'May the Passenger Pigeon Sing Thee to Thy Rest'
In public school no one seemed to notice that I was a res kid. My best friend Will Jeff was not so lucky. He was likely gay, a bookish white kid with a tousle of red hair. Mannerisms like his were noticed. In showers he never looked at a cock or anything so easy to spot. Not in East Texas. Here the white kids still said nigger in white company between conversations about finger-banging some chick named Ashley or Madison. But no matter the company everyone throws the word fag around.
We cut class on a Monday and drove out to Herpville, the snake farm my older brother ran. My brother called himself Festus Two Snakes, but his name was Cody Dufresne. He did it because whites didn't realize Indian folks could have names like them; most thought we were called Running Bear, if they didn't assume we were Mexicans. So Cody called himself Two Snakes to legitimize his "Indian-run snake farm." Herpville was a little tin house just off the highway next to Festus's single-wide trailer house and his junk collection. What he called "the Dustup." Despite the garbage pile, the snakes, and the run-down trailer, Festus fucked Deisha Stien, the hottest redhead I'd ever seen.
I parked next to Festus's motorcycle, and Will Jeff and I sat and watched him from the pickup. My brother stood in the yard among a series of old aquariums and slipshod reptile cages, milking a coral snake. After he'd finished we walked over. "Hey Cody," I said.
"Call me Festus, what if a customer was around?"
"What did Grandma call you?"
He shrugged me off. "Why aren't you two at school?"
Will Jeff answered, "There's a chance today's the day Donovan kicks my ass."
"So kick back." Festus pointed at me. "You too, bro. This is why we, a once proud people, live in mosquito country running snake farms."
"We live in Livingston because my friend's a pussy?"
"No. No, goddamn it. We live here 'cause we don't stand up for our pussy friends. Or something. Listen, all I'm saying is that a kid named Donovan could stand a kick in the neck from the Red Man."
"Guys, don't call me a pussy. At least not to my face," Will Jeff said.
"Yeah, sorry, but get out of my way," Festus said, before pushing Will Jeff aside to get at the crate behind him, where Festus plunged his hand bullet quick.
While Festus's hand worked unseen I asked, "Code, do you still have the magnets you said we could have?"
"Festus, and yes. They're in the Dustup. Help yourself."
You'd think a junk pile would have held more interest for two 16-year-old boys, but goddamn if it just didn't depress us. It was a stack of detritus from a boring town. Milk crates, bailing wire, a vacuum canister, an old mailbox. Short of the magnets it was a collection of shit that eventually would become a snake tank. Nothing more.
"I hope we find the magnets quick," Will Jeff said. He placed equal emphasis on the second half of the word magnet. So it sounded like we were looking for some device designed to catch something called a "mag."
"They're around. I'd guess not around anything metal. Festus says they're powerful as all get out," I answered.
We eventually found them on top of two sawhorses. The bricks weighed about a pound and were the color of Dirty Harry's gun. "These certainly look impressive," Will Jeff said.
"You certainly sound like a nerd."
We took a magnet each and headed back to the Herpville Yard. There Festus was milking a four-foot rattler. The snake's tail shook a maraca rhythm so convincing I expected to see mariachis or a quinceañera near the milking station.
"Where are you headed?" Festus asked.
"To make mischief, probably."
"Any advice?" Will Jeff asked him.
"Don't spend twenty-dollar bills," Festus admonished.
"Never spend a twenty."
"Because Andrew Jackson was a genocidal cunt, that's why." He began to gesticulate while holding the snake. "He was responsible for the murder of some of your best friend's ancestors and the sale of the rest of them to old French perverts," he said to Will Jeff while he pointed the animal's head at me. I imagined the oozing fangs as small ivory-colored hunchbacked drooling Frenchmen who bought my great-great-grandmother all those years ago.
"Goddamn it Festus, I mean what can we do with the magnets and you know it," Will Jeff said.
Festus dropped the snake into its crate. "I don't give a shit what you do with them. Just don't fuck up a culture while you do it."
"Love you, brother," I said. Then I hugged him quickly, before his hand became alive with snakes again.
Later Will Jeff and I found ourselves at the railroad tracks behind his house holding the two magnets tied to soda cans waiting for the 2:20 train. It was late.
"Asher, your brother is kind of weird."
"No shit. Grandma did it to him."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, her mom was sold to a Frenchman. Then her daughter ended up marrying a white man."
"I don't follow."
"Shit Will Jeff, my last name is Dufresne. She went a little crazy at that. She would have spirited me and Cody away if she could've. Turns out she didn't have to, mom and dad died and we moved to the reservation where she dropped Indian tales into our ears while we slept."
"That's fucked up." Will Jeff sat down and toyed with the twine tied to his magnet.
"Not really. It was cute. In that granny way. What's fucked up is the way Festus abuses what she says. The Two Snakes thing. She'd call it pandering to white people."
"I had no idea Indians thought about white people all the time."
"Because white people don't think about us at all."
"True. Where is the goddamned train?"
"Check this out, Kemosabe." I got on my knees and placed my ear to the track. "It's an old Indian trick."
"I have no idea how this works," I answered, but I left my ear on the track. Moments passed before a hum buzzed up from the track. That the trick worked shocked me. "Get over here," I whispered. As if the approaching train were a wild animal and the sound of my voice might have startled it away. Will Jeff leaned down to the track to listen. He faced me and we looked at one another while we listened to the tracks. Only moving when we heard the sound of the horn in the air.
