A Natural Progression of Things
Abbott chucks his last fried-chicken sandwich into the water, allowing his wrist to lift slightly in flourish as he releases it, watching the alligators chomp at the food, their jaws open and wide and beautiful in movement. There are three of them: long, thick-tailed, with skin that is cracked and gray, two who spring from the water at the chicken and a third who rests on a rock by the pond’s edge, uncharacteristically removed from the action. He is younger than the other two, smaller and less dusty, and Abbott often thinks of him as the family’s surly teenager. Abbott likes to attribute personalities to the gators, though this is harder to do while watching them lunge savagely at the chicken that he tossed into the pond. The second-largest gator, whom Abbott likes to think of as the wife and mother of the family—though he certainly has no proof of her sex, physical or otherwise—has caught the sandwich between her jaws, and Abbott watches as the other, larger gator wrests it from her, his wide mouth opening once, twice, as he juggles it between his teeth before definitively clamping his jaws upon it and gulping it down. Not very gentlemanly, but then Abbott reminds himself that he has allowed her the last two sandwiches. A man has to take something for himself from time to time.
He comes here, to the gator pond, at a quarter to nine most nights, after he gets off work at the Chikin Shak. He brings sacks of old chicken sandwiches and cups stuffed with curly fries, containers of cole slaw and brownies past their sell-by date. He likes to think that the gators look forward to his visits, murmuring among themselves about impending chicken dinners. “You really shouldn’t feed those gators,” his roommate, Gwen, has said. “It makes them associate people with food.” But the sign at the edge of the pond instructs him to use caution, and this is what Abbott does. This is not an amusement park, reads the sign’s subtext, and this is no understatement: there is no fence between the pond and the walking trail that surrounds it, only a startling dip in land, culminating in a sunken pool of water at the bottom, edged in loblolly pines that cast shadows on the ground that the gators slink under on especially hot days. Abbott never ventures past the last of the pines, tossing sandwiches at the gators from the edge of the walking path. He hurls a handful of curly fries in the direction of the smallest gator, the bulk of the load falling in the water closer to the other, larger gators, who move toward them without lifting their snouts from the pond’s surface. One of the large gators slaps the other’s tail playfully with her own, as if to say, It’s my turn, and Abbott watches as she snaps up the majority of the fries. He crumples the paper bag in his fist and tosses it in a nearby trash can. I’ll see you guys later, he thinks, but he doesn’t say this out loud. He isn’t crazy.
At home there is a gift waiting for him on the kitchen table, a large, rectangular object wrapped in the Sunday funnies. He rips the paper off and pulls out what is inside. There are two things: an oblong metal tin and a book with a Post-it stuck to its cover.
Saw this and thought of you.
The tin is full of chocolate-covered pretzels. The book is a hardback, glossy and new, a picture of a large gray alligator on the cover. The title, made to appear as a speech bubble exiting the gator’s mouth, reads: When Alligators Attack: Recorded Fatalities Since 1970.
The two of them, Abbott and Gwen, share a duplex, though they didn’t know each other when they moved in. This, the knowing each other, came later, hinging on small, neighborly requests—did he have a lightbulb she could borrow, and could he hear that banging in the laundry room at night or was she completely fucking nuts? The duplex did not originate as such; rather, it is a two-story house split in two, a thin, rattle-prone sheet of drywall installed at a rough midpoint on each of the two floors, ostensibly allowing for two separate parties to share the building. The problem, if you want to look at it as a problem, is that a house intended to be occupied by one party is not easily split into one occupied by two; as such, the kitchen has landed entirely on Gwen’s side of the house and the living room on Abbott’s. He has a makeshift pantry—a wobbling set of shelves where he keeps a bag of Granny Smith apples and several boxes of instant macaroni—and a hot plate in the corner of the living room, sitting atop a stool that Gwen has allowed him to borrow from the breakfast bar on her side. His half of the house is bare, bare, bare. Gwen has decorated her side with care, dressing the downstairs window with curtains and even planting a row of purple hydrangeas in the windowsill. From the outside the house has the look of a lady with one heavily made-up eye.
