Plain China

Venero

by Ryan MacLennan · Harvard University
Phaena, Elena Gold · Oberlin College

We’d been living in Madero for months of silent siege when I got a toothache on the right side of my mouth. It hurt like hell. I chewed only with the left side of my mouth for ten days while I tried to find a dentist who would take the insurance that Katherine got through the school. Most places didn’t take it because it was cut-rate. You’d think they’d give teachers better benefits. I started to worry that the right side of my face would become sallow and emaciated from lack of use. I knew it probably wouldn’t, but I grew out a beard just in case. I hadn’t grown a beard in several years, and when it came in I was surprised at how much gray was in it. I shaved it right off. I did eventually find a dentist who took the insurance, but his office was in a little town called Venero. It was a half an hour away, in a valley up in the mountains. The only opening was on Friday morning that week. I would have to take a whole day off of work to go.

I spent that Thursday framing a house with my foreman, Eric. A guy from a neighboring town had done the plumbing the day before because I was Eric’s only employee and didn’t know how. Eric didn’t like being called the foreman, but I thought it was funny. I liked working construction even though I had to wake up so early. There was something peaceful about the rhythm of it. I liked it much more than waiting tables, or tending bar, or moving furniture like I had done in California. When I told Eric that I wasn’t going to be able to come in the next day because of my appointment he wasn’t happy about it, but there was nothing to do. It wasn’t as if I was playing hooky to have fun.

Venero used to be a mining town. The mine was still there, but it employed so few people it wasn’t reasonable to call it a mining town anymore. At least that’s what Eric told me when I asked him for directions. I had never been. His uncle used to work in the mines, he said. They mined molybdenum, but his uncle didn’t know what the company used it for. To him, it just looked like the lead in pencils.

Molybdenum is mixed with steel to make it stronger. I looked it up in the library a couple years ago.

 

When I came home from work that Thursday, Katherine was sitting in the living room. The house was cold. We were in a standoff; neither of us wanted to be the one to turn on the thermostat for the winter. As I sat down on the couch, she got up and walked into the bedroom and closed the door. I went into the kitchen and began making as much noise as I could but she didn’t come out and eventually I got tired and stopped. I sat down at the kitchen table. She came into the kitchen a little while later and poured herself a glass of white wine. As she walked back to the bedroom, she spilled a little wine on my sleeve. I knocked the chair over as I stood up. She said it was an accident and that if I was going to yell I could leave the house. I smiled and said that it was fine and then I shut myself in my office until she had gone to bed.

That night, my tooth hurt too much to sleep. I tried every trick that I knew of to drift off. Nothing worked. I massaged my cheek with my fingers, which seemed to help, but my hands were so cracked and dry that my cheek began to chafe and so I stopped. I had given up trying to use lotion to make them better, because the lotion made my palms soft and they would rip open when I worked. Katherine didn’t like the lotion. She preferred it when my hands smelled like sawdust. I sat at the kitchen table the whole night, with only a candle for company, but it burned down to a nub and died out. I was left in the silver light of the moon.

We’d been fighting a lot. They weren’t loud and fiery fights like we used to have in the old house. I never hurt her. Several times I flipped the kitchen table over onto its side. The first time her grandmother’s vase was on it. The subsequent vases that she put in its place were cheap and from second-hand stores, so breaking them didn’t mean anything and I stopped flipping the table over altogether. I moved on to all the other stuff that made our house our house. When we moved, we didn’t take any of the things we owned. They were all replacements. They didn’t mean anything to us.

Our new house is bare. It only has the furniture it came with.

These quiet fights were worse though, worse because they were slow and deliberate. Katherine was a master at fighting like that. Not me, though; it ruined my digestive system. I didn’t have the nerves.

I want to blame Katherine’s drinking for our fighting but that isn’t fair. It wasn’t why we were fighting, and she really only started seriously drinking after we moved to New Mexico. She handles drinking much better than I do. I wasn’t drinking back then; I’m making up for it now. This is how it went: half a bottle of chardonnay before dinner, half a bottle with dinner, and half a bottle after dinner. Out there, the air was so dry that the chilled bottles didn’t sweat and leave little wet rings when she took them out of the fridge and left them on the table. She was very regimented about it; she didn’t let it affect her career. She woke up every morning, right when I was leaving for the construction site, to get ready for school. The children at school didn’t call her by our last name. They called her Ms. Katherine.

