The Alligator Kid – John Biron
January 3, 2024
“And then he hits you, just like that?” he says. They talk over the high pitched and steady drone of Summer insects, frenzied and unceasing in their exodus, driving finally in full the cold and surfacing like a pride above the dirt. He spits over his shoulder. A bad habit, he thinks, got to be moderated like anything else- and the man in front of him looking at him dumb-eyed in half amazement and half unconsciousness.
“I tol you aint I? He come up from the candy aisle and jus stands there. Jus standin and starin and I ask im if I can help im any and then he hits me. Reaches across the damn counter and jus hits me. Damned little- he got a worse hit than a boy that age should,” he says.
“What you mean ‘huh?’ Was you the one concussed by some damned delinquent?”
“No, no. I apologize, sir. Just thinking is all. Did you go cold?”
“You see me now? I caint barely see straight. He concussed me. I thought he might’ve broke my nose.”
“Right. I apologize, Mr. Arnzt. Did he try to buy anything before he hit you?”
“Hell, really? Officer- what’s your name?”
“Gable. Perlessy Gable.”
“Well officer Gable, a misundertandin over a transaction? That what you think? He aint try buyin nothin. He aint even say nothin. Just wham like that.”
“I see. Okay. I figured since you mention the candy aisle. I figured he might of been-”
“Figure on yer own damn time, and if yer gonna do it out loud far clear of me. You tell that boy to stay away from this here store,” Arnzt says, dragging hard on his cigarette that is mostly ash at this point already. He exhales the smoke and rubs his nose. “You tell im.”
“Sure, I’ll tell him.”
“You make sure you do. Damned kid. You make sure you tell im stay away and he aint welcome.”
“I hear you. I’ll tell him. You have a good one, sir, take care. Some ice’ll help that swelling,” he says. He stands fully from his crouched position and turns. He walks, with effort, a straight line toward the car. Stopping and looking back, he says, “Say, Mr. Arnzt, I nearly forgot to ask. Are you thinking of pressing charges? I’ll have to write it up-”
“No, dammit. I ain’t pressin no damned charges. That damned woman been put through enough. You just tell the boy stay away from here.”
“Sure,” Perlessy says. “See you later, then.”
He enters and starts the car and tunes the radio to a dead channel. The static soothes him. Driving down the road slowly, watching for passersby and other cars, he dips down and reaches under the passenger seat. He brings up a half-full bottle of Wild Turkey Rare Breed bourbon. His lips are wet. Inside his mouth that double-time production of saliva indicative of an esurient yearning. The flask is the dwelling of all his sins, like it was a cave in which a bear hid, angry, half-mad, hungry. It is monument to his inadequacies, an Acropolis, his inside its own Herculaneum covered in ash. He remembers the crash, the transfer to keep things quiet. That was when he learned the importance of moderation. Removing the top, he brings the bottleneck to his nose and inhales deeply. He rests the opening of it on his bottom lip and tilts his head back. A scorch and lingering on and on and then when it fades the feeling, like every fibrous tissue and down to his blood cells themselves shivering with bliss. He tops the bottleneck and puts it under the passenger seat. I haven’t had near enough for them to notice, he thinks. And sure, I’ll just stop in quick then on my way.
Inside the house the boy sits in his room, a room that looks as if flood waters had rushed through and tossed his belongings about, leaving everything covered in a fine algae, taking on a drowned quality, the countless windblown lost dead souls awash in the torrent of carpet and dripping from the walls. He hears the knock on the door, and hears his mother groan as she stands. His mother is a large woman, like him, both tall and broad-shouldered. On the television an expert on alligators is explaining the dynamics of a death roll. The boy is glued to the screen.
“Eupheus,” she says. “Eupheus, you get up and get on out here.”
“I don’t wanna,” he says.
“I aint ask if you wanna. Now you get on up and cmon or I’m comin in there instead.”