Abbott is nineteen, a sophomore at the community college, an undeclared major. Gwen is thirty-two and a student at the university across town. A freshman in status, she is unapologetically closemouthed about her years-long hiatus between high school and college. She is short, brunette, with an evocative gap between her front teeth and a big ass. She wears big, dangly hoop earrings and brightly colored Windbreakers and matching pants. Abbott thinks she is beautiful. She is majoring in art history but, Abbott knows, dreams of publishing cookbooks, particularly of baked goods. Now she is working on her first book: a compilation of sweet and savory pretzel recipes. She spends her evenings making batches, packing samples of them into shoe boxes stuffed with Bubble Wrap, and sending them to publishing houses. “They’ve got to taste the goods,” she argues, and Abbott doesn’t complain; he is often on the receiving end of samples from preliminary batches: pretzel overflow. This is what composes the second half of his gift: a cluster of white-chocolate-covered pretzels drizzled with dark chocolate and sprinkled with toffee bits. Abbott takes a bite of one, letting the bittersweetness of the chocolate dissolve on his tongue.
There is a knock, rap-rap-rap, from the other side of the wall. “Hey,” Gwen says. “Abs, is that you? Come over.”
Abbott opens the thin wood door that separates their sides of the house. Gwen is sitting on a stool at the bar, watching the tiny television that sits atop the kitchen counter and reading a gossip magazine. Her pants are shiny and maroon. “Did you get my present?”
“Yeah.” Abbott blushes. He can never keep himself from blushing around her.
“Did you like the pretzels?”
“Yeah.” He is still cradling the tin in his left arm. “They’re beautiful.”
Gwen beams. “Thanks,” she says, turning a page in the magazine. “I thought it was an especially good batch.” She gets up and pours herself a glass of water from the tap.
Abbott smiles in agreement. He looks at the magazine—Us Weekly—splayed indecently on the counter: jennifer love hewitt to paparazzi: “quit calling me fat!”
“I couldn’t resist the book,” she says. “I saw it on the bargain rack at Borders. I thought it was really cool, like, let’s catalog death and not pretend that it doesn’t happen, you know?”
“Yeah,” Abbott says, nodding. “Definitely cool. Very cool.”
Gwen sips her water. She is wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the image of a palm tree and the words Jimmy Buffett for President across the chest. Abbott imagines making a comment about this—something witty, like maybe “Where does Jimmy Buffett stand on homeland security?”—but thinks better of it. He isn’t good at delivering jokes, stumbles over details and forgets punch lines. He desperately wants to impress Gwen, a feat that seems increasingly impossible as the weeks pass.
She is looking at him. “I heard it again last night,” she says. “The noise.”
Abbott’s tongue feels thick, awkward, too big for his mouth. “I didn’t hear it,” he says. He’s always been a heavy sleeper.
She smiles. “Well, you’re going to have to do something about it,” she says, and she is being coy now, flirting with him in a way that makes him feel like he did when his mother left him with his old babysitter, Jill, a large, blond teenager who used to walk about the house in a bikini, her breasts half exposed, persecuting him with her sexuality. Abbott often finds that Gwen reminds him of Jill, though she is neither large nor blond. Also, he has never seen her breasts, though he certainly wouldn’t object to doing so.
“I hope I hear it tonight,” he says stupidly.
“Yeah,” Gwen says. “Me too.” And then: “I think I’m going to turn in. See you in the morning, babe.” She folds her magazine in half and takes it with her, her thighs swishing together as she makes her way up the stairs to her bedroom, until she is out of sight.
Watching her walk away, Abbott wishes that the wall were made of paper, or of love.
This is Sandy Springs, Florida, a coastal town forty-five minutes from the smaller, more central town that Abbott grew up in. In addition to the midsize university that Gwen attends, there is the community college, which, Abbott has heard on the local news, is actually quite reputable. In fact, it is one of three schools that admitted him and the only one that offered an amount of financial aid sizable enough to allow his attendance. Abbott likes the school well enough, as he likes most things well enough. Two out of his four professors seem to know his name, which, to Abbott, seems pretty good. The town itself is filled with hardworking people who hit the beaches for rum drinks on the weekend, people who are generally united in agreement concerning the superiority of the university’s football team. There are good barbecue restaurants and pretty girls. The town is amiable, sunny. Abbott likes it well enough.
