||Work In Progress Alligator Alley
by Paulette Jiles
I STOOD IN the phone booth in the R.V. camp in Chokolosee, the last town at the edge of Florida. I was looking Out into a mangrove swamp watching a blue storm full of washtubs and howling balls blow toward us, trying to make sense, talking to Rosemary Nixon in Calgary, trying to think about the writing business in Canada. Rosemary is a good friend and she finally said, "But your head`s in the tropics, Polly, so happy journeys."
We lay awake for a while, listening to the storm walk around the Everglades, booming.
April 26th, I was sitting in a laundromat in Immokalee while Finch went to find Kirby Williams, Kirk`s clad, who is a welder. Immokalee is an area where a lot of the Everglades have been cleared for truck farming and there were hundreds of immigrants here -- more than hundreds. The town was full of groceries selling tortillas, all sorts of good chilis, as well as medicinal herbs and religious articles. The immigrants were Cuban, Central American, Mexican. A sign on the wall of the laundromat said
Hablando claro, comadre AIguna mujeres no quieren saber nada de AIDS Green que es solamente an enfermedad de homosexuales; ESTAN MUY EQUIVOCADAS! AIDS amenaza a todos.
- la mitad de los hombres latinos con AIDS son hombres casados!
Tambien, hay mujeres con AIDS y muchas de ellas son Hispanas!
-- [a mayoria de los ninos con AIDS son Latinos 0 Negros
QUE PUEDEN HAGER!? -- Habla en serio con tu esposo y ins hijos -- pon algo de tu parte para informar a otras Personas El Departamento de Salad tiene folletos y informacion
I was getting the clothes out of the dryer when Finch came driving up.
"Hey, Kirby is a fantastic guy!`` he said. "And a hell of a welder. There`s a motorhome park Out by a place called Lake Trafford joist outside of town, he says, and we Should `go out there and get settled. fie`s ,or a huge welding jot) to do, and it`s going to take him all today and tonight. And his wife, her name`s Linda, she`s reaching. She works with immigrant kids. And so they can`t make it out to see Lis tonight, but they`ll be there tomorrow night. We should make them a big barbecue, all right?"
So we went to a couple of stores in town to find just the right ingredients for one of Finch`s Texas barbecues. He wanted to return to them the hospitality that Aunt Minnie and Kirby and their friends had shown us in the Keys.
I was about to throw away some anchovies, afraid that they would spoil in the heat.
"Throw that in the canal and the wildlife will be coming out of there in droves for us! They`ll go for your throat!"
So I put it in the trash.
Evening came, and no Williamses. The lion tamer came back. It was lonely here on Lake Trafford, he said. He didn`t drive, and his wife didn`t have a TV, and there was nothing to do but watch the alligators.
And the evening went on and the charcoal died down and things, many things, started coming out into the canal. I listened. There were plops. Splashes. Little screams and the hic hic hic sound of some kind of reptile. Or bird. Or something. Finch had set out the cameras and the tape recorder in hopes of recording our visit, but it came clean dark and no Williamses.
And so we were about to give up and the lion tamer wouldn`t leave and then there they were, Kirby in a big pickup with an airboat on a trailer, and behind him another guy in a pickup with an airboat on a big trailer.
"God, I`m sorry!" he yelled, jumping out. "I got stuck on the job, I was welding the blade on a D-9 Cat, and it was a long job, I`m telling you. Come on, let`s go, we`re taking you for a night- time airboat ride in the Glades!"
Big Kirby with his giant white beard and his one arm, and his flying denim shirt over his huge belly, his baseball cap and giant smile. A man who could weld the blade onto a giant D-9 Cat with one arm. The best welder in Florida. Think what he could have done with two!
I jumped in the cab with Kirby. Finch got in with the other guy, whose name was Carl, and we drove down to the take and the boatramp.
"We`re going in the dark?" I said to Kirby.
"Hell, yes! Best time! We used to always go hunting and airboating at night!"
They put Finch up on the prow of Carl`s boat. Kirby took me by the arm and hoisted me up on the high seat of his airboat. It sat up above the driver`s seat by about a foot. Kirby sat slightly below me, putting on a miner`s helmet and lighting his cigar. Whichever way he turned his head, the Everglades lit up.
The machine sparked and caught and thundered; it was a large airplane propeller mounted on a very shallow-draft sort of john-boat, for those of you who haven`t seen "Miami Vice."
We took off at 50 miles an hour into the dark of Lake Trafford, which is just an area that is wetter and slightly deeper than the rest of the Glades that surround it. We shot out into pitch blackness, Kirby streaming fire and sparks from his cigar. He had the cigar in his mouth, the miner`s helmet and light on his head, a beer wrapped in the crook of his amputated left arm, and the driving-stick clutched in his right hand; like the Millennium Falcon going into hyperspace, we ripped out into the silky black water, star-streaks rushing past us.
"Look! Look!" He reached back to pound on my knee with the left elbow, beer and all. "Gators! Thousands of them!"
And his headlight raked across thousands of sparkling red eyes, all gleaming and fierce, bobbing in the lettuce plants. We tore down on them and as I looked back they were left rolling and rolling, as we banged into their skulls.
