“That old man must have 300 pairs of overalls!” Spider exclaimed while the boys cleaned fish under the tutelage of the fourth grade fisherman. The only one who remotely knew what he was doing was Spider who said Rambo had taken him fishing at Bayou St. John – a five acre waterway next to the old canning factory in the Sixth Ward.
“You think this will be the new style?” asked Tex while posing in his oversize overalls.
“Hey, what’s powering the washing machine? I don’t see a power pole, nor a water pump,” Buddha asked, looking around.
“Man, who cares?” Spider shrugged.
“Just curious, Man, bite my head off…” Buddha snapped back.
The old man lit a butane grill and started breading the fish to fry. Despite his years, he moved like a young man with a certain quiet determination combined with a smooth efficiency. That is why when George finally noticed his eyes, he was startled. He blurted, “You’re blind, aren’t you?” Then his hands went to his mouth like they could catch the insensitive words before they reached the old man’s ears.
The octogenarian said without missing a beat, “Well, you’re missing a tooth.”
Spider jumped in with, “No, that’s the one for eating those itty bitty ears of corn. He’s got the big corn tooth in his pocket.”
The old man gave a grunt and threw the breaded fish into the hot oil. The boy tugged on Spider’s arm, “Come on.”
The boy had promised Spider an advanced tutorial on how to fish with an artificial lure called a Junebug Lizard. The boy said his name was Pan Frairee talked Spider through the instructions. Spider cast the lure across the bayou just as the boy had done except the Lizard landed on a log.
“Dang it! I threw too far.”
“Nuh-uh, that’s perfect! Now real slowly creep it into the water like it’s a real lizard.”
Spider bumped the line until the lizard eased off into the dark depths and sank.
“Now just bump it a little and let it sit still… okay, bump it again.”
All of the sudden the curls in the line went taut and Miguel was enthralled in an aquatic contest.
“Don’t reel it in!” Pan jumped and laid a hand on Spider’s forearm. “See, she’s got it in her mouth. She ain’t tryin’ to eat it. She’s just moving it from her bed. She don’t trust it. The secret is, when she is moving away with her tail facing you, you set the hook before she can spit it out.”
“How do I know when her tail is facing me?”
“Close your eyes. Feel it through the line. Can’t you see her? She’s hesitating, she’s moving, she’s turning…There she goes!!”
Spider yanked up on the rod and it bent like a question mark as he fought the big bass. Buddha had his camera out, expecting Spider to catch something, and caught a shot of the huge fish as it flew out of the water like it was posing for a magazine cover.
When Spider got the big mouth close enough, the little boy reached into the water and hefted the fish out. Pan held it out from his chest and the tail touched the ground.
“Is it too late to cook this one?”
The boy’s face puckered up and his mouth opened in disgusted shock as he said, “No, Mr. Spider, she has to go back.”
“Cause she’s old, probably older than you.” Then he touched a bulging part of her abdomen. “Plus, she’s gonna be a momma. She just let us catch her so you could learn somethin’.”
“Oh, well, I guess we should let her go then.”
The boy showed Spider how to set her in the water parallel with the surface until she started to swim to make sure her air bladder was fine before she was off.
“Bye bye, mamacita.”
Buddha had been stock still watching the release of the fish. He hadn’t heard the old man come up behind him over the sizzling of frying fish. A hand landed on his shoulder, making him jump.
Ignoring his surprise the old man asked, “Now you know how the strings work?”
He had a moment’s confusion as he wondered whether the man was talking about fishing line or the other strings, but as he started to ask for clarification, the man’s milky eyes made the words stick in his throat, so he only said, “Yes sir, I think so.”
“Good. Then that old sow did good. I’ll have to thank her later.” Then, like nothing happened, he ambled off to fry the fish. “Call me Uncle Ty. It’s short for Tyresius Frairee.”
Buddha was offered the first plate of fish and hush puppies and sat down to eat it, joined quickly by his hungry friends and the tow-headed boy. The bass’s buttery texture melted in their mouths and electrified their taste buds with epicurean delight.
