|Murder and Art in Southwestern Wisconsin|
Beth was upstairs in bed with her book and chocolates. She heard Crane swearing, and what sounded like the couch being dragged across her nice oak floor. No effort was made to discover the problem, because with Crane, it was always something. He had searched every room in the house, scattering piles of newspapers, looking in drawers and even under the pile of laundry before finally arriving on the third level and their bedroom. He stood in the doorway and, looking at his wife, all cares were forgotten.
Beth smiled. âItâs about time you got home.â
Crane shrugged. A sly grinned appeared. He took a few steps to the foot of the bed, lifted the covers, and held one of her little feet, making tickling motions with a finger that moved ever closer to the sole, âI was looking for my metals catalog. Do you know where it is?â
Beth unclenched her foot and put her book face down on the bed. The answer was always the same, âItâs wherever you left it. I havenât seen it.â
Crane released her foot and started to pull the covers over it. But Beth had been anticipating the small torture. She kicked off the blanket and said, âYou can tickle me a little, but be careful, I donât want to wet the bed.â
After a brief squirm, Crane relented and returned the covers.
âI liked it better when you used to keep all of your stuff in the garageâat least then you knew where to look. I hope you didnât make a mess downstairs.â
Visualizing the lower levels, he thought he might have. âI need to go to Airgas and get another spool of wire. Do you need anything from town?â
She proffered the other foot. âDidnât you just buy wire?â Beth was the one paying for it, and kept a mental tally of costs. Craneâs vocation was not a profitable one. He took a deep breath, sat on the bed, and placed Bethâs hand in his. âWell, kitten, I have to let Ray do a little something of his own. I donât see a problem with it.â
Beth wanted to get back to her book, âWhatever floats your boat. I know you like working with him. Make sure you take him with you. I donât feel comfortable when heâs out there alone.â Perking up, she added, âI know what you could do. Pick up something for dinner.â
âNo problem; how does Lasagna from Ginoâs sound?â
Beth answered with her eyes on her husbandâs midsection. âThatâs fine, but you better skip the garlic bread. Your washboard stomach has all but disappeared.â
Crane lifted his shirt, âLook, if I stand under the light and bend over like this, you can still see my abs, and a little bread never hurt anybody.â
Crane was unduly proud of his physique. It had changed a little in the last twenty years despite the consistent forty-five minutes a week at the gym. The once well-defined six pack had become a subtle cluster of rounded bumps, and not all of them muscles.
Beth commented, âIt would be even better if you could get both sides to show at the same time. Nobody should be so proud of a three-pack, and three is being generous.â
She grabbed his belt and pulled him close, tried to smooth his mustache. âIt might be time to try shaving this off again. Or get some gel or something. You always have four or five really wild hairs jutting out. It can be a distraction.â
Crane tried smoothing the unruly ones that he could see when he put his lip up. âMaybe it is time to shave it, but you know I look like a chimp without it.â
Head bobbing, Beth agreed, âI know what youâre saying about the chimp thing. Donât shave it, itâs fine. Mustaches are back in style anyway. Itâs a good thing you didnât know me when I was younger. I was a horrible control freak. Itâs probably because I grew up having to mother all of my younger siblings. I should have been allowed to just be a kid.â
Crane was in front of the mirror, trying to get his abs to show. âI think youâre right. Your younger sibs say you still try to boss them around.â
âThey think thatâs what Iâm doing, but when I see them making bad choices, I tell them. If I had my way, there wouldnât have been so many kids in our family. Not that I donât love them now that theyâre here.â
Crane plopped onto the bed and put his head on Bethâs lap, hoping to be stroked. âYour parents were following the Churchâs rules on birth control. Maybe thatâs why only one of your sibs is still a Catholic.â
âThatâs one reason.â
Beth tried to get a look at the next page in her book, signaling that the conversation had ended. Crane hopped out of bed and left the room.
âWhere are you goingâ, she called.
Halfway down the hall he answered, âI remembered where my manual is.â
Beth raised her voice, âYou used to take better care of your things.â She smiled, raised her knees to use as a desk, and then reached for her journal. She wrote, I love Crane so much, but I canât figure out how someone who is supposed to be depressed, can also be so egotistical. He never seems sad, always telling jokes. Iâm not a hundred per cent sure heâs depressed, but he has something. She returned the journal to the drawer and picked up her book.
Crane located the catalog and headed for the attached garage. He had to squeeze between his truck and a pole that supported the ceiling.
âGod damn Pole!â
He started the engine and backed out to the second, detached garage to see what Ray was doing. Crane watched for a moment, and then asked, âYou want to go to town?â
âNo, Iâm cutting out your pattern for you.â
âThanks. Could you stay out here until I get back? Beth is trying to take a nap.â
Ray looked up at the bedroom window, âOkay. I hope the compressor doesnât bother her.â
âSheâll be fine. Beth can sleep through anything.â
Crane stopped the truck halfway down the driveway and looked back at Ray. He was getting to know and trust him. Over the last year, Rayâs social skills had greatly improved, along with his health. Early on, Crane never would have left him on his own like this. But today he seemed to be on task. Crane continued down the street.
