As I dial my mother’s phone number, I skim the first page of my story. On the computer monitor, I mouth the sentences, liking the way they roll one into the next, confident and certain.
When I was 6 years old a rattlesnake bit me.
Ask my mother and she’ll say this didn’t happen.
But for years now she has tried to convince me that when I was younger and we were still living in Bakersfield, California, that I passionately loved the neighbor’s Irish setter. When I visit her in Seattle, she drags out the photo album and points to the half-dozen scalloped-edged, black-and-white pictures of a girl and a dog in a backyard. I don’t trust those images: of a girl that could have been me—streaked with mud, being licked by this dog I do not remember.
The rattler, though, in a cemetery outside of Havre, Montana, materializes as two red marks on the skin above my ankle bone. All these years, proof that a rattlesnake bit me.
Before my mother picks up the phone, I make it through one screen of text. When I hear her voice long distance from Seattle, I work a light tone into the voice in my head before I speak. I tell her I’ve called to get some “facts” about the period we lived in northern Montana.
“Why do you want to know?” she says. From 500 miles away, I hear suspicion curdling her voice. I picture her on the couch: striped acrylic afghan—she made it herself and it looks it—wrapped around her legs, ash tray balanced on the couch arm, a filter cigarette inches from her mouth, and a cup with the world’s weakest coffee clasped in her right hand. She is curled up on the couch, looking smaller than her 5 feet 7 inches, though the mannish cut of her coarse gray hair— she goes to a barber because it is cheap—and the determined line of her jaw speak to a bull-headed strength I know too well.
I tell her it’s for a class assignment. One thousand words about childhood.’ I’m just writing a story, Momma. Nothing earth-shaking.” I scoot around in my chair in the small house I have rented for the school year in Missoula, repositioning myself so I can scan the computer screen better. “No skeletons will be revealed.” I laugh and begin reading from the screen where I had left off before she said, “Hallstrom resident.”
It was 1959. Another Montana recession. The summer between my first and second grades at Devlin Elementary School.
My father had just rented a 15-acre farm a little south of the Milk River. The property rolled away to this low spot beside the new Catholic cemetery and belonged to Bill Kimiele.
“Your father’s old drinking buddy,” my mother breaks in, and without waiting for me to say, “I know,” she offers up more information than I need. “We were paying $50 a month rent. Part of the deal was we had to take care of Mr. Kimiele’s horses.”
“Yes, the horses were called Molly, Polly and Ginger,” I say, proud that I know their names. “I remember riding Ginger once with Jimmy and Lyn.”
“I don’t remember that,” she says. “Maybe you’d better let me hear what else you’ve written.”
“This isn’t supposed to be history,” I remind her before I resume reading from the story.
My parents’ makeshift tenant farm was bordered by the Kimieles’ fields of winter wheat, an east-west dirt road and the cemetery between us and Highway 2.
“Don’t forget Mr. McConnell’s cows and corn,” my mother interrupts. “You remember? He was on the other side. Mr. McConnell’s cows were forever getting out and getting into the cemetery. One time I got a stick and I got about 30 feet up to this one cow. Oh, boy. When I saw how big it was … “
“I thought his name was McCoy,” I say, certain I had shared this name with friends.
“That was a TV show,” my mother says.” ‘The Real McCoys.’ “
When she starts laughing like a female version of Walter Brennan, I feel embarrassed by my desire to keep the white lie of the McCoy name intact in the story. I breathe in and then continue reading.
Somehow they scraped together the money to buy a silver and blue Nashua trailer. Vintage Í955. Bedroom in the middle for my parents and another at the back to be shared by my brother, sister and me. Living room in front, the window looking south across an unpaved county road.
“Your father had to borrow the money from his brother,” my mother says. “Uncle Johnny.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “That’s not integral to my story.”
“He didn’t really want to do it. You know, your dad was in a lot of trouble as a teenager and your uncle could do no wrong.”
“I like Uncle Johnny,” I say.
“That’s nice,” my mother says. “I thought you’d want to know.”
“OK,” I say, hoping that will stop her.
“We paid $2,800 for that trailer,” she says. “I still have the papers.”
That figures, I think, knowing my mother keeps absolutely everything. For the proverbial rainy day, to prove her memory intact. My last trip home I made the mistake of trying to find a box of college textbooks stored in the attic. To get to the books, I first had to move hundreds of clear plastic juice jugs, the kind with orange caps; a box of advertising supplements from the Seattle Times; at least five boxes of half-gallon wine bottles, all green and with their caps screwed on tight; more boxes, these containing clean milk cartons which my mother told me later would eventually be used for freezing fish my stepfather would eventually catch and one trash bag filled with foam packing material shaped like squashed figure-eights.
I never found the textbooks, which probably meant they had gone the way of my childhood dolls: to the Salvation Army. In her poorly lit attic, I saw her weighing my anthropology and history and dolls against the vast security and possibility of plastic and glass, the scales tipping in their favor. She had no use for my books and toys.
