Tonight, I fried catfish for supper. I do this four or five times a year. Tonight was the first for this year. As the fish crackled merrily in the fryer I broke off a piece that was already done and nibbled at it, and was overwhelmed by an unexpected memory of a ritual I haven’t thought of for close to twenty years.
At the middle of the second semester of my sophomore year of high school, I moved to Texas to live with my maternal grandfather on his cattle ranch. To call it a ranch is perhaps overly optimistic. He ran around twenty head of Charolais on two hundred acres, all that was left of the empire his father had homesteaded in the early part of the twentieth century; the rest was lost or sold during and immediately following The Great Depression, when my great-grandparents lost millions of dollars and thousands of acres.
I adored my grandfather, and I loved the ranch. DG, as he was known, and I settled quickly into a very comfortable routine. I went to school. I had chores around the house and the ranch. And we had our little rituals, never to be skipped, never varied. Thursdays for supper we had pizza off the buffet at Mr. Gatti’s in Early. Mondays we had lunch from The Hickory Stick in Brownwood, home of the best damned chopped barbecue sandwich that’s ever been made. (Sadly, neither Mr. Gatti’s nor The Hickory Stick are around these days.) Saturday nights and Sundays after church we would go to either The Section Hand Steakhouse, Golden Corral, or Underwood’s (another very fine barbecue restaurant, one which, thankfully, is still extant).
Tuesdays, however, we had fried catfish at the Bangs Cafe in downtown Bangs. Downtown is possibly a misnomer – you could stand at one end of downtown Bangs and throw a rock and hit the far side of uptown Bangs right on the nose. There was one stoplight in town. When DG was a boy, it was a stop sign, and one time he and some of his friends stole clothes from the mayor’s clothesline, dressed the stop sign with them, and hauled it to the town square. The mayor was furious. I don’t think they got caught.
I went to high school in Bangs. I made the best friends I’d ever had up til then in Bangs. I fell in love in Bangs – and had my heart broken there too. These memories are never far from mind, and I’m still in contact with quite a few of those good old friends. (Say what you will about Facebook, it’s kept me in touch with quite a few people I’d have lost otherwise.)
However, I’d forgotten about the catfish at the Bangs Cafe. That was likely some of the most exquisite fried catfish I’ve ever had in my life. Possibly this is the result of the good memories surrounding those Tuesday nights, but I’d be willing to bet the catfish really was as good as I remember it being.
I’ve never cherished moments as much as I cherished those one-on-one times with DG.
It’s funny how nibbling on a piece of catfish fresh out of the fryer tonight brought Tuesday night with DG at the Bangs Cafe flooding back as if it was yesterday. I could have closed my eyes and made a wish and stepped back into the dimly lit wood-paneled diner and taken my seat next to DG – if magic responded the way memory does, I could have followed that memory and I would have done it.
Hard on the heels of memories of the Bangs Cafe came memories of warm summer evenings spent on the front porch watching the stars come out in the east as the sun painted its deathbed promises in the west; evenings listening to coyotes yipping and cattle lowing and the occasional sounds of goats or sheep or peacocks on neighboring ranches. Evenings spent sitting side by side with DG, Bonnie the Border Collie stretched out on the cool concrete between our chairs, listening as we contemplated the nature of man and the universe, religion as opposed to faith, science, mathematics, fine arts, breeding programs, and the merits of a good dog.
Sometimes I can hear a song I haven’t heard for years and I’ll think about a boy or a friend or a teacher. Sometimes I can smell fresh-mown hay and remember haying time on the ranch. Barns and stables never fail to inundate me with memories of those days. Now and then – but rarely even so – I’ll hear a diesel engine at a gas station and turn, expecting to see DG and Bonnie sitting in the pickup waiting on me to pay for the gas – Bonnie would always move to the cab when I got out of the truck, and she’d always flip me in the face with her tail when she gave me back my seat. A dry wind transports me fairly often to the windswept plain atop the butte where we ranched.
Tonight, however, I made a trip I haven’t made since I left, and I’m left wondering if the old cafe is still in operation, and if so, whether they still serve catfish on Tuesday nights.