The rain continued.
Miss Rosa’s had shutters, great wooden ones on swinging hinges, and they’d been locked in place hours ago. No one had come in for a while. The power had given, too, but there was a generator in a brick shed added on to the back of the bar. The beer would not skunk on Miss Rosa’s watch, and the lights would stay on if she had to hook them to treadmills and set the orphans to running. Wasn’t like anyone could leave, she figured. Might as well take all their money.
Joint was hopping. Judge Backfat had one of Miss Rosa’s girls on his lap; he was telling her a funny story about how he had sentenced her daddy to the chair. The police chief, Bachelor Smolls, he was at a table with some of his men and just as many girls. (Some of the girls were older than the men, but there’s only one woman at Miss Rosa’s, and that’s Miss Rosa; all the other female staff were girls.) They were celebrating a big bust. Chief had put most of the drugs and some of the cash in the evidence locker, and now it was time for a good time. The Chamber of Commerce had a reserved table in the back; it was full and there was a cash pot in the middle. The dealer had hair dyed a painful black. She was topless, and smiled at the men’s jokes. They had an infinite supply of jokes. An astronaut was at the bar–swear to Deke Slayton, an honest-to-God astronaut–with a girl who liked to be called Bailiwick. A few years after the storm, the astronaut would shoot his wife to be with Bailiwick; his plan did not prove out.
Sometimes the lights would flicker like something dramatic was about to happen, but nothing did.
“How’d you get into it?”
“Roadie-ing. Being a roadie. However the fuck you’d say that,” Romeo Rodriguez asked.
“Fell in with a bad crowd,” Precarious Lee answered.
The bar ran all the way along the east side of the room, opposite from the swanky curtains that separated the main bar from the lobby and door. There was a service station in the middle with rails and a tacky placemat to set trays on. Precarious and Romeo were in the far corner, at the end of the bar where they could see the room. Neither was drunk, but neither was sober: they were in that in-between spot, right in the pipe, where thoughts and speech came easily and wit was a companion and everyone was 15% more attractive. Romeo was in his uniform, as he had been since being shot in the face; Precarious was wearing the pair of jeans he owned and a tee-shirt he had been given two decades prior.
She was short and wide and solid, all of a singular mass, and a blonde wig that might have been too ostentatious for Graceland or the Opry. There was a little curl pasted to her forehead. Red-and-blue western shirt with spangles and buttons and boots made from ostrich and alligator with “ROSA” written in script across each toe. Miss Rosa did not have a pistol; she kept her gun in the hand of the orphan that was leaning over the second-floor railing and watching her every move. His name was Snuffy.
Anything you wanted. All it took was cash. Anything. Girls? Of course, it’s a cathouse, course we got girls. Boys? Well, we all got our weakness, don’t we, Preacher? We can fix you up. Need a little something make the evening go quicker? Maybe you’d like to meet someone in a different line of work from you. Or sell an item you weren’t supposed to have. Could be you got an envelope full of money and an indicted brother. Or you wanted your cock sucked. Miss Rosa’s was your place.
“Why you always bringing ghosts into my place?”
“Fell in with a bad crowd.”
She snorted, nodded at the bartender. Two more shots of Braddock’s whiskey and pints of Arrow beer appeared in front of Precarious and Romeo, and when they turned back to thank her, she was gone and there was no one staring at them from the catwalk. The two men tipped the shots, exhaled forcefully, slapped the glasses back on the bar. Precarious lit another smoke with his silver Zippo. Romeo asked for one.
Outside, the wind screamed like a new widow.
Bum-THAK bum-THAK. The band was back, and the girls were leading the men onto the dance floor. Lester Force and his Texas Millionaires played Western Swing, and they played it well. They said they played it the best, but so did other acts. Show biz isn’t big on empirical proof. The lap steel player barked his slide against the strings, and the drummer smiled like he’d been instructed. The bass payer was named Carolina Cotton, and she also yodeled.
“This is America?”
“Part of it,” Precarious said.
The orphan bartender took their shot glasses. He had on a white tee-shirt like all the other orphans. He said,
“One dead, one alive. Schrodinger’s bar tab.”
And walked back to the astronaut and Bailiwick. Romeo said,
“You sure we’re welcome here?”
“Sure. This is America.”
Incandescent neon flickered and shpritzed above the expensive liquor bottles; the genny hummed in its brick shed and shoved power into the lights, the freezers, the amplifiers. People had come out for a good time and they would get it. People had come out with cash and they could spend it.
A girl who called herself Nursey put a hand on each man’s shoulder.
“You boys like to buy a girl a drink?”
And they did, they did like to buy a girl a drink, especially if the girl was Nursey because Nursey was a good-time girl–you could just tell–and her brown curly hair rested on the spaghetti straps of her lingerie. She had pale eyes like a freshly-calved iceberg and lipstick so red it was a parody of itself, a quotation of itself; it was self-aware lipstick: you know why we’re here, and I know why we’re here, and no harm letting makeup reflect the situation. Shoes that were both slippers and high heels at once. Free-floating sleeves with a tight fishnet weave.
“You a ghost?”
“No, the guy who’s not a ghost,” Nursey said.
“I’m a ghost cop.”
“How’s that going for you?”
“Got its ups and downs.”
“Sounds like my job.”