We ran to our magnets. Will held a magnet while I stood a few feet from him holding the can tied to it, as if I were preparing to fly a kite. Our clothes rattled against us in the train's rush of heat. Will Jeff threw his magnet. The stainless brick sailed through the air before sticking quick against the side of a boxcar with a clang that could have summoned John Henry. It stuck and for a moment it seemed someone had paused a movie and only part of the action had ceased. Then the Pepsi can ripped from my hand and sang through the air after it. I picked up my magnet, but I just held it as the train rumbled away, trailing Will Jeff's empty can.
Afterward Will Jeff and I stopped at the drive in burger place. In Livingston it was the custom to eat while you leaned on the back of your car or dropped tailgate. That way folks could cruise through and see who was around. This was what kids would do for fun on hot Livingston nights. Will Jeff and I sat on my tailgate. He picked at his burger nervously, he didn't fit into this scene. I was sorry for him, but this is where you had to go if you wanted to meet girls with names like Ashley or Madison. Unfortunately, Donovan Carter wanted to meet girls too. He parked his Camaro right next to my truck.
"Asher," Donovan greeted me.
"Donovan," I nodded at him. Goddamn I hoped there wouldn't be words.
"Faggot," Donovan said to Will Jeff as he nodded. Here were the words.
"Give me a break, Donovan," Will Jeff said. His voice cracked.
At the faltering sound of Will Jeff's voice Donovan's eye gleamed. It was momentary but betrayed the shine of something inside dangerous young men. His hand leapt like one of my brother's snakes. Will Jeff's nose cracked, a sick sound like a twig snapping. Then blood sprayed his hamburger and mingled with the ketchup on his fries.
"What the hell," I shouted as I leapt from the tailgate.
Donovan raised his hands, the gesture of false innocence children with suspect futures learn early. "Sorry I hit your girlfriend, bro." I pushed him and he awkwardly stumbled before catching himself against his Camaro. Kids from the other cars gathered around us and Donovan leaned forward to sneer before he made a fist. Then before he could raise it, he unwound his knuckles and said, "Naw, I don't fight res-kids."
Some girls giggled from the gathered crowd and Donovan shot them that goddamned golden quarterback smile. He got into his Camaro and pulled away. All I could do was stand there. He'd kicked both mine and Will Jeff's asses with a sucker punch and the word res.
I ran to the pickup and pulled my magnet, complete with its aluminum can, from the glove box. I chased after the Camaro and let it fly. It arced magnificently through the air, followed by its can comet, before unimpressively impacting the asphalt. Instead of retrieving it, I left it there so that it could gather things like it was once gathered itself.
Will Jeff sat bleeding on my tailgate. "I wish you had hit the windshield of that goddamned I-Roc."
"Let's go," I said.
"We need to get the asshole," Will Jeff said, his voice as thick as a cold. He stepped to the ground and walked to the spot on the street marked by my magnet, where the Camaro had been.
The two of us sought our revenge in the way of fear. We would release a milked snake into his home.
On Saturday we went to Herpville under the pretense of watching it for Festus. Will Jeff brought his Captain America lunch box. Our goal was to secret a snake into it.
I didn't expect to see Deisha with Festus. She stood gorgeous with her red hair plaited. I think even Will Jeff's jaw cracked open at the notion that she was braless under her jumper. Even in the despair of a snake milking outfit she sparkled. The fact that Festus regularly persuaded her to climb onto the back of a motorcycle bound for a junk-pile that sounded like Herpe-village had me convinced that somewhere in all his Two Snake posturing was some legitimate medicine.
Deisha noticed Will Jeff right away. His eyes were blacked. "What happened to you, sweetie?" The way she cooed had me wishing Donovan had hit me.
"Donovan damned Carter," I answered for him.
"Did you kick him the cooze?" Festus asked.
Deisha slugged him. "Language, Cody!"
"It was no big deal, just a little embarrassing," Will Jeff offered.
"It was a cheap shot, is what it was," I said.
"Sorry to hear it boys, but thanks for watching the place while I go milk this copperhead." Festus pinched Deisha. She blushed and slapped his hand away.
When they left we opened the crate holding the snakes we'd seen Festus milk earlier in the week. I searched out a coral snake. "You ready?" I asked.
Will Jeff was breathing heavy but he nodded yes.
I looked around the place for something to use as a glove and settled on an empty Crown Royal bag. I slipped the sack over my hand then gave Will Jeff a thumbs up with my free hand.
He opened the lunch box. "Will Jeff, as soon as that snake is in, snap the thing shut. OK?"
Handling the snake went more smoothly than I planned. I'm not sure the animal was even aware he'd experienced a change of venue. "Put the lid back on the crate so Festus doesn't notice," I said.
Donovan's house abutted a field of unmowed grass in the back of the Canyon Falls subdivision. At dusk Will Jeff and I crouched in the high grass and watched the house. "Which window do you think is his?" Will Jeff asked.
"The back one," I guessed. "It doesn't matter, though, the snake in the house is enough."
I eyed the Captain America lunch box in Will Jeff's hands. "You stay here then, I'm gonna run up."
It went quickly then. Will Jeff ran, half crouched, to the back of the house. He stopped against the side of the house and waved before pressing himself against the house doing his best Mission: Impossible sneak. He opened the box and I heard him stifle a moan. I saw a flash, the striking snake. Then another flash as it bit him again, like a whip cracking. After the third strike Will Jeff slid down the side of the house. I ran to him, he was shaking.
"I think we got the wrong snake, Asher."
"No. What do you mean?"
"This one's poisonous," he said.
"Venomous," I corrected out of reflex. "But Festus milked it." I trembled.
"Yeah," he breathed. The sound of his breath was sticky. Heavy.
"I'll get help."
Before I left him I kissed his cheek. Quick. Not because I thought he wanted it or because I harbored some secret love. But because it was right and I wanted him to be well. I expected him to feel clammy, instead his cheek felt like the balsa wood flyers I built with my grandmother on the reservation.