Cynthia Drew's short stories have been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies. She teaches writing at University of North Carolina's...read more Reuter Center and is a practicing private investigator.
WILLARD WADE “DOUBLE DUB” FENDER sought a hard-working, undereducated, overdeveloped wife with standards. He’d begun to think she did not exist until he heard about the older divorcees who hung around Shoney’s breakfast bar and, in fact, that was where he met Loretta.
Older by a scant fourteen years her crinkled lips wrapped inward around short teeth and her hair, unevenly held back with a length of muslin or string, curled in a perennially tight perm. She required reading glasses for her blinky, strabismic eyes, but rarely wore them in public as the wearing of glasses was a sin against her church. Dub had thought himself religious but Loretta was the genuine article – an irrefutable, wholehearted devotee of the Church of God With Signs Following – she was a snake handler.
Not that he minded, mind you. Snake handling aside, Dub saw in Loretta exactly what he needed in his life – a big-breasted, tolerant woman willing to do the cleaning, cooking, canning and baking; laundering, pressing and sewing of clothes; feeding of animals and mucking of pens and stalls, and keen to plant, harvest and cultivate the garden; wash the pickup, the doublewide and the tractor, entertain his family at holidays and so forth. All she asked in return was that Dub attend Bible Study three nights a week over in Bald Hill and church, which lasted most of Sunday with a midday break for dinner.
The thing of it was, was that they married in summer – snake handling time at church. Admittedly only the anointed handled snakes—those who had enough faith in God Almighty to trust that they wouldn’t get bitten—but the whole idea went down tough with Dub. He could hardly stand to look at snakes, much less plunge his hand in a basket, grab up one or two and say, “Lookee here, I got the faith.”He’d sooner stick his finger in a live electrical socket – uninitiated parishioners sometimes did that instead. He figured that had to be at least good for you since he’d heard of people in the state hospital who got shock treatments to bring them to their senses. It seemed to Dub that if you got a little jolt every once in a while to blow out the carbon you could think clearer.
As Clearwater Settlement Cemetery’s row boss Dub groomed the grounds and dug graves. The digging couldn’t be done with anything other than a hand shovel, owing to the proximity of the graves – only fourteen inches apart – and he clipped the grass between the mounds by hand, with electric hedge clippers. The entire cemetery. By hand. Yes, it took time but owing to the generally low mortality rate in Clearwater, Dub’s time was as expansive as his sprawling waistline.
When Dub wasn’t digging a grave or hand-trimming the cemetery lawn and Loretta was not engaged in the multiple parts of her domestic life they watched religious programming on TV. They were most fond of the Saturday evening lineup: Gaither Homecoming Hour followed by Gospel Music Southern Style, and early Sunday they turned on the ultra-liberal Trinity Baptist Hour to remind themselves how easily one could go over the edge.
Dub watched more television than Loretta, owing to her manifold chores around the place and he liked to watch inspirational movies such as “Old Yeller” and “The Painted Desert” – except for those parts that dealt with snakes. Today Discovery Channel had several shows about snakes and Dub could almost feel those cold scales writhing across his palms. When he switched to the Shopping Channel they were selling snakeskin purses so he changed to an Animal Planet broadcast about iguanas and lizards in Mexico. Then he shut the television off and went to find Loretta, trying to get the whole idea of reptiles out of his head.
Loretta sat at the kitchen table reading mail. He slumped into the chair opposite and looked across the table at her. “Mmm, mmm,” she said, “the church wants us over in Flat Creek for two weeks, to help with the healing.”
“Why, on earth?”
“Well, it seems like they got more folks over there need healing than people who can lay on of hands.”
“Well, I ain’t anointed, I can’t help ’em.”
“You can do other things then. ’Sides, you need to drive me.”
“Your mother get called?Maybe you could ride with her.”
“I don’t know if Mama got called or not, but you need to see about getting yourself anointed, anyway. This would go a goodly distance toward your show of belief and devotion to the Almighty.”
