Ma, Daryl’s o’ me agin.”
“Dar’l, git off yer sister. Whachu think dis is, some sorta royal rumble?”
“She started it. She always does,” drawled Daryl. He climbed off his sister, Beulah May.
“I donne care if she starts a fire in yer britches, boy! She got one arm, plus she’s a gurl. You ain’t no man a’tall if you beatin’ on no one armed girl, even if she is bigger’n an ox.”
Daryl shrugged at this, and moved to his side of the bench seat. And Beulah May smiled, pleased at the compliment.
“Why we gotta go anyway, ma?” Daryl asked from the backseat beside his sister.
The old blue van rattled down the road like a sack of rocks flung down a mountainside. It made each curve a treacherous exploit, all rattle, no brakes, daring fate to end the anyway worthless commute.
“Youse gotta go because I said youse gotta go.”
“I thougt we had to go because that True Ants Officer told you we hadda,” Beulah said as she itched her stump.
She thought about that day over at Laverne’s farm. Laverne was always showing her and Daryl how all his second-hand machines worked. Each week he had some new “big city intervention,” as he called them. One thing was certain about the gaggle of gadgets he laid claim to—they couldn’t make his crops grow. If his land or any of theirs had been worth two nickels, the government would have seized them long ago. But that’s the thing about Hell, no one fights you for it.
That day, a few months back, Laverne had been especially proud of the wood-chipper he’d finally rigged up to work. He displayed it to the children, usual visitors to the “farm” for the open air of it. They loved it out there, and Laverne loved having them. He lived alone, except for some cats and the giant rats that chased them. He always talked about his wife coming home someday, but even the children guessed what he surely knew. He’d die with those cats and those rats and not much else.
“Thing is, it’ll chip up jus’bout any ole thing,” Laverne told the children that day as he fed a plastic sled into the slot. The machine groaned its dismay, smoked, churned, shook, and eventually spit out shreds of ruined plastic.
“See!” Laverne smiled at his wide-eyed audience. “I fixed her up speshial. It’ll chew through jus’bout any old thing, I’ll tell yens!”
“You think it’ud chaw through an arm?” Beulah May barked. She barked everything, like a cough—it hurt but she had to. She liked to talk too, obviously unaware of the sound of it.
“Shu’up, Beul,” Daryl snapped. “Don’t be stuupid.”
“I’n’t being stuupid, Daryl. Youse the one being stuupid anyway.”
“Dis stuupid?” Daryl put his oversized sister in a headlock—indeed, no small feat—and Laverne saw his audience slipping away.
“Hey! Chil’ren! Lookee here!” they both glanced as if he had a treat for them.
Laverne took up an old broom and fed it through the chomping machine.
“See there!” he piped as wood chips stumbled from the gnawing beast. “Yens wanna feed her?”
The children nearly cried. It was seldom they were given anything at all, and opportunity, well that was the rarest of things.
“Go on, walk the yeard and pick you all out each one it’m.”
Daryl and Beulah May were frozen.
“Well go on fore I change my minds!”
They quickly thawed right out, and, excited but focused, they set off combing the litter-strewn dirt patch Laverne called a “yeard.” It was a large enough patch, and they wondered each inch of it—unwilling to waste such a chance.
It was hard to say who enjoyed it more, the children or old Laverne, leaned up against the remnants of a dead Willow Tree. He watched the children study the ground, occasionally one or the other would pick up an item, inspecting it with their crossed-eyes and dirty hands, weighing it and imagining the magnitude of its destruction. They’d toss it aside—a rake, an old, rusty lawn chair, a brick, some guttering, among other things—and move on to the next sordid treasure.
They searched for their happiness while Laverne found peace. He looked on, at first hoping certain items would be spared, but after a few minutes, he ceased caring. These precious moments were the nearest he had felt to love in some time, and it was worth having even his most prized possession chipped up to sustain the perfection of this moment. He leaned his head back against the rotting wood, soft and sweet, and, soft and sweet, he smiled as his muddy eyes gently shut.
Soft and sweet faded in a blink as Laverne was awakened to a hyena. His first thought was that the children had put one of the cats in the chipper. He ran toward it instinctively, and noticed Beulah May writhing on the ground as the chipper oozed a spray of red.
His shock was broken not by Beulah May’s hideous moans as she lay there clutching a bloody mess where her right hand used to be, but by the shrill yells of Daryl:
“SHE PUT HER ARM IN DA CHIPPER! I TOLE HER NOT TAH!”
Laverne ran in and got his one good bedsheet and half a carton of milk. He poured the milk on the stump slowly, trying not to pass out.
“I gotta git my water from the well . . . dis milk’ll havetahdo in a pinch.”
“I like milk,” Beulah said softly, full of the sweet whimsy of shock.
“SHE JUST STUCK IT ON IN DER EVEN THOUGH I SA–I SAID ‘BEULAH MAY DON’T YOUSE EVEN THINK A-STICKIN YOUR PAW INDA CHIPPER!” Daryl went on yelling.
“Dar’l, you think you can keep dis from your ma?” Laverne asked nervously.
“How we gonna keep dis from ma, Laverne? Beulah hain’t got no hand!”
“I just thought she could keep it inher pock’t or Sumthin’ . . .” he seemed to catch his own ignorance when voiced aloud. “Oh ri’t. Dar’l, run along up the road. Ferguson’s gotta phone. Git us an ambulance.”
“Really! Can I? Beulah, you hear dat! Laverne gonna let you git a ambulance! Whoo boy!”
And with that Daryl hauled over to Ferguson’s and dialed up the ambulance, just as excited as he could be for his sister and her opportunity for an ambulance ride—sirens and all, it turned out!
And after the hospital stay is when the “True Ants Officer” showed up. Officer Parker was as cordial as his job would permit, and he informed Ms. Tamms that if her children were not cleaned up, put into school at the end of summer, and cared for like children and not beasts, that the State would have to intervene.
“Youse know why yens gotta go, Dar’l,” Ma Tamms answered back from the jouncing driver’s seat. “Cause youse and Beulah May went stickin’ your arms in Laverne’s machines, dat’s why.”
“But Beulah did it, not me. I tolt her she bett–”
“Dat’s enough, Dar’l. Youse think I want yens in dat fancy school all day gettin’ all educated and leavin’ me by myself all day long?”
“Sorry, ma,” Beulah said, still itching her stump. “I didn’t mean no harm.”
“Well, sorry’s idn’t gonna change dat True Ant Officer’s mind none, is it? We’ll git by, we always do.”
With that the van shimmied its way to the front of Jefferson Davis Elementary and Junior High School. It was a squat, brick building, and from high enough in the sunny sky, probably looked a fair bit like Laverne’s old wood chipper.
“Yens git on now. Yer ready real late. Git on now,” she coaxed her terrified children from the car.
“I’d rather put my handin another chipper,” Beulah said with watery eyes.
“Well we don’t ‘av dat choice now, do we?”
The children walked toward the glass front doors, and Daryl grabbed hold of Beulah’s stump. Ma Tamms watched for a second longer, then drove off, fear forming in her eyes. She went down the road about a half mile, then parked on the street, facing the front of the school, waiting till three o’ clock or whenever it was that school let out. “We’ll git by, we always do,” she murmured through the sobs.