A wedding of epic magnitude can be a healing event or it can be a destructive thing. Such a wedding was in the works that Friday night at Fat Eddie’s Catfish Emporium. Claudette was only playing for time, trying to let the steam off of the little relationship between Mike and June, but Barbara was preceding full tilt toward Mike’s eighteenth birthday. The whole town knew about it. Mike’s older brother, Buddy was in town, and he wanted catfish, also. He hadn’t seen June in the last two years, least ways not that he could remember, so the opportunity was being taken to reacquaint them at this particular Friday night.
After graduation, he had gone to work in Houston. He was a diesel mechanic and the demand was very good there with the shipping trade. He would make a trip up to the little town about three, or four times a year, but up until now June was just one more high school girl that Mike knew.
He and Mike were stepbrothers, his father being a builder, and Claudette his stepmother. Before the marriage, he had been the oldest son, but with the advent of Mike there were actually two oldest sons
now, Buddy being more than a year older than Mike. The adopted Angie didn’t come into play because she was a girl, and the boys didn’t mind her much. She kept off to herself for the most part and when she did say anything it was largely ignored. Then there was the youngest brother who was very fat, slightly retarded and addicted to food. Tommy took care of this stepbrother and saw that he looked good at all public gatherings. But Buddy and Mike were at opposite ends of the Texas universe. The rivalry between the two was non-stop, bordering on a genuine hate. Each boy would do anything they could devise to hurt the other. The parents hoped that as they grew older this would wane. It did not. The animosity spilled over into Bill and Claudette’s marriage on more than one occasion. Bill had come to suspect that there was something genetically wrong with Mike.
The town had been buzzing about the affair between Mike and June for some time now. Ray was observed that Saturday morning in the verbal altercation between himself and Bill, and though Bill had tried to graciously pull back so as not to embarrass the little man it had not worked very well, and it was common knowledge that the situation was a genuine power play between the two families.
And the situation was very simple. In Texas a seventeen year old could be certified as an adult. A judge could view Mike’s liaison with June as statutory rape! When he became eighteen, and if he kept seeing June, which there was really no doubt that he would, Mike could very well end up in a situation of criminal proportions and end up hauled into court and go to jail! This was the thing that Claudette was fighting against, however Bill thought the boy most likely deserved it. He had never approved of what Mike was doing, and he knew about the girl over on Commerce Street, the daughter of the deputy. To Bill’s way of thinking it was high time that Mike got “jacked” for his shenanigans. His sons never got caught up in this kind of stuff, and Mike seemed to be forever in the middle of it.
In the middle of this supercharged political situation two pickup trucks and a car were loaded for Fat Eddie’s that Friday night. They all arrived at the same time and parked in the rear. Fat Eddie had a golf cart to bring patrons around to the front of the establishment. All the employees except the cooks wore tuxedos on Friday night. The golf cart driver had one, too, and she (that’s right “she”) would pick up the people six at a time, and with great ceremony, bring them around to the front parking lot from the back parking lot.
The waiting room, if it could be called that, was a sitting area in the parking lot. Eddy had bought some five dollar chairs at Wal Mart and set them all around the front lot so the elite could enter their names and wait until they were called to dine upon the ultimate in red neck cuisine. There was even a piece of art on the front window of two catfish in a formal gown and a tux walking into a door. The gentleman fish was asking, “Where to you want to be on Friday night toots,” to which the lady catfish replies, “I wouldn’t think of going anywhere but Fat Eddie’s Catfish Emporium!”
The patrons would sit and chat in the parking lot under the warm Texas dusk. Everyone who was anyone was there. Lawyers, Judges, police, schoolteachers, and even the local vagabonds, and riff raff came, for all were equal and welcome at Fat Eddie’s Catfish Emporium. Fat Eddie himself was the chief cook in the kitchen. The hot grease, (exactly 475 degrees) was kept at the ready. Fat Eddie had a trick he used to see if the grease was just right. He’d put a big ol’ kitchen match in it, and when it hit 475, boom; that match would go off like a sparkler! Eddie mixed up a special batch of his secret hot batter that gave the catfish a “special” bite. And, to boot, these were only farm-raised catfish. They had been well fed and kept happy all of their lives!
Every Friday night had to have a main topic of conversation. The football team never won, so it had to be something else. An affair was usually good food for thought. There was very little to do in the little community except drink and fornicate so there was always a good supply of gossip in that area. Sometimes a murder, but the police in this town never caught anyone but drunks, so unless the killer was a drunk it usually went unsolved, and that wouldn’t make good conversation. This Friday, however, there was really a story circulating! June the cat was trying to marry Mike because they had been slipping off to City Park! The couple had thought that their little liaisons were secret, but to be honest there was an alley cat in the back of Fat Eddie’s, and even that alley cat knew all about their shenanigans!
Mike was startled to find Ray was already seated and consuming his third plate of fish when they arrived. June made sure that her stepfather had all the fish he wanted. He looked up from the plate as they walked in, but did a head count, and quickly looked back down at his fish. June’s honor didn’t rank that much fight. He had made the decision in his life never to go back to jail. Ray had learned to use his head for these types of fights. In addition to that, Angie was with them, just down from Dallas where she was a chiropractor. He noticed Buddy also. Buddy had a reputation from high school of being just a little left of center. He’d once stormed off a roof he was working on to knock out a man who had insulted him from a car. The combination of respectability, and Buddy put him on notice.
They positioned themselves in line and waited the call to eat. When it came, they were seated in the same dining room as Ray. Fat Eddie’s had three different rooms in which the famished were served. The waitress came over with menus, but the family all just raised their hands and said, “Tea, catfish.” Even Doctor Angie ordered the fish. First, however they had to “eat the bean.” The cafe served a big Mexican bowl of pinto beans with Tabasco on the side for the so inclined, and lots of onions. By the time they had finished the beans the fish arrived. Four steaming pieces of catfish, a little plastic cup of the absolute worse Cole slaw you ever put in your mouth, two hush puppies (and not the kind momma used to make, but the little round ones they got out of Austin,) and French fries. There was ketchup, and tartar sauce to season the fish, or the Tabasco that was left on the table from the beans. Fat Eddie had a cost cutting measure also. When the bean bowl was taken back to the kitchen, he would pour the uneaten beans back into the big pot.
They began to eat and look around at the crowd. As usual, the people sat in groups, all chatting, and trying not to look at the table where the Montgomerys were all sitting, and the waitress had to push two long tables together to accommodate all the family. Claudette actually hated catfish, having had to eat too much “mud-cat” in her life on the Mississippi, but ate to fulfill the ritual. (And people wonder where religious rituals come from, and how they get so entrenched!) Then came the “seconds.” This is the part that June played in. She came around with her “tux” on and her platter of hot catfish steaming. On the edge of the platter were refill portions of slaw, fries and puppies if the patron so desired, but very few were stupid enough to take any more of them and usually opted for the “cat.” June’s nickname “June the Cat,” had stemmed not from an old Tennessee Williams name, but actually referring to her service at the Emporium.
Buddy had never seen her this well grown, and up close like this. She leaned over him and refilled his plate and his reaction brought a jest from Angie of, “Careful little brother! That one’s taken. I believe Mike has her in his corral.” He smiled sheepishly and went back to eating the catfish June had just put on his plate. Still, he couldn’t take his eyes off her as she walked away from the table and filled other plates, including her stepfather’s at the table directly across from theirs. She had filled out perfectly. As she bent over to fill the plates Buddy was captivated by her legs, and form.
Barbara showed up late and went right to Mike’s table and said hello to the group.
“Mike, are you gonna come out and see June tomorrow? We’ll be out at Ray’s mom’s ranch, and she’d love to see you.”
Mike was stunned, but he glanced over at Ray and the bald headed man was not looking very aggressive right then. Michael correctly deduced that there must be more going on behind the scenes than even he knew about. He didn’t really know what to say, but he looked at his mother, who said, “Hey, you’re a man now. You go and meet little girls at City Park. You have to make these decisions!”
He could feel his face getting red. He’d thought that those meetings were hidden. Never mind that they were in the only real lover’s lane in town, and that the whole town was watching him anyway. He thought all but him and June retired at 7:30 sharp!
“You know about that?” He looked a bit astonished.
Tommy, his younger brother looked up from his plate, “You wanna buy pictures, Mike?”
Mike looked down at his plate. Barbara moved in for the kill. “Look, kid, you wanna see my daughter you’re gonna have to do it in the light of day. You’re gonna have to face Ray; he may kick your butt, but you are gonna have to face him, and you’re gonna have to do the right thing.”
“I love her.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you do. Still, you gotta come out and do the right thing.” She leaned down, “Look kid, if Ray sees you a lot then he’ll get used to you, ok. Just do it my way.”
All this time Claudette sat silently and let Barbara do her bit. She was actually upset, but she didn’t want an incident and she didn’t want him to go to the jail
either. Like Barbara, she knew that June wasn’t pregnant, so she’d just wait until Mike lost interest in her and moved along to another girl. That shouldn’t take long. Mike never seemed to stick with anything very long, and this shouldn’t be any exception to the rule.
Buddy watched June for the rest of the dinner. The poise, the heart shaped lips, the long blonde hair going through the little “Catfish” cap, all served as a lure for the boy. He and Mike had never really gotten along, and this gave him one more reason to be upset with him. As pointed out before, these two had a rivalry that went far and above the normal ones between brothers. Buddy’s mother had died of cancer about the same time rancher Stillwell’s wife had succumbed to the illness. When his father had married Claudette, he had looked to his adopted sister Angie as a role model and the older girl had been a good one, in spite of being Claudette’s adopted niece. Mike was spoiled, and Buddy was the classic older child. The two never mixed. Mike could never do anything right. Combine that with the fact that Buddy was a fighter, and Mike was not, and you have the mix for a perfect hate club.
June went from table to table giving out fish. Ray watched without letting them know he was watching. Barbara went over to sit with him. June didn’t have to take her order because she knew what her mother would want. She would want the same as everybody else, catfish. June signaled a dishwasher who brought a plate and she filled it directly from the tray, which was basically against the rule, but it was overlooked for June.
This setting was almost “hallowed ground,” and no one would start a fight, or even a heavy discussion here for fear that the catfish night would end. There were never any cops called to Fat Eddies, mainly because they were all there eating anyway. Finally, though, Mike’s stepfather and mother went over and sat at Barbara and Ray’s table. Before anyone could speak, however, Ray said, “I don’t want to talk about it. It has me really upset!”
Mike’s stepfather nodded, “Us too. I think these kids are out of control…”
“Yours a little more than mine! She’s sixteen!”
“I know that, but look at it this way, she’s only one year younger than Mike. It’s not like he’s in his thirties.”
“Good thing, too, else I’d have him in jail!”
This was just a bluff. Nobody was going to jail over this matter unless the two men got in a fight right there in the café. Ray was putting on a good show to let everyone know he had good morals, no doubt taught to him in prison. Just then, June came over with some more fish.
“Ya’ll want me to bring some plates over here?”
“No, hon,” Bill said, “we’re just about finished.”
“What ya’ll got on your minds over here?”
The four adults looked at the girl as if she was crazy. What did she think they had on their minds? June just stared back at them. “I’m gonna marry Mike. That’s all there is to it. If ya’ll don’t like it ya’ll can just jump up, but I’m gonna marry Mike. Now, if ya’ll can’t get together on where and how, we’ll just run off to Mexico.”
“Won’t be legal,” her stepfather said.
“Who said I’d be comin’ back?”
