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Reality Marble

Build a World Any Way You Can

ISSUE:  Spring 2022

One day, while cutting the grass outside Lustrik Corp., Joey came across a garter snake. At Birds Birds Birds they were $11.99 each, but here was one for free, unscathed by lawn-mower blades, slithering right over the boy’s foot. It was the biggest he’d ever seen, and the first brown one. He’d come across milk snakes and garters in the creek under the El, down by KFC, but never this close, this big and this slow moving. He had to capture it. In his shortage of red-and-white-painted Poké Balls he resorted to the barbarism of picking the snake up with his bare hands, an act he’d only ever seen Ash do with Pikachu. Joey then let the snake wrap around his arm and held it at his chest, carrying it down the street like a muscular strand of rope. He would name this creature Spike. He put Spike in an old fish tank that had gotten cracked a while back in a fight, soaking the carpet and suffocating its previous residents. He wiped away the half-dried slime and remnants of fur, scales, and cricket bodies he’d missed before—for this was not the tank’s first or last transformation—thinking he should have begun his amateur zoo with the snake and skipped all other animals prior. Going in and out of the house like he knew he wasn’t supposed to, Joey gathered grass and dirt and then, after letting the tap run a bit until it came out clear, filled Spike’s water bowl. He left Spike at home and returned to the Lustrik Corp. grass resolved, not so much to get the biweekly twenty dollars Popop would pay him for the task, but more to find his new snake some friends. He mowed carefully, inching along. The job took twice as long, but he found another one—green this time, big and juicy, too, almost as large as the brown one. He named it Amy. 

Amy was the first name that came to mind, the same name of this middle-school girl Joey could not stop thinking about in such a way that it filled him with shame and consequently deepened his obsession. He wondered if it was appropriate for boys to think about girls this way, and if Popop ever thought this way too, and if so, what should he do to fix it? All of this much more difficult to think about than just naming the snake Amy. So he named the snake Amy. The boy told everyone that these snakes were mutants because of how big they were. They were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of snakes, rescued from a dreary life in some sewer, saved from hunting endlessly in the tall grass too. Joey knew that he could make the lives of these snakes better than his own or, for that matter, better than the life of anyone he knew.

Standing at the top of his apartment building’s three concrete steps to the front door, Joey held Spike above his head how Rafiki did Simba; he could even hear “Circle of Life” building up from the base of his skull, reminding him of where he’d come from and where he was about to go, foregone dreams of cartooning be damned: This snake and Joey would have a life together. A rapt audience of neighborhood kids stared up in awe. Kevin, Robby, Jeremy, and Jeremy’s older brother, Daniel, squinted; all three African sisters from across the street—Erica, Maya, and the tiny one who always wore the Mickey Mouse pull-ups—stood frozen, mouths agape. Silence. Joey knew then it was time to speak. “It is possible,” he said, “that the chemicals from Popop job leaked into the grass and made these mutant snakes.” The silence gave way to mumbling. “It’s possible, is all I’m sayin.” Then Joey looked around. “I’m matin these snakes,” he said, with Spike held high in his right hand. “And if y’all want, y’all can buy the babies from me.” He stopped for a moment, considering a price. “Ten dollars each. They cost like twenty dollars at the pet shop. Y’all can go check. I’m not even lyin.” 

Robby and Kevin did actually fact-check Joey at the pet shop. It was summer and Birds Birds Birds was only a block away on Frankford Ave., five minutes at most to stop in and turn around. The girls went to go jump rope with Mika at the end of the street, all except his Aunt Tia, who walked up to the stoop and took Spike from his hands gently, holding the snake up to her face, flicking her tongue back and forth in sync with his.

“Boy you so full of shit,” she whispered to Joey before handing the snake back.

Some of the kids were intrigued. Not necessarily Jeremy’s brother, Daniel, though, who was older and a self-proclaimed “wigger,” which meant that no one took him seriously. He had a lot of pimples, like Tia, but his were red and violent looking; Tia often called him pizza face, but it never seemed to muddle Daniel’s extraordinary confidence.

“Joey, that’s some bullshit. Fuck outta here,” Daniel said about Joey’s snake story.

“Whatever, Daniel,” Joey replied. “You dumb anyway.” 

