Ernie sat by the window with his coffee. A red wasp bumped softly against the pane outside. He was waiting for the garbage men. He glanced at his watch. 7:30. He wasn’t sure when they came, but was prepared to wait all day if he had to. His wife came into the kitchen wearing her Waffle House uniform and poured herself some coffee.
“Just go to work, please,” she said.
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“Oh, Jesus.” She opened a cabinet and took down a loaf of bread. “If you know how everything works then how come nothing does?”
“Those sons of bitches need to learn they can’t go around acting like that.” Ernie spoke to the window, listening to the crunch of cellophane behind him.
“I swear you’re just like your father,” she said. She opened the refrigerator and began slamming jars on the counter.
It had been three days since they were drinking and arguing that Angie had mentioned the garbage men, how they whistled at her when she dragged the cans to the street the week prior. She told him they said something suggestive to her as they drove away. When Ernie pressed her for details, she said, “It was just something fresh, is all.” He wondered whether she told him because she felt threatened, or if she was trying to spark something in him the way that she did when she was cornered in an argument and wanted to strike out. It really didn’t matter why she told him, he knew, just that the garbage men had crossed a line that had always been there. The mere thought of it bundled his nerves like a tangled ball of barbed wire. The night she told him he dialed the sanitation office to complain, but hung up when the machine answered. Angie watched him as he called, and laughed. “I’m just glad someone still thinks of me that way,” she said, her eyes squinting at him from across the room.
Their son, Jack shuffled into the kitchen, his blue school clothes hanging loosely on his small frame. He climbed up a chair across from Ernie while Angie swiped at the bread with a butter knife in quick little strokes, slathering it with mustard and mayonnaise, as if the bread were a document she was trying to blot out with no time to lose.
“Why are you here, Daddy?”
“I took the morning off.”
Ernie watched Jack watching him. He had the sea foam green eyes of his mother and her fine brown hair. The only feature in his son’s face that he recognized as his own was the creased jaw, the little cleft just barely beginning to form. That chin showed up on every male face in the Breaux family. Jack drew imaginary shapes on the table with his finger.
Watching him, Ernie thought back to the summer that his parents separated, to the May night that they fought so violently that his father threw a Coleman lantern through the living room window. The old man came home drunk after being gone for three days and his mother said not to come back again, that she’d had enough. She taped a piece of cardboard over the jagged hole in the window and it had stayed there for two months. Ernie wanted his father’s attention that summer, but secretly enjoyed the freedom that came with his absence. He used his father’s fishing rods, ones that he had never been allowed to touch, to fish Bayou Corne and to catch dozens of big goggleye. He felt important cutting their heads off and scaling them with a spoon like he’d been taught. His mother would batter them in cornmeal and fry them in butter. She seemed happier that summer, singing to herself in the kitchen, still making peach cobbler and apple pie to send over to Uncle Leo’s house, where his father was staying. Ernie asked his mother when his father would be back, and she told him it would be soon if he knew what was good for him. She said there were ways that men and women were supposed to act, and that it was easy for men to take things for granted.
Ernie’s father came home right before he started seventh grade and things between his parents were quiet for a little while, each passing the other with formal politeness from room to room. But it wasn’t long until they slipped back into their routine of quiet violence. His father seemed destined to be angry. Nothing Ernie did garnered any praise, except for when he fought Clay Higgins for trying to steal his baseball glove in the eighth grade. At the end of high school, when Angie convinced Ernie to go to trade school instead of enlisting in the service, his father called him a pushover. Every man needed to do his time, he said. He was a pushover when he elected to stay in Baton Rouge instead of taking a job in Houston so that they could be near Angie’s family, and he was a pushover when he sold his bateau to buy Angie’s engagement ring. He remembered his mother sitting at the hospital when his father was dying. She looked prematurely old, her grey, stringy hair springing down her stooped shoulders like fizzling fireworks.
Angie placed her hand on Jack’s small shoulder. “Let’s go, Baby.”
Jack climbed down from the chair and stood between his father’s legs with a hand on each knee. Ernie leaned down and rested his hard jaw on the soft crown of Jack’s head. “Have a good day, Son,” he said, feeling the vibrations of his voice against his child’s skull.
Angie swept Jack away from Ernie, pushed him through the laundry room and out the back door. Ernie heard her shout something from under the carport, then both doors of the station wagon slammed shut and the car sputtered alive. It idled for a minute and another door slammed shut. Angie was back in the house, standing before him with her hands on her hips, her face flushed red. He looked up at the black letters of her nametag.
“How many times have I asked you to take care of those wasps?”
“I’ll do it when the time is right.”
“It is the right fucking time!” she hissed. “Jack just now almost got stung. It’s getting to where I have to run to the car every time I want to leave.”
Ernie clenched his teeth. “They have to build up so I can get all of them at once.”
