When I was eleven years old, my father announced that we were moving to a small town in Utah. This was the fifth time we had pulled up stakes and moved on, as my father’s career as an airborne paratrooper had bounced us from base to base all over the southern United States. This was the first time that we would live anywhere other than a military base, and to my perception, Utah was no different than Siberia.
This perception was reinforced when we finally arrived. The trip was originally supposed to be five days of nonstop camping and driving, but by the third day, my mother’s eyes were beginning to take on a slightly deranged expression. She was a good sport, and had initially embraced the idea of KOA campgrounds as an outstanding way to turn a cross country road trip with four children into an adventure. But after three nights of sleeping in a tent which could only live up to its claim of sleeping four if they happened to be anorexic midgets who liked to cuddle had soured her disposition a bit. Fortunately, my father spotted the danger before it reached critical mass, and we spent the last few nights in the comparative opulence of a Best Western.
On our final day of the trip, we entered into the broad plains at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. I knew that Logan was tucked up in a small valley in the Rockies, but this offshoot of the famous mountains was daunting to all of us. It also didn’t help that the route my dad decided to take into the valley was a narrow, two-lane road that weaved its way for thirty miles through a rapidly climbing crack in the mountains called Sardine Canyon. For an adult, the sight of the signs warning of elk, rock slides, and avalanches must have been disconcerting. For an 11-year-old boy, this was confirmation that my parents had relocated us to a scene from a Tolkien novel, a prospect that was at the same time thrilling and terrifying.
For a few days, we stayed in a hotel that claimed to be “The Best In Town!” The coin-operated beds and minibar that featured a 10-year-old Snickers bar and a can of RC Cola led me to either doubt their claim, or lie awake in terror at the thought of the hobo-infested murder holes that must have comprised the other flophouses inside Logan’s borders. It may have worked out for the best, however. The shabby quality of our lodging seemed to motivate my parents to find us a new home as quickly as possible.
The house my father fell in love with was parked at the corner of a bizarre intersection. The two main streets of Logan came together, but were joined in chaotic fashion by two others, creating a dizzying convergence of traffic. The fact that any cars made it through without being squashed beneath the wheels of one of the large salt trucks that rumbled past seemed nothing shy of miraculous. The road our house sat on angled sharply upwards, so the homes sat on terraces. Ours was right next to the geometrically improbably intersection.
The house itself was a bit unusual. My father proudly announced that it had been built at around the same time that Lincoln had his little chat at Gettysburg, and the house looked every one of its 100+ years. This was not to say it was in poor condition. The house seemed to have been built by someone who reasoned that brick cemented to stone was the easiest way to put together a building. The result was a solid slab of home, two stories of weathered stone and warped windows.
My mother didn’t stay long. She had appointments all over the small town, hooking up our power and gas. As soon as she left, my father assigned us each to a section of the house. Armed with brooms, rags, and armfuls of cleaning chemicals, we were all dispatched to our destinations. My younger brother Nick and I were tasked with the basement.
The stairs leading down into the basement were steep and warped, flanked on both sides by looming concrete walls that seemed about four inches closer together than they should have been. The basement itself was pure nightmare fodder for my 7-year-old brother, and he came to a standstill as soon as his feet hit the first landing. It was massive, a sprawling expanse of poured concrete flooring and bare walls. Wooden support pylons were the only interruption to the space. There were a few discarded boxes, an old battered sofa that was once a horrible blend of orange and green, but now simply looked like a pastel upholstered rat birthing suite, and a large pile of cardboard and newspaper in the corner. The only illumination was from a bare light bulb hanging from the wire, wire that stretched along the ceiling, affixed with a combination of duct tape and possibly drifter spit, and the harsh white light cast black shadows in the corners.
My brother was terrified. I was delighted. He saw a dank pit of Stygian darkness where he was certain to be inevitably devoured. I saw nothing but potential, a world of ping-pong tables and pinball. I began prowling around the corners, delighted with my various discoveries of discarded mattress springs and a battered Victoria’s Secret catalog. After a few moments, I realized that he still hadn’t moved.
“Nick, come on!” I beckoned to him, but he shook his head in a quick, jerking motion. I felt the usual irritation bubble up, the sense that my younger siblings had been carefully designed, constructed, and introduced into the world to curtail me from adventures I was meant to have. My voice took on all of the authority I could generate in my spindly 11-year-old frame, and I said, “Dad said to clean, so you have to clean. Pick up those newspapers.”
His eyes followed my outstretched finger to the heap of discarded paper and cardboard. I could see him weighing the options before him, but the specter of refusing our father’s instructions quickly smashed down his hesitation, and he began a slow, trudging walk to the pile, looking like a soldier making his way to the trenches. I pulled a large black garbage bag out of my pocket, unfolded it, and inflated it by whipping the opening through the air. It popped open with a loud wumph, and Nick jumped, looking back at me with wild eyes.
I trotted over, and offered him the bag. ”Go on, pick it up.” He took it, turned back, and walked back over to the pile. Staring down, he finally reached out, and gingerly took hold of the corner of a sheet of cardboard. He pulled twice, but it was wedged near the center of the mound of refuse, and wouldn’t move. I started laughing, and he scowled back at me. Getting a tighter grip, he hauled in a sharp jerk, and the cardboard came loose, spilling him to the floor with the sheet on top of him. I began to laugh, and he opened his mouth to yell at me.
