by Tom Schwider
It is the first full moon of spring and I am feeling the same old instinctual urgings. I was baptized by a strange puberty when I turned thirteen. I was prepared when my voice grew deeper and hair began appearing in new places on my body. But I was troubled when I looked in the mirror, my ears and nose appeared large and pointy. My limbs seemed more stout than gangly and I felt a scaly presence invading my psyche. I was becoming more of a creature than a man. I burrowed into a maddening ritual of self-absorption.
It was a typical schizophrenic midwest spring that year, snow flurries in the morning, warm and sunny by evening. I was alone in my room with my secrets when my father knocked. "Andy, we're taking a road trip. My company is sending me to a seminar in New Orleans and you're coming with. It will be our own spring break. We can drive it in less than two days and see the country in bloom. Good-bye Porter Indiana, hello New Orleans!!"
I wanted to feel excited as I packed, but I felt apprehensive about leaving the safety of my room. We left early the next morning to a gray sky full of crows and a mockingbird calling. Interstate 55 was right across the border, the Aegean Sea in my odyssey to New Orleans. I protected myself with an armor of silence as we drove through successive patches of brown turning green.
Memphis was the first step into madness. I didn't want to go to Graceland, opting for chicken fried steak and greasy fries at Big Bubba's Diner. The waitress chewed gum to the rhythm of the jukebox. She had juicy red lips, sincere blue eyes and the most elegant hands. She reached out and tousled my hair in a good-natured southern way, but her face froze as she touched my head. "You watch after this boy." She addressed my father, "You watch after this boy good!"
"No need to worry about that, we go everywhere together, just a couple of guys looking for a good time on spring break. We're wild, aren't we Andy? I feel like chili and you better believe if it's chili today it'll be hot tamale." Our waitress laughed. I heard the screech of brakes in the parking lot, big air brakes of a sixteen wheeler, and then the most ungodly sound.
"Hey Henry, get me a shovel". It was a big man wearing a Stetson and a camouflage vest, clicking into the diner with bloody silver-toed, snakeskin boots. "I got me a dillo in the lot; damn things are overrunning this country. Only thing they're good for is Texas chili." I don't know if I looked like a tourist or if my face belied the revulsion I was feeling or I looked like an easy mark, but the man in the Stetson walked over and said, "That's right, son, an armadillo this big" as he stretched his hands three feet apart, "and you know it wasn't dead after my rig ran half it's wheels over it. Damn armor-plated rat, I had to finish him off with the tips of my trusted Tony Lama's," he pointed to his bloody boots. "Ever had Texas-style Armadillo Chili? I could go for a big bowl."
"Here, take the shovel and get rid of it, can't you see you're scaring the kid," our waitress shoved the handled scoop into Mr. Stetson's ample gut, producing a well-deserved "Oomph!" My father sat speechless yet smiling. "Local color" he murmured after the driver left. "Can't learn that at Porter Junior High, no sir, life experience and local color."
"He doesn't mean any harm, honey; he's just a big lug trying to have a little fun." To this day I remember her hand holding the side of my face, the way she said honey, and her warm blue eyes. I didn't realize it then but she was giving me strength.
"Did you know Bette Davis Eyes was the ninth most popular song of all time? It was number one for ten weeks." My father was always spouting little factoids like this. Before I knew it, he had the waitress telling us her favorite color, "red", favorite country song, "Stand by Your Man", and her favorite movies, "Coal Miner's Daughter and E.T.", a tie. She didn't have any other tables.
"Hey, what's gray and scaly and red all over?" bellowed Mr. Stetson returning from the parking lot. "Dead Dillo" and with those words he swung the shovel full of the crushed creature right in front of me, it's blood dripping onto my hands. "Jake, you get that thing out of here right now or I'll put a call in to your wife and let her know where you've been spending all your lonely nights in Memphis."
"Easy there, June, no need to get so riled, just joking, I'm going, boys are supposed to like gross stuff, aren't you sonny boy." I remember feeling like the loneliest person on the planet, something inside of me was crying out, sure I should have loved it, I was thirteen, gross stuff should have been second nature to me, I was on the wrestling team, I was discovering girls, I was bright and popular, of course a crushed and bloody armadillo should have been a joke, the class clown at Porter Junior High could have come up with it. But it wasn't like that, sweat was breaking out all over, I felt as if it was my best friend lying there on that shovel, words wouldn't come out, I ran for the bathroom and retched until green bile came out. The dead beast's blood dried on my hands and seemed to leave a stain that wouldn't wash off.
"Andy, are you O.K.? Guess what, that trucker felt so bad he picked up our tab. Looks like we've had too much local color tonight. A good night's sleep and tomorrow Louisiana!"
"You take good care of that boy" were her last words, that and a gentle touch to my cheek. A good night's sleep and Louisiana, I thought; a good night's sleep and Louisiana.
