When Haguillory woke at four thirty and went to the kitchen in his shorts and slippers, Dot was already there at the table, tanked up on coffee. He poured himself a cup without much looking at his wife. Outside the kitchen window, his tomatoes blushed in the moonlight. The blue crabs down in the Sabine marshes would have been gorging all night under that bright full moon, and this morning Haguillory planned to catch some.
He fixed his coffee and pretended there was nothing strange about Dot sitting up before dawn, when she was usually in bed until nine or ten. Her joints kept her awake late, and on top of that, she’d get herself all agitated watching the nightly news or reading the paper. How she could stand it, he didn’t know; it was always the same thing: New Orleans this, Katrina that, like those people were the only ones who’d been hit by a storm.
In the wee hours, she would finally bump down the hall to sleep in the extra room, the one that used to be for the kids, and wake Haguillory on the way, dropping her dishes in the sink, closing doors harder than she needed to. Lord, did she make some racket moving around the house. Then she’d stay in that room, with the door shut, until long after sunrise. Maybe she was sleeping, or maybe she was sick of his face. He was sick of hers, too, most days.
Never mind, though. At least Haguillory could, in the quiet solitude, wholly inhabit the kitchen: coffeepot, preserves, dainty demitasse cups and silverware Dot saved for company. He played house in the morning dark. He even cleaned up after himself.
But it was different with her sitting there. He had learned, in his five years of retirement, that if he helped with housework, she yelled, whereas if he left a trail of dirt and crumbs as he went about his day, she rewarded him with a petulant silence. So now he spilled some sugar on the counter, stirred and sloshed coffee out of the cup, then left the spoon on top of the pot. For good measure, he swept the spilled sugar to the floor.
She spoke anyway. “I’m going with you this morning. I done put some Cokes in the cooler, and I had my bath. Go get your clothes on.”
“Tide don’t come in till nine,” he lied.
“I want to see how things are down there.”
“About the same as last time. No point looking at it again.”
“How could it be the same? That was months ago.” She grabbed hold of the table’s edge, rocked a couple of times, and pulled herself creaking and popping out of the chair. “Let’s beat the crowd,” she said.
“We don’t got to go now.”
But she was already out the door.
This early, the August day was an oven set to warm. By midmorning, they’d be back up to broil, and Dot would be spitting mean—mean as a cat with its tail on fire.
Haguillory stalled in the garden, picking a few nearly ripe tomatoes and unloading a vine of dewy string beans. The lawn beyond was littered with wilted leaves and pecans, still in their green husks, all fallen into his yard from the neighbor’s tree, just across the property line. He gathered the nuts in a flap of untucked shirt. The moon hanging in the dark sky shone through the bare branches. It was dying, that tree, no question. Well, good.
For all old Matherne had to know, the storm could have done that. Haguillory’s own trees hadn’t been the same since Rita hit last year. They were gaunt and crooked. There was sun in the yard where there used to be shade. One of the oaks had dropped its thickest limb through his roof, right over the living room. When he and Dot had come home, almost a week after the storm, he found his favorite chair soaked and growing black paisleys of mildew; it had to be put to the street, along with the end table he’d built, and the TV remote control, and his fishing magazines, and his lamp, and the vibrating pad for his back. All ruined.
On his way to the garage, Haguillory dumped the pecans noisily into the garbage can. Then he loaded the nets, twine, cooler, tackle box, fishing rod, and a couple of lawn chairs into the bed of the truck.
Dot, in the cab, had twisted her head around to watch him. She was saying something through the glass. When he opened the driver’s door, she said, “I was trying to tell you to grab me a hat.”
He slunk his hand behind the bench seat and pulled out the lopsided, sweat-stained straw contraption that their son, Danny, used to wear when Haguillory took him fishing, just the two of them, father and son. But they didn’t do that anymore. His son didn’t come around much at all—not since Haguillory spoke his mind about that child Danny and his wife adopted two years ago out of some country he’d never heard of. They already had a kid of their own. Why did they need another one? The hat was dry-rotted and raveling at the rim and too big for Dot’s head, but she had the good sense to keep her mouth shut about it.
He had planned to pick up a package of melt at the grocery around the corner before heading south into the marsh, but after parking outside the store, he saw that it didn’t open until six.
“Mais, I could have told you that,” Dot said. “We can stop in Hackberry.”
“They won’t have melt.”
“What you think? Sulphur is the only town with melt? They have melt in Hackberry.”
