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The Snake

By Sergio Troncoso

Drawings by Jorge Enciso

The chubby boy slammed the wrought iron screen door and ran behind the trunk of the weeping willow in one corner of the yard. It was very quiet here. Whenever it rained hard, particularly after those thunderstorms that swept up the dust and drenched the desert in El Paso during April and May, Tuyi could find small frogs slithering through the mud and jumping in his mother's flower beds. At night he could hear the groans of the bullfrogs in the canal behind his house. It had not rained for days now. The ground was clumped into thick white patches that crumbled into sand if he dug them out and crushed them. But he was not looking for anything now. He just wanted to be alone. A large German shepherd, with a luminous black coat and a shield of gray fur on its muscular chest, shuffled slowly toward him across the patio pavement and sat down, puffing and apparently smiling at the boy. He grabbed the dog's head and kissed it just above the nose.

"Ay, Princey hermoso. They hate me. I think I was adopted. I'm not going into that house ever again! I hate being here, I hate it." Tuyi put his face into the dog's thick neck. It smelled stale and dusty. The German shepherd twisted its head and licked the back of the boy's neck. Tuyi was crying. The teardrops that fell to the ground, not on the dog's fur nor on Tuyi's Boston Celtics T-shirt, splashed into the dust and rolled up into little balls as if recoiling from their new and unforgiving environment.

"They give everything to my stupid sister and my stupid brothers and I get nothing. They're so stupid! I always work hard, I'm the one who got straight As again, and when I want a bicycle for the summer, they say I have to work for it, midiendo. I don't want to, I already have twenty-two dollars saved up, Oscar got a bicycle last year, a ten-speed, and he didn't even have anything saved up. He didn't have to go midiendo. Diana is going to Canada with the stupid drum corps this summer, they're probably spending hundreds of dollars for that, and they won't give me a bicycle! I don't want to sit there in the car waiting all day while Papá talks to these stupid people who want a new bathroom. I don't want to waste my summer in the hot sun midiendo, measuring these stupid empty lots, measuring this and that, climbing over rose bushes to put the tape right against the corner. I hate it. Why don't they make Oscar or Ariel go! Just because Oscar is in high school doesn't mean he can't go midiendo. Or Ariel could go too, he's not so small, he's not a baby anymore. And why don't they put Diana to work! Just because she's a girl. I wish I was a girl so I could get everything I wanted to for free. They hate me in this house."

"Tuyi! Tuyi!" his mother yelled from behind the screen door. "¿En dónde estás, muchacho? Get over here at once! You're not going outside until you throw out the trash in the kitchen and in every room in this house. Then I want you to wash the trashcans with the hose and sweep around the trash bins outside. I don't want cucarachas crawling into this house from the canal. When I was your age, young man," she said as he silently lifted the plastic trash bag out of the tall kitchen can and yanked it tightly closed with the yellow tie, "I was working twelve hours a day on a ranch in Chihuahua. We didn't have any summer vacation." As he lugged it to the backyard, to the corner where the rock wall had two chest-high wooden doors leading to the street and a brick enclosure over which he would attempt to dump the trash bag into metal bins, a horrible, putrid smell of fish --he hated fish, they had had fish last night-- wafted up to Tuyi's nose and seemed to hover around his head like a cloud.

 

 

Oye, gordito! Do you want to play? We need a fielder," said a muscular boy, about fifteen years old, holding a bat while six or seven other boys ran around the dead end on San Simon Street, which had just finally been paved by the city. When the Martínez family had moved into one of the corner lots on San Simon and San Lorenzo, Tuyi remembered, there had been nothing but dirt roads and scores of empty lots where they would play baseball after school. His older brother, Oscar, was a very good player. He could smack the softball all the way to Carranza Street and easily jog around the bases before somebody finally found it stuck underneath a parked car and threw it back. When it rained, however, the dirt streets got muddy and filthy. Tuyi's mother hated that. The mud wrecked her floors and carpets. No matter how much she yelled at the boys to leave their sneakers outside, they would forget and track it all in. But now there was black pavement, and they could play all the time, especially in the morning during the summer. You couldn't slide home, though. You would tear up your knee.

