BY GARRET ROWLAN
I woke walking, a dawning of perception containing the contrails of vague dreams, architectural and unpopulated, geometric, painted in straight lines. They faded as the hot sun heated me, all of me, for I was naked from bald head to bare feet. Birthday-suited, I was obliged me to hop over heated terrain, seek shadows, and otherwise scamper through this shimmering wasteland. Despite its bleakness, I sensed its faintly vibrating aura, the feeling that the hills and their embedded boulders were living things, as much as the petrified wood and the few gnarled, leafless, skeletal bushes I saw. They were alive, maybe more than I—at least, than I would be if I stopped walking for long. Every time I paused just to relieve my heated feet, I didn’t linger. Even in the shade the sun seared my naked head and things spun and I needed to move. The spinning stopped as soon as I stood and headed to the West, where in the distance I saw at last a glimmer of green. In another hour, the ground softened and was grassy and lush and my feet cooled in a small stream running from a low hill. This wasn’t for long, for the terrain soon regressed rocky and desolate.
Just when I thought I was condemned to walk through more miles of emptiness, I rounded the hill and saw ahead a ramshackle Western town—general store and tethered horse and saloon. Saloon! The hope for some anachronistic microbrew made my caged tongue flap. I didn’t even consider the fact that I was naked, no wallet, which didn’t matter anyway because as I neared the establishment a white man wearing a linen suit emerged from the batwing doors. He had wide shoulders and a bald head conical as the knuckle of a clenched fist. It looked powdered.
“There you are,” he said.
I had walked for hours, aware of only the need to keep moving, to obey some summons. Now at last I realized why I was doing this. I was headed toward civilization, or at least its simulacrum in the chancery of movie making. I stopped.
He didn’t seem fazed by my nakedness. “Duffy’s my name,” he said, opening a plastic Goodwill sack to show me denim pants, black shirt, and boots. “I work for the casting director,” he added. “You have been chosen.”
I saw how my fate, my “role,” was to be an anonymous extra, to be background, speechless, without credit among the names that rise in the film’s final roll, names written in sans serif, most floating into oblivion. I would be forgotten, a character without the benison of a name or the blessing of a spoken line, a mocking without a moniker.
Merciless, he extended the sack to me. I put the clothes on, hopping on hot sand. When I had dressed, he gave me a canteen and a black hat. Grateful, I slaked my thirst and shaded my head. “How does it feel to be working again?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied truthfully, sensing only that the vague life I had before—less a memory than the pale reflection of one—had a cinematic context, as if I were a projection into my own life. “What kind of job is it?”
“You’re a hired gun.”
“And when do I die?” I knew this was my fate. Clothes make the man, and mine had the provenience of a disposable fate. I considered my clothes and the surrounding sparseness, as if the landscape held the things of a cruel fate: rocks, sand, withered pines like huge, sad birthday candles. As if to second the rightness of my question, I heard from the valley the echo of a gunshot.
“Sooner or later,” Duffy said.
“I’m one of the good guys or bad?”
Duffy pointed beyond the town’s leaning structures to some distant figures, men slouching on horses. “You’re one of them. You’re a bad guy.”
I ran my hand over my face, felt the rub of a small beard of black hairs, traced the webbed lines of a hard and premature aging, and did not doubt what he said. My clothes, despite being camera-ready, carried the blemish of a bleak life, an existence whose poverty of means and spirit had led to following a powerful man. It had happened before, I sensed, a brief existence ending as I crumpled from a bullet, or flew away in an arc from a bomb blast.
Duffy pointed to a swayback nag tethered to a post. “Climb on that horse and ride.”
Looking back from my mount, I saw Duffy give me a small smile that evaporated in the heat. He pointed, destiny’s minimal mandate. I left the town. The hot, dry air seemed to burn the inside of my nostrils, which seared to my sense of smell the dried shit of diverse sources, horse, hound, and human. I reached an overlook to the arid plain. The clopping of shod hooves that neared me had a crystalline tonality, the shimmer of a distant echo. The gang came to greet. Their number was small but somehow indeterminate. They regarded me with glances of indifference, mockery, and contempt.
“Are you the bad guys?” I asked.
One tough-looking hombre with a patch over one eye said, “We’re Ben Wade’s gang, rookie. That’s what we are.”
“And which one of you is Ben Wade?” I asked.
“He don’t ride with us,” said another man, his beard filthy and his long black hair looking oily, as if smeared with axle grease. He wore a bullet-toothed bandolier across each shoulder. “He’s over there.” And he pointed down the valley. On the same hillside on which we sat, placed some two-hundred yards away, I saw a mounted rider posed like a courthouse statue. “That’s him.”
“He’s watching us,” said the eye patch.
“He’s always watching,” said a blonde-haired man, young and with cruel good looks that never augured well.
I heard a rattle of wheels from the valley below me. The men shifted on their horses. The distant figure raised his arms and waved.
