They found a ghost sign. Out on the highway past an abandoned suicide motel, painted on the side of a ruined roadside café. A wrecking crew had moved in and bulldozed an adjacent building, and there it was. Sixty or seventy years old. Hand painted. A woman’s weathered smiling face. Elegant slogan poetry. Its discovery made the news. People arrived from all over to see.
From a mile out, it was like speeding toward a postage stamp on the envelope of the Badlands. Blues, yellows and pinks. Close up, it creaked of neglect. Split and dry in the night, dressed in stars and whispers. Broken windows and the dead wires off of the highway.
The photographer had driven for two days, sleeping in her car in a parking lot along the way. Eating truck stop chilli and orchard apples. Drinking from gas station water hoses. She did this sort of thing. She was a photographer. Drawn in by the gravity of subjects. Assembling planets out of images, whose place in space created a gravity of their own.
She pulled up to the ruined café at 6 a.m. and sat on a fender smoking for a half hour. Watching the light change.
The ghost sign faced away from the sunrise and the café produced a long shadow. A globular cloister of hoodoos and gullies behind it. Only deserted highways thrive here, she spoke softly. Highways and roadside calamity.
Slipping of the fender, she held her Nikon DSLR out at arms length, closed her eyes, and turned in a slow circle. She did this while holding down the shutter release. Nine frames per second. Bang, bang, bang, bang…. A ritual. An arbitrary capture of lost optimism, poorly balanced on the thin surface of creation. Then she opened her eyes, faced the subject, and began.
By 9:30 a.m., the light had become harsh and she was done. Arms at her side. Her hair in the wind. The eyes of the sign staring back at her, as though the faded woman knew something.
In Drumheller, she took a motel room and sat looking out through the plate glass window. All pickups and semis. She heard their hiss as they passed. When she slept, the citizens of her dreams believed everything and looked away.
Two days later, she was home in the city. The rain. She tacked the proofs to a wall, exposing them to northern light. It was then that she saw the faint image of a woman’s face. It appeared in multiple shots. A look of anxiety and pain, fear. Looking out of different windows in different locations of the building. Photos taken in quick succession. Impossible for the woman to move from one place to another in a fraction of a second. She went to search for a magnifying glass, to see the images close up. When she returned, the woman in the windows was gone. She looked at them on her laptop again. But no woman.
A travel magazine wanted the photos. “I know your work,” the editor said. “This isn’t your usual stuff. No crack pipes. No bodies.”
“Catastrophic, all the same.” There was a long pause. “You could taste the grief in the air. You could hear the footsteps of people walking away for the last time.”
“I wonder,” the editor said. “What do photographers do on vacation? I’ve never gotten a straight answer. Where do they go? Do they bring their camera?”
Another long pause. The sound of a cigarette being lit. “Vacations are for bankers and high school teachers.”
She rang off and looked down at the phone.
It’s never quiet in the wasteland, she whispered.
August, 1951. He stood out on the highway thumbing, but there was no traffic. Who’d be travelling that highway, anyway? So far from water and radio. He walked off the road and took a seat at the empty roadside café. Dime for a coffee, he had that.
She poured it the way she’d seen a starlet pour coffee in a Hollywood movie. He appreciated it. They had the café to themselves and spoke into the evening.
“A fella come through here once,” she said. “He was a sad sort of guy. Said he wrote love songs for a living. Sold ‘em to big bands and crooners. Said he’d write me one, but he drove off the same night about 2 a.m. I watched him go from my kitchen window. He never left no love song behind.”
“Maybe he remembered you in a song he wrote later,” he said. “Maybe millions of dames hear it everyday on the radio everyday. Maybe each one thinks it’s about her, but it’s really about you.”
“Yeah, maybe,” she said, wiping down the counter. Then neither one said much for a while. Just listened to the crickets start up as the sky darkened and the neon over the driveway began to buzz and glow.
He stirred his coffee, looking into his cup.
“Too late to thumb anywhere now,” she said, removing her apron.
“Cook’s gone. No point me staying open. My place is out back.”
“You inviting me?”
“Guess I am.”
The length of the path between the back of the café and her small house was marked with once painted stones and dead marigolds. The wind whirled weeds and sand into eddies. The stairs up to the porch were slanted. The paint cracked and peeled.
“Ain’t much,” she said. “The bank and me own it.”
“Needs some work,” he said, looking at a small broken pane of glass in the door.
“You handy or something?”
“Nah, just observant.”
“You see that sign selling coffee painted on the side of the café,” she said.
“I saw it from the road. Looks new.”
“Yeah. A suit from the city paid me some dough to put it there. Sent out a sign painter from Calgary. Took him four days to finish. I’m gonna use the money to fix the place up a bit. Get a coat of paint, some new curtains.”
They stepped off the porch and into the kitchen with the yellow tile and the rooster wall clock. He saw dishes in the sink.
“Maid’s day off,” she said, as she went to a cupboard for a bottle of rye. “Ain’t got no mix. Just some hard well water.”
“I’ll take it straight.”
“Thought so,” she said. She took two glasses from the sink and poured.
“Got no man?” he said.
“Never met one worth a damn.”
“Maybe I ain’t neither.”
“I can pretty much guarantee you aren’t,” she said.
She lit some candles, and they drank and smoked at the kitchen table in the quiet that came in through the open door. Then she said, “Come out with me and we’ll look at the sky.” And they walked back out onto the porch.
It was dark now as they stared up. There were millions of stars, clouds of them waiting to rain.
“Don’t get this dark in the city,” he said. He finished the whiskey in his glass. “You never see this many stars.”
