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About the Author
Terry Richard Bazes is a graduate of Columbia College and has a Ph.D. in English Literature from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is the author of GOLDSMITH'S RETURN (White Pine Press, 1995) and and LIZARD WORLD (Livingston Press, 2011). His personal essays and fiction have appeared in a number of publications, including The Washington Post Book World, Newsday, Columbia Magazine, Travelers' Tales: Spain, Lost Magazine and Evergreen Review.
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By Terry Richard Bazes
Livingston PressCopyright © 2011 Terry Richard Bazes
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn which the flies attack and a Dentist gets a toothache
So many bugs were splattering the windshield that Smedlow had to turn on the wipers. But the wipers weren't any damn good, didn't do much more than smear the bug juice. So that's why he had to push the button to squirt the goddamn windshield. But he didn't want to do that too much, or else he'd run out of squirt - and then where the hell would he be? In that case, the wipers would just keep on moving the bug juice around. And already through the windshield that was just about all that he could see - a sticky smear, though through it he could still make out the black ribbon of road in the shafts of his rushing headlights. Good God, he'd never seen so many hateful bugs: horseflies, deer flies, dragonflies, gnats, mosquitoes, June beetles, spiders, even caterpillars, some of them still alive and crawling beyond the orbit of the wipers, while the rest of them kept striking so hard that they were instant juice on the windshield as his car sped on through the clammy hell of midnight. At least for now he had the comfort of this hillbilly station on the radio. But - but what if the squirt ran out? Well, then he wouldn't have a choice: every fifteen minutes or so, he'd have to stop the car to wipe the windshield off - and in that case, he'd be there - outside - with all those stinking bugs.
Okay. So what should he do? Well, maybe the best thing to do was to drive more slowly. That way, the bugs wouldn't strike so hard and there'd be a lot less juice. And meanwhile maybe, just maybe, he'd see the exit to the town of Sagawummy – the location of the Fountain of Youth! Oh, of course small-minded people scoffed at it. But weren't there four-hundred-year old Taoist priests, who had drunk the Golden Potion, still living in the Wudang mountains? And what about the Count of St. Germain? Hadn't he, too, discovered an elixir? Hadn't even Voltaire - the king of skeptics - called him "a man who will never die"?
But that was when he hit the alligator. Not that he could tell that that was what he'd hit at first. Cause at first he'd thought he'd gone over a log - although he really didn't have much time to think anything at all, except how to slam the brakes and steer out of a bad skid at sixty miles an hour when he couldn't see a goddamn thing except the smear of ruptured bugs.
Smack: he was thrown forward, teeth-first into the steering wheel as the glass of the windshield splintered into a pattern like a giant spider web. The next thing he knew was that his mouth was bleeding, obviously the result of macerated gingival tissue and traumatic impaction of the right central incisor. His heart - that traitor in his chest - was pounding like a jackhammer. But he wasn't dead - not yet. He rummaged through the glove compartment - yes, yes, Ponce de Leon's map was safe and sound! - found the nitro pills and swallowed. Calm down, Smedlow. Calm down. You can get through this.
As soon as he opened the door, the bugs descended. Not just the gnats and mosquitoes, but above all a rage of horseflies that he couldn't slap fast enough as he limped around to the front of the car where, in the headlights' glare, he saw the fender crushed against a tree and - threaded between the left front axle and the wheel housing - the bloody twitching of the alligator's tail.
He thought he would faint or scream, but he didn't. It was as if not his body but his whole soul wanted to vomit. Crouching down he discerned, beneath the tailpipe, the creature's snout, teeth and the faint glimmer of an eyeball. It must have been dragged some fifty feet, for in the moonlight he could see red streaks between the skid marks.
It was hard to say how long he stood there - smacking at flies, gasping, fighting the surge of growing nausea - before the sound of an approaching car broke the spell. It was some while before he saw the headlight or headlights - for at times he would see one, then two.
Through the foliage, the density of palm fronds and Spanish moss, he saw it rushing closer, heard the shifting gears, the squeal of tires, the boom of the radio, until now it was on top of him - an old red Ford pickup with one good headlight screeching to a stop not ten feet from where he stood.
The driver's door opened, slammed. A gangling hick sashayed around to the front of his truck and kicked the bad headlight. It flickered on.
"You tryin' to get yourself killed? You crazy? If I'd a runned you over, there weren't nobody who'd a knowed the difference, seein' as how there's critters hereabouts woulda dragged you off an' chewed up what was left."
"He's the one we been waitin' for. I seen it in the leaves," said a husky voice from the truck. And immediately the truck's passenger door opened - and in a glance Smedlow took in the flowered housedress and mudcaked boots, the goitered enormity of the neck, the jaundiced cheeks and somnolent lids. As she climbed down from the truck and hobbled toward the headlights, she held her back as if it pained her.
"He's got real nice shoes, don't he?" said the hick. "Those are real nice shoes, mister."
"Listen, I've had an accident. I was wondering if you could get me to a gas station."
"That's a brand new BMW, ain't it?"
"Yep, Lem, he's the one," said the woman.
