2020 Summer Contest Creative NonFiction Issue 26

Bayou Oysters, Bayou Oil

by Albert Leftwich

Head Should by Kim Rae Taylor

shuck/SHək/ (in French, écailler) Noun. 1. An outer covering, such as the shell of an oyster (French: coquille d’une huitre). 2. A person or thing regarded as useless, worthless or contemptible, something of little value—usually used in plural, as in Ain’t worth shucks or They don’t care shucks about us. Verb. 3. To remove the husk or shell from, as in shuck and drain dem oysters. 4. (Informal) To take off (a garment), as in He shucked off his dirty gloves. 5. (Informal) To abandon; get rid of, lay aside, remove, discard, as in shuck off those old ways. 6. (Slang/informal) To cause someone to believe something that is not true; to fool; to hoax; to deceive; to defraud; to scam. Interjection 7. (Informal) Used as a mild exclamation to express surprise, regret, irritation, embarrassment, disappointment, annoyance, disgust or regret. Shucks, I might as well do it myself (French: Alors, hélas, mais).

My great-grandfather picked up the knife and said something else in French that I didn’t understand. He spoke gently, patiently, was never frustrated by my ignorance. At eighty, every inch of Grand-père Hypolite’s skin was creased, cracked or slack. I studied his hands, his neck, his face every time I saw him. My sister, brother, and I understood a couple dozen words of French, mostly orders that our grandmother Mazie used to boss us around during the long, hot Louisiana summer vacations. We all lived under her roof—my parents and the three kids. Weekdays, while my parents were minding the clothing store, Gromme Mazie mobilized us with the energy of a drill sergeant. She would whistle to get our attention, then order “Leve-toi!” or “Range-toi ton chamber!” or “Va couper les h’erbes!” When we pretended to not understand, Gromme spoke to us in English as best she could—get out of bed, clean up your room, go cut the grass. As little kids, we felt guilty enough to comply quickly. As teens, we would pull the covers over our eyes and wait until she entered the bedroom banging a metal spoon against a pot.

Gromme Mazie was short and stout, a barrel of a woman from a lifetime spent in the kitchen. She never had the chance to attend school. She was born on Bayou Lafourche in 1911, about the time Louisiana made education compulsory. But with few dirt roads and no public transportation, few Cajun families had the means to send their children to school. Much like an immigrant, she spoke only French at home. As the English-speaking world encroached, my Gromme had learned to speak enough English to get by, but she never learned to read or write in either language. Once she had asked, Mais, why keep so many comic books that you’ve already read?After you read them, can’t you throw them away? I was thirteen, annoyed, and clever. I told her that I liked to reread them, and threw in that she wouldn’t understand because she couldn’t read. Mazie’s eyes flared, she bit down on her lower lip. She chased me around the kitchen table with a broom, the only time she ever tried to hit me.

So that morning, Gromme Mazie had said, “Go help your Grand-père shuck some oysters.” The first time, she said it in French. I understood Grand-père and huítres, so I repeated in English what I thought she had said. I’d never shucked oysters. I didn’t even like them. Their shells are harder than bricks. Even when you manage to get them out of the shell, they are gray-green and slimy. And you eat the whole thing… whatever is inside. There has to be disgusting stuff in there, I thought, a digestive track. How can that be safe to eat?

The old people ate them raw. Since no one ate meat on Fridays, Gromme would batter and fry two or three dozen, and serve them on a platter along with a loaf of French bread. Sure, the outside was a nice golden color, but slice it open and it was still gray-green inside. Nope. Mom and Dad, my grandparents, my great-grandparents—they loved oyster po-boys. My sister and brother and I would just stare at the battered lumps in our plates, imagining what was inside.

