“Is this seat taken?”
The question came from a scruffy curly-haired young man pointing at the bus aisle seat next to her. He had just boarded from a quick stop on the highway just west of Abilene. He was about ten years younger than she, probably a college student. He had a pleasant angular face, full, with a ragged mustache over thick lips.
“No,” she said, glancing up at him before looking back out the window of the travel bus. She wanted to be aloof, congenial but aloof. He sat down and tried unsuccessfully to put his knapsack under the seat. He was wearing jeans and a ragged football jersey over a broad muscular build. He looked to be about a junior in college.
“Where you headed?” he asked, manipulating the knapsack to make it flatter. The bus roared twice and jostled them as it moved out into traffic.
“Phoenix,” she replied disinterestedly. She could smell him. He had been perspiring in the heat while waiting for the bus. It wasn’t an unpleasant odor, but it was there. What bothered her was that it meant he could probably smell her. She had been on the bus for three days. She was sweaty and probably smelled bad. Taking the bus instead of a plane saved her money but it meant she slept in the seat. Her dress was bunched up, her hair was matted, and her muscles felt cramped since she had only this small space except for meal stops.
“Where you from,” he asked, still trying to put his knapsack under the seat.
“New Jersey,” she spoke vaguely and stayed leaning against the window so the air conditioning blew against her face. She didn’t really want a conversation.
“What takes you to Phoenix,” he asked, giving up on the knapsack and holding it in his lap.
“A job. What about you?”
“I’m going back to school in Los Angeles.”
“You live here in Texas?” she asked, conceding to his attention, but she kept looking out the window at the flat brown countryside speckled by occasional dark green splotches of vegetation.
“No, I just came out here for the rattlesnake roundup.”
She turned to look at him.
“The rattlesnake roundup?”
“It’s more of a festival but they do catch lots of rattlesnakes.”
She stuck out her tongue and shuddered.
“Why would anyone want to catch rattlesnakes?”
“I don’t really know, but they do eat them.”
“Oh, gross,” she slumped back in her seat, “yuck.”
“It’s not so bad. I tried it. They cook it there as part of the festival. It’s funny though, I couldn’t help thinking the snake was going to rematerialize on my fork and bite me as I ate it.”
“Forget snakes. Where do you go to school?” She wanted to change the topic because snakes made her skin crawl.
“I’m a biology student at Fullerton. It’s a state college some people call UC Disneyland because it’s nearby,” he said as he leaned back and reclined his seat, “I went to the rattlesnake roundup as part of my term project. I was collecting data on snakes and the roundup gathered up a lot of snakes. I was busy because the snakes live in nests so each catch brought in four or five snakes. It’s all on the computer here in my pack.”
Snakes again! Why did things always seem to come in threes. First, her new job was at an archeological site called “Snaketown” in Phoenix. She had been assured there were not actually snakes there, it was just the name of the ancient Indian village being excavated. Her job would be to classify and code the archeological materials for computer analysis.
Second, she had started reading a romantic novel on the bus about a heroine in Malaysia during the communist insurrection. The plot had the communists mail her husband a package that contained a poisonous snake. She had set aside the novel at the point where the heroine was unwittingly opening the package.
Now, the person sitting next to her on the bus brings up the subject of snakes. Why snakes all of a sudden? It was fate taunting her. She didn’t like snakes, she was afraid of snakes, she didn’t like to read about snakes, and she didn’t like to talk about snakes. Fortunately the college student seemed finished with the conversation and leaned back in his seat with his eyes closed.
The bus traveled down the highway into a rural area with little to see out the window. She tried to see what made west Texas distinctive but it seemed there was little but oil wells and dirt. She took the bus partly because she would be able to see different parts of the country, but dirt was pretty much dirt everywhere.
She finally picked up the book again. Turning the pages to find her place she was jostled by the bus and looked outside to see they were pulling off the highway into a lone single story white building attached to a gas station. The neon sign said it was a diner.
