By Cathryn Hankla
Snakeman walks to his mailbox, a short hike down a steep gravel drive, and pulls two government-blue envelopes, one a month old and one just-issued, like aces in a bad hand, from the miss mash of brittle discount store circulars and competing church bulletins. After scribbling a signature on the checks, he sets the preaddressed bank envelope in the mailbox and raises the red flag.
Snakeman does not sport a bushy beard or even a mustache. He achieves smooth skin with a few swipes of a straight razor polished against an old leather strop and uses a scrap of side mirror in which to study a small portion of his face. He has no insurance or retirement plans, nothing but a healthy, compounding bank account many states to the north, in the names of Cynthia or Chip Grenada. Compliments of the federal government, by way of a deceased parent, the checks were supposed to have stopped when he turned eighteen.
He shakes out two plastic bags from his hip pocket, dumps the junk mail in one, and starts scanning the ditch for discarded bottles and cans. People who use the sacred Earth as their dumping ground will someday discover that the Earth is going to trash them back. That’s his opinion. He’s prepared to wait a hundred years just to see it happen.
He passes a sad, sagging shack of a house. Parked beside it are two pickups and three cars, but the yard is nothing more than pounded dirt, the porch a precarious mess of rotten boards. Sometimes when he passes this way he’s startled by spurts of honking from one of the trucks. Inside, he’s seen a small huddled form that never looks up. He wonders what the story is there. Snakeman plucks a beer can from the brittle underbrush and chucks it in his bag.
If anyone asked, he might consider telling the story of his own life, but he goes weeks without anyone’s so much as waving at him, except for the kid from the next farm over.
“ Hi, Snakeman.” Mitch breathes heavily, having just raced to catch up. His parents let him roam the vicinity without much supervision, and, for that, Snakeman figures he could shake their hands. These days, kids are just too coddled and scheduled, he thinks.
“ Metal and glass in this one. Trash in the other.” Snakeman keeps a steady pace, jangling cans.
“ There’s one!” Mitch bends to snatch a crushed Bud from the ditch. Heavy with water from recent rains, it sloshes in his hands. Mitch holds out the full can like a stinking fishing worm. “Yuck.”
“ Just empty it,” Snakeman says.
A dingy liquid, equal parts rainwater, beer, and mud, glugs out. Then Mitch drops the aluminum into the bag and spies a couple more cans for the collection, along with a soggy brown paper bag.
A low-rider pickup whooshes past, its gust brushing Mitch back from the shoulder. He falls in step behind Snakeman, following single file.
“ My dad has a new rotary tiller,” Mitch volunteers.
“ That figures,” Snakeman answers, without looking back.
“ It’s quicker,” Mitch says.
“ I like to do things slowly,” Snakeman says, bending down to snare a nearly concealed can from a thatch of needles beneath a pine tree. “People should keep their detritus in their cars until they stop near a trash can.”
“ They don’t,” Mitch says. He’s heard it before and doesn’t need to ask the meaning of “detritus.”
“ Would you look at that?” Snakeman points to a dark, brain-like clot on a stalk. “Some kind of false morel,” he muses.
Mitch reaches for it.
“ Poison,” Snakeman says.
Mitch pulls away sharply from the mushroom, then spots some cellophane.
“ We’re the trashmen of the roadside, you and I,” Snakeman says. They both focus quietly on their job of retrieval. Soon, new spring growth of kudzu, honeysuckle, and grass will make spotting cans and bottles harder.
“ My dad’s considering running for office,” Mitch announces, clearly parroting the exact words he’s heard from his dad.
“ What office?” Snakeman has never voted in any election. Even in seventh grade, he avoided voting for class officers.
“ I don’t know. It’s for the good of the party,” Mitch says.
“ Which party, then?” Snakeman asks.
“ I don’t know.”
“ Well, I guess one’s as good as the other.”
Mitch screws up his mouth to respond but nothing comes out. They finish canvassing both sides of a small segment of the road, and with their bags bulging they turn up Snakeman’s gravel drive.
Mitch fidgets as he tries to keep pace.
“ Are you coming or going?” Snakeman asks.
“ I’ve got to pee,” Mitch admits.
