Don't look at me,” said Jill, “I don't know what to do with it!” The lobster lay on its back, head and tail rattling across the metal rim of the saucepan. My wife had done everything short of whacking him with a hammer to get him into the boiling water. For the lobster this was water ballet in a kiddie pool, and at one and a half pounds he - or “Po” as my daughter had dubbed him - was also the shrimpiest of the four.
“Maybe we should just buy a Dutch oven,” she shrugged.
A calculator lit up in my mind. “No, There's got to be some way to cook them without spending any more money.” I had just returned from a business trip to Maine where I bought these lobsters to make a good impression on my clients. They, being in the tourist trap business, felt obliged to take me to the most expensive market in Bangor. Whereas I, being in the travel agency business, felt obliged to effortlessly hand over large amounts of cash with unshaking hands, just as the rich aging tourists promised by my travel package would hopefully do. On both accounts we lost. At least I could still have some sort of peaceful dinner with the family.
Out of the styrofoam crate I lifted one of crustaceans and locked eyes with its beady black stalks. Hungry. Dinner. To me the lobster was a mottled green promise of dollar signs which never managed to materialize.
There was a tug at the bottom of my sports coat. It was my daughter wanting to take me on a tour of the lobster crate and show off what she had made of them. “That's Tinky-Winky. He's not the smart one.”
No, I thought while crouching down, I don’t believe he is.
“And that's La-La, and that's Dipsy, and that’s Po.”
“Hmmm. Tinky is not so smart? I guess that explains how he got here.”
I pick up Tinky and held the lobster at half an arm's length, just in case the rubber bands didn't hold. Tink’s movements were slow and arthritic. “So, missy, how do you suppose we dispose of this crusty devil? How on earth do we cook them with what we have?” The gas grill on the back porch caught my eye. “Grilled lobster anyone?” I had eaten countless grilled lobster tails at the Red Lobster, how hard could it be?
Tink screamed and I nearly dropped him. It was a piercing, shrill, fear-buttered scream. Lobsters don’t normally have vocal chords but after pinching up the love of the little girls who play with them, skittering and crawling their slimy selves across the kitchen floor, they grow voices quite quickly by proxy.
“How could you?” roared Jill, putting aside the saucepan and rushing to swab Julie’s eyes with a dish cloth.
“Yeah dad,” said Bill Jr. who fought with Julie more often than not, “That was pretty meeeean.” Of course he had also been wrangling a lobster of his own around the kitchen table. In two years he would be a teenager and instinctively taping cherry bombs to small animals and dropping them off highway overpasses. The traitor.
“What's the problem,” I asked. “We set the flames on high, stack them on the bun rack and lower them in.”
“IEEEEEeeeeeeeH!” screamed Tink, again by proxy.
If Jill had a gun she would have shot me full of holes for making such a suggestion. “Are you crazy? And what, listen to them bang around in there, burning alive!?”
I massaged the growing headache between my eyebrows, “And what do you think they do in the boiling water? That’s not the water follies they're practicing for.”
“But it’s different. It’s the way lobsters should be cooked. Let’s just get a Dutch oven. Walmart is still open.”
Walmart is always open. Ker-ching! Any more expenditures and I’ll have to tell you that I lost the sale and that we can’t afford a Dutch oven let alone a lobster dinner. We may not even be able to make next month's rent.
Jill took a teary-eyed Julie into the TV-room, popped her favorite tape into the VCR and hit play. Jill motored back into the kitchen followed soon by Julie with blanket in tow. Apparently mommy and daddy's little spats were a bit more interesting than teletubbie land. I wondered if any of them realized these lobsters were being slowly strangled by the air they couldn't breath while we bickered about the cruelty of their demise.
“Those creatures,” said Jill, mustering authority, “have got to be wayyyy dead before I even let you go near that grill.”
“How about this then. We put them on the grill. Turn on the gas, and that will put them to sleep. It'll be just like what they do with dogs down at the vets.”
Simultaneous, almost harmonious, “Ehhhwww!!!!!”
I had forgotten about cartoon logic where anything poisoned to death turns green and not in the least bit edible.
