“The Crocodiles He Keeps”
Dad keeps crocodiles in our basement.
He’s a collector of big reptiles: pythons with bite,
anacondas from Paraguay, the fittest Gilas,
even a Komodo once. He loves them all,
but crocs are his choice killers. Pleased even
by their bellows—mostly snorts and low gurgles by day,
grunts with a snorkel timbre by night—
he plays long B flats on his double bassoon
to get them sounding when Ma is away.
Vexed by bacteria and effluvia of croc chaw,
she tells Dad she’s tired of their tails whipping her shins
every time she missteps on her way to wash laundry.
When her knitting circle visits,
she invents reasons to sit on the back deck
and blames the braying inside on the radiator
or the plumbing. “Sounds like fog horns,”
Mrs. O’Leary offers. Ma complains,
but explains she “won’t defile” her husband’s dream.
I’m twelve and I’ve lived the life span
of four chameleons: I know how to toss a herring
into a caiman’s waiting mouth, how to squeeze
the soil from a worm so it won’t catch in a hatchling’s
insides when she feeds for the first time, how to scrape
the muck from a basement creeping
with snapping turtles without getting bitten.
And I know all about love.
I know about its tooth marks and cages,
its weird integrities.