(Copyright, Willard Douglas. All rights reserved.)
Clarence Bigeaux was thirty-four years old and had only been out of Lafourche Parish, Louisiana one time in his life and that was only for one day when his eighth grade class had been taken on a field trip to New Orleans. Clarence had been called Biggy since he could remember. His nickname may have derived from his last name, but it was more likely that people started calling him that because he was almost as big around as he was tall. This had not changed much in his thirty-four years.
Biggy lived on a houseboat with his mother. He had never lived anywhere else but this old boat. It was permanently moored in Golden Meadow along a tiny strip of land on the west bank of Bayou Lafourche between Highway 1 and the bayou. This tiny piece of land was the only land Biggy’s daddy had ever owned. His daddy had been a shrimper, the principle occupation in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. In 1960, before Biggy was born, his daddy bought the little strip of land and towed in an old barge, a shallow steel box with sides about a foot high, that he permanently moored next to his land. He constructed a wooden floor over the top of the hull and built the house on top of it. It had three rooms and a tiny closet that held a toilet. A front and rear deck extended about six feet out on each end and a side deck, barely two feet wide, ran along the water side. Biggy had always occupied the middle room.
When Biggy was seventeen his Daddy disappeared and was never found or heard from again. He went out one morning on his shrimp boat and never returned. Mama, who could still drive then, drove all up and down the bayou looking for someone who had seen him but nobody had any idea why he hadn’t come back up the bayou as usual. The next day his boat washed up on Grand Isle, miles from where he had said he would be that day. Biggy’s Daddy was never found. Dead or alive.
The boat had been mortgaged to the hilt so the bank took it as soon as it was found. Mama tried her best to convince the man at the bank that if he would let them keep the boat she and Biggy could make enough to pay the mortgage. The man looked at the woman and her son sitting in front of him. He guessed each of them weighed over 300 pounds. It was hard to tell which weighed the most because Biggy was easily eight or nine inches taller than his Mama so he didn’t have the appearance of being as fat. Instead of just turning Mama down flat, the man was courteous enough to ask her what experience they had on the boat. She had to admit that she had never been aboard and Biggy had only gone out with his daddy a few times.
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So Biggy and Mama were left with no means of support. They were only prevented from being homeless because Daddy had owned the houseboat and narrow strip of land outright. Their entire fortune was hidden in a Community Coffee can under the floorboards of the houseboat. It contained less than $1,000.
Mama had never worked a day in her life. While Daddy was out shrimping Mama sat in a big old Adirondack chair nailed to the corner of the back deck. She sat there all day, every day, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer waiting for Daddy to come back up the bayou from the gulf. She used a rope tied to the top of the post at the corner of the deck to lower herself into the low chair and to pull herself back up again.
After his daddy went missing and he and Mama lost the shrimp boat, Biggy realized it was incumbent upon him to find a job as soon as possible because there was no way that Mama would ever be able to work even if she could find someone to hire her. He was seventeen and in the tenth grade. By the end of the week he had talked the Superintendent of the Parish Solid Waste Authority into giving him a job riding a garbage truck and emptying cans.
Mama, meanwhile, would soon start getting a Social Security check for just under five hundred dollars a month. Although his daddy had been self-employed all his life, he had had the good sense to pay into the system right after he started his shrimping business and had kept it up ever since.
After nearly ten years riding the truck and tipping garbage cans all day, Biggy finally managed to get his commercial driver’s license and was promoted to driver. He was assigned a route along Highway 1 that started roughly at the location of the houseboat and went all the way to the tip of the highway which was at the extreme east end of Grand Isle, some 30 miles from the houseboat. Every morning he picked up his partner, Gautreaux at Chris Moran’s Marina about half way to the tip of the island. Gautreaux lived in a fishing camp nearby.
Every day they worked a different section of Grand Isle. At the end of each day, Biggy dropped Gautreaux at the marina and drove the loaded truck to the Parish transfer facility on the Dixie Delta Canal outside Larose, some twenty miles further up the highway past the houseboat. After dumping his garbage on a barge for transport to the landfill on the other side of Lake Salvador, he drove the garbage truck back and parked it in the small space next to the houseboat.
