Stevie and I fed the alligator in the lake behind the bowling alley on our lunch break. Not directly. We weren’t idiots. We left expired hamburger and piles of fat scrapped off the Snack Shop grill on a special rock at the edge of the water, farthest from the dock. Then we sat on the bench with our French fries and Cokes and watched for signs of him. We rarely saw him ourselves but every day our offerings disappeared and the people who did catch a glimpse of the gator said he was getting bigger. Said he’d grown at least two feet since last summer.
Stevie worked in the back, mostly, chasing pins and tinkering with the returns. He ran the oil machine down the lanes every afternoon. I worked the front desk, spraying Lysol in shoes and covering the cash register. We’d known each other since grade school. We had the kind the friendship that was just there, reliable and steady. We bowled mixed doubles tournaments: city-wide champs three years running. I didn’t give him crap about his Star Wars obsession and he didn’t bug me about being a tomboy or wearing Converse high-tops 24/7. It was summer, 1983, and Mack, the proprietor of Sunshine Bowl, still thought the alligator living in his man-made pond was harmless. A local attraction.
“It’s Florida,” he’d say, toothpick hanging out of the corner of his mouth. “We’re not the dominant beasts here. Gators are. And I respect them.”
Stevie and I didn’t have the same kind of awe for nature that Mack did. We were eighteen, determined to get the hell out of Florida first chance we could, which was just a few months away for both of us. Stevie to Vanderbilt. Me to Ohio State. We liked the water though. We threw stones into the pond. I loved to hear the plop of a rock breaking the surface, falling to the silt below. Stevie tried to make his skim and skip across, aiming them to travel as far as they could.
“I don’t think there’s actually a gator in there,” Stevie said on our last day at work. The August air was thick and my shirt clung to my damp skin. I didn’t want to be outside, but Stevie insisted we feed the gator one last time before we collected our last paychecks and said goodbye to the Sunshine Bowl.
“We saw him that time, remember – back in June?”
“No, we didn’t. We thought it was him but then you decided it was a tree branch floating across the water with the wind.”
“But the stuff we feed him – it’s always gone.”
“Think about it,” Stevie said. “It’s Mack. He’s always the one telling us how big the damn thing is getting. Right? I bet it’s some kind of game to him. He’s probably been laughing his ass off at us all summer long – sitting in his air-conditioned office, watching us out here in the heat, looking for some gator that doesn’t even exist—”
I shook my head. “I think we’ve seen it.”
A pair of white cranes walked along the edge of the water. One of them stopped and looked me right in the eye, then moved slowly on. Vanderbilt was almost four hundred miles from Ohio State. Louisville and Cincinnati were stops in-between. I’d had a map of the United States on my bedroom wall for six months, yellow highlighter guiding the way.
“Whether he’s real or not – doesn’t matter. I’m gonna miss him,” Stevie said.
“Maybe he was here before but now he’s gone,” I said.
“Florida’s like that. Always changing. Things just up and disappearing,” Stevie said. “Like sinkholes. Sucking us all in.”
“Yeah,” I said, picking up a stone and throwing it out into the lake. I listened for the plop, the fall, my eyes scanning the water, like always, searching for a glimpse of the gator.