A Southern Fable
Charlie Craddock stood on his wharf and looked out over Barnacle Bay with two clear eyes. It was the morning of his seventieth birthday. The day was bright and he could see schools of mullet in the water. He threw his casting net toward the shore and caught several but decided to release them back in the bay. Honor thy fish, he thought. His wife Tammy never had a taste for mullet anyway (“a trash fish,” she snobbishly would say) and he sure as hell wasn’t grilling on his birthday. Today was a day for fishing.
Charlie didn’t mind that he was seventy. Still, it wasn’t cause for celebration. More a day of observation, he thought. After all, what did he have to celebrate? The disappearance of Tammy’s bunions? His son Todd’s recent promotion at Little Caesar’s? For one, Charlie never thought he’d live this long. He’d smoked nearly a pack a day since the age of sixteen, cutting back to four or five a day two years ago after suffering two heart attacks in the span of six months. He flatlined at one point during heart surgery that year and liked to joke that his family told the doctors not to revive him. Charlie wasn’t exactly active and was never one for exercise. Ever since his last high school football game playing nose-guard during senior year he hadn’t so much as jogged. The walk to the wharf from the house had become burdensome in recent years, so he used a golf cart for transportation. He’d light up a Pall Mall during the trip as Tammy no longer allowed smoking on the patio even going so far as to post a no smoking sign on the side of the house.
Charlie’s little brother Fat John was arriving that afternoon from North Carolina. Tammy was driving to Albacore in Charlie’s Lincoln Navigator to pick him up from the airport. She couldn’t take her Ford Fiesta because Fat John weighed 400 pounds, 414 to be exact, and couldn’t fit in an economy car.
Charlie regarded Fat John as a pain in the ass. Ever since they were little kids growing up in Chicory County Fat John had been a pain in the ass. To Charlie at least. Fat John always got car sick on trips and crapped his bed a few times a year when they shared a room. The two brothers quarreled a lot as kids. Perhaps it was Charlie’s doing. When Fat John was six Charlie took a pebble and blinded his brother with a sling shot during a game of war at their grandaddy’s farm on Old Dick Road. Charlie got a whipping every day for two weeks as punishment. On some days Daddy whipped him with a stick, other days it was the belt. His daddy spanked the boys with the palm of his hand when they were toddlers, but after a certain point, the bare-handed spankings made Charlie laugh. That really pissed daddy off. So there was no laughing with the belt. Not by a long shot. Charlie screamed bloody murder during those whippings. Especially when the belt would lash the back of his thigh, a sting not unlike the bite of a cottonmouth. By the grace of God daddy never hit him with the buckle. That would have been cruel and unusual, something mama never would have allowed. Fat John watched the series of whippings from his bed with his one good eye, solemn and stoic like a prison guard observing an execution. Daddy had done his job all right, but in Fat John’s mind, justice had not been served.
For the entire next year Fat John wore a patch over his eye and earned the nickname Pirate John at school. The paper even did a story on him. He became Fat John when he ballooned up around age 10 and got a glass eye. His pirate days were over.
Fat John and Tammy arrived at the house around 2 p.m. Charlie had eaten a box of Fig Newtons for lunch and was eager to get on the water once Fat John arrived. The day was still bright.
When he saw the Lincoln pull in the driveway he drove the golf cart back to the house.
“Well, we made it,” Tammy said as she got out of the car. She was wearing a floral top that matched her pants. She had been to the beauty shop that morning and had never looked so beautiful. “You wouldn’t believe the traffic in Albacore. Don’t see how folks live there.”
Charlie pulled the golf cart up next to the car. He got out and helped his little brother, Fat John, out. Fat John breathed heavily as he struggled to pull himself out of the fine American automobile that Charlie had purchased himself with cash money.
“Gimme a hand, will you old brother?” Fat John wheezed.
Charlie grabbed the upper part of Fat John’s left arm. There was so much loose skin it was easy to maintain grip. He got him situated in the golf cart after a minute or two.
“Tammy, you can take his suitcase in now or I”ll get it out later. We need to get out on the water.”
“You boys and your fishing,” Tammy said. “Ya’ll go ahead. I’ll take care of this and start getting stuff ready for the party tonight.”
“Thank you, baby doll,” Charlie said. “I love you.”
It was 3 p.m. by the time they reached the artificial fishing reef in Barnacle Bay. Charlie had brought along some frozen shrimp and cut-up cigar minnow for bait.
The two brothers hadn’t talked much on the way out. The motor on Charlie’s boat was loud and Fat John didn’t hear well. Now that they were anchored on the reef Fat John could hear.
“How’s the fishing been this year?” Fat John asked him.
“I been fishing this bay for forty years,” Charlie said. “And I still know the spots.”
“How you been feeling? Your health holding out?”
“Never felt better in my life,” Charlie said. “Tammy doesn’t complain if you know what I mean.”
