Catfish

Hazel was called Narkita, her Cherokee name, by her Negro community. She was 1/4 Cherokee. Negro was the polite way then, Black was another 10 years off to the civil rights revolution. Her friends asked for Narkita or Hazel-Narkita when they phoned. She cooked for us and did laundry. She would settle in with my brother and me when our mother was ill or when the folks went off on a trip for a couple of days. She didn’t have kids so she doted on us, her “babies.”  She was country, was part of a cadre up from Mississippi for the war work in the factories and stayed in surroundings more amenable, though far from the integrated place it has become. In those days a railroad track divided the town. A Negro side and a White side. She missed the farm life of the South. Her husband, Mr. Williams, would come around dressed in a blue pinstripe suit with a gold chain across the vest and a gold stickpin in his tie. He presented himself as the dignified deacon that he was. He loved to fish and would bring into my mother’s kitchen a galvanized bucket full of catfish in water, caught from the river a block and a half away. They were still alive and Hazel would smack them dead, slice them open and clean them right from the bucket into the sink. She fried ’em up in corn meal. Mr. Williams brought them in croaking like catfish’ll do with the pectoral fins spread open fanned with the poison barb, dark at the sharp end. He showed me how to pick them up behind the fins—that barb was a world of hurt. They were green and slimy gasping in the burning air. Their mouths were wreathed with sensitive whiskers that helped them navigate the muddy river bottom.This was my first food eaten direct from the world. We weren’t a fishing hunting family and didn’t grow a garden. My brother and his friends were disgusted but I showed off and chomped down the light tasting fish and the oily peppery cornmeal deep-fried in Crisco. I had just seen them alive. As I write this I remember Narkita and Mr. Williams beaming over me as I ate.

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