[This snip of a story was cut and adapted from a forty page stab at something else, which I mention by way of explanation for the more formal tone – mother rather than mom – and the mock of elevated diction.]
Pumpkin, Hamburger or Hotdog?
I should relate, briefly, one of my animal related stories which involved my mother, so that you can better picture her harried existence during my first eighteen years. I was about fourteen and a Boy Scout. Our Scout meetings were held Monday nights in Fellowship Hall at the local Presbyterian Church which had amongst its twenty-five founding couples my own mother’s Scottish parents. On Monday afternoons I had to race home from the school bus stop, fly through my homework, charge upstairs, change into a ridiculous scoutfit complete with kerchief and sash, eat a speedy dinner, then sit in the passenger seat of my father’s silver station wagon reading a book until he was ready to drive me over to the meeting. See, I was a first-born (and, worse, born to my perpetually punctual first-born mother) so I dreaded being late far more than I dreaded looking ridiculous by sitting around waiting for all the merely-on-time folks to get their collective ass in gear. By “ass,” I intend nothing vulgar, but rather “donkey,” such as Christ rode on his way into Jerusalem, and I speak figuratively since most families I knew as a kid had abandoned quadruped locomotion several generations prior, though, slow as my contemporaries were, I sometimes wondered.
At any rate, to speed me along in preparation for the weekly Boy Scout meeting, a haste in which Mother Mary cheerfully participated, she would call up the steps to me as I changed from my school uniform of faded jeans and a plaid button-down shirt with its rolled up sleeves and into my scoutfit. “Pumpkin, hamburger or hotdog?” shrilled mother. I should note, she was not offering me three choices, one of which being some fare comestible of a gutted gourd – a pie, a bread, a soufflé; there was no Oxford Comma in that list of three apparent foodstuffs. She referred to me as her Pumpkin. Much later in life, she also referred to my eldest son as Pumpkin, though in his case because she openly disapproved of his name; having named me herself, I didn’t understand why on earth I was Pumpkin in favor of either of my given names or my common nickname, but Pumpkin I was, at least to her. On that late afternoon, scrambling into the pressed olive shirt, hung with an ornament of badges, beads, and pins, I called back to her, “Hamburger, please.” Polite enough, I thought, though not understanding the implications of my choice.
At this point I must digress to explain that my mother was possessed of a most organized top-opening deep freeze. In it she kept, in neatly ordered rows and well-balanced stacks, dozens of home-made foodstuffs (meatloaves, pies, soups, breads, cookies, &c.), packaged into various sized portions to accommodate anything from an extended family holiday feast to a single, hungry Boy Scout. In requesting a hamburger, I sent her scurrying to the deep freeze to extract a single, pre-grilled patty from her stack of individual, pre-grilled, hamburger patties, each neatly wrapped in opaque white freezer paper and sealed with a perfect square of tape. She placed this wrapped patty in the microwave, typed 2 – 0 – 0 into the keypad, then about a hundred and forty seconds later the first scream reached my ears. I hadn’t even buckled my polished brass Scout buckle on the olive-drab webbing of my Scout belt which held my regulation olive pants around my scrawny waist when the caterwauling commenced, so it took me a few moments to finish accoutering myself, descend the stairway, and come round into the kitchen. This was all the time mother needed to fully digest the calamity on my plate.
You see, several weeks prior to this afternoon, I had been walking home from the school bus stop (obviously it was not a previous Monday), when I had come across a near-perfect specimen of the, for our neighborhood, unusual Northern Ring-neck Snake. I say “near-perfect” because its head, and only its head, had been squished flat by a passing car, leaving the fourteen inch body, from the pale orange ring on its neck down to the tapered tip of its tail, in perfect shape for some future dissection. I carried this treasure home, coiled it neatly, so that it resembled an old-fashioned braided rug, or a Flemmish Flake of line on a sailboat, then I wrapped the serpentine coil, just as mother had taught me, in white freezer paper and I sealed this with a perfect square of tape. Of course, she had been teaching me how to wrap pre-grilled hamburger patties, not snakes, but the concept was essentially identical. Once wrapped, I cracked open the lid of the family deep freeze and with a nonchalant flip of my wrist, I Frisbee-flung the snake toward the far back corner where mother had cordoned off my specimens – a bounty of frozen heads gifted to me by a local taxidermist, the entire body of a large snapping turtle, several delicate birds, et cetera and so forth. I was unaware that the fastidiously coiled snake, perfectly wrapped in a sheet of mother’s opaque white freezer paper, did not land in my pile, but at the top of one of her stacks.
My now distraught and hyperventilating mother had unwittingly mistaken my safely coiled snake for a frozen hamburger patty. Microwaving a snake that has already been parboiled on a sunbaked black macadam road produces an odor which can only be described as heinous. [The only other time in my life I have heard a smell described as heinous is when my father, reporting to mother that one of the younger boys had pooped his shorts, called out, “Mary, dear, the toddler has a heinous anus,” reveling with pride at the rhyme and his success in alerting her, doting mother, to a problem he preferred her to manage while he plucked a pheasant or gutted a fish. It wasn’t offal or excreta that bothered him, it was the quotidian details of child rearing.] Well my creature-of-habit mother moved like a ballerina through her kitchen, performing a practiced routine of deft, directed, motions. In a flash, she had extracted the hot patty from the microwave, still folded in its sheath of white paper, then executed a perfect unwrap & flip, landing the now flaccid and slightly less-coiled snake onto my toasted bun, ‘ere she noticed her error. The coiled snake struck. What a sight…what a heinous smell!
As you might imagine, mother was rather upset with me. I was equally upset with her, because the microwaves had popped the seams on my specimen and ruptured most of its guts which were now dripping snot-through-sieve-like through the burst body onto my bun, ruining all the potential this snake had for an enlightening dissection had it been properly thawed. We pinched our noses and glared at each other as the snake slumped off my bun and onto the plate, gravity tugging a final squirm from its listless body. Mother, aghast, packed me off to Boy Scouts on an empty stomach even as she condemned my disorganization for infiltrating her deep freeze.
I believe this incident led, more or less directly, to the Great Purge. More on that another time.
The featured image on this page is not, as you may have guessed, the skin of an Northern Ring-neck Snake. It is the skin – peeled, salted, and preserved – of another local roadkill, a small Eastern Milksnake.
Here’s Alex holding a Northern Ring-neck we found in the yard:
Don’t fret – we didn’t microwave this one. It was safely released back into the yard.