America was hiding in plain sight on Route 77. The promises whizzed by, got chased by cops, jumped broken bridges, sped off as their theme music played and dust kicked up glorious and fine. Dreams came during sleep, but America did not sleep–could not, must not–not on Route 77, where armed tollbooths stood their ground and snarled traffic with warning shots of freedom. No stories, grand or otherwise. Look out the window: do you see Manifest Destiny anywhere? Maybe it’s to the left of the mountain. Keep looking and you’ll find it. There were no promises and no dreams and no stories on Route 77, and what was left was America.
Burger stands and graveyards. Cornfields and rivers and parades on summer mornings and massacres on summer nights. Monuments to dead teenagers paid for by wicked grown-ups. One-reelers and no-hitters. Strange trees bearing fruit. Basketball hoops made out of bottomless peach baskets, or with nets made from chain link. Blood and soil. Chinese restaurants. Right turns on red. Unmarked graves and theater balconies and plazas and island jails. Porches and torches and telegraph poles and back alleys and coffee shops and dairy farms and workhouses and tenements and pig shit and sock hops and potter’s fields and cannonballs and luncheonettes and winter and the desert and the plains and the prairie and the swamps and the forests and the hills and the mountains.
The Interstitial Highway System had an open relationship with Time: they were together, mostly, but also free to see other fundamental forces. It was love, but a gnarly kind that wound up doing damage to everyone involved and leaving fist-sized holes in the drywall of reality. Their friends were worried that, one day, Time would throw acid in the Interstitial’s face. It was a matter of lanes. Choose the right one: New York to Chicago in an hour, St. Louis to Miami in two. Precarious Lee had once made it from Boise to Philadelphia in four hours and ten minutes in a 1970 Plymouth Fury.
But it still took forever to get through Texas.
“Are we fucking still in Texas?”
“How the fuck big is this state?”
“Texas is the size of fucking Texas.”
Precarious Lee and Romeo Rodriguez had caught each other up in a feedback loop of profanity. Precarious used to be a Soldier, and then he was a roadie; Romeo was a Marine and briefly a cop. These are four of the foulest-mouthed professions, and with no one in the car to temper their speech for, the men luxuriated in their cursing and jammed “fuck” into places it neither belonged nor desired to be.
O, fuck. O, fuck, you verb noun adjective adverb gerund and place-holder, FUCK! The most American of curse words, forbidden and adaptable; not allowed anywhere, but fitting in everywhere. O, fuck, you common currency of the common man, you working-class shibboleth, you bugaboo, you beeeeeep.
“Big fucking state.”
Texas wheeled by at 80 miles an hour out the windows of a 1974 Dodge Monaco. Hundred-gallon hats and rattlesnakes the size of creeks. An avalanche of cattle in the Christmas Mountains. Monuments chased down drugged-out rock stars to piss on them. Ranches the size of lesser (Eastern) states declared independence and immediately applied for foreign aid. City-states surrounded by light-years full of nothing but road and roadrunners and scrub. The desert slept, and the sky paid no mind at all to the road.
There had been a time when Romeo Rodriguez did not know that ghosts couldn’t kill themselves. It’s not a piece of information one needs for day-to-day living, really. One could quite easily make it throughout an entire lifetime without having need of that fact. It becomes important after death, though. On a long enough timeline, all ghosts will attempt suicide. Understandable. It breaks your heart to learn that life has no point, but finding out that the afterlife is also meaningless tends to shatter spirits. Romeo was a ghost cop, but ghost cops should have exciting destinies, and he had been a secondary character in a story with an ambiguous ending. Ghost guns don’t kill ghost cops, and neither do regular ones.
Stuck. The Salt Wharf and Boone’s Docks to the west, the Segovian Hills to the east. Walk north to the Upside and have your lunch in the Verdance, where everything grows, or wander south to the Downside and have a drink at the Wayside Inn, where anything goes. And that’s it. If you didn’t have to leave, you’d never want to; if you couldn’t, you’d never stop trying. Officer Romeo Rodriguez tried and tried. He tried the harbor and the pass, and cars and boats and once a helicopter. Stuck.
Ghosts are like cats; they belong to places.
But Route 77 went in between places and was therefore full of ghosts. Taking a break from the city, reviewing the hinterland, speeding along and speeding along. You could always tell a ghost driver on the Interstitial; they were the only ones doing the speed limit.
Romeo was not allowed to drive, and so the Dodge Monaco was doing 80 in the right lane. Overtaking hearses and mysterious vans. Other things.
“Was that a fucking stagecoach?”
