The Grapevine Art and Soul Salon
Presentations: Bill Kennedy
“Look at that,” I said from the backseat of our new fifty-six Oldsmobile. I’d practically screamed, but Daddy was pushing seventy miles an hour and my words were lost in the hot blast from the open windows. I leaned forward and hung my arms into the front seat between my parents. “Look,” I said, pointing to a billboard. There, in red letters on a green background was the message, SEE JAWBONE--WORLD'S LARGEST ALLIGATOR--28 FEET LONG--AHEAD ON RIGHT. Then, in smaller black letters, a sign-maker's afterthought, it said, Baby alligators for sale- $4.95.
Earlier that morning, as soon as we’d rinsed the sands of Daytona Beach from our feet and packed a week’s worth of salty clothes and two limp beach balls into the trunk of our car, Daddy considered our vacation over. My mother had tried to get a last long look at the Atlantic, but no. “Get in,” Daddy said, opening the door for her. “We got five hundred miles to go before the day’s over.”
Now, two hundred miles later, Daddy had stopped talking. He gripped the steering wheel, transfixed by something the rest of us could not see–-something in the hot shimmer of the long, flat road or in the white and yellow lines that continued straight ahead over the horizon. My little sister Mary, having grown tired of my magic tricks--a vanishing thumb, a paper doll up my sleeve--slept in my mother’s lap in the front. My little brother Warren sat with me in the back.
"Baby alligators for sale," I yelled, still pointing at the sign.
“What?” said Daddy, glancing at me and then back at the road.
“It'll just be a baby one,” I said. “I’ll pay for it if you let me have one. I’ve still got six dollars.”
I’d started the trip with ten dollars, paid to me in advance by a neighbor, Mrs. Martin, for mowing her yard all that summer. Daddy hadn’t approved of that deal, saying I’d been sucked in by too little money for too much work just because I got paid in advance.
Two weeks before this trip, when we were at church, Mrs. Martin invited Mary and me to come to her backyard pond to see the baby ducks. That afternoon we flung pieces of bread to the five ducklings as they paddled circles around their mother, and Mrs. Martin told us to come back any time we wanted. And didn’t I want a job mowing grass? “That way you can bring Mary to see the ducks again,” she said. “And I’ll pay you up front for the whole summer so you’ll have money for the beach.” It had all sounded like a good deal to me.
“Hey, Billy,” Daddy said, slapping my arm with the back of his hand and pointing to another billboard. “You look at that.” This one had an artist’s rendering of “Jawbone,” green as new grass, stretched out longer than the pink Cadillac sitting next to him. “That thing,” said Daddy, jabbing with his finger, “used to be ‘just a baby’ alligator."
“That lady don’t look scared,” I said, referring to a girl in a yellow bathing suit who smiled and waved from where she sat on the hood, as though she and the driverless Cadillac were in a parade that had just happened upon a giant alligator.
“ It won’t be like having a dadgum turtle,” he said, referring to my reptile collection.
Back home, rat snakes languished in a homemade wire cage next to my little sister's sand pile. When Mama cleaned my room, she would stop her dust cloth at the terrarium above my sock drawer and stare at the lizards inside. The lizards would stare back. And each night, as sleep overtook them, my parents’ last conscious thoughts were accompanied by the scrichity-scratch of turtle claws in the washtub outside their window.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” yelled Mama.
“Again? I can’t believe it,” said Daddy, shaking his head and swerving into the driveway of the alligator farm.
In the visitor reception area we all went to the restroom, but I raced in first and was the first back out to find a bathtub-sized glass aquarium filled with alligators, each no longer than my hand. They looked like wind-up toys that first floated on the crowded surface before diving and rising to the top again. I had to have one.
It didn’t look good, though. Of all the adults and kids surrounding the tank and milling about the gift shop area, I saw that none of them had bought an alligator. They bought liquid-filled glass birds that rhythmically tipped to drink, “Sunshine State” cups and ashtrays, island boys that peed when you squeezed a bulb, rubber snakes and even rubber alligators. They bought all that stuff instead of what anyone in their right mind would want–-a live baby alligator. Daddy was still in the bathroom, but I could already hear him. “All you gotta do is look around,” he’d say. “People got enough sense to leave those things alone.”
