william russell wallace

 
snakes

          It’s a hell of a time to be sober and living right. The worst man in the country—an American carnie of the highest degree—got himself elected president. It’d be nice to have a drink when the world is such a mess. But I never drank or got high to forget. I drank and got high to drink and get high. You know what I mean. The real issue, the real regret, is that now, everywhere I look, I’m reminded the Earth is populated with simple people, the easiest marks in history. I tell you, it’s a shame I can’t hustle anymore. I think of ideas often, like setting up some phony conservative action force. I’d fundraise it on social media, rob some racist baby boomers of a bit of their pension, scare them with pictures of Mexican gangs or something. Or I could sell dope again. I don’t need the money. It’d just be nice to have something to do. 

             I’ll confess: I’m a bored man. That was never the case before I got clean. 

          Maybe it’s this new town I’m living in. Pine trees are everywhere. Ponderosa pine and jeffrey pine and sugar pine and coulter pine and lodgepole pine and knobcone pine. It’s gorgeous, partly because it’s six-thousand feet in the air, floating above the Inland Empire. Vistas for days and days. But there aren’t very many people. There’s no entertainment to be found, except jazz music, and not the good kind, either. Jazz needs the rhythm of a city. It’s not mountain music. There are places that call themselves bars on their carved wood signs, but they’re just restaurants. The bartenders are waitresses. There’s a joint the locals refer to as the late night spot. It’s a restaurant that closes at midnight. 

          There’s a video rental store—a real relic!—since internet is unreliable here and you can’t stream movies. The woman who works at the store knows me by name and eagerly suggests awful films. Sometimes I heed a suggestion out of guilt. She put out her Halloween selection and instead of Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi, I ended up taking home an animated flick called Frankenweenie. She is so earnest and quite nice and the movie was actually not that bad, though her excitement about it seemed unwarranted. I imagine I’ll have seen every movie worth a damn in that store by the time the snow melts in the spring. 

               I’m so bored that I’ve learned the names of pine trees. 

              I’ve worked in clubs that held more people than live in this town, been to half-empty shows at a city theater that were more crowded. It starts bumping on the weekends, but that’s mostly rich men who all look like lawyers and judges driving their mid-life crisis bikes up the hill, secretly hoping they’ll fly over the unrailed edge and never have to go back home. I stay in on the weekends. 

          And it’s nice then, because Sadie has the weekends off. I moved here for her. I moved here for love. Real love, big love—love that scooped me up and set me on this mountain, this little island in the sky. That kind of love—that’s where it’s at, I promise. I shouldn’t complain about anything.

          That love, that woman is my higher power and—forgive me when I say it—she kicks the teeth out of Jesus Christ or the universe or a vague idea of kindness to the world or anything else those shaky twelve-step assholes go on and on about.    

          In Florida, Sadie was a cook by trade, a damn good one. But she’s also a writer. She’s such a good poet that she got hired to teach writing to rich kids at an expensive boarding school on a California mountain. So she left Florida and I did, too. She’s something else. If she wanted to be surgeon or an oil painter or one of those ice road truckers, she could be. She’s a hustler, but not in the snide way I once was—I mean, she hustles. Harder than the rest, too. She’s got a boatload of talent. So do a lot of people, but she’ll work harder than all of them put together.  

          It’s a miracle to have a job—a good one, with money and free housing on the campus—in poetry. It’s more rare than a video store. And that’s wild, since poetry is probably the world’s second oldest profession, behind sex work. It’s undoubtedly the first one in the arts. I say as much to her, trying to sound clever or something. 

          “Well, sex is an art, too,” Sadie says. “If you do it right.”

           See, how could I be lonely here? 

 

          So here we live, on a high-school campus, high up on a mountain. Our little apartment is minimal but not so bad. It has a nice patio, but since it’s near students, I can’t smoke cigarettes on it. It’s connected to one of the dorms, so when Sadie and I make love, we have to move quietly. She keeps it hot, talking dirty in whispers, saying things that would sound absurd in a full voice but drive me right out of my mind at a low volume. It’s a mighty kind of poetry and I can’t wait for the sun to go down. 