The welding store was just off East Washington in downtown Madison. Crane usually took University Avenue from his house on the West side, but today he went by way of Mineral Point to Regent Street. He had NPR on the radio and listened to Science Friday with Ira Flatow.
The traffic was backed up at the light approaching Randall Stadium, and he took a good look at the football-encrusted obelisk installed there. Crane was a sculptor, and had recently sold one of his pieces. Heâd decided to devote more time to getting exposure, rather than producing in quantity and lowering his prices. Producing even more objects that no one would see stopped making sense. Lowering the prices didnât seem to help. The recent sale seemed to prove his theory.
Crane liked the football sculpture, although not everyone did. He wondered who the artist was. A man at a Badgers game was circulating fliers to raise money to restore it. The joke was that it was supposed to look like parts of the obelisk had crumbled away, revealing a core made of footballs. Crane figured it was the best of the public sculptures around town. He couldnât think of a better one to put there, except perhaps, one of his.
The light changed and he drove aggressively to make it through the intersection before it turned red again. This was his town; he knew which lanes ended abruptly and which intersections to avoid. The downtown area--situated between two lakes--was built around the Capital and the University, making it impossible to go anywhere in a straight line.
The annual âHippie Christmasâ was in full swing, and he scanned the piles of graduatesâ belongings strewn along the curb: couches, desks, lamps, futons, shelving--none worth stopping for, as far as Beth was concerned.
Crane was proud of the city he lived in, a liberal community with only a few troubled neighborhoods. Things that bothered him were the occasional purple house or dated storefront, like the black and white stones on the faĂ§ade of Kinkoâs. One glaring mistake that never should have been allowed was the glass dome on the roof of the Civic Center. The dome looked like cheap costume jewelry with its steeply rising sides and paucity of facets; he often pictured a Burger King sign above it. Mostly, Crane was happy with the way Madison looked. He continued to scan buildings he passed, looking for design flaws and appreciating the direction the city planners were going. Architectural critic was just one on a long list of occupations Crane believed he could have excelled at.
Crane drove around the outer ring of the square, admiring the Capitol building when he glimpsed it. Over the hill, Crane made a hard right into the driveway of a six-story building, took his ticket, and disappeared under the building. The ramp was nearly empty, so the usual trip to the bottom in search of an open space was unnecessary.
Thinking this would be a good place to shoot a dramatic movie scene, he paused to watch it mentally unfold. After a minute, he turned his back on the shouting and flying bullets, and walked across the street to Airgas. Displayed in the window were heavy duty metal cutting tools, items that Crane coveted, but had no use for and couldnât afford.
Just inside, Ted was manning the desk. He looked up from his screen. âHi ya, Crane, howâre you doing?
âGood, Iâm doing good. I need a spool of .035 steel wire.â
âWhatâre you working on now, another giant bug?â
âNo, Iâm calling this one âMen in Perilâ. Three guys are working on girders and one of them slips off. One of the other men is trying to pull him back up; one doesnât notice. Itâs a mobile.â
âHuh. Youâll have to bring in a picture when itâs done.â
Some of Craneâs inspirations came from his anxiety-ridden dreams, often involving himself or other people falling off a building. Crane paid for the wire with his card and carried the heavy spool to his truck. Walking to Gino's was faster than trying to find another parking spot. He waited at the bar and had a quick beer while his order was readied. In his imagination, he turned down a proposition from the short-skirted co-ed, the one with long legs and thick black hair. He ate garlic toast on his way back to the truck.
On the way home, he wiped his mouth and fingers, erasing the evidence. The takeout bag was closed. Detecting the garlic bread caper would be a test of Bethâs powers of observation. Back home, he noted the closed overhead door on the detached garage/studio. Crane wondered how far Ray had gotten before quitting. Rayâs bedroom was in the basement of the house, down a short flight of stairs through the garage entrance. Crane put a bag of takeout on the top step, âHere you go Ray. Itâs Ginoâs.â
Beth and Crane ate on the couch in front of the TV. Beth saw the grease spot at the bottom of the bag but stayed quiet. She remembered something and had to wait to swallow before speaking, âI gave Ray some tapes of The Beverly Hillbillies. They were in the attic. Do you careâ?
âWhy would I care? Iâve wanted to throw that shit out for a long timeâ.
âGood, because he was happy to get them. I had to re-learn how to use the VHS player. Oh, and I threw out your Beta version of Rambo.â
âI wonder if he would like Seinfield? Thatâs what my mother calls Ray (?), Jerry Seinfield and his friend, Larry David.â
The next day was hot and humid, a typical Wisconsin summer day. Oddly, itâs the eight weeks of unbearable heat and humidity that make the long winters tolerable. Crane was in the backyard, getting everything ready for his brother-in-law, Ed, so he wouldnât have to spend any more time than necessary on the project. It was hard enough to get him to help.
