My husband is posing for a picture, his head wedged inside the jaw of an enormous alligator, his mouth stretched in mock fear. The alligator, stuffed and mounted, squats in an artificial habitat—think fake marsh, taxidermied birds—in a tourist superstore in Panama City Beach, Florida. We’re here in the off-season of the spring break and airbrush t-shirt capital of the world, with two other couples who may or may not be aware that our marriage is on the brink of collapse.
It’s New Year’s Eve.
I don’t know that this photo is being taken, because I’m upstairs in another part of the store, thumbing through bikini bottoms and suggestive tank tops, and feeling cut off, disembodied among the sailor’s hats and the tropical-print sarongs, the short-shorts emblazoned with the letters PCB. Already I have had too much to drink, and it’s three in the afternoon. Soon after our return home to Atlanta, I’ll see the picture of my husband inside the alligator’s mouth and wonder if it’s one of those images that will come to signify the end of something. At this moment, however, I don’t know if what we’re living is happiness or disaster.
For these few days at least, we’re putting the questions aside, or trying to. If asked, we’ll say that we’ve come here to escape the holiday traffic, the crowds, and the prospect of ringing in the New Year at the same bar where we’ve celebrated the coming of the past four years. We won’t admit, unless pressed, that we’re also escaping the prospect of a long weekend in the house alone, the pressure to feel festive, the wait for the argument that is bound to come. There’s safety in numbers, we think. There’s safety in sunshine and dead alligators. There’s nothing wrong with trying to have a good time.
But since we arrived, there’s been no sunshine. The weather has been terrible—grey and windy, though not too cold. We’ve brought games and movies, but spend most of our time driving up and down the tourist strip, all six of us—three musicians, a writer, a filmmaker, a photographer—packed into one car, with the music cranked up, and laughing, laughing, laughing. If there’s any place where there’s some hope of losing ourselves for a while, this is it.
Leaving the bathing suits and tank tops behind me, I walk downstairs to find our friends and am taken aback, not by the giant stuffed gator but by what surrounds it. Along the walls and on every available surface, glass shelves and plastic stands are lined with decapitated alligator heads. Their mouths, gaping at precisely the same angle, display rows of sharp teeth. Their marble eyes gleam in a parody of predation. I first pick up one, then another. The smallest, priced at $14.95, fits in my hand, the tip of its lower jaw resting, smooth and cool, against my wrist. The largest, wider and fiercer and more depressing, is nearly two feet long. The vaguely worded tags suggest that these alligators are byproducts of the meat or leather industries, that they were not killed expressly to have their heads chopped off, sewn to a flat black disk, and sold to the tourist who has everything. Yet here they are. In the hour that we wander through the store waiting for the skies to clear, I watch people turn these heads over in their hands with expressions of bewilderment, curiosity, or disgust. No one is buying.
Wandering these aisles is like a trip into some alternate dimension, both foreign and strangely familiar. Growing up in South Florida before SoBe and silicone, I made the trip from Miami to Jacksonville and back a half-dozen times a year, stopping at the tourist shops that lined the highways no matter how far from the beach. My cousins and I would walk up and down the aisles, passing bulging bags of oranges, ceramic plates and ashtrays, wallets and playing cards, while my father filled the gas tank. When he stepped inside the shop, we’d ambush him, begging for a shell-encrusted picture frame or a bobbing pink flamingo on pipe cleaner legs.
This is why I feel partly at home here, though this store is larger, brighter, cleaner than the tourist shops we frequented, where souvenirs seemed to have been languishing for decades, the shelves they sat on coated in a fine layer of dust.
This stretch of coast is my husband’s territory. For years, he came to his grandparents’ condo, a short drive from his Alabama hometown but ten hours from the shoreline where I grew up. This souvenir shop, where we’ve fled the rain this afternoon, was once his family’s air-conditioned refuge against sunburn and summer heat.
Some twenty years out from our childhood summers, Panama City Beach still has the vestiges of the Florida that we both loved—cheap oyster bars, goofy golf, tattoo parlors—but the “Redneck Riviera” is eroding more each year. The low-slung motels are being razed and replaced by identical high-rise condominiums, each one with its own slightly different vaguely Mediterranean color scheme. In the past, my husband would drive me up and down the strip, pointing out places where childhood landmarks once stood, but the rash of new development has wiped the slate clean, making it difficult to distinguish one stretch of sand from the next.
