It had added twists to itself, and it began to glide slowly over the sand, head slightly erect now, the small trough where its body had been leaving a shallow trail behind it.
When Bob White had the shadow about ten feet from where he stood, he stopped it, making it quiver in place.
About six feet from the shadow the snake stopped moving, then began to edge forward again to reach striking distance. When he thought he had the snake close enough to him, out in the open enough, he pulled his hands out of the sun's path. The snake stopped moving immediately and was poised, as still as a piece of twisted pipe. He left it there, and walked quickly back and got the gunny sack and the stick. When he moved, the snake jerked its head in his direction and began to rattle. He returned to where he had been, held the gunny sack in his left hand, and began to rap with the stick on the ground in front of him.
“I've got you now, old salt,” he said aloud, and then he yelled out, “Hoo!” and rapped the stick sharply against a piece of shale. The snake jerked his head up higher and began to rattle more furiously, and Bob White moved in. He tapped the tip of the stick between the snake and the opening of the gunny sack in his hand. When he saw the snake tighten its body, shortening it like a compressed spring, he stopped moving the stick toward the sack and just tapped it in place on the ground. The snake was now about three feet from the stick, and he moved the gunny sack in closer. When the snake struck, he jerked the stick away, and at the same time he thrust the gunny sack toward it. The snake landed in the sack up to the midpoint of its body. Bob White lifted the sack, and the snake fell into the bottom of it, twisted and turned for a moment, and then was still.
By the time he had gotten two more snakes into the sack,
the sun was high above him and it was very hot. He found a shaded place and drank what water remained in his small bottle. Then he untied the piece of twine from the mouth of the sack and let it rest on the ground. He found a few good-sized stones and took his stick and prodded the snakes until they began to emerge from the sack. He killed each one by dropping a stone on its head. Then he cut off the heads and the rattles, throwing the heads into the desert and putting the rattles in his pocket. When he had done that, he took out his knife again and skinned the snakes on a rock. He put the skins, rolled into loose coils, into small plastic sandwich bags that he took from his back pocket. From the fold of bags, he extracted three larger ones and put the snake meat into them. Then he packed the bags into a corner of the gunny sack and folded it into a square. He put the sack in the shade and sat on a rock, smoking and looking at the few flowers around him and listening to the birds. The smoke curled up from his lobster-claw pipe, gathering in a thin cloud in the still air above his head. After a while he got up, knocked his pipe empty against a rock, fetched the bag from the shade, and set off in the same zigzag manner he had used to get where he was, back by a different route toward the dirt-road spur and the lower foothills.
THERE WAS A HINT THAT SOMETHING MIGHT MATERIALIZE when they reached the ninth hole, a short par three with a tee that was elevated so that one hit considerably downhill to the green. Because of the shortness of the hole (about a hundred and sixty yards) the green had been made small, and there were traps guarding it on all sides.
“Farthest from the pin buys lunch?” Steve said, as they were climbing out of their carts. Frankie had loosened up some as they played the front nine. He was not as good as the other two, but he was close enough in skill to keep himself in things, and he seemed pleased there was someone playing with them whom he was better than. Steve and Lou were playing about even, near par. Frankie was four over, but he had missed three short putts,
rimming the cup. Allen was five over and had dropped three long putts to save pars.
Steve had the honors, and he dropped his shot in close, about eight feet from the hole. Lou was next; he pushed his shot slightly. It hit and trickled to the rough on the other side of the green, far to the right. Allen was pleased to see that Frankie had a good chance. His shot was short, hitting in front of the green, but it had been rather low, and it rolled up, finishing about four feet from the cup.
“All right!” Frankie said.
Allen dropped his shot to the right of the two close balls, between them and Lou's. Lou had lost, and he joked about it a little. When they had finished the hole, they parked their carts to the rear of the clubhouse and entered the back arch that led into the patio.
