Preview: Sangre Road by David Tromblay

1

The Red Dirt Chop Shop has a 1968 Chevy Custom Camper sans camper for sale down on the tail end of Sangre Road. How much they want for it is soaped on the windshield but blocked by a sign that cannot be read so well. It’s gone into disrepair—the sign, not the truck—like a family plot with no more relations above ground. The sign is sort of impaled on a four-by-four-inch post somebody whittled down until it got small enough that all four of the set screws could be tightened. I know this because I wanted to know how much they wanted for the truck, and, then, since I was idling on the shoulder of said Sangre Road, I took however long to look over the cast-iron historical marker which read:

THE LAST “BOOMER” TOWN
About ¾ mi. east of here
300 armed “boomers” made their last stand for settlement of Oklahoma country, led by Wm. V. Courtright, and surrendered to U.S. Calvary troops commanded by Col. J. Hastings, Jan. 26, 1885. On this site, the “boomers” built log cabins and dugouts for their town of Lawson, founded on Dec. 12, 1884.

Seeing how the town was established and surrendered in the span of six weeks and the sight itself is now nothing more than a few acres of decrepit automobiles, it all seemed insignificant and extraneous—not warranting the casting of a marker. There wasn’t even one of the brown signs telling motorists a historical marker waited up ahead.

Saying surrendered seems like it wasn’t all that bloody of a battle, being there was no mention of a body count on the marker, but there is the matter of their naming the road Sangre, meaning: blood en español. Figuring in how the Spanish-speaking population here is nada, I’d wager it’s a roundabout way of them covering up a bloody past but kinda-sorta acknowledging it without outright saying the boogeyman’s name.

$3,000 firm was the price on the Chevy. It comes with a spiderwebbed windshield, no bumpers, and every inch of it is primered black, which makes me think it’s either dinged to hell or comes with a full rust package.

No thank you.

This way of thinking is what you get when you spend too much time by yourself alone in an automobile. But I wouldn’t have to stay inside my head a whole lot longer, luckily. Sangre Road became a smorgasbord of signs and ads once I crept inside the city limits.

A diner stood right on the other side of the fifth church I passed, the one with the marquee that read: No one is perfect, Moses was once a basket case.

I ordered a sweet tea as a show of faith to let them know I meant to differentiate myself as a customer rather than a loitering member of the public, then I made my hurried pilgrimage to the men’s room.

After taking a swig of their world-famous sweet tea, in walked a man boasting all the physical attributes of a double-sized soft-serve ice cream cone, the extra creamy kind made with double the milk fat. Prescription glasses with lenses tinted the color of watered-down rosé wine clung to the tip of his nose. I say prescription because when he tilted his head back to find an open table, he became bug-eyed.

His dress shirt was one with ruffles sewn into the chest, though it wasn’t the bleached white you’d see someone wear with an older tuxedo. I imagine it was sold as ivory, but it was the color of a midmorning piss following the downing of an entire pot of coffee along with some multivitamin with 1000% of the recommended daily values.

Both pockets on the chest of that shirt were packed with pens, sans pocket protectors. He was obviously a man who liked to live dangerously. He’d filled the left side with what I’ll call Easter or pastel colors, while the right side was all primary pen ink colors: black, blue, red, and two others: one looked to be stainless steel, and the other was a gold-plated pen. Both of which could have held any imaginable color of ink.

Around his neck hung a shoelace, weighed down with no less than two dozen keys—by my count. A fist sat plopped atop a cane in which he lent far too much trust. I only say so because of how the floor let out a muffled cry, announcing his presence a few short seconds before each footfall. Other folks passed through the dining area without the floorboards offering a word of protest. It could have been the light playing with the lacquer, but I’d swear I saw that cane bow each time he hobbled this way and that. He’d swayed through the side door, too, which was a little wider than the front door—to allow for deliveries—and led straight into the kitchen. His pendulum gait hypnotized me; I am embarrassed to admit. That’s how the waitress surprised me and announced her presence by setting down the sweating glass of ice water as she asked me, “Are you ready to order, or are you going to need another minute with the menu?”

“Yes, I am,” I said with an embarrassed smile, “I am indeed going to need a few more minutes, please. Everything sounds so mouth-wateringly delicious.”

