Nonfiction First Runner-up: Gator Bites

At the little cypress-sided gatehouse, the park ranger steps out to hand us a map and take our parking fee. She leans down into our window below the shadow of the boat tied to our roof. Her eyes flick back and forth from me to my husband.

“Canoe launch is down the road some,” she says, her pale arm pointing vaguely behind her, “then to the right past the picnic tables. You can’t miss it.”

“Is there a beach there?” I ask, leaning forward from the passenger side so she can hear me. “Some place to go swimming?”

She leans back, shoves her hands in her pockets and squints into the trees for a long second or two.

“No,” she says, at last, slowing the word up as if she’s not certain. “No, there’s no beach per se. I suppose you could just get in wherever you want. But,” she adds, pursing her lips and looking in the window again, “most people find they’d rather not swim.” In the line of cars behind us, a driver honks, his arm dangling out the window and crammed with damp-looking bills. She waves at him as if he’s being friendly, then hands us a final bit of paper and steps back to let us pass.

The two or three cars ahead of us crawl along in the dense shade. It’s impossible to see the water; the verges of the road are embroidered with yard-high palmettos, young cabbage palms, furry sapling slash pines. The oaks press close together, their limbs entwined and touching the ground here and there. They carry grape vine, wear Spanish moss inches thick everywhere, the tops of every branch a forest of resurrection fern, bright green from yesterday’s afternoon storm. Moss brushes the bottom of the canoe, hangs up on the antenna like tangled string. We park under trees the size of ships, their grey-black arms craning out and down, touching the sand. Mennonite children clamber on them, the boys in their blue pants, the girls in their little caps of stiffened gauze like miniature nurses. Their mothers stand in clumps under the awning of a cypress shack edged by six or seven empty picnic tables, legs half submerged in the ground. The women hold red-and-white paper cartons of gator bites, bits of batter-fried alligator tail, now or then passing a brown chunk to a child who ricochets near them. The men are off by themselves buying tickets to the tour boat, a huge, fan-driven double-decker, the fan as tall and broad as the trees, the shallow draft of the boat just enough for the weight of the passengers, enough to pass over a lake only four feet deep on average. The canoe launch is a ramp set into the water in a cove beside the airboat dock. We untie the canoe, lift it off the top of the car, fill it with our things, equipment, wine, lunch in a basket. It’s our second anniversary. The sky is clear and blue as it often is in Florida in March.

The water looks translucent and inviting, stained light brown with oak tannin, cool and fresh when I put my hand in. I can see the grass on the bottom, the small fish moving their tails. I think about a swim, swing my end of the canoe out over the ramp, step in and wait for Chuck, who gets in the back. We paddle easily towards the flat expanse of lake that ends just before a horizon spiked like eyelashes with pines and brush. I dangle a foot over the side, my toes dribbling in and out of the water. About fifty yards in front of us floats a long piece of wood, a log or a big clump of cattails. I pull my foot into the boat, squint to see better, turn half around and say, “Honey, an alligator—look. Right there.”

He looks, puts his hand over his eyes to shade them, frowns. “I don’t think so, that’s a branch.”

“No,” I say, pointing at the dark ridges in the water, “See, it’s an alligator. Snout bump, eye bumps, tail bumps.” I tick them off with my pointing finger—snout, eyes, tail. Its back appears, imagined, traced by my finger in midair. I’d been away from Florida for years, forgotten alligators almost entirely, forgotten that I knew how to spot them at a distance, how they sun in the water like deadwood. This one looks about six feet long. To its left, more half-submerged alligators laze just under the surface. “See that? There’s another one, and another one, and another one.” My arm swings around, covers about forty-five degrees of a circle. Alligators are everywhere, like sticks in a flood.

“Cool,” he says, standing up to get a better view. The canoe hardly rocks. “Just like on National Geographic.”

“Better sit down,” I say. “You don’t want to fall in.” I smile at him, a man remembering how, as a boy, he lay on the carpet in his spaceship-imprint footie-pajamas watching television shows full of tigers with their teeth clamped on some doomed antelope. He identifies with the tiger. He’s excited that he can see firsthand a nature full of big, hungry animals like himself.

