I drove to my mother’s trailer park that evening because her snake had escaped. I’d been leaving work when my sister Grace called to tell me she couldn’t leave her job at the science museum to help, that I had to go, that our mother didn’t have the proper permit and might go back to jail if we didn’t find the snake. I called my wife—we’d married the second the country ruled that love wins—to complain about the audacity of it all, then I called my sister and told her I’d go. Not for our mother, but for my sister.
The day had been hot, hotter than usual for a Florida October. But, as I drove into the community, there was a wet chill in the air, a tease of fall. I passed white doublewide trailer homes that looked like God himself had stamped them there. The trailers stood in rows like teeth in a green mouth of earth. Halloween decorations hung half-hearted from carports alongside rusting cars. Abandoned chalk drawings lay etched on the sidewalk, and I felt bad for the kids who had to live in that place.
The last time I’d seen my mother was when the judge handed down her sentence. Three years in minimum security, though she’d be out in two. The judge banged his gavel, and my mother looked at my sister and at me. My mother’s eyes were bloodshot, her mouth set. She bowed her head, and her long, corn silk hair fell over her shoulders like it, too, was ashamed. This was one week before my twenty-fifth birthday, and I was happy that she was going to jail.
My GPS directed me to my mother’s trailer on a corner lot, and I pulled my car into the driveway. A single-speed bike leaned against the siding of her home. She had no driver’s license. Wasn’t allowed. I didn’t get out of the car right away. I watched the sun as it thought about dipping over the horizon, and I told myself I could leave. I didn’t owe her anything. My phone buzzed. I had a text from my sister wishing me good luck. Telling me she loved me, thanking me. I got out of the car.
The screen door opened with a whine. I stepped into air circulated by fans, the sticky, fake linoleum popping under my sneakers. My mother had lived here almost a year. The home looked unpacked, mail stacked on the dining table, mismatched couches cornered in the den. The kitchen stood off to the right. I heard my mother stirring liquid, and I knew it was lemonade.
“That you, Tiffany?” she said.
I stepped into the kitchen, and my mother pulled a long spoon from the pitcher and let it drip onto the floor before tossing it into the sink.
“My baby girl,” she said.
She hugged me, and the smell of her was so familiar, it was like she’d never gone away. I kept my arms at my sides, but that didn’t bother her. She pulled back and held my face with both hands, eyes cataloging me as I was now.
Her hair was still long, but it had gone gray, and her eyes drooped like that one cartoon dog’s. Little rivers of wrinkles puckered at her lips. Her breasts have always been enormous. They used to push her t-shirts out like a cotton shelf. Now, they sagged like the rest of her. Jail time had done a lot. It frightened me to have her smell so familiar but look so strange.
“Thank you for coming,” she said.
I pulled gently away from her hands.
“I’m here because Grace asked me, okay?”
“I know,” she said. “Lemonade?”
She handed me a plastic cup without waiting for my answer. My mother always made lemonade fresh. As a child, I helped, grinding the lemon down until its guts pushed out from under the peel and its yellow blood dripped into the pitcher. She made it just sweet enough, the way moms always seem to know how to do. It was one thing she always did right.
“Why are you making lemonade?” I said. “Didn’t your snake just escape?”
I took a sip, and my tongue contracted from the tartness. The lemonade was just as it had been when I’d been a child.
“We were waiting for you,” my mother said.
A toilet flushed. A faucet ran. I set my cup down and walked into the den, where four snakes coiled themselves into neat ropes. Each had its own enclosure, and I thought it must have been a lonely existence for them. I wondered if they knew that one of them had gotten loose. I wondered if they’d watched, wishing it were them.
The bathroom door opened, and a skinny, old redneck walked out. He had a mustache like a shoeshine’s brush and a USMC tattoo on his tan and wrinkled forearm. A pack of cigarettes hung folded up in the sleeve of his shirt. A baseball cap was pulled over his forehead. When he saw me, he pulled off the hat. His baldness was a neat horseshoe, scalp gleaming under the overhead lights.
