Mark drove, and tried to digest the previous night's events. What had happened to the pool hall, the fancy dress men, the sidekicks, and the waitresses? The pool tables, the lamps, the ceiling fans? They couldn't have just vanished in a moment.
He looked down at his left hand, on the steering wheel, noticing the whitish area and indentation where his wedding ring had been. And where the hell was his ring?
He hadn't removed that ring since Laura and he had picked out their matching set down at the mall, all those years ago. That was when it became real, his belated passage into adulthood. Buying The Ring.
Mark drove past a sign pointing the way to Edgar Alan Poe's grave. "Poe would have loved last night," he thought. He considered leaving US40 to visit the grave, but decided it would be a bit much. He was feeling kind of gamy, anyway. He passed other enticing signs, advertising the American Dime Museum, the Museum of Incandescent Lighting, and the National Museum of Dentistry.
He knew the American Dime Museum had nothing to do with coins. It was a collection of the freakish and bizarre from carnival sideshows, burlesque houses, and so forth. He had even heard that John Waters was on the museum board. Laura would have loved it, and Jeannette and Thomas even more so.
Speaking of John Waters (though the only one talking was Mark, inside his own head) the boyhood (girlhood?) home of Divine was also nearby in Loch Raven. Not Andy Devine, the cowboy star, but Divine, cross-dressing star of John Waters films like Polyester. Poor Tab Hunter, kissing Divine on the lips in that film...
The Museum of Incandescent Lighting was all about light bulbs, of course. 60,000 light bulbs, he had heard, but you can view them only by appointment.
The National Museum of Dentistry had all those horrible tools they used in the last century for extraction and drilling, in an often vain effort to relieve pain. They also had some patent medicine bottles too, no doubt, for those over-the-counter opium based pain relievers. He could use one of those, his head had begun to throb just over his left eye. Of course, there were modern tools displayed as well.
Soon after he left the city, he stopped at one of the larger truck stops. He was once again amazed at the luxury and low prices of the truck stops versus the tourist areas.
The truck stops had showers, too. He showered, changed clothes, and grabbed a booth. The waitress came over.
"What'll it be, hon?" she asked, snapping her gum.
"Coffee, black (better bring the pot), ham omelette, buttermilk biscuits, and a Danish. Get yourself a coffee too."
"You're not trying to pick me up, are you darling? I see where you've taken off your ring."
"Well, um..." The waitress was about 60, and as round as she was tall. Her name tag read "Doris".
She laughed at his embarrassment. "Take it easy, sugar, I'll be right back with the coffee and Danish, a few minutes on the rest."
Mark flipped through the stack of magazines he had bought on impulse when paying for his shower. Popular Science, Discover, Penthouse. Hm, better put that one back in the bag. Esquire... Cosmo (that was marginal, didn't want anybody questioning his testosterone level, but there was an amazing babe on the cover, and titles promising to reveal the True Sexy Thoughts of various people).
He sighed. All toys, things he could afford, but he still didn't want. What *did* he want?
He probed his psyche gingerly, as you would a fresh tooth extraction with your tongue. There was the dull familiar ache of the loss of his family. There was the lust for oblivion, which he had nearly satisfied last night. And, there was something new.
The waitress brought the coffee and Danish, glancing over his magazine collection. "College boy, right?" she chuckled, nodded and snapped her gum meaningfully and headed back toward the kitchen.
He considered her comment for only a moment before returning to his self-examination. Something new, all right. Something painful, and exciting, and frightening, and fascinating.
"Damned if I know what it is, though." he said aloud.
"It's a ham omelette, hon, just like you wanted. And biscuits and jelly. You OK?"
Mark considered answering in detail, which would take some doing, but realized in time that she was just asking about the food. He reassured her, salted and peppered his eggs, spread the jam on the still warm biscuits, and started to eat. He read his magazines, trying to lose himself in the surface gloss of technological and sexual dreams. Every so often, the waitress would check on him, and even refilled the pot once. Mark didn't realize how hungry he had been, nor could he remember where or what he had eaten last.