He has one friend: a boy named Eli, who sits beside him in Introduction to Psych and who works at the grocery store that occupies the space next to the Chikin Shak in the strip mall. Eli sometimes agrees to go with Abbott to the gator pond if they get off work at the same time, which Abbott likes because it means that he gets to ride home in Eli’s car, a decrepit, sea-foam-colored hatchback with a rusted-out frame, instead of walking. Now Eli is standing with Abbott at the edge of the nature trail, tearing chicken filets into bits, tossing them to the gators, and explaining to Abbott how a person might go about knowing whether a customer will request paper or plastic.
“I get it right nine times out of ten,” he says. “No bullshit. It’s like, the more of a tight-ass somebody is, the more likely he’s gonna want paper, because plastic is small and it’s flimsy and it’s just not good enough for him. So I see a guy come through the checkout with pre-cut vegetables or frozen lasagnas—convenience food, you know?—and it’s like I know he’s not gonna mind plastic because he’s cool, he doesn’t care about that sort of thing. But you see a lady yelling at her kids to be quiet and quit touching the candy bars, and it’s like you know she’s gonna want paper.” He stops and considers this for a moment, an empty bun in his hands. He tears a strip of bread off slowly. “I guess that’s not exactly right,” he says. “If she’s yelling at her kids, telling them to shut up because they’re not gonna get that candy, she might say okay to plastic because she doesn’t have time to concern herself with what kind of grocery bags she’s getting. But if she’s whispering in their ears and gripping their arms and telling them to behave themselves in public, she’s paper for sure.” He nods, satisfied with this assessment.
“That’s very interesting,” Abbott says, his mouth stretching into a yawn.
He is tired: the night before, he tried valiantly to stay awake, waiting, listening for the sound—for any sound. Half a dozen times he was almost able to convince himself that he had heard something, venturing out into the hallway only to be met with silence. He had made it two-thirds of the way through the pages of the book that Gwen had given him, which were incongruously filled with scenic shots of alligators—one of a snout breaking the surface of the water in a Florida lake, another casting light upon dozens of sets of yellow gator eyes shining in the dark—and blocks of text detailing reported deaths by gator.
Anne Marie Steele, 83, female. The body of this elderly Canadian woman was spotted floating in a lagoon 500 feet (150 m) behind her daughter’s house in Savannah, Georgia. Autopsy results and an examination of the stomach contents during a necropsy of the animal suspected of killing her conclusively established that she had been attacked and killed by an 8-foot (2.4 m) alligator.
The listings were mechanical, and disturbing in the coldness of their statistical report. Abbott had felt deeply bothered, a feeling of unsettlement snugged up in his chest when he finally fell asleep.
“I tried to explain it once to this dude,” Eli is saying. “And he cut me off and said that he preferred paper not because he was a tight-ass, but because he had discovered that they were the exact size of the inside of his kitchen trash can, and he could use them as trash bags. Now, who but a tight-ass measures the inside of his trash can?”
“No one,” Abbott agrees. He looks down at the water. One of the gators, the female, is sunning herself on a rock. Abbott watches as another dives underwater, surfacing again to nudge the third gator’s tail with his snout; an invitation, Abbott thinks, to play.
Eli chucks a hunk of chicken at the water, where the smallest gator, the teenager, snaps it up before it breaks the surface. He is much livelier today. “You and that girl,” Eli says. “The old lady. I know that’s what you’re thinking about.”
“She keeps hearing a sound,” Abbott says. “In the house. She wants me to do something about it.” He adds: “She’s not old.”
“Then do something,” Eli says. “Christ. She’s practically asking for it.”
“She’s not asking for anything,” Abbott says. “Except for me to find this sound.”
“Then, find the sound.”
“I’m trying,” Abbott says, thinking that sometimes Eli doesn’t get it at all, and at the same time knowing that he is right, that he has to find the sound, take care of it, because what other splinter of hope, of opportunity, might come his way in the coming months, before he and Gwen relinquish their leases and part ways? He must make a statement of purpose. He must find this sound.
“I know,” Eli says. “We’ll go by my apartment before I take you home. I’ll get you a couple of my brother’s pills. You’ll be able to stay up all night.”