It would have scared Joey to say such a thing so assertively to anyone but Daniel. Though Daniel was older and stockier than all the other boys on Paul Street, he was still white, and when folks were being polite, they called him slow. He wasn’t officially delayed as far as anyone knew, which made it seem okay to talk down to him about it; if Daniel was not officially delayed, but just mean or annoying, then he’d earned—as far as Joey was concerned—any offense given whenever offense could be given. That Joey probably couldn’t beat him in a fight if it came down to it was beside the point. Daniel made Joey feel good, since he was living proof that Joey could be smarter than someone so much older than himself. That and, one summer, Daniel was attacked by a squirrel. It jumped straight off a tree and onto his head and started gnawing and scratching like it was trying to dig through his scalp. For years, Joey joked that the only reason the squirrel left was because it couldn’t find anything there. Every time Joey called him dumb, though, Daniel just flagged the younger boy off and walked away. 

“So you sayin them snakes is like the X-Men?” another boy asked.

 

Inside the apartment, the whole family had different attitudes about the snakes. Joey’s littler sister, Mika, thought they were creepy, which Joey found entertaining. Whenever she fell asleep on the couch, she’d often wake up with her arm entwined with snake and scream, “Joey, stop puttin them snakes on me!” She’d said it

more than once, sometimes through tears. Joey would try to show Mika that the snakes weren’t actually dangerous or even scary and guide her fingers along the outside of their cage as they followed, flicking their tongues in anticipation; or he’d help her trace the scales down along their backs while they slithered around his forearm. Tia loved them almost as much as Joey did but was quick and clear about the fact that they were not her responsibility. Having witnessed Joey’s previous pet failures up close, she didn’t want that kind of involvement. “Take care of ya damn animals,” she’d always say, kissing Spike or Amy on the head and setting them back inside. Ganny ignored them completely, shaking her head on occasion when she saw Joey sitting on the couch wearing snake necklaces. Popop said they would die. Hoped they would die. Whenever Joey’s mom was around she’d just remind him that they were nasty.  

Joey gave the snakes serious attention. He scraped the cage clean daily, scrubbing it from top to bottom. He got reptile mulch from the pet store. He collected rocks and twigs from the creek and made a tiny pond inside of the cage for them, like the benevolent god of some gaudy theater. He stuffed the snakes on mealworms and crickets, spiders and pinkies. Unfortunately, neither Spike nor Amy would eat the roaches. The Birds Birds Birds pet-shop owner suggested feeding them mice, fresh or frozen, once they got big enough. Joey wasn’t quite ready to move so furrily up the food chain. He got goldfish instead, stocking two or three of them in the pond that was really just a bowl, their last day or so lived in perpetual fear of being eaten. The snakes could slurp them up at their leisure, safely. Live mice, on the other hand, weren’t passive prey. They’d fight back and bite out snake eyes, sometimes maiming or killing them, as both Discovery Channel and the pet-shop man could testify to. Joey had done such a good job with these snakes that he wasn’t about to throw them away to Pinky and the Brain. All that care and concern paid off; the miracle of birth was just around the corner.

One morning Joey woke up to what looked like a few worms inside the snake lair. They kept wriggling out of Spike’s body as he
slithered around in circles, disseminating wet noodles one by one. They were covered in slime, like the residue slugs leave behind or that stuff between a Xenomorph’s teeth when it’s about to devour you. There was something not right about it. Where were the eggs? Joey prided himself on knowing animals, both living and extinct, mammals and reptiles, lions and tigers and dragons and Pokémon and GigaPets. He knew that snakes were supposed to lay eggs. That his snakes didn’t was some kind of anomaly. Maybe they were mutant snakes after all; maybe his story had embedded itself in reality and fundamentally altered it. Already, Joey was starting to believe his own myths, provide his own evidence where there may have been more objective scientific explanations. He couldn’t even count all the baby snakes inside the tank, there were so many. He could definitely sell them. Two for twenty. 

With the money, Joey bought a larger tank. He ate big turkey-and-cheese hoagies every day before dinner so his stomach no longer growled at night. His mom was coming around every once in a while and asking for money, so he had to give her some. Popop suggested that he pay rent. Joey began to act like he wasn’t making a cent, saying instead that the snakes were dying or disappearing into the night. 

Jeremy from upstairs was mad jealous. He and his brother, Daniel, would come down to play with Spike and Amy sometimes, since their mom wouldn’t let them have a snake at all. Daniel was clumsy with them and held them too tight. You could see the veins popping along his wrists and hands, like he was strangling the snakes, even though he sounded calm when he spoke, exerting no energy. It made Joey nervous. This level of force, he thought, was natural for him.

