When I own a gun I can shoot the snakes right off the ground. Pick them off when they slither out of the grasses, collect their bodies and sling them over my shoulders like belts of ammo. I’ve been in Texas forever, collecting rattlesnakes like clues, but they’ve never told me anything. Creeping up on them where the grass grows high, jump on their backs and slice off their heads before they can twist around and bite you. Stick the knife in and rip through the scales, direct as silver, though you’re only using steel. I carry them home in the red dusk, when it’s too dark to see the snakes flicker in the grass. More likely they get you than you them if you’re killing in the dark.
When I was six, my dad bought me a plastic toy gun. Orange-tipped, with rounds of caps like plastic flowers. He bought it at the hardware store, and whenever he went back for replacement drill bits, he’d buy another pack of caps. I’d shoot almost all of them, until I had one round left, which I’d save until he bought another set or left for good.
I’ve killed a lot of rattlesnakes. I don’t know how many. I started when I was eight and haven’t stopped since. I’m thirteen now. You can’t see them when you look out at the grass from the porch. It looks like a wasteland, flat and lifeless. But I haven’t run out of snakes in five years. I don’t even have to walk far to find them, behind my mother’s house where their thick bodies coil in the dust. I thought they would be gone eventually. I thought if I just killed enough of them I could wipe out the species. Or at least scare the rest of them out of Texas. But I guess I should know by now that you can’t make anything go away. Things leave if they want and stay if they don’t. Doesn’t matter what you do.
My dad left when I was seven and three quarters. Nearly two years after he bought me that cap gun. Nearly two years of saving the last round, but it was only a precaution, really. I never thought I wouldn’t get any more. But then he packed his worn-out shirts and jeans in two plastic drugstore bags, the red Thank Yous gleaming absurdly down the bulging sides as he slammed out the front door, screaming “Fuck you!”
The first time I killed a snake was at the 1974 Rattlesnake Round-Up. Everyone in Sweetwater goes to it. A hundred some people in white aprons with dark purple blood smeared across their cheeks, hands clutching the limp carcasses of snakes like ice cream cones. I killed my first snake, sliced its head clean off and gutted it with the same knife. Tore its body straight down the middle the way the barber from Main Street instructed, as he stood over the cooler of beer and 7Up, cleaning the dried blood out from under his nails with a toothpick.
After my dad left, my mom lost about half her body weight. Looked like a stork with her skinny legs and a throat that always looked too tired to eat even if she tried. Flaps of skin hanging from her chin to the tendons in her neck, which always seemed over-stretched, like it might collapse, crushing her windpipe till she gasped like a fish out of water and died contorted on the floor with her face mottled blue. I dream that a lot. My mom dying like a fish.
I can’t imagine dying though I’ve tried till it made my chest ache. The closest I came was the summer of 1978, when a snake bit me on the inside of my arm. It was the only time I got bit. Jumped on its back, but my grip on the knife was loose, and the snake swung its head round at me before I could cut it off. I screamed till my voice cracked and cried though I was twleve years old. My mother came running ‘cause I was only a few yards out from the back porch and got me to the hospital in my dad’s old pick-up truck, so I never saw my life flash before my eyes like they say you do. Or maybe I did, and I just couldn’t tell the difference between the grass plains and red dust sliding past the car windows and that lightning synopsis of my life, since they’re really just the same thing.
My parents moved to Texas from Nevada, where my dad worked at a hotel in Las Vegas. He said it was no place to raise a kid, so they went to Lubbock while my mother was pregnant, then Sweetwater once I was born, though she didn’t want to. I think about how the Texas dust is ingrained in my skin in a way that soap and water can’t wash off and how the desert has curled up inside me with the other things that eat me from the inside out. But my parents aren’t even from here, and still the place is in my DNA as much as they are. No one ends up where they were born, but somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get out.
When I was bit, I had to stay in the hospital four days. Rolling Plains Medical Center, second floor. I mostly just remember it being dark and feeling like I was in a movie. People think of hospitals as white, but this one was a disappointing beige, with blankets the sick yellow of pus. It was the same hospital I was born in, and I thought it would be symbolic to die there too, but I didn’t. I wrote my name on the bed post, ‘Boyd Fortin’ in silver Sharpie, then wished I hadn’t. I didn’t want to trap myself in there. Maybe I had a premonition of my return without realizing, and that’s why I wrote it. But when I went back a year later it was gone.
I found my old cap gun the night before I left in my closet. I wrapped it in the apron from my first Round-Up, the one I wore every time I killed snakes, but didn’t need anymore. I wanted to do something symbolic, burn or bury it like a corpse, but those things are always meaningless. I look for symbols everywhere, but mostly I just believe in chaos. Everything’s a mess, spinning in space towards a black hole, a great empty cavity like the one in my liver that forced me back to this hospital. And the whole universe is moving so fast, the earth spinning and the cells disintegrating in my guts, but you wouldn’t know it, in this cinderblock room where everything seems still. They repainted the walls. Still beige.
They found the tapeworm three months ago, a few days before my thirteenth birthday, which I spent in an X-ray machine. I’d been nauseous for weeks, living on ginger ale and children’s Tylenol ‘cause my stomach hurt too bad for anything else. At the time, I thought it felt like needles stabbing my side, but now I imagine tiny teeth chewing at my liver. There’s a hole there, and lots of pus. The doctor showed me the slides. Gray smudges of organs around a skinny white slash that dictated my future. That’s the worm, he said, watching my face as I nodded.
If everything really is pointless, and I think it is, I wonder why the snakes are still here. If I look carefully, I can see them out the window from my hospital bed. It hurts, propping myself up on my elbows enough to look over the sill, but if I’m sick anyway, it hardly matters. They blend in with the dust, but I’ve learned what to look for. Flickers of sunlight on the scales, slight stirs of grass. And if they’re out there, alive, and I’m in here, dying, I could prove that the world is ruled by chaos, ‘cause I could kill them. I could slice their heads off and gut them. I could if I could only lift myself from this bed. But sometimes, I think that worms and snakes aren’t so different, and then I wonder if there is such a thing as fate.