There are many wonderful components of working in the semi-outdoors (I spend the majority of my time in a van), one of which is not tourist traffic of southwest Florida. People in Florida are either old, on Spring Break, or on vacation, factors that create life-threatening driving situations on a daily basis. It is like guerilla warfare out there, and I never know when someone in a Buick Regency is going to slam on brakes for no reason, or make a left turn against a light, or drift into the passing lane for sightseeing, or violate every law of common sense when operating a moving vehicle. And I’m on high alert for these fools while I’m behind the wheel of a 15-person passenger van with an alligator on the side as I’m talking into a headset about the wondrous biosphere of the unique and magnificent Everglades. I’m like the person who rides the unicycle while juggling the flaming bowling pins through downtown Ho Chi Minh City. How do I do it? I go in there and I don’t think about it. That’s how.
What’s worse is that Michael can’t let it go. Our driving together through the congested and insane byways and highways and snowbird infested county roads is met with his play-by-play commentary of the traffic as it’s happening:
“OUTSTANDING, you genius! Way to use that turn signal. Oh, wait? Your hands were too busy dialing your cell phone? Then it’s okay then. Sorry, I didn’t know you were BUSY!”
“What are you doing you jerk…what are you doing?…are you going to pull right out in front of us and go four miles per hour…no….yes! Yes you are! Congratulations, sir, you win Jerkface Jerk Award of the Day. You jerk.”
“Just drive your freaking car, ma’am. Just drive your freaking car. Maybe try stepping on the pedal under your right foot, that’d be the GAS! That’d be helpful for EVERYBODY ELSE out here who’s trying to GO SOMEWHERE in our CARS!”
When he is exceptionally frustrated by the traffic and the way people drive, he will start criticizing their outfits.
“Oh? You can just drive all over the road like you own it and that makes it okay for you to wear that stupid hat? I don’t think so.”
“That shirt is worse than your driving. I didn’t think it was possible. For anything to be worse than your driving. But I was wrong.”
Regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, and economic standing, everyone on the road, to Michael, is a dickhole. I’m not making this up: once, he said “dickhole” seven times in one sentence. Try it on your own sometime. It’s hard, but he did it. “I’m gonna get a shirt,” he tells me, after a harrowing journey to dinner made all the more harrowing by his announcing of its harrowingness, “that says ‘Just Don’t Be a Dickhole’ right here, right across my chest like this,” and then he draws three lines where the writing will be. “A dickhole-free zone. That’s all I want. Is that asking too much of the universe?”
Tourist traffic, as I see it, is my price. That’s what I have to pay to get to do what I do. So, I endure. Some days better than others, but I get to see alligators on a daily basis, and many of them I can now identify because I see them so often, so I’ll pay the price.
When I was living in Wilmington, crippled financially and emotionally under the quadruple burdens of a mortgage, bills, a full time job, and managing life alone, one of my ways of coping was to lie in bed with Buckley and watch David Attenborough videos on Netflix. I watched them incessantly. I napped to them. I got to the point where as soon as I heard the intro notes to “Planet Earth” and Sir David’s voice, I would instantly feel a sense of safety, like putting a black blanket over a bird’s cage at night. What I aspired to was Mr. Attenborough’s familiarity with the natural world. I wanted his voice, the way it was so certain about the information he was telling me: “incredibly, 80 percent of all insects live in jungles…but, jungle ants don’t have it all their own way” and then I’d watch in rapt horror as the Cordycep, a parasitic fungi, infected said jungle ants, growing inside of them until the ants went insane and the Cordycep erupted, fully grown, from the ant’s head.
Two days ago, an elderly man with an iPad recorded bits of my narration of the nature drive, and he played it back to check the quality. I heard myself saying shit like “the Great Blue Heron’s favorite food in all the land is baby alligator,” and I swear to you my cadence sounded just like David Attenborough’s although my accent is eastern North Carolina peckerwood cracker and not British. Twangy Attenborough, that’s me.
David Attenborough, just so you know, my dream of being just like you is coming true.
One of my favorite dramas that’s unfolding right now is the story of Knotty and Her Suitors.
Knotty, or Knot-Nose, or Ethel, is a 6-foot female gator who has made her territory the small lake behind Corey Billie’s office and gift shop. The best guess is that she was bitten on the snout by another gator earlier in her life and she was left with the scars that distinguish her as Knot-Nose, or, as I call her, Knotty.
Over the last month, Knotty has had two big males, 10-11 footers, who have been courting her and sunning with her on the bank. One of them is pretty clean as far as scars go, but the other has marks on his neck where he was bitten by another big male. This one, who I’ll call Chacho, is the one whom I saw with Knotty the most. In fact, I was out back one day looking at Knotty and Chacho over the fence when another big gator surfaced about 100 yards from them toward the back of the lake. I don’t know what happened, if maybe the other gator sent a message through the water, something like “Hey, girl” to Knotty, but what I do know is that Chacho was looking right at me–there was no way he saw the other gator–and suddenly, he cut his eyes and then moved off the bank and beelined for that other male.
When they want to, gators swim very, very fast.
