Thursday, October 9, 2008

Halloween project I

This is a little early, but I figured what the hell? The format is a little funky, due to Blogger. One of these days, I need to jump to word press. Anyway, here it is: part one.

Every night it's the same. I dream of flies. I see them in the darkness of my room. They are the dark. The blackness of their tiny bodies blocks out the glowing red letters of the clock, just like a biblical eclipse.

I feel them here.

In my bed, they blanket me. Their scratchy, dirty legs rub rough against the hairs on my chest, the stubble on my throat, the whiskers pushing their way under my lip.

I hear them speak. By and by, they tell me things. These are things I should not remember in the morning, but somehow, I do.

Part I. Taking up the serpent

It was a fair deal. A dollar for every snake. That's what he agreed to, though he didn't much like it.

"Do they have to be poisonous?" my brother Albert asked.

Albert was two years older than me. He led. I followed. He didn't want us to spend all week poking through holes to come up with half a dozen garter and black snakes only to get turned back on account of them not being what this preacher wanted. He'd watched Daddy deal with this man before. Daddy hadn't liked him, but he paid cash for the snakes.

"It don't matter to us whether the snakes is poisonous or not," he said. "It's what people believes. Now, we're fixing to have us a big tent revival. We got a lot of people coming in and we just ain't got the snakes we need for people to take up the serpent. "

"Now, what about size?" Albert asked.

"Well, that we do have something of a standard." The old man laughed. "A mess of little worms won't do it. So, I do have to say each snake has to be no less than eighteen inches long. Eighteen inches seems fair, don't it?"

Albert nodded. It sounded fair to him.

"I reckon we have a deal," my brother said and I nodded, not knowing what else to say. I wasn't expected to say much.

"We want them by Friday," the preacher said. "Just come out to the house." He looked as both, a couple of scrawny kids in dirty t-shirts. "You sure you can deliver?"

Albert stuck his hand out.

"We'll get you your snakes, same as before."

Albert and Mr. Pulaski shook hands. They had a deal, which meant we had a deal, seeing as Albert and me was in this together.

This was how me and Albert came to find ourselves in the employ of The Holy Assembly of the Believer. It was our first job. Albert was ten. I was eight.

The summer of 71 was a bad one, dry, dusty and poor. It was the year Mama took the job at the Cartersville Tastee Freeze, after we found out Daddy wasn't coming back from the war. Tough times for all of us. Mama worked all the time, didn't get home until sometimes after dark. She'd bring us the leftover French fries and sometimes the last hotdogs. We ate pretty good, I seem to recollect. During the day, Albert and me fended for ourselves.

Three weeks into the summer, the old man, the preacher, came looking for Daddy. We'd seen him many times. He wanted to buy snakes.

For as long as I could remember, Mr. Pulaski came a couple times over the summer to ask our Daddy to bring him snakes for his church. The Holy Assembly of the Believer was one of those old, backwoods churches where they took their religion seriously. They spoke in tongues and handled snakes. Daddy told us it was silly, but he still took their money.

He almost left off in his big, black car when we told him our father was deceased, but he was in a bind. He needed the snakes and was willing to take a chance on two little boys -even though he paid our Daddy two-fifty for every snake he brought him. He was only giving us a dollar for each.

"Albert," I asked. "Are you sure about this?"

"Randal, it ain't nothing we ain't never done before."

This was true. As often as Mr. Pulaski had hired our Daddy, we'd gone with him more than a few times. The woods around Cartersville were thick with snakes. We knew what to look for and how to catch them. We'd pick them up from under rocks and pull them from out of their holes in the ground. Albert did it because he wasn't afraid of them. I did it because I didn't want him to know I was.

Most of the snakes, and we knew where to find them, weren't the poisonous variety. They were ugly, old black snakes, which can still make you plenty sick if they bite you. A few were regular old brown snakes, little rat snakes that just ate mice, but we'd seen copperheads. I'd only seen one rattler, and I about fell over trying to get away from it.

Albert, naturally, laughed and picked the thing up. He had very fast hands and was always so careful. He told the snake to hush, then tossed it off into the woods.

So, with the deal made, we went through our parents' closet and found Daddy's old green duffle bag. It seemed sturdy enough to hold a couple dozen snakes. Albert thought so.

"Why does he want these things?" I asked.

Albert, always the wiser and more worldly, said, "He's the preacher of a crazy church. They thinking playing with snakes means God loves them more than anybody else."

"Does it?"

"If it did," he laughed, "you and me would be getting a lot more presents at Christmas."

