Scootie’s ring of friends – even the ones who weren’t in on the secret – seemed oddly eager to offer their approval. Cindy Parker’s came while tracking the comet Seridian, newest accessory on Orion’s Belt, poking above the midnight horizon to leave a sugary smudge.
“I don’t want to say this wrong,” she began (immediately tripping Scootie’s wires). “I’ve always enjoyed your um, dry sense of humor, but you seem looser these days, more willing to shoot off your mouth.”
Scootie wasn’t sure how to respond. “Umm... Thank you?”
“Forgive me if I’m stretching my privileges, Scootie, but are you having sex?”
Scootie chuckled, picking up his binoculars and searching for their visitor. “You married people are dangerous. You’re so bound up with the biological process that you attribute all changes in personality to the sudden passage of sperm.”
“See?” said Cindy. “Would you have said something like that six months ago?”
“And yes, married people are intrigued by sex, but I think it’s more a matter of nostalgia. There’s nothing that quite matches the chemical boil of a courtship. So, are you going to answer my question?”
Scootie set down the binoculars and attempted a colorful evasion. “My father once told me that happiness is a chameleon – it changes color with every unpaid bill or game-winning touchdown. Whereas joy is a slowly evolving internal mechanism.”
“I haven’t been having sex. But my internal mechanism is lubed and ready for action.”
“Spare me the graphic imagery,” said Cindy. She laughed and threw a handful of grass into the wind.
“So why aren’t you coming here anymore?”
Geoffrey spoke through a cloud from a Brazilian Lino, and seemed genuinely disappointed. Scootie, trying to relight an enormous H. Upmann Churchill (and suspecting he lacked the lung power to draw a flame from such a long distance), realized he had not thought out his lies ahead of time. Not even Geoffrey could know about Villa Califa. He decided to blame it on the woman.
“Juliana got anxious, that’s all. She thought we were getting into a pattern. It’s a small town.”
Geoffrey frowned. “So you’re meeting somewhere out of town?”
“And you can’t tell me where?”
“Exactly.” Thinking quickly, he added, “Although I can tell you it’s a piece of beach property owned by Juliana’s mother.”
“But how did you...?”
“Her mother knows. Juliana claims it was her idea.”
“The beach house?”
Geoffrey let out a big pirate’s laugh and laid out the word L-U-S-H over a double word square.
“The adjective?” asked Scootie. “Or the noun?”
“Well you know I am really not a believer in superstition, or fate, or any of that crap – well, you know I read my astrology every week, but who doesn’t? But this week I’ve had this weird-ass psychic geography thing going on, and it’s really thrown me for a loop. Last weekend, I...”
Scootie had never noticed just how much Audrey LaBrea talked. Maybe it was because they were no longer having sex. Maybe it was because of Juliana, who was capable of long stretches of silence.
“...fell in love with a sculptor, and is moving into his apartment in – where else? Indianapolis! So two days later, I’m talking to Steve, the guy who runs the Henry Miller Museum down the road? He tells me his mom in Florida is...”
Fortunately, Audrey’s rambling was accompanied by an intriguing side show. She slid a screen from the top of a large terrarium and quickly covered the opening with a still-life painting. Then she slit the top of a cardboard box and extracted a white rat, dangling it by its long, rope-like tail. With a practiced movement, she slipped back the still-life and swung the rat into the opening, landing it in the middle of a water dish. The rat scrambled to the side, climbed out and sat ruffling its damp fur, unaware of its impending execution. Audrey closed the screen, locked it with a pin and took away the still-life.
“So this is how it works,” she began. “Ol Shnakie here, he ain’t a rocket scientist but he has learned the basic patterns of feeding-time. He picks up a rodent smell, a vase of flowers appears in the sky, the screen slides open and – hey hey! – it’s dinner time. Poor thing. I’ve seen him searching the screen on off-days, as if he’s expecting to find that magic spot in the sky and – Bingo! – it’s rainin’ rodents! But that scent sets him into hunting mode. Notice how sharply he’s moving, how tensed-up he is.”
Audrey moved back to sit with Scootie. The python struck the glass, mouth wide open like a pair of hands, slots of tough pink flesh with tiny rows of teeth.
