UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
F. MICHAEL LaROSA
It was, he was told once, the way Indians tortured white men.
He had seen a canvas sign outside a freak show tent at the county fair years ago--a gaudy, cartoonish rendition of a terrified man buried to his neck, grimacing in pain as huge, black ants with massive pincers crawled across his face. It hung in a line of similar signs of the rubber boy and the block head and the fattest woman on earth. A million kids had probably seen the sign and he wondered how many had not been able to pull their eyes away from it, how many had felt the same unspeakable connection that accelerated the heart and made the world stand still.
Love at first sight.
Inside the tent there had been nothing like a man being eaten alive by ants, but there were no such disappointments in Bernie's shed.
Bernie had let the colony grow, and tiny red fire ants crawled freely and frantically, a massive, hungry tribe, a billion hunters and gatherers armed to the teeth. The attack would begin as a trickle, two or three biting here and there, but within minutes become a deluge of fiery little hellions running like acid, carving trails of pain in the faces of his victims--tiny, demoniac sculptors chipping away at living flesh.
He had placed earthworms on beds of fire ants as a boy--had watched fascinated as the tribe descended, stinging, tearing mercilessly as the worm squirmed on its sandy little bed of pain.
And insects, too. And later, field mice. Kittens. Puppies.
The difference between men and boys is the size of their toys. Now he used worms the size of men--pathetic, spineless creatures who begged as though they had never heard the word dignity. These worms screamed like women and cried like babies. They called him every name in the book, then prayed to him as though he were a god.
But Bernie was a silent god, smug and indifferent, with hungry eyes and ears that lapped up every twisted grimace, frantic scream, and pitiful groan.
The spectacle could last for hours while the swarm grew to unbelievable proportions--industrious little workers lugging bits of flesh deep into the bowels of the hive, laying their prizes at the feet of their queen. His victims, exhausted, in shock, full of poison, would pass out, but Bernie, who sprayed his dusty old boots and the legs of his coveralls with insecticide, would have smelling salts handy, and he would bring them around time and again, holding the little bottle to holes where a nose had been, until the ants had finally done their job.
The next day he would return to find the skull picked almost clean.
He picked the boy up in city, near the unemployment office where winos and other losers gathered in hopes of a day's work. He was gaunt and dirty and probably sleeping in one of the missions.
No one would miss him.
They drove for a while in silence, out of the city and onto the highway. Bernie said he had maybe two days work, and the boy agreed to stay overnight.
"You can sleep in the shed," Bernie told him. The boy said okay. He was passive. Maybe weak from hunger.
Bernie got excited thinking of what was waiting for the boy. He turned the radio on. Clint Black crooned and yodeled, and the miles flew past with the boy dozing in the sun, and soon they were at Bernie's.
The property was run down. Overgrown. Dry. Uninviting.
Bernie's old man had been an unsuccessful farmer, an unsuccessful husband, and an unsuccessful father. He was a small, bent wire of a man--a mean little drunk who ruled Bernie and his Mamma with fist and belt until Bernie, who grew up big and strong like his uncles on his mamma's side, finally whipped his ass and put him out.
A coup d'état.
Daddy slept in the barn after that. He and Mama leased most of the land to farmers who knew how to work it. He kept the old man around awhile after Mama died--kept him down, hungry, and humiliated, relishing the site of the skinny little fuck fighting the hogs for slop. But when the mood struck him one day, he carried that sorry excuse for a human being out to the shed and stuck him in the ant hole.
Nobody missed him. Nobody knew much about Bernie's family.
The Baptists had long ceased sending representatives to recruit them. An occasional pair of Jehovah's Witnesses from the so-called Kingdom Hall near Gaston occasionally rapped on the door. The meter man came and went anonymously. A census taker seemed to sense the dark quality of the land and left without looking for inhabitants.
Bernie worked when he had to, putting in a few hours at the Fogle Farm in North. But he lived frugally off the money the land lease brought him, and Old Man Fogle couldn't count on his burley neighbor for more than a few weeks out of the year. Bernie bought groceries and tobacco in Pelion now and again, and he stopped into Joe's for a haircut every second Saturday morning. People recognized him and nodded and spoke and even tried to make a little conversation. But Bernie depended on privacy, and he kept to himself. Nobody pushed it.
