Inside their terrarium, Jake and Elwood, my sister’s boa constrictors, form a braid around a dried tree branch. I stare in at them. Except for the occasional flash of pink tongue, registering the slight change in air pressure that my presence must cause, they are still, muscles in stasis, waiting under their smooth black, grey and white scales.
“How do you bond with snakes?” I say.
“That what you looking for in an animal, bonding?” asks my sister Kelly. Her black ponytail, now shot through with streaks of grey, dangles to her waist. Her solid body is strong and tanned from training horses, a consequence of the outdoor life.
“Yeah,” I say. “Bonding, affection, unconditional love, soft fur — that sort of thing.”
“Well, they’re interesting. And I like how Jake feels when he rests on my shoulders. Sort of like someone’s arm. You’re in luck. Gotta feed them today.”
“What do they eat?”
“Those rats?” A cage on the floor of her trailer holds at least six white and black rats.
“No. The adults are too big and the babies too small. Hardly a meal. Let’s go out to my friend’s house to buy a couple of the right size rats for them. It’s not too far,” says Kelly as she snags her keys and strides to the door. “Come on and grab me a muffin.”
Behind her a small menagerie watches as she slips on her coat and leaves. The German shepherd huffs then turns and looks at me, eyes expectant. Her new pup, a wiggling, wriggling, round ball, plays at her feet. A cat jumps from the floor to the back of the sofa so it can peer out the window. From its place on the kitchen floor a box turtle stares myopically at the door. Jake and Elwood flick their tongues, perhaps noting her absence.
I take a few freshly-baked muffins from the pan, push past the dogs, and slip out the door.
At the car I try brushing off the passenger seat to avoid getting dust and dog hair on my all-black outfit.
“It’s no use,” says Kelly. “You’re gonna be covered with fur. My one guarantee.”
“How’d the puppy lose its tail?”
“Mommy chewed it off. I still got the tail somewhere. Looks like a furry piece of jerky.”
“Nice mother. Remind you of anyone?”
“Let’s not talk about her,” says Kelly.
Kelly’s green and white trailer grows smaller until we round a curve and it disappears. Along the narrow road a few isolated farms and wide flat fields roll by. I crack open the window to let the spring air cool my throbbing forehead.
Last night, in New York City, I had started at the Grassroots Tavern, a rustic-looking, East Village place filled with college boys enjoying each other’s company, and I ended on Avenue B at the Vasac Hall, a former Hungarian social club with a U-shaped bar populated by a few old timers and the neighborhood’s newest generation of drinkers. I stopped into a couple of gloomy bars in between the two, ordering a shot of scotch here or a draft beer there, depending on what I drank at the previous establishment. As I placed a shot glass on the Vasac’s bar, I felt a familiar warning flag wave in my head. One more drink and I’d be sick. One more drink and I wouldn’t be able to drive to Kelly’s in the morning to finally see her home. After avoiding the trip for six years, I had promised her the visit and arranged time off from the grocery store where I worked as a cashier. I left the bar, navigating the sidewalks, streets, and long subway ride home to Queens exercising extreme caution and keeping my head up and level to stave off the spins. Early this morning, I gulped aspirin and hot and cold caffeinated beverages to subdue the hangover before the drive here to Pennsylvania.
The wind soothes my face. I glance at the dashboard clock, ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes pass and we still speed up and down rolling hills navigating sharp curves as the road flows left and right, apparently following the path of some lazy river. Finally Kelly’s friend’s farm appears on the driver’s side. As we pass down the driveway, I notice pigeons fighting for footing on an overcrowded barn roof. Some swoop inside through a gaping hole. Kelly points out ostriches, emus, geese, ducks, and a black swan in the craggy field as we pull up to the house. Tied to stakes in the front yard, three dogs of indeterminate breed strain at short leashes. When we step from the car their nostrils flair and staccato barks pierce the air.
“I’ll go find George, he runs the farm,” says Kelly as she circles the yard.
Climbing in and out of cracks in the foundation of the house, kittens and guinea pigs run free, unaware of their usual roles as adversaries. Empty food bowls dot the area near the staked dogs. Abandoned farm equipment lies in heaps, unattended and forgotten.
Kelly reappears with George, a mountainous man whose wild hair surrounds his head like an unruly straw hat. He smiles, surprising me with a set of perfect gleaming-white teeth. We troop down to the barn, me dancing nimbly over piles of dung, trying to avoid soiling my new sneakers. As I step inside, the barn is alive with rustling and scratching. My heart begins to pound. Quiet corners, close stalls, and suffocating haylofts remind me of the barn that appears in my nightmares.
