Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Project 4

(This is the last of the October special. There is no more of the business with the flies --at least not at the moment. I haven't decided whether that little device has evolved itself out. All the usual warnings apply, including my continuous complaints about blogger. It was fun. Thanks to those of you who stuck it out and read my stories.)

Part 4: Country roads

On the drive from Beckley, I asked the old guy, “Does Cartersville have a problem with snakes?”

Mr. Walker, the old guy, sent by my aunt to pick me up in Beckley, looked over and laughed.

“That’s a funny thing to ask.”

I laughed with him, but it wasn’t really funny. My aunt had a problem with snakes: a big problem. Two weeks ago, they started showing up in her kitchen, in her car and squirming out of the drawers of her desk at work. They were everywhere, and there could be no doubt, they weren’t getting in on their own.

If not for my aunt, I'd have never come back to Cartersville. The place was poison. Alice was the only family I'd had. After what happened with my brother, Albert, ten years ago and my mother, she took me in. She’d practically raised me. I’d grown up in Nebraska, where she’d lived since before I was born. She used to tell me leaving Cartersville was the smartest thing she ever did.

"Nothing but heartache and hunger back there," she used to say. "Nobody should stay."

Last winter, after Christmas, she did the inexplicable. Alice moved back. She bought a big house on the side of a hill. She cashed out her company stock and opened up a little office, selling insurance. Everything was fine. She called me every week and told me everything was fine. She was catching up with all the people she hadn’t seen since high school, including a couple of old boyfriends. It wasn't so bad.

"You ought to come home for a visit," she said. "I'd love to see you."

But I was at school in California. Coming home to Cartersville was as difficult as it was unappealing.

I told her I might try to fly out around Christmas. I didn’t promise anything, but I knew I was lying then she called me about the snakes.

“At first, I thought it was nothing,” she sputtered. “I found a couple of black snakes in my kitchen."

Alice said she bolted from the house, used a neighbor's phone and called the sheriff. The snakes were caught and dropped off far down the road. Black snakes, at least the kind found in West Virginia, usually aren’t poisonous, but it wasn’t unheard of for one or even two to sneak inside someone’s house through a hidden crack or hole. She said she had someone come out and look at the house.

"But Randal, my house was fine," she said. "I spent two hundred dollars on a full inspection. There wasn't anything."

She found the snake in her car a couple of days later, coiled and sleeping in the front seat. There could be no doubt about how it got in. Snakes do not, as a rule, break into motor vehicles.

“The sheriff asked me who I’d pissed off," she said. “Damned if I know.”

They opened an investigation. Meanwhile, the plague of black snakes continued. At lunch, she watched them slither across the parking lot of the Tastee Freeze. Another turned up in the frozen food aisle of the Cartersville IGA where she did her grocery shopping. A stock boy was given the unenviable task of trapping the reptile in a box, then disposing of it. Everyone was talking about it. People in town stayed away from her. It had gotten so bad, she said, she had to get her bills and letters from the postmaster. The mail carrier wouldn't stop any more. He was afraid to open the box.

Aunt Alice was a nervous wreck.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I hate to ask, but can you come home, just for a little while?”

Of course, I could. I’d never say no to her, not for something like this, and I had a way with snakes. For lack of a better description, I had a “gift” with snakes. It was a family thing. My father used to collect snakes for the local Pentecostal churches. It was yet another way to make money in the hills and something he did before he went off to Vietnam. My brother and I tried our hand at it, too. We were all perfectly safe.

I don’t know what killed my father. Government reports on the sort of ways men die in far off places can be a bit vague, but I know what killed my brother. It wasn’t a snake, though I was there when the copperhead bit him. I watched him die.

Because of what happened to my brother and because I was from a place where people took up the serpent and played chicken with God, I’d always been fascinated by the animals. I had more than a passing interest. After I graduated from high school, I went to UCLA to study zoology with the intention of specializing in reptiles. I had a part-time job at the L.A. zoo feeding rats and bugs to the lizards, dragons, turtles and to lots and lots of snakes.