The boy relents. In the living room stands a man he has seen before, recently, a shade with no distinct sort of face. He is slightly taller than the boy, though would not be given two or three more years. He wears a pair of dark glasses. His balding head is shaped like some sort of rock weathered by a thousand years of streams.
“Hey, Eupheus,” Perlessy says. “I hoped I wouldn’t have to see you again, and so soon.”
“Me too,” Eupheus says.
“Don’t be smart, boy. So help me. What’s this about you hittin Jodie Arntz? You think you tough? What’s that poor old man ever done to you?” she says.
“That’s what I’m here to wonder after, too,” Perlessy says.
“He’s like the rest. They all make fun. They all hate us,” the boy says.
“Don’t you go lyin on that man, don’t you dare lie on one of these kind folks again,” she says.
“People in this town has helped us with so much since we come here. So much. Don’t you go lyin on them.”
“I told you I aint lying any.”
“You better damn well-” she says. Perlessy puts his hand on her shoulder.
“Luckily it isn’t so bad. Mr. Arntz doesn’t want to press any charges. But you aren’t allowed at that store for a while. And you can’t go hurting people like that. Like I told you just the other day. No matter what they might’ve said,” Perlessy says.
“I aint lying,” Eupheus says. “He said what all the others say. I don’t gotta take it no more. I’m big enough. And she don’t ever believe. And he said ‘That brother of yours wadn’t no good, no good like you aint, like your pa wadn’t. I bet the damned gator got sick on his way through.’ That’s what he said. So I hit him.”
“You said something similar of Lars Bloom. They both-”
“Them two hates us like all the others. All the folks here does is make fun. I’m big enough now so I aint gotta take it.”
“You hush up,” she says. “You hush, go on to your room. Go on, I need to talk to Officer Gable. Yes, about you. Go on!”
Perlessy keeps his eyes upon the kid lumbering down the hall as she does. Each of them their thoughts churning, his dragging and staggered, hers slightly panicked and arrived at painstakingly.
“What’s that mean? Why’s he saying they both said something like that?”
“Don’t you pay him no mind. Anyway, I-”
“Ms. Mayleen, with all due respect of course, I don’t see a kid coming up with something so specific, not only once but twice. Can you tell me what they mean saying something like that?” he says. Am I too close, he thinks, does she smell the-
“Fine. I- Fine. His paw ran off,” she says.
“When his paw ran off I- He said he had a job waitin, up somewhere northeast, and he was gonna send for us. And this town helped us so much when we was new and when I was down so what if they talk, he wasn’t no good anyhow, Lorne was but- and the folks around here even still helped me after John started actin no good and-” she stops. Perlessy is staring at her though she cannot see his eyes and she is looking at her own reflection in the glasses, wearing an expression that speaks to a distaste for what she sees. She looks away, toward the front door.
“I don’t know why I told you. I aint told anyone. But, maybe I guessed you bein sorta new, the first new arrival in so long, since us, not native to this town like we aint. I aint told anyone. I had to sometime. It don’t feel real.”
“His father? He ran out?”
They sit together in a noiseless vacuum, neither much breathing although for far different reasons, until she says, “Yes, he- he started actin up bad, and then he up and left and said a job was waitin for him and I looked for him and I never got to know why he wanted to run neither. What kinda man is cruel like that?” she says. For a moment Perlessy thinks to hug her but stops himself, or the odor blanketing his tongue like graveyard dirt stops him.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I really am. But, I got to ask. That’s somehow to do with what your son alleged Mr. Arnzt and Mr. Bloom as having said? I still don’t-”
“Yes. Yes. Because- Pridefulness or somethin- I just wouldn’t and couldn’t admit it not in a new town with a whole new life and one son and another almost ready. I didn’t want them to think- even though they did and do anyhow… And it started with just tellin Lorne, then Eupheus then I had to tell the rest of everybody.”
“Tell them what?”
“That John my husband got ate by a alligator.”
