In the Everglades, the fathers teach the sons to hunt gators, but afterward don’t go themselves. The penalty for an adult poacher is a stiff fine for the first offence, and jail for the next. For a juvenile, it was more like warning, warning, warning. I, of course, did not learn to hunt gators from my father, who was a patrician Yankee, but from my friend Steve’s dad. My parents considered it part of my authentic Florida experience, almost as if I were learning a Seminole handicraft.
My parents moved me from Chicago to Everglades City in the fall that I was nearly sixteen. My father had retired at forty on family money and planned to wait out the remainder of his days as a fly fishing guide. It’s hard to imagine why they chose to do it there: four streets wide and eight long, the center a hollow of empty lots courtesy of several hurricanes and the constant onslaught of Formosan termites. No grocery store, no shops at all. Just a constant, blaring heat that seemed to lay one open like roadkill. Its only graces were the Everglades and its Barron River, which curves around the town on three sides before dumping its slow water amongst the Ten Thousand Islands in Chokoloskee Bay.
I liked to be alone on those waters best of all and often went out in the mornings even before school, paddling up the dark river with its thick tropical banks. I always took a book on these supposed hunting and fishing trips, and so aside from spending time just staring at the water in hopes of seeing a snook or a gator, I was into the doings of various secret agents.
I have never known anything so wonderful as that brown water and its silence. I love the mystery of the swamp, which had everywhere a burnt, beer can littered surface and a dark, dreamy undertow. I love the cooing of the morning doves and the water moccasins that hung draped over tree branches. Though no one who knew me as a city boy thought I should be, I was happy in that sandspur and mosquito-infested townlet, which could boast of neither a beach nor a place to get a cone of ice cream. That is, I was when I was alone.
Because the school had only fifty students in all thirteen grades, I was usually included in my classmates’ doings by proxy. And one day at lunch they were talking about guns, and I said that my father had a Luger he’d bought in Amsterdam, a WWII gun with a WWII bullet jammed in the chamber. I told everyone they could come over after school to see it, and that my parents wouldn’t be home. Becky was the most popular girl in the grade and the object of my crush, and when she said she wanted to come they all agreed they would.
My house was a seventies ranch house with its shoulder to the river road. My parents had dragged their city style down with them and had remodeled it over much, replacing the old terrazzo with travertine tiles and the like. The kids acted as if they’d been let loose in an interactive museum – opening doors and drawers, touching things like my mother’s bronze, naked-guy paperweight with a snickering awe. They liked dad’s office best of all. Its walls were lined frame-to-frame with vintage pictures of men and women in dirty tropical linens standing next to their strung up trophy fish big as whales. His desk was piled with fancy stainless steel fishing reels and the emu feathers and bits of deer tail used for fly tying.
Becky was the keenest sleuth of all, picking up vases, running her hands over oil paintings as though they were braille, and following me when I went to fetch everyone a Coke from the kitchen. “Damn,” she said. “I’m in awe of that refrigerator. I saw one in a magazine.”
In my room, she sat on the bed and bounced up and down while ogling the stuff pinned to my walls: the saltwater fish identification chart, the vintage Farah Fawcett poster, the model airplanes. She went to the antique map that hung framed like a painting above the wall of my desk, courtesy of my mother. “I want to go there,” she said, and pointed to Krakatau Island. Doesn’t that look cool?”
“It’s not there anymore,” I said. “It blew up, but it’s growing back.”
“Oh, funny, ha, ha,” she said, and flipped her blonde ponytail back so that it brushed across my chin and neck. “Got any of those little pins so I can mark everywhere I want to go? Oh, never mind,” she said. “This will do,” and she took a paper clip, unfolded it, and stuck the fat, sharp end of it through the fine, old parchment and into Bermuda. “Ever been there?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“How about here?” she said, and before I could stop her she’d stuck a paper clip into Paris, obliterating it from the map forever.
