Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Everyone Has Your Best Interests at Heart

Everyone Has Your Best Interests at Heart

Photograph via Flickr by staceyjeanxo

Whenever I’m working assholes come in. Skaters huffed up on industrial glue, sneakers a jagged mesh of safety pins. Giggling pairs of ten-year-old girls with fancy feather extensions but not a dollar in their jeans, a sunburned couple slick on fried clams, day trippers from Toms River shaped like punching bags. Fudge is the last thing anyone needs, but, hey—this is vacation. There is no end to the wanting. Tourists load up on handouts then linger past closing and can’t take the hint until shown the door with their half-pound box of Rocky Road, bound to harden, to get lost or forgotten, a token of summer long after the ruthless cold hits.

If Lacy is out, I won’t bother to glance up from the bears. The shop houses a massive collection of teddy bears in all sizes and fur color and style of dress, bears slouched along shelves and nestled on the hutch, families of bears outfitted in pioneer garb and baseball uniforms. They are my responsibility. Every night I straighten them like good children.

“Come back in the morning,” I’ll say, my back to the screen door, and it is inevitable.

“Oh, fudge!” Whoever it is, they’ll slap thighs and pump fists, because people are so clever and isn’t that my luck: the world’s been figured out, everyone is a goddamn original.

If Lacy is with me, she’ll give me a nudge to get on with it.  She hooked us up with the gig when she started hooking up with Lance Castle, who owns the place. Lacy has an unbelievable ability to ignore the ugly in others. Yeah, people would kill for our jobs. At a confectionary! In an outdoor shopping mall! 100 feet from an antique schooner! On the Jersey Shore! People would kill for lots of things.

On these nights I arrange my face. Who isn’t fronting? Lacy believes in playing nice.  Smooth out the road and you’ll roll faster along it, and Lacy has been non-stop since we were assigned adjacent cubbies in the first grade. Girl Scouts, field hockey, drama club. In the fall she’ll leave for college.

The smell of burnt sugar is so sweet my teeth hurt. There was a time Lacy and I’d chug Coke by the liter behind the Dairy Queen then grind our jaws until they squeaked but those days are over. It’s already mid-July. The air conditioner lets out a moan.

To the customers I say, “Who’s up for dessert?”

Tonight this guy shows up dressed like a wildlife safari guide: khaki pants, black knee socks, khaki shirt and cotton belt, hat like a serving bowl upside his head.

“Where’s the zoo?” I call from the vat I’ve been stirring because he’s asked for it, pressing his face to the mesh wire screen on the window like that. This guy, either he doesn’t hear me or hears it too much because he does not reply. His moustache is glued on, off-kilter, and he’s sucking on the end of it like a pen cap. That’s the thing—beneath the props and the get-up, there’s something half-tender about him. I wipe my hands on my apron and abandon my batch of fudge.

We use a spatula the size of a paddle. It’s called a “best buddy.” In Home Ec Eddie Dinardo dared me to chug a cup of canola oil. We were making a casserole from found pantry items: green beans, cream of mushroom soup, fried onions from a can. I would’ve done it, too, taken the dare, taken any sort of attention, if only to shut them up but Lacy pointed out there was no call for canola in the recipe. Just like that, they dropped their spoons and returned to their stations. I can feel the chocolate stiffening in the barrel with every second unstirred. After this guy leaves I will have to junk the thing and start over, but it’s too late now.

“Three samples per every half-pound sale.”

“Don’t worry,” he says, pulling in the door behind him. And then, as if I was expecting otherwise: “I’m not here to cheat you.”

Crocodile Dundee orders the store. He wants fudge logs in all fifteen flavors, by the pound, by the entire 5-pound block, even. I straighten my hairnet and serve him, drive the cool metal blade of my pastry slicer through maple, caramel crisp; jimmy it down through the nuts in chocolate almond joy. I slap the squares on the scale and measure, then wrap each selection neatly in wax paper. As he watches his eyes fill like he could cry or sneeze, so I bend the store’s rules about freebies. The deli server at the A&P used to feed me everything on grocery runs with my mom’s man-of-the-hour: sliced turkey and ham and Swiss. Usually, whoever he was sat fidgeting in the car while I ran through the aisles, but one time when I was poking my tongue through cheese holes he snuck up behind me, dirt caked in my neck, his pupils wide and shuddered, “You’re one hungry mouse, Bonnie.” My mother’s name but I did not correct him.