Lunch had been no small wager. He could see from what they ordered that the tab would come, with drinks and tip, to more than fifty dollars. They asked him a few questions about where he was from and what he did. His answers were direct but sufficiently comprehensive so that they did not feel they were pushing for information. He asked Frankie what he did, figuring that would be the easiest way to get to the associations. Frankie owned a small, executive flying service. Steve was in real estate and “speculation,” and whatever he did, it was big. He kept a plane of his own at Frankie's place, an eight-seater. Lou was the youngest vice-president that one of the local banks had ever had; he found a way of making this known to Allen. He, and Frankie to a lesser extent, seemed clearly dependent on Steve in ways that were not spoken of but apparent in their behavior. Frankie just held to a lower station. Lou remained obsequious.
Before they were finished, Allen let it drop that he did not think the course was very tough. (He had checked the map of the back nine, noting that the fairways were quite a bit narrower than on the front.) Now that he had gotten used to the way it played, he said, he thought he could beat it without too much trouble.
He had worked the front nine by spraying a lot. He had seldom been off the fairways, but he had seldom been down the middle. Steve looked up sharply at him when he spoke.
“Steve's on the board here,” Lou chuckled. “Them's fighten' words!”
It was better and easier than he had thought it would be.
“Still,” he said, “not much water, the greens aren't too tricky, the holes are a little short, no problems with sight lines.” That seemed to do it.
“Well, what would you say to some friendly wagering on the back nine,” Steve said, bending slightly forward, looking at Allen across the table. “Say twenty a hole for outright winners and a hundred for the match; unless that's a little too steep for you?”
Allen demurred slightly, backing up at the force of Steve's intensity. “That is a little steep,” he said.
“Thought it might be,” Steve said dryly.
“But okay, sure, why not,” Allen said.
“Good,” Steve said, “very good.” He smiled benignly, sipped at his whiskey and water, wiped his mouth delicately with his napkin. It was getting close to noon. Allen excused himself and went to call Melinda.
SHE HUNG UP AND WENT BACK TO HER POOLSIDE CHAIR at the table under the beach umbrella. There were two children at the shallow end playing in the water, a boy and a girl about seven and ten. Their mother lounged in the water up to her chest, leaning her back against the pool's side, her arms resting on the edge. The children played well together, and the mother seemed relaxed; she watched, but she did not interfere or direct. Occasionally a high giggle would come from the girl when her brother splashed water at her, but their play never got too frantic. They had a float in the shape of a dolphin with an inflated ring that could be gotten inside of and a beach ball. At times the dolphin was used in their play, but at other times it bobbed off by itself, oddly commanding a space in the pool; moved by their
wake, it often seemed ready to dive under the water. It stayed close to them, though the beach ball floated away at times.
There was a middle-aged man with a paunch, his wife next to him, sitting in a deck chair beside a poolside table. He was very white, and both he and his wife were sipping at tall drinks and watching the children play. One thin young girl lay in the sun on one of the beach lounges, getting her tan.
When she came back from the phone, the sun had shifted a little; but the walk back and forth had tired her, and in addition she was not worried about the longevity of her skin anymore, so she did not move the chair but let the sun hit her face and arms and her chest above her one-piece suit. “Wither away,” she said to herself. She was very thin, and she knew she looked good this way; she had always tried to keep her weight down, but in recent years she had been unsuccessful. When she fell ill, the weight had begun to drop off. After a while it had leveled off, and now she was the way she had always wanted to be. She thought of this as a fringe benefit. The major benefits included this trip, the fact that they had no money to speak of, and the fact that he could earn some through his skill: a skill connected to his body. This made him very desirable. Over the years she had not really known how little he thought of himself, though he spoke of what he felt as inadequacy in his work. He was a physical person who had denied that part of himself too much, and what he had been always desperate about, as she saw it, was the futile search for a body component in the mind work that he had to do for his teaching. The heart of the benefit was a time thing, very ironic of course. He had found his body when her need arose. She had found hers beneath the added weight she had carried. Her new body was the evidence of her need for him to connect to himself in the way he had. His body had gained some weight, all muscle, from his practice. She felt she had given him some flesh. They had a beginning, though it was near the end.