“Yes,” I said, and I took the box of clips from the desk and pretended to be reading its label.
“Paris,” she breathed. “No shit. Is it wonderful?”
“People bring their dogs into the restaurants,” I said.
“You’re funny,” she said. “Say something else.”
I took a paper clip, unfolded it and stuck it in the Seychelles. “These,” I said, “are the most exotic, beautiful beaches on Earth. All you need is a bikini bottom. It’s very European. No tops.”
“More funny, ha, ha,” she said. She put her hands over her small breasts as if to hide them from the very idea.
“Hey,” I said. “Do you want to go out on Friday?”
“Sure, cool,” she said.
On Friday, when I went to pick her up only her mother was home. “You’re that one from up north,” she said. “Doesn’t our Becky look wonderful?” Becky had on a dress made of black nylon and shiny white high heels. For the first time that I could remember, her hair was not in a ponytail. It flowed around her shoulders like water. “Terrific,” I said.
“Damn straight,” said Becky. I planned to take her first to a movie and then to the best restaurant on Marco Island, the closest real town to us. But when we arrived at the movies we found six of our pals waiting for us, invited by Becky. Four of them sat directly behind us, apparently so the boys could put ice down the back of her dress to make her squeal and so the girls could play with her hair.
After, when I’d tried to break away to go to the restaurant and the others were campaigning to get some beer and go to the fishing pier, Becky said, “Oh, who wants to go someplace where you have to be polite?”
We shared the pier with half a dozen fishermen. They sat calmly on their folding chairs and fooled around with their tackle, or their bait, or the fish on their stringer. If any one of them had anything on the line, the others left their poles propped against the rail and went to watch it being reeled in. They whistled as Becky tottered across the boards in her high heels. Later, I would spend many a Friday night alone there, watching the magic of a fish arriving from that black pool into the dim, silvery light on the dock.
Once we’d picked a set of boards to hang out on, Becky took off her shoes and drank three cans of Bud, using me as a lounge chair, while she talked with the other girls about the forgettable star of the film we’d just seen, about the star’s haircut, the star’s boyfriend. “You start that English assignment?” someone asked. Becky snorted. “Not a word,” she said. “I haven’t even lived the true life part yet. I am. Get this. I am going to write about the time I went alligator hunting. Of course, I’ve never been, and my dad would skin me, and it’s illegal.”
“Let Luke take you,” said Steve pointing at me. “I’ve been with him. Remember how old man Zipper used to sit for hours by the river like a stump? Like he was dead? And then he’d stand up real, real slow and throw his cast net and catch the biggest freaking fish you ever saw and then sit back down and sit and stare at his feet again? That’s how our man here is. Freakin’ Obi Wan of the swamp. He’ll take you.”
“Sure,” I said.
Becky turned herself around, straddled my waist, her dress up to her panties. “Thank you for taking me.” She kissed me in an uncomfortable cartoon of making out and wiggled in my lap while the others cheered as though they were watching a football game.
It was a performance that I could not manage to get repeated in private. She fell asleep as soon as we got in the car to go home; her head leaned at an awkward angle against the glass and her hands fell into little baby fists in her lap.
On the night I promised Becky I’d take her, I drove our powerboat up the river to the fishery dock to pick her up. She was standing there waiting, wearing a pair of very short cutoffs that seemed uncomfortably tight over her big bottom and a halter-top made of some very thin and slightly shiny stuff. She had a rucksack sitting at her flip flop clad feet and next to her was her father doing something to some ropes from his boat. When I pulled alongside, her father caught the stern line and Becky threw her bag on board and stepped aboard herself. “That’s one nice boat you’ve got there” her father said. He was missing a bottom tooth, was thoroughly ruined by the sun, and had a buck knife strapped to his belt. “It’s got speakers built right into the deck, don’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Sound any good?” he asked.
