You Think You’re Safe Until You’re Not

by Ace Boggess

Inmate Buck Berk ran the buffer for an hour before it bumped a chair and the snake leapt out at him. Well, it didn’t so much leap as wobble, its insignificant head slicing the air in a down-up motion more like a woodpecker’s. It bounced a dozen times, then stilled.

Berk jumped back, releasing the powerful buffer which jetted several feet and slammed into a shelf before the absence of his finger on the kill-switch shut it off. He let out a comic chirp of fright that, had anyone heard it, would’ve haunted him for the rest of his stay at Boone County Correctional Center. One moment of childlike panic from a six-three, muscular, leather-skinned titan would forever label him among the cons as the cartoon elephant afraid of a mouse. He’d be a punchline and might have to throw a few punches.

A snake in the prison was no joke, though—the same with spiders, rats, contagions. Everything became exaggerated in the minds of prisoners who had plenty of time to sit around and think the worst. Each ingrown hair was a staph infection, every arachnid climbing a wall a brown recluse. For hardened men, many guilty of brutalities and bloodshed, they lived with a lot of fear as if the prison were Australia and anything at all might murder them.

Berk took a breath to regain his composure. He stared at the snake, watching for additional movement. It couldn’t have been more than eight inches long, its skin grayish brown with patches of black. It had coiled tightly in three loops, its neck raised, head focused to a point and aimed like the tip of a No. 2 pencil. Timber rattlesnake, he realized, barely bigger than a hatchling. It looked ready for battle. Now that it had stopped it swings, it didn’t flinch, flick, tremble, shimmy, or, apparently, breathe. Berk looked closer and saw that it was stuck to masking tape used for padding on one foot of an old chair. It also wasn’t alive. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “Will you look at that.” He went to his knees on the white tile floor, easing forward in case his assessment had been wrong.

The thing was trapped by the tape. It appeared almost petrified.

Berk didn’t understand the physics of it. How could a dying creature hold its pose until it transformed into a mini-statue like those tchotchkes for sale at roadside attractions in the hills? Timber rattlers weren’t strangers in West Virginia, especially along wooded mountain trails. How, he wondered, did this one find its way here? Only one door connected the education wing to the outside, and that led from the classroom onto the rec yard with its hot tarmac, weight benches, and basketball hoops. From there, two other doors separated the classroom from this storage area. Between them was the library with its bowed shelves and dirty white tile. That meant the snake had to climb the prison wall, slip through two fences, cross the rec yard, slither under three doors, and journey across three rooms in order to end up here, stuck to a chair like a monument to itself, resting above its own grave. And it had to do all this without being seen. That, or it had been seen and no one cared, which was an altogether more unsettling possibility.

Reaching out his arm, Berk flicked at the snake with a fingernail. The act made a sound like two marbles striking. It was hard, all right—solid, unmoving aside from its bobble on the tape before it returned to an upright position.

*

He had seen rattlers and plenty of other snakes in the wild, resting in sunlight along the hiking trails and dirt-bike paths of his childhood. The first time, he was six, out walking with Grandpa Elton, a gentle hulk of a man who wore flannels and overalls, picked blackberries in season for his second wife’s pies, and worked the land until acid drainage from the mines killed everything off. “Keep your distance,” Grandpa Elton said, pointing at the serpent, coiled and blending in with the rock and weeds around it. “They’re not like copperheads. They won’t come after you. Not mean-spirited at all. But you, you’re a terror to them. It’s ready for a fight. You step too close, it’ll get you.”

Young Buck Berk wished he could pick it up, hold it, run his hands along its dusty skin. “What if it does head toward me?” he asked. “What do I do then?”

“You back away slowly, Buck. It’s not after you. It has someplace to be, and you’re in the way. That’s all.”

*

Berk wondered if this baby had had someplace to be, if it had been following its instincts or some hidden ley lines only snakes could sense. How did the tape ensnare it, interrupting its passage? Maybe a bug had been stuck there, he thought, dangling like a shiny fishing lure. Even after that, he thought, what had left it so poised as if ready to lash out?

