Notes From the Small Pond: Eleven miles from Mexico, three weeks ago
This really happened.
South of Houston by a lot and hotter'n hell. Jungle humidity. Mosquitoes like a King-Kong movie, humming like a warehouse of box fans.
"We like to cruise these river bottoms this time-a-year, cuz there's not a lot a water but plenty a wildlife."
Shotguns and ARs mounted. Handguns in belts. Lots.
"What kind of wildlife we talkin' about?"
"All kinds. First off, there's the 'gators, which we like to relocate on account of all the youngsters swimmin' in the streams and creeks around here, so we catch 'em around the neck and dump 'em in the pickup and relocate 'em south of here."
"As a heart attack, Mister, and then we also kill off the wild boars that raise hell through there and here's a photo on my iPhone of about ten dead boars we shot that the government around here blesses us for."
"I'm almost speechless..."
"Ha! Fricken greenhorn!" A slap on the back like a crosscheck at Pine Valley.
Ten minutes later we're in what could be Vietnam or Ghana. Joseph Conrad stuff.
Beautiful, verdant and damp, the grass is chin-tall and seething with insects.
Banana spiders, dozens, rain onto our laps and down the backs of our shirts, golf-ball-sized, iridescent yellow and green, like aliens, scuttling and snapping and clicking like a Japanese science fiction movie. I feel my sanity leaving and hold my breath not to scream, knowing the first scream would be the trumpet that broke down the Jericho's wall of myself as I know myself. Me in an insane asylum. "American Horror Story," Jessica Lange feeding me porridge in her habit, poisoning. ("I'm from Cloquet too, Honey," her kissing my forehead, seductively, matronly).
"Damn, Dude," I say, slapping spiders and pulling out their fangs, which they leave in the flesh, even after being crushed, a vampire insult. "This sucks."
I look over and the guy I'm with is crying. He's 28. Muscles almost as big and round and hard as mine used to be. Almost.
"I'm not down, Dude," he says, his breath hitching. "I'm not fricken down, Brah."
... Two hours later it's twilight. We're back at the ranch and the hosts beg our forgiveness for the banana spiders and the heat. We hang in the air-conditioned garage. The swamp/jungle at the edge of the driveway warns, the air like waterboarded oxygen.
"I made y'all some pulled pork and some tamales. Eat up yer fill."
We eat. Like prisoners. The twenty-something daughter emerges, eventually, with her barely toddler son, walking that drunken sailor stumble walk, dressed only in a diaper, cute as your favorite.
"You Yankees wanna know anything?"
I bite like I always bite.
"A'course. We wanna know anything/something/everything."
She does an about-face and returns with an eight-foot python draped around her shoulders, thick as a log, grey as a cloud from hell.
All the Yankees in the garage draw breath and look at each other.
I look at the daughter.
"What in the ______ is that?"
"This is Smokey," she says. "He's gentle as a moth."
"Not really fond of moths," I say. "But I like gentle a lot." My colleague says,
"...'specially in snakes..."
She lays the snake down like a fire hose and pets it like anyone does when they think their pet is a child who doesn't have one, but this girl does and the disconnect is palpable and made worse when the toddler, whose name we haven't been told runs up to the reptile, whose name we have, and tries to lift it.
"Smokey," the daughter laughs and grabs it by the tail and drags it to the center of the garage floor while the little blond kid chases. The python writhes between the short shins of the toddler and figure-eights between his legs, skimming over his tiny fat feet, the kid giggling.
"Tickles, Momma!" he babbles and tries again to lift the beast, still twisting and coiling for position.
My blood pressure is to the moon and back. My heart races. Inside my head, my voice screams like a murder witness: Is No One Else Concerned Here?!?!
Meanwhile, the daughter repeatedly drags her pet by the tail, into the center of the garage, "Stay, Smokey," she says, as if talking to a dog.
A cat strides in. Turns out, the domicile, palatial and expansive, includes—in addition to a putting green, a tennis court, a bocce pitch and an Olympic badminton court—a kidney-shaped swimming pool, whose Italian marble deck is populated with feral cats, who consider the pool deck an oasis, away from the regularized depopulation of alligators.
The cat sniffs the snake, whose tongue sniffs back.
The daughter pulls the snake back into the center of the garage floor and barely interrupts the conversation about the relative value of Earl Campbell vs. Bum Phillips. The blond toddler does his best to seduce the python, which pays his respects and keeps the kid considered, languishing between his legs, but eyeing fresh, the cat.
As I watch and sip iced-tea and dream of my own bed with normal sized mosquitoes and humidity a dehumidifier can mitigate and a lawn, from which, no "Mud Buddies" emerge from the sewage-laden soil ("They're just mutated crawfish that evolve up from the lawn when it's wet enough and the sewage is mostly our own, so it ain't all bad but-cept when yer mowin' the grass and the yard sprinkler rains on ya.")
The snake snatches the cat. Roils around it in its murderous coil, immediately compressing, the smell of the snake's musk coming off its like a sin of rancid garlic. Its skin a silver sheen of sweat and reptilian adrenaline. The cat hisses and tries to bite, but can't and doesn't and its eyes roll back. Foam froths out of its jaws, which chitter and convulse, and the daughter and her parents scream a riot and descend on the snake with shovels and rake handles and cords and pry bars.
Slowly and laboriously, they work the snake back, inch-by-inch uncoiling it. After ninety seconds of screaming chaos, the work is wordless and silent, except for the sound of implements on the garage floor and the huffing of three breathless humans. The huge snake gleams. A half hour turns.
The silent toddler sucks his thumb and watches. His eyes and mind dart like hornets.
In 30 minutes the cat is free, but dead. Crushed.
"Fricken Smokey!" the daughter yells, breathlessly and grabs up the exhausted reptile. "Dang you; Dang you!"
It strikes her left forearm, just behind the wrist and begins its slow coil up her arm.
She wails, terrorized and exhausted from the previous fight.
Her parents wail too, incredulous.
I beg for sleep, can't look away, don't help.
The daughter tries to lift her arm as the snake climbs it. She tries to whack the snake on the workbench, the metal-edge of it, but the snake weighs sixty pounds and the daughter isn't up to it. Panic is everywhere and palpable, like an odor.
Her father ignites a blow torch and applies it to the skull of the snake, which intensifies its bite and the daughter howls.
The blowtorch is withdrawn.
"Pray to Jesus!" the mother implores.
The son is now asleep, thumb-in-mouth, diaper sopping, the cement floor his mattress. Someone covers him with my sweatshirt, not me.
The daughter takes a deep breath and extends the fore and middle fingers of her right hand, like a V. She stabs her fingers, repeatedly, with a staccato pace, into the eyes of the python, which doesn't react, initially, but does, eventually, and lets go.
Her arm cascades blood. Torrents and waves of blood. Towels and bed sheets are conjured. Her eyes roll back. She notices her son on the floor. She points, shaking her head.
"We'll get him to bed, " I hear myself say. "Don't worry."
Her dad has the python, now limp as a wet sock, and dumps it into its cage. Beneath it, a smaller cage of rats climb its walls. As ready to escape as me.