I had hoped my first summer job would be in the Magic Kingdom. The attractions would look like movie sets, Marla said, and instead of uniforms you’d wear costumes, like ball gowns or space suits. But Walt Disney World wouldn’t open until October, so here I was wearing sundresses my mother made and working in the concession stand at Gator Gap. You couldn’t miss the entrance: a giant concrete alligator head, lime green, with bulging eyes and jaws wide open. Tourists loved to take pictures here, kids and dads cringing beneath stalactite teeth.
Marla got me the job. She worked in the gift shop with her mom, who pretty much ran the place, according to Marla. Back then, they advertised the attraction as FREE, and, technically, they didn’t charge admission. But as you went through the gift shop to reach the gator ponds, Marla’s mom sat by the door with her alligator back scratcher staring down tourists until they dropped a couple of bucks into the donation box.
My first day, I had barely walked in the door when Marla, a year older than me with wild hair and strong opinions, warned me that my coworker was bad news.
“I swear, Ivy, they’re making a huge mistake keeping fat Louise around,” she said. “Blows her paycheck at Roscoe’s every Friday night and calls in late every Saturday morning. Right, Mom?”
“Don’t scare Ivy off before she’s even met the woman.” Marla’s mom winked as she handed me a cash drawer. Three smooth stacks of bills and colored rolls of coins lay in their slots, like a row of coffins. I clutched the drawer against my waist inhaling a mix of metal, paper and dirt.
“Mom says that as long as Louise doesn’t drink on the job, she can put up with her being late on Saturdays. It’d be too hard to find someone to work concessions all year long for what Mr. Crocker pays.”
“I think Mr. Crocker’s out in the pit,” said Marla’s mom. “Introduce him to Ivy.”
The pit, it turned out, was a shallow concrete pool where tourists got their first look at the attraction’s reptiles. Juvenile gators lounged on platforms under potted palms and crawled over one another like puppies. Mr. Crocker, wearing rubber waders, a cowboy hat, and a khaki get-up straight out of King Kong, stood by a palm hosing down the platform and the gators. They barely noticed except for the occasional half-hearted hiss when Mr. Crocker sprayed one in the eye.
Marla leaned over the railing until Mr. Crocker looked up. “This is Ivy,” she called. Mr. Crocker cupped his ear and Marla tapped my shoulder, shouting, “Ivy! First day! Concession stand!” I still don’t think he heard her over the swoosh of the hose. But he smiled and touched the brim of his hat, which I thought was both gentlemanly and a little showy. The dozen alligators surrounding him added to the effect.
“He’s really nice,” Marla said. She pressed her lips to my ear. “Don’t you think he’s sexy?”
Mr. Crocker had turned his attention back to the gators. He thumbed his hat off his forehead and wiped a sleeve across the sweat. A damp half-moon darkened his shirt. “If you say so,” I said.
“You should see his Gator Tales show,” said Marla, pressing herself against the railing, her eyes on Mr. Crocker. “He’s in the pit, like now, and he tells stories about hunting alligators in the Everglades and—get this—he learned how to wrestle gators from the Seminole Indians and he’s like an honorary member of the tribe now and then he picks up a gator—one of the smaller ones, but still—and carries it around so everyone can see it up close.”
The cash drawer was heavy, and it appeared Marla was staying put, so I headed across the wooden bridge that spanned the small lake. As far as I could tell, my post amounted to a hut perched on two-by-fours jutting off the bridge. Entering from the rear, I crossed the threshold into the near-darkness of the storeroom. Between gaping floorboards, light flickered off the water, and I thought I caught the nubby snouts of alligators.
“Ugly critters, ain’t they?”
I managed to take my eyes off the strip of movement beneath me to see the figure silhouetted in the doorway to the concession enclosure.
“You get used to ’em. The smell, too. I been here going on eight years and I ain’t witnessed a casualty yet.” She flipped the light switch and, while I blinked at the white cloud of Louise in her waitress uniform, she swooped in, took my cash drawer and steered me into a corner flanked by the drink machine, the popcorn popper, and a serving window. “This here’s your station,” she said, and slipped my drawer into its slot under the counter.
