The Death Cheaters
The early June morning was still almost black at 5:15 as Billy Bob slammed the old mechanical alarm clock and sat up on his army surplus cot in the little one room shack. He still used an alarm clock to jar him awake; being up before first light was important to the daily success of Billy Bob’s routine. It seemed particularly dark on this Tuesday, which meant an overcast sky with the portent of rain in the offing. He went to the old kerosene stove and turned the flame up to boil some water. He set a wobbly, dented pot on the stove and poured into it from the old green jerry can he had filled yesterday down at the Pearl River. The water supply was suitable for his cereal and coffee because he boiled it first. He had learned the hard way not to partake directly from the jerry can; the river held a bountiful population of flagellating protozoan that had digested his beans and pork rinds in a most unpleasant gastric disruption.
He slipped into the bibbed denims lying at the foot of his cot and within ten minutes, he had a boil on the stove and, as was his routine, he opened the sack next to the stove and scooped out a cup of hominy grits. The coarsely ground and hulled grain went into a chipped and discolored bowl he’d picked up behind the gas station in town when they had pitched out the defective giveaways. After adding some of the water and a lump of brown sugar to the bowl, he stirred the contents with a beat up, discolored steel spoon, and then let the pasty mix sit for a few minutes.
Billy Bob Gaspard had simple tastes and he did not mind the grits day in and day out; it kept his colon clean and it filled his belly for the first three hours of the day. He sucked down the thick porridge and took a quick slug of creamy whole milk from an open bottle in the icebox. He hated the first half hour of the day, making breakfast and sitting in the stink of the ventless shack. He sidled over to the spring-hinged door that served as his front and only door, gave it a shove and propped it open with the stick he kept next to the door for that purpose. He swore once again to get some screening to replace the plastic in what served for a window on the front wall of the metal shack. The stink wasn’t the worst of it; his olfactory nerves had become somewhat dulled to the odors – it was the oppressive air that by morning had little oxygen to give up, even though the only door was far from airtight, nothing circulated.
After washing down the remnants of the sticky grits, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then wiped the back of his hand on his filthy jeans. The chicory-laden coffee grounds were in a sack next to the grits; Billy Bob grabbed a small handful and added it to the remainder of the boiled water to provide a ‘balanced’ breakfast and a little stimulant to start the day. The coffee Billy Bob had accepted as a gift, clearly meant for him, as he was the only one present behind
The Blue Moon when young James Blanchette had begun unloading the old, pockmarked Ford Econoline he used to transport supplies from New Orleans in the early morning hours. From Billy Bob’s vantage point, stretched out behind the dumpster, he could see James wheel the crates of lettuce and tomatoes off the loading dock and into the kitchen of the restaurant, leaving the sack hanging off the back end of the van. The restaurant would be out a couple of hundred bucks for the sack of Kona and James would be working an extra hour a day for two weeks without pay for his part in the loss. The true sacrilege in Billy Bob’s actions was in grinding up and then lacing the costly brown nuggets with chicory.
The gray outside had come several shades lighter as 5:40 A.M. approached and even through the filmy polyethylene sheeting in the window opening, he could tell the air was quite hazy. The air in the little shack was stifling and the moisture in the spent air made for labored breathing at best. He meticulously poured coffee, sans grounds, through the cheesecloth he used seven days a week and washed religiously every Sunday. He splashed the black brew into a cream-colored ceramic mug with crazing that bespoke its many years in Billy Bob’s possession. A splintery shipping crate that had once held a five-foot long power company transformer served as his kitchen counter and atop it sat a small washtub as his makeshift sink. Taking a healthy slurp from his mug, Billy Bob, with his free hand, scooped up the bowl and slipped it and the spoon into the washtub full of yesterday’s soapy, gray water.
With cup in hand, he decided it was time to sample the elements beyond the confines of his four walls. He shuffled to the front of his abode and stepped over the two by four framing at the base of the doorway to land his bare feet in the trampled weeds on the other side. Billy Bob sucked in a deep breath to see what the morning would present him. The outside air gave some relief to his oxygen-starved lungs and the sweet scent of jasmine climbing up the side of the shack made him forget his own stink. He hawked up a viscous, phlegm ball and spat with a resounding ‘phtooff’ into the prolific weed bed to his left. The viscid, caramel-colored mucus clung for a moment to the ripe bloom of a thistle plant before it stretched its way to the ground and released its hold on the flower.
While most folks performed their morning ablutions to get a fresh start on the day, Billy Bob limited his morning’s ritual to ‘spit and shit’ after downing his bitter black brew. He did not bath or dress for anyone, and after a quick squat out back, he pulled up his overalls and headed back to the shack for his sneakers and fishing gear. The denim rubbed against his legs with an oily dampness born of at least two week’s wear unwashed.
