Precarious Lee was behind the wheel of a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. The car had four doors, and was 18 feet long standing still. The big engine, the 428 cubic inch V8,and she was a shade of gunmetal blue that the catalogue called Jennifer Blue. Stella’s sister, Precarious supposed. The seats were maroon, and plush enough to lose a small pet or child in. Only thing softer than the seats was the suspension: the Cadillac felt like she had ball bearings instead of wheels, and he commanded the window down with the nothingest flick of a finger and rested his elbow out in the baking sun as he drove southeast, away from Little Aleppo.
This is not a drag racer, the 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham in Jennifer Blue. The controls and pedals are smooth and mushy, and so is the acceleration. The car had a sort of gathering power, Precarious decided. Gained weight as she went until you got up to cruising speed and then you did just that, cruise. The trees were giving way to scrub on the sides of the highway. Off on the left, Precarious saw a roadrunner. Squatty little brown thing. Fast enough, he guessed. Precarious felt a bit lied to the first time he saw a real-life roadrunner. Did not match the billing.
Oh, the bullshit. Oh, the bullshit of a place. It oozed in through your ears and nostrils no matter how quietly you tried to go about your business. Plans and chatter and the rumor of gossip. Open a window for some air? Let the smoke out? You can hear it babbling quickly like Little Aleppo’s sewers after the rains that come every 18 days. Go to sleep, and other people’s agendas become your dreams. It was tough to be in a place sometimes, Precarious thought. Going to a place or coming from one was much easier, and driving by a place was the easiest of all. You didn’t have to be in a place, not in America. Not on the highway. The roads went through towns and cities and villages, but highways went in between them.
You could leave it all behind and glide down the highway. It was in the Constitution. Precarious found the on-ramp to Route 77 hiding in a subordinate clause in Article IV, and found that there was precedent, and then he was in the Interstitial Highway System, which run parallel to the Interstate, and also perpendicular and asymptotically. Also, at a slightly different frequency. It had been a while. Precarious tilted his head towards the open window. He sniffed the air and listened, so he could see how the engine was running.
You could leave it all behind.
“Roll up the window, sweetie. It’s too windy,” Big-Dicked Sheila said.
Unless you brought everyone with you.
She gave his shoulder a scritchy-scratch; she was taking up very little space between Precarious and Tiresias Richardson on the split front seat. The Reverend Arcade Jones was behind the girls, and he was impressed: most cars’ backseats are not fit for 6’5″, 300-pound former University of Florida linebackers, but a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham was not most cars: long as a Russian novel and half again as thick, there was legroom and headroom and every other kind of room you could envision needing.
Penny Arrabbiata was behind Precarious. Her head was tilted back onto the maroon velour, and her mouth was open; she had a red bandana tied around her head blocking her eyes from the sun, and she was wearing a blue ball cap pulled down low. There was a cartoon ox on the front of the cap. Every few miles, she made a little noise like “mloccch” and turned her head a bit. It was ten a.m., which was well past an astronomer’s bedtime.
It was also past a Horror Host’s bedtime, but Tiresias was up and glassy-eyed and taking pulls from a tallboy of Arrow beer. Sheila had one, too, and the Reverend Arcade Jones had made his disapproval clear.
“I want to make my disapproval clear,” he said when they popped their first tops five miles outside Little Aleppo.
“Noted, Reverend,” Sheila said.
“We’re not driving,” Tiresias added.
“Moving vehicle. Seems wrong.”
“You don’t want one?” Sheila asked.
“I don’t want one.”
Tommy Amici’s office was in Jeremiad Springs, which was three days ride from Little Aleppo on horseback. The trip was much shorter in a Cadillac on Route 77, but no shorter than the boring old Interstate. Sheila asked Precarious,
“Why we taking 77?”
“Wanna stop at the chicken place,” he said.
Sheila was not from Little Aleppo. She belonged there, but she wasn’t from there: she had the bad luck to be born somewhere else entirely. And to lousy people. Precarious had known Sheila for longer than just about anyone else on the planet, and the most she had ever said to him about her parents was this:
“They were lousy.”
And she didn’t offer any more, and he never pressed. Person had the right to not dwell in the past, Precarious figured. Some folks gotta talk about how fucked up they are, and others gotta forget about it. Dick digs, but Jane buries, and Sheila was a Jane.
