Eat Or Be Eaten, a short story
Annemarie often sat within the bright sobriety of the campus coffee shop down the street from her and Roy’s house. The air there was filled with academic fulmination and the evaporating mists of senseless arguments, much like the state of her marriage. She was acknowledged by the college students as one of those bizarre, florid creatures from the 80’s, and they let her go about her pursuits, unfettered but slow.
“I can’t stand that place,” Roy said. “I don’t see how you can sit there day after day.” His comment, for her, aptly illustrated how unaware he was that her main occupation while there was mulling over whether or not to file for divorce.
“It makes me feel wired,” Annemarie said.
“You can say that again,” Roy said.
“Why don’t you meet me there for coffee sometime?” she said.
“Things are too crazy at the office right now,” he said.
One such crazy evening, after dinner, the air was busy gossiping with itself — Annemarie could feel it fluttering along her cheeks inquisitively, and the moon rose early, bouncing light off the red tiled roof. She put on her ratty ski jacket and then poured herself a tiny refreshment of Scotch, which she imbibed cautiously. Her small thick hands, gripping a kitchen chair like death, were chalky at the edges. The clanking emptiness of the room — of her life — created a milky haze over her sight. For what seemed like the hundredth night in a row, she invited Roy over to the lake on campus to see the alligators. For the first time, he said yes.
They rambled along the verdant avenue and before them flitted two zebra butterflies, as if teasing Annemarie to fly. Her husband, his blank, uncomprehending eyes, was at once her soul and her shame. It was horrible to have people such as him think ill of you, think you were wrong. It was small and ugly and soul-shaking. You felt as if you were coming apart like a cheap paperback, pages from your head fluttering to the floor every time somebody breathed on you. She wasn’t much for men herself — she never learned how to tell a sweet one from a poisonous one and besides, she’d never been convinced there was much difference. But a truly radiant woman never hustles off through life unaccompanied.
A small crowd was gathered on the boardwalk over the water — a leather-skinned old German couple, a tall skinny man with a pot-belly holding a toddler, three young college women with lush clouds of permed hair and tight little asses. A little girl came up with coral roses in a bucket balanced on her hip. The German people spoke softly to each other in German.
“We saw a wild boar on the highway back in the mountains in Kentucky,” said the man with the blond baby. “I thought it was a dog lying on the side of the road. Then I saw its tusks.”
Annemarie’s future, single life would be simple like this, among unpretentious people like these — she’d come see the alligators every night before dark with the out-of-towners. She would hear the gators’ mating calls, the deep bellows in the late spring. She’d appreciate the real elegance of nature. Roy appreciated only his new $60,000 car and his tax-free municipal bonds.
The alligator for this evening was a good seven-footer. It floated perfectly still on the surface of the water, the scales on its back pushing through like a miniature mountain range. Its fat front paws hung limp in the clear lake water. It seemed only a little threatening in the smooth summer light. The gator had a large sly grin.
Roy was from the North – he’d never been around alligators before. Florida was alien territory to him. People from the North always freaked out about the gators. Annemarie wanted to give Roy a thrill. She wanted to overwhelm him with her earthy, sensible, swampy ways. She rubbed his hand humbly and forgot to play the grouch.
“They like marshmallows the best,” the tall, chatty man holding the toddler said. The boy wore a short jumpsuit appliquéd with giraffes. The German couple nodded, the old man pushing his fluorescent yellow golf cap back on his forehead. “Let’s see what I’ve got in the truck,” the man said.
“That?” the little boy said, pointing.
“Alligator,” Annemarie told him. The boy nodded and bit his forefinger.
“Teeth,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “The alligator has lots of teeth.”
It was strong, it would eat her if it could. That was the way to be, she thought. That was the new simple way she would live, with or without a husband. Eat or be eaten. Roy hadn’t the slightest affinity for animals. Annemarie wanted to live a simple life. She didn’t want to be angry, ever again. Mostly, that was it. She could not afford any more to be bored with living — she didn’t have that kind of time. Her husband had become accustomed to disagreeing with her almost all of the time, as a method of entertainment.
