Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Halloween project -from last year

I'm trying a couple of things to see if I can get the format to work on this. Blogger doesn't work well with my cutting and pasting. Anyway, this is the first of the stories from last year. Yes, it is different than when I ran it last year. I had a little time to play with it, take out a factual error or two, but gist is pretty much the same.

Taking up the serpent. (1971)
By Bill Lynch

A dollar for every snake. That's what he said and it sounded like good money to my brother and me, but there was a catch.

"You have to bring in the bad ones," the preacher told us. "We want rattlesnakes. Can't have nothing else."

"Not even copperheads?" Albert asked.

Mr. Cruise shook his head. He was an old, backwoods preacher, bent and knotted like an old dogwood tree. We knew him from way from way back, when he used to come see our daddy to ge his snakes. Mr. Cruise ran one of them snake handling churches: First Assembly Of The Believer. But Daddy had been dead for over a year. Times were hard. It was just Albert, me and Mama living in a trailer park with only what she made working at the Tastee Freeze to get by.

Otherwise, we probably wouldn't have had anything to do with Mr. Cruise, his church or his problem getting the snakes.

"It has to be rattlesnakes," the preacher said. "We're fixing to have us a big tent revival. A lot of people are coming in. We need fresh snakes. Now, can you deliver or not?"

"How many you want?" Albert asked.

"As many as you can lay your hands on."

A dollar a piece was good money. We couldn't hardly turn it down. Besides, it was summer. What else did we have to do?

"We can get you your snakes," Albert said.

The old man smiled and held out his hand, ready to make the deal.

"But we ain't doing it for no dollar a head," Albert told him.The preacher frowned. "Two dollars a snake and we'll do it."

The old man laughed in spite of himself. He was negotiating with a pair of scrawny kids in dirty t-shirts and cut-off shorts.

"A dollar fifty a head then."

Good enough for Albert. We had a deal and they shook on it.

"I need them all by Friday," the preacher said. "Bring what you get to the church and we'll settle up." He looked us over. "You sure you can deliver?"

Albert held out his hand. He was willing to shake again, if the preacher thought it hadn't took.

This was a sacred and binding contract, as far as he was concerned.

"Friday then," Mr. Cruise said, crawled back in his black car and drove away.

The summer of 71 was the start of a bad spell in Cartersville, but it had been bad for Albert, Mama and me long before the preacher came to our trailer. Daddy was dead, killed overseas in the Army. Mama was working at the Tastee Freez and we were scraping by on cold chili dogs and French fries Mama got from the man who owned the place, Mr. Jimmy. We got that because Mr. Jimmy was sweet on her, Albert said.

We didn’t have no car, had to walk everywhere, but that wasn’t so bad. We didn’t really have anywhere to go, but the preacher hiring us was a good break. The money wouldn't amount to much, but it was enough to throw away on comic books, bubblegum and admission into the Carterville Public Swimming Pool, the little things that seemed to separate us from the rest of the kids we knew.

It wasn’t like we could tell Mama where we got the money.

With Mr. Cruise gone, we got down to business, went through Mama’s closet and got Daddy's green duffle bag. The sooner we got started, the sooner we could get paid, we thought.

I asked Albert, "Why does the man want these things?"

Albert told me, "That man is 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."

The two of us went up in the woods, away from the trailer park, to kick over stones and logs. Snakes aren't hard to find, if you know where to look. We took the bad ones, dropped them in the bag, and tossed the rest back out in the woods. Albert did most of the work. He had the fast hands. I just held the bag.

At the end of the day we had a half-dozen, which seemed like a pretty good haul, then we walked quickly with the squirming bag hung on a pole between us. By the time we got there, it was coming up on dark and the Tastee Freeze would be closing soon. We’d have to run to get back before Mr. Jimmy drove her home.

Mr. Cruise lived in a shack out back from the plain, white church on Big Creek road. Out front, a sign read, “The wages of Sin is death,” but apparently the other side didn’t pay too well, either. The preacher was on the porch reading his book by the dwindling light.

“Well.” He closed his book. “I have to say I wasn't for sure if you were serious.”

"A deal is a deal," Albert told him and handed over the bag.

He led us out back to the wire pens for the snakes. Carefully, he opened up the bag and shook them out into a big, tin tub. The snakes rattled, hissed and struck at the side of the tub.

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

The preacher’s eyes were hard and flat.

