“Is it dead?”
I turn towards the tiny voice beside me. Moments ago she was spinning in circles with arms stretched wide. Her little pink skirt flying above the asphalt. She’s alone. I’m not sure who she belongs to.
“It’s not dead, sweetheart,” I say. “It’s just not moving.”
I grip the fence in front of me and pull myself forward. I close my left eye and center the right in one of the diamond shaped openings in the chain link. Just past the moat filled with stagnant water and dead leaves, a single sparse tree grows in the center of the habitat. Thin roots spread away from its trunk like sickly spider legs before sinking down into the earth a few feet from the concrete-lined pond. If it weren’t for the two eyes sitting like black marbles, I would have mistaken the alligator for a chunk of dead tree.
I am an expert in dead or just not moving. With an alligator, it’s in the eyes. With an alcoholic mother, it’s looking to see if the chest is still rising and falling.
I point a finger at its tail and trace the rows of spikes rising like tiny mountains on its back, then follow the outline of its body. Its tail long enough to touch my chin. Armor ending in claws. I am an expert in dead or just not moving. With an alligator, it’s in the eyes. With an alcoholic mother, it’s looking to see if the chest is still rising and falling.
“Do you want to come see the giraffes?” the tiny voice asks.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” I say. “I have to leave in a minute.” I look at my watch. I should have been gone already.
A pair of angry flip-flops come clapping towards us. “Abby! Don’t run off like that!” The twirler’s mother takes her by the wrist and begins to pull her away.
I call out, “Excuse me. Do you know if this is the same alligator from twenty years ago?”
If you hike higher up in the hills, you can sit amongst the eucalyptus trees and look down upon the city. From way up there, you feel the same size. For once, you can look the city right in the eye.
But this is the new zoo. A woman walks by pushing a stroller. Boys with baseball hats. Little girls with pony tails swishing behind as they bounce along with soda cups so big they have to hold them with both hands. Moms. Dads. Families. They all know how. How to cook a turkey. How to set a table and pay their bills on time. How to take their Christmas lights down by New Year’s instead of letting them bake in the sun well into summer. They know which foods you can eat with your fingers and which require a fork. They know leaves that change from green to red to orange to yellow and baby blades of grass rising up with the warmth of spring.
I know how to say “I’m sorry” when it’s not my fault. I know how to make it better and pretend it’s okay. I know how to hold on tight and not let go.
My pocket vibrates. I pull out my phone and see Steve’s picture on the screen.
“Hey. Have you seen my gym bag? Did I leave it at your place?”
“Maybe. I don’t remember seeing it, but maybe.”
“Could you check?”
It’s too hot to be wearing pantyhose. I don’t know if people even wear them anymore. “No, I can’t check. I’m going to visit my mom. Remember?”
There were worse. The one who never had a job. The one who called me a baby every time I cried. The one who didn’t tell me it was a shoes-free house. I walked across the white carpet to meet his parents with my big toe poking out of my sock. The one I thought I loved even after I caught him sending out dick pics while lying next to me in bed.
“Shit. I forgot. I’ll just swing by and check later on.”
I wait for more. Nothing. Five seconds of silence. I give. “How are you?”
“Okay. Work is shit. They have me coming in tomorrow and Saturday. Boxer threw up again last night. Guess I should take him in. I’m not paying for all those tests again though.”
It’s too hot to be at the zoo. Too hot for any of this. “Don’t you want to know how I am?”
“Really? Again? How many times do we have to do this? Why do you have to wait until I ask and then get pissed if I don’t? If you want me to know how you are, just tell me.”
Six months ago, I picked up Steve at the airport. I watched all the lonely people pull their luggage behind them as they exited the baggage claim. They weren’t calling anyone to say they’d landed safely. At least with Steve I’d have someone to call. “I’m sorry.”
“Okay. Tell me.”
Only I can’t. I don’t know how to tell him that I came here to remember dipping paint brushes in old coffee cans filled with water and painting stars and smiles and perfect square houses with triangle roofs on the fence and watching the summer sun erase them. Letting me crack the eggs and lick the spoon. This little piggy went to the market and this little piggy had none. Gentle kisses on bruised knees. Banana pancakes. Cartoons. And I don’t know how to tell him how hard it is to breathe with the weight of what came after standing on my chest. The times I couldn’t wake her up. The times I had to walk home alone like I wasn’t afraid because she forgot to pick me up. All the times I tried to make her love me enough to quit.
I don’t tell him I withdrew all my savings. I don’t tell him that she did it again. I don’t tell him I’m going to bail her out. All I say is, “Tell Boxer I hope he feels better.”
The first time I came here I was ten. Sweat glued my legs to the vinyl seats as we drove down the highway. She was happy. Her hair was still wet and wrapped like a snail shell on the back of her head. The music was loud and she turned to me. Elsa, this song was playing on the radio the day I left home. I listened to her sing. I tried to pick out the words that would tell me who she was before me. Sunny days. Canyons. Yesterday morning. Closing his eyes.
