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Craig Nova

Rattlesnake

Earl MacKenzie owned a movie ranch in Chatsworth, California. The place was a collection of facades, all of them made of wood that had aged to the color of a jackrabbit. The facades lined two blocks of a dusty street, and on them there were signs for a saloon, a barber shop, a marshal's office, a general store, a blacksmith, and a hotel. A plank sidewalk ran in front of them, and there were some hitching posts in the street. The hitching posts looked like some kind of rustic athletic apparatus, like parallel bars in a nudist camp. A few of the doors were open and through them there were the hills which were behind the movie ranch. The hills were a whitish brown and they were rocky, although there was a lot of mica in them, the pieces of it looking like thin, frangible sections of glass. In the afternoon, the sunlight hit them and the hills began to shimmer.

Earl had a nephew, a man of thirty-five whose name was Charlie Oats. Charlie lived in the East, but he had come to California on business. Now he drove up the main highway to the entrance of the movie ranch, which was a gate in a split rail fence, and above the gate there was a cross bar on two uprights, and from it there hung a sign, on a piece of wood that was as weathered and gray as the movie ranch itself, and on which, in dim letters, it was almost possible to make out "Bar Star, Open to The Public 365 days a year, admission twenty-five cents." Charlie drove underneath the sign. The hills were a whitish color in the morning, and beyond them there was a blue, clear sky. It was September, and this is the most pleasant month in California.

Earl lived in a house, a stucco covered bungalow, which was behind the Livery Stable at the end of the street. There was a cement porch, where Earl sat in an aluminum chair that had aquamarine webbing. He wore a cowboy shirt with mother of pearl snaps, a string tie with a silver and turquoise clasp, blue jeans, and a pair of bedroom slippers. Earl's car, a nineteen sixty-three Cadillac with bald tires, was parked just behind the corral. Earl made his own beer, and the house was always filled with the scent of malt and hops. There was a carboy and a water seal, too, which sat on a table behind the screen door.

Oats got out of the car and stood in front of the house while a trail of dust blew up through the main street of town and then around the car. Earl looked down from the porch and said, "Jesus H. Christ. That isn't Charlie, is it? Well, well, come on up and sit on the porch."

"Hello, Uncle Earl," said Oats.

"Say, look at your clothes," he said. "You look like a real Easterner. I guess that's what you've become."

Oats shrugged.

"Maybe," he said.

"Well, sure you are. Hell, it takes all kinds to make a world, doesn't it?"

Oats sat down on the porch and they both looked out on the movie ranch. The dust blew away, taking with it an odor that reminded Charlie of the dusty summers, imbued with a kind of patience, that he had spent at the movie ranch, and then he smelled the scent of the hops and grain, and for a while he waited, not only having the delicate fragrance in his nose, but feeling, too, almost as a physical sensation, the number of years the scent traveled through with such ease. From Earl's house, the movie ranch didn't look so bad, although even from a distance there were tumble weeds in the alleys, and in the shade of the wooden sidewalk there were rattlesnakes now.

"You remember, Charlie, what this place was like?" said Earl.

"Sure, I do," said Oats. "I worked enough summers here, didn't I?"

"I had Crash Corgon here. Right down there. And Gabby Hayes and Hoot Gibson."

"And Tommy Mack," said Oats.

"That's right. And his horse Clipper. Tommy had a little drinking problem, you remember. And he was always chasing young girls, too. You remember when the Highway Patrol came up here looking for him and Tommy was hiding in the water tank?"

Earl's face was deeply lined and tanned, and his gray eyes were very clear. He stared at the middle of town.

"You were always a good boy," said Earl. "You remember that last year you sold hot dogs and Cokes for me?"

"I'd rather not think about the end," said Oats.

"I bet I even still owe you a little money," said Earl.

Oats laughed.

"Maybe," he said. "I've forgotten about it."

"How much was it?"

"I don't know," said Oats. "It was fifteen years ago. I don't know."

"Must have been a hundred dollars," said Earl. "Maybe two."

"Don't worry about it," said Oats.

"I got some money on me," said Earl. He reached into his hip pocket and took out his wallet, a large brown one filled with business cards, and which was held together by a rubber band. Earl rolled the rubber band from the wallet over his hand and down to his wrist. There were some bills inside, mostly ones and fives and a few tens.

