In any collection of men in a social setting, arbitrarily selected except to include one having a military background, in short order the military man will have captured the attention of all others present with the telling of some story. The story’s subject needn’t be grand, or inspirational, or anything of the sort; his purpose for telling the story needn’t be to impart wisdom, or humor, or pathos, nor to advance either himself or an ideology, yet somehow at the end of the narrative, humbly told, his audience will be delighted to discover that their speaker has managed to accomplish all of those things.
How the military consistently produces such capable storytellers is a mystery, a well-kept secret of its order that community college instructors of theatre and creative writing would do well to discover. I suspect that storytelling is a discipline taught early during a recruit’s training, the better to hone that recruit’s natural storytelling talent to a level commensurate with the tribulations he is about to endure.
Tonight I was treated to a performance by a military veteran who happens to be one of the more capable practitioners of the storytelling art: my Director, Shaun. He kept Mike and me hugely entertained by his story of The Girl, The Pickup, and the Bull Snake, an epic that sweeps from one corner of his hometown, Cottonwood, Arizona to the other with tales of friendship, honor, love, betrayal, terror, loss, and finally, reconciliation. I doubt that I can do it justice with a retelling, but I will try.
Shaun begins by describing a wild weekend night in August. He and his best friend, Buck, had been partying with adolescent abandon in Cottonwood, throwing up Yavapai dust from the unpaved roads at the town’s outskirts with fast, reckless driving in Shaun’s beloved Ford Ranger XLT pickup. Shaun and Buck had been best friends since Buck rescued Shaun from a rattlesnake he’d startled on his walk to kindergarten class at Cottonwood Elementary School.
Throughout the evening Buck gushed an alcohol-fueled and sentimental recollection, in chronological order and with dubious accuracy, of their entire history of exploits since The Rescue.
When at last he arrived at the present night, Buck disclosed the motivation for his sentimental frame of mind: He recently had formally entered an intimate relationship with Jezebel. He was in love, the emotional state that most reliably and savagely cleaves the strongest bonds between young men. Theirs was a friendship in harm’s way, Buck conceded, but in the next breath swore that he was not going to let it succumb to Jezebel’s destructive presence.
Shaun felt heartened by Buck’s commitment, but remained realistic: History has not been kind to the relations between young male friends when one or the other is afflicted with love for a young female, he pointed out. But Buck was steadfast, resolved. He compelled Shaun to join him in demonstrating that resolve with a vow sealed by a pinky swear.
But soon he grunted, “C’mon, man, we’re men now. Let’s do this right!” He searched the cab for a few seconds before asking, “You got anything sharp in here?” Then they both went to searching for a sharp instrument of any kind, Shaun with considerably less enthusiasm than Buck.
To Shaun’s surprise, because he liked to think he kept a pretty clean cab, Buck lifted a galvanized roofing nail from off the passenger floormat. Then he watched with mounting distress as Buck aimed the nail directly into the palm of his right hand.
“Whoa, dude, you’re serious, huh?”
“Well, hold on then, can we at least …” he faltered, but produced a cigarette lighter. “Let’s try to keep it clean, eh?”
“Awesome idea, man!” Buck took the lighter, flicked a flame to life, and with it, sterilized the nail’s tip by passing it repeatedly through the blue section of the lighter’s flame. Then he again took aim at his own palm, but now it was he who faltered, handing the nail to Shaun. “I can’t do it. You do it.”
So Shaun did. “Look away, dude,” he commanded. When Buck obeyed, he tentatively stabbed the sterilized nail into the fleshy part of Buck’s palm near the wrist
Buck inspected the wound before pronouncing, “That ain’t gonna be enough. Do it again.”
Whereupon Shaun did, this time with more force, producing a second puncture wound that spurted a quantity of blood sufficient to meet Buck’s unstated requirements.
“Sonuva!” cursed Buck, violently shaking his hand, splattering the headliner and the dash with his blood.
“Dude, my truck!”
“Right. Sorry, man.” Buck licked his wounds clean. “Nice shot, bro,” then, while reaching for the nail with his left hand, said, “Now it’s my turn.”
