Alligator by Rachael Katz


When Arthur Pierre was killed in a game of pick-up football, it was called a freak accident. The paper headlines repeated the phrase like an invocation over pictures that made clear and orderly the void he left behind. First, there was a photograph of us all standing outside the church on the day of his memorial service, and later, one that showed the superintendent and Arthur’s wife lifting his commemorative plaque to the wall in the school atrium. These were the tender public moments that followed a freak accident. But the boys he’d coached who had been up on the hill that day were focused on a different word that laced those articles. Touch—they marveled at it. It had been a game of touch football. For days, they passed that word around among themselves like a first cigarette.

The nine of them were given permission by Principal Duffy to spend the first day back in the guidance suite, stretched out on the brown leather couches. I looked in on them on my way to the staff lunchroom that Monday, and just for a moment, put a hand up to the multicolored glass that separated us. For so long afterward, you could see it on their faces, in their homework left unfinished with jagged doodles running into the corners of the pages. They all eventually brought notes that excused them from Phys. Ed.; to which Coach Barnes responded with letters addressed to their parents, detailing the rehabilitative benefits of exercise. Discipline, he told them, would restore their sons; now was the time for building resilience.

It didn’t matter: the boys who had been the heart of the former Pembroke Academy Intramural Football Squad were enrolled one by one in music and ceramics classes. Parker took up the French horn and studied Mozart. Eric W. spent the fall welding chairs to the floor of the art room. When he ran out of chairs, old Mrs. Targoff surprised everyone by ordering more out of her special projects budget. “No one ever needed Intaglio the way this boy needs chairs,” she told Duffy, and ordered them a size smaller, encouraging Eric to make stacks. He stacked them into the rafters and arranged the chairs into various angles of toppling down, a fortress frozen in the midst of collapse.

The boys found their way to theater as well. When I discovered four of them sitting on the dusty stage of my auditorium at the start of 7th period one day, I gave them each a copy of Brighton Beach Memoirs, to make them laugh. But they were stony when we discussed exposition. So I spent the afternoon showing the class how to work the soundboard instead. In our improv games, the boys kept packing each other into suitcases to take off to Sicily or Mykonos. They led raucous expeditions into the Arctic tundra. We drew steps for fight choreography in period costumes. But these escapes weren’t enough for them. They were very interested in tragedy in those months after Arthur died. They had, in a way that none of us could make them disbelieve, destroyed someone they loved. They knew that they were carrying a kind of pain that made them very old, and they wanted more from me than a lesson in stage combat.

When Arthur was first asked to coach something, he joked all the time about his lack of athleticism. “Look at these stick legs,” he said when they wanted to give him the cross-country team, then “I’ll have to wear kneepads in the dugout,” when it was fast-pitch. Despite his distaste for extracurriculars, he was a devoted and well-loved teacher. When he spoke about calculus, even his logic was a kind of gentility. He was known for drawing delinquent students back from the various cliffs of adolescence. His second year at Pembroke and my first, he had caught a boy named Christian Willet carrying pot around inside a hollow pink highlighter. So, he bought the kid a new pink highlighter and elected him copy-editor to the school’s then nascent literary magazine, a job that carried many weekend hours. In last week’s copy of the Central Florida Post, I found a beautiful column on the renaissance of print culture, by C. Willet. Arthur could give that to a person. So, when he finally agreed to chair intramural football, nearly every boy in school flooded the double doors of the gym, pawing for the sign-up sheet. I ran class as usual, watching my students eye the clock, the door, each other. Arthur stayed out of the selection process for the most part. The first seniors and juniors to sign up were given preference, and the Squad was formed.

Giuseppe was just under sixteen when he wrote his name in the tenth slot on the sign-up sheet, because he had skipped an academic year and transferred into Pembroke. The other boys in his year picked on him, but mostly good-naturedly, and from what Arthur told me, he was the most experienced player in school. Public school had made him hardy but bored. Still, the others begged Arthur not to take Giuseppe on the squad, so Arthur devised a plan to persuade them to include him. He told me about it after an early Parents’ Program meeting, and his eyes were glowing as he spoke, because he loved to artfully circumvent what he called “the high school popularity contest” that commanded our students’ lives. “I’ll play as the tenth until they realize how slow I am and how desperately they want a player like Giuseppe,” he said, “I’ll be so convincing!” He grinned enormously at his own ingenuity, waiting for me to show how pleased I was with his acting ambitions. After just a few weeks, the plan worked. The older nine asked Giuseppe to join the Squad, and Arthur went back to coaching, which, he admitted, he had begun to enjoy. Giuseppe had captained the red team the Saturday that Arthur had to fill in again as the tenth player. Jonah had just been diagnosed with mono, which sent a wave of paranoia around Pembroke, but didn’t seem to keep the Squad from playing their weekend pick-up games.

