FICTION: Endangered Species by Fred McGavran

It’s not a good idea to go away without your wife, unless it’s to jail or rehab, or it’s your mother-in-law’s idea. After 30 years in the state pen for shooting her husband, Momma moved in with me and my wife Darlene. That particular husband wasn’t Darlene’s father, so shooting him helped Darlene and Momma bond. Murder can have a positive fallout. Moving in with your son-in-law can cause problems, especially in the worst winter since the river froze over back in ’77.

Me and my friend Bill Bob were crowded into my living room with his wife Lois and Darlene and Momma watching Barbara Brulig’s ‘Troubled Women’ show about a cold wave in Florida. Crowded doesn’t really describe it: at five feet four and over 300 pounds, Bill Bob takes up a lot of space, and Lois isn’t far behind. Darlene and Momma are more on the normal side, and I’m pretty thin from all that bologna in the state pen, but they wanted the couch for themselves, and there wasn’t enough room for a lawn chair from the bedroom. I was hoping one of the girls would get up to go to the bathroom or another beer so I could grab her seat while Barbara Brulig interviewed the mother of a little girl who had just missed being hit on the head by an iguana that fell out of a tree. The little girl seemed to enjoy the experience; she still had the iguana’s tail. The mother was ready for the psych ward.

“There’s money to be made with iguanas, boys,” Momma said.

Darlene and Lois were watching to see how we’d react. I should have known it was a put up job.

“They’re cold blooded,” she went on. “When it gets chilly, they freeze up and drop out of the trees.”

“Somebody could get hurt,” said Bill Bob, thinking out loud.

“So they’re looking for bounty hunters.”

“Aren’t there any hunters in Florida, Momma?” I asked, getting suspicious.

“Anybody can pick up a frozen iguana, but you can’t take them around the block and turn them loose again,” Momma replied, turning back to Bill Bob. “This is going to take some brains.”

It wasn’t often that anyone credited Bill Bob with brains. Darlene looked at Lois and smiled. They knew Momma had him.

“So what do we do with ’em?” he asked.

“There’s lots of hungry gators in the Everglades.”

“Damn!” he exclaimed. “What’s it pay?”

“$5 a head,” Momma said. She’d hooked him, and I’d have to go along. Bill Bob’s a disabled Vietnam veteran, and if he doesn’t have a friend around to keep him in beer and friendly conversation, he goes downhill fast.

“We’ll need money for gas and food and beer and a place to stay when we get there,” I pushed back.

“I’ll stand you a few hundred for gas and beer. You can eat at VFW posts along the way and camp out when you get there.”

Momma was flush from using her method of escaping abusive husbands to found Second Chance Babes, the most successful female marketing start-up in town.

“Deal?” she said, flashing Bill Bob her best closing smile.

“Deal!” Bill Bob cried before I could stop him.

I thought Darlene and Doris were going to clap. They wanted us out pretty bad for Momma to put up that kind of money, but I couldn’t figure why.

* * *

“I didn’t know they were green,” Bill Bob said. The iguana was belly up under the upraised root of a Banyan tree inside one of the swankiest resorts in South Florida. “I can’t reach it.”

Bill Bob couldn’t bend very far without toppling over much less reach a half-frozen iguana caught in the roots of the big old tree. I went back to the truck for a catch pole. Bill Bob slipped the loop around the iguana’s neck and lifted it up. “Now what do I do?” he asked.

“Drop it in the truck bed. When we get enough, we’ll drop them off in the ‘Glades.”

To get the gig at the hotel, we’d had to sign something saying we would “dispose of them humanely.” Momma hadn’t told us about that. It was against the law to “relocate them.” Don’t ask me why. I was thinking pet stores. Kids love them until they get their first bite.

“I spotted another,” Bill Bob said after I returned to the tree.

An iguana was lying on a branch a yard or so over his head. He reached for it with the catch pole but it slipped off the branch, flipped over on another branch and dropped tail first into the sand just in front of his feet. It stuck there still as a steel flamingo.

