Laura Steadham Smith
November 29, 2019

“Waiting for Jubilee”

“I know that when jubilees happen, the fish are killing themselves, but not for our sake.”

Laura Steadham Smith’s short story, “Waiting for Jubilee,” was the winner of the 1st Hamlin Garland Award in 2015. Contest judge David Rhodes, author of Driftless and Jewelweed, had this to say about the inaugural winner: 

The richness of its descriptive language and depth of characterization seemed noteworthy. The story finds a way to not only take a longer view of a human circumstance, but to make that longer view into a living action. “Waiting for Jubilee” involves a number of tensions that yearn for resolution: generational conflict, environmental degradation, economic hardship, ethnic differences and competing ambitions between a husband and wife […] I think most everyone has had the experience of participating for a short while in something extraordinary–an action with a higher purpose–and have felt rejuvenated by the effort, stronger in facing personal problems. It was a pleasure to be reminded of that.  


Waiting for Jubilee

I have never seen a miracle. I have seen fish and eels jump onto the shore by the hundreds, summer nights in Mobile Bay. When the wind blows east, when the silt drains from the rivers and fills the bay, brackish and thick. What fishermen call a jubilee. I have seen revival meetings in church gyms, seen tire salesmen call themselves prophets. I saw a Buddhist monk in west Mobile, standing barefoot in a Walgreen’s parking lot. The one who later killed a man over food, killed him with a wooden spoon. I have never seen my father pray, not even in the Melkite church where we visit my uncle in Cleveland, where they place the host on our tongue, the one where they speak Aramaic. Not even when he got word that his father was sick, back home in Lebanon. Not even when he checks the books, sees that we are in the red again this month. Asks me to drive to Bayou la Batre, to see about a new supplier. So I am not hopeful.

But Monday morning I drive to Bayou la Batre anyway, maybe because I am a good son, or maybe because my wife is pregnant, or maybe because I own a seafood market and I don’t know what else to do. I wake early, leave Molly bunched under the covers, her knees pulled up as close as her belly will allow. She is six months along, her stomach firm and large. I kiss her cheek, and she stirs but doesn’t wake. Her blonde hair lies in ropes across the pillow. She has left tiny lists all over her bedside table. Post-It notes about job applications, grocery lists, cleaning chores. I grab a handful, think about throwing them away, but then I place them back on the table, by an old cup rimmed from red tea. It’s how she relaxes, by getting clutter outside her head. I go to my truck, parked behind our rental house, and I cross the bay. The water is calm and glassy. The sun is yellow and hot in my rearview mirror, close above the dark trees shrinking on the eastern shore. Ahead, Mobile’s office buildings stand tall and clean.

I drive through the city and south, all the way down to the coast. Since the oil spill, fewer customers have come in for local seafood, and we’ve found fewer fish and shrimp to be caught. My father and I prefer to work with small fishermen, ones who take their own boats in the bay or along the lip of the Gulf, only one or two crewmen to help. The bigger rigs put out longer, spend whole months in the Gulf. They come back with flash-frozen seafood, good quality but not as fresh. But since the big hurricanes—Ivan in 2004, Katrina in 2005—and now the spill, the smaller fishermen are harder to find. Our main supplier sold his boat, and we can’t keep the store stocked.

I meet the Vietnamese shrimper at a boat launch in Bayou la Batre. The sun sears the harbor water, stains the surface yellow. I park by a withered oak tree in the middle of the sandy parking area. I have never done business with a Vietnamese man before, but my father worked with them in Bayou la Batre for years, before the hurricanes lifted their boats and dropped them in the pinewoods. We’ve all seen the pictures of trawlers that wait along the coast, their nets caught in saw palmetto and scrub pine. My father has warned me to be polite, that Vietnamese shrimpers want to talk.

The man’s name is Thiêu. He is waiting on the tailgate of his truck, big igloo coolers full of the night’s catch behind him. Across the parking lot, several small trawlers are docked in shallow water, swaying. I nod, approach Thiêu, and we shake hands. I say hello, try to pronounce his name.

“Call me Joe,” he says.

Probably one-third of the shrimpers in Bayou la Batre are Vietnamese. There are more Buddhist temples than Baptist churches in the south part of Mobile County. They immigrated in waves after the war. My father imagines that the swampy edge of Mobile Bay, blistering in summer and balmy in winter, is the closest American shore to Vietnam. He thinks they keep themselves too isolated. “Like incest,” I’ve heard him say. I am surprised that Joe doesn’t have an accent.

