Ready Made, by William Auten

In this western I’m writing, I’ve taken one train and driven it towards Kansas City, keeping it at a speed so that the mesas of Arizona and New Mexico remain consistently straight above the flat horizon, like perfectly smoothed-over blocks of orange and black and red on top of a brown scrub line, seamless blue sky, and a few storm clouds over them in the heart of the Southwest. A few lizards scuttle by, as the train’s steam and clanking scare them, and buzzards circle over a volcanic hoodoo. It’s dry and hot, but as the saying goes, it’s not that it never rains in the desert; it’s that the desert hides the water so well.

On the other track, I’ve placed a train headed to Los Angeles, but I’m not 100% sure about that yet because LA wasn’t the place to be back then. It was growing, from village to city, but hadn’t taken over the west side of the country, the way that it will, and now does, acting as a counterpoint to New York City and Boston. Flagstaff or Jerome or Albuquerque or even Denver were more important, but I’ve made it so that the KC-bound train and the LA-bound train share tracks and pass each other, when seen from above, like pulley ropes moving in, and necessarily upon, opposite directions. Depending on where they really stop, be it a stockyard or in the middle of town, I don’t know if cattle or people or both need to be on them yet, or maybe some other kind of goods, such as refrigerated lettuce headed to the Midwest and eventually the East coast, but the way I’ve described the landscape rolling by makes me think of how much I rely on what’s out there already, especially Remington and his paintings, dipping into them when I feel like I’m getting jammed, the way the sun’s gold drips onto the purple canyons, his nocturnes with an eerie green glow in them, usually around the campfire where the rider and his pony are sleeping, the shirtless native scout with feathers in his hair keeping watch on the night.

I’ve even toyed with the idea of having the main character be a towheaded pioneer boy who works for a rail company in a territory that is on the verge of statehood. His father and older brothers all die in a horrific track-laying accident, and the big corporation, twirling its dastardly mustache, assumes none of the blame. Until he is older and overcomes it, he’s repelled by and yet drawn to iron horses.

Speaking of, I’m reaching points where certain elements of the genre are not only popping up more and more, but as this really gets going, it also looks as though I can’t stop myself from letting some of them come back to life in the here and now so that they’re like ghosts wearing outdated clothes, but what they still have to say on an ordinary day hasn’t gone away. The shock of the new is really nothing more than the shock of the old coming back in a different form. They manage to end up front and center; they push and pull the story. They are useful for that—as gears and mechanisms, wires and switches, and nothing more, moving quickly without having to stop too much, wheels unstuck. Anything readily available at hand is up for grabs and worth using, when the right spot is found. The man in the white hat shows up and takes on the man in the black hat who has held up the train, scaring everyone inside. Who’s to say what can and can’t be retrofitted when it comes to motion? Some of these towns and the people within are long gone, of course, but in here, in myth, and elsewhere, they can tumble on because of the stories keeping the place alive, told over and over, the source ground down but not blown away in dust and shadows, like the many uses of stone in the Old and New Testaments: some stones for life, some stones for laws, some rocks for death, some with all of those rolled into one.

Maybe by the time the train arrives, Hollywood will be growing. I know that’s asking a lot, but time on a train isn’t the same as time slouching on the ground or lingering in the open air. It’s OK to warp the timeframe, stretch it as far as it can be stretched, bringing with it a little discomfort. And let’s say this is plausible, which it is because it’s in the early stages, one of many versions and potential finishes, and I’m making this up as I go. Every morning on his way to work, a man drives by a station, which is a little run down now, because cars are the way to go, but its recognizable fonts and design still catch his eyes. He can be plain looking, not a movie star or even dressed in fancy or cowboy duds and boots. He can be somebody’s grandfather, because he is. He’s back from Europe, from war, he knows a thing or two about trains, and he grew up with westerns in pulp and on the big screen every Saturday morning at the downtown movie theater. It’s in his blood. He’s stopped here many times for a project at work to sketch the trains coming and going out. Anyway, he thinks of cowboys and Indians, because, of course, he’s as American as they come, but another image comes to mind, another train that he has seen, this other train that is unforgettable because of its lean box shape and matte black color, the cargo stacked on top of one another, suitcases and boxes and trinkets and hats and gloves and shoes. This train is the one that pressed families inside and took them away from each other even though they rode in, but ultimately not out, together.

I knew a man who knew these things. The train he got on took him close, not directly into it, but in the vicinity, but close enough to the center, where my grandfather said the rains turned the days into blue-grey. He saw the remains. When I was younger, wearing my holster and cap guns, I had a list of questions for him; I asked him what it was like, what else; he told me. He said he was scared many times, even though he knew they had a job to do. More of a mission than a job, my grandfather admitted, before quickly calling it a job again, reiterating that they had no choice to do it, reining in his emotions. He said all the things he saw over there helped him jettison off a lot of the lessons and teachings he grew up with. He said words could only do so much when you’re faced with so many actions and only one of those actions will matter. But those proverbs and teachings and concise sayings, he also said, charged back in when he often found himself face to face with the end. Clichés, he said, but they worked at the time he needed them.

