Photo by Brian Michael Barbeito

Photo by Brian Michael Barbeito

The wooden dock’s planks groaned beneath the blazing Florida sun.  Neal adjusted his sunglasses. He watched as a snowy egret took a step with one of its long twig-thin black legs.  It paused, then stretched its swan-like neck and body with the precision of a ballet dancer. Neal tucked a pinch of tobacco between his lower lip and gum.  As he folded his sun-freckled arms, the bird took a few quick steps, then lumbered skyward.

From the dock, Neal couldn’t see Leon.  The hush of the crowd confirmed he’d vaulted the cinderblock wall into the pit’s loose dry dirt.  Leon and the alligators were the main attraction at the roadside stop off US Highway 41. Why Leon didn’t work at the casinos like most of the other Indians was beyond Neal.  But then, Indians were… well, different. 

A ruddy-faced man called Red owned the everglade tour and alligator exhibition business.  He was from someplace up North, not Florida. When it came to American free enterprise Red was a true believer.  Most of his business’ income came from selling what he claimed were genuine artifacts handmade by local Indians. In reality, the trinkets were cheap crap made by some undocumented Cubans he paid a pittance.  

Neal’s eyes scanned the crowd of tourists encircling the pit, searching.  Most of them had been on the recent tour of the glade. The man with the comb-over who’d talked nonstop was videotaping while his wife pointed out things for him to capture on film.  The two small boys in matching cutoffs and Disneyland t-shirts, one wearing a Goofy hat with long black ears, were standing on tiptoe, their chests pressed against the wall. Covered in yellow glade dust and pollen, they resembled museum statues.  Behind them, their mother, with a hat brim the size of a patio umbrella, was trying to get their father’s help to move them back, while he feigned deafness.

A swell rocked Maisy, banging her against the dock.  After years of Florida sun, the paint on her sides was blistered and peeling in long thin curlicues.  The intense heat and humidity had also cracked her molded plastic bench seats.    

Though the everglades possessed its fair share of life-threatening species, Neal felt at home there.  Fish, frogs, ‘gators, and crocs were the sovereigns of the water. Slinking Panthers, skittering white-tailed deer, slithering cottonheads, and rooting loggerheads were among those that occupied the land.  And Great Blue Herons, Egrets, and other wild birds that soared in the air owned the sky.

Perched alongside Maisy’s propeller, Neal had explored miles of this vibrant world rife with contradictions.  Brackish water resulting from the intermixing of salt and freshwater. Winding sloughs of seasonal free-flowing waterways interspersed throughout sawgrass prairies.  Cyprus swamps, mangrove forests, and hardwood hammock islands competing for dominance against Melaleuca Trees and Old World Climbing Ferns. Alligators, crocodiles, panthers, manatees, small amphibians, and fish fighting extinction by predatory invaders like Burmese Pythons, Mayan Cichlids, Wild Boars, and Nile Monitors.  This uniquely distinct world was ever-changing, untamed, and uncompromising.

Spitting out a wad of tobacco, Neal’s eyes continued roaming the crowd.  Finally, he found her, the darkly tanned, sun-bleached blond-haired young woman in the white bikini top. When she’d climbed aboard Maisy, he’d immediately noticed it peeking out of the oversized Hawaiian shirt tied at her waist.  During the tour, she’d sat in the bow with a 35 mm Nikon attached to a strap around her neck. She hadn’t snapped a single photo.  

Starting low, at her gold ankle bracelet, Neal let his eyes slowly slide up her toned calves and nicely formed thighs.  He paused at her skin-tight white mini shorts, then continued on. Moving above her waist, up and across her cleavage, he stopped when he reached her face.      

By now, tall, wiry Leon would’ve dragged Louise to the center of the pit by her tail and positioned himself atop the scutes along her back.  She’d be wriggling trying to slip from between his powerful muscular thighs, but Leon was cat quick and strong.

Leon, like Neal, was twenty-two.  But he’d probably been no more than twelve the day he walked in from a nearby thatch roof village wearing nothing but a beat up and faded pair of old blue jeans.  Tucking his long brown hair behind his ears, he’d told Red he wanted a job wrestling alligators. Laughing at the scrawny Indian boy, Red had told him to beat it.   His head hanging low, Leon had left. Then there’d been a loud splash. The boy was wading into the glade, the muck at its bottom sucking him down, only his head and shoulders visible above the water line.

Red had run to the dock, yelling at that crazy kid.  But Leon, his hair drifting on the water like a veil, ignored him and disappeared into a channel.  Firing up an airboat, Red roared off forgetting to untie its line. With dock post in tow whipping the glades willowy grass aside, black seeds and golden pollen showered the air.  

The airboat had come upon Leon so fast Red almost didn’t see him.  He cut the engine and shouted for the boy to get in the boat. But Leon’s eyes remained focused on the surface of the water directly in front of him.  

Snatching his arms above his head, Leon had flung something toward the boat.  It crashed in the boat’s bottom with a solid thud. Recognizing the 3-foot long prehistoric looking creature’s armored back, long rounded snout, sharp teeth, and sunken yellow eyes, Red had leaped from the boat.  

Right about now, Leon would have Louise’s head back and her jaws open.  Some in the crowd always craned their necks for a better view. Others winced and cowered at the sight of the alligator’s 40 sharp teeth on the top and bottom rows of her mouth.  Ever the showman, Leon always turned her head left and right so the tourists could get their photos. 