It was Jordan’s elbow that cracked Arthur’s nose, just as he was holding out a hand for the touch. His nose bone was push backward into his brain, puncturing his frontal lobe. The triage nurse who sat the boys down later that night thought it better to explain exactly what had happened, and let the devil they know be the sad science of Arthur’s death. They would have been haunted either way, she supposed. So, in the fluorescent rasp of the waiting room, she talked about the accident, delineating the straight lines and curves of the body like she was sharing a playbook diagram. And so they all got back into their parents’ cars, each of them tucked into their own dark backseat with their heads in their hands. From that moment on, each time they sat in this pose, they would feel Arthur’s skull there.

Jordan Moss was the last one to end up on my stage, several weeks after I had begun working with the others. He came in the side door about half an hour after 7th period had begun, and lowered himself down into a seat in the front row. I had begun holding open mic sessions on Fridays for the boys, encouraging them to perform their own material. Right in the middle of Brendan’s scene, he stopped to say hello to Jordan, and several of the boys followed suit. Jordan nodded, but said nothing, so the show went on.

“I couldn’t have him in there any more Anna,” Mrs. Targoff later stopped me in the parking lot, “he just drew the same face over and over again, without the nose. A face without the nose.”

She seemed ruffled. Whatever we had been through, I told her, these kids were grappling with the feel, the look of Arthur’s death. After all, what can you do with an image like that?

She redirected, “But he won’t do any of the assignments. It’s obsessive. I called the parents. They’re in denial. Sad, awfully sad.”

“Fine,” I poked, “Happy to mold another from your used clay pile.”

She groaned, shaking her head as she climbed into the driver’s seat of her black Mazda.

I noticed that the parking spot next to hers now held the red two-door coup belonging to the new math teacher, Ms. S____ hyphen something, and pressed my face up to the dark window to see if I could learn anything about her. There was an old stained coffee takeout cup in each cupholder. A wildlife map of Lake Okeechobee lay half-folded on the passenger’s side floor. Just as I was making out the brand of the tennis shoes perched on the passenger’s seat, she came up behind me, and I was caught. “Hi there, those are some nice trainers.” I tried not to seem startled. I felt for her. I thought, so you will have to replace him. I had overheard the boys making fun of her earlier, the thick blond hair that spread over her upper lip. I noticed that the mustache twinkled in the sunlight. “Welcome to Pembroke,” I conceded, and she thanked me weakly, a curl bouncing in the center of her forehead. As she drove away with her windows down, clusters of grayish pet hair swirled around the car and flew out, trailing in her wake.

In our 7th period hour, Jordan gradually came alive again; but at first, only the stage seemed to animate him. There came a string of Fridays that he delivered a series of beautiful but troubling dramatic monologues. As soon as he sunk down into that same front-row chair that he had taken the first day, he seemed to dim from the inside out. Every once in awhile, I would see him whisper with the other boys, or laugh at some inside joke. I could tell that the rest of them worshipped him; so much so that the small amounts of attention he offered them relaxed the whole room. In March, the drama club began preparing the spring musical. They had chosen to do West Side Story again, together with the Clearwater School, the girls’ school in the next county.

I invited Jordan along with the other boys to rehearsals, and he came to a few early on. But he never said a word until the day we rehearsed the scene with Maria and the gun. Just before rehearsal, I had stumbled upon Ellie Rodriguez preparing for the scene in the bathroom, dabbing her eyes with the trickle of water she had running from the faucet. “Nervous?” I asked her, and she gave me a simpering nod. As I left the bathroom, I saw her contort her face in the mirror, crinkling her eyelids. I didn’t love her for the role, but she was the best we had from Clearwater, a self-proclaimed “school for young women achieving excellence in the Sciences”. A stagehand had misplaced the prop gun that we were using, so Ellie had to hold her hand in the shape of the gun and then pretend to drop it. She was so focused on this gesture, that she ended up being able to force a whimper only after the moment had passed each time. We rehearsed the moment several times, and then took a break. Jordan got out of his seat and walked toward me.

“I’m going to go talk to her,” he said firmly, pivoting.

“About what?” I said to his back.

