America was over there. Thataway. America got in here, too, got into Little Aleppo, but most of it was out yonder. Mount Lincoln to the north that sloped into the Pacific and created a natural harbor shaped like a crescent. Mounts Faith and Fortitude and Chastity. The highest of all the Segovian Hills, Pulaski Peak. Then Mount Charity, and then Mount Booth. The hills were the line marking here from there. You could get over them easy enough nowadays, and once you did: America. Highways, and cruelty, and cheeseburgers. All the Americas: the one from the songs, and the bloody one, and the one you’d been promised, and the one you’d settled for, and the one that respectable people pretended didn’t exist, and even the Mormons’ version that had Jesus in it.
Precarious Lee could smell America. Or at least he could smell breakfast, and breakfast is the most American of meals.
Imagine the plenty! Picture the colossal, overwhelming, stupefying surplus of food a society needs to have to demarcate certain dishes–entire protein sources!–as “breakfast.” To have so many carbohydrates available that specific configurations are designated as “breakfast!” And, of course, the most American part: you could have breakfast 24 hours a day. There were places in the world–hell, most of the damn world–where you could only eat the morning meal in the morning. This is abhorrent to a real American. Freedom means being able to eat waffles whenever you damn well please, Precarious thought.
Sure, it happened to be 8 in the morning, but it was the principle of the thing.
Good Morning with Mister Hamburger was playing on the teevee above the counter at the Victory Diner.
“Children, we speak today of time. Were I a sentimentalist, I would say you have a lot of it. Century, maybe. But you know I am not. Stickiness is for stamps, children. If I teach you nothing else: be cruel in your reasoning.
“You have no time, children. It has you. You’re swept along in a river you did not consent to enter.
“Time is a flash flood, children, and you can’t keep your head above the water forever. There are rocks and knives and betrayal along the bed of the river. Waterfalls. You will lose sight of God; waterfall. You will shovel dirt on your parents; waterfall. Ambition will prove empty; waterfall.
“Woody goes over the falls in a barrel. Yay.”
Precarious Lee liked his eggs runny, and he swirled a forkful around in a stain of ketchup on the oversized oval plate.
The Victory Diner was a 48-hour diner, which was just like a 24-hour diner, but double. It did not close for Christmas, nor Thanksgiving or New Year’s, and it had not closed for national tragedies or even for the Blackout of ’87. The enormous grill was gas-powered, and there was a generator in the basement that could run the refrigerator and the coffee machine, but not the lights. Locals brought in candles and flashlights, and ordered pancakes and bacon and eggs sunnyside-up, and got in just as many drunken brawls as usual.
It was on the Main Drag, across from The Tahitian. To the left, there were booths and the counter. Behind the counter was the passthrough window. To the right were rectangular tables with syrup already on them. Louie Bucca was behind the grill, except for when he had to come out and hit people with his metal spatula. It was embarrassing to get thrown out of bars in Little Aleppo, but it was understandable to get thrown out the Victory Diner. Everyone had done it. In the neighborhood’s defense, the coffee was very strong.
The sugar packets had pictures of tall ships on one side, and epigrams on the other.
He who has a thing to sell
And goes and whispers in a well
Is not as apt to make a dollar
As he who climbs a tree and hollers
Precarious didn’t take sugar in his coffee, nor milk from the dented metal creamer with the flip-up top that did not quite fit right anymore. His hair was shorter than it had been in many years, short enough not to need to be pulled back with a band. Big-Dicked Sheila said he looked very handsome, but she was the one who gave him the haircut, so Precarious didn’t trust her opinion. He didn’t mind, though. Took forever to dry, long hair, and he was getting less and less patient as he got older, at least with non-necessities. Some things everybody had to wait for equally, and there wasn’t nothing you could do about it. Love, wisdom, the bus. But your hair didn’t have to take a damn hour to dry.
He had grown a mustache. It was glorious. Thick as the hair on his head, but on the opposite side of his nose. Precarious was just about all gray, but his ‘stache still had generous flecks of the sandy-blond that he used to be. It was not a fu manchu–it did not descend past his lips–nor was it a neat and European styling: it was an eruption of bristles from nostrils to upper lip shaped like a speed bump. It was the kind of mustache that read as “working man” or “gay,” depending on the wearer’s posture.
There was a little bit of egg in it.
“You have egg in your mustache.”
The other side of Precarious’ booth was empty. He wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and muttered,
“Why are you here?’
“Penny’s asleep,” the empty side of the booth answered.
“She does. I think she’s depressed.”
“She’s not depressed. She’s just miserable. Why are you here?”
