If you feed them, they will come.
It’s true for birds, squirrels, stray cats, sharks, and, if you consider the average church picnic, humans too.
Tommy remembered his dad’s warning from a long time ago.
“Gators hang around the marina, kid,” his dad had said. “The depth agrees with them, there’s a boat ramp they can scramble up on to take in the sun, and they’re smart. They know anglers throw fish guts overboard, even if we tell them not to, and ducks waddle over looking for scraps. It’s an all-day buffet.” He added, finger wagging: “It ain’t a game, Tom. They’re wild animals with two things on their minds: food and sex.”
When Tommy contemplated the shenanigans on the lake, he thought his fellow bipeds shared a lot with the alligators. With one add-on: gallons of booze.
On this fourth of July week-end, the busiest three-day drink-a-thon of the year, Tommy nailed signs next to the boat ramp, the gas pump, and the rental boat slips. Do not feed the gators. The words were enhanced by a cartoon of a toothy reptile, jaw open wide, in bright colors. Ellie, Tommy’s teenaged granddaughter, had drawn it. She’d suggested showing a shredded hand hanging from the front teeth but Tommy had vetoed it. He was concerned it might entice instead of deter his unpredictable clientele. And Ellie’s suggestion reminded him too much of a story he heard.
The kind of story that was hard to corroborate, and even harder to forget.
A crowd had allegedly, as lawyers say, witnessed the event but when you dug a bit, it turned out all the storytellers had heard the tale from somebody else that was, again allegedly, on site. Ellie had suggested looking for the news item online but Tommy demurred. Busting myths was as alien to him as debunking fairy tales. He liked reality a little fuzzy; it was way more bearable. Anyway, in that tale of gore and woe, a kid, drunk to the gills, had jumped into the water from the deck of a lakeside bar—on a dare. Gators were rumored to be nearby. It was unclear if the kid survived or not, stories varied. Tommy took it as a cautionary tale. Legend or not, if it helped prevent accidents, he was all for it.
He recruited Ellie and her younger brother Rob to help him keep an eye on the goings-on at the marina and the boat ramp. Between the gas pump and the convenience store, he had his hands full. Clara, love of his life, popped in to give a hand when she wasn’t answering the phone at the boat rental hut or serving refreshments to friends who thought a national holiday and the busiest time of the year at the lake was the perfect time to visit.
By sunset on the first evening of the weekend, when the early salvos of fireworks vanished in the crushed orange of a much more spectacular dusk, Tommy, Clara, Ellie, and Rob were wiped. The kids sipped lemonade, the adults nursed margaritas. All dug into Clara’s strawberry and blueberry pie, with a generous layer of snowy frosting, fondly known as “the PI” – for Patriotic Indulgence. It was, in Tommy’s opinion, the best thing about the blasted holiday.
“I don’t care for fireworks,” Ellie said. “Dumb noisemakers. What’s the point?”
“To make dumb noise dumbly,” Tommy chuckled.
“Wasted money.” Clara waved at the smoke-streaked horizon, “All it does is drive the dogs silly.”
Their chocolate lab, Cassie, whimpered, rolled in a ball under a comforter in the bathroom.
Tommy sighed. It wasn’t just the dogs that went silly. “Gear up for tomorrow, folks. Once more into the breach.”
“Some vacation,” Rob said.
“By Monday, we’ll have the place to ourselves, buddy,” Tommy said. Most days they had the place too much to themselves and he worried about keeping the business going. It was the nature of the beast. A few days of flooding followed by many more days of drought.
Day Two started slow. Most beer-soaked revelers didn’t slide out of bed before noon. Ellie dragged a chair and an umbrella to the gas pump and made herself comfortable. With a jug of lemonade and a book, she was all set. Rob got a fishing pole and a bait bucket and commandeered a shadowy spot on the marina dock. The water temperature was too warm for fishing but the boy didn’t care. He had a capacity for sitting still that Tommy envied. Rob took after Clara. Ellie was more like him. Funny how that happened, traits that skipped a generation. Which reminded Tommy he should call the kids’ parents to tell them everything was fine and they should enjoy their Alaskan cruise. He could take a few pictures, as supporting evidence. Maybe not a shot of Ellie next to the gas pump, but Rob fishing, yes, that would be cute, a la Norman Rockwell.
Tommy heard a vehicle crunch gravel in front of the convenience store and went to attend to the customer. Ice and beer. Boat traffic picked up after lunch, with a line of vehicles waiting to use the boat ramp. Tommy loaded a small cooler and sat next to Ellie, still engrossed in her book. At this time of the afternoon, there was more activity on the water than on the shore. The light bouncing on the wavelets reflected on the boat keels and made him drowsy.
Tommy woke up with a start. He wasn’t gone too deep, just balanced on that ledge of consciousness that could tilt either way. Ellie was gone and Rob stood in front of him, thin and brown in his faded tee and denim shorts. In contrast, the boy’s face was the color of Carla’s fat-free milk, chalk white with blue undertones. His brown eyes were too big for his features, like a kid in a cartoon. His entire body shook, from head to toes. Tommy went down on his knees in front of the boy.
“Robbie? You okay? What happened?”
