The upper voice was scolding shrilly, scornfully, telling her she had once again been an idiot. “What are you going to do? Where are going now? How did you get yourself into this mess?” To all the above, she answered back, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know”. The other voices clamored their explanations. They were drunk. They were wild. They had pressed in on her, shouting danger! Danger! Danger!
She had done what she always did. She had run. The upper voice was relentless. “Once you start running, you never stop.” That’s what they said. They always wanted her to stand up and fight, to prove she was courageous. What about them? They didn’t even try. They remained in safely locked rooms, with safe little habits and jobs. Safe little thoughts. They were running too, but in tight little circles, putting up their curtains and walls so they could believe nothing bad would ever happen to them. Yet, it was bad. The torments in the locked rooms spilled out, disturbing the peace, but they would not; they could not discover the reasons for their unhappiness. At least by running, she might one day discover herself.
The lonely stretch of road was dark except for the pale glow reflected by a moon that clung to the edges of a mountain peak. In the shimmering reflection, squiggly lines appeared that slithered and rattled into the bushes when she approached. The highway was still warm with the late summer sun soaked into its layers of tar and concrete. The snakes had come out to collect the heat in the chill evening. She walked among them, not touching them, nor did they feel a need for introductions. They squirmed away shyly and wouldn’t return until they were sure all was quiet once more. She wasn’t afraid of snakes. “Take a stick and draw a circle in the dirt around your sleeping bag when you’re camping out,” an old veteran had advised. “And the snakes won’t cross the line.” She had done so after listening to the stories of snakes that had crawled inside blankets for warmth, and not once had snakes crossed the line. If only it was that simple with people.
She couldn’t sleep out tonight. Her camping gear was at Leroy’s house. Leroy had brought her here. Leroy had said she would be happy. Leroy had stolen Melpelmani; her Melpelmani, several weeks earlier from their nice little cabin on the outskirts of Sanford. “That’s the only reason I came here, to find Melpelmani,” she shouted into the deserted evening. Nothing answered back except the rustling snakes.
Leroy had told her about the party. “That’s where you’ll find her,” he said and gave her walking directions; three miles up the mountain to a two story white and green house. Melpelmani had been both surprised and pleased to see her at first. But she was drunk and rapidly growing drunker. She had a new boyfriend. Diana didn’t like him. Anger bubbled in him like bitter wine. “Bitter wine”, he sang. “Bitter wine. I’ll take them down. All of them.”
He didn’t like Diana. “Snooty uptown traffic,” he called her. He pushed her. There had been a fight. Everyone was fighting, hating, pushing, pulling her this way or another. As she ran out the door, Melpelmani had called to her, “where will you go? It’s after midnight!” She didn’t care. She would find her way back to Leroy’s house.
There was one thing she understood about mountains; just go down in the same direction you went up. The road, so sunlit and pleasant during the day, so pale and hostile in the evening, finally emptied into the sleeping village. She found Leroy’s house easily and knocked at the door. There was no answer at first, yet peering through a window, she could see the television blurting its flickering colors across the floor, and Leroy’s head nodding in front of it. She knocked again and called him. He stirred, then stumbled up from his easy chair to answer. “What? You’re back already?” He asked with surprise. “I thought you’d be gone two or three days. Didn’t you want to visit Melpelmani?”
“It was awful,” she said, and told him about the fight. “Someone cut me.” She raised her shirt to show him a crescent wound where drops of blood still bubbled slowly.
He looked at it critically. “It’s not too bad,” he said and went back to sit in front of the television. “You’d better clean it up.”
She removed her blouse in front of the bathroom sink, letting the water run freely and scooping handfuls to dabble cautiously under her breast. He came to the door and watched her. “You won’t get anything done that way.” Taking a cloth, he scrubbed at it mercilessly while she winced. “The trouble with you,” he said, “is you don’t understand Vonnegut. Yes, Vonnegut! You don’t know about agony, deception. You think you bleed? Well, I do too.” He slapped on a bandage roughly, applying more pressure than was needed. Her lips involuntarily mumbled a sound.
“Yeah, cry little girl. That’s what girls do.”
But she didn’t cry. She followed him back out to the living room and sat down with him while he mumbled and said periodically with satisfaction, “yes! That’s where we are; in the Cat’s Cradle. You grow cold. I grow cold. All the world grows cold, until there’s no one left that’s truly alive.” He was drinking wine. When the bottle was finished, he told her to go to bed.
She went into the guest room where her camping gear laid neatly stacked and soon fell asleep. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, she felt him crawl inside the bed with her. “Tell me something about yourself,” he said.
Diana tried, through the blurry remnants of sleep, to think of something. “I know I’m not normal. I remember as a child, visiting some relatives who lived out on the West Coast; right on the ocean! I was a good swimmer, but I had never been swimming in the ocean. I thought it was wonderful I kept swimming out far beyond the others and my mother kept calling me back. I finally asked her why she did this. She answered that she worried about me so didn’t want me to go out too far. I found that odd, that she would worry about me when there are so many other people in the world. I still find it odd.”
“Don’t you worry about other people?”
“Of course I do, when there might be a problem. But I never worry about myself.”
“You are odd,” he agreed. He took her roughly, harshly; and she responded to the pain by biting at his neck and scratching his back until long, red blistered marks appeared. Afterward, he rolled over and she turned away from him.
The next morning, over coffee, she told him she wanted to go home. He only grunted. “I kind of expected as much. What about Melpelmani?” And under his breath added, “that crazy Greek bitch.”
“She’ll come home when she’s ready. I know she will.”
He drove her to the center of town where she could catch a bus to Sanford. In the unbroken silence along the way, she felt the tears welling up inside, pressing against her eyes. She swallowed and held them back. He scrutinized her face as he reached over and opened the door for her. As close as he was, he was already fading into the background of her mind as she thought about returning to her cabin. “I hope you find love some day,” he said.
She smiled as she got out. Poor lonely man, his eyes dark circled from staying up all night in front of the television, reading Vonnegut. “I hope you do, too.”