The Family Snake Oil

Snakes were the basis of Eliza’s family fortune. Big, poison-fanged, diamond back rattlesnakes. Lots of them. An endless supply. Maybe that wasn’t the same as owning a gold mine or a thousand-acre ranch. Maybe it was. Eliza figured there was a little snake oil behind every exchange of money. In that sense, her family business was as respectable as any. Only she couldn’t get her son, William, to understand that. He was thirty-one years old, and he still hadn’t developed good snake sense, but it would come. He was an Osgood, like it or not.

Four o’clock one morning, he pounded on the side of Eliza’s trailer house and shouted that he and his friends wanted some of Granddaddy’s famous snake oil hooch. Startled out of a deep sleep, Eliza had to listen carefully to make out what he was saying. His words were slurred, and the racket of his fists hitting the aluminum siding made it worse. Nevertheless, he was her son, her only child. For him, she got up, pulled on an old pink bathrobe, slipped her feet into a pair of worn slippers, that had once been fuzzy, and stumbled down the hall.

William’s pounding became more insistent. At one point, he kicked the trailer so hard that Eliza had to brace herself between the hall walls. Still she refused to hurry. She made her way to the bathroom and checked herself in the mirror. She had inherited her mother’s basic looks, high cheekbones, a fine-formed nose, good skin—but early in the morning, at her age, minus make-up, she couldn’t exactly call herself a beauty. She sighed, ran a brush through her bright red hair, smeared on orange-red lipstick, and used the toilet. Then, when she was good and ready, she left the bathroom, traversed the rest of the trailer, and opened the outside door.

The first thing she noticed was the damp morning chill. Then she saw William’s old Dodge pickup parked at an odd angle. His friends came into focus next. They weren’t local. A couple of Irish rednecks, itinerant construction workers, she guessed. The taller one had steadied his elbows against the hood of the pickup and was trying to roll a cigarette without much success. The other one, shorter and stockier, was pissing behind the truck. William was still around the other side of the trailer, pounding and carrying on at the top of his lungs.

The scene explained itself. William had been drinking, had hooked up with this pair of ne’er-do-wells, and the three of them had shut down all the bars in town. Then they had driven the highway out to her place hoping to get some homemade hooch to top off their night—a plan that depended on her generosity.

“God damn it, William!” Eliza yelled. “You got me clear outside in the cold. What more do you want?”

His shouting stopped. There was a crashing sound as he stumbled through her junipers. He emerged waving the string of rattlesnake skulls that usually hung from the awning over her bedroom window—a charm against night spirits. Catching sight of her, he stopped and just stood there in the early morning light, swaying back and forth. His lavender cowboy shirt was half out of his pants and his hair, long, had fallen into his face.

“Looks like you boys need some coffee,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Coffee?” the shorter one asked with slurred incredulity. “We was told we could get us some drink here that would put us in orbit.”

Eliza grunted. Granddaddy’s snake oil remedy was a hundred proof with an opium kicker. Even the local sheriff sipped it only when he was ailing and then only after muttering that he never, ever, wanted to know what was in it. In short, she didn’t share the old family recipe with every Tom, Dick, or Harry who showed up on her doorstep. William knew that. He was still standing there, looking silly, with that string of snake bones dangling from his outstretched arm.

“Coffee’s all I got,” she answered with curt finality. Then she went inside to put the pot on the stove.

She heard some heated discussion outside, but it was brief. Before the pot had even begun to warm, the three boys stumbled into her kitchen and took up chairs around her Formica-topped table.

Inside, William’s friends became Dan, the tall one, and Jerry, the stout one. Jerry seemed the drunkest. He collapsed onto one of her chairs, took a minute to get himself straightened up, then snapped his head back and began to stare wide-eyed around the room. Eliza figured he had just fallen into the delirium tremens. Her decor could do that to a drunk.

