Our evening news shows went wild how a ten-foot alligator grabbed and ate this dad guy down in Mississippi. Not south Mississippi either, where I figured gator trouble was normal, but midway up in Madison County where they had at least some winter. This guy’s wife was on prime-time cable stunned and saying the gator must’ve crawled or whatever from the creek to lurk inside the family’s in-ground pool. The husband guy hadn’t even gone over to poke the gator or toss it chicken or pose for pictures near it. He’d went to check if the chlorine held steady. “He’d only been on his second beer,” the wife said. “Then snap,” she added, breathless but sort of impressed. Snap, bam, boom. Done.
I stopped cold on my third of the couch. I lived in Mississippi. I had a wife. I was on my second beer. My whole born days apparently, I’d lived under false assurances I could take a swim or someday invest in a family pool without fear of alligators. Brooke was expecting our kid number one, a boy she believed from how the bugger kicked. She’d complained about it all afternoon when we set up the crib where I’d kept the Nintendo.
The cable newscaster interviewed a biologist lady who explained the miraculous recovery of the Mississippi alligator. The lady sounded downright thrilled over it. How gators wintered, she said, they rode out a freeze by breaking their snouts up through the ice. Madison County wasn’t even a tank of gas south, and our town ran lousy with creeks and streams, to include the one along our property line. It connected eventually to a major river that wound south with, in my current view, way too much cattail bunched along its banks.
The biologist lady went on to differentiate between regular and nuisance alligators. Somehow not all gators fell into the latter variety. Her gist, a nuisance gator was the one chasing you and your baby in the papoose your wife made you wear. Every other gator was part of the natural order, and you couldn’t shoot them legally. They’d evolved over millions of years, the biologist said, and survived what calamities killed off the dinosaurs. If anything, you were in a gator’s way. The TV showed video of the biologist air-boating out to swamps and oxbows after dark and counting the eye pairs that glowed in her spotlight beam.
“Nope,” I told Brooke, “no more swimming, no tubing.” She might’ve sighed that the O.B. doctor had her off tubing already. She might’ve suggested I breathe a minute, but my brain had locked up over if jet skiing was suddenly too dangerous or not. Any gator that encountered a jet ski roaring a rooster-tail wake should respect it as an almost god-like river boss, except Brooke was forever after me to put our Yamaha on Craig’s List. It broke down all summer every summer and tore through our fun money, what of it Brooke still left us. Last month she’d started a college savings account and switched me to generic beer.
On TV the biologist explained how the gator behind the attack was surely male. The moms stayed near their eggs. Gator moms made excellent parents, guarded their babies close, you watch out. A gator dad skipped out on parentage entirely and would snack on his or any gator baby flitting around in the water. The biologist described how a gator could float log-quiet for weeks to snatch adult snakes and coyotes sometimes and death-roll them underwater.
The dogs. Damn it. I hustled them inside from the lawn I’d forgotten to mow, the dogs grinning in blissful ignorance that pets had a grim future around here.
The biologist on TV was saying a gator could bite straight through a snapping turtle. She compared the American alligator’s jaw strength to getting smacked by a truck. Same force per inch. She didn’t elaborate whether pick-up or semi. “A responsible newscaster would’ve pressed her on that,” I told Brooke.
Brooke said, “Let’s change the channel,” and I almost did. This rogue wave of gators spoiled my beer buzz entirely, and it risked upsetting Brooke’s hormonal tightrope and concern for what she’d termed our nest time. In my head me and a generic beer and my possible boy-child were stuck on that jet ski dead-in-the-water at twilight, twelve-foot gators with eyes aglow circling us. So I dug in for critical intel. As husband and alpha leader and father, a present and non-cannibal father I vowed, it fell on me to protect the nest.
A fence. A hickory-wood fence around the property line, front and back and cemented underground. Lots of thorn bushes. Flood lights and motion sensors, if I could score them cheap. No one man could stem the gator tide, but I could carve us a refuge, with that in-ground pool and a barbeque pit. In my head my young son and I splashed in that pool, and he squealed with delight, and my wife smiled saintly at us from the kitchen window, and then what did I see but the stupid gate left open and a fifteen-foot gator writhing full-speed for our pool, and that gator was hungry and plenty mad now because its highly-evolved instincts sensed it and us both within a tight enclosure. I’d created a killing zone, was what I’d done.
Brooke said she didn’t like my color. In my mind I held that gator at bay with my steak fork and lawn chair, how big cat tamers did. It was a crap time to hear the biologist lady brag that gator bite was three times stronger than from a jaguar.
Well, what chance did I have against that? Bite strength and cold resistance and a bazillion-year evolutionary head start? I wondered what Brooke would tell the cable news about my getting chomped in two. I wondered if she’d sound impressed or torn up or relieved because I’d bought decent term life insurance. I hoped she would say teary that I’d been a fine provider. That I’d worked hard and sold the jet ski to boost our nest egg. That I’d gone down scrapping and got the kid and dogs safe inside before that eighteen-foot monster death-rolled me.
I explained this to Brooke. All of it, my utter confusion how one-hundred percent of gators weren’t deemed an outright hazard, my believing we should move to higher ground except gators were probably expert climbers, my line-of-duty sacrifice going up against a twenty-foot jaguar-eating dinosaur survivor. I told her not to worry, that she would make a terrific mom, like gator mom good. I asked her to tell my kid about me and share any remains of me recovered with biological science, so that other Mississippi dads were better prepared for alligators in every pool and creek.
Brooke stared a little long. “I don’t guess anyone’s ever ready,” she said, and she brought me a beer. First beer she’d brought since her test was positive. When our sitcoms started, I nursed that beer and a dry sweat both while she and the dogs piled over onto my third of the couch. I kept an eye out the window and decided we would get that fence. A fence and child-proof locks and industrial-strength pepper spray clipped on the papoose.
© Robert Mangeot
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Robert’s interview]