“It’s not the idea of a snake that bothers me—” Susan said when Michael pleaded their son’s case for the pet. “But what will it eat?”
“Pinkies,” Michael said.
“Frozen baby mice—the size of an eraser.”
“They’re tiny, see?” Justin held up one of his new school pencils and tapped its end.
“And that’s how long the snake will be—like the pencil,” Michael said. No reason to add that a pinky became dinner-ready by bobbing it in a cup of warm water. The vision was too graphic. Amniotic.
“Oh—” Then Susan laid her only boundary. “But not real mice. You’ll never bring a live mouse into this house!”
So Elvis the corn snake became a fact of their lives. Two years passed. The snake was now five feet long, thicker than a broom handle, and still growing. Susan never mentioned it, but Michael imagined that she took to the creature’s cool indifference. Maybe, as she Windexed its glass tank when she tidied their son’s room, she admired the smooth texture of its patterned coils spilling over the rectangle of artificial turf. Michael was drawn to seascapes and hung them in his den, even though they made him think of drowning. Maybe Susan felt something similar about Elvis.
Susan had phoned Michael the first night of his two week long business trip with news of her promotion, but when he returned, tired but ready to celebrate, there was other news.
“Dad,” Justin whispered after the airport limo had brought Michael home, after hugs were exchanged and his mother had disappeared into the kitchen, “we’re almost out of pinkies. Elvis is eating them too fast—six at a time now. And the pet stores don’t stock enough.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Michael said. “Let me talk to Mom.”
“Where’s my new boss?” Michael asked, embracing Susan from behind. She turned from chopping onions for a kiss.
“Can you believe Leonard finally retired?” Susan beamed. “It’s been a whirlwind. Now it’s my job to actually say the things I used to mutter under my breath.” She laughed. “Now they mutter about me. But I’ve had to stay late. It’s a good thing you’re back. Justin’s kind of been fending for himself. Oh—” Her smile slipped away. “He got two B’s on his report card—history and math.”
She waited for Michael’s response—was a brief slide from perfection really a crisis? Were they that kind of family? But Susan’s guilt might help Elvis get fed.
“I think he’s worried about the snake,” Michael said. “That’s what he just told me.”
“Worried? Why?” Susan’s arms were folded, her knife across one breast, as if she modeled peasant outrage for an allegorical mural of the French Revolution. Justin appeared in the doorway. Michael explained that the old way of feeding Elvis no longer worked, but he had a solution in mind. Susan stopped him with a cold gaze he didn’t recognize, a look that probably left her new subordinates mouthing late night retorts into their mirrors and pillows.
“You won’t bring a live mouse into this house,” she said.
No live mice in the house. Wasn’t it a matter of semantics? Hadn’t the feeder mouse they could buy at any pet store been born with a death sentence stamped between its tiny red eyes—dead mouse walking? They could run it in from the car when Susan was either out or preoccupied, and drop it in Elvis’s tank. But when Michael suggested this route to Justin, the boy responded with the authority of a high school biology teacher. He paraphrased a passage from his pamphlet, “Know Your Corn Snake”:
“It says pet snakes shouldn’t be fed live mice. The mice fight back, and they scratch the skin—” Michael pictured a string of blood-pearls laced across Elvis’s snout. “The snake could get an infection and die.”
Michael nodded. “Probably not so good an idea to play the semantics angle anyway,” he said. “The truth’s always best.”
“You got a couple of B’s last quarter?”
“Un-hunh. I forgot my homework. And my notebook was set up wrong.”
“Should I call your teachers?”
“Why?” Justin looked puzzled.
“Well,” Michael hesitated, then forced a laugh. “Maybe they need me to kick their butts.”
After an extensive Google search, Michael found a local distributor of frozen adult mice, sold in bulk. He broached the subject with Susan, gently, but firmly, while she was busy on her laptop.
“In a container that’s clearly labeled and blocked off from everything else with plastic trays—yes, the freezer’s okay,” she said.
At Exotic Birds and Reptiles, Michael and Justin bought fifty frozen mice, bred naked for lab experiments, then settled in for the ride home in the winter twilight. Justin lifted the clear plastic bag of mice and shook it. The little bodies—fifty little snouts and one hundred permanently shut eyes, two hundred retracted feet—shifted like eggrolls.
“It’s heavy,” he said and stuck the bag between his feet.
Waiting in the family freezer was a large, lined Tupperware box marked with a skull and crossbones and the warning “FOOD FOR ELVIS!” Why not label everything else, the Green Giant peas, the Perdue oven roaster, the Tombstone pizzas, the foil-wrapped mysteries, as “FOOD FOR HUMANS,” Michael had joked.
“Too many labels,” Justin said.
What hadn’t occurred to either of them was that the car heater that had melted the slush on their shoes would also defrost the mice—or that when the bodies refroze in the Tupperware box they would fuse into a single giant block of mouse, naked body welded seamlessly to naked body. Justin, responsible for thawing and feeding, was the first to discover the problem. His parents, as usual on a Sunday morning, lingered over the Times.
