Devils Rope: The Indianhead Diaries
Glory's dad has taken out an accidental death policy on her--now he's spending the summer trying to collect.
Chapter 13. Squitos, Snakes, and...Alligators?!
The next morning, the first thing I heard was the metallic click when Dad snapped his Zippo lighter shut after lighting his first cigarette. To me, it sounded like a gun was being cocked and it shot me out of my bed faster than if someone would have yelled, "Indians!" I'd set out my clothes the night before--heavy jeans, long-sleeved coral colored shirt, and my straw hat, so it didn't take me long to get ready. Waaay too many clothes for as hot as it was going to be, but it would take twice as many to keep off the pesky blood-sucking 'squitoes at the lake.
This was an unhappy compromise. And I do mean unhappy. I put on my black high-top tennis shoes in the futile hope the mosquitoes wouldn't be able to bite through Goodyear rubber. Past experience had yielded at least three ankle bites inside my shoes, one of them right underneath the round rubber seal on the side of the shoe. Oklahoma mosquitoes are pros.
I didn't even bother to check myself out in the mirror. I knew what I looked like. I headed out to help Dad load the boat, but he was already in Willie, his fishing Jeep, smoking a cigarette.
"Where's the boat?"
"Were not taking any boat, Gal."
"Did you already dig the worms?"
"Not usin' worms. Usin' minnows," he grumbled.
"Oh." This was different. Dad was actually going to let me use some of his precious minnows he raised in an old cement artillery horse trough. It's out by where he raises the rabbits. Up until now, he'd only shared those slimy squirts with his officer friends.
"So how come were not taking the boat?"
"No need to take a boat for the two of us."
"Oh." I guess if Frieda were coming along we'd have hitched up the Egyptian raft with a full team of eunuchs wearing their best gold loincloths (read about that in the library too).
"Where we goin?"
"Figured we'd try Lake Elmer." Dad ground out his half-finished cigarette and lit another one. That was strange because Dad didn't believe in wasting cigarettes.
Oklahoma is full of lakes, but this turned out to be the summer Dad kept going back to the same lake, over and over again. I don't know why, nobody else ever went there because they all knew it was fished out. Maybe if he'd tried a different lake, we'd have caught more fish, but I didn't say so. Whenever Dad was moody, I tried to be quieter than a mouse in a cat's bowl. Mom taught me that. He put Old Willie in reverse and as I hopped in it was already rolling backwards. Holy Smoke! Where's the fire? I didn't even get breakfast. Well, for all I knew, breakfast was canceled for the summer.
Great. No breakfast, no damn book. Well, I had news for Frieda: she could read about Tara all afternoon and she still wouldn't be no Southern Belle. When we got home for supper, she'd still be an ugly WAC with a five oclock shadow that looked like a black smudge had come up through her Charles of the Ritz makeup. She bought that stuff at The Parisian and I hate to think what she'd look like without it. As it was, she was uglier than a frog in the middle of the road after a big truck went by. Carlos made that one up. Pretty funny, huh?
I sat real still as Dad made a sudden turn and headed for downtown instead of toward the lake. Before I'd caught my breath, he'd turned into Wimps, a little hole in the wall cafe run by a relative of ours. I never could figure out exactly how he is related to us, but he is. In our family, we never throw out a relative just because they're no longer married to one of my aunts or uncles. We just add the new relative right on top of the old one, sort of like one of those New York sandwiches where they keep piling meat on until the top doesn't even fit anymore. Aunt Norah makes those kinds of sandwiches when she comes home to visit.
Years later, no one can even remember why old Joe is a member of our sandwich...er...family, they just know that he is. Without a word, Dad motioned me to sit next to him on one of the bar stools at the counter. I don't ever remember sitting at a booth there. Dad says the booths are for real customers, not family. He ordered two sausages and egg breakfasts and hid his nose in a cup of coffee. Usually, he lets me pick what I want from the big grease-stained menu.
It was also unusual that he wasn't even talking to our relative. Wimpy went on about this and that and the other thing that was going on in town and Dad just drank his coffee, barely even nodding at what Wimpy said.
He didn't even look up when Wimpy said there was talk about shortening the fishing season because the water in the lake was so low. That usually gets Dad going because he says the same fish are still in there, ready to catch, and its not like the fishermen are going out there and drinking the water. I'm not sure why they do it myself, but there's a whole bunch of men who meet once a month and decide these things. Dad calls them the Fish and Fart Department, and it seems like, most of the time, their main job is to get after Dad's goat. Wimpy had to leave us to go cook our breakfast, so he never seemed to notice Dad was in one of his moods. Or maybe he thought Dad was cranky because he hadn't had enough coffee yet.
I was so hungry I didn't much care whether Dad made nice with his relative or not. I was grateful for the breakfast plate that arrived in a quick manner with two perfect pods of boiled okra, Wimp's trademark, alongside the eggs. Dad always hid his okra underneath his napkin, having long ago given up on getting Wimp to not put it on his plate, but I always ate mine. That Wimpy sure knows how to make a plate look pretty. While I ate, I tried to figure out what the sign behind Wimpys counter meant:
WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE.
