Reptile House

by Cathryn Hankla

Tina Marie loved the zoo and every fuzzy creature, even the monkeys, which she thought were mean, noisy, and stinky, scratching around in each other's coats and pulling out bugs. The other kids in Tina Marie's second grade class stood with her, forming a line around the monkey cage, laughing at their antics, until the teacher's aide, Mrs. Brighton, said, "Come on everyone, we're going to tour the Reptile House."

Tina Marie was skipping ahead, until she got close enough to see the giant cobra banner slung over the entrance. She did not love snakes, even though she had never seen one. Now she was about to put the creature with the name she had heard in the garden story her grandma read from the Good Book. In the Good Book the snake's name was Satan. The Good Book was full of scary things.

"Bad folks and fools," Grandma had said, shaking her head. "Folk gettin above theirselves. Weren't no reason and still they defied Him."

"Who him?" Tina Marie asked.

"God Himself, the Creator, the Almighty, the Man Upstairs who watches you and always knows what you do."

After that Tina Marie knew better than to interrupt what her grandma called her "ruminations" with questions. Grandma had a spy upstairs.

As the class marched two by two along the sidewalk toward the Reptile House, Tommy flicked the little pink tip of his tongue in and out between his lips, and Elvin hissed behind Tina Marie. Krystal, Tina Marie's partner, was hurting her hand, squeezing tightly, and then she started to cry. "Make Tommy stop!" Krystal said, gulping back tears.

This group was close to the middle of the line and neither the teacher, who marched at the front of the line, nor her aide, who marched at the rear, could see them. Al took matters into his own hands and stomped on Tommy's toes, and when he did Tommy bit his tongue and a drop of blood appeared on his lip. Elvin continued to hiss, and Krystal squeezed Tina Marie's hand really hard and wailed again, "Make him stop!"

This time Tommy shouted, "Shut up." And the teacher heard. Ms. Jackson appointed Famous Francis to keep marching up to the Reptile House, and the teacher stood still while the line curved past until Tommy was alongside her. When Tommy marched within her arm's reach, Ms. Jackson pulled him out of the line, and they stood sidelined together while everyone filed on by. Famous Francis stopped at the entrance to the Reptile House, and the whole line stopped while Ms. Jackson chatted soulfully with Tommy, as shame was her way of scolding.

The teacher's methods took longer than any paddling Tina Marie had ever received from her grandma. Grandma only spanked her open palm a little with a rolled up newspaper and told her to "set still and think" when she did something bad. It was Uncle Spangler who liked to whip her behind, and the way he said the word sounded almost like "bee-hive." He did not like her "bee-hive" to be "fanning around," which meant Tina Marie did not sit still all of the time, as he thought she should, but got up sometimes and moved around. So he spanked her "bee-hive." He laughed when he hit her and smiled when she cried and sniffled, and he always told her not to tell her grandma about the spanking, because then she'd know how bad Tina Marie had been with Uncle Spangler when he was kind enough to baby-sit her for nothing, donating his time and staying with her free of charge when he had lots of important things he could have been doing instead.

If she told Grandma about the whippings, Uncle Spangler said he wouldn't keep her anymore and then she'd be in a fix, because anyone else would have to be paid and her grandma could not afford that. Unless she wanted to stay alone in the dark when her grandma went visiting her sick friends in the hospital, Tina Marie better button her lip. This much was clear to Tina Marie, and she had not told her grandma about the spankings, but there were other things that were not so clear.

Uncle Spangler was what people called a dandy—"that man rhyme with candy," her grandma had said many times—and people said he kept five wives spread out over four states and three times that many children, from four to thirty in age. He was as old or older than Grandma—how old that was Tina Marie could not fathom—and he smoked brown cigarettes screwed into plastic filters and drank something dark golden brown from a paper sack. His capped teeth looked like pearl buttons, and he carried a gold watch on a chain, drove a Cadillac convertible, and dressed in a pinstriped suit every day of the week. Uncle Spangler wasn't really Tina Marie's uncle; he just said for her to call him that. She couldn't remember the first time they met; she was just barely more than a baby. She was sitting under the elm tree, in the back yard after church at the time, wearing her little halter-top and shorts that someone named Mama had sent. Uncle Spangler appeared in his car with the top down and Grandma brought them some lemonade to sip while Tina Marie played in the sandbox.