Ellie was sitting on the edge of the stage with a bag of potato chips in hand; she was chewing with her mouth open. As soon as she realized that Jordan was approaching her, she hastily dropped the chips and wiped her mouth with both hands. He didn’t stand in front of her but rather awkwardly to the side, angling his body toward her and away from the stage at once, as if he were speaking to an audience. He furrowed his brow.

“Can you think of something really sad?” he prompted her.

She was surprised. “Yes, of course I can.”

“Can we try that scene again? I want,” he looked up to the stage, “I want to see if we can try that scene again.” He stepped back.

“Uh, okay.”

She stood, and he pulled his body up and kicked a leg onto the stage.

“You kneel how you were kneeling,” he directed, and she did what he said. He had her kneel there with her hand like a gun, set in the pose. “Now,” he said, “This guy that you love was just killed. Has someone you love ever died?”

She looked scared then. “Mhm.”

“Who?”

“My aunt,” she hesitated.

“Okay. This is your aunt right here that you’re kneeling over. Think of her now. She’s gone, just like that. She’s gone.”

He put his hand on her back and looked directly into her eyes. Suddenly she was crying softly, then in big heaving sighs. Jordan sat back down without another word. Ellie rehearsed the scene with almost inhuman emotive power for rest of the afternoon, her face fixed in a silent howl.

# # #

When I was ten, I remember attending my grandfather’s funeral in the wrong shoes. My mother carted me around in my grandfather’s old car in a panic that morning, trying to find a pair of fancy black shoes for me to wear to the service. Finally, she gave up, but I felt her eyeing my feet disapprovingly the rest of the day. We rode in a limousine with my father’s born-again Christian sister and her millionaire second husband. She smoked in the car, and though I know it bothered my father, he didn’t have the energy to complain that day. While we rode along the highway to the funeral home, I kicked the door and my older brother read a magazine. “Stop kicking, Anna,” my mother kept saying. My brother turned to me to whisper, “Look at these big trucks passing us—look, it’s just like the running of the bulls in Spain.” He pointed to a picture in the magazine. My aunt coughed, and I kicked the door.

At the cemetery, each member of my family went up to the grave to drop a handful of dirt on the coffin before it was lowered on that little pulley system into the ground. I stayed back, clinging to my mother after she had delivered her handful. Everyone was crying, but I could only shift my weight from one pink satin shoe to the other, and wait for us to all get back into the limo to drive home. My father’s sister saw me hiding in my mother’s arms, and kneeled in front of me.

She said to me, “Don’t you want to put a little bit of dirt on the coffin?”

I shook my head no.

“Why not?”

I glared at her.

“The reason we do this is because in the Bible, Abraham told his sons to bury him. We are supposed to bury grandpa. It’s like putting him to bed. Don’t you want to be the one to put grandpa to bed? You don’t want a stranger to do that, do you?”

“I don’t want to put anyone to bed,” I answered.

My mother intervened: “Phyllis leave her alone. If she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t have to.”

I was shaking furiously, and still, I couldn’t cry.

We held the wake in the basement of my grandfather’s house, and my brother and I would snatch food from the tables and then run to take cover in the small inlet under the stairs. “This is heaven,” he said “We are here, hanging out with grandpa.” We sat in heaven and picked at our egg salad. When our cousins and second cousins and my grandfather’s friends from the navy and his accountant and everyone else left, my family went to drop off my father’s sister and her husband and return the limo. I had fallen asleep in the corner, and so my parents let me stay curled up there.

I was alone in the house for about an hour. I wandered upstairs to the kitchen, where no one had really touched anything yet, except for what silverware was needed downstairs. Above the sink I saw the snowglobe that I had given him the year before. I shook it once and watched the glitter fall. There wasn’t much in the cabinets. Since my grandmother had died a few years before, my grandfather had eaten mostly prepared dinners from the supermarket, rice cakes, and vodka gimlets. I opened the refrigerator, and there sat one shelf down a half-eaten portion of prepared meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and a few scattered green beans. He had left the fork still sitting in the black plastic dish, wedged under a clump of potatoes. I took the plate of food out of the refrigerator, set it down on the kitchen table, and scooped the bite of potatoes into my mouth. I chewed, and a little pool formed in the corner of my eye.

 

Rachael E. Katz is a writer and sometimes musician living in New England, where she is working on an MFA at The University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is currently writing a second short play and has fiction forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle. Her interests include expanded genre, marginalia, radical pedagogy, post-print and transnational literatures, polymathic jellyfish, and the book as art object.