You remember when he said you were beautiful, a clean thing that would save him. You were both running towards the Alligator Aquarium on the waterfront. There was a small open shaft on the roof, he said, easy to slip through. He wanted to show you the alligators, boy, they could move he said, those alligators could move if you threw them something.
You remember the tight squeeze through the dirty shaft. ‘You go, you beautiful thing,’ he said and that made you forget you were just a skinny girl, who slept in the back of the laundromat, made you forget the smell of dirty clothes and unwashed dreams.
Watching the alligators, the way they thrashed their tails, the brackish water spraying over the side, set your heart beating. He pulled you away from the tank. You thought it would be cool to make out with him, right there on the swampy floor with the restless alligators urging you on. You thought no other girl would do that with him.
You turned to face him, to offer him your beautiful, clean lips but he was already in the office. You heard the till open, the rattle of coins.
He hadn’t yet told you to run for your life. You hadn’t yet taken off your red halter top and thrown it to the alligators.
The Alligators Are Never Far
Though we don’t live in a swamp and there are no muskrats or egrets, no warm breezes of salt marsh coming through the back door there are still alligators out there in our front yard. First we lost our baby sister to them, then our brother got his foot chomped off and if it hadn’t been for the rest of us kids distracting the creatures they would have taken his whole leg. We knew other families didn’t have alligators. So we kept quiet about our alligators and when our brother hobbled to school on the stump of his foot we said he was just tricking, just posing for sympathy.
It became harder to get to our front gate. We armed ourselves with sticks, wore rubber boots, we jumped singly over the alligator pit, we jumped holding hands, we prayed beforehand and afterwards, but those alligators were too quick for us. Even if we leapt high over their snapping jaws, the stench of their breath remained with us for the rest of the day. ‘What’s that weird smell?’ the school kids said. ‘What’s that weird smell coming from you?’
After a while it was easier to stay at home. We cooked up chips in the fry pan. We sucked on our greasy fingers, laughed to think of the world going on without us. Sometimes our brother pretended to be a government official and rang our school. ‘Your institution is a disgrace,’ he cried to the principal. He wagged his finger in the air. ‘An utter disgrace.’
Winter came and then one morning the alligators were gone. We rushed outside, stared at the shallow pit in the front yard. A few tiny bones were left behind. Our brother lay on his belly in the pit. Thrashed around in the dirt, baring his teeth. We tried to understand how it might be to lose a foot to the alligators. We stood around in the cold, banging our mittens against our sides. ‘Come on,’ we said, ‘time to stand up.’
Up to one’s armpits in alligators
When first asked to contribute a flash inspired by one of Meg Pokrass’s stories I thought this would be an easy task. I’m a great admirer of her work; her use of unreliable narration, stunning imagery, her ability to portray tenderness and love in all its complexities, the sudden shifts of mood, and above all the emotional wallop her stories deliver. I picked a story, Alligators at Night, that I’ve carried around in the swampiness of my mind, for a long time. I began seeing alligators everywhere: climbing out of ditches, waiting for me on the back porch, hiding in the wood pile etc and this is in a country ( New Zealand/Aotearoa) where we don’t have alligators. Some of this other worldness I tried to include in my own story, The Alligators are Never Far. It nowhere evoked the charm of the original so I tried a second story, The Girl from the Laundromat using similar techniques I admired in Meg’s original story ie. 2nd point of view, the use of emotional ambiguity, rhythm and a sense of anticipated loss ahead. These stories are little works in progress. I would prefer they had more of the charm of Meg’s nocturnal alligators, crooning into the velvety night, but I shall just leave them here, quietly basking in the early morning sun.
Frankie McMillan is the author of five books, the most recent of which, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions was listed by Spinoff as one of the ten best New Zealand fiction books of 2019. Recent work appears in Best Microfictions 2021 (Pelekinesis) Best Small Fictions 2021 ( Sonder Press), the New Zealand Year Book of Poetry ( Massey University) New World Writing and Atticus Review.