When I came to I was squatting and clutching my balls like they were a dangerous little animal that might escape. I was in a burned field under a swirling purple sky, about thirty feet away I could see what appeared to be my pants, methodically folded and waiting for me to come to my senses. I knew at some point I had been in Boise, where I left the circus for good.
I eased my grip and the whole universe started to throb in pain. I grabbed my nuts again and the pain eased. At least that explained that.
Something was wrong with my mouth. My jaw clicked when I tried to move it, and I had the definite tight feeling of dried blood on my neck and chin. I swallowed and my Adam’s apple bobbed in a fucked-up, akimbo way. When I made the move to stand, I toppled over onto the scorched earth. The whole lower half of my body was asleep. I lay on the ground looking up at the unreal sky, the UV frying me like a breakfast sausage.
I knew Timbo and Raol had been involved somehow, and not in a good way. When I thought of them my stomach flipped and my squint into the glare became more pronounced, like I was expecting someone to rain down some serious shit from above. And Shane. That insurance-scamming prick. If I had a beer or even a can of iced tea, I could sort this whole thing out. I closed my eyes and when I opened them the sun had sagged in the sky. I could feel a wicked sunburn on the head of my dick—it was screaming obscenities at me in a tiny rage-filled voice. I saw specks moving across the sun. Shading my eyes, I could see they were buzzards, and I dimly realized that dying in the middle of some godforsaken desert was not necessarily just a cliché.
It seemed important to get to my pants, at least as a realistic first goal. I rolled to my side, onto my knees and up to standing. When I got up there I could see more of the world and was bolstered: I was a human being who walked upright, had an opposable thumb, had certain unalienable rights. I had at least three broken toes.
When I got to my pants they seemed to be a ticket back to the rational world. If I could put them on correctly, I would be indistinguishable from other citizens, could even walk among them. They went on smoothly; even the button fly was a breeze.
A semi came hurtling through the middle of the landscape, heat shimmering off its sides. I was near the highway.
the highway. I had a flicker of memory. Just down the highway was Pendleton. I knew that in Pendleton there was an Indian rodeo cowboy named Tank Deerflower who owed me two hundred bucks. Other than that, there was just blank blackness; my throat, my exit from the circus, my nakedness—nothing brought forth even a dim ray of memory.
I would begin my new amnesiac life by collecting on my debt. The only reason I had any faith Deerflower might pay up was that he was not only a winning rider, he also had a thriving dope business along the Boise–Portland corridor. The only time I had ever dealt with him, he sat in his boxer shorts, treating various rodeo-riding ailments, his feet soaking, arm in a sling, a Glock nine resting on his right thigh. I was buying a quarter pound of his delightful skunkweed, which he described as “monster skull-fuck poop.” He treated me like a real client, even though I was small potatoes compared to the amount of boom he moved on a regular basis. But he had shorted me for two hundred bucks’ worth. He was known to be a straight dealer, so I had called him, and he had told me straight up that the next time I was in Pendleton, he would square our deal.
He did drift toward the paranoid, though. I started to get chummy and asked where he got such quality stuff in this wasteland.
“These guys are freaky Nam-vet hippie psycho motherfuckers, and just by asking that question, you have endangered both of our lives and the lives of our families.” For emphasis, he made a bug-eyed motion, silently demanding that I say nothing more.
I staggered toward the highway and was delighted to find my backpack lying there like an overturned bug, needing me. I dove on the pack, surprising myself with my agility, looking for anything drinkable. There was nothing, just my stinking clothes smelling of elephant shit and sweat, my battered harmonica—an obvious affectation that I flung off into the scrub—and an empty Ziploc with some peyote crumbs. It appeared I had even eaten the little clumps of arsenic on the buttons. I was tripping out of my head.
When I got to the highway, the only vehicle in recent memory was the truck that had boomed through earlier. The ground moved beneath me in disturbing undulations, forcing me to stop and hunker every few yards. I set my pack down and prepared to wait out the day, then the night, and hope for some morning traffic, but an old Malibu snuck right up on me, and before I even stuck my thumb out, it had yanked to a stop a few feet in front of me. I scanned the back for any crazy bumper stickers and humped my pack up to the passenger side. I was conscious of putting on a smile that said Grad Student or something safe, but with whatever had happened to my face, with the peyote skating through my being, I just felt cockeyed and gravidly insane.
