When I was a little boy, I used to ask Mama when my magic would come, but Mama says it don’t work like that. Mama’s mama had it like she does but she says the swamp magic don’t come to all our kin. I reckon it must have skipped me.
One of her uncles had it too, but he was dead before I was born, so I didn’t never get to meet Uncle Cooter. That sounds like a bad word don’t it? It’s not. It’s a type of turtle—Mama’s grandmama was just like mama, naming Uncle Coot after a turtle. We come from good, salt-of-the-earth stock. Mama likes turtles almost as much as she likes her alligators; what she don’t like is them that’s litterbugs or people polluting the animals’ environment.
It was Tuesday last week when a couple came to the shop. Now this ain’t a uppity place like the 7-Eleven a couple blocks up and that’s why we don’t have a sign by the door sayin’ you need shirt and shoes to come in; we cater to all types. This man wasn’t wearing a shirt and he was very handsome. Not having a shirt ain’t an indicator as to your manners: we watched as he opened the door to the shop for his girl, all proper-like. First thing in the morning, and we get to see some real manners. I got to thinking maybe Tuesday wouldn’t start off as bad as the day before.
The couple moved around the aisles, the woman checking out the periodicals and tucking and retucking her mousy brown hair behind her ears. No matter how she tried, it kept falling back in her face. I must have been giving that man a real look over: medium sized build blonde feller, had a stomach as hard as a washboard and—
“Clifton Elrod Tucker,” Mama smacked my arm quietly. Her words spat at me in a hissing whisper, “you stop lookin’ at that man with them hungry eyes.” She looked reproachful, “What have I told you?”
“I save them kind of stares for someone who’s from ‘round here; not trashy tourists,” I muttered quietly.
“That’s right,” she said, adding: “pick a nice man. Make sure he’s got some manners; someone good. Not like your Daddy. Pick one like Daddy, he ends up like Daddy—understand?”
Mama did something to Daddy when I was just a baby. She says he was trying to steal a whole bunch of money from her and run off with a waitress from the Village Inn ‘couple miles off. When she caught him he tried to say he wasn’t being a thief, but Mama said he sure did look like one…
I was thankful the couple hadn’t heard us from across the store: “Yes, Mama, I’m sorry.”
A few moments later, the two approached the counter, arms laden with sodas, a magazine and other various snacks.
“So, uh,” the young man began, his voice husky; thick and smooth. Soothing like molasses, “I didn’t see, where do you have the straws?”
His teeth were so straight and so, so white. He had blue eyes like the bluest–
“Clifton, why don’t you go find Daddy and make sure he’s had something to eat today?” Mama was glaring at me again. We both knew Daddy didn’t need help from me for finding food, but even I don’t ever want to make Mama mad.
“Yes, Mama.” I muttered, quickly leaving the counter. I tell you, I knew I shouldn’t, but I lingered just a bit longer than I needed, hopeful to hear that voice again.
“We don’t got no straws here,” Mama said, ignoring me as I pretended to make a selection from the snack aisle, “bad for the turtles. Get stuck in their noses,” she said.
“That’s neat!” the girl remarked with a lot more enthusiasm than she should have…
Mama gave her a strange look and set about typing the prices into the register, not paying me any mind, “Well, you shoulda’ known that coming from California. They been getting rid of ’em for a while. Total’s gonna be $13.17”
“Whoa,” the mousy-haired girl said, “how did you–?”
“What? Know y’all were from California? One of my gifts.” she smirked then, matter-of-factually, “I deal with tourists like y’all all day long. I can pick a region from an accent from a mile off. Like a hawk swoopin’ in on a squirrel.” I abandoned hope of that syrup-slick voice about then, I’d already lingered too long after being told I’d had a job to tend. I took a bag of Doritos from the rack and went outside, the bell chiming behind me.
I spent about 10 minutes, looking for him out in the oak trees. He usually hangs out in them there or if not, over by the dumpster. It was a beautiful day so more likely he was off sleeping someplace, waiting for dark.
“Daddy where you at?” I called. He didn’t come scampering up right away, so I set the bag of chips on the ground near to the bin. He was smarter than the friends I usually found him out here with. He’d figure it out. If not, he’d just eat the leftovers we’d thrown out with the rest of the garbage. Like he usually does.
