“Memories are the key not to the past, but to the future.”
— Corrie Ten Boom
[Part 3 here]
The tense woman stared open-mouthed at the film set for a few seconds, then took off back toward the rocky gap and the path. Philip didn’t have the sense to stop her, even though she was undoubtedly going to retrieve the rest of the group.
He sighed, and his breath was a tiny whisper in the blistering heat. It was too late to do anything, he couldn’t outrun her; heck, he couldn’t even outwalk her. They would all come here, and pepper him with questions, or maybe not be interested at all, and he’d be forced to return, without having seen it again…
“There!” A sharp voice broke into his thoughts, and Philip looked up to see that the tense woman had already returned. She stood just outside the rocky gap, which was now filled with curious faces. “It’s like a ghost town or something!”
Philip frowned and glanced back at the film set. Well, yes, he supposed that, to those who wouldn’t know, it did look like a real place – that was the whole point, after all – especially after all this time, when natural decay had set in.
The beginnings of a smile that had begun to creep over his face faded when everyone moved closer to him.
“That guy found it. He knew where it already was or something,” the tense woman said, looking at him suspiciously. Philip turned away. He didn’t have to explain himself to her, or anybody else, for that matter.
The guide, who had been very kind to him throughout the entire signing up process and at the beginning of the hike, came up to him. She looked almost shell-shocked. “Philip?”
But he turned away. He suddenly felt empty and sad. They were going to take away his prize, his whole purpose for being here.
No one was really paying attention to him, though. Other than the tense woman and the guide, everyone was chattering and pointing eagerly at the set.
“Well, I’m going to go check it out!” a fit woman said, and there were noises of agreement.
The guide still seemed stunned, but she moved to the head of the group. “We’ll go together,” she said. “In case of ghosts.” She gave a little smile, which removed the remaining visages of shock on her face.
They all began walking across the desert, and Philip trailed behind. He wasn’t really sure what to think, except that all these strangers were now going to be entering…well, it wasn’t a sacred place, was it? Not really. It had always been filled with people: cameramen, boom operators, costumers, makeup artists, writers, the director, and tech crew like him. They were like a tour group, weren’t they? Yes, that was fine. People used to visit the set all the time.
Philip nearly crashed into the person in front of him, as the entire group had come to a stop just at the edge of the set. They seemed wary, and looked around anxiously. Philip gazed around, too, and listened. It was as quiet as the day he had left it, as abandoned as the ghost town that they thought it was. Though it was possible that animals had moved into the buildings, he doubted that any human beings were actually here – there was no water for miles, to start. Decisively, unable to wait any longer, he moved through the group to walk straight onto the set.
They followed him slowly, but Philip no longer cared or noticed. It was just as he remembered. True, rain and wind had caused some damage to the roofs and sidewalks, but everything was still standing. Quite remarkable after all this time.
He walked past the Saloon and stopped, staring fondly at the faded lettering. Many scenes had been filled outside here; it had been a running gag for the weekly villain to get thrown out of here, only to be confronted by the sheriff, the main character.
And ah yes, the horse troughs! Philip moved eagerly to the one just outside the Blacksmith area. It was the only spot on the whole central street that would stay in the shade during the hottest part of the day, and he and the other crew members would relax here between filming. But in winter, when it would actually get cold, they would go to…
…the Cantina. It was the only “real” building in the whole place; that is, built to be a solid, working place, not just a film front. Though Philip had been sure there were laws against it, somehow there was always booze in there at the end of the day. He was now far ahead of the others, who were slowly beginning to move about the street with curiosity. Peering into the Cantina, which was at the end of the street, Philip saw that it was completely empty; even the shelves had been taken away. Waste not, want not, he supposed. He wondered where all the set pieces and props had gone. Back to the studio, probably, to be repurposed for a new show, or recycled entirely. Simple tech crew hadn’t been allowed to keep anything, but Philip had quietly taken one of the spare sheriff badges. No one had noticed, and it was now pinned to one of the corkboards in his home office.
A noise of exclamation came from down the street, and Philip turned around to look. A tall man had found a sign that had fallen over. He lifted it up, and read aloud, “‘LOOKOUT CITY’. Was that the name of this place?”
“Not much of a city,” said someone.
“Back then, I bet it was.”
“Lookout City? That name actually sounds familiar…”
Philip gave a small, breathy laugh. They had no idea, of course. Only a few of them looked barely old enough to have watched the show in the fifties, let alone actually remember it.
But hearing the name spoken out loud had given him a thrill. It wasn’t entirely forgotten. Not by that sign, and not by him.
The name had come from a real life Old West town in the Mojave Desert, which, even back then, was a ghost town. TV was ripe with Western shows, and producers were always looking for the next Lone Ranger or Davy Crockett. Many town-based shows were popular, too, and that was how Lookout City came to be. The creators took the name of the real place, and built an entire premise out of it: a wise-cracking sheriff and bumbling deputy dealing with weekly bad guys and unscrupulous bounty hunters, and there were beautiful women always ready for a sweet word and a dance at the saloon.
