Life in the suburbs was intended to be like this: quiet schools with playgrounds, hike and bike trails, the fragrant air, the sound of birds singing,neighbors walking their dogs or pushing baby strollers down the tree-lined streets. You could almost taste the sweetness of nature’s domestic bliss.
But the suburbs with the shopping malls, chain restaurants and Wal-Marts was not like living in the urban center of the city. To live in the suburbs, you had to redefine your life; become a different kind of person. You had to become someone else; someone you might not like.
My neurotic, effete urban life offered structure, resources, and neighbors whose names I didn’t know; even the homeless woman with bad teeth and a crooked smile that collected broken umbrellas, but she didn’t use an umbrella herself when it rained. She spoke only in squeaks and grunts and smelled of urine.
I missed being in walking distance to my neighborhood Starbucks. I missed my barista that would greet me every morning even when I knew she was having a bad day. I missed the urban smell of the city; coffee, burgers, the pungent smell of garlic from the Chinese restaurant at the end of the block–all mixed with car exhaust and the dry smell of wet concrete. In the city, you inhale what surrounds you; the city, your neighborhood, it defines who you are.
In the suburbs, there were neighbors, a lot of them, but we seldom knew their names either. There was a distant familiarity about them as they waved hello as we drove through the neighborhood on our daily commute or when walking our dogs. But when asked to pick up our mail or the newspaper, they winced as if we loaned them money or had asked them to donate a kidney.
And to be fair, the suburbs changed me too. With so much indifference, it’s difficult not to become indifferent yourself. As a gay couple living our isolated suburban lives, we never knew exactly where we stood; whether the ugly wall of suburbia was there to keep us out, or to keep them in. I didn’t want strait neighbors any more than they wanted gay neighbors. I felt cramped in the sprawling suburbs. We were gay, urban fugitives.
Yet, here we were in the suburbs, living the American dream: to buy a larger home than we needed, for more than we could afford.
On the edge of the city, our neighborhood was recently carved from wilderness. As human newcomers, we were subject to the occasional visitor–deer, raccoons, possums, and the occasional armadillo that would devastate my newly planted flowerbeds in search of tasty grub worms. In time, I succumbed to nature.
In our new, spacious home, scorpions were everywhere. When we painted the privacy fence, there were so many we painted over them and sealed them permanently to the wood. Inside the house, they clung to clothing hanging in the closets; they got inside packed boxes and even climbed the walls and crawled across the ceiling at night. On occasion, one of them would lose its footing and fall to the floor or worse onto one of us. We checked every surface before bedtime, especially the bedding, and shook out our shoes before we put them on to be sure. Although we were outnumbered, we never got stung. The scorpions alone should have a warned us of things to come. Our new suburban home was more like a cabin in the woods with gaping holes in the walls.
In time, Mother Nature’s vermin receded into the woods. She left the land that was once Hers. All that remained was Her sun, moon, and stars. As construction of homes ended and the land began to heal, a void was created in nature, not even a bird or squirrel was to be seen. It was eerily quiet; in a lose your mind kind of way.
Then came the rat-thing. It was not a wild rat, mind you, but a tame, pet rat. In my experience, rats were used for college experiments or as food for reptiles. I couldn’t imagine having one of those mean, foul smelly bastards as a pet. Then again, I guess college rats, not that they were particularly well educated, had abundant reason to be angry for what we had done to them.
But Blane wanted one. He had one as a pet when he was younger. According to him they were clean, smart and made wonderful pets. I actually believed him.
“You can teach them tricks,” he said.
I never saw any evidence of this. Her sole purpose, it seemed, was to shit on every surface she touched, which included our imported Italian leather sofa.
Two weeks after her arrival, Tatiana gave birth to fourteen additional rat-things. I now understood how rodent infestations occur.
“You cannot keep those things in the house,” I said. House rules: no rats on the furniture, no rats running loose on the floor, no rats in my kitchen, and no rats on the dining room table.
