The Eastern Western

Matthew Salesses

image of a car in a desert

The car radio failed to take my mind off of anything. I had a lot to think about: until Harriet and I broke up, the recent slope of my life had seemed eerie. Since I joined the Asian American film group, I had risen up the ranks at work, almost to where I got to direct my own video games; I had gotten another cat, a playmate for Freddy Cougar; I had fallen in love through the group’s message boards. The group seemed to bestow this energy on you, the energy of all its members at once. But after we found out that Harriet worked somewhere in the bowels of my company, the energy seemed to turn. Our coworkers got resentful, our fights blew up on the message boards, and Freddy Cougar attacked the new cat and nearly killed it. Once Harriet and I broke up, I got kicked out of the group for a little while (she did not), before being allowed to join back up in May, a month ago.

Maybe this trip was a test of loyalty. Maybe it wasn’t because my boss had asked me to take a leave of absence to smooth things over with my coworkers, or because I couldn’t look at Freddy Cougar the same. Our group was only about a hundred members, and not that many could take time off to watch the filming. Our President was second-team director on the film — a Western with an Asian American lead — so he would be there. Some of the others were also in Hollywood. But I had never met anyone in the flesh except Harriet. She was going to be there, too, since I had convinced her boss to fire her.

The radio, I guessed, was useless. I tried to listen again. The heat wore through the windows, and I ran up the air conditioner. The car let out a sort of tongue-between-the-lips noise, pushing its limits. On the radio, the host of some show was talking about a hooker ranch that had its own TV show. This particular episode was about two women tag-teaming this one rich dude, and the tension as the women vied for tips. It sounded like one of those rare sex video games from Japan. I could sell you sex — that wasn’t an accomplishment. A simulation was no less sellable. I remembered some article about how our reality is likely something out of The Matrix, some other reality's computer simulation, or rather: a computer simulation within a computer simulation within a computer simulation, and so on. All you need to believe in order to believe that our world is a simulation is that it is possible to create a computer simulation of the world, which we’re getting closer and closer to (it’s my personal company goal), and that someone would do it (fact). If you believe those two things, then you have to assume that people are creating a simulation somewhere, and the simulation of those people is so accurate that the simulated people are creating a simulation of themselves, and so on. At that point, it’s highly unlikely that we’re the first people. Statistically, it is pretty much absolutely sure that we’re one of the simulations and don’t know it.

Not that I believed that, but it makes a good deal of sense. I was driving six hours to see a movie get made that millions more people would see, and millions more people would believe, than any real life that happened in the making of that movie. That was the power of simulation.

I wondered what Harriet would look like now that she had cut off all the long hair that had framed her face and had gotten to me in the first place. She had written about chopping it off on the message boards, that it was a symbol or something of how I had taken away her power as an Asian American. That may have been the exact comment that got me kicked off — a comment of hers. I could see all that hair around her shoulders, down her back, over her breasts, as it had been when I met her. I could see her long thin face, hollow-seeming in the right light, with her angry black eyes and thin lips and sharp chin, a face hiding secrets, a face that only opened up if she thought you were on her side.

What Harriet accused me of, what pulled us apart, I believed, was basically me not being more resentful of the world, of white people, of the power structures that pitted cowboys against Indians or even the power structures that said I should pay for dinners, decide dates, keep my hair. I had no grand delusions of being more powerful than I was, though. I wasn’t keeping secrets. I knew the system was always rigged against people like us, but that only meant that we could do whatever we wanted. We didn’t have to worry about how we came off, because how we came off was fixed. I was Korean American, I was somewhere in the upper middle class, in the upper middle ranks of my company, I was not terribly handsome or terribly ugly, I was a product of outside views and always would be. Nothing would change until the views changed.

And that’s where this movie came in.

