Everyone got a story. They got that one story that no matter what, ain’t no one ever gonna believe. Friend of mine say he caught a forty pound shovel-head. Nothin’ so amazing ‘bout that, ‘cept he says it just jumped into his boat one day. I mean, we all seen when the catfish are jumpin’, so I suppose it ain’t too far to imagine such a thing, but that just seemed way too good to be true.
This story ain’t got much goodness in it.
This was, oh, near on to forty years back now. Maurice was still around then, and in good condition, before he started wasting away. Him and his brother Billy was up on the big red barn, patching a hole in the roof. That was a hot summer. Crops was looking a little wilted in the field from all that heat. And it was one of the years where the grass hoppers were thick. The road was still just gravel back then.
Maurice and Billy was up on that barn, and Billy lost his footing and took a fall. So Maurice comes dragging Billy back up to the house. He had the boy lying on a stretcher made of two oars and an old piece of canvas. Billy looked all right, but he said he couldn’t feel his legs, so I was set to call Doc Wilson in town. I made the boys some lemonade while we waited.
Billy weren’t in no pain, so it wasn’t so agonizing as it might have been if he’d been screamin’ and such, and me and Maurice kept him occupied on other matters, so he didn’t start thinking about being crippled forever.
Anyway, it weren’t long before we see someone walking up the road. We all figured the doctor would have come in his old station wagon if he was coming, so we knowed it wasn’t him. Still, we was all keenly interested in this individual.
Horseflies. Dang it all. That’s something I forgot to mention. The horseflies were thick that year. I recall that because this man walking down the road looked to be in a cloud of ‘em. And lord, when you get bit by a horsefly, it feels like they take a mean hunk. So, we was watching from the porch, and this fella walked all weary lookin’ down the gravel road.
Maurice thought the man might be having problems with the heat. So he gets up and goes off toward him. Maurice was always the helpin’ kind, God rest his soul. Pretty soon, he’s down on the road talkin’ to the fella, swatting at the flies. I couldn’t hear what they was saying, but look like he finally convinced the stranger to come get out of the sun for a spell.
The pair come back up to the porch, and I poured them both a tall glass of lemonade. This other fella was just covered in mud, so thick I couldn’t hardly tell who it was. His coveralls were coated in it. The only thing not muddy was his work boots, and those was only clear because the mud had dried and cracked off. It looked like Mr. Perkins’ oldest boy, Seth. They lived a few miles up the way.
“Seth, that you?” I ask, and he just looked at me kind of dumb with his gray eyes. That was a scary feeling, and I didn’t know why. I seen men get conked on the head, and seem not all there. Anyway, he finally give a little nod, like he thought about it good and hard, and Seth sounded about right.
He seemed to have a hard time of drinking, and poured some of the lemonade down his chin. I went into the house to get a bucket and an old wash towel. When I come back out, Seth was trying to get up and head home. Maurice was telling him that the doctor was on the way, and might have a look at him. Seems Maurice thought the boy’d had a sun stroke.
We set him down again, and I started washing his face off with that hand towel. I’d known Seth for some time, and he was a good boy, and smart as a whip. It pained me to see him so fatigued. That part of me that will always be a mother just took over, and I was set to get him cleaned and fed. As I cleaned off his face, it become plain as day that he was in a bad way. He was bright pink in the face, and pealing. It seemed so bad that he was swelled up all over. Even had trouble talking, like his tongue was swelled up.
And he had those damn horseflies all over him. He barely had the sense to twitch when one lit by his eye.
So I was fussing with him, and he was struggling like a little boy.
“Gotta git home” he says, slow and stupid like.
As much as I wanted to help him, I couldn’t ignore the fact that his pa was taken to be a hard hand with his children. Getting him on along his way quick and comfortable seemed sensible.
Maurice finally offered to give the boy a ride back to his place, figuring I could keep watch over Billy till the doc got there. Billy said he could feel a burning or tingling in his toes now anyway, and we all took that as a good sign. I told Maurice I’d ask the doc to go look in on Seth later.
So Maurice got Seth in the car, which was no easy feat, as Seth was moving rather stiff and all. Anyway, finally gets him in, and the two roll on up the road. Their dust had hardly settled when the Doc comes up from the other way, and pulls in the drive. Doctor Wilson was a good man. He knowed all the folk in the area, and was just like to take a bushel of walnuts as pay as cash money. He knowed the folk around here weren’t too rich. Still, he always looked professional, even if he weren’t altogether rolling in money.