"Here," said Earl. "I got . . . let's see. Here's eighty-one bucks. Here. Take it."

"I didn't come for that," said Oats.

"Take it," said Earl.

He held out the money, the bills trembling in his old fingers.

"You need it," said Oats. "It's O.K."

"The place went belly up, and I couldn't pay you."

"I don't want it," said Oats. "It's O.K."

"I always thought you stayed in the East because you were mad at me about the two hundred dollars, not the money so much as that I didn't pay you."

"Jesus," said Oats. "You thought that?"

Earl held out the money.

"At least you can take twenty dollars," said Earl. "Here. Please."

Oats took the money.

"You know," said Earl. "I had to pay some people off in Coke syrup. They were angry, but they took the syrup thinking that was all they were going to get."

Earl put the rubber band over his wallet again.

"I guess you came here to see about your mother," said Earl.

Oats nodded, looking up the dusty street of the movie ranch.

"Well," said Earl. "I lost track of her. I haven't heard about her for awhile."

"I just thought I'd come to see you first," said Oats. "That's all."

"Did you, Charlie?" said Earl. "Why would you want to do that?"

"I had a good time here," said Oats. "I grew up here."

Earl looked at Oats for a while and then turned away. "Yeah, well . . ." He looked down. "I guess that's right. And you really came to see me?"

"Yes," said Oats. "I wanted to see where Crash Corgon had been. And Gabby Hayes. Hoot Gibson. Somehow it makes it better."

They sat together for awhile, looking at the hills, which began to show the flecks of mica in the noon sun. They shimmered a little against the blue sky.

"You say hello to your mother for me," said Earl. "When you see her. And your sister, too. Pearl. Jesus, you remember, she was allergic to horses?"

"You want me to bring you anything from town?" said Oats. "Maybe a steak. We can eat together."

"Sure," said Earl. "You bring something around. I'll give you one of MacKenzie's Pale Ales . . . You know what the secret to it is? I put in a beet. It gives the beer the nicest color, you know? Just a touch of pink. I always liked that in a beer. Yeah, you come back later. You can tell me what you found out about your mother."

In the San Fernando Valley, the house Oats was looking for was at the end of a short street, which gave the impression, above everything else, of dryness. Each house on the street had a front yard, but only a little grass grew in them, and the bare places were filled with pale brown dust. The house Oats was looking for was a one story building with a split-rail fence around it. There were some trees which had been planted a year or so before, and they were still held by guy wires tied to stakes driven into the ground. A tricycle sat in the bare front yard, and there was, through the front window, the steady flicker of a television set.

Oats knocked on the door, and when Pearl opened it, he said, "Hi, Sis."

Pearl's blondish hair had less sheen than when Oats had last seen her. She was still thin, although a little heavy in the waist and hips, and hanging onto her there were two children, one about three and one about five. She was dressed in a skirt and a blouse. She turned to one of the children who was holding onto her skirt and gave him a slap on the hand, saying, "Jimmy, I got my good clothes on. Don't."

The child started crying.

"Come in," she said to Oats. "It's been a while, Charlie. It really has. You haven't really ever seen your niece and your nephew." She turned to the child, a boy, and said, "Here, Bobby, this is your Uncle Charlie." She turned back to Oats and said, "I always tell them you were the one who went to college."

Oats looked down at the boy.

"Howdy," he said. "Do you like chocolate? I've got a chocolate bar in my pocket. How would you like to have it? Here."

Oats held the thing out.

"It's all wrapped up. Clean and nice. No germs. Here's one for your sister."

The boy took the candy bar. Oats and Pearl stood in the living room in which there were two mismatched sofas, no rugs and the television set. On the wall there was a Picasso print, inexpensively framed, and beneath it there was a book shelf in which there were some paperback books. There were some carefully made model airplanes, too, which were hung from the ceiling. The planes had been built by Pearl's husband, Bill.

"Is Bill working again?" said Oats.

"Thank god," said Pearl. "If he hadn't found something now . . ." She looked at her brother, her eyes showing that she had been scared. "He's not making what he did before. But it's all right."

