“Here’s a cozy little nest for you lovebirds,” said the real estate agent, opening the door to a small house that had not been remodeled (opened?) since the mid-70s wood paneling craze. The floors were covered in worn, avocado green carpeting. The drapes — avocado green brocade — were pulled tightly across the windows.
“Let’s let the sun shine in, shall we?” said the agent who thought he was making a joke, but the joke was as old as the carpeting.
“Good lord, honey,” whispered Dexter in his new wife’s ear.
“Give it a chance. Maybe it’ll grow on us. Maybe there’s something great here we haven’t seen yet.” Trish was in the middle of a seminar on positive thinking. She was determined to find the good side in everything.
“The kitchen is big and bright,” said the agent, leading them through the dining room. “But it could use some updating.”
An avocado green gas stove stood proudly between two sleek yet greasy knotty pine cabinets.
“You’ll have to get a fridge.”
“How many bathrooms does this house have?” asked Trish.
“Two. One downstairs, one up. Downstairs is a partial, sink and toilet. It’s in this hallway.” The agent turned a corner out of the kitchen into a hallway where there was a pantry and a door leading to the bathroom. He opened the door, stuck in his head, looked around and pulled the door shut.
“You don’t want to go in there,” he said, shaking. “In fact, we don’t want to be in here. Let’s go.” Without another word, he ushered them out of the house and called the police.
“I called the university,” said officer Mendez, leaning back against the wall, balancing on the sloped heels of his black cowboy boots, pushing back his hat and scratching his head. “They must have one of them snake experts up there.”
“I don’t need a snake expert,” said little Timmy McBride. “I have here my trusty 45.” Little Timmy McBride was new to the force and wanted to give his gun a shot.
“Do you know what kind of a mess that’ll make? They’d never get it cleaned up and it’s hard enough selling properties in this town.”
Little Timmy shook his head. “What are you thinking, chief?”
“I’m thinking a snake expert can get that feller’ out of there, no problem. No fuss, no muss, you know what I’m saying there, Timmy? You know what kind of snake that is? I sure as hell don’t.”
“I’m not going in there, Chief. I never liked snakes.”
“He looks like he ate a three year old, that’s what worries me. Kids are always playing in these old empty houses.”
“The real estate agent says it was locked.”
“That may very well be, but doors ain’t the only way of entering a building.”
“Any kids gone missing lately?”
“Not that I know of. Maybe their parents haven’t noticed any missing yet. The day’s still young. Hey, git the door, will ye? That might be the snake expert.”
“What’ve we got? I’m Herb Schwenkopfer, herpetologist. You say there’s a snake in the bathroom and he ate a kid?”
“Looks like he ate a kid. Or a big dog.”
“Where’s the bathroom?”
“Down this way.”
“Boy this house is a blast from the past all right,” said Herb, looking around at the extravagant use of avocado green brocade drapes and the wood paneling . “Looks like the house I grew up in.”
“We all grew up in this house,” said the chief. “If we were born at the right time.”
Schwenkopfer looked around. “No, seriously. This really looks like the house I grew up in.”
“You don’t remember your address from back then?”
“I’m trying to, but,” Schwenkopfer shook his head. “Oh well. It’ll come to me or it won’t.”
“Here you go. It’s in here. A young couple was looking at the house this morning with a real estate agent and they happened on, here, you go ahead and look.”
Schwenkopfer slowly opened the bathroom door, not wanting to startle the snake, especially if it were — as was possible given the house had been empty a while — a big rattler.
There, wrapped around the back of the toilet, against the back wall, and around the pedestal of the sink, was an eight foot Colombian Red Tail boa. It did, indeed, look like it had eaten recently, but more likely on a big rat or cat than a three year old.
“Not a bad place to live, is it, buddy?” Schwenkopfer spoke softly to the digesting snake. He slowly lowered his catch pole. “I’m going to need that large crate out of the back of my truck,” he whispered loudly to Little Timmy. “Hurry.”
“Got it, boss,” said Little Timmy. He hurried out to the street where Schwenkopfer’s truck was parked. He came back with the crate in time to see the herpetologist lift the heavy snake gently and lay it on the floor.
