The scarecrow marathon was running again, and herky jerkers skipped and stuttered down the tarmac. Swerving from lane to lane, not in control, and trailing hay: they spilled out of themselves and left themselves where they had been; their tattered blue work shirts bulging in places, flattened in others, they were lumpy creatures with no neck muscles and their burlap heads lolled and bounced like metronomes from shoulder to shoulder. Marionettes controlled by a spastic, and hopping toward a finish line which only farmers could see.
“I’ve made up my mind: I do not like this road,” Tiresias Richardson said from the passenger seat of a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham.
“Route 77’s not always like this,” Precarious Lee answered from behind the wheel.
“Yeah. Sometimes, it’s weird.”
The Interstitial Highway System was what the Interstate would have been if Eisenhower were a schizophrenic with an American Studies degree. All the states, even those two weird ones, were connected to the Interstitial; rumors said that it went overseas, too, and even other places that you shouldn’t go without an exit strategy and at least several pre-cast spells of mystical slipperiness. No guardrails on Route 77; it would take you anywhere you wanted to go, no matter how terrible an idea. You could go to the mountains, or the oceans, or even the Low Desert.
But not in any car. Had to have a proper ride for the road. Need the right tool for the job, Precarious thought, and you had to be open-minded about your definition of “right” and “tool,” or at least you did in his line of work. There were times you needed a hammer, and other times you needed a screwdriver. Once in Tulsa, he had needed a duck press at two in the morning, and though he didn’t much like remembering what the duck press was used for, he was proud of himself for procuring the sucker.
Former. Former line of work, he reminded himself. He was semi-retired now, whatever the fuck that meant.
The Reverend Arcade Jones snored. He had a thick neck–he had a thick everything–and the sound was an intermittent and startling basso profundo that came from his chest and mouth and nose all at once, and it was phlegmy and gargly and irregular.
Never the same snore twice. The Reverend Arcade Jones slept with great creativity.
Penny Arrabbiata was to his left in the back. Tiresias was by the window up front, and Big-Dicked Sheila was in between her and Precarious: 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Broughams had a bench seat that fits three comfortably, or two really comfortably.
It wasn’t the Reverend’s fault: he had had a big lunch, and the maroon seats were thick and soft; floaty, even, especially when matched with the Cadillac’s plush suspension, and there was the feeling of not driving but sliding, sliding down the highway slick with silk and stuffed with satin, and thick with industrial strength lube, the kind used in wind turbines and on horse breeding farms; there was no friction anywhere–what a drag that coefficient is–anywhere at all and the crushed velour seats contoured beneath your thighs and ass and back, cradled you like a metal mama and took you as you came: they were sin-causing seats.
Whole car was made of sin, Arcade thought, all seven of them. The fuel tank was Greedy and Gluttonous; and the color, Jennifer Blue, was surely Vainglorious; and there was more than enough space for Fornication; and any man who drove it must know Pride; and the seats birthed Sloth. He had almost figured out how to work Wrath into his metaphor when his enormous head drooped against his shoulder and then the orchestra of the adenoids began.
Off to the east was the Hamiltonian Chasm, and Bald Mountain was beyond that. To the west, there was a lake full of cryptogeese molting PGP keys while whistleblowers tossed them bread crumbs. The air smelled like Bible stories, fresh-mown grass, and nachos.
“I could go for nachos, actually,” Sheila said. Tiresias’ jaw dropped, and Precarious shot her a quizzical look over his cigarette.
“We just ate. We just ate,” she said.
“Tell that to the Colonel.”
“Stop calling your stomach that.”
Sheila called her stomach the Colonel because her orders must be followed. Three guesses as to what she called the General.
“Think you got a tapeworm,” Precarious muttered.
“We didn’t have dessert,” Sheila said.
“Nachos are not dessert.”
“Anything is dessert if you eat it after the meal.”
“Nachos are a snack.”
“Penny, you’re a scientist. Are nachos dessert?”
Penny Arrabbiata spent a lot of time alone, and extended contact with people made her realize why.
“I’m not that kind of scientist,” she said.