To that end, the rats were relegated to the sweltering garage where they munched on rat-chow and drank copious amounts of water just to stay alive. Granted, they had a spacious, multi-level cage–a kind of rat-condo. Tatiana must have found the stench unbearable as she preferred the penthouse level, away from the living mass of vermin she had created. In time, as the baby rats grew, they climbed up to the penthouse and joined her.
On Wednesdays, the city collected our household trash. You are given two bins, a small gray one for household trash and a much larger blue one for recycling that would easily accommodate two small Romanian children.
Our recycling typically contained fine wine bottles, boutique shopping bags, and white linen gloves. By contrast, our neighbors’ trash would more likely contain empty boxed wine containers and Walmart shopping bags.
The gray bin, on the other hand, wasn’t adequate and was always overflowing with a week’s worth of trash due to our combined interest in shopping–Blane is at his best at the checkout register.
On this particular Wednesday afternoon, Blane and I arrived home before noon. I leapt from the truck while it rolled to a stop, as was my habit.
“Damnit, Griffin! Wait until I come to a complete stop,” Blane said with a squint of concern. “You’re going to break a leg one day.”
“Yeah, right, you should be so lucky.” I ran down the driveway and retrieved the empty bins as I clicked the remote to open the garage door.
I placed the trash bins side-by-side in the corner and turned to leave. I clicked the remote again, and the door began to descend.
Jesus Christ! It can’t be.
A sense of dread came over me. I pressed against the garage door with my hand to make to stop it from descending. Only instinct, a recognition flashed from some primal part of my brain explained why I looked toward the opposite corner more than ten feet away.
I was struck with a force of unimaginable fear. My mind froze to focus my senses. There was no sound. Its actual size was difficult to determine. I saw the familiar black diamond pattern, its sinister yellow eyes, its tongue flicked into the air. While I considered the danger of it, it considered the danger of me.
I did not move. It did not move.
“Don’t…move!” I said to Blane
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“S-nake,” I said, as I pointed toward the corner.
“Where? I don’t see it.”
“There, in the corner. It’s a rattlesnake, don’t … move,” I repeated.
“That’s not a rattlesnake, Grif’, it’s just a rat snake, or something.”
“That, is a rattlesnake. I grew up in Texas. I know a rattlesnake when I see one.”
And I had seen one, a big one, when I was nine. My granddad had killed a seven-foot rattlesnake on his property not far from where we now lived. It was autumn and the temperature was becoming cooler. The ‘old-timer,’ as Granddad called it, had stretched out on the concrete patio to warm itself in the morning sun. He killed it and cut off its head to show to us kids. Its head was larger than our fists and its body was the size of my granddads forearm.
“This is a rattler son. They’re very dangerous,” he said. He took his pocketknife, pried the snakes wide mouth open and flexed its fangs forward; clear, yellowish venom glistened in the afternoon sun. “If they bite you, you’ll die,” he said. “You ever see one, Grif’, even a small one, you back off … slowly … and run. Come get Granddad, understand?”
“Yes, Sir,” I said, “I understand.” My granddad was firm in his warning which was unusual; he was always laughing and telling jokes. This, I understood, was no joke.
It would have made more sense for our visitor to be a rat snake, as Blane had suggested. After all, our garage was full of rats–food for a hungry visitor.
Where did it come from?
There was no doubt. It had to have come from outside, there, from the wild. The wilderness that continues for thousands of acres down the block; the wilderness that should be paved over and sealed under ten feet of concrete and have an impenetrable wall erected around it. This was where the evil that is Mother Nature was visited upon us. It’s little wonder red-tail hawks circled overhead searching for prey.
Over here, you missed one.
“Call Animal Control,” Blane said. “They’ll know what to do.”
One would think the city’s Animal Control would know what to do. One would be wrong.
