Practical jokes can have unfunny consequences (3/2011 Listography contest, Pt. B).
|Snakes Alive, Son!
"Go ahead, Martin."
"Really, Doc? I must have told you the story a half-dozen times already."
"And each time, the story has been a little bit different," replied the psychologist. "It is my belief that, in the retelling, you change a little, too. Please, begin."
"Okay. It wasn't supposed to turn out this way, you know..."
It was the summer of '07 and I was living with my family a little northwest of Detroit, Michigan. My dad's business partner and friend, Kent Flood, had hired me to work on his property - mowing, gardening, general yard work and the like. The work wasn't too hard, as he had a riding lawn mower and the garden didn't require a lot of attention, and the pay wasn't bad. For a high school kid who didn't get to go out much, didn't have any close friends and didn't really hang out with anyone, life was still pretty good.
Once a month or so, the Floods and my folks would get together to play cards, usually alternating between their house and ours. While I enjoyed it when they met at our place - they'd sometimes let me sit in for a hand or two - I loved going to the Flood's house. They raised a few chickens for fresh eggs and had a barn for the horses they rode around their property and the surrounding fields, so I was allowed to take my pellet gun along and hunt rats. I wasn't a bad shot and usually managed to bag one about every other visit.
On the particular occasion that started this whole mess, we had gone over to the Flood's, and forty minutes of patient waiting in the barn's rafters had yielded one dead rat that had been heading for the corner nearest the chicken coop. I climbed down and was just reaching to pick it up, visions of the praise certain to be heaped upon me already dancing in my head, when the business end of a greenish snake shot through the gap between the dirt floor and the wall and grabbed the rat. I let out a yelp, then recocked the gun and put a .177 caliber hollow point pellet right through the top of its head. I picked up the rat by its tail, then walked out of and around the barn to get the snake.
It turned out to be an Eastern Garter Snake nearly four feet long and, judging from the length and pretty impressive girth, looked to have been living pretty large on the local frogs and vermin. If it hadn't startled me and hadn't been trying to steal my rat, I would most likely have left it alone; it really was a beautiful snake. I flung the rat into a small brush pit, figuring to get everyone to come see it before lighting it up. I was into my backswing, ready to add the snake to the pyre-to-be, when my sometime buddies - means, motive and opportunity - jumped up and hollered, "Wait a minute! There's fun to be had here!"
Now, I love a good practical joke which, for me, means scaring my intended victim half to death. I once lay in wait in the back seat of an old-style VW Beetle for nearly half an hour waiting for the driver to appear. She and my mom had gone out somewhere and were late getting back, and I'd climbed into the Bug about ten minutes before they had been scheduled to return. I almost talked myself into giving up after twenty minutes, but had decided that I had too much time invested to quit. When she finally got in, closed the door and turned the key, I sat up and yelled, "Boo!". I would have bet that no one could get out of a Beetle as fast as that poor lady did, and the shrieks and screams were most gratifying - well worth the week's grounding I got.
Anyway, I went around to the front and carefully opened the screen door. Bending down, I coiled the snake into a more or less realistic pose right next to the front door, then slowly closed the screen. I backed away from the house about thirty feet, then yelled, "Hey, everybody! I got one! I got one!" The first person to the door was Mrs. Hamlin.
Eleanor Hamlin had been with Mr. Flood's company nearly twenty years and was almost regarded as family. In fact, shortly after she'd been widowed the year before, the Floods had opened their carriage house-turned-guest cottage to her, just so she wouldn't have to rattle around a big empty house. She was nice enough for an older lady and I kind of liked her. I showed it, of course, by pulling the occasional practical joke on her - nothing too outrageous, though, as I also liked working for Mr. Flood.