Eliza’s trailer was parked behind her livelihood—an old log cabin she had turned into a roadside museum featuring Granddaddy’s old medicine show wagon and an assortment of stuff that she had collected, all of it related to the family business. In the gift shop she sold snakeskin belts, wallets, and purses; snake charms and potions; snake posters and knickknacks. Some of her collection had spilled into her trailer and now decorated its environs. Snake decals were stuck to the tabletop. Snake magnets clustered on the refrigerator. Carved green-colored snake handles twisted up her cupboards. She had an assortment of ceramic snakes on the windowsill and a row of rattlesnake skins hanging like a curtain around the underside of her sink.

While Jerry continued to stare, Dan said, “Interesting kitchen.”

“I like it,” Eliza told him. She poured coffee into green mugs with snake handles and set them in front of Dan and Jerry. Then she sat down with her own cup.

William leaned against the counter by the sink, and whenever he thought she wasn’t looking, he opened a cupboard or a drawer, checking places he thought she might have stashed money.

“What brings you boys to these parts?” Eliza asked.

“We’re working on that new hotel,” Dan answered as he thumbed south, indicating the direction of the building site.

Eliza nodded. “I sold them the land for that hotel. That nice, rocky bluff overlooking the river.”

Dan glanced over at William, as if to confirm that fact, but William was fussing with the sugar jar, trying to feel all the way to the bottom with his middle two fingers.

Getting no help from him, Dan shrugged and said, “No kidding? That must have been some deal.”

Eliza nodded. “I sold them half the ground that Old Granddaddy homesteaded when he quit the medicine show business. That rocky bluff made him a fortune. He sold it four times, and counting this deal, I’ve sold it three times.”

Dan shook his head. “How’d you mean that? If you’ve sold something, it’s sold. You can’t sell it again, can you?”

Eliza set her coffee mug down. She stole a glance at William who had found ten dollars. “Mostwise, I guess you can’t sell something you’ve already sold,” she explained. “But that bluff up there is different. It’s ours. The rocks are ours. The crevices, the old lava tubes, even the warm spring on the backside is ours. We always buy it back so we can sell it again.”

“Yeah, and you can have that hot spring,” Jerry said, suddenly seeming to notice something besides Eliza’s decor. “I had to lay some drainage back there, and that hot spring is so damned full of sulfur it stinks like the bottom rung of hell. Some of them hotshot hotel boys were worried about what would happen if the wind blew wrong.” He fell silent for a couple of seconds. Then he wet his lips and added, “Dan, there are snakes all over this room. Did you notice that?”

Dan laughed and nodded.

Eliza glanced at William, who was now feeling along the underside of the breadbox. “You might say I’m fond of snakes,” Eliza said. “My mother danced with a python, and Old Granddaddy—my mother’s father—sold snake oil medicine. They were a traveling medicine show until my mother’s snake died. It died right here, and they stopped traveling right here. Just like that. They buried Mama’s snake and stayed, which was a fine piece of luck, you see, because this is where the snakes come. Right here. Every winter.”

Dan looked from Eliza to William and then back again. “What do you mean about the snakes coming right here?” he asked.

“They’re everywhere,” Jerry piped up again. “Ain’t you noticed? On the walls, on the furniture, on everything.”

“Yeah, sure,” Dan said. “Drink your coffee.” He pushed the cup at Jerry but looked at William.

William twirled his finger beside his head, the universal sign for a crazy person.

She saw that, but, contrary to his opinion, she wasn’t crazy. It was William who needed straightening out. To prove it, she got up, went to the living room, and returned with a photograph. She handed the picture to Dan.

He took it, studied it, and then he leaned back slowly and checked under the table.

The photo was of a trailer house—Eliza’s, when it was newer—with the skirting removed to reveal masses of rattlesnakes coiled in piles nearly filling the space between the ground and the floor. There were three men, also pictured in the photograph, wearing high boots and carrying long sticks. The photo was about eighteen years old.