It came as some surprise that Animal Control didn’t actually control anything, snakes in general, and poisonous snakes in particular. Their single objective was to pick up stray dogs–not even cats, you had to catch those yourself and deliver them to the Humane Society.
“Maybe an exterminator could help,” the dispatcher said.
“Let me get this straight,” I said to the dismissive voice on the phone. “There’s a rattlesnake, a venomous reptile in my garage and Animal Control can’t do anything about it?”
“That’s right, Sir. You’ll need to call a pest control company.”
I expected them to at least give me the number of that guy from Animal Planet. The one with the muscular, tattooed arms, torn sleeveless shirt and bleached-blond hair. He would emerge from his oversized four-wheel drive to capture the sinister beast and to warn the public of the danger. Later, he would probably take the creature home as a pet.
“An exterminator?” I asked. “Do you have any idea how long it would take to get an exterminator out here?” I pleaded.
“I’m sorry, Sir, there’s nothing more I can do.”
It was clear we were on our own.
Our unwelcome visitor was still coiled in the corner watching us when our neighbor, the former marine, arrived home.
Kevin would be my first choice as a bodyguard, or for any situation involving distress. With stony, sullen masculinity, he would not comprehend the danger of the beast and with brute force, dispatch it then catch me as I fainted.
“Thank God, Kevin’s home. He’ll know how to kill it. He’s killed people, right?” I asked. I didn’t really want to know the answer.
“Kevin!” Blane called.
We were casual acquaintances at best. It wasn’t like us to call him over like this, so he must have thought it strange.
Kevin walked toward us, and stopped near where we stood. “What’s up … guys?” He asked.
“We’ve got a rattlesnake in our garage,” I said.
He stopped, then stepped back. “Where?”
“There in the corner, see it?”
Kevin did not move. He leaned forward appearing to get a better view.
“We need to kill it!” Blane said.
“Dudes, you’re on you own.” He turned and walked quickly back toward his house. In his pressed pin-point white cotton shirt and tie, he wasn’t quite the ruthless killer we needed.
My fantasy of the bodyguard, the former marine, was diminished that day, along with a bit of my own dignity. In retrospect, I knew he wasn’t your average marine–not a Texas marine anyway–who would have seized the always-loaded rifle from the gun rack of his shiny new pickup truck and blown the fucker away.
We had to kill it.
I considered tossing a box of books to flatten it, but my skill in delivering a fatal blow from over my head of sufficient weight to do more than piss the creature off wasn’t good. At the gym, I do well to lift the bar, let alone with weights attached. I had one attempt at killing it, and I had to make it good–no second chance. I scanned the garage for a weapon equivalent to a ten-foot pole.
We had to prevent its retreat further into the garage. A tall mirror nearby was just what we needed. It was at least eight feet long–almost meeting the ten-foot requirement. I considered placing the mirrored side toward the rattlesnake in an attempt to confuse it. I reconsidered, however, when I realized that it might perceive its reflection as a comrade and become more emboldened. It would be two against two–the odds would be even. We can take them pal, one, two, three–strike!
I slid the mirror slowly against the wall; now, the snake, if startled, could only flee out of the garage. The disadvantage of this plan was that it could only flee directly toward us. As the mirror approached, the snake’s coils tightened as its tongue flicked the air assessing our plan. It glared at me, resentment in its eyes; animal anger. I was frightened. It looked me right in the eye, and I could swear it blinked.
Game on, Motherfucker.
Its access into the garage denied, its confinement assured, I now had time to think.
“Blane,” I said. “Keep an eye on that thing, while I find something to kill it.”
A garden hoe leaning against the opposite corner was what I needed. Next to it was a wooden pole. I retrieved them both. I’d bought all sorts of garden tools thinking that I might pull a weed, or want to hoe something. In the end, a lawn service was more practical under the Texas sun.
