I do not share my sister and my son’s love for snakes, so seeing the largest anaconda in captivity in an outlet mall in Chicago was not my idea of a fun day. However, neither my overall uneasiness, nor my vote counted as we came to the black painted windows at the entrance of the zoo located in the mall. My hopes sank as the door swung open, my sister Pamela (who I always called “Sissy”) bracing it with her foot in the white canvas Ked accented with the blue lace ribbon as shoelaces. Her daughter Tana’s hand hidden within mine was slight and cool, the feeling and weight of dried snow as she flitted her fingers within my palm while we followed them in.
As I entered the door, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of people own an exotic animal zoo in the interior of an outlet mall with the windows painted black. The outdoor carpet that was on the floor was unraveling with curled strings sprawling in every direction. My stomach was in my throat as I tried to convince Sissy that it was closed, and that there was no one there. But I had yet to win an argument with her, and that day was no exception. She was as unpredictable as any tropical storm that I had ever encountered, so it was a constant balancing act on what to fight with her about and what not to fight with her about, so instead, I often used passive aggressive or sarcastic tactics instead. There was a plywood desk painted black to match the windows and was starting to splinter. My son was yanking my hand towards a long dark hallway as my sister and I argued. Then a very tired looking woman that didn’t seem fond of hairbrushes came out from the darkness of another hallway behind the desk. She looked like a cross between a burnt out roller derby queen and Morticia Addams.
My son was bouncing back and forth from one foot to the other with excitement. His blue sweatshirt with the red juice stain that was dribbled down the front was laying crooked on his waist with his red t-shirt poking out of the bottom and the zippered opening of his pant legs flapping open. He was using that kid whisper voice that wasn’t a whisper at all asking me “where were the animals? What kinds did they have? Could we feed them?” My answer to that last one was that I sure hoped not. This is when he made the obvious choice to go and hold my sister’s hand instead of mine. I couldn’t blame him. My sister was smiling and bouncing just like my son, their excitement was palatable and I just wanted to leave.
While the lady at the desk presented us with a Xeroxed map of the bowels of the God forsaken place we were in that she called a zoo, my son held my sister’s left hand while Tana, two years older than my son, silent and open-eyed, blond, wavy wisps of hair cradling her cherubic porcelain like face, held her right. I knew that I was the odd one out. “We really want to see the anaconda first, can we do that?” My sister asked. I thought Tommy was actually going to pee on himself at that point. He was in that three-year-old boy stage where his hands seemed permanently affixed to his penis, so with him jumping up and down, I started to wonder if it was excitement or that he had to pee. Or maybe it was both. “Aunt Sissy! I’ve never seen an anaconda before!” He looked back at me with a twisted scorned look on his face like he had been cheated thus far in his childhood. He turned to look up at my sister beaming from ear to ear yanking her arm. “Please, can we see it first?”
“I think we should go in order of the map.” I said as they all ignored me.
Old, burnt out roller queen Morticia then explained that there was a nature show celebrity by the name of Nigel in the anaconda room trying to film it being weighed at that very moment. She said that the anaconda hadn’t eaten in six months so they were going to weigh it before and after it ate a goat.
“Well, I’m not a scientist, but wouldn’t the weight difference be the weight of the goat?” I said with more than a tinge of sarcasm. Again, they were all oblivious to the sound of my voice. This did give me a glimmer of hope though, that maybe they were busy back there, and that she would not let us in while the shoot was going on. Maybe it would be an all-day shoot, and the kids would get bored waiting and I would be able to redirect them with a Happy Meal.
She looked at my son bouncing up and down with excitement holding his wiener and said “Well, I guess if you guys are quiet, and don’t get in the way of the cameras or lights you can go watch. But you probably need to hurry so you don’t miss it.”
“YAY!!!” My son screamed as he flung his arms in the air, releasing his penis and fist pumping the air as he jumped up and down. Tana, though she was older, tended to get social and emotional cues from others, so she always seemed to mimic him. So when he was happy she was happy. Because of this, she started cheering too, though I knew she had no idea why because she had been singing to herself and picking at the back of my sister’s hand the entire time not listening to any of it.
Everything in me told me that it wasn’t a good idea. That we should turn around and leave, but I knew that there was no way I was going to stop them. As much as I loved my sister, and knew that she loved my son, I also knew that there was no way that she could be attentive enough to my exuberant, animal loving child while there was a snake in the room, so I had to go too.
Even though we were in a mall, I felt like we were crossing into a dark chasm, or some sort of a maze as there were dark hallways that wove and crossed in every direction. It was a good thing that she gave us a map, as there were no signs, no arrows, just black painted hallways with that awful fraying carpet. It had the dank smell of armpits that intensified as we went further into the bowels of the place. It was a fitting place for serial killers to lure their prey, and we were the stupid ones that had taken the bait.
“What kind of a zoo is this place?” I said. It seemed like we walked seventy-five yards or more without seeing any animals until the sound of voices seeped through the darkened halls.
