by Spencer Litman
My family had gone to the same dental practice since I was little, and I still remember the waiting room. It was filled with books about tooth-brushing animals and a great big bead maze in the center. But more important than all the toys were the giant stuffed animals—a new one every time we went to get our teeth cleaned or the occasional cavity filled. Every month the office held a raffle, slips of paper drawn from a big glass jar, and someone would get to take it home.
They were bigger than me, those animals, hulking and plush, towering over the waiting room. I imagined them alive at night, pawing the thin Berber carpet, gnashing teeth in search of food. My brother and I would try to guess what the new animal would be every time we packed in my dad’s tiny white Saturn and drove to Dr. Stryke’s office.
I don’t have much recollection of a time before my parents’ divorce. I was six when it happened, when my father decided to leave the house and live with his cousin and my mother would sit with me on the edge of the bottom bunk, telling me that he wasn’t gone because he didn’t love us. And I don’t think I ever believed otherwise. But part of me internalized a moment of separation between them. I remember seeing them hug, standing next to the queen-sized waterbed that my father wound up keeping for another ten years. I remember standing on the raised edge of the bed, wrenching myself between their bodies and planting one hand on either of their stomachs, pushing them apart, innocently disgusted by the only display of affection I can recall. I never believed that I was responsible for their divorce, though I often wondered what would have happened if they hugged a little longer, if their connection wasn’t severed. My mother does not remember this moment now, but I sensed a clear division in my father, a new anger sitting below his always rigid demeanor. Maybe it had always been there, and maybe I was too young to remember, but this notion has stuck with me, even long after my father died and took with him the answers to questions I never thought to ask.
At the dentist’s office, I remember a sleek-looking alligator with shiny fur made to look like scales, triangles of felt-like spines running the length of its tail which hung languidly off the lip of the counter.
My father always let us enter stuffed animal sweepstakes, but he was quick to remind us of the odds, pointing at the glass jar stuffed to the brim with entry slips. I want to believe this was the way he knew how to protect us, how to curb expectations and avoid disappointment. We would enter the drawing and I would talk incessantly about winning, about what it would feel like to be picked and get to take one of the animals home. I would do this for hours, and by the time we left, my father had always had enough. He would stop at a red light and whip around in the front seat to face me, his eyes nearly popping from his skull like my blather had filled his brain to capacity. That was all I needed, that look, to know I was finished talking. One more word would equal explosion. I’d sink back into the seat, hoping to be outside of his reach.
There was never a time my father hit either me or my brother. His violence was his intensity and his almosts, which, I know now, served their purpose. He aimed to intimidate us into compliance. He would sometimes pin us in rage to the carpet and unleash his fist on the wall or floor. I still do not resent him for this, even if maybe I should. My father, I think now, was very much incapable of connecting with other people, incapable of explaining the thoughts in his head, incapable of two-sided communication. His intensity was a symptom of mental dysfunction, and it is important to me that I separate the person from the disease, though my memory of him is always somehow tinted red, soaked in fear and awe. I wonder if that would change over time if I could know him now, if he were still alive for me to bridge the gap he never could with me as a child, then as a teenager all but estranged from his father.
One weekend, my mother dropped us off at our father’s house for a three-day vacation, Memorial Day or Labor Day or Veteran’s Day—I don’t remember now. The alligator was laid on the back of the couch in front of the window, bigger than I remember, vicious and beautiful. My father acted like he had no idea it was there, that he was, in fact, horrified to learn its inert jaw sat only inches from his neck.
I suspect now my father somehow engineered this lottery win from his friendship with the dentist. He did things like that but never asked that we thank him for it. Maybe he took some kind of joy, in letting us believe in small miracles.
I named it Spin, for the way alligators clamp onto prey and thrash through muddy water until its meal is incapacitated. I slept with Spin every night, hugging it like a body pillow. I liked to think I was doing something dangerous like those people who stick their heads into waiting, razor-toothed maws.
I don’t know how long after, maybe the next summer, I fell ill at my father’s house. It came on suddenly in the middle of the night, a heavy and dull pain in my stomach. I clutched Spin and tried to ignore it, hoping it would pass and I could get back to sleep. But before I had time to get up, I vomited all over the alligator, drenching it in bile and half-digested dinner.
I woke my father up, expecting at least a small reprimand. His anger was quiet and hot and always lived just below an undisturbed surface. But he cleaned up my mess and looked at the alligator and said, “I don’t know if this will come out.”
He carried it from the room dripping on the carpet, his fingers like the claw of a toy grabber machine. In the morning, I found Spin lying in the same spot on the back of the couch in a block of bright summer sunlight. It sat there a few days drying, and I took it back to my room, but it was never as soft. I would feel its fur scratching my chest in the middle of the night, matted and clumped together. I pushed it off the edge one night, and over time it found a new home shoved into the darkness under my bed.
Stuffed Animal Pile Up by Lynn Friedman via Flickr
I love the way you wove the dentist’s office and your parents’ divorce and your father and your growing up together, Spencer. How could you have known, when you named your alligator, how apropos “Spin” would be for this story?
I love the way in which you become aware of your father’s love for you, in spite of his inability to express it more directly.