Benjamin Soileau is from south Louisiana. His fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, Grist, Opossum, Louisiana Literature, Bayou, and many other journals. His story won the 2018 Rumble Fish Quarterly New Year’s Writing Contest, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He stages homes in Olympia, Washington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The girls are all up in the way of my aim this morning, so I bust out two mason jars for some bug bank.
“What’s bug bank, Uncle Bud?”
With a magic marker I write June on one jar and Jenny on the other. On the back side of the water bill I make a list of bugs and set the price. “Ok girls,” I take a knee. “See down at the bottom you got the lady bugs and the aphids and the roly polies and they all worth a nickel. Then up here you got the caterpillars and the stinkbugs, and they fetch a dime. And Mister Mouse here been eating all the green beans, he’s the grand poo bah. I’ll give you a dollar if you catch that rascal.”
“How much for a toad?” says Jenny.
“You leave them toads be,” I say. “Toads eat bugs.”
“Toads give you warts,” says June. “I ain’t studyin no toads.”
“We gonna be rich,” says Jenny.
“That’s the idea. Now y’all get out there and start plucking. Don’t hold back, neither. You see a bug you don’t know what it is, anything looks like it wants to be eating the tomatoes, put it in the jar and we’ll sort it out later. I’ll take y’all out for ice cream, and don’t come back in the house till you got enough for a chocolate turtle banana rama Sundae, you hear?”
They turn on their jellies and burn it outside.
I stand in the kitchen and breathe deep the peace and quiet on such a fine Sunday morning. I put on a pot of coffee and limp back to their mama for some start the day off right nick-nick, but when I get back there she’s locked up in the bathroom.
“Hey, pretty lady,” I say in my best alligator gronk. “I got something out here special made for you.”
“That the girls I hear out there?” she says.
“Yes ma’am. Hired exterminators. They’ll be outside till Jesus comes back.” I press myself to the door and scratch at it with my nail like an armadillo rooting, moaning syrup sweet like the king, like Paul used to. “Treat me like a foooooool.”
“You crazy,” she says, but I know I’m cracking that nut when she starts in to giggling. “Just let me take a quick shower,” she says.
Ain’t nothing quick about a Gayle shower. She stays in there so long and with the water so hot till she comes out looking like she needs to be ironed.
I lay back in bed. The yips and peeps of the girls in the garden fold right in with the purple martins nesting, but that old time coffee maker coughs its way through percolating. Gayle would never get rid of it cause her and Paul had a special time on the day they bought it, and I’m a sucker for sentimental too. Still, I get the ickies listening to that racket scrape down the hallway toward me like the voice of Paul himself, saying, You sapsucking, thirdwheeling, backstabbing, Abel-slaying Cain potlicker. It ain’t enough you sleep in my bed with my wife, but I got to make you coffee too?
My sparkplugs fire enough to know that I wouldn’t have none of this if it wasn’t for Paul.
Bug bank was a game Daddy used to play with me and Paul when I guess he wanted to get him some Mama time. We were constant trouble, always wrestling and climbing on Daddy, or getting in the way in the kitchen. Way worse than these girls. Jenny and June are heavenly blessings and mostly behaved thanks to Paul. He was a good daddy, and if he was still around, he’d be sitting in the pew with his arm around Gayle right this minute while those girls was off in their Sunday School learning the virtues, believe you me. But I don’t study no religion, and after Paul’s accident, neither does Gayle. I guess it’s the least I owe Paul to keep churching them, but they seem just as fine without it. They are the most curious little things I ever seen. “Uncle Bud,” they say. “Why’s the sky blue? How come you ain’t got no job? Why this? Why that? Uncle Bud? Uncle Bud?”
Paul wasn’t no dummy and he always knew I loved Gayle too. It tickled him to see how I carried on around her, swooning and such, but I also think it had more to do with it making him feel good about himself. Like there’s two fellas around and he’s the one getting the girl out of the deal.
And that goes for Gayle too. She liked having two fellas around who both loved her. I was a necessary part of the arrangement if you think about it, and I was always around.
One time me and Paul got so whiskey drunk and sunburned on a fishing trip that we couldn’t get out the motel bed. We were delirious, him and me, dehydrated so terrible bad we thought Gabriel was calling us up. We couldn’t keep nothing down, and Gayle saved us with a watermelon. She busted it open and fed it to us bit by bit until we got the strength to sit up and go at it ourselves. We must have gone through three of four watermelons and it’s no doubt what saved us that time. I felt then that maybe it was OK that I was in love with her too, because she was taking just as good care of me as Paul. Of course when it was all said and done, and the bed sheets were soaked sticky with watermelon juice, guess who had to take a walk outside while Paul pulled her down in all of it with him?
“Come on, Sugar,” I holler. “The girls gonna be grown up by the time you get out of there.”
Glump, glump. The water hits the porcelain in sheets and I know that’s the sound of Gayle washing her hair fifty times straight. It beats hell out of Pauls’ fussing in the coffee maker though. He’s quiet now, and I go get me a cup. I hear the girls squawking out there and I watch them in the sunshine. Paul put his all into that garden, and I keep it up with the same pizazz. It’s like having our very own produce aisle in the back yard. Okra, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, cantaloupe, you name it. I open up the window and call, “How y’all plucking, girls?”
