1. That morning, Toby Wilson decided to go on a vision quest just like the Native American shamans of old used to do. The only problem was that he didn’t know what one was actually supposed to do on a vision quest, so he just sat on a log in the woods for a few hours swatting mosquitoes, picking his nose, and waiting for enlightenment to come. Three hours later, it still had not arrived.
The August heat slowly cooked him inside his tee shirt and jeans. By early afternoon, unable to bear the discomfort any longer, he headed down the mountain to find a cooler place in which to achieve transcendence.
After twenty minutes of walking, Toby’s head started to reel and he nearly fell over. Excited that the discombobulated sensation was signaling the arrival of a spiritual epiphany, Toby braced himself against a pine tree and waited. When he realized that the sensation was simply dizziness brought on by two days without food, he slid down to the ground in dejection.
After a year of bouncing around American in self-imposed homelessness looking for wisdom, he’d found nothing. Now, nearly twenty years old, he had no college or work experience fit for a resume–just a lot of drug and drink stories, and an extensive reading list of esoteric authors that no one but other unemployed vagabonds gave a shit about.
He’d brought himself to starvation and dehydration, a kid from a wealthy family born with all of the advantages that most people in the world could only dream about. Father: head of institutional research at Sackinaw University. Mother: prominent art dealer known for discovering the great outsider artist Shane Caldwell, who had become an international sensation for cropping images of rotting meat over the photographed faces of celebrities and politicians in a series of prints entitled ‘The Festering Meat Protocols.’
All his life Toby had yearned for something more than his parent’s upper middle class existence. He was not sure what more meant, but he’d set out to wander the world like a tramp to figure it out. The idea of spending his life building an investment portfolio and throwing dinner parties for vacuous intellectuals sickened him. He also wasn’t fond of the prospect of waking up early to go to work every day.
Toby lurched to his feet and shambled down the slope, kicking dead branches over the forest floor. The problem wasn’t that there was nothing more out there. No, it couldn’t be. He simply hadn’t yet sacrificed enough. God does not answer men with full stomachs.
He reached the city park at the base of the mountain. It was Saturday and the lawn was full of barbeque cookers, Frisbee throwers, and enthusiastic dogs on leashes. The park-goers wrinkled their noses at Toby’s approach, and he realized that he hadn’t been maintaining his physical appearance very well as of late. His greasy hair was matted to his forehead and several days of sweat had left a salt-ring around the collar of his dirt-streaked shirt. Too tired to do anything about it, Toby stumbled past their screw-faced expressions and fell down face-up in the grass.
The sun quickly baked him into delirium. Not quite asleep or awake, he sank into a kind of nether-fog while the sounds of the park ebbed and flowed around him. Thoughts detached from his awareness and floated about like disembodied voices. You could die without food or water in this heat, you know, one voice said. “Well,” he thought in response, “God can either enlighten me or kill me, but I’m not giving up until he does one of them.”
He slipped in and out of sleep and a state of semi-consciousness, the sounds of the park-goers ebbing and flowing around him like distorted ocean waves.
Someone called his name. After a few moments he realized that the voice was not in his mind and opened his eyes to find Chucky and Knock-Knock standing over him. Chucky was scrawny and wore a tattered Civil War officer’s hat. Knock-Knock was a hulking figure with no teeth and the brain-eaten eyes of a true, too-far-gone alcoholic.
“You look like broiled lobster,” Chucky said.
Toby looked at his sunburned arms. “Shit.” The park was empty and the sun low in the sky. He’d been out there for hours.
“Yea, shit.” Chucky nodded. “We’re going to drink a bottle of Bentley’s finest under that culvert over there. Wanna come with?”
“I can’t,” Toby said. “I’m on a vision quest.”
"No shit?” Chucky nodded towards Knock-Knock. “Knock-Knock used to go on vision quests all the time. Isn't that right, Knock-Knock?" Knock-Knock grinned toothlessly and nodded. "So why no booze?"
Toby hesitated. "I thought you couldn’t drink on a vision quest."
Chucky waved off the notion. "No, man, you just can't eat food or anything like that. Booze is okay. It might even help."
Toby mulled over the advice. Chucky and Knock-Knock had been emancipated from society for far longer than he, and he valued their wisdom. He agreed to drink the Bentley’s and the three of them filed under the culvert where mosquitoes swarmed madly.
“Hurry up,” Chucky urged as he passed the bottle, “These little buzzing fuckers will drain out blood before the alcohol gets into it.”
Bentley’s vodka wasn’t much better than rubbing alcohol, and Toby gagged with every swallow. For the sake of wisdom, he forced the stuff down. As soon as the bottle was done they ran out into the sun swatting mosquitoes.
The alcohol overwhelmed Toby almost immediately. Gravity shifted violently in random directions and the Earth seemed suddenly slanted, jerking him about like a marionette in the hands of some deranged puppeteer. Again and again, he found himself plastered to the Earth.