          In the mornings, Sadie is grading students’ homework and I know I can get needy so I get out of the house to give her time to work. Sometimes I walk the dog all over. Clementine is a Maltese-Pomeranian mix. She’s seven-pounds of the cutest little fluff that ever lived and when we walk around campus, everyone who sees her squeals with delight. But when a man who looks like me walks a dog that looks like that around a bunch of excited high-school girls—well, it goes without saying that I feel like a real creep.

          I walk her downtown, too. But there’s more dogs than people in this town and about half of them are bruisers who think Clementine is a mid-morning snack. More than once, I almost had to stick the toe of my boot into some mutt’s ribs. I’ve yelled at several off-leash owners and it got close to getting ugly. I don’t need that kind of trouble in a town this size. 

      On the weekends, Sadie and I go for hikes with Clementine, or we did before Sadie heard about the mutant snakes. Yeah, that’s right. She heard stories from one of the security guys on campus. Rattlesnakes, but not the normal rattlesnakes; these fuckers have evolved differently all alone on this mountain. They have a poison for which there is no known antidote. It isn’t hemotoxic, it’s neurologic. If you get bitten, you’re pretty much fucked. Clementine loved to sniff and rummage off the beaten path of our hikes, but Sadie heard about these special snakes, and she couldn’t abide the thought of little Clem getting her tiny nerves and brain all paralyzed. That security guy could be full of shit, but it’s too late now. Now, Clementine is stuck walking when she can, getting her happiness in smaller doses than she’s used to. I feel her pain. 

 

          I go to the coffee shop every morning. I read books and the skinny, boring local paper. I watch the weird people and listen to their conversations. All those years working in barrooms turned me into a world-class eavesdropper. I don’t feel bad about it, because I’m not a gossip. That’s an unforgivable sin in my mind. Anyway, I was in line there at the coffee shop and a woman with a service dog—the emotional kind—was behind me and that little mutt wouldn’t leave me alone. This was fine, because dogs are better than people any day of the week. She kept apologizing and I kept saying don’t worry about it and then I said my line that I say when this sort of thing happens, which goes like this:

              “I love dogs and dogs love me. No matter what bad things I’ve done in my life, that makes me feel like I’ve got something decent going on.” Something along those lines, varied depending on the company. It gets a grin or a chuckle and the doggie gets a pat on the head and we all go our own way. 

          The next day, at the same coffee shop, I was sitting outside drinking an iced almond milk latte because I live in California now, and that same woman came up. I didn’t recognize her without the dog and I thought she was going to chastise me for my cigarette smoke blowing her way. This town has made me an anxious smoker. But she didn’t mind. She reminded me that we’d spoken the day before and then told me she was two years clean and sober. She said what I’d said let her know that I was on that same train. She said only a recovering junkie talked that way to strangers. I talked that way when I was still fucked up, but whatever. 

          “Have you been to the meetings here? They’re very good.”

          “No,” I said. “But I will. They haven’t lined up with my schedule.”

          I had looked them up. They were at noon and seven-thirty, daily. I didn’t have a schedule, but noon was when Sadie and I got our free lunch at the campus cafeteria and seven-thirty was when Sadie and I watched our bad video rental. The nice woman gave me her card—she was a real-estate agent down in Palm Desert—and left. 

          That woman, for whatever reason, made me long for the camaraderie of a decent watering hole. I went to the late night spot.

              I go to the late night spot often. I tip well, even though I just drink Diet Cokes. I’m paying rent for the space on the bar stool. They have a pool table in the back room, which I enjoy. There aren’t any good players around that I’ve seen. And if you show up in the evenings, there’s some old, boring white guys playing white bread jazz. If that doesn’t take the starch out of your break shot, then you’ve got no soul. I go there in the afternoons. 

