TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 2

Alligator Language

 · Fiction

Fowler’s grandson has been sleeping with him for the past week. The boy, who is ten, always ends up on his side, legs thrust out, thin body bent into an L like a diver frozen in a jackknife. Fowler is not happy with these sleeping arrangements, what with the boy’s toes digging into his legs all throughout the night, not to mention the sharp, rotten-grapefruit smell that issues from his mouth in the small hours. But since the boy refuses to be alone on the foldout couch in the sunroom, Fowler can’t see another solution outside of forcing him to the floor, which he doesn’t want to do.

Now, in the too-bright morning, the old man rolls over into the center of the bed, feeling the warmth of the spot the boy just left. He has been here before. Last summer, the first time the boy’s mother sent him down to Florida by himself, the same thing happened.

Fowler’s house — it is still strange to think of it as belonging to just him — is not large. Like most of the homes in North Port, it is a simple one-story without a basement. There is the bedroom, a small front room with only a La-Z-Boy and a television in it, an even smaller kitchen, and the sunroom with wraparound windows off the back. However, unlike just about anybody’s home these days, it was his and Mary’s from the beginning. No mortgage. He built it himself, along with a handful of men from his old construction crew. A thirty-year-old memory floats down with the dust mites: his buddy Steve cussing him as the big man wraps hurricane strips over the lip of the right wall, bending the metal supports like they’re made of cardboard. “You’re never gonna need all these damn things. Christ, Fowler, the big bad wolf couldn’t blow this house down!”

At the sound of the boy’s pounding feet, Fowler closes his eyes. The boy bolts through the door and dives into the bed. “Grandpa,” he says. “You awake?” His small voice sounds like a girl’s. Fowler is afraid it will stay pitched like that even after the boy hits puberty in a few years.

This is not how today will start, Fowler thinks. Faking sleep, he turns and faces the wall. Lilacs. He’s been meaning to redo the wallpaper for months now. The curves of the petals seem to smirk at him, at what this past week with the boy has become. If his men could see him now, sleeping in this girly room with his girly grandson, he would never hear the end of it. Jackson, the last of them left, asked about the boy the other day at bingo. “Fine, fine, the boy’s fine,” Fowler said quickly, as if the speed and force of the words’ delivery could make them true.

“I am now,” Fowler says. “What’s wrong?” He knows what the boy will say.

“I saw him,” the boy says.

Fowler sighs. He can feel the boy’s rotten breath on his back, warming his T-shirt. Irritation cobwebs down his arms and settles beneath the skin in his fingers. Part of him wants to call Pam right then and there and tell his daughter she needs to find a new end-of-summer babysitter for her son.

He takes a deep breath and rolls over to face the boy. Today, he decides, he will try a new approach. If not for Pam, then for Mary. “Who did you see?” he says.

You know.”

“Who? A stranger? Somebody trying to rob us?”

“Grandpa. Come on.

“Come on?” Fowler rubs the flecks of sleep from the corners of his eyes. “Where are we going?”

“Nowhere,” the boy says. “Let’s just stay here all day.” He lays his head on the pillow. His hair is brown and curly, nothing like his mother’s. As it sweeps over Fowler that the boy would indeed be content to stay in bed for the entire day, the sheer softness of the child’s face, less than two feet away from his own, is suddenly something he cannot tolerate.

“Let’s go,” Fowler says. He yanks the boy out of bed by the arm. “We’re going to take a look at this friend of yours you keep seeing.” The boy protests at first, but after a stern glance from the old man, he lets himself be led through the kitchen and out behind the house.

It is the height of the rainy season in southwest Florida. These were the days when Mary, even when she was well, would refuse to leave the house. She used to make Fowler go to the store for her, demanding that he buy everything on the list, even the feminine items a man should have no business with whatsoever. It is strange to think he could miss doing a thing like that.

Just as she knew how to handle Pam, Mary knew how to handle the boy. She knew how to talk to kids, knew when to coddle them and when to command them. As a result, they loved her and listened to her almost without fail. But Fowler didn’t want to coddle Eli. He has tried to teach the boy things — how to hold a hammer, how to hit a baseball — but half the time the kid just stares at him with that idiot look of his and it takes all of Fowler’s patience to keep from asking him if he is indeed a moron.