The window was opened a crack and a voice boomed out. “Where you headed? Oh, Christ almighty, look at you.”
“Vengunntnnnn . . .”
I hadn’t spoken in a while, and realized my jaw was definitely dislocated or something.
“Phendledhton . . .” Followed again by the crazy smile.
“Oh, Pendleton. I’m goin’ all the way to Portland, get in.”
Something in his voice held a desperation that I recognized and feared. When I hesitated, he rolled down the window all the way and said, “It’s okay, I’m a police officer. Off duty.” He showed me his badge and police ID. I numbly climbed in the Malibu, hoping I didn’t reek of drugs and crime. If I could maintain, I’d have a police escort all the way to Pendleton. Maybe he’d even help me take my cash off Deerflower, take me to Portland, and I could go Greyhound and ride in style up to Seattle and figure this whole mess out.
I glanced at him. He was looking me over, probably running my image against the mug shots pasted up in his office. As far as I knew I wasn’t wanted for anything, my problem was the opposite. I had participated in a number of crimes that fill the days of small-town cops but don’t really interest them. With Raol and Timbo, we mostly ripped off motorcycles and motorcycle gear from shops. I called it “copping free” because no one got hurt and the big corporate insurance companies paid the tab. The lack of security in most of the places we took off was almost disappointing. Timbo’s dad had been a celebrity track biker, and Timbo had spent his early childhood scoping these places out before his dad got in trouble with the IRS and disappeared into South America. Other times we’d buzz around with a glass cutter and grab stuff out of display windows. Copping free. But finally it got so that I couldn’t walk down the street without seeing some poor dweeb whose store I had robbed, and the whole thing felt like it was beginning to close in on me.
One day, looking through the help-wanted section in the paper, which I would do from time to time to make myself feel better about copping free, I came across an ad for the circus. In just a few words, it evoked a life on the road, free from crime, college, family, all the moorings that held me in my steady fog of chronic ennui.
So I joined that shithole circus. The circus. A small tide of nausea washed over me, but nothing specific came up.
The Cop was scoping me. I scoured my fried brain for something he could nail me on. The peyote thing might have interested him, but it appeared I had eaten all of it, so I was clean for the moment.
The Cop was either looking at me with pity, or I smelled bad and he was clenching his lower lip to keep from gagging. “What the hell happened to you? Looks like someone had a go at slitting your throat.”
I got the feeling he really didn’t care, but it was a fair thing to ask an injured hitchhiker.
“Got in a scrap with some buddies.” I decided to stick to the whole Grad Student thing. Try to make it sound devil-may-care. My voice was warming up, I could feel the dried blood cracking over my chin, allowing more freedom of movement.
“Buddies, Jesus. I’m Dale. Dale Kuntz.” I could tell he had been kidded about the name, because he pronounced it extra hard, like Racoons. His face pulsed in and out from the very center, making his nose go from small to huge, small to huge.
“Sure you’re okay?”
“I think I got food poisoning . . .”
“Was that before or after your scrap with your buddies? It’s cool, dude, I’m off duty.”
Somehow when Dale said “dude,” it came up with huge quotation marks around it. I watched them bounce off the low, moldy interior of the Malibu. I laughed and opened the window to let them escape. Now they were free. It was the first and only bit of enjoyment I could remember on this hideous drug trip.
“Manley’s Café, y’know, in Boise? I think it was the biscuits and gravy.” I hadn’t been to Manley’s Café since I went with my father one morning right after we moved to Boise.
“If you’re gonna get sick, let me know so you don’t foul up the ’Bu, awright, dude?”
Again, the quotation marks were plump and frisky. This time I let them bounce around the car for a while, until they started to oppress me.
“Stop it! Fuckers!” I took a swat at one, causing, I think, real concern on Dale’s part.