If he’s not afraid, I tell myself, I’ll be damned if I’m going to be. We paddle out of the cove and turn right, away from shore, following the curve of the lake’s edge, which is furred with cattails for thirty feet or more until the marsh ends at the tree line. Alligators float by, rise, sink. A dozen maybe, maybe more. We go around them, watching the swirls where they flatten into brown stillness.

The sound comes from nothing. It starts like the burr of a stampede miles away, grows into a steady rustling and by the time we hear it clearly at last, it’s big, wet, full of grunts and hissing. We stop paddling to listen better, focusing on the tall reeds about two hundred feet to our right. They part to frame an alligator the size of truck. Its feet are as big as my head, its mouth, open and huffing, is longer than my arm. Chuck says, “Fourteen feet. At least.” He sounds awed. I remember a time when alligators were endangered and a fourteen-footer was a miracle that showed up in the news. I remember the first big one I saw, at the zoo; clinging to my mother, I watched it eat a frozen chicken, its skin pale and white like my arm. I think about the time a big one showed up in the bayou across the street, how we children stood in the muck and threw rocks at it while it glided on its way deeper into the mangroves. I remember the sound of the rocks plunking into the water and the animal’s calm, silent swimming, its eyes just above the water, its tail just rippling the surface.

Chuck exhales audibly, puts his paddle in the water but doesn’t move it. We watch as the huge alligator pushes itself out of the reeds, its underbelly flashing white, that shade of white that signals death, as slick and shiny as the white satin of a coffin. It propels itself into the water with an audible whump, like the sound of a missile hitting the ground, and swims straight to us as if we’d called it. Suddenly the water smells swampy, I can taste it in my mouth. “Chuck.” I say, “Chuck?” I see the gator clamp us by the middle, rip us apart like Moby Dick does the Pequod. I see it open its mouth, snap the boat in two, munch us for breakfast. “Damnit,” I say. “Chuck.”

The alligator doesn’t change course. It gets close enough that I can see its eyes right above the waterline, twitching left and right in their orbits. I think, at night, those eyes glow red in the light, I read about that in school, that’s how poachers know to shoot them. I think, if I were not in this boat I’d be running. The animal is so big, moves so fast through the water, it creates a wake that curls over and purls at itself, a wake deeper and wider than the one we can make in our thirteen-foot canoe, both of us paddling fast. The wavelets ripple out on both sides and back to the reeds, which slosh around in them.

I say, not turning around, “Chuck. Please. Can we go back to one of the picnic tables, okay? Now?”

“But why?” Chuck says. “Seriously, he’s not even looking at us. He’ll go underneath or veer or something.” He’s trying to be reassuring. “Come on. Don’t worry.” The alligator’s still headed for us, his tail beating back and forth propelling him forward, his eyes like yellow-green marbles. I feel hypnotized. “Listen,” Chuck says, “Stop looking at it, okay? It’s not going to hurt us. Let’s go down there a little. Trust me,” he says, pointing towards where the mouth of the river empties into the lake, “it’ll be so nice down there.” But we don’t move right away, we can’t, we’re mesmerized. We sit watching until the alligator submerges a few feet from us, a submarine in a World War II movie, his eyes the conning tower, the last thing under. I try not to think about him down there, swimming beneath us, his fat tail whipping side to side.

When we start paddling again, we know we’re moving out of the deeper water into the shallower, warmer water near the river because we can feel the pressure of the lake floor rising underneath us, how the boat gets lighter and more responsive. A heron lifts from a tree in front of us and heads back towards the boat ramp. We hear the airboat behind us rev up and cut off and rev up again; otherwise we’re almost entirely alone. Kingfishers, three or four of them, swoop and giggle; an enormous black bird that might be an eagle rides a thermal high up over the trees. The alligators proliferate, the lake brims with them, it’s thickened like a stew with their basking bodies. At first we move slowly, mazing our way through. Sometimes we startle one, its tail whipping the surface of the water, making swirls and eddies. Snout bumps, eye bumps, tail bumps rise and fall uncountable as dust motes. But we get used to it after a few minutes, stop paying attention, pass right over them like they are made of water. Chuck points at the trees, the birds, the sky. We chat, laugh, talk about anchoring and opening the wine.

And then we get stuck, grinding to a stop about five hundred feet off shore. I don’t understand how we’re stuck, but I imagine maybe the lake floor is uneven and we’re on a ridge of silty bottom. I lean over the side, prod the water with my paddle. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Chuck says. “I think we’re aground.”