“That was the first time I sold the bluff and the quickest turnaround of all the deals so far,” Eliza said. “The people were from California. They came up here looking for a place to retire, and they loved the view of the Snake River. They figured being on the main east-west highway to Yellowstone Park and halfway between Jackson Hole and Sun Valley put them right where they wanted to be to hunt and fish and ski—all the same reasons them hotel people liked the site. Anyway, the California folks bought this here trailer and set it up to use until they got a house built. Then they went back to California to settle their affairs. It was getting toward late autumn, so they left the heat on—the thermostat was set at about fifty degrees because they didn’t want any pipes to freeze and break. When they returned, not only were there piles of snakes underneath, there were snakes inside the trailer itself! They’d worked in around the sewer connection. I offered those California folks a third what they’d paid me and got the trailer in the deal. The man’s wife was so hysterical, he was just glad to get her out of here while she possessed some slim degree of sanity.”

“And what did you do about the snakes?” Dan asked.

“Ah, they’s no problem if you know snakes. I hired those guys in the picture to pull off the skirting and pull out those snakes. Then I hauled the trailer house down here, and I’ve been living in it ever since. You don’t need to worry. This part of the riverbank is too low and damp. I hardly ever see a rattler down here, just a few garter snakes.”

Dan studied the photo again and shook his head. He passed it over to Jerry who pushed it out to arm’s length and then slowly drew it back again until it focused. He paused, tipped his head to one side, and said, “More snakes.” Then he handed it back.

Dan rubbed his chin. “Where do the snakes come from?”

Eliza shrugged. “It’s the warm spring, I figure. That warm water runs all around and underneath that bluff. It keeps the rocks warm, and, if you know where to look, you can find little caves and long fissures that actually hold some of that sulfur steam long into the cold season. So about this time of year, the snakes start coming. Rattlesnakes have probably been coming to winter on that bluff so long it’s in their genes by now. That’s not the interesting part. I mean, ain’t it purely amazing how my old granddaddy who appreciated snakes more than anyone I know, who dragged his wagon and his daughter and a python all over six states for going on twenty years, should have stopped and took up homesteading in exactly this spot? Some wonder, that.”

Dan didn’t answer. He just sat there as if puzzling something.

William cleared his throat. “Well, now you’ve heard the whole damned story from the very lips of the crazy woman who thinks she’s going to buy back a three-story hotel from a New York corporation the way she bought back a trailer house from a couple of snake-scared Californians. I mean, what’s she going to do with that hotel, for Christ’s sake? Drag it down here and live in it, too?”

“I’ll tear it down and sell the salvage,” Eliza snapped. “I made damned good off the house the next guy built up there, didn’t I? Tearing it down and selling the used bricks and stuff?”

“We’re talking about a twenty-million-dollar hotel, for Christ’s sake. They’ve been building on that hotel all summer, and they ain’t complained of snakes yet. Even if they did, they’re not going to sell it back to you for less than what the land cost. I don’t care how many snakes show up in their swimming pool.”

Eliza turned the back of her shoulder to him and took a sip of her coffee.

William came around the table and said to Dan. “Do you want to hear the real story?”

Dan made a wry face, but, before he could say anything, William began in a voice too loud for the room, “She’s already made a fortune on that land. She’s crazy, but she’s shrewd. Half the people around here can’t believe what that hotel company paid for that piece of rock out there, but what’s she done with the money? Nothing! It ain’t invested. It ain’t anything. It’s just sitting in her checking account.”

“I don’t know how much I’ll need for the buy-back,” Eliza said.

“And do you think I’ve seen even so much as a dime of it?” William asked, pressing his face close to Dan’s. “Not on your life,” he sputtered.

“I don’t know how much I’ll need for the buy-back,” Eliza repeated.

William straightened and let his fist crash into the table. “Do I come from a crazy family or what?”

Eliza never understood why anyone would want to come from an ordinary family. Likewise she couldn’t understand why William didn’t appreciate his snake oil heritage. Who else could claim such a rich . . ?

Again William slammed his fist into the table. “Is that crazy or what?”