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

I believed just fine, though Albert, Mama and me weren’t what you called regular church goers. We had a bible at the house and got a tree at Christmas. It seemed enough for us.

“They’re too riled up right now,” he said and held up a pair of long metal tongs, like the kind you use for coal. He moved cautiously, but steadily. He picked them up with a pinch right under their jaws, then put added them into the cages. "You can’t make too much noise. If you don't want to make ‘em mad, don't make a big ruckus."

They were slow to settle in, tested out the metal mesh that separated them from freedom, but eventually were resigned to their fates.

"I count six. That's a fair piece of work, boys." He nodded appreciatively.

Albert and me grinned at each other: nine dollars. But the old man didn’t give us any money. It wasn’t Friday, he told us. He’d pay us then. The preacher stared at the snakes and rubbed his chin.

"Could you deliver thirty?" he asked.

Albert and me shrugged. Maybe, we could.

“I’ll tell you what,” the preacher told us. “Bring me thirty and I’ll give you two dollars a head.”

At two dollars a head, we'd sure try. Albert's hand shot right out.

The preacher smiled and looked at my brother’s hand.

"Now, if you can’t get me the thirty, I ain't going to pay you no two dollars. I'll only have to pay fifty cents each."

Albert and me looked at each other.

"Is that a bet?"

The preacher snorted. "No, it is not a bet. To wager is to sin. This is a business proposal. I’m happy to pay a bonus, if you can do it. If you don’t think you can, you’re better off sticking with our other deal. It's up to you."

"Sounds like a bet to me," Albert said. "But all right. Thirty snakes for two dollars each."

They shook on it and we went our own way.

"You shouldn't have done that," I told him. "A dollar-fifty a snake is plenty. Where are we going to get thirty snakes?"

Albert laughed. He wasn't afraid. Sixty dollars was real money, not just a couple of dollars to fritter away on Superman comics and candy bars. It might be enough to get a lawnmower. We could haul gas in a milk jug. In his mind, he had us mowing half the lawns in Cartersville by the end of the month at five dollars each. We could pay to get the washing machine fixed, get our own shoes for school and put something in the refrigerator besides cold hotdogs.
Over the next three days, we went everywhere looking for those snakes. We spent half a day crawling under every trailer in the park and boy did I dread that. Mr. Sherry, the manager, got onto us for poking around the underpinning.

“Here, what are you two doing?” He demanded.

“Fetching snakes for the church,” Albert told him.

The bag squirmed in my hands.

“You want to see?”

“You getting all those snakes from under my trailers?” He whispered.

“Well, they ain’t ours,” Albert told him.

He left us alone after that.

Albert and me poked around in the high weeds and went through the old forgotten places. In an overgrown field, we found a derelict farm truck left to rot and rust. Its windshield and tires were long gone. Grass had grown up over the broken glass. The wood planks of its bed had gone to splinters and came apart in our hands. In the glove box, we found a gas station map and half a pack of Lucky Strikes, but no matches.

One day, we went all the way over to the quarry, where the water in the lake below is as clear as glass. You can look down and count the cars and washing machines rusting on the bottom, slowly sinking into and becoming part of the mud.

Every day we brought the man more snakes. We brought him six on Monday, then five on Tuesday and four on Wednesday.

"We’re halfway there," Albert told me, but I didn't see it the same way.

"But we're finding fewer each day," I said. "We have to find fifteen more to keep the deal."

He told me not to worry. The next morning we went up into the hills, into the deep woods and into fields neither of us knew, where we didn’t know the land and the land didn’t know us. We ran all day and only came back with three.

The preacher just grinned.

Albert wouldn’t let me give up. We must have turned over every loose rock in Cartersville, kicked over every rotten log and crawled through every ditch. We worked from sun up until it was almost dark, sneaking into the trailer, covered in dirt and just a minute or two ahead of Mama.

Friday morning, we dug up a nest by the old school house the county used for storage. In the sunlight, they spilled out in every direction, looking for shelter. Albert yelled for me to put the bag down and help him grab them up. It was a good haul. By the end of the day, we had thirteen, an unlucky number, but one more than we needed.

"Go ahead and count them," Albert told the preacher and he took the rolling, fighting bag, but he didn’t like it. He could tell we had a plenty. Mr. Cruise dumped the lot in the tub and there were just so many, double what we’d brought him on the first day.

"Where'd you go to get these?"

"Everywhere," I said. "Took us all day. I almost got bit three or four times."

