“That man looks like a real scum bucket,” said Andrea. The man entered O’Malley’s Pub with a white plastic bucket and placed it on one of the shaky tables. Sofia, the owner’s wife, flipped her wet rag over her shoulder and peered into the bucket. “Holy fuck, a baby alligator!” she yelled, and we all crowded around, as many of us that could, trying to see inside. O’Malley himself huddled around the bucket with us too. He turned his shoulders out to create just enough space so that another slim body might enter, and it was difficult to say if his wife Sofia noticed the invitation wasn’t meant for her but for Andrea, who hadn’t followed us yet to the bucket. Andrea took one glance into the bucket, shrieked, threw her hands up, and cowered under the countertop between the bathrooms, eyes shining black between her little fingers. There were seven of us crammed around the bucket, including a little blonde boy, the son of one of the other patrons, who’d slid in beside O’Malley and took the spot intended for Andrea, though he was too short to even see inside.
That baby alligator did what we wanted it to, at least at first, in that it was itself, an alligator in miniature form, as prehistoric as we’d hoped. It was green as a lizard should be, the color of a swamp, and its bulbous jelly eyes lifted above the water. It could bite, of course, and it would hurt, and we’ve all heard about those jaws snapping shut and never opening, until death, death, death, and not even then, but still, it was just a baby, barely eight inches long. It was not a baby as we were all babies, where “Oh its eyes are like,” and “Oh she has your mother’s feet,” and “Oh it has the hands of a drummer” are fine and dandy games, when really we’re just lumps of flesh sloughed from some unfinished mold. Not this baby alligator; it was already exactly what it was. It had only to double, triple, quadruple, to grow to ten times its size. It was only a question of scale. How much enormity would it take until that same baby alligator was a full-grown giant of the swamp?
“Feed it!” said the blonde boy. It was the thing we’d all wanted to say.
“Manners, boy!” said O’Malley, but then his eye twitched, which was as good as a nod from him. Our breathing became heavy. Feed it, we begged, because this baby alligator wasn’t moving. It was just sitting there. We didn’t have all day. It wasn’t that our collective sense of wonder was already spent, it was just that we had nothing more to talk about because the wonder of watching something that doesn’t move is introspective, branched and convoluted as evolution itself, filled with all the metaphoric self-revelations we have whenever contemplating the immobile—the patterns on floor tiles, the petals of a flower, or the ocean, for the ocean though it moves also does not move—each containing patterns that reassemble as we stare at them.
“Feed the damn thing!” shouted O’Malley, and we all jumped. “It’s gotta be hungry!”
On the other side of the bar, Andrea blushed. O’Malley’s wife nodded at the alligator, but did not otherwise acknowledge her husband. The man who’d brought the baby alligator in his white plastic bucket (no one had yet asked him his name) pulled out an inflated plastic bag with a pair of weightless goldfish. Each had a strip of black running vertically at the edge of its tail, up to the tip, where one of them was torn. Noticing the bite mark, I felt pity for the wounded fish, and anger toward the other one. We all knew it was up to O’Malley to decide. Which fish would he choose to die? If he suggested the predatory goldfish, he was showing Andrea he was sworn to justice, an eye for an eye, a fin for a life, and was sentimental toward those pitiable ones who bore the brunt of their own weaker natures. If he chose the goldfish already accustomed to being prey, Andrea might see his sadism only, and not the adherence to the natural order O’Malley was trying to observe, though it was also possible that his sadism would excite her, even as she cowered, even as she watched between her fingers. Before O’Malley could make his choice, the boy yelled, “Put ‘em both in so we can see which it goes for,” and the man emptied the bag into the bucket.
Down in the hole, the alligator’s body curved against the inside of the scratched bucket. The fish swam about, past each other, past the alligator’s open eyes, past the tips of its protruding teeth, but the alligator never opened its mouth. I imagined it slowly ratcheting its jaws open, micrometers at a time, barely noticeable, until its victim was surrounded by teeth, inside that mouth, waiting for that snap. How fast, how strong would that snap really be? But the two fish were just swimming in circles on the opposite side of the bucket, and the alligator hadn’t moved a goddamn muscle.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” huffed Sofia, throwing her hands up.
