As long as you stroke ‘em right, the scales’re smooth. I could grab ‘em by the fistful, feel ‘em sidewind, solid muscle in my palm. But I ain’t handsy. I like watchin’ ‘em. Usually they quiet as a stone, soakin’ up heat from my little lamps. Even at feedin’ time they casual. I got fourteen now. Lincoln, he’s reddish brown, got a body like an hourglass, like a 50’s model. Reefer’s like a jewel necklace, ruby and onyx, and yellow topaz. Baby soothes herself with her rattle, you prob’ly know what type she is.
The boys always like it when I tell ‘em about ‘em, sittin’ til last call at Shorty’s tavern. Always wanna see. What’s a pretty girl like you doin’ with all them snakes? they ask me. I don’t tell ‘em. Make ‘em come see for ‘emselves.
Not a lotta room at home. Tanks take the whole back wall up. Don’t need a heater though. The lights are enough, keepin’ me warm on the futon all night. Boys’re always real brave til they see ‘em. Til I open the lid. Then they step back a few. That’s cool, they say. Put their hands out front, tellin’ me to stop. They ain’t handsy, not with the snakes anyway.
Ricky was tough to come by. Fast as hell I hear, but he can’t go nowhere far, so I s’pose I dunno for a fact. He got a tan belly an’ a black sheen. I gotta be careful with him, his temper an’ all. Most of the boys ain’t heard ‘bout his type but they all seem to know ‘bout King, least about cobras. I gotta keep King separate. He’d eat the others if I let him.
Tex is sleepin’ on my futon. Stupid name, Tex. Can’t be his real one. Didn’t take his cap off even to sleep. It’s almost time now. ‘Less I do it quick, he gonna wake up.
I got a special cup for it, covered with a little plastic lid, soft enough for the fangs to get through. I do that part ahead of time, the gettin’ it from ‘em. No sense rattlin’ around with the boys here. They sink their sweet lil teeth in the top, an’ it oozes right off ‘em. Got a special freezer for it for the stuff and everythin’. Extra cold. Keeps it good, potent, but not too long. Gotta make sure I use it before too long. But that ain’t a problem ‘round here. There’s always some boy at last call. Bus station ain’t far, brings ‘em in. Plenty a needles round here too, ever since—you know. The pills an’ all that. Appalachia got hit hard an’ all.
I draw it up in there. Don’t matter if there’s bubbles. I prick ‘em quick. They wake up but it don’t matter then.
Tex is sleepin’ on my futon. Didn’t take his cap off but his neck’s right there. Wide open an’ plenty a room. He was handsy last night. Not with the snakes. Never did understand why boys like to poke and prod and squeeze and grab. Makes the snakes hiss. Makes me hiss too.
It’ll be quick from the neck. He’ll flop ‘round most likely. Holler. Don’t matter though. Not out here. He can holler all he wants, still gonna go stiff as stone. Like the snakes.
They’re wakin’ in their tanks now. They can sense it. Gets ‘em riled up, that wild in ‘em.
My tummy gets riled up too, watchin’ Tex’s blood pushin’ in his neck. I like watchin’ him. Makes me feel somethin’. Makes me wanna poke and prod.
I stick Tex quick. His brown lil eyes flash open like I hit the power button on the T.V. They go crossed a lil, lookin’ at me standin’ over ‘im, holdin’ the needle in my hand like a Halloween nurse costume. He don’t understand. Then it gets to burnin’, and it’s like I turned the volume up. He slaps at his neck, moanin’ and groanin and squeezin’. I’m smilin’ ‘cause I can’t help it. Tex’s really hollerin’ now, so I tell ‘im what he told me last night.
“You’re a loud one, ain’t ya?”
That puts some fire in his eyes, so I back into my lil bedroom, lock my thin lil door. It ain’t much, but the way he’s out there thrashin’ ‘round, I know he ain’t got it in ‘im to bust through. Stacks of boxes piled up high all around me, lookin’ down on me like some proud parents, hearin’ how I make ‘im scream. Such a big strong man. I chuckle to myself.
There’s a little crash out there, one of my good plates most likely. Then dead quiet. A lil rustle. A quick moan, this one’s bubbly. I come outta my lil safe place. Gotta watch this part. Watch him transform. Watch him turn to stone. He’s twitchin’ out there on the ground by my kitchen. Leg’s tappin’ the table each twitch. This’s how it always happens. Lil by lil, then all at once. His eyes peel open, brown spots turn to gray. Bubbles pour out his lips, a rattly purr like Baby. Then his joints lock up, sprawled out all kinds a odd angles.
They always grab me by the fistful, like it when I sidewind, thinkin’ I’m putty in their palms. I let ‘em real close, get quiet and still while they twist around me like a constrictor. They don’t know I got fangs, got that special fridge with the venom stored up just right. So I gotta ‘nother one for the collection, the statue garden deep in the hills. But I keep the faith. One day I’ll find ‘im. That special man who’ll stroke me right. ‘Cause when you stroke ‘em right, me an’ the snakes, the scales’re smooth.
Copyright 2022 Rae Knowles