After my sister was born, my father gave up his dream to have a business of his own and went back to work as a salesman for Moore Business Forms. We lived in a rented house on Lake Sybelia in Maitland, Florida. On weekends, Daddy took to clearing the lakefront as if he held a grudge against it. He started by the dirt road and cleared to the hibiscus hedge that divided our yard from our landlord’s, Mr. Durham. When he finished our side, he told Mr. Durham he'd be glad to clear his cattails, too. Even trade for letting Daddy use his rowboat to fish.
My father rarely got up early on Saturdays or Sundays. Friday nights, he drank with the men from the office, and Saturday nights he and Momma either had the Yales, Daddy's boss and his wife, over or went to their house. About noon, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, dressed in his old boots, khaki Bermudas, no shirt, and armed with a sickle, a machete, and a beer, he renewed his attack on the cattails.
Daddy didn’t get drunk Thanksgiving day because we ate early and he didn't like to drink after he'd eaten. That’s why I remember when it happened. By the time my dog, Butch, and I came out on the porch Friday morning, he’d already cleared a yard or two of the Durham's cattails.
Daddy was standing just beyond the hibiscus hedge with his back to me. His legs were spread a little apart like he was piddling. I squatted to see if I could see a stream, but I didn't, so I called to him.
He didn't answer; he didn't turn around or move at all.
"Daddy?" I said again, letting the screen door slam behind me. Butch ran ahead, tail wagging.
"Ginny." Daddy said my name real even, and so quietly I froze the same as if he’d yelled at me.
"Butch, stop," I ordered. "Sit." My heart pounded, but I didn't know why.
Butch sat, but whined and sniffed the air. Daddy still hadn’t moved, hadn’t even glanced over his shoulder.
“Stay,” I said to Butch and started toward Daddy.
"Don't come over here," he said, as if he had eyes in the back of his head. "Take Butch and lock him up."
"Where?" I asked. We'd never locked him up before. I couldn't think of a place.
"Daddy, what's the matter?" He had different socks on, mixed up like he got them sometimes because he was color-blind, but one was white, the other, an ugly red, yellow and black argyle.
"Do as I say, Ginny."
I patted my leg for Butch to come, picked him up, carried him into the house, and shut him in the downstairs bathroom. He whined, scratched at the door, and started barking.
"I did it," I called as I jumped down from the center step and started across the yard. Daddy’s back was still to me, glistening with sweat. I was a couple of yards away when I glanced at his socks again. That was no argyle. Wrapped around his ankle in a tight coil, just above the top of his boot, was a coral snake.
"Daddy," I whispered. "Don't move."
"I won't, honey."
I didn't have a coral snake in any of my dead animal jars, but I knew about them. "Do you know that's a coral snake?"
"I was hoping it was the harmless one that looks like a coral snake."
"It's not," I said. "It's red on yellow, can kill a fellow."
"There's no cure, Daddy, but they're not mean like moccasins."
My mother and Kristin were at an after-Thanksgiving sale with Mrs. Yale. The Durhams were visiting their children in Tampa. "Do you want me to go to Eatonville for help?"
"I don't see there’s a thing anybody can do until the snake decides to move on."
I'd been making a wide, slow circle around the hedge and down the other side until I was a couple of yards in front of Daddy, near the bow of the rowboat. He smiled at me.
Daddy never laced his boots up all the way, so the top inch or so stood away from his ankle. The snake was coiled on this little ledge with its head resting on top of itself, its nose touching my father's bare leg. Its tongue was still, so it might have been sleeping.
"I think they're deaf," I said, backed up to the boat and hitched myself up onto the bow. "We can talk, if you want to."
"That'd be nice. Except for my pal here, I've been pretty lonely for the last hour."
"He's been there for an hour?"
"Didn't you feel him crawling on you?"
"No. He didn't feel any different from the cattails and weeds. I was headed in for another beer," he said, "looked down and there he was. Since then, he's made himself comfortable."
"Not much. I’m glad to hear they don't bite out of meanness." He grinned. "I just hope he doesn't wake up as cranky as your sister does."
"I'd be scared."
"Not you," Daddy said. "You're the bravest, toughest little gal I know."
“I get scared sometimes.”
Daddy dripped sweat and kept blinking to keep it out of his eyes. "What scares you?"
I’m scared when he and Momma fight, but I didn’t say so. I shrugged. “Did you get scared of things when you were a kid?”
"Yep. We used to get cyclones in Nebraska and had to hide in the potato cellar. It was like a coffin. I'd have nightmares for a week after one of those storms that we were sealed in the cellar with the house collapsed in on top of us."
I heard a car coming along the lake. Carefully, I turned, slid off the bow, and walked to the stern of the boat. Dust rose above the trees. "Somebody's coming."
Momma and Kristin pulled into the driveway. She saw Daddy and stopped the car short of the garage.
"Ginny," he said. "Go tell her what's wrong and take her into the house. Don't let her come apart."
Momma opened her door, put one foot out and stood up. "Noel?"
Kristin was crying. Butch was barking again.
"Stay there, Momma.”
"What's the matter?" She came around the hood and started toward Daddy. “Noel? What's the matter?" Her eyes widened. "Tell me what's the matter."
"It's okay, Momma." I held my hands up as I came through the hedge.
"Why is he standing there like that?"
