The following is from Kristen Arnett's novel Mostly Dead Things. After her father commits suicide in their taxidermy shop, Jessa, her brother, and their mother turn to different coping mechanisms and spiral until they are forced to confront their family dynamic. Kristen Arnett won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, and was awarded Ninth Letter's 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. She's a columnist for Literary Hub.
ALLIGATOR MISSISSIPPIENSIS—AMERICAN ALLIGATOR
Guys at our high school baited gator. Brynn didn’t like it, but she usually tagged along, which meant that I’d go too. They brought cases of cheap beer and built bonfires out of old Christmas trees down at the river, which ran about forty minutes away from our neighborhood. We’d carpool out in all the boys’ shitty cars with no air-conditioning, struggling souped-up engines, windows rolled down until we were nearly coated in condensation.
Could you sleep in the car? Brynn asked, cuddled up with someone in front of the fire, or drinking beer with another boy out near the water. Please? We need the tent.
Drunk dudes crowing, whooping, yelping, the high beams from their trucks boring holes into the reedy waterfront. Gator eyes, bright as stars, blinked at us and moved to deeper water. I sat close to Brynn while she let me. Loud, aggressive rock pumped endlessly from truck stereos. Lights bounced oﬀ the water, and after a few beers your body drifted loose and floated out there with the wildlife. You’d feel as if you could disappear into the woods and it wouldn’t matter; feel like you could never be heard from again and that would be just fine.
Once the bonfire lit, I lost her. The trees were yanked from yards or begged oﬀ households long after the holidays were over. Some of them were already dark brown and flicking oﬀ needles, coats shedding in the back seats of cars, making our clothes reek of pine sap. The fires started small, but at some point they got serious, near arson levels, boys ready to light everything they could strike a match against. We crouched next to the tents as the trees went up like thousand-watt bulbs, shooting shards of tinsel into the river.
Brynn’s face lit peachy pink, wondering at the magic. She watched the fire, the boys; I watched her.
Milo wasn’t friends with those guys. Sometimes he drove out and sat with me, both of us watching Brynn, neither of us talking about what that meant. When we spent time together, we only talked about family stuﬀ or stupid shit, watched TV together, drank beer out in the cemetery.
Milo was his tallest by then, taller than our father, but not filled out. Lean, our mother said. By contrast I was an oak, a sturdy base with wide hips and thick thighs, my ass not large enough to compensate for the round, doughy bowl of my stomach. Brynn was my opposite in every way: blonde where I was dark, thin where I was plump, breasts high and full where mine were small and sagged.
You’re like a mole. A little mole person, Brynn said, poking at my stomach, at the back fat rolling out from my bra strap, grabbing for the soft, fleshy places on my thighs. Sweet little moley Jessa.
Taxidermy needed muscle. The universe had organized my shape into what it would be most useful for: standing upright for hours, bending over carcasses. My tough hands were capable of pulling together threads and hacking at gristle, eyes squinty and narrowly placed, ready to analyze the tiniest defect in a pelt.
Older men prowled the perimeter of these campouts, grizzly, bearded guys with teeth discolored by chewing tobacco. They liked to circle the riverfront, calling out slurs that were meant to sound like compliments. One had a van straight out of an after-school special: white and rusted, the words GOOD TIMES spray-painted on the side. He called to us from a rolled-down window, asking to play us some music.
Brynn and I leaned against each other on a stumpy log while most of the boys were out in their boats riling up each other and the wildlife. Milo sat in the dirt at our feet, picking apart a palm frond and braiding the strips around a can of beer. Lindy was with us, one of the girlfriends that we didn’t know. She wore a pale blue cami and some cutoﬀs, what most girls wore at our school. Her hair was so bleached that she’d had to cut oﬀ most of it below her ears; bright white, kind of glowing under the lights from the van as the guy inside leaned through the open window and called to us again.
Brynn nudged me until I almost fell into Milo. He’s talking to you.
I don’t want to talk to him.
He was older than my father, face leathery and sun-beaten. His gray hair stuck up in greasy spikes, as if he spent most nights sleeping in his van. His shirt was stretched out around the neck.
Just go. You never talk to anybody.
By anybody she meant boys. None of the guys ever wanted anything to do with me, and that was fine. I didn’t want to curl up with them in their trucks or listen to them swear at each other, swaying on their feet, sweating out the cheap liquor they never managed to hold down. I hated the way they all smelled like wet dogs, crotches outthrust like they thought someone might want to look. They weren’t like my brother. You couldn’t talk to them.
Milo knew when to talk and when to shut up. He didn’t get grossed out by periods or make stupid comments about how women were weaker than men. He liked sappy, emotional movies and was tender to animals. The compassion he showed to other people made me wish I could be more like that. It was scary, to watch him be that open. It meant your heart could get yanked out and dissected.
Brynn pushed me the rest of the way oﬀ the log and my ass landed in the wet dirt. Lindy laughed and took my seat, the two of them snuggled together with a bottle of Fireball that Lindy’s boyfriend had gifted her before he rode oﬀ in the skiﬀ. Brynn laid her hands on Milo’s shoulders and he leaned back into her, resting his head against her knees.
