Last summer my sister and two brothers moved all the way to Georgia because they hated Mr. Arthur. My name is Robert Osborne Walker. My real daddy made it Ozzie because he had a dead uncle called Ozzie. Mama told me that. Mama always sits me down at the kitchen table or on the couch or on the cane chair in her bedroom or on her bed and she tells me things while she kind of pulls back her hair. She’s a little, small woman. She’s never liked snakes.
Mama married Mr. Arthur because he kept coming by the house and he kept asking her to marry him over and over.
At first, when Mr. Arthur made me hold the rat snakes in my lap, I would cry. I’d be sitting in a porch chair and Mr. Arthur would be standing there with his hat on looking down at me. But then later I got used to it. Finally, when I would hold one in my lap it would make me relax and I could feel him moving along through my cupped hand, and I could lift him up a little bit and feel how much he weighed. They wouldn’t bite. They’d be black or yellow.
Then my mother was taken out of the house on a stretcher. Before that, she had been in her bed, shaking real bad. After they took her out, that left just Mr. Arthur and me.
He used a straight-edged razor to shave with. He’d go out on the porch in the mornings or in the mudroom in cold weather to shave. He had a round mirror propped up and a mug in each place. He’d mix up lather on a soap bar in the bottom of the mug with his brush, then put the lather on his face and shave with that straight razor moving along smooth. He slept in the mudroom on a cot.
He had a leather strap he called a strop and he sharpened the razor on it—back and forth, back and forth. He would take the strap down from the wall and whip me with it when he had to.
So the thing is, I knew how sharp the razor was. He’d toss up something like a grape and on the way down he’d slice it in two. He would laugh real loud when he cut something in two.
The day after they took Mama out of the house I got Mr. Arthur’s razor out of the box on the porch and brought it back inside and sat down on the couch with it. The couch is in front of the fireplace. Something happened inside me that caused me to straighten the razor out. I took it out of the little black holster and unfolded it. Then I ran the sharp edge along the back of the couch for a little ways, where the middle of your back would be if you leaned back. The couch was dark green with these threads that would go along thick in the shape of flowers and flower stems and stood up like a bad scar on somebody’s skin. I cut a straight line and the little threads kind of popped and then dangled green.
My own daddy’s razor belonged to his daddy who was a furniture man. Mama keeps it in her special drawer. Granddaddy’s real old now. He made coffins and then started working at a funeral home where my daddy worked. A long time ago, Granddaddy pulled gold teeth out of dead people before he got caught. He made them into wedding rings, and he made them into these coins that he said were a thousand years old. He would make these little tiny scratches in the coins and then rub in wet black ashes until they looked real old.
When Mr. Arthur saw the cut in the couch he said, “Go in the mudroom and pull your pants down, boy.” Then he said, “Why did you cut that couch?” and I said, “I don’t know. I think it’s because school’s out.”
He whipped me hard.
I went into Mama’s bedroom to cry. Over her bed where she was laying and shaking so bad before they took her out is a picture of Jesus. He has a cane in one hand and a lamb in his other arm and he’s walking along barefoot with all these sheep following him. Jesus used to save lost lambs.
After my mother was taken out of the house on the stretcher is when Mr. Arthur started handling snakes at the Pentecostal church in Solomon Springs. He told me that the Bible said God wouldn’t let a snake bite somebody if they feared him. I ain’t accepted Jesus as my Savior at our church yet. But I fear God. Our church is Mt. Gilead Baptist.
While Mama was gone, Mr. Arthur caught three copperheads from Sorrell Creek where they always are under the rocks or out in the sun, and they were real pretty, but I wouldn’t touch them. He took them to that church to hold up and shake and all with God keeping him from getting bit.
He would feed the rat snakes these live mice that he caught in a little trap. He’d hold a mouse by the tail and drop it in the snake cage and the snake would stay real still like it was dead, while the mouse kind of sniffed around, looking like he was trying to understand the place he was at, with his ears perked up, and he didn’t even see the snake, and this would go on a little while, and then just like a cannonball bam hit you in the head, that snake, so fast you couldn’t see it, had the mouse’s head in his mouth and was wrapped around it squeezing it so it couldn’t breathe, squeezing it to death before it could squeak, except once in a while a mouse would let go a tiny little squeak when he got grabbed. The snake’s jaw would go unhinged, and the mouse would disappear slow like the sun setting until it was just gone, the back feet, then the tip of the tail. When he was talking about the bulge in the snake’s stomach, Mr. Arthur would say, “That bile’ll eat your toenails off, boy.” Then he’d laugh real loud and look right at you like he did a lot.
