Sometimes, the Interstitial isn’t as weird as the Interstate.
Sometimes, the Interstitial isn’t as weird as the Interstate.
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.
God is an American. Everything else, too-Chinese and a lady and the sun–but the whole point of God is the omniness. Omnipotent and omniscient and all the rest: If God is everything, then one of those things must be American, and that was the God Precarious Lee preferred. Made it easier if He spoke English. What’s the use in praying if God only understands Italian? Precarious created God in his own image, but a little taller. Precarious figured God would be pretty tall.
He went to church as a kid, a bunch of them. His mother was her own version of forward-thinking, and she wanted Precarious to be exposed to every religion in town, as long as the religion involved Jesus Christ, but not the Catholics. Pentecostal, Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, you name it. Some of them were the kind of churches where people holler, and others were more subdued. It was just poor people singing about Jesus in the morning, Precarious thought many years later. He wasn’t quite as observant as a kid, but he never much cared for the experience and would generally spend his time trying to catch a peek at the prettier congregants. He knew that was a sin, but he also knew not paying attention in church at all was a sin, so might as well look at girls. Sin for a penny, sin for a pound.
There were services in the Army, too, and people looked at you funny if you didn’t go to any of them, so Precarious did what his mom taught him and went to just about every one, even the non-Jesus religions. It was the early ’60’s, so there weren’t many non-Jesus religions, but Precarious still dropped by all of them. He decided that the poorer the sect, the better the music, but not much else. Made some friends, and he was also smuggling alcohol onto the base and it turns out that religious services are a superb place to sell booze.
When he joined the circus, that was when his theological education began. Pagans and yogis and dharma bums and Satanists and tons of folks just making shit up as they went. Buddhism was always thrown at him, and occasionally by someone who knew what he was talking about. Precarious couldn’t figure that one out, though. Point of Buddhism is to learn a bunch of foreign words, then sit there quietly until you clear your mind. Wouldn’t it be easier to clear your mind without all those foreign words cluttering it up?
Only denomination he steered clear of was non-denominational: Atheists always wanted to tell you about some book they just read. So mad at people for reading a book that they read their own. If you don’t like a book, Precarious thought, then don’t read it. Don’t read other books at it. Couldn’t find God in any book, anyway, even the ones about Him. You might be able to find God in a random cookbook in the bookstore with no title in Little Aleppo, but you couldn’t count on it.
Precarious Lee looked for God on the highway. The window was down and his elbow baked in the American sun of the low desert which he had been doing idle laps around ever since getting on Route 77 several hours or days or minutes ago. He had no agenda, and he had a 1970 Ford Mustang, which was the last good year. He usually preferred more obscure bullshit, but he was on a mission for God this time, and plus the one for sale had the Boss 302 engine with a four-speed Hurst shifter, and it was Candy Apple red with white leather seats. Precarious had never met the Lord personally, and he hadn’t done too well in Sunday school, but he knew that when you met God, you should do it in a Candy Apple red Mustang with white leather seats.
Although if he were honest about it, he had not strictly been looking for God for a while now. If he were completely honest, Precarious would tell you that it had slipped his mind entirely as he tried to get to the gas station. It had been in his rear-view mirror for around a half-hour: he had tried backing up, but that just put it in his windshield. He had nearly caught up several times, but then the station disappeared again, and Precarious was pretty sure he was being fucked with. When he saw one of the pumps give him the finger, it cemented this belief. He didn’t know what he had done to the gas station to deserve this, but he figured it best to let things blow over.
It was always Sunday morning on Route 77. There are also joints where it’s always Saturday night, and long stretches of Tuesday afternoon, but mostly it’s Sunday morning. The Interstitial is weird, but not that different: religious institutions pay no taxes, so every single structure on Route 77 has declared itself a place of worship. Each rest stop is its own denomination, and they regularly accuse one another of heresy. Gift shops have waged religious wars with food courts, and there are no winners in that conflict.
Route 77 took freedom of religion as a dare. Sects and splinters and schisms, followed by reaffiliations, and then reschisming: you couldn’t tell the prayers without a scorecard. On a back road outside Cahokia was the Mt. Zion Holy Father Fire Baptized Jubilation Congregation of Christ the Lord in His American Rising. The church held raffles and washed cars and played Bingo until they had the money for a giant sign, but the preacher told them to print the whole name on one line, so it snapped in half and now the preacher pretends it’s a metaphor and he did it on purpose.
There were monasteries steeped in silence, and also one place where the monks screamed at the top of their lungs constantly. Many paths to the Lord. A growing sect in Cascadia worshiped a many-nippled owl. Take one step towards God, and He takes two towards you. Route 77 has so many cults that it’s become a buyer’s market, and the cults have had to start offering signing bonuses and dental insurance. To seek Heaven is to reside there by the effort.
