A story kinda about weddings. Don’t worry—nothing sentimental.
She was jogging along one of those drainage ditches that line the city park’s waterways when an alligator snatched her up. Nothing left but a splotch of blood and bone fragments. The police were astounded when the reporters reached them. They couldn’t fathom how an alligator got into the city, but they promised to catch the sucker. At dawn the next day they got together and had themselves an alligator hunt. Some animal rights group threw a protest when the giant beast was captured and sentenced to death, but the bereaved mother cried on the news and public sympathy demanded the gator’s head. There’s been three fatal alligator attacks this year, my mother says. The guy on the Discovery Channel told her so.
We get to the wedding seven minutes late. My mother’s worked Annie into a frenzy. Annie looks right and left before getting out of the car. She’s seen an alligator at a country club just like this one, she says. Right on the seventh hole of the golf course. Just sitting there.
It’s a nice joint full of folks who made donations to the Reagan campaign. Not my kind of people. My mother runs off with the string quartet and I leave Annie with her makeup bag in the bathroom. Family affairs make me uncomfortable, but I put on this face like I’ve got it together and waltz into the ceremony. I sit in the back and look for familiar faces. There are none to be looked at until Uncle Tim comes up behind me. He’s really glad I came, squeezes my shoulder and ushers me to the family section. I guess I’m related from somewhere up the tree, but this is more gesture than thick blood. The last time I saw these people was at a funeral. Not much has changed, I suppose, despite the color of the flowers.
Annie makes it back in time for the procession. It’s short and sweet with all the proper trimmings. There’s a flurry of excitement when Aunt Liz is marched down the aisle via skype. We wave to the computer screen and the guests are confused. Welcome to the family.
There’s ‘I wills’ and ‘I dos’ and my mother sings the Lord’s Prayer, as Aunt Liz instructed. Applause, and my mother revels in stealing the show for three minutes. We move to a reception space where guests ask if she’s professional and she flashes that coy smile meant to say, I could have been. She abandons me to receive her adoring public, Annie dutifully by her side.
I wander over to the cousins. I remember Sam and Andy from weddings and funerals long past, but the blonds on their arms are new. There’s also the bartender and the nurse, but I’ve never been able to remember their names. We’re a large family fully extended and I can’t be expected to remember the names of all the distant cousins who show up for weddings and funerals.
No one seems particularly interested in me, so I down a glass of champagne and hope to make myself more social. When the conversation turns to the Kardashians I give up the effort and escalate my drinking to beer. Sam’s girlfriend asks if I have a boyfriend. Vodka cranberry, as strong as possible. We’re called into the ballroom for dinner and I try not to stumble my way there.
I’m assigned to the cousins’ table. I sit between Sam and the bartender. They reminisce about a party from way back when. I should make an effort to join the fun, but I don’t. I didn’t come here to meet the cousins. Somebody orders shots, but the catering service is too classy. We get a double of tequila and pour it into our champagne glasses. Bottoms up.
“He was hung like a moose!” The nurse is wasted. She’s in the midst of a messy divorce. I met the husband at the last funeral, but all I remember was her being wasted then, too. “I like girls now,” she confides to the bartender loud enough for us all to hear. “But they don’t think I’m cute!”
“You’re adorable!” he says, too enthusiastically.
“I know, right!”
Another vodka cranberry.
We hit that moment when everyone gets loose. The filets are finished and the old people are doing the twist on the dance floor. The girls go on a piss run, but I miss the call to action. Soon, Sam is whispering with the bartender.
“Lesbians don’t get me off!” I catch the bartender say.
“Wait, what?” I don’t usually like drama, but I’m drunk enough to butt in. “She’s your cousin, isn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Sam smiles. “Like, a real cousin.”
“Fuck you.” The bartender’s upset.
“Dude, that’s some backwards shit.” I’m not trying to make a good impression anymore. “Your babies would have three eyes and their blood wouldn’t clot and stuff.”
“I’m not gonna fuck her!” He stammers and Andy laughs from across the table. The girls return.
“Oh my god. We made like, the best decision,” Andy’s blond gets all jazzed up. “Sleepover!” The nurse is going to stay with the rest of the cousins tonight. It’s bad news for the bartender and I can’t help but smirk.
I hit up the bar and hope to god it all ends soon. After a while, it does. The cousins go off to have their sleepover and I give a wink to the bartender. He pouts and stumbles away.
Alligators can run faster than humans. 60 miles per hour. Your only chance is to climb a tree and holler for help. There were these two dumb kids skinny dipping one night who learned the hard way. When an alligator started chasing them, the guy shimmied on up a palm tree and hung on. Probably scraped up his johnson something terrible doing it. The girl kept running, screaming so loud they heard her for miles around. She deserved to get eaten, my mother says. She should have watched the Discovery Channel like her boyfriend.
Day two begins a lot like day one. There’s a good deal of bickering and alligator talk. Annie wants to go swimming, but my mother interjects. She goes on about the fornicating skinny dippers and reminds Annie of her golf course gator. Annie’s convinced enough to strip off the swimsuit and suit up for brunch. When Aunt Liz calls, Annie answers the phone. We’re at that point where she’s been in the family long enough to be family.
“We’re just so glad you’re still alive!” Annie says, folding and unfolding her swimsuit. “We were going to swim, but there’s alligators around. Dangerous world we live in, but of course you know that.”
Brunch is a swanky affair. More neo-Reaganites, but Aunt Liz doesn’t get skyped in for the occasion. The cousins are absent, sleeping off hang overs and, I imagine for the bartender and the nurse, shame. I spot Uncle Tim and offer a polite smile. I’ve never been all that warm, but he goes in for a hug and I feel obliged.
