The Albino Alligator
by Daniel Wessler Riordan Read author interview March 25, 2013
I tell my wife I’m writing a story about relationships and my wife tells me that every story I write about relationships contains a woman who is awful and a man who is wilting. I’m not sure where they come from, I say. These characters, they write themselves. And she says, That’s nonsense. Take some accountability for your work, you clumsy oaf. And I say, I’ll try.
This conversation gets me thinking about patterns: my subject matter, all sex and death. I think about how I tried to write a story once about my dead mother, but it came out all wrong and it had a dream sequence in it, and I told myself after reading it that dream sequences are for hacks. It’s hack-ish, I thought, thus avoiding dubbing myself a hack in any direct or personal way, which I thought was quite kind of me. Dream sequences are almost as bad as twist endings, I thought. Thankfully, my story had dispensed with twists altogether: my mother remained dead, from the very first page, to the last.
What the story really needs, my thoughts continued, is a metaphor for the protagonist’s pain. Something meant to represent the mother, but indirectly. So it’s not so on the nose. Aliens, perhaps, my thoughts said. Yes, aliens are good metaphors for pain.
The story the way I’d originally written it had an earnestness that I hoped would be tender and resonant. The character wept, so long and so hard that his nose bled. That’s so melodramatic, my thoughts said, on reading it back. You did a terrible job of portraying real life and true feelings. When we read, my thoughts said, we’re looking for truth. Aliens!, my thoughts insisted. Truth!
Truth is, when my mother died, I did weep. I wept for days and days and weeks on end. But as I considered this, I could feel my thoughts giving me a knowing glance and turning away from me, spitting into the distance somewhere, lighting a cigarette.
Per my thoughts’ advice, I changed the story completely. Still no Aliens, but instead of writing about my mother’s death, I wrote about a time I skinned my knee and my mother picked me up and sat me on the kitchen counter and patched me up and said some soothing words and talked about how life is just a series of skinned knees and how we all have to learn to keep recovering. Poignant.
Dullsville, my thoughts told me. Give it some life. Something unexpected. What if, my thoughts suggested, the mother was standing on, wait for it, a white albino alligator while she patched you up? That would be spot fucking on, my thoughts said. An albino alligator would change everything. Yes, I said aloud. That would change everything.
My wife once asked me why my characters are the way they are and I said, I’m not sure. She reached a long finger from across the room and poked me in the eye to show her annoyance. At 12-feet tall and 10-feet wide, her movement requires the assistance of three wheelchairs that have been taken apart and soldered back together. We have extra-wide doorways. She is woman extended. Daily, she requires twenty-five cheeseburgers, the calories a necessity to keep the machine that is her body moving. Her hair is made of thatched together french fries, an evolutionary convenience. She has a thin light-bulb where her heart should be. She can’t bend over and see it. I don’t have the courage to tell her.
You should write about your dead mother if that’s what you really want to write about, my wife says. You’re right, I say, and, with permission, I take a strand of my wife’s salty hair and eat it.
I skinned my knee once when I was five and I came in the house crying, loud, so my mother would hear it. She took me into the kitchen and tried to lift me onto the countertop so she could patch me up, but she couldn’t quite reach. My mother was a foot and a half tall and the countertops were a bit higher than that so she whistled to our pet albino alligator for assistance. The albino alligator came crawling into the kitchen and my mother grabbed me and stood atop his snout. The alligator opened his jaws and raised us up and my mother set me in place. She patched my knee with grape jelly and golden sand. She said something to me, but I didn’t understand, her voice only a high-pitched sonic piercing. Bands of color arced from of her mouth. Her face was a beautiful wave. I took comfort.
I think that when I write that I almost never know what I’m doing, that there’s some other force at play. I think that my wife is beautiful and kind and supportive and that I could spend the rest of time enumerating the small things that make me love her, and who wants to read about that? I think that my mom was the type of person who was tall enough and strong enough to put me on a countertop and fix my skinned knee. I think my mother died too young and that it was a fucking tragedy, but maybe only to me and to mine. I think that life is boring until it’s not. I think it’s all over before it begins. I think it’s all made up and none of it is made up and what does it matter if anyone knows the difference?
And as I write this all down, I look out my simple, clean window. My thoughts insist I’ll find them up there riding amongst the stars: aliens, a 400-pound woman, my mother, on the backs of albino alligators.
But there is no twist ending.
My nose, it’s bleeding.
About the Author:
Daniel Wessler Riordan is a third year MFA candidate at the NEOMFA. His fiction has appeared in Indiana Review and is forthcoming from Hayden's Ferry Review.
About the Artist:
Casey Riordan Millard graduated with a BFA from Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, in 1994. She has exhibited her large-scale installations, ceramic works, paintings and drawings in galleries throughout the United States including the Fuller Craft Museum, Brocton, Massachusetts, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Centers UnMuseum, Cincinnati, Ohio, John Michael Kohler Center for the Arts, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Packer-Schopf Gallery, Chicago, Illinois. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum and has been featured in the publications Hi-Fructose Magazine, New American Paintings, Lark Studio Series Ceramic Sculptures, and Larks 500 Ceramic Sculptures. In 2009 she received an Efroymson Contemporary Art Fellowship, in 2011 was a finalist in the Cincinnati Art Museums Fourth Floor competition, and in 2012 received a Cincinnati Arts Ambassador Fellowship.