By David Joy
For Uncle Butch
In all honesty, my father probably had it coming when he bolted a three-foot bar off the side of my mother’s ragtop Park Avenue to get a mirror far enough out to see around the twenty-foot Travel Mate. Then again, his decision was a matter of safety.
The water pump was out on his pickup, the part he’d ordered hadn’t come, and, though I wouldn’t call him cheap, my father wouldn’t pay five times what it’d cost him to fix it himself for some glue-sniffing teenager at the Jiffy Lube to spend half a day on an hour’s work. Mama’s car wasn’t ideal for hauling the pull-behind, but we were headed out of town. The family reunion was in two days, and, like always, the old man made do.
But Dad’s making do didn’t make a damn to my mother who peddled cosmetics to family and friends, bored housewives, church secretaries, PTA committee members, Bojangles cashiers, and anyone else who considered it rude to blow her off entirely when she moved into her pitch. We’d be walking through the Food Lion and she’d stop some lady with a buggy full of groceries and say, “You know, I hate to bother you, but you’ve got absolutely gorgeous lips. You ever think of adding just a touch of lip-gloss? Maybe Sassy Fuchsia, or, no, no, I think Shock Tart might be your color.” She’d hand her card to the stranger and I’d try to avoid eye contact, walk behind kicking those cards under shelves so Mama wouldn’t chase the strangers down and try to hand off another when she found the card she’d given tossed on the floor. My mother was blind to a lot of things. She really was. But one thing she saw clear as day was how that mirror my father bolted onto the side of her car was going to be the final nail in her Mary Kay coffin.
“You think anybody’s going to buy product from a woman in a car like that? You think anyone’s going to take me serious with a trailer mirror bolted five foot off the side of my car?”
“Three feet seven and three-eighths inches,” my father said. He’d had me hold the tape eleven times to make sure he’d measured correctly, that extra three-eighths being just enough for him to see around the back of the trailer from the steering wheel. “I’ll take it off just as soon as we get back.”
“What about the holes, Tom? You don’t think the holes where you bolted that thing on are going to hurt the resell? Take that mirror off the side of my car.”
“I don’t think we’re going to be making any trades," he said as he tilted the mirror a few inches in then nudged it back an inch or so out. "And I’ve already told you. I’ll take it off when we get home.”
“If we get home,” my mother yelled. “What if this thing breaks down in the middle of nowhere?”
“Then I’ll just underpin the son of a bitch and we’ll live out the rest of our days right there where the universe decided to set us,” my father said, finally looking up. “Hell, we’ll open up a hotdog stand, Grace, maybe sell boiled peanuts right there on the side of the road. You like boiled peanuts, don’t you? That'd suit you just fine.”
“It’ll buff out,” I said, trying to ease the tension just a hair to keep all that blood in Mama’s face from blowing her head up like a hand grenade.
“Be quiet, Henry. Just go in the house and see if your sister has her suitcase packed.”
“I really don’t think—” I started to reason.
“I said go in the house,” Mama barked.
So I set the tape measure down on the driveway and went inside like I was told.
If my little sister Anna hadn’t gotten into Mama’s product halfway between home and hell, I imagine my mother would’ve wrapped her hands around Dad’s throat and squeezed till his Adam’s apple shot north or south. The Buick wouldn’t plane off with all that weight on the back so the exhaust ground the pavement till a flurry of sparks followed behind us like the tail end of a comet. It was the tailpipe, muffler, and everything meant to hold the exhaust in place that finally broke free just as we crossed the state line. The Travel Mate hopped over what fell off and Mama turned to look behind only to find Anna smeared with Purple Eclipse eye shadow and Peach Pop cheek stick like some sort of six-year-old carny with lipstick on her teeth. My father never was one for praying, but folks who do always talk about a merciful God and to me that’s exactly what this was, mercy.
