By Margaret Ann Porter
Jean was running away from a storm and feared that all would be lost.
The weather outside was clear and cool – her mind had conjured up the wind and lighting and thundering hail.
Two kids were safe with grandparents, her babies, a boy not yet out of diapers and his attentive sister, only four. She had sold her wedding bands and cleared out her apartment, filled the Mercury’s tank and headed toward no-idea.
Around sunset she spied a campground above the salt flats that lie north of El Paso. She stepped out of the Mercury and laid her tall, lean body on a cold picnic table.
The sky was flung with stars and, out here they hung above her in three dimensions. She recognized a few constellations, Leo and Gemini, perhaps Cassiopeia, and wondered when her soul flew into the universe whether their shapes would appear different to her? Do our souls have eyes?
The air grew thick with cold, as it does in the desert when the sun goes to the other side and there’s no blanket of clouds to warm the surface. Shivers took hold of her.
“Perhaps I’ll die from hypothermia, a sleepy death,” she whispered into the night air. Jean suddenly felt poetic, one’s death as a dignified choice, that one last perfected act.
Then the voices welled up inside of her and tiny fists beat at her heart, “Mommy! No!”
Jean thought, how is it that a mistake in a woman’s life solidifies into inescapable obligation, merely because she has birthed two humans from her womb for one horrible man?
Her hands flew up to either side of her head and she screamed, “God! Stop these hateful thoughts and give me back my life!”
Headlights swung low off the highway and they bobbed in and out of view as they made their way up the hill. Jean’s tears dried and fear descended – her murder would not be poetic, it would be written up in the newspaper.
She sat up and couldn’t decide whether to run to her car or hide perfectly still in the inky darkness.
A truck camper stopped in front of her and a voice called out, “Is everything all right here?” It was clear, concerned, and female.
Boots on gravel and the woman appeared, suddenly, right beside Jean, who shrieked and fell.
“You on drugs?” the woman asked.
Jean jumped up, “You scared the hell outta me!”
“Oh, I doubt that,” the woman said. She graveled her way back to her rig and returned with an electric lantern.
“Mind if I sit with you awhile?” she asked. “I usually stop here.”
She pulled a beer from each of her pockets and they sat down to sip.
“Name’s Marty,” she said. “That’s my home over there. It’s small, but it’s all I’ve got. Been crisscrossing this dad-gummed country for the last five years.”
Her stubby hands came up and she rubbed her face.
Marty grabbed her hand, “Nice to meet ya, pretty gal!”
Jean smiled and her green eyes sparkled something close to gratitude.
“Well, I’m glad I can make someone happy. Feller yesterday in Springerville, Arizona, weren’t too happy. Tried to get sassy with me so I showed him my pistol and he couldn’t leave fast enough. Devil, pure and simple.”
Marty’s personality filled the space around them, but she was a small woman with a compact body. Her hair was tabby grey and tiny black eyes nestled in time-puckered lids, her lips had disappeared into crevasses.
“I bet you ain’t got nothin’ warm in your car, do you,” she said.
Jean shook her head.
Steps crunched away and Marty returned with a flannel shirt and a blanket.
“Well, here you go. I want them back. Now, what are you doin’ out here all by yourself?”
“Just thinking, I guess.”
“So that means you’re runnin’ from something. Well, listen here … if you want to tell me about it, I’m all ears for the next eight hours. But I might fall asleep, so make it interesting.”
A sudden urge to confess came over Jean and over the next two hours, she hung confidences on Marty that she’d never strung together for another person, not even her mother or Aunt Betty, or her best friend Sheila when she was still alive.
“Goodness, now that there’s a story,” Marty commented. “Well, I can’t match you blow-for-blow. But, my husband was a good man yet the numb nuts never kept a job for long and so we never had nothin’ …”
Out her own story unspooled, like coarse thread weaving itself into durable cloth.
