Southern Pacific Review Editorial Services

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Alligator Man

by
Allegra Frazier 
The Alligator Man explains that he breaks his kids’ parties into four categories: no-pool single-gator, pool single-gator, no pool multi-gator, and pool multi-gator. No pool multi-gator is the most expensive, because the Alligator Man must bring along one of his larger above ground pools to allow space for children and the multiple gators to fit comfortably and enjoy one another’s company. He offers group rates for larger parties, though once you reach half a dozen or more gators the Alligator Man has to hire a qualified Alligator Assistant to help him supervise and make sure the thick rubber bands around the gators’ jaws are tight and show no signs of snapping. The Alligator Man’s personal, expert supervision is included in every listed price. All “rentals” are for two hours.

The Alligator Man has photographs of previous parties in the binder where he keeps his release forms and contracts, so prospective clients can see how successful the parties have been both in terms of safety and entertainment value. There are pictures of small, wet girls in sagging bathing suits hugging a gator’s head like it’s a puppy; of gators and dogs sniffing one another while guests laugh in the background; of a boy waving from a diving board on which a gator lounges, golden eyes narrow, tail hanging into the water.

Benson doesn’t care how many gators the Alligator Man will be bringing to his birthday party. He couldn’t give one flying fuck. But his mother cares; he figures she must care because she forced him out of bed and into his jeans to come discuss his pending thirteenth birthday with the Alligator Man, whom he had not been expecting. In fact, Benson has never even heard of the Alligator Man or his parties, and wonders how his mother has. He flips through the photographs, groggily scanning them for a familiar face or sign of alligator related catastrophe, while his mother sits beside him at their dining room table looking at the photocopied price outlines. Her cigarette is burning itself down in the large green ashtray that is the table’s centerpiece.

The Alligator Man sits across from them, his soft, scratched brief case propped on the fourth chair, his baseball cap set on the table top beside his huge, folded hands. The Alligator Man and Benson’s mother both have cups of coffee with dried dribbles running down the side, like they’ve been sitting here a while.

The Alligator Man says, “The good thing is you’ve already got that little pool out there, so a multiple gator party will hardly set you back at all. In fact I think a three gator party is your best bet, based on pool size.”

“I don’t know if we need really need three,” Benson’s mother says.

“Well depends,” says the Alligator Man. “One or two isn’t always enough. Everyone wants a chance with ‘em and there’s only two hours, unless you want to double rent.” He looks at Benson. “Course this all depends on how many people y’all are expecting.”

Benson looks up from the photographs. They are both looking at him. “I don’t know,” Benson says. He flips a laminated page. It makes a loud cracking sound as it peels away from the laminated page behind it.

“You better answer him,” his mother says, picking her cigarette up. “This is your gift from me and Gran, so let’s make sure you enjoy it.”

He steadies his eyes on her temple, where he’s decided he’ll fucking shoot if she says one more stupid fucking thing. “I don’t know,” he says again.

“Well, okay,” says the Alligator Man. “You haven’t sent out your invitations yet. That’s fine. It’s better even, because we got some custom invitations you can choose from, if you like. But just a general idea – how many friends do you have?”

“Four,” says Benson’s mother.

Benson slams the binder closed and flattens his body against the back of his seat. “What do you mean, four?” he says.

“Four,” she repeats. She counts on her fingers: “Graham, Eddie, JB, Tyler. You got more friends than that?”

“I go to school every day,” Benson says. “I met a few people since kindergarten.”

“Well, for this party you have four, because Gran and I aren’t made of money.” Then she taps one of the proposals with the index finger her cigarette is wedged against, dropping ash onto the paper. “And we’ll only need one gator,” she says to the Alligator Man.

“What if I throw in the second one for half price?” the Alligator Man says.

Benson’s mother smiles. “Aw now that’s sweet of you. But just one. They can share.” Then she looks at Benson. “You can go back to your room,” she says, and though there is nothing he’d like to do more, because she’s commanded it he allows a generous pause before he slowly gets up and leaves the kitchen.

“Pleasure doing business with you, Benny,” the Alligator Man says to Benson as he walks out.

Benson doesn’t reply, but heads toward the front door, swiping two cigarettes from his mother’s purse as he does so.

He walks three houses to the east and then enters the back gate of the fourth, where he finds the little sister of one of his four friends, JB, proudly standing on top of the slide connected to their rickety swing-set. He wonders how long she’s been up there. “Get down from there and go get JB,” he says.

She peers down at him, then climbs backwards down the ladder and disappears into the house. In a moment, JB leans out of his bedroom window. “What the fuck do you want?” he shouts.

Benson holds up the cigarettes. “A lighter, fuck bag,” he says.

