Running From Mary Jane
I ran—who wouldn’t? I took the car, a beat-up Chevy SUV so dusty that you wouldn’t know its original color, couldn’t tell if it was black or dark blue or gray. It lurched when I turned the key and stalled. The dust of the desert settles on everything; it creeps into motors and acts like sandpaper. It covers everything as it eats its way in.
I cursed and tried again—this time I got the Chevy going. I don’t know how the car was still alive, or me for that matter. It was, is, her car—Mary Jane’s. I was, am, her husband. I turned the wheel and made for the gate. Right or left?
Running’s fine, but where to when there’s nothing to run to? I am out here in a no man’s land which might be Hell, as in the Bible, but I am not sure which Bible; in fact, I am sure of nothing. When I was hocking encyclopedias, I read an article in one of them about some guys in a cave mistaking shadows for the real thing and it got me thinking. I mean, does looking at a neon sign in the shape of a cocktail glass really quench your thirst? Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Still, the neon signs are all around, but they lead to nothing except more signs. The desert is a tricky place. It sends false signals.
The Chevy hit a bump in the dirt road, and I had to back up and go around. I hit the accelerator and the car moved like a lazy steer, but it moved. If only I could get her onto the highway, I told myself, and I guess I was lucky because we were moving and the gate was in sight. I looked back and saw the gate and its metal arch with the word, Pleroma. I once asked Mary Jane what “Pleroma” meant, but she just smiled the way she always did, like she was sucking on a piece of fruit, and she told me that if I stuck around long enough, I would find out. Maybe that was her way of warning me. Night has fallen; in the desert it always falls fast.
When I said I was running away, I meant I wanted to run anywhere, provided that it was out, even if that meant driving in a circle, which was what I ended up doing. Trouble is that when you go around in a circle, you postpone the inevitable—you just buy time. Once outside the gate, I turned north. Wherever I was going, or whatever I was going to, was a hell of lot better than what I had left. I even looked over my shoulder to make sure that the Pleroma-arch was behind me. Like I said, Mary Jane never told me what that word meant, but she never told me anything. But since coming upon the woodshed, I had an idea. The others saw what I saw in the woodshed, but the difference is the others didn’t get away, and now they are skulls with eye sockets with snakes coming out of them.
Something ticked in the back seat, and I almost threw up. Not another rattler. Please God, anything but that! I slowed down. The ticking didn’t stop. It was either the motor or a rattler. Today is the day of the snake. I inched my right hand into my pocket and slowly, slowly took out the Glock. I checked the back seat again and saw it was empty. I drove on, still heading north, to Vegas. I had enough gas and planned to sleep in the Chevy.
Then I got hungry with a gut-churning hunger that came upon me like there was no tomorrow. Also a rage to get drunk. I realized that I had not taken any money with me, so the Glock was going to come in handy for a holdup. Armed robbery. Never did that before. There’s always a first time.
The nearest bank, 40 miles off in Clampton, was closed. Only one service station about five miles away, near enough and open all night, but Seth, the owner, was a crack shot, kept an AR at the cash register and never liked me. He’d be itchin’ for an excuse. If I have to go out, it won’t be because a filthy ex-veteran had a score to settle.
A 7-Eleven in the shopping center 12 miles south? I was traveling north. I put the Chevy in reverse and was about to make a U-turn when I remembered Al’s bar, The Forbidden Fruit, just five short miles south, on the way to the 7-Eleven. One of the headlights had died. I drove slowly, barely making out the road. The neon signs blare out blindness; they kill even the shadows.
I had been to The Forbidden Fruit once before with Mary Jane, at the beginning of our marriage. She made a big fuss, got herself out like Elvira of the movies. Long witchy black dress with a plunging neck, eyeliner up to her hair roots, blood red lips; she had set her long black hair so that it looked like a vampire in one of the old flicks. That woman could change from a dump to a princess in no time, but it was all for Al. I felt sidelined.