The next morning another sky full of crows circled overhead as we left, but there are crows everywhere I thought to myself. I took no further notice till I heard the mockingbird call, the same eerie notes and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
"Come on, Son, we've got miles to go before we sleep, you know who said that, don't you? They do teach poetry at Porter Junior High, you're old enough for poems, yes sir; poems will make a man out of you. Well, I'm waiting."
"Too early, still not feeling well." Come on dad; just get me away from these crows I thought. "You're still thinking about that waitress from last night. Well, I can't blame you, she was a good-looking woman."
But I wasn't thinking about the waitress or poems or Memphis, just a bloody armadillo and these damn crows haunting me, hounding my thoughts—please let's drive dad. "Robert Frost" he sang, operatically. My father loved to sing "Stopping by woods on a snowy evening."
It's about life, your life, my life; you'll have to choose when it's your time, Andy—which promises to keep. That's why poems will make a man of you." Maybe if I could just get out of Memphis everything would be better, Louisiana loomed down the road and I counted the crows as we drove.
The train would have been safer, no road kills with a train. There must have been a crushed armadillo every forty miles. Each time we passed one, sweat gathered on my palms. I wiped my hands on my jeans and they were stained brown as if the blood was still there from last night. I know I put on a fresh pair that morning. I looked in horror at my hands to see them tinged with blood—was I suffering an Armadillo Stigmata, or just seeing things? I hid my hands from my father's sight.
"Lunch time, I'm famished, what do you feel like, Andy? Not that hungry, come on we'll get whatever you want. How about chicken? Southern fried chicken with biscuits and gravy. Shouldn't be too hard to find in Jackson, Mississippi."
My hand was curving and claw-like, trying to hide the blood, but I must have imagined it, my father was looking right at me, he would have said something. "Yes sir, after lunch next stop Louisiana, should be a poem about Louisiana, maybe we could write one: Almost there Louisiana, Hello New Orleans, How's by you? Fine by me. Cajun or Creole, Blackened or Reddened, I am Southern fried and mystified by your mossy splendor. Hey, not bad, what do you think?"
"I like the mystified part, and the moss, I feel like lying down in a big bed of moss," I replied.
"Moss is wonderful stuff; they used it as bandages, great stuff, nature's band-aid. Wait till you see the moss hanging in the bayou." That was my dad; he saw grace and goodness wherever he went.
There was no warm-eyed waitress to reassure me at our next stop. I stared down at the floor as I picked at my chicken and froze as I saw a pair of snakeskin boots with metal toes walk through my territory of floor and stop. "Say there, Sonny boy, see any armadillos lately? Ran over another four of them between here and Memphis, nice and crunchy ones."
"I'll have you know we've seen spring—spring and the magnolias sing and the bursting green and red and purple and white of everything and that poetry will help make a man out of you." My father threw Jake for a loop, he didn't know how to respond and just ordered "coffee, good and hot, black no sugar, got to be in New Orleans before sundown."
"Just think, what are the odds of seeing the same person at a different diner in another city on successive days, mind boggling is what it is, wonder if we'll see him in New Orleans? What do you think Andy, remember never bet against a streak."
As we left the restaurant, I saw Jake's Peterbilt diesel, fire engine red with a confederate blue decal that said "Dixie Spur" and on the door smaller decals, hundreds of them, just like air force planes broadcasting their kills, only each little decal was an armadillo, above to the west I saw the towering black clouds of a coming storm and the omnipresent circling crows and heard the eerie call of the mockingbird.
"Come on Andy, we've got to be in New Orleans before dark." The clouds seemed to stay put until we crossed the state line. "Louisiana, we have arrived," my father said. It was the last thing he said for a long time. The rain came in sheets accompanied by wind, lightning and thunder, as if the gods had been aroused. At least there weren't any crows hovering above.
The car inched along U.S. fifty-five, over an hour driving in silence when the glare of headlights pierced the car's interior. My hands curled and my back-arched, I knew who it was without turning, the Dixie Spur barreling down the highway. Jake, the man in the murderous snakeskin, silver-toed boots driving without regard for man or beast. I heard the air horn blaring from behind and felt the car swerve onto the shoulder and through a gigantic pothole, popping the hood with the next burst of wind sending it crashing back and into the windshield as my father went forward through the air bag and into the steering wheel rendering him unconscious.
I scrambled from the car aching and dizzy from my own collision with the dashboard. Acting on instinct, I clamored down the side of the road bed on all fours, I had to get help. I scrambled aimlessly until I collapsed on a bed of moss in a bayou dank with confusion. I heard a rumble in the distance, more thunder, and lost consciousness. When I awoke it was pitch black, only a dream I hoped. Soon I was aware of beady animal eyes, and ancient, scaly mammalian instincts. Act they cried, move, claw, smell and dig.
