Sitting under the starry desert night, freezing, but not feeling it somehow, a horrible thought occurred to the Duke: maybe that damn Commie ghost had been right, maybe he was dead but he just hadn't admitted it to himself yet. That would explain all this nonsense he was imagining like talking camels, he was imagining it because he was imagining that he was still alive, too. Holy crap!
The Duke felt overwhelmed by this revelation, as if his legs had been kicked out from under him. How the hell could he be dead? He certainly didn't feel as if he was, but maybe he wouldn't know. No more movies, beautiful women, sailing on his yacht up and down the California coast, no more drinking, smoking, eating, all-night card games with his buddies, getting to see his newborn son grow up; Christ, he didn't want to be dead! It just didn't seem possible that he, John Wayne, could no longer exist, but that seemed to be the case. The Duke felt like crying, but even dead he would shed no tears, it wasn't manly and he was still the stuff men were made of. Damn, how could this have happened? He didn't remember passing on, so he must have been taken by surprise. The last thing he remembered doing while he was alive, or while he thought he was still alive, was going to Abdullah's for a few drinks and that was when the fun had started, when Drinkwine and those two Libyan military officers had showed up, that was when things had started getting strange. Had he expired sometime just before then, in the midst of polishing off that bottle of whiskey Abdullah had given him? Maybe he had had a heart attack and his body was still lying on the floor of the bar waiting to be swept up, that place hadn't looked like it paid much attention to formalities.
The Duke still couldn't believe that he was dead, but there seemed to be no way of denying it. It was the only way of explaining all the strange experiences he'd been having. He wondered why he still felt pretty lit; because that was the state in which he'd gone over to the other side? Good Lord. Perhaps now he was in some kind of purgatory, or state of limbo. Was he being punished for his sins? The Duke was ready to deny that he had any, then reconsidered. There was his smoking, drinking, gambling, swearing, fornicating, adultery, pride, every time he had ever lied or not told the whole truth or been envious of someone else or lost his temper without just cause, and probably a multitude of other faults he couldn't remember off the top of his head, any one of which could have consigned him to his current state, or worse. But hadn't he always tried to be honest and to do the right thing? Hadn't he always respected his parents, loved his country, taken care of his family, worked hard at his job? So he wasn't perfect, who was? He was John Wayne, dammit, not some Casper Milktoast. Where was the fairness of that?
Reaching into a jacket pocket hoping to find a pack of cigarettes, forgetting that ghosts couldn't smoke---jeez, he just couldn't get used to the idea that he was dead, he must have imagined that he was going to live forever, as indestructible as the screen heroes he had portrayed---the Duke touched something strange, then realized that it was just his toupee. He took it out, examined it, brushed it off though it did not need it, and put it on. Even if he was dead, he might as well look his best, no telling who he might run into in the afterlife. It made him feel better, anyway.
As the Duke finished patting his hairpiece into place, a little awkward without a mirror or make-up man to help him, two Bedouins appeared, coming up a small rise. One carried an old-fashioned rifle that looked like a flintlock. They approached cautiously, looking around as if searching for something. The Duke wondered if they would see him, if he was just a ghost. Did he have to consciously materialize, or was he already visible? He probably already was visible, if he wasn't completely sure that he was dead. There was a lot of this ghost business he hadn't figured out yet, but he would.
"Pardon," said the older of the two, a greybeard, in English. "Have you seen any camels?"
"They went thataway," the Duke said, throwing out a careless wave to his right.
"May I ask you another question?"
"Why are you sitting here? Are you waiting for someone?"
"Nope, I'm just sitting here."
"For any reason?"
The Duke shrugged. "Seemed as good a place as any."
"What have you done with our camels?" impatiently asked the other Bedouin, a young man in his twenties holding the musket.
"You said they were here."
"They were. They left."
"What have you done with our camels?"
"Quiet, Achmed," said the grandfatherly Arab. "If just once you would think before you spoke, it would be a blessing. What is your name, stranger?"
"John Wayne," the Duke answered. Maybe if he was dead he should use his real name, Marion Morrison, but if he was dead, why worry about it?
"They call me Abu Meniar, John Wayne. I would be honored if you would share the hospitality of my tent."
The Duke thought for a moment. Dead or not, his ass was sore from sitting, which suggested that he wasn't dead but then again if he was in some kind of limbo or purgatory, he would still imagine that he was feeling all kinds of pain and discomfort, wouldn't he?
"Why not," the Duke said, getting up. "Take me to your camp."
They started walking. "Achmed and I are nomads," Abu Menair said. "We herd goats and camels in harmony with this unforgiving land, obeying its rules. It is a dying way of life, but it suits us. What do you do, John Wayne?"
"I make movies," the Duke said, realizing too late he should have qualified that with the past tense, if he truly had expired. This being dead was a lot harder to get used to than he ever could have imagined.
"I have heard of such things. The ways of Allah are mysterious indeed. I am not that comfortable with the modern world myself, I will always be a herder of goats and camels, but I have one son who is destined to be something more. He goes to school religiously, the first in our family to do so. He does not speak of them, but I can tell that he has great plans. Perhaps you have met him. His name is Muammar, and sometimes works as a desk clerk at the hotel in Ghadames."
"I think I have seen him," the Duke said. "He's your son, huh? Small world. I guess it's only natural that he wants to be something more than a camel herder. My old man was just a drug store clerk, and that never would have been enough for me."
"As you say, such ambition is only natural. But Muammar will never forget his roots, no matter how high he rises in this world. That much I am sure of."
