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You hear them, McCain?"
"Oh, I hear them all right."
And I did. How could you not hear them?
"So you know what they are?" she said.
"You bet I do," I said.
"And you're not scared?"
"Who said I wasn't scared?"
"You did. On the way over."
"So you are scared?" she said.
"A little, I guess."
"I'm scared. But then I'm a girl. I'm not a big brave five-foot-four he-man like you."
"Yeah, in motorcycle boots maybe."
"In motorcycle boots I'd be five-six. If I owned a pair."
"Have I ever told you I'm five-foot-seven?"
"Not more than 4,732 times," I said.
"Almost five-eight, actually."
"All right, I'm scared. Does that make you feel better?"
She gave me her best kid-sister grin and squeezed my hand. It was a kid-sister squeeze, too. Nothing romantic. "Actually, that does make me feel better, McCain. So let's go in, all right?"
Just as we walked away from my '51 red Ford ragtop, she stopped me and said. "Actually, maybe we're imaginingit."
"You know. Hearing the rattlesnakes. I don't think you can hear rattlesnakes this far away."
"You want to get out a tape measure?"
The grin again. It always made me want to kiss her. But she was married and we were both reasonably honorable people. So I knew better than to try and she knew better than to let me should I be foolish enough to try.
I guess I should do a little scene-setting here.
The date is August 19, 1960. The town is Black River Falls, Iowa, pop. 20,300. The pretty, red-haired young woman I'm with is Kylie Burke, ace reporter for The Black River Falls Clarion. Only reporter, actually. She isn't writing the storyher boss is doing thatbut she thought it'd look good on her resume (in case the New York Times calls someday) to say she did background on a group of Ozark folks who moved here after getting kicked out of every state contiguous to ours. Seems these folk incorporate rattlesnakes in their services and that is a violation of the law. And after all the rain we had this past spring, there are plenty of timber rattlers to be had in the woods.
Kylie's a bit uneasy about visiting these folks, as am I, so we're here together.
My name is Sam McCain. I'm the youngest and poorest attorney in town. I'm also an investigator for Judge Esme Anne Whitney, the handsome, middle-aged woman who presides over district court. At the age of twenty-four, I earn more from Judge Whitney than I do from my law practice. I'm here tonight because I was summoned by Reverend John Muldaur, the hill-country man who procures the rattlers and oversees the services.
The place we're about to enter is a deserted four-bay service garage that was once part of a Chevrolet dealership on the north edge of town. It's closed up tight except two of the front windows have been smashed and are now filled only with cardboard, so you can hear everything going on. A tornado came through here in '54 and killed eight of us, including a two-month-old, and wiped out everything in this area, including the gleaming new Chevrolet showroom, except the garage. The dealer decided to rebuild on the opposite end of town, apparently figuring his luck might be better come the next tornado.
The cars and panel trucks and pickup trucks parked in the melancholy twilight looked as if they'd been driven across a time warp from the Dust Bowl. Hadn't been washed in years. Had smashed windshields. Cracked headlights. Missing taillights. Tires that held varying amounts of air, some of them nearly flat. Were rusted out so badly the rust had turned into holes in places. And were covered with stickers of all sizes and all lurid colors exhorting pagans to hand themselves over to God and be damned quick about it before it was too late.
The service was just now starting. An Old Testament voice said into a screeching microphone, "Let us now praise the Lord in song."
And that's when we knew that we really had been hearing rattlesnakes. Because as a lone, lame electric guitar began to play "I Know The Bible's RightSomebody's Wrong" the faint rattling sound disappeared.
The man appeared from inside the small door in the face of the whitewashed concrete-block building. He was big and wide in his greasy gray work clothes. The dour line of his mouth exploded into a smile as he said, "The Lord welcomes you." But the close, hard way he looked at us made me wonder about his words.
Kylie and I glanced at each other and nodded, and he widened the doorway by standing aside for us.
Right inside the door we saw the snakes.
