By Mitch Findlay
Before leaving she left notes. Her job seemed trivial but she had informed them nonetheless. An indefinite leave of absence. The grieving process. People didn’t question it.
The plane arrived on time and landed on time. Vanessa stepped out of the airport, suddenly nostalgic. The Tampa sun hung in the sky as the breeze washed over her, bringing with it the faintest smell of salt. The cacophonous cries of gulls filled the air. She waved down a taxi.
The driver was a dark-skinned man with affable eyes and a wrinkled forehead. “Welcome to Tampa,” he said. He smiled with crooked teeth. “Where are you headed on this lovely day?” She guessed he was used to dealing with tourists, but she was not one. Not really.
“Thonotosassa. Temple Terrace. It’s a trailer park.”
“Oh, don’t I know it. Name’s Miguel, by the way.” He whistled when he talked. Vanessa placed her suitcase in the back and sat in the passenger seat. The cab pulled away from the airport and merged onto the highway. She pressed her forehead against the glass as the urban landscape faded into wetland. Swamp grass over a foot high grew along the marshes. An earthy odor trickled through her window.
The digital clock read 2:25 p.m. Black clouds and flashes of heat lightning danced across the sky as a heron flew from the swamp. They passed a small roadside shack. The crudely illustrated sign in front read “Try Our Alligator Meat!” The dirt-covered lot was empty.
“Where are you from?” said Miguel.
“Montreal. But I used to live here when I was a girl.”
“What brings you back?”
“We’re almost there. It’s coming up on the right.”
The drive continued in silence. After a while, the cab pulled through the gates of the Temple Terrace RV Park. Miguel stopped the car and Vanessa met his eyes.
“You take care now, okay?” he said.
She paid him and grabbed her suitcase. As the taxi pulled away, she retrieved the trailer key from her pocket. The edge of the metal was beginning to rust. It felt like an ancient relic.
“You make your excuses,” said Daniel, “but you’ll cave eventually.” He had been lying on the bed as the first flakes of snow fell past the window. It got a little darker a little earlier, but they were on the cusp of a Montreal winter. Hardly an omen.
A smile teased his lips. Daniel held the manuscript against his bare chest, a thick stack of papers bound together by a black spiral. “It’s my magnum opus. I can feel it.”
“For your sake, I hope not,” said Vanessa. She sat at her desk in a loose-fitting nightgown. T4 slips were organized in neat piles beside her open laptop. “It’d be a shame if your debut novel was your magnum opus.”
“I want you to be the first to read it.” Daniel stood, placing the manuscript gently on the bed, and hugged her from behind. She could feel his glasses pressed against her hair as he kissed her neck. “I’d love your insight.”
“For all the good it would do.”
“You told me you wanted to wait until it was finished,” said Daniel. “It’s finished. The chastity belt is on the floor.” He kissed her neck again, lower this time.
“I’ll read it. I promise. Just give me till the weekend. We’ll be on a beach in Tampa with nothing to worry about. No work, no school, just us.”
“I like the sound of that.”
“I’ll start reading as soon as we get on the plane. I’ll be finished by the time we get back.”
“Fair enough,” said Daniel. “Just one more day.”
“Just one more day.” The plane tickets were purchased. Their currency was converted. Their suitcases were packed. Vanessa eyed his manuscript. Indigenous, by Daniel Hastings. His real name, pseudonym be damned.
“You should get to work,” said Vanessa. “Papers aren’t going to grade themselves.”
“Alas, you’re correct,” said Daniel, with theatrical grandiosity. “I’ll be in my study.”
Vanessa watched him leave. Daniel had spent the last two years working on Indigenous, but rarely spoke about it. In the beginning she had ventured questions. He preferred to keep the work shrouded in a veil of mystery. “It’s about childhood,” he said once. They had been sitting in the bathtub after finishing a bottle of wine. “I put a lot of myself into this one.”
That had been months ago, while he was still in the stages of first draft. He had offered to let her read as he wrote. She had refused, opting to wait for the finished product.
Vanessa watched the manuscript grow and wondered just how much of her husband was etched within those pages. She got up and traced her finger across the cover. A novel about childhood. She thought back to her own, racing past the shuffleboard courts at her grandparent’s trailer. Down the roads. Past the pool. Through the playground. Around the lake. Soon, she thought. Soon she would be home again.
Vanessa walked under the Tampa sun until she reached her grandparent’s trailer. It was exactly as she remembered. Before he died, her father had built an extension on the trailer’s side. She stepped through the door and was met with stagnant heat. She made her way around, opening every window until a cross-breeze wafted through the screens. The air smelled of disuse and old blankets.
