• Photo courtesy of Nicholas Eckhart.

Mama says while you’re all watching television, “Wouldn’t it be the cutest family picture if we took the snakes down to the Photo Hole and posed us all with them?”

So you load up the snakes from their cages under the back lean-to into little plastic transports and go downtown. It’s cold and mid-December. People have their lights up and their blowup Santas and fake reindeer all lit up in their yards. Mama drives past Maggie’s house, even goes out of her way to do it.

“Look there, Chip,” she says to you. “Your ex has some lights on.”

Maggie does have some gold-colored lights thrown up in the tupelo tree.

“Yeah, that’s real nice,” you say.

She drives into town, her truck wheels gripping good here and slipping some there on the black ice. The snake cages slide around a bit in the Dodge bed. You don’t worry too much about them back there. They are quiet and calm, cold and slow, them snakes you all love so much. You and Mama and Lizzet warm in the cab.

When it came it was real quick. The end of it. Maggie and you. She just said go. Like that. Go. They was some hard times for you, but you’ve gotten over it some. You contribute to Maggie and the boy with your weekly check. Mama don’t like the percentage, but you have to. It was what the judge declared was right. So you pay it. And you’re OK with that.

Mama can’t move on though. She’s always asking about Maggie and that boy, Chip Jr. “Such a pretty boy, that one,” she says eight or ten times a week. You suppose that’s why Mama changes her mind just as you got on Main Street and turns the truck around and heads on back over the black ice to Maggie’s house.

There isn’t room in the truck cab for Chip Jr., so Maggie follows you into town in her car. You had to jump start her Neon with mama’s truck, it is such a cold night for such an old car battery.

When you get out of the truck and start gathering up the snake cages you see that Maggie’s new boyfriend Hank had seen her old Neon and followed you all on into town. He has a new Ford pickup, and when he sees you’re there he jumps out of that warm cab with heated seats, probably, and says, “What hell’s goin’ on here, Maggie?”

Where were you supposed to go? Father’s supposed to be with his boy. You know you were lazy when it came to being a husband, and you’ve done your best to keep a job and lay off the whiskey now. You quit the tweak again, too. That ain’t easy, but you’ve done it. You never even lost a tooth, though some are feeling loose.

Well, Hank takes a swing at you. Right there in the parking lot. In front of Junior. Hank’s not a real big guy, but his knuckles sure sting smacking into your mouth. You’ve never been one to fight back too much, so you just fall down onto the cold pavement next to the plastic cage that holds the yellow corn snake. You all call that one Pop. You know, like popcorn. Ha, ha.

Little Junior, he says, “Dad!” And runs over to you on his little legs and kneels down by your head. “Ya a’right, dad?”

You keep expecting another hit from Hank or a kick in the guts real hard, but it doesn’t come. You hear Maggie screaming at her boyfriend, and you look up to see her pounding on his chest with her little fists, and she screams, “He means nothing to me!”

And that hurts worse than Hank’s punch. Really, it does.

You push your tongue against one of your front teeth and, wouldn’t you know it, it pops out of its gum socket, roots and all. Doesn’t even feel like something that belongs to you, all foreign on your tongue.

Hank gets back in his truck with the hot seat and drives off. You scuff yourself up off the parking lot and gather up more snakes from the bed of your mama’s Dodge. You get the boa and that beautiful milk and then the king, and you all march into the Photo Hole.

You want to spit blood, but you look at that boy of yours while mama applies a little makeup to your scrapped lip. She’s right. Chip Jr., he sure is one pretty boy. You never had nothin’ but that boy. And there is Maggie fussin’ with his blonde cowlicks.

Real nice photographer named Pat poses everyone and the snakes on some boxes and a simple backdrop that is brown-colored and says, look this way, look that. Junior holds Pop, mama the milk, and Lizzet the king. You put that boa named Brutus around your neck and he nuzzles in tight, and you all smile under those hot bright lights. You look out under the flashes and see Maggie in the shadows. She looks at you funny, and you think she is noticing your new tooth space, and you begin to think, really? And you’re about to say something regretful, but that’s when Brutus thinks you’re a rat. Damn, but he has warmed up, and probably he’s hungry, and you can’t breathe much on account of his constricting, and that’s right, twice in one night you hit the floor.

You think mama says, “No, damnit! This is a beautiful family.”

And as you start embracing the blackness, Maggie, Junior and Lizzet kneeling there before you, like you’re in a cage, they all pulling on Brutus, you wonder:

Try as you all might, shouldn’t you stand up and say that maybe beautiful is not quite the right word? If you could. Stand up all on your own, that is.