“I don’t know if that store is still standing.”
“It is. It was on the news.”
Her and her news.
In the truck cab, they were as close as they had been, physically speaking, in a very long time. They did not sleep in the same bed anymore. They did not eat together at the same table. They did not visit the same friends; or rather, Dot visited the same friends, and Haguillory visited no one at all. She’d been especially prickly after that week of evacuation last fall at Danny’s house up in DeRidder. Well, that hadn’t been fun for anyone. Air mattresses on the floor. Fighting for the television or, when the power went out, for the lanterns and battery-powered fans or, days later, for the better MREs. Their daughter, Carol, with that good-for-nothing boyfriend of hers, sharing a mattress in front of everybody. And the adopted child, not quite right, with her foreign lisp and feline eyes. She was about ten, just a few years older than Danny’s natural son, and you could see the little boy tense up whenever she got too close, like a dog expecting a kick. There was that screaming fit she’d thrown, with a fork in her hand, when she got the ham-slice MRE instead of the chili and macaroni. Haguillory said, so she could hear, that they ought to send her back to where she came from, if it was so bad here. The girl had to learn. Dot hadn’t liked that at all. But what? Did she think he had fun saying that kind of truth?
Now here they were, in the truck, with nothing to listen to but AM radio and each other coughing, snuffling, and throat-clearing. Between Lake Charles and Hackberry, they spoke only once, about a quarter of an hour into the drive. With the light coming up, they could see a storm building in the west, and a few vanguard clouds above. From time to time, the sky spat on their windshield. They drove by a pasture that held a herd of red cows.
“Look at them cows,” Haguillory said. “They all in a clump. Gonna get some rain today.”
Dot clucked her tongue. “Them cows are scattered.”
“Aw!” said Haguillory.
The Hackberry store was indeed standing, although a third of its roof was draped in blue plastic. Across the street, a house that had been neatly halved by a fallen oak tree was fronted by a FEMA trailer. The pasture beside the store had been turned into an appliance graveyard, filled with row upon row of taped-up refrigerators and freezers, ruined washers, dryers, and stoves. A fridge on the outer row said, in red, spray-painted letters, Do not open! Insurance adjuster inside!
The store, which was the last stop before you got to the oil reserve, was busy, even this early, with young men in their industrial blues getting fried chicken and pizza slices from the hot bar for their lunch. Dot waddled along beside Haguillory, then stopped, picked up a package of boudin on sale, and took out her glasses to read the label. He didn’t wait for her.
Behind the meat counter, a sleepy teenager was wrapping up a pound of shrimp for an old man in sagging khaki coveralls and a cap. When it came his turn, Haguillory tapped the glass and asked the boy how much the night crawlers were.
“What we need night crawlers for?” Dot said, pulling up next to him. “We don’t need no night crawlers.”
“If I want to fish!” Haguillory snapped. “How much you asking for them?”
“Two dollars,” the boy said.
“Shoo! Two dollars for some worms?”
The teenager said nothing.
Haguillory hovered for a while, then finally slid the glass back and reached down to pluck one of the little Styrofoam boxes from the stack. He opened the lid and peered into the dirt. A thick, pink segment of worm throbbed on the surface.
“You just looking to lamentation,” Dot said.
“How many they got in here?” Haguillory asked.
“I don’t know. A bunch.” The teenager looked around for another customer.
“Two pounds of melt,” Dot said, stepping past her husband.
“No melt today.”
“Aw!” said Haguillory.
“We’ll get us some chicken necks instead,” Dot said.
“You think the crabs don’t know the difference?”
“The crabs don’t know the difference.”
It was almost full daylight when Haguillory and Dot at last got themselves established in the lawn chairs on the footbridge that crossed the canal. From each of four pilings, they dangled a chicken neck on a length of twine. The marsh grass shivered in a little bit of a breeze. Dense, iron-blue clouds were mustering to the west, but they had a few good hours before the storm would break here. The truck was parked nearby, on the highway median, and they could get to it fast.
Every few minutes, Haguillory, restless, would rise from his chair and take one of the lines in hand, ever so gently easing the bait up from the depths of the brackish water until it appeared just below the surface. If he felt a tug or spied a dogged claw, he’d say, “Pass me that net! Quick! Quick!”
But Dot was seldom quick. Sometimes she was distracted, fussing in her purse for a hankie or for aspirin, which she was taking in handfuls, or for whatever else was knocking around in that apparently bottomless sack. But when she was quick, she was too quick, and her passing shadow would send the crab skittering back into the murk.