After Biggy became a driver, life got somewhat easier for him and Mama. He was even able to begin putting a little back in the Community Coffee can every week because his and Mama’s expenses were small. Food and beer and a tiny amount of gas for his old pickup truck were about the only expenses they had.
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One Tuesday afternoon Biggy came home and parked the garbage truck along the highway just as he always did. He pushed aside the tarpaulin that shielded the back deck of the houseboat from the highway and stepped around it. He called out to Mama as he did so, telling her he had picked up some fried snapper and French fries for their supper, but Mama didn’t answer him. Mama couldn’t. Mama was dead.
Biggy drove the half mile up the bayou to the nearest store and called the sheriff. While he was there he also called Zack Theron, his boss, and told him what had happened and that he would not be able to work the next day. Zack expressed his condolences and said he would send Maurice to drive his route on Wednesday morning. Maurice was the back-up driver for the entire parish. There was rarely a day when he wasn’t working.
The sheriff and the coroner came to the houseboat. The coroner saw no need for an autopsy. There was no evidence of foul play and the obvious cause of death was either a heart attack, a stroke, or some other complication of obesity and diabetes. He signed a death certificate, gave it to Biggy, and told him to contact the funeral home.
After the coroner and the sheriff left, Biggy sat down on the deck next to Mama and thought about his options. A funeral was expensive, even a pauper’s funeral. He knew that because one of the other drivers had had to spend over seven hundred dollars to bury his wife just last year. That would almost wipe out the cash he had in the Community Coffee can. Also, he would have to report to the SSA that Mama had died and the checks would stop coming.
As Biggy thought about what he was going to do, he realized he had had nothing to eat and it was getting late. The fish and fries he’d brought home were still sitting in a sack next to the back door. He took the food inside, grabbed three cold beers as he passed through the house, and went out to the front deck. It took him about ten minutes to finish the fish. As he ate he continued to worry about the expense of a funeral and the lack of income from the SSI check. He considered not reporting Mama’s death to them but even Biggy was smart enough to figure they would catch him sooner or later and he would end up in jail.
Then a solution dawned on him. He would take care of the burial himself. He got three more beers from the icebox and made his plans. He kept planning and drinking until ten o’clock.
There was no traffic on the highway to see Biggy drive the two miles south to a construction site where a new dock facility was being built. There was nothing in sight as he pulled up beside the huge stack of concrete blocks stored there. He loaded several dozen into the back of his truck. He searched around until he found a coil of thick rope and tossed it in with the blocks.
Back at the houseboat, he unloaded the blocks and went back for the rope. He tied Mama to her chair, wrapping the rope around and around her and the chair. After he was satisfied that Mama was securely tied down, he began to tie concrete blocks to the chair, using as many as he could possibly crowd around it. He stepped back and surveyed his work. He could see no places were he could add blocks. He prayed that he had enough to keep Mama’s chair on the bottom of the bayou.
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He returned to the truck and got the jack from under the seat. In the back he searched amongst a pile of old rusty tools that he had picked up along his route over the years. The searching was made more difficult due to the dozens of Jax and Dixie cans that he had tossed in with the tools. He felt he was doing his part not littering the highway. Finally, he found what he was looking for. An old crowbar.
Back on deck, Biggy used the crowbar to pull out the large nails that his daddy had used to make sure Mama’s chair couldn’t fall off. It took a while but he finally got all of them out. Once the nails were out, he placed the jack under the back of Mama’s chair and began jacking it upwards.
The full moon was low over the bayou, creating an eerie shimmering glow on the surface of the water that led straight up to Mama’s chair. Her wispy gray hair had a surreal appearance that Biggy tried to ignore as he continued to pump the jack handle. Slowly, inch-by-inch the chair began to tilt outwards towards the edge of the deck.
Finally, after the back of the chair had been raised about two feet, Mama, the blocks and the chair all toppled off the deck. The huge splash this caused completely soaked Biggy. He almost pitched into the bayou right behind it. As he cleared the water from his eyes, he saw Mama and the chair floating there in the moonlight despite the many concrete blocks tied to it. It seemed to float for an eternity. What would he do if it didn’t sink? It had already floated out of his reach. As he contemplated whether he should swim out and pull it back to the boat to add more weight, Mama and chair and blocks all slid silently beneath the surface of the water. Then, within a few seconds, a brown eruption made its appearance in the moonlight. It spread silently into an ever widening circle as it floated off down the bayou.
