Saturday, June 24, 1978
“I’m not telling you the big news until I get a ‘Hi, Dad.’”
I swallowed my half-chewed hotdog and said it. Jenny and Brian muttered it around their food.
“I guess that’s good enough.” He took his time stabbing two hotdogs from the pan and letting them drip before putting them on his plate and joining us at the kitchen table.
“Is this going to be like that time your big news was that Mrs. Rzepka needed some kids to shovel her driveway?” Jenny crossed her arms. “For free.”
“Nope.” He loaded up his hotdogs. “Big Sid escaped.”
Brian glared at me like it was my fault. “The Jacobowskis are going to lord it over us all summer.”
“Who’s Big Sid?” Jenny never remembered the important stuff.
“Not who,” Dad said. “What.”
She rolled her eyes, which she did a lot since she turned twelve.
“It’s that sixteen-foot python at the Wonderful World Circus,” Brian told her.
Dad nodded. “I’m disappointed in you guys.”
“What did we do?” Since Brian’s mouth was full, it sounded more like, “Wad we dough?”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Dad leaned his chair back. “When I was your age, I—”
Mom tipped her untouched food onto Dad’s plate. We watched her drift over to the garbage can, throw away her barely-dirty paper plate, and then shuffle back to the living room.
Dad leaned forward. “Doesn’t it make you want to look for him?”
I was as shocked as Mikey’s brothers in the Life cereal commercial.
“He was only staying about a mile from here and it’s not like he could fly.”
I bolted the rest of my food and gulped down my Tang. “I’m ready.”
Brian was already at the front door. “Can Jimmy come along?”
“Bring anyone you like.”
I dashed to the living room. “Mom. Mom. Big Sid escaped and we’re going to look for him!”
“With me,” Dad shouted from the kitchen. “No going off on your own.”
But I was already outside, running to my best friend’s house. By the time Dad joined us, the whole Cummings Avenue pack had piled into the Kingswood. Jenny rode shotgun with two friends. Brian shared the back seat with three buddies. And all five of us seven-year-olds got the way back.
When we got to O’Brien Road, there were lots of serious-looking grownups there, so Dad drove past. He turned onto Maynard and slowed to a crawl. The station wagon growled like a lion on the hunt.
He hit the button to lower the way back window and the five of us scooted to the end, stuck our heads and shoulders out, and scanned the scrub for any unexpected movement. Every time someone said they saw something, Dad slammed on the brakes, and the way back crew tumbled backwards onto our butts, laughing.
All we spotted were three squirrels and two dogs.
“You’d think a sixteen-foot snake’d stick out more,” Dad said. “Time to head back.” To make it up to us, he gunned the station wagon when the road was clear. The Kingswood might be a dinged-up ’69, but its engine roared like a brand new Chevy. I leaned back over the top of the door, closed my eyes, and pretended I was Luke Skywalker on his X-34 landspeeder.
When we got home, I popped inside to stand in the doorway of the living room to tell Mom about our adventure.
She actually smiled a little.
Jenny had made me pinky-swear that I wouldn’t tell Mom or Dad what we were up to. The official story was that we were biking around with our friends, like we always did. To avoid the living room, I only used the side door.
It was easy to not talk at dinner. Dad brought Mr. Burger home two nights in a row and we ate on tray tables in the living room so we could watch the latest news on Big Sid. It was my job to sit next to the console and change the channel. Our TV was pretty old, so sometimes it took both my hands to crank the dial.
And then I forgot, and came in the front door. I tried to not look, but I couldn’t help it. Mom was sitting in her armchair, in her bathrobe, one wrist perched on the arm of the chair. The pale underside of her arm faced up, and her fingers curled around her cigarette.
It was just a whisper, but I heard it.
She tilted her head, which meant, come closer, so I took two steps in.
“What’s happening on the Big Sid front?”
I concentrated on the lit end of her cigarette. “Nothing much.”
At first, she didn’t say anything, and I almost left, but then she said, “I won’t snitch,” and it all came tumbling out. How Jenny had made a map and how we were searching in a scientific way. How half my friends couldn’t bike around anymore because their parents were afraid the snake would eat them. How weird it was to have no dogs or cats loose anywhere anymore.
And then the biggest news of all: we’d met the guy who lost Big Sid.
“We were behind the De Vrieses who live on Maynard. Freddie was there, but his grandma wouldn’t let him go past the raspberry bushes, so he stayed there and kept yelling to ask whether we’d found anything. Once, Brian told him we had, even though we hadn’t, and he about peed his pants. Anyway, we were in the low part where the ground is always squishy, and that’s where the guy was, because pythons like streams and damp areas. The best thing of all was he told us that Big Sid wasn’t dangerous to kids or dogs because he only ate rats. He said, ‘Sid’s real mellow.’ Did you know he used to curl around the necks of the circus girls? But now he’s too big. And then the best, best thing was that he said, ‘May the Force be with you,” when he left. Isn’t that cool-city?”
