by Tom Cracovaner
I don’t like picking up my phone when I do the security detail cause supervisor Jenkins says it’s unprofessional. But there it goes again. Ring, ring, ringing the snake charmer song— there’s a place in France, where the naked ladies dance— at least that’s the first way I heard that one, way before I started wrangling snakes.
Music don’t help none with the snake captures, and the song is really called the “Streets of Cairo” and also “The Poor Little Country Maid.” I’ve never been to Cairo, but I read once that it’s a desert and has lots of snakes and sand just like here. I do like to read. I’ve never met a maid and I don’t know why in the world they would make more than one name for a single song, but I’m sure glad I have just one name.
I’m also glad Jenkins went to take a leak in the administration building cause otherwise he’d smack me right on the back of my head for forgetting to turn my ringer off while we go down Ellsworth Road. My black hat that says security would probably fall down too. Parking lot alone is much safer. There’s a hole in the wall where the men can see it all—
I answer it. “Queen Creek Snake Removal, Brendan speaking.”
“I have a kingsnake caught in the netting of my peach tree. Can you rescue him?”
The other kids were mean. I always just ate what my grandpa gave me for dinner, can of beans, hamburgers, you know, whatever he could get for us. He was darn proud for it too. He was proud of serving this great country and proud of the “stripes.” Breakfast and lunch was at the elementary school. Desert Mountain Elementary School. Home of the Coyotes.
Coyotes pretty well describe the other kids there. They could smell blood and fear and weakness from miles away and hunt as a pack or as a lone cold killer preying on what they could find in that quiet desert. That’s not me. I ain’t no bully.
I just ate what they gave me, grandpa, lunch lady Wendy, sometimes Miss Young. Wasn’t my fault for being so fat. I liked to eat and mind my own business and just hide in the shadows.
“What took you so long in the bathroom, supervisor Jenkins?” I say.
“There was a suspicious person down by the bursar’s office,” he says. “I tailed on foot for a bit.” I think Jenkins’ mustache looks like a gypsy snake charmer’s all big and bushy-like. I asked Jenkins about it once and he said something about a Hungarian grandfather, but I was confused because when I asked Grandpa Steve, he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, this whole family is Irish and German,” and “Why did your momma drink so much when she was carrying you?” Which is strange cause I don’t ever remember seeing my momma, let alone letting her carry me. Either way, I’ve tried to grow a mustache before cause if you do it right, it can look just like snake fangs, but I must’ve been doing something wrong cause mine looked nothing like supervisor Jenkins’.
“What happened?” I say.
“He left campus. Once he’s off it, he ain’t our problem,” he says. Jenkins pulls his round glasses back over his bubble nose and turns the car key to go. I’m glad I shut my snake charmer ringer off and I have to remember not to tell him how I’m going to go save a kingsnake when we get done with our shift. He wouldn’t like me working two jobs and all.
“What if they come back?” I say.
“Then we strike,” he says.
That poor trapped kingsnake. All it wants to do is roam around and find food. Up and over the desert hills, through the mesquite groves and creosote fields, finding what it can find. Non-natural grass all over the place, but the shade is still there. The campus is only a mile or two square but we go up and back and forth during our shift, keeping it safe for the students from what Jenkins calls “varmint.”
“Hi Counselor Young!”
“Hello there Mr. Brendan Drake.” Miss Young was pretty with short yellow hair, but most of all, she kept me safe from the mean ones. “What in the heck are you doing hiding in the janitor’s closet?”
“Well, I uhh—”
“Mr. Valencia came and told me you were hiding in his supply room so I came to talk to you,” she said. She looked serious, kind of like when grandpa made sure I went to bed on time and didn’t stay up too late reading The Southwestern Field Guide of Snakes and Other Reptiles and made me “Put that damned forsaken book away so I could get at least a couple hours of decent sleep for school tomorrow.” Serious wasn’t how she normally was, but she made sure I knew that her office was a much better place to hide and “certainly to talk.”
“Thanks for the little Crunch bar Miss Young,” I said when I sat in the plastic chair in front of her office desk in the small office behind where office lady Doreen stood all day long answering phones and questions in front of the principal’s closed off backroom. I wondered if the other adults made fun of Doreen for being chunky like the kids made fun of me.
“You’re welcome. But now that we’re in a safe place, you need to tell me why you were in that supply room,” she said.
“The…the fifth graders pantsed me when I went through the big kid wing on my way back from Miss Roberts’ speech class and they said I’m so fat I sit around the house. I don’t understand.” I cried and she held me and it looked like she was gonna cry too but didn’t really want to. “What does that mean?” I said.
“It means we need to find you a new path back from Miss Roberts’ and speak with those boys’ parents.”
