by David James Keaton
When I was in first grade, I could never get a handle on Show & Tell. Every time it was my turn, I brought in a parade of nonsense that put the other kids right to sleep. Everybody else came in with stuff that had us scrambling all over each other to get a better look, and you’d think with 90% of Show & Tells just being a presentation of a kid’s favorite toy, I could have cracked this code. But I was so eager to blow them away, that I kept veering off course by bringing in, say, magnifying glasses and no sun in the room to actually burn anything, or the 12-inch single of Sweet’s “Fox on the Run” that I slapped down on Mrs. Circle’s mesmerizing turntable with the flashing diamond lightshow. Yes, her name was really Mrs. Circle and she had a cool record player, which seems unlikely but probably just a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. But this song was probably my worst Show & Tell ever, as I watched everyone’s eye glaze over but did learn a lesson as valuable as anything I retained from first grade—which is never put on music and stare intently into a blank face and wait for a reaction. Music is mostly for solitude, particularly when you hear it for the first time, and a dark room like a movie theater is probably best. This is something I’ve carried with me, which became amplified by a thousand when I witnessed karaoke. So if you’re singing an amazing Meat Loaf song at the bar, and I get up and leave? Don’t take it personal. We must have made eye contact, and I just had no idea what you wanted from me.
But one day, I solved the riddle and cracked the Show & Tell code once and for all by bringing in a toy for this movie I hadn’t even seen yet. See, the toy was ages 6 and up, where the movie was, what, 13 and up? It would probably be rated PG-13 today, like all of Spielberg’s movies (I mean, he’s the dude who invented that rating with Temple of Doom, right?) But this toy? Holy crap it was incredible. It was a big plastic shark with a rubber-band mouth, and you stuck a variety of plastic trinkets on the tongue and then plucked them off one by one with a wicked-looking gaff. And once the bottom jaw wasn’t heavy enough to hold the tension… SNAP! The mouth banged shut, little plastic junk flying everywhere, kids screaming, the works. And it snapped extra hard if you life-hacked that shit like we all did and put three rubber bands on the mouth instead of one. It wasn’t dangerous or anything. It had teeth, sure, but you wouldn’t lose a leg like that poor lifeguard in the movie (the scene that almost got it an R-rating actually), but don’t worry about him either, he’ll be okay. I know it seemed like he died but if you look close, he was barefoot in the boat, but then when his severed leg floated down to the bottom… the foot was wearing a tennis shoe. That’s why this lifeguard is the badass of all time. He took a moment to put on his goddamn shoes while a shark was chomping and blowing bubbles with him like Big League Chew.
Anyway, my shark was a bit hit. We didn’t even have to play the game. I just put it together, fin-by-fin, locked and loaded the rubber-band jaw, then piled up the tongue with the junk. And these trinkets you had to fish out of its face were fascinating, by the way. Sort of like Monopoly, which could have been way better of you spent the game putting sharks on all your properties instead of houses. Near as I can remember, there was a work boot, an anchor, a wagon wheel (?), a fish skeleton, no human body parts but this big ol’ bone that might have been from a person, and a walkie-talkie, which conjured up all sorts of Jonah-in-the-whale type fantasies (“Breaker 1-9, I’m still getting digested, over…”), and also made sense considering Spielberg’s later fascination with this technology. Remember the scandal when he replaced every gun in E.T. with a walkie-talkie? This was supposed to make the movie a bit more benign and kid-friendly, but instead it convinced us kids our walkie-talkies might be lethal.
No license plate came with the toy though, which seems like a real missed opportunity. So I just plucked out this junk for my first-grade class, eyes wide and intent like a mad scientist, or at least a mildly-disturbed dentist, and the room held their breath. And when the jaws snapped shut, I knew it was coming. It wasn’t hard to figure out exactly how much junk a three-rubber-band-tight jaw could lose before it sprung, so I barely flinched at all. The kids lost it though, squealing and rolling out of the way. And maybe I wasn’t a hero for a day, but a hero for 15 minutes, and that was good enough.
I didn’t see Jaws until about a year later when it was on “cable.” I have the scare quotes around cable because my uncle was stealing Showtime with a pirate box (only the biggest suckers paid for cable in the ‘70s). It’s not so crazy for kids to have toys years before they can see the movies that inspire them. And if you think it’s weird that they made toys “ages 6 and up” for a bona fide horror movie, remember this was the ‘70s, where kids were playing with Giger’s Alien in their sandbox or watching Blade Runner on their View-Master. No, seriously, they had Blade Runner on the View-Master! Or maybe it was The Black Hole, I can’t remember. Equally scary though.
But when I watched Jaws that day with my uncle Pat, I didn’t freak out. I was 7 years old or so, and my uncle and my parents marveled at how calm I was through the whole thing. This might have been my first case of “hype,” with my relatives needling me so much about being scared that I had to prove them wrong, because while I was watching it, I kept thinking “This ain’t so bad…” Either that or there was just no way I was going to show weakness. I’d already shown enough weakness earlier in the day when I ran full speed into their sliding glass door, bloodying my nose all over it. It wasn’t the first time I’d done this, which was why my aunt and uncle had put butterfly stickers on the thing so I wouldn’t make this mistake again. But they keep the door too damn clean. If I had a house made of sliding-glass doors, I’d be dead.