There is a pause as if their lives were prerecorded and the otherworldly watcher interrupted in his marathon. Second by second, minutes, the alligator expert can be heard from down the hallway, describing the different ways one should try to run if an alligator charges. Zig-zag, he says, your best bet is to confuse. Perlessly pushes his tongue around the inside of his cheek.
“Ma’am? You told people he was eaten by an alligator?”
“It aint like the whole town aint wish it were true. I couldn’t stand to have that slight, to admit he run off on me, to admit I slept with and shared with and was dumb enough to- A man like that- and in the eyes of these folks. Most of em probably know it aint true but they’re kind enough to not say so.”
“I understand, really. Reputation is- in a town like this. It’s important. And what about his brother? Eupheus says they both mentioned his brother as well. That’s-”
“Lorne,” Ms. Mayleen says. She bursts into tears and falls back against the wall. After a while her face hardens into an oak wood root and she stands straight. “Lorne, he went to get revenge on that gator I said done it. Damn that man, damn that no good husband- he went to get that gator. Him and Eupheus. Somethin happened- Eupheus come runnin home cryin and-. It caught Lorne, took him under and- God, God, all because I made it up, all because I aint want nobody thinkin lowly of, because if-”
“I’m so sorry.”
“God. There aint no hope for me. But maybe for him. Will you talk to him? He’s obsessed with that alligator. He’s gonna end up like Lorne. Make him forget, make him feel better. Can’t you talk to him?”
“Talk to him? I tried last time-”
“Well try again! You the law. Aint it the law’s job to make sure folks turn out right? He just needs help is all, talkin to. Just- take him on a ride, all I’m askin is you talk to him, aint that your job?”
The genuine plea in her look could not be ignored. She was right. It was his job, to serve the community by serving its people. He had failed at that once and was not eager to try again.
“Sure, okay. I’ll talk to him.”
He pulls the car over where Eupheus had directed him. It was on the side of a highway, with a trail that he could barely make out extending deep into the woods. The boy unbuckles and opens the door. “Down this way,” he says. His walk is confident and he does not look behind him.
Perlessy waits, just a moment, and stoops to grab the bottle. He quickly takes a drink. This is my job, he thinks. How do you talk to a kid that’s been through all that, he thinks. He puts the bottle in his back pocket and follows the boy along the trail. After walking for the better part of a mile, Eupheus turns down another path even less noticeable, and soon they stand in a clearing, on the banks of a body of water that bubbles and turns green and gray.
“Well, look at that. This a sort of escape to place?” Perlessy says.
The boy is quiet. He does not move. He is in that moment away from time, not outside of it but so far removed from the concept entirely that he cannot feel its formless permanence. Between the past, the future, now, and experiencing them all at once. He stands wordlessly for a long time, scanning the water with his eyes intense and focused. He does not look at Perlessy when he speaks.
“That one,” he says.
“The bigger one. He’s darker green than the others.”
“That’s the one done it.”
“Done it? Done- That’s the one?”
“When I came back from behind the bush. I knowed it was that one cause I seen him crouchin back into the water chewin somethin, and I knowed it was him it was chewin cause I seen his leg there, in that spot, and knowed it was his leg cause I seen the tattoo he had of momma’s name on the back of it,” Eupheus says.
“That’s the one that ate your brother?”
“My daddy too. He ate em both.”
“I’m-. I’m terribly sorry, Eupheus. To go through that-,” Perlessy says. Lost in who knows what to say, who could ever know and so you just say ‘I’m sorry’ which is of course not nearly enough. He stares at the alligator. Its monstrous form every centimeter muscle; its color is darkened with the taste of human blood. He watches it snap at another. The insects hum steadily. A turtle rests with its head thrown upward toward the sun on a half-sunk log. “I get your grief. I know people can be cruel. But you just- you can’t be hitting people. I feel terribly for your predicament, but I still have to try to get you to stop hitting others no matter how awful their words. I-”
“Can you shoot it? With that gun there,” Eupheus says.
