The father wanted to go to the top. The boy wanted to back up, but it was too late to back up. They were forty steps into her gown. The herd behind them pushed them upward, forward. It was a cave of smells now (dust, sweat, foot powder, makeup), cooked by the heat of the spotlights. Shoes clonked on the planks. The steps wound round and round. Was the father thinking about the mother left behind? The father had other things on his mind. Maybe that was why the boy needed to sit down and rest. If the father had done his share of the work, the boy wouldn’t have had to worry for two.
The mother trembled inside the gift shop on the ground. The boy felt her down there, even if he couldn’t see her face. He didn’t need eyes for that. Her heartbeat—he heard it. Her posture—he felt it in his back. She smelled a little like starch—or bread, but bread taken out of the oven too soon.
Then the father and he were in the crown. The room was so tight that he looked up at the father, who didn’t look down. Legs knocked him this way and that. He couldn’t get to the window. They were at the top of the world now. Only the torch was higher. People were shoving him toward the back. They wanted the windows. There was something to see down there and they were going to get to it, no matter what it took. But when the stranger carried him forward, lifting him up under the armpits— where had the father gone?—he didn’t see the mother he’d hoped to see. All he saw was some girl, some fleck in the grass. She raised her fist, held the invisible book to her chest, as if laughing at the statue that cast a shadow on her.
They got down, the father and the boy. Somehow they made it without falling through the gown. But where was the mother? There was no mother. And when the boy looked up at his father to see how he felt about this, the father smiled, eyes drifting to the take out stand. Would you like a hot dog? he said.
The boy shook his head yes, though he didn’t want a hot dog.
Then order it yourself, the father said, as if such a thing were obvious.
The boy took the dollar and put it on the counter. In minutes a hot dog was passed over to him. It lay in its bun, in a crinkled paper boat, with a red checkerboard pattern. A pump of yellow paint sat on the counter, and the boy wondered why anyone would want to paint a hot dog bright yellow.
Still, that didn’t stop him from pumping the handle with abandon, splashing himself.
Where is my husband? the voice said. I lost my husband. What did they do with my husband?
It was the mother. crying so hard, she didn’t feel the boy tugging at her jacket. She didn’t see the yellow paint all over his face, which felt like another end. It tasted of mustard, and he kept on eating it off his fingers, waiting for her to look at him again.
The birds can go elsewhere. The maritime forest? Let it burn to the ground. The palms along the causeway can go up with it. The spiders, the fleas, the rats, the snakes: any living creature that lives in the leaves. They can burn up, too. Ruby thinks these thoughts while she volunteers at the beach town bird sanctuary, dispensing wisdom to the schoolchildren bused in from the mainland. They all think she’s a nice lady in her aqua sundress and her benign smiling face. The wrens who eat nuts and seeds out of her hand think she’s a nice lady too. Is she a nice lady? She wonders whether she doesn’t think enough about that question. She thinks a lot about her house in the woods, the house with the anchor patterns on the shutters, the house she’s lived in since childhood. She thinks a lot about selling it to a rich young couple who will surely destroy it. She’ll watch the bulldozer ramming the sun room where her mother once poured cereal. She’ll look at the accomplishment and indifference on the young couples’ faces, then she’ll drive back to the new condo she’s bought on the mainland, with its granite and stainless steel and cobblestone drive— every amenity she despises. Isn’t that what they call them these days? Amenities?
There is an awful chorus of horns one morning. The black snake with the pink spots is once again sunning itself in the road. It is the same snake that has scared the neighborhood senseless for the past week. Ruby feels friendly to the snake. She is a great appreciator of the way it has frightened the children, making them cower inside their houses, in front of their laptops and Gameboys at night. Ruby leaves it a dish of milk by the front door before she goes to sleep, and when it is morning, it is almost empty, with only a few drops left. It makes her happy that the snake is drinking her milk. Maybe she will go on-line some night to find out what a good snake eats.
Now the new couple next door is out waving their arms over their heads. They are blurred with fury. They are shouting at the driver of the Land Rover, with his righteous, twisted face behind glass. He wants to go forward. The snake is as still as a question mark. It will not move, and the car is full of passengers who are hungry. They will not be stopped for one more minute. The young couple cannot stand that there are people like the passengers of the Land Rover in the world. The way they plead and cajole, you might think the neighborhood has always been just for them, built in anticipation of their arrival. The horn hurts Ruby’s ears. It cuts right through the center of her. And for just this reason alone, Ruby rushes out the front door in her nightie and grabs the snake. The snake is cool and luscious in her hands. The palms go silent. The horn goes silent. The snake hunches left, right, it turns its face directly toward Ruby’s face. It is asking her a question. It wants something of her. Yes, I know what you are, Ruby answers, though she holds those words in her head instead of speaking them. And just as the snake seems to close its eyes and sigh and shrink into itself in delirious pleasure, it lunges forward and jabs Ruby in the breast. Ruby moistens her bottom lip. The young couple is too shocked to scream. And just as Ruby begins to take in the clean sharp cut of the bite, the glistening needles of it, the snake goes back in a second time, and the purification she didn’t know she’d been seeking begins to have its way with her.
Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, and Unbuilt Projects. His work has appeared in Fence, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Tin House, Unstuck, and other magazines and anthologies. He is the New Voices Professor at Rutgers University and he teaches in the low residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College. A memoir, The Narrow Door, is forthcoming from Graywolf in 2014.