He walked up with that cane he had. My father carved that cane for him. They was fishing buddies years back. There’s another tale I could tell, but it ain’t important to this. And what I’m telling you now is important.
So Doc Wilson walked up to the porch, sat down in that old creaky green porch swing and takes off his hat, fanning himself with it. I get him a glass of lemonade, as just seemed hospitable. He looks Billy over, uses this little rubber hammer on his knees, and rolls him on his belly to check his back. By this time, Billy could move his toes and bend his knees, but he was still in some pain. So doc gives him some pills and we get him into the house to rest. I start telling the doctor about Seth, and here comes Maurice tearing down the lane, sliding and throwing gravel and leaving a plume of dust in his wake. He near to run into the doc’s car coming up the drive.
He gets out of the car and is hollering for the doc to come help him. Them two go rushing around to where Seth still sat in the car. Maurice opened the door, and that’s when I seen all that mess. The two of them get him on the ground, and I can see the doc almost turning green from something.
I’m not a gawker, or nothing, but if it’s happening in my driveway, it’s my business, so I go down to see what might be done. Maurice is yelling at the doc, trying to get him to do something, and the doc is lookin’ all confused and, I don’t know, reluctant, I suppose.
“What’s the matter here?” I ask, and the doctor turns to look at me. He got a real funny look about him.
I can see Seth’s belly now, and a considerable bit of it gone, lookin’ like a shotgun done the work. Maurice is pleading with the doc to help, and the doc is lookin’ all wild-eyed.
Finally he says there’s nothing to be done, and he would appreciate if he could leave without no violence, and that shut Maurice up right there. He asked the doctor what he meant, and Doc Wilson said we knowed good and well what he meant. Seth had been dead by his guess as much as five days.
It got real silent, ‘cept for the cicada, and we stared at him.
Finally, I broke the silence to tell him that Seth had drank lemonade not more than half an hour before on our porch. Still, the smell from Seth’s body was like that of a long-dead carcass, and with his coveralls blown open, I could see his guts were bloated up something fierce. That smell, I tell ya, like something to make you gag just from the memory.
I don’t panic much. Once, when I was just a little’n, I snuck up on a skunk by accident, and now they rather give me a fright, but not much else rattles me. But I was feeling right peculiar. In that hot and dusty summer, I got chills that run down the back of my neck, and down my forearms and legs. So, I recon the doctor saw we was just as bewildered as anything, and he asks us to explain what happened. We tell him, and then Maurice goes on to say how Mr. Perkins reacted when he heard him and Seth pulling up. Said he turned dead white, and bolted for the house. He come back out a minute later with his shotgun and emptied it into his own boy.
The doctor looks in Maurice’s car, while the two of us just stare at that poor boy. Doc Wilson comes back and says that Seth wasn’t bleeding all over the car exactly. I didn’t want to know more, and offered up that we call the sheriff. All being in agreement, we decided that was a good idea, and went back up to the house to see it done.
I go on inside and was just picking up the handset on the phone when I hear the boys outside making a ruckus, so I run back to the front door, and they’re standing stock still on the front porch, watching Seth walk across the yard back toward the road. He had that same stumbly stagger, and just shuffled along.
Oh lordy-lordy-lordy. I was froze still myself. With his guts all swelled up, they spilled out and started dragging behind him. He got them flies, and I could see vultures now circling him and…
Excuse me, I just can’t…
Anyway. I’m sorry about that. There’s just terrible things that no one ought to ever know. Even in such a terrible recounting as this, I recon I should mind some sense of what’s proper, if not for you, at least for my own peace of mind.
So, off goes Seth, and we’re all standing there dumb-struck.
I remember Maurice asking the doctor if he was sure Seth was dead, and I started laughing. Not like a polite chuckle. I near pissed myself I laughed so hard. And I was getting those cold chills again and the smell of him was still in the back of my throat. I laughed till I felt dizzy, and my knees gave way. Once I fell, I sat there with my legs crumpled under me, and I just couldn’t get my head around it. I knew sure he was dead good and long when I smelled him. I knew just as sure that he was walking down the dirt road as I watched.