America was a highway, Precarious believed. People needed places to live, and there were mountains and lakes, but the important part was the road. He’d heard poets call it a ribbon, and that was fine, but when people compared the highway to a river, Precarious got annoyed. River of commerce, river of migration. Bullshit to that, he thought. Rivers flow with or without us, rivers don’t care, rivers go where God told them to. The highway goes where it’s needed. Geology and topography and time makes a river, but the road got laid down by men just like the ones he worked with. Road crews are all the same.
The rivers brought the gold to California, but the road brought the people to the gold. That was the Lee family story, as much as Precarious knew of it, or cared. His ancestors were poor in England, then poor somewhere in the South, and then there was a healthy stretch of poverty out West. Precarious could understand the rich and powerful caring about their lineage, but he was quite sure that all his forebears were assholes in rickety shacks. I appreciate that ya got me this far, but I’ll be fine on my own, Precarious figured.
It worried him how fine he was on his own, though. He’d been married, but that was over a long time, and the kids were grown. Precarious had given his wife the house when they divorced. Kids lived there, he figured. Never got around to getting another, just rented from then on. There was always a friend-of-a-friend with a guest house, or a Deadhead landlord who’d take his rent in backstage passes and the occasional piece of insider gossip. Precarious always got a real good deal, and he saved the money Uncle Sam and his ex-wife didn’t get, and the money he didn’t save, he spent on cars.
Precarious was back and forth about Plymouths, but the ’74 Duster had a 360 cubic inch engine and a four-speed manual on the column where it should be, and it came in a two-toned paint scheme. Precarious thought that was the best kind of paint scheme, and he got one with a Spinnaker White roof and a body of Basin Street Blue. He slid it into fourth on Highway 101 somewhere outside Novato and pointed the car towards America. Precarious Lee had no particular place to go.
He didn’t tell people about the driving, sometimes. Business, he’d say, important band business to explain where he’d been. He wasn’t embarrassed, but he had gotten tired of the conversation. You drive for work, people would say, and Precarious would tell them that he liked that, too. I could drive until the engine seizes, he said once. Precarious hung out with a crowd that prided itself on accepting each other’s quirks, but he could read a face.
Someone always knew where he was, or at least that he was out on the road. He’d call every couple days, his ex-wife or his son. Sometimes he called his daughter, but the conversations were short, and they hadn’t spoken since she got an answering machine. Precarious had written her a letter, but torn it up, and then another and another. He had more paper, and there was always a 48-hour diner open on Route 77.
The on-ramp was doing karaoke in a Tahoe drag bar, and Precarious let it finish singing Mississippi Queen before slamming on the gas and shooting down glass-smooth 77. The Duster was humming and the road was clear, and the billboards all advertised places you had passed ten miles back. Route 77 had all the roadside attractions you could hope for: there was the World’s Smallest Ball of Twine, and Window Drug, and Mount Dickmore, which is just like Mount Rushmore except the sculptures are not of faces.
Precarious drove south and passed Big Top, the circus town. Most of the circus-folk lived in Winter Garden, in Florida, but even a circus town has some folks no one can deal with, and they found their way to the Interstitial. The bearded lady and her fourteen bearded children had a place. OJ the Boy-Faced Dog was tied up in the yard. Lobster Boy lived quietly with his Craw Daddy, unless they were drinking again. Gumbo the elephant yearned for the Bayou.
He sped through the Great Planes, which are very flat. A herd of bison tens of thousands strong stamped across the highway in front of him very early in the morning, and there was steam coming off of their shag in the pink light, and buffaloboys on their horses egged them on and apologized with the brims of their hats for making Precarious stop. He flashed his headlights at them and lit a cigarette, and smoked it, and stripped it into the ashtray, and lit another cigarette, and thought to himself, Goddamn, that’s a lot of bison.
Route 77 would take you where you needed to be, and you’d make good time, but everything else was a crapshoot. U-turns were forbidden, but if you could figure out how, you could make an E-turn. The rest areas were perpetually at war with one another, and there was a bathroom bombing or two before the scenic routes stepped in to mediate. The truck stops were giant steel walls that actually stopped trucks, and sometimes the shoulder would pull over onto you. There were highwaymen and slavers and all the types that had always sprouted up alongside highways like venomous dandelions. It wasn’t always safe.
Precarious kept his eyes on the road, and knew the Rules of the Road, and he also figured that the safest thing was to stay home. It was a free country, still, he’d been told, and he was a big boy. There was nothing wrong with the Interstate, it was the best since the Romans, and Precarious knew just about every bit of it, plus the belt roads and the city feeders and back ways. He might even know a frontage road or two that let you bypass the weigh stations, and he loved every crumbling mile. Man can’t stay home every night, though, drives him batty, and so Precarious took the Interstitial.
Somewhere in the darkness, in the middle of the Low Desert, Precarious coasted the Duster to the side of the road, way over far, and he got out and looked up. He had never learned the constellations, so he drew his own, and named them after people he loved. The moon revolved around the Milky Way and Precarious got back in the car, and pointed it west just like every Lee had done before him. He found first gear right where he left it, and second, too, and soon Precarious was at cruising speed on Route 77, which is the road to Little Aleppo.