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Critterworld

First the rumors.

No, Henry’s Meats didn’t come around with their knives to carve steaks from the body. Mutt & Jeff’s Grill didn’t serve elephant-burgers.

Nobody sawed off the feet for umbrella stands. Nobody caught any weird African diseases, no elephantiasis. The little girl from Michigan, the one who got trapped in the car, she might have seen a psychiatrist for awhile, but if she did it was back up North so I don’t see how anybody could have known for sure about that story, true or not.

And the elephant’s name wasn’t Stash, like “trash.” It was Stash, like in “lost.”

But people will say anything, I know that now, especially in a little town like ours, and I guess the best thing is not to even listen, though I don’t see how that’s possible unless you go deaf. You could still do everything you wanted if you were deaf. You could even make great music, like Beethoven; you just wouldn’t be able to hear it is all.

I told my mother that after what happened to Stash. My mother was the only one I talked to for a long time, maybe about a month. But she just hugged me and said, “Oh Charlie, do you know what? That Beethoven story is so sad it always makes me cry.”

We were there when it happened, of course—me and Jun Morse and George Mabry—out by 301 a mile south of town, sitting in the ditch across the road, pretty well hidden behind the tall weeds and under the billboard that said “Critterworld, Florida’s First Zoo” which I always thought was kind of a lie because it made you think first ever when it was really just the first you got to when you crossed the state line. Jun and George were doing their Advanced Geometry homework. We were all three in the accelerated class. In fact, we were the accelerated class. They drove us over to high school from eighth grade so we could sit in a room full of eleventh graders who tried to cheat off our tests. I liked it more than Jun and George, though, because I shared my book with this one girl named Sharla, who was a cheerleader but still pretty nice, and she would scoot her desk right next to mine and sometimes when we were both hunched over the book my elbow touched her boob but she didn’t move and either didn’t know or didn’t mind, and I kept it there as long as I could until I lost all the feeling in my arm.

Anyway, the other guys were doing geometry and I was watching Stash when it happened. One minute he was standing there, this hundred-year-old elephant, not moving except for the ends of his big flappy ears, and it might have been a breeze doing that. The next minute he seemed to sort of wobble. He lifted his chained leg, looked at it as if he’d just realized what they’d done to him, even though he’d been chained to that iron ring in front of Critterworld for as long as anybody could remember. He raised his trunk. He swung his head from side to side, made a noise that sounded like all the air rushing from his body, then fell sideways on top of the Volkswagen.

I stood straight up and stepped on George’s homework. All I could think about at first was why did they park their car so close to Stash? The explanation later, the one the father of the little girl gave to the Jacksonville paper, was they didn’t think Stash was alive. Stash was so still, and so dusty from standing there all those years by the highway, that they thought he was a statue of an elephant, like over in Weekee Wachi they have that brontosaurus that’s really a gas station, or like out West my mother told me about a World’s Biggest Prairie Dog.

Since there’s nothing once you get south of town except scrub brush, slash pine, and Critterworld, and since the little girl’s parents were inside the Critterworld snack shop, I was the first to hear her screaming inside the car. And initially I didn’t believe it was somebody screaming, because Stash flattened the car so badly and I couldn’t see how there could be anybody inside. George was yelling at me to get off his geometry homework, too, so that made it hard to hear anything else. George is just anal about his homework anyway—writes everything out on graph paper in this tiny block print that looks like a computer wrote it, which you might say is sort of the case, because when they did the eighth grade aptitude test it was old George Mabry that not only scored in the 99th percentile, but actually answered all the questions and didn’t miss one. They announced it at an assembly. Jun and I and two girls were in the 90th percentile, but Jun—whose real name used to be John until he decided he needed to change it—told me all the tests really measured was your ability to take tests. Somehow to him that meant that being in the 90th or even the 99th percentile was, to use his favorite phrase, a meaningless abstraction, but I didn’t see how it was meaningless since my whole life seemed to be about taking tests, so it was comforting to know I was good at it. When you make all-A’s, you just figure they’re grading on the curve and most of the kids in class aren’t too smart, so your A is a relative thing, to use another one of Jun’s favorite phrases. But when they rank you with the whole state of Florida, you have to figure there are some pretty smart people out there that you’re up against.

