“Get on over here, we got fish to fry!” my buddy Landon shouted over the phone one fall afternoon three decades ago. “And bring along your mamma’s jumbo skillet!”
When I arrived, I found the day’s catch swimming in his parents’ bathtub.
“I thought you knew how to clean fish,” I muttered as I watched about a dozen crappie and bream circle the basin. Their accommodations were a little crowded, but they seemed content with the household’s well water, at least as much as fish can seem content. Except the warmouth that was floating dead on the surface.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He swallowed my lure and got to flipping around,” Landon said. “Sloat calmed him with a nip of Kickin’ Chicken.” Meaning Wild Turkey. Landon looked thoughtful. “Must’ve been too much.”
Sloat Tatum sat on the edge of the bathtub, a wad of tobacco stuffed his cheek. He stared straight ahead and sipped a Schlitz bull. Sloat drank grain alcohol and huffed Scotchgard on a regular basis. Most people thought he had brain damage.
I pulled a crappie out of the tub and took it outside to scale it. My buddies demonstrated their talent for watching other people work. The only time those two ever exerted any energy was on the football field, where they often relied on unscrupulous tactics. Just last week Sloat had been ejected from a game for unsportsmanlike conduct. He couldn’t help himself: After sacking the opponent’s quarterback, he’d given the player’s testicles a squeeze and sent the boy to the emergency room.
I got myself a beer and Ollie, Landon’s cat, snatched the crappie from the cutting board and ducked under Sloat’s car, then disappeared up into one of the holes in the floorboard. Through the side-door window, I could see him settled in the driver’s seat, devouring his snack. I knew better than to snatch fresh fish from a hungry cat. That crappie wouldn’t have filled a damn biscuit anyway. I glanced over at my buddies staring at the ground. “We need to buy more fish,” I said. “That crappie was the prize of the bunch and Ollie just gobbled it down. And since you no-count jackasses can’t cook, I’ll fix dinner when we return from the store.”
“I got a seven-pound bass in Mr. Jenkins’s freezer,” Sloat drawled, his first utterance since I arrived.
“What’s Mr. J. doing with your bass?” Landon inquired.
“Keepin’ it for me,” Sloat replied. “I was playing hooky the day I caught that fish and couldn’t bring him home without raising all sorts of questions. We can go get him on our way to the store.”
Sloat damn near squashed the cat when he plopped down in the driver’s seat. But Ollie shook off this near-death experience and settled in the back between me and a drum of joint compound. The four of us barely fit in Sloat’s battered Chevette, which had already topped 200,000 miles. That rolling disaster attracted all kinds of attention, none of it ever good. Rustoleum covered the bare metal on the hood and roof, and the dents in the doors were filled with globs of Bondo. The heater was broken and ran all of the time, so the windows were always open, even when it rained. Sloat figured when the thing finally died, he’d just remove the plates and let someone else pay for the tow.
We picked up Sloat’s bass from the Jenkinses’ house. Mr. Jenkins seemed glad to be rid of that fish, and grumbled about Sloat owing him rent for holding onto it so long. Then we stopped by Piggly Wiggly for cornmeal, cole slaw, beer, and plastic cups. We also bought more Wild Turkey and a bottle of Everclear. Although we were all underage, Landon had recently borrowed his older brother’s birth certificate and had the DMV make him a “legitimate” ID. We always had access to booze.
The four of us barely fit in Sloat’s battered Chevette, which had already topped 200,000 miles. That rolling disaster attracted all kinds of attention, none of it ever good. With the heater on we were all sweating pretty good by the time we hit McNair Road, so we cracked a few beers. Ollie’s fur was all matted, and I couldn’t tell whether he was sweating, too, or if it was just me dripping all over him. But that poor cat’s tongue was hanging from his mouth, so I made a little dish from one of the cups and shared my beer with him. He drank it. About halfway home, Sloat pulled into the veterinary clinic where he held a weekend job cleaning out kennels. Landon and I were confused by the detour, it being after hours and all, but Sloat assured us we’d be happy we made the stop. He had something to show us.
I wanted to take Ollie in, but my buddies felt the other animals might upset him. And besides, the car was more comfortable now that the engine was off and the heater had stopped running.
No one should’ve trusted Sloat Tatum with the office keys.
He headed straight for the operating room. Inside, it was chilly, damp. Dogs barking. The place stunk of sickness and antiseptic. In the center of the room was an operating table covered with a paper cloth. In the back corner, what appeared to be two oxygen tanks were sitting on a cart. A tangle of twisted hoses sprung wildly from the canisters and led to two valves with numbered settings before merging into a single endotracheal tube.
“What is that?” Landon asked, pointing at the contraption.
“It’s an enflurane vaporizer,” Sloat replied. “Doc uses it to anesthetize the animals.”
“What are we gonna do with it?” Landon asked.
“We’re gonna get high,” Sloat said. “It’s much safer than locker room and whippets.”
We each took a turn, and I don’t remember much. I remember laughing a lot—much more intensely than those times when my dentist gave me the gas. I must’ve blacked out shortly thereafter. When I awoke, Sloat was holding my face in his hands.
“We was wondering if you were gonna make it,” Landon said, shaking his head. “I just knew you were a dead motherfucker. Your eyes rolled back in your skull and you started choking on your tongue. Sloat managed to yank it out your throat without losing his fingers.”
“Yessir,” Sloat replied. “It wasn’t such a good idea to cut the oxygen and boost that vaporizer 50 percent. I gotta remember that.”
In a little over an hour, Sloat Tatum had nearly killed me and Ollie. Now that the Good Lord had given us a second chance, I was going to be smart for once.
“Goddammit, Ollie!” Landon yelled when he arrived at the car. “Get a look at this!” he shouted to us as he opened the rear door.
In the middle of the back seat was Ollie, sprawled out beside the skeleton of Sloat’s trophy bass. That cat had picked the ribcage clean and sucked out the eyeballs, leaving just the head and the tail stuck on either end.
Landon whistled through his teeth. Ollie’s eyes parted slightly, and he purred a couple of times. Then his lids got heavy and he resumed napping.
“I’m glad we bought plenty of slaw,” Sloat mumbled.
“This is your fault, Sloat,” Landon snorted. “That goddamned cat is so bloated he won’t drag his dead ass to the litter box all next week on account of you. I oughta charge you up front for all the extra house cleaning that’s gonna entail!”
“Sorry,” said Sloat. “Sorry for serving Ollie the meal of his life.”
“He’s so full of bass he can’t hardly lift his lungs to breathe,” said Landon.
Sloat spat and wiped his chin. “That damned cat looks fine to me,” he said. “I never seen him do nothing but sleep anyway.”
“That there’s a non sequitur,” Landon shot back. “That ain’t got a goddamn thing to do with the fact that your fish turned my cat into a museum piece.”
Dusk settled in. The air was still except for a few crickets and the sound of Ollie’s snoring. In the parking lot, we stood transfixed by that cat snoozing in the back seat next to the remains of Sloat’s bass.
“Looks like our boy Ollie has life mastered,” I said.
By now, the beer was warm, but we opened a few and toasted Ollie’s brilliance. He had contributed absolutely nothing to the evening’s mission and then consumed everything worthwhile that was on the menu. Somehow, he had managed to do less than Sloat and Landon, which was an amazing feat in itself—something I’m sure they noted. Those two would never be outdone again, especially by a goddamned cat.