The boy handed him his fishing pole. It was snapped midway, with the reel a mess of nylon bird’s nest.
“It’s broken,” the kid said.
“It happens to the best of us, buddy,” Tommy said. “You caught something too big for you?”
The boy pointed at the marina basin with a trembling hand. “He bit it off.” He dropped the mangled pole and grabbed his shoulders as if the temperature had suddenly dropped below freezing.
Tommy pulled Rob in his arms and patted his back. “It’s okay, all okay.” The kind of thing you say when you damn well know it isn’t okay at all. He spoke softly in the boy’s ear. “What did you see, Robbie?”
A shiver, then a whisper. “Gator. Big. So big. I saw …”
The tears came now and Tommy was relieved. He could deal with tears, it was the shock he didn’t know how to handle. “Let’s go to the house.” He led the boy to the stairs.
Rob resisted. “I have … to show you.”
Tommy looked at the dock. Rob’s chair and umbrella were tipped over. “I know where you were sitting, bud. Come on.”
Clara didn’t need more than a couple of words to grasp the situation. She brought a tall glass of lemonade and settled Rob in Tommy’s recliner, with a quilt on his legs.
“Where’s Ellie?” Tommy said.
“In her room. She said she was cooked. Do I need to call Silva?”
Their GP. Tommy was of two minds. It could be a dream caused by heatstroke, but there was that snapped pole … “Robbie, you remember when we went fishing with Mr. Collins last summer?”
The boy nodded. His nose was in the lemonade glass.
“We caught that ugly gar, remember?” An alligator gar, but Tommy wasn’t going to bring that up. “It was pretty big. About as big as me.” A six-footer and the most awful piece of fish Tommy had ever seen.
Rob nodded again. “The gator was bigger. Twice that big.” He looked at the ceiling, frowned, shivered again, and grabbed Carla’s quilt. “At least twice.”
“How did he get your rod?” Tommy knew he shouldn’t have asked, it was too close to the fear, but he was curious. Gators didn’t rise out of the water over bulkheads. That was the stuff of horror movies.
Rob pulled the quilt higher. “It was hanging over the water. I was looking for another bobber in the tackle box, so I put the rod down. I had a foot on it, you know, so it wouldn’t fall in.” His eyes had gone big again. “I felt the rod slide—I got up and grabbed it.” A pause. A wracking sigh. “You think he’s gone now?”
Gators were shy. Rob’s sudden move must have scared it away. Maybe. A twelve-footer was average, but this was a busy part of the lake. Having a big one wander so close to traffic was unusual.
“I think you startled it, Robbie,” Tommy said.
“Heck, he startled me!”
The kid would be all right. It was a close encounter, and it happened because he’d been sitting so quietly. No harm was done. Still, there was that pinch of worry in the back of Tommy’s neck. Lots of kids and dogs playing around.
He got his shotgun from the locked cupboard in the master bedroom and pocketed a couple of rounds. Clara was watching him.
“You’re planning to use that?” she said.
“Not if I can avoid it. Have you seen the game warden today?”
She hadn’t. Tommy called dispatch and reported Rob’s sighting. The dispatcher promised to forward the message.
There was no trace of the gator. Tommy reset Rob’s chair and umbrella and sat down, the gun at his feet. He felt a little stupid, like he was standing watch for some unnamed calamity. It was just a gator, for God’s sake, not some creature from outer space.
The game warden’s patrol boat pulled in. “Gave the kid a scare, eh?” he said.
“Bit half his fishing pole off,” Tommy said.
“I bet it’s Clarence.”
The rascal had a name? That wasn’t reassuring. “Clarence?”
“You know, the cross-eyed lion from Daktari?” The game warden laughed. “Isn’t that TV from your time?”
Tommy sighed. Thanks for reminding me I’m a geezer, dude. “A gator with eye problems? Are you kidding me?”
The game warden leaned on the boat’s central console. “He’s an eighteen-footer, Tom. A crusty, temperamental loner. Clever too. He knows this lake better than you and me. Worries me.” He shrugged. “Not as much as the trigger-happy numbnuts that’d go after him if they knew he haunted these waters.”
The message was clear. Keep your mouth shut, Tommy, and your gun in the cupboard.
“He better stop snacking on my fishing poles when my grandkids are attached to them,” he said.
“Thanks for calling it in.” The warden’s eyes set on the horizon line. “That shotgun won’t make a dent.”
Tommy eyed the nasty-looking gun on the man’s hip. “I have you on speed dial.” He hoped he wouldn’t have to call. Clarence must be a senior citizen too, if he managed to get that big. He deserved respect. “Something for the kids to talk about, right? ‘Vacation at gramps’.”
The warden gunned the engine. It rumbled low. Like a big cat’s purr.
Tommy watched the patrol boat slip out of the marina then make a wide curve to go check out an overloaded pontoon boat. Ten to one, they didn’t have enough life vests. And they sure had enough empty beer cans to raise the Titanic.
The silly season. Tommy trotted to the house. Rob would be tickled to hear about Clarence. Maybe Ellie could pull out an episode of Daktari from YouTube. She’d snicker, but that was okay.