This weekend, we have an excerpt from Robert Kloss’s striking new novel. The Alligators of Abraham is a fever dream built from the fly-strewn corpses of armies, the megalomania of generals, the madness of widows, the fires of mourning, the fury of the poor, the indifference of the wealthy, and the ravenous hissing of those alligators who have ever plagued the shores of our national nightmares. This is a Civil War epic unlike any other.
And although you had received no word from your father these months, you returned home for holidays with luggage in hand and there you found the lawn crowded with “for sale” signs and tarpaulin shrouded lawnmowers. And when you set your luggage upon the porch your father took you for one of those wayward men who came around, men in sooty jackets with stained-brown teeth and bleary eyes who sat smoking in your mother’s room where they smeared her carpets with the dirt of manure from their boots, and their yellow eyes glinted as they haggled with your father, and their voices vibrated along the halls and the stairways and your father called these men “horse thieves,” and his eyes went to blood as he raised his saber, and how before his might these men gave him more money, or they cracked him across the jaw, or they backed away against his bellowing. And for holiday dinner you opened dusty cans of peaches onto your mother’s china plates while your father counted his new wealth and these men loaded their mowing machines into horse carts and wagons.
And how your father situated a tin bathtub onto his ravaged lawn, and he said unto you, “We will bathe in a new kind of water” and he did not smile as he said so. And while you studied your rhetoric and your mathematics your father gazed out over his lawn, sodden and dead. And in the evenings while you read your Aeschylus and your Carlyle in the low glow of oil lamps, your father dedicated himself to the ancients and what they knew of the perseveration of the flesh. He said, “We continue to find their bodies thousands of years after death. We continue to find them grinning and brown and quite intact.” And in the morning he filled the tub with chemicals labeled Supremol, Bleachol, Rectifant, and he swirled powders and dried leaves from jars with a broom handle, and when he wafted the fumes to his nostrils he toppled, and he reached for you from his staggered posture, and from his mouth fled a deep mindless moan.
There were days when your father lay within this tub, nude and asleep, while robins plummeted from tree limbs and rabbits dropped belly up in the grass and moles died within their tunneled-soil although their stink was scarcely known for the fumes of your father’s chemicals. How he soaked his clothes in this tub and wandered tightly wrapped in them, and dressed as such your father seemed a living wick and you thought, “If only he would start one of his fires now—”
And from your room you watched him wandering and falling into the mud, sobbing within his sodden clothes, while along the lawn lay the emptied husks of bottles and jugs.
And your father stripped to his trousers and out-puffed his chest and said, “The hue seems improved.” He sought the lines of his skin to cease. And then your father tottered in the backyard, pale and naked, and soon laid writhing in the mud.
And in the morning you found him slick with dew and alcohols, unable to speak but in a voice of shattered teeth, his pupils lodged somewhere in the back of his skull, and you cried unto him, clutched his clammy frozen skin, watched while he woke into the world undead and yet still mortal.
And your father strode the outer edges of his lawn, unclothed or dressed only in mud-sooty trousers, pinching his skin, checking his pulse and muttering, “Is it the same?” and how he took your arm and told you to run in place and when you had done so he pressed his ear to your chest and counted in whispers. And your father felt no tightening in his organs, no fires along his veins, his heart and arteries not throbbing into something eternal.
Your father said unto you, “All of this will be gone soon” and he gestured to his house, his vats, his tub, his mud-lawn and all the land beyond, and then he gestured to you and to himself and said “and we will remain.”
And your father said, “Perhaps we need electricity” and when the storm clouds loomed he bound himself to steel rods with chemical sodden clothes and raged through the night while lightning tore the skies, his silhouette thrashing in the light, crazed within the smell of ozone. And from your bedroom, you prayed the lightning would not strike, or you prayed the lightning would devastate him to cinders.
And how many evenings you sat before your father in his trophy room, in the mustiness of his hides and furs, their cruel frozen postures, while he spoke of how men in the old days sought some source of eternal youth, how men in rusted armor stabbed and shot and force-marched entire civilizations, how men walked other men at bayonet tip and executed them in swamps and left the bodies to the humidity, flies, alligators hissing in the black green deep. And when soldiers lost their way and returned upon this path, those shot through bodies seemed much the same as when they had left them, days and weeks before, and how these soldiers gulped the muck and mud, their faces smeared with peat and moss, and they laughed, and they believed themselves eternal, and their bellies bulged, and soon they died of boils, of rashes, of retching and vomiting and dehydration.
Evenings you studied your Homer while your father paced his library. And your father said, “The ancients removed the organs,” and “They would remove from here and here and here” and, gesturing to regions various about his figure, “but it is apparent I need these to survive, so I have altered their process somewhat,” and your father lined the cellar walls with his mason jars, and your father said, “Ponce de Leon sought his life entire for this” and he gestured to his jars and the luminous liquor within, and your father wandered the house and yard, drinking until his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and the merest whiff of this solution sent you spiraling.
How many days did you find your father snoring and cluttered with emptied jars, crouched before your mother’s and Walter’s gravestones, mumbling, “I must be doing something wrong,” and later consulting his lists of chemicals, his notes, and muttering to himself, “I must have misheard.” And again he stirred the mixture, poured the liquor onto the lawn, pressed his head to the soil, saying, “This does not seem to be the thing we need.”