I first see the gator during second grade recess.
I’m on my routine trash dump outside the cafeteria tying my shoe, when its warty tail rattles the playground's chain-link fence. I look up to see the blackish-green beast lazing in the shade between the see-saw and tire swing.
What to do? Radio Officer Klucken? No time. Way too slow. Find Principal Hernandez? Negative. Sick today. Get Nurse Blackstone? What could she possibly do? Nada. Lunch ladies? Too old. Wait a sec, Lenny. Here’s what you do: Hide behind the dumpster. Pretend you never saw a thing. Let all those snotty-nosed brats turn into alligator food.
They do call you the names: Fatty, Lard Ass, Tubby, Triple XL, Hippo, Humpty,
Barrel of Jell-O.
The doctors told your mother you’d never squeeze out the birth canal before splitting her in half. The C-section was a success. Rolls on rolls, you were a baby full of goo, a goo-gooing gaa-gaaing rugrat-turned-rhinoceros-turned-teenage-obesity-statistic. You thought surely someday you’d grow into all this excess. Well, did you? Can you see your dick in a full-length mirror? That’s a rhetorical question.
Lenny, get that outta here. Seven-year-olds can't die like that. Think of their future. Think of yours. This could be your chance.
So I take off running toward the playground gate yelling “gator gator!” and all the kids scatter from their hopscotch games and jump from swings and slides and scream to the entrance. Little punk-ass Jonas Calsbeck had just climbed up the corkscrew pole and doesn’t hear the call in time. He clings to the top crying for help.
Remember last week? Remember that kid who threw his bologna sandwich in your face when you were switching out garbage bags? He told you to eat it. They started chanting eat it eat it. For the entire rest of the day, you couldn’t get rid of the burning fumes of Dijon mustard stinging your nostrils. Yeah, remember that?
Can’t think about that now. I’m already bounding across the playground, man boobs bouncing like water balloons. Jonas jumps to my arms and the gator bolts towards us. I tell him to run, and he dashes to the gate, but I stay behind as bait. I stagger backward, facing the monstrous thing’s wide-open mouth. And then all at once it stops and freezes two feet in front of me.
From tail to snout it’s about eight feet long. Its glassy yellowish-green eyes glare into mine, and I try not to blink. Having just watched my fav movie Raiders of the Lost Ark the night before, I feel compelled to whip off my belt and whirl it in the air and crack it like a cat-o’-nine-tails in hopes to scare or lash the big lizard, but it charges even harder, so I hurl the metal buckle at its head and dart towards the monkey bars a few yards behind me.
After two steps, I trip on the shoelace I never finished tying, and the shoe pops off, and I fall belly-first into a mix of mulch and hot sand and a cloudy puff mushrooms around me.
Remember when a bunch of fifth graders locked you in a bathroom stall with a broomstick and duct tape? You tried crawling under the stall door but got stuck. From the gym, Mr. Peggington heard your cries for help and came rushing in. He tried opening the door, but it was lodged into your back blubber. Jimmy from Facilities had to take the whole door off to get you out.
Anyway, dust fills my mouth, and before I can stand the gator bites into the rubber heel of my other Reebok and yanks it off. Then its choppers miraculously miss my ankles, and catch the bottom of my khakis, and jerk and pull, until it strips the shredded pants from my legs. My wet-from-sweat tighty-whities go down with them and wrap around my ankles.
Ms. Gillespie and a dozen second graders gape behind the fence as I stagger to my feet and kick off my briefs. In nothing but socks and a brown uniform shirt, I hobble to the monkey bars and grab the first rung.
I heave my body up, and my shirttail snags on a jagged bit of steel jutting from a pipe and rips the shirt right up to my armpit. I yank and tug but can’t get unstuck, and the gator is just a foot away, so I squirm and wriggle free. I scramble up the rungs and splay facedown across the top.
And for the past twenty minutes here I’ve been, my naked body baking in the sun as an Okefenokee Swamp alligator circles below me, and the fat of my thighs sags between hot steel bars like sausage patties thawing on a charcoal grill.
I keep thinking about how every morning from my supply closet I hear fart noises from a line of kids heading toward the library. Fucking bastards. I squint as sweat stings my eyes and now everything’s looking dim and hazy and fading to black and—
One week later, it’s 6 o’clock and I’m scrubbing toilets, buffing floors, cleaning tables and blackboards. It took less than two minutes for Animal Control to capture the thing and haul it back to its home. I woke up to an EMT giving me water and a blanket. Mr. H. gave me a week to recuperate. You should’ve just quit, but instead, because of the pansy you are, you ask for the night shift.
My last room to clean is Ms. Gillespie’s at the end of the hall. I open the door, flip on the light, and roll my mop bucket inside. Lenny, is it really better to be alive than dead? Is it?
I look across the room and on the back wall hangs a dozen crayon drawings of a super fat Superman lifting an alligator over his head.
Ahreeda Ryter holds an MFA from Lindenwood University and teaches at Central Virginia Community College. Her work has appeared in Revolute, Eleutheria, LAMP, Polis, and other places.