Precarious grinned around his cigarette, and Sheila plucked the half-smoked Camel from his lips and put it to hers, PHWOO, and screwed it back into his half-smile; her ring finger brushed against his promontory of a chin–stubble bristly like a tiger’s tongue, he had shaved two days ago–and felt lightning in her wrist forearm shoulder heart cock, and she did not look his way deliberately, did not look anywhere near him because Sheila was nothing if not self-aware and knew she had a shitty poker face.
“Yes, but you’re educated,” Tiresias said.
“We’re all educated,” Penny answered.
Precarious took his right hand off the wheel and held it up.
“Nope. High school dropout.”
Sheila’s hand joined his.
Sheila and Penny looked at Tiresias. Precarious kept his eyes on the road. The Reverend was asleep.
“Harper College, baby,” Tiresias said.
Penny perked up and said,
“You were a ‘Squatch?”
“No. We were the Fantabulists.”
Harper College changed mascots every several years. At first, the school was known as the Dead Injuns, but societal changes led to the name being abandoned. However, the lesson that Harper College took from that was that a school’s mascot was not a permanent feature of the landscape, and could in fact be changed at will; they did. The Stevedores, the Lenticular Motives, the Wildcats, the Sparkling Winos, the Barbarians, the Armistice Seekers, the Azure Mob, the Halloween Celebrators, the Possums, the Unharmed Mass, the Cougars. Harper College went through name after name, at will or by vote or sometimes it happened in the middle of the night when no one was looking: students would walk by the bookstore and notice the new hats.
At the moment of the conversation between Tiresias and Penny in a Cadillac on Route 77, the school was known as the Harper College Itty Bitty Titty Committee. Initially, the campus rejected the name, but then realized how funny the tee-shirts would be. Tiresias owned two: she bought them a size too small on purpose, and would wear them without a bra.
And the front seat thought that maybe the Reverend had a point: a drowse settled in and pinned them to the velour; posture slackened, eyelids fluttery, and Tiresias yawned first. Sheila tried not to look, but there she went and finally Precarious, who had to snap his hand up to his mouth to catch the cigarette that almost fell into his lap when his jaw loosened in postprandial snooziness.
Sheila shook her head back and forth, slapped herself on the cheek twice, deep breath deep breath, and reached between her legs and into her purse, which was more of a satchel, rummaged around.
Keys: apartment, mailbox, shop, two unidentified. Wallet: $62, no driver’s license, and a library card that had been scotch-taped back together. Gum: spearmint, cinnamon packs of Camels, one unopened. Yellow plastic lighter. Lipstick, mascara, one compact with no puffy poof for applying the foundation, one without. Flick knife. Condoms. Cigarette case with four joints left. Tissues. Three pill bottles of varying fullness. Nail clipper. Emory board. Switchblade. Little black book, but it was red. Paperback: American Sargasso by Summer Stone, which was about a brother and sister that kill their parents for taking away the car keys, and the fun they had in the week after that.
It was the pills she was looking for. No, not those, not unless you wanted to pass out, and not those, no, not unless you wanted to fuck, ah: here we go. The kids nowadays, they didn’t understand the glory of the old days, the rough days, the fend-for-yourself days. Little peach badges, that’s what Sheila thought they looked like, and she rattled the green plastic bottle and it made a sound like SHACKASHACKA which her brain calculated into a vague estimate of how many she had left; it was enough for this road trip, she knew that, and popped off the top and said to Tiresias,
“Come on, Sheila.”
She held out her hand, and Sheila shook a little peach badge into her palm SHWOP into her mouth and dry-swallowed it GULP.
“You’re very good at that.”
“Swallowing is the first trick you learn in show biz. AAAAHahaha!”
Sheila chucked one back, too, and Precarious’ hand was outstretched in front of her.
“Please,” he said, and he got one. Sheila swiveled around on the front bench of the Cadillac until she was on her knees and her arms were draped over the back of the seat SHACKASHACKA her head was cocked like the RCA dog, and Penny thought the sight was funny, and so she laughed.
“Never seen maracas like that,” Penny said.
“You gotta get out of the Observatory more,” Sheila answered.
“What are those?”