“Sam’s Seafood?” Joe asks. “In Boatyard?”

“That’s us,” I say. My father owns the business, started it in the ’80s when he came over from Lebanon.

Joe and I make small talk. He is trying to make a connection, I imagine, in the hope that we will work together for a long time. I cannot tell him that Molly keeps reminding me that her brother is hiring, the one who owns a truck contracting company in Birmingham. He has done well for himself, may be able to set something up for us, if we want. I cannot tell Joe that Molly has family in Birmingham, some cousins, her younger sister. That she wants us to have security, options, when the baby comes. That I see her point.

“Got probably a hundred pounds,” Joe says. “If you want to look through.”

He steps aside and lets me open the coolers. The shrimp inside are on ice, their bodies limp and gray, almost translucent. A few of them still twitch. I put my hand in the mass of bodies, slimy and cold. I sift through. Since the spill, deformities are common.

I know what I am looking for: white or pink clumps, tumors that bulge from beneath the carapace. Blank heads, empty of eyes or sockets. Black goo in the abdominal plates, thick like tar. I pull out a few shrimp with tumors on their heads. But I see the black shrimp, and I stop.

A tiger prawn. I’ve heard of them, heard that they’re in the Gulf, though I’ve never seen one before. The black shrimp is half the length of my forearm. A giant. Looks more like a lobster than a shrimp. Yellow bands ripple across its tail. It is an invasive species, one that could push the native brown and white shrimp out. I lift the limp giant from the ice.

“You see a lot of these?” I ask.

“Too many,” Joe says.

“Tough business,” I say. “The storms. The oil.” I slip the tiger shrimp back into the cooler. “Now these.”

“We are unlucky,” Joe says.

I remember a news story I heard. A Vietnamese woman from Bayou la Batre drove her four children to the Dauphin Island Bridge. Parked in the middle, and threw them over into the Mississippi Sound, one by one.

“Maybe our luck will turn,” I say.

Joe shrugs. “When theirs does,” he says and points to the coolers.

 

My father’s name is Samer. Samer Hammoud. Few people know his name. He goes by Sam in America. Sam Hammoud, with his khakis and his Chevy pickup, is American. I, Todd Hammoud, am American. The Samer Hammoud who was a young man in Lebanon is a mystery. The young man who hid his brother from Muslims that wanted to kill him in a bunker in Beirut, the city that always smells like diesel fuel. The man who took the money his family raised to send him, the only child they could afford, to a latter-day promised land. Who is agnostic, now. Who refused to teach me Arabic.

“You live in America,” he told me. “You don’t need Arabic.”

Who consults the almanac religiously. To learn the tides, seasonal storm patterns, when the fish will bite. Who governs his store according to the waning of the moon. And who tries to predict the impossible: when a jubilee will come, when the bay will mysteriously fill with carbon dioxide, whether from rotting detritus or an influx of fresh water no one knows, and the water will strangle the fish. When they will swarm the shallows, and we can gather them in buckets, free and plentiful. Who scoffs at his religious brother, holding on to the old ways in a new country. My father is agnostic and practical, but neither of us can depend on the sea and become atheists. He must be both businessman and mystic.

Sam Hammoud still works at the seafood market. He will die before he retires. He built the business from the ground up. When Alabamians make a comment about where my father comes from, it is usually in reference to the store. “How wonderful,” customers say. “That you built your own business. That you came here with nothing, and you made a life.”

 

I take the full coolers of shrimp back to the store. My father meets me out back, and we load the coolers onto dollies to roll inside. He is not a tall man, but he seems large anyway. Stout and strong, like a live oak.

“Not much to show, for all that,” he says, looking at the coolers. They seem small, in the back room of the shop. They are not enough. Even if we sell them all, they alone will not bring a profit this week.

Then, “Molly called. Said you wouldn’t answer your cell phone.” He rubs his chin. “Sick again.” Some women have morning sickness again in the third trimester, we’ve been told. Nothing to worry about.

I nod. “I’ll call her in a minute.” My wife is pragmatic, but she is sensitive.

My father is stern and precise. He looks through the shrimp again, to see if there are any I missed. Hidden tumors, another shrimp without eyes. He moves quickly, efficiently. His wedding band glistens through the gray bodies. The big shrimpers sell the deformed ones, too. Peel them and freeze them, so customers never know the difference. But we sell them fresh, never frozen, so customers can see the heads for themselves. We cannot hide.