Uncle Ty asked, “Do you cook, Mark Anthony?”
Buddha froze, mid bite, wondering whether he told the old man his name. “No sir, my Mom does all the cooking at my house.”
After the food was all gone, they sat around as full as ticks and watched the dark swamp light up with fireflies and the dim light from a sickly sliver of moon working overtime to make shadows.
Uncle Ty pulled out his mandolin from a case that looked as old and antiquated as he was. He tuned the strings as he hummed. He picked a few notes and started to sing.
Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you’ve got on?
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?
Buddha nudged George and drew his attention to what looked like little boats moving through the swamps. George couldn’t make out people in the boats, but he had to rub his eyes because for a second he could have sworn he saw a woman in a billowing dress being paddled in a sort of sampan, or flat bottomed canoe.
And did I hear you say he was meeting you here today,
To bring you to his mansion in the sky?
George could make out a dozen boats, so he asked Uncle Ty, “I thought nobody ever came to this swamp?”
He stopped singing to answer, “Well, we don’t get a lot of visitors to this swamp, but there’s plenty of my kinfolk that live here. They got Frairee’s live all over Murder Creek. I wasn’t born a Frairee, though. I was adopted, but I took the name anyhow. And since we’s asking questions,” he pointed at Spider, “I once met a man seems like he might of been from New Orleans, too, though he didn’t say. He had the exact same tattoo on his neck; more like a photograph than a drawing. I understand nowadays all kinds of people get ‘em but back then, only sailors did, so it stuck in my mind.”
Buddha interrupted, “How do you know what it looks like of you can’t see?”
“How do you know how good fish is cooked if you can’t cook?”
“I don’t have to cook to be able to eat.”
“I don’t gotta have eyes to be able to see.”
Buddha felt he’d been checkmated without being given any information, but he wasn’t going to let the opportunity to ask questions pass him by, “Uncle Ty, you said you’d only left this swamp once in your life.”
The old coot laughed a good belly laugh and said, “Well, at least I know you’re paying attention! Then you probably already know this, being as sharp as you are, that the guy you are named after, the real Mark Anthony, was a senator, which back in those days means a lawyer, in charge of trials and such. I read he was a mighty good lawyer until he mixed up with this old Egyptian temptress, Cleopatra. You never know, maybe ya’ll are kin.”
“You don’t have to worry about that, Buddha would faint if a girl talked to him,” Tex tried to lighten the mood.
“Oh, I don’t know about that, James.” Tex’s face went white. He knew for certain the old man should not know his name. “Mark Anthony might know more about getting mixed up with bad women than ya’ll give him credit for. But like my Mama used to say, ‘Ty are you in the fishing business or the gossip business?’ and I’d say ‘fishing business’, but what was I talkin’ about?”
Buddha flushed as the boys looked at him for confirmation of this suspicion that he’d had an encounter with bad women. He tried to change the subject. “Tattoos, Uncle Ty.”
“Yeah, well, as it turns out, the one time in my life I left Murder Creek was the time I met this feller with the tattoo.”
“Could you see then, I mean with your eye? No offense…” Buddha held up a defensive hand that the man couldn’t see.
“Always the senator, huh? Yep, sure could. I lost the use of these fighting with the one oh one in a little place called Bastogne. That’s in France. I bet it was a beautiful place before the Nazi’s came and we bombed the hell out of it. I remember it like it was last night. It was so cold every time my rifle fired it felt like a mule was kicking my shoulder. You ever stub your toe when it’s freezing cold? Well, multiply that by a hundred. I thought I had it bad. My old Mama used to say when you got it bad, thank the Lord cause people got it worse. She was right, ‘cause I ran out of bullets and then things got worse. I swung that heavy old rifle around like a sword until the bayonet came off. Then I used it like a club until it busted in half on a very hard Nazi helmet. Finally,I had to resort to my bare hands. Well, I was trying to choke the life out of one of those Krauts and he was trying to do the same to me when one of the old German baton grenades flashed in my eyes. That German, or Jerry as we called them, took most of the shrapnel, but I still lost my sight. Who would have guessed that dying boy was going to be the last thing I ever saw?”
