by David Armand
Growing up in rural Louisiana meant three things during the summer: the days were long, hot, and—if you were poor, like I was—boring. It seemed as though there was never anything to do. The days melted into each other so that time became somewhat amorphous, one long gulp of it that stretched like taffy—all the way from May until school started back up again in August. It was kind of like that Salvador Dali painting, all those drooping clocks in the desert.
To make things worse, my mother didn’t have a car, and so we lived somewhat isolated in a singlewide trailer in the middle of a patch of cleared land, which was surrounded by thick pine woods. I remember spending the summer after I had just finished fourth grade clearing that little circle of land with my brother, my father, and my grandfather.
My father had a machete, which he used to chop some of the smaller trees, branches, and all the growth that was webbed between them, knotted and stubborn. My grandfather, my brother and I followed behind him and picked up what he had cut, stuffing it inside a rusted-out wheelbarrow, then walked it all over to a pile we had made for burning.
Since most of the stuff my father cut was green and wouldn’t burn, my grandfather used a can of gasoline to get it going. It was late June and everything was so hot and dry that the flames quickly spread beyond the bounds of the trashfire. They felt their way up the trees and high into the branches, where angry tendrils of flame whispered in the leaves, making them move as though a breeze were blowing. Thick black plumes of smoke chuffed up into the cloudless blue sky overhead.
We dropped the wheelbarrow, the metal rakes, and the shovels we had been holding (our blistered and gloveless hands stinging with the heat and from our own sweat) and ran down the narrow trail we had cleared until we got to my father’s pickup truck. When my father—who had been a few yards behind us and was at first surrounded by the fire—got behind the wheel, I could see that the hair on his arms, as well as his eyebrows, had been completely singed off.
My grandfather asked if we were all okay.
We just nodded our heads solemnly.
Then my father closed the door to the sweaty cab and muscled the truck down the narrow dirt lane, which we had cleared earlier that summer. We drove to the Jr. Food Mart in town to call the fire department. I remember my father standing at the payphone, and how the black plastic receiver quivered in his hand as he told them where our property was, the metal cord snaking around his red, sweaty arm as he talked and fidgeted with his cheap Bic lighter.
“It’s a mile up past the green light,” I heard him say. We didn’t have an address yet, so he had to give them landmarks. Then: “Yeah, right past the horse farm. On Verger Road.”
We watched him as he lit a cigarette, then climbed back into the truck. My brother and I were squeezed in the middle of the cab, right next to the gearshift. My grandfather was pressed up against the passenger door. The truck didn’t have air conditioning and his window was rolled down. He wasn’t saying anything.
“You all right, Ed?” my father asked him.
My grandfather didn’t answer, probably because he hadn’t even heard the question. He was deaf in his left ear.
Then my father looked at my brother and me. “Are y’all all right, boys?”
“Yeah,” we said.
He put the truck in reverse and backed out of the parking lot, the gearshift ramming into my leg as he did so.
“Look,” he said, “after the fire’s out, we’ll come back here and I’ll get y’all a cheeseburger.”
“Okay,” we said.
And that, I remember, ended up becoming the best part of that particular summer: eating cheeseburgers from the Jr. Food Mart after a long day’s work. The cool linoleum floor on your bare feet as you stood in line and watched the lady behind the counter take a pair of metal tongs and pull out from underneath the heat lamp whatever it was you had asked for. Potato logs, Cajun fries, fried chicken (which sometimes still had a stray white feather poking out from the crispy skin), hamburgers, cheeseburgers. All behind a fingerprint-smeared glass case on the counter. We washed the food down with large plastic bottles of Barq’s root beer. Then we went back to work, cutting and burning.
By the end of that summer (and thanks in part to the brushfire we had accidentally started), we had a large patch of land cleared in the middle of the woods. And we were finally able to get a Bushhog in there to finish the rest of the work. The path to get to the clearing was also wide enough now, and had been covered with three dump truck loads of fresh white gravel so that our trailer could finally be delivered.
It was set up on cinder blocks, leveled (though not very well, as all of the doors swung open on their hinges and, over the years, made holes in the thin walls behind them), and the tires were taken off, which my father then sold to one of the workers—a sign that we weren’t moving again any time soon. A well was dug, a septic tank was put in the ground, and the utility company came out and ran a single black line so we could get power.
We spent the next fifteen years living in that trailer, clearing more land each summer, building a porch on it, a shed out back. My brother and I would play in the woods. We made foxholes out of picnic table benches, shot at each other with water guns. We built forts out of bales of hay, climbed trees, and rode our bikes over clay-hardened trails. My father built a large vegetable garden out of a passel of creosote-covered railroad ties that he had found somewhere. When it rained, we swam in the creek that formed when a nearby pond overflowed its banks. Snakes skimmed its surface and rode the swift current into the dark woods beyond.
