Wednesday, October 27, 2010
for John Harper
Holy Child Jesus was where the Catholics taught their retarded children. It was a prefab thing, just a quonset shed really. It had some markings on the side, I don't recall what they were. A cross on top, no steeple though. It sat up on top of what looked to be a pretty safe hill. The river was a ways off and there were good sturdy pin oaks all along the ridge.
Still, one night there was a thunderstorm and the whole shebang slid down that hill. Only a wall of mud that slopped down before it kept that shed from running right over the Sinclair station at the bottom. I was about twelve then, and I worked at Sinclair. We came in the next morning, picked up the pieces, and nailed and glued and stapled them back together where they lay. I don't know what my boss was thinking. He turned the damn thing into a spare parts garage that afternoon. I kept waiting for the Catholics to come and stop us, but they never did. They still had a mess of buildings up on the hill anyway. That little building was nothing to them. Or maybe my boss and them struck some kind of deal. I never knew. I just shook my head when I carried engine parts into that little building with the cross still on top.
I wondered what we'd do if our church went like that, if we'd just let the Catholics turn it into a gas station. The Mt. Carmel House of Prayer and the Holiness Church of God. Those were ours, in Newport and Marvin Hill respectively. One in Tatum we'd go to sometimes also. If one day they were gas stations I suppose we'd go to church there same as ever. We'd pump gas and pray and whirl and what have you. Wonder if the Catholics could say the same.
Laws kept going through, more and more laws either kept us swept under the carpet or got us near arrested. Might be best if we did meet in a gas station. My brother died from a bite. And it wasn't as if I didn't try to talk him out of it all the night before, laying there in bed next to him. Finally I just looked out the window at all the stars because he was having none of it.
My grandfather died from drinking strychnine. I watched the snake loop up and strike my brother in the cheek. It was like the look of that little Vietnamese guy in that famous photo from Life Magazine, the guy with the gun up to his head. He wasn't in raptures of faith, my brother. He tried hard to pull his face away. I didn't get to see my grandfather's face turn purple or that frothy, violet spittle everyone talks about. He drank the poison and he was dead. I have a family full of them. They shall take up serpents, they don't care.
Boy in Evarts, eyes clear and beautiful, he holds up three diamondback rattlers. Their bodies make rings around his arms. Looks them right in the eye. He doesn't give anything, not even a look, away. Neither do they, the snakes. This terrible band -- they got the worst handling music in the state bar none -- plays an instrumental version of that Debbie Boone song, "You Light Up My Life," the bass turned up real loud. People say that loud bass calms the snakes. The song makes me want to bite somebody myself. My brother dead and my grandfather. I'm not blaming the band, but...
I saw the whole thing like a circus, but I have to admit there was something in me wanted to show them all up. I could have walked away. All my friends walked away. Every year there are less folks handling snakes, which is no surprise to most. Some don't do it because of the new laws in place. Others because it's dangerous. Others because it just seems old fashioned I guess. When I was twelve even, the congregation dwindled a little every week. I hear it still goes on down there, but I don't know how. Like I say, I could have walked away pretty easy. You have people in your family looking deadly serpents in the eye and drinking poison though, you got to look a serpent in the eye just to look your family in the eye.
I was looking for an angle early on. Had nothing to do with God or with Jesus. I just wanted my chance with the snake. I used Jesus. You see what kind of a person you're getting yourself in with here. I used Jesus, called on him, but he wasn't what moved me. I prayed while the snake was on my arm and I tried this thing I'd read about Buddhists clearing their minds. I was praying like mad the first time, when the boys unlocked the wooden box and the snakes unraveled onto the altar. I was damn relieved when this old granny shuffled right up and took up the first two, stringing them around her neck like pearls. Another geezer got in there too and pretty soon I was blocked out. I was relieved and ashamed all at once. The band played "Rosewood Casket," I remember. That was a good song and made it easy to clear your mind and still I couldn't get to the snakes because of all the traffic around the altar. I just danced around to the music like a fool the first time.