That time at his joint, Al couldn’t do enough for my wife; he had been all over her, treating her like a queen, all giggly and flirty. They had filled the place with laughter. There was a drunk at the bar and there was Pearl, a frumpy blonde working the cash register, and they were hamming it up while I walked around like a little boy lost in a shopping mall. But I remembered something from that day, and that something was an ATM blinking in the corner, which was why I headed for The Forbidden Fruit. An ATM with the sign “Bethesda Bank, Las Vegas” on its screen. I thought it blinked at me that day; I thought it sent me a message that Bethesda Bank was the gift that kept on giving once I sprang loose from Mary Jane.
The Forbidden Fruit with its neon of a wine glass and snake curled around its stem came into view. I parked the Chevy; no one else was there. Good, that made it easier.
“Full moon,” I said when I got out of the car. I howled like a wolf to calm my nerves. All I wanted was for Al to open up the ATM, nice and gentle, hand over the cash and forget all about me as I drove west to the coast. It was gonna be easy. Al is bald, thin, and walks with a shuffle, like he might be lame. I think his two front teeth are missing because you can hear the air rush out of his mouth when he speaks. And Pearl is a middle-aged tub of a woman. The drunk at the bar, if he is there, won’t stand in my way. Easy-peasy. I got out of the car and went in.
Sure enough, Al was there, sitting at a table. He looked up at me with his black flinty eyes and threw a glance at Pearl sitting behind the cash register by the window. She nodded and smiled. Then she pulled open a drawer to make sure I got a glimpse of the pearl handle of a revolver. Lord Almighty! The woman was a mind-reader! Like Al. I looked at the blonde rat’s nest on her head. She smiled again in the way that gangsters smile, like when they’re telling you they know your racket. It wasn’t gonna be as simple as robbing a baby. I started sweating and I sneezed because the AC was working overtime and I still wanted to bring off the hold-up. The ATM stood opposite the cash register.
Pearl smiled and said, “Let it go, son. You come to know.”
I scowled because I didn’t know what she was talking about. Pearl the mind-reader, wedged open the drawer a little wider to make sure I saw the revolver with her hand on it.
“Know what?” I asked growing impatient. The heat of Al’s black eyes was on me, and Pearl’s red-hot nails were traveling up and down the length of the drawer. I stared at the ATM, which was a mistake because I gave it all away.
Al shuffled over and put his hand on my shoulder. “Drop it, son. And sit down. You were about to do a really stupid thing.”
I noticed how flat Al’s face was, like a snowman’s with two buttons instead of a carrot for a nose and no chin. His hand was cold and something about him made me shiver, like he was not human but someone’s creation. Pearl snapped the drawer shut; I guess she knew that I wasn’t going anywhere. I dropped into the chair, and Al sat down beside me—his hand gripped my forearm, and I could still feel the cold seep through the sleeve of my jacket. I looked at Pearl, and I suppose my look was sort of desperate because she beamed a kind motherly smile back at me, like I was a little lamb that had come back after straying off. The drunk at the bar farted. Pearl walked over and set down a bottle of whiskey.
“Your last, Arch,” she said as she walked back to her stool at the cash register.
“Yeah, my last until the next.” Arch burped.
I got the impression they were putting on the bartender-barfly number to reassure me or something. I felt Al tapping my arm. I looked down at the squiggles on the formica table, not because I was ashamed, but because I couldn’t decide if he disgusted or fascinated me with his beady eyes and his chin that was not there. I guess I preferred to look at his shadow reflected on the floor.
His voice came out like a whistle. “You were set to do a dumb thing, son. Lucky I was here, an’ Pearl’s a crack shot. Now, I’m gonna warn you. Pearl used to do work with the circus. A clown threw an apple high…high in the air and Pearl sent up a trail of buckshot. Pow! Applesauce! Never missed. Why, you know, son, I betcha she could hit—”
“Why are you calling me son?” I raised my head just high enough to see how his beady eyes slanted with their lids half-closed. His features seemed to disappear in a riot of flab, and when he spoke, he showed a red tongue. All I saw were his eyes.
