Jacob was trying to be alone with the alligator when his mother called him into the house for dinner. His mother didn’t know a thing about it; she didn’t even know the difference between an alligator and a crocodile.
Alligators (and crocodiles) were one of the oldest extant species on earth. They were older than dinosaurs. Jacob, when he had learned about dinosaurs in school a few years before, had spent many afternoons digging for fossils in his backyard, but he had never found anything besides old-fashioned soda pop tops, which his mother told him were a kind of fossil, but he knew were just old garbage. Alligators were older than fossils, though, and they were definitely older than rusty pop tops, and he had one in his backyard that nobody knew about besides him.
It was spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, which it was more and more often since his mother had started taking her night class, store-bought meatballs from a big bag in the freezer. She would go to her night class after dinner and Jacob would stay home and train his alligator. He hadn’t exactly finished deciding what he was training it for, but at the very least he was hoping he would get to touch it. A few years ago he would have wanted to train it to be his bodyguard and attack his enemies, but now he was in middle school and, although he badly wanted someone or something to attack his enemies for him, he was engaged thoughtfully with the real world now, hard as it was. He knew it would take hard work for him to be able to touch the alligator, but he had already begun the campaign to get the alligator used to his presence, and he considered the fact that it was still here a good sign.
Jacob had a girlfriend whom he had never touched either. His mother thought that was just perfect; she was, in fact, the main person responsible for this state of affairs. He wasn’t allowed to have Olivia over when his mother was at her night class, and had to keep the door to his room open if she came over when his mother was home. He was not allowed to go to Olivia’s house at all, since his mother’s eyes couldn’t follow him. His only private space was, ironically, at school, but Olivia did not like to talk to him at school, preferring only to send him scraps of paper across classrooms and cafeterias via a long chain of classmates who would each take their chance to read the missive, “I like you,” before sending it along. Jacob did not know whether this was normal girlfriend-boyfriend behavior. This was his first try and his mother had very little in the way of advice and he was attempting to do his best.
Jacob’s mother ate quickly and left the table when Jacob still had two meatballs and half his pasta left. She went to her room and came back out wearing her backpack, which Jacob thought was the funniest part of her night class, that she wore a backpack just like everyone did at his school. Her night class was probably a lot like his classes, he thought, except maybe more advanced; he had never heard of actuarial science before his mother had started her night class and had since found out that they did not offer it at his middle school. Ever since his mother had started her night class Jacob would go to school and imagine her as one of the students around him: when he changed classes, he imagined her locker situated nearby, with his Picture Day picture stuck on the inside with a magnet; when he took a quiz, he imagined sliding his eyes over to the paper next to his and seeing the right answer in her neat, small cursive; when he waited for his note from Olivia, he imagined her as a middle point in the note’s journey, opening up the folded piece of paper and calmly crushing it so it never got to him.
She slung her backpack over only one shoulder, which was the cool way to wear one’s backpack. “Please clear the table and load the dishwasher,” she said, “and do your homework, and don’t stay on the computer too long.” He wanted to tell her that she had nothing to fear about the computer, or less to fear than most parents, who seemed to be collectively beside themselves about “screen time” and what it was going to do to their children, because he had an outdoor project, which was the kind of thing that would delight a parent, provided it wasn’t the training of deadly reptiles.
“I will, and I will, and I will, and I won’t,” he said instead, and she smiled very small and put on her other backpack strap and left. He cleared the table and instead of scraping his plate into the trash can he left it out while he loaded the dishwasher and did his homework, and after that was done he brought it outside with him.
The alligator was not hard to spot, even in its hiding place under a protective patch of shrubs; it was enormous. Jacob’s mother would certainly have noticed it if she weren’t going to her night class every night. Jacob watched it from the back porch for a long time, trying to gauge its temperament. It didn’t move at all. It might even have been asleep, he thought. It was in shade under the shrub, and he knew that sometimes cold-blooded animals went to sleep when they were out of sunlight. The sun would set soon, and then the alligator would almost certainly go to sleep.
With his plate in hand, Jacob approached to within a dozen feet of the alligator, as close as he had ever been. One of its eyes, the one on the side of its face facing him, tracked his movements, and its jaw cracked open. The inside of its mouth was pink like bubblegum.
Jacob took a store-bought meatball from his plate and crouched low to the ground. Before the alligator could get any ideas about eating out of his hand, he rolled the meatball across the grass. It hit the alligator on the nose. The alligator waited a few seconds, processing like a slow computer, before chomping the meatball. Jacob felt buoyed by this connection and took a few steps closer to the alligator, which reacted by giving one of its fat legs a feeble kick. He rolled his other meatball at the alligator, more gently, but it turned out to be too gently and it stopped a foot short of its face. He waited for the alligator to shuffle forward for the meatball, but it stayed put. He looked for a stick to poke the meatball towards the alligator, but didn’t see one. Slowly he crept towards the meatball and the alligator, until he was close enough to kick the meatball. Again, it hit the alligator in the face and again the alligator lazily chomped it up.
He was out of meatballs at that point, only a plate of spaghetti left. The alligator was not expressive in any way, giving no hint of hunger or fullness or gratitude or annoyance, but he had brought the plate out and it was just going to go into the trash otherwise. He put the plate on the ground and slowly, with one outstretched foot, pushed it until it slid under the alligator’s snout and it had a face full of spaghetti.
The alligator’s mouth was not optimized for eating spaghetti from a plate. It twisted its head to the side to try and get the spaghetti into the side of its face, and when it twisted its head upright again there were strands of orange noodles dangling from between the serrated teeth like the miniature intestines of some poor prey. Jacob imagined the alligator slurping the spaghetti strands into its mouth the way he liked to do, but of course it couldn’t, its mouth didn’t move like that to make different faces, it only had the one.
The alligator rested its head, noodles hanging out, on the plate, not bothered about getting sauce on itself. It seemed so despondent that Jacob wondered for the first time whether it was, in fact, not a good sign that the alligator was still here. They lived a few miles away from the waterfront and, anyway, it wasn’t a waterfront that saw a lot of gators passing through. The alligator’s calmness began to seem suspect, rather than rewarding; maybe it was sick. Maybe it had come to his yard to die. He knew that many animals liked to go and be by themselves while they died; his own dog from a few years ago had crawled under the back porch.
He hadn’t exactly finished deciding whether it would be a good idea to touch the alligator when he did so. He put his hand on its back, a couple of feet behind its head, hoping that it wouldn’t think that its head was in danger or that he was sneaking up on its tail. Its skin didn’t feel like skin at all, nearly as rough as tree bark and as cold. All the same there was a certain denseness to the surface as he flattened his hand out, a thrumming maybe, that made it feel like an animal anyway. The alligator couldn’t look at him with its sideways-facing eyes while he crouched near its back, and anyway it was twisting its head to try and eat more spaghetti. He couldn’t tell if it had noticed him and he gave it a firm pat on the back. He felt very soft compared to the alligator, like a baby. He patted it again and leaned over to try and catch its eye and he did, and he smiled, and then there was a horrible scream from behind him. He turned and his mother was back home from her night class, standing on the back porch, screaming in a way that sounded inhuman. Her face hinged wide open at the jaw and all her teeth showed, her lips pulled taut. She didn’t run towards him; her body didn’t move at all except her hands curled into horrified, horrifying claws. It was like she couldn’t do anything but stand there pushing out these insane screams. The way she was screaming he would have thought the alligator had already bitten him.