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Driftless Summer (Novel Excerpt) Unpublished


Southwestern Wisconsin is known as the driftless area because the glaciers didn't cover it. The terrain is very hilly and not very populated. Crane Maddox and his brother in law spend their off time at Crane's cabin. Nearby is a farm owned by Ray Olsen. Ray has a new friend, and an unhealthy alliance is formed.
Around 100,000 words.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Road trip to Milwaukee

Alphonse was catching up on his work and sat at the table eating cereal and staring at the puzzle. This one was entitled “High and Low” because the main answers had ‘GH’ and ‘OW’ in the words. He thought a couple of the clues were too hard for a Tuesday and was considering other ways to state them. Lowering his spoon to the bowl without looking, he took another bite of Shredded Wheat, and then looked up to see Ray walk in half asleep and naked. Al laughed out loud at the sight, spitting cereal into his hand. Pointing to Ray’s crotch, he said, “Looks like you got yourself a glazed doughnut there.” Clueless, Ray looked down at his crotch. He had taken the computer to bed the night before and his penis was bent into a U shape and held in place with matted pubic hair. The dried sperm encrusting the whole area acted like glue. Ray wasn’t amused and picked at the mess, flakes drifting to the floor.
Al said, “You might want to give it a rest. Yankin’ the crank too much can’t be good for you, and I don’t even want to use the laptop anymore you got it so gizzed up. I knew a guy in the service that got a medical discharge for chronic masturbation. Can you get a damp rag and wipe off the keys?”
Ray gave a dismissive look and walked back into his room to get dressed for the day. When he came out, Al was outside.
Al said, “It’s been too long without a long drive to clear my thoughts, I’m going to go to Milwaukee for a day or two.”
He anticipated going alone, because things were cool between the men and he knew Ray didn’t like to leave the farm much to begin with. The trunk was open and he was staring into it, trying to think of anything he forgot to pack. Ray was now dressed and behind the screen door. Al could feel the eyes on him and turned to face the house.
Ray said, “Where you goin’, another mission?”
“I already told you, you want to come?”
“Uh huh, just a minute.”
Al screwed up his face, trying to make it disappear into the space between his eyes. He regretted the invitation and was pissed that he had to wait for bags to be packed.
When Ray came out with his duffle bag, Al was sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open and his feet on the ground, looking at something on his shoe. Ray was hoping it wasn’t some kind of animal shit because he was tired of hearing complaints about that.
Ray felt apprehensive. “Is Milwaukee as big as Madison? ‘Cause I don’t see how it could be. I hope not.”
“Are you sure you want to go? It’s a lot bigger than Madison, but there’s more to do.”
“Do you know your way around?”
“No, but it’s just a town.”
“I haven’t fed the animals yet.”
Lying, Al said, “They’ll be all right, I fed them for you when you were dressing.”
Ray said, “I probably should stay here in case someone comes.”
Al said, “If you’re going with me, get in.”
The car was moving before Ray shut the door. Wheels dropped into the ruts in the driveway and Al made a face every time his car scraped the bottom. He could have let go of the wheel and stayed on track all the way to the main road.
Ray said, “You don’t like my road, do you? I can level it if you want.”
“Why the hell don’t you?”
It was a long drive, broken up with stops for coffee, lunch, and to use the bathroom.
At one stop for coffee, Ray said, “I need to use the bathroom.”
Al waited in the aisles, reading labels and making noises every time he read a chemical that he recognized from a science journal. He spoke across the room to the clerk. “It should be illegal to sell these items.”
The clerk agreed.
Ray had been in there a long time, so Al went in to check on him.
Al said, “What are you doing?”
“I’ve been reading the walls and don’t like the sinnin’ people wrote about.”
He had written chapter numbers for scripture to respond to some of the most disgusting statements. Al looked at what he was writing.
Al said, “That’s not how you spell blasphemy. Here, give me the pen.” Then, pointing to the graffiti, he said, “Have you ever tried that with anyone?”
Ray said, “Not any person.”
Back on 94 and entering the suburbs of Milwaukee, they were doing seventy miles an hour and chatting about nothing when the traffic came to a dead stop at the top of the hill. There was no warning. Al hit the brakes. The car in front of them fishtailed and two hubcaps from a car behind them rolled past, one on each side. Their car narrowly missed hitting the car in front of them. Al’s car was older and didn’t have antilock brakes, so there were skid marks all over the place.
The traffic started to move again.
Al said, “That was too fucking close. We were almost pancakes, don’t you think?”
Ray still had his hands on the dash. “You think that’s funny?”
“We’re still here, aren’t we?”