“I did live here,” said Schwenkopfer, softly. “This is Lamont, my pet snake. When I went up for college, I couldn’t take him with me. That first year my little brother, Orville, was supposed to take care of him, but Lamont got out. Orville never found my snake. I think he’s been living here the whole time, in the furniture, inside the walls, catching vermin, these forty-odd years.”
“Does he know you, Professor Schwenkopfer?”
“Don’t be silly, chief. He ain’t no dog.”
“I’ll be damned,” said Professor Herbert Schwenkopfer under his breath. “I never in a million years expected to see this place again.”
“Oh, nothing, chief. I left home at eighteen, never looked back. But…”
“Do you want to keep your snake or do you want us to dispose of it?”
“I’ll keep him,” said Herb. “It would be a shame for such a survivor to end his days with a shovel dropped behind his head. That’s what you’re thinking, right, Chief?”
“That’s how we usually get rid of varmints like that. You really don’t think he ate a kid?”
“No. He’s not big enough. It’d take a really large snake — maybe an anaconda — to eat something as big as a human child. More likely Lamont here ate a large rat, cat, chihuahua or something. Anyway, it’s too late now.”
“Chihuahua? You think it’s alive in there?”
“I was joking, Chief. Well, thanks for the call. Definitely a surrealistic experience, this whole morning. One for the Twilight Zone, that’s for sure.”
“You could buy this place, Professor. It’s for sale. Rumor it’s haunted, but I’d guess it was haunted by old Lamont here.”
“No thanks. You couldn’t give me this place. I had enough the first time. My dad built it. It’s held together with nails, spit and wood panelling.”
“Must’ve been strong spit to hold up so long,” said Little Timmy. The two older men looked at each other shaking their heads.
Herb and the chief carefully lifted the crate into the back of the pick-up. Herb covered it with a blanket and strapped it down. “I owe you a lot, old fella’. My whole career started with you.” It was all one to Lamont, cold-blooded creature that he was.
“Well, that’s that,” said Officer Mendez watching Professor Schwenkopfer drive away in a cloud of dust.
“I like happy endings,” said Little Timmy, wiping a tear from his eye with the butt of his 45.
“Be careful with that thing, or you won’t have one of them happy endings,” said the chief, jumping back in time to escape the random blast of the 45.
“Whoa,” said Little Timmy. “That was too damned close. Almost shot my foot off.”
“That’ll teach you to make random gestures with a loaded gun.”
Little Timmy shrugged. The chief was right. It had taught him.
The two policemen looked down into a newly made hole through the avocado green shag carpeting, the plywood floorboards and some asbestos tile on the basement ceiling.
“What’s that smell?”
“Just skunks — wait, skunks? In the basement? Why didn’t we smell them before?”
“Maybe they just arrived.”
“A skunk. That’s all this place needs on top of being ugly as sin, haunted and the long-term domicile of a dog-eating snake.” Chief Mendez sighed.
“What’ll we do?”
“We’re not just cops, Little Timmy. We’re animal control. I guess we’d better get a couple traps and head for the basement.”
“I hate this house.”
“With reason, Little Timmy. With reason.” The Chief patted his assistant on the back. “It’s all in a day’s work.”
The two men went out to the police car, opened the trunk, and retrieved a couple of foldable wild-animal traps.
“It’s not like they’re hard to catch. The thing is, you catch ’em and you have to carry them somewhere. Last time I transported a skunk my wife wouldn’t come near me.”
“That’s bad, Chief.”
“Had to sleep in the spare room. It was months before she finally let me back in our bedroom.”
“Skunk is hard to shake, that’s for sure.”
“You know how to bait these?”
“Sardines. We got sardines?”
“Sardines. That’s a good idea. All we have is peanut butter, but it’ll work.”
Chief Mendez and Little Timmy unfolded the traps, set the bait and headed slowly and silently down the steps to the basement.
“How’d they get in?” asked Little Timmy looking around.
“Shhhh,” said Chief Mendez his ear cocked in the direction of the water heater.
“I’m just saying we need to put the traps near their entry point.”
“Timmy, listen, we need to get upstairs as fast as we can and outside this miserable house.”
“You hit the gas line when you fired your gun.”
“Hey, Loretta? Chief Mendez here. We got ourselves a situation. Git Chuck Marquez at Public Works on the horn and tell him there’s a gas emergency on Second Avenue, 432 Second Avenue. Broken gas line. Thanks, doll. Over.”
