I never imagined I would someday work on a shellfish farm, but there I was, slogging around on the beach in December, an inch of the Atlantic Ocean in my rubber boots. It was three weeks before Christmas. We were gathering oysters, mussels, and clams that were then trucked to France for holiday meals. Apparently the French liked eating shellfish at Christmas. At first I thought this sounded like a good idea. I thought I might even try it myself for a change. That was before I almost froze in the sea seven or eight times.

I hated the job, but I knew it was only temporary, and I liked telling people I worked on a shellfish farm.

It was terrible work and I wasn’t used to terrible work. I wasn’t even used to work. The other guys had been hardened by one awful job after another and did their work without the slightest display of whininess. They cut their fingers and didn’t care about the saltwater in their wounds. Their feet froze in their boots but they were cheerful. Often they even seemed to be enjoying themselves. I hated the job, but I knew it was only temporary, and I liked telling people I worked on a shellfish farm. It was one of those jobs that surprised people, like being a lumberjack.

My housemate Carl was there, too, but he was only there for the money. It was not important to Carl for people to consider him interesting. If anything, he wanted people to think he was less interesting than they already thought he was. He wanted them to leave him alone. Unfortunately, strangers were attracted to him for precisely that reason. Rather than repelling people with his closed face, he intrigued them and drew them in. I found it unfathomable. All my life I had been invisible. Carl was the opposite of invisible. On the beach, however, in our yellow oilskins and leaky wellies, we were the same.

The other workers were a mixed bunch. There were two local Irish guys who had been there for years. They ran the place, drove the tractors, made sure everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing. There were a few wastrels and alcoholics like Carl and me who had been hired on for the season and were not even expected to last until Christmas. There were two Nigerians who never spoke and appeared in a continual flux of wonder at their strange predicament: what are we doing here on this beach in this country? Of course they were there to earn money and send it home, and they worked hard. There was a small Malaysian guy named Lim who wore headphones under his black knit hat. He looked about fifty years old and spoke almost no English. The headphones were attached to a Walkman that didn’t work (no batteries) other than to put some distance between him and the incomprehensible world. There was a tall, hostile Frenchman who swaggered around, cursing and complaining. And there was a Romanian who actually lived in one of the storage sheds at the farm.

Every morning a van came into town and we piled into the back of it and stared at one another, riding to the fish farm that, at that dim hour, was like the end of the world. No one ever spoke. The van quickly filled with alcohol fumes rising out of the pores of the drinkers (the driver being the most consistent offender). It was a kind of rotten banana peel smell. Sometimes it was very strong and, depending on what we had been doing the previous night, nauseating. The van bounced and swayed and the early morning talk radio was the most annoying din imaginable. It was in these times that I learned how much I hated the Irish, all of them, and vowed to leave their country. Usually, however, my bitterness dried up as soon as I escaped the radio.

On our way out of town, we picked up the Nigerians at an old convent that had been converted into a kind of refuge for asylum seekers. When they got in, they greeted us formally. Then they slumped against the wall, their tongues and the insides of their mouths profoundly red as they yawned. Both fell asleep and slept all the way to the farm. They worked in a fish-hook factory at night.

We hauled shellfish out of the December ocean. It was terrible for me, but I was lazy. I complained to Carl, who acknowledged that it was terrible, yes, but what was the point of complaining about it? It was an odd quirk of Carl’s personality that he almost immediately quit easy, well-paying jobs yet tenaciously hung onto punishing ones like this. It was as if he needed a job to punish him so that he wouldn’t feel guilty for eventually fucking up and getting fired or quitting. Sometimes he got angry at me for complaining or simply talking about the job in a grudging way. If I hated it so much, he’d say, then I should quit and stay home. But I didn’t quit. I couldn’t. There was something in me that prevented me from giving up, some awful mechanism that had been bred into me as an American. I would have been embarrassed to quit. Instead I complained ad nauseum into the night.

By day, as I froze and bled on the beach, I imagined French families with tiny French-speaking children sitting around their tables at Christmastime, slurping down oysters—our oysters. I despised these imaginary families, even the children, but especially the men, the fathers. Why were we gathering their holiday oysters for them? Oysters! Did they really need them? Did they know that Lim was fifty and spoke no English? Were destitute Frenchmen lost on beaches in Southeast Asia laboring to supply luxury foods for rich Malaysians who knew nothing about them, nor wanted to? And what of the Romanian guy who lived in the storage shed?

