Once in bed, Letty waited for Fred to start. It took twenty-three seconds and then, kabang! "Fred," she said in a regular voice. "You're snoring." He rose slowly and went downstairs to sleep on his Barcalounger, which sat a few feet from the front door. Letty waited until she heard him snoring again. Then she slipped out of bed, went to her closet, dressed for warmth and crept down the hall.
The floor of Fred's workroom was covered with paper: newsprint and junk mail and wads of used Kleenex. Letty stepped carefully around the boxes of baseball cards and opened a door onto the back deck. She picked up the rope she'd tied to the railing, part of the escape route if there should be a fire, then threw it and herself over and rappelled down the house. A raccoon hissed and lumbered out of sight.
She tiptoed down the gravel driveway and crossed the street, then walked down the sidewalk until she came to the Sound. There was a bench there. She sat on it. The moon moved behind a hazy puddle of clouds. The waves lip-lapped the shore. A light went on in the big house behind her and when she turned she caught a glimpse of Wyatt's mother. Then the light went off.
Wyatt's mother, Libby Novak, was beautiful and brilliant and believed in the Lord. Her house had an unfettered view of the water. Wyatt was five, six months younger than Eli, and once in a while, the boys got together. It was always Letty's idea. Libby dropped Wyatt off then came back to check up on him and talk about interesting things—like the Lord and the sexually abused children in Wyatt's nursery school class. She told Letty about a Bible School she had enrolled Wyatt in for the summer. "Bible School!" said Letty. "You must be kidding!"
They sat in silence watching Animal Planet with the boys.
"What kind of animal would you be if you could be any animal at all?" said Libby.
"A snake," Letty said, without even blinking.
Libby's eyes flared with shock and revulsion. Letty surprised herself, too, but she liked the idea—a plain black snake slithering onto flat, sun-baked rocks. Shortly thereafter she bought Eli a snake.
At the nature center where she occasionally took Eli, the naturalists held a herpetology sale. Their main product was pet snakes. Together she and Eli picked out a black one, with orange stripes, about thirteen inches long. Fred would be horrified but he was allergic to fur so Letty felt she had no other choice. She had already gotten Eli a fish.
She raised worms in a compost bin and stocked a feeder for birds. She allowed the occasional cricket to stray under the sink and did not kill the spiders that fell into the bathtub, rather encouraged them to walk onto paper or waited until the next day to give Eli a bath. But all those wild animals weren't enough. Letty felt an almost six-year-old should have something to stroke.
Fred wasn't there when Letty and Eli brought the snake home. He had gotten a new job at a top weekly magazine and worked late most every night. Nevertheless, Letty led Eli straight to the bathroom and shut the door. That way, if the snake got loose, it wouldn't get lost. They let it crawl from one of their hands to another. Eventually it stopped nipping and seemed to derive comfort from Eli's fingers and the folds of his sweatshirt.
Eli fell in love and named the snake Snake. And because Fred loved Eli even more than himself, he let the snake stay, but on one condition: he did not want to see it or smell it or hear about it. Ever. And he really did not want to see the food that it ate: frozen mouse embryos that sat in a Ziploc bag in the freezer.
"I'll hide it behind the Rocky Road," said Letty.
"No!" said Fred. "I love Rocky Road! Hide it behind the Rain Forest Crunch."
The next day Eli held the snake for hours, mesmerized by the dry slide of its skin on his skin. He went to bed so happy that he dropped his guard and let his mother in on something he'd learned at school.
"Do you know what a slave is?"
"They work on farms. The whole family works together on farms. Even the little children. I wish you and Daddy and I could all work on a farm together. I wouldn't even care if we were slaves. At least we'd be together." And then he asked whom she thought the snake liked the most.
Letty said, "You, of course."
Eli smiled happily and rolled away toward the window. "Now I have to add eighteen plus fifteen."
When they woke up on the third day, the snake was gone. It had escaped from its cage during the night. Fortunately, Fred had left for work so the deep sadness that overcame Eli did not raise Fred's suspicions. But Letty, anticipating Fred's reaction, worried more about him than she did about Eli. She imagined the snake dropping on Fred's plate through a hole in a light fixture or crawling onto his neck when he dozed in his chair. Guilt made her grouchy.