“They grill puppies at the pound!?” ghosted Bill Jr.
“No!” snapped Jill, “They do not grill dogs at the pound! And don’t you ever repeat that to anyone.” Jill was suddenly a fluster, breathing hard and mind spinning, as if she were on a game show and just barely latched onto the big answer of a question during the bonus round. “Besides…. Um. They’re aquatic! They only breathe underwater. Gassing them wouldn’t work.”
“Dogs breath underwater?” said Bill Jr.
Slightly huffed I countered, “They're suffocating now, and the longer we talk about it the worse it will be.”
At this Julie and Bill Jr. rounded up Tink and Po and put them back with La-La and Dipsy into the cesspool of salt water which remained in the styrofoam crate.
Jill tapped her teeth in thought. “Besides. You're not supposed to eat lobsters if they're dead.”
“So we eat them kicking and screaming.”
“Dead, before they’re cooked.”
“Not according to Paul Prudhomme.” I lied.
Jill had been born and raised Catholic on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. Betty Crocker could be scrutinized, but the big man - Master Paul Prudhomme - could not.
“Why don’t we just buy a dutch oven?”
“That water doesn’t have much air left in it,” I said, “They’ll smother before we even got through the check-out line.”
“Why not ask the neighbors,” offered Bill Jr. in a quiet and uncertain voice. “To borrow one?”
Jill and I looked at Bill as if questioning whether he was our own. Horrors, the neighbors. This is the 90's not the 70's. The community planning board was a distant cabal of high minded witches known only by unstamped letters left in the mailbox. Briefings, zoning ordinances, delineations, sometimes even veiled threats of legal action if we didn't tweak the lawn to their liking. Mister Roger's Sunny Gestapo of Happiness. Faces to be recognized, not known. Neighbors. You smiled at them in the morning and watched for them in the evening, hoping to catch one or another being busted on shows like Cops, America's Most Wanted, and the Real Stories of the Highway Patrol. Who actually knew who lived next door. Never trust the neighbors.
“I’ve got an idea!” I boldly pronounced, jumping on the cartoon logic bandwagon, “We give them the old chicken ax! Just the way Grandpa did back on the farm. I'll simply lop off their heads and throw the tails on the grill!”
Anything done on a farm was christened perfectly wholesome by the nature of the place. Of course we all knew that my father and his father before him had spent most of their lives in cities and suburbs, but it wasn’t lies that we were searching for, just a decent presentation of a solution for the situation. Jill crouched down and pulled a twitchy Po up out of the box.
“Problem honey. They ain't got no necks.”
I took a look for myself, slid my fingers on the salty brine of Tink's shell and - sure enough - all head and no neck. Just a face on a stump that was staring to spit up foam.
“Hmm. Maybe I'll just have to chop him off at the belly.”
Jill stood up. Even she was getting tired of this. “That's not going to kill the damn bug, not painlessly.”
“Do you have to keep saying 'kill' around the kids,” I snapped. “I'm not actually killing them. I'm. I'm putting them out of their misery.”
Picking up the styrofoam crate, I escorted the fab-foursome out onto the back porch, closing the screen door behind me. From the tool shed I produced a rusty ax and a slightly warped two-by-four — not Paul Pruhomme's preferred set of cooking utensils but we had electric heat and no fireplace. I was surprised to even find an axe.
Tink had been out of the water the longest, so it seemed only humane that he should go first. By this time I was losing track of who was who, so I randomly grabbed a lobster out of the box, named him Tink, and pinned him with one hand against the wooden board. I raised the axe up with the other.
The axe blade seemed to hang in the air, upheld by a grip which didn’t feel like my own. A weariness and then a tightness quivered from wrist to wrist across my chest. It wasn't a heart attack or a stroke, yet it was not completely unlike one either. It was a wavering band of unbendable uncertainty. Eyes squinted. Ax quaked. My fingers readied themselves to be accidentally lopped off by the rusty blade at any second. And then.