Smedlow kept pressing his handkerchief to his gum. It was still throbbing, but by now the bleeding had mostly stopped. The tip of his tongue searched the cavity where his front tooth had been. These hillbillies - if that's what they were - might be induced to give him a ride, especially if he offered them a couple of dollars. But then again, there was something about them that seemed a little strange - those white hairs on the woman's chin and the way the hick's eye kept on twitching, for example:
"You mind if I take a look at yer car, mister?"
Smedlow nodded assent, faked a smile. That Neanderthal forehead. Those crooked central incisors. What a curious anthropoid. What a cretin. He checked his gold wristwatch: 12: 17, which meant that if he could get to a mechanic and then somehow find the highway and drive all night, he might still be able to make it to Miami by morning. Maybe then he could get some breakfast, some sleep - and something stronger than aspirin. On second thought, wouldn't it be better just to get away from these people? Maybe he should just slip back into the car, lock the doors, back it up and drive it slowly to the nearest town.
But by now the hick had opened up the hood of the crushed car and was studying the engine:
"Whoops! Radiator's broke," he said. "Fuel pump's shot to hell."
He banged down the hood and, falling to his hands and knees, peered sideways beneath the carriage: "That's some gator you ran over, mister. A gator like that'll fetch over a hun'red dollars if the skin ain't broke too bad."
"Oh? ... Say ... is there a gas station anywhere near here?"
"This here's the swamp, mister," said the woman. "Nearest gas is Swannee's place in Beauregard, fifteen miles down the Sagawummy road. Which is covered with gators this time a night. If I was you," she said, glancing at the hick, "I'd just come home with us."
The inside of their truck smelled of manure and gasoline. The hick beside him smelled of something worse than either. The woman wheezed and had dugs the size of watermelons. Her sagging flesh was yellow. She seemed to be something of a fortune-teller, for she chattered on about palm-reading, cards and tea leaves:
"My kidneys is all busted. But when I looked in the leaves this mornin', I knew my prayers was answered."
A coconut head - with eyes, nose and mouth made out of seashells - dangled from the mirror and bounced up and down as they drove along.
Chapter TwoIn which a dragon is nearly slain and Caesar's wife is taken.
A sink had fallen on the Komodo Monitor and busted up its head pretty bad. Vergil, the black handyman who did most of the odd jobs like replacing the broken glass on the snake showcases and repairing the plumbing to the pools where the turtles and alligators were kept, had taken out the old sink in the surgery because some damn fool had clogged up the drain so bad that the sink wasn't good for jack squat. Vergil, who was eating a salami sandwich at the time, had propped up the sink against the wall and gone out for a minute to get his toolbox so he could come right back and snake out whatever it was so deep in the pipes that was backing up the sink so bad. Well, it must have been then that the Komodo, who isn't at all a stupid creature, had undone the latch to her cage and crawled into the surgery, following the smell of Vergil's salami sandwich. By the time Lemuel Lee arrived on the scene in his new Italian shoes, the Komodo was still pinned beneath the sink and Vergil was standing over it, palms outspread, looking down at the concrete floor and shaking his head:
"I'm jes' so sorry. I'm jes' so awful sorry."
"Not too swift, Vergil," said Lemuel Lee. "Not too fuckin' swift."
The good news was that the khaki-green seven-hundred-pound lizard, the pride and chief attraction of Lizard World, was still breathing. The bad news was that the breathing was shallow. Lemuel Lee noticed a stream a blood flowing beneath the spot where the white porcelain edge of the huge twin basin sink rested on the creature's right eye socket. But aside from that, the body was still in damn good shape and Lemuel Lee began to wonder whether perhaps the situation wasn't altogether hopeless.
"You gonna stand there all day or are you gonna help me lift this sucker off?"
"Shove it," said Vergil. "I found out what it was made such a damn bitch of a backup in this fuckin' sink."
"Yeah? You don't say?"
Vergil reached into his overalls and stretched out his palm. He was holding an eyeball the size of an Easter egg.
"That's real great, Vergil" said Lemuel Lee. "Now you gonna help me lift this sucker?"
Lemuel Lee was still too weak from his horsefly condition to lift anything much and so he was huffing from the strain and nearly fainting by the time they moved the sink a few feet and clanged it down again on the floor. The Komodo flicked its tail once languidly and moved its left foreleg and hindleg as if it had a mind to crawl. But since the two legs on the right side of the body were obviously shot to hell, the creature only managed to veer to the right a few feet before it stopped moving altogether except for the faintest heaving of its lungs. The stream of blood that Lemuel Lee had noticed before pulsed rhythmically from the top of its right eye socket. The right of the jaw, too, had been crushed and a deep red ravine ran down the length of its green snout.
"Well, the brain's been broke real good," said Lemuel Lee, musing aloud. "But the chassis ain't none too bad. Maybe she could be rewired."
