Monday, November 18, 2013

James River Crab Cakes (Part V of V)

There may be a few people out there who are wondering what ever happened to Big Al. It's been weeks since I posted the last installment and now... well, here it is...the humble ending to the story.

That night my mama sent me to the community garden for squash, ‘cause we were having grandmama over for dinner.  The community garden was only about a mile away.  Going to the garden was like having store credit.  We had lots of credit at the garden since we had planted four rows of it.  My mama had us all out here this past spring planting peas, cucumbers, carrots and new strawberry plants.  The only thing that had kept me diggin’ was the thought of some of  mama’s strawberry shortcake, with cool lush strawberries dyeing the clean flour of the cake topped with cream she whipped herself after we got it from Farmer Murray.  The squash was on the far side of the garden by the fence of Whistling Fields.  I had set to hackin’ at the thick vine of the squash when I heard big Al’s voice over the fence.  I squatted low to the ground, to avoid him seeing me.  I crawled to the fence and peered through the chain link into Big Al’s trailer.  Dingy cotton curtains blocked Al’s face from my sight and I could tell he was doing his best not to get in the way. He had smashed himself into the makeshift kitchen booth which doubled as a bed.   His mama was at the sink, in front of a plastic Betty Boop clock which rolled her bobble eyes with each tick.  Al’s mama was washing the cheap plastic dishes and hollering at Al about something.   She had a little voice , to match her petit frame but it was rough and strained.  I leaned forward into the fence to get some of the conversation. 
“Al, you just put that out of your mind, there is no way you can go to Hamp’en Sydney, and I don’t want you associating with that black boy, Joey Williams either.”  
“Why Mom?”
“Allen, you know well enough why.  He may be nice and kind and whatever, but its just no good to mix like that.  It leads to nothing but trouble.” 
I heard Al sigh.  His mom stopped washing for a moment and heaved her should with immense strain and then turned to Al and kissed his fat cheek,  “Now you get out there and pick me some more zucchini, maybe I can fix some bread.” 
Al shuffled to the door and I could hear the aluminum floor bend slightly beneath his weight.  I grabbed my squash and took off ‘fore he could catch a glimpse of me outside his window.   I ran hard and I came into the driveway pantin’ something awful.  Right then, I began thinking ‘bout why I’d taken such a dislike to Big Al.  I wondered at how little he had in that trailer, no refrigerator or TV, just him and his mama and barely enough room to walk between the two.  And what about his daddy?  There was a mystery I had only begun to tackle when my mama called me in, hollarin’ for the squash.  I ran up the porch stairs, ready for a nicely fixed squash and maybe some dumplings.
I didn’t see Big Al for a couple days after that.  But the conversation I’d heard through the fence got to gnawing at the back of my mind.  I was kind of miserable every time I rode my bike past Whistling Fields on the way to Winn Dixie.  Until, one Saturday  when my mama was gonna make crab cakes, so I went out crabbing early.  We got two poles in our shed and I figured the time would go faster if maybe Big Al come with me and helped me out.  I stopped at Whistling Fields and knocked on the thin door.  Big Al opened it, looking a little more rumpled than usual, his oversized t-shirt creased from sleep and his brown hair knotted like a squirrel’s nest.  I was standin’ there with two poles and fancied myself an African Huck Finn.  
“Well, ya wanna go crabbin’?”  I asked.  Al nodded and let the door swing shut as he creaked around for a while and emerged looking essentially the same but a little wetter.  We started down the path to the rhythm of our bare feet against the dirt path.
Even the white folk’s country club can’t compete with the cove where Jimmy D. used to live.  It the best crabbin’ spot on the whole James River if you ask me or my daddy.  Jimmy D was my great uncle and he taught my daddy everything we know ‘bout crabbin’.  He’d been killed back before I was born.  Mama said his house burnt down, I could see some of the charcoal posts still sticking up from the ground like blackened toothpicks.   His old boat, Scraps, was tied up to a platform made out of more gaps than wood.  The wood that stayed put was smooth and worn from the water’s wear and tear.  I sat down with my legs in the water, which was salty on account of how close we were to the Atlantic.  We were right outside the channel where they run old boats aground.  There was a whole city of ships out there.  I used to imagine it was a kingdom of steel ruled by ghost generals and dead pirates.  Under the dock were crab holes.  The small air bubbles gave me hope for a good catch.  I licked my fingers after hooking a good n’ greased chicken wing to my pole.  The water was shallow and I watched my bait through the greenish tint of the James.  Big Al did the same.  I wondered if the crabs were looking up at the chicken wing from their tunnel above their warm houses.  The fishing boats dragged their nets through the water, thick with fish.  
It was too late by the time I recognized the sailboat zipping towards us.  It was Trent Williams and he was already pulled up close enough to holler his share of insults.  My hand tightened around my pocket knife, we’d fought before.  
“Oh, well, here are two of the saddest creatures on the James River.  I don’t know which one to pity more, the skinny black one or the fat white one.”  He laughed. 
“What do you got against us?” I hollered back. “What did we ever do to you?”
“What did you do to me?” Trent sneered.  “How do you think your daddy got his name?  Your daddy shamed my daddy in front of the whole town. But my daddy gave him the beating of his life for it.”
“Rooster?” I questioned.
“Rooster.” Trent replied.  “After Jimmy D died, your daddy got the notion that it was started by the Klu Klux Klan.  Nobody would believe that over in the west end, least of all Sheriff McKey.  So your daddy swore that he’d hunt down the grand master himself.  The next day he showed up at my house carrying on like a madman, screaming and crying.  He killed our prized Rooster and was nailing it to the barn door out of spite.  My daddy took him and whipped him so bad your mama had to come carry him away.  From then on everybody called him Rooster cause of what he done.  He ain’t nothing but grown up slave boy.”
I think he might’ve gone on with his hollarin’ but his mean tongue got bit by his teeth as a chicken wing knocked him in the side of the head.  I looked at Big Al, whose hands where still drippin’ from the chicken fat.  His round face was swelling with anger as picked up another wing and again clocked Trent right across his face.  I could tell it was gonna bruise and Trent was doing all he could to keep from crying.  “Why don’t you go back home to your daddy?” Al suggested.  “You can come back if you think of something good to say ‘cause all I hear is a load of horse crap coming out of your mouth.”  And with that Trent Williams pulled his sail hard to catch the small wind on the river and he was soon out of sight.  
Al slapped his hands against his shorts and I lamely muttered, “Thanks.”  He nodded, and I smiled remembering the chicken stain on Trent’s cheek.  I started to laugh at the image of chicken fat splat against his jaw and then falling to smear the crisp white of his polo shirt.  Al began to laugh too.  His high chuckle released all the anger which had been pressurized in his large face.  We imitated Trent’s shocked expression until we were bent over with laughter and all the tension was split.
Al’s face sobered, “I’m sorry about your dad.”  
I shrugged.  I looked down into the water, deep down as I could where the water muddied from the wake of the boat.
“My dad’s dead,” Al continued.  “He got killed in LA last year.   It was after the riots ya know.   My mom says he was in the black neighborhood and it was late.  They killed him Joey, He didn’t hate nobody, but they killed him just the same.  So, I’m not supposed to be friends with you.  My mom’s scared.  But I think that is the same on both sides. What’s the difference between Trent and the blacks who killed my dad? ”
My mind reverberated with shock.  I looked at Al as if I’d just met him.  He really wasn’t so fat, I guess.  There was a sort of greatness in his size.  “Yeah,” I agreed.  “I don’t see the difference,” and I really didn’t.  With that, I grinned and turned back to the water, once again smooth.
“Hey ya got something!”  Al exclaimed.  
I looked down to find a huge crab grasping the flesh of the wing with both muscular claws.  “Oh we got ‘em!” I yelled.  “We got ‘em Al, open the net.”  I lifted my pole, bent toward the crab which dangled over the open net bag.  I set him down and then yanked the chicken from him.  It swung high into the clear sky and I laughed with joy as it fell in to the river.  Al squealed with delight.  We must have been a sight us two boys, rejoicing like that over a crab.  It was like we’d finally struck it rich in our own gold rush.  
We caught 6 more crabs that day and headed back to the house, swinging them over our shoulders, whistling off-key with each other but pleased as pie.  We got to Al’s trailer first, and he hesitated to turn off the path.  “Al, ya coming to dinner?  You gotta eat your catch.  Invite your mama too.”  He looked at me like I was good ole Santa Claus with my bag full of crabs.  He clomped up the step stool in front of the trailer, with a grin as fat as his own big self.  

