Serpent's Teeth

By Steve Spaulding

Lycos Multimedia I'm always amazed at how quickly the city can melt away. I live in Chicago, and when you live in the city you tend to stay in the city. Everything is already right there—job, shopping, friends, ball games—and who wants to fight the traffic anyway? But then you get the call. Maybe it's a wedding, maybe it's a funeral. Something. And you've got to get in the car and go.

If whatever it is takes you north into the long industrial corridor that follows the shore of Lake Michigan it's pretty much more of the same. But go in any other direction for 45 minutes and it's nothing but corn. Okay, sometimes it's alfalfa, but you get the idea; these wide Midwestern expanses, hammered flat by the wrath of the Almighty sometime during the last ice age. So much sky you're afraid of falling off the planet. So much nothing you could go out of your mind—like a prisoner in solitary, starved for input. The occasional farmhouse or oak tree standing alone in a field gets charged almost to aching by all the empty space around it. People wonder why Chicago has so many skyscrapers. People give reasons based on history, or on economics or politics or art, and all of them wrong wrong wrong. The skyscrapers are the only sane response to the immense psychic pressure of that endless horizon. No one wants to see so far or so much.

I was driving out to see an old high-school buddy of mine named Jake. Jake was in a bad way. He hadn't always been. Back in school he was the golden boy—got solid grades, played on the basketball team, was liked by the girls. After high school we made a half-assed stab at staying in touch, hanging out every once in a while during spring and summer breaks. What little Jake told me, his time in college sounded like more of the same big party. More booze, less basketball, and he didn't have to sneak girls in and out of his parents' basement anymore, but not much different. Jake ended up with some kind of business degree, got a ridiculously high-paying job through a friend of his father's, and in what seemed like no time had a pretty wife and a house by the lake.

And then we just lost track. We both worked in the city, but he was taking the train in and out of the 'burbs each day, while I was living on the northwest side. People grow up, and our adult lives tend to filter out all but the immediate. I heard about Jake once in a great while through mutual friends, but we hadn't really spoken since his wedding. And now that was four years gone.

So one day I'm on the phone with another high-school friend, Mike, who's trying to get a group together to go skiing. I say that the guy he wants to talk to is Jake—he was always nuts for the powder. Mike goes quiet for a second, then he gives me the news. Seems Jake had had a rough time of it recently. First he'd begun acting strange—mood swings, little fits of temper, little bouts of depression. Then there'd been some trouble with the law (Mike was vague on the particulars). Over the last three months Jake had lost his house, his car, his job, and been separated from his wife. You think it's drugs? I asked. No idea, Mike said. So what was he doing now? I asked. Living in a trailer in a little unincorporated town named Patmos, Mike said. That was all he knew.

It bugged me over the next week or so. I mean, living in a trailer? Sure, I remembered Jake having a self-destructive streak, but it seemed only to be there for him to bring under control. The guy just loved to dig himself a hole and then climb out of it. To blow off the entire semester, then cram for two nights and ace the final; to act like an ass and piss his girlfriend off to the point of screaming—then do some huge, goofy, romantic thing that would melt her; to go out drinking till four in the morning and still hit the clutch three-pointer to win the game the next day. It was all a part of the myth of himself that he cultivated. Did it finally backfire on him? Did he one day dig a hole too deep?

I'd like to say it was all just concern for an old friend I'd shared good times with that finally made me pick up the phone and dial information. And mostly it was. But to see a guy my own age, with—for all intents and purposes—the same background, the same opportunities, to see him go so far and do so well… it was impossible not to envy him a little. And that envy must have stretched, like a thin, transparent film, over all the years going back to high school. No, I'm not doing that poorly for myself these days. But I'm not doing so well that the news of Jake's fall didn't make me feel (just the tiniest bit) better about my own situation. And with that tiny, petty, good feeling came a morbid curiosity; just how bad were things for Jake anyway?

Information didn't have him listed by his full name, but they had only a single listing for his family name. He picked up on the second ring.

"Hello?" his voice sounded distant and phlegmy, like he had a headcold.

"Jake? It's me, Stan."

"Stan?"

"From high school."

"High school?"

Uh-oh, I thought. Maybe making this call was a big mistake…

"Oh, Stan, hey man," he suddenly broke in on my awkward pause, "how's it going? Didn't recognize your voice at first. Haven't heard from you in… hey, how did you get this number?"

I told him how he was listed, and he explained that a cousin of his owned the place he was staying at. Jake was more or less trailer-sitting while his cousin was on the road for the next few months. He said he had really lucked-out finding a place so off the beaten trail. It had, he said, "all the peace and goddamned quiet you could stand."

Then we talked about sports—the Bulls' chances, the Bears' chances—and about this guy we knew and about that guy we knew (Mike, at one point), and it seemed about everything except what the hell he was doing living in a trailer out in unincorporated Patmos, Illinois. It was like trying to ignore an elephant at a cocktail party. I was just waiting for a lull in the conversation to get up my nerve and ask what the fuck was going on with his life, when Jake threw me a curve.

"Weren't you the guy who was so good in biology?" he asked.

"Well, yeah, I got an A in Mrs. Claremont's class, like a million years ago. What does that have to—"

"Do you think you could come out to visit me sometime? Sometime soon, like this weekend?"

Where was this coming from? "Uh, sure, I guess. What's this all about?"

"I can show you easier than I can tell you," Jake said. Then he gave me directions to his place through corn country. We hung up without me getting the chance to offer a single word of support—or getting my morbid curiosity the least bit satisfied. I guess that curiosity was what put me in my car the next Saturday afternoon and got me driving out of the city.

