Moving like the unstoppable force of nature that he thought he was, looking for the rock he had just thrown so he could throw it again until he had a better idea, the Duke realized that he was parodying his own walk, a walk he liked to fancy symbolized all America, powerful, determined, forthright, with no deviation from the straight and narrow, by bending too far forward, swinging his arms too stiffly, listing too much to one side as if he was drunk, which he was, or as if he was trying to impersonate the mimics who did him with his own exaggerated version of his nobody-was-going-to-back-him-up walk, and why not? Those bastards should pay him a royalty every time they did him in their act then he'd really be rich, as well off as everybody thought he was, not that he was poor but he had expenses and God knew when the bottom might fall out and he would go back to being just another struggling actor, it could happen overnight, he'd seen that cruel fate befall too many other stars who'd thought they'd had it made, and then where would he be? He was too old to start over again and wasn't going to, not if there was anything he could do about it.
The Duke tripped and fell flat on his face as he could have predicted he would, walking too fast and not watching where he was going. It hurt, but since it was almost like he was trying to hurt himself, he didn't mind. Besides, he was too well anesthetized: a safe could fall on his head and he wouldn't feel it. From his ground level vantage point, in no hurry to elevate himself, the Duke looked around. He had the feeling that someone was watching him, but attributed that to a natural feeling of self-consciousness, made worse in his case because usually someone was watching him in one forum or another, on screen or off, famous movie star and celebrity that he was.
The Duke pushed himself up into a sitting position, with more difficulty than he had anticipated. Christ, did he smell. He saw what he had tripped over, a small rock, perhaps even the same one he had thrown and was looking for. He began to have the weird feeling that it, the rock, was trying to tell him something, as if it was alive in some way. Was he that drunk? With a grunt, the Duke leaned over and snatched the rock up. He examined it: it was a perfectly unremarkable piece of stone. Should he bother to throw it again? He didn't know why he was playing this stupid game, except that somehow he wanted to inject the element of chance into his life. Everything wasn't completely predetermined, was it? Weren't there always choices, options, different roads you could take? Was his life set in stone or concrete, like the hand and footprints at Graumann's Chinese, which included his own?
With another grunt, the Duke struggled to his feet and before he could think too much about what he was doing tossed the rock with a mighty underhand fling. He felt temporarily liberated, then heard the rock hit something solid, like a wall. What the hell could be out here?
The Duke moved towards the sound, going up a small incline and out of the moonlit darkness appeared the ruin of an arch. His first thought was that he was in Leptis Magna, a well preserved ancient Roman town where they were shooting some of the movie, but that was miles away on the coast, there was no way he could have walked that far. He walked through the arch and saw other ruins, solitary, crumbling walls, worn-down pillars, some fallen, some still standing. There were probably hundreds if not thousands of Roman ghost towns like this scattered all over the North African landscape, names forgotten, inhabitants long dispersed. The Duke walked around like a tourist, oddly uncomfortable. He had a hunch that the only real difference between him and the people who had lived here centuries ago was that they were dead now and he wasn't. Had anything really changed since the time of the Romans? Hell, in a way everything seemed the same, except now it was his country the good ol' U.S. of A. that was on top, in charge of things, with all the same problems and responsibilities. Would that last forever? Probably not, the Duke had to admit, but he found it hard to imagine a world where America, his America, wasn't top dog: it just didn't seem possible, unless his fellow Americans became weak and spoiled by their own success, sort of like the Romans had, hadn't they? But maybe that wouldn't happen.
The Duke looked up at the night sky, the stars twinkling like distant camp fires. He felt spooked, no longer sure of the future. What was going to become of him? Obviously some day he was going to wind up dead, but was that what he was worried about? He wondered what the Romans had worried about most; pleasing their gods? They had been a pretty superstitious bunch, if he recalled correctly. Maybe that was the only real difference between them and the modern day, but perhaps it was their pagan beliefs that had given them the strength to accomplish what they had. The Duke almost felt like a Roman himself standing among the ruins, maybe it wasn't so strange that he was here on this location after all. He was just a world traveler, a privileged world citizen like they had been, a new Roman.
