When I was six, my mother finally got tired of the beatings and left my father for good. I remember the final blow: I was standing outside, looking through the front-door window at my father mercilessly pounding my mother’s face into the checked tile floor of our run-down two-bedroom house on the outskirts of Slidell, Louisiana. All I could do was pace up and down the three brick steps to the stoop and hope he wouldn’t kill her.
A few days later my mother and I were firmly entrenched across town in a HUD housing project with my maternal grandmother, who had just suffered a major stroke a few months earlier. My grandmother’s name was Olga, and after the stroke she became aphasic and spoke in beautiful, indecipherable streams of words. It was my first contact with poetic language. She spoke as one who lives on the horizon, uttering lucid-sounding sentences with proper form but no comprehensible content. She was a hard-drinking New Orleans native who smoked three packs of Pall Malls a day and ate every hour of her waking life. She weighed three hundred pounds at the time of her stroke.
Years later, when Olga was in the hospital, I played her a recording of Ezra Pound reading from The Cantos. Pound’s voice rattled through the antiseptic air of the hospital. About a minute into the tape my grandmother turned to me and said, “Is that the kind of shit they teach you at college?” These were the first coherent words she had uttered in years, and she gained my respect completely. After she died, I dedicated my first collection of poems to her.
My mother left my father in the late spring of 1976, and by that summer he’d lost his job of ten years, rolling propane tanks onto flatbed trucks for a company called Proco. He’d been on the company’s blacklist for months because he’d gotten involved in union activity. Proco was a very anti-union company in a very anti-union part of the country. My father’s bosses couldn’t fire him outright, since he was within his rights to organize a union, so they made life hard for him by cutting his wages and forcing him to work the worst shifts. When that didn’t work, they demoted him from a daytime supervisor to a nighttime laborer. Finally one night his boss told him to pick up cigarette butts in the parking lot. When my father heard this, his composure gave way, and he beat the thin little man he worked for to a pulp.
As a child, my father had been beaten all the time by my grandfather, a mechanic who could barely support his wife and four sons. My father must have made some secret pact with himself while I was still in the womb that he wouldn’t beat me as he’d been beaten, because he never laid a hand on me. (My mother, though, still had to pay the price of that past abuse at least once a month.) One time I was jumping on the metal roof of a shed in our backyard, and I fell through the tin and scraped my face on the rusty, jagged edges of the metal. My father scolded me, though not particularly severely, and sentenced me to my room until it was time for school the next morning. He made a game of the punishment, writing my name and prisoner number on one of my white T-shirts with a black marker and passing my meals through the crack of my bedroom door.
I think my father felt guilty for his part in bringing me into the world. Southeast Louisiana in those days was akin to a Third World country, with abundant natural resources and a wide gap between rich and poor. Elite local families and Northern-owned companies conspired to keep profits high and wages low. The wealthy had all gone to good schools, where they’d taken courses on training workers and squeezing the most profit from them. My father knew all this in his bones, and he didn’t like it, but he didn’t know how to change it.
After my father lost his job and his wife, he grew his hair to the middle of his back. (Before that, he’d sported a bowl cut mandated by Proco.) My father’s hair was thick, straight, and blue-black, and he was dark-complected, thanks to his Acadian French and Spanish blood, with a dash of Cherokee and Chickasaw, all accentuated by constant exposure to the Louisiana sun. Now that he was unemployed, he took to smoking joints every day and popping an occasional tab of acid, whereas before he’d merely drunk fifths of Old Granddad and had probably never imagined what it would be like to get stoned or trip. He began reading Omni instead of Field and Stream, and he spoke more and more metaphysically. But my father was a seventh-grade dropout, and he did not have the vocabulary to keep up with his increasingly complex thoughts. (It never occurred to him to look up words in a dictionary.) Oftentimes his pearls of wisdom were as beautifully absurd as the unwords of my grandmother Olga.
To supplement his meager unemployment checks, my father took up gar fishing. A gar looks like a missing evolutionary link between a fish and an alligator — the alligator’s unsophisticated cousin, perhaps, though the gar’s eyes are more ancient and mystical. An alligator is a beautiful killing machine, but its poor cousin the garfish is one of the ugliest creatures on the face of the earth — hauntingly ugly. Although their large jaws full of teeth can be intimidating, gars are essentially no threat to people. There has been only one reported incident of a gar biting someone.