Not that I ever felt as smart as Jun or George. Even though everybody lumped us together as the eggheads of junior high and all because of our grades and because we hung out together and because we played chess in home room, I always thought I was pulling something over on the teachers, working really, really hard to seem like I was as smart as them, when the truth was that I’m not actually all that intelligent. I said that to my mother after the time I got accused of cheating on a science test. A kid had told the teacher I looked on George’s answer sheet, when all I was really doing was seeing how far along George was on the test, which of course was a lot further along than me. Nothing happened, though, because Mrs. Crow said she knew I would never cheat, and besides, what was that kid doing looking around during a test anyway? Still, I was pretty upset, and I told my mother I thought I was getting an ulcer from trying to pretend I was as smart as George and Jun.

What she said was, “Of course you’re smart, Charlie. Just maybe not in the same way as your friends. You have an intuitive intelligence.”

The funny thing was that nobody really cared if I was smart, or if Jun was, or if George was. I mean, teachers cared, and our parents cared, and George and Jun certainly cared about themselves. George already had a correspondence going with the registrar at M.I.T, and I’m not making that up. But other kids didn’t care, and I only cared in a weird way because being smart, or pretending to be smart, was about the only thing I was good at. It was all I had. I couldn’t play basketball, even though I worked at it all the time. I wasn’t big enough or fast enough or strong enough. I didn’t know how to talk to girls, except for smart girls about school subjects, and except for that cheerleader, Sharla, who talked to me sometimes about things, like the difference between dancing and dance. Dancing was what she loved to do; dance was what she wanted to study when she got to college. But she had a football-player boyfriend, and whenever she was with him I pretty much ceased to exist.

But there I was, anyway—to get back to the story—standing on George Mabry’s graph paper, staring across the road, shaking my head to figure out if that really was somebody screaming. It was Jun who made the first move. He stood beside me and said, “Stash! Wow!” and then he said, “Squashed bug!” He grabbed my arm and we both ran across the highway to the car. George was too busy collecting his papers and books to come right away.

We could just see the little girl’s face through what was left of the passenger door window; Stash had pretty much flattened the driver’s side. The girl was flat on the floor of the car, screaming in a way that sounded more like squealing—like “Hreeeee-hreeeee-hreeeee”—and I think it was as much to get her to stop as anything else that I started pushing like crazy against Stash to get him off the car. That’s how stupid I was.

Jun ran inside Critterworld to get help. He told me later that when he came back out with the parents I was hitting Stash’s head with my fists and yelling at him to get up, but that’s not how I remember it. I just remember pushing and pushing, and dust rising off Stash in little puffs right in my face, and not really figuring out he was dead until the girl’s father shoved me out of the way and I stepped back and looked into one of those big elephant eyes that was wide open but already dusted over too.

A dozen cars stopped, some of them right there in the highway, before the sheriffs finally showed up. The little girl had quit squealing by then—partly because she’d figured out she wasn’t going to die, and partly because Jun got her a bottle of Coke from Critterworld and stuck about ten straws together into one long one to reach her mouth. The father yelled at Jun when he first brought it out, but the mother said, “Let the boy help, Clyde,” and the father got a little nicer after that and they threaded the straw through a crack in what was left of the window and down to the girl trapped on the floor.

After that, Jun moved off a short ways from the crowd. He couldn’t stand crowds. He told me once that he was an ascetic, and that there were two kinds: the ones that choose it, as a means to something, and the ones that are born to it, the ones like him. That was supposed to explain his aversion to crowds. At the time I didn’t even know what he meant by ascetic, and when I looked it up I had the wrong spelling so I went around for a long time with the wrong definition in my head. I did the same thing with cavalry and Calvary, too, but that was in second grade.

I didn’t want to leave Stash when Jun moved away. Everybody was so mad at him for dying and crushing the VW and trapping the little Michigan girl, I guess I felt like Stash needed somebody on his side, an advocate or something, even though he was dead. Not that I said anything to anybody. I laid my hand on the bottom of his foot, which was crusty because it was so old, but still not hard like you might expect, and I tried to remember everything I had read about elephants. The only line that came to me, though, was this one: “The powerful feet can trample an attacker into the ground, but are so softly cushioned that a whole herd of elephants can troop through a forest without making a sound.”

George Mabry, meanwhile, wasn’t having any problems remembering. He was over in front of the monkey cage where they kept the psycho-monkey that everybody flicked cigarette butts at, and he was lecturing some kids about elephant penises. For such a math-and-science-nut, it’s amazing how much George Mabry went in for the dirty stuff. He told those kids that an elephant penis weighs 60 pounds, and it gets four feet long when the elephant gets aroused, and sometimes, if the elephant is chasing a cow, he might even step on it. And he told them about how the penis is shaped sort of like an S, and the muscles at the end work on their own to poke around under the cow’s belly to find the hole, which is way up underneath, not right there between the hind legs.

