My dad was a joker. It was one of his favorite words. He had lots of favorite words and phrases. Some of them you will be introduced to in this story. By a joker, I mean a funny joker. He always had something running in the background…some program on autopilot and you couldn’t tell if it was bothering him or if it was supposed to be bothering you or someone else.
James Head was an old man when I met him. He was probably in his fifties and looked it…though he aged slowly afterwards for the next 40 years. He was about 20 years older than my dad was and worked every day with him for decades.
Head lived on a well-traveled road and my dad would say, “Ole James lives there” and then sometimes he’d chuckle a bit. I always ignored his hints at skullduggery since I knew he’d let me in on the gig…usually.
Once, when I was about 15 years old, my dad got this wild hair and threw a bunch of ice-cold mullet in a big stainless steel tray like they’d have at the elementary school when you scrounged up enough spare change to buy fried chicken on Wednesday and carried a brown bag because you didn’t want to hurt your mama’s feelings. Who doesn’t like room temp baloney sticking to white bread where the mustard wasn’t, a peanut butter-stuffed-cored apple sealed with raisins and maybe a few carrots thrown in for color? But I digress…”grab me up some of that thick foil!”…now I knew he meant business…he wanted the thick tin foil for wrapping food to travel…not the thin kind for everything else.
I handed him the 7 pound, three foot tube of tin wrapped in Reynolds waxed cardboard complete with hacksaw blade for cutting said foil and he whipped off a sheet about 6 feet long in a display of unbridled consumption the likes of which I’d never seen him display. Someone must have died…pa always cooked a ham for dead people’s next-of-kin…believe me, when my dad bought a ham, someone was on thin ice. Once, when I was grown, he called me and asked if I would stop by the store to pick up a ham. Of course, I asked him who died and he said, “Jesus”. We had ham for Easter.
He dug through the remnants of our Saturday mullet haul…it must have been in the early fall and still hot because there was a bunch of ice in the cooler…when it got really cold, we never had ice in the cooler other than our frozen water milk jugs which served for drinking water once thawed and only if you were good and thirsty since dad never got too carried away with rinsing the milk out of the jug before filling it…I should have marked the ones I rinsed.
“Yeah”, he was saying to me…”get that one there…that big one with the eyes” and he’d laugh a bit. He went to make a call as I piled about a good dozen of the fresh-from-the-bay mulligans/mulletos/mullet, all armored up with scales and fins, big eyeballs staring out into space into the pan and watched him seal the fish in his patented tin-foil crinkling technique which, to this day, I have never mastered. Those fish were sealed like sardines in a can.
“Come on, hoss…grab up that pan and let’s head on over to see James”…and he chuckled a bit.
We rode to see Mr Head…the five or six miles north with those fish freezing the pan solid to the vinyl bench seat in my dad’s old ’75 Chevy truck. Neither my dad nor I nor the mullet wore a seatbelt and somehow we made it to Mr. Head’s house without dying. I remember Dad laughing a bit as he jog-walked the pan to the door. Evidently he had called Mr. Head and Mr. Head and family were waiting for the fish. My dad was kicking the door and hollering, “James!, James! Hurry!” and he was moving his hands unnecessarily under the fish pan. I only remember Dad rushing in as some kid opened the door and I followed into the dark of the house…as my eyes adjusted I saw a bunch of people sitting around a set table…I know I saw cheese grits and hushpuppies and maybe a pitcher of tea but then my dad was coming back to the door I had barely entered and saying to the unseen Mr. Head, “I got to go James!…got more deliveries to make!”, and then we were gone… back to the truck and out into the street before I had time to remember not to put my seatbelt on.
Dad was laughing out loud and nearly in tears…”did you see them kids?…all ready to say Grace and chow down? I haven’t had this much fun since the hogs ate your brother!” And he laughed some more.
I suppose I was tired…tired of cleaning fish…at least we hadn’t cleaned these fish…thank God for that…now we had to wash the boat and bury the heads and guts and scales…rinse the old milk jugs…fill the ones we drank out of with more water…carry all that back into the house…wash the knives and scalers…cover the net after it was rinsed and dried out…get ready to do it again in ten hours…but mama would have the hushpuppies made and the coleslaw diced and the tomaters sliced and the tea made and we would say Grace and stuff ourselves with fresh, broke-neck and bled mullet…and it was good…all of it was good.
We would tell stories around the table…but that is for another time.
It was before the storm…before Michael…and if I had known it was coming, I would have insisted Mr. Head leave the county when I saw him that last time before the storm.
An old man who had to be Mr. Head stood out in Mr. Head’s yard as I drove by. I whipped around in the Glass Repair place and gunned out into the street the fifty yards or so before turning into Mr. Head’s driveway.
He looked at me getting out of my truck and didn’t say much. His son sold old appliances out of the front yard…probably figured I was a customer.
I walked up to him and he didn’t have a clue as to who I was.
“MR. JAMES HEAD?”, I asked him loudly.
“I am James Head.”
“I am William Platt.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
We visited for a while. He told me stories about my dad. It was a great hour going down memory lane with him…memories he shared were stories I’d never heard…a whole ‘nother side of my dad. Then he told me my dad was a great practical joker. “There was this one time he called…said he’d had a big fish fry and had we eaten yet…said he’d be there in just a few minutes…we didn’t have a scrap of food in the house…it was just me and the kids so I went into the kitchen and whipped up some cheese grits and hushpuppies and some sweet tea and then he comes to the door hollering with one of his kids in tow saying HOT!, HOT! and throws down this restaurant platter down on the table and I’m trying to get the door closed on the icebox and he’s running out the door with that kid of his in tow and they’re off down the road like lightning and my kids are there at the table with fork and spoon in hand and that big pan of fried fish is blistering the varnish off my table and I walk over and tear off that tin foil and there are those damn mullet staring back at me with them big ole eyes…and I knew old Platt got me good.”
As he is telling the story, the tears start to blur my vision…”I was the kid…I was there…the kids sitting around the table and I’m wondering why they’re ready to eat when we brought them not-cleaned fish.”
I stopped by to visit Mr. Head a few more times but he was going fast over the next couple of years…he couldn’t remember the stories he’d told me the last time…but he always remembered my pop was a joker…and that was good enough for me.