The Forgettin' Of Sat'dy Night

Lad Moore

© Copyright 2002 by Lad Moore 

The Sugar twins had too much of Junior’s moon —the good stuff— with the blackberries in it. Now they turned to arm-wrestling—somewhere out there in the dark soybean fields. These things were just appetizers.

That morning Joe and I drove fifty miles in the Aerostar with our keg of beer sitting where the middle back seat used to be. It was the second day of our regular ritual—traveling the "black and blue" highways of North Carolina. Studying our map, we explored the destinations we could reach by secondary roads. We had an ironclad rule against travel on "red" highways and the lifeless yellow Interstates.

 At night, we always sought out what we called "Indian" motels. These are the kind of places that were left as orphans when the major highways came. Indians looking for an opportunity in the US began buying them. They did just enough maintenance to keep them standing, and cleaned the rooms just enough to suit the budget-conscious oil patch workers and guys like us. But the price was right if you didn’t mind sharing the one thin towel, and if the smell of curry from the air conditioning didn’t complicate your hangover.

 It was July hot and July dry. We left the Alligator River Wildlife Area and headed west for Lake Mattamuskeet. It was our favorite place to catch especially large blue crabs—crabs that got locked in the marsh lake when the canals leading to the sound were dammed up to control the water level. The dams were meant to provide a static refuge for migrating birds and geese, so the waterfowl enthusiasts considered the crabs and the crab fishermen a nuisance. They envisioned that Lake Matty as their personal toy—something reserved for flyway habitat and the good hunting and birding that winter brings. If we left our crabbing lines and bait out overnight, someone always cut them down. There was always a scent of unwelcome in the air. But Joe and I always managed to ignore the tension as we filled our ice-chests with tasty blue crabs. The catching was easy, and the activity was fast-paced. We worked up to six throw lines, and sometimes each would have a crab at the same time.

 The refuge was a beautiful spot for wildlife. Everything seemed to be on parade. There were osprey, beaver, herds of whitetail deer, and always a snake or two of wrist-girth size. In the brackish water, salt-water herring mixed with fresh-water catfish, bream, and crawfish.

 The locals knew about the lake and its nine and ten-inch crab, but its bounty was hidden from almost everyone else. Joe and I stumbled on it a few years back, and made it our getaway. Little by little we learned the art of catching the big blues, and how the Jimmies tasted better than the Sooks. Locals taught us how to tell the sexes apart. Males, called Jimmies, have the Washington Monument symbol on their underbelly and females the Capitol dome. It’s as simple as that. If we caught a female sponge crab—a Sook carrying eggs—we let it go. It was an investment in our own future.

 An average day’s catch could yield fifty or more crabs, and we brought our steamer to cook what we caught. None got wasted. What we didn’t wash down with our keg beer, we cleaned and brought home. Joe always let me keep the extra meat because he appreciated that I could barter crabmeat to Karen, my wife of twenty-five years. Karen had mastered a special crab cake recipe we learned about from a trip to Tangier Island on the Chesapeake. She always checked my cooler for plastic bags of crabmeat before I even got a welcome home kiss. I rarely disappointed her.

 Lake Mattamuskeet was something born of its own kind of intrigue. It dated at least as far back as the sixteenth century, because Algonquian Native Americans were known to have spear fished its clear waters. In early times, Dutch immigrants tried to drain the lake for farmland, but were unsuccessful. But the canals that were dug for that purpose had given the crabs a thruway, and they brought the brackish water in behind them. Having no natural predators in the lake, the crabs naturally grew beyond normal size. An average Mattamuskeet crab was much larger than the biggest of blue crabs in the bays.

 The dominant structure on the lake was the pumping station--built to house the pumps intended to drain the lake. It was billed as the largest in the world of its type. Looking more like a lodge or hotel than a pumping station, its tall smokestack was the only thing that gave it away. The building actually spent some of its history as a lodge, and today it boasts the honor of being a National Historic Site.

 For the crabbing enthusiasts, time was fleeting. When the waterfowl supporters dammed the canals, they unwittingly closed the access for crabs. Joe and I estimated that even with only the locals crabbing it, the crab supply would decline fast. For that reason, and the simple pleasures of being away from family and stress, Joe and I traveled to Lake Matty as often as every other weekend.

 The two of us had diverse lives and personalities—he was a quiet college professor, and I was a fiery corporate career man. But when we came together for a blue-highway weekend, our personality differences were lost. It was the perfect relief valve for our individual stresses. By evening on the first day, we were caught up on family and job conversations and could turn our attention to crabs and crabbing. In the typical three-day trip, we didn’ t shave, wore the same dirty overalls, and didn’t bathe regular. We crabbed each day until dusk then cooked and ate our catch. We only added corn and new potatoes to the one-entrée menu.

 I took careful notes of our trips for a book I intended to write someday. But like most hunters and fishermen, my notes were vague about specifics and exact locations. I suppose it is the innate primal protection of one’s food source. A fisherman will brag about the catch, but will always lie about the origin.