For some reason it really bothered me that George was telling them all that. I knew it, too, of course—Jun had given both of us the same book to read—but George was just showing off how much he knew, and what a dirty mind he had. Those kids, though, they didn’t deserve to know that stuff. They hadn’t earned the right like we had. It didn’t seem appropriate, or fair, or something, that they should get it so cheaply, and for a minute I hated George Mabry, standing there in his high-water pants and nerd glasses with that hair he never washed, trying to be cool with those elementary school kids, trying to be cool like I knew none of us would ever be cool, not him or me or even Jun who always knew what to say and never had to show it off like George the M.I.T. Nerd.

I saw all of us in that second as these three very brainy but mostly very pathetic guys who didn’t have any friends but one another, and even those friendships as a sort of last resort because nobody else would have us. I looked at Stash’s old yellow tusks, or what was left of them since they’d been sawed off short before I ever knew him, and I looked down between his legs and saw just this shriveled worm of a penis, and I felt like crying and I felt like everything that had happened was my fault, as dumb as that may sound, but it was how I felt and in some ways how I still feel, no matter what my mother said later to cheer me up and no matter what sometimes I can think of to tell myself.

The girl was still trapped in the car, and the sheriffs, as it turned out, didn’t have a clue for getting her free, and that’s the way things stood for awhile, except for one thing I haven’t mentioned yet, which is why Jun and George and I happened to be there in the first place, hiding out in the ditch across the highway from Critterworld. It was because we were studying old Stash and looking for a way to kill him ourselves.

Critterworld is the saddest place in Florida, maybe even in America. I only went inside once, and that was on a field trip in elementary school. Stash out front was so familiar to us that we hardly noticed him—all except Jun, who made a point of saying how much Stash disgusted him—and the psycho-monkey in the cage was already mean way back then from picking up lit cigarettes. When people came near he attacked the bars and tried to throw things, but for some reason he couldn’t stop himself from picking up cigarette butts and burning his hands. All us kids crowded around the cage and teased him with monkey noises that day of the field trip, which frustrated him and made him crash wildly around, hurling himself at the bars as if he wanted to kill us, or kill himself trying.

Pay a dollar and you could go inside where they had the two-headed turtle collection, and the Siamese piglets disintegrating in a giant jar of formaldehyde. The whole place smelled of formaldehyde, as a matter of fact—that and the vomitty smell of very old, very wet straw. There were the snakes, of course, and all the girls cried when they saw the white rat shivering in a corner of the aquarium where they kept the boa constrictor. And there was the bald eagle with the broken wing that hadn’t healed right so it couldn’t fly. And the albino squirrels, and the furry chinchillas, and the Shetland pony. In the petting area they kept a lamb and a goat and a calf and a live piglet and a goose, but Jun told me Critterworld sold them all for slaughter except the goose once they grew past the cute-baby stage. Nobody liked the goose because he bit kids.

Our first plan—or rather Jun’s first plan—was to get rid of all of Critterworld, maybe burn it down, but we quickly dropped that because it was too ambitious. “And besides,” Jun told us. “The point is not to draw attention to ourselves or to the deed.”

“Then what is the point?” I asked him—this was in home room a couple of weeks before everything happened, and Jun and George were playing chess while we debated our course of action.

George put Jun in check just then and Jun glared at me as if it was my fault, but also as if to say, “We can’t keep going over and over this for you, Charlie.” He was mad at me for bringing it up again, but I was still having a hard time figuring out why it meant so much to Jun to kill something. I mean, I understood the reasons he said, but Jun seemed so obsessive. That was the word my mother used for it later, anyway, and she said she thought it had something to do with Jun’s father, who used to be head of maintenance at the hospital but lost a lot of jobs because of drinking and now ran a service station north of town out by the interstate. That made a lot of sense in a Sigmund Freud kind of way, I guess, but somehow when you’re in the middle of things it all seems a lot more complicated, and with Jun, who could talk me into just about anything if he talked long enough, I’m still not sure.

The point, as he had explained a hundred times, was to kill a thing that had compromised itself so much that it no longer had a self. Something that wasn’t true to its nature. Jun started talking about “essence” like it was something you could put in your book bag or hide in your locker, and he said Stash represented all those things that had lost their essence, and that’s why we had to do away with him. George, who liked the idea from the start—but from a purely scientific perspective, as he kept reminding us—suggested killing the psycho-monkey instead, but Jun got really mad about that and said didn’t we understand anything, and said the monkey was the only animal at Critterworld worth living.

