This short story appears in the Winter 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
It was back a few years ago, and I had just had a couple of new books released, so I was on the road on a tour of Mississippi schools, having made trips to Arkansas and Missouri a few weeks earlier. That’s the way these things work: one year I might not get outside the state of Texas, and the next, I’m all over the South.
I occasionally venture off to places so far away that I have to fly, but the money has to be pretty good to force me to leave my truck at home. I started flying airplanes when I was thirteen, and nothing thrills me much more than sitting in a window seat watching those flaps and spoilers and ailerons doing their job, because I know what’s going on, and I like to guess when something is about to rise or lower out there on that wing. Now that I carry a GPS with me, I can follow our flight path with no trouble and look down and not have to guess what town that is in the distance or what river we’re flying over.
So it’s not the flying that bothers me: it’s that dead time—and that’s exactly what it is, dead time—that comes before lifting off one runway and after settling down on another. Getting through an airport now is an ordeal that I’d as soon pass on if I can, and if a drive takes me less than ten hours, I take my truck. I always load the backseat with books to sell and give away, and I don’t have to worry about losing a bag. I can also take a .45 Springfield XD with me, which the airlines, no matter how much you try to reason with them, won’t let you carry on the plane.
On this particular trip I had readings/workshops at Delta State University, Mississippi College, Belhaven College, and Mississippi State, and I took my truck. I just kick back with the radio blaring and let my mind go. It’s not a bad way to get from one place to another.
OK, I’d been driving about seven hours or so when I crossed the Mississippi line at Vicksburg. I had eaten nothing all day except for a Spam sandwich that I fixed that morning before I left the house, so my stomach was starting to gnaw at me. I needed to get to Delta State in Cleveland sometime that evening, but I didn’t have a program until the next day, so I decided to take Highway 61 North, hit Highway 1, and drive on up the river to Greenville. I hadn’t been up through there in quite a while, so I thought the drive might be a nice break from the interstate. I’ve always liked the Delta.
It was the middle of the afternoon by the time I reached Highway 1, and my appetite was on a rage, so I decided that I ought to stop at some little joint and have myself some catfish fillets, which I had been craving, a condition that for me might set in anywhere from sunup to the next sunup, Monday to Monday, January to January. I’m that way about cheeseburgers too: I’d as soon have one for breakfast as for supper. At any rate, I figured that my chances of finding catfish fillets were slim out there in the middle of nowhere at all, but when it comes to food, hope springs internal, as they say, so I started looking. After all, this was Mississippi, where catfish were invented, or at least discovered.
Well, I was passing through this little town somewhere a fair distance from anywhere else when I seen this little café off to my left: a plain frame structure with a hand-painted sign that advertised hamburgers and nachos and a couple of other things. (That particular use of seen is heard quite often among Southerners, especially tornado survivors who describe to the reporter the progress of the funnel: “Me’n Murle was standin’ in the doorway of the trailer when we seen it drop right down out of a big old black cloud over yonder behind that schoolbus propped up on them blocks—it sounded like a freight train . . .”)
Sez I to myself, “Why not? Give it a shot.”
The best I could tell, the place had not been troubled with a coat of paint for a very long time, though I did see traces of color in some of the cracks of the boards, but most of it was green and might have been mildew. My truck was the only vehicle in the parking lot, which had had a course of gravel slung across it recently, but out back there was an old white Lincoln Town Car with a cardboard and duct-tape window on the driver’s rear side nosed up to a BBQ grill broken down on one end.
I sat there idling a few seconds, then killed the engine and got out and went inside. The screen door had that nice Southern squawk that I grew up hearing a few hundred times a day.
The interior was what I’d call Early American Ghetto in decor, with a few cheap tables with floormica (as pronounced by my family when I was growing up) tops scattered about and a pool table with shredded felt, and slumped over onto one of the regular tables was a lad I judged to be somewhere between fifteen and fifty (tough to tell back in there, life being pretty hard and all) with his head on the floormica, dead asleep, and at the point of heavy drooling. I didn’t study him long, since I had my mind on catfish fillets.
I cleared my throat to let anyone else in the building know that a customer had drifted in, and in a few seconds an elderly lady shuffled out of the kitchen area, her bare feet whispering on the linoleum floor, and asked whether she could “hep” me.
She was what Mother would have called a bean pole, skin the texture and color of an old saddle, but I got the idea that, armed with a skillet, you wouldn’t want to be cornered by her. It was obvious that she wasn’t really prepared for company and didn’t care that she wasn’t. The dress she wore, a floral print splotched with kitchen grease, was merely draped on her, like something you’d throw over a lawn chair to dry in the sun.
