In the night, amid the lusty strum of crickets, Father hulked over a pan of sputtering butts meat. In his splendid red robe, his hair torn into sprigs, his nose gleaming with gamy oils, Father fried a heap of butts meat so enormous that we all stood gasping in various doorframes: the twins, roused from a video game, stood shirtless in the den doorway; Cabbage, in hose and cardboard codpiece, stood before the laundry nook; and I, who had wandered downstairs sniffing whiffs of fried hogjowl, stood in the stairwell. The butts meat looked like a pile of kindling. The air gleamed with porkfat. And the styrofoam packages Father had stacked on the surging garbage had toppled to the floor.
—What you doing, Daddy? Cabbage asked.
—I’m making the most glorious catfish stew our civilization’s ever known, Father said.
We all stood watching, shifting from foot to foot, as Father fried butts meat. A bundle of frozen catfish thawed in the sink, releasing a blunt green fishreek into the air.
—Do you think this catfish is too old? I asked, sniffing.
—No, said Father, and an evil look shot from his good eye.
He stomped on the dingy linoleum in his glorious ruby robe, kicked at an onion skin, and gushed scalding water over the rank ball of fillets.
—This is not enough meat, Father said, lurching toward the laundry nook where we kept a freezer of game.
—Not enough meat for the greatest catfish stew ever made in the history of civilized, and in the non-history of uncivilized, man, he shouted, then returned to the kitchen with a frozen catfish hoisted on his hip like a baby.
Upon pricking his wrist with a catfish whisker, Father, face straining, shouted (Confound it! Shirt!), threw the fish on the floor, and pounded an ogreish jig around it. The twins lunged for the fish, the runt snatched it, but the big twin wrested it and stood holding the dead thing for Father, who had lit a cigarette and leaned against the counter panting smoke.
—Thanks, son, he said. You can put it next to the sink.
The night deepened and Father stood peeling fillets from the rotten catfish ball.
—Daddy, it stinks, said Cabbage.
—The game’s ripe, said Father. Perfectly seasoned. And he drew a fat-clotted spine to his good eye and peered at wisps of bone.
—But we’ll have to be careful about the bones.
Father’s mandible disappeared as he cackled in the stinking night. His faceflesh
jiggled and flapped, then his mandible reasserted itself, and Father stared grimly at the fishball.
—It’ll take longer than I thought, he said. Meanwhile, we’ll just clean this fish.
He picked up the fish, squeezed it, and attempted to stuff it into the microwave.
—Shirt, he said, it’s too long. His lips vanished into the pit of his grin as Father beat the fish against the edge of the counter with all the strength of his great arms. Then he grabbed a butcher knife, slapped the fish on the bare Formica, and hacked until it broke into manageable lumps.
—What you doing, Daddy? asked Cabbage, who lurked in dim roachy margins of the kitchen.
—We cannot clean a frozen fish, now, can we, son?
—Nope Sir, not, said Cabbage.
Father tossed icy fishchunks into the microwave and they wobbled in the hot hum. Father sat back in his chair to swig golden brandy from his gut-flecked glass. Father peered down his great glistering nose at us. His nose gleamed like pocked gunmetal in the fishoil night and we sat on the floor in a row, each little child with his legs twisted into a knot.
—Back when my father owned the world, Father said, I caught catfish bigger than my own body, reeled in the monsters with every last drop of my strength, and brained the great flopping beasts with my baseball bat.
We sat with our mouths open. Something popped in the microwave. Cabbage jumped to his feet to look. When he opened the door, his face scrunched as the gasses of ten swamps floated out.
—The head bust open, Cabbage said, and Father strolled to the microwave to examine the brain-dolloped door.
—Shirt, said Father, and he plucked the sagging gaseous stink-radiating head from the microwave. He pinched it up by a whisker and sniffed the swollen eye, delicate as a slobber-bubble and full of sizzling humors. The other eye popped out, bounced on the floor, and the twins grunted as they scuffled for it.
—It’s my eye, said one twin, pinching the other.
—It’s my eye, said the other, slapping the one.
—Fight it out like men, said Father. No pinching, no slapping. That is underhanded feminine stuff. Father glanced at me as he tossed the head on the garbage where it slid down the side of a butt-filled soup can and squelched to the floor.