"That's good," said Oats.

"Yeah," she said. "He's not working nights, either. Days. That's something."

They went into the kitchen, the bare Formica table between them, the kids now in front of the TV, on which there was a cartoon, the sound of it like a video game, a constant patter of explosions and shots.

"The sitter will be here in a minute," she said. "Then we can go. Courts always make me nervous."

"Yes," he said. "I guess that's right."

"Are we going to have to do much? In court, I mean."

"I don't think so," he said. "It will be all right."

She looked out toward the door.

"I wonder where the sitter is?" she said, putting her hand to her hair.

"You look fine," he said. "You look real nice."

"Do you think so, Charlie? Do you really?" she said. "I haven't had many compliments lately. Certainly not when Bill was out of work."

"You look very nice," he said.

"Well, kids take it out of you," she said, looking down at the table. "Let me get you some coffee."

She turned her back and went to the counter, and when her face was at the window, she picked up a cup and poured the thinnish brown liquid into it. With her back still to him she said, "When Bill wasn't working I was getting food stamps . . ."

She turned back now, looking at him.

"But what was I going to do?" she said. She put the coffee down on the table. "You remember how Mom used to sneer at anyone who had to take a hand out. You remember what she called it?"

"I remember," said Oats.

"She called it 'Going on the county,' " said Pearl.

"I remember," he said. "It's all right, though. She used to say a lot of stuff. So what?"

Pearl swallowed, one hand pushing a strand of her hair that had come loose. One of the kids came in and said, "Mom. Mom. You got a run in your stocking."

She stood and looked, bending one leg so she could see the calf.

"Does it show?" she said to Oats.

"A little," he said.

She went to a closet, which she opened and which had a mirror on the inside of it. Then she turned again, bending the knee and looking over her shoulder. She closed her eyes for a moment.

"Why don't you put on another pair?" he said, and then he stopped, watching her.

"I haven't got another pair," she said.

"I'll run up to the drug store," he said. "They sell L'Eggs there, don't they? You know, the ones that come in those little plastic eggs, like silly putty. Come on. It's O.K. You know, I love you."

"I'm sorry," she said, "I must have caught them on one of the chairs." She sighed. "I'm not going to start crying. I'm really not."

"What size?" he said.

"Medium," she said. "I don't know why I was so clumsy as to tear the others. I just . . ."

"I'll be right back," he said.

Oats drove to the corner and then down to the pharmacy, and among the aisles where there were bottles of shampoo, he found the display for L'Eggs and took two pairs down and then stood in front of the cash register. He had to wait until the cashier got around the counter, and for a moment, in the smell of perfume and in the stink of the candy, there was some hint, some infinitely private awareness of how he and his sister were bound together, the lightness of the L'Eggs in his hand having a delicacy to it, a kind of gentleness, or softness that in the face of things (going to court, the house Pearl lived in, the fact of the food stamps), seemed precious. Oats stood there, holding the L'Eggs in his hand.

When he came back with the stockings the sitter was there, watching the cartoons with the kids. Pearl took the stockings and went into her bedroom, and as she stood in front of the mirror, she kicked off her shoes and bunched up her skirt, like a woman wading in a stream, and stripped off the old stockings. Oats stood there, hearing the cartoons.

Pearl glanced at herself once in the mirror, ran a hand over her skirt, smoothing it down, and then she came back into the living room and said, "Thanks, Charlie. Things have been a little tough, that's all. But it's going to be O.K. McDonnell's going to get a big contract for Navy jets. Everything will be fine."

They got into the car and drove down the street, past the houses which had around them a kind of clutter of half-finished things, toys broken but laid aside to be fixed, half used paint and turpentine cans and ladders left against the side of a house. Pearl relaxed a little when the car pulled away from the curb, and when they were going downtown, she said, "Bill was worried about my being a conservator. That's the word, right?"

"Yes," he said.

"He wants to know if we can lose the house or something."

"No," said Oats. "It just means we manage what mother's got and decide where she's going to stay."

"That's what I told him," she said. "Do you think it's the right thing?"

"Yes," he said.

"Mother just got worse and worse. Sometimes she was all right."

"She just got old," said Oats.