I looked over the menu hanging high on the wall and saw nothing resembling catfish on it, but I thought I’d give it a shot anyway.
“Fersher you can,” I said, “Onsome catfish fillets, fried, and nothin’ else. You got any?” (I can talk the talk, having grown up with it.)
She craned her neck and looked up at the menu. “Ain’t no catfish on the menu,” she said. “Ain’t been for a while.”
“I see that. But this is Mississippi, and the Mississippi Delta at that—I thought that folks here eat catfish three meals a day.”
“I rekkin that mighta been the case at one time, but now folks around here seem to perfer hamburgers and nachos, which is what I’m best at. I burnt out on catfish a couple of decades ago. I make a mean hamburger, though.”
“Yeah, well, so’s everbody else in this country. It’s catfish I’m cravin,’ though. And you don’t have any?”
“I ain’t got any real catfish.”
Now that is the kind of statement that will get your attention. Your mind immediately begins fishing around for meaning. She got a laboratory back there somewhere where she makes catfish in test tubes and petri dishes? Got some freeze-dried packages that you add water to and what comes out is catfish? These days anything is possible, I suppose.
But before I could say a word, she walked over to a freezer and pulled out a family-size bag of something.
“I got these from a Walmarts down in Vicksburg. It says catfish fillets on it. Could be, but I ain’t guaranteeing nuthin.’ I keep’m here for the boy—he could eat a whole bag of’m at a time, the bag included. Never tasted’m myself.”
I just shrugged. “Let’s go for it. Fry me up four or so, and I’ll see what they are.”
She shuffled back into the kitchen and laid four of whatever was onto a piece of aluminum foil, then returned the bag to the freezer, and said, “Them’ll take a few minutes to unthaw. They cook better if they ain’t froze.” (Unthaw? My God, that’s what my Mother would have said: “I done laid out a roast to unthaw for supper.”)
So we had a chanch to talk. She fixed me a big glass of sweetened iced tea and brought it over to the table and motioned for me to sit down. She sat down across from me.
“It ain’t no tellin’ what them is,” she said, motioning toward the kitchen. “Ain’t shaped like no catfish fillets I ever seen. All’s I know for sure is that whatever it is prolly lived in water at one time.”
“Well, like I say, I’ll see what they are.”
“Me’n my husband opened this place a long time ago when the sawmill he was workin’ for shut down over east of here. Time was, it was a purty fair little ol’ café, and we made a right smart money for a while. Then I found out he’d been stealin’ money from the cash drawer and havin’ a fling with some old bitch cow whore that worked in the office of the sawmill he had worked at, and I had to run him off. Then one of them big oil compnies opened a convenience store up the road, with a fried chicken and po’boy joint in it, and thangs slacked off here. Now it’s all’s I can do to pay the utilities and keep the place stocked.”
“Where you live at?”
She pointed toward the back of the place.
“Got a trailer back in there a ways at the edge of the woods, what uppity folks call a mo-bile home. Me’n the boy stays there, along with Cousin Albert, that’s got the cancer. I gotta look after and feed him too. We used to serve breakfast here, but it got to where it wudn’t worth it, havin’ to get up before sunup and cook a whole bunch of bacon and sausage and biscuits and have to thowe half of it away uneat, so now we open on up in the mornin’ and shut down just before dark. You still settin’ here come dark, and I’ll shoo you out. I spect that soon I’ll just open for the few lunch people regulars.
“Lost pire when Katrina come roarin’ up from the Coast, and three freezers of food was rurnt. Didn’t get nuthin but a whole lot of wind and rain, but the pire was off for might near a week, and wudn’t nuthin’ insured.
“We had to dump all that good food out back, and before we could bury it, buzzards was on it, and dogs and cats. I spent half my time settin’ on the back porch shooin’ off all them critters with a shotgun while I was waitin’ for a guy to come over with his tracture and gouge a hole and bury it.
“And I had to keep him off the pile.” She motioned toward the boy. “He’ll eat anything he can get hold of and swaller if I ain’t watchin’ real close.”
She sighed and shook her head. “A mess is what it was.”
She told me that she would never get caught like that again, though, that she had bought generators for the trailer and café, that she would be ready next time, and my reply was, “At’s good.”
Then she got off onto the men in her life and how one of them, the cousin who had moved in with them, was dying with the cancer and the other one, the boy slumped on the table, had a whole lot of medical problems and was due to go to the doctor that very afternoon. Said he was on medication, which is how come he had his head down on the table top and was drooling like that. When I suggested that we lug him over to the pool table and spread him out there, where he might be more comfortable, she said there wasn’t any need to, that he was out cold right where he was and wouldn’t know whether he was on felt or floormica.