They continued walking and came to a campfire and a small tent. Over the fire hung a black cast-iron pot, in which a stew was simmering. Abu-Meniar and Achmed sat down around the fire and the Duke followed suit.
Abu-Meniar took a wooden bowl from somewhere and filled it with a ladle from the pot. "Eat, John Wayne," he said, handing the bowl and a spoon to the Duke. "My bounty is your bounty. Praise Allah, Lord of all things. Eat."
The Duke took the bowl and looked at it. Ordinarily he had the appetite of a horse and could consume great quantities of food or drink under any circumstances, but this time he did not feel hungry at all. Was it because he was dead as he feared, or because some of the chunks of meat swimming around in his portion of the stew still seemed to have hair on them?
"What is wrong, John Wayne?" asked Achmed. "Do you insult our hospitality?"
The Duke put the bowl down. "I can't eat it."
"Why not?" asked Abu-Meniar, sincerely curious. "Are you on a fast?"
"I can't eat because I'm dead," the Duke confessed. "I'm a ghost."
"You mean you are a jinn?" asked Achmed.
"If that's what a ghost is in Arab. I'm not even sure you guys are real. Maybe you're ghosts too."
"What makes you think that you are a spirit?" asked Abu-Meniar. "You seem substantial enough to me."
"That's because I can't accept the fact that I'm dead. So I was told, anyway."
"A ghost I met in some Roman ruins outside of Ghadames."
The Duke looked at Abu-Meniar in surprise. "You know him?"
"We've heard tales. I've never seen him myself, but he's been bothering people around here for centuries. Pay him no mind. I guarantee that you are alive at this moment, John Wayne. Your time has not yet come. There is still much left for you to do."
"How do you know?"
"Trust me. Or would you rather believe a ghost?"
The Duke pondered. "A lot of strange things have happened to me tonight, pardner, and the only way they make sense is if I'm dead."
Abu-Meniar wrinkled his nose dismissively. "The world is a very strange place, John Wayne, much stranger than any of us can imagine. All I can tell you is that everything is the will of Allah, if that is of any comfort."
The will of Allah, huh? The Duke picked up his bowl. After a moment's hesitation, he scooped up a big chunk of meat and stuck it in his mouth, half-expecting to only pretend to be eating something, but instead he had to work at it. "Not bad. What kind of stew is this?"
"Camel," said Achmed. "Besides goat, that's the only kind we make."
The Duke wondered what Omar and his buddies would think, which reminded him of something. He fixed Abu-Meniar with his best man-to-man stare. "Have any of your camels ever talked to you?"
"No," answered Abu-Meniar, not looking up from his own bowl. "They are independent beasts with minds of their own, and lately they seem more temperamental than ever, but they have never spoken to us. Have they to you?"
"What did they say?"
"Well, they're not happy. They feel mistreated. They wish you guys would give them a break and show them some respect. That's the gist of it."
"Pah," said Achmed. "They are dumb animals meant to serve us as we see fit, nothing more. To suggest otherwise is madness."
"True, but we must not forget that they too are the creatures of Allah, forged by his unlimited power," said Abu-Meniar, a mischievous smile curling his lips. "Do not forget the story of the she-camel sent to the people of Thamud as a sign, and what happened to them when they molested it."
"Camels cannot talk," said Achmed. "That is blasphemy."
"Allah can make all things possible," retorted Abu-Meniar. "Perhaps it is a sign and John Wayne is the first to receive it."
"Allah speaks to all men. Perhaps this time to a non-believer, through our beasts."
"You must think I am a fool, to listen to such talk!"
Suddenly the Duke felt an overpowering urge to sneeze and before he could control it did so violently, his hairpiece flying off as a result. The Duke looked around, then realized a new ingredient had been added to the stew in the cooking pot.
"Believe I'll have some more," the Duke said, bending forward and scooping his hairpiece into his bowl. Mercifully, neither Achmed or Abu-Meniar seemed to notice anything odd.
"I am glad that you no longer think you are dead," nodded Abu-Meniar approvingly of the Duke's increased appetite. "Life is difficult enough without harboring such delusions."
"Amen, pilgrim." The Duke bent his head low to his bowl and snuck out his toupee, giving it a quick shake and stuffing it in a pocket.
"We must find our camels," said Achmed. "They have to be around somewhere. Will you help us find them, John Wayne?"
"Sure. I'll do all I can."
"Good," said Abu-Meniar. "We will go to Ghadames and consult my brother Abdullah first. When you have a problem, he is the man to see around here."
"Does he own a bar?" asked the Duke.
"Yes. You've been there?"
"Then surely it is no accident that our paths have crossed, John Wayne. It was meant to be."
The Duke was glad that at least Abu-Meniar knew what was going on, because he still didn't have the foggiest. Was he the only one who wasn't in on the joke, whatever it was? Ah, screw it. The Duke scooped up some more stew out of his bowl, but instead of eating it just stared helplessly at what was on the end of his spoon, as if seeing for the first time what he was about to consume in all its naked reality. Shaken to his boots, the Duke put down his bowl and got to his feet.
"I'm sorry, boys, I've got to go. I don't know why, but I've just got to. I can't help you find your camels."
"We understand," Abu-Meniar said gracefully. "Every man must follow his own path. May Allah guide and protect you."
"Thanks." The Duke turned and strode away, plunging into the desert night as if he was running from or towards something, he wasn't sure which.
"If you see our camels, tell them we're looking for them," Achmed shouted after him.