“What pills?” Abbott asks, alarmed. He does not like the sound of these “pills,” things that make you stay up all night, things that are consumed by Eli’s brother, a thirty-year-old high school dropout who suffers from hyperactivity and possibly a variety of other malaises as well.
“Relax. It’s just Adderall.” Eli looks at Abbott curiously, as if he is a painting that he doesn’t understand, or a difficult math problem. “I’m trying to help you out.”
“I know. Let me think about it.” Abbott turns back to the pond, tossing a whole sandwich into the water on the far side of the female gator’s sunning rock so that she might have something to eat before it is devoured by her voracious husband and son. Before eating it, she tilts her head slightly in his direction, as if in gratitude.
It is hot out, one of those nights where even the wind that blows through the window is warm; it is a tropical breeze, the type of air that Abbott has felt on his skin all his life, but for some reason tonight it irritates him, bothers him that the night air is sticky instead of cool, that it makes his shirt stick to his back and puts a flush in his cheeks. Abbott looked Adderall up on the Internet after accepting the two oblong red-and-white capsules from Eli, weighed the dangers of taking someone else’s prescription drugs against the potential benefits. Side effects, it seemed, included emotional lability and stomachache. Abbott didn’t know what lability was, but he swallowed the pills anyway, with orange juice, and went to his room to wait.
And so when he hears a faint scratching noise at a quarter to four, he is far from sleep; has, in fact, paged twice through the book that Gwen gave him and eaten all of the chocolate-covered pretzels. Abbott entertains briefly the possibility of entering Gwen’s room to address the noise, to comfort her—surely she would appreciate his concern, his can-do attitude? He lets the book drop in front of him and holds very still; sure enough, there it is again: a scratching sound, louder this time, and a bumping, too, coming from beneath the house. Abbott drops the idea of waking Gwen and leaves his room quietly, ears wide open and listening, and he is like a dog on a scent; he is like his boyhood pet, Sam, a brown-and-white beagle whose investigatory skills were unparalleled. He makes his way down the staircase and goes quietly through the door into Gwen’s side of the house. It is something like passing through a portal into another world: his side of the house, depressing in its sparseness, has lately become dirty and crowded with trash—he has been letting cola cans pile up in a large white trash bag in one corner of the living room, and there is a pile of unfolded laundry in the middle of the floor—while Gwen’s kitchen is prim, feminine, clean. On the counter sits a fake begonia potted in real dirt, as if with enough encouragement it might someday take root and grow. The gesture strikes Abbott as thoroughly optimistic. He follows the bumping and scratching into the laundry room, where it is more pronounced than in the rest of the house; he puts his ear to the vinyl floor and listens—perhaps there is an animal caught in the crawl space under the deck? Standing up, he notices that two of Gwen’s bras have been left to dry, hung up on nails hammered into the wall above the washer and dryer. They are sturdy, substantial bras, made of white cotton and without unnecessary flourish. Abbott can imagine that this sort of undergarment would be appropriate for a woman like Gwen, who never wears revealing clothing and who, he is pretty sure, hasn’t undressed in front of a man in some time. He chides himself for the thought, his ears growing hot at the idea of Gwen naked.
Making his way outside and letting the screen door shut behind him, Abbott walks down the three wooden stairs that lead from the deck to the backyard and makes a circle around the back of the deck to where he can get on his knees to see underneath. He clicks on the Maglite that he has brought with him and lights up the space below the deck. His suspicions are confirmed, and he takes a quick, fearful step backwards at what he sees: a large raccoon nested within the space, using its paws to tear siding from the house where it has been made loose with waterlogging and rot. Abbott can see that the raccoon has already made considerable progress in the construction of a makeshift den, strips of board forming a loose pile next to the animal. As if sensing Abbott’s presence—or perhaps seeing the beam cast by his flashlight—the raccoon turns accusingly before returning to its task, its eyes like two black marbles set deep in a mask of fur.
