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Snakes. Long, thick snakes. Small slithery ones. King snakes, corn snakes, milk snakes, rattlesnakes. Residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans had every reason to be anxious. Six years after Katrina and the snakes seemed to be everywhere.

Neela Ann was walking Pee Wee, her high-strung Boston terrier, when he darted into the brush. Neela Ann was immediately worried about the snakes and whistled for Pee Wee to come back. He didn’t. Neela Ann had seen not only snakes on her walks with Pee Wee, but packs of dogs, once tame, now feral, haunting the streets and prowling for food. Neela Ann knew that people were hungry as well. People often abandoned their animals in this part of town. The neighborhood had become a dumping ground for unwanted things, not just animals: jettisoned tires floated on the river; mounds of household garbage burned day and night; cars left abandoned, sometimes corpses inside. Where once stood orderly rows of single-family homes with driveways and front yards, all sorts of odd vegetation sprouted. Opportunistic trees that did not exist before like crape myrtle, black willow and golden rain were thirty feet high. Sedge and aquatic grasses were at least twelve.

Johnny J, lived in a white wooden house he rebuilt on Choctaw Avenue, five miles from where Pee Wee got lost. Neela Ann was running frantically calling out Pee Wee’s name for at least two hours.

“You seen, a terrier, a Boston terrier,” she yelled to anyone who would listen.

Johnny J was on his front porch, spitting sunflower shells in disgust at a luxury motor coach trundled by tourists behind tinted windows. Then he saw Nella Ann.

“Nah, seen a raccoon on my roof, teeth so darn big I had to kill it with a freakin 'stick. Coming toward me, so I hit him. Stay mostly inside after that. People trying to rob my house. Never know if someone’s lying in the grass waiting for dusk to slither in. Worse than snakes coming from all sides.”

Neela Ann was a petite brunette at five-foot-two and 90 pounds. She had almond shaped eyes and a pixie cut. Friends and relatives remarked how much she resembled Audrey Hepburn. Neela Ann had just enrolled as a freshman at Tulane. Her family came from the shores of Gloucester, ancestors related to those on the Mayflower. Most of Neela’s clan never left the east coast, but Neela Ann couldn’t stand the cold with her slight frame, so she hightailed it south.

Johnny J was six-feet- nine-inch and 280 pounds, a giant in the neighborhood. His formerly thick, tangled hair had receded unevenly exposing a slightly dented dome of a head. He had fresh stubble on his jaw and his smile missed a tooth. His face was puffy and bloated, nothing like it used to be. He kept mostly to himself. His ambition was always to join the local police department, but his whisky mama Betty Jo, had a hold on him. She was loud and manipulative and frequently told him that he would amount to nothing but “a handful of ragweed”. At one time Betty Jo was a Bayou beauty queen with swaggering glamour. She had great promise to be a stage and movie star. Ha, she said, someone had to stay home with that “rattle box baby Johnny J”. Betty Jo never talked about Johnny J’s father. And her son never asked.

Johnny J was the tight end on the high school football team. He was voted most likely to succeed. Johnny J was unfailingly polite and good mannered. He earned good grades; however, at the end of high school, he was forced to stay home as his mama had a stroke that left her entire left side paralyzed. Johnny J found a job as an auto mechanic at the local garage. On lunch break he drove home to feed his near-fossilized mama who still chain-smoked Chesterfields.

Neela Ann whistled and whistled for the terrier, but only saw a big rat scuttle under Johnny J’s porch.

“You so young, being out here in this neighborhood,” Johnny J said. “Any reason besides your little doggie?”

Neela Ann told him she had ridden the tour bus as far as the Lower Ninth in search of another Boston terrier to keep Pee Wee company on days she would be going to class. Neela Ann had found an ad on the community board that someone was selling a one year old girl BT, paper and all, for a mere $50. She knew Katrina had been the ruination of many a neighborhood, but Neela Ann was drawn to places of great misfortune. She found solace in studying how people drew inner strength after natural disasters. After all, she came from the Atlantic coast where ships had crashed upon the rocks, where sailors perished unexpectedly, where families were left without the head of the household. Her own father, a lobster fisherman, was lost at sea. His boat was never found. He should have stayed home during a freak spring storm, but he was a stubborn fellow of true Irish stock. Neela Ann, his one daughter, had been only three.

“Well, hope your pup ain’t bitten by a snake. Don’t want that. Poison and all. May as well be dead. Tortures them you know, all that bad poison. Had a baby rattler bite me once. In the backyard. Real sick for three days. Could hardly breathe. Still my foot goes numb come winter. I say stay away from snakes. Never know where you find them. This hurricane thing bring them out. The devil it did. You ever thought of the devil, girl? I mean what you say your name was?”

“Neela Ann. And yours?”

“Johnny J. Don’t talk to people much. Gotta take care of my sick momma. Sunday here. Day of rest. God was sure wrong. No day of rest for me,” Johnny J said and offered Neela Ann a seat on the big rocker beside him.