“What’s this one’s name again?” Daniel asked, clutching Spike in one hand. 

“Spike,” Joey said. “And the other one is Amy.”

Daniel held both arms out like a scarecrow, letting Spike slither from one end to the other. Joey put Amy back in the cage. As Spike coiled around Daniel’s arm, he smiled a little.

“This snake ain’t so tough,” he said.

“What are you talkin about, Dan?” Jeremy said, confused and squinting a little bit.

Until that moment, Joey hadn’t considered the snake’s toughness to be a core attribute, something he was supposed to be aware of and apparently foster. But Daniel had this way of turning everything into a toughness competition. He wanted a pit bull or some other muscular dog because they looked tough. He wanted tough-looking shirts and jewelry. He wanted the boys to be tough. He was the older one who, in the middle of sitting on the couch watching Teletubbies or Care Bears, would challenge Joey or Jeremy to a fight, grabbing Jeremy and putting him in a headlock. It annoyed Joey to no end, but at the same time, he was glad that Jeremy was easier prey, being smaller and weaker, which meant less attention to himself. Still, Joey learned to play along when necessary. If he was forced into wrestling Daniel and lost, he’d insult the older boy to make himself feel better, like by asking Daniel what grade he was in versus what grade he was supposed to be in, or pausing with great exaggeration during a video game or anime to read the text out loud and explain to Daniel what was going on. If Daniel didn’t respond to this, Joey might invert the question. 

“Hey, Daniel, I’m sorry,” he’d say. “Can you help me with these words?” Knowing damn well Daniel couldn’t and how it ate away at him. The word Leviathan was a favorite no matter how many times it came up.

Jeremy couldn’t resort to this strategy, or at least he never did. Too self-conscious about his own intellect, he wouldn’t dare bring someone else’s smarts into question. Daniel practiced wrestling moves on his little brother, saying them out loud as he laid hands on him: Oh! The “Stone Cold” Stunner! or Oh shit! The chokeslam! or The Tombstone! with Jeremy’s head between his legs or the boy’s wiry neck in his hands. It happened so often that half the time Jeremy just lay there, flat-faced and bored, asking Daniel to tell him when he was done. 

Despite the fact that Joey knew these things about Daniel, he never expected this violence to land on the garter snakes. Spike, for Daniel, needed to be a python or a cobra, something able to kill through strength or venom. But why would anyone want to keep or be near something like that? Joey thought. His mind went to the fear he felt for Steve Irwin any time the man ran up on some snake or baby dragon in the outback and face-to-faced it barehanded, howling “Crikey!” like he held some secret guarantee that everything would be fine. Joey just wanted pets he could hold. The fact that he could sell the babies was a pleasant side effect. 

“This jawn did get big as shit,” Daniel continued. “But it ain’t tough like a real snake.” Spike was longer than Daniel’s arm, wrapped completely around it several times over. 

“You can’t even have no snake at all,” Joey said, trying not to sound mad. “Your mommy won’t let you.”

Daniel turned to Joey real fast, aiming Spike’s face at him. “I wouldn’t get no bitch snake like this though,” he said, jabbing at Joey with Spike’s head. “And at least I got a mom. Ya mom don’t do nothin but wander around outside cracked out all the time.” 

Daniel opened the lid to put Spike back in his cage. But before he could unravel the snake completely, Spike lunged at Daniel’s pointer finger, clamping down on it up to the knuckle.

Daniel screamed. But underneath it he tried to stay composed. “Joey,” he said, too slowly, “You better get this fuckin thing off me right now.” His face was beet-red and he was breathing too fast.

Spike’s jaw muscle was hard at work, squeezing and inching up Daniel’s finger, trying to pull the whole worm of the thing into his gut. Joey didn’t want to admit how pleased
he was with this, how satisfying it was to see Daniel’s fear and panic; the older boy’s eyes were so wide, his whole body tense. Jeremy didn’t hide his pleasure at all: He cackled nearly to death, rolling around on the dirty carpet holding
his gut.

“Dan, you’re such a fuckin punk,” Jeremy said. 

It took everything Joey had not to smile or laugh; he’d been bitten by both Spike and Amy before. It hurt, sure, but not this badly; it couldn’t kill you. This meant that Daniel’s officially revealed punk-assness was the only explanation for his screaming and gesticulating with little purpose or organization like Jim Carrey in that movie The Mask they liked. It was almost like this was the first time Daniel had ever really felt pain. Daniel is sweet as shit, Joey thought, but he tried to keep his composure. “Dan, just calm down and he’ll let go,” Joey said.

