My mother had gone off to the casino. “I need a break from the old man,” she’d said.
I watched from the front steps as she backed too fast out of the driveway, nearly running over Coconut, the cat who lived next door. I wanted a cat, but not as badly as I wanted a snake. My father had said maybe and we’ll see and just you wait when I told him it’s what I wanted for my monthly treat. He’d be home anytime now.
I read my book about snakes, waiting for him. Snakes swallow their food whole and have forked tongues, which they flick to smell their surroundings. I sat on the couch and slipped into an awake-dream where I was holding a snake in my arms. My snake was a girl like me and her body was smooth and shiny. She didn’t have legs or eyelids, but I loved her anyway.
I jumped when my father stumbled in. Again, he’d forgotten to take off his boots. He made his way into the kitchen, leaving a trail of leaves and something sticky on the floor.
“There she is,” he said, pulling off his boots and rubbing his toes. He put a paper bag down on the table and staggered over to the sink where he slurped at the water straight from the tap. I didn’t see any holes in the bag. I hoped my snake would be able to breathe.
“A treat for my treat,” my father said, opening the bag. He pulled out the apple that wasn’t even red like apples were supposed to be. It was the same bright green as the plastic pail I used for collecting rocks and shards of glass at the beach.
My father placed the apple on my head and said, “Stay still,” breathing his whiskey breath.
I became a statue in the kitchen where last night’s dishes were still piled up, stuck with macaroni and cheese, and stinking like curdled milk. The dust of summer had come through the open windows, making it harder to breathe.
“Stay still,” my father said for the third or fourth time, as I held back a sneeze. He turned on the radio, stopped on a song by The Doors.
“Into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown,” he sang. He spun in circles and slapped his knees. “I bet you want to dance,” he laughed.
I stayed still for a long time, letting the truth sink in. I wasn’t getting a snake. Just like I hadn’t gotten a bicycle or a baseball cap or one of those lava lamps my friends had. My father was playing one of the games he liked to play with my mother and me, pretending something was funny when it wasn’t. I licked sweat from above my lip and imagined I was a snake sniffing at the body odor—my own and my father’s—filling up our small kitchen under the slow-moving blades of the ceiling fan.
My father said I looked like a work of art, standing by the window with my red hair and the green apple on my head, the sun going down behind me.
“You look like somebody should paint you,” he said. “My buddy Mitch is a real good painter. Maybe I’ll call him up and tell him to bring his easel over.”
He said some other things, but I stopped listening
When I’d had enough of playing along, I told my father that a jump rope wasn’t a bicycle, flip-flops were not a baseball cap, a deck of cards wasn’t a lava lamp. My voice sounded small and dim. It was the first time I’d spoken up to him.
“An apple is not a snake,” I said.
I shook my arms and legs around like I’d seen the men at church do when they got all worked up about the Lord. The apple fell off my head and rolled across the kitchen floor, hitting the box of beer and soda cans that would be traded in for my father’s whiskey.
We stood there, my father and me, looking at each other. He wasn’t smiling anymore. The apple was on its side where the cans had scattered. I tried to walk out of the kitchen, but my legs wouldn’t let me. I would wait for my mother to get home with her winnings, to feel her arms around me, leading me out to the car. I pictured the little tree that smelled like real pine trees and her rosary beads swinging from the rearview mirror as we made our way across town to Animal Land where she would say, “Pick your pet, Pumpkin.” I would take my time looking, skip over the sleeping snakes, the ones who looked too dry or too skinny. I would choose the one with the shiniest scales, a bright-eyed snake who was big enough to slither right up to my father and swallow him whole.