I got to handling the snakes right after that. I handled the snakes when they weren't on the altar and I played a little electric bass which didn't make the band sound any better. I got to be good with the snakes when there wasn't any Jesus to it. I was careful and professional about it. I looked them in the eye more than once without clearing my mind, without Jesus, without anything but healthy respect and caution. I thought that was my angle and I started taking snakes around to other churches. They were good snakes, not easily riled, not too jumpy, about as fed and friendly as rattlesnakes get, which isn't any too friendly. I got them so they'd pretty much lay on the ground like sticks once the bass started rumbling the floorboards. Of course no one at Dolley Pond or Evarts or Marvin Hill thanked me for this service. But they didn't chastise me neither. I'm sure they thought they had those snakes cowed with their strong faith. I never heard of my snakes killing anybody.
The job was freelance. Sometimes the pay came from the collection plates, sometimes a man just wanted some snakes and I didn't ask any questions. It was just about then that the law began to frown on our kind. Transactions were friendly but nobody said any more than they had to say. One weekend I was taking some snakes up to Shutters Creek and I heard a man from Hollywood was in the area. He was in a swamp town called Reeches, filming some footage for a movie about alligators that get flushed down the sewers as babies and then crawl up into the streets, fully grown alligators running amok through big cities. I thought that was a funny idea for a movie. It took me a day's detour to get down there, so I must have had some ambition. I showed him my snakes. He jumped back when I opened the box. We watched a LSU football game on a real small TV and had some beers at a boy's house I knew. The house was up on pilings, oyster shells around each stilt.
The man from Hollywood showed me some tricks he knew about alligators and we told him some stories about how alligators chased tourists around trailer parks. I got a little drunker and asked him if he ever prayed to Jesus when the alligators got on their hind legs at him. He said, sure he did. He said, Jesus Fucking Christ, get this fucking alligator off my chest. I laughed like I'd never laughed at anything before and that boy who owned the house on stilts just shook his head. I watched him tip a canoe off the porch and glide into Mouchoir de L'Ourse.
"Jesus Fucking Christ, get this fucking alligator off my chest," I said when I was done laughing.
We got along fine. I pounded on this slab of wet wood and he let those snakes crawl around him. He sat there real drunk and still. I asked him if he'd like to drink some strychnine. He asked me all about that and then told me to fuck myself.
I took him to the services in Reeches and once the congregation was assured he wasn't a cop or from a museum, they went on with the show. He got to see a man drink poison from a red tin cup. After the service he was just on and on: "So that's just water, right? Pretty easy stunt really." Well, I knew it wasn't water. I knew it was strychnine in the red cup. I knew it was poison. He went on, "That snake thing's pretty special, but not much to that poison bit."
I couldn't make him understand that. The guy lived, sure. He wasn't dead like my brother or grandfather. He lived but it sure as hell was poison he drank. After the service I took the Hollywood guy up to the altar and showed him the poison bottle. They don't just let anybody drink and I respect that. And they don't let just anyone handle the snakes. You have to be prepared in the faith. I almost said, "Have a drink then. Go ahead. Have yourself a nip off that." But I was raised up in this. Something in me would've been pretty satisfied seeing this Hollywood alligator man, without his mind cleared, Jesus on no part of his mind at all, swallow a glass of strychnine. But I just couldn't and I suppose that's the part that stays with you. It's with you no matter how else you start to feel or how you die feeling. It grows on you like moss, not a fine thing nor an evil thing, just a natural thing.
I showed him the bottle of poison and that was the best I could do. I didn't tempt him with it.
A few months later he got me a job handling snakes in the movies and I moved out to Los Angeles. I told everyone back home I lived in Hollywood because it was easier than saying I lived on a ranch, in the hills and canyons between a suburb called Westlake Village and Malibu. The way the movie business worked, I got my first job handling worms. Snakes, worms...it's all the same to them. The movie was about deadly earthworms that crawled up out of the ground after a power line fell in the woods. The worms came through shower heads and were strained through light sockets. I didn't know anything about worms except how to get them on hooks and spin them out into the river, but my friend said I was the finest snake handler he'd ever seen and there I was, back in Louisiana straining earthworms through a shower head over a naked screaming woman. She screamed and screamed, take after take.
