First published in 2002 by WordSpinnersInk in InkSpin

Who else can say of her childhood, “I watched alligators shredding a beach ball while my mother played poker until dark?”

 It was Holly’s beach ball. She’d just tossed it over my brother’s head so it was her fault it bounced off the waves in the pool, hit the deck with a curious ‘boing’ sound, and sailed into the alligator pit some thirty feet below. We dashed to the metal railing and hung over, mouths open, gasping with fright and exhaustion. We’d been in the pool for nearly five hours.

 “Don’t fall in!” The man’s voice was laconic. He’d been shouting the same reprimand for years now, and we’d heard it at least fifty times that afternoon. Well, it was more evening now. Down below in the alligator pit, the reptiles had finished their first, mad rush at the ball and were now back in their original, immobile positions. You might have thought the fury of thrashing scales and tails you saw before was an illusion except for the bright strips of plastic dangling from the monster’s jaws. I’d never seen the alligators move before this incident. Each time I’d been to that pool, the alligators had been lying so still they looked like bronze statues. Prehistoric bronze. Now, leaning over the rail, I found my hands gripping it more tightly than ever before, and my bare toes sought the edge of the wooden deck and curled around it, anchoring me. I glanced at my brother poking his head between the two bottom bars. He was too little to reach the top one.

“What happens if they escape?” he asked me. “Would they go to the beach? We should warn the tourists.” He stuck his head further through the bars.

I had a sudden notion of his small body hurtling down and landing with a soft splash in the pit below. I pictured the alligators turning and attacking with a savagery and a rapidity I’d never before imagined. Respect for alligators and fear for my tender brother who was always getting into scrapes and being taken to the hospital made me slide back into the pool, calling to the others to join me. “Let’s play Marco Polo!”

We splashed and shrieked. We were as free as children are when their mother is utterly absorbed in something not ten feet away and too concentrated to notice the loss of a new beach ball or the waves sloshing over the side of the pool onto the wooden deck. Always before, making waves had been prohibited and diving was strictly forbidden. Now we ran and dove as much as we liked, and compared wrinkles on our hands and feet. We were waterlogged. Our eyes were red from chlorine and our lips had that bluish tinge children’s mouths get when they’re overwrought and cold. But no one told us to get out of the pool, and no one scolded us about the loss of the beach ball.

 I could see my mother’s profile. She had narrowed her eyes to slits, and her mouth was drawn so tightly a pin wouldn’t fit into it. She was playing poker. A friendly game, she’d thought. Then they informed her that the chips on the table were worth ten dollars apiece, and she found out she’d lost our grocery money. It was win or starve now. She was grimly determined to play until the pile of chips shifted to her side of the table. It had already started to grow. I never knew my mother to fail at anything she’d tried to do.

 I was the oldest. I looked at my brother, with his blue lips and red eyes, and decided I’d better act like the oldest for once, but my sister was always quicker. She scrambled out of the pool—a little, dark mermaid—and picked up our damp towels.

 “Come on! We have to get dry!” she called.

 My mother flicked a grateful look at her, and I slid back underwater. I would wait until I dissolved; that would be soon.

The day’s tropical heat was leaching out of the wooden deck. The evening air made us shiver, but we had no other clothes except the shorts and tee shirts we’d worn to school and the wet underwear we swam in. We were playing ‘go fish’ with a damp deck of cards, and Holly was winning. My brother was half-asleep. The sun had set and the sky was a dark, electric blue. I wondered why my mother didn’t just laugh at the three men she was playing cards with, tell them that she was tired, that her children were sleepy, and just leave. Plastic chips weren’t money. We didn’t have any money anyway. If she lost, she would have to write a check. The check wouldn’t be much good either; half the time they bounced. I couldn’t understand why my mother didn’t just stand up, tell them to sue her, and leave. There was no police officer in the world that would drag her back to the table and make her pay for a silly poker game. I was hungry and tired, but I was the only one who thought of complaining. My sister never grumbled. She would have been a perfect little pioneer child, walking across the desert in bare feet, never thirsty, never tired, never saying anything except ‘may I help you harness your oxen?’

 I cupped my hands under my chin and watched Holly as she peered into my brother’s hand to see which card she should ask for. She needed twos, but I had hidden them underneath the corner of my towel. For once, maybe she wouldn’t win. If she had been playing poker, the whole pile of chips would have been sitting in front of her, and she would have taken us all out for a lobster dinner afterwards. Holly was lucky and generous, but she tended to lose things easily. Easy come; easy go. Her beach ball had lasted nearly all of one afternoon.

 Peter yawned. He was content to be wherever he found himself—in a pool, out of a pool, or in an alligator pit. He would have tried to pet them before they tore him to pieces. He shuffled his cards around and tried to find two pairs. He had pairs all over, but he was too little to sort them out.

 Julie leaned over, straightened his hand, and lay his cards down for him. “You win,” she said. Peter was lucky too. He found money lying in the street. He won a five-dollar bill with hoops at the fair and cried. He’d been aiming at the little plastic tank.

 I was the only discontented one. I was the only one wishing our mother had a little less pride and a little more luck with cards. She would win her money back, nearly all of it. When she was down ten dollars, after winning back six hundred, she stopped, drew out her checkbook and wrote a check, slapping it down on the table with a cry of triumph. She packed us in the car, ground the gears, and drove back home.

While we showered and put on clean underwear and only slightly dirty pajamas, she made us tuna sandwiches and hot cocoa for dinner. Afterwards, Julie and Holly did the dishes while I did my homework on the couch, Peter’s head hard and heavy against my shoulder. He’d fallen asleep. My mother put on the white dress—the one I liked with the halter-top and the colorful flowers. She dashed red lipstick across her mouth, patted powder on her cheeks and snapped her compact shut. She had to go to the restaurant up the road now, for her waitress job. She’d be home at one a.m., at the latest she always said. We would get kisses and pats on the head, and then she would leave us alone. Julie would make sure we all got to bed on time and that Peter brushed his teeth.

 We would turn out the lights and I would sing. I would sing for an hour sometimes, Peter whispering his favorite songs to me. Then their breathing would deepen and even out and I would be alone in the dark, alone with my wakefulness.  The night sky would wheel overhead as I gazed out the screen at the stars and waited for my mother’s footsteps on the cement walkway outside. When I heard the familiar tap, tap, I would nod to myself. I would close my eyes. My mother was home. I could give over my watch and go to sleep. But sometimes I would wonder—I would often wonder—what I would do if ever she never came home. Would my sister, the responsible pioneer girl, organize the household while my brother and Holly, the lucky ones, found money in the gutters? What would I do? I would sing, I decided. I would sing while the moon slid through the sky, and waves washed all signs of the alligators off the beaches.