“So the German, he was wearing the tat?”
“Oh no, that was one of ours. I think he must have been a top sergeant or something. It was somewhere around August in ‘43, a year earlier. The place was crawling with Jerries and we had teamed up with the Screaming Eagles right on the edge of Kraut territory. It was hard for us to get intel on the other side of occupied territory but we had the group of French resistance that kept us supplied with information. The one I remember the most was this wonderful little French girl. She had the most beautiful auburn hair as cherry as a red wasp and her eyes were almost as purple as a martin. About seven of them would come just across the German line and meet with our Lieutenant. They’d also bring us cakes and fresh bread which was a godsend after eating those old sea rations. It was a dangerous duty but I always volunteered to go meet them because it was worth storming the beach again just to look her in those big, round pixie eyes of hers.
“Sorry, I got a little off subject. So we go out to meet them, seps they don’t show. They always show. Finally, after about three hours we’re getting ready to call it a night and this sergeant comes running up with this French Negro who talks kinda funny, not French sounding at all, but he had a beret on. The sergeant was a huge man and he carried a pistol, a thompson sub machine gun, and knives just about every place he could strap one. My lieutenant challenges him for the security password and the Negro, who did all the talking, knew it. So my platoon leader asks about the resistance party we were meeting and the Negro says to follow him. We go about a mile down the trail and he shows us why they were late.
“Now look, when I stormed Normandy I was so damn scared I almost pissed myself. I don’t know how I stayed alive, but I did. Up until that day my sole purpose was to stay alive. That all changed when I saw those six dead French girls. All that mattered to me after that was killing Nazis. We had given them boys a world of hurt, so I reckon that’s why they killed them folks with hatchets and hammers. I cried like a baby. Hell, come to think of it, I was a baby. I wasn’t but seventeen, seein’ how’s I lied to enlist. Weren’t like they had picture I.D’s or nothin’. Yep, when I saw my French girl dead, all mangled up, and the old man that helped them, I reckon that’s when I grew up. The Sergeant said something to the Negro and he told us they were only forty five minutes ahead of us.
“We fell in with them and decided to hunt some Germans. Frenchie said there was a light platoon of about twelve moving fast. He said it was a real mean bunch of the Waffen SS.I wasn’t afraid because I could tell the Sergeant man, the one with the bad scar and the tat was about as mean as they come. He looked like a bruiser that could have whipped half of Germany and Japan, too.”
The boys were completely hypnotized in the rhythm of the old man’s speech. They could never have dreamed they’d be in the middle of a swamp wearing overalls and begging for the rest of a story they were almost certain was about an old fedora wearing gangster and a dredlocked wizard that had an affinity for playing chess. They hung suspended like a bright yellow deer fly snared in a fine strand of silk waiting for Miss Muffet’s spider to reel in its catch.
“We followed that big Sergeant about six miles into enemy territory until we came upon them Germans. They must have felt awful safe after killing those girls and that old man, ‘cause there they were beside a big deuce and a quarter truck with a campfire, no less. Can you believe it? We had been so scared since D-Day that we would hide a zippo flame in a helmet to light a cigarette and here these Jerries were with a fire like it was Friday night after a football game. They were also drunk and singing some old Kraut songs about a Fraulein waiting for them. I bet she wasn’t killed with hatchets and hammer like some pack of Comanches.
“Lieutenant sent four on down the tree line and four with him and we come guns up and if they move we gun ‘em down in the crossfire. I was crowded in between that big sarge with the tattoo and the Frenchie. Now, when you are in a war where everywhere there is someone willing to help you die for your country, your gun is important. When you don’t have it you feel like in those dreams where you show up to school without pants, plum nekkid. When I first saw that Negro, I felt naked for him ‘cause he didn’t have a gun, but when we came over that hill to chase them Nazis, that old boy had a sword and I don’t mean no sissy rapier. I mean some kind of Viking two-handed broadsword. I don’t where he pulled it from, but he drew it and we charged. Would you believe those lily-livered cowards that had the nerve to call themselves headhunters threw their hands up and in perfect English surrendered?
