Sophie hadn’t been able to convince her cousins or sisters to come to The Alligator Farm. No one understood her attraction to such a tacky, weird, haphazard place. Standing alone, she studied the Indonesian salt-water crocodile, Gonzo, partially immersed in his tiny pool. His tail and his snout stuck out at either end. At 19 feet, the farm billed Gonzo as the largest crocodile in North America. To Sophie, he looked that long, or longer, even, through the distortion of the thick Plexiglas of his miniature kingdom.
Gonzo’s home was constructed of light blue, painted cement blocks, with a concrete platform in the back, and a brackish pool at the front. There was a four-inch-thick Plexiglas window running the enclosure’s full length, through which visitors could view him. Each end of the pool connected with ramps open to the air, sunshine, and a fenced sand pit. A large informational placard next to Gonzo’s window displayed an Eastern hemisphere map showing his natural habitat among the salt water marshes, lakes, inlets, swamplands, and open ocean surrounding the islands where Gonzo’s family still freely reproduced, swam, ate, and played. Gonzo didn’t look like he was up for any of those activities. He also looked overheated. Every few minutes, he would open his jaws in a monstrous yawn, exposing his snaggly teeth, including several mossy green ones at the edge of his mouth, and then slowly close them. With his mouth closed, his huge upper teeth shut over the bottom of his jaw. Some of these exposed teeth had to be three or four inches long. The educational plaque stated that Gonzo’s jaws could be held shut by a human being or even a rubber band because his jaw opening muscles were so weak. The closing muscles, though, they were immensely strong. No one could open his jaws once he chomped down. Nothing explained Gonzo’s presence as a crocodile amongst all the alligators.
Grandma Alice had donated her body to science. That’s why Sophie was here. There would be no casket, no urn of ashes, and no minister pretending to know Grandma Alice and mixing up her life stories with some other grandma’s. Eleven months ago, her grandfather Jim had made the same choice. But now, the six grandchildren—a range of cousins and siblings spread in age and location, in which Sophie, the eldest at 35, and Bobby, a 20-year-old-sophomore at the University of Florida (who was by turns weepy nosing his coozy-encased glass of grandma’s whiskey mixed into the 7-11’s cocacola or sullen, spitting brown ick sideways into a nasty Styrofoam cup, his lower lip bulging with chewing tobacco), bookended Sophie’s two sisters and Bobby’s older, similarly hulking and tender-hearted and inarticulate brothers—demanded a gathering, a remembrance.
Gonzo’s sides pressed against the Plexiglas. His ridged back, his spiked armor slid and shifted as he moved and breathed. Tiny limbs with pointed claws occasionally scrabbled for traction. To get out of the pool, Gonzo must expend serious energy. Sophie watched him for a long time and no other visitors disturbed her communion. Gonzo’s appearance, at once so gargantuan with that tail and those jaws and so hapless with those ineffectual claws, both fascinated and repulsed her.
Her father’s indifference to his deceased parents outraged her. After a life-time of parental adoration and generous gifts of every advantage in life, he felt no obligation to honor them. Even his younger brother appeared more aggrieved than grief-stricken. As the geographically closest son, Uncle Ed had cared for his parents through the last difficult years while constantly being compared unfavorably to the preferred son who made few appearances. Sophie’s Dad hadn’t come to Florida with the rest of the family. “Grandma Alice didn’t want a big to-do about things, Sophie,” he said, “and your stepmother isn’t feeling up to it.” Sophie ground her teeth after getting off the phone with him; she was that angry and disgusted. Despite many invitations to her father and stepmother, her father had visited Sophie’s home in Atlanta just twice and then only when he was already on his way somewhere else: one time, she even met him at the funeral of one of his friends to be able to see him. Likewise, he hadn’t seen any of her performances—she sang soprano with a touring light opera company. Not even comped tickets to Pirates of Penzance when she sang Mabel—her first lead part—in his home city lured him to the theater. Since she went to college, she had seen her father only a handful of times.
Sophie’s first trip to the farm occurred during a college Christmas break visit with her grandfather and grandmother, soon after their retirement. Grandma Alice had been mobile then, and Grandpa Jim chose amusement over sarcasm, at least for that outing. He even snapped a picture of Sophie inserting her head inside a life-sized bronze alligator sculpture’s immobile maw. Gonzo’s exhibit had been roped off that day, closed to the public.