“What, you never caught a crab before?” he said.
They had been out there a little more than two hours and had netted exactly five crabs when another car pulled in behind their truck. Before the brake lights had even gone off, a woman threw open the passenger door and charged down the gravel shoulder toward the footbridge, shaking her head and mouthing what could only be curses. Two boys, maybe eight and ten, emerged, sheepish, from the back seat and trailed after her. The smaller one wore a huge T-shirt that swallowed his shoulders and reached to his knees. They were all of them in white rubber shrimping boots many sizes too big. The driver killed the motor and opened his door. He leaned against the car, resting his crossed arms on the roof and looking after the woman and the boys. A baseball cap cut a shadow across his eyes and cheeks.
The woman stopped suddenly, turned around. She flung her arms over her head and dropped them to her sides. “Are you sure this is where?” she yelled back at the man. The man half-nodded, half-shrugged, and a frustrated growl came from the woman’s chest. She set off again for the bridge. “Perkins!” she called out. “Mr. Perks!”
The boys started, too—a chirping chorus of “Perkins! Perkins!”—the older one louder and more zealous.
“Lord have mercy,” Haguillory said.
Dot reached into the cooler, past the clattering crabs, for an RC Cola and a root beer. “Here,” she said. “Drink your root beer.” She took off her shoes and wriggled her toes. She was red-faced and sweating. The church bulletin she’d folded into a fan wasn’t doing her much good.
The woman was now before them. The two boys clomped up in their big, white boots and hung on the railing, one casting his eyes out across the marsh, the other down into the water.
“Y’all seen a cat around here?” the woman said. She looked like a shriveled little monkey, Haguillory thought, with a sharp little monkey face and angry, clasping monkey hands. Her bristly peroxide hair stood up straight and square, like a fez.
“We ain’t seen no cat out here,” Haguillory said.
“What does it look like?” Dot asked.
“That son of a bitch back there,” the woman said, jerking her head back toward the car in the median; and the younger boy’s shoulders hunched up to his ears.
That son of a bitch, presumably the boys’ father, was now mounting the bridge, hands in pockets, toothpick in teeth. “Any luck?” he said, looking at no one, and he could have meant the crabs or the cat.
“He don’t have any claws,” the woman said, and stalked off, over the bridge and into the grass. “Perkins!” she yelled.
The older boy followed her, and the younger one hung back, still gazing down into the water. Their father leaned against the bridge railing next to him. Behind them, the woman and the older boy were fanning out into the marsh in lurching, sloshing steps, parting the cordgrass with their hands as they went and calling the cat.
“Y’all catching any?” the man said.
“Just enough to make you mad,” Haguillory said.
“Really?” the man said. “I’m surprised. The crabs been going nuts since the storm knocked out those flood weirs. Still pretty high salt, even into Sweet Lake.”
“It ain’t for lack of crabs,” Haguillory said.
Dot cut him a pair of eyes, and he took up his fishing rod. He opened the container he’d bought at the store and tugged a night crawler out of the dirt. He pinched it in two, tossed half back in, and threaded the other half onto the hook. About three feet up the line, he attached a plastic cork, then wiped his gooey fingers on his coveralls. He scooted his chair closer to the water and dropped the line in. He’d see what else was there to be caught.
“Mais, what?” Dot said to the man. “You dumped her cat in the marsh?”
“He kept peeing on my bunk,” the younger one said quietly, then squatted, stretched the T-shirt over his knees, and tucked it under the toes of his boots. He pulled on one of the crab lines, hand over hand, as slowly as if he were creeping up on a rabbit. After a while, he reached out an arm, fluttered his fingers. “There’s a big one on here. Gimme the net. I’ll pull it in for you.” But nobody gave him the net. “There it goes,” he said, sighing.
“Y’all can’t imagine what it’s like,” the boy’s father said. “Three adults, two kids, and a incontinent cat. In a ten-by-thirty-foot box? Nobody can live like that. It’s been almost a year!” He stripped off his hat and beat it against his thigh.
“Ç’est un bonrien, that FEMA,” Haguillory said. He spat into the canal. This young fella and his family, that little boy with his shirt too big—they’d never show that on the news. It was sad, how they forgot about some people, not about others. He himself was still waiting on payment for the damage Rita had done to his roof. “I’m sick to death of Katrina,” he said. “You don’t hear about nothing else!”
