Published in On the Run Flash Fiction, 2022
“Madam, that alligator has been fed. He is no longer afraid of people. Feeding him is a death sentence. Madam, listen to me…”
Her neighbor’s voice grew shriller and more insistent as he mansplained at her. She sat in her camping chair, sketchbook in hand, gazing at the horizon on the bank of their shared lake. Why was he calling her Madam? she wondered. He knew her name.
The alligator in question nonchalantly basked in all his eleven-foot snaggle-toothed glory on the opposite shore, ignorant of the accusations hurled against him.
Once upon a time she had named the grizzled grandaddy alligator Gary. The lake supported at least two others, which she occasionally saw gliding across the water as she sipped vanilla tea on her lanai at dusk. She imagined Gary in a love swamp triangle with Gertrude, the dark fetching eight-footer, and Girard, the spikey juvenile. It was a better story than the ones on TV, which had been taking up too much of her time since her husband died.
After the conversation with her neighbor, she feared for Gary’s life. It would only take one phone call to Fish and Wildlife—any gator over four feet could be deemed a “nuisance gator,” a target for trappers to kill, skin for wallets and shoes, and butcher for “gator bites” for local eateries. No trial, no evidence, no ID. She’d seen the trappers in years past with their hulking vehicles, wire nooses and floppy eared hounds, bright lamps flashing over the swamp at night, looking for the telltale red glow of eyes.
The next day on her way to her yoga class she asked her neighbor if he’d actually seen anyone feed Gary. Her neighbor only became angrier and more insistent, chasing after her golf cart on foot. “Sooner or later he will attack someone, a kid fishing,” he yelled shaking his fist in all his crotchety fury. “And MADAM, YOU will be responsible!”
Is Madam code for any woman who questions a man? she mused. And why did he specify “kid” when there were hardly any people, let alone fishermen, under the age of seventy living in this senior community?
On the third day she was in the kitchen baking her signature apple pie with graham cracker crust to take to her weekly bridge club. She heard the laughter of small children. When she peered out the curtain, she spotted her neighbor and his small grandchildren taunting Gary by throwing rocks in the water. The neighbor’s big dumb son, the children’s father, just stood there watching.
Her fingers curled with fury around her rolling pin. She swung her tattered screen open and marched up to them, clutching the pin like a weapon. Forgetting children were present, she let a string of words slip from her mouth, words she hadn’t used since epic shouting matches with her late husband: “Leave him the f— alone, he’s living his life and not bothering you!”
The human brood gaped at her and at once stopped throwing. Her neighbor snarled under his breath, “That alligator is a goner, I tell you. A goner.” Gary was a safe distance away, his snout and eyes peeking above the surface of the water.
My neighbor must be going senile, she thought. Did he just he endanger his own grandkids so he could claim that this alligator no longer feared people?
That night, she went out her front door with a lantern and stood in the moonlight, hoping to have a little chat with Gary.
“Oh ancient one…” She addressed him reverently, knowing his cousins, the crocodiles, were once worshipped as gods by Egyptians. “I know your kind have been here before the dinosaurs and will still be here for the second Flood, when we drown the earth with our stupidity. By your size I can see that you have lived a long life and fought many rivals—and eaten many rats and snakes, for which I am grateful. Seeing you sunning yourself on the bank every day has made me feel more connected to nature, a little less lonely, especially this past year. But you cannot survive the trappers, they are coming for you, and I am helpless to stop them.”
She waited for a few minutes, her nightgown flapping in the night breeze. She heard something in the woods on the other side of the lake and turned up her hearing aids. She just made out the faint but distinct bellowing of alligators mating. That’s odd, she thought, mating season ended months ago. She waited a few minutes more and held up her lantern, casting an eerie orange glow over the rushes and palms. Two unmistakable long dark shapes were lumbering through the woods away from the lake. Good for you Gary, she thought. You and Gertrude find a nice new lake, away from housing developments and human foolishness. God speed.
The next morning, she did her stretches, scrambled her eggs, took her blood pressure pills, and brought her coffee out to the lanai. There he was, all four feet of him, the crown prince Girard, cruising across the lake like any teenager no longer supervised (or in fear of being killed and eaten) by his elders.
She opened her dusty cabinet and took out a cream-colored stationery set with her initials embossed on the cover, the cards and envelopes she used for her grandkids’ birthday checks and sympathy notes for widowed friends. In spidery script she wrote a note to slip under her neighbor’s door:
We are presently down to one small alligator, and by the time he is big enough for numbskulls like you to try to kill him, you and I will be dead. Enjoy the rats and snakes.