Living in Snakeland

The funeral was across town in Tempe.

Rob Svensson’s father drove their rust-scabbed Carryall because that was their car, the only car that carried the entire family. The blue Ford blistering in the front yard did not drive anyone anyplace, although Rob’s dad said it would be running soon enough, just you wait.

The Svensson kids all dressed in their church best even though it was a Saturday afternoon and piled in behind the front seat of the red truck. Their father’s hair was slicked back and still wet from a shower after his Saturday morning at work, but the dampness wouldn’t last in the heat. Rob had used Vaseline on his own hair to keep it okay. It was long enough to curve back over itself in the front and he carried a small black comb in the back pocket of his trousers. Everyone was in a hurry to get going, still fussing with ribbons and socks and the buckles of shoes as they found a place in the truck. “No time to dilly dally,” their father frowned. Rob’s big sister Susan began to complain that the car wasn’t clean but their mother turned worried eyes from the front seat and said, “Quiet, you children.”

Rob’s dad turned the key and the engine squealed and died, clattered and stuttered to silence and he turned the key again, and again, and any moment Rob was certain his father would explode, the back of his father’s neck redder and redder and his fingers on the key whiter and whiter. His mother smoothed a hankie across her broad lap, looking down so steadily and purposefully across her swelling belly you’d think it was important, this hankie and its two, crossed, pressed-in creases. Then the engine spun and roared and the world spun around Rob’s head and his father laid his arm across the back of his seat and looked straight past his five, going-on-six children and steered the car onto the street in front of their house and they drove to the funeral on the other side of Phoenix. 

Mr. Johnson had not been a friend to any of the neighbors except for Rob’s dad and even that friendship was made official only as they drove to the church and his father spoke into the silence in the car, “Ed was a good man, a hard worker.” The button on the cigarette lighter popped out and he pulled hard at the Camels in his fist, nodded twice. “A good worker.” A moment later he was whistling a tune, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel - ashes flying - and occasionally smiling at something only he knew what. Rob’s mother began talking then, about neighbors, about supper, about maybe stopping on the way home to get ice cream. Wouldn’t that be nice?

In the back, Susan braided her younger sister’s hair and her younger brothers were told to straighten their socks. Chris poked his finger into the heel of his stiff Sunday shoes and tried to pull the sock back up onto his ankle. Joey had wedged a nickel into the space between the window glass and the door frame; it stuck in the bristle of plush which held the window against the frame. He was singing a song, the theme song for the local cartoon show the boys watched on Saturday mornings.

“You hush up,” Susan said to her brother. “And hold still,” she muttered to Jeanette who had begun to whine about the pull of rubber bands in her hair. “Joey, I mean it, you better do as I say.” And Joey hissed between his teeth as the nickel dropped, rattling, inside the door, lost forever. “I told you,” she said. “Get your shoes on,” she nagged Rob as she twisted and snapped the bands tight around her sister’s pale braids.

Rob continued looking out the window, watching the invisible slide of desert air. He had seen a snake the day before, out past the cabbage fields where he had gone after he stole Mr. Johnson’s cowboy boots from the trash where Mrs. Johnson had put them after he died. The boots were heavy in his hands when he saw the snake. A rattler, sleeping in the sun. On another day he would have thrown a stone at the snake, but he had just stolen a dead man’s boots.  

Mr. Johnson died because his heart gave out. Rob heard his mother talking to the neighbor two houses down. The other woman talked from the shade of cottonwoods, his mother stood in the sun, her arms folded tightly across his new baby-sister-or-brother. The neighbor’s face was freckled and sweating, his own mother’s lips pouched out as she listened. “His heart just gave out,” the woman kept saying. Rob imagined Mr. Johnson’s heart like one of the inflated rubber balls girls played with during recess, a hole punctured in the side and the air gone, so it wouldn’t bounce, you couldn’t even throw it. This was not what a real heart looked like, Rob knew. He’d seen a real, live heart in a movie. In school all the kids in his class had been brought to the cafeteria where they sat on benches, their elbows on the tables or their knees depending on what side of the tables they sat on. The teachers stood around the projector and called for silence and the lights were put out so they could watch a film called Hemo the Magnificent about blood and hearts, a lot of talk about salt in the hemoglobin, the word they found later on the quiz. A girl fainted during the part of the film which showed real, live beating hearts, how the heart of a little animal like a bird beat faster than a bigger animal like a person. The hearts were red muscles, netted with veins, shiny wet with blood. When your heart stopped beating, you died.

In the back of the Carryall, Rob blinked his eyes, pulled the boots over his bare heels. They were too large for him, but he’d stuffed his socks into the pointed toes so they wouldn’t fall off. The heels were hardly worn and the stitching on the sides made a fancy pattern of swirling vines on brown leather. Leaning his head out the window, he ran his fingertips along the loops and spirals, following the circle to its center on the outside of each boot. He wondered if Mrs. Johnson would recognize her dead husband’s boots on his feet, and the world spun again, the afternoon sun gyrated around his head.

Jan Priddy’s work recently earned her an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, a
Soapstone residency, and a Pushcart nomination. Her work has been published by journals including CALYX, StringTown, The Raven Chronicles,
and North American Review. She teaches on the north Oregon coast.