O’Malley sighed, half a growl. “Yeah, always poor Pete,” he grumbled.
His wife left the circular porthole of the bucket for the smaller ones at the bottom of the glasses she dunked into the hot sink. She shook, dried, and held the glasses out before her, closing one eye and looking through each shape of glass, each a unique porthole from which to see the rest of the bar, the crooked looks of her husband, the movements of Andrea and the rest of the help they’d hired to give them more time for themselves. As I watched Sophia watch Andrea watching O’Malley watching the alligator, I saw him and his wife for the first time with absolute clarity. Sofia thought that by expressing her exasperation, O’Malley would agree, and they’d be able to storm off together, leaving Andrea in the corner by herself. But O’Malley only became frustrated with his wife’s frustration, so typical, so impatient, and scolded her by looking across the bar to the young waitress whom he knew really wanted to be a dancer. I wondered if O’Malley would have the same realization that I’d once had, sitting on a similar cracked stool in a similar dim bar: the realization that love for another can reach a dangerous paradox. Sofia’s “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” and O’Malley’s sigh were just like my wife’s “Jesus Christ,” and my “Jesus Christ what?,” her expression of frustration, followed by my frustration at her frustration. Sometimes it was even the other way around. I’d express an innocent frustration, and she’d get flustered trying to solve it, and eventually we’d be yelling at each other, in a fight that would last until sleep, as I was sure would happen to O’Malley and Sofia if I kept watching. It comes from our desire to tell our lover all the things that bother us, often in sequences triggered by an immediate cause, but reaching back through time: “Damn this lazy alligator, and speaking of, damn these slippery glasses, and damn these dim light bulbs, and damn the coldness of ice, etc, etc.” They’re only expressions of frustration translating to, “Honey, darling, love, this is me, I am being honest now; these are my unedited and uncensored frustrations, and I desire you to be frustrated with me as if we were the only two in agreement against the entire world,” but this poorly articulated desire, this “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” when heard by someone like O’Malley, becomes confused with the need to solve his lover’s problems, to take upon himself that threat which degrades the happiness of the person he’d sworn to keep happy. O’Malley heard only blame, the complaint taking on the precedent of “Because of you,” or “Maybe if you’d have,” such as, “Maybe if you’d have been a better husband this alligator would eat the damn fish, or else you’d have had the forethought to keep it out of our bar, or else you’d have better prepared me, philosophically, through the course of our relationship, for dealing with so much disappointment.”
I knew, of course, that it was not my fault that the power in my entire apartment block went out, ruining the eggs my wife had been cooking, and O’Malley knew it was not his fault that the alligator wasn’t lunging for the fish, as of course Sofia knew it too, but O’Malley’s instinct that she had no right to blame him for something he couldn’t control further aggravated him, and Sofia’s knowledge that he’d just take her exclamation as a personal insult further aggravated her. And so it would go, in a terrible cycle until bedtime, the bed suddenly too large and the sheets between them cold, and it would take until well into the night for her to finally articulate to him that she was simply expressing her dissatisfaction in the hopes that O’Malley would acknowledge and agree and they’d be again close to each other, instead of apart, as they were then, with Andrea still watching from under the wooden countertop near the bathrooms.
Later, after relieving the man of his plastic bucket and placing it beneath my table, I wondered if my wife and I would ever get past the argument that had sent me into that bar, into that situation where I had become the proud owner of a baby alligator I had no idea what to do with, and it struck me how two lovers’ desire for both sharing and service are, and will always be—at least in the moment they’re expressed—completely adversarial. It is with love that we enter into this paradox, and with love that we fail to overcome it. I wondered what my wife would think about living with a baby alligator in the bathtub, and how long it would take before I was the unknown man in another bar across town offering a baby alligator in a white plastic bucket to the first taker. I looked down into the bucket. The baby alligator swished its tail among the flakes of golden scales that had once been fish. It had mauled them while I wasn’t looking.