Alphonse Bumen drove his brown 1978 Dodge Aspen down HWY 14 west out of Madison. Al was a tall man with a protruding Adamâ€™s 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 aloneâ€“most 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.
Alâ€™s paws gripped the wheelâ€“desperately 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 werenâ€™t new; he had had them before and knew what the progression was. Thatâ€™s 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 didnâ€™t 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 fatherâ€™s hands. A panic attack would follow, accompanied by an acrid smellâ€“a 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 couldnâ€™t be reasoned with. Usually the spells didnâ€™t 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 didnâ€™t. 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 wasnâ€™t a new realityâ€“it could have always been thereâ€“but 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 wasnâ€™t 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 awayÂ¬â€“the 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 couldnâ€™t 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, â€śI donâ€™t believe in you. Let me go back. I can put my hand through it. Thereâ€™s no air, I canâ€™t breathe!â€ť
Al needed to be convinced, and with a snap of the fingers the chemicals in his brain supplied the evidence. Euphoria returned, Alâ€™s 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 dimensionsâ€“easy 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 didnâ€™t 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. Thatâ€™s how they had said it worked, but it was frustrating and he couldnâ€™t help wanting clarification. He said out loud, â€śWhich is real?â€ť The sound of his voice filling the ether rattled his brains. His head wasnâ€™t 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, â€śSeek the woman of lash-es.â€ť It was mixed in with other pieces of words, phrases and visions that couldnâ€™t be deciphered. The whole thing was a mix. There had been voices in the background sounding like an old radio that isnâ€™t 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. â€śHow will I find her?â€ť 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 wasnâ€™t entirely happy to be back in the car, and tried to relive the last few moments or hours. Although he couldnâ€™t 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.
â€śHoly fucking shit!â€ť he bellowed. â€śThat happened!â€ť
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 thatâ€™s 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. â€śI was so stupid. Youâ€™re so beautiful. Can anyone hear me? Tear down the wall, you should let everyone see.â€ť 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, â€śWhat were they thinking when they invented that?â€ť
He was at a loss to understand why hunters liked to keep the beards as trophies. â€śSick fucksâ€ť, he said. A bystander wouldnâ€™t 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, â€śDid you say sick fucks?â€ť There was no answer. â€śMaybe I did. If I did, Iâ€™m sorry, I feel bad now. Maybe I just have food poisoning. Do I?â€ť 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 itâ€“because 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.
â€śSeek the woman of many lashes. Thatâ€™s it? What am I supposed to do when I find her?â€ť 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 hadnâ€™t kept repeating them, they might have been forgotten. â€śFind the girl with lashes, no, seek.â€ť
Whatâ€™s 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 couldnâ€™t. 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 thatâ€™s all that mat-tered to him now. Alphonse ran his long sausage fingers through his greasy black hair. This wasnâ€™t 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 directiveâ€“it 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: â€śSearch for a girl with lashes.â€ť That wasnâ€™t 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, â€śSorry buddy, I thought you might be dead.â€ť 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. â€śI was tired. Iâ€™m okay.â€ť He looked at the man wearing tall boots with suspenders, the kind of get up only seen on a trout fisherman. â€śDid you catch anything?â€ť
â€śYes several large Brownâ€™s.â€ť
â€śCan I see them?â€ť
â€śI canâ€™t show you, its catch and release.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ve heard of that. Pretty much a waste of time isnâ€™t it?â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t want to eat them, just make them late for something.â€ť
Al had both feet on the ground again, â€śMitch Hedberg, right?â€ť
The fisherman had been waiting a long time to say that and it didnâ€™t get a laugh. As he walked away, the fisherman muttered to himself in a disdainful tone, â€śBait fisherman.â€ť 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, â€śMaybe I should go east, because thatâ€™s where most things happened. Why canâ€™t you just be specific?â€ť
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 Culverâ€™s 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 thatâ€™s 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, â€śI want three fish sandwiches and an empty cup for water.â€ť
The boy behind the counter looked at the woman that should have been next. She said, â€śLook at him, he must be hungry.â€ť Alphonseâ€™s 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 wouldnâ€™t, but then didnâ€™t want to chance it. He had also gained a conscience. His gratitude was expressed with a sarcastic, â€śThanks a lot.â€ť
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 didnâ€™t 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 didnâ€™t 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 didnâ€™t 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 whoâ€“tripping 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 couldnâ€™t 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, â€śWho would do such a thing?â€ť 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 PCBâ€™s 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. â€śSomeday 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€ť
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, â€śGet off your cell phone!â€ť Al knew why the guy said thatâ€“ he wasnâ€™t 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 signâ€“it could have been the water from Culverâ€™s or the beginnings of prostate trouble. The door to the menâ€™s 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 wasnâ€™t 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 hadnâ€™t 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 couldnâ€™t 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 didnâ€™t 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 wouldnâ€™t 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 couldnâ€™t decide if she looked cute or sluttyâ€“for him they were interchangeable qualities. Her cleavage was new and she was having fun showing it off. He looked again at the lashes and didnâ€™t 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, â€śI see you chose glass. Good decision. If you have a son you want him to have both testicles, right?â€ť
Al said, â€śYouâ€™re thinking of fire retardant.â€ť
â€śEverything else,â€ť Al mumbled. â€śYou look very pretty, are those your real eye-lashes?â€ť
â€śMostly. I have some extra ones to add volume. You really think Iâ€™m pretty?â€ť
Al tried to be charming. â€śOf 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 Iâ€™d be asking you out.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™d have to be a lot younger than that and much better looking. You shouldnâ€™t be saying those things to me, Iâ€™m not even legal.â€ť
Al ignored her comments. â€śHold on a minute, Iâ€™m just trying to get a feel for you, to see if youâ€™re the one I seek.â€ť
The girl backed away from the counter. â€śOkay, thatâ€™s enough. Youâ€™re creeping me out, you have to leave.â€ť Turning to face a back room, she called, â€śStan?â€ť
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. â€śStan, did you see that guy? Stan!â€ť