The Lizard Girl and the Alligator King
An alligator's stomach is acidic enough to dissolve a child's bones in 13 days.
We stand in the side yard of the grand new house in Palm River. The house where cockroaches no longer skitter across the floor at night, where Cricket and I finally get our own rooms, and you do, too, sleeping in the green guest room at the end of the hall on the opposite side of the house from Mommy's. I'm nine years old, barefoot—as always—toes curling in the fresh-cut grass, wearing my favorite blue corduroy overalls. Two braids dangle down my back like Pippi. You stand before me in hole-y cut-off denim jeans, bare-hairy chested and thick, black curly hair brushing your shoulders, mustache like an angry caterpillar trudging across your upper lip. You're laughing, for now.
"Hold still!" you say.
You cradle two fat lizards gently in your thick hands; you poke their tiny mouths at my ear-lobes until their jaws gape open. Then they clamp down. You let go, and I'm the first girl in the neighborhood to wear live-lizard earrings. They dangle long seconds, their small, sharp teeth, a dozen pin-pricks in my ears. I stand breathless and giddy, ignoring the pain. After all, haven't I sat out in your garage kingdom watching you pierce your own ear with a needle without even making a face? You pulled the thread all the way through the hole and then you stuck a large, crooked quilting safety pin in for an earring.
You are the bravest person in the whole wide world, and I will be just like you.
Alligators have the strongest bite of any animal ever recorded—nearly 3,000 lbs of force.
You wrestle alligators. This is not a joke or a tall tale or a metaphor. This is a job. Part of the "entertainment industry", a show you put on for tourists. You do it because you cannot get other work anymore. I am too young to understand why this is. (Or why Mommy divorced you. Or what divorce means except that you take off now for long stretches of time without telling me when you'll be back.) I am also not allowed to watch your shows, but you take me to the pens where you work. The old gators hunker down, each in its own small above-ground pool that looks almost like a baby pool behind its own chain-link fence. We walk the concrete path between them. Their bellies are three of me wide, their eyes above the water watch us pass, as though they're waiting for us to accidentally wander into their pens. You greet another wrestler. He is bald, beefy and tan, wearing sunglasses and a wife-beater. He's also missing two fingers—hazards of the trade—but you still have all of yours. I'm proud.
You bring home baby animals for me and Cricket to play with. This started in our earliest childhood. The Miami Herald's magazine The Tropic has a picture of the four of us—you, me, Cricket, and Mommy—from when I am two and a half years old after the authorities have retrieved us from Mexico where our birth parents spirited us away to when they stole us from Mommy and you. I am on your lap laughing, and Cricket is on Mommy's. Both of us hold a tiny rabbit that you brought for us. Cricket still does not like to talk about this picture. Infants should not be entrusted with tiny, squeezable rabbits.
You also bring home baby ducklings to splash around in our bathtub and other soft creatures, but I remember the reptiles most clearly. Sitting in the garage with you on a cooler between your sewing desk and the door into the house, you drape a giant snake wider than my neck around my shoulders like a feather boa. I think it is a boa constrictor like the ones in Shel Silverstein's books, but this is probably not true. This is before the age of cell-phone selfies, but I can still see myself there in my corduroy overalls adorned with a snake as big as my body, head thrown back like a movie star.
And of course, there is the baby alligator. You carry it into the garage in your blue mini-cooler. You've taped its beak shut with electrical tape, careful to leave its nostrils clear. Its toes are sharp against my forearms, its body writhes more strongly than a snake. I imagine what it will grow into and how strong I'll need to be to sit on its back and hold its jaws shut from behind.
Florida is the most lethal place in the US. It's home to the most venomous snake in the world, and it's the only place with two members of the Crocodilia order—both crocodiles and alligators.
Hurricane Andrew was a BIG DEAL, so the rest of the world said. It came ashore in Southeast Florida as a Category 5 just north of Homestead and leveled it, though Mommy said that's because Homestead was all trailers. Andrew did cause more damage to the US than any storm in history until Katrina. But it had weakened a bit in the four hours it took to cross the state to us.
I am sitting with you in the garage with the garage door open watching it rage. You let me take an opened umbrella into the driveway, just outside the safety of the garage and then further. You watch as I lift it high and hold on tight, as the storm picks me up and plops me down a few feet further down the drive. My hair whips around me like snakes, and I laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. I run back to you and shelter as the storm picks up again. We watch as tree branches and shingles fly around. The top fourth of the thirty-foot pine tree across the street that I like to climb all the way up and feel the wind sway me (I am not supposed to, but Mommy is too weary and sad in bed to catch me) breaks off and crashes to the ground.