Shaun relinquished the nail and, wishing he’d had more to drink, extended his right hand, palm facing up. “Turn your head,” Buck commanded. Shaun did.
Buck struck once to produce a respectable wound, then appealed to fairness for a second shot, which Shaun granted.
Equitably wounded, they then both spat into their palms before clasping hands firmly to Clint Black’s “Better Man” playing on the radio.
“Oh hey,” Buck said once the ritual was over, “can I borrow your black leather sofa bed? I could use a bed now that’s bigger than my twin. She hasn’t said anything, but it’s kinda embarrassing, you know?”
There was no question as to who “she” was.
On a drizzly Saturday evening the following September, Shaun entered the Cottonwood Dairy Queen, seeking to soothe a bit of agitation while indulging a hurt over Buck’s remoteness since the night of their bloody, spitty ceremony. Their mutual hope had been for it to fortify their friendship against the attacks sure to be mounted against it by Jezebel, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect: It had signaled, if not its death, then at least that the condition of their friendship was terminal. Shaun’s evening had driven that point home, for he’d arrived at the Dairy Queen by way of Buck’s house, where he’d finally unloaded from the bed of his pickup the faux black leather sofa bed, thus concluding a drawn-out, vexing effort to arrange a dropoff. For weeks, Buck either would not commit or would, but then failed to show up at the agreed-upon hour to receive the sofa bed he’d asked to borrow. That drizzly Saturday Buck’s excuse was the closing shift at the Blockbuster.
Shaun had finally had enough of hauling the sofa bed around town. Fed up, he unloaded the sofa bed onto Buck’s driveway by himself, but not too fed up to thoughtfully cover it with plastic sheeting as protection against the drizzle.
In the Dairy Queen he encountered Jezebel, who had arrived earlier with a group of girlfriends. She recognized him, so took him aside, whispering to him her fear that her friends were inexpert at driving in the rain, then expressing a wish to be driven home by a pair of masculine hands practiced with piloting a vehicle over hazardous road conditions. But, she lamented, Buck was working the closing shift at the Blockbuster.
Shaun, chivalrous to a fault, offered to drive her home in his truck, which, he pointed out, had excellent traction thanks to the XLT’s P225/70R15 tires, resorting to details only adolescent boys think are interesting to adolescent girls.
Here I have a sense of foreboding. Something terrible is about to happen. I can tell because I’ve caught Shaun in a lie.
I’ve owned two Ford Ranger XLT pickups in my life, which, I think, makes me something of an expert on them. The XLT package indeed includes the wide P225/70R15 tires and anti-lock brakes, but only a foolish young girl would accept that those features are any good at keeping an empty pickup from fishtailing, perhaps wildly careening, on pavement slick with desert dust and fresh, light rain.
At this juncture in the narrative, Shaun shakes his head as though confounded even today to identify just what had motivated him to violate the sacred commitment he’d sealed with Buck just a few weeks before that night at the Dairy Queen. He releases his mug to wince at a pair of clean scars from puncture wounds in the open palm of his right hand, clasps the mug again, takes a gulp of beer, continues.
They departed the Dairy Queen, but not before she’d alerted everybody in the place to their departure with a loud announcement, “Oh, don’t worry about me, Shaun will be driving me home in his pickup, with the – what are they called, again? – 225hp tires!”
Even the guys working the Brazier knew they were leaving together.
He escorted her to the passenger door, opened it for her, assisted her to her seat. He then shut the door with just the right force to inspire her to confidence in his masculine hands.
While he walked through the drizzle and round the rear of the pickup to the driver side door, she inspected the cab as thoroughly as time permitted. Overall, she was satisfied with its cleanliness and creature comforts. Together, they exceeded those of Buck’s truck. She congratulated herself.
Shaun climbed in. She looked to him. Because she was significantly more petite than he, she was forced to direct her gaze upward to see him, upward at just enough of an angle to see the spatter from Buck’s hand on the headliner forming a macabre burst about Shaun’s head.
