Reptile House

by Robin McLean


Carl’s wife lay back, sanitized stirrups biting at her heavy ankles. Ten centimeters.  The steel edge under her spit out a baby. A pair of blue rubber gloves made the catch.

Carl’s head had hovered between the suspended knees and witnessed the exit close up. A tunnel and black fist of hair.  Then shoulders, tiny but slumped like an old man’s, then the crooked little body came out thrashing, apparently wanting no part of this new light world.  Carl could understand.  The skinny legs slid out last, kicking hard with feet too small to take seriously. This baby was a messy smear, a victim of riot, when the good place turned inside out.

The face was imbedded with a pair of eyes that roved, a sort of nose screwed in the middle, and small mouth, but loud enough, like it belonged to a thing with a dial.  A cord coiled into the place where Carl’s wife was.

“Carl, cut the cord,” she said.

“Cut the cord,” he repeated, and set a hand on the knee.

Carl didn’t want to cut the cord.  He had done it for the others and this, he felt, was more than his share.  The other kids were tucked in and away for a few days at her sister’s spread in Winnetka, not far from his parents’ old farm.  His own modest house off Cicero, just southwest of downtown, was enticingly empty tonight, all five windows to the street, three on top and two on each side of the red door, would be dark and oblivious to Carl, for example, in a big empty bed, or babies, or the half moon rising through the grit and glow of the city, outlining the tallest of its buildings. Keep it dark.  He hoped to get home tonight and sleep some, in all that still and lonesome.

The green nurse handed Carl the scissors and the scissors sliced through red and blue flesh.  This done Carl stepped from between the legs and made way.  Someone tied a small knot of independence.

“Carl, hold the baby.”

Carl’s arms took the baby, bounced it, pitied it, then gave it back. The TV bent down from the ceiling like a nun. A breathing machine, EKG on a cart, and devices Carl didn’t know stood at ready for ON and OFF, breathe, don’t breathe, live, don’t live.

The doctor reached in and stitched Carl’s wife with a black seam.  The blue and green nurses huddled close as the thread pulled through. Sponges, syringes to blood and bruise. A wince and moan.  When the baby first cried everyone laughed.

One thing:  the florescent in the ceiling fixture had flickered to almost out. This bothered Carl.   Another thing: the breathing machine box on the wall was off plumb and irritating. Carl was in construction. He worked in the showroom of a leading building supply outfit, his boss having flown him for training in fasteners – Carl was now the goto guy on this very subject. No excuse for sloppy work. Carl stared down the off angle.

“Carl, some water.”

The plastic pitcher tipped and the water poured. “Straw?”

“Yes, a straw. You’re a love, Carl.” She tossed a kiss without looking.  She was exhausted.  She wore a baseball cap backwards on her disheveled head.  She sipped on the straw while the baby sipped on her.  Carl sipped on nothing.  No one brought him water.

The baby was off for bath and immunizations. Carl’s wife dabbed coco butter on her wide brown nipples. Carl turned his back with the Tribune and folded into the crossword.  There was nothing wrong with her at all.  A mother.  Wide hips, a smile and a mind.  “Heart of gold” was what people said, but these were just three words.

She had half-finished the puzzle in pen back when she still could concentrate, sometime between two centimeters and three. The puzzle was called “Creatures of our World” and now Carl used a pencil. The empties, across and down, seemed glad to have his latest scratchings, starting with four letters down for “A dog without pedigree.”  Carl wrote M U T T in the boxes. She moaned in the bed, turned and moaned again.  It was contagious because Carl moaned too. Sick, edgy, out of sorts. Carl.

“Carl!” she said.

“Yes, dear.”

“Carl.”

He went back to his puzzle.

“Disney’s orphan deer,” but she had beat him to it: B A M B I five down in the bottom right.

