Almost Never Disclaimers & Chapter Index
48 States. Assorted Stand-Alone Vignettes: In Progress.
Stuart enjoyed driving in general, and driving late at night when the Jeep was practically the only thing on the road in particular. One night in Maryland, Vince collapsed in the passenger's seat and left him with just the CD player for company. Stuart had played all the CDs on hand to death, so he switched over to the radio and tuned in a station playing eighties tunes. After all, Vince was out like a light, and no one else was around to witness him tapping his fingers to embarrassing songs by Human League and When In Rome.
He passed a good long while this way, and at some point, he became aware of three things. One, he was singing loosely along with Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran"; two, Vince was now awake, and watching him with poorly disguised merriment; and three, after the first flush of annoyance died away, he didn't particularly care about the first two things.
Stuart turned up the volume, and drove on.
The world's most loud and obnoxious car alarm woke Stuart around four in the morning, just a couple of hours after they'd sacked in. He tried to drown it by stuffing his head under his pillow, and then both his and Vince's pillows, and then Vince, to no avail. And the thing just didn't stop.
Eventually Vince hauled himself out of bed, grumbling as he pulled on his trousers, doing up the fly rather gingerly; Stuart had succeeded in getting him to wear them without boxers occasionally, but Vince still seemed a bit wary that he'd somehow manage to do himself irreparable harm getting into his slacks without them.
Still muttering, Vince disappeared out the door. Stuart burrowed back under the covers and pillows, but the alarm kept going and he was half-waiting, half-dreading Vince coming back with cold feet, so after a few minutes, he gave up and skinned into some clothes himself.
Grey pre-dawn light filled the car park. He stopped in the doorway, taking a nice long look at Vince standing against the railing, all smoothly shaped bare back and tight low-riding denims. Stuart had wondered if he'd get bored with Vince's body, but it hadn't happened yet; so far, familiarity had only increased his fascination. He kept finding different things to enjoy, a constellation of freckles here, a curvy ticklish area there. Either Vince was a remarkable, fantastic man with inexhaustible charms, or Stuart was hideously in love. Or maybe the one followed the other, until it was hard to tell which came first.
He padded out toward the rail, the concrete balcony chilling the soles of his feet, and nudged Vince's elbow with his own.
"What kind of people leave their van in a hotel car park and can't be bothered to tend to it when it sets up at bloody four in the morning?" Vince asked.
"Our kind of people," said Stuart. "They're probably not here."
"At four AM? The bars are closed."
"They've copped off, then."
"I thought these alarms were all on timers that shut them off after a decent interval," said Vince, "but not this one, it's been sounding for twenty minutes, at least. Should we call 999? Or wait, no, here it's 911, isn't it."
"I've got a better idea. The alarm's already going," Stuart said. "We may as well give it a good reason."
"We're not stealing that van, Stuart," Vince said reasonably.
"Cos they've got the Club on the steering wheel. I've already checked."
He grinned enormously and pressed his arm against Vince's. "Could put a brick through the windshield."
Vince looked down at the van, narrowing his eyes. "I hate those things," he said. "Harlo's, they were always going off in the car park when someone banged the fender with a trolley. Two, three times a day, some days, I'd have to go trotting out there to get the license number, and page the owner on the PA. Bloody lot of trouble. And what good are they if something really does happen to your car? No one ever comes. They're annoying and they're useless."
"But...?" Stuart asked expectantly.
"But nothing," Vince said, "let's find a rock."
Stuart cackled and followed him down the stairs to scout out a decent-sized rock. There was gravel around the ornamental shubbery, but nothing big enough to break glass.
As he hunted around, Stuart found himself in the surprising position of having second thoughts.
Always before, he'd been able to hurl himself out into the world doing whatever mad and terrible things came into his head, secure in the knowledge that Vince would stop him before he went too far. But he'd snapped his tether the night he blew up Mrs. Perry's car. He'd known that, and he'd done it anyway. Fair enough; he didn't regret that one jot.
Since they'd left Manchester, Vince had changed. He was still reluctant to fall asleep starkers, worrying there'd be fire in the night, and he did up his trousers with ridiculous care for fear he'd castrate himself if he wasn't careful. He was still prone to fits of idiotic paranoia, insecurity, dithering, the entire basket of madnesses he'd always harbored. But these days he managed to get past it all, most of the time. He went to sleep naked anyway, he wore trousers without boxers; he'd learned to fire the gun, and he'd even gone one better than Stuart, learning how to strip and clean it as well.
