March 10, 2012
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Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip.
920.2 miles to be traveled in 24 hours. Four Odd Attractions of America along the way.
$21.37 left in his wallet once gas and admission fees were taken into account. Two, maybe three more months remaining. But somehow giving everything a numerical value didn’t make the prospect of dying at the age of 24 any less frightening.
Chris thrust his palm into the center of the steering wheel, adding his own honk to the
cacophonous chorus of bleating goats. He would have perpetuated the blaring noise, allowing the high decibels to melt his brain, if it had meant he could drown out any thoughts of sterile hallways lined with filmy-eyed elderly people. He could still picture the thin, transparent legs of octopi sneaking venom into their veins and up their noses, flanked by seemingly hundreds of guards dressed in the same nauseating sea green outfits. He could still sense the eyes of young children, suffocated by neck braces and kept company by casts on both legs, gazing at him with a longing he knew a simple dose of medication could never fulfill. He could still feel the tension between parents as they delved into discussions outside of their sons’ and daughters’ rooms, tangible as they spoke in barely distinguishable whispers.
Chris reached for the radio, fumbling with the dial, in desperate need of a traffic report. All he heard were dozens of snakes hissing their disapproval and questioning his humanity, all encompassed in the single inquiry: Are you really trying to run away?
Before he could mutter a sarcastic response, the light had changed to a brilliant emerald and he was entering Oshkosh, Wisconsin, home of the Weird Statues and Oddball Art Junk sculpture park he had briefly researched upon waking up and deciding a road trip was in order. His pickup truck fit right in, its underbelly splattered with mud and dented by rocks, its windshield grimy with a thin layer of dust. The inside of the truck was also a sight to behold, with a decade's worth of coffee stains discoloring the mossy green cloth of the backseat, intercepting the repetitive triangles formed with fraying indigo thread. The parking lot, paved in gravel rather than asphalt, was filled with a heterogeneous mixture of young families, hung-over college students, and 50-year-old men in clans of twenty; heavily tattooed, heavily sunglass-ed, and most likely hiding shotguns somewhere in the bowels of their motorcycles. Chris avoided any possible eye contact, letting the sweating Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee in his hand account for his own perspiration, lowering his head to take a sip before sauntering up to the wrought iron gates and entering the next world.
Synonyms for "weird" range from awe-inspiring to curious to outlandish to supernatural.
This was on the dreadful, ghastly, haunting end of the scale. There was no denying that the so-called masterpieces were well beyond the realm of "eccentric." Nothing like those Aunt Agathas
whom relatives could claim were "artistic." A trio of reindeer stood atop a tractor. An enormous
metal fish was being reeled in by a baseball player in red and white stripes, mistaking the rod for
a bat, clearly with no hope of ever taking that cod home for dinner. More disturbing than these
sculptures were the nearly normal-looking people who were approaching the rangers and pulling
hundreds of dollars in cash out of their Gap sweatshirts, eager to purchase the 15-foot plastic hot
dog with a smile so wide there was no question whether it had gotten too much Botox. Chris considered feigning excitement and interest in the bronze flamingo atop a car from the ‘40s. But the man in the camouflage suit accepting bids seemed to take his job a bit too seriously, judging by his finely manicured mustache and loaded rifle. He would not be amused by a disingenuous bid for the outrageous metal bird. Chris watched as the turgid fingers of the ranger trailed from their comfortable perch on his four-months-along paunch to his tool belt, where the trigger eagerly awaited any commands to do away with rambunctious toddlers who ignored the “DO NOT TOUCH” signs they were not yet able to read.

As Chris headed over to terrorize the overly militant employee, the man suddenly scratched behind his ear using his index and ring fingers, throwing Chris off-guard. Only once had he ever witnessed such a quirky manner of alleviating skin irritation. While that had been a full twelve years ago, Chris’s hyper-retentive memory had never failed him, and the Dunkin’ Donuts cup began to work overtime as Chris’s strides took on an urgency.

Before he could ask the bulky officer what value the park placed on a sculpture of Atlas straining under the weight of a globe constructed entirely of Twizzlers, a pair of shifting eyes met his and the man, tinted sunglasses and all, vanished. Chris did not think it too abstract a theory to assume that the people who devised the entire blueprint and outline for the park had managed to install a hologram to deter the carrying off of a half-ton ball of twine. It was certainly a much more reasonable explanation than the existence of supernatural beings.

