THE BLOG

Rattlesnakes & The Moon

02/03/2014 10:50 am ET

The full moon shines into the bedroom. Scotty gets up, careful not to wake his wife, Sophie, and goes into the kitchen to take the insulin he forgot earlier. He feels betrayed by his body. He feels stupid for what he has done to himself.

In the living room he turns on the TV, keeping the volume all the way down. "Little Dork," he says to the dog sleeping on its back splayed out in the kennel. His daughters have been arguing for days about what to name that puppy.

Isabel comes with trailing blanket and pacifier in mouth, blinking to find Scotty sitting in front of the TV in the middle of the night. She is two years old but she insists on holding onto behaviors she should outgrow and Scotty doesn't see any harm. She carries a small rain stick. She says, "Daddy, what's wrong?"

He says, "I can't sleep. Come give me company." She climbs into his lap. She pokes the stick at a scab healed over a tiny wound on top of her foot. Scotty takes it away.

"What are you watching?" Isabel asks.

The TV glows, inaudible. Scotty looks into the picture. "Bogart," he says. "An actor from a long time ago."

"What's he saying? Turn it up."

"Nah, we don't want to wake the puppy," Scotty says. He leans to whisper in her ear. She smells like a pineapple. "He's saying, Here's looking at you, kid." Scotty keeps whispering mixed up lines from every long ago-romantic movie that he can remember and Isabel yawns and in time presses fingers to his lips. Shshsh. He rocks, holds her while she sleeps, until the end of the movie when Bogart pulls the Maltese Falcon from its wrapping.

Scotty puts Isabel to bed and takes the pacifier away. She smacks but still sleeps. He cups her cheek with his fingertips and turns her face to the side. He smoothes the folds out of the blankets. He is so afraid of smothering, even though she is past the age he should worry about that. He watches the moonlight on her face. She keeps sleeping and he almost wishes she would awaken and cry. He would take her back and sit in the chair and rock a while longer.

Scotty swore he'd never become a worrier but that's what he continues to do as he walks through the house to the next bedroom and checks on his twin daughters. They share a bed illuminated by a nightlight in the shape of an owl. They insist on doing everything together, and on the empty bed Molly refuses to sleep alone in, a stuffed panda bear holds a book while chimps and lions sit in a circle waiting to listen, for the children to come awake and bring their world to life again. Each of the daughters' eyelids flutter in dreams. They are four years old and different sizes now. When he looks at them, he wants his brother to see them, he wants to makes notes so he can describe them. His brother will be sent away to prison any day now and might be gone for years. He has said more than once, "I'm going to miss out on their growing up."

Molly is the smaller of the twins and has strawberry blonde hair that falls to her waist. She looks most like her mother and everything comes out right about her. The tangles smooth easily from her hair. Her clothes are never dirty. Holly has white blonde hair that curls in crazy places, like Scotty, and when it grows it grows unruly. Her mother has cut it short and the bangs are jagged. Holly drops things and spills on her pretty dresses. Yet despite being spacey, she remembers everything. They can't buy her enough books.

On the wall she has painted a curry colored sun. Below its glow, standing on the baseboard, smiles a boy with painted noodles for hair. He's holding onto bars and staring out happily. Uncle Abe, she's scrawled beneath her drawing, don't do drugs.

Scotty goes to his own bedroom and shakes his wife, Sophie, until she awakens. "Come here," he says.

"What is it?"

"Just come on. You'll see."

They stand in the girls' doorway. "What is it?" she whispers and he can see how frightened she is and that it's come off all wrong, and he's not sure what he was thinking, but he tries to explain anyway.

"We were like that," he says. "Me and Abe. We always took care of each other. I don't want to turn my back, just like I don't want my kids to ever turn their backs on each other."

"Scotty," Sophie shakes her head and walks away. "I'm asleep."

In the morning Scotty walks through his yard carrying Isabel. The yellow puppy follows, sniffing the ground. Scotty checks beneath the house for a rattlesnake den. He keeps finding Sidewinders in the yard but he can't find the place they come from. The screen door slams. He sees Sophie on the uncovered porch, squinting against the sun, holding the twins back until he gives the okay. When he trusts that the area is clear, he lets Isabel down and she runs on baby-fat legs, over the dusty, stickerless ground, to the swing set. Scotty has planted trees, but no grass. Grass would take more water than he can afford in this desert. The twins go cartwheeling past him with the puppy at their heels.

"Coffee?" Sophie calls.

"Too hot. Pour me some coke?"

He looks toward the mountains. The snow has shrunk farther on Mount Baldy. It got warm so early this year.

