Read another excerpt from Catfish, the new novel by Madelyn Bennett Edwards.
A deep ravine separated the front yard of our old house from South Jefferson Street and was where we caught crawfish, tadpoles, turtles and, sometimes, after a hard rain, even minnows in its muddy waters. I held a bucket in my small hands. The weight of the hard-shelled snapper in my daddy’s galvanized pail made me bend over as I carried the load down the driveway and onto the road. I was bringing it to Catfish, a tall man who my brothers and I saw almost every day. I walked slowly with the bucket, afraid for so many reasons.
I was not allowed to talk to people who lived on the other side of Gravier Road in the “Quarters.” It was only about a block away, but it could have been miles, it was that much of a mystery. Our mother told us, “Those people eat white children,” which, of course, only made my brothers and me more curious about them.
I was seven and I knew about Vampires. I read Nancy Drew mysteries and even some of the Hardy Boys. If this tall man smiled I wondered whether I would see fangs.
But the bigger mystery that day had to do with a rumor about Catfish, who often stopped to whistle a tune or play his harmonica and dance for us, right there in the street. We’d overheard our mother and her friends talk about him during their Wednesday afternoon bridge game.
“They say he eats turtles,” Mrs. Rousseau said, fanning her cards in her left hand and rearranging them with her right. “I’ll bid two hearts.”
“You don’t say!” Miss June looked across the table at Mama who was her bridge partner and said, “I’ll bid two spades.”
“Turtles? Well, what do you expect from those ignorant Negroes,” Mrs. Ruth said. She looked at her cards and peered over them at her partner, Mrs. Rousseau. “I’ll bid two no-trump.”
“Catfish is nothing but a dumb clown. He dances in the streets to entertain the kids sometimes. That’s about all those people are good for,” our mother said and all the women laughed. “I’ll say, four spades.”
“Four spades? Anne must have a strong hand.” Miss June began to lay her cards on the table while Mama smiled and said, “We’ve got this, June.” And they did, win the hand, that is. Mama always won at bridge, she was something of a phenom at cards.
My brothers stood on the hill above the ditch, and watched me carry the turtle down the driveway and onto the road. My little brother, Will who was six, was worried about what would happen to me. He cried and yelled, over and over.
“Don’t go, Susie. Please, don’t go!”
James, our older, wiser brother was ten, and he wanted the man to eat me so he screamed out.
“Go on, Susie. Go on!”
I wasn’t sure what to do but I had already yelled across the ditch and told Catfish that we had the turtle, and my brothers were too chicken to take it to him.
I was a nervous child, the nails on my short, plump hands bitten to the quick, almost non-existent. My palms felt damp as they gripped the bucket’s handle.
I reached the bottom of the driveway and turned right, onto the blacktop road. He stood about three or four yards away. It was hot and humid and the sweat in my palms matched the perspiration that ran down my back. I knew the sweat was not totally from the heat.
Before I got to him he called to me.
“Hey little girl.” His voice was smooth and sweet, almost creamy. He sounded a lot like Tootsie. “You don’t need to be scared of me.”
“Who, me?” I tried to act big and brave but I knew my voice trembled. “I’m not afraid.”
He laughed. It was a hearty laugh, from deep in his belly. In fact, he held his belly while he laughed. It made me want to smile, but I was too terrified.
“Come on little girl,” he said. “I won’t bite you.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. Bite? Maybe Mama was right! It felt like my feet were glued to the pavement.
My arms started to tremble and the bucket began to swing.
He took a step towards me. I wanted to run, but my feet were stuck. I gripped the handle so tight my hands started to tingle, like pins pricking my palms. I craned my neck upward and stared into his eyes. I couldn’t look away. It was as if a magnetic force ran between my eyes and his.
It only took him two steps to reach me.
“You gonna hand me that bucket or you gonna hold on to it?” he asked. Creamy.
“I, uh, I, um, I’m going to give it to you,” I said. But when he reached down to take it, I couldn’t let go. My fingers were frozen around the handle.
