"If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there."
That was the phrase that Edison Spelker remembered most from his father. It was usually said around the time the road signs signaled for Chattanooga. They were supposed to be headed to Knoxville. One is north and has a road that directly leads to it. The other does not.
A man must work diligently to deliver that level of stupidity to end up in Chattanooga from Milsap accidentally.
Edison was wise enough not to pontificate on this point to retain his pristine dental state, but shoes that fit and all of that. His father was of the generation that had perfected hands-on tooth extraction at the tender velocities of a jackhammer.
Milsap was a small unincorporated town in Tennessee, just about tobacco-spitting distance from the Georgia border. It only had one 'L' and one 'P' because the fellow who wandered across the countryside and staked out his claim was good at raising animals but couldn't spell for shit.
No one questioned it.
They couldn't spell for shit, either.
Edison's grandpa had received his own part of the land because, one day, he was told to go up north and shoot some people dead. It was the government that told him this.
And so he did it.
The property was worth the minie ball in the behind. He had a limp of joy for the remainder of his life.
Many moons later, Edison's uncle also went north to Chicago and shot some people dead. He said God told him to. They never saw him again. He ended up in a permanent hotel in Cook County with bars on the windows and doors and three somewhat parallelogram meals a day. He made new friends that were usually too affectionate. God apparently does not represent pro bono.
You only get to shoot people dead when the government tells you to.
God and the government are not the same, even though they each claim to be the other. Both of them also like collecting fees in cash as a pastime.
Edison didn't feel like shooting anyone, so he did his best to ignore them both.
He had successfully gotten through high school, which was easy since they made the mistake of teaching him to read. There, he read the books they told him to read; then he read all the books they told him not to read.
Because fair's fair.
The town was overly excited with a group of boys who played in the grass with an inflated pig's skin. Edison preferred them deep-fried with barbeque spice and a cold Miller beer.
The pig skins. Not the boys.
Miller was the "Champagne of Beers". It said so, right on the bottle. He'd had champagne once at a girlfriend's house. She lived in the big houses across the river. He wasn't sure if someone had gotten out of jail or avoided getting pregnant, but it was something special.
It did not taste like beer.
Those sweet little lies led him down South to a liberal arts college large enough to sound important but small enough that he could pay for it with a part-time job sorting nails. Or something of that sort.
That was where he met Claire.
They didn't grow them like that in Milsap. She had all of her teeth. Edison made many mistakes. The first was not realizing how beautiful she was until he'd asked her boobs out on a date. He had addressed them like a Presidential speech into a microphone.
Hormones, and all of that.
She was very forgiving. He had all of his teeth, too.
They found themselves attached at the hip like a pair of Plecia nearctica. People even called them that. They would say things like, "Look at those lovebugs!" The local police would say, "Knock it off, lovebugs, this is a public parking lot." The lady with the harshly hacked hair job and Coke bottle glasses would say, "Stop it, you lovebugs! There are children around. This is a library!"
And things of that nature.
He learned a lot about writing words in lines, so other people would know what in the hell was going on. That was how they made money. Awareness and stupidity are not mutually exclusive.
She learned a lot about writing numbers in rows and adding them together so people in big houses didn't lose all of their money. They seemed too busy screwing around that they couldn't track everything. She got paid to track it for them.
After a few years of this, they stood in a line wearing god-awful sundresses with thin, flat boards on their heads, and a grumpy old man handed them thick pieces of paper with gold stamps on them. He shook their hands limply like he was petting a rabbit. Supposedly, they had arrived.
Edison was sorting nails again on Monday. There were a few screws, as well.
"Eddie," Claire said over a two-dollar burger at lunch, "We need to leave this place and go on an adventure."
So they did.
And then they returned to civilization and wrote words and numbers in lines and rows well enough to make folks happy and give them money. This cash flow led to more adventures.
The adventures compounded with interest until they reached the point where Edison currently stood, on the crest of a mountain in Alaska, with snow spread on the ground as dense as the icing on an angel's food cake.
This peak on which he currently stood had a name... McKinley. McKinley had in the past been a fellow that folks liked so much that they made him President.
Edison looked down upon the clouds beneath him, beyond the snow.
"This is neat," he said. They looked like giant cotton balls from so high in the sky. He imagined McKinley was high in the sky, too.