"Well," she said. "It was O.K. for awhile. She even had a boyfriend. He took her out to see the wild flowers in the spring time. Sometimes she used to think people were coming to get her and she wanted me to find one of your old friends to come over to protect her."

They drove toward the new municipal buildings downtown.

"You know what they call the place where she stays? A nursitarium," she said, giggling a little.

In the corridor of the hall of justice, they waited for their lawyer. There was a bench along the wall and Pearl sat down, and when she did so, she patted the seat next to her, and Oats sat down, too. Pearl sighed and looked down and Oats picked up her hand for a moment, just holding it, his touch light and reassuring in the noise and echo of the long marble hall. He held Pearl's hand.

Oats walked up and down the hall, and when he came back, their lawyer was standing there, holding some papers. He was a tall man with a paunch, and he wore a Dacron shirt, a green tie and a brown jacket.

"This won't take but a minute," he said. They went in, each of them taking a seat, all of them waiting in the cool, dry courtroom, and after awhile the bailiff said, "Oats," and as they stood up, Pearl took Oats' hand, her palm a little damp.

In ten minutes, Oats and Pearl emerged from the courthouse. It was now afternoon, and the yellow sunlight washed over the front of the building, and in the air there was the feathery swatting of the wings of pigeons. Opposite them there was a park with a fountain in it, the mist there breaking into a rainbow with the shadows of the birds passing through it. There was a place to sit down, a concrete bench close to the fountain, and the two of them sat there, Oats holding the court document that made them their mother's custodians. It was warm now. There wasn't anyone else in the park, but it was a large, concrete place, like a circular theater. The air was a little smoky, yellowish.

"Are you O.K.?" said Oats.

"Sure," she said. "I'd just wanted to get a little fresh air. What do we do now?"

"We go to the bank," said Oats. "We open a conservator's account."

For a moment both of them sat there, looking at the pigeons and feeling the warmth of the sun. Pearl hugged herself.

"I didn't like the way the judge looked at me," she said.

"What way was that?" said Oats.

"I don't know," she said, "like we were doing something wrong."

Oats folded the official paper he had received in the court and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket. The spray from the fountain made a shadow that moved over the concrete in a thin, gray cloud: it looked like the shadow of smoke.

"When we were growing up," she said. "You were always the smart one. You could figure things out."

"I don't know about that," he said. "I'm not sure about that one bit."

"Sure you could," she said. "I remember you thought of a way not to go to school and never get caught . . . it had something to do with the way the high school kept records."

"Yeah," he said, laughing for a second, "I remember that."

"I always got caught," she said, turning to face him now.

He shook his head, looking around now, seeing the institutional architecture of the buildings above them.

"You figured it out. So, you tell me about this," she said. "Here."

Pearl took a photograph out of her pocket book. It was a black and white snapshot, in which there were Oats and Pearl, and their mother and father. Pearl and Oats were just kids, eight and ten years old, and Oats' father was dark and handsome and Oats' mother had streaked hair and was dressed in tweeds and a white blouse. She stared at the camera with a pleased satisfaction, her air one of being caught in the middle of some pleasurable thing. Her husband looked proud as he reached out to touch the shoulders of both of his children. In the photograph the children smiled sweetly, and all of them, parents and children, seemed not so much part of a family as safe because of it. Now, though, with the passing of time the people in the photograph seemed vulnerable, their smiles having a kind of unknowing quality which suggested the picture had been taken just before a bad earthquake. Oats' father had been dead for five years now.

"We were just growing up and everything seemed all right," said Pearl, "Anything was possible. You know? Wasn't that wonderful, Charlie? Wasn't that great?"

He reached over and took her hand. It was damp still and trembling a little.

"What do you remember?" she said.

"It's hard for me to think about it right now," he said. He touched his pocket again. "Why don't we go and have lunch?"

She still held the photograph out, almost as though she were looking for a lost child and was showing the thing to a stranger, asking if he had seen the child. Then Oats reached out and took the photograph and put it in his pocket, just lifting it away from her as though it were some evidence of a crime she wanted to forget.

"I remember going to see the snow," he said. "We'd never seen snow and it had snowed up there in the mountains, the San Gabriels, and we all went. We had a picnic in the snow. Dad brought a thermos full of hot maple syrup and we poured it on the snow and ate it."

