In the Company of Strangers
As a kid, I was never fond of catfish. They were ugly, slimy, and always jabbed me a few times with their "stingers" before I could get them off the hook. I did not understand how any sane person could put the flesh of such an ugly creature in their mouth. In spite of Mark Twain's praise, they were not a good enough fish for me.
The summer between my high school junior and senior year, I changed my opinion.
My mother had two brothers in Santa Rosa, Texas who owned a large canning factory. Mexican pineapple, primarily. Phil was her twin. Harold came somewhere in the middle of the brood of thirteen. Phil was the runt of the litter. My grandpa used to say that mom got all the good stuff. What Phil lacked in looks and stature, he more than compensated in kindness and charm.
The summer before, at Grandpa's, he came through on a whirlwind visit while I was there. Some say it was to take his lady friend to Texas with him to marry her. No one in the family had ever met her. Some say she was retarded and often had "fit" spells.
"Hero," his nickname for me because of my reputation as a football and basketball star, "you must come to Santa Rosa next summer and work in the factory. Make money. You'll need it when you go off to college. I'm not there much, but Harold runs the plant so you can stay with him. I'll let him know if you decide to come."
It was the summer of '51. I "goosed angles" from central Oklahoma to San Antonio on $2.37. I slept in a ditch by the roadside the first night out. The next day, somewhere in north Texas I caught a ride with a middle aged woman driving a l949 cobalt blue Packard. It had a division window. I had never seen such elegance. "There were only fifty of these made," she told me. "I a...borrowed it from my husband."
"Where is he?" I asked innocently.
"Back east...Chicago," she said. Then she glanced at me to see if I reacted to that information.
The lady fed me. Several times. When we walked into a restaurant, she insisted on holding my hand. She always sat next to me in the booth. She liked to place her hand on my thigh and stroke it as she talked.
My face fired red each time.
She always giggled and said, "You are so precious. Are there anymore like you back home?"
I found it impossible to answer with the lump in my throat. I knew if I tried I would squeak like a thirteen year old suffering puberty.
When we came to San Antonia, she invited me to go on to El Paso with her. Maybe even San Diego. When I declined, she drove me to the Greyhound depot, bought me a ticket to Santa Rosa, then insisted I had to give her a kiss to pay her back.
The lady pried my mouth open with her tongue and Frenched me until I choked and gasped for breath. That was my first French kiss.
Later, on the bus, I found a ten dollar bill in my pocket.
The bus pulled into Santa Rosa midmorning. I called my uncle Harold's house.
His wife, Fay, answered and said she would come and get me. I was to wait by the newsstand. At ten o'clock that evening my uncle Harold finally showed up. He said nothing on the way to the house. Once there, he showed me to my room, a screened porch connecting to the kitchen. It was furnished with an army cot and a wicker chair.
Uncle Harold tossed me an army blanket and said, "The bathroom is in the hallway just through this door. You are not to go anywhere else in the house."
I lived in this room for two and a half months. My meals, breakfast and a cold supper were brought to me and placed on my cot. I never saw any other part of the house. I knew I had two cousins here, but I never saw them. I seldom saw Harold except for the drive to and from work. I never saw my uncle Phil. He was in Mexico, buying, I was told.
I saw Fay each morning when she brought me my breakfast. She seldom said anything, which was alright with me. Her face reminded me of old lady Sherman, a next door neighbor to us in Kanawa and mean as a Billy goat. One morning, however, she handed me my food and said, "You are to stay here in your room today. I might need you a little later. You can drive, right?"
I nodded yes.
A couple of hours later Fay came staggering into the room. She sat down on the cot, her face, bloodless white.
I started to stand up and go to her. She motioned me off with her hand. In a moment she said, "I broke my water."
I had no idea what that meant.
In time, her color returned and she stood. "I'll be back," she said. As she left, I noticed her robe was soaked around her hips. I checked my cot. I was dumbfounded. It appeared she had come in here to sit on my bed to pee.
It wasn't long before she returned with a shoe box. "Take this out back and bury it," she handed it to me. "You are not to look in it. And I don't ever want to know where you did it."
