The man stood tall, backlit by sunset. The sky glowed a brilliant shade of blue only achievable in the desert, and the sun was bitters
weet orange. His lean body was framed by craggy stone formations and they, too, were as orange as flame.
In the brightness, he was nothing more than a dark shadow. His silhouette might have been carved of granite, and yet he moved. Still in near-darkness, he turned his face toward the cameras and the film crew and the almighty director who gave them all their orders. His long hair whipped in the western wind.
Resting lightly in his hands was a slender wooden flute. On cue, he raised it to his lips and let loose a slow melody built on a pentatonic scale. The flute was made of nothing but cedar, and it was shaped by traditions as old as time. Cully Mantooth still made his flutes exactly as his Muscogee Creek father had taught him. He wrote his own songs, but they were only elaborations on the old ones. Maybe all songs are elaborations on the old ones.
No audience would ever hear the notes he was playing. The wind would surely spoil the recording. If it didn’t, the neighing of the horses waiting just off-camera would do the spoiling. Cully would play it again in the studio, so that movie audiences could hear his music with all the cla
rity it deserved, but they would never hear this living moment.
Cully had to know that he was playing only for himself and the people around him, but it was obvious to the shrewd old director, Jakob Zalisky, that Cully was putting his soul into the song. Jakob knew that the music’s magic would come through in the way Cully’s body moved, so he let the cameras run for as long as the song did.
Jakob controlled the bank of fans making the wind that moved Cully’s hair so artfully. He controlled the massive lights that allowed him to decide when Cully’s face was in shadow and when it was fully revealed. He controlled everything but the music and the charisma of the man who made it.
Rolling the credits over this footage would be a crime against art, but that’s what Jakob was planning to do. He knew movies, a
nd he knew how to grab a distracted audience’s attention and keep it. After the names of stars, co-stars, and producers had scrolled in front of Cully and his flute, and after Jakob’s own name had been displayed in flowing script, there would be nothing left on the screen but the man, the sky, the rocks, and the flute. The theater would fill with this aching melody and the audience would feel the loss of things that used to be.
When Jakob judged that he had let that pain linger long enough, he cued the horses.
A herd of riderless stallions leaped between Cully and the rolling cameras, prancing for joy. They reared, pawing the golden air with their hooves, and then they were gone.
This sequence, devoid of plot or dialogue, would occupy mere seconds of his two-hour film. When editing, Jakob would cut from Cully and the exuberant horses directly to the weathered face of his star, a man who didn’t have Cully’s talent but whose face did have the c
apacity to put millions of moviegoers’ butts in seats. It was a bankable face—blue eyes framed by a shock of wheat-colored hair—but a face alone couldn’t take the owners of those butts back to 1800s Oklahoma. To accomplish that kind of time travel, a director needed tools. Today his tools were Cully Mantooth, his flute, and an acre of horses.
When Cully finished his song and the last note had died, Jakob reluctantly spoiled the magic. Stepping into the horses’ dusty hoof prints, he yelled “Cut!” and watched Cully rouse from whatever dream his music made for him. No longer flattered by Jakob’s carefully placed lights, harsh sunlight brought Cully’s face into focus and wrinkles showed around his broad mouth. Maybe a lifetime of flute playing had put them there. Or maybe a lifetime of cigarettes had done it.
Somehow, the wrinkles didn’t detract a single iota from his good looks. The worst thing that Jakob could say about Cully’s looks was that he was almost a caricature of a handsome man. Every curve and plane of him was perfect.
Sometimes, like now, Jakob hated Cully, just a little and just for a second. Jug-eared and potbellied Jakob had long believed that age would narrow the beauty gulf between him and his oldest friend. He saw now, again, that he had been wrong and that he always would be.
Jakob gave that petty resentment the millisecond of attention that it deserved, then he moved on. Sticking out his hand, he started the same conversation they always had after Cully played the flute by saying, “That was glorious.”
Cully stepped down from the rocks, took the hand, and shook it, silently nodding his thanks.
“I want you in all my films,” the director demanded of his friend. “Can I have that?”
For the first time, Cully didn’t given him the answer he’d given for decades. Actually, he gave Jakob no answer at all, merely a thump on the back.
The answer that Cully had been giving for all those years, and that he didn’t give now, was simple. His habitual answer to Jakob’s plea consisted of four words: “Until I go home.” Jakob always left the conversation there, keeping his questions to himself.
No, not always. He had once been too brash and young to know when to keep his mouth shut. He had pushed the famously reticent man by asking, “When will that be? And where’s home, anyway?”
Cully had answered him with a polite but silent nod and walked away. Then he had refused Jakob’s calls for weeks on end until the day when he didn’t. Jakob had never asked him about his home again.
The basis of their friendship was loyalty, but they showed it in different ways. Cully knew that Jakob would never stop rea
ching out, and Jakob knew that Cully would always come back. It just might take him a little time.
Jakob and Cully had been in Hollywood for forty years or more. Probably more like fifty. Okay, even more than that, but they’d both been teenagers when they met, learning about the movies while they worked on the sets of the last black-and-white Westerns.
Jakob had gotten his start as a grip, slaving over the cranes, dollies, and tripods that let a camera see what it needed to see. Cully had parlayed his face and body into work as an extra. They’d moved up together. Just as Jakob landed a job as second assistant cameraman, Cully moved into speaking parts, and they accomplished those moves just in time for a seismic shift in Western films. When Hollywood shifted from movies about cowboys killing Indians toward films that recognized that the enemies they called “Indians” were in fact people, Cully was ready for starring roles and Jakob was ready to direct them.
Even more important to Cully’s pocketbook, Jakob was the one who had realized that Cully’s financial future rested in the slender wooden flutes that were never far from his hands. A run-of-the-mill horse opera became something sublime when Cully wrote the score. Other directors had stolen Jakob’s idea, as people do in Hollywood, and Cully’s career as a composer had gone into overdrive. It was possible that Cully himself didn’t know how many Westerns he had scored.
The two of them had made their fortunes at the tail end of the popularity of cowboy movies, but their money spent just as well as the money made by people working in their heyday. And even during the dry years since then, movies set in the West still got made. More often than not, they got made by Jakob and scored by Cully.
These days, Cully took fewer and fewer jobs, spending most of his time alone in a studio filled with his Stone Age musical instruments and his Computer Age recording technology. Weeks, sometimes months, went by between phone calls, but Jakob figured that if he wasn’t C
ully’s friend, then Cully didn’t have any.
By the same logic, he no longer needed to ask Cully where his home was. If California wasn’t home, then the man didn’t have one.
Imagine Jakob’s surprise when Cully grabbed his shoulder and raised his voice as he spoke over the nickering and stomping of the horses. “I’m going home. Got my tickets bought and my bags packed.”
Jakob couldn’t imagine anything more unexpected coming out of his friend’s mouth but, with his next words, Cully managed it.
“Why don’t you come with me?”
There was only one answer worthy of a man who had been filming the Western ethos so long that he’d absorbed it, deep inside. Cully’s story had taken a turn and he needed a sidekick. Jakob knew that he could act the part.
“Sure thing, pardner. Where, exactly, are we going?”
Cully looked at him as if to say, “How, after all these years, can you not know the answer to that question?” But he didn’t say it. Maybe he remembered how thoroughly he had squelched Jakob’s attempts to get him to talk about his growing-up years.
Instead, he just said, “Oklahoma,” as if it were the only place in the world worthy of the word “home.”