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Gila River Review
Lynne Hartke

Rattlesnake Man

            The summer when I was thirteen, I came face to face with my first Mohave, the most dangerous snake in the United States, with a toxin ten times stronger than other rattlers.  At the time I hadn’t been thinking about snakes. I had been more concerned about facing my grandfather, whose gray eyes, sharpened by years of searching for reptiles in the Sonoran Desert, didn’t miss much.

            It was just as I thought. Even with my sunglasses on in the airport terminal, Gramps noticed. I couldn’t fool him. “What did you do to your eye, boy?” he asked.  I was hoping he wouldn’t notice the faded yellow coloring around the socket.

            “Ran into my locker door.”

            “Did your mother believe that lie when you told it to her?”

            I squirmed uncomfortably. “Yeah.”

            Gramps grunted in disbelief. “Then why did she send you here?”

I stared in stunned silence at my grandfather’s back as he headed down to baggage. Ever since Dad died when I was nine, I had been coming here at least once a year. I thought Mom had sent me here for the usual guy bonding time, but now I wondered.  Had she heard about Frank?

#

            Frank Wilson stomped into my middle school the month before with his size thirteen Nikes and an attitude as deep as the Grand Canyon. I could have avoided him if his brain size matched his personality score, but as my rotten-stinking-bad luck would have it, Frank was smarter than he looked and he was in all my honors’ classes. Rumors around school said that Frank had been kicked out of his last junior high and I believed it. I also believed he drowned cats when he was six and stole money from first graders to finance his black licorice habit. Frank always had several licorice twists in his shirt pocket, which in any other guy would have been nerdy, but they only made Frank look meaner, staining his lips and tongue a garish black.
            
“Get out of my way, boy!” Frank snarled on his first day.
            
I glanced over my shoulder. He was inches away from me. I could see little bits of licorice between his front teeth and I knew I would never eat black jelly beans again. Any happy thoughts I had about walking behind Amy, the prettiest girl in eighth grade, and watching her short skirt swish against her long legs, were over. I moved to give him room, but not soon enough. Frank shoved me hard. I tripped. My textbooks and papers flew down the hall. Frank smirked.
            
Amy stopped her hip swaying and looked down at me from under her straight bangs. I hoped to see the same you-are-invisible-and-don’t-exist-in-my-universe look that she had been giving me for the past three months in History, but unfortunately, today, I had her attention. I suddenly knew what it felt like to be a pimple on her perfect complexion. “What a loser,” she said. I groaned. Somehow I knew I was going to be in trouble after that day and I was right. That was all the encouragement Frank needed to make my life miserable.

#

            The morning sun cast a golden haze over Gramps’ tan-colored block home in Apache Junction and I couldn’t stop the flood of memories as we pulled into the driveway. I had spent most Saturdays here with my dad when he was alive. Dad hadn’t been a drinking man, said alcohol messed up too many lives, so we swigged old fashioned root beers out of glass bottles and chewed on sunflower seeds, spitting the husks on the ground like real men. We worked on Gramps’ old pickup, using luck and a prayer and plenty of duct tape.

            I stepped out of that same pickup and headed to the front door.  A welcome sign hung over Gramps’ busted doorbell. The word WELCOME was spelled out using rattlesnake rattles. I traced the letter L with my finger. One of the rattles was loose and needed some Super Glue. It was dangling from the pointed tip. I smiled and walked inside.

            Mom never came with me on these trips to Gramps’ house and I understood why. It was not exactly a female-friendly place. His house smelled of Old Spice, yesterday’s fried bacon and fifty years of memories. It wouldn’t have surprised me to find out that the bug man who came monthly to spray for scorpions, actually sprayed testosterone through the air conditioning vents instead.

            The living room walls were covered with photos of Gramps with the snakes he’s captured – not wimpy garter snakes but rattlers – Diamondbacks and Mohaves and Sidewinders. My grandfather used to sell them to restaurants in Scottsdale and to other rich clients who wanted to offer rattlesnake meat on their exclusive menus. The research hospital at U of A also purchased his snakes so the venom could be extracted for antivenom. He was known as The Rattlesnake Man.

            I walked over to a six foot long mounted and dried snake skin that was stretched out on a varnished board. The skin was covered with distinctive diamond-shaped blotches, interspersed with lighter colored scales. I counted the number of segments on the rattler’s tail like I’d done many times before. Twenty.

            “That was the biggest snake your dad ever caught,” said Gramps setting my luggage on the floor. “Caught it by Fat Man’s Pass on South Mountain. One mean old Diamondback.”

