Cat, Catfish, Cat
for Helen Lampkin
What does one do with her hair for a date of catfishing in the Untethered Lagoon? These were the days before the proper ponytail and permanent, and pomade would sweat and drip. What Jo-Alice did was take her hair, straightened by a hot iron comb with thinly-spaced teeny teeth, and put it into four big braids. She then took a kerchief and wrapped that around her head. And what does one wear? Saddle shoes, socks over her stockings, and a dark dress that won’t stain. That is what Jo-Alice wore.
Charles, she saw, had more freedom. He wore denim overalls and a clean shirt. His hair was cut low and pomaded. Little rose-shaped curls grew all over his head. He carried a tackle box. She carried a picnic basket. They met right at Jo-Alice’s gate, before the sun rose, before the first roosters woke to wake everyone else. “Can you see me, Charles? It’s so dark out yet.”
“I can see the shape of you,” he said. “And I can sense your beauty. Girl, I can smell it.”
“You’re smelling the cold chicken I got packed here in this basket.”
“I have two fishing poles,” Charles said. “I’m going to teach you to fish.” His “going” sounded like “gone.”
“Who say I don’t know how?” Jo-Alice asked.
The two walked beside each other, slowly, hardly talking. They listened to the day begin with the buzzing of cicadas and the dying out of the cricket song. “Going to be hot today,” she said, and her accent was just like his. “This may be the last thing I do today, fishing with you.”
“Then it’ll be a good day. We’ll catch some big muddy monsters. Your mama could fry them up for y’all. She make good catfish?”
“What a rude question, Charles. I wonder about your upbringing sometimes. What you think?”
They came to a walking bridge that didn’t have a name, but it was the bridge that brought everyone to Untethered and away again. You could only walk from this point: no horses, no cars. The bridge could fit three abreast, but not very comfortably. Two side by side was perfect, but with their basket and tackle box, Jo-Alice and Charles walked pretty close together. It was a rope bridge with wooden planks. No one knew who built it, but everyone assumed it was slave work long ago, the days before pressing combs and the carelessness of early morning fishing.
“You are getting too close, Charles,” Jo-Alice said. She considered herself a forward-thinking woman, but Charles was acting too sure of himself.
“It’s a narrow bridge.”
“Narrow, my ass.”
“It is. We got to let that cat pass.”
“Up yonder. Look.”
Jo-Alice saw the glow of the animal’s eyes before she saw the actual animal. Two gold-green globes of light which now narrowed at her and her escort. Jo-Alice felt an unwelcomed chill, and then immediately felt silly for her fear. The cat’s form came into view out of the shadows. A dingy black cat with white paws and a white tip of the tail. A white triangle began between its eyes and finished at his chin. “Mangy old tom,” she said.
“Be careful, now, Jo-Alice. Cats can shake a bridge.”
“Get out! You are too much, Charles Williams.” But she didn’t take her eyes off of the cat’s eyes to look back at Charles. Something was unnerving about that cat.
“No, I’m serious, Jo-Alice. Cats are creatures that you don’t mess with, especially a black cat. If he senses something off by you, he’ll show you who is boss by throwing his weight around.”
The world was lightening up around them with the rising sun. The cat crept forward and Jo-Alice could see one of those white paws placed ahead of the other three. The bridge creaked. Jo-Alice’s heart dropped.
“Smile at it.”
“I ain’t smiling at no cat.” She watched the cat as it walked closer. The bridge shook. Jo-Alice jumped closer to Charles. “Shit.”
“Little girl, I told you.”
“I’m not a girl anymore, Charles.”
“You acting like one. Just do what I say.”
The cat crept closer still, one step, two, three, each white-covered paw moving independently of the others. The bridge shook more.
“Smile, girl,” Charles said from behind her.
Jo-Alice, who was now in Charles’ arms, smiled. Charles put his arms around her and the bridge stilled. “Let’s go,” Charles said. He let her go and walked on the outside so that he would be the one who’d have to share space with the cat as they passed. The two continued to Untethered Lagoon.