Certain that he wasn’t in danger, Berk used his finger and thumb to grab the snake by its coils. They felt like cool stone, rigid and smooth. With care, he pulled the tail away from the tape. Not a scale of the dragon moved, and the masking tape peeled easily away. The rattler had become a figurine from a fairy tale—nightmarish from a distance, a child’s toy up close.

He shifted it around in his hands, then flinched, startled as if bitten, when a voice came over the speaker box. “Mr. Berk,” the voice said, “I don’t hear that buffer going. You slacking in there?”

Berk grinned. It was C.O. Jeffers messing with him. Jeffers didn’t care how well he buffed the floor in this back room or if he took a break to rest from time to time. Running these buffers was demanding work. They required muscle and practice. They were weighty, oversized, and unwieldy, while so powerful they kept trying to pull away in their own directions. Like rattlers, Berk noted. Besides, he thought, apparently no one had been in here in a long time. Who would notice the shiny floor? “Jeffers,” he said, looking up as if talking to a god in the ceiling, “come in here a minute. You got to see this.”

“Why? You got a girl back there?”

“Sure do, and she says she knows you.”

“Funny, Mr. Berk.”

“Seriously, Jeffers. I found something.”

“What’d you find?”

“A monster,” Berk replied. His tone made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

*

The second time he saw a rattlesnake, he was thirteen, and there were many, most of them dead. A lot of his neighbors and kin in Taylor County had gone on a hunt. They were rounding up and killing all the rattlesnakes they could find after one bit Sarah Dunleavy’s cocker spaniel Jane Austen in the Dunleavy driveway. The dog died, and Sarah, about Berk’s age, cried and panicked until her dad organized a posse. He paid twenty dollars a snake.

Berk remembered seeing the bodies tossed like trash in the bed of Mr. Dunleavy’s baby-blue pickup. Some still twitched with their heads chopped off, undulating like the surface of a lake stirred up by a storm. Difficult to say if anyone caught Jane Austen’s murderer, but enough rattlers were slaughtered to satisfy Sarah, who stood by the truck and said mean words to every corpse collected as if dead snakes could understand the concept of revenge.

Justice can be like that: guilty or innocent, blood must be spilled to satisfy a victim or a child.

*

As soon as C.O. Jeffers came through the door, his pock-marked face already stretching toward a laugh at whatever game inmate Berk had planned, Berk waved the snake at him, coming a few feet from his face. Jeffers snapped back as if awakening from a dream of falling. He grabbed at his chest as though he had been attacked, fat fingers touching the plastic hand-mic clipped to his shirt. “What the fuck, Berk?” he said, letting out a breath he didn’t know he had held.

“Baby rattlesnake,” Berk said.

“What the ever-loving fuck! Jesus Christ on a popsicle stick. Get that thing out of my face. You scared me half to heaven.”

“Don’t worry, Jeffers. It’s dead. Long dead.”

“Doesn’t look dead.”

“It is. Here, touch it.” Berk lifted it higher like an offering.

Jeffers backed up again. “I said get it out of my face. I could write you up for assaulting an officer.”

“I didn’t assault you, Jeffers.”

“You threatened me with that thing. Where’d you get it, anyway?”

“In here. It was stuck to the chair. It’s like a fossil.”

C.O. Jeffers took a step forward, his uniform going taut. He was an inch or two shorter than Berk, but heavy in the wrong places—places where the inmate had built boulders after years of lifting weights. The guard looked closely at the rattler, then shook his head and waved a hand as he backed away a third time. “Oh, no,” he said. “We got snakes in the building?”

“Could be. We have rats, and where there’s a rat, you always have a chance of snakes. Especially in a big place like this. Lot of dark rooms where nobody ever goes. This used to be a hospital, right? Probably ways in and out that we don’t even know about.”

Jeffers nodded.

“This baby, well, I think she slithered in here off the rec yard.”