My parents set the trailer up on the farm, next to a well, three rundown outbuildings and a rust-colored boxcar with the Great Northern mountain goat insignia on both sides faded to little more than ghosts. Late afternoons, the cover of the well was perfect for watching sheet lightning. In that lightning, I imagined sheep and cows rushing across the horizon, followed by horses. And Indians. Always Indians. Everything galloping toward the West. Everything in such a hurry. The lightning so far to the north we never heard thunder.
“That’s not right,” my mother says. “It’d roll up on us and you kids would go screaming into the trailer.”
“I liked the feeling,” I say. “I can still feel those first drops on my face.”
“They were big and usually full of dirt,” my mother says.
“Well, I don’t remember it that way,” I say, and then ask her why she, a St. Louis city girl, and my father, who’d only done sheet metal and tended bar, decided to become farmers on the highline outside of Havre.
“We were on ‘relief’ at the time,” she says. “You know, welfare? We got commodities, basics. You remember the powdered eggs and peanut butter, don’t you? We’d get flour wrapped in brown paper and the oleo came in clear plastic. You kids used to fight over who was going to squeeze the yellow coloring into the oleo.”
“I hated that margarine,” I say.
“Well, it got us through,” she says. “It was doodly-squat there for awhile, but that was the happiest time of my life.” She pauses.
Before I ask her why, she starts telling me.
“Your father wouldn’t let me take my medicine. He said the epilepsy was all in my head. The odd thing was during that year and a half we lived out there, I never had any seizures. Not one. I think it was just being on that farm.
She pauses. I don’t think that’s the whole story, but ask her what my father was doing at the time.
“Your dad was working for Great Northern as a switchman, but he was on call, they’d use him if they needed him which meant he wasn’t working much. It was a hell of a time.”
To make money, my parents decided to raise chickens in the boxcar and sell the eggs. They sold for 60 cents a dozen which was high.
“They were brown,” my mother says, as if that explains the cost.
They started out with 200 chicks, which came boxed like doughnuts. One night they lost 150, because my mother forgot to turn on the heat lamps. The survivors became her exclusive property. She fed the chickens scratch in the pen they shared with the horses. She shot at hawks with an old .22 to protect them. And she chopped off their heads when we needed something to eat. Chicken-and-dumplings. Fried chicken with “smashed” potatoes as we called them. Chicken noodle soup.
“You make it sound like all we did was eat chicken,” my mother says. “Your father went hunting. We had elk. One time even bear.”
“Yes, but I’m telling this story, Momma. I can still see those chickens running around, blood squirting all over the place.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” she says.
The chickens don’t have a lot to do with the rattlesnake biting me, but they were connected to our living in the middle of nowhere, our closest neighbor miles down the road.
“It was only a mile, but you kids never wanted to walk that far,” my mother says.
I’m thinking if she keeps interrupting, I’ll never finish this story and my phone bill’s going to be outrageous.
“Momma, I’d like to talk about the cemetery, and the snake.”
“Well, I thought you wanted to know.”
“I do, but I only have so much time and the piece is only supposed to be a thousand words.”
“That should be about right.” She hurries on before I can speak to tell about visiting the Simpsons down the road. “One time you got ahead of your brother and sister and me. When we caught up, you’d found a dead skunk and were sticking your fingers into it.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “You’re making that up.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” she says. “I leave that for you.”
“Let me finish this. Besides, I’ve heard all about the Simpsons. The outside of their house was covered with tar paper.”
“It was more of a shack,” she says.
“OK. I know I learned to ride the Simpsons’ bicycle on their gravel road.”
“That wasn’t there,” my mother says. “You’re thinking of the Keller family. Red and Ruby. They were out on the highway and had pigs …”
“Not now, Mother,” I say.
“You didn’t like it when they butchered those pigs. They …”
“Mother, I’ve never seen a pig killed. OK? Can I go on with this?”
“Oh, yes, do,” she says, all too perky. “I don’t think their name was Simpson though.”
Because we didn’t have any close neighbors, my brother, sister and I entertained ourselves. When bored, we’d go to the Catholic cemetery. It was a new one, meaning nobody was buried there yet. Three statues had been erected and we loved to play on them. We had to avoid the “caretakers” working there who would chase us away, especially once they started laying the sod.
My mother can’t help herself. She interrupts. “No, it was still covered with sagebrush. Mr. McConnell’s cows liked to eat it. That’s where they were always … “
“Cemeteries have grass,” I say.
“Well, this one didn’t,” my mother says. “It was too new.”
I control my voice when I continue reading.
The hottest part of the summer settled over us, and we’d gone over to the cemetery again. We were playing on a statue of Christ with children sitting and standing around him. He was obviously telling a story because the children appeared to be in rapt attention staring.
“A parable, darling.” My mother again. “He was giving them a parable.You remember what a parable is?”