At that moment Fat John’s line went taut. “Fish on,” he yelled.
The fish was in the boat within the minute. It was a white trout, which is what Charlie was expecting they’d catch.
“What’s new in North Carolina?” Charlie asked.
“Just people getting old and dying,” Fat John said. “Not too much has changed.”
By the next hour they’d caught the limit.
It was around this time Fat John felt the urge to speak his heart.
“I know we don’t talk much these days,” Fat John said. “I can’t imagine what Mama would’ve thought about that. But at any rate, I just wanted to say I forgive you for what happened that day.”
“For what happened what day?” Charlie said.
“With the slingshot,” Fat John said. “The day you blinded me. The day you blinded me with the slingshot out on grandaddy’s farm.”
“Accidents happen,” Charlie said. “I meant nothing by it.”
“Well, if you’re going to be that way about it,” Fat John said as he attempted to tie a new hook on his line, “never mind. Sorry I brought it up.”
“We need to head on back,” Charlie said. “My boys will be arriving soon for my birthday dinner.”
When they got back, Charlie’s boys, twins named Rodd and Todd, had already arrived. Rodd had taken off early from Little Caesar’s so he could make the party. Todd hadn’t slept in two days on account of his meth habit. He didn’t work. His mother hated the drugs but knew they cut down on his grocery bill at the Piggly Wiggly. She always looked on the bright side.
Fat John offered to clean the fish on the wharf but Charlie said no and that he would do it. Fat John walked back to the house to clean up. He spoke to both Rodd and Todd and fetched a glass of sweet tea from the kitchen. It was so good to see family, he thought.
He thought about showering but remembered that he couldn’t fit in the shower, so he just applied another coat of wintergreen Speed Stick to his pits.
By the time Fat John was well fragranced, Charlie was back in the house.
“Fish cleaned,” he told Tammy, handing her two ziplock bags full of fillets. “My work is done.”
“How you want me to do em? Use the crispy fry or the seasoned?”
“You’re choice, baby. You the boss,” Charlie said.
An hour later dinner was ready. Fat John and Charlie had been on the porch talking and drinking Crown and coke in plastic cups. The Crown was a birthday gift from Fat John.
“It’s just so smooth going down,” Fat John said of the whiskey, “it’s just so smooth.”
A moment later, he added, “It’s just so peaceful out here.”
Charlie wasn’t talking much. He started to think that maybe he was in the wrong when they were out there on the boat. Maybe he should have accepted Fat John’s offer of forgiveness. Maybe he should have said he was sorry for what he had done on grandaddy’s farm in the long ago. He should have said something.
By this time both men were quite drunk. Crown was a fine beverage win lose or draw, Charlie thought. Charlie was enjoying the breeze and didn’t want to eat in the dining room, so he instructed his woman to bring dinner outside. Rodd came out and ate with them, but Todd wasn’t hungry and stayed inside watching reruns of Rosanne on Fox.
After the meal was finished and the birthday cake was serveed, Charlie decided to make a night cap. He nursed it for half an hour, said goodnight, and then went to bed. Tammy soon followed. She was a loyal woman. Fat John stayed out on the patio looking at the stars, the signature of Cassiopeia burning to the south in the night sky. How did the aliens live on those things, he wondered? Not much later Todd came outside. Rodd had left and gone back to work another shift at Little Caesars. Todd offered Fat John some of his meth. He accepted. He snorted a bump, then another, then another. Meth was a fine thing indeed, Fat John thought. He kept drinking the Crown. He was feeling good. It was so good to be back with family. He loved his brother Charlie and wanted to rekindle the old days, not the way they had been but the way he wished they had been. Maybe he could pull a prank on him tonight in good fun. It was then that Fat John got an idea.
Fat John left Todd twitching on the patio under the stars and walked into the toolshed by the house. He stumbled around, knocking over a container of gasoline and nearly cutting his hand with a broadax. By and by he found a liquid solution of weed killer, or what he took to be weed killer, in an unmarked white squeeze bottle.
“Bingo,” he said out loud.
He put the bottle of weed killer in the pocket of his size-56 Jordache jeans and walked into the house and down the hallway. Along the hallway hung pictures of Charlie’s family through the years. He saw a picture of them on their wedding day and a picture of Rodd and Todd dressed as the Mario brothers for Halloween.
Charlie and Tammy’s room stood at the end of the hallway. Fat John walked along slowly, the Doors song “The End” playing in his demented head. When he reached their room, he summoned all his powers of concentration in his state of flat, sloven drunkenness and opened the door. It was dark but he could see with the light from the hallway. Charlie was snoring loudly through a mask he wore for sleep apnea. He and Tammy were out cold. Fat John approached the bed very slowly. He pulled the bottle of weed killer out of his size-56 Jordache’s, unscrewed the cap on the bottle, and poured the solution over his older brother’s right eye.