—It stinks, Cabbage said, impaling the head with a fork and drawing it up into the light for study.
—A pungent head signifies a flavorful fish, said Father, taking the head, now breaded with ashes, from Cabbage.
—Thank you, Son, for rescuing this head from the mire. We might need it.
Cabbage smirked with self-importance. Father tossed the head onto the counter. The twins examined the eye, the sac of mush that had once guided the catfish through dark waters, that had once reflected the rich light of worms and made dim films in the catfish brain.
—Children, said Father, scraping curds of brain into a margarine tub. Can you tell me what has been, since the beginning of human time, man’s genius and his curse?
—Adaptation, recited the twins.
—That is correct. General Richard Heron Anderson was known, during the Civil War, to dine upon roasted rattlesnake cooked up by his venerable old body servant Cicero. And why, children, did the general eat rattlesnake?
—Adaptation, the twins recited, handing the eye to Father.
—That’s right, to survive, the general had to adapt to the harsh conditions he found himself in. He, who had once eaten filet mignon and oyster pie, dined upon roasted rattlesnake during the Civil War. To survive, to adapt, children, sometimes we must eat the less appetizing parts of beasts. We must make use of every scrap.
Father dropped the darkstinking primitive head into the blender, then the teeny eye, then he grabbed a section of catfish from the microwave and slit it down the belly.
—Look, children, eggs, he said. And we leaned breathing over the slit, sniffing the swamp-farting gash as Father scooped out clots of fatty pearls with a spoon. He banged the spoon against the blender rim to shake the eggs in. Then he squeezed the fishchunk and squirted stinks into the air. Father laughed. Father hacked off pieces of watery flesh and pinched the thaw-juice from them, right into the blender.
—It smell like frogdooky, Cabbage said.
—Sniff again, said Father, holding the spine, from which a gutsac dangled by a thread of intestine, right beneath Cabbage’s nose.
Sputtering with nervous tics and laughter, Father tossed bones and entrails into the blender. He sliced the weird, dark, silk-slimy skin from fillets and made a mound of wrinkled skin. He put this into the blender too.
The twins whispered and signaled with their stunted hands. Cabbage drew his blanket from a corner.
—Maybe we should wake Mama up, I said, and Father scowled. Father grabbed a bloated segment of fish from the microwave, held his knife in the air, and stabbed it as hard as he could, spraying our faces with hot marsh-rot. Father chuckled.
—Your mother is resting and should not be disturbed.
Whirling gore and bones into a gritty pink froth, Father shouted over the blender.
—Twins, he said, whichever one of you is strongest will fetch me a bag of potatoes. And the twins scrambled to the pantry, kicking and tripping one another. Slaps and grunts emanated from the pantry, and the bigger twin emerged, the bag draped Santa-style over his back, the runt slapping at his legs with a frayed extension cord.
—Hero, said Father, and he shook the warty fruits onto the counter.
—They bad, said Cabbage, who squatted on the countertop above the pile, in his sagging panty hose. They stink, said Cabbage. They smell like the ground.
—Where do you think they came from? Father asked as he hacked the potatoes with his meat knife and plopped them into the boiling stew. He did the same with a musky bag of onions, and the air smelled of old men’s scalps.
Snatching the fishball from the sink, Father lurched and stomped around the kitchen, feigning to shoot the ball into invisible baskets, swaying like a snake, jumping and pivoting; and the twins lunged at him, snatched at the dripping ball of filth.
—Here he comes, rasped Father, right down center court.
Father leapt and slammed the catfishball into the stewpot. The stove-eye sputtered from sloshing broth.
—Sixty-two points in one game, he said. I still hold the record at Montreat. Father leaned against the counter and lit a cigarette.
—I’m an old man, he said, drooping in his red bathrobe.
As the catfish ball floated in the stew and melted, cadaverous scumsmells bubbled into the room, darkening the green of the fug. We all panted for a decent breath. Crickets screamed in windows and the sweetness of remote gardenias trickled in.
—Boys, said Father, fetch me every last can of tomato soup and cream-of-mushroom soup you can find; the one with the most cans’ll be deemed the man.
The twins dashed and scurried, bumbled and slapped, bit and scrambled and rifled, then returned with armfuls of cans.
Father counted the cans and deemed the runt the man. The runt swaggered in the rank silurid air, jumped and waved his fists, sang I am the champion my friend until his twin busted his lip.