Precarious liked to stop in at the First Church of the Iterated Christ. It was a Trinitarian Essentialist church, and they preached that all Jesuses were the true Jesus: Baby Jesus, and Bible Jesus, and the one they talk about on teevee. The one that overturned the money changers’ tables, and the Christ that suffered in the desert. Tall or skinny, white or black: they had every kind of Jesus at the First Church of the Iterated Christ, and Precarious found that it suited him.
It was cool–it is always cool in churches when they’re empty–and all the Christs were there with him, etched into the stained-glass, which by Precarious’ best reckoning was load-bearing. The Interstitial was full of architectural quirks, and that one impressed him, but he still sat as close to the exit as possible. Cherubic or bearded, or Risen and gone: take your pick, the free market at work, and Precarious locked eyes with the Jesus he drove all this way for, which was made out of glass and showed straight through to the highway behind.
There were miles and miles of the Interstitial with speed bumps made from penitents, and hassocks growing wild along the soft shoulder. It was late in the afternoon, even though it was Sunday morning, and beyond the mountain range on the horizon the sun got dragged back to earth by Apollo. It was hazy, but Precarious thought he was in a Pontiac.
He put a five in the plate as he left, and had a cigarette in his mouth before he got to the door. He had locked the car because church parking lots are still parking lots, so he locked the door, and then he unlocked it with care so as not to scratch the Candy Apple red finish of the Mustang he had planned on meeting the Lord in. Precarious ashed his smoke and put it back in his mouth as he sat in the car and crossed another location off the mental checklist he’d been keeping all his life. Another place he hadn’t met God, but he would keep looking after he had a cheeseburger, and figured the best place to do both of those things was Route 77, which is the road to Little Aleppo. It is a hard truck, but God will forgive you the miles, if you can ever find Him.
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.
America was a year-round kind of place, Precarious noted. In winter, there was the southern route, a big dip down through the desert and the fields, and in the summer all the roads were passable in the places that weren’t on fire. The West caught fire every summer, so Precarious nibbled at the edges of the mountains and skirted the valleys that made for such pretty pictures. Country was big enough so that it was easy enough to avoid trouble if you’re not looking for it, he thought.
Used to be bigger, though. Everything’s bigger when you have to walk it, Precarious figured. Lewis, Clark? Took almost two years to get from St. Louis to the Pacific. They weren’t going for speed, but that’s still a long time. After a while, we got coast-to-coast time down to four or five months, but then Lincoln pounded in the Golden Spike with his hands, or something, and the railroad cinched itself across America’s belly and it was Penn Station to Union Station in three-and-a-half days.
And that was a good number, at least as far as Precarious was concerned. There were airplanes, obviously, and if you had a few people to share the driving, then you could make the trip in 40 hours straight or so, but if you were alone in the car, then three-and-a-half days was right. Eyesight goes wooly after a while, back starts folding. You could cannonball it, tearing ass like a dipshit all the way, and make it in under 30 hours, but that sounded like punishment to Precarious. He’d pissed in bottles plenty of times when he couldn’t stop, but didn’t want to participate in an activity that had bottle-pissing built into it.
Precarious cruised, and 1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo is a good car for that activity. It had two enormous doors, and a split-bench seat made from light blue leather the same color as the Landau roof, which was the same color as the jean jacket your older brother gave you, the one with the Zeppelin logo painted on the back. The rest of the car was Tuxedo Black, and under the hood was a Turbo-Jet 454ci engine that for reasons known only to Detroit made just 245 horsepower, but it made a good noise when you eased the gas pedal down. There was power everything, so when Precarious moved the seat back, there would be this faint and guilty-sounding whir, and not the sure, metal KaCHUNK of the slide that used to control the whole deal.
There was a rabbit off to his left as he passed the Continental Divide, and all of the Southwest was to his right, and he thought of Lewis and Clark again. Precarious had been in the army, and a fight or two. Gave himself a couple stitches one time, but that’s not tough so much as dumb. Those fuckers were tougher than he was, and he didn’t think much of the argument that it was a different time: it wasn’t like everyone was walking across the damn country back then, just those iron bastards. It was starting to snow just a little, big wet poofy flakes that made a PWOMP sound on the windshield, and Precarious thought of Lewis and Clark as he adjusted the heater vent so it was blowing outwards toward his arm, which was hanging out of the open window.
Dip your foot in the ocean, and then walk back up the beach to the parking lot where your car is. Point it away from the water, and step on the gas. Hit the brakes when you see the waves again: that’s America. Precarious was thinking about that, and maybe stopping for a cheeseburger, when he saw a grestle out the windshield, and a Menlo Scatback passed him on the left. Up ahead, there was a billboard that read SCENERY and goddammit he was on Route 77 again. No wonder nothing was making sense, and he made a mental note to beat the on-ramp’s ass again, which was becoming a pattern, he further mentally noted.
