Excerpt from ' Shadowbahn'
By Steve Erickson
Blue Rider Press
All rights reserved.
Things don't just disappear into thin —
... but she hangs up on him before he finishes. "What the ...?" he says, staring at his cell phone in dismay and trying to remember if she ever hung up on him before. As he finishes filling the tank of his truck and replaces the pump's nozzle, Aaron ponders how this became the kind of argument where his wife hangs up on him. He hauls himself back up into the driver's seat thinking maybe this is really the kind of argument that's about something other than what it's about.
Starting the ignition, turning down the oldies station on the radio, he sits a minute irritably checking the rearview mirror. Another truck waits for him to pull away from the pump. Aaron remembers that he meant to get a donut and Red Bull from the gas station's convenience market, some concentrated discharge of sugar and caffeine to take him the rest of the way to Rapid City.
the unnamed song
He looks at his cell to see if she's texted. "Fuck if I'm apologizing!" he says out loud to nobody and nothing; without his donut and Red Bull, he glides back out onto Interstate 90 in his red truck with its gold racing stripes and the bumper sticker that reads SAVE AMERICA FROM ITSELF. When he first put on the sticker, he thought he knew what it meant. The more he's thought about it since, the less sure he is.
Aaron considers the one time he fell asleep at the wheel. It couldn't have been longer than a couple of seconds, but enough to start veering off the road until another truck's horn blared him into consciousness. His heart didn't stop pounding till he finished the route: If you want to wake yourself up good for the rest of a drive, try falling asleep at the wheel for a moment. On the radio a man and woman sing to each other, not with each other, having their own argument maybe. She hung up on me, he's thinking, "I'm not apologizing, fuck that." But he's had fights with Cilla Ann before and knows, as his indignation subsides, that if she hasn't texted by the other side of the bridge at Chamberlain crossing the Missouri River, he'll wind up calling.
Is something else wrong? he wonders. Is there something else going on with her? Can this fight actually be about something as trivial as his wallet gone missing, vanished from his jacket? even if now he's a driver without an identity. The man and woman singing to each other on the radio aren't exactly arguing. It's kind of a cowboy song but not exactly, half a century old, trippy with spy-movie horn riffs — although Aaron, not caring about music, doesn't break it down like that. Instead he catches out of the corner of his ear the story that the cowboy sings in the deepest voice anyone's heard ...
... of the woman seducing him with wine made of strawberries, cherries, and an angel's kiss in spring, so she can steal his silver spurs while he sleeps. If I'm being honest, Aaron admits to himself ruefully about the conversation with Cilla Ann, I know it's not true that things don't just disappear into thin air. If I'm honest and I've learned anything in this life, it's that things disappear into thin air all the time.
The woman singing on the radio reminds Aaron that these are the last days of summer, nine days before the fall.
cross the wide Missouri
The music that he pays little mind is only something in the background to keep him company and awake. "A song finishes," he says out loud, "ask me what I just heard, I have no idea." Sometimes instead he'll listen to the talk radio until it becomes too nuts, or the CB radio that's broken at the moment, Aaron having tried futilely back in Mitchell to get it fixed. In his early forties, he drives Interstate 90 at least three times a week counting both to and from, sometimes four or five if he can hustle up the commerce. Sometimes when the traffic of other trucks is at a maximum, or just because he feels like it, he cuts down to Highway 44 running through the plains beyond Buffalo Gap.
From the cabin of his truck, he aims himself at anything westward that he can see a hundred miles away, at the swathe of blue crushing a horizon invaded by the slightest vapor of white — not so much clouds, since there hasn't been a cloud in the sky, let alone rain, in forever. Highway 44 is draped with the flags of Disunion that grow in number the farther west Aaron gets. Later he'll wonder how it is that on this morning of the argument about the wallet disappearing into thin air, he could have missed there on the flat plain before him the two skyscrapers each a quarter mile high: the breath of Aaron's country, exhaled from the nostrils of Aaron's century.
all our trials
Soon, the change in the landscape announces itself as always. Dashed lava and the blasted detritus of dying asteroids, slashes of geologic red and gold rendering his truck a chameleon. A song finishes, I have no idea what I just heard, but he still remembers what was playing on the radio the time he fell asleep behind the wheel, a mash-up of spirituals and national folk tunes sung by the most famous singer who ever lived: old times there are not forgotten, look away and His truth is marching on and a third, all my trials will soon be over.
In the two seconds when Aaron fell asleep that time, he had a dream that lasted hours, in which the song appeared as a black tunnel on the highway before him. Of course he has no idea now where the tunnel led, or whether it led anywhere or had any ending, because he woke with a great start to that warning of the other truck's horn and the open highway, no tunnel in sight.
By midafternoon — the tail end of the five-hour drive to Rapid City from Sioux Falls — Aaron has neither called his wife nor heard from her. He's buzzy and bleary at the same time, in the crossfire of fatigue and two Starbucks espressos self-administered in Chamberlain. But when he slams on the brakes of the truck, without bothering to check in the rearview mirror whether anyone is behind him, he knows he's not in the tunnel of any song. He's not dreaming the thing that suddenly has appeared before him and can no longer be missed as he rounds a corner and emerges from a pass into the Dakota Badlands, with its rocks shaped like interstellar mushrooms and ridges like the spine of a mutated iguana.
He doesn't bother pulling his truck over to the side of the highway. Stopping in the middle, he gawks for a full minute, opening and closing his eyes and then opening them again. His truck abandoned mid-highway, Aaron strides to the roadside as though the few extra feet will somehow make what he sees comprehensible; a moment later, he returns to the truck's cabin. Unsure what he would say on it anyway, he remembers the CB is dead. He pulls his cell phone from his pocket. "Hey," he says when she answers.
the unheard song
"Hey," he hears her say back, hesitant and quiet.
"Look, I'm sorry...." A pause, and when he doesn't reciprocate she says, "Okay then," annoyed; then another pause. "Aaron?" When he still doesn't answer, she's both irritated and worried by his silence. "Must be close to Rapid City by now."
"I really am sorry" — testy but maybe slightly freaked out? Sometimes he wonders if she wonders if he's going to leave her.
Listen, because he hears the music, or something like it.
The afternoon sun slides down the sky like a window shade. Aaron studies the little icons on his cell phone. "How do you take a picture with this thing?" he asks. "These things take pictures, don't they?"
"You sound like your mother," she sighs, baffled. "Tap the little symbol of the camera. Did you open the icon? So point it at whatever and press the b —"
"How do I send it to you?"
"Little arrow at the bottom ... send it to me later...."
He says, more emphatically than he's ever said anything to her, "Now. You have to see this and tell me —"
"Tell you ...?"
"— that I haven't lost my mind," but he knows he hasn't lost his mind, he's not in any dream. He's not in any tunnel; now another truck approaching in the distance from the other direction — this one's front bumper festooned with the flag of Disunion — stops in the middle of the highway too, like Aaron's. Like Aaron, the other driver gets out of the other truck to walk to the roadside, rubbing his eyes as if in a cartoon. Yet another vehicle nears, and as Aaron turns to gaze over his shoulder, up and down the highway other cars have begun to stop, passengers emerging, everyone's stupefaction surfacing in thought balloons. The sound that's like music, that Aaron thought he was hearing, he hears again: Ask me what I just heard, I have no idea, but not this time. "Yeah," he calls to everyone in and out of earshot, spinning there in the middle of the highway, "oh yeah! Explain that," gesturing at the two towers.
Excerpted from Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson. Copyright © 2017 Steve Erickson. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press.
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