“This is Randy,” my mother said, stepping into the den. “He’s a friend and neighbor. He volunteered to help. Randy, this is my youngest girl, Tiffany.”
“A pleasure,” he said, turning immediately to my mother. “Sandra, we ought to start looking before we lose any more light.”
I was tempted to leave. My mother had a friend. She didn’t need me. But I’d promised Grace. I’d told my wife I’d be late. I decided I’d give it an hour. I’d give my mother one hour of my time.
“Which snake escaped?” I asked.
“Nigel,” my mother said.
I shut my eyes and forced patience.
“But which one is that?”
“The king cobra,” Randy said.
“A king—” I opened my eyes. “A king cobra? The most venomous snake in the world?”
Randy squeezed the brim of his hat between his hands.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” my mother said. She patted Randy’s shoulder. “I need to grab the snake hooks. Will you put the lemonade away?”
“Sure thing,” Randy said. He slipped the hat back on.
Then, my mother was gone. Randy put the lemonade pitcher in the fridge.
“Your mother’s something, ain’t she?” Randy said. His boots clicked the floor. “Everyone in the neighborhood loves her. She’s always helping out.”
I watched him, silent. I couldn’t think of a time, in all the years I’d known her, that anyone had ever called my mother something and meant it in a kindly way. I felt suddenly determined to prove him wrong.
“You know where she was before this, right?” I said.
Randy moved to the front door. I followed.
“Of course,” he said. “That must have been a hard time.”
I wanted to tell him he had no idea. No goddamn idea what it was like to grow up with her, home drunk at two AM, home drunk at noon, sometimes not home at all. No idea what it was like to sit in the dark at night because she hadn’t paid the bill. To be raised by my sister, who had to grow up faster than she should have. But I did not tell Randy this, because he was not the one to tell.
“You know, Halloween’s tomorrow,” I said. “There’ll be kids everywhere. If she doesn’t find it tonight, she’ll have to call the police or whoever the hell deals with snakes.”
“I’m sure Nigel hasn’t gone far.”
“She shouldn’t have let him get out.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that,” Randy said. He held the screen door open for me. “She made a mistake.”
Five years ago, my mother hit another driver at an intersection. She did not, she would say, later, realize that the light had changed. Grace had called the morning of the accident.
“Mom’s in the hospital,” she said.
“Is she okay?” I said.
“She hit another driver, Tiff. She’s going to jail.”
The driver, whose name was Bill Richcreek, suffered a broken collarbone but was otherwise fine. He was also an Episcopalian priest. I came to know a lot about him after the accident. I knew he’d turned forty-seven recently, that he had a wife and three children, only one of whom was old enough to be in high school. I also learned that my mother had a blood alcohol concentration twice the legal limit. She suffered a concussion and bruised ribs. When Grace told me she’d hit someone, there was a moment I thought she’d been killed. It scared me that the thought felt like relief.
My mother pled guilty to avoid a harsher sentence. My sister and I visited her in the country jail before her sentencing. She was in an off-white prison uniform, hair tangled and dull.
“What did your lawyer say?” Grace asked. “How much time are you looking at?”
“I don’t know yet, Gracey,” my mother said. “My lawyer thinks the judge will grant leniency, given how cooperative I’ve been.”
We were in the visiting area, surrounded by other families, our hands in our laps. Instead of looking at my mother, I ran my thumbnail over the fleshy tips of my fingers, focusing on the light tickle of it.
My mother said, “I want you both to know I’m sober. Pastor Richcreek, you know, he’s been helping me. He thinks God wanted me to hit him so he could make me sober. I don’t plan on touching a drop again, ever.”
“Who?” I said.
“Pastor Richcreek. You know. The man I hit.”
