by Spencer Wise
In Rockport, my mother and I were digging for littlenecks in the mudflats while her nosy boyfriend, Howie the dentist, watched from a picnic table high up on the granite bluff. We’d gone to the Lobster Trap for dinner, a famous cedar-shingle seafood shack along the coast, but of course my mother insisted on hunting for food down on the beach.
“Maybe you could just let him buy us the clams,” I said. “Like normal people.” We were knee-high in water kerosene-dark. I had a metal hand rake and bucket. She used her feet, the old-fashioned way.
“They mark them up 300%, you know. When they’re right under our toes. I don’t care how much money Howie has. That’s not the point. I want you to know how to do things for yourself.”
She was wriggling her hips, twisting her torso, and feeling with her feet for clams and when she felt a bump, she dug in with her foot and curled her toes over the clam and lifted it up, pinning it against her opposite leg, inside her thigh, and then she’d reach down and snag it. It was a graceful dance, her blonde hair tied up in a bun, and a little fuzz of hair on the back of her neck.
My father had given her lessons. I honestly think that was the real reason we were in the water, not because of any markup. It’s called treading, this little clam dance that I was never any good at it. Either I couldn’t feel them or I’d cut my feet on the shells. But before he died, my dad was a pro.
I had my eyes down on the water, concentrating. When I saw breathing bubbles, I dropped to my knees and dug with my hand-rake in the copper-orange mud until the metal tines scraped shell.
When I finally looked up, Mom was way ahead of me.
“Hey, kids get blown out to sea, you know,” I shouted. “In the riptide. You aren’t even turning to check.”
“Are you behind me?”
“That’s not the point.”
I hustled to catch up, but somehow she kept gliding along just out of reach. I took big breaths and the air smelled ripe and peaty from the piles of driftwood and seaweed decomposing on the beach. It smelled like rot and decay but somehow it was a good scent. Everything that summer seemed fertile and alive and ready to burst: the beach plum and goldenrod shrubs on the dunes, the girls in bikinis sunbathing, feet lapped by seafoam. There was a couple spooning, wrapped in a big beach towel, and the big spoon was making the softest little thrusts like a worm. They were definitely doing it. And doing it in rhythm to Aerosmith playing on their little portable radio. Down a ways, an old couple kissed under an umbrella. Dear God. It was basically an orgy in Rockport that day, and here I was sloshing after my mother in the surf.
“You know,” Mom said when I finally caught up to her. “Howie said if you get your grades up he might be able to help you get into Tufts Dental one day.”
One day. I was thirteen. She already had my whole life planned. But maybe that’s why she was dating him. That and free dental.
“Isn’t that cheating,” I said.
“It’s not cheating, it’s nepotism. And some people need that. A little push to get them going. Then it’s okay.”
“But people are disgusting. Why would I want to look into their mouths all day?”
“Do you want to scoop ice cream forever?”
Sometimes we had entire conversations using rhetorical questions. It was the closest thing we had to a game. But I dropped it because I was scared of what I might say. Earlier that afternoon she’d forgotten to pick me up from work at Benson’s Ice Cream for the 12th time and now I didn’t trust myself or my big mouth not to start a fight.
Right then we passed an older woman in black walking the opposite direction on the beach who waved, and my mother waved back. Under her breath, Mom whispered to me, “I did her mother.”
She meant prepared her body. The mother’s dead body. See, my mother belonged to the world’s most depressing club: a secret society of Jewish women called the Chevra Kadisha. These women wash and clean the dead according to Jewish custom and prepare them for burial. I didn’t know much more than that because my mother never talked to me about it. She had joined after my dad died six years ago. The other women in the group all had terrible things happen to them too. People in town lowered their heads when they saw these women coming, out of fear and respect, like shamans or witches.
Howie the Dentist thought she was a saint. “It’s the mitzvah to end all mitzvahs,” he told me once, after cornering me for one of his bonding talks. “Preparing the dead for the world to come.” It can’t come fast enough, Howie. That’s what I wanted to say, but of course I didn’t.
Anyhow, this lady on the beach who’d lost her mother was definitely not partaking in the Rockport orgy. Her head was covered in a dark headwrap and she wore a black coverup and her sandals dangled by her finger at her waist. One last smile and she was gone.
We kept clamming in silence a little longer until we had about two good bushels and then started back. Mom sighed when she saw a woman with a baby strapped to one of those carriers on her chest.
“You loved those carriers,” she said. “Your sweet head right up here. I used to stare at it. I couldn’t stop staring. The soft spot. The fontanelle. Wouldn’t that have been a pretty name? For a girl, I mean. Fontanelle.”
