Alligator Candy 1
MY LAST MEMORY of my brother Jon was my most suspect. It was October 28, 1973, and we were on the sidewalk outside our house. I was a stocky four-year-old with a brown bowl haircut, and Jon, wiry and lean with wavy red hair, was eleven. Earlier that year, we’d moved to this small ranch house with a red Spanish-style roof in Tampa, Florida. It was the northern edge of the burgeoning suburbs, a new home on the newest street by the woods. For the kids in the neighborhood, the woods represented the great unknown, a thicket of freedom, a mossy maze of cypress and palms begging to be explored. Kids ventured into there on horseback, barefoot, on bikes. They had worn a path to the 7-Eleven convenience store across the woods, and that’s where Jon was heading this day.
Jon straddled his red bicycle, aiming for the trees. These were the Easy Rider years, and boys’ bikes were designed to resemble motorcycles, the kinds we’d see driven around town by Hells Angels. Jon’s bike had a long red banana-shaped seat, shiny chrome upright handlebars, and fat tires. For added effect, kids would tape a playing card in the back spokes to sound like a motorcycle when the tire spun. They’d lower their heads, extend their arms, and hunch their backs as they pedaled, visions of Evel Knievel in their minds.
My parents had given Jon a green ten-speed Schwinn for his birthday in September, but for some reason he decided to ride his old one this morning. Maybe he wanted something more rugged for the woods or just wanted to take one more spin on his old bike before retiring it. He wore a brown muscle shirt and cutoff blue jean shorts embroidered with a patch from his day camp, Camp Keystone. His sneakers were red, white, and blue Hush Puppies. I could tell by the way his feet bobbed on the pedals that he was anxious to leave.
“You’re going to forget,” I told him.
“I’m not,” he replied.
“I know you are.”
“Let me go with you.”
“You can’t. You’re too young.”
I wanted something specific from the store: Snappy Gator Gum. It wasn’t just gum, it was a toy. The gum came packed in the mouth of a plastic alligator head that opened and closed when you squeezed the neck. I had to have it and didn’t want anything to get in the way.
“What if it rains?” I asked Jon. I was thinking about an afternoon at our last house, when Jon had biked to a store shortly before a torrential Florida downpour. I remembered standing next to my mom in the kitchen when Jon called, and my mom telling me that we had to go pick him up in the station wagon because he was, as she said, “caught in the rain.” I hadn’t heard that phrase before, and it struck me as strange. I pictured Jon literally caught in the rain, stuck in suspended animation, hovering in a cage of falling drops.
“If it rains I’ll call,” he promised.
“Call me anyway when you get there,” I said, “so I can remind you what I want.”
Jon grabbed the handlebars and pedaled quickly down the sidewalk toward the woods. I watched him ride off, still wishing I could go along. I never saw him again. It would take decades to unravel what happened. But my search would always lead me back to this spot.