If Carl could have been anything it would have been a long haul truck driver.  He would have gone by Jack for the snappy consonants and driven this Great Land in his shiny eighteen-wheeler. Driving fast and long miles with red eyes and a thermos filled. He’d have lived in that cab, slept in the space behind the seat with a propane cook stove and a satellite TV.  He’d have dosed to the CB chatter while rainstorms and snowstorms blasted the windshield, Manifest Destiny served up with coffee and pie from girls with slim ankles and pink aprons.  He would have dropped in at the house off Cicero from time to time for a little two-on-two with the boys, report cards, and hand over the paycheck.

An orange nurse came in with a clipboard and plumped his wife’s pillow.  “How are we, sweetie? Big night.” His wife smiled, signed a few papers, and the orange nurse left.

A beat up pigeon presided on the brick sill out the window. He liked it at first as it paced and pecked at nothing.  It seemed pleasant and interested.  It tapped the glass with its dirty beak from time to time.  Carl thought it looked pregnant but it was the wrong time of year.  Just getting a lot to eat, lucky bird, born at the right place at the right time.

If Carl were that pigeon, pacing and pecking at glass, he would see a man in a room with a crossword.  A lady with brown nipples, rubbing them in circles, and looking at the doorway as if waiting for someone. A perfectly clean and empty trash can by the door under the light switch which was a small fixture, about the height of an infant’s foot. The doorway which opened and welcomed out.   How the hallway beyond was wide, cool and serene, leading to an elevator bay somewhere round the corner with a button pointing down to the foyer, where a reception desk was tended at this hour by a sleepy man with a handlebar mustache and a winter coat since the revolving glass doorway went round and round forever like a child’s toy, perpetually offering the Outside to any taker, fresh air without end, and beyond this, if the bird turned and looked over the edge, was the shoveled walk to the parking lot, hooded street lamps spraying light over all including the edge of a street beyond, a street to other streets, a clutter of streets which by and by rambled to a cloverleaf entrance ramp, round and round up and merging left to eight sprawling lanes and seventy miles per hour even in the middle, and many miles before it cinched down to six lanes, then four, till maybe in Iowa or Nebraska, there was a simple ramp off right and down to two lanes, with the double-dash for passing, yellow, a sloping shoulder to the perpetual ditch, and west to Elsewhere.

Carl’s finger pulled a string and the blind rolled down.  A pigeon can be eradicated that easily.

“Carl.”

“Yes, love.”

She needed to pee and he walked her elbow to the bath. She was five feet four inches, 135 lbs. light brown hair. That’s what her driver’s license said about her. Mrs. to the neighbor kids, mom to her own and Carl, since her other name got stuck in his jaw sometime between the first and second child. A set of creases was forming round both their mouths.

“Carl, did you call daddy?”

“Not yet,” said Carl.  “It’s too late.  He’ll be in bed.”

“Of course you’ll call.”

The pay phone down in the hall had a seat and a folding door that closed.  The quarters dropped and the finger dialed. Pull yourself together.

If he ever got a chance he would go to Catalina Island.  He would be an old-fashioned man there, tall, stout, round as a rock, and reliable.  Big hands and a big mouth.  It was a beautiful place, he’d heard, just close enough to the continent that you could still see it, know it’s there, but still give civilization the finger. Like paradise with orange trees, lemons and pomegranates everywhere you look. He read in a book there was a town where people pedaled one-speed bikes up and down the little roads to get milk and eggs from friendly neighbors and smell the flowers and apples day and night. Carl later learned there were cars and trucks on Catalina, ferries to the mainland, and phones to anywhere else too.  So that book was out of date and wrong. He had never eaten a pomegranate except once in Sunday school.

His wife took something for pain below. Carl took something for pain in his head.  He sat in a chair at the window, looking. At a crash down the hall, the blue nurse ran and Carl thought of crashes, the empty house, the level in his gas tank.  The little white car. The baby slept, then woke, then slept. He grabbed the puzzle off the floor.

Five down.  “Humped and never thirsty.”