Ed peeked around the corner of the house and gave a timid half-wave. âI tried the doorbell. I guess Beth is at work. I was hoping to see her. Itâs been a while.â
âHi, Ed, thanks for coming over. I just need an extra pair of hands to pour this concrete footing. I have everything ready to go, so it should only take ten or twenty minutes. Here, put these gloves on.â
Ed looked at the dirty gloves and said, âThanks, but I donât think I need them.â
âConcrete can make your hands rough and dry, and you know, not having a girlfriendâŠâ His voice trailed off.
âYouâre such an asshole. I have a girlfriend now. I can let you do this yourself if youâre going to be crude.â
Crane thought Ed might be losing his temper. âIâm sorry, I forgot about your sensitive nature.â
Ed frowned. âIâm not sensitive, I just keep that kind of thing private.â Ed really was a sensitive person, and he didnât like to be riled up. Probably nobody does. Crane was through teasing him.
âWell, all right, it wonât come up again. The first thing I need you to do is spray some water a little at a time as Iâm stirring the mix. Remember, itâs better to have it too dry than too wet.â
Some of the mix got on Edâs hands. When he felt the grit, he said, âOkay, give me those gloves.â
Crane handed over the gloves. âI thought so. Letâs get started. All you have to do is spray about this much water into the mix, and then wait while I stir the cement. Okay, not that much.â
Crane hadnât raised his voice, but the tension could be felt --over a little water, no less. âItâll be fine, just be more careful when it gets close. I donât know why Iâm so edgy this week. I think I may have a tumor or male menopause.â
Ed offered, âMy guess would be that itâs because youâre married to my sister. It doesnât matter why you yelled at me, one more like that and Iâm outta here. I need to stay calm. Why isnât Ray helping you?â
âHeâs put in a lot of hours already, so I didnât ask him. I appreciate you coming over to help. Sorry if you think I yelled at you. You can punch me if you want. I think verbal abuse hurts more than the physical kind. Go ahead, but only in the arm.â Crane had witnessed his brothers-in-lawsâ physical ritual, and actually wanted to take the punch even if he didnât think it was warranted.
Ed perked up. âYou know Iâll do it if youâre serious.â
âSure, go ahead. Then weâll be even.â
Ed was excited now. âOkay, donât flinch or I get to go again.â
Ed cocked his arm awkwardly and let one fly.
âJesus fucking Christ!â Crane yelled. âYou never hit Gerhard that hard. I didnât think you had it in you.â He was surprised at how much it hurt. He went overboard in his display of pain to make Ed think he was just joking. Ed was overjoyed, because he had wanted to punch Crane for a long time.
Crane started for the backdoor, âI have to use the bathroom. Do you want a beer?â In the kitchen, where he couldnât be seen, he undid the top two buttons of his shirt and looked at his shoulder for a bruise. So far, it was just a fist-sized red mark. He rotated his shoulder to check for joint damage.
When he bounded back out into the yard, Ed said, âHowâs your shoulder? Are you okay?â
Crane laughed. âNo real harm done. Good thing you Kaminskis are such pussies. We better get these holes filled before the cement starts to set.â As they worked, he silently worried about getting hurt at his age, and wished he had thought of that a minute ago.
Ed said, âIâll shovel it in if you hold the bucket.â
âWatch it so you donât knock any dirt into the hole. I know youâre in a hurry, but I want it done right.â
âThat right there is why I donât come over much. You get uptight and act like I donât know anything. My mentor says I should avoid bruising my Chakra.â
âI canât wait to tell Gerhard that. He wants to do an intervention on you.â
The cement was shoveled into the holes and leveled, and the tools cleaned up. Crane made some final adjustments. âThanks, Ed, couldnât have done it without you. Tomorrow Iâll frame it up. If you want to come back for that, it would be great.â
âYeah, probably not, now that I know what you think a twenty-minute job is.â
âI can do it myself, no need to feel guilty about it.â
âI donât feel the least bit guilty. Why do you even need a deck? I like your pond natural, the way it is.â
Crane motioned at the house. âYour sister wants to dip her toes in the water while she reads. Speaking of natural, a bank appraiser once described this as a beautiful, spring-fed pond. He had no clue it was fake.â
âYeah, I like how you made the stream come out of the woods,â He looked around and didnât see an outlet. âWhy doesnât the pond overflow? Does it just soak into the ground?â
Crane had heard that question before. âNo. Iâll let you think about that while I get us some beers.â There was a pump in the pond and a black hose brought the water back to the fake spring, so it was the same water used again and again. Given enough time, Ed would figure it out.
