Sunday, January 04, 2009

Snake Oil

NOTE: I read this story and set it to some music and uploaded it to YouTube. It comes in five parts. You can listen to all five of them in order by clicking here.

Snake Oil


Peter Pike

I’m sorry ta bothah ya, ma’am, specially on such a frightfully cold day, but I was walkin past when I happ’nd ta see ya get outcha car earlyah. D’ya mind if I ask: is it a hip spur?

I knew it! My mother, God rest her, she had the most dreadful hip spur ya’d evah seen. And ev’ry time winter set in, why it ached so. It’s the air pressure, ya know. When it changes all sorts of joints go out of whack.

I see ya know what I’m talkin about. Lands, no I don’t think yer
that old! But ya do remind me a bit of my mother, God rest her. It’s yer eyes, I think.

But listen ta me babble on! I do apologize. Once I get started it’s so hard for me ta stop. Anyways, my mother, she died come near ten years ago.

That’s nice of ya ta say, ma’am. No, really? Well, if’n ya insist sittin inside would be a bit warmah, and I wouldn’t wanna let alla yer hot air out inta the woods.

Now what was I sayin? Oh yes, my mother, God rest her. When she was eighty-three years old, she developed a fleshy tumor in her calf, an—

Pardon? Oh, yer eighty-three years old now? What an amazing coincidence! P’rhaps it was fate that drew us here today.

Now ma’am, I’m but an only child. Don’t have no brothers, no sisters, and my father walked out on my mamma when I was nary seven years old. I didn’t have no one but her, ya see? And when that tumor started growing, she was in such agony. Ya wouldn’t believe—well, I see maybe ya would.

Anyways, I decided that I was gonna be a doctor. But lands, ya can’t start studyin ta be a doctor when yer sixty years old! They wouldn’t let me, said I needed ta retire.

Oh, they forced ya ta retire too? Ain’t it just like ‘em! They tax ya and then they kick ya out, and then when ya need help for yer pain they don’t do nothin for ya a’tall!

They did the same thing ta my poor mother, but I found something ta help. See, even though they wouldn’t let me be a real doctor, I was able ta get in ta those labs them pharmaceutical comp’nies got. Worked as a janitor, and I tell ya they have all kinds of things lyin around in there. But they don’t wanna sell none of them, cuz ya see, if they sold the pain relievers they got developed ya’d nevah feel no more pain again. And if ya nevah felt no more pain, why ya’d nevah buy anything from them eveh again, ya see?

Lands no, it ain’t right! That’s why I studied. My mama didn’t raise no fool, ya know. I looked at them chemical charts and I watched how them technicians mixed ‘em. I paid attention and I figgered it out. So one day I gets ta work early in the morn and I snuck in ta the lab. There no one around then, so I whipped up a batch that I’d seen them workin on. And wouldncha know it, I got it right!

I had ta sneak it out of the lab ‘cuz this is more valuable than gold, ya know. More valuable than anythin. It literally stops pain! Ya won’t feel no more pain eveh again. But don’t just listen ta me talk about it! Lands, no! When I seen ya get out of ya car, I knew that I had ta let ya try it.

No ma’am it won’t cost ya a pretty red dime. I’ve got this little bottle here an it’s yers right now. Won’t cost ya anythin. Give it a shot!

What did I tell ya! Is there any pain? Of course not! Why, I do believe ya
could dance all ovah the street if’n ya wanted to! Lands!

Why yes, ma’am, that is the perfect name for it! Jebediah’s Miracle Potion! It’s perfect! Go head an keep that little bottle all fer yourself if’n ya want, but I’ve got a big bottle—it’s five times bigger, in fact—and I’ll letcha have it fer pennies on the dallah. Doncha think having yer hip spur pain go away is worth…say, fifty dallahs? But ma’am, I wouldn’t want ta charge ya that much for it. Lands, no! Lessay I give ya this here twenty ounce bottle for twenty bucks. That sound fair to ya?

Oh, yer too kind, ma’am. No, really. God bless ya, ma’am. Don’t get in too much trouble dancin around town now, ya hear!