Meanwhile, Eli cried and cried.
"This is no time to cry," Letty said firmly. "This is time to think and take action. Come, help me find the snake."
But Eli could only sit on the edge of his bed and cry. "You don't know how much that snake means to me," he said. "It means as much to me as...as a thousand dollars." Money of any amount meant a great deal to Eli. Given her and Fred's inability to make very much of it, it was a mystery to Letty as to why Eli loved money.
She got down on her hands and knees and looked under the desk and the bureau, the bed and the bookshelves and inside the closet. She examined the opportunities just outside Eli's room.
If Fred knew, he wouldn't be able to enter the house. He wouldn't be able to fall asleep at night. He would be positive she had freed it on purpose and his rage would be justified because maybe she had. If she had been really attentive she would have put a brick on the cage.
"Stop crying!" she demanded of Eli.
Eli looked at her and shook his head no, then walked over to her with his arms stretched out, crying. He had the disarming habit of wanting to hug her right in the middle of an altercation.
"We'll get another snake," she said, holding him.
"But this was the best snake in the world." It was a mongrel snake. No snake breeder would claim it. "But maybe we can get another snake that would be almost as good," he conceded.
They went downstairs for breakfast. On the way to the kitchen Eli stopped at the aquarium and said, "At least we have Chubb." A leftover minnow. They had found him in a bucket on a rock by a pond when they, just the two of them, had gone fishing with worms. When another fisherman told them that the chubb came from the river and that nothing could kill him after living in that, Letty knew Chubb was the pet for them.
"Think like a snake," said her boss at the development office. "Where would a snake like to be? Warm, dark, narrow places. Look there."
"The basement," said the geologist, who was helping her write a grant. "All snakes end up in the basement."
"Get a cat," said a co-worker. "A cat will discover the snake within a couple of days—but it will kill it. Don't let your son watch."
The next day Letty took Eli's room apart. Then she went into Fred's workroom and looked around there. Among the stray paper and unopened junk mail were piles of boxes and newspaper clippings and thicker than usual smoothed-out plastic bags: a million slim places a snake might like to hide and Fred's room was the warmest room in the house. Letty went through box after box, afraid to stick her hand in—not because of the snake—but of what else Fred might have left there like a freshly used Kleenex.
"But what will we tell Daddy?" Eli said.
"We'll tell him it died."
"But that will be a lie."
"I know, but it would be better to lie than to frighten Daddy to death."
"Maybe it's true," said Eli. "Maybe the snake is dead."
They didn't have to tell him anything because Fred never asked.
Every holiday Letty got up and prayed that by the end of the day her heart would open to Fred. Usually it did, but for some reason, on Columbus Day, it didn't. She knew that many lonely people had trouble with Christmas and Thanksgiving, but why Columbus Day? It occurred to her that tomorrow was her wedding anniversary and there might be a tie-in. She had forgotten about it until a postcard came from her mother with "Happy Anniversary" scrawled on the back.
Letty reminded Fred, who had also forgotten. "Maybe we should go out for dinner," he said. She couldn't imagine anything drearier than sitting across from him with his napkin tucked into his collar, while he separated every mushroom and pepper and onion from the main dish on his plate and then ate everything else in sight. She would rather eat noodles at home and do dishes.
Letty went to pick up Dr. Reiner for a field trip to the nature center to see the salt marsh and the birds. The doctor was all dressed up in a green skirt, a pretty blouse and a green blazer. She had once worn her hair long and in a bun but on her one hundredth birthday she got it cut and then permed. She told Letty she'd seen her picture in the paper leading a bird walk and Letty said that all the publicity was forcing her to worry about combing her hair. Then she reached up to pat her frizzies. "Oh dear, I forgot again. Is it really a mess?"
Dr. Reiner leaned on her walker and fluffed up her own hair. "Would you like me to wear a hat?" she asked.
"Oh, Dr. Reiner, I was talking about my hair, not yours! Your hair looks lovely."
Dr. Reiner laughed and Letty hoped she understood that it was her own hair, not Dr. Reiner's, that she'd been talking about. Then she realized that even if Dr. Reiner thought Letty had inadvertently insulted her, it wouldn't have mattered to Dr. Reiner. Though the good doctor was passionately against the death penalty and adamantly for the preservation of nature, she didn't sweat the personal stuff.
