Medusa of the Midway Diner

"Medusa" by Caravaggio. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Medusa” by Caravaggio. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The neon sign came to life twitching and buzzing, birthing the image of the giant jellyfish. Its pink and white tentacles rose and fell in a stiffly staccato motion. The head of the jellyfish wore an improbable smile, and an even more improbable baseball cap. The sign had been an attraction for tourist photographers for more than twenty years. Other than being located within driving distance to the beach, the Midway Diner had nothing to do with jellyfish, or any fish, for that matter; except, perhaps, serving fried fish for Friday’s blue-plate special. So the diner’s mascot, the giant neon jellyfish the locals called Olly (after the owner and fry-cook), became an attraction in itself, and travelers often ended up eating at the Midway. Needing no other form of advertising, the diner did alright. Of course, having statue garden roadside-attraction on the other side of the parking lot didn’t hurt, either.

Families on vacation, truckers, solitary traveling businessmen, hipsters on road-trips, as well as hungry locals, all landed in the Midway at one time or another. As far as diner food went, the menu listed the standard, predictable fare, but what came out of the kitchen was wonderful. And the service was stellar, especially if you were lucky enough to have ‘lissa as your waitress.

That’s no typo; she spelled her name apostrophe little l-i-s-s-a. Maybe it was short for Melissa, maybe it was a fanciful spelling of Lisa, maybe it was entirely made up when she was a teen searching for an identity. It was unique to her, and that’s what she wanted. She never became annoyed when folks asked her about the spelling; in fact, she liked the attention it brought her. The world, she said, is full of too many people sharing the same names. Where’s the individuality? We might as well all be named John and Jane.

* * *

“It’s not an octopus or squid,” ‘lissa was saying as she delivered her table’s plates,”though most tourists think it’s one or the other. It’s actually a jellyfish.”

The family at the table smiled and nodded and dug into their meals. They didn’t care, one way or the other, what the neon creature was; they only wanted a photo and a filling lunch.

“Olly—that’s what we locals call him—was created by the renowned Mexico City neon artist, Reynaldo. The Reynaldo. You’ve probably read about him online, or maybe saw that documentary on him that aired on PBS a few years back. A Life in Lurid Light. No? Hmm. You should look him up, he’s an awesome talent.”

The family nodded and smiled, and continued to chew.

“Reynaldo was passing thorough on vacation,” ‘lissa explained,”and stopped in for lunch. I, myself, was his waitress. And let me tell you, he’s one good-lookin’ fella! He was so taken by our food and, uh, ‘ambiance’ as he put it, that he insisted on creating a sign for us. He donated it! Imagine having a world class piece of art for your sign, and you didn’t have to pay a penny for it! We were so thankful, so the boss said he could eat here for free, for the rest of his natural life! Least he could do.”

The family smiled and nodded, and one child said, through a mouthful of french fries: “I’d love that! Maybe I’ll be an artist when I grow up! Free food!”

His older sister elbowed him as she giggled through her bite of cheeseburger. The parents just shook their heads at their silly kids. No one stopped eating.

“Well, remember, my name’s ‘lissa,” their waitress said, pointing to her red and white plastic name tag. “If you need anything else, raise your hand and give a wave. I’ll be over in a flash.” Then ‘lissa turned on her heel and bounced back to the counter.

* * *

The last customer of the night rolled in a little before 10:00. He sat down at the counter, stretching his long arms and grunting to catch ‘lissa attention. It worked; she looked up from her crossword puzzle and scurried over to him.

“Welcome to the Midway Diner! Can I get you a drink while you look over our menu?”

“Yeah, sure, an ice tea would be nice, darlin'” the customer replied, flashing ‘lissa a smile full of chalk-white teeth.

“Okey dokey, sugar, I’ll be right back with that,” she said before turning away.

The volley of flirtation between the two continued through the stranger’s meal. He seemed to want conversation, and ‘lissa, as always, wanted the attention.

Finished with his chicken fried steak and collard greens, the stranger pushed his clean plate away and motioned for ‘lissa to come over once more. She practically skipped to him.

“So, cutie, what’s the deal with the giant neon jellyfish outside?” the stranger asked. “I could see the thing blinking in the distance for miles before I got here. It’s like it called to me.”

This was the perfect opening for ‘lissa to her perform well-practiced spiel. The stranger listened, and nodded, and asked all the right questions to keep her talking.

“So you all call it Olly, though really it should be called Medusa,” the stranger pointed out.

“Medusa?” ‘lissa replied, perplexed. “Like that gal from mythology who had a scalp full of snakes instead of hair? Who’d turn men to stone if they looked at her wrong? Not very family-friendly, is it? Olly is a much nicer name for a restaurant mascot. Besides, it’s wearing a hat and a smile!”

“True,” he countered, “but jellyfish are called Medusa because their tendrils resemble long strands of hair, hair that waves gracefully in the water, slowly dancing with the ebbs and flows of the current.”

“Well aren’t you the poet!” ‘lissa laughed, her eyes twinkling. “Making such a dangerous creature out to be a little thing of beauty. Sure, it’s a pretty sight alright, but you don’t want to touch them. Ever. They’ll sting the living daylights out of you!”