The humidity, thick even at such an early hour, plows into the pair as they step onto the concrete porch. Mary’s geraniums look good, little bursts of red-orange lining the back of the house, but behind them, Fowler’s betonies are starting to sag from all the rain. A lizard the size of a pinky finger darts across the porch, bolts up the rusted charcoal grill, then shoots back down and into a crack in the concrete. The boy jumps. “That your friend?” Fowler says, chuckling. The boy flushes and says nothing, squeezing the old man’s hand a touch tighter as they cross the yard and head toward the ravine.

The thundershowers every afternoon, so regular you could set your watch on them, make Fowler feel like he’s mowing the damn lawn every other day. Chop it down on Monday, and by Thursday the grass is crawling up your ankles, practically begging to be cut. And though the house is small, the lot stretches nearly an acre back to the ravine. Since his joints began to ache from twisting and turning his little push mower around the orange tree and the bushes, Fowler recently bought a riding mower. At the Sears in Port Charlotte, even the smallest model seemed too big, too fast, but when he voiced these concerns to the college-aged clerk helping him, the kid just smiled and clapped him on the back. “Big strong guy like you?” the kid said. “You’ll be able to handle it.” Fowler is starting to get the hang of the machine now — the throttle, the sharp turning radius — but still, he’s not sure he should have bought the thing, and he isn’t looking forward to getting on it either tomorrow or the next day. If only the boy were a little bit bigger. Or a lot less of a sissy.

As if reading his mind, the boy starts to whine. “Grandpa!” he says. “This is where I saw him!” He digs his heels into the ground and tugs at the old man’s wrist with both hands. But it is easy for Fowler, even at his age, to hold tight to the boy; the kid can’t weigh more than 80 pounds. He worries that Pam doesn’t feed him enough.

“Now listen,” Fowler says. “We’re going to take a good look at this here ravine.” He brings the boy to the edge of the lawn, where it slopes down about five feet to a small stream. Even with all the rain, the water is no more than a few feet deep. Rocks jut out of the thick dirt of the bank. Various trash — soda bottles, fast-food wrappers, a rusted-out muffler with a star-shaped hole in it — is scattered along the waterway, which curves around the edge of Fowler’s property and cuts through the neighboring backyards, running parallel to the road.

The boy has stopped trying to pull away. “Look at me,” Fowler says. The boy turns his pinched face up at him, and it is as if Fowler was looking at his daughter, all those years ago when Pam would come crying to him because of some scrape or bruise or broken doll. There were times, he has to admit, when he coddled her, when he kissed away her tears. She was a girl, she was delicate, and babying was what she needed. And yet look what that babying resulted in: Pam is going on forty and still behaves like a child. As far as Fowler is concerned, the reason she booted her only son down here these past two summers was not, as she had claimed, because she thought it would be good for both of them — “A grandfather should bond with his grandson, don’t you think, Dad?” — but because she wanted to get drunk with her girlfriends and make more mistakes with men who weren’t any different than the boy’s long-gone father. She wanted a vacation from her son. From responsibility. When he considers these things, Fowler pities the boy. But he will not baby him.

“I want you to listen very carefully,” he says. “No one’s seen an alligator in this ravine since before you were born.”

“But he’s there. I know it.”

Fowler squats down, looking up now into the blue of the boy’s eyes. He tries to soften his tone. “Let’s think about this. Do you know why gators don’t come all the way up here?”

“No.”

“I’ll tell you why. Because there’s nothing here for them to eat. What’s an alligator going to eat around here? That muffler?”

“But,” the boy says, “what about people? Little kids.”

You’re not that little. Fowler bites back the thought. “Nope. No way.” Fowler surprises himself by putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Listen,” he says. “Eli.” The boy’s name feels awkward on his tongue. He squeezes his grandson’s shoulder and goes on. “Even if a gator were to make the swim all the way up here from the Myakka — which he wouldn’t do, because that’s where all the fish he likes to eat are — you’d have to be flapping around in there like crazy, covered in barbecue sauce, screaming at the top of your lungs in alligator language for him to come eat you before he would even think about taking a bite of your bony little frame.”

