The great race on Johnnycake Road was not my first or last encounter with my nemesis The Snake. In fact, we had a rather complicated history, the snake and I. Back at my old house, my next door neighbor, Billy Branson, once kept a pet “Garden” snake in a cardboard box filled with grass and twigs. Billy was a few years older than me, and teased me mercilessly. One eventful summer day, I got all suited up for the great outdoors dressed in my play clothes – jean shorts, a tee shirt and keds with no socks. Fortified with my Kellogg’s breakfast cereal and orange juice, I pushed the screen door open and stepped out onto the concrete patio overlooking our backyard and the Branson’s backyard. Our driveway separated the two properties. Almost immediately, I heard Billy’s reedy voice float over from next door.
“Hey, Kimmy, c’mere” said Billy.
Immediately suspicious, I asked, “Why?”
“I wanna show you something.”
Hmm. Why was he being nice to me? Somehow, I knew that didn’t bode well.
“It’s something really neat.”
“I have to ask my Mom,” I stalled.
“Oh come on, it’s just right over here! What are you some baby that can’t walk across your driveway without asking Mommy?”
At seven years old, I was most definitely not a baby, and so that is how I found myself in the neighbors yard without my mother’s permission, following Billy into his garage. He led me to a corner and it took a minute for my eyes to get used to the dark after the blinding sunshine outside. The garage smells were overwhelming; aromas of musty motor oil mixed with dirt, old unwashed garbage can and rotting wood assailed my nostrils. I wrinkled my nose and longed for the fresh air of summer. This better be worth it, I thought.
Billy was bent over a cardboard soda carton box on a work table that might have once been his father’s. Broken tools littered the space, covered with thick dust and cobwebs. Nobody talked about Billy’s father, and when I asked my Mom where he was (because in my little bubble of the world everyone had a father)she just said he didn’t live there. When I pushed it she told me to stop being nosy and never talk about it to Billy, and she meant it. So, I didn’t. Billy motioned me over to the bench, which was about chest high to me. I looked into the box and recoiled. A skinny, greenish snake lay stretched out on clumps of grass. It’s eyes were sharp and shiny.
“He won’t hurt you,” said Billy gently. I raised my eyebrows at his conciliatory tone.
“Why are you being nice to me?”
“Maybe cuz you aren’t being a brat today.”
“I am NOT a brat!”
Somehow it felt better when he was being a little mean. I could trust that. I recovered my initial suspicion and repugnance and took a closer look. I had never seen a snake up close before. He looked so vulnerable in the box. But not afraid. He just looked back at us with similar curiosity, and perhaps, shared a little of my suspicion. A tiny forked tongue flicked in and out so quickly, you almost didn’t even see it. Billy stroked the snake’s head with the tip of his index finger.
“See, he likes to be petted.”
“Is he slimy?” I asked. “Because he looks so shiny, like his skin is wet.” I shuddered a little bit.
“No, he isn’t. Go ahead, pet him!”
I glanced up at Billy’s freckled face, looking for any hint of mischief glinting in his maple syrup colored eyes. To my surprise, they looked kind, in a good big brother kind of way. I always wanted to have a big brother, someone older and stronger who could teach me cool things and protect me from the world. Someone else to be the “responsible one” and “set a good example”. As the eldest child in my family, that mantle fell on my skinny shoulders, and I always felt like that got in the way of all my fun. It sure could put a damper on a kid’s daily decisions. I mean, who could have fun stomping in mud, or jumping out of trees if you had to worry about whether your little brother would get dirty or break his neck following you?
Billy’s mouth curved up in a friendly smile. “Go ahead, he said. I won’t let him hurt you.” That clinched it. I reached out to the snake’s head with my finger. He didn’t move a muscle, except for his flickering tongue. Very slowly, I held my breath, and touched his shiny, scaled head. It felt dry and very smooth.
“Wow,” I breathed.
“That’s great, Kimmy! I think he likes you.”
“Do ya think so?” Wow, I just touched a snake, I thought. Wow.
Billy’s eyes lit up. “Hey, do you wanna hold him?”
Whoa! Hold a snake? “I don’t know…”
Billy’s golden hair caught a ray of sunshine filtering through the dirty garage window. His face had a cherubic quality as he smiled down on me. “Don’t worry, I will show you how. It’s easy.”
