For healthy live diamondbacks we get fifty bucks. Mojaves are worth a
hundred. For Mexican rattlers we get thirty bucks and for sidewinders we get
ten. A slightly injured or run-over rattler of any type is worth maybe five
bucks, but dead rattlers are worthless, as the lab techs down at the university
won't buy what they can't use and re-use. Once we tried to sell them a Gila
monster—a poisonous, pot-bellied lizard with jaws like a pit bull—and they
threatened us with a thousand-dollar protected species fine. The lady
tech-in-charge, who talked out of the side of her mouth, said "The research
grant is just for rattlesnakes, see?" Who knows what she does with them,
who cares. Let Uncle Craig worry about the details. I'll catch rattlers by the
Godawful dozen ‘till fall comes, no complaining. But then it's
scholarshipville. Then I get the hell away from here.
So in the hot Tucson mid-afternoons we truck into the desert and blow
gasoline fumes down varmint holes. Occasionally we spook out a rattler, but
usually it's just gophers and junk snakes spilling up like crude oil. They look
with delirious eyes at my pale gangly self and at Uncle Craig's muscle-bound
shirtless self, then streak away into the brush. Usually the daytime hunts are
huge wastes of time; Uncle Craig works on his tan, I apply sunscreen by the
gallon. But we make good money on nights like tonight, waiting for the 8:10
train to pass before driving the stretch of track between Agua Caliente and
Colossal Cave. We creep along with the truck doors open under a puffy monsoon
sky, shining our flashlights down onto the warm volcanic rock that is mounded up
on either side of the rails, stalking the rattlers that crawl woozily out of the
cool desert scrub to cozy up near the heated track. Uncle Craig steers
carelessly with one hand and hums along with country radio. I scan the purple,
acorn-size rock for anything that moves.
The desert stinks of wet mesquite and prickly pear. Uncle Craig, who at age
twenty eight is just ten years my elder, says "Smells like you forgot your
deodorant" and I say "That's just the gingivitis waxin' your
gums." He turns to conk me with the shaft of his flashlight, but thinks
better of it when he hears Lily and Stace yammering behind us.
They sit on blankets in the truck bed with their backs up against the cab,
their legs stretching out towards the tailgate. It's been forty minutes since we
picked them up at Lily's parents' place—baiting them with Peach Schnapps,
Keystone and Marlboros—and already they’ve gone through a six-pack. Tonight
is the one-month anniversary of their quitting college to form Mondo Tarantula,
their drone-rock band. They've got the hair for it, the mess of their
twenty-year-old permed brunette locks swarming against the back window like a
legion of spindly, hairy legs.
Lily plays bass. Stace plays guitar, but only the two bottom strings. They
were practicing in the garage tonight when we picked them up, churning out
drone-rock tunes that sounded like idling chainsaws in slo-motion. To hear Mondo
Tarantula, which at the moment remains a duo, you'd think they were nothing more
than rocker-chick simpletons with absolutely no talent. The truth is that Lily
and Stace are total brains; they can sight-read jazz charts, they know all the
meters and scales. But they're heavily minimalist, preferring instead to play
three-chord, bass-heavy dirges that conjure images of black holes in space.
Uncle Craig and I prowled outside, listening disdainfully to their drone-rock
version of "I've Got You Under My Skin." We postured in the driveway
with air-guitars, moving in tortured poses and flashing cruel grimaces at each
other. Later we pounded on the aluminum garage door, pretending to be cops. Lily
shouted "Eat death, pigstuff," and launched into a bass solo. They
don't care about cops. They don’t care about us. All they can think about is
playing music and getting hammered.
I know how they feel. When Uncle Craig throws keg parties for his
construction worker pals, I’m outside in the truck studying for the SAT. While
he flips through Hustler, I’m flipping through university catalogs. All I can
think about is getting away from here. If my mother were alive, she might
understand, but Uncle Craig doesn’t get it at all. Sometimes, in a place like
this, you just can’t sit still anymore.
