Trappers came and dragged the alligator out of the ditch in my backyard, bound her front legs and threw her on the flatbed of their pickup truck one afternoon in late May. They wore cutoff denim jeans and sleeveless shirts called “wife beaters,” and carried poles with big loops on the end that tightened when you pulled on them, duct tape, and big coolers of raw meat.
I had heard the neighbors talking about the gator. They said it came out of the drainage pipe at the end of the subdivision, made its way down the length of the ditch, and disappeared into the pipe at the other end. It was nine feet long, at least, and looked sinister and possibly pregnant. It ate half my neighbor’s Yorkie and left the other half rotting on the grass on the edge of her yard. She showed me a Polaroid of the corpse while I toed the banks of the ditch looking for baby minnows, which I later learned were mosquito larvae.
“Do you know what this is?” She pointed to the picture. “It’s Marco, my dog.”
Marco lay in a pool of blood that had dried and become brown. Two legs remained, lying at odd angles. I could just make out his tail among blades of grass.
The dog was the last straw for the neighborhood.
“I don’t want you and your friends playing around here anymore. You play inside where it’s safe.”
“A girl should play with dolls,” she added.
“But I don’t like dolls.”
“To be safe, you should learn.”
The next day, we all met in the park for a potluck: my parents and a few of their friends, and my father’s employees, which now numbered five. My dad’s birthday cake melted on the end of a picnic table, flies collecting on the frosting and sucking the sugary sweat with long mouths. One of the new hires grilled steaks.
The day was muggy so we gathered under a gazebo by the lake. Every now and then, a breeze would blow timidly across the water and onto the kickball diamond where two of my dad’s employees, Justin and Sylvia, played on opposing teams.
I watched the game with half an orange in each hand, the vessels breaking and dripping over my fingers, making them sticky. Justin called a time-out for water and everyone broke in different directions. He came over to where I was sitting.
“You don’t want to play kickball?”
“I’m not very good at it.”
“So what? Play for fun.”
“It’s not fun not winning.”
He sat on the opposite bench and wiped his forehead with the bottom of his shirt. His stomach was tanned and he had a small beer belly with a line of dark hair running south from his bellybutton to the top of his basketball shorts.
“You have a boyfriend, Nora?”
“No. I’m too young.”
“I don’t want a boyfriend, anyway.”
I bought myself time by watching Sylvia as she spun the kickball in her hands and leaned against a slash pine talking to Greg, one of the new salesmen.
“What do you think of Sylvia?” said Justin.
“She’s really pretty.”
“Oh, yeah?” He smiled at me.
He didn’t answer, but shook his head.
“Nothing. Play some kickball. You’ll like it.”
He finished his water and stood from the table. Sylvia followed him into the diamond. I followed them with my eyes.
I had begun taking afternoon classes at an art camp in the next town over. My mother drove me on the first day and as we passed the park, we played a game we came to call “Gator Watch.”
Whoever saw the most gator snouts above the surface of the lake won the game. I always won because my mother was too busy watching the road to look closely. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of gators to find. Though these days, in the hostile environ of the park, they mostly stayed hidden.
I stood in the camp’s doorway on the first day and looked at all the faces. Kids who already seemed to know each other gathered at folding tables and shouted above the din of the room. Two counselors in paint-covered smocks and T-shirts with camp logos on the breasts bent over Tupperware containers of art supplies. A pile of backpacks sat near the stage. I dropped mine on it and chose a table with two girls sitting alone across from each other, a blonde and a redhead. They passed a piece of paper back and forth, each time writing on it and folding over a small piece until there was none left.
“What are you playing?”
The redhead answered: “Exquisite Corpse. You write part of a story and then pass it on to the next person and they write the next part.” She spoke with a southern accent that looped around the vowels.
“How do you win?”
“Nobody wins. That’s not the point of the game.”
I wanted to make her talk again. Listening to her made me feel excited. “Then what’s the point?”
“You just have a story, something you enjoy.”
She unfolded the paper and laid it on the table. Her hands looked like two doves.
