“Snake Oil” by Suzanne Hodsden

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Suzanne Hodsden’s 2021 Perkoff Prize runner-up story “Snake Oil” features a family grappling with AIDS in the 1990s and a woman’s creative but desperate attempts at alternative healing.

 

 

Snake Oil

By Suzanne Hodsden

In the summer of 1991, Grandpa Jack dedicated his life to providing his youngest daughter with whatever she wanted, no matter what kind of inconvenience, discomfort, or even fear it might cause the rest of us. When Aunt Angie decided she wanted to see some snakes, he made sure we all had to see them, even if we had to make a seven-hour trip from Denver to Albuquerque. Mom’s crappy Nissan made the drive, creaking under the weight of five humans, Grandpa’s oxygen, and a dog—all to visit the International Museum of Rattlesnakes.

Aunt Angie rode beside me in one seat while Grandpa, who was a large man even past his prime, and his oxygen tank took up two seats. Mom’s overweight Pomeranian Blanche was perched on his shoulder like a pirate’s parrot, and I had my head pressed against the window, scheming  about how many times I could slap my brother’s face before the adults in the car intervened.

Oscar was three years younger, and at age seven, he hadn’t yet grown into his boxer’s body. He was all hands and feet and scrawny knees. Mom dressed him in a rain poncho and lined the front seat with Hefty bags, anticipating his almost guaranteed motion sickness. Every crinkling of plastic taunted me. His clear display of leg and shoulder room and his access to the AC and radio struck me as a cruel injustice to bear.

Grandpa was busy contending with Blanche, who nosed the window and barked at any birds she saw along the highway. Blanche was fat. Not a couple ounces past chubby, but round like a basketball. Mom said it was because she was sad after losing her lady parts, and Grandpa asked if the sadness was what made her fart too. She had a habit of letting them go every time she barked, swishing them into Grandpa’s face with her plume of a tail.

I witnessed the same cycle several times: Grandpa would swat her to his lap, hand him to Angie or to me or Oscar. Every time, she’d struggle free and roll her body back to her original perch.

“Just tell her no,” Mom said.

“She doesn’t understand the meaning of the word,” he said, fiddling with the oxygen tubes in his nose.

“I admire her tenacity,” Mom said, and this made Oscar and me laugh like loons.

Grandpa had been in the army and fought in the war in Vietnam. He talked a lot about tenacity whenever we had to do something tiresome. Lawn mowing, dishes, removing dead mice from the basement—it all got filed into the same category. It all built tenacity. He told us we’d thank him when we grew up to be magnificent. Mom had heard the “t” word a lot growing up, and though she didn’t use it on me or Oscar, she still made us do all the same unpleasant chores. I asked her once if I was her servant, and without even looking up at me, she said, “Well, I certainly didn’t have children for the fun of it.”

Aunt Angie spent the majority of the ride asleep against me like a wet blanket, and she felt heavy even though she was a lot lighter than she had been before she’d moved to Las Vegas and gotten sick. She’d always been the pretty sister. In old pictures, she looked like a young Kim Basinger next to Mom’s Natalie from the Facts of Life. Aunt Angie had come back to live with us in Denver not long after Dad died, and even then, she was a pale scaffolding of her former self. Her hair was still blond, and it hung limp around her face because she never bothered to style it.

No one understood HIV or AIDs in the early ’90s, except to know that it killed everyone who got it eventually. Mom had explained to Oscar and me that we had to be careful about germs. The disease Angie had could be managed if folks took care of themselves, Mom said. Magic Johnson had it, we knew, and he looked great. This was the goal we all aimed at, and we washed our hands on the way into the house and wore masks if we had colds. Even Oscar was meticulous and careful. We’d lost our dad young, and death wasn’t something abstract for us.

I once tried to beg off school claiming I thought I had AIDs, and Mom revoked my phone privileges. We couldn’t catch HIV, and it was mean to pretend, she said. I asked her how she knew, and she said she just did. I pressed her further, and she’d finally said, “Because you don’t do what girls do to catch it.”

“How do you know what I do?” I demanded, and she’d just sighed, not having the strength to have the sex and drug talk at that particular moment.

Even so, she didn’t like her sister riding so close to me in the back seat. She kept looking at me with Aunt Angie’s head on my shoulder before turning back to frown at the road.