What did that mean? I asked Dad, but he just mumbled something about riff-raff into his coffee cup. I figured the way I was dressed, Wimpy might think I was riff-raff. Did I have to eat fast in case he decided to jerk my plate right out from under my fork? Just in case, I decided to eat my okra first.
Things still didn't feel right, even though they did feel a lot better since I'd finally gotten some food in my belly. Then it hit me: when we left the house, Frieda was frying sausage. She was cooking for us, at least for Dad, and he left without eating it. Weird. She's gonna still be mad when we get home. Just you wait.
When we headed out of town toward Cache, I could see the purple outline of the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge in the horizon. I figure they call it that because of all of the parties people have out there. Mountains that looked a blackish purple from a distance began to bloom with reds, pinks, and oranges as we got closer to the sandstone rocks. It really is a magical place. But it looks dry, and most people don't realize how much water is out there. If you know where to look for it, there are streams, creeks, and ponds I'm sure only a few Indians and Dad and I know about.
As we go along the road I always keep my eyes peeled for quail, turtles, snakes, and other neat stuff. Once, I saw an armadillo in broad daylight. That's rare since they prefer to move around at night. That time, Dad slowed down so we could both get a good look at it, then he said something must have scared him out of his hole. Most of the time I just see trap door spiders and turtles. Oklahoma must have more turtles than cow pies. Years ago, Dad used to catch torturos big enough to make soup out of. They cook up real good if you can keep your mind off of the fact youre about to eat some poor turtle who was just minding his business, swimming in the lake, and all of a sudden he finds out he's swimming in a big soup pot. Now that Dad has a little more money, he doesn't bother with things like turtles and squirrels anymore. He says they're too much trouble for the amount of meat that's on them. Now he just hunts for deer and fishes.
At the beginning of the wildlife refuge, there's a beautiful pond on the top of a red sandstone hill. It's my favorite spot. The water is clear and deep and the whole edge is surrounded by huge red, sandstone boulders. It's the kind of place Ester Williams would like to do the backstroke in with a gardenia behind her ear, except I don't think she'd like the snakes.
I've never seen so many snakes in one place. They could be just water snakes that aren't poisonous--they just bite real mean--but they move so fast it's hard to identify them. Doesn't matter much anyway. If any water snake ever bit me, I'd probably die from fright, whether it was poisonous or not. To see the most snakes at my favorite pond you have to sneak up on them. That's why I always walk real quiet to the water's edge. There's one place where theres a cement containment wall, and the snakes like to rest their chins on the rough cement. If I'm quiet enough, I can see at least three or four all lined up, resting there in the water. Sure is a shame. Ester would really love that pond. Bet Mom could make her a special suit: one with feathers, fringe and Indian beads all over it to wear when she went swimming in there.
Well, this morning, we went right past my favorite pond and headed for the backside of Lake Elmer. The first thing we did was check the flag pole to see if a red warning flag flew at the top of the hill. That would mean Fort Sill was practicing their artillery, and a bomb could land there. As long as I can remember, Dad has ignored those flags, saying he was an artillery sergeant, and if they were going to be using the lake as a practice range, he'd by God know about it. It has gotten so bad that my Uncle CG won't even go out in a boat with him anymore. Especially if Dad wants to borrow his boat.
Dad made a sharp turn through some tall weeds where I don't think there ever was a road. When did he decide it was necessary to break trail for buffalo? I ain't never seen a rougher fishing spot in my life. There was nothing but weeds as high as my dad's chest and they went all the way down to the water where they mixed with the mesquite trees that live on the edge of the bank. And the water over there was deep. I couldn't even see the bottom, and not just because the water was black, either, which it was.
Well, I stood there kind of dumbfounded. What the heck was wrong with the dock? There was no way to cast a fishing line there with all of the brush so close to the water. Not even a big rock to climb onto. What was Dad thinking?
As we fought our way through three-foot tall grass and moved closer to the lake edge, I heard the snakes start to drop off the tree limbs into the water. They make a real special sound: ploop, ploop. Guess they smelled the minnows in the bait bucket Dad had tied on a short rope to the belt loop in the front of my jeans.
He motioned for me to go in there, where I was, and said he was going to go around the bend and try his luck in another place. Where? Over closer to the dock? His parting words to me were not to try to keep the snakes from eating my bait because it would only make them mad. The best thing to do, he said, was to raise my arms and let them come and get it if they wanted to. He said he'd be back about three o'clock to get me. Before he left, he turned and reminded me, "Remember, Gal, them that don't fish, don't eat."
Well. Okay. I took my spinning rod and moved into the warm water that felt real cool after I'd stood out in the hot sun listening to him jabber about bait and snakes. Before I took two steps, I was in blackish water up to my chest, and my minnow bucket, that didn't have a lid because Dad broke it off years ago, floated right in front of my throat. I put a minnow on my hook and made a couple of casts. It was real quiet. Too quiet. Now that I think about it, all the birds stopped singing and flew away when I waded out into that water.