I wouldn’t have called Louise “fat,” like Marla said, but her waitress uniform was two sizes too small and strained the buttons in all the wrong places. Her face, framed by a vaguely blonde bouffant, might even have been pretty except that her eyes, made small with thick black eyeliner, had that wary look of prey.
Most of my first day Louise stood in the doorway between the porch and the storeroom, smoking cigarettes and grunting instructions. I was not a quick study, distracted by the gators. Louise had to tell me three times how much popcorn to measure. When I flinched at the slap of a gator tail against the water, I burned my wrist on the rim of the popper. Had a faint scar for years. Finally, when she caught me staring out at the pond instead of watching her refill the drink dispenser, she slapped a palm against her hip and said, “Believe me, sweet pea, unless we fell in with the fish at feeding time, they wouldn’t take a lick of notice.”
I felt my face flush and started picking at the faded wrapper on a roll of pennies. “Here,” said Louise. “Let me show you a trick.” She took the roll out of my hand and thwacked it against the rim of the drawer like an egg, and the pennies spilled perfectly into their slot.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I’ll teach you everything I know, sweet pea.”
By my second week, I could make popcorn without singeing my wrist and could fill drink cups and hot dog buns at the same time. I was even getting used to the gators. Listening to Old Joe Ball, who drove the mini-train, and to Mr. Crocker in the gator pit, I started learning their habits and their names.
But the best skill of all was learning to make change without figuring it first in my head or doing the math on paper. Louise taught me how. “You start with your pennies to get you to a place where you can count by your nickels, dimes and quarters.” She taught me to take the bill from the customer and place it in the correct slot, but not to slide it under the metal clip until the transaction was complete. “When it’s busy,” she said, “you can forget whether they gave you a ten or a twenty and sometimes they’ll try to rip you off.”
Part ritual, part magic trick, I’d count out loud as the coins dropped into the customer’s palm (“$2.50 out of ten, so that’s seventy-five and three”), press the bills one on top of another (“four, five and five is ten”), and even the rudest customer couldn’t take away the satisfying clarity of an honest exchange.
One day, near closing time, Marla arrived breathless at my concession window with news: Candy Hale, who had just graduated (Homecoming Queen, Miss Silver Spurs Rodeo, daughter of the feed mill owner, real sweet girl), had gotten a job at Disney. News and rumors about Walt Disney World circulated daily in our small town, and I was as caught up in the excitement as Marla, especially near the end of the day when my face burned from the heat and grease and salt. But Disney had been hiring for weeks; Marla’s report did not seem like a news flash.
“As a VIP hostess!” said Marla. “Do you know what a hostess does?”
Unless they seated people, like the hostess at The Ranch House, I did not.
“A Walt Disney World hostess escorts the VIPs around. The most important people.” She raked her long hair from her face as she mined for patience. “Celebrities, Ivy. Robert Redford. Ryan O’Neal. Can you imagine?”
I could. “Wow,” I said, and for a moment we floated, unfettered by our circumstances, in the Magic Kingdom, where we showed Ali MacGraw to the ladies’ room and delivered a flamingo ashtray to Ryan O’Neal.
Who were we kidding? Neither of us was cut out to be a Walt Disney World hostess. Marla wasn’t as friendly as Candy or as popular. She was pretty, though, and some kids said she knew it. As for me, I got tongue-tied around college guys; I’d be terrified in the presence of actual VIPs.
Louise interrupted our reverie. “I hear everything out there is gonna be fake,” she said, sorting the bills in her till. “Mechanical animals in the jungle cruise and everything. Probably have robots waiting on you at concessions.” She braced her cash drawer against her belly. “I reckon if I had to wait on tourists—and that’s all you’d be doing, hostess, smostess, whatever—I’d rather work around real live gators than some damn mechanical mouse.”
I turned to my own drawer, catching Marla roll her eyes. “Well, Lou-ise,” she said, “I guess you’ll have to go back to wherever you came from because I bet this gator hole won’t last a month after Disney World opens. Right Ivy?”