Abbott puts up a hand in apology. “Sorry,” he whispers, slowly making his way to his feet and backing up. He walks back to his bedroom. He is thinking of Gwen, how she looks in the sweatpants and gray T-shirt that she wears to bed, and of the raccoon, its small, cold eyes, its humanlike paws, remarkable in their dexterity. He thinks there are two kinds of people in the world—those who take action and those who don’t. The people who take action get paid good salaries to do the jobs they want. They get their teeth cleaned regularly and they return library books on time. They get out of stale marriages, end friendships that have soured. They kiss the people they want to kiss.
People who don’t take action, like him, generally wait for others to do it for them. They forget to return phone calls. They wait for their parents, teachers, bosses, and best friends to tell them what to do. They don’t complain when their steaks come out medium-well instead of rare. Sometimes, he thinks, good things come to the non-action-takers and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes wonderful, lucky things come and the non-action-takers turn them to shit with their poisonous, lazy touch. He thinks he will not turn this to shit. He will catch the raccoon and woo the lady.
Occupying a space in a strip mall a quarter mile from the beach, the Chikin Shak gets a steady steam of beachgoers seeking a lunchtime reprieve from the sun, coming in bikinis and flip-flops, their hairlines wet and pushed back and sandy, and beach towels tied around their waists. Abbott serves them chicken sandwiches and curly fries in red plastic baskets, Styrofoam cups of lemonade made from lemons that he himself prepped that morning, cutting them in half before putting them on the juicer, one in each hand, methodical as hell, bzzzt, bzzzt, bzzzt, down to the rind and filling up a nice four quarts of juice to dilute and mix with water and sugar and ice before selling it for a buck seventy-five a pop. He keeps a cup of the stuff next to him as he works the grill, the cool sourness of it feeling good on his tongue, keeping his mind off the hot steam that rises from the metal plates as he presses the chicken breasts on them until they sizzle.
Eli has come in for his lunch break. Abbott sneaks a cup of fries that Eli didn’t pay for onto his tray. It has been a bad day at work: Abbott woke up that morning with a headache settled deep into his skull, his sense of hearing so sensitive that it hurt to listen to his own voice repeat orders back to the customers. Keenyah, the owner’s daughter and the restaurant’s day manager, rode his ass so hard that Abbott had to ask to be put in the back, where he could work the grill. He is struggling there, too: he keeps overcooking the fries, screwing up orders. He twice forgot to dip the chicken filets in milk wash before dredging them in flour, causing the breading to fall off once they were placed in the deep fryer.
“Abbott, I want you to tell me how come a grown man can’t remember to pound out this chicken before breading it,” Keenyah said, marching over to show him a filet that hadn’t been adequately pounded before it was breaded and fried, so that instead of a nice, even slab of meat there was a gnarled lump of chicken, knotted and curled up on itself like the fist of an old man.
Now, with Keenyah in the back office cashing out one of the day-shift registers, Abbott allows himself to lean on the counter, resting his elbows on either side of the cash register. Eli stands at the counter eating his food; it is nearly three o’clock and there are no other customers.
“I’ve got a plan,” he tells Eli. “I know what I’m going to do.”
“A plan? Let’s hear it, then.”
“Well,” he says. “Gwen is worried about this sound, right?”
“I’m going to take care of it,” Abbott says. “It’s a raccoon—I saw it last night, all huddled up under the back deck. I’m going to bait Sam’s old crate and get it, then take it out to the preserve to release it. And Gwen will finally be able to get some sleep.” As he speaks the words out loud, the plan sounds better and better to him, and he tosses a fry in the air with a flourish to finish off his speech.
“That’s a stupid-ass idea.” Eli drags a fry through ketchup. “Don’t be retarded. You can’t catch a raccoon.”
“Can and will,” Abbott says, feeling more confident than ever, a rush of exhilaration sweeping through him palpably, from head to toe, perhaps a latent effect of the Adderall. “I’m going to keep staying up until I can do it.” He takes another fry from Eli’s tray and tosses it in the air, catching it in his mouth. He chews and swallows. “Can you get me some more pills?”