Up in the woods, we went where it was cool and damp, kicking over stones and pulling out drowsy serpents then tossing them into the bag. None of them rattled, not that we listened too closely. We followed an old stream, half dried up until we got to a green pool.

"Yeah, they're thick here," Albert said. "I can almost smell them."

"I ain't getting near the water," I said and he laughed.

I wasn't interested in meeting a water moccasin.

Instead, Albert and I dug around with sticks and poked into sink holes, until we found a nest of copperheads. There must have been five or six of them, laying up together in a tangle. Albert had me prod at them with my stick, get them apart and keep the busy while he reached in, and just as quick as lightning, snatched them one by one.

"That's enough," I told him. "We got a good fifteen or sixteen snakes in there. Enough for one day."

We took the snakes to Mr. Pulaski's house, next door to the church where he preached. It was getting dark when we finally got there. He was glad to see us, then took us out back where he kept pens for the snakes.

"How are you going to get them out of there?" I asked.

"Don't you believe in the Lord, our savior, boy?"

He rolled up his sleeve. Bare-armed, he reached into the sack and one by one pulled out each of the snakes.

"The secret," he said as he separated the poisonous from the harmless, "is to not make too much noise. Snakes are like any other animal. If you don't want to rile them up, don't make a big ruckus."

When he was finished. He looked down at what he had.

"I count seventeen," he said. "That's a fair piece of work, boys."

Albert and me grinned at each other. That was seventeen dollars.

"I hope you'll bring me some more tomorrow."

We nodded. We sure would.

"Well, thank-you," he said and started away with his boxes.

"But wait a minute," Albert said. "What about our money?"

The old man looked at us.

"It ain't Friday, is it?"

We looked at each other. We hadn't actually named the term for when we would be paid. Albert saw this would need to be rectified.

"You'll pay us Friday," Albert said. "For the snakes we bring you all week?"

The preacher nodded. "That's our deal. See you tomorrow."

We were excited by the promise of a full week's wages. This could be some real money, not mad money, not enough to buy our mama's freedom from the Tastee Freeze, but it was enough to get a lawnmower, a gas can and a trimmer. It was an investment in our future.

For the next three days we went back into the woods and into the hills up to the old Indian caves. We poked around high weeds grown up in a forgotten family cemetery, where the gravestones had been worn smooth by time and rain. We went to the derelict quarry, where on a fine summer's day the water is as clear as glass. You can look down and count the old cars rusting on the bottom.

We filled the bag time and time again. We gave the old man seventeen snakes on Monday, then another twenty on Tuesday. On Wednesday, we found only twelve, but on Thursday, we had twenty-two.

"Seventy-one," he said. "It's going to be a fine revival."

"What will you give us if we bring you a hundred?" Albert asked.

"I don't think there are a hundred snakes within twenty miles."

"But what if?"

The old man smiled. Here, he thought, must be a lesson.

"If you bring me a hundred serpents," he said, "I will give you two dollars for each one. However, if you bring me less, even one less than the hundred, I need only give you fifty cents for each snake."

"Is that a bet?"

The old man snorted. "No, it is not a bet. To wager is to sin. This is merely a business proposal. You need not take it. If you'd like you can continue to bring me snakes at the agreed upon price. However, if you feel confident you can fill my order, I am willing to pay a premium. If you promise what you can't deliver, it is fair to expect a penalty. This is business."

"Sounds like a bet to me," Albert said. "But all right. A hundred snakes or more for two dollars each."

They shook on it and we went our own way.

"You shouldn't have done that," I told him. "It's getting harder to find the good snakes. All we're bringing him now are the bad ones."

Albert laughed. He wasn't afraid and he was dreaming big. Two hundred dollars was enough money to get the washing machine fixed -another good investment. Mama wouldn't have to spend her money taking it to the Laundromat. There might even be enough to get us each a new pair of shoes before school started.

The next morning we had to go farther out than we'd ever gone, into deeper woods and almost foreign fields. Just as I told Albert, all the good snakes were gone. All that was left were those wicked copperheads and rattlers.

"Just hold the bag," Albert said.

And we filled it. It took all day, but we filled it. At the end, Albert counted twenty-nine snakes. We tied the bag tight and went to collect two hundred dollars.

"Twenty-nine snakes," Albert told Pulaski. "Go ahead and count them."

The old preacher took the bag, but looked at us suspiciously.

"I thought you was almost tapped out," he said. "Where'd you go to get these?"

"Up in the hills," I said. "We went way up in the hills. Took us all day."

Albert smiled.

