We found the rattlesnake curled up in the shade by the roots of a large creosote bush, and if we had walked a foot to either side we probably would have missed it. Dan stopped and pointed, saying, “It must have eaten a rabbit or something!” It had a small head shaped like a heart and a skinny tail, but in the middle was this big lump. We soon found a stick and Ray used it to poke the lump. The snake hissed, uncoiling its body. Albert watched us from a distance.
“Don’t poke it anymore,” he said. We took turns jabbing it, and picking it up with the stick, and flinging it around.
“Touch the rattle,” said Dan.
“Fuck that,” said Ray. “Look at those fangs.”
“You guys are idiots. I’m going to laugh when it gets you,” said Albert. We flung it at him.
“Stop!” he yelled. He dodged the flying snake, which now got stuck hanging on a prickly pear. It was rattling as it slid off the cactus. We jumped like boxers and whacked it with the stick while it lunged trying to bite us.
“Hey, we should kill it and eat it like a Ranger would,” Dan said. We were too busy focusing on the snake to notice Albert running towards us with a pineapple-sized rock held over his head.
“Get out of the way,” he yelled. And running past us he smashed the snake’s head with the rock.
Nobody blinked. We all stared at the blood trickling into the gravel. “What are we supposed to do with it now, dumbass?” said Ray.
“Now I can hang it around my neck and wear it to school,” said Dan.
He picked up the snake by the rattle, then with his other hand he wrapped the body around him with the lump resting like a cushion behind his neck, careful to avoid touching the head with its soupy drippings. “We should be getting back though I’m thirsty.”
We went down into the wash and Ray went ahead of us to piss.
“Albert, why don’t you cut that thing? It looks like a rat’s tail,” said Dan.
Albert was looking at the ground as he walked, twirling his mullet with a finger. After a pause he said, “My girlfriend likes it.”
“Is she that weird girl in math that dyed her hair orange?” He laughed and gently lifted the snake up off his neck. Then he squeezed the rattle and began to windmill it faster and faster.
“You’ve never seen her, man. She doesn’t go to our school,” Albert said. His eyes were squinting now as creamy fluid shot out from the head towards his face. “You should stop that. It might still have venom.”
“Oh, right. I didn’t even think of that.” Dan stopped and put the snake back around his neck. “Well, are you going to tell me what her name is?”
We saw Ray sprinting towards us. “Guys! You got to see this. It’s for real.”
We ran after him to where a man in a green sweatshirt with holes in it and jeans covered in dust was sitting upright against a clump of pimply rocks. Flies were crawling in his ears. “Do you think he’s dead?”
“Look at the flies all over him,” said Ray.
“We never saw him,” said Dan.
“Wait, give me the snake first.” “What are you doing?” asked Dan.
“I want to see how far the snake will go in his mouth,” said Ray, smiling. “If he’s already dead it doesn’t matter.” He hooked his fingers and pried open the man’s mouth. Half the rattle got shoved inside when the snake started to spasm. It convulsed, twirling and flipping in the air, except for the tail which seemed anchored by the man’s teeth. Our assholes clenched. The man’s eyes opened. The snake stopped moving for a few seconds and we stood frozen, staring at the man who still had the rattle in his mouth. He looked carefully at each of us before dropping his jaw and pulling out the rest of the tail. The snake went on shaking and the man sat up on the rocks where it wouldn’t touch him.
“Agua. Por favor, agua,” he said. His voice was faint and raspy. We didn’t know Spanish. Instead he raised his hand to his mouth like tilting a glass.
“We don’t have any water,” Dan said.
“What do we do?”
“Pretend we never saw him,” said Ray.
“He’ll die,” Albert said.
“What’s your idea then, dumbass?”
“You didn’t have to put the snake in his mouth!”
“I didn’t know he was going to wake up.”
We agreed to go and never mention anything to anyone. The man turned his head from us and was dry heaving, nothing left to come out. We watched him, hoping he’d die. He didn’t, and the next thing Ray said was, “We’ll take him to the gas station—grab his other arm.”
We carried the man and left the snake. He was small but heavy, too weak to support his weight. He smelled of vomit and body odor and we had to take turns carrying him. Dan struggled the most, and after a while he was complaining so much that we told him to just walk and shut the fuck up. The wind dried our sweat and blew sand at us. We passed by the almost-done resort, which had a pool, but it was fenced off except for where the building fell in with the brown mountains behind it. For a long time we were quiet. The sun would dry out our mouths if we spoke, and so we found comfort in our own thoughts while our feet made music.
The gas station was empty aside from a faded blue Oldsmobile parked in the handicap. It was nearly dark, and we saw a bat flapping around the orange glow of the light posts snatching insects. We sat the man on the dusty curb and entered the store.
The clerk was flipping through a magazine with one hand. Her other limb was stiff and ended at the wrist with four pink stubs. Ray had felt a girl’s stub hand before and he said it felt like an eraser. She watched us through her glasses as we headed to the soda fountain.
“We should get him a Big Gulp,” said Dan.
“What are we going to do with him after though?” asked Albert.
“He’s on his own after that,” Ray said.
The front entrance chimed and we turned to see a man in a tattered Miller Lite ball cap and cowboy boots walk in.
“All right, so we’ll get him the Big Gulp, give him the change, and that’s that,” said Ray. Two more cars stopped to fill up as we walked up to the register.
“We killed a rattlesnake today,” Dan said. She was not impressed. She had straight, brown hair and freckles all over and she should have smiled, but we were too weird even for her and her stubby hand. We walked out with the Big Gulp and came straight back in.
“Shit, that’s a DPS cop talking to him. He’s finished,” said Dan.
“We should still give him the Big Gulp,” said Ray. “He’s still thirsty.”
“I think he’s got bigger problems,” Albert said.
“Shut up, Albert. I bought it so I’m going to give it to him.” Ray shouldered through the door and walked right up to the cop and the man sitting on the curb. We followed him out and hung back close enough to hear.
“Excuse me, sir. I was getting him a Big Gulp.”
“Do you know this man?” the cop asked, moving back a step and quickly glancing over his shoulder. He was a giant next to the man hunched over on the curb.
“No, but he needs something to drink.” Ray handed the man the Big Gulp and dropped the change in his palm.
“That was nice of you.” The cop now looked down at the man and said, “You have to leave, sir. You can’t be loitering around the gas station.” The man nodded but didn’t respond. We walked over and pulled the man up by his armpits. The cop tightened his face and clasped both hands on his duty belt. “Do you speak English?”
He nodded again and drank some Big Gulp. While he drank his eyes counted the coins in his palm. He then wiped his mouth with his hand before pulling off the lid and chucking the Big Gulp at the officer’s head. He started running back the way we came. The cop yelled something nasty and chased him across the street to where the pavement turned to gravel and tackled him. The man made hissing sounds. When the Miller Lite guy walked out, he laid his beer on the hood of his truck and ran to help. Dust rose all around them as the cop struggled to wrest out the man’s hands from under his chest. The man bit the cop’s fingers and the cop screamed, but then the man got kicked in the head by the Miller Lite guy. He kicked him a few more times until the cop elbowed the man’s bloody face in the dirt and cuffed him. The other cars at the pump drove away honking.
Antoni Grgurovic resides in Minnesota where he works as a technical writer. Originally from Queens, New York, he is a graduate of both the University of Arizona and the University of Minnesota. His previous work was published in the Tulane Review. He finds much of his inspiration from landscapes, both urban and rural, which expose the surface of stories not yet written.