I kept whispering about him, but she said that it didn’t matter how loud I talked since he had been deaf since birth.
“He b’longs to my daughter that works up in Greenville at a high school cafeteria. Her sorry-ass husband—pardon my I-talian—left her as soon as he found out the boy was deef and would need all kinds of medication and help the rest of his life. He’s got more thangs wrong with him than Carter has got liver pills, if you know what I mean. The doctors say that he ort to be dead by now, but you can see that he ain’t, or wudn’t the last time I checked.”
“How old is he?”
“Not far from thirty. Might as well be three. Just dressin’ him and keepin’ him clean and out of trouble takes a good portion of my day.”
She shook her head. “I’m trying to hold the fambly together, but sometimes it’s real hard, all these men needin’ tendin’ to.”
“Sometimes I get to thankin’ that if it wasn’t for us women, the whole damn world would come to what they call a screechin’ halt. Men just screw everthang up, you know. They mean right, I spect, but they just don’t have no idear how the world works. We hold everthang together. Without women, y’all would blow yerselves up in half a heartbeat. The whole damn thang. Or starve.
“I don’t know why the Lawerd made so many of y’all anyhow. It don’t take but one to spread his seed thoo the village, as they say. Ever town in the world ort to have one that they keep locked up and chained and send in the women one at a time to get bred. Them breedin’ age would raise the children and raise’m right. Them over breedin’ age would run the world and run it right.”
“Ok,” I said, “but what about the male children? About half the babies would be male.”
“Keep’m as long as they are cute and manageable, and them drown’m in the river.”
“Good Lord, woman, I’m glad y’all don’t run the world.”
“It’d be run right for once.”
“OK, but just for the sake of argument, where do the soldiers come from? And the policemen? The construction workers?”
“If women run the world, there wouldn’t be no wars and not enough crime to worry about. Don’t no woman get mixed up with crime without some man put her up to it. Look how many’s in prison, compared to men. And you know as well as I do that any woman can do a man’s work when she has to. She might not can pick up as big a load as a man, but she’ll figger out how to get the job done. And don’t you thank for one minute that women ain’t as good as soldiers and po-lice.”
I didn’t reply to that, just nodded and looked toward the kitchen.
“I guess I better get yer fish on. They ort to be unthawed by now.”
“Yes’m, I spect they might be.”
She went to the kitchen and got a Fry-Daddy going.
I got up and walked over to the kitchen doorway. “You doin’ much binness these days?”
“Naw, just enough to keep the place goin’. I got a few old people that comes in fairly reglar, and some niggers that live close by. Like I say, enough that I can pay for pire and keep enough food on hand. Thank the Lawerd I got a deep well on the place—ain’t no water lines out to here, and I couldn’t afford the bills if they was.”
“What about, you know, when you’re not able to run this place anymore? What’ll you and this, uh, kid do?”
“When that time comes, I’ll just have to shut this place down and let him go, send him on back to his momma and tell her I can’t do it no more.”
She motioned toward the back. “By that time Albert will be long gone. He’s all but dead now.”
She dropped four small fillets into the grease.
“See, if them was still froze, they’d pop all over the place. I might ort to of ast did you just want’m baked, but you said fried, so fried is what yer gon’ get.”
“Yes’m, fried is what I want.”
After a bit she took a Styrofoam carton and laid a paper towel in it, and scooped up the fillets. She put them in the cartoon, snapped it to, and handed it to me.
“Air y’are. Some kinda fish fillets. Yon’t some ketchup?”
“Yes’m, please, and maybe a cup of that iced tea to go.”
Soon she was back with four fillets in a Styrofoam carton and a tall cup of tea.
“Yont some ketchup? Oh, sorry, I done ast you that.”
She gave me a handful of little ketchup packets. “At’ll be three dollars.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said and handed her a twenty and left before she could put up a fuss about it.
In a few minutes I was back on the road and tentatively sampling a steaming fillet, which, I must admit, was not all that bad. I didn’t know whether I was eating catfish or not, only that whatever it was probably did once live in water, you know, before it got to the Walmarts. My mind was less on what I was eating than it was on the old woman back at the café, whose tiny frame seemed hardly up to the task of managing the men in her care. But I knew she would. Women always do, bless them. And I kept thinking about that ideal world she fancied, free of war and crime, where every village would have one guy to keep it going and what it would be like to be that guy and what they would do with him when it was time to put him out to pasture. ♦
Paul Ruffin is Distinguished Professor of English at Sam Houston State University, where he edits the Texas Review and directs Texas Review Press. He is also a prolific author of fiction and nonfiction.