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.