* * *

No one could remember exactly when the dark man arrived in Hickory. Some say it was a few days (others claimed months, but everyone agreed it was some time) before Beatriz McLean found her miracle cure for her hip spur. Everyone knew he lived out by the edge of town, but no one knew the exact address. He was the kind of man who could show up and you’d feel like he’d always been there. And when he left, no one remembered he’d been there at all.

No one quite knew what to make of it when Beatriz waltzed down Main Street, dancing that three step movement. Some thought she had gone insane, others felt she’d found Jesus. But there could be no denying that she was happier than she had ever been.

“I ain’t got no pain!” she proclaimed to all who would hear. “Jebediah’s Miracle Potion done took it away.”

And off she went in that one-two-three, one-two-three step.

Odd people were plentiful in small towns like Hickory. Beatriz only made the buzz around the chess board in the Blackhawk Tavern for two days before she had been replaced with more pressing concerns.

There was a snow storm brewing, a real big one. Henry Wallace had a date that night with Naomi Beckett. They had known each other from high school, and they had been the only people their age to remain in Hickory. It was inevitable that they’d be forced to find each other, although it did take them a decade to do so. By that time, Naomi had been through a real wrecker of a marriage, had popped out a kid, and had been on her way toward the Single Mother Graveyard.

In small towns, old women don’t have much to do. Beatriz had gotten together with some of her pals, Carla Andrews and Amanda Fuller, and they had discussed the issue of what to do with poor Naomi Beckett and her son Lance. Lance was quite the handful, and that was putting it gently. The boy was short for his age, could barely talk, and had a rather unhealthy obsession with matches.

Naomi was twenty-nine years old. Henry was twenty-eight. That was all the math that the Old Crones Group needed to hear. After the hints were issued, Henry finally capitulated and asked Naomi out. Carla offered to babysit Lance, and the deal was brokered.

Then the storm came. It hit while Naomi and Henry were still in Oakdale, a town twenty-three miles away. Oakdale was almost the same size as Hickory but held one advantage over its cousin: a working movie theater. It only played one movie a day, and it was always a year after it had already been released on DVD, but no one minded much. It beat driving all the way into the city.

The snow meant that Naomi and Henry were stuck in Oakdale while Carla was stuck with Lance back in Hickory. Carla wasn’t old, but she wasn’t a spring chicken neither. In three years, she’d qualify for social security.

Lance was seven. He had enough energy to run her into the ground three fold. And he used the opportunity afforded him by the snow storm to do just that.

Carla had already hidden all the matches from her home but she hadn’t counted on the power going out when the snow took down a power line. (More to the point, it took down the old pine tree on Second Avenue and then the tree took down the power line.) Normally, it wouldn’t be a problem. But because it was winter and Lance was a youngun, it meant that Carla had to light a fire to keep the house warm.

Lance watched the flames flicker with rapt attention. Carla made sure he stayed well away from the pit, but it was getting late. It had already been pitch black due to the storm well before the sun had set and with only the fire to provide its seductive light Carla’s mind drooped into a stupor.

She fell asleep on the couch and didn’t wake until she heard Lance scream in pain. He had opened the fireplace door and had grabbed one of the burning logs.

Carla pulled him away from the fire. She used the tongs next to the fire place to push the log back in—it wouldn’t do for the house to burn down now would it?—then she rushed Lance to the bathroom. Under other circumstances, she would have put his hands right under the cold water in the sink, but she didn’t do that this time. For you see, just the other day Carla had been walking down the sidewalk when she hit an icy patch. Her legs shot out from her and she had fallen square on her tailbone.

When she landed, she knew she’d broken the bone. She cried and raged but there was no one nearby.

Except the dark man. He had run over and helped her to her feet. Then said, “Try some of this. Is the pain gone? I knew it would be! Say, would ya like s’more of that? I think I could sell ya this twenty ounce bottle for…lessay thirty dollars. Soun’ fair?”

She had bought three bottles. And there in the bathroom, she let Lance take a sip.