“You should come to church with me next time. You’d like the … “
“Sure. I’ll think about it,” I say, knowing I’ll never step foot in St. Thomas’.
There were several other Jesus statues, all of them carved from white marble with red marble bases. I don’t know if I’d decided to go home or what, but I stepped down into the weeds behind the statue and heard this sound. You don’t have to hear that sound more than the first time to know what it is.
“What was it?” my mother says, like she’s talking to a toddler. “A rattlesnake?”
“Just teasing, darling.”
After touching the snake with the toe of my shoe, I jumped straight up and ran. When I reached the ditch separating our property from the cemetery, I stopped to look where the snake had bitten me.
“Oh, hon. You shouldn’t tell people that rattler bit you. They might believe you.”
“Well, it did.”
“You’d be dead.”
“Well, I’m not. Can I continue?”
“By all means. I’m enjoying this.”
I was sure I was going to die and ran home, yelling “Momma, Momma, a snake bit me!” She asked where and I pointed to my bleeding ankle, which I could see swelling. But my mother wanted to know where the snake was. I pointed toward the cemetery. She grabbed the baseball bat she had once tried to throw at a chicken hawk.
“No, I didn’t,” my mother said. “You don’t tell people that! I used the .22″
“But its true. And you never hit a thing.” I hear her taking a drag on her cigarette and decide to skip some parts.
By the time the cemetery caretakers arrived, the snake had crawled out of the weeds and was maneuvering the open ground of clods and stones. We were all running around. It was like a Laurel and Hardy movie on Saturday afternoon. Nobody knew what they were doing or why. Finally, one of the men used a long-handled hoe to chop the snake into three pieces.
“How can you remember that?” my mother says.
“I was standing over one of the pieces, it moved and I jumped.”
“Yes, that’s right,” she says.”I remember that. We all laughed.”
“I don’t remember it being all that funny,” I say.
I showed everybody the two holes from the snakebite. “Look at the blood,” I said, pointing to my ankle. I’ve been bitten. “
“They were just scratches from the sagebrush,” my mother says. “You were always cutting yourself.”
I could have died, but my mother wouldn’t take me to the hospital.
“You were fine.You’re making me sound like I wasn’t a very good mother. Are you listening? Nobody’ll believe that snake bit you.”
“Look, why don’t you write the story yourself.”
“Maybe I should,” she says.
My worst nightmare is that she will and it will get published. “Well, nobody’ll print it,” I say. “No, darling, I wouldn’t even try,” she says. “I’ll only send it to you. Keep going.”
“Well, that’s about all there is.”
“That’s not much of an ending,” she says.
“I’m still working on the last paragraph,” I say.
“Well, we stayed there another year,” she says, “until things weren’t so compatible between Mr. Kimiele and your father. Even $50 was hard to come up with.”
She continues without my prompting. “We must have been a hundred bucks behind. We had to move. B.B.’d had a litter in one of the sheds out back.The kittens were wild and we couldn’t … “
“That’s another story, Momma,” I interrupt, not wanting to remember, but her words force me to think of kittens left behind on so many other occasions. “B.B.” was the last of a trio, a wild black we left on that farm when we moved down the road.
On my computer screen, I scroll quickly to the last paragraph.
“Dear, are you still there?”
“Yes,” I say.”I was just thinking. What happened to the snake?”
“What do you mean?” she says.
“The pieces? Of the snake?”
“I don’t know. We probably just left it there.”
I start keying in a new sentence….
I decided to bury the snake and crawled under the trailer with it. ...
“How did you carry it?” she says.
… in my pockets.
“It was a big snake,” she says.
“Mother, it’s just a story. Have a sense of humor.”
“The dog would have dug it up that same night,” she says. “Look, you were too squeamish to pick up the snake. The magpies got it or we
“Momma, I’ve got to go.”
She says she has a parish meeting to attend. “This has been nice,” she adds. “Next time don’t wait so long to call. I love you.”
“Yes, me, too,” I say, and hang up. I read what I’ve written about the rattlesnake and one thing my mother said comes back. When I asked her about where they got the boxcar, instead of telling me, she said: “I used to go out to the boxcar with B.B. She’d never bother the chickens. I’d sit there with her in my lap and look out the window. I’d talk to the cat and cry I couldn’t talk to anybody else. You know how your father was.”
I never imagined her doing that. Back then, I never knew how alone she felt. Back then, I couldn’t have understood this woman forced to take comfort in one small black cat. Back then, I couldn’t have taken her in my arms and explained away her tears.
I vow never again to go over a story with my mother, knowing all along that I will mail this one to her, knowing she will write immediately, inform me it wasn’t an Irish setter in the backyard, but a chow, and that we never lived in Bakersfield, it was Santa Monica.
“I know,” I’ll have to say. “I changed a few things.”
“You know what kind of people live in Bakersfield,” she’ll say.
“No, I don’t,” I’ll say, “but I can imagine.”