The two sat drinking beer, looking at the trees. They listened to the soft gurgles from the faux creek and from a resin frog pond ornament, sitting on the edge spitting water. Ed spent time looking at each of the sculptures on display in the yard and said, âI like some of these sculptures. How long did you teach art?â
âOnly nine months. I wouldnât call it teaching; it was a craft shop on an Army base in Waukegan. I was alone most of the time.â
âDoes it bother you to live off of my sister?â
âSometimesâI might get a job in a restaurant or something. You canât expect to make money in art. If you can, youâre one of the rare cases.â
âWhy havenât you done it then?â
âWorked a restaurant job.â
âMy mom left me a nice inheritance, more than I would have made in five years of cooking. Plus, Beth is always good with our moneyâ
Crane took a long pull on his beer, âMan, Iâm so grateful I donât have to teach, but I enjoyed my years at the UW. Everything I did to get to this point was worth it.â
Ed changed the subject. âGerhard said youâre always going to the range and shooting pistols. I hate people that love guns.â
âI know what you mean--rednecks and the NRA. But those are stereotypes. You know Iâm as liberal as they get.â
âNo shit. I still think about the time you let me shoot your fifty-caliber pistol. Everyone near us felt the shock wave, and I could see it radiating across the landscape like a little atomic bomb. How often do you get that out?â
âShooting the fiftyâs a good way to meet people. You get noticed and draw a crowd, but at three to five dollars a round, I donât do it very often. Donât you love the smell of gunpowder? Itâs probably my favorite manmade smell.â
After a pause, Ed asked, âWhat kind of smell do you like that isnât manmade?â
âMy favorite natural smell is yarrow. Sometimes when Iâm in the yard, I walk around with two of the leaves shoved into my nostrils. I got Beth to do it once. She liked the smell, but said it made her feel stupid.â
âWhatâs yarrow, some kind of mushroom?â Ed didnât really seem to care about the answer, continuing, âShooting boxfuls of bullets, even if theyâre cheaper than the fifties, itâs got to add up.â
Crane walked across the yard as he answered. âI never figured it out. Sometimes I think the shooting range is a waste of money, but I like doing it.â Picking some yarrow and rubbing it to release the scent, Crane held it out. âHere. Smell this.â
Ed said, âYou arenât worried about spending Bethâs money?â
âWell, I worry about everything, so, it doesnât stand out.â
Ed dropped his empty bottle on the lawn. âI know you take something for depression, but youâre still bothered?â
âYeah, thereâs some residual anxiety. You should have seen me before.â
Ed changed the subject, âYou told me that almost everyone has done something in their life that would get them arrested if they were caught doing it. What did you do?â
Craneâs eyes glazed over for a moment. A faint twinkle in his eyes came and went. âThere are a few things. Thatâs why I think young offenders should be given a way to repay society without going to prison. People do stupid things when theyâre young. It make a difference what the offense is. Drunk drivers, violent criminals, and thieves should be arrested, no question about it.â
Ed said, âCollege students get more breaks when they do the same things the down-and-out get arrested for and they go on to lead normal lives.â
âItâs not fair, but they do. Iâve seen my share of college kids away from home for the first time. They arenât criminals, but they do stupid things, like hanging naked from light posts, or blasting their music too late at night, or drinking too much. I have stories from when I was in college.â Crane put his cup down on the stump and started picking up sticks near the path, letting his last statement percolate.
Ed knew he was being manipulated but wanted to know anyway. âFor example?â
Crane was pleased with himself. âYeah, okay. Well, one time, when I was a junior at the UW, I was at a party and this guy was totally wrecked. He could barely walk. I knew him from my building. He was holding car keys and intended to drive home. I took the keys and said I would drive him home because I needed a ride anyway. I figured out which car was his and opened the back door for him, and he fell in. I was a little tipsy myself and was trying really hard to concentrate because, well, you know how the streets are. Well he was back there ranting and pounding on the window and something started to smell like shit. When I parked and looked back, he had smeared poop all over the seatâon purpose. Must not have remembered it was his car.â
Ed got as excited as he ever got. âWhat happened when he realized what he had done?â
âI donât know. I put the keys under the seat so he couldnât try driving and left him. It was a warm night. I could have killed someone driving drunk like that.â
Ed pictured the scene and made a face, âThatâs why I donât get drunk.â
Crane said, âI have some new stories from last summer that I know you havenât heard.â
Ed knew what he was talking about, âYou might be wrong on that. Iâve heard some of it from Gerhard already. Heâs not too fond of Ray I gather.â
âBe careful with Gare. Heâs still pretty fragile. I hope he comes around.â
Alphonse Bumen drove his brown 1978 Dodge Aspen down HWY 14 west out of Madison. Al was a tall man with a protruding Adamâs apple and the body of a polar bear. He was dressed in his favorite giant black shoes, white socks, long shorts and brown plaid shirt. From appearances you might have guessed computer geek or gamer, but Alphonse could not be classified by external appearance aloneâmost of what defined him never made it as far as the outside world.