“Dad—” he called from the kitchen. Michael glanced at Susan, who had a section on her lap but was consulting her Blackberry, then followed his son to the hallway bathroom.
On the sink front sat the open Tupperware box, and within it, covered with frost, the brick of solid mouse. A butter knife was jammed half an inch into the block.
“They’re stuck together,” Justin said. He pried the knife sideways until it curved like a leaping fish, but nothing gave. Michael studied the frozen block. He made out a compressed ear here and there, a spare leg, something that might have been a snout, but little else. He grasped the knife and applied pressure at different angles, but accomplished nothing. A blue cup half full of water for defrosting had been set under the toothbrush holder. Michael gave the knife another tug.
“The ‘Sword in the Stone,’” he muttered. He stepped back, thought a second, then shoved the bathroom door shut. He looked in the mirror.
“What?” Justin asked his father’s toothpaste-flecked image. Michael noted proudly that though his son’s thick lashes, dark eyes, and arched nose favored his mother, his expression—the frown that creased his brow and tugged down the corners of his mouth—was Michael’s. Wasn’t there a Norman Rockwell beauty in this scene? Nostalgia, caught like a fly in amber. They might have been working on a father-son project for the Boy Scouts: building a birdhouse or carving a Pinewood Derby car. Or maybe Michael was passing down a family hobby, something delicate but masculine, like passing a ship through the neck of a bottle.
He bent the blade again. The pressure slid the Tupperware box several inches across the sink front.
“It’s stuck.” Justin’s voice echoed from the tub and toilet.
“Shh—” Michael focused on the spot where the knife blade pierced the mouse block. The figure of a single rodent seemed to be emerging, but a fissure cut across its torso. “Go sit with Mommy. Make sure she’s occupied. I’m serious.” Their eyes met in the stippled mirror, and then Justin was gone. It took Michael a moment to process the flutter of the boy’s lids—was it a comment? A dismissal? Was Justin totally on board? Those two B’s—like slow leaks in a balloon. Or worse, the twin tips of an iceberg. Michael’s grip tightened on the knife. Staring back at him from the mirror was a wild-eyed stranger.
And Elvis had to be fed. Every few days Michael dug at the mouse block without ever freeing a whole body. Random chips littered the sink rim and took shape as they defrosted: legs, heads, half a haunch. And then they bled. Michael set each fragment on a paper towel. The lips of wound-ends sparkled under the bright bathroom light. Blood oozed from the jagged amputations of baby doll arms, stains blooming on the damp paper like rose bouquets. From larger chunks bobbing in the cup of warm water— a torso, say—crimson trails swirled like dissolving tablets of Easter egg dye. Michael hurried into his son’s room and dumped the raw chunks into Elvis’s terrarium. The snake struck at them instantly.
If Justin was in his room, he watched the feeding with his father. Michael had met the boy’s eye shyly since catching the questionable look in the bathroom mirror. If his son wasn’t there, Michael glanced around—the dresser, desk, open closet, nightstand harshly lit by the heat lamp that shriveled a leftover arm or leg on the terrarium turf. Boy stuff: rumpled clothes, notebooks, a hip-hop screensaver blinking on the desktop computer, a soccer poster. Innocent enough, but Michael could bear the search for only a moment, frightened of a discovery that might expose his son.
The frozen naked mouse experiment lasted until spring. The block had been chiseled as smooth as an ostrich egg; even the faintest mouse outlines had faded. Justin now avoided the scene completely, and Michael couldn’t blame him— he vomited once himself while wiping up blood from the floor. Finally, one night at 2 a.m. Michael rose from Susan’s side, took the Tupperware container from the freezer and stepped out the back door. The grass was soft under his slippers and the air thick with life. He looked at the stars, then tossed the mouse egg over the stockade fence into his neighbor’s yard.
The first time Michael froze a living mouse, it had seemed accidental. He had pulled into the garage, plucked up the creature by its tail from the little box that smelled of fear, and with his index finger stuffed its warm, frantic body, its scrabbling legs, into the mouth of a yellow Garfield thermos. He screwed the cap tight, and, keeping an eye out for Susan, rushed through the house. Only the rubber thump of the freezer door silenced the scuffling.
Elvis was satisfied. But Michael was uncomfortable—at least once a week he skirted Susan, sometimes obviously and awkwardly, with the snake’s next meal. Yet she’d been silent and distant, apparently consumed by her new responsibilities. Hadn’t she noticed that the warning label in the freezer had been switched to a different container? Or that he was violating the spirit of her wishes? It was as if both of them were failing an important test.
Then, one night in bed, she asked, “About the freezer?”
Finally—Michael blushed with his longing to confess. “What about it?”
“I’m thinking stainless steel. For all the appliances. We can upgrade everything with my bonus.”
“Sure,” Michael said, but sank into his pillow, disappointed by his escape.