“ Well go ahead. There’s no one to see you. I’ll just walk on up the hill.”
“ Right here?” Mitch asks.
“ Stand with your back to the main road. No one will see you.”
Mitch squirms and relents. “Okay. I’ll catch up.”
Snakeman hikes forward about twenty feet and pauses, back turned. He well remembers the modesty of children. No one has ever seen Snakeman pee. He carries his version of the Motorman’s Friend and never stops at rest stops or uses public facilities unless he can lock the door behind him. He’s learned not to draw attention to himself. “People can be cruel,” his mother warned him when it all started. It all started when they learned that Cynthia, their adopted daughter, had actually been born with an “indeterminate gender,” which to them might as well have been an event out of “Believe It or Not,” or worse, a medical journal.
When the hormones kicked in at puberty, something fell out of Cynthia—a penis and one testicle. Cynthia also retained a vagina and an ovary, although she never menstruated. It was all pretty confusing. The doctors offered nothing but “reassignment surgery.” At the end of a year of home schooling, Cynthia emerged from her room and elected to live as Chip, without the surgery.
Snakeman wonders if Mitch is ever teased about his bright red hair. He can hear Mitch’s footsteps in the gravel behind him. “Better?” he asks.
“ I was about to pop.” Mitch straightens his clothes, pulling his windbreaker into place.
“ And an ugly sight that would be.” Snakeman laughs, and the two walk to the cabin.
Mitch helps with the planting. He says he likes this small garden patch, so different from his dad’s huge rectangle.
By the use of tiers, the fifteen-by-fifteen plot of ground has become a lushly productive garden. Snakeman tills in horse manure from a stable he cleans, plants restorative crops of rye grass, and keeps a well-turned compost pile to supplement the soil. About the time the last of his canned tomatoes dissolve in his mouth, his dark greens need planting. Around the gardening cycle, he chops wood and hunts.
For ten years he has rented his cabin. After getting a couple of literature degrees, he settled down where he’d landed, more or less, about a hundred miles from the university. Living slow, he knows how much time it takes a cutting or a seed to root, sprout, and bloom. As his thirties crested and then descended toward their conclusion, he felt a new stirring in himself. He began to long for something more, even if he could not, now at forty-two, yet name it.
“You reap what you sow, you know,” Mitch says, dropping seeds into
“ Is that right?” Snakeman says evenly.
“ If you live by the sword you die by the sword,” Mitch proclaims, then adds, “or something.”
Snakeman goes back to hoeing.
“ Righteousness begets righteousness.” Mitch starts up again. Like most of the folks in the valley, Mitch’s family attends the Baptist church up the road. It seems a little heavy on the Old Testament.
“ What is righteousness?” Snakeman asks Mitch.
“ Everyone knows that.”
“ An easy one. What is it, then?”
Mitch carefully plants some more seeds before answering, “I guess I’ll have to ask my dad.”
“ I’d like to hear what he would say.”
In early summer, while Snakeman rocks on his porch one evening after a rainstorm, he hears a commotion down on the road. It isn’t the sound of metal on metal, but more like the popping of a giant balloon. Preceded by the squealing of brakes, the odd noise is followed by the slamming of a door. Then a female voice looses a vigorous “Goddamn!”
Muscles aching from weeding, he rises from his rocking chair with a sigh and hustles to see if anyone has been hurt.
About thirty yards south of his mailbox he sees a sight to behold: a black angus collapsed in a heap, with its head twisting back and forth as it moans in agony. Nearby, a woman in a blue, tie-dyed dress stamps her foot, repeating, “Goddamn, Goddamn, Goddamn.” The woman cannot look at the animal and is shaking her head toward the ground.
The front of her car has buckled into a snarl, and ghoulish green radiator fluid seeps over the pavement. Smoke curls from the busted hood. Snakeman knows in a glance that the compact car and the cow are goners. As he approaches the woman, he hollers, “Are you all right?”
“ What does it look like?” she answers. “Everything’s just great.” She gestures at the cow. “Jesus, God. Can’t you do something for it?”
“ I’m afraid all I could do is shoot it, and I didn’t bring my rifle.”
