On the third day at home, I received a letter from Mrs. Tooley. I thought it strange. She was not the type to send her tenants Happy Easter cards. I opened it and read, “Kroll. Get your snakes and yourself out of my house at once! J. Tooley.” I wonder what that J stands for, I thought, before the rest of the message caught up and slammed into my consciousness.
My snakes? What had happened, I wondered. Prudently, I thought, I had never told her about my snakes, so how had she found out? Had one or the other of them found the inevitable hole in the wall that was invisible to all but a snake? Had she been standing in the middle of her yard and seen what she thought was the hose, until it had turned liquid and was flowing across the lawn? More frightening to imagine, had the snakes discovered a passage from the first floor to her more spacious domicile above?
Whatever had led to the discovery, I knew it meant trouble. In just two months, I was to graduate. My mind was already filled with the dread of imminent exams and long, boring papers to write. I simply couldn’t face the possibility that I would also have to find new accommodations, that I would have to pack up and move so close to the end. Yet, I had to face it. From the tone of the note I held in my hands — I could only imagine how hers shook when she penned it — the prospect of having to move seemed far more than a distinct possibility.
Even so, I had to laugh. I couldn’t help myself. “Kroll. Get your snakes and yourself out of my house at once! J. Tooley.” Such an inelegant note. So unlike her. Judith (never Judy)? Jocasta? Whatever, J. Tooley must have been nearly out of her mind when she wrote that note. It was unfair and unkind of me to laugh. But, as has been pointed out countless times, life is not fair. So I laughed.
My first instinct was to return at once, to plead my case, to throw myself at the mercy of the court. But then, I was immediately seized with a second thought: I still had four days left of my vacation. I figured that my apartment was safe until I got back… she would not dare to enter it now. Whatever harm was done had already been done, and it could not be undone. So, armed with those rationalizations, I stayed in Ojai for the remainder of the week, returning as I had originally planned the Sunday before classes started.
It might have been a fatal mistake. My decision did not dispose Mrs. Tooley at all well towards me, if, indeed, she could have been disposed any worse towards me already. When you are summoned by the Queen Mother, you do not wait three days to make an appearance!
When I did arrive, there was Mrs. T, watering her lawn as usual. She had on white gloves, and was wearing a large gray winter coat, the only sign that she might be feeling her years. As I approached her, wondering what gambit I could use to open, she backed away from me right up the front steps of her house, as if I were just one more of the creatures whose very existence made her shudder. She pointed her hose at me, as if to ward of an evil spirit, and sucked in her breath, trying unsuccessfully to talk. I stifled a laugh, and told her that I would talk to her later when she was feeling better. As I walked around the corner of the house to the side entrance to my apartment, she was still standing there, ready to defend herself with the lethal hose she continued to wield, ready to do battle with the monster.
That afternoon, I evacuated the terrible beasts, both boa constrictors, from my apartment to a friend’s house. The longer of the two, a darkly colored specimen from Mexico, was only about four feet long. The other, a foot shorter, was a South American boa whose chocolate-colored rosettes, set along an almost pink body, made it a particularly beautiful specimen. I had bought this snake for my mother as an Easter present the year before, and she had promptly named the critter Boa Diddley. Easter was not an occasion for giving gifts in our sort of Jewish family (I say “sort of Jewish” because Hanukah and Passover were also not occasions for any special celebrations), but any excuse would do to buy a snake. She appreciated the gift (as only a woman who had worn a king snake in her long, black hair as adornment at a party at our house could), and promptly handed it back to me for “safe keeping,” as I knew she would. Later that year, just before leaving Berkeley for parts as then unknown, I gave the beautiful Boa Diddley to the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, where, as far as I know, it lived out its life.
Having disposed of the offending serpents, I summoned as much courage as I could muster, and mounted the steps to Mrs. Tooley’s apartment, the entire top floor of the house. I had never before penetrated this royal sanctum, even to sign a lease, which we had done downstairs in the vestibule. My heart was pounding as I knocked timidly on the door, knowing that I needed all my wits and wit, and the blessings of all the gods, to overcome the loathing that my landlady now felt for me. I had to convince her of the irrationality of her fear, or, at the least, the injustice of her decision to summarily evict me.
She opened the door and faced me. The confusion and terror she had exhibited outdoors had been replaced by a steely glare and firm determination. She was in her domain, and totally in control. Oh charm, don’t fail me now, I thought, grasping at flimsy straws. She motioned me in, and bade me sit in one of the overstuffed chairs that filled the living room, like a museum exhibit of grandmotherly furniture. She sat on the sofa opposite me, a low wooden coffee table between us. Lying on the coffee table was my lease.
For a moment, the room was silent as a tomb as she sat stiffly in her place staring at me sitting stiffly in mine. It slowly dawned that she was waiting for the explanation I had promised. She had granted me an audience, and I damn well better take advantage of it before she changed her mind. I cleared my throat, tried to speak, then cleared it again.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Tooley,” I said, lamely. “I really am. I…”
She interrupted with a royal gesture of her hand, and came straight to the point. "Are your animals gone?” There was now just a trace of tense fear in her, which she tried to camouflage with cold accusation.
“Oh, yes,” I assured her quickly. “I thought you understood that I would take care of that immediately. They’re gone and they aren’t coming back.”
The change in her was immediate. The controlled tension, like a taut spring, or — dare I say it… a coiled snake — disappeared. She seemed to shrink a little, settle into an almost relaxed posture there on the couch. She could breathe again.
I smiled for the first time, and was rewarded with a smile in return. “What in the world ever possessed you to bring…” (and here, a shudder gripped her shoulders) “… a snake into my house”
I knew then that everything would be all right between us again, that I would not have to face that most depressing of all tasks, moving. If anything, my sense of relief was even greater than hers.