From his groin-warm pocket, Father fished out his handkerchief; Father slowly unwadded the booger-crusted cloth and wiped the runt’s blood away. Father patted the back of the sniveling runt and murmured: This is but a brick in the road to manhood.
—Now, said Father, standing up, waving the booger-greened rag, let’s have a can-opening contest.
I, disdaining to participate, dawdled by the flimsy folding door beyond which my mother slept on the living-room couch. I listened to see if I could hear her moaning. I thought I heard wind, the sound of my own head perhaps—obscure electricities, warm hum of blood, pops of ossicles, little bird-bones throbbing deep in the ear. It went on and on, all by itself, even if you ignored it, just like the night with its winding plants and eating creatures.
—Steady now, steady, Father said. We don’t want an accident. We don’t want a mutilation on our hands. No digits sliced off. No carnage, if you please, tonight. Nevertheless, said Father, clapping his hands, let’s keep a brisk pace.
As the boys scrunched like toiling trolls, Father strolled around gathering can tops in a bag.
—Watch out, your brother’s gaining on you, Father said to the runt, and the twins’ fingers flickered like fire over their squeaking gadgets.
—Look, Daddy, said Cabbage, who had managed to open a can.
—Thank you, Son, this particular can holds the secret ingredient.
Cabbage beamed in the fishbowel reek as Father took the serrated can top from his tender tiny hand.
Sputtering merrily with nervous tics, reciting adages, emptying can after can, Father stood over the stench-gasping pot.
—It smell like throw up, Cabbage said. His rabbity nostrils quivered as he stood on the counter, stooped sniffing over the big pot, his newt’s rib cage gouged with blue shadow and throbbing as he breathed.
—The ingredients haven’t blended yet, Father said, slapping on the pot top.
Father chomped butts meat with his smoke-oozing mouth. It would not stop oozing smoke, deep from his clammy lungs, deep from the burnt swamp of his chest, from the jelly-pockets, clogged with cancerous slime, we feared. And he poured brandy into his burbling gullet, stomping so heavily around the kitchen that we looked for footprints in the linoleum.
Father belched and ate a whole hot pepper, then splashed brandy into the stubbled barbecue pit of his mouth.
—Give us one, the twins cried, dancing around the huge man.
—This would melt your tender esophogi, Father said.
—We can take it. We drink picklejuice all the time, they screamed, and so they did, often, sitting grim-faced through the night, drinking glass after shot-glass of picklejuice, waiting for the spineless weakling of their dichotomy to puke his guts.
—Perhaps I’ve underestimated your manhoods, said Father.
—Test us, said the twins, holding out their hands.
After a moment of meditation, Father dipped his gut-smeared fingers into brine, drew out two dripping sun-bright peppers, and placed them on the twins’ palms. With these peppers I pass my manhood on to you, he murmured.
—Now, said Father, the first to take a sip of water, or any other liquid, including Kool-Aid, is the loser, and, with the exception of the stem, you must eat the entire pepper, for if a mere seed clings to the stem, you’ll be disqualified, and you’ve got to chew them. Swallowing them whole would be cheating.
The twins ate their peppers, stems and all, chewed, swallowed, grinned, and squirted silent tears. They hunched and coughed and flagellated themselves. They lurched around the kitchen clapping their hands and retching.
—Fools, I said.
—Call someone a fool…said the big twin, but he could not finish, tore open the refrigerator, snatched the green pitcher and splashed gaudy purple drink into his mouth. Joyous, the runt leapt and ran to the sink to suckle at the faucet.
—I am the man, he said, wiping his mouth. Right, Daddy?
—Right, Son. But don’t rest on your laurels, for manhood is something that must be perpetually proven or you’ll lapse into the grossest state of effeminacy, eunuch-hood, castrato-ship, hermaphroditism. You’ll sprout breasts like puffballs and your manly equipment will shrink to pink and hairless unborn mice. Your voice’ll quaver and squeak like a stringy old-maid’s, your buttocks swell and jiggle with womanish fat.
