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Salt Gator Girl

by Joe M. McDermott

2709 words

When it was all over and settled, I wasn’t even called to court this time. It happened in lawyers’ offices, and no one needed me to be present for anything. I was out at grandma’s place, playing in the sticks and brush country among the ruined semi trailer trucks out on her property. I climbed up into the molded wrecks and honked the horns and poked about the gutted electronics gone to rust. I found old nests of long-lost rodents in a few junkers, with mounded straw and dead bird bones hidden like treasures in broken doors.

Grandma’s house smelled like beans and rice and old fish. Some of the rooms were less musty than the others, but they had cracks at the edges of the windows and got drafty when the cool night air rolled in from the gulf. My father had dropped me off at my grandma’s place out in the sticks and didn’t want to tell me why, but I knew. I was being hidden from my mother and her new boyfriend who was always shouting at me. And she let him shout and boss me around and told me to mind him and goddamn if I was going to do that. Dad was a drunk but he never raised his voice, and Grandma kept him on a close leash when she was around. When I needed to be somewhere where Mom’s people couldn’t find me, Grandma kept me out at her old house where she used to run a shipping firm. Dad drove off and was gone for two days this time. He came back stinking and slept it off on Grandma’s front living room couch, under the bay window. When he woke up, he grabbed my stuff and threw it in the trunk of the old pickup.

Grandma came out in slippers and a robe.

—It’s over?

—Yes, ma’am.

—Good. Never liked that woman anyhow. You taking Wind home today?

—I’m off another four. I thought we might go to the bay.

—Watch for salt gators. They eat dogs. She ain’t much bigger. You got a rifle in the truck?

—Yes, ma’am.

—Well, don’t hit the girl if you shoot a gator. Get close, right on top of the head, and aim down. She even awake?

I was watching from the upstairs window. I could hear everything.

—She ain’t down yet, but she was awake when I went up. Got time for breakfast, I reckon.

—I reckon you got money to drink, you can buy your own damn breakfast. You need to be sober with her. You around the girl, no drinking.

—I know, Mom. Jesus.

—It’s never over. Never. They come swooping in and smell it on you…

—Ma, shit. You need to sober up, too.

—Don’t you tell me shit, boy. Doctor don’t let me do nothing fun no more and you know it. You show up here all day drunk and still stink of booze. Now you want to feed Wind to the salt gators?

It’s not true. I knew my grandmother had been drinking. She had been sipping real slow all night, so it wouldn’t set off the medication alarm on her wrist and she wouldn’t need to take the liver shot. She had shown me how to give her that shot, just in case she was out of it. I had to pull up her shirt, and look at her belly button, and hold my hand out to get as far from the belly button as my fingers, while still finding soft tissue. Then, I’d stab her with the needle and push the button, and the emergency pen would do the rest. I had been walking around the house, counting the pens in the rooms. I had watched her drinking, and I had been thinking about what I was going to have to do next. I was going to have to be ready, or I’d be all alone out in the oaks and huisache scrub, and I didn’t know how to use the oven, yet. I didn’t know how to make anything but chips and salsa and cereal. No telling when Dad came back. I was lying awake, listening for his truck, hoping he’d be back tonight so he could give her the shot if she drank too much. He didn’t know that, though, but I bet he kind of knew. He had to kind of suspect, a little. He knew his mother.

—Shoot, Mama. I got days and days off leftover because the bitch didn’t even show. She didn’t even show up to fight for our babygirl in court. Saved us days of bills. I got more time, now. And I drank a bit last night trying to figure it all out. I did. I’m done with it now. Wind was safe with you. Shoot, woman. Driving me up the damn elevator.

—Well, you keep your head clear with her. She needs you to be the dad you tell the courts that you are.

—Leastways, I showed up. Anyway, like you was sober when I was a sprout.

She threw her slippers at him, one at a time. He let them come. He didn’t bother ducking. He just ignored her and stomped into the house for the kitchen. He got out some leftover potatoes and soy sausages. He threw them in the microwave in two bowls, one for each of us.