Jun had gotten the idea from a story we read in another advanced class on World Literature. It was that Japanese book, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, which I personally hated but which Jun read about ten times and carried with him everywhere like a bible. It was about a bunch of kids who dissected their cat because he didn’t catch mice anymore, and later they dissected a sailor, I think because he was dating their mom. That was when Jun decided he was an ascetic, which he said made plenty of sense because his family was Catholic and the Catholics had an ascetic tradition of sitting in the desert and fasting and wearing hairshirts, and Jun said he saw a connection between that and the Japanese ascetics, which was what he said those kids were in the book, and he went on his own fast for purification which lasted a couple of days until he went to bed one night and slept through all of the next day and the next night too, and his parents took him to the emergency room thinking it had something to do with his hemophilia.

Jun said he had a visionary dream about knocking off Stash during his two-day sleep, and he convinced George and me to learn everything we could about elephants. He said we had to understand what Stash was supposed to be to experience the tragedy of what he was instead.

At first I went along because Jun was so persuasive, and because he said all we had to do was kill Stash, not dissect him. Plus it was usually easier to do what Jun wanted than to talk him out of it, and besides, he often lost interest in projects before we saw them through to the end. So we read the elephant book. We discussed elephant lore. We figured out that Stash was an African elephant rather than an Asian elephant—bigger ears—which I was happy about once I learned how they trained elephants to work in India which was to make a hole in the back of their skull and poke inside the hole with an iron bar.

Studying Stash himself was my idea. We were having a hard time coming up with a way to kill him—George, in an uncharacteristically stupid moment, recommended dynamite; Jun said poison—and I suggested gathering first-hand data on the subject while we tried to figure it out. Jun agreed because, as he put it, we needed to become more elephant than the elephant. And of course the idea appealed to the scientist in George, who must have been the most empirical guy in the state.

So that’s what we were doing when Stash died—or what I was doing. Jun just shrugged about it later and said it was coincidence; he said Stash saved us a lot of trouble by dying when he did, but something in his voice sounded false, and I wondered if maybe he wasn’t more upset than he was letting on. His mother let him paint a St. George and the Dragon mural on his bedroom wall, which seemed to take his mind off ritual slaughter for awhile, and then we took up the Russians in that World Literature class and Jun decided to become a humanitarian.

My mother believes in God, which means she has a stock answer for things that can’t be explained, and I go to church with her every week thinking one day it will rub off on me, too. She said God was watching out for us by taking Stash, but I still have my doubts.
After two hours trapped in the VW under Stash the little girl started squealing again—”Hreeee, hreeee, hreeee”—and nothing her mother or her father said could get her to stop. The sheriffs were useless, talking on their radios, calling more and more sheriffs to come out. They tried pulling Stash off with a wrecker truck, but that didn’t work, and they were afraid he might shift and crush the car worse if they jerked at him hard.

Finally, though, Mr. Funderburke, the guy who owned Critterworld, got Steve’s Sod Farm to send over three tractors and together they were able to drag Stash off the car. The welder burned the girl’s arm with his blow torch cutting through the metal, but just a little, just a spark, and the sheriffs took the whole family to a motel in town, compliments of Critterworld.

Now the problem was what to do with the body. It became like a big joke there in the Critterworld parking lot: people saying, “How do you get rid of a dead elephant?” then cracking up, as if it was the funniest thing in the world. Stash must have weighed a couple of tons.

Woody Riser, the tree-service man, finally showed up with the biggest chainsaw I’ve ever seen. He consulted with the sheriffs and with Funderburke, then he lugged his chainsaw over next to Stash. The sheriffs herded everybody back a ways—there must have been a hundred people by then, and more coming all the time—and they formed a line around the body. Woody Riser mixed gas and oil for his tank, slipped on his safety goggles, then pulled the cord. On the third pull it coughed around and caught, and the noise was so loud that the little kids covered their ears. He went for a leg first, aiming carefully just above the knee where the skin was taut, but I guess he should have checked how tough the flesh was because the chainsaw kicked back on him and took a bite out of Woody Riser’s own leg.

Things got a little crazy after that.

A couple of sheriffs put Woody Riser in their car and left for the hospital, and the rest of the sheriffs gave up on crowd control while they huddled with Funderburke to figure out what to try next. Right away people started pushing close to Stash. They all wanted to touch him, but some pulled out knives and poked at him with their blades. I saw a guy sawing at Stash’s tail, and a couple of kids tugging on a tusk. Somebody else went for a piece of the ear.