My mother’s eyes were bloodshot, hands cuffed. She hadn’t once tried to get sober for my sister, for me. Bill Richcreek had done what we couldn’t, and I hated him for it. We were more important to her than that man. I wanted to believe that.
“Tiff,” my mother said, “honey, you okay?”
I looked back at my hands. “This is bullshit.”
Silence followed, then my mother’s hands reached for me, though I didn’t reach back.
“I’m fixing it,” she said. “I’m fixing it, baby.”
There was a horrible feeling in my stomach, part anger, part pity. The longer I listened to her, the stronger the feeling grew. I squinted into the fluorescent lights, and the horrible feeling got so strong I thought I might vomit.
“I have to go,” I said. “I’ll meet you outside, Grace. I have to go.”
“Tiff,” my mother said.
I left. The guard let me out, and I walked into the hallway with my ears ringing. The sound of my mother calling my name echoed after me.
My mother waited for Randy and me outside with snake hooks and a pipe bag. Apparently, snakes like small, dark spaces. They hide when stressed. With the right strategy, and a lot of luck, you can coax one into the bag. My mother told me all this as we walked in a row down the street. I did not have a snake hook. I was just eyes, a reluctant spectator. I’d never seen a king cobra up close, and I did not plan on changing that fact.
“We should split up,” my mother said. “We’ll cover more ground. Holler if you spot Nigel.”
Randy offered to go alone, though I was tempted to volunteer. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of spending time with my mother, though I’d take her over a cobra any day. Randy went left across the street, and my mother and I went right, squinting into the setting sun. The grass of the neighborhood was overgrown and made my ankles itch. I watched my feet as we walked. My mother had said that Nigel would hide in a dark place, but I didn’t want to risk stepping on him.
We walked in silence, and I followed my mother into a yard lined with green arboricola shrubs. She poked at a few of them with her snake hook, then crouched to peer underneath. I watched her, fascinated. She didn’t wobble, didn’t stop to drink from a flask. This woman was not my mother. This woman was a stranger to me. I crouched too. A lizard skittered over the mulch, and I started, bracing myself on my hand to keep from falling on my ass.
“You’re still with Katie, right?” my mother said.
She poked at the bushes. I sat there in a crab walk, immobilized by her question.
“Yes,” I said. “We got married this year, after the ruling. I thought Grace told you.”
“She did,” my mother said. “I wanted to hear it from you.”
“Well, now you’ve heard.”
She pulled her snake hook from the bushes, and we stared at each other. Across the road, two kids rode by on their bikes, tires humming low in the evening air. They waved at her, and my mother waved back.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to upset you. I don’t want to fight.”
Her eyes were filmy. She meant what she’d said. I couldn’t remember a time when she had.
“I didn’t come here to fight with you,” I said. “Let’s keep moving.”
After we married, Katie would always tell me I should think about talking to my mother. I always said no, which she didn’t understand. She wanted to know how I could hold onto that anger. I told her it was easy. And it was. The problem was I didn’t know how to put the anger down. I was afraid of what I’d pick up in its place.
“Why snakes?” I said. “Why couldn’t you have gotten a normal pet?”
“Snakes are normal,” my mother said. “They’re just misunderstood.”
“Which is why one of them is prowling your neighborhood.”
My mother twirled her snake hook in her hand.
“Nigel must have slipped his cage. King cobras are tricky devils, you know, notorious escape artists.”
I said that I did not know, and my mother went on to tell me about her three other venomous snakes, and one ball python. The python had originally been Randy’s, but she’d escaped once right after my mother had moved in. My mother found the snake outside her front door and snatched it up in her fist before it could move. I did not have a hard time imagining this. I saw her pick up the python like a newspaper, cool and unafraid. Randy witnessed all of this, and he and my mother became fast friends. He eventually gave her the snake. The collection started from there. Nigel was her most recent addition. She’d only had him three months. He’d come to her because the original owner was off to rehab and had heard my mother was the woman to call. At the time, Nigel was near starving, skin flaking. My mother had nursed him back to nimble, lethal health.