After the storm, I will stalk the neighborhood cataloguing the changes to my landscape. The biggest casualty is in the yard on the corner—another of my favorite climbing trees. It has been entirely uprooted and lies sadly on its side. The boy next door and I walk along its spine like a massage, as though we can make it feel better.
Alligators can eat almost a fourth of their body weight in one meal—around 100 lbs.
Many of our adventures take place in that garage. Mommy parks the blue minivan as far to the side as possible, so there is maximum space for your bike, your tools, your coolers, your sewing desk, your fishing gear, and bags of crushed cans waiting to be taken out for money (several of which you've placed fishing weights in to cheat up the weight). And on the desk, your red and yellow and blue poker chips. Your beer holder and blue glass ashtray shaped like a shell. Your rolling papers and tobacco. Your beads and string or quilt pieces—depending on your project of the moment.
You sing to me, "Cuz I'm a loser, Baby, so why don't you kill me?" And then you give me a beer and watch as I drink the whole thing, "so [I]'ll never be an alcoholic like [you]."
Your deck of playing cards is clipped at the corner to prove that it came from a real casino. You teach me to make a bridge when I shuffle, even when my tiny hands can barely hold the whole deck. You teach me to play poker. I am five years old when I get my first royal flush. Soon after, you teach me to cheat by placing your sunglasses casually on the desk angled just so that they show my hand. When I am 21, you say, you'll take me to Biloxi to gamble.
I practice my poker face in the mirror when I am alone.
Cricket has decided by 10 that trick-or-treating is undignified. So that Halloween, I go alone. I spend the next week playing poker against the neighborhood kids, and I win their candy so Cricket can have some. This clearly makes me the best sister ever.
Alligators have been around, nearly unchanged, for over 70 million years.
All of the neighborhood boys are in awe of you. We play a game of pile-on in the back yard beside the jungle gym. The boys crowd over and one by one we all reach onto your arms to see how many of us you can hold at one time. You joke about Popeye and spinach, and yet, at one point you have eight of us dangling off your arms. There are no more of us to hang on, and no more room on your arms to grab onto, but you do not seem to tire or struggle.
You catch me lifting your weights once and shout, "don't do that! You won't be able to have babies!" But what do I care for that?
When you are gone, these boys are my pack. The pack leader being whoever can climb the highest and wrestle the best and dare to go down the old dirt Alligator alley at the back of the neighborhood the furthest—which is me. The jungle gym in the back yard is my kingdom. I come up with a ritual when new kids come to the neighborhood. I invite them back there. I climb up the steps on one side of the tree house, and they climb up the steps on the other side until we are nearly even with the top. The pack stands beneath the new kid. Then I hit the tarp roof and the toads that live in the triangle beneath the wood and the tarp go leaping out the other end at them. Many new kids run away screaming. The ones who don't get to join our pack.
Archaeological remains show that alligators once ate dinosaurs.
You teach me to fish. You help me choose and strip my own pole, then you whittle and smooth it and teach me to string it with line. We climb down to the canal underneath the bridge that I walk across to get to my bus stop. I've never seen anyone down here before, but they must come because there is yellow spray-painted graffiti on the concrete. Using your handmade lures, I catch a sun fish. You show me how to slice it open down the center and dig out its eyes and guts to use for bait to catch bigger fish.
I don't quite have the courage to climb down under the bridge by myself when you aren't there, but I carry my pole to the top of the bridge and stand right against the railing away from the cars. Once, I catch an alligator gar—fierce and twisted and angry looking. It nearly carries my pole away, and I don't keep it (or let it bite me). Another time, I watch an otter play along the shore. Once, when I am with the boy next door, I catch something so big that I can't bring it up myself, so I make him run back home to fetch you. You come, looking gruff enough to scare any fish to death. You wade right into the canal up to your chest and fish out my prize—a rich person's discarded exercise bike.
Mother gators spend at least a year and up to three caring for their young.
Sometimes you take me for trips around the city on your bike—your only means of transportation since your license was revoked. Your cooler and clothing and other worldly belongings fit in the milk crate bungeed to your back rack, and you stick me in the basket in front of your handlebars. I sit with my feet tucked under my chin, and you ride us everywhere, anywhere—to the grocery store, the gas station, the beach. The world speeds by, and my hair streams into your face. The salt air off the Gulf stretches the skin on my cheeks taut.
You take us to Gary's—even though I don't like him and you don't like him and his little daughter Brookie is always scared and I think she has reason to be. But he is your business partner or something so we go, but I won't step foot in that dark house, and you don't want me to, and Brookie isn't allowed to come out. I fish a coconut out of their canal and spend all afternoon carefully breaking it open with a dull rock so that it won't completely shatter and spill the milk.
