Then, we lived on Spruce Lane. It wasn’t a big house, but it was big enough. Every room was painted the color of lemon rind and smelled of something much worse. Something really foul, like formaldehyde or curdled milk. All of them had rusty doorknobs too. Every weekend my father said he’d fix them, but he never did. I didn’t even know how to fix rusty doorknobs. My father did.
He worked at the petting zoo in town, the one owned by Mr. Kruller, who had half a face. He’d lost the other half in some war, but he never said which one. If you asked him, he’d say he lost it in the Cold War. I didn’t get it until later. It was my father’s job to clean out the stalls of the goats, the chickens, the chinchillas, the hedgehogs, the llamas, and the too-fat bull. My father had wanted to be a musician when he was younger. He kept all his sheet music in twine in our attic. The music was mostly by Germans whose names I couldn’t pronounce. If I tried, it sounded like I was chewing and sneezing at the same time. When he played, he played the oboe, but he wasn’t a musician. He used to say that you weren’t a musician unless you got paid for it. He used to say that you weren’t anything unless you got paid for it. My father got paid to clean out the stall of a too-fat bull.
I liked the too-fat bull. He mostly ate and slept, but I liked him. Some of the other animals bit and scratched and made loud noises, but the too-fat bull was different. He always lifted his stomach off the ground and came when I called him. I’d pet him so he’d know that it was safe to come back. I’d pet him on the soft spot above his nose. The too-fat bull wasn’t like the bulls from the cartoons that chase red capes with their red eyes. He was sort of like a dog. I liked to think that he was a dog – a dog who had lost his body just like Mr. Kruller lost half his face.
It was summer when my father brought home the python. He came in the evening with a big cage wrapped in brown paper. I was eating cereal when he put the cage on the table and said how what was inside would change everything. That what was inside would make the zoo loads of money. He let me tear off the brown paper. I peeled it off like bandages.
I found a wound underneath, two wounds. Two eyes, sickly, yellow. The wounds were in the face of a forest. The python sat wrapped like a turban in on itself, in on itself. In on itself so many times I lost count. I couldn’t see the end of it. I could see its face with two sickly, yellow eyes, but I couldn’t see the end of it. It shone in the dim light.
The python had come from a small, green town in Bolivia. The people from that town tried to sell whatever animals they could find, whatever animals slithered or stomped nearby. They set up traps, big ones and little ones, and used most of their food as bait. If they caught something they could make enough money to buy more food than what they used in the traps. They sold the animals to people from larger, gray towns in Bolivia, and then those people sold the animals to zoos in America. My father was explaining all this to me as I looked at the python. I don’t think it cared what size town in Bolivia it was from. I don’t think it cared whether it lived in Bolivia or America. No matter where it was, it was in a cage.
What mattered was whether it got fed. That would be my father’s job. He’d feed it rodents, tiny ones that the zoo bred to feed bigger animals. I don’t think Father minded feeding tiny rodents to animals, but I think I would’ve. I don’t think I could take one animal and give it to another, just like that. One time, in second grade, they asked us to bring in fruit from home. We were going to feed the butterflies, the ones that Ms. Michaels had bought from a company in Oregon. She kept them in a net shaped like a straw that hung from the ceiling. I brought in an orange from Bolivia, like the python. I peeled the orange and put it on a napkin. I put the napkin in the bottom of the net shaped like a straw. A butterfly flew over. It had wings, soft like butter. It came over and stuck its tongue in the orange from Bolivia. When all the other kids went off to play, I stayed. I asked Ms. Michaels how she knew the orange wasn’t hurt by the butterfly.
“Oranges don’t feel pain,” Ms. Michaels said.
“How do you know?”
“Because it doesn’t have a brain.” Ms. Michaels kept her eyes on the fruit she was cutting for the butterflies.
“And things without brains can’t feel anything?”
“Not a thing.”
My father talked about all the new visitors the zoo would get because of the python. Ones who never knew about the zoo would come because of it. They’d want to see it. He took a deep breath, a good one, for himself. Then he picked me up and carried me off to bed. He carried me through doors guarded by rusty doorknobs. I laughed. I stretched my arms out, my legs too. I liked when he did that. I had never been on a plane before, but I was flying. I was flying in the formaldehyde or curdled milk.
School let out soon after my father came home with the python. I didn’t have plans or much money, so I hung around the zoo. I hung around the too-fat bull and the chickens with dirty feathers. I hung around Mr. Kruller, who gave me toffees that smelled like lint. They tasted okay, but they sure did smell like lint. I didn’t hang out with him too much because every time he gave me one I felt that I had to eat it right then.