I didn’t want to take sides, but I had to agree with Marla. Who would bother stopping at some roadside attraction when an entire entertainment kingdom was right down the road? “That’s what people say.” I shoved a pile of dimes through my concession window so Marla could stuff them in wrappers.
“Besides,” Marla said, “you’re probably too old to work there.” To me she mouthed, and too fat. I kept my head down, wrapping up nickels.
Louise didn’t bite. “Miss Mar-la, you’re probably right,” she said. “Hell, I’m twenty years too old for that Mouseketeer shit. But you girls, why next year, with this experience under your belt, you’ll be just what they’re looking for.”
I wasn’t sure if Louise was sincere or sarcastic, and as I was mulling this over, a bull gator startled me with a hungry bellow. I dropped the roll of nickels. They spilled all over the floor, some of them slipping through the spaces in the floorboards into the water.
I dropped to my knees, grabbing at rolling coins.
Louise laughed, the sound of tires on gravel. “Yes sir, just what they’re looking for.”
We worked out a set-up routine that gave us ten minutes before opening when Louise would smoke a Salem back in the storeroom and we’d shoot the bull. She told me stories about working in a bar in Galveston where her first husband worked for an oil company and her second roped bulls on the Texas rodeo circuit.
“First one was a drunk, second one a skunk,” said Louise. She blew a stream of cigarette smoke above her head and chuckled. “Come to think of it, second was a drunk, too.” She tamped her cigarette in an old mayonnaise lid.
“A drunk skunk,” I said.
A half-smile tugged her cheek. “A low-down bastard.” I figured he must have cheated on her, my divorce knowledge limited to Marla’s parents. In any case, I was glad she didn’t go into detail. When it came to sex and betrayal, I preferred abstraction.
Instead, Louise sashayed to the concession window and, between customers, detailed her escape from Galveston with a trucker whose unwelcome advances she fended off by whacking him across the mouth with a Thermos. When he dumped her on a tar-dark stretch of Highway 90 in the middle of Louisiana she found herself walking nearly smack into a five-foot alligator. The two of them squared off until the gator lost interest and waddled off into the swamp. “Those overgrown lizards ain’t nearly as much trouble as them two-legged snakes,” she said. Eventually some college kids pulled over and drove Louise to Biloxi.
“Now I’m a free spirit,” she said with a shimmy. “My motto: get it while the gettin’s good, and then get the hell out.”
My experience was tame in comparison. When she pressed me, I told her about Billy, two years older than me with white-blonde hair to his shoulders. Marla had set us up on a double date with her and Mike.
“Got you a job and a boyfriend, huh?” said Louise, and I said well, sure, we were best friends. Louise took a deep drag off her Salem and narrowed her eyes against the smoke. “Ain’t that sweet,” she said.
I carried on about how wild Billy was before he met me, which was partially true—he had a reputation for getting into fights and racing his car down county roads late at night. I told Louise he’d given up racing just for me and hadn’t been in fight one since we started going together, and as far as I knew all this was true.
Louise said, “Well watch out you don’t take all the buck out of the boy. A little wild spirit keeps things interesting.”
I said maybe, but Billy seemed pretty happy that I’d turned his life around.
“My, my,” said Louise, “you are a regular grown-up.”
To tell the truth, that summer I felt so cool and grown-up that I could hardly stand it. I was fifteen and pretty and my boyfriend drove a gold Malibu. And I was making money.
In July, during her closing time visit, Marla announced that Mr. Crocker had promoted her to train conductor, stepping in for Old Joe Ball, who no longer worked weekends. The open-air locomotive circled the ponds and crossed a cypress swamp where visitors could see gators in their natural habitat. Why Marla would want to leave the air-conditioned gift shop to ride around in the muggy Florida summer swatting at mosquitoes was a mystery to me. How was this a promotion?
“First of all, Ivy,” said Marla, hopping up on the storeroom table and pulling a pack of gum from my purse. “George asked me, kind of as a favor now that Joe Ball’s cutting back on his hours.”
“George?” said Louise, and I said, “Mr. Crocker?”
“And second of all, there is the skill involved in both driving the train and talking about all the exhibits.”