“Jenny’s hogging all the stinkbugs,” cries June. “She found the stinkbug hideout.”
“Got to be smart, June,” I say. “Them little bugs add up and they easier to get at.”
She stares at me for a minute while it sinks in, and when it cha-chings on her, she turns with a whirl of her pink dress and disappears into the corn.
I gobble some Advil and wander through the house, fingering the P’s humpback in my fancy monogrammed pajamas. I stop in the hallway mirror and spit comb my renegades, pluck a couple from my nose.
Folks always thought me and Paul was twins. I’m younger by fifteen months, and I sprouted up so by the time we was twelve or so, people couldn’t hardly tell us apart. Only difference was that pea sized black mole on his high cheek. Angel kiss, what Mama said. Paul was something to admire the way he carried on. Daddy used to say he was sui generis, and I was generis two. Paul was better at just about everything, and with the way I aped him, it was like there was two of him, which must have been a real treat for Mama and Daddy. I did the stuff he was too scared of doing. Like stealing a charm bracelet that Gayle was sweet on from the flea market when we was younger. When I saw her wearing it I pictured Paul down on his knee, slipping it on her wrist and reaping the smooch. When him and Gayle started in to dating, I combed my hair the same direction as him. Same poo poo cologne, music. You name it.
Shikky shikky is the sound of Gayle sitting down in the tub, shaving those pretty legs of hers. Good Lord. Sometimes I think I’ll have to go back to work just to pay the water bill. I arrange the bed as inviting as I can, with the wrinkles smoothed out and the flaps on top folded back, like it’s just asking us to get inside and tangle up. Shikky shikky.
I’m retired now, me, and that’s a joke about going back to work. I was a body man back in the day. I slaved in just about every shop in southeast Louisiana and if there’s a vehicle been put back together again after a wreck, it’s a good chance I’m the one did it. Paul was in the restoration business too, except on the smart end of it. He was a grand poo bah, him. He owned his own company fixing up water damaged homes, which down here is lucrative. He relied on them boocoo bitch hurricanes every Fall and they never let him down. And not that I knew it then, but he was a smart investor too, turns out. Paul was lucky all the way around.
He was bragging about his luck the weekend of the accident. Gayle and the girls had gone to Destin to vacation with her sister and her kids, and me and Paul was going to get in some fishing before he went to join them later in the week.
We was loading up the boat when he said he had some good news to tell. He was selling his business. It was sudden, but he couldn’t say no. And with the money he had tied up working for him, he said Jenny and June would never have to work a day in their life if they didn’t want to. Who ever heard of retiring at forty, I asked. You did, he said with a smile that was cracking open wide his face.
But he wasn’t done. When he told me he was getting the hell out of this humid boot and taking Gayle and the girls to California soon as he talked her into it, I felt myself shrink. Right there in the driveway, I did, so small till I was just a bug on the concrete that Paul was about to put his sneaker to. Squish.
The rest of my life stretched out into a tunnel that I couldn’t see the end of, sweating in one body shop after another all alone, and I hated him in that bitty moment for taking everything away from me, like I didn’t matter. Like I was a nothing. And then, whoosh, I grew back from the ground to regular size again, and Paul was saying something about flying me out every Christmas. I had the anchor in my hand, had been wrapping it with rope, and it just got away from me.
My memory plays tricks with me, but I know I was down on my knees in the grass with Paul, telling him I was sorry, that I loved him, and him trying to talk back and not being able to, and me wanting to lay down and take his place, knowing it was no coming back from it. I wasn’t scared of death row, or hell even, but the idea of Gayle’s hating me threw a switch. I was on knee-jerk after that, going back and forth from the shed to the garden like it was someone else on the controls. The ground was still soft at the time from being tilled up to put in green beans and it made for easy work.
I put the ice chest in the passenger seat of the truck and steady popped beers the whole way down to Venice, at the end of the world, like what was the plan in the first place, except I didn’t aim on doing no fishing.
There was nobody at the landing because of the storm brewing, which turned out lucky. I launched the boat and was going to ride out through Southwest Pass and surrender myself to the Gulf for what I done, so people would say we drowned out there, and in that way we would be together, but the fates saw fit otherwise. I got toward the end of the pass and I don’t reckon I would have got too far since it was five foot swells. I ended up crashed on the rock jetties. Some big Coast Guard boat came upon me, and I was air lifted out. Paul’s boat was all kinds of chewed up by those rocks and was never collected.
I woke a couple days later with my head wrapped like a mummy. My arm and leg both broken. I looked like a thundercloud under the bandages. They said I was damn lucky to be alive, that me being so drunk’s what might of saved me. I thought about that while they told how it was they found me, all they was doing to fix me up. A couple police and a wildlife fisheries man came in to ask some questions, and I was about ready to rattle like a Kingfisher, but it was something gave me pause. I had to of been spit back on those rocks for a reason, and I asked myself, What would Paul do? And it hit me that I’d been practicing my whole life for right then. I sprouted true tears and said, “Where’s Paul? What about Paul?”
