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Baby Alligator

A man walks into a bar. It sounds like a joke, I know. A man walks into a bar with a white plastic bucket. No one recognized him. Andrea the Chilean waitress leaned in and said to me, “That man, he looks like a real scum bucket,” and I laughed and wished she would say it again, but when he placed the bucket on one of the shaky tables, Sofia, the wife of the bar owner, O’Malley, yelled, “Holy fuck, a little baby alligator!” She flipped her wet rag over her shoulder and leaned in. We crowded around, as many of us that could, trying to get all our heads near the opening of the white plastic bucket. There it was, just as prehistoric as we’d hoped. Green as a lizard should be. The color of its swamp. And bulbous jelly eyes lifted above the water, not so ridiculous as a slug’s stalks. Noble, for hunting. O’Malley, one of our circle around the bucket, turned his shoulders out, I could tell, to create just enough space that another, slim body, might enter, and it is difficult to say if his wife noticed that the invitation wasn’t for her, but for Andrea who hadn’t followed us yet to the bucket, Andrea who took one glance into the bucket before shrieking and throwing her hands up and flipping the bottom of her dress this way and that across to the other side of the room, cowering in the frame made by the countertop separating the bathrooms, her eyes shining black between her little fingers. There were six or seven of us crammed around that bucket, and a little blonde boy was the one who bumped up against O’Malley, and took the spot intended for Andrea, though he was too short to even see inside.

But we looked, and that baby alligator, it did what we wanted it to, at least at first, in that it was itself, an alligator, in miniature form. 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. But it was not a baby as we are babies, lumps of clay, sloughed from some unfinished mold, all essentially the same (tabula rasa), and “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, but really they are lumps of flesh and the joy is in that differentiation, that “what will it become that is unlike what anything else has become,” but not this baby alligator, because it was already exactly what it was, and it had only to double, triple, quadruple, 10x, 100x, grow, grow, a question only of scale, how big would it grow, how much enormity could become of this, this same this, and if instead we shrank ourselves down by an order of magnitude, as a doll or a baby but without that mush of formlessness, it would look like a full-grown giant of the swamp, a mouth only, and some supportive infrastructure, its body curved against the scratched white surface of the bucket in two inches of yellow water.

“Feed it!” said the blonde boy, without ceremony, the thing we all wanted to say, and O’Malley said, “Manners, boy!” but then O’Malley’s eye twitched, which was as good as a nod from him. Our breathing became heavy. Feed it, we begged, because this baby alligator isn’t moving. It’s just sitting there. We don’t have all day.

It wasn’t that our sense of wonder was spent already, 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, the ocean (for the ocean though it moves also does not move), the elements reorganized in our minds into new patterns resembling the…

“Feed the damn thing,” said O’Malley, making us all jump and the bucket slosh, though the alligator still didn’t move. “It’s gotta be hungry!” he said, and on the other side of the bar, watching, Andrea blushed, I swear she did, and O’Malley’s wife nodded, nodded at the alligator, but did not acknowledge her husband. The man who brought the baby alligator in his white plastic bucket (no one had yet asked him his name), that magician, salesman, psychologist, naturalist that he is, he pulled an inflated plastic bag with a pair of weightless goldfish, each with a strip of black running vertically at the edge of its tail, up to the tip, where one of them was torn, so immediately if you noticed this bite mark, you’d feel instant pity for that fish, and anger toward the other.

