Snake

by Ben Drinen

The drainage tube ran under a little dirt road that wound down a dirt hill from Simeon’s house to the shed.  At the end of the road was a shed with three roofed car ports where Simeon’s father kept a 1973 Chevy pick-up truck, a 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and an old wooden trailer full of trash out of the sun.  In the rafters of the shed were tools and also the tailgate of the old truck, since it had a camper on it for thousand mile trips into the mountains with all five kids tucked away in sleeping bags bouncing and joking the hours away.  Past the shed was an irrigated vegetable garden where corn and peas and beans and squash grew in the 120 degree Sonora desert heat, and past the vegetable garden were the pig pens, the abandoned horse corral, and an old basketball hoop on a ten foot pole.  Past the basketball hoop was a mesquite tree, and past the mesquite tree was the desert flood plain, which ran a thousand miles to the California coast.

Out in the desert, Simeon and his brothers had a lot of forts for when they would play guns or for when they would have stone throwing fights with the Mormon kids who lived on another hill across the way.  There was a tree fort, which was just an old door screwed into the branches of a tree, five feet above the ground.  There was the wash fort, which was a little hollow created by four or five low mesquite trees with sand in between.  There was the tangle fort, which was an old tree that had been uprooted and churned down the wash in a flood, left to bake in the sun on the side of the wash.

Simeon and his brothers used to throw a lot of rocks at the Mormon kids, and the Mormon kids threw a lot of rocks back.  Sometimes the Mormon kids had firecrackers, so they would tie the firecrackers to a rock, and throw a little missile into the fort.  The littlest Mormon kid was the only one who ever got hurt.  He got hurt almost every time, because he wasn’t too good at moving out of the way.  Simeon and his brothers liked to taunt him when he would run away crying.  He would yell back that he was going to tell his mom.  Simeon once yelled “Yeah!  Tell her hello for me!” and they all laughed long and hard at that one.

In front of the shed was a big dirt field.  It was about seventy yards long and thirty yards wide, and other than a few weeds in the rainy season of late July and early August, nothing grew in the hard dirt.  Simeon and his brothers played football games in the big field, and at the end of football games they would have fistfights to determine who cheated in the football games.  They would fight until they were covered in the brown Arizona dust.  Dust up noses, dust down ears, dust and dust and dust.  The sun would beat down upon them, and the dog would bark while they fought.

The dog was a golden retriever mixed with a golden Labrador.  The dog’s name was Pancho, and he was as wild as he was tame.  Many times, Simeon would not see Pancho for weeks at a time.  On one such occasion, he asked his brother Milo where Pancho was, and Milo laughed and slapped him on the back.

“Don’t worry Sim, he’s just runnin around eatin rabbits and havin a good time with all the bitches around here.”

“Milo, what’s a bitch?”

“Sim, that’s just a girl dog, but don’t say that word around teachers, cuz they’ll give you detention or something.”

Simeon put the word in his back pocket and made sure not to say it in front of his mean old third grade teacher with the saggy bags under her eyelids and the bad wig hanging down over her left eye.  The left eye was rumored to be made of glass, and some kids told Simeon that they saw her take it out once.  He told those kids that they were full of bull, but when he sat in his desk he tried to peer up under the wig and imagined what would happen if it popped out and rolled around on the floor.  Simeon didn’t say the word in front of her.  For the most part, he tried not to say any words in front of her, because she was real damn mean.  Simeon’s father told him once “the fool is the one who is always talking, a wise man listens and speaks only when necessary.”  Simeon tried to remember that line, and so it was that he tried to shut the fuck up whenever possible.

Simeon had a small sister with freckles and a smile named Marie who used to follow him and his brothers around trying to get into the rock fights and stick fights and such.  She was a little kid, and she was good at telling lies and laughing at jokes.  She liked to sneak over to the neighbor’s house and get the old lady to teach her to ride horses, and every once in a while, she could be seen up on one of the big horses riding down the dirt road laughing her head off.

One day, Simeon and his brother Pablo were in a stick fight against Milo.  They were using the tall poles that grow from the top of a Yucca plant to fight each other.  They broke off the seed pods on top, and the remaining sticks were perfect staffs.  Marie was sitting in the dirt in front of the drainage tube drawing pictures with a twig.  The tube was about a foot wide, and an 8 year old could crawl through it in a game of hide and seek.  Milo had been in charge of installing it a few years back to keep the road from washing out when the basin would flood in the rainy season.  Marie was about four, and she liked to crawl through the tube.  Back and forth pulling herself through on her stomach.

