A Slice of It
by Gwendolyn-Joyce Mintz
Jimmy Ray didn't open his eyes when he first woke. He lay stretched out on his makeshift bed, comfortable in the early shafts of light flowing in through the bare window. He was aware of something picking at him, but he ignored it. Today was going to be a good day, he decided, even if he had to wrestle it down and make it one.
He turned his mind on the lines he'd set last night, certain that each was now heavy with the finest catfish swimming through Shetford County. A grin lit on his lips until life stepped in and let him know full well that not one of those fish might belong to him; they were for Mr. Mathis and that restaurant of his wife's.
Jimmy Ray swatted at the thought. Didn't make no difference who they were for, he grumbled. Couldn't nobody black or white catch catfish the size and likes as him. Folks were always saying there was something magic about him and that river.
It was a talent, one that the white men in town envied though they never said. Jimmy Ray knew it the way they talked on how big his fish were, how meaty. It was a compliment of sorts and Jimmy Ray always gave himself that one moment when he dared meet their eyes.
Man, he could fish! Well, he could do lots other things, but the white men didn't give him notice or credit for those.
The grin disappeared. Eyes open, Jimmy Ray sighed and swung his dark legs over and sat on the edge of the bed. He rested his hands on his knees as he ran his soles up and down against the wood floor, his feet itching already to be on their way.
He rose, stretched. A quick stop at the outhouse. Washing up at the well. Then, dressing and grabbing a croaker sack, some old newspapers and heading to the stream.
It was early. Too early for anyone to be up, but he couldn't stay in bed and risk some heathen stealing those fish away.
Rent money. That's what they were. And maybe a bottle or two, though Jimmy Ray had been swearing to himself that he was gonna stop the nipping, but —
But? He questioned, waiting for the excuse to come, but he wouldn't answer cause he didn't want to listen to his heart talking about missing Dell and how the drinking wasn't helping a bit. Nah, he wouldn't offer up reasons, and he thought how he wasn't even man enough to fight with his own self and then he was even more riled.
Twigs cracked beneath his feet as he stomped his way to the bush where he tied his lines. The branches sagged and his heart jumped!
Tossing the croaker sack aside and pulling his switchblade from his pocket, Jimmy Ray eased himself down the bank and into the water. With a smile, he traveled the length of the line he set between this bush and that on either side of the stream, cutting the smaller line from which the fish dangled.
Eleven! And he had to be proud of that.
Depending on how many Mr. Mathis bought, Jimmy Ray might have some leftover for himself though they'd be the smaller of the catch, what Mr. Mathis deemed worthless.
Jimmy Ray imagined himself squatting next to the pot above the fire he'd build outside, watching the meat boil though he'd prefer the catfish fried. But he wouldn't have any cornmeal, couldn't afford it and he had too much pride to ask Mr. Mathis for any and especially not the wife. And then he'd be mad at himself again as he'd watch the fish shrink to the size of his will, feeling like he'd given the best away and when the fish was finally done, he'd have lost his appetite, but still he'd pick at it cause there was little else in the cupboards and all the while, a part of him hoping he'd choke on an unseen bone . . .
Angry now again, Jimmy Ray hastened his work, yanking at the lines and nearly losing fish in the process. He made his way back up the bank. He sat, his fingers jerking the hooks pinned in the gaping mouths, scratching his palms and him not caring as he wrapped the fish in newspaper pages, shoving them into the croaker sack before heading into town.
The Mathis boy kept him waiting outside the back door of the restaurant while he went to get his daddy. Jimmy Ray peeped into the
kitchen through the screen door. Turned away. Peeped in again, then
finally made himself stop before he was caught.
"Let's see what you got," Mr. Mathis said, appearing at the door, carrying a bucket of ice.
Jimmy Ray squatted and reached into the bag, handing Mr. Mathis the fish, one at a time, waiting for the man to show his approval or not by tossing a fish in the ice or aside.
Done, Mr. Mathis said. "I'll get your money."
Jimmy Ray was scooping up the three discarded fish and the soggy, torn newspaper when he heard Mrs. Mathis and her boy on the other side of the screen door, disagreeing.
"I told you that we ain't serving that pie to nobody," the woman said. She said something about it hadn't cooked right.
The boy only wanted a taste. Still, despite his repeated request, he wasn't getting no 'yes' from his mama.
Jimmy Ray peeked in.
Mr. Mathis returned in the middle of the disagreement and with giant waves of his hands, sent the commotion back to the other room.
He instructed Jimmy Ray to bring the bucket of fish in. He did, stood aside as Mr. Mathis counted out the bills on the counter, next to the pie, a sweet potato pie, at the heart of the argument.
Jimmy Ray hadn't had breakfast and his stomach was just twisting.
He asked if he might have a slice, since it wan't gonna be used anyhow, and then he offered to even pay.
Mr. Mathis refused the money. He got a saucer and a knife, cut a slice of it and gave it to Jimmy Ray.
Reentering the kitchen at that moment, Mrs. Mathis screamed like she was being hit. "What do you think you're doing?" she hollered.
Jimmy Ray and Mr. Mathis stared at one another, unsure who she was addressing. Finally, Mr. Mathis reminded her that she'd said the pie was no good.
"Still didn't mean for no nigger to have it!" She snatched the saucer from Jimmy Ray's hands. Momentarily she seemed to not know what she would do next, then she threw the slice on a paper napkin and slapped it on the counter near Jimmy Ray. She headed to the sink with the dish, but stopped midway, turned and tossed it into the trashcan.
Mr. Mathis didn't say a thing until his wife left the room. He told Jimmy Ray, in a tone, angry and annoyed, to go.
"And please take that pie," the man said.
Jimmy Ray scooped up the bills that didn't seem enough for what was taken and the pie. Then he went out the door.
Trudging back to the black side of town, Jimmy Ray tired of carrying the pie in his open hand. He stopped and took a bite.
It wan't fit for eating, he thought, as the taste slid across his tongue. He should've just left that alone.
If only he could drink the tears building in his eyes -- that pie, dry and tasteless, like the red dirt beneath his feet.