It is true that the shrimp are tested extensively. That the diseased shrimp often pass, don’t contain any oil or chemical dispersants. But their parents did, or maybe their grandparents, and the oil has entered the genome. No one knows what this will mean for the next generation.

 

That night, my father drinks. We stay late in the store. My mother stays with us. She runs the café half of the business. Fried crab claws and shrimp, oysters on po-boys. Recently, more and more farmed catfish, red beans and rice. My mother was a cheerleader at the University of Alabama. Blonde, tiny. She married my father as an act of rebellion.

My father pulls a bottle of whiskey from somewhere, refills his glass. I can count the number of times I’ve seen him drink on one hand, though it is always hard liquor. He refrained during the spill, during the recovery, when we lost suppliers, but tonight he gives in, quietly. He sips slowly, pulls the glass away and swirls the liquid. When he raises it to his mouth again, his hand shakes.

“You ought to be home with Molly,” my mother says and looks at me.

I know Molly has called her. Has complained that I’m never home, that when I am I don’t pay attention to her. I am not an idiot.

“He doesn’t have to hurry,” my father says. He wraps his hand around his glass. If he could, he would pull all the oil from the Gulf with that hand. If such a thing were possible. I know he racks his brain, planning. If a man could heal fish, my father would be a savior.

My mother pulls a pair of booties from her purse. They are pink and tiny. She crocheted them herself.

“I thought I’d do a few more like these,” she says. She already has a pile of soft blankets she’s crocheted, that she’s been waiting to give a grandchild since I was born. I haven’t told her that I look at Molly and feel sick. That I see her belly and am terrified. That my heart pounds like it will jump from my chest, that it rattles my seat belt when I drive. My father knows. He suggested that I join a church. See a pastor. “Free counseling,” he shrugged.

I haven’t told them that I have been meeting with a Presbyterian preacher. The man believes in predestination, so he doesn’t evangelize. He tells me to let go and trust. Have faith that things will work out, whether in Boatyard or Birmingham. But here the counseling breaks down, because he believes that Someone holds the Gulf in His hands, and I know better. I know that when jubilees happen, the fish are killing themselves, but not for our sake.

 

My father is unhappy with Joe’s catch, so he asks me to try another new shrimper. Down in Weeks Bay, a small offshoot of Mobile Bay. Weeks Bay is on the eastern shore, maybe more sheltered from the Gulf. We’ve heard fewer stories of tar balls in crab traps in the bay estuaries. There is no beach in Weeks Bay, only brown grasses and bogs red with pitcher plants, dusted with goldenrod. So on Wednesday, I drive down. Watch herons wade through the marsh. I pull my truck off the county highway by the Fish River bridge, and I pull under to the boat launch.

I am tired. Molly isn’t sleeping well, and the hunt for new suppliers is exhausting. We have to keep the store stocked, and this is easier when the fishermen deliver their catch themselves. But we have to inspect the quality firsthand, before we let these men come to us. Before I leave these men to come to my father. My father and I, we run a quality business. We take care of our own.

I am looking for a good old boy from Summerdale, a man named Donny Campbell. I park and get out of my truck. Donny said he’d be wearing a blue t-shirt. Only one other man sits by the launch, a sunburned man with a wad in his cheek. His shirt was once white. Now it is yellow, stained with sweat and time. The man leans against a rusted out Ford. The water is calm in the smaller bay. A brown pelican drifts by, then dives and surfaces with a fish. I pull out my cell phone to call Donny, see where he is.

The sunburned man leans against his truck, an open can of Coors beside him. He stares at me, but I look away. Any night fishermen ought to be in by now. The bay is narrow here, where it tapers into the river. Across the water, the other shore is a faint line, where Weeks spills into Bon Secour and Mobile Bay. This is the farthest south that jubilees are possible.

Donny doesn’t answer. I close my phone. It is the cheapest kind Verizon sells, not one of the smart phones. I have no choice but to wait.

The sunburned man leans, spits. Crosses his arms. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him study me. I turn and look at him. He needs to shave. His eyes are narrowed, staring.

“You one of them Arabs?” the man asks. He pronounces the first A wide, lingers a little too long.

I bite my lip, judge his stance. He is leaned toward me, his head up. Not aggressive, just waiting. He sucks at his lip, and a muscle tenses in his cheek. I think, I could kill him. If I tried. If I needed to. The water ripples against the shore, the docked boats. A small breeze brings salt, the faint smell of fish. The pelican wheels overhead, an endangered species like the rest of us.

