He was always asking what was wrong with her, but she didn’t understand why he asked when he already knew. He just wanted to hear her say it, she figured, though he didn’t really want for her to say the whys but just name the fact of her being wrong and never doing anything goddamn right. Never was the word he used, though even he had to know it was an exaggeration.
She’d heard older women explain that their men hadn’t always been the way they were now. “He was so sweet when we got started,” they’d say, or, ‘It was the disappointments that turned him picky and mean.” But Jeff had been a criticizer from the get-go. “Jeff-i-quette,” his friends explained when he tore someone a new one for letting half a can of beer turn warm in the sun. “It’s goddamn Sunday,” he’d yell. “There’s no more to be bought due to the goddamn blue laws in this goddamn place.” When he’d asked her out for the first time, he’d said, “But don’t wear those white shorts you got, because aren’t doing you any favors.” And: “Your hair looks better up than down, but not when the ponytail is too high.”
The reasons she’d gone on that date anyway, wearing her dark jeans and a low ponytail, didn’t require a psychologist to explain. Most of their town’s men went off to the Marines if not the Army as soon as high school was done, and most of them didn’t come back except to visit their mom and break up with their sweetheart because one or the other of them hadn’t stayed true. But not Jeff, who said he was too smart to let anyone shoot at him in exchange for promises that wouldn’t be kept.
When his Daddy died, he inherited the old man’s boat and got better than ever at making whatever money could be made in a town like theirs, still selling the same weed he’d been selling since middle school but also fishing and doing deliveries and the odd job. For awhile, he did, but after a few years the empty beer cans multiplied enough that she had to call into the county for an extra recycling crate. Soon those cans parked him in his recliner like they did most of the town’s men. At first she didn’t mind, thinking that someone who’d taken himself so low couldn’t spend his time finding fault with others. But when one of the older ladies told her she’d got herself an armchair quarterback, she replied that wasn’t even the half of it.
It wasn’t long after that the man with the accent had come up to her while she was cleaning out the boat that no longer went fishing. He had an accent that she knew to be European but otherwise couldn’t guess. He’d read something on the internet about their town, how it was off the beaten path, how it was more authentic than the known places. Authentic was a word he said a lot.
“I think you’ve been had by someone who’s never set foot here,” she said, “but I can take you out to see some gators.”
She taught the blond man the rhymes she’d learned to tell apart the friendly from the venomous, told him how corals couldn’t strike but had to gnaw you somewhere tender so were really only a danger if they got into your shoe or your garden bucket or your house. She took him down the narrowest slews and named the trees holding the Spanish moss that brushed their hair and shoulders. She maneuvered through a whole civilization of alligators and got one to snap at a stick she held over the bow. Later, after the man went home and wrote about her on his blog and the others came, she would bring a bag of marshmallows and let them hold sticks over the biting water.
When she put down a payment on a boat that could hold more than four people, Jeff told her that he’d never go in to debt to money-changers. When she came back from the parish office with a permit bearing her first and last name, he told her he’d never ask the government permission to make money just the same as he’d never ask the state for a piece of paper saying he could live with his woman, which is something she’d heard him say before. But when she took the branch library’s free classes in web design and small businesses tax law, he just asked her where she’d been. Looking at him in his chair, she remembered when one of her clients asked her why she used marshmallows. She’d told him that all animals are drawn to what is sweet and light, and he’d nodded reverently at what she said like it was precious and like it was true.
She knew that whether her business died to Jeff’s laughter or grew large to his envy, she’d never do what she sometimes imagined, which was to talk him out of the house and onto the boat, glide out to where a hundred hungry eyes broke the surface of the water, and tip the boat just enough that Jeff would fall to them if he couldn’t hold his balance. Even as she told herself it would be fate deciding, she knew it would never happen. So sometimes instead she imagined stepping lightly onto the back of the longest alligator she could find. Using its ridges to find a barefooted balance, she’d hold out her arms and ride all the way to the Gulf, where the water and sky would open like a thing of wonder.
ELISE BLACKWELL is the author of five novels, most recently The Lower Quarter. Her short prose has appeared in the Atlantic, Witness, Brick, and elsewhere. Her work has been named to several best-of-the-year lists, translated into multiple languages, adapted for the stage, and served as inspiration for a Decemberists’ song.