Dan glanced at Eliza. “I don’t know, but I’m guessing that hotel has more to worry about than which way the wind blows off that stinking sulfur spring.”

Eliza laughed and gave Dan a thumbs-up. She liked a man who could see the beauty of her situation.

William didn’t. He whirled around and slammed his foot into a lower cupboard, knocking the door off one hinge. Then he stomped out of the trailer. When Dan heard his pickup motor come to life, he started to his feet, but Eliza motioned him to sit down again.

“I’ll drive you into town after you’ve had some breakfast,” she said. “You boys like waffles? I make good waffles.”

Dan nodded, but Jerry had rested his head on the table. He was asleep.

After breakfast Eliza poured a little of Old Granddaddy’s snake oil hooch into Dan’s third cup of coffee. He purred its praises.

 

Next time she heard about Dan, he’d rented a storefront and hung up a sign calling himself an exterminator. According to the ad he put in the local paper, he specialized in getting rid of all types of vermin—bugs, rodents, and snakes. She thought that was clever. Seemed sure to her that the hotel people would try a couple of things before they gave up and sold back. If Dan was smart enough to figure out how to turn a dollar on the deal, she didn’t begrudge him. She wished William would figure out how to do the same. Not that she was really worried. He might be slow, like a snake that hasn’t warmed itself, but he’d come around. Snake oil was in his blood.

 

A couple of weeks later, William showed up at Eliza’s gift shop with a girl who was too young for him. She was, maybe, twenty-two. Her name was Samantha Egbert, and her highest ambition was to get hired by the new hotel. She gushed on and on about how fancy and up-to-date the hotel was going to be. “It’s absolutely unlike anything else around here,” she repeated several times. Eliza couldn’t imagine why her son hadn’t explained to the poor dear that this grand hotel wasn’t going to be in business very long exactly because it had up-to-date heated sidewalks and hot tubs—all the warm things snakes liked.

The girl had long wispy bottle-blond hair that clung too close to her face, and she was a little bit broad in the hips, not really fat—just tending toward it. Eliza thought one pregnancy would settle her permanently southward. Besides, there was nothing about her that suggested she could rise out of the ordinary, meaning that Eliza couldn’t imagine her wrapping a snake around her neck and wiggling those hips. In other words, Eliza couldn’t see her becoming part of the family.

William and Samantha were on their way to Jackpot, Nevada, to play the slots and see a stage show. The reason for stopping was to wrangle some money and some hooch, but the girl didn’t seem to know that. She was buying William’s solicitous son routine. He was pretending to worry about Eliza being alone the whole weekend. He kept asking if she’d be okay. To listen to him, you might have thought Eliza really depended on him to help around the place, rather than the high school boy she’d recently hired.

The high school boy really did call regularly to let her know where he was and if he was going to be late. But, unlike William, he didn’t have a chance of learning any snake sense. He was too honest. William, on the other hand, just needed some time to get his knavery directed. He had excused himself to check something in the back room, which really meant he wanted to see if Eliza had squirreled any money back there. She hadn’t.

When he was gone, the girl looked around and began to gush again. “Oh, this is all so very quaint. I mean, where else could anyone see such a unique collection?” She tapped a polished fingernail on the glass that covered a stuffed two-headed snake. Then catching sight of the row of Indian snake charms displayed in another glass case, she exclaimed, “Why, I’ll bet even the Smithsonian doesn’t have a collection of these—not near as good, anyway.”

To this point, Eliza hadn’t said anything. Old Granddaddy, being the huckster he was, had taught her that any human could be made to look stupid with a little prodding. In this case, Eliza expected that Samantha could prattle herself into full-fledged idiocy without any help at all.

“You know, I’ve never been scared of snakes,” Samantha said. “I was telling Bill” (she meant William) “that my brothers used to try to tease me with garter snakes, you know, the way boys sometimes do, and I was never really scared.”