Vince was no longer in the business of holding Stuart back, and that was brilliant, utterly brilliant. But it also meant that now, if Stuart wanted to do something mad and terrible, he had to work out for himself what the consequences were going to be, and if the madness and terror were worth it. He wasn't used to it, and he suspected he wasn't very good at it, but he was going to have to get better.
Should have known, really. Nothing on earth was free. If he wanted what he had now-- Vince as his accomplice, not just his number one fan-- he'd have to pay for that by growing up a bit, taking some responsibility for his own decisions.
In the meantime, he was quite pissed off he couldn't find a big enough rock to bash that stupid van's window in. "You having any luck?" he shouted to Vince over the continuing din of the car alarm.
Vince popped his head up from behind an air conditioning unit. "No, but I've got another idea," he said, and pattered back up the stairs to duck into their hotel room. He returned brandishing his Swiss army knife and a tire gauge thing he'd bought at the beginning of the trip, which neither of them really knew how to use.
He used the knife to lever up the hood of the van. Stuart jammed the tire gauge into the gap and kept it pried up while Vince groped around for the latch and popped the hood.
"Now what?" Stuart asked. "Are you going to cut the brake line?"
"No!" Vince said. "And we're not blowing it up, either, so shove off, you." He flipped another tool out of the Swiss army knife and started working on the car battery. Whatever he did caused the noise to suddenly and shockingly stop. In the abrupt quiet, Stuart could hear crickets creaking, birds chirping.
Vince kept fiddling for another couple of minutes, ignoring Stuart when, bored, he snuck up behind him and started trying to distract him. "There," he said at length. "That's got it."
"What'd you do?" Stuart inquired, tucking his hands into Vince's pockets.
"Stripped the leads to the car alarm," Vince said. "Next time it goes off it'll short out the battery."
"Clever," Stuart approved.
"Maybe I should leave a note, warn them," said Vince. "Give them a chance to mend their evil ways."
"Nah. Come back up, you can mend my evil ways."
"I like your evil ways," Vince grinned, but he chased Stuart back up the stairs in a hurry all the same.
When they left the hotel later, just before eleven, Stuart reached out and casually shoved the van as they walked by. The alarm started to sound, then cut off, replaced by a low sizzling sound. A thin plume of smoke rose from under the hood.
Stuart grinned with consummate satisfaction, and looked over at Vince. He was standing by the Jeep, arms crossed, shaking his head.
"Oh come on," Stuart said. "You knew I would."
"Should've mended your evil ways when I had the chance," Vince said.
Stuart smirked. "Too late now."
Vince wasn't allowed into a Detroit club because he was wearing too much blue. Apparently it was a gang color. Stuart offered to take all the blue clothes off him, if that would get them in. The doorman wasn't amused, which made them realise that, appearances to the contrary, the place wasn't actually a gay club.
Vince assured the doorman that he was wise to shut them out, as Vince was head of the little-known British arm of the Latin Kings. Some other bloke in line started laughing at that, and threw some hand signs, cracking up the whole group of his friends. The doorman got out his mobile and called the police.
Everyone in line scattered, and Vince asked the laughing bloke if he knew any proper clubs. The bloke cheerfully directed them to the Cobalt, which turned out to be a great place; the rest of the night was fabulous.
It would have been fun if that idiotic amusement park based on automobile history had still been around, but Vince asked about it and discovered it had closed a long time ago. There wasn't anything else in particular they could think to do in Michigan, so they headed south.
At a club in Indianapolis, Stuart wound up in a heated argument with a bloke in his early twenties who insisted that there was nothing strange about a gay man wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt. It probably would have come to blows if the fucker's mates hadn't jollied him away with a drawled "What does he know? He's a furriner." The whole encounter left him with a bad taste in his mouth and a special loathing for the word "heritage".
He didn't want to stop anywhere else in the state after that, but then later by the roadside they spotted a group of huge plaster pink elephants, three of them, each holding a big molded plaster martini in its furled trunk. Vince was enchanted, and absolutely set on taking a snap for Hazel. Stuart decided maybe Indiana wasn't quite so bad after all.
They stopped for petrol and had lunch at some little log cabin of a restaurant that served soft drinks in the cans and claimed that Lincoln ate there once. When he read that on the menu, Vince said "And they haven't swept the place since," and Stuart laughed, knowing exactly what Vince was sending up without needing it pointed out to him. That knocked Stuart back a step. They were such a couple now, it was disgusting. But then he remembered it had always been like that, more or less, and relaxed.
They kept making jokes about Kentucky, and humming the "Duelling Banjos" music from Deliverance at each other, though neither of them had ever actually seen the movie. The scenery was nice, and the grass really was a rich shade of green that almost looked a little blue on the rolling hills.