I took her hand. "He's got a coral snake wrapped 'round his ankle." I said it real fast.
She jerked away from me, but instead of running toward him like I thought she would, she jumped back in the car. "It's this god awful place." She jammed the gear into reverse, stomped on the gas, and backed out of the driveway. Dust and gravel spewed as she raced up the road toward Eatonville.
Daddy’s body quivered from the strain of standing still so long.
"I don't know where she's going," I said.
"She probably doesn't know either." And then he said the only bad thing he ever said about my mother. "I hope you don't grow up to be like her, Ginny."
"No sir," I said.
Daddy looked at me. "I shouldn't have said that. It's my fault she's the way she is. Your grandfather was very successful, but because of the Depression, he scared her about being poor. She's never gone without and has no way of coping with what I've brought us to." His eyes flicked toward our run-down little house.
"I like it here."
He smiled. "I do, too. You'll be all right. You have a whole different way of dealing with things. You're optimistic and sure of yourself."
"I don't feel sure of myself."
"You are, though. It shows through."
Daddy glanced down at the snake, then back at me. "Just watch out who you marry, Ginny. Don't let him pin you down with his expectations as if you’re responsible for his happiness. You can't make anyone happy who doesn't have it in them to be happy. Do you understand?"
"I think so."
"And don't settle for someone who doesn't support you going after what you want." He grinned. "In other words, don't marry someone who won't let you keep your dead animal collection."
I grinned, then asked, "Why'd you marry Momma?"
"Well, see, that's the rub. Neither of us paid any attention to life together beyond the moment. She didn't know I'd chase a dream and fail, and I didn't know how she'd take it when I that happened." He watched the cattails swaying as small waves lapped the shore.
The snake's tongue slide out.
"Daddy," I gasped. "It's awake."
It lifted its head. I held my breath.
"I feel it." He swallowed and closed his eyes. "I could sure do with a beer."
"Don't move," I whispered.
"Step away from the boat, Ginny. If he loosens enough to try to go up my leg, I'll kick him off."
"Just wait, Daddy." I moved slowly aside. "I don't think they're climbers. They like to get under things, like logs and boards."
Neither of us was breathing. There was no sound at all, except for a car coming fast along the road from Eatonville.
The snake let its head drop and float down across the boot laces, but the rest of his body tightened around Daddy's ankle.
The car was speeding.
"Shit," Daddy said.
"Don't kick him, Daddy. Let him go. He'll go."
Brakes squealed as my mother whirled into the driveway, just missing the oak on the right. She and a colored man with a machete jumped from the car.
The snake had stopped moving. Now it lifted its head and bobbed just above the ground, its tongue tasting the air.
I turned my head toward my mother but could not take my eyes off Daddy's boot. "If you scare it, Momma, and it bites him, he’ll die. There’s no cure."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the colored man catch her arm. Momma stopped and sobbed into her hands. Kristin screamed from the back seat. Butch barked at the bathroom window. I know that snake was deaf.
While I watched, it unwound its top coil like a line of toothpaste being sucked back into the tube. Its head came around to dangle off the back of Daddy’s boot, level with his heel. It hung there for a moment before undoing its next link. Then the tip of its tail whipped free only to hook an instant later through a loop in one of his laces.
Daddy looked down, but the leg the snake was on was slightly behind the other. I wasn't sure he could see that it hadn’t let go. "Don't kick," I said.
Sweat dripped from my father's face; drop after drop pocked the muddy leather toes of his boots. When a drop hit the snake, its tail twitched and released his boot lace. A moment later it disappeared into the pile of drying cattails.
Daddy lifted his head and grinned at me. "How about that?"
I clapped my hands together and laughed.
"Damn you," Momma shouted. She broke through the hedge with her fists raised. "I can't stand any more of this. I can't stand this place."
Daddy caught her wrists, but she pulled free and hit him.
The colored man lifted Kristin through the car window and jiggled her up and down to quiet her screams. When he failed, he walked to the hedge and handed her across. "I'll walk home, Missy." He looked at my parents. "It ain't all that far."
Daddy clamped both Momma's wrists in one hand, put his other arm around her waist, and pulled her to him. She quit wiggling and sobbed against his shoulder.
"It's all right, Kathryn," he said, softly. "Shhhh, it's okay." He lifted her chin and kissed her.
I looked down at my feet. I was nine years old and I’d never seen my father kiss my mother. I’d never seen them touch, except for lips brushing the other's cheek. I’d never caught them hugging.
Everything I knew about the warmth and affection of love, I had learned from Lucinda, our housekeeper, and Butch, my dog. I never thought of my parents as two people in love. If I’d ever thought about it, I would have said they didn't even like each other much.
Years later, my mother told me that she never saw her parents kiss either. In all her life, her father never once hugged her, and her mother only rarely. All she knew of love, she knew from Mamie, her nurse. Only then, as I suffered through my own failing marriage, did I pause to wonder if those frozen genetic chunks break up a little with each new generation into smaller and smaller fragments until, finally, one of us down the line is able to touch, without discomfort, people we love.
The incident with the snake seemed to renew my father for a while, as if he had found a treasured part of himself. For a few weeks, he came straight home from work, changed clothes, and took only the sickle and the machete to the lakefront. He worked sober and full of pride as if he were creating rather than clearing.