“You and your damned snakes,” my aunt laughed when I told her. "I don't know how you can stand to touch the things."

Now, she was counting on me to be an expert, to help her get rid of the snakes. Of course, the snakes weren’t the problem. The problem was who was leaving them out for her. She didn't need a junior year Herpetologist. She didn't even need an exterminator. What she needed was a strapping twenty year-old willing to swing a baseball bat at the first person to come creeping through the back door with a sack full of reptiles.

I was glad to oblige.

It was late when I got to Beckley. I called Alice from the Waffle House. She sounded both frantic and relieved to hear I was so close. I'd taken a bus from Cleveland to get to Beckley. I told her I didn’t want to be out hitchhiking after dark, especially to Lee County, so I was going to get a motel room. I’d call her in the morning and she could come pick me up.

“You just wait there. I’ll get someone out to pick you up.”

It was all the same to me. I sat at a booth, read the local paper and ate a chicken salad sandwich. I read it again, smoked cigarettes and drank cup after cup of industrial strength trucker’s coffee while avoiding the baleful glance of the fifty-something waitress with the bleached blond hair. An hour later, around ten o'clock, Mr. Walker showed up in his rust bucket pickup truck.

“You, Randal?” He asked.

There weren’t a lot of other choices. The Waffle House was practically empty.

"Here," he said. "I should get your things."

He introduced himself as Robert Walker. He was overly polite and had to be in the vicinity of sixty years old, though he moved like a man half that, which was something for a man of his size. He was big. I wondered if he was an old boyfriend of my aunt's or just a widowed neighbor. I didn't see a wedding band. It seemed to me asking another to make a drive out to the next county after dark was only the kind of imposition reserved for someone who might have intentions of a sort.

He grinned. He wanted me to like him. He collected my duffle bag then led me out to the truck, which seemed looked like it had been on its last legs ten years ago.

“Don’t mind the body.” He tossed the duffle bag into the bed. “It’s what’s inside that counts. It runs just fine.”

The engine started up on the first try.

He seemed a nice enough guy, though he wasn't much of a driver. On our way out of town, he ran two stop signs and barreled through a yellow light.

"What's the hurry?" I asked.

He shrugged and I tried to get comfortable with the scenery. Even dark, the road was familiar. My parents had driven this way a couple of times, usually late in the summer. We came to Beckley to buy school clothes. We passed through on our way to the State Fair. We drove to Bluefield once to watch a circus. I couldn't see much, but I remembered the curve of the road. I knew what was hiding under the shadow of night. Here and there, I saw lights in the hills that belonged to houses. There were a few more than I remembered, but it had been a long time.

Mr. Walker seemed content to let me drowse or dose, if that was what I wanted to do. He said nothing until I did.

“Did my aunt tell you anything about her snake problem?” I asked.

“No, she didn’t, but I know about it. Most of the county knows about it, I expect. They’ve kept it out of the local paper.” He laughed. “Which isn’t saying much.”

The Cartersville Gazette was little more than a weekly church newsletter. People read it for the rec league softball standings, the school lunch menu and to find out what the Senior Citizens groups were up to. The peace of mind that came from living in a place like Cartersville came from feigning obliviousness. They could get all the fear and fright they wanted by reading the Beckley or Charleston papers. It was purely optional.

“Nobody else is having the same problem,” he said. “I can tell you that much.”

I nodded. I had my suspicions.

The summer before I left Cartersville for good, my brother Albert and I were hired by a local minister to collect snakes for a tent revival. We were supposed to get him a hundred snakes and he was going to pay us two hundred dollars if we delivered, but he cheated us. He left a snake in the bag, rather than pay what we’d earned. My brother was bitten and he died.