His car passed fields of newly sprouted corn and soybeans in every direction, with a house here and there or small clumps of still-living elm trees. With the win-dow open the air smelled like wet soil, welcome after the long winter.
Alâs paws gripped the wheelâdesperately trying to keep from turning inside out. There was a private battle going on, and for the last ten miles or so Al had con-sidered stopping the car to run or bang his head on something to rid himself of the poisonous energy. The sensations werenât new; he had had them before and knew what the progression was. Thatâs why he fumbled in the glove box, hoping to find a handful of aspirins, because sometimes that helped when an alternate reality tried to lure him in.
He was on his own, new to the area, and had no doctor he could trust for relief. The thought of medical help didnât come up. Slipping farther away from himself, he kept driving, barely aware of his surroundings. It was definitely going to happen now. He was moving further away from the pier, and he knew what was coming next, like the sight of the belt in his fatherâs hands. A panic attack would follow, accompanied by an acrid smellâa by-product of his chemical imbalance. Alphonse shook his head to loosen the crystals that grew on diseased synapses. Aware that no physical danger was imminent, but still feeling that way was irrational, and he knew it, but chemicals couldnât be reasoned with. Usually the spells didnât last more than five or ten minutes, but they were very unpleasant experiences to have to live through. Understanding what was happening should have helped to make it easier, but didnât. Knowing from experience that the episodes eventually came to an end was small comfort.
This was a bad one and so intense that his vision blurred. Al was balanced on the edge, on the verge of either crossing the threshold and leaving his mind forever, or falling back safely into this world. It was like being held by the shirttail and lean-ing out over the roof of a tall building.
An oak leaf started to rattle in the vent, then the words came out and Al fell into space. A high-pitched screeching was interfering but even that faded to the back-ground when he concentrated on the words. The negative energy ceased, and he found himself floating in the oneness and able to see everything from a new per-spective. Maybe it wasnât a new realityâit could have always been thereâbut it was new to Al. This was the way the real, physical world was connected down to the smallest atom. Looking in every direction, Al saw an infinite and multidimensional soup that worked; there wasnât one thing out of place. Every thing was one thing.
To stay there would mean a total loss of control, and it could have gone either way. The old Alphonse waited in the background, trying to hang on, and that part hoped the universal oneness would allow him to regain his grip on the wheel and go back to how it was. A tiny thread still attached him to his old world; he watched it fray until it broke, allowing his weightless body to float awayÂŹâthe cord was cut. The atoms of his physical body exploded, feeding a delirious euphoria that was instantly addictive, the swirliness mesmerizing.
Cold sweat and nausea usually accompanied a panic attack, but that had endedâ this was something else totally unrelated. Alphonse had had attacks before without joining the Universe, and he thought the pairing was a coincidence. Al couldnât give it more thought at the moment. He was trying to memorize this dream and hold onto the elation.
Al watched, floated, and listened carefully, and vaguely understood the mes-sage he was getting as he went from euphoria to bad trip with no transition, âI donât believe in you. Let me go back. I can put my hand through it. Thereâs no air, I canât breathe!â
Al needed to be convinced, and with a snap of the fingers the chemicals in his brain supplied the evidence. Euphoria returned, Alâs cells became polarized, repel-ling until he was a spider web, his atoms light-years apart. The empty car had long since disappeared below him and he was seeing galaxies with eyes like the Hubble. There were now ten distinct dimensionsâeasy enough to fathom from this point of view, but where were they before? They had to have been there all along. His brain had been opened to its full potential, and he fought to sort through the thousand questions to start with the most relevant, but didnât even know how to ask them.
Alphonse tried to reshape his essence into a form that could move in a particu-lar direction, but there was nowhere to go, he was already there. He tried to get used to his new surroundings and found the medium unsatisfying. Being able to move in a direction would have been better, because man is an explorer by nature. Knowing everything and being everywhere at once precluded that basic need.
His critique was interrupted when he was instructed in a gentle, reedy baritone that left some things open to interpretation. Thatâs how they had said it worked, but it was frustrating and he couldnât help wanting clarification. He said out loud, âWhich is real?â The sound of his voice filling the ether rattled his brains. His head wasnât able to maintain the connection, and as his body collected he took one last glimpse of the universe before making a crash landing. Nausea, perspiration, and a severe headache were side effects of his trip to the other side.
Al was pretty sure that on his way out he had heard, âSeek the woman of lash-es.â It was mixed in with other pieces of words, phrases and visions that couldnât be deciphered. The whole thing was a mix. There had been voices in the background sounding like an old radio that isnât quite tuned in to the station, a hodgepodge of intensely hued dream scenarios, and there may have been a party.
Alphonse felt sick, beat up, and was drenched in sweat. âHow will I find her?â he bellowed, placing his right hand into his shirt Napoleon style and nervously twisting one of his moles.
