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Snake Oil

by Rachel Williams

It was a blistering hot Saturday afternoon when the wagon rolled into town, but word spread quickly and people began to gather in the open area next to the livery stable where it had parked.  Despite the heat, people came from all around the growing town and a few of the families whose farms weren't too far away were even there.

Children ran and played in the dirt street.  Mothers gathered in small groups, sharing news and gossip and wondering what would be offered today while keeping an eye on their children.  The men stood in groups, smoking and grumbling about the heat, the drought, and how they'd rather be down the street inside the saloon.  But they stayed close to the wagon, hopeful that maybe this visitor might have something useful.

Inside the wagon the pitchman waited.  He peeked out through the carefully hidden eyeholes and kept watching the crowd, waiting until he judged both its size and mood were just right.

The sides of the wagon were wooden and had been freshly painted, although not very well.  Anyone who looked closely could still see the letters of the words "Snake Oil",  "Magic Elixer", "Secret Indian Remedy" faintly showing behind the newly painted ones which said, "Wonder Cure".

Just as the crowd was becoming restless, the pitchman threw open the door and stepped out onto the small platform that had been setup behind the wagon.  He stared out at the crowd and they stared back at him, waiting for him to speak.  He stood there silent, slowly turning his head and making eye contact with everyone in the crowd.

"You got somethin to say or not?" cried a voice from the back of the crowd, and a handful of the men laughed.

The man remained silent another minute and then finally spoke softly.  "Why are you all here?  What do you want?" He asked them.

The people were confused.   Some were disappointed.  This was not how a pitchman was suppose to be.   This wasn't going to be entertaining at all.

Just then, a woman near the front of the crowd softly called out an answer.  "Hope."

"Hope", the man repeated.   He paused and then boomed out across the crowd.  "Is that what you all want?   HOPE?"

Voices called out in response.  "Yes",  "Please", "Anything to help".    Life was hard for everone due to the drought.  People were weary and half-beaten.

"Times are hard all around," said the pitchman.  "People are weary.  Folks are scared."  He paused before continuing, "Scared about the water.     Scared about their crops.   Scared about their children."

Heads nodded in agreement and voices called back in agreement.

"People are getting sick," he continued.  "Loved ones are dying. It ain't been as bad as this for over 50 years, has it?"

"Can you help us?" cried a voice.

"Friends, not only can I help you through these tough times, what I have to offer you today will see you through ALL the hard times for the rest of your life!"

The children were no longer playing but had started to gather close to their parents, the older ones listening carefully now.  

"Friends, I have come directly from the East, where some of the smartest most educated doctors and scientists have been working for years on a new type of elixer."

"This ain't no medicine that you take just to cure your gout.  It ain't no medicine to take just to clear up your baby's cough.  This is a kind of medicine nobody's ever seen before.  One that will give you hope and give you strength and fill your hearts with joy."

"You Ma'am," the man said, pointing at a lady up front.  "How would you like it if I could give you a pill to take once a day and you'd feel your heart lifted, your strength soar and your back wouldn't hurt anymore as you bent over the washtub?"

"Any you Sir," he said pointing to a man three rows back.  "How would you like it if all you had to do is take one pill and that pain in your leg wouldn't seem quite as bad and you'd have the strength and desire to finish the all the work that still needs doin?" 

"WOULDN'T YOU ALL LIKE TO BE ABLE TO TAKE A PILL AND HAVE ALL YOUR TROUBLES LIFTED FROM YOUR SHOULDERS?"

Almost everyone in the crowd shouted back, "Yes!!!!!"

The man paused, lowered his voice and continued.  "Well I'm sorry folks, there just ain't no medicine that can do all that for you by itself." 

He waited for the disappointment to settle in and then went on, "But there is a medicine that CAN give you all that, but YOU HAVE TO WANT TO MAKE IT WORK!."

"Yes, that's right.   In order for this medicine to work, you have to believe in it."

"Now I'm not an educated man, I don't pretend to understand why it works or how they made it, but I do know that it does work.  I've seen it work all across the East with tens of thousands of people and now I'm here to bring the message to you and give you the one chance that you'll ever have to change your lives for the better forever."

"Each and every one of you can find the peace and happiness and contentment and joy that you've been seeking, but only if you're willing to believe and put your faith on the line for your future."

"Now I ain't gonna stand here and lie to you.  I can't sell you all the same pill and tell you that its gonna work for each and every one of you.  It ain't that simple."

"Folks are different on the inside.  There ain't no one medicine that works the same for everybody."

