IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1972, rural Illinois. A picnic along the banks of the Mississippi. My friend Elizabeth and I, both 17, were forced to attend as a disciplinary measure. We were wearing gauzy peasant shirts and sullen expressions, and were nursing stupendous, temple-clutching hangovers. While the rest of my family bustled around lighting grills and slapping hamburger into patties, Elizabeth and I winced our way barefoot down to the water's edge to plunk stones into the current and say scathing things about my mother.
"She ought to try drinking a pint of lime vodka," Elizabeth said darkly, "and see how it feels." Behind her, at head height, something shifted on the low-hanging branch of a desiccated tree.
One of the worst sounds a person can hear is the heavy thump of a big snake dropping to the ground at her feet. One of the worst sights? Same snake, churning around in a wide circle, opening its mouth to reveal a pale-white interior, vaguely plush, like upholstery.
Our loyalty to each other was such that we engaged in a brief but violent shoving match, cartoon characters trying to get through a doorway. The cottonmouth unfurled itself and wound past us—four feet long and stout as a man's wrist, but oddly flattened, like something molded out of clay and pressed into the ground. It slithered down the bank and into the river, lickety-split, like a strand of spaghetti pulled into a mouth.
Thirty years later, I experience startle responses not only to snakes but to lengths of rope, suspicious-looking sticks, and garden hoses, especially black ones draped over a fence or log. I am also spooked by snakish areas, including but not limited to grass, warm roads, stone walls, dirt paths, fields, old barns, sidewalks (trust me), tree branches, and, of course, water.
Being vigilant has worked pretty well, although not perfectly. Once I picked up a garden hose, after carefully making sure it actually was a garden hose, and there was a snake underneath. Elizabeth, on the other hand, recovered just fine and even went on to touch some kind of constrictor with a forefinger during a college biology class. Her professor said we couldn't have seen a cottonmouth that day; too far north.
That's what my father said, too, when we came racing up to the picnic table, hysterical and shuddering.
"Oh, boy," he said agreeably. "Water snakes are big buggers. Scare a guy half to death."
My mother, squinting as she flipped the burgers, cigarette corked in her mouth, turned to consider us, green-gilled and sweaty.
"People who drink too much see snakes," she said.