Well, that did it. Just like a big brother, he was going to teach me something really cool. I could not believe how great this day was going, right off the bat. I watched closely as Billy gently lifted the snake out of the box. He showed me how to hold he snake behind it’s head in one hand, and drape the rest of the snake’s long body around the other hand. The snake’s green tail curled around his outspread fingers and he gently closed his hand around it. I was mesmerized. The snake seemed so calm, almost sweet. I was eager to try. Billy held the snake toward me, and I did everything exactly the way he showed me. Before long, the snake was in my hands.
“Wow! He’s really neat! I thought snakes were mean.” I whispered.
“Snakes are good! They eat mice, for example,”Billy explained all the virtues of the lowly snake to me.
“You are really good at holding snakes,” he said. A happy warmth spread through my chest at this praise. Billy never said anything nice to me before. I smiled up at him.
He smiled back with big brotherly pride.
“You know,” he said, and his smile got bigger. “You should go show your mother how you can hold a snake! She will be really surprised. Most girls could never even touch a snake, much less hold one!”
What a great idea! “Yeah!” I said.
“Go ahead,” said Billy. He followed me across the driveway and up the cement steps. He held the screen door for me and gave an encouraging wave as I went inside to the kitchen, where my Mom was washing dishes, her back to the door.
“Mom!” I shouted. “Mom!”
Mom turned around, wiping a dirty glass with glistening suds. “What? What is….” She stopped in mid sentence.
“Look what I can do!” I thrust the snake at my mother, waiting for her wonder and amazement at how talented I was.
She stared with a funny half smile on her face. Clearly she was speechless. She did not make a move away from the sink.
“See? I can hold a SNAKE! Billy showed me how!”
“That’s… that’s nice dear. “
“Do you want me to show you how?” I was brimming with a generous desire to share my newfound expertise with my mother. As far as I knew we would be the only two girls on Prospect Avenue who could hold a snake. I imagined her having coffee with her friend JoAnn. “Well you know what my daughter showed me how to do today?” The coffee spoons would stop tapping as my mother bragged to JoAnn. “Really?” JoAnn would drawl and her penciled on eyebrows would arch wide and high above her surprised eyes. “Wow.”
My mother’s voice broke into my daydream. “Now, why don’t you take the snake back outside and give it back to Billy.”
“Okay!” I happily skipped out of the kitchen and through the back door to the patio where Billy was waiting eagerly.
“Here’s your snake,” I handed him back.
“Well? What did your mother say?” He seemed a little less big brotherly. His golden smile was replaced with the typical smirk he wore when he was about to pick on me. He took the snake back.
“She said it was nice. She said she was PROUD of me.” A bit of a white lie, but I knew she thought it.
Billy frowned and stalked back to his garage. I started to follow. “Hey! What can we do now? Can we feed him? What’s his name, huh? You never said his name.”
Billy kept his back turned and bent down next to his mother’s garden and let the snake go. I watched the snake slither into the bushes and disappear.
“Hey!Why’d you do that?”
“You don’t name snakes, stupid,” he said. “That’s a dumb girl thing! Go home and play with your dollies.” He went inside his house and slammed the door on me, and all of my hopes and dreams for a new big brother.
I stood there for a little while, puzzling over the strange turn of events. I looked at the empty snake box in the empty garage. In our garage, my father’s lawnmower and tools were clean and neat, and waiting for him to come home and build us a fort, or mow the lawn. My father would smile and show us how to plant a tree, or pull us around the neighborhood in a red wagon he fixed up. Inside my house, my mother would always be there to witness my latest adventures, to bandage my scraped knees and console me when Billy’s teasing got too mean. She would tell me to ignore him and present me with bologna and cheese sandwiches at lunchtime, and insist I take a nap while she watched her soap operas. Billy’s mother worked and was not home during the day. I often thought he was lucky to be able to spend all day doing whatever he wanted with no adults around to tell him what to do. But I thought now, maybe that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
As if summoned by my thoughts, my own mother appeared at the screen door, wiping her hands. “Did you give that snake back to Billy?”
“Good, now come inside and wash your hands. Those creatures are dirty!”
I stood on the steps a minute longer.I thought I saw a curtain move behind a window next door.
“I’m coming!” I ran up the steps and let the screen door slam behind me.