Fiction · 01/24/2013

Crocodile

My mother brings the crocodile home on a leash. Its mouth takes up more of its body than its tail. It’s the same green as the jade beetles I liked to de-wing in preschool, and shiny like metal. My dad asks, How much’d she cost? It’s a he, my mom says. And he costs what he costs. She leads the crocodile upstairs and disappears behind the bathroom door. The bath water starts flowing. My father follows her upstairs and raps on the door. Elaine? He says, too loud. Not now, my mom says over the water. I’m going to take a nap, my father yells to me over the banister.

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In two days, I have to sing in front of one hundred people. I’m friends with most of them. We talk in the halls and take the bus home together. Some of them don’t like me and I don’t like them. On Thursday, Jordan Brown’s voice cracked in the middle of Lift Every Voice and Sing, and even though he always yells if girls’ butt cracks are coming out of their jeans, I felt bad for him. Grace turned to me and whispered that he got a boner when he walked back to his seat and I shushed her because we all have to sing, which is the worst rule in choir. Mr. Rhodes says this is good for us if we want to go on and be professionals, but I know that none of us will go on to be choir singers as our jobs. I mean, who’s going to sing in churches and old people’s homes, wearing stupid judge robes for the rest of their life?

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My mother is training the crocodile, who she has now named James, to shake hands. I come home and watch her practice with him through my bedroom window. When he gets it right — which has to be a fluke — she holds his face in her hands and nuzzles her nose against him. He doesn’t purr or bark or lick her back. He just looks down his snout at her. His eyes are so blank I can’t tell if he’s going to snap or not. Like he could just open his mouth and bite off her nose or something. I wonder, after we wiped the blood off of the grass and took her to the hospital, if my dad would be happy about that. Last night, when we were finished eating dinner, he pushed out his chair and stepped on James’s back foot. James made no noise but my mom yelled out, Gary! and went off about how James is a member of the family now and that’s not how family members treat each other. My dad yelled for a while about just how my mom thinks family members should treat each other. James just closed his eyes and rested his mouth on my mom’s legs. I closed my eyes too, trying to remember the final verse of Pie Jesu over their voices.

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Mr. Rhodes says that when we’re singing, no matter what words we’re saying, we have to keep our mouths in the shape of an “O.” Jordan Brown says something about an O Face and the entire bass section starts laughing. Mr. Rhodes doesn’t talk to us for the rest of the class.

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I come home and my father is bleeding. Not a lot, but there is a pretty big red spot on the carpet. He’s holding his ankle and rocking back and forth. My mom is in the kitchen, laying on her side by James, stroking his yellow belly, and whispering something into the little slits on the side of his head. My dad is saying bad words over and over, sometimes saying James’s name, sometimes saying my mom’s. I go to my dad first and he tells me to call 911. He hands me his cell phone. His hands don’t stop shaking and this freaks me out. All of a sudden, the blood puddle is bigger and redder than I thought it was and all I can think is that the room smells like rust and skin. I let my dad go and run to my mom. She holds her hand up to me and I throw the phone at her. Don’t upset him, she says. It was your father’s fault. James’s eyes are closing and his mouth is partly open. His teeth are very white and I wonder if my mom’s been brushing them. I go back to my dad, who has turned very white and sweaty. I call the number and explain how to get to our house.

When the medics get here, they won’t come inside because of James. They tell me I have to haul my dad out. I ask my mom for help but she’s bent over the crocodile, rubbing her skin against the bumps on his back. I put my shoulder in my dad’s armpit and stand up slowly. He bleeds on my jeans and apologizes. His voice is small, far away. In the back of the ambulance I hold his clammy hand and listen to the driver talking into his walkie talkie. A crocodile, he’s saying. The crazy bitch had it living in the house! My father squeezes my hand. I look down at him and I see that he’s smiling.

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I’m up. Grace has gone and now she’s sitting in her seat, her face red and her hands still shaking. She sounded okay, but I was pretty sure that she sang flat for the last half of The Magic Flute, but I won’t tell her that. When she sits down I whisper to her that she did great. Mr. Rhodes checks his roster and I know I’m next, but he’s taking his time so I don’t say anything. I look down at my fingers. There’s a little line of red under my nails. I hide my hand under my jeans and feel it sweat there. Mr. Rhodes calls my name. I can’t feel my legs as I walk to the podium. Soon, I think, this will be over. And then the piano starts and I know that in a few measures my voice will go out, loud and naked, into the room.

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Eliza Smith lives in Oakland, CA. Her work has appeared in PANK, Corium, Spork, and other journals. She is an editor for Story Tapes