I promised them I wasn’t captaining, and that Paul had been sober, and they said it was unlikely they’d recover his body, the accident happening where it did.
I insisted on being the one to call Gayle in Destin, and I had a policeman hold the phone up to my head. Hardest thing I ever did, hands down. When I told her it should have been me, I for true meant it.
There was a ceremony where we rented a charter out to Southwest Pass and said some prayers. We had a wreath, big as a lifeboat, busting with peach and blue azaleas and camellias with some pictures the girls stuck in there, and when we set it in that powerful river at the end of its line, shoom, it shot right out. Watching it white water raft itself out into the big brown Gulf, I got caught up in the moment, imagined it riding a current down around the tail of South America, and then back up on another flow. I warmed to think Paul might wind up in California after all.
Gayle’s sister dribbled in for a spell from Florida, and she had the nerve to stroll into Paul’s closet and start pinching shirts for her husband, but Gayle put the butt on that and quick, said she wasn’t ready for anything like that.
When it was just us left, I hunkered down as best I could on crutches. It wrung me sick each time water came to them pretty faces, made me want to lay down on a railroad track and die a thousand times, and so I slipped right into the full time eye drying business. Grief never met a more vigilant watchdog than me. If they needed groceries, I was zipping. Something needed fixing, I was Johnny on the spot. I told the girls the same bedtime stories my daddy told me. I did my best to keep things on the level, and I even had Paul licked in the kitchen. I insulated them with seafood gumbo and shrimp etouffee. Trout almondine and pecan pie, everything I’d studied in the old cookbooks for fifteen years of Saturday nights.
I tended that garden too. I put the hose on it, combed it over and talked to Paul. By the time I was finally well enough to go back to work, I couldn’t hardly fit it on my calendar, me being as into the familying as I was, and so I cashed in my chips. Gayle didn’t have any trouble selling the company, or doing what all needed in the financial end of things, but I happily advised her the couple times she asked for it. I saw to it they didn’t want for nothing, and I was prepared to wait this life out before Gayle got lonesome in that big bed of hers, but it wasn’t too much time, really.
Bajonk gubba gub. That’s the water finally shutting off and I shimmy under the covers and shuck my jammies off, lay on my side waiting. Gayle is a bloom in her natural state even when she comes out the bathroom looking like a blanched tomato. I throw back them covers and let her in and I swear I barely get my fingers on her when the girls let go with a terrible shrieking, peels of yaps and yips spit out like hot metal shavings.
“Good Lord!” Gayle’s out the bed and half ripping the blinds off. “What’s going on out there?”
“Uncle Bud,” they squeal. “Uncle Bud!”
“Oh, for shit’s sake!” I get right back in my jammies and hobble to the back door and they take me by the hands, lead me to the green beans.
“Uncle Bud, look it,” says Jenny.
“I found it,” says June. “Do I still get a dollar?”
It’s a speckled king snake too fat to run off, lying lazy in a spot of sun. He’s a pretty thing, ink black with yellow splotches all over, the pink tail of a mouse sticking out his mouth like a tongue. His head and neck is all stretched out and his eyes bulge like he can’t believe his luck.
“I don’t know, June. Looks like Mister King Snake wins the dollar.”
I see her eyeing it, thinking how she might could steal it back, so I say, “I tell you what. I’ll split the dollar between both you girls as a finder’s fee.”
Gayle sidles up beside me zipping her jean shorts, and I slip my arm around her waist, thumb her belt loop.
“Poor Mister Mouse,” says Jenny, plucking a green bean from the vine and biting it in half.
“Poor Mister Mouse,” says June, and grabs her a bean too. It’s all monkey see monkey do with that one.
The garden glows. Little flying bugs teem above the corn and the purple martins pass over to snatch them out the pretty blue. The eggplants are swollen fat and shining violet, and everything is so wondrously thrumming and ripe with life that I just about can’t stand it. A time like this, I miss Paul something awful. I do. But I sleep better knowing he’s close by, that he’s more a part of us now than he ever was. Jenny and June are still watching the snake have his lunch, snapping green beans off the vine like popcorn.
“Hey,” I say. “Y’all ain’t no better than Mister Mouse. Quit eating all the beans. That’s supper there.”
They are sweet girls, as I said, and they don’t want to kill the bugs, so we all pile in the car. I tell them we’ll stop at the park so they can let the critters off closer to someone else’s garden. I fuss with the rearview and warm to see them back there clutching them jars, gracious for life’s miracle. I tilt my head a bit, brush my high cheek with a finger, hardly believing it myself.
“Uncle Bud,” says Jenny. “Who you think made the most money?”
“Yeah, Uncle Bud,” says June. “I went after the easy ones like you said.”
“Hey, girls,” Gayle says, corkscrewing to face them as I back down the driveway. “Remember what we talked about?”
“Who you think made more money, Daddy,” says Jenny.
“Yeah, Daddy,” June says. “Who?”