In another half-mile Uncle Craig slams on the brakes. Cicadas are roosted
like snipers in the Palo Verde trees, electrifying the humid air with violent
bursts of buzzing and clicking. I say to Uncle Craig "You got a viper over
there?" and he says "Yeah. A hundred bucks worth of mojave." I
strap knee-high fang-proof chaps over my boots and slip leather gauntlets over
my hands and forearms. You can’t be too careful with any rattler, but
especially with a high-class snake like a mojave. Mojaves are quick, and they
have neurotoxic venom that goes straight to your brain. Uncle Craig is more like
a sidewinder—mean as they come, but oblivious to common sense; he never wears
anything but jeans, Nike hightops, and a beaverskin cowboy hat. Tonight he's
added a T-shirt because we have dates, and this was my suggestion. Everyone
thinks that Uncle Craig looks after me, and I’ll admit that he wears the
veritable pants between us, but the truth is that I look after him.
Lily and Stace stand up in the truck bed, peering warily over the driver's
side. Lily sees the rattler and starts freaking, stumbling backwards and
singing, "Ohmygosh, ho! Ohmygosh, ho! Ohmygosh, ho!" Stace squats down
to have a closer look. I gaze at her through the back window, marveling at the
way her Renaissance-era hips fill out her jeans in a perfect heavy heart shape.
Uncle Craig pushes me out the passenger's side, grinding his knuckles hard
against my ribs for no apparent reason. But resistance is futile, as they say,
and any retaliation is just plain stupid. Uncle Craig is way too big to spar
with. So I take a minor beating as we grab our equipment: a gravel rake and a
pair of long-handled fireplace tongs, plus the burlap sacks that the University
gives us to deliver the snakes in. A primitive array of snake-snaring tools, but
as cost-effective as you can get short of using bare hands.
Lily sings in a rhythmic cadence, "Snake is ov-er here, la-la.
By-the-tire, the tire, ha-ha, la-la." Her life is one big musical. When we
first met her and Stace at Walgreens she was waiting outside, leaning up against
the front brick and singing "You wanna party, oh-ah? You could
buy-us-some-beer, ha-ha. We could go-where-you-like, la-la. We could
Uncle Craig and I walk a wide semi-circle around the rear bumper. We spot the
mojave, the bluish-gray squares on its back smudged like the work of some
impressionist painter. It stretches itself out like a cat, rubbing its head
against the rear wheel mud flap. I poke my rake out in front of it so as not to
let it slither under the truck. It begins to rattle, shaking its tail in a fast
maraca rhythm, and before it can coil I trap its head under the flat edge of the
rake so Uncle Craig can get it with the tongs. But then he drops the tongs, and
like a fool grabs the snake by its neck, holding it up for the girls to see.
He says "Ain't that just the most evil thing you ever seen? Ain't that
just the spitting image of Satan?"
Lily is strangely drawn to it, walking toward the tailgate and bending
dangerously close to its half-open mouth. Noting the way its fangs shoot forth,
then retract slowly, like magic into its pink fleshpockets.
We drive on with Uncle Craig sipping from a bottle of Nordic Jack, the snake
up on the seat beside him, squirming within the burlap. I sit in the truck bed
next to Stace and Lily, passing the Peach Schnapps between us, our spines
rocking gently against the tailgate. This is our second so-called date with
them, the first being the time we bought them beer at Walgreens. But nothing
physical has happened. Yet. Just to be in their presence makes the hair on my
ass stand on end; after all, they’re the only women I know. I’m not good at
this sort of thing.
I’ll try to be more affable in college, but sometimes I think nothing can
overcome the handicap of my appearance: I am six foot three but have a very
short, fat neck; at age eighteen I'm already showing signs of male pattern
baldness; I have a beard but it’s kind of patchy; in general I look older than
I really am. Sometimes in high school people took me for a substitute teacher,
and I had no real friends there other than some freaky geeks in AP Biology. I
hope college will be better.