I remember how sick I felt watching it happen. There wasn’t anything I could have done and nobody would listen. It was word of a ten year old against that of a preacher. So as best as I could, I got even. On the night of the revival, I stuck a bag of black snakes in the backseat of the man’s car. I knew they wouldn't kill him, but they might scare him. It is one thing to willingly take up the serpent for the sake of God. It is another to have a dozen creep up from under your seat. In the dark, he wouldn't have known if they were deadly or not.

I got what I wanted, I guess. The snakes shook him up good. He left his church over it, left town not long before I did. Of course, he might have come back eventually.

“You mind if I smoke?” I asked.

Mr. Walker shrugged indifferently. I fished the package of cigarettes out of my shirt pocket and predictably, in a dark car, fumbled with the lighter and dropped it. It bounced somewhere on the floor, but I couldn’t see it.

“Is the Holy Assembly of the Believer church still around?” I asked.

“No, they haven’t been around in years. Did you used to go there?”

“No,” I told him and looked for the lighter. “I’ve never been much of a churchgoer. You?”

Mr. Walker sighed and drummed his rough fingers uncomfortably on the steering wheel.

“I should go,” he agreed. “I really should. A man my age should be going in that direction, right? You got to get right, right?" He looked at me, pleading. "But my job. It’s hard to get away. I work a lot of Sundays.”

I nodded. Light from a street lamp caught the smooth silver of the Zippo.

“You find it yet?” He asked.

The sign by the side of the of the road read, “thirty-five miles to Cartersville.”

“It’s here someplace,” I said. “So, what do you do?”

“Oh, I do a lot of things," he said. "Mostly, I just work at the Tastee Freeze."

“That’s still there?” I said surprised. I don't know what the lifespan of a hamburger stand is, but only McDonalds or Burger King seemed eternal. “My Mom used to work there. Her name was Bridget.”

“You’re Bridget’s boy?”

“Yeah,” I said. "That was me."

Cigarette in one hand, I reached to the floor under the dash for my lighter.

“Ain’t that something,” Walker muttered.

“Does Mr. Creevy still run it?” I asked, then from the corner of my eye, saw a dark, but familiar and dangerous shape shift on it’s own. I couldn’t tell for certain, but I think it was looking right at me.

Walker droned on, oblivious of the animal curled under his seat.

“Mr. Creevy died years ago. Real bad accident. His wife, Nan, took over. She’s still there. So, is his stepmother. Do you remember Nadine, blonde lady, looks like she stepped out of the pages of a Sears Catalog?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember,” but I wasn’t listening.

“She's still the same," he said. "Maybe the grease is good for the skin.”

Moving slowly, cautiously, I leaned back.

“Mr. Walker,” I said. “You might want to go ahead and pull over.”

“Why? Is there something wrong?”

“Not really,” I said. “I just want to check on my stuff. I think I hear my shaving cream rolling around in back.”

“Oh sure.” He nodded and brought the truck over to the shoulder.

When the truck was still, I told him.

“It’s under your seat,” I said. “I saw it move. I can’t tell what it is without the right light. It might be another black snake.”

He nodded, then put the truck in gear and drove.

“What are you doing?”

“What I have to,” he said solemnly. “Ain’t none of this my idea, kid --none of it. It would have been better for the both of us, if you’d never come back.”

I looked out the window and wondered about my aunt.

"You got no place to go," he said. "If you tried to jump, you'd likely break your neck, but you might just get off with a broken leg. Either way, I'd have to come back and collect you. You're wanted alive, but dead will do, if that's all there is."

"Who wants me?" I asked. There could be but one man, Mr. Pulaski, but Bob couldn't bring himself to speak his name.

"The devil, himself," he said.

"Where's my aunt?"

He looked away. I didn't want to know.

I grabbed for the wheel. He batted me casually away, flung me hard against the rugged metal door then he reached over, grabbed me by my hair and pulled me close to him. My fists were dandelions tossed at the limbs of an oak tree.

He swallowed hard and held my head close. His eyes were watery. His face was tortured and grieving.

