Handle With Care
“I want to thank everyone for braving the heat today and helping us celebrate another glorious year at the Orange County Fair. Be sure to check out Pat Benatar and Joan Jett tonight on the Main Stage at 8 o’clock. Without further ado, please help me give a warm welcome to real life snake handlers from Christ the Redeemer Pentecostal Church. These folks traveled all the way from Kentucky to be here with us today, so please help me give a warm welcome to Gus and Genevieve.”
A tall, gaunt man with alabaster skin accented with freckles made his way to the microphone. Gus was a frail man who had no business growing a beard, though he tried anyway. His face was covered with weak, curly red hair that left empty patches of boy-like skin exposed along his cheeks and neck. By the looks of Gus, most people would suspect that he lived a foul, hard-drinking life, and they would be right.
“Hello everybody, my name is Gus. I have been the proud pastor at Christ the Redeemer Pentecostal Church since 1984. I stand before you as a humble servant of the Lord. This here is my lovely wife, Genevieve. By a show of hands, how many of you believe in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? For those of you who did not raise your hands just now, maybe we will help to change your mind by what we are about to show you here today.”
Genevieve walked toward stage left carrying six glass tanks, placing them at Gus’s feet at the front of the stage.
“These are venomous rattlesnakes. They have not been tampered with in any way, and they all still have their fangs. The Lord tells us in the Holy Bible that we are to handle venomous and dangerous creatures, and that He will protect us,” said Gus.
Genevieve stood a few feet to the right of Gus, stoically admiring his presence. Her black and gray hair ran well past her shoulders, coming to an uninspiring finale at her mid back. Deep creases invaded her face from top to bottom, revealing a rough life and an even rougher marriage. Genevieve was a large woman with large breasts. In her youth, she wore the most conservative dresses she could find to avoid the uninvited stares of men. Eventually, Genevieve learned that men were going to stare at her fleshy mounds regardless of what she wore, so around middle age she decided to give the men a show if that’s what they wanted. On this day, she proudly wore a flowery low cut top that left little to the imagination.
Gus dramatically rolled up his dirty white sleeves, then slowly lowered his right hand into one of the tanks, retrieving a beat up, skinny looking brown snake. The spectators in the first few rows could hear the rattles hissing like a car tire that had sprung a leak. Those same people could also clearly see the empty swath of air where Gus’s right middle finger should have been on his crooked and weak looking hand.
Gus closed his eyes and gazed his face straight up toward the sky. His lizard skin boots shuffled and tapped across the stage, kind of like James Brown at the Apollo, only slower and more methodical. Scoot, scoot, scoot — shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.
Gus made his way over to the next tank, and pulled out another rattler. This one wrapped itself around Gus’s neck, creating a diabolical, scaly necklace. Gus kept shuffling and dancing his way around the stage, picking up snake after snake, until he looked like a cross between Medusa and a used car salesman sporting a cheap suit. The crowd gasped with horror and curiosity. A little boy wearing red cowboy boots chewed his fingernails to the quick and drew blood. A young girl with blonde pigtails and yellow overalls clasped a hand over a wide open mouth full of missing teeth.
Genevieve grabbed the microphone from the stand, walked over to Gus, and held the microphone up to his mouth. His eyes were still closed, as he performed his little shuffle-dance for the crowd.
Then the strangest of sounds echoed through the fairgrounds.
“blacka mu chaka mu mamba mabay. Lala bu mancha lalalalalala bubububu seeee chikow!” Gus was speaking in tongues.
Most of the audience members would have scoffed at the absurd soundbites pouring from Gus’s mouth, were he not covered head to toe in deadly snakes. Gus gave the appearance of a man possessed, and perhaps he was.
* * *
Snakes hold a secret as old as the universe. They communicate with one another through their eyes. Even in the dark, when snakes lock eyes they can see deep into each other’s soul and feel happiness as well as torment. Snakes are patient and meticulous planners, too.
The drive from Kentucky to California had been brutal for the snakes. Stuck in tiny cages in the back of Gus’s dirty old van for more days than the snakes could count, they started plotting their revenge. The snakes had played along as pathetic props at Gus and Genevieve’s old Kentucky church for long enough. The unsympathetic heat from the still and windless summer day at the Orange County Fair had been the final straw.
* * *
As Gus pranced around the stage with his eyes rolled deep into his skull, Genevieve clapped her hands enthusiastically as she stood just one foot away, acting as a one-woman cheerleading squad. The snake in Gus’s left hand stared intently into the eyes of a snake anchored around Gus’s neck. Let the bitch have it first. A third snake coiled snugly on top of Gus’s head responded: Just say when.
Genevieve faced Gus, again moving the microphone to his face so the audience could hear him speak in tongues. With a sudden jolt, the first two snakes leaped from Gus, simultaneously sinking needle-sharp fangs into Genevieve’s breasts. Genevieve looked down, and her artificial smile melted into the most miserable of grimaces. Her mouth opened wide enough for her to fit her entire fist, as an ear piercing shriek blasted from her throat. A third snake lunged from the top of Gus’s head and forced its fangs straight through Genevieve’s tongue.
Genevieve stood on stage with her feet planted sternly on the wooden floor and her arms spread wide. Three scaly ropes violently twitched and swerved to the left, to the right, then up, down, and in twisty circles. Before Gus realized what was happening, Genevieve crumpled onto the stage as a fleshy heap of meat and bones.
Three snakes smoothly slithered from Genevieve’s body, forming a neat line at the front of the stage. Gus stood there staring at Genevieve, as his face twisted in terror and slow-motion surprise. As he stared blankly into the crowd, the head of a rattlesnake blocked his view just before biting him right on the forehead. Gus crumpled onto the stage clutching his face as the two remaining rattlers took hold of his neck tightly, injecting him with hot white death. The heels of Gus’s old lizard skin boots kicked and scratched the stage a few times, then Gus made his long-awaited departure from our universe.
The six rattlers faced the cluster of shocked children, cigarette smoke, and dropped clumps of cotton candy. In unison, the snakes shot like hot poisonous arrows from the stage, onto the ground, moving quickly through stampeding waves of Converse and Birkenstocks. A few of the snakes stopped to feast on dropped pieces of corn on the cob and over-sized, steroid-infused turkey legs, but mostly they just kept moving.
If they could make it into the surrounding brush, they could hide out until just before dark. Then they would slide their way into the quiet suburbs, full of unsuspecting inhabitants and plump rodents. Never again would a human handle these snakes and live to tell the tale.