Blinky ran the pet shop out on Route 64. There was nothing wrong with his eyes—20/20, he said—but he only had one and a half legs and he said he believed the nickname stopped people from staring at his stump. A die-version, he said. I didn’t stare at his stump mostly because I’d know Blinky since I was a kid and had gotten used to the fact that he refused a prosthetic. Said it wasn’t American. He’d lost the leg in the war, and he wanted everyone to know even though he didn’t want people to stare. He was weird like that.
You went to Blinky’s pet shop—named Randy’s House of Reptiles, for no reason whatsoever, Blinky’d always run the place—to buy shine. There was the bar in town, but they stopped selling at a certain time and they didn’t sell the good stuff. Blinky would never really say where he got his supply from, but damn it was good. Real good. You had to buy something pet-related when you went—I usually bought a cat toy, or dog bones for the mutt that hung around the back of my property—but if you did, Blinky took care of you. He was good like that.
I walked into Blinky’s on a Wednesday at noon and he was in his usual spot on a bar stool behind the counter.
“Howdy, Ray,” he said, nodding.
I’d been out since Monday and I was getting shaky. High Life didn’t really do it and, by the time I drank enough to do it, I was full and all I wanted to do was piss and sleep.
“What can I do you for on this fine day?”
“I’m needing some dog biscuits. Seems to be coming up on the day I first saw that mutt out back and I kind of wanted to do something nice for him.”
Blinky nodded and I crossed the small floor. On either side of the main walkway were tanks. Tanks with frogs. Tanks with lizards. Tanks with snakes. Next to the counter, there was a new tank and in it, a five-foot-long charcoal gray snake stretched out under a sun lamp. A sticky note was slapped to the top corner and on it in marker were the words Black Mamba, Dangerous. There was a skull and crossbones under the words. I didn’t care much for snakes—I wasn’t afraid, but after having the story of Eden drilled into your head as a child you develop a dislike—and I stood a foot or two to the side of the tank.
“I’ve got a new flavor in. You should try it,” Blinky said. “It’s good. Peaches and cream.”
He had a smile that was equal parts asylum patient and crack addict. For all I knew, and I never asked, he may have been both.
“Sounds good,” I said. At Blinky’s you didn’t request things. You took what he gave you and you pretended that it was what you always wanted. You paid what he said and you did it with a smile on your face. Otherwise, you were blackballed. My daddy had been blackballed near the end of his life. The cancer drugs had made him loose, and one day he’d decided to argue with Blinky. Blinky banned him that day and he died three weeks later. It wasn’t anything deep like not having shine that did him in. The cancer finally got him. He saw I could handle myself and he just gave up.
Blinky hopped off the stool and shuffled using a cane into a back room. The cops knew about Blinky’s operations, but they didn’t do anything. Half the force—all two of them—were frequenters customers of the pet shop. I’d shared a jar of blackberry with the young Deputy Hill one time and then spent an evening shooting out streetlights. The next day, when someone complained, the sheriff had to launch a fake investigation to see who had done the deed. They pretended to work on it for a week or two before just not mentioning it anymore.
The snake didn’t move a muscle as it laid there. I had heard of black mambas before. The Crocodile Hunter, Steve Erwin, had done an episode on them. One of the most venomous snakes in the world. Not something to fuck with. That Erwin guy fucked with them, tossed them around and shouted crikey and all that, but Blinky wasn’t even close to being Steve Erwin. When Blinky hobbled back to the counter, jar in hand, I asked him about it.
“Got it from a guy,” he said, unscrewing the cap. “It’s the new market. Poisonous snakes from Africa.”
It may have been because I was sober, but that seemed awfully specific.
“Interesting,” I said. I eyed the jar. I could smell the peaches from where I was. My mouth had begun to water and I wanted Blinky to offer me some. I watched him take a drink. His Adam’s apple moved in slow motion as he swallowed. He hissed like his inventory. Finally, he pushed the jar across the glass top towards me. I took it and took a sip.
There was no burn. It was sweet and, damn it, creamy. I blinked and fixed my gaze on him. Blinky smiled, arms crossed on his chest like he knew what I was going to say.
“Damn good,” I said.
“Oh, I know,” he said. “Special recipe right there.”
Blinky took the jar back and took another sip. His eyes fixed on the snake next to us.
“Know what that is?” He asked, pointing with the jar. I watched a blob fall from the jar and splatter on the glass. I thought, briefly, of how much he was going to charge me.
“How much you selling it for?”
Blinky took another slug of the shine and burped. He handed me the jar back. This was how it went. You never got a full jar, but you got good and drunk before you ever left the shop and you got some good conversation while you were at it.
“I’ve seen’em go as high as a G,” he said. “Four hundred is a discount.”
“Who’d be dumb enough to buy one of them?” I took another drink—bigger this time—and handed it back. My cheeks were fuzzy.
“People,” Blinky said. “There’s always someone to buy something. Just got to offer it right.”
I nodded. Watched him drink. I could feel the glass jar in my hands already again. I wanted it there. Needed it. He handed it back.