          That’s where I met Big Bobby Stone. That’s how he introduced himself, which is certainly a silly thing to do. But he really was the biggest man I’d seen on the mountain. He was probably six-foot-eight and pushing three bills. He dressed like a huge kid—cargo shorts that would’ve been pants on another man, a Mike Trout baseball jersey, a backwards ballcap. I was sitting at the bar and he barreled up beside me, demanding a Coors Light for each of his giant mitts. Then he turned from the bar to the jukebox. I was judgmental. I expected some new-country, chicken-fried nonsense. But I quickly learned that Big Bobby Stone loves Van Morrison. He played the whole Astral Weeks album on the jukebox. Then he played I’m Tired, Joey Boy, an underrated tune. I bought him a drink. I asked if he’d like to play pool. 

          The pool table at that joint has two dead rails, which is a pain in the ass since it’s the only table I’ve found here. But I’ve shot enough that I’ve learned a couple tricks—the rail is so dead that if you shoot from right to left with a little top-right English, the cue will hit and ride the rail like it bought a ticket, straight down to the corner pocket. If you’ve got an otherwise unreachable duck, and you’re playing some stranger or some novice that isn’t used to the lay of the table, you can do feats of magic. They’ll look at you like you’re a goddamn wizard.  

          I’ve had a fellow or two offer to buy me a drink after seeing that shot. I take them up on it, then hand it off to whoever is bending an elbow at the bar. That day, I gave the booze to Big Bobby Stone.

 

          There are women at the bar, too. Lean mountaineers that have lived here all their lives, that don’t plan to leave. There’s one young woman who’s here every day. She’s been friendly to me from the start. She asked me what book I was reading, asked me all about who I was and why I was there. It turns out she was once a student at Sadie’s school. Does she flirt with me? Probably. She has a killer body. But I can acknowledge that these days and move right along. It’s like looking at the mountains or pine trees. Lovely, but I don’t need to touch. See, I’m not as sick as I used to be! I make sure she knows about Sadie, knows that I’m a man on the move for love. I think sometimes she thinks that’s part of the game. That’s fine. I know I’ll behave. She likes to play pool, so there’s that. Every time I see her, she’s with a friend, sometimes two or three. She holds court, telling loud stories, having loud laughs. She’s a real star—the Queen of the Townies. This bar is her royal hall and I’m the jester, entertaining her and her ladies-in-waiting with trick shots. It’s something to do. 

        She tells me townie secrets, the news of her kingdom. Once, she said there was a weird sex cult that a lot of the older people around here are involved in. 

       “Well, not a cult, really,” she said. “But I know they all get high and read from weird books and fuck each other.” 

         Let those old folks swing, I say. Who gives a damn.

         Another night, she pointed out how there isn’t a police presence on the mountain. I’d already noticed. I saw a Riverside County Sheriff’s car once, but it was parked, empty at the barber shop. 

         “But there’s guys around—tough guys,” she said. “If something bad happens, they take care of it.”

         I’m not sure what I think about that. 

      And another night, she brought up Sadie, talked about being a poet, said she wrote poetry, too. She showed some to me. I’m no scholar, but I don’t feel like I’m talking out of turn when I say it was lousy. It was the kind of poem a young girl on a mountain would screencap on her phone and post on Instagram, begging for likes. You know what I mean. On top of that, she talks in outdated and tacky slang, which is about as uncool a thing a person can do. She described her twenty-second birthday as the bomb dot com. Even I know that’s lame.

         Sometimes, when she lays low to shoot, her large chest fills up her tank top and nearly spills out. She looks up to see if I’m looking. And of course I am, but I’m waiting to see how she’ll miss her shot, how I can run her out on my next turn. She takes that look the wrong way and winks her eye.  