“I’m Nora,” I said.
“Janice,” she said.
“Becky,” said the blonde. Becky had wire-framed glasses that she hung by their arms from her shirt collar.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“Read the story,” said Becky to Janice.
Janice cleared her throat and began to read: “Once upon a time there was a pelican who loved an alligator. / And the alligator loved the pelican back, and also thought he was delicious. / Okay. So, everybody thought that was gross. Ew! A pelican and an alligator can’t go out! / And they made fun of them because the pelican and the alligator still hung out. / Right, but they didn’t care, because nobody’s opinion mattered but theirs. / But they kind of did care, because none of their friends would be their friends anymore. / But that was okay, because if they won’t be your friend anymore just because you love a pelican, then they weren’t your friend in the first place. / Right, but it doesn’t always feel like that, so the pelican and the alligator stopped caring, and lived happily ever after. / The end! / Come back for the sequel!”
By this point, the two girls were crying with laughter. Janice was banging on the table and Becky’s glasses had fallen off her shirt and onto the floor. She bent down to get them. I laughed a little bit. My heart beat rapidly.
“That’s a pretty good story,” I said.
“It’s hilarious!” said Becky.
“It’s even crazier with three people!” said Janice. “Want to try?”
“Okay. What do I do?”
“Just write your part when it comes to you and then fold it over and hand it to me. Leave the last line so I can see it.”
One of the camp counselors was giving a lecture on oil pastels while the other one circled the cafeteria and dropped baskets of broken-off pastel crayons on the centers of the tables. Becky followed the man with her eyes but Janice didn’t seem to notice. She was too busy composing the first line of our story. Her tongue stuck out of the left corner of her mouth. She held the pencil delicately, and wrote in neat but elegant, loop-de-loop handwriting.
“You have good handwriting,” I said.
“How’d you learn to write like that?”
She shrugged. “I just write the way I like.”
The man dropped a basket in the center of our table and gave us three pieces of recycled paper.
“Draw your favorite animal in the style of one of these artists,” he said.
I turned to face the other counselor. Three poster-prints of paintings hung pinned to a corkboard behind her.
“How do I know I’m drawing it right?”
“Don’t worry about being right,” the counselor said.
Janice finished her sentence and handed the paper to Becky. Becky finished hers and folded the paper over to cover Janice’s sentence, then handed the paper to me. Becky’s sentence was still visible: “He told everyone he knew and they all laughed at her.”
I didn’t like where the story was going.
“Should we do the assignment and save this for later?” I asked.
“Do whatever you want,” Janice said, and smiled. “That’s what I always do.”
The year before, a boy from my school was chased by an alligator after he and his friends had a contest to see who could hit it first with a rock. He narrowly escaped by running zigzags, something alligators can’t do.
After that, the school sent specialists into the classrooms to teach us about gator safety. We had to practice running zigzags up and down the basketball courts, and learn how to identify alligators in disguise, about their webbed feet and their scales and the number of teeth they have: eighty.
We learned to keep our distance and not to move quickly. For some reason, we never learned about death rolls. I learned about those on my own. I also learned that alligators bellow to attract their mates, which makes the water around them vibrate.
That night, after the first day of art camp, I sat out on the back porch by myself and stared at the splotch of darkness that was the ditch. I wondered what had happened to my alligator and if she was really pregnant when they dragged her away, and if she had friends who wondered where she was, or another alligator who missed her especially.
For some reason, then, my thoughts went to Janice. In particular Janice’s hair, which was the color of a campfire mixed with the red velvet curtains in our school auditorium. I wanted to mix up paints to make that color and then paint a picture of Janice and give it to her. I wanted her to see something in it that I didn’t know how to say to her with words.
Her teeth were tiny and perfectly white and had little gaps between them, and she smiled the whole time I was sitting next to her. It was easy to make her smile. I wanted to make her do it all the time.
And I wanted to hear her laugh, which I couldn’t compare to any other sound.
Her green eyes made me feel giddy and speechless.
I wanted her to like me. What would I say to her tomorrow?