And so Abbott embarks on his plan, on its undertaking: He gets more pills from Eli, enough to last him a couple of weeks. He borrows Eli’s car to make the forty-five-minute drive to his parents’ house to get Sam’s crate, waiting until his parents are at Wednesday-night Bible study to punch in the garage code and sneak the thing from under a pile of loose two-by-fours, tin cans, and other items that his father must have felt necessary to keep for future home-construction projects. Abbott’s backup plan, in case they were home, was to tell them that he is transporting a puppy for a friend. His father is a stern, conservative man who pushed hard for Abbott to join the navy after graduating from high school; he would certainly not approve of his son’s partaking in novice raccoon-catching. His mother is kind and naive, often wondering aloud why Abbott didn’t attend more homecoming dances and pep rallies during his years in high school. She understands little, Abbott thinks, about social strata. Sneaking the kennel from the garage, he is almost regretful to miss his mother. She would listen to Abbott describe Gwen, would think Gwen “sweet,” as she does most girls that she suspects as objects of her son’s fondness. But he keeps his eyes on the road before him as he drives off with the crate in the backseat, anxious to reestablish the forty-five-minute buffer zone that will keep him from an actionless existence, a comfortable existence, one free of rent and full of consistency and completely devoid of Gwen.
Abbott’s careful planning, though, does not equal success. The raccoon refuses to enter the crate, becomes, in fact, even more destructive and bothersome than before, making terrible screeching sounds that seem louder than the noise before and uprooting the herbs that Gwen has been attempting to grow in a small, square plot in the side yard. Once, Abbott manages to lure the animal successfully into the crate by baiting it with a string of purple grapes, only to have it tear back out of the thing before he is able to shut the gate. He has shown the raccoon to Gwen, feeling a taste of the satisfaction that came with her thankful recognition that he had at least identified the problem, one that cultivates a hunger to solve it, particularly when Gwen complains that the raccoon has continued to torment her.
“I’m tearing my hair out, Abs,” she says over plates of spaghetti and a rented video, a late-eighties action flick with Patrick Swayze. They are sitting on the floor in Abbott’s living room, eating off paper plates. “That thing is keeping me up at night. It’s eating my basil. Really, did you ever hear of a fucking raccoon that ate basil? Of course it doesn’t touch the weeds.”
I guess it has a refined palate, Abbott wants to joke, and opens his mouth to say this, when Gwen begins speaking again.
“Abbott,” she says. “That raccoon has to die.”
Abbott slurps up a strand of pasta, wiping red sauce from the edge of his mouth with a paper napkin, waiting for her to say that she is kidding, that she is frustrated by the inconvenience, sure, but that of course she doesn’t wish death upon an innocent animal.
But she doesn’t say this. Instead she continues, saying, “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to trap that raccoon and feed it to those goddamn gators.” She makes a chomping motion with her arms, not unlike the motion used by fans at various athletic events undertaken by the university’s sports teams, whose mascot is an angry-looking green alligator.
“Circle of life,” she says. “What were you going to do with it, anyway?”
Abbott shrugs, thankful that his mouth is full of pasta, because, honestly, he hasn’t considered this, hasn’t let his imagination run past the moment of gratitude that will surely come when Gwen sees that he has trapped the animal.
She shrugs back at him, then smiles. “I’m telling you,” she says. “It’s what we’ve got to do. And anyway, you can show me these gators that you’re always talking about.”
The next night, at the gator pond, Abbott is sure that the gators know what he is thinking. He sits cross-legged on the edge of the trail, tossing chicken to them, trying to reindulge in past fantasies about Gwen’s thankfulness of his bravery in solving the raccoon problem, fantasies now marred by the messy, uncomfortable notion of death. He pictures Gwen, shielding her eyes from the glare of the setting sun as she watches the gators, smiling at Abbott, thanking him for bringing her, because wow, this is really cool, and when else do you get to see nature so up close, so vivid, so real? But this image is replaced by one of the raccoon, busying itself tearing at the siding, its black eyes meeting his brown ones before it returns to its work, Abbott at once struck by the sadness of destroying something so industrious, so primitively intelligent in its instinct to construct a protective shelter for itself and—he nearly shudders at the thought—its young. Stop it, he tells himself, shaking his head as if to physically remove the image from his mind, standing and brushing the dirt from his palms. He has thrown the last bit of chicken to the gators, and he tosses the crumpled paper bag in the trash can before he leaves.
When he gets home, Gwen calls to him from the back deck, where he finds her drinking pink wine from a clear glass.
