excerpt from Big Daddy's Knee
There was no way to know that somebody might get hurt that summer. There was no way to know how much our lives were about to change. There was no way to know that keeping secrets can sometimes be the worst promise a girl can make. If there had been, I might not have agreed to dig that damn swimming hole. Because looking back on it now, I’m pretty sure that was where all the trouble began.
Louisiana wasn’t hotter that summer than all the rest. I think we were just more bored than usual. Whatever reason, we thought digging a pool was a fine idea.
This is how it happened.
We were in the shed behind the Rue’s house – me, the kid brother, Shot, and those two Rue boys, Bubba and Joe Bill. We were finishing up the experiments we’d been working on. Joe Bill, the older of the Rues, had made himself the mastermind of that endeavor. By mastermind, I mean numbskull. Unless numbskulls can be considered master of their minds.
“We’re gonna ‘study the effects’ different soda mixtures have on various objects!” was how Joe Bill put it. We collected all sorts of old soda bottles. Joe and Steve took turns pouring in their concoctions, along with nails or rubber bands or other junk we found lying about their daddy’s work shed.
As each experiment was completed, it was my job to line up the bottles. I put some high on the lip of the lone window that ran across the top of the wall. It didn’t let in much light due to all the caked on dirt. The rest of the bottles I set on the beat-up worktables that were scattered around the hotbox of a room. Most of the experiments were going to take time to ferment into something scientific. The collection of soda bottles was more interesting to me than making the different brews. We’d gotten the RC and Nehi bottles from Big Daddy’s house. The 7-up and Mountain Dew were from old man TC Jester’s trash can across the street. The Barq’s root beer and the Tab had been found in the ditches along Sirod Street. The Cokes we swiped from the Rue’s kitchen.
“I hate science stuff,” I whispered to Bubba. He grinned but didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t mind. He almost never looked you straight in the eye. Bubba was sitting on a stool in the corner of the shed. He’d made a goop out of cornstarch and water which he claimed was both a liquid and a solid. It was waxy and pliable and spread around his worktable like it was alive. He let me fool with it while we waited for them other two to finish mixing up what was supposed to be the final batch.
“Jax, come hold the bottle!” Joe said.
I wiped my hands on my shorts as I made my way over to his table. “What for?” I asked.
“Because me and Shot have to slip the ingredients in at the same exact time to do it right,” he said. I felt woozy from the heat and the smells. Joe filled the clear RC bottle halfway up with hydrogen peroxide, then tucked a funnel into the mouth. “Ready?” he asked Shot. Shot nodded. His hand was poised over the funnel with a box of Morton’s salt. The metal lip was open. Joe pinched the rubber tip of a bottle dropper to fill the glass tube with mercurochrome. “Okay, go!” he said.
The liquid started foaming up in an instant. I fully expected it to blow the roof off. I had to jump back so the violent juice didn’t get on my skin. Joe and Shot just stood there giggling like idiots. Boys could be so irritating. Then Joe Bill screamed, “Ooh. I’m a genius!” He threw open the door and dashed outside. An explosion of sun sliced the room and stirred the gauzy air. Dust bits danced in the slant of light. Bubba, on his stool in the corner, pushed up his glasses. This time he used his middle finger.
“Right,” Bubba sighed. “He’s a genius.” He grinned, then looked off at nothing in particular. Joe Bill came back holding a fat earthworm between his forefinger and thumb. The poor thing was wriggling like crazy, aware its life was in jeopardy.
“What in hell are you gonna do with that?” I asked, trying not to sound girly. The elastic from my shorts was sticking to my back.
“See how long it’ll take it to die.” He made a snickering sound.
Shot joined Joe Bill. “Good idea!” he said. Shot was the youngest, and didn’t have the sense God gave geese. So I forgave his ignorance. But I gave him a mean look. Joe laid the worm on the worktable amidst the dirt and dust and bottle caps. He poured a new brew through the funnel into an RC bottle.
Now, I was not one of those girls who was afraid to touch bugs and stuff. I kind of liked them, in fact. Especially worms, because of how important they were. Big Daddy had a giant compost pile behind his house that had the greatest earthworms in all of Natchitoches parish. Everybody said so. As long as I could remember, Big Daddy made sure we knew it was only okay to kill worms if you were fishing with them.
My mouth and windpipe were sandpaper. I saw an opportunity and snatched that wriggler up from where it lay between a pencil and an old Doublemint wrapper. I could feel it writhing inside my fist. “You’re just stupid, Joe Bill Rue,” I said. I could see Bubba from the corner of my eye. He was taking in the situation from afar, as usual.
Joe Bill stomped his foot. “Give that back, Jax Morgan!” He looked like he was going to pitch a hissy fit. “I wanna test a worm!”
