On the Road
Plowing fearlessly across the desert in an unwavering straight line though he had no idea where he was going, the Duke reflected on his recent encounter with Micturious, ghost and late tax collector for the once great, all-powerful Roman empire, if indeed he had just experienced such an encounter and hadn't imagined it all. What was he supposed to learn from that, that nothing lasted forever? That once you were on top, there was nowhere to go but down? Hell, he didn't need some damn Commie ghost to remind him that nothing lasted forever, all power\glory\success was fleeting, even the Roman Empire, fine, wonderful, great, who cared, but as long as he was alive and kicking and dammit he still was no matter what some ghost might think, then he was going to do everything he could to stay on top, numero uno, number one male box office star in the world, idol to millions, though how he was going to manage that by making schlock grade B desert melodramas like the one he was currently filming, the Duke had no earthly idea. Damn! He hated it when he felt confused and this was certainly one of those rare occasions, which no doubt at least partially explained why he was wandering around lost in a strange desert at this time of night, not even a decent desert to boot, unlike Monument Valley where he had made so many great westerns directed by John Ford, the man who had made his career but now was in semi-retirement, put out to pasture, the old tyrant. How the mighty have fallen a voice said in the Duke's mind, which startled him because he wasn't used to hearing voices no matter how drunk he was. The Duke slowed down, and halted. He knew that he should just go back to his residence on this location, a one room hovel with a dirt floor, turn in, get some sleep for the next day's work, stop acting like a sissy, be a man and forget whatever was bothering him, it probably wasn't important, but he didn't want to, he just didn't want to. It was as if he needed some kind of explanation or sign before he agreed to go back to business as usual as John Wayne, movie star, sex symbol, yes, sex symbol still, even at his age, didn't he have a new wife and a bouncing baby boy as proof of his continued and undiminished virility?---he wanted some kind of sign that it was all worthwhile, that he was as important and indestructible as he thought he was, otherwise, what was the point? What was the point of anything? He felt willing to go to any lengths to force the issue, to get some kind of answer from who or whatever was in charge of things, fate, destiny, God, whatever, which he knew wasn't wise but what else could a man do?
A pair of headlights appeared, heading his way. At first the Duke thought it was someone coming from Ghadames looking for him, but they weren't coming from the right direction and he hadn't been gone that long anyway. There were no roads in the area, but the ground was flat and hard so it didn't matter. The Duke stood his ground and waited, reminded of the scene in Stagecoach when he made his first appearance, hailing the stage by firing a shot in the air to halt it, the camera moving in from a medium to extreme close-up on his face as he slung his saddle over his shoulder. Now that was a picture, they didn't make them like that anymore.
The Duke shielded his eyes as the vehicle got closer and the headlights brighter. It was a car instead of a truck or jeep which was slightly unusual, and it slowed down and stopped abreast of him, a dusty white Cadillac. It contained three men, non-Arabs, two in front, one in the back. A young man with curly dark hair and wearing glasses stuck his head out the front passenger window.
"Excuse me, is this the way---" The young man stopped in mid-sentence. The Duke knew he had been recognized, which under the circumstances he found gratifying. "Are you John Wayne?"
"Yes, I am."
"Are you sure?"
The Duke whipped around, because it was someone behind him who had asked that question, not anyone in the car, except there was no one behind him. More damn imaginary voices.
"It's John Wayne," the young man informed the driver.
"We must be close, then," the driver said, in a peculiar, insect-like voice. "Mr. Wayne, can you tell us the way to Ghadames?"
"That way," the Duke said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, regaining his composure. "Keep going the way you're headed and you should hit it."
"Thank you. Would you like a ride, Mr. Wayne? Perhaps we can give you a lift."
"Don't mind if I do," said the Duke. He was tired of walking and besides, what was he trying to prove, anyway? He opened the rear door and folded himself into the back of the car, where already comfortably sprawled was a man with rugged good looks smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer.