Inside George’s barn, shafts of sunlight reveal dust, cobwebs, and drifting feathers. Swallows fly between rafters, skimming lightly around every barrier. Metal cages sit in high stacks along the walls. I can’t see what sort of being each cage holds. Kittens meow from a locked cage near the door.
“I got ferrets, mice, turkeys, crows, buzzards, pheasants, de-scented skunks and, of course, rats,” says George as he and Kelly walk toward the pile of cages.
My throat tightens, the Children’s Petting Zoo barn in the city where we grew up comes into focus. When I was eight and Kelly almost twelve, we captured a loose rabbit just outside of the construction zone that was the near-completed petting zoo.
“Look, it’s tame,” said Kelly as she stroked the soft fur. “I bet it’s from the children’s zoo. Maybe if we give them back their rabbit, they’ll let us in.”
“We’re not supposed to be in there yet,” I said.
“If we let it go it might die,” insisted Kelly as she led us toward the tall, red, wooden fence that surrounded the perimeter of the petting zoo. After a few minutes of knocking and calling at the locked gate we got the attention of a man in a denim work shirt and blue jeans covered with cement dust. His dirty blond hair stuck out of from under his construction helmet. Kelly explained how we caught the rabbit. He pushed the top of the gate open, straining the chain that held it closed, saying, “Yeah, that’s our rabbit. I’ll take it.”
Kelly pulled back, just out of his reach. “Can we come in?” she asked.
“No,” said the man.
“Please? We caught the rabbit for you. Just for a minute?” begged Kelly.
He studied us then glanced over his shoulder, “I’ll tell you what. Go around the side to the door near the barn. Wait for me there.” He slipped the rabbit from Kelly’s arms and held it by the scruff of the neck. “I’ll let you ride the zebra.”
We were thrilled. We figured it was our prize for catching the rabbit.
George and Kelly review the cages, seeking the right-sized rats.
George says, “How about these two rats, Kelly? Not too big, not too small, perfect meal-sized rats for my friends Jake and Elwood. How are those two?”
“Hungry,” says Kelly. They both laugh.
“Make sure you show her ‘the room,’” winks George as he gives Kelly the box of rats.
She gives him three dollars. We escape the barn.
The man at the zoo walked away from us holding the rabbit at arm’s length. Kelly led us around the fence until we found the right door. We waited. The sun warmed my face and I lay back on the thick grass that surrounded the petting zoo. Visions of zebras trotted through my head. It took so long for the man to let us in that I almost fell asleep.
The door opened a crack and he peeped out. He leaned toward us and whispered, “Can’t let you both in at once because — you know — we’re closed. So I’m gonna take you in one at a time to ride the zebra. How’s that sound?”
“You first,” he said. I hesitated and blushed. “Come on, hurry up.” He sounded annoyed so I ran in, leaving Kelly sitting outside the gate in the bright sun.
My eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the dark, quiet barn. I felt the close warmth of animals. The smell of hay tickled my nose. I heard stirring in the stalls. The man pulled open one of the wooden gates and there stood two zebras. Beautiful. They looked at me and whinnied, their hooves moving with small nervous steps. The whites of their black eyes showed as they tried to decide — friend or foe.
“Here, pet him. It’s okay,” said the man.
I cautiously stepped into the stall and the man closed the door behind us, locking the latch. I reached out and felt the neck of the zebra. Warm, soft, and smooth, its muscles quivered beneath my hand. It moved a few steps away from me.
Kelly, a gleam in her eye, asks, “You want to see the reptile room? George has three rattle snakes, a python, and a bunch of cobras.” I shiver, but at that point I might as well see everything. We walk into a small room attached to the side of the house. Shelves holding glass terrariums cover the walls. Some appear empty, some have snakes. I keep to the center, well away from the cages. In the corner, in an open claw-footed bathtub, what looks like a small alligator hisses at us revealing a pink mouth lined by yellow-white teeth.
“A caiman. Don’t worry he can’t get you,” teases Kelly.
On the floor I noticed a small kitten in a extra-large terrarium covered with a long board held in place by a heavy-looking stone. I bend and read the black plastic label with raised white letters, P-Y-T-H-O-N. My eyes search, finally noticing that the kitten stands on the snake’s back. It meows, eyes wide, looking to be saved.
“Can’t be too hungry or that kitten would be toast by now,” Kelly says as she leaves the room. “Let’s go. My snakes are hungry.” I run past the caiman into the sunlight, heart thumping.
The man stepped behind me. “I’m going to lift you up so you can ride the zebra,” he said. He hesitated for a moment then slid his large hands under my armpits. His giant fingers splayed out, covering my chest like a tight net. He grunted, making a show of the effort he put in. He’s not even trying, I thought.
Back at the trailer, Kelly washes her hands. She hands me a newspaper, “chase the cat into one of the bedrooms and lock him up.” She opens the terrarium and begins to extract one of the boa constrictors.
“You have to be careful not to smell like rat when you handle them. They go by smell more than sight. Come on, Jake! They never go where you want them to.” She pulls on one of the snakes, trying to extract him from his perch. I retreat to a chair across the room.
Kelly flops Jake onto the sofa. He disappears toward the back, under one of the cushions. She pulls a rat out of the box and holds it by its tail. The rat’s legs move as if it could run on air.
“I’ve got to stun it. Sometimes they can scratch during the struggle and the snake gets an infection.” Kelly goes outside and I hear a thump on the side of the trailer. Meanwhile, Jake perks up and I see his head peering over the sofa cushion, tongue flashing.
“You’re big,” the man at the zoo said. He tried to lift me again and failed. “I’m going to do it another way.” He slid his hands down my body, locking them between my legs. He pressed up as I sucked in air. Once more, his hands parted and traced my body.
He whispered in my ear, “Don’t worry. It’s okay. I just can’t seem to lift you. Your clothes are too slippery.” He unzipped my pants. Slippery, I knew better. His hands slid over me.
“Hold still,” he said. His large form bent over me, enveloping my body with his thick muscular arms. I looked toward the stall door, it seemed miles away as he held me tightly. My arms hung at my sides.
Kelly returns holding the very tip of the rat’s tail. She lowers it toward the sofa, dangling it near Jake. Suddenly the snake propels itself up and around the rat. It happens so fast that I really don’t even see it. We jump.
“I’ll never get used to how fast they move,” says Kelly.
Jake looks like a muscular spring enclosing the rat within his coiled body. With each of the rat’s exhaled breaths Jake tightens his grip, squeezing until the rat lives no more.
The man at the zoo said, “Lie down,” as he pushed me into a pile of hay. He pulled my pants and underwear down. I felt the scratchy hay on my back and legs. He stared down at my body. Nothing existed except him and me. He knelt between my legs and looked over his shoulder.
I focused on the ceiling of the barn as the seconds ticked by. I lay still, both arms motionless in the straw.
“Well,” says Kelly, “I’d better feed Elwood or he’ll be jealous.”
Kelly pulls the second rat from the box, stuns it, and throws it into Elwood’s cage. He takes his time, pulling his body back into the shape of a large “S.” Suddenly he grabs the rat and begins smothering it. Jake, already attempting the long swallowing process, holds his rat still as he moves his mouth and body slowly around it.
“They should never get so big that an adult couldn’t pull them off,” says Kelly.
A noise from the other side of the zoo’s barn startled me, breaking my concentration. The man stood up quickly, zipped his jeans and grabbed my arm, pulling me roughly to my feet. I tugged my pants up and closed them. Another man stood in the barn just outside the stall.
He peered in and opened the latch to step inside. “What’s going on?”
“I’m just showing her the zebra. Isn’t that right?” said my molester. I nodded.
“Okay,” he continued, “show’s over.” He put his big hand on my back and gave me a short shove toward the stall door. With amazing speed he moved me out into the cool spring air and the bright sunshine. I blinked. Before I knew it, he opened the gate and pushed me out the door.
“Ok, your turn,” he said to Kelly. She hopped up and strode toward the gate. My mouth opened to stop her, but nothing came out. I had no air to speak. The door closed with Kelly inside.
Later, as we walked up the hill away from the zoo, I noticed, between her sneaker and pant leg, new wrinkles in the blue knit of her tights.
“Am I still a virgin?” I said.
“Yes,” said Kelly. “He used his thumb.”
“Are you going to sleep here tonight?” Kelly asks. I weigh my options, staying in the trailer with Kelly and her menagerie or driving four hours through the darkening countryside, back to the safety of the city. I think about buying a beer or two for the trip home.
I look at Jake. He has a bulge a few inches down his body. Elwood lies on the bottom of the terrarium sporting a similar bulge.
“I’ll pass,” I say. “Sorry, I don’t mean to leave you alone.”
“I’m not alone,” says Kelly. “I got these guys for entertainment. Besides if I don’t get out to feed the horse, she’ll kick the stall down. You did better than Mom and Dad, they won’t even come inside. I’m sorry it was so boring, next time we’ll actually do something.”
“Any more boring and I would have had a stroke.”
At the car we hug — a new thing.
“Aren’t you lonely out here?” I ask.
“Aren’t you lonely in that big city?” she replies.
“Lots of times,” I admit.
“I like my life, Deirdre. Nobody screws with me.”