The man with the baby came back with a vending-machine package of peanut butter cheese crackers. Annemarie shivered. Suddenly, she wasn’t so sure about feeding the thing. What if it came up on the bank? She had read how alligators could run 40 miles an hour over short distances. The man threw a cracker in the water near the alligator’s head. The animal whipped its head sideways and took a big gulp of water, inhaling the cracker. They all got a nice view of its teeth. The gator pumped its jaws, as if savoring the peanut butter, and the water clouded with dissolving cracker. Roy stood apart from the group, his face dark and tense. Annemarie leaned on her elbows, hanging over the railing of the boardwalk.
“Did you know it’s against the law to feed the alligators?” one of the young women with big hair asked. Her sharp voice made Annemarie jump.
“Really?” Annemarie said.
“Is that so?” the tall man said.
“It’s a felony,” the young woman said. “And there’s a fine.”
“How much is the fine?” asked Annemarie.
“A thousand dollars,” the young woman said.
“Really?” Annemarie might be afraid of the alligator but she wasn’t afraid of this young woman, with her elaborate hairdo and her half-pound of gold jewelry. This was the kind of woman Roy would marry next, she was sure. This kind would give him a lot less trouble. This kind would have no desire to feed reptiles of any sort. She directed herself to see marriage for what it was, not its tedious demonstration. The pretty young woman flipped her perfect locks over her shoulders and glared at the man with the peanut butter crackers. He threw another cracker to the alligator and laughed. His baby laughed too, throwing his head back so his fine pale hair waved in the breeze.
“The alligators get tame and that’s when they start eating dogs,” the young woman said. “And small children.” She was businesslike, her voice chilly with authority. The mystery of feeding the dangerous beast was lost on her, thought Annemarie. It was exactly the sort of thing Roy would say. Annemarie’s neck began to tingle, blood fury gathering in her cheeks. The tall man grinned at the snotty college girl and slowly pushed his glasses up with his middle finger.
“Then they have to shoot them,” the girl added. “So it’s really not a good thing to feed these animals.” The young woman had her nose up. Literally had her nose up; her voice resonated with indignation and righteous anger.
Annemarie pushed her arm against Roy.
“Maybe she’s right,” Roy whispered. He sounded reasonable, the way he always did.
“Oh, Christ, what’s the harm?” Annemarie said. She was still leery of the alligator, floating, for the moment seeming as harmless as a large rotting log, but she was enraged nonetheless. The hell with all of them, Annemarie thought. What do they know about right and wrong? What do they know about anger? What do they know about eating or being eaten?
“Great attitude,” the young woman said to Annemarie, shaking her head. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” The three lithe girls walked off, whispering to each other in disgust.
“Throw one of the crackers up on the bank,” Annemarie told the man, now her partner in crime, her body trembling. They were all standing on the wooden boardwalk over the water. She decided this animal was a deserving gator, nothing to be afraid of. She would bring it whole chickens, she decided. It would be her personal ritual. Her wants and needs had boiled down to nothing. It was amazing what she could do without, now she had decided to end her marriage. She would take one pot, a frying pan, and a wooden spatula when she left. That was all she needed. That was all anybody needed. Let him have the expensive cookware she was always cleaning improperly.
The man with the little boy threw a cracker onto the muddy bank. The alligator turned its head sideways and tried to pick up the cracker. Its teeth grazed the mud, making deep tracks. The cracker wouldn’t budge. The animal hauled itself onto the bank and took a mouthful of mud with the cracker. The man threw another cracker on the bank, and the gator swallowed it down. In the fading light, its teeth glowed pure and white. It did slow pushups on its meaty little forearms. Mud clotted its elbows, and the man threw more crackers. The German people oohed and aahed.
“I’m not putting you down,” the man said to his baby. The baby writhed in his arms.
“Teeth,” the baby yelled. “That!”
“Don’t put him down,” Annemarie told the man.
“No kidding,” the man said.
I could do this every night, Annemarie thought. Hang with the simple folk and feed dangerous wild animals like a crazy woman. She imagined the alligator getting angry, running toward her at forty miles an hour. She’d leap onto the railing of the boardwalk. She’d grab hold of the gator’s jaws and hold them closed with one hand, like the Seminole gator wrestlers at the orange groves she’d visited as a child. Reptilian rage was what she’d become practiced at. She had Roy to thank.