Eventually, Gromme and my mother, Reeder Mae, would relent and give us fish stick sandwiches on oyster po-boy night. My mom cooked cheap generic supermarket brand fish sticks in the new toaster oven. There was something sleek and modern about their uniform, slab-like shapes compared to the furrowed lumps Gromme had scooped from the deep fryer and laid on paper towels to absorb the grease. The fish sticks were perfectly battered and the fluffy white meat inside so homogenous, so perfectly processed. They looked like something George Jetson would eat in the future, which appealed to me. I slathered ketchup across a slice of soft, white bread, laid two fish sticks on it, and drizzled more ketchup before adding the second slice. Every week, one of the adults would say something like, “Young people. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

It’s not that we didn’t like seafood. Shrimp? Yes. Fish? Yes. Crab patties? Yes. Oysters? Never. Even battering and frying couldn’t make them appealing.

Once or twice, Gromme Mazie said, “You’re not a true Cajun if you don’t eat oysters.”

I thought, Who made that rule? I said, “Well, I guess I’m not a true Cajun.”

Mazie gave me a sharp look. “Oysters paid for all this land, for this house.” She sighed. “Young people, go figure. You’re more and more like a Texian than a Cajun.”

Gromme Mazie would talk to mom and Grand-père in French. Dad half-heartedly listened but he knew less French than Mazie knew English. He had grown up in Thibodeaux, the parish seat just forty miles up Bayou Lafourche, where everyone spoke English. It didn’t bother me or my friends that we couldn’t understand French because we felt it was for old, illiterate people. Me, I was going to go to college. I wanted to be the first man to walk on Mars. Neil Armstrong had planted the American flag on the moon the summer before. He was from a small town in Ohio, Wapakoneta. If he could walk on the moon, why couldn’t a boy from Cut Off, Louisiana be the first man on Mars?

Now, Gromme repeated, “Help Grand-père shuck some oysters.” Just how I wanted to spend a Saturday, I thought and sulked. She called for Grand-père and he slow-shuffled into the kitchen. They chatted in French, then Gromme gave Grand-père the shucking knife and handed me a couple of large stainless-steel mixing bowls.

Grand-père and I found the brown burlap sack of oysters leaning against the garage, where Mazie’s Godchild, T-Harry, had delivered them. T-Harry was a decade younger than my momma and the only one that age who still worked the family oyster beds. My great-grandfather said something about gants and I found two sets of coarse cotton work gloves in the garage. They were stained and stiff from being used, washed, and sun dried many times.

Grand-père Hypolite made a motion like I was supposed to pick up the sack and throw it over my shoulder. It felt like it weighed a hundred pounds and I couldn’t get a good grip on the seam sewn across the top. It took me a couple of tries to pick up the bulky burlap sack, damp and musty with the sweet-salt smell that reminded me of the Gulf. I couldn’t pick it up but a foot or so off the ground and had to set it down after a few seconds. I was a big kid for seventh grade, a lineman on the junior high team, but I lacked the combination of strength and practical know-how to pick up that load. I figured I could get a better grip without the gloves so I stuck them in my pocket. I straddled the sack, picked it up a few inches, waddled forward a few steps until my hands felt like they had been stripped raw, then I set it down again. I rubbed my palms on my bell-bottomed jeans, rested a bit, then repeated this clumsy technique over and over until I dropped it next to the shucking table behind the shed. The muscles in my hands were pink and frozen in a half-clench. It hurt when I flexed them open.

Grand-père whipped out the pocket knife, ripped the stitches, and picked out a couple of oysters for inspection. He turned them over, studied their furrows and contours, their color. He shook them to judge their weight. He said something else in French and I imagine he was making a comment about their quality, so I nodded in agreement. Now what? He picked up a shucking knife and said something else, maybe watch how I do it. He grabbed an oyster and tapped the tip of the knife a couple of times at the pointier end of the shell.

Comme ça,” he said. Like this. He slipped the knife against the seam, twisted it to work it in a bit, and then used the knife like a lever to pry the top and bottom shells apart slightly. He ran the knife across the inside of the top shell, prying the shell apart. He tossed the top half into a galvanized washtub and showed me the oyster. It was gray-green and slimy, and reminded me of mucous. Grand-père slid his knife under the oyster to cut it from the shell and offered it to me.