“It could’ve speared me!” Bill Bob cried.

He reached out with the catch pole and stopped.

“Damn!” he said. “It winked at me.”

I could see the PTSD was starting up again and told him to limit himself to the ones already down.

It was a pretty hard day, snaking them out from the roots of the Banyan trees without snapping anything off, like a tail. Bill Bob tires easily, and we had to make frequent stops for beer to recharge or take a leak. By mid-afternoon we’d got the hang of it, and the truck bed was half full. That’s when Bill Bob started tossing them by the tail like bowling pins until the tails snapped off, and I had to pick them up a second time. So we decided to call it quits for the day. We threw a tarp over the iguanas in the truck bed and drove up to the office to be paid. We didn’t have an exact count, but the manager gave up $250 to go away before the dinner crowd arrived.

“You coming back?” the manager asked. Something about the way he said it sounded like he wanted to hear, “No.”

“Lots of ’guanas we didn’t have room for today,” Bill Bob replied, popping open a beer. “See you tomorrow.”

So we were off to the camp ground. It would’ve been just another night of drinking beer and eating beef jerky, but that’s when we met Pedro Gonzales. We had started a fire outside the tent to keep warm when he came up and asked if he could have a beer with us. We said sure not realizing he meant giving him one of ours.

“Gracias, amigos,” he said, downing it in a gulp. “I’m shit out of luck.”

Bill Bob and I are suckers for a hard luck story, ’cause we been shit out of luck most of our lives, too.

“What the hell happened?” Bill Bob asked, handing him another beer. We’d bought two 12 packs with our wages so we wouldn’t have to stop for another on the way in tomorrow.

“I spend years saving up to buy a refrigerated truck, biggest damn reefer you ever seen, and now I’m goin’ broke on my first run.”

“What happened?” I wondered.

“I bring a load of avocados from Mexico and was goin’ to load up on oranges, but all the oranges are frozen, and I’m out of a cargo and out of gas.”

“Wish we could help,” said Bill Bob. “All we got is half a truck of frozen iguanas.”

“You got iguanas! Give me a couple and I’ll fix up the best iguana stew you ever ate.”

And damn if he didn’t. Somehow he spotted a coconut in one of the palms and shimmied up the trunk for it. He poured the milk into a pan, grabbed a couple iguanas and disposed of them humanely, and cooked up the first and best iguana stew I ever had.

“Where’d you learn to cook like this?” I asked him.

“In Mexico, we eat iguana whenever we find them. Trouble is, there aren’t enough.”

“What can you get for one down there?”

“Maybe a dollar.”

“Pedro, we’re in luck,” I said. “Help us pick up the iguanas, and we’ll stake you enough gas and beer to go home with a whole truck load. You’ll make a fortune. And all we want is fifty cents a head.”

I thought he was going to cry. So next day we went back to the resort.

Now Pedro, he was one hell of a worker once we got him over his fright with a couple beers. It made me and Bill Bob sweat just watching him. By early afternoon there wasn’t one left to pick up, so we sat down in the shade of a Banyan tree for some beef jerky and beer. It was warming up, and the sun and the beer made me sleepy. I was just starting to drift off when the manager came running out of the club house screaming.

“Que passa?” asked Pedro.

“The iguanas are getting away!”

So we got up and followed him around to the truck and sure enough, iguanas were dropping out of it onto the blacktop in a green wave.

“Guess we should’ve iced ’em down,” Bill Bob said, looking up at the afternoon sun. “After all, this is Florida.”

“What’re you going to do?” the manager demanded.

“Bring us some ice, and we’ll put ’em under again.”

Fortunately, iguanas don’t move very fast. As soon as they felt the blacktop warming up, they just settled down to enjoy it. So while white-coated waiters brought buckets of ice from the kitchen and Pedro picked up the stragglers, Bill Bob and I finished the beer.