“ Goddamn,” she says again.
Just then the cow gives out a deep keening and gives up the ghost as its head lumps onto the road. Snakeman walks over to investigate. Strangely, there’s no visible wound. “It’s dead now,” he announces.
“ Jesus, God,” the woman says. “I’m a cow killer.”
He examines the orange tag in the furry warm ear. “It’s official. This animal belongs to Blockman.” He points west, over the fence. “Back there, I think.” Snakeman turns toward the woman, who is rubbing her neck. “Is your neck hurt?”
“ I’m fine. What the hell was his cow doing out here?”
“ The allure of greener grass, I suppose.”
“ Very funny. Who’s going to pay for my car?” she asks. “How am I going to get to the university?”
“ Is that where you’re from?”
“ That’s where I was going. To take some summer classes.”
“ Do you have insurance?” he asks.
“ For cow collisions?”
“ For acts of God,” he says.
“ If you think that’s what this is then I want another god,” she says. “Of course, I have insurance, but that’s not the point.”
“ You were lucky, you know.”
“ Lucky. Goddamn. Look at my car. My car is five years old, and I can’t replace it for what I’ll get. Shit.”
“ Is there anyone you can call?”
No. Everyone I know is gone for the summer, doing research in
“ Everyone’s in Nepal?”
She glares back at him. “What’s your name?”
“ Chip Granada. We’d better get your car off the road. Get in and steer,” he says, backing off the last word.
She shoots him a look. “I’m Caroline.”
Positioned at the rear bumper, he commences to shove. The steering column is locked, so he just barely gets the car off the road. It stops, balanced on the brink of the ditch.
Snakeman takes her emergency flashlight and flares the dead cow. A pickup trolls toward them. The two men hauling an assortment of rusted turbines offer to pull the carcass off the road with their chain.
Without looking once at Caroline or asking how she is, they mutter “poor critter” a certain number of times. “Insides are busted. Can’t even eat it,” the shorter one sullenly allows.
They’re going to drive over to Blockman’s and break the news, report the accident and send the deputy on up to the cabin.
“ Okay with you?” Snakeman asks Caroline.
“ If you don’t mind my hanging around.”
“ Fine, then.”
Chip retrieves her bags from the trunk but leaves the book boxes for later. “I’ll get my truck,” he says.
“ Oh, come on.” She rolls one bag up the driveway, jerking it over the gravel, and Chip carries the other bag.
At his threshold, he drops the bag and stoops. “Look at this.” He points to a group of slender white stalks bowed at their tops like candy canes sucked of their red stripes.
“ Mushrooms?” Caroline asks.
“ Indian Pipe. Wild flowers with no chloroform. No color, but they’re flowers.”
“ Strange,” Caroline says.
He is used to that reaction.
“ Beautiful,” she adds.
His ears perk up at that. He takes her to see the Indigo Milky safe in the cabin’s shade. He breaks open the cap for her to see how the white meat blushes blue at the scar.
She leans over him, almost whispering. “I’ve never seen a blue mushroom.”
“ Now you have,” he tells her.
He opens a couple of beers, and they settle into the rocking chairs on his porch to wait for the deputy.
“ It’s a good thing you didn’t hit a cow in Nepal,” he says.
“ Yes. I’d probably be in jail.”
Fireflies pulse over the field below his house. The flickers rise and fall, appear and disappear, in a pattern he cannot predict.
“ Beautiful,” Caroline says again.
Chip decides against telling her the function of the dancing lights or that the males make the brightest, fastest flashes.
“ Where are you from?” Caroline asks.
“ Maine,” he said. “And you?”
“ Virginia. Double DAR. I thought you sounded different.”
“ So, you have papers.” Snakeman chugs his beer.
“ Yes. A string of gentleman farmers followed by factory workers, followed by public school teachers.”
“ That’s you?”
“ Yes. Is there a motel around here?”
“ You could sleep on my couch, and I’ll drive you to the university tomorrow. What time do you need to be there?”
“ By the afternoon.” Caroline hesitates. “Are you sure it’s all right?”
“ I’m trustworthy,” he says.
“ I mean, I don’t want to put you out.”