He sits on the porch drinking the Coke while Sophie dresses. He can hear her gargle in the bathroom and spit. She comes out with a hand full of mousse, which she dabs onto her hair. He rises, saying, "I'm going to the courthouse. I'll go by Mom and Dad's first."

Sophie sits on a chair and picks up an In Style magazine and a biology textbook. He looks at the textbook and feels a jealousy like he felt seeing his baby brother taking his place in the crib. He is known in the family as the one who remembers everything, even this first jealousy. He's been driving trucks for a living since he was old enough to drive. He wants to be better than that feeling. He bends and kisses her forehead.

"Keep an eye on them, okay?"

"Scotty, don't worry."

He calls to the girls, "Watch out for snakes!"

"Now you've done it," Sophie says as the girls come running to him, crying, "We want to go! Take us with you, Daddy!" They dance sideways and in front of him, blocking his way.

"Not this time."

"You're not going to work," Holly says suspiciously. "You're dressed up."

He looks to Sophie for help and she rises and steps inside. Quickly she comes back out and hands him a bottle of prenatal vitamins.

"Give these to your mother."

"What?"

"I bought them for her. You don't have to be pregnant to take strong vitamins. She's been looking tired lately. Tell her to swallow them with milk."

He puts the bottle in his pocket.

"Go swing," she says to the girls. "Daddy'll drive you somewhere later."

They all frown.

"Daddy, I'm afraid," Molly says, blinking her eyes like a bad actress.

"Go swing or we'll go inside and clean up your room," Sophie says.

They run back to the swing sets and he watches them run. "Holly, hang on to that dog until I drive out of here," he hollers.

"Quit your worrying," Sophie says, "The snakes are off sleeping in the shade somewhere."

The sun burns through the windshield. The steering wheel is still hot when he pulls up to his parents' home. He goes inside. His mother is switching off burners beneath pots. Scotty lifts lids, sees too many entrees, a roast and vegetables, a huge pot of pozole.

"Mom, you've made enough to feed Holloman Air Force Base."

"In case he comes home. He'll be hungry." She flicks hominy off a towel into the disposal.

"The lawyer told you not to expect that."

He fills a glass with crushed ice from the refrigerator. He smears some on his forehead.

"You can take a bunch home for the girls."

"Daddy," Scotty says as his father comes into the room, combing his hair back. His father is such a small man to have three tall sons. "She's made a feast."

"She won't listen to anyone."

His father has a hand on his hip. He looks crooked. His mother stares into space with eyes that seem permanently swollen from too many years of too little sleep. Just last week she had a birthday and it is as if she's already settled into an older age.

Scotty asks, "What are you thinking about?"

"Gravy."

She puts a spoon to his mouth. "Enough salt?"

"It's tasty."

He takes his thumb and gently wipes mascara from beneath her eye. It isn't her habit to wear makeup and when she does, it is sometimes so haphazardly placed. He reaches in his pocket and takes out the vitamins.

"Here. Sophie sent these for you."

She looks confused.

"She says to take them even though you won't be getting pregnant."

"Lord, I hope not," his father says. "I never thought I'd be sleeping with a sixty-year-old woman. I sure as hell couldn't handle a baby."

"You think you're so funny," she says. She stares at the vitamins and for a moment, Scotty thinks she might weep.

"You have grandbabies now, Mama," Scotty says. He wants to hug her and does.

***

Scotty's brother, Abe, sits in the front row of the courtroom staring at his hands. He just turned twenty-one, still his mother's baby. He wears a turquoise shirt and jeans the color of kelp. Scotty wonders what she was thinking, to have the guy dressed so brightly at a time like this, like someone who should be walking by an ocean, not being tried in a courthouse in the desert.

Scotty takes her hand, as if she could hear his thoughts and he wants to say, sorry. Todd Parkinson, an old friend from childhood, comes to where they sit at the rear of the courtroom, a guy who never went to prison, even though he admits walking up to his roommate and shooting him in the head. The dead man was blow-drying his hair, probably thinking about his day with the New Mexico sun shining over the desert. Todd has never given a reason for what he did. Scotty sees himself as his wife would if she were here, sitting next to a murderer. And you wanted to bring the girls?

His father rises to shake Todd's hand. His mother gives the man a hug. The word sordid starts screaming in Scotty's ears.

The defense attorney strolls to the front of the room in his cowboy boots and western coat and clears his throat. He is known throughout the country for getting even murderers like Todd set free. Once, Scotty watched one of his cases on Court TV. "Excuse me," the prosecuting attorney was saying. "You expect us to believe, that as an act of mercy, in a delirious state of mind, you killed your friend because he begged you to?"