The preacher didn't like it. He'd set out to teach us a lesson, but instead he'd been given one. He frowned, then started counting them out bitterly. He didn't need to sort them. Every one was a killer. I was never so glad to be rid of them.
After the last snake, he grinned. He'd only pulled out twenty-eight. He held the bag by the bottom and shook the open end. Nothing fell out.

"Sorry, boys," he said, but he wasn't. "The deal was for a hundred. This is only ninety-nine."

Albert was stunned. He was so sure.

The preacher counted out forty-nine dollars and fifty cents. He put the money in my brother's numb hands, then handed the bag back to him.

"If you want," he said. "You're welcome to come to our revival -starts Monday night. We'll be having it over by the high school. There's plenty of parking. Tell your Mama. We'll be giving our praise and taking up the serpent for the glory of the Lord. Ain't nothing better than facing your sins and letting the spirit of the Holy Ghost cleanse you."

Albert clutched the money tightly.

"What sin would that be, preacher?"

He smiled.

"Pride."

We walked home, dragging the bag and not talking about the money. A hundred dollars seemed like hope. Two hundred was a fortune. Fifty was a joke.

We considered going out to look for one more snake, but we'd already combed the entire town. Besides, the deal was done. We'd taken our count and collected our wage.

"That can't be right," Albert said.

He opened the bag and shoved his arm in, then yelped. The sack fell to the ground. A fat copperhead slithered out and across the warm black top. Blood dripped from my brother's forearm.

"Oh," he said, then pitched forward. I watched him die.

Except for Mama, there wasn't much of a fuss. I told the sheriff Mr. Pulaski hired the two of us to get him snakes. I told him how he'd made a bet with Albert about how many snakes he could bring in. I said Pulaski cheated. He'd left one in the bag.

Mr. Pulaski said he'd done no such thing. It would be foolishness to send two boys out to get snakes, though it was true he'd had dealings with our father. Besides, he said, they had plenty. They ought to. The church was hosting a revival starting Monday night. Everybody was invited.

We buried Albert Monday morning. The manager at the Tastee Freeze, it turned out, he was sweet on Mama. He paid for a burial in the churchyard in town, far away from the Holy Assembly of the Believer. There was no headstone, just a plastic marker. Mama cried, then we went home where she drank until she wore herself out.

I wasn't much of a comfort to her.

While she slept, I put on my old rags then went back up into the woods. I knew all the places to go.

Over by The Holy Assembly of the Believer, the revival was in full swing. A big, white tent was set up next to the high school and the parking lot was full. Some had come from as far away as Tennessee. Pulaski, inside the tent, preached like calling down a storm. All had sinned. This was their final chance. Everyone must come clean.

With a coat hanger I brought from home, I fished the lock of the preacher's car and opened the door. I slid in the driver's side seat and turned the volume knob on his radio up as far as it would go. Without the key, it was silent. I reached up to the ceiling and took the little bulb from the cabin light, then I emptied my father's duffle bag over the back seat.

I locked the door as I left.

Into the night, Pulaski gave his best and last sermon about how sin will find you. I listened very closely and waited in the darkness, just to be sure.

7 comments:

moneytastesbad said...

WOW! Fantastic story. Did you decide to do individual stories or is this just the first part? I would like to see this continue myself.

primalscreamx said...

At least 4 stories, linked together. It will be almost a mosaic novella, if it works out.

Jay said...

I hope you can take some constructive criticism.

1) Snake handling churches only use poisonous snakes.

2) Snake handling is a central Appalachian phenomenon and there are no Water Moccasins here.

3) A Copperhead bite is almost never fatal ("you'll just wish you were dead" being the standard line); a Timber Rattler bite, however, will, more often than not, be fatal but it will take hours if not days.

Of course the ubiquitousness of the rattlesnake antivenin makes that highly unlikely unless the victim is a believer or is trying to be forced to have faith and refuses or is denied the antivenin.

This story has great potential, Bill, and I hate to be a stickler for details, but that's where the Devil is, right?

primalscreamx said...

Constructive criticism is welcome and needed for growth.

Some of these things, I already knew. You got me on water moccasins, for sure, but what might it mean if a snake handling preacher didn't care what kind of snakes he got?

Remember. At least 3 more pieces to this thing. Could be more. I'm having a great time.

Jay said...

10-4.

Maybe some day I'll tell you the story about me working on a railroad bridge over a lake near Shreveport and having a water moccasin swim between my lags.

The Film Geek said...

Fantastic story!

Karin Fuller said...

Excellent story! Can't wait to read more.