by Jason Kapcala
No one told me that Carlos’s gallery exhibition was that night until after I’d wrangled the Burmese python from under the porch and I was drenched through with rain and covered with dead leaves and muck. Storm clouds hung low in the sky as I slammed shut the sliding door on the back of my truck and nodded to the woman on the porch. Her husband had been the proud owner of the exotic snake and a ten-month-old Pit Bull; now he was just the proud owner of an exotic snake. Former owner, at least. The snake was tan with brown hexagons—its body thick like one long muscle, the head a small diamond with tiny black eyes. It had taken me forty-five minutes to drag and tug and wrestle it from the hole in the latticework where it had crawled with a full belly to hide, and it had sapped me of all my energy. Before climbing into the cab, I double-checked the back door to make sure that it wouldn’t fly open and dump the two-hundred pound reptile somewhere on Old Route 209 as I drove toward the Snake Farm, a small reptile zoo on the outskirts of Lakeville. I could feel the cold rain blowing sheets through my wet shirt as my cell phone rang in my pocket.
“Are you on your way home?” my wife, Rhoda, asked.
“Just about,” I said. “You won’t believe what I pulled out from under this lady’s porch.”
“Great. Don’t forget we have Carlos’s exhibit in a couple hours,” she said. “And for God’s sake, let’s try not to be the last couple through the door.”
I arched my back, felt something pop. My feet were muddy from slogging around half-bent beneath the porch for nearly an hour. I wanted to channel my inner Ralph Kramden, hit Rhoda with my best shot, something witty and mean, something about her aging like her mother, but I couldn’t think of anything clever.
“I’ve got to make a trip to the Farm,” I said.
“Rhoda,” I said, leaning against the side of the truck cab. “I just crammed a ten-foot snake into the back of my truck. What would you have me do? Leave it there overnight?”
“Allen, you know I hate unhappy surprises,” Rhoda said.
“How’s this for an unhappy surprise: would you want to start your morning off tomorrow yanking on the business end of an angry constrictor? It won’t take me long.”
“Your clothes are laid out on the bed,” she said, and she must have clicked shut her cell phone before I finished because the dial done cut me off.
“Yes, mother,” I said, scraping my boots against the running boards and climbing into the cab.
I muscled the big white truck around in the driveway and wheeled out onto Spruce Street. I could feel the weight in back, and as I pulled up to a stoplight, I heard something slide across the floor. It was a soft brushing noise, like sandpaper, and I imagined the python back there, curled up, skimming up to the cab and then back toward the rear door every time I accelerated. The truck was old and the alignment was perpetually off, but now with a full load the steering was so heavy and awkward that my forearms were beginning to burn as I snaked down Ninth Street and accelerated toward the exit ramp like a freight train. I blew through two intersections and felt the springs dip. I could feel the mud seeping down into my work boots. But I didn’t stop. I had less than an hour to get to the Farm, get the snake unloaded, and get home to change.
Every November, The Lakeville Mountain Gallery Exhibition was held in the ballroom of the Best Western downtown. It was a black tie event, invitation only—the kind of soiree that invariably made me look and feel like a jackass—but we went anyway. Rhoda had a permanent spot on the guest list, and she was kind enough to make me her plus-one. The event itself was usually a bore, lots of asymmetrical faces and bleeding clocks, but the wine was half decent. Carlos always stood on the opposite side of Rhoda. He’d whisper in her ear all night long, and sometimes they kicked off their shoes and danced slow and tipsy to the Muzak. During those impromptu foxtrots and mambos, I’d customarily stand with the rest of the onlookers and introduce myself as Rhoda’s first husband, but no one ever laughed. Not even when I explained that Rhoda’s never been married before. Usually people shook their heads, or else looked the other way as Carlos dipped Rhoda and spun her vigorously around the room. In moments like those, it must be painfully clear that I am the best she can do.
When the light changed, I hung a sharp right onto the highway, tires licking the pavement. There was a dull thump, and I heard the snake smack the metal wall of the truck. The old truck shimmied like a rollercoaster car, and I sawed the wheel, leaning forward and practically willing her up to speed, until I heard the pop and felt the tire go. I cursed under my breath, checked my rearview mirror, and flipped on the flashers. I could probably make it to the next exit. It was getting dark.