A small, wood-framed cage of them sat on a table with a large crude painting of Christ that was as spooky as the snakes. He had the demonic visage normally associated with Satan. On the left side of the table was a stack of pamphlets with a headline reading: The Jews Behind John F. Kennedy. You could pretty much guess what that one was all about. The pamphlets were well printed on a semi-glossy stock. I wondered where Muldaur had gotten the money for them.
There were no pews, just wobbly folding chairs; no decorations but an elevated platform holding a lectern, and four more folding chairs, pushed back against the wall. You could still smell gasoline and car oil all these years later, though all the hydraulic lifts had been taken out and the work pits filled in with concrete.
"Say hello to some new friends!" John Muldaur shouted into the microphone. He'd been singing in a sturdy baritone. He kept grabbing a bottle of Pepsi, gripping it hard as if it was slipping, and guzzling it down between lyrics.
When they turned around and looked at us, the twenty or so people filling the folding chairs, I saw faces that were almost cartoons of joy and grief and fear and hope as they sang out, immigrant faces scrubbed clean for churchgoing, unlovely faces for the most part, mountain people of the deep South who'd trekked up to the Midwest several generations ago but had never fundamentally changed, a problem for cops, social workers, doctors, clerics, and neighbors. Some of these people still clung to the precepts of "granny medicine," where you cure lockjaw by crushing a cockroach in a cup of boiling water and drinking it down, and staunch the bleeding of a wound by rubbing chewing tobacco on it. You can't estimate the effects of poverty on generation after generation of people, that sadness and despair and madness that so quietly but irrevocably shapes their thoughts and taints their souls.
The Muldaurs lived off by themselves, a good half-mile from the others, who lived in trailers and shacks in an area called The Corners and mostly worked for large tenant farms. Ten, twelve families that crossbred with alarming regularity. The women mostly wore faded housedresses, their hair beribboned for church. The men mostly wore threadbare white shirts with the sleeves rolled up. A couple of them bore dark neckties. There were six or seven very young children who wore shorts and shirts because of the eighty-degree heat. There was a certain apprehension in the eyes of the young ones. They had not yet been fortified with the certainty of their eldersthat those who did not practice the ways of their faith would perish in hell, and that all strangers meant you harm. Especially, according to the pamphlets Muldaur had been circulating in town, the Jews and Catholics all huddled behind Jack Kennedy in this fall's election. And of course it was the diabolical Jews stirring up all the trouble down South with the "coloreds."
Naturally, I had mixed feelings about these people. About the only good thing I could say for their religion was that they didn't wear hats of any kind. I've often wondered if God wears a fedora. I mean, have you ever noticed that about religions, their thing for hats? But the rattlesnakes kind of balanced things back in the other direction. The priests and monsignors I grew up with all wore various liturgical hats, caps, and beanies, but one thing you could say in their favor was that they never brought any rattlesnakes to mass, God love 'em. If they had any rattlesnakes, they kept them in the privacy of the rectory and didn't tell us about it.
But then there was the sadness of these people. Not even Steinbeck had gotten to it. The Okies were just displaced farmers who wanted to work and prosper. I never read anything about Okies and rattlers. Dreiser kinda got to these people, I guess. That opening scene of An American Tragedy where the family is there on that twilight street corner. I could see these people on that same corner, snakes and all. They were the lost ones and didn't even know it. Few of them would have indoor plumbing; some of them wouldn't even have electricity. A good number of them would die young because they didn't see doctors. And they would spend too much of their time fearing a Jesus who was a parody of the man or god who lived not quite 2,000 years ago. In their version, He despised them and they were appreciative of that fact. It gave some explanation, I suppose, for their smashed and shabby lives.
The singing continued even though John Muldaur set down his microphone and suddenly walked down the aisle between the folding chairs. By this time, his entire upper body glistened with sweat and he was muttering some kind of prayer to himself in the sort of hypnotic fashion people speaking in tongues get into.
