Another rattle arrives with each new skin. We called him Rattle because he spent a summer somewhere in Arizona catching and saddling rattlesnakes with tracking devices. He said that each snake maintains a territory of about five miles and they all respect each other’s borders, unlike people, until congregating for communal hibernation.
Any odd job you could think of, he’s had it. Rattle worked as a cashier at the McDonald’s downtown, two grocery stores, the hardware on Morse Rd., the club on Summit. He worked as a security guard at a bank then at the baseball games, as a maintenance man and janitor, and as an animal tracker. He sold weed for a while around 4th and did some carpentry, some sales, even some babysitting. I’d heard that he was unemployed now, so when I saw him at the bar and he offered to buy me a beer, I refused. Rattle was a sort of local celebrity. He was the guy everyone talked about as they led their own, boring lives. I offered to buy his drink instead, lying about having just closed a big deal at work. He said he wanted Scotch.
Rattle had shoulder-length brown hair and a goatee dusted gray. He’d been doing odd construction jobs outside of town, he said, and it was paying the bills. He had some expensive work to get done on his bike, but he knew a guy. His small talk sounded like a movie script. I hung on every word. I looked to his hands, meaty and red but not calloused, and I nodded along. Here I was buying Scotch for the man the whole of our little Midwestern town talked about over squarish bottles of Fiji.
“To your big deal,” he said, raising his glass. He laughed, looking around. “You know, the last time I was here, there was a party for me. They closed the place down and had some girls from Brights come in and dance. I got two tattoos that night. One’s kind of messed up.”
“I heard about the party, man. Heard you were in town. Wednesdays are early for me at the office or I would’ve come out, crashed.” I was rambling, ridiculous. I wanted to direct the focus back to him, so I asked, “What’s the tattoo?”
“Taking the shirt off, boss,” he said to Ernie, the owner who was related to Rattle in some way and had probably been the one to throw the party. Ernie looked around the bar for customers who might make a big deal about a guy taking of his shirt and, finding none, he nodded. When the black t-shirt was lifted, revealing a six-days-a-week-at-the-gym body, I felt the urge to touch his abs to see if they were real. He had a line of text in a half-moon above his belly button that said, “Nothing can be a real cool hand,” in plain font, like Arial—the only one we’re allowed to use at work.
“Cool Hand Luke,” I said, a little more excited than I’d meant to sound. I watched the movie any chance I got, which wasn’t often. Usually, I watched it when I was sick or no one was home. My wife was tired of it, and my teenage daughter said it was lame. “I bet no one has that tattoo,” I said, wishing I’d thought of it.
“Yeah,” he said. “But I was drunk. I was really drunk.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Tattoos are scripture, man. They can limit you. Any time you get inked it’s like tracing a line on a road map that shows where you’re going.” He put back the Scotch in a way people aren’t supposed to put back Scotch. I offered to buy another.
“I like that one,” I said, pointing to a woman tattooed on his arm, built like a Barbie and dressed like she worked at Brights.
“That one was no picnic,” he said. “My first wife.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to know more about the Barbie wife who was no picnic because I’d never heard about him getting married; you’d think people would’ve known and gossiped about it. It was probably a two-day marriage like celebrities get, in Vegas, in the heat of the moment. I wanted to ask, but he didn’t look like he wanted to talk about it.
“I’m forty-two,” he said. “I want what you have.” I thought about my office job, my carpal tunnel and the splint I had to wear nightly. I thought about how my wife hardly let me touch her, and how I hardly wanted to. I thought about my daughter calling my wife a bitch and telling her to calm her tits before running out the door and driving away a few days ago and how I smelled wine on her breath when she returned but was too tired to confront her about it. I thought about how I always left it to my wife to punish her because I simply couldn’t stand to see my daughter upset.
“I don’t know, man. You seem to have a lot more freedom,” I said.
He didn’t respond. I was drinking beer, but I was drinking fast enough for it to feel like the hard stuff. I usually only had two, even on the weekends, but it was Friday and the wife had her yoga. I didn’t really want to be there when she got home because, if I was, she’d ask me why I didn’t take out the trash or do the dishes or both.
I put my hand on Rattle’s forearm and felt its hardness. I wished it was my own forearm. I caught myself and awkwardly patted it a few times before saying, “How hot were those girls at Brights? I heard they wear some kind of paint so that certain body parts glow in the dark.”
“Yeah, that was kind of cool,” he said. He began sipping his third Scotch. He looked at me, studied me, looked so deeply into my eyes I thought he could crawl inside. He spoke carefully and said, “You know, the girl told me she was eighteen and I believed her because she was dancing, and they’re supposed to be eighteen—legal.” He was full of genuine compassion. He was not empty, not nothing, he was genuinely hurting, and I felt for him.
“What happened, you got a case?” I asked. “You can’t trust those girls. They lie about their ages.”
“Look man, just know I’m sorry,” he said. He pushed a fifty across the bar toward Ernie and gave me a look when I tried to protest that shut me down. “I’ll be around when you want to kick my ass. I don’t think you can do it, but I owe you enough to let you try.”
I didn’t find out about my daughter’s pregnancy until a week later, when I found her crying in her room because she was afraid. She kept saying that God was punishing her and her life was over, and I asked her where she got such an idea. “It was my own fault, Dad. I have to feel this horrible for a reason.” I wanted to ask what her motivation was, why she’d danced, but I couldn’t stand to think about it, let alone see her upset.
“You’ll be fine,” I said. It was all I could think to say.
She described Rattle to me as though I didn’t know who he was, and I acted as though I really didn’t because I could get away with this. My daughter thought I was just a working stiff, someone completely disconnected with the life outside of our home, the life of motorcycles and bars and strip clubs that prey on underage girls. I didn’t know how to discipline her at the time. I wasn’t angry, only sad. My wife, on the other hand, was well-equipped to deal. She sent our daughter to a sort of scared straight program that did exactly that. She was gone all summer and came back wanting to be a social worker or a nurse. While she was gone, I worked the legal route and had my colleague recommend a good lawyer. I had the police visit the club; I had it shut down. This is the kind of thing I knew how to do.
The night of his confession, the last night I saw Rattle, he told me that although snakes can seem intimidating, they’re really vulnerable. Few animals have so many predators. He had a rattlesnake tattooed on his back that he got after working that summer in Arizona. He said every year he lives, he adds a rattle. “They get louder as they get older, but that’s not necessarily good,” he said. “It’s just noise.” Rattle revved his motorcycle that night as I stood at my Toyota, wondering if I should call a cab. I watched as he went roaring into the dark, into the nothing.
Jen Knox teaches creative writing at San Antonio College. Jen’s writing was chosen for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 list in 2012 and won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for short fiction and Global Short Story award in 2011. Her work can be read in Bluestem, Gargoyle 58, jmww, Narrative, Short Story America, Superstition Review, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Thumbnail Magazine, and elsewhere. Her website is here: http://www.jenknox.com.