The hoe had a new sharp, steel blade; the wooden pole, being longer, would rouse the creature from its’ lair. Once the snake fled from the corner, with even a modicum of precision, I could sever its hideous head. If I missed, I knew the creature would launch its counter-attack.
It was now dusk; hours had passed since our sparring began. It waited for its fate or plotted its revenge. I wasn’t sure.
We put our plan into action. It would be like a golf swing: Line up the shot, keep my eye on the ball, and follow through. This time, however, it was okay to kill the ball, throw the club and run like hell!
My practice swing came within inches of Blane’s head. “Careful, Griffin!”
The snake had to be coaxed away from the corner to meet its fate–to set up the shot. It had to abandon its sanctuary and dutifully present its head to be lopped off like some British queen.
“Blane,” I said, “take the pole, we need to get it out of the corner, into the open. They can move very fast, and can strike twice their length, my granddad said. Don’t get too close, and don’t piss it off.”
“I’m coming at it with a pole,” Blane said. “How, exactly, am I not supposed to piss it off?”
“Well, we’ve got to get it out of the corner,” I said. “Ready?”
“I … guess,” he said.
Blane brought the end of the pole close to the snake. Without warning, it lunged forward and fled out of the garage toward us; striking rapidly into the air. I raised the hoe over my head and brought the blade down with such force that with a loud screech, a clang as concrete flew into the air–a clean miss. I brought it down again in an awkward, chopping motion as I instinctively pranced to avoid the snake. This was not the well-engineered swing I had rehearsed in my mind. Instead, I struck the snake halfway down its length with a dull thud, crushing flesh, pinning it to the driveway. It was still alive, striking into thin air.
It was unkillable.
Its head was still attached; bleeding, striking, writhing in agony. I jumped back. I needed to think. It was horrible, but I couldn’t let it suffer. With hideous, calm precision, I struck it again, this time behind the head. It did not move.
It was dead.
I was mortified at the inhumanity of taking a life–any life. I’d never killed anything with blood the color of my own.
It lay lifeless in the late afternoon sun. Its black skin and thick blood stained the driveway and glistened in the evening sunlight. It was beautiful, yet deadly, in a way that filled me with dread.
Why hadn’t it entered my mind to capture it, or call one of those people who collect snakes, or an exterminator, as I was told, to do anything, other than kill it? My friend Suzanne, the politically correct environmentalist, later said we should form a neighborhood Rattlesnake Relocation Program. “They’re a necessary part of the environment,” she said. I laughed. “This is Texas, Honey. We carry concealed weapons; we kill things,” I said.
Suppose our conflict had gone differently and I had been bitten. What then? I would be forever disfigured and traumatized. I would have to tell the story of how I’d been in a battle of wits with a rattlesnake, and I had lost.
All I thought was it had to die. Besides, there were children in the neighborhood–or worse, what about my dogs?
A dead rattlesnake now lay on my driveway. I had to dispose of the body, but how?
I remembered my granddad as he held the severed head of the old-timer, and flexed its fangs. I remembered the venom oozing. I was mindful of the danger, even if it was dead. I couldn’t touch the dead creature.
Burying it would require a pickaxe and small charges of dynamite to make any progress in the Central Texas soil. Digging in a flowerbed would be easier, but I’d forget where I buried it, and months later dig it up–terrified once more. Suppose one of the dogs dug it up.
I couldn’t put it in the street, for the buzzards to carry away. Children might see it and not realize the danger, play with it and get a postmortem bite.
I couldn’t put it in the trash for one of the workers to find. “Hey Joe, look at this,” followed by a knock on my door, “Sir,” he would say, “you cannot put poisonous snakes in your trash … you tryin’ to kill somebody?”
I suppose I could have carried its corpse back to the wilderness from which it came, but I couldn’t bear having it so near me, for so long, to carry it there. What if, somehow, it wasn’t really dead?