One night in France, my grandfather’s platoon stopped near a barn to eat and rest. My grandfather slept on his side, his left side, facing the tent’s green cloth wall, and it was the first time he had slept on his side since being over there. It was near the end of the war, fires and explosions and charred matter popping and burning less and less around them, embers to it all, and it was a calm, cool night, and it felt right to him not to sleep on his back, to have to be wide-awake, aware, and ready, having become used to anything thrown his way. His tent-mate, his buddy, had just finished a can of beans and writing letters to his girl and parents back in New Jersey. He turned off the lantern, said goodnight to my grandfather, and pulled the green blanket up to his chest, falling asleep on his back. Somehow—they don’t know how—the Kraut snuck into their camp and made his way to that tent and slit the buddy’s throat. On his way out, the Kraut knocked over a tin cup, awakening my grandfather, who yelled and scrambled out of his cot. After they caught the Kraut, they roped him to a wood fence that divided the dirt road from the vineyard and the farm. And it should go without saying that, by this point, they were on their own in every way imaginable. They took turns drinking from the same wine bottle, even offering it to the Kraut, and then they loaded their pistols and rifles and took turns shooting, missing here, too low, landing there, good spot, until it felt finished. Then they had an idea and dug a grave and turned the Kraut’s boots upside down, burying them up to their laces, tongues down, dusty soles straight up to the sun, as a marker, like he said they did in the Old West, but not as a place to return to with flowers.

If only there were ways to say things like this won’t happen ever again, that, to take an old phrase, they won’t be seen around these parts anymore. He saw so much over there, which isn’t to diminish what other, later vets have seen and experienced. Times are gone for honest men, the communists are coming, and there’s another Hitler waiting to rise.

And when it was over, it really wasn’t, another train brought him home, and making his way to California, he got a job in the film industry. Where my grandfather worked at the studio, all of them in that department now raising sons and daughters, all of them returned bearing the things they had seen, the cities over there having to be rebuilt on ashes and memories, all of them moved by a motion larger than they were and intimately known for what it emptied and sent back as such, they made their world, concepts and materials and all, closer to the ground. He said their main competitor made fantasies, even the shorts, lasting no more than ten minutes, not just too spiritual but spiritual, period. Why let magic fix what’s in front of you? he said. It’d be like having someone else’s words in your mouth.

As an animator, he and his colleagues in the cartoon department were the ones who came up with the concept of a cartoon character speaking directly to you, this breaking of the fourth wall, that there was very little difference between the screen in front of you and the street and regular life to which to you would return. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved most about his time in the industry, soaking the characters a little longer in what is at hand and immediately known, basing this all on natural laws, that the observable, natural laws could bend a little in this other world but were not broken, could not be, that they snapped everything back into place, that they allowed for survival, not intervention, corrections rather than punishments, down and in, not up and out.

Of all the things he gave me, I remember this one animation cel more. He drove through Arizona and New Mexico a few times a year, usually for summer vacations and the major holidays, but only to visit his brothers and sister back in Illinois. Somehow he and his fellow animators took what they knew or heard or maybe even saw, in a passing sense, and brought those things back for the cartoons, adding them to what they had kept as kids watching and reading something like Billy the Kid, Tulsa Jack Blake and the Dooley-Dalton Gang, and True West Tales. Along the bottom, he’s drawn and hand-painted a few cacti, one sticking up behind the tracks and close to the canyon. What’s beautiful about what he made is that the train is just a thing, just as it would be seen back in the day or that could be seen nowadays at a museum or in a catalogue or in a toy-and-hobby store. It has an iconic shape to it, the long, barreled steam engine up front, the little open-air conductor’s cab behind it, enough room for the conductor, the operating levers, and the tender behind them full of coal for the firebox. Its body and details are outlined in thin white lines; otherwise the usual black lines wouldn’t show up as it chugged full steam across the screen, wouldn’t make it pop against the painted background. The train has a purpose and has reached full speed, regardless of what’s up ahead or far behind. A train with no expression, no smiling face on its fuselage, no eyes and eyebrows bobbing in the cab’s windows. But inside the cab, there’s Wile E. Coyote wearing a classic conductor’s cap, with the shiny black bill and a gold badge in the middle of the cap, and he’s trying to catch up to the Road Runner, who is stretching his skinny neck just a tad past the train, legs spinning in a whirlwind, his tongue out, ready to slip away at the last minute, cocky as ever. Coyote’s tongue is out too, he’s salivating, and he’s confident once again that today, after so many attempts, will be the day he finally gets what he wants. He is, as the ubiquitous narrative goes, never successful in reaching his goal, but he is always successful in starting the pursuit. He can’t stop what he does best; neither can the Road Runner.