I was hitting a lot more desert now, desert scattered with austere monoliths, and I thought about the lonely determination the director of the Western must have had to convince people that the film was a good/profitable idea. He must have used up every favor. Hollywood hadn’t even grown out of its Yellowface phase — I had seen a trailer recently for a movie where the central idea was that we are all one soul, and to get this point across, the director employed white actors who became Asian via Yellowface. There were some Asian actors, too, but they played the background Asians, and cyborgs. Our Asian western was going to proclaim the opposite, that we are indeed real people. Its director had the balls to cast Barry Kim as the main cowboy.

The desert went by in a blaze of red nothingness, and I thought about the people who had lived here before the people who lived here. You could kill General Custer and still nothing would change for you. You could make history, and who would make history but the dead white guy?

When I got to the filming site, I saw that it was a blank stretch of land, except for a few bushes and things for the movie. It was savannah, if my high school geography served me right. There were some trailers for the people who needed trailers, and there were tents for people like me and our group — clingers on to this grand idea — or maybe for protesters. I had heard that the usual suspects were out to protest the casting of Barry Kim. You didn’t even need to hide your hatred, if your community was such that it was built on the bones of others.

I realized I hadn’t brought a tent. I got an uneasy feeling, like I would be sleeping in my beat-up car.

I saw a guy I recognized from his avatar on the message boards, standing next to a beautiful woman with short black hair, not Harriet. I waved. He scrunched up his mouth just for a moment and then put on a smile, and I got another uneasy feeling, like I was still kicked out. But I wasn’t. That was water under the bridge. No one could hold it against me. I walked over and shook hands.

The guy’s name was Tony and the woman — his girlfriend — was Soona. Tony said there were about eight of us over in a group of tents surrounding the second-director’s trailer. Our President. I’d never met him before, but I knew Harriet had and he disapproved of our relationship. It had sounded like he had kind of a thing for her. I looked into the distance that kept being distance and distance. On the horizon, or closer, loped a black dot. I couldn’t be sure how far away it was, or what it was exactly, but as I watched it, it seemed to be watching us.

I was in the West. I felt like I needed a gun or something. A rifle, with a strap made out of bison leather.

“You know,” Soona started. She gazed in the same direction I was and trailed off. “What is that?”

“What she is saying,” Tony said, “is you’d better make peace with everyone or you shouldn’t have come.”

I realized where Tony stood now and I marked him on the corresponding list in my head.

“Is that what you were saying?” I asked Soona.

She was still eyeing the horizon, where the dot was moving quickly, then was gone, somehow. “Let’s bring you over to the tents and see if everything can sort itself out,” she said.

Tony shook his head.

I kept looking in the direction of whatever was out there. Like I was standing at the edge of our galaxy, and glancing back, was unable to recognize where I’d come from.

When I got closer to the camp, I could see the trained movie-horses frolicking in the distance in a fenced-off area behind the trailers, bored with their horse lives. It wasn’t until I was almost on top of the trailers that I could see the spray paint on the Airstream near the tents of our group — on our President’s Airstream, Tony confirmed. “DOG MUNCHERS,” it read. Tony and Soona said nothing in reaction. They kept herding me along, but I wanted to know what had happened to our beautiful Asian American dream.

“Who did that?” I asked. “Cowboys?”

Tony said they didn’t actually know. It had showed up after the protesters left.


“Sure,” Soona said. “They were just gone one day. They even left their tents behind. When we didn’t hear anything all day, we went over with a cake, some stupid offering, and no one was there. Inside their tents was all their stuff, as if they had run off all of a sudden, scared. It was pretty spooky. It still is, going over there, like it’s one of those Old West ghost towns. And then a couple days later, that spray paint was there.”

Tony shrugged. “It could have been one of us.”

“It couldn’t have been one of us,” Soona said.

“It couldn’t have been one of us,” I said. I figured I knew whose idea the cake had been: Harriet’s. Always thinking she could change people with baked goods. Even in the Old West. “The protests are over, then?”

They both nodded. I would go over later and see what was up. There was a gap between presence and absence that was really confusing me. Where had the protestors gone, and why? Why had the magic of the group dried up for me? Why had Freddy Cougar gone evil, wanted to get rid of the new cat? I asked them when the film was supposed to start shooting as we continued toward the spray paint. “Dog munchers,” that was one I hadn’t heard before.