In a far corner of the pit sly Old Tom, all 12 feet and 800 lbs of him would be slinking, watching the action while Little Ollie waded in the pool.  Later, he’d be carried around the circle so the tourists could pet his head and touch his forelegs to feel the texture of an alligator’s hide. 

Outside the pit, Leon rarely spoke, nodding instead in passing.  When he did speak, the words were always measured, no more, no less than necessary.  Leon had his clan and tribe while Neal had no family or friends to speak of. In Neal’s mind, he and Leon were as different as night and day.  Leon with his patchwork vest and jeans may as well have been a ghost. Each day at sunset he disappeared into the glade like a wisp of smoke, leaving nary a trace behind. 

A tourist once asked Neal if he wrestled ‘gators.  He’d said hell no and almost asked if he looked like a crazy Indian?  While some people were afraid of the big snakes like Pythons, Neal wasn’t.  But Alligators and Crocs? The damn things were born killers, not pets. Pets didn’t drown you, then eat you.  Nor would they execute a death roll, biting, spinning, and tearing off chunks of your flesh until they ripped you to pieces.    

A menacing hiss from the pit was followed by two muffled stomps – probably Leon making Old Tom retreat to his corner.  Alligators didn’t like humans. When possible they’d back off and slip away on their stubby legs.

Neal spit out a chaw of tobacco.  By now, Leon’s performance would be near its end.  He’d flip Louise onto her back, putting her in a sleep-like trance.

Hoping to get a jump on exiting, two gray-haired women wearing sun visors with Miami scrawled on the bills in cursive started up the packed dirt pathway that led to the parking area.  So did the acne scarred faced college-age kid with the backpack, day-glow orange gym shorts, and field binoculars.

Neal climbed back aboard Maisy to prepare for the next group of tourists who would soon be heading his way.   As he reached in his tin for another plug, piercing screams shattered the air. The crowd was scattering and Neal saw Louise had Leon by the leg.  Grabbing the Marlin 30-30 mounted on the back of Maisy’s bench and some Remingtons, he ran toward the pit.

  Shoving rounds into the Marlin’s chamber, Neal collided with the man with the video camera.  The man proudly yelled he was getting the ‘gator attack on film. Without slowing, Neal ran on.  As he closed in on the pit, he stopped, shouldered the gun, cocked its lever, and fired.

Louise’s body arched off the ground.  Her eyes bulged, glazed over, and rolled back in her head but she remained clamped on.  The deer, bear, panther, snake, otter, bird, and toad/bigtown, and wind tattoos on Leon’s arms looked alive as he struggled to break free of her vise-like grip.  Neal snapped the rifle’s lever down, back, and pulled the trigger. A chunk of Louise’s skull ripped loose and she quivered, twitched, then lay still.

Leon reached down to pull Louise’s jaws apart and Old Tom rushed him, his tail swishing side to side in a frenzy.  Racing to get a better angle, Neal cocked the lever, ejecting a shell, and fired. The round hammered Old Tom between the eyes, stopping him in his tracks.  He rolled up on one side, then slammed back down on his belly. As he crept forward, Neal fired again, gouging out a gaping hole in his brow ridge, exposing mottled brain.  Red was shouting for Neal to stop, but he sited Little Ollie beside the pool. Pulling the trigger, he splattered him, blood and guts, all over the cinderblock wall.  

The air was full of the acrid smell of gunpowder.  As the crowd began calming down, Neal leaned the rifle against the wall.  He grabbed Leon by shoulders and pulled him over it. Little of Leon’s leg remained below the knee.  Neal wrapped Leon’s arm around his neck and headed up the pathway with Leon leaving a thick trail of blood.     

Midway on the path stood Red, his face purple, and chest heaving.  “You’re fired,” he yelled at Neal. “You killed my ‘gators and terrorized my customers.” 

“Fuck you, Red,” growled Neal, shoving past him.

In the parking lot, Neal yanked open the passenger door of his rusting white Toyota and helped Leon onto the edge of the front seat.  Down at the pit, Red was moving among the tourists shaking hands like a candidate campaigning for governor.  

“Can I do anything to help?”

It was the young woman with sun-bleached blond hair.  Without waiting for a response, she undid the knotted shirt-tails, stripped off her Hawaiian shirt, and knelt down in the loose gravel.  She gently lifted Leon’s mangled leg onto her thigh and tied the shirt around it above the knee.  

“You better go,” she said, standing up.  “I’ll call the hospital.”

Neal turned Leon to face front and slammed the car door shut.  As he ran around to the driver’s side of the car, he saw the young woman, phone to her ear, walking away, her legs smeared with Leon’s blood.

Neal started up the Toyota, revved the engine, and tore out.  In the rearview mirror he could see the girl waving goodbye. Racing past the silver and black tour buses and the rental cars, the Toyota kicked up dirt and gravel as it shot out onto the Old Tamiami Trail.           


About the author:

J L Higgs’s short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has had over 50 publications and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Magazines publishing his work include Indiana Voice Journal, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Rigorous, Literally Stories, and The Remembered Arts
Journal. He resides outside of Boston. Follow him on Facebook here.


About the photographer:

Brian Michael Barbeito is a Canadian writer, poet and photographer. Recent work appears at Fiction International from San Diego State University, CV2 The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, and at Catch and Release-The Columbia Journal of Arts and Literature. Brian is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013, cover art by Virgil Kay). He is currently at work on the written and visual nature narrative titled Pastoral Mosaics, Journeys through Landscapes Rural.