“Now I’m waitin’ for a town to call out to me and say, ‘I want you to live here, Marty,’ but it ain’t happened yet. If it don’t, then I’ll just keep wandering until this old truck gives out, and as soon as it does, I hope my heart gives out, too.”
She smiled broadly and patted Jean’s hand.
“You know, with all the crap we women put up with in life, the heartaches and damage, there’s always a lot of sweet left over when those things die. And they do because they’re more fragile than us.”
They had another beer and Jean wandered off to find a place to pee. She called out to Marty that she was tired and begged off to bed.
The next morning, the sun crept over the salt-dusted plains and it hit Jean in the eye at the very moment that the Marty tapped on her rear window.
“Mornin,’ friend!” she chortled. “I was just about to fry some eggs and wondered how many you wanted.”
Jean signaled ‘two’ and the old woman returned to the campfire. In the morning light, she watched as Marty wobbled from side to side as she moved around, confidently, coffee pot here, frying pan to the side, bread in the bacon fat and placed on the grill just so.
Funny about darkness, Jean thought, and how it hangs heavy on your head, and then the sun comes along and clears it away.
She threw on her jeans and walked to the fire, “Can I help you?”
“Oh god no, child. You’d put me off my rhythm. Sit down and drink your coffee,” Marty said, motioning to the table where a blue cup sat steaming.
Marty spoke past some egg yolk dribbling down her chin, “Well, I was gonna ply you with hopeful comments, but I have figured out that life is what you make of it, and you’re the only one who can do that for you.”
Jean nodded and changed the subject.
“How old are you?” then immediately apologized for her rudeness.
“No offense. Let’s see, I’m 84 next Thursday.”
Jean’s eyes opened wide.
Marty growled, “I hope that expression doesn’t mean ‘wow, and you’re still kicking around.’”
“Oh, no. I mean, I’m impressed that you’re in such good condition!”
Marty chuckled, “Oh, you’re a charmer.”
“Nah, I’m fucked up, seriously,” Jean sighed.
Marty stared at her for a moment.
“We all are in some way, honey.”
Jean’s eyes filled with tears, “Well, I better get on down the road. Thanks for the eggs.”
She stood to leave and Marty caught her by the wrist.
“Listen, there’s no need to kill yourself,” she said, “it’s not the right thing … those two kids you got, they gotta grow up and live out their destiny. And they’re gonna need Mama to cheer them on and wave goodbye to them when they’re ready. They ain’t ready yet.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Jean clipped, “from a pastor, a counselor, my parents, and I know it’s true. But everything I touch turns to shit. And I’m gonna stick around and do that to them?”
“Wait right here,” Marty said.
She stood up and waddled to her truck, dug around behind the seat, and returned with her pistol.
“Listen up all you devils! Whatever one of you is stuck inside Jean, get thee behind her!”
She fired the six-shooter in the air until the cylinder was emptied, hollering “Be gone!” as the retorts echoed off the cliffs. Then she reached into her pocket, refilled the chambers, fired and cried “Hallelujah!”
Jean cowered beneath the picnic table. Marty leaned down to peer at her.
“Did I scare you? Don’t like the actual sound of death, do you …”
“Please! Stop shooting!”
“In a minute,” Marty said, reloaded, and shot another six into the air, shouting, “Amen!”
She waddled back to her truck, put the gun in its case and returned to pour them more coffee.
Jean stood up, shaking.
Marty winked, “Takes three rounds of six to get the job done. How you feelin’?”
Jean checked herself and blinked a few times.
“Um, you know what? I actually … think … I feel better.”
Marty chuckled. “Works every time. Hey, now listen, I’m goin’ down around Marfa, Texas, to camp and have my birthday with some old friends. You wanna come along?”
Jean thought for a minute. Die, or a birthday party in Marfa.
She turned toward the east and a blue sky beckoned her.
All would not be lost, if she were with Marty.
And if all were to be lost, at least it would go out with a bang.