The Gar in the Tub
For Michael Brown
Gar (gär) n. Any of several ganoid fishes of the genus Lepisosteus, of fresh and brackish waters of North and Central America, having an elongated body and a long snout.
-- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
I saw the boy as he was leaning over on his knees to catch the gar. It was a cloudy day in late August and the tall pines bent hard in the wind. The canal was shallow and strewn with all kinds of garbage: large burned-up industrial motors, ripped up sofas and chairs and a dozen or so metal shopping carts taken from the supermarket down the street. I'd once stolen one of these shopping carts too because it was fun to push it over and watch it tumble into the dark water.
The boy was about the same age as me, around seven or eight years old, and he lived across the street in the projects, in the duplexes where I often stayed with my grandmother after my parents split up. The boy's name was James, I believe, and everybody always talked about his heart condition. The neighbors were always saying, "He has a hole in his heart and might drop dead any minute. That's why he's the way he is." The boy was always silent and the other kids in the neighborhood never picked on him like they did me; they always kept their distance. He was about average height for a boy his age with soft golden curly hair, and he was bony. He was always going around shirtless and his ribs looked as if they might pop out of his sides when he walked. He walked quickly wherever he went and always held his head down. You could tell just by looking at him that he wouldn't live long.
I was walking home from school when I spotted him down below, kneeling on the shore. As usual he was bareback, shoeless, and wearing cut-off jeans. The clouds were darkening and it had already started to drizzle. A beer can tumbled down the street until it blew into the grass. I yelled down to him to see what he was up to. His face grew angry and he put his finger to his lips, indicating that he wanted me to shut up.Suddenly, he looked down and lurched forward and stumbled over into the canal. He thrashed about for what seemed a long time and then he came up with the gar. It was about two feet long and as big around as a tail pipe.
Although I had seen much nicer gars than this one, I was fascinated. I had never seen a canal gar. The ones my father fished out of the marsh on the outskirts of New Orleans, where the water was a healthy root beer color teeming with life were mostly solid dark green and steel colored on the underside, but this gar had small black dots all over its body and it had a luscious, almost fragile, crimson tail. There was something exciting and mysterious about catching this fish in the middle of the city. I figured that James had probably never seen his father and had never been fishing before in his life. He said his uncle was going to give him fifty cents for the gar, but I didn't believe he had an uncle at all.
I followed him home in the rain. A group of older boys about a block behind us began yelling so we ran. We didn't want to get beaten up and have the fish taken away. We made it to the duplex and walked in with the gar. James held it close to his chest. The room was cluttered with potato chip bags, tin cans of Barq's root beer, and stacks of newspapers and National Enquirers. Plastic Mardi Gras cups lined the single window sill in the apartment. The black and white television set was blaring local news. The boy's grandmother was standing at the stove peeling onions. She said nothing to us as we walked in with the gar.
We walked to the bathroom and James put the gar down carefully into the empty tub. He picked up a dirty washcloth from the floor and plugged the drain. The water came out rusty and as it poured, James went to the kitchen and came back with a box of salt and sprinkled the water with it. I wasn't sure if he was trying to purge the fish, or if he thought gars were saltwater fish. Then it occurred to me that he was going to die soon and all he wanted was to go fishing.
I stood trancelike and watched the gar swim back and forth in the grimy tub. I was thankful that my father caught bigger and better gars. James sat on the toilet and stared into the tub without blinking. It was then that I knew he was poor even though we were neighbors.
About the author:
Louis E. Bourgeois was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1970 and earned his B.A. at Louisiana State University and his MFA at The University of Mississippi. A three time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, he has published hundreds of poems and stories worldwide. His most recent collection of poems, OLGA, was a finalist in the CustomWords Book Contest and will be published in 2005 by WordTech. Currently, he is an instructor of literature and writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.