by David P. Langlinais
It was Saturday afternoon and Luke LaCroix was riding in Dale Guidry’s pickup. They’d knocked off work around noon and were now going fishing. It was loud inside the truck. The windows were rolled down and the roaring hum of the large gumbo mudders filled the cab.
“Where’s this place again,” Luke shouted.
“Mais, how many times I gotta tell you?” Dale shouted back. “It’s called Bayou Noir. So shut the fuck up about it, uh.”
Now outside of town, Luke could smell the country air. They passed rice fields that had been recently harvested and the air was thick with the scent of rice chaff. It smelled like the part of the mill where the semis hauling raw rice into town were unloaded amid billowing clouds of rice dust. Luke glanced at Dale. The big man had a yellow welder’s cap pulled down over his long frizzy hair. His beard was tossing haphazardly in the open window. His face was hardened, humorless. Dale wasn’t acting like himself and it had Luke worried. For one thing, Luke had never ridden in the pickup when Dale wasn’t smoking a joint. It’s usually why they rode around in the truck at lunch, before returning to work with a good buzz on.
“Can you at least tell me where it is?” Luke said.
“Goddamnit!” Dale said. “It’s on the way to fuckin’ Intracoastal City, okay? What the hell do you care where it’s at?”
“I was just wondering,” Luke said.
Luke had come back home from college for the summer. His father had gotten him a job at the rice mill in town. Luke was put on the same maintenance crew that Dale worked on as a welder. In the beginning, Dale didn’t like Luke. He nearly threw Luke off the roof one day because Luke had pissed him off about something. But after a while, Dale had softened and they became friends. Luke felt lucky that Dale had taken him under his wing. A big man like Dale was a good person to have as your friend in a place like the rice mill.
The day suddenly darkened as the pastures of cattle and rice fields gave way to an area called Grands Bois, a densely wooded swamp. Without braking, Dale pulled the truck onto the gravel shoulder. There was what looked like a dirt road that went into the woods and he turned onto it. The truck’s big knobby tires skidded momentarily before biting into the loose gravel. Up ahead and crossing the road was an old barbed wire fence that had been neglected for some time. When the truck reached the fence line, Dale killed the engine.
Once off the highway, Luke could see that the road they’d turned onto abruptly ended after penetrating the swamp just beyond the barbed wire. As if the road had given up, conceding to the swamp. In the silence, Luke could hear the sounds coming from the forest, the high pitched droning of cicadas, the distant plaintive cawing of a crow, the deep, guttural moaning of bullfrogs near and far.
Luke couldn’t see a canal or a bayou anywhere. There was only the sunken forest for as far as he could see. “Where the hell are we fishing?” he said.
Dale got out of the truck and gestured toward the swamp. “Mais, the fish are in there,” he said. “Where you think?”
Luke didn’t want to go into the swamp. Not for a stringer of sac au lait. He now understood why Dale had told him to bring hip boots. Luke was glad he’d brought his waders instead.
While putting on his waders, Luke slapped at his neck and his palm came away bloody. In the cool of the shade, and out of the direct heat of the early afternoon sun, the mosquitoes were active the way they normally were at dawn or dusk. He knew it would only worsen as they entered the swamp. He wished he’d known to wear long sleeves the way Dale had.
“Got any mosquito repelent?” Luke said.
“It don’t do no good,” Dale said. “Not in there.”
Dale had his hip boots on and was now handing Luke a rod and reel. He seemed in a hurry to get started. “Make sure you line ain’t loose,” Dale said, “or you’ll get it hung up like you can’t believe.”
They’d stopped to buy crickets at a bait shop on the way out of town. The crickets were now in two cylindrical bait cages, chirping on the floor of the truck. Luke put the string of one of cages over his head so that it hung around his neck.
Dale took the other bait cage. Before shutting the door, he reached under the seat and pulled out a gun belt with what looked like a Colt 45 in the holster. A big, long barreled pistol. Dale buckled the belt around his waist. Then he said, “Let’s go,” and began moving toward the fence line, where the slack, rusty barbed wire was hanging low. With one hand on the fence post, Dale hauled himself over the top wire with the ease of someone half his size. Luke marveled at how effortlessly Dale managed his own great bulk — the way a bull, usually lethargic-looking, can in an instant overtake a man with the speed of a horse. Luke recalled the day on the roof of the mill earlier that summer, when Dale had chased him down before grabbing a fistful of Luke’s shirt. He’d dragged Luke to the edge of the roof and threatened to throw him off. As if to make a point.