She ran a hand through her blonde-streaked hair. It was unkempt and tangled. Sweat dripped down the back of her shirt. She pulled it over her head and threw it on the couch.
Vanessa unlatched her suitcase. She rummaged until she found the shirt she wanted, something loose fitting, and put it on. At the bottom, beneath her clothes, was Daniel’s manuscript. She slammed her suitcase shut and turned for the door. It was mid-afternoon and the sky had reverted back to cloudless blue. She decided to head for the pool.
On the path she saw an older woman pushing a shopping cart filled with bags. The woman raised her hand in a half-hearted wave. Vanessa continued down the path, amazed at how little had changed.
At the pool someone was playing music. She opened the gate and saw several elderly ladies waving their arms in the pool, apparently taking an aquatic aerobic classs. A tinny sounding radio blasted generic salsa. The deck was empty, save for one—a girl, about twelve, sitting on a foldout chair. Her floral sunhat cast shadow over her face. She wore a white tank top and bathing suit bottoms. The girl looked up at Vanessa and smiled.
“Hey,” said the girl. She stood and approached without hesitation. “Did you want to swim? They’re just doing their waterworks. They finish at four, so it shouldn’t be much longer.”
“Thanks,” said Vanessa. The girl was pretty, with long brown hair and freckles on her tanned skin. “Do you live here?”
The girl giggled, and Vanessa was caught off guard by the childishness of the sound. “No,” she said, putting a hand over her mouth. “I’m just visiting. I didn’t mean to laugh, I swear. I can’t imagine living here, that’s all. Everyone’s old.” She turned red. “Not that that’s a bad thing. Either way, you don’t exactly look old.”
“I’m twenty-nine,” said Vanessa. “So I guess I’m old to you. What’s your name?”
“Alba. I know, it’s weird.”
“It’s nice. I’m Vanessa.”
Alba extended her hand and Vanessa took it. “Do you live here?” said Alba. “I didn’t mean to, like, offend you. Honest.”
“It’s okay,” said Vanessa. “And no, I don’t. I used to, when I was about your age. Only for a little while.”
“Hmm,” said Alba. “I’m staying with my grandma. My parents are having a second honeymoon or something. What was wrong with the first one?”
Vanessa thought of her own honeymoon. “You’ll understand when you’re older. I hope your grandmother doesn’t get the wrong idea. Seeing her granddaughter talking to some strange old lady.”
“She won’t mind,” said Alba. “Everyone’s pretty friendly here. I don’t think they’re used to seeing kids around.”
She sat back down as a melodic barrage of fanfare filled the air. The women in the pool, Alba’s grandmother among them, were seemingly weightless. They spun one way then another.
“Do you have any kids?” said Alba.
“No,” said Vanessa. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“That’s alright,” said Alba. “I’m not lonely or anything. Just curious.”
The music stopped and Vanessa heard the instructor’s voice winding down the class. Suddenly, she felt like an intruder. Alba cocked her head to the side and her hat slipped to the concrete. “You can meet my grandmother,” she said. She picked up her hat, blew on it, and placed it back on her head.
“Sure.” People began to file out of the pool, an exodus of soaking senior citizens.
“I should bring her a towel,” said Alba. “Don’t go anywhere.”
Alba bounded off, towel in hand. Vanessa watched her run with childish gait. It happened like the flick of a switch. Her stomach seized in fiery knots and she felt overcome with the urge to vomit. Vanessa turned and ran through the gates.
She barely made it to the side of her trailer when it struck. She fell to her knees and heaved until strands of bile and spittle fell from her mouth. When she was finished she wiped her face and leaned against the trailer’s metallic wall, crying.
It was the middle of the night. Vanessa sat on the couch in the trailer, Daniel’s manuscript on the table beside her. A cool breeze filtered through the window, and crickets chirped. Vanessa swallowed red wine, the empty bottle discarded on the couch next to her.
The lamp cast an inviting glow on the cover page. Daniel had known she wasn’t a reader. He had known it when he married her.
“I was going to read it,” she said. Her voice was thick with wine. “I swear I was going to.”
She reached for the manuscript, accidentally sending the pages to the floor. An unfinished glass of wine fell with it. It shattered and soaked the book in crimson. Vanessa fell to her knees and grabbed the book before the wine could seep into the pages, but the damage was already done. She cradled the sodden stack of papers and screamed into a pillow until her face began to hurt.
She saw it from the corner of her eye. It scampered across the floor and came to a stop. A lizard, like the ones she used to see. Its leathery head darted back and forth. She felt rage beginning to build behind her temple. Her suitcase was leaning against the couch and she reached for it.
