The Smiling Snake
The clamor of excited children got my attention as I walked along the edge of the park by the school. Cries of “Snake, Snake!” made me break into a run as much for fear of what the children would do to the reptile as anything else.
A small group of elementary age kids came into sight as I rounded the corner of the fence protecting the swimming pool. That they were running away from me at a good clip didn’t do anything to help my building anxiety.
One of bigger boys started yelling “It’s a COBRA!” which made me run faster. The chance that this was anything but a local species was infinitesimally small. If this were many years later there “might” be a chance, given the number of deadly snakes which escaped during hurricane Andrew in 1992. Prior to that year I would expect to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex before a cobra.
As I caught up with the screaming mob I could see a slender black snake about four to five feet in length coming to bay as the children surrounded it. The stressed out reptile rose up in a defiant posture and turned to face the closest threat.
For a fleeting moment my mind asked, “Are you sure? It behaves like a cobra,” but that thought passed quickly.
I was finally close enough to confirm that this poor harassed beast was a Black Racer, which is a non-venomous slender snake with a tough guy attitude. They do like to rear up and hiss at you and will definitely bite if given the chance. The injury from such a bite is probably the least damaging of any animal bite.
Asking one of the calmer boys to help me, I had him get in front of the snake and at a cue from me, step towards it, staying just out of strike range. While he was distracting the ornery critter I zipped in from behind and grabbed the snake by the tail, lifting it into the air.
As I gently spun the snake this way and that as it tried to climb up its own body, a little girl dressed like Alice (of Wonderland fame) pointed and said, “It’s smiling!” Then another child echoed the claim, and another and another. Snake teeth are far too small to show up in such a way so I was really puzzled as to what they were talking about.
The snake was tired enough that it allowed me to slide my hand forward until I could grip it just behind the head. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw when I turned the slender creature around to face me. It WAS smiling!
Trapped in its stretched open mouth was a very small set of what I could only guess were upper dentures. Even more bizarre was that these miniature false teeth appeared to have orthodontic braces on them. I didn’t even entertain a thought that this was intentional, only that I couldn’t explain it.
When I tried to remove the foreign object from this unhappy creature it resulted in renewed flailing and the release of a very smelly fluid from its rear end which would make a skunk gag. Luckily I found a paper bag up against a fence that was large enough to hold my captive and after a lot of trying, I finally got all of it inside.
There was a veterinarian not too far away that might help me, but it would have to be for free, because I didn’t have any money. I hoped that the weirdness of the problem would catch his interest, if not I would have to come up with a plan “B.”
It was just before quitting time when I walked in the clinic door, but as fate would have it, the car that sped out of the back alley was the doctor racing for his golf date. The lady working at the reception desk wasn’t at all interested in helping a kid. As soon as she got “The doctor has gone for the day” out of her mouth, she turned her back on me.
The mean streak in me flared up and without thinking I opened the bag, pulled out the snake, and plopped it down on her desk where it knocked all of her papers to the floor. I said, “This snake has a problem and I can’t help it.” It was a wasted speech as the woman had jumped up and ran through the door to the back areas of the clinic.
I guess she didn’t like snakes as much as I did. It was a good thing that this particular Black Racer had a mouthful already, because it really wanted to bite someone at that point. The creature vented its frustration by once again releasing foul smelling fluid which got all over the counter top; I didn’t mean for that to happen.
As I was looking around for something to wipe up the stinky mess the door to the back burst open and a lady in her twenties wearing an apron hurried into the room. I expected her to start yelling at me for scaring the receptionist, but she was cool. “What’s up with the Black Racer?” she said while pulling a cloth from the pocket of her apron and tossing it to me and nodding at the mess on the counter.
I stood there for a while with my mouth hanging open, holding onto the writhing serpent and processing not being yelled at. A wisp of golden hair had escaped from the tightly pulled back hairdo and she blew it out of her face as she waited for me to respond. The unhappy snake brought me back to the moment at hand by bashing me with its flailing head.
“Oh, I see” she said as she noticed the odd obstruction in the snake’s mouth and moved forward to also take hold of the creature. Between the two of us we held it still as she looked at what needed to be done. “Come with me to the back and we’ll see if we can fix this problem.”
As we went through the door to the back she knocked at the bathroom door and said, “Dolores, you can go home now, I’ll close up.” From within the bathroom came a weak and shaky voice asking, “Is that horrible boy with the snake gone?” My new friend waved me on into an exam room with the reptile and closed the door before replying, “Yes Dolores, he’s gone.”
While I waited I tried to calm the nervous snake down by grabbing a white towel off of a stack on a table and covering its head. That seemed to help and I sat down on the rolling stool that the doctor always uses and put my arm (and the snake) on the examination table.