I’m enjoying the ride, he thought, and put his annoyance aside as his hunger rose. There was the Pioneer Chicken Stand, and Big Kahuna Burger, and Top Jimmy’s Tacos. Route 77 had fast food, and suspiciously fast food, where the meal is waiting on the table when you walk in. There were drive-by restaurants, that shot Chinese food at your car window if you wore the wrong color. There were pizza boys with swords on motorcycles everywhere.
Precarious had always thought of the Interstitial Highway as a rough-and-tumble kind of place, so he was surprised to see foodie culture infest Route 77. One place called Freddy Avlo’s didn’t allow their patrons to eat the food, just post pictures of it on the internet. The Bucolic Pantry took locally-sourced to new heights by restricting the radius of what they considered local to 1000 feet. Luckily, there was a supermarket next door. Farm-to-table was brought to its logical conclusion at The Duck Pond, which was a duck pond. Gourmands and food bloggers would trek for miles to wade into the pond, snatch up a duck, eat it raw, and then work the phrase, “But have you ever had fresh duck?” into conversations once they get back home.
Not for him. Precarious tried to withhold judgment on things he knew he didn’t understand, and he surely did not get obsessing over food as much as some people seemed to, but he couldn’t help himself. There was a difference between bad food and good food, sure, but there was also a difference between good food and fancy bullshit. It’s all left in the toilet the next morning, he thought, and pulled into Tommy’s, which was a 48-hour diner, which is like a 24-hour diner, but twice as much.
To the right, there was a big room with tables, and to the left was the counter and some booths and the kitchen cutout, and in the middle by the door was Tommy, who was not the first Tommy, but was merely the current Tommy. There will always be a Tommy, because Tommy runs the place, and Tommy’s needs running. 48-hour diners were always on the precipice of an all-out riot: it was always three in the morning after a country music concert ended, a rap show finished, all the bars closed, and the local meth dealer just got locked up in a 48-hour diner. Two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon at Tommy’s would find a drunken brawl between warring tribes of metalheads and bowling teams, if not for Tommy.
Tommy kept the peace. The diner never closed–Christmas, hurricanes, presidential assassinations–and Tommy kept his eye out for troublemakers. Precarious liked him a lot: little guy in a white dress shirt and black slacks, both purchased for their price instead of their style, and a thick helmet of wavy black hair. Tommy couldn’t have been 5’6″, but when the waitresses got turned into giant ants that one time, he beat them all to death with the diner’s massive, leather-bound menu like a man twice his size. He had new waitresses within an hour, with the same beehive hairdos and clompy shoes.
If you were trouble, you got tossed. Tommy would 86 you easy as 1-2-3. Once, Precarious had been lingering over the last piece of bacon when he saw Tommy’s head shoot up from his calculator, like a dog smelling something. Tommy ran out to the parking lot, stopped a car that was pulling in, and threw the entire carload of people out of the diner before they had even parked. When Tommy came back in, he caught Precarious’ eye.
“No good,” Tommy said.
Precarious smiled and threw up his hands in agreement, and a cook called out DING hashbrowns are up, and then two sloppy teenagers were full-on dry humping on top of one of the tables, so Tommy went to deal with that. And something after that, and after that, and it would get to Tommy after a while, and he would start staring at the cakes going around and around, and then he would attempt to burn the place down using himself as the kindling. The kitchen wouldn’t even slow down, and there would be a new Tommy along any minute. Tommy’s was a 48-hour diner, and it stayed open.
Precarious had never seen a Changing of the Tommys, but he’d heard it described in great detail and decided he didn’t particularly need to see one. He came in for the eggs, never had to see the menu, which like all 48-hour diners contained every meal known to man. It had a table of contents, and an index. Precarious knew better, though. You kept it basic at a place where Booth War occasionally broke out.
The bill came to six bucks, and Precarious left a ten on the table. He nodded goodbye at Tommy, who was eyeing the pastry carousel with a faraway look, and walked out to the parking lot, where there were teenagers negotiating things with each others, and a girl was crying in the passenger seat of an Oldsmobile as the cars sped by on. Precarious joined them and hit cruising speed in no time and before he knew it he was halfway home, or maybe halfway there, on Route 77, which is the road to Little Aleppo. It is a hard truck, but God will forgive you the miles.
Where there was no highway, there was a road, and where there was no road, there was a trail, and where there was no trail, there was a path. After that, Precarious Lee thought, what was the point? If there was anything worth seeing, someone would have left some blacktop leading to it. And if it was hell, there’d be a road through it: the Pan-American through the Atacama, or the Trans-Siberian underlining the Targa. Where the road stopped, so did Precarious. He went places with parking lots.
Everest. Mountains in general, but Everest in particular. That asshole, they asked him why he climbed it. “Because it’s there.” Leave it there, asshole: it’s trying to kill you. Asshole. Nine hundred degrees below zero and no oxygen, for what? Enlightenment? It was down here, too, he thought. And there’s diners you can stop at. A view? Shit, America was made out of views. A story, he thought. That’s what they everyone on that dumb mountain wanted. Not just any story, though. Going to Caesar’s with the house note and betting it on black? That’s a hell of a story, Precarious figured, but not a lot of people had it in their quivers. Mountains were for looking at. Driving in between. Boggling over when you’ve been driving four hours and they’re still the exact same size in your windshield.
