Bad planning could get you lost, and not keeping your car up might break you down. Bad luck could always get you, and even though Precarious had learned to expect bad luck along the way, it always surprised him when it happened. He didn’t really believe in luck, good or bad, but he liked having something to blame when things broke , so he called it luck. You do everything on the list, you double-check it, and then you try not to fuck it up. After that, you have no say in the matter. Tires blow and engines seize and you’re of the side of the road. But you had to be a complete shithead to run out of gas, Precarious thought.
He would always stop for stranded motorists. It was one of the Rules of the Road, and plus Precarious enjoyed the phrase “stranded motorist” and he would use it in conversation with said stranded motorist, just to make himself smile. If it was someone whose fuel tank had run dry, he would help them, but he wasn’t friendly about it. Not to say he was rude: Precarious was awful at being rude, at least to people he truly didn’t like. He could be wonderfully cruel to his friends–in fact: the closer, the meaner–but if he thought you were an asshole, he would start yelling at you and probably sucker-punch you. Precarious did that a lot when he was younger, and he thinks about it a lot now, and he just dummies up now and takes out his siphon and jerry-can.
Precarious had it to spare; there was gas in his car. Precarious didn’t believe in filling up. He topped off. A gas tank should never be anywhere even close to half-emptied, he thought. What if that zombie invasion the movies were always talking about happened, he would think and smile, and then he would think of other reasons to have always have a full tank. He kept smiling, maybe even harder, but he didn’t at the time. Every once in a while, you have to get across the state line as soon as possible. What’s the point of being on the road without gas, Precarious wondered. Keep the tank full.
He had a thirsty tank this trip out, a 1971 Ford Torino Brougham with the big engine. It was a 429 cubic inch Cobra Jet-R V8 making 370 horsepower, so much American muscle the boys in Detroit had to carve a scoop into the hood so the motor could gulp enough air to throw you down the highway. Precarious wasn’t a Ford fan in particular, but when he drove past this one, he made an offer on the spot. When he got home, he looked through his car magazines and found out the color was named Grabber Blue, and he knew he had made a good choice. It was the right car for Route 77.
Precarious found the on-ramp to 77 in a bar in Tulsa, and sobered it up for a few hours, and then he got on the highway and started cruising with the window, which was massive, down and his arm resting in the sun. It wheeled across the sky, sometimes in his eyes, and sometimes low behind him and in every mirror, and sometimes overhead and out of the way. On Route 77, this might happen within twenty minutes or so, though. Precarious went with it and just adjusted his visor a lot. You knew what the Interstitial was going to be like before you got on, he thought. No use complaining.
Precarious let the Torino take him across the Dodecaborough Bridge, which links the five boroughs of New York, plus seven others from various dimensions, trimensions, and fictions. You can get to the Manhattan you need to escape from, like Snake Plissken, but you shouldn’t. He zipped up the Donner Pass, and then through the Blitzen Pass, where there was also cannibalism, but it was Christmas-themed, which makes it somehow worse. The Keys of Florida and the locks of the Great Lakes disappeared to a point in his rearview mirror in the same afternoon. Here to there in the here and now, Precarious thought about Route 77. Everywhere except Texas. Even on Route 77, it takes forever to get through Texas.
There were farms along the road on the Interstitial, but the tractors ran at night. Precarious didn’t know why he found it so unsettling, but he tried not to look when he passed. Route 77 is impatient, and prefers to get its weather out of the way: sometimes it everythings. Some of the highway has reflectors, and parts have lights. From time to time, the reflectors will gather themselves into a sphere, and the lights play along, and they have a little disco party. Precarious didn’t begrudge anyone their fun, but it was hell to drive through. No use complaining.
It was dangerous to pass up a gas station on Route 77, as they were semi-permanent. The people working there would deny that the stations had moved, and the maps pegged them right where they were supposed to be, but Precarious knew they moved, goddammit. All the stations were owned by the same company who, for reasons of corporate security, would not reveal its name. The signs just read GAS in white letters against red, and if you got your car washed, you could speculate about the identity of the owners with the other Drivers waiting. Precarious did not keep journals and graphs and charts of his journeys like some of the others he met on Route 77, but he had been writing down all the various theories about the stations’ owners.
A couple people said aliens, which is to be expected, but most of the Drivers had more imagination than that. Two men that Precarious asked claimed that no such gas stations exist, and one was holding a nozzle at the time. Precarious was impressed by that one. A popular theory was that there was only one gas station, not a chain. Precarious at first liked this idea, as he figured it fit with his notion that the stations were roaming all over the damn place, but most proponents insisted that the stations did not in fact move, but were super-positional. Precarious thought that was just crazy.
There was leaded, and unleaded, and diesel, and one of the pumps was dedicated strictly to flamethrower-time. No one got hurt who didn’t deserve it, and Precarious was okay with that. Another pump had a slot machine welded onto it, and you could pull the handle to find out the price of fuel, plus every spin came with a free cup of coffee. There was a little store that sold things no one on the road could ever need–coffee filters, patio furniture, prom dresses–and it was lit as bright as a NASA launchpad the night before take-off. The cashier has been behind the register since Monday, and his eyes are no longer collaborating. The maps are still free on Route 77, but they are wrong. If you want a map that won’t deliberately strand you in the desert to die, it’ll cost you a few bucks.
Precarious knew the Rules of the Road, but they boiled down to this: take care of what you can, and take care of who you can, because the road doesn’t have your best interests at heart. The Interstitial never pretended it was your friend, he thought, and if you didn’t know that before, then you sure as shit should know it by now. You do everything on your list, you double-check it, and then you try not to fuck it up. Precarious didn’t think it was all that difficult, but he’d still pull over for those who found it to be. Maybe “help idiots” was on the list, he figured.
One day, he’d be on the side of the road. You could triple, quadruple, whatever-check your list and Route 77 will check its list and one day they won’t quite match up. There’s always a chance of having a breakdown, Precarious thought as he chocked the nozzle back into the pump and slapped the gas tank hatch close. One day, he’d be on a smoky shoulder, and searching the horizon for headlights. One day, “one day” would be today, he figured.
The needle on the gas gauge was pinned well past Full, and Precarious loved the way that looked. A full tank equals a known radius of freedom, he would tell people when he was drunk and feeling fancy. The window was still down and he leaned his arm out into the sunshine, and then he squealed the tires, just a little bit, as he got back on Route 77, which is the road to Little Aleppo. It is a hard truck, but God will forgive you the miles.