You weren’t supposed to get lost on Route 77. It was one of the Rules of the Road, and Precarious knew them by heart. Don’t break down. Don’t run out of gas. Don’t get lost. That was easy enough, he figured, but he could never finish the thought without a snuff of air laughing out his nostrils. Everything’s easy when you’re not doing it. Then you get in the car, and you’ve got partners. Driving, Precarious thought, was an act of bravery. You roll down the window and reach out your hand, hoping that the Lord will take it. Sometimes He did and sometimes He didn’t. With the Lord, all you can do is hope.
Precarious kept his eyes forward. Then the rearview, and the side mirrors, and back on the road. Count to ten and do it again. A driver needs to have no expectations, Precarious believed. Turn signals were liars and trajectories were for textbooks and anticipation was for outfielders. Cars weren’t cue balls. They’d zag on you.
The sun rose out of the Atlantic, and had lunch in the Great Lakes, and drowned once again in the Pacific. There were storms out of the passenger window, and Precarious stubbed out his cigarette, stripped it in the ashtray, and smelled the ozone in the air. On Route 77, the thunder might not get you, but the darkning will, and there was a sound like a mountain putting a gun in its mouth and pulling the trigger and then there was no light anywhere in the world.
The tour is starting soon. No. No, that’s not right. It finished up last week. No. There aren’t any more tours. Is that right?
Precarious was the only car on the road, and he realized that he had been for a while. The tires should be humming, he thought, and is the engine even running? The speedometer’s needle was slapping back and forth like a Geiger counter in a movie, and he could swear the moon told him to go fuck himself. Precarious wasn’t a superstitious man, but that one was hard to ignore.
The sky snapped its fingers again WHAM and Precarious let out a small moan and feathered off the accelerator. He was driving a Chevy Mustang. Or a Plymouth 88. It was a Dodge. The map on the passenger seat was shredded and chewed up and on the radio there was news of aliens in New Jersey. He was driving a 2016 Oldsmobile Cougar and there was an old man’s face in the rearview, lined and pocked like the road, so he looked out the window. The shoulder of the road shrugged at Precarious and his fingers went through the steering wheel as if it were made out of water.
The Army was still using the old Deuce-and-a-halfs, at least they were at Panzer Kaserne where Precarious spent most of his hitch. He was a hard worker, and neat, and got up early anyway, so he did well in the service and made it to corporal. He even had some medals, one for sharpshooting, but the Communists didn’t stream through the Fulda gap while he was on duty, so he never got put his skills to use. Once, he had fixed a busted radiator with his underwear and chewing gum and limped home 50 miles through the Black Forest, but the Army didn’t give him a medal for that and he always resented it.
Precarious knew he was on Route 77, and not in Germany, and he was not a 17-year-old with a tight belly and veins popping out from his forearm, but he was back in his uniform and the creases in his trousers ran parallel to the seams in the leather upholstery of the Ford Malibu, which makes a distinctive sound when it runs out of gas, and that sound is shpa-shpa-shpa-UMPH and Precarious angled the car right and drifted over and when the tires left the blacktop, they made a sound like THRUMbum, one after the other and then he heard friction, rubber and gravel and grip and slow and coast and then there was no sound at all.
When Precarious stepped out of the car, he was wearing jeans, and a tie-dyed t-shirt with a half-dozen bobby pins clasping the hem. On his right leg, just above the knee and deliberately crooked, was a crew pass. It was crimson red, and he walked to the trunk the long way, the safe way, around the hood and keeping the car in between himself and the road. There was no trunk. Precarious thought that was odd.
Above him was God, and around him was America, but he couldn’t be any more specific than that. Precarious lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out his nose and pinched a fleck of tobacco of his tongue and watched the hills flatten into valleys and the oceans overtake the land and recede again. Then he took another drag and there were headlights in the distance, and then more, and more, and soon the road wasn’t enough and there were halogen pinpricks in the night all the way across the horizon.
Precarious Lee lifted his left foot and put out his cigarette on his heel, and put the butt in his back pocket, and then he wiped his hands on his the hips of his jeans. The headlights got closer and he thought about sticking out a thumb, but didn’t. The radio was playing mariachi music and Precarious lit another cigarette and stared at whatever was coming and tried not to think about his daughter and wished he spoke Spanish so he could understand the song. The headlights got closer and Precarious put his head down and put his hand out on the side of Route 77, which is a hard truck, and he hoped that God would forgive him the miles.