The situation – an old man whose quiet morning of crabbing is rudely interrupted by a young family searching for a cat – was a gift from my old Cajun grandfather, who suffered such a morning himself. The thematic concerns of the story – whose suffering we grace with our sympathy and whose we deny, how we sometimes turn our own suffering into cruelty – came out of what I heard and observed in the time following Hurricane Katrina’s and Hurricane Rita’s landfall in Louisiana in 2005. Hurricane Rita’s devastation just a few short weeks after Katrina prompted, in someone like Haguillory (white, working class, and generally spiteful), not a deeper empathy for the suffering in New Orleans but rather a sense of grievance, a perception that he and others like him were being slighted by the media in favor of “New Orleans” (i. e., urban Black people). This attitude seems to be a pretty clear, if euphemistic, expression of endemic racism, and demonstrates how deeply both private and institutional racism divides people with common interests.
Stephanie Soileau, Contributor Note
Sometimes, when I come to write my posts on these stories, I find the author has done all the work for me, as here where Soileau lays out the themes and interpretations of the story. In this case, it’s a good thing she did, because I’m not sure I would have arrived at her points had she not hand-walked me there.
The story is a character study of the title character, focusing on one particular day in ways that display his contradictory attitudes towards his family and pretty much everything in his life:
When Haguillory woke at four thirty and went to the kitchen in his shorts and slippers, Dot was already there at the table, tanked up on coffee. He poured himself a cup without much looking at his wife. Outside the kitchen window, his tomatoes blushed in the moonlight. The blue crabs down in the Sabine marshes would have been gorging all night under that bright full moon, and this morning Haguillory planned to catch some.
He fixed his coffee and pretended there was nothing strange about Dot sitting up before dawn, when she was usually in bed until nine or ten. Her joints kept her awake late, and on top of that, she’d get herself all agitated watching the nightly news or reading the paper. How she could stand it, he didn’t know; it was always the same thing: New Orleans this, Katrina that, like those people were the only ones who’d been hit by a storm.
I had a lot of trouble with this story. Haguillory seems something of a contradiction. He views his wife at times with derision, but is careful to clean up after himself when he gets up early. It’s not clear why she’s coming crab fishing with him on this day, but he doesn’t object. We get a strong hint that he did something to kill the neighbor’s pecan tree, but it’s not clear why; perhaps annoyance at the pecans it drops on his property? We know he’s been retired for five years, but not from what. His son adopted a daughter from “some country he’d never heard of.” It’s no mystery why Ward included this in her “unlikeable characters” category.
At the marsh, as they’re setting up crabbing equipment, they cross paths with another family looking for their cat. The family is living in cramped conditions in a trailer, and it seems the father tried to get rid of the cat because it kept peeing on his son’s bed but had second thoughts.
“Y’all can’t imagine what it’s like,” the boy’s father said. “Three adults, two kids, and a incontinent cat. In a ten-by-thirty-foot box? Nobody can live like that. It’s been almost a year!” He stripped off his hat and beat it against his thigh.
“Ç’est un bonrien, that FEMA,” Haguillory said. He spat into the canal. This young fella and his family, that little boy with his shirt too big—they’d never show that on the news. It was sad, how they forgot about some people, not about others. He himself was still waiting on payment for the damage Rita had done to his roof. “I’m sick to death of Katrina,” he said. “You don’t hear about nothing else!”
He was fixing to say more—about all the people in this world, like those looters in flooded New Orleans or that little adopted girl at Danny’s, who seemed to think their suffering entitled them to inflict suffering on others—when the cork on his fishing line dipped below the surface.
That’s an interesting line about people who feel their suffering entitles them to punish others, since that’s pretty much exactly what Haguillory seems to be doing. Turns out Dot knows exactly who her husband is, and she lets him know she isn’t pleased. Not that he’ll change, but he doesn’t argue. And again, there’s a contradiction: he gives the boy a pocket knife. I’m guessing he feels some connection with him, as an overlooked victim.
The last line is another one of those loud bells that rings long after the story’s read and put away: “There’s all kinds of meanness, and all kinds of mercy too.” Haguillory knows he can be a big SOB, but he also sees himself as kind. Does he think his final act in the story is a mercy? Is he, perhaps, right?
One of the disadvantages to reading these stories by category, rather than in order, is that I’ve encountered these “unlikeable character” stories one after the other. It’s been… difficult to move through and my posts have suffered as a result. More importantly, the stories deserve better. Lesson learned: when ordering short stories, variety works better.
The story is included in Soileau’s 2020 collection, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights, a look at life in Louisiana. Since I find myself without much to say about the story, I’m including links to a couple of interviews that further explore the author’s ideas.
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- A conversation with Stephanie Soileau, by Carly Berlin in Southerly Magazine
- A conversation with Stephanie Soileau by By Eleanor Stern in Bitter Southerner magazine