It was my sister who opened the door. As she let go of Tommy’s hand, I took my chance and grabbed it to rein him in before he saw the snake, because I knew she wouldn’t. I was right because she let out a whimper and drew her fists up to her cheeks in excitement when she saw it. The room was tiny. I guess they figured the decorating of black on black worked, so they certainly didn’t change it in there. There were lights and cameras everywhere, and the room could not have been over 16×16 feet. Instead of the black wall continuing around, two sides of the room was glass in the shape of an L fashioning a big terrarium built inside the wall. A huge snake that looked disinterested in the fact that there were cameras, lights and people crammed in the room looking into his space, took up the lower quarter of the terrarium, as it was coiled at least twice back and forth for the entire length of the cage. Sissy started smiling, flipping her hair and talking to one of the men. I guess he was the director, but I wasn’t listening. The thing that had captured my attention was a small bathroom scale that had a long neck extension on it with a little screen that showed the weight that stood about three feet above the scale. The scale looked identical to the one my grandmother had until she died, because her eyes were bad and she couldn’t see her weight unless it had that extension on it. The base had been big enough to fit her feet on it, but not that huge snake. Someone had not thought this part of the process through. The man that my sister was talking to pointed us to stand with our backs to the walls. We had to cram in with our sides to each other to fit. Then they shut the door. Sissy was making this obnoxious cooing sound that she made when the kids were babies while she called the snake through the window and waved to it as if it was going to wave back. There was a tall, fake plastic plant that someone had put next to the scale, I supposed to add a splash of color to this cave that we were in.
At about that time, six men went through a door across from us and walked into the anaconda’s aquarium. When I heard the door of the cage slide open, I could hear a goat start to bleat in a room adjacent to ours.
“They forgot the scale.” I whispered to my sister.
“What?” she said.
I could hear my whisper starting to sound panicked in my ears. “They forgot the scale!”
At that point I realized that the cameras and lights were in there with us too. Along with Nigel. Nigel was the reporter, the nature guy. It was his show, and he was in there with us.
That was when she said aloud what I was already trying to deny in my head. “They are weighing it in here,” her eyes glistening with excitement and the lights over our heads. “Isn’t this the coolest thing ever?”
Um, no. No it wasn’t. I wanted to cry. My sister had lost her damn mind. It had been inevitable throughout my life, and to be honest, I had known it for a while, but she had officially lost it and led us all to die in a hideous excuse for a zoo. The idiots who thought that a snake whose length was at least two times the circumference of this room was going to fit on that little bathroom scale were about to bring a very hungry anaconda in a room with my son and my niece who were both the size of a small goat. And my sister was standing next to me, brimming with excitement about it, not worried at all. It was obvious to me at that point that my sister’s maternal instincts were broken, at least for the moment. We were nothing alike. I would never put my child in danger like this, and her daughter who was not even aware of what was going on was following her, as any child would do. My sister was like the Pied Piper leading us all to our deaths in this little room with a man-eating snake.
We had full view now of the six stupid men that were in the aquarium spaced at intervals of the snake with their arms wrapped around it. Its skin looked like it had been immersed in an olive oil bath that morning.
“Sissy, I don’t feel good about this, I want to go,” I said. It was apparent that this was the first thing that my son had heard me say since we opened the doors to this hell-hole as he pleaded “no mom!”
She leaned over the kids to me and hissed “you are being ridiculous! Everything is fine. We will ruin the show if we go now!” Like I could have cared at all about the show at that point.
It had taken a while, but I realized then that my sister had known about this all along. It was no coincidence that we were here at the exact same moment that they were filming an episode about this monstrosity of a snake being weighed. She hadn’t told me because she knew that I would never have agreed to it. This had not been the first time that my sister had duped me because of my cluelessness. There were numerous occasions where she had done something stupid and I was the one that had to either cover up for it, or try to get us out of it. Once I had to wrangle my grandparents in the car by myself and promise the management we wouldn’t be back when she freaked out in Red Lobster and tried to set the lobsters in the tank free. Another time I sat in an airport over six hours while she was being questioned when she accidentally tried to carry a gun that wasn’t registered on a plane. Plus, the countless times that she blamed me for things that she did to our family so that she would retain her position as “the favorite.” The most recent was a year before when she had asked me to watch Tana for her, not letting me in on the fact that she knew that Tana’s head was infested with lice. It took me twenty-one days to rid my son’s hair, my hair, and my house of them. Then she accused me of using too many chemicals in my house, that it could be dangerous to Tommy and Tana’s health. I almost hoped the snake would eat her first.
“You did this on purpose!” I hissed the words at her, the volume peaking in my voice to the point where I didn’t even care if anyone heard me.
“You are always saying that I should do more things with the kids. Look at them, they are loving this!” she said.
I decided that I was no longer speaking to her.