Finally, satisfied in belly if not in spirit, he paid his bill and left the truck stop. It was another sunny day, but cool, and the light glared brightly from the windows of the other cars. Mark tried to stay in the moment, feeling the thrill of driving a sports car on a somewhat winding highway over the foothills.
In Ellicott City, he passed a virtual replica of Storyland called Enchanted Forest. This one seemed to have been appropriated as an entrance to the local mall. Mark's mind wandered as it often did, twisting the phrase... "Enchanted Florist" (he imagined a fairy godfather creating bouquets of flowers with his magic wand). "Implanted Chorus" (imagining one of those irritating singing greeting cards surgically inserted in someone's ear) "Depanted Doris" (imagining the waitress from the truck stop bottomless)
The last mental image caused him to cry "Ack" and swerve a bit.
"Too much coffee!"
He stopped for a moment at a roadside rest area, and continued up the hills to Frederick, home of the Aircraft Owners and Pilot's Association.
Mark used to belong to that organization. He used to be a pilot many years ago, back in a previous life, long before he met Laura and her kids. It was an exciting time, when anything seemed possible. In a lot of ways, that era was as deeply buried during his marriage as his married life was becoming now.
Mark worked for a small software company at the time, and as part of his compensation, got free flying lessons in a Cessna 152. This two seat single engine prop plane was just the thing for novice pilots, slow, non-aerobatic, and almost too forgiving of bonehead mistakes.
He was a natural pilot, kind of like he was a natural pool player. He also became bound up in the analytical side of the sport, just like he had in pool. There were plenty of pilots who just flew through feel and experience and raw talent, and a few who flew well because they knew how flying worked. Mark loved talking with the latter about coefficients of drag and lift and angle of attack, and such. He could talk his way through any discussion, arguing from either side.
After he got his license, he did fly for a while, but it was rather expensive without the company subsidizing his way. They would pay for an upgrade to instrument, but that wasn't in the cards. Mark was terrified by The Hood.
The Hood wasn't where the Boyz lived, but rather a device for simulating instrument weather conditions, by restricting the wearer's field of view. It looks like a welder's mask, flipped up. The instructor pilot would sit in the right seat, view unobstructed, while the student would be operating the controls from the left seat, focusing only on the instruments and not what the seat of his pants were telling him.
For Mark the seat of his pants was telling him to throw up, simple as that. The moment he put on the hood, vertigo set in. He could still fly the plane, by throwing all his trust onto the instruments in the panel. It felt wrong, though, and, to not put to fine a point on it, scared the crap out of him. He procrastinated about taking instrument lessons, and finally ceased completely.
However, he still flew, in good weather. For some reason, though, even in good weather he was plagued with carburetor ice. Cruising along at altitude, minding his own business, the engine speed would fall off 50 RPM... then 100, then 200. Soon the engine would be running rough and trying to die.
Although he knew that a plane flies perfectly well with the engine off, just not very far, this always increased what the hangar jocks called "pucker factor." He did follow procedure though, and recovered gracefully each time. The real thrill was when he had a passenger, a non-pilot, and he tried to keep his own racing pulse and adrenaline rush out of his voice as he reassured the passenger, "We're going down now. I mean! We're descending to make an approach now."
Cross country travel was problematic with a fair-weather license, and made even worse by the fact that Mark was restricted from flying at night. It was due to a fairly arbitrary rule about distinguishing red from green, and many pilots had it (including Mark's own flight instructor). Most were able to pass the color test through repeatedly taking it, though. Mark just didn't have the will to lie about his defect to the Federal Government.
Please see "Victory Flight" in the Piker's Press Archives of 04-07-03, for one of Mark's most memorable experiences.
While Mark was trapped in his past, he continued driving through Maryland. He passed the Crystal Grottoes Caverns near Boonsboro, and the historic Antietam Battlefield near Sharpsburg. The road got windier and hillier, as he approached the Alleghenies.