She remembered how all the muscles in an alligator’s jaws were for closing the mouth, not opening it. You could hold a gator’s mouth closed and flip it over on its back, and it would black out. The great beast would lie there, paws twitching, flabby white belly quivering. She still remembered one particular Seminole wrestler’s shiny black hair, slicked back off his forehead. He was lean and brown and his stomach muscles cast shadows upon one another. Her family had always watched the gator wrestling and bought rough sacks of tangelos and navel oranges. Annemarie had liked to squeeze the fruit and strain the juice, and think of the man’s bronze skin against the harsh concrete of the wrestling pit while she drank.
Now, Roy had never seen a gator wrestler in his life. He thought life was all harmless monkey jungles and parrot gardens and butterfly habitats. Annemarie knew better. She wanted to live on the edge, she wanted things out in the open. She didn’t want her problems hiding in the shadows anymore.
Annemarie stood against the wooden railing of the boardwalk and watched the alligator scraping the mud of the bank with its handsome teeth, trying for one last cracker. “Throw some more,” she told the man. Reflected light shone out of the gator’s dark eyes.
“Are you sure this is safe?” Roy asked. “That thing is huge. Didn’t you say a dog got eaten here last week?”
“Of course it’s not safe. That’s the point.”
“What’s got into you tonight?” Roy said. “Are you coming up on your period?”
“What kind of question is that?” She went rigid with black demented wrath.
Roy shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the ground. “Sorry.”
A black-and-white pulled off the main road, crunching over the loose gravel. “Police,” the German couple murmured. The two old people scuttled to the benches at the end of the boardwalk and sat down, removing their hats. The tall man stuffed the half-empty package of crackers into the pocket of his shorts. Car headlights flashed over the surface of the lake, then Annemarie was blinded by police flashlights.
“They’ll have to search me,” the tall man whispered.
“We got a complaint about someone feeding the gators,” said the first cop. He was short, and plump, with a dark bristly mustache. His partner was tall and black and stood several feet behind him. He held the flashlight while the white guy spoke. “People, this is a third-degree felony. You’ll go to jail.”
“Crackers,” the baby said. “Crackers!”
“Did they shoot that gator that ate the dog?” the tall man said.
“No,” said the white cop. “That might be it right there.” His partner shone the flashlight on the alligator. Its pupils contracted in the glare. It raised its chin above the water and smacked the surface. Annemarie felt water splash her legs. “It’s breeding season,” said the officer. “They’ll come at you at the drop of a hat.”
“Who was feeding the gators?” said the black cop.
“None of us,” said the tall man. The little boy grabbed his nose, and his father pushed his hand away. “There’ve been people coming and going for half an hour.”
Annemarie said nothing, leaning over the railing, her arms cradling her breasts, droplets of sweat rolling down her back. Roy stood at the other end of the boardwalk, his cigarette glowing.
She remembered the first time he had ever touched her. Roy’s fingertips had moved slowly back and forth over her forearm, the same way the gator’s paws now rocked in the water. His fingers had brushed against the side of her breasts, that was all. She had wanted his touch on her, back then. Where had it all gone?
“We could call the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission right now and they’d come down and cuff you,” said the white cop.
“I’m sure they would,” said the tall man.
“Teeth!” his baby boy shouted. “That,” the child said, one small finger pointing into the darkness of the swampy bank. “Hungry!” the boy squealed. His father shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back again. The police officers feigned disinterest and strode nonchalantly down the boardwalk, toward the German couple. She couldn’t hear what they said, but she saw how they shone their light into the old man’s eyes.
“Well, I’m going to get this little guy home to bed,” said the tall man, looking at Annemarie and smiling.
Annemarie nodded. “Let’s go,” she said to Roy. They walked toward the parking lot.
The policemen waited for them at the entrance to the boardwalk. “We have two witnesses who said they saw you feeding the gator,” the white one said. The old German couple huddled together on the bench nearby.
“Then you’ve got two liars,” Roy said. The German man patted his chest and looked at the ground.
