My brother’s snake was named Percy. Percy was a boa constrictor and Percy was eight feet long and Percy could kill a grown man in four minutes. And I was not a man, I was just a boy, so think how fast Percy could kill me. My brother held up a tube of toothpaste with no toothpaste left in it. He said that’s what your body would look like if Percy held you tight for four minutes. I thought of the pressure making my head pop open, my mouth a hinge. I thought of my intestines squirting out, looking like blue and white wint-o-green Crest.
The lights were never on much in my brother’s apartment, so Percy could sneak up on you. One time Percy wrapped himself around the pull-up bar by the front door. He dropped his face down in front of mine and his eyes were blue, I think. I screamed and I peed a little and my brother laughed and Percy dropped onto my brother, curled himself around his shoulders like ammunition.
At first I thought it was Percy’s fault that I couldn’t go back to my brother’s apartment, with no lights and the black leather couch. My mother, who is not his mother, came to pick me up once and Percy was wrapped two times around my waist. I splayed my legs and held one hand against my hip like a model or a mannequin in a store window. I laughed and my brother laughed, but she didn’t, I think because Percy was so tight on me and she could see my soft stomach indent every time he breathed.
My brother spoke slow and slurred. I thought he was tired.
“Are you scared?” he said.
I said no, of course.
“Good, you shouldn’t be scared of things,” he said to me.
“See, he’s not scared,” he said to my mother.
She reached out for my hand and he threw his arm heavy across my shoulders, and Percy kept his grip around my stomach. I felt loved.
I got an iguana for my eighth birthday. I wanted something cold and prehistoric, like what my brother had. My iguana was a compromise. He had no teeth. He was safe. We fed him banana slices and he couldn’t hold them in his mouth. He jerked his head around, epileptic. He ran in place on polished wood floors because he couldn’t get traction. He was useless.
When I went to my brother’s apartment, we watched Godzilla in the dark. I lay across his chest and his heart beat slow and heavy in a way that I knew wasn’t right. It made me think of how hearts could just stop beating. He said, “Look at those little pussies,” and he pointed to the shrieking Tokyo citizens on screen. He pulled his eyes slanty and said, “Oh no, me so scared!” so I did, too. We laughed at the Japanese for being so frightened of a monster, as Percy slid silent across the TV console and my brother fell asleep, sweating, drooling, and I kept my head on his chest to hear the sound of his heartbeat.
In the morning we dangled white mice over Percy’s tank. My brother dropped his in and it paced in panicked circles until it seemed to resign itself to what was coming and leaned its body against the glass to wait. He dared me to drop mine in, so I did, and then yanked my hand back as though there would be some instant repercussion. We didn’t watch the squeezing or the eating, although in the story I would tell at school, the squeezing was vivid and awesome, little mouse eyes popping out and sticking to the glass. Percy was the size of a fire-truck hose in my story.
When I was ten, we left my iguana with my brother and went away on vacation. The iguana never came home, of course. The claim was natural causes, he was a sickly thing, but I wasn’t fooled. My brother called and the phone was passed to me. He sounded hoarse and swollen when he said sorry. He said he wished there was something he could have done, the little guy just stopped breathing in the middle of the night. It had always been a fragile creature, he reminded me.
“When you’re sad, listen to ‘Dear Prudence,’” he told me, and then he hummed a bit.
“Okay,” I said.
I was treated with special care for an extra week or so, having lost a faithful companion, albeit a cold-blooded, skittish compromise. I was talked to gently. But I didn’t want gentle, I just wanted to see the body. I imagined the outline of my iguana’s face fossilized, pressing against Percy’s stomach. I imagined blood on leather. I wanted to be worthy of casual death, quick and vicious.
Nobody knows what exactly happened to Percy. After the needle became more constant and obvious, Percy seemed of little consequence in that apartment. An eight-foot long muscle, he was comparably benign. I felt bad for him. Sometimes when my brother was discussed quietly at dinner, as though low volume would make me not listen, I would interject.
“How’s Percy?” I would ask.
“He means the snake, dear.”
“The snake is a snake.”
The snake stopped being altogether at some point before my brother did. I only know this because he was not in the police report or my father’s unofficial report, which was one sentence, “The body was cold.” So I guess paramedics did not complain of a monster dropping on them from a pull-up bar when they entered the apartment. When they hoisted my brother up from the floor in between the leather couch and the TV console, naked except for his underwear, there was no sign of life anywhere. Or maybe just a squirrel on the fire escape. Or roaches. Or ants.
Percy must have starved for a long time before he finally died, because boa constrictors do not die as easily as people do. I thought about him starving and never said it out loud. I thought about how my brother must have become tempting, plump and docile, a year’s worth of nourishment and almost too easy. I thought of Percy curled atop the TV console, watching, hungry. I thought of my brother’s face fossilized against Percy’s scales like a dead iguana, and how massive a lump he would be inside that body. I let it feel like there was choice, kindness even, in a snake’s decision not to eat a junkie. My brother had tamed him, and he remained unafraid for as long as he remained.
I became afraid of lots of things, even more so than had already been in my nature. I waited like a tourist for the light to change at New York City crosswalks before venturing across the street. Weekends were frightening, and friends, and novice parties filled with sweat and indiscretion. The fear seemed shameful but necessary. I liked to sit alone and watch TV. I liked to fall asleep. I liked to remember before my brother died, but after he’d been removed from my day to day, when I wasn’t allowed to see him and he was all story. When there was danger to imagine him, but possibility in that, too. The hard mystery of him, Percy wrapped around his shoulders in the dark.
These guys who ran the tattoo parlor down the street had earrings so big that goldfish lived inside them, and they had a Komodo dragon. On hot days in the summer, they let the dragon sit in a kiddy pool on the sidewalk, and they strolled him up and down the block on a dog’s leash. My mother let me go down to the shop to walk the dragon. I felt the looks of passersby as the dragon pulled the leash tight. I reached down to pet its scales and I liked the way they felt against my palm.