He shows up in the kitchen with a deep tan and a gash below his right eye, three crusty stitches. That spark smolders at his fingertips; his usual testament to the Panhandle. When the kids scramble and clamber atop him, he tells them he’s been wrestling crocs and none of them even looks my way when I mutter, Gators.
The irony of his not knowing the difference isn’t lost on me. I’ve seen her row of shiny teeth and leathery skin—tempting as hell, I guess, if you want to fuck a purse or a pair of shoes. Nights he’s here—summer, usually—he strokes my milky body and tells me he’d guzzle a gallon of me, kept as I’ve been up here in snow country, raising the family I wanted: four kids; a handful of exotic house pets; the three-story modern with fireplace and sauna; the porch and terraced yard stretching toward acres of woodland, where trees shake their ghostly branches at least half the year, usually more.
I’ve seen her row of shiny teeth and leathery skin—tempting as hell, I guess, if you want to fuck a purse or a pair of shoes.
When he goes, I crank the heat over eighty and stare down into those shadowy trees, wondering how the palms shake and sand ripples, how that garish sun must sizzle the skin, if he sips piña coladas or sweet tea on her veranda.
He calls her Clementine.
He tells me he is born again beneath that overripe fruit.
This time he presents the four with little plastic boxes topped by colorful snap-on lids. Blue for Tim-Tim, red for Roseanna, green for Grover, pink for Susannah. Inside are miniature gators. The Littles ooh and aah. Tim-Tim gets a smack when he tries to pop off his lid.
You must never open them, Littles, Bond says. If they escape, your Mama will find ‘em full grown in the bathtub, and you don’t wanna hear her scream. He winks at me, like we’re in on this together.
How will they eat? Susannah asks.
Bond slides a concealed door at the top of her contraption. Drop the meat here. I reckon they’re a mite hungry. Lou—I could strangle him for the term of endearment, he hasn’t even kissed me hello—any of that bison kicking around?
Burgers in the fridge, I say, slamming out the back door to gulp chilly April air into my lungs. The Littles shriek with delight over something and, a minute later, a ray of light swathes my face and Bond wraps his arms around me from behind, his breath on my neck as warm as those Florida breezes. He says, How about a nice cold glass of milk for dinner?
Only a glass? I ask.
Half gallon, if we gulp.
We stare out over the lawn, dusted with a fresh coating of snow—looks like our wedding cake, the thinnest layer of frosting—and I say, What about the Littles?
Bond slides his hand down and unbuttons my dungarees. Crocs’ll keep ‘em occupied.
Gators, I say as he undoes the zipper.
Such a stickler, he says, for accuracy.
When we go back inside, Grover’s hunched in the corner and the other Littles form a shield around him. Three gators in their cases perch on the dinette table, the green one nowhere to be seen.
He didn’t do it on purpose, Roseanna says. Behind her glasses, her eyes are pie plates of worry.
Grover whimpers, head bowed, exposing the tender pastry of his neck.
I slide my hand from Bond’s, ready to make that trio of Xs the nicest part of his face, but instead I cup Grover’s skull and say, Where?
Grover, little bit, where? When he was born, too early, wobbly as a custard, the doctors didn’t give him a year. Each one since is both miracle and nuisance.
He points to the heating vent in the corner, slats full open because spring refuses to show her face. Though I know Bond’s reappearance means she ain’t far behind.
Bond chuckles and scrapes his palm over his chin. Crank the heat, baby.
Susannah shrieks, NOOOOOOOO! Daddy, you—
Unseemly bastard, I want to fill in, but Roseanna says, calm as summer-evening lake water, You’ll break his heart.
I turn to Bond and raise both eyebrows, the best challenge I can muster with four pairs of Little eyes watching.
It takes both toolboxes and a hacksaw to remove the register from the vent. Plaster dusts the curtains, the counters, the kitchen table, where I swear the three other gators look on with smirks.
Susannah, the smallest after Grover, quakes behind me—afraid, probably, of being sent in. I wouldn’t put it past Bond.
But in goes his arm, tentative at first, then groping. Slippery little bugger, he curses. Bond has long arms, but not long enough to search the whole house, even if we sawed off every vent.
Grover, I say, scooping him onto my lap. He’s pliable as rising dough. I knead his neck. Your gator is likely gone. But Susannah will share.
This elicits a whimper and a pout.
Sometimes, I say, sharing is the best way. Ownership can be—
AYEEEEEEEE! Bond shouts and pulls his hand out of the hole so fast, he knocks over the telephone table. Attached to his middle finger is the gator, gleam-eyed and thrashing.
Grover catapults off my lap and fumbles the container out of Tim-Tim’s hands. Patience, Tim-Tim says, regaining it, holding it out of Grover’s reach.
Bond near flings the gator into the container and Tim-Tim clicks the lid shut. Duct tape, he says, pronto. Bond wraps the lid clear around, doubling back over the latch. Susannah does a happy dance. Roseanna rolls her eyes.
Duct tape, he says, pronto.
It’ll take Grover most of the night to peel it off, and in the morning we’ll start all over again.
What’s that you were saying about sharing? Bond asks with a grin.
The Littles watch, waiting for me to buckle or burst.
Overrated, I say, and not one of them dares to question that.