"Déjalo. He's no good, he's too fat," a short boy with unkempt red hair said, Johnny Gutiérrez from across the street.

"Yeah. He's afraid of flies. He drops them all the time in school and el coach yells at him in P. E.," Chuy sneered.

"Shut up, pendejos. We need a fielder," the older boy interrupted again, looking at Tuyi. "Do you want to play, Tuyi?"

"No, I don't want to. But Oscar will be back from washing the car, and I think he wants to play," Tuyi said, pointing to their driveway as he began to walk away, down San Lorenzo Street. He knew Oscar would play if they only asked him.

"Ándale pues. Chuy, you and Mundis and Pelón will be on my team, and Maiyello, you have the rest of them. Okay? When Oscar comes we'll make new teams and play over there," he said, pointing to a row of empty lots down the street. "There's more room and we can slide. I'll be the fielder, you pitch, Pelón. And don't throw it so slow!"

Tuyi looked back at them as he walked down the new sidewalk, with its edges still sharp and rough where the two-by-fours had kept the cement squared. Here someone had scrawled "J + L 4/ever" and surrounded it with a slightly askew heart when the cement had been wet. Tuyi (no one called him Rodolfo, not even his parents) was happy to have won a reprieve from midiendo and from cutting the grass. He was not about to waste it playing baseball with those cabrones. He just wanted to be alone. His father had called home and had told his mother to meet him after work today. They were going to Juárez, first to a movie with Cantinflas and then maybe for some tortas on 16 de Septiembre Street, near the plaza where they had met some twenty years before. Tuyi had heard this story so many times he knew it by heart. His father, José Martínez, an agronomy and engineering student at the Hermanos Escobar School, had walked with some of his university buddies to the plaza. There, young people in the 1950s, at least those in Chihuahua, would stroll around the center. The boys, in stiff shirts with small collars and baggy, cuffed slacks, looking at the girls. The girls, in dresses tight at the waist and ruffled out in vertical waves toward the hem, glancing at the boys. If a boy stopped to talk to a girl, her friends would keep walking. Sometimes whole groups would just stop to talk to each other. In any case, this was where Papá had first seen Mamá, in a white cotton dress and black patent leather shoes. Mamá had been a department store model, Tuyi remembered his father had said, and she was the most beautiful woman Papá had ever seen. It took him, Papá told Tuyi, five years of going steady just to hold her hand. They were novios for a total of eight years before they even got married! Today they were going to the movies just as they had done so many times before. His father had told his mother that he and Tuyi could go midiendo tomorrow, for a project in Eastwood, on the east side of El Paso, just north of the freeway from where they lived. Mr. Martínez was a construction engineer at Cooper and Blunt in downtown El Paso. On the side he would take up design projects for home additions, bathrooms, porches, new bedrooms, and the like. The elder Martínez had already added a new carport to his house and was planning to add another bathroom. He would do the construction work himself, on the weekends, and his sons would help. But today he wanted to go to the movies with his wife. They were such a sappy couple.

"Buenos días, Rodolfito. Where are you going, my child?" a woman asked, clipping off the heads of dried roses and wearing thick black gloves. The house behind her was freshly painted white, with a burnt orange trim. A large Doberman pinscher slept on the threshold of the front door, breathing heavily, its paws stretched out toward nothing in particular.

"Buenos días, Señora Jiménez. I'm just going for a walk," Tuyi answered politely, not knowing whether to keep walking or to stop, so he stopped. His mother had told him not to be rude to the neighbors and to say hello whenever he saw them on his walks.

"Is your mother at home? I want to invite her to my niece's quinceañera this Saturday at the Blue Goose. There's going to be mariachis and lots of food. I think Glenda is going too. You and Glenda will be in 8-1 next year, in Mr. Smith's class, isn't that right?"

"Yes, señora, I'll be in 8-1. My mother is at home now, I can tell her about the party."