The water off the side of the boat was at least fifteen feet deep and the bottom consisted of several feet of soft mud and fine sediment. Beginning in just a few hours, there would be dozens of shrimp boats coming down the bayou headed for the Gulf, churning up all that muck behind them. Besides, if the body didn’t stay completely submerged in the mud and silt, the gators would find it and take it apart.
Biggy got a fresh beer and dragged another chair over to the edge of the deck and sat down. He still held his second beer in his hand when he dozed off to sleep. He wasn’t sure how long he slept when he was awakened by a nightmare. He jumped up with a start. In his dream, Mama was walking across the bayou towards him. She was tangled in ropes. She was dragging the heavy chair and concrete blocks behind her. Her hair was even more wildly surreal in the moonlight. It looked like a bunch of water snakes were coiled like the Medusa around her head.
Biggy knew there would be no more sleep tonight. He could not get this vision out of his head. As it replayed in a never-ending loop in his mind, he began to notice Mama’s huge bulk and wondered how much she had weighed when she died. It had been several years since she had been able to walk any further than from bed to toilet to Adirondack chair on the deck. Biggy had even had to change rooms with her so she was closer to the toilet and the back deck where the chair was.
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Before she got so big he couldn’t even help her hoist her bulk up into his old pickup, it was possible for him to get a rough estimate of her weight on the truck scales at the Solid Waste Authority. With Mama in the passenger seat, he would drive the pickup onto the scales and note the total weight. The next day he would do it again when Mama was not with him. Five years ago he estimated she weighed between 360 and 380 and he would bet she had gained at least fifty pounds after that before she died.
The video loop in his head began to fade. He chuckled when he thought about an incident right there on the deck of the boat that had happened a couple of years back. He had been fishing for redfish from the side deck. He was sitting in an aluminum lawn chair that would barely fit on the narrow deck and would also barely support his 320 pounds of bulk. But it was the best place from which to cast across the bayou.
One Sunday morning he had just hooked what seemed to be a big red in the marsh grass all the way on the other side of the bayou when Mama started walking from her bed to the toilet. As she stepped through the doorway from the bedroom she lost her balance and fell against the wall just on the other side of Biggy’s chair. The boat made a noticeable lunge downward and the combination of having a large fish pulling against him and the lunge of the boat caused Biggy to fall right off into the bayou. He almost drowned before he managed to get hold of the deck and work his way to the ladder at the front. He never landed that big redfish. He never saw his fishing rod again.
The dream receded even further into the fog of Biggy’s mind. He sat there and thought about how little he had to show for his thirty-four years. He thought about that one time in the fifth grade when they had gone on a field trip to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. He thought about his friend Jake Parrow. whose mama had left Jake’s daddy and taken Jake to live in New Orleans when Jake and Biggy were in the eighth grade. He thought about his and Jake’s seventh and eighth grade years when they would often leave school at lunch, steal a six-pack and Jake’s Daddy’s old pirogue and spend the afternoon drinking and fishing on one of the back bays where Jake’s Daddy kept the old boat.
Biggy hadn’t heard from Jake for years after he left Lafourche until one day about three years ago, out of the blue, he showed up one Sunday morning at the houseboat. He told Biggy that he had gotten a call the day before from a woman who said she was living with his daddy. She said his daddy was dying and wanted to see him. Jake hadn’t seen him in years and wasn’t sure he wanted to but the woman talked him into coming.
Jake told Biggy about his life in New Orleans. He was running a bar for a woman who used to be a whore and also had a good little side business with a cousin of his who was a merchant seaman. Jake told Biggy if he ever wanted to come to New Orleans he could probably get him a job but Biggy couldn’t leave because of Mama. Mama was gone now. There was nothing stopping him.
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Biggy’s reverie was broken when the sun peeked up over the eastern horizon. It was easy to see where Golden Meadow got it’s name although, in actuality, he was looking out over a marsh and not a meadow. The sun had made its way up just above the far horizon when Biggy heard the crunch of gravel as Maurice’s old car pulled off to the side of the road and parked.