Before he could be approached by petite people with curled sideburns singing about his triumph over a witch, Chris sauntered as gracefully as he could past the bloodshot stares of the bikers, leaving behind a cinematically cliché cloud of dust as his boots scuffed the ground.

Resuming his drive, Chris tried to convince himself that traveling solo was really the most efficient method. There could be no quarreling that might lead to swerving off the road, no unexpected blasts of death metal as conniving friends changed the station, no distracting complaints of poorly fed stomachs. The only sound permeating the solitary air was the clack of the cinnamon air freshener as it was heckled by a keychain with C-H-R-I-S-S spelled out in alternating blue and red beads, strung together sometime in early childhood. Chris could feel the tension in his shoulders subside, could feel the recesses of his mind drawn into thoughts concerning mysteriously appearing images of his past.

It was a testament to how long he had been alone that his hands momentarily lost their grip on the wheel when a beep interrupted the reflective atmosphere. “One Missed Call: Mom,” read the cracked screen. Chris waited the allotted forty seconds before a second ping joined the first, and his cell phone alerted him that, oh-so-coincidentally, his sister had hopped on the barrage-Chris-with-attention-he-does-not-need bandwagon. His right hand hovered over the phone for a moment as he wondered what could possibly be prompting the need for his family to communicate, but found himself selecting “delete messages.” The last time all three of them had been in the same room together, the event had ended with a flurry of tears as the two women argued over treatment options, argued over what could possibly extend the life of the sullen man who was standing not six feet away from them, already a ghost.
Chris wondered if they were really arguing over whether his life was even worth preserving. He was still haunted by the pity in their eyes as they turned to look at him, synchronized, becoming acutely aware of their sobs as he stood in the doorway wearing a shirt suddenly a size too large and skinny jeans suddenly baggy, his mouth suddenly a stranger to smiling.

Chris brought himself back to the present with his own outstretched hand, reaching for the map of the U.S., copyright approximately 1983, that had been folded and highlighted so many times it deserved its own 300-page biography. La Crosse, Wisconsin was the next stop, with a descriptively named tourist attraction: The World’s Largest Six Pack and Gambrinus, King of Beer. He was slightly apprehensive, anticipating that the crowds drawn to alcohol-related phenomena were bound to be raunchier than those inspired by more harmless, “artistic” oddities.

However, when he pulled up to the painted storage tanks and got out of the car, a solitary woman had her head tilted at what must have been a painful angle, craning her neck to take in the can in all of its glory. Chris caught snippets of a dialogue she seemed to be having with herself.
“But why couldn’t they have actually filled these tanks with beers?”

“Don’t be silly, Marcie, the scrabble to purchase such magnificently aged beer would ruin the sanctuary that this corner has become. Consumerism is already at its peak.”

Wary of the lopsided swaying the woman seemed to be doing, as well as her inside-out shirt and Blues Clues sweatpants, Chris slowly backed away, bidding a goodbye to the advertising trick that the G. Heileman brewery had been using for nearly half a century. Across the street, King Gambrinus was perched atop a cement base and plaque typically reserved for war heroes and explorers. Chris wondered whom Gambrinus had killed or exploited to be guaranted such a noble statue. Had he bribed the artist to pad his stomach into a fitting beer belly? Had he filed a complaint upon seeing the slippers even a 15th century royal would not have approved of?

Before Chris could fill his restless brain with more musings about the bearded mascot, Gambrinus set down the enormous goblet in his right hand and used his index and ring fingers to scratch his neck. Chris whipped his head around, certain that if the Crazy Lady seemed unfettered by this turn of events, he needed to be committed.

She was gone.

Gambrinus’s black eyes greeted Chris as he turned his head back around, and he watched in horrified fascination as a mouth emerged from the grizzly beard and a voice floated from somewhere in a fourth dimension.

“Christopher, don’t you remember me?”

The curb tripped him up as he stumbled backwards and down onto the street. He curled into a ball, a defense mechanism he had developed years before. Without any conscious commands to do so, Chris began rocking back and forth, hearing his mother’s voice faintly singing a lullaby, feeling her hand stroking his hair away from his face.

A car honked its horn and his mother’s aura floated away. Chris unclenched his arms and lifted himself off of the ground as gracefully as possible.

Not only was he prone to visions, but apparently now Chris was schizophrenic, too.