Not an hour later, Al and his mama was at our door holding some onions and cabbage for the coleslaw.  That night, we sat down to one of the finest meals of crab cakes this side of the James River has ever seen. The smell of dill and pepper filled the house. The cakes were so light I bet Al that I could eat 10.  He laughed in that high pitched delight and reached for the cool pitcher of sweet tea which stood on our finest blue tablecloth. I smiled back at him, digging into my dumplings which were still hot enough to steam as I split them. 

His mama was smiling too.  She had on a floral sun dress, and was closing her eyes with apparent pleasure.  Her red lipstick brightened her face and reminded me of the strawberries which would follow the meal.  My dad, Rooster, set down his fork and wiped his hands happily.  “Oh what a day!” he announced.  “If this ain’t a proper welcome to the neighborhood I don’t know what is!”  I looked at my daddy at the head of the table and noticed again the small scars on the back of his arms, peering out from his t-shirt sleeves.  I glanced up to catch his smiling eyes and saw that they were deep and strong like the James River itself.  “It don’t get much better than this,”  I whispered to Al and he nodded his big head.  That night was the brightest of the whole summer, playing pick-up in the moonlight, eating strawberries and cream.  I looked out over the river and thought, “The James it ain’t too rich a place to live but it ain’t too poor.  It’s got all sorts of secrets in that water, floating by, slow but powerful.”

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