I went with a pecan waffle and what they called Huevos Mexicano. The latter came with hash browns and toast and jelly or biscuits and gravy. I went with the latter coupling thinking the gravy would add a little sustenance to the meal. Without the drink, it came to ten bucks. Not too bad. The trip to the bathroom did not lead me to believe the meal should come with a complimentary tetanus shot, so I found myself in better spirits than when I realized where this latest paper trail was bringing me.

The telephone book I acquired from the phone booth outside of the Get-N-Go was no thicker than a weekly edition of the TV Guide. From that alone, I knew I’d be on my way in no time at all—and cue the Caruso of Rock to remind me of the day they hung my name in the fool’s hall of fame.

Bolstered by the aforementioned short-sighted assurance of the ease of how fast I’d be pulling a U-turn, I got a motel room. I took advantage of their hourly rates where it’s well known no one wants to be seen or see who is coming and going, where I could shit, shower, shave, and get to work—without being bothered about when I was checking out.

I may have never visited this town before, but I knew the place well enough. The public library operates on banker’s hours, there are as many adult bookstores as churches, and you cannot, no way, no how, buy a beer on the Lord’s day.

Atop that, sat the conundrum of living in a city so small is that every citizen shoulders the stress of celebrity. That’s to say when everyone is bored, nobody else is boring. There’s no minding your own business. Everyone is family. Not necessarily blood, but there’s a closeness that causes me claustrophobia.

Being so fresh a face in so small a town, I knew I couldn’t set up somewhere and surveil someone without more eyes looking my way than what would have proved beneficial. It’s like that adage warning away from pointing a finger at someone because there’ll be three others pointing back at your own self.

I borrowed the bible from the bedside table the Gideons placed in my room and stood out on the corner closest to the Jefferson Lines station and preached the Word to passing cars.

Silly as it may seem, it’s the perfect platform to watch the comings and goings and not have to worry about being an unfamiliar face and drawing too much attention to my own self.

I call it tradecraft.

A curbside crazy is easy enough to ignore and hiding in plain sight is a whole lot less nerve-racking when you’re a stranger in a strange land and do not know who it is you need to watch out for other than who you came to find. In that same breath, a panhandler holding a sign and begging for whatever change you can spare may draw the attention of the authorities depending on local ordinances, but not a sidewalk preacher. Especially in a place where everyone is so afraid of coming off as a piss-poor Christian. I make such speculation about my newfound workplace based upon seeing so many bumper stickers mentioning Him that you’d swear He was up for reelection.

If ever I’d take note of someone taking too much stock in what I was saying or doing or where I was loitering, I could always cook up a splash of misdirection.

The first instance I felt compelled to do so during this job was with a gentleman who came out of the hospital in a wheelchair looking like he was still getting the mechanics of it down, and, poor him, he hadn’t anyone to give him a push. Though he wheeled his own self into the package store with enough ease.

When he exited and came across the intersection toward me, I did not hesitate to seize such an opportune moment and did what I could to divert the attention of every driver toward him. By God, by some miracle, he was able to stand and walk and navigate that wheelchair up and over the median without dumping the case of beer or any of the bottles of liquor hidden away in the brown paper sacks, which were now riding in the wheelchair. It was quite a sight. I did not want a single soul to miss it, so I hollered out, proclaimed, “It’s a miracle, right before our very eyes, brothers and sisters! Just hearing the Lord’s message has helped this man to walk again. Rise and walk! Rise and walk, my son!” I screamed above the knocking engines and the nauseating exhaust tightening my chest. “Rise and walk. You don’t need no wheelchair. Go on and tell your doctor how he has failed you, but it is the Lord who has healed you.”

If only there were cameras around to capture the moment.

I’d bet my trigger finger he was hoping against all hope there wasn’t anyone from the insurance company within earshot, too. He put his head down once he saw how he was being followed and judged by every eyeball inside every stopped vehicle.

One searing gaze was cause enough for him to lift his heels a touch higher than normal and get as far from me as fast as his feet could carry him—and there were at least a dozen and a half.

Amen for that.

If any of those glances drifted over to me in his absence, I’d toss around words like judgment and abomination and His return until every last set of eyeballs fixated on the dangling traffic lights. Each car crept toward the intersection in a clear demonstration of their building impatience and want over need for the light to go from red to green.