Higher Ground

Higher Ground

For two weeks last fall, my friend Deno and I went into business together as snake removers. The reptiles had been flooded out of their normal recluses in the swamps and woods surrounding Meridian, and they had invaded people’s homes and gardens. Normally, I worked as a landscaper, HVAC repairman, and the odd handy man, working jobs as they appeared. I called myself self-employed. I called myself an entrepreneur. This sounded better, to me, than shit-out-of-luck. I made enough money to pay for the small house I lived in down by the highway. My family stayed in shoes. My wife, Janine, worked as an in-home caretaker and her paycheck was almost twice mine. After our son, Trent, died I stopped working with my hands. I lost a lot of clients. Janine was on the verge of kicking me out, and I hoped that some burst of prosperity could save us.

I sat at the bar drinking bourbon straight. Deno sat down next to me and rapped me on the back with his knuckles.

“You look absolutely blue,” Deno said. Deno had been my next-door neighbor since I was a kid, following me from the small trailer park where we were raised to the tech school two towns over and back to the stretch of dry country road where we lived now. It was like knowing a particularly annoying and determined horsefly.

“Can we get this man another drink?” Deno asked the bartender. Deno had been kicked out of this bar on more than one occasion, for being belligerent and loud. I didn’t want a repeat of those experiences. I liked being able to enjoy the numbing effects of alcohol away from the mournful, fucked up atmosphere of my house. “And the same for me,” Deno said.

The bartender placed two glasses in front of us. “Watch it,” he said. Deno slid a few wadded up dollars over to the bartender and they eyed each other. The bartender took the money and turned to the cash register. Deno turned to me.

“I was hoping I’d find you here,” Deno said. “I’ve had an idea.”

“Oh lord Deno, not another one of your scams,” I said.

“This isn’t a scam, this is legit.”

“Legit like when you sold fake deeds to parcels of land down by the swamp, and told people they were lake front?” I asked. “Legit like when you adopted two hundred parakeets and tried to sell them as some sort of rare, tropical bird at the flea market? Or how about when you tried to open an illegal betting ring on the middle school basketball games?”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” Deno said. “I’ve had an unlucky streak about me, as of late. But this is real. And legal, if we get all the paper work done.”

I drank all of my bourbon in three big swallows. It stung my throat and made me cough. “Jesus,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”

“Snakes,” Deno said.


“We can start a snake removal service. They’re all over people’s yards and houses, because of the floods. Newspaper said they don’t know where to go. They’re unused to the weather. We can capitalize on their stupidity.”

“Snakes are dangerous, Deno. What do you know about working with snakes? And doesn’t the government do that shit for free? Animal control, or something?”

“Animal control is getting like twelve calls a day. They work for the whole freaking county, they don’t have enough time to take care of everything. Between the packs of feral dogs and the snakes in people’s attics, the possums and raccoons in the garages, and the usual work they’ve got, they’re swamped. We can capitalize on the government’s inadequacy.”

“You said there was paper work?”

“Yeah, normal, business paperwork. We’ll figure it out. I think it’s pretty simple.”

Though I didn’t want to admit it, this actually wasn’t such a bad idea. It didn’t seem particularly illegal. It was necessary, and simple enough. “How will we catch them?” I asked.

“One of those snake hook things.”

“What will we do with them?”

Deno leaned closer to me, lowering his voice so that we wouldn’t be overheard.

“Well that’s the next step. We could kill them. Or we could just let them free near someone else’s house, so that we keep a continuous business.”

“Don’t you think people will notice, if the same snakes keep appearing over and over?”

“All snakes look the same, to most people. They don’t wanna get close enough to notice the differences. And besides, we’re a snake removal service, not a snake extermination service. It’s all about vocabulary.”

I looked at my empty bourbon glass. I thought about my wife, at home, actually working and lording it over me. How each time she proved she didn’t need me she pushed me further and further away. How many arguments could I stand to lose before she finally sent me packing?

“God dammit Deno, I’ll go in with you on this one, but if this somehow goes to shit, you’re taking the fall, not me. It was your idea.”

“Deal,” Deno said. “This is great. We’ll need business cards.” He turned to the bartender. “Hey, buddy, how about another round for Clive and me? We’re starting a business together. I think that deserves a celebratory drink, don’t you?”

The bartender poured our drinks and shot me a look that read, “Man, you’re a real idiot.”

