Gators and Cokes
“You guys having fun so far? Alriiiight....” Abbey Rockford, a tour guide with wild aspirations of a future in alligator taming, offered the cluster of visitors a grin. She walked backwards through Colby’s Gator Farm, swinging her thumb at noteworthy features, like an enclosure for hatchlings in the distance and a boat landing where they launched midnight tours of the wetlands. She wore tattered jeans and a hot pink tank top that clung to her stomach. A simple button identified her as an employee. It was only May and the temperature was a sweltering 93 degrees. Once humidity and perspiration were factored in, a tour could turn into a wet t-shirt contest if she wasn’t careful.
Abbey liked giving tours. She craved the attention. Her bombastic personality won her positive reviews, except when a troop of Bible huggers came through. Being good at her job made it easier not to relive her glory days as “Abs”, a mixed martial artist who saw her name painted on signs in glittering letters.
“Now we’re gonna swing through the alligator paddocks. This is where the magic happens. And by that I mean feeding and mating, two of my favorite things.” When the chuckles died down, she propped her hip on a railing. “May is the peak of alligator mating season, which means it’s a great time to go on the boat tours because the males are on the prowl for mates. Who knows, you might even see a little action today. More bang for your buck.”
The toe of her shoe nudged open a cooler. The strong smell of raw fish wafted towards the guests. “Most of the time, alligators eat fish, turtles, and snakes, but they’re kinda like us. We get hungry enough, we’ll eat anything, right? Even Spam. So let’s feed these guys. Anybody wanna volunteer?”
Daphne was distinctly reminded of elementary school field trips, except she didn't need a chaperon. Today was a free day for her, meaning all she had to do was mow the lawn in the morning and the rest of the day was hers. So she had decided to visit a gator farm. The brunette hadn't been sure what to wear for a gator farm tour, and she felt that perhaps she had made a mistake. She had donned a white eyelet sleeveless blouse, a tiered lacy miniskirt and brown leather sandals, along with her knock-off Wayfarers. She brought a little notebook and pencil with her, and was now using it to fan her face.
Raising a tentative hand, she offered, "I once fed penguins at the Oregon Zoo. So I'm not afraid of dead fish or anything." Plus, she had a purse full of moist towelettes that she had stolen from the restaurant she had eaten at with her aunt the night before. She adjusted her blue velvet headband and stepped forward.
Alligators fed primarily at night, so this was just for show, a way to demonstrate their teeth and further pique interest. Using a clamp on a long rod, Abbey picked up a floppy fish, hesitating a moment before handing the rod to the girl in the tutu. "Pretty skirt," she said. Inwardly, she wondered if this was gonna be one of Those Days when a customer volunteered only to moan and complain about damage to their outfits. She made sure a towel was on prominent display. "Alright. You're gonna hold this over the water, but the trick is to let them come to you," she said. "They'll swim right up. Don't lean over. You don't have to worry about dropping it." She jerked on the rope attached to one end.
Abbey looked over the railing and saw a circle of alligators swimming. "Here they come." She signaled to all the visitors digging for their cameras. "The thing you wanna notice is their teeth. Each alligator has like, 70 or 80 freakishly pointy teeth." She wiped the sweat off her brow and watched to see how the woman handled herself. "What's your name, by the way?"
Taking hold of the proffered device, Daphne did as instructed. She stared, fascinated, as the alligators came into view. The brunette hadn't brought a camera; she figured if she liked it enough, she could always visit again. "My name's Daphne," she replied, steadfastly holding the rod. It sort of felt like fishing, although she wasn't trying to catch one of the gators.
"I have a question. What's the difference between a crocodile and an alligator? I probably learned that in school but I've forgotten."
The only thing Abbey remembered from school was learning how to watch a clock, silently willing its hands to spin faster. Especially in home ec... What a motherfucking nightmare that was, unless you liked crocheting pot holders. "Well there's a couple of things," she said, watching a gator stretch up, open-mouthed, and snatch the fish from the rod. "Crocodiles are browner and they've got pointier snouts. Think the Sarah Jessica Parker of the reptile world. They've also got a snaggle tooth and they like salt water." She picked up a fish bare-handed and tossed it into a waiting mouth. Out of the corner of her eye, Abbey spotted a tourist leaning over the rail with a camera. "Whoa, hang on a sec, don’t want to drop it," she said and hooked the nylon loop around their wrist, "Unless you want pictures of intestines."
Abbey held up the bucket in case Daphne wanted another fish. She wondered what brought the brunette to the gator farm. She was well-dressed and alone, from what Abbey could tell. Maybe she was a guest at the Honey B & B who had grown bored of sipping mint juleps and watching birds from the veranda. She had to give her credit. Daphne didn't even gasp when the feeding rod jerked.
