“Nice day,” the young woman said, gloved hand saluting and shading the sun.
The wrinkled woman next to her — one Mrs. Dorothy Hicks, née Solomon — smacked her lips and squirmed in a crooked wheelchair. She seemed impossibly tiny, drowning under a faux fur coat that belied the 75 degree day.
“What the hell are you talking about?” she said. “We just put your granddaddy in the ground, for Chrissakes.”
“I just meant — “
“Hell, Jean, no one cares what you ‘meant.’ Have a little decency.”
“Sorry, Grandma Hicks.”
The company around quietly shuffled away from the grave site, saying Sorrys and So Longs as they walked to their cars. Jean had been tasked with keeping the matriarch company (I pay your tuition, you’re watching her), and stayed until the last engine rumble dissipated in the distance.
“Ready to go?”
“At least they keep the place nice. Good,” Dorothy said, scanning the tombstones from her chair as she inhaled freshly-mowed grass. “Paid enough and ain’t like we’re living in high cotton.”
Jean’s skirt rustled as she shifted her weight.
“Maybe you’d like to tell a story about Grandpa?” she asked.
“A story?” Dorothy aped, crinkling her nose. Lips smacked. “All right, I’ve got a story for you. And it’s about your daddy, too.
“Day was hotter’n hell. Your daddy and I were driving down to check on that swamp boat of Grandpa’s. Could never figure out why he didn’t just get rid of that tin can. He helped once during that flood in ’98 and all of a sudden he was Jesus Christ with an air propeller.”
“Back then he was docked by Old Jerry’s house. The old one before it got tore down,” Dorothy continued. “So we get there and there’s something strange moving near the water’s edge next to the reeds. Your daddy shouts, ‘Hey there!’ and we see it’s your granddaddy. And he’s leaning over something lying on the ground there.”
“We run up, and see it’s Jerry he’s leaning over, and Jerry is hacking up a storm. Your granddaddy had been giving the poor man mouth-to-mouth re-sus-ci-tation,” she pronounced the word slowly, as though Jean were copying notes. “We were all a fright. So I ask your granddad ‘What in God’s name happened here?’”
Jean politely choked back a yawn. A cloud drifted in front of the sun, providing momentary relief from the heat.
“He says, ‘Dottie, you will never believe it. I seen it all. I was fixin’ to check on the boat when I hear some kind of hollerin’ and a big SWOOSH near the water. It was Rocky…right there in Jerry’s backyard.’
“Now Rocky was the biggest, ugliest, meanest alligator this county has ever seen,” Dorothy elucidated. “And he was a holy terror on us for almost a decade. He destroyed the vegetables, stole the chickens, scared the dickens out of everyone. And no one bore it worse than Old Jerry, with that sad little house up on the swamp.
“So Rocky had stormed the bank and squared up in the middle of Jerry’s yard, black eyes engrossed by the little piggies writhing in their pen.
“And Jerry jes’ wasn’t gonna take it. He marched down, past the oblivious pigs— not thinking about his wife or little babies in the house or anything — and stared that gator down. And with the brewing rage of five years of torment from that reptile, yelled — from the deepest cavern of his soul — ‘GET OUT!’”
Dorothy paused to pull a candy from the plastic purse on her lap. As she crinkled the wrapping, her grandchild asked, “What happened?”
“That alligator blinked twice, swiveled its tail, and crawled back into the swamp.”
Jean let out her breath.
“But that wasn’t all,” Dorothy said, leaning toward her progeny. “You see, Jerry didn’t notice that on the ground was the rope they used to tie up the hogs. And he didn’t see that he had stepped directly in the middle of a half-formed knot. And he also didn’t see that the other end of that rope was lying in Rocky’s mouth.
“Before you could say ‘jump,’ that alligator pulled his enemy right into the swamp. Jerry thrashed and hollered, but his struggle only made the rope tighter. And Rocky dragged him deeper and deeper until the water started lapping over his head.
“Now, your slim little granddaddy saw this all happen from the shore, and, without a second of hesitation, jumped in after his friend. He swam out to where he saw Jerry’s head bob above the surface last, dove underneath the water, and took to untangling the knot.
“The rope squeezed. Jerry’s body went limp underneath the water, and still that damn knot wouldn’t come undone. Just as your grandaddy’s lungs were fit to burst, he felt some give on the rope. A miracle. As fast as he could, he pulled the ropes loose, hoisted Jerry on his back, and swam back to shore — which is where your daddy and I found him, breathing the life back into him.”
Dorothy paused, and Jean whistled a low note.
“I’ll be,” Jean said. “Is that all really true?”
Dorothy emitted a loud HA.
“Of course not!” she said through choking laughter. “Your granddad was a ho-mo-sexual. He and Jerry had been necking near that swamp for nigh on a decade.”
Jean stared blankly at her grandmother, which caused Dorothy’s convulsive bellow to deepen. When the tears finally stopped, she let out a long “who-eee.”
“Your mama didn’t want to believe it,” Dorothy said, wiping her eyes. “And your daddy, bless his heart, never told.”
Just then, the sun emerged, emboldened by its sojourn behind the clouds. Little drops of sweat bubbled up on the two ladies’ necks as they looked on the austere slate gravestone ahead.
“Well,” Jean said slowly. “All right then.”
“All right then.”