But aside from the uniformly sunglassed and double-chinned drivers they passed, they didn't see a single person for the first two hours in the state-- just lots of abandoned tires and washers and refrigerators in little appliance refugee camps stranded in the endless woods.
The first person they did see was a thin man with peeling sunburn wearing honest-to-god denim overalls, rifle in hand, firing over and over again into the carcass of a roadkill deer.
The whole thing felt a little spooky after that, and they quit humming the banjo song, and went all the way through Kentucky without stopping.
Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas.
For nearly two weeks, he and Vince got into a sort of a habit of shagging twice a day: full out, throw-the-pillows-and-blankets-off-the-bed, nipping and growling, giving and taking, sweaty, invigorating, exhausting sex, first thing when they woke up each mid-morning, and then again late at night, every day.
Stuart's sexual appetite had always been prodigious, but even he was mildly astonished; they were spending three or four hours shagging every day, one day after another. It was mental. Add in showering together, which always seemed to take an hour no matter what their intentions, and they were going across some of the most boring parts of America at a paralytic snail's pace.
The routine left off when they checked into yet another awful little hotel (Phones! Central Air! RCA Color Television!) and Vince, flipping channels on telly, came across a Battlebots marathon. They watched late into the night; when Stuart fell asleep the telly was still on, and he had dreams about robots with chainsaws.
The shag the next morning was comprehensive, fantastic, but the twice a day, every day phenomenon had run its course. Even though he'd gotten pleasantly accustomed to all that sex, Stuart found he didn't mind terribly when they left off shagging quite so much. If they'd been pushing it to make sure they weren't going to get bored, they'd certainly proved that wasn't much of a concern.
And anyway, he was surprised to realise that there were certain times, every now and again, occasionally, when he actually didn't mind to do other things rather than shag. Not because he was getting older, or because he didn't want Vince as much as ever. He felt about fifteen most of the time, energized and almost perpetually on the edge of arousal.
But just... there was a whole world outside the bedroom, and travelling with Vince had made him just the slightest bit more interested in it than he had been before. Shagging nigh-constantly was brilliant, but easing up a bit was all right, too.
Also, he quit craving Gatorade all the time, and they finally got out of Kansas.
Vince said the elevator to get to the top of the St. Louis Arch was just like riding a space capsule. Stuart bet him a hundred quid that the space capsule was never crammed full of six chubby Americans with screeching toddlers on their laps. That earned him a few gratifyingly nasty looks from their fellow passengers.
It was the kind of thing Vince used to bollock him about endlessly, but he just choked down a laugh this time, and once they were up in the Arch itself he couldn't be bothered to tell Stuart off, too busy staring; the view was as good as from a low-flying aeroplane, without the danger of crashing into a radio tower. Of course, all they could see was a squat ugly little Midwestern city, but to Vince it might as well have been Uzbekistan, it was so exotic and fascinating.
On the way down Vince got talking to some bloke with a combover who told them about a serial killer in East St. Louis who left his victims peeled and sectioned in refrigerator boxes by the side of the road. Stuart got the name of the road, and he drove them up and down it later that afternoon. They didn't find any bodies, but they did stop for tea and had some really good barbeque.
The clubs in Tennessee played the same sort of house music as any gay clubs anywhere, more or less. Four on the floor, big beat, diva samples. But at each of the two clubs they visited, someone yelled a request for "The Devil Came Down to Georgia" and suddenly it was like they'd stepped into another dimension.
Everyone was singing along with this mad song about a fiddle player challenging the devil to a battle of the bands. Blokes climbed up on the stage in their cowboy boots and did something that looked a bit like Morris dancing, stomping to the music. Vince and Stuart just got safely out of the way.
The first time was weird enough, but twice? After that, they expected the same thing to happen throughout the south, but it only ever happened in Tennessee. They didn't hear the song again-- not even in Georgia. Pity. Stuart had actually got sort of fond of it.
Their clubbing experience in Georgia was interrupted by a similar weird song that everyone else in the place went crazy for and sang along with, like in Tennessee. But in Georgia the song was "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)".
The original idea had been to see America, all of America, but after nearly three hours of North Dakota's endless grassy wasteland, Stuart informed Vince that they were going to have to settle for the abridged version.
What that meant in practical terms, it turned out, was speeding tickets, and lots of them.
"I'd sort of like to see Mount Rushmore," Vince said, "but only if you can go along the top of it. I've always wondered what it looks like if you're standing up there in George Washington's hair. Like at the end of North by Northwest. Though I've always thought that ending was a bit abrupt, don't you think?"
