blackbirdonline journalFall 2009  Vol. 8  No. 2
print version

Rattlesnake Country

Sharla thinks she’s done with this living. It feels like watching TV through the night. She’s waited to the end of infomercials and does not want the vacuum sealer, a strip steak airtight in polyethylene. She’s bored with televangelists, unmoved by sermons, even bolo ties and white suits don’t flash. Couched with a needlepoint pillow and a sheet, she has blinked toward the a.m. news. The meteorologist anticipated a good day. A good day is out in the yard. She sees grasses and thistledown. She hasn’t ridden the mower in three weeks. Nothing but the workshop, chamfering pine, cutting a curve. No lunch. Each morning she brings a bit of summer sausage and doesn’t eat it. She has five sticks of teaberry gum unchewed. She puts down a scorper and walks her property. The dirt drive is tracked with her tires. Her undershirts are breezing on the wire line. She will stumble into nothing; there is the fence at the end of her pasture then, loose prairie.

Her hair thickens with dust. A light wind takes up earth and flies it. Her shoulders toast and the back of her neck, but she doesn’t sweat. She hears her steps. Notices their sound. Mostly quiet, then her boots crack land. A warning. Underneath a twist of shrubs a snake is shaded; she hears the tail shaking. It rattles the heart, she thinks. But she looks for a stick. Grips a forked length of uprooted sagebrush and jabs into shadow. The sound stings. Nested beads beat against one another, an angry static each time she touches meat.

Sharla pokes the rattler. She prods it out into the open. Sunlit scales. Lidless eyes. Its body rises, long muscles contracting, cocking into a shepherd’s crook.  She says, “Okay buster.” She knocks the snake with her stick, follows the head and swats. She tries to pin it down. Her branch chokes at its throat and the rest of it limblessly spazzes. It undulates, knots and heaves itself. The flesh feels as cool as celery stalks in the crisper; she has it in her hands. One hand pinches down behind the wedge of skull, grips the gullet. It’s all gullet, Sharla thinks–the spitting, the belly death rolling against her grasp. She shrugs off her knapsack. Releases the snake’s tail. Ringed, rattling, the tail threshes her blue jeans. The sack is flat across flavescent weeds. Sharla loosens its drawstring and feeds the thing in. The long middle of it. The scuted stomach. The head. She thinks of the sharp mouth. She has seen rattlers with field mice. She knows recurved teeth snag, the jaws work and work. She has seen a rattler walk a rodent down its throat.

Her fingers open. Her hand rushes out, and she pulls the bag closed. The squabbling shape bends the drab fabric. Sharla hooks her knapsack to the stick, a bindle stiff held a length ahead. Captured, the snake tangles over foil-wrapped sausage, a glass bottle of apple juice. The snake strikes oilcloth.

Days are bright now, sunburning until evening. There are fourteen hours of light in the workshop, if Sharla wants. Her Windsor chairs, hand-rubbed with varnish, dry quickly. She thinks of storms. She used to get boozed and watch lightning. She loved the veining sky. On the porch steps, wind spattered rain to her face, dampened the ends of silvered blond hair. She hasn’t sat in wet weather all summer. She’s waited it out in the bathtub, soaping her legs, her floating breasts.

Her shoulders cramp. She wraps ice in tatty tee shirts and tries to numb the years of splitting logs. She’s sure her eyes have spoiled. They make mush out of fine print, the weekly, and toll-free numbers on TV. But her hearing is sharp. She listens to the house undoing itself each night. The bedroom door is loose; it quivers in its frame. There is a hard water stain yellowing the claw-foot tub. The tap leaks. “Christ,” she says.

“Christ!” Morning light bleeds through her curtains, makes visible constellating dust. She needs to wipe down the top of the armoire and the bedposts. She needs to whisk-broom her feet before sleeping. She’s tracked crumbs into the sheets.

Her thumb is nicked by a drawknife. She knocks over a quart of red milk paint. She finds her unsold rockers cobwebbed. Barn spiders skirr the spindles.

The mailman leaves a fair amount of nothing each day, catalogues for windowsill perennials and deer repellents. “Cherry soup,” one postcard says. It is printed with cockroaches picnicking, toasting with white wine, in a birch forest. Sharla remembers. She must drive to the liquor store. She’ll have to see the pomade-combed butcher to get the T-bone steaks. She will have a bracer at Darling’s Grill, though she’s tired of Darling’s; she’s there every month. Her groceries defrost in the truck while she fixes herself with bourbon. The lunch crowd eats. She feels sick from the plates of buttery smell. Sick of the tapping of boots, hard on squares of pink and cream linoleum, keeping time with the radio.

In her living room, with the sack of belled snake, Sharla thinks of these things that now bore her.  She thinks of the broken-down conversations she doesn’t want to have—the butcher, chewing something, saying, “Bathe it in Worchester sauce in a shallow dish.” Her skillet has frizzled too many meals. She is fed up with cooking. Everything she’s made is unpalatable—her soft-boiled eggs, her slumping front porch. She helped build the addition on the house. She built her workshop fifteen years ago, one season between hay and grass. Her gloved hands have bent back-bows and arm rails. They have shaped steamed wood. But they can’t make this. Sharla wonders if she still believes in sin. She feels far past the girl who picked tomatoes from the neighbors’ vines and tasted her conscience.

She knows there is no moral hang-up. It is the handiwork that stops her. She doesn’t want to carry a chair up the stairs.  A seat from the mahogany dining set with legs she has glossed, made capable of bearing weight. She doesn’t want to feel nylon rope. Slipknot worked between her fingers. Continued coils for friction. She hopes for hard luck, wants a sudden rainstorm that blears her truck’s windshield, a sleeve snagged in the band saw and no one to hear. She hears the rattlesnake whispering, alive and kicking, venomously agreeing, “Yes.”

There is scat by the oven. Sharla gathers it in a paper napkin. Marshy, it floats small knots of fur. The glue traps are empty but for a hind paw. In one, there is pink skin roughly left behind.

She slackened the drawstring three days ago, the oilcloth sack on the living room floor. She sanded in the workshop until dark, nipping applejack. Then took her boots and socks off to walk the path home. When the front door shut behind her, she listened for further sound. Glass wind chimes. The oscillating fan. She listened for a swish, a thrust over cool floorboards. She moved toward the table lamp and turned it on. The knapsack had flattened. Shreds of tinfoil were rassled out onto the braided rug. Underneath the furniture, between potted paper whites and piles of newsprint, there were hideaways.

The rattler skims alongside the base molding. She knows she hears it. It topples a box of cornstarch in the cabinet. It dens in the bathroom wastebasket, toilet paper tamped down. Sharla finds her jewelry box knocked to the floor. She finds opal earrings and two Saint Joseph medallions, Hirsh’s and hers. She watches the news and, under the volume, hears the sizzing tail in the basement. The bite will come unexpected, bluing an ankle, a toe. Clutched in faintness, she will stumble. Rubbery taste at her lips. Her heart can’t keep beating so fast. It has beat lastingly long. Her bed ground is the wide-open yard; she will wilt there, in spike stems.  How badly it will hurt she doesn’t know. But her eyes will stay open. She will breathe while she can, centered in the spur-throated grasshoppers’ crackle.

She holds Pauline’s handwriting. She reads the red ink cursive. Cherry soup. Pounds of sour fruit to be pitted. Then the saucepan stirred with cinnamon, salt. Sharla will ask Mernie to keep checking the lit grill and yell if the charcoal has grizzled. Pauline will say, “I know this kitchen like I know my own,” and she won’t look into the cabinets before she reaches. They’ve made the same meal together twenty-two times. T-bone, buttered rye, sweet carrots. The soft soup with its blot of sour cream. Twenty-two summers Mernie and Pauline have loaded Sharla’s rockers into their pickup stacked across with boxes of hand-woven saddle pads and shawls, pieces readied for the craft festival in Ernst. Halving their drive, they’ve slept in Sharla’s sheets, infixing fabric with the smell of lanolin, on the couch folded out into a real bed.

Sharla remembers whispering to Hirsch, “Their thumbs are greased.” He smiled without laughing. She won’t remember his laugh. “The cups. The cutlery.”

Hirsch separated steak knives from butter knives. He set the pantry so that the canned goods had their labels in view. He ate yellow peaches in syrup and spooned up the rimpled bits of fruit cocktail. Sharla made herself neat for his love. She memorized the way he rolled his socks, the space on the porch where he paired mucked boots, the jam jars of screwheads and tin of dowels. She kept his bachelor’s house, placing the pieces of his life where he’d know them. He ran her hands over on an oak crest, clamped and cooling in the basement, and asked if she could feel the bend. “There you are, dolly-girl,” he said.

