Poetry | September 01, 1997


I remember the first tub of red racers I saw in a walled shed

in Arkansas, down by the Ouachita. My uncle led us there

when I was nine, my father, and another man with some

4-F condition

or too old. We drove five hundred miles in World War Two

over bumpy roads at night to see my aunt and uncle


who lost their only son at Pearl Harbor, to grieve again

about what happened two years ago, to fish the river

my father trawled and trapped when he was a boy in

poverty Arkansas,

Granddaddy dead, his scattered brothers fretting for their boys

flung out across the world like dice and black bones,


a mystery of fate. My older brother was in jungles of Saipan

or Guam, pinheads on a map my mother kept back home.

But here was rot,

real darkness in some back-swamp bait shop, a dozen washtubs

of rotting crawdads, eels, and fish heads, the hot shed

squishing under my Keds as I ducked in mud under cobwebs


long as nets. My uncle punched me in the ribs and kidded

what my girl friends would think of this. I mumbled something

and my uncle laughed. What all this rot and splash of slime

in barrels had to do with fish I didn’t know, the perch and bass

we caught back on the Brazos suckers for worms and grubs


the size of snot. I wondered if this was one of those places

we whispered about at night behind the barn, where men

went to women, where boys were lucky if they came back alive,

bleeding, part of their things chopped off, circumcised

or sick for weeks. I shuddered, that odd, familiar swelling


in my pants and taste of alum. My father walked behind me

like a guard, and I followed my distant uncle and a

one-armed man

who hobbled to a row of tubs and buckets. My God,

my Uncle Walter said, stepping back and clapping

as if he’d found the manger, always one to make the best


of everything. I stopped nose level with the tub, nothing

but fifty pounds of straw and dirt. My father bowed down

to smell,

big-knuckled fists on the nicked and rusted rim. The one-

armed man

who owned it all reached around my back and tapped the tub

with a hammer. Chaos swarmed, enormous worms twelve

inches long,


swirling out of black dirt and squirming over each other,

gone in the blink of my eyes, the fastest motion I’d ever seen.

His nub still around me, the unshaved owner banged again,

and out they wound and slithered, red racers fat and slimy


I imagined the fish these would catch, the sharks or alligator gar


it would take to swallow them, the meat hooks we’d have

to squish

and impale them on, if any of us could hold them writhing

like fire hoses. I don’t know how many gar and big-mouthed


we caught that week, what bait we used. I remember my uncle

suddenly weeping against the wall, sunlight odd on his

balding head


in the bait shop. I remember my father clearing his throat

and staring at worms with unusual interest, big knuckles white

on the tub. Now that I’ve been to war, now that I’ve

watched TV

around the clock and worried about one son under Iraqi rockets,

I can hear my Uncle Walter beating his fist against the wall


of that bait shop, there to fish with only his brother

and a distant nephew. I can’t remember much about that day,

but my father’s face sunburned. Out on the lake, I drank

my first half-bottle of beer. I got to pee from the boat,

standing up, a long-arched splash and ripple my uncle



would draw fish. I know we carried two canoes over a crust

of mud that shuddered like dough, and fished the river

past midnight. I remember Uncle Walter cursing, clubbing

alligator gars with his oar, trash fish he hated, head down,

shaking, smashing them in the moonlight with his fists.

If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.