“Yes, sir.” He looked like he’d really like to hear it, fiddle around with it some, but I wasn’t going to offer. I wanted to be off alone with Becky and I didn’t want him inquiring about what was under the tarp in the back of the boat.
“Well, ya’ll have a good time out there, and be real careful with your cooking fire.” Then he waved and we pulled away.
Becky stood next to me at the wheel, her ponytail bouncing on her neck. “I told my dad we were meeting a bunch of the kids on Indian Key to have a cookout. I told him I thought it was stupid, because you boys insisted on only cooking what you could catch, so I brought some other stuff along so we wouldn’t starve.” Then she opened her rucksack and held up a deli container of marinated mushrooms to show me.
She crowded in front of me at the wheel and took over the steering. “I love to drive,” she said. “Let me. This is such a cool boat.” So, I sat down on the seat behind her, my thighs straddling her broad hips, and let her drive. She grew up on the water and could handle a boat about as well as anyone.
A lot of boats were coming in with the tide as we were going out. Becky waved to them all and with every wave her unfettered breasts, small as they were, made themselves obvious under her loose halter. She waved especially hard to the crowd on the park excursion boat that ran out the channel to just within sight of the Gulf before ducking back to safer water. “There goes some local flora,” announced the Park Ranger over the loudspeaker. The tourists all stared at us as if we were interesting.
When we passed Indian Key and turned south into the Gulf, the sky and the water had gone hazy, gray and still with dusk so that there was no line between Earth and sky. Becky looked out across the open water with the calm, sleepy-eyed stare of a lifelong fisherman. “I love this time of day,” she said. “It freaks my dad out. He won’t even stand outside around sunset until it’s good and dark. He says it makes him anxious. It does kind of, doesn’t it?” A strand of hair had come loose from her ponytail and blew back toward me.
“It does,” I said. “It’s my favorite time of day too.”
“Oh, I don’t know about my favorite,” she said. “I didn’t say favorite. My favorite is probably when you wake up after you’ve just been asleep for a little while and you lay there sort of still asleep in your bed and you see the lights of a car drive across the wall. Did you ever do that?”
I thought she was right, absolutely right. That was a magic time, and I thought that she must actually be someone who felt things more than she seemed to, thought about things more, and that we might find that we had some deeper things in common. I said, “I remember being very little and lying there like that watching the lights go across the wall and suddenly figuring out that it was car lights. It was a weird feeling. It was the first thing I ever figured out for myself, and I realized it was the first thing I’d ever figured out and that I could figure things out.”
“That’s so cute,” she said.
“I better drive now,” I said, and slipped my arms around her from behind and held the wheel. We drove for a little while like that as we turned back east to catch the mouth of the river that cuts into the swamp. She looked back at me once, the wind blowing her hair, a little bit of fresh spray on her face, and smiled.
The river was nothing but a track of water through the mangroves, part of a vast network of unmapped, watery trails that were the only way through the swamp. There were no banks, only the thin fingers of the mangrove roots that looped above the water and tiptoed back in.
Once we’d gone as far upriver as the draft of the boat allowed, I tied up to a mangrove and made sure there were some shrimp seines and some fishing poles conspicuous on the boat so anyone coming across it wouldn’t be suspicious. Then I unwrapped the tarp from the pan and put it overboard.
The pan boat is just a sheet of plywood cut in a boat shape, with about a foot of plywood glued and screwed on to make some low sides. It’s a sled for the shallow swamp water. Becky sat gamely cross legged in its bottom on a blanket I’d brought, and I stood at the back and poled up through the shallows. We were so enclosed that we couldn’t even see the moon, just the black water and the black glades pressing close. “This is creepy as all get out,” said Becky. “It’s like a setting for a horror movie. You know how they make it so you can’t ever see a god dam thing.”
She pulled a bottle of Southern Comfort out of her rucksack. We passed that back and forth, with her taking a swig and handing it up to me and me taking a swig and trying to hold onto it for a while yet still poling the boat, so that she wouldn’t get too drunk too fast. She would swat the mosquitoes on her belly and say, “Bogart,” and reach up wanting the bottle, so I’d take another swig and hand it back. Just at the point where the river opened up into the lake, she started giggling.
These kinds of lakes dot the Everglades. They are bowls of rich water, not very deep. Salt water was pushed up the river by the tides, but on the far side fresh water poured in from a slough that ran from deep within the glades. The gators would be there.
Even with just moonlight, I could see at least four with eyes eight or so inches apart, which meant they were eight or so feet long. One would be enough to appease Becky and afterward we could lie down on the blanket under the open sky and drink the Comfort and so on. I was worried that our amorous activity might cause more rocking than the little pan could handle. It might be best to get back to the boat with its stereo and padded cushions. I was also worried that it might be hard to get a girl in the mood after the blood of the hunt, or perhaps that was just the thing. I didn’t know.
I laid the pole I was using along the length of the boat so that it hung out the back and then knelt in the pan to get ready. The moon was catching Becky’s face. She was looking out off into the dark with a freshly dreamy expression. She pointed, “Look at that big one right there. I’m naming him Larry. That’s the name of my cousin who tried to stick his hand down my pants when I was six. Let’s kill Larry.”
“Goodbye to Larry,” I said. “He deserves it,” and I lifted her hair and felt its heft, which seemed thinner and lighter than I expected. She spun around in the boat to face me and her face went dark. “Well,” she said, “I think I should be the one to kill him. For my story and my revenge and all.”
“How good are you with a shotgun?” I asked.
“My daddy doesn’t even think girls should know how to mow the lawn, but it can’t be hard.”
“Well,” I said.
“Come on,” she said. “I need to be the one to shoot him for my story.” She took my little 20 gauge up from the bottom where it was lying. She looked up and down the stock like she was looking for the place where the directions were printed.
“Ok,” I said. “Fine.” I took the gun out of her hands and then sat down cross legged toward the bow where I usually stand to shoot and said, “Come on and sit on my lap, and I’ll help you.”
I took the safety off the gun and pointed it in a general way at the gator. She plopped down hard onto my lap, put her hands on the gun and her finger on the trigger. “I’ll tell you when,” I said, intending to figure some way to see around her and sight and wait for the steady breath that makes for a good shot, but it was too late. The gun fired, the muzzle leapt up, and we both fell over backward into the bottom of the pan. The shot echoed across the water. Heron and curlew lifted from their roosts. Things all around us splashed into the water and dove in an effort to get down deep and away.
I was laughing and holding onto Becky trying to get her to laugh and turn it into a romantic moment, but she just sat to the side and shoved me away. “You idiot,” she said. “You missed by a mile.” Then she jerked the gun out of my hand, pointed it out across the open water and fired the other barrel. A roar went up, something between a lion’s roar and pig’s grunt, a gator roar. “I hit him,” she said. “I hit him.” She bounced up and down a little and rocked the boat enough that water splashed in over the side, and then she flopped herself down on top of me, laughing excitedly, tightening her fist up on my shirt and grabbing at my hair. She was laughing gleefully in a way that disgusted me, and her legs wrapped around my hips and her little tits first pressed my forehead and then settled on my face as though this was my reward.
All I could think of was the gator wallowing somewhere near the pan, bellowing, swinging its heavy head back and forth in the water as if it was a fish trying to throw a hook. When you go for gator, you get one shot, and if it’s bad the wounded gator will either swim down deep or begin a death roll – spinning over and over like a log being walked at a fair. If it’s a good shot, it turns theatrically belly up and sinks to the bottom or just sinks. The best thing to do is to lasso it before it goes, or to harpoon it, anything to have a line on the thing. It was too late for any of that.
“Just a minute,” I said to Becky, and I got to my knees and picked up the shotgun. I had to fumble two more shells from my pocket while she clutched at my thighs, and then I took two shots at the gator that was now doing its death roll.
Becky sat up in the pan in time to see him go belly up, his feet sticking out of the water as his tail dragged him down. The moon made his claws look white and almost like little baby hands waving goodbye. And then he just sank away.
“Are you going to get him?” said Becky.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think we’re in any shape for that.”
“Bullshit,” she said. “That’s my god dam gator.” She grabbed the pole, and though it was very long and unstable and heavy, she managed to stick it over the side and into the bottom and push. The boat turned in a circle and the pole jerked out of her hand and threw her to the bottom of the pan. Now we were floating off one way and the pole another. “Oh, my God,” she said. “God dam it.” She snatched at the blanket and wrapped it around herself and rocked in a sort of exaggerated misery.
It would have been perfectly safe to get in the water and swim after the pole. Nothing in that whole swamp was interested in being near a thrashing human, not after the commotion we’d already made. It would have been the right thing to do to swim in the muck to retain any reputation I might have or might hope to have in that town and with that girl. Plus, it was our only way out. “You better go get it,” I said. “Because I’m not.”
“I’m not,” she said. “There’s no way I’m swimming in there.”
“Suit yourself,” I said, and from my own ever-ready sack, I dug out my book and a flashlight and settled in as if to read. She slouched at her end of the pan and stared at me in a parody of being aghast. “You know,” she said. “My father is not going to find this funny.”
I continued to let the flashlight prance across the words I wasn’t reading. Then very slowly as if she was really concentrating on communicating something to me, she crawled across the rocking and wet pan bottom. She delicately removed the book from my hand and dropped it overboard. Then before I could react at all, she planted her mouth on mine.
She kissed me for real, with a practiced and irresistible delicacy that became more and more intense. My hand was allowed to find her nipples under her loose halter. It was permitted for me to strip the straps down so that the fabric fell to her waist. It was then that she suggested in a husky voice that I go get the pole. I didn’t respond but tried to unbutton her cutoffs. She shoved my hand away. “Look at me,” she said. She was looking down into my face with the eyes of a crossing guard. “Go get the pole first,” she said.
For some reason, I looked out at my book, which was managing to bob on the surface – a forlorn manual with its wings spread. Then I picked up the edge of the soggy blanket from the pan bottom and stripped it out from under her, throwing her over. I grabbed what was left of the Comfort, rolled myself up in the blanket, and lay down in the bottom of the boat. No matter what she did, I would not talk or get up. In fact, after about an hour of her dangerously rocking the pan and ceremoniously crying and hysterically pounding me and telling me my very true future – that she would write her story about how she’d learned what an asshole I was, and she would never allow me to do anything with her or anyone from the school again, I managed to fall asleep.
At daylight, I was wakened by a ranger leading a string of tourist-filled canoes. From far away, I could hear his voice but not his words, and see his gesturing but could not tell at what. When he saw our pan, he retrieved his binoculars from a tourist and studied us: me groggily sitting up, Becky slouched in the bow with her arm draped over her face, empty deli containers floating in the water beside her. And soon after, he came upon our pole floating in his path.
The water was a bright hazy white borrowed from the air. And under that flat, canvas sky, we waited, groggy and stiff and without speaking, while the ranger slowly rallied his troops to paddle and gawk our way. When they came up alongside and the ranger handed me back the pole, he saw the gun in the boat bottom and he gave me that hard-eyed you’re a guilty mother fucker look, but he said lightly, sweetly. “You kids better get on home. And don’t forget that this is a pack-it-in, pack-it-out area. Your garbage goes with you.” He turned to the tourists, “Local kids,” he said. “They grew up in this swamp, know everything about it, and don’t think anything of it. But they’ve sure ruined my speech about how dangerous it is for humans to be caught out here at night, how bad things happen in the swamp, scary things.” The tourists were laughing, and I had a big, stupid smile on my face like it was one great moment we shared.