What man can live and not see death?
(Psalms Bk. 3.89.48)
MID-WINTER, JEFFERSON-ON-THE-LAKE, NORTHERN OHIO
A real mouth-filler. That’s how the dictionary, the battered one on top of the fridge, defines one of these great lizards.
There is a word for a fear of these beasts: herpetophobia. I don’t have a problem with snakes and lizards. It’s just alligators, although you can throw crocodiles into that bracket too, even if they are supposed to be different creatures. I’m not a zoologist. I’m a private eye.
I named my fear of alligators and crocs my Captain Hook syndrome. Before I went to Florida in search of a runaway, I could watch those National Geographic shows where these fifteen-foot animals lay in wait for the zebra and water buffalo herds fording the Zambia River on their annual migration. The same narrator with his plummy British accent and Oxbridge degree always described in eloquent terms how these big reptiles “assist nature” by thinning the herd. I was pretty sure that pinhead would change his mind in a big hurry if he found his own boat upended on that very same river.
Micah, my ex, used to tell me there is one for everything in life that you can name, including a fear of dust, but I have never troubled to look it up myself. When we were first married, I was a cop in Cleveland and I had to chase a few knuckleheads through backyards all over the east side, and they do love their pit bulls, these guys, so I’ve been bitten a few times. That’s called cynophobia. But I like dogs. When I was a very young boy being raised by a religiously nutty grandmother, I had a fear of thunderstorms. That’s called keraunophobia only if you include both lightning and thunder. During a terrific storm one summer over Lake Erie, she told me that was God’s wrath roaring from the heavens.
She was good with books, my ex-wife. Often she would read passages to me in bed or quote lines, especially from psychology texts, although she was a lawyer by profession. She used to say that I was a classic underachiever. Even after the divorce, there would be books lying about the house with bookmarks in them. I once bought her a set of laminated ones for Christmas that she never used; instead I’d see scraps of papers, hair pins, and anything that lay close to hand fulfilling the task of keeping places for her. In the way that your memory has its own way of bookmarking events in life with its own reminders, I recall it was the same day that we had that brief conversation about alligators that she mentioned splitting up.
“Look it up,” she’d say, in that librarian tone of hers whenever I asked her something about what she had read to me. She showed me a picture of one of these oversized lizards lolling fatly in the sun, snout forward, sprawled in the mud, its snarled, crooked teeth poking out stupidly every which way from its trap-like jaws. It lay on the banks of some bayou or swamp beneath clusters of Spanish moss. “Crocodiles have the pointed snouts,” she said.
Alligators, crocodiles—whatever. I occupy my time as the proprietor of a one-man investigative office in this resort town. My lawyer-wife liked to rub it in my face that the difference between my occupation and her profession was that what I did for a living did not qualify as a real profession because it didn’t come with “a public avowal of beliefs.” I told her that’s fine for lawyers, doctors, and the rest of the white-collar crowd, but people don’t line up to take vows to deal with the kind of reptile my business involves. In my experience, the two-legged kind can have blood just as cold.
Latin was an aphrodisiac to her. She was not only a lawyer but she left me for one. She studied law at Case Western in Cleveland and moved to our little burg where she acquired the reputation as a tough prosecutor. We met when our paths crossed over one of her early cases. I know almost all the lawyers through my cases; sometimes I work parallel to theirs; sometimes I need them to defend me. My friend Reggie is a judge of the Western District now, and I’m sure he’s relieved about that because he often lamented how much he’d hate to throw the book at me if he ever saw me in front of him. I was pretty sure he’d have recused himself if it came to that, but sometimes I think he’s serious. Knowing me hasn’t helped him in the social circles he frequents. Micah herself is living in Portland, but is moving to Salt Lake City in the spring. She’s divorcing the lawyer she left me for, and is dating another one from Utah.
But I digress. On the day alligators and crocodiles came up, we were leaving for Naples, Florida, where her parents owned a small house worth a quarter million—just a squared-off cinderblock job with a red-tiled roof and some stucco for ginger-breading. The realtors down there called it “a chic bungalow,” but up here in my neighborhood, it would be called shabby and wouldn’t get a bid over $50,000. Location, as they love to say.
Our vacation plan was to drive across Alligator Alley to Miami, follow the old Tamiami Trail, and then take the A1A up from Delray Beach and catch I 95 and ride back north. It was familiar turf despite my being an Ohio boy born and bred. For one thing, runaways love this place. It isn’t just the aging snowbirds who make a beeline for Florida. My last skip-trace job ended with a suicide in a motel not ten miles from Delray Beach. I knew how the guy must have felt. The state depressed me too. It was like nature at constant war with itself, with exotic strains driving out domestic. Australian pines, orchids, and mimosa taking over with redolence and beauty against the native species. Sea grape strains to find purchase in sand, insects fight everything in their path like all the young hustlers without money go after the geezers with it, as bad a combination as matter and antimatter.
But it would turn out we would return from Naples without driving into Miami. For some reason, I wanted to take a different route home, pick up 77 in South Carolina and take the Shenandoahs for a change. I was tired of lowlands, the humidity, the everlasting sunshine.
Later on I would learn the reason for Micah’s moodiness. She had just begun her affair with this corporate lawyer of hers, a tax consultant for Price Waterhouse and a few other big outfits in Cleveland. He showed Micah how to do the books for my business on the Strip. Then he showed her another kind of business. He had written to tell her he was leaving his wife, and he was begging her to make the trip short. I remember with such clarity that icy feeling in the pit of my stomach when he got around to describing parts of her anatomy that I assumed I alone had seen, let alone caressed. His passion seemed unlawyer-like, unreal to me, but then, I must have been in a kind of shock to discover her treachery. He also told her he was fondling a locket of her pubic hair and counting the days until they could see each other again.
I knew all this not because I’m such a crackerjack investigator, but because I came across his letter to her after I was released from hospital, my head no longer swathed in bandages but my vision still blurry, and migraines were jackhammering me to the point of blindness. Astoundingly, Micah had used his letter—a half page of letterhead paper with the law firm’s name across the top—to mark a place in a book. In an era of facebooking and sexting, it turned out to be an old-fashioned letter that exposed her. Weighing less than a feather, but as I held it in my hands, it felt like something with the mass and weight of a bag of hammers. I remember nothing at all about the book, not the title or the subject, color or size, but I can still see the words she had underscored in pencil when I came across the folded paper: Fear is the parent of all cruelty—J.A. Froude.
Maybe she wanted me to find it. At first, it seemed nothing more than the casual malice of a cheating spouse, one more stab into the heart, or maybe the balls. I now think she was reaching out in those final days of our marriage for some kind of response, maybe. Micah had too many intellectual weapons against me to need to justify her infidelity. There was no pettiness in her character, yet this quotation haunts me worse than anything lewd in the lawyer’s letter. To leave it behind for me to find like that, like a cheap Freudian slip. I put the letter away inside a tiny panel in my grandmother’s old secretary downstairs. It’s in there now, pulsing with its own secret life.
Convicts have an expression: “running through the gears.” It’s a slangy way to describe slamming a shiv into a guy’s chest—in and up, over; in and down, over. Just like driving stick when I was a kid. Froude, whoever he is, is right about cruelty. I remember watching her once as she lay curled up on the sofa in a winter shaft of light reading a thick biography of Stalin, and she told me he personally crossed out the names of his victims. The ones who had done him a kindness or a service used to cause him to tremble when it came to their names on his death list.
“Why?” I asked her.
“Sexual sadism,” she answered in a bored tone.
That’s always been my Achilles’ heel. I never identify with the killers or the psychos. It’s the faces of the victims I always see first.