Dub picked at dirt under his fingernails. Being anointed meant handling snakes. Better he should stick all ten fingers in electrical sockets at the same time. Sometimes you could get away with drinking strychnine to demonstrate your faith in the Almighty but that seemed to him like a one-way ticket to Good Samaritan Hospital with a follow-up trip to the morgue. He wondered what it felt like to be so keen to put your faith through its paces.
“How about if I just take you over and wait, then bring you back?”
“Dub, it’s time you worked up to feeling the power of God. Handled the serpents.”
“I can’t Loretta, I just plain can’t.”
She looked across the table at him and put the letter down. “I can’t help you over your fear of the serpents, only the Lord can do that. Every time you shy away from the snakes the Lord sees you don’t have faith. Have you prayed hard to have Him help you?”
“Oh, of course. I pray every time I come across one in the cemetery, a-slitherin’ across my path. I pray the Lord will help me stop the hedge clippers before I hit the critter. Makes a real mess if the clippers hit ‘em.”
“Dub!You‘re the most Godless man, I swear!”
She rose and began supper. When Loretta knew she was not going out of the house she wore her glasses and did not dress as directed by her church. Today, for instance, she’d pinned her curly mop in a wad on her head and wore a George Strait t-shirt and cutoffs – an outfit better suited to today’s hot weather than the heavy frock her church mandated. She did great justice to a George Strait t-shirt.
“Believe me, honey,” Dub said, “I’d like to be as godly as you are, but truth be told, them snakes scare the livin’ daylights out of me. I can’t look at one without I have to go to the bathroom. You don’t know how I dread seeing baskets full of snakes rocking back and forth, hearing ‘em rustle around and then – oh Glory – let’s take us up a handful!Hold them snakes up to the sky for all to see, just a-wrigglin’ around – maybe three or four in a great big fistful of faith!They won’t bite – the Lord will see to that. Maybe. No, I think I’ll stick to jammin’ my finger in an electrical socket every so often just to keep my hand in, so to speak. It won’t get me anointed, but it’ll keep me alive a good deal longer than nuzzling up to a cottonmouth. I’ll see you get over to Flat Creek, Loretta, but right now I’m gonna go watch PTL for a little, maybe snooze a while. Try to keep it quiet in here, huh?”
Late August went hotter still. The sick and feeble flocked to the Flat Creek Church of God With Signs Following, the largest of the Pentecostal snake handling churches in four states, their ministry winding along toward the big Labor Day revival. Each weekday morning Dub and Loretta set out before eight in their old black pickup with no bumpers, its inspection sticker outdated by several years. They arrived at the church in Flat Creek at about nine-thirty and left just before dark for the drive back to Clearwater. Labor Day they arrived at the revival even earlier. Loretta, dressed in a plain frock, her hair loosened to below her waist and without her glasses, held tight to Dub’s arm so she wouldn’t fall. Dub wore his plaid shirt and coveralls.
It was well past supper time when they loaded their dishes from the covered dish dinner in a box behind the seat, laid the lawn chairs in the bed of the pickup and got on the road home. The covered dish dinner had been held about two that afternoon and it was past seven now. What with the hour-plus drive back to Clearwater, supper was a ways off.
As Dub squeezed his stomach under the steering wheel he wished for something to nibble on while he drove. He rolled down his window, took off his shoes for the drive and tried to remember the location of the nearest Mickey D’s. A little pre-supper supper would not be out of order.
Riding down the highway, Loretta talked about the revival and how it had truly revived her soul. She went on and on about how wonderful the day had been while Dub thought about how he wished he could feel more like she did – all pure and saved – but he couldn’t. Far from being revived today he felt just plain whupped. The heat and all those snakes had done him in. Besides which he felt a little dyspeptic from overdoing earlier on Joyce McGee’s scalloped potatoes.
He thought about finding another religion so Loretta could give up Church of God With Signs Following. It was nerve-racking and time-consuming—the ministry and their revivals—and in the summer!What were these people thinking?And could they please throw more than just a puny covered dish dinner or get in some KFC to flesh it out?