It was the quality he liked most about his neighbors.
The boy got out of the truck and looked around, wondering what kind of work he might be doing in a place like Bernie's. He had done all kinds of work in all kinds of places since leaving Tampa--had picked fruit, cleaned stables, mowed grass on a golf course, and painted barns. He had thought he might settle here or there, in Cherokee, where he was a short order cook, or Macon, where he learned to frame houses.
He hadn't worked at any place in as sad as shape as Bernie's.
Bernie came around the back of the truck, grabbed a tire iron from the bed, and clipped the boy on the back of the head. He carried the boy, who felt light and bony on his big shoulder, thirty feet to the shed, kicked the door open, and dropped him so that his body was a door stop. He bound his wrists and ankles with duct tape, kept handily on a nail just inside, then bent the boy's knees and wound the tape tight and thick around his thighs and shins. Finally he dragged him across the dusty floor and dropped him into a four by four foot crater at the bottom of which ants had reconstructed several small mounds. Even as he positioned the boy's bony frame in the bottom of the hole, hungry ants attacked. Bernie was bitten several times, and he cursed the ants and climbed hurriedly out, his dusty old brogans losing traction in the soft sand.
Once on high ground, he frantically dusted his pants legs and picked a few stubborn ants off his big hands and rolled them between his fingers. Then he grabbed the shovel and began covering the boy, who was on his knees and propped against the dirt wall. The tribe had already converged on him, and he seemed to be fighting for consciousness. He did not wake until Bernie had covered him to his belly.
"Hel-lo," Bernie said in mock surprise.
The boy's eyes had popped open and he squirmed frantically.
Ants had already crawled up his nose, down his shirt, up his pants legs.
"Goddamn," he said, trying to get up. It took him a moment to realize his predicament. Bernie was used to seeing this initial spark of energy from those who spent time in his shed, and calmly continued to shovel dirt and ants onto the squirming boy.
"Ants is hungry, boy," he said. "Mightes well lay back an let e'm have atcha."
"Goddamn," the boy said again. He blew hard through his nose, trying to dislodge an ant.
"Shit," he said. He shook his head wildly. There were ants in his ears, down his neck, picking at the wound on his scalp. They seemed to leave trails of pain, as though they deposited acid as they crawled.
He tried to twist his body up through the soft sand, but the duct tape held his knees bent. He was completely immobilized. His face, already a mass of whelps, the eyes nearly swollen shut, turned to Bernie.
"Oh, please, man, don't do this," he said. "Oh, God. Oh, please."
Bernie, threw a shovelful at the boy's face just to shut him up. The boy shook his head wildly, then screamed as though he thought he might be heard by someone. Bernie threw another load of sand at the boy's head. He quieted a few seconds, then began to sob. Twenty minutes later his bloody, swollen face, covered in whelps and pustules, was unrecognizable. He mumbled incoherently, apparently hallucinating, passed out, woke, laughed hysterically, cried, then passed out again. Bernie waited a few minutes to see if he would wake up, then gingerly stepped into the hive to hold smelling salts at the nose-holes. The boy's head jerked, but he didn't regain consciousness.
Feeding men to ants was habit forming.
At first he had waited as long as a year between victims. But the bones were piling up quickly these days. He was always thinking about the next one, sometimes spotting him even as his predecessor climbed into the old pick-up truck for the long ride into the country.
Like the one he'd seen down on Frink and Carlisle not even a week ago.
Little alcoholic punk.
Sniveling little waste of flesh and bone.
Bernie had even bought a pint of hooch just to lure him into the truck, in case the little bastard didn’t want to work. He had gone into the store early, when nobody but a drunk would be there, and told the slick devil behind the counter what he wanted--the same rot-gut swill his daddy used to drink.
And then he'd headed across town to Frink, down to where the railroad and river met, near the quarry, where the lowlifes made their beds under the bridge.
Sure enough the boy was there, hanging outside the bait shop, hitting up the early morning customers, reciting some sob story about how he was just a couple bucks short of a bus ride home.