Dale was already moving toward the swamp and Luke carefully eased himself through the barbed wire. As Dale began walking into the water Luke hesitated. He didn’t want to follow Dale into the swamp, but he knew he couldn’t turn back now. He felt the waders grip his ankles as he stepped into the water. As though breaching some hidden boundary, the mosquitoes suddenly came alive. They were everywhere, swarming around his face, buzzing in his ears. He breathed in a mosquito through his nose and spit it out.
“Goddamn!” Luke said, slapping at the mosquitoes clouding around his face.
Without paying Luke any mind, Dale stopped and dipped his hand into the water. He appeared to be searching for something on the bottom. He came up with a handful of black mud, the sleeve of his thick khaki welder’s shirt soaked from his elbow down. After removing the twigs and decomposing leaves, he rubbed the mud over the back of one hand and then the other. He smeared the mud onto his face and neck. The muddy water dripped from his beard and onto his shirt.
“What the hell are you doing?” Luke said.
“Trust me, you’ll be glad you done it,” Dale said.
His face now covered with the dark mud, the big man turned and began moving into the swamp. Luke quickly grabbed a handful of the swamp bottom before applying it to his exposed skin. It went on gritty and fetid, stinking of rotten vegetation and swamp gas.
With the mud covering his arms, face and neck, Luke was following Dale again. He was still concerned with Dale’s silence. He wished the big man would fire up a joint. Not because Luke wanted to get high, but because it would bring back the normalcy that was missing.
One day, not long after the incident on the roof, Dale had asked Luke if he wanted to smoke a joint. Right out of the blue. Luke didn’t have any friends in the mill and was eating his lunch alone in one of the third story windows the way he’d done since the beginning of summer. After that, Luke was going with Dale to get high at lunch every day. They usually rode around town in Dale’s pickup. Once, Dale had taken Luke home with him to his trailer and they ate lunch there. That’s where Luke met Dale’s wife, Yvette.
“How far is it?” Luke asked.
“A little ways,” Dale said.
The bottom of the swamp was level and solid. Smooth walking, except for the occasional cyprus knee jutting into their path. The peat-stained water sat motionless and rose to about mid-thigh on Luke, just above the knees on Dale. The day grew darker under the thick canopy and was as cool as Luke had ever felt it in early August. Now the swarms of large biting flies had joined the mosquitoes in their dogged assault.
“How far we going?” Luke asked again.
Without turning, Dale said, “Mais, quit your fucking whinin’, uh. Why you gotta be such a pussy about everything?”
They’d walked for what seemed like two miles, though it was hard to tell. Luke looked back from time to time, trying to keep his bearings. He’d lost sight of the truck almost immediately. Now he couldn’t hear the traffic on the highway anymore.
Just then, the canopy parted as they came to a small clearing. Dale finally stopped. He didn’t say anything as he began readying his rod and reel. Luke looked around and saw nothing that would indicate they’d arrived anywhere.
“Mais, c’mon, couillon,” Dale said. “What you waitin’ for?”
“Where we fishing?”
“You’ll want to cast you line at that opening.” Dale pointed at a spot on the water. “That’s where Bayou Noir’s at. You can see it if you look.”
Then it became obvious as Luke could just make out a divide in the trees. He might have overlooked it had there not been a number of broken fishing lines snagged and hanging from the tree limbs across the channel, the red and white corks dangling like Christmas tree ornaments. Always the sign of a popular fishing hole, even in the middle of nowhere, even in the middle of a swamp.
They’d fished for about an hour, fishing in silence. They’d each caught ten or more fish. Mainly sac au lait and goggle-eye. Luke had caught a nice choupique and he could feel the big fish now tugging on the stringer that was tied to his belt and trailing behind him in the water. After reeling in another fish, Luke unhooked it. As he untied the stringer from his belt to add the new fish, he noticed the tail of a snake only a few feet from where he stood. It startled him, the way the sudden awareness of a snake always did. He dropped the fish he was holding and began moving away from the snake. As he moved, the snake moved with him.
“Shit,” Luke said. He could see the tail of the snake still following, matching his speed.
“What’s a matter?” Dale said.
