Read an excerpt from Catfish, the new novel by Madelyn Bennett Edwards.
South Jefferson Street
Jean Ville, Louisiana
After my great uncle died, Daddy bought the biggest house in Jean Ville, Louisiana from his widow and moved us up South Jefferson Street from our small ranch style house. I was eleven, going on twelve, and my bedroom, which faced the road had floor-to-ceiling French windows that opened onto a deep front porch that spanned the entire front of our antebellum home.
We had only been in the Big House a year, when I was reading in bed and smelled smoke through the opened window. It seemed to hang in the air, mixed with a distinct barnyard stink and the smell of burning rubber. A loud roar, like thunder, rose from the ground and my bed shook. I crawled out of the high four-poster, pulled my long hair into a ponytail and tiptoed to the divan between the two front windows. Kneeling on the rough tapestry, I pulled the thick, blue drapes back a few inches and peered through the blinds.
Engines revved and horns blared while horses galloped over the sidewalk and through our front yard. I watched as if in a dream while three pickup trucks, their beds loaded with people in white sheets, dunce hats and white fabric over their faces with two holes for eyes, pulled into the driveway and drove across the wide, front lawn.
It was summer, almost five months since Mardis Gras. What was the occasion for this parade, or was it a celebration? White-costumed people in pickups and on more than a dozen galloping horses waved torches in our front yard.
Two of the men—now I knew they were men because I could see their boots and jeans under the sheets that flapped open in the fronts—jumped out of a truck bed and ran towards the front of our house. Their boots thumped up the thirteen steps onto the porch. They were so close I could have touched them. I cowered behind the heavy curtains, still peeking through the opening but instinctively backing a few inches away from the window, stretching the drapes out in front of me. One of the men held a can of paint while the other dipped a brush into it several times and wiped it across the white wood. He saw me peeping through the open window.
“Get away from here, girl. Go back to bed,” he said. “You don’t need to be involved.”
I backed away, moved to the other window.
Three other ghost-clad people carried what, from the back, looked like a huge crucifix, into the middle of the yard. When they stood it up, it was twice as tall as the tallest of the men. Two more men ran up behind them with shovels, dug a hole and within seconds, planted the body-less cross.
Then they packed the dirt around the bottom with their boots and lit the cross on fire. The men on the porch joined the ones in the yard to form a circle around the cross and chanted something I couldn’t understand. All the while horns blew, men yelled, trucks revved, and horses galloped in circles around the ring of men, tearing up our yard and making so much noise I saw the lights go on in Dr. David’s Switzer’s house across the street.
I was so enthralled I didn’t hear Daddy come into my room.
“Get back to bed, Susie!” he said, pulling the drapes fully opened and lifting the blinds in one whisk. I backed up and stood behind him. He put one of his big hands on either side of the window and leaned forward as if to make his head go through the screen. When he saw the action he stormed out of my room, through the hall and onto the porch, just as the men jumped into the beds of the pickups, and the caravan of trucks and horses with men carrying lighted torches, paraded down South Jefferson Street towards the Quarters, where Tootsie and Catfish lived.
“Hey, you renegades,” Daddy yelled. “Get off my property before I call the sheriff.”
But it was too late. They’d already left and no one moved to stop them.
Daddy called the sheriff and spoke to a man who said he was the only deputy on duty and couldn’t leave the jail—he’d give the message to the sheriff in the morning. Someone would come by to check out the scene. Daddy mumbled something about the sheriff being, “In on this,” and hung up.
The cross in our yard burned brightly for hours. I was scared and the bright light of the fire kept me awake so I crawled in bed with Mama and Daddy and laid my head in the crook of Daddy’s arm and cried. He stroked my hair and whispered to me until my eyelids got heavy and I stopped sobbing. He explained that those people called themselves the Ku Klux Klan and harbored hate in their hearts. He said they wanted to keep blacks and whites separated and used fear tactics to make sure that happened, but would never go so far as to hurt a little girl.
I asked him why they came to our house.
“It’s a warning,” he said. “They think I should stop being friends with Ray Thibault.”
Daddy said that colored people were the same as whites. He grew up on a farm in Backwoods, Louisiana, population 400, about twenty miles from Jean Ville, the parish seat of Toussaint Parish, where we lived.
“I was friends with Moses’s son, Rufus,” Daddy said. “We played and ate supper together and hunted and fished, like brothers. We talked a lot. He had feelings and dreams and aspirations just like I did. God doesn’t see differences because someone’s skin is darker than another’s.
“Jesus had dark skin, you know,” he told me that night. I didn’t know that. The Jesus at Assumption Catholic Elementary School I attended with my brothers was white—the one hanging on the cross, the picture with the big heart, the statue in the grotto—they were all white men.
Daddy said the KKK hated Jews, too, but they didn’t bother the Switzers because they provided medical care for the Klan members and their families.
Dr. David and Dr. Joseph Switzer, brothers and two of only a handful of physicians in Jean Ville were Daddy’s friends. The older brother, Dr. David, lived directly across South Jefferson Street from our house and had delivered all five of us kids. He made house calls when I was sick and reminded me of the Santa Claus I had believed in when I was little—what with his jolly, loving manner, and all.
Daddy said God was colorblind.
But while he talked, I thought about the different things Mama had taught us. Mama was what you might call, prejudice—I mean, she thought differently.
“I’m from North Louisiana” she said. “Where Negroes are Negroes. They know their place, and there aren’t many of them. We ran the uppity ones off early on.” She told me and my brothers to stay away from, “those people,” except for our help, Tootsie. But even with Tootsie, there were lines we shouldn’t cross, like going to visit her in the Quarters or kissing her brown cheek.
Mama rolled her eyes behind Daddy’s back when he talked about coloreds being people and God loving us all the same. We’d laugh to each other because we knew she’d tell us the opposite once Daddy was gone. When he wasn’t around she told us colored people had tiny brains and were the “inferior,” race. And she treated Tootsie something terrible, didn’t pay her much money, and made poor Tootsie do all the dirty work like scrubbing toilets and sifting through garbage if we lost something. I always wondered why Tootsie stayed. She could have worked for any white family in Jean Ville but she worked for Mama until I went off to college, years later.
The Klan visit only made Daddy more determined not to change his stance on colored people. One day I heard him tell Mama that he had coffee with Mr. Ray Thibault at Charlie’s Diner downtown every morning before heading to the Toussaint Bank where he was vice president at the time.
“I love to watch the looks on the faces of the sheriff and his cronies when they come in the front door, look around, and spot me at the corner table with Ray,” he said. “They’ll have to do more than burn a cross in my yard and paint words on my house to make me change who I am as a man.”
“I don’t know why you have to be friends with that Negro,” Mama said. “There are lots of white men in this town who admire you and want to be your friend. Why do you waste your time?”
“Ray and I have a lot in common,” he told her. Then he proceeded to explain all the reasons why it didn’t matter what color Ray Thibault’s skin was. Mama listened and rolled her eyes behind his back.
I thought about the only two colored people I knew, Tootsie and Catfish. Tootsie had been with us since I was an infant and I never thought of her as any color. She was more of a mother to me than my own, and I loved her almost as much as I loved God.
Catfish was a dark man who walked in front of our house every afternoon on his way home from work. I first met him when I was little, about six or seven.