Dennis Maulsby

OLD REPTILE

I arrived early at the tennis courts. My child-hood buddy Bob and I had returned to our small birth-town in Iowa for our fortieth class reunion. Only Bob’s threat of blackmail had gotten me back – he knew too many secrets. The courts were old but well-maintained. They had been dedicated when I was in grade school. Leaning back on the car fender, I let my eyes wander over the familiar park boundaries. Many of the mature trees that had been at the far end were gone. I tried to reconstruct where they had been, triggering an uneasy memory of a certain day when we had sheltered under their protection, so many years ago…

It was a slow amber time of day at the park with its empty tennis courts, deserted baseball diamond, and limp paddleball ropes. It was hot. Blurry heat ripples rose from the parking lot in response to the Iowa summer sun. Mirage-like, the ripples seemed to flow down the blacktop path, until they lapped at the Elm and Cottonwood shade.

Under the trees, a few gray wooden picnic tables and a tilted shed with a Dutch door furnished an island refuge for a half-dozen preteen cast-a-ways, whose exhausted mothers had exiled them for the afternoon. We were watched over by two high school girls hired and scantily trained by the city park department. Like lionesses in a movie I had seen, they allowed us cubs to tumble about and around them, to paw at their hips and legs, until, losing patience, they forcefully diverted us into other games.

A couple of kids moved sweaty chess pieces, while others braided the last lanyards or bracelets of the season. It was a time when I had acquired a growing interest in gender differences. That day I spent my time in activities, which allowed my attention to focus on the movements of these older… more developed girls. There was a mystery here, but my future part in it had so far escaped me.

The telephone in the shed rang. “Okay gang, everyone go home immediately,” the head counselor said. Seeing our puzzled faces, she waved the receiver like a witch’s wand, “There’s a tornado watch… go on, git!”

We rumbled out of the playground, a train of kids moving at a fast walk, each one dropping off as the procession passed his house. No one talked, our minds full of images springing from the stories and warnings of older relatives and siblings of storms past:

… chickens sucked into milk bottles with their legs dangling out,
… straw driven like nails into wooden power poles,
… a hog sliced in half by a wind powered sheet of corrugated steel,
… and Aunt Ines crippled for life – caught in the open going to school.

Finally, there was only me. Fear sparked by the old tales flushed me from the cover of the trees and bushes of an older neighborhood into the open raw space of our newer housing development. I could almost see our place as I ran up the last section of dusty, unpaved road.

The sound of my breathing and heartbeat grew unnaturally loud. I stopped. There was no movement of air, no bird song, no rustle of leaves – a world I did not know. I scanned the area: no people, dogs, bikes or cars. Looking back, I could see hanging suspended above each of my footprints a small kicked up puff of dust.

The sky seemed immense, a great bowl filled with curds of ragged clouds. These were the signs, folks said, that a tornado was very close. My feet felt locked to the ground, my body and thoughts frozen, helpless before the approaching winds. I could feel my consciousness slink into the lowest portion of my brain, that place where our ancient scaly reptile ancestor lurks with all his hardwired survival instincts. From that deep well came a roar of defiance.

Without conscious intent, my body jerked, lips parted, hands clenched – the hypnotic spell broke and I sprinted, adrenaline pumped, towards shelter. The door opened and my anxious mother hustled me into the basement. There in the southwest corner under the glow of the family’s antique oil lamp, safe in my mother’s arms, the storm passed and I became human once more.

I never saw a tornado again, but I let you out – old reptile – a few more times. You kept me alive in those faraway wet and dense jungles, like those of your birth – where uniformed men hunted each other, and only those in your guise survived.