Copperhead Martini v.6: a parable

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AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a chapter of a novel in progress, working title: THE BIBLE ACCORDING TO JOE VAC.
Maybe it was a pang of nostalgia, or maybe it was the gummies I bought from the cannabis dispensary in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, that directed my vintage Tacoma Toyota pickup with home-made camper body (my dwelling) to practically drive itself to the garden where my ex-wife and I had had such good times in those days of yore. I'm not sure of the exact dates because local Earth authorities keep fudging with the calendars, and I grow old, obliterating memories and filling the lonesome mind-spaces with self-serving discombobulations. My memories had the quality of polluted ocean flotsam, and they began to leak out my eyes and ears and become farts. Typo: I meant to type "facts," not "farts." I keep some of my typos, the ones that are coded messages from Big Deity. How to interpret them? I do not know, but like any true believer, I keep trying. Maybe "keep trying" IS the message from on high.
The town had put up a sign at the field stone gate where I parked. "Historical Marker: Site of Worship Ground Constructed by the Connisadawaga Native American Nation." I didn't see another human being, but I could hear the rumble of heavy equipment nearby where Eve and her latest partner were building their dream house of steel supports, solar panels, and stained glass windows featuring illustrations of Burning Man.
Emily Reif, via Imagen
A new thought invaded my mind: Our words are the photons–or maybe phonytons–that drift through the cosmos like plague-infested air.
The garden was near the old jail on what was town land on the bluff above the river. None of the original flora existed today, except for the apple tree, which had lost no vitality over the centuries. Nailed to the tree was the wooden sign the angels put up when they built the wall surrounding the garden. Written in gold leaf paint were the words, "Do Not Urinate Against the Wall, and Do Not Eat the Apples--The Management."
At this time of year tree blossoms had fallen, leaf buds were breaking green while woodpeckers performed drum solos in the background, so I didn't expect to find any fruit, but there it was: a lone rotting apple that had hung on through the winter. I whipped out my smartphone and took a pic. I was about to walk away when I heard in memory Eve's voice coming from our first moment of disobedience but speaking in contemporary slang, "Eat the fucking apple, asshole." I could never say no to that woman, and I pulled that rotted apple off the tree and took a bite.
The taste was mushy and sweet and with a unique tang that I can only report in metaphor. It was like a mouthful of frisky dung beetles crawling on my tongue's sensory apparatus, the excitation slithering into my bloodstream that flowed directly to my groin.
I remembered Big Deity telling me, "You believe yours is the chosen species, but behold in wonder as I do at 60,000 different species of beetles, and you won't feel so anointed." It was at the captivity of that thought that my erection faltered, replaced by the dull ache of loss and the ouch of a pin-pricked prick.
I looked around at the garden and knew in the phosphorescent realization of beauty that I was hallucinating, for the garden was now as it was long ago, like the forest glades of the Trinidad mountains. I wept with joy. Well, not really. The "joy" part was true enough, the "wept" part a figure of speech. Or maybe the other way around. I get confused occasionally. The vision faded, and the garden returned to its current state--"things rank and gross in nature".
I staggered back to my camper and drove off, headed for Urgent Care in the city for treatment, where Eve was a physician. Everything was starting to look hazy, so it was a miracle I didn't crash my truck. I recombobulated somewhat in the waiting room of Urgent Care, thanks to speakers playing ambient music engendered by the radiation leftover from the Big Bang.
Eve looked fine, except older. Aging was part of the settlement. We didn't have aging when the Roomba weeded the garden. I remembered her face from way earlier--it wasn't too different now; just puttied by time. There was something slightly off, though. The difference between then and now wasn't aging, but rather a weariness she had acquired through millennia of life-experiences and exposure to our busy but bumbling progeny. Eve wasn't going to live much longer.
"What were you doing in my garden?" she asked.
"Would you believe I was pulling mushrooms?"
"No, I would not."
"I was looking for tomatoes to put on a pizza that I was constructing from a kit I bought at Whole Foods," I said.
"Stop with the jokes, please."
"Eve, it's not your garden anymore. According to the settlement, we were evicted. Don't you remember? Our aboriginal sin?"
"Adam, Adam, you poor boy. You can't alter reality by rebranding climate change as divine retribution. Now, please, describe your symptoms."
I described my symptoms.
"I don't think it was the apple that scrambled your reality version," she said. "Take your clothes off, so I can inspect you."
I unzipped and stepped out of my Top Gas Jumpsuit.
Eve shook her head. "No underwear. Invest in Calvin Kleins and you'll feel more secure."
She checked me over. "See, I was right," she said. "While you were reaching for the apple, a viper bit your waldo."
I looked down and sure enough, my waldo had swollen to the max set by Big Deity when he endowed me following the heal-up of the surgery that extracted the rib from which Big Deity created Eve. But that is another story.