I pressed my nose to the side of the tank, watching as the little gators continued to float and dive. Looking in from the other side was a skinny kid I’d seen in the bathroom. He peered through thick glasses at the rise and fall of the baby gators. As I watched the gators twisting through the water between me and the bespeckled face on the other side, the clamor of the tourists behind me seemed to recede, leaving the boy and me alone as if we were in the gurgling tank with the alligators. A large yellow shirt with red palm trees appeared behind the kid who looked up and spoke without a sound I could hear, as though he were a character in a silent movie. I wished that I could’ve heard what he said so as not to say anything like it to my Daddy, because it didn’t work. The man in the shirt yanked him around the tank toward me. “No,” said the man, nudging the kid toward a pile of coconut-shell castanets. “You know your mother doesn’t even like the alligator shoes I got her.”
I looked around to see that Daddy was coming out of the restroom. As he got closer and saw what I was looking at, he scrunched up his mouth and nose and shook his head as if he’d been offered a plate of liver. “Don’t you want to see Jawbone?” I said. I thought maybe if I could get him to stay longer, I’d eventually soften him up.
“Here comes your Mama,” he said. He held Mary in one hand and Warren’s hand with the other. “Let’s go. We been here long enough.”
“Don’t you want to see the big one?” I said.
“They don’t show him except at feeding time. That won’t be for another two hours,” he said. “Let’s go. We won’t ever get home this way.”
My father turned and walked away, and my mother joined him as they went through the front door, letting it close behind them. After they’d gone I took a deep breath, realizing for the first time that I hadn’t gone with them. The little kid in the glasses tried to follow his father out the door, but he carried a rubber snake in one hand and a Sno Cone in the other and was stopped when the door closed in his face. The door opened again and it was my mother. She let the kid out and motioned for my Daddy to come back in. “Look at that,” she said, pointing at me. “Let him have one, for goodness sake. I thought you were in a hurry.”
So ten minutes later, back in the car, I had a green cardboard box punched with air holes cradled in my lap. Inside was a six-inch long alligator that my little sister immediately named "Kator" because she was only three and wasn’t inclined to use words of more than two syllables. The ride home was frustrating. I couldn’t see anything through the holes, and I couldn’t wait to get Kator out of his box. “Don’t open that dadgum box in here,” said Daddy.
Six hours later, our tires crunched the gravel in our driveway. I jumped from the car and ran to the garage where I found a note taped to the door from Mrs. Martin requesting another lawn mowing. I stuffed the note into my pocket before I fetched an old washtub, dented and warped by decades in the service of my grandmother's laundry. I placed the tub under a wild cherry in the corner of the back yard next to the cornfield and the pasture. After filling the tub from the garden hose, I slid Kator from his box into the water. He thrashed a bit, froze for a moment, then began swimming about. I sat on the ground watching as he tucked his legs against his sides and motored in circles with his tail. With my chin resting on the rim of the tub in the warmth of the setting sun, I fell asleep and dreamt of Kator gently gliding through a soapy froth of bloomers, girdles and stockings.
Our North Georgia town had one store, one stop sign and, now, one alligator--and I was its keeper. In a long-overdue library book, Reptiles of the World, I read again the section on alligators. I painted the name, alligator mississippiensis on a piece of plywood and hung it on Kator’s tub. Adding an alligator to my collection had me feeling like a real herpetologist. But, I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know. For one thing, cooping up four snakes, two lizards, eight turtles and one alligator made me a herpetologist no more than having concurrent cases of mumps, measles and the flu would have made me a doctor.
But during the weeks that followed I learned to take care of Kator pretty well. The man at the alligator farm had told me that all I had to do was feed him hamburger meat and keep his water clean. The man told no lie, yet according to my book, he didn’t tell the whole story either–-which was that captive baby alligators sometimes had to be force-fed. Twice a week I held Kator’s neck with my left hand and forced hamburger on a wooden spoon into his jaws with my right hand. At first this was easy, but after four weeks he had doubled in size from six inches to one foot.
To impress my friend Johnny and my brother Warren, I’d mimic something I’d seen on television’s Wild Kingdom. As they stood at a distance, unblinking and slack-jawed, I’d yank a writhing and hissing Kator from his tub and swing him down to the ground with a flourish.
