Excerpt of Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga
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On his fortieth birthday - August 6, 1999 - Jackson Carter Jones, associate professor of anthropology at Thomas Ford
University in west central Illinois, ate a poached egg for breakfast
and then sat outside on the deck. It had rained recently - twice - and the stream, Johnson Creek, which sometimes dried up at the end of the summer, was full. When it was full, it emptied into the Lakota River, which emptied into the Mississippi. He was trying to decide his own fate, take it into his own hands. He took a coin out of his pocket. A quarter. One of the new ones, Pennsylvania, the American eagle replaced by an allegorical female figure. He flipped it. It landed on the glass table top, bounced off onto the plank floor. The dog, a black lab with a little bit of Rottweiler showing in her broad
chest, jumped. The coin rolled in a big circle, then a smaller circle,
and finally fell through a crack in the deck onto the sand and grit
below, where a big groundhog had made his den.
Jackson had Warren's .22, which he'd cleaned the night before. A
box of .22 Longs sat next to an empty coffee cup on the table. He was
waiting for the groundhog to appear (as he did every morning), but
the groundhog was too canny for him. It always outwaited him, or
took him by surprise. Took the dog, Maya, by surprise too.
In the old days Warren, the hired man he'd inherited from
Claude Michaut, along with the house, had killed the groundhogs
in a trap that chopped their heads right off. The trap was still up in
the garage, but Jackson didn't know how to set it; and it was dangerous;
and he didn't have the strength; and he didn't need the stress.
He was still recovering from a bout of Lyme disease. More than a
bout. In the last two years he'd been diagnosed with everything
from AIDS and the Chinese flu and mad cow disease to giardia, lupus,
sleeping sickness, schizophrenia, chronic fatigue syndrome,
Parkinson's disease, MS, and White Shaker Dog Syndrome. By the time a doctor in Chicago figured out he had Lyme disease, he was
presenting psychotic symptoms - confusion, short-term memory loss, disorientation, inability to recognize his car in the parking lot, religious hallucinations too, and ghosts from the past: his
mother, his father, Warren, Claude; Mbuti friends from the Ituri
Forest; his girlfriend, Sibaku, and their daughter, whom he'd never seen. Now, on the road to wellness - after a long course of intravenous Ceftriaxone (Rocephin) - the swelling in his joints was minimal and he could walk around without difficulty, once he managed to get out of bed in the morning, and he no longer had to leave written step-by-step instructions on his kitchen table explaining how to get through the day. No more visitors from his past life knocked on the door in his sleep. He was looking forward to the future for the first time in almost two years.
He looked through the cracks between the planks, looked in his
pocket for another coin but didn't find one. He could have crawled under the deck. The quarter would have to be there, heads or tails, unless it had gone into the groundhog hole.
Heads meant he should go back to Africa, which still felt like
home to him after thirteen years; tails he should get married and
settle down right where he was, where he already had a house in the
middle of eighty acres of timber, and a garage, with a little apartment
over it. The apartment was empty now, since Warren's death. Warren
had been a janitor in Davis Hall, which housed the anthropology
and philosophy departments, when Claude came to TF. He'd accepted
Claude's off er of free rent in exchange for looking after the property.
He'd cut up firewood, stacked it, plowed the drive in winter with
a little Case tractor with a blade bolted onto the front end, mowed
the tall grass in summer and cut down the nettles on the other side
of the stream and the poison ivy vines that grew as thick as your
arm. He'd killed varmints, shot a deer every year and dressed it for
Claude, paid the bills and the real estate taxes when Claude was
gone. He'd stayed in the garage apartment even after he became
head of custodial services for South Campus, and was living there
when Jackson came back from Africa, alone, and discovered that
Claude had left the house to him, though there were some legal difficulties because it had been difficult to prove that Claude was dead.
Excerpted from Snakewoman of Little Egypt
by Robert Hellenga. Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hellenga.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.