“You know how to speak alligator language?” the boy says, and just then the golden retriever from the house on the other side of the ravine comes tearing across the lawn, barking his head off. The boy gives a yell and slips through Fowler’s grip. By the time Fowler turns around, he is almost to the house, the wake of his size-six footfalls barely visible on the grass behind him.

* * *

Around eleven they get in the car to go to the baseball field a few streets over. The car is a gigantic white Mercury with a hood like an aircraft carrier, and Eli remembers the one time the tennis ball fell off the dangling string in the carport, his grandpa couldn’t gauge how far to pull the car in and ended up denting the refrigerator on the back wall. Now the boy settles into the blue plush interior of the Mercury and watches the windshield un-kiss from the tethered tennis ball. He is feeling better. He spent some time alone in the laundry room after the incident with the dog, and that almost always makes him feel better — being by himself in a small space where the rest of the world can’t touch him for a while.

That’s how he felt on the plane ride coming down here last week. Gliding along the clouds, invisible. Sitting in the window seat of the airplane is his favorite part of coming to Florida. He isn’t scared to fly by himself, and the flight attendants always treat him like a king. They smile a lot and never fail to give him extra peanuts.

“Are your cleats clean?” his grandpa says.

“Yes.” His grandpa always asks if his shoes are clean, every time he gets in the car. Next to the alligators, going to the baseball field with his grandpa is Eli’s least favorite thing about Florida.

He saw one slithering into the ravine that morning. He is almost positive. And he knows he saw one last year.

The big white boat of a car coasts slowly down Malaluka Road. All the houses are more or less like his grandpa’s: small and simple. No one is out in the front lawns except for the fat wrinkly guy who uses a hose to water the grass instead of just buying a sprinkler like everyone else. Eli wishes the guy would put a shirt on. At least his grandpa never does that. Eli doesn’t know exactly how old his grandpa is, but he doesn’t look as shriveled up as other old people. His hair is light gray but he still has all of it, and even though he is big, he isn’t fat.

Eli doesn’t want to be sleeping in his grandpa’s bed. It is no fun whatsoever. The old man snores almost all night long and it sounds like a vacuum cleaner swallowing a chainsaw. Plus he’s just mean. Some days he acts like Eli is responsible for every single thing that bothers him, even grandma dying.

Still, as cranky as his grandpa can be, he makes Eli feel safe. Sleeping with him is better than the alternative. Out on the foldout couch in the sunroom, he’d be a sitting duck. In the middle of the night, an alligator could sneak up from the ravine, glide across the darkened lawn, and chew through the window screens in no time. He wonders if it would start at his feet and eat its way up, or if it would go straight for his head, chomping it off at the neck like a lollipop. Why didn’t he think of this when he was younger? He slept in there every summer when he was little, back when his mom used to come along and they would share the couch. Did the alligators know they were in there? He shudders. He is lucky to be alive.

And yet every morning now when Eli, made brave by the dawn, goes to check the backyard for gators, the distant ravine appears calm, almost beautiful, as if it is under some sort of spell. The dirt sloping into the shallow water glows red as the sun, still hidden just over the other side of the world, casts the day’s first light into the backyard. But then Eli’s mind goes to work — he runs his gaze along the grass, past the clothesline and the diseased orange tree and toward the brim of the ravine that just has to be overflowing with gators — and the spell starts to break.

Clouds are beginning to take shape on the right side of the sky. They look like strips of cotton. Cumulus clouds. Eli learned about them in science class last year. His mom helped him study for that test. She was good about helping him study when she was around.

Eli sits up in his seat. “Why are you turning right?” he says. “The ball field’s over there.”

“I know.” His grandpa grins. “But we need someone to shag all the home run balls you’re about to hit, don’t we?”

Tony. They’re going to pick up Tony. Eli knew it before his grandpa even finished his sentence. His stomach clenches.