"But that's OK.   Those doctors and scientists back East ain't no dummies.  They know one pill ain't gonna work for everone."

"So I ain't here with just one pill to sell to all of you."

With that, the man pulled down the blanket that had been covering the display shelves and revealed dozens of bottles filled with different colored pills.

"I got me over 120 different formulas here, and its guaranteed that one of them's gonna work for each and every one of you."

"Now I know what you're thinking.  How many are you gonna have to try and how much money are you gonna have to spend before you find the one that works for you?"

"Well friends, let me tell you.  It ain't gonna cost you even a penny."

"That's right.   Not a single penny to find the one that works for you.  Because if you don't find the one that works for you, you don't have to pay.  It's that simple."

"No.  I ain't crazy.  And I know what some of you are thinking.  But friends, I believe in this medicine and I know that once you find the one that works for you I'll have nothing to worry about because you'll be so grateful that you won't even think for a second about not paying me."

"Now before you start lining up, there's some things you gotta know about these pills."

"First thing is, when you find the one that works for you and it kicks in, its gonna be addicting.  That means that you're not gonna be able to stop taking it once you feel its power.  Your life will be so full and happy that if you ever stop taking it you're gonna feel so bad after it wears off that you'll feel lost and empty and.... well...  let's just say you're gonna feel ALOT worse then you do now."

"There's some other things you gotta know.  These pills have some strange side effects sometimes.   They're gonna make you happy and make you enjoy life, but alot of peope end up with some bad feelings about people who ain't taking any of the medicine.  And sometimes its even worse about how people feel about people who take one of the other formulas."

"You see, for some reason you end up thinking that your pill's the only one that can possibly be working.   You won't be able to accept that a different medicine can possibly work for other people.  You'll probably stop respecting the people taking the other medicines.   You'll probalby start thinking you're better then them.  And some people even start to hate the others and teach their children to hate."

It can get pretty bad.   Sometimes it leads to violence and people have been killed for having a different medicine but that don't happen TOO often.  Least not as I heard."

"Luckily, there's something about the medicine that makes it work pretty much the same for people in the same family.  Its doesn't always work that way but it must be something in the blood or something cause parents and brothers and sisters almost always end up with the same formula."

But it might end up that your husband or wife would be taking a different pill and that can cause problems.   Course eventually people tend to seek their own and will stop marrying anyone who's taking a different medicine.  But it can get pretty bad when family members end up believing in different formulas."

"But the great thing is, once you find your medicine YOU WON'T CARE about any of those side effects cause you're gonna feel so good and you'll just KNOW that whatever you do is right.  So it won't bother you if you end up losing some of your friends or family because you'll think they're lost anyway."

"But remember, folks, this medicine don't work unless you BELIEVE that it will work.  If you have any doubts, it ain't gonna work.   So if you don't end up as happy as I say you're gonna be its your own damn fault for not believing enough."

"Now don't waste your time trying to figure out how it works.  You don't gotta know for sure how it works you just gotta convince yourself that it does work and the medicine will kick in and do the rest for you."

"Now who's ready to believe?"

"WHO'S READY TO HAVE FAITH?"

"Who's ready to be saved......  from the pain and suffering of this miserable life and to experience the joy of a new way of life?"

"Don't push folks, there's plenty for everone.  My assistants will help you make your selection.   Remember now, the first formula you try might not work for you.  But don't give up.  You just gotta believe harder and maybe try a different one until you get it right."

"There's plenty of choices.  The more popular formulas are on the top shelf.  That's right, we got "Methodist" and "Lutheran" and "Roman Catholic" and "Moslem" and "Hindu" and "Jewish" and "Born Again" and dozens and dozens of others to choose from."

As the people lined up and his assistants begin dispensing the new pills, the pitchman went back inside his wagon and began filling more of the capsules. "It's almost too easy," he thought to himself as he opened another bag of powdered sugar - the only ingredient in any of the pills.  He chuckled as he said out loud, "All they gotta do is believe."

Copyright 1999 Rachel Williams

Author's Note

Even in Littleton people still don't respect each other's religion. Not even some of the ministers of the kids who were killed.  And they just teach all their people to be the same way.  So there's just going to be more hate in the world.  And probably more violence.  But they won't care because they think they know exactly what God wants and they can make excuses for whatever happens by saying that.  There's alot more I want to say about why I wrote this but I won't cause the people who need to hear it wouldn't listen anyway.   They don't respect people who don't believe the same as them.

Rachel
May 4, 1999

 

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