But Daniel flailed around and slapped the snake all over the place. Spike’s tail hit Joey in the face like a whip. Jeremy dodged it. Daniel’s panic kept increasing. “What the fuck!” Joey said. “Just calm down and I can get him off. Calm the fuck down, dummy!”

Daniel ran out the front door. Joey and Jeremy gave chase. Outside it was still warm; the weather felt like just a few minutes before someone might crack open the fire hydrant. Mika and them were playing hopscotch in the street and a group of boys were playing free ball with a smashed huggie-juice bottle right next to them. Tia had been watching Mika from the window but turned her eye to the snake ruckus when Daniel burst outside, Joey yelling after him. 

“Daniel, calm down!” Joey said. But that only seemed to agitate him more. Jeremy was standing back as Daniel entered the middle of the street, still whipping around and struggling with the snake. Kids froze and stared at him. Every time Joey tried to approach and get Spike off, he had to dodge the tail. He could never get close enough. Both he and Daniel were frustrated and sweating. Joey thought about just going for Daniel’s neck and trying to choke him out, taking a few lashes from the snake’s tail if that was the only option. He was standing just out of Daniel’s reach, ebbing back and forth, waiting for a chance to jump in like he was playing double Dutch. But then Daniel started beating the snake’s body against the curb. Flecks of blood and scales, still green and sparkling, peppered Joey’s face. Some got in his mouth because he was yelling for Daniel to stop.

“Just stop! Please!” Joey said. “Stop!

He lunged at Daniel. But just then the snake slipped off of Daniel’s finger. He was still flailing with all his might though, and as Spike’s whole body loosened up, Daniel sent the snake sliding right into the sewage drain. Joey dove in as deep as he could, his face pressed up against the curb, clawing and grasping at nothing. He stayed there trying for ten or fifteen minutes, just reaching. By the time Joey stood up, Daniel was standing right behind him, rubbing the injured finger. There was a little blood. 

“You see what your fuckin snake did to me?” Daniel said.

 

A hundred dollars ain’t even that much for a whole alligator, Joey thought, walking up Frankford Ave., clutching rusted bills in one hand, feeling the other crumpled-up dollars secure in his left sock—if he got jumped, there was no way they’d take everything.

“Always keep your money in two separate places,” Popop liked to say. 

And Joey remembered. He’d forgotten, though, that Philadelphia is a city of great seasons, that he himself would later catch cold, then pneumonia, and nearly die at the Children’s Hospital, no thanks to his own body’s shallow attempts at thermoregulation. What might an alligator do? But it was warm out now. And nothing lasts forever, the boy thought. Best to get an alligator now and put everything else off until later, if later ever came.

The balding Chinese man at Birds Birds Birds was too excited about selling an alligator to inform the boy about care; or he did, and Joey just ignored him, knowing better than to trust a grown-up. Nothing but lies and trickery, states of exception, excuses for deference, and so on. Either way, Joey had saved up ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents from cutting grass and shoveling snow with a patience he would run out of by his own adulthood. This was long after he’d spent the money from hustling baby garter snakes on cheesesteaks and blue sodas, double cheeseburgers and stockpiles of freeze-dried, shrimp-flavored noodles in Styrofoam cups. He spent his twenty-dollar allowance mostly on food. Before that, sure, he’d dabbled in geckos and newts for a while, considered a savannah monitor, a black-and-white tegu twice, and even had an iguana named Lizzie along the way. But an alligator, to have and to hold, would be the kind of real and otherworldly satisfaction that Joey had longed for through all the failed tenderness of stockpiled, dead-animal bodies past. 

He named the lizard Rex. It sounded more prehistoric, like the way Rex looked. Eyes like amber with slits for pupils; teeth and jaws, and skin and claws rugged like the car tires piled up in the lot across the street. It was clear to Joey that Rex was not the type to desiccate easily, desiccate being yet another one of Joey’s favorite words ever since Icewind Dale, whereupon your party discovers the remains of a massive sea dragon “desiccated” atop a great, snowy mountain. Joey stressed himself wondering what this said about geological time and, naïvely, gathered the courage once to ask this question during a block of grade-school science instruction, which resulted in a short bout of schoolyard fisticuffs that loosened one of his teeth.