Letty parked next to the platform by the salt marsh and brought Dr. Reiner her walker. Dr. Reiner inched up the handicap ramp and when she reached the platform she centimetered from plaque to plaque asking Letty to read what each of them said. Letty did, then pointed to the Yellow-crowned Night-heron that was standing so still on the edge of the marsh grass. Dr. Reiner said she couldn't see much but she did have a sense of broad open space.
Back on the ground again Letty aimed for a meadow where thousands of Monarchs were collecting on goldenrod.
"Would you like to go over there?" she said.
It was forty feet across the parking lot before they could reach the meadow, but Dr. Reiner said that she needed the exercise. Twenty minutes later they arrived on the other side. The meadow was not flat and the ground beneath the grass was lumpy. Each little incline put Dr. Reiner into a pit that she had to struggle to get herself out of. She couldn't see the butterflies nor hear the crickets, only the planes that flew by every minute.
"I should have driven you across the parking lot so you could have conserved energy."
"I don't want to conserve energy. I want to walk."
On the way home, they talked about politics and local characters and the recent arson in the Post Office until Letty burst out, "My marriage is falling apart."
Dr. Reiner listened, then, in an even voice, as if stating a fact, she said, "Your husband, Fred, seems like a very nice man."
"You know him?"
"Yes. He took me to the Plant Science Day at the Agricultural Experiment Station this year."
Letty had forgotten. It was normally her job to take Dr. Reiner to the Ag Station every year in the high heat of August, but this past summer, work had prevented her and Fred had offered, without being asked.
He was always doing things like that. Seeing what could be done and then doing it. Going out of his way as if his way didn't count much. It was the kind of person he was and why people loved him and some took advantage, which made Letty mad. Though he'd certainly gone way out of his way to please her. And hadn't she taken advantage?
"Divorce," Dr. Reiner said, "is not good for children."
Fred hadn't washed his tall body or brushed his big teeth for days. He was bent out of shape on account of his back, which hadn't bothered him before he met Letty. During the week, he was full of steam but on the weekend, he grimaced with pain. His long spine twisted into an "S" as he crab-stepped with his right hip thrust forward, his left shoulder twisted behind.
Yet he insisted on walking back and forth across the room and up and down the stairs collecting one thing at a time. Letty couldn't bear it. All that pain. All that denial. Especially knowing how back at his office on Monday, his whole body would snap back into place.
"Boy, Daddy's back must hurt a lot," she said too loudly to Eli. Eli became very quiet and complainy when Fred's back went out but he never mentioned the back. Instead, he started talking about money and all the things he wanted and suddenly, desperately, wanted—a lot.
On the way home from school, Eli pointed out that the moon was on one side of the car and the sun on the other. He was sitting in front next to Letty and Samantha was sitting in back. Eli insisted upon sitting in front because when Samantha's mother drove, she let Samantha sit in front. Letty and Samantha's mother had finally agreed that the constant bickering couldn't go on and that both children had to sit in the back—but only after Eli had his chance to get even.
"Why is that?" asked Samantha about the sun and the moon.
"Because they're getting divorced," yelled Eli who had been extremely hyper since Letty picked him up at school. "She said, 'Your room is such a mess. I'm getting a divorce!' Now they're getting divorced."
That night at dinner Eli wanted to tell Letty and Fred something but he didn't want them to get mad.
"Promise?" he asked Fred.
"If you did something wrong, I'll get mad," Fred said.
"That's one way to keep him from telling us," said Letty.
"Tell Mom," Fred said. "I promise not to listen."
"I got in back of Matthew and I held his arms and I jerked my knee up into his back and I broke his back. It was so cool."
"It doesn't sound that cool," said Letty. "Did he cry? Was he hurt?"
"No, believe me, it was really cool. You had to be there."
On Monday Fred's back got better but he kept on taking the valium. On Tuesday, his asthma got worse and he had to up the ante on the Prednisone to release the grip of gunk on his lungs. On Wednesday he ate too much and his stomach went out and he couldn't hold down the food. On Thursday he felt he was going to die and he decided to see as many doctors as he had to see in order to get better for Letty's sake. On Friday he apologized for making her unhappy and went to the chiropractor's to get an adjustment.