Near his death, my grandfather said political correctness was starting to implode this country and ruin it. Everybody nowadays is offended by everything, sinkholes and landmines and traps just waiting to be sprung at every possible instance by some overly sensitive group, all the culture wars and skirmishes, major and minor, free speech and the right to safely express or prod or hack down, even within the presumed shelter of caricatures and exaggerations and simplifications. Which may explain why he stuck with cartoons and never drifted into live-action films. But, I mean, can you imagine some of that similar stuff happening today? It’d be hard for a cartoon out here. Yosemite Sam would be the target of gun-rights activists, and his double-door saloon, with its nod to nostalgia and rustic living, would have trouble getting off the ground due to background checks and health codes and alcohol permits. His menu would be chastised for its lack of environmentally sustainable food as well as for its heavy use of trans fats and the ample portions bulging on plates. And Fudd? PETA would have a heyday with Fudd, throwing balloons of fake blood at his front door and spray-painting Bunny Killer on his car.

For a while I believed him when he told me about another buddy of his, the one who was in the Navy and in the Pacific Theater, the one who personally shot down three Japanese Zero fighter planes, bombs strapped to their bellies, accelerating towards his battleship, and who later rose through the ranks in the sound-editing department in the movie division of another studio. Working on what was supposed to be a revival of sweeping, grand-style, realistic westerns, it was his last hurrah before officially, once and for all, calling it a day, retiring from the industry, and according to him, as told to me by my grandfather, he left in a sound-clip that should have been edited out and, according to him, he may or may not have accidently left it in, but it is so faint that it’s unnoticeable unless you go looking for it.

Based on historical events and characters, the Cowboys, as they’re labeled in the movie, not the kind usually associated with the heroic, good guys, have been up to no good, and with red sashes wrapped around their waists, they’re like a gang bullying and intimidating anyone who stands in their way. It was high time someone took them down a peg or two. Between gunshots twenty-five, twenty-six, and twenty-seven at the O.K. Corral showdown in 1993’s Tombstone, Bill Paxton’s Morgan Earp, one of the marshals appointed to clean up the streets, is shot in the arm by Thomas Hayden Church’s Cowboy Billy Clanton, at which point a production assistant chuckles, “Game over, man, game over,” imitating the exact same tone and rhythm that Paxton’s Pvt. Hudson says in 1986’s Aliens when Ripley, our female hero with a John-Wayne-like command of the action, and the Space Marines are faced with a horde of agitated and advancing xenomorphs. It’s hard to tell, in the next shot, if the look from Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp is a response to the flub, that somehow he heard it, or if he was reacting to the action sequence and Paxton’s Earp slumping to the dust and dirt in front of the door leading to Fly’s Photograph Gallery, Daguerreotypes & Stereoscopes. The look was so convincing and authentic that it too made the final cut. Russell’s Earp looks at the other camera and grimaces before filling Clanton full of hot lead, dropping him like a stone in front of the water trough and the hitching post. Fazed but not helpless, Paxton’s Earp manages to raise his wounded arm, wobbling under the strength of his left hand, balance his pistol, and shoot Frank McLaury (played by Robert John Burke) in the head, smack dab, perfect bulls-eye between the eyes, before McLaury has a chance to outshoot Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, who by then, has shrugged off his coat like black wings and taunts death, with poetic lyricism, to make a move. In the end, Paxton’s Earp looks like he’s in pain, confused, scared. He moved out west for money, to make it, to be with his brothers and wife, to settle down, as they say. Russell’s Earp comforts him, saying, “Hold quiet now, Morg,” but Morgan has a look of not wanting to be here, of not wanting to be in any of this, now, even though he went into it, with the other three men, hoping for a peaceful disarmament but aware of the usual reaction from gunfighters being told what to do and what was next in line for them. As the camera pans back across the town, the wood buildings and shops sitting in the dry golden grass and black shrubs, the depot across the street from the saloon and makeshift city hall, the rolling Arizona mountains, a washed-out purple in the distance, doe-eyed is a phrase that comes to mind.

At first I didn’t believe any of this. It seemed too tall of a tale, an urban legend, Hollywood trivia or Fun Fact found on Wiki or IMDB or a Web site run by rabid cinephiles. But it’s such a good story that has its right to seep up and cling to the right moments. And because of this, it’s been difficult at times to get back to my other story. I don’t know what to do with the trains snaking in and out with that and so many other backdrops, with so much changing and yet so much staying the same, the sun being constant. My grandfather was this no-frills kind of guy. Tell it like it was, not like it should be. Of course, I had to confirm it. It is faint, and the speakers buzz with the amount of volume needed to hear it. They have to be cranked up, you have to get close, your ear directly over it. After you hear it the first time, you can hear it coming the next time. It’s there, clear as any day.


William Auten is the author of the novel Pepper’s Ghost (Black Rose Writing, 2016), and his work has appeared in District Lit, Drunken Boat, failbetter, Notre Dame Review, Origins, Rum Punch Press, Canada’s Saturday Night Reader, SunStruck Magazine, and other publications. Work is forthcoming in Red Earth Review and Sequestrum and was read at the 2015 bicentennial celebration for North American Review.


William Auten (Photo: Eddie Raburn)

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