I had ridden in the engineer’s car a couple of times with Joe Ball, and I knew the train practically drove itself along the tracks.
“What about the snakes?” I asked. “Don’t you have to handle Porky?”
The train stopped at a snake exhibit where Joe Ball or one of the gator wranglers would drape “Porky,” a 20-foot python, over his shoulders to gasps from the crowd. Visitors were then invited to try it themselves. The stop was particularly popular with teenage boys, who otherwise got bored riding the corny train. The one thing that Marla and Louise agreed on was that guys, no matter what age, became total douchebags around reptiles. We’d seen them throwing ice at the gators, trying to rouse them from their sun-drenched stupor, or dangling unfinished hot dogs over the railing until a wrangler told them to cut it out.
“I just might,” said Marla. “George let me touch him the other day, and I wasn’t scared a bit.”
“Ain’t you something?” said Louise. She was listening from the narrow landing outside the storeroom, where she smoked and flicked her cigarette butts into the lake, aiming for a gator.
“I am talking to Ivy, Lou-ise.” Marla folded a stick of Wrigley’s in her mouth. “Plus, I have to memorize all this information about the park and the reptiles and all.”
From my serving window, I heard Louise: “There are 110 gators in the park along with several crocodiles, including the country’s oldest, Old Sam—you can catch him sunning himself on that bank over there.”
Louise had heard Joe Ball’s spiel for years, his exaggerated cracker drawl wafting over the lake. Even I had picked it up. I chimed in: “Approximately 500 baby alligators are hatched annually, most of them provided to zoos or transferred to natural habitats.”
Marla glared, but I was cracking up, and when Louise shouted, “Or fried up and sold in our concession stand! Mmm-good!” even Marla couldn’t suppress a snicker before she flipped me the finger and bolted out the door.
The next day, when I walked through the mouth of the gator into the gift shop, Marla was squirting Windex in a tic-tac-toe across the glass door to the bridge. She didn’t turn when I slipped behind the counter to retrieve my cash drawer but when I got near the door, she pressed it open for me to walk through. “Sorry about yesterday,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it.” She tossed a soggy paper towel toward the counter. It smacked the floor instead. “You and your best friend were just goofing around.”
“She’s not my best friend. Jeez. Come on,” I said, “walk with me.” Marla dug her hands in the pockets of her jeans and let the door swing shut behind her. “It’s really cool—you getting to drive the train and all.”
“You know, none of that shit she told you is true.”
“All that bullshit about her rodeo husband and hitchhiking across Kansas—”
“Louisiana. How do you know it’s not true?”
“George told me. He hired her, you know.”
“Why would you be talking to George about Louise?”
Marla shrugged. “We talk about all kinds of stuff.”
That night, when Billy and I were hanging out with Marla and Mike at the lakefront park, she lit one of Mike’s cigarettes and held it high, pointing straight up, like Louise did. She leaned in toward Mike and said, her voice raspy and low, “I like my men like I like my whiskey—stiff and neat and in small doses.”
Billy and Mike whooped it up and Mike said, “Alright, baby.”
It was a good imitation. The cigarette, the squint, even the broken, tired voice: Marla had Louise down so perfectly that it was almost touching.
I would never have told her, but Marla was not nearly as good as Joe Ball. Her spiel sounded more like a book report than a guide to the wonders of Florida wildlife. Occasionally Mr. Crocker took over driving, and Marla would perk up some then. Her mom, on the other hand, didn’t seem happy about the promotion at all. “I could wring his neck,” she told me one morning.
When I got to the storeroom, I opened the door and let out a yelp. Mr. Crocker stood with one arm in the freezer and the other holding a white package, like the roasts the butcher wraps.
“Oh, hey, Ivy,” he said. (He did know my name!) “Sorry to scare you.” He tossed the last bundle in the freezer and closed the door.
“Hey, Mr. Crocker.” I hadn’t spoken to him more than to say hi since my first day.
“Ever had gator meat?” Mr. Crocker patted the top of the freezer, like it was some friend he wanted me to meet.
“You mean, eat it?”
