by Ashley Roque
You can tell a diamondback rattlesnake’s age by the number of bands on its tail. They shed a couple of times a year, and each time a new rattle is added. Unless the tail breaks. Then it’s a guess.
After Mama killed one with nine rattle bands coiled under Miles and my bed she started using the word “safety.” My safety. Our family’s financial safety. When they think I’m sleeping, the word floats off her sharp tongue toward Daddy and then under my bedroom door.
Over dinner her tongue softens when she talks about my educational safety in schools across the bay. They are more competitive. I could play football. Earn a college scholarship.
“Don’t be silly,” Daddy responds. “The boy’s only eight. You’re not interested in college yet, right?” Sometimes he dabs a glob of buttery mashed potatoes or whipped cream on the tip of my nose when the subject comes up.
“’Sides, if we keep the groves they will be his. His safety net. He won’t need to spend his time in college.”
Mama has also been bringing up financial security at dinner a lot. If we sell the groves, we could move out from under the tin roof encircled with rattlers that could kill me at any moment, though I’ve only seen one. Mama leans back in her chair when she starts dreaming of a new house, tucking a cigarette between her lips while Daddy flips open his silver lighter and leans across the table. We could buy a new house in South Tampa, away from the rattlers. Daddy could rest his back or find some desk job. Does he want to die at sixty of a brain aneurysm like Bill?
I think Mama picked up all this “safety” and “security” talk from the Ties. They’re a group of men in button-down shirts, neckties, and suspenders that started circling our place six months before the rattler appeared. Sometimes when I sit at the kitchen table watching Mama cook dinner, I can hear Daddy talking with the Ties on the back porch. While Mama’s chopping carrots and leaning against the counter to watch the chicken plump brown in the oven, those two words float through the screen door and linger in the house like Florida’s humid air.
* * *
As far as I can tell, my family has always been in the orange business. My Daddy’s dad—I call him Bill ’cause he always said he was too damn young to be a grandpa—liked to talk about the great freeze of 1895 that sent his father from the Florida Panhandle south to the state’s belly. On a map, the state looks like a bent finger, and we’re smack dab in the center, far enough south from the hard freezes and far enough north from the Cubans in Miami. Right across the bay, though, you can find the best Cuban cigars and pressed Cuban sandwiches filled with pork, ham, and cheese in Ybor City cafes.
I’m not sure if Bill hated the Cubans more or the Sunkist jackasses. He’d spit on the ground every time he mentioned the jackasses—even in the house when Mama wasn’t around—and would leave the last “s” vibrating on his tongue for two or three beats. He said they planted the Mediterranean fruit fly to help their own damn sales. Not enough humidity in California for their oranges to plump. Not enough juice. So they had to cheat, sent spies over with the nasty bugs to destroy the Florida groves.
Anyway, Bill taught Daddy the family’s budding secrets. You know, you can’t just plant seeds for the perfect orange gold. Seeds from sweet oranges can end up producing fruit that is too damn sour. Instead, you have to take a root from a perfect orange tree, cut a “t” into it and then insert a bud. That’s the short version.
After Daddy learned all the family secrets, his draft number was picked and he was supposed to go to Europe. But the Army sent him home when he lost his balance on the obstacle course, landed on his back, and slipped some discs. When he got home, he met Mama and they married shortly after ’cause I was on the way. Bill was always adding the last part but glancing around to make sure Mama was out of earshot. He was always biting his tongue when Mama was around. When he didn’t, she’d give him a certain look. It’s the look she gives when Miles tracks in mud or I repeat some of Bill’s favorite words like “damn.” But she’d also threaten to pull Bill’s tongue out of his mouth if he couldn’t control it.
I just think Bill was not used to women—that, or just scared of Mama. Neither Mama nor I ever met my grandma. And since he was alone and getting older when my parents married, Bill gave them the tin-roof house and the groves as a wedding gift and moved under a smaller tin roof on the property. But he was over almost every day for dinner. After eating I’d squeeze next to him in his favorite chair, the soft brown leather pressing us tight. He’d tell me about the groves and how the land once belonged to a Seminole tribe; I collect their arrowheads from the creek behind the house. Or Bill would fill in holes, like how Miles came to be our dog.