It had only lasted two seasons, the network citing expense for the reason of cancellation. They had never liked the “real life” set in the desert, as it was costly to send all the equipment and cast and crew over there on a daily basis, and actual weather conditions could ruin an entire day’s worth of shooting. It had been an inevitable decision, and so Philip had counted his blessings every day that he had gotten to be out there. It had been rather freeing, really. Oh, there was always some executive suit there to supervise, looking pale and hot in his fancy blazer, but otherwise, they had been allowed to do whatever they wanted. Rewrites went on right before – or even after – filming, actors had breakdowns in the morning and only went back to work by midday, cameras broke down, lights exploded, but if everything was in the can by nightfall, no one ever complained. A great cheer would rise up, and everyone would rush to the Cantina for beers before retiring to their trailers or going back to the city, to rest and be ready to do it all over again the next day.
He had inadvertently, by habit, walked back to the Saloon, and this time, he went inside. Like the Cantina, it was empty and stripped of any set pieces. It was one of the only buildings that could actually be filmed in, due to its size, so it also doubled as the sheriff’s station, jail, and another interior set that was needed for the episode. The staging that was used to dress up all the different sets had to be broken into pieces to fit through the double doors, and then reassembled quickly in time for filming. Philip had been a teenager then, strong and fit and barely legal, but everyone liked him, and he was allowed to do the work of older, more experienced men. He got to watch the actors run their lines, and even got to film for a little bit when the normal guy got sick and his replacement couldn’t come for hours.
Philip had done pretty well for himself once the show ended. Short though his experience had been, it was still something, and he milked it for all it was worth when he moved to LA to pursue a career in television. He knew he was no actor or director, but he knew how the film process worked, and he could do a number of different jobs. Philip moved from show to show, doing whatever was needed, until finally landing a gig as a producer on a small cable program in the seventies. He had stayed in administration ever since, never doing any huge projects that would’ve made him a household name, but still good work. He had met his wife in the same industry, and though he had retired a few years ago, she kept working out of sheer love of the medium. He glanced at his watch. She was probably just leaving LA right now, weaving through the traffic to get home, where she thought he was waiting for her.
In the gloomy, dusty Saloon, Philip winced. He hadn’t told her what he was doing today, though he wasn’t sure why. She likely wouldn’t’ve talked him out of it, but she would’ve been confused. Why would he want to hike all that way for something that might not even exist? Why was he so eager to go back to something that happened so long ago? Even Philip himself wasn’t sure, to be honest.
Maybe he had just wanted to go back to where it all began. To relive one of the happiest times of his life (besides meeting his lovely wife, of course). To remember Charlie and José and Rebeka and Miguel and David and Rodrigo and Josué and all the other crew members. To see the places where he had learned his craft. To smell the arid air mingled with evaporating sweat. To feel that terrible heat that had caused so many to fall ill to heatstroke. To hear the wind whistling through the center street, once pushing a tumbleweed so perfectly along that they filmed it and used it as a gag in every episode.
There were good memories here. Here, in this abandoned ghost town, in this leftover building, Philip could again feel it being alive and full of people. They were working hard or hardly working, but incredibly alive and vibrant.
He was glad he came. He was exhausted beyond all reason, there were rocks in his shoes and blisters on his feet, and his face was burnt, but he had made it here. And he was happy.
Philip pushed wide the double doors just as he used to, and saw the tense woman standing there, looking out into the street. She didn’t appear all that tense anymore, actually, and seemed almost relaxed and contemplative. He gave her a small smile and then went out back into the sun.
He was actually a bit surprised no one had figured out this wasn’t a real town yet. He knew the set designers had done a good job, but really…
“Oh my god, look at this!”
And there it was. Philip would’ve laughed if he hadn’t suddenly realized what the truth coming out would mean for him.
Soberly, he followed everyone over to the voice’s source.
“Over here, over here!” It was the fit woman.
She was behind the Cantina, standing next to a chain link fence. Philip recognized it as the official edge of the set, where the trucks would park, out of sight of any cameras on the street.
Everyone stared at it.
“Impossible,” someone said.
“I thought this was like, an Old West ghostie town or something.”
“Then why is there a metal fence?”
“Weren’t those around in the 1800s?”
“Not like that.”
“Look!” The tall man had been examining the fence, and pointed to some writing near the bottom of the posts. “There’s a date here. 1955…”
That had been the year they had started filming, in late January, the set being completed only days before.
“It could be a manufacturing number,” said the tall man, looking doubtful.
Another man shook his head. “It makes sense. I was looking at the horse troughs, and it looked like there were modern nails used in their construction. I thought maybe someone had tried to renovate the place awhile ago, but…”
Philip remembered the controversy over those nails. One of the show’s historians (a constant pain in the writers’ sides) insisted that viewers would be able to notice the anachronism on their enormous twelve-inch, black and white televisions, and it was only a threat to cut his funding entirely that made him let it go.
“Lookout City!” exclaimed an older woman suddenly. Everyone looked round at her. Her face flushed, but she continued, “I remember why it sounds familiar now. Lookout City was a TV show! From the fifties.”
