Precarious Lee needed a drink. He didn’t have much of a taste for booze, but when he did it came on powerful and loud. Just a little one, and a larger one stood right next to the first to wash it back, and set it up again until last call. He wasn’t particularly good at drinking, but he wasn’t particularly good at fucking, either, and had never let that stop him. Precarious was good at driving, and working, and keeping his big stupid mouth shut, but alcohol took away all those abilities and so he avoided it until if he could. Every four years or so, he couldn’t.
He had been living out in Tiburon, in a friend of a friend of a drug dealer of a fan’s guest house, halfway up Paradise Drive on the way out to Bluff Point. In the morning, or whenever he was calling morning that week, Precarious would take his coffee out to the lawn in his boxers and take a piss while he looked across Raccoon Strait to Angel’s Island. Some mornings, he wished he didn’t know about all the military facilities on the island, or the Nike missile base dug into the wet ground Mt. Livermore rose out of. Other mornings, he felt like the truth, the whole truth, and another cup of coffee.
Precarious loved coffee, and didn’t much understand those that didn’t. He was respectful about smoking near children, or anyone that seemed to be bothered, and that made sense: each of the dozens of times he had quit, the first thing he realized was how bad smoking smelled. Pot smelled good to him, and he had not once in his life bothered to quit that, but he also understood that it just wasn’t for everybody. And he wasn’t a drinker, so it would be odd to judge a teetotaler, but people who didn’t drink coffee damn near got on his nerves. If you didn’t like it black–Precarious took his black and hot as possible–then put some crap in it, he thought. Leaving aside the folks with medical conditions, he assumed that anyone who turned down a cup of coffee was a health nut, religious nut, or some other, unspecified, nut.
He had just bought a new car that wasn’t new at all, which was the way Precarious liked it. New new cars were for suckers, but a new used car was a joy unless it broke down on the way back from the guy’s house, which would happen from time to time. That was okay. He could fix it. Precarious had never built anything in his life, but he could sure as shit keep things working. Upgrade the wiring first, he thought. Systems fail at the connections. A machine that does not communicate with itself cannot cooperate with itself. After that, check the transmission.
Friends called when they were buying cars, and he would meet them and usually end up taking over the deal. “Just look at it,” they’d ask him, as if he could know anything about anything from sight, and he’d nod and agree and then do what needed to be done. When Precarious was younger, he would argue with people when he thought they were wrong, but had found that it was far more efficient to simply nod and agree and then do whatever needed to be done. Certain sightings had to be made–gotta put your eye down the chassis just to see if she’s still straight–but other than that, a car had to be driven to know anything about it. Precarious had seen too much of the world to trust his eyes, but he held the opinions of his ears and asshole highly.
If you can’t take a car out to the highway, roll up the gears and then back down again, and then bring her home without knowing everything about that automobile you need to know, then you had little business in the car business, Precarious thought. You shut off the radio and listened to the engine, and you let your asshole monitor the gearshift. Does the sound the car’s making build and ebb, or does it make a lot of sudden noises? Does the vibration of the road massage or provoke your prostate? Wasn’t rocket science, although he did know a few actual rocket scientists and not a one of them could even change a tire.
If you called and asked, he would go, and especially if you were Big-Dicked Sheila, whom Precarious would do just about anything for. She had her eye on a 1961 Lincoln Continental. It was the four-door convertible model with a 462 cubic inch V8 engine and a Turbo-Drive automatic gearbox, and it had a 25-gallon fuel tank, and the door locks were pneumatic and so was the roof, and it had suicide doors. Precarious wasn’t a religious man, but he knew that Heaven’s entrance had suicide doors. Sheila told him over the phone that it was black with green leather seats, and he looked through his old car magazines to find the proper name for the color, which was Presidential Black, and he put on his pants and went down to Sheila’s shop.
Precarious didn’t mean to steal the car. Well, he did, but he didn’t plan on it. He had stolen several cars in his life, but Precarious figured that he was a working man, and a working man has a boss. Sometimes, he further thought, the boss is the situation, and sometimes the situation demands that you steal a car. Precarious also figured that whole line of rationalizing was complete horseshit, but otherwise he’d have to call himself a car thief, and he’d prefer not to do that to himself. Besides, he thought, he was going to pay for the the damn thing: it’s just that he didn’t tell the owner–or Sheila, who thought she was buying it–before setting off on the test drive.
But a thirst hit him during the ride, heavy and loud, and instead of taking the Lincoln back he kept going until he hit a highway, any highway, and then he kept going until he hit America, any America, and then he kept going until he hit Route 77, of which there was only one. Precarious stopped to gas up on the way and called home. He knew Sheila would take care of everything, and he was right, but he also knew that it was gonna cost him, and he was right about that, too. He told her it was unusual for a car to appreciate a thousand bucks in a few hours, and he did not argue when he was told it was a “jackass tax.” Sounded about right. Shouldn’t profit off a friend, Precarious figured, but you could fine their dumb asses once in a while.
A 25-gallon tank takes forever to fill, and he needed cigarettes, so Precarious went in the station’s convenience store and bought a carton of Camels from the on-ramp to Route 77, who was working a second job as a cashier at a gas station outside Yuba City. The on-ramp told Precarious that his children, a cloverleaf and a jug handle, needed repaving, and so he had taken this second job, to which Precarious responded that he resented the on-ramp subjecting him to this kind of weirdness before he had even gotten on the Interstitial. The on-ramp to Route 77 did not take this well, and there was a scuffle in which both the gum rack and sunglass spinner were knocked to the ground.