“Lieutenant told me to tie up the prisoners and that big feller looked mad as hell. The Frenchie was trying to calm him down, but I could see he was madder than a hound dog in a hornet’s nest. When I looked in the back of the truck for rope, all I found was shackles, and chains, and handcuffs, so the lieutenant tells me to cuff them together and the last one to the truck. The giant sarge looked calm until he looked in a bucket and saw bloody hammers and hatchets. That was it, son. That’s when a gambling man would have said all bets are off. That big sarge pulled out his pistol and started capping those Germans at point blank range with the kind of cool temperament a man might shoot an old Coke bottle.
“Now when I was a kid we had the finest blue tick hound of Murder Creek. People wanted her and coons feared her. But she had a litter of puppies once and they was all deformed and gross little creatures. She killed ‘em soon as they’s born. My pa told me they was born bad and best thing for ‘em was to die. When I thought of my pretty French girl dead on that trail clutching a bloody sack of honey cakes, I knew them fellers was born bad. Pa was right and that sarge knew it. Best thing for them was to die. I think they knew it, too. How was they ever gonna go home and love those ladies waiting for them back home after what they done? They don’t even move. They just look straight down the barrel and sarge sent them to Hell.
“But Lieutenant now, he was a strange one. Must have been all that college educated book learning gave him some funny ways about right and wrong. Once that sarge had executed his fourth prisoner, Lieutenant knocked the gun out of his hand and held the big guy at gunpoint. ‘Stand down’ he says, ‘you are under arrest and you will be court martialed’.The Negro who had been muttering behind him in Latin, I think it was, givin’ them their last rites, though I’m sure he wasn’t a priest, pulls the sarge back before there be any trouble. I was heartbroke at not seeing the men get what was coming to them. Every time I looked at one of them I saw that little French girl.
“Lieutenant started searching the men for intel papers like he’d been taught at West Point. The big sarge wasn’t going to be denied that easy. When the big diesel engine in that trunk cranked up, Lieutenant’s face looked as surprised as if somebody had put a garter snake in his underwear. Despite all the horror and heartbreak on that day, I couldn’t help but laugh as the tires spun out and tore off down the road with a dozen Nazis chained behind. I laughed until tears started to flow and then I sat and cried for those girls and that old man.
“The truck went back down the road the way we’d come. We wouldn’t take the road because of the enemies we were sure would be traveling, but whenever we had to cross it, there was a red line in the middle of the earth often decorated with a piece of meat or uniform. Now them shackles had belly and ankle chains, too, so when we caught up to the truck back at our camp there two whole torsos, no heads, eight hands, and twelve feet. Lieutenant vomited until he had no more secretions to vomit up. Then he opened the cab and found a note. It said,
‘They were assassins, which means they belonged to me in the first place. You were right, shooting them was too humane. Thank you. I preferred your idea.’
‘Brother of the Scorpions’
The boys looked at each other in shock at the realization of what they had assumed. Who is to say what twisted web that old spider Prince Love had spun to make them cross paths with Uncle Ty?
As a matter of fact, unbeknownst to the boys, one of the Waffen SS who met his end chained to the back of that truck wasn’t always bad. He was actually betrothed to a fine young Jewish girl back in Berlin with a very German name; Gertrude Goring. All her friends called her G.G. Miss Goring was only seventeen when she became a switchboard operator. She didn’t look very Jewish with red hair and hazel eyes, but she was as Shalom as a cream cheese bagel. Her beau never made it back home from France and luckily for our heroes, she met a very fine Jewish man, a nineteen year old soldier named Norbert Moshe Rothering. She moved with him to his family home on Melpomene Street in New Orleans, the very same house his grandson George Norbert Rothering still lived in today.
George felt the warm fingers of sleep trying to lull him into release from the exhausting trudge through the the swamp. The other boys were already deep asleep in the wicker chairs on the porch. After two days of pedaling on the bikes, the skin-of-their-teeth escape from Mississippi, and the disgusting wade through the swamp, his body yearned for rest. He didn’t remember dozing off.