"I didn't want to do this. I really didn't. I don't want to do any of this. I don't want to be here. I don't like driving at night --a man my age? I need my sleep. My eyes ain't so good, and,” he stuttered. “I got to be at work in the morning."

Suddenly, I knew this man by a different name. He wasn’t Robert Walker, the possible neighbor or potential boyfriend of my aunt.

“Bob,” I said. “They used to call you Fry Cook Bob, didn’t they?”

“They still do,” he whispered.

It wasn’t the only name they called him. Behind his back, he was Convict Bob or Killer Bob. He was supposed to be Cartersville's town's greatest hero and greatest failure. He was a marine, fought in World War II, and won a bunch of medals. After the war, with a parade and the mayor waiting at home to give him the key to the city, Bob stopped off at a bar. He got into a fight and killed the man with his bare hands.

The parade was cancelled. The key to the city was put back wherever such things are kept. Instead he spent fifteen years in prison. He got out when Kennedy was president.

My mom told us not to worry. Bob, she said, was harmless, just a nice guy who did a really bad thing a long time ago. He didn’t seem particularly harmless now.

He turned loose and pushed me back into my seat.

"Don't try that again. Don't make it worse than it already is."

There was no point. Things were at their worst. I was locked in a truck with a convicted killer and a snake, driving along a nearly deserted country road.

"What’s this about Mr. Walker?”

"This ain’t about me," he said. "I’m just doing what I’m told."

"Alright," I said. "What does Mr. Pulaski want?"

Bob was stricken. The name was like a curse.

"He hates you," Bob whispered. "He hates you more than anything and that's a lot. He hates everything."

"So, he hired you to," I wouldn't say it. I didn’t know if my aunt was sitting at her house waiting for me. I didn’t know if she was lying in her bathtub, just a couple of inches from fresh air. I needed to keep my head. So, I asked him, "So, he hired you to come get me? You work for him?"

Bob shook his head. No, not that. Nothing like that.

"Belong," he groaned miserably. "I belong to him. He owns me and I have to do what he says."

"You don't have to do anything you don't want to," I tried.

He shook his head. He raked a big hand through his thick, gray hair.

"You don’t know," he moaned. "You don’t know," he sobbed. "When the man calls, I have to listen.” He glared at me and hissed. “He sent one of his snakes to be sure, to make sure I obeyed.”

Crazy, I thought. I wasn’t riding with just a convicted killer and a snake. I was riding with a maniac and a snake.

"Everybody has a choice," I said.

He turned to me shaking.

“No, they don’t. Not me. I got to do what I’m told.”

"You supposed to kill me? Is that it?"

"No, that’s not what I’ve been told to do. I only hurt you if I have to. I'm just supposed to come get you, help you carry your things. I was told to be polite, be friendly and only talk if you wanted to. If you asked, I was supposed to tell you I met your aunt in church."

I’d have never believed that.

“What’s with the snake?” I asked.

“It’s one of his,” he said. “You know.” He rolled his eyes unhappily. “I do what he says, exactly what he says, but he doesn’t trust me. The snake will tell him if I fail. It will tell him if I try to disobey.”

Bob sounded impossibly honest and improbably sober. Whatever else, he believed the snake under his seat was watching him. He believed he was bound to do the will of another. It was insane, but there were rules to be followed. In his own bizarre way, he had given them to me.

We passed a deserted gas station. It was deserted ten years ago, when I left the county: only twenty-two more miles to go by the road markers. Cartersville was now closer than to turn around and go back to Beckley.

“I don’t have no choice,” he said, though I don’t believe that to be true.

“Try it,” I said and lit my cigarette.

“Try what?”

"Can you turn on the radio? Did anyone say if you could do that?"

Bob shook his head. No, he wasn't given that instruction. He reached over and turned the radio on. It crackled and hummed. There was nothing for it to pick up, at least nothing worth picking up right now.

He turned it off.

"Can you roll the windows down?"