Standing firm against the reinvention of the beach, this store is a holdout of classic Florida kitsch: a jumble of the usable and overpriced—beach towels and umbrella stands, sequined flip-flops, and suntan oil—and the overpriced and useless: miniature flamingoes in tiny plastic lounge chairs, or these hundred detached and sinister alligator heads. There’s fudge and ice cream for sale, video games and skeeball to be played. Down every turquoise and pink aisle, something is selling the dream that we have come here for: an effortless, almost careless freedom. There’s a freedom from purpose, from pretense.
For what pretense can there be in a Sunshine State decorative plate, or in one of my favorite childhood tourist shop finds, a plastic treasure chest emblazoned with the state name? A Southern answer to the snow globe, that plastic chest was filled with water, a small red lobster, and pirate’s gold. When shaken, glitter drifted down to the tiny coins, and fish wobbled on little tethers. I don’t know why this appealed to me, but it also impressed my cousin enough that she begged for one too; mine remained on my bedroom windowsill, its water slowly evaporating, until Hurricane Andrew, when the windows shattered and the contents of my room blew away.
Last night, freedom from pretense is what my friends and I found, stumbling into the Sweet Dreams Package Store and Karaoke Bar, where, in between the off-key renditions of “I Got You, Babe” and “Hotel California,” a man who looked eerily like Rod Stewart took to the stage. He turned out to be an actual Rod Stewart impersonator, in town to work a hotel New Year’s Eve bash. At the bar, a man in a Hooters sweatshirt told us, in quiet seriousness, “Hooters was really bumping tonight.” We made it only two steps inside before being accosted by a bobbing and weaving bearded man in a baseball cap who doled out hugs and lines of poetry. He said his name was Free. As in “Freebird.” A few minutes later, noticing my friend’s camera, he said, “Take my picture” and pulled off his shirt, his low-slung pants revealing a distinct lack of underwear. This prompted the DJ to come over the PA system shouting, “Put on your shirt. I repeat, put on your shirt.”
There are moments when you see legends forming in front of you, the stories that will form part of some collective history. This was one of them, and I was nostalgic for it even as it was unfolding, aware of all I stood to lose. My friends. The family condo. The stories of my husband’s past, which over ten years have become my stories. The occasional, fleeting happiness, if happiness is what we feel.
I remember my husband, when I asked once why things couldn’t be easy, the way they used to be, saying, bitterly and through clenched teeth, “It was never easy.” For those few moments in the karaoke bar, though, the world seemed easy enough.
“I like you,” Free kept insisting last night. “I like you.” And for a little while, I liked me—us—too.
Beyond the ferocious alligator in his fake habitat, two doors lead to a rundown patio. A sign proclaims “Live Alligators! Daily Feedings!” Although it’s started to rain again, I step outside to where six adult gators hang motionless in foot-deep, pea-green water dotted with twigs and cigarette butts. Unlike the display inside, there’s been no attempt to create anything approaching alligator habitat; it’s as if the presence of actual alligators has been deemed enough. Gone are the birds and the marsh, replaced by a concrete-block canal, intersected by PVC pipes. The only moving things are the widening circles the raindrops make.
The scene seems vaguely cannibalistic—the alligators separated by their fallen comrades by only a window. In another cage, under warming lights, tubs hold babies of different sizes. I wonder what they are being bred for, if they will join the adults, be sold to some other tourist trap or become purses or heads on a coffee table. While I peer into their cage, a family comes by. The father is smoking. “Hey Johnny,” the father says, and points to the big alligators. “You scared? They’re gonna eat you up.” The little boy grunts, and the father pretends to toss him in.
I wonder how much of this that boy will remember, if someday he’ll come back here with friends and lead them to the tanks of hermit crabs or the tropical aquarium, with its lone hammerhead, before heading for the airbrushed hats and license plates. I hope he will. We need something to cling to, even something as bleak as a lopped off alligator head or a shark’s tooth necklace. We need something to say things used to be like this. I was here.
But maybe I’m trying too hard to preserve, to hold onto things that don’t need to be held onto.
Back inside, I pick up a magnet with a bottle opener on it that reads “Beer. Have a couple, feel like a single.” I think about it, then hang it back. Who buys this stuff anyway?
Photographs provided by author, © Jessica McGowan.