We must’ve reached the campground some time in the middle of the night, because I was asleep. I don’t remember my father parking or him moving me from the backseat of the Buick into the camper. I just woke up in the Travel Mate and stepped out that next morning beside a catfish pond with a few dead channel cats circling around a floating fountain that was anchored with white rope a hundred feet off the bank.
Dad’s cousin Larry came to give us a ride. My grandfather couldn’t drive anymore, and, ever since my grandmother died, Larry was the only one in the family who would volunteer to take the old man grocery shopping or to the doctor or across the county line so he could buy beer on Sundays. Grandpa told Dad to call Larry. When Larry came, we loaded up and hung a right by a sign that read Turtle Creek Campground with a giant smiling turtle holding a stringer full of fish, and Larry drove south on a state road as broken and crackled as a dried out snakeskin.
“I hid your daddy’s keys inside one of those spice boxes in the kitchen,” Larry said when he pulled in front of my grandfather’s house. “You know the ones I’m talking about that got roosters painted on ’em, those wood boxes that all fit inside one another: the tea in the coffee, the coffee in the sugar, the sugar in the flour, and so on?”
My father nodded.
“Well, the keys are in one of them. The sugar one maybe,” Larry said. “That truck ought to fire right up. I crank it and let it run for a little while about twice a week, drive it out to the grocery every couple of trips. Still runs good.”
“Thank you, Larry,” my father said. “For everything.”
“I’ll see y’all here in a little bit,” he said, then backed out of the driveway and sputtered down the road.
A pair of beagles bawled when we went inside, but my grandfather didn’t stand to greet us. He didn’t say hello, good to see you, or drop dead and die. He just shouted over his shoulder from where he sat at the kitchen table, “You’re late,” and went right back to shoveling cold oatmeal into his mouth. He wore a gray woolen coat with two stars on the collar, and a pair of sky blue trousers the same heavy material as the coat. A battered and worn kepi lay on the table next to his bowl of oatmeal. He looked like he’d just stepped out of a museum.
Our family reunion was centered on one of Dad’s cousins, a woman named Sherry who spent a year of her life in a mental hospital, having discovered the grave of one of our Confederate ancestors. She was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary and headed up the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and had stumbled onto some diviner who used dowsing rods to track down the unmarked graves of long lost relatives. For $300 this woman would wander around a field till those rods crossed and then she’d stop, raise her hand to God, and right there would be the grave. According to Sherry, this lady was batting a thousand, never once came back empty-handed, and so Sherry ponied up the $300, the lady went to work, and now here we all were to dedicate the grave of Alphonzo A. Roseman who was discharged from the Confederate Army on May 16, 1863 and died without a penny to his name.
My father’s share came to $27.32. Sherry said this over and over on the phone like he wasn’t good for it. Dad asked how much his father owed and she said that totaled up to $42.67. Dad asked if that was for both of them and Sherry said, no, that they each owed separately, so he rounded up one penny to $70 when he wrote the check, said it would all come out in the wash. That Saturday Dad shoved that check in an envelope and muttered something under his breath about brain cells and well water. He licked the envelope closed then sucked back on his Coors so hard that the can crumpled. I rode with him to the post office where he dropped another fifty cents for a stamp with Elvis on it.
“Well, are y’all going to sit down and eat, or just stand there drooling on yourselves,” my grandfather said.
“Are those steel-cut oats?” Anna asked.
“No, they’re Quaker Oats,” he said.
“Mama makes steel-cut oats.”
“Well, these here are Quaker Oats. Are you too good for Quaker Oats?”
Anna shook her head and shuffled a little to the right to hide half of herself behind Mama’s leg.
“Wilford Brimley used to be the spokesperson for this oatmeal, and if it’s good enough for him then I reckon it’s good enough for any of us,” my grandfather said. “Wilford Brimley was in ‘Cocoon.’”
“What’s ‘Cocoon?’” Anna asked.
“He has diabetes,” my father said, pronouncing it like “beat us.”
“Diabetees,” my mother corrected him.
“Diabeetees. Diabeetus” my father said. “However you say it, Wilford Brimley has it. Now he’s on commercials for insulin or something.”