C A M E L.  He wondered what the word would look like in Arabic or some language and place that did not have camels at all. It would not fit the white boxes.  That was near certainty.

Once, before Carl had married, Carl’s boss was on the showroom floor. He had seen Carl many times, but asked Carl’s name anyway. “Carl,” said Carl.

And the boss said, “Seems like someone was just mentioning something about you.”

“Good or bad?” Carl asked excited.

“Very good. Whatever it was, I can’t remember, but you are the very best at it.”

Carl never heard.

“So hot in here,” the wife’s voice said. “Should we open the window?”

“Too cold for the baby,” he said. Carl was cold, though he was never cold, a warm blooded man. A cold snap.  Snap out of it.

So cold, so sick, so out of sorts. At the showroom, he was cheerful and easy, the go to guy for sticky situations and unhappy returns, the people with the warped beams, mismatched colors, the ratchet sets with missing ratchets.  But now Carl wanted to zip out of his skin. On the bedside table was a bunch of daisies in a plastic cup tipped over and he could not set them right. Their heads leaned on a phone book three inches thick full of strangers and over a stack of seven identical postcards of the Sears Tower, already stamped and addressed to friends and family. “WATER BROKE AT WATER TOWER PLACE!!  CRAZY! HERE WE GO AGAIN!!!!  XXX OOO!!!!”  The same message was printed on each.

Carl clicked the box for the TV and an old ball game came on. October 1963, and three guys were talking with no volume and the players wore old-fashioned uniforms that Carl almost remembered.  When Carl was young he wanted to fly an airplane or be a forest ranger.  He might have been a scientist like the one who discovered the 366th day, an Arab with an abacus and a stick for making marks in the desert sand, living in a stone room.  A tray of wine and bread glided though a slot at sundown.  Batter up, same as now.  There’s the pitch, a line drive to second, thrown out at first for a double play which retired the side. Like any modern team.  The channel jumped.   The La Brea Tar Pits are asphalt seeps smack in Los Angeles and one of the only archeological sights in the world where predator fossils outnumber the prey.  They were like black swimming pools, these pits. Carl had always planned to get a backyard built-in pool for the kids.  For swimming.  Above ground would do.  Maybe if the bonus came in.  The channel jumped a helicopter over the Great Wall of China, coiling down, all those stones set by some poor man, like an old animal lounging on the land green and pretty.  The channel jumped back to baseball, pop fly to center but Carl did not see what became of it because the TV clicked off.

“Should we open the window?” from the bed.

“Too cold for the baby,” from the TV.

Yesterday Carl had stood in line at a busy downtown post office and bought the book of postcard stamps at her bidding. Writing her cards in the waiting room, though, she had rejected these stamps he’d chosen.  She’d taken his Forever Stamps instead, his pretty stamps with the Liberty Bell on them, F O R E V E R printed in vertical next to the bell. Carl had never heard of them, but the clerk at the big counter was hawking them hard, giving his pitch to every patron in line: “The Perpetual Stamp.  First Class guaranteed at forty-one cents from this day forward and forever. Hell or high water.  Never expires, never declines in value, even if letter rate goes to million bucks. Great investment. How many books do you want?”

Carl had stood at the clerk’s big counter thinking of Fate and Perpetuity: the Sears Tower, house paint and report cards.  He was tired. He was hungry.  When they had met many years ago, he’d said he liked the “gravity of her character,” but he did not remember this feeling or what he had meant.

Flat line.  Highway.  An eighteen-wheeler could hold a lot of peanut butter, jugs of water, pilot crackers and rationing. Carl had bought three books of the special stamps.

His stomach growled and the pigeon scuffing. His wife and the baby slept. Eight across for “The sea’s diva.”  He scribbled S T A R F I S H and thought of Catalina Island, of the tide pools and urchins beckoning with delicate green arms.  Once Carl left his wallet at work and had gone back in to find it after hours.  The wallet was safe in the break room, but the day’s cash deposit sat unattended in its dirty canvas bag by the till.  A heavy bag too, since Friday was a big day at the showroom.  That and a gallon of best red enamel came home with Carl that night. Barn Red, it was called and high gloss. A new floor manager was fired soon after.