“Excuse me,” Eliza interrupted and then yelled for the high school assistant. When he answered from the back of the shop, she asked him to bring her a ribbon. She sold ribbons—lots of them. Then with the back of her hand, Eliza indicated that Samantha could go on talking, and she did.

“Sometimes I acted like I was scared because that’s what they wanted. It’s really more like a game, you know, and—”

The assistant, a clean-cut kid wearing blue jeans and a yellow sweatshirt, appeared. He was holding a slender foot-long snake, bright green—known as a ribbon. Some people liked them as pets. Eliza motioned for him to give it to Samantha.

The girl’s chatter ceased. She brought both of her hands up to her neck. Then she managed a wan little smile and took the snake even though she continued to hold it at arm’s length while it flipped and folded nearly in half. To her credit, she didn’t drop it, and she didn’t try to give it back. Truth was, she couldn’t have given it back. Eliza’s assistant had left immediately.

While the girl stood there hanging onto the writhing serpent, Eliza asked, “Heard of any snakes up at the hotel where you interviewed?”

By that time, the girl’s mouth had parted enough to show her tongue moving with the snake’s twists. “Nothing I’m going to believe,” she said.

William returned. He grabbed the snake, thrust it into a drawer beside the cash register, and breathed, “Mother, how could you?”

Before he could say anything more, Eliza said, “I believe there’s half a bottle of Old Granddaddy’s stuff under the cushion of the couch in the living room.”

His eyebrows shot up, and he left again.

A couple of tourists came in and were fingering the snakeskin belts. Eliza yelled for her assistant again. Every sheriff in six states had learned to watch her old granddaddy because he was known to be light-fingered. Now she had to watch tourists for the same reason, or they’d shoplift her into bankruptcy. When her assistant showed up, Eliza assigned him to the tourists. Then she turned back to the girl.

“You’ve heard stories of snakes at the hotel?”

“They’re just stories, I think.”

“Tell me,” Eliza said. “I like a good snake story.”

“Well, they say there were snakes in the swimming pool one morning and more the next morning. One pool man was supposed to have quit because of it. But I don’t know really.”

“Is that all? Just snakes in the pool?”

“Well the other thing is really too bizarre . . .”

“What is?”

“Well, they say the vents for the dryers in the laundry room keep getting clogged up, and it isn’t lint or anything like that. They say it’s snakes filling up all the tubes and sometimes falling into the dryers, but I don’t believe it. I think some of the people who work nights down in the basement like to make up things like that. People who work the graveyard shift get kind of weird, if you know what I mean.”

“The laundry room is in the basement?” Eliza asked.

“Yeah, it’s called the dungeon. Nobody wants to slave down there. I don’t want to. I told them, I’m a waitress. I only work with food, right?”

“Oh, I think I’d want to work the upper floors,” Eliza commented. “Let me show you something.”

She took the girl to the back of the museum. Hanging on the wall was a framed page from Old Granddaddy’s journal. It was a sketch of a wooden barrel wedged into a crevice of rock and full to overflowing with snakes. The top of the page was labeled, “The Snake Trap.”

As the girl bent to look closer, William came in again and shouted from the front of the shop, “It wasn’t there, Old Woman. What kind of tricks are you trying to pull?”

Her tourist customers looked up and around, but Eliza didn’t care about them. Tourists were worse than Samantha for being too ordinary—riding across the West in their RVs, looking for something to remember because they didn’t have any heritage of their own. They didn’t fool her. Anyone who didn’t have snake oil in his blood was a chump, plain and simple.

She shouted back to William, “Try looking behind the refrigerator.”

William left again.

Eliza turned to the girl. “There’s a story that goes with that picture. You want to hear it?”

Samantha nodded, even though it was obvious she was reaching her snake limit and would really rather go.

Eliza began, “Old Granddaddy originally built this here log cabin on the bluff where the hotel is now,” she said. “Only along about this time of year, late fall, he started having some snake trouble.”

The girl shivered.

Eliza paused. She hadn’t gotten to the good part yet.