“Suit yourself,” my grandfather yelled. He hammered his fists against the table and the spoon jangled against the rim of his bowl. “Picky eaters have starved to death in this house.”
We held still for a moment or two and waited for my grandfather to go back to eating. Stay still, be quiet, and don’t look at a bear, and it will usually just mosey on about its business. When he did, my mother took my sister into the back to get her ready for the reunion. Dad sat down next to his father, and I sat next to mine.
“I don’t know why y’all couldn’t just stay here,” my grandfather said. “There’s plenty of room.”
“I know there is, but Anna’s allergic to dogs.”
“That’s nonsense,” my grandfather said then knelt down to pat one of the two beagles on the back. “A person can’t be allergic to dogs.”
Dad shook his head.
“How are you holding up?” He asked.
“Hot dogs make the gout flare. Liver mush makes the gout flare. Cube steak makes the gout flare. Hell, even beer gives me fits anymore. Sometimes I just want to take out my pocketknife and chop that big toe right off. Can’t get around anyhow. And what don’t bother the gout gives me the diarrhea, so how’s that for—”
My father had stood up and was halfway to the coffee pot when he interrupted.
“No, Dad. I mean how are you?”
He was trying to ask how my grandfather was holding up since my grandmother died. That first month or two after we drove down for her funeral, Dad called his father every night to check on him. Months went by and the phone calls turned from once every couple of days to once a week to once every “I’ll get around to it” actually got around to it back to just birthdays and holidays. Grown-up chores weren’t all that different from childhood ones.
“I wish I could tell you it gets easier everyday, but it don’t,” my grandfather said. “It just don’t. That ain’t the way life works.”
Dad poured a cup of coffee into a camouflage Waffle House mug. He took a sip, spit that sip back into the mug then took the pot over to the sink.
“That’s two days old,” my grandfather said.
“Well then what in the world you saving it for?” my father asked as he dumped what was left down the drain.
“Cause I’ll still drink it.”
“Ain’t no wonder you got the shits, Dad,” my father said and I snickered.
“You can make a pot of fresh if you want. Coffee’s in the cabinet.”
My father washed out the pot and carried the old filter and grounds over to the trashcan with those beagles circling his ankles, tripping him up like he was going to give them a slice of cheese. He grabbed a tub of JFG from the cabinet and started to make a fresh pot.
“While you’re over there, look in the freezer and grab that trash bag for me,” my grandfather said.
Dad reached into the freezer as the coffee maker started to percolate. There were patterns of icicles that looked like Queen Anne’s lace frozen on the black plastic, and the bag seemed to steam when my father set it on the table.
“What is this?”
“Your old uniform,” my grandfather said. “I thought Henry here might want to wear it to the dedication. He looks about the same size you were.”
“No, Dad,” my father said.
“What uniform?” I asked.
“This is the uniform your father wore when he was your age. We used to travel around doing reenactments. He ain’t ever told you about that?”
I shook my head.
“I don’t want—” my father started to say.
My grandfather pulled a folded uniform the same colors as the one he wore from the bag and continued to talk over my father.
“How old are you, Henry?”
“Twelve,” I said.
“Then this ought to fit you just right.” He slid the uniform across the table like he was passing bread.
“Why’d you have it in the freezer?” I asked.
“Because it stunk and I didn’t want to wash it.”
“I don’t want him wearing that thing, Dad,” my father said.
But my grandfather wasn’t listening and I was intrigued.
“What do you know about the War of Northern Aggression, Henry?” my grandfather asked.
“I don’t want him—”
“Have y’all covered that in school?”
I didn’t know what my grandfather was talking about and I shook my head. Dad kept trying to say that I wasn’t going to wear that uniform, but my grandfather kept right on talking. When I tried to unfold the britches, the wool, frozen solid, crunched in my hands. Dad poured two cups of coffee and carried them back to the table. He pushed one to the old man, hoping, I think, that the coffee would shut him up. I sat on the edge of my seat and listened to something I didn’t know the first thing about, just waiting for that uniform to thaw, waiting for my father to give me permission to try it on.