"Yes."

The DA had convinced the jury and another murderer was free. But he hadn't convinced this jury that Abe is innocent of dealing meth.

The DA talks about family, about how Abe's dad knows his son isn't a criminal. Doesn't a father know? A hard-working man like that?

Everyone in the courtroom appears to be on stage, self conscious and fulfilling roles they've learned on TV. The judge pronounces Abe lucky to have a family who stands behind him, for that there will be a lesser sentence.

Abe gets five years. After one year of good behavior maybe he'll be out and get himself together, be the beloved uncle to his nieces again.

"Just you wait until you get to prison and I can finally touch you," Scotty's mother calls out. "Be prepared for the biggest hug of your life."

Todd pokes Scotty in the ribs. Even before he speaks, Scotty can see in the man's face how much he wants to be a part of this moment, how much he wants to feel important. He whispers, "Guys do favors. On the outside. Somebody'll take care of your family. Just say the word, it's done."

Scotty thinks again of television and movie fantasies. He laughs, and stares into Todd's all too earnest eyes, and this is the part of him that would anger Sophie, make her doubt their lives together, for a moment he considers the offer. All the places he might seek revenge, but for what?

"I don't think we'll need anything."

Scotty goes home and takes a nap. He dreams of rattlesnakes, that they surround the house like a fence. Their rattles clip against the cracking earth. One talks to him in Todd's voice. "You think," the snake says, "that we're here to harm you, but we're here to protect you." Even asleep, he realizes he's dreaming, but he can't wake up, cannot move his arms or cry out loud to be shaken.

Finally he fights awake, gasping for air and opening heavy eyelids. He hears a sad, ghostly sound, from places and times lost. He recognizes the tune of "A Happy Wanderer." In the den where his little girls have toys scattered on the floor, he finds the music box. Pretty little birds, brightly colored, circle with the tune, round and round. He puts it on the fireplace mantel, so the girls can't reach it and play the music again.

Isabel cries for him to pick her up.

He is sweating. Sweat runs down his forehead. He sets Isabel on the counter while he washes his hands. Thoughts of snakes slither through his mind.

The phone rings.

"You have a collect call from..."

"Abe."

"It will be $1.59. To accept charges, press one or say yes at the tone..."

Holly opens the screen door.

"Holly, don't you go out there!" Scotty warns as he presses one.

"Sounds hectic there," Abe says.

"Are you kidding? We're in perfect harmony," says Scotty.

Abe talks about how he couldn't have waited another minute for sentencing. He'll finally be out of jail and in prison.

"Let me talk," says Isabel. She folds her arms and frowns when he doesn't let her. She slides off the counter and storms away.

Scotty says, "We won't get to see you as much. Hope they don't send you too far away."

"I'll be all right," Abe says.

Scotty does not mention that he's coming to visit the jail and bringing the girls. He wants it to be a surprise.

Abe laughs, and says, "You know what that fucking guard said to me?"

"The fat chick?"

"No, the new guy, he said, 'Man, I'm tired. I been here since five-thirty this morning.'"

Scotty laughs, too, thinking of time. Molly opens the screen and lets the dog come in. Isabel picks it up by its neck.

"Help!" Holly screams and runs to her, "She's hanging him!"

Scotty laughs harder.

Molly frowns and wags a finger at Scotty. "That's not funny," she says.

Isabel drops the dog and he bites the edge of her shirt, tugging.

Molly shakes her head. "You just don't make any sense," she says to her father.

Abe says, "I told him, I been here since June 6, a year and five months, and he said, 'At least you got a bed.'"

"You've been counting down the days and now you know the number you'll need to be counting."

"Thank God."

The recorded operator says, "You have one minute remaining."

"Well fuck you, you bitch," Abe says and they laugh harder.

"You have thirty seconds."

The next day in the jail waiting room a woman with a gummy mouth asks the girls their ages. Isabel holds up two fingers. Holly says, "Four." Molly repeats, "Four."

The woman stares at them dumbly.

"Yep," Molly says. "We're twins." Then she curls a finger to her nose and wiggles it in a gesture her mother has taught her to mean nosy. Scotty grabs her hand.

"Don't be mean," he says. "Silly."

A guard opens a door. "Let's take just a few of you." He motions to Scotty and the girls and four other women. It means the guard is in a good mood. If he wasn't, he'd cram everyone in the room at once to get visitation over with, and not everyone would have phones.

