How the Alligator got his Coat
He was walking by a department store. His expressions unfolded like a piece of paper with an unhappy message written on it. Recently his cough had gotten bad. There had been times when his memory failed him. And with the wide look of a locked shutter he would be unable to take in the scene around him, uncomprehending of where he was. He bent down to pick up a nickel. The glare of the halogen lights illuminating the models irritated him. He studied their stony expressions, the smears of their serious lips, entranced with a particular plastic girl in a white coat with a fur trim burning under those lights. The coat worked around her slender neck and sparkled white sparkles. He removed his glove to touch her, forgetting the glass, and bumped his scaly fingers against the surface in surprise.
He thought the usual, "maybe I can lie in a shallow pool by the entrance to the store and snap up the clerk in surprise as he enters in the morning." But looking around he found no water and saw the concrete of the sidewalk swept clean, leading only to some steps and then the street. Where could he possibly hide himself? Would there be two clerks there in the morning and not just one? What if one ran or beat him back with a broom? His crooked reptilian legs could only carry him so far. In a few moments, the energy his body gathered baking in the hot sun all day would be exhausted. It was cool in the morning and he knew this wouldn't work out well. The evening, then? He could come in and lie in a dark recess beneath a coat wrack as he had done as a child when he was small enough to notice such places. There he could lie obscured until the owner comes to close up the shop in the evening. He might be by a heating vent and the hot air blowing on him would give him the energy to sprint across to the register to take one slice at the owner with his jaws and drag him back to the hiding place. There the poor man would suffer, his cries accompanying the thrashing of his arms and the clicker-clack he would make on the coats sliding on the hangers above him. Alligator would say between his teeth, "These are your last moments. I'm taking the coat in the window." And alligator might shake him to get all the life out of him.
But no. The alligator looked down at himself, his own shabby coat, his own un-ironed shirt, and the pants with paint stains on them. A character like himself would never be allowed in to the store without the clerk casting a sharp eye on him. He would begin to sweat under that terrible scrutiny. Relief would only come when he finally left and took a gulp of fresh air, and released particles from that stuffy carpet and the smell of linen from his lungs.
So what then? He felt the glass. Could he break it? Was he that kind of animal? It was too much. In the movies he saw it all the time. But really it would take him all night to break it, and then what? The police would be there moments after the neighbors heard the shattering of glass.
Light snow began to fall. The alligator saw his hideous reflection in the glass. He tapped it with shriveled black claws. They traced their way around the coat until his breath obscured the image. He felt the gold gildings that held the corners near the recesses of the entrance. Breakable? No. He peered through the door. The darkened interior. A few odd lights, funny colors, blue and green and red. Security systems and computer monitors. The door handle looped around. He tried it.
When he heard the click, and the handle gave way, he waited for a bolt to stop him from pushing the door apart from its place. But as he gave the handle a shove, and miraculously, the door’s edge separated it from its lip. Bizarre! The lock was open! Somehow open. He pushed and the door rubbed against new carpet. He looked back to the empty street, now swirling with snow. An ancient truck crawled along the partly illuminated intersection. He walked in, palpitating with excitement, knowing he was doing something wrong and uncertain. If at any moment he would be caught, what would he say? Excuses ran through his mind. I was asked to deliver something? No. I had left something here earlier and-- no. What if I told the police officer that I was the owner? He thought. Clearly I am in the store. But what if there is an alarm? An alarm that is activated right now. And I don't have the code! His dark eyes searched for an alarm, their second eyelids falling. Would it blink? Blink red? Closing the door, he found a tiny white box across the room behind the register. It was stuck to the wall and had a thin green digital display glowing in the darkness. It showed only the time and date in grey numerals. Well, this must be it, he figured. It couldn't be activated unless it was a silent alarm.