Ray was quiet for several minutes, then said, “I’m glad you were driving and not me or we’d be dead now. Are we in Milwaukee? This is beautiful, look how they planted flowers in between the roads. Those are giant buildings, aren't they? Can we go in one? I’m glad you brought me here.”
Al said, “I think we exited too soon. I want to find a hotel for the night, then go out and have fun.”
Somehow Al got turned around and couldn’t tell which way was east. They drove through some all-black neighborhoods and Ray said, “I never seen black people before, can we stop? We should stop, do you know where you’re going?”
Al said sarcastically, “Remember? I’ve never been here before.” Then, more calmly, “I’m a little turned around, I think.”
When they were back on a larger street, Ray said, “That wasn’t nice, I was just askin’.”
Al was driving slowly and thought he made eye contact with a pretty young thing. He quickly pulled out of traffic and over to the curb, then backed the car up. She approached the car, and then leaned on the curve of metal just below the passenger side window. Al sounded like a wolf saying, “Get in. We’ll give you a ride, won’t we, Ray?”
No ordinary woman would do anything but run away from this scene, but not this one. She looked into the front and back seats, checking them out before deciding it would be all right. She wasn’t dressed for the night chill that was coming, wearing a dirty white tank top that showed numerous scratches on her arms, chest and face. Her hair was light brown and purposely gnarled up like a Rasta person on one half and nearly shaved on the other half. She looked at both of them again to be sure, then got in the back.
“Hello, I’m Al and this is Ray. What’s your name?”
She said “Te-nah” with a hesitation in the middle—her voice was raspy and high pitched. She coughed and repeated, “Tina.”
Al said, “We’re from out of town and want to find a room for the night. Do you know where we can find a good hotel?”
Tina said, “Yeah, I know a good place.”
Al looked at her in his rear view mirror and was hoping to fuck her. She wasn’t wearing a bra and even though her breasts were small, her nipples were prominent.
He said, “You sound like Janis Joplin, has anyone told you that before? How’d you get those scratches, been gardening?”
“It comes with the Meth.”
All plans for a seduction were forgotten because right away it got weird.
Tina said, “Turn right here.”
Al said, “I can’t, it’s a one way street.”
Tina freaked, shouting, “You told me you were from out of town! Why are you lying to me?”
Al shouted back, “I know how to read a sign, don’t I?”
She opened the door and said, “Stop the car, I’m getting out.”
Al stopped, but she wouldn’t get out. There was a moment where nobody knew what would happen next, and then Tina shut the door. “All right, keep going. You scared me with that shit.”
Ray asked, “What do your voices tell you?”
“I don’t hear no fuckin voices, you think I’m crazy?”
A few more blocks and she seemed to have forgotten the incident.
Tina said, “Stop here, I have to go upstairs and do something.”
It was a storefront in a scuzzy downtown area with too many vacant stores. Al was curious, Ray was afraid. The car pulled over and two of them got out. Ray sat with his arms folded and looking everywhere, like a prey animal about to flee.
Tina put a hand on his shoulder and rubbed it gently, then whispered something in his ear. Ray’s eyebrows raised and his door pushed Tina backwards in his hurry to get out.
With two men trailing her, Tina opened the gray asbestos-covered door and they followed her up the steep, narrow staircase. It still wasn’t clear what she needed to do. There was a man at the top of the stairs sitting at a desk. He had the look and physique of a bouncer and was there to screen people before they were allowed to do whatever was beyond him. He knew Tina and made no move to stop them.
The doorway behind the desk loomed like the gates of hell. Al said, “I have a bad feeling about this,” and decided to get out of there.
Ray said, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Tina caught up to them at the car.
Al said, “What was going to happen up there?”
Tina got back in. “You want to find a room right?”
Al stared at her breasts and started to feel horny again. He said, “Sure I do” as he pulled into traffic.
Tina said, “Turn right at the third light. Go left at the orange sign. Now drive slow here.”
Al said, “This area seems better. Just people out for the evening, I guess they seem okay. Is the hotel around here? I don’t think we’ll ever find a room this way.”
Tina clawed at her arms, then stared at the marks.
Al wasn’t horny anymore. “You should just get out here.”
Tina said, “You take me where I want, or I’ll say you tried to rape me. Wait! Stop the car! There’s my grandmother.”
What now? His curiosity piqued, Al did as he was told. Ray had been pulled in too many directions and wasn’t trying to figure it out anymore.
Tina rolled down her window, rasping, “Grandma, Grandma.” The woman, who was probably only around fifty looked at her, and then spit on the sidewalk. Probably not the reaction Tina expected. The men looked at each other. Ray was pale and weak looking. Al said, “Don’t worry, buddy, we’ll get rid of her.”