She cleared her throat. “Well, Old Granddaddy thought he knew what to do about those snakes, but he needed a barrel. In those days this was a real wilderness, and since barrels don’t grow on trees and it was a hundred miles or more to the nearest cooper, he didn’t know what he was going to do. So he asked around, and somebody said there was this old muleskinner working for the army at Fort Hall who had a barrel the size Granddaddy needed, but it wasn’t likely that the guy would sell it because he needed it himself for his tanning business. Well, to make a long story short, Granddaddy goes down to Fort Hall and drinks and plays some cards with this old muleskinner, and one thing leads to another and pretty soon Granddaddy has this old muleskinner thinking that there’s money to be had in snake skins. What’s more, he talks the old fellow into bringing his barrel and going snake hunting with him. So they come up and they find the warm crevice that the snakes are following up to my granddaddy’s house, and they set this barrel on its side into that crevice and mound dirt around it. Then they go off and have themselves a weeklong drunk. Meanwhile, the snakes follow that crevice up to the barrel and when they can’t get past the barrel, they just stop and begin to pile up. You see, the trap was working like a charm.”

Samantha bit her lower lip.

“Granddaddy and the old muleskinner waited until the cool of one morning when they knew the snakes would be slow. Then they took their shovels and went out to see what the barrel had caught. Boy, were they amazed. There was a huge mound of snakes in front of the barrel. At first, Granddaddy and the old muleskinner thought the snakes hadn’t gone inside the barrel, so they put their shovels behind the pile and tried to slide the snakes inside. That’s when they realized the whole barrel was also full of snakes.”

Samantha’s eyes widened.

“Now, they should have been glad for their good success, but they were just so amazed, they stood around for maybe an hour or two just speculating on how many snakes they’d caught. The muleskinner knew he couldn’t tan anywhere near that many snakes even if he worked all winter, and Granddaddy figured no one would ever believe them, even if all those skins got tanned. The real truth was that neither my granddaddy nor that old muleskinner much wanted to dig out that barrel no matter how cold and slow those snakes might be.

“So they discussed it, and, after a while, my granddaddy went and got a can of kerosene. He threw it on the barrel and set it afire—barrel, snakes, and all. That muleskinner about cried seeing his best barrel burn, but what else could they do? You see, Granddaddy hadn’t figured out yet how those snakes were going to make his fortune.”

“What’s she telling you?” William asked, showing up again. He had found the bottle and was grinning from ear to ear. “Don’t believe it, whatever it is,” he said, and tried to kiss Samantha on her neck.

She pulled away. “Are you saying the snakes in the dryer vents could be real?”

“Don’t know,” Eliza answered. “I’m just telling you what happened up there on that bluff a long time ago. My old granddaddy had to move this here house. He couldn’t live up there, and he was a real snake charmer.”

“She makes up these stories for the tourists, ” William said, and tried to kiss the other side of the girl’s neck.

“They moved this house?” she asked.

“Took every team of oxen and every horse for twenty miles around. First they knocked the chimney off. Then they roped it and dragged it down to this very spot. It’s been here ever since. I think it makes a fine museum and gift shop. Don’t you agree?”

“Come on, honey,” William said, taking the girl’s arm and pulling at her. “It’s a long drive to Jackpot. And I don’t know if I can wait.”

Samantha slapped playfully at his arms and chest until he grabbed both her wrists and pulled her toward the door. She giggled. “That’s an interesting story, Miss Eliza,” she said as she left.

 

Five minutes later she was back. “William says he forgot to ask you for his pay.”

“His pay?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said. “He says you owe him two hundred and ten dollars back pay.”

She owed him no such thing but decided to play along. “Of course. How could I forget something like that?” Eliza said, and took the money from out of the cash register.

“And ma’am,” the girl looked at the floor, “I can probably keep my old job. You think I ought to? I mean the thing is, I’m really quite afraid of snakes.”

“You fooled me,” Eliza said.

