There was a rumor that not all the exhibits in the Spokane Memorial Zoo were, well… That somewhere there was an attic, or a supply closet, or an elevator shaft, and in it was somebody’s special project, and if you knew that person, and if you were very quiet and very secret, you could go there, and there you would see the most delightful little, well… Or at least, you might be able to buy a photograph. Because of what was in that place, you could see things—and do things—to drive the sharpest and most forbidden pleasures through the heart. Those blue crush metallic hate-pleasures. The smoothest of all amberlight firemist pleasures from the smoothest of all, well…
Hector Mills was that person, it was his special project, and he had started that rumor, and it was true. But secret. He rubbed at a stain on the left sleeve of his uniform. These little moments of reflection during the day were such a comfort. Kirk smiled at him from behind the glass with his beautiful, hairless white mouth and said, “Four.”
Inside the cage with Kirk was a single branch, bleached white by the reptile lights, resting on sand and artfully arranged rocks. Kirk liked to drape his thick loops from it, so that he shone iridium silver under the chicken wire ceiling. Concrete shaped to look like natural limestone formations framed Kirk’s exhibit, the third habitat on the left in the Reptile House.
‘Concrete shaped to look like X’ could be described as the zoo’s dominant aesthetic. Was it designed to hide all the monkey rape, or to artfully embroider and enhance it? As an illustrator—someone with a personal investment in visual aesthetics—this was a question Hector would have loved to put to Quinesco J. Alfredi, the zoo’s long-dead principle architect.
Thirty seconds was up. He turned to face the small group.
“The Black Mamba,” he said, “can strike at a distance of over twenty feet, faster than the eye can see. They sometimes grow fourteen feet long, but Kirk here is only four-and-a-half.”
He would put a marmot in the next book.
“They’re super deadly, right?” said a disheveled teen, looking up from his phone.
“If Kirk were to bite you, young man, it would probably just make your arm feel numb. You might get a headache or a metallic taste in your mouth. You might slur your words and drool.”
The breeze moved green plant fingers. Sneakers shifted on interlocking bricks. Every bird yelled the worst word it could think of. Every bird yelled its own name, which was the worst word it could think of. The worst word Hector Mills could think of was ‘four’.
“And then seven hours later you would die.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from one or two of the mothers in the group. Gunmetal pearl purses lifted.
“I’m joking; just trying to frighten you. Kirk had his venom milked twenty minutes ago. He’s as dry as astronaut ice cream.” He hadn’t, and wasn’t. The mothers relaxed. “We’re all perfectly safe.”
He led them out of the Reptile House and to the food pavilion courtyard, near the stark wrought-iron bars of the outer wall. Concrete was shaped to look like marble pillars, wooden fence posts, palm trees and thatched roofs. Four. Tasty drinks were available to the children in all the colors: lime pastel, blue crush metallic, detonator yellow, et cetera.
We’re all perfectly, perfectly, perfectly, perfectly, perfectly, perfectly safe.
Four. Out of thirty-four, on the scale. Nothing turns it backwards, nothing subtracts points. Ever.
One of the gasping women approached him after the tour where he stood by the fence, dragging a child behind her.
Obvious neuromuscular symptoms begin at nine.
“Mister Mills!” She was holding a book. “Mister Mills, my son just loves your books. Don’t you, Liam?”
Liam was two years too old, by the look of him, to think Bouncy Buddies was any good.
“Would you?” she held out the hardcover and a pen.
Bone marrow transplant, never successful in adults, necessary at fourteen.
He signed the book. Children were too easy to please. He hated them. All you do is take an animal and smooth out the shape, like it was sculpted in wax and melted. Draw that; not a real, hairy, dirty rabbit; draw a hateful melted-wax child-rabbit. A smooth child-rabbit. Hatred is the truest form of love.
Always be open to new adventures. H. E. Mills. June 10th, 2018.
Hatred respects absolutely the unique being of the other, the unassailable reality of the other’s significance, by assailing it.
“Thank you,” she said. “But why did you say that, about that snake’s venom?”
There’s no need to crucify something you don’t secretly adore.
Hector blushed, a useful trick. “I may have phrased that sentiment somewhat infelicitously, I admit. Perhaps I overcompensate due to my second job. But these animals,” gesturing to the reptiles, “are not the bouncy bumblies of a child’s bedtime story.”
The black shadow of the fence’s bars fell across the child’s smooth face as the sun came out from behind a cloud.
The medicine every day, every day, every day. Even one day, even one more tick upwards. Even one missed day could mean five on the scale.
“They are to be respected, above all.”
Clean monkey fudge.
Give Kirk his afternoon guinea pig.
Tiger anus maintenance.
Trim flamingo feathers.
Draw pictures for next book, Cutie Cuddlies. Include marmot.
Hose. Silvery jewel spray. Wet concrete in sunlight. Scratches, chips and splinters on the concrete trees, up close. Hanks of fur. Obsidian eyes. One cage corner absolutely dripping with semen.
“Monkey rape, monkey rape,” they yelled at him from their alternate cell.
He would shave them all if he could.
“Finger tape, monkey rape, monkey semen, monkey rape, chocolate scrape, monkey semen, devil cake, monkey rape.”
The hose on their window only made a noise.
Half a monkey turd stuck to his shoe. Hose again.
Live or dead? Nobody ever comes into Hector’s reptile workshop.
Razor, restraints, tiny restraints. Soap and lather.
Snakes don’t really need that much hair in their diet. The marmot in the next book, he decided, would be green. Lime pastel.
White hair and brown hair and more round, beady eyes. Terrified squeaking, absolutely correct. The smell of the snakes.
Two out of ten have a heart attack anyway, with all that snake musk around. They know.
Towel. Pink, hairless. Struggling.