“You are having problems with your worms,” Jo-Alice said. She took the hook from Charles along with the large night crawler he was working with. “Teacher, be taught.” She simply baited the hook and gave it back to Charles.
“I’ll be damned. You learned fast.”
“I didn’t learn from you.” She was annoyed with her fishing partner, who kept whistling. “You’re scaring the fish away, man.” She sucked her teeth at him.
Fishing, they both sat on a peer, side by side, with their lines in the water. Charles kept whistling and talking. He kept letting his rough hand rest on Jo-Alice’s thigh. “Look here,” she said after some time, “I’m going to catch jackshit with you. I’m going down a bit. You stay here.” Jo-Alice walked south around the lagoon. It was a small body of water, maybe more of a pond than a lagoon, maybe more of a lake than a pond. The water here was far from the farms and civilization. People who fished here kept it clean and kept it secret. The only other fishers she saw at Untethered were black like her or the occasional Native American. Her father had told her that when slavery was still in vogue, escapees would stop here first to fish and rinse the smell of plantation and hate from their clothes and bodies.
Now, Jo-Alice’s line was taut. Something was biting. From experience, she knew it was something big. She led it a while, then pulled. Charles, noisy and clumsy, let go of his own line and came running at her. “I’ll help you, baby girl,” he said. To herself, she said, ‘If that motherfucker don’t stop calling me girl.’ The thought invigorated her. She pulled and saw that fish face crest the water, whiskers wild and stiff shaking from the force of the line and the water.
“That’s a big, muddy bastard,” Charles said. He jumped up and down like a tree animal. ‘Why can’t he be still,’ Jo-Alice thought. She yanked when she should have played, ripping the skin off of her right hand’s index finger. But that fish breached the water again. This time, a little bit of its body showed through.
“Help or back off, Chuck.”
Charles got behind her and he helped bring it in. It was an ugly thing, as catfish are, but beautiful, too, in its resistance and its size. Its rubbery whiskers crazily whipped the air about him. Its heavy jaws bulged with the audacity of being above water, heavy fish lips flopped open and closed, indignant at the idea of dying, of being somewhere not home, not wet. Its body struggled and the tail swished as if he were swimming in the air around him. Eyes bulging to capacity. Gasping for breath and hardly breathing.
“Watch that you don’t get cut,” Charles said, meaning for Jo-Alice to steer clear of its whiskers and rough skin.
Jo-Alice ignored him. She knew catfish. “It’s a gorgeous cat, it’n’it?”
“It is. I can’t believe you caught the first one.”
Why was he ruining the moment?
The fish was easily twenty inches. Almost three pounds. Jo-Alice took it and banged its head against a nearby rock. Its eyes closed against the blow. Shocked looking fish. See how easy it is to kill, she thought, when you can imagine the taste of it.
“You best go check your line, Charles Williams,” she said.
Forty years later, Jo-Alice was at her daughter Nan’s house. Nan’s kids were visiting with their children. Jo-Alice’s two other children, their kids, and their kids were visiting, too. Twenty-two people were in her house that day! They were visiting all the way from Georgia, from Tennessee, from Texas, and Illinois. She loved the noise and having them around, but she loved it when it was just her, Nan, and Nan’s husband.
Jo-Alice was making a pot of spaghetti sauce, stirring in all the ingredients that made it taste good enough to silence those who ate it. This was her own recipe, which was heavily borrowed from her mother and to which she added her own touches, like a shot of bourbon and brown sugar. She will let it simmer all day. That night, they will have it with catfish and cornbread. The catfish were caught by her son-in-law and her great-grandsons. Why wouldn’t, she wondered, any of the girls go fish with them? “Y’all should go,” she told her granddaughters. “Good fishing on those little lagoons beside Lake Michigan,” she said.
“Grandma, fishing involves worms, and I ain’t about to deal with that.” Her granddaughter lit a cigarette from the one in her mouth and traded off. Jo-Alice’s great-granddaughters squirmed as if affected by the thought and groaned. “Worms!”
“Worms ain’t so bad. I used to fish when I was a kid. Hell, I took you fishing when you were a kid.”