“We stopping already?” asked the college student leaning over to look out the window.
“Must be,” she replied as the bus wheezed to a stop in front of the diner.
“Fifteen minute rest stop,” announced the driver. Passengers began standing and moving forward. The driver stepped off the bus and went into the diner. The bus remained running, keeping the air conditioning going.
She decided to go outside and stretch, walk around, catch some air. The college student remained seated.
“You getting off?” she asked.
“Naw, I just got on.”
“Well, I’m going to take a little walk,” she said standing. The student stood in the aisle so she could leave and replied:
“Don’t wake me up when you get back.” He grinned as he settled into his seat.
She got off the bus in front of the old white wooden diner and looked inside. The exterior weathered wood had been repainted white and drips of paint wandered from the molding to the glass of the windows. Overhead fans inside reflected its age. A loud whining window air conditioner buzzed over the door.
She walked alongside the bus instead of going inside. Hot air wafted along her ankles and legs from the hot ground. The gravel found its way under her toes in her open sandals. The smell of hot asphalt mixed with the dry dust in the air.
The radical change from the air conditioned bus to the dry heat was jarring. There was even a sensation of pressure on her skin from the sun. The diner and attached gas station were lone structures in the flat brown countryside. The phfft phfft phfft sound of passing cars on the highway amid the drone of the bus accented the stark surroundings.
The gas station had old rounded pumps instead of more modern tabular pumps, but it hardly mattered since there was a sign attached that said “No Gas.” She walked past the end of the bus to the service bay which was empty except for a massive old car inside sitting on flat tires with broken windows and doors askew. The hood was half raised and the engine was rusted, but it was an unusual car she had never seen before.
She walked around to the side of the gas station where debris clustered along the side. One of the clumps was an antique white bathtub on griffin legs. It would have gone for over a hundred dollars in New Jersey, as is. She walked over to the bathtub, about halfway down the outside of the service bay. As she came close to it a puff of sand exploded near her feet, startling her.
The “sand” that went skittering behind the bathtub was a squat four inch lizard that eyed her warily. She recognized it from nature films as a “horned toad” and knew it was harmless. She started breathing again.
The debris alongside the building was an antique showcase of rust and sand encrusted metal. A hand water pump leaned against the building next to a flaring fender of some vintage touring car. Just the fender. Further down an old ice box lay on its side with its door sprawled open. There were old rusted window screens, license plates, coffee cans with paint brushes stuck in dried paint. A dead dried out cat carcass, a rusted mechanical contrivance of unknown function, a toilet seat with broken hinges next to a broken toilet lying on its side, old rags, old tires, became apparent as she walked alongside the building to the back.
At the back of the gas station she could see a small shed behind and away from the building. It was larger than a mere privy. The roof was ragged with loose shingles and it appeared the dry coarse wooden structure had never been painted. She walked over to get a closer look and saw the door was ajar. The interior was dim but illuminated in places by holes in the roof.
Inside she could see an old elaborate cabinet with a large broken mirror along the wall across from the door. She realized this was an old bathhouse, maybe even a steam room, and was quite elegant. She pushed open the door to step inside. The old hinges squawked and squealed loudly. The highway and bus noise on the other side of the diner were barely audible so the hinge sound pierced the near silence.
She stepped inside and strode to the middle of the room. A canted chandelier hung from above with pieces of glass that sent prisms of light sprawling around the room from sunbeams shining through the holes in the roof onto the trembling glass churned by a breeze coming through the same holes. The floor had rotted through in places and debris clogged the corners of the room.
A sonorous droning buzz started up in the dusty air. In the dim light it was difficult to locate at first, but she soon saw the coiling snake next to door she had just entered. An uncontrolled scream released from her lungs. She had to have walked right by the snake when she entered. Now it seemed to be after her, lunging forward at her, then stopping, drawing back, and continuing to coil about three feet away from her ankles.
