There are a handful of vivid images I associate with every western I’ve ever seen. There is always a main saloon where roughneck cowboys carouse and establish their dominance as lawmen or villains. Women attend to the sexual needs of said men. They do so as quietly as possible. At least one woman stands apart from the others, playing the critical role of love interest to an important character or two. There is almost always one gunfight on the main street or in the saloon itself. A lot of characters without names die off without much thought. Men carry their guns wherever they go. I’m sure you can easily picture every scene and trope I’ve just cited without too much trouble.
That’s why the foreigner was confused when he landed in a little western town, notable for being hard to find on the map and instilled in the cultural mind as a shining example of western lore. It had almost everything: a dirt main street shrouded in dust from the light horse traffic, log cabin style buildings lining either side, a snow capped mountain peak domineering in the distance, a working water well, a sheriff with shiny badge and yellowed grin, mud-caked villagers, and endless miles of dirt in every road out of town. When his travel agent suggested this place, knowing the foreigner’s odd proclivities well, he couldn’t imagine that the scenery would look so real. He was expecting a Disney or Las Vegas version of the real thing; a corny copy built of facades that lead to gift shop commerce and commodified fun. A colonial Williamsburg with guns galore.
Now walking down the street in the midst of it all he couldn’t see where the fantasy ended and reality started. There were no obvious places that were off limits to him. No regular buses in and out of town that would ferry the people from home to work and back. There weren’t even other guests at his hotel from what he could tell. Though a rich man, he hadn’t paid nearly enough money for this trip to have everyone act only for his enjoyment. The math didn’t make sense. No, the more he snooped around each corner, the more he came to realize that this was a real functioning town, stopped in time on purpose. Nobody was acting. There was no seam in the fabric of the facade to be found. There was no thread to pull to make it all unravel. When his travel agent suggested that fact to him he merely shrugged it off, thinking it was prologue to the show he was going to experience. A way of suspending disbelief.
Sitting in the saloon he made a point of tempering his actions to the moment. Earlier in the day he visited the local haberdasher and bought a proper costume – ten gallon hat, boots with spurs, leather chaps, the works – and while he felt ridiculous trying on the various garments, he kept the laughs to himself and was impressed by the earnest pleasantries and service of the attentive staff. He felt that he looked the part, fitting in well with the sparse daytime crowd, and wanted to order the right thing as well. He considered a sarsaparilla first, the only thing that came to mind when he thought about what people in westerns may choose to drink. He most liked mouthing the word, something he practiced often from the comfort of his home video viewing room. But when he scanned the small ramshackle room he grew gun shy, switching his order to whiskey instead. He needed to fit in with crowd to heighten the experience, to feel a part of the culture he thought was lost forever.
He had one drink after another, content to sit there and take everything in, observe the locals who spoke in hushed tones. They didn’t seem to notice him or focus on him as a subject of conversation. Once appropriately lubricated and feeling confident, he approached the barkeep armed with questions.
-Another whiskey sir!
-Of course, of course, coming right up.
The foreigner watched the barkeep fill his drink, smiling ear to ear, eager to engage. The barkeep wasn’t inclined to reciprocate. The foreign, shaken but not fully deterred, turned away from the bar, channeled all the liquid confidence he could muster, and tried again.
-I like your town here.
-Your town. I like it.
-Ah yes, thank you. Are you from out of town?
-Yeah, isn’t it obvious?
-No, you look like most people around here I suspect.
-Is that so? I guess I figured everyone kind of knew each other here since the town is so small and remote, you know? A stranger would stick out like a sore thumb in that case.
-I see. Maybe you got the wrong idea about us here. We like to stay out of people’s business. Just let them be.
-Kind of like a living free on the land kind of thing, is that it?
-I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just serve drinks and keep to my mouth shut. You want another whiskey?
The foreigner gulped down the last of his whiskey and nodded no. He left the saloon more confused than ever. In his wobbly state he set about walking the main street, convinced he’d missed something in his earlier investigation of the town. Nothing added up. He eyed the locals closely with renewed vigor, confident in his own hypothesis that something was off, and no longer fearful of overtly staring. All he got in return were casual nods and idle indifference. A well dressed couple passed him on the street and he finally realized what was off about everything. The couple each had holsters but they were empty. He cursed himself for being so blind to it. He scanned the rest of the people on the street and it was all the same. Nobody had a gun. He looked at his own holster and fingered the gun he’d bought earlier in the day, scared he’d made a mistake.
He ducked into an alley and reached for his cellphone. He called his travel agent, but it went to voicemail. He hung up. He peeked back out at the main street then ducked back into the alley, sweating. He called again. Just as the the travel agent picked up the phone and uttered hello, he felt a dull pain on the back of his head, like he was hit with a blunt object, then he passed out.
He opened his eyes slowly. The sun shined brightly, making it hard to make out his surroundings or remember where he was. He could hear the the hum of multiple conversations in the distance but couldn’t make out any specific words.
A gun shot went off and it forced him back to the present. He felt a tightening around his neck and the feel of sandpaper. He looked up and saw a gallows, then a rope, then the noose around his neck. He looked out in front of him and saw what was probably the whole town watching him closely, enjoying themselves, like it was a normal afternoon among friends and acquaintances.
A man stood off to his right gesticulating and laughing, performing what could only be described as a religious rite of some kind. He waved his gun around and shot it into the air, signaling something to the crowd who laughed in unison. The foreigner felt the weight of the rope binding his hands and feet. He chafed against it. He struggled to free himself, but it was useless. He was powerless. In his mind he was slowly resigning himself to the fact that this was an end, a weird one at that. Not the way he ever thought it would happen.
The man on stage raised his fist in the air. He gathered strength from the crowd who increased their yells to a crescendo of frantic cheering and excitement. He held that pose for what felt like an eternity while the foreigner looked on, pitying his misfortune and resigned to a fate he couldn’t understand. Fully invigorated by the zealous crowd he dropped his hand to his side like a lever and the floor beneath the foreigner fell away.
The foreigner felt his neck tighten and his feet dangling above the dry earth while the crowd cheered on. Everything the went black for what felt like and instant but had to be much much longer.
The foreigner awoke in the back of a horse pulled wagon. The driver threw him a canteen when he called out then focused back on the open expanse of western flatland.
The foreigner found his cell phone in his pocket with a text message from his travel agent.
-Sorry I missed your calls. I hope you’re having a great time.
The foreigner put the phone down for a second and considered his response. He patted down his own body, fingered his bruised neck, and verified that he was no longer bound by rope. Once he knew he was fine, he typed the only words he could muster.
-America is just what I expected. The place we see on our TV is there, you just need to look to find it or it finds you in time.