Tony said there had been some complications.

“One of the actors has disappeared,” Soona said.

“One of the white actors,” Tony said. “No one can find him.”

This was getting interesting. I wondered if she’d thought the dot on the horizon was this actor. Though it had seemed more animal, how quickly it moved, and how low to the ground.

“Listen,” Soona said. “Fair warning. I don’t think Harriet is ever going to forgive you.”

Tony walked off to find Harriet, and Soona and I stopped just under the graffiti. From far off, I hadn’t seen that there was also a second line. “WATCH OUT, DOG EAT DOG.”

“Dog eat dog?” I asked Soona. “Are we supposed to be the dogs?”

I considered Tony, whether he was a good boyfriend, the kind this woman deserved. She met my eyes, curling her upper lip under her bottom teeth. I didn’t know if she meant this to look like she pitied me or if that was a mistake of her face. Then she gestured behind me, and I turned to a bald Harriet.

The hair I had loved was all gone, every strand. Her message board post hadn’t said “shaved.” I wondered if this was some kind of stunt.

“Are you okay?” I asked her. “You aren’t sick, are you?” I could feel I still held some residual anger about how things had gone down. “It’s a good look,” I said. “Very strong.”

“You are the worst,” she said. “You are the absolute worst.”

I looked around, but Tony and Soona were already halfway to their tent or wherever, and the rest of our group was farther, by the horses or nowhere to be seen. Two people stood back near the main arrangement of trailers like circled wagons.

“I’m not the apocalypse,” I said. “You’re the first person who’s ever made a big deal of who I am.” I tried to make this sound like a defense of myself, but it ended up sounding like a defense of her, somehow. “Why couldn’t you just be happy?”

“Ignorance is bliss,” Harriet said, making little eye-bombs.

“No,” I said. “Ignorance is reality —”

“And you don’t live in reality,” Harriet finished.

“I’m not trying to have this conversation in punch lines,” I said. I said I missed her and I missed the person she was when I was the one who got her baked goods. Who cared about what other people in the company, or the group, thought of us? She had to stop thinking the world was smaller than she was. We could just hide or disappear.

“You know what?” Harriet said. “You are the apocalypse. Do you even hear yourself? You say everything in the worst way possible. It’s not the world I’m pissed off at; it’s you.”

But if we weren’t pissed off at the world, then what was this little group for, I wondered. What was she so protective of? Harriet’s eyes were already shining with held-back tears. I could see from the outside of her cheeks that she was biting the insides. She was chomping away.

“I’m pissed off at you,” I said. “You’re pissed off at a simulation of me.”

She bared her teeth, like she was going to pounce and rip me apart. I bared my teeth, too, then tried to turn my teeth into a smile. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time together,” I said.

“Wake up,” Harriet said and snapped her fingers. She turned on her heel and walked past the “Dog munchers” graffiti, to her tent.

I memorized which little triangle she climbed into, unable to do anything else. I watched her get swallowed up by the canvas, and I wanted to put a pinprick in the picture, just enough to let some light in, just enough for my imagination. Our conversation hadn’t gone at all like I had thought it would, or dreamed it would, those nights when she visited my sleep. I felt the heat of the desert/savannah choking the day like we were all stuck in the same Adam’s apple. I glanced over at the horses to see how they handled it. Mostly they just stood there, hot and bothered. One trotted out somewhere. They had plenty of room, but most huddled at the near fence. Go on, I thought. Run. Be horses. But maybe they knew the difference between real freedom and freedom merely granted.

My stomach growled. I hadn’t eaten anything since I’d left Silicon Valley. As the sun rose into the flag position, I wondered where people ate. There were no restaurants or shops. I wondered what people did for fun, since the movie hadn’t started shooting. Was the director waiting for the disappeared actor to show up?