He could simply take the coat now and walk from the store. Whoever left it unlocked, maybe just a clerk, would realize their mistake in the morning. Embarrassed, they might even cover it up or write it off as a deserved consequence for their absent mindedness-- though an item missing from the front window would be the most conspicuous. Maybe, he thought, I could find a similar thing somewhere on the racks, or better yet, in the back of the store. He slid around in the dark, checking the walls, and the racks. He studied the coat in the window to make sure he would find something the same. He found a similar model in light beige. But it didn't look as good as the white model lighted in the window. Was it simply because it was in the dark? He didn't dare go so close to the window to compare. One trip up there was enough. He would only go to take the coat, and do it quickly. But was he ready? He was unsuccessful in finding the exact same thing in the store. It must be maybe a rarer or more valuable item he decided. Now, in consideration, he had never really seen a coat like it. Everything in the store was very expensive, but what if the coat were incredibly expensive? What if it were something the store prized? And it wasn't even for sale but an item of interest, an acquisition for the store's own prestige? Then they really would be upset at its disappearance.
Were there cameras? He looked around in a panic, but saw nothing. Not even those dark hemispheres stores stuck on the ceiling. No matter, it was too dark for anything to show up in the high contrast video of those tiny tapes. And besides, how could they identify him? How many desperate alligators were there in the city? One in every river's bend.
He decided he mustn't take the coat as it was now. He would do as he originally thought and wait for the owner, hidden. Then alligator would know enough after speaking to him to take what he knew was most valuable. He looked for a suitable section to hide. A collection of heavy women's dresses on a long rack seemed big enough to conceal all of him. It was not at all as he imagined as he went on his forelegs and crawled beneath. The space was too short. The weight of the wool pressed his back, the longer pieces irritating his dry scales, while the shorter dresses whisked back and forth with every effort he made to readjust. He had underestimated. It seemed the space was barely able to conceal his entire body. He had to curl his tail up next to him and hold it at an unnatural bend gripped in his tiny forehand. The carpet's smell, all its accumulated dust in this forgotten place, swept up his nostrils and he snorted in discomfort. It seemed as if he would never find a comfortable position! At last, he tucked his legs in and released all the air he held in his belly sinking into the carpet to relieve the pressure on his back. There he resolved to stay until his body grew used to its new place. He hoped the dresses above were not unnaturally ruffled now or their bottoms strangely bent to reveal his presence. That would be awful! To have a great deal of people come and surround him. Only to be able to see the stalks of their legs accumulate, until at last, the confrontation. What would he say? Why was he in the store? How did he get there? Would the police be called? He shuddered. If discovered, nothing could be done to legitimize his position. He must make sure everything looked normal at present. But how? He couldn't possibly get out now. He searched the upper ranks of the dresses hanging above. He saw them loose and even. Everything was fine. He mustn't panic. How many times had he laid in wait for victims? The times were uncountable.
He watched the shadows pick up and move along the carpet. Suddenly, to his horror, the interior became brightly illuminated. A white light flashed across the ceiling and the wall. His large reptilian heart leapt. But it was only a car passing, turning on the road, its headlights chasing along the interior of the store for a moment. It was no scan for criminals hiding beneath dresses. He tried to wait for dawn, expecting that blue light to leak in strangely. And after a very long time, he did in fact notice the change, but soon after succumbed to sleep.
He woke up in a strange sweat, his skin moist. The thin peek he had in to the store had changed tremendously. It must have been late afternoon. Sunlight revealed the carpet to be a bright white-hued lemon. The store was filled with colors and items he had never noticed before. Legs moved in and out of his view. Two women's pumps, attached to strong ankles and chubby, sexy, sloping legs, clumped past him as large as they could be. His eyes followed them as they were woven by the legs between racks and right out of his sight. Cramped and uncomfortable he resisted the urge to unclasp his jaws and stretch them to their limits. Instead, he pressed his teeth against each other as they stayed knit. The coat, where was it? Could he-- yes, he could see it from just this angle barely, if he stretched his eyes, so much so it gave him a headache. But there it was, still in the window, framed against a new blue sky, a trace of cloud departing behind the plastic girl's head, her fake blonde hair glistening, struck by a warm afternoon sun. Yes, he decided. It was worth the wait. He needed it.