Vanessa raised the hard plastic shell above her head. She saw the granite slab falling through the air, and there was Daniel with his briefcase and his thermos of French vanilla. The lizard seemed to meet her eyes as she brought the suitcase down upon it. She smashed her knees against the floor in a wine-fuelled stupor.
The lizard fled beneath the couch seconds before the suitcase hit the floor. Her tears found a second wind as she brought the suitcase up and down. The latch opened and her clothes spilled onto the carpet. She tried to stand but tripped and fell toward the couch. Before she blacked out she looked at Daniel’s wine-stained manuscript lying in the corner of the room. Indigenous, by Daniel Hastings, doused in crimson.
The little girl named Vanessa walked along the gravel road. Her lavender dress billowed in the cool breeze. Her father walked behind her, his camera tied around his neck, a sun hat over his bald head. The cancer had gone into remission but he maintained that hair was a hassle and shaved with vigilance. Vanessa’s arms swayed as she watched her shadow elongate to unnatural proportions.
“You’ll have to be quiet,” said her father. “Alligators might seem calm, but they can be dangerous. We keep our distance. Deal?”
“Duh,” said Vanessa. “I’m not stupid.”
“I know you’re not, kiddo. But your mom would kill me if she knew I was doing this.”
They passed the pool where a dozen elderly women were partaking in aquatic aerobics. The empty playground was ahead. It was always empty.
“We’re almost there,” her father said. “Cross your fingers.”
The lake was a manmade, fifty-foot circle. The air was tinged with the unpleasant scent of mud. A dragonfly flew lazily past her head and she brushed it aside. Vanessa took a step toward the water but her father held her back.
“Remember what I said. We keep our distance, just in case.”
Vanessa hunkered down. Her father chuckled and ruffled her hair. “I don’t know much about alligators, but I’ve seen one at the zoo. It never moved. Not even an inch.”
She scrunched her face in concentration and scanned the water for any sign of the creature. “How did you know it wasn’t dead?”
“That’s a funny question, kiddo. I don’t know. I just assumed.”
“They just sit there, doing nothing all day?”
“I guess so.”
“Alligators are weird.”
“You’re right about that,” he said. They began walking along the border of the lake. When they finished their circle, her father beckoned back toward their trailer.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I don’t see anything. We can come back tomorrow. Doug told me they end up in our lake from time to time. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“Yeah,” said Vanessa. She bit her lip, hoping her disappointment was inaudible. “Lucky.”
When Vanessa woke from her drunken sleep her head was agony and the sun did her no favors. She spent more time than she’d anticipated in her trailer’s cramped shower. The icy water trickled down her body, shocking her out of lethargy. She looked at herself in the mirror and hated what she saw. She had lost weight, which left her looking emaciated. Her skin was pale and there were sallow grooves beneath her eyes. The symptoms of widowhood.
She walked along the path without a clear destination. She passed the pool, empty save for a pair of leisurely swimmers. Her sunglasses gave the world a cola-coloured tint. She could not shake the feeling of post-binge shame as she remembered her outburst. Her stomach sent sharp pains like Morse code.
She found herself heading toward the shuffleboard court. Beside it was the playground, where rusty swings creaked in the breeze and a single metallic slide presided over the sand. She was about to turn around when she heard her name called.
It was Alba, leaning against the short fence which housed the shuffleboard court. She was waving and still had her massive hat. She wore a dress with floral patterns. There were colorful band aids on her legs.
“Did you come to play?” Alba was already running past the gate. “This playground’s lame. They don’t know what kids like.”
“I guess not. I probably outgrew the swings when I was your age too.”
“It’s not all bad,” said Alba. “Shuffleboard’s alright I guess. Have you ever played?”
“A long time ago. I never really got the hang of it.”
“You should see my grandma,” said Alba. “She’s just practicing at the courts.”
“That’s good,” said Vanessa. She took a carton of chocolate raisins from her pocket and opened it. She offered some to Alba. “I probably shouldn’t be giving you candy. It’s pretty frowned upon.”
“Yeah,” said Alba. “But you’re not really a stranger.”
Vanessa shrugged. “Sorry about taking off the other day. I didn’t feel so great.”
“It’s okay. Why don’t you come say hello? It would be nice for Grandma to have some company.”
Alba beckoned her toward the court. Vanessa followed at a distance, watching as Alba bounced up and down.
The shuffleboard court was divided into three sub-courts, large rectangles which stretched nearly twenty feet. The scoring triangle was at the far end. It was filled with red and yellow discs. A thin woman with olive skin and white hair was lining up to take a shot.