He was fixing to say more—about all the people in this world, like those looters in flooded New Orleans or that little adopted girl at Danny’s, who seemed to think their suffering entitled them to inflict suffering on others—when the cork on his fishing line dipped below the surface. He jerked the rod to the right, stood up from his chair, and began reeling in the line, the tip of the rod arching and quivering with the weight of whatever was down there tugging. What was down there was a little garfish, about a foot and a half long, maybe two pounds.
Haguillory grabbed it behind the gills. “Reach me those pliers,” he said to Dot, and she did. “Young man,” he said, “you know what that is?”
The boy came closer, eyed the fish. “That’s a gar.”
“That’s one ugly fish,” Haguillory said, and he felt the ugliness in a frisson down his spine. The eellike body, the long jaws opening and closing, the needle teeth and staring eyes, the blood pooling around the hook in its cheek. He yanked out the bare hook; then he wrapped the pliers around the base of the gar’s snout. Those night crawlers didn’t come cheap. “Watch what I do with that fish,” he said, and he squeezed until, with a crunch, the snout snapped off and fell to the planks at his feet. The little fish thrashed in his hand, working what was left of its jaw. Haguillory leaned over the railing and dropped the fish back into the water. He wiped his hands on his coveralls and sat. “Now,” he said to the boy. “You see?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said, and looked up at his father.
“Those are trash fish,” the man said. He jammed his hat backward onto the boy’s head and gave the brim a little tug. “I never could eat those, myself.”
Dot made that noise with her tongue. “T’a pas honte!” she said. She got up, wobbly, and crossed the bridge, following the path to the marsh. Out there in the grass, the woman was shouting something at the older boy. Dot reached the end of the path, held out one arm for balance, and tested the mucky ground with her foot.
“You going to fall over if you try that,” Haguillory said, but she didn’t listen. Fine. Let her break a hip. Was it his fault the gar was an ugly fish?
He lifted his tackle box onto his lap and dug around until he found a multi-tool that he’d won as a door prize at one of the gumbo luncheons the painters’ union put on. It had pliers, a screwdriver, a knife, a toothpick: a good little tool. He never used it. He held it out to the boy. “You want that?”
The boy shrugged. “Sure,” he said, and took it. The tool disappeared under his T-shirt.
“Tell the man thank you,” the boy’s father said.
“I’m sorry for y’all,” Haguillory said.
The sky had gone dark in the time since this family had arrived, the storm nearly upon them. To the west, a single, stunning bolt of lightning touched the marsh, chased by a whipcrack of thunder.
The boy ducked and cringed like a little animal, then glanced at his father and smiled, embarrassed.
“We better get going,” the man said. He called out to the woman and the older boy, but they were already coming back.
Dot was talking with the woman, who was moving her hands, excited. She pointed, back toward Hackberry and the direction from which they had come, then swung her finger around to the man on the bridge and jabbed the air. Dot wagged her head violently and talked for a while, too, pointing occasionally at Haguillory.
The older boy reached the bridge first.
“Well?” the man said, and the boy said nothing. He bumped the shoulder of the younger one as he passed.
Then came Dot and the woman. The woman scooped the younger boy to her side, held him against her hip. “We’ll come back tomorrow,” she said, and eyed a second flash of lightning.
The deep hum of thunder buzzed in Haguillory’s chest.
“It’s been a week,” the man said. “That cat is probably long gone.”
“Maybe if you’d said something earlier,” the woman said, “instead of letting us think he ran away. And after all that.”
It looked to Haguillory like she was going to cry. Over a cat.
“Y’all have no idea what we went through to keep that cat with us.”
“Oh, chère,” Dot said.
“I’m going to leave you my phone number,” the woman said. She patted herself down, like she might actually have a pen and paper stashed in those cutoffs. “Y’all have something to write with?”
“Just tell me the number,” Haguillory said. “I’ll remember.”
“He won’t remember. Here, I’ve got a pen in my purse.” Dot dug in her purse, forever. Once the woman had the pen, there was the problem of something to write on, but Dot held out her palm. “Write it here.”
The woman wrote the number and called out to the cat a few more times before turning abruptly away.
“Y’all stay dry,” the man said.
The boy in the big T-shirt gave Haguillory a quick, down-at-the-hip wave. His older brother was already waiting at the car, staring down the highway, arms stiff at his sides, hands clenched into fists, like he was trying to see clear to the Gulf. The man went to him, laid a palm on the nape of his neck, steered him gently into the back seat, and shut the door. They all settled in and drove away.