Albert smiled.

The preacher frowned, but counted them one by one. We helped, happily. Sixty dollars was going to be ours, but after the last snake, he grinned. There were eleven: one short of thirty.

"But how?" We'd both been sure.

The preacher held up the bag, looked it over and there it was: a small tear in the bottom, no bigger than a quarter, but big enough for two little ones to push out.

"Sorry, boys," Mr. Cruise said, but he wasn't. "We agreed thirty." He handed the bag to me, then counted out fourteen dollars and fifty cents. He gave it to us in wrinkled ones, like small change scooped from the Sunday collection plate. "Now, I don't want there to be any hard feelings between us," he said. "You're welcome to come to our revival next week. It starts next Wednesday night over at the high school. We'll be giving our praise and taking up the serpent for the glory of the Lord. Ain't nothing better than letting the spirit wash away your sins."

Albert looked at the paltry wad of bills in his hand. I was almost in tears.

"What sin do we got, preacher?" I asked.

He nodded his head gently then said, "Pride. And pride always comes before the fall."

Our business was done. Albert and me walked, neither talking. It was getting dark. We could’ve gone looking for one more snake, but there was nowhere to go. Besides, we'd already collected our wages. It was over. We'd lost the bet.

"But that can't be right." Albert grabbed the bag out of my hands. “That hole ain’t big enough.”
He folded the bag over, found the hole, slipped his finger through, then yelped and dropped the bag. The light was bad, but I saw a snake crawl out, then another. Here was thirty and thirty one.

"Oh," my brother said, as they slipped off into the grass.

Albert held his wounded hand away from himself, like it didn’t belong to him any more.

"Albert," I whispered. "What do you want me to do?"

"Nothing to do," he said softly. "We’ve got to get home. Mama will worry."

It was too far to go. We couldn't have made it home if we ran and Albert couldn't. In a couple of minutes, he could barely walk. In a few more, he could barely stand, then he stopped breathing by the time we got to the road.

I flagged down the first car I saw, but it was too late. Albert was gone.

Except for Mama, there wasn't much of a fuss. I told sheriff Noble about Mr. Cruise and the thirty snakes. The preacher cheated us. He'd killed my brother.

Mr. Cruise denied it. He said he'd done no such thing. It would be foolishness to send two boys out like that.

The sheriff took his side of things. It was my word against his. I was just a kid.

We buried Albert Monday morning. Mr. Jimmy, put up the money for the funeral. A lot of people turned out. They hugged me and told me how sorry they were. Mama cried, then we went home alone to an empty trailer.

I didn't sleep that night. Mama stayed in her room with the door closed, while I huddled out in the hallway afraid of what had become of us. In the dark, fevered, she called out my daddy's name, then my brother's. I waited for her to ask for me, but she never did.
People came by to check on us. They brought plates of cold food and sad apologies. Mr. Jimmy stopped by, but she wouldn't see him either. He gave me twenty dollars and told me to tell her she could call him if we needed anything. After he left, I wrote a note and slipped the money under her door, then patched up daddy's bag with a piece of duct tape. I didn't say where I’d gone. I didn’t think she'd miss me.

Wednesday night, over by Cartersville High School, the church revival was in full swing. It was a gorgeous crowd, just like a circus, with a big tent and loud music. A couple of clean men directed traffic until the parking lot was full, while I sat under a tree at the top of a hill and watched. I could hear most of it, too. The church had a brand new sound system. What the word lacked in meaning, they made up for it with volume. Mr. Cruise preached like calling up a storm. His voice roared. All had sinned and everybody had to come clean.

It was a good sermon, but me and Albert were never what you call regular churchgoers.

I waited until after dark, until everyone was inside the tent and recieving the word, then went down the hill, carrying my father’s duffle in both hands. The preacher's black car was parked a few rows from the front, the better to be among the many cars of his flock. No one saw me. No one was looking.

The door to his car was unlocked, but it shouldn’t have been. Only a man with no fear of hell would steal a preacher's Cadillac. There was no such a man among this crowd, I reckoned.
With my hand against the light switch in the door, I crawled in and spun the volume knob for the radio up as far as it would go. Snakes don’t like a ruckus, he said. Then I opened the bag and dumped it in the back seat. After, I went back up the hill to find my spot under the tree.

That night, Mr. Cruise gave his best sermon. Sin will find you, he said. I listened very closely, and waited in the darkness, to make sure.

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