Mr. Crocker laughed, and when he did, I noticed how pale his lips were against his tanned face, and his teeth were whiter and straighter than any I had ever seen. “It’s really pretty good, especially if you fry it up and season it just right.”
I had seen gator on the menu at the fish camp, frog legs too, but just the idea!
“We’ve had a banner year of hatchlings,” Mr. Crocker said. He widened his stance, one hand on his hip, the other braced against the fridge, casual, but in charge. “We sell some to zoos, some to U of F for research, but this year we still had more than we could handle on the property. So, we thinned them out a bit.”
My drawer was getting heavy, but it didn’t seem polite to walk away from Mr. Crocker. “Thinned them out?”
“Get too many and they start fighting over food and territory, eat their young.” Mr. Crocker had begun talking in his “Gator Tales” voice, punctuating the air with his hand. “It’s really best, in order to control the population.” He flashed that smile again. I felt the heat in my face and realized I was twisting side to side, my cash drawer propped on my hip. “Here, let me help you with that thing.” He took my drawer with one hand and motioned for me to lead the way to my station. He slid it into its slot, not as smoothly as I would have, but still—one hand.
“You take some of that gator to your folks, now,” he said. “Tastes like chicken.” As he walked away, he cupped my bony, bare shoulder and gave it the slightest squeeze before his fingers trailed off my skin. I stood like a stone, breath suspended, until I heard him whistling up the bridge. I felt the trace, like an itch, for hours.
Louise was skeptical. “‘Control the population my ass.” She opened the freezer door and poked around, as if searching for evidence of misdeeds.
“He told me I could take some home, but I don’t think my mother would know what to do with it. Have you ever eaten it?”
“I’ve tried it.”
“He said it tastes like chicken.”
“Maybe if the chicken ate rotten fish.”
“Exactly.” Louise shut the freezer door and looked at me. “Crocker come in here a lot?”
I told her this was the first time I’d seen him here.
“Huh.” She eyed me, started to say something, lit a cigarette instead. “How are things with you and Billy these days?” She shot a stream of smoke toward the rafters.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t really sure how things were with Billy and me. We went out almost every night, it being summer, and most nights we ended up at Silver Lake making out. He had said I love you and I had said it back and I knew this laid the groundwork for sex. Marla and I used to talk about and plan meticulously for our first time. But the closer Billy and I got to the real thing, the more complicated it became to talk about. How could I have described our awkward backseat fumbling, my back pressed against the door handle, mouth pressed against mouth, zipper against zipper, for hours it seemed, until the insistent pulse of desire radiated through my body like a warm current.
In August, Marla quit her job and Mike broke up with her and she didn’t tell me about either. When I arrived at work, expecting her to walk with me to the concession stand and tell me about the breakup, her mom said she wasn’t coming back. “I know you girls enjoyed working together,” she said, fiddling with a roll of register tape, “but this wasn’t the place for her, Ivy.”
“I was going to tell you,” Marla said. “Honest.” It was Friday night and we were driving around in her dad’s Dodge Dart. We drove the hangout loop a few times ending up at the Freez-ette, where Marla sulked and eyed every car that drove by while we ate soggy pizza, drank Southern Comfort from her dad’s stash, and gossiped with everyone else who was doing the same thing we were doing on a stifling weekend night in a small town. At one point, Mike drove by with a couple of buddies. They were laughing and didn’t even slow down.
“He’s a jerk, Marla. You deserve better.”
Marla shrugged. “He was getting on my nerves anyway.” She swigged from the Southern Comfort bottle. “He’s so immature.”
It was nearing eleven, my curfew, when she took it into her head to drive by Roscoe’s. “Come on, we’ll just swing through the parking lot. Maybe I’ll find a cowboy.”
The bar was situated on the main drag just at the edge of city limits, the bright red neon ROSCOE’S a dubious welcome to the town. The parking lot was filled with pickup trucks; a few cowboys stood around. “I wonder what it’s like in there,” Marla said, braking at the entrance.
“It’s just a bar,” I said. “Pool tables, bar stools, country music.”
“I wonder if Louise plays pool. Can you imagine? Leaning over the pool table, with her ass—”
“Marla,” I said, “it’s late.”
