Mark rolled over, knocking the empty bottle of wine off the bed and onto the floor. The clunk it made as it rolled into the wall echoed through his skull, and the pain reminded him of those poor butterflies impaled in shadow boxes by avid lepidopterists. He groaned, and that sound made his head hurt even more. The room swayed like a belly dancer on a cruise ship. He clung for dear life to the mattress. He itched all over, from the top of his scalp to the bottom of his feet. He could almost feel his socks crawl away from his skin, disgusted as they evolved into sentient life from sheer smell.
After crawling to the bathroom and throwing up, he flopped into the tub and turned the shower on. Alternately rinsing and drinking from the spray, he slowly revived. F***. He was still dressed.
After what seemed like forever, he was finally awake enough to get out of the tub. Socks squishing out a dour song, he left damp spots on the carpet as he left the bathroom. He stripped, and freezing, changed into a clean set of clothes. He belched, and the fumes wafting up into his nose almost knocked him unconscious once again. He brushed his hair and packed, except for his soaked clothes, which he just left behind. He had more clothes than he needed anyway. Fuggit.
The room was paid in advance, so Mark just loaded his suitcase into the Fiat's trunk, and straightened up. He could see on the horizon, lit golden by the early morning sun, a great arch. It could be the gateway to Heaven, if he believed in such a place, or perhaps a sign for the world's biggest McDonald's. Of course, after a moment's reflection, he realized it was the Saint Louis Arch.
He crawled behind the driver's wheel, and continued west, the sun glaring in the frosted plastic convertible top rear window and blinding him in the rear view mirror. He folded the mirror off to one side, blinked the after-images away, and focused on the road ahead.
"Gateway To The West" read the sign. "Gateway for the Messed" muttered Mark. "Gateway for the Test." "Gateway for the Pest".
"Gateway to the Rest, perhaps?" suggested a tuneful, somewhat mocking voice in his right ear. Mark started. He glanced sideways to the passenger seat.
There, where there should be nothing but a seat belt, sat a short, slightly rounded, hairy sort of a man. Mark blinked and glanced again. Still there.
"Who," asked Mark, his voice under an iron control to prevent an outbreak of trembling and stuttering, "are you?"
The passenger had a slight smirk on his face, but Mark got the impression that it was the relaxed, default expression for that mouth, not anything to do with him directly. At least he hoped so.
"My name is not important." He paused, then snorted. "You can call me Gordi."
Mark stole a somewhat longer glance away from the road. Gordi was about five two, and sported brown curly hair with a couple of untamable cowlicks. He had broad shoulders and a barrel chest, at least in proportion to his height. Two bandy legs stuck out his grubby cut-off khaki shorts into the Fiat's foot well, where they ended in sandals. Every exposed bit of Gordi's skin was covered with fine brown hair, thicker on the legs and arms than one might expect, and much thicker on the toes than seemed necessary.. He had a beard, of course, and Mark was fairly sure there was a hairy chest (and back!) under his T-shirt. Mark expected a smell, from such a casually dressed and furry person, so similar in appearance to many of the technogeeks and Deadheads of his youth. However, over the usual odor of hot oil and ancient plastic there was only the faint smell of cedar.
"Gordi." Mark hoarsely stated, then cleared his throat, "Gordi, what are you doing in my car?"
"You might as well ask yourself the same question, boyo. What are *you* doing in your car? Where are you going? Why?"
"I don't know. I'm tired. I'm sick. I just want to lay down and die."
Gordi shrugged. "So do it. No hair off my chin. I advise you, though, to consider your alternatives."
"I don't even know you. I should take your advice? Besides, I have no real alternatives."
"Bulls**. Think logically. You're the Classical Analytical Guy, right? So break it down."
"I can die here, I can die in a couple months, I don't see much difference."
"Man, you're pathetic. What about the other plan? Remember what Sherlock Holmes said to Watson."
"Elementary, my dear?"
"No, but it truly is. No, I'll give you this one, to start you out. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, is the truth. What's the most unlikely thing you could do right this second?"
"Besides being glad you sneaked into my car? Be happy-go-lucky, I guess."
"Gold Star! That's your other option. Go out into the world and don't worry, be happy."
"I used to have an electric trout that would tell me the same thing."
"Well, there you go!" cried Gordi, and slapped Mark on the arm. "There's your answer. Fish are brain food, you know."
Mark, who had been negotiating the St. Louis city traffic around him, paused to honk at a driver in a Ford F150 who cut him off. "You're nuts. Now, 'Gordi', get your fuzzy butt out of my-- " He turned toward the passenger side of the Fiat, and saw that Gordi was gone, vanished, as if he had never been. On the seat, however, was a single pine cone.
"Ummm... yeah." Mark said to himself. "Good wine, I guess." He belched again, and swerved. "Smooooth." Gordi was right, though, he had to do something. And, he didn't have any idea what. So far he had been driving aimlessly westward along US40. He could drive aimlessly in *any* direction, though, so why US40?
"If I make it," he vowed, "to California, which looks pretty unlikely at this rate... I'll stay. I have nothing to lose at this point. I have no wife, no kids, no friends, no home. In California I can start over. I guess. Go West, Old Man."
He started to toss the pinecone out the window, but stopped at the last second. He put it in the glove compartment instead, and drove across the Mississippi River and through the Golden Arch of Saint Louis, Gateway to the Rest.
As he left the sprawling metropolis of Saint Louis, he started thinking again. He pondered the list he had just mentioned of things he had lost.
His wife, his soulmate, his boon companion. It was the first time he had ever had a romantic attachment with someone who could also be his friend. They clicked on so many wavelengths. Mark liked to think of himself as a genius, though whether that meant anything was up for debate. He did get impatient with most people, when he had to explain his quirky, free-associative sense of humor, or his job, or anything else, for that matter. It wasn't that he didn't like teaching someone new things, but it was a chore, and he preferred not to fill his leisure time with chores.
Laura was different. She wasn't as technically geeky as Mark, but she spoke the language. She had her own quirky sense of humor, and a love of the macabre. Part of the reason he loved her so much was, after a while, she started making the puns he would have, just before he spoke. She was thinking along the same tracks he was. It was scary sometimes. One day, she, who claimed to be oblivious to mathematics, made a joke about his erection, using the phrase "a cute angle." He had been reaching for the right words to make the same joke a fraction of a second before. She joked that "I'm turning into a teenage boy" after she made a particularly crude remark. Of course, since Mark was at heart a teenage boy. although at least when he wasn't wallowing in angst, he thought it was great. The mental image did make kissing a little problematic, though. It was an improvement, however, over the internet days when he would laughingly wonder if she was really a 300 pound guy from Brooklyn.
When the silence got too much on long car rides, or when they could no longer hold back the silliness, they would cluck like chickens to the tunes of classics like "Blue Danube" or "The 1812 Overture". Every now and then they'd forget and do it within earshot of others, generating some extremely strange looks. Part of their wedding vows involved not dropping prepared muskrats in each others' mouths (though that left a loophole which permitted said act if you sneaked up on the muskrat, they later realized). The voice of Mr. Fred Rogers (or at least an imitation thereof) was an occasional fixture of their bedchamber. Not to mention the otters.
Quite often, just before she passed out for the evening, she would tell him "This is the part of the day I look forward to, the time when all the problems are put aside, and everything is OK with the world. This time of the day, snuggled up in your arms, I am happy. And nothing else matters." Then she'd slump back on his shoulder and start snoring.
They shared so many interests, automobiles, and music, and animals, and woodworking, the list just went on and on. He'd never find another like her, that was for sure.