His hand stopped in midair, as if he was afraid to touch my hands. We stood there, both cemented in time, staring at each other.
I noticed how long his hand was, and thin, not like my daddy’s whose hands were round and thick and hairy. Catfish’s nails were not bitten. They were smooth and pink, which contrasted with the color of his skin—dark, not black, not brown, but darker than any I’d ever seen, even darker than Tootsie’s.
“I promise I won’t hurt you, Missy,” he said. Again I noticed how kind his voice sounded. Is this a trick? “I’m much obliged for the turtle.”
I didn’t move.
“I’m going to make me some turtle stew.” He spoke slowly, his voice like syrup flowing off the sides of a stack of pancakes. “I’m gonna boil it till I know it’s dead, then I’m gonna break the shell, me. It’s the meat inside that’s good, yeah.”
I knew the boys were excited because we had solved the mystery, but here I was, stuck in the street with this man I wasn’t supposed to talk to, riveted by the sound of his voice, the depths of his eyes, the color of his skin, the length of his legs.
He looked directly into my eyes when he spoke. I’d never seen eyes so dark, like a never-ending dark hole, and I thought of how Mama said if we dug a hole deep enough we would reach China. I wondered whether the depths of his eyes reached somewhere across the ocean.
“After I gets the meat out the shell, I’m gonna cut her in little squares. Then I’m gonna dip them squares in corn meal and fry them in some boiling hot lard.”
I looked down and saw him slide his outstretched hand under the handle of the bucket. The pinkness glared up at me. My mouth opened in surprise. How could one side of his hand be so dark and the other so light?
I loosened my grip and the handle fell into his palm.
It was as if he had two hands on each arm, one so dark it could have been dipped in chocolate, the other, pinkish white, the same color as mine. I let my arms drop to my sides and I lifted my eyes to look at him.
“Is your name really Catfish?” I asked.
“Sure is.” He laughed.
“That’s not a real name,” I said.
“It’s my nickname. You got a nickname?”
“No. My name is Susie.”
“Is Susie short for Susanna?” he asked.
“How did you know that?”
“Well, if it is, then Susie’s a nickname,” he said.
I thought about that a moment.
“Well, then, is Catfish short for Cadillac?”
He set the bucket on the road, held his belly, and bent forward. He laughed and laughed and, finally, I started to laugh, too. I wasn’t aware of anyone else in the world. It was just me and Catfish.
Finally, when we got hold of ourselves, he picked up the bucket.
“Me and my family going to have us a good supper tonight, us,” he said. “We shore will!” Smooth, creamy, dripping in syrup.
Oh, I thought. He has a family. Does he have children, grandchildren? I wondered how his touch might feel to a child, like me. Was it tender and loving like Tootsie’s or was it harsh and rough like Daddy’s? For some reason, I had to know the answer. I reached my hand up in a gesture that meant I wanted to shake his. I think he was shocked. He looked from side to side, as if to see if someone might be watching. He shifted the bucket from his right hand to his left and reached forward to fold my tiny hand into his. I looked at the long, dark hand folded around the end of my arm. It felt soft and gentle and kind. I didn’t want him to let go. I wondered, when he washed his hands, whether they got lighter on the tops, or whether they stayed dark no matter how hard he scrubbed.
To a seven-year-old white girl in 1958 a decade before integration, in a small town in the Deep South, Catfish was an oddity. His eyes were as deep as the ocean, his voice, soothing as molasses; his touch like a gentle breeze; and his laugh, as hearty as gumbo. If that wasn’t enough, his hands! Chocolate on one side, cotton candy on the other.
I watched Catfish march down South Jefferson Street towards the Quarters, legs lifted high, knees bent as he sang, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” He swung his arms, the heavy bucket in one hand as light to his touch as if it was filled with air. I stood in the street until long after he crossed Gravier Road and disappeared into the unknown.
My brothers were speechless as they stood in our front yard on the other side of the deep ditch and I was planted to the pavement watching Catfish march off.