But then we grew up. And summers out there in the woods became more and more tedious. We didn’t have cable TV, my mother still didn’t have a car, and so my brother and I would walk into Folsom to rent VHS tapes or Nintendo games from Movie World—a video store that was situated in a little old house with creaking wood floors and large windows, through which the sun slanted against the shelves on those long days leading up to the solstice, baking and fading the covers of the movie cases so that they looked as though someone had poured bleach on them.
We rented movies like Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, Platoon, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Violent movies. And the Nintendo games we picked out were no better. But it was summer and we were bored. We had nothing else to do.
Sometimes we’d get snoballs for a dollar from the little stand next to where the old library used to be, which itself had once been a one-room shack where we used to go as kids to borrow books. I remember that library was so small that only three or four of us could go in at a time. We would hand the librarian our red laminated library card with our signature on it and she’d write our name and the date in a stained ledger she kept on her desk. Eventually, though, they built a new library on the other side of town. It was much bigger, and air-conditioned.
My brother and I had walked there one summer, just for something to do, to have a place to cool off, when a group of older kids approached us as we trundled up the steps to go inside. They were skinny, dirty, their hair disheveled.
They were barefoot.
“Y’all wanna fight?” one of them said. The others—varying in age, some boys, some girls—all laughed.
I thought they were kidding, until one of them pushed me. I was about to respond in kind, but the librarian—who must have been watching through the window—came outside and told them to leave.
They did. But later as we sat inside looking at comic books and Highlights magazines, I saw them circling around the building, glaring in at us and making slicing motions across their necks with their dirty hands. There were more of them now, too, and some of them looked much, much older than us.
After a while, though, they finally gave up and left. It was getting dark. My brother and I went home just as the librarian was shutting off the lights and locking the doors. And it was this kind of desperation that seemed to permeate everything we did during those long summer months. The older we got, the more tangible that desperation seemed. Everyone was just bored, with nothing to do day after day after day. There was no two ways about it, as my father would have said: People wanted to fight or otherwise get into trouble to quell their restlessness.
Unfortunately, we were not an exception to that terrible fact. One night after our parents were asleep, my brother and I climbed out of our bedroom window and walked down the gravel shoulder alongside Highway 25, heading toward town. The high beams from the oncoming cars washed over us, their taillights becoming a single red point before finally disappearing over a crest in the road on their way to Franklinton, which was a bigger town just north of where we lived.
It was still humid out, even though the sun had been gone for hours, and the air was damp as we walked into town, its one red light blinking yellow now as we ambled past its soft glow toward Saia’s, a small grocery store that we knew would be closed at that hour. It was an unspoken thing between us, but it felt as though we were just looking for trouble that night. That’s how absolutely bored we had been.
My father had told us stories of the things that he had done as a boy when he was bored during the summer months: throwing water balloons into people’s houses, tying together two garbage cans on either side of the road—using a length of thin string so that when a car passed through it, the string would pull taut, the metal cans slamming into the sides of the vehicle like battering rams. He also told us the stories of his own father, and the welts he brought up on the boys’ legs with his work belt after he had caught them causing trouble.
Despite this, and despite the fact that we knew my father would take his belt to us if we were caught, my brother and I walked behind the old grocery store to where a large forklift was parked next to a stack of flattened brown boxes. One of us climbed into the cab. The key was still in the ignition, but before we could start it, a voice came from somewhere in the darkness.
“Y’all get on outta there!” it yelled. I couldn’t tell where the voice had materialized from, but we both ran—over the pea gravel parking lot and eventually back home where we climbed in the window and went to bed. There was nothing else to do.
As I got older and entered high school, the boredom of living in Folsom, Louisiana, seemed unbearable. Especially in the summer. It was no longer enough to rent movies, walk down the road at night, steal cigarettes from my father and smoke them in the woods. The tedium got worse and as a result, so did my behavior. It was a progression that seemed to create a sort of parallel, a parabola of cause and effect wherein more boredom equaled more trouble.
I started spending a lot of time at a friend’s house. He lived near Covington, which was a slightly bigger town and therefore had slightly more to do. But this also meant there was more mischief for my friends and I to get into. We would ask his older sister to buy us cheap bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 from Winn-Dixie. We started smoking pot, eating mushrooms, and taking acid. One time we even snorted cocaine, which we bought from some kid at a video arcade. It was like I was living in an after-school special.
I was sixteen then, and my father had given my brother and me his little Mazda B2200, the same one we had ridden in as kids to call the fire department from the Jr. Food Mart. It had so much mileage on it now that the odometer had already turned over to show all zeros, counting upward again from scratch, like a new moon waxing.
The hood of the truck was tied down with a stub of bungee cord, the bed was rusted out and dented, and the tailgate was gone. The bench seat inside was so torn and the vinyl so cracked that the yellow foam stuffing came out of the myriad tears like the insulation that our dogs were constantly pulling out from under our trailer. I covered the seat with an old blanket. I even put some speakers from my room in there, wired them up to a cassette player that I stuck into the console so that we could listen to music: Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More, Red Hot Chili Peppers.
