Malcolm should have been thinking about shrimp, but he was thinking about Sumitra’s smile instead. He hated himself for it, but he was almost glad for the leak in the shrimp pond, since it gave him an excuse to call her. And Sumitra’s voice was well worth the cost of a call from Lee County to Bangkok, or wherever the heck she lived.
Whether it was worth asking a favor from Clem Greentower, well, that was another matter entirely. Sumitra did smile on the phone’s display screen when she saw it was Malcolm calling. She’d only been doing that recently. And that smile went a long way.
“Clem, I need to borrow your boys.” Malcolm shifted from one foot to another. The itinerate glow of Clem’s bug zapper made Malcolm uncomfortable. He twitched every time a mosquito got too close and the passive azure energy erupted. Mosquitoes were as big as Malcolm’s thumb this year, and their charred husks littered Clem’s porch.
Clem regarded Malcolm with folded arms. “Whatcha need ’em for? I know for a fact that you ain’t got no more stumps.” Clem was not a tall man, but he made up for it in girth and attitude. “They sure as hell ain’t plowin’ your field for you.”
“Aww, Clem, I wouldn’t ask for them to plow. I’m hurt you said that. â€˜Sides, you know as well as I do that the state won’t let me plant tobacco on Pa’s field no more.” Malcolm searched for sympathy in Clem’s face, but found none. “Shoot, Clem. I just need â€˜em to walk around.”
“Yessir. See, my shrimp pondâ€”the one the state suggested I put on Pa’s land â€˜stead of tobaccoâ€”my shrimp pond has a leak.”
“You can just put Hydrochlrone in it, cantcha?”
“Nope, that’ll kill the shrimp. Now, I called my friend Sumitra. She does this sorta thing up in Thailand, and she says to just let some cattle graze around the pond to compact the earth. There ain’t been cows within miles of this county since the plant went, Clem. But I got to thinking, you been giving your boys beef hormones since they’ve been old enough to crawl.”
“You just gonna have â€˜em walk? I charge for labor, you know.”
“I’m aware of that, Clem. You can ask ’em when I’m done if they did anything but circle the pond.”
“I will, too.” Clem said. “‘Spose you want ’em now?”
“If it ain’t a bother.” Clem grunted and went back inside the house. Malcolm removed his cap to scratch at his hairless scalp, and watched as another mosquito twitched its last. He didn’t know why he felt the need to mention Sumitra. Covered in the blue light, Malcolm felt very exposed.
Clem’s boys pounded out of the front door, five love-children of some epic tryst of an elephant and a refrigerator, the blue light glinting off their bald heads. Four of the boys had moonstruck, glazed-over faces, save for the oldest, who’s mind probably had the most time to develop before his father took nature into his own hands and stunted the developing grey matter with muscle steroids.
“Pa said we’re suppose to go with you, Mister.”
“Well, you best come on then,” Malcolm said, and led the boys onto the bed of his pick-up. Malcolm’s truck was not an old model, but it strained under the weight nonetheless.
Down at the shrimp pond, Malcolm gave the boys as much direction as he could, then busied himself by dumping bags of sugar into the pond water.
“That ain’t sugar, is it?” the eldest of Clem’s boys asked.
“Yep, it is.”
“Whatcha puttin’ it in the pond for?”
“It’s to control the PH bal…it’s to fix the acid it…it’s to make the shrimp sweeter.”
“Oh! That’s really smart!”
“Yeah, it is. My friend Sumitra told me about it. She’s a smart girl.” There he was, bringing her up again! If Malcolm could, he’d kick himself in the ass.
“Is she your girlfriend? Are you gonna get married?”
“I seriously doubt it. She ain’t gonna want some poor son of a tobacco farmer who’s been on this land so long he ain’t got no hair and his piss glows in the dark.”
“I dunno, she might. You don’t know.” Clem’s eldest contemplated joining his brothers walking around the pond, but thought better of it, and turned his attention back to Malcolm. “I got a girlfriend. Least, I like her a lot. Her name’s Chablis. She’s got the prettiest hair.”
That would be Chablis Levee, Malcolm thought. He remembered her from school. “She wears a wig, you know.”
“She does? Huh.” Malcolm watched the gummed-up mental calculations necessary to process this new information play across the boy’s face. “I guess it don’t matter. I like her anyway. It looks good on her. I think she likes me, too. She smiles whenever she sees me.”
“That’s usually a good sign.”
“Thought so. That’s why I smiled back. One day, I’m definitely gonna ask to hold her hand.” The boy’s giant eyes shifted down to Malcolm’s bags. “Can I have some of your sugar?” Malcolm couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Sure thing. Just don’t tell your Pa.”
“Oh, I won’t.” The titan offspring of Clem Greentower licked a gargantuan finger and jammed it into a sugar bag, only to quickly shove it deep in his mouth. “Oh, man. That’s good. I don’t think that anything could ever be better than that, ever.”
Malcolm found himself doing the same with his own finger. “You’re right. That is good.”
“You’re a good man, Mister,” Clem’s boy said. “I like you. You ever hold your girlfriend’s hand?”
“No, I…I haven’t. She lives…I just haven’t.”
“You should ask. I bet she’d let you if you asked. It never hurts to ask.”