"You know, you're welcome to come too. It will be lots of fun. Glenda told me how the whole class was so proud of you when you won those medals in math for South Loop School. I'm glad you showed those snotty Eastwood types that a Mexicano can beat them with his mind."

"I'll tell my mother about the party. Hasta luego, señora," Tuyi muttered as he walked away quickly, embarrassed, his face flushed and nervously smiling. As he rounded the corner onto Southside Street, his stomach churned and gurgled. He thought he was going to throw up, yet he only felt a surge of gases build somewhere inside his body. He farted only when he was sure no one else was nearby. He had never figured out how he had won three first places in the citywide Number Sense competition. He had never even wanted to be in the stupid competition, but Mr. Smith and some other teachers had asked him to join the math club at school, pressured him in fact. Tuyi finally stopped avoiding them with his stoic politeness and relented when he found out Laura Downing was in Number Sense already. He had a crush on her; she was so beautiful. Anyway, they would get to leave school early on Fridays when a meet was in town. Tuyi hated the competition, however. His stomach always got upset. Time would be running out and he hadn't finished every single problem, or he hadn't checked to see if his answers were absolutely right. His bladder would be exploding, and he had to tighten his legs together to keep from bursting. Or Laura would be there, and he would be embarrassed. He couldn't talk to her; he was too fat and ugly. Or he wanted to fart again, five minutes to go in the math test. After he won his first gold medal, all hell broke loose at South Loop. The school had never won before. The principal, Mr. Jácquez, announced it over the intercom after the Pledge of Allegiance and the club and pep rally announcements. Rodolfo Martínez won? The kids in Tuyi's class, in 7-1, stared at Tuyi, the fat boy everybody ignored, the one who was always last running laps in P. E. Then, led by Mrs. Sherman, they began to applaud. He wanted to vomit. After he won the third gold medal in the last competition of the year at Parkland High School, he didn't want to go to school the next day. He begged his parents to let him stay at home. He pleaded with them, but they said no. The day before the principal had called to tell them about what Tuyi had done. He should be proud of himself, his mother and father said, it was good that he had worked so hard and won for Ysleta. The neighborhood was proud of him. His parents didn't tell him this, but Mr. Jacquez had told them that there would be a special presentation for Tuyi at the last pep rally of the year. He had to go to school that day. When Mr. Jacquez called him up to the stage in the school's auditorium, in front of the entire school, Tuyi wanted to die. A rush of adrenaline seemed to blind him into a stupor. He didn't want to move. He wasn't going to move. But two boys sitting behind him nearly lifted him up. Others yelled at him to go up to the stage. As he walked down the aisle toward the stage, he didn't notice the wild clapping or the cheering by hundreds of kids. He didn't see Laura Downing staring dreamily at him in the third row as she clutched her spiral notebook. Everything seemed supernaturally still. He couldn't breathe. Tuyi didn't remember what the principal had said on the stage. Tuyi just stared blankly at the space in front of him and wished and prayed that he could sit down again. He felt a trickle of water down his left leg which he forced to stop as his face exploded with hotness. Thank God he was wearing his new jeans! They were dark blue; nobody could notice anything. Afterward, instead of going back to his seat, he left the stage through the side exit and cleaned himself in the boy's bathroom in front of the counselor's office. The next day, on the last day of school, when the final bell rang at 3:30, as he walked home on San Lorenzo Street with everything from his locker clutched in his arms, he was the happiest person alive in Ysleta. He was free.

 

 