He slipped into and tightened up the laces on one of his biggest purchases of the year, the Dr. Scholl’s sneakers that he had picked up at the Jackson Wal-Mart, on sale for eighteen dollars. Straightening up from tying his laces, he made a command decision for the day’s events. He would go fishing. He picked up his John Deere cap that had become two shades of green due to the darkening sweat stain spreading onto the bill and an inch up beyond the sweatband. The cap was more than a fashion statement because even the overcast would not stop the sun from burning his pate, which had only wisps of patchy, blond hair on top. Grabbing his gear, Billy Bob Gaspard was ready to face the day’s hardship.
Billy Bob didn’t care much for the damp, almost drizzly day mixed with summer heat, but nevertheless found himself out at 6:25 A.M., walking west on the Illinois Central tracks to cross the Pearl River on the east side of Jackson. The June day had already reached eighty-four with the sun barely up and obscured by the overcast. Billy Bob could not decide whether it was his own sweat or the barely perceptible drizzle that was coursing down his shirtless back and soaking into the waistband of his Jockey shorts, three days worn – no wash.
The hum of the early summer insect population dominated the post dawn stillness and Billy Bob knew he would not hear a ‘freighter’ for another twenty minutes. No matter, though, he would be long gone from the track bed by then and sitting on the weatherworn stump at his favorite catfish haunt. He fished on one of the middle Mayes Lakes just over a mile from where he crossed the river.
He had packed his standard gear for the day: an old pickle jar filled with cold baked beans from the icebox, a Pepsi bottle refilled with boiled river water, his tobacco and rolling paper, baby crawfish for bait and a somewhat tattered plastic garbage bag, all of which he had crammed into his blood-stained fishing basket. The woven basket had a hinged top with a long ago broken clasp and several broken bands in the weave. It had served him well over the years though, and stink, as it may, Billy Bob had a sentimental attachment to the boyhood memories it evoked. He still used the simple spinning reel and rod he’d received fifteen years ago on his fourteenth birthday – didn’t cotton to the new fangled gear with all the knobs and switches; couldn’t afford it anyway.
Billy Bob did not have anyone he could call a friend; living a solitary life in the shack on the edge of town had been of his choosing and he did not feel the need to do differently. Entergy Mississippi had abandoned the utility shack of corrugated sheet metal a dozen years ago and Billy Bob had claimed the address by his own twisted version of adverse possession, he lived there and no one knew or objected; so, it was his. The walls and roof made one heck of a racket in the heavy Mississippi rains but it had kept him dry and relatively comfortable for the past ten years; that was how long he had been gone from his native town, Thibodaux, on Bayou Lafourche in Louisiana. He had left under duress at the age of nineteen, having been banished for stealing a much-prized hunting knife from his own cousin, T-Cat Robichaux. Billy Bob had never been accused of harboring intelligence under the boney plates of his skull, and his inability to follow an action to its logical conclusion had led him to flaunt his booty amongst his peers.
It had not taken twenty-four hours for his cousin to get the straight skinny on Billy Bob’s acquisition. T-Cat had told the family of Billy Bob’s indiscretion and the consequences that would accompany his apprehension. Billy Bob had been out hunting overnight and upon his return, he had known he was looking into the faces of rebuke from his family. His own Pappy had sent him packing and imparted the distasteful warning from his cousins that promised to separate him from his hands should they ever catch up with him.
He had left the knife behind in the hopes that his transgression would be forgiven after a time, but here he was a decade later unable to summon the courage to return. The irony was that T-Cat had died of pneumonia five years after Billy Bob’s departure and his brother, Jackson, had long ago moved east to Kenner where he had been stabbed to death while stuffing the winnings of a dishonest dice game in his pocket.
Billy Bob had always had a natural aversion to any form of supervised employment and that kept him in short supply on many of life’s staples, but he was content to fish and sell some of his catch to the ‘Fish Factory’, a popular restaurant, on Laurel St. Cash for his catch and small odd jobs: cutting grass, performing clean-ups, and an occasional house-painting gig kept him in grits, kerosene and tobacco. When Billy Bob summed up life at the end of a day, what more did a body really need, after all, except maybe getting his bean waxed occasionally.
In just over fifteen minutes, he reached his lakeside staging area and he set his basket and rod down next to the stump to get setup for the morning’s fishing. Pulling a waterproof pouch out of the basket, he looked up at the sky absentmindedly wondering if the heavy mist would relent in the next ten seconds so he could roll a cigarette without getting it all mushy. He knew he was just asking himself one of those ‘ritorickle’ questions as he pulled out the big plastic garbage bag and draped it over his shoulders and head to begin the assembly of his morning smoke. Billy Bob had been rolling since he was twelve and he was proud to say he could pack his ‘smoke’ tight as a Lucky Strike shot from a bull’s ass.