Lesson number one, wool doesn’t breathe. I learned that halfway through the service. There were about a dozen of us in uniforms, probably sixty or seventy people in all, crowded in a fenced-in cemetery that was just two degrees shy of catching fire. My father kept staring at me during the service. He looked disappointed and I wasn’t sure if it was with my grandfather or with me, and he finally just quit looking altogether when the crowd sang, “Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.”
Lesson two was that Cousin Jeff was always remembering something, like how my grandfather purged a ’possum for two weeks, feeding the animal nothing but sweet corn and buttermilk, to get all of the gaminess out of the meat, or how one of his and Dad’s cross-eyed cousins, Robbie Gipe, played the guitar solo from Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” on a busted accordion to win the eighth grade talent show, how Robbie’s mom sang funny in church because of her cleft palate, or how Aunt Betty wasn’t always Aunt Betty, but when they were real little was Uncle Bert, though no one ever talked about Bert anymore and so really it was like he’d never been born at all.
“Me and your daddy used to go squirrel hunting,” Jeff said. “We went everyday after school and every weekend that I didn’t have to go see my dad. Your dad was a crack shot, Henry. See a squirrel. Bang. That fast.” He shook his head with amazement. “I bet you’re the same, ain’t you? Y’all do a lot of squirrel hunting where you live?”
“No,” I said. “I ain’t ever been squirrel hunting.”
“That’s a shame,” Jeff said. “I bet you’re a natural.”
I’d never met Cousin Jeff before in my life.
My father stood with my grandfather under a sweetgum in the middle of the cemetery, and my mother was just a few feet away from them twirling Anna beneath her fingertip like a windup ballerina. Some relative I hadn’t met came over and asked Jeff if he’d gotten his license back or if he still had to drive a moped to get back and forth to the plastics plant, and, while Jeff explained that he didn’t work at the plastics plant anymore, that he’d taken a job driving a school bus, I tiptoed away.
“You hot yet?” my father asked when I walked over.
“Itchy,” I said.
“A lot of soldiers died of heatstroke on long marches because of these uniforms, Henry,” my grandfather said. “None of our ancestors, of course, but families like Sibleys and Powells and Browns, hell, them sissies killed off in droves.”
A fat redheaded woman in a black pencil skirt that was shaped more like a pear than a pen popped out from behind my mother and said, “Tom, I want to introduce you to Mrs. Galloway.”
I learned from context that the redhead was our fat cousin Sherry who spent a year in a mental hospital and money on nonsense.
“Mrs. Galloway here’s who found the grave,” Sherry said.
Mrs. Galloway held out her hand. “You can call me Perline,” she said.
Perline Galloway didn’t look half as crazy as any of our family. Petite and kept, she wore a pale yellow pants suit that brought out the green in her eyes.
“How’d you go about finding this grave?” my father asked.
He never was one for mixing words. My father shot straight and didn’t care whether what he said came out sarcastic and dry because that’s exactly how he meant it. That was just his sense of humor.
“Well, it was awfully hard with all of these power lines,” Perline said, looking overhead and waving her hand about like she was shooing flies.
“I said it was awfully hard with these power lines,” Perline repeated, stressing each word as if it might’ve been her accent that caused his confusion. “All the electricity makes it difficult.”
“Say those dowsing rods were spinning like helicopter blades, huh?” Dad laughed and shook his head. “Say you lifted right off the ground?”
“No,” she said. “No, Mr. Roseman, that’s not what I said at all.”
“You can call me Tom.”
“You ever think of wearing a little eye liner, Perline?” My mother stepped forward and rummaged through her purse for a card. “A little touch of Mint To Be around those eyes and you’d have men lining up to buy you supper.”