“Night after night they reveal knowledge.” The drunk belched out at the mirror behind the bar.
“Hang on, son. Don’t you move!” Al glided over to the man at the bar. I got a look at him in the mirror. Skinny. Sunken eyes and sallow skin, like every drunk. Not a bad face. Long, fine. The type of face you see in church paintings. Long brown hair reaching his collar bone. His clothes weren’t bad either. He was wearing an Indian-style pelt jacket and a brown cowboy hat. He filled me with pity as much as Al made me ill.
“It’s alright, Arch,” Al whispered as he slid out of the chair and walked over to the drunk. “It’s alright, Arch,” he repeated. He put his arm around the drunk. “Now say what you gotta say and shut up. Say what you gotta to say to our young friend here, then forever hold your peace.”
Arch took a swig from the bottle and looked at me in the mirror. Then he gave me a sad, begging smile. Pearl slipped off her stool and came over. She told the drunk, “You always had the right word for everyone when we were all together in the circus. So give it your best.”
I perked up. “You were all circus performers?”
Pearl looked straight at me. No mirror intermediary for her. Large nose, large mouth. A ton of makeup doing nothing to improve her. There was nothing flat and indefinite about the woman.
“You bet. And Arch was the ringmaster.”
“And Mary Jane?” I asked. My hunger had subsided. It’s funny how fear can cancel hunger away.
“You tell ’im, Al,” Pearl said. She had tucked the Colt in a holster and let me see it in a big way.
“He ain’t ready for it yet,” Al rejoined, sounding annoyed. “Arch is going to have his sound out, Pearl. It comes over him, like the remainders of a feast he once had. Words are all he’s got now.”
“Least I can do nowadays to get a few laughs.” Arch chuckled. Another swig. He looked at me in the mirror. In his spongy brain, he must have recollected something.
“No one is laughing at you Arch,” Pearl said soothingly. “Go to it.”
“Ok. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its skill. No one can blame me for trying. No one can blame me and…they still forgot Jerusalem and its white walls which shone like silver in the noonday sun. And its streets shaded by palms. Old men praying as the sun went down. Its women of wondrous beauty standing in doorways where jugs of cool water tempered the heat. On the hill they call Mount of Olives, when the heat of the day has fallen, you can see the Spirit rise like peacock plumes, and there are always stars in the heavens, unseen, unsullied by corrupted eyes. The wolves and the lions howl, I heard them as I blotted out the shouts of the populace. Hang ’im high. Hang ’im high and dry. I chuckled. From dust to dust. I was going to find out if it was true. If I forget you, O Jerusalem… They brought me ’fore the cops, the lawyers, the courts, and their total bullshit. A good prosecutor can convict a ham sandwich. If I forget you, O Jerusalem… And I prayed. Can’t blame me for trying, Father. I knew that it was all going to bomb, but the last demon to escape from the box was Hope. But what was I gonna tell them, Father? When I conquered the evil desert dust? What was I gonna tell them? That there’s a path in the desert, leading from Nazareth to Jerusalem?”
Arch’s head dropped on the counter. Pearl and Al looked at each other in the mirror.
“I guess every drunk comes up against his limit,” Pearl said sadly.
I got up to go. There must be other bars to hold up. All I wanted was out, but Al had other ideas.
“One minute, son. I’m not finished with you.” He shuffled back to me. To avoid looking at him, I stared at the mirror, but I heard the whistle in his voice. “Now suppose you tell me about Mary Jane and why you were running from her because, as the Lord is my witness, you were running.”
“Why should I tell you anything? Who are you to me?”
“I’m afraid, son, you got no choice.” Al said and flicked his head in the direction of Pearl. “Son, you see that Coke glass on the shelf. I’d say it’s about 15 to 20 feet from where we are sitting. Show ’im Pearl.”
I looked, and in a matter of seconds, the glass was blown to shards.
“Now, son, you’ve got some talking to do, and it’s in your interest ’cause I can help you understand, that is, if you want to listen and if your brain is nimble.”