“ I’m on my own schedule here,” Snakeman says.
The next morning, as they pull onto the main road, Mitch flags them down.
“ Hey, Snakeman, can I go?”
“ Naw, Mitch. I’m going too far. Be back later.” He rolls up his window and picks up speed. He’s feeling a little tired. It was hard to sleep with someone else under his roof.
“ Snakeman?” Caroline asks. “Should I be alarmed?”
“ We saw a timber rattler thick as a man’s arm one day. Now Mitch seems to think I know something about snakes.”
“ Do you?”
“ Only two poisonous snakes in this state. We saw one, and copperhead’s the other.”
“ That’s enough,” Caroline says.
“ I read as much in a field guide.”
When Caroline gets out at the car rental agency, she seems
to brush his arm on purpose. Then she hands
him her number. “If
the deputy needs it,” she says.
He drives home in a fog, and the next thing he focuses on is Mitch, who flags him down again. He stops, and Mitch climbs in.
“ What gives with the lady? My dad told Mom that some woman in hot pants killed a cow and stayed at your house last night.”
“ Close enough,” Snakeman says, glimpsing the tale the two guys must have told Blockman. Their version was all over the valley by now. Sure enough, when the deputy shows up two days later, he’s already gotten their version of the story. Embellished with hot pants. “Ride home?” Snakeman asks.
“ Your place,” Mitch says.
“ Not much going on there.” Snakeman says, ready for some down time.
“ Let’s weed,” Mitch says, flicking back a thick red curl dangling over one eye.
“ Ok, then.” Snakeman has had more company in the last twenty-four hours than in the past month, but so be it.
The two are bent double, pulling weeds, when a plain black car slurs to a halt. Mitch looks toward the sound. “Uh-oh.”
“ What?” Snakeman asks, jerking a stubborn weed.
Mitch’s mother is there in an instant. “I told you to stay in the yard. What did I tell you?”
Mitch hangs his head and sighs heavily.
Snakeman stands still, eyeing the woman. Her blond hair is drawn back in a smooth bun, and she wears a belted, shirtwaist dress held over from the 1950s. The effect of the two things together makes her a matron twenty years her senior.
“ Get in the car. Wipe your feet first.”
Snakeman encourages Mitch to heed his mother, “We can finish
“ He knows better,” she says. “His father told him to stay away from you, from here on out—on account of that, that, woman up here last night.”
“ What?” Snakeman nearly laughs.
“ Don’t you,” then she stops herself. “We don’t want no trouble.”
“ She was stranded,” he says, wondering why he needs to offer an explanation. It’s absurd, all of this because a woman spent the night at his cabin?
“ We want you to stop hanging around our son.” She wraps an arm around Mitch’s shoulders and pulls him toward the car. “Get in.”
“ Snakeman—” Mitch starts.
“ And hush,” she cuts her son off.
Snakeman watches the black car flee. Fear rises in him. He has seen how things can turn from bad to worse without much transition; how folks can change your life by what they say: truth the first victim with reputation quickly following. It shouldn’t work that way, but it does. What would people say if they really knew?
The weekend is quiet. Early Monday night he picks up the phone and calls Caroline. Nothing to report except that the wrecker got her car. He has to leave a message: “Caroline, this is Chip, er, Snakeman,” he begins. He leaves his number. Then the wait ensues.
He tries to read, settles for a beer. His mind wanders. Then
he thinks about taking a walk on the property, looking for
some downed wood, but it’s way too humid to build up the woodpile.
Maybe he should get in the bathtub for a soak.
About the time the water’s right and he’s stripped off his clothes, the phone rings. He wraps himself in half of an old cotton sheet he keeps hanging on a peg for these occasions and walks toward the kitchen. At least he wasn’t wet yet.
“ Yeah, Mitch,” he says.
“ I’m sorry.” Mitch starts to cry.
Then he hears a click and another click—or rather a slam.
Snakeman sighs and heads back to the bath water. Poor Mitch, he thinks. He has one foot in the water when the phone rings again. “Shit.” He jumps out, shakes off his foot. He runs for the phone, naked this time.
Upon answering he hears a series of clicks then nothing.