In many parts of the country gars are considered trash fish and an annoyance to anglers, because it’s nearly impossible to retrieve a fishhook or lure from a gar’s mouth due to its small, razor-sharp teeth; the fishermen have to cut their lines. In the South, however — particularly in southern Louisiana — garfish is considered a delicacy among poor and working-class people. Gars are difficult to clean; it takes an axe or a machete to dress one. But once its olive-and-silver skin is peeled back, the meat is as white and flaky as the most-prized game fish. In the midseventies gar fillets were going for as much as two dollars a pound around New Orleans. In the bayous and lagoons where my father fished that summer, the gars averaged about sixty pounds apiece, and after they’d been dressed, they each yielded about twenty pounds of fillets. It wasn’t hard for him to make a hundred dollars a day, if the market wasn’t flooded.
My father began to retreat into the marsh for months at a time to fish for gars. He would salt the huge slabs of fish and pack them in long coolers until he was ready to return to town and sell his catch at the fish markets. After he’d gotten paid, he’d usually buy me a present of some sort: a rod and reel, a used bike, a bowie knife. Then he’d go on a weeklong drinking binge. Once he’d spent the rest of his money on booze and women, he’d head back to the marsh to catch more garfish.
In the first year after the divorce, I stayed with my father every other weekend, and we spent most of our time camping in the marsh and running the gar nets. Our outfit included a green wooden skiff with a six-horsepower Sears and Roebuck outboard motor; five hundred feet of wide-mesh net and two wooden crab hampers in which to store it; an old .22 Winchester rifle and a ball-peen hammer to kill the gars; a machete to clean the fish; and two blue ice chests, where my father stored the fillets. We never used a tent when we camped, just some old blankets and long sheets of plastic to cover ourselves when it rained. We brought an AM transistor radio to listen to weather reports and a case of insect repellent to fight the clouds of gnats and mosquitoes. Every evening we’d make a fire out of driftwood and rozo cane to keep away the water moccasins, alligators, and other creatures of the night.
When we fished, my father would work the net, and I would sit at the back of the skiff and run the motor. I would bring the boat in close to a net, careful to keep the motor from cutting holes in it, and my father would lift the net out of the water. Any gar caught inside would thrash like mad.
My father had two methods of killing the gars so he could get them into the boat: Sometimes he would shoot the gar once or twice between the eyes with the .22 rifle. Other times he would take the ball-peen hammer and knock the gar’s skull in, clubbing it repeatedly until he was winded. I was in awe of him as he killed the gars, the hammer raised high in the air, his long blue-black hair blowing in the salty wind, gar blood splattered all over his arms and face. It was like seeing a frightening projection of what I might become in the future. After the gar was killed, however, my fear would melt away, and I would become giddy as my father dumped the garfish into the skiff. By the end of the day gars would be lying all over the boat, their heads and huge green tails sticking out from bow and stern.
At night we would clean the gars by the light of the campfire or the moon. My father would pick up a machete and, starting from the lower dorsal fin, chop upward toward the back of the gar’s head. Next he would cut along both sides of the gar’s armored skin and then turn it over to slice through the gut sack and remove the entrails. He’d throw all the insides into the water, where they’d sink to the muddy bottom to be eaten by crabs and other garfish. Finally he would wash the large fillets in the brackish water and place the meat in ordered rows inside the long coolers.
After the gars were cleaned, he would wash his hands and face in the marsh and dry them on his clothes. Then he would light a joint and look into the sky. The night wind always smelled different from the day wind, which carried the odor of creosote pilings for some reason. The night wind smelled like crab, shrimp, and fish. Occasionally something dead would stink up the camp, and my stoned father would chuckle about the smell. Sometimes he would try to get me to take a toke from the joint, but I would always refuse. I didn’t like the smell of it or the effect it had on him. It made him stranger, less fatherly. He became distant and melancholy and would stop telling amusing stories, as he did while we were catching gars. He would stare out across the marsh at the lights of the fishing camps in the distance and listen to the croaks and shrieks of the wildlife, and I would sit across from him, wondering what he was going to say or do next, a knot of fear in my stomach.
I came to understand that my life was not at all normal. The other children at school had fathers who were doctors, lawyers, teachers, salesmen, electricians, carpenters, and janitors. Their fathers didn’t catch gar for a living. I wondered if those kids realized that a father could kill you if he wanted to, with just a little effort. My father could have killed me many times out there in the marsh. It wouldn’t have taken much to cover up the crime. Yet he never laid a hand on me. Sometimes, after he’d fallen asleep beside the fire, I would stroke his long blue-black hair and think how beautiful he was.
A different version of “The Gar Killer” was previously published in The Gar Diaries (Community Press), by Louis E. Bourgeois. © 2008 by Louis E. Bourgeois. It appears here by permission of the author.