the face, the scalp — and sit there, inert as benign tumors, until such time as the mother was ready to birth them, when the embryo would simply be pushed back into the womb with a pool cue and allowed to the develop there as normal.

 

Dodge City women have been availing themselves of this treatment since then without incident, until now, when, it appears, the absurd excitement surrounding Branson’s Criterion Release has caused the embryos to develop and hatch all at once, exploding from the places they’d been stored, emerging fully-formed from the wreckage of their mothers.

 

I’m no expert, but they look larger than newborns should: more like two-year-olds, standing up and yelling to announce their arrival.

 

*****

AS WE STRUGGLE TO EXTRICATE OURSELVES, Blut Branson himself appears from on high, camera out and ready, barking: “Test them for the fear of death! Test them for the fear of death!”

 

He’s shooting frantically, wading barefoot through the destroyed mothers among his pile of DVD’s. There’s a full crew behind him, people I’ve never seen before, and I start to wonder how much of this has been preordained for the sake of producing his next film, and how elated I ought to feel if it has been, given that I’m here to witness it, perhaps even to partake.

 

He is everywhere at once, swirling among the newborns, attaching mics to their bare chests, making sure their voices can be heard in his headphones.

 

Then he turns to us and says, “Your job is to rank how scared of death these newborns are. On a scale of 1 to 10.”

 

No one moves.

 

“Now!” he shouts. “Do you want to be part of the next Blut Branson film or not?”

 

Still no one moves.

 

“How are we supposed to find out?” someone finally asks.

 

“Ask them!!” he shrieks. “How do you think? Look at that pile of corrupted flesh … that is their mothers. Show them that. Say, One day that will be you. What do you think about that? How does that make you feel?”

 

Aware that my chance to have a hand in a Branson film is now or never, I run up to the nearest newborn and ask it these exact words. It doesn’t respond. I try the next one, and likewise get no response.

 

“What do we do if we get no response?” someone else asks, sparing me the indignity.

 

Branson pauses, checking his rage before replying. “Speechlessness is a 10. Highest possible fear of death. They’re all 10’s! They’re all 10’s, aren’t they!” he shouts, standing outside the Criterion Truck, crushing the DVD’s, indifferent to his old work, focused utterly on the new.

 

“Perfect! Every Newborn’s a 10! That’s the title of my next film!!”

 

If there is such a thing as a God, it never addressed its Creation with more conviction than this.

BEFORE WE GET TO LET OUR TV SHOWS ABSORB THE REST OF WHATEVER’S LOOSE IN US, a TV Movie commands our attention.

 

We are watching it in the room behind the room where it was filmed. Some of the stars are present.

 

It’s about a woman whose husband is killed In The Pacific during WWII behind the opening credits. With the help of a flash forward, she finishes the 20th century without him. She’s ready for that to be it, except for a connection she happens to develop with the owner of a Pacific restaurant in Dodge City, whose sister, we find out, still lives In The Pacific.

 

“Would you do a thing for me?” she asks the owner of this restaurant, suddenly alive to the idea that something is still possible before she dies. “Would you see if your sister might be willing to seek out his grave and put a flower on it, and photograph that flower for me? I’ve never been able to go there in body … but maybe in spirit it’s not too late.”

 

The restaurant owner says she will do this thing. The next time we see the woman — whose name, we learn at this point, is Mrs. Else — dining at the restaurant, the owner reports that her sister has begun researching the grave’s location, and will soon find it.

 

Time passes in a normal vein.

 

After more of it is gone, Mrs. Else returns to the restaurant and is given the surprise she was hoping for: a manila folder labeled GRAVE FOTOS. The restaurant owner says her sister is overjoyed at the service she was able to provide and refuses to accept any money, which Mrs. Else hadn’t thought to offer, realizing now that she should have.

 

She takes the folder to the cafe next door, not wanting to be in the restaurant when she opens it. “Okay now … okay now … ” she huffs, undoing the clasp. She pulls the photos out and leaves them facedown on the table for a moment, looking around to make sure no one she knows is nearby.

 

Then she turns them over, ready for the fact of his grave to land on her face.

 

The first photo shows a young Pacific woman with onyx earrings with her arm around Mrs. Else’s husband, who looks to be in his mid-40’s, still very handsome, very fit. The caption: GRAVE, NORTHWEST VIEW.