We drive by the bookstore and the dispatcher beeps to Jenkins’ radio and tells us about a woman who got groped at the library by a Caucasian in his mid twenties with a goatee, wearing a brown shirt and black pants. “The perp might still be on campus but left quickly, so hurry up,” the dispatcher tells us.
Jenkins steps on his pedal hard and the SUV cruiser jumps quickly and we zoom over by the library. “Look! There he goes!” I shout and I point him out to Jenkins. The bad guy runs through the alley where our big Chevy can’t drive. Jenkins shakes his head and huffs. The perp is too quick. There’s no way me and Jenkins can catch him with our leather work boots and weight.
“Dispatch, we have a visual on the suspect and we’ll notify the QCPD as he is presently leaving the jurisdiction…out,” Jenkins says like he failed. He chews on the left bottom inside of his lip. Then he calls the QCPD so they can catch the guy and gives them all the details. “Escaped on foot…unknown if suspect is armed…exited campus through north end of library alleyway…maintained visual through conclusion of exit of boundary….” Big old Jenkins sounds mouse squeaky.
“Do you think they’ll get him?” I say.
“I hope so. It sickens me that we’ve got these creeps going ‘round assaulting our students,” he says. He pets his mustache with his pointer finger and his thumbkin. “It’d be nice to catch a creep one of these days.” His hand rests beneath his chinny.
“Yeah it would,” I say, but I know deep down it will never happen that way. We are built for close range encounters.
“Mr. Drake, what are you doing here in the office again? Sorry, but I might be out of those Crunch Bars you like so much,” she said. She was searching around all quick through her desk like in the beginning of the month when Grandpa Steve goes through the mail and still didn’t get his check from “That hustling dead beat Uncle Sammy.” I didn’t want to cry even though I liked how my tummy felt the last time Counselor Young hugged me because crying is for wimps.
“They were hurting Kathryn,” I said.
“Who was hurting her?” Counselor Young said.
“I can’t tell. They said they will kill me if I tell.”
“You have to face your fears and stand up for what you know is right. You need to tell,” she said.
“Don’t want to,” I said.
“What if you write down their names?” She said. “Then they won’t be able to kill you.”
I wrote down all of their names. I didn’t feel good in my tummy about it. I didn’t cry and I still felt like a wimp. I didn’t help my friend Kathryn when she was getting hurt by the mean boys. I should have. And Brendan is no rat.
I say bye to Jenkins and his fuzzy fanged mustache and then I punch out in the substation on that little computer on the edge of the lounge. I am hungry. The pink box scooted to the edge of the table is empty except for a couple of dried donut crumbs. Supervisor Jenkins must’ve beat me to the last couple. There’s some carrot sticks and apple slices there too, but I don’t want those. I’m getting a crunch bar at the gas station on the way to the snake rescue.
Man that kingsnake is really trapped in the net. I look through the tools in my five-gallon paint bucket and grab some scissors. The couple who lives here stands on their concrete porch under the wood ramada and watches me work. It takes me a little while, but I cut through the net until he is completely freed. This part of town is not a great area for him, so I tell the homeowners that I’ll take him in my bucket into the wilderness.
“And how much do we owe you?” says the lady with the sweet voice I talked with earlier in the day. Her eyes are tired and her blonde hair is faded and getting gray from years in the Arizona sun.
“Forty-five dollars—and make the check out to Queen Creek Snake Removal,” I say.
The couple goes inside to get the checkbook and I watch them through the sliding glass door. I can’t hear them but I can tell he’s mad at her and when he starts hitting her, I know for sure. The afternoon sun glistens on his hairy bearded face. After taking a few to the mouth, she runs from where I can see her deeper into the house. He stares toward her path. I can now hear them as they shout at each other from across the house.
I open the door and don’t make a sound. I come up from behind him and I don’t let go until he crumples to the floor. He’s cold, the floor is cold, and the air conditioning is cold. It’s all too cold for me.
I drive far into the desert foothills of the Queen Creek Mountains to a parking pullout near many saguaros, yucca and brittlebush. I take the kingsnake in my paint bucket a half-mile from my car and find a nice grouping of prickly pears and a soft patch of dirt filled with gopher and kangaroo rat holes. I put him on the ground and watch him flow to the shade.
I sit under the branches of a Palo Verde tree and read the kingsnake habitat section in The Southwestern Field Guide of Snakes and Other Reptiles just to make sure that this is a good place. The sun goes down. It is. I reach down into my pocket and break the Crunch bar in half and shove both pieces in my mouth and let them settle there. For a while, I think. First the chocolate, and then the crisp rice, and then everything, melts away.
Tom Cracovaner is a fiction author, poet and songwriter who has been published in SandScript and The Blue Guitar Magazine. He won the 2016 Second Place in Poetry award from Pima College and was named a finalist in the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards fiction competition. He currently attends Pima Community College.