The evening John Green finds an alligator in front of his trailer, he immediately thinks his dead son has come back to visit him.
After all, there are not many gators in Oklahoma, and an appearance like this must be the result of some otherworldly phenomenon. Jesus must have rolled the dice, and this five-feet long alligator showed up in front of John Green’s trailer.
Or maybe John Green is simply high as balls and he’s just imagining everything. After all, John Green is high as balls almost every night, and tonight is no exception.
But, like every time he’s in doubt, John Green gets his Glock.
John Green was sitting on the couch of his trailer, smoking Ice from his pipe all encrusted with filth, and he was thinking that the smell of dog shit had probably gotten unbearable even for a piece of human toilet paper like himself. Axel was curled up at his feet.
John Green had heard someone hissing outside the door. Initially, he thought of a possum, a raccoon, or, worst-case scenario, a mountain lion, but it’s not like there were many mountain lions in Oklahoma either, especially around the trailers in southern Guthrie.
Axel started barking, so John Green got up, left the Ice pipe on the TV, and pulled the pirate flag he used as a door curtain. Behind the screen door, at the feet of the steps of the trailer, John Green saw this brown gator lying in the grass, as if it were asleep.
John Green thought of his son. He thought, what the fuck, Gabe. Is this the way to come say hi to your old man, and then, gabe gabe gabe. That name creaked in his head like the corpse of an insect crushed inside a shoe.
John Green remembered what happened to Phil Young when he hand-fished in an artificial lake—a snapping turtle tore off his fingers two weeks after he left his wife. In Guthrie, everyone said she took her revenge.
But a gator is something else. John Green’s dead son likes to go big.
John Green, with flipflops on his feet and his Glock tucked under the band of his sweatpants, grabs the filthy pipe, the lighter, and goes out the door of his trailer. He stands on the highest step. He pushes his calf against the door; Axel rattles behind him, whimpering desperately.
The gator lies perfectly still, its beady, yellowy eyes rolling under its eyelids.
“So, how about it?” John Green says, and he starts heating the pipe. He takes the first drag, the smoke sizzling in his throat like sausages squished against the grill. “It’s the soul of the pig!” he used to scream at his dead son when they had a barbecue night outside the trailer, and John Green pressed the sausages hard with the meat fork. They fried so hard that they started whistling. His dead son used to yell at him to do it again, and John Green laughed.
John Green keeps smoking. It’s hot. He hears voices from the Beasons’ trailer, half a mile from his, and the buzz of his TV. A breath of wind brushes against the elm leaves, all sick and nibbled by bugs. The gator doesn’t move.
John Green considers shooting in the air to make sure he isn’t imagining the animal. Then he thinks, if the gator is really his dead son, he can’t welcome him back with the last sound he heard in his life.
Gabe. His dead son’s name, bugs him, just like when John Green wakes up in the morning and steps on Axel’s shit, next to his bed; just like when he shoves his legs under his blanket and feels a cockroach slithering away. Gabe gabe gabe. That name keeps nesting in the crevices of his brain like an infection. John Green wants to carve into the skin of his skull, snap the bones and rip it off. His dead son died when he was eight, by mistake. He shot himself in the stomach one night in August.
John Green was grilling sausages in the front yard. They had gone hunting and caught a hare. When they were back home, John Green left the gun on the TV and his dead son must have found it when John Green asked him to go get some salt. John Green heard the shot and then an ear-piercing whistle.
He didn’t immediately realize that the whistle was his son’s voice—the strident wail of a child who knew he was going to die.
The gator could slither under the trailer and take him by surprise the next day; he could tear Axel to pieces; he could hide in the tall grass and rip his leg off.
Axel keeps whining, and John Green kicks the door to make him shut up.
The gator opens its mouth, shows him its fangs and bellows, something between a hiss and a roar, and John Green grabs his gun. The skin of the gator looks thick, hard, almost stone. John Green wonders if the bullet could even scrape the scales on its back.
John Green knows that his dead son is in front of him, even though the Bible verses he reads at the narcotics meetings in Guthrie never mention the dead coming back to visit their loved ones in animal form. But John Green knows the alligator is Gabe, must be Gabe; Gabe coming back to remind him he’d be twelve today, and he’d have his middle school diploma. John Green would tell him, good job, son, but now he doesn’t know what to talk about with a gator kid who killed himself by mistake with his father’s gun.
John Green imagines the bullet pierce the soft skin of his dead son, his belly button and the bones and the muscles and the internal organs exploded, crumbled.
John Green looks at the hard skin of the gator and knows his dead son is back, ready to protect himself.
John Green was always too high to realize he was a father, but his dead son didn’t know what meth was. His dead son picked up Axel’s shit and made filtered coffee when John Green was too high to get out of bed; his dead son prepared bowls of cereal and helped John Green get dressed to go to Sunday mass.
John Green looks at the gator and keeps smoking and knows he has made many mistakes, but he also knows that his dead son died without knowing that his dad smoked so much meth. He knows that his dead son believed him when he told him that his teeth were shrinking because he scraped them too hard when he brushed them.
John Green takes the pipe out of his mouth. “It’s called Ice,” he says aloud to his dead son, and he knows what should come next: it was the drugs, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on, it was a tragic accident—just like everyone said in Guthrie to make him feel better, even the Beasons. But then, two days later, they moved their trailer a bit further from his.
John Green’s hand slithers towards the gun. Axel whines.
When they went hunting, his dead son always asked if he could carry the Glock, and John Green told him, no. When you’re older.
John Green doesn’t know if he should regret it. But now he aims towards the animal, which is still quiet in the grass and hasn’t done anything to deserve this—nothing, other than looking up at him from below.
John Green puts his finger on the trigger. He feels Gabe behind his leg, just like when he shot hares and his son wanted to be close to him, even though John Green told him not to because of the recoil.
John Green feels Gabe, pulls away from the door and Axel comes out and squeezes between his legs. The gator growls. John Green shoots, once, twice. The beast flaps his tail on the ground, hisses, looks like it’s screaming. Axel runs down the steps and John Green tries to grab him by his tail, but the gator roars so loud that Axel pees himself with fear. John Green feels the pee on his toes. The dog runs and barks around the gator. John Green shoots again. Then silence.
The gator is still. Axel drags himself away. John Green sees a big hole among the scales, between the eyes of the beast; he walks down the steps and moves the corpse with his foot still wet with pee.
The gator lies on the ground, belly up. The scales on its abdomen are thin, clear, soft. John Green hears the breath of wind brushing the elm leaves; the pipe lies on the grass.
John Green picks it up. Gabe’s name keeps crawling through his brain, deafening.
Rachele Salvini is an Italian woman based in the US, where she earned a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. She spent most of her life in Italy, and writes both in English and Italian. Her work in English has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Moon City Review, StorySouth, and others, and her first collection of translated prose, Pollo Fritto e Disperazione, was published in June by Digressioni Editore. The Italian version of “The Gator Kid” won the prize “8×8, si sente la voce.” Follow her on Twitter at @rachelsalvini.