It was a little after sunset
and Mars found himself, he didn't know how many days after the Pendergast blast,
sharing a space under a bridge next to a stream with two other men. It could
have been the psychosis brought on by the accumulation of the incredible bad
luck Mars had been experiencing or it could have been the after effects of the
beating that Floyd Pendergast gave him back at the garage before it blew up.
In either case, he had wandered away from the blast crater in a daze and had
been walking aimlessly for a couple of days. It was all a blank space to Mars.
He didn't realize that the men sitting at the campfire a few yards away had
found him and brought him here, concerned for his welfare, and had cared for
him for several days now. Mars was sitting with his back against the bridge
abutment with a blanket wrapped around him. He thought he had been sleeping
and had just woken up but he really hadn't slept since he walked away from the
crater. He'd been sitting in this spot, rocking back and forth, staring into
space since the two men brought him here. He rose to his feet and walked slowly
and unsteadily toward the two men sitting by the fire a short distance away.
One of them rose to his feet in mock horror and pointed. "Run for your
life, Karl! The zombie walks! Look, he comes for us!" The two men laughed
at the pathetic vision that approached them. It was a good natured laugh though
and not meant to mock. After all, it could have been them. Mars tried to grin
but his split lip stopped him short. "Here, let me help you." Said
one of the men as he helped Mars walk closer to the fire. The second man cleared
a place for Mars to sit. "Want some soup?" asked the second man, offering
Mars a steaming cup of vegetable soup. Mars silently thanked him. The first
man sat down next to Mars and said, "Welcome back to the living.",
And then with concern in his voice, "Do you know where you are?" Mars
shook his head, no and then took a sip of soup. It too hurt his lip but he was
hungrier than the pain.
"Man, you looked shell-shocked or something when we found you wandering down the road the other day. Do you know who you are?" The second man added. Mars looked at him with a puzzled expression. He knew his name but couldn't remember anything that happened after the blast at Pendergast's Guns & Gas. Mars cleared his throat and automatically began telling the long and barely believable story starting at the Camelot Apartments and ending at the Pendergast Crater. He told the story in a semi trance-like state between sips on his cup of soup, hesitating and stopping himself each time from saying the name of the woman in his story.
"We've been on the road a long time and we've heard some hard luck stories but this one beats 'em all.", Laughed the first man. Then, extending his hand, "My name's John and this is my associate Karl. And you're. . . ?"
"Uh . . Mars." He answered.
"Why," John asked cautiously, "did you carefully avoid mentioning the name of the woman in your story? Is it because you can't remember, or . . .?"
"Because," Mars replied, "something bad will happen. Just like I told you. She's a jinx.I swear it's all true. If I so much as think of her name something will happen."
"I suppose it's only fair that we share our story with you, now that you've shared yours with us." Spoke Karl. "John and I have known each other for years. We were professors at the University of Maryland for twenty years."
"Ours is not a hard luck story, my friend." John interjected, "We're here by choice. We only wish to spend the rest of our days perusing our intellectual interests."
"Yes, that's true." Karl agreed, "We became so fed up with that farce that is our education system that we just finally said, 'enough' and just bailed out altogether."
"We had always gone on camping trips together, so going on the road was no problem. Neither of us has any family.", Added John.
"After all, what more does one need than food and a place to sleep out of the elements?" Karl laughed, "We have this beautiful country all to ourselves. We can go where we want to go and take as long as we want to get there."
"And in the meantime," John offered, "We have all the time in the world to contemplate our fields of study. Libraries abound. Every town has one. The rest of the time we can write or just contemplate the marvel of nature."
"Karl, I think we're moving a little too fast for our friend here. He is still recovering from a traumatic experience - in this case quite literally, shell-shocked, as you pointed out." John said as he filled Mar's cup once again with hot soup. "At least we've established that you're not a deranged individual, or criminal. You're just having an extreme run of bad luck. What you need is a rest and some time to reconcile the turn your life has taken."
"Take all the time you need," Karl offered, and motioning with his open arms, "Our house is your house. Be our guest. And when you're ready to talk we'll be here. But, first we have to get you cleaned up and treat those wounds."
Mar's face still hurt from the beating. He had two black eyes and his nose was swollen. His lip was cracked and he had an abrasion on the left side of his forehead. On top of that, he was very dirty and his clothes were worse. There were unknown substances matted into his hair. He didn't smell very nice either. Karl and John helped him down to the stream bringing soap and towels. They took Mars to a shallow pool just out of sight of the road. The pool was shallow and still in the full sun, keeping the water relatively warm there. While Mars slowly bathed himself, Karl and John washed his clothes and engaged themselves in one of their rambling intellectual conversations.