“Well, that little one you call a ribbon weren’t no rattler, if you know what I mean.”

Eliza nodded. “I’d keep my old job if I was you. Oh, and would you tell my son something for me?”

“What?” she asked.

“Tell him that I think you have good snake sense.”

She brightened. “I will.”

Eliza smiled back. William would hate hearing that. Being with a girl he thought his mother liked would probably ruin his whole weekend.

 

She was right. She never saw that girl again. She didn’t see William for almost a month. Then one afternoon when business was slow, she left her assistant in charge of the shop and went down into the cellar where she kept Old Granddaddy’s still. She was stirring up a new batch of his old snake oil hooch when William yelled down the stairs.

She helloed back.

Next thing she knew he was down there himself, stooped over in the cramped space introducing her to a salt-and-pepper-haired German, who wore expensive shoes and cheap aftershave. His name was Stan Fliegelmann. That name sounded familiar to Eliza. She couldn’t remember why.

William said he was a friend, but Eliza knew he was too high class to be one of William’s regular riffraff. Her first thought was that he might be a cop—maybe a fed. He started immediately looking over the still, feeling along the gooseneck, examining the worm, checking the vent and where it hooked into the furnace. He wasn’t trying to be subtle. He sidled between the copper kettle and the cellar wall where Eliza kept mason jars on rows of shelves and got himself over to where she was measuring cinnamon bark and juniper berries. He picked up a slice of gentian root and sniffed it. Then he tossed it back on her chopping board and brushed his hands together while he looked up and all around.

Eliza had never had any particular problems with the law. Homemade hooch was legal as long as she never sold it, and she never had. There was the matter of the opium, but she had always been terribly careful about it. Not even William knew that was the secret ingredient, although he had been trying to wheedle the recipe out of her since he was fourteen years old and began pouring hooch over his breakfast flakes instead of milk.

While Stan Fliegelmann continued to poke around, William was telling him all about her. “She has this large brown and green snakeskin that was once the python her mother danced with. It hangs above the door in the museum area of her shop and when we go back in there, you look, and you’ll see a little row of candles arranged under it, like in a church or something. Mama still lights them candles sometimes. I seen her do it. She lives entirely in the past, I tell you, a real crazy past, too.”

Stan set down a jar of dried herbs he had shaken and examined. By that time, he had fingered all her funnels and flanges. “Miss Eliza, do you light candles for a snake?”

“Sure do,” Eliza replied. It had taken her five minutes, but she’d figured out who Stan Fliegelmann was, and that if William had paid this lawyer to prove she was crazy, she ought to see he got his money’s worth.

“Why do you light candles for a snake?” he asked.

“Because of the pretty colors.”

“The pretty colors?”

Eliza set her chopping knife down and wiped her hands on her long skirt. “You ever seen snakeskin in candlelight?”

“No,” Stan Fliegelmann said.

“Well, you ought to. It’s purely one of the wonders of the world. The scales are all in rows and the edges are silvery, and when the light flickers, the colors change. It’s something to see, very pretty, but not as gaudy as a rainbow.”

“That’s why you light candles under a snakeskin—to see the colors?”

Eliza nodded.

“Any other reason?” he asked.

There was. It was because that was the only thing she could remember about her mother. Milly, the Snake Lady, had run away when Eliza was four years old, but Eliza could remember being in her mother’s arms one time as her mother held her and a candle up to that snakeskin and told her something she couldn’t remember. What she remembered was seeing the colors shift and sparkle in the flickering candlelight, and then her mother was gone.

Eliza shrugged and looked the lawyer right in the eye. “I can’t think of any other good reason to hold a candle up to a snakeskin, can you?”

He didn’t answer, but she could tell, by the way his eyes flicked away, that he had ticked off some point inside his head that he wanted to remember later.

Meanwhile, William was going on. “Did I tell you about the snake bones? Mama uses them like dice. She never makes a decision without checking her snake bones, and she does consultings and healings. She practically practices medicine without a license.”