Of course the French were not to blame, not really, but I could not help but curse them. We worked like dogs and earned crap wages for something that distant people then paid a lot of money for.

At night we went home, smelling of oyster juice and the rotten cockles that exploded in our faces when we accidentally squeezed them, and we thawed our numb fingers over the elements on the electric stove in our kitchen. What was I doing here? But at least I could think of myself as some sort of tough guy. At least this wasn’t my desperate, inescapable life. I could go back to America. Unlike Lim I was privileged. I had a little blue passport back at my squalid little house.

Things went on like this for a couple of weeks. Morning after morning in the back of the van. Nausea. Wet feet, numb fingers. Fresh air. Blood. The ineradicable stench of rotten shellfish on my skin, inside my nose. I even smelled it in bed when I struggled awake before dawn and couldn’t remember where I was. The rush into the house at night to turn the stove on and crouch in front of it like a goon as the feeling crept back into my fingertips, and of course that first feeling was always pain—a hot, tingling zap like an electric current. Then a shower and off to the pub. The same routine the next day. That was it. That was the usual. The trouble didn’t happen till the cat showed up.

We always ate lunch in an abandoned house, the insides of which had been gutted by vandals, probably in some other era when people vandalized houses for profit rather than enjoyment. The glass was gone from the windows, the plaster was torn from the walls, and the wiring had been ripped out. We sat around the cold fireplace. Sometimes we got a little rubbish fire going, but it was never enough to heat the room. The whole oddball band of us hunkered around it in a parody of whatever life had once existed in that place. I wondered about the people who had lived there. How could they ever have imagined a pair of Nigerians in yellow oilskins, and the rest of us, hunched around their wrecked house, eating cheese sandwiches out of plastic bags and muttering in five languages? They would have gone bonkers at even a glimpse of us, the weird denizens of an impossible future.

The Romanian lived next door in a storage shed he’d converted into a fairly livable space. He had an electric heater that ran off an extension cord plugged into the main building and even a small TV that he’d rigged up to a car battery. He’d salvaged an intact armchair from the abandoned house and scrounged an old mattress from God knows where. It was raised off the floor on pallets. Sometimes at night, when Carl and I were plunked down in some dank pub, I wondered about the Romanian, out there at the farm, staring at his TV in the storage shed. He barely spoke English. What was he watching? And why did he know how to rig a TV to a car battery? How did people figure these things out? Moreover, why not just plug the TV into the extension cord along with the heater? Were the fish farm people actually charging him for the electricity he used? I mentioned the Romanian to Carl almost every night, asking these and other questions, but he just shrugged in his usual way.

One night a cat turned up and started gnawing at the old nets. The Romanian, in a fit of loneliness, fed him some of his own food and the cat decided to stick around. The Romanian called him Orange Juice. Maybe it was actually a Romanian name that sounded like Orange Juice in English, but since the cat was orange I figured he got the name from his color. Anyway, everybody else called him Orange Juice, too.

Right away he became our mascot. As we sat around the fireplace on rotting sofas and chairs with the stuffing ripped out of them (sometimes I felt like one of a band of marauders who had slain the townspeople and pillaged the town), we dropped tidbits of food on the floor for Orange Juice, sinking us further into a surreal realm of parodic domesticity. Somehow the presence of the cat—and he was a very cool cat—unified us. We were far from turning into one big happy family, but, with the cat, we were more than just a bunch of weirdos sitting around a wrecked cottage eating sandwiches.

During the week leading up to Christmas, Orange Juice rode with us throughout the day inside the tractor on the beach. While we got out and struggled against the incoming tide, he slept in the tractor’s cab or stared at the water, which struck me as an odd thing for a cat to do. I’d never seen a cat at the beach, much less a cat in a tractor, and I’d never imagined that any cat would stare like that over the ocean at the horizon. Sometimes he watched us with impassive interest as we fought to rip up the nets before the tractor ran us down. I’d glance over my shoulder, and there would be Orange Juice, bearing down on us through the window. For some reason this made the whole ordeal a little less grueling for me.

The Nigerians were amused. They thought it was very funny that we had adopted a cat, as if people in Nigeria would have nothing to do with cats, but even they fed him, and if it wasn’t for the cat provoking them into talking we probably never would have learned that they were brothers. Lim let the cat sit in his lap as we rode. For some reason Orange Juice always chose to sit with Lim. The Romanian claimed to be jealous, but also said that it was good for the cat to sit with Lim because Lim was silent and looked like a cat himself. I didn’t think Lim looked like a cat—and didn’t they eat cats in Asia? someone asked—but Orange Juice liked Lim and managed to draw him out of himself a little. With Orange Juice he’d mutter a few English words and smile. He said “cot,” meaning cat. Once one of the Irish supervisors said “yum, yum” and everybody laughed.