The modern town of Sagawummy, built on the site of an old Motochichi Indian settlement and conveniently located just thirteen miles off of Alligator Alley, was graced with a full complement of up-to-date conveniences - including a Jiffy Lube, a Pizza Hut, a Radio Shack and a Dunkin' Donuts. It was also the world headquarters of Lizard World Incorporated. Lemuel Lee's Uncle Earl owned Lizard World, the Flying Star gas station and the Beautyrest Motel where Lemuel Lee and everyone else went to get laid. Uncle Earl had the reputation of being a genius, since there wasn't just about anything that he couldn't fix. Although he was the richest man in town and had, at his own expense, once manufactured a genuine LP phonograph record entitled "Earl Frobey's Greatest Hits," he had lived in a state of perpetual depression and envy ever since his signed contract for a joint appearance on Ed Sullivan had vanished with the Big Bopper in the tragic mid-winter plane crash of 1959.
As Lemuel Lee walked into the office of the Flying Star gas station later that afternoon, Uncle Earl was sitting with his legs up on the desk, sighing and scratching his balls.
"Howdy," said Lemuel Lee.
"Don't howdy me you little sonuvabitch. I have a mind to kick my foot clear up your ass. Vergil told me all about it. You let our Komodo get kilt, didn't ya?"
"She ain't kilt, Uncle Earl. She's broke real bad, but she ain't kilt. I was thinkin' maybe you could fix her."
Uncle Earl scrunched up his eyes and chewed his gum in silence while Lemuel Lee took the opportunity to study Miss April, whose naked torso graced the calendar above his Uncle's swivel chair.
"Well, I don't know about that," said Uncle Earl at last. "It ain't as simple as puttin' a Buick engine in a Caddy."
But later that afternoon they were back at the park, walking beneath the palm trees on the blacktop path leading past the snake house and the Garden of Eden to the huge, algal, blue-painted concrete pool where half a dozen alligators and four crocodiles dozed in the glare of the Florida sun. Lemuel Lee, tying a slipknot on his lasso, suddenly dropped the rope and pointed at Caesar - the hundred-and-fifty-year-old half-ton bull alligator lying half-submerged with its snout up on the narrow beach of white sand. "How the hell!" said Lemuel Lee, noticing Caesar's missing eye and suddenly remembering the huge eyeball that Vergil had retrieved that morning from the drainpipe.
"If Ed Sullivan had given me a little bitty chance, " said Uncle Earl, "I wouldn't be having these problems. These fuckin' gators - worse than lawyers."
"Hey there, Caesar," said Lemuel Lee, now poking the old alligator with a bamboo pole, "which one a yer wives you been fightin' with?"
Four of Caesar's five alligator wives were, except for their snouts which protruded slightly above the surface of the water, entirely submerged in the turbid depths of the palm-fringed lagoon. Only one of the females was partly on dry land, lying snout to snout next to old Caesar in the shadow of the bullrushes that Uncle Earl had planted to embellish the park's Biblical theme.
"That one'll do just fine," said Uncle Earl and before long Lemuel Lee had put the lasso around her neck, muzzled her and wrestled her into the wheelbarrow.
On the way back to the surgery Uncle Earl poked a hypodermic needle full of sedative into the gator's neck and by the time they'd lifted her out of the wheelbarrow and onto one of the shiny aluminum operating tables, the large crocodilian was as dizzy as a drunk.
"Just leave her be," said Uncle Earl. "She ain't goin' nowhere. Where you say the Komodo's at?"
"Back in the Dragon's Den, Uncle Earl."
"Well, I'm gonna go give her a needle. Fifteen minutes, she'll be drunk as a Swede. What about you, boy? You gonna stand there all day with your hands in your pockets? Go feed the python or somethin'."
Sometimes Lemuel Lee had the feeling that his Uncle Earl didn't take him seriously enough. Here he was, twenty-nine years old already, with a high school degree and a correspondence school certificate in TV repair and his Uncle Earl still treated him as if he didn't have an ounce of sense. Some day, thought Lemuel Lee as he walked morosely toward the Snake house and then into the little door in the back marked "Personnel Only," he'd leave Lizard World for good and become famous - though he still couldn't decide whether he was gonna be a TV star or have his horror books for sale in the drugstore.
Lemuel Lee knelt down, reached into the cardboard box beneath the sink, and by the nape of its neck pulled out a wriggling brown bunny. "Howdy little fella," he said and walked across the room to the glass enclosure where Beelzebub, the twenty-five foot python, was coiled as inertly as a garden hose. As he dropped the bunny in the snakepit, he thought of all the thankless times he'd shoveled out the gator pens and conducted three shows a day at the Snake house. Some day he'd show Uncle Earl and then he'd be sorry. These were the sad thoughts Lemuel Lee was having as he watched the bunny hippety-hop ever closer to the drowsy python.
Back at the surgery, the alligator and Komodo Monitor lay on adjacent operating tables while Uncle Earl stood nearby in his green mask and gown. Beside him, on a small table, his scalpels lay neatly lined up on a white cloth.
"You feed the python?"
"Yep," grumbled Lemuel Lee.
"Cleverest of all the beasts of the field," said Uncle Earl, who was always quoting Scripture.
Excerpted from Lizard World by Terry Richard Bazes Copyright © 2011 by Terry Richard Bazes . Excerpted by permission of Livingston Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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