Eve took the waldo in her loving hands and put a special bandage-wrap around it.
"Thank you," I said. "Do you still love me?"
"Not enough to live with you."
"My slovenly habits," I said.
"Yes, plus mothball breath, and--you know--the blame game."
"Maybe I was wrong to blame you for that first bite of the apple back in the day. Remember? We were new."
"Yes, new. And alone. Until the babies. You blamed me when our eldest ..." Eve choked up, unable to continue; the old grief censored the remainder of her sentence.
"You never warmed to Cain," I said.
"You insisted he cry himself to sleep."
"You favored Abel," I accused.
Eve seemed about to retaliate, but halted. There was a long pause when in our sorrow and guilt we retreated into our inner worlds. Finally, I said, "I'm sorry. We were both at fault."
"Or perhaps there is no blame to share," Eve said. "We were novices as parents and did our best. In the end, I blame Big Deity and his mind games. He didn't stop with us with his stupid tests. Remember the trauma he imposed on Abraham and Isaac?"
"Yes, he ordered Abraham to kill his good son," I said.
"How cruel! Then at the last minute, he announces a just kidding moment! Big Deity was always into the obedience thing. Like any autocrat he was possessed by his own insecurity." Eve took a deep breath, composed herself, and spoke in her physician's neutral voice. "Put your clothes back on."
Emily Reif, via Imagen
As I dressed, she said, "Since it's a puncture wound, it was probably one of the poisonous ones that tagged you."
"That's what I figured," I said. "We used to rent in this shopping center when it was a residential neighborhood. Do you remember exactly where?"
"Yes, across the parking lot at what is now Applebee's. They have a special this week on snake serums." Eve wrote out a prescription and handed it to me. "Where are you living now?"
"In my camper on the inside of the Walmart moat. I remember you used to wrap a little snake around your thigh. So sexy."
"Yes, that's why they call them garter snakes."
Partly on purpose and partly influenced by the poison in my system, or more likely acting out a punishment by Big Deity for my voicing various outrages, I hallucinated Eve. She now had scales, fangs, her fingernails growing out more and more with each passing instant, her eyes turning green, and her blood turning black and viscous.
"I just transmogrified you into a reptile, but with a human shape," I said.
"I totally understand: mutation as a necessary expedient to prepare the species to combat climate change," Eve said with fangs dripping gunk, "You should go now. I have another patient to tend to." Her blood thickened, and her shape melted, her hair turning into snakeskin. I was in such awe. I thought to myself, "Self, you are so lucky to have access to high technology and personal sentience--sort of. "Don't die, Eve. Stay with me. We've been apart too long."
"Your lips moved," Eve said. "Were you trying to tell me something?"
"Naw," I shook my head. I didn't want her to witness my descent into madness, but I had to say something. "You have another patient. And after that one, there will be another. And another. And so forth until the black hole at the center of our galaxy swallows them all."
"It's called a job, Adam. Nothing to be ashamed of."
"Work: Yet another compliance edict in the settlement," I said.
She nodded, and a trace of a smile spread across her face. With that smile, the monster I had hallucinated receded into Big Deity's quantum field, and she was Eve again, my ancient partner in the creation of humankind. I wanted to kiss her, but she was already moving toward the door, which presently she opened. I passed by with neither a word nor a waldonan wink.
I walked in an antlike zig-zag to Applebee's. Inside, I swayed unsteadily in time with the muzak. The hostess was middle-aged and kindly looking. She could have passed for the mother I never had.
"Table or booth?" she said.
"Like John Wilkes Booth?" I said.
She neither laughed nor frowned; she reacted as if mystified. I could see her lips move, but the words didn't belong to her, but to my occasional guardian angel companion. His name is Beelzebub, but I call him Bubba.
"That's profound," Bubba said. "Misunderstanding is at the heart of human tragedy. Makes me proud to have added to the confusion. Or perhaps Confucianism."
"What--did you say something?" the hostess asked in her own voice.
"Sometimes others speak through me, but never mind," I said. "I'll sit at the bar." I looked around. The bar at Applebees was spacious, with Chardonnay-colored wood furniture and a ceiling fan. Several people at the bar were laughing as they watched European soccer on TV. On the walls were paintings of dogs playing poker, a six-foot tall bottle of a domestic beer, labeled Abare's Hick Lit Amber, and a sign that said, "Special: One Day Only, Snake Serums."
"Applebee's is like the contemporary version of the Garden of Eden," I said.
"Takes all kinds," the hostess said to nobody.
I sat at the end with an empty bar stool to one side where I hoped Bubba would be seated and give me some news from Down Under, but he vanished. I was alone when the bartender approached. Who's the better companion, the Devil at large or your own personal demon? They're the same, you pitiful, hopeless fool.
"I'm sorry, I didn't get that," the bartender said.
"It was nothing; I tend to mumble my thoughts," I said.