They smoke in the alley so JB’s mother won’t see, and Benson wonders whether he should mention the party at all. But JB will find out eventually. “My mom has this fucking weird guy in my house, planning an alligator birthday party.”

“A what?”

“A birthday party. For my birthday. This guy runs a company that rents gators for parties, and she rented one.”

“What do you mean ‘rents gators?’”

“I mean he drops an alligator in the pool and lets you play with it.”

JB smokes. He looks at his cigarette accusatorily and pulls something off of his tongue with his fingernails. “So it’s going to be like any other regular birthday party,” he says, “but with gators in the pool.”

“He’s got a binder with pictures of all of these happy kids, hugging them and shit.”

“So you are never, ever going to get fucked,” JB says. “Not once, in your life.”

“Fuck you,” Benson says.

“You’re going to be a high school freshman who had rental alligators at his last birthday party. Just imagine all the pussy that’s going to open up for you.”

“That’s not for another year.”

“I have to go to that high school too, you know,” JB says. He inhales deeply. “So who’s coming?” he chokes.

The Alligator Man arrives in the morning, hours before the party is supposed to begin. So early Benson isn’t even awake yet.

“Jesus Christ it’s already ten, can’t even haul your ass out of bed on your own birthday,” his mother says, watching him as he slowly stands, stretches, feels around the flat surfaces of his room for a t-shirt.

“Why is he here so early?” he asks when his hand lands on one.

“A clean one, please,” she says, procuring one as if by magic, holding it out to him. “He’s here to set up.”

“For two hours?”

“And you can help him with whatever he asks for. I’m going to get Gran so at least us girls can enjoy the party we’re paying for.” Benson’s grandmother has been bound to a mechanical chair and barely responsive, like a broken machine herself, for as long as he can remember. When his mother refers to Gran’s enjoyment of anything, which she does frequently, he knows she is referring to a phantom thing, a lie she is either perpetuating against him because she thinks he’s too young to know better, or against herself because she’s stupid. Or both. Either way, it insults and depresses him. “I fucking hate this shirt,” he says, putting it on.

When the collar clears his head, he sees his mother with a camera she seems to have procured as magically as the shirt. “Smile, grumpy, it’s your birthday!” she says, taking a picture of him scowling, bleary eyed, still warm from sleep. She looks at the digital display and shakes her head. “You know, you could at least try.”

“To do what?” he says.

“Try not to be this big of a jack ass to Darryl,” she says, leaving the room. ”I’ll be back in half an hour.”

“Who the fuck is Darryl?” he says. He’s fully dressed before he realizes she must be talking about the Alligator Man.

The hood of the Alligator Man’s truck is covered by a large airbrushed painting of two alligators, their twisting bodies involved in some kind of raucous (fighting? mating?), surrounded by swirls and droplets of clean looking, glittering water. An image on the side of the truck reads “ALLIGATOR MAN”, with a phone number arched beneath the name. The airbrushing makes the letters and numbers look as alive as the alligators on the hood do. The other morning, looking at the beaten up briefcase and the sticky plastic covered binder pages, Benson had guessed the Alligator Man was poor. But you’ve got to fully own a truck before you start painting your name all over it, and this is a nice truck, black and hulking, with a covered bed. Benson lets his fingers glide over the shimmering black back of the review mirror.

“Morning, Benny,” the Alligator Man says, appearing from behind the truck. “We’ve a mean ‘gater to unload here. Feel up to it?”

Benson wonders where the Alligator Man got the idea that he was called Benny. “Sure,” he says. He joins the Alligator Man at the back of the truck bed and watches as he unlocks and lowers the gate. His hands are enormous. The inside of the covered truck bed smells sour, like hot plastic and soil, and there are storage bins, the kind you store Christmas ornaments in. The Alligator Man slides on toward them, lifts it to the ground, and removes the hole-pocked lid, revealing a small alligator resting on a bed of browning grass.

“Does it live in there?” Benson asks. It hardly moves, but he can see its nostrils working.

“No, no, that’s just how she travels.” The Alligator Man leans forward to pick it up. It’s long and thin, like a cross between and grown alligator and snake, and it looks minuscule in the Alligator Man’s hands. “Why don’t you hold her a minute?” he asks.

Benson doesn’t particularly want to, but understands he isn’t being asked if he wants to. He’s being asked if he’ll be a good sport, right now and for the rest of the day. He hadn’t considered whether he’d be a good sport or not, but he finds himself holding his arms out, almost like his body is answering for him.