“We got snakes on the rec yard?” Jeffers was sweating, the scars on his cheeks glowing against his skin like pushpins on a map.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Need to report this. Might have to get the exterminators in here.”

“It’s nothing. Just a baby.”

“Where’s the mama, then?”

“There!” Berk shouted, pointing at the shadow alley between two rickety bookcases.

C.O. Jeffers hopped backward, then saw Berk laughing. “You got me, all right,” he said. “Can’t believe you got me again.”

*

Buck Berk saw a snake on the night he was arrested. Not a rattler; it was a black snake—five feet long and with a head like a wallet full of nails. It crossed the driveway in front of the Caruthers place, its body drawing S’s on the concrete. It turned toward the approaching Jeep and stretched its mouth in warning. Berk imagined he could hear the hiss and smell the death-stink of the creature’s breath like a rotten log on damp ground. He should’ve taken that as a sign and fled. Grandpa Elton had warned him, “Nature often tells you when to go the other way,” and also, “You can’t trust snakes. Even the good ones let you think you’re safe until you’re not.”

“Buck, was that…?” said Jessica from the passenger’s seat.

“Black snake,” he told her. “Don’t worry about it.”

She mock-shivered. Her dirty hair clung to sweat on her face. She looked wraith-like, grim. Dark bands around her eyes resembled bruises as if she had been punched. Jessica was as desperate for a score as Berk. He had stiffed her on the last dose, cutting off a quarter of his pill for her, crushing it up, then skimming residue off the credit card he used to carve out lines. She didn’t care about snakes or nature’s warnings; she cared about dope, the same as Berk.

They had read the obituary for Dr. Caruthers in the paper. They knew his service was today, noon, now. No one would be home, and he had no silent alarm in the house. His junkie grandson Kevin told them as much, describing the cache as well: a hall closet stacked and cluttered with sample boxes of drugs, some dating back almost a decade. There were plenty of Lortabs and Vicodins, Kevin assured them, expecting a cut. Maybe some oxycodone, too, in weird brands not so familiar on the streets.

Buck and Jessica shivered at the thought of all that wasted dope. They planned to break in and snatch as much as they could. They’d keep the boxes with recent expiration dates. The older ones they could sell, the drugs still at least somewhat effective. It was free money and an easy fix. Nobody in the family would even know what was missing.

They didn’t waste time trying to pick a lock or check latches. Buck Berk broke a window, cleared the jagged edges away, then helped Jessica climb through. She let him in by unlocking the front door, and they were searching the first hall closet they came to when thunder boomed and the wall beside Jessica’s head exploded.

A man in a striped bathrobe and boxer shorts stumbled down the staircase at the opposite end of the hall. He waved a .38 as if it were a miniature flag. Dr. Caruthers, it turned out, had six brothers, one of which drank too much, acted deranged, cussed and threatened, and had been asked by the other five not to attend the funeral. The drunk Caruthers fired again, but tripped on the bottom step, his bullet hitting the floor. Buck and Jessica were out the door, empty-handed, before he could right himself. He followed them, but didn’t let off another shot. Instead, he focused his blurry eyes to make out the first five numbers and letters on the license plate of the burnt-orange Jeep. It was enough information to identify Buck who, in his frenzy of need, hadn’t thought to change the plate.

*

He played with the petrified rattler as if it were an action figure. He swung it through the air like a model airplane. For all his junkie desperation and the other unsolved crimes from his past, Berk had a childlike personality. He found everything amusing—a joy to be shared. For some reason, he wanted to share this one with C.O. Jeffers.

The C.O. preferred not. “Contraband,” he said. “Get rid of that thing or I’ll write you up for contraband. There’s nothing in the rule book that says you can have a dead baby snake.”

“Nothing that says I can’t,” Berk said.

“If it don’t say you can, you can’t. Unless it says it in black and white that an inmate shall be permitted to have a dead baby snake, then said inmate cannot possess said dead baby snake. That means it’s contraband.”

“Get over yourself, Jeffers.”

