Joey Rigoletto is a spazz. We know this. What a dickhead, we said as he went by, tipped over practically, calling out, Snake ball! There’s a snake ball! He shouted, Under the Rainbow Bridge!
This, the Rainbow Bridge, takes its name not for its colors, yellow and brown mostly, rust colors, but for its shape, which arcs high over the brackish inlet at the western edge of Duncan Lake, so that you can get from the concession stand over by the croppy house to the sandy stretch of Tribbey Beach, which is the only hundred or so feet of shoreline around the entire lake that isn’t given over to rock or repurposed concrete, without having to wade your way through what is, for all intents and purposes, a swamp. A swamp with snakes in it. Snakes that, when spring turns into summer, take to mating. They’re water snakes, mostly, that like the sun-warmed shallows of the inlet, and when it comes to such things, mating that is, have a predilection for group settings. Scores of them, and not much thought given to discriminating between species either: moccasins, all mixed up with bull snakes and Texas king snakes, come together in one coiling, writhing ball of scale and muscle and vertebra and eyes unblinking, and it’s just about the most depraved sight you ever will see.
May had already turned hot, and the afternoon air was slow and it was like the whole Earth’s insects rattled at its edges. There wasn’t a thing going to happen and that wasn’t set to change anytime soon, so when we saw Joey Rigoletto go by we figured to follow after him. In his hand he had a thirty-two-ounce Stripes cup, and in his wake lingered the beautiful blue smell of unleaded gasoline. This, carrying around gasoline in a Styrofoam cup, was illegal first of all, and second of all stupid. The first we couldn’t give a shit about, but the second, the act’s stupidity, was of some concern to us, and reason for, or perhaps better to say confirmation of, our thinking that Joey Rigoletto was a spazz. Joey, we said, that gas is going to eat through that cup. Joey, we said, that shit is going to corrode right into your hand. And it was only after we’d said all this that we finally thought to ask, Hey Joey, what are you going to do with that gasoline? But by then he’d already pounded on up and over the slope of Rainbow Bridge.
We watched as first his shapeless gray sneakers disappeared down the other side of the bridge’s apex, then his socks, then the knobs of his knees, then the hand with the Stripes cup and the gasoline, then the chevron of sweat on his shirt-back, then his narrow shoulders and finally his flattop. We followed up after him, and when he came again into view he was leaning over the railing, a long noodle of spit dangling from his lips, which were pushed out around the protuberance of his braces. During lunch at school these collected great chunks of egg salad from the sandwiches he ate until his grin became a noxious tangle of hardboiled yolk, and this was another reason we called him a spazz. Don’t do that, we told him, meaning the spitting. It’s ignorant. They don’t care, he said, they’re all just way too busy screwing. And certainly they were busy at that. The smut of it could make your stomach turn. We, remember, were boys then, and eager consumers of smut. But this was no hastily drawn lady, spread-eagled, twin vees for breasts and an inverted semi-colon to denote the mystery of her sex. The audacity of their performance, and their willingness to do it in the brightness of the afternoon, bespoke a bravery, a self-assurance that none of us could ever hope to possess. Some of them, spent, lay stretched out along the dead and naked wood tangles, their bodies drying in the sun. Others wallowed white-bellied in the froth. Most of them, though, just went along tensing and coiling together, according to some ancient drive toward spasm.
Joey Rigoletto held the Stripes cup over the inlet, pinched in his hand ‘til the Styrofoam lip gave and popped into a vee and the gasoline dribbled down and whorled in rainbow colors all over the water’s surface. As the snakes sluiced through it their bodies became rainbow colored too. When he’d emptied the cup he let it fall down after, where it floated and bobbed on the brown water along up by the snake ball, and from the pocket of his cut-off dungarees he produced a book of matches, its striking pad smeared from frequent and insistent use. In the sunlight we could not see their flames as he struck one match after the other from out of the book. We could hear them pop though, and tasted the sulfur on the backs of our tongues. One after another he dropped them, but somewhere between the railing and the water they all went dead. Are you sure you had them lit? we said. Yeah, I lit them, he said. Shit. So we took the matches from him and gave it a try ourselves, but our luck turned out no better.
Here, Joey Rigoletto said, hold on. And once more he disappeared, this time down the far slope of Rainbow Bridge. Over above the sun-dazzled lake the ancient croppy house stood atop its pilings. From the promenade that encircled it, the old soaks had hung their lines. There too Adam Towson had hung his. No old soak, but a boy our age, Adam Towson was an omnivorous terrorizer not just of the desperate and dweebish, like Joey Rigoletto, but of regular kids like us as well. He fished and spat into the water and we watched him from our vantage and said nothing, except maybe in silence, a prayer that he would not turn his head toward us. We looked down at the empty matchbook, as if some fate or fortune was written on it. Then Joey Rigoletto reappeared on the soggy banks beneath the Rainbow Bridge, stepping gingerly out on a branch tangle, toeing his way closer to the snake ball. From the other pocket of his cutoff dungarees he produced another book of matches. He plucked one free from its cohorts and held its head down against the striking pad and stood for a trembling white moment. He collected courage from some reserve somewhere before, with a single movement, he popped the match head and arced it through the hot air at the snake ball.