I thought about telling Janice about the alligator, but I didn’t know what I wanted her to know. Before the trappers left, they told us that there was nothing we could do to prevent more alligators from coming into our ditch. Florida is their native habitat, they said, and we were the intruders.
“What do you mean ‘intruders’?” said my father. “I live here!”
“I understand, sir,” said the trapper, “but see it from their perspective. They’ve been doing what’s instinctual for thousands of years. You’ve only been here for thirty. You’re the new one.”
That summer, my father moved his advertising business out of our guest bedroom and into an office about a mile from our house, in a strip center he shared with a psychic, a florist, and a homeopathic doctor.
I rode my bike down the narrow road in the mornings and helped him by filing job packets and doing basic data entry until the afternoons. Then my mom came to take me to art camp.
My dad paid me five dollars an hour and I worked in the front area with Sylvia, who had been promoted to Receptionist. Sylvia knew about alligators too.
“Do you know why alligators death roll?” she said.
“No, why?” I was alphabetizing files on my lap and initialing the completed ones, as indicated by the yellow highlights on her list. With each new file, I tried to work more quickly and more efficiently. I hoped Sylvia would notice how well I could follow her instructions.
“So that its prey can’t find the surface, and drowns,” she said. “Unless it breaks its neck in the roll. Then the alligator drags it under a rock to let it rot.”
“That’s how the alligators like it. They’re nasty animals.”
“No, they’re not. They’re just doing what’s instinctual.”
I asked her if she knew what happened to alligators after they’re trapped.
“I think if they’re too big, they’re killed.”
“Like, over four feet, maybe.”
I was almost five feet. The alligator in the ditch was nine, according to the neighbors. Did the four feet include the tail? I didn’t want to think that the alligator in the ditch might be dead now.
What do they do with alligators they kill? Did they sell my alligator’s skin for handbags? Was her head sitting on a shelf in a gift shop, jaw gaping, with a price tag stuck to her snout?
There was something so unjust about all of it. She didn’t know that the ditch was off-limits, and that Marco wasn’t food. Why was the ditch off-limits, anyway?
“What if they’re pregnant?” I asked.
“Sweetie, I don’t know. I’m not an expert. Are you going to collate those jobs or not?”
I sat on the floor by her desk and began matching and stapling together pieces of jobs that had been passed around the office. There was something soothing about the predictability of the work, the way systems for it were already in place, ready to be followed. The way that, when a job came together in its proper order, it felt like a reward.
I didn’t even have to think about it.
At the same time, I wondered what would happen if I deviated from the system. Would it mess everything up?
“How is art camp?” Sylvia asked.
“I like it. I met a really nice girl.”
“Oh, did you?”
In the corner of my eye, I saw Sylvia glance down the hall at Justin and give him a little wink.
“Her name is Janice.”
“And what is Janice like?”
“I don’t know. She’s pretty and funny. She’s from Georgia.”
“Pretty and funny, huh?”
“She has red hair. She was playing a game called Exquisite Corpse.”
“Is she morbid?”
“No. The game was fun. You tell a story.”
“How do you win it?”
I felt a pang of annoyance. “You can’t win it. You play for its own sake.”
We worked in silence for the rest of the hour. Sylvia typed away at her Selectric while I worked on the floor. I let my thoughts go soft until the rhythm of the keys syncopated with the movement of my hands as they matched loose sheets together. Under the desk, I could see that Sylvia had taken off her hemp platforms. Her toenails were painted pink and she wore a ring on her little toe. A gold anklet drooped over the top of her foot and her heel.
“I need a cigarette,” she said finally, pushing back her chair. “Maybe you should invite Janice here to work with us one day? If she’s a nice girl, like you say, I’m sure we’ll have a good time.” She glanced over her shoulder and smiled at Justin, jerking her head in the direction of the back door. Justin tucked his cigarettes into his breast pocket.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. I couldn’t say why, but office work didn’t seem like something Janice would like.
