Since we’re taking a break for the holiday season, with a return in January, I thought I’d leave you with this tale. Some of you may be leaving for Florida, which is where the story takes place, albeit in the northern part of the state, around Gainesville, the home of many reptiles…
In the autumn of 1996, I was the writer-in-residence for the city of Gainesville and the county of Alachua. Most of my activities took place in small agricultural communities. Jesus haunted all of these places. Many participants in the program were busy writing the real Bible, which was dictated by voices that came to them when they wandered out in the woods. Let’s just say that Pointe Claire is a different experience.
Naturally I was attracted by a big, barn-like structure that stood by the edge of a highway where I often passed. WE BUY SNAKES! proclaimed the block letters cut out of plywood and propped up on the roof. Needless to say, the letters were shaped like snakes.
I was pretty much in a biblical mood, the result of so many people telling me that they were writing the real Bible in their spare time, which was the text that lay between the ordinary Bible that most people like me were reading, and their superior sense of hearing that allowed them to hear the dictating voices. The best thing is to agree with these folks. They could be right
One day, I pulled my car into the lot of WE BUY SNAKES! and went inside. This was no idle boast. Artists were making every possible item out of snake leather, from condom purses (this was the 1990s, after all) to baseball caps. Boots and belts were almost too common for these people, but they would stoop to such things if the money was good.
“Where do these snakes come from?” I asked. “People bring ’em in,” I was told. A logical answer. I recalled the late Harry Crews’ novel A Feast of Snakes, about the rattlesnake roundup, a madcap and sometimes vicious popular amusement in that part of the world. (Crews’ great A Childhood: Biography of a Place is a must-read in my opinion, one of the great memoirs ever. If you wonder about how much you can say about yourself and your family, this book has the answer.) “Wanna pull one?” one of the artists asked me. How can you say no? “Pulling” a snake involved slicing it down the middle with an X-acto knife and turning it inside out to remove the skin, that would then be tanned. The meat would be smoked — nothing wasted here.
I told you this was an unusual tale.
The most disquieting sight was the burlap bags full of live snakes. Inside, they twisted and turned and basically wanted their freedom. I couldn’t blame them, even as I realized that these models were poisonous. Most were diamond-back rattlers, very handsome to look at — at a distance.
One day, after a hard day’s typing, I headed for the Gulf coast and some fishing. I was to meet a bookseller buddy who liked to hunt and fish when he wasn’t selling the world’s great novels to University of Florida students, and he had a 13-foot Boston Whaler that allowed us to glide over the oyster banks where redfish and sea trout waited for our bait.
Suddenly I hit one. Thump! The impact wasn’t much, but enough to feel. I hit the brakes and turned around. The snake was unlucky — I had run over it, and I would never know why it had wanted to cross the road. But I was lucky because the head was squashed flat, and the body, intact.
I threw the corpse in the trunk and had a decent day’s fishing.
The next day I drove over to WE BUY SNAKES! The folks were happy to see me. “Wanna pull a few more?” they asked. I produced my specimen. They told me I was learning fast for a Yankee. (I didn’t bother telling them I lived in Canada.) I asked them what they could do for me. They eyed me and I could read the mercantile intent in their faces. If I gave them the snake, they would make a wallet out of it, plus they’d give me a portion of meat.
I never was good at haggling.
Nowadays, I have to keep my wonderful wallet in my pocket. Products made of animal skins are banned in Canada. You know, endangered species. Mind you, if you met a diamond-back in a bad mood, you’d be the endangered species.
By the way, full disclosure: I was in that part of the world to work on a novel that became Get on Top (1999), wherein the first female Messiah descends to earth and creates no end of havoc.
Good holidays to all, thanks for your companionship in many ways.