Stuart, flipping through the CD folder, caught the expectant pause and rewound on what Vince had just been saying. "Never seen it," he said after a moment. "How did you sort these albums, anyway?"
"Alphabetically by artist. You've never seen North by Northwest?"
"Nope. What alphabet do you use where Prince Paul is next to Handsome Boy Modeling School?"
Vince slid down a little in the bucket seat of the Jeep, his fingers idly drumming the steering wheel. "Handsome Boy Modeling School is Prince Paul, it's a side thing he did with Dan the Automator. Dan Nakamura. You must have seen North by Northwest, it's a classic. You had that whole enormous set of Hitchcock films..."
"I watched this one had Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in it, it was boring. So I didn't bother with the rest."
"But it's brilliant, Stuart, North by Northwest. It's got Cary Grant and the crop dusting plane scene and the bit at the auction..."
"What's a Wall Drug?" Stuart interrupted him.
"I just saw a sign for a Wall Drug. Free ice water. What sort of place advertises free ice water in this day and age?"
"Perhaps it's generally hotter around here than it is right now." Vince frowned into the distance. "There's another sign. Wall Drug. Six foot rabbit. Six foot rabbit? Would that be a rabbit with six feet, do you think? Or a rabbit that's six feet tall?"
"I don't care," Stuart told him.
"Well, we're stopping anyway," Vince said.
The place was, predictably enough, just appalling.
"Oh my god," Vince said, pivoting to take it all in. "Look at it. I didn't know there were this many horseshoes on the planet, let alone collected in one place. It's like someone shut the decorator in a room for a week and only let him watch Gunsmoke. It's so cowboy."
Stuart pursed his mouth. "And fake cowboy, at that. There were never any cowboys this far east, were there?"
"I thought it was wall-to-wall cowboys," Vince said. "America, right? I thought when the Pilgrims' feet touched the ground, their buckled shoes turned to cowboy boots, straight away."
"You never hear anyone talking about the wild, wild east," Stuart pointed out.
"Free ice water. Free donuts for-- god, what a list," Vince said, indicating an enormous sign. "Truckers. Police officers. Free donuts for everyone but you, you tosser, it should say."
"Free donuts for honeymooners," Stuart read aloud.
"Oh, god," Vince muttered, correctly interpreting the dawning smile on Stuart's face.
Stuart grabbed his hand and led him to the counter. A dark-haired young woman and a fortyish man with a pinched face manned the till together, him fetching things, her ringing up. When they got to the head of the queue, the woman asked with well-worn cheer, "What can I do you for?"
Stuart swallowed a laugh at the way she phrased it. "We're looking to get free ice water and donuts, like it says on your sign."
She looked them over. "You two don't look like cops or truckers, if you don't mind me saying so. Skiiers?"
"We're on our honeymoon," Stuart told her.
"Yeah. We've just come from Vermont," Vince said gamely. He was doing his none-too-convincing mock-innocent look, but aside from that it wasn't easy to tell he was lying; he was getting better.
"You can't be married," the counterman said, planting himself next to the woman at the checkout. "You're not even American."
"We are. We're from Maine," said Vince. "Haven't you ever heard an East Coast accent?"
The girl was laughing. The man looked from Vince to Stuart and back again, crossing his arms. "Okay, if you're married, why don't you have rings?"
Stuart smiled sharply. "We have rings. Just not on our fingers. Care to see?"
The older man retreated, throwing up his hands. The younger woman chuckled, "You guys are so Akbar and Jeff." She stuffed a sack with half a dozen donuts and handed it over. "Here ya go."
Stuart grinned at her. "Ta," he said, and stuffed a tenner into the tip jar as they left.
Nothing but shot glasses emblazoned "Nebraska" and novelty postcards with halfhearted jokes about how hot and empty it was in Nebraska. Very bleak.
The same novelty postcards as Nebraska. More hills. Lots of strange innuendo-laden signs for something called Little America-- "Come clean (...stop at Little America)". The signs grew increasingly fascistic as they got closer to the place. "We'll be expecting you. Little America."
It turned out to be nothing but a large filling station and rest stop. Stuart was so disgusted with the sheer banality of it, he refused to go in, though he sent Vince off with a list of stuff he wanted, and had a lie-down in the back of the Jeep.
Vince came back describing high-tech experimental toilets being tested on a captive audience out here in the middle of nowhere, one-minute shower stalls for greasy truckers, an instant laundry service that used chemicals to flash-clean any sort of clothing. He'd obviously been working it out in his head for quite a while; it took twenty minutes of persistent questioning before Stuart was absolutely sure Vince was making every bit of it up.
