The town in this story no longer exists. It drowned some years ago, sad to say. But in 1962, Red Church was a bustling mill town known locally as “America’s Sweet Tooth,” as it refined sugar for the vast sugarcane plantations of the Louisiana low country. This was an idyllic time and place for a boy like Charlie Boone, especially as Charlie was unaware that Russians were building missile bases in Cuba to lob hydrogen bombs onto his head. He was also unaware that his notorious uncle had escaped from prison and was just a few miles up the road. No, on this lazy Saturday afternoon, Charlie’s only concern was a wingless variety of thumb-sized wasps he thought were ants.
DAYS OF SUGAR
With all the hurricanes breezing in from the gulf, farmhouses were set off the ground on stilts. Kids could run under them standing up, which we did, barefoot in dust as fine as talcum powder. We didn’t run up the steps to the house, though, because red velvet ants sunned themselves there, and if one bit your foot it could swell up and burst open. That happened to a boy over in New Iberia. My teacher said he was lucky just to lose his toes, and we were all mighty impressed.
I was thinking of velvet ants because my brother was stuck on the steps. With all his hollering, I was sure he’d been stung by a velvet, but no, it was just a couple of tree ants on his leg. I brushed them off. He’d dropped his Mason jar and it had rolled down. Root beer was foaming over the gray-painted wood, and he was still carrying on.
“Well move, you dope. This wood’s hot.”
I had to push him down the steps cuz he was prone to freezing up. “I don’t get it,” my grandfather had said. “Least thing, he freezes up.”
“Stop freezing up,” I said now. “If something hurts, you get away from it.”
He said okay like he understood, but I knew he didn’t. I handed him his jar, then raced him over to the pecan grove and beat him by a mile. He was bowlegged, so it wasn’t something I could brag about, but I did like to win. He began picking up pecans and dropping them in his jar.
“Don’t take the black ones,” I said. “They’re rotten.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, but continued doing it.
“They’ll turn your skin black.”
“No they won’t.”
“Where you think black people come from?”
He squinted one eye in the sun. “From New Orleans?”
As that could’ve been true for all I knew, I shrugged, cracked one pecan against another, and picked out the meat. “Here’s a good one. Want it?”
He shook his head. He actually didn’t eat pecans all that much; he was more of a collector. He also collected gravel from the parish road and he’d put them in his mouth. I’m pretty sure he swallowed them sometimes, but chickens did that too, so I figured it wouldn’t kill him.
I saw the dust down the road long before I heard the car, then the rumble of the blue Buick as it drove over the cattle guard and up our long dirt driveway. The mud-caked Buick Roadmaster crunched to a stop next to the fence. The driver’s door said Tijuana Bible Co., and the driver grinned at us. He was my uncle Dan, who was tough looking with the scar on his face and his hair mowed off, but generally had a pocket full of candy—or he did before he left one time and didn’t come back. A woman I’d never seen before was sitting next to him real close, and she had her arm draped over his shoulder.
“Hey there, squirts,” he said.
I didn’t say anything because of that woman. With her short red hair and eyes the color of new pears, she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen . . . except for the splotch on her neck. I couldn’t help but stare at it. It reminded me of the worm-leech that had stuck to my leg once when we’d been swimming in Goose Lake and I’d screamed until Pawpaw burned it with his cigarette. Leeches could suck you to the bone if you let them.
My uncle and that woman were out of the car now, and she was sort of leaning against him. Her plaid skirt fluttered in the breeze, just over her knees. She was barefoot like us, and I’d never seen a lady outside without shoes. Her toenails were painted green like her eyes, and I’d never seen that either.
“Charlie, Jute, I want you boys to meet your new aunt. You can call her Lona.”
I tried to say something but my tongue had gotten so oyster-thick it filled my mouth. Jute didn’t say anything either. I always did the talking for both of us, as he was only four, and hence stupid.
“Why, aren’t you two a couple of angels,” Lona said. “Just a precious couple of heavenly angels!” She leaned down and pinched Jute on the cheek.
“Ow,” Jute cried, and we both took a step back to avoid her pinchers.
“Don’t hurt em, Lona, they’re just skin and nerves.” Uncle Dan sort of chuckled. “Doesn’t that memaw of yours feed you anything?”
I shrugged. “Rice and syrup.”
“Here,” he said, reaching in his pocket and producing a handful of Bazooka bubblegum pieces, “these’ll put some muscle on yah.”
We each grabbed some, Uncle Dan scruffed my hair, then he and Aunt Lona headed for the house. Aunt Lona was having trouble walking, and Uncle Dan was holding her up. When they got to the steps I remembered and yelled. “Watch out for the ants!”
Uncle Dan glanced back and winked, and they headed up as if they didn’t have a care in the world. I ran to the steps just as the screen door snapped behind them—no ants now, just the sugary stain of Jute’s root beer, already dried.