Stepdad is the villain of my family, who I want to forgive.
In Minnesota, Stepdad has a four foot tall gun safe containing 52 loaded guns beside two bug-out bags, all protected with an 8 pin lock. His wardrobe fits neatly into a 7-day rotation, a different shirt each day, each stitched with the word America. And he has nine and a half fingers after a woodworking accident. A bandsaw blade divorced two bones on his right index finger.
In March, he, me, and my mom vacationed to Abbeville, Louisiana. This wasn’t for a Trump rally, although I’d enjoy the people watching; at least until the collective movement convinced me I needed more walls in my life. No. We traveled to Abbeville because that’s Stepdad’s hometown, where he was born and raised. This backwoods town of twelve thousand people was drenched with a glow, clues into Stepdad’s past, clues into the villian I knew in Minnesota.
At the airport, we are greeted by Stepdad's sister who I had never met before. She embraces me and introduces herself as Grace. Before we do anything civilized, we go to the butcher shop down the street from her home. Inside it is a poorly lit room. Raw meat of all kinds bleeds on the counter. Flies stop by at leisure. While a manager of a Whole Foods would be appalled, I find the rawness appealing and the Ma and Pa feel trustworthy, as if the cow who matured this meat still hung by his hind hooves in back. I wonder if locals could go in back and cleave a rump of meat themselves.
Back at Grace’s red-brick home, she disappears into the kitchen with fresh slabs of meat, and reappears in a puff of smoke with a pot of Gumbo: stewed, sliced up rope sausage with browned crispy ends, plucked rotisserie chicken, and fresh shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, all in a roux with peppers and garlic and cajun seasoning. I have three servings.
Stepdad’s bowl of Gumbo sat in front of him untouched. He is content telling childhood stories. As I scarf down Gumbo, he leans back in the rickety wooden chair and tells of him and “Johnny Bass”, like how they used to drive around in his pick-up, shooting out their neighbor’s porch lights with a Smith & Wesson six-shooter from the moving truck. Swamp Cowboys, I thought.
Today Stepdad still shoots a Smith & Wesson, but now–ever since the bandsaw blade accident–he pulls the trigger with a nub.
On a Saturday, we went crawfishing. Today I dress like a Swamp Cowboy; I wear camouflage knee-high boots and a camouflage cap. All men wore camouflage caps. I blend right in so that Stepdad and I are indistinguishable – at least from the perspective of a crawfish who can’t count fingers.
I offer to route us to Crawfish Haven using GPS. Stepdad says he knows better. Although I’m certain he doesn’t, cowboys don’t use maps. We point. Stepdad with a nub.
I enjoyed him directing me down backroads where he recognizes old businesses and “Rick Radley’s” home who I guessed was a childhood friend. One of the old businesses is an abandoned car wash. He says once he found a dead shark in the parking lot; he knotted a rope around its tail and the hitch of his Chevy and dragged the shark through town. He yelled out the window, “Get your fruit, get your bread, get your shark meat.” I laugh and laugh and laugh. Stepdad can charm at times.
Twenty miles east on the county highway, we pull into an empty gravel parking lot, nothing around but a Bed & Breakfast, crawfishing ponds, and a few crushed budweiser cans. I imagine Stepdad–decades ago–under the stars–parked here–drinking beers & leaning against his Chevy–his foot propped up on the dead shark who he just dragged through town and who’s now covered in dust, gravel, and scars. A creaky door startles me back to the parking lot in 2022.
We were a group of seven, all family except the captain who is so jolly I’m okay to adopt him and call him Uncle Cap. Cap tells a joke, “Do you know the difference between a regular zoo and a cajun zoo? A regular zoo gotta plaque in front of the cage displaying the animal’s name, habitat, reproductive habits, and what not. A cajun zoo gotta recipe.” My belly growls, and so did Stepdad’s.