I was in the kitchen, then. He saw me, and he smiled to light up the whole world at me. His teeth were yellow like the sun, and his skin was so dark, like the night sky.

—Good morning, sprout. You ready to go to the ocean?

—Where have you been, Dad? Grandma says you’re in trouble.

—I was with your mom for a bit, and her new fella. We were talking about what we are going to do with you. You’re staying with me and Grandma, now. For good. You like that?

—Where is Mom staying?

—With her new man. They’re going to be living on the moon. That one city up there, up in the sky. We talked about that. I was off at the courthouse so the judge could decide whether you stayed here with me, or went up with her. Go out at night and look up and wave to her. She’ll be looking down, I know. They got jobs up there, and everything, pay better than mine. She’ll be sending us some money, too, for food and clothes and stuff. I reckon we can call them on a pad when the Moon’s close enough. Let you talk to your mom, then, if you wanna.

—She coming back for Thanksgiving?

—You can ask her. Don’t be disappointed if she can’t. She wanted to take you up there, you know. She isn’t abandoning you. We had a big fight about it. The court decided it was best you stay here with Grandma and me. She fought hard to keep you. We both did. The court decided for me. I’m grateful for that. You know, we all love you very much, Wind. We all do. You are loved by everyone on this earth and the Moon, too.

Grandma came in with her dirty slippers in her hand like she was going to throw them again. She sat down at the table, and waited for her son to lay something down for her. He put one bowl out for her and one for me. He got some mint tea out for himself. It settles his stomach when he is coming down from drinking. He might put some CBD oil in it, too, if he’s really off. He might have had that before he came to get me out of bed, before Grandma could see. She hated all of it. She hated how he chose to live. I could tell, even then, that he was bad. He said bad words when he thought I couldn’t hear them. He did whatever he wanted when no one was looking. He didn’t do the things a dad was supposed to do, like read me stories or sing me songs or anything like that. He was better than Mom, though. She just yelled all the time.

Was Mom bad, too? Probably. One time, she grabbed me so hard it bruised my arm. She threw things at my dad when they were still together. They were bad together, everyone knew. They were both bad. So I thought I was probably bad, too. Grandma didn’t let me, though. She said I was going to do better. Every generation has to do better than the last. Time passes, and you can improve yourself. Then, when I have kids, they won’t even know that sometimes I was bad when I was a kid. They’ll think I was always good, and I won’t tell them any better.

Grandma and I ate real quiet. We didn’t speak, just eat. I listened close, in the silence, and I could hear us chewing through the old potatoes. I could hear every slurp of my father’s tea. When we finished I cleared the plates and Dad nodded at his mom, and she grunted at him.

—Have fun.

—You, too.

I got in the driver’s side door, sat in the driver's seat and took the steering wheel. Dad came out and snorted at me.

—You driving us, then?

—I can drive.

—You know where we’re going?

—No. I can drive, though. You just tell me where to go.


I waited; my hands pressed into the steering wheel. I wanted to drive. I knew it was wrong, but Grandma had already taught me a little, with one of her old trucks. It passed the time. She said if I was out there with her, alone, I needed to be able to drive a stick and shoot a gun in case something happened. An emergency. She never showed me the gun. She just showed me the needles, and where she kept them in every room. She told me if she had to use one, and not to use that one again until she could get a replacement from the mail robots.

—Scoot, little sprout. Scoot scoot.

I huffed and puffed and obeyed my father. I climbed over to the passenger side and buckled in, there. The truck was older than him. It could have been. The passenger seat was more duct tape than pleather, and the AC was busted. My window was stuck open halfway. The driver side rolled up and down. We had to park where the rain couldn’t get in. He drove us straight out and stopped at a charging station for new power cells and breakfast burritos. He got me one, too, but I already ate, so I put it in my pocket when he wasn’t looking. I knew he’d be mad if I didn’t eat it. When he got mad, he didn’t shout. He just got real grumpy and quiet. He would tell me to be still and do nothing. I hid the it for later, in case he got mad and forgot to get food for us.