Tuyi walked toward the old, twisted tree just before Americas Avenue, where diesel trucks full of propane gas rumbled toward the Zaragoza International Bridge. He did not notice the Franklin Mountains to the west. The huge and jagged wall in the horizon would explode with brilliant orange streaks at dusk, but now, at mid-morning, was just gray rock against the pale blue of the big sky. His shoulders were slumped forward. He stared at the powdery dirt atop the bank of the canal, stopping every once in a while to pick up a rock and hurl it into the rows of cotton around him. He threw a rock against the 30 mph sign on the road. A horribly unpeaceful clang shattered the quiet and startled him. A huge dog --he was terrified of every dog but his own-- lunged at him from behind the chainlink fence of the last house on the block. The black mutt bared its teeth at him and scratched its paws into the dust like a bull wanting so much to charge and annihilate its target. At the end of the cotton field and in front of Americas Avenue, Tuyi waited until a red Corvette zoomed by going north, and then ran across the black pavement and down the hill onto a perpendicular dirt road that hugged the canal on the other side of Americas. There would be no one here now. But maybe during the early evening some cars would pull up alongside the trees that lined this old road. Trees that grew so huge toward the heavens only because they could suck up the moisture of the irrigation canal. The cars would stop under the giant shade, and groups of men, and occasionally a few women, would sit and laugh, drink some beers, throw and smash the bottles onto rocks, just wasting time until dark, when the mosquitoes would swarm and it was just better to be inside. Walking by these trees, Tuyi had often seen used condoms lying like flattened centipedes that had dried under the sun. He knew what they were. Some stupid kids had brought condoms to school for show and whipped them around their heads at lunchtime, or hurled them at each other like giant rubber-band bombs. Tuyi had also found a ring once, made of shiny silver and with the initials "SAT" inside. He didn't know anyone with these initials. And even if he had, he probably wouldn't have returned the ring anyway: he had found it, it was his. Tuyi imagined names that might fit such initials: Sarah Archuleta Treviño, Sócrates Arturo Téllez, Sigifredo Antonio Torres, Sulema Anita Terrazas, or maybe Sam Alex Thompson, Steve Andrew Tillman, Sue Aretha Troy. After he brought the ring back home and hid it behind the books on the shelves his father had built for him, he decided that "SAT" didn't stand for a name at all but for "Such Amazing Toinkers," where toinkers originally referred to Laura Downing's breasts, then later to any amazing breasts, and then finally to anything that was breathtaking and memorable. The sun sinking behind the Franklin Mountains and leaving behind a spray of lights and shadows was a "toinker sun." The cold reddish middle of a watermelon "toinked" in his mouth whenever he first bit into its wonderful juices.

About a half mile up the dirt road, Tuyi stopped. He was at his favorite spot. He shuffled around the trunk of the oak tree and found a broken branch, which he then trimmed by snapping off its smaller branches. In the canal, he pushed his stick into mud --the water was only a couple of inches deep-- and flung out globs of mud. He was looking for tadpoles. The last time he had found one, he had brought it up to a rock near the tree. Its tail was slimy and slick. He found a styrofoam cup, which he filled up with water. Under the tree, he watched it slither around the cup, with tiny black dots on its tail and a dark army green on its bulletlike body. After a few minutes, he flicked open his Swiss army knife and slit the tadpole open from head to tail. The creature's body quivered for a second or two and then just lay flat like green jelly smeared on a sandwich. Tuyi noticed a little tube running from the top of the tadpole's head to the bottom, and a series of smaller veins branching off into the clear green gelatinous inside. He found what he took to be one of the eyes and sliced it off with the blade. It was just a black mass of more gushy stuff, which was easily mashed with the slightest pressure. He cut the entire body of the tadpole in thin slices from head to tail and tried to see what he could see, what might explain how this thing ate, whether it had any recognizable organs, if its color inside was different from the color of its skin.

