When I was growing up in Opelousas, La., my father drove an aqua blue GMC pickup with holes in the floorboard. He finally sold the truck to a renegade cock fighter for $150 after he had saved enough silver dollars to invest in a brand new Pontiac sedan.
Back then, he coached the offensive line and taught civics at the city high school off Market Street. That school is gone now, toppled by old age and bulldozers the school board employed to expedite the removal of the ugly ruin. But on any given Saturday night, you can still see the truck parked out in front of Wilbur Lee Guidry's Friendly Lounge, the honky-tonk directly across the train tracks from my grandparents' general store and slaughterhouse.
I caught my first fish from the back of that pickup while sucking on a bottle of Chocolate Soldier soda. My father had parked the rig next to the cow pond on my grandfather's farm and we'd fished the day away with cane poles, sitting on the tailgate and dangling our feet in the cool brown water. That was in 1964. I was 5 years old, and it wasn't long after the day my mother had picked me up early from kindergarten class to tell me that President Kennedy was dead. "Now don't you cry," she had said. "Your daddy'll take you fishin'."
Looking back, it seems I can count the number of days I fished that pond by the number of days I mourned the death of friends. President Kennedy wasn't a friend, but he was a Democrat and my folks had voted for him and had cried seriously watching the playback of the assasination on television. I can still hear the mumbled Hail Marys my grandparents had prayed in French and the voice of my father, as slow and weary as that entire winter season, saying, "You'll catch your fish. But let's just wait till the azaleas bloom."
We had waited until spring, but, that afternoon, he'd held my hand and we'd walked through the big empty fields where my grandfather would soon plant sweet potatoes and soybeans and all the other green gifts of the earth that would either make him almost poor or almost destitute, but surely never rich.
I don't remember how long we stood gazing into the pond at the back of the farm, but it seemed like hours. I pretended to hook great whales, reeling them in and dragging them with great difficulty to the truck. But my father, tossing china berries into the pond, could only swallow and rub his eyes against the sleeve of his shirt, and say, "Can't be, son. Just can't, can't be."
There was a gully that ran through my grandfather's land and deposited the fertile waste of the hurricane season near a flood gate on the edge of the property. It was here, next to a run of wild dewberries that my grandmother would pick and use to make wine, that we gathered earthworms in coffee tins for fishing at the pond. Although I dreamed otherwise, I knew there would always be more worms than fish.
I remember one day when my father and I failed to catch anything. We had used only two worms, both cut in half to fit our small hooks, and had sat under a willow singing Cajun songs and halfway listening to the Houston Astros game on the radio. On the way in through the darkening fields, he had stopped the pickup under an ancient water oak and waded across the gully to the storm gate, where he dumped the contents of the can in a bed of mulch and ivy. I could see the worms disappear into the soil. "Just 'cause we had a bad day," he said, "is no reason they have to, too."
One day, not long after he'd been elected to the state senate, my grandfather drove me to the back of the farm on his tractor to coax a defeated old Hereford out of the watering hole that had become her prison. After he had sipped long and hard from the pint of Jim Beam he kept stored under the seat, my grandfather and I struggled to free the poor beast of her muddy perdition. Even though the sun had never been harder on our backs, turning Po Po various violent shades of scarlet, we weren't long in pulling her out. But for days and days I pondered the intentions of that animal. I remember asking my grandfather, "Was she trying to eat our fish, Po Po?"
To which he responded, "Boy, there ain't no telling what that crazy fool was trying to do."
My cousin, John Bradley Wartelle (he was John Bradley, I was John Ed), used to camp near the pond and fish for our supper as soon as the sun went down. We usually went hungry, settling on raw corn or sweet potatoes pulled from the pretty green fields that rolled out under the night. Invariably, this plebian feast soured our stomachs. But, sometimes, after a rare supper of fried catfish and bull bream, we would dry water lilies on the dying coals, then roll them into prodigious cigars and smoke them into oblivion.
We would skinny-dip in that pond, too, daring each other to swim to a dark and dismal corner where my father had reported once spotting a fat moccasin swallowing whole a baby nutria rat. We would swim on our backs, shouting to the moon, "Go away, snakes, go away." And, later, shiver by the fire thinking of the monster named No Face ("Everybody said he burned up in a hotel fire, but he didn't, 'cept for his face, and Oolie Ollie says he eats little boys, Jo' Bradley . . . ") who lived in the sweltering void of the swampland behind us.
My grandfather wasn't a fisherman. Occasionally, though, he would sit in the shade of a pecan tree and play his accordion while his grandchildren performed kip-ups and somersaults on the bank of his little pond. He fancied himself a singer, a Cajun Sinatra, and cried singing "Jolie Blonde," or his own upbeat version of, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." He loved train songs and good whiskey and could speak French better than he could English.
While I was away at LSU, my mother called and said a crop duster had emptied the belly of his plane, full of pesticide, on the fields; the poison had wiped out the entire fish poplulation in the little pond. There were bass and sac-a-lait and bream, never prey to my clumsy advances with a fly rod, floating belly up on the surface. Agents from the state wildlife and fisheries department were working to drain the water and clean out the dead stock. "I'm not gonna go out there," she said. "I'm gonna try and pretend it isn't true."
A couple of months later, I went home to attend my grandfather's funeral. He died in summer, before the harvest, his favorite time of year. After we buried him, I drove in my father's new car to the back of the farm and parked in the same spot where I had caught my first fish, a baby blue cat that I had ended up throwing back.
I didn't bother to get out of the car. There were no more fish here. Tomorrow, I promised myself, I would return with a cane pole and a bucket of worms and fish for the life that just wasn't there and for the memory I had somehow lost with the first hollow spade of earth falling on his coffin.