Precarious had a farm kid’s childhood, and it was a long time ago. There was a swimmin’ hole. Chores and fishing in the creek and camping out, just immersed in nature, and he hated every fucking second of it. It was quiet, and it was slow, and there wasn’t an electrical hookup anywhere in sight. Unacceptable, he decided. Precarious believed that people were born with their personalities already in them. Indoor and outdoor cats, and city and country mice. He dated a girl once who liked to read psychology, and she said that his driving was a reaction to the perceived trauma of being trapped on the farm as a kid. Precarious said that everyone’s life is a reaction to the perceived trauma of childhood. How you react? That’s up to the personality you were born with, he thought.
He reacted by buying a 1974 Cadillac Coupe de Ville in Diplomat Blue with a Landau roof and a V8 engine 500 cubic inches across. It was an automatic, but fuck it: it was a Cadillac. Besides, he felt like shooting pool, and Precarious firmly believed that one should take a Caddy to the pool hall. His cue started the trip in the trunk, but bounced around until he stopped to fish the case out from behind the spare tire and his secondary backup stash. Precarious had a secondary backup stash because he believed in contingencies, and he also believed that he needed a joint while he drove. Therefore: secondary backup stash.
He left in the middle of the night this time. There was no one to wake up, but he still closed the door behind him gently, keeping the knob swiveled until it was nestled in the catch and then he let it go as soft as he could, and he never remembers starting the car, but all of a sudden he is in Marin, and then he is in California, and then he is in America and has nothing to do but shoot some pool and not climb Mount Everest.
Precarious loved the Interstate Highway System. He wasn’t much of a reader, but he had a couple books on its history, and Eisenhower, the whole thing. His first assignment out of West Point, Ike, was an expeditionary trip cross-country. This was in 1920, something like that. Big convoy of trucks going from one coast to the other, and if that takes you a week nowadays, then your drivers stopped somewhere along the route for a couple days. Two months. And the General asked himself, how can a country call itself united when you can’t get from end to the other? So he built us our Interstate. Reaction to a perceived trauma, Precarious noted.
The on-ramp to Route 77 was around here somewhere, and Precarious was fairly certain he owed it an ass-kicking, but after a few hours he was getting cranky, so he stopped at a 48-hour diner called Blinky’s. Usually, he sat at the counter, but it was full and he sat in a booth. When the waitress came over, it was the on-ramp in a bad wig and an apron, so Precarious flat-out slugged the squirrelly sonuvabitch and then he was on the Interstitial.
Precarious loved the Interstate, but he was in love with the Interstitial. Driving it was like hearing your favorite song for the first time, he thought. That first time she took your hand and led you from the couch into the bedroom. A virgin on the highway, Precarious thought. Of course, he further thought, things seemed new on the Interstitial because they were new most of the time. For instance, he had just passed a VRRV, which is a Virtual Reality Recreational Vehicle: the passengers wear VR helmets and the outside of the thing is covered in self-moldable smartcloth, so you can imagine you’re in any kind of vehicle you want, and then the vehicle can actually be that. Precarious liked the concept. In reality, though, the jackasses in the sucker were pretending to be a blimp, and they were doing 3 mph in the left lane.
He passed through the Brooklyn Canyons, where you can see the different eras of inhabitants etched into the strata of the cliffs, Native and Dutch and Italian and Dominican and Black and Hipster. Precarious averted his eyes and drove casually by Area 77. It is a felony to even read about Area 77, so you should have averted your eyes from the last sentence, and this one, too. He had heard all sorts of rumors about the place. Aliens, reality-slicing multi-beings, Abandoned Gods’ summer place. Once in Miss Rosa’s, someone started ranting about artificial intelligences and time machines made out of scarves. Precarious listened with a smile and didn’t say anything, and so did Miss Rosa, who always did know a lot more than she let on, but she didn’t say anything, either.
His favorite Area 77 rumor was the one he heard last time he played pool at Alabama Average’s place. The bartender there is named Sandra on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and Sondra on the other days. She had always had a little crush on Precarious–she liked ’em leathery–and leaned in close and told him the real secret behind Area 77.
“That’s where they make the spaghetti.”
And Precarious spent the good part of an hour trying to get her to explain that, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Just because something makes no sense is no reason not to believe in it, though, and Precarious decided that her explanation was as good as any other. Precarious was also inclined to agree with bartenders, especially lady bartenders who had a crush on him.
To get to Alabama Average’s pool hall, you took Route 77 downtown, and then to the Southside, or perhaps the Northside, or West or East depending on what city the Interstitial thought it was in at the time. Cross the tracks. The telephone wires have sneakers hanging from them, but the legs are still attached, and all the corners conspire with the stairwells and backrooms to overthrow the avenues. The porches watch you drive by, and gossip after you pass. There is no supermarket, but there are shopping carts everywhere. The pool hall is in the neighborhood it is supposed to be in.