The driver, older than the other two, stepped on the gas and they sped away. "Beer?" the man in back asked the Duke. "They're warm."
"Sure," the Duke said, not that he was a great beer drinker preferring the harder stuff, but it didn't matter and anyway it felt good to be in the company of three ordinary men probably much like himself, fellow Americans from the look and sound of them, instead of having to deal with ghosts or talking camels. This was a situation the Duke felt comfortable in, though he did wonder where these guys could have come from and what they happened to be doing out here in the middle of nowhere, if they weren't engaged in the making of a movie on a far-flung exotic locale as was his excuse.
The man with the rugged good looks who also looked like he might be an ex-football player to the Duke, perhaps collegiate, reached down to the floor of the bucking car and came up with a beer bottle and an opener, which he used expertly and handed the foaming bottle to the Duke, who took a swallow and discovered that while not ice cold, the beer wasn't unpleasantly warm, either. "You boys drive here from Tripoli?" the Duke asked.
"Tangiers," the driver answered, in a voice that sounded unpleasantly dry and cynical to the Duke. "It's a wide open town, Mr. Wayne. Ever been there?"
"Can't say as I have," the Duke drawled in reply, trying to be cool. "That's in Morocco, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. You can live there quite cheaply and conduct certain experiments, shall we say, without undue interference from the authorities. My name is Bill Lee, by the way. I'm an exile, an expatriate. These are my friends Allen, and the rogue beside you is Jack. I assume you're here making a movie."
"Legend of the Lost. I play a desert guide."
"Looking for some lost city or treasure, no doubt. Very metaphorical. Everything's a search in some way. Take us, for example. We're looking for something too."
"Or for someone, I should say. Perhaps you've heard of him. He's called the Desert Elvis."
The Duke tried to recall how he knew that name, then remembered the poster he'd seen at Abdullah's. "Yeah, he's appearing tonight at a bar in Ghadames."
"You know the place?"
"I've been there, once. It's called Abdullah's. It's on the outskirts of town."
"Thank you, Mr. Wayne. That information is invaluable."
"No problem." The Duke took another slug of his beer and was surprised to find that he had finished it. He wondered how he should dispose of the dead soldier, his first inclination being just to toss it out his window but not sure that was proper behavior in this company, then was reassured when Jack discarded his empty in that manner through his window and the Duke followed suit out his side.
"Another?" Jack asked.
"There's something else we're looking for," Allen said, the young man with the glasses who seemed very earnest to the Duke somehow, as Jack grabbed and opened two more beers. "It's a plant, an ephemeral."
"A short-lived desert flower rumored to grow in these parts, a bluey asphodel reputed to have magic properties of illumination if prepared properly and ingested either by smoking or drinking. It's called the Singing Sword."
The Duke stopped his bottle in mid-tilt, just before it reached his lips. "You've heard of it?" Allen asked hopefully.
"No, not exactly. A plant, a flower? No, I've never heard of it."
"Probably because there is no such thing," Bill Lee said, in his whiny, almost metallic voice that just got on the Duke's nerves. "We're on a wild goose chase in service of Allen's death trip. Not that I'm complaining, mind, if there is some new drug out there no junkie has ever heard of before much less sampled, then I'd be more than honored to help discover it, but I don't hold out much hope."
"Beats staying in Tangiers fighting with each other all the time," Jack said. "We were bored with that scene, remember?"
"We were getting on each others' nerves," agreed Allen. "That's another reason we're making this trip, but I still think we have some chance of finding this flower if we could find the right person, some local shaman type hip to all the native flora. Do you know anyone like that, Mr. Wayne?"
For some reason the Duke thought of Abdullah. "Well, maybe. This guy Abdullah who runs Abdullah's might be able to help you, but I'm not sure."
"Thank you again," Bill Lee said. "You're a veritable fount of information, Mr. Wayne, it's so lucky that we ran into you. By the way, why are you wandering around the Sahara this time of the night?"