I felt like smashing something. I felt like eating until I exploded. I felt like riding one of those horses clear over the fence and just going and going and going. Maybe that was what the actor had done. Tony and Soona had said nothing about a missing horse, though. Maybe the horses didn’t know anything about freedom at all.

I headed back toward my car. I had packed clothes, my computer, even a small generator and a canister of gas, a sleeping bag, towels, toiletries, pens and paper, a camera, a little baggie of weed, and I thought a few bags of chips or something, and water. I hadn’t packed a tent, or tools to cook with, or board games, or a gift for Harriet. On the way to my car, I stopped among the protesters' empty tents. I realized I could choose the nicest one for myself. One of them might have food.

I kicked over the first tent and felt a little better. The pegs popped up from the ground like a spider knocked onto its back and the canvas blew over and I was left looking at two sleeping bags zipped up like made beds, strewn clothes, and, sure enough, three cans of beans and a rancid package of hot dogs and a small burner. I wondered if I could find better. I toed open the flap of the next tent, then the next, then the next. I found some unopened chips that I ate on the spot, and some spam I scooped out feeling sorry for myself, and some soda I drank as I foraged. Some of the tents seemed already visited, but most didn’t seem any different than the protesters left them. In the seventh or eighth tent, I found a rifle tucked up in a sleeping bag like someone’s arm.

It would have been easy to miss. I had entered the tent because I saw a package of ho-hos, and I had felt something against my knee as I crawled in. I panicked at first that it was a body. I almost didn't look. But when I unzipped the bag, there it was. I didn't know anything about guns, but I wanted this one. I looked for some kind of safety until I found it on “safe,” and I picked the rifle up by the stock and carried it and the ho hos out with me. It felt heavy and yet sleek in my hand, and I recalled the one time my father had let me hold his pistol from the war, where he had fought on the American side and killed people who looked like him, before it was stolen from our house. I had felt like a different person, or like the same person but one everyone else would see differently. I felt visible.

I wrapped the rifle in my shirt at first, before I thought, why not? I was on the set of a Western and I had come to see what could make Asian Americans powerful. I didn't want it to be guns, but here was a weapon left by someone who hated us.

I didn't know if the rifle was loaded or not. I didn't care. I carried it to my car, my other arm full of snacks. I thought I could feel everyone watching me, but when I looked back, no one was there. In the other direction were the trailers for the cast and crew not affiliated with our group. The segregation was obvious.

A couple of people milled around near those trailers. I would go over and say hello in a while. I got into the driver’s side and put the seat down and wondered what I was doing as I ate. I didn’t even remember why I had wanted to go to my car. Now that I had food from the tents, I could have simply stayed there and seen what else people had left. I guessed I could get my luggage out and find a tent I liked and set up for the next few weeks. I kept trying to fill up my stomach but it wouldn’t fill up.

I swallowed down the rest of the spam and chips and then the ho hos for dessert. I sighted through the windshield across the stretch of land, and held the rifle out the window like a cowboy on a horse. I aimed for the monoliths, unclimbable rocks, or climbable only with a certain ability. As I scanned the horizon for a surmountable rock, I saw the shape again, bounding at an incredible speed. Toward me. It wasn’t the missing white actor. I could see the glint of teeth, the gait of a beast. I felt so full of nothingness, out in my car away from my home and with no love from Harriet and no good feeling for the group and with a premonition that the movie would never happen, that I wanted to change that nothingness with a bang, noise, suffering. I pulled the trigger.

I seemed first to see the shot hit the sand and then to hear it. A dull pain bloomed in my shoulder where the butt shoved into my muscle. The rifle was loaded, after all. I heard the horses whinny. Someone shouted, somewhere, but I was listening only for noise and silence, for contrast. I was watching the thing get closer. My miss had made it angry. It was running at me alone in the middle of nowhere, a rabid coyote maybe. I needed to shoot it — this was the first time I had held life and death in my hands, and I knew I had to shoot it. That wolf was me, and I had to shoot it before it caught up to the rest of me.