It didn’t take long for me to get bored; doctor’s exam rooms were my least favorite place to be. Even though it was a veterinarian’s habitat, there was nothing special beyond the same dog breeds chart which decorates every one of them. Just once I’d like to see a chart of snake species or even bird species on the wall.
The door opened and the young lady burst into the room with her hands full of instruments and a roll of tape in her teeth. She gestured to me to take the tape and then said, “I am Pat by the way.” I mumbled something that closely resembled my name as I watched her remove the towel which covered the snake.
Pat instructed me to move the racer to the metal equipment tray which she had just cleared off. While I did that she was ripping off strips of tape and sticking them to the edge of the tray. Once she had a bunch of those hanging around the tray she started cutting strips of gauze.
When there was a dozen pieces of gauze she said, “Now, we are going to tape our friend to this tray, putting a piece of gauze between its skin and the tape.” I didn’t say it, but I thought it, “This won’t work the snake will slip out of the tape.”
I did what I was told and put a piece of gauze and then a strip of tape over the serpent six times, sticking the tape to the metal tray. Pat said, “OK, let’s see what we’ve got” and released her grip. Fortunately I grabbed the speedy creature before it made it off the tray and hung on as it thrashed all over the place.
For whatever reason, instinct I guess, I grabbed another towel with my free hand and whipped it over the snake’s head and wrapped it up. “Give me a minute to get him calm again” I said to the now flustered Pat. She didn’t say a word as she stood there balling up the tape strips.
I slowly wrapped the towel around the snake’s body and pulled it down enough to see the head. By tucking the towel wrapped body under my arm I was able to present the uncovered head to Pat and control the movement enough for her to be able to work.
She got an underhand grip on the head and held it to where she could see the poor creature face on. “What the Hell!” was the first thing out of her mouth but the shock passed quickly and she got a hemostat off of the table next to her and tried to grip the false teeth.
The denture material proved difficult to grip so she tried grabbing a wire. That worked briefly but pulled loose before any real progress was made. As she sorted through the instruments she had available I took a closer look at the snake’s mouth. It appeared to me that the denture was hooked behind the curved teeth. If we pushed it backwards it would just hook behind the teeth it now sat upon.
Pat picked up a scary looking tool that made my eyes bug out when I saw it. Seeing my expression she said, “It is a spreader which is used during surgery to separate ribs.” Her intentions were good but I was afraid that the tool would break the snake’s teeth off and told her so. Her answer was to toss the tool back onto the table.
It was then that I spotted the jar of tongue depressors that you normally see it human doctor’s examination rooms. The idea just jumped into my head and I spluttered as I tried to get the entire thought out at the same time.
If we put one tongue depressor above and another below the offending denture we should be able to lift it free of the snake’s real teeth. Pat was good with the idea and she grabbed the flat sticks and we worked together to get them in.
Once she had the depressors in place and put pressure on them, I used the only tool that I had handy; my finger. I got cut a bit by the teeth as I pushed but was able to work the denture free of the jaws. The snake then did a maneuver that only someone who feeds snakes would recognize; it dislocated and reset its jaws.
Pat said, “I don’t have a cage that could hold a snake in the entire building.” I told her that I didn’t see any other problems or injuries on our little buddy and thought that it would be fine to let it go back where I found it. She was completely cool with that.
The merciful woman left the room for a moment and returned with a laundry bag with a drawstring which she helped me stuff the once again vigorous snake into. I said, “I can’t pay you for the bag or the help you gave me, I don’t have any money.”
She just laughed, put her hand on my head, and said “Don’t worry amigo, I haven’t had this much fun since the doc stuck himself with Novocain.”
We both turned at the same time like the idea struck us both out of the blue, and looked at the false teeth on the tray. Pat picked it up and turned it around and around in her hand examining it. Finally she said, “The teeth are small child size, but they are perfect. Why the braces and why false teeth for a child who would only have baby teeth anyway?”
I said, “The top of the whole thing is flat; the roof of your mouth is not. It doesn’t go into a mouth at all.” We both said “Display!” at the same time and high-fived each other.
A glance up at the clock sent me running for the exit saying goodbye and thank you as I contemplated how to talk my way out of trouble for being an hour late getting home. Fortunately for me my route home took me past the same field where the snake chase began.
I took the bag to the far side of the field where some bushes were planted and opened it and turned it upside down. At first the beast braced itself inside the bag and stayed there, but a little vigorous shaking solved that problem. Once it hit the ground it kicked into high gear and left the area without a kiss, a thank you, or even a look back at me!
This event took place on a Friday; the coming home late thing got me restricted to the house for the entire weekend which was miserable. Kids didn’t talk on the telephone in our house and there was no such thing as a personal computer or video game machines then.