All of a sudden, here they came. Not the fish. Not the birds--Snakes! Lots of them. They made a sizzling sound as they raced over the water toward me and stirred up the top of the water until it was covered in foam. I tried to step back, but every time I stepped back, the bucket followed me. Those snakes had a picnic in my bait bucket. There were so many I couldn't keep my eyes on them all. Snakes' mothers must not teach them any manners because none of them formed a polite line to the left. They all tried to be first to get into my bucket.
The water around me boiled like a soup pot, and I wondered for a split second what was going to happen when all of the bait was gone and they were still hungry. I raised my arms way up to stay out of their way as much as I could and prayed that one of them didn't mistake my armpit for bait. I don't know how long I stood there, but it didn't take long for those snakes to empty out my bucket. Suddenly, they were gone. All of them at once.
That's when I felt something big and hard and spiny swim between my legs. Whatever it was, it was so big it almost knocked me off my feet. Oh, Jesus, an alligator, I thought. What else could it be? And me without even a Buddhist rosary.
I stood real still and waited to see if one of my legs headed across the lake without me, but nothing happened. I waited some more. I think I wet my pants, but it was hard to tell standing chest high in lake water that was thick and stinky anyhow. I remembered that Carlos's teacher told his class once that there used to be alligators in Oklahoma years and years ago. Maybe they didn't all die off.
Somehow I didn't care so much that I wouldn't have any fish when Dad got back except that no fish at three o'clock meant I'd not have any dinner. I've missed a lot of meals lately what with Dad or Frieda being in a bad mood about one thing or another. No fish also meant I'd have to hear those damn chickens clucking in the peach trees again.
Shit. Now, I know my mom would say ladies don't use that kind of language, but how many ladies do you know who have to swim with snakes and alligators with live bait up around their chest. If they did, they'd say more than "fiddle-dee-dee," I guarantee you.
I was so mad at Dad I could spit. I looked around and thought nobody could see me, so I sort of floated my pole in front of my chest and started to quietly tread water. If I was gonna die, I was gonna take one last swim. But also, I knew I'd better not be dry when Dad got back. I didn't have a watch, so I couldn't dry off and then get wet again before he came to pick me up.
I never saw another snake. Guess they needed a nap after gorging themselves on my dad's fancy bait. I never saw the alligator, either. But to be sure, every once in awhile, I'd reach down and count my legs.
Pretty soon, here came Dad. He didn't get any fish, either. He didn't seem very interested in my snake story and he was awfully quiet. On the way home, he lit a cigarette, looked at me long and hard out of the corner of his eye and asked, "When did you learn to swim, Gal?" I didnt bother to answer him because somehow I knew he wasn't really interested in an answer. This was one of those rat-tailical questions they tell us about in school. I was glad because I wasn't ready yet to tell him I was learning to swim at the post pools because he might have made me stay home. He'd probably say he was worried that the soldiers might try to grab me if they saw me in a swimsuit. I know he'd never believe me when I told him they were real nice and never bothered us at all. We're just kids, and they've got their hands full with the college girls that show up in two-piece swimsuits and those big beach towels for two. No matter how hot it is, some of those girls never get wet because they don't want to mess up their hair.
When we got closer to home, he said he was going to drop me off at my moms for a few days, because Frieda was going to be mad. I guess because we didn't get any fish. I shouldn't come over until he said it was okay. He'd call me. Well, that was fine with me. At least I'd get dinner, and I couldnt wait to tell my cousin what a dumb place my father took me to fish.
The minute I walked in the door, I could smell chicken being cooked in tomatoes and cumin, and hot Mexican biscuits in the oven. When I went in the kitchen, there was Gramma, cooking up a storm. Momma and Aunt Pauline still had customers that had come all the way from Kentucky to order shirts, so they weren't helping.
Carlos was there at the kitchen table listening to Gramma tell him all about what life was like when she was a little girl in Texas. Guess she had a real exciting life because she had to get married at fourteen to a man over thirty-five because her folks had so many kids they couldn't feed them all. Gramma had a whole wagonload of kids herself. I wonder why Mom and Aunt Pauline only had one each?
Later, while I was telling my story to Carlos about my fishing trip, it dawned on me: Dad wasn't even wet when he came back to get me. I could see the dock from where I was, and he wasn't there. If you're not on a dock or in a boat at Lake Elmer, you have to wade in the water to get to the perch. He hadn't been fishing at all. I know he had minnows. What was he doing?
Carlos's dad divorced his mother, but he's never been mean to Carlos. He's not even mean to my Aunt Pauline. His dad sends money every month to make sure that Carlos has enough to eat and good clothes to wear. He even paid for the new glasses Carlos had to get. So, at first, Carlos listened to me like I was telling one of Uncle Benny's tall tales, but he finally believed me. He just shook his head.