“Guess it’s time for us to go,” I said to the manager. “That’ll be another $250.”

He just stared at me.

“Wanna count?” I asked.

“I want a discount for the ice.”

“You’re lucky we didn’t charge double for picking them up twice,” Bill Bob said, leaning so close the manager could smell his breath. So he paid us the $250, and we promised never to come back again.

That pretty much sums up our experience ridding resorts of frozen iguanas after the cold snap returned. By the time we filled up Pedro’s truck, Bill Bob and I were pretty tired of iguana stew, and Pedro was pretty tired of us getting all the cash and him just getting enough to make it home. So we treated ourselves (and Pedro) to pizza our last night and gave him enough cash for fill ups and beer and coconut milk to get to Mexico.

“Give me your address, amigos, so I can send you your cut when I sell them,” he said as we parted.

Bill Bob was so surprised he was actually going to pay us that he gave his address. That proved to be a big mistake. We celebrated all the way home, even buying rounds at the VFWs we ate at, because we had enough cash to make it through to spring without having to ask Momma for another advance. Our only regret was it warmed up the day we left, and we were leaving all that sunshine behind. Way things turned out, we should’ve stayed.

We bought a tub of fried chicken and an extra 12 pack for the girls to celebrate our homecoming. But when we turned the corner to our place, two tractor trailers with all kinds of wires running out of them nearly blocked the street. Despite the cold, the neighborhood kids had turned out, partly because it wasn’t much colder outside than inside their apartments, and partly you never knew what you could score from strangers.

“What the hell’s this?” Bill Bob yelled out the window at one of the kids.

“They’re filming Momma for ‘Troubled Women.’”

Now “Troubled Women” is the most popular true life show on TV, because it shows how women with the deck stacked against them like 30 years in prison can find happiness without men. Bill Bob had to go through the alley to park.

It was even harder to get upstairs, because Bill Bob fills up the stairwell all by himself, and the film crew was crowded in there with cables strung from their trucks. They scrambled up out of the way when they saw him coming, but he slipped on the cables near the top and slid down on top of me and the beer and the chicken like a kid upside down on a slide, rolling the cables down with him. After the neighbors finally untangled me, I saw the red unblinking eye of a camera staring me in the face. Cameramen had come down with the cables. It took the neighborhood kids and two crewmen to get Bill Bob to his feet. He was dripping wet from the crushed beer cans, and the fried chicken was smashed between his shoulders.

“Hell of an entrance, boys,” Momma said when we finally got to the living room. There were so many film lights it was like a steam bath.

Darlene and Lois were watching from the bedroom door, sure we had planned our arrival to mess everything up. A camera swung around and we were staring into it like suspects in a lineup.

“Bill Bob?” The interviewer, a stringy haired woman with a face like a painted doll asked. It was Barbara Brulig, the most feared interviewer on TV.

“How’d you guess?” Bill Bob said.

“I’d know those cargo pants anywhere.”

Bill Bob always carries a few beers in his pockets in case we run short. He pulled one out and popped the tab.

“And you must be Larry,” she says, turning to me.

She had the tone of a prosecutor and the eyes of a jailer.

“Like a drumstick?” I asked, peeling one off Bill Bob’s back and offering it to her.

“Or a beer?” Bill Bob said, holding out his after taking a gulp.

“Let’s talk first,” she said.

“How ’bout the kitchen,” Bill Bob said. “Too much shit in here.”

Momma looked like she was going to say, “Are you including me in that?” but Barbara motioned her to keep quiet. Now the whole world could see what women goes through with the wrong kind of men.

While the crew moved the camera and the lights around, I scraped the chicken and mashed potatoes off Bill Bob’s back onto a plate. He grabbed a chunk that could’ve been a thigh.

“Sure is better than ’guana,” he said to make conversation as Momma and Barbara squeezed into the two chairs. I had to sit in the sink.