She nodded.

"What went wrong?" she said.

"Don't," he said. "Please. It doesn't do any good."

"What do you mean?" she said. "It ends up like this? With us sitting on a bench with the pigeons flying around, with the piece of paper in your pocket? And we're not supposed to say anything? Or not even supposed to ask a goddamn question?"

"Don't start crying," he said.

"Why not?" she said. "What better time than now?"

"Then I'll start, too," he said. "You know something? I love you. That's all I can tell you."

She put her head down.

"You said I was smart," he said. "But you're wrong about that."

He looked around the empty, concrete garden.

"Your hands are shaking," she said.

"Yes," he said. "That's right. But we've just got to do this. That's all. I don't want to think of Dad being ashamed of me. You know what he used to say? 'God hates a coward.' "

She took his hand and the two them sat on the bench for awhile, saying nothing.

"I'll keep the picture, O.K.?" he said.

She dropped her eyes.

"Sure " she said. "It's just an old photograph. I have a mess of them like it of Bill and me and the kids." She looked at her watch now. "I've got to go," she said, "the sitter is going to kill me. I mean she's going to murder me if I don't get back there soon."

In the car, on the way home, Pearl fell asleep, her head back, her face finally relaxing, the expression slack now, peaceful. Oats drove slowly, finding a kind of relief in just protecting his sister while she slept on the seat next to him.

The sitter came to the door of the house, her face looking sour while the kids stood behind her. The living room had the endless flicker of the television, the constant blur there looking like confusion itself. Pearl woke smoothly, almost beautifully, just opening her eyes.

Oats pulled up to the curb and she got out. "Thanks, Charlie," she said. "I'm sorry you live so far away, you know? You can never just come over for dinner. That would be nice if you could."

She looked through the window of the car, and then she turned and started walking through the yard, where the kids were standing behind the screen door. They pushed it open and ran toward her, jumping up and giggling, asking about the court, delighted. There was the distant sound of the TV set, the cartoon characters still making the endless sounds of explosions.

"Pearl," said Oats.

She turned back, her face a little puzzled. "Did I forget something?" she said.

"No," he said. He stared at her, lifting his hand in her direction. "You take care now. All right?"

"Sure, Charlie," she said. "You, too."

The Riviera Nursatarium was in a new building in the valley. There were trees on the street, large ones with shaggy tops, the fluff of the leaves hanging in the still air. The building was sand colored with a little pink in it, and the windows in it on both sides of the door were tall, but narrow, the frames around them poured concrete, not square but with a partially oval shape: the windows looked like something from a new, small-town airport.

Oats went through the door of the place and into a waiting room, which was furnished with large chairs covered with imitation leather. There were some out-of-date magazines on a table in front of them and some plastic plants in a planter with imitation dirt in it. The overhead fixture had a fluorescent bulb in it, and because of it the room had a slight purplish flicker. At the end of the waiting room there was a locked door.

There was a woman behind a desk, and Oats introduced himself and held out the court papers.

"I'm sure we'll get along fine," said the woman. "The monthly fee is due on the first. Being prompt makes things run smoothly, don't you think?"

"Yes," said Oats. "I'd like to see my mother."

"Mary!" said the woman behind the desk. "Buzz Mr. Oats through. When you want out, you push the button by the door. It's under a little cover. You just lift it up and push."

Oats went through the door, turning once as he did so to see where the button with the cover was, and then he stood in the hall, feeling the door swing shut behind him. The sheen of the fluorescent light fell over the linoleum on the floor. There was a chair against the wall and he sat down on it for a moment. Around him there were old people, all stooped but all moving just like people in a mall. Two women were working at the lock on the door with a bobby pin.

"If I could get out of here," said one of them, "I'd sure like to get my hands on a car."

Oats' mother was holding hands with a man by the door of the cafeteria. He was tallish, with white hair, and he was unshaved. He looked like Arthur Miller. He was wearing a pair of pajamas and a bathrobe, which hung open. Oats mother, whose name was Marge, was dressed in a pair of pajamas and slippers, and as Oats came up the hall, she dropped the man's hand and went into the cafeteria.