That’s how big-hearted I’m feeling.

This guy reaches a leathery arm over the glass case and snatches his stuff.

“You’re a doll,” he says, like a song, which catches me in the throat. I’m about to throw in a box of saltwater taffy, a local treasure for such manners, but he says, “That should do it” and “Please” and “What do I owe?”

A bear slips off a shelf.

I ring him up.

Lacy has plans for me. All summer she’s been saying: We’ve got to get you some, Missy. What she means is a boy. As if that might impress state scholarship committees. As if I have anything else to do other than become her pet project. We’re living in a one bedroom flat she found in a bayside complex, the kind with stairs that wrap around the outside like a roadside motel. The wallpaper is pastel starfish. She pays the rent and I fix her fatties. “Have fun while you can,” she says, blowing smoke. It’s hard to know what to think or if she means it. Maybe I should be more grateful.  We all have this stuff we lay on people, how we’d like them to be. Lacy is no different. A middle-aged douche in a uniform may not be what she has in mind for me but then Lacy is not here at Oh, Fudge! tonight.

I wipe down the counters, lock up.

Have you ever watched a man eat? It is revolting. I get it, we’ve all got to live, but a grown man on fudge is one twisted glimpse of humanity: wet tongue slapping the roof of his mouth in slow motion, cruising around molars for a final hint of heaven.  Like those food chain posters taped to the walls of ninth grade bio, the domination of the weak, only I’m not sure in this case which is which.

Outside the street lamp’s shining a spotlight on him atop a burgundy picnic table. Elbows resting on huge knees, he is going at it, making those food sounds, and I can almost feel Vanilla Dream dissolving into a pale chalky pour, a sweet grit of sugar and bean and condensed milk, and it’s crushing, really, though he doesn’t look it, how fast anticipation ends up tasting like scented eraser.

“As good as you’d hoped?” I say, scrolling through the combination on my bike. He looks up, wipes a crumb; with a nod, he motions to me.

I am no stranger to poor judgment. My mother took comfort where she could. 16 when she had me. Against better judgment, maybe, but we were fine until Lucas came along and we trailed after his father deep into the Pine Barrens for an above ground pool, diving board and cabana made of real handcrafted pine. Lucas was left to toddle unsupervised, against better judgment, but such are the needs of women and men. Besides, I was there. Eight, to my brother’s three. Against better judgment Lucas ran too close to the edge where the plastic met the concrete and he stumbled on the lip, tripped, fell in.  I was rapt; I sat on the broken mesh of a lawn chair watching his last dance of fury and grace, mesmerized by his shake, sinking, eventual still.  This was not criminal. Against better judgment, certainly: to bear witness and do nothing. Enough to be told time and again something’s wrong with you. You are lacking. But lacking has never been enough to get anyone locked up.

Quicksand Man roots in the breast pocket of his button front shirt, hands me a card that reads: Jack Swamp, Reptile Depot. Book me for your next special occasion! Birthdays, school programs, private events. I look at him looking at me wide-eyed and wait for it, only there’s no punch line, so I play along, and he says his show is running throughout the summer across the street at Fantasy Land. The children’s theme park, not the porn shop, he adds, coughing, as if he knows anything about me. Then right in my face he makes a peace sign with two fingers, and I see where they have grown gnarled, the skin in varying stages of black, pink and white, bulbous, raw and scabby. Around his knuckles the boils look like pod seaweed that washes ashore, bladderwrack gathered by children for curtains on sand castles. I wonder what it would feel like to touch his mess of wounds, if he would notice; if over time the body simply builds up a tolerance to all that snake venom, would he even flinch.

“Love bites?” I say.

“Occupational hazard,” he says, with an open shut, V-shadow cast on the concrete: the projected image dark and smooth as scissors. “Double the chances, double the fun. First show is at 7:00, encore at 9:00. Come early if you can. Rides open at 6.”

By day I lifeguard. I have Lacy to thank for that, too. Six days a week we get paid to sit beach front at 20th street, Surf City, white chair staked in the sand, attuned to the sounds of summer, eyes peeled for trouble, all that. Ours is a picture of normalcy.