* * *
On my first birthday, Mama and Daddy had their first big fight. Daddy showed up from the groves and pulled out a cardboard box with a sulfuric pee scent. Inside was a small gray Weimaraner puppy. My birthday gift.
Mama says she knew what was coming next. The scent of pee turned into puddles around the house and piles of poop were added. And the chewing. The front legs of our oak china cabinet—an heirloom from a grandma down the line—and all four legs of the wooden kitchen table. Then when the winds picked up speed and thunder shook the window frames, Miles started howling. Maybe that’s why he began sneaking into my room at night.
Back then, Daddy got up at 5:30 a.m. to fill his belly with fried eggs, corn bread and bacon slabs popping from the cast iron skillet’s heat. Before heading to the groves, he’d crack open my door and whistle for Miles, who’d lift his head and wait for the second call before moving one front paw to the floor at a time, then sliding his belly and back legs down the side of the bed with a yawn opening his mouth. They’d take the truck out to the groves, Miles in the back enjoying the cool breeze, his head wrapping around the driver’s side and the air parting his lips into a smile. Daddy says that while he and the seasonal workers propped wooden ladders against the orange trees’ leafy branches, climbed up, and tossed the fruit into burlap sacks, Miles rested below a vacant tree fending off the heat of the rising sun. By late morning when the sun hung high above, they’d head home for lunch before returning to the fruit.
When I was around two, though, Daddy’s two morning calls for Miles turned to three, and then one day Miles up and left his spot under the orange tree to walk the mile home along the dirt road connecting the groves and our house. When he got home, he pawed the rusted screen door open and made his way over to his blanket between the kitchen and the living room. Mama remembers that she was frying chicken legs and draining the potatoes to mash.
Miles’s first escape left Daddy relieved. He’d searched the groves for forty-five minutes before driving home and calling Miles’s name out the window. He’d even made up a story about Miles staying with the pickers since he really was better as an outside dog. But when Daddy opened the kitchen door, Miles just stood up, stretched, and walked over to press his nose against Daddy’s leg.
In the coming months, sometimes Miles would stick around for a ride home and other days Daddy would come home frustrated that the damn dog was too lazy to stay out of the house. Mama would laugh and drop her voice to impersonate his take on the lazy dog.
“It’s payback for his selfish gift,” she’d add. “That dog was never for you.”
* * *
To me, Miles has always been mine…and old. A lot like Bill. When Daddy wasn’t around, Miles would climb into his brown leather chair one paw at a time before sitting on his butt like a normal dog. But then he’d lean into the chair’s back exposing his belly, splaying his legs open and slumping his head to the side. It’s a position Bill would take after three plates of turkey and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. The year of the Mediterranean fruit fly invasion, Daddy was also in that position a lot. He’d come home, his jean overalls covered in mud, down several caramel-colored drinks with ice cubes bobbing at the top, and slump in the chair. Legs splaying open just like Miles.
* * *
Although Bill told me all about Miles’s peeing and pooping in the house, his howling and even his escapes home, I don’t remember most of it. I just remember him by my side.
Mornings are booger time. I pull Miles’s floppy ears towards my face to kiss his wet, gray nose, studying the eye boogers that have collected in the corners of his eyes. Resting my palms on either side of Miles’s face, I use my thumbs to dislodge the boogers and then flick them on the floor. Mama calls it gross but how could he see through all those boogers?
When I’m at school during the day, Miles might go to the groves with Daddy or just keep Mama company in the house. But then he waits for me at the end of the driveway, under the old oak tree ready with a big lick and a game of tag.
At night we listen to the sharp pinnings of rain on the roof. The sound helps us sleep, but when it’s raining really hard, shaking the roof, I pull the green blanket tighter over us, roll to my right side, and bury my head in Miles’s short fur that smells like freshly cut grass and sugary orange blooms.
In the summer, though—when thick, sticky air engulfs the farm and the orange trees look like they’ve caught fire by the setting sun—Miles gets in a tizzy when streaks of lightning and clapping booms rattle Mama’s oak china cabinet. He’ll sit on our bed and turn his giant Weimaraner front paw into an affection-seeking hook that leaves scratches behind.
