Snapshot at Gatorland

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The last photo of my father was taken at Gatorland. My mother snapped it, and since she hadn’t asked him to pose, she preserved action: Dad’s torso twisted towards the large fenced-in area where the biggest alligators were caged. Wearing loose jeans and a light blue T-shirt, he pitched patches of leaves to the reptiles as several peacocks craned their necks to watch. His sideburns and wide, wire-rimmed sunglasses captured the early ’80s. Pictured too, my sister and I stood not near him, nor facing him. There was no, Say Cheese. No, Stand closer. Because this would be the final image of him captured on film, it seems sad the peacocks paid him more attention than we did. How had I not noticed my father looked smaller than normal, thin, dark-eyed, exhausted? At age nine, details slip by, unnoticed. At age nine, you have all the time in the world.

I can only locate one other photo of my father and me, the other taken after a fishing trip he’d been on when I was four. Recently, I’ve seen the lone picture of my entire family, the four of us, shot shortly after I was born. Her mouth lined with crooked teeth, my mother dreaded being photographed and rarely asked my father to pose with us when he was around, and not at the office or gym, as usual. The stacks of pictures of Beth and me, looking Laurel and Hardy-ish in our matching outfits and contrasting shapes, grew as weed-like as Mom fondly said we did.

Prominently displayed on a bedside bookcase, the Gatorland photo had become a permanent denominator in all I could recall of my father and our time in Orlando, weeks before he died. It wasn’t until I began to record details from our vacation I realized my error. The Florida and the father I’d held onto, all based on one image, had obstructed the reality of this trip, our relationship.

How could a photograph capture how much Beth and I had looked forward to Florida, spending time with our father, our first ride on an airplane? Or how, upon arrival, the dull sky shone a mysterious haze of black? That night the warm, sticky breeze seeped through my clothes—the air smelled like winter jasmine, freshly cut grapefruit, and dawn after a midnight rainstorm. “Drive to the beach,” we’d said, from the backseat. “Drive now.” Other than an eight-foot long pool shoved against the highway, our motel was nowhere near water.

Pulling into the ocean-side parking lot, I could hear the crash of the evening waves, the palm trees crinkling in the wind, imagined seahorses and sand dollars scattered along the shoreline. A tantalizing, tongue-twisting panorama. Beth and I kicked off our shoes and sprinted down the sloping sand. The salty air spread through my long, tangled hair, and the sand bit at the bottoms of my feet. My father cupped his chilled January hands, hollered, “Slow down.” Although his comments didn’t seem meant for us. Unconvinced the ocean tasted like salt, I trailed my hand through the icy water, licked my fingers. The water was colder than I’d imagined, and after much prodding, my mom reached in to test it. My father clapped as my sister did backflip after backflip across the moist sand, slapping and shooting in and out of the waves. Wet, dry, wet, dry—we were in a trance. If only a backflip were the solution to everything. How could I have known this splash of time—a moment no cameras were around—would be so important to me now?

The following day my father, a salesman for a medical device company, left before daybreak for a business meeting, so my mom, Beth, and I hung out at the motel. Our father worked long hours, which made his absence then somewhat expected. Since we didn’t have a car, our mother lounged poolside while my sister and I played Marco Polo until we’d pruned our fingertips, reddened our shoulders, the backs of our necks. Flipping through Good Housekeeping and Redbook, my mom halfheartedly judged our underwater handstand contests, counted off our somersaults. She watched us much more than our father at home; I figured she was trying to squeeze in a break for herself, too. Looking back, I wonder if the trip would’ve been different if my sister and I had pressed more, had guilted our father into working less. Perhaps, that is only wishful thinking, from those who know the ending.

Later that morning, when our growling stomachs were too loud to ignore, we made our way to the nearest roadside diner where we ate silver dollar pancakes. After swimming again at the pool, we walked back to the same restaurant for lunch. Although the same waitress was still working, she didn’t serve us again, but took time to drop off pennies for us to buy gum balls from the machine by the front door. Special, I felt. Noticed. I now wonder if the waitress felt sorry for us, for the two girls who had eaten twice at the same roadside diner, who spoke in breathless bursts of their absent father.