Eliza wished she remembered what her mother had tried to tell her. It must have been important. She knew one thing. She would never run away from William the way her mother had run away from her. She wasn’t a good mother, but she was there. She had always been there when William needed someone. She tried to tell him important things, not once, but over and over, hoping to teach him the family ways, but it hadn’t worked. He kept missing the message. Maybe, in the end, that wasn’t any better than what Milly, the Snake Lady, had done.

Whatever, she’d never imagined that she’d failed William to such a degree that he would want her out of his life, committed, put away. It was almost enough to make her hesitate. That is, until she saw the lawyer stirring in her bitters bowl.

Nobody stirred her bitters.

She reached behind her and took down a yellow gourd. It rattled like rushing water as she shook it in the lawyer’s face so close that he drew back. Then she tipped the gourd and spilled a handful of snake bones, tiny vertebrae, onto the table where she had been chopping.

“Want me to tell you your fortune?” she asked.

He looked over at William who gestured with an open hand for him to go ahead and see what this was all about.

The lawyer said, “Sure.”

Eliza couldn’t really read fortunes from snake bones—except maybe her own family’s fortune—but she gave the vertebrae a prolonged examination, looking at them from one side of the table and then another.

At last, she said, “you are going to handle a very profitable lawsuit concerning a wealthy Chicago woman whose silver-haired poodle was bitten by a rattlesnake in the parking lot of that new hotel.”

The lawyer cocked his head.

She knew why. He had just taken such a case. Eliza had read about it in the local newspaper and finally made the connection. That’s why his name had sounded familiar.

She went on. “The poodle has survived, seemingly none the worse for wear, so you plan to settle for a modest sum. The snake bones advise you not to do that. The rattlesnake problem at the hotel is more serious than they’ve admitted. Ask the bellboys. They have instructions to check ground-floor rooms for snakes. Talk to the hot-tub attendant who recently quit. Poke around and you’ll discover that they have a parking lot attendant whose job description is `snake removal.’ You might also discover that one basement laundry room is now closed even to employees. Then check the airport. Five hotel-owned Lear jets have logged in and out of there in the past two weeks. Three of those flights brought in well-known herpetologists from top universities. Why? The bones predict that if you answer those questions, you will discover that you have stumbled onto the means of embarrassing the world’s second largest chain of luxury hotels. If that doesn’t translate into money, these aren’t snake bones, and I must be crazy.”

Stan Fliegelmann studied Eliza for fully half a minute. Then he picked up the gourd and swept the snake bones back into it. “I don’t believe in hocus-pocus,” he said. “But I have heard rumors about that hotel. How do you know what you know?”

Eliza shrugged. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw William slump against the cellar door frame. To the lawyer, she said, “I usually get a hundred dollars for a fortune reading.”

Stan Fliegelmann took out his wallet.

 

Ten days later William strode into the shop and up to where Eliza was helping a customer with a Chinese paper snake. Without saying a word, he dumped a satchel of money onto the counter and started counting the hundred dollar bills into piles of ten. Soon he had fourteen piles of money. The customer backed off, but Eliza stood there and watched him finger every bill with such intensity his hands shook.

When he finished, he said, “That’s my snake money. I went to the bank and I got cash because I wanted you to see it, Old Woman, all fourteen thousand dollars of it. I’m a high-paid snake consultant. That hotel paid me to show them every crack and crevice on that bluff. After I showed them, they pumped concrete into them—every one of them. If there’s a snake left up there, it’s cast in cement. Now, let’s see you do something about that!”

He stood there looking at her, breathing heavily.

Eliza nodded and then couldn’t keep herself from smiling. Deep down she’d always known it would come to this. He was an Osgood. He had snake oil in his blood.

She reached out and patted each stack of his money, palming a hundred off the last pile as she pulled her hand back. Then she looked up at her William and said, “You did good. You did real fine. Yes, indeed. That’s a most respectful start, but, now, let me tell you, before you and I and those snakes get through with that hotel . . .”