Mom and I were playing snake. In the dark. On the porch steps. Taking turns.
She wore a thin red skirt.
Nobody was saying anything. Her eyes were far away, lost. Out back Dad worked in his shop inventing a revolutionary new gas grill that would soon explode, blowing him into tiny red specks. Before he could stand trial for murder.
Mom and I sat side by side in the shadows, as if I wasn’t there.
In the distance, the lights from the church softball field produced a bright nuclear glow above the tall green corn, its motionless leaves hanging like daggers. On the opposite horizon, the full moon sat bright and red as a giant ember.
She lifted and slowly rotated her glass, its ice like white jelly-beans. As she slowly panned the stretch of highway in one direction then the other the red moonlight set her eyes ablaze. Her breath smelled of green pine needles.
The snake lay waiting.
The night’s first breeze stirred. “Something’s up,” I said.
She tucked her skirt between her knees and reached down to the brick step, lifted the fishing line, laid it in my palm.
“That’s enough of that,” she said. She stood and started inside to make herself another liquor drink.
“Why?” I said. From over the horizon, the distant roar of softball fans passed overhead like a tender amen on the summer breeze.
She let the screen door slam behind her and sang the words to Just My Imagination.
Headlights flared up from the direction of the game. I wrapped the clear twenty-pound test filament around my hand and formed a fist, then hunched on the porch step like a sprinter at the starting line.
“Mama? Mama!” I shouted.
I pulled the line tight, held it low. The headlights blinked bright, making it impossible for me to judge the car’s speed. Drawing a deep breath, I slowly worked the line. Pull, pause. Pull, pause. Pull—. The black asphalt lit up. Our snake slithered across. But I’d been too quick in my delivery. The snake was already in the middle of the other lane. The driver never had a chance.
“Missed that one by a mile,” Mom said through the screen behind me. Like she was talking to herself.
I dropped the fishing line and hustled out to the road. It was a fine snake, one with lots of action. Thick and black like a water moccasin. Mom had made it from a bicycle inner tube. She’d cut the tube in half, like a big C, then folded back the bottom half at the center and stapled it in the middle to make an S. Folded the tip on one end to make a V, meaning poisonous, and stapled on the fishing line. We were waiting for the softball game to end, for the cars to come speeding by. I lifted our black rubber snake, positioned it in the grass on the far side of the road and ran back to the porch where Mom sat. I was trying hard not to think about anything.
“Why?” I whispered. At first I didn’t believe she’d heard me. Her eyes looked out farther than they could see, then slowly ascended to the blood red moon as she drank.
The fun of playing snake was seeing drivers risk their lives to squash half a rubber inner tube they imagined to be a snake. They’d swerve, lock up their brakes, lay their lives on the line for that satisfac-tion. The evening’s first attempt had proven as much when the Cro-Magnon driver of an empty pulpwood truck slammed his brakes so hard the trailer tires bounced and smoked. He pulled over onto the shoulder and waddled back the forty yards axe in hand. When he looked up at us, Mom and I just waved and waved, smiling like lunatics on a Christmas parade float. “Snake,” he called to us. We nodded in agreement. Guy must have spent ten minutes stomping up one side of the ditch bank then down the other side, axe raised and ready, doing his Paul Bunyan routine while the object of his fear and wrath lay flat and lifeless under my mom’s feet. As he drove away, she raised her hand to high-five, threw back her drink, and smiled. “Another stupid-fat-fuck in a big-ol’ truck,” she sang in a hick voice, slowly shaking her head from side to side like it was sad, sad news.
I turned away. Sometimes I couldn’t bear looking at her.
Earlier in the day I’d watched from the tall corn as she climbed behind the wheel of the man’s truck. The air conditioning guy rounded the corner of the house holding his toolbox. She smiled. I just stood there, eyes wide, and watched. Her smile was both happy and mean.
He opened the door to the big truck. She lay back on the seat and lifted her red skirt. I nearly vomited. That taste was in my mouth. I whispered a prayer in fear that she was leaving Dad and me. Once, Dad let me wear his welding helmet and laughed when I spoke in my best Darth Vader voice.
While she was putting supper on the table, I stood at the window looking into his shop at the very back of the yard. Welding sparks flew diving past its open door like fiery minnows. He told me not to look, that it would blind me.
Our family sat in silence. I know the sound of a knife or a fork on a plate is a small sound, but as we ate our supper, I felt I was in the middle of a sword fight. I couldn’t stand it another second.
“There’s something dead around here,” I said.
My father looked at her. “Yes,” he said. He pushed his plate away and walked outside to his shop.
My mother gave me a thin-lipped smile and pulled her shoulders up high and tight like a bat tucking its wings. “Let’s play snake,” she said.