The Chief put the radio handset back in the car. “Little Timmy, I want you to go to the neighbors on both sides of this house and tell them to get out now.”
“Hey, Chief, it can’t be that bad.”
“I hope it ain’t that bad. Just do it.”
Little Timmy took off, bewildered at the strange shape this day had taken.
“Ma’am,” he began to the elderly woman who answered the door. “The chief and I would like you to leave your house immediately. There’s an emergency in the house next door.” He motioned with his head.
“You bet your ass there’s an emergency with the house next door,” said the woman. “But why should I go?”
“Something to do with the gas line.”
“Where am I supposed to go?”
“I don’t know. Away.”
“I don’t know. I guess till we fix it or the whole damned thing explodes.”
“Little Timmy, you always were kind of stupid.”
Something in the woman’s voice awakened a dark memory in Little Timmy’s mind. Ah, his second grade teacher. “Mrs. Arbuthnot?”
“I’m surprised you remember.”
“How could I forget? In any case, you have to go.”
“Little Timmy!” yelled Chief Mendez. “This is no time for conversation! Tell that woman she has to get out!”
“Chief, it’s Mrs. Arbuthnot. She won’t go.”
“I can’t go. I got this walker and my husband’s chair bound and on oxygen. You’d just better fix it, Little Timmy.” She slammed the door.
“Tell her at least to turn off her gas.”
Little Timmy pounded on the door.
“Chief says turn off your gas,” he said to a red faced Mrs. Arbuthnot.
“I heard him.”
“But it doesn’t mean your house won’t blow up.”
“It reduces the risk.”
“If that empty house blows up, your house could blow up, too, or burn down.”
“I’ll take that risk. Now c’mon Little Timmy, take this wrench and go turn off my gas. The turn off is right there, right by the meter. I think you can do that. The guy who reads that meter is no brighter than you.”
“God I hate that woman,” said Little Timmy under his breath, turning the lever to off.
Chief Mendez had better luck with the people in the house on the other side. They stood across the street on a neighbor’s lawn. Pretty soon the service truck from the city utilities showed up.
“Hey Chuck,” said Chief Mendez. “It’s the gas line in that empty house. Little Timmy shot it.”
“Well, I turned off the gas on this end of town. Let’s go see what we got. How did you find the leak?”
“Smelled like skunk. We went down to the basement with two traps and then I heard the hissing and remembered. Natural gas has that skunk stuff in it, right?”
“Well, in a place where we have skunks, you might want to come up with something less common. We’d’ve found it sooner.”
“Well, you found it and that’s the main thing. Let’s get the gas off to this house so’s these other people can cook supper. I think Mrs. Arbuthnot lives in that house, right?” Chuck pointed at the house next door.
“Yeah, she does.”
“I don’t want Mrs. Arbuthnot calling me about her gas not being on. I don’t want Mrs. Arbuthnot calling me at all.”
“You had her too?” asked Little Timmy.
“Is it always like this Chief?” asked Little Timmy as they drove away.
“No. Don’t usually have an assistant who almost shoots off his foot and then causes a gas leak. Don’t usually have some kind of damned boa constrictor in the bathroom. Usually it’s just the random car break in, crack house or domestic dispute. But those can go sideways, too.”
“I don’t think I’m cut out for this, Chief. I almost caused a disaster.”
“Little Timmy, you ARE a disaster.” The chief grinned at the boy, but saw Little Timmy was really about to cry. “C’mon, son. We all mess up. The important thing is not to let it get out of hand. You want a cup of coffee? I understand that coffee shop downtown isn’t giving people food poisoning any more.”
This was originally published on my blog as four installments (or 3?) and this past year I submitted it to a local lit mag — Letters from the Hidden Lake — which published it. I recently turned it into a play but have no idea where it would ever be performed. Still it was a fun exercise. Hope you enjoy the reprise!
P.S. Decades ago I “babysat” one of these for a short time while my roommate was out of the country. He was a “friendly” snake (clearly). I don’t think these guys should be pets and they wreak havoc on the environment when irresponsible people buy them and then turn them loose. He’s pretty cute in this photo, but they grow to be VERY large. Ahead of that event, my roommate found someone who was prepared to deal with that eventuality.