I suspect that catfish are the predominant fish residing in Hell. I can picture them swishing around in the murky, putrid swamps there, snapping peevishly at each other with their weird, be-whiskered mouths. You may suspect that this odd belief of mine stems from a rare phobia (ichthyophobia is the fear of fish; I’m afraid I can’t find a term for the fear of catfish. Maybe Ailuro-ichthyophobia, Ailuoro being “cat.”) or the fact that I was dropped on my head when I was a baby. (Was I, Mom?)
Personally, I think it’s because of the demon catfish of my youth. He was an ugly fellow. I remember how malevolent he seemed (although this was before I knew the word ‘malevolent’), jerking his body from side to side, eddies of oil swirling in the tepid water. His eyes were large, unblinking, and bulbous, and the creature would glare sullenly at me. He was nearly 5 feet long and weighed almost 50 pounds, and he was in the claw-footed bathtub in the upstairs bathroom of the house in Nelson where I grew up. I was ten years old at the time, and a skinny little girl with stringy blonde hair. It would have surprised me a little if the creature had actually lunged out of the bathtub toward me, mouth gaping, ready to bite!—but it wouldn’t have shocked me.
At least it wasn’t in the main bathroom of our home. That room—centrally located on the first floor–would certainly be visited by my friends when they came home from school with me to raid my mom’s excellent ‘fridge. It wouldn’t take long for word to get around Nelson Elementary School that the Youngs—that was us–had a behemoth catfish in their bathtub, barely alive, and then my chances of successful grade school popularity were gone, gone, gone. Nobody would ever let me forget it. Ever. I would become, and would from then on always be, the infamous “Catfish Girl.” At every high school reunion, years into the future, my classmates would laugh at me, pointing . . . from a distance. I had seen kids bullied during recess for much less. I shuddered at the thought.
My dad was the new pharmacist in the little town of Nelson, Nebraska, and he ran the little corner drugstore with the marble countertop and the charming soda fountain that people tend to reminisce about today. It was a romantic place. You could get your prescription filled, buy a nice gift for your auntie, and then sit on a high swivel stool and sip on a cherry phosphate while a nice lady behind the counter wrapped your auntie’s present. We didn’t even realize it at the time, but it was a pretty sweet place.
After just a few months in Nelson, Dad seemed to know everybody in town and was probably more familiar than he wanted to be with their private lives. He knew which medicines everybody took for which health problems, what kind of soap they preferred, and what they liked in their coffee. If you had a problem you needed help with—if the clasp on your favorite necklace broke, or if your child was acting up and needed to have a stern chat with somebody, well, stern—you’d head down to the drugstore to talk to Jim. My dad. Gregarious and engaging, he was friends with nearly everybody in town, and not just because it was good for business, either. People often brought him little gifts to pay for his kindnesses.
You were wondering where the catfish was going to come in.
Buford, a small man and a coffee customer at the drugstore, was a local fisherman of notable prowess. He particularly liked to fish for catfish. He’d occasionally bring in a 2- or 3-pound ‘cat’ to the drugstore, wrapped in newspaper, and give it to somebody, as a gift.
There are people, I am told, who enjoy eating catfish—dipped in cornmeal and fried, with hushpuppies. I am not, nor have ever been, one of these people. I preferred my fish at the time dug out of little flat round cans, mixed with enough mayonnaise and pickle relish to hide the actual fish taste, and smeared on a piece of my Mom’s homemade bread. Thinly.
Dad, bless him, actually likes catfish dinners. He hinted to Buford that maybe it was his turn for one of these fish gifts. Buford seemed to ignore his jibes.
However, the old fisherman was listening all along . . . unfortunately. One day Buford pulled his rusted pick-up alongside the curb in front of our house and staggered up the walk, dragging an enormous catfish, nearly as big as the little man himself. My mom didn’t know what to say when he presented her with this odd and malodorous gift. She wasn’t aware of Dad’s heckling of the little man. The fish was still alive, barely, gasping grotesquely, bulging its wicked eyes at me even then, and giving a spasmodic jerk every now and then that made us all jump.