The neck of the snake was cocked back, swaying sideways, bobbing two or three inches above the floor between her and the doorway. The body of the snake was in continual motion gliding behind the straining poised head. It was large and she was in striking range. Her body started vibrating, her perspiration turned cold, her stomach contorted, she felt faint, she couldn’t move.
She was afraid to move but the body of the snake was drawing into a coil, gathering itself as if preparing to strike at her. She was afraid NOT to move. She eased one foot after the other backward as her breath came in ragged groans. The snake drew back and its coils tightened. Her legs moved uncontrollably to jump backward. It happened in only a couple of seconds but it lasted in her mind a frighteningly long time until she bumped against the ornate cabinet against the wall behind her.
The bump caused shards of glass in the mirror to fall onto the cabinet counter. The noise caused her to turn slightly to brace herself against the counter and she saw a tarantula only inches from where her hand rested on the gritty dust. With a desperate bawl from her throat she began to pull away from the furry arachnid only to pull herself upright and look again at the snake bobbing attentively now about four or five feet away.
She suddenly felt totally alone and she realized even if she screamed the noise of the highway would drown out any chance of her fellow passengers hearing her. The snake had backed up against the doorway threshold, she had backed up against the cabinet, with four or five feet of floor between its flicking tongue and her ankles.
She was shaking all over; her knees kept buckling, and her mouth was continuously moaning and chattering. She couldn’t help it. She thought of her mother, inexplicably. Her mother had died a few years ago from a bee sting. A snake bite had to be worse, and they were miles away from a hospital. The snake had lowered its head almost to the ground and seemed to be leaning forward as if considering slithering over to her.
She thought of pulling herself up onto the cabinet counter so her legs were no longer vulnerable, but she realized she couldn’t just stay in there. She thought of the bus. It would be leaving. How long had they been there? Somebody would miss her surely, but then her seatmate was probably asleep.
The bus driver didn’t count passengers, he wouldn’t know she was missing. Even if they noticed her missing, they were unlikely to look for her here. Someone would say they saw her walking along the highway and maybe she got a ride. The driver would be more worried about his schedule and just report her missing at his next stop.
Meanwhile she would be in this god-forsaken shed waiting for a poisonous snake to kill her. She had to scream for help, surely someone would hear her. She screamed as loud as she could for as long as she could. The snake just shifted and bobbed toward her. She screamed louder involuntarily. Her lungs shook, her voice cracked, she screamed hoarse, she thought she was going to vomit. When she stopped the buzz of the snake’s tail rose in loudness.
Her wobbly legs kept her bouncing slightly. Her hair was in strands over her face. She was covered with cold sweat. She felt hollow. Her innards had turned to liquid.
It dawned on her that the shed would muffle her screams, the noise of the bus would drown out the rest. They wouldn’t hear her. She had to get out of the shed on her own, and soon, before the bus left. She looked at the mirror on the cabinet and saw a loose molding. She grasped the molding and pulled. It broke off seven or eight inches long in her hand.
It wasn’t long enough to prod the snake, but maybe if she threw it the snake would move away from the doorway. She pulled her arm back, the molding was light, it wouldn’t really hurt the snake but it might scare him off. Carefully, shudderingly, she shifted her weight and prepared to throw. She wasn’t breathing.
She threw as hard as she could, almost stumbling forward. She released her breath in a high pitched half groan, half sob. The molding struck the door to the left and slightly above the snake, bouncing off and striking the coils of the snake on the way out the doorway. The startled snake skittered away from the doorway into the room, closer to her, buzzing viciously, its coils reassembling with the snake’s head reared back on its S-shaped neck.
If it bit her she would almost certainly die. Her heart was racing and the blood would circulate the poison immediately. The snake would bite her two or three times before she could get out the doorway and run to the bus, the running ensuring the poison would get to her heart. But she couldn’t just stay here. She looked around.