“I want to pick out a new boyfriend.” She laughed, a sharp, cynical bark. As a customer exited, I glimpsed the interior: a Busch beer sign cast a sickly blue light over a man who sat slumped on a barstool staring through a haze of smoke.
“Hey, Louise!” Marla leaned her head out the window “You in there, Louise?”
Customers milling around their cars stared back at Marla. “Let’s go,” I said.
“You got a boyfriend for me?” she yelled.
Two cowboys leaning against a pickup whistled. One of them approached the car, hat in hand, and bent down in Marla’s face. “I’ll be your boyfriend, darlin’,” he said.
Marla jerked her head back and pressed her foot to the gas, forgetting I guess that she had put the car in neutral. The engine revved, sending the cowboys into stitches. “Assholes,” she muttered, slinging a middle finger out the window. “Let’s get out of this dump.”
As we rounded the corner of the parking lot, the Dodge’s headlights streaked across a couple standing by a familiar station wagon. The man stood by the woman, his legs wide, one hand braced against the door by her face, the other on his hip. His cowboy hat shadowed them both, but I recognized that stance. And the car. So did Marla.
The Dodge stalled. I looked over. The neon red of the ROSCOE’S sign pulsed across Marla’s face like a stain. Her fingers gripped the car key in the ignition. When I turned again to the car, Mr. Crocker was stumbling backward, and Marla’s mom, her face hard as a wrecking ball, cradled her right fist.
“Bitch.” A hiss more than a voice, Marla’s eyes wet with fury. The engine growled, Marla’s mom squinted into the headlights, and then we were gone.
I couldn’t sleep. My mind spun around the scene in the parking lot and Marla’s reaction. When I had asked what was going on between her mom and Mr. Crocker, she had just shouted, “How the hell should I know?” and I knew better than to pursue the subject. Whatever the reason her mom punched Mr. Crocker, Marla did know, and it infuriated her. My stomach gripped her secret in a stranglehold. Then I would remember a moment (Don’t you think he’s sexy?) and another (I could wring his neck) until they merged like beads of mercury into a knowledge that tainted me with revulsion and betrayal.
The next morning, a curtain of rain framed the jaws of the concrete gator as I passed through the entrance, the strip of green carpet squishing under my sneakers. I didn’t expect Marla’s mom would dare show up after her confrontation with Mr. Crocker, and I was right. Old Joe Ball handed me my cash drawer.
“Got pulled into emergency service.” He pointed to the rumpled bills and rolls of change in the wrong slots. “I just had to guess at the till.”
I was putting away the jugs of mustard and ketchup when I heard Louise stomping up the bridge singing. “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden…”
“Well, look at you!”
Instead of her uniform, Louise wore blue jeans and a pink-checked Western shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons that gleamed on her breasts. “Along with the sunshine, there’s got to be a little rain sometime.” She toe-heeled across the floorboards, her cowboy boots pointing like arrowheads. “You didn’t know old Louise could get dolled up, did you?” She tried to plump her deflated bouffant, but the rain had made that effort useless.
“What’s the occasion?” I asked.
“More like who’s the occasion.” She winked. “Didn’t have time to fix my hair this morning.”
Any other day, I’d change the subject to keep Louise from going into the kind of detail that left me feeling like I’d overheard my parents’ sex. But her good mood lightened mine. Maybe I’d been wrong about what I’d seen in the parking lot.
“Big date last night, huh?”
“Every now and again a gal gets lucky.” She was rummaging through shelves in the storeroom. “I know I had an apron here somewhere. Hey, what’s up with Boss Lady? Joe Ball said she called him at the last minute.”
My gut tightened. “I think…maybe… it has something to do with Mr. Crocker.”
“Crocker?” She appeared in the doorway, working apron strings behind her back.
“We saw him, Marla and me, at Roscoe’s last night.”
“What the hell were you doing at Roscoe’s?”
“I thought she was upset about Mike breaking up with her, but now…” I poked at hot dogs turning on the grill.