That couple was sitting on the bench across the road from the shop then. In his left hand, Mr. California held a cigarette, his right arm slung around the girl. It was a nice bench, new paint in vibrant green, a good place to sit on for a nice day. Soothing breezes tousled the cypresses sending the Spanish moss that hung down from their branches spinning and casting the shadows on the ground in alternating patterns of bright and dark where the mid-morning light passed through. The bench was set overlooking the water. They looked happy even from behind—but that would not last for long, because he made the one mistake you shouldn’t make in front of Mama’s establishment:
He flicked that cigarette butt, still smoldering red, into the grass in front of him. I knew he’d be in for it if Mama saw that.
Mama hates litterbugs; she says the trash kind are bad, but the cigarette kind are worse since they cause fires in the wetlands. Mama always seems to know when you do something as bad as that out in front of our place. Even from the side of the building I heard her plow through the door with a fury of a black bear.
“Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mama screamed from the sidewalk opposite them.
I started coming around to the front of the building.
Mr. California and his girlfriend turned from where they sat to look at her, shock and appall drenched their faces like a sudden mid-day storm.
Mama continued: “I just got done telling you in there how important little things in our ecosystem are, and you’re sitting out here just casually catching the whole place on fire.”
“Whoa, relax.” Mr. California said standing up; the honey had been stolen from his voice now.
Mama spat, “Relax? You burning up the environment and you say ‘relax?’” A blaze was growing in her eyes. Across the street, adjacent to the bench, was a Bed and Breakfast place, and Mama’s shouting was drawing attention from the owner who, having pulled back the curtain, was watching like a secret voyeur.
Mama probably shouldn’t have done what she did next with Miss Jeanie watching from her bay windows, but there ain’t no stopping Mama once she gets going.
“Come on honey,” the mousy-haired girl said, rising to her feet as well, “let’s just get out of here.”
Like most of ‘em, turns out he was just as stupid as he was pretty. Like most of ’em, he didn’t know when to stop, “you’re crazy lady. Abso-fuckin-lutely crazy.”
“Aiden, come-on, let’s go.”
Ignoring the pleading of Mousy, he continued to shout: “You need to relax!” he commanded Mama again from across the street. His copper skin went as white as the light that started coming out of Mama’s eyes.
The breeze had died down to nothing. Even the sloshing of the inlet beyond where the couple stood had stopped. The water began to recede away from the retaining wall. They ran from her then, away from the shop and towards the bridge, but she made no move to give them chase. Even with the absent wind, Mama’s hair blew about her head like she stood amid the gales of a hurricane. She was muttering something under her breath, the rotten dark words of a language long dead. Her voice ocellated between her natural voice and something else. Something bad. Something otherworldly.
She looked to the sky with milky, unseeing eyes. Out of the crystal clear, cloudless blue, a bolt of inexplicable lightning reached out to where the two of them ran with a deafening explosion of white radiance. It didn’t kill them. Not right away. Mama meant for them to suffer. Hand in hand as they had run from her, hand in hand they immolated. The crackling of the flames blended with their screaming as their skin began to blister, bursting apart. Fire, blue hot, bust forth from within them, cooking them so rapidly that they melted into bubbling puddles on the sidewalk. I was just glad I could barely hear the awful screeches of pain and the sloppy pops of their skin as it split open; my ears still rang with Mama’s thunder.
Miss Jeanie moved away from her window very quickly.
I got closer to mama trying to urge her inside, but she eye’d something over my shoulder.
Daddy was coming around the corner on his hind legs. He had seen everything.
“Daddy, you shouldn’t walk like that, it freaks people out,” I told him.
He eyed Mama, one eyebrow of his bandit-masked fur raised. He looked like he was judging her, if you can imagine how a raccoon’s face might look as it did that.
She spat at the ground again then, “oh fuck off, Henry. You think being a raccoon’s bad? I can do a lot worse.”
He took off quickly and I called out to him about the Doritos I’d left him as Mama and I went back inside the shop. We closed up for a few hours. Mama would need her obligatory cooling off period after doing something like what she done.
One thing was really bothering me though: “Why the girl too Mama?” I asked, “she didn’t do nothin’.”
She looked at me like I had two heads, “she didn’t do nothin’?” she said calmly, taking a seat at the register, “you heard her about them fuckin’ straws. I saw you pretending not to listen. She said havin’ them get stuck in a turtle’s nose was ‘neat.’”
“Mama,” my words were chosen with caution, “she meant us caring about the turtles was neat.”
“Well shit,” she said, as she ran her hand through her hair. “Whatever. I’m sure she would have done something stupid enough to piss me off eventually.”