The cafeteria had the same polished linoleum, some plain tables (without tablecloths), and some folding chairs. Lunch was over and there was the smell of soup in the air. Marge sat at the end of a table, and although her pose seemed familiar, Oats had trouble recognizing her. She was short, thin, stooped a little, her hands especially long and thin, her hair as white as spun glass. Oats thought that her hair was as white as the cotton they used to put under the Christmas tree to suggest snow: for a moment he waited, making the memory last.

He sat down next to his mother, pulling up a chair and saying, "Hi."

She turned to look at him and said, "Hi."

He picked up one of her hands, surprised at how cold it was. "Do you have a sweater?" he said.

"Yes," she said.

"Well, maybe we should go and get it," he said. "That way you won't be so cold."

"It's not that kind of cold," she said. "It's a different kind of cold here."

He sat there for a moment, her glassy eyes moving around the room.

"It's Charlie," he said.

"Are you Charlie?" she said.

He nodded.

"I had a son named Charlie. He got a scholarship to go East."

"Yes," said Oats. "Maybe we should go find your sweater."

"It's locked up," she said. "Here."

He looked around, seeing a nurse down the hall. She was wearing a sweater.

"Come on. Let's see if we can find a sweater for you."

He stood up and she did, too, and then he took her down the hall, looking at the names on the doors, and then turning into the right one and seeing in it two single beds, two chairs.

"Do you know my son?" she said.

"Yes," he said.

He got up and walked across the room to the closet, which he found was locked. Then he came back and sat down on a chair opposite her, removing from his pocket the picture he had gotten from Pearl, the one showing the four of them together. He held it up for her to see, his hands steady in that flow of loneliness in the room.

"Look," he said. "Do you remember this?"

"I remember this one," she said, pointing to her husband. "The others. They're just kids. What the hell do kids know?"

"They grow up," he said. He went on holding the picture, somehow thinking that by having her look at it, they weren't really in that room so much. He had stopped to buy some tape at a drug store, and he reached into his pocket for it and put some along the edges of the photograph and stuck it to the wall. He did this carefully, cutting the pieces of tape so they were just the right length, making a neat job.

"Do you remember when your kids were growing up?"

"Oh," she said, "I don't know. Give me a chance to think about it." She sat for a moment. "You know what I'd like to do? To take a ride up to the desert to see the wildflowers. Poppies and that other kind, you know . . .? I've forgotten the name."

"Lupine," he sad.

"Yes, of course, lupine. That's right. I like the blue lupine."

Oats nodded.

"There were birds, too," said Oats.

"Yes, I guess there were," she said.

She looked at Oats and said, "You look angry, Charlie. Don't be angry."

"I'm not angry," he said. "I just wanted to see you."

"I got old. You can't be mad at that, can you?"

"No," said Oats.

"Have you gone out to see Earl?" she said. "I think about him a lot. You know, one time Hoot Gibson or Crash Corgon or one of those cowboys went out to that movie ranch. He had a big palomino horse, and on the horse there was a saddle covered with pieces of silver. They were like scales of a snake the way they fitted together, and the sun hit them and it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. Like a horse out of . . . oh, I don't know. Like from some other time. When there were kings."

He picked up one of her hands, the skin cool and dry. Oats' mother stretched out on the bed and put her head back. For a moment she closed her eyes, the skin of her face thin and pale, tight over the bones, her hair so much whiter than the white counter pane that it made the material look a little dirty. She was very still, her breathing deep and irregular. Oats sat on the chair next to the bed and thought about Saturday mornings when he had had breakfast with his father, Marge, and Pearl, the smell of toast and eggs and strawberry preserves coming back with a kind of legerdemain.

His mother woke with a start and said, "Charlie, is that you?"

"Yes," said Oats.

"I've been thinking about your father, Charlie. Do you understand me? Sometimes I say things and no one understands."

"I understand," said Oats.

"You know, men just don't live that long," said Oats' mother.

She put the back of her hand to the side of her face. "You see, Charlie, I'm not so far gone as you think."

He pulled his chair a little closer.