"Mostly babies` Don`t hurt to run over `em! just rattles their brains a little!"
"Hey! Hey! Look at the big guy!" He bore down on a massive long reptilian shape.
"Eleven feet if he`s an inch!"
So we came down on this 11-foot alligator like the Wrath of God. Thud! and leaped over into a mess of lettuce plants on the far side.
Across the lake I could see the light of the other airboat, and overhead, the stars with all their legends.
Kirby was like some Neptune, or King of The Swamps, lighting LIP the Everglades wherever he turned his head, his cigar sparks flying in red flashes and his foaming can of Budweiser.
Suddenly he cut the engine and we glided to a stop near some cattails. We floated; I discovered I was still alive. We floated sideways and saw pale gleams.
"Look there:` he said. "Lilies."
And there in the light of his headlamp there was a lily, pure white, and as big as a cabbage.
"Minnie says I was to get you one.,,
He crawled out on the prow as we drifted past, and just missed it. But, you know, there are lessons and limitations here. A one-armed man can`t smoke, drink beer, drive an airboat and pick lilies all at the same time.
He clambered back up in the seat, red-faced. He turned around and handed me five petals. They fell out of his hand one after the other.
"Well, you got some petals;` he said. He revved up the engine and we tore off again.
Streaming volcanic cigar sparks, we churned into a stand of cattails and surprised wild hogs. They were little, long-legged, red and black, and startled. They shook their ears as pigs do, and shouted insults as they ran into the rushes.
"Soooooooooooeeeeeeeee!" yelled Kirby, enthusiastically. Then we cut over again, across the taffeta surface, toward Finch and Carl. More alligator eyes, sparkling in the headlamp all over the take like rubies, like jewels, and the stars made long streaks on the water. His light-beam hit the lake and then reflected down on it, and when he and Carl`s lights x`ed each other, they made a sort of St. Andrew`s cross on the water. We surprised deer, and raccoons in some cypresses, and got stuck momentarily in a lot of lettuce weed, and Kirby rocked back and forth, back and forth, trying to get us out. We were sitting on mud. What if we fell over? Alligator sushi! We were in a mess of what looked like salad and fudge. We rocked out, and finally headed back.
It had been one of the wildest nights of my life.
We returned to find that the lion tamer had disappeared aid so had the cameras and the recording equipment, and the little table was smashed and the glasses all knocked over. We ended up calling the police; we thought, at best, that he had been kidnapped with all the equipment and that the Mafia was holding it all and would want Carolyn`s interview but not so! The police came; what had happened was that the lion tamer had sat by himself after we went oft in the airboats, and drank all the beer down to the last good drop, and then thought what would happen to all that valuable equipment lying around out there for anybody to come by and steal, and had taken it all up in his giant arms, and fell over into the lobster trap, and smashed it, and then got back up, and then fell down again on the cablespool table and the lawn chairs, arid broke them, and then got back up again, and, clutching the equipment to his hairy chest, had staggered off to his trailer and fallen in bed with it all, sound asleep. Which is where the police and me and Finch and Kirby found him within the next few hours. We gently extracted the equipment, and then everybody went home to bed.
Driving north towards Tampa, Finch told me some of the wonderful stories that Kirby had told him.
"He said when they clear the land for truck farming, they`re just busting the rock, like breaking the limestone, and then the rain when it falls, it all runs out to the Gulf He says it`s like destroying a rain forest, and nobody is stopping them. The guy that`s the head of Florida`s natural resources is a New Yorker! I believe it. He said they should just let those fires burn, too, to allow the accumulated leaves and trash to burn off. It doesn`t burn through the palm trunks if it burns every year."
Back in Highwaylandia again, Finch is negotiating the traffic.
"And he talked about `pine ridges,` and what he means is just a little higher ground, like two or three, maybe 10 feet and higher, as you go north, where it lifts the ground above the water, and you`ll get those southern pines on them. The longleaf kind of Caribbean pine. He said he was out hunting alligators one time, and he saw this big gator laying on a kind of island in a pond, or slough. He shoots him. And he doesn`t know how to get him back across the water without the thing sinking, so he drives home and gets a rope, drives back, swims out to the gator and starts tying it around his tail and ... oops! Wrong gator! It was a live one -- the other one must have just been wounded and crawled off, and this new one comes along and starts sunning itself in the same place` Kirby said he looked like a power boat swimming away from there.
"He says you can`t hunt gators now. Against the regulations. And he said there were so many in Lake Trafford because the Everglades are being drained so they`re kind of crowding up in there.
"He lost his arm in a hunting accident when Kirk was two years old. And then Kirk lost his leg in a motorcycle accident when his kid was two years old."
I said, "We owe them a lot. I was beginning to hate Florida."
As we drove on, I found the water-lily petals lying near the computer, and decided to leave them there for good luck. I put them in a pottery bowl and jammed it in a corner, hoping they would survive.
This is an excerpt from Cousins, a non-fiction work on her 24 first cousins by Paulette Jiles, to be published by Knopf in 1991.