I'd push...I mean, direct the worms through and stare at the woman's tits while she jumped up and down. Eventually Hollywood got word that snakes, not worms, were my area of expertise, and I traveled to South America, to Haiti, to India. I worked on lots of movies and met lots of stars and starlets. They all wanted to be photographed holding deadly snakes. Before I let one of them hold a single snake I asked if they believed in Jesus Christ. They loved my accent and they always laughed and said I was charming. The snakes they held weren't poisonous anymore. It didn't matter if the stars believed in Jesus or not. I just thought maybe they should think about it.
I told one or two of the movie stars about my brother and grandfather. I told one or two about my father who would never handle the serpents, no matter what. He wouldn't do it because he was never ready. No one made him feel small and he never felt small from what I could tell. He was a big and dignified man. He knew what he believed and what he didn't. More importantly, he knew what he wanted to believe. He told me wanted to take up serpents but the time was never right. He worked hard and went to church when he wasn't dog tired. He prayed. He read the bible and thought about it seriously. He thought a lot about the poison and the snake that had taken his father and his son. He worked and struggled and lived decently, but he never touched a snake. He joked he hated the music and he'd sit up at night and listen to Johnny Cash sing "The Rebel Johnny Yuma" and drink a couple of Old Milwaukee tall boys.
I made friends with a few stars and they'd try to get me into Dianetics, or they'd introduce me to Tibetan monks. They loved thinking I was mystical because of my background. Truth was, I only thought about the snakes. I thought about how to get them to do what I wanted. It still wasn't easy. Even with all the tricks of Hollywood I tried to get closer to the poison. I got away from snakes and worked with sharks and moray eels and even did some stunt work because I could take a punch or a fall and get up and take it again. I never once used faith. I planned everything to the last detail. I wanted to look like I was falling through the air. I wanted to look like I was staring down a serpent. I planned the next moment, the bite.
One day in Griffith Park, in the middle of Los Angeles, on the set of a movie, the director wanted a shot of bats flying out of a cave set back into some rocks. The director told us that bats fly out of the caves during an earthquake.
"We don't have time to wait for one," He said. I laughed pretty hard at that and offered to go in the cave and see if I couldn't make the bats fly out for him. I didn't even think about it. I walked into the cave 50 feet or so. I stood there and waited for my vision to adjust. I walked on. I knew they were there, hanging all around me. I could feel their hoary breathing. The sound of their wings reminded me of high school letter jackets rustling together in a hallway. I felt nostalgic and young and free and I jumped up and swatted at the darkness. Intersecting black triangles flashed around me. I shook my head between the beating wings. I lifted my hands into the air and the bats shifted course around them. I felt their fur and their rough wings. They seemed to stick in my hair on my bare arms, just a moment, one after the other. The wind of them whipped my face. I stood still. I was going to stand still until they passed. My mind was empty. I thought of Jesus only in passing. Like every day. It was nothing. And the bites they gave me, I felt the tiny sharp wheels turn quickly into my skin. One was on my arm, I knew. Another on my cheek. Another right beneath my left ear.
I turned to face the open end of the cave and it looked like a dead TV channel, a flurry of black and blue. It made my eyes water. I guess the shot was perfect. The director slapped me on the back in his distracted, off-hand way. The crew hooted and shook their hats in the air like boys from back home. The star came up and tried to give me a high five. My arm was too weak so I pretended not to notice.
At that time I had taken an apartment just up the hillside. I started walking up the nearest path and then up the nearest street. Of course none of these streets were exactly my street. I meandered upward until there was no perspective left. I knew my home was up here somewhere. I wished I was down in the park again so I could see the whole hillside full of houses. I wandered into dead ends. Japanese and Mexican gardeners turned and stared at me. My arms were scratched and bitten. My face felt numb. Finally I just sat down on a curb. Night was falling. I felt thirsty and I could hear the water running onto the shiny lawns. Nearby a hose was spilling water onto the sidewalk and down the street. My fingers were moist so I thought I'd dab a little on my lips.
- Charles Lieurance, Los Angeles 1988