I was bent on all fours and could not straighten myself. I started to crawl at an amazing powerful pace. I scrambled through the foliage, clawing my way over or under any obstacle. I felt the flesh of my back becoming a bony shield. Shrill sounds bombarded my ears in strange frequencies. The earth was redolent with hundreds of different scents. My nose pointed and twitched every which way. More smells than a boy could make sense of. In the distance there was a particular odor, tinged with acid. It was dark but my tiny eyes saw everything as clear as day. With every step my forearms became more massive and legs quicker and stronger.
I had a hunger unlike any other before, for crunchy, six-legged things. It was an uncontrollable urge. I stopped because my ears and nose commanded me to dig, and I swept away through a foot of mud and dirt with mighty forearms and there they were. Ants, thousands of them, precious, tasty morsels. I began to suck, slurp, and tongue them by the hundreds, slathering them down like little candies, feeling their exoskeletons being crushed by my lips. They were angrily swarming all over me and I could hear their angry screams but gave them no quarter. I tongued every last one of them off my body. I reserved the greatest joy for last, grabbing the massive queen and her swollen egg-laden abdomen in pure epicurean delight.
There was no time to linger; the next scent was demanding every sinew to respond. It was coming right through the ground. I dug deep beyond the ant colony. I was doing the breaststroke through the soil, an effortless glide until I came to a tunnel. That's when I encountered the smell. It was a mixture of diesel fuel and human sweat. The lights at the end of this tunnel formed the familiar pattern of a sixteen wheeler cab.
They must have clawed beneath a forty foot stretch of Highway 55 just above. The Dixie Spur came barreling down at just the right moment and the rig and concrete of the highway all collapsed together into this cavern of vengeance. Up above were the brilliant pulsing lights of emergency vehicles and the confusing sounds of excited, agitated humans. My brothers had thought of everything, they even had three tunnels dug for draining the rain water pouring into the gaping gash. Out of sight from above but surrounding the Dixie Spur on all sides were at least a hundred armadillos.
I crawled up to the window and peered inside to see what condition Jake was in. "Howdy there, Sonny boy, can't seem to shake old Jake can you? Look at me stuck in a big ole southern sink hole, damn treacherous land sometimes. Get yourself a shovel to dig me out of this and we'll both go have ourselves a big bowl of Texas chili with Armadillo chunks." He reeked of cheap whiskey. I slapped my forearm through the windshield and clawed the bottle from his hand.
"I can't help you Jake. Nobody can help you now." "How about taking a helping of this Sonny boy," as he lunged at me with a big Bowie he had unsheathed from under the driver's side visor. I darted back across the hood, but Jake wasn't going anywhere. I could see he was pinned by the steering wheel of the Dixie Spur. His eyes darted from 'dillo to 'dillo edging closer and closer.
"You gonna claw me to death, Sonny boy? You get sick at the sight of ketchup; you've been watching too many movies. Now be a good neighbor and get a real man down here to help me out. Where's your old man? Oh, that's right; he had a little accident back there. I was going to stop, but I have to make New Orleans. Don't be mad. I was going to call for help until the road fell out from underneath me. Dammit kid, what do I have to do? Knock some sense into you with the side of a bat?"
The last I saw of old Jake out of the corner of my eye was him in his Stetson swinging a bat. I think he was just trying to clear more of the windshield, but part of that bat caught a corner of my armor and I don't recall anything after feeling the thud.
"We look like the heavyweight losers of the world." My father held a mirror up for both of us to look into. "Even our skin has local color, black and bluesy, get it, Andy? Black and bluesy. Your old man is such a wit."
I didn't want to look into the mirror, not because I was frightened to see my wounds, I didn't want to see an armadillo reflected back. I raised my hands slowly. Thank god they were just hands. Then I felt around my torso for scaly armor. Fine, just skin. There was one disturbing item on my chart. Patient was found to have abnormal level of formic acid in urine and stool samples. When my father questioned the doctor about its significance he was told that ants are the richest source of formic acid and I must have landed on a hill of red ants when I was thrown from the car. "Your boy was lucky they didn't do more damage, they're vicious little insects and I don't understand why there wasn't any evidence of bites or swelling."
"Poor old Jake sure did us a favor running us off the road like he did; it should have been us down in that sinkhole." That's all my father will ever say to this day. And I'll nod my head and mutter "Poor old Jake". The official coroner's report listed death by internal injuries suffered in the collapse of the road bed. But the people who were present when they finally recovered the body from the cave-in couldn't understand how all the flesh had been stripped and mauled. There was some kind of animal down in the hole, that's for sure, but no one could say what.
They left the Dixie Spur down there as fill and just repaved the highway right over it. Young, teenage males like to prove their manhood by staying out all night along the stretch of bayou daring each other to call out the name "Jake". Some people claimed to have seen a man walking along the highway wearing a Stetson, with a camouflage vest and silver-toed, snakeskin boots, but people say they see a lot of things.
It's the first full moon of spring. I can smell the Spanish moss draping itself in moist reverence. I can hear the bats echoing through the limbs and branches. I can feel my bone white nails slicing through the soft forest soil. I can taste the ants.
Copyright©2004 Tom Schwider