Weeks extended to months, and Justin resumed his role: his father froze the mice; he thawed them and fed the snake. A large mouse took much longer to defrost in a cup of water than had the pinkies. The “mousecube” chilled the water into a summer soup that smelled like a stale sock. Justin had to refill the cup with hot water at least three times to prepare Elvis’s dinner. Once, in a hurry, he gave Elvis an under-thawed mouse, which traveled a foot down the snake before the peristaltic reflex seized. “It was like a movie in reverse,” he told his father. “The mouse looked like a cigar butt when it fell out. Elvis wouldn’t touch it after that, and I had to thaw another one.” Justin’s eyes were nearly at a level with Michael’s, and a mustache smudged his lip. Michael had grown accustomed to the boy’s occasional hard look, but sometimes felt awkward with him. At least his grades had rebounded, but with perfection now impossible, how much did it matter?
“Now I bend them back and forth to make sure they’re okay all the way through.” Justin’s voice cracked on the word “okay.” Michael welcomed the ruggedness and tried to ignore its shadowy edges. He imagined manipulating the mouse in his own fingers. They could shake hands, father and son, while softening a small body between their palms. They would never hunt and fish together, and Justin was past the age of Boy Scout race cars. Bottles in ships were unlikely, but they shared the feeding of Elvis.
When emergencies arose, Michael and Justin worked as partners: a mouse, curled into a C like half a bagel, was stuck inside the thermos. Probing with a butter knife only spun it around. Justin guarded the bathroom door while Michael filled and refilled the thermos with hot water, kneading the small body with his index finger. What if Susan walked in on them now? Was it an accident she would always avoid?
A phone call from Hebrew school: Justin had been teasing a girl, Abby Goldstein. He’d threatened her somehow with a dead mouse. Please talk to her parents, the Rabbi asked.
“I told her I was going to bring in a mouse sandwich. On rye. She laughed.” Justin shrugged. “It’s only Hebrew school.”
“But her feelings are real,” Michael said. “And your Bar Mitzvah’s not so far off.”
“I’ll call,” Susan said, and her ease surprised Michael. After, she talked to Justin.
“Abby had a nightmare. Some people don’t like mice. That’s why we have rules in this house—for protection. Trust. So, apologize tomorrow. What?” she asked Michael, who was frowning.
“Nothing,” he said.
The truth was, Michael couldn’t continue to freeze mice alive. In bed his fingers twitched. He shivered, imagining himself huddled on Mount Everest in a blizzard without his comforter. He struggled for breath. He pulled his cold feet away from Susan’s, afraid his touch would wake her. The practice had lasted nearly a year when Michael explained to his son that such cruelty was unmanly. It was sinful to bring such suffering under their roof. Justin agreed.
They sought the voice of authority. In the mall pet store, Michael and Justin were directed to a back room for “EMPLOYEES ONLY!” They knocked and were invited inside by a short, pony-tailed young man who listened to their problem. Around them large tanks glittered with hundreds of feeder goldfish, terrariums overflowed with crickets and meal worms, and a plastic wading pool foamed with white mice.
“Elvis? Cool name!” the young man said. Then he held up an empty plastic bag with the store’s logo. “You got to kill the mouse quick, you don’t want to freeze ’em slow. You gotta take ’em,” and he picked up a jingling red ball, a toy for a small dog, “and pop ’em in the bag—” which he did with the ball, demonstrating with a shake the bag’s new heft. “Then ... you whap ’em!” He spun and slammed the bag against the wall so violently that Michael and Justin jumped. The loaded bag hung from the young man’s hand, utterly transformed. “So it’s dead, see?” He opened the bag. Michael peeked inside and nodded.
For more than a month, Michael did all the whapping. To feed Elvis, yes, but really for his family. And where hadn’t he whapped? In mall parking lots against the side of the car (he had to park away from others—how could he explain?) ... against the dashboard, while waiting at the temple for Justin to finish confirmation class (the necessity of double bagging learned after a mouse, still alive, popped through the single bag; miraculously, Michael caught it in mid-air) ... an unsuccessful experiment with a sock (the mouse had to be pried, tiny nail by tiny nail, from the fabric) ...
It was a cool evening in early November. Michael and Justin stood behind the garage. Justin now shaved, and his upper lip was chapped. As instructed, he shook the small cardboard box to dislodge any footholds, and Michael held the double bag close. The boy flipped the box open and reversed it over the bag. There was a plash, a silent moment, then a rustle. The thought occurred to Michael that neither of his parents had lived long enough to witness their grandson’s becoming a Bar Mitzvah. They would have enjoyed the solemnity of the occasion, the majestic stillness of the room broken only by the voice of their grandson reading Torah. Michael had been present at the moment each of them had passed—the paramedic’s headshake over his father, his mother’s last exhalation from her hospital bed. Indelible moments.
Michael handed his son the loaded bag. He patted the cinderblock wall. “Swing it firmly,” he said.
“Un-hunh.” Justin paused. “Mom’s picking up pizza, right?”
“Yes. But she’ll probably be late,” Michael said, hoping that the young man had reflected on what he was about to do, but also wishing he’d hurry. As if haste could stop the momentum of the thing that had overtaken them.
Return to Volume 5.3
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