I push the paddle over the side, as deep as it’ll go. I hit nothing but water. The ground isn’t there at all, not where I’m sitting. I say, “I’ve got just water,” but he doesn’t hear me, because he tells me to push off the bottom. I put the paddle over the other side, lean over as far as I can. I say, “I’ve just got water, Chuck. Just water.”

In the back, he presses with his paddle, but isn’t getting anywhere either, so he starts rocking the keel left and right to free it. The lake makes little sloshing noises against the sides. I try to balance, concentrate on staying in the boat and not losing my oar. We still aren’t free, so I lean over and dig. I say, “I still have water. What’s—”

The boat stills suddenly. I turn around halfway to look at his face. He’s holding the paddle and gripping the stabilizer bar with both hands, looking straight ahead like a train’s coming and we’re stalled on the tracks and ahead is where we really need to be, like now. There’s no time for him to tell me to hang on.

The water erupts.

Chuck shouts from the back, “Paddle hard, hard on the left side! Turn us around, turn us around!” We’re aground on a pile of alligators rolling wildly, writhing like the water’s gone electric. They throw their limbs up and out of the water, slap them down again. I see a tail lift out of the water, turn over, slide under again. I see a leg, the toes clear and separated, the pads on the bottom of the feet. It comes up, goes under. The canoe rocks and slashes, water sloshes in cold on my wet thighs and over my head into my hair. As I set to working my oar, I see how, ahead of me, the cattails are lit in the wash of bright mid-morning sun, the olive-colored trees are dark against the clear sky. To my right, a man in a bass boat puts a line in the water, placid and calm as the weather. Bird watchers on a pier far down the lake point their binoculars elsewhere, their arms gesturing at the bright sky. It’s beautiful, perfect even, so perfect, and I am utterly unperturbed, perfectly unafraid. I push my whole body against the water, concentrating every ounce of power into my back, my shoulders, my arms. I know I need to turn the canoe around, that I want the shoreline to swing over to my left. I want to stay in the canoe, for it to stay upright, afloat. I don’t imagine dropping the paddle or tumbled out of the boat into the water. I don’t imagine being pulled under, the cold water, the disorienting twirl in the alligator’s grip, the drowning, the dying. I hold the oar and pull and imagine nothing at all but moving the boat right.

When I look over my shoulder, I see Chuck pushing the paddle at the alligators, trying to find something, anything not in motion to shove off of. “Keep paddling left, Emily.” Chuck’s calling directions like a driving lesson, supernaturally calm. We have a task. I focus, I think, push, push, ignore the alligators, push push push. My shoulders burn, the paddle slips in my hands, spins slightly and I lose a stroke. I focus harder. I grip lower, my fingers are near the water with every pull, I lean left, lean left, lean left, the water snaps up over my wrists, but I am focused. Under me, bodies—jaws, tails, feet—go thump, scrree, thumpthump against the canoe. It sounds hollow, like knocking on a cheap door.

And then we are turning, the shoreline coming up now in front of me. The cattails are the same, toasting golden in the sun. The alligators, free of the canoe, roll over, push themselves up out of the water, fall on each other like dinner. Panicked now that there’s no immediate reason to be, we skid towards the other end of the lake as if we’re motorized, nearly airborne in straight flight away from the furor that doesn’t subside until we can’t hear it anymore. Chuck’s paddling with such intensity that the front end planes up an inch or so even with me in it, and I lean over more to reach the water to keep us going fast. We aren’t looking at the alligator bumps now. We want to mash them all, cleave them, hit them right between the eyes and chum them up with our keel. We move so fast that the airboat pilot stops as we cross paths, passengers leaning over the side to watch us blur like people possessed toward the nearby dam. All I can think of now is dying, drowning, dismemberment and blood everywhere. I say, “I want to go home now.” I say, “I want a picnic table now.”

“But,” Chuck says, “we were going to—”

“I don’t care. I don’t care.” I don’t cry so much as wail.

