I’ve always been fascinated by gators—there’s something seductively simple about a life of natural law and rote response, all dead eyes and sinew and death rolls levied upon unsuspecting wildebeest. I consume gator documentaries, have spent hours scouring YouTube for videos of their visceral, primordial force. And I never understood a thing about them until my wife and I, visiting New Orleans for our first real vacation together, decided to take a gator tour.
We drove forty-five minutes west, weaving through the swamplands besieging the city until we reached a rundown shanty that served as the global headquarters of Airboat Adventures, LLC. Stepping out into a wet, gauzy heat, we immediately scurried for the office, passing a middle-aged couple in matching I ♥ Oak Alley Plantation t-shirts; another family, obviously midwestern, extricated themselves from a rented minivan. We creaked open the screen door and entered, air conditioning conspicuously absent.
The office was all gift shop, its shelves sagging with the larval forms of yard sale. People trickled in behind us, making awkward, gator-adjacent small talk until a perky protomillennial slammed inside and herded us all down to the pier, tickets clutched in our sweaty little fists. We grouped up in front of a flat-top, shallow-draft boat, a creature of sheet metal and simple geometry—clearly, I thought, the result of a productive day shopping at Home Depot.
One by one, we twisted gingerly aboard, the boat dipping threateningly whenever our weight shifted, which was approximately always, until the guide had us balanced out like cargo on an airplane and we puttered away from the dock through a mat of flowering lilypads, curving out to join the main channel beyond. Cypress bent to the water’s edge, caterpillars of Spanish moss glowing in spectral catenary curves, palmetto and sawgrass alongshore yielding to a moist, green density beyond.
“This wasn’t advertised as a swamp tour,” I whispered to Michele after a few gatorless minutes. “This was specifically billed as a gator tour, which I’ve got to think involves, you know, gators.”
“Quit being so grumpy,” Michele replied. “I’m sure there’ll be some soon.”
“This seems like a weakness of a gator tour, qua gator tour,” I said.
“The swamp is beautiful,” she said, watching the shore slide past. “Try and be less insufferable. Maybe even enjoy yourself.”
“I’d enjoy seeing some gators,” I said, sufferably. “But this is a very nice swamp. We’ve never gone anywhere like it.”
“We’ve never gone anywhere at all,” she said. “So.”
“Well, we’re here now.” I spread my arms. “Today’s the day of the gators!”
“Sure.” She looked back at me. “Except without the gators.”
Thirty minutes later, we passed beneath an old, rusting bridge into a small lagoon, and that’s where we found them: three gators gliding to the surface as if emerging from a dream, snout and eyes carving a path through mats of algae and water arrowing open behind, minute ripples slipping beneath lilypads to dissipate beyond. They were perfect. Everything we’d hoped: beautiful, primeval, utterly foreign. Terrifying in their predatory indifference.
Our tour guide opened up a cooler, keeping up a quick patter of topical gator factoids, and presented a hot dog in one hand, a sharp stick in the other. He held the pose for a moment, a magician addressing his marks, then skewered the hot dog, bent overboard, and began slapping the meat against the water. The gators did nothing at first (having evolved to be very, very good at doing nothing) but eventually, one of them drifted lazily over and opened its mouth, yawning in the general direction of the increasingly pathetic hot dog. At this small provocation, the boat went nuts.
Michele and I caught each other’s eye, resenting our highly enthusiastic boatfellows for having lowered the bar on what was supposed to be a very serious gator tour.
“Here we go!” the tour guide suddenly yelled, and everyone held their breath. As if starting a lawnmower, he yanked the hot dog up away from the gator—and, miraculously, the gator followed, silly little arms dangling at its sides and white cobblestoned belly glistening in the sun as it snared the hot dog in its snaggletoothed mouth before slipping beneath the water with nary a splash.
Even Michele and I, fun-hating curmudgeons that we apparently are, thought this was pretty cool.
But then the guide speared another hot dog and did it again. And again. And again. Roughly forty-seven times—nearly four full packages of Oscar Mayer beef hot dogs—he did this again. People were damn near having coronaries with excitement, freaking out like a crowd at a pickup game, all oh no that gator did NOT just do that. But the gator had, indeed, just done that. Repeatedly. Surely, I thought, they must see it coming by now. Surely this cannot be as delightful the 47th time as it was the first. Adaptation is kind of our thing, you know? And yet their passion knew no refractory period: every slapping hot dog evoked whispers of drawn breath, every leaping gator a clatter of shutters.
“This isn’t a gator tour,” Michele muttered. “It’s a damn circus.”
“Maybe that’s what passes for a gator tour these days,” I replied. “Carnival food and social metaphor.”
“If we wanted a circus,” she said, “We would’ve gone to the circus.”
“You hate circuses,” I said, because she did.
She frowned at the minivan family, who was jockeying for position with the sunburnt plantationeers as the guide lured the smallest gator alongside the boat, prepping for what he called the Grand Finale. Everyone shied away, whinnying in terror as the gator half-rolled sideways like a puppy presenting for bellyrubs. A dramatic pause ensued. When the guide wrapped both hands around the gator’s jaws and theatrically planted a wet kiss on its snout, I swear the midwestern dad almost passed out from the drama.
Michele and I sighed, feeling like the only sane people in the world.
“Should’ve been advertised as a people tour,” she finally said.
Since New Orleans, I’ve sworn off the violent gator clips, instead watching videos of how they close their eyes and stretch when scratched behind the ear, gator mouths drifting open in ecstasy. Because that swamp taught me that gators aren’t so different—they like their hot dogs waterlogged and love a gauzy heat, can close their jaws gently if they want and, even if they’ve seen the same thing almost fifty times, a gator can’t help but respond. They’re much like dogs in that regard (and, apparently, people). Except nobody cares about gators. There won’t ever be a doesthegatordie.com, because nobody cares if the gator dies except maybe that particular gator, and most people think gators don’t care about anything.
But I think a gator cares. I think gators care for still water and warm afternoons, for peace and quiet, for the companionship of their gator mate and the satisfaction of a well-caught meal. I think gators care very much indeed, and the fault is ours for not bothering to understand, for thinking that caring only matters when blood runs warm, for convincing ourselves, in the end, that our own days weren’t gator days at all.
David Saltzman is a 2017 graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA program. His work has been published in Two Sisters and CRAFT, and is forthcoming in the Northern New England Review. His writing has been recognized by Glimmer Train and American Short Fiction. Find out more about David at his website, or on social media @davids2844. He lives in Boston with his wife and his dog.