Abe waits behind a glass divider. Scotty sits in front of his brother, between Holly and Molly, Isabel in his lap, happy to see Abe's face light up.

"Uncle Stinky!" Holly screams, rising and pressing her fingers against the glass as if she has just seen him, as if she has just realized she can see beyond the glass. The chair dips from under her but Scotty catches her arm before she falls and says, "Sit down. Don't touch the glass. They'll make us leave."

Scotty picks up a phone and so does Isabel.

"I almost refused visitation. Something's been wrong with my stomach. I never would have expected this. "

"Hello, I love you," says Isabel.

The twins cry to talk. "Just talk to them," Scotty says. "Call me at home later."

Scotty hands a phone to Molly. Holly shares Isabel's, their heads pressed together. Abe cups two phones to his ears and the girls take turns speaking but give little chance for him to respond. They talk about how their cousin, Joyce, hit a homerun in t-ball, how straight Holly can pitch.

Molly stops speaking to stare at a man sitting next to Abe. She wears a string of plastic beads and twists them on one finger. The man waves. She just frowns and keeps twisting those beads.

"She's never seen a black guy," Abe jokes to the man and they laugh.

"Uncle Stinky," Holly says, frowning. "When are you coming to visit?"

Isabel only says, over and over again, "Hello, I love you." When Abe speaks to her, she giggles and stares, frozen, confused that she's talking on the phone and can see him through the glass.

***

They drive home in the Suburban. It's a little old, but Scotty loves this vehicle, the girls strapped in back in car seats, everyone with plenty of room. Gas mileage be damned, he feels safe and luxurious.

All he can see is the top of Molly's head in the rearview, until her round eyes pop up and glare at him, and she says, "I have too seen a black man before."

"Okay, sorry. Uncle Abe didn't mean to insult you."

"I've never seen a murderer before."

"What are you talking about Molly? What makes you think he's a murderer."

"I'm not stupid. I know Uncle Stinky lives in jail with murderers."

"I don't think that guy was a murderer."

"I think he was," Molly says. "He had a murderer's eyes."

Scotty realizes he doesn't know. The sun filters across the windows. Up ahead, the asphalt shines and looks like water evaporating in dark smoke at the edges as they get closer, floating farther and farther away, always just out of reach.

"Did they paint Uncle Stinky's fingers with ink when he got there?" asks Holly.

"I'll be too bored to go home," says Molly as they turn off the highway. Scotty pulls into the yard where his little trees are spindly and thirsty. He opens his door and screams, "God Damn!" The girls squirm and fight to get free of their safety belts and see what's happening.

A rattle snake coils and hisses beside the front wheel. He slams the door shut.

Holly hangs out the window. "What is it? What is it?"

"Sit down before you fall!" he hollers at her. "It's a snake."

He cranks the engine and pulls a few feet up to the porch, crawls back and unstraps the other two.

"Go on inside the house."

The puppy comes running through the desert. Earlier Scotty must have forgotten to latch the fence. He calls to keep the dog from going after the snake. A car pulls up, just beyond Scotty's gate. The puppy keeps running toward him. The boy in the car lifts a gun and fires. Dust clouds up and the rattlesnake strikes. The puppy yelps as the gravel flies and the car donuts and speeds off.

The rattlesnake coils only a little distance away.

Scotty becomes aware that his daughters are screaming, and Sophie, she's outside with the cell phone dialing 911. Holly picks up the yelping puppy whose face is swelling and swelling. Then, Sophie's talking to the vet on the phone.

"Go inside," Scotty tells his family as he opens the door to the suburban.

"Scotty, don't go after that boy!" Sophie says grabbing his arm.

He gets in and changes his mind. "I'm not," he says, taking a gun from the glove box. He aims, fires straight into the snake's head and the desert is quiet again. Everyone stops crying.

The blue lights arrive, flashing pale and silent in the bright day.

Sophie sits in the Suburban with the puppy and a first aid-kit, fumbling through her purse and shaking.

Scotty can't describe anything well and the officer shakes his head and says he can't do anything without a better description.

"Maybe he was trying to get the snake," Scotty says.

"Do you have any enemies?" the officer asks.

"We don't, do we?" asks Sophie. She has come up beside them and holds the puppy, whose face is wrapped loosely in bloody gauze.

"It was a teenager," says Scotty. "A senseless kid."

The officer opens Sophie's car door and the girls pile in with her and the puppy.

Scotty says, "Thanks, we'll be okay now."

Sophie and the girls head to the vet. Scotty stands in the desert waving as they drive away. Nobody waves back. They only stare sadly through the glass.

