Josh squatted above the sack and lifted a corner of it away from the muddy bank, and Travis saw the muscular thing moving around inside, its body sliding against the filthy cloth. "Okay, Travis?" Josh said. "Now you seen it. You satisfied now?"
"I meant can I look at it inside the pillowcase. Don't be a dick."
Josh grunted something, not quite a word, and then said: "Shit. All right, you want to see him? Come on, I'll show him to you. Stick your head in there and let that bitch give you a kiss like she did me."
As he spoke he teased at the string that held the neck of the sack shut, but his fingernails were chewed down to the stubs and he couldn't get at it. "Damn it." He'd made the knot too tight, with no loop to pull it out. Finally he had to get his teeth into the action, the triangular broken one in the front, and the knot came loose and the sack fell open and he knelt and pushed his hands into the heap of tangled flesh curling into figure-eights inside the sack. He stood up with the snake's head in his right hand, his thumb pressed down on top of it, the black tongue flicking out at the air and the small black eyes shining like polished stones. "Hey," he said, holding a loop of the tangled body up with his other thumb and finger. "You don't want to bite me again, do you?" He brought the snake's mouth almost to his lips. "You sweet little bitch. I love you."
Then he held it out to Travis. "Here, take her, since you're so fuckin brave. Then you can leave me alone."
Travis took the snake from him, finding it surprisingly heavy, holding the body in one hand and the head in the other, like Josh had, but tentatively. Josh wasn't tentative or hesitant about anything. "Take her, goddamnit!" Josh yelled at Travis's face when he wasn't firm enough with it. "Take her by the head, son! Hold her! You want her to bite you? There, all right, okay, you little shit, you got it, you got it all right, you're all right. There, go on. It's okay, loosen up on her. Don't choke her. See there, look, you're not such a pussy after all, are you. Look at her. She likes you."
When Josh finally took the snake back from him, Travis leaned back against the canal bank and sighed, feeling like a free man again. "What's the matter?" Josh said, letting the snake run through his fingers, its head projecting into the air above the water, the black tongue still going almost too fast to see. "You're all right. Pussy. What're you crying for? She wasn't going to bite you."
"I'm not crying. Dickhead. Shut up."
"She didn't do nothing to you. She bit me."
"Because you're a dick."
Josh bit down on his tongue as he crouched on the mud and forced the snake gently back into the sack, the filthy cream-colored pillowcase, probably taken from his own bed that morning, and spun it in the air holding the neck shut and then tied it off with the string again, still not putting in a loop to make it come out easy later. "There," he said, straightening up and nudging the sack with his bare foot where it rested on the bank, damp at the edge of the water. "Sonofabitch," he said.
He sucked at the black punctures in his thumb and forefinger, where the bruise was turning purple. "Fuckin shit hurts." He spat into the canal and then looked down toward where the dead-straight cut narrowed into the distance, tall woods on one side and the backyards of houses on the other. "It's supposed to be a cottonmouth mama that's just shot out her pups somewhere up in the sticks along the bank here," he said, still looking along the canal. "If I can find them I'm going to raise them in my dad's garage. If she hasn't eaten them already. You can help me hunt for it if you want. You're not too pussy to hunt for baby cottonmouths, are you? Or you can stand guard for the mother." He pointed to a black pellet pistol wedged behind a root that looped out from the bank. "I mean shoot that bitch if she comes at you. Best thing's to get down in the water with them, they can't strike you in the water. You can practically pick them up like it's nothing. But don't get her on the bank. Don't step on her. She'll hit you fast as anything."
"That's all right." Travis was moving away already, toward the washed-out ravine where he had climbed down. "I was on my way to my aunt's. I have to cut the grass for her. I just wanted to see what you had in the bag."
"Whatever," Josh said. "Which one? Which aunt?"
"My aunt Sally. You know. The one that works at the bank."
"Mm," Josh sort of hummed. "Yeah, I know. I'll go up there with you if you want. I'd like to cop a feel of those tits on your aunt Sally. Plump nipples on her."
"I'd get up that asshole in a heartbeat, son. I'd suck on those tits all day."
"Well I guess you're going to have to stick with your uncle," Travis said, clawing up the ravine and rolling onto the weeds and stickers above Josh and looking down at him. "Faggot."
"Yeah, that's what's on your mind."
"Fuck you, faggot."
