Celeste enters the World of Reptiles at ten minutes to three. She isn’t crazy about the smell of the place; it has a musty, lizardy stink that she knows will cling to her hair and clothes, and more than likely, she’ll offend people on the bus ride home. As the assistant zoo director, Celeste wears regular business clothes instead of a uniform, but for this talk, she buttons an army-green zoo-issued shirt over her black turtleneck and houndstooth pencil skirt, and because she feels weird wearing her good work shoes (suede kitten heels from Nine West that Merritt helped her pick out) into the World of Reptiles, she switches them out for her running shoes, which she keeps in her work locker for the commute. She looks ridiculous, she realizes, but the kids are coming to see the snakes, not her.
There’s already one couple waiting for the snake talk to begin. Genus: European, Celeste thinks. Species: Swedish? Norwegian? Their natural habitat includes fjords and midnight sun, steam saunas, and lingonberry bushes. They’re both tall and hearty and have bushy, straw-colored hair. The man has a prodigious beard; the woman wears rimless spectacles. They both wear Birkenstocks over thick woolen socks. The woman pulls a piece of jerky out of a fanny pack and hands it to the man, and Celeste thinks about reprimanding them. There’s no eating in the World of Reptiles, and outside food and drink are forbidden throughout the zoo—but it’s the last talk of the day and Celeste doesn’t want to be a Debbie Downer.
A few minutes before three o’clock a man and woman walk in with a little girl. She’s about seven, Celeste guesses (she has become proficient at pegging children’s ages, often down to the month). The little girl has Shirley Temple curls, the kind you want to pull straight just for the sheer joy of watching them bounce back. The couple are giving off static and Celeste gathers from the set of the woman’s jaw and from the angry whispers that are flying over the little girl’s head that they’re arguing. As Celeste reaches into the first tank to retrieve Molly the milk snake, she eavesdrops. The woman wants the man to meet “Laney and Casper” for dinner at Root and Bone tonight, but the man reminds her that he has promised to have dinner at his parents’ apartment because his parents are leaving for Barbados on Monday and will then be in London through the holidays so he can’t cancel or postpone.
The woman—her hair very blond with tinges of silver but intentional silver, not aged silver, which makes her look like she belongs in a science-fiction movie—says, “You act like a minion around your parents. It’s pathetic to watch.”
The little girl turns her face up. “Who’s a minion, Mommy?”
Science-fiction Mother snaps, “I wasn’t addressing you, Miranda. I’m trying to conduct an adult conversation with Benji.”
Benji catches Celeste’s eye and smiles apologetically. “This nice woman is going to teach us about snakes, Miranda,” he says.
Miranda’s eyes widen. The mother huffs and Celeste smiles indulgently as if to convey that she knows how tedious trips to the zoo can be. The things parents do for their children! The fighting couple are expensively dressed, lots of suede and cashmere, a nice watch on the man, ballet flats on the woman, and she carries some kind of designer bag. (Merritt would be able to identify not only the designer but also the year; she feels about bags the way that most men feel about Corvettes.) Genus: Manhattan, Celeste thinks. Species: Upper East Side. Their natural habitat includes doormen and cabs, private school and Bergdorf’s.
It’s a typical sighting here at the Bronx Zoo.
Just as Celeste is about to begin—she reviewed Blair’s notes over her lunch break—a group of boys in their late teens wander in; they carry the unmistakable scent of marijuana smoke. Celeste raises her eyebrows. “Are you guys here for the snake talk?” she asks. It seems like they might have been lighting up elsewhere in Pelham Park and stumbled into the World of Reptiles by mistake.
“Yeah,” the one wearing a fluorescent-orange knit hat says. “You’ve got an anaconda in here, right?”
“We do, but I don’t handle him,” Celeste says. “He’s way too big.”
“I have a big anaconda too,” the boy says. “But you can handle it anytime.”
Celeste smiles patiently. No wonder Blair is so prone to migraines.
Benji turns on the kid and says, “Hey. Respect the lady, please.”
My hero, Celeste thinks. She doesn’t want the situation to escalate so she says, “Let’s get started. I’m Celeste Otis, the assistant zoo director, but today I’m wearing my World of Reptiles hat. And this is Molly, one of our two milk snakes. Milk snakes aren’t venomous or otherwise dangerous to humans; however, they do closely resemble coral snakes, which are deadly. This resemblance, known as Batesian mimicry, is one of the ways the milk snake protects itself in the wild.”
She moves point by point through Blair’s spiel. All snakes are cold-blooded. Does anyone know what that means? She smiles at Miranda’s mother, but Miranda’s mother is in silent-treatment mode, eyes drilling holes into the concrete somewhere over Celeste’s shoulder, arms locked across her chest. She keeps sneaking sideways glances at Benji, as if willing him to notice just how angry she is, realize just how unfair it is that he won’t go to dinner with Laney and Casper because he committed to his parents. Benji’s attention, meanwhile, is fixed on Celeste. He listens as if every word she says is wildly fascinating. Snakes shed their skins once a year and when they do, their eyes grow cloudy. Snakes smell with their tongues. Snakes don’t have ears.
Benji leans down to Miranda. “Isn’t that crazy? Snakes don’t have ears.”
“Some people think snakes are slimy,” Celeste says. “But actually, their skin is dry and cool. Would anyone like to touch Molly?” Celeste holds Molly out to Miranda’s mother, who backs up a couple of steps.
“No, thank you,” she says.
“Oh, come on, Jules,” Benji says. “Be a sport.”
“I don’t want to touch the snake,” Jules says.
“There’s no reason to be afraid,” Celeste says. “Snakes have gotten a bad rap since biblical times, but Molly is quite lovely.”
“I’m not afraid,” Jules says. “How dare you suggest such a thing.”
“Whoa,” the stoner in the orange hat says.
Celeste thinks of apologizing but she doesn’t indulge bratty behavior in children and she won’t indulge it in their parents either. To prove a point, she holds the snake out to Miranda. “Let’s show Mommy how brave you are,” she says.
Miranda eagerly reaches out a hand to stroke Molly.
“Look at that,” Celeste says. “I think she likes you.”
Jules storms out of the World of Reptiles.
Celeste sighs. She has a long-running joke with her boss, Zed, about fund-raising to build a cocktail lounge next to the cafeteria for parents like Jules. It would make all of their jobs a lot easier.
The Swedes must think the talk is over because they follow Jules out.
“Can we see a boa now?” the stoner asks.
Celeste brings out Bernie the boa and she wraps up her talk with a stroll past the poisonous snakes—the puff adder, the rattler, the pit viper, and, a perennial favorite, Carmen the cobra. Celeste taps on the glass, and Carmen rises up like a plume of smoke and unfurls her hood—and everyone takes a step back.
“That concludes our snake talk,” Celeste says. “Enjoy the rest of your Saturday.”
The stoners tap on the glass of Carmen’s tank, trying to get her to strike, while Celeste heads to the utility sink to wash her hands. She finds Benji and Miranda lingering before Molly’s tank, and in an attempt to make amends for provoking Jules, Celeste joins them.
“Molly just shed her skin this week,” she says. “That’s it right there.” She points to the gray tube of skin, as delicate as filigree, still mostly intact.
Benji smiles. “Thank you for all this information. I’m sorry Jules stormed out. She’s upset about something else.”
“No worries,” Celeste says. “I’m just filling in for the usual snake expert. My job is mostly administrative these days. It’s fun to be hands-on, although I hardly expect real-world problems to vanish when one walks into the World of Reptiles.”