And then the weather came in. They could see it in the windshield, off a hundred miles, and right behind them in the rearview. Hail the size of insincere apologies PONKED on the roof of the Dodge, and there was so much rain that Noah would have stayed inside. Flash floods, and flasher floods that showed you their dicks, and it was black as filth outside and cool as terror; Romeo felt his window buckle out and a raindrop as big as a cheeseburger extinguished Precarious’ cigarette. The thunder was louder than any rock and roll band could dream of, or any army could manage: it was everywhere and everything and you heard the KRUH-DACK with your skin and lungs and the sound slapped the thoughts from your brain, all of them, the basic ones, the thunder was so loud that you forgot your name and shuddered like a bloody newborn.
The sign on the way into town said:
They walked into the bar. Romeo did not need to, but it was reflex. Light above the door read MISS ROSA’S in shades of neon; it cost a ten to get in. Wooden floors and a long bar, and an inward-facing balcony upstairs. They had a lot of nice girls.
“What kind of place is this?”
“It’s indoors,” Precarious Lee said, and ordered two Arrow beers and two shots of Braddock’s whiskey from the ten-year-old boy behind the bar.
Romeo was self-conscious about being dead, and this did not seem the type of bar in which wearing his uniform and gunbelt was smart, but no one paid him much mind. Miss Rosa’s has all kind of customers. It was a “you don’t notice my drug deal, I won’t notice your non-corporeality” kind of place. He put his foot up on the brass rail, and Precarious lit a cigarette with his silver Zippo and set the pack and the lighter on the bar in front of him. An ashtray was already there; a black plastic cheapie, circular, and with divots carved from its lip.
“To fucking America,” Romeo held up his shot glass.
“And Texas, too.”
CLINK, downed, backed with beer.
Outside, the storm banged and blew–gas stations were being thrown down streets like skipping stones–and the neutral drowned in their basements waiting out the weather. Death by hunkering. Not Miss Rosa’s.
Miss Rosa’s was built solid.
Card tables were in the back, big round ones that never emptied, and there was a stage in front of the dance floor. Lester Force and his Texas Millionaires were playing Western Swing music that went boom-CHAK boom-CHAK; Lester played a fiddle that he cradled in his elbow like a firstborn child, and he had a walnut pipe clenched in his teeth. Reeds and horns, and a lap steel guitarist that sang the high harmonies. Ten cents to dance with a nice girl. Quarter for a freaky one.
Outside was chaos and rain and death, and a seafood restaurant windmilled through the parking lot. Uprooted trees slung miles only to come to rest piercing elementary schools.
Precarious Lee nodded his head at the orphan bartender for two more shots, and there they were.
“Not much of a drinker,” Romeo said.
“Don’t be a pussy.”
They drank, and Precarious lit another cigarette.
“They say 8,000 died,” the bartender said.
“Yeah?” Precarious asked.
“The whole city gone. Ripped from the ground like a weed. Just debris and corpses left afterwards.”
Romeo Rodriguez was not lying: he did not drink much, and was light-headed and big-headed and warm-headed; his head was feeling strange. He watched the conversation and thought about asking Precarious for a cigarette.
“1900. Galveston and Houston are competing, right? Could’ve gone either way, but the weather was bad one day. One day! Change the course of everything and whatnot, one day. Weather’s a motherfucker. Almost like the sky pays us no mind.”
The orphan bartender was blond and slim and not yet five feet tall. He polished a pint glass with a rag because he saw it in a movie.
“Could be 12,000. No one will know, ever; they didn’t write it down. They took the bodies to the beach and burned them. A Viking funeral for a whole city, a city called Galveston in the year of the Lord 1900, and it will happen again. Anything that can happen, will. What’s that town where those fancy fuckers live?”
“Los Angeles,” Precarious said.
“It will disappear, too. Back into the sea; they’ll burn the bodies just like the old days.”
Miss Rosa’s shivered in the howling wind and went rickety in its foundations; but it held. The pavement ripped off the ground like string cheese, and car dealerships were sent flying, and the steadiest thing in the bar was your next drink. WHOMBLE WHOMBLE the whole building rattled and the lights stuttered, but the band played on.
“All of it,” the orphan bartender said. “Any of it. Taken away in one day. Not even a day: a morning. Nothing that man’s built can’t be flattened by the weather. One day. One instant and it’s all gone.”
He walked off a few paces, and turned back and said,
“We tremble before instance.”
Precarious raised his glass, and drank, and took a drag from his unfiltered Camel PHWOO and said to Romeo Rodriguez,
“You said you wanted to see America.”
“I wasn’t expecting this.”
“No one does.”
The fiddles led the band into Green Valley. The trumpet player sang; it was about a town where heartbreak could not find purchase. A place with a constant bearing towards happiness, a place where instance did not venture and plans could be seen through. Green Valley was full of intent and low on luck, which made it quite unlike Route 77, which is the road out of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.