Sometimes, the place was on the second floor, and other times it was in the basement, just never the ground floor, and the building had no elevator but it did have air conditioning and Alabama Average kept it at 62 degrees. He liked it cold. Besides, he was stealing his electricity from the police station down the street, so he didn’t care how much it cost. He was in the back, in his small office with all the pictures of fat guys leaning over pool tables on the wall, when Precarious walked in, carrying the case with his cue. Although if he was out in the big room, Precarious would have barely noticed him. Very plain-looking man, just nothing remarkable about his appearance at all. Little bit of a southern accent.
Precarious wasn’t a showy guy, but he fancied up his cue just a little. Metal Stealie countersank into the butt, a lightning bolt or two. Not too much, but Precarious had found that on Route 77, life was lot easier when people knew who he worked for. Most everyone else on 77 was unemployed, or unemployable, or topiary that had come to life, and he never pried. Someone wanted to tell him something, they could. People’s statements were more interesting than their answers, he figured.
Kid Delicious was practicing long shots at a table half-invisible off to the right, and El Paso Elroy was watching his left hand. Montreal Frenchy and Mata Harriet had been playing one-pocket at table nine for two or three days. Ronnie the Thermos was eating a sandwich, which he was not supposed to be doing so close to the tables. Nobody liked Ronnie the Thermos.
At table five, Precarious screwed his cue together, and the threads made no noise at all because he had oiled them well and stored them correctly, and he squinted down the green, soft felt and WHAK the balls scattered and ran from each other. Precarious squinted again because there was a cigarette jammed in the corner of his mouth because he was playing pool and that’s how you play pool, and he watched the balls react to their perceived trauma, each one, and again and again, but they respond according to their weight and mass and coefficient of drag and what not, Precarious thought. You can explain what they do by knowing what they are.
He never played with anyone at Alabama Average’s, mostly because everyone in there would hustle him to the poorhouse if he ever mentioned anything about a game. He just liked the place, only pool halls are lit that way, those high-watts over the table against that murky black, and you can see the smoke blue and just like in the movies, swirling around and reacting to its perceived trauma, as the balls did the same, and so did we all around the tables.
And then Precarious had a beer and flirted some more with Sondra–it was a Thursday–and took a piss and then he was on the highway, sitting on a ten-foot long bench seat made from leather in a 1974 Cadillac, and he had a case besides him, it had a pool cue in it, and everywhere in the world that he wanted to go had a road that led to it, but for now he was happy on Route 77, which is the road to Little Aleppo. It is a hard truck, but God will forgive you the miles.
Precarious Lee could sleep anywhere, a hotel bed or pulled off to the side of the road with America nestled around him like a blanket. If you’re going East, then you sleep from sunrise until noon. Going West, you take your break from midday until evening. There were 18 hours a day the sun wasn’t directly in your eyes, Precarious figured. Might as well work around the facts instead of being stubborn about schedules. This leads to a lot of night driving, when there was no world at all beyond the pocked roadway and his headlights, and in the morning everything would be 500 miles newer.
Sometimes he would get a room, always a motel. Precarious wasn’t principled, but he wasn’t paying for a hotel. Shower was the important part of the transaction, he thought. He had long ago had his fill of truck stop facilities, and he wasn’t in a hurry, or broke. Certainly wasn’t cheap, but he’d be damned if he’d check himself into the Four Seasons. Shave, shower, shit, and shuteye, plus a door that locks is worth ponying up for, Precarious thought.
Or he would drop in on friends, never uninvited, and less and less lately. Precarious stayed on Route 77 for longer these days, farther, and he noticed that others were doing the same. Drivers he saw once in a while, now every hundred miles, it seemed. There was a line at the gas station for one of the pumps, which was odd, but the vehicles in the line were a Boston Duck Boat driven by a wereduck who had stolen it for political reasons he will not explain to anyone and a living bio-bus made from a humpback whale, which is fairly normal for Route 77.
He did not remember getting on 77 this trip, but it was billboard mating season along the shoulder of the road and fast food joint ads fought with motel signs for the right to hump the mile markers, so Precarious did not doubt that he was on the Interstitial Highway System. He tried to redrive his steps, but couldn’t place his entrance, and then he remembered a conversation he’d had with Alice Who Isn’t From Texas. The on-ramp, she said, had learned hypnosis and was making folks forget things, and also dance like chickens. Precarious lit a cigarette and made two mental notes. Listen to Alice Who Isn’t From Texas more, and get a bigger car and run that fucking on-ramp over next time around.
The Plymouth wouldn’t do it, he figured, not even a 1971 Road Runner with a 440 cubic inch engine that made 370 horsepower, and still not even if that Road Runner came out of the factory dressed in something the brochure called Sassy Grass Green. It was just a matter of weight, Precarious thought. Obviously, he could have used the band’s truck to do it, but he wouldn’t even consider the thought. Truck wasn’t his. Can’t kill an on-ramp with it, at least not on purpose.