John had degrees in Literature, Biology, History and Art. He had published several books, all still in print. He has also studied Anthropology and Psychology. Karl had degrees in Mathematics, Physics, Engineering and Astronomy. He holds several patents. He also has several books published. He is also interested in computer science and chemistry. Their conversations, full of friendly arguments and disagreements rambled far and wide. John and Karl knew enough about each others field to hold up their end of a conversation. Mostly though, they found more and more how much alike their fields of study were. These guys were brilliant. Too smart, in fact, to take part in the silly game we all call civilization. Though occasionally one of them might get a good idea that might help that civilization they could, through their connections, sell or donate their idea to that crazy world. They were what the rest of us call eccentric. Karl and John were not hobo scholars either. They had plenty of money, which they could get at any ATM machine. They simply made a choice to live out in the open, under the stars, rather primitively, a couple of gentlemen scholars on a permanent camping trip.
Mars felt good cleansing himself in the almost warm water. It was as much a symbolic gesture as it was physically cleansing. One more ritualistic attempt to put his past behind him. Ever since he met that . . . he couldn't allow himself to even think of her. He didn't want to risk it. Mars though he'd given up everything to go on the road . . . until he went on the road and lost every single one of his possessions except the clothes on his back. It wasn't just the bad luck, it was the kind of bad luck, and the way it happened. Mars didn't believe in magic and spells and voodoo. He didn't believe in telepathy and clairvoyance. He didn't subscribe to the belief of previous lives and karma. He believed that his fear that Venus was a jinx because it was a subconscious thing. He'd caught himself saying it out loud on more than one occasion. On the other hand, it was a strange coincidence that he led a normal life up until the day he met . . . you know, that woman. This was a fact. Ever since that day, it's been one weird event after another. A chain of little disasters. The scary part was the fact that all he had to do was think that woman's name, and like a magic word, disaster strikes swift and hard. To mention her name out loud is to invoke a chain reaction of unfortunate events. Mars was truly concerned because he was beginning to sustain more bodily injuries than he cared to. This did not bode well for the future. However, since he has been able to refrain from thinking of, . . . that woman, the weirdness has subsided.
John headed back to the bridge to make a place to sleep for Mars. He collected some pine boughs on the way back.
Karl wrung out Mars clothes one last time while Mars dressed himself in some clothes John had loaned him. They were much too large but they'd do until his dried. As they approached the bridge, a concrete and steel span some twenty years old, Karl stopped and examined it. Mars looked at him, then at the bridge.
"Think of it, my friend," Karl mused, "this structure that provides our shelter, this piece of engineering cost close to a million dollars to build. This is our home. Not bad, eh?"
Back at the bridge, Mars bedded down and went immediately to sleep. A long, deep sleep. Karl hung Mar's clothes up to dry. It was only mid afternoon and they'd be dry before sundown. John added some vegetables to the stewpot that had been put on the fire in the morning. It slowly simmered all day. Then he sat in the summer shade and played his flute as he watched the purple martins dart in and out of the shade of the bridge eating insects. He played to the sunlight on the swirling clear water around the rocks in the stream.
Karl set himself to scratching equations on the bridge abutment which he used as a blackboard. He was working on a problem dealing with quantum physics. On the other side of the creek there was another blackboard with astronomic calculations. The problem was, once he used up the blackboard space, he couldn't erase it. Karl solved the problem by using different colored stones with which to write. He learned to see the problem he was working on by seeing only the color he happened to be working with at that moment.
Later that evening John and Karl woke Mars to eat dinner. As he sat around the fire enjoying the conversations between John and Karl, occasionally adding a word or two himself, Mars started feeling more human. As if normality was coming back to his life. Mars found his companions fascinating.
After cleaning up after dinner. The three men sat around the campfire passing around some homemade wine Karl had bottled. John joked about Karl's calculations dancing in the firelight on the walls around them. "To any policeman, this would look like youth-gang turf markings."
"Yeah," Mars added, "roving gangs of physicists."
"How intimidating!" Karl laughed.
"A modern-day cave painting." John added.
"What about that one over there?" Mars asked pointing to some symbols inscribed on the wall across the creek. "Even I know what those mean. Those are the signs for Male and Female. What does that have to do with Physics?"
"Those symbols could represent Male and Female or Man and Woman, my friend," Karl intoned, "but that is an astronomic calculation on that wall. The symbol on the left is you. It is the symbol for Mars. The one on the right is the symbol for another planet, Venus."
Mars quickly turned his head away, wincing, as if expecting to be hit with somethin. "Please, don't ever say that name around me. Please!" Mars waited like a kid who just lit the fuse on a firecracker.
"That's it!" cried John. "Her name. The woman in the story, Karl."
"Venus?" Karl asked.