Maybe if the two of them started going to the Common Ground Baptist up the hill from the house it would be all right, he thought. The Baptists weren’t such a bad lot, just a little slack with their beliefs. Loretta could dress however she pleased and get that mess of hair cut and wear her glasses. All of that and no snakes. It had some real upside.
Dub spotted a sign announcing a McDonalds close at hand and when he turned to ask Loretta whether she was hungry was the first he felt the snake on his accelerator foot. He went cold and couldn’t think right. His head acted up like he’d left his finger in an electrical socket too long – he heard a buzzing between his ears. Then he felt another one going down the back of his coveralls from the top, the two snakes headed for touchy ground halfway as if wanting to say a neighborly, “Hidee.”As he pulled the truck to the side of the road,the first snake moved on up to his privates and Dub lost control of everything: his sanity, his bowels and the wheel.
A sheer drop to the right was rimmed by a guard rail most all the way across, but the bumperless truck sheared off the blunt end of the metal rail, hurtled down the steep hill on its right two wheels, paused to lean on a tree then rolled twice down the ravine, before coming to rest lodged sideways in the brush, the passenger door open to the downhill side. Loretta was missing. If she was out there she would have some tough going without her glasses and it getting dark and all. Dub was able to tell he was hurt – he couldn’t move his right leg and his left arm was bleeding. This was getting critical, not to mention where in Sam Hill the snakes were and what damage might have been done to the Fender-mobile.
“Loretta!” he called. “You out there?We got snakes in this truck!I need some help here. I can’t move my leg and my arm’s cut bad, Loretta. C’mon honey!Follow my voice – you can do it. These snakes are about to eat me alive!You got the power of God in you today – come get these snakes off ol’ Dub, sweetie!”
Where was she?He needed her and she’d gone off and deserted him. Or maybe she was out there dying – laying in the bushes, needing her Dub, her life leaking slowly away.
There is no more powerful argument for the existence of a higher being than rescue, and Dub began to pray to the Lord God Almighty to have somebody come get him out of this fix. He knew, he just knew, that someday next winter, when all the leaves had fallen from the trees and the truck could be seen, all they would find would be his skeleton in the wreckage on the side of the steep hill. He figured the snakes and bobcats would have chewed him to little bits by then, spitting out scraps of denim and plaid shirt material.
He turned to look at his arm and instead saw yet another snake come over the edge of the window sill, drop down into the cab, slide out the open passenger door and slither on down the hill. It was all Dub needed to see. His eyes rolled back in his head and he began to babble, “Rabbalalala!Iskon yedda makka nu. Allubrit marva jirveq!”
He still jabbered four hours later when he came to at Good Sam, his leg in a cast, his arm trussed with fourteen stitches. Loretta, her own left arm rigged into a cast at right angles to her body, looked down at him, wide-eyed. Not only had the paramedics brought Dub up the hill this evening with serpents in each hand, but still he spoke in tongues. An absolute sign he had the faith.
“How many times I get bit?” he finally mumbled.
“None, honey. The serpents done shied away from biting you.”
He grimaced. Was this serpent notion of hers never going away?“Loretta, I ain’t feelin’ too good just now. What’s all that mean?”
“When they brought you up the hill you was holdin’ a snake in each hand – like to strangle ’em – and you was speaking in tongues. The revival brought you to the Lord, Dub. When you come up that hill you had the power. The preacher and I witnessed – you’re anointed!”
Dub had trouble grasping what she said. He remembered snakes sliding up his pant leg and snakes crawling down his back and the truck going over the edge, but after that – oh wait. He recalled the two snakes coming out his coveralls at the bib, where he got a choke-hold on one in each hand, close to their heads, and he held on for dear life, which is what it is. And after that he remembered nothing until here he was, landed up in the hospital. But no snake bites. For that he had to thank the good Lord. And he would, soon as he was up and around. He would stick his finger in an electrical socket straight off and keep it there for a mighty long time.
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