             That’s fine, and here’s why, I think: 

         Girl, even though you’d talk dirty, you wouldn’t say the right things. I read your poem, heard your slang; I know. You’d shout the words and sound ridiculous. If you are a star, then my Sadie is the goddamn aurora borealis. She’s a quasar, spinning and flashing. She’s Cassiopeia. She’s that big bear constellation, whatever it’s called. She’s massive, the whole picture, and that’s where it’s at. 

          You’re a good kid, sure. But you’re simply small light. 

 

          I saw Big Bobby Stone the next day at the coffee shop. Gigantic in the sunlight—lord, he really is a big man! This town must feel extra small to him. He was shooting the shit with some old fart. Big Bobby had a real charisma to his voice, even while exchanging meaningless pleasantries. He sounded like a rock ’n roll horn section and I couldn’t help but listen in. 

          “How’s it been, Big Bobby?” the old man asked. “Still going on all those hikes?” 

          And Big Bobby tore into a sax solo of a story, like something out of a Gary U.S. Bonds song. He told the guy he was hiking a lot, but he was mostly—get this—looking for that Irishman from last winter. You know, the one who went off trail in the snow and never came back

          It only got weirder. 

       “His bank accounts are still open,” Big Bobby said. “And there’s a reward being offered. Mysterious people in Cork or somewhere.” 

          He kept on, boisterous, really chewing the hell out of the scenery, explaining how the county sent men to look for him. They checked the bottom of the mountain in case his sad carcass had rolled all that way down. The cadaver dogs didn’t sniff a thing. The county gave up. A lot of folks, Big Bobby said, figured he was a sly sort of weirdo and it was all a ruse. That he was likely living his best life on the California coast with a different identity.  

        “But here’s the thing,” Big Bobby said. “Those bank accounts haven’t been touched. And they’re big, too.”

          Big Bobby suddenly became aware of how loud his voice was. He looked around the coffee shop patio, like he’d revealed a secret to everyone there. He saw me looking at him. He didn’t recognize me. 

          “To Van the man,” I said and raised my coffee cup. His eyes changed with remembrance. 

          “My dude!” he said. 

          “You wanna shoot some more pool tonight? I’ll pay for the jukebox.”

          “Hell yes,” Big Bobby said. 

 

          I have bad nights, sometimes. I even bought a bottle. I went that far. Sadie was out of town, visiting a friend who’s in law school in Irvine. I had a weekend to myself. The loneliness was palpable. It was just a pint, but it cost as much as a fifth in Florida. I looked at it. I opened it up. I smelled it. It smelled so nice I wanted to shove my whole nose into the bottle, to snort it up like a drug, to choke on it and come up coughing like a kid who took a bad jump into a swimming pool. I poured myself a glass. I looked at that, too. It made me want to cry—like I was seeing my dead father or an old dead friend. I didn’t drink it. I just looked at it for a while and appreciated the beauty. I tried to pour it back in the bottle and some spilled off the rim and over my fingers and hands. A terrible waste. I wanted to suck at my own digits. I felt like a pervert. I felt like a vampire. I washed my hands and hid the bottle under the sink. 

          After a few minutes, I took the bottle back out and carried it with me to the car. I drove downtown, to find someone to give it away to, someone who would appreciate it and get properly fucked up. I went back to the late night spot. My sponsor would flip their shit if they knew about the bottle. My sponsor would ask why tempt yourself so much? My sponsor would say spending time in bars, using pool as an excuse, is a sign that I’ve already relapsed in my mind. My sponsor would claim I’m what the Big Book calls a dry drunk. My sponsor would say I’m not working the steps. They’d be right about that. 

        But here’s the truth: I don’t have a sponsor. I haven’t been to a meeting in months. But I’ve been to enough of them to know what a sponsor would say, what my sponsor in Florida did say. Another truth: I like torturing myself. The pain and desire give me that old high of wickedness, and then the act of withholding gives me a new high of righteousness. I am strong—for once in my life!—in those moments. 

