How to Kill an Alligator
"No one asked me if I thought the alligator was a good idea."
On a bus, a biker guy once told me that his anxiety was like fighting a pack of wolves while skydiving. I didn’t get it at first. “Wait,” I said, “so are you afraid of heights? Or wolves?” After that, he just ignored me until we got the station. Years later, I learned that Easy Rider was the one who had it all wrong. Because everyone knows what’s like to fall, but fighting an animal — wrestling a creature that wants you dead so it can live — that’s not something you can really imagine until you do it.
No one asked me if I thought the alligator was a good idea. It turns out “manager” doesn’t mean much when the person you manage is the owner’s son. It’s just me and Tyler out in the jerky stand, 10 miles down the highway from the much more famous one. Last year, he was on an Ancient Aliens kick so his dad redid the sign out front to look like a pyramid with rocket boosters. For six months we had to wear these stupid green bobblers on our heads and tell customers we “come in peace.” I was the only one who actually did the voice, watching hours of old sci-fi movies to get the squeaky monotone just right. By then, Tyler had already moved on — cryptocurrency, he said, that was the future — but when change came to the jerky stand, it came all at once.
I should’ve known something was up when Tyler showed up for work with a tattoo of a cobra coiled around his forearm. Even a big sign like that can be easy to miss, though, when there are jerky barrels to rotate and your only coworker comes in two hours late.
“It’s just me and Tyler out in the jerky stand, 10 miles down the highway from the much more famous one.”
“Pretty tough, right?” he said as I dragged the fake wooden drum of “Country Mesquite” to the spot where “Oriental BBQ” had been.
“Very handsome, yes,” I told him. If I was being honest, the snake’s wonky eyes — with full lashes and heavy lids — made it look more lusty than fearsome.
“A piece like this would cost most people a buck-fifty or more. But my homie owed me for, uh, a prescription I helped him out with. Did you know you can just buy a tattoo gun off eBay? They don’t ask for ID or anything.”
Driving home that night, I savored my clapback, replaying it again and again in my head. “Fascinating, Tyler.” After all the times he called my shrimp-keeping hobby “boring”! Mouthing off to the boss’s son like that wasn’t very smart, I know, but I had already decided I was quitting — for real, this time. For days, I’d been carrying a letter in my back pocket explaining everything to Mr. Walters: how a man’s dignity is more precious than even diamonds; how I needed to find my special place in the world; and how it had become clear, sorry to say, that the Jerky Junction wasn’t that place.
All I needed to do was put the letter (printed out in an elegant cursive I found online) in Mr. Walters’ hands. The Jerky Junction, however, was just one of several businesses in the Walters Empire, which also included a gas station, an adult book store, and his newest acquisition, the concrete statue advertised at both ends of town as The World’s Widest Cowboy. Sometimes a whole week would pass between appearances by the big man. Then his tan Mercedes would rumble into the parking lot in a cloud of dust and I’d be in for a 20-minute lecture about how I wasn’t pushing enough ostrich sticks at the register. (Tyler’s performance, naturally, was always above critique.)
“I had already decided I was quitting — for real, this time.”
When I got in the next day, the Mercedes was already there in the parking lot along with a cargo van I didn’t recognize. Mr. Walters, who looked like Yosemite Sam if he played golf, was pacing behind the van’s double doors in tight circles. As I got out my car, he spit on the ground.
“Ah, finally,” said Mr. Walters. “Remind me what I pay you for. Is it so I can stand around sucking dirt?”
“You pay me to manage the jerky stand, sir,” I said, adding silently, to myself, “for now.”
“Of course, of course. Well then, how about you manage this.” He jerked a stubby thumb toward the back of the van. I looked inside, where Tyler was tugging on a heavy chain with both hands. At the other end of the chain was a plastic kiddie pool. Other than that, the van was empty.
“What is that I’m looking at, Mr. Walters?”
“C’mon, kid, haven’t you’ve seen Jurassic Park? That’s a genuine living fossil!” Right as he said it, a pair of leathery jaws snapped above the rim of the pool, startling us both.
Tyler laughed. “Don’t freak out,” he said. “Getting all pissed is just Dolly’s way of saying, ‘it’s chicken time.’”
Mr. Walters explained that from now on there would be three of us at the Jerky Junction: Me, Tyler, and Dolly the Gator. I patted the letter in my pocket and smirked. In a few minutes, this would all be their problem.
“Actually, sir, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”
“Me too,” said Mr. Walters. “Tyler, just hang out with Barney there for a minute, will ya?” He put a thick arm over my shoulder and walked me to the side of the van. It was a move I’d seen him use a hundred times on meat suppliers, barrel vendors, and other VIPs. Finally, me and Mr. Walters would talk as men.
“From now on there would be three of us at the Jerky Junction: Me, Tyler, and Dolly the Gator.”
“Now, kid, I know it hasn’t always been easy managing my, uh, concerns.” He tilted his head toward the van. From inside, I could hear Tyler singing the chorus to “Bawitdaba” to himself. “I blame his mother, who was Italian. You knew that, right? Amazing food, those people, but without a Mussolini they couldn’t run a sundial on time.”