He touched my arm; I felt the cold. I couldn’t look straight at him, so I looked at the mirror where his image appeared half hidden by the crumpled heap of Arch moving and moaning. Pearl was still there, with a smile that just was about to explode into a cackle. I took a deep breath and said, “OK, this is it. I am running for my life. I am running because I live with a rattlesnake. I am not making this up…”
“Now, hold on, son. Mary Jane’s a good woman. Remember you showed up at her place wanting yard work and she took you on. A hired man, probably with a record. Then she married you. You were chosen. Remember?”
I nodded. Al knew all about me. There was a lilting treachery in his voice. I was scared, so sacred that all I could hear was my heart pounding away; but I was aware that Arch at the bar shook himself out of his stupor and was moving away, out the back door.
“Shall we let him go?” Pearl yelled across the room, but Al ignored her. He was too busy giving me the eye to eye.
“Go on, son. Like I said, you were chosen.” He hissed.
“She’s doing this to me; she’s done this to others. She’s got a woodshed way behind the house, almost in the woods. She told me never to enter. Well, today I went in and got the shock of my life. I saw the snake show. Skulls stacked up on four shelves, with wormy critters writhing inside and out of the eye sockets, the mouths with their teeth still, the holes where the ears were…”
Al touched me with his cold hand, “Time to let you in on a few things, son. You don’t know very much about Mary Jane, do you? Let’s say you got married because you thought she would take care of you. Like the others. Yes, that’s right. Those 11 others were all her husbands. And you are the twelfth. Don’t ask me how I know, I just know. Well, I’m gonna give you a little insight. Remember I said Pearl, Mary Jane, Arch, and I were all working in the circus? Now, how I read into other men’s thoughts is something that you will understand after you hear me out. See here, son. When you think of a circus, what sort of acts do you think of?”
“I don’t know.” I was growing weary.
“It’s on the tip of your tongue, son. The snake act. Billed as Maria Jehanna Snake Goddess of Thebes—you know that city in ancient Egypt? They worshipped serpents as gods, divine creatures of knowledge. Powerful magicians, those ancients, reduced to circus performers. Can change men into snakes.”
I bolted up. “And you, what were you? Pearl the Gun Lady, Arch the Ringmaster, and Mary Jane the Snake Act. What was your act in the circus? Lion tamer?”
Al laughed. “No! No! You’re not thinking far or fast enough. You’re thinking like an ordinary man. Now there, I just gave it all away.”
“Like you’re all from another planet, and…?”
“Not far nor fast enough. What you saw in Mary Jane’s outhouse were the others. The happy few which you may or may not join. I’ll let you go now, but where you go depends on you, son. Free will. Satan’s gift to Adam, dolled up as intelligence. Well, son, you got two choices. Follow your free will, which will lead you to that ATM two miles south, stuck between the shoe store and the electronic goods outlet right before the 7-Eleven. I don’t advise it, son. The Pinkerton people have already stopped there, and there are cameras. Or back to Mary Jane’s. Like I said, it’s up to you.”
With some difficulty, he got up from his chair, as I got up from mine, but first I asked, “What’s in it for you? What has she turned you into?”
We walked to the door together, and the only footfall I heard was my own. I dared not look at him, but heard his windy voice, “Do you have eyes and fail to see? Son, I’m afraid you will have to do a lot of deep thinking for yourself. I dropped a hint, but it looks like I’ll have to repeat myself. Mary Jane has the power to turn men into snakes and—”
I turned away, didn’t want to hear him out because I knew the answer. The flat face, the hiss, the horror. I got to the car, trembling. Got into the driver’s seat and turned the key. Nearly jumped out of my skin because I wasn’t alone. Arch had sneaked in; he was in the passenger’s seat, and he didn’t appear drunk. In a calm voice he said to me, “I needed a ride. And, son, you need me.”
As a writer, historian, and pedagogue, Diana travels and lives between Europe and the US. She has written three books—one novel and two non-fictions—on culture in Occupied France. Recent interests concern Christian themes for short stories. Please visit villaairbel1940.fr for more information.