She had to get by the snake. She had to. She couldn’t miss the bus and be stranded here. She couldn’t just stay and hope the snake went away. She remembered reading once that not all snake bites are fatal. Maybe if she jumped over the snake out the doorway she could get away, maybe with only one bite and the bus could take her to a hospital.
The bus horn honked. The driver always honked when he was ready to leave. She had to get by that snake. She wondered how high it could bite. Maybe she could push off the cabinet, one or two steps and then jump over the snake, completely out the doorway. She trembled against the cabinet. She had to do something. The snake just watched her, lowering its head slightly.
Her legs refused to steady. She couldn’t run at the snake. She couldn’t jump. She would run right into it, maybe fall and the snake would bite her in the abdomen. She screamed again as loud as she could, then there was quiet except for the buzzing of the snake against the doorway.
She thought of her mother again. As a little girl she was afraid of dogs. She would scream to her mother to protect her even from little puppies. Her mother always looked at her disapproving. Her mother seemed to be there now, disapproving. But this wasn’t a puppy. Still, there was no choice, she had to run and jump.
She tried her legs and they felt firmer. If she jumped and pulled her knees up high she could sail over the snake out the doorway and be safe. Her resolve stiffened. She had to do it. There was no choice. She had to. She inched her trembling left foot forward. The snake shifted slightly, its forked tongue repeatedly flickering from its mouth.
The bus would be leaving soon. She put her right foot against the cabinet and leaned back against it to push off. She needed to bend her knees. She wouldn’t be able to do it. She bent slightly and slid into a crouch. Her knees held and for a moment her resolve was there and she acted, pushing off with her hands and right foot.
She saw it all happening in slow motion. She stepped toward the snake and saw it flex, tightening. She jumped as hard as she could, screaming at her legs to come up higher against her. She saw the snake arch and angle its head upward. She could only draw her legs tightly against her body as she moved through the air directly above the coiled fanged reptile.
She had jumped as hard as she could, as far as she could, but she was only a foot or two above the ground. The snake’s coils erupted as its head lunged at her. But she had sailed past the snake and it stumbled trying to follow her, losing its balance and falling over the door sill into the sand outside.
She never stopped watching the slithering form as her foot landed in the sand only a couple feet away from the snake. She pivoted in mid-air so her other foot struck the sand further away with her facing the snake as it fell over the door sill. Her momentum pulled her off balance and she started to fall. She whimpered but her eyes never left the squirming snake as it slid out full length next to the shed.
In that momentary interval of suspended time, falling, reaching out with her hand, she saw the snake turn. The incredibly fast reptile slid around and darted under the bath house. As her hand stuck the hot sand and stabilized her, she staggered to her feet watching the danger disappear.
She suddenly realized, remembering the snake coiled against the door, that the snake too had been frightened, feeling itself trapped. Her desperate leap must have seemed to the snake as if she was going to stomp on it instead of leap over it. In mutual terror, each had frightened the other. A situation neither one had understood nearly became a dance of death.
She stood momentarily in the heat, catching her breath, staring at the place the snake had disappeared. She brushed the hair from her face, dusted off her dress, and then stepped toward the bus trying to be as calm as possible. Three people were still getting on the bus as she rounded the corner of the building. She ran to join them.
The driver gave her a look as she boarded and headed down the aisle to her seat. Her seat mate was still sitting with his eyes closed. The bus engine revved and the door closed. She nudged the college student who jumped up to let her into her seat.
“Hey! I said don’t wake me up when you got back,” he laughed with a big grin.
She laughed and sat against the window. The air conditioning felt comforting against her face. The college student returned to his seat and the bus began moving.
“Enjoy your walk?” he asked her.
“Hmmph,” she cleared her throat, after screaming herself hoarse earlier she tried to sound normal, “Exciting, you should have been there.”
“Sorry I missed it,” he laughed, leaning back into his seat.
As the bus moved toward the highway she saw the shed behind the diner sitting quietly, the door still wide open. She picked up her paperback again and turned the pages to where she left off. She wanted to see how the heroine fared with the snake.