Gus Franza

Johnson was all hands.

They flew about, they opened, they closed, they pointed, they shook. They were orchestrating mortality during lunch on a riverboat plying soft waterways.

“There was the alligator,” he said, eyes locked on mine, “watching. Those green eyes of his, honing in, and the two ducks just sat there. The alligator moves in closer. I could see him thinking. The dumb little ducks didn’t have a clue of what was about to happen.”

Johnson’s hands traveled lightly, carefully.

“A little closer, a little closer. The ducks were oblivious. You and I know an alligator’ll eat anything—whole bodies, shoes, anything. Everything. Why didn’t the ducks know it?”

Because they were dumb. He didn’t seem to be on the ducks’ side.

We’d barely met him and his wife on our European waterways jaunt. Johnson did all the talking. His wife was mum. He told jokes on the bus to the riverboat landing when the trip got long and tedious and the tour guide ran out of historical things to say. He handed the microphone to Johnson, who told a couple of good ones, I’ll admit that. He knew the jokes well, like a professional joke teller.

We responded with laughs, though brief.

Next to him, his wife sat immobile with her hands clasped a foot below the cross that hung beneath the hollow of her throat. Then she released her hands, cautiously, to take a sip of soup.

“Well, the alligator kept coming,” Johnson said, “all stealth, like a prowler, and then wham! He got them both in one lunge. The dumb ducks.”

He positioned the heels of his hands in a V-shape and snapped them shut.

“Did you even see an alligator open his jaws close up? They’re more immense than you realize. He could have taken a dozen of those dumb ducks.”

The play in Johnson’s eyes said he was satisfied.

“They go after turtles too, the big ones. I don’t know what they do with the shells. They opened one alligator up and found six dog collars!”

He looked at each one of us, providing the amazement himself.

“And eagles! Oh, the eagles! Watch out for eagles! Talk about hunters! I’ve seen them with my own eyes swiping fish from ospreys in midflight. Remember, Betty?”

A nod said Betty remembered.

“In mid-flight, mind you!”

Arms outstretched, hands aloft, the slap of their meeting.

“Right out of the osprey’s talons! That takes doing.”

Johnson came at his soup late. We were already on the main course.

“Did you ever see eagles mate?” I asked. It was time to draw the subject away from mayhem. Johnson could have used my interruption to get at his soup, but he didn’t. He looked at me suspiciously. He knew I was trying to change the subject. Mating. Not killing.

“No, I haven’t,” he said with an abrupt note of resentment.

“The courtship flight of eagles is unique,” I said, not knowing if what I said was actually true. About the uniqueness, I mean, but I thought I was speaking for everyone at the table. Including Betty. “They lock their talons high up and whirl downward in loops and circles. Just as they near the ground they separate and fly off.”

“That’s not courtship,” Johnson came back at me. “It’s a battle between two competitors.”

“It’s not always a war, you know,” I said calmly. Why was I sounding meek?

He stared at me imperiously and then resumed.

“What about the hyenas of the Serengeti? Ever see them? We’ve traveled a lot. Talk about devouring everything! That Serengeti Plain is as clean as this tablecloth because of hyenas. Boneless and spotless. There’s nothing left. Remember, Betty? You know what kind of jaws they have?”

In midair, he closed his fingers around his wrist. He shook them to make his point.

“Once they latch on, that’s it!”

“Your soup, George,” Betty said.

“Yeah,” Johnson said, ignoring her plea. “Even raccoons. They’ll eat you out of house and home. They’re nasty. Why, one time, I opened a closet in my garage and there were two black eyes staring out at me. The damn thing never moved. I had to move. He stole my space until I gunned him down.”

“What about the human hunter?” I put in.

“What? I’m talking about animals.”

“Man, the hunter,” I repeated.

“What about sky burial?” he continued. “Some tribes just lay their dead relatives out in the open for vultures to strip and eat them. It’s in places where they don’t have enough land to bury them.”

“Sky burial?” I said. “That’s a poetic way of putting it.”

Johnson looked befuddled. His hands went down to the table. He hid them.

He stared at his soup as we got to dessert.

August (Gus) Franza is a writer who has produced more than 20 novels, 30 books of poetry, scores of short stories and many plays. Before retiring, he taught English for 35 years in high schools and colleges. You can contact Gus at or visit his website,