New Roman or not, the Duke realized that he had to take a leak. His bladder was signaling him urgently. Should he here? It might be a desecration. What would a Roman do? Probably just take a piss without even thinking about it, because they had also been a notoriously practical, hard-headed bunch, in addition to being superstitious, nothing effete about those boys until later on, when their empire began to fall. Besides, it wasn't like he was going to leave a big stinking pile of crap, he was just going to take a piss which would evaporate almost immediately. Reassured by this logic, the Duke unzipped himself, took hold of his member which in certain private moments he fondly referred to as old Bull, and began relieving himself with gusto on a fallen column. Ahh! Of the small pleasures of this world, taking a full-fledged leak out in the open ranked right up there, as far as the Duke was concerned. He was getting a little worried, though, because he was pissing an absolute river, more than he had ever urinated before, and he didn't feel like it was going to cease any time soon. He turned away from the column for fear of causing erosion and watched as the flood of piss he was making began heading downstream somewhere instead of soaking into the ground and disappearing. This was not good: the Duke began to worry that he might cause an international incident. He could see the headlines even now, American movie star pisses on small foreign country, his country's enemies the Commies spreading the news everywhere they could to humiliate the forces of freedom and democracy, helped by his nation's own naive press who often seemed more interested in getting a good story than in fighting for decency and the American way, but even knowing this did not deter the Duke from his emission, which felt too good to halt just yet whatever the consequences.
"OOOooo." The Duke's flow became a paltry dribble, then stopped altogether, urinatis interuptus. What pervert son of a bitch was hiding in the shadows watching him take a leak, an autograph hound? They could be unbelievably rude at times, following him everywhere, pestering him at every occasion, which was why he usually kept a handful of autographed glossies on him that he could hand out, never wanting to disappoint his fans, but not this time. Or perhaps it was just the wind he had heard, except not even the gentlest of breezes was blowing, the night was dead calm.
The Duke zipped himself up, after carefully tucking away old Bull, and turned around. He didn't see anyone. "All right, who's there?" he challenged, hands on hips. "Come on out."
Before the Duke's startled eyes, a man as white as a ghost, wearing a Roman toga, materialized in front of him. The Duke was suitably impressed: he'd never seen such trickery, or special effects, except in a movie. He wondered how it was done. Was it possibly a hallucination, caused by his drunkenness? Instinct told him no. A more likely possibility was that this was the night watchman, attired as he was either out of eccentricity or because it was part of his job somehow. But wouldn't the night watchman for these ruins be one of the locals, an Arab? This individual looked European, or American.
"Who are you?" the Duke asked.
"Micturious. I'm a ghost. Your presence here summoned me."
"A ghost," the Duke repeated, nodding sagely.
"I see you're skeptical, as I would be in your position. Here, touch my hand."
The ghost extended a softly glowing white hand. The Duke considered the situation. Some guy in a dress, or toga, probably wearing make-up, who had just watched him take a piss, was now asking to be touched. "That's okay, pardner," the Duke said, making a polite of dismissal, "if you say you're a ghost, that's fine with me. I've learned to get along with all kinds during my time in Hollywood, if you catch my drift."
"Actually, I don't. What's Hollywood? A new province?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"Is it far? Have you come a long distance?"
"I'd say so. It was quite a trip getting here."
"Why have you come?"
The Duke wondered if he should continue this conversation. Either this guy was nuts or pulling his leg, or---a third possibility suggested itself,
The Duke deliberately folded his arms and squinted at Micturious in his best tough guy manner. "You're an actor, aren't you? Playing a role someone hired you to play."