Back on the road, he asked if staying with him and Grandma was what I wanted.

—I like Grandma’s place, Dad. It’s way out there. It’s fun. The old truck scrapyard is cool.

—You ain’t supposed to be playing in those old heaps. She won’t be out there long. Not at her age. She’s going to sell what’s left of the property and move into the city with the proceeds. Austin, I think. Or Fredericksburg. Depends on the prices. I’ll have to move there, too. So will you. A real home, like what we had before mom left. Grandma tell you about that?


—Well, when she does, sound surprised.

—I didn’t like our home with Mom.

—It will be better this time. Promise.


We drove on, and it was real quiet for a while. I think I played with the console on the dash, and started some old game like checkers, or something. I lost at it, playing against the old truck. I never beat the truck.

Then I got bored and leaned back and watched the road passing. Dad didn’t say anything, either.

We stopped to recharge the old cells, and I used the bathroom while we waited. Dad’s card was bad, so he had to pay cash. People always thought that was weird, but cash didn’t show up in divorce proceedings, usually, so he kept as much as he could get from his jobs in cash, and he ran his cards up to the edge when he was out drinking, so they were hardly ever good. We had time, and he bought burritos and kale chips for us, some bottles of water. Dad finally spoke.

—You ever see a salt gator?


—I have. I sure have. I was lying out on a beach one night, I was just, you know, doing my thing. One of these big ass gators comes up out of the water. It walked past me like it was just some guy going to his car after a day on the beach. No hello, nothing. It walked up to a bit of the dunes and was back in the reeds and sand for the night. You watch out for salt gators.

—I’ll watch out.

I took a bite of my burrito. It was too hot.

—They hunt in the bay. They didn’t used to be so common, but times change. Get worse before they get better.


—Maybe they stay out where they aren’t supposed to be and evolve to stick. How’s the burrito?

—Too hot.

He took it and ate it like it was his. Grandma wasn’t there to see. He gave me his kale chips without even talking about it first, like everything was his to give and take, and I guess it was, now. We went back to the truck that was almost done charging.

By midday, we were out on the sandbar islands, and it was so hot I couldn’t believe anyone came here without air conditioning. They must have been crazy people.

We didn’t have a place. Dad just drove us straight down the side of the beach until the road ended and kept driving on the shifting sands.

He pulled to a stop where we were all alone, way out away from anything but sand and sea oats and bugs and heat.

He pitched a tent in the bed of the truck, and told me to go on swimming.

I changed in the cab, into my suit. I walked out to the water, and it was so cold, and there were mosquitos everywhere but the water. I hated it.

—Go on, Wind.

And I hated it, but I didn’t want to go back, so I went out into the water, and I swam, and I kept swimming straight out. I heard him calling my name, shouting at me, but I was a strong swimmer and I wasn’t afraid of salt gators, and I kept swimming. I wasn’t afraid of anything.

Dad was pissed, now, screaming at me to turn back. I saw boats on the horizon, and the long, long arm of the great gulf sea wall.

I kept on, ready to let the salt gators take me, or one of the jellyfish that still tangled up the occasional swimmers with stinging pain in these old sandbar shores. I pretended that I was a salt gator. My mother was gone, now, and she was going to a new world, like she said, and I was staying here in the dunes, making do. The salt gator ancestors devoured dinosaurs, until they ate them all, and then they ate river fish until those got too dirty, and now they’ve swept out to sea smaller, leaner, and ready to eat whatever comes next. I was going to be a salt gator, I decided. I was going to shed my skin in the water, come back tough and scary and ready to devour all the dinosaurs, all the dogs, all the world. Let them come for me if they dare, and I’ll bite and kick and eat them all up.

Joe M. McDermott ...

Issue 33

August 2021

3LBE 33

Front & Back cover art by Rew X