Mars got up and ran back to his sleeping pad and cowered there in the fetal position. John and Karl looked at each other puzzled. At that moment a car crossed the bridge and some lowlife tossed a cat, tied in a sack, out the window of the car. The sack bounced hard off a few bridge girders making dull gong-like sounds before taking one last wild bounce, hitting Mars square in the head as he huddled quaking in his bed. Mars moaned like a cursed man, "Now do you believe me?" he said just before he fell unconscious.
John and Karl looked at each other in disbelief. John chuckled, "Figure the odds for that one, Karl."
Venus by now had covered
a lot of country. She had been writing every day. It seemed to come easier the
more she did it. She tried to interact with other people as little as possible
but when she did, it was a pleasant experience. She wanted this trip and her
writings to be about her self-discovery. She didn't want to be influenced by
anything another person said so much as what the places she visited said to
her. She would let the geography generate the feelings and from that the writing
Venus now saw the world like one big Impressionist painting. She marveled at the colors in the sky and on the land. She saw the world in bold broad strokes. Patches of color Saturated happy colors. She never felt better in her life. The world looked to her the way she felt. She photographed unusual roadside diners and gas stations. Abandoned cars in the desert. Unusual rock formations. She recorded the ambient sounds of some of the places she visited. Recording hours at a time, the sounds that filled her environment. Dawn in a summer meadow. Sunset at the ocean. Midnight in Yellowstone. It wasn't long before she had to buy a suitcase. Not for her clothes but for her tapes, photographs and floppy disks. Sometimes at night she would transcribe the spoken word tapes to floppy disks so she could recycle some of the tapes.
Venus couldn't have been happier. Her writing wasn't always happy but she was. Her writing improved and flowed almost effortlessly. She lived simply. Her biggest expense was for gas, and food. She stayed in campgrounds or simply pulled off the road in some places. She never got tired of traveling. Never got tired of the scenery. Every day was a new adventure. Venus was so happy with her new life that she refused to even think of her past. As far as she was concerned, that was somebody else and she didn't know her.
It was only a matter of time before reality, once again, knocked on Venus door.
She sat on a large rock outcrop on the crest of a razorback ridge overlooking a deep pine filled gorge with a river cascading along the bottom far below. She basked in the sun after taking photographs. This time instead of being struck with the urge to make poetry, she thought: What am I going to do with all this stuff? Several hundred megabytes of computer files and a couple hundred cassette tapes later, Venus found herself with a body of work and no idea what to do with it. She never thought about why she chose to write. She never had aspirations to get published, never even considered it. She felt a little silly, like nobody'd ever believe, she just started writing for no reason at all; just because she had to. Nevertheless it's true. Then she thought about her feelings about other people reading her work. She wasn't embarrassed or shy about it but still, she wasn't comfortable with the idea. It was more like she thought other people wouldn't "get it". Oh well, she thought, I don't know the first thing about sending stuff to publishers. Not much chance of getting published that way. She did daydream for a while about what it would be like to get paid to do what she was doing right now. Would she write differently if she knew other people were reading it or if she was getting paid to write. She couldn't answer those questions. Maybe when the money runs out she'd think about trying to sell her writing. She figured that if she weeded out the weak stuff and kept only the best of this work, she might have enough for a book. Or something. Venus took a deep breath and stretched her muscles. She shifted her focus back to the landscape before her. For now she just wanted to enjoy life and put those thoughts out of her head.
What replaced those thoughts instead, was the only bit of her past life that she couldn't let go of; that day, . . that guy . . . Mars. You don't forget a name like that. Especially when your name is Venus. Then there's the three-story-plunge/cop-killing incident she shared with him. It was only one day of her life but one she could never forget, even if she wanted to. Venus wondered; was the reason she couldn't get Mars off her mind because of some kind of chemistry between them, or was it because of that traumatic experience and Mar's association with it? After all she might be dead if it wasn't for Mars. She didn't feel like she was in love with him. It was more like a sense of curiosity. What might have happened if she'd never met him? She might still be a mad woman lock up in an asylum by now. What ever happened to him? She'd wondered about what ever happened to other people before, of course, but it never felt like this. She tried to describe the feeling to herself. It was a mixture of feelings, but what was in there? Guilt, for all the things that happened to that guy who was, and for all intents, still is, a total stranger? Feelings of what-must-he-think-of-me? Feeling guilty about her life turning out so good after that incident, hoping that Mar's had too, but somehow having the uneasy feeling that it didn't. And what about that dream? Did it mean anything? She'd never experienced anything as intense and real in a dream before. She secretly hoped for another.
(To be continued)
Way Out West ©1993 Martin Scherer. Venus & Mars © 1995 Martin Scherer. E-mail: Scherer@tesserak.net