“I know. I remember. I hated it then, too.”
“Go smoke that damn thing somewhere else.”
“I liked being with you, grandma, but the worms!”
“The porch, baby-girl, go on with that cigarette.”
Jo-Alice left the pot of sauce on simmer and went to retrieve the fish from the bathtub where they rested. With bucket in hand, she went into the downstairs bathroom. There, she saw her daughter’s mangy cat.
It really wasn’t mangy. It was kept clean and was well-fed. His coat was always sleek and shiny. A tuxedo cat, her daughter called it. Its name was Mr. Cosmopolitan and they called him Cosmo for short. And Jo-Alice hated it. Or him. Her daughter insisted that she refer to it as a he. She watched Cosmo walk the rim of the bathtub, one white paw placed deftly before the other with each step he took. He was fishing, or so he thought. “Gone, cat,” Jo-Alice said. Then, she remembered that day on the bridge. Was this why she hated cats?
The cat meowed at her.
“You going to eat your brothers? Because that’s what they are, ain’t they? Catfish. They named after you.”
The cat meowed again. He always tried to sit on her lap when she was in the living room, and she hated that. He always tried to get in her room. She hated getting up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom, as she had to do more often now with her age, because she’d see Cosmo running around by himself, his eyes glowing in the lowlight of late night. Hated the hell out of that cat.
“I don’t know why y’all named the same,” she said, as if Cosmo’s meowing questioned her accusation. “Probably because y’all both got whiskers. Stupid reason, if you ask me. Lots of things got whiskers.”
Mr. Cosmo meowed again, a long, drawn out meow that was desperate and loving. Placating, almost.
“Can you shake bridges? Hmm?”
Jo-Alice shook her head. “To be young and impressionable, right? Years I’ve spent with that fool because of his silly lie. And after that, lies, lies, lies. You want some fish, cat? Well, you going have to wait, just like the rest of us.” Alice reached in the tub and got two of the large fish out and put them in her bucket. “Come on, cat. Mr. Cosmopolitan. You going make yourself sick with want.”
The cat did come. He watched Alice as she covered the kitchen table with newspaper. He watched her slice the fish just around the gills and cut off the dorsal fin. She cut a long slit along the back and pulled the skin back like a banana peel, but with much more force. He watched her gut the fish and slice it up into friable pieces. He rubbed his body against her calf and generally, just got more persistent. “Back up, now,” Jo-Alice told him. When she finished cleaning and cutting those two fish, she went to the tub to get more. Cosmo was right behind her, his white tipped tail in the air. When she spoke to him, he responded with meows and chirps.
He listened to her stories about fishing in Tennessee as a child, on the Mississippi as a young adult, and in the cool lakes in Wisconsin, where she migrated to in the sixties. “One thing I was afraid of,” she said, “coming up here to Wisconsin—that is, beside the cold I was warned about—what worried me was the fishing. I knew there was that big ol’ Lake Michigan, but I wasn’t sure if there was a good lagoon here or not, or littler lakes.”
She lobbed a chunk of catfish guts at Mr. Cosmopolitan and he caught it before it hit the ground. He ate it graciously. He then went to his water bowl and lapped water from it. Jo-Alice watched the cat, feeling more affection for him. “I must be getting ready to die,” she said.
Later, when she fried the fish up, she fried him a special, unbreaded piece. The family was surprised to see her drop the choice piece in the cat’s bowl.
They all sat down, sixteen members of the family, to a plate of cornbread, white dinner rolls, spaghetti, and fish fried in cornmeal and seasoning.
“You seen a ghost or something, Mama?” her daughter asked.
“What you talking about?” Jo-Alice asked back.
“Feeding Mr. Cosmo like you turned over a new leaf or talked to someone about the love of animals. You not getting soft on me, are you?
“I ain’t seen nothing.” She watched the cat eat the chunk of fish she made just for him. He started off quickly, his jaws working to keep the food in his mouth. Then he slowed down, seemingly savoring every bite that came. Satisfied herself, Jo-Alice begin to eat her fish, too. “I’m just steadying some bridges.”