The Serpent Uncoiled
The Price of Aluminum and the Allure of Passion
As we drove south, the landscape flattened into prairie, the pine trees became crooked scrub, and the air flowing through the hole in the windshield lost its teary chill. Scattered towns began to accumulate into fast food villages whose combined impetus was pulling us toward Phoenix .
A few miles outside of a town called New River , Nancy slammed her hand on the dashboard. “Take a left. We're not going to Phoenix .”
I turned east and we zig zagged through cul-de-sacs. Lush green lawns, swimming pools, and brightly painted lawn decorations replaced the scrag of the desert.
“Do you know where we're going?”
“Keep going,” said Nancy .
The road spat us out of the city, back to the desert. As we crested a hill, the sun went down and we were afforded a glorious view of a terrific lake.
“There doesn't appear to be any overnight camping.”
Nancy reached her foot across the transmission hump and stomped on the gas pedal. With a hideous roar, the truck crashed through a wall of scrub and came to a halt in a sheltered clearing. As I removed the key from the ignition, Nancy said, “We can sleep here.”
We dragged Father out of the truck, and built a fire. I walked into the shadows to relieve myself. I thought how strangely ponderous this whole process had become. We drag father out, we put him in, we drive until we run out of gas, we siphon fuel out of an unattended car and then we sleep. And it's only been two days. But really, will this journey ever end? And if it does, what will I have accomplished?
I returned from my urination to find Nancy smoothing Dad's shirt like he was a dear possession of hers. The campfire behind her gave her a halo.
“I'm not sure you should use the manuscript as a pillow like that.”
She started at my presence. “What do you want me to use…My pants?”
And then the strangest thing happened. I said “Yes.”
To which she responded with a cocked eyebrow. She hooked her thumb in a belt loop and bounced on the ball of her right foot. “Zat so?”
I walked hastily to the pickup and rummaged through the empty beer cans the previous owners had left scattered in the bed. “You know, I think they have a five cent can deposit in Arizona .”
She slid up next to me and pulled a can from the pile. She held it toward the fire to get a look at the top. “Let's see, ‘Redeemable in CA, NY, CT.' I don't see AZ here.” She tipped the can up higher and a drizzle of warm salivated beer splattered down the front of her tee shirt. Her mouth made a tiny o shape and she wiggled her shoulders. “Look at me. I'm all wet.” She crushed the can between her palms and threw it into the night.
The fool! “You really shouldn't have done that. Our journey may lead us to California .” Angry at her ignorance, I walked into the dark and felt on the ground until I found the can. As I returned to the camp area, I held the can before me and said, “I'm not even sure they accept them once they've been crush-” At that point I stopped talking because I noticed the following things:
a) Nancy was reading father's manuscript by the light of the fire.
b) Father's head was resting on something that resembled a pair of blue jeans
c) Nancy Stouffer was completely naked.
I must admit that I had on more than on occasion had very vivid dreams about this exact situation and so my first reaction was to leap into the air, assuming that, as with most dreams, I had been endowed with the ability to fly. Alas, I could not.
But this did mean that an actual living woman had disrobed herself of her own volition in full view of me and--were he to miraculously awake from his coma--my father. I assumed, quite logically, that she had not expected me to return so quickly with the can so I scuttled out of sight and came back once more, this time generating a great deal of noise, thus affording her the opportunity to hide her orange-lit dimpled, downy, salacious flesh.
I stomped the ground, coughed, and rattled my keys. She made no move to hide herself. Rather, she placed the manuscript upon her knees and looked directly at me. “Please don't think less of me for asking this,” she had adopted a southern accent, “But are you, as they say, an unplucked flower?”
I turned my head to the side, feeling my cheek burn from the sweltering glow of her body. “You speak in metaphor, Nancy , and I don't know precisely what you mean. Therefore, I cannot, without further explanation, answer your question.”
She rolled her eyes and fell back into her Midwestern accentlessness. “Let me try another angle. Have you ever thought about making love?”
The flame threatened to blister my skin. I put my hand over my face. “I always thought it best to wait until I got married.”
She eyebrows pointed toward her nose. “Would you like to?”
I reached for my handkerchief but it wasn't in my pocket. “Like to what?”
Even with my eyes averted and my heart clunking in my ears, I knew she had placed the manuscript on the ground. She stood up. She approached me. I sensed the swing of her hips.
She put her hand on my shoulder and spoke, with hot breath in my ear, “We should make love.”
At that moment the curtain was yanked open on the bay window of my mental living room. On the other side of the glass lay a pastoral landscape, misty and dim but replete with mossy hillsides and grazing sheep.
I realized that Nancy Stouffer, my traveling companion, was willing to engage in sexual activity with me. Saints be praised!
The next few moments were clumsy but we were soon frolicking upon the rough ground, clad only in our skin. Not having engaged in such activity before, I allowed Nancy to direct the proceedings. Neither one of us spoke. At a particularly revolutionary moment in our activity I became aware of a strange noise coming from the other side of the fire. Suddenly, I remembered Father. What if something's happened to him?
I stiffened up. Nancy paused in her kneadings and said, “Something wrong, Crabcakes?”
“It's Father. I think something's wrong”
She groaned as I rolled her off me. With my hands covering my indecency, I tiptoed around the fire to check on Strapping Danforth. He was asleep, a pinched smile on his face, hands crossed on his belly. Perfectly fine. Except for the fact that, upon his chest was coiled an enormous rattlesnake.
I inhaled so sharply that I felt the flames of the fire curve toward my mouth. I do not know whose fate I feared most: mine, Father's, or that of Nancy . I raised my hands and started backing away from the serpent.
Behind me I heard Nancy stand. “What the fucksamatter?”
“Shhhhhhhhhh.” I hissed, “There's a snake.”
“What kinda snake?” She shouted.
“Don't shout,” I whispered. My eyes were riveted on the creatures tail, which shook into a blur.
“Snakes are deaf. Now come back here, Loverboy.”
“It's a rattlesnake and it's sitting on Strapping.”
“Oh,” Said Nancy .
An eternity passed as I willed the snake to leave us in peace. But it merely breathed, flicked its tongue and rode the gentle risings of Father's chest.
Left uninterrupted, I cannot guess how long our stand-off would have lasted. Luckily, the spell was broken when a hail of empty beer cans flew through the air and pelted the snake. The barrage was accompanied by a wild howl that could have only come from the lungs of Nancy Stouffer. I don't know who jumped first, me or the reptile, but the snake jumped farther. Mistaking me for the source of the aluminum aggravation, it sprang towards me, stretched out like a spear headed toward the very area of my body which Nancy had just moments ago been introducing to sensations I'd never know could exist.
By sheer luck, the curved teeth of the rattlesnake fell a fraction of an inch short of my flesh. The creature reached the end of its flight, dropped to the ground at my feet and, sensing my superior intelligence, slithered across the dusty earth into the shadows of night.
Somewhere, as if from the entrance of a cave, I heard Nancy say, “Is it gone?”
I summoned the last of my strength and murmured, “It is gone.”
Then my legs gave way. As the side of my head struck the ground I saw the body of Father, still in calm repose. I felt a breeze tug the hairs on my back. I saw leaves of paper floating in the air, swooping into the flames. Soft hands rolled me over. I saw the wet eyes of Nancy gaze into mine own. I saw a tear swell on her eyelashes. She tried to blink it away but it was followed by more and more until my face was wet. No matter how much she cried, it would not put out the burning pages of my father's autobiography and she could not stop my drift into the unconscious.
--Elk Undercarriage, September 2005