I took the box, dug a hole in the woods, and placed the box in it. Then curiosity got me. I opened the box. It contained something wrapped in a bloody towel. I unwrapped the towel. At the first sight, my head spun and I dropped to my knees. It was a baby.
I stayed there for a long time, ravaged by uncertainty. I did not want to put it back into the hole. Finally, because of my fear of both Fay and Harold, I decided I had no other choice. I buried the baby and wept as I walked back to the house. I never told anyone about this.
I worked each day for 10 to 12 hours, operating a pineapple peeler. It was a monster of a machine. During my time there, it chewed up parts of the hand and arm of four Mexicans.
Finally, it was time for me to return home for the start of football practice. I planned to buy a bus ticket with my wages. When I told uncle Harold, he became angry. "We're not through. I still need you."
I tried to explain that I had to return for school, and asked once again for my pay.
"You have nothing coming," he said coldly. "What you made goes to room and board."
Stunned, I told Alonso, a friend at work, about it and that I had no idea what I was going to do. After a time he came back and said, "Hey, don't worry. We'll go fishing. Catch a big cat. Sell it down in nigger town."
That day when he got off work, he came by to get me. I left the peeler turned on, spitting pineapple everywhere. I hoped it clogged and burnt up.
We parked on the banks of a canal that came off the Rio Grande. As Alonso and his brother sat bating throw lines, he explained to me that I would work the first three and he and his brother would go on up stream with the remaining six. He cautioned me strongly that if I hooked an alligator gar, I was not to try to land it but I should call for them and they would shoot it with their twenty-two. I was suppose to check the lines about every twenty minutes, and was to be very careful when I pulled them in because if I hooked a gar, they would fight and could hook my hands. I asked how I would know if it was a gar. "You'll know," he grinned.
I checked the lines faithfully every twenty minutes. Nothing. Finally after a couple of hours, I checked the third line. About half way in, I felt resistance and saw the water roll. It was big. I dropped the line, then picked it up and tried again. It rolled again but this time I saw more of the fish. It was huge. I was sure I had hooked a gar. I yelled for Alonso.
While I waited for them, I decided to try one more time. This time the monstrous head of a catfish broke water. Somehow, I managed to keep my wits and kept on pulling. It slid out of the water easily. I was standing over it, mouth gapping, when my friends arrived.
"That is a big one," Alonso said calmly. "We caught four, 10 to 15 pounds each. Yours is one of the biggest I've ever seen. It should be enough to get you home."
I carried the fish to the truck on my back. I was 6' 4" tall, with my hands in the gills it's head came above mine and it's tail hung below my hips.
At his house, Alonso's mom fed me my first Mexican dinner while he went to sell the fish. The refried beans, rice and tortillas I loved. The carne something or other was a might spicy. She laughed when my eyes teared.
Alonso returned with a hug grin busting his face. "Hey, amigo," he dumped a pocketful of money on the table. Your fish weighed 102 pounds. At fifty cents a pound, dressed out to 62 pounds, you have thirty one dollars. Your ticket cost eighteen dollars. I checked. You got more than enough here."
I slept in Alonso's bed that night. He slept with his brother.
The next morning Alonso gave me a map showing the way to the bus depot. Before he left he hugged me and presented me with his favorite sombrero. He laughed when I put it on. "All you need now is some cowboy boots."
I had never owned a pair. I always wanted some.
His mom put a sack lunch in my hand, hugged me, then held me arms length for inspection. She hugged me again, kissed my forehead, and smiled. She said nothing. Her soft brown eyes said it all.
On the way to the depot, I passed a shoe store. A pair of brown cowboy boots displayed in the window would not let me go on until I at least checked the price. I pointed to the boots and asked the clerk how much.
"Seventeen fifty," he replied.
I dumped my money on the counter and counted it. Thirty-three dollars and some change.
"You have plenty enough," he said.
"I don't know. I have t' buy a ticket home. I have t' get there before football practice starts."
"How much the ticket?"
The clerk grinned. "Fifteen dollar for the football boy."
I put the boots on right there. I beamed all the way home.
Today, every time I hear the word, catfish, I smile real big.
James C. Hartsell