 

When the sun crested the mountains I went into the bedroom to change my clothes and brush my teeth. I wanted to leave before Katherine woke up. She was asleep, but she didn’t look peaceful. Her lips were pursed and her brow was furrowed. When we first met, she had kept a dream journal, but she didn’t bother anymore. She said that she had the same dream over and over—so many times that she had stopped keeping track. I told her she should go see someone about it, but she never did. She said she didn’t dream when she drank. She told me once about the dream. It wasn’t unpleasant.

The road to Venero went through the foothills. It went up and down. I had to go as fast as I could on the declines to build up speed for the climbs. My car was little and old and I was worried that it would die. It wasn’t used to high elevation. At the beginning of the drive, at lower altitudes, the aspens that were interspersed with the pine trees had yellow leaves, but as I climbed, they became barren. It seemed to me as though I was driving outside of time, and I didn’t mind the idea of going on forever, climbing and climbing, until everything turned white.

As I drove, I thought about how my older brother and I used to hop the fence around the orchards in the fall when the branches were heavy with apples and the leaves were yellow and red. We tried to catch the falling leaves as they zigzagged through the air. We climbed the trees and picked apples to fill our shirts with. We ate until we were swollen and had bellyaches. Then, we would lie under the trees in the dappled afternoon light and drift between napping and talking. Later in the fall, when most of the apples had fallen off of the trees, we would take turns pitching the partially rotten fruit to each other and batting with a branch. My brother’s swing was all wrists. He would cushion the apple with the stick and then flick it, whole, up into the blue afternoon. I didn’t have any finesse and every time I hit I sprayed chunks of apple everywhere and they coated our clothes and it drove our mother crazy.

My brother passed away a little while before Katherine and I moved from Palo Alto. It was nothing dramatic. He didn’t even live in the town. One minute he was there in my mind, then the police called and he was gone. It was a stroke. I hadn’t seen him for years, and if they hadn’t called, he would have gone on living in my mind forever. I waited a week or so to tell Katherine. When I did, she put down her book and walked over and hugged me from behind. At first I tried to brush her off but she hung on, like she was riding a bull. Suddenly all the fight in me, all the stubbornness, left and I let her hold me. She never said anything about it after that, but when I wanted to move I think she understood. The house, our childhood home, was unbearable for me after he died.

I thought that Madero would be the perfect town for us to move to. It was small and quiet. There were mountains and a river. Katherine got a job at the local elementary school and I worked construction. But I didn’t realize how dry it would be, and how empty. The sky was huge out there and blue, but the earth was flat, except for the mountains, and there were times, when the wind whipped up and I looked out the window at the expanses of sagebrush and the lonely mountains, that I felt as if I were the only person in the world. The air there was too light and arid, and it almost felt like there was no air at all, that each breath was futile.

 

Iarrived in Venero fifteen minutes early for my appointment. The only buildings on the main drag were a couple of houses, a gas station, and a liquor store. At first I thought I had arrived at the wrong place. The office was in a double-wide mobile home that sat on the ground. It didn’t look like a dentist’s office, but it was the right address. I opened the dusty glass front door and a bell chimed feebly.

I don’t really know how to describe the place. There was a small reception area, stocked with old magazines and a slumped couch. Through one door a dentist’s chair and tools were visible. An old woman sat reading a fading magazine behind the receptionist’s desk. Cages and tanks that were full of small animals occupied the rest of the office, which was most of the space. The carpet was green and there were wood chips everywhere. I remember that the office smelled of disinfectant and cedar and animal urine and the combination stung my nostrils and made me nauseous. I stood in the doorway surrounded by falling dust particles that were illuminated by the beams of light that streamed through the door.

The receptionist looked up and greeted me. Her face was deeply wrinkled and her black hair was held tightly back in a bun. She wore shabby clothes and spoke with a thick New Mexican accent. Her teeth were perfectly straight and white. She asked me to fill out some forms but she didn’t have a pen and neither did I. I asked her about the animals and she told me that the dentist ran the only zoo in Venero and that I was welcome to look at the animals while I waited. Other than us, the office was silent.

The cages were stacked against the faux wood walls. The glass on the tanks was smudged and dirty. I walked through the office, looking for some sign of movement. One of the big tanks had a rattlesnake in it, or at least that’s what the plaque on the tank said, because the snake didn’t have a rattle. The more animals I looked at, the more uneasy I felt. The dentist came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. I jumped. His hands were strong and weighed heavily on me. He was a tall man with white-blond hair and thick, wire-rimmed glasses. He wore high-waisted jeans and a plaid shirt with a bolo tie. His face was wide and shiny and he smiled with his mouth open and his teeth were slightly gapped. He told me that he had caught all of the animals himself and that he had the largest collection of monitor lizards in the state. He asked me if I had seen the caiman. I had not. His breath smelled sour. He led me by my shoulder to his prized possession, the one animal not from New Mexico, at the far end of the room, in the biggest tank. I didn’t want to look.

He’s beautiful, isn’t he, he asked. I nodded, but I didn’t say anything. I looked into the black and beady eyes and could not look away. The caiman was motionless, and for a moment I thought it might actually be stuffed, but there was something alive in its eyes, some malice. The pit of my stomach was cold. We might have been standing there for ten seconds, or ten minutes, and I think I would have kept standing there if the dentist hadn’t turned and told me to follow him into the back room where the dentist chair was.

The dentist chair was old and turquoise, ripped on the arms. He sat me down and tucked a bib into my shirt. I was staring at the ceiling, which was stained brown from water that had leaked through the roof. The shelves that lined the walls were filled with animal skulls. They were yellow and they all had big teeth. Under each skull, there was a handwritten label. There was a javelina from Texas and a wild boar from Colorado. There must have been at least a couple dozen of them. I was grateful when he turned on the bright dental light, blinding me.

He injected a lot of Novocaine into my gums. The shot hurt, but soon I could not feel his strong and gloved hands as they moved my jaw. He used a tiny drill and all I could sense was the vibration that it sent through my skull. But I heard the whine of the motor and smelled burning tooth and felt the dust that the drill generated at the back of my mouth. I think I would have gone without the Novocaine if I didn’t have to smell that smell. It scared me.

He was a good dentist. He worked quickly and he didn’t ask me any questions. He told me that when he first opened the office, children used to come in and look at the animals, but it had been a while since anyone who was not a patient had been in, and even the patients no longer took an interest. He lived in a town south of Madero and commuted to Venero a couple of days a week. He told me that he didn’t work in the winters and that he had to pay someone to come in and clean the tanks and feed the animals. He lost a few animals every winter. He didn’t work in Venero in the winters because he was afraid of driving through the mountains on icy and snowy roads back to where he lived. He said, If your car breaks down on those roads in winter, there’s nothing left to do but the dying.

He finished his work, switched off the light, and sat me up in the chair. He had a blue surgical mask on. He told me that I was all set and that they would mail me the bill. I thanked him, but could not pronounce the words because of the Novocaine. When I walked through the main room, I kept my eyes forward and unfocused.

On the drive home I kept looking in the mirror. I thought that was what I was going to look like when I was old, when all the vitality had left my body and my skin was loose.

I kept poking my cheek with my finger to see if I could feel anything. I couldn’t. I thought about what he said, about dying at night in the mountains, about freezing to death, about numbness.

 

Katherine and I had driven when we moved out there in the winter. We only got part of the way on the first day and so we stayed in a hotel in some run-down little town. When we got up in the morning to keep going, the windshield was frosted over. We didn’t have an ice scraper—we didn’t know it got that cold in the Southwest—so I had to drive with my head to the side, looking out of the little patch of windshield that the weak defroster melted clear. Whenever the highway turned towards the sun, the frost on the windshield lit up into a brilliant glow and I could not see a thing and Katherine would begin to fidget nervously. But I kept driving.

 

Igot home and walked straight to the bedroom. I lay on top of the covers and fell asleep. I did not have any dreams. When I woke up, the walls were tinted orange from the setting sun. I had drooled all over the pillow. When I walked into the kitchen Katherine asked me if I was having a stroke because of how the right side of my face sagged. Then she laughed.

It wasn’t until dinner that I was certain that I had to go back. Katherine and I sat across from each other at the table with our heads down, looking at our plates. Usually, I tried to ask about her day and talk to her. Dinner was the only time that we could talk, when she was just drunk enough to speak and not drunk enough to be mean. But I didn’t say a word that night. I was thinking about the animals. I thought of the cold wire cages. Even though it scared me, I felt sorry for the caiman. I was chewing, but I was not paying enough attention and my cheek slipped between my teeth and I bit down on it. I did not feel it, but I tasted the blood.

I don’t know why I felt that way. Once, when I was a boy, my father and I went on a hunting trip in the Rockies. We flew to Colorado. It was my special trip; my brother didn’t get to come, and it was my first time on a plane. My father had paid for a guide and a crew to take all of our gear. All I had to carry was my rifle. It was a .22. I don’t remember much of the trip anymore—the camping, the food or any of that—but I do remember shooting a deer. My .22 wasn’t really supposed to be able to kill anything, but the deer had popped up just in front of us, close enough that the little bullet could do damage. I remember being scared, scared that I would miss when my father whispered for me to shoot and that I would disappoint him. But I shot and hit the deer in the side. It didn’t die right away. It fell to the ground and lay breathing great gulps of air, its pupils so big that its eyes were black and they drew my own eyes with irresistible gravity. My father told me to shoot it again, behind the eye, and I did. My father patted me on the back, but I didn’t feel anything, not pride or empathy. I just wanted to go home.

I washed the dishes slowly, and when I was done, my hands were wrinkled and peeling. I sat at the kitchen table, waiting for Katherine to go to bed. She was already done with her drinking for the night, so it was only a matter of time. As I waited, the Novocaine wore off slowly and my jaw began to ache. It was a dull and pounding pain. Finally, Katherine went into the bedroom and closed the door and I was alone.

I waited until I thought Katherine was asleep before I snuck into our room. I fumbled through my dresser in the dark and put on a black pair of pants, a black sweatshirt, and running shoes. I guess I made too much noise, or maybe I had been acting suspicious all night, because Katherine turned her light on and asked me what I was doing. I told her that I had some business to take care of. I tried to make it sound important. She laughed through her nose. What business do you have, she asked. I told her what I was going to do. I was always honest with Katherine. I was sure that she was going to try and stop me—that she would threaten to call the cops or turn me in. But she didn’t. She asked if she could come.

We got into the car. Katherine wanted to drive, but she was drunk. It was crisp out and the moon was almost full. I drove the same route that I had driven earlier. We didn’t talk on the whole drive, but it didn’t bother me. Katherine rested her head against the window and I wasn’t even sure if she was awake. Under the light of the moon the surroundings were a colorless gradation of grey.

 

Katherine and I used to sit on the fire escape outside of the window of our apartment when we first moved in together. It felt more real, somehow. When we were down on the street surrounded by buildings I felt like I was on a stage and each action was mimed. But on the fire escape we could see the curvature of the earth. We would smoke cigarettes and watch the ashes fall slowly, like leaves. Katherine was afraid of heights and I used to climb on the outside of the railing to scare her. Then she would grab me and hold me close and kiss me.

 

Ipulled into the parking lot and turned off the headlights. We got out of the car and Katherine went and tried the front door, which was locked. I had a tire iron in the trunk and I got it out. I had never broken a window before and my first tap on the glass was too soft. Katherine asked if she could try. She put her whole body into the swing and she smashed the window. We both stood still as we waited for an alarm to sound, but the night was silent save for the soft clicks of the car engine as it cooled. Katherine went and got a flashlight from the glove compartment. I reached through the hole in the window and unlocked the door. When I opened it, the bell chimed and echoed through the dark room.

Katherine swept the flashlight around. The soft yellow beam reflected off the tanks. I told her to turn it off so our eyes could adjust. There was enough moonlight to see, if we waited. We stood still in the silence and I heard Katherine’s rapid breathing. When at last our eyes had adjusted, we stepped carefully over the broken glass and made right for the cages.

I picked up a tank and walked out the front door. In the silver light it was difficult to see the plaques. They were often cast in shadows and so I didn’t know which animal I was carrying, but it didn’t matter. It was surprisingly heavy. I took the lid off and tipped the tank on its side. I left it like that and went back inside for more. We ferried the animals out one by one, letting them go into the night. It was hard work, the cages were heavy, but my adrenaline was pumping and with each animal we released I grew more invigorated.

It seems silly now, but while we were in that office, in the pale moonlight, I thought I fell in love with Katherine all over again. We passed each other as we moved in and out of the door and I caught a whiff of her hair and we brushed shoulders, gently but consciously. With the lighting and the emotion it seemed as though that moment had been spliced in from some reel of film from long-gone days.

We had moved almost all the cages, laying them on their sides in rows in the gravel parking lot. I carried one particularly large tank out and took the lid off. As I tilted the tank onto its side, I felt a stinging pain in my right hand. I flung my arm backwards instinctively and the tank fell and shattered. A snake slithered swiftly out of the tank and into the night. The rattlesnake. I put my hand between my thighs and Katherine came running outside to find me on my knees. She asked me what had happened and I explained the best that I could. Her eyes were wide and she swayed slightly in place as I held my hand up and she looked at the two puncture wounds. I started to suck on the bite, but Katherine pulled my hand away from my mouth. She thought I might poison myself that way. I didn’t know if she was right, so I stopped. Neither of us knew what to do, neither of us knew much about snakes. She wanted to call an ambulance but I told her we couldn’t call 911 from the dentist’s phone because then they would know it was us who had let the animals go.

I like to think the snake tried to warn me but couldn’t because it didn’t have a rattle. I like to imagine it shaking its tail vigorously and in vain. After the incident, I looked up everything there was to know about rattlesnakes. I have become an expert.

People don’t really die from rattlesnake bites, at least not unless they are in the middle of a desert. The venom takes hours to be lethal. But in that parking lot I didn’t know if I was dying or how much time I had left, which was worse in some ways than knowing for sure. Then, at least, there is nothing left to do but the dying.

My favorite fact about rattlesnakes is that they give birth to live young.

 

The nearest hospital that I knew of was in Madero. I told Katherine we had to leave. She wanted to drive, but I couldn’t let her because she was drunk. I started the car and the headlights illuminated the whole scene in yellow: the faux stucco, the shattered glass tank, the dark and gaping door to the office. The only animal left inside was the caiman.

I put the car in gear and eased onto the road. I leaned over and put my right hand as low to the floor as possible. I knew that would slow the spread of the poison. I was leaning over towards Katherine and had to crane my neck to look out of the window. She reached over and caressed my cheek and I almost jerked away because her fingers were so cold. She stroked my cheek in a way that she hadn’t done in a long time. Beneath her fingers my jaw was aching. With each beat of my heart I thought I could feel the venom advancing up my arm. I thought about what the dentist had said about his car in winter. How much nicer it would be, I thought, to freeze like that, to fall asleep, than if we got stuck now. Katherine would have to watch me and I would have to watch her watch me. There would be no dignity in that. With each hill I held my breath, and as we crested it, I let it out slowly.

Katherine began to cry. I wasn’t sure if she was crying for me because she thought I was dying or for some other reason, and I didn’t ask. She told me that she was sorry, but she didn’t say what for and I felt as though her words were not for me. She asked if I remembered how we had met and for the first time since I was a boy I lied. I couldn’t recall a thing. She said that we were stupid, that this was stupid, to let those animals go. They are probably going to die in the wild, she said. I knew she was right. She told me that she wished she had been bitten too. She said that we both deserved it.

The pain was spreading up my arm and my tooth hurt and my neck was sore. My heart felt as hollow and empty as a swallow’s nest and I wanted to get as far away from Katherine as soon as possible, but I was afraid to lift my hand.

We got to the hospital and went into the E.R. I was embarrassed when I saw how unconcerned the doctor on call was. We sat on the plastic chairs in the waiting room, Katherine with her head lilting, and me with my chin almost on my chest. I thought about my brother, about how he had gone too quickly, about how he had died in a phone call. I felt as though my heart were an hourglass emptying sand into my limbs until they were heavy and hard to move. I felt tired. A nurse called my name and I got up and walked towards the double swinging doors. Katherine called out. She asked me if things would get better and I looked into her fearful and bloodshot eyes. Yes, I said, and I turned and walked through the doors.

Some people think that, when cornered, a rattlesnake will bite itself with suicidal intent. This is not true. When cornered, rattlesnakes strike out at anything that moves, including their tails. When they feel yielding flesh beneath their fangs, they will release venom. Rattlesnakes are immune to their own poison and they rarely die from this.

About the Author

Ryan MacLennan · Harvard University

Ryan MacLennan recently graduated from Harvard College with a degree in social studies. He was born and raised in New Mexico. His story first appeared in The Harvard Advocate.

About the Artist

Elena Gold · Oberlin College

Recent graduate Elena Gold has stepped into the real world, where she continues to make art. She is currently working with video games as an artistic medium and would like to further explore the intersection of art and technology. Her artwork first appeared in Oberlin’s Plum Creek Review.