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Snake Girl at Scab

By Caleb Ross.

Lacy tells me to stop staring at the old man across the street. She tugs my sleeve and motions toward the waiter standing at our table. This is Scarab, our favorite Indian sidewalk café, my wife’s and mine. We come here to cool down after arguments, and have agreed to keep this place sacred, to not ruin it with painful bickering and dinnertime condescension. I’ve named this place Scab, which feels more appropriate. “No menu for me, Francesco,” I say. The waiter doesn’t wear a name badge. We come here a lot.

We spent the day picking out lampshades. Not lamps. Lampshades. She had opinions informed by daytime home remodeling shows, and I apparently had an inconvenient lack of opinion. That landed us at Scab during Vineville’s monthly art festival. We’ve come here before, sans the Band-Aid motivation, to take in the art. That’s how we discovered Scab. We even held hands a few times. But as the home arguments intensified and the nights out decayed into sloppy patching sessions, we weren’t left with much time to take in the beauty around us.

The old man, he has two wedding rings. One on his finger, the other, a diamond-topped elegant thing hanging around his neck. He paces by the booths, stopping every few steps to lean close into a painting. He inhales the color, lives inside the brush strokes. His favorites seem to be simple scenes with husbands, wives, and secrets. Every few booths an artist offers the old man a painting for a discount. The old man shakes his head, and with it the ring hanging from his neck.

Lacy tugs my sleeve. “I said, ‘you aren’t hungry?'”

“Sorry, hon.” I look up to Francesco. “Just a coffee for me.”

“No beer tonight, sir?” he asks. I wave him away.

“You’re a million miles away tonight,” Lacy says. Just an observation. Not an invitation to vent.

“Just thinking about lampshades,” I lie.

“You know the rules, Eric.”

The old man accepts a beer and a whispered joke from a skinny artist. The old man laughs. Maybe that space where his wife used to be isn’t empty, but breathing room instead. “I’ve been thinking,” I say to Lacy.

“They haven’t even offered any naan,” she says, loud enough for Francesco to hear. I smile an apology to our wartime friend.

“When was the last time we looked at art together? When was the last time we shared something strange or shared some surprise?” I ask.

“What’s with you?” she asks, craning her neck for visions of incoming Indian bread.

The old man shakes off a staccato chuckle, takes a sip of his beer, and turns from the booth. The sun has dropped, queuing streetlamps and shallow track lighting to illuminate the night. Beige pantsuits have been exchanged for knee length sundresses and bunned hair has escaped to ride the evening breezes upon naked shoulders. Somewhere a band spills sound. This is the time when the freaks come out, Lacy says. The old man nearly collides with barefoot girl holding a thin snake. I listen for a comical clash of cymbals. Hear none, but chuckle anyway.

“You’re acting weird,” Lacy says.

The girl maintains a stern posture, a careful demeanor, almost a chemically supported daze upon her face. She speaks to the old man, her lips expressionless like she’s warning him of something inevitable. Like there’s no use in trying to build a bomb shelter this late, but I thought I’d still tell you it was coming. The old man listens with the flamboyant nod of a learned generation encouraging the learning generation. She holds up her snake. The old man waves her away. She turns from him, catches me staring at her. I lift my hand to my face, an awkward attempt to curtail voyeurism accusations.

“Where’s your ring?” Lacy says just as Francesco drops a basket of naan to our table.

“I left it at home.”

Sometimes I go out on the weekends without my wedding ring. I’m not hunting for other women, but conversation tends to be so much simpler if they assume I am. Other times, I think, I forgo the ring as an invitation for misery.

She throws her knuckle in my face, her ring sparkling by the amber lights around us. “I always wear mine.” Of course she does. She loves displaying gems enough to feign the sentiment behind them.

“Would you if there was no diamond?” I say, wanting to swallow back the words even as they flow, yet flow so naturally I will admit. She opens for rebuttal, but I tell her, “you know the rules.”

She tears a piece of naan. “When you gave me this,” she says and holds out her hand, palm down. “I was surprised then.”

“I wasn’t. I knew you’d fall in love with the diamond.” I tear off a piece of naan for myself, but only roll it in my hand. The dry bread crumbles to the tabletop.

“When we saw that car wreck on I-5.”

“I’ve seen wrecks.”

“The miscarriage?”

The bread crumbles to nothing. “Somehow, no.”

Lacy swallows, places her diamonded hand in her lap. “So are you saying we should.” She’s interrupted by a tap on her shoulder. She jumps. I jump.

The barefoot girl with the snake stands at our table, a small gang of dark dressed boys riding her scent. The girl has an eggshell canvas for skin, spotted by harsh eye shadow, spackled blush, and pink lipstick the color of a newborn’s nursery. She can’t be older than twelve. “You want to touch it?”

Lacy and I take in each other’s confusion, the implication of possibility seeding smiles.

“Won’t it bite?” Lacy says.

“I don’t think he understands his body,” the barefoot girl says.

The snake writhes over the girl’s palm, held back at the end by her skinny fingers, painted a red as fierce and young as the pink on her lips. The girl alternates her gaze between Lacy and me, never addressing the snake, never fearful of what it may do. She knows this snake, would be surprised by nothing. I sweat. Lacy sweats.

“What do you think, Eric?” Lacy says. “I wasn’t expecting to touch a snake tonight.”

“Me either,” I say.

We reach for the animal, fingers extended ready to receive something unexpected.

The barefoot girl pulls back. “One dollar,” she says.

“No,” I say, the salesman in me instinctively stretching to bargain. The girl’s face maintains her stoicism; a game really, knowing that one dollar isn’t a livelihood for her, it’s an excuse to play. “One dollar,” she repeats.

Then what? A one-dollar patch to carry Lacy and I through to another Scab dinner. I wave the girl away. I don’t wait for Lacy to see something special hidden in the strange barefoot girl and her strange snake and her strange gang of strange men. She’ll find it, because she’s afraid of a future without it. I can’t waste a dollar on fake possibility. “So, I’ve been thinking,” I begin again as Francesco pops up for a guerrilla coffee delivery, escaping just as quickly.

Caleb’s fiction and non-fiction have most recently appeared in Flint Hills Review, Vestal Review, and online in Dogmatika, No Record Press, and Word Riot among others. He has two novels currently making the rounds. Visit him at www.calebjross.com. Please.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 19th, 2008.