Every day my father fed the python tiny rodents. He had no trouble with the tiny rodents. My father put them in a tube with only one end, and they’d go to the bottom. The python had no trouble with them when they got to the bottom. He’d open his mouth and one, two, three tiny rodents would go in. He’d swallow them and you could see the edges of them in his body. They’d get smaller and smaller, the edges. The edges would get smaller and smaller until they didn’t exist anymore, until they were so small you couldn’t tell what was them and what was python. That was the thing about the python. That was the thing I liked so much about him. I liked that you couldn’t tell what was him and what wasn’t him. You could, I mean you could if he sat long and straight. Then you could tell what was him and what wasn’t him. But he never sat like that. No, the python sat round and in on himself, in on himself. He was made of circles. One time, I tried counting all the circles he had. I waited for a day when he was very still and then I did it. The first one was easy. The second one was too. By the fifth, I had to squint. I had eight by the time I got to the last circle. The last circle was hard to find, and I had to squint really hard. I think I found the last circle, but I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s gone now.
Summer was hot that year. I sweated through all my clothes twice a day at least. By the time night came, I had the clothes of three people on the floor around me. Sticky clothes that smelled of salt and brine. I had never been on a boat, but I had the clothes of a sailor.
Sometimes, it was so hot that my father would sit in the basement. He’d sit and play the oboe, and it’d be so hot that his lips stuck to the reed. Next to him, he kept the roll of sheet music and a cup of coffee. He made it hot in the morning, and it stayed hot all day. I never saw him drink it. He just made noises on the oboe, so sticky. And the house stank in the heat too. It stank hard. It stank so hard that the paint peeled and ran down the lemon rind walls. And when it stank, no place stank more than the basement. I don’t know how he stayed down there all day. But he did.
When my father stayed in the basement, I was supposed to go help Mr. Kruller. The old man with half a face needed all the help he could get. I thought that I’d want to help with the too-fat bull, but I wanted to help with the python. I didn’t think I would, but I did and didn’t know why. I didn’t have too many friends I could walk to, so I spent the summer with the python. I fed him tiny rodents from the tube and cleaned his area. He lived in a big pit, a bigger area than the too-fat bull had even though the too-fat bull was bigger. He lived in a big pit with plants. Some of the plants were ferns. My father said ferns were some of the oldest plants on Earth, that they were around when the dinosaurs lived. The dinosaurs died, but the ferns just kept living. They kept living through the Romans and the knights and Abraham Lincoln. The ferns outlived them all, and they were living in a big pit with the python.
It got hotter. On the Fourth of July, they didn’t have fireworks and they didn’t have picnics. No one went outside. No one came to the zoo. Everyone stank in their clothes. My father stopped going to work at all. He stopped going anywhere but the basement. He sat in the basement with the oboe, the sheet music, and the cup of coffee that never got cold.
I helped Mr. Kruller around his house, too, at the end of the day. He couldn’t do much by himself. I brought him ice and swept. He gave me a penny every day I helped him. I knew that wasn’t much, but it didn’t matter. It was the first money I ever earned. One day, I had to put his clothes on top of each other and into drawers. He had more drawers than clothes. I asked him about that, why he had more drawers than clothes.
“Well, what if I get more clothes? Then I’m prepared.” He said it with a laugh and a smile that went across his broken face.
“But, Mr. Kruller, sir, you’re old,” I said.
I thought he was going to hit me. I thought the man with half a face was going to do to me what someone had done to him. But he didn’t. He sat down on his bed and took a photograph from his pocket. The photograph was yellow and small and had spiderweb folds on it. He said that the photograph was of his wife who had died from a terrible disease many years ago. She was smiling. She had hair like my mother had had.
“Open that drawer.”
Inside was a shirt. There were flowers on it, blue ones that hugged the white of it. It was soft. It was soft like the too-fat bull. Mr. Kruller told me to pick it up and smell it. I did. It didn’t smell like anything I had a word for. It was no smell like wood, like grass, like formaldehyde or curdled milk, like lint-toffees, like sailor clothes, like my father, or even like Mr. Kruller. It smelled holy.
I asked him what it was.
“It’s called a blouse.”
My father got sick in August. He got sick from sitting in the basement. The doctor who came to see him wore all white. He said that my father got sick from chemicals you couldn’t see and couldn’t smell. He breathed them in when he played the oboe. The chemicals were in the paint on the walls. The paint was made in a factory in Bolivia. That’s what my father said when the doctor looked at the cans. The paint was made in Bolivia and you could walk from the factory to the small, green town where the python was from. The doctor said that my father had to lie in bed, that he couldn’t speak much or walk much or do anything much. He had to lie in bed and get better.