With this thought, Chris could no longer ignore the tremors that rippled through his body.
He gingerly picked up the paisley caftan from the passenger seat and clutched it to his chest. The first few sniffs brought whiffs of rosemary-scented candles and chicken bouillon cubes. But as he buried his face in it and hugged himself around it, the distinct smell of sterilized scalpels and IV drips and fear canceled out any comfort of the home he had associated with the caftan. Still there were the memories of curling up under the blanket with his sister to watch Sesame Street, to watch their first PG-13 movie, to watch a marathon of Doctor Who episodes the night before Chris went off to college to make sure that, on his first day in a potentially hostile environment, he would have exhaustion as a loving reminder of his sibling. The memories of his mother pulling the blanket up closer to his chin as he suffered through 103-degree fevers, of the blanket falling off of the hospital bed as he leaned over to vomit into the tray, of the devastation he felt the first night after he left the hospital when he realized that it no longer smelled like his mom.

Once he had soaked in the familiarity of his life embodied in a simple blanket, the corners of Chris’s mouth turned slightly upwards in anticipation of his next destination: the Ice Cream Capital of the World Museum (eventually changed to the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum) in Les Mars, Iowa. If there was any remembrance he most associated with childhood, it was lazy summer afternoons in which three crisp dollar bills were entrusted to him, glittering topaz eyes staring into his own, looking for the assurance that he would buy a treat for both him and his sister and not spend the money on Pokemon cards. This was bound to be essentially the same experience in Les Mars, minus the little red wagon to pull Hannah in around the block, and absent the presence of Nancy, the perpetually cheery senior citizen who manned the ice cream truck. She would ask if he wanted “the regular” and wink, understanding implicitly that any scraped knees from his bicycle adventures would be forgotten with two scoops of Moose Tracks.
Chris considered the actual museum exhibit to be optional; hadn’t dying folks earned the right to skip the educational portion and head for the disgusting overabundance of calories? (You see, it was this dark humor that could only be appreciated in solitude. Spoken out loud, this comment would have merely elicited an uncomfortable exchange of worried looks between the women in his life.)

Two hours of driving with the caftan draped over his knees passed before King Gambrinus whispered in his ear again.

“You can’t just ignore my existence. I’m rather quintessential to your wellbeing right now. Just give me a chance!”

Chris’s intentions to drown out the haunting voice with ice cream were fueled by his realization that there was no entrance fee to the Ice Cream Capital. He could spend his remaining $21 on as many scoops as he liked.

As he entered the ice cream parlor, Chris observed the audience at this particular site. He found his cynicism diminishing as he watched young children’s faces beginning to forge the pathways for future laugh lines, their eyes bulging at the sight of hundreds of flavors to choose from. From his solitary seat in the far corner of the room, he watched as parents held hands and gazed at their kids with looks of pure adoration, without a concern in the world as their offspring enjoyed what was, to them, paradise. His nostalgic choice of Moose Tracks did not help his emotional instability. One dad crouched beside his two-year-old daughter, squirming in her highchair, torn between twirling her springy pigtails and taking great care to open her mouth wide enough for the heaping spoonfuls of peppermint stick her dad was tempting her with. Her chubby digits wound their way around her curls, making their way to the tendrils at the back of her neck.
Chris backed his chair out from underneath the patio table before she could even separate her fingers. The screech generated the attention of everyone in the room, angelic faces turning to look at him with wonder and disbelief written across their cherubic visages.
Chris’s ability to find the men’s bathroom in time to regurgitate his ice cream into the nearest stall was homage to his still intact reflexes. The stagger with which he exited the building drew raised eyebrows.

Chris saw the text message alerts waiting for him when he got back to the car. It took the last ounces of his strength not to call his sister and tell her he had given up; call his mother and tell her that he was ready. He didn’t have the energy to watch any more young children, blissfully unaware of the years of laughter and treats still before them. He didn’t have the energy to pretend he didn’t envy the haunted girl for her father; a man who would probably try to spoon-feed her until high school, who would embrace her and let her cry after her first breakup.

Chris hit the number one on his speed dial. Hannah picked up on the first ring.

“Oh my God, Chris, where have you BEEN?! Mom and I have been trying to reach you the whole day! We were worried SICK!”

“What, Hannah?” He looked up. He hadn’t even noticed that the robin’s egg sky of that morning had been replaced with the sickly gray of mothballs. It was 6:00, and raindrops had begun chasing each other down the windshield.

“Did you even READ my text? Jesus, Chris. Dad’s back.”

Chris’s mind left him for what felt like an interminable period. When he returned to the call, Hannah was in hysterics. On some level he was touched that she had not hung up, forever the stingy one in the family, but he supposed that this could be viewed as an additional sign that the apocalypse was drawing nigh.