Nevertheless, Joey dug a hole in the landlord’s forbidden backyard right above where he’d buried Quaily. Poor Quaily. There were no bones, no trace of the old dead bird. Its skeleton, so brittle, had become one again with that planet beneath the tread of Joey’s FILAs—faggots in L.A., Tia called them—fitting for such a boy. Joey had wanted to honor Quaily’s memory, but it was like Quaily had never existed. The boy couldn’t even remember the strange noises it made, only that they were strange. And an alligator needed a pond—maybe even a moat, something like Guts and Griffith had built to protect the Band of the Hawk. Berserk needed only to suggest dealing with the devil for paradise to muddy up the boy’s moral superiority. And Griffith, that skinny little flamboyant boy who made it, who fucked and made friends, who conquered and protected, who made himself unforgivable in the end, he knew: We must abolish the dead to make space for the living. It was from this kind of forward thinking that the boy’s pride would emerge. Joey measured and dug the pond right over Quaily’s grave to be three feet deep by however wide his imagination might carry it. The dig alone took more than a whole day, but Joey woke up early and rushed through it. 

There were scarcely any kids outside and the sun waned as Joey walked home with a whole alligator in tow. Rex’s scaly body rested the length of the boy’s forearm, with a rubber band tied twice around his snout like a muzzle. Joey felt bad about this and reassured Rex that they’d be home soon and he’d remove it. Rex was about the size that Lizzie was when she died, and just as inactive, with a meatier tail. Joey put Rex down in the dry pond and loosened the band from his mouth. The creature just stared at him, blinking slowly. Then Joey turned on the garden hose and filled the pond with water. Rex didn’t budge. The boy could sense neither joy nor trepidation from his new friend. He sprayed Rex with the hose a little, trying to get a rise out of him. The water splashed off Rex’s snout and eyes, but he remained calm. The most he would give Joey was to turn around, so that Joey sprayed his back instead. After a while the would-be pond was little more than mud. Rex walked away from it.  

Joey sprang into action, grabbing Rex by his soft belly, placing him back in the mud pond where he’d be safe. The myriad encounters where baby gators were eaten by birds or snakes on Animal Planet flashed before the boy’s eyes. He was sweating. 

“Stay,” Joey said. And Rex did. In that moment, Joey had even begun losing faith in Steve Irwin, who seemed always to struggle with the alligators, all mounting and tackling and yelling. Rex was calm. Gazing down at his creation, Joey saw that it was good. He thought to himself, Rex will have a ball swimming around in there.

It was getting dark fast, and something told Joey that Rex shouldn’t be outside alone at night. He worried that those demons from Where the Wild Things Are or Teletubbies even, might show up and squash or eat his alligator. Back inside, Rex lived in the old lizard cage, filled mostly with water and some of the prettier rocks Joey had found while scavenging for turtles in the creek. Rex spent a lot of time in the cage because the pond didn’t work out quite like Joey had planned; it was one big pile of mud that would dissolve and need to be refilled over and over again. Sometimes, when Rex was out there, Joey had to dig into the mud blind to find him, wading through the thickness, fingers first, feeling the squish of uncertainty slide up through the ridges of his palm. On hotter days, Joey might find Rex lying dry in the pond’s center with his mouth wide open. Popop yelled at Joey for wasting so much water too, but it was a worthwhile complication to keep Rex happy. If it was too hot, Joey left the water hose running from the alley to the backyard all day until Popop got home from work. 

Rex would eat almost anything. His favorite food, though, was the chubby goldfish from the pet shop. But they were pricey. Not the little flat-booty always-orange goldfish one could buy, say, two for a dollar. Rex needed the big juicy ones with bug eyes that came in different colors; they cost anywhere from one dollar to three dollars each. Joey could have simply let them swim around in the water and have Rex eat at his leisure, but it was more fun to toss them into the gator’s mouth as he lay bathing in the sun. Sometimes Rex wouldn’t even bite down right away. The fish would flop at the floor of his mouth. They were like Magikarp thrust from their Poké Balls into a strange world, desperate to metabolize oxygen or evolve their way out of danger. And they never did.