***

Around hour six of the drive, the air conditioning went out and the last of my nerves fizzled to nothing. Cracking a window was out of the question because of potential contaminants. Oscar was making chugging sounds like a train with his feet on the front dash, and I lasted through about fifteen minutes of him hollering “CHOO CHOO” before I lunged for him. We started slapping the crap out of each other, causing a brawl that had even Grandpa throwing his own swings. Blanche leaped to the headrest, issuing battle cries and filling the air-locked car with her noxious stench.

Mom swerved to the side of the highway, screaming at us with our full names. Oscar Daniel! Louise Patricia! Dad! The commotion woke Aunt Angie, and she looked up and around, trying to remember where she was.

“Are we there?” she asked.

“No,” we all said at the same time.

She stretched the sleep out of her back, and the alarm on her digital watch (a gift from Grandpa Jack) went off. She dug into her bag for the many bottles of pills she carried with her at all times. A regimen of anti-viral drugs, otherwise known as AZT, let most people with HIV extend their quality of life but came with a host of nasty side effects, including persistent nausea, diarrhea, and fatigue. They also had to be taken on a very strict schedule to remain effective, hence the watch.

Pulling the bottle free, she shook it like maracas and shimmied her boobs like she was still a showgirl. “Cocktail hour,” she announced.

I gave her my Coke from our McDonalds stop, which was mostly brown water, and she thanked me. She asked if she could keep the cup, and when I said yes, she stuffed it down in her huge bag. She never let me drink after her, ever.

“God, why is it so hot in here?” said Angie. “I’m sweating like a whore in a confessional.”

“What’s a whore?” asked my brother.

“You are, Oscar,” I said, and Grandpa grabbed my face, giving me fish lips, and told me to watch my mouth.

“Just be quiet, Oscar,” said Grandpa. “No more train noises either. Hear me?”

Mom steered us back onto the highway, and before the sun went down, I spotted the first sign for Albuquerque.

***

The closer we got to the city, the more animated Aunt Angie became. The weight loss had made her eyes seem huge, and right then, they seemed like they were going to fall out of her face. She held the hem of her T-shirt and bunched it into her fists. Grandpa rubbed her back to soothe her, saying it wouldn’t be long before she was with the snakes.

“I know. I can feel them,” she said. She shivered and clapped her hands together.

Was she creepy before she moved to Las Vegas? Honestly, I can’t remember, but I don’t think so. She used to give me rides on her back, making up silly songs and singing them. I love you more than ladybugs love the windowsills. I love you like a worm loves dirt. She carried me around in a laundry basket that we pretended was a spaceship. Mom was busy with baby Oscar, who was sick a lot, and I think part of Aunt Angie always pretended I was hers.

Now I pulled away from her, almost frightened of her disease-hollowed body and waning strength. She put her arm around me and pulled me close, and her sweat smelled different from the rest of ours. It was almost sour, but I tried not to flinch. She asked me if I was excited, and I told her no.

“You’re the only one who likes snakes, dude,” I said.

“We’ll see,” she said. She bounced her eyebrows at me.

That night at the motel, Mom cranked up the AC, something she never let us do at home, and we ate pizza on the bed and felt like royalty. I opened up my journal and recorded all the details of the day’s events, including how much Oscar sucked and how much I hated snakes. The entry labeled June 25, 1991, reads: Anything that can climb a tree without feet is not to be trusted.

***

In the light of day, I was unimpressed with Albuquerque. No city is ever as impressive in person as it is in postcards, in my opinion. Though it was surrounded by mountains, it just seemed brown to me. Brown squat buildings steamed from the heat and a low-hanging sky. In the neighborhoods, locals splashed bright paint on everything to try to distract, but the brown shone through. We sent my dad’s parents in Ohio a card with a hot air balloon on it, even though I never saw one once when we were there.

The outside of the museum was equally unimpressive. It was just a big block building with not a lot of windows. There were no statues of snakes on the lawn, no garden or playground equipment, which were always my marks of a fine museum. I noted in my journal that despite what I’d been led to believe, Albuquerque was lame.

Only Grandpa, Oscar, and I accompanied Aunt Angie into the museum because Mom needed to stay with the dog, a brilliant excuse now that I think back on it. Despite her enthusiasm about a family trip, my aunt abandoned us the second we got through the door, and it was up to Grandpa to squire us through the exhibits while she slipped into a back room on the tail of a long-haired guy with tattoos and an ugly-butt chin.

The first room was all redwood paneling and glass displays of snakes in various fighting stances, head up to strike and fangs (made of rubber, of course) extended. There were buttons on the wall you could press to play different kinds of rattles, and a dark room showing an old projection-style movie on a loop. Grandpa sat us down in front of it and went to find Aunt Angie, and I made myself busy recording all the snake facts that I was sure my aunt would want to know all about when she returned.

