I watch these parents and their wild children while I clean up the trash and empty the bins. Not a job I enjoy, but Dr. Sanders says work and routines are important.
Clyde Peeling’s Reptile Land is a place for Pennsylvania parents to take their terrible children and let them loose for an hour or two. Most of the parents sit in Salamander Sal’s drinking overpriced coffee and the occasional beer smiling and saying words like “staycation” and “Timmy loves it here” while Tim runs around the lizard exhibits licking the glass and screaming at a sleeping chameleon.
Yesterday one of the little ones threw up on me right after I took his tray away. On purpose.
“Apologize,” I said.
His mother looked up from her phone and pretended to be sorry, but the little shit was smiling at me.
“Not you, him,” I said.
“I’m sure he’s sorry, Jeffrey,” she said. I keep forgetting about the nametag.
“I’m not sure.”
“I’m not sorry,” he says. He has a stupid voice; too high for a boy his age.
I’m still holding his tray, so I take it and smash it across his little face. He falls over the back of the seat and I hear his head thud on the ground. It sounds hollow. Mom screams, so I snatch her smartphone out of her hand and start slamming it into her mouth repeatedly until there’s too much glass, blood, and teeth for her to make more noise. The rest of the visitors watch me do it. Salamander Sal’s is quiet.
That last part doesn’t happen. That’s my lizard brain, Dr. Sanders says. My problem is that I’ve spent all my time listening to my lizard brain and not my person one. I don’t smash the vomit kid or his mother. I want to, but I walk away.
“That’s wonderful, Jeffrey.” Dr. Sanders says.
“Remember, this is a comfortable place; I want you to feel free to express yourself here.” She is pretty for her age, and I haven’t wanted to hurt her yet.
“Jeffrey, take a seat and tell me more about work.”
I don’t say anything.
“Jeffrey, part of your early release is weekly therapy with me. I can’t sign off on your health if you don’t share with me. And if I can’t sign off on your health then you’ll be sent back to…”
“The Cube,” I say.
“Yes, Jeffrey, as you call it. So tell me about work. How do you like working with the animals?”
“They’re going to let me handle the snakes,” I say.
She writes that down.
“I will pick them up, and make sure they’re clean, then I’ll feed them.”
“That sounds interesting; what do the snakes eat?”
“Mice, rats, ferrets, even small weasels. Depends on the snake. The bigger the snake, the bigger the animal.”
“That sounds like an important job, Jeffrey.”
“I like watching the snakes eat. They swallow those critters whole, and they don’t leave anything behind.”
I didn’t want to tell Dr. Sanders that Clyde Peeling refused to let me feed the snakes when I asked him, and said there was only one kind of job for folks like me. I don’t want Dr. Sanders to think that all I do is scrub up puke and shit.
Plus I wasn’t lying completely. After the visitors go home, and the Allenwood teenagers Clyde Peeling hires have gone home, I put the trash down and I go pet those snakes. Lately they’ve taken a real liking to me.
There’s this one big fucker, an anaconda or something, and she’s my favorite. I talk to her and she talks back. Not with her mouth, but with her lizard brain.
“I killed people before,” I say.
She looks at me, her head as big as four of my fists.
“I hate these fucking kids.”
So does she.
“If I ran this place, any kid caught licking glass or yelling at a lizard would have to spend some time in here with you.”
She likes that idea, we laugh about it.
We talk like this almost every night, even the night before that little shit puked on me on purpose. She saw it too. Her big tank is right across from Salamander Sal’s and I know she saw him do it and I know she wouldn’t stand for it.
“That’s why I did it.”
“Jeffrey,” Dr. Sanders says.
“You didn’t see him do it, you’d have done the same thing.”
“No, Jeffrey, I would not have done the same. I wouldn’t have followed that impulse. That’s the lizard brain, the animal instinct. You had an opportunity to walk away, to live life outside this place.”
“Me and her, we’re the same now. She is stuck in Clyde Peeling’s Reptile Land and I’m stuck back in The Cube.”
“Jeffrey, she’s dead. She swallowed that little boy whole, they had to cut his remains out.” Dr. Sanders says.
“He could have apologized, Dr. Sanders, to me and to her, but he used his lizard brain… instead of his person one.”
Brandon Arvesen is a writing professor at Goucher College just outside Baltimore, MD, having graduated from Goucher in 2005 with a BA in secondary education and English literature. Brandon taught English and writing in the Baltimore City public school system for twelve years, and during that time earned an MA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University. When not teaching or writing, Brandon is an editor for the Baltimore Review magazine, and is currently working on a novel manuscript. Most of Brandon’s writing tends to linger in the dark and comical.