That same summer, I started getting acne. My doctor prescribed a cream to apply to my face in the morning and at night. The cream burned and made me itch, and made my skin dry and scaly. I picked at my face until it bled, and scabs hardened on my cheeks and chin and forehead, which made me pick more because I wanted to make the roughness smooth.
When my mother saw me doing it, she would swat my hand away and tell me that pretty girls don’t have scabs on their faces. She showed me pictures of her brother as a teenager, his face covered in scars and dark pink blemishes. He looked like a reptile.
My skin felt tense when I smiled, and in my mind, the pimples were huge and everybody saw them. The only place I felt comfortable was in the bathroom, where I could shut the door and sink to the bottom of the tub, and hide there. I took hour-long baths three times a week, and added calamine lotion to the water. I held my breath for as long as I could and let the air in my lungs rise to the surface in big bubbles.
My mother warned me against doing this too often.
“The water’s just going to dry your skin out.”
“But it’s wet.”
“The water makes it worse, Nora. It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t think about it so often. What do you want people to see?”
I thought of Janice. “But it feels better.”
“But it’s not right.”
That evening, workers from the city visited our backyard and took measurements of the ditch in preparation to fill it. I watched them through the back porch screen as they unraveled their long, orange lines and wrote down numbers on wooden clipboards. While they worked, my next-door neighbor came out with an aluminum folding chair, which she set in the middle of her yard. She watched the workers while the sun set over the neighborhood, holding a Polaroid in her lap. I think she was smiling.
I continued to win every Gator Watch game my mother and I played until my mother’s hours at the bookstore changed and my father had to start driving me to art camp.
We’d go to his office together in the mornings and I’d work until the afternoons, when he’d take a late lunch and we’d get in the car together. One afternoon, a week before the camp ended, he asked me why it was so important for me to win Gator Watch.
“I just like seeing the alligators.”
“But it’s not fair that you’re winning every time. I can’t win because I’m watching the road.”
He glanced at me when he said this and I wondered whether he was just using that as an excuse.
“You can look at the pond for a second,” I said.
“It’s not safe.”
“Yes it is. You looked at me just now.”
“So play,” he said. “But don’t play for winning; play because it’s fun.”
“Alright.” I counted the number of alligators as we drove past: Four.
“Did you know that alligators can hold their breath for more than fifteen minutes?” my dad said.
I touched my cheeks and wondered how many were there that I couldn’t see.
“Stop,” said my dad. “Don’t pick.”
“I can’t help it.”
“Fine, but know you’re making it worse.”
“Just because they can hold their breath for a long time doesn’t mean they can hold it forever.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So what are you saying?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing. I just don’t know what your point is.”
He dropped me off in the car circle outside the school and went back to the office, saying that my mom would pick me up later. I found Janice and Becky at the back of the cafeteria. We were in the throes of preparing for the Final Showcase the following weekend and had decided to make a life-sized, Plaster of Paris alligator.
We’d built a frame out of chicken wire with help from the counselors, and had a stack of Bankers Boxes full of torn cheesecloth to soak, one-by-one, in a paste made of flour and water. We’d already been working on the gator for three weeks. Most of the animal was covered. All that remained was the face. Right now, it looked like a broken skull.
Janice dipped a cheesecloth strip in plaster paste and pulled it between two fingers to get rid of the excess. Her hands were wet and covered in white. She’d tied her hair back in a messy bun and wore a paint-splattered smock over a floral jumper with a pink bow at the back. I watched as she laid the cheesecloth tenderly over a thin area of the alligator’s brow.
“You’re good at this,” I said.
“So are you.”
I liked that she said this, but it made me feel embarrassed. “No, I’m clumsy.”
“It’s because you don’t trust yourself,” she said. “Stop thinking about your hands and just think about where to put them.”
I tried to do this a few times, but my strips were all wrinkly.
“Be smooth,” said Janice. “You have to be gentle.”
She soaked a cheesecloth strip and handed it to me, then took my hands in hers. Together, we guided the strip into place and used our index fingers to smooth the wrinkles. I liked the feeling of her wet hands on mine, and the way we laced our fingers together. By the time we finished, my face was hot and my hips were tingling. I didn’t know what to say.