Television was also off limits unless someone else wanted to watch it (read, my father) so reading was all that was left. Normally reading was my favorite past time but I had already read everything in the house at least once.
A city map caught my eye and an idea to see how many addresses around my neighborhood that I could identify and picture in my mind took hold of me; it was something to do!
It was while playing this mind game that I realized that there was a dentist office one block over from the school where I caught the black racer. The area was a little overgrown with weeds and had broken sidewalks, but was nice enough for an old neighborhood. The dentist office was in what used to be a private residence.
Monday after school I hurried home and got permission to go to the paddleball courts at the high school. I did go there (just so I didn’t tell a lie) but only stayed long enough to hit one ball against the wall. Honesty upheld, I took off at a trot for the dentist office to see if they knew what the false teeth in my pocket were all about.
When I got within sight of the place I slowed to a walk and watched a field mouse come out of the side door which was propped open with a brick. On a hanging sign over the front steps the board said “Doctor S. Miles Allott, D.D.S.” (Of course that isn’t his real name, I couldn’t use that.)
I walked up the steps and entered the front door which had a sign on it saying “We make your teeth happy” and an annoying bell went off.
The woman at the desk looked older than anyone I knew that was still working and she didn’t hear me come in. I stood in front of her desk for a little while, clearing my throat occasionally (which she didn’t hear) waiting for her to see me. It was a shy southern boy’s politeness nightmare.
I was still standing there not knowing what to do when a pretty Cubano dental tech came out and asked if I had an appointment. It was such a relief to have someone speak to me that I just went with the pretty girl automatically.
Once inside the treatment room the tech asked where my records were and what I was having done. I woke up to reality at that point and started talking. Pulling the denture from my pocket I presented it to the young lady and recounted where and how I had obtained it.
I half expected her to toss me out but instead she showed a lot of interest and examined the denture all over. Opening a cabinet she pulled out a headset with a light and several magnifying lenses that flipped out of the way. “Aha!” she said while looking at the back of the top edge, “I thought so!”
“This is an old display model used to show parents what braces could do for their children’s teeth. These haven’t been used for as long as I have been here. The doctor and his wife have been practicing for forty-five years and they used to do orthodontic work, I am sure they would know.”
We went back out to ask the old woman at the desk, who was also the doctor’s wife, but she was not there. The young lady, Isabella according to her name tag, looked at her watch and said, “Oh no, it’s too late, they have both gone home.” To be fair, there were no scheduled appointments and I don’t think that the old woman ever saw me.
I was pretty disappointed and started mumbling stuff like “It’s no big deal, thanks anyway…” etc. Isabella said, “Hey, hermano, no hay problema!” and laughed, which was a really sweet sound. “C’mon my friend, I want to look in the store room” she said and took off.
It took me a couple of seconds to process what had transpired and then I ran after her. She hadn’t gone far, just through two doors and into the side room with the open outer door. The room was very dusty and full of shelves and storage cabinets bulging with stuff apparently no longer in use.
Isabella was poking around on a shelf mumbling about “where would they keep them” when she screamed and jumped backwards. Running down the shelf in the opposite direction were three brown mice doing their best to get away from the screaming human. My new friend was standing in the doorway, but behind the door, peeking around it like the mice were going to mount a counter-attack any time now.
I said, “You could use a good snake or two in here.” Isabella rolled her eyes at that statement and said, “Madre de Dios.” She said, “Make sure there are no more ratitas before I look again.”
Trying to be nice and yet still slightly the “hero,” I made a show of banging cabinets and shaking shelves and declared the evil creatures vanquished. Of course I knew that mice could hide anywhere and there were probably dozens of them in the room, but Isabella was satisfied.
She cautiously returned to the shelf and soon found what she had been looking for; the bottom half of the tiny denture set! We had proof that what I found in the snake’s mouth had come from that very room. Isabella and I both jumped up and down laughing.
I moved a short step-stool over to the shelf the dentures resided upon so I could look down on it. As I suspected there were rodent dropping everywhere, but what I had hoped to see was there as well; the tell-tale curving line of a snake track.
There were marks in the dust which told me that the snake had struck at a mouse which was in all likelihood either on or in front of the dentures and the impact pushed everything. Isabella was muttering about hiring a cleaning team or exterminators as she went back into the main part of the building.
I was satisfied that we had the answer as to how the black racer got fitted for dentures. The next afternoon I went by the vet clinic and told Pat what I had found. She seemed more impressed that I came back to tell her, than by what I had learned.
When I tried to tell my parents and siblings what had transpired I was met with disbelief and skepticism. I had witnesses to back up my story but I just gave up and let it drop; it wasn’t worth the effort. That smiling snake lived quietly in my memory… until now.