Driftless Summer is the second of the series, it completes Al Bumen's journey from school teacher to serial killer.
Beth was upstairs in bed with her book and chocolates. She heard Crane swearing, and what sounded like the couch being dragged across her newly varnished 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 looking at his wife, and 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 grasped one of her little feet, making tickling motions with a finger moving 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 and bursts of laughter from both parties, 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
Crane looked to the ceiling and visualized the lower levels and 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 bookkeeper and kept a mental tally of costs. Craneâs chosen 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, pulled him close, and 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 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 my younger siblings. I should have been allowed to just be a kid.â
Crane was in front of the mirror, still trying to get his abs to show. âI think youâre right. Your younger sibs say you still try to boss them around.â
âWhen 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 so egotistical. He never seems sad, always telling jokes. Iâm not a hundred per cent sure itâs depression, but he has something.
He needs to start thinking about what heâs going to do about Ray when school starts in September. 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. Unable to fully open the door, he squeezed in without too much effort.
âGod damn Pole!â
He started the engine and backed out to the detached garage to see what Ray was doing. Crane watched for a moment, and then rolled down the passenger side window, 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 grinding 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 good. 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 also a sculptor and had recently sold one of his pieces. Heâd decided to devote more time to getting exposure and was showing at sculpture walks in several states. A commission for something monumental like the obelisk was only a dream for now.
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. Not knowing who the artist was pointed to a flaw in his nature. He was not good at joining artistâs organizations or networking.
The light changed and he drove aggressively to make it through the intersection before it turned red again. This was his town, and he knew which lanes ended abruptly and which intersections to avoid. The downtown area--situated between two lakes, making it impossible to go anyplace 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 imagined that it had been reclaimed from an old Burger King.
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 got in line to enter the parking ramp, took his ticket, and spiraled to the top. Crane exited the truck and walked across the street to Airgas. Displayed in the window were power tools for cutting metal plate, and if he could think of a good reason for building a bigger shop, he would love to buy, Beth would find out when she rectified the receipts.
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 will be 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 of buildings. Crane paid for the wire and stopped at the circular saw, at 250.00 it was doable, he hadnât used ÂŒâ plate before, then carried the heavy spool of wire to his truck.
Gino's was within walking distance, so off he went.
He waited at the bar and had a quick beer while his order was readied. He tried not to stare at the short-skirted co-ed, the one with long legs, full lips 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 to erase the evidence. Back at home, he noted the closed overhead door on the detached garage/studio and wondered how far Ray had gotten before quitting. Rayâs bedroom was in the basement, 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 didnât bring it up, 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
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 window 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 considered 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 perspective. 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 have meant 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. 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 good parts.
Al watched, floated, and listened carefully, and vaguely understood the message 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, repelling 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 particular 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.
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 lashes.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 twisted 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 accepted 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 turkeys. 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 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.
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 panic 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 vastness 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 scientific, 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 mattered 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 urgency. 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, it was 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 temperature.
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 believe 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 Richland Center, 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 every 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 editing 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 were 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 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 taking 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 approached 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 wagon. 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 inserted 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 restroomâit 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. Taking note of the broken tiles, odor and filthy porcelain while the sound of his urine reverberated loudly off the walls, 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 necessary. 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 satisfied.
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