I grinned and shook my head. “I don’t really like them, Grand-père.” I said this politely because he was a kind man, always gentle and soft-spoken. He had been old and seemed frail as long as I had known him. I couldn’t imagine him working his oyster beds back of Bay L’Ourse and Lake Cheniere his whole life in the hot and humid Louisiana summers. He smiled, shrugged, and slurped the oyster, chewed it, and said, “C’est bon.”

He repeated the tutorial a few times—insert, twist, pry, open. “Comme ça. Comme ça.” Then he would slide the oysters into the stainless-steel bowl and drop the empty oyster shells into the tub with a metallic thud. He was so adept at it that I felt useless, just standing there, doing nothing, my hands still sore. Grand-père had been working the family oyster beds since his teens. I wondered how many oysters he had shucked in his lifetime.

Oysters. Shrimp. Crabs. Fish. Pelts. That’s what drew poor French immigrants and French-Canadian refugees to the tidal marshland southwest of New Orleans. That’s all a dozen generations of Cajuns had known until oil was discovered in the 1930s in the nearby bays and marshes. By the mid-twentieth century, oil and oysters symbolized South Lafourche’s growing prosperity. One August, Gromme Mazie won the cooking contest at the Oyster Festival for an oyster sausage, her own invention. It included oysters, pork, secrets. Contestants were supposed to provide a copy of their recipe. Since Mazie couldn’t write, Mom offered to write it on an index card. But Gromme wouldn’t divulge it, giving Reeder Mae a list of ingredients guaranteed to thwart any copy cats. Mazie, who had only traveled as far as the Florida Panhandle, won an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas. The trip was bankrolled by a former oysterman who had made millions after he stopped oystering to build a fleet of tugs and crew boats, cashing in on the post-war boom in offshore oil drilling. The trip to Nevada was the only time Mazie ever flew.

Mom competed in the Oyster Festival art contest every year, entering a painting of ducks flying above the marsh, or flowers in a vase, an apple on the table. After placing anywhere from honorable mention to second place year after year, she decided to try an oyster boat. Rather than just paint it on a canvas, she used a carving tool to etch the outline on a board. Each night after supper, she sat at the kitchen table carving in the outline of the boat, of an oysterman shucking a sack of oysters. As the deadline approached, she stayed up past midnight. She won first place and the blue ribbon hung in the TV room for many years. Although she never said so, I knew that the oysterman in the carving was Grand-père Hypolite, a man in his eighties who would never put the knife away.

After my great-grandfather shucked a couple dozen, he looked at me and said something I took to mean “Want to give it a try?”

“Okay,” I said, one of those words I knew he would understand because it’s one of the few words he would say in English. I took the knife and picked a shell from the sack. With the tip of the oyster knife, I searched for a fissure in the seam but found no point of entry in this lump of craggy rock.

Içi,” he said, which sounds like “easy” except the accent is on the final “i.” He pointed to a spot that looked no different from anywhere else along the seam.

Içi—I see,” I joked, proud of my rhyme. He smiled, seemed to understand that I was making a pun. Of course, I didn’t see, so I kept jabbing the point of the knife methodically at spots that seemed to have promise, some slight indentation. I might as well have been trying to cleave a brick. I pushed and twisted, but the tip slipped off target, over and over. I decided I needed to apply more force, so I held it down against the table for resistance and leverage. I just couldn’t find the right spot. Exasperated, I wondered who had been that first human to wade waist-high into the shallows of some bay, stumble upon a bed of oysters, and decide it might be worthwhile to look inside.

He motioned for me to stop in that easygoing way of his, said something, and gestured for me to give him the knife. He patiently showed me again where to press the tip, tapping the spot several times so I could see the difference between that spot and the rest of the seam. He exaggerated his motions to make up for the lack of words, showed me again how to dig in and get enough leverage to force the blade in. I had been relying too much on force and not enough on technique.