As he said it Travis picked up a crumbly rock the size of a marble and threw it down at Josh, hitting him on the shoulder. It broke apart and left a brown spot on his wet T-shirt. Josh reached for his snake pole leaning against the bank. It was long and had a hook at the end. Then he picked up the pistol too, calmly pointed it at Travis and shot him in the ankle. "I'm going to pretend you didn't just do that, pussy," he said. "And I'm going to call it even for now. But if you ever do anything like that again you're going to wake up one of these mornings with a bunch of baby cottonmouths in your bed. You understand me, motherfucker? You know how poisonous a little baby cottonmouth is?"
When Josh was done speaking he turned away, stiffly upright, and faced the black water. Travis was lying on the stickers and weeds holding his ankle, crying involuntarily but quietly, and watching the tall, watery figure down in the canal. Josh held out the blunt end of the pole and slid it down into the water and felt along the muddy bed as he waded in behind it, and within a few steps he was submerged up to his chest, wading away and paying no attention to Travis at all, as if he weren't there anymore.
After a few minutes the pain had subsided enough that Travis could get up and try to ignore it. The lead pellet, shaped like an hourglass with hollow ends, had torn the skin on his ankle and stained his foot with blood, but it didn't feel serious. A bruise but that was all. He was all right. The only problem now was that he was late for his aunt's house. She would have made his lunch, and her face would be disappointed when she opened the door for him, knowing he'd been up to trouble, and he would feel ashamed in front of her. Her big boobs would be sitting on her crossed arms and her straight blonde hair would be falling down around them terrifically. They would swim later, the two of them, after he mowed the grass for her, and her boobs would kind of float in the water, in the brown suit she wore, the one he liked. He started jogging along the canal path, wanting to see her immediately now, but he got into a patch of sandspurs and had to stop and pick them out, and when he straightened up again he saw two figures in the dry yellow field heading his way.
"Shee-it," he said quietly, and he watched them come. "What the hell do you want?" he said when they were close enough to hear.
"Well, well." It was Melvin, his long legs scissoring through the grass in his pinstriped kneepants, Bo's fat legs in his stockings and red stirrups crashing through the weeds behind him. "What do we have here?"
"Two assholes on a trail," Travis said.
"That's funny. Keep that shit up. What two would that be? You and who else?"
"You and that fat piece of shit behind you."
Melvin dropped his bat and first-baseman's glove in the weeds.
"I'm a kill him," Bo said, dropping his catcher's mask and his mitt.
They came up to Travis and took turns shoving him, rotating around him, their faces glistening with sweat against the blue sky. They were both sweating in their baseball clothes. Travis could feel them. They were damp. Red dirt was scraped up the thigh of Melvin's uniform. Bo was sweating the worse of the two, but he hadn't slid into any bases, so the stains were only on his knees. He stank of cheese puffs and onion rinds, the sour oils sweating from his pores. He also smelled like hot metal, copper or brass heated up in the sun.
"I'll tell you what we have here," Melvin said. "A little penis." He grabbed Travis between the legs and pulled at him hard. "Little tiny penis walking in a field, about to get his ass kicked."
He let him go.
"Do it, Mel," Bo said. "Go on. You start running your mouth and pretty soon he's gonna start talking, and he's gonna talk you out of it again. You need to get it over with. You took the girl's money, now you need to do the job."
"I never said what she said I did," Travis said. "I hope you know that."
"Shut the fuck up," Bo said. "We don't care. Come on, Mel. I'm sick of this shit. Fuckin hit him. Like this."
He stepped forward and stabbed Travis in the side with his thumb, kneed him in the groin, and then pounded along his spine and ribs with both fists for a while, while Travis was bent over. After that he stood back breathing hard from all the exertion. "See how easy it is? Now you try it."
Bo kept it up himself, trying to put his cleat up Travis's ass a few times, hitting mostly the tailbone, and meanwhile Melvin was punching Travis all over in a more careful way, like a boxer, and then they were both doing that. Travis tasted blood in his mouth and felt the raggedness where his cheeks had torn on his braces. Then he was down in the spiny grass with Bo straddled over him and they had both stopped hitting him and were breathing hard. Fire ants had found Travis and were crawling on him, biting him. The stink of the fat older boy was all over him, in his mouth and nose, and his arm was burning from the ants. He brushed them off furiously, rolling away onto another patch of sandspurs that stabbed through his shirt into his back.
"All right. Look, he's done for. See, that wasn't so hard, was it?"
"No," Mel said. "It wasn't hard at all. It was fun."
"See? That's right." He patted Melvin hard on the shoulder. "Now I'm proud of you. You officially kicked some ass. People are going to know about it, and they'll come looking to you when an ass needs kicking. See, that's how you get a reputation."