“There’s a snake after me,” Luke said.
“Mais, he ain’t after you,” Dale said. “He’s after you fish.” Dale handed Luke his rod and reel. “Here, hold this.”
Dale took the revolver from the holster. He cocked back its hammer. Then he began lifting Luke’s stringer slowly from the water. “Don’t move,” Dale said. As the last fish on the stringer came to the surface, a water moccasin could be seen with the tail-end of the fish in its white puffy mouth. The snake’s jaw was unhinged, its broad triangular head already misshapen. It was trying to swallow the fish. Dale slowly held the stringer out at arm’s length. He put the barrel of the pistol at the snake’s head and fired, disintegrating the snake’s head and the lower half of the fish. The sound of the gun was deafening and rolled through the swamp, echoing in the distance a long time. Like thunder on the horizon. Dale dropped the stringer back into the water, holstered the still-smoking pistol and took his rod and reel from Luke.
“It ain’t the snakes you gotta watch out for,” Dale said, moving back to the spot where he’d been fishing. “It’s the fucking alligators. Mais, they got ‘em big out here, yeah.”
“I was wondering why you brought that along,” Luke said, referring to the pistol. Luke’s ears were numb and ringing from the explosion.
Dale reeled in his line and recast it. “Mais, what you think I brought it out here for, uh?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Luke said. As the sun moved across the sky it filled the opening in the canopy above Luke and shone down on him blazing. It all at once felt like August in southwest Louisiana again.
“You think I brought it out here to shoot your skinny little ass, or what?” It sounded like Dale was joking, the way he said it. But it could’ve just as easily been taken seriously.
“I was hoping it wasn’t for that,” Luke said, trying to sound like he was going along with a joke.
“I wouldn’t do it that way,” Dale said, watching his cork bob on the water. When it didn’t go under he jerked the line, teasing the fish below that seemed only interested in toying with the bait. Probably a little bream.
“Wouldn’t do what that way?” Luke said, jerking his own line nervously. He didn’t want to press the conversation, but he didn’t think he should run away from it, either.
“Man, if I wanted to kill you, you think I’d be stupid enough to put a fuckin’ bullet hole in you head?’
“So how would you do it then?” Luke said.
“Let’s just say it would look like a accident,” Dale said, hooking another sac au lait. He reeled it in, unhooked it and added it to his stringer.
“What’s on your mind, Dale?” Luke said. “I mean you’re really starting to freak me out, here.”
Dale didn’t say anything. He seemed to be contemplating something. Then he began to speak. “See that pole,” he said, nodding his head at a bamboo pole sticking out of the water, the faint movement of the current against it. “It’s a channel marker. Take one step past it and you’ll go under like a rock. It don’t look deep, but it’s a lot deeper than you think.”
It seemed like a strange thing to say. Luke watched Dale, waiting for him to continue, but he said nothing more. Luke had been using Dale as his mark, figuring that so long as he didn’t walk beyond the big man’s position he’d keep from walking into the bayou.
“I was gonna bring you out here and let you fall in,” Dale said. “I was glad when I saw you’d brung you waders because it’d be a lot easier than with hip boots.”
“Seriously, Dale. What the hell are you talking about?” Luke said. “I mean, why would you even say something like that?”
Dale was watching his cork as it moved in the slow current of the bayou that flowed silently beneath the surface of the swamp. “I couldn’t hold you down,” he said. “That’d be cold-blooded. That ain’t how I am.”
“Not cold blooded?” Luke said. “How can you say that? Killing someone on purpose is cold-blooded.”
“That ain’t how I see it. There ain’t nuttin cold-blooded about a accident.”
“But you’re not talking about an accident,” Luke said, “you’re talking about murder. And any kind of murder is cold-blooded, Dale. It’s why they call it cold-blooded murder in the first place. Ever think of that?” Luke realized he was sweating beneath the layer of dried mud on his face. With the sun pouring down on Luke, the mosquitoes and flies were now intent on Dale who stood off to the side, in the shade of a cyprus bough.
“Well, in my book it ain’t murder if you just protectin’ you own,” Dale said, still fishing, still not looking at Luke. It was as if they were debating the different makes of pickup trucks or outboard motors and not the different degrees of murder. “You break into my house,” Dale continued, “and I’d have no problem shootin’ you ass. But to premeditate it, now that’s somethin’ else.”
