After my great-uncle died, Daddy bought the biggest house in Jean Ville, Louisiana, from his widow and moved us up South Jefferson Street from our small ranch house. I was eleven, going on twelve, and my bedroom, which faced the road, had floor-to-ceiling French windows opening onto a deep front porch that spanned the front of our antebellum home.
We had only been in the Big House a year when I was reading in bed and smelled smoke through the opened window. It seemed to hang in the air, mixed with a distinct barnyard stink and the smell of burning rubber. A loud roar, like thunder, rose from the ground, and my bed shook. I crawled out of the high four-poster, pulled my long hair into a ponytail, and tiptoed to the divan between the two front windows. Kneeling on the rough tapestry, I pulled the thick blue drapes back a few inches and peered through the blinds.
Engines revved and horns blared while horses galloped over the sidewalk and through our front yard. I watched as if in a dream while three pickup trucks, their beds loaded with people in white sheets, dunce hats, and white fabric over their faces, with holes for their eyes, pulled into the driveway and drove across the wide front lawn. It was summer, almost five months since Mardis Gras. What was the occasion for this parade, or was it a celebration? White-costumed people, in pickups and on more than a dozen galloping horses, were now waving torches in our front yard.
Two of the men—now I knew they were men because I could see their boots and jeans under the sheets that flapped open in front—jumped out of a truck bed and ran toward the front of our house. Their boots thumped up the thirteen steps onto the porch. They were so close I could have touched them. I cowered behind the heavy curtains, still peeking through the opening but instinctively backing a few inches away from the window, stretching the drapes out in front of me. One of the men held a can of paint, while the other dipped a brush into it several times and wiped it across the white wood wall. He saw me peeping through the open window.
“Get away from here, girl. Go back to bed,” he said. “You don’t need to be involved.”
I backed away, moved to the other window.
Three other ghost-clad people were carrying what, from the back, looked like a huge crucifix into the middle of the yard. When they stood it up, it was twice as tall as the tallest of the men. Two more men ran up behind them with shovels, dug a hole and, within seconds, planted the body-less cross. Then they packed the dirt around the bottom with their boots and lit the cross on fire. The men on the porch joined the ones in the yard to form a circle around the cross; they chanted something I couldn’t understand. All the while horns blew, men yelled, trucks revved, and horses galloped in circles around the ring of men, tearing up our yard and making so much noise I saw the lights go on in Dr. David Switzer’s house across the street.
I was so enthralled I didn’t hear Daddy come into my room.
“Get back to bed, Susie!” he said, pulling the drapes fully open and lifting the blinds in one whisk.
I backed up and stood behind him. He put one of his big hands on either side of the window and leaned forward as if to make his head go through the screen. When he saw the action he stormed out of my room, through the hall, and onto the porch, just as the men jumped into the beds of the pickups. The caravan of trucks and horses, with men carrying lighted torches, began to parade down South Jefferson Street toward the Quarters, where Tootsie and Catfish lived.
“Hey, you renegades,” Daddy yelled. “Get off my property before I call the sheriff!”
But it was too late. They’d already left, and no one moved to stop them.
Daddy called the sheriff and spoke to a man who said he was the only deputy on duty and couldn’t leave the jail—he’d give the message to the sheriff in the morning; someone would come by then to check out the scene. Daddy mumbled something about the sheriff being “in on this” and hung up.
The cross in our yard burned brightly for hours. I was scared, and the bright light of the fire kept me awake, so I crawled into bed with Mama and Daddy and laid my head in the crook of Daddy’s arm and cried. He stroked my hair and whispered to me until my eyelids got heavy and I stopped sobbing. He explained that those people called themselves the Ku Klux Klan and harbored hate in their hearts. He said they wanted to keep blacks and whites separated and used fear tactics to make sure that happened, but would never go so far as to hurt a little girl.
I asked him why they came to our house.
“It’s a warning,” he said. “They think I should stop being friends with Ray Thibault.”