His screams stopped instantly. His fingers still blistered up and Carla knew that Naomi would not be pleased. She also knew that Jebediah’s Miracle Potion must wear off sometime. But the thing was, it had been over thirty hours since she had fallen on the icy steps and she still felt no pain. She had only taken one sip and it had lasted that long.

Naomi and Henry arrived early the next day, following the snow plow into town. Lance was playing outside, wearing his winter gear, and that included gloves. Naomi wouldn’t know Lance had burned himself until she prepared his bath for him that evening and by then it was too late for her to think something had occurred at Carla’s house.

* * *

Four days later, Kelly Nightingale woke from his dream with a start. He felt an urge, and he knew it was one he couldn’t ignore. Ever since he had been diagnosed with diabetes, the urges had gotten worse and worse. When the body said it was time to go, it was time to go.

He jumped out of bed and ran through the living room towards the bathroom. He never made it, for in the middle of the living room he kicked his toe straight into the leg of the coffee table. He screamed in agony, fell to the floor, pounded his fist on the carpet. Jessica rushed out of the bedroom, yelled: “Are you all right?”

He couldn’t answer. He had broken his toe, cracked the toenail. Blood dripped on the carpet, but Kelly also knew that he no longer needed to use the bathroom—blood wasn’t the only thing dripping on the carpet. He just prayed that Jessica wouldn’t turn on the light and expose his shame.

The prayer didn’t go through. Jessie hit the lights and rushed to his side. “Oh your foot!” she cried out, blessedly ignoring his shame. She had just the fix for his toe and that was all that she really saw. She rushed to the bathroom, got the bottle Carla Andrews gave her just the other day. “Try this. It’s Jebediah’s Miracle Potion and it makes the pain go away.”

Kelly was desperate enough to give it a shot. He never regretted it.

* * *

Henry sat at the chessboard in deep contemplation. Kelly sat across from him, smiling. He had been smiling like that all day long. It unnerved Henry, and he supposed it was just Kelly’s way of psyching him out so he’d lose the game.

Kelly was doing a good job. Henry already knew it was over. He was about to lose his queen and then, three moves after that, checkmate.

He tried to rescue his queen anyway. Kelly laughed and moved his bishop. “Checkmate.”

Henry stared at the board, but it was true. “Good game,” he said, extending his hand. It was the first time in a month that Kelly had won. And there was something else odd about the game. Usually Kelly was complaining about his back, his shoulders, his feet, his diabetes, you name it. But not today. Not one word about anything.

Just that stupid smile.

Henry moved away from the table then, went to get a beer and give Naomi a call. Because of that, he never asked Kelly what was different.

Not that Kelly would have known what to answer exactly. When he had gotten up that morning, he hadn’t felt any pain at all. He had walked merrily all over the house and it wasn’t until he was heading back to the bathroom that he realized he had left drops of blood all over the carpet. He looked down at his toe, saw it bulging and bleeding. But it didn’t hurt.

Not even when he crammed his foot into his shoe. Should have hurt like the dickens. But nothing at all.

Kelly wasn’t one to waste good money on doctors. If it didn’t hurt, it would eventually heal. So he had gone out to play chess like before. And as the evening progressed, his foot continued to swell inside his shoe. Although he didn’t realize it, Kelly would never get the shoe off after that.

He couldn’t explain the lack of pain. But he didn’t regret it. Lands, no.

* * *

And so it began. Chelsea Kramer was bitten in the back of her neck by a spider. Ron Crawford accidentally nailed his hand to the drywall with the nail gun. Priscilla Fletcher stepped on a rusty nail.

None of them felt any pain and so none of them did anything about it. By now over three quarters of the town had tried Jebediah’s Miracle Potion and those who hadn’t were beginning to worry.

After the evening’s chess tournament, Henry sat at the bar. Eddie Kramer came in, nodded toward him. He pulled up a stool and ordered a beer.

“Hey Eddie.”


“How you doin?”

Eddie sighed. “You see the sore on Chelsea’s neck?”

“Yeah. And Kelly Nightingale’s entire leg is black now too.”

“They’re rotting and falling apart and none of them knows it. How do you think I’m doing?”

Henry took a sip of beer. Eddie had a point.

* * *

Kelly Nightingale was the first to die. The gangrene marched its way up his leg and he never noticed it, not even when his entire foot snapped off as he got out of the car. He fell to the ground and tried to stand back up, but couldn’t gain his balance.

He just laughed. The blood poisoning continued its way up his leg, sending its red tendrils toward Kelly’s heart. The night after his foot fell off, he went to sleep and never woke up.

But Nightingale had diabetes. Why should anyone else be concerned?

* * *

Chelsea Kramer brushed her teeth and spat into the sink. She heard Eddie fishing around for something in one of his desk drawers. She ignored the noise and continued to brush, her eyes focused on the snow outside the window.

It was going to be another stormy day. But Chelsea liked winter. It was more relaxing than summer was. You could snuggle up next to a fire, which was something that was impossible in the August heat. Fires were romantic, and she liked nothing more than to sit in front of one with her Eddie beside her.

Chelsea finished her teeth. She washed her face and toweled it off. As she replaced the towel she heard a bang followed by Eddie’s curses. She glanced up and froze.

She had caught sight of her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Her face was swollen. It was beet red and she could see her pulse vibrating in her cheeks.

She screamed. And not just because of the horror of what she saw. Now she felt it too. The bite in the side of her neck burned in fury, her face was stretched to the point of snapping. And she felt the poison in her very blood.

Chelsea screamed again and jerked open the medicine cabinet. Eddie rushed to the bathroom but Chelsea had already found the bottle of Jebediah’s Miracle Potion. She took a sip and the pain vanished. She laughed in relief, but she made sure not to look in the mirror as she closed the cabinet door.

* * *

Back at the bar Henry glanced over at the table where Kelly would have been sitting if he hadn’t been occupied with pressing business at the morgue. “So you think mirrors cure this?” he said with a chuckle.

Eddie didn’t seem so happy. “I don’t know if ‘cure’ is the right word. I mean, excruciating pain could hardly be considered a cure, could it?”

Henry shrugged. “You could ask Kelly, I s’pose.”

“Very funny.”

“You do realize your wife needs a doctor, don’t ya?”

“Yeah. But she doan wanna go.”

“Because she doesn’t feel any pain.”

It was Eddie’s turn to shrug.

“You know it’s true,” Henry pressed. “If it always hurt as bad as it did when she glanced in the mirror, she’d be at the doctor’s office so fast she’d leave a sonic boom.”

Eddie was silent. He just sipped his beer.

“Do you love her?”


“Do you love Chelsea?”

“Of course I do. Why else would I have married her?”

“I’m just sayin, Eddie. I’m just sayin that if you love her, you’re gonna have to take her to the doc whether she wants to or not. Otherwise, in a week at most we’ll be filling another hole in the cemetery.”

* * *

Lance Beckett stood in the living room waiting. He could hear his mother banging a pot in the kitchen as she prepared supper. Lance hesitated, made sure it was safe. Then he picked up the lighter.

A couple of flicks with his right thumb got the flame going. He watched as it flickered in front of him, dancing its siren call, beckoning him to play. He smiled, his eyes dazed but his mind serene.

He ran his left hand over the flame, watched it kiss his skin. He felt heat from the flame, but it was pleasant. No pain at all.

Eventually he held his finger over the flame and watched the tip turn black.

Naomi dropped another pan and cursed from the kitchen. Lance let the lighter go out, pressed his left forefinger against his cheek, soaked in the comforting heat.

“Lance! Dinner!”

Lance smiled and put the lighter back in its place. His mother would never know he’d been playing with it.

* * *

“Everything’s getting worse,” Henry said as he sat on his usual stool in the Blackhawk Tavern and kicked back a Sam Adams.

“Maybe it’s not that bad,” Eddie responded.

“Not that bad?” Henry almost coughed up his beer. “Have you been paying attention? This town looks like it’s becoming Night of the Living Dead.”

Behind them, the bell rang to indicate someone had come in. Both turned toward the sound, saw it was Ron Crawford. He nodded toward them as he sat and ordered a beer of his own.

“No one else has died yet.”

“That’s beside the point,” Henry retorted. “They’re gonna die. It’s just a matter—”

“Excuse me,” Ron interrupted, holding his unopened bottle of Miller Genuine Draft toward them. “Barkeep didn’t open this. Could one of you?”

“It’s a twist cap,” Eddie pointed out.

Ron shrugged and held up his left arm. His hand was missing. It had turned black after he had nailed it to the drywall and had fallen off the previous morning.

Eddie blinked, then took the bottle in trembling hands. “Here you go.”

After Ron returned to his seat, Henry whispered: “See? It’s getting out of hand.”

“That’s a horrible pun.”

“I didn’t mean it as a pun. I’m serious. It’s getting worse and worse.”

“Maybe. But what can you do about it?”

Henry pulled out a mirror. “See if this works,” is how he responded.

Before Eddie could restrain him, Henry moved over to Ron’s seat. “Ron? Can I trouble you for a minute?” He held out the mirror.

The sound of screams drowned out the jukebox.

* * *

Henry became an evangelist. The mirror worked better than he had imagined it would. As soon as people saw their rotting flesh, they felt it. And as soon as they felt it, they acted. Ron rushed to the clinic in Oakdale. They had to cut off the rest of his arm at the elbow, but they saved his life.

Others did not fare as well. When Henry showed the mirror to Beatriz McLean, she fell to the ground screaming about her hip spur. And immediately took out her bottle of Jebediah’s Miracle Potion.

“No!” Henry said. “You have to fight it!”

“Get away from me, Henry Wallace! I knew your father and he was a good man and he would not approve of this!”

“Mrs. McLean, you have to believe me—”

Someone had grabbed Henry’s mirror then and tossed it to the ground. It was a miracle it hadn’t broken on impact. Beatriz took a gulp from her bottle and climbed to her feet, almost snarling. “If you ever do that again I’ll see you lynched!”

The voice Henry heard didn’t belong to the sweet eighty-three-year-old woman. It belonged to Jebediah’s Miracle Potion.

* * *

Henry sat in Blackhawk Tavern alone. No one would come near him knowing he had a mirror in his pocket. Henry wished they’d understand that it was for their own good, but they were too obsessed with the miracle cure.


The voice was hesitant. Henry swallowed and looked up. “Yeah, Eddie?”

“There’s been some talk in town.”

“Has there?”

“We want you to leave.”

Henry sipped his beer. “You can’t make me leave. It’s a free country.”

“I know that. But you have to stop with the mirror.”

Henry glowered. “How long have you been taking Jebediah’s Miracle Potion?”

“I haven’t.”

“Then why?”

“Why what?”

Henry shook his head in frustration. “You know what. Four people have already died. They didn’t have to die. All it would have taken is one look in the mirror and they would have gone to the hospital and been saved.”

“But it brings back all the pain.”

“So what? It saves lives.” Henry paused for a moment.

“Perhaps some people would rather die without pain than live with pain.”

“That isn’t rational. I mean, look at yourself, Eddie. Are you in pain?”

He shrugged. “Nothing major.”

“And most of them would be the same way. None of their injuries would have gotten as bad as they are now if they had felt warning pain in the first place.”

Eddie sighed. “Henry, what difference does it make? These people want to live this way. Just let them.”

“Just let them die? When I could save them? Eddie, how could I live with myself if I did that? How can you?”

“Because it’s what they want.”

“But it’s not what they should want.”

“Who are you to make that decision for them?”

“Eddie, you’re not thinking—”

“Henry, I’m through talking. I was asked to tell you to leave town tonight.”

Henry leaned back, glanced around the bar. He could tell everyone in there was listening to their conversation. “I get it. They sent you because they were all scared of the mirror.”

“Aye, that’s so.”

“How could you do this, Eddie? How could you so callously disregard their lives, cast them away?”

Eddie shrugged again. “It’s what they want,” he repeated.

“I’m not leaving, Eddie. This is my home.”

“In that case, you’ll have to give me the mirror.”


Eddie fumbled in his pocket, pulled out a revolver. “Perhaps you didn’t hear me.”

“You’re threatening me?” Henry stared at his friend in disbelief.

“Just give it to me, Henry.”


“I don’t want to shoot you.”

“Then let me!” The voice carried through the bar. Henry and Eddie both turned and saw Beatriz McLean there, a shotgun held to her shoulder.

“You pull that trigger you’re gonna fly out through the back door,” Henry said.

“But I won’t feel it, will I?” the old woman responded. “Eddie, back away. There’s been too much talk already.”

There was murmur of agreement from the others. Henry turned toward Eddie just as he heard someone say, “What should we do with him?”

Beatriz smiled. “We ain’t had a lynchin in a long time.”

There was a roar of approval.

“Eddie? Eddie, where are you going?”

Eddie paused and looked back at Henry one final moment. “I’m sorry. It’s what they want.”

* * *

Ninety percent of the town had taken Jebediah’s Miracle Potion by the time they dragged Henry out of the Blackhawk Tavern, his mirror smashed on the floor. He’d only managed to get one of the townsfolk to look into it before his capture and it didn’t matter because everyone had a bottle handy.

As they dragged Henry up the street, people left their homes and came to watch. Even Naomi Beckett watched from her porch. She was bemused that the man she had dated just a month ago was about to be killed by the town. But it didn’t hurt her.

Nothing had hurt her since she had cut her finger instead of her bagel and Doris Freeman had given her a shot of Jebediah.

As she watched the street, she couldn’t watch Lance. And so Lance picked up his mother’s lighter and walked out the back door, down the hill beyond the house. He had burned off all the fingers on his left hand already and his mother hadn’t even noticed it. It had been a magical time.

He sat in the alley behind Hagstrom’s gas station and lit the oil-soaked rags that had been tossed out. He watched them flare to life and gave his melodic laugh. The world was his playground and he would watch it burn.

* * *

Pardon me, sir. I dinent mean ta bother ya…butcha look like ya gotta bit’a arthritis, am I right? Oh lands, I just knew it!

I got a touch of it myself. Got it years ago playin too much rugby. What’s that? Ya played rugby in college yerself? What an amazing coincidence! P’rhaps it was fate that drew us here today.

Tell me, does your arthritis flare up in these cold winter evenings? Lands, yes, mine does too! I tell ya, it burns so much. It burns…well, like that town of Hickory burned.

Oh yes sir, I understand that the Oakdale Fire Brigade is much better than Hickory’s was. No way they’d let a hunnert and forty-seven people burn ta death, no sir! Yer right about that.

Ya know, sir, ya remind me a bit’a my father, God rest him. It’s yer smile, I think. So lemme tell ya a secret. I have a friend back in Washin’ton an he’s a chemist. Makes all kinds of things for the gov’ment. Ya know, like those plastic insoles for shoes fer when yer feet are out of whack.

What’s that? Ya wear them too! Lands, what a small world!

I tell ya, this friend I got, he told me that he mixed himself up a concoction ta help with the pain. Did I tell ya he lost an arm when a drunk hit him? Aw, yeah, it was painful for some time, but now he’s just fine ‘n dandy. And he says ta me, he goes: “The gov’ment don’t want no one knowin about this, but I’ve got a cure for pain.” I says, “A cure for what?” and he says, “Pain. I can make it go away.”

Course I don’t believe him, but he sends me some of it. Says he’d patent it but the gov’ment would arrest him on the spot. So he gives me the recipe instead. I’ve got a small bottle of it here. Ya wanna try it for your old arthritis?

See! What did I tell ya, the pain is gone! Indeed, I think ya could run a marathon, good sir. What’s that?

Why, yes, that’s perfect! Jebediah’s Miracle Potion would make a wonderful name for it.

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