He didn’t look at me. Just turned and stared out at the water as Brynn drew little circles around his neck with her fingertips. I’m going to do that goose-bump game on you, she said, and I stopped watching.
I loped awkwardly toward the van, unfolding the cuﬀs of my flannel shirt until they hung past my hands. It was brown, like everything I owned, and worn in. It’d been Milo’s before he’d outgrown it. It swam on me six months earlier, but the middle had begun pulling forward, buttons over my stomach threatening to pop. When I reached the van, I looked back again. Brynn motioned me ahead and then turned away, leaning down to whisper something in Milo’s ear. He ducked a little and smiled, reaching a hand behind him to cup at her neck. My throat hurt to see them touch so intimately. I turned back around and opened the passenger door.
The inside of the van smelled like spilled beer. The man leaned back casually on the seat, legs spread around the circumference of his steering wheel. He had a wide red face with an incoming scruﬀ of patchy dark beard. His clothes were damp and clung to his body, as if he were sweating, though the van was air-conditioned to the point that my hair stood up on my arms and legs. I climbed in beside him, but stayed close to the door.
You’re a little munchkin. You want something to drink? He pointed to a case of good beer lodged on the floorboard, not the shitty kind we always stole but the kind that cost money, with names that made you think of Northern states. Brick buildings. He kept smiling, lips wet with spit. Teeth gapped and dark at the root. He looked like every single friend of my dad’s. It felt safe enough, so I took one of the beers.
He shrugged and took a pull from his own bottle. I’m Thomas. Tommy. Here, lemme show you something. It’s not far.
We drove past Brynn and Milo, skimming piled logs and debris along the beachfront. I could still see the boats out on the lake, the boys shining flashlights down into the water, stirring up gator while they tried not to drunkenly overturn themselves. The man parked his van between two trees, facing away from the road. The moon was out, high and white, shining on the wake rushing the cattails.
C’mon. He didn’t touch me, just pointed through my open window. Down there.
We took our beers and walked down to the shore. My boots soaked up muck from where the water lapped the weeds. He was tipsy, lurching as he pressed forward.
Now you see that, there? Down by the edge. He picked up my hand then, pointing it toward where he meant. See that black lump?
I did see it. It was long and fat, and it smelled like raw chicken left out in a garbage can. I walked closer, him clutching my arm like an invalid, stumbling as I steadied him, stopping less than a foot from the decomposing alligator.
A cloud of bottle flies lifted and resettled on the flesh. It’s not safe, I said, pulling him back. Anything dead at night next to the water will attract live gators.
My father and I stuﬀed gator heads. Most of the time we just lacquered the skulls, dipping the open jaws into the clear coat, replacing the eyeballs with plastic replicas, though they looked real enough once we pressed them into the sockets.
I never seen a dead thing like that before. He let go of my arm and crouched down by the gator, jabbing it with a piece of fallen palm scrub. He fell forward, steadying his hand against the side. Oh shit. Didn’t mean to touch it.
I could hear the boys out in their boats and wished I were back by the fire, with Brynn, sipping Fireball. Wished that Milo had just stayed home; that she were running her fingers along the back of my neck instead of my brother’s. When Milo asked what I was doing that night, he had a look on his face like he expected me to tell him to get lost. Like he knew I didn’t want him there. I couldn’t tell him no. Beer combined with the rum I’d had earlier made me feel depressed and hopeless, so I decided I should get much drunker. I took another pull from my bottle and helped Thomas to his feet.
You’re really pretty, you know that? The hand he’d pressed to the gator slipped into the fuzz of my hair, petting the frizzing strands at my temple. I let him do that for a while as I watched the lights flicker out on the water, past the shore, the boys still yelling.
We went back into his van and I let him touch me, briefly, under my shirt. He grabbed my breasts through my bra, twisting at my nipples. I closed my eyes and thought of Brynn, but I stopped him when he tried to undo my pants. Instead I undid his, examining the fleshy contents of his sour boxer shorts. Everything smelled musky and unclean. He didn’t seem that excited, either; mostly soft and shriveled. He made some crying noises, eyes squinted like a baby. Midway through, he leaned out his open window and threw up whatever he’d been drinking. I wiped my hands on my jeans and left him there to sleep it oﬀ, walking the long, twisty road back to the campsite.
Brynn was still perched on the log, taking swigs from the bottle. Milo sat beside her with his arm draped across her shoulder. He nuzzled his face into her neck and his free hand was wedged between her thighs, thumb rubbing circles on the bare skin. It kept happening, the two of them pawing at each other. I wondered if it was her way of being with an acceptable version of me, a masculine one she could take out in public. I wondered if she liked how his hands felt better than mine. If he kissed better. Milo turned to me and smiled. Lipstick stained his teeth.
Well, she asked, looking up at me. How was it?
Excerpted from Mostly Dead Things. Used with permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2019 by Kristen Arnett.