 

The second photo shows this Pacific woman and Mrs. Else’s husband holding hands and looking at the sunset over a harbor full of yachts. The caption: GRAVE AT SUNSET.

 

The third shows the Pacific woman and Mrs. Else’s husband in a convertible in front of a club with palm trees and a velvet rope. The caption: GRAVE WITH PALM TREES AND VELVET ROPE.

 

The fourth through seventh photos are too much. She throws them in the trash along with her coffee cup and muffin wrapper, walks half a block toward her car, then turns around and re-enters the cafe, taking one long breath before pulling them out of the trash and stuffing them into her coat pocket despite their being clotted in coffee grounds.

 

They’re so heavy she can barely walk. She has to sit on a bench halfway to her car, wondering if she’ll ever stand again.

 

*****

AT HOME, she reaches inside her pocket and finds only coffee grounds. She pushes farther in than she imagines the pocket goes, so deep into the coffee grounds she thinks I’m touching its root

 

Down there she finds the seven photos.

 

She washes them one by one in the sink, wearing thick rubber gloves, and hangs them on a clothesline in the basement, like she’s developing them.

 

SHE SLEEPS FOR SEVENTEEN HOURS HAVING PRAYED TO SLEEP FOR TWENTY-FOUR.

 

She returns to the basement, still wearing the coffee grounds coat, which she understands has become her uniform. The photos are all the same, her husband looking happier in them than she can remember his ever having looked in reality.

 

That’s right, she lets herself think. The place I knew him in was reality. This is … another thing.

 

*****

SHE RESOLVES never to return to the restaurant, but finds herself unable to do anything else. Time peels off her so fast she’s afraid her life will end without even one final experience.

 

So she goes back.

 

Everyone in the restaurant seems happy but not surprised to see her, like no unusual span of time has passed. She orders a Pacific Plate and tries to eat as much of it as she can before the owner comes out of the kitchen to ask how she liked the pictures.

 

“Can I talk to your sister?” she hears herself asking in a gulped, babyish voice, her hand deep in the coffee grounds in her pocket.

 

She’s in the lot behind the restaurant, holding the owner’s cell phone away from her ear.

 

“You like pictures of grave?” the sister asks, in an accent that sounds like she’s used to speaking but not reading English.

 

Mrs. Else means to spew anger, but instead says, “Yes … they’ve been a huge solace to me. Could you send more?”

 

“You want me send more?”

 

“Yes,” confirms Mrs. Else, and begins to wait.

 

It doesn’t take long: another period of peeling-off time.

 

She’s back home with the next manila folder, likewise labeled GRAVE FOTOS, without even a #2 to distinguish it.

 

She sets the oven timer for three minutes: this is how long she’ll allow herself to believe that they might be photos of an actual grave. She pictures the grave, alone in its cemetery, the name of her husband and the year of his death etched into it.

 

When the timer goes off, she opens the folder and fans out the photos on the table, flipping them all at once like a hand of cards: seven more images of the Pacific sister and her husband in various chic locations, this time holding a baby who looks exactly half-Pacific. It wears a bib that says RYAN in embroidered calligraphy.

 

Is it my son or grandson? is what Mrs. Else falls asleep at the table thinking, the oven timer still going off.

 

*****

“Who is Ryan?” she shouts into the phone behind the restaurant the next day, wearing her coffee grounds coat, certain that things have gone too far.

 

“Ryan? I thought you husband name Frederick,” says the owner’s sister, groggy due to the time difference, the confusion in her voice hard to discredit.

 

Mrs. Else shuffles through a series of possible utterances, arriving at, “Just stop seeing him, ok? Stop whatever you two are doing.”

 

The sister sounds confused again. “You want me stop visiting grave? He tell me he no see you many years … he say hi from grave. He say if I no visit, he no be real. He go back to sleep.”

 

Mrs. Else sits down beside the dumpster as the busboy heaves out a leaking sack of trash.

 

She looks at its trail across the asphalt and at the cell phone, still connected to the Pacific in her hand, and puts it back to her ear. “No,” she says. “No, that’s okay. You keep visiting his grave, just … just make sure he doesn’t go back to sleep.”

 

The sister makes a sound like she’s nodding.