No doubt about where he was going, what he was doing.
He swooped up the two cages of snakes and transported them back to the makeshift altar. The air changed. Not just because of the hissing and the rattling. Because of the excitement. I'd never been to an orgy before but I was sure at one now.
Kylie nudged me. Whispered, "This is scary."
I knew what she meant. There was a sense of violence in the orgiastic response to the snakes. Women moaned in sexual ways; men stared as if transfixed. The children looked confused but excited and afraid, their tiny faces darting up to survey the faces of their parents, wanting some sort of verbal explanation.
Muldaur reached out his hands. His wife, Viola, took his left one; his teenage daughter, Ella, his right. Both were buxom, frizzy-haired, and aggrieved-looking. They looked as troubled and angry as the rattlesnakes. All three Muldaurs raised their locked hands and said a brief prayer. "That I am pure of soul, I have no doubt, my Lord. Bless me in my purity, Father. Bless me."
Muldaur dropped the women's hands and turned to the snakes once again. A collective emotional upheaval rumbled through the church. The big moment was approaching. The electric guitar played quick, exotic, crazed, off-key riffs. Moans; shouts; cries. The snakes were coming. Orgasm.
My body spasmed when he reached into the cage and brought forth snake number one. Now slow down and think about this: You have a small cage containing four or five poisonous snakes, all right? So what do you do? You just plunge your hand in the open lid up top and grab one of the buggers? Aren't you risking being attacked by one if not more of the snakes in the cage?
But if he was afraidor even hesitanthe sure didn't show it.
"God has sent us the serpent to reveal our true nature," Muldaur said. Or intoned, I guess. The rattler had brought out his intoning side. "Who wants his soul judged by the serpent?"
This part, I suppose, you're familiar with. You go up thereyou, not meand let the good Reverend Muldaur hand you off the rattler. Then you proceed to grasp it while all the time trying to keep it from biting you. If you manage to hold it for a minute or two without being bitten, that means that your soul is pure and you're one of the chosen. If the snake bites you, you're a sinner whose sins must be redressed. Right after they rush you to the hospital.
Two men and a woman went up and it was about what you might expect. There was a lot of Bible-quoting and a lot of prayer-shouting and one very tiny little girl crying. The snakes scared her. What an irrational reaction. Timber rattlers, in case you don't know, usually have black or dark brown crossbands on a yellow or tan body. The head is yellowish and unmarked. Every once in a while you find one that's black, misleading you into thinking you've got a river rattler, as they're called hereabouts. Makes no difference. Timber rattler or river rattler, you really shouldn't treat them like toys.
The last adult to handle a snakea heavyset bald man with a milky blue left eyetook on two snakes. He slung them over his shoulders, he let one wrap about half its body around his neck, and he shook one so furiously that the thing went into snake psychosis.
Then the two men and the woman stood as a group below the lectern and let the congregation touch them, as if they were anointed figures with divine powers. Singing all the time. Everybody was singing. I'm not sure, but I think that even the snakes were singing. True, these people didn't wear hats, but they did sing their collective asses off. The serpents had not bitten these three and so the trio had proved its godliness and what better way to celebrate than with a slightly off-key electric guitar and twentysome people (and some snakes) joining in congregational song.
I wondered if the ceremony was over. In a Catholic mass everything depends on the sermon. If the sermon's short, you're home free. A short sermon, you can be out of mass in twenty-five minutes flat. I once got an eighteen-minute mass, in fact, leading to my belief that the priest had the trots and needed to get back to the rectory quickly. But God help you if you get the rambling old monsignor. With him, you should pack a lunch.
I had the same feeling here. The snake stuff hadn't taken so longor been all that terrible, since nobody'd been bittenso maybe Muldaur wasn't as far gone as I'd feared.
Then the little girl went up and stood next to Muldaur.
She was skinny, pigtailed, terrified. She wore white walking shorts and a blue sleeveless blouse. She looked to be about seven.