She smiled again.
I gave her a snake report every day.
“Any signs of him?”
“None. None at all.” I was finally all the way in the room, standing next to the ashtray, close enough for her to pat my arm and comfort me or something, but she didn’t. “We were in the far corner of our territory, near Maynard and Lake Michigan Drive when some other kids came zooming past, saying that some lady had found him in her pool, so we went with.”
I paused for effect.
“It was a long skinny tree branch. Jenny thinks someone threw it into the pool on purpose because it hasn’t been near windy enough for a branch like that to come down on its own, and there were no big trees by the pool. What do you think?”
“Today was an easier day biking because me and Jimmy did a trade. I got his silver Huffy from last year and his little brother got my bike from last year that I was still riding. It was great to not have to pedal so much to keep up with everyone.”
“I’m glad you guys figured something out.”
But she didn’t sound glad. She sounded sad.
“We’ll trade back at the end of the summer.”
Now she patted my arm.
“Is Big Sid still free?”
The Big Sid Roll sat on its plate on the side table, untouched from that morning when I’d gotten up extra early and biked to the bakery and bought one for everyone and put it on a plate and left it for her with a note. The note wasn’t there, but the snake-shaped donut still was.
“You think he’s free?”
“He spent his whole life in a little plywood box with no choice when he eats, what he eats, when he gets taken out, and where he goes.”
That was the longest thing she’d said all summer.
“I think he’s scared. He only knew one way his whole life and now he’s in a giant world, and he doesn’t know what’s safe, or where his owner is, or whether he’ll ever get food again.”
She gave a weird smile. “You think of him as you, and I think of him as me.”
What was I supposed to say to that?
We were trying to be quiet in case Mom was already asleep, but we could see her cigarette end moving and flaring.
I turned on the light and sat on the arm of the chair. “Star Wars was even better at the drive-in because me and my friends were outside doing lightsaber fights and driving our landspeeders. And in the intermission, some man yelled, ‘Big Sid, where are you?’ and everyone laughed, and then in the quiet parts of the next movie, which wasn’t nearly as good as Star Wars, people yelled it some more. I wish you’d come with us.”
I was out, searching alone, when I saw the crowd on Maynard. I stood up to pedal faster, but my legs got heavier and heavier the closer I got. The crowd was so huge that I couldn’t get close enough to see anything. But I heard.
They’d found Big Sid.
When I got home, I put my bike away properly and didn’t cut across the lawn, but I made it to the house eventually.
The final snake report.
I hovered in the doorway until she turned her blank face to me and blinked once, and then again before she clued in that it was me.
“They got him.”
For once, she did exactly the right thing. She stubbed out her cigarette and opened her arms. I ducked my head and ran to her, burrowing into her lap.
Somehow, Mom found out exactly when and where they were unveiling Sid at the Standale Sid-walk Sale. It was our secret. Just like the snake reports had been.
Jenny and Brian had already biked there with friends. I waited for Mom in the Kingswood, finally getting to ride shotgun. She’d gotten up extra early to drive Dad to work so we could have the car. When she walked up, I couldn’t stop staring at her. She was wearing a jean skirt and some kind of flowy white top. She’d done her hair and put makeup on.
“You look like Sissy Spacek.”
“I used to look like Jane Fonda.” She checked her lipstick in the rearview mirror. “But thank you.”
I pointed out everything I’d been telling her about. The sign spray-painted on a pallet and nailed to a tree that said, “STANDALE HOME OF BIG SID.” The pizza place that made a special python pizza. The bakery that did the Big Sid Roll that she didn’t eat.
Even though it was 9 a.m., we stationed ourselves outside the ice cream shop with a couple of cones and counted how many people wore LaVeen Hardware’s “Standale Home of Big Sid” T-shirts. It took four men to carry Sid’s aquarium out. Mom’s hand was cold when I slipped my hand into hers.
The man from LaVeen’s stepped up and made fun of the mayor of Walker trying to call in the National Guard and said some other stuff that made other people laugh. But not me and Mom.
And then, like a magician flipping his cape, he threw off the cover. Big Sid was unveiled. His markings looked like gold in the sunshine.
I hated him.
“Poor guy,” Mom whispered.
I talked to him with my mind, like Obi Wan. Why did you have to go and get caught? Your escape was the only thing Mom liked. Now I’ve got nothing.
Mom squeezed my hand tighter for a second, but then she let go.