When he was about 30 feet from the other gator, Chacho disappeared, but we saw the ripples. Soon after, the other male disappeared. We didn’t know what was going on.
At this point, a small crowd had gathered, and I was telling them about Knotty and the two males and what had happened. I’m pulling for Chacho, you see, and so I’m telling the tale as if this no-count interloping male was trying to muscle in on Chacho’s girl, and the people who are standing out there with me are clearly moved by this injustice. The guy who is out there with his wife, he’s from New Jersey, and he gets it when I explain that it’s like you’re in a bar buying drinks for a pretty girl and this other guy comes up and asks her to dance.
Before we know what’s happened to Chacho and the Interloper, the New Jersey couple’s boat gets called, and they have to board for their airboat ride.
“We gotta go,” he says, but neither of them move. All of our eyes are on the far lake. We’re waiting for one of the gators to resurface. We’ve gotta know.
“Your boat is boarding,” says Kim to the couple out of the screen door. “You guys have gotta go or you’re gonna get left!”
“Okay,” they say, and take a tiny step back. I know they don’t want to go. I don’t want them to. We’ve all watched this showdown from the moment the Interloper surfaced, and it’s like any story. You have to know how it ends. Does the good guy win?
“Guys, let’s go!” Kim said. “Boat’s loading!”
“I’ll tell you guys what happened when you get back,” I said, but none of us want it to end this way.
“Okay,” the guy said, and he took his wife’s hand, and led her through the gift shop toward the dock. When they reached the other side of the screen door, I saw it.
One of the gators emerged.
“He’s back!” I shouted. “One of the other gators just surfaced!”
The couple runs to the screen door and now we’re frantically trying to discern which male it is. If it is the Interloper, that means Chacho has lost forever. Knotty will have a new suitor now, and Chacho will be left to start again.
“Can you tell who it is?” the guy asked me.
“Not yet. I need him to get closer. Here he comes.”
The couple waits.
They came to southwest Florida from New Jersey to take an airboat ride. Yet, here they are, risking missing the boat just to see which of the males was going to return to the bank. Return to Knotty.
“Who is it? Which one is it? Is it our guy?” The husband from New Jersey sounded concerned.
“Guys, you have to board the boat now!”
“Wait!” I said. “Just give us two seconds! He’s coming in. I think…I think…it’s…”
I strained my eyes against the glare of the sun on the lake. I was looking for the tell-tale bite marks. If it wasn’t Chacho, I was going to be pissed. Surely Chacho couldn’t–wouldn’t–give up that easily.
“Is it?” the wife said.
Knotty, all this time, hasn’t moved. She’s been crashed out on the bank, belly down, feet splayed, for the entire drama. She looked nonplussed. She, too, faced us, and she didn’t seem to have noticed that her faithful lover departed on a mission of honor. There was a stray piece of sawgrass on her knots.
“The other one didn’t even look that big!” the guy said.
And then the gator was close enough so I could see his neck. Please, please, I thought. Lemme see the marks. And then I saw them. The bite scars.
It was Chacho.
“It is him!” I said, “it’s him!”
And then, I swear to you, the woman goes “Yay!” and the husband and I started clapping.
Not a big round of applause, but more like the way you clap for your teammate when he makes a good play. “Alright!” the guy said, and then the couple disappeared through the gift shop and onto their airboat ride. Our tour left before they got back, so I never saw them again.
What they didn’t see was what Knotty did when Chacho got back. I was the only one out there for this part, and I wish I had filmed it.
When Chacho cruised into his spot on the bank, she turned her head at him and pushed herself slightly into the water, just enough so that she would have enough room to swim. She looked him dead in the eye and lifted the end of her tail out of the water, and then gently swam around him in a circle.
When she got to his other side, she propelled herself to his face and nudged him in the snout with hers and then she ducked underneath him and disappeared under the water. She resurfaced a few yards away, still looking at him, and then slowly pushed her way back to the bank, where she eased a little out of the water and resumed her same position. Then he eased up next to her and put his big old scarred neck and head on the bank near hers.
I don’t speak alligator yet, but I’m a pretty good reader of animal behavior, and it looked to me like little old Knotty was giving Chacho the gator equivalent of “I saw that, big boy. And I liked it.”
For the past week, I haven’t seen Chacho or the Interloper at all. And Knotty disappeared from that spot for about three days. I wonder if she went off to build a nest, and if perhaps Knotty is going to be a mother in May. I’ll keep you posted.
In human news, the boys down at the Skunk Ape Research Center are going to be famous.
I didn’t know it, but there are test episodes of a reality tv show all about them and their roadside attraction that are going to air on the Discovery Channel around the end of April or beginning of May. The show is called “Skunk Ape,” and I saw the trailer for it on Wednesday. As soon as I can get my hot little hands on that footage, I will post it here and on facebook posthaste. You will not believe your eyes. And you will definitely want to mark your calendars for the first episode.
Meanwhile, you can check this out: Skunk Ape Research Headquarters
That’s all for now, beloveds. I have another story to post soon. Tonight, with any luck. It’s called “The Moluccan,” and I’m excited about it.