So someone did remember! Philip felt a rush of pride, nonsensical as it was. He hadn’t created the show, after all.
“One of those TV westerns.”
“It was on with like, The Range Rider and Judge Roy Bean. I remember watching them all as a little kid!”
The discussion went on, but Philip stopped paying attention. The woman from earlier, now looking incredibly tense, was staring at him murderously. He stared blankly back. Why was she angry? Because he hadn’t said anything earlier? Why would she possibly care?
Someone near him asked, “Was it even a good show?”
“Not really. Looked nice, though.”
Feeling mildly offended and gratified at the time, Philip turned to the first speaker, but a harsh voice broke through the chatter.
“You knew,” the tense woman said. Everyone stopped talking to look at her. She pointed an accusatory finger at Philip. “He knew about this place. He knew where it was the whole time! He knew it was fake!”
She seemed as though Philip had personally insulted her, and he didn’t know how to react. Was she perhaps a ghost town enthusiast, and thought she had found the score of a lifetime?
Everyone was looking at him now, and he wondered where to begin. Luckily, the guide asked, “Is this true, Philip? Did you know it was a TV set?”
To his shock, tears sprang to his eyes as he thought how to respond. No one would understand what this place meant to him. But still, they deserved a proper answer.
Staring fixedly at the sky, he said, “Yeah, I did. I…used to work on the show. Lookout City. As a teenager. It didn’t last long, but…it was one of the happiest times of my life. We did good work out here. I was sad when the show was canceled, and we all went our separate ways. It’s been decades, but I still remember everything about working on the set. So when I heard they were allowing civilians out here in the desert again, I just wanted to see it. Wanted to see if it was still here…”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” the tall man demanded, though he didn’t look angry.
Philip shrugged. “I didn’t think anyone would believe me. Or that I’d be allowed to go off-trail to find it.” He glanced at the guide, who began explaining feverishly that of course this hike was off the path, completely without any map guidance –
“And I was so overcome when I saw the set again, I couldn’t explain what it was to anybody,” he went on. “Besides, you all seemed so excited to have found a ghost town, I didn’t want to shatter illusions.”
He tapped the fence, and it rattled. “Probably should’ve realized it wouldn’t’ve stood up to scrutiny anyway, ” he smiled. “My apologies to you all.”
To his enormous relief, no one seemed upset. They all looked around sheepishly, and muttered that they “kinda figured it was too good to be true.”
“Heck of a story, though.”
“Yeah, we’re on a real TV set! That’s still pretty cool!”
Philip stared. Not only were they not angry, they suddenly seemed even more interested than before. Film towns, it seemed, were better than actual ones, ghost or not.
Someone asked if he had worked with cast and crew, to which he answered in the affirmative. Then another person wanted to know about the cameras, and still another about the costuming, specifically underwear.
Philip wasn’t too sure on the latter point, but he knew the camera positions, and began walking back down the street to point out where they used to be placed. Everyone seemed deeply impressed, and began asking still more questions.
He answered them all to the best of his knowledge, and no one seemed to care that he had technically deceived them all, or had made them late to their return to the city, or even that he was a bit smelly from lack of deodorant. And Philip himself felt wonderfully pleased at the attention this old set was getting. He didn’t think of himself as much of a tour guide, but his real life experience of working here was all that apparently mattered.
It almost made him wish there were more people. Well, why not? Maybe he could talk to the hiking organization (the nice guide would probably be willing to help). They could set up regular tours out here, and be led by him, Philip. If this group was any indication, there was an interest here, a potential tourist area. And if it worked…then many people would know about Lookout City. It would be immortalized (well, as long as the tours would last). He would be able to share his love of this place with others. Perhaps he could even find some still-living cast and crew! Reunions were always popular; there might even be some old fans willing to visit.
When they all finally left the Lookout City set, slipping through the rocky gap and hiking up the slope to the city path, Philip looked back once more across the desert. He felt satisfied, happy, and hopeful.
There was a future out there for him, and it was in the past.
Whew! This was one long story! I had no intention of having it be that way, either. When I started this a few weeks ago, I had been looking through writing prompts to get an idea of what to write about for the week. One that interested me was about a character finding a ghost town, and another was about someone revisiting an area that used to be full of people but was now abandoned. I liked both, and rather than simply making two different stories, I combined them. I didn’t know how a ghost town could be known by someone still alive to remember it, and I suppose I could’ve gone the fantasy route (vampire or something), but I decided that the ghost town wouldn’t be all that ghostly, but a film set that had been abandoned. But that meant there had to be two different characters, one who thought it was a ghost town, and the other who knew it was fake because they had worked there a long time ago. Hence the creation of Mona and Philip. I tried to write differently for Mona, making her be a far less likable character than I’m accustomed to creating, though Philip is very much to that standard. I wanted her to be disappointed that it was fake; angry, not excited, by the twist.
I know it’s a very lengthy and rambly story, and there’s probably a lot that could be cut out, but I enjoyed being taken along for the ride. Being led by a story is a unique experience for me, and I certainly didn’t expect it to go to four parts! Thanks to everyone who stuck around this long!