 

Then Mrs. Else, though she knows she’ll regret it, can’t keep from asking, “But Ryan? Can’t I talk to Ryan for one minute?”

 

“Who Ryan?” repeats the sister. “I thought you husband name Frederick.”

 

Mrs. Else hangs up just as the busboy turns from the dumpster to start back toward the kitchen. He puts his cigarette in his trash-wet hand and helps her up with the other.

 

ON THE DRIVE HOME, she receives a text message on her own cell phone, which she always leaves in the glove compartment. She pulls over at a bus stop and opens it. From an unlisted number, it reads:

 

“just so u no, u have 2 b mothr b4 u can b grndmothr.”

 

She buries the phone in a crack in the wall in her basement and lies down under a sawhorse.

 

Still wearing her coat, she starts to hear a voice whispering out of the coffee grounds.

 

“Ryan?” she whispers back. “Ryan? Is that you?”

 

She wants to shout but is afraid of obscuring its voice with her own, so she lies very flat, easing into a fuzzy bath of end credits.

THE ART CRITIC ONLY MAKES IT TO #61 in his canonical 800 Dodge City Artists speech before the Dr. splits his last AIDS dose among the three of us and starts telling stories about his days in Euthanasia.

 

After a hard ascent in the field, complete with two advisers who rescued his self-confidence at crucial junctures, his breakthrough came in the form of a 12-tier system with which he was able to send his patients to 12 distinct levels of death.

 

“I killed them all, but some I killed more than others. I killed each one in the right way for them, and sent each to the right place. It was very personal.”

 

Astrally, he clarifies, his Euthanized patients were all over the map — if there was a map, of course — while corporeally they remained in a tank in his office, stacked in 12’s. Bereaved relatives were permitted to visit on Thursdays from 2:30-4:30pm, and sit quietly by the part of the tank their loved one had departed to.

 

Only Young, his lab doll, could reach into the tank to rotate them, which he did once a week.

 

“Maybe Young was never precisely a doll,” the Dr. adds after a morose-seeming pause. “Maybe he was always more of a lackey, almost human. Though without much personality to speak of, no offense to him. He was the only one who could remember which body was which. Once in the tank, I lost touch with who they’d been. That side of things never interested me.”

 

This was all before the advent of the Suicide Cemetery, in late 2012. When that happened, the Dr.’s practice came under attack.

 

The Suicide Cemetery director claimed that all those he’d Euthanized over the years must now be considered Suicides and thus be removed from the tank and buried accordingly.

 

“I mean, they’re dead because they wanted to be, right?” the Suicide Cemetery director asked while visiting the Dr.’s office on its last afternoon of operations.

 

Knowing he’d be forced to dismantle his life’s work if he didn’t abdicate on the wings of a substantial malpractice suit, he Euthanized a child who’d shown up for a consultation. The mother was right outside, reading National Geographic. The Dr. ushered the child in, said, “Make yourself comfortable on this chair so we can talk things over,” then went straight for the Euthanasia supplies and sent the child to Tier 7, where there was an empty slot in the tank.

 

He left his office for the last time that day, having pinned a note for the Suicide Cemetery director on the tank’s side. It read, Sort it out yourself.

 

All he kept was Young, his first lab companion and now his last. Actually, his only.

 

*****

THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED WERE HARD. “I made my way into AIDS, where you see me now, but my only real passion was Movies.”

 

For years, Movies and Euthanasia had combined in him like white and red blood cells, in perfect harmony, but now, mired in the drudgery of AIDS, Movies were his only lifeline.

 

“I started going to Toronto every year in hopes of Euthanizing Cronenberg. I touched Guy Maddin’s shoulder once.”

 

He shudders at the nearness of the memory. “What I’m saying is, there are more Movies than time remaining in my life. So Young helps out. While I work in AIDS, he sits on the couch filling with everything that can be streamed. All of Soderbergh. All of Pasolini.”

 

All the Euthanasia chemicals Young absorbed over the years made him immune to the tragedy of the Dr.’s situation. They also made him unable to stand. Combined, they made him ideally suited to rebirth as a Movie Surrogate. “Young is home right now,” the Dr. boasts. “Watching Movies while I waste my time with you two.”

 

“His head swells as the Movies seep in, growing soft and rich, until it’s time to pluck it. When I do, I bite in like a plum, sucking out its seeds like those of a pomegranate. Each of these was once a Movie, and will be again in my lower intestine.”

 

The Dr. tears up as he describes the Euthanasia taste of the pomegranate seeds, inching him toward his own death with a minimum of friction.

 

“When Young’s head has been consumed, I open a vein and transfuse some of me back into him. Only a stranger’s blood allows him to grow a new head and go on watching Movies. Thought it’s humbling to think of myself as a stranger to him, I’m glad we have a system that works.”

 

“And Young never takes a break?” the Art Critic asks, like he’s been waiting this whole time to interrupt the Dr. after the Dr. interrupted his canonical 800 Dodge City Artists speech.

 

“There’s a subtle answer to that question. If he watches too many in a row, he begins to develop his own consciousness … a little too much for his head to retain its ideal plum flavor. Gets too sweet and juicy. Starts to ferment. On the other hand, if he watches too little before I pluck it, the head is sour and hard. It’s like winemaking. You go by feel. And taste.”

 

As he talks, I start to taste the plum. Then millions of plums, all Movies juiced into one. It has the same trajectory as a smoothie: the fruit makes me strong but too much all ground together and I blackout in a sugar crash.

It would be no exaggeration to say —

 

I don’t know, nothing comes close. The people of Dodge City are upset enough to do something beyond what they can even think of to do.

 

You promise people a novel and deliver a couple of short stories? I’ll admit that doesn’t sound so bad to me, but I’m not from around here and my taste is forgiving. Not so the people of Dodge City. Not when it comes to Blut Branson’s novel. Maybe people, some people, aren’t ready to give up on him altogether, but the general feeling is, “The next time he shows his face it better be Light in August.”

 

Dogs wander with their heads down and their tongues hanging so slack they almost scrape the sidewalk. Citizens sporadically shoot them then call their neighbors and shout “CLEAN IT UP!!”

 

Michael Shannon is long gone (another midnight convoy). He’s either safe or in a kind of danger that we can’t be held responsible for, unless we’ve rattled him off his center and he’s consequently lost his … man, I can’t focus at all. I almost just abandoned this whole thing I was about to write and free-associated about Palmer Eldritch instead. A waiter at a bar once told me that was the most terrifying thing out there, but really it was him that was terrifying and I got out of there as quick as I could, though outside it wasn’t much …

 

Sorry. Things have been weird. Ever since I passed out at the Blut Branson short story reading after eating all those K. City ribs and … in any case, we’re all arranged in an auditorium now and the Mayor is saying how we all need to settle down and take it easy on ourselves and each other and just give ourselves (and each other) a little time to heal after the trauma we’ve all been through, and not to rush these things, and not to discount them, and …

 

It’s like a big high school guidance assembly where everyone’s supposed to get together and just mope until something’s over.

 

The Mayor shows two videos, “positing other towns,” he explains, “to help take our minds off the tragedy that has befallen this one.” He looks out the window at the half-mast flag as he says this, and his eyes linger agitatedly on it for a moment, like he’s not sure it’s quite at half mast and is debating asking someone to go out there and work on it.

 

THE FIRST VIDEO STARTS UP: It’s pretty short and I get woozy. I feel like I’m acting in that Sebald scene about the herring fishery when he was a boy, and how deep and dark the water was … but the film’s about a town functioning under a disease or other science-fictional condition. It makes it so that everyone there went to high school together. Like there was only ever one class, and everyone around was in it. There’s that uneven aging thing going on where all the people that graduated together at 17 and 18 have spread out in age to fill all the roles — some are children, some are high schoolers again, some are those high schoolers’ parents (this gets a little rise out of us), some are the teachers, some are retirees, some are ancient, and quite a few are dead of natural causes or soon to be born (in many cases to pregnant high schoolers).

 

“It’s just a film about a feeling,” says the director in the DVD’s Q&A feature, which starts up automatically when it’s over. “The feeling that I went to high school with everyone I know … you know?”

 

THE NEXT VIDEO STARTS UP after a prodigious fumbling-with of equipment and myriad audio issues. It tells more of a linear story. 

 

It’s the story of a hometown kid from like Nebraska or one of the Dakotas whose big ambition is to be a singer-songwriter in the vein of Jason Molina. “All he ever wanted was to be a singer-songwriter in the vein of Jason Molina,” is the tagline. So he practices a ton of covers, writes some of his own stuff, plays nonstop, wins the admiration of most people by the time he’s 17, even changes his name to Jason Molina, and then — this is the big plot point — mails in a demo and wins a NATIONAL SINGER-SONGWRITER CONTEST.

 

The prize is that he gets to spend the next summer at a Singer-Songwriter Camp in the Catskills. “The Iowa of Singer-Songwriter Camps in the Catskills” is its tagline.

 

So he goes away. This marks the end of PART I.

 

PART II opens with Jason Molina’s return from the Singer-Songwriter Camp at the end of the summer. He’s a completely new man. He’s been cast in a new image, rebranded. He’s been scrubbed clean of his whole sensitive-bro rural American vibe and turned into a wistful English balladeer with a few brawly / laddish aspects mixed in, for edge and sex appeal. He’s changed his name to Frank Turner, has a couple of albums out already, and claims not to recognize anyone in the town.

 

He comes back with a manager to do a show, just one stop along the Frank Turner: Badlands Tour, and people accost him. “Jason!” they shout. “You’re home! What’s with the British accent? Why are you singing about blacking out in strange flats in East London and being a Wessex Boy and drinking with your friends on the cathedral grounds in Westminster?”

 

His manager restrains them from charging the stage. He leaves town in a midnight convoy.

 

It should end here, but it doesn’t. As his career gets huge, especially with his new album Tape Deck Heart, and especially on the Scandinavian and Eastern European Festival Circuit, the people of his hometown in Nebraska / One of The Dakotas start transforming things to match his songs. They change the names of stores, tear up the asphalt and put down cobblestones, start serving rural English fare and ales, chuck out their old racisms and acquire new ones.

 

They tear down the Jason Molina graffiti and pull his albums from the stores. Now it’s all Frank Turner all the time.

 

 

I sneak out of the auditorium, holding my belly in a sick-looking way at anyone who looks.

 

*****

Out in the parking lot, I reach in my pocket for a tissue and pull out a wad of printed pages. It takes me a while to see what they are: a third Blut Branson short story. Michael Shannon must have slipped it in my pocket when I was passed out at the reading.

 

Here’s the flash version:

 

As I’m backing out of a parking space I feel my back tire squish something biological. Fuck, I think, a cat. I put my hazard lights on and get out. I expect to see a tail under my back tire, but instead I see the edges of a diaper and a pool of baby-filling. Fuck, I think, a baby.

 

As I’m looking around, trying to determine if getting quickly out of here is my best move, a woman carrying a bag of groceries appears behind me. She takes in the damage. “Sorry,” she says. “I just parked him there for a minute, while I ran in.” She indicates the convenience store.

 

“You parked him in a parking space?”

 

“Yeah,” she replies, eyeing the meter like maybe the reason I’m surprised is that the time’s expired.

 

She shrugs, hands me the groceries, and bends down to scoop up the baby-material. Strange but true, it all hangs together, even though most of it’s liquid. None is left on the ground.

 

She clutches it against her chest and I give her her groceries back. “Sorry about that,” she says, looking at my back tire. “It won’t happen again.”

 

The thing is, it does. The very next day, in a different part of town, I back out and run over a baby again.

 

The same woman comes out, this time with a pair of boots she’s had resoled, and again gathers up the crushed liquid and says it won’t happen again.

 

It keeps happening, day after day, in what becomes a rhythm. The woman and I become casual friends. “It was,” I get in the habit of proclaiming, “the only constant in my life during those years.”

 

THEN, THIRTY YEARS LATER, I’m shaving at a sink at the YMCA when a young man takes the sink next to me, laying out his cream and razor. He looks at me several times, as if trying to make sure I am who he thinks I am.

 

When he decides that I must be, he says, “Sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to say hello. You probably don’t remember me, but you used to run me over with your car all the time when I was a baby.”

 

I smile. Shaving cream glops onto my T-shirt. “Of course I remember you,” I say.

 

He smiles too. “You know, back then, I never understood why my mom kept parking me there, knowing what would happen. But, over the years, I think it’s started to get clearer. Just part of growing up, I guess, right?” he says, and is gone.