Swamp Witch (Part I)

Mama isn’t a bad person. It’s actually quite the opposite. She feeds every stray she comes across, gives to charity and she cares a lot about the environment. The environment is probably the thing she carries the biggest torch for. We have a delicate ecosystem down here in the Florida Everglades and it has to be maintained. I feel like that’s probably the best way to start this story; to remind you that she is good. Mostly.

She has what you’d call a “gift.” I think that’s probably the best way to describe it. Some people ’round here call her “the swamp witch.” If you’re planning on doing that, I’d advise you to do it quietly and best to not be within earshot because you’ll probably regret it for a very long time.

We do airboat tours in a small town here in Florida called Everglades City. Now, when you tell people you’re from Florida, they automatically think of the shit that they’ve got up there in Orlando, and the beaches on the coasts and that’s it; tourist places. We have tourism here too, but it’s not quite of that same sort. If you see something with mouse ears here, it’s probably an actual mouse. There’s a lot more to see and do here in Florida than theme parks. The Everglades is one of the largest chain of wetlands in the entire world and there are probably a million something species of flora and fauna thriving here: panthers, pythons, gators, shit there’s even some monkeys and giant boa constrictors. Those last two aren’t supposed to be out there but they are. Mama says they’re not—what’s the word?—indigenous, I think.

Our shop is right off Main Street here. We actually run two businesses out of the store; the first one I’m supposed to talk to people about, but the other one I’m not. Tucker’s Fillin-Station & AirBoat Tours is the one I’m supposed to say. Her pa started it when she was just a girl. He’s gone now though. Now it’s Mama that runs the Fillin’ Station. Inside we do a little concession buffet with a sneeze-guard and everything, that’s $7.99. We have your regular quick-stop fare, soda, chips and the like, and Mama sells tour tickets to see the everglades for $39.99 per adult and $19.99 for kids under ten. If you tell mama your kid is ten and they’re older you better hope she don’t catch you because that’ll make her mad, too. The tour guide on those trips, well, that’s me. I run the tours on our airboat. There’s no real tour route that we take. I mostly just go wherever I feel I want to go when I have passengers on the tour. I just need to be back within the hour in the case that she’s sold another one. The second business has something to do with taking potato sacks over to Uncle Vearl so he can sell them over on some street called Silk Road. I ain’t never seen that on a map, so I figure must be that Vearl takes them bags out of town. I think that’s probably all I should say about that.

Mama inherited the land that the shop is on. We got our house on it too, towards the back. You can’t see it from the shop on account of the trees. It’s a nice little place and we’ve built a nice little life here for me and Mama. She reminds me that there’s always the chance it could be gone one day, that’s why you have to pay attention. You might-could wake up one day and it will all be gone from pollution or something as bad as a hurricane, but Mama keeps those fates at bay. It’s not easy maintaining such a delicate ecosystem, but she says sometimes that sacrifices must be made. I don’t know how much of that I believe, but she’s probably right, at least partly. Before a week ago, we hadn’t had to make many of them sacrifices for a while.

People been really pissing her off lately.

It’d been a couple of months since the last one, but last Monday a family came in. I wasn’t running any tour at the time because it was still pretty early in the day. I was sitting in the back next to the counter in the restaurant area with my feet up on one of the tables reading the paper when the bell at the door chimed. A slim woman, and her overweight husband entered the shop. When the woman opened the front door, immediately two kids shot past her and began running up and down the aisles at the front where we’ve got the sodas and chips. That area is for people who are coming in for quick snacks and things they might have forgot at the Publix; not for horseplay. I immediately knew that this family was gonna start Mama’s day off on a bad side from the look on her face she grew deeper and deeper shades of red as she watched the four of them. The little boy had a narrow face and was missing two teeth in the front. He was younger than the girl. That little girl had a unrestrained look in her eyes and an unrestrained mess of hair to match. I could sense Mama getting more and more furious from behind the counter and I was about to go over and end the running around when Mama put a hand out to stop me. I looked back at her: dark fury was rising behind her eyes like the swamp-water after a good rain. She shook her head and mouthed ‘no’ to me silently.

Between the snack area and the restaurant, Mama’s got a little information booth set up to solicit donations. We donate a lot of the profits we make from our businesses to Everglades protection and alligator rescue. There’s even a tank in the booth with a ba gator swimming around in it. He’s called Roger, but I call him “Smelly” because the tank stinks. She tells me not to call Roger that if she hears. Mama loves alligators; says so real big on the sign.

