Dennis Hopper Stays in Dodge City

by Matthew Brent Jackson


Dennis Hopper Stays in Dodge City.

There’s not much to look at where I’m from. Just grass, sky, railroad tracks, ruts in the ground, a dried-up river. But you can hear things at night. The wind. Always the wind. Rattling the houses, rattling your brain inside your skull. Only stops about two days a year. You don’t even notice because you’re so used to leaning forward that you almost tip over when it’s calm. Seems like the cars are all out of alignment from always turning the wheel to brace against it.

You hear trains too, passing in the day but howling at night. Going west. Going east. Always going someplace. Some place. Not here. I listened to them as a kid. I wanted to know where they were going. I wanted them to take me too. I wanted to follow them just because they got out of town, and they did it fast. So fast it was hard to count the cars as they rolled by. At least that’s how it was when I was a kid.

I was getting out of here — that was the one thing I knew. Sure as the sun set in the west, I was leaving. I drew pictures. Painted them. Nobody did that around here. I was going where they did. I was going to meet those people, and I was going to talk to them. They’d know me, and they’d call me by my name. I’d be one of them, wherever they were. New York. Los Angeles. Chicago. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Any place but here. Anything but standing still. Movement of any kind. I was gonna get the hell out of Dodge City.

But I didn’t. I met a girl. No, I didn’t meet her: you don’t meet girls here; I knew a girl. I always knew her. I knew a girl just like I knew every girl I had ever known since I was a kid. They never changed.

Except they did. They started out looking just like boys with long hair then one day they changed. They definitely changed. She changed. I changed too.

We got married. They told me it was the right thing to do in the circumstances. I said OK. I was eighteen.

She got bigger. I started getting smaller. You’re always small out here. The sky smashes you, makes you tiny because it’s so huge. It presses down like a weight. I had been getting larger when I was about to leave. I was going to escape that sky. Now that I was staying it pushed me with a vengeance. Telling me I was small, telling me it would squash me down into nothing. Pinning me down like the bugs on the cardboard in science class. Trapping me like the cows in the overturned cattle trailer I once saw. Every time I went outside, the sky said I was stuck, chained to the ground, planted like the yuccas and scrub cottonwoods. The sky said I was going no place. I believed it.

I drank. Beer to dull things slowly and liquor to dull things fast. I’d go out when it stormed. I’d take a bottle and a wire clothes hanger. I’d unwind it and wave it over my head while I drank with the other hand. I’d wait around to get struck by lightning. It never happened.

I ran around with Mexicans. She didn’t like it. I didn’t care. One of them gave me my first marijuana cigarette. I liked it pretty well. When I couldn’t get better I smoked ditch weed I found myself. Not as good as the stuff from Mexico, but it helped. It changed my brain.

I worked at sale barns and ranches. I hated it. I drove trucks during the wheat harvest, and I worked in the gas fields. I hated it all, but I gave the money to her.

I went to the library at night until they closed. I read books on art though there weren’t that many. I read books on gunfighters. There were lots of those. Dodge City’s crazy about gunfighters.

She had the baby. I called him Wyatt for Wyatt Earp. We rented a house. I painted pictures in the garage. Modern pictures. I smoked reefer. I listened to jazz records I bought from when we went to Wichita. I was the only beatnik in western Kansas that I knew of.

I’d go to Wichita and look at their art museum. I went to Denver and saw theirs. I saw the one in Kansas City. I talked to people at their art school. I didn’t tell her.

I watched every movie that came to Dodge City. Westerns. Horror movies. Gangster pictures. Romances. Comedies.  I saw some twice, just sitting in the dark so I wouldn’t have to go home. Most weren’t that good. I didn’t care. I just wanted to see something different. There were more colors. Prettier women. I liked the movies. Never missed them.

James Dean was my favorite. I saw all his pictures though there were only three. When I saw him up there I thought he could be my friend. But he died, and anyway I lived in Dodge City. I cried for the first time in years when he died. I thought I could be like him if I worked at it.