Tony used to live next door to his grandpa, back when grandma was still alive. He would come over for what felt like days at a time. His grandma would make them color or read — anything but watch TV — and sometimes she would take them to the park or the beach.

Great, Eli thinks. This is just great. Tony is good at everything. Eli is good at nothing. Well, maybe at reading, but nobody in the fourth grade at Parma Elementary, other than his teacher, thought that was cool at all.

The Mercury comes to a halt in front of a teal-colored house with three pink flamingos in the front yard. One of the plastic birds has no head, just a thin flute of a neck onto which someone, probably Tony’s mom, has duct-taped a fake rose.

“Well?” his grandpa says. When Eli frowns at him, the old man reaches all the way across the boy, opens his door with one hand, and unbuckles his seat belt with the other. “No guff. Come on. We have to beat the rain.”

Eli gets out and takes his first slow steps toward the house, fearing his secret will be written all over his face, that Tony will magically be able to tell he has been sleeping with his smelly, buzz-saw-snoring grandpa for the second summer in a row now.

The screen door wheezes open when Eli is halfway up the walk. Tony comes rushing out with an aluminum bat on his shoulder. He has freckles and a buzz cut and a black Rays hat smashed backwards on his head. “Hey,” Tony says. “Check out my new bat!” He holds up the shiny black bat. “I found it over behind the school. Can you believe that?”

Of course Tony has a brand new bat. And of course he just found it. Some kids are just lucky. Before Eli can think to say anything about the bat, Tony’s mom looms in the doorway, her weathered face twisted into a scowl. She unleashes a string of incoherent threats at her son, then gets caught up trying to stab at a dragonfly with her lit cigarette. She is kind of pretty; she has the same long brown hair as Eli’s mom, but the way she holds herself — like she is always right on the edge of toppling over — makes Eli afraid of her. There is a sour smell to her, just like there is with Eli’s mom after she’s been drinking, which usually happens on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. And sometimes on Wednesdays. But Tony’s mom smells like that all the time.

“Ignore her,” Tony says, rolling his eyes. Eli half-waves at Tony’s mom and climbs into the backseat of the car. Tony sits up front with his grandpa, which makes Eli feel dumb. He figured they would both ride in the back.

The old man glares at the new boy before starting the car. “Your shoes clean, Tony?”

* * *

Fowler always assumed Mary would die in the hospital. In the final months, when the cancer really started to show its teeth, they were almost always there anyway, in a hospital or clinic of some kind. All the rooms, the beds, the doctors’ faces — they’re all blurry now. But the car rides are clear.

There was a routine. Fowler would open the door of the Mercury for her, wait for her to heave her legs into the car, then gently close the door behind her. Then she would put the cassette of Christmas music into the player and begin to hum along to the carols. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was her favorite. She always loved Christmas. Even in the dead of summer, she insisted on having a manger and a small plastic evergreen set up on the coffee table in the sunroom. After the cassette was playing and they were cruising down Route 43, she flipped down the mirror on the sunblind and set to applying her makeup. It didn’t matter how bad she was feeling; she ran the brushes and powders over the soft cracks of her face before every single visit to the doctor. When, early on, Fowler scoffed and said something about the makeup being silly, Mary fixed her still-sharp eyes on him and said, “I need to feel beautiful, Joe. Beauty still matters, you know.” He swallowed and never said anything of the sort again. Once she was finished putting on her face, she would put her various containers and tools back into the small black bag she kept under the seat, never making a mess. She hated a messy car. Then she would lean back against the headrest, close her eyes, and add the sacred words to the melodies she had been humming.

It was during one of those stretches of time, at the end of a relatively good week, after the black bag had been stowed behind her feet, and after her face had taken on the same calm it always did beneath the dusty color of the makeup, that it happened. Her eyes closed like always, but she didn’t begin to sing. It looked like she was just taking a nap, and it wasn’t until forty-five minutes later, in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart near the clinic they had been heading to, that Fowler realized his wife was dead. Her death had been right there in the sag of her shoulders since the moment she was first diagnosed. But there in the car, over a year later, when it finally fell all the way inside her and sent her off to sleep, Fowler could not believe it. Even though he knew it was coming some day, it didn’t click. It wouldn’t click. It shouldn’t have been that sudden. She wasn’t supposed to go like that, without dignity, propped against the passenger-side window while he cussed under his breath about the traffic. They were supposed to see it coming. They were supposed to be better prepared.