The strain of the weight was showing in the men’s faces as they grunted through the glass and schlepped the snake down while they stumbled through the door into the room that we were in. When the first three men got in the room with us, their backs arched with the weight of the snake as they grunted their way over to the comically tiny scale. That was when the conundrum look crossed over their faces. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at how stupid all of these people were. Nigel tried to take control of the situation, as he became aware that someone had messed up in a way that should have been noticed way before that. He directed the first three men with their arms full of mammoth sized serpent to move towards the center of the room so that the other three men could fit and close the door. The cameras started rolling, and that was when the weight of the snake became just too much for them to bear and they started dropping the snake one at a time a couple of seconds apart as the other people in the room flailed around pawing the air in attempts to direct them in what to do. The latter part of the snake that the last three men had been carrying knocked over the plant. Cameramen dived for the camera tripods and the light stands to brace them. I watched the head of the snake, (which was larger than the size of my son’s head) slide across towards the middle of the room. I grabbed my son and Tana with a death grip on their arms and headed straight for the door to my left. Nigel screamed at me not to move, and not to dare open that door. I froze there for a second, trying to weigh out the possibility of escaping alive dragging the kids behind me while at the same time letting a starved anaconda loose in an outlet mall. I didn’t have much time to weigh out the consequences because a man slid over and blocked the door in front of me. Tears started brimming in my eyes as we slid back into our spots side by side and watched as the snake methodically followed the outline of the wall as if plotting our demise and slid in a calculating manner towards my sister. Everyone was silent in the room except for her. “Aww, hey baby! He likes me!” She was ecstatic that he had picked her first as I started wondering if the rest of my family pressed hard enough to the wall that maybe he wouldn’t see us.
My sister’s new baby, the anaconda, was right in front of her feet now and heading towards my niece. Its eyes were dark and empty with nothing behind them as if they had been painted on with a glossy acrylic. My sister and Tana were leaning over trying to pet it, thrilled with its visit to see them. I grabbed my son and in one flail swoop launched him over my shoulders, my arms extended as long as I could stretch them.
“Don’t make any sudden movements!!” Nigel the idiot said. That was when I told him in no uncertain terms what he could do to himself, not even caring that my son or the cameras had heard me.
The rubber tread of my son’s shoe was clawing and pulling my hair as he kicked his feet into my head and arched his back trying to wrench himself out of my arms.
“I want to go to Aunt Sissy!” he said, reaching for her and whining because she was the cool one that was letting her child pet the snake that was about to eat us.
I saw it closing in, closer and closer to my feet and felt my breakfast lurch into my mouth when the front of the snake’s head lightly bumped my shoe. The cartilage of his jaw slid across my feet while the cold feel of his skin went through my shoes, sending a chill up my spine. I closed my eyes and prayed asking God to forgive me for the bad things I had done including the things I had said in the last hour, and to please, please get us out of there alive. The snake pressed up against my legs as his body stretched out in the length of the room, pushing me even closer to the wall while I felt each scale skid one by one across my jeans. I was shocked at how heavy it was. My toes started to tingle and fall numb under the weight of it but I was too afraid to wiggle them and draw his attention to the fact that I wasn’t just a part of the landscape of the room. I looked down and watched the deep murky brown coloring on his back pass over my feet. It was the color of the bottom of a riverbed, which should have been its habitat, and just like a river, it felt like it would never end as it passed over the top of my feet to the middle of my shins. I was holding my breath so long that I thought I was going to pass out. When his head was across the room from us with several people between, I realized then that if we did end up surviving this, that my son would never forgive me if I hadn’t let him touch an anaconda while he had the chance. He had a full-catalogued inventory of every Ranger Rick magazine within his short lifetime thus far, and knew more about every kind of animal alive than I ever hoped to know. I prayed that I wasn’t making a mistake. I calculated from the snake’s movements thus far and with the amount of obstacles in the room, plus all of my maternal instincts and God given paranoia, that I could launch him back over my head if needed, so I hung him upside down by his feet so that he could touch the snake. He traced his fingers lovingly over the snake’s skin and said it was his new best friend, trying to wrap his arms around it in a hug, but not being able to reach. His chubby right cheek with the spattering of freckles pressed against the dark earth toned sheen of the snake with a look of complete happiness on his face. The weight of him with his wriggling and fighting against me for the past several minutes was making the muscles in my arms burn, so I wrenched him away from his new bestie while we remained pinned against the wall. After what seemed like forever, foot by foot, they were finally able to lure the anaconda back in the cage with the very unwilling bleating goat.
The details of our exit became a blur because I think I passed out though I stayed vertical and conscious. I have never been so happy to see a parking lot in my life as we walked out of those blackened glass doors, into the mall and back outside in the sunlight. My sister and son said that it was their best day ever, and while they skipped in step hand in hand laughing and smiling to the car, I started to wonder and worry a little about what other traits besides their love for reptiles that they might have shared genetically. Tana and I lagged about ten steps or so behind, her hand still flitting about within the embrace of mine.
Molly Paschal is a native Atlantan whose family is as much a part of the landscape as the ribbon of highways weaving through it. She has never left the area permanently, though she claims to have tried several times. Now firmly rooted in her home and community in the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains with her teenage son, she leads a quiet life as a writer and the mom of a burgeoning rock star. Because dreams happen.