He pads back to his cooling bath water and sinks
into it. Just
tension ebbs from his shoulders, a loud knock resounds
on the cabin door. He rises from the water and
into his trousers, and pulls on a shirt. The rapping
escalates. There isn’t time to wrap his small breasts close to his
chest as he usually does.
Scowling through the glass is a broad-shouldered man. “May I help you?” Snakeman asks, cracking his door.
“ I’m Mitch’s father, Brett Logan.”
And in the same minute the phone starts ringing. Brett Logan pushes inside the cabin, past Snakeman, and answers the phone. “I told you not to call here again!” he shouts and bangs down the receiver.
“ What are you doing in my house?” Snakeman asks. What if it were Caroline calling?
“ I’m going to have you evicted for immoral behavior. We have a certain community out here, and we want to keep it that way. I’m Mitch’s father,” Brett Logan says again, breathing hard.
“ Mitch’s father, you are out of your friggin’ mind. Now go.” Snakeman holds open the door for him.
“ Put some clothes on!” Brett Logan says.
Snakeman reflexively clutches the top of his gaping shirt, afraid of what Brett Logan might have seen.
“ Just wait,” Mitch’s father says as he exits.
He screws up his courage and dials Caroline’s number. After
the second ring he hears two clicks in rapid succession. It sounds
like she’s answered and hung up.
When the phone rings again, he’s drowning his sorrows. Dare he answer? He swigs the beer and picks up the receiver.
Launched in mid-sentence, Caroline says “—-And just where do you get off being such a jerk? I don’t appreciate it.”
He holds the receiver away from his ear. “That was really shitty,” he hears her conclude.
“ It was Mitch’s dad. The kid.”
“ He thought Mitch was calling me again. I’m really sorry that happened,” Snakeman says.
“ Are you sure you’re not screwing with me?” Caroline asks.
“ It’s a long story, but no, I am not.”
“ If you’re a head-trip or something tell me now. The last one said we were soul mates, and now she’s in Nepal. If you have something against bisexuals, just say so. I don’t know why I’m even telling you this. Forget it.”
“ I don’t have anything against anyone,” Snakeman says. “But there is something you probably should know about me.”
Caroline releases her breath in a sigh. “Well.”
“ It’s probably irrelevant—-we’re just friends, right?”
“ I guess we’re really not anything. We just met. You’d better tell me, though. I don’t like surprises. I’ve had enough of them lately.”
I’m a little different. It’s not just my accent,” Snakeman
says. He sips his beer for courage. He can hear Caroline’s
heart beating, or he thinks he can. Maybe it’s his own
heart. Why does he feel the need to confess? She’s right,
he doesn’t even know her last name. “I’m sort
of in-between,” he manages to say.
“ If you’re going through a divorce, I’m definitely not interested. Nothing personal, it’s a policy decision.”
“ It’s nothing like that,” he says.
“ Good.” Caroline pauses, then blurts, “Are you involved with Mitch’s father?”
“ God, no.” He should stop right now, he thinks. Instead he adds, “But I’m not a regular guy, either.”
“ Good. I hate them,” Caroline says. Then she takes a deep breath he can hear her hold on to.
“ You might want one after you hear me out.”
“ Try me.”
The words give him strength. “I was born a girl and now I’m more of a man,” Snakeman says.
“ You’re a transsexual?”
“ No. I haven’t had any surgery, and I’m happy the way I am. I was also happy the way I was. It wasn’t anything I chose. It just happened.” He pauses to chug the half beer he has left. “I have the male equipment—or most of it. I have a little bit of the female equipment, too, but it’s not in working order.”
“ You’re a gender outlaw, that’s what you’re saying.”
“ A what?”
“ Outlaw. Gender outlaw,” Caroline says. “That’s probably what brought us together.”
“ I think it was a dead cow,” Snakeman says.
“ Well, there’s that.” Caroline laughs.
“ What do you think?” Snakeman asks. “Could you go out with me? If you can’t, just say so. I’ll understand completely.”
“ It’s hard to say how things’ll turn out. You never know,” Caroline says, and Snakeman silently agrees. “But this is how they begin.”