We were tobacco wives before we were grandmothers. Massaging thousand pound tropical blades to get the most nicotine out. Our childhoods were indistinguishable from one another’s as if they came from a factory. We were Scout or Effie or Mags, until our Christian names were reclaimed in adulthood. We were gifted pet Louisiana alligators for birthdays and then grew up to steal Botox from the dumpsters of hospitals for our LinkedIn headshots. Whenever it rained, the river behind the tobacco rows eclipsed its banks. We’d brush the fencing that wrapped our farms with true lemon oil. The farmers who tried bottled lemon juice were responsible for waking up early to break apart the loose barn wood and hay that the wild grandmothers used for their nests. The tobacco left hanging to cure, looked more like gutted marlin than a plant.
Every family in our neighborhood had a seafoam refrigerator branded by a logo we found ourselves tracing the cursive of as we lay in bed at night. Within each fridge, there were these leftovers: a Jell-O mold of pears and Schweppes, turkey legs covered in blonde stubble, and kidney beans with foil fitted over the can.
Drive-in dates ended on the porches that clung to our houses, bodies sorting through malted shakes and cheeseburger grease. There’d be wet chewing from the shrubbery, but we were too horny to care. Before parting, we’d commit one another’s faces to memory while inside, our fathers slept beside their ashtrays and tap water mixed with Canadian Club and frozen limeade they knocked against the counter before watching the syrup hunk squirm from its can. Even fake citrus began with something real.
The wild grandmothers try to lure us into their forest, hissing in metaphors from the dark. When our fathers built new porches, they fed the wild grandmothers termites from discarded lumber. When our fathers built new garages, they fed the wild grandmothers tennis balls with a little fishing line attached.
The house was a baby alligator that grew into something that could swallow us, which is a metaphor. After the floods, our neighborhood ripened at its roots, casting blue mold to stain aluminum siding, which is factual. Our parents warned us, wild grandmas are running free through the forest, so that is why you can’t walk to your friend Scouty’s house at night. That’s why you have to go to college. When morning came, printed to the mud below the rhododendrons, were clog prints leading right to our downstairs window.
For the ritual of each birthday, alligators came floating in bags plump with tap water. They were born having downy tufts of fur. The alligators watched beside the cake’s yellow food coloring, waiting on us to open gifts. Waiting for other things.
At first, the gators were small enough to fit in my mouth. What no one knows when they look at us is that some gators slip through. Maybe they’re down there still swirling in the tap water. All the tap water. A Queen ocean of tap water. We explain this more at job interviews.
The gators never had grocery store cookies until they began living off the cookies you threw away during your diet. Our office managers pray for a drought. The alligators were held in tap water until someone discovered the skeletons, still perfectly intact. This is what no one knows when they see a LinkedIn headshot: In the few seconds it takes to commit a professional photo to memory, it’s impossible to discern how we helped one another pluck the hairs from our undersides in the office bathroom before the Christmas parties. There we ate steak tartare, cubes of cheese, and flourless chocolate cake pops. Drive-in food rearranged into a better form.
Wild grandmothers don’t mate. For their retirements, yellow cake is left at the edge of the lawn. Wild grandmothers are always hunting. If one grandmother gets close enough, she’ll snare you in her death roll. You’ll drown among ferns and empty Heinz baked beans cans. This is not a good way to go.
In the break rooms of museums, the staff will hiss over their Keurigs that something chemical swept through the forests and wiped out the grandmothers. The rest put on their clothes, folding back into neighborhoods. The museum has a reproduction of our house, recreated right down to the porch. Down to the greasy face print floating on the window. Guests walk by, taking photos. They love the painted background of veined tobacco leaves, curved to appear as if they’re wrapping around their subjects. They crop our house to use for their LinkedIn profiles. They’ll crop out the perfectly recreated blue mold, seafoam fridge and the skeleton of your mom and her Canadian Club. In between the fingers of her other hand, there’s a cigar, but this is not accurate. She never smoked.
The grandmothers, made to appear feral, are positioned in dioramas of new-growth wilderness. On the placard, it says, New England hardwood and deciduous forests were ideal habitats. If you push the little silver button, a recording expands in an authentic grandmother voice from a speaker hidden beneath fake grass, not from her mouth with the white beneath the nostrils where the painter missed. The man who field-recorded her voice has awful dreams at night.
When we usher our grandchildren through the museum, up to the Hall of Tropical Birds or North American Wetlands, we tell them the wild grandmothers were once alive but are now extinct. We ignore the reflections in glass, focusing instead on oil smudges created by the museum cafe’s fries. Handprints smear across each diorama pane, so long they could be claws. The gators never had human food until they began living. We tell each other the novelty ashtrays filled with ribbon candy in the gift shop are overpriced.
Travis Dahlke is the author of “Mount Summer” (Out to Lunch Records). His work has appeared in Joyland, HAD, No Contact, and The Longleaf Review, among other literary journals and collections. His novella, “Milkshake,” was published by Long Day Press in April 2022.