Biggy stepped out from behind the tarp onto the gangway just as Maurice was getting out of his car. They exchanged greetings and Maurice told Biggy he was sorry about his mama. Biggy said thanks but it would be okay as he handed Maurice the keys to the garbage truck. Biggy stood and watched Maurice pull out onto the highway before returning to the houseboat. He brought out three more beers and resumed his vigil in his chair. It didn’t take long for him to be asleep and he didn’t wake up til mid afternoon. No more nightmares.
As quickly as he could Biggy drove in to the garbage handling facility to catch Zack Theron before he left for the day. He told Zack about his decision to go to New Orleans. He lied and told him Mama would be buried in the pauper’s cemetery in an unmarked grave and that he wanted to leave as soon as possible because he didn’t want to keep living in that little houseboat with Mama’s ghost. Biggy had sixteen days of vacation time coming. He talked Zack into letting him use that time in lieu of giving notice. It took some persuading but Zack finally said okay. Maurice would be happy because he was next in line for a permanent driver’s slot.
Biggy went back to the houseboat and pulled the Community Coffee Can from under the floorboard. He dumped the money out on the kitchen table and counted it. Two thousand three hundred and forty-eight dollars. Not bad. Mama’s last Social Security check had come just last week and they hadn’t had to use any of it yet. That was fortunate. He would also get a final paycheck in two weeks that would make his total closer to three thousand. He wasn’t sure how long this would keep him going in New Orleans but he thought at least a month, maybe more if he was real careful with how he spent his money. He was counting on his friend Jake to get him a job before then.
Biggy thought about the things he would have to do before he could leave Lafourche Parish. The most important was to go to the Social Security Office in Thibodaux and tell them Mama had died. He had briefly considered just changing her address and having her check sent to New Orleans without reporting it to them but knew he would be in big trouble if he was ever caught so he decided to do the right thing.
He also decided he should have some new clothes and a good bath before leaving. He couldn’t remember ever having a real bath in a real bathtub. The only way to take a bath on the houseboat was to take a sponge bath in the kitchen sink or jump in the bayou with a bar of soap. Neither of them removed the garbage stink from Biggy’s corpulent body. As to clothes, he had two pairs of old overalls and a single pair of Bermuda shorts. The overalls had a perpetual garbage smell because most of the time Biggy washed them out in the bayou and hung them on the back deck to dry. Besides those, the only clothes he had were worn out T-shirts and a few pair of underwear and socks. His only shoes were a pair of white rubber boots, so ubiquitous on the bayous of south Louisiana they were sometimes called Cajun sneakers.
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Quickly a plan came together. He would leave immediately and go to Thibodaux. Thibodaux was the Lafourche Parish seat. It was roughly an hour’s drive straight up Highway 1 from the houseboat in Golden Meadow. At the edge of town, right on Highway 1, was a dump of a place called the Bide-A-Wee Motel. Biggy was familiar with it because every few weeks he had needs he could not ignore and the Bide-A-Wee was the place he could go to to scratch that itch.
Biggy’s plan was to get a room at the Bide-A-Wee, then go to Walmart and buy himself all new clothes. Then he could go back to the Bide-A-Wee and soak and soap in the tub until he actually got himself clean. The next morning he could go to the Social Security Office and get a haircut before leaving LaFourche Parish for good.
At Walmart Biggy spent a hundred-sixty-eight bucks on a few T-shirts, some underwear and socks, jeans, a light jacket, some cheap work boots and a cap. He also got a brush and comb, some hair tonic, shaving supplies and some Old Spice cologne. The last thing he picked up was a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Back at the Bide-A-Wee, Biggy carefully laid out his purchases on the bed. He stripped off his old clothes, placing them in a garbage bag he had taken from the maid’s cart. In addition he had taken a stack of towels along with several dozen of the small soaps and little bottles of shampoo.
He got into the shower and adjusted the water to be as hot as he could stand it. The feeling of the hot water cascading over his corpulence was so pleasing to him he almost fell asleep standing there in the tub. But instead, he began to empty bottle after bottle of the little shampoos over his head, working it into his hair and massaging his scalp. After a while the water began to cool off so he rinsed it as best he could, used one of the towels to dry himself, combed his hair flat. With clean hair he could stop at a barber shop the next morning.
