Today’s Special: Ryan Wright

Street of Crocodiles
(inspired by “Street of Crocodiles” by Quay Brothers
(inspired by “The Street of Crocodiles” by Bruno Schulz))

 
June 10, 2013
 

Fireball was Claude’s hamster who went through yellow tubular mazes in the back of Claude’s dad’s jewelry store Smith’s Jewelers on the old St. Claire Mall. Climbing, squeezing, turning, Fireball would explore the various avenues of his cage. Claude and I walked to the store after school to poke at Fireball. Once you reached the mall, which stretched in red brick the length of a football field leading from the west to a view of the old Kentucky capitol, the street became strictly pedestrian. Inside its limits, after a spouting fountain you’d pass beneath the shadows of trees because there were stone enclosures a yard high back then, twelve by twelve foot squares, which had thick trees in the centers of them. I don’t know what kind, but they were grey and possibly dead already. When Fireball died, Claude made a cross with twigs from one of those trees and buried him in the stone enclosure next to that same tree’s twining roots.
 
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Across from what used to be Smith’s Jewelers, in the Grand Theater, I saw Kentucky Wild Horse play bluegrass strings and holler. The music lured everyone youthful enough to the dance floor. Those twenty-seven strings, fiddle guitar banjo mandolin bass, sang into our elbows and knees and we stomped without caring in clothing that felt like denim overalls. Oddly, the band had another member, a cymbalist, who stood off to the side and played so seldom that I often forgot about him entirely only to be crashingly reminded when he would bring his hands unexpectedly together on an accent, momentarily drawing attention to himself before he again receded back behind the invisible mountain music.
 
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In Rome it was believed that a swimmer whose body had been rubbed with crocodile fat could swim among crocodiles, and that the skin of a crocodile over the yard gate would protect one’s property against damage by hail. In the Middle Ages the crocodile, with its tremendous mouth, came to symbolize the jaws of hell.
 
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Claude’s dad, whose name was Claude first, cut us loose every once and a while and one time we used the opportunity to buy personal rolls of Bubble Tape from J.T.’s, three shop windows west of Smith’s. We competed to see who could chew an entire roll of Bubble Tape the longest. I don’t remember who won, but it didn’t take long for our jaws to wear out to the point that we couldn’t even push the fat wads from our kid mouths, we had to hover over a grimy, belching public trash can and let the pink slug crawl with gravity down our tongue, gum all coated in shining saliva stretching toward garbage papers.
 
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Nema’s was a good place because you could sit in the back and act like a hookah connoisseur, suggesting to newcomers prime flavor combinations and offering help with the smoldering coals, demonstrating the best of inhalation practices. Claude with his bass, Chris Fallis with his guitar, me with mine and us singing in the back of Nema’s with an audience of hookah smoke and coughing lungs, youth. Fun to play in public, before pretty staring eyes. Because it was true for us, we assumed it was true for everyone: music’s invisible string pulling, getting in close and guiding unseen, behind wills so that anyone listening, when it came time to exercise will, his or her—hopefully her—actions though seemingly chosen will have been determined beforehand by means of treble clef hypnotism. In between “Friend of the Devil” and “New River Train” we tuned instruments and pronounced Fallis phallus because it seemed natural. Fallis’s dad watched us play down there one time and he said to me, “Ryan, if you gave me that Martin and I gave you a touch on the ass with a feather, we’d both be rather tickled.” I remember thinking how cool it must be to have a dad who’d say things like that.
 
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Rheldi’s the one who took me to Kentucky Wild Horse at the Grand Theater on the St. Claire Mall. That was my first bluegrass show. I was always told you need to ask girls questions that can be answered expansively, more than just yes or no questions, so I asked Rheldi what about bluegrass music did she like, what drew her to it. She said to me, quickly, “The sound,” and then sort of looked at me before looking somewhere else and I thought that if the roles were reversed, if she had asked me that question and I had answered with her answer, she’d have gotten up and walked right on out of the theater down to someone who gave a shit about sharing reasons for preferences. I never kissed Rheldi.
 
