When Czechoslovakia Was Still a Country
By Tad Bartlett
This was 25 years ago, spring of the year I turned 20. It was a season when I was living back at home with my parents, working at a paper mill as chaotic and noisy as a small town, trying to save money to go back to school. It was a Saturday. The slightest trace of cool was in the weekend air as I drove along a country road winding enough and hilly enough that I could never see far enough to pass the log truck rocking and rolling in front of me. The late afternoon sunlight cut staccato through the tree limbs and their light green spray of new leaves—warm, cold, warm, cold—on the skin of my face and left arm.
I was driving an hour and a half north, to Birmingham, from my parents’ town of Meadowview to see Shannon. I’d met her through my best friend, Woody. I supposed I loved her and I wondered if she loved me, though we barely knew each other. Shannon’s hair was red, bright red, so red I wondered if that was her born color but I didn’t much care. She was an artist. Oils on huge canvases. It’s how she and Woody knew each other, both of them in the arts program at the state university in downtown Birmingham that was better known for churning out doctors than artists. But you take it where you can get it. All those artists hung out on the warehouse fringes of downtown drinking alcohol with fancy or suggestive names and talking about Cezanne or whatever. I tried to be part of that, too, visiting whenever I could get away from what I thought was a desperate and oppressive grind back at home.
I’d first met Shannon at her studio a couple weeks before when I was in Birmingham visiting Woody. Woody and I had been friends since the third grade. That’s almost his real name. Elwood. “The Great Elwood,” I called him when I was drunk and trying to get under his skin. Then the one time I was trying to get into his pants, too, I whispered it, “The Great Elwood,” like I meant it, trying to not be too cheesy with the double entendre but nevertheless separating out the “El” and the “wood,” and he said, “Tommy, don’t be an asshole,” but there had been much vodka and there had been the spin the bottle and the almost-orgy with the two art school girls—Shannon not being one of them, because this was the night before I’d met her—and then they’d all left and it was just me and Woody and an enormous drunken haze and horniness.
Nothing much happened that night. Some kissing, lots of rough chin whiskers. It was confusing. Hands down sweaty boxers. Passing out and hoping to God when we woke that he didn’t remember as much as I did. We didn’t mention it the next morning, either of us, so I figured all was safe and good, and after we blinked the morning sun out of our eyes he took me to Shannon’s studio.
“You’ve got to meet this girl, Tommy,” he said. “She’s great, a great artist, and I think we’ll all be great friends, too.” When we arrived, I tried to figure out if there was something more than what he was telling me, if they were involved with each other. Shannon intrigued me immediately. There was that hair and those big canvases and she laughed so easily when I would say something awkward like “your work is so painterly,” but then she would give Woody a sly look, and he would give her a sly look but then he would turn and look at me the same way and maybe I was looking at both of them in the same way, nothing sly about it, but just confusion. Maybe we were all just confused.
And then this other guy came in. I didn’t catch his name, or maybe nobody said it, so I called him Rocco in my mind because he was large and had a square jaw and beautiful dumb blue eyes. Shannon kissed him while he grabbed her ass and I wanted to kill him, but then he left. He barely nodded to Woody and me, two scrawny boys sitting on a window ledge. And then Shannon and Woody and I drove out to this park off the Interstate bypass where there were these huge boulders, like a giant had finished a game of, I don’t know, something where you throw large rocks, and had then forgotten to clean up after. We climbed on top of one. We must’ve been fifteen feet up, and I was sure Shannon admired my prowess at finding footholds, and then we ran and flew through the park, leaping from one boulder to the next, like hippy slacker superheroes who don’t actually save anyone from anything except themselves from a boring day or from the night before. Shannon’s red hair flowed out behind her like a slacker superhero cape, and she laughed in this sort of pure way you don’t figure serious artists in the city with large industrial spaces as a studio for their big abstract canvases would laugh, and there was something about that incongruity that caught me, and so I laughed, too, and tried to catch her eye, and she was good at letting me catch it for just a moment before looking away with this tilt of her head that said “try and catch it again.”
