The Big Guy
As the Duke forged ahead, he wondered if he should keep walking because if he did, then he was going to get lost. Or was he already? The Duke didn't know why that thought had popped into his head, it was like someone had put it there, though he could be as reflective as the next person despite what his detractors might say, never, of course, to his face.
Despite his misgivings, the Duke powered his way through the luminous desert without altering his path for any stray rock or bush as if he was practicing his walk, his famously imitated trademark rolling gait, arms loosely swinging side to side in a somehow slightly menacing manner, upper body tilted forward just as subtly as if he was walking into some unspecified adversity which he would part as easily as the prow of a ship through water, as he also simultaneously dipped his left shoulder. It had taken him some time to perfect his walk, he had started working on it back in the thirties because he'd known instinctively that he'd need something to set him apart from all the other actors playing cowboys, some gimmick for the audience to identify him from every other saddlebum hero. It was his buddy Paul Fix who had given him his first hint on how to do his walk when they were making westerns for Monogram: point your toes into the ground, Fix had told him, he had tried it, liked it, and the rest was history. The only drawback was that now every mimic in the world did his walk as well as his drawl, both exaggerated to comic effect. The price of fame: the Duke figured it was worth it. Being a movie star beat working in a factory, didn't it, though Hollywood was a lot like a factory in some respects. Maybe that meant it didn't really matter what you did with your life, it was all the same thing in the end, but what sort of negative, unAmerican thinking was that?
The Duke halted his march and took a pull from his bottle, emptying it. He hurled the dead soldier into the desert hoping to hear a satisfying crash, but instead just heard a faint thud. He looked back the way he had come. He couldn't see Ghadames anymore but was pretty sure that he could retrace his steps and find his way back, he hadn't gone that far. The question was, did he want to? There was something in him that said no, a sheer contrariness, because he had no other choice unless he wanted to keep walking into the desert. Somehow, that choice was tempting, maybe because he was bombed out of his mind, but it was still tempting. He had a new wife and child, his Alamo project, his friends, career, everything to live for though he was getting a little long in the tooth, especially for an action star, but, dammit, it wasn't like he was in a wheelchair yet so why did the idea of just walking off into nowhere appeal so strongly to him? Because he wanted to leave behind a mystery? See what he was made of? Break free of what seemed to be his fate and assert his independence? Or because suddenly in some way it just didn't seem to matter what he did, one way or another?
The Duke looked up at the night sky. It was an ocean of blackness; the moon was an island and the stars sparkling little silver fishes. "Hey," he called out. "Hey, what's going on?" The Duke didn't know who he was talking to. The Big Guy, he supposed, who else? Up there in the heavens, looking down on everything as he sat on his golden throne, the Big Director in the Sky. The Duke felt a little guilty thinking of the Big Guy as a movie director as if he might get into trouble for that, maybe even get a lightning bolt hurled in his direction, but hell, the Big Guy would understand because he was the Big Guy.
"Hey, Big Guy, what's going on?" The Duke felt properly abashed after asking that question. For one thing, it wasn't the correct terminology to call the Big Guy the Big Guy, it was too casual, not respectful enough and He might take offense. For another, it probably wasn't right to directly ask the Big Guy what was going on because He was God and you just didn't ask God questions like that, did you? Or did you? Maybe, the Duke thought carefully, feeling like he was on the right track of something, maybe you had to be as toasted as he was in order to have any kind of meaningful dialogue with the Almighty, perhaps that was the secret if there was one, which for some reason reminded him of the biblical story of Noah getting drunk and his sons seeing him naked, but what that had to do with anything he had no idea.
The Duke decided to take a load off and sat down. Ow! He reached under his posterior and removed a rock. There were all kinds of these damn rocks around, littering the landscape. Had there been a mountain here once? Perhaps a million years ago, or more. He tossed the rock away. What would be left of him in a million years? Nothing. Would anyone remember him, or still watch his movies? Would there still even be movies? The Duke hated it when he got into negative moods like these but sometimes couldn't help them, especially when he'd been drinking, like his hero Winston Churchill, who called his depressions the black dog. The black dog was upon him, for no particular reason he could name. Did there have to be a reason? Perhaps it was just a condition of life, another negative, unAmerican thought he should be ashamed of, yet it was realistic and the Duke had always prided himself on being realistic especially in his screen portrayals of good guys who could fight just as dirty as the bad guys if they had to, like using a chair in a brawl as long as the bad guy did so first. Still, there was a difference between being negative and realistic, wasn't there? It was the Commies who always looked on the negative side of things, always complaining, criticizing, whining about their lot, emphasizing the bad over the good, which made the Duke think of a question.
