SERPENT WITH FIREWORK by Harris Lahti

The sunburnt man climbs the steep bank of the lake, dragging a large plastic cooler packed with the last beers of his life. And then? Redemption. Stone-cold sobriety. Through his speed shades, the remains of the abandoned luxury resort rise in nuclear yellow—the shattered windows and graffitied cabins, the crooked doors and cracked tennis courts, the moist volleyball sand where he first slid against his wife and jizzed his teenaged blue jeans. Boy, it sure is nice to discover everything where he left it.

Or not exactly.

From the shallow end of the pool, three skateboarders stare up at him—at his yellow Polo and high-visibility boardshorts, his wraparound reflective sunglasses—hoping against hope the irradiated yuppie doesn’t intend to kick them out. The weekend boating crowd, they know, love nothing more than to report any ruckus that wasn’t of their own making. Especially on the Fourth of July! And so the moment hangs. And hang there—the skateboarders not wanting to rub him the wrong way, lest this lobster call the cops and prematurely end their session—until, with a sudden dart of his tongue, the sunburnt man shaves the foam from his blistered upper lip and declares to them:

“It’s cool, yo!” he slurs. “I used to skate!” All the time back in the day, this sunburnt man and his friends used to lug a generator back here, a sump pump. Gasoline. Fucking mops and towels to soak up the grime. Nets to catch the bullfrogs, snakes, and salamanders living in the sludge. They’d skate this pool until there was nothing left but a crater. “Utter destruction!” he says.

The skateboards stare throughout his summary, blinking back a code that anyone with a dry slab of brain could decipher to mean: Yeah, fuck-o, that’s exactly what we’re doing, just look around, where’s the crater? the utter destruction? the pool’s right here, bro until, apropos of nothing, the sunburnt man cuts off to make a shotgun reloading sound with his mouth, “Kirch-kirch,” and slides another beer from the cooler into his neon yellow koozie. From which, he swigs deeply, damn near polishing off the twenty-seventh beer in a single draught.

Or was it his twenty-eighth? His twenty-ninth, perhaps?

He continues to teeter there at the edge of the pool for some time, his sunglasses flashing sharp blades of sun, as all but one of the skateboarders resume their session—the one with the walking cast on his leg who’s setup on the stairs of the shallow end grilling hamburgers. “Ayo, chief,” this grill master says. “Happy fourth. You want a burger?” All morning, he’d been grilling them, breathing coal and meat smoke out of his toolbox-sized barbeque while watching his friends enjoy the emptied pool as the skin inside his walking cast popping and aching like beaded burger fat. “Medium? Medium-rare?”

“With a pulse,” this sunburnt man responds before draining off his maybe twenty-seventh/eighth/ninth beer with conviction. His throat bobs and knuckles as the beer flows into his purplish neck. However, on this day, unlike others, no shame accompanies this chugging. Instead, a sense of achievement, self-betterment, as if each cracked beer tab opens another door in his mind. After passing through all thirty of them, a new life will begin. A life in which, he’ll return home, apologize. Listen. Just listen. Take the garbage out, load the laundry, then mow the lawn while his wife watches him out the kitchen window, her heart thawing with love.

The grill master proffers the bloody burger. “You want this or what?”

The sunburnt man peers down through the metallic glasses: “I didn’t order that.”

To which the grill master gives a half-hearted grumble and tosses the burger onto the paper plates, adding to the other gray and shriveled patties his buddies refused throughout the morning, to this greasy leaning tower that has grown into a metaphor for his life—because, once upon a time, not even a year ago, this grill master would’ve found solace in a well-cooked burger, would’ve enjoyed a day spent simply watching his buddies skate. But his string of recent injuries has been too long, too suffering, and at the ripe old age of twenty-five, this master of char and broil has taken a hard look at his life: the future he’s stepped into is old and hurting. Just like this radioactive drunk, he thinks. This boozed up kook who won’t stop word salading at me like I could give a fuck: What do I care about his good old days? His wife? The way they used to roll around over in the volleyball court? How her red hair used to spark in the sun? How she’d moan like Medusa when they fucked?

“You’d understand if you saw her,” the sunburnt man tells him. “Matter fact,” he says, fishing a large cell phone from his cargo pocket.

The grill master glances at his friends, trying to transmit a call for help, a refocusing of social responsibility. But their skateboarding only continues, as if it was now up to the grill master, and him alone, to run interference with this drunkard, to sacrifice himself for their opportunity to slash at the pool coping with their skateboard’s metal trucks. To carve over the light fixture in the deep end with a poetry he felt he’d never again be able to write. Then: this spit sucking sound. “What the fuck?”

The sunburnt man nudges him: “Lookit.” And for a split-second dream-moment? this crazy-eyed red-headed woman? she bobs in the grill master’s lap? a fiery mop of hair? right there on the stairs? in the shallow end of the pool? where he’s been all morning? sucking him? giving him the first head he’s gotten in months? a whole year? Only his dick is redder, more curving.