SNAKE FACTS

  1. Snakes are deaf.
  2. Snakes only have one lung.
  3. Snakes smell with their tongue.
  4. The rattle on their tails looks like a chewed-down corncob.
  5. Most people hate snakes. People who love snakes look down on almost everybody.

***

The movie about snakes freaked me out more than the snakes themselves. Oscar and I wandered into the next room to see a dozen glass terrariums with different species on display. Western diamondback, panamint speckled, tiger, and black-tailed, along with information about how to identify them by head shape and scale color. Every single one of them was rolled into a ball, snoozing like a hairless puppy. They were not poised to strike, and they had their teeth safely folded into their mouths. Their forked tongues tested the air intermittently and seemed the only sign that they were alive. It was almost like speech, and my imagination went to work imagining their hissing voices. Yesss, we sssee you. Now be gone.

Oscar’s first order of business was to march up to the glass and tap on it and press his nose into it, even though there were signs everywhere forbidding people from doing this. I looked around, trying to find some adult in my family that could help me out ; the fear I felt was slowly boiling into anger. I realized in that moment that Aunt Angie hadn’t really wanted us there at all, but she’d needed the ride and the excuse. That made me furious with her, and the anger balled into my stomach like a cornered animal and made my vision start to blur.

“Are these dead?” Oscar asked, unaware of my impending meltdown.

“No, stupid. Look at their tongues.” They weren’t really speaking, I thought. It wasn’t real.

“I think they’re dead, or maybe sleeping. Are they sleeping?”

“Oscar, this place sucks. Let’s go outside.”

I tried to pull at his arm, but all I got was a handful of his Broncos T-shirt as he squirmed away from me. He banged on the glass and yelled at the snake, a tiger ,to wake up. I’m not sure what happened next. How I ended up against the glass, whether Oscar punched at me or I’d fallen. Everyone who saw it says the snake didn’t open its mouth bigger than Oscar’s head. That it didn’t strike at the glass. That this was all in my mind.

The next concrete memory I have is of Grandpa’s hand clamped over my mouth to muffle my screaming. He carried me out of the museum under one arm with his oxygen wheeling behind us. He collapsed into a bench near the entrance, just as Aunt Angie dragged a laughing Oscar out of the building.

Afterward, Mom wanted to know what had happened, and Oscar composed himself long enough to call me a big fat baby. This time, Aunt Angie caught me before I could pound him into the pavement, and she suggested that we all go get tacos. This was when I noticed that there was something large in her purse and that her bag was carefully zipped shut.

My mother pulled me into her arms, and I melted into her soft warmth while she wiped tears away. Still, I was fixated on the bag. Was it my mind again?

I pointed at it, but my aunt caught my eye before I said anything and held her finger over her mouth, shaking her head.

“That was so awesome,” she said. “I can die now. Thanks, everybody.”

She made that joke all the time, and I think she thought it’d break the tension in the room, but it never did, and no one ever laughed. On the ride home, Oscar barfed tacos all over the front seat of the car at 5:52 PM. I made a note of it in my journal.

***

At my twelfth birthday party, with all my family and friends gathered around my birthday cake shaped like Barbie’s ball gown, a black snake slithered out of my aunt’s blouse sleeve and onto the table. Grandpa and I were the only two people not surprised to see it, and the only two who didn’t start screaming. After spending the previous two months thinking that I was losing my fruit, seeing visual proof of the snakes my aunt had brought home from Albuquerque was a relief.

Most of the party guests ran out of the house, except Mom. who jumped onto a chair clutching Blanche to her chest, screaming “Jesus Christ” over and over again. Grandpa yelled at her, but she insisted that it wasn’t blasphemy if you were begging for help.

Of course, I’d known about the snakes. I’d felt the bulk of her bag against my leg on the ride back to Denver. I’d seen her sneak things into her room: extension cords and Dad’s old aquarium. She’d started wearing blouses that buttoned at the wrist. All of these things added up to only one conclusion, but I hadn’t said anything to anyone. Not even to Grandpa.

Mom and Aunt Angie had started to get along better after our road trip, and my aunt looked and felt much better than she had in months. They laughed over old jokes that only they understood, and I knew that uncovering the secret would bring that entire happy time to an end. Did I like the fact that I shared a house with snakes? Of course not, but as I’d recorded in my diary, Aunt Angie would keep them safely away from everyone if she knew what was good for her. To her credit, she did manage to keep them under close wraps for a long time, considering that she was letting them ride in her brassiere right under our noses.