A few days later, I was drinking a beer in front of the T.V. when Janine came home from work. She looked over at me, surveyed how I was still wearing sweaty pajama pants and the ratty t-shirt I’d worn to bed the night before. Then she sighed, sat down on the couch, and pulled off her shoes. She rubbed her feet like she’d never felt such pain before. We repeated this ritual most every night.

“I don’t guess you’ve got plans for dinner,” Janine said.

I shrugged, keeping my eyes on the television. I knew that if I looked at her, the disgust on her face would make me physically ill.

“Well luckily, I’ve got some snap beans and pork chop in the fridge. I guess I’ll cook that up. Could you do the dishes? Could you at least do that?”

I felt my face redden in anger and tears rise into my eyes and I was glad the kids weren’t here to see this exchange. “Sure thing,” I said, and I finished the beer, just to piss her off.

Janine went to the kitchen. I heard her open the fridge and pull the beans out, and then wash them in the sink. I went to the fridge and pulled out another beer. She grabbed it from my hand.

“No,” she said. “No more, not tonight. We’re not doing this tonight.” She went out the front door to sit on the steps and snap the ends off the string beans, something she liked to do when she was angry. I sat back on the couch empty handed.

I’d barely shaken the anger off when Deno drove up with a snake hook he’d bought from the Feed ‘N Seed and a large plastic storage bin. He’d stabbed holes in the lid with a kitchen knife.

“What are you doing here, Deno?” Janine asked.

“Shit,” I said to myself. I turned off the television and went outside. Deno was standing in our front yard, next to the shriveled Chevrolet Celebrity my son had driven off a bridge three years ago. After the accident, the car was returned to us, as if we could sell it, or drive it, or even fix it, after all that. We weren’t sure what to do with the husk. We kept it as a monument.

“Nice to see you too,” Deno said. He carried the snake hook in one hand and the storage bin in the other. He wore long sleeves and pants, with the ends duck-taped into his boots and a pair of work gloves. He was sweating profusely, and stains had already appeared in his armpits and down his back. “We got our first call today, Clive,” Deno said. He’d been putting up posters around town— in the IGA and dollar store, down by the elementary school and the church, in the old diner. Apparently our business was needed, because it took barely twenty-four hours for someone to call.

“Call for what?” Janine asked. She frowned at me.

“You didn’t tell her?” Deno asked. He turned to Janine and smiled. “We’re going into business together. We’re starting a snake removal service.”

“I meant to say something,” I said. “It just happened really fast.”

“I hope you don’t get bit,” Janine said, in a voice that meant, “I really hope you do.”

“We better be going, Clive,” Deno said. “We’re supposed to meet that first customer at noon, and I don’t want to be late. Punctuality is important, when you’re starting your own company. First impressions are important.”

Janine looked at me with raised eyebrows. “This should be fun,” she said. “Good luck.”

I followed Deno to his car, a beat-up pick up truck with about two hundred thousand miles on it. He opened the door for me.

“I ain’t your girlfriend,” I said. Deno laughed, and walked around to the driver’s side door. He threw the storage container and the snake hook in the bed of the truck.

“Alright, Clive. Mrs. Montgomery is gonna pay us a hundred bucks to get this black rat snake out of her basement. She says it got in there during the last flood and it can’t figure out how to get out. Should be pretty simple.”

“Those aren’t poisonous, are they?” I asked.

“Venomous, the word you’re looking for is venomous.”

“Well, that, then,” I said.

Deno didn’t respond, focusing on road as we swerved past potholes and wrecked asphalt left from the weeks of rain.

The house was a nice two-story, brick, with a green door and a well-kept lawn. Mrs. Montgomery came to the door as soon as the truck pulled up into the drive.

“Y’all here about the snake?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am,” Deno said. He went up to shake hands with Mrs. Montgomery. I got the supplies out of the bed and followed him.

“Oh thank god,” she said. “This has been a nightmare. I thought it had left, after the first couple of days, but I went down there the other afternoon to get the Halloween decorations and there it was, curled up on a box of baby clothes!”

“We’ll take care of it, don’t you worry. If you could just direct us to the basement?”

Mrs. Montgomery led us through the house and down the stairs to the small, dank basement. She pulled a string and a bare light bulb lit the room with dingy light. Deno and I glanced around.

“I don’t see a snake,” I said.

“We’ll have to search for it,” Deno said. “But I’m sure it’ll turn up.” Deno became quite the professional in front of women he wanted to impress.

He began lifting boxes and moving further into the room. I followed suit.

“Well,” Mrs. Montgomery said. “If you need anything, I’ll be upstairs. Just call and I’ll see what I can do.”