Besides, the truck didn’t belong on Route 77. Had no business there, Precarious thought, and he chose his words carefully. The trucks were for business, and you could do business on the Interstate, or you could do business on the Interstitial, but not both. It was a dangerous idea to do business through the Interstitial, draws attention and the money gets all screwed up, books mistranslated. Precarious had known a couple dealers who thought the Interstitial was the Northwest Passage of dope. Forcade got away with it for a while, but not forever. You can’t get away with anything for ever.
Precarious wondered if Route 77 was infinite, and then he wondered if it was exfinite, and then he decided exfinite wasn’t a word and lit anther cigarette that he drew from the soft and crumpled pack with his lips. Almost out, and a look in the passenger seat showed the carton empty, and he wanted to stretch his legs, so he pulled in to The Biggest Truck Stop In The World, which was not, but the owner had copyrighted the title and slapped it on billboards up and down the Interstitial. He had also armed the billboards, so people had stopped arguing the name.
The parking lot was the size of a glacier, but not a huge one, a parking lot-sized glacier. Precarious always liked to see who was traveling: there was a ghost truck in the far corner, the Marie Celentano, which was found driver-less, but with the frozen pizza still piping hot. Big Daddy had parked his dragster in the handicapped spot again, and Precarious looked around for that monster-mouse creature that hung around with him. Precarious wasn’t prejudiced, but that thing was a menace. There were several buses of Japanese tourists.
The pumps were to the right, and there were picnic tables and a hedge maze with a demon in it to the left. No one went in the hedge maze, and Precarious figured that was the difference between Route 77 and, say, I-80. Back on the Interstate, you could post a million signs and put up a billion fences, you wouldn’t be able to keep people out. Someone on 77 tells you there’s a demon in the hedge maze, you believe him. The Biggest Truck Stop In The World was in the middle, and it looked like a truck stop, only very slightly larger, but not all that much.
The Biggest Truck Stop was based around a simple organizing principle, which is that people become exponentially stupider the farther away they are from home. It actually followed the inverse square law, one of the cashiers figured out. The souvenir shop is large enough that it contains its own weather, and occasionally shoppers are killed by lightning strike while looking at t-shirts, but there is a pair of sunglasses that fits perfectly, and a novelty license plate with your name on it, no matter how fucked up your name is. There is a Bandana Republic, and they only sell one thing.
The bathrooms were past the food court, which featured well over a dozen Orange Juliuses, all of whom were in active late-stage Capitalist War with each other, which mostly entailed setting each other’s stores on fire. Down along Chicken Row, KFC, Church’s, Popeye’s, and Roy Rogers were side-by-side. They were also constantly setting each other on fire, plus the trash cans have begun openly and racistly berating customers who dump their trays along with their garbage. Much of the food court’s problems can be attributed to poor management.
Precarious got a haircut at the barber shop every once in a while, and a professional-grade shave. It was truck stop barber, so it wasn’t fancy, but it was a truck stop barber, so he knew what he was doing. Precarious would let his beard grow out for a week or two, and then let the guy cut ridiculous stuff into his face: Fu manchus, and tight little romantic mustaches, and sloppy muttonchops. When he got home, it would come off, but for a while he would have a road face.
There was a dentist, and a notary public. There was also a notary private, but no one know who he was. All the way in back was for the truckers, the real truckers. A lounge with relatively few angry spiders. Personal bathrooms, or you could pay extra to have people watch you poop. Prostitutes are available if you know what to look for, which is a person walking up to you and asking if you’d like to purchase sex. There were also drug dealers, and not the pleasant kind, the kind that got into the business for the stabbing, and had been awake since their birth. Precarious thought the whole section was a damn free-for-all, and not the pleasant kind, and stayed up front. He didn’t mind being a customer.
He pissed, and then stopped at the taco stand that had not been set on fire and got two fish tacos and ate them standing up, ten feet away from the register, and as he walked across the parking lot to the Plymouth Road Runner that had left the factory Sassy Grass Green he put on his new sunglasses, and wiped his hands on his pants. On the way back out onto the road, he passed an incoming bus of Japanese tourists and whapped a soft pack, the first from a new carton, of Camels onto the back of his hand three times and ripped off the cellophane and put it in his pocket.
The first cigarette is tricky from a soft pack. Precarious steered out of the parking lot with his knee, and held the pack in one hand and finger-flicked its bottom with the other, and Pop! there they come, there are always two and never parallel. One above the other, and Precarious lights it with the Road Runner’s lighter and rolls down the window and throws the pack onto the passenger seat, where there is a fresh carton of Camels, and a novelty license plate that says “Precarious” which he will have for the rest of his life.
