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Driftless Summer (Novel 100,000 words to date)

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 making it to the third level and their bedroom. He stood in the doorway and, looking at his wife, all cares were forgotten.
Beth smiled and cooed, “It’s about time you got home.”
Crane shrugged, and then a sly grinned appeared. He took a few steps to posi-tion himself at 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, “I was looking for my metals catalog, do you know where it is?”
Beth unclenched her foot, and put her book face down on the bed. The answer was always the same, “It’s wherever you left it sweetie, I haven’t seen it.” Crane released her foot, and started to pull the covers over it. Beth had been anticipating the small torture and wanted it. She kicked off the blanket and said, “You can tickle me a little, but be careful I don’t want to wet the bed. I liked it better when you used to keep all of your stuff in the garage–at least then you knew where to look. I hope you didn’t make a mess downstairs.”
He visualized the lower levels and thought he might have. The incentive to tickle gone, he gave a nice foot massage instead. “I need to go to Airgas and get another spool of wire, do you need anything from town?”
She proffered the other foot. “Didn’t you just buy wire?”
Beth was the one paying for it, so had a mental tally of costs, Crane’s vocation was not a profitable one.
Crane took a deep breath and sat on the bed, putting Beth’s hand in his. “Well, kitten, I have to let Ray do a little something of his own, because he helps me with the cutting. I don’t see a problem with it.”
Beth wanted to get back to her book, “Whatever floats your boat, I know you like working with him. Make sure you take him with you; I don’t feel comfortable when he’s out there alone. Suddenly remembering, she added, “Oh, I know what you could do, pick up something for dinner.”
“No problem—how does Lasagna from Gino’s sound?”
Beth answered with her eyes on her husband’s midsection. “That’s fine, but you better skip the garlic bread. Your washboard stomach has all but disappeared.”
Crane lifted his shirt and displayed for his wife, “Look, if I stand under the light and bend over like this, you can still see my abs and a little bread never hurt any-body.” 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.
Beth looked and commented, “It would be even better if you could get both sides to show at the same time, nobody is proud of a three-pack. She grabbed his belt and pulled him close, and tried to smooth his mustache, but to no avail. “It might be time to try shaving this off again, or get some gel or something. You al-ways have four or five really wild ones jutting out here and there, it can be a distraction.”
Crane tried smoothing the unruly ones that he could see when he put his lip up. “Maybe it is time to shave it, but you know I look like a chimp without it.”
“I know what you’re saying about the chimp thing, but don’t shave it, it’s fine. They’re coming back in style anyway. It’s a good thing you didn’t know me when I was younger, I was a horrible control freak, I would try to control everybody if I didn’t make an effort not to. It’s probably because I grew up having to be a mother when I should have been allowed to just be a kid.”
Crane was back in front of the mirror trying to get his abs to show. “I think you nailed it. The younger ones say you still try to boss them around.”
“I know they think that’s what I’m doing, but when I see them making bad choices, I tell them. If I had my way, there wouldn’t be so many of them, not that I don’t love them now that they’re here.”
Crane plopped onto the bed putting his head on Beth’s lap hoping to be stroked. “Your parents were following the Church’s rules on birth control. Maybe that’s why only one of your sibs is still a Catholic.”
“That’s one reason.”
Beth tried to get a look at the next page in her book, a hint that the conversation had ended, Crane was done anyway and hopped out of bed and left the room.
“Where are you going”, she asked.
Half way down the hall he answered, “I remembered where my manual is.”
Beth raised her voice, “You used to take better care of your things.” She smiled, raised her knees to re-cover her feet and reached for her journal. She wrote, “I love Crane so much, but I can’t figure out how someone who is supposed to be depressed, can be so egotistical. He never seems sad and always tells jokes. I’m not a hundred per cent sure he really has it.” She threw the journal in the drawer and picked up her book.
Crane located the catalog and left through the door to the attached garage. He had to squeeze between his truck and the pole that supported the ceiling.
“God damn Pole!”
He started the engine and backed up to the second garage to see what Ray was doing. Crane watched for a moment, and then asked, “You want to go to town?”
“No, I’m cutting out your pattern for you.”
“Thanks. Could you stay out here until I get back? Beth is trying to take a nap.”
Ray looked up at the bedroom window, “Okay I will, I hope the compressor bother her?”
“She’ll be fine, Beth can sleep through anything.”
Crane stopped the truck halfway down the driveway and looked back to watch Ray work. He had been getting to know and trust him, and over the last year his 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, so Crane continued down the street.