He had just portioned out the tobacco as evenly as any machine, he assured himself, when the gust of wind rocked him on the stump. Loose tobacco, papers and pouch all flew into the lake and Billy Bob’s mouth fell open in disbelief.
“Cauucksuckerr,” he blurted out to no one and everyone. He had just witnessed a buck and half’s worth of tobacco blown into the water and nothing left in the basket but the day’s bait and his jar of beans.
As he watched the tobacco spread on the water’s surface, he noticed a stench hanging in the air that he could not quite place. He knit his eyebrows into a contiguous line above his eyes, registering his perplexity at the odor. The wind hit him again, head on, causing him to lose balance and fall backwards off the stump. Now Billy Bob’s mouth dropped open with trepidation and his eyes darted back and forth, desperately trying to understand what was happening. The gust had had an impact, almost as if a big medicine ball had been thrown into his chest. Billy Bob got up into a crouching position with his hands on the old stump in front of him. Stillness returned, total stillness not even the June Bugs buzzing. Sweat trickled into and stung his eyes as he strained, looking in every direction, double checking each of the surrounding bushes for movement. Then with another sudden gust, the tall, gaunt man appeared before him.
He looked up, his head just above the stump.
The old timer looked anything but menacing, “Eh, who in de fawck you are?”
The old man displayed a wide grin exposing a mouthful of teeth that, in Billy Bob’s estimation, could have filled half of another man’s mouth as well. The man had appeared out of thin air and Billy Bob was already trying to rationalize the instantaneous presence. He struggled with his own mind’s account of the sudden materialization of flesh and bone before him. He spoke again, this time with a mildly tremulous voice.
“Couple a miles from downtown, you walked all uh deeway from dare?”
The stranger’s gaze did not seem to focus; he just seemed to stare right through Billy Bob, off in some other world. The young Cajun’s discomfort was growing; he sensed power behind the old man’s façade and now he wished he were downtown, wallowing in the garbage behind the Blue Moon doing the clean-up he should have been doing this morning.
“Ah can hep you how so monahmee?” His fear at the man’s unmoving silence gave Billy Bob a weak feeling in his guts, as if he would lose his grits at any moment. “If Ah got anyting you need, for sure, sharin it Ah am.”
The man said nothing, but Billy Bob heard a response in his head, ‘merci beaucoup’; it was in his own Cajun dialect. This man had a dark countenance and Billy Bob knew instinctively the man meant him harm. He started to rise; maybe if he rushed the old man and tackled him into the lake, he could drown the mother-effrr before he could react.
He rose up, about to lunge, but he unexpectedly found himself frozen in place, no control over a single muscle; his bladder had let loose without warning; he was powerless to stop it, and the warmth spread out from the crotch of his jeans. The old man had not moved a muscle, but Billy Bob felt the man’s death grip in control of every muscle in his body. He wanted to speak, to ask why, but not a single syllable would form across his immobilized tongue and lips.
The dermis beneath the outer layer of his skin began to boil, not hot, just boiling, hundreds of thousands of fizzy little bubbles coming up, working their way to the surface. The sizzle in his head took him back, with a flash, to his boyhood and his mother frying up grits in bacon grease. Within seconds, intense pain manifested as if thousands of tiny electrified fishhooks were penetrating his flesh, buried beyond the barb and then yanked out randomly with a pulsating pain that coursed back and forth over the entire surface of his flesh. While no blood or markings appeared on his body, Billy Bob’s life was being sucked away with every ripping sensation.
Mercifully, after only thirty seconds, his brain could no longer process the pain of his body’s destruction. Billy Bob no longer possessed any of his senses, but he knew, as he struggled to see beyond the now blank slate his optic nerves projected, that the life was being drawn from every cell of his body. The tall stranger had never laid a finger on him, but Billy Bob, even as he lost his connection with this world, knew that what had been his life was now part of the stranger’s life.
The old man fell to his knees still conscious but reeling with the experience and the energy expended in usurping the essence of what had been Billy Bob Gaspard. He was most vulnerable now and needed the few precious minutes this isolated location afforded him in order to regain full function. He looked below him at the lifeless husk that had fallen and lay head first, torso submerged in the lake while his feet anchored him to the shoreline. He would dispose of the body directly, but for a few precious moments, he would savor the orgasmic climax, as he had many hundreds of times in the past.