Luke couldn’t understand Dale’s logic. But the fact that they were talking about it led Luke to believe Dale had changed his mind and wasn’t going to do anything after all. If Dale were going to do something, Luke knew, it would’ve already been over. Luke would be standing on the bottom of Bayou Noir, his waders filled with swamp water.
“So you’re not planning on it anymore?” Luke said.
“Nah. I thought about it all the way out here, though. I was gonna do it, too.”
“Because I could’ve swore you were foolin’ around with Yvette, why you think?”
Yvette was a good deal younger than Dale, about Luke’s age. Soon after the day Dale had taken Luke home with him for lunch, Dale was inviting Luke over all the time. Mostly after the late-night shift. They would clock-out at midnight before heading over to the trailer. Then Dale and Yvette and Luke would do bong-hits and drink a lot of beer. They’d watch TV and play bourre’, sometimes late into the night. All laughing and having a good time.
“Do you really think I’d be crazy enough to mess around with your wife?” Luke said. “I mean think about it.”
“It’d be a stupid thing to do,” Dale said. “That’s for damn sure. Especially for a fuckin’ school boy.”
Dale laughed and Luke laughed with him.
“Well, I know she’s been messin’ around with someone,” Dale said. “For a little while, I was thinkin’ it might’ve been you.”
“What made you change your mind?” Luke said.
“I don’t know. I guess it just didn’t make no sense that you’d have the balls to follow me out here if it was you that was messin’ around with her.”
Luke didn’t say anything. The black swamp mud on his face seemed to absorb the heat of the direct sunlight. His face felt hot and the dried mud began to moisten with his sweat, reactivating the swamp stench. When Dale didn’t say anything, Luke said, “Do you really think she’s cheating on you?”
“I know she is,” Dale said. “I don’t know who with yet, but I’m gonna find out.”
Again, Luke envisioned himself unwittingly walking into the sunken bayou. He saw himself struggling to stay afloat in the water-filled waders that would’ve pulled him to the bottom like cement blocks. The thought turned his stomach. He felt for a moment that he might vomit. He wanted to leave this place. He wanted to leave the swamp.
“I actually thought I could change her,” Dale said. “I mean she swore she’d changed. She promised me she’d not be like that nomore if we got married.” Dale had the butt of his rod stuffed into the front pockets of his jeans. He lit a cigarette and was now blowing the smoke at the mosquitoes and deer flies that shrouded his muddied face. The swarm quickly dispersed only to return just as quickly the moment the smoke cleared.
Luke didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know Yvette had been that way before. There’s no way he could have known. But, now that he did know, he wasn’t surprised. “I guess some people don’t change,” he said.
“Not people like her,” Dale said. “God, what was I thinkin’? How could I’ve been so fuckin’ stupid gettin’ mixed up with a girl like her?” Dale reeled in his line and recast it toward the far edge of the channel.
Luke couldn’t be sure, he couldn’t see Dale’s face behind the mud, but it sounded like he was crying. Luke looked away. He didn’t want to see Dale like that. It sickened him to hear Dale sound so pained. To realize that a big man like him had it in him to feel that way. The more oblivious Dale was to what was actually going on, the more pathetic he seemed, and Luke wanted to be free of it. He wanted to leave this place. He wanted to ask Dale if they could go.
Luke thought about the nights out at Dale’s trailer. He thought of one recent night in particular. It was after the night shift and Luke and Dale and Yvette were drinking and getting high. They were up all night playing cards and laughing and having a good time the way they had all those times before. Only on this night, Dale had passed out in his Lazy-Boy, leaving Luke alone with Yvette.
Luke continued to sweat and the mud was now wet again on his face and beginning to run. The foul odor had become as strong as when he’d first applied the mud back at the pickup. Luke positioned the rod and reel between his thighs. With his hands free, he attempted to refashion the wet mud on his face into a mask. He didn’t want to be uncovered. He didn’t want to be exposed to the swamp and to all that could harm him there.
David P. Langlinais is a freelance copywriter from southwest Louisiana who currently lives in Dallas, Texas. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in South Dakota Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Los Angeles Review, Prick of the Spindle, Lost in Thought, Big Muddy, The MacGuffin and others. This story is included in his book Duck Thief and Other Stories. Read his previously published story Big Damn Pears here.