The pill bottle was unlabeled, and Sheila said,
Fuck it, Penny thought. This daytime shit was for the birds, and she was a bat. Afternoons. What the fuck good were afternoons? At least the day had some promise in the mornings, but afternoons were just sludgy monstrosities meandering their way towards a tasteless dinner and a resentful fuck. Not that she was sticking up for mornings–fuck that shit, too–but afternoons were torpid and dull. Nothing worthwhile, Penny figured, had ever been accomplished in the afternoon. You could think at dawn, and you could create at midnight, but all you could do in the afternoon was contemplate suicide and watch baseball.
The sun was smudging her brain–she felt stupid and slow–and she needed to be fresh and alert for the meeting.
“Gimme,” Penny said, and Sheila did.
There was a cooler by Penny’s feet, cheapo styrofoam job, and six tallboys of Arrow half-floated in the water that had been ice back in Little Aleppo; the cans were white and red, and the “O” in Arrow was a bullseye. Penny handed two to Sheila, and then popped one open PSSHT and threw the little peach badge in her mouth and took a slug of the beer.
Sheila handed an Arrow to Tiresias, and then she filched a cigarette from Precarious and lit it, and there was quite a little party going on in that Cadillac.
Now Tiresias turns around, just halfway, and Sheila is still facing Penny, and asks,
“What’s your favorite star?”
“Whichever one I’m looking at.”
“Educate us, Professor,” Sheila chimed in.
Penny sipped her beer and Route 77 slipped by like it didn’t exist at all.
“Kamilopara-81. Only about 700 light years away. Virtually a next-door neighbor. Precarious could drive there without stopping.”
He revved the engine in appreciation.
“It’s not the star that’s interesting. I mean, all stars are interesting, but I mean it’s just a G-type like our sun. Well within the parameters of normal for a star of its kind. Right in the middle of its lifespan. Normal. If you didn’t look closely, you wouldn’t look at it twice. It’s not the star.”
Precarious flicked the turn signal and got to the right to let a hijacked ambulance go by.
“Kamilopara-81 is interesting because it has planets, at least two. Probably more, but only two confirmed–K1 and K2–and they’re in the Goldilocks Zone.”
“What’s that?’ Sheila asked.
“Not too hot, not too cold. And it depends on so many things! How hot the star is, and how much atmosphere the planet has, and a bunch of other stuff, but basically: if you’re too close, all you get is steam; if you’re too far away, all you get is ice. But if you’re juuuuuuust right, then you get water. And water is the stuff of life. Everywhere there’s water, there’s life. And K1 and K2 are in the Goldilocks Zone of Kamilopara-81.”
Precarious eased the Cadillac back into the fast lane so smoothly that no one noticed.
“But that’s not it, either. These two planets share an orbit. They’re exactly the same distance from the star, but on opposite sides of it. Same size, same chemical makeup. Twins. But the star’s in the way. Imagine a double of Earth, but while we were on New Year’s Day, they were on July 1st. No matter when you look up, the sun would block the view. They can’t see each other.
“So what you have to ask yourself is this: assuming life on those planets, assuming sentient life that can figure things out, where are they in their history? Because if there was a Counter-Earth rotating opposite of us, then we would have only been able to figure out its existence a couple hundred years ago. And we could have gotten there easily. All you would have to do is launch yourself out of our gravity well and lose a bit of velocity. The slower you go, the faster you’d get there. Way simpler than getting to the moon.
“The planets share an orbit, but we don’t know what else they share. Maybe they worked out a transplanetary culture. Or maybe they nuked each other. Maybe there’s babies from two worlds.
“Or could be they’re not there yet, and have absolutely no idea of what’s around the corner.”
Precarious tilted his head like he was thinking, because he was thinking, and then he reached past Sheila’s back to the glove compartment, opened it, reached in and found the metal box with Tom Mix stamped on it where he kept his joints, opened that, took one out, in his mouth, Zippo, PHWOO, closed the glove, settled back into the soft maroon seat of the 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and kept the car between the lines. There were discussions to be had and diplomacy to be practiced, but he would not be involved in that; his job was driving, and Precarious Lee was good at his job, and so he took the women and the preacher to Jeremiad Springs, which is three days journey on horse from Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.