* * *

The ball field is only a mile away from Eli’s grandfather’s house. It is behind a long, flat elementary school. A few of the school’s windows have spiderweb cracks in them from pellet guns. At the bottom of the baseball diamond there is a small backstop. A single bench sits on the third base side of the infield, a wall of trees wraps around the short outfield. When he was little, Eli used to dig around back there for lost baseballs, but that was before the gators, before he found out that the ravine snaked its way into the underbrush somewhere behind center field.

Eli gets stuck playing the outfield first since Tony is itching to try out his new bat. Eli’s grandpa gets the five-gallon bucket of balls out of the trunk and walks out to the mound, wincing as if something is hurting him. From center field, Eli watches as the old man windmills his right arm.

“I’m ready, Mr. Fowler!” Tony says. He takes mighty practice cuts with the bat. Eli kicks at the dry grass with the toe of his cleat.

“Didn’t you bring your batting helmet?” Eli’s grandpa says to Tony. Now the old man is on the mound, trying to touch his toes and falling short by almost a foot.

“No, I forgot it. I’m sorry, Mr. Fowler.”

Eli’s grandpa grunts. Then he turns to Eli and tells him to shift over to left-center. “Tony likes to pull the ball, remember?” All Eli remembers from last summer is that Tony would hit the ball a lot more often and a lot farther than he could and that he would have to run like crazy to try to cut it off before it went into the trees at the back of the outfield.

The same thing happens this year. But worse. Tony has gotten better. One line drive almost takes Eli’s head off; he just barely ducks out of the way in time. “Catch the ball!” his grandpa yells. “That’s what your mitt’s for!”

After a while it is Eli’s turn at the plate.

“Be careful with it,” Tony says to Eli as he hands over his precious bat.

“I will.”

“Light, ain’t it?” Tony says.

Eli hefts the bat. It feels like it is filled with twenty pounds of lead. “Sure is.” He copies the other boy’s smile. Tony runs into the outfield. His grandpa turns and says something Eli can’t hear and then Tony takes a few steps back toward the infield.

“Take a few practice swings,” his grandpa says. He looks huge out there on the mound.

“I already did.”

“Take the bat off your shoulder. You want to swing it, don’t you?”

Eli straightens the bat. He might as well be trying to hold a telephone pole behind his ear.

“Is your back foot planted?”

“Yes.”

“Now remember, keep your head still.”

“Right.”

“Pivot your back foot when you swing.”

“Got it.”

“Eye on the ball.”

“Would you throw it already?” Eli says. He has never snapped at his grandpa in quite this way. He instantly worries the old man will be mad at him, but as his grandpa winds up, he appears to be smiling, like he is almost proud of Eli.

Then the old man’s arm comes around, and for an instant, the ball hangs just off the tips of his fingers, backdropped by the gathering clouds. It is almost pretty, Eli thinks, as if the ball has fallen under the same spell that makes the ravine beautiful in the early morning.

But this spell breaks too. The ball speeds up, and then, as if it has a homing device buried inside the rawhide, it zips directly at Eli’s head, striking him square in the left temple.

* * *

Fowler knew the instant the ball left his fingertips that it was going to hit the boy. A small cry of pain pops from the child’s throat, echoing the terrible pop of the ball against his skull. Fowler’s entire body clenches as he watches the boy collapse.

Fowler runs to where the boy is curled up across home plate. Eli isn’t making any noise. The boy is covering the side of his head with his hand. He looks like he is sleeping.

The old man bends down over his grandson. His eyes are closed and he has a red mark on his temple like the waffle imprint of a framing hammer. Fowler puts his hand lightly on the boy’s shoulder, just as he did earlier at the ravine. “Eli,” he whispers.

