Quickest Way to a Man’s Heart

First time I met the snake he was on the screened-in porch drooping off the side of my house. Half his body, black and speckled yellow, coiled around a glass jar filled with bits of seashells and cypress knees on an old desk collecting cobwebs. Coming out my front door, I’d stopped short at the sight of him and grabbed my tie. His onyx eyes reflected light from the screen windows, the mesh poked through in places. Holding the door, I tried to remember if his rounded snout meant he was a good snake. I decided he was okay and let the door close. He must have made a similar evaluation of me because he stretched out, the jar no longer protecting him, and slinked across the desk onto the floor. He disappeared through the corner where daylight showed between the planks.

On my drive to Hobby Lobby, my nametag rattling against the pen in my shirt pocket, I thought maybe he was the reason I hadn’t seen mice around. But it was my grandmother’s house, four or five generations old, so there were plenty of places for vermin to hide, especially deep in the high cabinets, the top shelves cluttered with dented and stained pots I’d never used. Even my new set still in its box had collected dust. I’d left everything with Mitch, even my favorite orange Le Creuset Balti dish. I hadn’t turned on the oven for more than frozen pizza since I’d moved back from New York. I used to cook all the time, duck confit, Chateaubriand, braised lamb. Not that Mitch ever cared.

At lunch I ate with Kaitlyn in the break room. She sat on the edge of the table, steel-toed work boot on a chair, her blue vest thrown over her shoulder. Her brown hair was cropped in tight curls above her ears.

“Probably a king snake,” she said, crunching into a sandwich, layers of BBQ chips between ham and bread. Crumbs dotted her lips, mayo in the corners. Since I’d known her at Hammond Elementary, she’d been more like a man than me. She was rigid, uncomfortable in her body, but with a soft heart. “It’ll keep nasty things away.”

She was the closest to a friend I had since moving back to Louisiana. I trusted her.

“They attack people?” I asked, pushing some prepackaged stir-fry around its flimsy container, the sauce a brown, tasteless paste.

“Not often,” she said. Chips fell from her sandwich. “No fangs, just two rows of teeth. It’ll hurt but won’t kill you.”

I thought of Mitch, his big smile, perfect white teeth. “I don’t plan on getting bitten,” I said, and wondered if the snake would strike me when I tried to leave.

“You never do,” she said and thankfully left it at that.

 

The next morning he wasn’t on the desk. I searched the yard and the dark ground under the house, but couldn’t find him.

I saw him Friday after work. I’d pulled under the carport and he was in the yard right off the cement. If I’d gotten out, I’d have just about stepped on him. After a moment he started moving and aimed straight for a hole in the dirt under the slab as if he knew where he was going. Walking past the hole, I felt satisfied thinking that was where he lived, right beneath me, my home his home.

The following Monday he’d shed his skin, a present.

I brought it to show Kaitlyn, and asked her about catching him.

“It’s a wild animal,” Kaitlyn said, her sandwich dropping crumbs of sour cream and onion chips.

“What if it freezes?” I asked. “Winter is supposed to be worse this year.”

“It can take care of itself.”

 

On the couch, eating stale cereal, watching reruns of Golden Girls, I searched behavior traits of king snakes on my laptop. One site claimed, “Wild-caught specimens range from completely docile to aggressive monsters.”

“Aggressive monsters,” I said, looking at the TV and catching a smiling man driving into a car lot. The man—blond hair, flawless skin, big smile—pointed his finger through the screen and yelled for the viewer to come check out his great deals, his smile becoming a snarl. “Docile to monster.”

 

After work the next day I stopped by the pet store. Back home under the carport, foot on the brake. The box on the passenger seat trembled—the contents restless.

I thought of lonely dinners for two. Reheating a plate at three AM after Mitch staggered home.

“This is different,” I said, my hands shaking.

I grabbed the box, not much heavier than when it was empty, and knelt in the grass by the snake’s home. I removed the lid. A little white mouse, hands up to its mouth like it was praying, was crouched in the corner. I pinched the tail and lifted it, kicking like a wind-up toy. When I put it near the hole, it just sat dead still as the snake poked his head out.

I step back a few paces. Before I finish my last step, snap, the snake latches onto the mouse and coils around it, little feet kicking frantically at the snake’s face. It starts to swallow the mouse even as it still scratches. The snake’s black eyes are empty, reflecting nothing. My heart pounds and my breaths shorten. The mouse is just a lump midway down the snake’s body. I’m crying and realize I’m clenching my fists so tight my nails are cutting my palm.

I take two steps forward and jam my heel down on the snake’s head. Its body corkscrews against my shoe, its tail twitching. I stomp four or five more times. Lifting my foot, its jaw is all crooked, eyes sunk into its skull.

I stand still for a moment, deciding how I feel.

Getting back in my car, my hands steady on the steering wheel, I head to the grocery store trying to choose between Blanquette de Veau or saffron risotto. Maybe both.

Dusty Cooper is writing a novel expanding on his story “The Small Reflection of Things,” published in Pleiades, June 2017. His work has appeared in Weave Magazine, Crack the Spine, Berkeley Fiction Review, Eunoia Review, Bartleby Snopes, and Litro, among others. Dusty is a content creator for a tech company in Louisiana.

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