Uncle Rego is a giant earthworm. I’ve known for a little while, even though most of the family might think I’m bona fide crazy if I said anything about it. It’s not just the clammy touch of his skin, or the color, or the way his breath always smells like the nice, black dirt they put in Styrofoam cups for the night crawlers down at Jenkin’s Bait and Tackle. No, I’ve seen the pictures that prove Uncle Rego’s an earthworm, and what happened to my aunt is only what some folks might call “icing on the cake.”
I don’t know much about icing, but those pictures do a nice job of putting the chill on my spine. I’ve got them tucked away in the old Converse box under my bed for later. I made the mistake of talking about Uncle Rego to Pa once, and he gave me the back of his hand. Hell of a lot harder than his palm, even with the calluses. When I tell one of my folks about Aunt Tessie, it won’t be Pa.
I figure Mama listens pretty good most of the time.
See, Rego is Mama’s brother—her only kin left on that level since Uncle Garth got killed under his motorcycle last October. Mama doesn’t talk about her childhood often, but when she does, I see the pale-as-potato-grub look on her face at the suggestion of Rego.
“Rather not mention that son-of-a-bitch,” she’ll say, or, “I don’t talk about that dirty bastard.” Once, when she and Pa were having one of their “heated debates”, he said something I didn’t quite understand about Mama and Rego doing “unnatural” things. Mama cried and cried and put that debate fire right out with her tears. When they were cooled off, Mama explained that she was just a little girl and Rego was so strong and he’d gotten into Grandad’s whiskey and she ran off to the river that night with a bar of Ivory Soap and scrubbed and scrubbed until her skin glowed like mercury and even bled in a couple places. At least I remember she said something about blood.
Sometimes I try to shut off my ears because I don’t really want a piece of what they’re talking about.
Still, if I’m going to tell anyone the truth about Uncle Rego and Aunt Tessie, it’ll be Mama. Besides, she’s the one who sent me across town to Uncle Rego and Aunt Tessie’s trailer that afternoon.
I rode my bike because that’s what I always do, and sure enough, I nosed the awful dirt smell when I got there. Rego didn’t have his disguise on at all. I could see the pale-brown slickness of his naked earthworm skin through a window. And, being curious like I am, I made my way right to the sill and peeked in.
Like I mentioned about those photos—ice all over my spine. Felt like I might vomit, too. There he was, curled up on that bed of theirs, pinkish-tan and slimy, and Aunt Tessie reduced to a pile of dirt. Her undergarments poked out of the black-brown lump, so I knew it had to be her. What was left of her. No lesson from biology class will ever stick as well as the one about earthworms and what Mr. Block calls “the ecosystem.” Used to make me kind of sad, thinking about my old dog Max and how the worms must have had at him when he died. Now, I just feel like I want to throw up—either that or get the biggest spade I can and slice old Rego in half and watch him squirm until he dies.
But I don’t have that much courage. Not to face a big, king-of-the-realm worm like that.
Of course, Aunt Tessie just turned up missing. Uncle Rego put on his human skin again and called the police, moaning and bitching about his wife, then getting all frightened like he feared he’d never see her again. Lies and deceit, like Grandma Shoemaker used to say. Lies and deceit.
If—when—I get around to telling Mama, I’m going to dig out those old photos, especially the one from when she’s a little girl and Uncle Rego’s touching her shoulder. I’d swear on Max’s grave, it’s not a hand at all, but his earthworm tail poking through. Mama must’ve known it, too, by the awful, sour-milk look on her black and white face.