The Fine Art of Self-Destruction

Stephen Loiaconi

Featured Image: Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

I wake to the sound of Rod Stewart’s voice. He’s warbling something about handbags and gladrags and I instinctively reach out to eject the CD from Dan’s car stereo. I roll down my window, fling the disc like a Frisbee, then roll the window back up to keep out the unseasonable heat that’s been broiling Florida all week.

I remove my sunglasses. Bloodshot eyes strain against the midmorning glare to read the clock on the dashboard and try to figure out how long I’ve been sleeping. When I look out the window, all I see are trees whizzing by, dry leaves clinging to the branches. I feel dizzy and my head throbs, but whether I chalk that up to my hangover or motion sickness doesn’t much matter.

Where we are is somewhere along FR 88 in Ocala National Forest with my Burmese python Reginald locked in a crate in the bed of Dan’s pick-up. I’ve had Reggie for about eighteen months. We’re headed up north to a reptile sanctuary east of Interlachen where I can finally let him go.

As I shuffle through radio stations, I feel Dan’s frustrated stare more intensely than the sunlight burning through the November sky.

“What?” I ask.

“Dude,” he says, slapping my shoulder. “What the hell?”

“Seriously, what did I do?”

Dan smacks the stereo. “Tara made that for me.”

“She made you a mixtape? What are you, sixteen?”

“It was a mix-CD.”

“It had Rod freaking Stewart on it.” I imagine the disc spinning through the air and shattering on the asphalt. It makes me smile. “Come on, the second you started playing it, you had to know how that was going to end.”

“It wasn’t just Rod Stewart. It was, Christ, how did she put it, twenty-four songs that each represented an emotion she felt about me during each hour of the day on July 22.”

“What was so special about July 22?”

“Nothing. It was just a day. ‘That’s what makes it so special,’ she said. Or something.” He shrugs and shakes his head. “I don’t understand women.”

I sink further into my seat and rest my forehead against the window. “That much is more than evident.”

I could ask why he’s still listening to a mix-CD his ex-girlfriend made for him before she kicked his ass to the curb, but I know the answer. The man is signed up for every online dating service I’ve ever heard of, and a few I haven’t, cycling through a seemingly endless stream of women he’s at best marginally interested in. I’ve been dumped enough to recognize a man longing for what he’s lost well past the point most would consider healthy.

“We wouldn’t have these problems if you got satellite radio like I told you to,” I say, after about a mile of fruitlessly trying to sleep and listening to the engine of his pick-up wheeze and whine. “Otherwise we’re just going to have to marinate in these wonderfully awkward silences whenever you drive me someplace.”

Dan keeps his eyes on the road. “And remind me again why I have to drive you places?”

I mock his typical lecturing tone. “Because there are laws against getting drunk and parking your car on a Little League field.”

“At least you learned your lesson,” he says. Adds under his breath, “This time. Can’t you just sit quietly for a while?”

“I think historical precedent has pretty solidly established that I can’t.”

“Then at least read me directions.”

I pull up the map on his phone and skim the path ahead. “Go straight for about twenty-five miles. Then, you know, do something else.”

I close my eyes again and try to convince my headache to go away.

Dan’s sister Alexa insisted he drive me out here. I’ve been kind of dating her for a while, but I’ve been best friends with him since high school. He says he’s cool with it. Still, he sends off this heavy, uncomfortable vibe that I can only imagine comes from hanging out with a dude who’s seen your sister naked. It’s just one of those things we don’t talk about—like the Thanksgiving a few years ago when I threw up in his parents’ dishwasher—and that’s been working fine so far.

According to Alexa, the purpose of this ride was so I could talk some sense into Dan regarding his scorched-earth campaign to bury his unrequited feelings under a mountain of meaningless one-night stands and drunken hookups. (Wally, she said, he’s afraid of commitment. No, I corrected, he’s afraid of himself.) Secondarily, although she would never say this out loud, she seems to be testing more and more these days whether I’m capable of doing anything important right at all.

And I can’t help thinking that it also had something to do with her not wanting to share her car with a large python for two and a half hours. Still, she is counting on me here.

Dan’s phone vibrates in the cupholder and I see an opportunity to demonstrate that her faith is not entirely misplaced.

“You’re getting an alert from something called SexFish,” I say.

His eyes drift from the road. He hesitates. “That’s not a thing.”

“Of course not, but you had to think about it for a minute.” I pick up his phone, enter his passcode—still Tara’s birthday—and start swiping through apps. “How many dating sites are you on again?”

“I’m keeping my options open,” he shrugs.

“You’re running from the prospect of another serious relationship like you owe it money.” I feel a tinge of jealousy as I ponder his commitment-free existence. It’s immediately washed away by a stiff splash of guilt. “What is your Tinder password, by the way? I want to see what you’ve got lined up for the weekend.”

“This is exactly why I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You don’t want to talk about it because you’re an emotionally stunted man-child who’s only dated three women in his entire life, you’re pushing forty, and you’re delivering tacos for two-dollar tips,” I say, taking perhaps a cheap shot at his less than glamorous career as a driver for several food delivery services.

“I wish people tipped two dollars, man,” he sighs. Then he gives me a stern look that suggests I may have overstepped. “Besides, middle-aged men who work at Disney World shouldn’t throw stones.”

A sudden thumping behind us.

“What was that?” Dan says.

I look over my shoulder and try to get a peek at the crate where my snake was curled up, but all I can see is the top of the box. “I don’t know. But we had a ten-foot-long python back there, so I’m sure nothing good. You should go check it out.”

“Me?” Dan complains. “It’s your snake.”

I try to think of a good comeback, and I don’t know if it’s the headache or the fact that he’s got a point, but I’m drawing a blank. I unbuckle my seat belt.

I struggle with the door more than I should to get it open. When I step outside, I’m immediately overcome by a desire to sit down until the sky stops spinning. I lean against the hood of the truck for a moment, then push off and regain my balance. The shadows of leaves sway with a warm breeze. Steam rises from wet concrete as the sun dries out what’s left of an overnight rainfall. I catch a glimpse of something disappearing into the bushes along the road a few hundred feet back. When I look into the bed of the truck, the door of the crate is busted off its hinges. The snake is gone.

I circle around to the driver’s side. I tap on Dan’s window to pull his attention away from his iPhone. When he rolls down the window, the wind whips through the cab of the truck and blows his black hair out of place.

“So,” I say, “I know this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of my sense of responsibility, but I appear to have misplaced my python.”

Dan climbs out of the truck and stomps around me to the back, where he just stands for a moment, staring at the empty crate.

I look up and down the open road, then feel Dan’s eyes digging into me again. “This is going to be a thing, isn’t it?” I ask.

He shakes his head in either disgust or frustration, or possibly both, and gets back in the truck. “We’re going home,” he says before he slams his door shut.

I knock on the passenger side window and gesture for him to roll it down. It takes a few tries for him to understand what I’m getting at, but eventually he does.

“We can’t go home,” I implore, once the window is down far enough for him to hear me.

“I’m driving,” Dan says, reaching across to push my door open slightly. “Unless you want to walk home from wherever the fuck we are, it’s not your call. Get in the car.”

My eyes scan the trees stretching along the road behind us. Reggie could be anywhere. I’ve never known him to move quickly, but he’s got a few minutes’ head start and he’s not a fan of cars so he probably didn’t stick around.

“What, you got a taco delivery you can’t miss?” I forcefully nudge the door closed. “We’re talking about a living thing that I’ve come to consider like my fifth or sixth best friend. I’m not leaving him.”

I step away from the car and make my way back to Reggie’s crate. I smile a little when I hear Dan’s door open.

“It’s not just tacos, you know,” he says, joining me behind the truck. “I deliver all kinds of food.”

“You say that like it’s a point of pride.”

“You try delivering ice cream in Orlando in mid-July without it melting all over your trunk. Damn right it’s a point of pride.” He squints toward the sun and wipes sweat from his forehead. “You can look for five minutes, then we’re getting the hell out of here.”

It’s weird how you sometimes get attached to something you never knew you wanted. Especially if you spend a hell of a lot of money on a cage, food, and vet bills for almost two years. There are some things you find you have to care about because they cost you so much. But tough as this is, I always promised my neighbors I’d get rid of Reggie once he got big enough to eat their kids.

I thought he’d reached that size, and I wasn’t anxious to test it out, so I decided it was time to let him go. It took some searching to find a sanctuary that would protect and feed him. All I had to do was get him there. It seemed so simple. And yet.

I like to think of myself as a functional alcoholic. Then again, my father thought the same of himself, and he ended up dead in a booth at the neighborhood bar, facedown in a pool of Miller High Life. But I’m in this forest, I’m not drunk right now, and I’m going to do this.

I’m going to rescue my snake. Somehow.

A couple of cars pass while I venture off the road into the murky woods. Dan stays with the truck and watches me stumble through the bushes and fall in the mud.

As I regain my footing and attempt to use a handful of leaves to wipe mud off my shirt with little effect, I hear Dan behind me. “Explain to me why you’re trying to find the snake you were about to get rid of anyway.”

“I was going to bring him to a sanctuary,” I say, “not abandon him on the side of the road. He can’t survive out there. For a natural predator, Reggie’s a bit of a wuss.”

The locks of Dan’s pickup chirp shut and he follows me deeper into the slimy, gooey underbrush. Tall and thin, he’s in good shape for thirty-seven years old. I’m not. He ran a half marathon last year; I barely woke up in time to congratulate him at the finish line.

We step slowly over fallen branches, bugs swarming around my head disorienting my already weary eyes. Making me dizzy again. I stop to lean against a tree and regroup.

“You remember what you said to me two years ago?” I call over my shoulder.

“‘Dude, don’t get a fucking snake?’”

“You said, ‘This thing with Tara will never last, because I’m not that lucky.’ You jinxed yourself from the start.”

“You remember what I said when you started dating my sister?” Dan asks, missing or just ignoring my point.

“ ‘I know where you live?’ ”

“ ‘Get your shit together.’ ” He waves his arms at the swamp around us. “And yet, here we are.”

“I think I see why Alexa wanted you to drive me out here,” I look back at him.

He stares at me for several long, uncomfortable seconds.

“Wait,” he says, his mind clearly struggling to piece together some kind of puzzle. “She wanted me to drive you?”

“Maybe.”

“She told me her car was in the shop and I had to do it. She called me all frantic this morning and begged me to pick you up because she couldn’t.”

“Well, then. I probably just told you something you weren’t supposed to know.”

“Is this some kind of setup?” he asks with a mild hint of paranoia.

“Yes, Dan.” I give him a theatrical roll of the eyes. “I bought a snake from a guy in Chinatown two years ago because we knew that eventually you’d need to be taken out into the woods and bitch-slapped for acting like a jackass. Dagnabbit! You’ve uncovered our secret plan.”

The trail branches into two narrow, parallel paths. I go right, he goes left. Scouring the ground in front of us, we stay within sight and shouting distance of each other.

He sponges sweat off his forehead with his T-shirt and looks up at the sun. “You had to choose the hottest November day in a decade to do this, didn’t you?”

“I needed him out of the apartment,” I admit. “I’ve been having dreams.”

He stops with a suspicious sneer. “Do I even want to ask?”

“Nightmares.” I shudder at the thought. “Like I wake up and my body’s in his mouth up to my waist. Or I walk into my room and he slithers out from under the bed and wraps around me until he crushes my bones. That sort of thing.”

The paths merge again and we almost walk right into each other. There’s a large pond in front of us, foggy water bubbling through a green film of algae and scum, outlines of whatever’s moving beneath the surface barely visible.

“So are you at all worried that some hundred-foot-long monster snake-gator hybrid is going to rise up from the swamp and tear us apart?”

“I wasn’t,” Dan says, taking a few steps back from the edge, “but now, kind of.”

We survey our surroundings. The forest breathes birds and insects, plants, bushes, branches, leaves, this serenity that itches and festers.

Dan walks into the woods, heading toward the car. No other option, so I follow. From behind him, I continue to nag, “Without looking at your phone, name the last three women you went on dates with.”

“I’m thirty-seven years old, I’m single, and any woman I go out with assumes there must be some shady reason why,” he says, turning and walking backwards for a few steps. “How picky do you want me to be?”

“If you don’t want women you date to think there’s something wrong with you, maybe stop asking them to pay you back for museum tickets.”

“That happened one time, and those tickets were thirty dollars each,” he sighs. “Plus service fees!”

“We just don’t want you to be alone, man.”

“I’m sorry. We can’t all hook up with our friend’s sister at a Christmas party.”

“Sure, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of skeevy,” I say. I have to admit, it’s not an inaccurate description of how I got together with Alexa. “I’m just saying, you’re turning into that guy at bars that women wear fake wedding rings to scare off.”

“Okay.” He gestures toward the forest that surrounds us, apparently ready to move on. “So at what point do we give up and get the hell out of here?”

“Reggie’s still out there somewhere.”

“And it’s ninety degrees in November,” he says, as he starts walking again. “Life’s not fair. Life is hot and sweaty. Come on. Let’s go. My car, my call.”

“There’s an innocent python lost in this wilderness and you’d just turn your back? I honestly don’t know what women see in you.”

He looks up at the web of branches hanging over us. “Yeah, well,” he says, “most of them don’t seem to see much.”

“Now, I’m just a Disney World plush man with a drinking problem and crippling student debt from an online clown college, so Lord knows I’m not much of an expert on making good life choices, but I’ve made more than enough bad ones to recognize someone sliding down the wrong slope when I see it.”

He climbs up the muddy incline that leads to the road. Between the heat, the hangover and the headache, I feel suddenly weak. When I summon the strength to crawl over the top, Dan is frozen, wide-eyed and pointing at his truck about a hundred feet away. Where he pulled over, the tall grass that lines the road is twitching and rustling.

“Does the grass in front of my car look like it’s moving?” he asks.

“Nah, that’s not the grass. It’s—” standing on my toes, I see it slither forward, the black beads of its eyes, its scaly yellow skin. “Yep, that’s a big fucking snake.”

“Is it Reggie?”

“Nope.” I take a couple of steps toward the car to get a better look. It’s unmistakably serpentine, but bigger than Reginald, and its skin is a much lighter color. “No, that is definitely a giant python I have never seen before.”

Dan sweats panic. “So you’re telling me we’re alone out here with two pythons?”

“Yeah, but one of them is scared of my alarm clock,” I say. “I’m calling for help. There’s got to be a forest ranger or animal control officer who gets paid to deal with this crap. Give me your phone.”

“Sure, it’s—” He nervously pats his pants pockets, then sighs and says, “Fuck. It’s in the truck. Just use yours.”

“It’s in my jacket pocket.”

He stares at my short sleeves. “You’re not wearing a jacket.”

The snake moves slowly, coming forward inches at a time. My guess is it’s almost twenty feet long. We’re both more scared than we want to admit. Dan keeps looking to me like I know how to charm one of these things. My mind flashes on dreams of Reginald swallowing me whole and my legs quake.

“This right here,” I nod toward the car and the python, “this is what’s wrong with technology. We are pathetically dependent on these little gadgets and gizmos in even the most primitive of situations, so much so that we don’t have a clue how to deal with one massive man-killing snake. Our ancestors would be wearing that thing’s skin as headbands by now.”

I take a few steps back and pace along the shoulder, careful not to move any closer to the snake. “One of these days, some terrorist is going to flip a switch and shut down all the cell towers and crash the entire Internet and, just like that, we’re all going to be eight kinds of fucked.”

“I don’t see how this is relevant to—”

“I mean,” the rant feels good, distracting and oddly soothing. “You want to see chaos and panic on a biblical scale? Set off an EMP in Times Square during rush hour and watch what happens when every computer and cell phone in midtown Manhattan stops working, all at once.”

Dan stares at me until I stop pacing. He points at the pickup and asks, “Are you finished? Because we have a slightly more immediate problem here.”

I look past him. The blades of grass being pushed aside by the python do seem to be getting closer, and approaching faster.

“Do we run?” he asks. “Or does that just draw its attention more?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?” He’s practically shouting at me now. “You had one!”

“Yeah, one that I kept in a really expensive glass case. I never tried to see what would happen if I ran away from it on the side of a highway.”

“They didn’t give you any safety tips when you bought it?”

“They were selling the things out of a van behind a Chinese restaurant. Dude told me not to stick my head in its mouth, but that’s about it.” I instinctively move over enough that I’d be behind Dan if the snake does suddenly strike, and I immediately feel guilty. Still, I stay there. “So let’s just be cool.”

He gestures emphatically, “There’s a python right there!”

I try to calm him, since his flapping arms and raised voice do seem to be drawing the snake’s attention. “Stay still, okay? It’ll probably just slither right past us.”

“What if it doesn’t?”

We both watch the snake’s long, crooked glide through the damp grass as it narrows the distance between us.

“Then one of us dies an agonizing death.” I pat him on the back. “Don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but if it comes to that, I’d prefer it be you.”

There’s a little professor in the back of my brain shouting and waving his arms to get my attention and remind me that snakes don’t generally attack humans unless provoked, but his voice is drowned out by all the other little people in my head running around with pythons constricting around their necks, gasping for air and using their last breaths to cry for rescue.

“This one time over the summer,” Dan says suddenly, “I gave Tara a bad apple.”

The snake’s tongue flickers. It’s maybe twenty-five feet away. I’m hardly hearing a word he’s saying. “You did who in the what now?”

“I mean, literally,” he continues, his lips the only part of his body moving. “That’s when I first thought maybe something was wrong. I got these apples at the farmer’s market. A couple were unbelievably good—sweet, juicy, crisp—but the others were, I don’t know what, but they were mushy and bland. Tara asked if she could take an apple when she was leaving for work one morning, and I gave her one of the bad ones so I could keep the good apples for myself. A year ago, I wouldn’t have done that.”

Instead of responding, I take a careful step further away from the snake and motion for Dan to echo my movement. Neither of us breathes. Every nerve in my body screams a desire to run, but the fear tightens its grip and I can’t move an inch.

The snake stops about ten feet from Dan. Specks of moisture from the wet grass shine on its skin. I try to forget how fast a python can move when it attacks.

It creeps forward. Dan and I trade silent looks of barely-contained terror, our eyes locked on each other like we’re trying to calm each other telepathically. Moving in, the snake slithers right over Dan’s shoes. As he whispers prayers and waits for the full twenty feet of the thing to slip by, I want to focus on anything but this.

I can’t get my mind off death, though, and all I can think about is that I almost died last week.

There’s a certain baseline level of abuse you have to expect when you sign up for a job like mine, a tour of duty on the front lines at the Magic Kingdom. The occasional kick or punch to the groin, for example. Or the early puberty cases who immediately reach for your chest in the hope that there’s a woman underneath the suit and they might feel the vague outline of breasts. The shutterbug parent who insists on taking eighty-six pictures of you and their kid in case none of those first eighty-five turned out just right. You can prepare for that stuff. You wear extra padding, take anger management classes, and so on.

But last Wednesday, I almost drowned. And I mean arms-flailing, world-going-black, full-on drowned. There I was in my Donald Duck costume, doing my thing, when some asshat pushed me over a railing and I fell into a pond.

Bad things happen when one of those plush suits starts taking on water. First of all, moving with your arms weighed down by soaked fur is like trying to swim through wet towels and glue. The head, water rushes in through the mouth right into your face, and it fills up pretty damn fast. And sure, you ask, why not just take the head off? There are two problems. One, you’re wearing that heavy wet fur, but two, the main thing, is that you freak out. You don’t think straight. A wave of “Oh god oh god I’m going to die” eclipses all things rational in your brain. So you drown in your plush coffin. Eventually somebody figured out it wasn’t all part of an act, dove in, and dragged me out.

I don’t think there’s ever a good way to die, but there are uncommonly bad ones.

That scene plays out in my head over and over until the snake’s tail gets clear of Dan’s shoes and passes by me completely.

We watch the snake disappear into the brush before we allow ourselves to relax.

“So like I said,” Dan resumes, “bad apples. That’s where it all went wrong. Maybe I’m just better off alone.”

“Bullshit.” I punch him in the arm for emphasis. “That’s just some crap lonely people say to make themselves feel better.”

“Whatever,” he says, heading toward the truck. “We’re leaving. And for the record, when society goes to hell and nobody’s phone works anymore, y’all are going to be sending carrier pigeons begging for someone to deliver you some tacos.”

“You can’t keep walking away from your problems,” I shout, louder than I intended, and realizing this is the kind of behavior that attracts wild animals and reptiles.

Dan stops and turns around. He looks even more irritated than he has for the last half hour. He steps toward me and starts to say something, then backs off. The anger begins to fade from his eyes. He shakes his head and kicks one of his truck’s rear tires.

“For the record, right now, I’m walking away from your problems.” He laughs to himself a little before he adds, “You just lost a python in the middle of a national forest. How is this conversation still about what’s wrong with my life?”

I don’t have an answer.

“Get in the truck,” he says, hopping in and slamming the driver’s side door.

I realize that standing alone on the side of the road isn’t going to accomplish anything, so I follow his orders. Sitting in the soft car seat briefly drains my enthusiasm for this argument. After he puts the key in the ignition, Dan picks his phone up off the seat, groaning at the screen.

“Look, you know I’m not a big fan of giving advice,” I say, trying to casually glance at what he’s reading, “but I’m going to tell you something my grandfather always told me: pursuing perfection is a waste of time and termite spray. Perfect doesn’t exist. That’s why it seems perfect.”

He stares blankly and it occurs to me he may be missing a critical piece of information about a relative I don’t talk about that often. I add, “He was an exterminator.”

“I don’t know why I’m listening to this,” he sighs.

“Because you don’t have satellite radio. We’ve been over this.”

Ignoring me for a moment, he checks his mirrors and starts the engine. As he shifts the pickup into drive, he says, “She doesn’t trust you.”

“I don’t blame her. I’m not especially trustworthy.”

“You try to laugh it off but I know it bothers you,” Dan says, as he swings a wide U-turn, kicking up mud along the shoulder before veering back onto the road. “Most of the time—not today, but most of the time—it bothers me too.”

“You don’t give me nearly enough credit,” I say, earnestly but probably unconvincingly.

“You’re literally a professional cartoon character. Besides, nobody needs to worry about me,” he says, plugging my home address into his phone with one hand. “I know where I’m going.”

I turn as much as I can in my seat, give him my most serious look, and ask, “But what if you’re wrong?”

He thinks about it, nods, and simply replies, “Then I am.”

I watch him drive silently, content with himself despite my valiant attempt to convince him otherwise. Already, I’m trying to game out how to spin this to Alexa so it doesn’t seem like my fault. I think of Reginald slithering through the swamp, alone for the first time and trapped in this massive forest, and my mind floods with questions about snakes and the limits of forgiveness.


Stephen Loiaconi is a journalist in Washington, DC and a graduate of George Mason University’s MFA program. His fiction has previously appeared in Griffel and True Chili.