The canoe hits the embankment moving so fast that it slides a few feet onto dry land before we know it. We wobble out, sit on the ground. Chuck presses up against me, puts an arm around my shoulder. He kisses my head. “Look,” I say, “over there are picnic tables.” He says, “But, sweetheart, we were going to eat on the water. We could eat on a table anywhere. It’s our anniversary. It should be special.” He’d spent the week planning this, the food in the basket, the canoe trip, our being together outside where we loved it best. We would watch the birds and see what no one else could, something natural and unspoiled and beautiful. He’d worked it all out in his head—how we’d canoe, how we’d eat lunch then lie back in the boat and watch the bright blue dragonflies cock their wings at us. I shift around on the sand, wipe my hands off on my shorts and smile at the two black men fishing from the dam beside us, their long lines ending in red and white bobbers that sway in the current. The fanboat is emptying onto the dock nearby, the Mennonites lining up at the shop for another round of fried alligator. I want some so intensely I salivate.

“Come on,” he says, “let’s just portage into the river. The alligators can’t get over the dam, so it won’t be scary. I promise.” I can’t explain why I believe him except that we are not dead, and he’s smiling at me like nearly getting eaten by alligators is an adventure, an exciting adventure we’re having together. He hops up, holds out his hand. I rise from the ground, wipe my nose on my T-shirt, and lift my end of the canoe. We portage to the deep water draining into the river behind the dam, get in and wave at the men, who wave back. They make a joke about an alligator, sixteen feet of it, that took off a man’s toe the week before. They guffaw at the sight of my face, tear-streaky and terrified. I’m not laughing as we round into the river proper.

A chuffing full of wet air thrums rhythmically from the water, and we look left together startled as if someone had dropped a book in a silent room. About thirty feet away on a hummock splotted with clumps of broken reeds and covered in mud mulched up with grass stands yet another alligator, this one bigger than any we’ve seen all day, twenty feet long at least. He holds his mouth open a hand’s-breadth. It’s slick and pale inside, whitish-grey porcelain draped like cloth into a tongue, gums, lips that scallop over his jawline. In between the jags of his teeth, a delicate bird hops and picks. The bird’s head turns and turns, as if it hears something, it stabs now and then at a bit we can’t see. The alligator huffs, grunts, shifts on its feet. The water we displace laps over his toes, slides away and ripples back towards us. We watch the little bird peck and chirp. We watch the alligator’s eyes half-close. He huffs and sleeps as we slip away, not paddling much, not making much sound, downstream to where the alligators get smaller and smaller and finally are no longer than our forearms. We run the boat into the reeds, eat our lunch at last with the kingfishers, the eagles, a single heron perched in a tree.

A few days later, we tell my mother what happened as she sits in her Florida room with the newspaper spread out over her brown Formica table. She sits with her back to the light outdoors, the bougainvillea blooming on the fence, the slash pine bending over the retention pond. She isn’t actually reading the paper anymore. She gets a Kleenex from a box in the center of the table and dabs under her eyes. Her fingers, crooked with arthritis but manicured perfectly, blot at her underlids. Her pinkie finger shakes a little, like she’s scolding. “You know better, Emily.” She says. “Of all things. You grew up here. You know better. You can’t blame him. He didn’t know.”

“Dear God,” she says. “You could have died.”

“I know,” I say.

Chuck says, “But they were tiny when we finally stopped. It was a good picnic, we watched an eagle, ate some cheese. It was fine, Dody, just fine. Really.”

“Of all things,” she says.

“But we didn’t die,” I say.

Outside the automatic sprinklers come on and immediately it smells like egg yolk or the cool center of hell. She shakes her head at no one, picks up the paper again. I sit on the other side of the table imagining she’s looking for more stories to scare me with. I know she is. She learned this from my father, who used to mail Ann Landers columns on crushed motorcycles, the obituaries, gory descriptions of car wrecks. In the next weeks she’ll send me articles describing a half-eaten corpse tucked into a crevice at Weeki Wachee like into the meat drawer, stashed for later; another one about a college girl, a late night swimmer at a local trailer park, how they found her in the morning. An ear, some hair, part of a torso. Later that night we take my mother to dinner at a seafood restaurant that serves fried gator tail. Chuck orders some and the bits come arranged on a bright green plate in a heap that steams. “Look,” he says to my mother, “gator bites.” He takes one from the pile, swipes it in horseradish sauce. “Umm,” he says. “Gator. Food of the gods.” We laugh as he eats it dramatically, chomping at it like revenge. Then my mother takes up a chunk too, a tough one she says, smiling a little as she chews.

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