December 15, 2012 by The Citron Review
by Matthew Dexter
The rattlesnake belt swung from dirty jeans as Bill told me to leave the room so that he could beat the butt cheeks of his youngest son in privacy. The wailing seeped through cacti and blooming bougainvilleas and saguaros with arms twisted, I listened from the living room which smelled like semen, the buckle leaving its mark on the thighs of my oldest friend. The back of my legs and arms stuck to the leather of the couch. I dared not stir.
Cigarette smoke was curling toward the open window where heat was hiding, waiting for me to find him. We were usually engaged in activities that might warrant the belt, but it only came out when we were at his father’s ranch in Arizona, when the warm whiskey merged with the cold window of opportunity when debauchery flows from an empty brown bottle and monotony is more than a mosquito on the shoulder blade of a cowboy who turns into a monster on a whim.
Loathsome, we waited for that worn buckle like waiters for an angry fat lady to place her order at a steakhouse. The lashing, the whip crashing against tanned flesh. This was the early eighties, when child abuse was synonymous with spanking, and a violent slap in the face from my mother in the shopping mall was just another moment celebrated with a frozen margarita with salt on the rim.
We would buy moccasins from the little store where Indians sold wind chimes. The belt section would always be just out of reach, the leather so distant I could sniff it and enter another dimension. Could I leave without a scar? Was a slice of pizza worth the aroma of fear on a festive Friday afternoon? The years collided with a new notch cut with a hunting knife. There were never enough notches. There was seldom a dull moment. Sharpened by time, the welts folded in on themselves. The wrinkled scars still a labyrinth toward chlorine and cactus.
The thrashing against desert air prior to a beating was high-pitched and insistent, often louder than the breeze and the cartoon on television and everything drowned itself out as he made eye contact, sadistic. The two boys backed away from the weapon, as if the inertia could sting them. They pinned themselves against the wall in their bunk bed, sacrificing one another to get the first lashing.
There was always more than one. One wouldn’t be so bad. The juice poured from the bruises on their buttocks where nobody ever questioned them. The man was more than a half-empty two-liter bottle of tequila resonated with the floating corpse of a rattlesnake. He rolled his own butts. The serpent’s skin had been marinating for half a decade, one eye bulging out toward the desert, the other swallowed by anyone willing to satisfy the whims of a child abuser in the times when spanking with a belt buckle was glamorized as stoic discipline.
On the good days he wore a polka dotted golf shirt, sat smoking Cuban cigars with a Bloody Mary out by the pool, or driving golf balls at the saguaros from a tee stuck into the white fertilizer of a dying garden his wife left empty when she moved out. Her skin was roasted. The boys’ first names began with R, as if the man could hear them roaring in he womb, rest and relaxation nothing more than a hug from a victim who is unable to sit down without wincing.
There was a Weber grill with arrachera and hamburgers and hot dogs burning, the flames popping sausages, dropping juices into the orange. Rattlesnakes coiled in the grass behind the swimming pool, camouflaged by barrel cacti and blooming Bougainvillea. A rainbow kaleidoscope of petals adorned the thorns of saguaros, borne with subtle majesty from the wind.
His hairy knuckles bruised from experience, his blond hair, and mustache perfect, the cowboy lurches forward for his belt–another afternoon wasted by that snakeskin wrapped around his midsection. We dove for the beds. We tasted the pillows. Our t-shirts still smelled of marshmallows and barbecue and s’mores and crumbs of graham crackers. Godforsaken graham crackers as the belt made contact with the skin, my eyelids shut, waiting for the whip to crack against the pink tender tissue of ass cheeks.
Kicked one of the Rs in the nuts one afternoon when we were playing. The boy told his father. His father scolded me. The boy was made of rattlesnake. I heard the serpent in the kitchen bitching in his tequila and whiskey, but this was a different vernacular, atavistic, and there was no explanation for why I kicked him in the penis. There never was.
He reached for the belt. The belt reached for me. No more innocuous vacations in Maricopa County waiting for the snake to bite. I curled my toes and anticipated the stinging of an improvised whip, thinking about all the mistakes, cursing the cacti as desert birds echoed afternoon lullabies, and the belt began to sing.
Like nomadic Pericú natives before him, Matthew Dexter survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and warm sunshine. He lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.