The copperheads, they would just bite a mouse and it would die quick. Mr. Arthur said the venom melted their insides like hot cheese.
My mother would say when she talked about the snake handling, she’d say, “They’re all about sex. They’re all about sex.” She had this worry look on her face. My cousin Gary told me the people got loose and had sex on each other at the Pentecostal church after they handled the snakes. He said they would go crazy. He said he’d seen them.
I remember being in my bed by the window that looked out on the front yard, and I remember thinking, What does “about” mean? I thought that when Mama said, “They’re all about sex.” I knew what sex meant because she put me in the attic for rubbing myself. You could rub somebody else and that was sex, too. But I couldn’t figure out “about” and how it worked with those people and sex.
It was the three copperheads Mr. Arthur took with him to that church, and that was on every fifth Sunday which I couldn’t understand until Gary told me it’s when there are five Sundays in a month.
The cut in the couch got bigger while Mama didn’t come home.
Mama finally came back home, but she was different. Sometimes she’d look tired and she wouldn’t be saying anything, or she’d be cooking something. Her eyes and neck were always seeming red, for one thing, after she got back, and she would go to bed in the daytime a lot. Before that I had never seen her in the bed—until she got sick. She always got up first and went to bed last.
She wanted the rat snakes and the copperheads off the back porch. She’d say to Mr. Arthur, “I just don’t like them snakes being that close to inside of the house.”
He’d say, “Be quiet about it.”
His cages had latches on top with the top sliding back instead of flipping open. Sometimes Mr. Arthur would open a latch and slide back the top and shake the snakes from one cage down into another cage like dumping out some big ropes and then slide the top on the bottom cage closed before the snakes could get out.
When the men talked about it at the store they said a copperhead wouldn’t kill you, but almost would, and most of the time a timber rattler wouldn’t, but that a diamondback rattler would most of the time kill you.
When I was inside the store getting a Baby Ruth, a man said, “If one of them snakes bites one of them crazies in the neck vein he’ll drop like a brick, yessir. He’ll drop like a brick. But they got trick ways to handle them that keeps them from biting.”
One time I heard my mother say to Mr. Arthur, “Those people are crazy. I wish you wouldn’t go over there.” She had that worry look on her face. Then she stopped talking about it.
I’d be listening when Mr. Arthur yelled at my mother. They would be in the kitchen and I’d be listening from the couch in front of the fireplace where another picture of Jesus was—when he was twelve years old and in the temple and answering all the questions from some old men.
Late one Sunday afternoon that was a fifth Sunday after Mama had been home for a while, Uncle Buddy came driving his pickup truck around to the backyard the same way everybody drove up around there. I could see he was in there by hisself. Uncle Buddy was my daddy’s brother. He is different from Mr. Arthur. Uncle Buddy ended up being kind of soft and easy. There was another car along too, with some people in it. They parked over close to the grapevine. I thought maybe Mr. Arthur would get out of the car but didn’t nobody get out of the car. Mr. Arthur didn’t get out of the car because he was dead.
Uncle Buddy got the cage with the three copperheads out of the front of his truck and put it on the ground beside the backdoor steps and then stood in the yard with his hat in his hand. Mama was inside the screen door and I was behind her and I was looking out at Uncle Buddy but he didn’t see me, I don’t think.
“Arthur died this afternoon after the service,” said Uncle Buddy to Mama. “I’m real sorry, but it was the Lord’s will.”
“Oh my God,” said Mama. “A snake bit him.”
“That’s right, Carol,” said Uncle Buddy. “I’m afraid so. Three at one time. If’n it’d been just one, it wouldn’t have done him in, but he wanted to handle the three and the three of them got him in the face, so I think you’re going to want a closed-coffin funeral.”
I thought: Mr. Arthur is dead. Then I felt like some birds and butterflies had flew up into the sky and that everything was light and not heavy, and not cloudy, an uncloudy day, and that God had let it happen on purpose. It was like some feeling back from when Mama got home from the place she went after the hospital and found some green thread in her sewing box and started sewing up the couch. She’d called me in and told me to stick a big needle through and sew one stitch and I did and then she took the needle and sewed the couch all back up. I had to put on a thimble to make it go through. She wasn’t mad is why I felt happy then, too.
“He’s in the truck bed,” said Uncle Buddy. “Randy had a few coffins. I picked the nicest one. The lid’s off, but he started all the nails around the edge of it. You’ll see. It won’t take much hammering. You’re definitely going to want a closed casket, Carol. I’m real sorry. The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Mama went out and down the steps, and I followed her.
Mr. Arthur was there in the truck bed in a wood coffin. He was in that dark blue coat and white shirt and blue tie with the sailboats on it. His face and neck was swolled up ugly in two main places. There was four fang marks under one eye and two on his neck. It was kind of purple brown. And I thought: “drop like a brick.” Yessir. Drop like a brick.
I felt like saying: “Mama told you, you dead son of a bitch, and it serves you right.” But I didn’t say anything, and I tried not to think that again, but there was this picture again in my head that birds were flying up and making things clear and light.
The coffin top was leaning against the inside of the truck bed. It had new nails started around the edge of it. There were twenty nails hammered in a little bit, just started in. I counted them, each one about one lick in. They were new, shiny nails. It had that shape like an Egyptian mummy coffin.
“I’ll leave him right here in the truck,” said Uncle Buddy, “and you all can say goodbye and nail on that lid tonight. You don’t want no animals getting at him, and tomorrow I’ll help you figure out the funeral if you want me to.”
“I don’t think we’ll need a full funeral,” said Mama. She said this like it was real hard to say.
Uncle Buddy said, “I could’ve nailed on the top, but I figured you’d want a last look. I reckon you can have a small graveside service. Just close family. There are plenty of gravesites at the church and Randy will get a grave dug.” He didn’t say anything, then he said, “You want me to nail it up?”
“Me and Ozzie will do that. Thank you, Buddy,” Mama said.
Uncle Buddy got in the car with the others and they drove off.
I thought about maybe getting Mr. Arthur’s razor and cutting his throat to see if he would bleed. Nobody would see it after we nailed the top on. But then I thought if they opened it up for some reason they would see. I figured he wouldn’t bleed because, like when you filet a fish—it don’t bleed.
Mama said, “We need to go in and sit down and talk about this, Ozzie.” She walked on in her bedroom and sat on the bed and I sat in the cane chair and looked at the picture of Jesus holding the lamb. She patted the bed and told me to come over and sit on it. “I have to talk to you a minute,” she said. “I’m going to need you to help me out.” Her eyes and neck were red. “We got to put that top on and nail it up. But first,” she said—and here she put her hands up to her eyes—“I want you to pour them three copperheads in there, in that coffin with him. Then we nail it shut and they can go straight to hell with him.” She looked up at the ceiling.
We walked out of the house together and down the steps and into the yard. The tailgate was down and ropes were across the back holding the coffin in the truck and a rope was tied to one of the handles. I put the snake cage on the tailgate and got up in there and looked down at Mr. Arthur.
Mama was coming back from the smokehouse with a hammer and a chair so she could step up on the tailgate and into the truck bed over the ropes.
She put the chair at the tailgate and stood there on the ground. “Dump them snakes in there, Ozzie,” she said. “Be careful, and put the top on in place, and then lay down on it. I don’t want them snakes getting out.” She put her hand on the tailgate. “Then I’ll get up there and nail. We got to do this.”
I got positioned in a way that seemed right and unlatched the top of the cage. It was like I was in a real hot dream. The snakes were kind of agitated. I wondered if there was a way I could make them lazy, but I knew I couldn’t. I got the coffin lid situated so I could put it over him as soon as I dumped in the snakes. I looked for where there was the most room and it was beside Mr. Arthur’s head so I unlatched the cage latch and pulled back the top and dumped the snakes on his face and flung the cage. Mama always says, When you got to do something, go ahead and do it. I saw a snake on his face and two on one side of his head. They didn’t know what to do—so they were wriggling a little like fishing worms, one coiling, but they didn’t know to climb over the side. I grabbed the coffin lid and set it in place solid and careful, and there was room enough for me to lie down on my back stretched out with the nails all around me. “Come on up,” I said. I held my head up and watched her climb up in there with the hammer. She started nailing the nails at my feet. Each time she hit was loud and vibrated the coffin.
When she finished, I thought, I wonder if something like this has ever happened somewhere else in the world.
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