“Holy crap!” Tony says, running up behind Fowler. “Did you kill him?”

“Shut your mouth, Tony,” Fowler says. “Of course not.” But he doesn’t fully believe his own words, and his heart seems to turn over inside his chest with the fear that he has indeed killed the boy.

Suddenly, the boy’s left eye opens and swims wildly in profile like that of a wounded deer. Eli stands up and backs away from the plate, stumbling a bit, still holding his head. Then he lets loose the tears.

“Easy now,” Fowler says, walking towards him.

“Get away from me!” the boy shrieks. He turns and kneels down facing the backstop. He leans his head against the chain link and sobs quietly.

“You shouldn’t have been standing so close to the plate,” Tony says.

“Zip it, Tony,” Fowler says.

“Leave me alone!” Eli says. “Both of you!”

“Come on now,” Fowler says. Now that he knows the boy is okay, his voice regains its sandpaper edge. “Let’s get up and — ”

“No!” the boy yells. “You hit me on purpose!” He coughs and attempts to sniff up the last of his crying. But it just keeps coming. It seems as though the boy could cry forever.

Fowler takes a deep breath. “Now that’s not true,” he says.

Even though it was, of course, true.

There on the baseball diamond, Fowler didn’t want to believe he was capable of such a thing. But when, in the coming years, his life begins to slow and he finds himself taking reckoning of all the hurt he has caused in the world, Fowler often remembers that pitch, and has to admit to himself that he threw at Eli not just to brush the boy back, but to strike him down.

* * *

Not long after they get home, the clouds open up and the rain falls in torrents. It rakes against the siding and scuttles across the windows of the sunroom. Eli and his grandpa have lunch, the boy holding a plastic bag of ice against his head and eating his sandwich and chips with his free hand. Neither of them says a word.

Later, Eli lies on his back in the sunroom, in the small space between the couch and the far wall, listening to the rain. He remembers reading somewhere that alligators won’t come out of the water when it’s raining. He stares at the manger and the little green tree on the coffee table, wondering which of his mom’s friends’ houses they will spend Christmas at this year. After a while, he hears his grandpa sit down around the corner in the kitchen, and the faint clicks as he dials the ancient green rotary phone.

“Hello, Pam?” his grandpa says. “Hey, how are you?” He is quiet for a minute while Eli’s mom talks on the other end. “That’s good,” he says. Another pause. Then: “Hey, listen, I know you’re up there having your fun on your little vacation from the boy and all, but you know, well, I don’t think this is going to work out this year. Him staying the whole month, that is. There’s just not that much for him to do here. What’s that? Now I know it’s only been a week but it’s just that, well, he’s still got that thing with the ravine and he’s been sleeping in my bed every damn night and he rolls around in there like you wouldn’t believe, and hell, Pam, I mean, I’m tired all the time because of it. I’m tired of it.”

The clock in the living room chimes.

“Oh, give me a break, Pam. I am trying. I mean, he even tracked dirt from the ball field into the car, and I let that go. You know how we are about that car.”

Why don’t you tell her how you threw the ball at my head? Eli thinks. He should march in there and grab the phone and tell his mom the whole story.

But what good would it do? It’s not like she would fly him home tomorrow or anything like that. He talked to her two days ago, and he could barely hear her because of all the noise behind her. “We’re up at Put-in-Bay, sweetie,” she said. “We’re having a great time. I’m at the longest bar in the world! Can you believe that?”

His grandpa says something Eli can’t hear, and then the house is quiet except for the rain. And Eli, full of hate for his grandpa and his mother — these people who are supposed to love him but just don’t — decides he will run away. Maybe Tony will want to go. They could move out to Siesta Key and have some sort of shop on the beach where they would sell comics or candy or something else good and then they could use the grills up by the road to make hot dogs every night. Eventually Eli falls asleep with these thoughts, lulled off by the drumming of the rain and the image of an ocean where no alligators would ever swim.