The Romanian gave me money to buy flea powder and a collar in town, among other odds and ends. Orange Juice slept with him on his pallet bed at night and the fleas were bothering them both. He yanked up his sleeve and showed me the underside of his wrist: it bore a constellation of little red sores—and also a frightening jagged scar that I didn’t dare ask about.

Then one day, as we were eating lunch, the cat jumped into the Frenchman’s lap, and the Frenchman (whose name was Johan, but nobody ever called him by his name) grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hurled him against the wall. The cat screamed like a child as he spun into the stone wall beside the chimney. Then he crashed to the floor near Carl’s feet, clawing a pair of trench marks into one of his boots as he skittered and crackled out of the house like a tiny electrical storm.

Johan was still standing when the Romanian lunged at him from the corner. The Romanian was small but he shoved the tall Frenchman with the full force of his anger and Johan toppled backward over a chair and hit his head against the fireplace. He lay on the floor without moving or making a sound, his eyes open at the ceiling, and for a moment I knew that he was dead. It had happened so fast that there was no time for thinking, only knowing. Then he blinked in pain and rage.

The Nigerians did not move. Carl did not move. Lim stood up. The two Irish supervisors grappled the Romanian out the door. The Frenchman clutched the back of his head with both hands, cursing in French. No one would help him. He remained in the middle of the floor at our feet. Carl took a bite out of his sandwich as if nothing had happened and stared out the doorway as he chewed. I sat in my chair, wondering, nervous, in the grip of a strange energy. It was as if I’d been electrically charged by observing such violence. I could feel something pulsing below my rib cage, as if some kind of primeval organ had been activated and was beating away under my ribs like a second heart the size of a duck’s egg.

Then the Frenchman was on his feet. He grabbed a shovel and strode out the door. It was raining now, and the enraged Frenchman stood in the mud, gripping the shovel like a baseball bat, twisting his neck right and left into the green landscape surrounding him. The Romanian was gone, hustled out of sight by the two Irish supervisors who had reacted with a swiftness that suggested they were following a strict protocol devised for just such occasions. Maybe they had a manual somewhere that told them what to do when a Frenchman threw a cat at a wall and then a Romanian knocked the Frenchman into a fireplace. No doubt these things happened now and again, but who was ever prepared for them? The more I thought about it the more it amazed me. Perhaps they were so in tune with their lives on the farm—they were natives, after all—that they had access to knowledge that extended into an ability to sense the future. Their antennae were more suited to this place than ours.

Johan whirled around suddenly, like a man doing a hammer toss, and the shovel flew over the roof of the house. Then he shucked off his oilskins like he was done with them forever and stalked off down the road through the trees.

The Nigerians grimaced in unison, clearly disturbed. Lim sat down and listened to the silence in his headphones. Carl looked at me and said, “Now what would you go and do a thing like that for?” His voice belied his cool exterior. He was irked, maybe even angry, but I wasn’t sure if he meant throwing the cat against the wall or swinging the shovel in the rain or just walking off into the trees. Sometimes Carl was deliberately opaque, even cagey, but I had the feeling that in this instance even he didn’t know what he was asking. Maybe he was simply wondering why God or the universe would create a man so angry and cruel that he would throw a cat against a wall.

After lunch we went out in the tractor, but Orange Juice was gone and the Frenchman was like a beast lurking in the woods: a threat or a promise.

The next morning Carl refused to get out of bed. He was finished, he said. French Christmas would have to take place without him. He would hoist no more oysters. He would squeeze no more cockles. He lay in bed, complaining about his hangover, but I knew it was the cat. The night before, when he’d been drunk and candid, he had confided that what had happened to that cat had bothered him so much that he never wanted to sit in the abandoned room again. It was just so brainless an act of violence that he felt wounded merely to have witnessed it. A cat! A thing like that, he said, brought us all down a notch. I was surprised. He hadn’t looked so upset at the time—but then, he always looked the same. I reminded him that he hadn’t paused in eating his sandwich, and he said that he was always much more upset than he looked. Always, he said again. I mentioned something about cows getting their skulls bashed in with sledgehammers at the local slaughterhouses and he groaned as if I’d prodded his wound.