            In those days I never got tired of hearing stories about my dad and fortunately Gramps never got tired of telling them. He went over to the fireplace and picked up a framed photo from the mantle. It was a picture of my dad as a teen, holding a three foot rattler. “Yep, your dad was a natural. He never liked any of that high-falooting snake catching equipment.”

            I nodded. I’d heard the story many times. How my dad would pin the snake down with his walking stick and then grab it behind the head. How Dad liked to put captured snakes in a cooler to put them into hibernation and then skin the snakes live so the entire skin would be preserved. How he cut the nerve going to the snake’s head with his hunting knife so if the snake did wake up, it couldn’t strike, but the fangs still had venom in them, so he had to be careful. Real careful. 
            
“What’s this?” I asked, picking up a small rattler that has been professionally stuffed.

            “I found that when I was cleaning out the garage.” Gramps smiled. “That little guy caused quite a bit of excitement, boy.”

            I cringed. I’d asked Gramps several times to not call me boy, but he kept doing it. Did you have a nice flight, boy? Is this all your luggage, boy? Want to stop for breakfast, boy? I’d told him to call me Jim, same as him. Same as my dad. I let it pass. “What happened?” I asked.

            “Your dad took that speckled rattler out of the cooler to show some of his school friends. They were holding it when it came out of hibernation.” Gramps chuckled at the memory. “It took us three days to find that snake again.” I looked down at the grayish pink snake in my hands. It sat coiled, preserved forever in the act of trying to bite those teenage kids, with its mouth wide open and fangs exposed.  I felt a shiver run through me.

#

            Frank stared at me with those same narrowed, unblinking eyes. He had gotten increasingly nasty—to the point that I started staying home pretending to have migraines, but when Mom started talking about taking me to a doctor, I knew I had to get back to school. Frank was waiting for me. He pushed me against the wall, cornering me. “Did you miss me, you ugly piece of crap?” he asked. Talking only made things worse, so I attempted to slip around him. Frank grabbed my arm, bruising the skin. “I’m watching you,” he said and I took it for the threat it was.

#

            “Remember this?” asked Gramps, bringing me back to the present. He held a photo of two people—my dad and me. I was wearing a purple baseball cap and a faded purple shirt supporting the Arizona Diamondbacks. I still had that baseball cap on the top shelf of my closet in L.A. In my hands was a two foot Sidewinder. Even in the small photo I could make out the hornlike protrusions over the snake’s eyes. My dad’s hand held mine as we both raised the snake, long and lifeless from our raised grip, in a timeless sign of victory. But I knew it was a lie because of two things the years have not erased from the picture—the disappointment on my dad’s face and the tears on mine.

            “Dad, what if it bites me?” I had asked him.

            “Son, I’ve been hunting rattlers for years and I haven’t been bitten yet.”

            “But it could happen, right?”

            “Not if you do what I tell you.”

            I tiptoed closer to the snake, my heart pounding faster and faster until it swallowed my breath. In my hands I held my own special walking stick with a Y-shaped end for pinning the snake to the ground.  Dad had given it to me for my ninth birthday. The snake saw me and coiled in warning. I froze.

            “Yeah, I remember,” I told Gramps. My dad ended up having to capture the Sidewinder. Dad told me we would try again another day, but there never was another day. My dad died soon afterwards in a rollover accident. A month later Mom and I moved to L.A.

            Gramps shoulders slumped as he put the picture down. In that moment he seemed frailer somehow. Older. He swallowed quickly once or twice before suddenly clearing his throat. “We’re going hiking,” he said.

            I stared at him in disbelief. “Hiking! You’re kidding me, right?” Gramps ignored me as he pulled out backpacks and other supplies from the closet. My hopes of spending a lazy afternoon by Gramps’ swimming pool were quickly dying, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Gramps always became restless when he spent too much time indoors and Dad had been the same way. It was as if living in the desert looking for rattlers made them too big to be contained within four walls. Even as an engineer, Dad had taken time every weekend to escape from the concrete. And now each time I came, Gramps dragged me up some dumb mountain.

            I had a sudden inspiration. “I don’t have any hiking boots.”

            Gramps looked down at my new Vans in disgust. He shook his head and left the room. I sighed in relief. No hiking for me today.

            “Try these.” In Gramps’ hands was a worn pair of hiking boots. “You’ll need this too,” he said as he tossed an old hat to me. It was an Indiana Jones style hat, comfortable, with a stain of dried sweat on the band. I knew without asking these items belonged to Dad.  He had been wearing them in the photo. It seemed strange that I hadn’t seen them until now. Why had Gramps saved them?