When she opened the front door, the light from the entryway fell on the shape at her feet. She looked down, let out a scream and jumped away from the door and out of view. She must have braced against the door to help push herself away from the snake, because it almost swung shut. I was laughing pretty hard by this time, but commotion was still audible through the partly open door. I could hear my mom yelling, "Martin! Martin Carpenter! What have you done?" and Mr. Flood calling to Dad, "What's your boy gotten up to this time, Ed?" Then I heard Liz Flood scream.
"Eleanor!" The tone of that scream was completely different from what I had expected, and I ran up the walk to the house. Yanking the screen door and shoving the other one, I stepped over the snake. The scene at the far end of the entryway stopped me dead in my tracks.
Mrs. Hamlin lay all crumpled on the floor. She was very pale and I couldn't tell for sure if she was breathing. Mrs. Flood was trying to explain the emergency to the 9-1-1 operator through more tears than I'd seen from anybody in a long time; everyone else was looking at me. All the fun disappeared faster than a strip of magician's flash paper and I felt sick to my stomach.
The paramedics were there in less than five minutes. They did some quick checks of her vital signs, put an oxygen mask on her, loaded her onto a gurney and then into the ambulance. Moments later, the siren stopped fading and grew a little louder as the ambulance turned left at the end of the drive, then faded away as the ambulance raced west toward the hospital. I was a little encouraged by the mask - after all, people who aren't breathing don't need an oxygen mask - but not much. She'd looked pretty bad.
The police had arrived as Mrs. Hamlin was being loaded into the ambulance. They spent about an hour taking statements, said someone would be in touch, then left. We left shortly thereafter. Mr. Flood hadn't come right out and told us to leave, but the look on his face made it clear that the evening's entertainment was over. The women hugged and Mom and Dad said their good-byes. No hugs or handshakes for me, but I couldn't blame them much. Not a word was spoken on a ride home that seemed to take hours.
Two officers showed up at our house the next day, looking very serious. It seemed Mrs. Hamlin had slipped into a coma and, owing to some brain damage, had been put on a respirator. In light of these events, the District Attorney was considering filing charges, so they took me downtown and processed me into the Juvenile Court system. I was essentially confined to the house, so that my folks could "exercise an appropriate level of supervision", and life was pretty dull.
There were a bunch of meetings with counselors and court people over the course of a few weeks, all eventually leading up to a hearing before a judge. Things were going along pretty much as my folks and I had been told to expect, until someone from the prosecuting attorney's office came up to the gallery rail and handed over a slip of paper. He read it, looked over at me, and then stood and asked to approach the bench.
There was a short conference and the lawyers returned to their seats. The judge announced to everyone in the courtroom that Mrs. Hamlin had died and, as a result, this hearing was being adjourned, pending the District Attorney's filing of criminal charges against me... as an adult. I was taken into custody and transported to a juvenile detention facility. Life was now officially bad.
When we got to trial, I was dumbfounded by the number of people the Assistant DA had found who were willing to testify that I had done something or other to them over the course of my career as a practical joker. I'd had no idea they had harbored such resentment. In his closing argument, my attorney tried to argue that Mrs. Hamlin had been over sixty-five and could have died of a heart attack or stroke at any time, and that someone of "my client's tender years" shouldn't have his life ruined by an unfortunate accident. The ADA's response was that heart attacks and strokes were Fate, and Fate wasn't on trial. In the end, the jury didn't buy my side, the judge said something about sentencing guidelines, and life as I knew it was over.
"...and that's how I ended up here, doing ten years for Manslaughter Two."
"That's fine, Martin. I want you to think about how all this makes you feel. See you next month." Doctor Pender motioned for the guard, got up and left.
These days, I will admit to almost anyone who asks that, in retrospect, it was a cruel and insensitive thing to do. It took me an amazingly long time to come around to that way of thinking, though, and part of me still thinks it was simply a hilarious practical joke gone wrong. At least I'm pretty much cured of pulling them. There's not a lot of humor around here, and I've found that the least objectionable response is thirty days in Special Housing. Anyway, I guess I know what Doctor Pender and I will be working on for the next eight years or so.