Lim and I waited outside the convent for the Nigerians, but they never came. The van driver beeped his horn three or four times, and I thought I saw a curtain twitch in an upstairs window, but the door was closed and silent. Lim shrugged and grinned helplessly as the driver jerked the van into gear and started up the road to the farm. It was just the two of us then, me and the Malaysian. We bounced on the iron wheel wells in the back of the van, trying not to stare at each other.

When we arrived at the fish farm, the Romanian came out of his shed and walked over to us very quickly, one arm extended as if he were an official welcomer rushing out to shake the hands of a pair of dignitaries. He looked upset, though. I thought he was going to tell us that Johan had come back and attacked him in the night, but that hadn’t happened. He gripped my forearm. The cat had never come home, he said. He’d waited up for him half the night, but there was no sign of him. What if he was dazed and lost? Or maybe the Frenchman had stolen him off into the woods and killed him. Overnight the Frenchman had transformed into a monster, an entity from a nightmarish fairy tale, no ordinary man. Lim looked at me and waggled his hands in the air—a strikingly helpless gesture—as if I might be able to translate for him. I shook my head no, and he looked at his feet, bowing his head like a man at a funeral.

It was two days before Christmas. We worked like fiends until eleven at night, loading a trailer with mussels, clams, and oysters. I had lost my gloves, and no one had a spare pair to lend. It was as if all the extra gloves had disappeared during the night. Over and over I cut my hands on the mesh netting so that by the end of the night my fingers were bleeding like I’d had to claw my way out of a grave.

When we finished, Lim and I took a taxi to the late bar. I thought I’d show off my wounds. I wasn’t sure if Lim knew where we were going (I mimed knocking a drink into the back of my throat and he nodded grimly, staring at me over his mustache) but he waited with me at the door of the bar while I rang the intercom and the barman examined us through his security camera. He even took his headphones off. Then the barman buzzed us in and we sat right there at the bar, smelling of mud and oysters and Christmastime in France, and we rapidly drank five pints of beer each. Lim smoked cigarette after cigarette, though I’d never seen him smoke before. By the time we tottered into the street we were communicating with perfect ease and refinement.

After gorging myself on a bag of greasy fries, I went home and took a hot drunken shower at three in the morning, scrubbing away what felt like an entire month’s worth of grime and stink, all of it swirling down the drain, away from me—and that marked the end of my career as a fish farmer. Christmas had come. There was no more work.

Lim lingered around town for a few months, prowling the streets in the rain, squinting at people from between his headphones, and then he was gone as if he had never been there. When I remembered him months later I was surprised I’d forgotten him. How was it possible to forget a guy like that?

I never saw the Nigerians again. Maybe their asylum-seeking claims hadn’t gone well, or maybe they’d moved to another city. Who knows—maybe they’d packed up and went home.

Johan the angry Frenchman cut somebody with a bottle and had to be taken away.

And the Romanian died in a fire. His charred corpse was found in the ruins of his trailer in Leitrim, or maybe it was Cavan. According to the newspaper the door had been chained from the outside. They said it was gang-related but they always said that about Romanians getting murdered. Albanians, too. Carl said it was Johan, but I’d already worked that out for myself. It was my first thought and the only way I could imagine it afterward. Whenever I thought about that fire, I saw Johan stalking out of the woods at night, drawing a chain through the trailer’s door handles and dousing the place in lighter fluid.

That spring I went out to the farm to buy a bag of clams. The two Irish guys were still there, but I didn’t know anyone else. The orange cat, they told me, had never turned up again. Maybe it was that spooky Malaysian fella, they suggested. He ate it! Or maybe the Romanian took the cat when he disappeared after Christmas—just split without a word of goodbye! And had I heard about what’d happened to him? Maybe the cat died with him in the fire.

They seemed to enjoy this possibility, but I doubted it was true. Gruesome details such as cats getting burned in fires were generally emphasized in our local newspaper’s disaster stories. If a cat had perished in that fire, it would have been noted. There might even have been a secondary story with its own headline.

The truth, of course, was that there was no way of knowing what had happened to Orange Juice. He was a cat and he’d vanished like cats sometimes do. Honestly, I didn’t really care. I’d never been a cat lover. For years, though, whenever I saw a stray orange cat in the street, I checked, out of habit, to see if it was him.

Pages: 1 2 3 | Single Page