Daddy said that colored people were the same as whites. He had grown up on a farm in Backwoods, Louisiana, population 400, about twenty miles from Jean Ville, the parish seat of Toussaint Parish, where we lived. “I was friends with Moses’s son, Rufus,” Daddy said. “We played and ate supper together and hunted and fished, like brothers. We talked a lot. He had feelings and dreams and aspirations just like I did. God doesn’t see differences because someone’s skin is darker than another’s.”
“Jesus had dark skin, you know,” he told me that night. I hadn’t known that. The Jesus at Assumption Catholic Elementary School, which I attended with my brothers, was white. The one hanging on the cross, the picture with the big heart, the statue in the grotto—they were all white men.
Daddy said the KKK hated Jews too, but they didn’t bother the Switzers because the brothers provided medical care for the Klan members and their families. Dr. David and Dr. Joseph Switzer, two of only a handful of physicians in Jean Ville, were Daddy’s friends. The older brother, Dr. David, lived directly across South Jefferson Street from our house and had delivered all five of us kids. He made house calls when I was sick and reminded me of the Santa Claus I had believed in when I was little—what with his jolly, loving manner and all.
Daddy said God was colorblind.
But while he talked, I thought about the different things Mama had taught us. Mama was what you might call prejudiced—I mean, she thought differently. “I’m from North Louisiana,” she said, “where Negroes are Negroes. They know their place, and there aren’t many of them. We ran the uppity ones off early on.” She told me and my brothers to stay away from “those people,” except for our help, Tootsie. But even with Tootsie, there were lines we shouldn’t cross, like going to visit her in the Quarters or kissing her brown cheek.
Mama rolled her eyes behind Daddy’s back when he talked about coloreds being people and God loving us all the same. We’d laugh to each other because we knew she’d tell us the opposite once Daddy was gone. When he wasn’t around, she told us colored people had tiny brains and were the “inferior” race. And she treated Tootsie something terrible, didn’t pay her much money, and made her do all the dirty work, like scrubbing toilets and sifting through garbage if we lost something. I always wondered why Tootsie stayed. She could have worked for any white family in Jean Ville, but she worked for Mama until I went off to college, years later.
The Klan visit only made Daddy more determined not to change his stance on colored people. One day I heard him tell Mama that he had coffee with Mr. Ray Thibault at Charlie’s Diner every morning before heading to the Toussaint Bank, where he was vice president at the time. “I love to watch the looks on the faces of the sheriff and his cronies when they come in the front door, look around, and spot me at the corner table with Ray,” he said. “They’ll have to do more than burn a cross in my yard and paint words on my house to make me change who I am as a man.”
“I don’t know why you have to be friends with that Negro,” Mama said. “There are lots of white men in this town who admire you and want to be your friend. Why do you waste your time?”
“Ray and I have a lot in common,” he told her. Then he explained all the reasons why it didn’t matter what color Ray Thibault’s skin was. Mama listened and rolled her eyes behind his back.
I thought about the only two colored people I knew, Tootsie and Catfish. Tootsie had been with us since I was an infant, and I never thought of her as any color. She was more of a mother to me than my own, and I loved her almost as much as I loved God. Catfish was a dark man who walked in front of our house every afternoon on his way home from work. I had first met him when I was little, only seven years old.
A deep ravine separated the front yard of our old house from South Jefferson Street; we caught crawfish, tadpoles, turtles, and sometimes, after a hard rain, even minnows in its muddy waters. That day I held a bucket in my small hands. The weight of the hard-shelled snapper in my daddy’s galvanized pail made me bend over as I carried the load down the driveway and onto the road. I was bringing it to Catfish, the tall man who my brothers and I saw almost every day.
I walked slowly with the bucket, afraid for many reasons. I was not allowed to talk to people who lived on the other side of Gravier Road, in the Quarters. It was only about a block away, but it could have been miles, it was that much of a mystery. Our mother told us, “Those people eat white children,” which, of course, only made my brothers and me more curious about them. I was seven, and I knew about Vampires. I had read the Nancy Drew mysteries and even some of the Hardy Boys. If this tall man smiled, I wondered whether I would see fangs.
But the bigger mystery had to do with a rumor about Catfish, who often stopped to whistle a tune or play his harmonica and dance for us, right there in the street. We’d overheard our mother and her friends talk about him during their Wednesday afternoon bridge game.
“They say he eats turtles,” Mrs. Rousseau said, fanning her cards in her left hand and rearranging them with her right. “I’ll bid two hearts.”
“You don’t say!” Miss June looked across the table at Mama, who was her bridge partner, and said, “I’ll bid two spades.”
“Turtles? Well, what do you expect from those ignorant Negroes,” Mrs. Ruth said. She looked at her cards and peered over them at her partner, Mrs. Rousseau. “I’ll bid two no-trump.”
“Catfish is nothing but a dumb clown. He dances in the streets to entertain the kids sometimes. That’s about all those people are good for,” our mother said, and all the women laughed. “I’ll say four spades.”
“Four spades? Anne must have a strong hand.” Miss June began to lay her cards on the table, while Mama smiled and said, “We’ll win this, June.” And they did. Mama always won at bridge; she was something of a magician at cards.
My brothers stood on the hill above the ditch and watched me carry the turtle down the driveway to the road. My little brother, Will, who was six, was worried about what would happen to me. He cried and yelled, over and over, “Don’t go, Susie. Please, don’t go!”
James, our older, wiser brother, was ten, and he wanted the man to eat me, so he screamed out, “Go on, Susie. Go on!”
I wasn’t sure what to do, but I had already yelled across the ditch to Catfish that we had the turtle, and I knew that my brothers were too chicken to take it to him. I was a nervous child, the nails on my short, plump hands bitten to the quick, almost non-existent. My palms felt damp as they gripped the bucket’s handle.
I reached the bottom of the driveway and turned right, onto the blacktop road. He stood about three or four yards away. It was hot and humid, and the sweat in my palms matched the perspiration that ran down my back. I knew the sweat was not totally from the heat.
Before I got to him he called to me. “Hey, little girl.” His voice was smooth and sweet, almost creamy. He sounded a lot like Tootsie. “You don’t need to be scared of me.”
“Who, me?” I tried to act big and brave, but I knew my voice trembled. “I’m not afraid.”
He laughed. It was a hearty laugh, from deep in his belly. In fact, he held his belly while he laughed. It made me want to smile, but I was too terrified.
“Come on, little girl,” he said. “I won’t bite you.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. Bite? Maybe Mama was right! My feet felt glued to the pavement. My arms started to tremble, and the bucket began to swing.
He took a step towards me. I wanted to run, but my feet were stuck. I gripped the handle so tightly my hands started to tingle, like pins pricking my palms. I craned my neck upward and stared into his eyes. I couldn’t look away. It was as if a magnetic force ran between my eyes and his.
It took him only two steps to reach me. “You gonna hand me that bucket, or you gonna hold on to it?” he asked.
“I, uh, I, um, I’m going to give it to you,” I said. But when he reached down to take it, I couldn’t let go. My fingers were frozen around the handle.
His hand stopped in midair, as if he were afraid to touch my hands. We stood there, both cemented in time, staring at each other.
I noticed how long his hand was, and thin, not like my Daddy’s, which were round and thick and hairy. Catfish’s nails were not bitten; they were smooth and pink, which contrasted with the color of his skin—dark; not black, not brown, but darker than any I’d ever seen, even darker than Tootsie’s.
“I promise I won’t hurt you, missy,” he said. Again I noticed how kind his voice sounded. Was it a trick? “I’m much obliged for the turtle.”
I didn’t move.
“I’m going to make me some turtle stew.” He spoke slowly, his voice like syrup flowing down the sides of a stack of pancakes. “I’m gonna boil it till I know it’s dead, and then I’m gonna break the shell, me. It’s the meat inside that’s good, yeah.”
I knew the boys were excited because we had solved the mystery, but here I was, stuck in the street with this man I wasn’t supposed to talk to, riveted by the sound of his voice, the depths of his eyes, the color of his skin, the length of his legs. He looked directly into my eyes when he spoke. I’d never seen eyes so dark, like never-ending dark holes, and I thought of how Mama had said that if we dug a hole deep enough, we would reach China. I wondered whether the depths of his eyes reached somewhere across the ocean.
“After I gets the meat out the shell, I’m gonna cut her in little squares. Then I’m gonna dip them squares in corn meal and fry them in some boiling hot lard.”