"Should we do it some more to set an example?"
"No, his ass is kicked, you can see that. Look, his snot's full of blood. Look at the bubbles coming out, they're all red with it. That shit looks fuckin cool. Doesn't it? But we could take his pants and underwear if you want, let him run home with his dick swinging. That'll make an example out of him. Show what happens to people who call people names."
"Fuck that. I'm not doing that," Mel said. "That's faggot shit. That's taking it too far, Bo. That's bullshit."
"Whatever. Never mind, let's go. Car."
They started walking away quickly but casually, with their heads down, as a car came along the unpaved road. The engine made a peculiar heavy grinding sound with the wheels slipping in the deep sand. "I hate that little bastard," Bo was saying.
"I don't hate him," Melvin said. "I just wanted to kick his little ass and get it over with. Now it feels good, though. I feel relieved that it's over."
"You should hate him, Mel. Trust me on that. Hate them all. Hate anybody whose ass you might have to kick someday. That way you'll always be ready. People'll be scared of you when you walk by. Their ass'll be half-kicked and you ain't thrown punch one yet. Then they'll just set there and let you, and you can actually enjoy pounding their asses into the dirt instead of just wanting it to be over. You understand?"
"I understand. You got it all thought out."
"That's how you enjoy life, Mel. Me and you, that's how we're supposed to live."
The car went on, and soon the boys were gone too. Travis sat up and sneezed onto the weeds, beads of blood rolling up in the sand. He picked the sandspurs out of his clothes as best he could, brushed away a few fire ants that had become bored with biting him, and stood up and started walking again. But he'd only gone a few paces when he noticed the things in the grass, and he stopped and looked back. Melvin and Bo were a ways down the canalside, past where Josh was submerged in the water with his pole slanting up. They were behind the houses now, where the backyards along that strip came all the way out to the canal path. They had stopped behind the house where a monkey was kept on a chain in a big tree. Travis knew that was where they were because their bodies were tilted back and they were making faces at it, and waggling their hands on their crotches, trying to get the monkey to imitate them, which it would often do if you repeated an action enough. The actions usually involved some kind of masturbation. It was a crazy monkey. Though maybe it was the ones he was imitating that were crazy, Travis thought, because they knew what they were doing and the monkey didn't.
He sat down calmly in the trail, cross-legged, but the yellow grass didn't come up high enough to hide him, so he decided to lie back very still on the hot sand, and from this position he watched the blue sky for a while, it was calm and broad and open, and he listened in case they remembered their stuff and came back. Insects were buzzing all around him in the grass, throbbing to mate. He stayed like that for a few minutes looking up at the sky, and when he sat up again the boys had moved on from behind the monkey's yard. He didn't see them at all now, and he stood up and gathered the things they had dropped, the two gloves, the bat and the catcher's mask, and walked on. He followed the trail beside the canal until he came to the end, to the pipe that drained into the canal from the swamp, and he walked out on it and lay on the hot metal with his head and shoulders hanging over the rim, and looked up into it. The pipe was half-full of rotten water, thick with algae and barely moving.
The gloves went up first. They went pretty far, and made a flat splashing sound and got stranded among some twigs and a bike frame. The mask traveled even farther. He slung it by the wires so that it wheeled and skipped off the corrugated walls and splashed in somewhere in the darkness. Then the aluminum bat rang off the steel with a dull sound and floated back partway and got caught in the same blockage as the gloves.
When he was done sending their shit up the pipe he stood up on it and felt a calmness, a warmth spreading inside him. Below his feet he saw the thumb-shaped heads of pale fish nudging at the hairy moss that flowed out past the lip of the pipe into the canal, and that fascinated him for a while. Over in the slimy grass against the bank was a cloud of tadpoles that would grow up to become frogs that would eat the fish. Or maybe the fish would grow faster and eat them first. Everything was alive here, everything eating something else. That was pretty crappy, Travis thought. Crappy for tadpoles and fish.
He heard another car approaching, grinding along the sand road, and he jumped down and cut through the field and walked in its tracks for a block or so, then turned up onto the paved road, a hot black river of asphalt that burned his feet and shimmered in the sun. Half a mile of burning tar lay before him like a test, like something put there to see how long he could last before pussying out and moving up into the cool grass of all these yards he was passing. Some of the yards were dry and brown, like the canal path field, others cool and soft and green, or dripping wet, glistening and white, like snowfields in photographs he had seen, draped with mist from the slowly ratcheting sprinkler heads making rainbows hang in the blue air.