***

Scotty sits in the quiet house waiting for his girls to come home. He can see the sunset, bright oranges and reds as if the sky has caught fire, through the glass storm door.

The phone rings, Sophie calling on her cell. The dog's staying overnight for IV and observation, but the vet thinks he will make it.

Scotty says, "I remember when Abe was a baby, the same age as Isabel. I was walking with him and almost put my foot down on a rattlesnake. I ran away and turned and saw him standing there, staring down, unafraid and curious. The snake hissed with its tongue flickering. I ran back and got him. We lived far away from doctors then so he's lucky it didn't get him. If a dog got bit back then, I don't know if anyone would have taken it to the vet."

"I remember."

"You remember?"

"You've told me before. Don't worry about the snakes, Scotty. Even though this happened. It was probably a good lesson for the girls and the puppy. They won't bite unless they feel threatened. They eat all the rodents around the house, protect us from disease."

"I have to get rid of them."

"They usually only come out at night, when it's cooler. They hibernate in winter. I looked them up on the Internet."

"They worry me to death. I dream about them."

"A lot of Native Americans believe that if you dream about a snake, you're going to have a premonition."

"Going to have?"

"What we need to worry about are teenagers with guns. I bet that's why the snake struck. The vibration of the bullet. Who was he?"

"I don't know. Some kid on meth thinking he was helping out?"

A military plane flies overhead. The air conditioning kicks on.

"Anyway, we live where we live. We can't help that. Maybe there's a humane way to get the snakes to move."

"I've got a humane way, I'm going to shoot every one of them."

"Would you listen to yourself? How do you propose to do that?"

Scotty laughs. "With a gun."

"Oh, Jesus. Scotty, we can't have a gun in that house with our babies."

When he hangs up, he goes out to the Suburban, unlocks the glove box and the gun is not there. He searches the girls' rooms, in the closets, beneath the pillows, under the beds. When he's done searching, everything looks torn up and he straightens and smoothes the rooms back together.

He waits for Sophie and the girls to come home not watching the TV though it is on. He rocks a little in the chair, imagining his confessing to Sophie that he's lost the gun.

The girls come clamoring in, sticky from ice cream and with baskets full of wildflowers, which they place around the puppy's kennel.

Sophie tells him she took the gun to her parents' house. He thinks he might be angry. He thinks he might weep in relief.

"Daddy, don't cry," says Holly. "We won't cry anymore and make you sad. Skeeter's going to be all right. He just has to stay the night."

"Skeeter?"

"We decided his name. He had to have one for his records."

Sophie puts her hand on his arm, and for a moment he feels awkward inside that steady hold, that confidence. He leans forward and gathers her inside his arms. She walks away and calls the girls to the bath. He sits on the couch and watches the Preview Channel. He just watches it roll. He doesn't care what's on.

They come running one by one in towels, soapy smelling and wet headed. He takes them to their room and Sophie comes in to help get everyone's pajamas on.

She gathers her books. "I'm going to class."

She kisses their heads goodnight, the girls and him, and heads out the door for the branch campus on the hill. Scotty watches until he can't see the taillights any more.

"What are we going to read tonight?" Molly wants to know.

"I don't know about a story tonight," he says.

The three girls stare at him, bewildered. Isabel climbs into his lap.

He says, "Why don't we go outside."

"With the snakes and killers?" Molly asks.

"On our porch. Let's go see the stars."

Outside, he sits on a plastic chair and tells them all to lie down. "Look up at the stars. At the big round moon tonight."

They lie down.

"Daddy," Holly calls. "Come down here with us."

"Maybe in a minute. Be quiet a second. I'll show you the Milky Way."

He drums his fingers on the chair. No cigarette. No beer. He's given it all up and now he's full of anxious longing.

"Tell me," he says to his girls. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"Be?" says Holly.

"Yeah, what job do you want to have?"

"Daddy!" Molly says. "You know girls don't work!"

"You better not let your mama hear you say that."

"I'm going to be a truck driver," says Holly.

"Come down here with us, Daddy."

He lies down, a twin on either side. Isabel sits on his belly, looking up. He finds the Milky Way. The Big and Little Dippers.

"Daddy?"

"What Molly?"

"Who put the stars in the sky?"

"Well I think God did."

"God who?" Holly asks. "God Damn?"

"Holly!"

"Doesn't God have a last name?"

He laughs before he catches himself and then the twins stand and start laughing and tickling him. He sits up. The three girls hold hands in a circle. All the light from the desert sky glows over them. The boards creek beneath their feet as they dance circles around him, laughing and looking up at the sky, singing God Damn, God Damn to the moon.