But they had met at the chicken place, the Pioneer Chicken Stand, and then Precarious had put her in his car–a white ’72 GMC Ambassador–and then they were in Little Aleppo and she was a new person entirely. He didn’t try anything, not that she would have minded. Sheila still wouldn’t mind at all if Precarious tried something. He was her raggedy gentleman, and her magic carpet, and she could feel his skinny arm against hers. They had met at the Pioneer Chicken Stand, and he had fed her and brought her home and let her smoke all of his cigarettes and choose the radio station; if he pulled the Cadillac over right now and threw her across the hood, he could have her, he could have her in front of the motherfucking reverend: Sheila didn’t care, she loved him and always had and would, and she wouldn’t say anything about the chicken but she knew it was his way of saying that he loved her back, taking her back there, bringing it all back home.
Precarious didn’t remember stopping for chicken when he picked up Sheila. There was no hidden meaning. He wanted chicken.
The sun was pocked in the sky. Beauty marks? Saballanian warships? Blips on the yellow, whatever they were, and Precarious angled his visor to block out the glare. Fast food billboards were having a sumo match on the road’s shoulder. On the other side of the highway, someone in an El Camino drove through a drive-through movie theater, killing several. Everyone’s a critic. A tour bus with no one at the wheel passed them; the marquee above the windshield read “Marie Celeste.”
“So, uh,” Tiresias wondered. “What, uh, what the fuck kind of road is this?”
She had never been on Route 77 before.
“It’s less a road than a ‘road,’ if you get me,” Sheila said.
Precarious grunted and pointed towards the glove compartment with his chin; it opened with a TCHACK and Sheila pulled out a small tin like a child would keep his prized possessions in. It had been painted brightly a long time ago, but that was a long time ago; the colors had faded, but you could still make out Tom Mix on the front. He had been stamped there, too. Behind him were Precarious Lee’s joints, fat and stinking: Sheila offered Tiresias the tin.
She nodded, smiled, FFT, PHWOO.
“Oh, come on!” the Reverend Arcade Jones yelled from the backseat. Tiresias handed the joint Sheila, and turned to look at the preacher.
“You’re right. So sorry.”
Tiresias’ window went down two inches.
“Not better. Put that out.”
“We’re almost finished,” Sheila said.
“You just lit the damn thing.”
“Deep inhalers, Reverend.
“She’s right,” Tiresias said. “You should see my lungs. Hell, it’s easy to see my lungs: they’re on teevee all week. AAAAAHahaha!”
“Hey, listen: I’m not an uptight guy. I just don’t want to get pulled over.”
“They don’t pull over Cadillacs on Route 77,” Precarious said, and took the doobie from Sheila.
There was quiet from the backseat. The Reverend knew that Precarious was not a liar, and so he said,
“Well, smoke yourselves silly, then.”
Southeast to the Low Desert like their ancestors, but faster and with climate control and an AM/FM radio. Precarious often felt thankful he had not been born in the past; wanderlust was a far more uncomfortable affliction back then. Fuck the trail and hang the horses, he thought. Man needs a highway, and an engine, and a window to hang his elbow out of.
And, sometimes, a man needs some fried chicken.
“If all of y’all will all stop yelling at me, I will explain the ostrich situation. Good gravy.”
Terrence Mompkins used to preach the Gospel; now he shoveled rhino shit. It was all show business. He was standing at the entrance to Harper Zoo in his pressed khaki shorts and many-pocketed adventure shirt with a tag that read “TERRENCE” and a pith helmet worn way back on his head of sandy, straight hair. (The zookeepers hated the pith helmets, and occasionally petitioned to get rid of them on the grounds that “people with lisps think we’re being vulgar.” No dice: the pith stayed.)
He had brought out the portable podium that the zoo’s president used for important announcements. It had the Harper Zoo motto on the front: HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE, and it made Terrence feel very official. Reminded him of the pulpit, too, but now his congregation was Iffy Bould from The Cenotaph and Cakey Frankel from KSOS, along with a cameraman. A few Little Aleppians, smelling a free show, had also gathered.
“Okay, so: we do not–I repeat not–lose an ostrich.”
“Are you saying that the ostrich that terrorized the Main Drag for several hours last night did not belong to the zoo?” Iffy asked. He was cadaverous, and smoking.
“You didn’t let me finish,” Terrence said.
“Please continue, then.”
“We did not lose the ostrich because we knew where he was at all times. He was chasing people around the Main Drag. So, you see: not lost. You newspaper people and your words.”
“Ah, right. And how did the ostrich get out of his cage?”
“Oh, sir, the Harper Zoo has no cages. Our animals are in enclosures.”
“Okay. How did the ostrich get out of his enclosure?”
“Quite easily, it seems.”
“Right, but what I’m asking is: what went wrong?”
“From the ostrich’s perspective, nothing at all. He had a ball. Cakey, do you have question?”