“When life hands you lemons –” Lacy says. It’s easy for Lacy to believe everything has a reason.  After the district judge ruled Lucas’ death an accident, I stayed with her family until my mom got it together, as they said, better than before. Lacy had been taking swim at the Y, so I was roped into lessons. For months there was no getting us out of the water. Nostrils pinched, we’d tuck and tumble four in a row across the length of the pool before surfacing. Underwater we pressed hands to each other’s like a mirror in the deep where nothing could come between us; all anyone could see was the blur of our bodies. Lacy’s dark curls were spared but my hair turned green after a while.

What’s with the fancy?” Lacy wants to know the next night at Oh, Fudge! I am dragging my blade along curling ribbon, topping packages with logo stickers because I’m in a rush, that’s what, hoping to duck out early. She buzzes around me. I’m a decorating machine, snapping brains of orange and yellow and blue around the boxed flavor of the week, and it is true, how good I can be when I set my mind to it. Apply yourself, school counselors said. A little effort goes a long way. Everyone has your best interests at heart.

I’ve even cleaned up, borrowed Lacy’s lip gloss and hair goop.

“Do you have a date?”

I eye the clock. She hops the counter, swings her tan legs.

“Let me guess. The wake board guy?  The gas station hottie?” Lacy is wearing one of those ankle bracelets with charms that jingle: ice cream cones, rhinestones, lacquered fruits.  Sometimes, it’s amazing how we ever wound up friends.

“Come on,” she says. I slip around her, slide open the case, straighten the labels, and drag out another cold block of fudge. It feels like clay. I cover it in Saran Wrap then loosen my apron.

“Over and out,” I say.

She knocks a row of bears with her dismount.

“No fair. I’m dying, Miss, who is he?”

For his third birthday my mom gave Lucas a red plastic kaleidoscope on a metal ball chain, the kind you get from a supermarket machine that splices the world into a million matching pictures. I stole it from his chubby fist, secured it through the loop in my jeans.

Fantasy Land is like that: an assault of color and light and hopeful little children, spun out to make it feel like Christmas, rather, how Christmas is shown on TV. Families mashed together, children on the legs of parents trailed by aunts and cousins and grandparents with stiff hips, walkers flying American flags, palms out for a treasure of tokens, prize tickets, for funnel cake and soft serve and hives of cotton candy. Arcade bells clash with jackpot whistles. Fake rifles pick off fake deer.

Reptile Depot is sandwiched between the teacups and bumper cars. There is a stage sectioned off by dock cord and rows of metal bleachers. The early show’s over but I grab a seat in the back until Swamp pops out from the Port-o-John wiping his hands on his thighs and urges me closer, my ears burning red in the front row. A tap on the shoulder makes me jump, but it’s only a parent. I’m blocking her child’s view.

“Do you mind?” the mother says. Before I slide over Swamp materializes. “Sorry, Ma’am. She’s with me.”

I guess I should feel flattered. To be spoken for, for the squeeze of my shoulder, the smell of his breath, not that I’m jumping up to volunteer for his snake tricks. On set Swamp looks larger than he did in the store. Lacy says a healthy boost of confidence can do that. He’s in his element, here. Plus, his helpers, pallbearers of reptilian trunks and crates, are little people. Children, it seems. Or maybe there are lifts in his shoes.

A parade of wildlife begins: Baby crocs, bearded dragons, tarantulas and scorpions and tortoises, twenty kinds of snakes, rat snakes and coral snakes, anacondas, green mambas and eastern diamond backs. The audience oohs and aahs at the range of reptiles, but when Swamp stretches an albino jungle python onto a foldout banquet table the parent behind me plain faints. It’s like something from a magician’s handbook only instead of scarves from a sleeve he is pulling flesh from a box, heavy and pale and slow as taffy, thick as my waist, the color of Creamsicle, a recent flavor added to the list at Oh, Fudge! Swamp falls into such a rhythm, stroking the beast’s body of scales, his eyes gloss over.  For a minute it’s as if we’re not even there.

“Can’t see!” a child shouts, rousing Swamp from his spell. He lifts the gentle python overhead like a barbell without the slightest tremble. I know enough to know snakes are nocturnal. This one is probably just waking up, but still it sounds cruel: to be squashed in captivity, strung out for a tease, then stuffed back into a cage twice a night. Do they go willingly or by force? Are there enough holes in their lids?

“How was it?” Lacy asks on the guard stand the next morning. Red sweatshirt zipped to her neck, she blows chewing gum bubbles the size of my fist, snaps them in my ear.

“Fine,” I say. I cinch my hood tighter.

