Neva Bryan: Sparks and Vinegar (Short Fiction)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Kentucky-born and Virginia-raised, I am the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners. As a child, I played in the woods every summer day, caught lightning bugs in jars at night, and made lunch out of saltine crackers slathered in mayonnaise. I’ve slopped the hogs and picked ticks off the dogs. I fry my food in a cast iron skillet and drink tea sweet enough to make a hummingbird sick.


You cannot reason with a girl who has stardust in her eyes. I found that out quick when I tried to talk Wandalene away from Gary.

“But I’m all sparks and vinegar inside,” she told me. “He makes me feel funny up and down my spine. I love him, Sissy!”

I rolled my eyes. “That boy’s a menace. Janie Wright told me he was banned from the laundromat for putting a alligator in the washer!”

“She’s a damned liar!”

“Watch your mouth.”

“It was a dryer, not a washing machine. Gary thought Clint had a chill. He’s just a baby and he ain’t used to the cold weather in Virginia. He took him to the Tub’O’Suds and let him curl up in a dryer that had just been emptied.”

“Ain’t you scared of living in a trailer with a gator?”

“He’s got his own room. I hardly ever see him.”

I set a bowl of macaroni salad on the table between us and handed my sister a fork. We both dug in and neither of us said another word while we ate. We could make lunch out of a good bowl of macaroni salad.

When we was done, I asked, “Where’d he get that alligator anyway?”

“He won Clint in a poker game down in Florida.”

“Course he did. He drinks. He gambles. Probably whores around, too.”

“Sissy! He wouldn’t cheat on me.”

“Don’t be so sure about that.”

Wandalene stood and cleared the table. While she washed the dishes for me, I set at the table and read the obituaries in the paper. When she was done, I felt her standing behind me.


She fluffed my hair with her fingers, then put her hands on my shoulders.
“You think all men are like your ex. Just because he was no good, doesn’t mean they all are.”

“I just don’t want you getting hurt, is all.”

“I ain’t going to get hurt. I can take care of myself.”

A car horn sounded outside. Gary.

She kissed me on top of the head, then grabbed her purse and said, “See you later!”

It wasn’t too much later, maybe a couple of weeks, that Wandalene called me. She needed money for Gary.

“What for?”

“He owes money to that asshole Jerry Gilbert.”

I asked again. “For what?”

“Hold on, Sissy.” She must have put her hand over the phone because her voice got muffled, but I could tell she was talking to someone there. Gary, no doubt.

When she come back on the line, she sounded tired. “Jerry accused Gary of shorting him money on some stuff he bought from him.”

Course I pictured drugs as soon as she “stuff” so I was surprised when she said, “Gary bought some exotic snakes off Jerry. He paid him what he owed him, but Jerry changed the price on him. Gary can’t do anything about it cuz they’re illegal.”

“Oh Lord. Snakes! I don’t like this at all.”

“Don’t worry. Gary’s careful with them. He’s got’em in glass tanks.”

“Have they got their own room too?”

I meant it to be sarcastic, but Wandalene said, “No. He has’em stored all over the place. Anyway, can you loan me the money? I’ll pay you back. I swear it.”

I’d heard that one before. But, when you love your brothers and sisters, you do what you can to help’em out.

The next time Wandalene called me I knew something bad was wrong. I could hear it in her voice. “Sissy, will you please come get me?”

“What’s happened?”

“Just come get me. I’m at home.”

“I’ll be right there.”

When I got to the trailer park, I drove to the very end and found my little sister perched on a camping chair in what passed for a yard. She had a garbage bag full of clothes on the ground next to her. After she shoved it in the trunk of my car, she slid into the passenger seat, but she wouldn’t look at me.

“What happened?”

She shook her head.

“Wandalene. What’s going on?”

Finally she raised her head and I saw the most God-awful bruise around her right eye. Her nose was swollen and I could see dried blood and snot in her nostrils.

“Did that son-of-a-bitch Gary do this to you?”

“He was drunk.”

She started crying. I could feel blood rising up in my face clear to the top of my head. When I opened the door, Wandalene grabbed my arm.

“Where are you going?”

“To talk to your boyfriend. I’ll stomp a mudhole in his ass and walk it dry!”

I shook loose from her and jumped out of the car. My sister got out, too, and followed me as I marched across that yard.

“Sissy! You can’t go in there!”

Ignoring her, I climbed the deck steps and grabbed the door handle. Right on my heels, Wandalene let out a screech such as I’ve never heard. Gave me chicken skin. She smacked my hand away from the doorknob.

“What’s wrong with you, Wandalene?”

“Don’t go in there.”

“I’m not afraid of that shitheel!”

“I know you’re not.” She put her arm around my waist and steered me across the deck. Stopping at a window, she tapped the glass. “Look.”

I held my fingers above my eyes and peered inside.

Well, I’ll never get that sight out of my head.

Gary was on the bed and the biggest snake I ever seen was wrapped around his neck and his chest. His left arm was in its mouth up to the elbow. Gary’s face was dark blue.

That boy was stone cold dead.

I backed away from the window and turned to my sister.

“That’s a Burmese python. Gary calls him Duke. I let him out of his tank this morning after Gary passed out.”

She bent and stared in the window for a moment. When she stood back up, she was smiling.

“I told you I could take care of myself.”