As Zeetle and his passengers continued their journey westward, through the farmlands of southern Illinois, the whereabouts of St. Louis was becoming a matter of considerable concern to them; for they could find no trace of it. The Gateway Arch, normally visible for miles in all directions, was nowhere to be seen. East St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mighty Mississippi, had apparently disappeared. In its place was a thickly wooded tract, leading all the way to the river. On the other side of the river there was only more of the same. Hardly a sign of human habitation was to be seen, and nothing even remotely resembling the urban blight that everybody was expecting.
“Well, this is rather disturbing,” Pesticide remarked, in his usual, maddening way.
“It sucks,” said Nebraska, with evident disappointment. “I wanted to ride up to the top of the big arch.”
“I did that once,” said Trinculo. “We got stuck at the top. It took the bastards almost three hours to get us down.”
“I still want to do it,” said Nebraska. “It’s better to be stuck at the top than at the bottom.”
“Good point,” said Blevins. “You’ll go far in this world, my child.”
“Farther than you, you dirty old man,” said Nebraska..
“Listen…uh…am I the only one who grasps the cosmic karma of the situation here?” Zeetle interjected. “Are the rest of you people totally crocked? An entire city has disappeared, and you’re all talking as if it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time. What is wrong with you people? A whole city has disappeared…vanished…kaput! Where the hell has it gone? Does anyone give a shit?”
“Maybe it’s in Pesticide’s pocket,” Blevins suggested.
“I hardly think so,” Pesticide responded, quite earnestly, “although sometimes I do find things in my pockets that surprise even me.”
“Well, I’m gonna find out,” said Zeetle.
An exit ramp loomed ahead, and Zeetle steered the bus onto it. At the end of the ramp, he turned right onto a bumpy, two-lane highway, and continued on to the first sign of civilization—which happened to be a seedy-looking roadhouse called Thirsty Dan’s—and pulled into the parking lot. The only other vehicles in the lot were vintage pickup trucks, most of them with gun racks in their cabs and redneck slogans on their bumpers—but Zeetle was not to be put off.
“Maybe we can get some answers in there,” he said.
“Undoubtedly they will have some sort of answer for you,” Pesticide replied, “but it might not be the sort you’re looking for.”
“Well, let’s find out,” said Zeetle.
“You can’t take this innocent child into that den of infamy,” Blevins objected, gesturing at Nebraska. “They’ll have their rough, rude hands all over her in an instant.”
“Sounds fulsome,” said Nebraska. “I’ll go.”
“No, you won’t,” Zeetle retorted. “I don’t want any trouble.”
“Well, I’ll go, then,” Trinculo volunteered. “I could use a drink.”
“Come on, then,” said Zeetle to Trinculo. Then to Pesticide and Blevins he added: “You two stay here and look after the innocent child.”
Without further discussion, he climbed out of the bus and started toward the roadhouse, as Trinculo hurried to catch up with him.
“Bring me back a six-pack,” Nebraska called after them.
“That chick is headed down the low road, man,” Zeetle commented to Trinculo. “You keep messing with her, and you’ll wind up doing hard time, I’m telling you.”
“Well, you know how it is,” Trinculo responded. “Sometimes you’ve just got to, with whatever’s there.”
“True,” said Zeetle, “but most of the time, whatever’s there ought to be somewhere else.”
The same might very well have been said of Thirsty Dan’s, for it proved to be a den of infamy indeed—dark and smoky, reeking of cheap beer and cigarettes, jukebox blaring an insufferable mélange of country & western tunes. Nevertheless, Zeetle and Trinculo strode bravely up to the bar and deposited themselves on two empty stools.
A wiry little man in bib overalls and a red “Cat Diesel Power” cap occupied the stool next to Zeetle’s. He had a face full of beard stubble and a mouth full of rotten teeth, but was also wearing a truly overpowering cologne. Next to Trinculo was a large, bearded man, clad all in black leather, and wearing a cowboy hat of the same color. This individual was puffing on a singularly vile-smelling cigar, and dumped his ashes wherever he pleased, but also had oddly delicate hands with neatly manicured nails.
