I'm outside a house. The sky is dark. It's a dream but I know it's a hurricane.
An alligator climbs out of a window.
I'm a Florida boy. I've learned a few things about alligators. They're not always there, but they could be.
River. Swamp. Lake.
Ditch. Pool. Front door.
It's a dream, but I know the house is abandoned. Maybe it's a neighbor's.
Maybe it's mine.
• • •
Age 15: Westside Jacksonville. Blue-collar golf course.
Entrails float in cattails.
The old guys in the pro shop belly laugh. No, nobody got murdered. Gator got something.
Age 32: Gainesville. Tumblin' Creek.
I'm tracking the flow into Bivens Arm, a ruined lake as gross green as pea soup. The creek disintegrates into a delta of muddy, garbage-strewn woods. I know I'm close. I shimmy part way up a tree. I see water through waving reeds.
Then, water moves. Knobby head surges.
I jump. My boots lock into muck. I think of the end.
Age 42: North St. Petersburg. Betty's Coin Laundry.
We don't know if we can afford to get the dryer fixed, so every other night, I tote wet clothes. On the bright side, I have time, finally, to seek therapy in fiction.
My wife borrows a book for me. It's about a gator wrestler.
I've never been so on edge.
Double-digit unemployment. Neighborhoods under water. Pay cuts. Layoffs.
We bought our house in 2004. Two bedrooms. One bath. It's all we could afford, but to me, it was plenty. In hindsight, it was extravagant.
Around New Year's, my boys would climb the orange tree. We'd eat a dozen a day, right there in the yard. Sunshine dribbled down our chins.
Then the plagues came. I drenched the tree with every something-icide I could buy at Home Depot, but it was too late. The leaves fell off. The oranges turned black. Sloughed-off bark left the limbs skeletal, like a Christmas tree in a Tim Burton movie.
I know the boys miss their tree. They're having alligator dreams, too.
North Shore Beach is free. Our Great Recession getaway.
In my duct-taped, '97 Nissan, I croon to the Ramones' Rockaway Beach: North Shore, North Shore Beach, we can hitch a ride to North Shore Beach . . . The boys giggle as spazzy daddy sings the verse:
Chewing at a rhythm on my bubble gum
Sun is out, I want some
My gentle beasts splash far and wide in the literally life-giving sea grass. Sweaty, sandy, briny, happy. Here they're in their element, pitting hermit crabs in gladiator fights, and I can feel like the provider I'm supposed to be.
I don't worry about alligators at North Shore. Bull sharks maybe. (Shrug.) But not alligators.
From the seawall, I watch clouds of skimmers in formation, trippy orange beaks swirling against endless sky. A crazy wind crinkles through the palms. It's paradise, right next to me, whispering.
I want to believe what I hear.