I get my own bike for Christmas when I am six. It is beautiful, blue, and too big for me. Mommy has lost her two real daughters (lost, as though they have just stepped off the right path and wandered away) and divorced you so you are gone. I must teach myself to ride. I spend a whole day launching myself down the new, smooth double driveway into the street of our cul de sac over and over, always crashing.
I am bloody by the time the sun goes down.
After a week of this, the next door neighbor's mother finally takes pity on me and teaches me to ride. Then I am unstoppable. I bike every inch of Palm River. I make a map of its curves and twists and surprises in my heart, and I never want to go inside again. But this leaving you do, it happens again and again. I never know when you will go or how long you will stay away. I teach myself to do tricks in your absence. To ride around and around the cul de sac with my eyes closed and without touching the handlebars. To speed up so fast that I can stand on the seat and stretch one foot back like a circus performer on a horse galloping in a ring. And maybe this is what I will become someday. And if I get famous enough then you won't want to leave anymore.
Alligators are strangely maternal, carrying their babies around in their mouths.
Sometimes we go to the beach when it's sunny and cheerful out, all four of us, and you teach me and Cricket to dig our toes down into the sand at the top edge of the shore where the waves end. The holes fill up with water, and if we can dig down far enough, little sand picas will wriggle up and bite our toes. Once we find one, you fish them out and stick them into your cooler to use later for bait. Or if we dig our feet down in the sand closer to the waves, we can sometimes find live sand dollars. When we hold them in our hands, millions of little hairs walk them across our palms. You and Mommy will bleach them out in the sun later to use in artwork.
But one day we go out there alone. It's light tropical storm weather. Not raining yet, but windy, and the sky is ugly-grey. I am seven or eight. You leave me behind on the shore and swim all the way out to the sandbar. You are forever away. You stand in the middle of the ocean, the water up to your chest, and look back at me like a statue. You stretch your arms out like a scarecrow. You wait. The waves beat against you, and the wind howls. It's a dare. And I refuse to be afraid.
I swim as hard as I can, as fast as I can. I am always trying to reach you. The waves will me back to shore or worse, down to the undertow to drown. I swim forever and ever. Until I think that my lungs will burst.
Finally, I reach you.
I cling to your body like a barnacle. But you do not bend to embrace me. You just stand still, looking back at shore.
I want to touch the solid ground of the sandbar like you, but I am too small and I cannot sink that far on my own. So I use your leg like a ladder and climb down, hand over hand. I have spent months training myself to hold my breath underwater. All for this moment, it seems. I stretch my foot down to the sandy bottom, but it is not sand that meets me. A flutter, a soft, almost furry movement. A ray. I shoot back up to the surface, terrified but not stung.
I refuse to go in the Gulf for two years.
In winter, the Everglades shrinks down to small holding ponds. Predator and prey press in together—gator fast food.
I do remember that you have not always been the center of my universe. Before the divorce, when we lived in the old house by the beach. But that was when Mommy still took me to collect seashells in the early mornings and Titi Laurie was still alive and fed me kiwis and taught me to press hibiscus flowers in the pages of books. Then you were a glowering presence. You darkened the doorway of my and Cricket's bedroom and snapped your belt at us, threatening to whip us if we were too loud.
I remember getting up early to watch Saturday morning cartoons. You would storm out of the bedroom that you and Mommy shared shouting, "apaga la televisión!"
Once, I got up around four a.m. I crept as quietly as I could into the living room, but there on the back of the couch stood the largest rat I have ever seen, reared up on its hind legs, staring at me with red, evil eyes.
And I never watched Saturday morning cartoons again.
It wasn't until many years later, reviewing that memory, that I realized the rat, besides being huge and terrifying, had also most definitely been wearing a top hat and a scarf. Those details had not struck me as strange at the time, but living rats don't wear those things, do they? Still, your ruse worked, didn't it? I never woke you up early on Saturday mornings again.
Baby alligators are a delicacy of the animal kingdom. Raccoons, otters, birds, fish, and adult alligators all eat them.
And, yes, I also remember, in a fuzzy way, you standing in my bedroom doorway late at night telling me never to touch myself and never to let other boys touch me. And I do remember you holding me between your legs and rocking against me over and over in the hammock on the back porch when we are alone. But I also remember being starved for touch because no one else even hugs me, because everyone else is too tired and depressed to be paying attention.
"Culita, Culita," you say sometimes, making pinching fingers, as I walk by.
Mommy tells me that means "cute little ass."
Of the approximately 35 eggs in a nest, only 2-3 will survive to adulthood.
