That night Lydia awoke abruptly from the blackest of sound sleeps to the reassurance of Phil lying beside her. She experienced no gradual acceleration of color, from dead to dawn. In one instant--and for how long?--she had lain as a corpse; in the next she was awake, angry, and horny.
Odd that Phil was not snoring. He felt, in fact, quite rigid, and beads of sweat had burst from pores all over his body. And he was so hot, even with the motel's A/C at full blast to counter the summer Texas heat. The heat drew her to him. Her body against his, she felt his chest jerk once, a spasm to draw in air. Then he held his breath.
I know what you want, she thought.
And you shall have it, beloved. You shall have what you deserve.
The cheap cotton sheets rustled as she twisted her body, curving toward the foot of the bed to begin at his toes. Her tongue became an autonomous living thing, seeking the warmth and sweat of him, between his toes, across the top of his feet, pausing at the knobs of his ankles to taste the salt there. Her skin brushed the sparse, coarse black hair of his legs, to the sound of a breeze through a pile of raked leaves.
To the insides of his knees she drifted, lightly brushing the sensitive skin there, and again she paused to listen. No sudden intake of breath from him? No light moan? Her tongue tattooed him again, savoring the taste of salt. Her body continued to slide against his. The sweat made him feel...slimy, and for a moment revulsion shook her, a memory of previous loathing. Then it passed, and she continued her ascent of his body. Thighs, and more sparse coarse hair. Outside to the left hip, the hard blade bone overlaid by too many potato chips and Super Bowls. And inside, toward the tropical forest of the groin, where the beads of sweat clung in the curls of the fibers like honeyed dew.
She considered that. So right, yes, yes...but so unsatisfactory. She'd started this journey with a much better idea in mind, and she would see it to fruition.
Onward and upward she drifted, as the day they had just shared passed across her thoughts for review...and for adjudication...
Phil was whining again, but Lydia didn't care, not today. An anniversary had to mean something, after all. Phil always groused whenever he had to accompany her to the mall [in the lingerie department he always peeked, or glanced out of the corner of his eye; he never simply looked], or drop her off at the salon, or let her introduce him to her colleagues at the company Christmas party. He couldn't be bothered.
Well, he would by God be bothered today.
"Turn here," she said, pointing.
"No. All they sell there is cheap jewelry."
Lydia made a fist of her left hand, so that he could see the ring. "This is cheap jewelry, Phil. It's a zircon. We were poor when I married you, and that's okay, but we are not poor now, and it's our twenty-fifth, and I think I'm entitled to at least one diamond before...Phil, you passed the turnoff."
They were traveling east on Highway 67, heading for San Angelo. The air condition wheezed, forcing them to louder conversation--the west Texas summer had arrived in full force--but then, thought Lydia, the setting for Phil's volume was normal. It was she who was shouting. Well, she'd had a zircon for two and a half decades, hadn't she? And he'd bought her no other jewelry in that time, had he?
A big change was in the wind.
A dust devil hissed sand and grit through the slit at the top of the driver's side window, where the glass failed to seat properly, and Phil hissed back. Privately, Lydia gloated: he despised traveling because it took him away from football on TV, and because it allowed her to get out of the house. San Angelo was half a day's drive from El Paso, and they would have to stay overnight in a motel because Lydia's sister Rafaela could not abide Phil for more than an hour of visitation, not with the odor of cigar smoke that covered his aura like a cheap suit. Which meant Phil would have to spend money on her.
Well, she'd earned it, hadn't she?
"I'm entitled to a diamond, Phil." But the throaty churning of the old Buick engine and the metallic gasp of the A/C overwhelmed her entitlement.
Lydia folded her arms across her chest and stared straight ahead and counted the grasshoppers that lost games of chicken with the windshield. Eventually the silent treatment exasperated Phil, who jerked the steering wheel, so that the Buick lurched onto a gravel side road that led to a ramshackle cluster of clay-and-wood structures that reminded Lydia of a series of Port-A-Potties strung together with baling wire and masking tape. Black block capital letters across a long sign made of irregular sections of weathered plywood atop the cluster identified the adobe abode as RATTLER BOB'S CURIOS & VIPERS. Placards in the windows blunted the wind that filtered through the cracks and the odd bullet hole, and proclaimed that within one might find genuine Navajo turquoise and assorted birthstones. At the far end of the empty parking lot, a brown and white dog paused to gnaw at an insect on its rump before yapping to announce visitors. Phil braked the Buick in fron! t of the central structure and waited until the dust cloud aroused by the skidding tires had swirled past them before easing the car door open, hinges protesting like nails on a chalkboard.
"So you want a diamond," he muttered.
"Phil, they have snakes in there."
"I like snakes." He climbed out and slammed the door shut, bestirring more dust. A jerk of his arm demanded that she accompany him.
Lydia whispered something vile, shoved the car door open, pushed herself out of the vehicle, and stomped to shake the dust from her shoes. This last action had rather the opposite effect, and she spent the next few seconds swatting orange Texas grit from her jeans and floral tee before following Phil into the curio shop.
The objects of Phil's intention were housed back of the shop, on the other side of a bolted door of solid pine, badly painted black. As the proprietor, presumably Rattler Bob, folded Phil's twenty and tucked it into his shirt pocket, then unlocked the bolt and slid it open, Lydia could hear the residents within. They all spoke the same languages, their bursts of hisses like writhing live electrical cables. They'd been caught and confined, held up for ridicule by visitors, and they did not wish to be disturbed.
It took all of Lydia's emotional strength to enter the herpetarium. She set her jaw, locked her teeth, and allowed her feet to carry her forward.
"But we can touch them?" asked Phil. "We can hold them?"
Rattler Bob's arm pointed to a sign on the back wall. "At your own risk. Long's that's understood." He might have been part Mexican, or part Native American, but he was all grizzled. His salt-and-pepper beard looked as infested as a hideout for outlaws. The pungent odor of old sweat escaped through the holes in his faded gray jersey as he shuffled to a corner and picked out a long pole with a length of nylon tied so that it formed a restraining loop at the far end. "'F'y'all don't mind, I'll do the extractin', an' y'all kin do the holdin'. That a'right?"
"Please, Hon," said Lydia, shuddering.
Phil's grin nauseated her. He knew damn well what this was doing to her. She took a deep breath and held it. All right, then: I'm not going to let you get to me. I'm not.
"Your Missus don't like snakes, eh, Mister?" said Rattler Bob. His chuckle sounded like Popeye's.
"She wants a diamond," said Phil.
Lydia glared at him, hating him now. He'd gone too far.
"Ain't nuthin' t'be frighted of, Missus," said Rattler Bob, as he slid the top off a fifty-gallon glass-walled aquarium. "Snakes is shore 'nuff on'ry, but they got," and he uttered the next word in distinct syllables, as if it were foreign, "'mis-teek.' They got," and he drew himself up proudly to intone in a deep voice, "heap big ju-ju."
Lydia did not bother to point out that "heap" and "ju-ju" did not go together, culturally.
"Some tribes 'round here claim snakes're the spirits of their ancestors," Rattler Bob went on. "Or some such thing." Carefully he let the nylon twine slip through his fingers, widening the loop as he finessed it over the head of a five-footer whose vibrant tail would have served a flamenco dancer well. A quick jerk of the twine snared the viper just behind the triangular head, swollen with venom. At first it writhed, unable to liberate itself, then hung almost limp as the crane that was Rattler Bob hoisted it from the aquarium and swung it out into the center of the room.
A stream of silent invective from Lydia to her bladder demanded control.
Phil wore a mean grin as he reached for the viper, now agitated once more. He held his thumb to the back of the rattler's head while his fingers slipped around under the jaw, and held fast while Rattler Bob reopened the loop.
"Phil," moaned Lydia.
She stood facing him across ten feet and twenty five years of matrimonial acrimony. She knew, now, what he was going to do, and hated him in advance, but neither anticipation nor loathing added so much as a line to her face. The storm was upon her, but she stood in the eye of it and let it pass all around, without effect. As he cast the snake at her, she was too calm to flinch.
"You wanted diamonds?" said Phil, his tone as mean as his expression. "You want diamonds? There they are. Help yourself. Take all you want."