To his pregnant wife.
To his sick old mama.
"I got what you want, boy," Bernie said, holding the little bottle up and giving it a shake so that the bright sun glinted on the brown glass.
The boy seemed hesitant at first--as though he wasn't sure what the old geezer in the rusty old Ford was talking about.
"Licker, boy," Bernie said. "The good stuff."
"Hell, I don't touch it," the boy said. It was a lie. Bernie could smell it on him--could smell the stink of cigarettes and cheap wine from fifteen feet away. "What I need is a goddamn dollar. I need to get home."
"Your mama sick, boy," Bernie asked with obvious sarcasm. "Your little gal knocked up?"
“Fuck you,” the boy said.
"Listen," Bernie said. "I ain't just giving you any goddamn money. But I got some work out at my place, and I need a good man."
"Ain't interested," the boy said. He didn’t like this old smart ass, and he didn’t feel like doing yard work in the hundred degree heat of a South Carolina summer. Better to grab some cash before the morning coffee and sweet roll traffic thinned at the bait shop.
He turned to walk away.
“Twenty bucks,” Bernie said. “It ain’t gon’ take long, boy. And I’ll throw the licker in.”
He didn’t know why Bernie was so persistent. A guy looking to pay a few bucks for a strong back would usually drive away at the first refusal and make the offer to another more desperate and compliant drifter.
Maybe the geezer was queer. Maybe he could get some money, the liquor, and get his dick sucked too.
“Twenty five,” the boy said.
“Get in,” Bernie said too eagerly. He reached over to open the passenger side door.
“Thirty,” the boy said even as he walked around the front of the truck.
“Don’t fuck with me, boy.”
He climbed into the passenger seat. Having decided Bernie was queer and that he had something the old man wanted, he felt confident. He settled into the worn upholstery and propped his filthy, tattered Nikes on the dash, letting his bony knees fall open so that Bernie could see the worn denim crotch of his jeans.
Letting him check out the merchandise.
“Gimme the liquor,” he said.
Bernie handed it over. The kid would be easier to handle if he was drunk.
Once they were out at Bernie’s, things unfolded with the usual speed.
The boy, woozy, it seemed, from the liquor on an empty stomach, climbed out of the truck and stood there, a little unsteady, surveying the ruins of the old farm.
"Place ain't shit," he observed.
Bernie grabbed the tire iron from its place in the truck bed as he came around and raised it to clip the kid, but the kid saw Bernie’s shadow, dodged the blow and wrestled the weapon from him.
He was fast.
Oddly, he didn't swing at Bernie’s head but caught him hard across his low back.
And Bernie fell like a sack of manure--fell limp and heavy onto the gravel and sand.
And he thought he would get up and kick that little shit's ass, but the boy was on him quick, tire iron swinging. He felt the first blow sure as fire but second was a cottony thump on his skull.
Then it was red hot behind his eyes but quiet for awhile.
It was as though he was strapped to the ground. The boy stood over him a few seconds, fumbling in Bernie's pockets, and then Bernie heard the truck crank and the gravel popping under the tires as it pulled away.
And Bernie would have gotten up to kill the little son-of-a-bitch, but he just could not find the strength.
He woke after...how long? His mouth was a dry, cottony mess, and he opened his tired eyes to the blazing sun, the pain in his head like a nail between his eyes.
He couldn't seem to catch his breath. He had to work to pull air in.
And Bernie went to drag his tired bones up, but couldn’t do it.
Couldn’t seem to do more than nudge his meaty arms.
Could barely feel 'em. Couldn't feel his legs at all.
He was laying in shit and piss. And the sun was beating down hot, cooking him.
And the first ant found his neck.
And then he saw the trail--hundreds of ‘em--thousands from the shed to his broken body.
His useless legs were numb as tree stumps. But the ants were working them. Blood oozed, soaking through the denim of his coveralls.
And then the ants were in his ears, where he could still feel their pinchers tearing flesh.
And he twisted and shook his head, but they were on him. Up his nose. In the corners of his eyes.
And he screamed as best he could--an odd little croaking sound that nobody heard.
© 2007 Underground Voices