My father made me sleep with snakes. They were mutt snakes he’d captured in a spring-loaded Folgers coffee can out back of our trailer where the tawny grass grew patchy and bug-infested. That first night I ran around the bed screaming until both my throat and pupils bled. Dad banged the door. He said he’d kill me if I didn’t shut up. He said he meant it.
The next night Dad removed the mattress and bed frame but left the blankets and snakes. When a beer bottle exploded against the outside of my door, a quilt twisted and shimmied as the reptiles squirmed. “This should teach you how to be a man,” he said.
I was twelve.
There were twelve snakes, too. Some had pus-yellow eyes, others slate or onyx or violet eyes. After a few days I learned to treat the creatures like any other sinner or orphan. I gave them love. I even coaxed them into doing favors for me. I’d lower my little boy voice and pick a marching band cadence and I’d recite old nursery rhymes and in a manner of minutes the snakes curled into my belly like flaccid phalluses and slept. In the dark, the lyrics echoed and boomeranged, taunting me with their sarcasm, as if they meant something too slippery for me to get my mind all the way around. “Hush little baby don’t say a word, Pappa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. If that mockingbird don’t sing, Pappa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.”
When Dad let me out, the first thing he did was toss me a pair of boxing gloves. They felt like beach balls on my hands. I blocked one punch but his uppercut caught me blinking. He might have had a rock or a blade in his glove because he sliced my chin open and that sucker blew a gusher. Instead of stitches, my Dad tossed a roll of toilet paper at me and said, “Plug it up.”
We walked up to Hayman’s Hill. The deer there were numerous and beautiful and stupid. With a rifle tucked under his armpit, my father walked right up to a buck and offered it a palm full of oatmeal sprinkled with brown sugar. He gave me the gun and said, “Shoot that sonofabitch.”
When I didn’t, he took a syrupy swig from a bottle and wrinkled his nose as if to sneeze. My fingertips burned. They skirted the curl of the rifle trigger, trembling. I caressed the gun metal like it was a woman’s skin and swallowed and sure enough Dad closed his eyes, and I thought to myself that God was giving me the chance get this over with, giving me a way out.
The sound exploded without me expecting it. Squirrels scrabbled up the bark-bellied trees. A few pine cones fell around us like hollow bombs. He sneezed a second time, less loud, and my fingers stilled.
He looked at the unfired rifle. He looked at me, his grin a mere thin-lipped slit. “I knew it,” he said. “Once a coward, always a coward.”
At home that night he held my head under the bathwater. I kept opening my mouth instead of holding my breath. He must have known that because he’d yank me out by the hair and he’d slap me and call me a Silly Bitch.
“This isn’t my idea,” he said.
I knew what he meant. Mother had left him for a mechanic. The week before, my dad’s brother swallowed a pistol and blew his brains out. So in Dad’s mind, the world was a jagged tangle of barbwire and he was showing me how to clip through it.
We got into the pickup and he handed me a device in the shape of a house phone. Little bb lights blinked. There was a thimble-sized plastic funnel at one end. He told me to blow in it and hum and keep doing that until the beep announced PASS. When I got a FAIL and then another, he punched me in the chest. He said, “Hum while you blow, you idiot.” I tried, but my air was wrong and the device came up FAIL a third time. Now he swung his head like a drunken wolf, whiskey breath washing over the dash. He looked at me panicked. “If you don’t get it right this time, the cops’ll come and take me to jail.” He’d been there before, after killing that granny and her dog in a car wreck.
I looked in his eyes. The white parts were milky with bits of grit burnt into them. I searched for myself and got lost.
He gave me another practice blow-and-hum to work with. It sounded as if he were playing a kazoo. He looked girlish and vulnerable, frightened even.
“Here it comes. Get ready. Blow and hum. Hum high. Blow and hum and hold it.”
I’m older now. A lot of people assume I’m a stroke victim because of the way I talk. If I’d had insurance or a steady job I would have seen about getting my jaw fixed, but just like with those snakes, a person can get used to anything.
You don’t have to tell me about forgiveness, or that I’m my father’s son. I’m still not visiting and I won’t write.
My wife thinks I keep things from her. She imagines I was in the military, that I saw action because she can’t make sense of the way I wake up screaming most nights. The other evening she found me hunched in the corner next to the crib, practicing nursery songs for when the baby arrives, only she said I was like a zombie, unresponsive to her voice, not blinking, staring into the dark as if something, or someone, was there.