“No problem, ma’am,” I said. Deno turned and watched Mrs. Montgomery’s ass as it headed up the basement steps.

I pushed aside a box labeled “sports” and peered into the darkness. We were looking for a black snake in a shadowy room. “You didn’t think to bring a flash light?” I asked Deno. He paused with a box in his arms.

“You know, that’s a good point,” he said. “I’ll go ask Mrs. Montgomery if we could borrow one.” He set the box down on a stack and disappeared up the steps before I could tell him to wait a second.

“Are you going to try to fuck all our clients, or just her?” I called up the stairs after him. I don’t think either of them heard me.

Deno was still gone (this must be one illusive flashlight) when I found the snake. It was stretched out between two boxes, with its head raised slightly. The black ribbon of a tongue flicked in and out between its lips. It was black and oily on top, with a pale belly. It was only as thick as a golf ball, but long—disappearing into the darkness behind all of Mrs. Montgomery’s storage.

“Deno,” I called. “Forget the flashlight, I found it.”

Deno didn’t appear.

I stared at the snake. The snake stared at me. Flick, flick.

I was afraid to move too quickly and startle it, but I was also afraid to move too slowly and let it bite me. I didn’t think black rat snakes were poisonous, but then again, I didn’t want to find out the hard way.

Deno had left the snake hook leaning against another stack of boxes, and I reached for it in slow motion. The snake didn’t move.

“Don’t worry, snake,” I said. “We aren’t going to hurt you.” Once I had the hook ready, I slipped it under the snake’s neck and pulled it up, like I’d seen snake hunters do it in the movies. The snake slid out of its hiding spot, wrapping its body around the hook and the end of the pole.

I realized then that I didn’t have the box ready. I didn’t have anywhere to put the thing.

The snake curled and coiled its body around the hook.

“Deno,” I called again. “I could really use your help down here.”

Deno came barreling down the stairs, swinging the flashlight. “Oh shit man, I’m so sorry,” he said. He dropped the flashlight and picked up the bin. When he opened the lid I slid the snake off into the container. It took a couple tries. Once the snake was wrapped around the pole, it really didn’t want to let go.

We shut the bin and made sure the lid was on good. Then I carried it up the basement steps, to where Mrs. Montgomery sat in the living room, watching a game show.

“Did you find it?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am,” Deno said. “Turns out we didn’t even need that flashlight.”

“Oh, well, thank the lord. Really, that’s such a relief. My husband was wanting to go down there and look for it himself, but knowing him, he’d get bit. It’s nice to have a professional.”

Deno and I side-eyed each other at the words “husband” and “professional.”

“Do you want to see it?” Deno asked. Mrs. Montgomery laughed.

“And chance that thing getting out of that box? No thank you. You’ve got it in there. We’d best keep it out of the house. I’ll walk y’all to the door.”

She wrote us a check for one hundred dollars and led us out to the front porch.

“Just let us know if you need anything else, ma’am,” Deno said.

“And tell your friends and relatives about our business,” I added. Might as well get some word-of-mouth advertisement in, I thought.

Mrs. Montgomery laughed. “Sure thing,” she said. She waited on the porch while Deno threw the bin in the bed of the truck and backed out of her driveway.

“I think that went really well,” Deno said. I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to jinx the good vibes. We were on to something. For the first time in the past few years, I felt a glimmer of something like satisfaction.

When Deno dropped me off in front of my house, Janine was inside, cooking up green beans and a fat pork loin. I went inside and wrapped my arms around her waist.

“Where are the kids?” I asked.

“Careful,” she said. “This is hot.” She moved to try to get out of my arms but I pulled her closer. I kissed her ears and her neck, where the littlest pale hairs bristled. She laughed. “What’s gotten into you?” she asked. It had probably been six months since I’d last touched my wife. After Trent died, we fucked with something more like rage than love. As the years after his death added up, we became distant.

We made love in the kitchen, with her on the table, her ankles wrapped around my waist. We hadn’t done that since we first moved into this little house, assuming it was a temporary resting place before moving on to grander dreams.

After two weeks, we had enough snakes to start releasing them again. We decided to release them at night, so that there would be fewer questions. Deno pulled up to my house at around ten o’clock. He beeped the horn lightly.

“Where are you going?” Janine asked, as I headed out the door. Our youngest daughter was asleep. My eldest, Pete, was off somewhere with his friends. He was seventeen and never around much any more.

“Deno and I have some stuff to take care of,” I said. “For the business.”