“Iguana?” asked Barbara.

“They eat a lot of ’guana in Florida, long as they got coconut milk to boil ’em in.”

“Now don’t give away any trade secrets,” I said, but there was no stopping him now.

“It was Momma’s idea to help ’em with their ’guana problem,” he went on.

You could tell by the way she pursed her lips Barbara thought she was onto something big. Just then a truck horn blared outside.

“Damn if that doesn’t sound like Pedro Gonzales!” exclaimed Bill Bob.

I looked out the window and sure enough, Pedro’s truck had parked alongside the TV trucks, blocking the street. Pedro climbed down and looked around at the numbers for our building. Just as he found it, three black SUVs pulled up behind him, and a police car coming from the other direction pulled up in front of the TV trucks.

“I guess he’s come to pay us our share of the ’guanas,” Bill Bob said.

We could hear Pedro bounding up the steps.

“They’re after me, Compadres!” he cried.

“Who’s after you?” Barbara demanded.

A big man in a brown uniform and the flat brimmed hat of a drill instructor or prison guard squeezed in after Pedro and shouted, “Gotcha!”

Even Barbara Brulig was speechless. I guess she’d never seen a bust go down in front of her before. But what kind of a bust was this? The guy had a patch on his shoulder with a blue duck and an orange fish. From his expression at seeing the camera, he’d never been filmed in action before, much less by Barbara Brulig.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said, handing her his card.

She read it out loud: “T.J. ‘Tex’ Lobber, Agent in Charge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Juarez, Texas.” Barbara flashed him her famous steely grin. “How may we help you, Mr. Lobber?”

“By giving me enough room to cuff this guy,” he said, reaching behind Momma for Pedro. “We followed him all the way from Texas.”

“What for?” asked Barbara.

“Relocating iguanas. When they stopped him at the border, he had a truck full of ’em.”

“These guys can explain everything,” Pedro said, waving at Bill Bob and me.

“Those your cars down there?” another voice called from the stairwell. It was Officer Gray, our neighborhood policeman.

“What if they are?” Agent Tex shouted back.

“You’re parked illegally. And who’s got the reefer truck?”

“Me,” said Pedro.

“Better move it before I have to ticket you.”

“What about their trucks?” Pedro pointed at the cameramen.

“They got a permit.”

“OK,” said Pedro. “Just get this guy off my back.”

“I’m arresting him, and taking that truck into federal custody,” Tex said.

Officer Gray looked at Momma. I don’t know what their deal was, but ever since they met, he’s been a lot easier on Bill Bob and me. Family means a lot more to her now her last husband is out of the way.

Momma shrugged like she wanted to say, “Tell them to fuck off.”

“Well, if you gotta do it, you gotta do it,” Officer Gray said to Tex. “I’ll tell the kids to leave the truck alone until you get there.”

Barbara continued interviewing Momma while Tex pried Pedro out from behind her and cuffed him.

“Any idea how this guy came up with a truck full of iguanas?” he interrupted the interview.

“Beats hell outta me, Tex,” Momma replied.

“Thanks for your help, people,” Tex said to Momma and Barbara as he pushed Pedro ahead of him into the stairwell. “And don’t try to get away,” he said, turning to Bill Bob and me. “We’ll be back for you as soon as this one confesses.”

The stairwell was lined by Fish and Wildlife officers who’d followed him in to be sure Pedro didn’t get away. As Tex and Pedro passed, they fell in behind and followed them down the stairs. I went after them.

The cargo doors to Pedro’s truck were open. It was empty.

“Now what the hell?” Tex exclaimed.

I thought he was going to cry. Officer Gray had done his duty. Around here telling the kids to leave something alone is the same as telling them to strip it.

“Wasn’t anybody watching?” Tex demanded.

“You said ‘follow me’ and we followed,” a Fish and Game officer replied.

“How am I going to explain this to Washington?” moaned Tex.

Nobody answered. I thought he was going to cry.