Tina said, “I’m right here, you know. I want candy. Stop at a gas station.”
Al pulled out into traffic. He said, “We’re dropping you off now.”
Tina said, “I’ll show you where to stay now like I told you,” and seemed to calm down a little. “Turn right here.”
The car was barely going walking speed.
Al said, “Get her out, Ray.”
Tina said, “See that sign? Turn there. No, you should have gone left. I’ve been here before. I have to pee. You guys have any shit? That’s the place.”
Al said, “Okay, now get out.”
Tina said, “Take me where I want to go or I’ll tell the cops you raped me.”
Al said, “So, Tina, did you grow up around here? You seem like a sweet girl, how did you get so beat-up looking?”
“I want to go home now. Take me or I’ll call the cops.”
Ray said, “Can I rape her?”
Al “Sure you can, buddy. Why not? Go for it.”
She opened the door like she was getting out, but the car was moving, so she shut it again. Al drove the car to the curb.
“Tina, we’re done here. Now get out.”
“I ain’t gettin’ out now.”
Al was worried–this was so insane–and he started driving again, still not sure what to do about her threats. Ray turned around and was kneeling in his seat, his chest pressed against the back of the seat to hold himself up. He stared at Tina’s nipples with his mouth open. By now he had seen plenty of naked women online, but he liked this one even better. He reached into the back seat to touch her and she leaned forward to let him feel her breasts and even pulled out her top to let him look down it. Ray rubbed himself with the other hand. Tina liked the attention and smiled at Ray.
Al said, “Stop it, Ray, I’m trying to drive here. Tina, will you stop it and tell me where to drop you?”
Tina was trying to pull Ray into the backseat, but he was okay where he was.
Al said, “I’m going to stop so we can flag down that cop across the street.”
They got him to come over and told him their story. The cop put her in his car and was with her for some time. Ray tried to clean the mess on his jeans while they waited. Al saw the cop get out of the cruiser and walk back to their car.
The cop said, “In town an hour and you’re already in trouble. She’s on something, so I’m going to take her in. You can go, but don’t pick up any more strays.”
Driving again, Al said, “Should we look for another woman?”
Ray said, “I had sex with a woman.”
“You sure did, pal. Maybe I should have let you get in the back. I don’t think you would have had to rape her.”
They checked into the hotel that Tina had recommended. It was in the middle of the block and the entrance was right on the sidewalk. The desk clerk was tall and thin with white-rimmed glasses. He smiled at Ray, but ignored Al altogether. Al looked at Ray to see if there was any reaction, but nothing registered.
When Al put his card on the desk the clerk said, “Sorry man, cash only.” Al looked around and was having second thoughts.
“Ray, are you all right with this place?
Ray said, “It has nice stonework” and shrugged his shoulders.
Al paid for one night. They carried their bags upstairs to room 200. The carpet and the floor under it was very soft, like it had too much padding or there weren’t enough nails in the boards.
Walking into the room, Ray said, “There ain’t no T-V and prolly no Internet either.”
Al said, “We won’t be in the room much, don’t worry about it.”
Ray bounced on the beige sheets. Al got close to the blanket on his bed and went over every inch, scratching a spot and brushing it off.
He said, “Let’s go do something.”
Ray said, “I don’t like it in here, where can we go?”
“Trying to impress Ray with his newly found sense of direction, Al stated, “The Lake is east of here. Let’s go take a look at it and maybe walk on a beach. Bring your jacket.”
The pair walked to the car and drove around until they got their bearings. Al parked across the street from a lakefront park and they crossed to the beach.
Ray said, “I thought you said it was a lake.”
Al said, “It is a lake, but it’s a big lake.”
“Could I swim across it? Do you feel okay? You look funny.”
“I’m tired from the drive. I guess I do feel a little beat up. Don’t worry about me, worry about yourself. You probably could swim it. If you want to try I’ll hold your jacket.”
“The water feels cold and I haven’t swam much before. I guess I won’t try it. I want to see that white building up close. I think it’s pretty.”
Al said, “That’s an art museum, they have paintings and sculptures in there. It looks like a boat, doesn’t it? We should take the car.”
Al parked in the underground parking. “This is the nicest garage I’ve ever seen.”
They headed for the entrance. Ray looked at the white pillars and had to touch them.
Al said, “Look with your eyes, not with your hands.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t touch everything. If everyone did that it wouldn’t be white, would it?”
Ray scowled.
They bought their tickets and entered the main room. Ray imagined himself on a cruise ship plowing through the water and was happy that God inspired someone to do this whole thing. “This could be a Church if there was pews.”
