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Snakes, Elephants and Beer in the Malibu Mountains

Published on Saturday, June 21 of 2014 by

Got up by the alarm at 3:30 this morning to work at the typing and at 6:30 I dressed and walked the three blocks up the little canyon to where mother lives in a duplex. She had gotten up by herself, dressed, combed her hair and was sitting at the kitchen table in her wheelchair in the near dark. She was opening up her bottles of medicines and vitamins and lining up the pills and capsules on a paper napkin.

“Don’t jump,” I whispered.

She gave a start and dropped some pills on the floor.

“I told you not to jump,” I said.

“Well, now you can pick up those pills for me.”

“Yes, Mother.” I got down on my hands and knees to pick up the pills.

“Well,” she said, “do you have any work today?”


“That’s a change.”

“That’s the right way to put it.”

“Oh, damn.”

“What’s the matter, Ma?”

“I spilled this orange juice all over the front of me.”

I got up off the floor and got the dishrag from the sink and wiped off the front of her dress.

“You ought to start using a straw, Ma.”

“Why the hell would I use a straw? Did you ever try to get a pill up a straw?”

“Not the pills, Ma. The juice.”

“Sometimes I just get tired of the whole thing.”

Thought turned that around a few times. She had never said that before. She’s been in the wheelchair fifteen years now.

“You mean the living itself?”

“That’s right. The whole thing.”

When the kettle began to whistle I turned it off. “Shall I pour your water?”

“You might as well. At least you can get it in the cup.”

“Do you think sometimes that you get those pills mixed up? Take the wrong ones?”

“How the hell could I mix them up?”

“Just a thought.”

“Well I do not mix them up. There’s nothing wrong with my mind.”

“I see.”

“Everything else about me may be going to hell in a handcart, but there’s nothing wrong with my mind.”


Outside in the little driveway beside the little orange tree I got together some stakes, a roll of yellow plastic tape and an eight-pound sledge and threw it all in the back of the pick-up. I used the hose to wash out the ice chest, then filled it with two jugs of water and some ice and put that in the back of the pickup. Then I drove over to Pico and Rimpau to pick up Pancho at the bus turn-around. He grinned with his rotten teeth and touched my shoulder with his hand in greeting. Pancho is okay. It was a nice morning, sunny with a little haze.

We drove out the freeway through Santa Monica and came out on the Coast Highway. Here a fog was rolling in, the sea was gray, and small white breakers fell soundlessly on the sand. Approaching Malibu the surfers in their black suits were floating on the quiet gray water, waiting. I turned up Malibu Canyon Road into a dense fog, pulled on the headlights, and drove over the crest and down into the canyon below. At Piuma Road I turned right and drove through the settlement of Monte Nido.

Here the sun was shining again. The trees and the wet vegetation glistened in the sunlight. Crows skipped off the pavement into the underbrush as we drove past. At a turn in the road a coyote stood between two red rocks, watching. I slowed down and saw she had three cubs with her and they were watching too. We drove up the narrow winding road, sometimes in sunlight, sometimes in deep shadow. Lines of quail ran across the pavement. Up near the crest a big fat rattler was stretched out perfectly straight on the pavement sunning itself.

“Kill it,” Pancho said.

I carefully drove around it.

“What went wrong,” Pancho said? “You missed it.”

“Have you ever run over a snake like that?”

“Every time I could.”

“I don’t like the way it sounds.”


“Just a joke.” I responded.

“A joke?”

“Why would you kill it?”

“That is what you do with serpents. You kill them. The whole world kills the serpents.”

“I see.”

“It is best to kill them.”

I pulled off the pavements and stopped beneath a California oak. We got out and looked over the side. The slope below us was very steep and packed with thick brush, most of it taller than a man.

“That’s where our client is going to build his house. We have to mark out the lot lines.”

Pancho said: “Are you going to send me down there?”

“Of course.”

“It is too steep. There is too much brush. The brush is too high. It is too thick.”

“Just a minute.”

“How am I going to get there? Are you going down there?”

“One of us has to stay up here and guide the job.” I said.

“I am very sensitive to the bad plant.”

“There’s no poison oak there. I can’t see any.”

“You can not see it from up here, is that what you mean? You can not see anything from up here. That place might be full of animals. How do you know?”

“There used to be a snake down there, but he’s back up on the road sunning himself.”

You mean that serpent we saw? You should have killed it. The whole world kills them.”

“You have to go down near the bottom of that ravine. I’ll stay here with this pole so you don’t lose yourself. I’ll tie a white rag on it. Take the stakes, the sledge, a jug of water and the yellow tape. I’ll direct you.”

“If I run into elephants, what will you do then?”

“You holler up to me right away. I’ll get my camera.”

It was one of the few times Pancho has been reluctant to go into the brush. I thought maybe I should of run over the rattler like he told me to, that it would have made him feel more comfortable. After some more talk he started down the hillside. It was very steep. In a few minutes he was lost to view. Every one in while he yelled and I held up my pole with the white rag tied to the end of it and yelled back.

It was good standing there in the bright sunlight while the air was still cool. To the north and east row upon row of red and blue and yellow mountains went off into the horizon in the clear sunlight. At the same time, to the west, three or four hundred yards behind me, up over the crest of the Mountain, there was a thick bank of black fog. It was like a great dark cliff jutting up into the sky above the mountains. I could hardly take my eyes off it.

Pancho yelled and waved his rag and I yelled and waved mine. I directed him with the pole where to place the stakes and tie up the yellow tape. I moved over near a small holly oak. I heard something move in the brush beneath me, then it was quiet. In the bright sunlight my urine stream gleamed like white gold.

The work went on for three hours and then we were finished. Pancho took a beating in the brush so I told him I’d pay him for the full day. We drove down to the Civic Center in Malibu and ate at Jim’s Health Garden. I ate like I was starved.

“Look at the way you eat,” Pancho said. “Oh, boy.”

“Like a pig, eh?” I responded.

“You eat like a little pig.”

“It’s because I’m tired.”

“You didn’t enter the brush.”

“I’m tired from something else. Do you want to know what?”

“I am not sure.”

“What if I buy you some beer? Will you wait while I sleep in the truck?”

Of course. I will drink Tecate. I will need some limes.”

The fog and the clouds were gone and the sun was out. I drove across the highway into the parking lot of the Colony Market and pulled up under a big old oak. I gave Pancho five dollars and laid down on the front seat with both doors cracked to catch a little breeze and went to sleep. When I woke up my clothes were wet with sweat. I sat up and brushed off the flies. I got out and stretched. Pancho was urinating on one of the tires.

“Oh, you should see how I drink,” he said.

“Did you see how I slept?”

“Six beers. Look at those tin cans.”

“You can’t piss out here in the parking lot, Pancho.”

“They won’t let me do it inside.”

“What time is it?”

“I don’t know. Do you see those tin cans?”

“Do you have your watch?”

“It is in my pocket.”

“What time is it?”

“Oh, well.” He took the watch from his pocket. “It is four o’clock.”

“Are you through there?”

“I can not tell you,” he said, grinning through the rotten teeth. “I do not know.”

We drove back down the Coast Highway, through Santa Monica on the freeway and turned north on La Brea. The traffic was at a standstill, the air was filthy with exhaust fumes, the heat stifling. Pancho and I did not speak. I turned the radio to some classical music and tried to relax. Vivaldi maybe, or someone like him. I was surprised at how quickly, how deeply the music affected me. I felt tremors run across my back. Tears came to my eyes.

I turned down Pico, dropped Pancho off, then headed on toward Hollywood Boulevard. I decided to try to not think about anything. Not the heat, not the traffic, nothing. I would listen to the music. By that time some other record was being played. It was Hungarian, gypsy perhaps, a high-pitched melodic, rapturous piece for violin. The moment I began to listen to it, to listen with complete attention, ice slid across my back and around the body. Without warning a sob wracked the chest, and the back, and the eyes began to gush tears. The eyes were like overripe oranges being squeezed suddenly with great force. Everything came out at once. That’s what happens sometimes when I pay attention.

After a while the body calmed down. It occurred to thought to wonder about how many body parts the body would be able to do without and still experience something deeply. Thought said it did not know. It suggested that maybe all the body needed was the heart and the brain and what ever it is that runs between them. But then, thought wondered, what is it that runs between them?



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