By ALlie Marini
In the cool shade of the mud pit at Gator Joe’s Intercession Junction, two juvenile bull gators named George & Gracie (though both were male) lazed in the shadow of the sun, watching—always watching—the handlers getting ready for showtime. The Gator Joe Revells had been in central Florida since the 1890s, when Gator Joe’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph, first came to learn the gator-wrestling trade from the Seminole & Miccosukee natives. Where the Revells had been before then is anyone’s guess. The 2nd in the Revell line of Gator Joes moved the family away from Orlando not long after the famous mouse had taken up residence there. Intercession was far enough from Orlando—The City, they called it, spitting out the words like a cheekful of Skoal—to be away from the constant influx of tourism, but still close enough to collect the overflow of vacationers & their money. Joeley Revell, a fifth-generation Florida native, approached the pit in a pair of boots freckled with mud & gator shit. Her hair was scraped back from her forehead & knotted back tight in a green bandana. In this family, a drop of sweat could really fuck up your day.
Like all first-born children in the Revell line, Joeley learned to crawl alongside gator hatchlings & was raised not to fear the titans of the humid, marshy landscape. The elder Gator Joes taught every new generation to keep in mind that even the most humanized gator is never tame; it’s still a dinosaur, a relic of a time long past. They don’t love you, Baby Girl. They tolerate you because you give ‘em food, Joeley’s father, the 4th Gator Joe, had told her. Respect them, he instructed, but don’t be ‘fraid of them. Fear—that, they can smell, & if they do, they got the upper hand & if that happens—you fucked, girl. Fearless as she was of the hulking reptiles, it seemed only natural to Joeley that upon her 18th birthday in November, when the tourists began to roll in from colder climates, that Daddy would finally let her get into the ring & be more than just the assistant, or the barker. She’d spent years learning to feel sure in her skin around the gators, having been taught by Gator Joe the many ways to read cold-blooded body language. She’d raised them from hatchlings, fed them stinky chicken parts & worked them in circles by their tails, pinning them & snapping their spring trap jaws closed.
When she’d asked, he said he figured a new Gator Joe couldn’t hurt, after all, the arena’s profits had gradually—but steadily—dwindled as the popularity of the internet & video game industries had risen. Enough time had passed since the day Gracie, in a foul mood, had snapped his jaws down on Joeley’s left ring finger, taking the first joint with him, his peevish mood set off by one wayward bead of sweat. Gator Joe poured witch hazel over the nub of bone and ragged meat, wrapped it up & drove her to the hospital to get stitched up. S’awright, Baby Girl, happens to all of us. Looks like Gracie your husband now though. Give it a couple months to heal up & we start up again, he said, lighting two Pall Malls between his lips & passing one over to her.
Joeley knew that as the first-born daughter in a family full of sons, there was more at state than just the take at the door, the roar of the crowd, & a lost finger joint. After Gracie snapped her—when they thought she was out of earshot—Joeley’d heard her younger cousins ask Daddy why he was letting her go into the ring again. After all, they reasoned, they were bigger, had more upper body strength, & hell, didn’t losing her finger prove that this a sport for men? Joeley had never felt as small around the gators as she had in that moment, overhearing Luke wheedle her Daddy like that. But she’d also never felt herself grow to the size of a mountain as she had when Daddy looked Luke square in the eye, spat directly on the toe of his boot, & responded evenly, Naw, ain’t no sport for men, it’s sport for a Revell, & Joeley’s the first in line. Every wrestler gets popped. Fact you ain’t yet don’t prove nothing. Y’all get your crack at it when you better than she is. Which ain’t gonna be anytime soon, with that chip on your shoulder.
On the afternoon of her first solo show, Joeley knew she was born to this as much as any Revell son—more so, even, because she knew that the future rolling out in front of her was full of working twice as hard to be taken half as seriously, proving to cousins & tourists the thing she already knew in her heart. Gracie lazed in the mud, digging down to cool the underside of his belly. George hissed at Joeley in the untranslatable language of gators, and always following Gracie’s lead, dug down into the mud. They tracked Joeley’s approach. Waiting, watching. You ready, girl? Daddy asked, as Joeley listened to Luke work the crowd up, getting ready to introduce her. She nodded. Naw you ain’t, he said, reaching out a stubby finger—the tip missing, like hers, taken by an overzealous hatchling—to tap her on the nose. He took off his straw cowboy hat, circled with a string of gator teeth & plopped it on her head. A little big, but we can fix that later, he said. All Gator Joes go into the ring with a hat. That’s as important as the gator, y’hear me?
She entered the ring to a ripple of applause, the crowd unsure what to think of this new Gator Joe, who knew that everything that happened next would be the result of patience & hard work—things Luke knew little about, eager as he was to take up the role. As Joeley approached Gracie, he bellowed & hissed, his massive jaw opening dramatically to the delight of the crowd, showing them the soft pink interior of his maw, danger-lined with ivory spikes of razor-sharp teeth. Gracie was a natural showman, for a dinosaur that only knew how to tolerate humanity. He whipped himself into a circle around Joeley, thick tail cutting a scar into the muddy pen as she grabbed him by it, causing him to jump into the air, hissing & attacking. The audience gasped at how quickly the gator could move. Luke narrated the fact that the American Alligator could reach speeds of up to 20 mph on dry land. Gracie, tired & annoyed, was beginning to slow down, and it was time for the trick that had married Joeley to him with a miscalculated drop of sweat & the muscle reflex of a young gator. Luke—more barker than wrestler—used the opportunity to tease the audience, telling them the American Alligator has the strongest bite of any living animal, at 3,700 pounds per square inch. I ain’t afraid of you, Gracie, she whispered. You took all I’m gonna let you take. Now you listen to ME. As he bowed up in front of her, she circled him, hovering her unwavering hand inside his jaw, pulling it back as the jaws clamped down with a SNAP that made the crowd gasp. Safe. After that first trick, the 5th Gator Joe took her rightful place in the mud.
Once, when Joeley was younger, when she’d first started working with the hatchlings in earnest—before she’d had her first lesson wrestling—she’d asked Daddy if he was disappointed that he’d had her, instead of a son. Naw, he said, spitting into a dark patch of mud. What I need a son for, when I got you, Baby Girl? Later that day, he’d taught her the first rule of gator handling: Never forget you’re dealing with wild animals—but you’re as wild a thing as any creature in nature. This is the thing she remembered, tackling Gracie down into the mud, pinning him with her knees, and tucking his closed jaw beneath her chin. Gator Joe—the fifth in the Revell line—raised up both her hands & extended them. Gracie didn’t underestimate her, the same way she wouldn’t ever underestimate him again. On the sidelines, she saw her Daddy nod his bald head at her. For a second that stretched out & snapped back like the inside of a reptile’s mandible, she felt a pulse in the phantom joint of her finger. Respect, borne between wild things.
Allie Marini is a cross-genre Southern writer. In addition to her work on the page, Allie was a 2017 Oakland Poetry Slam team member & writes poetry, fiction, essays, performing in the Bay Area, where as a native Floridian, she is always cold. Find her online: www.alliemarini.com or @kiddeternity.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.