My heart felt like it was going to explode. But Woody was there, too, his friendship like bindings to keep my heart in check, and he said, “Tommy, how’s things, living with your parents?” The three of us were sitting on top of one of the boulders, breathing hard from our play, that musky smell like life coming off our skin, the air not quite cold enough for our breath to fog out into the sunlight. I wanted to punch Woody because his question made me feel like a child while he and Shannon were living like real adults in their own apartments, making their art. But instead I said, “I wouldn’t know. I hardly see them. I’m almost out of there with the money I’m making at the mill.” That was true, and maybe there was something honest and integrity-filled about working manual labor at a paper mill, almost as much integrity as in their art, and Woody should know that and Shannon should know that and maybe they would love me back at least a little. I didn’t wait to find out. I stood up and jumped to another boulder, and another, then one more, until I was standing high among a stand of pine trees, resin aroma heavy around me. I couldn’t see Woody and Shannon through the curtain of green needles, could only hear them, their laughter like their own private language, and I was alone.
Woody called a week later and asked if I wanted to come back to see a movie with him and Shannon. Something Czechoslovakian—this was back when there was still a Czechoslovakia—that had been dubbed into French with German subtitles. “Sure,” I said, and so there I was driving behind log trucks, thinking all these memories of Woody and Shannon and love, and that was when I heard the loud ka-pow and had to start wrestling my steering wheel to maintain control around a curve.
As the car slowed and filled with the wobble of a blown tire, there was a widening in the shoulder where a dirt track spilled onto the roadside. I guided the car onto it and stopped. The front passenger side tire was mangled. I hefted out the spare and the jack from the back hatch. I’d changed plenty of tires, that being the first thing my dad had me learn to do before he would teach me how to drive. I couldn’t shake thoughts of Shannon, or if she thought of me. I imagine now that I was also concerned with what Woody thought of me, too, though I was putting Shannon forefront in my mind. I was always a love-fool. I couldn’t figure out how to stop the pattern, and truth was, maybe I enjoyed it, feeling foolish and falling.
I leaned against the car and pulled a cigarette out of the pack in my t-shirt pocket. I still smoked then. Sometimes I wish I still did, especially when I’m thinking back to those times and trying to figure them out, when it’s nighttime and I have whiskey in my hand and mosquitoes on my arm and regret in my heart. After I lit that cigarette, I looked down the dirt track I’d pulled over on and the field that it led into. In the field, the afternoon sun was turning the pale green shoots of grass and the scrim of the previous year’s dead weeds into a glowing green. Popping like flares through the haze were the purple, white, and yellow heads of wildflowers. I thought Shannon might like those. They would be perfect, obviously picked from a roadside and not a pre-planned florist purchase, so I could pass them off as nothing, not love, not a threat to her and Rocco. Maybe I’d pick some for Woody, too, make it a lark, a farce, just a quirky thing I’d do if you got to know me.
I walked down the dirt track and into the field, aiming for a particularly dense copse of flowers. That’s when I felt the stab in my left calf.
I looked behind me, and there it was, the mottled brown and gold snake, a copperhead, its head like a fist coiled to hit again. I’d always heard the venomous ones’ heads were shaped like that to make room for the venom glands, but the thing is it also made them look more sentient, less like large worms and more like things that can think and fear and hate and plan your demise. And that one was coiling and uncoiling, but gradually moving back away from me. I’d startled the damn thing, is all. So I backed up, too, slowly, and then gingerly, because damn my leg hurt, and then the snake turned and slithered off through the weeds away and was gone.
I looked down at my leg. A slight crimson stain appeared on my jeans halfway up my calf around two small, jagged holes in the denim. I lifted up the leg of my jeans and saw the two holes matched in my skin, blood pulsing out, a greening area spreading around it. I felt light-headed. I sat down. I was sure I was going to die. I thought about the venom working its way, heartbeat by heartbeat, up to my vital organs. I wondered if the venom was a neurotoxin, or if it would paralyze my lungs, or maybe cause digestive system shutdown, or what. I wondered if Shannon loved me. I wondered if I really loved her. I sure hoped that, if I died, Woody didn’t later remember me as his friend who felt him up that time. It would be nicer if he remembered me as a confidante or a muse.
I laid down. I thought I remembered something about sucking venom out. I wriggled out of my jeans and lifted my leg up over me and tried to fold it down to where I could get my lips on my calf. Impossible. Maybe if I were more limber. But then I remembered that maybe you’re not supposed to lift the bite above the level of your heart, because that makes it go to your heart quicker. I put my leg back down. I remembered something about a tourniquet. I sat up and took my shirt off, looked around for a stick I could use to tighten the shirt up after I’d wrapped it around my leg, but didn’t see one.
Woody and Shannon would see the Czech movie without me, probably fall in love, drink suggestively named vodka drinks, and make out with Rocco in the backseat of a car filled with wildflowers, while I died from this damn snakebite. Why’d I think she needed flowers, anyway? She wore all black and combat boots and jumped around on boulders. These were the reasons I loved her. Girls like that, they don’t like flowers, do they?
I figured I would never know, if I died in that beautiful and damnable field. If I could just make it the rest of the way to Birmingham, I could get the anti-venom from a hospital and Woody could give me some clean clothes and we could all go watch the movie together and live happily ever after. If I didn’t die first from the snake bite.
Blisters were rising adjacent to the punctures on my leg, which still trickled blood. My calf was swollen and purpling. I gently limped back to my car in my boxers. After 15 minutes completing the tire-change, my leg was shooting pain like knives from my calf up into my knee, and I was drenched in a cold sweat, but I had the spare on the car and the blown-out wheel in the trunk.
I sat in the driver’s seat. For the briefest moment I thought about turning the car around and going home, but Birmingham was only a half-hour away, and the university hospital was more likely to save my life than the small-town facility we had in Meadowview. Besides, I really didn’t want to deal with my parents, especially my mom. If I showed up in my underwear and with a potentially lethal snake-bite, I’d never hear the end of it. I swear sometimes it would really make her day to have that kind of tragedy in her life.
* * *
It turns out that a copperhead bite isn’t usually fatal. Just painful as all get out. The folks at the hospital bandaged it, loaded me up with antibiotics, and sent me on my way with a tall bottle of painkillers. Between checking in, waiting, seeing a nurse, waiting, seeing the doctor, and waiting some more, it took eight hours and was close to ten that night when I drove up to Woody’s apartment, hoping that maybe they hadn’t gone to the movie without me, or that they were already back, or that he’d left the back door unlocked so I could crash on his couch.
El Wood. Woody’s place was this little two-bedroom he rented in a neighborhood on Red Mountain and we would climb up onto the roof sometimes and at night from there you could see out of his shot-luck neighborhood onto the lights of downtown and feel like you had control of your life.
But control be damned, because the night of the snakebite I was afraid that when I got there, Shannon would be there, her red hair hanging loose over one of Woody’s t-shirts as she answered the door, and I’d be devastated, of course. And since I imagined I’d be devastated then I figured it really was love, this thing I felt for her, because otherwise I wouldn’t care if she and Woody got together, right? That pattern of foolishness, I can see it now, but it was all a haze to me then. Now I wonder if my devastation wouldn’t have been more about Woody than about Shannon.
Woody came to his door squinting out of his dark front room into the porch light.
“Where the hell were you?” he asked. “What the fuck happened to your clothes?”
I was back in the muddy t-shirt and blood-stained jeans. It was either that or stay in the hospital gown.
“Is Shannon here?” I asked, pushing past him. On his cheap veneer coffee table was half a cold pizza in an open box and an ashtray with four lipstick-stained cigarette butts stubbed out.
“No,” he said. “Why would she be here?”
I threw myself on his sofa and propped my bitten leg up on the coffee table, hitching up the leg of my jeans to show him the thick white bandage wrapped around it. “I tried to get here,” I said. “Snake bite.”
“How? Where were you?” He leaned over my leg.
I told him, but left out the part about the flowers. “Snake bit me while I was changing a flat tire, and then I spent all afternoon and most of tonight in the hospital getting patched up,” I said.
Woody straightened up and looked at me like he was trying to figure out whether to believe me. “So you—” he began, “but you—,” and then he shook his head and looked again at my leg, purpled skin extending out from under the bandage. That part was real and he couldn’t deny it.
* * *
“I’m going to call you ‘Copperhead’ from now on, all right?” Woody asked between forkfuls of hash browns at a Waffle House.
“I like it.” I swallowed a bite of burger. “Better than ‘Tommy.’” I’d always wanted a bad-ass nickname. Maybe Shannon would like it. Woody seemed to. Copperhead.
I’d changed out of my soiled and bloodied clothes at Woody’s and was wearing a pair of his shorts cinched tight around my waist with one of his belts, and one of his t-shirts tented over me. I’d never thought about how much bigger Woody was than me. I had the bottle of painkillers in the pocket of his shorts for when the ones from the hospital wore off, and a head full of Woody’s cheap vodka that I’d practically chugged at his place before announcing that I was “Hungry goddamnit.”
“So the Spots are playing at Thumper’s,” Woody said. The Vomit Spots was one of our favorite punk bands, up from Mobile. “Feel up to it?”
“I’m loaded up enough I feel like I’m up for anything,” I said.
“All right then, Copperhead, all right. Think you can keep your hands to yourself tonight?”
I put all my effort into not reacting, into finishing the burger, feigning great interest in turning it around to find the perfect bite, thinking only of chewing.
“It’s no big deal,” Woody said, “but I figure one of us had to say something. I mean, we were drunk. Whatever.”
I balled my napkin up and placed it on my plate, then looked up at him deliberately.
“Really, man, I’m just glad you’re okay,” he said. “Forget about anything else. You didn’t show up this afternoon, and then you got bit by that snake and show up at my place ranting about Shannon.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but can we just drop it? I don’t know what that was.”
“I don’t either, man. I mean, I’m sort of joking around with you here, but you also kind of took me by surprise. It’s why I didn’t want to just hang out together, you and me, the next day, like we normally do, why I decided we should go to Shannon’s place.” I wouldn’t look at him, shuffled my knife and fork around on the table top, folded and unfolded my paper napkin.
“What, you don’t trust me around you now?” I half-whispered, still without looking up. I lifted my coffee mug and looked into it, hoping there would be something in there.
“Of course. I do. I just never–”
I stood up from the booth. “Forget about it. I fucked up. I get it. Let’s just go to Thumper’s.”
In Woody’s car he pulled a pint from under his seat and we passed it back and forth. He blasted a Pixies album and yelled, “Fuck, Copperhead!”
I pried open the bottle of painkillers and shook a couple out, popped them in my mouth and took a swig from the flask.
“I sure as shit hope Rocco isn’t there,” I said.
“Who’s Rocco?” Woody yelled over the music.
“Shannon’s man,” I said. “That big dumb fucker.”
Woody turned down the volume. “Oh, Paul? He’s a good guy. He’s a sculptor.”
“His name’s Rocco,” I said, “and I’d kick his ass. I’m a copperhead, motherfucker.”
Thumper’s was on this dead-end road on the other side of the mountain ridge. It was one of the only places you could get in under-age to see punk shows without driving all the way down to Mobile or over to Atlanta. It was little more than a shack in a weedy lot on the side of the mountain, just big enough for a bar along one wall, a riser for a band, and enough space in between for a mosh pit of whirling elbows and hormones and boots. If you wanted to sit you hung out in the dirt parking lot smoking cigarettes and taking swigs from whatever soda bottle you’d stashed your liquor in. Every few weeks the cops would show up and underaged kids would roll under cars or run off into the trees. Nobody ever really got into trouble, at least not arrested, though the cops would occasionally rough up a kid. It made us all feel like rebels and outcasts, which is what we were after.
That’s what had just happened as Woody and I rounded the last curve and the dead end shack came into view. Two cop cars were pulling out of the lot and passed us going in the other direction. Woody parked his car and we got out. Three girls, who looked to be 16 or 17, rolled out from under the car next to ours. Other kids were stumbling out of the brush. A knot of people were gathered outside the front door of the club. From the middle of their group, Rocco towered, his face and head webbed red with blood spilling from a gash above his left eyebrow.
“Holy shit,” Woody said, “they got Paul,” and he quickened his step over to the group. I thought about how this might be my chance, that if Rocco was here then Shannon might be, too, and then I caught sight of her red hair. She had one arm wrapped around Rocco’s waist and the other reaching up toward the gash on his forehead. Her hands were smooth, but tough, too, like those limestone boulders we leaped from that magical afternoon. She could handle anything.
I limped up and stood at the edge of the group.
“Can you believe that fucker?” Paul was saying.
“Thinks he can just beat up on anybody because he has a badge,” another said.
“Hold still,” Shannon said.
Woody showed up with a stack of napkins. He must’ve gone in and gotten them off the bar. Shannon took them and began dabbing at Rocco’s face, circling closer to the cut. Rocco flinched.
“Damn, babe,” he said, “I got it.” And he snatched the napkins from her and pushed them tight against the gash. “I think I’m going home.”
“I’ll drive you,” Shannon said.
“Then your car will be stuck up here,” Rocco said. “I don’t need that. I’ll be fine. You stay for the second set.” People in the knot around them had started peeling off as they worked it out, but I stood there watching them, the painkillers turning everything into a movie. Woody leaned against the front wall of the club.
Shannon saw me then, but she turned immediately back to Rocco. Or Paul. Whatever. “You sure you’re going to be OK?” she asked.
He nodded and she said “all right” and they pressed themselves tight against each other. She kissed him, her jaw loose, her lips soft and open and I imagined what that must feel like, and then they let each other go and Rocco left her standing between Woody and me as he walked off toward the cars. He got into a pickup truck, which I remember thinking was appropriate.
“Hey, Shannon,” I said.
“Oh, hey, Tommy. Glad you could make it up here after all.” She smiled then, and I was wondering if that was special for me, but then she kept smiling as she turned to Woody and said, “Hey, Woods.”
Woods. A term of endearment, no doubt.
I cleared my throat and announced, “I got bit by a snake.”
“We call him Copperhead now,” Woody said as he stood away from the wall and the three of us formed our own tight knot.
Shannon put a hand on my chest and pushed me away so she could appraise me. “Let me see,” she said, and so I stuck my bandaged leg out to show her. “Whoa,” she said, “you in pain?”
“Definitely,” I said, “which is why Woody here is going to go in and get me a drink.” And the crazy thing was that Woody said “okay” and did go in to get me a drink. I was actually alone with Shannon. Now was the time to tell her I loved her, and ask if she loved me. If I only I could figure out how.
“So where were you when you got bit?” she asked.
“I had a flat tire on my way up,” I said, suddenly resolving to tell her the whole story, even the bits I’d left out in telling Woody, about the flowers in the field.
When I was done, she fell silent for a moment. She dropped her eyes to the ground. “Flowers, huh,” she said.
My face warmed. “Yeah. Flowers,” I said, and then I ventured further, in case it hadn’t been clear, “for you.”
Shannon looked off into the dark of the mountainside.
“You know, you and Woody and Paul, you’re all sweet,” she said. “But y’all barely know me, any of you, and maybe we can focus on that.” And then she smiled again, as if she hadn’t just crushed my heart and made me feel like a gigantic asshole all in one fell swoop.
“Y’all should come in!” Woody called as he came out the door, two cups of beer sloshing over his hands. “The Spots just announced the second set is all Air Supply covers, and I swear to God they’re doing it, note for fucking note. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard!”
Shannon grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the door of the club. I grabbed one of the beers from Woody and Shannon grabbed his now empty hand, too, and we followed her in. When we got through the door, Shannon let go of our hands and went onto the dance floor. It was a slow-motion slam dance, 40 sweaty bodies, Shannon in the middle. I was feeling queasy. Maybe it wasn’t what Shannon had said. Maybe it was the cheap alcohol and the painkillers and the diner burger. Snake venom. Maybe the beer would help.
I leaned against a wall and took a long sip. Woody leaned next to me. I imagine we were both watching her. At first everyone was a blur in the pit but her. She was sharply defined, like a stage light was trained on her, but as I sipped the beer the rest of my vision filled with motion and people and music, a punk band playing slow and sweet, and I noticed Woody next to me, talking to someone on the other side of him, and heard his laughter, and when I looked back out on the floor Shannon was no longer distinguishable from the rest.
I suppose that night could have been the beginning of some solid triangle between the three of us. But instead it became what came after, that letting go of hands, the falling apart. I never saw Shannon after that night. And as close as Woody and I had always been, we only saw each other a couple more times that summer, going to a movie or to see a band, but we never again talked about the night we made out, and we never really talked much about anything, about what he was going to be doing with his art or about what I would do when I got back to school or about what we would do with our lives and whether we would have each other in them. We had always sort of assumed it, the staying friends part, but then at the end of the summer I’d saved up my money and transferred my credits into a new school three states north. Distance is a bitch, almost as bad as time. That summer was the end for Woody and me. So many things I never could figure out, yet here I try.