• Water Moccasin

    Maria Anderson

    Fall 2020

    When my husband left he took his baking paraphernalia, my dad’s Navajo rugs, and the studded tires I’d given him for his fortieth. I dialed down the thermostat first thing. A warm-weather southern boy, he’d married a person who wore flip-flops year-round all her childhood, through snow to the car and back again, yet I’d permitted him to sauna our house all this time, dutifully paying my half of the bloated electric to those awful energy companies. The whole morning I shook from room to room, chain-smoking marijuana, admiring the dark rectangles of wood and carpet where for years my dad’s rugs protected them from the sun.

    I’d known he was seeing someone, probably costing her a fortune in heating bills. Maybe I’m the idiot, but I’d thought of her fondly. She’d been kind to the person I loved, wrung out his big sex drive and hung him up to dry for me so that we could speak plainly, person to person, over green spinach spätzle or semolina pastas he rolled flat and pressed by hand, which he’d learned from his grandfather in Tuscaloosa.

    I can tell you I would certainly have appreciated having my own relations, had I the drive to politely sneak outside the marriage. Even so, some dull, maybe socially encoded thing in me reared up and told my husband to cut out.

    It wasn’t until a few days later I noticed he’d forgotten his favorite pet, a sourdough starter which fed once a week, like the water moccasins of his homeland of Alabama. More ancient, he claimed, than both of us combined. Big whoop, I’d said. Now, the gravity of our years together alongside this starter had something in me kicking off its shoes.

    I retrieved the cold jar from the fridge and cracked the lid. The thick liquid was undrinkable, but I got most of it down by pouring little shots, one after the other, muscling through the tough moments by finding my breath. The breathing was something I’d learned from the climbing podcast I’d begun listening to for company these last few months. I was not a climber but found the chatter of the climbing acolytes—gravely driven by inexplicable devotions, given to shoulder pain and subluxation, to pulley tears and trigger-finger syndrome and other mysterious grievances—useful in the same way a nonreligious person might leave on a religious station in the car. I lay swallowing spit on the hardwood where a particularly aggressive rug had been. Trying to in-through-the-nose, out-through-the-mouth. The rug was all whirling logs and Spider Woman crosses inside diamonds and triangles. Most weavers, I’d read, considered this configuration risky. Spider Woman was not of this world. Her spirit should never be trapped inside such forms.

    Hours later, I woke from a flapping tarp of a nap and ran out into the yard. My toilet bowl was nowhere you’d want to kneel.

    My husband called right away. “All right? Joe said you were doing some fertilizing out back.”

    “I was not,” I said.

    “Don’t tell me you’re pregnant now, too,” he said, referring to his sister, who’d just succumbed.

    “Yuck,” I said.

    “I forgot the starter,” he said. “I’ll come over and get it soon, so you don’t have to worry about feeding it.”

    I could hear him putting dishes away.

    “Sometimes I feel like you wanted me to be with someone else, like this made me more interesting to you,” he said.

    I had wanted him more, for a while. That’s just plain human nature.

    He was onto the cutlery now, slinking metal onto metal. I always envied his ability to wring satisfaction from the dullest thing—a fly petering around on the countertop, a tiered nurse cake he’d made with strong flour, an exchange with a stranger at the bear sanctuary we liked to visit when we drove into the next town for groceries.

    I licked my finger to save my canoeing joint and tapped its ashes onto the floor.

    “Look,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want those tires back? You shouldn’t even be driving on yours.”

    “Keep the fucking tires,” I said. “They were a birthday present.”

    When my best friend, Kara, called that afternoon, I told her about a breath exercise I’d been doing with a sorority-house name, Kapalabhati. Skull Shining Breath. This breath was like a full-body exfoliated wax, except on the inside. Climbers reported Kapalabhati relieved the body of volatile waste and mucus.

    I told her that for years my soul felt like a balloon twisted into different animals I’d pretended could speak.

    “What?” she said, but she was used to me.

    Kara worked at an artist colony in Wyoming. She always did the calling on her drive home. We always lost each other at a certain dip or something in the road. As whatever it was neared, I could tell by her voice, could hear the rest of her life pressing in—the letting out of her anxious dog, his ears like washcloths pinned to his head, the escorting of the dog around the empty fields. She’d drink a few beers while her potato baked, staring out at the colony from her beautiful barren plot. Her life becoming more important again than I was.

    “Of course you don’t miss his baking, he’s only been gone a week. You will, though,” she said. “But it won’t matter.”

    Kara didn’t need to ask why my husband took my dad’s rugs. She wanted him to have them. I was not a person who takes good care of a valuable rug. She was that kind of a friend, who cared not only about you, but about your things.

    She’d been reading a family therapy book. The book said temperature preference indicates tolerance for conflict. Lower temperatures meant a preference for less conflict. The higher the preferred temperature, the more a person tended toward conflict.

    “Maybe,” I said. “Is there a chance I could come to the colony sometime? As a resident?”

    I sculpted. Only the few times in the year when I felt called to do so, and then I would do little else for days, working in clay or whatever else came to mind. I’d had one incredible success and a few minor ones. Enough to know I knew what I was doing, which was just pursuing a mercifully unending, foul sort of mystery.

    “You could apply,” she said, knowing I wouldn’t. “But why don’t you just come visit me.”

    I’d been once, on my way somewhere. It had been lovely but jarring, spending time in the company of a close friend I never saw. Made me wonder whether having friends was something I’d misunderstood all my life, something I was missing out on. Take my dad and his roommate Jimbo—thick as sieves, as they put it. Who would have known my father would ever have made a friend? And they were so happy with each other, like two kids just discovering what friendship really was.

    After these calls: the feeling that our friendship had been harmed in some way. We could always just call each other back once she got home, where there was a landline, but we never did. When the dip came and the call dropped, I felt further from her than ever. Not only further from her, but, since she was my closest friend, further from everyone.

    Maria Anderson's stories have recently appeared in McSweeney's, Alpinist, and Best American Short Stories 2018. She has been awarded residencies from Jentel, The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and Joshua Tree National Park. She lives in Bozeman, Montana. 

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