Whenever Rex swallowed, Joey held his hands under the gator’s belly, trying to feel the food slide along the scales like he once did with Spike the snake. But Rex’s scales were thicker, tougher, and there was so much in between them and Rex’s softer insides that Joey had a hard time feeling anything at all. More often the boy nuzzled Rex’s belly up against his own shirtless chest, feeling the weight of him. The warmth. Keisha was never around for Rex, but Joey wished he could show his mother how friendly the pet alligator was. He hoped that she might be proud of him for raising this creature that grew so big so fast, yet so well-behaved. Other family members were home, but stayed away from Rex. The fact of the alligator, or rather the succession of pets—from guinea pigs to fire-belly newts—was further proof of Joey’s obscure gayness, that evil lurking deep within his soul that even he didn’t understand but was starting to believe in. All Joey knew was that he liked having something warm to touch, that would touch him back sometimes. No one else would look at Rex or lay a finger on him, and the boy decided that this lacking existence was probably best. It was Joey and Rex, Rex and Joey, against the world. 

But one day, coming in from the backyard, Joey realized that Rex could barely fit inside the old lizard cage. His body was stuck in one position, and he’d strain to turn around, his little legs struggling and tail pushed up against the glass. Thinking of a bigger cage, Joey went back to Birds Birds Birds and the owner showed him some newer, larger options. It was simple. The cheapest one would cost two hundred and forty-
nine dollars and ninety-nine cents. Hearing the figure, Joey froze for thirty seconds.

Then, the boy said, “But I need one now.” 

“Yeah, it’s okay,” the owner said, slightly confused. “Just ask your parents.”

The audacity in the man’s suggestion sent Joey into a rage. His heart jumped. How about you ask your fucking parents? Joey thought. The boy knew, somewhere deep, that this was not a reasonable response to this manner of normative conversation. He could not stand talk of parents, though: the word parents, or even the phrase to parent. Its plural form assumed a normalcy that he’d never been a part of, and by then, had started to dislike even in theory. Such innocuous comments made things real for him. Only in these moments was he forced to wonder what it might have been like to have what some people quite naïvely called a mommy or daddy that he could, like Kevin, be viciously ungrateful for and who could, in their own way, dote over him as some puppeteered plaything. He hated the idea of it, the pretense of love demanded through obligation. The Birds Birds Birds man, and so many others, without ever thinking, would force Joey into the depressive spiral of wondering what it might be like to have just one person around with the space, the desire, or the strength to love a little boy who they hated for being any number of things he didn’t quite understand and knew
too much about. 

But Joey also knew better than to whine, especially in public. He’d always told himself that a lack of coddling would eventually make him stronger, that he’d be better for it in the long run. And besides, he thought, plenty of other people have it worse.

“Never mind,” he said. And he resolved right then to return the animal rather than let Rex die of neglect.

Walking back to Paul Street, Joey thought about his mom and them, about Ganny and Mika and Tia and Popop and that little dickhead Kevin and the whole fucking block and how horrible things must have happened to her, to them, and he was right. He wanted to forgive them. He wanted to find a balance between what had happened, what was happening, and what he was all too certain would happen, without punishing them or himself for breathing the air that surrounded them and everybody else, as far as Joey was concerned, who was a person, who was alive, and who was forced to remain that way against the possibility of thinking things could or should be otherwise, against the time, energy, and resources to do anything about it that were always everywhere and nowhere to be found. The best he could do was try to hate less often. He was too good for a father who’d rape a thirteen-year-old girl, and in fact, too good for every man and boy he’d met thus far; everyone knew Popop was fucked up, but he also gave Joey and his siblings a place to live when there were no other takers. This did not mean, though, that he could transfer any anger to the man in Birds Birds Birds. He’d been nice to Joey, if transactional. What right did he have to be as angry as he’d been with the old man, just because he’d assumed the boy had a thing called parents? But maybe it wasn’t that. Maybe it was that the parents the old man had in mind were ones who could part with two hundred and forty-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents for a lizard they’d pretend didn’t exist. The equation was infuriating. 

Why then, so much later, listening to the first voicemail home from Iraq, would Joey bother returning a call from the man claiming to be his father? In that moment, almost twenty years removed, he would refuse to acknowledge that there was once, inside a person with his name, such a desperate desire for love. He would deny still, that this boy might have ever wanted or needed another person to survive. He would equate returning the call with raw anthropological curiosity and nothing more. Joey would always be someone who needs to know things, without acknowledging that information, knowledge even, is not an identity, and perhaps this remains the boy’s biggest problem.

“Never mind,” Joey had said to the store owner. And he returned the too-big alligator’s body with no refund and no conversation. Back home, Joey cleaned out the cage and stared at it, empty. No one said a word. And if the boy didn’t know any better, he might have thought none of it had ever happened. 

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