They called men in to chip away the paint with the chemicals in it. The men smelled bad. I didn’t like them. One of them smoked a cigarette while he worked, a limp cigarette. It bent over his lip. And, when he blew out, the smoke went out and up into his nose. The other man didn’t smoke, but I didn’t like him either. He was strange. He was really wide all the way up from his feet, except when you got to his shoulders. When you got to his shoulders, he came to a point. He had a little head on a little neck on a really wide body. He was built like a birdcage.
I worked more and more for Mr. Kruller. I didn’t have much to do and needed to give my father rest. The doctor said he needed rest, so I gave him rest. Mr. Kruller gave me a roll of pennies. They were in a little paper cylinder, long and thin. When he gave it to me, he said I had earned it. I told him that I liked working for him and it wasn’t really work because I liked doing it. He looked at me with his half a face and said:
“Work now, work hard, and you’ll always like doing it.”
I don’t know what he meant.
I was working by the python when it happened. My roll of pennies fell into the big pit. The paper cylinder broke and some pennies rolled in the dirt. The python didn’t care about them. He didn’t even look at the pennies. He sat, in on himself, in on himself, with his sickly, yellow eyes closed. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there. Beneath his thin forest eyelids, I knew there were two sickly, yellow eyes. But they didn’t look at the pennies, the pennies that fell in the dirt.
I climbed over the rail. I fell in the dirt with the pennies. I used my fingernails to put the pennies back in the cylinder. It made the space under my fingernails black. More pennies, more dirt, more pennies, more dirt. Soon, I had a full roll and fingernails so black. I didn’t hear anything but the scraping sounds of the pennies and the dirt. I didn’t hear the thin, forest eyelids open. I didn’t hear the circles go, become gone and end. But I felt the cold, then, when he came. I felt it. The python was strong. He was strong, and he was fast.
I saw the ferns. I saw the ferns in front of me and realized that I would be like the Romans and the knights and Abraham Lincoln. I’d be another outlived by ferns. I’d be one of them, and years later I’d still be one of them.
I’d like to say I thought of my father. But that isn’t true. I didn’t think of my father. I didn’t think of anything. I didn’t think of anyone. My head was empty. Then, I didn’t have a brain. But I wasn’t like an orange. I felt everything. I didn’t think of anything. I didn’t think of anyone. But I felt everything.
Then I felt something different. I felt the python slide away, slide away into the dirt where my pennies had been. I started thinking again. I started thinking about my mother. I hadn’t thought about my mother for a while, but then I did. I thought about her face. I don’t really know what her face looked like, but then I thought about it. I could see around it, like a frame. But there was no picture. Just an empty frame.
I looked up when I realized that I found the ground again. Mr. Kruller was there himself, holding a gun. He pointed it right at me, right at me and through me, past me, to the python. The python was on the ground, a foot away, with a pair of feathered darts in him. He looked sad, right then, all uncoiled. There were no circles in him and his eyes were closed.
Mr. Kruller lowered his gun. He was standing just past the rail. I could only see the half of his face that was still there. He got on his knees and reached out a hand. He didn’t say anything. He just reached out. I looked in the dirt. I couldn’t see any more pennies, pennies that weren’t in the cylinder. I got up and took Mr. Kruller’s hand. It felt like leather. I joined him over the rail and left the python in the dirt, in the ferns.
They put the python in a crate and shipped it back to Bolivia. No zoo wanted that python. No zoo wanted it because now it was dangerous.
Mr. Kruller still lives alone, but I see him often. I see him when I go to the zoo, but also when I visit him at home. I bring him things that he needs. I tried to buy him a shirt in town with the money he gave me, but they said it wasn’t enough. They said I didn’t have enough pennies for a shirt.
My father got better. He could play the oboe again. He started playing it upstairs, upstairs and in front of me. When he’s not with me, he’s at the zoo, taking care of the too-fat bull who’s like a dog.
Now, we live on Spruce Lane. It isn’t a big house, but it is big enough. We painted every single room, including the basement, my father and I. We painted them blue and yellow. The house doesn’t smell like formaldehyde or curdled milk anymore. I don’t know what it smells like, but it smells okay. We fixed the doorknobs. My father showed me how. You use orange juice and wax. You mix them in a bucket until they look like one. Rub it on a doorknob and then there’s no rust. There’s no rust and the doorknob turns without a sound. Now, I know how to fix rusty doorknobs. And my father taught me.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.