 Joe and I liked to stay at a small motel at New Holland. It wasn’t Indian, but it qualified as blue-highway and it qualified as to the rate. We liked the style. The big bagged-ice chest on the porch was kept open by the honor system, and we just confessed to how many bags we used when paying the bill on checkout. Joe and I were treated like kings once we got the proprietor’s one rule straight. He wanted to be paid in crisp cash—no checks, no credit cards. It was little enough to ask for the privilege of being left completely alone. We could junk up the room and not worry about the maid’s reaction. It didn’t matter anyway, because we never saw a maid during our stay. I guess cleanup took place after we were a hundred miles down the road after checkout. Joe said they probably just washed the room out with a water hose and burned the bedding.

 The owner seemed pleased with the quantities of ice we used—our keg had to be kept cold. He probably wondered why we never had beer can or bottle trash, yet managed to stay sufficiently drunk around the card table at night. But Joe and I weren’t rowdy—something he always thanked us for when we left.

 And so it went. Visit after visit—always the same routine, the same scene. We never failed to catch a bounty of crab, play our quiet card games, and drink pitchers of beer on the porch at night. It was like those weekends were scripted to remain uneventful.

 Except for that one time.

 It was Saturday evening on that trip in July. Joe and I had drawn a crowd of volunteer fireman from the firehouse down the road, and we had an unusually big batch of crab spread out on the picnic table. Two migrant families staying at the motel had joined us because we had plenty to share. It was corn harvest time, and one of the firemen had stopped by in his pickup and left a full crate of silver queen corn for us to steam in the husk. Everyone joined in the feast. One of the firemen asked where we caught the crab, and Joe and I lied about the spot. Everybody knew they were Matty crab from the size, but didn’t know what spot on what canal. We just made a place up.

 "These came out of Lake Landing—on the south canal branch," Joe said. The firemen looked at him and smiled.

 The guy they called Miller kept saying that he had permits to spotlight and shoot deer off his soybeans at night; and he invited us to come along for the fun. He looked like a rich farmer’s kid, with a new truck, stiffly ironed jeans, and a starched white western shirt with no stains. He was sipping Jack Daniel’s from a full half-gallon, and French-harping the silver queen corn that Joe steamed for the firemen.

 By nine that night, it was pitch dark and we had stuffed ourselves on big Jimmies. The keg was listing badly—a sign that it was about to float. We loaded into Miller’s crew cab, and headed out into the fields. I had drank just about enough that I made most of the ride with my eyes closed, and had Miller stopped and let me out, I never would’ve made it back. We traveled miles of soybean fields along dusty pasture roads, and through countless cattle-guard gates. The dust was so bad that Miller had to use his wiper-washer several times, and the sludge looked like black snow on the sides of the windshield.

 Somewhere back in there we stopped. There was an old school bus sitting on its frame on the ground, several kerosene lanterns, and about a dozen other pickup trucks. In a big pile were maybe ten deer and fawn. Someone had a barbecue pit going, and some of the deer hams had been cut into strips, cooked, and left soaking in tinfoil pans with brown sugar and sweet tomato sauce. It was a big pit, fashioned from a large butane tank, and mounted on an old boat trailer. People were drinking moonshine and Jack Daniel’s, and tearing at the deer ham with their teeth. In the glow from the dim kerosene light, they were just yellowish figures, with red smears around their mouth from the sauce.

 The old school bus had the front cut away, so there were just the rows of seats left. In front of the school bus was a large wooden platform made from pallets—a kind of stage, and several men were messing with musical instruments. I could hear the plink of a banjo. Not a song, just the tuning of strings.

 Joe and I got introduced around the nickname-only crowd—mostly by nods instead of handshakes. The guy with a long ponytail asked Miller if we were "alright". Miller said, "hell, they drank a keg of beer and floated it—just the two of them. They gotta be about primed. The fat one dozed all the way out here. They’re fine. These boys have been at the motel a bunch of times. Just a couple of Matty Crabbers."

 Two of the guys were twins, and curiously, each was nicknamed "Sugar." If there was any hope of telling them apart, it was lost on me now. They asked me if I cared to arm-wrestle them across the big wooden cable spool that they called the "the fistin’ table." Sort of an initiation, I figured. I declined, owing to be too fat and almost unable to hold myself upright from all the beer.

 Then they asked Joe, and for some reason, he agreed. I figured it was just an exercise for his stay-in-shape ego, since he was a fitness freak and rode a bicycle twenty miles a day when not with me.

 For a starter’s signal, a yellowish man rang the fender of the rusty old tractor with a walking cane. The arm wrestle was on. Their forearms were locked together like mating snakes, and the pressure of the struggle caused them to ripple and quiver. Within seconds, the first Sugar had Joe’s arm flat against the spool. He showed a toothless grin—a soybean-field thrill of victory, and made way for the second Sugar to sit down. This time, Joe stiffened up, and the two of them swayed back and forth for minutes--each getting the other close to the fall. Finally, like a sawed oak, Joe’s arm relaxed and fell.