Now I wasn’t sure about anything. “We didn’t go in, we just drove through the parking lot.” I told her about how Marla had been rude and bitchy all night, about the cowboy and seeing Mr. Crocker and Marla’s mom and how it looked like she decked him and Marla’s reaction to it all. I didn’t tell her Marla refused to say a word to explain what the hell was going on.
I heard the snap of a lighter, a long exhale. “Did Marla ever tell you why she left here?”
I shook my head.
Louise tapped her cigarette against the makeshift ashtray. “Well, then, I don’t expect I got a right to tell,” she said.
I drove a paper cup into the ice bin, not bothering to use the scoop. Louise, the subject of Marla’s scorn all summer, knew things that my supposed best friend had not even confided in me. “She called her mom a bitch!” What I wanted to add was: And you, too, Louise, more than once, and I defended you. What I said was: “Marla started hanging around him and she thought she was the goddamn queen of Gator Gap.” I stabbed my ice with a straw. “It’s disgusting.”
“Whoa, there, Missy.” Louise fixed me with a dark-ringed glare. “He’s disgusting. She’s sixteen.”
My throat burned from the effort to resist crying. I opened my cash drawer and pretended to count the bills.
“I’ll say this: her mom had every right to punch Crock-a-shit. Hell, I’d a shot the son-of-a-bitch.”
I thought of the morning when I saw Mr. Crocker in the storeroom, his white teeth, his tanned arm taking my cash drawer, how he squeezed my shoulder. And I understood: that was the moment my body knew what was going on, even if I couldn’t see it. The quiver of fear and pleasure that repelled me had reeled Marla right in. I felt like I’d swallowed an ember. “How did you know?”
Louise drilled her cigarette into the jar lid. “There’s a look.”
The sound of rain pelting the roof and the lake grew louder. It was going to be dead today. Louise took a step closer and for a second I thought she was going to pat my cheek or something, but she just handed me a napkin. “Next summer, you get you a job in town, cashier at The Ranch House or something.”
I nodded, wiped my nose.
She slapped her hands against her thighs and then tugged at her apron strings. “Think you can hold down the fort on your own?” she said. “I need to get me some sleep.” She tossed the apron on a shelf.
I usually loved days like this, when I was free to read and daydream and indulge in teenage melancholy. Today I would’ve given anything for Louise to stay. “I guess. Sure.”
Louise had stopped to consider the freezer. She opened it, stared for a second, and then started pulling out the white packages of gator meat, stuffing her purse and cradling what she could in her arms. “Wanna give me a hand?”
“What are you doing?” I grabbed the last package from the freezer and followed her out to the landing. “You don’t even like gator meat.”
“No, but they do,” she said, and hurled a frozen bundle into the lake. The rain took care of the ripples.
But it’s frozen!”
“They’ll think it’s bone.”
The packages sailed like flour sacks, one after another. Louise had a powerful arm. Gators began to stir. “Poor critters don’t even know they’re eating their own.” Water was churning with tails and greedy snouts. I always hated the frenzy of feeding time.
“Louise! Crock-a-shit will fire you!”
Her laugh could have punched the roof. Her arms empty, she turned to me. A wet cobweb of hair clung to her face. Rain and sweat and black eyeliner had furrowed down her cheeks and into the lines around her mouth.
“You look like a coalminer’s daughter,” I said, and she grinned so wide that she revealed a space left by a missing incisor. I had never noticed it before.
“You’ll be fine, sweet pea.”
She nodded toward the white package I gripped with now-numb fingers. “You gonna take that home to Mom?”
I thought about returning it to the freezer, as if one block of gator meat would excuse the loss of a dozen. Shreds of white paper floated on the pond surface. Only a matter of time until somebody noticed. I lifted the package above my head with both hands and threw it as hard as I could, which turned out to be about six feet. Louise hooted, “Atta girl!” She sang all the way to the gift shop.
Out in the lake, things had settled down. A gator broke the surface, just to the black slit of his eye, a fleck of white on his head. I walked up front and scanned the bridge for one of the wranglers or a tourist risking the elements. But I was it. I opened my cash drawer, picked up a roll of quarters, and split it open against the rim. The coins spilled perfectly into their slot.