Six across: “Rodents in the Bard’s title.”  Carl thought, erased, then wrote S H R E W S in boxes at the center of the puzzle.  Good thing it was pencil.  The words H Y D R A and E W E S made sense now and appeared.

Four down : “Places to keep animals.”  Carl’s pencil wrote Z O O S, a word with a strange look, but so many words have that.  W I F E, for example, or  C A R L or

L E A P.  Look at them. Just lines and dashes cutting and crossing each other and promising sense. But phone lines made sense. Tunnels, conveyer belts.  The double yellow, straight as an arrow across the desert in Arizona, made sense.

G O T O

Some time ago in the Reptile House at the zoo Carl watched a twelve-foot python opened its big detachable jaws and swallow the other snake in the cage, its only companion. Black snake eats brown snake.  Big snake eats little snake.  Carl stood behind the glass eating peanuts from a bag.  Two snakes became one as people flashed pictures, went running, and whispered with quick tongues in the echoing dark. His wife had stayed in the Big Cat House and had not seen the eating. The kids were at the dolphin show with the sitter. Had the snake made some sign before the deed? Some goodbye or explanation with those lidless eyes?  Carl wanted to know, tried to remember. He’d witnessed it all.

To the guys at work he described how the final snake had two tails for a while, one pointing each direction, the gaping mouth in the middle, the brown tail flapping then still. Gulped shorter and shorter till gone.  This was odd to see.

The zookeepers had said of the incident:  “Unnatural, unprecedented, as far as we know.” But Carl had doubted that.  This was a PR statement if he ever heard one.  But there are things zookeepers do not like to admit.

The pigeon tapped behind the blind and Carl thought how the snake would show that bird a time. His wife was not interested in reptiles. She did not like what Carl liked. Carl did not like what she liked either.  Or other things too, so surprising with so little warning.  He raised the blind and said this to the pigeon. His wife and baby slept far away, across the room, behind his back.

In the Snake House, two windows down from the double snake in the cage, a nest of eggs had been hatching. The little things had tumbled in knots, striking and hissing, but it had been hard to take them seriously, till this.

Now the walls bleeped and who-ed at him.   Carl was hungrier. The two, his wife and baby, were a vague white bundle on the bed. At their elbows on a tray was an apple she’d bitten into at eight centimeters and abandoned, with lipstick and tooth marks in the green flesh, now in the sweet beginnings of rot. Apples are so good.  Apples are historic and scientific in the morning on Catalina. There were no snakes on Catalina.  Too far from shore.

He walked the apple to the trashcan. He stood in the door.  He thought of going. There would be no traffic at this hour. Home fast, in the middle lane, going sixty-five to the turn at Cicero and leaving the tallest of the city behind. The windows would be dark, not ignoring dark, or oblivious dark, just sleeping dark, five of them, three on top and two in each side of the red front door, like a big glassy family. The frozen lawn would roll out flat for him and his legs would walk him home. And don’t switch on the light. Keep it dark till tomorrow.

His wife stirred. “Maybe open the window.”

“There’s a pigeon out there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Carl.”

When the window opened, the pigeon flew off.   The green nurse came and took a pulse.

“You should go,” said his wife. “We’re alright without you.”

“I’ll be going,” he said.

Carl put on his coat and found his keys.  He grabbed the postcards and stamps. The elevator carried him down, the postcards slithered down the slot near reception, the revolving glass doors shoved him out to fresh air.

His keys clinking in the parking lot and the little car waited.   A satellite bee-lined the blackness, bent toward the horizon.  Like it was planning something big.

G R A V I T Y – Carl raised a hand up at it.

