The next day, as he drove to the west, he tried to clear his heady by thinking about the Telephony Museum he visited the day before.
Although the telephone was refined to the point of usability in 1876, it didn't become popular until the 20s. Of course, in the city it came in first, but in the country it was used only by police and doctors and the mayer, and other important personages. People who had to communicate in a hurry.
The internet started out the same way, he remembered. In the 70s, it was solely the province of the military and larger technical universities (who did a lot of military research). In the 80s, it was the realm of more colleges and scientists, and some hobbyists. It was only in the nineties, specifically starting in September 1992, that it became part of the mainstream, with every house connected in some fashion. Most by the old telephone system.
The Internet, with its virtual bars and chat rooms and Usenet discussion groups, served to bring people together. Certainly his group of friends, the #mcreadys patrons, were from all over the world, including Tasmania and Russia.
However, as usual, there were other results. In fact, the Law of Unintended Consequences assures us that any action which is important enough to be effective toward its goals will have additional, unanticipated and even unrelated, results. The internet accelerated a trend toward physical isolation in the population, even as they became more interactive. People didn't know their own neighbors. This was also reflected in Mark and Laura's relationship. They fell in love with each other on-line, and did not fall in love with their neighbors. They also knew people in Long Distance Relationships, or LDRs, who saw each other only a few days a year. In many cases, when they finally were able to see each other more often, the relationship would fall apart.
He was afraid of that when he first drove up to see Laura. His first on-line relationship, with Dinah, was wrecked when they met for the first time. Mark was shallow enough be shocked by her plainness, in comparison to the beauty of her words. His inner conflict poisoned his contact toward her for quite a while. They broke up shortly thereafter.
With Laura it was different. There were no visual shocks, since they had met back in Nashville two years before. In fact, he had told her about his reaction to Dinah, to reveal his callow nature. She laughed. Although physical appearence wasn't as important to her, it was still important, and she understood.
Oddly enough, Laura had dated Gabe, who Dinah eventually married, and of course Mark had dated Dinah, and eventually married Laura. So he was a wife swapper, excused only by the passage of time.
He passed Ellsworth, and Hayes. He saw a sign by the side of the road advertising an 8,000 pound prairie dog. He remembered Laura telling him three times one day about the black tailed prarie dog being endangered. That was toward the end, when the alcohol was beginning to affect her memory.
He saw the giant van Gogh painting in Goodland, Kansas. Mark liked van Gogh, to a certain point. The vivid colors and primitive style was very evocative, and there were plenty of van Gogh's earlier works that Mark enjoyed.
His later stuff, after the ear business, was definitely psychedelic. It reminded Mark of his experience with LSD back in college. Mark was always afraid that he wouldn't come down from the drug, and he imagined that van Gogh's schizophrenia was something like that. Did the walls breathe and drip for van Gogh too?
Mark reached Limon, Colorado, and stopped at a diner for lunch. This time, he didn't exchange more than a few polite pleasantries with the waitress, who wore a name tag reading "Linda". He was about half way through his cheeseburger, when a stranger sat down across from him.
Not a stranger, exactly, but Gordi. "Um.. Do I know you?" asked Mark.
"Know me, probably not. Hell, you don't even know yourself. You've met me before, though Gordi, Gordi Not Important. Remember me?"
"How could I be expected to remember you, if you're Not Important?"
"Funny. You might get through this yet, if you can stop taking yourself so seriously."
"Get through *what*?"
"Look, Mark, cut the crap. You're on the journey of a lifetime. Literally, this trip and what you do on it will affect the rest of your life, however long that is. You gotta choose."
He unfolded a map of Colorado. "Now, I know you're following 40, that's obvious. So, in a sense you've already chosen your fate. But you have another choice, right here, right now. See how the road splits, right here in Limon? You have to choose, between the 40N alignment and the 40S alignment."
"What difference does it make? No matter where I go, Nick and Jack will find me. It doesn't matter. My fate is already sealed."
"You're just ignorant, or deliberately obtuse. I can't tell which. Look, let me give you an idea of what lies in store for you, along 40S."
Gordi sprayed his throat from a Chloroseptic(tm) bottle, and warmed up a few times with a "la la la" and more importantly, at least to him, a "me me me". Mark ordered some coffee, and resigned himself to a long one.
"Okay. If you take the southern route, you'll go along just fine. You'll have dinner with someone in Colorado Springs, who will tell you something about your wife that you don't know. You spend the night. Next day, you'll go past Manitou Springs here, and probably stop at the famous Cave of The Winds."
"What's that?" Mark tried to appear interested as he poured himself another cup.
"It's a cave. Windy, I'm sure. Anyway, it's a famous tourist trap from the 50s and you'd just love it, I'm sure. Dark, damp, depressing."
"Then, you continue to Cripple Creek, and visit the Prostitution Museum. You like this a lot, too. On your way out of town, that heap of rust you call a car breaks down. You get towed back to Cripple Creek, and start waiting out the repair. Every time they fix something, they find something else wrong. Eventually, you give up hope... there's no place you want to be anyway, and so why not stay? You do, and live in a trailer on the edge of town, boozing from sunup to sundown. In five years, which seem like fifty, you're dead.
"You tell such a cheerful story, 'Gordi'. Actually, it doesn't sound all that bad. It's a vast improvement from my plan right now to kill myself by the 20th of June."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Five years of self-indulgent suffering doesn't sound all that good, either."
Mark called for the bill, paid it, and started out to the car. "So what's the other alternative, Kreskin?"
"Northern route. Hmmm..." Gordi consults the map. "On the northern route, you go to Denver... learn something about your wife you didn't know, and spend the night. You continue on through Golden and over the mountains.... I don't know what happens then. All I know is that there's strife and hardship and you battle for your future."
"Do I win?"
"That's up to you. I can't tell. There's all kinds of uncertainty that way."
Mark glances at the map, to the area where Gordi is pointing. "Looks like a coffee stain to me, bud."
"Coffee stain or not, that's all I can tell you. The choice is up to you, now."
As they reached the Fiat, Mark said, "It always was, I guess. Oh, I have something you left behind."
"Oh? I thought you didn't know me..."
"It's your pinecone, you left it in my car in St. Louis. Here, it's in the glove compartment..."
Mark leaned in, and popped the glove box. He stuck his hand in, expecting to find a prickly seed pod. Instead, he felt silk and lace. He drew his hand back to find a pair of panties. Black. Smelling of cinnamon and a deeper, darker, muskier overtone.
"What in the..." Mark turned back toward Gordi, panties in his hand. The little hairy man had, of course, disappeared. He stood there dumbstruck, his head spinning, trying to make sense of the whole thing. Other patrons of the diner passed by, and some pointed and giggled at the strange but seemingly harmless pervert dangling his lacy underwear in public.
Mark inhaled deeply, the smell bringing back memories of his dream. Or... it couldn't be a dream, could it? But then, was Gordi a dream or not? He carefully put the panties back in the glove compartment, sniffed his fingers meditatively, and got back in the car.
There was no mention of Natasha on either the Northern or Southern routes Gordi, or his dream of Gordi, had detailed. However, there was all sorts of ambiguity about the northern one, and none about the southern one.
Mark made his choice, and turned toward Denver.