Image: Jonathan Bartlett
In the early 1960s my parents ran a service station about 60 miles west of Fort Worth. The gas station was in the middle of the country, along a reddish, gravelly, rutted road, on the way to nowhere. You could see someone coming from a long way off. Pumping gas was a hard way to make a living, and my father was never shy about reminding me about this. Always waiting.
When I was 10 years old one of my father’s customers had caught a big catfish on a weekend trip to the Colorado River. It weighed 86 pounds, a swollen, gasping, grotesque netherworld creature pulled writhing and fighting up into the bright, hot, dusty world above.
The man had brought the fish, wrapped in wet burlap, all the way out to my father’s service station in the back of his car. We were to have a big barbecue that weekend, and I was given the job of keeping the fish watered and alive until the time came to kill and cook it.
All day long that Friday—in late August, school had not yet started—I knelt beside the gasping fish and kept it hosed down with a trickle of cool water, giving the fish life one silver gasp at a time, keeping its gills and its slick gray skin wet: the steady trickling of that hose, and nothing else, helping it stay alive. We had no tub large enough to hold the fish, and so I squatted beside it in the dust, resting on my heels, and studied it as I moved the silver stream of water up and down its back.
The fish, in turn, studied me with its round, obsidian eyes, which had a gold lining to their perimeter, like pyrite. The fish panted and watched me while the heat built all around us, rising steadily through the day from the fields, giving birth in the summer-blue sky to towering white cumulus clouds. I grew dizzy in the heat, and from the strange combination of the unblinking monotony and utter fascination of my task, until the trickling from my hose seemed to be inflating those clouds—I seemed to be watering those clouds as one would water a garden. Do you ever think that those days were different—that we had more time for such thoughts, that time had not yet been corrupted? I am speaking less of childhood than of the general nature of the world we are living in. If you are the age I am now—mid-50s—then maybe you know what I mean.
The water pooled and spread across the gravel parking lot before running in wandering rivulets out into the field beyond, where bright butterflies swarmed and fluttered, dabbing at the mud I was making.
Throughout the afternoon, some of the adults who were showing up wandered over to examine the monstrosity. Among them was an older boy, Jack, a 15-year-old who had been kicked out of school the year before for fighting. Jack waited until no adults were around and then came by and said that he wanted the fish, that it was his father’s—that his father had been the one who had caught it—and that he would give me five dollars if I would let him have it.
“No,” I said, “my father told me to take care of it.”
Jack had me figured straightaway for a Goody Two-Shoes. “They’re just going to kill it,” he said. “It’s mine. Give it to me and I’ll let it go. I swear I will,” he said. “Give it to me or I’ll beat you up.”
As if intuiting or otherwise discerning trouble—though trouble followed Jack, and realizing that did not require much prescience—my father appeared from around the corner, and asked us how everything was going. Jack, scowling but saying nothing, tipped his cap at the fish but not at my father or me, and walked away.
“What did he want?” my father asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “He was just looking at the fish.” I knew that if I told on Jack and he got in trouble, I would get pummeled.
“Did he say it was his fish?” my father asked. “Was he trying to claim it?”
“I think he said his father caught it.”
“His father owes us $67,” my father said. “He gave me the fish instead. Don’t let Jack take that fish back.”
“I won’t,” I said.
I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that, while not poor, we were right at the edge of poor.