"The great thing about talking to yourself is you always find compatible company," the bartender said. She looked like a tennis phenom from one of the Slavic countries, tall and muscular, but not fat, good-looking but not pretty. I guessed from her diction and demeanor that she must be a grad student at the local university.
I removed Eve's prescription from the breast pocket of my Top Gas jumpsuit and gave it to the bartender.
She shook her head, "They always go for the waldo. It's sad. Mind if I get a pic for my bio class?"
"Sure, why not?" I attempted to certify my affirmation with a fist bump, but missed. A poke into the void. The material world was gyrating away from me.
The bartender whipped out her smartphone, and I whipped out my waldo. She took the pic. I visualized Big Deity and his angel-paramours. If you analyze scripture, it will be obvious that Big Deity was gay since he surrounded himself with male-gendered angels. There was no female aura in pre-creation heaven.
"Sir, are you awake?" the bartender asked.
"Sorry, I drifted off for a sec. I'm cogent now."
"Your prescription requires an ID of the alleged serpent." She handed me a menu.
I read off the items, voicing them in a sonorous tone as one might preaching the gospel.
"Boneless Wings, Double Crunch Bone-In Wings, Brew Pub Pretzels & Beer Cheese Dip, Mozzarella Sticks, Spinach & Artichoke Dip."
"I like the way you read, like a poet." The bartender spoke in a cable-news accent.
"Are you taking a creative writing class?" I asked.
"When I taught creative writing we were a program in the English Department at Dartmouth College," I said, fabricating a past I never experienced.
"At my university, creative writing has been folded into computer science," the bartender said.
"How do you figure cw and computer coding go together?"
"It's the new paradigm: Writers collaborate with personal AI assistants. I feed mine a line here, a line there; she riffs on the lines, and I organize the ones I like to suit my tastes."
"Does the AI have tastes?"
"That's not much of an answer," I said.
"I'll put it this way--she's learning."
"I'd like to read one of your poems," I said.
"Thank you, I'll have my AI read it aloud, which is how a poem should be read--no?"
"Of course."
The bartender held up her phone and aimed it at me. I concentrated on the menu as I listened to the voice from the phone.
As we near our destination the world's colors begin to change and blur together, the scenery seems to flatten out. We find ourselves moving slower and slower, until we stop altogether. The only color left is the color of the sky; and the only thing left is the road, stretching far away. Everything else has been taken. We are each of us a poem in the world's ever-spinning library. We are each of us a tale in the world's ever-changing book. A girl who was walking along the road Bends down to pick up a golden bookmark. She opens her hands, and they are full of hope. The bookmark turns into gold dust in her hands. And when the girl, trying to decide whether or not to keep the dust Opens the book, the world comes rushing in. The car turns into a poem.
"A poem with imagery and heart, but uneven logic," I said. "Your AI reads in the voice of a fallen angel."
"No, actually the voice was Siri's." As the bartender spoke, menu illustrations of food morphed into photographs of snakes in front of my eyes.
Emily Reif, via Imagen
I pointed at the menu, "There it is!"
"A local copperhead," the bartender said, "one of the many venomous snakes on this particular planet rather than, say, the planet Uranus, where snakes are not known to inhabit."
"You pronounced it 'yourahness', all one bleat; I always thought it was 'your anus', two bleats."
"Dodgy lingo says so much about the character of the speaker," the bartender said. "Serums are served in martini crystal. How do you want it?"
"Straight-up with two Higgs-Boson God particles on the toothpick."
"Do you want it dirty?"
"No, plain, shaken, not stirred."
"How James Bondian," said the bartender.
"You know, when an actor ages out of James Bond, they replace him with a younger more trendy one--right?" I said.
"Yes, and they also replace tropes in the scripts to accommodate the trends."
"Whether in film, literature, or music, an artist must follow the current creed of their affinity group or be replaced." I held up my glass and offered a toast, "To climate change, Big Deity's latest test." But the bartender had moved away, lovingly tending to her customers.
Over the next half hour, I sipped the Copperhead martini. The serum did its work. I began to feel normal again. In other words, in despair.
Ernest Hebert is the author of the seven-novel Darby series and five other published novels, a book of personal essays, and a collection of poems. THE DOGS OF MARCH received a citation for excellence in 1980 from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, now PEN/Faulkner Foundation. The New York Times Book Review named LIVE FREE OR DIE as a "notable book of the year" for 1989. The New England Booksellers Association named Hebert their fiction author of the year for 2006, the year SPOONWOOD won an IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award) for best regional novel in the Northeast. Hebert's most recent book is WHIRLYBIRD ISLAND, a literary murder mystery, released in May of 2022 by Plaidswede Publications. Hebert retired in 2015 after 26 years on the faculty of Dartmouth College. Hebert lives close to fictional Darby in southwestern New Hampshire with his wife of 52 years, Medora. The Heberts have two grown daughters.