Nothing happened. We laughed. We laughed at his failure. We laughed for the tremendous possibility of what he might do. Be careful, dickhead, we hollered down at him, but we said these words through laughter and so they only served to encourage him. He popped another match. Another after that. We catcalled down to him. We harassed him for his ineptitude. On the fourth match the gasoline caught with an atmospheric thrum like an oven kicking on. On our faces were frozen the countenances mirth, our mouths open, though from them no sound came. Oh, what a holocaust it was. At first none of the snakes seemed to notice that the water above them was in flame, and so they just went on doing what they’d been doing. Then the flames, or their heat, tripped off some panic in them and they slashed through the burning water in a holy terror. A few of them, alight, darted for the deeper and cooler parts of the lake’s inlet. Their orgy had become a tragic and humiliated retreat. Joey Rigoletto looked up smiling to us for our approval. We watched aghast over what he’d done, what we’d played a part in. Some of the gasoline must have sloshed onto his shoes and clothes while he’d carried it up the bridge because now there were little flames zagging up his shoelaces. Now the fringe of his cutoffs was on fire. Now his shirt too had caught. When he realized that the flames were upon him he panicked, just as the snakes had. A terrible thing to watch, a human being in an instant gone animal. His body told him to seek the water even if the flames still flickered here and there across its surface, but his feet betrayed him. In his hurry the limb tangle shifted and his ankle turned and he went down on the branches, the water so near, and yet for all he was twisted up in them he may as well have been afire in some desert. The wood pile sprang and stretched like a hammock beneath him and his free arm waved frantically, the flames that ran up it disappearing and coming back as he dragged them through the air above him like a banner.
Be careful, dickhead, we hollered down at him, but we said these words through laughter and so they only served to encourage him.
Up on the croppy house the old soaks took notice of the commotion now, but neither did they come rushing to Joey Rigoletto’s aid. It was Adam Towson, stoned on pot and his mind abuzz with meanness surely, who came bounding down the croppy house’s gangway. The muck at the inlet’s bottom slurped at his loose-tied basketball shoes and eventually pulled first one and then the other off as he high-stepped through the water. His shoulders rolled like a running back’s and his head bobbed side to side like a boxer’s.
He brought his two big hands down on Joey Rigoletto’s chest and, taking hold of his shirt, pulled him off the pale and tangled wood pile and plunged him into the water like Joey was a sinner needing rebirth. The boy thrashed while Adam Towson held him under, and when he let go Joey emerged wet and pink, his mouth in a great off-center O as he gulped the bright air into his lungs. He fell down and got up again. Adam Towson stood in the knee-deep water next to him, panting and exhausted and doubled over. He was okay. Thank God he was okay. The rest of his life he would have one weird-looking ear but, shit, think how much worse it could have been.
LISTEN: From his front window, a man watches death in progress. Writing by Duncan Murrell, reading by Richard Higgs. Produced in partnership with Oxford American.
We thundered down the bridge to the banks of the inlet, and some of us waded in and put our hands on him. Adam, you saved his life, we said. Adam Towson had yet to catch his breath. He spit and pulled a long and whistling draught of air in through his nose. He didn’t say anything. He just looked at us. But that look. In a single instant the beatings, the fear he’d struck in us, all the ways he’d made us small, the time he pegged one of us in the neck with the padlock from our own gym locker, all of that was made justified.
In the coming years, towards high school’s end, we would take Joey Rigoletto as a kind of mascot for our group. It wasn’t that we liked him, or were even all that nice to him, but our meanness towards him became a grinning and winking kind of meanness. Sometimes we’d wonder if he was really as oblivious to all of that as he let on, or if he just played at obliviousness — grinning and winking being preferable to a smack in the head; grinning and winking being preferable to getting called an asshole. We still break his balls a little now, but we’d grown up and so had he, and it’s the God’s honest truth that we like him. And Joey Rigoletto has a good heart and he’s just a hell of a lot better than the rest of us so he doesn’t hold any grudges.
We were kids back then and kids have to learn to not be dickheads. It takes time is all. Adam Towson is no saint, either. He did some terrible things in his life, even after he was old enough to know better. But they locked him up a while and he reformed. The system worked. His boy shot a bear last fall that was charging their blind. They ran a story about it in the Banner that was even picked up later in The Lawton Constitution, and you could just tell in what all he said that his heart was swelled by the whole thing and was about to brim right over. Joey Rigoletto ran a half marathon. That was in the Banner too, along with a picture of him running. He looks like an old man, his face grooved and creased around his pouchy catfish mouth, but he looked like an old man even when he was a kid, so.
Sometimes the phone will ring late, after our wives and children have gone off to bed. It hurts every now and again to piss, the voices say. I’m terrified what’ll come of my boys. How in hell did we get to this place? God, sons, we’ll say, they will keep you up with worry. You got to eat more garlic. You’re a good man, we say. You’re a good man, we say again, into the silence of one ear listening. The hum of all that air our words must pass through. Then this and that and some other things. That crazy little bastard, we say, he just lit those sons of bitches up, didn’t he? Snake ball! he was hollering. There’s a snake ball under Rainbow Bridge!
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 16, August 15, 2014.