Whether out of regret or the magnification of close attention, Tink - with seaweed green and mottled chocolate dress, feathery gills, countless clicking joints and seemingly random outgrowths of horns and spires - was beginning to, to…. To look cute.
Oh gag me with a spoon!
His succulent two pound tail slapped the porch like a puppy.
But eat! We need to Eat! Eat! Eat!
The porch door creaked open behind me. Bill Jr. peeked out with little sister hiding in his shadow. Both stood as still as department store mannequins. Jill, certainly the puppeteer, was no where to be seen.
“Dad,” said Bill with staggering breath, “we don't want you to put them out of their misery.”
And that was it.
I dropped the axe, chunking its blade into the board. I put Tink back in the Styrofoam crate and ordered everyone out to the car. We scoured the town until we found a pet store that was open at 8 PM on a Saturday night. Pete's Fish and Fins in the Westhampton strip mall. Inside, I rallied the clerk to give our lobsters a home in one of his salt water tanks. Lloyd, the guy behind the counter, said he didn't normally do this sort of thing since there was no telling what kind of diseases seafood carried. But. For a small holding fee of $10 per lobster he would gladly set up a separate tank in the back which they could have, all to themselves, for as long as they lasted. Begrudgingly, I forked over the money.
Lloyd went about borrowing equipment from dead tanks and set up the aquarium. Once finished, the kids climbed a step ladder, removed the rubber bands from the lobster's claws and took turns dropping them into the newly filled tank. Gracefully the crustaceans floated to the bottom, flexed their tails and shot away on spinning legs to get as far away from us as possible. Po clawed one of La-La's antennas and ripped it free. La-la scurried back under the cover of Tink's tail. We laughed at their antics until it became evident that they were going to do nothing more than huddle in the corner like four disheveled refugees. Happily, we left to pick up some burgers and fries from a fast food joint on the other side of town.
A week later, under persistent nagging, I found myself driving everyone back out to the strip mall to check in on our expatriate dinner pets. Kids are supposed to be out of sight/out of mind people, but my kids are weird. They never forget anything except what Jill and I expect them to remember. Lloyd was behind the counter. The lobster tank was dry of all but a scatter of blue gravel and a wisp of salt on the glass. I rang the bell to get his attention even though he was standing in front of me.
With a slight stutter Lloyd told us of a rich industrialist who, during the week, had come into the store looking to stock his “humongous replica of an actual coral reef at home.” The man volunteered to take our lobsters under his wing, free of charge. Unfortunately, the man’s mansion is in Chicago and far out of our reach, even if we were to go there.
I smelled Lloyd's stool sample the moment his face curled up to speak. We weren't regulars. He had hedged a bet we would never return, and certainly Dipsy, La-la, Po, and Tinky Winky never made it past his stove top last Saturday night. But I wasn’t angry. My $20 had bought me a lie. Not a quality lie, but one good enough to fool the kids for at least the immediate future. Maybe someday we would reminisce over a distant dinner and try to fact check our fractured memories into cohesive whole, but by that time it would no longer matter.
Nowadays, the night comes on and like clockwork I watch Cops and True Stories of the Highway Patrol. Every mosaic on every criminal’s face I unscramble into a picture of Lloyd. Lloyd, white male, middle fifties, occupation pet store clerk. Lloyd pulled over for drunken driving. Lloyd dragged out of his home for domestic abuse. Lloyd whipped with billy clubs on the side of highway for no apparent reason. Lloyd, frozen in his kitchen under the prying eyes of FBI Agents with flashlights, caught raising a succulent fork of claw meat to his pale puffy lips, hot butter shining on his chin.
Sometimes, at around 3 AM, I sneak out of the house and walk across the field behind it, past the billboards to where an all night car wash glows. There a black pay phone stands beneath the brilliant arc of a vapor lamp. I want to pick up the receiver and dial Lloyd's house, ask him how good it tasted, ask him to describe every last steaming apple freckled Old Bay seasoned bite of it. Was it as good as the commercials? Lloyd? But I don’t know his number. I don’t know his last name. I only know where he works and that is already too much to know. Sometimes I fear what might happen if I knew any more.