“I’d never take that home with me. Be afraid it’d kill me at night.”
“They’re actually quite calm,” Blinky said. He hopped off his stool and stood over the tank. He removed the mesh top. The snake lay still. “Ever held one?” he asked me.
I shook my head. I looked down at the shine in my hands and swirled the jar. We’d done a dent in it and I took another big sip. I hoped he had more.
“Time to change that. Like I said, they’re surprisingly calm.”
With speed that belied him, Blinky grabbed the snake behind the head and pulled it out of the tank. The snake hissed at me and I prayed to every god I’d ever heard of. The crippled man held it out to me. His smiled had, if possible, widened.
I took a step back. The snake had seemed to come alive and it bared its fangs at me. It had a mouth as black as tar. It looked deep and dark and the last thing I’d want coming near me.
“No way am I touching that,” I said. “I just came here for some shine, Blinky.”
I took another sip as I stepped back again. Behind me, I heard scratching. I imagined scales moving against scales. My head started to spin a little. I remembered a phrase I’d heard on a show once, cognitive dissonance. I thought of that, even though I didn’t quite remember what it meant.
Blinky came around the counter with the snake.
“Live a little, Ray. Live a little,” he said. “Nothing will prove to you that you’re alive like holding one of God’s greatest creatures. Think of all of the power that’s inside these scales. It’s so small, but it could bring down the biggest enemy. Think about that.”
I let the thought enter my mind as I backed up. For a one-legged man, he moved quickly. Blinky held the snake out in front of him and I held the jar of shine like a shield. I was about a foot from the door—I knew because I’d reached the fish tanks and they were the first thing you saw always. Something about fish calming people before they got to the real animals. Goldfish bobbed in my peripheral. Blinky took another step and, as he did, he slipped. He let out a noise and I watched as the snake flew into the air between us.
I slammed myself backwards against the double glass doors and pushed myself out of them as the snake landed on Blinky, who was struggling to get to his feet. The snake hissed once before sinking its fangs into Blinky’s neck. Blinky let out a yelp, followed by the word help. The snake bit again. I wondered how much venom it had in it and if it would bite even if it was empty.
Blinky managed to roll over and throw the snake off him. His eyes didn’t look good. He looked sick and I wondered how long he had. He asked for help again. I was frozen in the doorway until the snake started to slither towards me. I held onto one door and stood behind it, waiting till it got closer. Right as it started to cross the threshold, I slammed the door closed.
The snake’s head popped off and rolled a few inches past me. The body twitched and blood began to spill from the neck. I stared at it a moment before Blinky’s yelling brought me back. I opened the door and kicked the snake’s body to the side. Blinky was propped against a shelf of fish food. His breathing was heavy.
“Call,” he said, coughing. “Call 911.”
I fumbled with my cell phone and did as he said. When I finished I sat next to him. He collapsed onto my lap.
“Hide the shine,” he said. “It’s all back there. They know, but hide it anyway.”
I nodded. I felt numb. I couldn’t stop staring at the snake’s body, which still twitched every other minute.
“I want to go out classy-like,” he said. He tried to laugh, coughed, and stopped. “Real classy.”
“Okay, Blinky,” I said. “Okay.” I patted his head. His hair was greasy.
“You know, I’ve never been bit before,” he said. “I guess there’s a first time for everything.”
I nodded. I was thirsty but I couldn’t remember what I did with the jar that had been in my hand. I looked around and saw it on it’s side near the door. I must’ve dropped it in the commotion.
“Can I get you anything?” I asked Blinky.
He shook his head. “Just hang out here, Ray,” he said.
Blinky went quiet. He was still breathing, though, and I rubbed the old man’s back. I could feel each of his ribs. I listened for the sirens. I hoped they’d come soon, though I knew they wouldn’t. I knew we were too far away, knew that the venom had probably started to shut things down. I wondered what it felt like. Was that living? Was that what he was talking about?
Blinky grabbed my hand. His own was clammy. I felt wetness on my lap. It wasn’t sweat. Blinky was crying. I squeezed his hand.
“Just hide the shine for me,” he said again. I’d never been in this position. Not with my granddaddy, not with my daddy. I’d never know my momma. I’d never done the comforting in death.
“You’re going to be fine, Blinky. Just fine. Pretty soon, you’re going to be overcharging me for another pint of this fine, fine shine.”
Blinky hacked out a laugh.
“You’re a good man, Ray. A good man.”
He tried to squeeze my hand, it was weak, like a baby. After, Blinky let go. His breathing began to slow. I closed my eyes and prayed for the sirens.
SAM SLAUGHTER is the author of the chapbook When You Cross That Line and the forthcoming books God in Neon (Lucky Bastard Press) and Dogs (Double Life Press). He is the spirits writer for The Manual and lives in South Carolina, where he’s at work on his MFA. He can be found online at www.samslaughterthewriter.com and on social media @slaughterwrites.
Adapted from God in Neon, by Sam Slaughter, Copyright © 2016 by Sam Slaughter. With the permission of the publisher, Lucky Bastard Press.