There was nothing but the workshop. Sharla pulled logs without visible knots. She bore holes with the spoon bit. Hirsh, surveying, said, “You made your bite.” He brought the soup pot down the basement steps and called her to sit beside him for ladlefuls of creamed broth. He said, “It’s quality if it keeps an edge.”

He said, “Dolly-girl. Pretty one. You kiss like a juvenile.” She put her hands on him then, her new callus on his most tender skin. She was his full-blown woman; the slight mail clerk in Ernst could never claim that of her. At thirty-one, she was being taught for the first time. Hirsch’s undershirt kept secret her eyes. Hirsch’s jug of applejack kept her willing.

They were married a quiet Wednesday after breakfast, at the county courthouse they paid a hundred and twenty-five dollars in cash. That morning Hirsch had parted his closet to show Sharla a floral dress. She’d said she had nothing to doll up in. Wouldn’t wed in jeans. She wore it prettily, blue and gold blooms, a perfume dwelling in the dyed-to-match lining. They didn’t kiss in front of the judge but Sharla kept a finger curved through Hirsch’s belt loop. She waited for the seclusion of the pickup. The parking lot bright, the sunfast paint job of the Chevy, the air conditioner breezing sweat off skin— Sharla felt alive to it all. And she let Hirsh suck her collarbone and neck and roll the unzipped dress past her sandals. He said, “This can’t live with us. It isn’t proper.” He folded nylon mesh, the dress’s flared skirt. He said, “At this time, she’ll be busy weeding. Might not even notice if we stick it in the mailbox. Might not have a run-in at all.” Sharla didn’t ask for details. Their honeymoon was the ride home. She stuck her legs straight across Hirsch’s lap and slumped low. She knew she could be seen, her cotton underwear and unshaven legs just a view through the driver’s side window.

Sharla remembers Mernie saying, “Isn’t this studenty.” He jawed hard candy and watched on as she and Hirsch measured square footage for a new front porch. Working side by side, Hirsch said, “Make like my hands.”

Mernie and Pauline admired the clean lines of Sharla’s rocking chairs. Pauline said plain pieces moved. At the festivals, it seemed everyone wanted something unadorned. Sharla didn’t know decorative touches.  Hirsch hadn’t shown her how he made his flourishes and knurls. “Feel handy, dolly?” he asked.

She said, “I’ve always been capable.”

“But you needed someone to tell you.”  

Sharla had wanted Hirsh to tell her all night about his mother and the radio preacher. Hirsch said she soaked her hands in olive oil, listened to AM for hours, and painted French tips. She sent mail order for miracle water. And prayed her purchase would grow her son muscly. “Were you little, though?” Sharla asked.

“A pip-squeak,” he said.

Sharla remembers watching Hirsch in the bathtub. She remembers the sweatiness of his face, his water-roughed arm hair. 

She imagines the rattler clenching pipes, tucked under floorboards and sopping up warmth. She starts a grocery list. Opens her refrigerator to see what is needed. There is a bottle of slightly bad wine. She takes swallows, tastes flatness, sticks her bare arm into the kitchen cabinets and feels around for white sugar. Her fingers scuff over what feels like shallot skin. She brings it down for the trash. In the light, she knows the imbricate pattern. Sharla palms a bit of body, a molted section of scales.

She puts the skin in her back pocket and continues to drink. She drinks until she feels she has nothing to say to herself. She thinks about snakeskin boots. As a girl, she thought boots like that beckoned. She thought they might summon rattlers from rocks and riverbeds and warmed asphalt to the barroom floor with its light-footed dancers.  She hears the TV sermonizing to the living room. “If you call 1-800,” it says. She feels drunk and old. Her shoulders feel like they’ve been struck, laid into with some blunt instrument. She remembers a frozen short loin thrown, and Hirsch screaming, “You will need!” She remembers kicking apart a wet-paint settee and smearing red up the banisters, on the window ledge, in the sheets. Sometimes they woke to sour mouths and the house messed up.  Sharla would feel embarrassed, but she would touch the spots on Hirsch’s body. She’d touch the bruises. And Hirsch would pull her to him, smother her open mouth in his bristles, and he’d say, “When you moved into the house, Sharla, I started to find your hair in the drain, and I was crazy for it.”

