By Paul Negri
On vacation, Joe took Ellen and their little son Jackie on a private excursion to swim with the manatees. It was expensive, but Joe had had a good year selling industrial plastic wrap to companies in South America. The tour guide said that, at four years old, Jackie was at the perfect age to bond with nature, and there was nothing like a hands-on adventure with one of God’s most lovable creatures to do that.
They went out on a boat, just the three of them and the guide, and waited in a shallow, sheltered bay, a secret place, the guide said, that was known only to him and the manatees. Out on the deck, they sat and waited for the manatees to arrive. Jackie said he wanted to go home, and Joe promised to buy him a toy if he would be a good boy and wait patiently, and not bother his mother. The guide showed Jackie how to tie sailor’s knots, including one that looked just like a cross and that he could wear around his neck. But Jackie did not want to put a rope around his neck. After a while, just as Jackie was falling asleep, the manatees appeared. The guide put Joe and Ellen and Jackie in life vests and gave them face masks—the small one for Jackie was yellow and shaped like a shark’s open mouth—and helped them off the rear platform of the boat and into the clear, still water.
Although the guide told them the manatees were perfectly safe—gentle giants, he called them—Jackie was afraid of them. Ellen too seemed uneasy. She said they looked like giant embryos from another planet. Joe tried to see them as cute and friendly, but found their gray, lumpy bodies hardly bodies at all, repulsive.
The guide told them they could touch the manatees only if the manatees approached them, and then they could touch them with only one hand. It was a rule for the manatees’ safety. Jackie clung to Ellen and averted his eyes. One of the manatees kept circling around and looking with his tiny pinpoint eyes into Jackie’s face. Joe took Jackie’s hand and held it out until the manatee came close and touched it with his nose. Joe was almost glad when Jackie became hysterical and they had to cut the activity short.
Still, he told Jackie there was nothing to fear and, back in the gift shop of the marina, bought him a toy as promised—a big manatee plush toy half as big as Jackie himself—to sleep with.
Back home, the toy gave Jackie nightmares. Ellen said they had to get rid of it. Joe told Ellen that was ridiculous. First of all, he maintained, there was nothing to fear. And secondly, if Jackie was afraid, he needed to get over it. He was a boy, after all. And, Joe added, as far as he was concerned, Ellen, who was plainly afraid of the manatees herself, had set a very bad example for their son. Ellen glared at Joe. She took the toy, wrapped it in a plastic trash bag, and took it outside to the trash bin.
That night, Joe lay restless in bed, and sometime before dawn, resentment still simmering in him, he got quietly out of bed and, his feet bare, went outside to the trash bin. He retrieved the toy, went to Jackie’s room, and gently placed it next to the sleeping child. Jackie would be surprised to see it, Joe thought. It would be like magic and Jackie would love it.
The next morning, Ellen woke first. She poked Joe until he too was awake. She told him it was now she who was having nightmares. Joe told her to stop being a child, turned over, yawned, and tried to go back to sleep, but Ellen insisted he get up. Then he remembered how he had returned the plush toy to Jackie’s bed. He did indeed want to go and check the bedroom, anticipating the look on Ellen’s face. They tiptoed to the bedroom and slowly opened the door.
Ellen screamed and covered her eyes. Joe fell back against the wall. The manatee was fat and bloated. Jackie was gone.