“You’d be surprised how much of a demand there is for finding graves, Mr. Roseman,” Perline said. She glanced at my mother long enough to take the card, snapped open her hand purse and slipped the card inside, and my mother, sensing a tough sale, took Anna by the hand and walked toward a group of women who were smoking cigarettes behind a minivan. “I get two or three calls a week,” Perline said.
“Really?” my father asked.
“Really,” she said.
“You ever run any specials?”
“You know, specials: buy one get one, half off during hunting season, a free Dairy Queen Blizzard. Anything like that?”
My father stood staring at Mrs. Galloway with a slight grin on his face, and I think he wanted her to laugh with him, I honestly do. I don’t think he meant to hurt her feelings though it was obvious he did. For my father, laughter made things bearable. But Mrs. Galloway didn’t share his sense of humor, and, for that matter, very few people I ever met did. My father always came off in a way that he didn’t intend.
“Family is still important to people around here, Mr. Roseman,” Perline said. “But I wouldn’t expect you to remember something like that.”
Perline Galloway turned and walked away and Sherry stood red-faced and huffing like she was having an asthma attack. When Sherry stormed off, my grandfather looked at my father for what seemed an eternity. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. And once forever had come and gone, he shook his head, turned his eyes to the ground, and walked away.
We were alone, my father and me, and I stared to where a group of headstones rose from a parched patch of land, the red clay cracked and grassless. There were trees in the cemetery where we were and there were trees further in the field, but none of the trees could cast shade onto that place. It made no difference where the sun was in the sky.
“Who’s buried over there?” I asked.
“Over there.” I pointed. “Outside of the fence.”
“That’s a black cemetery,” my father said.
“Oh,” I said, though I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. I’d never really thought about one cemetery being any different than another. Six feet deep is what they said on the old Westerns my father watched on Saturdays. All graves were that deep, one no different than the next. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“I don’t either.”
A moment passed.
“Did anybody in our family ever own slaves?” I asked.
My father stared to the place I’d pointed.
“They did,” he said.
“How come?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Henry.” He didn’t look at me, but he squeezed my shoulder so hard that it almost hurt. “Some things don’t have a good answer.”
There’d been around seventy family members gathered at the gravesite and that number was nearly doubled now that there was free food. They circled the buffet like a wake of buzzards. The way they pecked and fought over fried chicken and frog legs, white potato salad and yellow potato salad, fruit salad and ambrosia salad, every kind of salad except real, honest-to-god salad, green bean casserole and squash casserole, broccoli casserole and macaroni casserole, quartered pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread, quartered peanut-butter-and-jellies on white bread, Aunt Fay’s homemade persimmon preserves on white bread, and plate upon plate of deviled eggs, oh, the way they pecked and fought and snarled and pulled pocketknives made it hard to deny we were family. The same blood that coursed through their degenerate bodies coursed through my own. We were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, no matter how you cut it kin. Blood kin. And it was my mother, sister, father, and I who butted our way to the front of the line.
The adults ate together at long tables that stretched the length of the fellowship hall. They crammed all of us kids into a Sunday school classroom that still had Vacation Bible School decorations taped to the walls—a giant smiling Jesus in a bathrobe with all of these laughing children playing ring-around-the-rosy around his legs—though my cousin Austin said Vacation Bible School had been over for over a month. That’s who I sat beside at a table that was no more than a foot off the ground, Austin and his little brother Odell, the three of us crouched in preschooler chairs with our knees up to our ears.
Austin was seven months older than me and he must’ve learned a lot in that seven months because he seemed to know more than any kid our age ought to know about things like sex and income taxes and how to check the transmission fluid in a ’94 Astro van and why Uncle Richard was missing those two fingers so that it looked like he was signing “I love you” the way deaf people do when he waved. Austin had a mud-colored birthmark that looked like a horse standing on its hind legs that ran from the corner of his mouth up and over one eye. Odell was a year younger than me and he and I had the same birthday though Austin had to tell me because Odell never said a word.
“Most folks think he can’t talk at all, but he can talk if he wants to, can’t you Odell?” Austin asked and Odell nodded his head up and down with a big, wide smile on his face.