Precarious thought he saw the on-ramp in the distance, and he had a new pair of sunglasses. He stepped on the gas, and the car made whatever sound you think it made, and then he was on Route 77, which is the road to Little Aleppo. It is a hard truck, but God will forgive you the miles.
The important things need to be done right. But you never know which things are important until afterwards. So, Precarious figured, you should do it all right. You aimed for the first time around, but sometimes you need a second pass. Have a plan and pay attention and you’re ahead of 90% of the rest the world, he thought. Making it up as you go was for the guys onstage, but if that stage was going to be there in the first place, then there had to be a checklist, and Precarious believed in the checklist.
You keep a little notebook and a pencil in your pocket, you write down the shit you gotta do, you cross it off as you go, and that way there’s no mistakes. Precarious was astounded everyone else on the planet didn’t do the same, and occasionally thought that if given unlimited power he would implement that rule first. The other guys on the road crew made fun of him for it sometimes, and he would accuse them of not keeping checklists because they were illiterate.
But Precarious never had a plan when he drove. When he stepped down from the truck and into his car and drifted through America. The Chinese were laying blacktop from Beijing to Katmandu and building new cities at a furious pace. The paper said one a week, but the paper was The Little Aleppo Pennysaver and Precarious only read that publication for the car ads. And the Germans had their Autobahn, which was a beauty of a road, but Germany was the size of Texas’ left nut. It just didn’t have the tonnage, he thought. America wore the highways like a crown.
And for a moment, Precarious felt like a jewel in the brim, in his Mercury Cyclone, which was Competition Green. He liked that, and wondered if there was some sort of contest among colors, and this was the shade that the green family had put forth as their champion. Sometimes it took Precarious a hundred miles before he could clear his mind enough to wonder something so silly, but the Cyclone was Competition Green and had a 429 cubic inch V8 engine that he listened to, or there was the radio, or the wind rushing outside the window that he had rolled down when he got into the car, and will roll back up when he got out.
There was a mountain, some mountain, in the distance and a light rain was falling. Precarious watched the wipers, and felt bad for them. They would never catch each other, he thought. Then he looked in the passenger seat, and the on-ramp to Route 77 was sitting there, and even Precarious had to admit that he did not see that coming, but he rolled with it and soon he caromed through America on the tidal roads, and the valley loopways, and the Great Western Skypike.
His pocket, the pocket on his t-shirt, had his notebook and a pencil and his current soft pack of unfiltered Camels. The cigarettes were in front of the notebook, so the cloth bulged out creased like a ziggurat. America has ziggurats. Pyramids, too, except they’re made from dirt and timber and there’s no stop on the Interstate for them, but there are billboards for Monk’s Casino in Cahokia for hundreds of miles in both directions along the Interstitial.
Ideas move along Route 77 just as sidelong as the cars, and as best Precarious could figure out, pre-Colombian natives had opened up a gaming establishment. It was like Atlantic City, but with the occasional blowdarting. Monk’s had the loosest slots in town. They also had the loosest chair legs in town, and a lot of people fell. The dealers belonged to a maize-based culture, and had to hit on soft seventeen. The drinks were free, and mandatory.
Precarious only stopped in once for every hundred times he drove by the damn place, but Route 77 being what it was, you might drive a thousand miles dead straight and pass it six times on either side of the road. You can only pass a neon sign so many times, he figured. You could not valet park at Monk’s. There was a valet service, but when you’d pull up, the valets would fight each other for the keys and then the blowdarting would begin and it was just much easier to park the car yourself. The parking garage did contain an American Sphinx, but the riddles were very easy.
“What swims in water, and then hops on land, and is green, and has a long tongue?” the American Sphinx intoned.
It sounded very impressive, as they were in a parking garage and all the concrete made for a pleasing echo. Precarious guessed that it was a frog, and the American Sphinx kind of mumbled something and let him by, and Precarious felt bad for the Sphinx, but also annoyed. There was surely something more productive it could be doing with its day, he thought. The American Sphinx had lost its way.
Everybody comes to Monk’s. There are women who know your future, and men who know what you did. Diamond Jim Brady is at the buffet, yelling bets at the nearest dice table for his man to lay down, and making back his losses in shrimp. Titanic Thompson is at a poker table, and he will profess to not know any of the other men at that table, and there is an open seat if you would like to play. Precarious wasn’t that dumb. There was a man at the bar with human teeth on his cuff links. Precarious got a table, instead.
They hadn’t stopped serving at Miss Rosa’s at Monk’s Casino since the place opened and they hadn’t changed the carpet, either. Miss Rosa asserted that the licensing contract stated that carpet replacement was the casino’s responsibility, and the casino rebutted by blowdarting her, and the whole thing is now in the hands of the lawyers. Even on Route 77, there are lawyers.
Miss Rosa had had to change some things about how she ran her place to open up in the casino. There was no Upstairs, as Monk’s wished to brand itself as being, while not family-friendly, wholesome and forthright. So there was no Upstairs. There was, however, a Second Floor, and Miss Rosa and her girls and the new batch of orphan boys she bought to run the place are all up to their usual tricks. Precarious had noticed that left to their own devices, people would get up to their usual tricks.