“Here we are boys,” the eye patch said.
Below, a stagecoach emerged from the opening and rumbled across the valley floor.
Shouting, we rode down the hill. We drew our weapons and fired with ritualistic imprecision. The men defending the stagecoach fired a Gatling gun that spit its bullets and sent a few of us to their appointed death and resurrection, provided that the good will of men like Duffy, whom I glimpsed at the top of the hill, would see fit to cast us in another production.
The stagecoach crashed and its loot was taken. I hooped and hollered and shot my weapons with the rest, and all the time I knew we weren’t doing this for ourselves, or even for Ben Wade, but for some audience that hadn’t existed yet.
Later, when we went to a local saloon to split the loot and drink to one of our fallen comrades, I studied Ben’s round face and his gray-green eyes and the way his mouth softly dented his cheeks. I allowed him a certain charisma along with his callous, faintly insouciant manner. He created an ambience as much as his character. Mounted lights anointed his presence and a camera followed him when he was away from us. He moved with the languid grace of an underwater plant, shuffling to the dictates of a deep current.
I thought for sure that some of my fellows would sense Ben’s detachment from us and the appurtenances of filming that enabled our scripted fakery, yet they did not share my perceptions. The unionized poltergeists that surrounded us did not exist for them. They had no idea of the illusion in which they participated. I tried. I nudged; I jutted my chin; I did whatever I could within my limited mobility to point out these phantoms just beyond the lights. They didn’t see the film crew, and I felt that my fellow movie bad men had evolved a selective system of perception: They had refused to see, and soon enough they did not see, like some evolutionary organ that had withered by lack of use. They were prisoners oblivious to the bars of their cage.
Ben Wade wandered among these shadows. While we were paralyzed in our standing positions, he had the ability to walk away from himself, as if he were some crustacean able to abandon his own shell. Yet he seemed to carry his own hard surface around with him, as when he demanded of a man holding a megaphone, “What’s my motivation?” I begin to suspect that Ben Wade had one foot in two realities. They fused in him. I saw this in the way he held a wad of stapled pages and slapping them with his free hand while a clipboard-carrying girl blinked nervously. “Ben Wade would never say anything like that,” he said.
“Russell,” she said, “we’ll call for rewrite.”
Russell, they had called him Russell. Of course, I seen this before, I’d had glimpses of a “star,” usually a combination of petulance and indulgence, but I had never had the sensation of two people occupying the same body at the same time. I tried to explain this feeling as we left the bar, yet my fellow bad men weren’t interested. They had developed denial, a way to live in paradox, to not know what they knew. They saddened me. They could not rise above their fatalistic view of existence. It was brutal and short, they asserted, with raw pleasures grasped from the onset of extinction. Life offered them easy travel to different times and places where they would die violent deaths.
Death loomed for Ben Wade, for the law had captured him. We gave chase. Having some distance from him allowed us to talk, to separate ourselves from him.
“He’s not really one of us,” someone said. “He’s from another country.”
“And another time and place,” added Eye Patch. He said that Ben Wade had been a tough Los Angeles cop. When someone said that Ben Wade had been a mathematician with mental problems, I believed that too. These facts made me think of him as some fantastic contraption of wheels within wheels, a persona capable of many names and with the ability to bifurcate into a thousand different selves, each as subtly charismatic as its predecessor. He contained multitudes.
We had made camp by firelight. I slept without dreams under a blanket and woke with the name Russell on my lips. It was the name that the nervous-looking girl had called him. But Russell who? A person needed two names like a shout needs a wall to become an echo. Waking to the pale east, I saw, perched on a withered branch, a single black bird. His attentive head had the arched quality of a professor lecturing a class of acolytes. I sensed a divine avatar. “Who is Russell?” I asked. “Crow!” the bird squawked. “I know who you are but what about him?” “Crow,” the bird insisted. “Russell…Crow?” I said. “Crowe,” the bird cawed. “With an ‘E’.” He flew away, and I contemplated this disclosure until I fell back asleep, so that when I woke to the sound of someone urinating noisily nearby, I didn’t know if I had dreamed the incident or not.
“Russell Crowe,” I said, struggling to my feet.
“Who is that?” said the man with the eye patch.
“I think he’s Ben Wade.”
They shrugged over their breakfast of hardtack and harsh coffee. “No time for that nonsense,” the blonde-haired sadist said. (He had burned someone to death in order to extract information about Ben Wade’s whereabouts.) “We got to ride.” They chased Ben Wade. I chased Russell Crowe, who carried one true presence amidst his various avatars, and if he could do it, maybe I could do it too: find the real me behind the changing and evanescent and insignificant “roles” of my repetitive life.