“Good demonstration, shnakie! See, once he’s got the scent he’s on a visual trigger, and he strikes at anything that moves. He saw me moving over here and mistook me for some kind of prey. That’s why I’m so careful, with the painting and everything. Pythons are quite friendly – they love to cuddle up to humans for the body heat – but once they pick up that rat scent they’re just as apt to clamp onto an arm. You hear the occasional story about someone getting injured, but those people are friggin’ idiots.
“Right now I’ve diverted his attention, so that rat could go five, ten minutes without being noticed, but I’m laying odds he’ll go for a little suicide stroll. Whoop! There he goes.”
The rat wandered across the terrarium and sniffed at the snake’s midsection, a series of jagged chocolate islands against a backdrop of dirty yellow. The snake turned, flicking its tongue.
“The tongue is a snake’s organ of scent, but he’ll take his real cue from any small motion, and then...”
The rat froze in place, back on its haunches, nose twitching excitedly. The snake came close, poking at its white fur. The rat flinched backward, and that was all it took. The snake bolted with surprising force, clamping its jaws across the rat’s abdomen and rolling itself forward, enclosing the rodent in a double coil of muscle. The rat let out a long, rasping squeal, but soon cold make no sound, frozen by the snake’s grip.
“His teeth are actuall pretty small – he snapped at me once, and it wasn’t much more than a pin prick – but they’re angled toward the back of his throat. When he gets a grip like this, there’s no getting out.”
Against such sudden violence, Audrey’s voice was strangely calm, but he supposed she was used to this. The rat’s face appeared through a frame of snakeskin, beady red eyes bulging, small bucktooth mouth straining for breath. Through another opening the wiry tail flickered wildly, then stopped.
“It seems like he’s crushing the poor thing,” said Audrey. “But the real object is to interfere with its life functions, specifically to stop the heart and cut off the flow of oxygen. Usually there’s no blood, and they swallow and process the entire animal, so there’s no mess. They lay poops as big as a dog’s, but only once every few weeks. Of course, this one is shy – he likes to hold it in until I let him crawl around the apartment, and then leaves it under the bed. So how’s Juliana?”
The proximity of Juliana and snakeshit didn’t quite register. Scootie was still rapt on prey and predator.
“Scootie. Hey! He won’t start swallowing for another ten minutes. So how’s your ladylove?”
Scootie shook his head. “Oh, um, she’s fine. I think we’re sort of settling into this... thing.”
“That’s what concerns me. You don’t even know what to call it. You know me, screwin’ around is fine, but you gotta mark off the boundaries in bold yellow tape. I’m afraid you’re in love with this chick, and she’s just using you for a weekly lube job.”
Scootie was taken aback. “But you and I...”
“I know, you and I. But we’ve been operating on well-marked terrain. Have you and Juliana talked about expectations?”
“No. It’s been enough just dealing with, you know, setting it all up – keeping it a secret, making sure we have places to meet. And, quite frankly, enjoying it.”
“I know,” said Audrey. “I am the recipient of your pigeons.” Audrey set her palms on her denimed knees and studied her nails. “Look,” she said, meeting Scootie’s gaze. “I don’t want to be the preacher girl, and I’m the last one who wants to turn the hose on your sexcapades. Lord knows, reading about you having great sex is almost as good as having great sex with you.”
“I’m glad,” said Scootie.
“But this ol’ girl did a lot of growing up in Sin City, and she met a lot of smiley rich people who cruised through town throwing tens and twenties out their windows and making friends and lovers very democratically. But rule number one: the next morning, after they’re done cleaning out the ashtrays, flushing the used condoms and sending the sheets to the hotel laundry, their rich people, they return to their own. Always.”
Scootie was growing increasingly curious about Audrey’s intimate knowledge of the aristocracy, but before he could say anything she looked across the room and smiled. She went to the terrarium and spread her fingers across the glass. “Good snake, Scootie!”
Audrey grinned. “Well, let’s face it, honey. It fits him better than it does you.”
Scootie the snake had unlatched his jaw into two sliding plates, and was rippling his body over the rat like a distended garden hose, starting at the head, working his way toward the tail. Scootie the man watched him and thought, All answers answer all questions.
Photo: the author with Simic