I only ever saw my father cry once.
He came home from work that evening and locked up his gun belt like he always did. Then he sat on the back porch alone and proceeded to drink a case and a half of Coors while watching the sky get dark. After I had put my little brother to sleep – and him all the time asking “What’s wrong with Dad?” – I went out back to look at my father. He was sitting in an old lawn chair surrounded by empties, with his head in his hands, making these small choking noises. Standing behind him, I thought he was throwing up at first. But when I moved a little closer I saw that he was crying. I had never seen him like that before, not even when Mom left. I didn’t know what to do, so I turned around and went back inside. I laid awake for most of the night, until I eventually heard him stumble inside. The screen door screeched and slammed shut behind him. He was asleep on the couch, still in his uniform, when we left for school the next day.
My father liked his beer, but I hardly ever saw him drunk. I could always tell the few times that he did get drunk, he would talk slower and smile more. But being drunk was not a luxury he afforded himself. He used to say that the sheriff was always on duty, especially in a small town like ours. Many times when I was a kid I remember being woken up by the phone ringing in the middle of the night, somebody calling my father. I remember him talking on the phone, always too quiet for me to make out his words but still hearing his voice. I would listen to him get dressed and put his boots on, then the screen door screeching as he left.
Usually he would be home before too long. It was a small town and people tended to call the sheriff for every little thing. When the phone rang in the middle of the night like that, it was usually just a fight down at the All Stars Saloon or maybe an accident out on the highway. He usually got called in for that stuff too.
To see my father cry was, to me, a very strange thing. He always seemed so impossible to hurt. I once saw him pull a fish hook out of his own hand when my brother didn’t look back before casting and accidentally hooked him. There was blood all over the place, but he just pulled it out and wrapped his hand in a rag. He told my little brother to be more careful. Once, while putting up Christmas lights on our house, he slipped and fell off the roof. He didn’t even wince when he got up, and he drove himself to the doctor with a broken arm.
There are all kinds of pain, though. I didn’t know that then, but I surely know it now. My father never cried when he got hurt, that kind of pain doesn’t bother a certain kind of man. It wasn’t until later that I found out what kind of pain made a man like my father cry. It wasn’t until later that I found out what happened that day at work.
The monster had already eaten three people. That’s what all the kids used to say. Before Old Man Sanderson brought it to his Reptile Zoo, way back when the highway still ran through town, the monster had eaten three people down around Lake Okeechobee. When they finally caught it, they say it took two dozen bullets just to knock it out, and they say it took two pickup trucks to haul it out of the water. They say it’s over a thousand years old and can eat a grown man in two bites.
The monster, a 16-foot-long alligator, lived in a cement basin behind the zoo. There was a seven foot high fence around the pool, with a patch of grass for it to lay out in the sun. Old Man Sanderson used to feed it scraps he got from the butcher shop in town, chunks of rancid beef and pork that went bad before people could buy it. The transportation people used to give him bags of roadkill they’d scraped up. The monster would eat anything. My father once said that people used to come from as far away as Texas to see the monster before the highway moved. It was, he said, the largest living alligator in the whole country.
The zoo was a cheap and dirty roadside attraction. Old Man Sanderson had the mind for business, but not the discipline. He had a bunch of aquariums full of snakes and a fenced off area of grass where he had these three big ancient tortoises roaming tiredly around. Kids could climb in and pet them. He sold t-shirts and wooden snakes that slithered through the air when you held them up by the tail. He sold maps and alligator jerky. He sold soda and water to the tourists before they got back in their cars. Mostly everybody came to see the monster.
My father took us out to see the alligator one time that I remember. I stood by the fence, looking so hard for it, and I didn’t see anything. My father pointed to the pool, and I saw nothing but a few sticks floating in the brown tepid water. Then it moved. It was just a small splash as the alligator swam from one side to another, but I saw it. I saw the water roll away from it’s giant body, still mostly hidden beneath the surface. I saw it’s nose, and I saw its eyes looking right at me. It must have been massive under there. It crossed the whole pool in just one short move.
Then I felt bad for the alligator. It was so big and kept in such a small pool. I asked my father about it later, but he said that alligators don’t need lots of room like a dog does. He said it was just fine in there. I did not believe him. I had seen its eyes, and they looked sad. It was scary to me to think that I could be so close to something that big and not see it right away. It was almost like it didn’t want me to see it.
My brother was just a stupid little kid, and he asked Old Man Sanderson why he had to lock the gate since alligators don’t have any hands. The old man just laughed and said that when a creature has lived as long as that old gator has he learns a thing or two and maybe we’d just be better safe than sorry.
I did not know the kid who got eaten, and depending on who you talk to now, he was either going to Atlanta with his parents or spending the summer with his uncle in Pensacola when he came to the zoo. The paper just said that he was six. My father never said anything about any of it.