So when we were watching the movie, I was doing fine, cheering with everyone when Brody blew it up with that perfect shot, and that was that. Then people wandered off and I kept watching Showtime on my own.
And that’s when the cartoon came on.
I still have no idea what this cartoon was, and I’ve been unable to track it down, even in the Golden Age of internets. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who saw it, so it really did happen. But my dad doesn’t really remember it like I do. Showtime was weird back then, too. No hosts, no original programming that I remember, with just these short, animated clips to fill time between movies. They were usually darkly humorous flicks, like something they’d play at a drive-in. Showtime is where most of us first saw Godzilla Vs. Bambi, for example. So this cartoon was supposed to be funny, too. It depicted an entomologist running around in a field with a butterfly net, catching butterflies. Then suddenly this even-bigger net swoops down and snatches him up instead. Camera pulls back, and it’s a huge butterfly carrying the squirming man in his net, flying back to a big cave. In the cave, the butterfly yanks the man out, gives him a cursory glance, then smack! Sticks him up on a wall with a giant pin. The camera pulls back again to show the wall is covered with men, all impaled on pins, heads lolling, and the butterfly sitting at a desk, drumming its fingers all bored.
It’s an old turning-the-tables gag I’ve seen a hundred times since, but holy balls did it freak me out. It sent me off, running through the house screaming, and everyone was left scratching their heads, “What’s wrong with Crash?” I listened to them diagnose my meltdown, and they decided that it was Jaws after all, combined with running face-first into the sliding door, that was causing this. Those were the real culprits, not a cartoon. And I was angry at the time, confused no one else was disturbed by the butterfly, but looking back, their assessment makes more sense. The cartoon was a fable, and it had a certain logic to it. Thinking about it now, Jaws was my sliding-glass door to the nose that day. Okay, the butterfly cartoon was freaky, but that’s a simple revenge tale. Sure, Jaws might be construed as a revenge tale, too (Jaws: The Revenge, anyone?), particularly today when sharks are undergoing a mass extinction and the Earth loses three sharks every second, but Jaws was weirder than all that, more alien. The water was outer space, the wrong place to be. And in the movie, any shot of some desperate swimming trying to get to the surface, but being pulled down at the very last second? That’s what got me. Isn’t this essentially what happens when a sliding glass door appears from nowhere? The idea that you’re underwater, that you’re in the fish tank with those alien life forms, only there’s six sealed sides to this tank and no exit, and the promise of sunlight from the surface will be stolen at any moment. That’s true terror. But if anybody can track down the butterfly cartoon, let me know. So I can destroy the negative.
But there’s a reason there’s a Shark Week and not a Butterfly Week on the Discovery channel. Shark Week is only slightly more ridiculous these days, as it’s mercifully pulled back from baiting the conspiracy theorist with fake Mermen and Megalodon documentaries. For a minute there, it was like they didn’t trust people to think sharks were big enough, that they didn’t need three heads or to be surfing tornados. A shark doesn’t need to be the size of an aircraft carrier to terrify. They’ve always been just the right size, meaning bigger than us. Remember the movie Mighty Joe Young? I don’t know about you, but there was something freakier about a King Kong that was somewhere in-between monster-sized and gorilla-sized, like that scary porridge that’s just right. And even a man-sized butterfly on a rampage still lives up here. With us. Not down under those sliding-glass doors, ready to rob you of any hope of escape or last gasps. Or even last thoughts.
Okay, last thoughts. When I used to work at a bookstore back in Toledo, my boss at the time told us how she’d spent summers in Arizona back in the ’70s doing volunteer work on a Navajo reservation, and one day she thought it would be great to organize a field trip to see Jaws. She said that most of them hadn’t seen many, or any, movies at all, so she hoped there would be some big impact, maybe like the Maori tribe in The Piano who stormed the stage while watching the locals put on an adaptation of Bluebeard, or the apocryphal tales of crowds panicking and running from a projected locomotive during the Lumière brothers screening of their first film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Instead, she said, they watched the movie without comment, and when it was over, she eagerly went to them to debrief them about the experience. She was much more excited than they were, however, and one Navajo man’s response seemed to be indicative of the general consensus. He just said, “Big fish” and shrugged, which is a good way to remind us what was really important here, all desperate sliding-glass-door symbolism aside. That fucking fish was big enough.
David James Keaton’s work has appeared in over 50 publications. His first collection, FISH BITES COP! Stories to Bash Authorities (Comet Press), was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror and was a finalist for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award. His second collection of short fiction, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead (PMMP), received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly, who said, “Decay, both existential and physical, has never looked so good.” He lives and teaches in California, where the roads are made of sand fleas and avocados.