I was four, my brother was six, and my mother was fed up ... with our father. I don’t remember moving day from the house I was born in to the divorce apartment less than five miles away; I do remember that I loved my new room. I loved it because it was “our” new room. I shared it with my brother and we had the best thing in the universe: bunk beds. My brother, being older, got the top bunk. I didn’t object too loudly though because I have a fear of heights and it seemed like a damned long way to fall if you got restless during the night.
Our family was Catholic, and my brother and I celebrated our First Communion while we lived in the apartment. What I remember most about the First Communion ceremony was the communion wafer, a.k.a.: The Body of Christ. We were told to take the communion wafer and place it on our tongues. No one said anything about chewing and swallowing, so my wafer remained pasted to the roof of my mouth for about two hours. I’d fiddle with it with my tongue every once in a while to try to loosen it, but I didn’t try too hard because I didn’t think you were supposed to grind up the body of Christ like chewing gum during mass. The First Communion mass was over long before the wafer disintegrated. It was literally several years before I realized it was permitted to chew the host and swallow it, albeit quietly and politely. No smacking, and certainly, no satisfying belches afterwards. After all, the body of Christ is not an appetizer.
Our First Communion netted my brother and me big bucks. It is traditional to give a monetary gift to children who complete the training and ceremony, and my brother and I were no exceptions. With the First Communion money came the decision of how to spend the cash. Our mother, in a fit of divorce-guilt, said that we could buy anything we wanted with our money. We wanted a dog. To our mother’s relief, dogs and cats were forbidden in the apartment and my brother was allergic to pet fur, so that idea flew out the window. My brother and I were not to be defeated by this small technicality. If we couldn’t have a dog or a cat, then we would think of some other pet. Presumably, one that suited apartment living and was bald. We sat and thought about it for all of thirty seconds and the light bulbs went off over our respective little heads.
My brother approached our mother first, and to this day, I have no idea how he got away with it. My brother marched up to our mother and announced that he wanted ... an alligator. Yes, you read correctly, an ALLIGATOR. That is not the astonishing part of the story though. The freakish aspect of this whole thing is that my mother, who didn’t even tolerate small bugs, said YES! Divorce-guilt is an amazingly powerful thing.
After leaping the hurdle of the alligator, me asking for fish seemed so insignificant a request that our mother relented without really processing the information. My brother and I were thrilled and ran off to tell our friends we were getting new pets. Needless to say, they were all far more impressed with the prospect of an alligator living in the complex than my ordinary old fish.
Several weeks passed before we actually purchased the animals. We kept waiting for our mother to come to her senses and change her mind, at least about the alligator. She didn’t. We got the animal home and set up the tank. Until the alligator, named Charlie, arrived and was placed in his tank, I hadn’t realized where that thing was going to live. As it turns out, Charlie’s tank sat on the desk next to the bunk beds. More specifically, the tank sat on the desk next to MY lower bunk. When I turned on my left side at night, there was Charlie looking back. I was sure that he was going to escape and eat me during the night. Since Charlie was a Camen Alligator and only about a foot and a half long, it is doubtful that he could have digested all of me, but at the age of five, logic doesn’t enter the picture when you sleep with an animal you have seen on “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” take down a water buffalo.
Being a nocturnal animal, Charlie got depressed having to look at me all night, and refused to eat anything but a neighbor child. The kid was a bully, so it was okay. My brother had some kids over to look at Charlie. The rule was you could look but not touch. Charlie rarely moved so the bully decided to poke him in the snout. Bad idea. For once Charlie was hungry, or at least pissed off, and he bit the little jerk’s finger and drew a miniscule amount of blood. Fortunately for my mother, this was in the days prior to a litigation-happy society or she would have had a dandy of a law suit on her hands. She bandaged the kid up and explained what happened to his mother. The mother forbade her son from ever associating with us again, which, since he was such a turd, was even better than having an alligator.
After the biting incident, our mother threatened to get rid of Charlie, but it became a non-issue since Charlie had decided to commit alligator suicide. We called veterinarians, but no advice could get Charlie to eat. Finally, he took one last look at my face in the middle of the night, decided life wasn’t worth living anymore, and promptly dropped dead. My brother found him in the morning, even more limp than usual. A shoe box was located and Charlie was delicately laid on a bed of toilet paper inside the makeshift alligator coffin. I don’t remember how Charlie’s remains were disposed of, but in all likelihood, he went the way of our turtles in later years. Our parents would say that the creature was going to be buried out in the country. In reality, the box ended up in the garbage. My fish had only slightly more dignified arrangements, they were flushed as I waved goodbye.
In the midst of the alligator chaos, I did receive my fish. I got a half dozen Red Swordtail fish and all the trimmings. Well, not all the trimmings, I never had a castle or the diver that stands on the bottom and farts bubbles. My fish lasted decidedly longer than poor Charlie, though they tended to eat one another. I always had a fresh supply because they were always procreating. I never saw them have fish sex, but babies were born with regularity. My mother was appalled. She had to clean the tank and I think she was hoping they’d all perish in a manageably short period of time. No dice. Those things outlasted the apartment and were around for at least a year after we moved to a new house. By that time, they lived on the bar in the basement and you could barely see them through the algae on the sides of the tank. With a new house and a promotion at work, my mother became too busy to clean the tank. I became old enough to assume the duty, but never did clean the thing. My mother would break down and clean it when you finally couldn’t see the fish at all. This cut the population in a regular manner and finally, after a year or so in the new house, the last “floater” was flushed off to fishy heaven where the water is always crystal clear and every tank has a castle and a little diver that farts bubbles.
Now you would assume that the divorce-guilt-induced inappropriate pet fiasco would have left enough of an impression so that we would have had no repeat episodes of creatures obtained under less than ideal circumstances. And that was the case ... until ... the gin-and-tonic-induced puppy. But that is a story for another day ...