My brother didn’t have his license yet so I mostly got to take the truck whenever I wanted. My friends and I would pile into it, some of them riding in the back, and we’d drive down the highway until we spotted some cow pastures with a good amount of woods around them. I’d find a place to park so that no one could see the truck from the road, then we’d creep through the strands of rusty barbed-wire fence and skulk out into the field.
The grass was damp from the humidity and the summer rain, and it came up to our knees as we crouch-walked past the hulking cows, who stood in the heat like large boulders floating in a swollen sea of green. They watched us as we looked around for the mushrooms that wouldn’t kill us if we ate them, but that would instead make us hallucinate.
After we had a couple of small bags filled, we’d sneak back to my truck, sometimes having to run from an angry farmer who would chase us with a shotgun until we were off his property, our arms and legs scratched by branches and thorns during our quick escape, which we always thought of as an adventure. One more exciting thing to do during the summer.
Then I would drive while one of my friends sorted and counted the mushrooms we had picked, putting them on the cracked dashboard and rinsing them off with a bottle of water. After that we would eat them. But since the effects of the psilocybin weren’t immediate, we had time to park my truck somewhere else, and near a different set of woods, so that we could walk and explore, fully immerse ourselves in the experience of being high.
It was summer. July 4, 1996. The mosquitos buzzed around us and the trees seemed to quiver with life: A slow vibration radiated outward from their leaves and branches like ripples of water emanating from where a stone had just broken through its silk surface of skin. Every sound was intensified. Colors melted into one another. Time slowed to a steady drip. It was like that Salvador Dali painting all over again.
We walked through the woods that summer night, each experiencing our surroundings differently and distinctly, where everything was narrowed down to a bright pinprick of light and sound, then melting back into a singular Pangaea of matter, like molten steel—all that white, orange, and black. It felt as though we were walking through sheets of warm gauze, pools of thick wet mud, and everything around us had become cloudy and blurred.
Eventually we ended up on an old abandoned train trestle that crossed over the Bogue Falaya River, which was a thin brown string of water that looked black under the moonlight and whose darkness made the bright white shoals that flanked it look like bleached bones. We balanced over the crossties, the smell of hot creosote wafting upward as we went farther and farther down the tracks. The vines grew thicker, the bright green kudzu more and more dense, until it felt as though we were inside of a dark cave made of long, fingering branches and damp leaves. My skin and hair were greasy, covered with sweat.
I bent down and placed my hand on the steel rail. Tried to feel for a vibration that might indicate an oncoming train. I knew the track was no longer in use, but I had seen the movie Stand by Me too many times to at least make me want to check. It was still, and surprisingly cool to the touch after baking in the summer sun all day. Crickets chirped somewhere off in the distance. My friends kept walking and no one said anything to each other. We were each immersed in our own altered experience.
When we got to the other side of the trestle, we climbed down a rocky embankment that was littered with old newspapers and frayed clothes. A castoff tennis shoe. The remnants of an old trashfire. Half-broken bottles. A moldy sleeping bag. In the state I was in, I started to imagine that the lumps protruding from that old bag belonged to a person underneath. And I kept waiting for someone to rise up from the mound, wearing a torn shirt, stained and enshrouding their gaunt and dirty frame, sheaths of soggy newspaper fluttering down from them as they slowly stood to see who was intruding their space.
I pictured them like this: homeless and bedraggled by time and maybe guilt for something they’d done years before. Hungry. Just like the troll in “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” waiting to devour us. That image persisted, became more vivid as my friends left me, making their way down the embankment and across the shoals toward the river. I could even imagine the whites of this person’s otherwise bloodshot eyes—prominent and bright against their coal-dark, dirt-smeared face, the reek of cheap whiskey emanating from a toothless maw surrounded by a knotted, chest-length beard. All this as they croaked at me in a hardly-used voice, “Who’s there?”
It was like the voice my brother and I had heard behind Saia’s that night as we climbed into the cab of that forklift. Only then we had been much younger and were also sober, high only on the excitement of doing something wrong and not getting caught for it. So maybe it was my own guilt causing me to hear and imagine these things. After all, I was acting in ways I knew I shouldn’t have been acting and doing things I knew I shouldn’t have been doing. Being bored was no excuse.
I practically ran down that embankment then, trying to ignore the haunting image my mind had conjured as I caught up to my friends, who were all standing at the water’s edge. We took off our shoes and shirts, rolled up our pants to our knees, and waded out into the middle of the river. The cool water rushed past us and lapped against our thighs. I looked up through a break in the trees overhead and could see the moon bathing in a black sea of diamond-colored stars. It was an almost-perfect white disc, with just a small crescent of gray sliced out from its right side, yet steadily waning.
David Armand was born and raised in Louisiana. He has worked as a drywall hanger, a draftsman and as a press operator in a flag printing factory. He is currently writer-in-residence at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he also serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. In 2010, he won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife, which was published by Texas Review Press. He has since published two more novels, a memoir, and a collection of poetry. Read his previous interviews with Deep South here. Follow him on Twitter @darmandauthor.