“Okay, Warren,” Johnny would say, “now we can move in a little closer so maybe we can help.” Well, they never did help, but they were almost always there for the feedings.
“Why do those two always have to watch?” asked my mother one day as I headed out of the kitchen with another package of hamburger.
“Well,” I said, holding the screen door open, looking out to where Johnny and Warren waited next to the tub, “I don’t think they want me to get my finger bitten off, but if it happens they don’t want to miss it.”
And Mrs. Martin didn’t miss a week asking me to come mow again–-always on Saturday so the lawn would be ready for after-church company on Sunday. So that her visiting grandchildren might make their way from the back steps to the duck pond. Apparently buckled shoes of patent leather and hard soles of brown oxfords could only find traction in grass scalped to the roots. So, almost every Saturday afternoon, as Daddy settled into a baseball game before the TV, I’d push the mower onto the highway, around the curve by the corn field and across the creek to the Martin house. Maybe it was the Dog Days. In the Dog Days of August, the cotton grows faster. That’s what the old farmers would say. Maybe cotton did grow faster and grass, too. And, who knows? Maybe that’s what made Kator grow so fast.
One Saturday as I returned home from mowing, the front of my tee-shirt and jeans dark with sweat, Daddy stood over the barbeque pit, turning hamburger patties. He wiped his brow with his sleeve. “You better think of getting another tub for that thing–maybe something a Cadillac would fit into,” he said, chuckling. I pretended to laugh back.
The very next day, late in the afternoon, the pretending stopped when Kator got me. By then he’d graduated from meatballs to live frogs. As I knelt on the ground next to the tub, I held out a fat bullfrog which leapt from my hand just as Kator went for it, getting me instead, right between the thumb and forefinger. He wouldn’t let go.
Daddy, who’d been watching TV, came out the back door to help. When I saw him, I realized I’d been squealing and tried, with little success, for a proper male groan. “Whoa,” he said as he trotted up, grabbing the jaws. With bare hands my father pried them open.
“Was bound to happen sooner or later,” he said as he examined my bloody hand. “You okay?”
“Yes, Sir–I mean, no, Sir.” I clinched my lips and looked down at Kator, who reposed with indifference in his tub. “I had it coming,” I said, turning back to Daddy.
He leaned away from me as if he needed to get a better look. “Why’d you say that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, looking away again. The bullfrog seemed emotionally restored and sat quietly by the cherry tree. Both alligator and bullfrog looked at me.
“Maybe you know alligators better than I do,” I said.
In the terrarium where I kept lizards, I had put plants, moss and rocks like those where I’d caught the lizards. How could I put a swamp with cypress trees in my grandmother’s tub?
All I could do was to keep feeding him twice a week, and I never missed.
Except for that one week in late August when Johnny fed him for me while I was gone to Boy Scout Camp. “You’ve seen me do it,” I said the day before leaving. I grabbed one corner of the screen-wire top and lifted it from the tub just enough to toss in a frog. A thrash of water erupted through the screen, followed by a short croak, bitten off in the middle.
“Okay,” said Johnny. “I’ll come down here and feed him twice a week. Don’t worry.”
When I got home a week later, Johnny, looking very worried, waited for me on the front steps. Mama, who’d picked me up from camp, had already warned me of bad news. “I don’t know what happened,” said Johnny. He was still sitting on the steps, his face now pushed into his hands. “Two days after you left, I came by and he was gone. The screen was off the tub even though you’d left the cement block on it. I looked for him all that afternoon,” he said, looking back up at me. “I have to go home, we’re having company and I’ve got to clean my room.”
“Well, did you ask anybody if they’d seen him?” I said, ashamed at once for the tone in my voice.
“Just them,” he said, pointing across the driveway to the house next door. “They didn’t see him. I’m sorry. I have to go.” Johnny walked toward the road, his head down, his shoulders forward, his steps deliberate.
I searched the yard back and front and all along the highway in front of the house. I looked in the pasture and the cornfield. Finally realizing he was long gone, I stopped looking.
As I stood near Kator’s tub, I felt my lip quiver. Even with food in hand, one does not whistle for an alligator, so I just stood there listening and watching as a breeze rattled the corn stalks.