“The only picture I have of her,” the sunburnt man says before slipping his cell phone back into his pocket and opening the lid of the cooler and starting to fish for his maybe twenty-ninth/thirtieth beer—fishing, fishing, fishing—for that maybe final one—the key with which he will crack the final door that lead into his new and sober future, where after completing the lawn, he’ll enter the kitchen to discover his wife overflowing with a pent up a sexuality that says please fuck me, right here on the laminate counter, you sweet animal, I’ve missed you so much—except, no, this final beer, nah-uh, there isn’t a final one. Apparently, he drank that one, already stepped into that future life. Without realization or ceremony. And instead, he comes up with a damp firework: a big red cake he must’ve purchased earlier at the Exxon along with the thirty pack to celebrate this moment. The start of his new life that’ll play from here forth into eternity like a prime-time family comedy. And so, to mark this occasion, he flicks his Bic lighter and holds flame to fuse. He ignites a spark that travels hissing toward the firework’s center clenched in his scorched hand. He cocks his arm and sends the cake flying.

The skateboarders stop to gawk at the pool’s deep end as the grey braids of smoke diffuse up into the thick pines, into the shadows the branches hold down, waiting for an explosion that doesn’t come. Refuses to. (Perhaps, this firework, too, has failed to thrive? the grill master wonders.) But then: explosion! A heat. An unleashed wrath shoots upward and launches off the pool’s curving walls into the pines, where a large bird startles high up in the branches. With a flap of enormous wings, its shadow frees itself, soars over them, a vulture, a hawk, no, a bald eagle—majestic and full of glory—up, up, up into the patches of blue skies above, shrieking its rage, piercing at their eardrums, so loudly that even the sunburnt man stops to watch the thing flap and shrink into nothingness. Into memory.

And in the blast’s wake? Aside from the tattered box and ruined pool slick with charcoal, confetti, and myriad destruction that’d surely bite into the steady roll of any skateboard wheels? There’s something else: this rope: this rattling sound: this glitching movement in the pool that makes no sense: a missing puzzle piece of movement where there should’ve been none: a reptile that must’ve fallen from the eagle’s mouth as it raged against the blast: a snake with a rattle, a diamond-shaped head: red eyes staring back.

“Seriously, what the what?” The skateboarders exchange glances, shrug. Repeat this process again. What do you do in a situation like this? Bash the rattler with a rock? Coax it out with a stick? There were no obvious answers. No other actions to take than to turn toward the sunburnt man with murder in their eyes, as if he’d conjured the snake on purpose. And this drunk dayglo dickhead, you know what he does?

Laughs—because for him, right now, the universe aligns. Its cosmic beer sign arrows blink the fated way: First through the thirty pack, then the firework, and now this rattlesnake, another set of doors inside the other set of doors inside his mind through which he must walk. After capturing the serpent, he’ll skin the thing and gift the hide to his wife as a totem reminder of how far he sunk without her love.

(If it doesn’t make sense to you, I can’t explain his logic.)

The grill master tries to stop him. The two other skateboarders try to stop him. But the sunburnt man moves too quickly toward the rattler, who only continues to amplify and sustain its warning clatter. “Kirch-kirch, kirch-kirch, kirch-krich,” the sunburnt man responds, hoping to confuse the animalbecause, boy, this rattle snake is a stupid one. The sunburnt man realizes this right away. Easily distractable. Lacks the reflexes that I possess, he thinks.

Even the sizzle of the grill master’s grill falls silent as if to watch the sunburnt fool close in on the rattler, like he’s done so a thousand times, making it hard not to wonder: Was this sunburnt donkey a snake handler, a reptile wrangler, a herpetologist of some kind? Of course not. Maybe, though?

Drunk as he is, the sunburnt man senses his audience’s captivation and this makes him make the mistake he so often made in the past—his other signature—the one where he says, “Just one more beer,” and attempts to amplify heaven. He lurches. He grabs. Then, before he’s even aware of his success, he’s twirling the rattler by its tail before his belly like a lasso.

Kirch, kirch, kirch,” he says, repeatedly. The skateboarders say nothing. Just stand in awe. Gawking at the beautiful way this crimson kook gyroscopes the rattle snake, the way this hologram of death blurs before his toasted body. The grill master can’t blink. He can’t breathe. On account of the adrenaline now coursing through his blood, flooding him with a feeling he associates with his own good old days. Remember?

The sunburnt man does, remembers everything. His idealized life moves before him, inside the action of the snake, caged there like rare diamond in a wedding ring. Each time the snake passes, his smile cracks wider, his lip oozes blood.

Meanwhile, the sunlight that snaps off his metallic sunglasses causes the skateboarders to squint, to shield their eyes, not wanting to miss what happens next, as the rattler’s fangs continue to snap and miss him, snap and miss him, until, okay, maybe they haven’t. Maybe the fangs have connected after all.

It takes a moment, but the sunburnt man feels this venom pooling, too, as an energy, and within this accumulation he senses a fissure, the sudden formation of another door. A final door. One whose edges are flooded with heavenly light. One door at the end of the thirty pack and snake that he hadn’t anticipated or imagined. An emergency exit of sorts. And it’s in this moment, with this realization, that the scene’s energy swells too taut. Too impossible. It needs somewhere to go, too. Anywhere. And so, with no other options left, the energy plunges itself into his burnt body, burrowing behind the venom toward the sunburnt man’s over-cooked heart.


Harris Lahti's work is forthcoming or appeared in Bomb, New York Tyrant, Sleepingfish, Hobart, and elsewhere. He edits fiction for Fence and Post Road and paints houses in New York's Hudson Valley. Recently, he finished his first novel, The Foreclosure Gothics. Read more: harrislahti.com.

Art by Eli Sahm

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