Janine probably trusted the snakes in the back of our truck more than she trusted Deno. Ever since he’d gotten us both roped into a scheme involving senior citizens and horse racing, she couldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt. Still, she seemed to like the man I’d become in the past couple weeks. We ate breakfast together, with the kids. She laughed at the jokes on Family Feud, and yesterday we weeded the garden at the back of our house.

“I’ll be back in less than an hour,” I said. Janine frowned.

“You better be careful,” she said. “I ain’t got the time, or the money, to be bailing you out of jail.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. I kissed her on the cheek and went out to Deno’s truck.

“The old lady give you any trouble?” he asked.

“Not much,” I said. “Less than I expected, actually.” Deno nodded and pulled out of the drive. He had a joint between his lips and offered it to me.

“The hell?” I said. “We aren’t teenagers, Deno. You can’t just drive around town smoking pot.”

“I needed to calm down,” he said. “All those snakes in the back. They’re freaking me out. And we’re trespassing, technically. Not breaking and entering, but trespassing. It’s dangerous business.”

“All the more reason you shouldn’t be stoned,” I said. I took the roach from him and threw it out the window. “Jesus Christ,” I said.

We approached the first house—the home of an old widow named Henrietta. She threw rocks at trick-or-treaters. Deno and I had decided earlier that we weren’t going to leave any venomous snakes at the houses—we didn’t want anyone to get bit—and most of the ones we caught were just king snakes anyhow.

“How are we gonna do this?” I asked Deno. He shrugged. He stared at the windows of the house.

“I guess we could just get up close to the basement windows and let them go,” I said. “Just sort of point them in the right direction.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Deno said. He didn’t move. I sighed, got out of the truck and put on a pair of thick gloves. I picked up the bin. Deno was still sitting in the driver’s seat, staring at the road in front of him.

“Hey, turn off the headlights,” I said. He did, and everything went dark. There were no streetlights in this part of town. I fumbled with the box of snakes.

“Shit, I can’t see.”

“Your eyes will adjust.”

“Let’s go,” I said. The box was getting heavy.

“You go up to the house, and I’ll be getaway driver,” Deno said.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I just don’t think I can do this.”

“God damn it, Deno, this is what always happens. You have these great ideas, and then you turn chicken shit at the last minute. I mean, what the hell?”

“This really isn’t the best time, Clive,” Deno said.

“You know what Deno, fuck you,” I said. Then I stalked off into Henrietta’s yard, carrying the box of snakes.

Despite what Deno said about my eyes adjusting, I still couldn’t see shit as I stumbled through the yard. Henrietta didn’t seem to care about lawn maintenance. Either that, or she kept her grass knee-high and filled with debris to deter potential robbers. I almost tripped once, twice, three times. I felt my ankles roll in the cheap sneakers I was wearing. I felt myself gain thirteen years on my life.

“Fuck you, Deno,” I said to myself. This was the last time we were going into business together. Despite the money, despite the new-found passion in my marriage. I was tired of being used, and left to handle things myself. I was tired of taking shit for Deno, so that he could flirt with married women and smoke cheap weed in his car.

I didn’t see what I finally fell over. It might have been a log, or a rock, or a trip wire. All I know is that I was almost to the house when my foot caught and I fell, sprawling out over the grass. I lay there a minute, completing a mental checklist of all my body parts and their relative pain. Then I felt the first cool slither over my back.

The box had burst open when I fell, and seven or eight snakes were making their way over my back and thighs and neck and arms. You would think that the reptiles would slither away from the bin and me, towards freedom, but it seemed they wanted to exact their revenge first. I held back a scream. No matter how freaky it was—laying in tall grass, covered in snakes that you can’t see—I didn’t want to get caught trespassing, and be shot, or sent to prison.

I held my breath and waited for the snakes to leave. I didn’t flinch, I didn’t tremble. Any movement, I thought, and those snakes might decide to go on the attack.

“Clive?” Deno called, from the truck. “Are you still out there?”

I didn’t move. I couldn’t respond.

“Clive?” Deno asked again.

A porch light turned on. Well, fuck, I thought.

“Who’s out there?” An old woman’s voice rang out into the night. “I’ve got a rifle,” she added.

I could only hope the grass hid me from her view. I could only hope her eyesight was bad enough that she wouldn’t see me, or recognize Deno or the truck.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” Deno said. I prayed to God that he wouldn’t say something stupid. “I’m just looking for my lost dog.”

“I just want you away from my property,” Henrietta said.

“Yes ma’am,” Deno said. He turned to the truck. I thought this might end up all right. Deno could drive down the street, I’d get up when she went back inside, and then meet up with him. This would be okay.