"Huh," Daphne noted. "Nice analogy." She picked up another fish, watching out of the corner of her eye as a tourist got almost too close and personal. The penguins were cuter, but the alligators scored more cool points. It was probably the razor-like teeth. Wait til she told her older sister that she got to feed dead fish to a giant animal that could probably swallow her whole. She'd probably keep that bit of info from her mom, though. She was a class A worry-wort.
"Can they do any tricks?"
"A couple of the older ones beg," Abbey said. "Like that one." She pointed at a particularly large gator a few feet down the walkway. "Hold the fish up high." Back near the camera-snapping dude, two of the alligators got in a skirmish to the delight of the crowd. Abbey felt their throaty growls in her chest. The sound reminded her of revving a vintage muscle car. "The original owner used to put on shows. Y'know, he'd... grab things out of a gator's mouth and stick his head in there. Pretty crazy. His son runs the place now." She stopped short of offering her amateur ideas on showmanship. She knew Matt Colby was tense around the gators. The rumors about his poor dad explained that.
She lifted the contraption, raising an eyebrow. Daphne tiptoed back a little when the two seemed to be getting into a fight. "Sounds dangerous. Entertaining, though. I guess it's a lot different from training dolphins, although I personally think they're pretty scary, too. Like, what are they planning?" The brunette realized she was going off on a tangent and shut up.
Her arms were getting a little tired. "Maybe someone else wants a turn? I don't want to hog all the dead fish action."
Man, dolphins were too cute to be trusted. "From what I've heard, they're planning lots of sex," Abbey mumbled for only Daphne’s ears. She hooked the rod on the fence and raised her voice, "Next up, baby alligators. Get excited!" She wiped her hands and waited for Jim, a grizzled old man with skin as leathery as a reptile. He launched into a speech about the first hatchlings of the season, which were tiny creatures with yellow stripes. For her part, Abbey planned to retire to the gift shop for a cold can of Coke and an oscillating fan. She watched the bulk of the group head towards the enclosure and started strolling back to the shop. The hair near her neck was soaked. She piled it on top of her head.
She snorted, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. Remembering the toilettes, she took one out, opened it and cleaned her hands. By the time she looked back up, the group had moved ahead. Daphne glanced behind her and saw the tour leader walking away. "Hey, wait up!" She trotted to catch up.
"That was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be," she told the older woman. "Very Animal Planet. Have you worked here a long time?"
"About three years," Abbey said, letting the other woman catch up. Before releasing her hair, she cut a furtive glance at her biceps. She had formed the habit while she was fighting. Now and then, she still checked them out and frantically did push-ups if she thought they had shrunk. Most of last summer, the lipstick-colored words 'chicken arms' obscured her vanity mirror. They taunted her whenever she took a pee break from lazily watching Jersey Shore marathons.
A gust of cold air greeted them in the gift shop. Abbey made a beeline for a mini-fridge behind the counter and took out two cans. "Thirsty?" She set one by the register. "On the house." A tiny fan with green streamers buzzed by nearby.
"Oh, thanks." Daphne took the soft drink gratefully, popping it open and taking a long sip. She was already starting to get used to the heat, but that didn't mean it didn't still affect her. She wiped at a bead of sweat that was threatening to trail down her forehead.
"It seems like an interesting place to work. Don't you ever get worried the alligators will get angry or something, though? Especially at the people who seem to want to take a dive inside with them." The brunette shook her head to emphasize their craziness.
Abbey shrugged. "Not really. I mean, if you want to get statistical, you're more likely to have a run-in with an alligator in your back yard. Not that I have a yard. I live on a houseboat. Sooner or later I'll probably fall in." She leaned on the counter. Underneath the glass, there was a collection of jewelry made of bleached teeth. "You visiting family or something?"
"I'm visiting my aunt," Daphne replied, looking at the jewelry. "And we have a backyard. I mow it. I haven't found any decimated gator parts, though, thank god. Or I guess I should be thankful I haven't found a human arm or something." She nursed her soda, relishing in the cool air.
"I got tired of being in one place all the time. I came here to help my aunt with her house. Well, she's my great-aunt. Actually, I was named after her. She's Daphne, too. She's been here since birth, and so had her mother, and et cetera. Long line of McIsaacs in Honfleur, apparently. Something about Scottish immigrants."
“Oh yeah,” Abbey drawled. “I think I ran into her at the antique store. Well, I was there for the flea market because I’m cheap. This lady was buying a chair. It looked uncomfortable.” The tab of her Coke can popped as she twisted it. Daphne had a unique face, she decided. It had to do with her narrow nose. Abbey appreciated a face that made a statement. Her own was a mash-up of odd features that made her feel like an alien on bad days. “Hope you don’t get too bored. Honfleur’s pretty quiet. But if you’ve got a car or cab money, you can get into the city for some action.”