“Ma,” I said because she was getting weird and maudlin again.
She didn’t seem to hear. “And you had to be held. The instant I put you down—screaming bloody murder. Even sleeping, you had to be held. You were exhausting.”
Was that an accusation? It sounded like one. I’m sure little Fontanelle would’ve stayed nice and quiet in her crib studying for the dental board exams. She’d be perfect, I thought. And then I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I blurted out, “You know, you could’ve picked me up today from work like you were supposed to. It isn’t that much to remember.”
Then I let it all out: how I lied to Mr. Groton so he wouldn’t feel like he had to drive me home again. How I walked home, two hours in the sun, covered in sticky sugar and smashed Oreos, stalked by a swarm of bees.
“That’s good,” Mom said. “All that exercise. Also bees. Bees contain the souls of the dead. I hope you didn’t kill any.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
I think she was suggesting that I could’ve killed the bee version of my father. An embolism—that’s what killed him. One moment you’re pouring coffee and looking at the bird feeder and the next moment the carafe shatters on the kitchen tile and the walls are screaming, the halls, the mother, the dogs, the whole house opens its giant red mouth and screams.
“Okay,” she said. She stopped and faced me. Her hair had gotten loose from its ponytail and made a halo of frizz. “I should’ve picked you up. I had to get the dry cleaning and then I had a meeting that ran long with these two customers who came into the bank. Peggy and Steve. Young couple just starting out. Peggy’s actually pretty fascinating. She’s a speed walker.”
“Oh, wow. Peggy’s really something. Now I understand.”
“Asher, I messed up,” Mom said.
Luckily the sun was in my eyes and I didn’t have to look at her, just the glare and the sky behind her, the seagulls circling, cawing.
A long moment passed.
“Do you want a hug?” she asked.
I felt a warm pressure building behind my eyes. I stared at her even though it burned. “I’m good.”
“Okay,” she said.
Then she walked out of the ocean. Aphrodite emerging from the surf with her long legs and the jagged purple thunderbolts that I’m sure I caused on her thighs.
I don’t know why I loved her so much, but I did. I never said it though because she didn’t like the mushy stuff. I think she’d rather tell me about Peggy the Speed Walker than how she felt about holding my father on the kitchen floor or how we picked glass out of the bottom of her foot sitting on the ledge of the bathtub watching the blood pool around the drain.
Howie was waiting up on the bluff. He waved us over to the picnic table he’d found by the fence overlooking the ocean.
Howie the Dentist was actually my dentist growing up, which somehow made the whole thing even more strange and perverse. He’d given me lollipops, stickers. Hummed along to Whitney Houston as he did my braces.
“How’d it go down there?” he asked.
“He’s afraid of the sea,” Mom said.
“No, I’m not.”
“He thinks he’ll get swept out,” she said. “It’s okay. Most Jews are afraid of the sea.”
Howie nodded. “True.”
I flicked an ant off the side of the picnic table. That was dumbest thing I’d ever heard. My dad was a waterski instructor at a boys’ camp, for example—but of course that was on a lake. Still, my mother made up absurd facts like that all the time. Surely there were seafaring Jews throughout history. We had to get here somehow.
Plus, every few summers someone drowned in Folly Cove because they were drunk or messing around, and then the town would close the beach for a few days. So my fears were real.
Howie reached into the rolling cooler and poured my mother a glass of wine. “Buttery chard,” he said. Can’t we euthanize people who say things like that?
He looked at me and winked. “I didn’t forget.” He pulled out a Cherry Coke, which was my favorite back then. Right then I started to wonder if maybe he was nice. That was probably why I’d always be alone—I had no idea what counted as nice.
Howie plopped a few pieces of ice into my mother’s plastic wine cup. That was the other thing she was obsessed with after my dad died—ice. Sometimes before a big storm she’d fill the bathtub with ice to keep the food from the fridge. Back then in the ’80s everyone was worried about a Russian nuclear attack, and my mother made a bomb shelter in the basement where we did practice drills, hiding in the cramped space, surrounded by shelves of canned beans and Spam for the long nuclear winter.
I have to admit that sometimes I’d say let’s practice because that was the only thing that could get her to put down her finance books. Sitting with me in the cold cement basement eating Nutella with our fingers and graham crackers and talking about how we’d slowly rebuild civilization, how she preferred I do that with a Jewish girl if possible, and I’d remind her that there’d be no religion in the new world. She’d laugh and scoop her finger into the runny chocolate and slather it on a graham cracker, and it wasn’t long after one of those nights when I found her drunk wearing one of my dad’s t-shirts in the computer room downstairs where she kept all his stuff boxed, floor to ceiling.