Back at the motel, before falling asleep, Beth and I flicked through the numerous channels and caught glimpses of R-rated movies, all its blood, skin, and rage. My mother was too tired to notice, and my dad, if he’d been there, would have asked us to turn the TV off, but only to avoid the likelihood of us wrestling him awake later with our nightmares. I lightly startled when he shuffled in and heard my parents discuss our plans for the the remainder of our trip. In the lobby, my sister and I had found a glossy, colorful brochure covered with reptiles, and had begged to go. Mom told Dad we were going to the alligator farm the next day, Disney World on Sunday, and he agreed, although he said he’d been feeling especially beat and would’ve rather relaxed by the pool.

When I first began to write about this trip, I’d unfairly started to blame myself: for not noticing my father was ill, for not giving him the breaks he’d wanted. The mounting guilt has since begun to slacken; the Gatorland photograph is losing its grip on me, its grasp less choking.

As the sun barged its way into our bland motel room, my father woke first, shook on his pants, grabbed his wallet. “Can I come?” I asked, guessing he wanted coffee.  He nodded, and I slipped out of bed, headed out barefoot. Looking back, I wonder if he’d hoped to sneak out unnoticed. I know he’d felt sluggish and may have hoped for a break before the big day ahead. If he had, he didn’t let on. Like most children, I grounded myself in the moment, with only a murky awareness of anything, anybody else.

My father found free coffee in the lobby and let me peel back the tin creamers, pour in the silken ribbons of white. “Want anything?” he’d pointed to the vending machine, and I chose plain M&M’s even though I didn’t want any. Since my mother would not allow candy before breakfast, I figured this would be our secret. He’d always been less strict when it came to nutrition. And cleaning and homework and bedtimes.

On damp lawn chairs beside the pool, we waited. “Dad, wanna do cannonballs with me later?” He looked distracted, but then turned to me and smiled. “Yep, Firebug, sure thing.”

“Dad, when I get back to school, will I have a lot of homework to make up? Dad, do you think Tricia will invite me to her party, I mean, I didn’t invite her to mine, but I only invited four friends, and when you only invite four friends—.”  He nodded along, occasionally checking his watch; I kept chatting as long as he would allow. This time alone, never wanting it to end.

When Mom and Beth woke and found us by the pool, I stopped talking so we could map out our day. Because Gatorland didn’t open for over an hour, my dad agreed to once again drive past the ocean. We didn’t want to waste time at the diner, so we ate breakfast ordered from a McDonald’s drive-thru. Scanning Disney and Sea World billboards through the backseat windows, we nibbled on greasy egg sandwiches and sipped on cartons of pulpy orange juice. For much of the ride, my parents listened to the radio and spoke of trip logistics, occasionally lowering their voices. I’ve since learned they spoke of my father’s need to see a doctor during this trip, just weeks before he died, and wonder if they quietly spoke of this then. I wonder if the heart attack that stole his life could’ve been prevented if he’d taken his symptoms more seriously.

When we reached the same beach we’d visited the first night, Beth and I, once again, tossed off our shoes and darted towards the coastline. We stopped. Filled with seaweed and dirty foam, the water was not the seahorses and sand dollars I’d imagined.  Even though my father explained that things looked a little different in the daytime, we couldn’t believe we’d scooped this same water into our eager mouths just days before. At nine, whatever my father said was the truth, and I never interrogated him further.

When I search the Gatorland photograph now, it seems wrong that we hadn’t posed, that my mother hadn’t asked us to smile. If we’d looked happy, or had merely been standing near one another, perhaps I would’ve remembered this moment, our trip to Florida, my shortened time with him differently. I wish his last photo could have been from our time at the beach or our private moments at the pool, the memories I’ve more recently recalled. If we’d known how things would turn out, we might have staged this picture and linked arms, similar to the many jubilant-looking photographs I’ve seen of my husband’s family. Most likely, we would’ve stood near one another to suggest we were part of a unit.

Like the beach in the daylight had appeared different, less appealing than we’d remembered, and had shaped how I viewed the ocean, this photograph had molded how I’ve remembered him. This framed photo is what I have left of that trip, of him. Along with the memory of a pink plastic pencil case from Gatorland I’d discarded long ago.

Susan Triemert

Susan Triemert is a student in the MFA program at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives in St. Paul with her one husband, two sons. She has work forthcoming in Cheat River Review.

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