“Never fucked a ghost before.”
“Me, neither,” Romeo said, and immediately regretted it. Precarious turned back to his beer, shook his head, thought about ordering nachos.
The wind buffeted against the outer walls, but the roof held, and the room roared back against nature with shouts, whoops, insults, lap steel solos. Miss Rosa’s was set apart. Special. That safe place your mother did not tell you about on the outskirts of town open to all who had the cash. Water rose where it shouldn’t. Water flowed where it couldn’t. Electrical fires sparked and sprayed in defiance of the rain and there were live wires like spastic anacondas in the road. The soil saturated and vomited out long-buried caskets that floated down the boulevard in procession. The sky chucked down shit and death and laughed at samaritans.
Nursey laughed and took the drink the orphan bartender had brought her in manicured hand, drank, laughed some more. It was a professional laugh, a practiced one, a perfected laugh, and she said,
“I’m just like you.”
The drinks hit Romeo Rodriguez all at once like a wall and the room was swimming and drowning, and laughing the whole time. The topless dealer had knives hidden in her nipples and sliced the Chamber of Commerce to shred, chopped ears off as souvenirs and trophies, maybe she’d masturbate with ’em later. Snuffy up on the catwalk got to shooting and wouldn’t stop–could be a brain tumor, could be he had enough–and Miss Rosa took the first shots, and the second and third, too. The orphans went feral and grew teeth; the girls all had knives; Carolina Cotton’s yodeling shattered skulls and pelvises. Sand-spiders pattered inside and leapt on Judge Fatback, ate him raw while he screamed for Jesus and his mother.
None of that happened.
Romeo sat at the bar, blinked his eyes, wondered where he was and saw it all again for the first time: the bags under the piano player’s eyes; the barbacks carrying kegs larger than themselves; the scars under the fishnet covering Nursey’s arms.
“You used to be a real nurse,” he said.
“Yeah,” she answered, and curled her hand around his neck, softly, like she had a secret to tell, and she leaned in real close, so close that the words were just breaths with intent. “I told you. I’m just like you.”
A banging at the door. And louder. And louder. A solid WHANP WHANP that shouted out the band and the bar and the genny; no one turned, no one cared. The Chamber of Commerce’s poker game went on. The cops were getting blowjobs, and the judge was, too. Miss Rosa was in her office upstairs with the door closed and locked and Snuffy standing outside.
“You wanna go upstairs?” Nursey whispered to Romeo.
And the door WHANPED some more, and Nursey’s warm hand was in his crotch. Precarious had put a hundred on the bar and slid it towards him; she eyed it, and he eyed it, and then he was immaterial and passing through her and the tables and the dance floor and the orphans and the thick curtains that separated the main room from the lobby. Door was locked, which means dick to a ghost.
They were short and poor. Wet. Baby crying and mother trying not to. Old man. All useless, all broken, and not a dime between them.
“There’s a cover charge,” Miss Rosa said from the catwalk. Snuffy was beside her with his pistol.
“I got it,” Romeo said.
“No. Everyone pays their own way in my place.”
Romeo nodded his head, and said,
“Fuck you. Feed them.”
Miss Rosa smiled and Snuffy pointed his gun, but Romeo Rodriguez was faster. Not an orphan alive that can outdraw a ghost cop. BLAM the revolver flew out of Snuffy’s hand just like in the movies. Precarious picked it up and backed Romeo’s play. You dance with who brought you. Miss Rosa nodded at Romeo and backed into her office. Door shut.
“Cheeseburgers,” Romeo said to the orphan bartender. “And a beer for the old man.”
The old man nodded at Romeo.
The storm passed and the sun came back. It does that. The sky was steel, but lightening and hopeful and huge as the state it lay above. No more fuckery for the time being. Go about your lives, the sky said. I’ve said what I came to say. The crowd thinned.
“About that time?”
“Seems like it,” Romeo said.
Most of the parking lot was a lake. Pickup trucks foundered; motorcycles floated. Off towards the far end was a 1974 Dodge Monaco, black, that had not been affected by the storm. In fact, it was cleaner.
Precarious revved the engine and reached into the glove. Metal box with Tom Mix stamped onto the front. Took out a doobie and arched his back off the driver’s seat to slide the Zippo out of the change pocket of his Levi’s. Lit it PHWOO and held the joint in front of him to see if it was burning properly. It was. Took another drag PHWOO and offered it to Romeo, who looked at it, looked out the windshield, the joint, the windshield, reached for it and hit it PHWOO and sat there with the doobie burning in his hand.
“I think I’ve seen enough,” he said.
“She can be a bit much,” Precarious said.
And they were on Route 77 with the sun in their eyes, blue skies and puffy clouds that looked like bunnies and puppies and kitties and friendships; the billboards all had compliments on them.
“I think it’s time to go home,” Romeo said.
“I…I have this weird feeling…like I’m a secondary character in someone else’s story.”
Precarious Lee extracted the soft pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes from the breast pocket of his tee-shirt. He hiked a single smoke out of the pack with a flick of his wrist, and lipped it out. Zippo. PHWOO.
“Everybody gets that feeling.”
“We’re all right occasionally.”
The billboards were warring and humping, and the double-yellow line was arguing with itself. Route 77 led to just about every place, but it stopped off in Texas, and also Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.