As for Uncle Craig, he has his eye on Lily even though he’s legally still
married. This will take some explaining: three years ago he married JoLee Ewing,
an Air Force cadet from Florida, only to have her mysteriously disappear a month
later while jogging in the desert. The case is still open. She could be held up
somewhere as a slave, or off on some elaborate, long-winded AWOL from the Air
Force, but let’s face it—she’s probably just plain dead, her bones
entrenched within the roots of some remote prickly pear patch. JoLee's parents
are still trying to get the case aired on Unsolved Mysteries, and the military
police still come poking around now and again. Uncle Craig is mostly quiet about
it now, resigned to accept things as they are. This is the way things have
always been in our family. When my father ran out on us—I was just seven years
old—my mother, once over the initial shock, got herself a secretarial job,
signed the divorce papers when they came in the mail, and carried on quietly
with what w
s left. She never sought alimony, never sued for child support, never hunted
him down like the jackal that he was. And when her kidneys started going south a
few years later she laid there on dialysis like an invalid, never complaining
until the end, when her hatred for my father, her feelings that her life had
been cheated from her, and her pent-up restlessness geysered out all at once. On
the night before she died she laid for hours weeping, talking—and sometimes
fuming—about her regrets. It was then, and especially after moving in with
Uncle Craig, that I made up my mind about this place.
Uncle Craig takes the back road to Colossal Cave as the 8:50 Western Pacific
from Tucson to El Paso comes rocketing through. I often dream of being hit by
that train, shot from the truck like a cannonball over these sun-raped hills,
landing crucified to a saguaro cactus. I tell Stace and Lily about this, seeking
Lily, who is getting very drunk, sings, "the Cactus thorns are fangs,
I'm sure, I'm sure."
"That's your dream analysis?"
"Yup. Revenge of the rep-rep-rep-reptiles."
"Face it," Stace chimes in. "Your job is guilt central."
"Guilt?" I say. "Why should there be guilt? Rattlers breed
like rabbits. Sometimes we go down by the creek where their dens are, and if one
is layin' there in the rocks, there's ten more layin' under it. Besides, we
don't kill them. We take them alive."
"Yeah, but do they stay alive?"
"They must, ‘cause the lab-techs milk their venom. A dead snake can't
make fresh venom."
"How much venom can a snake make?"
"That’s like asking how much wood would a wood chuck wood. The answer
is I don’t know. I just work here."
The ladies continue to drink. In the meantime I obsess about trivial stuff.
University holidays, for one. Christmas, Spring Break, Summer vacation. In CSU’s
catalog it says that the dormitories are closed down during these times so that
students can be with their families. So I wonder—does that mean I have to go
home, and if so, will I want to come back here? It sounds funny, but my notion
of home is somewhere I haven’t yet been.
Another thing I waste my time thinking about: why can't a Mexican rattler
breed with a diamondback? Or why can't a mojave breed with a sidewinder? They're
both snakes, both rattlers. You can breed a horse with a donkey, for instance,
and get a mule. You can put an Italian person with a Chinese and get a
Chitalian. Why not rattlers? Why should they be so damn pure?
At Colossal Cave we ramble up below the main parking lot, the truck lurching
and teetering ferociously, skirting the front of the cave where a massive
wrought-iron gate protects the entrance. The park officials open it up every
morning and charge four bucks for a half-hour tour. I've never been. If Uncle
Craig and I even qualify as middle class, we are on the low end of it; we don't
have much entertainment money, and if it weren't for the academic scholarship to
Colorado State I'd be stuck catching snakes forever. As for Uncle Craig, he's
undereducated, constantly broke, and his credit is as screwed up as his teeth
Unpiling from the Ranger, we stamp our feet against the dirt to get the
circulation back into them. When Uncle Craig speaks I can smell his half-rotten
mangy gums. I tap him on the shoulder, pushing my bottom lip out with my tongue.
