`Can I keep it?'

`MOM! Mart! Look! Can I keep it?'' The Kid galloped toward me dangling what I thought for sure must be a boa constrictor. ``I found it in the field,'' he cried breathlessly. The other boys gathered round, while the owner of the field paused mid-sentence to say, ``Fine little red racer ya got yerself there, young fella. Makes a dandy little pet.'' The scream that had been gathering momentum got stuck in my throat. Little? Pet? Red racer?

``Well, Mom, can I?''

``Can you what?''

``Can I keep him?''

The field we were in was filled with a glory of late summer daisies, Queen Anne's lace, purple thistles, and brown fuzzies that stick to socks. In addition, there were bedsprings, a few sinks, and several huge tires. The field was owned by a grizzled man of indeterminate age in overalls and no shirt. And in fact, it wasn't a field at all but his backyard. He had an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle for sale, and The Old Man and I and various of our boys had driven some 65 miles from my home in the concrete jungle of Seattle to his home in the foothills of the Cascades to see this Harley. And maybe even buy it.

``That snake,'' I began, eyeing it from a distance, ``deserves to be in that field ... (`that's not a field, ma'am, that's my yard') ... in that yard, free to roam with his family, free to catch rodents, free to ... (`the cats catch the rodents, ma'am, and sometimes even the snakes')....'' The Kid was shocked.

``You're going to force me to abandon my snake to some killer cat?'' he shouted. ``Besides,'' he added, lowering his voice, perhaps suspecting that country folk might not take kindly to city kids yelling at their moms, ``snakes may deserve to be in fields, but a boy deserves to have a snake.''

I was astounded by my momentary lapse. How could I have forgotten what a boy deserves! We ended up with a free snake instead of a Harley and drove home with one boy lovingly clutching a jar with a snake inside and three other boys wishing it was theirs.

We got home and The Kid enthusiastically set up the aquarium: a jar lid of water, some apple slices, a couple of hamburger curds, and gravel from the neighbor's Japanese garden. My boys went to a birthday party across the street; the Old Man and his boys went home; and I went out to dinner. When I came back, I called the birthday party mom, asked her about the party, told her she could send the boys home anytime she liked, and as an afterthought asked if she had heard about our latest pet.

``Well, yes,'' she said, ``it's just hard to imagine how it escaped.''

``Escaped?'' My throat went dry. My life flashed before me.

It seems that the birthday party had diligently trooped over to see the snake and it was gone when they got there. I tore the house apart and indeed the snake had vanished. I spent the next few nights sleeping fretfully, assuming that the snake would slither his way into the bedroom and join me in the cozy confines of my bed. I spent the next few days trying to buy a mongoose.

That was six years ago. Since then we've had other pets, and we seem to have a particular affinity for escape artists or critters with eating habits which I alone seem able to fulfill.

We got mice at the pet store. I was suspicious from the beginning. I was assured, however, by the enthusiastic pet store lady and My Two Sons that, indeed, they were pet mice, not real mice. Well, I finally agreed, they were cute: transparent ears, permanently moving noses, tiny wavering whiskers, and alert black dots for eyes. Of course we had to buy four: One would be lonesome, so get two. Whose room would they sleep in? Simple enough, get two for each room.

We found that pet mice turn into real mice when they escape, which they do as easily as Houdini. In a few days they were all over the place. And just like real mice, they scampered around, hid behind the refrigerator, and reappeared only in the middle of the night when I was alone and reading or during dinner parties. Furthermore, they lured the cats - obtained in grocery store parking lots - into peculiar behavior. Such as rousing themselves from a sleep-a-thon in my armchair, walking to the front door, and begging to be let out on a dark and stormy night. Anything rather than committing such catlike acts as catching a mouse. Particularly a recycled pet mouse.

We got our chameleon at the State Fair. He lived in an aquarium (more garage sales) on the radiator in the kitchen. He walked up the twig and turned brown; he walked down the twig into the gravel (yes, the neighbor's Japanese garden again) and turned gray. He ate spiders hand-caught by yours truly, who discovered that the Munchkin is afraid of spiders and The Kid is missing when it is time to replenish the arachnid supply.

One day someone told me that chameleons like to eat crickets, so off I went, logically, to the fish store. There I was told that crickets are sold in three sizes and that chameleons prefer small crickets which are available on Tuesdays, and wasn't I lucky, it was Monday and I could simply come back tomorrow. The next day, Tuesday, small-cricket day, I bought 25 small crickets for 50 cents. The happy chameleon immediately downed two and then ignored the other 23, which all escaped and then lived in unfindable places in the house. For the next few weeks our house was like a camping trip: silence all day and crickets chirping all night.

I chose to buy only three or four crickets at a time after that, always small ones on Tuesday and always wondering if Monday's crickets weren't perhaps last Tuesday's crickets all grown up. When the fish store salesperson tried to talk me into buying fish, I told her that all our aquariums were being used. One for the cricket-eating chameleon and one for the guaranteed male teddy bear hamster and its four babies.

It did occur to me, however, that perhaps I could keep a bowl full of water on the mantelpiece and tell the kids it was full of guppies that were too small to see.

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