In the Alligator Wrestling Federation Death Match that’s being broadcast live from the Rio Grande Aqua Theater tonight, I’m taking on El Legarto Gigante. He’s the alligator that’s famous for killing Jerry “The Taxidermist” Connors, Sr., who was one of the great alligator wrestlers of his generation and also my father. I was there to witness it.
Sometimes when I dream at night, I’m back at ringside, seated between Mother and Grandma to watch Father wrestle for the first and last time. I see El Legarto playing dead, floating belly up on the surface of the water, like a turd in a toilet bowl. I see Father turn to face us and raise his hands in victory. I see El Legato suddenly flip over and leap at him from behind, his jaws swinging open and then clamping down on Father’s head. I hear Mother screaming. I see Grandma, God rest her soul, put her hands over her eyes. I see the ice cream cone I was eating slipping through my fingers to splat on the ground as El Legato dunked Father underwater.
We watched and waited for Father to resurface but he never did. As his blood began to spread through the water I cried tears into the melting ice cream spreading around my flip-flops. I haven’t been able to eat ice cream since.
Most of the ten thousand-strong crowd already know Father’s tragic story but I spend twenty minutes giving them a recap anyway. My speech isn’t scripted. I speak from the heart, using fancy words like revenge, destiny, and redemption. I even cry a little. I finish by shouting into the mic that when I’m done with El Legarto, I’ll use his skin to make myself a wallet and a pair of boots, and I’ll use his teeth to make Mother a necklace, and I’ll grill his meat and make alligator po’boys for all my fans. The crowd cheers loudest for the last line.
Mother is in the front row again tonight. She’s dabbing at tears flowing from her eyes with a red handkerchief. Nearby spectators pat her on the back and tell her how brave she was to come. I hear the ringside commentators mention to the folks at home that tonight is actually the first time Mother’s come to watch me wrestle. She didn’t want her only son to wrestle alligators, but it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do and this is the match-up that I’ve always craved. My whole life feels like it’s been one long circular path that’s brought me right back to where Father’s death happened. I wave to my son Trey who is sitting between my wife and mother and wearing a t-shirt that says, “Go to Hell, Legarto.” He’s eating an ice cream cone.
I pick up a handful of sand from the canvas floor of the ring and rub it into my hair. I bounce off of the ropes a few times to make sure my muscles are loose and then flex my massive biceps. Then the floodlights dim. A spotlight shines on the murky water next to the ring, highlighting El Legarto’s cage. It opens and he slides out and starts to swim just below the surface of the water. The bell chimes. The referee signals for us to begin. It’s time to regain Father’s honor, I think to myself. I leap out of the ring, wade into the river, and grab El Legarto by his tail. I drag him backwards out of the water and up into the squared circle. The crowd cheers.
I study my enemy. El Legarto looks smaller and thinner than I remember. His dull skin is covered in scars, and he’s only got one eye. He also seems to have trouble lifting his head. But I’m not fooled by the outward appearance of this cold-blooded killer. I know what he can do. I spread my arms and yell, “Come on!” at him. But he doesn’t attack. He just sits there. I run to the corner of the ring and grab a long, pointed stick. I use it to poke him.
“That’s illegal!” the referee says to me. He starts to count to ten.
“You overgrown gecko!” I shout at my father’s murderer. “You walking wallet!” I poke harder and harder.
“Seven!” the referee counts.
I’m two seconds away from disqualification when El Legarto finally responds. He opens his jaws and snaps at the stick. When his mouth opens I see he’s nearly toothless. I imagine he has trouble eating nowadays. His few remaining teeth look like round pebbles. The necklace I make with them won’t be so good. And his ugly, scarred leather won’t make good boots. I tell him these things to taunt him.
I toss the stick over his head. His eyes follow it as it sails out of the ring and splashes into the water. When his head is turned I jump on his back and use my hands to pry his mouth open. The crowd ooh’s. I hold his upper jaw open using only my chin. The crowd applauds. I’m panting now, and his breath smells like death, and it takes all my willpower not to vomit into his mouth. Then I pretend to struggle with him to heighten the drama for my fans but old El Legarto just sits there like he’s already been stuffed and mounted for display in the Alligator Wrestling Federation museum over in Baton Rouge.
For a moment, just one moment, I wonder if there’s any fight left in this old, worn out beast. Then I remind myself that he’s a sly creature and is probably trying to lull me to sleep so he can pounce when my back’s turned. The old rope-a-dope trick he pulled on Father. “I ain’t no dope,” I tell him, “and I’m about to send you to hell, Legarto.” I roll off of his back. He takes the opportunity to limp back towards the river, moving as fast as his arthritic legs will carry him. This is such a mismatch, I think to myself as I walk after him. He slides into the water and floats on the surface like a log. The crowd chants for me to follow him in. I point theatrically to my loving audience and shout my catchphrase: “Who wants gator soup?”
“Soup! Soup!” the crowd yells.
Cameras flash as I climb up on the top rope of the ring. I tap my right elbow twice with my left hand. People begin to stomp their feet. It sounds like an earthquake. They know my signature move, The Gator Hater, is coming. I notice that the bloodlust has even infected Mother. She’s chanting with the rest of them for me to jump. Her passionate support makes me happy. Forget the boots; to show her my thanks I’ll make her a gator skin purse instead. The audience falls silent as I launch myself towards El Legarto. My elbow leads the way and strikes into the back of his head. I land on his back and dunk him underwater. He tries to flee but I grab the skin under his lower jaw like I would a man’s shirt in a bar fight and hold him still. He is at my mercy.
When we resurface, the crowd, led by Mother, is chanting: “Finish that beast, so we can feast.” Mother mimes eating soup with a spoon.
I prepare to strike the killing blow but make the mistake of looking into my enemy’s one good eye. I find that he reminds me of one of those abused puppies from those super sad commercials that make my wife cry. An abused puppy that’s got one big, ugly, Cyclops-looking eye, and is wet, and stinky, and won’t roll over unless it’s doing a death roll, which isn’t cute at all. “That one’ll never be adopted,” I can hear her saying as she blows her nose into a tissue. I hate to see her cry. Just thinking about it now is enough to make my lower lip quiver.
The crowd calls for El Legarto’s blood again but I can’t bring myself to put the wretched beast out of his misery. Killing him won’t bring Father back anyway, as much as I wish it would. I pull him close and whisper into his ear: “Get out of here. Don’t you ever come back to my ring.” I let him go and push him deeper into the water. He slips under the surface like a diving submarine.
The crowd boos me for denying them a kill. I imagine those watching at home on pay-per-view are equally pissed off after shelling out a hundred bucks for a death match that didn’t have a death in it, but I don’t care. What kind of example would I be setting for my son if I kill an old alligator that can hardly move?
As I turn to get out of the water beer cans, hot dogs, and curses begin to rain down on the ring. I make eye contact with Mother. She looks disappointed. Hudson “Rivers” McMillan, Commissioner of the Alligator Wrestling Federation, is probably mad at me too. I guess I’ll have to find another career. Maybe I can go wrestle manatees or beached whales or something. But first I’ll get to the mic and give a speech about compassion and forgiveness, kinda like how Rocky does in Rocky IV. If my fans won’t listen at least I’ve taught Trey —
I look at Mother again and realize that her face is not showing disappointment; it’s showing fear. I hear a splash behind me and then a low, guttural growl. My wife screams. Mother puts her hands over her eyes. And as a shadow blocks out the light above me, I see the ice cream cone slips through Trey’s fingers.
AMECHI NGWE lives in Houston, Texas. His work has previously been published in Structo Magazine and Divergent Magazine.