 To celebrate, one of the twins got out a fresh jar of blackberry moon, and passed it between Joe and I until it was gone. In North Carolina, the State posts highway billboards that warn in simple black and white one-liners: "Moonshine Whiskey Will Kill You." Why would I be reminded of that just now?

 As if from an unheard tardy bell, the crowd moved quickly into the old bus and took seats, where the pickers were warming up on the make-do stage. What poured out was pure bluegrass music and even I could identify some fair talent among the group.

 I was just drunk enough to join them on the stage uninvited, and I sang parts of the verses from the bluegrass tunes while I struggled t play the banjo I borrowed from one of the guys. I had learned to play a few chords on the banjo--self-taught--and it was only as good as my level of sobriety. I’m sure some of them had less complimentary things to say, but they put up with my nuisance politely. By now they had probably noticed my handicap. My fingers were too short to reach around the banjo neck.

 Meanwhile Joe stretched out like a dead snake on a back seat in the bus, and suddenly I realized I was alone.

 Then, as if the stage rotated or turned upside down, it was like I had opened a curtain and walked into a different room. The music stopped and the guys began slipping on pillowcase hoods and capes. I had seen enough movies to recognize the emblems of the KKK. What was a jam session only a moment before was now an official come-to-order meeting.

 Somebody gave me a kerosene lantern to hold. I felt chill in the air, and the lantern hissed softly like the warning sound of a chicken snake. Seeing the group huddled there in lantern and campfire light was eerie and frightening. There was a murmur that rose in tone and volume, up and down, with unintelligible words and phrases. I shut my eyes and held them that way for what seemed like a week. It was a combination of too much moonshine and playing possum—or maybe it was just nature’s defense mechanism for times like that.

 The proceedings gave me a sinking feeling, and the hair pricked my neck like a fresh haircut. For some reason I recalled the time Harold Cottle asked me to pump his bee smoker while he plucked out a wad of honey from Mrs. Hightower’s bee hive. As I liked to say about that, "I was scared as hell, and I ain’t scared of nothing."

 My brain swam from fruit drink and the low light. I began to swirl in and out of reality. It all ran together--like when a fresh creek merges and disappears into a main stream. The whole day and night had identity one minute and none the next. Then someone took the lantern from my hand and pushed my 220 pounds up against the pole holding up one corner of the tin roof over the stage. I felt like a sack of feed--with no arms or legs.

 The order of worship or whatever all the chanting meant ended with several men shooting shotguns into the night sky. For a moment it broke my trance. Everybody seemed to leave at once, and Joe and I and a few red coals were the last things to disturb the darkness. We both fell into Miller’s stretch cab.

 I woke up with one eye open, staring at the daylight coming through the broken slats of the motel blinds. I felt of myself—wanting some sort of reassurance that I had all my digits and limbs intact. I actually counted all my appendages and even inspected my various orifices. I seemed intact. My arms were black with the soybean field dust, and even after my bath, I rubbed lots more of off on the towel. I looked across the room at Joe’s bed. He was already up and gone. I found him sitting at the picnic table on the porch, sipping tomato juice. I could hear a Bocephus tape coming from the open door of a pickup parked nearby. There was Miller, sitting on the edge of his truck seat, dressed in crisp jeans and a freshly starched white western shirt.

 "Well now, if it isn’t old sleepy head," he said, with a wide grin. "Joe and I thought we might have to come in there and douse you with a cold beer."

 "A cold beer might help me," I said. "My head is like the inside of a bee hive. Lots of buzzin’ and thick as wax."

 "That’s good—real good," said Miller, as he adjusted the music down a couple of notches.

 "I was just telling old Joe here, the Sugar Twins will take them deer from last night and drop them on the back side of Mattamuskeet. There’s a place back there where the game warden won’t even go. It’s where old Hambone—he was the guy with the corncob pipe y’all met—old Hambone has a still hidden in a Tidi patch in the woods, and its booby-trapped with snares and pits. Anyway, the fluff mud in that part of the lake is about twelve feet deep. Hell, you could slip a Aerostar van in there and the radio aerial wouldn’t even show in low tide."

 "I gotta go," Miller said. "You boys enjoy a great morning of crabbing and forget about our little prayer meeting last night— just in case you weren’t so much asleep. Just think of yourself in that easy chair back at your house, watching Jeopardy. You know the answers to some of the questions, but when it comes to Final Jeopardy, you kinda go blank."

 Miller moved toward the truck, turned around and said again, "I meant real blank—you know, like the snow after the TV signs off." Then he grinned so wide the big space between his front teeth showed—a space wide enough to throw a cat through.

 "If y’all come back down here sometime, we’ll do ‘er again," he said, pointing his finger at us like a child’s mock pistol. With that, he slid into his seat and drove away, his wide tires snapping the oyster-shell fragments that covered the ragged driveway.

 Neither Joe nor I cared much for Sunday crabbing that day. We drove home mostly in silence and arrived back a half-day early. It was almost a year before we returned to crab the waters of Mattamuskeet. We found a new Indian motel on the Englehard side of the lake, a comfortable distance from the boys at the firehouse. Joe says now that curry smells real sweet to him in the morning.

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