This is the sign for him to put in some fresh dip. Chewing tobacco is the only
thing that disguises the odor.
Lily and Stace grab the booze. I take the climbing gear and fluorescent
lantern. Uncle Craig holds the burlap sack with the snake in it.
"I know you're not taking that thing with us," Stace says. Uncle
Craig ignores her, locking the truck. Stace looks at me and widens her eyes, as
if to say Well? Aren't you going to say anything? I smile at her, shrugging
indifferently. Arguing is pointless. Resistance is futile.
Uncle Craig pushes on with the sack at his side, leading us fifty yards
around the rocky mountain and over a series of boulders to the cave's
little-known back entrance—a two-by-two foot hole in the earth that is an easy
eight-foot drop by rope to the cave floor. Like the front entrance, this one is
also covered by an iron barrier. We chiseled it loose months ago, now it gives
easily with a good tug. Living poor makes you resourceful. And a little
unbalanced, I think.
We sit in the wet cave, resting against stalagmites that are wide as tree
trunks, lifting beer to our mouths in assembly-line regularity. The ladies and I
sit on one side of the little cavern while Uncle Craig sits smoking a
hand-rolled cigarette several feet away. He raises the sack a few inches off the
ground and drops it again, just to be ornery. The snake begins rattling and
"Why don't you leave that poor thing alone?" Stace says.
He coughs and abruptly turns off the lantern, the cherry between his fingers
illuminating his face eerily.
"How 'bout that," he says, pointing with his cigarette to the
purple-hued hole in the ceiling. "Our own private skylight."
Stace howls. As my eyes adjust to the dimness, I see her raise her beer
towards the sky, her arms long and thick. She exhales and rests her cold hand on
my knee. Could this be genuine affection? Or just a thanks-for-getting-us-drunk
Uncle Craig squats on his haunches and dolls out some ancient spelunkers'
lore—a believe-it-or-not tale about two prospectors who vanished in the cave
in 1897. The gist of it is that two half-crippled 49ers led a wild mule saddled
with a chest of gold from California to Arizona, then took refuge in the cave
while fleeing a band of Apaches. The Apaches stood vigil outside for nearly
three weeks, but the gringos never emerged. Finally they sent in a war party to
investigate. Supposedly the treasure and the prospectors are still missing,
along with the Apaches who went in after them. Whatever. It’s one of Uncle
Craig’s favorite stories. Tall tales are his specialty, but the scary thing is
that he actually believes them.
Lily, who has grown increasingly silent, paralyzed by alcohol, suddenly stirs
and exudes a trail of slurry mumbo-jumbo.
Stace snatches her beer away.
Lily sings "No way! No way!" and retakes control of her beverage.
"Lily, you're plastered."
"That's right! That's right!"
Uncle Craig stands, ugly and full of booze, and walks to her. He bends down
and grips her cheeks as if to pucker her mouth, then kisses her squarely. As if
he had been watching for an opening, for a lowering of her defenses. Lily throws
her arms around his neck and engages in a little tongue-to-tongue action,
complete with sloppy sound effects.
"Hey," I say. "Hey Unc? Yo, Unc. Mission Control to UC. Like,
maybe you should slow down a bit, huh?"
He looks at me sideways, which I know by now is an invitation to brawl, and I
look away to avoid physical confrontation. He whispers something in Lily's ear.
She gets to her unsteady feet and locks her arms around his waist, using him as
Stace clears her throat and says "Lily’s drunk. Maybe we should head
Uncle Craig: "What? Home? Of course not! Lost treasure awaits!" He
pulls a little flashlight from his pocket, and with Lily at his side, bends to
clear the low tunnel out of the room. Lily mumbles something unintelligible as
they disappear into the blackness.
We sit in silence. Stace pulls her hand from my knee and rubs her upper arms.
"It's cold in here," she says.
"You wanna wear my shirt?"
"No. Keep it."