The leaf had been tossed out of the blades and the hallucination faded. Only the interference remained. It was annoying and made it difficult for Alphonse to think about what just happened. He wasnât entirely happy to be back in the car, and tried to relive the last few moments or hours. Although he couldnât get his full vision back, a tree was still slightly transparent and vibrated in rhythm like a heartbeat. He craved to relive the high, and now three dimensions would never be enough.
âHoly fucking shit!â he bellowed. âThat happened!â
For a brief moment he had understood everything. The significance was over-whelming, and caused another surge of energy that threatened to overload his brain. For a moment he teetered on the verge of a breakdown. He adjusted the rearview mirror and stared at himself, which helped him to hold on to his identity until the strongest pulses waned. Then, searching the landscape for the ultimate vision, he waited for the creator to show himself. The minutes passed in silence until he ac-cepted that what he had experienced was enough, and he might have to earn a face to face.
Having returned in mind and body, Al now heard the angry honking as other vehicles drove around his car. He pulled onto the shoulder to think about what just happened. He got out and leaned against the passenger door, and looked up, not really expecting to see anything, because thatâs not where he had been. Now he felt tired and distracted. His lips and tongue were numb and he chewed on them to get the blood going again.
Looking up, Al spoke. âI was so stupid. Youâre so beautiful. Can anyone hear me? Tear down the wall, you should let everyone see.â Not being a Reagan fan, he regretted his terminology. It was a wall of sorts, no getting around that.
A movement across the plowed field attracted his attention, a flock of wild tur-keys. He liked seeing them and it gave him something to focus on. Some of the toms had long beards on their chests that looked like bundles of pubic hair.
Al said, âWhat were they thinking when they invented that?â
He was at a loss to understand why hunters liked to keep the beards as trophies. âSick fucksâ, he said. A bystander wouldnât have made the connection.
Eventually, the flock moved into the trees and Al felt calm enough to get back on the road.
Looking up again, he asked, âDid you say sick fucks?â There was no answer. âMaybe I did. If I did, Iâm sorry, I feel bad now. Maybe I just have food poisoning. Do I?â No answer, only more static and random words in other voices. A large black snake sunned itself on a chunk of asphalt and Al was tempted to kill itâbecause he hated snakes, and for the symbolism, but sometimes a snake is just a snake. He got closer to it and it crawled away, just as well, it was sleek and shiny and probably ate rats. If it had anything to say, it chose not to say it.
Alphonse had been connected to other dimensions and now he understood the world in a way that very few others could. It would be hard to go back to his old life, even if he wanted to.
âSeek the woman of many lashes. Thatâs it? What am I supposed to do when I find her?â Al felt panic, but not the kind he just went through, the kind you feel when it is time to hand in your homework and you forgot to do it. That kind of pan-ic was welcome in comparison. The words were starting to fade like a dream, and if he hadnât kept repeating them, they might have been forgotten. âFind the girl with lashes, no, seek.â
Whatâs the difference? If that were all he needed to know, he would just keep driving until he saw a sign. This was the most important thing a human could be asked to do. How many people have communed with the entirety, traveled the vast-ness and lived to tell of it? He tried to remember how it sounded, but couldnât. It had to have been thoughts placed directly into his brain. The voice was ephemeral as it would be, it would probably be too much for a mortal to bear the memory. Al could see now how meaningless a human life was, now that there was hugeness beyond the daily chores and responsibilities. This was much bigger than the scien-tific, visible universe. The arrogance of so-called learned men! He felt ashamed to have scoffed at the religious.
For a moment he had been connected to that hugeness and thatâs all that mat-tered to him now. Alphonse ran his long sausage fingers through his greasy black hair. This wasnât going to be easy, but the euphoria he felt in the cosmos made him hope it would take a long time.
The next second brought more panic. He was about to forget the directiveâit was just on the tip of his tongue and fading. Al nervously reached into his shirt and twisted the biggest mole about its stem until it hurt. Then it came to him: âSearch for a girl with lashes.â That wasnât exactly it, but very close. He repeated it out loud over and over to memorize it as he dug in the seats for paper to write on. Each time he repeated the story, it lost detail, and by the time a brown greasy napkin and an old golf pencil were put to use, the dream had vanished except for the sense of ur-gency. There was a focus and a clear objective, that part was retained. This was something he could do and be known for. It would be Moses, Jesus, and Alphonse.
As soon as possible, the search would begin, but Al was exhausted and nodding at the wheel. Just ahead he could see a sign for public fishing. He slowed and took a quick look before turning in. It was a small gravel parking lot surrounded by tall grass and bushes, meant for trout fishermen, the perfect spot to rest from his travels.
Al drove in as far as he could to hide the car, and was asleep at the turn of his key. Who knows how long he had slept before a tap on the window caused him to bounce off of the steering wheel. He looked around trying to figure out where he was and opened the door. Cooler fresh air started to replace the oven-like tempera-ture.
The fisherman said, âSorry buddy, I thought you might be dead.â He must have looked that way, with his arm twisted behind his head like that.
Al frowned at the guy and rubbed his shoulder. It took a second to remember why he was there. âI was tired. Iâm okay.â He looked at the man wearing tall boots with suspenders, the kind of get up only seen on a trout fisherman. âDid you catch anything?â
âYes several large Brownâs.â
âCan I see them?â
âI canât show you, its catch and release.â
âIâve heard of that. Pretty much a waste of time isnât it?â
âI donât want to eat them, just make them late for something.â
Al had both feet on the ground again, âMitch Hedberg, right?â
The fisherman had been waiting a long time to say that and it didnât get a laugh. As he walked away, the fisherman muttered to himself in a disdainful tone, âBait fisherman.â Lugging his expensive waders and hand-made bamboo rod, he crossed the lot to his Subaru Outback.
Al rubbed his face again because it still had dents in places. He walked down to the stream and washed his face in the cold water, then looked at the sky and under-brush, trying to see those dimensions again. They had to be there, but it was time to get moving. More aware of his surroundings than usual, he got back on the road and headed west.
The search for a mystery woman was on. Would he be allowed to drive past her? Would it take weeks or minutes? Was she on a side road? Al wondered why he was chosen, and wondered about the significance of this woman. Looking at the ceiling of the car, he said, âMaybe I should go east, because thatâs where most things happened. Why canât you just be specific?â
He guessed he had believed in spirits as a child, but only because children be-lieve what they are told. He lost his belief some time before he stopped believing in Santa Claus, because at least there was evidence of Santa Claus, if only one day a year. That had to be why he had been chosen, to bring him back. Or was it because the hardheaded would be more likely to stick with it once convinced?
In the town of Redford, he pulled in to a Culverâs to get something to eat. After parking next to a handicap spot, he stared at the door handle and imagined that eve-ry germ in the micro biome was ready to launch an attack. He went in, using his sleeve to avoid touching the door handle.
He liked the pot roast sandwich and thatâs what he usually got, but this time Al was ravenous and in the mood for a fish sandwich, or several of them, because he appreciated the symbolism.
Stepping in front of the next person in line, Alphonse said, âI want three fish sandwiches and an empty cup for water.â
The boy behind the counter looked at the woman that should have been next. She said, âLook at him, he must be hungry.â Alphonseâs hair was messed up and his shirt had large sweat stains.
Al looked her up and down, and then used his sleeve to wipe the cloudy drip of sweat that hung from the end of his nose. He paid for his order, took his number, and backed away from the counter. A minute later he had his food and walked over to the soda machines. He was about to steal a root beer like he always did, but hesi-tated, and twisted his face in annoyance. In the end he decided to go with the water because he felt the presence, and it made him feel guilty. Would it even matter if he cheated a restaurant? He was sure it wouldnât, but then didnât want to chance it. He had also gained a conscience. His gratitude was expressed with a sarcastic, âThanks a lot.â
Alphonse looked into the eyes of the people around him and could see that they were in the dark, which made him feel superior. If there were any way to explain it, he might have tried, but he didnât really understand it himself.
He held out an arm and saw the transparent, wavy lines of his aura. When he moved the arm, there was a slight delay before the aura caught up and reestablished its perimeter. A fast sweep stretched the field to a thin, wavy sheet. People were looking at him now, so he stopped playing with it.
On the way to find a table, he checked the free newspapers in the rack next to the garbage, wanting to see if they had any of his puzzles. They did, and he felt some satisfaction. Even though he didnât come up with the puzzles, it was the edit-ing of the clues that made them worth anything. Seeing his name in print was always a small thrill and made him feel proud, but he wished there was family left to see his accomplishments.
He found a seat and scanned the murmuring diners, wondering if she was there. Staring at each woman, looking for the one he sought, he didnât know what would give her away, but nothing seemed right. What if the lashes were hidden under a blouse? A new patron entered to the left and Al turned his head too quickly, causing colored lines to appear as the room hit warp speed. He was barely maintaining his hold on the earthly dimensions and would have to be careful not to slip out again. The thought of leaving again was tempting and he considered it, only to postpone it for another time, due to fears of reprisals from you know whoâtripping was not to be used for recreational purposes.
He disassembled his sandwiches and peeled off all of the breading to avoid the fat. Gravity pulled the grease to the plate in rivulets joining at the delta, it was tak-ing too long, and, curious to find out what he would have ingested, Al gathered the crusts together and squeezed the grease onto his plate. It made a large yellow pud-dle, and when he figured in the amount still on his hands, he felt angry and thought, why the hell couldnât they just steam it? Al took a deep breath and, guilt free, he consumed the naked fish covered in tarter sauce. A bald man could be heard across the room saying a little too loudly, âWho would do such a thing?â Diners stopped what they were doing for a moment, then the murmuring resumed.
The food tasted good, but was difficult to enjoy with the threat of mercury and PCBâs in every bite. He went to the bathroom to pee and wash his hands, then opened the door with paper towels and held it open with his foot as he tossed the paper across the bathroom in the general direction of the garbage can. Al ap-proached the main entrance, and then backed out the front doors with elbows bent and fingers pointing up like a surgeon. He got in his car and drove on.
Ordinary things came to mind as he passed various locations. âSomeday I want to see a movie at that drive-in. I like those model cabins. I should stop for gas. Why have I been chosen?â
Driving past an Amish horse and buggy, he tried to look into the enclosed wag-on. Then he looked away, ashamed for being so curious. If anyone would be able to understand what was happening, they might. Al was this close to stopping them to tell his story and ask advice. If they had even looked in his direction, he was going to flag them down, but they stared at the road in front of them and he kept driving. Once or twice, his fascination with making trails by looking left and right almost caused him to leave the road, but luckily the rumble strips and honking horns snapped him out of it. One angry man yelled at him as he passed, âGet off your cell phone!â Al knew why the guy said thatâ he wasnât stupid.
Steep hills are hard on gas and horses, but horses can wait to fill up. Alphonse pulled into a BP, even though they were a few cents higher than the Mobil across the road. For no particular reason he thought the restrooms at the BP would be cleaner. Maybe it was the British in British Petroleum, as if people from England would be cleaner. He swiped his card and made all the required choices, then insert-ed the pump and locked the handle on full open. After a few false starts, he pulled it out a little and tried again. It seemed to be working, so he went inside to look around. He made a beeline towards the restroom signâit could have been the water from Culverâs or the beginnings of prostate trouble. The door to the menâs room had dirt and grease in a large semicircle around the handle, and after brief consideration, Al opened it by backing into it, then used his foot to raise the lid of the toilet. Tak-ing note of the broken tiles, odor and filthy porcelain while the sound of his urine reverberated loudly off the walls, and he concluded that the gas station was not owned by a Brit, and probably not even somebody born in America. He washed his hands, wondering if he would be better off just getting out of there. He noticed the protrusion on his shirt and gave it a twist to loosen it up a little more, trying to cut off the blood supply without disturbing the cancer cells; it was a dangerous game he was playing. The door opened inward, making use of a wad of paper towel neces-sary. The door was opened, the paper was released, and the door shut again with Al safely sterile on the outside. He sniffed the air for incense and looked to see who was working at the counter, he felt shame for having thoughts like that because he wasnât a bigot.
Like a miniature grocery store, the short rows were divided into categories; candy, car products, chips, ice cream, cold beverages, and dried meats. The jerky was always tempting even though he hadnât bought any in years, and the teriyaki flavor sounded almost good enough to make the sale. He picked up the bag, but read the ingredients and just couldnât bring himself to ingest that many grams of salt and nitrates. Turning around, he opened the cooler and stared at the choices. He reached for the plain lemonade and looked at the ingredients: cane sugar, water, and lemon concentrate. He was happy to see those, but didnât know what he was supposed to think about the ascorbic acid. It was bottled in glass, another plus because it could easily be recycled and wouldnât leach chemicals into the juice.
On the way to the counter he grabbed some Double Mint. The young girl at the checkout had too much make-up on and thick false eyelashes. Alphonse couldnât decide if she looked cute or sluttyâfor him they were interchangeable qualities. Her cleavage was new and she was having fun showing it off. He looked again at the lashes and didnât get any sense that she was the one. But it did irritate him that he was so on his own. Someone else might have gone with the eyelashes and been sat-isfied.
As he reached the counter, she said, âI see you chose glass. Good decision. If you have a son you want him to have both testicles, right?â
Al said, âYouâre thinking of fire retardant.â
âI think youâre right. Whatâs plastic, again?â
âEverything else,â Al mumbled. âYou look very pretty, are those your real eye-lashes?â
âMostly. I have some extra ones to add volume. You really think Iâm pretty?â
Al tried to be charming. âOf course I do, look at you. You have a pretty face and a killer bod. That cleavage is driving me nuts. If I was two years younger Iâd be asking you out.â
âYouâd have to be a lot younger than that and much better looking. You shouldnât be saying those things to me, Iâm not even legal.â
Al ignored her comments. âHold on a minute, Iâm just trying to get a feel for you, to see if youâre the one I seek.â
The girl backed away from the counter. âOkay, thatâs enough. Youâre creeping me out, you have to leave.â Turning to face a back room, she called, âStan?â
Al stood right where he was and looked her up and down. Without any signs one way or another, he tried to get a look at Stan, then turned and walked out. The last she heard from Al was the pop from the lid on his lemonade as he opened the door with his foot.
The girl walked to the front window to make sure he kept going as she buttoned two more buttons on her blouse. âStan, did you see that guy? Stan!â