The sun was going down on Route 77, and later Route 77 would go down on the sun. Shooting stars were way overhead, and stabbing stars were unpleasantly close. Dinosaur used to roam here, and then buffalo, and now Precarious. America was made to roam around in, he thought, but not tonight. He was thirsty, and it was too damn quiet no matter how loud he turned up the radio, and he figured he could kill two birds with one barroom.
Liquor licenses on Route 77 cost millions, and take years of background checks and strip searches. (All bureaucracy on the Interstitial involved strip searches, which may partially account for the insistent lawlessness of the residents.) Luckily, or ironically, or some other adverb, the lawyer who wrote the liquor statutes was an incorrigible drunk, and worded it so that you actually required a liquor license not to sell liquor, Heavy penalties could be levied if you were found not selling liquor without a license, and most business-owners found it cheaper to install taps and a jukebox than to pay the fines.
Besides all the burger joints and children’s bookstores that you could get hammered in, Route 77 had bars and saloons and dives and pubs: the whole spectrum from clip joint to classy establishment. Precarious preferred something in the middle. The bathroom didn’t need be to be cleaned today, but it did need to have been cleaned some time. A large enough selection of beer and booze so that he didn’t feel like a Communist, but not so many as to be daunting. Precarious had tried one of those beer snob picobreweries that had opened up, but it was so authentic that they just hurled barley at you. He wasn’t much versed in beer, but he did know that he liked it in finished form, and cold in a glass.
The Green Dragon Tavern was in a seedy section of Cahokia, but that was what Precarious was looking for: seedy was the Goldilocks spot between fancy and sketchy, he figured. The fancy and sketchy parts of town stole your money, but the seedy part was just happy to take it. He had been to the other bars on the street, like Jeers, where no one knows anyone else’s name, which leads to people screaming “HEY, YOU” at each other all night, but he liked the Green Dragon. It was the kind of place where a man could truly not listen to himself, and that’s what Precarious felt like doing.
Everyone called the bartender Toots. That was not his name, but he didn’t mind, as he had previously worked at Jeers and was thrilled to have any name at all. His fingers were the size of beer bottles, and his forearms were like champagne magnums, and on the left one was a faded tattoo of a bulldog that Toots had gotten while he was a young man, and he was very far from home. He could pour a perfect pint, and he knew every bar trick there was, and if you asked for something pretentious he would smile at you and keep saying, “What?” until you got the hint and ordered a gin & tonic like a reasonable person.
The bathrooms were down by the pool tables and on the other side of the long room was the jukebox and a row of those shooter games: Deer Hunter, and Dealey Plaza, and Silent Scope. The jukebox made of walnut and chrome, and armored with neon, and it still took dimes. Nowadays, you had to put in a shitload, and there was a dollar slot, but it was the principle of accepting the coin. Like any collection on Route 77, the jukebox had become more or less infinite, but if you picked anything but the Rolling Stones it would spray acid at you. Precarious had met the Stones on a number of occasions, and found them to be raging jerk-offs each time, but he had yet to find anything that sounded better in a bar.
The jukebox was wired into the stereo system, which was excellent. It was excellent because it was shitty the first time that Precarious walked in, and now he drinks for free at the Green Dragon, at the end of the bar several seats away from anyone else. Toots put a shot of Braddock’s whiskey in front of him, and a clean ashtray that was made of glass, and to the side of the whiskey he laid a coaster and on that a bottle of Coors Banquet, which was sweating and caught the light from the cigarette machine like a disco ball. In the ashtray was a matchbook with nothing on its cover but a warning to close it before striking, so he did, and the match went zhhhPOP. Precarious cupped his hand around his smoke as he lit it, even though he was indoors, and took a long drag off his unfiltered Camel and shot the whiskey and exhaled PHOOOO and set the glass back down, halfway across the bar, where Toots took it and replaced it with a new glass, which he filled and handed back as Precarious took a pull off his beer and felt the earth beneath him shift down a gear.
There was an old vinyl banner stapled high in the corner advertising football–the Eagles were playing the Redskins, and Dallas had a big game–and several strategic mirrors. Precarious liked a bar with strategic mirrors, where you can see the entire room without turning your head and being obvious about it. Good way to catch someone’s eye, or see where people kept their wallets. You can learn a lot about folks when they don’t know you’re watching them, Precarious thought.
On the jukebox, Mick was singing about being a cold Italian pizza that could use some lemon squeezer, and Precarious agreed with the sentiment even though he had no idea what the fuck Mick was talking about, and he raised his glass of Braddock’s whiskey with his left hand and his cigarette with his right, and sucked in the smoke and drank down the booze, and when he exhaled it shone green in the light of the neon beer sign, and then Toots brought him another, and a fresh bottle of Coors Banquet beer, and while the room was not yet spinning, it had taken on a feeling of orbit.
Last Call is always a surprise, and doubly so on Route 77, as there is no such thing, but Precarious was old enough to know when to quit. He figured it was better to call it a night before the night did. Beat it to the punch. By his count, he still had three more songs left in the jukebox, but he’d heard ’em all before, and he settled up with Toots and walked out to his 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible. He got in and turned the key backwards, and then he looked around for the trunk button for a solid five minutes until he hit it by accident and the trunk went up with a hydraulic whoosh. He took his driver’s license out of his wallet, put the wallet in his briefcase, and then put the briefcase in the trunk and locked it.
The backseat of a Continental isn’t big enough to sleep in, but you can certainly pass out there in style, so Precarious took off his boots and undid the top button of his Levi’s and did just that. Outside the suicide doors, there were shooting stars way overhead, and stabbing stars unpleasantly close, and Precarious Lee closed his eyes and listened to Route 77, which is the road to Little Aleppo. It is a hard truck, but God will forgive you the miles, and He will protect all of His fools and drunks.