Chapter One

First Contact

Alphonse Bumen drove his brown 1978 Dodge Aspen down HWY 14 west out of Madison. Al was a tall man with a protruding Adam’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 alone–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.
Al’s paws gripped the wheel–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 weren’t new; he had had them before and knew what the progression was. That’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 didn’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 father’s hands. A panic attack would follow, accompanied by an acrid smell–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 couldn’t be reasoned with. Usually the spells didn’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 didn’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 wasn’t a new reality–it could have always been there–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 wasn’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 away¬–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 ended– this was something else totally unrelated. Alphonse had had attacks before without joining the Universe, and he thought the pairing was a coincidence. Al couldn’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, “I don’t believe in you. Let me go back. I can put my hand through it. There’s no air, I can’t breathe!”
Al needed to be convinced, and with a snap of the fingers the chemicals in his brain supplied the evidence. Euphoria returned, Al’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 dimensions–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 didn’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. That’s how they had said it worked, but it was frustrating and he couldn’t help wanting clarification. He said out loud, “Which is real?” The sound of his voice filling the ether rattled his brains. His head wasn’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, “Seek the woman of lash-es.” It was mixed in with other pieces of words, phrases and visions that couldn’t be deciphered. The whole thing was a mix. There had been voices in the background sounding like an old radio that isn’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. “How will I find her?” 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 wasn’t entirely happy to be back in the car, and tried to relive the last few moments or hours. Although he couldn’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.
“Holy fucking shit!” he bellowed. “That happened!”
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 that’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. “I was so stupid. You’re so beautiful. Can anyone hear me? Tear down the wall, you should let everyone see.” 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, “What were they thinking when they invented that?”
He was at a loss to understand why hunters liked to keep the beards as trophies. “Sick fucks”, he said. A bystander wouldn’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, “Did you say sick fucks?” There was no answer. “Maybe I did. If I did, I’m sorry, I feel bad now. Maybe I just have food poisoning. Do I?” 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 it–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.
“Seek the woman of many lashes. That’s it? What am I supposed to do when I find her?” 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 hadn’t kept repeating them, they might have been forgotten. “Find the girl with lashes, no, seek.”
What’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 couldn’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 that’s all that mat-tered to him now. Alphonse ran his long sausage fingers through his greasy black hair. This wasn’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 directive–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: “Search for a girl with lashes.” That wasn’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, “Sorry buddy, I thought you might be dead.” 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. “I was tired. I’m okay.” He looked at the man wearing tall boots with suspenders, the kind of get up only seen on a trout fisherman. “Did you catch anything?”
“Yes several large Brown’s.”
“Can I see them?”
“I can’t show you, its catch and release.”
“I’ve heard of that. Pretty much a waste of time isn’t it?”
“I don’t want to eat them, just make them late for something.”
Al had both feet on the ground again, “Mitch Hedberg, right?”
The fisherman had been waiting a long time to say that and it didn’t get a laugh. As he walked away, the fisherman muttered to himself in a disdainful tone, “Bait fisherman.” 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, “Maybe I should go east, because that’s where most things happened. Why can’t you just be specific?”
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 Culver’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 that’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, “I want three fish sandwiches and an empty cup for water.”
The boy behind the counter looked at the woman that should have been next. She said, “Look at him, he must be hungry.” Alphonse’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 wouldn’t, but then didn’t want to chance it. He had also gained a conscience. His gratitude was expressed with a sarcastic, “Thanks a lot.”
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 didn’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 didn’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 didn’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 who–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 couldn’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, “Who would do such a thing?” 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 PCB’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. “Someday 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?”
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, “Get off your cell phone!” Al knew why the guy said that– he wasn’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 sign–it could have been the water from Culver’s or the beginnings of prostate trouble. The door to the men’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 wasn’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 hadn’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 couldn’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 didn’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 wouldn’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 couldn’t decide if she looked cute or slutty–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 didn’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, “I see you chose glass. Good decision. If you have a son you want him to have both testicles, right?”
Al said, “You’re thinking of fire retardant.”
“I think you’re right. What’s plastic, again?”
“Everything else,” Al mumbled. “You look very pretty, are those your real eye-lashes?”
“Mostly. I have some extra ones to add volume. You really think I’m pretty?”
Al tried to be charming. “Of 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 I’d be asking you out.”
“You’d have to be a lot younger than that and much better looking. You shouldn’t be saying those things to me, I’m not even legal.”
Al ignored her comments. “Hold on a minute, I’m just trying to get a feel for you, to see if you’re the one I seek.”
The girl backed away from the counter. “Okay, that’s enough. You’re creeping me out, you have to leave.” Turning to face a back room, she called, “Stan?”
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. “Stan, did you see that guy? Stan!”
Driftless Summer
Driftless Summer

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