I found her on the floor, barefoot in jeans, and she was drunk. The kind of drunk where you might look at your son and say something like, “I’m drunk, darling.” Which is what she said. Eyes all glassy. She was holding a thin box with a clear top, the rock collection my dad bought back when we thought we’d collect rocks. And I knew I’d caught her in this private moment, her and my father, but then her face, very soft at first, changed, tightened, something slowly came over her and her eyes narrowed and she pointed to the door and said, “Get out, Asher. Get the hell out of here,” and I could see beaded strands of saliva stretching between her top and bottom teeth, and I went running down the hall. The next morning we pretended it never happened.
Now at the Lobster Trap, we threw the littleneck clams in a bucket of fresh water and let them clean themselves, siphoning out the salt and sand, and after ten minutes, I spread them out on the newspaper-covered table. Howie had never done any of this before, so I had to explain everything I was doing and he kept saying, “Isn’t that interesting,” which was driving me up a wall.
I still told him everything I knew. How they were bivalves. How the smaller ones tasted sweeter. How you can age them by counting the growth ridges on their gray shells.
“You’re smart,” he said.
I handed him a shucking knife with a thin blunt edge and wood handle. Howie didn’t know how to use that either, so I had to sit next to him to explain. He owned a sailboat in Marblehead harbor, so I don’t think he ever needed to do anything for himself. That’s where he lived. They met at a Holocaust book club. That’s what I called it because they only seemed to read about the Holocaust. He was a decade older, too. A widower himself. His wife died of ovarian cancer. I won’t joke about that. Happier man than me, at least he got to say goodbye.
In fact, the only really good picture I have of my family—Mom, Dad, and me—is from some time we went apple picking. It’s fall and my dad and I are sitting in the crotch of this tree freckled with apples and he’s just above me, hand on my shoulder, wearing badass Top Gun shades and a ’70s shaggy bowl cut. I’m right below, leaning back into his legs. We’re both in profile, looking off at something in the distance. Maybe my mother told us to do that because it looked artsy. It’s a black and white photo. She should’ve been a photographer.
Howie inched closer to me, and I gripped the knife. I could smell his cologne, leathery and damp, and I sort of liked the smell. In another universe, I might’ve put my head on his shoulder and sniffed away. But I didn’t. I picked up a clam. I showed him how to wriggle the blade into the hinge and pry it open, scrape out the guts, and then slurp it down on the half shell.
We feasted on a few dozen piss clams, the soft flesh melting on our tongues and sliding down the back of our throats like a cool, thin stream. Tourists come here from all over to eat fried clams, but that’s for amateurs. This is the way. A touch of brine. A speck of sea grit. Chased with a slug of Cherry Coke. Watching the lobster trawlers chugging into the bay. A fat peach sun sinking into the ocean. My mom. Howie. For a moment, we were all kindred.
And of course that’s when everything went to shit.
Howie the Dentist reached into his briefcase beside the cooler and handed my mother something wrapped in white tissue paper.
My mother straightened. She shot me a quick look.
Howie was grinning. Mom gave Howie a meek smile and began unwrapping, lips pursed.
I couldn’t see what it was but I knew from the way her face suddenly relaxed that it wasn’t a wedding ring. She held up a lobster bib with a pearl neckline.
“Real pearls,” Howie said. “I had it made special.”
On the front of the bib was an illustrated red lobster and the text: “You are Clawsome.” As soon as I saw the words, I knew I’d be cursed to remember them forever.
“You like it?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s something,” she said.
She pinched the gold clasp to put it on. Howie jumped up and rushed behind her to do it.
“It’s a save the date,” Howie said, hands on her shoulders.
Her eyes widened. “Save the date,” she repeated, glancing at me, jaw rigid.
“Not like that,” he said. He came back around and sat across from her. He fidgeted with his hands. “The reason I planned this tonight, this dinner.” He paused. “I want to know if you and Asher want to move into my house in Marblehead. My kids are gone. It’s a big house. Plenty of privacy. You’ll have a lot more room.”
My toes curled in my wet sneakers. Was he suggesting our house was small? Which it was, but who wanted to hear that? Did he think we needed a handout? I leaned forward, toward my mother.
“Oh, Howie,” she said, touching her chest.
The waves below crashed into the cliff face.
My heart banged. I was suddenly worried she’d say yes. That I’d misread everything.
Mom reached across the table and covered his hand with her own and patted. His hand was marbled and spotted, like one of those oxidized rocks in the collection kit my dad bought me.
“Things are good with us, Howie,” Mom said.
This couldn’t be happening. I looked at their two old hands stacked together and thought: desert rose, agate, quartz, jasper.