         When I entered the room, I was met by a riff from Thin Lizzy’s Night Life and I knew Big Bobby was already there. What was it with him and Irishmen? Shortly, we were on that wonky table. 

          A couple strangers came in, some of those weekend judges. They ordered Old Fashions and specified a rare brand of rye, asked the bartender if she’d ever heard of it. They sucked. They came up to me and Big Bobby and asked if we’d like to play Scotch doubles. I think they were watching me and wanted to make sure I couldn’t run them out. We whooped them anyway. I set up Big Bobby for an easy side pocket kiss. All he had to do was stop the cue ball and I’d have the eight lined up, straight and true. But Big Bobby hit too low, drew the cue back a good six-inches. 

          “Goddamn, I’m sorry,” Big Bobby said. “I really messed up the leave.” 

          I took inventory of the table: the cue wasblocked from the eight. But that magical, unique trick shot I’d been perfecting for weeks was right there, showing its pretty little ass. What a glorious accident. Oh, Big Bobby Stone, you perfect man. You haven’t messed up a thing. 

          I walked around the table, feigning befuddlement. I asked one of the strangers: “Will you buy me and my friend a drink if I sink this shot?”

          The man kept his expensive jacket on, wore his hair combed in a way that he probably hadn’t changed since he went to some prep school in the eighties. He studied the table, rubbed his chin like he was looking at fine art and pretending to understand it. He laughed out of his dumb face. 

          “Kid,” he said. “If you make that, I’ll buy you a whole bottle, one shot at a time.”

          Well, your honor, I’m not your kid. And I surely hope your billfold is fat enough for these high-altitude prices. 

          I lowered my lance, took thoughtful aim.

          Abracadabra!

 

     The stranger kept his word. Big Bobby Stone accepted each round gratefully, two at a time. He got bonkers drunk. He grew sentimental, proclaiming his love for me, for the stranger supplying the booze, for the girl bringing the glasses, for squirrels scurrying around outside. It could’ve been obnoxious, but not from Big Bobby. He was an honest man. 

          We sang along to the jukebox, even ventured across the Irish Sea and put on the Kinks and the Stones. It was nice to have a friend. And since friends have secrets with one another, I wanted one between us. I brought up the dead Irishman.

          “Oh, dude,” Big Bobby said. “This shit is crazy.”

        And he was off, excitedly telling me all the same things I’ d heard him say outside the coffee shop earlier in the day. 

          “Have you heard of these incurable rattlesnakes?” I asked. “Maybe they got him.”

          “The mountain can kill you in a hundred ways,” he said. And then: “I’m getting close. I know I am.”

          To prove it, he showed me a hand-drawn map he kept carefully folded in the inner pocket of his denim jacket. He had drawn dozens of paths. He used a red marker on the ones he’d already explored. He even drew animals he’d seen along the way. It was an intricate, splendid thing. 

       “He’s somewhere up there and I’m going to find him,” he said. The strangers brought over another round. Sweet Thing was on the jukebox. Big Bobby set his map down and raised the two glasses into the air, toasted them together. 

          “To Van the man!” he said. He went to the bar to get change for the pool table and I took his little piece of art and folded it up and stuck it in my pocket. 

 

          Big Bobby Stone found me at the coffee shop the next morning. He was so torn up about losing the map. I felt awful. He asked me about it. He plead with me to search my memory. I thought he was going to take me in his big paws and crush me out of grief. I told him I looked at the map when he showed me but didn’t see it after that. The next day, I saw him again and lied some more, told him I went by the bar and asked them and they didn’t have it, either. Oh, Big Bobby, see how I tried? But it wasa ragged piece of paper, I said. Any decent employee trying to keep a clean establishment would see it unattended and throw it right out. Big Bobby Stone was in a lot of pain when I said that, worse today than yesterday. He looked terrible. I felt like a top-shelf asshole. 