She went to sleep. Oats waited, hearing the steady, dry breathing, and when he looked up he saw the picture he had taped to the wall, the four people in it all in their best clothes: around them there was an air of some sweet, precious thing, like love or safety, the presence of it so palpable that Oats reached toward the picture as though whatever it was could be had just by picking it up. He stopped, his hand still out, hearing in the hall the sound of someone coming along on paper slippers, the hiss, hiss, hiss of them on the shiny floor bringing him right back to the hardness of the chair and the sound of that steady breathing. Then he stood up and went to the door.

At the entrance to the lobby he flipped up the cover and then pushed the button underneath it. Outside, the woman at the counter buzzed the door, but Oats just looked through it. Then he beckoned to her, and when she came through the door, Oats said, "The keys. I need the keys to the cabinets."

He went back down the hall and into Marge's room, where he unlocked the cabinet that held her sweaters and took out a green one, just like the ones she had worn when he had been ten years old. He put it over her to keep her warm and where she'd find it if she woke up.

Then he went out to the lobby, which seemed quiet, cleaner than before, and the light of the street came into it with a yellow rush, the bits of dust turning in the air like flecks of jewels. Outside there was the warm air and in the distance there were the purple shapes of the mountains.

Oats drove back out to Chatsworth and turned onto the drive that went between the uprights of the Bar Star. On the seat next to him there was a steak in a brown paper bag, some fresh vegetables. There was a cake from a bakery and a bottle of brandy. There were some cigars, too. He stopped in front of the porch of the house, where Earl was sitting. It was late afternoon now, and the movie ranch was in shadow, although above it, behind the house, there were the hills, each of them bathed in a gold and carrot-colored light.

"Well, well," said Earl. "What's that sticking out of the bag? Is that broccoli? I always loved broccoli."

Oats came up the steps and put the bag on a small, weathered table by the door.

"How was she?" said Earl.

Oats pushed the bag a little more firmly against the wall and said, "Let's take a little walk. Down there." He pointed toward the facades of the movie ranch. "Come on." He swallowed. "I've been in the car all day."

"Well, sure," said Earl.

They walked in the dust of the road that lead to the facades, all of them gray and black, the windows pitted or broken here and there and across them all there lay the blue shadows of afternoon. It was still warm, though, and the air was the temperature of human skin. Earl walked slowly, wearing his blue jeans, his hat, his cowboy shirt and string tie and his bedroom slippers. Oats went along with him, his shoes covered with dust. They passed the porch in front of the saloon, the boards of which were broken, and beneath which there could only be seen the darkness of the underside of the facade, a black shape in the blue shadow of the afternoon, but as they stood in front of it, a rattlesnake began to make its buzzing. Earl stood and looked at the porch, and Oats went a little closer.

"Have you got a hoe?" said Oats.

"Up at the house," said Earl.

"Maybe there's a stick around," said Oats.

"What are you going to do?" said Earl.

"Do you hear that sound?" said Oats. "Just listen to it."

Oats went to the alley and found a piece of two by four, the grain of which was raised from the time it had been sitting in the sun.

"Hey, Charlie," said Earl. "Leave that thing alone."

The snake went on buzzing.

"Pull up the boards," said Charlie.

"Why?" said Earl. "That will just make the place look worse."

"I'll do it," said Oats.

He reached down and began to pull on a plank.

"It isn't going to do any good," said Earl. "Not a bit."

Oats stood with the piece of wood, looking into the darkness.

"Come on," said Earl. "Let's go eat. Did you bring some brandy?"

Oats nodded.

"Yes," he said.

Oats looked up at the hills beyond Earl's house. In the setting sun, the gold and orange color was brighter than before, and the light hit the mica in the soil in such a way as to make the hills look like they were covered with transparent, but reflective filaments, insects' wings, say, and the entire hill shimmered with them in the last of the afternoon. The orange and shimmering mountain was perfectly silent, and beyond it there were long streaks of clouds, which were orange and black.

Oats dropped the piece of wood, and sat down on the porch. "O.K.," he said. "All right."

"You get used to the snakes, Charlie," said Earl. "You really do."

They started walking up hill, toward the house and the shimmering of the hills.

"Yeah," said Earl. "You remember, Crash Corgon was right out there . . . That horse used to prance around. A palomino, that's what he rode. And then there was Gabby Hayes, too. All of them, right here."

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