“He just don’t want to talk. Don’t like to talk, do you Odell?” Austin asked and Odell shook his head no. Austin said Odell hadn’t said a word to anyone except him since their mother died in a house fire. He said this over and over while we ate, “Our mama got burnt up in a fire. Our mama breathed too much smoke and now she’s up in heaven with Jesus. Our mama got burnt up in a fire. Now she’s an angel.”
Austin knew most of the other kids in the room because he lived just down the road and they’d all grown up together. When we finished eating, he called over our cousin Ricki, a girl named Ricki, who wanted to audition for "America’s Got Talent" with this trick she’d taught herself to do with a ball chain. Ricki reached into her pocket and pulled out a long stretch of ball chain like you might hang dog tags on, or cut short and use for a key ring. She tilted her head back and ran that chain down one of her nostrils and started snorting back about two inches at a time. When there was a pile of chain gone, she coughed and choked and shoved her hand back in the back of her mouth till I was sure she was going to be sick, but she didn’t get sick. Ricki pulled the end of that chain through her lips so that it ran up her nose and out of her mouth then stood there with one end in each hand, her eyes crossed, and her tongue out saying, “Ahhhhh,” like she was in the doctor’s office.
“Bet you ain’t ever seen nothing like that have you?” Austin asked. I hadn’t and neither had Odell, and we sat there wide-eyed shaking our heads.
After lunch, all of the boys were headed down the street to one of our cousin’s houses. His father had built a paintball field in their backyard with piles of worn out tires and busted pallets stacked up for bunkers. According to Austin, this kid’s dad got ten dollars a head to let local kids shoot the hell out of each other with high-powered paintball guns. According to Austin, this kid almost lost one of his eyes after a boy named Ty, who wasn’t kin to us at all, froze his paintballs for an entire week inside a meat freezer then came and almost killed half the JV football team with paintballs as hard as marbles.
I didn’t think my father would let me go. I told Austin that I couldn’t mess up my grandfather’s uniform, and, seeing as I didn’t bring a change of clothes with me, I wouldn’t be tagging along. Austin said he could scrounge up some clothes and for me to go and ask my dad, and, though the truth of the matter was that I was scared to death and didn’t want to go, I couldn’t think of any good excuses so I took my plate to the trash and went to track down my father.
I found him standing with my grandfather outside of the church by a thick hedge of boxwoods. My father’s back was to me so he never saw me standing there. My grandfather glanced in my direction, but turned his attention back to Dad. He didn’t seem to care that I was there. Maybe he even wanted me there to hear what he had to say. He was yelling about how my father made Sherry cry. He jabbed his finger into my father’s chest and talked so sternly through clenched teeth that his words broke apart into spittle. He glanced down at me again then asked if my father thought he was above his raising, if he was embarrassed of where he came from, of who he came from, and, if so, why in the hell hadn’t he just stayed home. My father stood there staring at his shoes, shaking his head, and didn’t say a word until the old man was finished.
Later that night, back at the campground, I would listen to my father explain things to my mother, while they thought I was sound asleep. I would lie awake in the Travel Mate and eavesdrop through the opened trailer window as she listened to him the way that she always did when he needed her most. My father would say that he knew the Civil War was about more than slavery, that it was also about economics and land and states rights, but that regardless of what his ancestors may or may not have fought and died for the war was about one thing now, 150 years afterward, the war was about one thing, slavery, and that it was a waste of time to try and amend how the history’d been written and taught, that it was a waste of time to try and convince others that it was about something else, that if it all boiled down to one thing and that one thing, whether it be true or not, was slavery then that was nothing to be proud of.