“They both said it was a white male with a blue shirt.”
Roy’s shirt was blue, long-sleeved, covered with little paisleys. Annemarie had given it to him for Christmas. The man with the baby had on a blue T-shirt saying, “Eat Oysters, Live Longer.”
“There’ve been a lot of guys here with blue shirts,” Roy said, shrugging. The policemen took a few steps toward him, shining the flashlight in his face. Roy held his cigarette to his lips but didn’t inhale.
“I don’t like it when people lie to me,” said the cop. He touched the grip of his nightstick. Annemarie moved closer to Roy.
“Shit,” Roy said under his breath.
Back on the bench, the old German woman coughed, both hands over her mouth.
“I’ve been with my husband the whole time,” Annemarie told the officers. “He wasn’t feeding the alligators.”
“Care to sign a statement?” asked the black cop.
“Why can’t you just leave us alone?” Annemarie said.
“This is our job, lady.”
“Pretty messed-up job. Hassling people.”
“Is that right? Would you care to empty your pockets?”
“I told you, we weren’t feeding the alligator.”
“Maybe we think you were. Maybe we’re getting ready to arrest you and your husband here.”
“You do that and you’ll get slapped with a lawsuit.”
“So sue me. You’re under arrest.”
Roy held his hand out. “Now, wait a minute,” he said.
Annemarie heard a rustling in the reeds behind her. She felt something slither over her shoes. At her feet was a tiny alligator, six inches long. Nobody else seemed to notice.
“You’re under arrest,” the officer repeated, his words to Annemarie slow and drawn out as though he were talking to a foreigner.
“What for?” Annemarie asked.
“For feeding the alligators.”
The big gator on the bank bellowed, its pale throat pumping like a frog’s. The German couple shrieked and ran down the path toward the parking lot. The cop pointed his flashlight toward the noise. Out of the reeds swarmed dozens of baby gators.
“I told you people it was breeding season,” said the white cop. The reeds rustled again and this time Annemarie heard a loud croaking sound. The big gator stood there, raised up on its forelegs, its jaws hanging open. The pink fleshy gullet pulsed in the flashlight’s beam. The teeth were dull yellow at the roots, gleaming pale ivory at the points.
“Holy shit,” the black cop said, grabbing Annemarie’s arm.
“Get the hell out of here,” shouted the white cop.
“I am,” the other cop said. He started toward the car, yanking hard on Annemarie’s shoulder.
“Leave me alone,” Annemarie said. She watched the animal while the officer struggled to pull her away. She went limp, buckling at the knees and kneeling on the ground. “Just leave me alone.” She wasn’t angry anymore, not at anyone or anything, especially not at her soon to be ex-husband. The spirit of her rage had gone into the animal. Pure reptile.
“Are you crazy?” screamed the cop.
The big gator sucked air and croaked again. It raised and lowered its head. The babies scuttled back toward it, milling under its body and peeping loudly like baby chicks. The alligator’s thick tail whipped back and forth through the reeds, and finally the cop ran off, leaving Annemarie in the mud. Why had she been trying so hard? Who had she been trying to fool? This was how it was. Eat or be eaten — the end of one angry life marked only the beginning of another. She closed her eyes as she heard the roar of the gator coming closer.
Roy knelt beside her. “You don’t want to do this,” he said.
“Do what?” Annemarie said.
“Get this alligator shot,” he said. “It’s not going to help.”
He was right. The alligator had never done anything to her. She looked at Roy. He had not been shattered by any of it. His eyes begged, but for once he wasn’t judging her. For once, maybe for the first time, it seemed like he understood her. Life could be so simple, once you got rid of all that confusion. She realized that there was no telling what would happen after today.
“Come on,” Roy yelled, grabbing her arm and pulling her to her feet, and his hand against her skin felt better than she remembered. She ran behind him, her feet sliding over the muddy gravel, not afraid, but laughing like a madwoman. Let everyone see me for what I am, she thought. Let them observe my fiery trail from a safe distance, and weep for their own. Roy glanced back at her as they ran, but Annemarie’s lips did not move — she ran honestly, tripping across her own feet. She could feel the sea moving around inside her head, and she laughed.