She grinned, flicking a drop of condensation off her thumb and onto the floor. "Oh, yeah, that sounds like her. She loves her chairs. Especially Adirondacks."
Daphne nodded, her eyes scanning the glass case. "I have been wanting to visit New Orleans. I haven't been bored yet, though. This place is pretty cool." She pointed to one tooth necklace; it was on a long string of brown leather that matched her sandals. "How much for these?"
What the hell is an Adirondack? Abbey nodded as if she knew.
“Uh, that one iiiiis....” Abbey pushed away from the counter and leaned back. “Ten bucks.” She opened the slide-lock on the case and retrieved it, dangling it towards Daphne. The tooth was just over an inch long. It was beautiful, Abbey realized, but whenever she looked at the elongated ivory-colored tooth, she thought about suppositories. Bad memories from a hospital stay. “It’s a bargain. You can wear it with jeans or a funky hippie skirt... Whatever, y’know? I’ve got this wicked brown leather vest I wear mine with.”
"I'll take it," she answered automatically. This was why she could never be trusted to hold on to money. She wanted almost everything she saw; if the gift store had had baby alligators, she probably would have purchased one of those, too. That reminded her: she should probably buy one of the toy stuffed gators for her nephew. It wasn't like she was going crazy with the cash, and what was a trip without souvenirs?
Daphne didn't want to leave yet, though. Abbey was fascinating. Well, a lot of people were fascinating to her; she liked to imagine where they had been, what they had gone through to make them the people that stood before her. Sometimes she even wrote little stories. "Have you ever gotten really close to one? The alligators, I mean."
“Hell yeah,” Abbey said and smiled. She retrieved tissue and a paper bag with the Colby logo on it. “I’ve fed the older ones from a couple feet away, handled some of the smaller ones.” She wrapped the tooth necklace in a triangle of green paper. “I’m trying to convince my boss to let me do shows, like his old man used to. I think he’s afraid I’ll get my arm or head bitten off.” She placed scotch tape on the packet and slipped it into the bag, then wiped her forehead. A fly buzzed in the air between them. Abbey wrinkled her nose and reached for a fly swatter. “Okay, this is one thing I’ll never get used to. All the bugs! The hood of my car has a baked-on crust of insects.” She swiped at the winged nuisance. The dead body bounced off her Coke lid and into the opening. “Fuck.”
The younger brunette shuddered as she watched the bug make a crash landing. "Ugh, tell me about it. I had to clean all the windows, and there were years worth of insect carcasses between the screen and the glass. I have never been so glad for the long-handle attachment on the vacuum cleaner in my life." She glanced around for a trash receptacle to toss her own empty can, and spotted one a few feet away.
"You must be brave. I wouldn't even dream of doing that, no matter how much they paid me."
Abbey snorted at the vacuum image. “Wait til your television gets jacked by a family of huge mutant roaches. Anyway, I dunno if I’m brave or habitually stupid.” She cut her eyes at the brunette. “C’mon, there’s gotta be some crazy shit you’ve done, maybe when you were wasted. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna tell your aunt.”
Daphne wracked her brain for a moment, until a particular memory surfaced. "Well, one time my friend and I mixed together a little bit of every kind of alcohol in her parent's liquor cabinet, and we drank it. And I was convinced I could bungee jump off their roof using those stretchy cords people use to tie down tarps and stuff. It didn't end well." She lifted her left wrist to demonstrate how it bent a little funny. "I splintered the bone," she explained.
"Something tells me you have way cooler stories than that, though." As she spoke, she opened the bag, took out the necklace and put it on. It looked strange in contrast to the crystal she had bought from Best Kept Secrets, but she sort of liked that.
The image of Daphne leaning out from the roof and making the plunge, only to have that tiny hook straighten out cracked Abbey up. She snickered. “Actually that sounds like something I’d try after four or five beers. One time I convinced myself I could pee through my open zipper if I kinda...” She made a ‘V’out of her index and middle fingers. “I peed all over the shoes I was borrowing.” As the proprietor passed through the gift shop, she gave him a silent ‘wussup’ nod.
She laughed, shaking her head. "Can't say I've ever tried that. But at least now I know it doesn't work...for future reference."
Daphne glanced over her shoulder, toward the entrance of the gift shop. "I think I'm going to check out those hatchlings. Any animal is cute as a baby. Thanks for the drink, and the company."
“No problem, it was nice to meet you.” Abbey lifted two fingers in a wave. “Come back and see us if you get bored.” She took aim and tossed her Coke can at the trash can, forgetting for a moment that a few sips of soda were left inside. They sloshed out in a brown arc. “Nice...” As Daphne left the gift shop, Abbey went in search of a wet mop.