Al pulls up to the curb in a big dark van. You can’t even see him in there, just the door sliding open and the cold bone hand of the grim reaper beckoning us to climb in. Ominous, for sure, but we climb in.
Me, Matt, and Brandon.
Al is one of Brandon’s hometown friends, living off-campus at Michigan State. He’s been here a year or two, long enough to move out of the dorms at least. He does not drive us to a dark alleyway or a graveyard or an abandoned ball bearing factory. He drives us to his unassuming rental home on a pleasant street just off the main campus drag. It’s looking more and more like I’ll survive my second weekend of college.
I went home the first weekend.
It was “welcome weekend,” actually. The traditional first swing at a year’s worth of collegiate debauchery. I welcomed the college experience by reading books on the beach 200 miles away. Typical. But after a week back at school watching more socially adept humans begin the bonding process that produces lifelong friendships, it seemed smart to take Brandon up on basically any offer to do anything ever. Including, but not limited to, this offer of a night out at a stranger’s home.
The stranger, Al, offers us all beer once we’re in his place. Coors Light, or something similarly cheap and easy. Classic college move, but I pass. My previous experiences with drugs amount to drinking six cans of Coke in an evening and the one time I watched my friend smoke salvia. He stood in a field for ten minutes thinking he was made of Legos. No beer could ever make me feel better than I felt watching him.
I’m too young, too naive, though, to understand that beer is more than just good feelings in a can. It’s also a crucial social lubricant and anxiety dampener. So when Al offers to show us his knives, I feel only fear, not the joyous elation of something intriguing and barely understood about to happen.
Al works at some place with a name like CutCo. I guess they sell knives? Or maybe they just give them to Al. He’s got like a half dozen. Big ones. The kind of knives that really should belong only to Rambo or a secret government weapons project. We marvel at the sharpness and metallic sheen and kinda wonder where the bodies are buried.
Al’s full of surprises, though. He holsters the knives and offers, like the checkout clerk might offer an in-store credit card at Sears, to show us his snake.
Non-chalant. Off hand. “You guys wanna see the snake?” Like we already know about it. Al’s not even looking at us when he asks, just putting away those giant, forearm-sized knives.
Al leads us down the hall to a dark spare bedroom. I’m expecting an aquarium. Some leaves, soil, a branch, maybe a little pool and a heat lamp. Inside will be the kind of snake you find in a forest and don’t flip out over. Slithering through the undergrowth and you’re all like, “Ooooooo snake!”
But no. Al turns on the light, making it not so dark that we can’t see, but not so bright that it disturbs the nocturnal activities of the six foot python snarled across the carpet.
If I’d been drinking a beer, I might have done a spit take.
Maybe it’s not a python. Maybe it’s a boa. Or an anaconda. Or like, a goddamn dinosaur alien lizard. It’s easily the biggest snake I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo. Biggest snake I’ve seen in someone’s fucking spare bedroom, that’s for sure.
Al’s rigged up a baby gate and chicken wire across the middle of the room to keep the snake penned in. It’s clear, though, that if the snake felt like leaving the room to, you know, devour a capybara, it would be quite capable of doing so.
Maybe the snake is renting the house and Al is just a long-term guest.
It’s deeply strange, but somehow reassuring to see such a deadly creature in so harmless a college scenario. I picture the future house party, the drunk guest hunting for the bathroom. Clearly, that’s how this creature feeds. Calmly wrapping itself around the stunned young man who was merely hoping to empty his bladder before hitting on the cute girl in the orange top. Well, his bladder’s empty now.
We leave the snake to its business, whatever that might be. Snake things. I’m pretty bowled over. Brandon said, “Let’s go hang out with my friend,” and I thought, “I guess this is as good a time as any to commence socialize.” Like a fucking robot. And here we are now, examining the sharpness of knives and expressing admiration for a sleek, dark monster in the spare bedroom.
What kind of chump chooses books on a beach over this? This is quality. This is memories. This is life.
It’s probably the moment where I decided college was gonna be great.