“Grandma’s a pro,” said Alba. “Just watch.”
Alba’s grandmother released the disc and watched it slide into the triangle. She turned and looked at Vanessa.
“Alba,” she said. “Who’s your friend?”
“Vanessa,” said Alba. “She kept me company yesterday at the pool. She’s nice.”
Alba’s grandmother approached. She was sweaty and Vanessa could smell her. She smelled like body odor, vanilla, and a hint of liquor. “Youth begets youth. I’m Theresa.”
They shook hands. Alba smiled and ran to the edge of the courts. Vanessa felt a wave of nausea and wiped her forehead.
“This might seem a little forward,” said Theresa, “but you don’t look so hot. Is everything alright?”
“You’re not going to faint, are you?”
Theresa nodded. “I haven’t seen you around before.”
“My grandparents own a trailer. They’re letting me use it. I used to live here when I was a little girl.”
“And now you’re back,” said Theresa.
“Now I’m back.”
Theresa pulled back her lips and grinned. “Thanks for keeping Alba company. I’m doing my best to keep her entertained but I think she gets lonely.”
“She’s a sweet kid. Full of energy.”
“Understatement of the century,” said Theresa. She turned and watched her granddaughter rearrange the discs. “Are you here with anybody? Husband? Kids?”
“Is that right?”
“I know this might seem strange, but would you like to have a drink?” Theresa said. “My trailer’s just over there. I’ve got a great selection.”
The thought of alcohol sent her stomach reeling. She thought of Daniel’s wine-stained manuscript. “Okay.”
Theresa nodded. “It’s settled then. You look like you could use one.”
Vanessa followed Theresa and Alba at a distance. Their trailer neighbored the shuffleboard courts and overlooked the lake. Vanessa saw a heron wading through and snapping at the water. She thought of lizards and the nausea returned in stabs.
“It’s big, isn’t it?” said Alba, nodding at her trailer.
Theresa raised an eyebrow. “Nobody likes a show-off.” She opened the door and led Vanessa into the living room. There was a carton of empty liquor bottles by the door. “My humble home,” said Theresa. “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll go see about that drink. Preference?”
“Just water, thanks.”
Theresa gave her a thumbs-up. She walked down the hall and into the kitchenette. She returned with two bottles. Whiskey and water.
“Alba,” she said. “Give us a moment, will you? Play your Wii for a little while.”
Alba smiled before disappearing down the hall. “She’s one of the good ones,” said Theresa. She took a sip of whiskey from the bottle. “Never talks back. Smart, too, for her age.”
“How long is she staying with you?”
“Another week. Her parents decided it was time to rekindle the spark. Took off on a second honeymoon and left Alba up here with me. Not that I mind.”
“Does she like it? This place hasn’t changed a bit since I was little and it wasn’t exactly kid-friendly then.”
“She explores, mostly,” said Theresa. “She likes the animals. Especially the gator.”
“She found an alligator?”
“It’s only a baby. Alba came running, practically flying with excitement. Brought me down to the lake and there it was.”
“Really?” said Vanessa. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Doubt it. The mother’s not around and it’s pretty damn small. Mostly it just lies there. Alba’s been feeding it breadcrumbs.”
“I’ve never seen one before.”
“I’m sure Alba would be more than happy to show you,” said Theresa. She took another sip of whiskey and Vanessa tried to think of something to say.
“Listen,” said Theresa. “I know this is probably none of my business, but you’re hurting. I can see it in your face.”
“I said I’m fine.”
Theresa stared at her wrinkled hands. Thin wisps of white hair framed her face and skimmed her shoulders. “I remember when my husband died,” said Theresa. Her voice was unwavering. “I thought it would be the end of me. I watched him go. I thought I was prepared.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Vanessa. She began to cry. Theresa leaned over the table and put a hand on her arm.
“He’s gone,” said Vanessa. “Just like that.”
“It’s okay,” said Theresa. “Look at me.”
Vanessa lifted her head and met the old woman’s eyes.
“Talk,” said Theresa. “Get it off your chest.”
She did. Theresa listened with a stoic gaze. When Vanessa finished speaking, Theresa poured herself another glass of whiskey. Vanessa reached for the bottle. She filled her own cup and took a sip. It burned her throat.
“Do you feel better?” said Theresa.
“That’s to be expected. You’re grieving.”
“Do you believe in God?” asked Vanessa.
Theresa shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“I keep replaying it over and over in my head. Looking for someone to blame.”
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, but here’s the truth. It’s nobody’s fault. Not yours. Not Daniel’s. Certainly not God’s.”