“Why’d you look so much in the corn?” said Mama, as she poured tea over the crackling ice in my Daddy’s glass. We were all seated around the table for dinner. “I can’t imagine he would run into the cornfield. What would he want to do in a cornfield? Looks like he’d go through the pasture toward the creek.”
“I expect an alligator would go downhill,” said Daddy, as he considered the piece of liver he’d speared on his fork. “The cornfield is downhill. Let’s just hope it doesn’t get out on the road.”
“I looked everywhere,” I said. “The pasture, the yard, the cornfield, up and down the side of the highway, everywhere.”
“Did you look in the garage?” said Warren.
“In the garage.” I said. “Don’t be such an idiot....”
“Don’t you be talking like that to your brother,” said Daddy, pointing at me with the same piece of liver.
“Now, Billy, we’re all upset by this,” said Mama, setting down the pitcher of tea. “But we know you did the best you could. You may have to accept that the little alligator is gone.”
“Gone.” Said Mary, stuffing a handful of mashed potatoes into her mouth.
“Your mother is right,” said Daddy, scraping the liver off his fork and going for the English peas instead.
The phone rang right behind Daddy’s chair, jolting the peas off his fork.
“Who could that be?” said Mama, plopping another dollop of mashed potatoes onto Mary’s plate.
Daddy reached behind his chair and grabbed the phone, setting it on top of the peas he’d spilled on the table between us. “Hello,” he said, putting down his fork. “I’m sorry to hear that...Yes, I know, he’ll want to know,” he said, gripping the receiver and glancing in my direction. I looked to my mother, who was already looking at me, both hands on the table. “Okay, I’ll tell him,” said Daddy, pulling the phone away from his ear. “Thank you kindly for calling.” He flared his nostrils, let the phone drop to its cradle from his fingertips, and leaned in toward me. “Well, there’s another thing,” he said. “You probably never gone see that ‘gator again, but you’re still paying for him. Jewel Martin says the grass down there at her house is knee-high.”
“Well, I should’ve known. After all, tomorrow’s Saturday,” said Mama, handing Daddy a napkin, pointing at the mire beneath the phone. “Mary and I’ll go with you and we can feed the ducks. How big are those little ducks now?”
The ducklings, nothing but three balls of yellow fluff when we first saw them in June, were now half grown. As Mama, Mary and I pitched bread crumbs to them, they swam circles around their mother, snapping some of the crumbs in mid-air. I’d not yet started the mower and I was already hot, the sun overhead without the company of a single cloud. No breeze stirred the branches of the willow tree under which we stood.
“They just aren’t as cute when they’re older are they?” said Mama.
“Yeah, I guess,” said Mrs. Martin, dragging up a couple of aluminum lawn chairs with green webbing. “Hasn’t slowed down my grandchildren, though. They still come over here twice a week to feed them.” She opened the chairs and motioned Mama into one of them and took the other for herself. “They found out in the 4-H club that ducks do better on toasted bread and corn. So now we’re cooking for these ducks,” she said, slapping the arms of her chair.
I stepped over to the mower, set the throttle and grabbed the starting rope.
“Billy,” said Mrs. Martin. “Everything considered, you done a good job on my lawn this summer. We could have the same arrangement for next year, if you’re interested.” She glanced at Mama and back at me.
“I may not be able to do it next year,” I said. “I think I have a job lined up for then.”
“Well, I wish you could do it,” said Mrs. Martin. “You’re such a nice young man, so dependable and careful. Matter of fact,” she said, rapping the arm of her chair again, “I hope my grandson ends up just like you.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“What job?” said Mama.
I took a quick breath. “Well, it’s just something I’m thinking about,” I said.
I yanked the rope and started mowing, making large circles around the yard between the house and pond, followed by smaller and smaller circles, working my way to the middle, wondering where in all the stunted yellow grass the so-called “knee-high” grass could be. The sun hung close over my head and back, dishing out its full dose of scorch. Each time I circled near the pond, Mary, standing next to a heap of bread crumbs, would turn and wave to me. By the time the bread was gone, I was only half through mowing, but I stopped anyway, shut off the mower and pulled off my tee shirt.
“You’re going to get sun blistered,” said Mama.