I looked down and saw him slide his outstretched hand under the handle of the bucket. The pinkness glared up at me. My mouth opened in surprise. How could one side of his hand be so dark and the other so light?
I loosened my grip, and the handle fell into his palm.
It was as if he had two hands on each arm, one so dark it could have been dipped in chocolate, the other pinkish white, the same color as mine. I let my arms drop to my sides, and I lifted my eyes to look at him.
“Is your name really Catfish?” I asked.
“Sure is.” He laughed.
“That’s not a real name,” I said.
“It’s my nickname. You got a nickname?”
“No. My name is Susie.”
“Is Susie short for Susanna?”
“How did you know that?”
“Well, if it is, then Susie’s a nickname.”
I thought about that a moment. “Well, then, is Catfish short for Cadillac?”
He set the bucket on the road, held his belly, and bent forward. He laughed and laughed, and finally I started to laugh too. I wasn’t aware of anyone else in the world. It was just me and Catfish.
Finally, when we’d gotten hold of ourselves, he picked up the bucket. “Me and my family going to have us a good supper tonight, us,” he said. “We shore will!”
Oh, I thought. He had a family. Did he have children, grandchildren? I wondered how his touch might feel to a child like me. Was it tender and loving like Tootsie’s, or was it harsh and rough like Daddy’s? For some reason, I had to know the answer. I reached my hand up in a gesture that meant I wanted to shake his.
I think he was shocked. He looked from side to side, as if to see if someone was watching. He shifted the bucket from his right hand to his left and reached forward to fold my tiny hand into his. I looked at the long, dark hand wrapped around my fingers. It felt soft and gentle and kind. I didn’t want him to let go. I wondered whether, when he washed his hands, they got lighter on the tops, or whether they stayed dark no matter how hard he scrubbed.
I watched him march down South Jefferson Street toward the Quarters, legs lifted high, knees bent as he sang “When the Saints Go Marching In.” He swung his arms, the heavy bucket as light to his touch as if it were filled with air. My brothers were speechless, standing in our front yard on the other side of the deep ditch, and I remained planted in the street until long after Catfish had crossed Gravier Road and disappeared into the unknown.
My first novel, Catfish, is a coming-of-age-story set in South Louisiana during the Jim Crow 1960s, steeped in the complex and conflicted culture of that time. It is my commitment to human rights and social and economic justice that steered me to write this story.
In Catfish, Susie Burton, a headstrong young white girl born to a prominent local family, narrates her journey from complacent daughter to rebellious, questioning teen. From the vantage point of the present day, forty-five years after the events of this novel, Susie tells of her discovery that her own family—enshrined within the walls of an affluent antebellum home, to all appearances an ideal Southern clan—was not at all what it seemed. Though this knowledge could have easily destroyed her, she was buoyed by the love and loyalty of a local black family whose patriarch is the novel’s namesake: Catfish.
A masterful storyteller, Catfish narrates tales that take root in Susie, weaving into her dawning consciousness the terror, cruelty, and surprising richness of post-Civil-War, Southern plantation life. Through Susie’s relationship with Catfish and his extended family, especially Rodney, the young black man who becomes her first love, Susie and her young friends learn to take charge of their destinies. There is love here, but it is love shadowed by a family’s betrayal and the violence of the local Klan.
Like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help in its historical setting and trenchant exploration of the Jim Crow South, Catfish will leave readers questioning how much has really changed over the last four decades. I was born and raised in Marksville, LA, population 3,000, a town much like the fictional Jean Ville in which Susie comes of age, and her story is grounded in my own lived experience.
Madelyn Bennett Edwards is a Louisiana native who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her architect husband, Gene. Though Catfish is her first novel, she has written all her life. She holds a BA in Journalism and English from Louisiana College and has spent most of her career in healthcare marketing and television writing and production. She recently earned an MA in Creative Writing from Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina. “Maddy,” as she is called by her twelve grandchildren, is presently writing a sequel to Catfish, as well as a nonfiction book called Murder in Marksville about the tragic killing of six-year-old Jeremy Mardis by two local deputy marshals in her hometown.
Embark, Issue 2, October 2017