The jukebox was free, and only played 45’s from the Girl Groups, and some forgotten beehived trio harmonized about Johnny, who was a dream, and an angel. The Chanticlettes? The Carousels? Rhonda and the Rubies? There was a show, with a comic, and a band, and dancers. There used to be acrobats, but then several of them shimmied and slurped their tiny rubber bodies into the count room and robbed the place blind, and now there are no acrobats. A magician was booked once, but he seemed beside the point on Route 77.
Precarious knew the band, and liked them, and he knew the comic, and liked him, and his relationship with the dancers was no one’s business but his and theirs, he figured. Precarious did not think of himself as a drug dealer, but he also didn’t think of himself as a fool, so he may have sold a little acid here and there at Miss Rosa’s. Casinos were more fun with a little acid, Precarious thought.
Because he never gambled, that wasn’t the reason he pulled in. It was for that quick burst of man at his most human, something to think about for the next five hundred miles, during the next four states. Casinos, Precarious figured, were where all humanity’s nasty bits hung out and dragged along behind them on the carpet, which Miss Rosa refused to replace. There is a discrepancy between the dice thrown thousands of times, which is predictable, and the single toss, which is random. From that fact comes casinos, Precarious thought. Greed was there first, he also thought.
A few hours was all Precarious could ever take of Monk’s Casino in Cahokia, which wandered up and down Route 77 looking for the next big winner and never finding him, and he walked out towards his 1970 Mercury Cyclone, which was Competition Green, stepping over several dead valets and avoiding the American Sphinx, who was weeping in the corner next to a motorcycle, and the Cyclone had a V8 because Precarious did things right because he didn’t know what would be important.
The Sun and the Moon were both in the sky, but not talking to one another, and the Low Desert glinted like quartz in the West. Precarious took the pack of unfiltered Camels from the pocket of his t-shirt, and shook it towards his mouth once, and a single cigarette emerged and he lipped it from the pack and lit it with a match, and then he put the pack of unfiltered Camels back in the pocket of his t-shirt, and he does not touch his notebook at all because there is nothing on his checklist. All there is to do is drive through America along Route 77, which is the road to Little Aleppo. It is a hard truck, but God will forgive you the miles.
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.
Thank you to everyone who bought a shirt: you’re awesome. Please press Like and subscribe to my YouTube channel.
Get out of here! I’m using Roman numerals! I’m a small business owner!
I flat-out hate you.
Because you’re a hater. You are envious of my success.
Yes. That’s it.
I continue: beyond the obvious financial consideration, I consider this the first step in leaking the world of the semi-fictional into reality, and those that purchased a shirt my messengers.
YOU’RE NOT MY DAD.
No, I’m you.
You honestly forget sometimes, don’t you.
Not often, but: yeah.
It’s too late for you.
Sure. But the fact remains that I am an entrepreneur.
I asked for some help in design; I got some and thanks it to be offered there, as well. (As always: I am assuming that the kind Enthusiasts wish to remain anonymous, but if they don’t, then speak up or send me angry e-mails.) The same pattern was followed as when I migrated the site: someone did it for me.
From here in, though, I will do my own work: I have found a decent program (the kids call them “apps”) and most of what I want to do doesn’t reach the level of art, which is good because I am not good at art. In sixth grad, I drew a pair of pliers. I used pencil, and the paper was quite large. It took a while, but the pliers looked like pliers: like, exactly. There was no question about it. I considered that a win and never drew anything competently ever again.
But I think I can figure out how to jam some bullshit in a Stealie.
I will not just jam some bullshit in a Stealie.
If our relationship is a friendship, Enthusiasts, then it can certainly–and easily–be spoiled by money. Thoughts on the Dead is not a store, and will not be pushing volume bullshit at you. Cheap and shitty Dead shirts can be purchased for less than Teespring allows at many locations, and you’re free to get them there.
I have ended the campaign for the Route 77 sign shirt, and here’s why: Teespring has good reviews as far as quality and delivery go, but I’d rather hear from you. They should get to you soon, and then you’ll give me the verdict. (The Wall of Sound for President ’16 shirt is still available for purchase. I know I said it was going to stop being sold, but I made it fairly clear that I was lying, so I don’t feel bad.)
Also, the shirt sucked.
BUT, the design works beautifully as a sticker.
Want one? Maybe one for your computer, and one for your guitar case? Huh? Huh? Is nice? You buy now, also take daughter. Five sticker, two daughter!
I’m not going to speak to you again.
The shirts, however, will wait until reports are in as to quality; also, a common theme of responses to the offering of a new product was “I would like to buy another frivolous in-joke from you, but I would also like to feed my children.” Perhaps every week is not the optimal schedule.
Roman numerals are stupid: how do you long division with this nonsense? Sandal-wearing mutants.