We both were cut off. From somewhere inside the pile came a sound neither of us had heard before. It sounded like a steel brush being jerked in spastic strokes across bone, sharp staccato sounds coming in machine gun fashion. I didn’t know what it was, but I wasn’t laughing, and neither was my brother. Something deep inside me began screaming to run, while something else kept my feet nailed to the floor and my body frozen still, and I watched as a few sheets of yellowed paper fell aside to reveal the head.
Its head was flat and broad, dusky yellow and tan scales alternating to form bands with black stripes between its eyes. The eyes sat on either side of the head, and were the same brown as the scales, split by a long vertical pupil that reflected the swinging light bulb. Weaving slowly back and forth, the snake’s eyes slid from me to my brother, and it rose further out of the pile, a black wet fork flicking from its mouth. Behind it, the tip of its tail emerged from the side of the pile, and the tip began to blur as it vibrated. The rattle seemed deafening, and I felt my bladder let go.
The rattlesnake hung motionless for a breath, staring down upon my frozen and prone brother, who held the sheet of brown cardboard tight against his chest. I could hear his breaths coming in sharp gasps, and tears were pooling in his bulging wide eyes. The snake opened its mouth and hissed, and a whimper escaped Nick’s mouth. The snake slithered down the pile, his length sliding from inside mound of garbage it had come to call home. In an instant, it was coiled between Nick’s outstretched legs, staring at his face. It hissed again, and my brother let loose another choked sob.
“What do I do?” His voice trembled, and was thick with tears. He tried to keep quiet, but it seemed as loud as a scream. The rattler didn’t move, simply hung there, fixed on the young boy laying helpless before him.
I didn’t say anything. I spent so much time fantasizing situations just like this, where someone I loved was in danger, and I sprang forth with heretofore undiscovered martial prowess to save the day. But the reality was here, and the truth was, I was nothing more than a skinny child in urine-soaked jeans and a Batman t-shirt, wishing that he could squeeze his eyes shut and make this all go away. Nick sobbed again, and the rattler jerked forward an inch, the horrible sound from its tail rising and falling in random surges. I spoke, keeping my words flat and quiet.
“Don’t move, Nick.” I was shaking, but I reached to my back pocket, and wrapped my hand around the curled up lingerie catalog I had slid back there. “I’m going to throw this over there, try to get it to move.”
“Please…” he whimpered, but I never found out what he was going to say. The rattle sped up intensely, the hiss grew louder, and Nick screamed, a loud piercing sound. The snake moved in a blur, launching forward towards the open black hole of Nick’s howling mouth. Nick’s scream turned into a animalistic shriek. He yanked up his cardboard shield, and the upper edge slammed into the snake’s throat, knocking its trajectory off just enough. The snake’s opened mouth hit Nick’s forehead, but skidded off and flew behind him. The rattler’s body slammed into my brother’s face, and he fell back against the floor, the big snake thrashing around on top of him while Nick screamed, long and loud.
Snapping at the air, the snake flopped off Nick’s body, and was trying to bring itself around to strike at him. Its initial lunge had brought it closer to where I was standing, and without thinking, I stepped forward, and kicked out. My foot caught the rattler about seven inches from its head, and it flew about six feet, slamming to the ground. Impossibly fast, the snake recovered, and slithered towards me, its undulating body rippling over the cement floor. I stumbled back, but my shoulder slammed into a wood pylon, and the impact spun me around and I fell to the floor. I heard Nick scream my name, and without thinking, I thrust out the magazine, still clutched in my sweaty hand, and felt a heavy jolt as the snake’s snapping mouth struck the curled paper. The impact tore the catalog from my hand, and I turned to see the snake rear above me, hissing, when a thunderclap tore through my world and an invisible hook ripped the rattler away.
My ears were howling in protest, but I turned and looked. My father was standing at the base of the steps, towering above us. His green eyes peered over the barrel of the revolver held in his hands, and his voice was iron as he barked, “Roll right, now!”
I didn’t argue, but threw my body to the right as hard as I could. It was enough. I saw the barrel of the gun flash yellow fire twice, deep booms echoing off the concrete walls. The sound mixed with Nick’s screams to hammer my eardrums. I curled into a ball, jammed my hands against my ears, and crushed my eyelids down as hard as I could. When I felt my father’s hands, I jerked back, thinking it was the snake.
“Are you hurt? Did it bite you?” He voice was tight and drawn as he squeezed my arms and legs roughly, but it took a moment for me to find my voice.
“No, Dad, stop!” He kept checking, and I pulled my arm away, suddenly very aware of my wet pants. Heat flooded my face. ”It didn’t bite me.”
He nodded, and stood, pulling me up by my hand. I looked over, and saw the red ruin of the snake. The big rounds from the .357 revolver my father had been putting away in his closet when he heard our screams had torn the snake to two bloody pieces, ragged strips of flesh that didn’t look anything like the massive nightmare that had been snapping at our faces. Nick was clinging to his leg, and he pulled me in close. We were still standing there when my mother found us.