“You comin’ to the house after?” He asks, squeezing my shoulder again.
“Of course.” I widen my eyes and sigh. “I fly home tonight, so today’s the day.”
“Sure. Sure.” He pulls me in for another hug and I control the instinct to squirm. “We’re just so glad you could make it.”
“Me too.” We break, eat, and drink coffee spiked with Bailey’s. We drink mimosas. I’ll drink anything, at this point.
My mother and I sit with a judge. The kind of guy who wears an American Flag pin to church. My mother asks if he supports the death penalty.
“They don’t call me Hammer for nothing!” The conversation evolves to evolution and I check out. I never enter scientific debates when there’s a Bible on the table.
Hours later, we exit with Uncle Tim. It’s time to get down to business–to do what I came to do. I say my goodbyes and down one last mimosa. My mother drives, following Uncle Tim until we get to a coral green gated community. The kind of place where they hold water aerobics classes on the hour.
How do I tell this story? It’s the story of mortality. Of dysfunctional families. Of my own apathy. It’s not the kind of story I usually write or enjoy reading. There’s pieces that are boring–that are fucked up. There’s pieces I’ll never tell and pieces I’ve made up entirely. But, despite the general confusion of my weekend in Florida, there’s one thing I’ve taken home: Aunt Liz is going to die and I, for the time being, am going to live. That’s the only truth I can handle. Leave any deeper meaning to those with the capacity to accept it.
I’m summoned in first and the show goes to hell. I try and smile beneath the face mask. My breath smells like champagne and bacon. I feel like I’m suffocating, but I’m buzzed enough to act cool. She’s lying in this bed with a million pillows, shadows of palm tree leaves dancing across the comforter. I say hello and sit down.
“Be sure to not touch me,” she grumbles. Off to a great start.
We were never all that close. I have broken memories of playing dress up in her closet as a young girl. She went four years without talking to our branch of the family. Something about who should have inherited my grandfather’s watch. Everyone’s friends again because blood runs redder than anger, my mother explains. She says it like that’s all there is to it, but I was never quite satisfied.
I mumble how great it is to see her, how beautiful the wedding was, how glad I am she got to be there, if only digitally.
“It’s not every day your son gets married,” she croaks.
I suppose not and prepare to babble. She’s weak, Uncle Tim had said. She looses her breath. I don’t plan on anyone losing their breath on me, but she cuts me off.
“Listen, kid.” She takes these labored breaths and I do as I’m told. “I’m dying, here.” We’re in dangerous territory. I make some opposition. You’ve got time still or But you’ve done so much. Empty. She continues.
“No, you listen. There’s a lot I didn’t get to do, because I was young and married and stupid and maybe a little scared.” She tilts her head down, giving me something along the lines of a stink eye, “But you’re none of that. You’re gonna be queen of the desert. The new Gertrude Bell. You know who she is?”
“She was somethin’. Really somethin’.” She nods and looks off, eyes misty. “She entered tents no women had entered before. And you–” she coughs. “You’ve got to do that, you hear? You’ve got to go out there and enter tents and do somethin’. Really do it. Go out to the Middle East and make like Gertrude Bell. Learn the language and teach ‘em about peace. Show ‘em how to get along.”
A tall order. She reaches for an oxygen mask and I’m stunned silent. None of the cousins have to fix the Middle East. She told the bartender to keep water skiing, or something.
“I know you had it tough,” she goes on. “With your mother and Annie the way they are.” She wasn’t the picture of a perfect parent herself, but I resolve to just shrug. “Don’t be stupid. We all know, over here.”
“You’ve got to take it. Ball it up and carry it with you, right under your ribs.” She jabs at her stomach and breaths harshly. “Make somethin’ of it.”
We share a prolonged look. I nod like I understand it. Don’t argue with a dying woman. That has to be a golden rule somewhere. She breaks eye contact and throws her blanket off.
“Grab my nurse. I have to piss.”
I don’t say good bye. Just nod and call for the nurse. Sit down on the couch with my mother, Uncle Tim, and Annie. They ask how it went. Fine, it went fine. Normal death bed talk. The usual.
The nurse comes out and says Aunt Liz is finished for the day. Everyone’s upset.
“You wore her out!” Someone accuses. I don’t argue. We leave and I get dropped off at the airport, sit at the bar and drink it all over.
I google Gertrude Bell. A nineteenth century modern woman. One of the few British Imperialists the Arab nations remember affectionately. She was a diplomat. A suffragist. A spy. A writer. An adventurer. A kickass lady. She died unmarried of a sleeping pill overdose. Some say it was suicide. She was depressed. Aren’t all the greats?
My mother says alligators are the last dinosaurs on earth. The only ones to survive the Lord’s dinosaur rapture. She’s not sure about the evolution of it all, but those monsters are not of this earth–man’s civilized earth. They don’t belong. Fish out of water.
The last fatal alligator attack victim was this fisherman. He’s sitting in a dingy watching the sun rise over the swamps. They’ve got these trees in Florida that look like they’re covered in thick spider webs, twisting down from the branches. The sunlight’s swirling through the webs and he’s caught up in the moment. Not paying attention to what’s lurking below.
Police reckon the beast was the Jaws of alligators. Teeth sharp as razors and jaw strong as the hand of the reaper. A giant creature of the deep, looking to gnash someone open and catch a peek inside. The bloody stuff that really makes us.
This monster slides through the water, silent. The old fisherman’s sitting in his dingy lazily holding his line. I like to think his eyes got misty, watching the sun burn illumination onto the horizon. And then CHOMP! Up from below, the alligator snaps the dingy right in two and swallows the fisherman whole. Nothing left but wreckage. And even that rides the tide out to sea.