The parking lot, the side street, on-ramp, eight lanes, sixty-five miles per hour.  The four-door whizzed away by the Lake, over the river, zigged and zagged by wharfs, beacons blinking, stone lions and white-capped waves, missiled through the tunnels of towers, and past ball parks put to bed.  Finally he zoomed under the massive central post office that squatted over the entire eight lanes like a big brick mother.  Then the open road.

When Carl was a boy, the neighboring farm boarded horses.  There was one young horse who was so tame they didn’t tie him up or keep him in the paddock.  The people just let the horse stand in the driveway or walk in the yard because he never went far from the house.  He was too scared.  But once on a full moon night, Carl had been walking the road, thinking of his future. At the neighbor’s house, this horse came into view.  It stood alone, a white shadow in that moon, and maybe not a real animal at all. Carl was startled at first, then recognized the horse and kept walking.  This horse started to follow.   Twenty feet back, then fifteen, then ten and Carl started getting scared.  This horse had never been so far from the house before.  And what if it was not the same horse, but a different horse of a different temperament? Or a different creature altogether?  Young Carl found a tree and climbed up into it.  The horse stood at the trunk till dawn and went home.

Carl’s little white four-door whooshed past the Cicero exit.  The fringe off the dirty berm swirled up like a laugh. Walls, corners and rooftops stacked high and low, marched on neat and trim. The billboards shouted and flashed:  an umbrella, a mustache, a bottle of rum, as big as trees. Near the airport a cord of jets lashed fifty miles out over the Lake, heading past places like Kansas City or Maui, past landing strips and volcanoes and telescopes.  A jet with landing gear slung low, roared over the highway, and the little car flinched, swerved left, then righted itself to the middle lane.

Beyond the airport the city thinned and dimmed, private and pleasing. The billboards grew faint and quiet.  The walls, corners and rooftops purpled and settled away lower and lower to the ground. The night split open. The car sped on.

The little car slowed for a bank of toll booths spanning the road that Carl did not remember.   As the window rolled down and fingers fumbled for change, a pair of tall white lights, growing bigger approaching fast, sprayed the rear window.  The eighteen-wheeler purred to a standstill behind the little white car though all the other lanes, left and right, yawned entirely vacant. Its chrome face nuzzled in, steamed, licked closer till the grill grinned red in the taillights. It growled low at idle and the tollbooth shook as the quarters flew from Carl’s hand, the nickel and two dimes too, and were gulped down. The white lights blinked to high-beams blue. The gate snapped up, a green light said G O, and the little car went. The high beams winked a salutation as the car flew away around a next long curve.

In the dark, the white dashes dashed west and the little car threaded between them.  It was not long before the high beams came again bearing down fast from behind the long curve. Steady now, easy now.  In the rear view mirror, the truck stalked closer, crept and reached, till, grasping, the little car was snared in a whizzing ball of light.  Closer, closer, closer, the truck eased to looming within yards, within feet, inches of, and all was blue: the gripping hands, the trembling wheel, the shadow of the head on the dash. The dashes leapt on, the car, and the light, till at 84, something kissed the car’s rear bumper, tenderly, and the shadow shook.

89… 92… 95.

Shortly, the others came too.  They passed two from the left, one from the right, shiny black eighteen-wheelers, swirling rims and red rivets, without a single marking on their faces or flanks and no identifying plate or registration at the rear. The first of them slid from left into the lead, while the others sidled up even and cinched at the little car’s sides, leaving no crack for daylight when daylight came. 97 shuddered through steel and rubber and Carl’s mouth said something to no one in particular.

So it went for miles. The white slowed, the black slowed.  The black surged, the white surged. Nudge, bump, flinch, shove. Chrome fright roar bite knuckle knees teeth please faster stop faster please.

Boxed in.

The five lifted off at the border. If Carl’s mouth made a noise, from a pink place in his lungs, it was a very small noise. They made good time in the dark, over the land and Lake that, by this time of night, was knocked over and licked up.  To the rim and beyond it.


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