Inside, the heaps of colored glass on exhibit baffled them. Ray was about to reach over the rope and touch a curly tailed orb when Al grabbed his wrist with a muffled, “No!” The guard frowned and asked them to please not touch the artwork. Ray lagged behind, looked around, and then snapped off a glass tip from the Chihuly. He put it in his pocket and turned up his nose at the sculpture. Ray was pouting and mad at the guard and Al. He bent over, plugging his ears, and listened closely for the words that would give him the go-ahead. It was just more negativity directed at him, nothing about a guard.
Al returned to get Ray and looked at him and then at his pocket to let Ray know that he knew what he had done.
Al said, “It’s time to go.”
“We just got here.”
Al said “We’re leaving before you get us into trouble. Wait down in the ramp a minute. Miss, can you tell me what else would be good to see if we only have one day in town?”
The docent said, “Have you seen all of our exhibits? You are missing a lot if you haven’t even left this area.”
Al said, “Yeah, we saw everything.”
The Docent, knowing they hadn’t, said, “Here’s a tourist brochure. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Ray hadn’t moved. Al said, “I told you to wait in the ramp. Let’s go.”
“I don't have to do everything you say, you know.”
“Who’s the disciple here, you or me?”
“Maybe you are.”
Al let it drop.
Back in the car it was a little hard to see the pictures, so Al drove out into the sun and parked again. He looked at the brochure without showing it to Ray, and then put it in his pocket.
A group of toddlers rolled past in a large wagon. Two teenaged girls from a daycare were taking them for a stroll. Ray and Al watched them, then looked at each other with anxiety, hoping they wouldn’t be called upon at this moment. The oak leaf started to rattle and Ray turned off the fan.
Al said, “Good move, I don’t think I would have been up for that.”
Ray said, “I should have left it on, he wouldn’t have asked us to do that.”
He turned the fan back on, but the leaf wasn’t engaged.
Ray said, “I hope he isn’t angry because we didn’t trust him.”
“I’m angry–you should worry about me, let me see what’s in your pocket”
Ray fished out the piece of broken glass and held it up to the light.
Al said. “You’re lucky you’re not in jail. Are you hungry? What are you in the mood for?”
“Fish.”
“No, you always want fish. I’m taking you for Reuben’s at that Red and White.”
“What’s a Reuben?”
“Its corned beef on rye bread with sauerkraut. You’ll like it.”
“I’ll try it if you say it’s good, but I’m getting chips. I love them so much.”
“I know you do, buddy.”
Ray said, “I never heard of beef that was corned. What is that, do they put corn on it?”
“There’s no corn on it, I don’t know why they call it that. But it tastes good, that’s all you need to know.”
“They might give us some corn if we ask for it, I like corn too.”
Al said, “I don’t know why you aren’t fat. You’ll eat anything that’s put in front of you.”
“Ma and Pa were really, really fat, but Paul and me are skinny as posts. Don’t know why.”
They plugged the meter and walked half a block to the Red and White diner. There was a shallow cement ramp with wide strips of textured tape to prevent slipping. When the door opened, a little bell tinkled and the aroma of good food surrounded them. They had to stand there and take it in.
Ray said, “This is goin’ to be good.”
They found two open spots at the counter, sitting on the chrome-sided stools that swiveled. Ray traced the patterns in the Formica counter. “This is a little like in my kitchen.”
The waitress behind the counter put water and napkins down in front of them. “Coffee for you?”
Al said, “Yes, two black.”
Ray spoke up. “We want Reuben sandwiches.”
The waitress tried to be friendly. “I love feeding hungry men. Comin’ right up.”
Before she could walk away, Ray asked, “Can I get corn and chips with that?”
The waitress said, “We have chips, but no corn, sorry honey.”
“Chips is what I really want.”
She smiled at him. “Well, all right then, I give you a big handful, sweetie.” The waitress gave him a wink.
Al said, “I think she would do you, too bad we don’t have time.”
“I don’t need much time. I’m on and off a in a minute. Can’t we do both?”
“What do you think’s going to happen? She’ll take off her apron in the middle of her shift and then what, you go at it right here on the counter?”
Ray liked the imagery. “Do you think she would do that?”
Al looked at him blankly and said, “It seems women find you attractive. You should probably go into town more, then you wouldn’t need a horse.”
“The horse is easier than town.”
The sandwiches came and Ray’s first bite ran down his chin.
Al said, “You have to get out more. Here, I’ll cut it in fours for you.”
“What’s this orange stuff squirting out?”
“It’s salad dressing. Use a napkin, will you? It’s embarrassing.”
