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August 06, 2003  

Snake

We were two days in Texas. My friend David and I had set out from Michigan with no clearer mission than escaping the great Northern Recession of 1974, aftermath of the Arab oil embargo. We were equipped with one car each, sharing $80 in cash and $80 in food stamps, a few bags of books and a desire.... We had seen Atlas shrug, up north. Now we wanted to be kidnapped by John Galt. Fueled by the Texas oil boom, lubricated by our dreams of unfettered, honest work, we slid down through the Interstate system like shit through a goose.

Plop!

Our first view of Texas was a city on the eastern boundary of the state called Beaumont. The brown sky, the unusually large mosquitoes -- we could have easily mistaken the countryside for New Jersey. Beaumont is a chemical town. A "primary chemical" town. Here raw earth and rock are rendered into elements and simple compounds. Where in Michigan you would see railroad cars announcing yet another load of "Cotton from the King of the South" or a tanker of "hydrochloroflourocarbon-24" out of Midland, the rails in Beaumont carry gondolas loaded with "Methane" and "Sulfur." While the rest of the nation's factories push the electronic heroin and V-8 cocaine of industrial society, Beaumont deals in 21st century poppies and coca leaves.


A skyline that once had been dominated by ponderosa saguaro was now dotted with stacks. Chemical refining requires heat, and heat requires flame. However, heat and flame rarely exist in equal proportion, and the stacks are there as equalizers. They are huge things, 80 to 100 feet tall, roughly 15' in diameter, and they spout flame 24 hours a day. From beyond the horizon they cast a glow that invites images of madly oversized candles, Herculean Olympic torches, holy pillars of fire, but once viewed within 20 miles they become Bauhaus volcanoes. If George Babbitt was God, these would be his wonderful new cigar lighters.

The town itself is unremarkable except for its filth and curious street names. Imitating the grids of pipes that weave all through the lives of its citizens, the streets of Beaumont are perfectly straight and dull. No curving suburban drives here, no cul-de-sacs, no yucca-bounded boulevards -- just a grid of streets. The north/south routes are named after letters, the east-west after the ordinal numbers. Thus one lives at "the corner of F and 7," or "just before the stop sign there at E and 22."

We were bound for the northwest corner of D and 4, close to the seashore. A friend of a friend of a friend had invited us to stay with another ex-pat Michigander who had found a living as a pipefitter's apprentice in one of the chemical plants.

It would be easy to gain a wrong impression from the characterization of D and 4 streets as being "close to the seashore." The actual coastline (that is, the topology of a sandy gradient lowering slowly to the continental shelf, then inclining gradually up to the steep approaches of the great Gulf Stream trenches) is about two miles offshore. But Beaumont is sinking, having had most of its aquifer pumped out. The limestone that substitutes for bedrock in coastal areas cannot support itself and is settling at the rate of about two inches per year. All the houses within three years' approach of the ocean are built on stilts, putting their front doors about eight feet off the ground.

We pulled up to such a house at D and 4 at about 3:30 a.m.. The tide was in, and a blanket of water two or three inches thick covered the street and yards. We stood near our cars, dazed after the long drive, short truckstop menus, and the queerness of the surroundings. From the front stoop of our destination a Rottweiler took up a shrill keening in warning to one and all. We were hesitant to cross the 30 feet or so from our cars to the stairs with the dog unattended, and waited for a light to appear inside the house. While we waited and watched, we saw a shadow moving along the base of one of the posts that supported the house. At first it seemed this was just another thin hallucination of sleep-deprived eyes, but a few blinks and head shakes didn't clear the sight of... a piece of rope coiling up to the stoop.

That's exactly what it looked like, a piece of rope. The dog's song took on the tone of a raspy oboe straining for too high a note, and the entire scene shifted to resemble movie memories of Indian fakirs performing their rope tricks -- the rising tempo and pitch of the pipe, the slow, wavy ascent of the rope, and the mesmerized eyes of the audience.

Suddenly the dog's voice cracked, then growled, and then shrieked. He started to dance about the stoop, straining against a chain pinned to the floor. There also seemed to be a piece of rope tied to his rear left leg, and he whipped this furiously to and fro.

The dog's shriek clipped off, but echoed in our heads over the next fifteen minutes as we watched, frozen in place in the street below, the dog: he sat, licked at the air, lay down on his chest, kicked out his hind legs, rolled to his back and then over and then off the stoop, hung by its chain, dead.

The dog's body swung back and forth, stiffly, a low creak sounding from a loose
board every time the chain rocked over it. We had drawn close to the grisly scene,
close enough to see the piece of rope drop away from the dog's body and land
with a soft splash in the water below the stoop.

We did not stay in Beaumont that night.

Instead we drove on to Bay City, an improvement over Beaumont only in that it had not had as long to poison itself. We slept in our cars, and went looking for work the next day after being rousted awake by a police officer. We met a family of migrants on their way to "pick jerries in Mitchigan," and traded our food stamps for $40 in cash and a reference at an oilfield supply outfit that was looking for a couple of workers.

The reference was unneeded, and went unused. Having made it as far as Texas we were obviously fit, our shoulder-length hair and holed jeans were taken as an indication of indenturable penury, and we signed our names to the applications with fewer than two mistakes. We were hired on the spot, without any tedious "innerview." The boss liked to keep things simple.

Our first duty was to recover a cash box that had been stolen the night before. Roland figured that the thief had been in a hurry, and had probably just jimmied it, snatched the cash, and then tossed it into a field across from the office. He had a pretty good idea of who had stolen it -- "some wetback I hired in here a couple of months ago... prolly took off to go pickin' up north" -- and knew the man to be "nervous" and "lazy." Thus, he wouldn't have taken the time to open the inner compartment and steal the company checks, he would have just grabbed the cash and ditched it, and he would have ditched it close, and so our first job in the oil business was to go into the field and find the cashbox. The money was no problem -- the company was so tight with assets it required its yards to inventory their petty cash by serial number. The bills would turn up somewhere.

We signed our W-2's, stripped out of and stowed our shirts, donned ill-fitting hard hats, and started off toward the field. We hadn't gotten more than ten feet from the door when the boss called after us to "Hold on there, boys. You'll be needing these, don't you think?"

In his hands he carried two thin poles that looked like shuffleboard sticks, about four feet long with a "Y" at one end. "I don't expect no heroics out of yew... y'all spot a cottonmouth out there, just hold 'im down with this and give a shout, and I'll come out to finish 'im."

Unfortunately, the cash box was never recovered and new checks had to be ordered. We were lucky enough though, after thinking about it for two hours while searching, to find $40 that the thief "must have dropped in the dark," and the boss was pleased with the obvious thoroughness of our search. He had trusted us so much, in fact, that he had gone out to the back while we hunted, out of earshot, confident that we would be sharp enough not to need his help in case we crossed paths with a snake.

Indeed.