            The boots were a little big but with an extra pair of socks, I knew they would work. I put on the hat and went to look in the bathroom mirror, moving a dark bottle that was labeled Snake Venom – Do Not Drink.  I am startled to see Dad’s face staring back at me—younger, with braces and a lot of freckles—but still, the similarities were amazing. I wished I were tall and lean like him. Maybe then Frank would have left me alone.

            I saw Gramps approach in the reflection and I wanted to point out how much I looked like Dad, but I hesitated. My dad had been a rattlesnake catcher who wasn’t afraid of anything.  I knew—deep down—I wasn’t like him at all. Gramps stared at me in silence for several moments before announcing, “Let’s go, boy.”

            Boy again! I wanted to yell at him to stop calling me that, but I buried the words, mainly because of the sad look I had glimpsed on Gramps’ face. But that didn’t stop me from slamming the truck door hard, where the words The Rattlesnake Man were painted in faded red letters on the side panel.

After a short drive we arrived at the Peralta Trailhead. Gramps said we would be doing a four and a half mile loop up to the saddle where we would be able to see Weaver’s Needle. I sighed in resignation. This was not how I had envisioned spending my summer vacation.

            “Some folks say that there is gold buried in the shadow of the Needle,” Gramps said. I grunted in disbelief and walked over to read the notices posted on the bulletin board by the trail marker.  There was a large poster with a picture of a snake that read: Rattlesnakes may be found in this area. They will not normally attack unless cornered or disturbed. Give them distance and respect. Since rattlers mainly came out in the morning, I knew our chances of seeing a snake on this hike were slim, which was fine with me.

            The trail started out easy enough, winding through some wildflowers and a dry desert wash.  As the trail increased in elevation, I found myself struggling to keep up to the old man who was leaving me in his trail dust. Gramps might have been pushing seventy but I wouldn’t have known it today. I trudged along behind him, kicking at some loose pebbles. Sometimes I can still close my eyes and remember Gramps as I saw him that day—a part of the rugged desert wasteland in his khaki pants, loose buttoned shirt, brimmed hat and worn hiking boots.

            Gramps looked back at me and stopped under the shade of a green-barked palo verde. I sighed in relief. I was glad for the chance to rest. I could feel the sweat running down my back and collecting in the waistband of my shorts. I figured the temperature was already pushing a hundred degrees which explained why we had the trail to ourselves. It was time for a diversion. I had learned from my English teacher that asking questions about her granddaughter could eat up an entire class period. Maybe that same tactic would work here. “Gramps, what’s one of your best snake stories?” I asked.

            By his suspicious look, I suspected Gramps saw through my plan. After all, he hadn’t survived out in the desert all those years by being stupid, but he leaned on his gnarled hiking stick, lost in thought. “Well one of my best stories involves the border patrol.” He took off his hat and wiped the glistening sweat from his forehead with a faded red bandana from his back pocket.

            "Back when your dad was a teenager, the border patrol pulled us over when we were driving in southern Arizona. I don't know if they were looking for drugs or illegals or what, but they motioned us out of the line. I had a few buckets of snakes in the back. I got out and said, 'There's rattlesnakes in there.'”

            “‘Yeah we've heard that one before,’ they said. One officer ignored my warning and reached for one of the buckets.

            I yelled, ‘I'm serious! Don’t touch that bucket!’"
            He put his hand on the gun at his hip and pointed at me, ‘Sir! Sit down over there and shut up!’ So I did.

            “The officer took off the lid of a bucket with three Mohaves. Mohaves are mean buggers. Definitely not something to mess with. One of the snakes extended to its full length as it tried to escape, causing the border agent to scream like a girl. Yep, just like a little girl.

            “That agent wanted to give me a ticket but there was nothing he could do. Not a thing. I had my hunting license and was under the legal limit.” Gramps chuckled, “Your dad and I laughed about that for weeks."
            
I laughed too. Gramps looked happy, lost in memories. “How often do you catch rattlers now?” I asked.
            
The smile left my grandfather’s face. “I quit after your dad died.” He slapped the dust off his hat and put it back on his head. “Let’s keep hiking.” I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid. The break was over.