"What the fuck is that thing?" Stuart asked.
"We've passed it."
"Then I don't know," Vince said, and returned to his avid consultation of the map.
Ten minutes later, Stuart said, "Look now, there's another one. Right side of the road--"
Vince shrugged, "Roadkill."
"Yeah, but what was it? Fucking hideous."
"Looked like a possum," Vince told him. "Can't think of anything else that size, has a tail like that."
"Are they that ugly when they're alive?"
Stuart drove another few minutes before spotting yet another sad naked-tailed corpse by the roadside. "There's another one. That's three in less than half an hour."
"Must be possum season," said Vince.
That was exactly the sort of remark that had always led practically everyone they knew to regard Vince as sweetly daft and just a little bit thick. For Christ's sake, possum season?
Stuart asked, "What's that supposed to mean, possum season?"
"Like maybe they've come out of hibernation or something," said Vince, his nose still stuck in the mapbook, "if they hibernate, I mean, I dunno if they do. Or maybe it's mating season, so they're out in force."
Stuart shook his head. Possum season. It did make a sort of sense after all, translated from the original Vince into English.
"Here we are. Shit! According to this we've missed the exit," Vince said. "We were supposed to get off this highway three possums ago."
After a short, simmering silence, "You do this on purpose," Stuart accused. "You say the most astounding rubbish like you're just daring people to think you're stupid. Someday I'll figure out what's in it for you."
Vince just lifted his head from the map book and smiled. "Good luck with that," he said. "In the meantime, turn off here."
At a filling station in Utah, they saw an attendant refuse to wait on a woman or even to speak to her when she tried to prepay for her petrol. Vince asked her what was going on. Turned out some of the religious types in the area wouldn't speak to women outside their immediate family. Stuart loudly wondered about the inbreeding implications. The attendant went red, but said nothing.
Vince dumped everything they'd been gathering up to buy there onto the counter and walked out. Stuart followed, very aware of the gun tucked into the back of his jeans, against the small of his back. But it wasn't their fight, this time. They got petrol elsewhere, choosing a place with a female cashier.
Salt Lake City smelled awful, like rotting lox. The salt flats were gleamingly, punishingly white under the midday sun. Along the sides of the highway, people had used stones and bottles to spell out their names, the names of bands, obscure symbols, huge declarations. They saw everything from "OZZY 4-EVER" to "Kara will U marry me".
Vince was fascinated, of course, and wanted to pull over and take pictures. Stuart indulged him, and while Vince snapped photos, Stuart walked along a mile-long stretch kicking apart all the swastikas.
A little later, still in the midst of the salt flats, they stopped again so Stuart could take a piss, and when he came back he found Vince toeing stones and broken glass and looking abashed. He rolled his eyes and squatted in the sandy white earth and started on the S.
They spelled out their names, even though they were both a little too aware of how naff it was, but once it was done Stuart thought it didn't look too bad; just Stuart + Vince, no stupid flourishes or anything, just making their mark. And definitely a sight to raise a few eyebrows along this stretch of heartland road. He liked that idea a lot.
Further still along the road there was a huge, idiotic sculpture, just looming in the middle of nowhere, an enormous pole with a cluster of spheres at the top and one huge cracked globe on the ground. Vince wanted to pull over, Stuart pointed out they'd already stopped three times in the past three hours. They argued for thirty minutes and the thing never even seemed to get any closer in all that time.
Vince said, "We're never going to come this way ever again. Do you want to spend the rest of your life wondering what that stupid, stupid thing we saw in the salt deserts of Utah was? Do you want to ever waste a single thought on it ever again?"
"I will. Pull over."
He still might have put up a fight, but then Stuart noticed that all of a sudden, there were signs every few meters that said "Emergency Parking Only". In that case...
Another fifteen minutes and they actually reached it and pulled off to have a look (and inevitably, Vince took pictures). There was a plaque at the base of the sculpture, but it was just a bunch of German words. No clue as to what the thing was or what it meant.
For the next few weeks Stuart was able to endlessly take the piss out of Vince by wondering aloud what that stupid, stupid thing in Utah had been, until finally some twat at a bar in Tahoe told Vince it had been a mad Swedish artist's self-funded vanity project, and the words on the plaque were from the chorus of "Ode to Joy", which Vince took to humming incessantly for days until Stuart was half ready to shove him right off the mountains.
Luckily for Vince, Stuart still had use for him, as high-altitude sex had turned out to be something of an ear-ringingly novel experience. Stuart settled for soundly outskiing Vince at every opportunity and being extremely smug about it.
Though in all honesty, he probably would have done that anyway.
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