“Seriously, though, you take that back to the POD and I’ll have to write you up. They’ll fire my ass if I don’t.”

“Okay. Don’t worry. It stays here. I’ll get rid of it. Want to show some folks first. Nobody’ll believe me otherwise.”

C.O. Jeffers paused to consider this. His face brightened as if he had swallowed a flashlight. “That gives me an idea,” he said. “Shannon.”

It took Berk little time to understand. “Ms. Jarvis?” he said. “You wouldn’t.”

Jeffers laughed, his chuckles sounding as if he were choking on an animal cracker. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I would.”

“No,” said Berk, drawing out the word.

“We’re doing it.”

“Okay, but you’re taking the rap for it.”

Jeffers agreed.

Shannon Jarvis, the English teacher, had been with the Boone County Correctional Center education department only a few months. She stood no more than five-two with reddish-brown hair and a body like a sock draped over a pair of tulips. Everyone liked her. She seemed kind and supportive, although she took no guff from staff or prisoners. She taught creative writing as a form of rehabilitation, often sharing poems with the inmates that braved her classes.

Jeffers had been flirting with her this whole time, as had other officers, including Captain Lorca, which even Jeffers in his backwoods way knew was inappropriate. She played along, smiling and laughing, but she acted as if it weren’t happening and mentioned her cop boyfriend in every conversation.

While Ms. Jarvis showed no fear of convicts or guards, she was scared of everything else. Spiders gave her the creeping shivers. Mice left her standing on a chair or desk. Even deer frightened her because she saw a nature show once in which a buck pummeled a man with its front hooves while standing almost erect. She spotted a grayish spider in the education wing once and ran out, slamming the door behind her. She refused to return until someone squashed it or removed it elsewise from the building. She didn’t believe it to be a brown recluse like the cons would, but that didn’t matter. It could’ve been a rubber squeaky-spider dog tog, and she still would’ve lost her mind.

Berk shook his head as if dumbfounded. Why, he wondered, would C.O. Jeffers torment Ms. Jarvis, playing such a cruel prank, if he wanted to get in her pants? Was this his way of flirting? “That’s mean, dude,” he said.

“It’s a gag. Don’t you want to be there to see her face?”

Berk didn’t, but then again, it would make a fun story to tell on the POD.

*

The last snake Berk saw was in a ditch by the side of the road up north. He had worked his way through the system, gotten his classification lowered, and earned his outside clearance. After that, he had been shipped to Pruntytown Correctional Center to work on the road crew, picking up trash and clearing debris.

Pruntytown was near Grafton in Taylor County, close to home and every shady person that Berk knew. He played it cool for a while, learned the ins and outs of the place, figured out what he thought he could get away with. Soon, he had a plan. Not for an escape, which would’ve been easy in the moment but hell in the long run. No, just a little fun. On the other side of a ditch along Old #9 Mine Road, there was a long wood-planked fence. Its white lumber stretched over an acre, except for one post that kept a weathered burgundy shade as if placed there from a scrap pile and forgotten. Berk made contact with his Taylor Country friends and arranged for them to drop off a few things near that post—tobacco at first, then a baggie full of pills. He didn’t smuggle goods into the prison as other inmates did. He kept the stash to himself, enjoying a smoke when he was out that way and no one was looking, then eventually popping a few Lortabs, the focus of his heartache, before time to be transported back.

One day, he went for the stash, hidden under a rock by the ditch near the burgundy fencepost. He found it guarded. The snake looked blotchy, with a sort of orangish angular crown. It didn’t keep its distance like a rattler or mosey along like a black snake. It lunged and headed straight for him.

Berk ran from that copperhead as if he were making a break for it. He arrived back at the prison van sweating, shaking, and out of breath. The two correctional officers, lazing against the van and smoking their own cigarettes, saw him coming and knew he had to be on drugs, which, at least this time, he wasn’t. They reported it, and another officer piss-tested Berk as soon as he set foot in the prison.