Nobody knows for sure why the kid was at the zoo that day, and nobody seems to know how he got past the fence. Like I said, it was a cheap and dirty roadside zoo, but there was a fence. There was a gate near the back by the pool, but it was padlocked and only Old Man Sanderson had the key to get in and feed the alligator. Maybe the lock was broken. Maybe there was a hole somewhere in the rusty old fence. Maybe the monster just got right up out of the water and opened the door himself. I guess it doesn’t make any difference now.
It doesn’t matter how many times I hear the story told and retold, what happened next is always the same. I guess that must mean it’s true. The little boy stood there next to the pool of filthy brown water and for just a second it looked as if the alligator might not be awake. Maybe it didn’t see him yet. It just laid there in the water so very still, like it wasn’t even breathing. Its eyes were closed, they say. The boy stood there looking at the gator for a long minute, and then he turned around as if to leave. Standing there looking back toward the fence with his back to the monster, they say that he waved.
But he never got to take a single step. In a split second and a with great splash, the monster had him between its teeth. The boy screamed as the teeth sank into his back and stomach. Then the beast slid back into the water, dragging him along. They both went under and everything was quiet for a really long time.
I understand that alligators kill their prey with either a quick neck-snapping attack or by holding them in their vice-like jaws and drowning them as they roll over and over in the water. What I’ve never heard of is an alligator taking it’s prey hostage before. I am taken to understand that sort of behavior would be beyond the intelligence of such a creature. Still, there are things in nature that can’t be explained and maybe every creature is just as smart as it needs to be.
The boy did not die right away, amazingly. The monster must have let him loose because the boy climbed out of the disgusting water onto the patch of grass behind the pool. He was choking and gasping and screaming and bleeding, and the alligator was swimming back and forth below him, making a terrible hissing sound and watching the fence, almost like it was pacing.
By the time my father arrived it had become apparent that the monster was deliberately keeping the boy trapped. When Old Man Sanderson came through the gate with his pistol, the alligator thrashed around and lunged up out of the water toward him. Getting off two shots before being chased back out of the gate, the old man must have realized it would not let the boy go so easily.
My father had brought his large shot gun, which he carried with him through the gate. The gator was laying in the grass on the far side of the pool next to the boy, who some say had gone quiet at this point. My father stood on the other side of the pool and raised his gun at the monster, then paused. The monster raised its head, mouth open wide, staring right back at him. That awful hissing sound began again, like air escaping from a giant tire.
Sometimes I wonder what my father was thinking about just then. I wonder what he was feeling when he drew on that alligator. He paused for what they say was a long time. I imagine him looking into those gator eyes, the same sad eyes I saw looking at me from the dark water. I think about that and I feel scared. I feel tricked. I don’t think now that the alligator was ever sad. I think it wanted me to feel bad for it and maybe get just a little closer.
Then, too quickly to even be seen, the monster snapped its jaws shut on the boy and lunged toward the pool. My father fired once. Twice.
The gator’s immense body floated in the warm brown water, which was slowly darkening as blood poured into it from the gaping wound in the monster’s head, a large crater of gore just above the creature’s left eye. My father walked to the side of the pool, and very calmly shot it two more times.
Many people have said that if my father shot sooner that boy would still be alive. The gator crushed the boy’s skull almost flat trying to drag him back into the water there at the end. A lot of people say my father was scared and that’s why he waited so long. They say that’s why that little boy is dead.
My father never said anything about it one way or another. I don’t think he listened much to those people. He gave no interviews after the official press conference. He was in all the newspapers and even on TV. A lot of other folks say he was a hero for killing the monster after what it had done. I don’t think he listened much to those people either.
Old Man Sanderson wanted to have the alligator stuffed so he could display it and keep the zoo open. My father would not allow it. He drained the cement basin and burned the alligator there. He even took the bones and ashes away in a burlap sack afterwards. To this day, I do not know what he did with them. Many people have asked me. I would tell them if I knew. I really would. The zoo closed down not even a year later. My father did not say anything about any of that either.
When I think about my father sitting outside in his chair that night, mechanically draining beers until he could not stand up straight, and crying all alone, it is easy to believe that he blamed himself for not saving that boy in time. I think now that maybe he did. I think that maybe he sat out there all night asking himself the same thing everybody else was asking. Why had he waited so long?
I don’t know why my father waited so long to shoot the alligator, but I do not think he was scared. My father was never afraid of anything in his life. I believe that. I think maybe when he locked eyes with the monster over the barrel of that shotgun, and the whole world became just those two looking into each other, I think maybe the alligator got scared of my father. Maybe that’s why he made that last leap for the water, where he felt safe. That’s why he hesitated to kill the boy. Maybe my father wanted to save that boy more than the alligator wanted to kill him, and when the gator saw that, the monster panicked. It must be quite something for a creature like that to suddenly find out one day that he is not the top of the food chain as he so long believed he was. The monster was afraid of my father. I believe that.