“Oh – that? Nothin’. Just some blood from my hand. From a couple weeks ago. Cut my hand, and you know how you stop the it hurting by shaking it around?”
“No. I have no idea.”
“Well, anyway, that’s what I did: shook out the pain but got a little blood in the truck.”
“What were you doing when you cut it?”
“What, my hand?”
“Yes, of course your hand!”
He grunted, in the primal, Neanderthal-busy-smashing-rocks sort of way young boys do when trying to impress girls with their utter disregard for their own physical well-being, “Uh – I dunno. Musta been cutting something. With a blade, probably. Don’t remember, really. I cut lots of stuff.”
Much to the relief of Mike and me, Shaun indeed delivered Jezebel to her home in safety and comfort that evening. But my sense of foreboding went on crackling. For good reason, as it turns out.
Yes, he had delivered her safely to her home. But then he stayed a while. Then stayed a while longer.
Now, much to the inconvenience of the principal actors in this drama, every one of Jezebel’s friends was also returned safely to her home that same night. Consequently, those friends had lived to release a torrent of gossip the following Monday morning into Mingus Union High School about the seduction, which torrent crashed through the corridors of the school and, finally, onto poor Buck’s ears.
The disclosure of Shaun’s betrayal sharpened he and Buck’s estrangement to an inimical edge. While before the seduction they were merely distant, they could be cordial across that distance, acknowledging one another with smiles and waves. Before the betrayal, Buck had raised a bandaged right hand to acknowledge Shaun at his locker in the days soon after the performance of their ritual. But since the betrayal, their nonverbal communications were only sneers, angry stares, and profane gesticulations.
Shaun assumed he’d never see his sofa bed again; but then, he didn’t care to see it, let alone sleep on it, ever again, so he was okay with it remaining right where it was. He tried not imagining the service to which Buck and Jezebel had called it.
Meantime, Buck had been suffering Jezebel’s rebuffs to his repeated entreaties for an explanation. Finally he took to the wheel of his own pickup, hoping to leave his despair in the Yavapai dust. The roads at the outskirts of Cottonwood, dried by weeks of sun and heat since the rain of the Seduction, beckoned him with the promise of relief.
He drove for an hour, but the dust refused his despair. However, it did yield to him something likely to be more useful to his purpose than a whole night’s driving: A bull snake.
Here Shaun nonchalantly related the snake’s capture, which seemed to me to be a point in the story worth investigating, worth spending some time considering. That a boy would regard his encounter with a snake in the wild as an invitation to capture it is as alien and uncomfortable an outcome of the encounter as any I can think of, yet for Shaun and Mike, this followed as naturally and predictably as morning follows night.
Also unsurprising to either Shaun or Mike was the snake’s deposit into the cab of Shaun’s truck, an act so skillfully re-enacted by Shaun I wonder if he too has fed a snake through the sliding rear window of a Ford Ranger XLT pickup.
The morning after Buck’s Big Night, Shaun climbed into the cab of his pickup. Upon the engine’s start a frighteningly familiar rattle arose from between the jump seats at the rear of the XLT’s extended cab. Shaun turned to ascertain the source of the rattle, which was of course Buck’s bull snake, reared up to express its outrage over Shaun’s encroachment upon its personal space.
Here Shaun augments the narrative with a hilarious re-enactment of the bull snake’s posture by sitting up straight, leaning back in his chair, and demonstrating the flaring of the bull snake’s hood by abutting his open hands against the sides of his head. Somehow he manages to make his eyes both wide and menacing at the same time. He looks like an enraged fish.
Now Shaun, who is as fine a specimen of the human male as natural selection has so far produced, accosted thus in close quarters by a bull snake doing a right believable impersonation of a rattler, reacted in the manner that has been selected for reproduction through the ages by nature, which manner is to scream like a little girl while flailing one’s limbs hysterically. Unfortunately for the modern adolescent, however, screaming and flailing also happen to be wholly unsuited to the purpose of quickly locating a door handle to effect a speedy escape from danger. So instead of bolting immediately from the cab, Shaun for a seeming eternity raked his knuckles, clocked his elbows, banged his knees, and stomped his feet on every feature the Ford Ranger XLT’s cab had to offer other than the door handle: The headliner, the gas pedal, the turn signal, the rear view mirror, the headlight switch, the high beam switch, the shifter, the dome light, the bed light, the steering wheel, the cd ejector button, the windshield washer and wipers, the parking brake, the radio power button, and finally, the horn.