“Is that what you think?”
“It was a freak accident. That’s all it was. He probably didn’t even feel it.”
“Don’t say that.”
“He simply ceased to exist. Like pulling off a Band-Aid. No pain.” Theresa drained half her glass and snapped her fingers. “Nothing could have stopped it, but at least there was no pain.”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
“Daniel’s gone. You should drink to his memory.”
Vanessa fought the urge to reach across the table and pour the rest of her whiskey on Theresa’s head. “I don’t want to talk about Daniel anymore.”
“Do you know something?” said Theresa. Her words were beginning to slur. “A couple of weeks before he died, my husband started shitting himself. Like a baby. At the end, he didn’t even remember who I was. But that’s how I remember him. The man I loved, lost and confused and covered in his own shit.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Fifty-two years of marriage,” said Theresa. “Fifty-two years of marriage and I said goodbye to a stranger.” Surprisingly, she chuckled.
“Are you enjoying yourself?”
“I’m telling you the facts,” said Theresa. “I’m trying to help you.”
“How is this helpful?”
“How old are you?”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
“You’ll lose years feeling sorry for yourself. I did.”
“Good for you.”
“We’re not so different. We both lost the one we love. We both came home to grieve.”
“Daniel and I had a house in Montreal. That was home.”
“And yet here you are.” Theresa flashed a jackal’s grin and raised her cup. “To Daniel. And to you, Vanessa. I pray you find your strength.” She drained her glass and hiccupped. Vanessa sipped her water in silence.
“I’ve upset you,” said Theresa.
All at once, Vanessa felt as if she had spent an eternity with the woman. In the fluorescent light of the kitchen Theresa’s skin looked like old leather. Her nails appeared dry and bone brittle. Crow’s feet lined her eyes. Her whiskey breath was stagnant.
“I don’t even know anymore,” said Vanessa. “I’m all fucked up.”
Theresa’s face was stone. “It could be worse. We could trade lives, if you’d like.”
Vanessa heard a creak and turned to see Alba standing in the doorway. “I’m bored,” she said.
“Why don’t you show Vanessa the alligator?” said Theresa.
“I’d like that very much,” said Vanessa.
Alba ran to the pantry. “I’ll get the bread!”
Vanessa thanked her host for the drinks and for the company. Alba raced through the door without a second glance, and Vanessa followed her out. She didn’t turn around, not even when she heard Theresa begin to weep quiet, dignified sobs.
The sun was setting and rain clouds loomed overhead. Alba led the way to the lake. She hummed a tuneful melody under her breath.
“You’re quiet,” said Alba. They reached the lake and stepped into the ankle high grass. “What’d you and Grandma talk about?”
“Grownup stuff. Your grandmother is pretty tough, isn’t she?”
Alba scrunched her face in concentration. “I guess. Now where is he?”
She scanned the lake for signs of the alligator. Vanessa joined in but saw nothing. The heron was gone and the murky water was still.
“Maybe he’s sleeping,” said Vanessa. Alba crouched and maneuvered through the grass like a lioness.
“He’s around here somewhere,” said Alba. “He never moves.”
Vanessa was about to follow when Alba gasped. “There!” Her voice was barely a whisper.
Vanessa followed Alba’s finger to the edge of the lake. The alligator was perched on the bank, half submerged. Its glassy eyes stared at nothing.
“Where’s its mother?” asked Vanessa, matching Alba’s whisper.
“Somewhere,” said Alba. “Not here. He needs help eating.” She tore the bread into crumbs and handed a fistful to Vanessa. “Take them. He likes it, for some reason.”
“How do you know it’s a he?”
“I just do,” said Alba. She tossed a few breadcrumbs at the creature. They landed in the water. The alligator remained still and the crumbs floated by its snout. Alba sighed and threw more. Vanessa joined in. Soon, an entire slice of bread surrounded the creature.
“Maybe he’s not hungry,” said Vanessa. She thought of Theresa, the phantom taste of whiskey still in her throat.
“He’s always hungry,” said Alba. Her brow furrowed in a look of confusion. “Maybe he’s sleeping.”
“Sleeping,” said Vanessa. “You’re probably right.”
Alba looked up and met her eyes. “Maybe he’ll be hungry tomorrow,” she said. “
Either way, I’m glad you’re here.” She took Vanessa’s hand and squeezed. In the lake, breadcrumbs began to sink.
About Mitch Findlay
Mitch Findlay is a writer and musician from Montreal. His fiction has been published in The Blasted Tree. He plays guitar in the indie band Videoman. More of his work can be found at www.mitchfindlay.com