My mom used to be deathly afraid of snakes. So when she picked up a shovel and killed the speckled king snake in our backyard, she had no idea that the next year she would be buying me the exact same thing for my birthday. I think I was twelve or thirteen. It was early summer and talk had turned to my birthday (I probably turned it that way). Where the idea came from I don't know. Was it the king snake book I'd checked out from the LeBlanc Middle School library? Was it the kid at summer camp who had talked about his own pet king snake? Maybe it was the memory of that snake my mom had killed. Somehow I got it in my head that I needed a king snake.
The pet shop was called Peaceable Kingdom and was run by a couple of old hippies. They were weird, for sure, but nice enough. One thing I remember is that it was the cleanest pet shop I've ever entered. Even though they had cats, my allergies never flared up in that place; that's how clean they kept it. It smelled of fresh corn cob bedding.
My mom had reluctantly agreed to buy me a snake for my birthday, so we went to Peaceable Kingdom, the only local pet store that dealt in reptiles, to ask questions and look around. They showed me their stock of speckled kings and I was hooked! Such shiny awesomeness! Alas, I had to wait. My birthday had not arrived, and besides, even the meager $35 price tag was a big deal in those days. The waiting was unbearable. I fantasized about raising my very own king snake. About holding it and showing it to my friends.
Just before my birthday we went back to Peaceable Kingdom. I darted from cage to cage. Where were the king snakes? There were corn snakes. Rosy boas. Boa constrictors. Iguanas. Where was my speckled king snake? The hippy-wife came around to help us. My heart pounded as my mom timidly asked about the snake. I knew what the lady was going to say. I knew all the beautiful, gleaming speckled king snakes had been sold.
"Oh, I remember you!" she said. "We have one left."
I don't remember ever being so elated about a snake as when that lady emerged from the storeroom holding my first king snake.
After my mom paid the bill and we were leaving with my snake and a few supplies, I heard the lady call from behind me.
"Happy birthday!" I turned to say thank you and she handed me a book. "Here you go." It was the T.F.H. Book of Snakes, by Thomas Leetz. I was overjoyed!
I looked at that book--and read and re-read it-- until the pages started falling out and and I could quote my favorite parts. After over twenty years the snake is long gone, but I still take down the TFH Book of Snakes from time to time, flip through the pages and think about those magical days.
Thanks, Mom. And thanks, Hippy-wife.