She brought me here because she thought I was scared of alligators. I couldn’t sleep after I heard a group of boys talking about a man fishing in Florida. He was only in the water, shin deep, casting out his line when an alligator snapped its jaws and wouldn’t let go. Took him down into a death roll. Ripped him apart. When they found the alligator that did it, they sliced it open and found an entire arm inside. The watch still ticking on his wrist. I remember how much I thought about that watch ticking. I wondered if it had been a gift, if he had worn it every day. I remember thinking that if the man ever lost the watch he would feel so sad about it, and I remember it made me so sad to know that the watch didn’t care at all about losing the man.
I don’t know how to tell him that I came here to remember dipping paint brushes in old coffee cans filled with water and painting stars and smiles and perfect square houses with triangle roofs on the fence and watching the summer sun erase them.
My mother took me to the alligator first. She crouched beside me and told me that they had been around since the dinosaurs. They are good mothers, she said. Sometimes they hold their babies in their mouth to keep them safe. Maybe she’ll open up and show us, she said, but I could already feel her hand begin to shake within mine. Don’t worry, Elsa. This is the only alligator in California.
A week later she was arrested for crashing into the neighbor’s parked car on her way home from work. When I got home from school, her car was against the curb with a buckled hood and bits of broken headlight were spread across the asphalt. I was glad the other car was gone so I didn’t have to see its wounds.
Some people don’t know about the mountains around Los Angeles. Big and beautiful and sometimes covered in snow. Most of the time they are invisible. They vanish behind a heavy curtain of dust and haze for so long you forget they’re even there. Then, one day, the winds come to wipe the sky clean and there they are again standing tall against the blue sky.
But today there are no mountains. Today the sky is thick and brown. A pool of sweat is forming between my breasts. Underneath my pantyhose, an itch is spreading from my toes to my belly button. I want to rip them off and feel the air on my bare skin. I take my map and crease it, and flip it, and crease it, and flip it until it’s a fan I’m waving in front of my face and on the back of my neck. Families in various stages of sunburn come and go and the alligator still sits, unmoved. I can’t remember if they have eyelids.
I pull a soft pack from my purse and give it a few shakes until a cigarette falls through the slot. “Hey, have you ever seen this alligator open its mouth? Is it even a real alligator?”
A teenager wearing a customer service t-shirt stops, broom in one hand and a dust pan connected to a long handle in the other. “You can’t smoke here, lady,” he says and starts sweeping again.
I look around for a smoking section. A white box on wheels filled with ice cream for sale. A few trees tired of standing and a wooden sign with an arrow pointing towards the restrooms. I put the cigarettes back in my purse. I whistle, but it still doesn’t move. Ten more minutes. Then I’ll go.
Last night we had dinner. I said I’d drive even though she said she had put together seven days sober. A car was stalled in the right lane so we were stuck behind the green, red, green, red, green, red. I tried to make some jokes. Tried to make her smile and keep her from frustration. Keep her from a reason to drink.
We don’t like new, so we went to the chicken place. Same menu. Same lady with the penciled-on eyebrows and a ring on each finger working the register. Same red laminate table tops. As we ate, she apologized. Said she wasn’t herself. That she was just tired, that’s all. I smiled because I wasn’t sure if I was myself either. We talked about things that happened years ago and laughed at things we had laughed at years ago. Pretended that most of the past twenty didn’t exist.
After dinner we wanted to walk along the LA River like we once did, but it was already dark and the path seemed scary. We hugged when I left. “See you soon?” she asked.
“See you soon,” I said and watched her walk all the way inside and close the door behind her.
In the morning I got a phone call. An inmate from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department is trying to contact you. Are you willing to accept the charges?
I told her I’d be there, but I’m here instead. I scratch my ankle, my knee, my thigh. I scratch until I rip through the pantyhose. I pinch the nylon above my knees and yank until I feel them pass the curve of my hips. I keep yanking until they are just below my knees. I slide my heels off and release each leg. I quickly shove the hose in my purse. I’ve never seen a lightning bug or sipped sun tea while sitting on a back porch. I’ve never skipped rocks across a creek.
My phone shakes. I accept the charges.
“Elsa! Where are you? You said you’d get me out this morning! You have no idea what it’s like in this place. I can’t take it!”
“I’m trying, Mom. I’ll be there soon.”
“Hurry, Elsa. All these people here are crazy. I can’t be here anymore.”
“Remember when you told me that alligators are good mothers? Do they really hold their babies in their mouths?”
“Seriously, Elsa? What are you even talking about? Why aren’t you here yet? Quit fucking around and get me out of here!”
I’ve never seen Tennessee or a one stoplight town. I’ve never made footprints in freshly fallen snow.
“Mom, don’t you want to know how I am?”
“Jesus, Elsa! What’s wrong with you?”
I pull my arm back and throw my phone as hard and high as I can. I watch it cartwheel over the fence and into the pond. The alligator seems not to notice.
They say they’ll let me go if I don’t come back. I tell them I won’t, and by the time I leave the sun is setting. You can see some pink in the sky if you squint. The cement is cool on my bare feet and I spread out my toes as I walk to feel the air between them. As the tires roll towards the invisible mountains I know are there, I feel like I’m in a movie. I am the girl that drives away. I am the girl that gets out.