"Well, we all have our roles to play, I suppose, but actually I'm just a tax collector. I collect the taxes for this region, or used to, anyway, when I was alive. The inhabitants were poor, except for a thriving slave trade, but Rome will have its due."
The Duke smiled. He felt a sneaking admiration for this fellow for being able to stay in character so well. He sat on the column he'd just pissed on, finding a dry spot. "In that case, I'm sorry for disturbing your peace. By the way, for a Roman ghost you speak English awfully well."
"I can speak many different languages now. It's an ability I've acquired over the centuries. I don't know how. Words and phrases just pop into my head until they begin to make sense to me, somehow. Being dead is a very strange, dreamlike experience, which I remember is the way life used to seem to me at times, when I was alive. Perhaps there's really not that much difference between life and death. What do you think?"
What a load of Commie rubbish. The Duke began patting down the pockets of his jacket looking for a pack of smokes when to his pleasant surprise he felt the metal side of a flask. Who had put that there? He didn't remember doing so. Thanks, friend. He took the flask out and unscrewed the top.
"Care for a drink?" he asked Micturious, holding out the flask.
"Ghosts don't drink."
"Oh. I forgot." The Duke took the flask back, tipped it to his lips and swallowed. His throat burned: whiskey, good whiskey. He allowed himself another drink, then put the flask away and found the pack of cigarettes he'd searched for earlier. "Don't suppose you smoke, either," he asked the ghost.
"I'm afraid I can no longer participate in any of the pleasures of the flesh."
The Duke nodded somberly, and lit up. Sounded like a serious drawback to him. He looked at the ghost or whoever this bum was through the smoky haze from his cigarette. Micturious seemed just as insubstantial. If he was a professional actor, the Duke didn't know him from anywhere. Maybe he was a New York actor, who looked down on mere movie actors like the Duke. Christ, he should probably just throw a punch at this guy and settle the question of whether or not he was a ghost that way.
"I know what you're thinking," Micturious said, smiling.
"That I'm not real. Strangely, you don't seem real to me, or perhaps not so strangely. One of us has to be wrong. But tell me, who are you? What are you doing at this place of my haunting, which even in my day was on the edge of civilization?"
"I'm John Wayne. I'm here to make a movie."
"What's a movie?"
"Moving pictures on a screen. It's like a play. You had those in your day, didn't you? Theater, drama?"
"A Greek invention. I've seen plays. So; you're an actor?"
The Duke grinned. "I think so, though some critics might disagree with me. They think I'm only playing myself all the time."
"How can you? Aren't your roles different from who you really are?"
"Hell yeah. I just don't cry and make a big fuss like a quote 'real actor', unquote, is supposed to do. I don't act like a woman."
"Why would you, unless you were playing one?"
"My point exactly, pardner. But the critics don't understand that. They love nothing better than to see a strong man break down and act like a beaten dog, a loser, because they're all so weak themselves. I think most critics are nothing but a bunch of Commies."
"Yeah, you know. Communists. You know what they are, don't you?"
"Sounds like a rival faction. Am I correct?"
"They're godless, negative, backstabbing ambushers of everything good and true, subversive opponents of liberty, justice, and the American way."
"What's the American way?"
"The American way," the Duke intoned, warming to his favorite subject, "is freedom and democracy, one man, one vote. It's standing up for the little guy and not letting him be trampled by the forces of a godless Commie juggernaut. It's letting every man decide for himself what he wants and how to get it. That's the American way, friend."
"In other words, you take whatever you want."
"That's not what I said."
"You mentioned democracy. You follow the Greeks?"
"We don't follow anybody, pal. We lead."
"Nevertheless, you sound heavily influenced by them, as we were. Are they part of your empire?"
"We don't have an empire. We don't need one. We believe everyone has the right to choose their own destiny, like we did."
"So you are not conquerors?"
"Hell no. We leave people alone, unless they attack us first, then we kick their butts and usually wind up helping them back on their feet. Generosity, that's also the American way. What do you think about that?"