But today he didn't find anything in the mud except an old Pepsi bottlecap and more black mud. He walked toward the edge of the cotton field abutting the canal. Here he found something fascinating indeed. An army of large black ants scurried in and out of a massive anthole, those going inside carrying something on their backs, leaves or twigs or white bits that looked like pieces of bread, and those marching out of the hole following, in the opposite direction, the paths of the incoming. The ants would constantly bump into each other, go around, and then follow the trail back toward whatever it was that kept them busy. How could ants follow such a trail and be so organized? Did they see their way there? But then they wouldn't be bumping into each other all the time. Or did they smell their way up the trail and back home? Maybe they smelled each other to say hello, such as one might whose world was the nothingness of darkness. Tuyi wondered if these black ants were somehow communicating with each other as they scurried up and down blades of grass and sand and rocks, never wavering very far from their trails. Was this talking audible to them? Was there an ant language? There had to be some sort of communication going on among these ants. They were too organized in their little marching rows for this to be random. Maybe they recognized each other by smell. He thought this might be the answer because he remembered what a stink a small red ant had left on his finger after he had crushed it between his fingertips. This might be its way of saying, "Don't crush any more red ants or you'll be smeared with this sickly sweet smell," although this admonition could be of no help to one already pulverized. This warning might have been to help the red ants of the future. Maybe, ultimately, red ants didn't care if any one of them died as long as red ants in general survived and thrived without being crushed by giant fingers. Anyway, this would make red ants quite different from humans, who were individualistic and often didn't really care about anyone else except themselves. For the most part, humans were a stupid, egotistical mob. Tuyi decided to find out if black ants could somehow talk to each other.

Finding one ant astray from the rest, Tuyi pinned it down with his stick. This ant, wriggling underneath the wooden tip, was a good two feet from one of the trails near the anthole. Its legs flailed wildly against the stick, tried to grab on to it and push it off, while its head bobbed up and down against the ground. After a few seconds of this maniacal desperation --maybe this ant was screaming for help, Tuyi thought-- six or seven black ants broke off from a nearby trail and rushed around the pinned ant, coming right to its head and body and onto the stick. They climbed up the stick, and just before they reached Tuyi's fingers, he let it drop to the ground. It worked. They had freed their friend from the giant stick. Tuyi looked up, satisfied that he had an answer to whether ants communicated with each other. Just about halfway up from his crouch he froze: about three feet away, a rattlesnake slithered over the chunks of earth churned up by the rows of cotton and onto the caked desert floor. He still couldn't hear the rattle, although the snake's tail shook violently a few inches from the ground. Tuyi was a little hard of hearing, probably just too much wax in his head. The snake stopped. It had been crawling toward him, and now it just stopped. Its long, thick body twisted tightly behind it while its raised tail still shook in the hot air. He didn't move; he was terrified. Should he run, or would it spring toward him and bite him? He stared at its head, which swayed slowly from left to right. It was going to bite him. He had to get out of there. But if he moved, it would certainly bite him, and he couldn't move fast enough to get out of its way when it lunged. He was about to jump back and run when he heard a loud crack to his right. The snake's head exploded. Orange fluid was splattered over the ground. The headless body wiggled in convulsions over the sand.

"God-damn! Git outta' there boy! Whatcha doin' playin' w'th a rattler? Ain't ye got no sense? Git over here!" yelled a burly, red-headed Anglo man with a pistol in his hand. There was a great, dissipating cloud of dust behind him; his truck's door was flung open. It was an INS truck, pale green with a red siren and search lights on top of the cabin.

"Is that damn thing dead? It coulda' killed you, son. ¿Hablas español? Damn it," he muttered as he looked at his gun and pushed it back into the holster strapped to his waist, "I'm gonna haf'ta make a report on firin' this weapon."

"I wasn't playing with it. I was looking at ants. I didn't see the snake."

"Well, whatcha doin' lookin' at ants? Seems you should be playin' somewhere else anyways. Do you live 'round here, boy? What's yer name?"

"Rodolfo Martínez. I live over there," Tuyi said, pointing at the cluster of houses beyond the cotton fields. "You work for the Immigration, right? Can you shoot mojados with your gun, or do you just hit them with something? How do you stop them if they're running away?"

"I don't. I corner the bastards and they usually giv' up pretty easy. I'm takin' you home, boy. Git in the truck."

"Mister, can I take the snake with me? I've never seen a snake up close before and I'd like to look at it."

"Whatha hell you want w'th a dead snake? It's gonna stink up your momma's house and I know she won't be happy 'bout that. Shit, if you wanna take it, take it. But don't git the thang all over my truck. Are you some kinda' scientist, or what?"

"I just want to see what's inside. Maybe I could take the skin off and save it. Don't they make boots out of snake skin?"