“How was what?” Lance Castle spits the shell of a sunflower seed he’s been sucking because isn’t that convenient, he is both beach patrol captain and fudge shop owner. Somehow neither he nor Lacy got the memo: don’t shit where you eat. He’s got her by the thigh and she’s on his lap doing this slow roll of her hips like she’s stirring up batter. Towheaded children swarm the spot beneath our feet, ruffled suits, digging in the sand with plastic tools and bare hands, never seeming to catch on that it’s infinite.

“What kind of no good are you up to?” Castle asks. He looks like an overgrown teenager, surfer hair creeping up his forehead, potbelly fried to a crisp.

“Tell him, Missy,” Lacy laughs.

I whip the cord of my whistle until it strangles my fingers then whip it the other direction. In the distance the parasails are cheerful.

“No kind,” I say.

All day I’m thinking about Fantasy Land. I count the hours until the sun goes down and I can disappear in the crowd, feel the pulse on my skin.  I count the steps from my guard chair to the surf then back over the dunes through the salt grass past the taco stand to the condo strip, I count over my canned spaghetti, dirty glasses in the sink. Down the main drag on my bike I count pedal rotations, then at the mall, through the parking lot, into the shop. I count the light switches and I count the bears, Astronaut Bear and Rocker Bear, Fisherman Bear and Baby Bear, I count the seconds between.

At first Lacy covers for me.

“If there’s going to be ass involved, better mine than yours,” she says in the lazy hour after beach patrol, before we’re due at the shop for our night shift. It is charitable of her, I guess.  She rubs off the clotted mouth of our sugar dispenser, licks her finger.

“Did you fuck him yet?”

I haven’t yet changed out of my swimsuit.

“What did I tell you,” she says. I blow into my mug. Coffee ripples. Lacy flips the pages of her college course catalogue.

“What’s Love Got to Do with It? The Science of Superheroes and Why Bad Guys Lose! Purity and Porn in America!  Ha, now there’s one for your mother.”

Lacy doesn’t mean anything by it. She and my mom are like sisters. They are the same size and everything. Back home in Hammonton Lacy is always either borrowing her tank tops or her bedazzler.

Lacy pouts. “You know I’d take you in my suitcase if I could.”

The whole time she talks I am quiet.

Quiet is my specialty. After his shows Jack Swamp is so keyed up there’s no stopping him, rattling off each animal’s name by its proper genus and species. It’s hard to keep it all straight but he’s listed the classifications in a marbled notebook.  I scroll through and listen. He shares nothing personal. Venom, he says. Bet you didn’t know venom has medicinal properties. Someday all those peptides and proteins will distill out to cure heart disease and high blood pressure, but careful, it’s a fine line what’s beneficial and what’s lethal. When he talks the fabric stretches snug around his zipper.  I never ask his real name.

The jellyfish arrive. There’s something tidal about it, the jellies and undertow, the latter driving the former or vice versa; either way, they seem connected, a record force, pummeling the island, requiring extra vigilance in the water. The three of us perch along the guard chair like it’s a dunk tank. Like any second one of us could plunge under.

Watch out for the greenheads, Castle says in morning report. Flies are vicious this time of year. He also tells us the Coast Guard found a body in the wetlands down by Holgate. The body belonged to the vintage postcard collector with the balsam lean-to, black hair and bad skin, who spoke at the ground in rapid beats, hawking pin-ups of his grandmother in a red polka suit and calling them precious 1940s cheesecake. I never knew him but Lacy shoots me a look like there goes your mystery man. Castle says it isn’t a summer until someone washes ashore so at least that’s out of the way. People are always dying. We can all ease up knowing it didn’t happen on our watch. In other news, dolphins were spotted off the coast in Harvey Cedars. Like lovebirds having breakfast, snouts made of donuts dipping into the current, and even if Castle is full of shit I picture them. It’s a comfort. I go so far to tell him as much, such is the hold of prettier things. He takes my wrist and squirts a hot coil of sunscreen into my palm. I rub his back and Lacy’s quads tighten. A pack of swimmers drifts beyond the designated flags. Castle rises between us, his body puffed as a cloud. He waves his arms like one of The Five Chinese Brothers. Lucas loved that story so much, the brother who swallowed the sea, sketches of found treasures along the ocean floor, I never returned it to the library.