“What the hell is that in the yard?” Henrietta asked. I heard the creak of the porch steps and then the swish of the grass as it brushed against her calves.

“Oh my Lord,” she said, gasping. “What the hell are you doing in my yard, and covered in snakes like fucking Saint Patrick?”

I turned my head slightly, and saw a small old woman wearing pajamas with Loony Tunes characters on them, and pointing a rifle at my face.

“You’ve got about three seconds to explain yourself,” Henrietta said. “And I will shoot.”

“Um,” I said. I tried to think of a good excuse that could justify middle aged men covered in snakes, Deno’s blurry eyes, and would let us get out of her yard without involving that gun, or the police. I felt the weight of a couple of the snakes lift from my arms as they slithered off into the grass. It felt like being untied.

There wasn’t one.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” Deno said. “We’re snake removers.”

“Snake removers?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am. We started working for the Department of Natural Resources. We got a call about an infestation. We figured we should come over as soon as possible.”

“I don’t have a snake infestation,” she said. She’d put the gun down. At this point, most of the snakes had disappeared in the tall grass. I sat up and brushed dirt off my pants.

“Right, ma’am, one of the neighbors called it in. It started in their yard but some of the rascals got over here. We figured we’d just come grab them,” Deno said.

“You should have called ahead.”

“We didn’t want to wake you. It was a little last minute.”

She frowned at Deno, and then turned to me, repositioning the gun. “Is this true?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am,” I said. I hoped she wasn’t close with her neighbors. I hoped she wasn’t the type of woman to recognize me at the grocery story or on Main Street. She didn’t seem like she got out much.

“Wasn’t your son the one who died in that car crash a couple years back?” Henrietta asked.

“Yes ma’am,” I said. I looked away.

“That was a tragedy. Real heart breaking. Come on.” She held out her hand and helped me off the ground. Her grip was surprisingly strong. Once I was standing, she appraised me. “I’m gonna let you know right now, I don’t believe one word about your horseshit story about the DNR. I’ve seen your posters around town and I know you’re out and about movin’ snakes out of people’s houses and I think that’s real good work. I don’t know what you’re doing in my yard tonight.” She paused. Then she sighed. “But you’ve been through some shit. And you don’t need any more shit. I had boys once. I know what they’re like. If you leave my yard right now, we can pretend none of this ever happened. But if I hear about you sneakin’ around other people’s houses, well, we might have a problem. You understand?”

“Yes ma’am,” Deno and I said, simultaneously.

“Now go on home to your wives and kids. Kiss ‘em good night and get in bed and quit causing any more trouble.”

Deno and I drove off with Henrietta watching us from the porch, the rifle across her lap and a cigarette between her lips.

When I got home, Janine was awake, watching late-night television in the living room. She turned off the TV when I stepped through the door.

“You’re covered in dirt,” she said.

“I need a drink.”

“What the hell happened?”

“It’s a really long story, Janine, I don’t feel like going into it.”

I went to the kitchen and pulled a beer from the fridge. I went back into the living room and sat down across from my wife. She turned the television back on. We sat without talking.

At the commercial break, she said, “So no more snake business?”

“It just didn’t go as planned.”

“Does it ever?” she asked. I didn’t respond. Janine had a point. We try to plan for the worst, and the worst always surprises us.

I went outside and sat on the front steps, looking out toward the street. The Celebrity sat on cinderblocks in the front yard, kudzu and wisteria curling around the fenders, so that it looked like it was being pulled down into the earth. I could hear cicadas screaming and the trembling song of frogs in the undergrowth. In the distance, cars on the highway sounded like a river rushing toward an unseen destination. I wondered, in one hundred years, what would be left. What would keep and what would return to the clay creek beds, the Cypress swamps, the tall and empty pine forests. In the morning I would call a tow truck, and have them take the Celebrity to a junkyard miles out of town. I would drive up to the little state park outside Union and find a sapling of one of those beautiful flowering trees—a magnolia— and I would plant it in the hole left by our car. I’d water it and keep it safe from cold snaps and in the spring, I would take the blossoms to my wife and let her fill the house with their smell. The tree would still be taking root long after I was gone, growing thicker and greener each year, until one day a driver passing down these forgotten back roads would turn, and see the our tree, the only remnant of the worlds left behind.


About the Author

Julia Hogan was born and bred in upstate South Carolina. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney's, the Sonora Review, december magazine, and others. You can find her in Spartanburg, SC, out in the woods or on the porch with her dog.