On my Mom’s face was an unforgettable expression: a grimace of horror, mixed with a frozen spasm of pseudo-delight. Mom is always the picture of civility and good manners, no matter what she may find dropped at her door. I’m sure, on this occasion, her sense of decorum was put to the test.
One of the qualities that I admire most in my Mom is her unflappability. Other mothers I knew would have been in hysterics over this “gift.” Mom merely instructed my brother Mark and me to hang onto the horrid squirming fish, on the back porch, while she walked calmly across the kitchen to our telephone and called my Dad. She might have been inviting a friend over for coffee; she was that casual. Dad told her to drag the humongous ‘cat’ up the back steps (after being laid on an old sheet, to protect the wood) to our upstairs bathroom, which is what we did. Our little sister Anne stood watching in horror. We were going to soak it, per Dad’s instructions, and make it, theoretically, taste less horrible. I’d never know, because I silently vowed as I peeled off my catfish-stinky clothing afterwards, that I’d never eat a bite of that stinkin’ fish. Never, ever, ever.
Catfish are an oily fish, Dad told us, and there was a theory that if you could soak them for a few days before cleaning them, some oil would leech out, and you’d have a tastier, less offensive fish for your supper.
(My personal feeling is that if you have to work that hard to get something to taste “less offensive” you might as well just open a jar of peanut butter and give the fish to your cat. If your cat will eat it, that is, which was very doubtful in this particular case. But nobody was asking me. Nobody ever asks a skinny, slight, quiet ten-year-old girl with stringy blonde hair her opinion about household affairs. Someday, somebody, somewhere will ask a little girl her opinion about a matter that will affect her every waking hour–not to mention her social life–like, say, how she feels about their putting a dying, stinking fish into the bathtub just down the hallway from her room–and that little girl’s heart will swell unbearably with gratitude, just to be consulted. That will be a grand day, indeed, for slight little girls everywhere.)
That fish. If he could have done bodily harm to me, he would have. I was sure of it. He hated me. I loathed him. A month of fish suppers. Yum. Not for me.
People gave us the weirdest gifts.
I don’t know how many days the fish soaked in our bathtub, but it was long enough to be keenly memorable. The olfactory senses never forget, do they not? We are still talking about it, after all, thirty years later. The entire house, overnight, had an unpleasant fishy odor. I stopped bringing my friends home after school. Mom’s mouth started to have a strange, grim set to it. Apparently, the bigger the fish, the longer it needed to soak. Finally, one day Mom braved the bathroom to check on the fish, and she noticed that it had taken a rather unthrifty turn. “Gosh darnit he’s dying,” she said.
It was certainly unusual to hear Mom use such strong language. Evidently the whole thing was really starting to get on her nerves. And after all this time, it would be a tragedy—supposedly—if the fish died before Dad could cut it up into all those lovely fish dinners.
So Mom called Dad at work, and when he came home for lunch that day, he filleted the thing. We all had to help wrestle the dying fish down to the backyard picnic table for Dad to do his grisly deed. It was not pleasant. Mom wrapped the fillets up and tucked them into the freezer. Catfish just aren’t meant to be that big—not in this life, certainly. Not in this realm. This one just had to be from the netherworld, which brings up some questions about Buford, his access to Hell, and his future prospects.
But that’s a ponder for another day.
Mom had a pile of leftover fish parts to do away with, so she did with them what she did at the time with all kitchen refuse: she dug a hole in the flowerbed, between the asters and the shrub rose, and buried them. A big hole. The Native Americans used fish as fertilizer, to good effect, after all, she reasoned. Why not her?
Mom scrubbed out the bathtub with a vengeance, splashing bleach hither and yon, humming happily as she worked. A cloud had been lifted from our home. Afterward, we drew our first complete, collective breath in weeks, and tried to forget the catfish from hell. Once again I could bring my friends home from school.
The trials with that fish weren’t over yet, however. I had successfully pushed the loathsome memories of that fish away, until the summer day that I noticed the maggots. This was before I even knew what maggots were, but there they were: bubbling up in gay profusion from a large area in Mom’s flowerbed. Right between the asters and the shrub rose (which, it must be noted here, had never looked better). Apparently, in her haste, Mom hadn’t buried the carcass as deeply as she might have. The carcass had become exposed to the air, it had attracted flies, the flies had done their work, and the rest, as they say, was l’histoire.