When Edison's grandpa was a pup, McKinley made a lot of rich friends who helped him make a lot of bad decisions. Or at least Leon thought. Leon met him and put some metal shot in his ass at a high velocity.
Leon forgot to turn him around first.
And so McKinley died.
Then Congress named the mountain after him, seeing as none of the white people who called it Mount McKinley would ever have enough time or money to visit it. This was by design. They didn't care too much about what the natives thought. To hell with them.
The natives could give a damn less what the poor whites thought, either. In fact, out of sight, out of mind.
So, it is still called Denali by anyone with horse sense. Edison imagined McKinley in the clouds, cussing out everyone for being a bunch of assholes in the first place.
Now, where in the hell had that girl gone off to?
They had climbed this peak before when life was simpler. He just needed a refresher and could see the summit within reach. Edison summoned up the drive as he leaned against the wind. Then he could get this over with, collect his dopamine hit, and return to Milsap.
That was where she was. Milsap.
With a grunt, he propelled himself towards the summit, so he could finish this last quest, even though he'd done it before, and head back home.
To hell with McKinley.
Now he was just thinking about Milsap.
When a situation is at a perfect equilibrium, it sparks a raging passion for some goofy bastard to come screw things up.
Such was the case with Milsap. It was quiet. It was quaint. There were few, if any, stores and general services. There were many trees, however, and these were quite charming and much too overtly green, almost like an idyllic fairy tale that fully deserved to be stomped on by a big muddy boot.
It only takes one idiot with too much money for their own good to see a spot that God Herself wanted to be left alone, and then they say to themselves, "Self, I think this place needs a strip mall and some fast food for the travelers that never come here."
And there were fast food shops, three, and a strip mall, and the idiot saw they were good.
He gazed upon the forests, with their rough green stuff, creatures, and bears with the residual bear poop, and said, "Self, all of this shrubbery is in my way, and animals scare me. I want to chase a small ball around the countryside and pretend that I'm actually somebody worth existing for a change."
The second part of that statement was patently false; in fact, he was much too stupid and self-important to say such a perverse thing.
The moron threw the right amount of money at the problem and bought a swath of pasture and forest. He dubbed it Oak Glen.
The forest was pine trees. He had no idea what an oak tree looked like, but it sounded like money.
He hired Mexicans to remove the pine trees, the squirrels, possums, and bears that were in the way, and also that pesky rat-looking creature at the edge of Mrs. Gentry's lawn that made such a racket every morning.
She was equally raucous.
The Mexicans refused to have anything to do with her, so she had to stay.
Yo quiero silencio.
He had workers plant and maintain verdant grass that was fit for a king. Some of the high school boys planted a different variant of grass. This helped them with their recreational indoor kite festival. For a cut of the crop, they had the cheapest, best horticultural experts on the planet.
He attracted more wealthy people, which was the point.
The wealthy people attracted wealthy dentists, which was not the point, but it did indubitably improve one detriment in the town.
More folks had a complete set of teeth for a change.
Now that he had gotten all of the critters rounded up and the forest under control, he had to do something with those poor people who just didn't want to leave for some reason. They kept asking him for jobs and telling him what a good morning it was and how he should quit standing in the middle of the highway staring at his Oak Glen sign.
Sitting with one of his golf buddies, watching a collie rut upon a beagle near the putting station one hazy afternoon, he felt inclined to contact the only authority he could think of to remedy the situation.
The county sheriff informed him in the most polite way possible that it may interest him to go eat a bag of dicks.
This was how Dixon Haslett became the first mayor of Milsap, Tennessee.
He was still an idiot.
Dixon ran on a platform of positive foundational change. No one knew what he was rambling on about, much less that they were supposed to be voting on anything, and he appeared to the general populace to have devolved into a drunken street preacher, so they went about their business as usual.
His wealthy cabal, however, was entirely complicit.
They were positioned in all the right places and simply roped the area into a city. It was the City of Milsap. And so much easier than what they did to that last bunch that lived there. They had been sent on a no-expenses paid one-way celebratory cross-country nature hike to Oklahoma, courtesy of the Federal Government and some tool with a bad hairdo named Andy.
He became known simply as Mayor Dick. The pun was intentional.
Edison and Claire were discussing the turn of events as they were having afternoon tea. This was not a regular thing; they were in the tail tip of Appalachia, and since everyone else was becoming snooty in general, they took it as another excuse to eat.