          But when he was out of sight, I felt that good, wicked high. I straight-up stole his adventure. It was harmless. When he got over the initial loss, he’d have a good time retracing his steps. It was all bullshit, anyway. In fact, I got a little angry thinking about it. You know what you can do, Big Bobby? Have a drink. You’ll feel better. 

             Me—I had other things to do. 

 

            So here I am, farther still from civilization, following a homemade map. I’m way up on the mountain. This is rugged country. Everything is tough. The squirrels up here are as big as Clem. They look like they do chin-ups every morning. The air is thin and dry and my lungs feel like they’re made out of canvas, stretched tight. Up here, I can see everything, I think. I can see down to the slope where wildfires ripped up the country only a month before we got here. Things are crawling again and already beginning to grow. I’ve been up here for hours, looking hard at Big Bobby’s map. Honestly, I can’t make sense of it. I was expecting a wild adventure, a scavenger hunt, a test. I figured I’d get to an endpoint and Big Bobby would already be there, standing over the Irishman’s corpse. He’d be wearing a fur hat or smoking a cigarillo and he’d look at me and say what took you so long? One, or maybe both of us, is a sorry fool. The sun is giving up on me. I tried to set up my tent before it got dark, but I’m a city boy, and one slight breeze pulled the tent pegs—is that what they’re called?—right out of the sandy earth. The whole thing came down. I couldn’t fold it up the neat way it had been in its bag before. I pushed and shoved until it was mostly in place. Now I’m sitting here. I won’t make it down before it gets black, but I’ve got a flashlight. I’ve got the bottle, too. I never gave it away. It’s too precious, I guess. There’s noise all over this mountain—birds and ground squirrels everywhere. Those evil rattlers have got to be around, too. I sit and listen for them. I look at the bottle and wait for the sound. Sadie is probably worried about me; my phone says no service. I hate to make her worry. I worry I make her miserable. She doesn’t drink much and doesn’t do any drugs. But she didn’t fall in love with a sober man. She had a real joie de vivre when we first met. Maybe it’s the high school kids that make her weary, but I can see she’s not as happy as she used to be. My sponsor would say that’s my bad brain talking. I hope they’re right. I take that stupid bottle and pour it out, watch the brown potion muddy up the dirt at my feet. I roll up Big Bobby’s map and stick it into the bottle, pirate-style. I throw the damn thing into the woods. 

 

         It’s a miracle that I make it down the hill in the dark. I only slip two or three times. Back at my car, I figure it’s such a miracle that I should celebrate it, so to the late night joint I go. 

       Big Bobby isn’t there. Neither is the Townie Queen. Some guys I’ve never seen are on the table, but they’re playing bar rules, so I don’t bother with them. A new bartender is working. He looks at me sideways when I order my Diet Coke. It’s like I’m a stranger all over again. I’m thankful for that. 

       I’m thankful Sadie hasn’t left me yet, even though she could’ve thirty times and no one would have blamed her a bit. And—lord!—I’m thankful for our nights together, for that hustle. The guys playing pool are proudly singing along with a country song—go west, young man. Haven’t you been told? California’s full of whiskey, women, and gold. I wish Big Bobby was here. I feel guilty I let him down. I play Van Morrison on the jukebox. I’m thankful I’m clean enough to feel the blues. 

           Someone at the end of the bar, an inpatient and unimportant shadow, holds up their drained glass and shakes it at the bartender. What an asshole. What an ugly and toxic rattle that sound is and goddamn how I hate it. And yet, as Van the man would say, I am the brother of this snake

           There isn’t a cure. I know it. You do what you can, I guess. That’s where it’s at. 

           Any joy you find in this harsh world—revel in it. 

William Russell Wallace received an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana, where he also served as Editor-in-Chief of CutBank Literary Magazine. He is the winner of the 2018 Yemassee Fiction Prize and his work has recently appeared in Carve Magazine, carte blanche, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Idyllwild, California.

 
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