“Wait now, you got that little boxy terrier? Bad memory here. Football injury. Too many knocks in the noggin. Yeah, little guy in the garage. Ran through my open door awhile back. Gave it a bowl of cold water and chopped up some hamburger for it to eat. Hey, you want me some lemonade, Neela Ann? You look tired. Made it fresh.”

“Well as long as my Pee Wee’s OK. Sure could use something to drink. Beat really. Don’t have rabbit legs, that’s for sure.” Neela Ann replied, closed her eyes and lowered herself down on the wicker seat. She straightened her leather mini skirt, made sure her red gypsy blouse was buttoned all the way to her chin. Her own mamma had hitch hiked California, up and down the Pacific coast when she was twenty. Twenty like Neela Ann. No worries in the world. Nothing scared her mamma. Not men. Not strangers. Probably not snakes either. In the 70s before she married Neela Ann’s dad, she stuck out her thumb and told Neela Ann how she freely traveled the Golden state. Thought about college in Santa Cruz, but it was way too far away from her own home base.

Ever since the stack of mean concussions Jimmy J suffered, he acted unpredictably. Sometimes he'd get up and ride a car he fixed in the garage and leave it abandoned at the outskirts of town and walk whatever miles home. No one knew he did it being that he drove off in the night and waited for dawn to steal away. But nothing compared to Jimmy J finding feral dogs killed by vehicles. Jimmy J would find them on the road or on the side of the road. He’d bring them home, use a butcher knife to cut them up. Some he would strip down and throw in a big pot of Clorox or other cleaning liquids that he found around the garage. Jimmy J would experiment to see which liquids clean bones best. Johnny J figured he had bleached the bones of maybe a hundred dogs in a year’s time. His mama never knew since he did it in the backyard. When arranging the bones on his work table, he wondered what it would be to cut up young women, those diminutive girlish ones who poked around the neighborhood, mostly sorority snoopy squealers asking too many questions for some class paper or other, wanting to get an A. Jimmy J had never had a girlfriend. Too busy taking care of that tyrant of a mama, Betty Jo.

Neela Ann felt sorry for Jimmy J. Her high school boyfriend, Goofy Artie, had been hit in the head by a discus resulting in a month in the hospital. He had the maximum of hairline fractures. Poor Goofy recouped, or Neela Ann thought, until he fell on his head from a forty-foot ladder while coming down from roofing the local museum. He lost his speech and hearing and became a recluse remaining in bed, watching television sitcoms repeatedly. Neela Ann knew this was not the life for her. The break up was clean and practical as if the lovers had been children skipping in a schoolyard.

Jimmy J knew that if didn’t do it now, he would never do it. Killing seemed pretty innocuous. He was stranded by Betty Jo, by a low paying job, by loneliness that was like a fat snake wrapping around his neck, constricting his breath. He poured the lemonade from the store carton into the fresh glass as he heard Betty Jo squawking for her “Ramen Cup” upstairs. Jimmy J poured the entire liquid wolf bane from the small vial he kept locked away in the cupboard, the poison he had bought and saved until he had enough of his mother. But this was different. His heart was racing, racing in a new way – of desire, of greed, of pleasure, of evil. And then he threw in two cubes of ice from the freezer.

Neela Ann was nearly asleep in the chair as he joined her.

“Wake up, there girlie, here’s your lemonade.. Made from lavender honey. Mama likes it this way. She calls it ‘the blessing of Christ.” And with that, good Neela Ann took the glass and gulped it all down as if it were the blood of the Savior himself.

“Wanna see Pee Wee now,” Neela Ann said. “Find that other terrier too. Light’s going down and don’t want to miss the bus.” And with that, Neela Ann stood up and empty glass in hand, as Jimmy J opened the front door and led her inside.

“Gotta see mama. Been awhile since I’ve given her the pain medicine. Left side paralyzed and she moans about her hips locking.” Jimmy J told Neela Ann he’d retrieve the terrier from the laundry room as soon as he’d returned from seeing Betty Jo.

Neela Ann retired on the dusty blue couch with the faded pink doilies. She closed her eyes thinking of her Kappa Gamma Phe pin shining proudly right there on her heart; she closed her eyes thinking of her eight sorority sisters and the happy bash they would have Saturday night. She had to buy the welcome decorations—blue streamers, gold balloons, paper plates and plastic cups. Who was bringing the wine coolers; the watermelon ones? And the pegs of beer? How many did they order? And appetizers?

And then Neela Ann’s pulse slowed down as she visualized a rat’s head in the mouth of a copperhead, the rat’s body jerking, trying its very best to pull itself out. And she saw more snakes. Black ones, ringed ones, striped ones all tangled together like a knot of bad thoughts. And then she saw Jimmy J kneeling beside her, grinning approvingly while her doe eyes rolled back and she began panting, perspiring as his big muscular hand with the grossly scrunched knuckles squeezed her thin wrist like a vise.


Leonore Wilson teaches creative writing in Northern California. Her work has been published in such places as TOUGH, Iowa Review, Quarterly West, Madison Review, Laurel Review, Terrain, California Quarterly, etc. She was awarded fellowships to Villa Montalvo Center of the Arts and University of Utah. Her historic ranch and home were recently destroyed in the LNU wildfire


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