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William Tyree

Losing Snakes

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 go-there-to-geth-er, ah-ha."

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 interpretation.

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 are.

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 squirming.

"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 gesture?

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 a crutch.

Stace clears her throat and says "Lily’s drunk. Maybe we should head back now."

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 hundred.

Stace says "You think she's alright?"

I nod.

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 thing?"


"Set it loose."

"I couldn't if I wanted to."

"Why not?"

"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 at."

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 Uncle?"

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 is shivering.

"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 half-jokingly.

"Cheer up," she says. "You just earned brownie points with the universe."

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 the water.

"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 lost.

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 loose.

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.

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