I get up and switch on the lantern, illuminating the alien rock formations
around us: stalagmites shooting up from the floor, stalactites thrusting down
from the ceiling like a converging set of very long, very sharp teeth.
Lily giggles. Cave acoustics are spooky—she could be ten feet away, maybe a
Stace says "You think she's alright?"
The rattler shifts slowly, its tail momentarily silent.
"So the band's sounding pretty good," I say, making small talk and
lying through my teeth.
Stace isn’t going for it. "We don't wanna sound good," she says.
"We wanna sound…"
"Don’t worry. You’re on your way."
Then, from some secret place, we hear Lily again. A cooing noise, more
impassioned than impaired. Stace brings her knees to her chest, hugs herself and
rocks lightly. I touch her forearm. She scoots away, focusing on the sack as it
begins to move, the snake rattling in uneven rhythms.
"That's just awful," Stace says. "Why don't you free that
"Set it loose."
"I couldn't if I wanted to."
"Half of it belongs to Uncle Craig."
"Well I can't take seeing it trapped in that bag."
"Then I'll put it back in the truck."
"But I don't want to see it in the truck. I want to see it crawling
around. Slithering like a happy snake."
"Sorry. It's worth a hundred bucks."
"I'll give you the hundred bucks. Just let it out."
I look around at our small room and the tunnel leading westward.
"Let it out where?" I say. "There's nowhere to let it out
Stace pulls me up by the arm and pats me on the rear.
"Up there," she says.
I touch the rope, tentatively, looking at her over my shoulder.
"C’mon," she says. "Are you really that afraid of your
We both know the answer to that question, but I start climbing anyway.
We walk to the Ranger through light drizzle. Lightening spreads east and west
across the sky, illuminating every wrinkle and crevice in the landscape. Stace
"I have a dry shirt in the truck," I say. "It's flannel. You
can have it."
"Whatever. Let's just go."
At the truck I bend down and fish Uncle Craig's magnetic hide-a-key box from
under the back bumper, thinking about how mad he's going to be unless he gets
laid tonight, and even if he does there could be hell to pay. He doesn't like
anyone driving his truck, especially me. My neck twitches twice out of
nervousness. I karate-chop it to make it stop.
We drive slowly, the windshield wipers beating back and forth, the snake
writhing and rattling between us. Stace says, "No offense to your uncle,
but Lily shouldn't be off with him down there." I raise my eyebrows, trying
to seem surprised at her scrutiny. "Do you trust him?" she says.
I nod vigorously, as I find that it’s easier to tell lies with body
language than with words. There's less guilt attached to it. Stace turns to look
out her window, letting the issue die, unlike the detectives who questioned me
when JoLee disappeared. They asked me if Uncle Craig was the violent type. I
shook my head—absolutely not, no way. But when they asked about his replacing
the windshield of his truck six times in the span of two years—how do they
find out about this stuff?—I had to explain about his habit of putting his
foot through it. Not that it's an unusual thing to do. I've heard that
bad-tempered people generally go through a lot of glass, and I'd guess that the
sound of it breaking must be satisfying, not to mention the visual shattering
effect. But glass versus a human being, those are two very different things.
By the time we reach the tracks the drizzle has turned to downpour and the
rattler is considerably more active, animating the sack and contorting it into
miraculous shapes. Stace shouts out her perceptions of the shape-changing burlap
as if taking an ink blot test: "Pyramid;" "Ramp;"
"Sombrero;" "Slinky Toy."
I look both ways for oncoming trains, then pull up onto the tracks with the
headlights shining onto a clearing between the rails and a thicket of ocotillo.
We step out, hunching slightly to protect our faces from the stinging
grape-size drops, the sack in my left hand and my pocketknife in my right. I set
the burlap down in the clearing, the rattler vibrating the fabric. I cut the
string at the top, then step back and spread the opening with the twiggy end of
a dead mesquite branch. The snake peers its head out, flickering its tongue at
the falling rain, then muscles out among the cactus in one swift, terrifying
motion. Strangely, there is no ceremony, narration, or off-screen music attached
to this event. Only a little pain in my pocket at the hundred dollars slithering
away, and the fear that it’ll cost me a black eye when Uncle Craig shows up.