That very next summer when three lunatics tied a black man behind their pickup truck in Jasper, Texas and dragged his conscious body down the asphalt for three miles before he struck a culvert, the murderers towing what was left of him another mile after that, I watched my father cry as he stared at the television and listened to the story. He prayed those first few nights, something he didn't think anyone saw, and, afterward, something I never saw him do again. A few years later, when the NAACP rallied at the Statehouse to have the Confederate flag removed from the capitol building, I watched my father rip a six foot by four foot flag off of a seventeen year old kid’s pickup truck as he spun donuts around a black mother and her two children in the Ingles parking lot one Sunday. I watched that kid slam on brakes, climb out of his truck, and tell my father that that flag was about heritage. I listened as my father told that boy he didn’t know a thing about heritage, that if he wanted to talk about heritage then he needed to name names, he begged the boy to name names, and when the boy said he didn’t know their names but that his dad told him he had ancestors who fought and died for the Confederacy, my father told that boy that if he wanted to talk about heritage then he’d show him graves. He’d take him to the monument for Alphonzo Roseman or the grave of Quintus Curtis Patterson who was imprisoned as a POW or the grave of Robert Franklin Smith who was wounded at Gettysburg, taken prisoner, and later died in a prison camp in Point Lookout, Maryland. My father would scream that that was our heritage, that that was our family, that that boy didn’t know a goddamn thing about nothing.
But right then outside of that church, while I waited to ask my father if I could go let my cousins shoot my teeth out with paintball guns, my father didn’t say any of that. My father just looked at his dad and told him how much he loved him.
We stayed at Turtle Creek Campground the rest of the week and only saw my grandfather once more when he agreed to let my father take him out for the Wednesday night buffet at Shoney’s. Cousin Larry leant my father two fishing rods and a tackle box. I took a handful of quarters and bought a tub of red wigglers from a vending machine that sold live bait by the campground office. I was trying to catch catfish and my father was trying to catch a buzz. All I caught that was of any account was a bluegill shaped like a saucer, and a shellcracker that had a giant tumor growing out of the side of its head. My father got drunk.
There was a black man and his son fishing just around the lake under a giant pin oak that had catalpa worms tangling its limbs with webs. The man had cut two sticks shaped like Ys and whittled the bottom ends into points with his pocketknife then jabbed those sticks in the ground to hold his fishing rods. He had a small copper bell clamped to the end of each rod and every couple of minutes one of those bells would get to ringing and his son would run down the bank and set the hook on another fish. They had an entire stringer of catfish, and, in between setting hooks and reeling in fish, the boy would walk down and pull the stringer up out of the water to count how many they’d caught while his dad re-baited the hooks and cast again.
“Why don’t you go ask what they’re fishing with?” my father asked. “I bet they’re using chicken livers.”
“They didn’t have any chicken livers in the vending machine,” I said.
“Or stink bait. They might be using stink bait.”
“They didn’t have stink bait either,” I said.
All of a sudden one of the bells rang and a fish yanked so hard that the rod holder ripped out of the ground and the rod skipped down the bank toward the water. The man jumped out of his chair, tripped over his tackle box, fell, and had to scuttle on his hands and knees those last few feet to grab ahold of the handle just before the fish drug his rod, reel, and all into the lake. The man came up with the rod doubled over and waving high in the air, and he tried to regain control as the drag screamed on his Zebco. Once he had his footing, he handed the rod to his son, and my father chugged the last half of his beer, crunched the can in his fist, stood, and said, “Come on, Henry.”
We were right there when the boy finally managed to reclaim enough line to get the fish within wading distance of the bank. The man had already rolled up his pants and taken off his shoes and socks. He waded into the lake with a trail of bubbles marking each step he took. When the fish came close, the man yelled instructions for his son to move a few feet to the left then a few steps to the right so that he might have a chance of getting his hands around their trophy. He knelt and cradled his arms in the water as the fish swam into him, and, when he had his catch in his hands, he carried the fish up the bank as if he were carrying a drowned child.
“My God, would you look at that,” my father exclaimed, his words almost breathless.
The fish was three feet long with scales as big around as fifty-cent pieces. Its barbeled mouth opened and closed for air, but its golden body was too spent to move.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A carp,” my father said.