“Sure is pretty.”
“Maybe I oughtn’t be here,” he said. “Maybe I should get going.”
“It’s so lonely, though,” she said, still looking at the sky. “Just truck drivers and folks who end up here by mistake.” She took his hand and held it nicely. “I don’t mind if you stay.”
Then he heard a small commotion behind them in the house and a woman’s quiet laughter. He spun around to look through the door.
“Ignore it, baby. It ain’t nothing.”
As they walked back into the house, she gave the naked light bulb hanging from a cord over the porch a push. It moved to and fro.
“Sometimes I like to see what a swinging bulb will attract off the desert,” she said.
The walls, ceiling and windows of her bedroom were papered with pages of movie magazines, some with the corners peeling. He stopped at the door and stared wide-eyed.
“Wasn’t me,” she said. “My cousin Edith done it. Some of ‘em go back to the twenties.”
“Where’s she,” he said.
“She still comes round sometimes. But mostly she’s dead. Sat in a hot tub full of that hard well water, and slashed up her wrists. They found her when the café didn’t open for breakfast next morning. A trucker from Drumheller wanting his ham and eggs broke down the door, let himself in. Searched the place and found her in the tub.”
“She still comes round,” he said. “Like a ghost?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. You hear things out on the desert when you’re alone. See things too. Sometimes you so badly don’t want to be alone that all kinds of unwelcome shit invites itself up through the floorboards. You could call ‘em ghosts, I suppose.”
“Hell, I don’t know. I’ve seen her, I guess. Even talked to her, though she’s a quiet little thing and don’t often reply. If you was to die alone of suicide in a house behind a badlands café, maybe you’d have no other place to go either.”
“Haunted. And she left it all to you,” he said.
“Wasn’t no one else to leave it to. She pinned her good-byes to the bathroom door. The letter said she was opening her wrists to let loose the stars. The ones that’d been orbiting round inside of her since she was small. Said the stars had been cuttin’ her up from the inside out with their billions of razor sharp points. Said the pain was somethin’ horrible. She just couldn’t stand it no more.”
He stepped into the bedroom, to the farthest corner, and scanned the pages glued to the wall. 1933, Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor in The Little Giant. 1941, Orson Welles and Agnes Moorehead in Citizen Kane.
“The place has been in your family for a while?”
“Since the beginning. My Uncle Roy, Edith’s daddy, built it back in ’22. There was some traffic then, believe it or not. The place made enough for a family to live. Then things went to hell in ’28, got worse in ‘29. Even worse after that. That was when Uncle Roy gave up. He just sat and waited on the apocalypse. There was a town preacher said the Depression was a judgement, that Jesus was coming and He was some pissed off. You know how those people talk. Roy believed it and waited. Waited ‘til he died of the diabetes in 1936.”
“That’s kind of sad.”
“I’ll say. It’s a cheap thing, waiting on the apocalypse. It cheapens a life, and makes a waste of a man’s accomplishments. Makes him lazy too. Why get up in the morning if Jesus is coming to smite your enemies and take you home? Roy took to reading the Bible on the porch in the summer when the shade came round. In winter, he sat at the kitchen table. He read it ‘til he could quote it by heart at Sunday meetin’. He left running the gas and café to my Aunt Tillie, his wife and Edith’s momma. When Tillie died in ‘42, Edith got the place.”
She stopped the narrative, and stepped closer to him. Putting her hands around his waste. “We come back here to discuss my family history, or what?”
It was awkward at first. He held her down on the bed knowing he was unwashed. There was badlands grit on him, in the creases and folds of his body. She looked up at him, though. In the eye, not caring. Outside, on the porch, moths bounced against a light bulb. Sometimes I like to see what a swinging bulb will attract off the desert. There were things he was desperate for, but couldn’t ask. They tore way at each other. Each looking for what they’d never find. The night refused to cool.
She kept her eyes closed, and pretended to sleep as he carefully got out of bed before dawn. The back door closing quietly. She got up and watched him walk away from her kitchen window.
The photographer had thought about the photographs and the old café. The pained woman’s face in the windows. She called the editor. “It has to be respected like a ruin,” she told him. “It’s a historical treasure. Somewhere in the text it has to say this.”
“It’s wasn’t dug up at some ancient site,” the editor said. “It’s just some wreck at the side of the road. Now it’s going to be torn down for a golf course and Travelodge. Time marches on.”
“Get your researchers to find out about its past. This is a much bigger story than a ghost sign.”
“Researchers? What are we, Mother Jones? We haven’t got researchers. This is a small apolitical travel magazine. Hotels give it away to their guests, compliments of the house. We publish little stories about insignificant places and trivial events. That’s what we do. You got paid. Now go find another assignment.”
That night, a public lecture at SFU Woodward’s. Gabor Mate on Hungry Ghosts. Then jazz and too much to drink. She sat on a bench in Gastown. 3 a.m. The rain had ended.
An assignment had come up. Syria. One week. In and out. Try to get to a pocket of non-combatants that the NGOs couldn’t. Photograph the misery for western readers. It was a pay cheque with big syndication possibilities. Probably get your ass shot off, someone had said. She’d signed on immediately, and bought a new SLR body.
But there were still rooms full of days somewhere out on an Alberta highway. The coarse wind eroding them. Contractors and bulldozers waiting. She lit a joint. Could the spirit standing invisible in a corner exist without being seen? Could it be immune and enduring?
The clouds had thinned and parted above the city. She looked up at the meagre number of stars. Only the bright ones were there, forming enchanted animals and fairy-tale humans.