“So why change anything?” she asked.
That stunned him. He sat back.
“It’s like the bank,” she continued. “I’ve handled clients for years with no complaints, but my boss is always pushing for new this and new that, but I say why change if no one’s complaining?”
She tipped her forehead.
His Adam’s apple bobbed.
“I’m not complaining,” he said.
“Wonderful,” she said. “I love the bib. Have I not said that already? I do. It’s darling.” She touched her chest lightly.
He withdrew his hand. “I’m glad.”
She smiled big and fake. Just like that she was back. My mother. It’s like the bank she’d said. I couldn’t get over that. Try telling that to a lonely dentist with a stent in his heart and an unhealthy obsession with Holocaust literature. A man who only wanted to dance with somebody, wanted to feel the heat with somebody, with somebody like my mother.
It was silent between us as we ate. The bikers at the picnic table behind us were laughing too loud. I slapped a juicy mosquito on my leg and it squirted blood. I couldn’t take it much longer. I was about to fake a sudden bout of diarrhea so I could hide in the bathroom until we had to leave, but right then, by divine providence, someone died.
My mother’s beeper buzzed and she pulled it out of her purse and read the text. She frowned.
“I have to go,” she said.
I knew what the beeper said. What it always said. It must be done. We all knew what that meant.
She was lost in thought for a moment before lifting her head to Howie. “I’m sorry,” she said. She touched the lobster bib on her chest.
Howie smiled. “Another time.”
We’d come in two separate cars that day. So while my mother went off to the bathroom, I knew she’d want me to clean up good for Howie. So I folded the clams up in newspaper and dumped it all into the trash drum swarming with flies, and I packed up the cooler with the leftover wine and the plastic cups of melted butter and the mignonette sauce and then I wiped down the picnic table with wet naps so the busboys didn’t have to clean after us. After that, I dragged the big cooler over to Howie’s trunk.
We stood side by side in the gravel parking lot and he stuffed his hands in his pocket and cleared his throat.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be,” I said. I didn’t know what he was apologizing for anyhow. I picked up a small rock and hucked it across the empty street at the stop sign and missed.
He paused a moment.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Fine,” I said and threw another rock. “We’re good.”
“I meant you,” he said. “Are you doing okay? With everything.”
I looked at him for a second. He looked away. Off toward the road. Arms folded, his bristly moustache stiff as baleen, all dignified, and for a second I liked him. But what was he digging at? Did he want me to talk to him about my mother? My dead dad? Fat chance.
I hucked another rock at the stop sign and it pinged loud. The sign clattered and then fell silent. Finally my mother came back and told me to stop screwing around and get in the car.
On the ride home I was ragging on Howie and his proposal, babbling away, while my mother was rubbing the back of the wrist against her lips like she does when she’s thinking hard. Finally, as we rumbled over the iron bridge spanning the salt marsh, she said, “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.”
I leaned forward in the seat and turned down the radio.
“Living with him? You’re not serious? You can’t be serious. Why?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I worry all the time. Try being a single mother. It’s not so easy. When you were little, I could just bring you to the McDonald’s ball pit and give you some nuggets and a dollar cone and you’d play for hours. It’s harder now. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I still love nuggets. And what do you mean? You’re a great mother.” I didn’t believe that but I was desperate. “And if you want to move out of dad’s house, we don’t have to go to him. We could go anywhere. Alaska. We can go whale watching. I’ve lived here all my life and never seen a whale. I think all the whales are over there now. Does that make sense? And you don’t even like him.”
“I do like him. You don’t like him.”
“That’s impossible. You can’t. How about California? We can have fun. Adventures again. Like old times with Dad. Like the apple picking adventure.”
“Apple picking? When did we go apple picking?”
“The photo in the den. Me and Dad. I’m like seven or eight years old.”
“There was no apple picking.”
“What do you mean no apple picking? Are you high? Of course there was apple picking.”
“No, Asher. That’s Rowley Park. A professional photographer took that photo. A whole series. It cost a fortune. My mother paid. He took some of us posed in a tree, some in the playground, the gazebo. I thought you knew that.”
“Posed!” I said. I laughed. I laughed again, this time high pitched, almost a cackle, and my voice cracked. “No apple picking. No apple picking. That’s funny.” The words stopped making any sense, the sound was a big red blob. “Then why are there apples in the tree?”
Now I couldn’t actually remember if there were. My vision blurred at the edges. Were there blossoms? Buds? Nothing?
“You can’t be serious,” I said under my breath and dropped against my seat.