"You know," Claire began, while gently rotating a china teacup in her fingers, "It says in the good book to 'Let them alone: they are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.' That's from the Gospel of Matthew, 15:14."
"Explains all the stumbling and bumbling," Edison responded. Using a log-shaped piece of lavender shortbread as a pointer, he emphasized, "You know our resident grand poobah jackass Mayor Dick just got back from showing off at some tournament down in Savannah or something."
"So I heard."
"By extension, I'll say what we always knew. 'A fool and his money are soon parted.' That's Dr. John Bridges. It's probably in the Bible, too, but I find it nice to have a more secular literary shillelagh to smack him with."
She smiled and nodded, then held a finger up to Edison for quiet.
"The bitch is back," a voice boomed from the living room during a commercial break on the television, "Sir Elton John."
"And there you have it," Claire purred.
Edison was thinking about this as the ground seemed to take an awkward slant. The edged, narrow walkway of many that had beaten down the path to the summit appeared to mock him as if it didn't want him to complete the mission he had assigned himself.
For some reason, he couldn't put his finger on it; the ice he saw around him didn't have the frosty feel on his face that it did the last time he was here.
Those jackasses on the television were always yammering on about something called global warming. They used to say that it had to do with hairspray, then it was gasoline and burger boxes.
It was somehow his job to avoid hairspray, which wasn't difficult for him, stop driving cars, and escape the holy cheeseburgers where available. This helped them fly in their private jets, pay for their hundred-dollar styling sessions, and upgrade those cheeseburgers into steaks, lovingly bathed in butter as if they were at a resort spa. They maintained a wardrobe that was, in most cases, impeccable, fashioned by little elves in faraway lands that worked for pennies on the dollar without audible complaint in buildings of industry most sane folk would call a sweatshop.
The little elves sweat just enough to be annoying and were too broke to afford towels; they usually came in shades of yellow and brown, so they weren't photographed much.
Only the really pretty ones.
In the verbiage of the lifted noses, this was called things like successful investment and third-world progress.
It's only rain if one is hunched underneath the streaming piss of class superiority.
Some old fart that used to play with monkeys called this trickle-down economics. This kept the socially refined urine flowing in the right direction, which made folks who had never seen the inside of a big box store excited. Sometimes sexually. They made him President. Especially after the monkey stopped throwing handfuls of poop at people. He saw the poor people were getting a pittance, which, for some reason, irritated him. So, he traded the monkey for Congress, and like a room full of good monkeys, they flung the pittance out the door themselves.
The good-times economic weather poohbahs seemed to have several things in common, including the fact that their faces appeared to be delightfully punchable. He'd broken a television that way. Those things were just too thin these days.
Nobody cared much about quality anymore. Everyone wanted to make things thinner, faster, and smaller. It was a good thing they couldn't make mountains.
Mountains are large and clunky, in general, and take much more time to create. They outlast most worker unions.
Edison had considered joining a union once. They seemed like large sports teams based around work, except one had to pay more to play than they ever got out of it, and the leaders always seemed to get stuck in concrete for some reason.
In the modern era, most of the heavy decisions in these areas were made by men. Not because they were special or anything, just that society tended to flog them the most, and since they were not meant to complain too loudly about it, they got to choose precisely who was flogging them in general.
Most other floggings came from a woman.
He learned he needed a woman for this purpose when he was young and in college. His father taught him to hunt well and choose wisely because you only get one good shot at selecting your elemental ass-kicking machine, and it takes a lot of money and paperwork to fix a dumb decision. Sometimes, you are the dumb decision, and the cost is doubly so.
Edison was about as good at chasing women as a flat-faced dog running down a parked car. It was a lot of wasted kinetic energy that came with an abrupt stop and a police report.
It was a miracle he had landed Claire.
The way she folded a towel bent his mind. Watching her close a bag of potato chips made him want to break things. It was wrong. All wrong.
It also helped her catch him when the doctor said he couldn't have salt anymore. She would swiftly admonish him, and there was no escape.
That snoopy bastard.
The battle over the toilet paper roll was a matter of General MacArthur versus General Patton. He even went so far as to pull the patent for the damned thing from the US Patent Office.
She was not much for diagrams.
But he frequently got the reminders he needed when the neighbors threw items at each other and fought like two wet cats in a burlap sack.