The man and his son looked up when they heard my father’s voice.
“Y’all want this thing?” the man asked.
“What for?” my father asked.
“I thought y’all might eat these things,” the man said.
“What do you mean y’all?”
The man suddenly looked like he was about to choke on what he’d said and he stuttered, believing that he’d offended us. My father held his expression long enough that even I started to believe that the man had, but then he cracked a smile. Dad burst into laughter and the man looked confused for a second or two before he too started to laugh.
“You got any pliers?” my father asked.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Right there in that tackle box.”
My father lifted the trays from the tackle box and when he found the needle-nosed pliers he carried them over and knelt beside the man and the fish.
“These things got mouths like rubber,” he said. He worked to get the hook loose while the man held the fish against the ground. “You know I had an uncle who used to eat these things. He used to go catch them with some kind of dough balls he made in his bathtub. He used to put all kinds of things in that dough, everything from garlic to Kool Aid. He’d fillet all the bones out, cut out that mud vein—they’ve got a nasty mud vein running all through the meat—and then he’d smoke them.”
“I’ve got a cousin who grinds them up and makes carp burgers,” the man said.
“Poor’s poor,” my father said. “My dad brought one home one time when he was between jobs, but my mother wouldn’t let him bring it in the house.” He set the pliers on the ground and looked up. “There,” he said. “I think that’s got it.”
The hook was out of the carp’s mouth and the man grabbed the fish by its gills. He carried it down to the water and set the carp in the shallows. The man’s son was around my age and we stood together in silence watching the fish lie on its side, its flank out of the water, one fin rowing the air.
“You want a beer?”
“No. I better not,” the man said.
“Come on now,” my father urged. “Just a beer. Just right over where those chairs are. We can watch the boys fish.”
The man agreed and their voices softened as they climbed the bank and walked around the lake to my father’s cooler.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked.
“Henry,” I said.
“Mine’s Marcus,” he said.
We watched as the carp rocked its head side to side and before long the fish had righted itself. Marcus and I stayed put and watched as the carp slowly recovered. The fish lay there, its gills opening and closing, catching its breath and we did not say a word. All of a sudden, the surface exploded, water dripped from our smiling faces, and our wetted shirts clung to our chests. We looked at one another and keeled over in laughter. Marcus shook the water from his hair and I turned back to where the fish had been. Mud swirled the bottom and the water lapped the shore. And just like that, like the final act of a magic show, the thing we’d been watching was gone.
When we left Turtle Creek Campground, I didn’t know when I’d see my grandfather again. I didn’t understand what had happened between the two of them and I couldn’t foresee the day when my father would get a call and we’d drive down to bury his dad, just as we had his mother, beneath that scorching sun.
What I knew was that, come Monday morning, I’d start sixth grade at Smoky Mountain Middle School. I knew that I’d have Mrs. Hedgepath for Language Arts and I knew that was going to be a bad thing because everyone knew she was a bitch. I knew that I’d go out for basketball that fall, that I’d probably wind up riding the pine, and that, given the way I already felt, I’d more than likely fall in love with Jenna Gilmore.
That was the thing about twelve years old is that there was only black and white. There was no distant past and there was no far off future. There was only one way to think of time.
Mama’s Park Avenue blew a tire and lost the back left hubcap just as we came into town. My father didn’t blink and my mother didn’t say a word. He hobbled the camper home, threw the car in park, and the two of them walked inside the house holding hands and slept for two days straight. I kept Anna and me alive on Chef Boyardee, Cool Ranch Doritos, and fruit snacks until that Sunday night when my parents stumbled out of their bedroom and my mother asked if we were hungry.
I asked my father when he was going to take me squirrel hunting.
I told my mother I felt hungry forever.
David Joy is the author of the critically acclaimed Where All The Light Tends to Go. Check out his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @DavidJoy_Author. Also check out our interview with the author, his novel’s appearance on Bruce, Bourbon, and Books, and Joy's drunken playlist.
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