In some places the road cracked and buckled, and you could see America crawling up through the broken tarmac, the America that was here before the road got laid and will reclaim its face one day. Dirt and wildflowers and earthworms, plump as a grown man’s ring finger. Where the buffaloes roamed. The road wasn’t alive, but it was embedded in something that was. The inside of the earth spins, and the outside drifts, and the skin pocks and burbles. Nothing was ever truly built, Precarious thought. You set things up and then you maintained them. Nothing in this world is permanent without help, and one day Rushmore will just be a mountain again.
It was getting nippy in Northern California, and Southern California was full of Southern Californians, so Precarious thought about taking a drive. Quick one this time, maybe. Last one, who knows? That would work itself out several horizons from now, and there was packing to do. Not much–Precarious traveled light–but the things he needed, he needed. A carton of unfiltered Camel soft packs was in the glove compartment with the maps, plus lighter fluid and flints for his Zippo, which he kept in the change pocket of his jeans. Just in case, he also had some matches.
There was dope in the car: Precarious had no doubt that he could find whatever it was he wanted, and some stuff he didn’t need, in any of his regular haunts, but he preferred to smoke his own. Or snort. Or whatever. He stuck to weed, mostly, while he was driving, but he wanted to be prepared. Before he’d take off, Precarious would roll a hundred joints or so: he could do it one-handed, but with both hands. Fun trick for parties, but you can roll joints one-handed or you can roll them perfect, and Precarious liked his joints perfect and when he was done rolling them, he put them in a little tin that had a clasp and a faded, stamped-metal cartoon of Tom Mix on the top.
The backup stash got broken into backup stashes and secreted around the car. Precarious was good at finding hidey-holes and nooks, and if he couldn’t find one, he wasn’t averse to getting his tools and making one. Sometimes, he’d just weld a little safe to the chassis. Man had a God-given right to a hidey-hole, he figured. The joints went in the tin with Tom Mix on the top, and the tin went in the briefcase, which was the only piece of luggage Precarious ever took with him when he went for a drive.
It was a custom job, he got one of the extras that Fender made for Garcia. It didn’t do the things Garcia’s did, but it was still tweed like a guitar case, and had a tasteful Stealie embedded near the handle, and Precarious thought it was nifty. He used to bring a duffel bag, and then a backpack, but he had pared it down to the size of a briefcase. Joint tin. Socks, underwear, t-shirts: three of each rolled tight like he was taught in the Army. Shaving kit with a .22 pistol in it. Wallet with two hundred in cash, plus another two grand in the briefcase’s hidden pocket. Paperback. He didn’t need anything else.
There were bucket seats in the 1971 Dodge Challenger, and a 440 cubic inch V8 engine that was so big the hood needed a bulge in it, and Precarious set his briefcase on the passenger’s seat, and turned the key. The engine sounded like your first love’s voice, and Precarious started off with no particular place to go. He figured he would follow the Challenger’s hood for a while, stay right behind it, see where it went. The car had the Top Banana paint scheme. Precarious couldn’t resist: yellow as a child’s crayoned sun, but with bold black stripes down the side. Precarious didn’t know why a car with stripes was better than a car without them, but he figured his ignorance of a root cause didn’t make it any less of a fact.
It was overcast, just a bit, and the Challenger’s stubborn wheels held the road around the curves around the mountains and into America. The highway was a promise, and it was clear from Provo to Portland, either one, and Precarious lit a cigarette and arched his butt up off the seat to put his Zippo back in the pocket of his jeans. He thought about hitting Route 77, but idly, and the sun started peeking out a little, so he flipped the visor down and the on-ramp to Route 77 fell into his lap. There was a discussion about boundaries during which Precarious punched the on-ramp very hard several times, and then he was on the Interstitial Highway System.
It was fall on Route 77, and the leaves were falling off the trees. They’d hit the ground running, the trees in hot pursuit. There was a nipsey in the air, whispering poetry to drivers with their windows down. Pumpkin growing contests were held, and so were punkin’ chunkin’ contests, and the invariable happened, and many cars were destroyed by 1,500 pound gourds launched from a few miles away. Autumn evenings look like homework and football practice on Route 77, and all the gas stations have added pumpkin spice to their hi-test.
Precarious flew down the road in his Dodge Challenger and thought about nothing at all, but thought very deeply about it. Other times, he would sing along with the radio, but the radio was to be taken with a shaker of salt. There was FM and AM, but there was also PM and you needed to careful with that band of frequencies. One of the stations was real-time 911 calls, and you owe yourself the kindness of never tuning in. There were rock stations that played lost albums, the stuff Skynrd made after they all survived that plane crash, the record Hendrix and Miles David did. A sports talk station had a call-in show that had never had a non-Bababooey caller, and four successive hosts have been driven mad on-air. Art Bell’s show came in crystal clear on Route 77.
Autumn was all right on the Interstitial, Precarious thought, unless an election broke out, and then an election broke out. BAHDAHDAHBWAHBAH! all the stations played at once: John Phillips Sousa was the Emergency Broadcast Signal for elections in Route 77, and Precarious started looking for cover. He tossed his half-smoked Camel out the window and turned off the radio so he could see where he was going. SHWAMP signs on sticks came rocketing out of the ground, impaling several pedestrians. Precarious was halfway to America, on the edge of the desert, and the sky was full of politicians. They swooped and pandered like sleazy eagles, and they smelled a voter in the car.
The gas stations would go partisan next, Precarious knew, and not the whole place at once, either: pump would turn against pump. The billboards would be plastered over with a new image every day, the paint and paper building up on the face of the sign until they began toppling over. This, too, killed pedestrians. Taking advantage of Route 77’s lax adopt-a-highway-section program, campaigns snatched up alternating miles of road, and some of the old-timers remember an election where that didn’t lead to barricades and sabotage within hours, but no one believes them.
Election Day loomed in his rearview, and Precarious gripped the steering wheel with his left hand and reached over to his tweed briefcase with his right, and he took his .22 caliber pistol from the case, making sure the safety was on, and jammed it between his thigh and the leather bucket seat. You can never be too careful with elections, and up ahead was a bar with a motel attached. A couple of drinks and a few hours of sleep sounded like the perfect way to hunker down while the election blew over. The parking lot was not full, and he parked the Challenger easily. The pistol, along with the keys, went in the briefcase, which went with Precarious. He’d watch the worst of it through the window, and when it cleared he would be back on Route 77, which is the road to Little Aleppo. It is a hard truck, but God will forgive you the miles.