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In other contexts the crocodile appears as a symbol of hypocrisy, since it was said to shed tears of compassion (‘crocodile tears’) once it had devoured its prey.
 
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I got my first pair of brown Carhartts at Mitchell’s on St. Claire Mall. I got my last pair at the Wal-Mart Supercenter because Mitchell’s by that time had closed shop. When they were pouring concrete to make the parking lot of that Wal-Mart Supercenter when it was new, we rode by it one day in a bus on our way to the bowling alley and the bus driver said, “I used to hunt squirrel there when it was forested.” Mitchell’s was convenient because it was right downtown, you could simply walk there after school, or ride your bike. Wal-Mart Supercenter was out by the interstate, an eight minute drive up the hill, but people liked to go there anyway, more than they liked Mitchell’s, because the price tags were lower at Wal-Mart, and market forces being as they are natural, it was only a matter of time, Mitchell’s, and who remembers you anymore, who hasn’t assumed the habit of ascending steep Lafayette Boulevard on motorpower past Juniper Hills golf course in pursuit of Supercenter savings? A Subway’s inside, you may eat fresh.
 
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Nema’s stayed busy three years and then somehow the screws came loose and business fell apart. It was as if the owners had no control over any of it, that no matter what they tried, they always had to use the red marker, and eventually their black marker dried up, and they threw it away. Another hookah place moved in not long after, but it was a cheap replication that folded within months.
 
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Claude sensationalized many things, one of them being his retellings of encounters with Julia. We both liked Julia and I think to replace my sense of attraction with a sense of disgust, Claude made up gross stories about her, which I shall recount two: he said one day she came in to Smith’s Jewelers to see if he wanted to watch cartoons with her and when he said no, her nose started running snot and she turned her head swiftly to leave, thus tracing her sudden movement with a shimmering slobber of mucus which proceeded to sticky the flooring; and another time, he said he went to the bathroom at Completely Kentucky, a gift shop owned by Julia’s parents right around the corner of St. Claire Mall, only to discover Julia already at the toilet bowl, bowed before it on her knees with the tips of her fingers dipped in the cool waters as if to tickle turds.
 
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In fact it seems difficult for humans to approach the ‘saurian,’ ancient figure of the crocodile, and its apparently mechanical movements, so foreign to mammals, with anything other than feelings of estrangement and fear, or to evaluate the creature in human terms.
 
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A head shop that lasted forty-three weeks on the Mall, Paisley Peacock, had a grand opening and for that grand opening they hired a handful of bands, mostly punk. I played guitar in a band called The Blue Suckers and we gave out t-shirts with a spray painted stencil matchstick on the front. Unfortunately, it looked more like the silhouette of a sulking giraffe than it looked like a used match. If anyone asked, we just said, “Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better.”
 
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We couldn’t quite put our finger on why Fireball crawled into the center of one of his tubes to die. That’s where we found him. We postulated that perhaps, in the midst of a joyous cavort, he was having so much fun, climbing, squeezing, and turning, that his little furry heart burst in overwhelming gaiety. It wasn’t until twenty years later I realized that hamster tubes may give the hamster the illusion of locomotive liberty, but after a while, gone through the maze enough times, the picture became clearer to the hamster, there were only so many tubes to wander through, a finite number of chambers, and that really, it wasn’t up to the hamster, the arrangement of these passageways, but the layout was provided, was deliberately set that way. I’d like to rearrange these tubes, the hamster might desire, but he knows it’s beyond his control. They tore up all those trees from the stone enclosures, and the stone enclosures too, and the fountain too, and now you can honk your car down the middle of St. Claire Mall on your way to the hill.

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Ryan is a Kentuckian masquerading as a Chicagoan. Aside from collecting paperbacks on the sole basis of cover art, he collects strings of words which he personally conjoins, sometimes called ‘fiction,’ other times ‘non-fiction.’ Ryan archives these electronically so as to forgo problems with dust. He is not allergic to dust, nor anything else. This makes for a pleasant existence.

 

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