How Not to Babysit a Crocodile

"Crocodiles in the Pool," a short story by Jessica Lee Richardson

baby crocodiles

How Not to Babysit a Crocodile

Crocodiles in the Pool

I have to explain that Colette was the kind of girl to invent her own words and think they would stick. Her new one was “denny.” Denny was a feeling. If she felt her jeans fit over her butt just right and her song was playing? “I don’t know, I’m just denny right now,” she would say, running her hands over herself, snapping her fingers, smiling a private smile meant for display. “Aren’t you denny right now?”

She wanted assent. I could validate her word by agreeing that I was in a good mood, but her word took me right out of my good mood. I suppose I should have self-examined, but instead, I agreed to crocodile-sit for her.

Colette kept a pair of crocodiles in her pool. It sounds cruel, I know. But she really loved these things. She’d researched every detail; they had the right water quality, temperature, vegetation. It looked like a swamp in her family’s previously pristine square of a pool. Her whole home was a monument to the once-stately and so, in a way, was she.

Colette’s skin was clear, her hair shiny, her thighs thick. But she’d found herself, as do we all, in that fragile canoe where you teeter between youth and age. One quick move to the left or the right and Colette would wash right up in the waters of the no longer desired. Come on in, the water’s fine, she’d say. It’s denny in here. But of course it isn’t. Crocodiles paddle below.

No matter, Colette had fallen in love again. This was why the crocs were in my charge. She planned to “pop off” on a boat with him. Her words. That was another thing. Colette didn’t honor the definitions culture had already settled on for words. But she honored her own and committed to the boat ride.

It was more of a yacht. As it glided up to her harbor I saw that it spelled a shiny brand of trouble, but Colette smile-danced her way aboard, ever herself. The journey was long. It had four parts. In the long version there are intricacies that capture the fleeting poem of being a human and a once-young and an almost-not. But like most, I’ve lost grip of the intricacies. The short version goes something like this: 

Part one:

Denny denny dancing and hot plastic cushion sex with the wind in Colette’s long healthy hair. Shrimp. Strawberries.

Part two:

The yacht owner picks up some friends. Now the yacht is a party. Who are these people? Confusing but pleasant drunken conversations off the prow, night after night.

Part three:

Trouble arrives in the form of Colette’s somewhat controlling family. Colette decides the open sea is for her. They are sullying her denny. She shuts her phone off and braids a new friend’s hair. Refuses to deboard.

Part four:

She catches the yacht owner on a plastic cushion with her new friend, yanking her time-consuming braid. She phones her mother.

The end:

As I said, there are missing moments. They have to do with time and how Colette’s heart slicked itself to Yacht Guy like a snail on siding. She loved him.

She returns heartbroken. She’s been gone for months. As this time has passed, I’ve begun, more and more, to leave the crocodiles to fend for themselves. They seem strong. By the time Colette scoots up on the schooner she caught a ride with, they seem, to me, quite capable. Or this is what I tell myself.

Sometime in the middle of Colette’s sojourn, the crocs started bullying me with menacing tail whips whenever I arrived with food. The house conspired to transfix me, so much bigger and more luxurious than my overstuffed one-bedroom. It was so predator-free in there. So I stayed in. Avoided them. Now I understand the crocs were starving. Tail whips are about hunger. I didn’t have Colette’s precious frequencies right. Not even close.

To make it worse, the crocodiles were the first beings Colette wanted to see. She didn’t look as suffused with health as she had when she embarked. My gut sank. It was the sight of my friend and her lost canoe, I reasoned. But it was also hitting me just how long I’d been hiding from the crocodiles.

“Where are my babies?” Colette said, smiling a bit. “I need to see my little dinosaurs.”

“Come on in first,” I said. “Have a cup of tea.” I needed to think.

“Definitely! As soon as I see my nuggets.”

We walked around the side of the house. I gripped her hand as we trudged through the shabby tall grass and I could speak of the rocks that stung my feet, or the crow yelling at us from the tree, or the sweet smell of mint, but there’s no point in extending this, you’ve probably guessed it—they were dead.

Colette stared down for a long time at their serene bodies, dark gray against a swampy green. She didn’t move a muscle. My whole body shivered with apology.

When she looked up I understood what the word devastated meant. Its full meaning.

I tried to comfort her. I tried to apologize. I tried to explain. I wiggled in my shame like a child.

It was of no use. Her eyes had gone dead and soon mine died doing the doggy paddle to stay afloat in hers. I realized too late that your friend’s crocodiles are your own. Take care of them.

There should be a word for this, but it will never be invented. The Colettes of the world go quiet.

The Colettes and their betraying friends alike, they sit upon the beach. They crack pistachios and fluff and prune, and you’d never know the yachts they’ve cruised or words they’ve coined to look at their graying bodies, so long left to fend for themselves in a box they didn’t know or make.

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