I saw the boy as he was leaning over on his knees to catch the gar. It was a cloudy day in late August and the tall pines bent hard in the wind. The canal was shallow and strewn with all kinds of garbage: large burned-up industrial motors, ripped up sofas and chairs, and a dozen or so metal shopping carts taken from the supermarket down the street. Once, I’d thrown one of the carts into the canal because it was fun to push it over and watch it tumble into the dark water.
The boy was about the same age as me, around seven or eight years old, and he lived across the street in the projects, in the duplexes where I often stayed with my grandmother after my parents split up. His name was James, and people talked about his heart condition. The neighbors were always saying, “He has a hole in his heart and might drop dead any minute. That’s why he is the way he is.” The boy was always silent and the other kids in the neighborhood never picked on him like they did me; they always kept their distance from him. He was about average height for a boy his age with soft golden curly hair, and he was bony. He was always going around shirtless and his ribs looked as if they might pop out of his sides. He walked quickly wherever he went and always held his head down. You could tell just by looking at him that he wouldn’t live long.
I was walking home from school when I spotted him by the canal, kneeling on the shore. As usual, he was bareback, shoeless, and wearing cut-off jeans. The clouds were darkening and it had already started to drizzle. A beer can tumbled down the street until it blew into the grass. I yelled down to him to see what he was doing. His face grew angry and he put his finger to his lips, indicating that he wanted me to shut up. Suddenly, he looked down, lurched forward, and stumbled into the canal. He thrashed about for what seemed like a long time and then came up with the gar. It was about two feet long and as big and round as a tail pipe.
Although I had seen much nicer gars than this one, I was fascinated. I had never seen a canal gar. There was something exciting and mysterious about catching this fish in the middle of the city. The ones my father fished out of the marsh on the outskirts of New Orleans, where the water was a healthy root beer color teeming with life, were mostly solid dark green and steel colored on the underside, but this gar had small black dots all over its body and a luscious, almost fragile, crimson tail. I figured that James had probably never seen his father and had never been fishing before in his life. Later, he told me that his uncle was going to give him fifty cents for the gar, but I didn’t believe that he had an uncle at all.
I followed him home in the rain. A group of older boys began yelling about a block behind us, so we ran. We didn’t want to get beaten up and have the fish taken away. We made it to the duplex and walked in. With the gar held closely to his chest, James led us into the room, which was cluttered with potato chip bags, tin cans of Barq’s root beer, and stacks of newspapers and National Enquirers. Plastic Mardi Gras cups lined the single windowsill in the apartment. The black and white television set blared the local news. The boy’s grandmother stood by the stove, peeling onions. She said nothing to us as we walked in with the gar.
We walked to the bathroom and James put the gar down carefully into the empty tub. He picked up a dirty washcloth from the floor and plugged the drain. The water came out rusty. As it poured, James got a box of salt from the kitchen and sprinkled the water with it. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to purge the fish, or if he thought gars were saltwater fish. Then it occurred to me that he was going to die soon, and that all he wanted was to go fishing.
I stood trancelike and watched the gar swim back and forth in the grimy tub. I was thankful that my father caught bigger and better gars. James sat on the toilet and stared into the tub, without blinking.