"I was taking a walk."
"That's a good way to get lost, even for John Wayne. Is that what you were trying to do?"
"You were improvising," said Jack. "Trying to deviate from the script. We all do from time to time, but there's not much you can do. We all come back to the path we're meant to follow. It's all part of the plan."
"What plan?" asked Allen.
"Who knows? You've got to be spontaneous, that's all I know, like jazz, just blow as long and as deep as you can. It's all just another spin of the wheel."
For some reason that gave the Duke a mental image of a spinning roulette wheel, the black marble bouncing around crazily. "Are you an actor?" he asked, wondering if that was why Jack was out here, hoping to get a job with the movie. "Or a stuntman?"
"No. I write."
"There's an idea, Jack," said Bill Lee. "You should write a movie script for us. We could play all the parts since all you do is write about us and yourself anyway. We don't even need a script, all we need is a camera. We should have brought one along on this trip."
"We're all writers," said Allen. "Jack has a soon to be published novel that will cause a sensation, I write poetry that has gained a certain notoriety, and Bill's completing a novel with our help that will top us both. Isn't that right, Bill?"
"I like to think of it as my report," said Bill Lee. "I'm actually a secret agent from another planet. I just can't remember what my orders are or why I'm here."
The Duke's head touched the ceiling as the car took a bump, going God knew how fast. He wondered who these guys were. He supposed they could all be writers, they sounded crazy enough. And what had Bill Lee called himself, an ex-patriot? What did that mean, that he wasn't patriotic anymore?
Bill Lee lit a cigarette and it started getting passed around, first Allen, then to Jack. A peculiar odor soon filled the car's interior. "Care to partake?" Jack asked the Duke.
The Duke realized that this was one of those funny marijuana cigarettes that had gotten his good friend Bob Mitchum in so much trouble once. He supposed he could just say no and no one would think any worse of him, not that it mattered in this company, but he was feeling in a reckless mood and besides, didn't want these guys to think he was afraid to do anything they would. "Sure," he said, taking the cigarette. He took a long, deep drag, then handed it to Allen. As he did so, a realization bloomed in his mind like a flower. "You guys are beatniks, aren't you?"
Allen grimaced. "We hate that term, though I suppose we are the ones responsible for it. I prefer bohemian, if I have to be called anything. What about you, Bill?"
"Queer suits me fine enough. Just call me Captain Queer of the Queer police, at your groveling, bootlicking service, pension hungry bureaucrat that I am. I'll lick your asshole if you want me too, just don't cut off my drug supply, because I can get mighty ornery when cornered. Mush little doggies, mush!"
"He's just doing one of his routines," Jack told the Duke. "Don't be alarmed. He hasn't shot anybody in a long time."
Good lord, the Duke thought, what gang of loonies had he fallen into? He realized instinctively that if anyone caught him with these three, some nosy newsman, perhaps, then his career would be over, he'd be ruined as he deserved to be because how could he have failed to realize from the very beginning that these jokers were dangerous Commie beatnik subversives? How could his instincts, normally so reliable in such matters, have failed him so completely in this instance? Only Bill Lee had seemed remotely sinister to him, while the other two, Jack and Allen, still seemed normal if not likeable. What was wrong with him? How could he make such a mistake? He must be getting old.
"We're all just pioneers of the American dream, aren't we?" Jack asked the Duke.
"If you say so," the Duke said, feeling so low that when the funny cigarette came his way again he accepted it without hesitation and took another long drag. He supposed he could ask for the car to stop or just open his door and throw himself out, that might be the only way he could save his reputation, but he just didn't have the will to do anything so melodramatic, as if it was already too late and there was nothing he could do. How could he be in this situation?
"Captain Queer to the rescue!" shouted Bill Lee in his brittle, old man's voice. "The junkie Queen, forrrard!" and the car sped on like an arrow in the night, looking for a bull's eye.