“Jesus, don’t you worry he’ll get out and bite you?”
“I don’t,” my mother said, poking a shrub. “Well, maybe. But even a dog can maul you, can’t it? You just have to choose what you want to be bitten by.”
I didn’t answer. Randy’s voice called to us across the trailer park in an echo, and my mother and I scrambled to follow it. We followed the road until his voice sounded close, closer still, until we found him waving to us, his snake hook in the air.
“Found him?” my mother said.
Randy shook his head.
“No, ma’am, but the woman in this trailer said her son saw a snake headed that way.” He pointed his thumb behind him. “Figured that could only have been Nigel.”
“Good,” my mother said. “Good, that’s a start. I bet we find him in an hour or less.”
My mother’s always been an optimist. After my father left, she said everything would be fine. And, for a while, it was. My mother got two jobs, there was always food, and she only had a drink or three at night between shifts to take the edge off. She got a boyfriend, and he helped out, though, eventually, he left. It was around that time my mother fell back to one job, and sometimes there was no dinner because she didn’t come home. It was around that time she started needing a bottle to get through the day. She’d be so drunk, I’d have to drive us both home even before I had my license, and, still, she’d still tell me everything would be okay. Sometimes, she’d smooth my hair and tell me I was the bravest girl she’d ever seen. I believed her then. But, after years of finding her passed out in the bathroom, and following several evictions and the first DUI, I’d stopped believing her.
Dusk had us around the neighborhood twice. The first tip was a bust, or else Nigel had gone too far too fast. We walked the road until it dropped off into overgrown grass. The highway lay beyond a chain-link fence, and I watched the cars slip by, oblivious to the snake in their midst. My mother poked the tall grass with her snake hook, then turned and signaled us back to the trailers.
“Not dark enough here for him,” she said.
I checked the clock on my phone. It had been over an hour. I was free, by my own constraints, to leave.
We turned onto the main street of the neighborhood, and I thought about what to say to my mother. I thought about Grace, how she’d sigh, later, over the phone, how my wife would tell me it would have been worth it to stay. I thought about this as the door to a trailer opened, and a woman about my age stepped out.
“I heard you lost that anaconda,” she said.
“He’s a king cobra,” my mother said.
The woman continued on like she hadn’t heard her.
“I knew it was a bad idea. Having snakes like that. I told you. Randy, didn’t I tell her?” She pointed a cigarette-yellowed finger at my mother. “I have three kids, you know. This is endangerment. I ought to call the police.”
“Hold on a minute,” Randy said. “Just give us some time.”
“Time?” the woman said. “How much time?”
She crossed her arms and leaned against the door, daring us. Then, she saw me and cocked her head.
“You live here?” she said.
“No,” I said.
“She’s my daughter,” my mother said, and her words seemed laced with pride.
The woman picked stray lint from her shirt, lips puckered.
“What do you think? Should I call the police on your momma?”
My mother looked at me. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I had no idea what I wanted to say.
“Don’t get her daughter involved in this,” Randy said. “We’ll catch him, or Sandra will call the police herself, okay?”
The woman’s mouth pressed flat, and she pushed herself off the door.
“I want to know when you do. Otherwise, I call.”
The woman stepped inside and let the screen door slam shut. My mother was still looking at me. I used my shoe to scratch absently at my calf. I felt something like guilt for the first time.
“We should go,” I said.
“I just need a moment,” my mother said.
She walked away from us. Her snake hook scraped the concrete until she stopped, about twenty feet away, and shut her eyes. It took me a moment to realize she was praying. Her head was bowed, lips moving quick and silent. I wished I could hear what she prayed. Beside me, Randy lit a cigarette, both of us so quiet I could hear the tobacco burn and fade to ash.
“You really think we’ll find Nigel?” I asked Randy.
He hummed, smoke filtering out his mouth.