Mommy divorced you when I was six, but your leaving never seems to stick. At first, she drops us off in a parking lot to visit you, and you take us to your hobo camp in the woods. But before long, I tell you where our new house is, and you show up. And leave. And show up. She never turns you out, but she never really lets you in, either. And by the time I'm twelve it's all wearing thin. I have sprung a woman's body overnight, and nobody plays capture the flag anymore, and you don't come to my room at night, and school is a mess. Your brother is coming with his family to visit from Puerto Rico. I have never met him, and I don't want to. I hate him. I know nothing about him. I want you gone and everyone gone. I want the whole world to go away and leave me alone.
You've gotten a job as a caddy on the golf course behind our house. You borrow a golf cart and let me drive—to cheer me up? We whiz through the trees. "Slow down," you say. "We'll wreck."
I turn to you and say, "I don't have my foot on the gas. You do."
And then we do wreck.
My elbow is leaking blood as I run back to the house with you chasing me. (I will need to have several stitches.)
The guests have arrived. There are so many that we will need to share rooms.
"Don't share with Rick," I yell to Cricket. "You might get AIDS!"
It's a stupid thing to say, and I have no idea why I do. But your brother and his family leave furious the next day. He thinks you have been talking about him to me, about his drug addiction and what it caused. (But you haven't.) I did not know then that Abuelita avoided you because your drinking was like your father's, or what it must have cost to have the rest of your family cut you off. I do not know what evil spirit put those words in my head. I'm sorry.
I never meet any of them again.
Alligators that survive to adulthood live an average of 50 years.
Not long after, you come home from the VA hospital. We are alone in the garage, and you break down bawling like a little boy. You have just been diagnosed with cancer. You look at me as though I'm the grown-up, and am I not? Who else does the dishes and cleans the house and tries to get Mommy out of bed?
You say, "I don't want to die."
I wrap my thin arms around you and promise you'll be ok.
I lie, of course. Over the next eight years they'll take your tonsils and parts of your throat and soft palate and organs that I did not know were dispensable. You will go from being the strongest man on the planet to a yellowed and shrunken shell of yourself. You will also try over and over to stop drinking. When I am 16 you will ask me to be your sponsor, and knowing no better, I'll agree. You will get in and out of rehab, and I will watch you go through withdrawal repeatedly, your skin turning light grey and clammy, your body seizing up like it wants to liquify itself without its prime sustaining fluid.
They even have antibiotic blood that kills bacteria and viruses.
I only see you once after I leave for college. Winter break my freshman year. You have a camper parked out in the woods behind the next house, the log cabin on the edge of town. I have a boyfriend back at school. I spend the month making a quilt for his birthday. You decide to make one, too, but the treatments have dulled your mind and shaken your hands. You used to make me tiny silver paper cranes. You strung them up on twigs, the ends wrapped in thin red yarn. I had a mobile hanging from the fan. You also quilted and strung bead necklaces. I marveled that the same thick hands that once wrangled alligators could do such fine, precision work. Before the alcohol swallowed your life, you were a registered nurse. I can picture you in hospital scrubs, tenderly sewing up somebody's wounds. But your hands aren't equipped for such fine work now. Still, you dare me: who can piece a quilt faster? I win, of course, when we realize that you have sewn half of your triangles wrong side up.
The boyfriend back at school lived for a year in Ecuador and misses speaking Spanish, so I ask you to reteach me so I can impress him (he and I break up almost the second I return to school, not that it matters). You write me a quiz in your thick, neat pen. The top sentence says: "Mi Papi es mi amigo."
Es verdad. Es verdad. Te amo, Papi.
I take a year off school after my sophomore year. I move to a commune in upstate New York to teach at a hippie alternative school. I dream one night that I am dying of cancer and my eyebrows have to be shaved off. But it's okay. Whoopi Goldberg is in the dream, and I get to kiss her, and she is a great kisser. I wake up at peace. I know, somehow, that the dream is true, but it's not about me because I would know if I was sick. I call Mommy when I wake up, and she tells me you went into a coma the night before.
You never wake up.
Within a year Mommy is dead, too. (And the cousin who moved in when I was 14, and my best friend from high school and my childhood cat.) I spend more than a decade on the razor's edge of poverty working an average of three jobs at a time to scrape by—cheesemonger, scissor jockey, waitress, housekeeper, grocery store sample chef, textbook editor, nude model, bookseller...I learn how to hustle. How to eat $20 for two weeks. I never quite end up on the streets. Then the pandemic hits, and everyone is terrified (and behaving poorly online). But it doesn't hit me the same way. I dream of swamps and alligators for the first time in years. In one dream, everyone is rushing around terrified because this great mama gator keeps snapping at them. But I know she is only snapping because they keep getting ahead of her.
So I walk behind her head, and I am just fine.
The gators who survive become apex predators who fear almost nothing.
This story was runner-up for Ruminate Magazine's 2022 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize.