Illustrated by Allison Strauss
“Hold it still,” Hank said. “It can’t hurt you.”
“It’s still warm.” I grimaced and struggled to hold it down as its heavily clawed feet continued to twitch at random. A bead of sweat trickled down my nose and dropped onto its fuzzy belly.
“That’s because it is a hundred degrees already today,” he grunted.
I watched Hank maneuver a slipknot around its stubby scaled neck. Its soft nose and pink paper-thin tongue hung from its mouth between pointless teeth.
“What are you going to do with it?” asked Alice.
“You’ll see,” winked Hank.
I climbed out of the ditch and up to the river road to survey the scene of the collision. The black asphalt covering the river road bubbled and oozed in the intense heat. It cracked and popped, sticking like a candied apple beneath my new black and white Converse track shoes. I was surprised by how little blood there was, after having seen how far it had flown on impact into the ditch on the other side of the river road. The frantic squeal of the car’s brakes, the silver smoke from the burning rubber of the tires and the excitement of the fishtail swerve all seemed to happen in slow motion. The car’s ambitious recovery left us stunned as it righted itself then drove carefully and quietly away. The three of us had been lined up on top of the levee ready for another race. We had spent the morning sliding down the thick dewy carpet of crimson clover, aboard waxed cardboard boxes that we had rescued from Miss Josephine’s Grocery trash burn pile.
From the top of the levee, we could see far and wide. Immediately before us sat our family’s notorious Victorian Plantation home, where our grandmother lived. Concealed behind four grand live oaks and overgrown hedges, it was nestled deep within the most abrupt curve in the Atchafalaya River Road. Behind the Big House, pear and pecan orchards stood in neat rows. Soon we would take out our pecan pickers and fill sacks and sacks of pecans for extra money to buy our school clothes. This year we wouldn’t need so many. Hank and I would be entering fourth and third grade at a private school, an hour away, where we would be required to wear uniforms.
Grandpa’s old cabin was situated to the far right in the back yard. A boot-worn pathway led to the barn where we kept Pete, our Appaloosa. From the top of the levee, we could see him grazing. White with dark brown spots, he looked like an overgrown Dalmatian. The barn, flanked by cotton fields as far as we could see to the left and to the right, stretched all the way back to the wooded area. Tucked within the tree line was Daddy’s hunting lodge where he entertained. He sang, playing banjo, guitar and bass, rehearsing all night with his band. And when in season, he hosted hunts for deer, duck and rabbit.
All that broke the monotony of planted green rows of cotton, their bolls soon to burst, were a few old wooden outbuildings of varying functions; a row of homes that were once slave houses, and a quarter mile long dirt road that led to the little brick house where the three of us lived with Momma and Daddy. The levee protected our plantation from the tumultuous flood prone Atchafalaya River behind us. To the right and to the left, the river road spooned with the levee, together snaking like the river. Deep drainage ditches lined both sides of the river road that, following it to the left it brought you five miles into town and to the right, to nowhere in particular.
“That’s good and tight. Alice, you go up on top of the levee. You’ll be our lookout,” ordered Hank.
“If it is no one we know, give us two thumbs up,” I added.
Facing her, Hank and I crouched deep in the ditch, in the apex of the curve in the road, our fresh armadillo poised and ready on the opposite side of the road. We listened from behind a massive tangled blackberry bush for the murmur of an oncoming vehicle. We waited and watched for our sister’s signal. It was a go. Just as the vehicle entered our curve, Hank began pulling the rope madly, dragging the corpse toward us across the road. A white Dodge Charger filthy with red dirt splatters entered the blind curve. Its driver slammed down hard on its breaks, skidding to avoid collision.
We fought back fits of laughter and the urge to relieve our bladders as we watched the car expertly avoid impact. The car came to a stop. We rolled onto our backs flattening ourselves against the steep pitch of the ditch, pinching our noses and holding our breath to avoid giggling. We remained there frozen, red-faced and tear stained, not daring to wave away the smoke that hung in the air. Listening carefully, the car door never opened. All we could hear was “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” blasting on their radio. Then we heard the car right itself and continue on out of sight. We let loose righteous laughs, caught our breath and rubbed away our fitful tears.
“Dang! That dude was moving. Look at the marks he left. Six more inches and that would have been all she wrote!” Hank repositioned the road kill for another pass.
“My turn,” I said grabbing the baling twine.
“This time, let’s not give them much warning. Don’t pull until I say so,” said Hank.
“I know what to do.” I held my breath and felt my heart knocking in my chest. Squatting, I leaned into the incline of the ditch. My two bare knees planted, the twine in two hands ready to yank. We stared up at Alice waiting for the go ahead.
I yanked with all of my might. Heavier than I thought it would be, the twine burned a groove where my pinky met my palm. I dragged the armadillo into the lane of the oncoming truck. It slammed on its brakes, swerved and careened out of control, flying down into the ditch opposite us.
“Run!” I screamed laughing. Dropping the rope, I turned and ran in the opposite direction. Alice watched as we disappeared into the thick hedging of Grandma’s U-shaped driveway. The rusted out blue pickup took a moment to gather itself. It began spinning its tires creating deep ruts. We could hear it spin forward, then furiously grinding its gears in reverse, spinning backward. Finally, it rocked its way out of the ruts and found its way up and out of the ditch, back down the river road. Smoke and diesel fumes hung in the air. We were relieved to see that its driver didn’t bother to get out to inspect the carcass to find its lifeless remains tethered to our rope.
“Did you see that?” Hank howled.
“Look at the skid mark that car left!” I giggled, wiping my tears on my sleeve. We were gasping, hysterical with laughter. The kind of laughter that takes off on its own. The hold-you-down-and-tickle-you kind of laughter.
Alice loped down the levee from her lookout.
“My turn!” Alice demanded. “Let me pull that Armanilla across next!”
“You’re too young. You’ll never be able to pull it across fast enough,” said Hank. “I’ll help you.”
“I non’t need your help, I’ll be seven in April.”
We both looked at her. Our little sister could be more irritating than a hangnail. Her hair had just begun to grow back. It was now an inch long, and stood up like a flat top, but we would never be so cruel as to remind her of that. Not after all she had been through. Since her surgery, she still spoke with a pinched nasally tone. She couldn’t yet sound out her Ds. After eight months, she managed to leave the hospital alive. Momma and Daddy stuck it out by her side and brought her home. The only thing she had to part with was her hair, half her cerebellum and the hearing in her left ear. Her malignant tumor had been merciful.
We walked over to the armadillo to find that it had been decapitated by that last jolt.
“Somebony help me tie the rope on again,” she pleaded, picking up the rope.
I searched until I found its head and pushed it into the pocket of my shorts for later inspection. It hung down encapsulated like a white mouse below the fray of my cut off jeans.
“Hold it up by the tail,” Hank instructed. “Use two hands, it’s heavy.”
Alice held the headless creature up by its tail, while Hank struggled to arrange the slipknot around its belly and under its arms. She widened her legs and teetered around to avoid the blood that had begun to trickle from its neck.
“Set it down and tie a noose. It’s easier,” I said.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You need me to show you how?”
“Why don’t you just go up and be the lookout. I got this.”
“Suit yourself. You always take the long way home. Besides, we’re all gonna burn in hell for this,” I winced, choking back another hysterical giggle fit. I tilted my head and widened my eyes to listen for an oncoming car before crossing the road. They watched me move through the cutgrass and cattails growing in the ditch on the opposite side of the road to climb up the levee to the lookout point.
With the roadkill in place, they waited until they heard the vehicle approach. Hank and Alice stared up at me intently for my signal. I squinted trying to identify the driver of the noisy lumbering tractor pulling a rickety cotton trailer. Catching their eye, I nodded giving thumbs up. Alice squared her shoulders like a deep-sea fisherman and positioned herself to begin the pull. Just as the tractor entered the curve, the roadkill began its journey slowly across the curve in the road. The tractor driver adjusted his cap and stood up to catch a closer glimpse. He attempted to brake but it was too late. The tractor stayed its course and without a swerve, its large grooved tire popped that armadillo like a ketchup packet, splattering Hank and Alice with a blood and guts! The group of crows lining the telephone wire scattered noisily.
That’s when my eye caught another vehicle approaching. My father’s silver Ford pickup glinting in the sun, turned out from our farm road and was headed in our direction.
“Holy shit,” I said to myself and began jumping and screaming “DUCK, DUCK!” But they couldn’t hear me. Disgusted by their circumstance, they flapped their arms, trying to wipe away the remains. Daddy noticed me first atop the levee, jumping and waving my arms. He slowed approaching the curve and followed my concern to find the other two covered in muck, frigid with horror. His fierce red brake lights bounced angrily as he skidded abruptly into our driveway. He jumped out of his truck not bothering to close his door. Hank and Alice knew not to run. They stood there forlorn, scanning the top of the levee for me. I had crouched down for just enough time to regain my composure, realizing that there was simply no way out of this mess. We were busted. I began my descent toward the ruckus.
“Goddamn sons a bitches,” he yelled. “Why am I looking at a goddamned flattened armadillo tied to a rope? I don’t know why I’m finding it hard to believe that y’all would think to do something like this. What in the hell is wrong with y’all?” He took off his cap and swatted his leg with it. “I ought to take off my belt and beat your damned asses for doing something so goddamn stupid!” Daddy stood shaking his head observing several sets of black tire skids. He squinted at one in particular; the one that marked the road and continued down toward the deep ruts in the ditch. “You could have killed someone.”
“Yes, sir,” Alice said, a bit too loud.
I let out a snort. He glared at me until I straightened myself out and looked down at my feet. Noticing the blood that had leaked in pocket in my shorts, I covered the stain with my right hand.
“Now go get a shovel and bury this poor son of a bitch somewhere the dogs won’t dig it up! Then get yourselves home and wash that shit off of your sorry asses!”
“Yes, sir,” we said in unison.
He replaced his cap on his head, still shaking it from side to side. Reaching into his shirt pocket he lit a cigarette, exhaling through his nose. He spat an imaginary piece of tobacco on the ground, then turned and got back in his truck and drove off.
“You go get the shovel,” Hank growled at me. “We’re gonna go get cleaned up.”
I choked down another giggle and followed them home dragging what little was left of that armadillo behind me.
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