Wyatt got bigger. She wanted another one. I said no. She asked why. I told her she didn’t want to know. She said she did want to know. I yelled and told her she didn’t. I yelled a lot.

I walked out. I bought some beer. I drank it. I passed a picket fence. I ripped one of them off that was loose. I stuck it into the ground hard. I was going to jump onto it and kill myself like a vampire. I wanted Vincent Price there to do it for me. If he was there he could take a hammer and nail me into the dirt. Vincent Price wasn’t there.

Wyatt got bigger. He played baseball. I watched him. I tried to have him listen to jazz. He didn’t like it. I painted less. I was always tired. I read Shakespeare in the garage and drank until I fell asleep. The sun would wake me up in a mean way.

I got a job as a gunfighter for tourists. One guy would shoot me or I would shoot him. I liked it fine. It was the best thing that had happened to me since I could remember. I liked pretending. I liked pretending to kill people. I liked people pretending to kill me. I wished the bullets were real. I wished when the other gunfighter fell down he truly fell down, that his pain wasn’t made up. And I wanted to die when his bullets hit me. I wanted my blood to spill into the dirty streets. I wanted to die like a gunfighter. I wanted to kill like a gunfighter. I wanted it real.

I would think about people I knew who had died. I’d try to remember my whole life and make it pass through my eyes. Tourists didn’t notice. They just wanted to see some smoke and some rolling on the ground with some groans. I wasn’t wanting to play act though. I wanted it real. I wanted it to be true. Because if it was true I didn’t get up and go home and listen to her tell me how I was wrong. I didn’t go home at all. I just died. I liked it. Dying was fine with me.

Or I walked away with my opposition dead. Went away like Shane. Went away for good and didn’t come back. Going away was fine with me too.

They shot me off buildings. Probably a hundred times or more. I liked that part too. I liked the feeling of falling even for less than a minute. I felt alive pretending to die. I thought about James Dean in his Porsche sports car. I liked falling to the ground and pretending to never get up again. Sometimes I smoked special cigarettes if I was to get shot off something. Tourists couldn’t tell the difference. I could. It always made the ground a little softer.

A friend of mine could also get me other things in New Mexico. He was part Indian, and I guess he knew where to find the cactuses. That stuff helped me I guess. Sometimes I think it made me crazy, but it got me painting pictures again. I tried to paint like Jackson Pollock. He was in Life Magazine in 1949, and whenever I could I would look for old copies of that thing. I had some cutouts from it tacked up in the garage.

One day she was in a mood and started asking why I put pictures up from an old Life Magazine. I said because it was art. She said they didn’t look like anything. I said they weren’t supposed to look like anything- that was the point. She said a monkey could paint those pictures. I hit her. I was chewing a peyote button at the time. It was supposed to give me visions. That time I saw the wrong things. I can’t tell when it happened. Most of the time was a haze, and I drank to keep it that way. When I’d wake up I’d write poems on my hand with a black pen. I’d put them in a book later. Some of the time.

I was drinking too much. I fell off a building before the other gunfighter had a chance to shoot me. I broke my arm. My boss gave me money for the doctor, but he fired me too. I kept the money and had my Indian friend splint it. When I got better, I sold some of my good Mexican marijuana I’d been saving and with that money and the money for the doctor I bought a broken Japanese motorcycle. I fixed it and rode it for a couple of years until I wrecked it.

I ran around on her. I liked all women but her. So I went and saw the rest of them. It wasn’t her fault. She had just gotten in my way, and there was nothing I could do about it except go after others.