            I followed Gramps up the trail as it turned into switchbacks. By the time we reached the saddle, I was breathing hard. Gramps was already there, his backpack and walking stick propped against a pile of rocks. He was looking at Weaver’s Needle, a massive rock formation that he said rose a thousand feet from the desert floor. I was not impressed. I knew my friends were spending their summers hanging out at Magic Mountain or sleeping late or going to the beach and here I was melting into a puddle of sweat with a blister on my left ankle the size of a quarter listening to my grandfather talk about a giant rock. I knew if Frank ever found out, I was dead. I might as well tattoo a big L on my forehead for loser and be done with it. I turned to take off my backpack.  That’s when I saw the snake.

            A rattler was sunning itself a few inches from Gramps’ boots, his black tongue darting out of his spade-shaped head.  Automatically I looked at his tail like my dad had taught me to do. Although similar in appearance to a Diamondback, this snake had wider white rings above his rattle and knew I was facing the most dangerous snake in the U. S. I remembered Dad telling me the Mohave’s bite not only damaged flesh, but contained neurotoxin, a poison that could cause air passages to close. Out here, several miles from the trailhead, we would be in trouble. I sucked in my breath as fear rose inside me.

            The snake sensed danger and began to coil, shaking a warning with his tail. Gramps quickly side-stepped, trying to get out of the way, but he tripped over a boulder and fell on one knee. I heard his breath whoosh out of him—from the fall or from landing next to the snake, I didn’t know. The snake tensed, preparing to strike. Without thinking I picked up the walking stick and pinned the rattler’s head to the ground. The snake’s body writhed in an effort to get away. I reached down, grabbed the snake behind the neck and raised the rattler out of the dirt.

            A drop of venom hung from one of the fangs as the snake stared at me with its unblinking, lidless eyes. I tossed the hiking stick aside and grabbed him right above the rattle, on his twitching black and white banded tail and stretched him out—at least three feet. “Careful,” I heard Gramps say from somewhere in the distance, but another voice was speaking much louder.

#

            “Well, look who’s here.”

            I looked up from the urinal in alarm. I had avoided using the bathroom at school because of Frank, but I had been desperate. In the classroom I had the hope of a teacher keeping Frank in line. There was no such hope here. My heart began to pound and something cold and ugly coiled in my chest.

            “Why you looking so scared, boy? I’m not going to do anything.”

            The smell of licorice filled my senses, gagging me. I quickly zipped and turned to leave, but Frank slammed my head into the wall. He held me there with one massive arm, laughing, as he peed all over my shoes.

#

            The snake moved in my hands, returning me to reality. I dropped its tail. Sensing freedom, the rattler flung its tail back and forth, back and forth, like a pendulum, trying to wiggle loose. He was a seasoned desert veteran, used to fighting for survival. 
            
“Careful, boy,” Gramps said, brushing the dust from his pants with shaking hands as he stood next to me. I noticed he was favoring his right leg and that he had ripped a hole in his pants at the knee. I could see a trickle of blood, but I felt no pity.

            I glared at him as I snagged the snake’s tail. I felt a vicious, deep anger uncoil inside me. I made no attempt to contain it.  I struck out, shouting, “Why do you keep calling me boy? I’ve told you to call me Jim! Why can’t you remember one simple thing?” I lashed out with a venom I didn’t know I had in me.

            As I ranted, letting the poison fly, my grandfather watched me warily, but he did not cower under my attack.  I took a deep breath and let it out in one long compressed stream, saying through clenched teeth, “Don’t call me boy. My name’s Jim. Same as you.”

            When I was done, I felt lighter somehow, and a little dizzy. I wanted to sit down but I stiffened my back and stood straighter. Gramps said nothing. He stared at me, but I couldn’t interpret the look on his face. Finally he spoke, “Your dad caught his first snake on this trail. He was about your age too.”

            I was sure I had heard wrong. “I thought he was born catching rattlers.  I mean, you tell so many stories.”

            Gramps smile was sad. “After your dad died, stories were all I had left.” That silenced me. I wanted to say he still had me, but if he didn’t know that, words wouldn’t make it true. For the first time, I understood what my grandfather had lost. Gramps moved stiffly and bent down to pick up his walking stick and as he did, the hot desert sun hit me full in the face. I blinked. I had not realized I was standing in the shadows.  

            Gramps gripped my shoulder. He looked down at the rattler in my hands. “What do you want to do with that snake, Jim?” he asked.



Lynne Hartke is enjoying the writing classes at CGCC. She has been published in Woman's Day, The Chandler Tribune, Christian Parenting, Children's Ministry Magazine and the Spring 2010 edition of The Gila Review. She is a mom of four, wife, preschool music teacher and a breast cancer survivor. Lynne is also writer and director of We are the Voices, drama production about social injustices involving children.

 

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