"Such a pretty girl," Uncle Spangler had said. "But you ought not let her fan around without no proper clothes on."

Grandma did not take offense but just laughed in his face. "She's just a tiny girl. And pretty enough that she don't have to wear church clothes to prove it."

"You watch her grow up to be like her mama, then."

"Hush now. Tina Marie don't know nothing about all those goings on, and she don't need to hear it from you."

"I'm sorry, very sorry. You think this girl of yours could grow up to call me 'uncle' like her mama done?"

Grandma said there was no harm in it. It took a few more years before Tina Marie found out that Grandma was not really her grandma.

The neighbor boy told her when Tina Marie threatened to tell on him for trampling the mums.

"Your grandma is your great grandma or I'm Michael Jackson."

Grandma said, "I'm great to them that knows me, and that's the truth, but a little girl's got no need to repeat everything she hears. So go on now and play outside and don't pay no never mind to that poor little bastard. He don't know his father from a line-up and that's the honest God's, the honest God's truth. Run on."

Tina Marie left while Grandma was still grumbling to herself and went back outside and faced Petry down, "Grandma says you're a poor little bastard."

"Listen to that," Petry sang back, "Grandma says, Grandma says. . . your Great Grandma is wanted in two states for talkin through her damn hat."

Back and forth they argued, getting nowhere, converting each other not a whit. Tina Marie did not understand half the words Petry threw at her; she did not understand the words she had thrown at him or how hurtful they were, and perhaps Petry did not either, because he went on as gleefully as before. Their arguments were only a game that adults entered at the edges when more fuel was needed for the battle to continue.

"You think your mama probably a nun or something," Petry said.

Tina Marie covered her mouth; she was yawning and had been sleepy for some time. "I gotta go in," she said, "Grandma wants me."

"Grandma, grandma. . ." sang Petry. "See ya tomorrow, squirt."

"Goodnight, you shithead." Tina Marie beamed at him.

"And goodnight to you, little pussy pussy cat."

Petry was not at the zoo; he was in another class and his teacher did not bring them this time. Ms. Jackson put Tommy back into line and walked up to the front again. She spoke to Famous Francis and the line proceeded forward, with everyone holding hands peacefully in pairs and no one talking except quietly to his partner, like the teacher said you could do.

The first several pairs of children were entering the Reptile House, winding beneath the brightly painted cobra banner. Tina Marie started twisting one of her little braids tied with a pink ribbon and shuffling her shoes. She and Krystal fell back a step or two and the pair behind them had to slow down, and eventually the line all but halted all the way back to Mrs. Brighton, just because Tina Marie was shuffling her feet on the sidewalk.

"Come on," Krystal urged and pulled her hand forward.

Tina Marie looked down at the ground, away from the snake on the banner. The cobra was huge, and she could feel its red eyes watching her from far away.

"And when Satan tempted woman," her grandma had said, "Woman was weak. And though she was flesh of a man's flesh and bone of his bone she faltered and bit the apple of death. Woman believed the snake instead of the Creator. Now it's woman who's got to scream and writhe, bearing the children and woman who's got to raise them and woman who's to blame for what makes them come." All of this scared Tina Marie into silence.

Last night Grandma had come home late from her sick visits and thanked Uncle Spangler and sent Tina Marie to bed in one motion. As he was going out the door he asked, "Did Velma pass?"

"Not as yet, but there's little hope, and it would be a blessing. Oh, that poor woman, what her eyes have done seen, what her body has to go through."

Uncle Spangler took Grandma's hand in his same hand that had spanked Tina Marie so hard a short time before. "I'm right sorry for your loss, don't you take it so hard now, you hear? Velma's had three husbands and six children that lived, and she's been happy through most of it."

Tina Marie saw in Grandma's face that something disagreed with her.

"Velma's my friend," Grandma said. "And I think I know just how happy she's been."

"That's certainly right," Uncle Spangler said, bowing out the door before Grandma slammed it shut and shook her head.

"Menfolks got no sense in matters of life and death or marriage. Treated his hunting dogs better than that good woman. Thinks I don't know. I know," she said. "Don't I know it."