There was a broken thumb. Broken casserole bowl. A snapped-apart sapling. But still Hirsch believed there could be something new. “White crackle paint. Pinecone finials. A name like Roseclere,” he’d said. They sat in sawdust on the basement floor. He drew the blueprints for a crib. Sharla grabbed onto the idea sometimes and said she would sing “How High the Moon” the best she could. She’d whittle animals. Shop for little red cowboy boots and the softest socks. She said Hirsch would have much to teach a child. She said, “You don’t know love like that. My father was magic all the way to hell.”

“Should we try for it?” Hirsch asked. Sharla would take down her jeans. But she’d get tired of dreaming. She said, “You know you’re too old. I like to fall asleep sauced. I like the quiet.”

She liked the quiet when Hirsch left. Her unaccompanied hammering and her radio swathed up in the house. She saved his letters for Sundays when Darling’s closed early. Then, in the tub, she read. Hirsch wrote that he was a groundskeeper at a guest ranch in Marfa. He wrote that he got depressed and got food poisoning. He was learning Spanish. “Dolly,” in cursive, “don’t mismanage the house.” He was screwing a maid that didn’t understand him. “And I love you,” he wrote.

Sharla told Pauline and Mernie, “We were havoc.” For a while, she told anyone who would listen. Pauline said, “But you were fun together.”

Mernie said, “You watched him like a beagle.”

Still, Sharla remembers the good times. She feels they have some truth to them— she was almost impermeable then, somehow seen and safeguarded in unusable love. Nights with Mernie and Pauline, she laughed till her eyes watered. She let Mernie duct-tape her to Pauline’s back, double-binding ankles and wrists, timing the get out. Pauline shot a BB gun into the dark. Sharla buried a blank piece of paper; she couldn’t think of anything when Hirsch suggested they each write down one secret to lose in the empty wine bottle. She followed without a flashlight, without her shoes, over their fence into tallgrass. She carried the shovel. Hirsch dug deep. They lumped earth over the bottle, and then left it alone.

Pauline toasts. She toasts with two glasses and drinks from both. She leans into the table, sloppy with plates, chewed cork. Her face is the same. She is sunned skin and lips. “Hot wax is something for Mernie to play with,” she says. The candlelight is tailing off. But Pauline wants to remember. She’s wistful when shitfaced. “That one time,” she says to Sharla, “when you and Hirsch came to Ernst. It rained all day. We played cards under the tents and felt lonesome. That man asked you why you didn’t wear a wedding ring.”

She says, “That time Hirsch cut off the tip of his thumb but wouldn’t stop cooking.”

She says, “We were always on the prairie. Brain-dead and shoeless.”

“Yes,” Sharla says. She has details to throw out. She has memories. The taste of the night sticks in her mouth. She wants to tell Pauline that the house sometimes feels like a motel room. Sleepless, she has looked in on her made bed and found it anonymous. She wants to say that nothing can be built with memory, nothing that will hold your weight. Mernie is talking about little families, about his daughter and his grandson. “It’s a shame for him to really learn to speak,” he says. “His language now is exact. He looks at something, a red wagon, and simply says, ‘Want’.”

Sharla thinks of the snake. She doesn’t want it to come with Mernie and Pauline inside. She wants to be alone. If one of them were struck, she’s not quite sure the truck could spurt dirt roads quick enough. The hospital is far. Understaffed. Chances are there’s no antivenin. “Sleep in my room tonight,” she says. “I’ll take care of the mess.” She feels selfish. Wants the both of them out of open areas. She leads up to her bedroom and turns down the bedclothes. Pauline says, “Let me help you,” but Sharla squeezes her hand tight. She gets a blanket from the linen closet to stop under the door’s sill. “Sharla,” Pauline says, “Goodnight.”

Sharla throws away the cigarette butts Mernie stamped out in the bone marrow of his steak. She wipes the table, offs their sticky fingerprints. The edge of her spoon is dried with cherry soup. It tastes too tart. In ten minutes she will go in the kitchen. She hears the rattling in there. She has no dread. She sits at the dining room table with a sour mouth in the messed up house she helped build. She writes on a dirty napkin. She writes to Hirsch, “That night that we buried our secrets, what was yours?  Won’t you tell me sometime.” She has ten minutes to think. She thinks about those boots on the barroom floor, skinned creatures still calling their kind and dancing.  end

return to top