My struggle to shuck oysters, I thought, was kind of like my struggles in football. I was not very good, not because I wasn’t strong enough, but because I had never learned the fundamentals, the proper technique for blocking. It was not just being strong. It was knowing how to apply force in motion against another body in motion. All the other boys on the team had been playing together with the same coach since sixth grade. I didn’t even understand the plays, how they were numbered. And even when I knew which hole the runner was going to run through, I had a hard time figuring out which defensive lineman I should block, especially when the defenders jumped around or when the linebackers or safeties blitzed. I was smart but not football smart.

I was always on the honor roll. I was definitely going to college. But sometimes it seemed like I lacked common sense and maybe I was “big for nothing.” The highest compliment the old folks gave a man is that he was a hard worker, that he got things done. One of the worst insults was to be called “big for nothing.”

It was the same with “common sense.” It meant that someone was able to see things the same way that most men do and to solve practical problems the way that most men could. Mom would tell me not to worry, that I was young and just needed more experience. Reeder Mae would tell me that I had a lot of uncommon sense and to keep studying hard. She knew I would never work on a tug boat or an oil rig. She wanted me to get education so I could do office work, or be a teacher, or maybe even a lawyer. Her eyes would widen every time she talked of me becoming a lawyer, because maybe I would be able to right some of the wrongs that some crooked lawyers had done to many poor illiterate oystermen in the thirties. Every time, she would tell me the same story again about betrayal and injustice against our family.

Time and time again, momma told me how the parish’s top lawyer, Governor Huey Long’s political point man in Thibodeaux, had essentially stolen millions of dollars in mineral royalties from under the feet of poor Cajuns in the 1930s. Thanks to fishing and drinking buddies who worked for the oil companies, this lawyer knew that Texaco, Esso, and Gulf were planning to expand drilling in the bays and marshes of lower Lafourche Parish. These companies would soon begin seismic testing, blowing up dynamite deep underground to determine where underground pockets of oil and gas might be. The lawyer and some of his associates hatched a plan to gain the mineral rights to as much land as possible before word got out. They got one of our relatives, Uncle Jean, to convince the family to sign away their rights to mineral royalties.

No one in the family ever found out what the lawyer paid Nonc Jean for each signature. Two or three times each year, Mom would show us the photocopy of the agreement she had found decades later at the parish courthouse in Thibodaux.

“Look,” she would say as she spread the pages out on the kitchen table. The contract was three pages long and written in English. The first page identified the parties and indicated the sum of twenty dollars. The second page had the legal description of the property and conferred subsea mineral rights to the big-shot lawyer. The third page had the owner’s crude “X”over their typed name signature line. Like my gromme and grand-père, the oystermen were illiterate and couldn’t sign their names. They certainly could not have read the contract in English.

“Here’s something else,” she would say, pointing to subtle lines on the pages. “Notice the creases in the first and third pages, like they had been folded in three and carried in a pocket.” I would nod. “Now look at the second page. No crease. How can that be if the three pages were together when the family signed?” Mom figured that the lawyer probably added the middle page before filing the contract at the courthouse. They didn’t know better, they trusted Nonc Jean, and twenty dollars was a lot of money during the Depression for something that wouldn’t disturb their oyster beds. Each had signed, gotten the cash, had risen the next day and had gone back to work the marsh.

Mom said that a few months later, Grand-père and the oystermen heard booms in the distance as they tended their beds. Ducks and egrets flew away and the marsh trembled as the oil companies exploded dynamite underground. The occasional booms disturbed the peace of the nearby backwater for a few weeks but were only a nuisance. Months later, steel-hulled tugs pushed a huge drill barge into place a few hundred yards away where it anchored. The crew raised the derrick, the generators rumbled to life, and drilling operations ran day and night, the drill floor and the derrick lit by floodlights through the night.

The oystermen continued to seed their beds, harvest their crop, bag the oysters in burlap sacks, and motor across Lake Salvador to La Ville—New Orleans—where they sold their crop to brokers for the chic restaurants in the French Quarter and Uptown.

