Kent Russell

Mithradates of Fond du Lac

A Weekend With Tim Friede, Quite Possibly the Only Person on Earth Who Can Survive Five Venomous Snakebites in Forty-Eight Hours

Discussed: Unwinding at Applebee’s, The Poison King, A Litany of Physiological Horror, Love Potion, The Problem with Antivenom, Tinned Bunk, Scientific Evidence, Peer Reviews, The Miami Serpentarium, Issues of Liability, Off-Market Uses for Rose Pruners, The Temperament of the Skin-Shabby, Tombstones, Recessive Steps

On the way were still more beers, the night being young in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and Tim’s blood stanching where the cobra had bitten him. He wanded a good finger over the restaurant’s menu pictures and told me, “If it was you, dude, you’d be dead in this Applebee’s.”

If it was anyone else on this earth, they’d be dead. The African water cobra that had tagged him two hours earlier is so rare a specimen that no antivenom for it currently exists. Yet cobra bite and lagers notwithstanding, Tim looked fresh; he was well on his way to becoming the first documented survivor of that snake’s bite.

“Which reminds me,” he said from across the table, taking out his phone so I could snap a picture of his bloody hand. “For posterity. After tonight, every book is fucking wrong.”

It was on my account that he had done this, willfully accept the bite. Even though we’d only shaken hands that bright winter afternoon in the salted parking lot of a Days Inn. Tim Friede, the man from the internet who claimed to have made himself immune to the planet’s deadliest serpents. I’d come to test his mettle, to goad him into an unprecedented ordeal: five venomous snakebites in forty-eight hours.

Around us, young people were getting unwound in a hurry. The hour was fast approaching when the restaurant would flip off the apple portion of its lighted sign, clear out the tables and chairs, turn the edited jams to eleven, and allow for boner grinding on the floor space. Our server returned with the beers, and Tim looked up at her with his serous blue eyes, smiling, and said, “You never did card me. You have to guess.” She demurred. He continued: “I could be your dad.”

While Tim fumbled for an in with her, I considered the swollen hand he propped next to his head. Two streams of blood had rilled down and around his wristbone, reading like an open quote. He was a dad’s age, forty-four years old, but he appeared both strangely boyish and grizzled. He had an eager smile of small, square teeth. His hair was a platinum buzz. The skin over his face was bare and very taut; it looked sand-scoured, warm to the touch. Scar tissue and protuberant veins crosshatched his thin forearms, which he now covered by rolling down the sleeves of two dingy long-sleeve T-shirts. His neck was seamed from python teeth.

The snake that had done his twilight envenoming was Naja annulata, about six feet long and as thick as elbow pipe. She was banded in gold and black, a design not unlike that of the Miller Genuine Draft cans we’d bought and then housed on our way to Tim’s makeshift laboratory. When we walked in, the snake was shrugging smoothly along the walls of her four-by-two plastic tank. She was vermiform mercury. And she greeted us with a hiss, a sourceless, sort of circular sizzle, what one would hear if one suddenly found oneself in the center of a hot skillet. Kissing-distance past my reflection in the glass, the cobra induced a nightmare inertia of attraction and revulsion. She had not spirals but eclipses for eyes.

“I love watching death like this,” Tim had said, leaning in, startling me. “Some nights I watch them all night, like fish. Mesmerizing.”

The cobra was one of a $1,500 pair he’d just shipped in, Tim preferring to spend much of what he earns—working the 10 p.m.–to–6 a.m. line shift at Oshkosh Truck—on his snakes. The thing nosed under an overturned Tupperware container while I checked her CV on my phone. Her venom was a touch more potent than arsenic trisulfide. Tim unlatched the front of her tank, reached in, and was perforated before he knew it. The cobra flew at him with her mouth open and body lank, like a harpoon trailing rope.

“Ho ho, that’s just beautiful,” Tim said, withdrawing his hand. There were two broken fangs stapled into his ring finger.

He picked up a beer with his other hand, cracked it expertly with his pointer. I glanced around at all the other caged ampersands—mambas, vipers, rattlesnakes—and I smiled. Rosy constellations of Tim’s blood pipped onto the linoleum, shining brighter than old dead ones.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Kent Russell is a writer from Miami. He’s never owned a snake, but he once kicked a big, honking grasshopper directly into his sister’s screaming mouth.

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