* * *

In the bedroom, Fowler sets to scraping off the lilac-patterned wallpaper. It is hard work, with his margin trowel rusted and perhaps too small a tool for the job. But he goes at it with a ferocity, cursing himself for using too much glue all those years ago when he put the paper up, sweating now as the purple chips away mere inches at a time. It does not curl away from the wall in long, elegant strips. Which, stupidly, is how he envisioned the long-overdue job: a mere reversal of the original application, when Mary had been at his shoulder, telling him to be more careful. “Don’t scar the poor wall, sweetheart,” she said. “After all, we have to live in this room, don’t we?”

Out of breath, he leans against the bed. The boy is sleeping in the sunroom. Fowler fears he heard him talking to Pam, but nothing could be done about that now. Just like nothing could be done about what happened at the ball field. He regretted hitting the boy, but nothing was going to change the fact that it had happened.

The boy needs a father figure, his daughter had said. The boy needs a mother first, Fowler shot back. How’s he supposed to grow up if you never do? And at that, she hung up on him.

Mary would have called her right back, would have made an immediate attempt to smooth things over. She would have given Pam a pass for her general irresponsibility, like she always did, and yet when Pam inevitably complained about what he had said, Mary would have found a diplomatic way to stick up for him.

Fowler hangs his head and cries, his body bucking as he attempts to swallow the sobs. He hasn’t cried since the funeral, when Pam held one of his hands and he put the other on Eli’s head and there, at the front of the coral-colored pews that Mary had loved and Fowler once called hideous, the three of them felt like a family, like survivors who had banded together in a time of need and might just stay together after that day, after the priest took his sad sunken eyes away from them and the small congregation dispersed. But of course that didn’t happen. A family needs a person or persons responsible enough to bind it together, to work at making it a family, and without Mary to guide them, they were all three of them children, Fowler perhaps most of all, far away in Florida like a boy who stays in his room because no one bothers him there.

In the calm that follows his tears, Fowler sees clearly how Mary, in dying, not only took herself away from him, but also widened the gap between he and his daughter and his grandson. Fowler would have to take on his wife’s best qualities — her patience, her unconditional love for people despite their flaws — in order to stop that gap from widening. This realization terrifies him — he doesn’t have that kind of strength — and as his heart beats fast with that fear, he notices the boy’s socks on the floor near the bed. He picks one of them up and uses it to wipe at his eyes. He blows his nose into the sock, breathes in the fabric’s sour scent.

Then, almost without thinking, Fowler tears at the sock with the trowel. He rips it in half, then in half again. He does the same to the other, tearing both socks into as many strips as he can before the whole endeavor makes him start sweating again. When he is done, he gets up and goes to the bathroom, where he buries the socks at the bottom of the wastebasket.

* * *

Eli wakes to the buzz of a lawn mower. The rain has stopped and the sun is once again cooking the backyard. The bump on Eli’s head throbs in rhythm with his heartbeat, and the baseball field re-blossoms in his mind. His plan to run away comes back to him as well. It seems like a dumb idea when just a little while ago it was the only possible future he could imagine. Even if he could run away, Tony wouldn’t want to go. He probably has him pegged as a complete wuss after seeing him cry so hard.

The grass near the house is freshly cut. Eli watches it sparkle in the sun. Why is his grandpa mowing now, when it’s so hot and the grass is still wet from the rain? He usually mowed in the morning. Eli stands and goes to the screen door. The old man is on the riding mower, way out by the ravine. It is a big machine, more like a tractor than a lawn mower. His grandpa chugs along. The bright orange plastic earmuffs he is wearing make him look so silly that Eli smiles. Then the old man goes to turn the mower around, and that’s when it happens. The ground below the big tires crumbles away, and Eli’s grandpa and the lawn mower, locked together like a plastic army man and a toy tank, tumble into the ravine.

Eli has his shoes on and is out the door even before the echo of the buzzing lawn mower has left the air. He runs toward the ravine at full speed, his sneakers slipping on the damp grass. For a few seconds, all he can see is the image of his grandpa falling over the lip of the ravine, disappearing as if swallowed by the earth.