His excitement maintained him for awhile. He generated a fantasy around the coat. He took it back to visit his ex-girlfriend, Crystal, on Alamagne Street. The place stunk of eggs she was cooking for her screaming boy and the cats needed to be fed. He slipped in the door, a wisp, the coat inflating a bit, slightly unzipped, as he climbed the steps to her apartment. At first she did not notice him, but when she did she was very surprised. She suspected by looking at the coat that he was now somehow very successful and did not want to treat him badly because of this change. She didn't know quite what to say. She didn't want to treat him like before. He looked like such a new alligator. Perhaps things were looking up for him after all. She asked him to sit down at the kitchen table. And maybe he would tutor her son? Of course. Her son was doing mathematics homework, and he had to color in the fractions, making the denominators green. She kept stealing looks at him in his new coat as she cooked. She couldn't get over how he looked.
His fantasy was broken by a clack from above. Someone was standing right in front of him. They wore brown penny loafers with only one penny remaining, spun so that Abe Lincoln’s sideways eye peered in to his entire situation. The man’s suit pants were nice, a dark wool with a medium break cuff. He heard more clacks from above. He must be looking through the coats right above me, alligator thought. And sure enough he felt the cloth spread along his back, almost tickling him.
It seemed like an eternity before day faded into dusk, and finally the neon lights went off above, and then at last (it must have been nine) the store closed. He heard a clerk jumping and smacking his co-worker playfully. She squealed a bit. Were they friends? Boyfriend and girlfriend? Was he going to witness something intimate between them? No, they left. Only one man remained. He heard him shuffle around various parts of the store, his large keys, clinking, turning in the door, and then elsewhere, in various cases and the like. He saw the feet move across his field of vision, traveling in different directions. Plain black shoes, of what sort, he didn't know. It must be the owner. Who else would have so many keys? Who would be inspecting so many things? Now is my chance. But how? This spot is badly chosen, he decided. I should have brought myself closer to the register. I could sprint towards him. But for how long? He waited for a sound, but there was none. Had he lost his chance? Had the owner left as he was caught in contemplation? No, there he was returning from the storeroom. Alligator began to get nervous and tried as much as he could to turn that quavering emotion into excitement. Now was the time, he told himself. It was now. He tried to picture the scenario in his head, but brief disastrous scenes filled his imagination and fled. Hesitation. He had to convince himself. It was the time now, and no other. He knew soon he would lose the opportunity. He had to go. Would he sprint across to him? No, he would slink.
Slowly he pushed apart the dresses, stepping languidly, careful not to make a clink on the rack. He wobbled from side to side as his stride always did, pressing his hands into the carpet. His muscles were very cramped. But soon he began to feel good as they unknotted while he stretched out his body to full length, releasing his tail to let it swing steadily behind him. His excitement was palpable. Salvia began to moisten his mouth. He rose on his hind legs behind the owner who had been preoccupied at the counter with a great stack of large packages. As the alligator rose, a kink in his neck, snapping as he rotated his great head in a predatory stretch gave his presence away. The owner turning in surprise, did not know what to make of this alligator, in that brief moment. Alligator could not read his expression. Was it disgust? Surprise? Certainly not fear, maybe a bit of confusion. But the clerk almost seemed concerned in the way one gets right before they might release a large laugh. The alligator forgot hesitation. He regretted already resolving to take snap at the owner, now beginning to get curious concerning the owner’s expression as he sunk his row of teeth in to his shoulder. And with a swift jerking motion, alligator sank back to the ground, and retreated to his original hiding place beneath the dresses.
Only when he returned to his spot beneath the dresses, did he realize it was not a very good bite. He had mostly taken in a great deal of the manager's suit. He felt a large amount of cloth balled up in his mouth. He probed around for the man's head with his large lashing tongue, but saw that it was actually outside his jaws, looking down on him from above, sweating and appearing uncomfortable. The two foreign eyes, cloudy with pain, found his own uncertain gaze. So good, he thought, interpreting the expression, I did get some flesh. By grinding his jaw back and forth ever so slightly, alligator found that a few of his teeth had made their way in to the manager's flesh. He was careful not to loosen those pierces he had made.
