They were somewhere in the desert, the one that spanned Nevada and Arizona but changed names, or spellings anyway, at the state line. Mojave, Mohave, either way it was Mo-freaking-hot-as-hell.
Tracy could even see the heat waves rolling up from the ground, making the endless stretch of empty road look more like rolling sea than a black asphalt river bleeding its way across the parched flesh of the empty land.
Sure, there was another car from time to time, but mostly the only thing that punctuated the monotony was the occasional mournful whistle of a cargo train – they were automated, those things – and over a hundred cars longs – and their whistles made Tracy shiver every time.
“Too much a/c?” Steve asked? The outside temperature gauge read 106 but it was 72 in the car.
“No, just the train whistle.”
“You like trains,” Steve reminded her.
“I like passenger trains,” she said. “These cargo things… they’re more like ghost trains. Sometimes I think maybe it’s just one endless train on a loop, never ending or beginning…”
“Drink some water, babe; you’re dehydrated.”
“I’m not!” she insisted, but she reached for her water bottle anyway, and took a healthy swallow. “How’re we doing on gas?” The design of the dashboard meant she couldn’t read that information from the passenger seat.
“We can make to Flagstaff.”
“Oh. Goo – Shit!” A red sports car had come zooming up beside them in the wrong lane, nearly clipping her mirror. “That wasn’t the same car we saw leaving Vegas?”
“I think it was… ”
Tracy reached out and teased the nape of Steve’s neck. “Crazy.”
They kept on driving, stopped at a couple of truck stops for bathroom breaks and gas. And then, just outside Flagstaff, they turned off the interstate, following suggestions to a tourist destination on the old Route 66. “I-40 parallels it along this stretch,” Steve told her, when Tracy questioned the detour. “There’s a ghost town with a burger joint that supposed to be to die for. They keep it open for tourists.”
“What tourists?” Tracy wanted to know.
“I guess there are more than we think.”
Tracy shrugged. “Sounds fun.” They weren’t in a race, after all. They were headed to a new life in a community of artists and writers in Taos, New Mexico, but their schedule was their own. So why not enjoy a slight diversion?
Unlike the Interstate, the road they turned onto was faded and crumbling at the shoulders. The paint marking the lanes was barely discernible, but ruts in the road marked the divisions as well, or better.
The burger joint – a roadhouse, really – had a rusty highway sign on the top, Tracy froze looking at it after they got out of the car. “Steve. There are three sixes on that sign.”
“What?” he said. “Baby, we really need to get some protein in you.”
When Tracy looked again, the sign was a normal Route 66 sign.
Inside, the place was full of tourist kitsch. Stuffed jackalopes and Route 66 t-shirts were everywhere, and the song – that song – blared from the speakers.
A tired waitress in a polyester uniform greeted them with a dusty smile. “Welcome to the Roadhouse.” She reeled off a list of specials and left them to decide while she went to get drinks. A few minutes later, they were sipping iced tea and waiting for bacon and cheddar burgers.
“You headed somewhere specific?” the waitress asked, when she brought their food.
“Taos,” Tracy said.
“Nice town,” the other woman answered. “You’ll like it there. Best cheese enchiladas ever come from Gloria’s. Don’t miss them.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Tracy said.
The burgers were wonderful. Steve ate his own and half of hers, but that was typical. She ate all of her own fries, though. They had garlic on them. They watched people come and go as they ate – families mostly, and a few couples like themselves – but then he entered.
Tracy could tell he didn’t fit. Didn’t belong. His teeth were too white. His sunglasses were too expensive. His t-shirt had a logo that meant it had cost more than their typical electric bill.
“Can I get service?” he asked loudly. He’d barely been waiting fifteen seconds.
“I can seat you at the counter,” their waitress offered. “If it’s just you.”
“Fine, I guess. Could you wipe the grease off it first, though?”
Tracy couldn’t see his face, but she could practically hear him rolling his eyes.
“Asshole,” Steve muttered under his breath.
“Bet you anything he’s the guy in that red penis-car that keeps almost killing us,” Tracy whispered back.
In an attempt to wait him out, to not be ahead of him on the road, they decide to order pie and coffee. Tracy went for peach – her favorite – Steve was excited that they offered strawberry-rhubarb. “Good choices,” their waitress approved. “You want a la mode? It’s on me.”
“Because we’re going to Taos?” Tracy asked.
“Sure. That.” The waitress gave asshole-customer a furtive glance. “And because I know you don’t want to be on the road with him. I can tell.”
“He’s… we keep running into him. I guess the upside is that he’s the one who’s been caught in every speed trap since Vegas,” Steve said.
“Don’t doubt it.”
“A la mode sounds fantastic,” Tracy smiled. “It’s summer, after all. Thanks.”
They finish their dessert, by which time the guy with the attitude has disappeared. “Bet you anything he’s from L.A.,” Tracy said, as they paid the check. “Leave the waitress a generous tip.”
“I left twenty-five percent,” Steve said.
“And that’s why I love you.”
“Not for my hot body?”
“Well, that too.”
They paused for a selfie in front of the roadhouse. It was dark by then, but there was so much lighting in the parking lot that it might as well have been noon. There’s a mark on the ground telling people where to stand so they can guarantee the sign is in the picture.
Back in the car, they headed back to the Interstate, only to be halted by flickering red and blue lights. “Sorry folks,” a highway patrol officer says, coming up to their window. “Gotta redirect you. To get back on Eastbound 40 do this…”
Tracy took down the directions with the “Notes” app on her phone. “Can I ask what happened, Officer?”
“Bad accident,” he said. “Speed demon in a red car wrapped himself around the signpost on the ramp.” He took a beat, then added. “These roads… they may seem flat and empty, but they make you cocky. You drive safe, hear?”
“Sure thing, Officer.” It was Steve who answered.
They follow their detour directions which take them to a ridge on the other side of the Interstate. Looking down, they can see the car that was smashed. No surprise, it was their “friend” from the road. The asshole from the roadhouse.
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Steve said.
“Hush, honey. No one deserves that. Not really.” She paused. “We should go.” But their vantage point also let them glimpse the sign from the roadhouse, and Tracy shivered when she saw it. Checking her phone, she confirms what she’d seen before. The sign on the roof. One side was the normal road sign for America’s most famous highway.
The other? It had three sixes.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.