The following week, after taking medication for his stomach, dropping the valium, postponing the Prednizone, and getting his back fixed, Fred felt infinitely better and suggested again that they go out on a date. Letty accepted. They went to a restaurant of her choice and a movie she wanted to see. That week, when he did the dishes, he also did the pots and pans and wiped off the counters. The next week he bought her an outfit. She did her usual thing of saying it looked like a tent, but she wore it anyway. It did look like a tent.
They slept together two nights in a row. It amazed Letty that for someone who wouldn't eat onions or oysters or dairy products or anything that had stayed in the fridge overnight, Fred was eating her with so much enthusiasm and all the stamina he showed for his baseball cards which he could play with until four in the morning. He went on and on until she thought she was coming but when she didn't (though oh it felt good) he brought her hand down to the pea in its pod. Rotating her fingers on the slippery ball bearing she started to come when he slid up on top of her. His high perched, slightly bent, not unlarge penis slithered right in hitting all sides at once and whoa did she come as she felt it run through her and ah did she come and right up against her and oh inside and in back of her cervix, oh thank you, or was it up near the front? Oh my god, smiling and oh boy. "Did you come?"
On the second night, it happened again and when it was over and she lay in his arms and went on and on about what a great Buddhist meeting she'd been to, he listened then fell asleep without snoring.
Everything seemed really good until they visited a friend with a dog and Fred's asthma kicked in. He took a Prednizone and then started thinking about the guy across the street whom Letty was friendly with but whom he couldn't abide and the guy was getting married on Saturday which meant that he, Fred, was going to have to give up the whole day and a baseball card show just to go to the wedding and Letty was going to be all chirpy and festive and no doubt cry at the parts touting commitment—not because she wanted to be committed but rather because she already was. The whole idea made his lungs tighten and he popped another Prednizone and warned Letty that he would really appreciate it if she removed the frozen mice embryos from the back of the freezer.
Letty did not remove the frozen mice embryos (called pinkies) from the freezer. It had been a month since the snake disappeared but she fully intended to get another, or some sort of reptile, that might eat embryos—why waste even one? Fred had, after all, shown signs of improvement and she certainly didn't expect to see this Snake again. Not after a month.
But Thursday night, when she came home from a meeting, and sat in the car waiting for the babysitter to come out, the babysitter didn't come out. Ashley, the babysitter, appeared in the window, then disappeared and appeared once again. Letty went inside to see what was happening.
"I found the snake," Ashley said, scared and pleased all at once.
"You found the snake!"
"It fell down from the second floor."
"Thank GOD Fred wasn't here. Where is it?"
"Under the box."
"It must be dying of thirst!" Letty went to the kitchen and filled a recycled container with water.
When she came back she knelt by the box and very slowly lifted the lid. The snake didn't come out. Letty didn't want to put her hand in, in case the snake felt like biting, so she waited. But the snake still didn't come out. So she took the lid entirely off and looked at the little snake, which was shriveled, almost dead.
"Oh, baby," she said, picking it up. She held it up to the container and watched its tiny throat expanding and contracting as it gulped down the water. She felt so grateful. She thought how happy Eli would be when he woke up in the morning. She thanked the baby sitter and also thanked Buddha. This reaffirmed her faith in the power of prayer. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
Then, filled with delight, she drove Ashley the two blocks to her home. The whole time they talked with excitement and pleasure about the extremely small chances of being united with Snake again. Letty couldn't wait to get back and play with it but when she got home, Fred was already there.
While he took off his coat, she covered the snake box and took it upstairs. Then she came down again. Talking on the way from one room to the other, she took the pinkies out of the freezer, selected the smallest one, put it in a container which she stuck under her sweatshirt, and went back upstairs.
"I'll be right down," she called out as she went into their bedroom where the snake box sat greenly on their white bed. She lifted the lid and placed the pinkie inside, then moved the snake to Eli's room.
"Hi, Hon," she said, coming down the stairs again. "How was your day?"