“Wasn’t that easy?” she asked.
“Do it again.”
“I won’t do it right.”
She looked at me, not saying anything, and then soaked a strip and put it in my hand. It folded over itself and fell back in the plaster. I wiped my fingers off and apologized.
“Just do it again. Don’t be embarrassed.”
“It’s okay. I don’t want to.”
“I think you do.”
She smiled at me and nodded. I wanted very much to impress her. On my own, I soaked a strip and laid it directly over the one we had done together, sliding my finger across it to smooth the creases.
“Doesn’t that feel good?”
“Do you want to come over sometime?”
“To your house?”
“Well, no. To my dad’s office.”
She looked confused.
“I told my dad’s secretary about you.”
“She says you can work there with us if you want to. Make money. If you don’t, that’s okay.”
“No, I do.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “It sounds like fun.”
Janice’s father dropped her off at my dad’s office at nine o’clock in the morning, just as my dad and I were parking the station wagon. Janice wore a blue, collared sundress and a delicate silver chain with a small cross that hung just beneath her collarbone. She’d tied her hair with a ribbon. She looked pretty.
We spent the first hour preparing for Sylvia to arrive, stacking her papers and making her desk organized. I gave Janice a tour of the office, showing her how to use the coffee and copy machines, and where the art and sales desks were, whose name she needed to know, and what not to touch in my father’s office, which he appreciated.
When Sylvia arrived, she gave us a box of receipts and credit card statements. We sat in the empty waiting room with a stapler and several manila folders, and matched receipts to their billing periods.
“Do you like doing this?” she asked me after awhile.
“I guess. It’s good experience.”
I continued sorting through receipts but noticed that Janice was staring out the window. I wanted her to have fun with me but I knew she didn’t want to be in the office. I felt guilty for bringing her. I wanted to hear her laugh again.
“You don’t like it?” I said.
“No, it’s okay,” she lied.
“Do you want to walk to the store and get a Coke?”
“Are we allowed?”
“Probably. I’ll ask my dad for money.”
We left the paperwork under the table of the waiting room and got change from my dad. The day was heating up with no clouds in the sky, and tiny hairs on the back of Janice’s neck were stuck together in a light layer of sweat.
We bought two Cokes and sat on the sidewalk to drink them, holding the cold bottles to our foreheads while heat radiated off the concrete into our thighs. On our way back to the office, we saw Sylvia and Justin leaning against the air conditioner on the side of the building.
“What are they doing?” said Janice.
“I don’t know.”
“They’re kissing!” she said.
We stood a few meters from them with empty Coke bottles in our hands, watching intensely. Janice’s arm was inches from mine and I felt myself swaying so they would touch, but I think I was standing still. I wanted her to say something.
“Have you ever kissed anyone?” she whispered.
“No, have you?”
She shook her head. “I want to.”
Before I knew it, our lips were touching. Hers were soft and sweet like gummy bears left in the sun. I licked one and sucked on it, then felt her pulling away, so I opened my eyes. She took a step backwards.
“I don’t know how to do it,” I said.
“Do you think I’m like that?” She looked at me strangely.
I felt a weight come down on my chest and dropped my chin.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Sylvia and Justin walked away in the corner of my eye, followed by the soft click of the office door.
When I looked back at Janice, she was looking at my skin. I suddenly remembered it was covered in scars.
“I think I should go,” she said.
“You don’t have to.”
“It’s probably for the best.”
Inside, she used the phone to call her dad. I told my dad I was leaving and walked down the main road with my hands in my pockets, staring at the sidewalk. I walked all the way to the ditch and stood at the edge, looked down into the water, and then back at my neighbor’s house, at the spot where Marco lay dead. I knelt down and touched the area of grass where his little legs stiffened into a cluster of broken sticks and mud hardened into his blood. The blood had long ago washed away; the grass was green and spongy. Tomorrow, I’d complete the gator. Then we’d show everyone this thing we made together.