After having exercised every knob, actuator, switch, pedal, and lever in the cab, Shaun finally found the door handle with a hand. But just before pulling on it, he checked to see whether his gesticulations had done anything to reassure the snake that he meant no harm. The snake’s demeanor indicated that its opinion of Shaun’s proximity remained unchanged.
He jettisoned himself from the cab with one last high-pitched scream.
Seated there on the driveway next to his beloved pickup with its lights on, wipers slapping, and radio blaring, he contemplated with increasing despondency how his fortunes had changed since that fateful, drizzly Saturday evening at the Dairy Queen. From his vantage point there on the driveway he could observe through the truck’s open door Buck’s blood spattered across the headliner. He heard the snake. And he heard Clint Black singing “Better Man” from the radio.
His esteem sank as he contemplated a friendship in ruin.
On the song’s end, his pride reasserted itself. Buck, he remembered, had driven away the snake of his childhood with a rake. Shaun had a rake. He also had goggles, a football helmet, and a pair of welding gloves. He suited up then drove the snake from the cab.
He drove to Jezebel’s, where she helpfully reminded him of the pros that more than offset the cons of her insinuation between he and Buck.
Shaun’s relationship with Jezebel hadn’t any more staying power than Buck’s, but his estrangement from Buck persevered beyond their graduation.
Much to the relief of Mike and me, in the denouement we learn that Shaun and Buck reconciled ten years later, at a high school reunion. Shaun was, as is customary at such events, holding court to tell the story to a group of classmates.
Buck wandered up. “So you found the snake?”
“That was you?”
“Did it get ya?”
“Nah, I just grabbed it and threw it out of the truck.”
It’s not a lie if there were no witnesses.
The ruling from the audience: No Harm, No Foul. The two friends shook hands, reuniting the evidence of their ceremonial self-mutilation for the first time since the night of its performance all those years ago. On releasing their grip, curiosity got the best of them; they could not help but to inspect each other’s wounds. Buck whistled with admiration over the cleanliness and near-imperceptibility of Shaun’s scars, but Shaun said with alarm, “Whoa, dude. What happened to your hand?”
“Ain’t nuthin, it got infected pretty bad from the swear we did.”
“You serious? But we cleaned the nail. Did you cut it again or something?”
“Nah, I just didn’t bother to clean out the holes for a couple days. I put a big bandage on it, but that didn’t help much. Had to go to the doctor, eventually. He opened ‘em up again, dumped in some peroxide or something. I had to take some pills. No tetanus. I turned out okay.”
As if to reinforce what I took to be the moral of Shaun’s story, Mike launched into a fine but contrasting narrative of his own, the central character of which had been bitten by a rabid fox. That man, that poor inferior mutant, with the fox’ foaming jaws still locked onto his calf, calmly grabbed the fox by the scruff, asked a companion to retrieve a stick and some rope, then recited a Shakespearean soliloquy on the certainty of his fate – death in about 6 months – while waiting patiently for his companion’s return.
“So what happened to the guy?” I pre-empted, wanting Mike, for Shaun’s sake, to get to the point.
“Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him since.”
“So he could be dead now.”
“Well, I certainly hope not, but yes, for all I know he could be.”
“Well, there you have it: Lesson learned. If he’d run away screaming like a little girl, like Shaun here or any of us more highly-evolved men would’ve done, he’d be alive today.”
Mike sensed the thrust of what I was saying, but was wrestling with a contradiction. He pointed out, “He had kids, though.”
But I was not about to relent. “Poor things. With genes that shoddy, they’re doomed to an early death.”
Both Mike and Shaun nodded. I had made my point, and we all felt better for it.