Now this is the part of the story that my dad blushes about when I tell it. Or maybe it starts with the maggots bit. Anyway, Dad, you can skip this next paragraph or two, okay? I’ll feel better. You’ll feel better. Here goes: my older brother Mark, then around 11, always up for a new experience with hopes of either dangerous or disgusting results—or even better, both–grabbed a can of gasoline and a box of matches. Mom and Dad weren’t home. Poised between the asters and the shrub rose, just a few feet from our house, matches in one hand, can of gasoline in the other, Mark did a surprising thing. He considered—albeit briefly–the consequences of his actions.
In so considering, he then armed the most gullible sibling he could find–our 6-year-old sister Anne–with a garden hose, and careful instructions. I’m sure his instructions were brief, because he knew that if anybody else saw him, his little maggot frying experiment would be over. He didn’t call me, and I missed out on the entire spectacle. Probably he had a good reason for keeping me in the dark. He assumed that I would have tattled on him, and his assumptions were correct. I’d been burned before, so to speak, by his bizarre little schemes.
Little Anne didn’t know enough—yet—to be wary of Mark’s so-called “science experiments.” She’d learn, eventually.
It was a dandy trick. I wish I could have seen it. Only Mark and Anne witnessed the spectacle of leaping, frying, popping maggots in the backyard. Now successful (and fairly normal) adults, they both still chuckle over their dazzling Maggot Flambé, and the rest of us just have to wistfully imagine, and be grateful that they escaped third-degree burns from the incident, not to mention setting our house on fire.
Nelson was a very small town. My brother could have sold tickets to a neat event like that. As long as it didn’t burn down the house, too, which, it must be noted, it didn’t. Then it would have been another matter entirely. The entire episode was a success, of sorts. There’s such a fine line, when you’re an eleven-year-old boy, I’m sure, between Being Really Cool and Being in Deep Doo-Doo.
Months later, at suppertime one night, Dad recalled the catfish fillets. He asked Mom what had ever happened to them. He didn’t remember any catfish dinners . . hush puppies. . . coleslaw. . . ? She blushed and mumbled something about looking for them sometime; probably they were buried in our stuffed freezer; she really needed to clean the thing out. . . Then she abruptly got up and busied herself cleaning up somebody’s spilled milk, and in the ensuing hubbub, the fillets were forgotten. I’m sure Dad wondered about how such large packages of fish could have ever gone missing.
Many years later, Mom admitted that she had been so sickened by the entire oily-catfish-bubbling-maggots-possible-arson affair, that every time she’d open the freezer, she would shudder at the sight of those huge packages of fish. So, one day when she found herself alone in the house, she pulled them out, and buried them in the backyard, too. There were plenty of fish for sale down at Chapman’s Grocery Store, after all. The asters and shrub roses had never looked better, incidentally.
We promised Dad that we’d never tell Buford about the whole deal, but then maybe he heard about it, because he never brought us another catfish.
And that was okay with me.
Postscript: When doing some research for this story (you didn’t really think I knew what the fear of fish was called, did you?) I ran across a news item from a few years back: (and I am not making this up) “Locals Fear Giant Catfish Developed Taste for Human Flesh After Feeding on Corpses in River Grave.” Apparently a giant catfish–called a goonch–was feeding on the corpses thrown into the river after being burnt on funeral pyres (this was not in America), and had grown so large and so fond of human flesh that it had started attacking live humans who were unwittingly swimming in the same area. So you think I’m nuts about the catfish/hell connection? Uh-huh. Don’t think so.
Second postscript: I’m writing a book based on my early growing-up years in Nelson, including stories like this one. Its working title is All the Way to Nelson. If you’d like to be notified when it is available, please leave a comment and I’ll be sure you hear about it!
Third and final and thank-you-for-being-so-patient Postscript: An adaptation of this story was published first in NebraskaLife magazine, a fine publication with excellent taste in story-telling.
That’s all. I promise.
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