“I hope so,” he said. “I hate leaving my rabbit alone this long.”
“You have a rabbit?”
“For about three months, now. Sandra suggested it, actually, after my boy died.”
He sucked on his cigarette, silent. I could tell he wanted me to say something about it. I didn’t, and he went on anyway.
“Roadside bomb, Afghanistan,” he said. “Sandra said a pet would help me stay off the bottle.”
I tried to imagine my mother comforting this man. I thought of him weeping, tears dripping from his moustache, and my mother waiting as long as it took for him to stop. Where did she find that strength?
My mother returned to us, snake hook held high again.
“We need flashlights,” she said. “Let’s make a pit stop back at my trailer.”
I pulled the inside of my lip between my teeth. I considered leaving right then. But I didn’t. I nodded. I followed her.
My mother flipped on the lights, and her trailer came alive with reptiles. The snakes were now awake, slow-moving in their enclosures, curious. Now that it was night, the trailer seemed larger, almost cavernous, and lonely because of that.
My mother gave us bottled waters from the fridge, and it wasn’t until I drank that I realized how thirsty I was. My underarms were sticky, the underwire of my bra damp with sweat. I drank too fast and the water hurt going down my throat, but I didn’t stop.
“Goddamn,” Randy said. “He just might be gone.”
“I don’t know,” my mother said, pressing her finger into the countertop. “I think he’s close.”
She went to grab flashlights, and Randy and I stood by the kitchen table. We drank our water slowly, making brief, awkward eye contact.
“Some night, huh?” Randy said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Some night.”
“Bet when you woke up this morning, this isn’t the way you imaged your day would go,” he said.
He laughed. I looked into the rippling liquid of my water bottle, and I had to laugh too.
My mother came back with the flashlights, one for each of us. I clicked mine to check that it worked. My mother checked on her snakes. She talked to each of them softly, too softly to hear, until she got to the ball python. She pulled her from the cage, and the snake curled around her hand and wrist.
“It’s all right, girl,” my mother said. “It’s all right. I’ll be back.”
The snake’s tongue teased her cheek. I’d read that was how snakes smelled. It didn’t bite her. It didn’t hiss. The snakes had no idea who my mother was or what she’d been.
My mother slipped the python back into the enclosure, watching her the way one watches a newborn—head cocked, smile soft. I told myself I’d stay another hour to help her find Nigel. I’d been texting my wife updates, and I sent another saying I might be late. My wife texted back a heart.
“We should start looking again,” I said.
From across the den, my mother smiled wide at me, so wide I thought her cheeks might split. We followed her outside, armed with flashlights. I held the pipe bag. We walked on the road near the grass in silence, the high-hanging streetlights only illuminating part of the neighborhood. My mother favored her left leg. I wondered how long she’d walked like that. I wondered a lot of things about her then.
I stopped and waited under a streetlight while my mother and Randy checked behind a trailer. The trailer next to me had fake cobwebs draped over the poles of the carport, paper pumpkins hanging from the awning over the front door. Something moved in the grass. I waved my flashlight in the direction of Randy and my mother. I flicked it off and on.
“Hey,” I yelled. “Something moved over here.”
Then, I saw him. He was coiled in the grass, head up, tongue pushing in and out. We watched each other. I didn’t move. If he lunged, I wouldn’t outrun him, and we both knew that.
“Mom,” I said, soft, then, louder, “Mom!”
Their feet slapped the concrete behind me before stopping. I heard my mother swear. I didn’t turn.
“It’s all right, baby,” my mother said. “Don’t move.”
She circled us with slow steps until she was behind Nigel, then she nudged the snake lightly with the snake hook. Nigel turned his attention to her immediately, hood opening like a fan as he hissed. I stumbled backward. I realized I had not been breathing. I inhaled loudly, and Randy put his hands on my shoulders. We didn’t speak. We watched.