This is the summer of our lives! Lacy reminds me until this, too, becomes habit. Days pass and pull apart, mash together. Sometimes there are wine coolers, and sometimes there is beer.  At night I visit Swamp’s depot at Fantasy Land. I lose track of time. By morning the flies nip, but it’s the jellyfish I’m sorry for, beached and abandoned and everywhere, blanketing the shoreline like terrycloth; really, people have to watch where they walk.

One night in late July Lacy insists on sneaking out with me. Tuesdays can be dead at Oh, Fudge! but I say I’m not sure it’s a smart idea to risk it. What would Castle think? To which she says: Fuck him. Lacy says this as she straddles a four-foot bear. He is stuffed in a rocker wearing a Santa hat. We call him Mr. Softee.  She talks to him like he’s a Magic 8-ball. “Whaddya say, Softee, shall we go see who’s stolen our Missy’s heart?” Presses her ear to his fur, announces: “Signs point to yes.”

At Fantasy Land Lacy springs for all the amusements. The swings, the flying elephants, the carousel. We nab painted horses that slide up and down, we ride the Ferris wheel just as the sun sets, and it’s hard to explain how it feels, her hair whipping my face, to be high up like that among a perfect blend of color, all the way from here to Atlantic City.

We split a soda (her treat) and bag of peanuts but something gets to me. Going around with her gives me a bad feeling I don’t get when I’m alone. I don’t feel special, and even though I owe her the kitchen sink I don’t feel like sharing, either. She suggests the pirate ships and the free fall but I’m not in the mood. Fortunately, the fun house is closed for renovation but I’ve run out of options.

“So where is he, where’s lover boy?”

“Promise not to laugh,” I say.

“What do you take me for?”

“No one,” I say then feel lousy for saying it, the laughing part, like I’m committing some betrayal but it’s too late. We are already in the back row of Reptile Depot. One by one the cages are wheeled onto the stage. Anticipation beats in my chest. When Swamp makes his entrance sure enough she cracks up.

“A snake charmer!?!”

I could kill her. I could slice down her center and rip out her bones in one motion, like cartoon cats do fish dinners on TV, string whatever’s left as a necklace. Instead I sit silently and watch. She snorts as she laughs and then leaves.

Dude, what’s with this about closing up early?” Castle wants to know on the beach in the morning. “Lacy says you’re wrecking business.”  Children are running through the scum scooping jellies and plunking them in pails, then spreading them out on drier ground in a lengthy execution line. They mutilate the pearly blobs with the edges of clam shells, chanting, “Die! Die! You’re dead!” until someone gets stung.

“Yeah, well,” I say, grabbing meat tenderizer and the first aid kit. I climb down the guard chair. Lacy fixes on the horizon. By the time I came home last night she was in bed, room locked. I slept on the couch.

“I got sick,” I tell him.

“Get better,” he says.

My mistake: I open my mouth. It’s a desperate measure. I blather to Swamp, my whole sad story, hoping for what, I’m not sure. After his late show I hose down the concrete around the depot, globs of melted ice cream. Spiders scurry to corners. I should know better. Disappointment is a wasted emotion. I follow Swamp around as he breaks down the stage and inspects his inventory, instructing his team of assistants to load his wares into the flatbed of the truck.

I am still standing in the lot when headlights from oncoming cars make my eyes shine all sparkly. Still standing there saying God knows what. Mercifully, Swamp suggests a Slushie.

We trundle down to the pier. The bay is dark, the air cloudy and thick, but the moon sits low and full enough to wrap your arms around. Swamp rolls up the cuffs of his pants, his ankles pale and hairless. I remove my sandals. We dangle our legs off the dock; listen to the rhythmic slap of the water. He takes my hand in his good hand and I wish he’d switch it to the bitten one. Everyone hides, he says. Or was it, lies? There are things we’d rather not remember. As he says this he pulls me in. Something crackles in his pocket, but it’s only snake molt. I pull out a joint and he says that’s not necessary so I reach into my bag and offer up a pair of fuzzy dice I won with Lacy the other night.

“Thanks, kid,” he says.

Back at his truck Swamp hangs the dice over the rearview, where photos encased in Plexiglas clink like faces off a milk carton. He’s old enough to be my father. I squint at all the children resting chins on folded hands: girls in bows, boys in clip-on ties. I wonder if they are all his.

By August everyone is angry.