Berk spent sixty days in the hole and lost six months’ worth of good time as well as his outside clearance. After his time in segregation ended, he took the long ride in shackles back down south to Boone County and medium security.

*

“This’ll rock, you’ll see,” C.O. Jeffers said, carefully placing the dead snake on the center of Ms. Jarvis’s desk, eyes facing her chair. “She’s gonna freak.”

“Guess so,” Berk said. “Just remember, I had no part in this.”

“Yeah yeah, you’re in the clear. This’ll be fun.” Jeffers elbowed him as if they were friends and partners in some clever conspiracy.

Berk said nothing. As far as he was concerned, Jeffers had all the power, so Jeffers could take the fall if this went bad.

“Grab yourself a seat, Mr. Berk.” Jeffers pointed to the back of the classroom. Then, he spoke into his shoulder mic and cleared it with control that inmate Berk would be staying to attend the class. “He’s hoping for some Bob Dylan Thomas,” he said. “He’s a big Bob Dylan Thomas fan.”

A few minutes later, the other inmates filed in, their shirts neatly tucked, chests jutting, shoulders tense. They tried to look tough even though they had come here to learn about poetry. They sat at the donated one-armed student desks, too small for men whose upper bodies squeezed out like genies from bottles. A few guys glanced around, but most stared straight ahead, preferring not to witness any illicit items that might be changing hands.

With all the students seated and, for the most part, quiet, Ms. Jarvis entered like a rock star, strutting and pretending the audience didn’t exist. She carried a stack of Xerox copies of a poem. It wasn’t by Dylan or Thomas or Bob Dylan Thomas. She brought a Billy Collins poem—“The Lanyard”—which Ms. Jarvis considered a simple, clear, fitting tribute to mothers, the only family members inmates respected as part of their code. She dropped the stack of papers on her desk and spotted the rattlesnake right away.

Berk closed his eyes. When he thought about it later, he wasn’t sure why. Maybe he felt more afraid of Ms. Jarvis than rattlesnakes, or maybe he didn’t want to see her turn pale, scream, and run, as he had run from that menacing, mean copperhead up in Taylor County.

Standing behind him, C.O. Jeffers nudged him in the shoulder as if to say, Here we go.

Ms. Jarvis stared, glassy-eyed and almost teary. She reached out a hand and cupped the slight snake. “Aww,” she said at last. “How adorable. Where’d this come from?” She studied the room until she spotted C.O. Jeffers in the back. “Charlie, did you buy this for me? It’s darling.”

The inmates turned their heads, shrugging with their eyes as if to say, Who’s Charlie? and What’s going on?

Berk opened his eyes and glanced up at Jeffers, who blushed as if he had pissed his pants. The scars on his cheeks glowed so whitely against the pink of him that they looked like constellations. He cleared his throat twice, then said in a mumbling whimper, “It’s real.”

“What’s that, Charlie?” said Ms. Jarvis. “Speak up.”

“I said it’s real.” He drew out the last word as if exhaling the long, paralyzing breath he had been holding.

Ms. Jarvis shook her head and clicked her tongue against her cheek. “That’s funny, Charlie. Ha ha. You probably bought this down at the Dollar Tree. Well, thank you, Charlie. It’s so cute. I’ll put it on the mantel over the fireplace. My boyfriend will love this. He loves snakes. He has real ones. Did I ever tell you? Anyway, thanks, Charlie, thanks. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a poem to read … unless you want to stay and read it, too….”

Berk watched Jeffers slink across the room, head bowed, almost slumping past the steel door. Berk pictured him collapsing on the other side—struck, bitten, embarrassed to death. Happens to all of us, he thought, remembering Grandpa Elton’s words: Even the good ones let you think you’re safe until you’re not.

 

Ace Boggess is author of four books of poetry, most recently I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So (Unsolicited Press, 2018) and Ultra Deep Field (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2017), and two novels, including States of Mercy (Alien Buddha Press, 2019). His recent fiction appears in Notre Dame Review, The Laurel Review, Lumina, and Psaltery & Lyre. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

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