George and Jun stood next to the psycho-monkey cage—the monkey had gotten hold of a cigar and they were watching him try to smoke it—but I didn’t want to have anything to do with them for awhile. I wanted to leave, but I also wanted to stay, and it was about then that I saw Sharla, that cheerleader from my Advanced Geometry class, standing by herself at the edge of the crowd.

I went over to her and stood there for a couple of minutes before she noticed me. “Oh, hi Charlie,” she said. Her eyes were red from wanting to cry, but she hadn’t cried yet. I tried to think of something to say back to her—something sensitive or clever—but nothing came except, “How’s your geometry?”

She didn’t have a chance to answer, though, or to laugh in my face and tell me how stupid I was, because a couple of pick-up trucks pulled into the crowd and a bunch of football players from the high school got out with axes. “Elephant patrol!” they shouted. Everybody laughed except for me and Sharla, and the crowd pulled back to give the guys room to operate. Even the sheriffs seemed to think it was pretty funny, and they ignored Funderburke, who started yelling at them to stay away from Stash. “He can be stuffed,” Funderburke kept saying. “He can be stuffed.” Nobody listened.

“Isn’t that you boyfriend?” I asked Sharla. I thought I recognized one of the football players.

“Oh, David wouldn’t do that,” Sharla said, obviously worried that David would. “He’s just with them. He wouldn’t—”

One of the football players climbed onto the hood of his truck and shouted: “County High one time!” The crowd roared, and an ax ripped into Stash’s side.

“County High two times!” Another ax sliced the trunk.

“County High three times!” Two football players—one of them Sharla’s boyfriend—hacked at Stash’s legs.

“County High all the damn time!”

They attacked.

It must have gone on for a long time, guys passing off the axes when they got tired, always somebody new to step in for a few whacks at Stash. A couple of people left, offended, but more came, and the Critterworld parking lot turned black with blood. I didn’t see too much, though, because I followed Sharla across the highway where she sat and cried in the ditch where George and Jun and I had been.

I’d never seen a girl that upset before, and I didn’t exactly know what to do, so I just patted her on the back like my mother used to do to me when I was little. I wanted to tell her that her sorry boyfriend didn’t deserve her anyway, but that didn’t seem quite appropriate even though it was true. She cried harder and harder, but nothing could block out the thwack of axes or the pep rally cheers as they worked over Stash in front of Critterworld. I heard the psycho-monkey screaming, too, and figured he’d gotten to the ash-end of his cigar, and then, after a long time, just about when I started thinking I should leave Sharla alone because I was probably just bugging her, sitting there patting on her like I was, she turned her face to my shoulder and she cried onto my t-shirt and I put both of my arms around her as far as they would reach, and we stayed like that for a while longer until it was all over and nearly dark and a couple of her girlfriends came looking for Sharla to give her a ride home.

She wiped her eyes and climbed into the car, and she said something to me through the back window, but they were already pulling away so I didn’t catch it. Maybe it was just “Goodbye” or “See you in class,” or maybe she just said my name.

Pretty soon I was the only one left, sitting there in the ditch, except for Mr. Funderburke, who just stood in the parking lot like the broken man he was. The crowd was gone, the sheriffs, the football players with their axes, even George and Jun. I got up slowly and walked back across the road to get a last look at what was what. But now here’s the really funny part: For all their chopping and their pep rally and everything, Stash was still there. Sure, he was cut to hell and bleeding everywhere, and his trunk and his tail were gone, and the ears were tattered and all like that, but he was still there. They could have swung their axes for another whole day and Stash would still have been there. Even dead he was too much elephant for them, and I wished Jun was there for me to show him, and to tell him that, and to make him understand.

They got those sod farm tractors back the next day and dragged Stash into a field behind Critterworld. They got a bulldozer and dug a big hole and dropped him in on a bed of wood soaked in gasoline. The fire lasted all night, and I got my mother to drive me out to see it. There were cars all up and down the road.

Some people say that Stash haunts that field now, that somebody stole his trunk and he looks for it on full moons, that passing motorists have seen him standing at 3 a.m. on his old spot in front of Critterworld. All that standard ghost story stuff. They even say that nothing will grow on the spot where Stash was cremated, but I guess you can write that off as rumor, too, because I’ve been out there a couple of times since and the grass is as green there as anywhere.