“Please don’t say that.”
“You gotta maintain or get outta my ride, dude . . .”
I realized he must have been toying with me, because the quotation marks were everywhere, small demonic bats diving at my head, and Dale was King Demon, Pitchfork Holder, administering my punishment for eternity.
“Aw, fuck . . . FUCK! Demons!”
“Okay, just lean your head back and close your eyes. And breathe regular.” He reached down and opened a cooler by his feet, a mini-Playmate, and pulled out a beer. The sound of the cap sitzing off was like the exhalation of God. Dale handed me the beer and I poured it down my throat. It flowed in so quickly that I felt like a man shot full of holes, impossible to plug.
“It’s totally chill, I’m not really a cop. But that badge gets me more pussy than Frank Sinatra.”
“Yeah, but I bet the motherfucker’s still gettin’ pussy.”
Dale cracked two more beers, and we rode and drank in silence for a while.
“Goin’ to the rodeo?”
“I guess so . . . yeah . . . rodeo . . .”
I bobbed along nicely, floating on the momentary elation of two beers and a brief leveling of peyote activity. I had to fill in the huge blank space currently occupied by the peyote. Was this an actual blackout? It seemed like I should at least remember someone trying to slash my throat. I tried to drift and let the blackness turn to gray, but got only the shadiest of images: a fast-moving car, a furious elephant rearing and stomping, a Zippo lighter.
I had worked myself into an alpha state when Dale floored the Malibu, and I woke up to an unhealthy grind coming from the bowels of the car. I opened my eyes in time to see Dale coaxing a clip into a .45, its butt crudely duct-taped together.
“Check this shit out.”
He was speeding to catch a VW bus, pale yellow and plastered with bumper stickers that showed an appalling optimism.
“Whoa . . . Dale, what’s that about?”
“Little college hippie fuckers always have something to share.”
I felt the hot puke at the back of my throat before I had time to react. The pathetic gray liquid splashed off the cracked dash and down on the worn floormats.
“Ahhh! Ah, Christ, the Malibu! Dude!”
I had never eaten peyote without yakking, and I felt relieved that I was now exhibiting regular symptoms. Also, the barf seemed to have purged my flying-quotation-mark syndrome along with it, Dale’s last “dude” landing in a quiet heap in his lap.
We were right up on the VW bus, and Dale hit a jury-rigged button on his horn that made a siren-squawk noise. The driver of the bus pulled over to
the side of the highway without applying the question authority demanded by one of his bumper stickers.
Dale pulled over in front of them and wiggled the gun vaguely at me. I raised my hands limply.
“Stay here an’ call in their plates,” he said, grinning crazily.
I realized he was playing cop; he was just as whacked as I was, but far more dangerous. He took out his police ID and strode from the car, holding the badge in its cheap wallet, the gun drawn indistinctly, doing his best T. J. Hooker.
“Okay, people, life is short, so let’s cooperate, and don’t even think about messing with the Law.”
There were three girls and two guys in the bus that I could see, and they looked uniformly embarrassed by Dale’s opening line. They were hippies with money, that was pretty clear from their freshly shampooed Deadhead look.
Dale was lustily checking out one of the girls, short and pug-nosed, cute, with an impossibly big rack. He leaned over and said something to her; I couldn’t hear him, didn’t need to. She smiled uncertainly, as if the hidden cameras might emerge at any second. One of the guys, not the driver but a sleepy and stoned-looking passenger, puffed out his chest in a halfhearted proprietary gesture.
“Hey, you gonna give us a ticket or what?” the guy asked, just a little bit edgy, then he grinned reflexively, looked paranoid, wiped his sleeve across his nose.
Dale responded by pushing past to reach in the van and remove a blue plastic bong. He hooted and held up the bong for me to see, like an Indian scalp or a just-caught trout.
“Whooo! Lookee lookee!” Dale rooted for another few seconds and fished out a decent-sized bag of weed. “Looks like a minimum of two years inside, kiddees!”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Serpent Girl by Matthew Carnahan. Copyright © 2005 by Matthew Carnahan. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.