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Excerpt from Driftless

The next day, Al and Ray sat on the porch moving it three or four inches in either direction. “Put ‘cher feet on the seat” Ray demonstrated.

Al was willing to humor the young man, but there wasn't a chance in hell that he could do that. Instead, Al straightened his legs enough to raise his feet off of the deck.

Ray used the swing-stick to push against the supporting post. They studied the point where the chain attached to the wooden ceiling. Al said, “It must be bolted to a beam, because that railroad board would never hold it.”

“Must be. That scares me ever’ time I set here. We call those firing strips.”

Al had to put his feet back on the floor, and they basked in the warm sunshine and listened to sounds from Ray’s animals and from across the great distance to neighboring farms.

Alphonse was deep in thought. He felt the possibility of ever returning to the classroom slipping away, and slightly regretted not going for the therapy that was a condition necessary for that to happen.

When he finally spoke, he pointed to the area near his head and said, “Can you hear them?”

It was a fragment of a question, but Ray recognized it and gave his full attention. He listened for a moment as Al jabbed his finger in the air, “Hear him?”

Ray shook his head. 

Al continued, “Not everyone can hear them, there’s more than one, but I think the clearest one might be you know who. Sometimes I’m pretty sure it is. I don’t know why he picked me because I don’t believe in him. He has me now. Who the other people are is a little vague, so I try not to dwell on them. I will know when I need to know.”

Ray could hardly contain himself. “You hear voices? I hear ‘em, and so’d Ma.” Ray was all too familiar with voices. “I hear my own, and my Ma had hers. She was more comfortable with them than I am, they can be mean.”

“In the beginning, I was afraid I was going crazy, and there’s still some of that. The words weren’t clear at first, and I had to concentrate hard to understand them, imagine standing in front of thirty-seven teenagers teaching a lesson on hygiene, and it’s clear they weren’t hearing what I was hearing. That’s why I had to take a leave of absence, people didn’t believe me.”

Ray knew exactly what Al was talking about, he nodded, “How can you hear him and not believe?”

“I was a believer, then I wasn’t, and now I don’t know. I still hate the church.

“Why don’t you like church?”

Al became a little agitated.
“It’s such bullshit, with people saying one thing and then doing the opposite themselves. And there were some bad things that happened to me in church. When I was little one of the acolytes cut the end of my finger off with a scissors. Look–no fingernail.”

Ray didn’t look. He said, “I have better memories. During a church service, I French kissed for the first time. I was sitting in a pew near the front, next to a girl named Valerie. I had asked her if she wanted to touch tongues, she said yes, and we stuck out our tongues and touched them together.”

Al was repulsed. “I don’t think I could put my tongue on someone else's tongue. How old were you?”

“I think about eight or nine.”

“I wonder how you came up with that?”

Ray considered his answer, then replied, “I don’t remember. I don’t think we did it again after that. I still ain’t never really kissed a girl yet.”

“No, but you had the horse, right? How did you get started fucking horses?”

“I don’t fuck horses. I only tried this one, he’s the only one we ever had.”

Al was interested. “Did your mom or dad ever catch you?”

“I wouldn’t say, ‘caught’ but they had some things to say about it. Ma told us we would turn into homosexuals cause of him bein’ a gelding. Pa called Paul and me ‘the cock brothers.’”
“Because you both had sex with the horse?”

Ray clarified, “That, and once we had a real cock fight. He threw rocks at us for that one.”

Al offered, “I don’t know horses, but I would think that he would be trying to kick you for doing that.”

Ray shook his head. “Nope, you just put some oats in a feed bag and he’s fine, he don’t care what you do then.”

Al knew what a feed bag was, he’d seen them in old movies, but didn’t know people were still using them.

Ray changed the subject. “Tell me about your voices.”
“They talk to me like in a dream, where it makes perfect sense in the middle of it, but I start to forget what he or they said as soon as they stop. I try and write it down, but I can’t understand it. I have to go mostly by feel.”

“If you don’t believe in him, how can you kill for him?”

“I’m still saying I don’t believe in him, but I’m starting to be less adamant about it. I know now that the prophets were real. Understanding what I am supposed to do is the problem, and it’s causing great concern because I can always sense it in the background. Like the answer you can’t quite pull to the front of your brain.”

“I hate that.”

"Sometimes going through the alphabet helps me make the connection in situations like that, but this time I can tell it isn’t going to work, because the answer is well beyond my purview.”

Ray said, “I’m not sure purview is the word you want, maybe ‘grasp’? Do you think you’re a prophet, Al?”

He never should have started talking about it. The world began spinning, with Al at the center. Sweat was being generated at a rate beyond the effects of temperature. He was on his way to another dimension, unaware of time or place. It might have been similar to meditation, except for the anxiety and crowds of people all speaking at once.

In the early stages of another episode, Al cowered from invisible demons, frantically searching for a friendly presence. Looking at invisible demons, he strained to continue his speech. “I used to call these anxiety attacks.”

Ray could see the change. “I think there are devils trying to make trouble. We ignore them most of the time. You want me to shake you?”

Al didn’t answer; he was bent over, arms between thighs and stomach. Tremors swept through him, along with the visions and fear. Ray put his arm around him, knowing it wouldn’t help, but out of compassion. Al’s body shook and his fingers twitched. He was gone from the world for twenty minutes until the waves eased and he could look at solid objects.

Finally, it was over, Al sat up, looked inward at the memory to recall the gist of his seizure, and said, “This will be the perfect puzzle to solve and the most difficult, that’s why he chose me. All the elements are here and I need to use logic and intuition.”

Ray said, “I hope it isn’t about different countries, those are hard. Do you want to give testimony to what just happened?”
“No, no, I don’t even know what that means.” He hated that religious shit. Al continued his train of thought. “If it’s a puzzle, it makes sense to give it to me that way. You know I like to do them—numbers, words I don’t care.”

Ray wondered, “It could be like the 3-D crossword you invented.”

Al was impressed. “You were listening, no, I felt pretty good when I did that.” There was a period when I fought the impulse to let go because I was afraid it would mean insanity, and I had a responsibility to my students. I had felt it lurking on the perimeter for a few weeks. It was a struggle that grew tiresome and I finally had to relent.”

“When you relented what happened?”

“Letting go was a huge release. It was like when I was a kid learning to dive from the edge of the pool. At first it was scary. When I got up the nerve to do it properly, I wanted to try it again and again, so as not to forget how easy it was. Repeated dives would inure me to the new state of bliss. I need some water.”

Ray was confused. “To dive in?”

He silently got up from the swing and walked around to the other side of the house. 

Al shouted at the chickens, “I lost my job because of him. It’s exciting when everything makes sense, and terrifying when it feels like I’m losing my mind.

Having completed his circuit, Ray said, “I heard some of that, tell me something he said.”

“So far I haven’t been able to hold on to anything, it’s gone like a dream you wish you could remember.”

Ray nodded in agreement, and went in to make dinner.

Al sat on the porch and watched the sun set. He was done traveling for now.

Occasionally there was a noise from one of the animals, and then the katydids started their ratchety noise. It seemed noisier there than in the city, but they were good noises. Al thought about how impulsive he had been in going with Ray, but so far he had no regrets. He could do his editing online, and the entourage could find him anywhere, so maybe he would stay for a while.

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Fine art by Michael Kmiotek.
Kinetic sculptures suitable for gardens or other outdoor locations
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