Claire could fold anything however she well pleased. Most of the fun was in the perpetual corrections. Edison couldn't think of anyone else he'd rather have in the same house.
She was a walking science experiment, and he learned something new every day.
Like when he came home to see her digging underneath their window, surrounded by potted vine plants with tiny white dots on them, she looked like she was preparing for World War III. He approached cautiously to investigate, and she brushed a lock of graying hair out of her face with a mischievous grin and whispered, "Quiet, Eddie, you'll wake 'em up!"
"Wake who up?" he'd whispered back.
"These are night jasmine. They're like vampires, they only come out at night."
"Then why are we whispering?"
"Shhh! You'll see later tonight."
Claire had opened the windows that night, and the heavenly scent that wafted through among the starlight convinced him never to doubt her judgment again. She even worked wonders with the cuttings of rhododendrons from their escapade hiking through the Roan Mountain area.
It was an act of revenge for getting caught by a Forest Ranger while being, well, lovebugs.
"I can see that shiny white ass of yours," he abruptly scolded Edison, "Got kids coming up the trail. Put that thing away and move along."
So they did.
Edison could talk to Claire about any topic, and he did for many years and many hours. They didn't discuss anything anymore, and that fact sat in his gut like a rock.
It was hard discussing just about anything with anyone these days. People were different. They'd all gotten so damned touchy about everything, and God forbid one discuss a subject as mind-numbing as whether the chicken or the egg came first.
An utterly useless endeavor, this was designed to spark conversation. When he was younger, the three topics that were never to be discussed in genteel conversation were sex, religion, or politics. Now, it was all anyone wanted to talk about.
See, there were two camps in this madness:
The first group liked to kill fledglings in the womb for convenience and profit as if it were performance art. They wanted to spend other peoples' money and see how many times they could crucify Jesus Christ again, like drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch and shaking the picture out. The other pastime was promoting the sanguine ability and freedom to attach their genitals to anything possible and permissible, public or private, and attain glory and special treatment for doing so.
They had a nifty color chart that they could hold next to peoples' arms to determine their level of freedom. Then, they would do the exact opposite.
These were called liberals, and they liked donkeys for some reason, probably because it's easy to spot a jackass.
The other bunch was particularly excited about post-term abortions since those helped instigate estate sales that could be taxed. With the correct inside information, you could put your money in a nice place that made nifty trinkets for the function. Then, the boom widget makers would give you money back every two years, with interest. This was called a campaign donation.
They managed to share the technique with the liberals, and it all became a god-awful mess.
This mob of miscreants didn't have a color chart. They were convinced that all underlings should suffer equally while attempting to convince them that the malodorous Congressional pasture was a luscious field of roses.
It was just in bad taste to tell them that.
The stench was a tough row to hoe. The perfume was generally bullshit.
They were called conservatives and loved elephants because they didn't forget anything. At least as long as they were not under oath. Then they muddled aimlessly and babbled to themselves like a street corner meth-head. Conveniently, there was also significant money to be made from those folks.
The bunch united to make laws and regulations that applied to everyone else but them; otherwise, that would take all the fun out of the bombing and the fucking and the general asshattery.
Edison had a representative.
His name was Nelson Turmley, and he liked to rotate his interns in matrimony and copulation like a table game of three-card monte. He also had a special place in his heart for bombing brown people. When he wasn't in the market for post-term abortions, he told the people back in Tennessee of all the Lord's work he was doing and attempted to inject his penis into anything that wasn't an intern.
He liked elephants.
He found five-hundred-dollar suits delicious.
And while he hated poor people like ticks on an afternoon walk, Nelson had to kiss their asses to keep his job.
Pucker up, Buttercup.
Edison had a male parasite that he particularly adored named Benson. It was all his fault. He had injected the creature into Claire with his penis. Claire complained about nine months until it fell, attached by a blue tube, out of her hoo-ha. That was when they decided to name it. This is usually what is done in those cases. They did it a few more times because they couldn't control themselves. Which also explained the girl who looked like Claire. Petal, that was her name. Of course, they did.
They were lovebugs, after all.
Benson went to one of those fancy schools once he molted, and they taught him just enough to feel important but not enough to be actually functional.
This is why graduates practice things like law and medicine since the goal is not necessarily to be any good at it but to get an adequate paycheck. Chronic illness and repeat offenders are suitable for the Mercedes-Benz payment.