"They sure as hell do! Nice ones too. They also make 'em outta elephant and shark, but ye don't see mae cutting up those an'mals in my backyard. Here, put the damn thang in here." The border patrolman handed him a plastic Safeway bag. Tuyi shoved the headless carcass of the snake into the bag with his stick. The snake was much heavier than he thought, and stiff like a thick tube of solid rubber. He looked around for the head and finally found it, what was left of it, underneath the first row of cotton in the vast cotton field behind him. As the INS truck stopped in front of the Martínez home on San Lorenzo Street, and Tuyi and the border patrolman walked up the driveway, the baseball game on San Simon stopped. A couple of kids ran up to look inside the truck and see what they could see.

"They finally got him. I told ya' he was weird! He's probably a mojado, from Canada. They arrested him, el pinchi gordito."

"Shut up, you idiot. Let's finish the game. We're leading 12 to 8. Maybe la migra just gave him a ride. Why the hell would they bring 'em back home if he was arrested?"

"Maybe they don't arrest kids. He's in trouble, wait till his father gets home. He's gonna be pissed off. They're gonna smack him up, I know it."

"Come on! Let's finish the game or I'm going home. Look it, there's blood on the seat, or something."

"I told ya, he's in trouble. Maybe he threw a rock at the guy and he came to tell his parents. Maybe he hit 'em on the head with a rock. I tell ya, that Tuyi is always doin' something weird by himself. I saw him in the canal last week, digging up dirt and throwing rocks. He's loco."

"Let's go, I'm going back. Who cares about the stupid migra anyway?"

 

 

"Ay, este niño, I can't believe what he does sometimes. And what did the migra guy tell you, was he friendly?" asked Mr. Martínez, glancing back at the metal clanging in the back of the pickup as he and his wife pulled up into the driveway. The moon was bright tonight. Stars twinkled in the clear desert sky like millions of jewels in a giant cavern of space.

"Oh, Mr. Jenkins was muy gente. I wish I could've given him lunch or something, but he said he had to go. He told me Tuyi wanted to keep the snake. Can you believe that? I can't even stand the thought of those things. I told Tuyi to keep it in the backyard, in the shed. The bag was dripping all over the kitchen and it smelled horrible. I hope the dog doesn't get it and eat it."

"It looks like everyone's asleep. All the lights are out. Let me get this thing out of the truck while you open the door. Do you have your keys? Here, take mine.

"I'm gonna put it in the living room, está bien? That way we can surprise him tomorrow. Pobrecito. He must've been scared. Can you imagine being attacked by a snake? This was a good idea. I know he'll be happy. He did so well in school too."

"Well, if it keeps him out of trouble, I'll be happy. I hope he doesn't get run over by a car, though," said Mrs. Martínez while pouring milk into a pan on the stove. Only the small light over the stove was on, and that was nearly covered up as she stood waiting for the milk to bubble. "¿Quieres leche? I'm going to drink a cup and watch the news. I'm tired, but I'm not really sleepy yet."

The house was quiet except for the German shepherd in the backyard who scratched at the shed door, smelling something powerful and new just beyond it. Princey looked around, sniffed the floor around the door, licked it, and after trotting over to the metal gate to the backyard lay down with a thump against the gate, panting quietly into the dry night air. Inside the house, every room was dark except for the one in the back corner, from which glimmered the bluish light of a television set splashing against the white walls in sharp, spasmodic bursts. In the living room, a new ten-speed bicycle, blue with white stripes and black tape over the handlebars, reclined against its metal stop. Some tags were still dangling from its gears. The tires needed to be pressurized correctly because it had just been the demonstration model at the Wal-Mart on McCrae Boulevard. It was the last ten-speed they had.


"The Snake" originally appeared in Blue Mesa Review, City Wilds: Stories and Essays about Urban Nature, and Once Upon a Cuento. Copyright 1997 by Sergio Troncoso. It is one of the twelve stories in The Last Tortilla and Other Stories.

Other short stories: Espíritu Santo, A Rock Trying to be a Stone, and Angie Luna.