My mother slid the curve of the hook under Nigel and coaxed him closer. She was now no one I knew. Concentration lined the skin around her eyes. If she wanted to, I believe she could have moved the earth right then. She raised a hand to me and crooked a finger. I didn’t move.
“Tiff,” she said. “Lay the bag down.”
I’d forgotten I was holding the bag.
“I can’t,” I said.
My mother’s eyes left Nigel. Her pupils were flashlights under the streetlights.
“Please,” she said. It was not a demand. And I saw that the choice was mine to make.
I stepped forward. My hands shook. Nigel was aware of me, his hiss almost like a steam engine. My mother yanked the snake hook. He coiled. Grass crunched under my knees as I dropped and held the pipe bag steady on the lawn.
“That’s good,” my mother said. “That’s perfect.”
She nudged Nigel closer, directing him with the hook, speaking in low tones I couldn’t understand. If he missed the bag, he’d bite me. I’d trusted my mother, and she’d let me down again. Thinking this, I watched Nigel spy the hole of the pipe and slither in, caught.
My mother dropped the snake hook and pulled the pipe up. Nigel’s body bulged, unmoving, in the bag. None of us moved. Then, my mother dropped to her knees in the grass. She leaned over the pipe bag. She looked like she might weep.
“Shit,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, Nigel. I’m sorry.”
She had let it go, all of it, her anger, her fear. I wiped the tip of my thumb over my lips and wanted to know how. Where had she put it all? How had she set it down? How had she begun again? My mother stood up with the pipe bag and wiped at the corners of her eyes. She smiled at Randy and at me.
“We got him,” she said.
Randy stayed long enough to get Nigel into his enclosure. He slid the top of the tank open for my mother to coax the snake from the bag and into the tank before sliding the lid shut fast. The top was then reinforced with a lock and a box of books. Before he left, Randy hugged my mother, then me, the smell of him spicy with tobacco. I wanted to say something, some words of comfort about his boy, but I was struck by the near-certainty that those words weren’t mine to give. I turned, and my mother stood watching Nigel in his tank, hands braced against her lower back.
The lights in the trailer glowed orange. The fans quietly hummed at us. Nigel moved around his enclosure. His body slid like it was full of sand, heavy and slow, no sign he was thinking of getting out again. He’d stayed close to the house. He’d escaped, and I wondered whether he’d done so wanting only to come back.
My mother sat at the dining room table and pulled her hair tie out. She shook her gray hair and pulled out loose strands. She didn’t seem to be waiting for anything. We were alone, now, truly, for the first time. I leaned my weight on my heels. Hesitant.
“I’m going to use the bathroom,” I said.
My mother nodded, fingers combing her hair.
I splashed lukewarm water on my face from the bathroom faucet. My skin was a mix of oil and sweat, my eyeliner wiped to nothing. I dried my face with the hand towel. I stepped out. My mother’s bedroom door stood half-open. I checked quickly for my mother’s approach, then pushed the door open. The bedroom was dark, but I could see her unmade twin bed and the vanity across from it. The surface of the vanity was nearly empty—a few stray receipts and an empty bottle of water—but the mirror was mosaicked with pictures of Grace and me. We were tucked into the space where the mirror met the wood frame, so many pictures the mirror almost lost its function. She’d saved pictures of us from all ages, of rare happy times I refused to remember. I touched the glossy edge of one—Grace’s tenth birthday party. In the picture, my mother squeezed my sister and me as we dug our fingers into crumbling vanilla cake. I felt certain these were all of them, that she’d put up every single one.
I found my mother still at the table. Her hair was tied up again. She stood. She pressed her hands to the table, as though it was all that held her up.
“More lemonade?” she said.
I shook my head and felt my pocket for my car keys. “I need to get home.”
My mother smiled like she’d been expecting that answer.
She hugged me, and she smelled like sweat and tobacco. She smelled like my mother.
“Some other time, maybe,” she said.
“Maybe,” I said.
I meant it.