Barbara spoke up, “Oh, honey, you don’t wanna do nothing like that. Mexico? You’d be down there with all them Mexicans? They sell girls like you down there. We’ll work this out. You and Mike can see each other. I think this whole thing’s done got out of control.”
June leaned back, resting her catfish platter on her hip, “You mean that?”
“Sure, baby! Sure, I mean that. You can go and see Mike, and I’m sure he will be able to come out to Mommaw’s ranch, huh Ray?”
Claudette said, “June, you been coming over to our house for Christmas since, God, since I don’t know how long. We ain’t gonna stop that, now are we. Don’t you even think about no Mexico, you hear. We love you. We don’t want you down there getting all kidnapped, ok?”
“Ok, but I wanna be able to see Mike!”
All the adults nodded consent, surprising all at the table, but not the people in the restaurant, because that’s what this meeting was all about. It was not about so much if June and Mike would be together, as when, and how. The only person who seemed disappointed by this event was Buddy, sitting at the end of the table his father and stepmother had just left. His sister Angie noticed his face and asked, “Something on your mind, Bud?”
“No, fish just not sitting right, that’s all.”
Angie was wise beyond her years. She looked at Buddy, and then at June, still basking in her glory in her victory at being able to see Mike. She couldn’t help but notice that June kept giving glances over to the table where she and Buddy were sitting.
Veronica and her guide sat in the corner of Eddie’s Catfish House and watched all of this transpire with no comment. Then the man spoke, “Did you have an interest in Bud at this early date?”
She looked over across the café to where Buddy was sitting, “I was drawn to him. I liked the way he looked. I wouldn’t really call it an interest.”
“He has an interest in you. Don’t you think you should date one brother at a time?”
It was the first time he’d really asked her a loaded question. June showed her savvy, though, “How do you know I dated two brothers? I thought you were a neutral angel.”
He smiled sheepishly, “I didn’t check my brain in when I had my car crash, and I am a man not an angel. I keep telling you that, Veronica. I can see what’s in your eyes. You love the ‘kill;’ to know you can bend a man your way; make him do what you want him to do.”
He watched as the perfect lips formed a little smile on the ends of her mouth. The sky blue eyes twinkled. He could virtually feel her intellect taking control of this situation. She wasn’t shamed at all by his insinuation. Indeed, she accepted his judgment of her actions, but she was like a cougar, killing a deer. She felt no remorse, for the cougar must survive.
“Is it sin, if you don’t know it is sin?”
“But you know.”
Her stare went cold. She rose and walked to the door. He went behind her. She passed June at sixteen years of age giving out more catfish to the hungry cowboys. The spirit guide reached and picked a piece of catfish from the platter. June did not see him, but kept handing the fish out to the people. They walked into the parking lot.
She went over by the blinking neon light reminding passing motorists that Fat Eddie’s was open, open, open. He came behind her still chewing his piece of fish.
“You don’t have to be so hard on me. There are things you should be nice about, and keep to yourself. You never lived in west Texas, Dr. Angel.”
“Veronica, there are some things you are going to have to understand, if we are going to get through this thing. There is no sin that is unforgivable, but you have to know you did it. You are sitting in eternity laughing at men who fall in love with you, and using them.”
Her eyes flared, “Do you see them in there? Do you see all that money and power? Look at me! I’m one girl, and a small one at that! You think I should pity them for letting the little head get harder than the big one?”
He was surprised at her stooping to such slang, but it revealed a part of her that he hadn’t seen, and perhaps he needed to now. She very rarely bared her teeth and claws, but for a brief moment she did here and now. He was reminded of a tiger that slips silently up on its prey, making no noise until the final rush, and death!
“You should know right from wrong.”
“Well, ‘Doctor Angel,’ I guess I’ll just have to work on that, huh?”
“I told you I’m not an angel.”
“And I should have told you never to eat the catfish here; I don’t.”
The Butcher Shop