He loves his hook, though, and uses it during thunderstorms or any time he feels scared.
* * *
Miles is the one who found Bill sound asleep in the leather chair, his pipe resting on top of the wooden side table and the smell of cherry tree tobacco still hovering in the air.
We’d come in from the yard, Miles and I, and he’d gone up to lick Bill “hello.” Before I knew it, his hook was out, pulling Bill’s left leg closer and softly whining. Miles stayed by his side until Mama sent us to our room so they could get Bill out of the house.
Mama said Bill never felt any pain. Just a quick pop in his brain, like a balloon, and then he was gone.
When you get old you start falling apart. It’s why Bill’s brain popped and why Daddy is always complaining about his back. It even happens to dogs. Miles’s back legs aren’t as stable as they use to be. He never complains but sometimes they just slip out from under him and he face plants into the wood floor.
* * *
After Bill died, it was only a few months before the rattler appeared. School was almost out for the summer, and Miles and I came inside after a game of chase. Miles was already slowing down by then. We’d taken a few rounds back and forth to the old oak tree. I’d start by running after Miles to the tree’s base, and he’d trail me to the back porch and repeat until he sat down, slumming sideways onto his side.
After a few rounds in the yard and a rest in the prickly grass, we headed inside—past Mama in the kitchen and Bill’s leather chair and into my bedroom. We were on the bed before the shaking started. It sounded like the maracas I sometimes play in music class, except these were steady bursts. A constant rattling instead of the choppy sounds I make during class.
Miles and I held our breath to listen. After three starts and breaks, I leaned over the edge of the bed to peek under. There he was. Fat and coiled up with the rattle sticking up between one of his body loops. His fat triangle head was sticking up, too, but facing the opposite side of the bed, and his skinny black tongue was poking out, the tip split into a V and curling up to touch the tip of his nose. He didn’t have diamonds on his back, though. They were more like hearts, light greenish-brown hearts in the middle, with black scales outlining the shape.
As soon as his tail started rattling again, I shot back up onto the bed, grabbed Miles by the neck to protect him, and hollered for Mama to come. My scream only made the snake madder, his tail shook faster, and I swear he hissed.
Mama’s bare footsteps plopped along the wood floors as she ran to my room.
“What is it?” Her voice trailed when she got to the doorway, the brown bun on the back of her head cocking to the side to listen. It’s something Miles does when I teach him a new trick like dancing on his back legs or how to speak.
“It’s under the bed Mama. A big rattler,” I said.
I’ll never forget her eyes. They squinted so tight together I almost couldn’t see the green anymore and then sprung wide open with her mouth, sort of like a firecracker bursting.
Within a split second she dropped to her knees to check out the coiled rattler’s split tongue.
During all this, Miles stayed calm. Like I said, even then he was getting old. He just lay on the bed cocking his head back and forth to watch. Mama picked herself up from the floor and steadied her voice into a whisper.
“You need to stay real quiet. And don’t move,” she said while backing herself out of the room. She must have headed to the outdoor shed ’cause I heard the creak of the porch screen door open and slowly shut before it was opened again and Mama was back in the doorway with a flat-tipped shovel in her right hand.
She walked on the balls of her feet and in a hushed voice ordered Miles and me over to the foot of the bed.
“You go first. Quietly. Miles will follow behind,” she said while standing at the bed’s end. The veins in her hands were pulsing as she gripped the wooden handle, the shovel’s head hovering a foot above the floorboards.
“If the rattler moves, I have him.”
I inched down the bed, my butt sliding along the green blanket.
The snake was silent, even as I plopped one foot on the floor, then the second, and ran to the doorway. But the sound of my feet on the wood must have startled him and his tail was going again.
“Further back,” Mama said, the quiver gone from her voice. “I don’t want him striking at you when Miles runs.”
She clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth and called Miles to the end of the bed, the shovel still ready to snap the snake’s head if he lunged.
