The sorrow of life is in the living, Precarious Lee’s father often told him before he vanished again, and though Precarious had scrubbed clean his father long ago, he still remembered those words. They came to him steadily, but irregularly. Anything could bring that voice and those words rushing back into Precarious’ ears and he would drift a little. Sometimes, we all drift a little.
And when the world started hammering on his heart, Precarious got in the car and got on the road, and he prayed for hundreds of miles a day; then at night the AM signal would surge and bounce off the ionosphere and into his stereo, and Precarious would sing along to the commercial jingles from cities he wasn’t in.
Precarious slalomed the Appalachian Switchback with aplomb; he didn’t doze off on the 111-mile Hell’s Straightedge; he coasted a 1981 Mercury Cougar all the way down Mount Tamalpais and over the Golden Gate Bridge one time during the gas crisis.
But he always wound up on Route 77.
Route 77 wasn’t supposed to be there, but sometimes reality drifts a little and the Interstate Highway System collided with the Interstitial Highway System like metaphysical jellyfish doing judo; some of the tendrils stuck and one of them was Route 77. The Interstate connects places, but the Interstitial goes between them. It’s a bad idea to run out of gas on the Interstitial.
New York to Chicago in two hours, Macon to Abilene in four, San Francisco to LA in three days. (Route 77 discouraged people from going to Los Angeles.) If you knew where the on-ramp was, that is. If you knew the Rules of the Road. If you could count the exits correctly, as all the signs have been eaten by aluminumophagic mushrooms. 77 was made out of if.
Precarious knew the way. In the day, there was the sun; and at night, there were stars. Plus, he had purchased a map at the gas station. The oaks gave way to brush, and then desert scrub with herds of jackalope and immense colonies of prairie dogs bloodied in their turf battles with prairie cats. Buttes butted engorged gorges. The Rocky Mountains towered above Precarious, and then the Rocky 2 Mountains, which are not as good. There is no speed limit on the scenic pass through the Baby Grand Canyon, but there is no guardrail, either.
Precarious stopped for hitchhikers–this was one of the Rules of the Road, after all–and he was not like some of the other drivers who would project a debt upon his passenger: he had his own grass, and a little gas money wouldn’t hurt but he wasn’t going to ask, and, as for the ass, he was not one to press an issue. Mostly because Precarious had learned that not pressing the issue was the best way to get ass.
He picked up shady loners, and smooth hustlers in need of a lucky day. There were happy and scared young couples and sometimes Precarious would stop the car for someone shrunken in her clothes and she would ask, politely, if it would be all right if she sat in the back. Yeah, of course, Precarious would say. Where you going, he’d ask, and it would always turn out he was going there, too. He would ask if it was all right to smoke and then he wouldn’t talk, and he wouldn’t look in the rearview. When they thanked him at the end of the ride, he didn’t know if he was a gentleman or a coward.
Precarious was an hour outside Jellystone National Park, which was closed due to an outbreak of super-intelligent bears stealing visitors’ picnic baskets, and then mauling them to death. There was place on the side of the road called the Pioneer Chicken Stand, and when he pulled in, he nearly hit her: she was a slip of a girl, and she was a girl in a slip; it was black, and so was her hair and nails and boots and one sock. (The other was white with green stripes.) Her skin was vampirically pale and the whole effect was a tiny, pretty black-and-white cookie someone had dropped on the floor.
She was still standing in front of the car, and asked, “That an AMC Ambassador?”
Precarious told her that it was.
It was a ’72, he said to her.
“You bought it on purpose?”
Precarious ended up paying for the chicken, and he asked the girl where she was going.
“Anywhere but here. Where’s the most anywhere but here place there is? I want to go to the capital of Anywhere But Here.”
Which was a coincidence because Precarious was going there, too. She sat up front and called out the Latin names of trees and made up vulgar nicknames for the randos in the cars they passed; she filched smokes from Precarious’ soft pack of Camels with abandon, and rolled the window down and rolled the window up and rolled the window down and rolled the window up.
Deep in the canyons, late at night, the radio grew scratchy, and then faint, and then silent. There was a scarf of night overhead, bracketed in by the rock walls, and Precarious listened to the girl tell her story. He thought her childhood was interesting, and then he thought that an interesting childhood is something few children deserve. She had a quick mind, and would have spent her time in the library even if it wasn’t a good place to hide. When she talked about the past, she smiled, but when she talked about the future, her eyes smiled.
Precarious was quiet for a long time while she talked, and after a while he asked if she could, you know: do anything.
“I can cut the shit out of hair.”
On the horizon was an on-ramp to Route 77; it is the road to Little Aleppo, and Precarious downshifted into third and checked the gas gauge. There was gas in the car. When the sun came up, they’d be in California.
The Ambassador rolled a tire on the curb and thumped back down to the street. Precarious had written down many numbers for the girl, and given her some cash and dope. She walked away and then came back and leaned in the window she had left rolled down.
“Forget what you were calling me. I’m Sheila. I’m Sheila now.”
Precarious thought that was fine, and started the car.
“Precarious? The glory of life is in the living.”
He saw her regularly after that, but never forgot those words. They would come back to him in waves and roll over him just like he rolled over God’s own highway.
Precarious Lee let out the clutch and eased into traffic; tour started soon and he had to get home. He had some driving to do.