Dictatorships were one of Mr. Walters’ favorite topics. If I let his mind wander, he could spend an hour listing their merits. “There was something you wanted tell me?”
“Are you even listening? What I’m saying is, it’s been noticed, your efforts. A man like that — an effortful man — he deserves his own piece. The deal hasn’t closed yet, but I plan to buy that fish store you’re always loitering in. And I want you to run it for me.”
I didn’t know what to say. How many hours had I spent in that dingy former Pizza Hut imagining the changes I’d make to Neptune’s Palace? If I were in charge, I could knock out the back wall and build an entire Shrimp Room: an aquatic paradise with a whole rainbow of neocaridina, from blue velvet to sakura red.
“It’s a big responsibility, I know,” Mr. Walters continued. “But if you think you’re ready for it, I just need you to take care of one last thing. That monster in there, I don’t know how Tyler talked me into buying it.” Mr. Walters shook his head. “It’s going tear off his arm if we don’t do something. I need it, uh, discharged.”
As much as I wanted my Shrimp Room, it made me uncomfortable, what my boss was asking me to do. “Just so I understand you correctly, sir,” I said, lowering my voice to a whisper, “you want me to… milk it?”
“What? No. I want you to kill it! Ice that dinosaur. I don’t care how it’s done, just take care of it before tomorrow. Do that and you’ll be my number one fish guy.”
That day, as I put together the chain-link cage and moved Dolly into her new enclosure (with Tyler’s help, for once), I forgot all about my letter. I had a new secret to keep. Poison, I decided, that was the way to do it. We kept buckets of rat bait in the jerky stand. I just needed to get it to her when no one else was around.
“I had a new secret to keep. Poison, I decided, that was the way to do it.”
At midnight, I drove back to the jerky stand with my headlights off. In my car, I opened the bucket of rat poison and started working handfuls of green pellets into the meat, two pounds of hamburger I’d been saving to make chili. Even through rubber gloves, the ground beef chilled my hands numb. I didn’t mind. I wanted to get through the night feeling as little as I could.
I’m not a killer. The first time one of my shrimp died, it hurt me so bad that I took the rest of them back to Neptune’s Palace. I spent four lonely months staring at the empty tank before I tried again. But Mr. Walters was right about Dolly. If no one did anything, that alligator would kill his idiot son.
Clutching the slimy football that would be Dolly’s last meal, I turned on my headlamp and made my way to the gator cage. As I unlocked the gate, the light hit her eyes, bouncing back as two silver moons.
“Hey girl,” I said. “I got something for you.”
I crouched by the kiddie pool and really looked at the alligator for the first time. Up close, she didn’t seem like such a monster. Dolly wasn’t pretty, it’s true, but what did things look like from her perspective? As far as I knew, she’d always been stuck in some crummy pool, locked in some cage, trapped in life were everyone else decided what happened. And if she did something wrong, could you blame her? Lashing out, that was pretty much the only choice she had other than getting fatter and older and waiting to die.
I couldn’t do it. If that meant Mr. Walters canning me or pressing charges or worse, that’s just how it would have to be. If I couldn’t manage the fish store, at least I could manage my own life. I stood up and chucked the meat into the darkness. As I did, a pair of headlights crawled across the jerky stand and landed on me. It was Tyler’s truck.
“If I couldn’t manage the fish store, at least I could manage my own life.”
“I should’ve guessed,” he shouted as he slammed the driver’s door shut. “Stealing an alligator, taking from me and my dad after all we’ve done for you, that’s low. Real scumbag shit, bro.”
“It’s not, I wasn’t,” I stammered. “I just wanted to check on her. Make sure she’s okay, you know?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” As Tyler got closer, I saw he had a pair of bolt cutters in his hand.
“What are you doing, anyway?”
He laughed. “Same as you, duh. Stealing the fucker!”
Tyler swung the bolt cutters at my head. Missing by inches, he fell onto me, pushing me back into the cage and sending us both into the dirt. I tried to pull the weapon from his hands, but he was like a wild dog, biting my hands and face as we rolled around on the ground. Like I said before, fighting an animal — wrestling a creature that wants you dead — you can’t really imagine what it’s like until you have to do it. I don’t know if Tyler was stronger than me or just wanted it more, but as hard as I tried to fight back, he quickly had me pinned. He raised up the bolt cutters for the killing blow and I guessed that was it. Bye-bye jerky stand, bye-bye shrimp, bye-bye whole life that wasn’t much of a life at all. Then a pair of leathery jaws came up from the pool and snapped onto his arm.
Tyler started screaming, passing out as soon as he saw the blood. Exhausted from the fight, I had to grab his feet and use my weight to pull him away from Dolly. By the time I got Tyler free, his face was as pale as the light of my headlamp. He needed a doctor and I needed to disappear, fast. But as I got in my car and started dialing 911, all I could think about was Dolly. What would happen to her when they saw what she had done?
It’s easier than you’d think to kill an alligator. All you have to do is let people do what they want. Eventually they’ll get tired of dragging it around or it will make one little mistake and then that’s it for her. Saving an alligator’s life is a lot harder. You might have give up everything, maybe even break the law. What happens after that, I’m not sure. When there’s also a kiddie pool in the back, you can only fit so many barrels of jerky in a stolen truck.