“I like this meat, it’s tasty. Let’s make these when we get back to the farm.” Ray licked his finger and poked at the crumbs on his plate.
“You should go in the bathroom and wash your face.”
Lunch over, they drove around until they got their bearings and soon found their way.
Ray was awestruck at the sight of the glass structures on the other side of the river. There were three geodesic dome buildings taller than they were wide. The scale was even more impressive when they parked and stood at the entrance looking up at them. Then came the unwarranted fear, and Ray decided not to go in. Al pushed Ray and angrily told him to “Get the fuck in there and learn something new.” On one hand, Ray was glad to have someone to help him get his butt in gear. On the other hand, he resented being told what to do. Once inside, he calmed down. It felt safe there and he wanted to go into each dome, because this was nature and his area of expertise. In the desert dome he backed into a tall cactus that embedded needles deep into his shoulder. He took a full swing with his heavy work boot and kicked the trunk at the base. The vibration caused a long arm of new growth to break off near the top and they watched it fall onto the path.
Al couldn’t yell, so he whispered as forcefully as he could. “Are you fuckin’ stupid? This is a nice place, what if everyone did that?” He dragged him to the next dome.
Ray said, “Let go. You keep saying that. I’m not stupid. I hate that plant. I’m going back in there and kick the hell out of it.”
Nobody had seen what happened, and Al walked him double-time further into the seasonal dome. “Didn’t you see the thorns? It isn’t the cactus’s fault. You know how long it takes to grow those things?”
When Ray had gotten over the initial pain, he still wanted to go back to the desert to finish destroying the cactus and then look for rattlesnakes. Al moved him into the rainforest, where they saw plants that had huge leaves and pretty birds that sang.
“This is like the Garden of Eden, isn’t it”?
“Yes it is, Ray. Look under that bush, do you see the serpent?”
“No, are you shitin’ me, where? Tina could be Eve and I could be Adam.”
Al said, “That isn’t going to happen. I hope we never see her again.”
Ray asked in all seriousness, “Do you think there really was a Garden of Eden?”
Al smiled. “We should ask him next time.”
“Maybe we should be writing down what he says.”
Al agreed, “That’s a good idea, you should do it. I sent for the papyrus.”
They had spent a long time in the domes and it was time to hunt for dinner. They drove downtown and saw many restaurants that looked good. The car was parked and they took a stroll. It had been a long day and it was finally getting dark.
The breeze carried an irresistible aroma, and they followed their noses to a Thai restaurant. Luckily they were able to get a table.
Al said, “I’m going to order you a drink. Have you ever had a martini?”
“No, what is it?”
“They can be gin or vodka. Any preference?”
“No.”
The waiter came and took the drink orders and handed them menus. When the drinks came, Al made a toast—“Here’s to Tina and Ray, what a beautiful couple they made”—and took gulps.
Ray choked. “Yuck, that tastes like medicine.”
Al smiled for the second time. “Try another sip.”
Ray did as he was told and said, “I’m starting to like it.”
They split two entrees. Ray looked it over moving pieces around with his fork before tasting it. He said, “This is better than trout.”
Dinner continued in silence, then Ray asked, “What are these brown things, can you eat ‘em?”
“You can if you want.”
Ray bit into one. “Holy shit, that’s hot!” He began sweating and spitting onto his plate. The other diners smiled at the neophyte. He ran out onto the sidewalk and bent over, spitting and drooling, trying to get rid of the heat. Al got the leftovers boxed and paid the bill, then walked outside to stand by until Ray got himself together.
Al completed his thought. “Most people don’t chew ‘em, though,” he said with a sheepish grin.
When the heat subsided, Ray wiped the tears on his sleeve and blew his nose on the sidewalk farmer-style. They walked some more, because they weren’t in a hurry to go to the hotel. Ray stared at some black women and had plenty of questions for Al. He was told not to show his ignorance in public. Al apologized to the women and said Ray was from the country. They seemed to understand what he meant.
The pair sat on a park bench watching people go by until finally, the hotel room couldn’t be avoided any longer. They walked up the stairs to the room.
Al commanded, “Ray, wash your jeans in the sink, you can’t wear them like that again.”
Ray answered back, “You’re not my mother.”
“You’re right, but I’m not riding back with you in the car like that.”
Ray reluctantly removed his jeans and underwear, filled the sink with water and began scrubbing.
Ray said, “I thought if we got away from the farm, the voices would stop.”
Al said, “Me, too. I don’t know how they find us. Wring those out so they dry faster.”
“I was goin’ to.”

***

That night,


Fine art by Michael Kmiotek.
Kinetic sculptures suitable for gardens or other outdoor locations
(608) 234-2914, (608) 839-9557
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