She’s beating the water with a stick, swinging wildly, sending ripples over the surface of the pond. “He’ll think I’m a fish jumping,” she whispers. She’s splashing water all over herself.
I say to Granny, “Why don’t you just call him over? Here, gator-gator!”
“And look like a fool?” she says.
The gator doesn’t move. He suns himself on the opposite bank, his whole body bone-dry. I snap a picture of him with my camera, zoom in to get a better look. “How long is he?” Granny asks. My guess is ten feet, but it’s hard to tell with his tail curled up. “Shorter than he was last year,” I say.
It’s a different gator every year, but we talk like it’s the same one; they crawl out of the marsh a mile south, climb over the railroad tracks with their stumpy legs, drag their bellies through the woods, toward our tiny pond, their oasis. All you can eat turtles and crappie. When I was little, I’d spy on them from the bank with binoculars: that’s not a stick floating, that’s the gator, his bumpy spine so still above the water. One time, I shot him with my .22, right on the nose. He cut a back flip and let out a moan that sounded, swear to God, like a dying cow. I dropped the gun and sprinted to the house in a zigzag pattern—that’s how they say to do it—never looking over my shoulder. I had a nightmare he reached up with his baby arm and rang our doorbell, and I answered it.
“Remember the one your daddy caught?” Granny says.
“Remember how it tasted?” I say.
Just then, the alligator moves, sliding off the bank and into the pond. He floats toward us, slowly, eyes like black golf balls above the water. Granny splashes with her stick. “Do you think he’s coming to get me?” she asks, but before I can answer, the gator’s gone, underwater. “The reason I came over,” Granny says, “was to bring you some more pictures.”
I already know what this is about: she just got back from another one of her genealogy trips, where she drives all over the country by herself, tracking down information about our ancestors. Granny’s idea of heaven is spending an afternoon in the basement of some tiny courthouse five states away, digging through forgotten file cabinets for proof our kinfolk existed.
She visits old cemeteries and takes pictures of their worn-down gravestones, then gets the onehour photo at Walmart to make duplicates for me. She rattles off a litany of family names longer than those so-and-so begat so-and-so begat so-and-so lists in the Bible. I’m expected to memorize it. “This is history!” Granny says. “You got to know this!”
I try to listen, to make her happy, but we’re talking about people I never knew, whose names stir nothing inside me. I fiddle with my camera’s settings.
"Granny, if I ever have adaughter, I’m gonna name her after you.”
She smiles so big. “You mean, you’d name your daughter LaDonna?”
Her left eye droops. We think she’s had a minor stroke.
“No,” I say. “I’d name her Granny.”
Then the gator appears, resurfaced, only twenty yards out. Those eyes. He stares right at us. Granny splashes more than ever. Her sweatpants are soaked from the shin down. “Boy, he’s a big one,” she says. I should get a good, long look here, zoom in really close on the gator, right on his nose. But instead, I take a step back, snap a picture of Granny.
“Dern it,” she says. “He went back under. Did you get him?”
I search for movement in the water, a swirling eddy, a dark figure gliding through the shallows, but the gator’s left no signs of himself. The pond is still. “Give him a minute,” Granny says. “He’ll come back.” But I bet he stays under. Sometimes we don’t see him for days. It could be weeks. Maybe that’s the last of him altogether, this year’s gator gone for good, my photos the only proof he was here.
Granny drops her stick into the pond, one final splash. “Come on to the car,” she says.
“I’ll show you those pictures.” But we stay there, on the bank, looking out over the pond, quiet as funeral mourners. And the gator is swimming closer, or farther away—we can’t tell for sure.