“I’ll stand in the shade a minute,” I said, walking to the willow tree. “My shirt’s soaking wet.” I wanted Mrs. Martin to see my sweat, how soaked my shirt was, but she was gone. “Where’d the slave-driver go?” I said.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” said Mama. “She’s gone to get you some lemonade.”
“Come back,” said Mary. She watched, we all watched, as the duck family swam away, no longer interested in this little person who’d run out of bread crumbs. “Bye-bye, ducks,” she said and, in the time it took her to say it, the trailing duck vanished in a thrash of water. Circular ripples spread from where the duck had been.
“Duck is gone,” Mary said.
“Did you see that?” said Mama. She turned to me and covered her mouth.
The screen door slammed, and we looked over to see Mrs. Martin with a pitcher and a stack of plastic glasses, creeping sideways down the steps.
“What happened?” said Mary. She now stood between Mama and me. “Was it magic?”
“The duck left and we don’t know where it went,” said Mama, shaking her head from side to side. “Do we, Billy?” She put her hand on Mary’s head and Mary smiled, looking up at us.
I looked back at the pond, and the duckling was still gone. The surviving ducks continued their steady progress across the pond while Mrs. Martin made her way to us.
“Well, here you go, Billy,” said Mrs. Martin, laying the stack of glasses in her chair. “You look mighty hot and the hair’s all stuck to your head.” She poured lemonade and ice into a glass and handed it to me, but I was no longer thirsty. I politely took a sip from the glass, its rim unsteady on my lips.
“Look,” I said, now holding the glass with both hands. “While I was mowing, I got to thinking and, well, I changed my mind about that other job. Or, actually, that other job, if I get it, that is, it wouldn’t I don’t think be full time and I don’t think it would keep me from mowing for you.”
Mrs. Martin’s face brightened. “Well, that would be wonderful,” she said as she poured my mother a glass of lemonade. “You just do such a fine job and all....”
“Mrs. Martin,” said Mama, taking a sip from her glass. Mary was leaning against her, grinning into the sun. “Mrs. Martin, something might have happened to one of your ducks a minute ago. All the ducks were swimming along in a row the way they do,” said Mama, “and suddenly....well, you can see out there now one is missing,” said Mama, pointing at the ducks, now paddling down the other side of the pond. “And Billy may know what happened.”
“It just got jerked under the water didn’t it?” said Mrs. Martin.
“That’s what it seemed like,” said Mama.
“Well, I can’t believe it,” said Mrs. Martin. “I told Emmet. Well, how could he know? He thought he’d shot all those snappers.”
“Snappers?” said Mama.
“The snapping turtles what ate all the ducks last year. Emmet can hit’em with the 22 from the back porch. Oh, well, I guess we still have a snapper,” she said, shaking her head. She stood and counted the remaining ducks. “Yeah, looks like we’ve just lost the one.”
“Well,” I said. “I just lost something myself. You remember we went to Florida last June?” I finally took a long drink of lemonade.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Florida. Everybody thinks they ain’t been nowhere if it ain’t Florida. Never seen anything down there that wasn’t up here, except tourists. I always wanted to go to Arizona, the Indian reservations, the scenery, them cactuses, the Grand Canyon. Even though they’ve got them tarantulas and poison lizards out there. They say you can get rid of your sinus out there too, so I may be able to talk Emmet into it. I had an uncle who lived there for awhile,” she said.
I walked back to the center of the yard and, as Mrs. Martin told Mama about her uncle’s sinuses, I yanked the mower to life again. After two trips around the yard, I saw Mrs. Martin go back inside her house. My mother and sister also left, making their way toward home, Mary dragging the empty bread bag behind her.
After another hour of heat and dust, I finished mowing, cut the engine and wiped my face on the sleeve of my tee shirt. The ducks had paddled out of sight somewhere and the pond was still, its surface smooth like a clean slate. I pushed the lawnmower home, over the creek, past the cornfield and into the garage where I found the green cardboard box with air holes in it. I ran with the box back down the road again to Mrs. Martin’s. I climbed her back porch steps, took a few extra breaths and knocked. Mrs. Martin opened the door, her eyebrows raised.
“If you go to Arizona,” I said, “could you bring me something back?”
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