Before Zeetle and Trinculo had a chance to take much note of these apparent incongruities, up came the bartender with a dirty beer mug in his hand. He was a crude-looking character, missing several front teeth, but also had an earring in his right ear.
“What you boyth havin’?” he asked, in a voice that was rough on the surface, but had a rather soft and lispy undertone.
“Two beers,” said Zeetle, in as manly a tone as he could muster. “Whatever’s on sale.”
“Ain’t got no thale,” the bartender replied. “Got Red Dog an’ Hamm’th an’ Thaint Pauli Girl.”
“Got any Coors?” Zeetle inquired.
“I do,” said the bartender sourly, and perhaps somewhat sulkily, “but I don’t like Coorth. I like Thaint Pauli Girl.”
“Two Saint Pauli Girls, then,” said Zeetle accommodatingly.
“There’s something weird about these guys,” murmured Trinculo to Zeetle, as the bartender went to fetch the beers.
“You noticed that, did you?” Zeetle replied wryly. “Take a look at what’s going on in the back.”
Trinculo cast his eyes toward the back of the bar, where he might have expected to see pool tables and pinball machines, and the sort of creatures that usually attach themselves to such devices. Instead, he could see only the shadowy outlines of people dancing—and none of them appeared to be female.
“Oh, shit,” he muttered.
“Just drink your beer and act normal,” said Zeetle, as the bartender returned with two longneck bottles.
“Normal?” muttered Trinculo uneasily. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Can I ask you a question?” said Zeetle to the bartender, after paying for the beers with the odd assortment of change he had in his pockets.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with thith beer,” the bartender responded defensively. “Don’t pay no mind to what any o’ them bathtardth tell you.”
“That wasn’t my question,” said Zeetle. “I want to know what happened to St. Louis.”
“Don’t know,” the bartender replied. “I ain’t Catholic.”
“No, no,” said Zeetle. “The city of St. Louis.”
“Thity of Thaint Louith?” repeated the bartender warily. “I never heard of no thity called Thaint Louith.”
“Come on, man,” Zeetle insisted. “It’s a big fucking city. Gateway Arch…Busch Stadium…Budweiser Beer…St. Louis Cardinals…you never heard of any of that?”
“No, I ain’t,” said the bartender, with growing irritation. “Now what you tryin’ to pull here, mithter? You better not meth with me.”
“Wouldn’t think of it,” grunted Zeetle. “So you’re actually trying to tell me that there was never a big city here called St. Louis.”
“You know damn well there ain’t no thuch plathe,” the bartender retorted. “You are methin’ with me.”
“All right, then,” said Zeetle. “If there really is no such place as St. Louis, who won the 1967 World Series?”
“Why, that’th eathy,” responded the bartender defiantly. “The Bothton Red Thockth.”
“Oh, really?” Zeetle pursued. “Who did they play?”
“Didn’t play nobody,” the bartender shot back. “Other team didn’t show up. They won by default.”
Just about this time, up came the bouncer—a big, bald-headed, professional-wrestler type person, with heavily made-up eyes and a fanny pack on his hip.
“These guys tryin’ to make trouble, Bertie?” he asked the bartender.
“Thith’n here ith,” the bartender replied, making a limp-wristed gesture at Zeetle.
“All right, you,” said the bouncer, grabbing Zeetle by the scruff of his neck. “We don’ want your kind in here. I’m gon’ walk you to the door, an’ if you say one damn word, they gon’ be carryin’ you outta here in a bucket.”
While the bouncer was escorting Zeetle to the door, the large, bearded man in the black leather outfit grabbed Trinculo by the arm and started dragging him toward the back of the bar, saying: “C’mon, cupcake. Let’s me ‘n’ you dance.”
Complicating the situation even further, the little man in the “Cat Diesel Power” cap immediately stepped in and grabbed Trinculo’s other arm, protesting that he had seen him first, and so was entitled to the first dance. This naturally led to a lively debate between the man in the leather outfit and the man in the “Cat Diesel Power” cap—which gave Trinculo a chance to break loose and make a dash for the door. Zeetle was already outside, waiting for him, and together they moved very quickly back to the VW, got in, and made a hasty departure from the premises. Unfortunately, Trinculo’s two admirers, along with several others, had followed hard behind, and had seen their intended making his escape. Accordingly, they all piled into one of the pickup trucks, and quickly gave chase, hooting and hollering and camping it up as they went.
“I’m beginning to think we should have stayed out of that place,” Zeetle remarked, while glancing into the rearview mirror.
“No!” Trinculo exclaimed ironically. “Do you really think so?”
“So what happened?” asked Nebraska. “Looks like you really pissed ‘em off.”
“You could say that,” said Trinculo.
“I could,” said Nebraska, “Of course, I couldn’t help but notice that one of those guys was carrying a purse. So what kind of a place was that? Huh? Huh? Huh?”
“Aha!” said Blevins. “Well, that explains it all, then. I don’t know what it is about this fellow. He claims to be a heterosexual, yet he seems to be very popular with fellows of the opposite persuasion. Too many years under the abbot, I suppose.”
“Too many years under what abbot?” Nebraska pursued.
“Ah,” said Blevins slyly, “I don’t suppose he’s told you about his years in the monastery, and how he fell into dissolution and got himself elected pope.”
“Elected what?” Nebraska exclaimed. “You’re out of your mustard jar, old man! You’re totally kapoonies!”
“Whatever that may mean,” said Blevins, with an indifferent shrug.
“He’s totally shitting me, isn’t he?” said Nebraska to Trinculo.
“Totally,” Trinculo replied. “The man’s spent too much time in caves and sewers. It’s the bad air, you know. Turns the brain to moldy mush.”
“Yeah,” said Nebraska pensively, “I guess it would.”
Of more immediate concern, the truck full of odd fellows had followed the bus back onto the interstate, and was gaining ground steadily. Zeetle attempted some time-honored evasive maneuvers, such as weaving in and out of traffic, but the truck stayed with him. He tried to hide in the midst of a convoy of triple-decker semis, but to no avail. Finally, he made a sudden, last-minute turn onto an exit ramp, without signaling his intentions, but still the truck stayed with him. And now the chase continued on a winding, two-lane road through thick woods, over steep, rugged hills, and down into forgotten, fog-shrouded hollows. Then, just when the truck was at the point of overtaking the VW, it abruptly slowed to a stop and pulled off onto the shoulder, while one of its occupants leapt out and darted into the bushes, presumably to relieve himself.
Zeetle was not slow to seize the opportunity. (He was never slow to seize an opportunity, but often had no idea what to do with it once he had it.) He continued on around a blind curve until he was out of sight of the truck, then abruptly turned off down a narrow side road. After another mile or so, he turned again onto an even narrower road, surfaced with gravel and deeply rutted in innumerable places. At this point, Nebraska asked him where he thought he was going.
“Back to the interstate, I hope,” Zeetle replied.
“Doesn’t look too promising,” Nebraska observed.
“Well, at least we’ll get clear of that truckload of assholes,” said Zeetle, rather testily.
“Don’t bet on it,” countered Nebraska. “They probably know these roads a lot better than you do. They might know a shortcut. They might be waiting for us up ahead.”
“You wanna drive?” exclaimed Zeetle exasperatedly, then quickly added: “No, scratch that! I’d have to be out of my gourd to let you drive.”
No sooner had Zeetle uttered these words than the left wheels of the bus suddenly slipped into one of the ruts previously alluded to. Then, in attempting to steer himself out of the rut, Zeetle only succeeded in sending the bus careening off the road, and down an entirely unimproved pathway, more or less at the mercy of gravity until it reached the bottom of the slope. It emerged at last into an open space, continued on a bit further, and finally settled itself quite firmly into the red clay mud beneath it.
“Good job,” Blevins remarked acerbically. “Looks like we really gave ‘em the slip.”
Without a word, Zeetle climbed out of the bus and glumly surveyed the situation. The VW was inextricably stuck in the mud, the grayness of the winter day was rapidly giving way to a somber twilight, and a cold drizzle had begun to fall. The clearing was surrounded on all sides by dense forest, and the only signs of human habitation were the worn-out tires, rusted mufflers, and other assorted rubbish that people had deposited there.
One by one, the other travelers stepped out of the bus into the tenacious Missouri mud, and began to look around. Various opinions were offered on what they ought to do next—none of them especially helpful, and some positively inimical to continued good fellowship, especially where Zeetle was concerned.
“Maybe if we all get behind the bus and push…?” Trinculo finally suggested, without much enthusiasm.
“Push where?” Zeetle responded morosely. “Look at this shit.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve got something useful in your pocket, do you?” Blevins asked Pesticide.
“Like what?” said Pesticide. “A helicopter, perhaps? I am only a philosopher, my friends, not a magician. No, I am very much afraid that we shall have to continue our journey on foot.”
“And which way were you thinking of going?” Blevins inquired snidely.
“I think we should go that way,” Nebraska interjected, pointing toward the woods on the opposite side of the clearing. “See? There’s a light.”
And yes, now that it had been pointed out to them, they all did see, amid the gathering gloom, a light shining faintly through the trees, apparently from some distance away.
“Let’s go,” said Zeetle, taking the lead.
“What if they’re not friendly?” Blevins objected.
“Simple,” Zeetle replied, without stopping or slowing down. “We’ll just kill ‘em.”
After walking only a short distance through the woods, the travelers quickly found themselves on a well-defined (if somewhat overgrown) pathway, which led gently downhill toward the light. Moreover, as they drew nearer to it, it became apparent that the light was emanating from a commercial establishment of some sort. Then, before anyone had time to offer any annoying comments or speculations, they suddenly emerged onto the shoulder of a fairly major-looking two-lane highway, directly across from a motel. A large neon sign of the older sort declared the name of the place to be the Eclectic Motor Lodge and Pancake House—save that the ‘n’ in Pancake appeared to have burned out. Most importantly, however, the vacancy sign was turned on.
“Well, this is a fortuitous stroke,” Pesticide remarked cheerfully.
“I hope they’ll take your American Express card,” said Zeetle .
“Well, let’s find out,” said Blevins. “I’ve been hearing about this place for years, and I’ve always wanted to stay here.”
As it turned out, they did indeed take American Express—and they also had plenty of vacancies. In fact, only two of the twenty-odd rooms in the ramshackled, one-story structure appeared to be occupied.
“Ain’t quite our season yit,” the elderly, toothless proprietor explained. “You come here in summer, an’ the place is always full. Folks come from as far away as Ioway an’ Kansas to stay here.”
“What’s the attraction?” Trinculo asked bluntly.
In response, the old man pointed to a sign on the wall, which read: “Eclectic Pancake House—proudly serving Brother Zeb’s Smokehouse Wonders.” Underneath these words was a smiling cartoon pig, and under this the slogan: “It’s all in the feed.”
“They’ll be closin’ at seven o’clock this time o’ year,” said the old man. “You go on over an’ git yerself sumpin to eat, an’ then you’ll know what fer. Ain’t nothin’ on earth like Brother Zeb’s Smokehouse Wonders. We’s famous fer miles aroun’.”
“What did I tell you?” Blevins put in, with an ironic wink.
“Maybe later,” said Zeetle anxiously. He went on to explain the situation to the old man, and asked him if there was anyone around that could help get the VW unstuck.
“You musta run off the bypass an’ landed in the ol’ county landfill,” said the old man. “Folks is always doin’ that. Don’t you worry none. She’ll freeze up good tonight. You go up there early in the mornin’ an’ you kin git out easy. An’ if not, I know a ol’ boy with a tractor’ll pull you out fer a couple dollars.”
With this thin reassurance, together with the persuasive rumblings of an empty stomach, Zeetle was at length prevailed upon to leave the bus to its fate until morning, and hurry over to the Eclectic Pancake House to sample its renowned delicacies before it closed for the night. The travelers were greeted at the door by a portly, dark-haired, red-faced waitress, who led them past a row of dingy, dimly lit booths, to a wobbly table with several chairs, suitable for a group their size. As far as they could tell, they were the only customers on the premises.
“We was gittin’ ready to close,” the waitress explained, “but we don’t send nobody away hungry here. You kin order whatever you like.”
“Well, what do you recommend?” Pesticide asked politely, while glancing over a grease-stained menu, without seeing anything that especially appealed to him.
“Smoked sausage ‘n’ beans is good,” the waitress replied. “It’s the chef’s special recipe.”
After some brief deliberation, Pesticide nodded his agreement with this suggestion, and Zeetle did likewise, while Blevins ordered the old-fashioned country scrapple—presumably just to be a pain in the ass. Trinculo and Nebraska ultimately settled on the ham and redeye gravy, if only because it appeared to them to be the least unappetizing item on the menu.
As the waitress was scribbling down their orders, Pesticide asked her if she knew how to get to a place called St. Louis. The waitress stopped scribbling and thought for a moment, then responded apologetically that she had never heard of any such place. Pesticide thanked her all the same, and she waddled away toward the kitchen.
“My friends,” said Pesticide, as soon as the waitress was out of earshot, “we are faced with an astonishing paradox. We all know that there is a large city called St. Louis. Some of us have been there, and partaken of its many wonders. Yet now we are faced with the inescapable fact that there is no such place as St. Louis, and apparently never has been. It is not where it ought to be, and no one we have encountered has ever heard of it. How are we to account for this?”
“Maybe the whole city slid into the river,” Blevins suggested indifferently.
“If that were so, possibly someone might remember it,” Trinculo objected.
“People have short memories,” Blevins retorted.
“The conclusion is incontrovertible,” Pesticide continued, seemingly oblivious to what the others had been saying. “The entire fabric of existence is now called into question. It is the first concrete evidence in support of my theory. If the great city of St. Louis does not exist, and never has existed outside of our own diseased imaginations, it can only mean that we ourselves do not exist, either.”
“Well, it looks like you won’t have to buy back your membership in the human race after all, then,” Trinculo opined.
“Good point,” said Blevins. “So why don’t you just bugger off to nirvana, and spread your nonexistent self all over the bloody nonexistent universe?”
“I’m beginning to think it had something to do with my close encounter,” Zeetle put in. “I mean, y’ know, somehow the fabric of space and time could’ve been disturbed, and…well…”
“Hey, yeah!” exclaimed Nebraska. “I saw something like that on TV once. Some guy went back in time and stepped on a caterpillar or something, and when he got back, everything was like…changed. Y’ know…his wife was a brunette that used to be a blonde, and his job was different, and America was a dictatorship, and all that kinda stuff.”
Interestingly enough, Nebraska herself was now a brunette that used to be a blonde, and nobody had noticed—not even Trinculo. Nevertheless, her remarks generated a lively discussion on parallel universes, whether or not they had somehow slipped from one to another, and if so, whether it really was all Zeetle’s fault. This in turn led to questions of what else might have changed from one universe to another, including whether or not Dante’s ducat and the holy coin return still existed (if they ever had).
“Presumably that would defeat the whole purpose of this little escapade,” Blevins commented, with evident satisfaction.
“Well, we could still go to Vegas and just have fun, couldn’t we?” Nebraska asked hopefully.
“How do we know there still is such a place?” Blevins retorted gleefully. “If there’s no St. Louis here, there might just as well not be any Las Vegas either.”
Accordingly, when the waitress returned with their respective dinners, Pesticide (who had steadfastly defended his original interpretation of the situation, regardless of its implications) asked her flat out if she had ever heard of a place called Las Vegas.
“Aw, now I know yer joshin’ me,” the waitress replied. “Ever’body’s heard o’ Las Vegas. They’s a big naval base there. My cousin Eb got shipped out from there when he was in the navy. He was in the big war against the Rooskies, y’ know. Got two Purple Hearts an’ a Iron Cross fer bravery. Killed over a thousand o’ them commie bastards single-handed. We’s real proud o’ him.”
Following which testimonial, none of them had the courage to ask her if she had ever heard of a place called Los Angeles.