The stilt houses scrolled past. The big oaks waved. I swiped at my nose and made a gross sound. I didn’t want to cry in front of her. Bad enough to lose her to Howie, but to be crybaby about it. No. I pinched my thigh hard and the pain sobered me up.
When we got to the funeral home, she unlocked the door to the main entrance and told me to wait upstairs, don’t touch anything, don’t move a muscle, and then she disappeared behind an oak door into the basement.
I sat on the tufted couch under the long grim faces of old rabbis and funeral directors framed on the wall. Beside me, I turned on the desk lamp, a porcelain swan with gilded wings. Opera glasses, glazed tea jars, an old brass sextant—all the relics of the old world. I leaned forward. On the coffee table in front of me were two familiar books: one for granite, one for wood, as we had to do for my father in this very room. Ronald Kirsch the funeral director saying, “Where do we want to be budget-wise?” That’s a good fucking question, Ronny. Where do we want to be? If someone would just answer that for me.
I stood up. I started looking in the cabinets for booze but I kept finding scented stationary and letterhead and all of it smelled good, like vanilla, and I pressed it to my nose and inhaled deeply, beautiful smelling paper that outlived my father, that he’d never smell again, and I sat down on the floor and crinkled the letterhead into a ball and put it in my mouth and sucked and chewed, savored it, and I knew I’d heal. That was the worst part. That there’d be afternoons as beautiful as this one on the beach. Green and lush. And I would be like one of those oak trees I’d seen out the car window with the fat, gnarled scars that it had grown around a trunk wound. That would happen to me. I’d heal all ugly.
I’d eventually be 20 and then 30 and those boxes of my dad’s stuff would mean less and less until one day, they’d mean almost nothing.
My head was burning hot.
I spit out the paper. I walked in circles around the waiting room listening to the echo of the steps and then I realized she was right under my feet. My mother.
It was a sin to go down there. You don’t need to be a good, non-shellfish eating Jew to know that. But I had to. She was a murderer now. If she did it. Moved us in with Howie. I would go tell her. She was killing my father all over again.
So I walked to the oak door and cracked it open. But as soon as I started down the dark stairs into the cold, I almost lost my nerve. There was a dead person down there and it was a sin to interrupt this procedure. But I kept moving, crouched low, down the stairs, slow enough that they didn’t creak.
I crouched at the foot of the staircase, peered around the wall.
My mother alone in an apron, in latex gloves, in yellow light, looking down at this white face on a stainless-steel table. Someone young.
A dead boy, naked under a white sheet.
My mother held the child’s white fingers and slowly clipped, filed his nails. Then she took a washcloth and dabbed at the boy’s cheek like she was rubbing off mustard, rough but tender. She brushed the boy’s soft brown hair, soft and straight, calmly working through it. I’d never seen her like this before.
Maybe it was a friend’s child, I thought. Or maybe she was always this careful.
Then she leaned down over the boy and lowering her head she kissed the child’s brow, very gently, and my breath caught, and I felt a quaking inside me.
After that she walked to a separate room and I heard a door slam close. I heard her on the phone.
I had to see him. Not just crouching from the stairs, but closer, I had to get closer to see him, the way she saw him, leaning over with her damp washcloth working at a stubborn spot on his cheek. Then softly pressing her lips to his brow.
I’d forgotten everything I had to say to my mother. All I could think about was him. The boy.
Still crouched, knees apart, on the balls of my feet, I took one step at a time, keeping myself small and quiet. I got to the bottom stair, close enough to see the glinting scissors and vials of liquid on the metal table, but I couldn’t get a good look at him, so I stepped down onto the cement floor, and I grew brave. I stole right up to the edge of the table and leaned forward.
My cold breath popped.
He was no older than me. His eyebrows blond, eyes closed but long wispy lashes, a soft face, the faintest crease of worry on his forehead, even at such a young age, a thoughtful boy, a smart delicate boy, and maybe he too was missing a father or had a neglectful mother, and I saw the spot where she’d softly pressed her lips to his brow, and it was like recognizing something I didn’t know was missing. I guess maybe you had to die to see that kind of softness in her.
So I leaned down and kissed him too, in that same spot on his brow, and his skin was cold. There was nothing wrong with him that I could see. Just the deep silence of his body. Maybe he’d drowned. Maybe my mother was right and we’ve always been afraid of the sea. The monsters below. The sky above. The inevitable drifting out.
Spencer Wise is the author of The Emperor of Shoes (Harper Collins/Hanover Square Press.) His work can be found in journals such as Narrative Magazine, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, The Literary Review, and The New Ohio Review, among others. He has been awarded residencies and fellowships to the Vermont Writer Studio and Ragdale Foundation in Chicago. Wise is an assistant professor of creative writing at Augusta University.