They enjoyed a standing-room-only show in the open-air amphitheater featuring a concrete stage with an oval sandpit in the center. The performance starred a 10-foot-long American alligator and an alligator wrangler, a slim, compact man with a watchful manner and serious demeanor. This is a life and death business, he said, making show ponies out of alligators. At one point, the wrangler admonished the crowd to be silent. The man stroked the throat of the alligator until it opened its jaws. He stuck his arm inside the open jaws and held it there for at least 10 agonizing seconds. Several women smothered their gasps; every person held his breath. No one could believe that any man would do such a thing, and the crowd sat mesmerized. When he pulled his arm out safely, he gestured toward the alligator with a dramatic flourish. For his final trick, the wrangler “hypnotized” the alligator. After wrestling it for several suspense-filled, chilling minutes while jumping and ducking the dangerous thrashing tail, the wrangler flipped the beast onto its back, emitting a grunt, holding the jaws closed and shaking its body once up and down like a whip. The alligator completely relaxed or played dead and lay immobilized on his back. The crowd stood, whooping and clapping, and Sophie clapped like crazy with them. Her grandparents played along, laughing.
Today, watching Gonzo open and close his mighty jaws, Sophie considered the wrangler’s arm between the alligator’s open chops all those years ago. She hadn’t questioned the danger, but she now realized that using clever positioning the wrangler could have made it appear that his arm was inside the deadly jaws, when it wasn’t, exactly. She felt cheated; the wrangler took advantage of the gator’s weaknesses to win, perhaps unfairly? Maybe the alligator was drugged too? Sophie had never considered such a possibility before today. The alligator farm’s thrill-factor rested solely on the apparent danger presented by proximity to ferocious predators. The wrangler disturbed her excitement and discombobulated her notions of predator and prey.
She marveled at Gonzo stretched out in all his immensity, his tail alone bigger than she was. Crocodiles, she learned, commonly live over 70 years, and they keep growing until they die. Gonzo’s placard reported that he had been bought from another alligator farm as an adult in 1960, making him about 70 years old. When had he ever lived as a crocodile? He had grown so large that he was a danger to move. Gonzo lolled in his too-small enclosure, waiting for what? Death. Sophie thought, all creatures suffer these contradictions—the power of youth and the weakness and dangers of old age. Your survival itself inevitably renders you too big or too old to fight and win. It made no difference whether you were a crocodile or a human. The devious wrangler too would grow old and weak, certainly too weak and slow to take on an alligator, probably sooner than he thought.
Gonzo looked miserable and lonely. If he was this miserable and lonely on display, what could possibly have caused the handlers to close his habitat to visitors as they had that long ago December day when Sophie had visited the farm with her grandparents? She shivered to think of it. She touched her face and found it wet; she was crying.
Sophie sniffled into the cuff of her jacket because she had no tissues. She rummaged in her bag anyway, finding a roll of peppermints, so she unrolled one and put it in her mouth. It was time to leave or be late for the remembrance. A woman entered the tunnel with a trash and cleanup cart. She glanced at Sophie but ignored Gonzo, as she removed the top of the trash can to tie the bag together and remove it. Sophie sucked her peppermint and found herself feeling better. She hiccupped twice, wiping her tears onto her palms and then her jeans. She would tell her cousins and her sisters the story of the alligator farm visit with her grandparents. She would tell them about the central feature – a humongous sand pit with pools and teaming with alligators. Above the pit, fenced wooden bridges crisscrossed the area for visitors to walk along and look down into the enclosure. Some fathers, bearing tiny offspring on their shoulders, leaned over the fence perilously. Both children and parents seemed oblivious to the danger, though several huge warning signs announced in ominous, red lettering that the alligators could jump up to 15 feet in the air. Every time Sophie visited, she saw the same sight—little kids hanging out over a sandy abyss filled with death-dealing, snapping jaws. She thought that image provided an apt metaphor for childhood. She began thinking how to make her farm visits into a funny story, and left the tunnel without looking at Gonzo again.
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