That afternoon, we came to the town of Contention. I saw it as Ben Wade did, as self-contained, an “X” on parchment, and as Russell Crowe did, a façade built only for the purpose of perspective. I didn’t mention this to my fellow bad men, just like I had not pointed out to them certain anomalies of vision as we neared the settlement, such as an anachronistic glint off an aluminum trailer, or a woman passing by dressed in slacks and holding a cell phone. In a sense, these were phantom sights to me too, like those desert mirages I saw, shimmering and vanishing upon closer inspection.
We waited to spring Ben Wade from the clutches of the law when the 3:10 to Yuma arrived. As the hour approached for him to walk from the hotel to the depot, we took our firing positions, dispensed ourselves around corners and in alleyways. Our instructions were clear. Shoot any man that went with Ben Wade but don’t shoot Ben Wade.
I huddled beside the unshaven man with the bullet belt around his shoulders. “But aren’t we likely to hit him by accident?”
“Nah,” said the man, adjusting his bandolier. “Because you see Ben Wade is a good guy now. I mean he’s a bad guy but he’s a good guy too. Do you understand?”
“No,” I said.
“He’s a bad guy with a good-guy heart. So we won’t be able to kill him. You see, this is the essence of being a bad guy. You cannot kill a good guy.”
“Well, once in a while, but it’s never done by people like you or me. Only really important bad people shoot good guys. And their deaths are not meaningless, like yours or mine. They are deaths that result in some greater good, often the fulfilling of some noble sacrifice. I can’t believe you haven’t figured that out by now.”
“But why are things that way?” I asked. I knew we were marginally connected to a movie, and now I saw that I was part of a metaphysical scheme whose ultimate purpose was to belittle me, to make my death meaningless, except for a necessary, upward surge of violence, part of the graphing of a crescendo.
He shook his head, as if he too realized the crushing nature of the machinery in which we were cogs, turning on worn wheels. “I don’t know. Be in the moment. That’s all I say. Take solace in knowing you’re part of something larger.”
I said something else but he nodded across the street where Ben Wade and his captors, now only one man, actually, emerged from the hotel and headed for the train depot.
We started shooting. Our bullets made the dirt dance and the wood splinter. I took aim. I wanted to shoot Russell Crowe, to summon in his death that one, true reality to which he had private access. And yet each bullet I fired missed.
We all missed. I suppose that was inevitable. The scripting of drama dictated that they make it across the town in a hail of gunfire. The train, the 3:10 to Yuma, pulled into the depot. It waited, the huffing of its resting engines like the deep breaths of some asthmatic god. I saw the train poised and ready to leave. I wanted to take that train that led into the distance, to the place where shadows became real, where Ben Wade was revealed as a fiction, and where Russell Crowe was free to become someone else. I wanted to be someone else, too, someone real and yet to have the immortality of serial identities. I wanted to be both shadow and substance.
It was then that Russell Crowe did an amazing thing. He dropped out of the boxcar and grabbed a pistol from his blonde-haired second-in-command and shot him in the chest. Then he turned and shot the rest of us. I was the last. He took aim at me. His eyes were two scabs of pure denial. They were like the portals of heaven closing.
I collapsed into blackness. Floating free of my body, I heard the train leaving, its distant chuffing became the sound of someone’s sleeping, a soft, snoring rattle like beach pebbles stirred at low tide. I floated closer to the sound. I was the sound, I snored, and then I woke.
I was lying amidst rocks. I rose. At least I was clothed this time. I touched the place where the bullet had entered me. There was only the healed skin of a cinematic rebirth.
I found myself walking again, another barren landscape that yielded to the spoor of an early civilization, articulated campsites, huts, and finally primitive houses that became modern and footpaths that became streets. People in modern dress eyed me warily, as a bad man, beggar, or escaped criminal.
Tall structures loomed, their high windows patched in reflected lights and lower lobbies in sinister chiaroscuro. I stopped in a city park and gratefully slaked my thirst from a silver fountain’s pale arc of water. Nearby, I found a bench to sit. Mr. Duffy emerged from the shadows and walked over to me.
“Russell Crowe,” I said. “I never really got to know him.”
He interlocked his two small hands, like a preacher counseling a confused parishioner.
“He was unreal,” I added.
“To be visible, to be seen, is to exist, right?”
“He was seen, he exists. And so do you.”
I regarded my reflection in the glass door of a downtown bank. An existence, sure, but only two dimensional: I had no depth.
“I don’t exist like he does.”
“Don’t be so sure,” he said. “Anyway, you’re over-thinking it.”
I turned and saw, coming out of the vast desert to my left, the bandolier-wearing bad guy, only now he wore a suit and tie. He had shaved. He nodded as he approached me and opened a magazine he had pulled out from his briefcase. It was the latest copy of Vanity Fair. He nodded. I sat. We waited, waited for Russell Crowe, or someone like him to beckon to us, to call us from the shadows and to another brief, un-credited, imitation of life.
Garrett Rowlan is a retired LAUSD teacher with about sixty publishing credits.