This time she was just sitting in front of it though.  Just sitting there drawing with a twig in the dust.  It was a hot day like most days in Wickenburg, Arizona.  The blue sky was as big as big could be, and a jet stream could be seen from one horizon to another.  The sun was beating down hard, and Pablo had just broken his stick across Milo’s back.  Milo did not appreciate the blow and was in the process of putting Pablo in a headlock.

Simeon was waiting for the headlock to be applied, because he usually fought dirty, and he liked to punch Pablo in the stomach when he was all tied up in a headlock, an armlock, or best of all a full Nelson.  Pablo would scream that he was going to get Simeon back when he got free, which Simeon took to be true and got another two shots in while he could.  Simeon looked over at Marie, and behind her he saw the sun glinting on something moving.

“Hey assholes fucking look!” he yelled.

At the sound of the F-word, Milo and Pablo paused in their struggle and looked to where Simeon was pointing.  Marie looked up too.  The snake’s head was moving back and forth, and its tongue was flicking on the ground.  It came out of the tube slow, and it moved gently back and forth through the dust, like a river of muscle.  Its head was square and the diamonds on its back were gold and black, and its skin shimmered in the sun.

Simeon wondered where its mate was, since his father taught them that rattlers always travel in twos looking for mice and ground squirrels and kangaroo rats and quail eggs and roadrunners, and all of the other small delicacies that the Sonora desert offers up to those who know where to seek and where to find.  So out came the snake, all six feet long of it, and out came the seven rattles on its tail.  The river of muscle coiled up, and the rattles pointed to the sky and began their shook-shook-shook sounds.

Marie didn’t notice the snake, because she was stunned by the F-word.  She was totally still, and she was looking at Simeon.  Simeon looked back at her and said:  “Hey Marie, let’s play a game.”

“What game?”

“It’s called possum.”

“How do you play?”

“You never played it?”

“Nope.”

“Well, the way you win Possum is by not moving at all.  The way you win is by being the last one to flinch.  Get it?”

“That’s easy.”

“Of course it’s easy.”

“Does talking count?”

“As what?”

“As moving.”

“Sure it counts.”

“Then I already won, cuz you talked.”

“We didn’t start yet.”

“Oh.”

“Ready Set Go.”

They stood there stone still not talking not blinking.  Simeon tried not to sweat.  He was staring at that coiled snake and wondering if it really would strike Marie if she twitched.  Marie won the game.  She stood stone still for seven minutes, and the snake got hot and went back in the tube to get some shade.  Pablo raced to where Marie was and snatched her up on his shoulder and ran all the way up the hill screaming for their father.

He came down with a shovel, his old sweat stained cowboy hat upon his head, suspenders keeping his baggy jeans from falling down.  Milo was on one side of the tube making sure the snake didn’t get away and Simeon was on the other keeping lookout on the other end.  They were each about twenty feet away to make sure the old rattler didn’t get at them if he did come out.  Their Dad went right up to the tube, shoved the spade in and chopped the snake’s head off in one swift severe blow.  They heard the shovel clang against the metal, and their father used the shovel to drag out the head and the body too.

Simeon, Pablo, and Milo stood around the twitching snake.

“You boys stay back.  That head can still bite.  That head can still bite for another 24 hours boys.  We have to bury it under a rock.”

“Why under a rock?” Simeon asked.

“Because Pancho will dig it up if it’s not under a rock stupid,” said Pablo.

“That’s right,” their father said gravely.  “You boys be careful down here, because its mate will be looking for it.  Milo, you put the body out on the other side of the wash, so its mate will find it over there.”

“Hey, can we cut the rattles off first?” Pablo asked.

“It ain’t a damn toy,” their father said and handed Simeon the spade to put away.

The drainage tube remained a haven for tarantulas, scorpions, and crawling children, but as far as anyone knows never another diamondback rattlesnake.  Eventually a really big storm came up and washed out the whole damn road, tube and all.  Pablo found the tube out in the desert and dragged it back.  Milo dug the trench again, and they back filled the hole with dirt and rocks and then more dirt over the top.

Ben Drinen’s fiction has been published by 13E Note Editions,  The Big Stupid Review, and forthcoming in Issue 128 of Zygote in my Coffee.  He was a finalist in the 2007 First Person Arts Storyteller of the Year Competition in Philadelphia, and a participant in the Moth Storyslam Series in New York.  A sample of his storytelling can be found at the following here on YouTube.

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