Cathy Ulrich

The Difference Between Alligators and Crocodiles

 

You call it a honeymoon.

The right rear passenger window of our car is broken out. We’ve covered it with plastic wrap. I hear it rustle as you drive.

 

Alligators are descendants of the dinosaurs. Like birds. Carry those ancient days in their bones.

You say: The dinosaurs never really died, did they?

 

You were so small when your father was killed, had little toothpick arms, missing front tooth, hair growing out awkward from a bowl cut. Your father was an elm tree compared to you. Carried you piggyback for days. You didn’t think there could be anything stronger.

 

You hate the way I don’t know the difference between alligators and crocodiles. Hate the way I sit in the passenger seat without speaking, trace our names on the window with my fingertip: Mr. and Mrs., Mr. and Mrs.

You hate so many things as you drive, twist the knob on the radio through flickering stations. You didn’t hate things so much before, smiled more before, let me feel the pulse of your thumb against my lips. In the car, you hate so many things, mouth the word alligator.

 

I sleep in the back of the car when you pull us over on the highway, soles of my feet pressed against the door behind you. You recline your seat as far back as it will go, exhale smoke out the cracked window. You smoke cigarette after cigarette. I watch the glow near your mouth as you suck them down, suck them down.

 

You talk about revenge. You talk about vengeance. They’re the same thing, or so close they’re hard to tell apart. Like alligators and crocodiles.

You would know the alligator that killed your father anywhere. You remember the switch of its tail, the darkness of its eyes.

Everything, you say. I remember everything.

 

You call it a honeymoon. I don’t have a ring, never wore a white dress. Stood quiet beside you in the courthouse, said I do, of course I do. I twist the skin on my finger where a ring would be. You talk about getting matching tattoos, buying a house.

You say: I love you, you know.

I know, I say.

You say: There’s only room in my heart for two things.

I think one of the things is your father. Or is it the alligator?

 

When I sleep in the back seat of the car, I hear the sounds of trucks rumbling past on the highway. Driving all night. You wish you could drive all night.

Be there sooner, you say.

You kiss me holding a cigarette behind you. Smoke goes from your mouth into mine. I puff it back out into the air.

I say: Tell me about your father.

I say: Tell me about alligators.

 

You buy wood for whittling. You call it whittling wood, hate that I laugh when you do.

This is serious business.

When you take breaks from driving, you let me sit on the hood of the car beside you, turn my face up to the sun. My legs are getting so brown. You pull your knife from its sheath. You’ve always had the knife and the sheath since I’ve known you. The first time we kissed, they pressed against me before you did.

What are you whittling? I say.

Stake, you say. The perfect stake.

 

In the swamps where an alligator killed your father, you leave me behind in the car. No sitting on the hood this time.

Stay inside, you say.

Wait for me, you say.

You kiss me dry, been out of cigarettes for days. I still have one in my purse, haven’t said. I am saving it for you, your reward for killing the alligator, your reward for your revenge.

I’ll be back, you promise.

What is it, I say, the difference between alligators and crocodiles?

You don’t answer, clutch your stake and walk until I can no longer see you from the car. In the car, I wait. Wait, wait, and wait.

After a while, I light the last cigarette, crack the window, breathe the smoke out into the night air, think of the jangle of keys on your waist as you walked away.

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When Cathy Ulrich was a child, she was obsessed with a plastic alligator toy. When she met a man who was missing his fingernail, she asked if an alligator bit it off. ‘No,’ he said. Cathy’s work has been published in various journals, including Pithead Chapel, Wigleaf and Little Fiction.