“What about me?” Pedro said, raising his cuffed hands behind him.

“Without the evidence, you gotta let him go,” Officer Gray said.

“Don’t think you’re getting away with anything,” Tex said to Pedro as he unlocked his handcuffs

One of Tex’s troopers spotted an iguana on the curb where one of the kids had dropped him.

“We got our evidence, Tex,” he called.

“That’s my pet Arleigh,” Pedro said, rubbing his writs to restore the circulation. “He goes with me anywhere.”

“I can vouch for that,” I said.

I didn’t think Pedro was that quick on his feet.

Tex was so mad he was shaking.

“You’re all on my shit list,” he said as he got back into his SUV. “We’ll be back.”

“Come on up and have some fried chicken before you go,” I said to Pedro.

He followed me back upstairs with his new pet iguana under his arm.

Barbara was wrapping up the interview, and Darlene had put the chicken and mashed potatoes in the toaster oven to heat up. Pedro set his iguana on the radiator.

“Just one last question, Momma,” she said with that famous smile that says “Gotcha.” “You didn’t tell me about the iguanas. You said Larry and Bill Bob had gone off to run the dogs without saying when they’d be back just like all the other men in your life.”

“For family, Barbara, you have to make allowances,” she said and smiled at me.

From a woman who had put a man away with a nineteen shots from an automatic while reloading twice, that was good to hear. Pedro’s iguana blinked its eyes and leapt off the radiator into Barbara’s lap. That was the only time anything ever caught her by surprise on camera. She didn’t take it well.

“I think the filthy thing . . .” she began, looking down at her lap.

“Damn!” Bill Bob exclaimed. “Looks like it shit on you.”

That was the first time anyone had done that to Barbara on the air.

“Cut!” Barbara yelled at the cameraman.

We never heard her voice again.

While we were waiting to hear when Barbara would run the segment on Momma, some kids dropped by asking what to do with their iguanas. They were so stiff the kids thought they were made out of plastic.

“Run a wire up its ass and stick a lightbulb in its mouth,” Bill Bob said. “Makes a nice lamp.”

Then somebody called from Barbara’s show to say they were cancelling the segment on Momma.

“What the hell?” was her response, but she didn’t get any explanation. So she made up her own.

“Too Hot for Barbara” is the YouTube video where Momma told the world she was too hot for Barbara Brulig. You probably saw it. It went viral.

Then somebody from Brulig’s show leaked the iguana bust, and Momma had more publicity than she ever dreamed of. We had so many politicians and corporations looking for her endorsement that Bill Bob and I talked about going back to Florida for a little peace. But the weather changed and the neighborhood apartments began to warm up, and the iguanas started to thaw. I wish Pedro’d left us his recipe for iguana stew. Now when the kids came by, they wanted to know what to feed them and if they were poisonous.

“Don’t sweat feeding ’em,” Bill Bob said. “Just drop ’em down a manhole.”

It must be warmer in the sewers than in the apartments, because they caused quite a stir when they started crawling out of the gutters downtown in the spring. Somehow Tex heard about it and drove back up from Texas to tell the city it was illegal to remove iguanas from their natural habitat. I figured we could make some money contracting with the city to solve the problem like we did in Florida, but Momma was making so much off her reputation we decided to let it go. Dissing Barbara Brulig is a lot easier than recycling iguanas any day.

Fred McGavran

Fred McGavran is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the US Navy . After retiring from law, he was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, where he serves as Assistant Chaplain with Episcopal Retirement Services.The Ohio Arts Council awarded him an Individual Achievement Award for The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser, a story that appeared in Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award-winning collection of short stories, and Glass Lyre Press published Recycled Glass and Other Stories, his second collection, in April 2017. This is his third Bill Bob and Larry story in Storgy. For more information, please go to www.fredmcgavran.com.

Read Fred’s previously published short story below:

A Homecoming

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Bounty Hunters

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