Shot started to giggle and I flashed him a look that shut him right up. The worm pulsed and bubbled against my palm, anxious for freedom. The air was thick and sticky and my glasses started to fog. Joe and I just stood there staring. I wanted to shove him, hard.
Then my voice found its way past the pebbles in my throat. “You’re not gonna kill this worm just for the fun of it!” I said. I made for the door, but Joe pulled me back and sprang around to block my exit. The worm’s tail slipped out the side of my sweaty palm and Joe tried to pinch it away from me. I squeezed my fist tighter and yanked it back. A piece of the worm snapped off. Warm liquid dripped onto my wrist. When I flipped my hand open, what remained of the worm was making harried o’s across my palm, in a desperate search for the rest of itself. Joe Bill laughed, and before I could react, he snatched what was still moving and plopped it into the soda. I felt my knees go hollow behind the caps and almost buckle. Bubba appeared out of nowhere and emptied the bottle on the table, but the worm had gone still. The world had gone still.
Then Joe Bill hooted. “Less than one second!” I swung open the door. The brightness of outside burned my eyes. My chest pounded and I fought the urge to scream. I tucked the little guy into the soft dirt behind the monkey grass that lined Aunt Janelle’s azalea bed. The smell of rust from the red soil stung my nostrils. A dog was barking somewhere in the distance. I could feel the boys watching me, but I refused to give them the satisfaction of looking back. Not sure what to do next, I strutted to the window outside the Rue boys’ kitchen and looked up.
Sure as the Mississippi’s muddy, there was Elnora behind the screen washing silverware in the sink. A couple of flies clung to the screen, trying to catch a breeze from the cooler air inside. Elnora was as thick as she was wide, with skin the color of Tootsie Rolls. Her face and neck glistened with moisture. Her hair was fixed in the same way I’d always seen it. Rolled up at the sides, twisted into a knot in back, then glued into a shiny helmet. Without bothering to look at me, she asked, “Everything all right, Miss Jax?”
“Yes, thank you,” I lied. I squared my hands on my hips and looked just past her. “Could I have a cold drink please?” I asked.
“Why sure,” she said. “Them other kids want some too?” The sun bounced off the two gold stars embedded in her front teeth. “I dunno,” I shrugged. I started picking a hole in the crumbly mortar between the bricks on the wall under her window. That wall felt like the warm crust of fresh bread. I wanted to press my whole self against it and close my eyes.
“Well, be a good young lady and go ask ‘em for me, ‘cause I ain’t gonna have each of y’all coming in here one at a time.” She dried her hands on her hips and moved back into the darkness of the kitchen. Then she raised her voice to drive home the point. “If y’all are havin’ drinks, I want to do ‘em all at the same time.”
I shook my head. Why couldn’t a girl just have a few minutes to herself. I spied the imbeciles still standing in the doorway of the little back house out of the corner of my eye. I took a deep breath and fixed my eyes on the flies that seemed paralyzed on the screen. I snapped over my left shoulder. “Elnora wants to know if y’all want cold drinks.”
They came running. Bubba said, “Yes please,” without looking up. Shot started hopping up and down. He called through the screen, “You got any orange soda?” I noticed his slip-on canvas shoes were too big for his feet. They kept flopping around off the back of his heels. Then, Joe Bill, who couldn’t just have a soft drink like a normal person, asked for sweet tea, with a lemon wedge. I turned my back and leaned sideways against the bricks, refusing to look at them. Shot shoved me with his shoulder and whispered, “You okay?” I watched a lone ant making its way up the wall. “Are you okay” was such a dumb question. Of course I wasn’t okay, even though I was going to tell him that I was. My chin quivered threatening to betray me. I took a deep breath then turned to look at him. Shot was holding an old broken-off hoe. His cheeks were red with heat, his hair melted onto his forehead. I glared over at Joe Bill and it took a second before I realized he was holding a shovel too. My tears vanished as an elevator of rage rose through me. “Y’all had better not be thinking of digging up any more worms Joe Bill Rue!” I said. “Or I’m gonna go get Big Daddy!”
“Oh relax, Little Miss Worm-Lover. We’re gonna dig something much more interesting now.” I waited for an explanation, but he just stood there looking pleased with himself. I turned to Shot, who looked pitiful with his mustache of sweat droplets and that raggedy tool. “Yeah Jax,” he smiled. “We’re gonna dig something way more interesting!”
“Like what?” I asked.
Elnora was back at the window before they could answer. “You kids go on ‘round to the kitchen door now and git y’all’s drinks. Don’t ‘spect me to be carrying all this on out there to you!” The boys ran ahead. I scuffed my sandals in the patches of dirt and dead grass as I went after them. “Like what!” I shouted. Bubba stepped next to me and looked down at our feet. “Looks like we’re gonna dig us a swimming hole,” he said. Then he raised an eyebrow and shrugged.