"I plan to blame you fully for this," I tell Stace, only
"Cheer up," she says. "You just earned brownie points with the
Back at the cave there is still no trace of Lily or Uncle Craig. We lower
ourselves down into it and investigate the immediate area, finding nothing. We
sit silently for minutes, listening for any signs of life. Again, nothing.
Finally we scream at the top of our lungs. We are answered by the echo of our
own voices, then by silence.
We take the lantern and embark on a search, hunching and running our way
through the maze of rock, trying to keep a mental map of our route. So far it is
a very navigable cave—there are no tiny holes to crawl through nor is there
deep water to wade. But there is also no clear path. In fact there are infinite
choices. In most every major room there are three or more exits. Some exits lead
to another cavern or another black corridor. Others dead-end and we have to
backtrack, finding our way to areas that seem only vaguely familiar, our
orientation now guessed at and agreed upon by committee. We hold each others'
forearms like bloodsiblings, stopping every so often to scream, switch off the
lantern, and listen among the blackness. Occasionally we come across bones—remains
of long-dead coyotes and birds and such—but find no signs of life. The deeper
we go, the more aware I become of my breathing. The more my lungs seems like
twin rusty accordions, wheezing blocks of ill-conceived, off-key notes.
Stace says "You think they went this way?" and I say "I don't
think anyone's ever gone this way."
Finally we come upon a series of small pools in which little translucent
minnows, their spines visible in the white lantern light, twitch haphazardly in
"How long you figure we've been in here?" I say.
"A couple hours maybe."
"I was thinking four or five."
She says "Maybe we should head back."
"Okay. Which way?"
She scratches her head. Neither of us know.
We trudge onward through perhaps another hundred yards of wet, winding cave,
then stop and lie flat against a large, smooth section of rock-covered floor.
Stace falls asleep and begins snoring lightly. I turn the lantern off and lay
awake, thinking of Uncle Craig and his enormous bronzed upper body and skinny
white legs. I imagine him emerging from the cavern in some distant future—perhaps
next week or the week after—carrying lost treasure, smiling and flashing a row
of gold nuggets where his rotten teeth and gums had been. His skin is bleached
and nearly pink from living underground, his eyes smallish and anemic. Happy
eyes, though. The truth is that I worry about what will happen to him when I
leave for CSU. Without me around, will he ever go to the dentist? Will he spend
all his money on booze? Will some mojave get its neurotoxins into him?
Sometimes, because of what happened with JoLee, I wonder if he wouldn’t mind
just fading away.
In another stretch of incalculable time and infinite rock we come upon a
coyote drinking from a tiny puddle. When it looks up, its eyes like bicycle
reflectors, it skids and scurries off ahead. We follow its trail and come to a
small room with a tiny fissure of sunlight peeking through a crack in the
overhead rock. We've been in here all night.
I switch off the lantern. When our eyes adjust, we see that the tunnel before
us casts a lighter shade of black than its predecessors. Following it, we are
led to a great whale-like cavern with a natural staircase leading up to a
blinding hole in its roof. Out of a dark corner of the room the coyote shoots up
the staircase and through the brilliant white gateway.
Once outside, we find ourselves lone escapees, realizing the beginning of our
march back around the mountain, of our silent ride back to Tucson in Uncle Craig’s
truck, of our phone calls to Search and Rescue, who will tell us that no
comprehensive map of the cave's inner sanctum exists, and of our reports to the
Police, who will scold us for being in the cave in the first place. Then there
will be the explanations to Lily's parents. These are the most difficult, nearly
gruesome as we wallow in our shame and in Lily and Uncle Craig's shame too. They
were drunk, we say. They were fooling around. And there was this rattlesnake.
In the coming days Stace and I call each other several times a day.