The Alligator Man sets the animal on top of Benson’s arms like they’re a rack a dead thing is being mounted on. It blinks, as though to unburden Benson of the notion that it’s dead. He can feel its breath moving beneath the dry white skin of its belly. Its mouth is closed but its teeth protrude, uneven and clearly visible. “She’s not very heavy,” Benson says.

“She won’t be heavy for years yet.”

“How many years?”

“Hard to say. Not til she’s about your age.”

“How old are you?” Benson asks.

The Alligator Man smiles. “Old enough,” he says. With a quick, violent snap he secures a thick rubber band over the alligator’s jaw. The alligator bursts into action, flipping its head and tail up toward Benson’s face. Benson steps back quickly, letting the animal flail forward out of his arms. The Alligator Man catches it and puts it firmly on the ground, where he holds it beneath his two huge hands until it’s still again.

“We make a pretty good team, Benny,” he says, looking up.

“Yeah,” says Benson, eyes on the small, subdued beast on the ground. It’s tail swipes the concrete, and the sun reflects off the bright whiteness of its belly, beneath which he can see its muscles ripple. It blinks. “I guess we do.”

It’s JB’s idea to kill it.

White sunlight gleams from the freshly spray painted lawn furniture, from the sliding glass door, from the unbroken surface off the pool. They stand at the edge in their swim trunks, staring down through the glittering water, watching the alligator slink across the bottom. It only takes a minute for all four of them to agree: JB’s right, the alligator should probably be killed.

“It’s not like he’s too happy in there, anyway,” JB says.

As far as Benson knows, the only time an alligator is happy was when its eating something, but the red rubber band over its jaw is as thick as Benson’s wrist. It continues to slide toward the deepest point of the pool, its black claws seeming to vibrate as they skid over the cement bottom. Eventually it stops dead still at five feet.

“It looks like it’s already dead,” Tyler says.

“It’s not,” Benson says. He’d found the alligator’s swift action against the rubber band going over its muzzle surprising, alarming even, but now that he was watching it sit perfectly still in the bottom of his pool, he found it terrifying. It was like a landmine down there, waiting for someone to step on it or swim over it, and then it would whip back to life and exact revenge for its captivity by breaking the band and biting off a limb, or at the very least scratching someone very badly.

Benson suddenly feels like one of the other boys is going to push him in, and he takes a precautionary step back from the edge. Catching on to the danger of a pending prank, each boy backs away in turn, until finally Graham, oblivious, stands alone by the pool’s edge, his hands in his trunk pockets, his toes wrapped over the edge of the deck.

<i>What idiot would keep standing there like that?</i> Benson thinks. He wonders if he should push him, to teach him something about leaving his back unguarded, but Graham turns around and says, “Well, I think Benson should kill it.”

Benson says nothing.

“I mean, it’s your party,” Graham continues, making a grand gesture with his hands to demonstrate the sad extent of the party. “I don’t give a shit if there’s an alligator or not.”

“Why is there an alligator?” Tyler asks.

“My mom wanted it,” Benson says.

“So then your mom should kill it,” Graham says. “Who gives a shit as long as someone kills it? I want to swim, it’s hot.”

Benson thinks about all of the pictures of small children hugging the alligators, pictures that seemed lively, like everyone was having a really good time. He wonders if his mother had been fooled by those pictures. <i>Maybe those boys will have a good time like they did when they were little.</i>

“How are you going to kill it?” JB asks.

“Me?” Benson says.

“Yeah, you. I think Graham’s right. You should kill it. “

“Do you have any idea how much money it will cost if I kill our rental alligator?” Benson says, not having the slightest idea himself.

JB shrugs. “They’re pests, man,” he says. “This guy probably charges people to get them out of their back yards, and then comes here and charges you for throwing it in your pool.”

“I think you’ll have to strangle it with something,” Tyler says, scanning the yard like he’s trying to find the perfect length of rope.

Benson pictures the Alligator Man pressing the writhing animal down on its back, working the loop of the rubber band over its muzzle.

“Yeah, you’ve got to strangle it,” JB says. “Then it won’t even look like it was killed. It’ll just seem like it died.”

“Maybe he does autopsies on them,” Graham says.

“Shut the fuck up,” JB says.

“The guy is here, you know,” Benson says. “I can’t just get in there and kill his alligator.”

“Why not?” says Graham.

“You can use an extension cord,” Tyler says.

“The guy is here?” JB says. “Where?”

“I don’t know. He supervises.”

“He’s fucking your mom,” Graham says, making his way to the chip bowls that have been set up on the porch. He crams a handful of Cheetos into his mouth.