“Mama loves alligators,” the woman read. She stood for a moment examining the many pictures of Mama posing with them, “hey honey, come look at this crazy redneck!”

The man laughed, “Mama loves them huh?” he put his arms around her waist and thrust his pelvis against her ass, “do you think she “loves them,” loves them?” he said, rubbing against her.

I looked at Mama then, and knew she’d finally had enough, “Excuse me!?”

They turned then and quickly realized that the subject of their lewd comments was the proprietor and that she was sitting, glaring at them, at the register in back. I ain’t never seen two people more embarrassed with themselves than right then.

“If you’re gonna make a purchase,” Mama began, “then do so, and after, kindly collect your monsters and get the fuck outta my shop.”

The man’s face shifted from embarrassment to shock and then turned to anger as quick as a cornered raccoon. “Now you just wait a minute lady,” and that was it—he done it then. Never, not ever, do you call Mama ‘lady’ with a tone in your voice, and certainly not inside of the establishment that she owns. She doesn’t take kindly to rudeness.

She stormed over to him and scared him enough that he turned to collect their children.

They might have escaped what happened next, if the woman had kept her mouth shut, as they left she muttered to her husband, slightly humored, “did you see the menu? You’d think a lady that loved alligators so much wouldn’t be serving them up to eat.”

At that, Mama threw her hands out like she was collecting up an invisible bundle of sticks. Across the room, the family slid along the floor as if magnets until they were so close together that not one of them could move. Nobody was screaming like they did sometimes, but I think that’s because Mama had remembered to clamp their mouths shut too. She spun them around, and moved them towards her with another motion of her hands. Sending them quietly towards the room in the back. She followed after them, turning to me as she crossed the doorway.

“Watch the shop. Don’t go nowhere.”

The door slammed behind her, but she hadn’t touched it.

At about mid afternoon, she emerged from the back room. That room is soundproof, so none of the noise she’d been making had been in the shop. She opened the door cautiously and the sound of the Steve Miller Band filtered out around her from the stereo in the back. She wore her long rubber butchering apron and gloves.

“Store’s empty?” she asked with a wry grin.

“Yes, Mama,” I said leaving the counter to lock the door and pull the blinds.

She came out from the back room sticky with gore and blood. She held two ba alligators: one in each hand. One had a narrow face and was missing two teeth in the front. The other had an unrestrained look in her eyes and fight to match. She flitted and wriggled to break from Mama’s grip, but it was in vain. Mama dropped the two of them into the tank with Roger. She says their names are Billy-Joe and Bobbie-Sue now.

Mama turned to me, looking tired and bloody, “Son,” she said, “can you please call up Dale and tell him to bring the tow-truck. Tell him their car’s been here overnight—don’t say nothing more to him than that, ya hear that? You know how long he usually takes to get over here, I don’t want it here ‘till tomorrow.” a set of keys jingled in her hands and she tossed them over to me, underhand.

“Put on a pair of gloves and pull it around to the side.” She wiped her bloody hands off on the slick rubber apron and pulled a wallet out of the pocket at the front. Behind the counter hangs a large print of a panther on hinges. She swung it away from the wall. Behind that panther is the safe which she opened. She examined the contents of the wallet before depositing it with the others she’d been collecting in the potato sack.

Muttering: “Fuckin’ rude ass Colorado yuppies,” as she closed the safe shut with a sharp clink and spun the dial. “Goddamn tourists don’t know nothin’ from nothin’.”

She turned on her heel to return to the back room and as she crossed through the doorway, she instructed: “Be sure to check if there were any other credit cards or IDs in the car. The mom didn’t have a wallet on her.”

“Yes, Mama.”

I began to dial the call to Dale.

“Hey, Clifton.”

“Yes, Mama?”

“Be sure you don’t leave the keys in the ignition this time. Bring ‘em back inside. Remember, Dale’s nosy. He asks questions too much.”

“Yes, Mama. I will.”

I finished dialing and told Dale about the car. I said it just like Mama told me: that it had been sitting on the side of the building all night. No, we didn’t see who it belongs to. Thank you Dale, see you in a few hours.

I could hear Mama make another call in the back.

“Hey Vearl, it’s Alice Tucker. Listen, It ain’t mine on account of my lacking a permit this year, but you think you can help me unload a couple hundred pounds of gator meat? Yeah, that’s right. Two of em. Got some meat that’s pretty lean and the other one was fatty as fuck.” She laughed at something Uncle Vearl said on the other end of the line. “You know I love alligators Vearl,” she laughed again, “but sometimes I love them sonsabitches battered and fried, too.”

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