“Granted,” her customer continued,”but what woman wouldn’t love to have that super power?”

“What power? Stinging hair?” ‘lissa giggled.

“No, no, no, no,” the stranger laughed. “Turning men who harass you into stone.”

“Well, that seems kinda harsh, if you ask me.” ‘lissa replied uncomfortably. “I mean, if somebody’s hassling me real bad, I just tell my boss. Or threaten to call the cops.”

“But what if there’s no time, or you’re all by yourself?”

Now ‘lissa got spooked by the turn the conversation took. Without a word, she pulled out her pad and tore off his bill, sliding it across the counter to the stranger.

“You know,” the stranger said as she began to walk away, “a goddess gave her snakes for hair not to make her a monster, but to protect her.”

‘lissa stopped, and turned around.

“How so?” she asked, interested. She kept her distance.

“Well, the story goes, Medusa was so beautiful she attracted the unwanted attention, if you catch my drift, of Poseidon. In today’s legal terms, we’d say he sexually assaulted her. So the goddess Athena, who felt sorry for her, gave her snake hair, and the ability to change men into stone. To protect her from further harm.” The stranger drank the last of his tea, and rattled the remaining ice cubes.

“She was in no way a monster,” he continued.”She was actually very sad and lonely. But as often happens with people who are outcasts, they become shadowy figures to be feared. She hid away from human society. And then some macho men decided to make their reputations by taking her down. Many failed, but one did, eventually. Or so I’ve read.”

‘lissa didn’t know what say. What an odd story he shared with her. She relaxed, but was now suspicious of her customer. What was he getting at?

“You know,” he said softly,”you’re much too pretty to be working in a small-time diner.”

‘lissa blushed and pushed a stray tendril of brown hair back under the green silk scarf she wore at work. It came loose again and fell back into her face when she leaned over to gather the dirty dishes.

He reached over to touch her left hand. “And no wedding ring? Hard to believe no one’s snatched you up.”

She changed the subject. “So how do you know so much about Medusa? You a professor, or something?”

He tilted his head cute like a puppy. “No, I’m in nautical sales. Just interested in old stories, that’s all.”

“Bet you’re a real mover and shaker.”

“Oh, yeah,” he laughed, “I make tsunamis and all manner of ocean storms. Gotta punish those who would defile the seas.”

“Uh huh,” ‘lissa answered distractedly as she wiped the counter top.

“Why don’t you meet me outside when you get off work,” the stranger proposed. “We can drive down to the beach, go for a moon light stroll—”

“—get swallowed by a giant wave, dragged out to sea, and disappear.” she interrupted.

“My, you are a feisty one,” he laughed.

“And you’re not fooling anybody, Mr. Traveling-Salesman-But-Not-Really. I’m getting awfully tired of this game. How did you find me?”

He sighed, and his breath smelled of decaying fish in polluted water. “Your great neon sign, Mister Olly. A beacon in the night. Flashing with a heart-beat rhythm, telling me across the miles, ‘here she is, here she is, here she is.’ ”

She’s been here more than 10 years. You just now find me, or just now started looking?” ‘lissa undid the scarf around her head, and shook loose her wavy hair. Under the fluorescent light of the diner, it seemed to undulate ever so slightly. In that moment, she went from pretty to stunning.

The stranger cracked his knuckles and laughed. “We don’t have to fight. You could come along quietly—”

“—and get knocked up? Have you bail when I’m about to pop? No thanks.” As ‘lissa became more agitated, her hair clumped into dreadlocks and began to squirm. Tiny sparks flashed on the ends coalescing into tiny eyes. Needle fangs sprouted in tiny mouths.

“I think you need to go while you can still move,” ‘lissa quietly threatened.

“You can’t harden a god.”

“You’re not a god,” ‘lissa whispered though a tight smile. “You’re a wannabe hero. Poseidon is a god, and he lost interest in me a long time ago, thank you Athena. There’s a reason why she’s the goddess of wisdom. Shame on you, impersonating your betters. Shame on you, thinking I’m stupid just because you’ve read Ovid and assume that I haven’t. Shame on you for attempting to lure me to my doom, like I’m some easy slattern.” Her eyes sparked like a roman candle, set alight by self-righteous fury.

And that was that. The stranger froze in mid-stoop as he rose from the counter stool, his hand reaching inside his jacket. Was he reaching for his wallet, a cell phone, a weapon, or—most likely, a mirror?  ‘lissa didn’t know or care.

She leaned close to the statue’s surprised face. “Ovid got the story right, for the most part. Except for that bit about Perseus, that “hero” who took me down. I gave that poet permission to use his license. A mirror employed in ending me? Clever, though an easy out. Ovid and I both benefited, didn’t we? He’s still read two thousand years later, and I’m still walking the Earth. Which is more than I can say for you, at this point.”  She shoved her wiggling hair back up under her scarf, and called out to Olly.

“Hey, boss, we got another one for your statue garden.”

[Hillary Lyon is editor for the small press poetry journals The Laughing Dog, and Veil: Journal of Darker Musings. She holds an MA in Literature from SMU. Her work has appeared recently in Shot Glass JournalFrom the Depths, and Shadow Train. She lives in Southern Arizona.]

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