Father slapped the runt on the back and sent him tumbling to the floor. Father opened the stewpot and out sputtered the darkest of swamps: possumbladders and skink-egg musk, snakefarts and fish tumors, eel rectums, sooty mushroom spoors, and the penis dribble of the murkiest three-legged frogs, all afloat with hot-boggy tomatoes. Father sniffed, closed his eyes, and dipped his spoon. We gasped as he drew the steaming filth to his lips. The spoon quivered. Father sipped. And Cabbage shrieked.
—No, Daddy, that you not eat!
But Father’s tongue slathered in the spoonful of stew like a blind walrus in an excrementous pool.
—It’s getting there, he said. But it’s missing something. Something. I don’t know what.
Father gazed into the refrigerator, removed a rusty can of creamed corn, and dumped it into the stew. Father wrested a pack of gizzards from the freezer and dumped the icy conglomerate of bird organs in. Father dumped in turnips hot chowchow pickled okra dried beef. Father dumped in liver pudding smoked oysters green olives pepperoncini. Father dumped in pearl onions sour milk fresh eggs sardines. Cabbage grabbed my hand and squeezed as Father scraped at a carton of freezer-burned strawberry ice cream and flicked the shavings into the stew.
—The butts meat! Father cried, slapping his brow. How could I forget? And as he dumped the tower of butts meat into the stew, tears streamed from his eyes and he laughed and laughed in the rich, rancid, bug-twinkling night, where crickets strummed with end-of-the summer hysteria and stars quivered above the smog-swaddled earth, burning holes in the vast deep, smearing their light across depths of forever blackness. Cabbage and I stood holding hands in the screaming abyss. The twins pinched each other’s buttocks as they embraced in the void. And Father stomped laughing in the center of the whirling night, his good eye swollen to busting with seeing, his bad eye adroop and lusterless, his nose a grotesque parody of itself.
Father crouched in a strange posture, as though missing a part in his spine. And the night howled round him as we all stood holding hands. He staggered and looked at us and put down his brandy glass. Muttered some scrap. Gazed at the pot of stew that bubbled clotted parts of itself onto the stove.
—I…, Father said. I forgot the giblets.
He lunged at the blender, spooned globs of gut-froth into the stew. Cabbage’s protests drowned in the reeling night as Father spooned in the bone-splintered puree. Father gave his masterpiece a final stir and then shook the kink from his back with a twist of his spade-shaped rump.
—Now, he said quietly, while adjusting his robe sash, we will partake of this nourishment together.
Father patted each trembling child on its silky head and bustled about filling bowls. We backed into corners of the kitchen, eyeing the stairwell, but did not dare to flee. Father placed the bowls on the table, one by one, then sat at the head and spread a paper towel in his lap.
—Sit down, children, he said tenderly, and we sat. Father said, Lord make us truly thankful for what we are about to receive, Amen. He dipped his spoon. Father took a slurp of orange stew and swallowed. His head glowed with smugness.
—Delicious, he said, washing the stew down with brandy. Father slurped and drank and chattered strange words.
—Spoink, Father said, was bewhiskered by the Remus’s ashes upon his ninety-sixth birthday, and the entire harem was present, giggling like hens in their boarbladder sandals.
—And one more thing, Father said, stabbing at each of us with his spoon, all of you should be growing thicker husks of dingdong matter; otherwise, you won’t be impervious to the onion-colored flames of the Grinch.
We sat pale-faced before our vaporous bowls, each enveloped in his own private cloud of stink.
—Whath is a madder wiffit? asked Father, waving his spoon like a bored baby. Why you nein gobbly? No munch? Little childbeasts?
Father ground his teeth and snarled, then enunciated, without the slightest flutter of a smile: Finish your stew, you ungrateful children.
He clapped his hands. Now we all held spoonfuls of filth before our lips, eyeing the door beyond which our mother slept. I felt a scream, bundled somewhere deep in my nausea. But it melted away.
—Eat it, Father said, gazing up at the fan that squeaked and shot shadow-waves along the ceiling.
Father’s head began to move round and round as he watched the whirling shadows. Faster and faster. His Adam’s apple bobbed. His eyes quivered in his skull. Then a huge twitch convulsed his body and his head fell nose-first into his bowl.
We put down our spoons. Father snorted, withdrew his head, and lay it mumbling on his napkin. Our Father’s head snored and twitched on the table. We watched the head grimace. We watched it grumble and spit. The head looked peculiar. The head looked complex, composed of a million different parts, like a creature unto itself.