Already Rattler Bob was hopping about as if he'd landed barefoot in frying bacon. Bits and pieces of his oaths and rejoinders pelted Lydia, but she remained focused on the thing that had coiled up at her feet as soon as it had landed on the hard clay floor.
"...outta your head...?" Rattler Bob hollered.
"Have some diamonds," invited Phil, as if he were offering her a selection from the Whitman's samplers.
Lydia stared down at the rattlesnake. In the coils, part of the snake slid clockwise, another counter-clockwise, as if it were somehow winding itself like a watch.
"...a western diamondback," Rattler Bob was yelling, as if everyone had suddenly gone deaf. Deftly he opened the loop to the snare and crept forward. Somewhere in all the excitement he'd lost his folksy accent, and now sounded almost like an outlaw biker who'd once been a college professor. "One of the deadliest species. You tryin' to kill somebody, Mister? Damn fool..."
The snake curled its head into the middle of its coils, the neck a rigid S, a quarter of its body prepared to lash out faster than the eye could follow. Lydia continued to stare at it, at its eyes, its bulging venom sacs, its tail a riveting, jiggly thing that mesmerized her.
"There's more diamonds in here," Phil said sweetly. "Or are those enough for you?"
Slowly Lydia bent her knees and squatted, her stoicism and affected indifference a major weapon in the twenty-five-year war. She felt herself detached, an out-of-body Lydia's arm about to reach for the viper and draw it to her. The loop appeared seemingly out of nowhere, enraging the snake further, but Rattler Bob was dead keen on getting it right the first time, and he snagged and dragged the rattler in one swift motion.
Without a word Lydia rose, whirled, and stalked off to the Buick.
She was staring straight ahead at the grasshopper fragments when Phil climbed in and slammed the door shut. Her arms were folded once more, more to hugging herself than to any expression of fury. Ever so slightly, she trembled as he keyed the ignition until the motor caught, sputtered, and caught again.
"I wish you wouldn't rag on me about the diamonds," he said, as if he'd left some previous version of Phil back in the herpetarium.
Lydia's lips barely moved. "Phil, you threw a rattlesnake at me."
"Start the car. Take me home."
"We're well over halfway to San Angelo." He twisted on the seat to face her. "Listen, let me make it---"
"I don't want to see Rafi today. Take me to a motel. One with a swimming pool and a jacuzzi." And lots of soap, she added silently. I need to scrub.
Scrubbed, she thought. I'm clean, now. Clean of Texas, clean of memories, clean of you. And you...you're slimy, Phil.
Why are you sweating? And is that a tremble I feel?
Close to the surface in his left armpit coursed his life, a tiny surge visible just under the skin with each heartbeat. Each pulse was an invitation, and Lydia nudged him with her nose, forcing the arm away from the body so that she might feel the full effect of his circulation. It warmed her there. She liked being warm. In the mornings he had warmed her, cuddled with her...she'd been drawn to that comfort in him, and now she sought it once more.
But there remained yet a warmer spot.
Lydia raised her head, seeking.
There it was, glowing with warmth like a beacon, drawing her to it. The left carotid artery. There he was warmest.
Lydia ducked her head to him. Her tongue kept rhythm with his pulse, stabbing at him with each heartbeat.
I know what you want.
A badge of sexual honor: a hickey.
You want everyone to know that your "technique" elicits a huge response from me...from my body.
Very well, then...
Memories flashed by, and she could hear his whining, wheedling voice, begging her to beg for it. How many inches do you want this time, baby?
Lydia sank her teeth into the side of his throat, where it was warmest. They punctured the skin, and blood flowed. An eighth of an inch they sank into him, seeking the lifebeat. Slowly, lovingly, tenderly.
A quarter inch.
And a half.
And she forced her head down further to apply the greatest pressure to her bulging cheeks, coming into him as he had come into her all those times, once, twice, and again, for she was carrying a full load, and when she was done, she withdrew from him, slowly, tenderly, lovingly.
Two inches...that's all I got, Hon.
And she raised her head to look down into his eyes, wide with the horror of this world and the next, and whispered, "Thanksss for my diamondsss."
copyright © 2005, Tyree Campbell