“Yes,” I say.

The man nods, laughs to himself. Leans and spits a second time. When he speaks again, it is clear he is Cajun. “Them Arabs got all da money, man,” he says. “All da money.”

I look at my work boots, cracked across the toes, and I wonder how closely the man is looking.

“All da oil,” he says.

“Except what’s in there,” I say, and point towards the bay.

The man stops, jaw sagged loose and open. Then he throws his head back and laughs, long and loud. He stomps, laughs some more.

“Oh man,” he says. “That’s good, you know?”

I look at him, and I have no anger in me. I feel sorry for him, a disgusting kind of pity. For his dirty clothes, his drunkenness, the dirt and grime lodged in the cracks of his skin. I check my phone. Nothing. I would have heard something come through, anyway.

“I was a fisherman,” the man says. “Caught it all, you know. But those booms didn’t do nothing.”

I agree. I’ve seen the helicopter photos, orange booms placed around Weeks Bay to stop the oil. The sheen of an underwater plume thick and glossy, surging through. Swirls of color in the water. Like an angry, demon god, undeterred by human sin offerings.

“Put you out?” I ask.

The man nods, picks up his beer. “My crabs don’t have claws,” he says. “Ain’t nobody want to eat mutant crabs.”

“Probably not,” I say. I know.

He tells me about his daughter, about to graduate high school. She wants to go to technical college. He sways a little, and I know this is not his first beer. He tells me about his boat, how he sold it and mortgaged his house. Told his daughter to take out loans.

“And you know what’s next,” he says. “The bees. All them honeybees, getting sick. Gone be the next big food collapse.” He raises his finger, shakes it at me. “You just wait and see.”

I am relieved when the boat approaches, a man in a blue shirt on board who I know must be Donny. I am relieved when the sunburned man stumbles away, gets in the passenger seat of his Ford like he’s going to sleep it off. But something throbs behind my eyes, a white, sharp pain, for myself and my father, when I run my hands through Donny’s diseased catch and I see that it is no better and no worse than Joe’s, when I see that it is the same.

 

That night, Molly wants to go out to eat. I am hesitant, concerned about the expense, but I give in and we drive to a Mexican restaurant in a grocery store parking lot. Molly eats the free chips and salsa, and I sip my water.

“I’ve been thinking,” she says.

She tells me that she wants to put in her two weeks’ notice at the Panini place where she waits tables. Tips are good for a pregnant woman, but she may be able to get a teaching job outside Birmingham. Her brother knows a principal in Shelby County.

“May get us somewhere,” she says.

This Mexican restaurant is tacky. Too many bright colors, murals of mariachi players with sombreros. I fold my napkin, wipe my mouth. I know that the Gulf is sick. But I think of my father hands sifting through the shrimp. He has already lost his country, I think.

I say, “I can’t go to Birmingham.”

Molly’s green eyes turn glassy. I can tell that her heart is racing, that she is feeling panicked, but she doesn’t let herself cry. She picks up a chip and stirs the salsa instead.

“Don’t say that,” she says.

I have never seen a miracle, but I am not ready to give up.

“I know that family is important to you,” Molly says.

This is the one thing my father carried with him from Lebanon. That family is most important. This is why he visits his brother in Cleveland every chance he gets, why he has spent his life building the store for mine. Why he has no savings, now. Why he helped his brother get settled in Cleveland, his cousin in New Orleans.

I offer to order her queso, and she drops the subject. She is tired, too.

That night, she curls against me to fall asleep. She smells like lotion, shampoo. Fresh and clean. My heart hammers, but I hold her close and warm until her breathing slows. Then I pull away, though I do not sleep. The night is long.

 

On Sunday, we rest. My mother takes my father to a park, and they feed ducks in a manmade pond. Molly asks me to walk with her, and we circle our rental neighborhood until her feet ache and she asks to go home again.

I spend the afternoon reading about rental properties in Birmingham. Molly shows me ones she has bookmarked on a realtor site. We don’t talk about when, only if. She knows not to ask. She drags me into the kitchen, and we spend hours chopping vegetables and stirring spaghetti sauce. Her grandmother’s recipe. I stand behind her when she washes her hands, put my arms around her. I put my hand against her belly, palm flat, and it pushes back, firm and solid. We feel the baby kick. The motion is beautiful and terrifying, like God choking inside Molly, and I close my eyes and hide my face in Molly’s hair. My heart pounds, and I know I should be happy, but I think I may be sick. But then I open my eyes, and it is just Molly, just my wife, whose smile is a little uneven, who loves pugs and Alabama football and laughs a little too loud, and for a moment I know where I am.