Theorizing, hoping, everything short of praying together for Lily and Uncle
Craig. We talk for hours about the experience of being lost together—the only
common reference point between our lives—while she picks softly at the two
lowest strings on her guitar, the fuzzy, thick tones echoing in the background
of our dialogue. At the end of every conversation she asks me, "You gonna
be okay?" and of course I say "No worries. You?"
On Tuesday morning, nearly three days after her disappearance, Lily emerges
anonymously from the cave, stumbling and trudging out among a pack of tourists.
A security guard stops her to check for a hand stamp, to make sure she paid her
four bucks. Upon seeing the sickly yellow-and-purple spots on her forearms and
the wild, small-pupiled eyes, he calls 911. The police call Lily’s parents,
who call Stace, who calls me. When we arrive at ER, Lily looks more like an old
vagrant or some ancient troll than her twenty-year-old drone-rocking self. We
try to get her to speak, to sing. She can't. Or won't.
When she does finally speak it is Friday evening. Uncle Craig is six days
Lily's parents, who repel my apologies with sour-faced hatred, are sitting
with Stace and I in the hospital room. There is nothing for us to do but sit
here watching Lily gape at sitcom reruns. She is being treated for dehydration,
a sprained wrist, and for stress fractures in both shins. As if that weren’t
enough, she's also got a lingering concussion and some pretty nasty bruises on
her face. Some skin, which they can only assume is Uncle Craig’s because it
isn’t Lily’s, was found under her fingernails, and the doctor thinks her
head injuries are, in his words, "man made." Yesterday, for instance,
he walks in to look at her head and I ask "Could she have fallen?" and
he says "Fallen on somebody’s first about a dozen times, maybe," and
this is when Lily's parents really start to loathe me, as if I, supposing that
Uncle Craig were even partially responsible for her injuries, would share equal
blame for his actions. As I keep telling everyone, he’s just my Uncle, not my
pal. Until I turned eighteen a cou
le months back he was my legal guardian. I try to look after him, but it’s
not my job. If anything he should’ve been looking after me.
So I continue to sit here, braving their revulsion, waiting for Lily to utter
something, anything. Hoping for some clue about Uncle Craig's whereabouts, about
his behavior with Lily, for some antidote to this gray empty feeling in my gut.
But we aren't allowed to ask Lily anything about what happened. Doctor's orders.
Finally, at nine o’ clock, Lily says "peaches," then falls silent
again. Twenty minutes later a nurse arrives with a small bowl containing three
tiny skinless chunks of canned fruit. Lily ignores them. We all shrug, then
return to our respective ruminations.
At ten the nurse kicks us out of the room. I hug Stace goodnight in the
parking lot, and we go our separate ways—her to a weathered Celica with saran
wrap where the passenger side window should be, and me to Uncle Craig’s
mud-splayed Ranger. It is only here, in the largely desolate and dim-lit parking
lot that the truck begins to assume an extrasensory presence. Viewed from
behind, in the shadowy illumination, the contoured passenger seat and headrest
become the silhouette of a driver, the rear view mirror a beaverskin cowboy hat.
Inside, the truck cab stinks of Skoal and gingivitis. The glove compartment is a
snake den. Every dashboard vibration is a mojave rattler yearning to be let
At home I pull into the short gravel driveway, turning on the high beams to
spotlight our half of the slump-block duplex. I leave the engine running. An
unexpected clucking—nervous energy, I guess—escapes my mouth as I scan the
placid window curtains for movement, for signs of life, for the apparition of
the man himself. I know that now, after six agonizing days, I am wholly
unprepared for Uncle Craig’s resurrection. Any Lazarus trick would send me to
the hospital. But I know that six days lost is a long time, and that it will
probably turn to ten, ten will turn to twenty, and roll on into the deep black
forever. I know too, resting my arms on the steering wheel and closing my eyes
to the haunted darkness, that home is somewhere where I have never been. Yet.