Hungry, we boarded an aluminum boat. Cap hands me a pair of thick rubber gloves. The pesky crawfish pinch and will break skin, especially with soft keyboard hands like mine. After Stepdad puts his gloves on, we have a common finger count – ten! In the boat we agreed on the enemy. Crawfish! (Also those who commonly lurk around to eat our crawfish – turtles and snakes and GATORS, oh my.)
The pond is shallow, 10 to 24 inches deep. Between rows of dried swamp grass, there are a dozen lanes with traps. The first trap comes quickly; its red top bobs six inches above the water. I grip it and haul the mesh cage out of the muddy pond. Five crawfish. I hand it to Stepdad who dumps them into a sorting tray.
Each cage traps three to a dozen crawfish. Many are babies, many others are dead and only their exoskeletons remain — eaten by their own family members, which makes me reflect on how violent we can be to our own kind. Humans can forgive, at least.
We drive up and down the lanes for about an hour dumping traps out, tossing back baby crawfish and turtles who aren’t on today’s menu. In four purple nets, crawfish writh and pinch each other. It's a violent exchange. We fished a hundred pounds of crawfish. Stepdad and I hold up the nets together for a picture.
That evening Cap exchanges his fisherman’s cap for a chef’s cap. Both are camouflage. The crawfish boil until their beady eyes cloud over and they’re motionless – or 15 minutes of time. Cap tips the pot and their bodies tumble into a plastic Tupperware bin. He sprinkles cayenne seasoning, and serves me a big red plate with 10 pounds of red crawfish, a single slice of corn cob, and two infant rustic potatoes. Within seconds our red plates clattered on the table.
Eating crawfish is a primal experience. Stepdad taught me: first you dismember the crustacean by twisting the tail off. You pinch and rip the guts out, which smear over your fingers before you pluck out the morsel of meat. The real apes among us wrap our lips around the crustacean’s head and suck, letting in all the juices from within. Stepdad slurps mouthfuls of crawfish brain. I did not, at first.. Stepdad was so damn happy that I caved. I slurped a mouthful of brain and became enlightened.
And when our bellies are full of crawfish, we all dance to Zydeco; here in this wooden shack in backwoods Louisiana, I didn’t care about finger count. I cared about Bob, the man I labeled Stepdad. He wasn’t a villain – up close.
In the morning, Grace fixes up some eggs, and Bob begins another story. I am excited – what adventure would I hear about this time? “I haven’t danced like last night for twenty years,” he says. “Back when I was younger, I danced nightly. That’s how I met my darling.” That’s my mom. He went on but I zoned out. I realized this was the moment that Stepdad smashed his Chevy into my family.
Twenty years ago, he and my mom met. Shortly after she left my father for him. It destroyed my family. My brother John got two DWIs. My brother Joseph became estranged from my mother; (my mom still grieves because her three grandkids do not know her name). And my dad and I cried together nightly on a burgundy couch.
I was 15 and utterly confused. I felt like I had been dragged through town, covered in dust, gravel, and scars.
Now at the dinner table, those scars peel open, as Stepdad and my mom reminisce about dancing. I poke my eggs and grab another biscuit which aren’t in my diet unless I’m anxious. My head, full of dust. I ruminate, My mom was married. My mom was married. My mom was married.
I build a wall between me and this menace. Fucking heartless, Trump thumping asshole. Look at this man. Go cut off another finger using a bandsaw blade!
I remember dancing together in the shack last night where finger count didn’t matter. I speak up, “I’m uncomfortable listening to this knowing my mom was married while you two danced.”
Stepdad stopped talking. He was speechless for the first time in my life, possibly his too. He said, “I’m sorry for that Andrew.” Everyone was silent until he got up, bumping the table and hurried away. I went after him. He was tearing up. I teared up. He apologized again. We hugged. And in that moment, I forgave him…
Except, it didn’t happen. I never spoke up. I never asked a question. We didn’t hug.
Instead, I sat still. I poked my eggs. And I criticized his finger count. He is the villain I knew he was.
In the afternoon I returned to Texas. He to Minnesota. I never brought it up. Behind my wall, I’m safe from the villain with nine and a half fingers. Behind my wall, I’m going to die.