By the river's side
Old men sat in lawn chairs in the red mud down at the river. Three or four of them spaced out along the bank of the bend the distance of a wave, sitting there for a week in the summer time the way some people go to the coast for a cabin or to grandma's for Christmas or north for the opening of deer seasons. Like that, they were down the river were it cut through.
It was green, that time of year.
When the rains came, in July or August, they listened. They didn't leave right away. First they listened and stood in the kitchens of their houses up on the Rural Route. Looked out the window and waited a while to see what the falling rain would do.
Their wives would work around them. Walk around. Would make jokes about getting them out, about not wanting husbands who were no good bums. The old men wouldn't say anything and they wouldn't move and after awhile the wives would leave, go to talk on the bedroom phones. That's what bedroom phones were for, for when the men wouldn't say shit and wouldn't leave the kitchen.
When they did talk they repeated themselves.
God damn fire ants, they would say. Aint no way to get rid of them, and they would look at the rain.
The ants came from Mexico. Maybe it was from further than that, if you wanted to think of it that way, but they came from the other side of the border to get here and when they were weren't here that's where they were, so that's where they came from. The ants came from Mexico and they wouldn't go away and you couldn't get them out with poison. Couldn't get them out with gas fire. Couldn't get them out with nothing.
Old men never said why they had to get rid of them. They were pests, God damn fire ants. Man could respect a snake and fight them and still see there were here and part of here like you were. Man could fight bears and coyotes and armadillos and deer and not hate them. It was a war, sure, but not like this: staring into the rain thinking of creating fire ant hell and wishing you'd never heard of them and could kill so bad you would never hear of them again. None of them ever thought of killing anything like they thought of killing ants. With the ants they'd already lost and knew they'd lost and that could cause a man to go shoveling craters in cotton fields, could cause him to build hair-balding bombs and cause him to set fire to his crab grass roots.
Fire like that could burn for a week and everything would burn like hell and the ants would be there. Like nothing. God damn.
But maybe the reason, the one too ugly to say, was the fire ant's killing. The way they'd swarm a rabbit and sting its eyes blind and you'd find the rabbit quivering and covered with a swarm of ants eating away. Nothing you could do about it. Make you crazy.
When the day rained the river into a flood they would go. Old men filled their pockets with red shot gun shells. Pumped some in. Put on yellow slickers and picked up the lawn chairs and went, all of them but separate, walking to the river. Dogs'd come. But only a good dog and only if you fed him something and put something more in your pocket.
The ants would come. Flood wouldn't kill them. Like nothing. Flood would wash away their dirt pile and fill their little tunnels and come rushing down in like wrath and the ants would swarm. They'd cluster. The queen would be in the middle and the ants would be around her in a big ball. Ones on the outside would die for the queen and they'd be a shell, a dead-ant crust keeping the water out. And the ant ball floated.
Like the flood was working for them they'd swarm up and the outside ants-would die and the ball would bob up and the sonofbitch would go gently, gently with the stream. Where ever they landed, they'd build a new hole.
Like hell, the old men said.
Old men would sit there, waving distance apart, not waving. Shot guns on their laps, wearing slickers. Hats shedding rain. See an ant ball, bobbing up and down and down the flood and heading for the bank where they were sitting with their wet dogs and they'd pump, holding the gun up like a warning. They'd point. And pull.
Water exploded. Ants explored. Rain fell. Ants drowned. Ball broke up and the ants all went their independent ways, dead ants and ant pieces disappearing into the muddy red river and washing away on to the Gulf of Mexico.