Miles slowly stood up, hopped off the edge and walked towards me. That’s when Mama sighed, and she ordered me to close the door.
“You don’t need to see this, and I don’t need either of you getting bit,” she said.
I didn’t want to shut it, but I needed to keep Miles safe. Mama must have been in there five or ten minutes coaxing the rattler out—tapping the shovel on the ground to get the snake mad or just to get him from under the bed. Miles and I also heard the rattle start and stop several times till there was one loud bang on the floor, then another and another. There are still dents on the floor where the shovel went through the snake’s neck.
By the time Mama opened the door, his head was off but his body was still jerking around. Then she used the shovel to protect herself from the head as she stepped around and ordered us to stay out.
“Your Daddy will clean this up when he gets home. We can’t do anything right now. He can still bite for a while.”
Decapitated snakes are a lot like zombies, technically dead but they can still bite and kill you.
* * *
In the Seminole language, there are three names for oranges based on how they taste. Yallaha is for sweet ones, Yallahasempa is for the sour fruit, and Yallahoochena for the ones that leave a bitter flavor in your mouth.
A few weeks after the rattler, when the Ties convinced the Smiths to sell off their groves to make way for the Yankee housing development, Daddy took to calling it the bitter Yallahoochena deal. But Mama lingers over the dinner table forking her mashed potatoes with one hand, a thin, white cigarette in the other, telling him to “shoosh.” For her, it is a sweet dream, her Yallaha dream.
The battle of the Ys has been going on all summer now. Daddy says the Ties just want to take a bulldozer to the house and groves so that they can put up new houses that will all look the same. Our towering oak trees will be replaced with sidewalks, maybe Bill’s old house destroyed and a swimming pool put in its place. Our long dirt driveway and the groves will be replaced with black tar.
But Mama likes to remind him that this is what happens. Does he want to trade in his truck for a horse and cart? Besides, moving means financial security, plus a U-shaped kitchen and air conditioning in a new house.
Every time their voices grow louder discussing the decision, Miles just digs his hook into my thigh so he can nuzzle up.
“It’s okay boy,” I tell him. “They’re just talking.”
Real fights are saved for hushed voices when we go to bed.
To tell you the truth, I’m not sure which Y camp I’m in.
The creamy, sweet scent of orange blossoms and the chatter of pickers during season are home. Like the ping of the rain on our tin roof; they are both givens. Both lingering in the sticky air before sinking into your pores. They make summer summer. Plus, I don’t know if Miles would be happy on the big city streets.
But a new house with cold air and kids my age seems good too.
* * *
I think Miles would really miss the sweet scent of orange blooms in spring.
“Better than a big glass of whisky,” Bill used to say.
Miles and I can spend hours under an orange tree staring up at the blue sky while elephants turn into tigers in the cotton candy clouds. White blossoms above decorate the tree branches. Here and there the white petals rain onto our faces before settling between the fat blades of Bermuda grass.
It’s probably a bit like snow, except not cold. Plus we haven’t been able to build a snowman with the petals, though we’ve tried—Miles pushing the piles together with his nose while I try to form a ball with my hands. My snow angel attempts are a bit better, but the flowery scent lingers in my hair for two days, even after a good scrubbing.
Although Miles almost never goes to the groves with Daddy anymore, I’m afraid leaving here means he’d miss the clouds and the remaining scent of Bill’s pipe that still lingers in the house.
We’d also miss the water since the good beach would be too far away for a Friday-night swim. When it’s not picking season, some Fridays Mama fries up some chicken and packs it up in a wicker basket along with potato salad. We pile into the truck, Mama and Daddy in the cab, Miles and I in the back, and drive to where the road ends and the white sand starts.
I strip down to my trunks, racing Miles past the green bushes and the few spiky palm trees, and into the greenish-blue waves. We can spend hours bobbing up and down, while the red sky sinks the sun into the waves.
Bill said some people can’t swim. Never learned how. But once you’ve learned, I figure you shouldn’t have to do without.
Currently living in Switzerland, Ashley Roque is a U.S. journalist with a BA in creative writing from Florida State University. Although she has published hundreds of nonfiction articles, this is her first fictional story to find a home.