She did not think of the cancer as a foreign element in her anymore. What it had done was to make real the delicacy she had
always asked him for in their sex. Sex with him before had always been a little desperate, as if he were reaching for something beyond and not in her; he always passed over what was there. Now that had changed, and she still had some hope that more inclusive change, the kind that would extend beyond the sex, was possible because of it. Her mind's delicacy had become a delicacy of body; her weakness was physical. When they made love he was attentive to this. He lifted her and placed her carefully in different ways. She directed him and moved him by talking. He did not talk much while they were making love or otherwise, but she could see often, afterward, how overcome he was. They made love often, usually once a day, when she was up to it. She had not felt so alive in a long time. What is this thing called love, she thought. Making it, mostly. Much of the rest is dross. How good to feel so self-involved.
And she was reading a lot of books now, books she had always wanted to read. She read them with care and fine attention, and she learned a lot from them. But what she learned was not material to be used anywhere. She read them for what they contained because they had been written by people who knew how to write. She felt the purity of doing this, the sense of authentic leisure. She loved the books, and she loved him. She loved herself in her test of power, a test that she was passing. She almost thought she loved her foe, the cancer, too: it provided the good test. She had put her water colors and her oils away for good; she had no more interest in representation. She was having the best time of her life.
When the play of the children in the water became very quiet because their game now was about making small ripples with their hands, she heard the crunch in the gravel over her shoulder to her left. She turned her head and saw Bob White coming, wearing a golf cap and carrying a gunny sack.
She smiled, and he entered the gate of the fence surrounding the pool, walked over, put the sack on the pool deck, and sat in the
chair beside her. He smiled and pointed to his cap as he looked at her. She laughed lightly.
“Nice,” she said. He nodded, very seriously.
“Good for the sun,” he said, and she laughed again.
“Very hot day,” he said. “I got some snakes here.” He tilted his head in a secret, conspiratorial manner in the direction of the bag. “Quite good to eat,” he said. “You ever fix snake?”
“No,” she said. “You?”
“No,” he said, “woman's work.” But he smiled and added, “A very skillful and artful thing to do, I think. You wanna try it?”
“Absolutely,” she said.
He gathered her hat and purse for her and helped her up and into her robe. Then he gave her back her purse and picked up the gunny sack in his other hand. Then they went back to the room.
He had been there before he had gone to the pool. He had cleaned out their hibachi and put fresh charcoal under the grate, and he had placed the grill in the corner of the small patio outside the sliding glass doors in the rear of the room. Tucked under the edge of it, held so that breeze would not scatter them, were a few pieces of torn newspaper. Inside, over the formica counter to the right of the sink in the small mirrored alcove between the room and the bath, he had spread some newspaper with waxed paper over it. In the sink was a square plastic container with the name of the motel on its side, the ice bucket full of chipped ice. On the counter to the other side of the sink was more waxed paper, and on top of it, beside small restaurant packets of salt and pepper, was a small pile of odd-looking plant clippings. Among them was a tiny, delicate blue flower at the end of its own cut stem. His knife rested beside the clippings. It had a bone handle and looked like some kind of fish knife. Both the clippings and the knife blade were touched with drops of water from the washing he had obviously given them.
“What a beautiful little flower,” she said.
“Very beautiful,” he said. “Very good with snake.”
She was a very good cook, and he was very good with his knife. After he had put the snake meat in its bags on top of the ice and had hung the skins to dry over the latticework that separated the patios in back of the rooms, he began to work at the pile of clippings. He cut the small flower off first and put it to the side. Then he stripped some of the greener stalks of their side growths, putting them between his thumb and the blade at their bases, then squeezing and turning his wrists slightly. When he had finished this, he slit each stalk down the middle, revealing its greener inside; the stalks looked a little like leeks. Then he cut them in two-inch sections.