JB and Tyler laugh. Benson watches them, stricken. Then he laughs, too. He keeps laughing as he goes to the chips and shoves a handful into his mouth, and keeps laughing even as he goes into the house to find an extension cord. He goes to the hallway where the necessary closet is located, but before he opens he let’s his laughter die and stands very still, waiting to hear something telling coming from his mother’s bedroom down the hall. He hears nothing. He takes an extension cord from the closet and goes to the living room, hoping to find them there. He wants to discover that Graham is wrong. He doesn’t want to have to get into the pool and kill the dangerous animal waiting to attack him. He wants to find them, sitting there and drinking beer or something. He comes up with an excuse for the extension cord - they want to turn music on. If he finds his mother and the alligator man in the living room, he will express his displeasure with the party and use the cord to turn music on. If they are not in the living room, he will use the cord to kill the alligator.

The only person in the living room is his grandmother, nestled between two armchairs like an additional piece of furniture. Behind her, through the plate glass window, Benson can see the Alligator Man’s van sitting in the driveway beside his mother’s car. If they’re both home, where could they both be? “Granma have you seen Mom?” Benson asks, knowing she has not and even if she has she can’t tell him. “I didn’t think so,” he says. Working his hands around the cord he will use to kill the alligator, he kisses his Grandmother’s cheek, a thing his mother forced him to do for years but which is now just a habit. A stupid habit, just like asking her questions as though she can answer them, which he guesses he also picked up from his mom. He takes the cord out to the yard where the other boys have returned to the side of the pool.

“I really think it’s already dead,” Tyler says again.

“Jesus, man,” JB says, noticing the extension cord. “You’re really going to do it?”

Graham, one hand cupping chips, eats and watches Benson cross the porch. “I was right wasn’t, I?” he says. “He’s fucking your mom.”

Benson flicks him off and jumps into the shallower end of the pool. As the opacity of the disturbed water clears around him, he is relieved to see the little alligator still on the floor of the pool’s other end. It hasn’t moved at all. He doesn’t realize how badly he wishes it really were already dead until he sees it move, very slightly, toward him.

He takes a breath and forces his body toward the bottom of the pool, where he skitters down into the deep end. He holds the cord in both hands, unsure what to do with it. Through the pool water, he can see the alligator with unique clarity, warbles of sunlight moving between them. Above him, he can hear muffled sounds: talking, one of the voices definitely his mother’s. Where had she come from? He can picture the moment in the immediate future when he rises for air and she leans over the pool, scolding, accusing him of being ungrateful for this party she worked hard to put together for him and his friends. Watching her talk, he’ll want to kill her. He tightens the cord between his hands and lands on the alligator, which flips, once, enormously, before yielding to his arms, laying on the cord like the cord is a net come to carry him to the surface. It’s body slackens there, relaxes as though drugged, and Benson wonders, for the first time, if the chlorine is bad for it.

He tries to wind the cord around it but can’t get the angle right, isn’t even entirely sure where an alligator’s neck ends and its head begins. He succeeds only in embracing it in an accidental hug. He’ll have to surface for air and try again, so he pushes up from the pool floor with the alligator in tow, toward the shallow end, where he can stand and catch his breath. He surfaces, inhales deeply, and sees, there on the deck, JB and Tyler, standing as far back as possible, making themselves small in case the operation goes sideways; Graham, oblivious to the possibility, standing right beside the pool; the Alligator Man, complete with red baseball cap, his large hands holding a tiny digital camera up to his face; and his mother, fully dressed and made up, standing next to the pool, holding a bag of ice (a huge bag, so much more than six people and one alligator could need), looking at him, aghast, mouth open, like he’s doing something that scandalizes her, or at least stuns her. The alligator is still in Benson’s arms, clinging to his body like a small child, and he realizes his mother isn’t scandalized at all. She is stunned he got in the pool with the alligator she ordered. She thinks he’s in it for a good time. She thinks she’s caught him enjoying himself. He isn’t entirely angry at her for the mistake. In fact, he isn’t entirely sure she’s made one.

“Smile for me, Benny!” cries the Alligator Man, kneeling beside Benson’s mother’s legs like paparazzi going for an angle. “Hold it right there and smile big!”

Benson, in spite of the claw’s pressure on his skin, in spite of the cord hidden below the animal just out of sight, hugs the alligator to himself and grins as wide as he can, to ensure the camera, the other boys, his mother, the possibly poisoned alligator, and the Alligator Man himself can all see what may not be joy, but what is the full exposure of each and every one of his teeth.

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<em>Allegra Frazier’s fiction has appeared in Story Magazine, Carrier Pigeon, Zymbol, Paragraphiti, and elsewhere. She was the winner of Bayou Magazine’s 2013 flash fiction contest, and a finalist in 5Quarterly’s 2015 fiction chapbook contest. She was raised in Arizona. </em>

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