Finger pressure on the belly. Four quick cuts. A streak of blood on the towel. Guinea pig balls.
Utility closet switches. Cage door, quickly, squeals, predatory rustle, lazy reptilian motion. Meat.
It’s totally normal in Peru and Ecuador. Not raw, of course.
“Yes, a toast.”
“To smooth animals.”
“Yes, smooth animals.”
Very quiet and very secret; the special project. Special wiring, special locks, unused circuits. The row of switches on the console, never to be touched. Flip the switches, flip just the right ones. The old elevator shaft.
Gunpowder-flash pleasure. Stars over the motionless ocean.
Food. Water. Camera. Click, click, click. Polaroid. Four.
Much nicer than a guinea pig. Very smooth.
Back up out of the old elevator shaft, deep slow breaths against excitement, into aerodynamic sky day.
Highway. Car colors, white, gray, green. Blue crush metallic. Gunmetal pearl. Storm titanium. Lime pastel. Good, clean, aerodynamic lines. Amberlite Firemist. Iridium silver. Detonator yellow. Fall asleep to the sound of the marketing words telling you optical death, pulling your intestines out through your ears, brain firemist dick storm eye guns.
Luderman. Luderman’s ridiculous hair. Pictures, money, suggestions, threats.
I’m joking. Just trying to frighten you.
And, but, and, and the medicine.
It’s just oil, just oil you’re not allowed to have. You can’t blame Luderman, either. It’s complicated, but you can’t really blame Luderman. He’s just a pedophile chemist blackmailer.
Highway. The weight of the little glass bottle. Two days’ dose, today’s already swallowed. Patches of light and shade from gunmetal pearl clouds.
Of course. Of course some kid had been banging on the glass. Probably Liam. There ought to be a double pane of glass and some kind of soundproofing.
But now the tiger’s all riled up. Can’t use sedatives on it, it’s got cardiac issues.
“James,” Hector said, “you always have a choice. All of us always have a choice, every day.” Weight of the glass bottle. “And you can turn off the cameras and go find something else to do for half an hour and I’ll do it, even though it’s not my job, James, or you can leave the cameras on and do it yourself.”
Oh, four. Four. But no, the reassuring weight was there.
Pet health care tips: expressing your cat’s anal glands at home. Your vet can teach you how to perform this simple procedure, necessary sometimes after prolonged failure to properly secrete, or, worse, impaction. Like the hard kernel of a pimple, except pungent fossilized feline anal scent product.
Which is why Karl the Tiger would drag his bottom on the floor, lick obsessively and stink with such a stink as to repel guests as far away as the aviary, unless somebody got in there weekly and squeezed out his big nasty glands. Friend Jimmy hated doing this, and was not good at it, and was afraid of the tiger. Hector, on the other hand, hated the tiger. Not love-hate, either, not hate-pleasure, just regular hate.
And he needed a shave down there, too. Karl was not the best self-groomer. Nasty beast.
‘Tiger dingleberries’ sounds funny but they are not.
James left and Hector went and got the stun gun. He had originally hoped that Karl, like most animals, would have the sense to learn to fear the stun gun’s sound. It was pink, like all things made for women. But no, Karl was stupid and had to relearn every week.
Weight of the bottle. Not in the pants pocket, with the stun gun. Shirt front pocket.What you do is, you flip switch one in the utility closet, flip switch three, hurry in there with the tiger because the lock’s on a five minute timer, get the thing done, unflip the switches, go visit with Kirk again before flamingo scissors time. There’s a system. It’s balletic.
“Hello, scaly penis,” said Kirk. Perverted smile.
“Snake penis, scaly penis.”
“Hissing, sliding, predatory, bending, active, reptilian penis.”
The world turns storm titanium. Every smooth line freezes. Grecian urn.
The bottle has fallen. The bottle is on the wood chips floor of the black mamba cage. Kirk’s tongue flicks at it. Tomorrow’s dose.
Relief. The snake turns and slides away, going up his tree. Probably to rest for the evening.
Time went back to normal. Hector made a plan. If you flip switch seventeen then switch fourteen then switch one, Kirk would be trapped in the back half of his cage and you could go real quick into the front part and grab the bottle, put everything back the way it was and nobody would find out.
Okay, will that work? Good. Go.
Hector rushed to the utility closet, flipped the switches and rushed back to the reptile house. After the five minute timer, he heard the locks click and went into the cage. It must have rolled into one of the dark, reptile-cooling cubbies. He examined them one by one, quickly but thoroughly.
There was a low growl. The kind that a housecat cannot produce.
Detonator yellow world. Time slows but it does not stop. Time keeps coming. The stun gun is in his locker, far away. There are heavy cat pads on brushed concrete. There exists inevitability.
Did he flip switch seventeen, or, in his hurry, had it been switch seven? Same column, different row, easy to mistake. Never flip switch seven. Never.
Amberlite firemist world. Time keeps coming.
Because if you flipped switch seven, then you didn’t flip switch seventeen, and the reptile center partition was still open.
The dark cubby into which you are currently reaching for your medicine bottle may actually hide the smiling gunmetal gray black mamba. Black mambas do actually bite. The tiger steps pause. That means Karl is crouching.
Each new thing keeps coming.
And if you flipped switch seven, well…. That was an unused circuit. Not ever to be touched. It would activate the tiger cage too, but primarily it interfaced with the old elevator.
If the tiger was free, then the old elevator had opened. The one containing a, well…
Containing the special project. Out in the open, out among the zoo’s guests. And the rumor. Very quiet and very secret. Not all the exhibits in the Spokane Memorial Zoo. And Luderman’s photographs.
I’m joking. Just trying to frighten you.
Matthew Talamini is a writer, web developer, long-distance runner and musician. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and has an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University. Visit him at matthewtalamini.com.