I explained to her that I had always had snakes, since earliest memory, and that it was as natural for me to keep snakes as for some people to draw. “Not in my house,” she said. I smiled again, and she asked, “Would you care for some tea?” I told her I would. She seemed pleased to be the generous hostess, to be entertaining. When she brought the tea in and set it down on a coaster on the coffee table in front of me, I could not resist asking the one question that had preoccupied me since getting her royal decree to quit the premises. “How did you find them?” I blurted out too quickly, and lifted the tea cup to my lips, a studied gesture of nonchalance.
“Them?” she said, the tension momentarily returning, audible in her question. I said nothing.
She explained that when she had not seen me for a couple of days, she began to worry that something terrible might have happened. She knew, of course, that it was Easter recess, but, she said, it never occurred to her that I might leave for a week without telling her. The more she thought about what might have happened, the more certain she became that I was lying on my apartment floor, tied up and helpless, the victim of an armed intruder; or worse, already past the point of help or harm, dead as the proverbial doorknob, and beginning to stink. On day two of Easter week, unable to contain herself any longer, she let herself into my apartment with her own key.
Although nothing seemed amiss, her suspicions were aroused by that very fact. “Your apartment was too clean,” she told me, “and I know boys enough to know that they do not clean their rooms before going away. Why, there weren’t even any ashes in the fireplace,” she added, as if she had just nailed her case tight, revealing the incontrovertible proof of my untimely demise.
I felt like telling her that it was a momentary lapse, an error of judgment that would never happen again. Instead, I kept a judicious silence. She continued. “I was just about to let myself out, when I noticed that your bathroom door was closed.”
Well, of course it was closed, you old biddy, I felt like saying. I had two snakes inside. That’s where I had left them for the week, to give them as much room as possible, and to make sure they had water from the shower I let drip. Unaware of my rude thoughts, she went on.
“I just knew you were hanging from your shower head,” she said. “I just knew you had killed yourself.”
Such tea-time stories! In the brief span of ten minutes, I had been: bound and gagged — not to mention robbed; beaten to death and left in my own pool of blood; and hanged by my own hand in the four-foot square shower stall, only slightly smaller than the bathroom itself.
“I took a deep breath,” she continued, “and opened the door. What a relief to find that it was as clean as the rest of the apartment!” I had the feeling that as long as it was clean, she would have experienced the same sense of relief, even if she had found my body hanging there, a suicide note clutched tightly in my fingers, stiff with rigor mortis. “I was just shutting the door,” I heard her say, “when suddenly, I glanced down, and there was… there was…” She could barely make herself say the word. “There was a snake!” she finally managed to say out loud, as if I should be as startled as she by the revelation. (She had been too scared to realize that there were two snakes, not one, which was a relief to me. The snake she had not seen was probably crawling over one of her shoes as her brain tried to comprehend what her eyes were seeing. God knows what might have happened if she had seen it there, speaking of dead bodies on my bathroom floor!)
“I slammed the door as quickly as I could and backed into the hall. I was in a state of shock,” she added unnecessarily. I had a vision of her backing into the closet that was not much more than an extension of that hall, closing the door behind her, and dying there of apoplexy, where I would have found her on my return. The problem with that vision was that my closet was the repository of all the clutter Mrs. Tooley had not found in the apartment itself, the under-the-rug explanation for the tidiness that had prompted her suspicions of foul play. She would have had to do some powerful stuffing to get herself in there, alongside the snake cages, used books, old clothes, and miscellaneous junk that had collected over the year. But she never learned the truth of that tiny room. The secret of my neat apartment remained in the closet.
The rest of the week, she told me, was pure hell. First, she had summoned her son, the lawyer. (I imagined him to be a lazy lout from whom Mrs. T had learned all she knew about boys.) He had instructed his mother to write the note that threatened me with eviction, and to send it immediately, which she had done. And then she waited, waited for me to return and exorcise the demons. But I had not come, and every sound prompted a terrible premonition of doom.
For a week, she had lived as a prisoner in her house, fearful that snakes lurked behind every door, that they had invaded the very heart of the place, and were multiplying like rabbits behind the walls. She had practically not ventured out at all during those dark days of terror.
For the first time since she had begun her story, through four cups of tea, I truly felt sorry for her. Until then, I had thought of her only as a nosy landlady who got what she deserved. (When I realized I would not be forced out, my earlier contrition had vanished.) But now, I thought of her, a woman in her 70s, intimidated by almost nothing, firmly in control of the circumstances of her life, perfectly happy with her world, suddenly frightened nearly to death in her own house by the thought that it had been taken over by snakes. I doubt she would have been any more unsettled if she had suddenly discovered the place was haunted. I felt abashed.
We were back where we started. “I really am sorry,” I began again. “I understand how awful it must have been for you… Now, about moving…”
“Oh that,” she said. “Never mind about moving… You do promise that those animals are gone, don’t you?” I assured her they were. She poured another cup of tea and continued. “After all, there are only a few months left before the end of term. And it is your last year and all. So, I am willing to take another chance on you. You won’t disappoint me, will you?”
She didn’t want to be disappointed. She wanted to continue as we had; perhaps tea time would be a regular new feature of our relationship. I was willing to promise anything. I didn’t disappoint her.
Two months later, when I had taken my last final and was packing my mother’s car with four years of accumulated crap, Mrs. Tooley came around to inspect. I introduced the two women to each other.
“You have a fine son, Mrs. Kroll,” she said. “Despite our differences, he’s been a good tenant.” She turned to go, and then paused for a moment. “Could you just tell me,” she suddenly asked, as if waiting a long time for this moment to come, “how you dealt with a boy who raises snakes?”
“It wasn’t easy,” my mother told her. “It wasn’t easy.”