"Ow! OW!" said the owner, "Let me-- OW! Let me go!"
Only now did the alligator realize the man he had snapped up was quite young, and probably could not have been the owner at all, but was more likely a minor clerk, or salesman. The young man scrutinized him from above. The alligator took notice of a large patch of acne crawling up the young man's neck. Maybe this was all a mistake.
"I want your coat!" The alligator said, between his teeth.
"But you've just ruined it! Ow!" Cried the clerk.
"No, the coat in your window!" He hissed.
"Take it! Take it!" Screamed the clerk, obviously in more pain, as the alligator had bit down harder in frustration. "I don't care!"
Maybe this was all a mistake. He should have just taken the coat down last night. He thought this owner would have told him something about the coat, or shown him something more valuable, as if the opportunity the open door granted him was more than the coat, as if it was a turn in his entire fortunes. But it wasn't that, and this wasn't even the owner. He dug in deeper. The clerk squealed.
In a rash moment he released the clerk and made a sprint for the coat, which was there, hanging as it had been last night in that bright window framed by the darkness. He rose, springing off the floor with a push from those tiny powerful hands, seizing it with them. He whirled it about, placed it on. Then he made a few happy strides to the door, hopping, like he was somehow lighter, and pushed.
Of course! How could he have been so foolish? He had heard the keys turn there! He looked for the clerk and saw the boy’s final desperate leg disappearing quickly through the store room door. Gathering the last portion of energy from his cold blood, alligator made for that leg and caught the young man on the cold cement floor of the stock room, pulling the clerk back by his bloodied leg to the same spot underneath the ladies dresses. The two barely fit there, and the clerk, except for his caught leg, lie belly down on the carpet outside of the rack.
The alligator looked to see if any blood had gotten on the coat, but he found no spots. Still, he was worried. Again, it wasn't a very good grab, and only a few dull old teeth must have stuck in, and just barely! If the clerk was smart enough he probably could wriggle right out, thought the alligator.
"Unlock the door!" The alligator said between his teeth.
"Ow!" said the clerk.
"Unlock the door!"
"I-- Ow!— don't have the key!"
"Where is it?" He hissed.
This the clerk refused to answer. He just shut his mouth up tightly even when the alligator shook him. Why would he refuse to answer? Maybe he had changed strategies. The alligator didn't know what to do. So he waited there. He waited and let a profound sadness sink down on him. If he went to search for the key, the clerk would surely escape. He couldn't wait until morning, then he would be caught. He asked the clerk again, and shook him. No response. Dead? No, he just passed out, maybe blood loss, no not even that. He just fainted. Well, maybe he could then search for the key.
Just then he heard a key turn in the door and the door stretch open, whining on its hinges, blowing a gust of cold air through the desperate interior. The new air smelled of frost and a night descending in to cold. It must be the owner, coming to retrieve the clerk. He rose to face his new enemy, not really thinking what he would do.
To his surprise he found a girl at the door, pretty, with brown curly hair and funny spill of freckles on her face. In her arms she carried a package, a plastic bag full of some items, probably food. He had to perform what was almost a pirouette to go around her and bound out the door as she was directly in his path. When he passed her, it was awkward how he moved. Though she was obviously looking at him, he averted his gaze. The clerk and she must have been the two young friends he had heard playing earlier! The owner was never there! The young clerk must have let her out to go get something and they were to rendezvous back at the store after closing time. She had the keys all along.
He pressed the coat around his sides, fumbling with the buttons, taking in its nice sheen while he moved across the snow which was no longer falling, but had frozen as a glassy plane on the ground and made a crunch as his three pronged claws punched through it. The clear winter sky bent around his swinging gaze. Sharp white stars winked at him, as though gathered to separate later, in his excited mind.