Precarious Lee set his fork down on his plate and ran his hand over his face.
Little Aleppo had ghosts. The neighborhood held onto people who had died protecting her. Sometimes, the neighborhood held onto cat burglars and purveyors of shoddy jungle gyms. There was no telling what a neighborhood would do, especially one with so many ghosts.
Romeo Rodriguez had not grown up in Little Aleppo, but he had gotten a job there after coming out of the Marines. The LAPD (No, Not That One) were hiring and he had a sterling service jacket and was tall and strong and likable. Romeo could have been a cop in any town or city in America, but he became a cop in Little Aleppo and was shot in the face halfway through his first shift.
And now he was a ghost cop, but ghost cops are supposed to have missions–they are spirits of vengeance attached via tendrils of death and revenge to a place, and they have enemies and a goal. Officer Romeo Rodriguez supposed his mission was to solve his own murder, but the killer had turned himself in that day, and then he thought his mission was to save Harper Observatory, and he kind of did and he kind of didn’t, which is a terrible resolution for a ghost cop. Romeo figured he would win and go to Heaven, or fail and go to Hell.
But nobody won and nobody lost. Some people died, and some people got paid, and other people got drunk and weren’t aware of the situation. Winning and losing depends on where you’re standing, and ghosts don’t stand so much as float. Officer Romeo Rodriguez had not been welcomed to Heaven, not cast down to Hell. He was still in Little Aleppo.
And he was bored.
“Seen it,” Precarious said, and sopped up some oozing egg with his white toast. “It’s just a rich hick’s house.”
“Hole in the ground.”
“I never saw New York.”
“It’s tall and dirty.”
The waitress walked by and topped off Precarious’ coffee without acknowledging the fact that he was having a conversation with an empty seat. The Victory Diner prides itself on professionalism.
The teevee was over the counter, and most of the restaurant watched it out of the corner of their eye. Mister Hamburger had removed his sport coat, and the sweat stains under his arms reached from his waist to his elbow. During the broadcast, he had picked at a cyst on his neck until it bled; his collar was stained red. Mister Hamburger’s left eye was noticeably larger than his right, and his frizzy brown hair was thin and sweaty.
“Time will not minister to you, children. Does the water stop for the rock? No. The water rips away the rock layer by layer until the rock no longer exists. Do you understand what I’m saying? The river steals the rock’s rockness. What it is made of. Molecule at a time.
“No such thing as an immovable object, children.
“Who you think you are is subject to the current. You say “soul,” and I laugh. HA! I laugh at you, children. Your soul will promenade away from you if the river wills it. You are who the river lets you be, and no more and no less and you have dick-all to say about it.
“Give up and float!
“Float with me, children!”
Mister Hamburger had a puppet on his right hand, a cow named Mister Flibber T. Gibbet, and they did pirouettes together as the cameraman keened and the set behind him collapsed slowly.
Everyone in the Victory Diner, including the waitresses and Louie Bucca behind the grill, was silent and watching the Mister Hamburger show. Then, they went back to their food.
“I don’t get that show, man.”
“Don’t ask me,” Precarious said. “I didn’t grow up here.”
“Downright fucking unsettling.”
Officer Romeo Rodriguez was still invisible. It was a neat trick, and a terrible one. He could go anywhere without being seen, but people are themselves when they think they’re alone. Ghosts see a lot of crying and punching, and only the very occasional miracle.
Precarious was still pretending he was by himself. He had a paperback collection of Westerns in his left hand: Dime Novels from the old days, overwritten and purple and fallacious. He had been stuck on the same line since Romeo showed up.
Romeo Rodriguez vivasperated, but just slightly. He was a suggestion in the air across the table. He stole a piece of Precarious’ bacon and ate it.
“I’m stuck here. I’ve tried going out through the pass. I’ve tried the harbor. I get deposited back in that asshole’s bookstore. Christy Canyon? I walked. I didn’t even fly. I walked. And as I was just about halfway to C—–a City, I blinked and I was back in that asshole’s bookstore. I’m stuck here. I can’t leave Little Aleppo.”
“Except when I hitched a ride with you on that weirdo fucking road of yours.”
“Yeah, you fucked that up good.”
Officer Romero Rodriguez turned another ten percent visible, and stole another piece of bacon.
“Not good enough, I guess. I’m still here.”
“Good for you. Stop eating my bacon.”
A roadie and a ghost cop, having nothing better to do, argued in a 48-hour diner along the Main Drag. The Victory Diner did not close for Christmas, nor for Thanksgiving, and it had remained open through all national tragedies. It was 8 in the morning, and people were working or hiding or floating, and you could order breakfast in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.