They are usually called communists since they spent a half-decade sharing alcohol and stupidity. They finally pick a side once they understand the government owns everything and a handful of rich men that look like Galapagos turtles own the government.
As far as Edison could tell, Benson had failed the conditioning, even though they made him dress up in a stupid orange sundress and a matching board for his head.
They gave him a thick piece of paper with a pretty gold seal on it and shook his hand.
Benson got laid that night.
History tends to repeat itself.
He brought Edison watermelon moonshine and pot. They talked about the state of the world, taking long walks, and boobs.
Benson was a good kid.
Petal was an angel. She had always been a daddy's girl. Sometimes, he forgot her name, and when that happened, he just called her My Beautiful or My Lovely, and the problem simply went away. The fewer problems, the better. She had a permanent gentle smile and air about her that was so much like Claire that it rocked him.
Edison adored her. Not like he did Claire; that would be weird. He saw Petal in boxes and splintered halls, like a kaleidoscope, all different images and ages, from skinned knees and pigtails to white dresses and shiny cars and cheerleader outfits. Every shard held another piece of his heart, and he couldn't seem to connect them and keep them in order.
A smile and an embrace made those fragments come together like the kintsugi Claire had performed when she accidentally dropped and shattered his favorite coffee mug years ago. It was incredible how the gold in the cracks was liquid love, waiting every morning for his eyes to notice and wonder at them.
When Edison looked into Petal's eyes, the soluble devotion that was so intense he could feel it radiate let him know that he had at least done something right in his life, and he'd done it with the best partner possible on God's green earth.
As soon as the warm, divine salient emotion inflated his heart, it exploded out again like air from a balloon with a giant disconsolate fart. All he knew was that he loved the cheery, fawning, magnanimous creature before him, and he couldn't for life, love, or money say exactly why.
His brain went on a coffee break and shared a middle finger to the clock on the way out the door.
Once again, he was trapped in a clapboard box of a cell, alone, floating down a river of time with the only discernible moment being the present.
"This is a bunch of bullshit," he pontificated, "It's time for me to go home."
Edison touched his brow to focus himself. He did that to re-orient himself as he shuffled, step after slow step, to the pinnacle that taunted him. Claire would have never stood for it. There was little she would let stand in her way once she set her mind to something. He was grateful he had been one of those somethings, too. Right now, he was glad that he had been here the last time this summit was the something she'd wanted.
The familiar taste of the chemicals in his body, the bitter flavor when that charge of success flooded his mouth with the sudden warmth of the sunshine above and a scent of petroleum.
That shouldn't be there.
The precipice of conquering the peak was fleeting and gone.
Edison blinked and surveyed his surroundings. "This isn't right," he muttered. "Where's my guide at?" he asked the Athabascan that magically turned into his son.
"Dad, the gentleman here is trying to speak to you," Benson offered with a gentle touch on Edison's shoulder, his deep voice flowing from a mound of speckled beard. He oddly looked like a sourdough frontiersman in a polo shirt.
"Sir," a young man in a blue vest offered as if speaking to a lion while holding a raw steak, "May I have the shopping cart back if you're done with it?"
"This used to be something else," Edison muttered.
"I'm pretty sure it's always been a shopping cart, sir," the young man responded in confusion.
"The high school, Dad," Benson informed him. "It used to be the high school."
"And now it's a Walmart."
"It is a Walmart, yes."
"Where did the high school go?"
"Good place for it. The horseshit's all in the same place. I like it when things are categorized."
"No, they built the school on top of the pasture. It's not a pasture now."
"Close enough for government work."
"May I?" the lot attendant politely asked again with a gesture, "You're blocking traffic." He cocked his head at Edison like the famous RCA dog and said, "I'm sure you don't mean to."
He was at home, in Milsap, with one 'L' and one 'P' because nobody could spell good.
In two hundred years, that fact had not changed.
Clara Rose Murchison Spelker, with a lovely face and ample boobs and the most efficacious partner in crime that ever could have been, was effectively planted in the ground, six feet deep, roots as gentle and tender as the tendrils of jasmine that still lulled him to that space in which the world was still right. That's where she was, and he missed that girl. He would have rather climbed the damned mountain instead.
Or perhaps planted himself like a potted rhododendron under the polished rock that held their names for all the world to see.