"Satan hides even in the hearts and souls of children," Muldaur said.
And the congregation answered him variously with "Yes, Brother" and "The Lord is the Light" and "I do not fear the darkness."
And it all changed for me. This whole experience. Until now a part of me was thinking about how I'd tell my friends about this little adventure. It'd be fun. There'd be a few shivers and a lot of laughs and the comforting knowledge that there really were people crazier than us, after all.
But I hadn't counted on a child handling a snake.
That orgiastic sense only increased. A low, steady murmur of prayer and excitement and fear; women moaning, clutching their breasts almost sexually; men's eyes gleaming with foreboding and sinister anticipation.
"I'm going up there," I said.
Of all the whispers and rumors these people inspired, this was the most disturbing, that they forced children to handle the rattlers. This was the particular reason why state, county, and local officials were always trying to stop them from holding these services. But nobody knew if they actually involved their children or not. Until now.
"Be careful," Kylie whispered.
She didn't try to stop me. She wanted me to go up there.
I started to step into the aisle when I felt something cold and metal pressing against the back of my neck. I'm not a gun guy. But I've read an awful lot of Richard S. Prather paperbacks and so I recognize the feel of a shotgun barrel.
"Just stay right where you are," said the giant who'd let us in. He poked me with the barrel for emphasis.
"God, look at her," Kylie said, loudly enough for people to hear and turn to glare at her.
"Mom!" the little girl shouted. "Please don't make me do this!"
They tell you snakes don't smell. And that they're not cold to the touch. And that they're not slimy. In an objective sense, I knew all this to be true. But I had the sudden visceral feeling that I was in a cave of reeking, slithering, cold-bodied snakes that dripped poison even from their vile scaly bodies.
"Please, Kathryn, help this young girl," Muldaur intoned. "We're trying to conduct a service for the Lord here. He is not kind to those who defy Him."
The young woman, scrawny and pigtailed as her daughter, left her folding chair and ascended to the raised platform. The girl clung to her, throwing her arms around her mother's waist and clutching her the way people clutch life preservers.
"If she will not hold the serpent," Muldaur said, "that means she knows the serpent is already in her heart."
Kathryn bent down and talked to her daughter in a low voice.
Muldaur addressed the congregation. "Pray for little sister Claudia that she might receive the divine courage she needs to do her duty for a loving God."
And they broke into loud, ragged prayer, mother and daughter still talking in low tones back and forth. Mother walked daughter a few steps closer to the snake cages and pointed to the snakes inside as if they were gentle creatures that would be fun to play with.
Claudia was calmer now, snuffling up her tears, standing little-girl tall and little-girl brave. Her mother dabbed at one of Claudia's tears with her finger. Then Mom nodded to Muldaur.
"Unto the Lord will the true heart deliver us," Muldaur said to the congregation as he opened the lid of the second cage. Once again I was startled by the way, almost without looking, he shoved his hand deep into the middle of the piled, hissing rattlesnakes and plucked one out.
He did not pause.
He handed it straight to the little girl.
And that was when the timber rattler, a sort of baby version, much smaller than the previous snakes, used the occasion to lunge at her, striking her right on the cheek.
The little girl screamed. And so, I think, did I.
Excerpted from Save the Last Dance for Me by Ed Gorman. Copyright © 2002 by Ed Gorman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The small town of Black River Falls, Iowa is on the cusp of a new decade, Vice President and Presidential Candidate Richard Nixon is coming to town, and part-time lawyer, part-time investigator Sam McCain is called in to solve the murder of a local ¿fundamentalist¿ minister before Nixon¿s arrival. This is the fourth installment of the Sam McCain series, and it does not disappoint. Gorman spins a tale that is rich with the feel and energy of the 1950's, with odd ball characters that seem familiar, and a sense of the original pulp masters of the private eye genre¿there is a Nero Wolfe-like plot twist that pushes the story into the final crisis. If you have never read Gorman, start with this one! (Zulu)