I have some great news, Dear Ones! I recently found out that my novel, The Rattlesnake Princess, received the Second Place Fiction Prize from the 2016 Writers At Work Fellowship Competition. This is absolutely thrilling, and makes me crazy excited for all of you to read the first chapter of my yet-unpublished novel, which I am including in this blog post for your literary enjoyment!
If you have the time, and are so inclined, I encourage you to take a trip to Utah in June so you can experience for yourself one of the most celebrated writing conferences in the Midwest. Writers At Work is a prestigious writing organization that has been offering master classes and workshops for thirty-two years. They have a week-long intensive conference, where writers meet up at the remote Alta Lodge in the Wasatch Mountains. Instructors at the conference offer classes in Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction. Past conferences have featured writers like Amy Tan and Sherman Alexie. This year, the featured fiction writer is Peter Ho Davies! If you have never read his book, The Welsh Girl,you must pick up a copy immediately. Also, his book, The Ugliest House in the World is one of my favorite short story collections.
Each year, WOW offers prizes in Fiction, Poetry, and NonFiction, so if you have something you would like to submit, gear up for the 2017 Fellowship! Submissions begin in November.
Great things are on the horizon for Jurassic Mom. Feel free to read, share, and enjoy the opening of this novel, which is so very close to my heart.
THE RATTLESNAKE PRINCESS
BY Amy Bridges
Haley Monroe burned her Daddy alive one cool West Texas night. Right after Johnny Carson’s opening monologue, but before his first celebrity guest, Haley’s Momma gave Daniel Monroe a gasoline baptism while he was passed out spread-eagle in his La-Z-Boy. Then, Haley threw the match.
With the remote control in his right hand, and a warm Bud nestled snug between his thighs, he didn’t smell it, didn’t know a thing was different, until the flames enveloped his highly combustible liver and he blew up from the inside out.
He ran a drunk man’s sprint onto the front lawn, swearing four-lettered revenge, his dying breath a curse on the two women responsible for his undoing. Then, he dropped his charred remains atop a Texas tumbleweed, that blazed up like a firebomb, starting a small grass fire, his fat sizzling up like bacon, right there between the gladiolas and the morning glories.
It was the middle of October, and Mrs. Kirkley across the way, erased it as nothing more than a Halloween prank, nothing more than “a couple of hellions setting cow pies on fire.”
Haley Monroe sat shotgun in the front seat of her Momma’s green Thunderbird, and with dry-eyed determination, watched the events unfold, breathing in the smell of death, the flames reflected in her brown southern eyes.
The final memory of her father carried with it the flavor of embers and campfire, of ash and bone.
As her mother locked the car into drive, the grisly scene transforming to dust in the distance, Haley Monroe, popped the lid on a warm Coca-Cola. The sticky-sweet syrup coating the back of her throat went down like an unholy communion, shared only with the woman beside her.
Both women agreed. The hot carbonation was almost enough to cover the after-taste of the corpse. In that moment, they washed away the flavor of Daniel Monroe.
That is how Mrs. Beaumont told it to Momma and me that June afternoon over jalapeno corn bread and red beans.
“The Monroe’s are nothing more than pure Texas trash,” she said soaking up bean juice with corn bread cut in a perfect triangle, her cranberry-colored lipstick leaving traces around the corners of it. “Nothing but trash. And you mark my word. Haley Monroe will be pregnant before she’s out of high school.”
“Oh, Loubelle,” Nancy Chronister piped up, grabbing Mrs. Beaumont’s sleeve with her two inch Lee Press On’s. “You do love to tell that story. It’s such a nasty thing to tell at a Pounding. You’re gonna scare Babe.”
The Womens Missionary Union, or the WMU as they called themselves, were a group of sixteen concerned Southern Baptist women who got together once a week to discuss all the lost souls in South America, Africa; all the countries where children walked around with un-wiped runny noses and ate rice for every meal. In line with their mission to reach out to strangers, they had given Momma what they liked to call a Pounding, which was a storage closet full of canned foods and cleaning supplies to start our new life at the parsonage.
That past Sunday, the WMU put an announcement in the bulletin, inviting all the ladies in the church to welcome the pastor’s wife.
When we’d arrived at Mrs. Beaumont’s that Saturday afternoon for the Pounding, we’d walked into a living room that had more canned goods than a Piggly Wiggly. Square in the center of the room, the ladies had erected a green bean pyramid, which they’d surrounded with smaller pyramids of carrots, black-eyed peas, and stewed tomatoes. Fresh jars of chow-chow and sweet pickles lined the window ledges. The coffee table was a Betty Crocker fantasy full of cake mixes, popcorn kernels and semi-sweet chocolate chips. There were even small jars of decorator sprinkles, and yellow stars, their pink caps sealed tight with plastic wrap. Towers of Comet and toilet paper surrounded the television, with about every cleaning supply imaginable. I squealed with excitement as we walked in the door, feeling like the first prize winner on The Price Is Right.
It looked to me like we’d be eating green bean casserole until the day I graduated high school. And, we’d be drinking sweetened, condensed Hawaiian Punch right along with it.
Momma stood in her pink pumps and checkered sundress, surrounded by cream corn, and thanked the ladies, the Lord, and the Jolly Green Giant.
Then, we’d all retired to the backyard for lunch.
“Babe’s old enough to know about Haley Monroe,” Mrs. Beaumont said, looking my way, with a crooked smile. “Why, this whole thing took place five years ago. Haley was all of twelve years when it happened. How old are you honey?”
“Thirteen years and a month,” I told her.
“Thirteen and a month,” she chuckled back. “You’ll quit counting months soon enough. You’ll quit counting years, too.”
“Not everybody counts backward like you do, Loubelle,” Nancy Chronister smiled.
Loubelle Beaumont’s backyard smelled like honeysuckle and looked like something featured in Better Homes and Gardens, the southern mansion issue. We were sitting right up next to a fountain that had a swan spraying water out its beak into a pool filled with goldfish, and four live bullfrogs. During the chatter, I’d managed to get a hold of a frog’s hind legs and stuck the thing deep in the pocket of my skirt. I was attempting to feed it a pecan, when Momma, between clenched teeth, told me to “let it loose.”
Then, she crossed her two forefingers together.
Whenever Momma crossed her two forefingers together, it was a secret and silent signal for me to cross my legs because I was sitting spread out like a boy. Momma said the perfect way to sit is to cross your legs behind you in an S, just like Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy used to. There was nothing in this wide world more uncomfortable than sitting like that. It burned me a good one the way boys got to throw themselves around and spread out whichever way they chose, and I cursed Jackie O. every time I thought of it.
“I’m gonna turn you into a lady if it kills me, Leah Simmons,” Momma said at least twice a day.
Momma only called me by my full name when she was burning mad because she knew how much I hated hearing it. Leah was an ugly four-eyed girl in the Bible that somebody was tricked into marrying. When I first heard about where my name came from in Sunday school, I nearly marched myself to the courthouse and got it changed. I was adamant everybody call me Babe.
“Haley Monroe was last year’s Rattlesnake Princess,” Mrs. Beaumont said, interrupting my thought. “Not a one of us knows how she got the title, but you can be sure, not a thing like that will happen again.”
“They had those outside judges, that’s why, Loubelle. Plain and simple,” Nancy Chronister said. “Had that Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader judging. Didn’t know talent.”
“That won’t happen again,” Mrs. Beaumont said once more for emphasis. “The Rattlesnake Princess is only the greatest honor bestowed on any young girl in this town. Stillwater prides itself on its world-famous Rattlesnake Roundup. Why, it’s the largest extermination of rattlesnakes the wide world over.”
“Nearly ten-thousand a year,” Nancy Taylor piped up. “All of them dumped wild and hissing inside a pit the Junior Chamber of Commerce calls Satan’s Closet. It’s something all right, quite a sight to behold. Nothing a person will ever forget, that’s for sure.”
I felt myself growing queasy at the thought of ten thousand rattlesnakes.
“What do they do with the snakes at the end of the roundup?” I asked.
“At the end of the roundup, the snakes are all slaughtered,” Mrs. Beaumont said, as though the answer was obvious. “They chop off their heads, and use the venom in research facilities all over Texas. Without question, it’s a very important event, and certainly, nothing short of a Texas-sized embarrassment to have Haley Monroe parading her butt around like she owns the place. If you ask me, those two women ought to have turned the fire on themselves while they were at it.”
“What an awful thing to say,” Momma said almost as instinct.
At that, the ladies grew quiet as Mrs. Beaumont stared Momma straight through.
“You’re sensitive,” she said, her eyes squaring off with Momma. “You’ll see soon enough. There isn’t a place for that here.”
Silence was thick in the air, before Mrs. Beaumont continued with the same tone as before.
“Daniel Monroe was a notorious drunk. He used to stand outside the bathroom door and watch Haley Monroe urinate. Used to have his way with her on those nights. Her mother worked late at the hospital.”
I cringed, unable to imagine a person so horrible as Daniel Monroe.
“Trash. Shot up the house, even killed that yellow lab of theirs,” Mrs. Beaumont said.
“That dog Herman gave them,” Nancy Chronister chimed in.
“That’s the one. Cutest little thing. Haley’d lope around with it down by the railroad tracks. Couldn’t tell which one was the dirtier. Barked its guts out. That’s why he shot it.”
“That’s not a reason.”
“Of course it’s not a reason, Nancy. I wasn’t justifying it. Daniel Monroe got his, didn’t he? He got set on fire. “
And for a moment, the clinking of teaspoons and the soft chatter among the ladies settled.
“They weren’t gonna charge Haley, not as a juvenile, with that kind of abuse hanging over her. And when it came to Cheryl, Haley’s Momma, why, the jury didn’t think twice, didn’t deliberate more than thirty minutes, before they marched in with ‘not guilty by reason of insanity.’ After that, Haley moved in with her grandmother up on Bluebonnet Street, and Cheryl got her own room in the nut house outside of Big Springs.”
This is where Mrs. Beaumont leaned in real close to Momma and me, like she was telling us the biggest secret in the wide world over. “Thing is, not a person alive, save Haley and her Momma that coulda testified to that. Sure, they got John Stevens to say Daniel Monroe hot rodded cars back in high school. They got Stuart Reynolds to attest to the fact that Daniel Monroe drove drunk. But not a soul came forward and said the kinds of things those two women claimed. Not a soul.”
I looked over at Momma, whose back was arched in just the slightest way. I could see the rising of her chest moving up and down beneath the picnic blanket print on her sundress, moving like her mind was running the hundred yard dash, and her body was feeling the effects of it; breathing the way she does before she lays one into me for “sassing back.”
“The truth was consumed in the same fire that incinerated the heart of Daniel Monroe.” Mrs. Beaumont sat back in her chair, and ran her tongue across her lips, as though she were cleaning them off from the story.
Almost as an afterthought, Mrs. Beaumont looked over at Momma.
“The fear of the Lord is the hatred of evil,” she said. “Proverbs 8:13. You have to watch where you step foot in this town, Sara. Some folks say Stillwater, Texas exists solely for the purpose of ridding the county of rattlesnakes. There are rattlesnakes lurking in every corner here. You have to watch where you step.”
Momma said nothing. She crossed her legs behind her in an S, and took a bite of her pecan pie.