I fired again and saw another puff and heard another bang and more shouts and whinnies. I made adjustments based on where the shots kicked up dust. Someone was shouting even louder in the background now. I wondered how many bullets I had left. I could see the hair on the animal's back now, mottled and rotting, like some kind of zombie coyote, or zombie wolf, made up of parts, like a dog wearing a less domesticated canine's skin. Then it was close enough that I could see its eyes. I shot again. After my fourth shot, it slowed and seemed to reconsider. When it came to a stop, I tried to use the sight. And this time, when I pulled the trigger, I felt the power of taking a life sock through me, run up and down my arms — even before the animal flopped over. I waited for it to come back to itself, like in the movies, but I felt the finality of power and I knew it wouldn’t. I got out of the car. I had shot it. I had killed it. I looked around to see if I had saved anyone. Everyone else was hidden, yelling, afraid of the gunshots.

“I SHOT A WOLF,” I shouted, so people would know I wasn’t trying to kill any humans. I was feeling less proud, as I held the gun over my head, about my trigger-happiness. The electricity diffused back into the air. It didn’t seem so worthy, breathing in the heat again, remembering where I was, to have killed this animal. It seemed sad. I had ended a noble hunger, as if maybe I should have let the animal get to me. “I shot a wolf,” I shouted again, less enthusiastically and not even sure it was what it was.

I listened to the tide turn in my favor as the tide within me washed out so far it was like I could feel an undiscovered beach. People slowly came forward. I heard them muttering, what sounded like relief, then excitement. Everyone was interested in a death that had nothing to do with them. Harriet crept toward me, unable to stop her curiosity, her bald head shining.

“Harriet,” I shouted, feeling like I needed to tell her something that would change her mind about me. A cameraman walked out, camera trained on the body. I dropped the butt of the rifle to the sand and imagined my picture taken. The cameraman bent beside the body and threw up in the dust, pointing.

I ran ahead of the others, glad for a reason to run.

“Are you okay?” I asked, thumping the cameraman on the back. I didn't want to seem uncaring. I looked over him to the body. I didn't want to feel unappreciated, either. There was a good deal of blood, and the fur was as mottled as it had looked from afar, maybe more so. It still seemed mostly like a wolf/coyote, but something wasn’t right about it.

I could hear Harriet calling, asking what it was. The others seemed to wait on my response. I had the ability, I realized, to make up their minds about me. I stepped closer, closer. I was getting uncomfortable about the mottled fur and the shining teeth, like maybe it was going to jump up again like in the movies. Maybe it couldn’t be killed.

When I was right on top of the body, I glanced back. Everyone had stopped. Harriet didn’t move a muscle, like she was captured, so still and unlike herself, like someone had drawn a spell around her. They were all waiting. I saw that I had brought everyone together. All these movie people, and then our little group: no one was saying anything. They were waiting to be told what was real versus what they had imagined. They were waiting for me to tell them what I had fired a gun at, a real gun I still held in my hand. There was somebody else still out there, I remembered, who might look at us all bent around this body and think we were doing a scene. But we were not.

I stared down at the stink of the wolf, the stink of the cameraman behind me in the air, and what I saw up close disturbed me. It looked like two bodies in one, one inside the other or one stacked on the other. The head didn’t look exactly like a wolf’s head, but like a wolf’s head with its mouth full of dog. The fur looked like it was “going bad,” like something you might keep in the fridge and then one day you smell something and you pull it out and it’s decomposing in front of you. Whatever the body was, it wasn’t what it was supposed to be. It was something else, had turned something else. I didn’t want to get closer, but I could feel the crush of patience shrinking around me. I covered my nose and mouth and bent over, and then, at the edges, like they were waiting for me, I could see the seams.

image of ho-hos

Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea at age two. He has written for The New York Times, NPR, Hyphen Magazine, The Rumpus, Glimmer Train, and American Short Fiction, among others, and is Fiction Editor and a Contributing Writer at The Good Men Project. He is the author of The Last Repatriate and I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying.