The Cumquat Tree

Matthew Dexter

Matthew Dexter

Grandpa is battling a baby rattlesnake with the teeth of a plastic rake, brushing it with spasms into purple geraniums back out the gate of the pool area into the desert. This is the drill. He is a retired dentist, skilled at corralling the reptiles that torment his daughter.
His grandson enjoys the rattlers: smiling, waving his chubby arms at the mother snake coiling over his inflatable raft as it floats against the edges of the pool. Borne by the submerged snakes and their underwater currents the raft changes directions.

The toddler has witnessed rattlesnakes eating rabbits and a family cat. He is wearing his orange water wings, as always. The shadow of the lemon tree falls upon the face of the snake, but the boy can see the flickering tongue. The rattles remind the child of his wooden toy box in the closet of the garage by the golf clubs and cumquat tree where the extra refrigerator and miniature freezer hum and the secret backdoor leads into the sun, the smell of heaven, and the freshest fruit of a private garden.

The venomous snake seduces the baby. Two rafts have been punctured by fangs, perhaps this one is coming for revenge from the recent decapitations. Grandpa has been on a roll all summer. He stabbed a couple adult rattlers and enchanted another few away with the ease of a matador, the grace of a man pulling a tooth without pain.

Grandpa still has all his wisdom teeth. Sometimes he rides his golf cart into town and ties one of his infected incisors to a string and demands the door of the pub kitchen swing shut. This only happens when he loses too many hands of UNO and runs out of cash. The illegal Mexicans can be a ruthless bunch when they are losing, tossing knifes at the walls, but when winning they enjoy seeing the blood on the chin of the dentist. These men are Grandpa’s gardeners, his closest friends. They are four times younger and speak Spanish too fast for the old man to understand, but they dig the trenches for the monsoon season and harvest the best fruit from the top of the trees.

¨Get outa here ya demented savage,¨ says Grandpa.

The old man is wearing his swim trunks, his hearing aids on the glass table, belly protruding as he wrestles the venomous reptile with his weapon dragging dirt and fertilizer across the white stones. His movements are robotic. The infant’s mother is watching with her hands over her lips from the window at the kitchen sink. Grandma has just risen from her tequila nap, the strawberry polish of her fingertips on the blender and it glimmers in the sun as she listens for definitive evidence of the conclusion to this latest snake invasion.

The machine is full of crushed ice, Don Julio, and lemon. So is the blender. Grandpa has been drinking since he gave the baby his morning bath. Dusk is approaching as the invisible rattlesnake jumps the walls of the raft. The mother watches as the boy does butterflies with his arms.

The inflatable armbands of the baby are penetrated first, then the raft, and the infant lifts its hand embracing the invasion. He laughs and coos. The fangs slice into the boy’s wrist. The mother screams and the blender wails, the symphony of ice crushing against the image of a deflating infant sinking with this one bloody arm and rattlesnake submerging into chlorine.

Grandpa does a cannonball into the pool. Grandma spills her heaven onto the granite countertops as she scrambles to the windows. Bacon is simmering on a pan and Grandpa is swimming freestyle toward the disaster. The gardeners help the old man lift the baby from the edge of the pool, the snake still attached to his arm. The boy is not crying. In shock, he is not conscious of anything.

The dentist bites the snake while the Mexicans remove their t-shirts and use them as a tourniquet. Grandpa is bleeding from his gums as they shuffle into the pickup and head off in a cloud of dust. Grandma and her daughter are smoking cigarettes in the bed as they bounce across the desert.

After a wash of coffee and vomits, the hospital provides the finest amputation. The child recovers nicely. That first night home the old man ties the boy’s incisor to the door of his bedroom and slams it shut.


Matthew Dexter is an expatriate author, poet, and American freelance journalist living in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. His articles have been published in numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and abroad, including thousands of pieces—many of which were published under pseudonyms, because Mateo does not advocate meritorious wounded egos.


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