Biggy still had to actually wash his body but wanted to wait for the hot water to recover. He turned on the TV, something that was a real treat to him, put a pillow on the floor and lay down flat of his back. He dozed while he watched TV until after five o’clock when he figured there should be some more hot water.
Biggy got up and went into the bathroom. He turned on the water and found that it had, indeed, gotten hot again. He adjusted the temperature and allowed the water to fill the tub about half-way before lowering himself down into it. He didn’t bother to notice the small tidal wave that washed over the side and covered the floor. He lay there for a few minutes before beginning to scrub at himself with a rag and several small soaps. The water almost immediately turned a murky gray-black color.
Biggy alternated between filling the tub, soaping himself and then draining the water several times before this process did not result in the water being murky as it disappeared down the drain. He finally felt cleaner than he had in his life, or at least the part of his life he had lived since becoming a garbage man.
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He used several towels drying his bulk and rubbing it until he had a pink glow about himself. He
shaved, brushed his teeth, combed his now almost dry hair again, and splashed on some Old Spice before returning to the bedroom. This time he turned back the bed and lay down on the clean sheets. It felt so good that he didn’t even think about the fact he hadn’t eaten since lunchtime but he had had a large lunch of two dozen raw oysters and another dozen of fried ones. As he dozed off to sleep, he swore to himself that he would never again live on the houseboat.
When he awoke the next morning he realized that there was still a stench of garbage along with other odors in the room. The non-garbage odors were a combination of cigarette smoke and bodily fluids left over from the many other occupants who had been in the room over the years. He knew he couldn’t get rid of these but his old clothes were in a garbage bag next to the door. These he could dispose of in the dumpster out front.
He stopped at Mickey D’s for a quick breakfast before going to the Social Security office, getting there just as it opened at nine. He had to take a number and wait nearly an hour before they called him. He was ushered back into a small cubicle where he explained about how Mama had died. He showed them the death certificate from the coroner. The woman expressed her condolences and her appreciation for him doing the right thing by reporting it. She explained that there would be one additional check sent because it would take at least three weeks to process the death claim but that if Biggy would just tear it up and not cash it that would be that.
He finally finished there and went back to the Bide-A-Wee. His initial plan had been to load up his things and head for New Orleans, but whether it was the lingering effect of all the oysters he had eaten the day before or something else, he decided to stay in Thibodaux one more night and see if he could find Etienne, the lady who helped him scratch his itch when it needed scratching.
About mid-afternoon he wandered into the Hwy 1 Grocery just down the street from the Bide-A-Wee. Despite it’s name, The Hwy 1 Grocery was a beer joint where Etienne and other ladies of her ilk hung out. Sure enough, she was sitting at the bar with several of her friends. The door opened wide as Biggy walked in, bathing the dark bar with bright streams of sunlight. All of the women sitting at the bar as well as the several men sitting there turned their heads to see Biggy come through the door. Etienne looked at him and said, “Well, look at you. Did somebody die?” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
“As a matter of fact, Mama did.” Biggy said.
“Oh. Sorry.” was all Etienne could think to say.
“That’s okay.” Biggy said. “You got a minute?”
“Can we go somewhere and talk?”
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Etienne slid off her barstool and came over to where Biggy was standing. He led her toward a booth at the side of the bar.
“Be right back.” Biggy said, as he walked across the room to the spot where Etienne had been sitting. He tossed a ten on the bar and ordered Etienne another drink along with a Dixie for himself.
Back at the booth, he told Etienne that he wanted her to spend the night with him, and negotiated a price for her to stay from ten that night until they woke up the next morning. They finished their drinks and Biggy left.
At about ten minutes before ten there was a knock on Biggy’s door and Etienne stood there. She was dressed in her usual provocative way. Biggy wondered how many tricks she had already pulled that evening before getting there. When she came in he explained to her that before they got into bed, he wanted her to take a bath.
She agreed. She closed and locked the bathroom door behind herself. After about twenty minutes she came back out wrapped in a towel. Biggy had turned back the bedspread and was laying underneath the sheet. Etienne asked him to turn out the light before she dropped her towel and slid in beside him.
Biggy turned from Louisiana Highway 1 onto U.S. Highway 90 headed towards New Orleans at 9:15 the next morning, happier than he had ever been.
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