Letty called the nature center and asked lots of questions. She learned that when snakes go away they don't go far, wanting to stay close to the food or a water source. Also, they grow used to you and stay friendly but only if you touch them for at least ten minutes a day. So every night while Eli was getting ready for bed, an interminable process that made Letty lose patience, she took out the snake and handled it like a rosary. It slid over her fingers and the crotch between fingers and soothed her.
At first Eli was jealous. He didn't want her to play with his snake. "Well hurry up," Letty said, "and then you can play with it." Eli took it and put it up on his head. The snake tunneled through his blonde hair close to the scalp and hid itself there. Eli looked both proud and nonplussed.
One night Eli was in the bathtub and Letty brought the snake in and started to play with it. It roped through the folds of her sweatshirt and dropped to the bathmat. It was Letty's recall that there were no serious tunnels into the wall in the bathroom so she let the snake slither along the gray-tiled floor. The tiles were smooth and frictionless and the snake slid fast. It checked out the space under the vanity and headed toward the corner where the floor and the cabinet and the wall intersected. The next thing Letty knew, the snake was only half there and she hit the dust grabbing the snake by its tail. It held its own. Letty watched its muscles moving under its skin as it tried to pull away but she held on tight. It stretched out, now as thin as a pencil, and then it got flat. She felt it pulling with all its strength and she held on to keep it from slipping away. Then she tried pulling it. It didn't budge. She pulled harder. Its anus, which had been tucked in and hidden by tiny scales, popped out and puffed up. She pulled again; excrement oozed from the orifice. Afraid that if she pulled too hard it would break, she simply held on. If it relaxed its grip on whatever it had wrapped itself around, little by little she could ease it back to captivity. But it didn't relax. She imagined herself holding its tail for hours, down there, on her stomach, on the getting-colder, gray floor.
"Eli," she said. He was in the bathtub, watching. "I think we're going to lose Snake."
He started crying. "Pull it, Mom, little by little."
"I can't. I've tried. I can't tell you how strong it is."
"Let me try."
"No." She was afraid, if she let him, that Snake would win and then Eli would feel guilty for a very long time. But she wondered how long she could hold out.
"Get some warm water," she said. "Maybe if we put its tail in warm water it'll relax and let go of whatever it's clinging to."
Eli got the warm water and Letty stuck Snake's tail in it but Snake didn't relinquish even a millimeter.
"Let's try chanting," she said. "Maybe chanting will charm the snake."
She and Eli chanted her Buddhist prayer and for an instant the snake seemed to relax. But when Letty tugged just a little bit harder, it tightened right up again. If she could just gain a couple of micrometers here and there, maybe by morning she could get the snake out.
But what about Fred? He was in the other room. He didn't know the snake had escaped in the first place. He'd freak if he thought it was inside the walls or if he knew she had let it get in there. Maybe, for Fred's sake, she should risk ripping it apart. Maybe get scissors and cut it in two.
"Oh," moaned Eli, as if he'd heard what she was thinking. He stooped naked behind her. He asked if she could move over so he could open the door. She did, just barely, so he could slip past her. He came back in his night clothes, which were also clean day clothes, which he put on at night to save time in the morning.
"Want to try?" Letty said. She maintained her grip on the tip of its tail but made room for Eli to test the snake's strength. "Amazing, isn't it?" she said.
Eli held on. They both felt the snake's urge to go all the way in. It was not the least bit ambivalent. Not like Letty. In a way, it would be nice to come and go. It had come back before, why not again? If it didn't, it surely would die. Or hibernate for the rest of the winter. One thing for sure, it wouldn't get any bigger. There was nothing for it to eat or drink inside these walls. So it would go away for a few weeks, then drop from the sky again and someone would find it. Hopefully, not Fred.
"I'm going to let it go," Letty told Eli. "It wants to live in the walls for a while, it might have a friend there but when it gets thirsty, it'll come back like it came back before." And Letty let go.
Eli watched the snake retreat into the wall. "Should I cry?" he asked.
"Sure," Letty said, pulling him over to where she now sat on the toilet seat. He cuddled up on her lap but he didn't cry. In fact, they felt a little as if they had sent Snake on a field trip. The next day, they would fill a bottle cap with water and place it, discreetly, near the crack in the wall.