Patmos has a post office that I think must double as town hall. There's nothing else. Not a strip mall or a Farm & Fleet or even a gas station. Emergency services are borrowed off of surrounding towns thanks to some property tax scheme or another, and the state police do occasional drive-arounds. It's all big, flat, and empty. Pavement gives way to gravel roads. The gravel roads are punctuated by mailboxes where long dirt roads branch off and snake back up through the fields to farmhouses, prefab A-frames, and trailers trailers trailers. Jake's was standing out in a gigantic field of corn that was just calf-high. The area around it seemed mostly packed earth and gravel. He had a beat-up Chevy Caprice parked out front, an aluminum storage shed off to one side, and a pump for the well just a bit further. That was it. Nothing else, not even a tree or shrub to help break things up. Surrounded by living plants, but with so little variation I might as well be in the middle of the Gobi dessert. Well, that was what I thought when I first laid eyes on the place, anyway.

I honked the horn and Jake came out to meet me. He looked god-awful tired, like he'd been up drinking for days. He was wearing jeans that were filthy around the cuffs and a t-shirt that had seen better days, and he had a week's growth of beard on his face.

"Good to see a friendly face, Stan," he said. We shook hands, and for just a second, a really weird second, he was the exact same guy I knew back in 10th grade. The balding head, the slight gut, it all seemed like a disguise that at any second the know-it-all, do-it-all, fun-loving, hell raising 16-year-old he really was would pull off and cast aside. Any second now. Then the moment passed. "Come on into the trailer," he said. "I'll get you a beer."

The inside wasn't as bad as I expected. No beer bottles and used needles strewn all over the floor. Just kind of dank and funky-smelling, and filled—crowded, actually—with bad circa-1980 plastic furniture. Jake handed me an Old Milwaukee, and for the very first time I realized I was miles and miles away from anywhere, trapped in a small room with my possibly drug-crazed/possibly onset-psychotic high-school buddy—and nobody else knew about it. If anything happened, no one would know I was missing until I didn't show up for work on Monday morning.

"So," I said.

"So here we are," Jake said.

And we both nodded. Yes indeed, we were certainly there. Deep breath.

"Jake, I'm a little worried about you, man. I mean, friendly visit here and everything, but … I mean, I've heard some stuff, and I'm wondering if you're okay."

"What've you heard?"

"Well, I heard that you and Sylvie broke up."

He sighed. "We didn't break up. We just needed a little time apart. I needed it."

"I heard you lost your job."

He smiled. "Wasn't really the job for me anymore. I mean, it just stopped being fun. Why devote yourself to something eight, ten, sometimes twelve hours a day if you don't love doing it, right?"

To pay your mortgage, moron, I thought. "Well," I said, "what are you doing all the way out here in Buttfuck Egypt? You can't be telling me you like living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere."

"I needed the space," he said, in a curiously flat tone. He walked to one of the kitchen chairs and sat down heavily in it. I sat down next to him.

"C'mon man," I said, "look at yourself. You look like you haven't slept in days."

Jake gave a slow, wheezy chuckle. "No, I probably haven't had a good night's sleep in weeks."

"And what's keeping you up at night?"

"The voices," he said. "Actually it's not just at night. They seem to get louder whenever I'm trying to get some rest."

Maybe someone would call me for tennis, or to go catch a drink somewhere. Maybe they would start wondering before Monday morning. "Uh, do you, uh, know where the voices are coming from?"

Jake burst out laughing. "Man, you should see the look on your face. Jesus, Stan. It's not like I'm losing my mind."

I laughed along with him, more out of relief than any sense of humor. "So," I said once we'd quieted down, "what's been keeping you up nights?"

"Oh, it's voices. Just not from inside my head," as he spoke he made a circular "crazy" motion with a finger next to his ear. "No, the voices come from out back."

"What's out back?"

Jake set his beer can down. "Let me show you."

Jake opened the back door, and we walked down three steps to the hard-packed ground. "They're just over there," he said, pointing.

There's a phrase, "you won't believe your eyes," which I never took to be literally true until that day. What I saw, what Jake was pointing to, literally couldn't be what my eyes were telling me it was. So I started walking towards them, squinting to see better, even though I could see them just fine.

There were fifteen of them in three rows of five. They seemed to be plants or large fruits with their pale, almost golden skins. They varied in height from only a foot or so to three, four feet. The dirt still clinging in parts and places to them seemed evidence of sudden, rapid growth—

—no, wait. They weren't plants at all. They couldn't be. They were, they had to be department store manikins, all carefully arranged, buried in the earth up to their waists. There were males and females and even children. Then I looked closer—I must have been only a dozen feet away by now—and saw that they all had the same proportions. The smaller ones didn't have the large heads or gangly lower limbs of children, they were just scaled-down versions of the larger ones. I had just time enough to think that was very strange, when one of them turned to me, half-opened its strange, golden eyes and said, very distinctly: "Water."

I jumped back fast—pure reflex—lost my footing and landed on my ass.

Jake squatted down right next to me. I barely noticed I was staring so intently at the… the whatever it was that had spoken.

"Pretty neat, huh?" said Jake.

"You sick bastard," I said, my throat gone so dry I could barely get the words out. "What the hell did you do to them?"

"I've been tending them," said Jake, proudly, "like any good farmer."

To be continued…


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Copyright©2002 by Steve Spaulding.

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