For one, we lose the annual island-wide beach patrol races: five miles on land, a mile at sea, plus an obstacle course. It was supposed to be our year. Castle had been counting on us to restore his beloved trophy to its place on his mantel, but when it came down to the final relay Lacy and me could not get into sync. When he tries to reprimand us, Lacy up and quits.  “I’m done with you losers.” I almost feel bad for him, the way she says it, like he should be ashamed. When I get home her car is packed. Our lease is paid through Labor Day but that’s it for goodbye. School, she says, orientation, what not. Time to get off the island. She snaps her gum. She says, you know how it is.

Two: The drawer is short at Oh, Fudge! Ten days shy of my 18th birthday. We’re talking a handful of dollars but Castle won’t give it a rest, he is convinced Lacy has sticky fingers, that no-good whore. I tell him to check his math. He installs new locks, says watch it.

“Life is not a free ride.”

“What would anyone take from here?”

“You’d be surprised what people want.”

I picture boxes of fudge dancing right out the store on cartoon broomsticks, but Castle has a point: Why pay for a cowrie shell necklace or beer cozy when you can get it for free? Signs wrap around tiki torches throughout the area: Shoplifters will be persecuted.  The elastic of my hairnet leaves a crease on my brow.

And then I catch a perp. The kid is so dumb, what is he thinking? Hunka Love Bear stuffed under his baseball jersey is large enough to be a guard dog or library lion, a full term pregnancy. He can’t be more than six, thumb in the mouth and crust in the nose, hair in need of a wash, so I wave him off, run fast and be free. At the door, I don’t know if it’s a change of heart or what’s wrong with me, I stab him in the gut with my spatula – the best buddy. The kid howls. The bear drops to his feet.

Three.  There is a scare. While Castle is on lunch break the riptide takes a tourist by surprise. In a floral bathing cap an older woman struggles for the shore but the breakers beat her back. Her arms slap the surface. I know what to do.  I am trained for this, I have waited for this my whole life; I grab my float shaped like a swollen limb and thrash against the waves. She latches onto my throat, and I do my best, carrying her mostly but she is exhausted and I am tired and together our fight against the current is not good enough. Castle returns in time to finish the rescue, throws two towels around us. The woman turns to me, shivering blue lips, and calls me her hero. Castle, I say. Thank Castle. But he doesn’t answer. Later, I call my mom.  The connection is bad or there’s background noise; either way, she sounds distracted. “What’s that, honey?” She says over and over until I hang up.

Why aren’t there more islanders?” I want to know. Everyone seems to clear out by fall just when the place quiets down, but why leave when you can stay year round? The beach in winter sounds romantic, I say. What I don’t say: Where else should I go?  Swamp stares at my lips like he can’t find the remote. A garden snake’s wrapped around his finger. She is graceful and harmless, a coil of rings, black with a single green stripe, her neck stretched like she’s coming up for air. Lucas would have loved her. But then, Lucas was happy with anything to play with: my old figurines, pencil thin waists and rubber mouths poised in surprise. Swamp shoots me a funny grin so I let him. Eventually, we all get what we want. He sniffs my hair like it’s a favorite blanket. I think and I think: This is what happens when those born to love you … but never reach the end of it. His serpent keeps licking my cheek.

For my birthday we go for a drive. I leave my bike chained to a post and climb into his truck, the crates puzzled together along the floor of his flatbed. You’d think the animals wouldn’t be able to move, their bodies all twisted up in boxes, but they become agitated once we rumble over the Causeway. Thumping and rattling against their walls, as if trying to break free. I look at Swamp nervously. His moustache is peeling. I want out. I start playing with the buttons. Relax, he says. Trust me. It’s a straight shot on the mainland to this restaurant with serenades and free cake, pasta and breadsticks, all you can eat.

When Swamp turns off over the bridge into Little Egg Harbor, I can forget my hunger. What kind of an asshole climbs into a stranger’s car? It’s all I can think as we inch up and down the residential streets, narrow inlets on all sides, one room shacks spruced up with aluminum siding. The reptiles continue to knock and hiss as if they have some better place to be. At the end of a cul-de-sac he cuts the engine. The night is bottomless black. Above us, a sweep of bright stars.

“Welcome home,” Swamp says. “Wait, I got you a present.” He climbs out his side of the truck. The door slams. Gravel crunches underfoot as he goes around to the back, to the cages. I hear everything.

Listen, the snakes through their walls are going batshit crazy.

And then there’s the click of a latch.