“My gun?” He had meant to leave it in the car. A SIG Sauer P320.
“Can you kill it?”
“Only reason I aint come out here to do it myself is cause I aint old enough to have a gun yet.”
“Why haven’t they come and got it?”
“Who? Them folks in town hate us, like I said so. None cares to lift a finger. Can you kill it?”
“I don’t know-”
“What would you do then? Huh? If you were me you wouldn’t want no different.”
Perlessy is a cloud floating high above the slimegreen water. The trees form a cover of thick leaves, framing like a photograph the clearing, the water, the alligator and the two of them. He watches as a junebug crawls down a strand of Spanish moss that descends almost until it touches the ground. The small swamp is beautiful from this vantage. He thinks about the bottle in his back pocket. Then, as always, the crash. He hears the woman wailing. There’s a still little thing still strapped into the babyseat, turning shades of gray and dark red. The sting of failing a people you swore to protect. Quiet transfer to a nothing town. All to get wrapped up with this. Choosing different sometimes doesn’t seem possible, he thinks. His hand itches to grab at the drink.
“What would you do, then?” Eupheus says.
“And you’re sure that’s the one?”
“I won’t never not be. You punish folks that did crimes. Which crime’s worse than killin?”
“Okay, okay. Okay. If this can set things a bit right. Stand back now,” Perlessy says. He can taste the dying fall on his tongue. Drawing his pistol, he breathes heavily. The alligator bites again at a smaller cousin. For a moment it looks to Perlessy like some true ancient thing come back from extinction, angry at all that lives for trying to leave it behind in horror stories of Stygian pasts. He aims the gun, breathes.
He shoots and misses. As if not flesh and bone but hyper-focused machine, fueled with singular furious purpose, the alligator whips around and slides below the surface of the swamp, somehow knowing that the shot was meant for it. It is fast, faster than he had thought it would be, he shoots again. He misses. He squints and tightens his eyelids closed and opens them wide, he shoots again. He hits, the giant beast roaring out of the water, now behind it in the murk a thin trail of blood. Perlessy for a moment sees two of the brute and, startled, stumbles back, falling, shooting once more and missing, the gator now cresting the bank, moving locomotive like across the grass. Before he feels the pain he hears the break. It makes him nauseous, and then a lightning crack whipping along his leg and to his head. It killed me, he thinks in a split-second thought. The alligator makes ready to roll. It pulls at his leg. It killed me.
Six more gunshots echo slow and profound like statements across the swamp and up into the canopy of trees. Then the quiet of a sacred place, the birds silent and still, even the bugs paused holding their small breaths. Perlessy opens his eyes. The alligator, jaws still clenched around his leg, is immobile. Its eyes are half closed, burning with its last bit of ire, going the color of mud. There are four holes in its head. Blood rushes forward down its snout. Perlessy looks behind him at the boy. Eupheus drops the gun to his side. He kneels in the grass. “I kilt it,” he says.
“Eupheus. Holy-. Eupheus. You saved my life. You saved my life,” Perlessy says.
The boy’s tears are streaming like the great beast’s blood. The bottle is shattered in Perlessy’s back pocket. He feels the wet of the bourbon soaking his pants. He smells it, a sweet repulsive smell mixing with the dampened grass, the blood, the heat of swamp water. It almost killed me, he thinks.
“I kilt it,” Eupheus says. “Lorne, I kilt it.”
Perlessy sits upright. Eupheus shuffles toward him. They embrace. Perlessy’s eyes are red like fire with weeping; his sunglasses lie broken beside him.
“Thank you,” he says. To Eupheus, to God, to the alligator, or to them all he is not sure.
“Daddy, you see it? I kilt him,” the boy says holding Perlessy tight. The clouds move indolent across a pale blue sky. The sounds of the wood return.