I let the truck coast down the exit ramp toward downtown and through the intersection at the bottom of Main. I brought it to rest at the first gravel lot I could find. The low stucco building was inconspicuous; a red neon sign proclaimed “BAR.” Across the street, catty-corner from the lot, I could see the fancy hotel where, in a little under an hour, my wife and her friends would drink expensive hooch and peruse even pricier art. I pulled my collar high and stepped out into the wet air and surveyed the damage. The rim was pretty bent up, and I imagined a slow leak, unnoticed, had drained the tire of most of its air before the blowout. I had a full-sized spare and a jack, but I caught myself halfway to the door. There was no way I was going to wrestle a thirty-pound tire out of the back with that snake in there. I could see the headlines in The Morning Record: Animal Control Officer Killed By Burmese Python; Snake Wrangler Strangled In His Own Truck.
I knew had to call Rhoda.
The bar was warm and dry. It smelled like old cigarettes and stale beer. The jukebox was cranking out that Harry Chapin song about bananas. The secretary at the Snake Farm had gone home for the night, so I called the emergency beeper number not knowing how long it would take to get a response. As I leaned against the doorway with my hand cupped to my ear, I tried to figure out how to explain this mess to my wife. I felt lucky when her voicemail picked up.
“Listen, babe,” I said. “Ran into some car trouble. I’m right across the street from the exhibition, but I still have the snake in the back. I’ll be over as soon as I can get things squared away. Be good.” Then I sat down at the empty bar to wait. The warm wooden interior glowed softly in the light from hanging lanterns, and I sat alone at the end of the bar, stinking like a wet mutt, surveying the dozen or so beers on tap. My back hurt. My socks squished in my boots.
“What can I get you?” the bartender called, glancing away from the election coverage playing on the corner television. He was lean and pale, his head shaved to the scalp.
“Just water,” I said, and then when he narrowed his eyes at me, “Okay, a whisky sour then.”
The bartender left his post under the television and snatched a bottle of Jack Daniels from the shelf as he walked toward me. The drink was tart and cool. It stung the inside of my mouth a little, but I was tired and it tasted fine.
Before long I was knocking those puppies down like Prohibition was making a comeback. I hadn’t eaten anything all day, and it didn’t take much to get me space brained. Midway through my third whisky, I could feel the barstool starting to float.
“Pal, you’ve been here less than an hour,” the bartender said when I motioned him over for another. At some point, he’d introduced himself as Donnie. “Maybe you’d like to actually taste what you’re drinking?”
“Maybe you’d like to taste what I’m drinking,” I said, cocking my head.
“Good one,” Donnie said, glancing back at the television.
I ran my finger around the top of my glass, trying to make it sing. “I think my life is cheating on me,” I said. “My wife, I meant. Both really. She’s the life of my love.”
Donnie sighed and leaned down on the bar. “Wow,” he said. “Wife and life. That’s some bad luck.”
“Women try their luck; men risk theirs,” I said. “When a woman marries again it’s because she detested her first husband. Oscar Wilde said that.” It had been my dad’s favorite quote, one he recited often.
“Oscar Wilde? I think I saw him in concert once,” Donnie said, wiping out the inside of a glass. “Big O and the Wildemen—that was back before his solo career.”
“Right,” I said, nodding and taking another gulp. Then, for lack of anything profound to say, I added, “Women—they’re from a whole different planet. Or something.”
“That’s deep,” Donnie said. “I haven’t heard anyone say that in almost twenty minutes.”
I belched and glanced down at my wavering reflection in the yellow liquid. “I can almost see the bottom,” I said, swirling the ice around in my glass. “It makes me dejectable.”
“Listen, pal,” Donnie replied. “I’m not one of those I’ll-dispense-some-prophetic-bullshit-wisdom-if-you-get-drunk-enough bartenders, okay?”
I let my chin fall, and I shook my head. I felt like a petulant child. “I’m supposed to meet my wife at an art exhibit,” I said, and I could feel my chin beginning to vibrate above my collar. “If I’m not careful, they’ll start calling me her first husband.”
Donnie blinked a couple times. “That’s some motto for a happy marriage,” he said.
Outside, the rain had stopped, and I could see dozens of Yuengling caps glittering in the gravel. The branches of the huge oak trees behind the bar were silver in the evening sky. By now Rhoda would be leaning in against Carlos’s side, staring at something that looked like a squashed bug, saying something like, “Clearly, What’s-His-Name has gotten himself perished. No doubt eaten by a serpent. Let us toast his memory with our heartiest wine and then pasodoble the night away.”
I waited for traffic to slow. Then I crossed the street.
The hotel lobby was warm and bright, and I managed to stagger back to the ballroom without any of the staff hassling me. From the doorway, the room seemed to tilt a little. I could see all of the display easels set up, the waiters in their maroon monkey suits whisking trays of cheese and champagne around the room. Carlos was the center of attention. He wore all black, and he kept petting his goatee as though he were afraid it might get pissed and run off. A small crowd had gathered, and he gestured emphatically at a few of the paintings on display behind him. I saw one of Rhoda’s artist friends, Tess, nodding pensively while he spoke. And, of course, I saw my wife. She stood by his side in a plunging black gown that stretched almost to the floor. She lightly brushed his arm, and every so often she would throw her head back and laugh at something he said. When her eyes settled on me in the doorway, a look of abject horror spread across her face. Even from across the room, I could see her redden. I looked down at my splotched pants legs, my muddy boots. I’d left a dark wet stain on the burgundy carpet.
“What are you trying to do to me, Allen?” Rhoda said, clacking briskly across the room and grabbing me by the arm. “First, you’re late, and then you show up looking like . . . this?”
“Surprise,” I said, swaying a little, remembering then just how much she hated unhappy surprises. “Didn’t you get my message?”
“Have you been drinking?” she said, sniffing me. “No, I don’t even want to know. Just get out of here before anyone recognizes you.” She pushed me back out of the doorway, but Carlos had all ready come over, and he was now standing behind her.
“Good to see you, Allen,” he said, holding his hand out. I could tell he didn’t mean it, and when I didn’t shake his hand, he stroked his chin hair some more and glanced back into the ballroom. “Listen, friend, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he said. “I mean, until you get changed around, of course.”
Rhoda stiffened, and her jaw muscles fluttered. “You’re so stupid,” she hissed, punching me in the chest. “I can’t believe you’d do this to me.”
The room was hot, and I felt like I might yack any second. I’d known this wasn’t a good idea even before I left the bar, but now it was really starting to sink in: I had screwed up. Big time. And yet, I didn’t feel bad about it. Carlos was a fraud. A fraud that spent far too much time touching my wife. And Rhoda—why, at that point, I couldn’t have told you why we’d even married in the first place.
“I’ll go home,” I said, finally, crossing my arms over my chest. “If you help me put the spare on my truck.”
“I’ll find someone to help you,” Carlos said.
“No,” I said, leaning in close. “I want you to help me.”
Carlos looked down at Rhoda, and then back at me. “Fine,” he said, turning to grab his coat. “If that’s what it’ll take.”
The temperature had dropped a little, and the cold air felt good on my face as we trekked across the street to where my truck sat, still parked in the bar parking lot.
“A classy place to break down,” Carlos said, wiping his rimless glasses with a handkerchief. I knew what he thought of me.
I stopped and pressed my hand hard against the side of the truck, letting my forehead rest against the cool sheet metal. I heard something move inside. My brain was starting to clear up. Tonight, it was going to be ugly when Rhoda got home.
I felt my cell phone buzz in my pocket, and when I looked down, I saw it was one of the other Animal Control experts from the Snake Farm answering my page. I didn’t want to pick up. The thought of returning to that glorified petting zoo with its filthy displays and lethargic animals nauseated me. I didn’t want to go back to work, I didn’t want to go back home, and I definitely didn’t want to climb into the back of the truck with that snake.
“Are you going to vomit?” Carlos asked.
I shook my head. “I was just thinking about Rhoda,” I stammered.
Carlos cleared his throat and put his hands on his hips. “Well, certainly she’s not happy,” he said. “It’s pretty bad when you are too drunk to change your own tire.”
“You try changing a tire with a Bungalese Constrictor in the back,” I said, pointing at him and nodding as though I were a man who had it all figured out. “You’re in for an unhappy surprise.”
Carlos paused for a second and squinted at me. “What in hell are you talking about?” he said. He walked around to the rear of the truck. “Let’s get this over with so I can get back to my patrons.” He grabbed the door latch and nodded. He smiled politely. “Someday,” he said. “I may even look back at this and laugh.”
“Me too,” I said, waiting for him to make the next move.
Behind us, I could hear the deep bass of some live band playing inside the bar, and across the way, I could see the bright Best Western canopy and a single woman with the bottom of her dress bunched up in her hand, half running and half tottering through the wet Main Street intersection in high heels. I knew it was Rhoda; she’d finally checked her voicemail and heard my message about the flat tire and the man-eating snake. And though I had no way of knowing if she was running for me or for Carlos, I had to admit she looked beautiful that way, urgent and frightened and just a little messy.
Jason Kapcala lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, where he runs a series of community writing workshops for adult students. His writing has been published in Blueline, Santa Clara Review, The Summerset Review, and The Good Men Project Magazine. He is currently shopping a novel and working on his next book about a small-time rock band from a ghost town in central Pennsylvania. His website is www.jasonkapcala.weebly.com.
Image credit: Arno Meintjes Wildlife on Flickr