In the end, I put its lifeless form into a plastic bag to conceal it. I tied it shut and placed it in the household trash bin–I assumed it wasn’t recyclable. The trash collectors wouldn’t consider it as anything other than trash. Once it was compressed in the truck, who could say where it came from?
The body was gone. The unthinkable now entered my mind: what if there were more?
My killing spree complete, I needed to calm down. I went inside and tried to relax, but my thoughts returned to the carnage. I needed to process what I had done.
Later that night, I looked up the creature on the Internet to learn more about it. What I found confirmed my fears that Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes are dangerous, aggressive and highly venomous snakes. Nearly eight thousand people a year are bitten by rattlesnakes; most of which are stupid enough to be handling the snakes at the time. Their prey is primarily warm blooded rodents and other small game. I now understood why our garage was so appealing–it was the stench of Tatiana and her brood–a buffet.
I needed to understand why my garage was so appealing. I was sure the answer was Tatiana and her brood–a buffet.
The specimen I had whacked was a newborn, under a foot long. They’re born alive, without rattles, in groups of ten to fifteen. Baby rattlesnakes weren’t like lone wolves.
Clearly, we needed to break the food chain. We packed Tatiana, along with her brood, and took them all to the nearest pet store.
I explained to the owner that the rats were housed in our garage and were attracting rattlesnakes.
“I’ve heard that before,” he said.
Astonished, I stared in silence. What? I thought.
Why hadn’t anyone bothered to tell us that bringing vermin into your home attracts more vermin? Dogs and cats chase vermin away and alert you of danger.
As I left the store, the owner called out, “You know, she’s very tame. We’ll try to find her a good home, but she may end up snake food along with the rest. I have a lot of hungry snakes to feed.”
I didn’t turn. I did not want to know. In the end who was the victor? The snakes had won after all.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to move.
The next day, I opened the garage door to assess where the rattlesnake had been and to put the mirror back where it belonged.
Jesus Fucking Christ.
There in the same corner, lying in wait was another baby rattlesnake. It was near the same size, but of a lighter color.
Beyond caring, I experienced no moral dilemma, only rage. My course was clear. It had to die. This time, without remorse, I dragged the bastard out of the corner with the still-bloody hoe and chopped it to bits.
“GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKER!” I shouted.
I collected its bits with the hoe, dropped them in to the same bag with its twin and put the bag back into the trash bin.
The rats were gone, but the rattlesnakes wouldn’t know this. The stench would remain for days if not months. I went to Home Depot to purchase a repellent or poison–something to keep the snakes away. I’d read somewhere that mothballs would keep cats away, maybe that would work for snakes too.
I browsed the shelves and noticed that killing things is a big business in this country. It’s the American way. There’s something to kill just about anything; all manner of insects, lawn pests, rats, wasps, hornets and even killer bees. There’s a chemical for everything too small to shoot with a gun. On the bottom shelf was a package that caught my eye. It pictured none other, than a rattlesnake.
Dr. T’s Rattlesnake Repellent, it was called. Who would have thought there was such a thing? Then again, this was Texas. I took some comfort in the knowledge that I was not alone and that at least, there was a chemical solution. The fine print on the label, in part, read: “…HAZARDOUS TO HUMANS AND ALL DOMESTIC ANIMALS.” This shit would kill just about anything, except rattlesnakes, which it would only repel.
Delighted with my purchase, I returned home. I opened the garage door expecting to find a third rattlesnake, but all was clear. I poured the entire container of repellent along the landing of the garage door in a wide path. It smelled horrible, like rotten eggs and turpentine. I hoped the rattlesnakes would think so, too.
As days turned into weeks, and weeks turned to months; there were no more rattlesnakes. Life in the suburbs returned to normal. Children played. Neighbors walked their dogs. The soft air rustled the trees; the sharp whispers of birds were singing. Parents with baby strollers quietly ambled down the street.
In the midst of so much domestic bliss, I couldn’t help but think, with abject horror, where might mama be?
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