“Over a cat,” Haguillory said, and started to gather their things. He cut the crab lines off the pilings and let the loose ends of twine slide into the canal. He secured the fishhook to a guide and reeled the line in tight, then folded the chairs and propped them and the net and the rod against the cooler. A fat drop of rain tapped his arm. Another one, his neck.
Dot just stood there, watching.
Haguillory knelt and closed his tackle box.
“You think I don’t know what you did to Matherne’s tree?” Dot said.
He pressed tight the lid on the container of worms. “What tree?”
“That pecan tree. You think I don’t know?”
“The storm killed that tree!”
“Or to the Landrys’ dog?”
She raised a finger in the air. “The next time Carol calls, you’re not going to hang up. You’re going to talk. And if somebody tells you that somebody died, you know what you’re going to say? You’re going to tell them, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ You’re not going to say, ‘Mais, so?’ And,” she said, shaking so hard her cheeks jiggled, “you’re going to quit calling Zareena ‘that girl Danny adopted.’ She’s your granddaughter. You just call her ‘my granddaughter’ from now on. You hear me?”
“I don’t have to do nothing,” Haguillory said. He looked down at Dot’s bare feet, her legs muddy to the calves. He wanted to say, You going to get in my truck like that? But it wasn’t worth it.
“You’re a spiteful man, and why?” she said. “À la tête dure, yeah. I should have known that from the beginning.”
That part was true, he thought. She should have. From the very first time they met at the dance hall in Basile, when he told her—just for the hell of it—that his name was Herman, and for months, even after things had gone past dancing, she had called him Herman, and all his friends had gone along with it, snickering behind her back, until one day she asked a visiting cousin, “Where’s Herman?” and he said, “Who?” and she said, “Herman! He was just standing right here,” and he said, “There isn’t any Herman, you must mean Haguillory,” and the jig was finally up. She should have known then. Fair warning. But she had married him anyhow.
“I’ve had just about enough,” she said. She picked up her shoes, and nothing else, and turned toward the truck, flapping one hand at her side like she was shaking off a punch.
Inside the cooler, the crabs rattled around. When Haguillory opened the lid, three of them lifted their claws, furious, cursing God. Five crabs weren’t even enough to bother with. He dumped them out on the bridge and kicked them, one by one, over the edge, into the water.
He carried the cooler and the rod and the chairs to the truck. Dot was sitting in the cab, staring past the beads of rain sliding down the windshield, as if searching for something far down the road, the same way the boy had done. Well, what did they think they would find? He snuck up to her window and tapped on the glass to see if he could scare her. She didn’t flinch.
When he went back to collect his tackle box and the last odds and ends from the bridge, he said, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
There was the cat. It crouched in the gravel path and mewled.
Haguillory wiped the rain from his forehead and arms. He bent over and wriggled his fingers. “Come here, you,” he said.
The cat hesitated, meowed, tensed as if it was about to dart off into the marsh, then lifted its tail in the air and came to Haguillory. It shoved its cheek against his shin.
He cast a glance over his shoulder at the truck. Dot was leaning across the seat, reaching for the key, which he’d left in the ignition. She started the engine, adjusted the air-conditioning vents, and rested her head against the window, eyes closed.
Haguillory slipped a hand under the cat’s belly and lifted it, held it against his chest. It was light and limp, purring in deep, relieved breaths. All down its sides, the fur was matted in clumps, and at the base of its tail was a solid, tangled carpet of hair and grass and shit. It smelled disgusting.
“You need a bath, you,” Haguillory said.
The rain was seeping through his clothes and through the cat’s fur. Its thick ruff seemed to melt away; underneath was a skinny little neck. Haguillory smoothed his hand over the cat’s forehead, flattened its ears back and held them.
“You had to pee on that little boy’s bed?” he said.
Its big eyes stared, yellow and bright. He felt sorry for it, he really did, but in the end it was just a cat, wasn’t it? He wrapped his fingers around a paw and pressed on the soft pads to spread the impotent toes. Then, as smooth and easy as he would throw a fishing line, Haguillory tossed out his arm and flung the cat, pinwheeling, over the rail and into the canal, thinking, as it splashed, We’ll see how spiteful I am. Thinking, There’s all kinds of meanness and all kinds of mercy, too.