The trio headed into town. Night settled in. Toby shouted incoherent prophecies at people on the street. He felt full of spiritual insight, and the need to share that insight with the world. One woman, in particular, caught his attention. She was a beautiful, smiling brunette, but Toby felt certain that he detected a secret sadness within her.
He staggered up to the girl slurring senseless poetry. She cringed and recoiled in horror, trying to maneuver away from him. Toby, oblivious to her fear and disgust, cornered the girl against the side of the building.
The world lurched wildly and he reached out to steady himself against the girl. As he did so, his stomach turned violently and a stream of vodka and bile protected from his mouth. Toby braced himself on the girl’s shoulder as he retched and sputtered vodka-bile. The girl simply stood there and screamed.
A stocky guy in an Arizona Cardinals jersey emerged from the crowd that had gathered around the strange assault and unleashed a five punch combination. The first blow knocked Toby over, the next four struck as he fell.
Chucky and Knock-Knock were nowhere in sight. Toby lay watching pedestrians walk around him, probing absently with his tongue at the slot of his newly-missing front tooth. The sound of police sirens approached. Some distant part of his mind realized they were coming for him. He stumbled to his feet and ran.
He bolted through alleyways and parking lots as the cop car zipped about trying to trap him. What he lacked in grace and coordination, he made up for with total recklessness and disregard for personal safety. By cutting in front of moving traffic and leaping over a six-foot-tall drop at the end of a parking garage, he managed to elude the police and reach the houses at the edge of town.
Cutting through backyards in the dark, Toby ran full speed into a knee-high cement planter that sent him flipping through the air and onto his back. He regained his feet, made a few more steps, and caught a clothesline to the neck that threw him back to the ground. Somehow, finally, he reached the woods and escaped into the trees.
The adrenaline and the vodka faded as he walked through the woods, and immense pain rang like hundreds of shrieking alarms throughout his body. He was cut, bruised, and busted everywhere.
The discomfort grew, and the time passed, until he found himself stumbling out of the wood and onto a set of train tracks, facing a tiny house with an enormous woman smoking a cigarette on the front porch.
“Who’s there?” the woman asked.
Toby stepped into the illumination of her porch light.
The woman’s immensity jiggled with laughter. “Damn, honey, train run you over?”
“I got sucker punched.”
“Only a sucker gets sucker punched, honey.”
Toby poked at his missing tooth. “You’re awake awful late.”
The woman took a drag and flicked her cigarette off the porch. “Honey,” she said, “the party never stops at Big Mona’s house. Come on in.” Her body barely cleared the doorframe as she walked inside. Toby followed.
On the couch in the living room, two scraggly, bearded men slept amidst wine jugs, fast food wrappers, and pizza boxes. A little radio on the floor played Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.”
Big Mona kicked them. “Wake up. We’ve got company.”
They grumbled and stirred. One guy sleepily located a bottle with some wine left in it and was about to take a drink, but Big Mona snatched it from his hand and gave it to Toby.
"That's Carl and that's Bigby,” Big Mona explained. “They stay here all the time because they know that Big Mona parties like nobody's business. Isn’t that right, boys?" The boys said nothing, and Big Mona erupted into another long bout of booming laughter.
After Toby finished the bottle, Big Mona rooted through the mess to find others. Toby finished those, too. Soon he felt warm and mellow again.
Carl and Bigby drifted back to sleep without saying another word. Big Mona talked and talked, saying things like, "That’s right, honey, every man's got the blues, and every woman's got the paintbrush,” and, “All the milk in the world can’t help a cow dying of thirst.” She was fond of asking questions with no intention of having them answered. "What's wrong, honey?” she’d ask, then hug him close and brush his hair from his head. “I know, honey. Big Mona always knows."
Toby’s pain faded. He liked the woman’s laugh and the way her big, warm body felt beside him.
“That’s right, honey.” Big Mona pulled him into her great bulk. “That’s right.”
The night gradually blurred around the edges, and then disappeared altogether.
2. Toby woke in a narrow bed with pain like fireworks shooting through his skull. The mattress sagged at his side and a gigantic bulk pressed against his back. With an uneasy feeling, Toby realized that the bulk was breathing.
Vague images of the night before flitted through his memory, a series of cinematic shorts showing Chucky and Knock-Knock, the screaming woman on the street, a pugilistic Cardinals jersey, cops, and then wrestling in bed with Big Mona.
That wasn’t wrestling, Toby realized. That wasn’t wrestling.
Toby slid out of bed and gathered his clothes from the floor. He slipped the crusty articles on, gagging on the smell, and headed for the door. He had almost made it when Big Mona laughed.
“Where you going, honey?”
Unsure of the answer, Toby said the first thing that came to mind. “Home.”
The bedsprings creaked as she shifted her weight. “What were you looking for last night, honey? You kept saying you were looking for something more, but you never said more of what.”
Toby thought for a moment. He was too tired to lie or think of something profound, so he just said, “I have no idea.”
Big Mona boomed laughter. “Well, honey, then maybe you found it.”
“Maybe,” Toby said.
He walked out of the house and followed the train tracks towards town. Big Mona’s laughter echoed behind him for a long time as he went.