“Does the snack bar still sell those big churros?”
“They do,” Terrence said.
“Oh, that’s super.”
Iffy Bould snorted, and smoke came out of his every orifice in his skull.
“So,” he said. “How did the ostrich get out?”
“Are you asking me?” Terrence said.
“No, I’m asking Cakey.”
“I have no idea how the ostrich got out,” Cakey said.
“I’m not actually asking you, Cakey,” Iffy said.
A shirtless man behind the two reporters raised his hand and shouted,
“I have a question!”
Terrence smiled at him and said,
“Sir, this is a press conference.”
“I am a citizen journalist.”
“You don’t have a shirt.”
“Did Woodward and Bernstein have shirts?”
“Yes,” Iffy said.
“He’s right,” Terrence said.
“Who are we talking about?” Cakey asked.
The shirtless man continued,
“Like I said, no one owns shirts. My question is this: why is the Harper Zoo lying to us about the existence of penguins?’
More people were gathering, and Iffy smirked. He had been a journalist for The Cenotaph for longer than anyone could remember: all the powerful people in the neighborhood despised him for the questions he asked, and all the common folks hated him for the answers that he wrote down. A journalist that people liked was a publicity agent, he figured.
“Answer the penguin question, Terrence,” Iffy said.
“Penguins are real! They’re mean, but real,” Terrence said.
And now another man from the crowd:
“Why don’t the tapirs pay taxes?”
“Because they’re tapirs.” Terrence had never been in a free-floating press conference before, and did not know what to do. A woman just arrived to the scene yelled,
“How much is Allen’s bail?”
“This isn’t a jail, ma’am.”
“Tell that to the penguins!” she shouted
“There’s no such thing!” the shirtless man answered, and they began wrestling.
The crowd, swelled and joyous, began peppering Terrence Mompkins with inane questions. Where do giraffes get off being such snobs? Why don’t you race your animals for the purposes of wagering? Do polar bears have a favorite band? Who are you to tell me I can’t eat a condor?
That last one caught on. The crowd began chanting,
“FEED US CON-DOR! FEED US CON-DOR!”
And Terrence, who was not used to being treated like this, picked up the portable podium and ran. Little Aleppo followed, having far too good of a time for a Tuesday morning.
Iffy, Cakey, and Cakey’s cameraman watched the chaos recede.
“Buy a lady a churro?”
“Is the lady me?” Cakey asked.
Iffy Bould stuck out his elbow, and Cakey laced her arm into his, and they went to eat Mexican pastries in a zoo.
A Cadillac and an American highway. Find a better combination, just try. Chocolate and peanut butter is fine, but won’t get you to Flagstaff in two days. Somewhere between 70 and 80, keep the speedo bouncing around there and there won’t be any trouble. Line up the front end with the road–right headlight on the single white line and left on the double yellow–and flick a look up to the rearview every ten-count. Don’t let the sun in your eyes. It’s an automatic, so your left foot is useless and it withers on your homunculus until all you are is vision and right foot Precarious Lee wore boots, heavy ones, but he could feel the engine through his big toe and he feathered off the accelerator a touch and adjusted his visor with his left hand because Sheila’s head was resting on his left shoulder and he did not want to disturb her. Tiresias was asleep, too, head lolled back like a dead woman and snoring, half-finished tallboy of Arrow clasped in her crotch.
“Just you and me, preacher,” he said.
The Reverend Arcade Jones looked to his left and saw that Penny Arrabbiata was still out like the tide. He smiled and met Precarious’ eye in the rearview.
“Appears that way.”
Arcade laughed, but not loud.
“Night owls at noon.”
“The one in back, yeah,” Precarious said, and then nodded at the two women in the front seat. “These two? These two are messes.”
“They do the best they can.”
“We all do, Precarious.”
Precarious snagged the pack of Camels from the pocket of his tee-shirt, and flicked the bottom with his finger. Two cigarettes flipped up, not parallel, and he put the leading one in his mouth and pulled it from the pack. Zippo. SHVIP. He inhaled. PHWOO.
“Well, shit, I’d hate to see our worst.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones laughed again, loud this time, and if the ladies woke up then that was on them. Precarious grinned and grasped for the gearshift by instinct, but there was none–the Cadillac was an automatic–and instead grabbed Sheila’s knee and did not take his hand off right away. The radio was still picking up KHAY, but faintly: it sounded like cotton on fire with a song under it, an old number about teenage fuckery sung by a grown man, and Precarious mumbled the words around his cigarette as the miles rolled by. There was fried chicken in their immediate future, and meetings beyond that, but for now there was just Route 77, which is the road out of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.