They weren’t rattlesnakes, which was a great relief to me. They were king snakes, she said. She’d bought them off the tattooed guy she’d met at the museum, who specially bred them for medicinal purposes. She’d gotten a tip from a young guy, who also had HIV, who went to the same disease specialist she did. There was something about the movement along major blood pathways or something. I don’t remember much about the details, mostly because I was trying now to piece together their purpose between my mother’s high-pitched, percussive shrieks.

“How many you got?” asked Grandpa.

“Oh, for the love of God, there is more than one?” said my mother.

In total, there were eight snakes of various varieties living in Aunt Angie’s room, and she swore that none of them were venomous, and they’d never bitten her.

“Don’t you think I’d have found out by now if they were?” she said, but even I could have told her that Mom was in no mood for jokes or even rational argument. About an hour later, everyone was gone, and Blanche was standing in the middle of the table eating my cake, undisturbed. Aunt Angie had bowed out of the fight, and it was down to Mom and Grandpa using the Bible to argue about what to do with Aunt Angie’s new medicine.

Mom referenced creation stories and the snake that tempted Eve into original sin. Grandpa pointed to Moses and his staff with a bronze snake that healed the sick and infirm when the Jews were wandering the desert. They flung verses at each other until Mom played her final card.

“St. Patrick!” she cried. “If snakes are all great and gravy, why did St. Patrick drive them out of Ireland?”

“We Irish have never known what was good for us,” he said.

***

In the end, it was decided that Aunt Angie would sleep in a tent in the yard if she was to keep her snakes with her. She could come into the house to shower and use the toilet, but the snakes were not welcome to join her.

I helped Grandpa put up the tent under the sycamore tree that we hoped would protect her from harsher winds. It was a good tent, made of thick green canvas with metal zippers, and he said it should keep out most of the weather. The air had already turned crisp, and most of the leaves had fallen from the trees. I asked him what would happen in the winter when it started to snow, and he told me, “That’s a different horse in another race.”

After we’d secured the last spike and Grandpa seemed satisfied with our job, I asked him if he loved Aunt Angie more than he loved my mother. If he was shocked or upset by the question, he didn’t show it. He stood up and brushed his hands free of grass and clumps of earth. He adjusted the oxygen in his nose, and he thought over my question.

“I suppose I do,” he said.

“Is it because she’s so much prettier?”

He took me by my shoulders and told me to stand straight and listen up. I always knew he was dead serious when he said that, so I did as I was told.

“Love isn’t something that you give out based on merit. It’s not a medal, Louise. You give it based on who needs it the most. Nothing else. Understand?”

I nodded my head.

***

After the first frost, I went into the yard to take blankets to Aunt Angie. I knocked on the canvas and stepped back so she could unzip the doors. There was a snake wriggling in her sweater, and some of the others were tangled in her hair and made it look alive. She thanked me for the blankets and invited me to come in, but I stood rooted to the ground outside.

“I don’t want to touch them,” I murmured.

“You don’t have to,” she said.

Her eyes were luminous black pearls in the semidarkness as she shifted back to make room for me. I climbed into the tent and sat with my legs tucked up under me and my hands pulled into my sleeves. I tried not to think about what was crawling through her hair. They had grown and shed their skin, and it was littered through the tent like dry leaves.

She told me stories about snakes in ancient Greece. How they used to roam free in hospitals among the sick. She told me about the rod of Asclepius, of Hermes’s caduceus. She told me about Indian cobra cures and the Chinese who cured coal-dust headaches with the venom of a water snake. She told me about Seneca Oil and about fakers with snake oil: big pharmaceutical companies and the big bottles of pills she still administered faithfully every day.

Pharmakon is the Greek word for poison,” she said. “It’s all poison, and it’s all medicine.”

We sat for several minutes and didn’t say a word, and she finally asked if I’d like to hold one. I didn’t want to. I really didn’t, but I held out my hands anyway and asked her not to tell my mother.

“Don’t be scared,” she said, settling a snake into my hands. “You being scared will make her scared, and that isn’t nice.”

The snake she handed me was one she’d named Hero. When I mustered the nerve, I opened my eyes to look at her. Hero wasn’t pure black like the one who’d come to my birthday party. She was red with intermittent stripes of black and white, which made her look like one of grandpa’s socks.

“She’s pretty,” I said, and Aunt Angie smiled in the dark.

Hero crawled up and around the loose weave of my fingers, up my arm. I felt her slick, cool belly against my bare skin and thought Huh. So that’s how they climb.