At 11:00, my father calls. “Todd,” he says. “May be a jubilee tonight.”

He has made this call plenty of times before. The almanac predicts them, but it’s a fool’s game. The bay is 70 miles from north to south, and a jubilee can happen anywhere along the northeast shore. The best way to learn about a jubilee is to have friends who live on the water, in just the right spot, who can call you when they see it start. I hear the hope in his voice, so I tell him to get some sleep, and I go to do the same. I am tired, and I fall asleep quickly. I dream of Molly before she was pregnant, when we were college students at South. When we felt unattached, thought we might travel to Oregon or Maine. A shore other than our own. In my dream, Molly smiles, but I am nervous.

 

The phone wakes me at 2:30. Our bedroom is dark. I fumble for the receiver, pull it to my ear. Molly stirs, puts her hand on my arm.

“Steadman’s Landing,” my father says.

I tell Molly, and we pull on our clothes in the dark. The night is warm, air thick with sweat, crickets deafening in the trees. We drive back roads to the boardwalk at Steadman’s Landing. A hundred years ago, a dock stood here. Now, old pilings corrode in the seawater, a barnacled perch for pelicans and seagulls.

I have buckets in the back of my truck. The moon bleeds cool light over the parking area by the landing. Where the pines thin and sand begins, it throws a silver veil across the churning water. From here, the water looks alive, like it is writhing from beneath. Mobile rises over the shore on the other side, ten miles away, the horizon blushed from city lights. To the north, the interstate bridge forms a chain of pearls hovering just above the water.

Others are already here, filling ice chests all along the sand. Someone has clipped a spotlight to a piling, and it brightens a single swath of water. Bugs swarm in the light, and the water is brown and murky. A few kids run around with butterfly nets. Men in cutoff t-shirts wade into the water and haul buckets in and out.

My father is already on the beach. I walk to him. He wears a baseball cap, even though it is night. He looks younger than he should, wide-awake and energetic. He holds two buckets, and he hands one to me.

“Todd,” he says. “Look.”

I look at the water, swirling with creatures. Crabs, eels, flounder. Clambering over each other into shallow water, to breathe. Their scales glisten green and yellow, the colors of bay mud at night. They writhe until the water turns to foam, until the water churns and gulps.

“Not as many diseased ones,” my father says.

He is right. Here, farther north in the bay, rivers empty into the delta. The current probably keeps more Gulf water out, more oil away, though the freshwater provides challenges of its own.

“Come on,” he says. “Help me.”

Molly paces behind us on the beach, and we straddle the border where water meets sand and fish bubble over. My father’s hands are lined with grease, his arms stout and strong. He leans and fills his bucket, and I follow his lead. He bends with the waves, catching the wealth of the sea and tossing it back. I understand now what he is doing. I fill my bucket, toss the animals back into the bay. Foam and fish swirl around my ankles.

“That’s great,” he says. “Keep moving.”

I wipe saltwater from my eyes without dropping my bucket. We scoop them up and throw them back. Flounder with eyes bunched together, long eels like water snakes, snapping blue crab. Saltwater catfish with fins like knives. We find a rhythm, scooping and tossing, scooping and tossing. The clamor around us quiets. Others see what we are doing, and they back away onto the beach. Only the bay murmurs, a deep cadence beneath the fish, in and out, across and back, a constant heartbeat of salt and water and life below the surface. I have never seen a miracle, but in this moment, I see my father and myself, standing inside that heartbeat, beneath the wide sky, throwing fish against a mysterious wind. I see crabs scuttle against the tide, from side to side, evading their suicide dance. We catch them, and we throw them back, to protect the next generation.

My father smiles. Water soaks his shirt, his arms, splashes onto the brim of his hat. In the spotlight’s glare, he is blinding, his shadow stark against the water behind him. Salt fills my eyes, my nose, briny and sharp. I look at Molly, and she has a hand to her face, and I know she is letting herself cry, but she smiles. The fish churn and leap, rough like sandpaper against our legs. And we work, we catch the fish and we throw them back, and I don’t know about the next day or the next or the ones after that, but in this moment, the rhythm of the bay and my hands is enough.

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