More drill rigs popped up suddenly in the distance every few weeks, followed by months of the hum of industrial activity: the sharp clank of metal against metal as stands of drill pipe were loaded and manhandled into position by the derrickmen, as chains were thrown around the drill pipe, as generator engines revved up and massive hydraulic machinery spun the rotary drill deeper and deeper beneath the marsh floor. Even if some drill rigs were a long way from their beds, the deep-throated rumble of crew boats plying the bay, ferrying men and drilling equipment from port to the platform, disrupted the tranquility of the marsh. Sometimes, the hole was dry, a costly defeat. Tandems of tug boats would push and pull the monstrosity away as quickly as it had arrived, bound for a different location in the bay where the search would repeat. If the drillers struck oil or natural gas, they would cap the well. It would sit dormant until a different crew strung pipeline from the well to shore, laying miles of pipe along the seafloor like a nonsymmetrical spider web. Through it all, the oystermen continued to work their beds, the drill rigs little more than a curiosity, a presence lurking in the otherwise quiet swamp.

Mom said that, one morning, the men heard the wail of a siren on the drill barge. Later that day, the skipper of a passing lugger stopped to buy a sack of oysters and told them that the rig had struck oil. The lawyer and his cronies got richer from the royalties every second, as the oil was sucked out from beneath the family oyster beds.

Eventually, oystermen realized they had been scammed. The lawyer was elected state senator, got a seat on the State Board of Education, helped the local community college become a four-year college, and became a philanthropist. He established a political dynasty. His son succeeded him in the Louisiana Senate. Down the Bayou, Nonc Jean was ostracized and moved to the outskirts of New Orleans. I never met him, the man that Mom always called the black sheep of the family.

“Imagine,” my mom would say, “if the family had gotten those oil royalties. Maybe if you become a lawyer, who knows.” She made sure that I grew up knowing that the politically connected had used the law to deprive the uneducated of their share in the oil revenue that flowed into Louisiana. The sense of injustice stung decades later, the hope for reversing the wrong lingered. But she explained that no one felt they could take a crack at that lawyer. He was too powerful, too well connected with the judges and the governor. I grew up sensing the futility and sense of powerlessness, a distrust of politicians and the educated. My family believed that the “little man”couldn’t do much about corruption and the manipulation of the uneducated until we became the educated.

As I watched Grand-père shuck those oysters, I wondered how he felt about losing out on the fortune. I would have liked to ask him but I had no way to talk about it with him. I never saw him lose his temper. I don’t remember him ever laughing out loud but he always had a slight smile, always seemed content. After all, he had started dirt poor and had done well in the oyster trade. In the 1930s, while the country was mired in deep depression, Grand-père had thrived due to the proximity of his oyster beds to La Ville—the city. New Orleans remained a major port for the same reason that the United States bought the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803: access to the Mississippi River and its tributaries that spread across the heartland. Even during the Great Depression, New Orleans remained a commercial, banking, and tourist center for the monied class, and restaurants and oyster bars had been willing to pay a premium price for as many sacks as the oystermen could deliver.

By the late 1930s, the general economy tanked and businesses failed, but oyster prices stayed solid and many of the oystermen fared better than most. Some property owners had been unable to pay property taxes on vast, vacant tracts of land. Grand-père Hypolite had enough cash in the bank to buy dozens of acres of undeveloped land at a sheriff’s auction. He gave my grandfather a homestead and leased a dozen acres to Gulf Oil Company, which built an office building and twenty houses for their out-of-town company men.

I could see all of my Grand-père’s little empire from the shucking table. “Gulftown” was a constant presence, with its one-car garages instead of carports, populated by oilfield families who moved in from Texas or Oklahoma or even north Louisiana. A large vacant tract lay between my grandparents’ home and Gulftown—big enough for a Gulf helicopter to land from time to time to drop off or pick up one of the oilmen. The families had American names like Johnson, King, and O’Reilly. Even if they had a name like Blanchard or Richards, they pronounced it differently, giving the stress on the first syllable instead of the last. They spoke in a twangy English, not like the English we heard on television shows. We didn’t see them at Catholic mass; they were Methodists, Baptists, or some other dissident Christian faith. It didn’t matter which state they were from—the outsiders were all Texians to us.