***

On Halloween night that year, Oscar was too sick to go trick-or-treating. I was already in my Lancelot costume, but Oscar’s costume—a troll doll suit—was still lying on his bed untouched. This was how my mother knew something was seriously wrong. Oscar would walk out of the house with his hand missing to get a bag full of candy.

His face was bright red, and when he talked, he didn’t make any sense to her, but I knew what he was saying. He was saying “Hero.” Over and over, he said the name. Aunt Angie snatched him up and searched his body all over for a bite, and the truth of what had happened, or what might have happened dawned on my mother. She lit from within with rage.

“This is the snakes? Tell me now. Has Oscar been in your tent?”

“He must have . . .” Aunt Angie trailed off, helpless.

We were all good about keeping Oscar away from Aunt Angie’s tent when she wasn’t there, and I couldn’t think when he would have managed to get out there. And Hero? I could not imagine Hero biting anyone, and I said so.

“You’ve been to the tent, too?” Mom whirled on me, and I backed away from her. “Goddamn it.”

This time, Grandpa didn’t even try to correct her. Instead, he told Aunt Angie to take Oscar to the car.

“You promised me, Angie,” Mom said, breathless.

Grandpa and I watched them pull away from the house, and I made him promise not to die that night and leave me alone. I must have looked so sad in my tinfoil armor, so he held out his pinkie and swore to stay alive. I fed Blanche while Grandpa made us mac and cheese.

Later, when Mom called, Grandpa took the call to another room and closed the door on me. His face was solemn and stonelike, and it frightened me enough that I didn’t try to follow him. This was my grandfather as a soldier, something I’d very rarely seen, even when he was lecturing me or giving me hell for my language or for hurting Oscar. Twenty years fell off him that night, and I saw the man who’d survived in the jungles.

He collected gloves and garden shears from the garage and made his way to the tent. The shears were rusty from disuse, and they creaked as he set about his work. Snip. Snip. Snip. Eight Snips.

I walked to the kitchen table and opened my journal to the page of snake facts and recorded one last entry. Snakes make absolutely no noise when they die.

      ***     

When I woke in the morning, Mom and Oscar were home, but Aunt Angie was gone. The tent was gone, and the pieces of snake were missing from the trash can. Wherever she went, she took them with her. Grandpa paced the kitchen asking where she would go and where she’d take her dead animals.

“Where do you bury snakes?” Mom asked, but no one knew.

We didn’t know at that moment that we’d never see her again. We didn’t know that she’d hitched to Wichita or that she would find a boyfriend. She escaped the mountains and died out on the great plains in a hospital surrounded by friends and was buried in a grave they bought for her. They never contacted us until after she’d died. She’d started to contact us many times, her boyfriend said, but she always held back. It was years before we knew any of it.

Instead, we rode around for hours looking for a snake funeral. Mom drove until the gas tank of the Nissan got so low, she worried we’d run out. She pulled to the side of the road, left us all in the car in our winter wear, and jumped out into the falling snow. She called Angie’s name over and over, and it sounded like a howl. Like a dog that’s sick. An ambulance or a tornado warning. Her voice cracked like ice and gave out.

The snow in the air thickened and erased the skyline and anyone standing in it. Then we saw her, lit up by the headlights and blinkers. She was walking back.

Grandpa took the oxygen out of his nose and leaned back. After a deep breath, he opened the door and stepped out into the light. Mom’s hands were clutched at the back of her neck and her face was tilted into the falling ice. Her breaths came fast, bursting like white smoke signals. She and Grandpa talked a long time, but neither Oscar nor I could hear what they were saying.

Oscar started to whimper in the front seat, so I leaned up and rubbed circles into his back the way I’d seen Grandpa do. I told him about all the tenacity we were building up. I held out my arm and flexed my muscles and presented them to Oscar for his inspection.

He reached out and squeezed, a slow smile on his face and he felt his own for confirmation of his budding strength. For a moment or two, he forgot that it was dark. He didn’t notice that snow had covered the windshield entirely, and we couldn’t see them at all.

 

***

Suzanne Hodsden’s work has been a finalist for the Jack Dyer Fiction Award, longlisted for the Disquiet Literary Prize, and anthologized by the University of Glasglow in A Practical Guide to the Resurrected: 21 Stories of Science Fiction and Medicine. Publications include Crab Orchard Review, Exile, and other journals. She is an MFA graduate of BGSU, where she was a Divine Fellow. Currently, she lives in Ohio, where she is working on a novel of historical fiction.