The Interpretation of an Alligator

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I wasn’t as surprised as I should have been when I read that Bobbie Baker had come home from work one afternoon to find a five-foot alligator on her doorstep. I should have been as shocked as she was when she poked it with a broomstick, and it flicked one ancient eye open to glare at her. Bobbie’s doorstep is in New Jersey, a thousand miles north of alligator territory.

“I bet I know who did this,” I said, when I glimpsed the headline in the newspaper lying on my sister’s kitchen counter.

“Nobody did anything,” my sister said. “Animal Control said it came from the river. Someone probably got a baby alligator in Florida and dumped it when it got too big. It was looking for a warm spot.”

“Don’t believe it,” I told her. “It’s Ted and Frankie.”

My ex-boyfriend and his ugly friend with the sports car had elevated the lawn prank to an art form, using their two techniques–dumping and delivery–to express an entire DSM-III’s worth of human emotion. When my mother yelled at 7am that my idiot friends were at it again and I’d better get outside and clean up the mess before the neighbors complained, I had to throw on my clothes and sort through the detritus on our handkerchief lawn to divine Ted’s meaning. Actual rotting garbage? Easy. Jealousy. Rage. He’d been stalking me on dates again. Two months of the Village Voice, the broadsheets carefully ripped to double the area of the wreckage? That meant, I am never, for one moment, not thinking about you. Real estate flyers grabbed from the stack outside the Grand Union? Just “hi.”

The unpaid-for deliveries of pizza were our broken communion, the meals we no longer shared. The proofs-of-purchase-plus-shipping-and-handling mystery gifts took more cunning to decode. He didn’t cop to the lurid yellow Purdue chicken leg pillow until years after I was married, nor the California Raisins beach ball, nor the Sonny the Cuckoo Bird plush toy.

The alligator, though, I couldn’t crack. I had to know the relationship to interpret the message. If Ted and Bobbie were dating–neither had married–or had even slept together a few times, I’d know where to start, but I was no longer on speaking terms with anyone who would know.

Then again, how complicated was it, really? Lawn pranks were only ever about sex or aggression, neither of which we understood, all of which we subsumed in a cool, ironic pose that exposed twice as much as it concealed.

“Where would they get an alligator?” my sister scoffed. “And how would they get a big, dangerous reptile to her house?”

These were valid questions.

“Anyway, your friends are too old for pranks. They have bills to pay now.”

I studied Bobbie’s picture in the local section. A harder life than mine had aged her decades in the fifteen years since I’d seen her. Frankie went by Francis now, I heard, and drove his kids around in a minivan. Ted had settled into soft, thick middle age when I’d last seen him at our reunion five years ago. He couldn’t wrangle an alligator any more than I could.

Maybe I was overinterpreting. Teddy always said I read too much into things.


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