That night Tina Marie could not walk up the stairs without feeling her bottom sting with each step. She had to take one step at a time, because Uncle Spangler had stung her thighs until they were hot and tight. She still did not know what she had done to make Uncle Spangler take her over his knee and take down her pants and paddle her until her bottom went numb. After it went numb he made her lie down on the floor without her underpants and shut her eyes.

"Lie still and don't say a word," he had said from above her.

She did what he said, so she could get her best lace pants back from him. Grandma would be mad if she lost her best pants.

He gave them back after he groaned loudly and told her she could open her eyes. He looked down at her and dropped her underpants from a great height.

That night her grandma was so worried about her friend Velma, and she wanted so much to fall into bed right away that she noticed Tina Marie taking too long to walk up the stairs ahead of her. Tina Marie pulled each leg up one at a time before moving up to the next step.

"I'm about to drop in my tracks this evening and you walking slow as molasses. Why—" Grandma started to say something. And then Tina Marie felt the back of her dress being pulled up. "What happened to you, what you do to yourself to get so red back there?"

Tina Marie started crying a little but did not tell and kept taking one step at a time up to the landing.

"What the matter with you this night?" Grandma asked, then launched fast into talking to herself, as if she had never seen what she had seen or had forgotten it as soon as she had seen it. Nothing disturbed her running monologue. "Child come to me out of the clear blue sky, blood of my blood, got no choice but to raise her up. No-count Latisha done left her baby on me and run to New York with that crazy man of hers. Everyone got someplace to be but me, everyone got something better to do but raise this child." And then she raised her voice again and spoke directly to Tina Marie, "Brush your teeth and get in bed. No story tonight. I'm too, too tired."

Carefully pulling her underpants down over her painful behind and thighs, Tina Marie undressed and found her gown. She had to sleep on her stomach and she woke up more than once when she accidentally turned over on her back or side.

Over breakfast Tina Marie fidgeted in her seat and said she did not feel like going to school. Grandma reached across the table and felt her head. "You got no fever and you don't want to miss going to the zoo, so take off that pouty face. Grandma's got to go to work this day."

Tina Marie put her head down beside her cereal bowl.

"You want me to call Uncle Spangler to keep you again?"

Nothing came out of her mouth, but Tina Marie bolted up straight, and in a few minutes Grandma took her to the bus like always.

Now everyone behind Krystal and Tina Marie was stopped, waiting for Tina Marie, and soon Krystal stopped trying to tug her partner forward and dropped her hand disgustedly. Krystal surged with the rest of the line, weaving around Tina Marie, as though around a rock, and stepped beneath the banner.

The aide, Mrs. Brighton, stopped beside Tina Marie.

"What's wrong?"

Tina Marie said nothing.

"Then let's go with the class. There's nothing to be frightened of—all of the reptiles are confined behind glass. They can't get free. Come on." Mrs. Brighton reached down her hand and waited for Tina Marie to take hold.

The two of them stepped together inside the Reptile House behind the class. Tina Marie kept her head down, but it was hard not to look toward the lighted windows. When she glanced all she saw was greenery or branches. Though she was breathing hard she felt calmer, and she let Mrs. Brighton take her back to her place in line with Krystal, who ignored her loudly by saying nothing.

A man was talking to the whole group circled around a lighted window. Tina Marie stood next to Krystal and smiled a little as she looked through the glass where the man pointed. Some motion inside captured her eye and she gasped and held her breath. She kept looking and looking until she could see a red and yellow striped horned lizard, like a small dinosaur. Nothing moved except its tongue flicking in and out of its mouth.

The other children formed a line and followed the man to another window where bright green tree frogs were jumping up a branch, but Tina Marie was still watching the lizard's tongue flicking in and out, still holding her breath. Her thoughts had stopped, too, and in another minute she tumbled to the floor with eyes fixed in a stare, as her body began a violent spasm.

"Tina Marie!" Mrs. Brighton stood over her. "Tina Marie!" And then she bent down, calling for Mrs. Jackson's or someone's assistance, "She's having a fit! Get this child some help! This child needs attention! Please, somebody, help!"

Author of ten books of poetry and fiction, Cathryn Hankla directs and teaches in the writing program at Hollins University and serves as Poetry Editor for The Hollins Critic. "Reptile House" is from a new manuscript of stories.