But then the thought of the alligators ripples across his body, and he slows to a walk. They’re probably gnashing his grandpa to bits by now, their scaly bodies barrel-rolling in his blood. His whole top half is likely eaten, the only thing left of him maybe a leg and part of that ugly baby-blue belt he’s always wearing.

Eli knows, in the bottom of his skinny spine, that he isn’t capable of saving his grandfather from such a fate. Not alone. Not without at least five huge guys with chainsaws the size of ironing boards. Or machine guns. If he had a machine gun, maybe he could take on the gators all by himself.

But does he want to? That’s the real question. He keeps walking toward the ravine, but more slowly now.

I’m tired of it, his grandpa said to his mom on the phone. Tired of him. Eli heard something in his grandpa’s voice when he said that. He sounded like a guy in a movie who was begging another guy to let him out of jail.

Eli stops. He is only a few feet from the ravine. There are tire marks in the grass; they hooked in and then back out before disappearing over the edge. There is no noise from below.

If his grandpa wanted out of having to watch Eli at the end of the summer, then maybe this is how it had to be. Maybe he deserves to get eaten alive. Eli could turn around and walk back in the house. But then what? What would he say to his mom? Maybe he would tell her he pushed the old man into the ravine, see what she had to say about that. See if she sent him somewhere else next year. See if she sent him anywhere by himself ever again.

He takes another step and peers over the cracked earth where the yard ended.

His grandpa is lying at the bottom of the ravine in the water. The lower part of his right leg is stuck underneath the lawn mower. He fell over six feet down. He must have jumped off at the last minute and just missed being crushed. Somehow the bright orange earmuffs stayed on. Eli does not see a single alligator. He stands on the bank, his breath caught in his throat.

“Are you okay?” he finally says.

His grandpa glances up and winces, then takes the earmuffs off and flings them into the water. “I’m okay. Just stupid, that’s all.” He braces his arms beneath his back and tries to pull himself out from underneath the mower, but he can’t do it. His elbows buckle and he splashes down under the water. He comes up sputtering and coughing. He tries again, and again he splashes down. The water is a dirty green and it makes Eli sick to think of his grandpa swallowing it.

The old man finally gives up. “Eli,” he says. He pauses, tilts his head down over the barrel of his chest. His eyes go away somewhere. “I’m sorry.” He looks back up. “About before.” He starts to say something else, but stops. Again he looks at Eli. It lasts only a few seconds, this look, but later it will seem to have taken the longest time.

When his grandpa finally speaks, it is with some difficulty, as if some part his voice has gotten stuck under the mower too. “Can you help me?” he says.

Eli doesn’t say anything. He is starting to think that maybe the alligators really don’t come up this far from the river — in fact now he is wondering if he imagined the dark forms on the lawn the other night — and yet still he is afraid.

“You’re going to be all right,” his grandpa says. “I promise.”

Eli shakes his head. “You can’t promise that.”

* * *

When the boy says that about what you can’t promise, Fowler’s leg stops throbbing and his clothes dry up and he is with Mary on the couch in the sunroom, where he is rubbing her back with one hand and fidgeting with the straw in the nativity display with the other and the TV is off and there are no words until the silence is just too much to bear and so he makes some promise about everything working out and now she is turning to face him and her eyes are narrowing as though they might crack, like hot glass plunged into cold water.

You can’t promise that.

Fowler looks up at his grandson, the boy silhouetted against the sky as if at any moment, anything in the world, even the slightest breeze, could come knock him down into the rocky water. He badly wants to protect the boy from everything he has coming to him, but knows he cannot.

“You’re a smart kid, Eli,” he finally says. “You’re right. I can’t promise that.” He grimaces. “But listen,” he says. “I do need your help.” Even though he doesn’t. It might take some doing, but Fowler knows he could pry himself out from underneath the big machine if he really tried.

Eli stays frozen. He scans the water. In perhaps another minute, he will climb down from his spot on the bank, splash his way over to the mower, and lift with all his might, grunting under the weight. But for now, the only sound, for miles it seems, is the slight snap of Fowler’s last word, the word that never did come easy to his lips — help — echoing up from the ravine, hanging between them.

 


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