As he shucked, Grand-père whistled an old Cajun song—Lache pas la patate, mon frere—that I knew meant “Don’t drop the potato, my brother.” I hummed Let It Be by the Beatles. The utility room door opened and Gromme Mazie came outside with a basket of laundry. She whistled, too, as she hung some sheets and pillow cases on the clothesline. Mazie whistled with perfect pitch and a strong, clear note. Everyone I knew could whistle but I couldn’t, another of my shortcomings. When I would try, it just sounded like flat wind, with no tune to it. Mazie had a dryer but preferred to hang the linen outdoors, said they smelled fresher that way and that they didn’t get twisted into a bundle like when they were tumble-dried. She waddled toward us and peeked into the bowl, looked at the burlap sack, and judged our progress.

“You’re almost finished,” she said. Followed by the second most beautiful, sweet whistle I’ve ever heard.

“Well, Grand-père is,” I said. “I carried the sack here but I don’t quite have the hang of how to get the knife in there.” She chuckled and said something to Grand-père in French. He smiled and they had a fine conversation for a couple of minutes, about what, I couldn’t say. I imagine she asked him if I was actually a help, about the quality of the oysters, about what to do with the shells because she turned to me and said in English that I could put all the shells back in the sack when Grand-père was finished. She went on to explain that T-Harry was going to use them to fill in some ruts in his driveway and I should leave the sack back where I had found it. Then she went back inside.

I knew the conversation at dinner was going to be about the oysters and shucking and I didn’t want to be just the “big-help” sack-dragger. This was stupid, I thought. I’m big enough to shuck a damned oyster. Grand-père was down to the last handful. I waved for him to stop and stuck out my hand. “See voo play,” I said. That much, I knew—S’il vous plait. Between my please and my hand, he got the message and handed me the knife. I palmed an oyster in my damp glove and flipped it around a few times, looking for its vulnerability. I noticed what seemed to be a promising indentation in the seam, jammed the tip firmly against it, and pushed. Pushed. Pushed. Something gave, about a millionth of an inch. Encouraged, I pulled the knife back, took a close look at that point, and gave it another try. I forced the knife again, but it slipped obliquely off the shell. I kept my composure and went at it again. Grand-père said, “Oui, comme ça” along with other things that I took for encouragement. I pushed and pried the tip, working at the joint until I finally felt something give. I twisted and worked the blade back and forth, cutting the tough tissue between the shells until I could pull them apart.

Grand-père said something. “Hold it steady,” my imagination interpreted. “Don’t lose the juice.”

I slide the knife under the oyster as he had shown me to cut it from the bottom shell, but instead of tossing it in the bowl, I balanced the oyster on the knife. I looked at the shiny lump, held my breath, and slid it into my mouth. It was cold and salty and slimy for the split second before I swallowed it without chewing, a purely mechanical act. It hadn’t been that bad but it hadn’t been that good, either. I shucked two more but slid them into the bowl before handing him the knife. I imagined the oyster was alive inside me even though I didn’t feel a thing.

At dinner that night, Gromme Mazie deep-fried the oysters in a black cast-iron pan, each oyster engulfed in a frenzy of oil the instant she dropped it in. She served two platters of fried oysters, one bowl of raw oysters, and french fries. Eating one raw oyster had been an act of courage, maybe even an act of love for Grand-père and Gromme Mazie. I ate three or four more slathered in ketchup and mayonnaise mix along with my fish stick sandwich. “Young people, go figure,” Mazie said, followed by the sweetest, most beautiful whistle I’ve ever heard.

Albert Leftwich explores issues of culture, assimilation, and identity through stories about Brazilian immigrants in Florida and French-speaking Cajuns in his native Louisiana. He left Louisiana for a career in the Army but “the Bayou” remains the center of his literary universe. He is a recent graduate of the Solstice MFA program in Boston. This is his first publication.

Kim Rae Taylor is a visual artist and educator serving as associate professor for the University of Cincinnati Clermont College. Her mixed media works explore a variety of themes that draw from nature, language and gender.