“You know what?” Angie threw her arms up in the air. “Fuck it. I’ll call Lorraine’s cousin at the bug store. They’ll come take care of it.”
“You’re not calling anyone. You know how much they charge? I said I’d do it and I will, goddamnit.”
Angie glanced up to the ceiling as if searching for water stains and then let her eyes drift down onto her husband.
Ernie slowly waded into her gaze and resisted recoiling against the coldness in it. He could feel how deep the sadness was for her, how tired she was. He stared back defiantly, not giving way.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, her voice soft and thin, deflated.
“I told you I’ll get ‘em down from there,” he said, making an effort to speak calmly.
“That’s not what I’m talking about, Ernie.” Angie sat down in the chair across from him and rubbed at her face as if she were applying some invisible lotion to it. “Nothing’s happening.”
She held herself and they both looked at the window, at the wasps that floated by. “I’m going to call Vicky about an apartment.”
A swirling storm in Ernie’s chest quickened, and for a moment he felt it would suck him up into it, leaving nothing but his worn work shirt crumpled in the kitchen chair. He wanted to tell her, no, no, that there would be no apartment, not to go jumping the gun, but he didn’t have a new way to say it.
“How did you get to be so unhappy?” she said, turning her eyes from the window and letting them settle heavily on him.
“I don’t know,” he said, after a moment. “I don’t want to be.” Angie ran her sleeve across her nose and he thought that perhaps he should stand up and pull her into him, but it would just be awkward.
The horn sounded suddenly. “I’ve got to go.” When she reached the door she turned. “Please, please, Ernie. Please, go to work and just let it go. What does it matter now anyway?” Then she slid cautiously out the door and was gone.
It was already hot outside. Ernie walked to the maroon crepe myrtle on the side of the house and looked at the dirt nest hanging from the white eaves. He didn’t notice how big it had become over the last week or two, amid the terrible arguments and recriminations. When he stepped closer he felt something brush his hair. He swatted at his head, but it was just a sprig of flowers from the tree. The nest was as big as a basketball, brown and spotted with wasps, their fire red and black wings busily twitching up and down as they inched across the surface. Seeing them crawl over one another, he thought of Angie living in an apartment on a busy street, and of Jack sitting on a plastic pool chair with faded orange floaters on his little arms, mingling with God knows who in the dirty water. The images formed in his brain like future home movies, warning him of what was to come, and he shivered with a loneliness that he couldn’t fathom. He hated himself for letting things get so far gone, for allowing his stubbornness to set like concrete. He stared into the nest, at the pulsing surface of it, and knew that he had to get rid of it. He had to set his house in order. He marched to the shed in the backyard and pulled down a rickety bamboo cane pole that his father had made him for his tenth birthday. A sense of calm touched him as he wrapped an old rag around the end of the pole and duct taped it to the bamboo. It was late, he knew, but it would be a start. He was looking for lighter fluid when he heard the squealing brakes of the garbage truck.
Ernie hesitated for a second, wondered if he should take Angie’s advice, but dismissed the notion. She didn’t understand about such things, he thought. A man should be able to see to his own household without worrying about outside forces interfering, especially forces as trivial as garbage men. He couldn’t let such behavior go unchecked. If Angie asked about it later, he would raise his hand in passing and say that it had been taken care of, that those men would never disrespect her again. He imagined her admiring his strength, and feeling safe again to know that the wasps had been disposed of. She might have to acknowledge his efforts and consider the possibilities. Ernie rolled his sleeves up to his elbow, walked back toward the house, past the crepe myrtle. Wasps grazed the side of his head, and one landed on his hand. Ernie slapped it away, grabbed a garbage can from the side of the house and dragged it to the street to wait.
Ernie wondered which one it had been. There was the one with a yellow bandana tied around his head. His sidekick was fat, and bald, and much blacker than the other. Ernie imagined them as animals, hanging off the back of the truck, hooting and carrying on. He always heard them coming, and hated the loud clanging of metal cans being tossed to the ground, the sharp screams of brakes at each stop leading to his house, then continuing on as it moved off into the distance, assaulting the serenity of the morning. He dreaded garbage day ever since he remembered, taking a cue from his father, who woke the entire house with his protests well before the trucks ever could.
The rumbling of the truck got louder and the brakes screeched down the street like bottle rockets. Ernie stood fast at the end of his driveway, feeling like a custodian of sorts, the one man who would take a stand to preserve the dignity of Amite Acres. Ernie convinced himself that it was the first step to cleaning his own messes. Finally, the truck rounded the corner onto his street and rumbled toward him. Ernie watched the two men swing off the back of the truck to empty the LeBlanc’s trash. He grit his teeth as the one in the yellow bandanna laughed out loud and waved his arms around, telling the other some filthy story, he imagined, with no consideration for the neighbors. Ernie’s heart thumped hard as they got closer. He pushed out his chest and clenched his fists, and he saw the driver wave to him through the front window. Then, all at once, the truck was in front of his house, the brakes whistling metal horror into the morning.