"Sounds very shrewd and practical. You would have made good Romans. Your country must be very powerful to act in such a fashion."
"We're the most powerful country the world has ever seen, including yours. Hopefully we'll last as long, if not longer."
"Time will tell," said Micturious. "We were proud too, but it didn't save us in the end. We just faded away, though obviously our memory still exists, along with a lot of ruins. May you be so lucky."
"Luck has nothing to do with it."
"Maybe. It's all just a question of destiny, isn't it? It's your destiny to be here now as it was in my time, both as representatives of our respective cultures. We will see who has the last laugh, if there is anything left to laugh about." The ghost fixed the Duke with a quizzical stare. "Something has just occurred to me. I don't know if I should tell you."
"Well---how do you know that you're not a ghost too?"
The Duke laughed. This guy was a howl. "For one thing, I'd have to be dead first, wouldn't I?"
Micturious said nothing. "I'm not dead!" the Duke protested.
"How would you know?"
"How do you know that you're a ghost?"
"You've got a point," conceded Micturious. "What year do you think this is?"
"Your calendar is different from mine. Besides meeting me, has anything else unusual happened to you tonight?"
The Duke shook his head. So far this whole night had been unusual. "That doesn't prove that I'm dead."
"Doesn't prove you're alive, either. What did you say you were, an actor? But you make something called movies? What are they, exactly? I'm still not sure."
"Moving pictures on a screen that tell a story. Sound familiar?"
"It sounds like shadows. Is that what you do, make shadows?"
"In a way, I suppose."
"So maybe you're just a shadow now too, a shade as the living sometimes like to say, no more real than these movies you claim to make. Which do you think will last the longer?"
The Duke shrugged. "Probably my movies, some of them, anyway. What does that prove?"
"Perhaps nothing except that everything is just an illusion, a hoax. Only memories remain, ghosts, like the two of us, so ironically perhaps we are more real now than when we were alive."
"I'm no damn ghost yet, buddy, don't rush things. I'm still smoking and drinking, aren't I?"
"Perhaps you just imagine you are, because you're not ready to believe that you're on another plane, which is why it still looks to me like you're smoking and drinking too. Being dead is a very strange thing."
"Dammit, I'm not dead!"
Suddenly Micturious began backing away. "I'm being called, though I don't know why or by who. I have to go, I can't stay any longer. It's been a pleasure talking to you, John Wayne. You're the first person I've talked to in years. Most of the time I just have camels for company, dumb beasts. It gets lonely. I hope we meet again. Take care."
With that, Micturious vanished into the night. The Duke could not believe his eyes. He had never seriously considered giving up the bottle before, but now might be a good time. A Roman ghost, maybe or maybe not the Big Guy appearing to him in the form of a mushroom cloud, a talking camel: was he imagining all those things, or was there some other explanation? He ran his fingers through his hair, or what remained of it on the top of his head, and realized that he was still wearing his toupee. He hated the damn thing. Rising to his feet, he ripped it off and sailed it out into the night as far as he could. "To hell with it!" the Duke roared, in case anyone was watching or listening. "I'm never going to wear a rug again! I'm a free man!"
There was no answer, not that he expected any. The Duke swayed, then swung around almost 180 degrees and made his exit, as if leaving a saloon in one of the countless westerns he had made. Yes, to hell with it: he might be dead drunk, or dead tired, but he wasn't dead in any other sense and wasn't going to lay down and die now. Nossir, he was going on, to bigger and better things because he was John Wayne, the Duke, and he wasn't a quitter, he didn't settle for second best or anything but total victory, that was his motto, his code and his creed, as well as not taking crap from anybody, damn straight! This desert was his as far as he was concerned because he feared no man and could do with it as he pleased, so he would: all he needed was some kind of direction, a sense of purpose, a plan, that was it, which the Duke was sure would eventually present itself to him if he simply walked long and hard enough, with only the stars and the moon as his guideposts.