“Abs,” she says. “Come join me.”
He takes a seat next to her in one of the four plastic patio chairs that surround a plastic patio table. It occurs to him that the deck, as well as the rest of Gwen’s half of the house, is in want of visitors, which they have never seen—guest towels awaiting overnight company, the silk-flower centerpiece on the dining-room table, the decorative citronella candle sitting atop the patio table. She is eating pretzels, milk-chocolate-covered ones, with stripes of caramel and coconut flakes.
“Hi, Gwen,” he says, reaching out to take a pretzel—anything to keep his hands busy.
“Get some wine.” She gestures with her glass. “Drink with me,” she says, her manner as casual as it might be if they had a glass of wine together each night, as it might be if Abbott were not nineteen years old and had never tasted a drop—not one drop!—of alcohol.
Her mouth widens into a smile and she pushes her tongue up against the gap between her front teeth, and at once Abbott is standing up from his chair, remembering his resolve to take action, is going into the kitchen and opening the refrigerator and pushing down the black spigot on the box of wine sitting on the top shelf, filling a tall juice glass with the clear pink liquid. He gulps down a mouthful of the stuff in the kitchen, preparing himself for the worst, the wine surprisingly sweet on his tongue. He tops off his glass and goes outside. The sun has begun to go down, long shadows from the lounge chairs falling across the deck.
“Attaboy!” Gwen says. Abbott takes another careful sip of wine, letting the liquid fill his mouth before swallowing it down. He looks into his wine glass, making a gentle circling motion with his arm and watching the wine swirl around in the glass. He gulps a mouthful down, and then another. On the table the citronella candle has been lit and gives off a sickly-smelling smoke, gray and curling. He watches it, the motion of the smoke, dissolving as it rises into the air.
Gwen is talking about a movie that she’s seen, something with Sandra Bullock. “And so then he regains his memory,” she is saying. “But it doesn’t matter, because she’s already in love with the brother.”
“Yeah,” Abbott says, and he is feeling good, feeling even stronger in his resolve to take action, feeling that sitting here, drinking wine from a box with Gwen, is the absolute best thing on earth that he, Abbott, could be doing at this moment. He takes Gwen’s cup and goes into the kitchen and refills them both, the wine sloshing a bit as he carries the glasses back to the deck, where she thanks him without noticing the spillage, or without mentioning it.
The sun has dipped below the horizon now, is nothing but a smear of orange in the distance, Abbott watching it and thinking about how beautiful Gwen looks with her hair pulled back like that, tied loosely at the back of her neck with a rubber band, when they hear the noise, a scratching and clattering that comes from directly below them: the raccoon, Abbott knows, is inside the crate.
“There it is,” Gwen says, her chair tipping dangerously back as she starts at the sound, and Abbott knows that she, too, is feeling the wine, is unsteady, he hopes in the beautiful, wonderful way that he is unsteady.
“Yeah,” he says, and his voice sounds amplified, magnified, just plain loud, as the words leave his mouth. “It’s in the crate. I’m going to catch it,” he says unnecessarily. And then: “For you.”
Gwen grins at him. “You wouldn’t kid a girl.”
Abbott grins back. “No,” he says, standing from his chair, bumping his wine glass, so that even more sloshes out the top, setting it on the table in front of him and sliding his hand into an old leather gardening glove that he found in his parents’ garage—his only means of protection from the teeth of the raccoon. He moves silently down the steps, motioning for Gwen to join him on the side of the deck, where he leans down to peer into the crawl space.
“Hold this.” He hands her the Maglite, which she holds, no questions asked, watching as he approaches the crate.
Gwen starts. “There he is,” she whispers, the glint of the flashlight illuminating the raccoon’s backside, its ringed tail made visible in the light.
“How will you close the latch?” Gwen asks.
“I’ll just have to reach over and shut it,” Abbott says, “before it has time to get out.” He keeps his eyes on the animal.
“What then?” Gwen whispers.
“What do you mean?” Abbott says, his eyes still on the raccoon, which seems, like everything else, to be moving in slow motion.
“What will we do with the raccoon after we catch it?”