“CHRIS, YOU…YOU… Chris, please, we can work through this. You don’t even have to talk to him if you don’t want to….. CHRIS… If you’re there, and you’re not answering because you want to ignore this problem and hope that it will go away, as you do with everything else, then let me tell you, IT’S NOT GOING TO WORK THIS TIME.” Chris heard the distinct sound of a hand being placed over the phone, but could still decipher faint sobs. “Chris, why did you have to run off in the middle of our family weekend? I woke up at 5:30 AM and you were already gone! We have no clue where you are! We don’t know how to help you! Is that what you want? Huh?”
Then his sister’s voice changed. “You’re acting like we haven’t been with you this entire time when we really, really have. We were at all of your doctor’s appointments. We made you hot chocolate at 3:00 in the morning when you called from your apartment when you had your first breakdown. We invited you over for dinner every night that you pretended you were too tired to go out, when really you were shutting yourself off from your friends and trying to make it easier for them.” Chris felt accused. He wanted her to stop, but she didn’t.
“And we have never talked about the day when they tested Dad’s blood, and found that you had inherited the disease from him. Dad- who became a stranger as he started skipping meals, fading from our lives. And now he’s back. Chris, no one’s asking you to accept him or love him, just to see him. He doesn’t expect any big repairs to be made in your relationship. But he knows what you’re going through and he wants you to know that he cares and that he never stopped caring. And… Jesus, Chris, did you just let me rant at a dead body for three minutes?”

“No, luckily I was revived just in time to hear your last suck-it-up-and-come-home monologue.” Chris’s sarcasm made him feel real again, somehow, and powerful.

“Are you… Chris, do you need someone to pick you up?”

“No, I am quite content with my plans to visit the World’s Largest Beetle in Colorado Springs, thank you very much.” He hung up suddenly, knowing that, had he listened to his sister’s trademark heavy sigh, he might have been persuaded to follow her advice. He was far away from her now, far away from everything, and fully preoccupied with his last adventure.

The truck complained slightly as he tried to turn the engine over and Chris heard his sister’s passive-aggressively playful voice whispering into his ear about “signs.” He scoffed; believing in such things as horoscopes and omens never ended positively. As tends to happen, the odometer caught Chris’s eye, whining about the absence of gasoline. Not feeling in the mood for yet another impediment to the final leg of his journey, and hands still shaking slightly, Chris drove a block to the Shell station. As the tank began filling up, images flashed through his mind.

Those two fingers, scratching an ear in a break from clapping as he watched Chris ride his bicycle on pavement for the very first time.

Those two fingers, scratching under his arms in an imitation of a monkey in order to make Chris laugh and distract him from the reality of a doctor’s appointment.

Those two fingers, scratching under Chris’s chin to elicit a smile after a particularly difficult day of school.

Those two fingers, scratching at the corner of Chris’s mouth to wipe away remnants of marshmallow after a hearty serving of s’mores in front of the fireplace.

The hours Chris spent by the window the day after Dad left, watching as parents and children strolled by his front yard, oblivious to how fleeting their happiness was likely to be.

The night he imagined those two fingers were reaching out to him, only to realize that the spindly tree branches were casting shadows on the walls of his room.

The first Father’s Day when he didn’t know how to celebrate.

The day when he started coughing up blood, and his mother took his hand, and she sat him down on the couch, and wouldn’t let go until she had explained that he had inherited a genetic disorder that had driven his father from their home; from their lives; from his own mind.

Chris withdrew the nozzle, capped the tank, and extracted the wallet from his back pocket with a casualness that was learned, but unsteady.

His fingers fumbled; his head numbed, his breathing increased rapidly before stopping altogether.

His wallet had only two dollars. He surmised that the remaining bills – change from the massive ice cream purchase – had fallen to the ground in the awkward sequence of gathering up his cone, wrapping it in a napkin and temporarily stuffing the money in his pants pocket. Now the tank was full, he had nowhere to go, and there was no way to pay.

One foot moved forward, as if to bolt, while the other moved backwards, as if to reverse his steps from the last twenty hours. He tried to analyze the face of the man working the front desk inside the convenience store for leniency, but all he could make out was a baseball cap.

Chris wondered whether he would simply fade away.

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tufftony said...
Mar. 19, 2012 at 3:35 pm
WOW! what a great story. I felt like I was part of the action. It is nice to see that with all the turmoil in the world, there are young, intelligent people out there. Perhaps the world will be a better place with contributions such as this. 
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