Bob rolled his window down. I did the same. We propped our elbows on the edge, hung them out the door. With a hard jerk, the fry cook pulled me back entirely inside the cab. He glared at me murderously. His eyes bulged. Spit hung from his lower lip.

"You stay in the truck," he growled.

I nodded and put my arm down. Bob's elbow dangled over the edge.

“You were told to keep me inside the truck, to not let me loose until you got to your destination. That’s why you ran the stop signs. It’s why you’re driving like you are.”

He said nothing.

“You don’t have to do this.”

“Of course, I do,” he said.

“No, Mr. Walker, think it out. You only have to do what you’ve been told. Pick me up, drive me someplace, keep me in the truck, but there’s a hell of lot he didn't tell you to do.” I took a drag from my cigarette. “And he made a mistake.”

Walker nodded. He knew.

“It’s all equal to you,” I said. “Every part of the instruction. It’s just a list. The commands are not ordered by importance.”

Bobs eyes smiled. I understood. He’d been trying to tell me.

“Mr. Walker,” I said. “I think I still hear that shaving cream can banging around in back. I need to get that secured. Would you mind pulling over?”

“Don’t try leaving the truck,” he warned.

I knew. If I tried he’d come down on me like a sledgehammer. There was really only one way for this to play out and just the one chance.

He pulled off onto the shoulder, but didn’t turn off the engine. I only had a moment to act. He opened his door, stepped out onto the road and closed the door behind him. I pinched my cigarette between my fingers, crushed the coal then dropped it on the floor in front of the snake. The snake lunged at the warm shape, which was roughly the size and shape of a bug. I caught it behind its head. It squirmed, but the reptile’s fangs never came close to sticking me. I tossed it out the open window. I mashed the clutch, swung the car in gear and drove.

I left him there, holding my duffle bag, and keeping company with a rattlesnake. Maybe someone came by and picked him up. Maybe he walked the rest of the way to Cartersville, where undoubtedly he would have some explaining to do. I drove the truck all the way to Charleston then left in a parking lot. I locked the door and tossed the keys in the river. I bought a bus ticket and went back to California. I called my aunt from the road. She never picked up, which only confirmed my worst fears.

It took two days to get home. Two calls from the Cartersville Sheriff’s office were waiting for me on my answering machine. They wanted me to call them.

It could only be bad news. They regretted to inform me, but my aunt was dead, apparently from heart failure. He told me she’d been sick for some time, had shut her office down for a couple of weeks while she tried to get better. None of her neighbors, he said, suspected she was so sick. If they’d known, somebody would have taken her to the hospital.

I asked him about the snakes. The sheriff didn’t know anything about that. It was the first he’d heard.

Arrangements for her funeral were already taken care of: one of the advantages to my aunt being an insurance agent. Details had been worked out long before. They were paid for. There wasn’t anything for me to do except to talk to a few people on the phone, which was as close as I wanted to get to Cartersville. I didn’t attend the ceremony, didn’t go when a lawyer called about a reading of her will.

I’d been given the closest thing to a warning as I was going to get.

I couldn’t be sure that Fry Cook Bob, Mr. Pulaski or someone else related to them might track me down. I suppose they could have if they wanted to, but they never came. After the school year was over, I volunteered for a program to look for evidence of snakes in Alaska. There were rumors people had seen garter snakes, but never anything poisonous. Prevailing opinion was they were probably animals that had been transported to Alaska: escaped pets or stowaways with produce from down south. Still, the native tribes had a few legends of serpents. There may have been snakes in the north at one time. It was a fool’s errand, but there was grant money. I was offered class credit and the chance to participate in writing a paper on the subject.

I was ready for a season without snakes. One day, I'd have to go back to Cartersville, but not yet. I wasn't ready but they were.


moneytastesbad said...

Man, you have got to revisit this story sometime. I have so much I want to hear about.

primalscreamx said...

The whole thing is the basis for my november novel project tentatively titled, "The Snake Handlers of Cartersville." So, yeah, there may be more.