Abbott looks at her dumbly, his tongue thick and dry in his mouth, his head starting to hurt again from his lack of sleep the previous night. He has tried, again and again, to avoid thinking about this moment, to consider only the feeling of triumph that will necessarily accompany his catching the raccoon. But now, looking at Gwen, it is unavoidable—the fact of the raccoon’s future, the fact that he, Abbott, is willing to do this.
“We’ll take it to the gator pond,” he says simply, the words barely out of his mouth when the raccoon makes a quick bumping motion, one that causes Abbott to take action with a surge of speed that he didn’t know he possessed, lunging at the crate with the gardening glove, his hand pushing the gate shut and the tip of his pointer finger pressing down on the latch with just enough force to trap the animal inside of the crate, a small hissing, whining noise escaping its mouth and the raccoon looking at him, terrified, a single grape between two paws, and Abbott thinking that even if he is trapping this raccoon and potentially feeding it to an alligator, at least it will have some grapes to eat.
Gwen turns to him. The Maglite, still in her hand, droops, making a circle of light on the ground below. “You did it,” she says. In her other hand is a glass of wine.
“Yeah,” Abbott says, gesturing for her to hand him the glass and taking a long drink, feeling confident now, feeling good, unstoppable, like this is it. He puts both hands on her shoulders. “Can I borrow your car?”
They drive to the gator pond, Abbott behind the wheel, his head pounding now, everything happening too slow or too fast, the raccoon in the backseat making horrible snarling noises and clawing at the crate’s metal gate in a way that makes it feel that the whole car is rattling, the dark outside getting even darker, Abbott focusing his brain power singularly on keeping the car in the correct gear, on steering it around the necessary turns. It is a short drive, and they reach the preserve quickly. Abbott gets out of his side of the car, walking around to open the door for Gwen before he—carefully—removes the crate with the raccoon inside and sets it on the ground. They are at the edge of where the land dips down toward the gator pond, and Gwen peeks cautiously at it from safe ground. “So these are your gators,” she says.
Abbott smiles. “They are.” He can see the tip of an alligator snout as one of the gators glides gracefully through the water, the tranquility of its movement giving Abbott hope that the inevitable doesn’t have to occur, that perhaps the gators have had their share to eat for the day—after all, wasn’t he here earlier with plenty of chicken sandwiches?—that somehow this, the earlier feeding of the gators, absolves him from what he is about to do.
A set of gator eyes catches the moonlight as something, an animal, makes a sudden movement, a rustling in the brush that surrounds the pond, and he feels Gwen’s arm tighten in his.
“So,” Abbott says, his arm tingling where she is holding it, feeling like it has a million nerves in that exact spot. “These are, you know, gators, which is also the mascot for—”
“The university,” Gwen finishes, a smile breaking on her face. “Living here must give them an extra sense of purpose.”
“Yes!” Abbott says. “Yeah. Exactly.”
They stand quietly, and there is nothing more to do now except to do it, and so he moves toward the crate, takes a breath, and One-two-three makes a quick lunge at it, putting his finger on the metal latch to set the animal free and thinking, No, no, I can’t do this, and then feeling his finger push down, just enough to spring open the door and release the raccoon, which rushes out, only turning its head toward Abbott momentarily before racing into the brush, moving toward the light of the water. No, he thinks. Not that way. But he is undeniably hopeful, too, guiltily hopeful, nervous in an expectant, excited way as he returns to Gwen, who puts her arm through his.
They stand, looking at the water, arms linked, Abbott wanting to pull her closer and at the same time not wanting to move his arm away from Gwen’s, not now, not ever, when there is a loud rustle in the brush below, and it is only for a split second that Abbott sees the raccoon, so that later he won’t even be able to say for sure that he saw it, but knowing that he did, and knowing that Gwen did too, before he sees the gator that lunges for it, its jaws closing on the animal in one quick, deathly motion, opening and closing its mouth in three, four, fatal chomps before swallowing it down, the sound of death loud and terrible and undeniable, and Gwen is taking his hands now, both of them, and then he is kissing her, her mouth hard and wet against his, and he is closing his eyes and he is still kissing her, the moonlight that he can’t see reflecting off of the water, reflecting off of three sets of yellow eyes below, still now, as beautiful as anything he’s ever seen.
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