“Put ‘em both in so we can see which it goes for!” yelled the boy, hopping on one foot, shaking the table, shaking the alligator who still did not move. We all knew it was up to O’Malley to choose. And which fish would he choose to die? If he suggested the predatory goldfish, he was showing Andrea that he was sworn to justice, an eye for an eye, a fin for a life, and was prone to sentimentality for those pitiable ones who bore the brunt of their own weaker natures, and yet she might also think that O’Malley was such a pitiable soul as to desire the stronger be put to death, breaking with the natural course of nature, upsetting what the wild would have likely enacted on its own, all because of some inferiority complex that Andrea would never find attractive. And yet if he chose the goldfish already accustomed to being prey he was throwing the lamb to slaughter and showing his sadism to Andrea; she might see that only, and not the adherence to the natural order that he was inclined to observe, though it was also possible that his sadism would excite her, even as she cowered, even as she watched between her fingers. At the same time, if O’Malley chose the injured one he was sacrificing a better chase, and why would someone on the brink of a spectacle sacrifice maximum entertainment and duration?

Before O’Malley could choose, 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 as I imagined it, slowly, ratcheting open micrometers at a time, barely noticeable, until you’re surrounded by teeth, inside that mouth, waiting for that snap, how fast how strong will that snap will really be, but then O’Malley’s wife’s voice reminds me that the two fish are just swimming in circles on the opposite side of the bucket but the alligator hasn’t moved a goddamn muscle.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she huffs, throwing her hands up. And O’Malley sighs, half a growl.

“Yeah, always poor Pete,” he grumbles, and his wife leaves the circular porthole of the bucket for the smaller ones at the bottom of the glasses she dunks into the hot sink, shaking, drying, holding 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, Andrea’s hand-covered eyes watching Sofia’s husband watch the alligator, and I saw O’Malley and his wife for the first time with absolute clarity.

You see, 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 that young waitress who wants to be a dancer over there. I wondered if O’Malley would have the moment that I’d had once, sitting on a similar cracked stool in a similar dim bar, if a slow sinking can even be called a moment; the realization that love for another can reach a dangerous paradox. Sofia’s “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” and O’Malley’s sigh was just like my wife Angie’s “Jesus Christ,” and my “Jesus Christ what?” Her expression of frustration, followed by my frustration at her frustration. And it was often the other way around, where 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 dream, as I’m sure I’d see 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 are 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 it hits an ear like O’Malley’s becomes confused with the need to solve your lover’s problems, to take upon yourself that threat which degrades the happiness of the person you’ve sworn to keep happy, so O’Malley hears 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.”

Now I know, of course, that it was not my fault that the power in our entire apartment block went out, ruining the eggs Angie had been cooking, and O’Malley knows it’s not his fault that the alligator isn’t lunging for the fish, as of course Sofia knows it too, but O’Malley’s instinct that she has no right to blame him for something he can’t control further aggravates him, and Sofia’s knowledge that he’ll just take her exclamation as a personal insult further aggravates her, and so it goes, in a terrible cycle until the bed at bedtime becomes too large and the sheets between you cold, and it takes 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 one moment closer to each other, instead of apart, as they are now, with Andrea still looking from behind the wooden frame near the bathrooms, towards the alligator’s bucket, but not at me because I have also stepped away and back to my table.

Later, after relieving the man of his plastic bucket with its baby alligator, now sitting beneath my table, with what felt like the ghost of the girlfriend who would become my wife hovering above my hand, I wondered if we’d ever get past the argument that had sent me here, into this situation where I’d become the proud owner of a baby alligator I had no idea what to do with, a baby alligator that swished its tail among the flakes of golden scales that had once been fish, for of course the alligator had mauled them when we weren’t looking. And instead of imagining what my girlfriend would think of living with a baby alligator in the bathtub, or 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 instead scribbled furiously into my notebook an explanation of how two lovers’ desire for both sharing and service are, and will always be, at least in the moment they are expressed, completely adversarial, and how it is with love that we enter into this paradox, and with love also that we will always try to overcome it, and always fail, only to try, and fail, and try.


Scott Lambridis’ stories have appeared in Storyglossia, Black Static, received the Leo Litwak award in Transfer, and are forthcoming in New American Writing.  Scott is the founder of, and while completing his MFA at San Francisco State (where he received the Miriam Ylvisaker Fellowship), he’s working on a novel about the scientist who discovered the end of time. You know, the usual. Email Scott at

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