"Lord, why are there Commies?" The Duke realized that was a stupid question as soon as he had asked it. For one thing, he had no right to ask such a question since he wasn't that religious. He believed in the Big Guy, all right, but couldn't remember the last time he'd been to a church except to get married. For another, everyone knew there had to be evil in the world or how could you appreciate God? It was simple. Of course, someone could say to that why couldn't there be a little less evil in the world, why did there have to be so much, vale of tears and all, but even with all the evil and disaster in the world, how much attention did people pay to God, how religious were they, like him? So why shouldn't there be Godless Communist atheists trying to overthrow the natural order of things, steal everybody's property and freedom and destroy all the churches? In a way it was crazy for the Big Guy to take that chance and let the Red Menace exist, but since good always triumphed over evil in the end there was no real problem---or was there? The Duke wasn't so sure. But then he wasn't God, the Big Guy. Far be it for him to question the Lord's mysterious ways, he was sure everything would turn out all right in the end, just like in one of his movies.
Foom! There was a giant explosion, a flash of blinding light, and the whole nighttime desert seemed to billow up into a boiling mushroom cloud. The Duke would have been more frightened except he knew that either this had to be some kind of hallucination or, if it wasn't, then he was already fried to oblivion like all those emperor worshipping Japs at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Fortunately he was so drunk that he didn't care much one way or the other and was content to just sit there and watch the show.
The mushroom cloud diminished until it was no bigger than a man-sized saguaro, a desert cactus. The Duke wondered if anything more was going to happen, then had a feeling. "Lord, is that you?" He thought he heard a rumbling sound, a deep voice coming from somewhere far away. "Lord?"
"You are my servant," the voice rumbled, apparently centered in the mushroom cloud.
The Duke struggled to his feet. "Lord?"
"You are my servant."
All right, I'm your servant, now what? The Duke knew that was disrespectful, but wasn't anywhere near the vicinity of sobriety and so far this had not been the easiest of nights.
"Bow down before me," the voice thundered.
The Duke started to, then balked. John Wayne didn't bow down to just anyone. How did he know this was God? The mushroom cloud was the twentieth century equivalent of the burning bush? "Lord, is that you?"
"Bow down before me!" the voice commanded, the cloud roiling and seething with lightning flashes.
The Duke mulled things over. This didn't seem like the Big Guy to him at all. Was it the devil, then, Satan? Some third party? Somehow it just didn't seem right that God would appear as the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb, though if the good Lord in his wisdom hadn't delivered that weapon to the good guys to smite their enemies, then they might all be goose-stepping or drinking sake right now.
The Duke waited for more proof of the cloud's divinity, but instead, as if the cloud could sense his doubt or lack of faith, it abruptly shrank in on itself and disappeared without a sound, as if sucked into an invisible hole. Whoo; what had that camel said about someone putting something in his drink? Maybe that explained why he was feeling so depressed and seeing things. Or was it just being John Wayne that was finally taking its toll on him, he couldn't live up to his own heroic image anymore and was cracking up?
The Duke fished in the pockets of his safari jacket for his cigarettes and lighter, found both and lit up. He was a chain-smoking son of a bitch, wasn't he? A hard drinking, chain-smoking son of a bitch to boot, they'd both probably be the death of him along with fiery Latin women, but until then, he didn't care. The Duke practiced his tough guy squint, staring hard where the cloud had been. Maybe he was experiencing a dark night of the soul, a phrase he'd picked up from some screenwriter, though he wasn't exactly sure what it meant. He felt so odd, almost as if he didn't care what happened to him any longer. Hell, there was no almost about it, was there?
The Duke picked up a baseball sized rock and without thinking, threw it into the night as far as he could. He heard it land somewhere and started after it, as if it was important that he find the rock and throw it again, or some other rock, repeating the process until he found something better to do.