She found out. It wasn’t that big of a mystery. She told her Dad. She wanted him to scare me and to put some sense into me, so I would stop all the mess I had been causing. He found me drunk out in the country with some girl. He sent her away and pulled me out of the car. He went to his truck and got his shotgun. He had thought about scaring me. He didn’t think it was worth it. He’d take care of me for good. I was one mistake after another as far as he was concerned. A good for nothing, who threw housepaint around like a baby and called it art. He’d take care of me finally just like Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke. It was time to put me down like a broken-legged horse. I was no good to anybody. Jesus would forgive. Maybe by taking care of me this way would put me into Purgatory instead of Hell. That was as close to a second chance as I was going to get.

He didn’t say any of these things. He didn’t have to. Some people’s minds aren’t that hard to read. Especially when they stick a gun barrel into your forehead — the message was fairly clear. I looked at him in the eyes. He’d been drinking too. That’s why he was brave. Then I did something that neither of us expected. I pulled the barrel down to my mouth, set it against my teeth and smiled.

There was something about that action that shook him, like maybe he saw something for the first time. All the drinking and all the women were just part of that smile pressed against that gun barrel. It was the smile of someone who tried to see visions and kill memory and fall off buildings and hope to get hit by lightning, who yelled and hit and loved nobody for the simple reason that he wanted to get out of town and couldn’t. So everybody else had to suffer. Maybe he had been the same. Maybe he understood. Or maybe he figured he’d just be making my dreams come true anyway. If he sent me to Heaven, Hell, Purgatory or a hole in the ground, the results were the same. It got me out of Dodge City. I wouldn’t see that sky anymore and that was all I wanted. Maybe he was scared, or tired, or maybe he figured I wasn’t worth going to jail for. He left me, and I rolled over on the ground laughing. Crying is for people who care. Maybe I did that too. I can’t remember.

I fell asleep and the sun woke me up like it had a lot of times before, but this time it was different. This time it wasn’t through a garage door window. It was like some monster coming out of the east, and I saw it for what seemed like the first time. And the wind was blowing real hard, and I saw something familiar but not the same. Tumbleweeds. I’d seen a million over the course of my life, but this wasn’t like anytime before. Here with the wind there were thousands of them together, rolling out like conquering armies. The wind could have been twenty-five or thirty miles an hour, and they just rolled with it. Nothing stopped them really. Sometimes they’d hit a barbed wire fence and get stuck. Sometimes the wind would free them, and sometimes it wouldn’t. I watched them for two hours and then I went home.

I stopped drinking. I got a job as a janitor at the high school. I gave her the money. I didn’t lay a hand on her. I didn’t speak harshly to her. I was quiet. I stopped painting. I drew pictures into a blank book with a carpenter’s pencil. She said she was happy, but she was just talking. She knew this was the best this would ever be and it wasn’t that good.

No more peyote. No more good marijuana. No women. The high school girls didn’t even see me. I’d smoke ditch weed sometimes but rarely. Mostly I’d just chew the leaves — not even as strong as aspirin. Sometimes I’d smell the chemicals I cleaned with, but mostly I didn’t need to. The work did it just fine. It had a rhythm that numbed me, and I tried to think of nothing, and I tried to offer no resistance. I was happiest cleaning at night when all the rest had gone. I made noises. I yelled. I did all kinds of stuff. I didn’t care. No one saw me.

Every day was the same. They passed. I couldn’t tell one from another. I got older and so did she and so did Wyatt. He came to the high school. He didn’t speak when he saw me in the halls. I just smiled at him.

The days passed until Wyatt was nearly through high school. He was going to college in town to play baseball. Catholic school. I was happy for him. He had a little girlfriend. He was eighteen.

He finished high school, and we went to the graduation. I wore a suit. We went home and had a dinner. I said I was going for a walk. She didn’t say anything.

I walked out the door. I walked down the street. I kept walking until I hit the highway. I kept walking. I saw the headlights pass. I kept looking at the horizon. I knew if I headed east long enough the sun would some up. Once it did I would put my thumb up as I walked. I was heading east, where the sky was smaller.

(artwork by Matthew Brent Jackson)

Categories: Fiction, Visual