“Hey, where y’at?” Yellow Bandanna said, flinging himself off of the truck.
Ernie stood, shaking with hatred, bitter coffee pooling into his mouth and sinus cavity. He didn’t say anything.
“Well, alright,” the man said.
Ernie waited until the man grabbed his can to speak. “Did you talk some shit to my wife?”
“Whoa,” the man said, stopping to stand in front of Ernie. “I talk shit to everybody.” He laughed and the bald sidekick appeared from the other side of the truck, laughing too.
Ernie looked into the man’s eyes, at how white they were. He was a foot taller than Ernie and veins bulged and snaked down the biceps of his big black arms.
“You keep your big mouth shut when you see my wife, you hear me.” Ernie was aware that his voice was trembling, along with his fists.
The sidekick slapped his friend on the shoulder. “Man, forget this fool,” he said, giggling. He turned around, emptied the neighbor’s trash and leaped onto the back of the truck, holding onto it with one arm. Yellow Bandanna stood, still towering over Ernie, but he wasn’t laughing. He waved as though dismissing Ernie and his garbage. “Man, take out your own mothafuckin’ trash.” He turned around and hopped back onto the truck as Ernie spoke again.
“Just watch yourself in this neighborhood and do your job,” he said, his voice finding purchase and his nerves settling. And then he used his father’s word. “Fucking Jigaboos.” He turned back toward his house.
Yellow Bandanna jumped off the truck, stepped up to Ernie and slapped him quick, but firm on his face. It happened like a flash of heat lightning. Ernie stood in disbelief, his entire body flushed hot with fear and hate, his face stinging.
“Whoa!” the sidekick hopped off the truck and leaned against Yellow Bandanna’s back. He whispered something in his ear, and gently patted his shoulders. The men climbed back on the truck, and the brakes screamed out and they were moved on.
Ernie didn’t look up at them, but he heard them laughing. He put his hand to his burning cheek and kicked over his garbage can. Crushed silver and red beer cans and empty hot dog packages spilled onto the grass at the end of his driveway. His vision blurred into a maddening kaleidoscope of hot salt. He blinked it away and the discarded apartment pamphlets came into focus. He bent down and picked one up. There were photographs of the inside of an apartment, and of the pool and the gym, each with model tenants going about their business, enjoying the facilities, the furniture. At the bottom, Angie had written, Ask About School Bus, next to a number. Ernie could still hear the garbage men talking to one another from down the street, the echoes of their laughter in strange harmony with the brakes.
He turned around and marched back down his driveway toward the house, his ancient anger growing up like kudzu around his heart, choking it out. His cheek burned, as though the man’s hand had been branded there, and as he brushed against the crepe myrtle he felt a sharp sting on the back of his neck. His hand shot there and crushed a wasp right as another stung his forearm. “Christ!” he screamed, as he ran into the yard and began dancing in the grass like someone taken with the Holy Ghost. He rubbed at his afflicted skin and glanced up at the nest that was hanging from his house.
In the back yard he reached down to scoop up the cane pole that he’d dressed when another wasp brushed against the crown of his head. “Fuck!” he screamed as he entered the shed and rifled through the tools and boxes on the shelves. His hand gripped a can of gasoline and he yanked it down and took it with him into the yard. He turned it over, doused the rag at the end of the pole, and grabbed the lighter that he kept on the broken barbeque pit.
Then he was standing in front of the crepe myrtle, red wasps bumping up against him, another one stinging him on his hand. He put the lighter up to the rag and orange fire leapt from the end of the pole with a whoosh. The nest crawled with wasps, and as he held the flame underneath it they curled up into themselves and dropped to the concrete with tiny little smacking sounds. Some tried to fly away, but only made it a few yards before they too collapsed, groping around in small circles. Others flew at Ernie, but he held his ground, not releasing his grip on the pole, even as they smashed into his face and body. The rag slowly disintegrated in the fire and bits of it dripped to the ground among the shriveled corpses. He kept the flame under the nest, black soot spreading out along the eaves like blood against fabric. The nest darkened but remained attached to the house. He held the pole firmly, standing his ground, even as the flames licked out and consumed the shingles, sending waves of black and gray smoke curling over the roof and upward into the bluebird morning sky.
BENJAMIN SOILEAU is a proud Cajun who self-exiled from South Louisiana to the Pacific Northwest in search of the blank page pressed from Douglas fir pulp. His curious tales of the odd beneath the ordinary are written through the lens of a zillion jobs and a habit of questionable living situations. Now reasonably employed, he spends daylight hours behind the wheel of a beer delivery truck in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife, Kennedy. His work has appeared in Fried Chicken & Coffee, Border Crossing, The Rag, Hobo Pancakes and Eclectica Magazine.