The Crayfish

by Raymond Strom

On my twentieth birthday, my mother called me with news that she had bought a restaurant on the shore of Lake Superior. Against the advice of everyone I knew, I made plans to go to the grand opening in October. The way my mother told it, I would get some free food and I'd also spend some time with my half-brother and half-sister, whom I had never met. I tried to get my brother to come with me but he had a solid excuse: his girlfriend was due to give birth the same weekend. So when the day came around I went to the Greyhound station alone and made the five hour bus trip in the rain. 

My mother was waiting for me at the bus stop, a gas station on the main road in Ashland. When I got off the bus she gave me in a hug and then walked me toward a black truck.

"Is this new?" I asked when we got inside.

"It's two years old," she said and smiled. "I had a little money left over from the loan for the restaurant."

She pulled onto the road and it began to rain. My mother switched on her windshield wipers.

"Look at that," she said, pointing at the windshield wipers.
"Nice," I said.

She turned on the radio.

"I wish Graham could have come," she said. Then she said: "It's cold."

"Yes, it is."

"Brrr," she said and shivered. A strand of gray hair came out of her ponytail and hung in her face. Still, she looked very young. The skin around her eyes was smooth, her lips were full but her mouth was small on her face. Her eyes glittered and this made her irises seem darker as if they were black instead of brown. I could see why my mother had gotten in so much trouble years before--she could do anything she wanted with those eyes. That sparkle of innocence could cause even the sternest of people to melt and forgive her for whatever it was that she had done.

We passed the coal plant, a yellow pyramid of sheet metal with large smoke stacks from which steam clouds rose to meet the rain clouds in the sky. The sky was grey and the lake was brown--a cloudy puddle of fresh water and clay. The bay was shallow and even light rains stirred up the bottom of the lake. Across the bay I saw the houses of Washburn peeking through the pine forests. Long sandy beaches peppered with leafy trees and seagulls lay between the coal plant and my mother's restaurant. White herons stalked up and down the shoreline on long legs hunting in the shallow water.

We arrived at the restaurant and my mother parked next to the only other car in the lot. She left the keys in the ignition and we went inside. A red faced man with a head full of thick dark hair stood behind the bar and was talking to two young women. The man wore blue jeans and a red flannel shirt with no undershirt. Chest hair sprouted from the open collar of his shirt. His sleeves were rolled up and his hands were palm down on the bar, one in front of each woman. My mother and I took seats at the bar. The man finished what he was saying to the women and walked over to us. He leaned over the bar and kissed my mother on the cheek.

"David," she began, "this is..."

"The Fisherman," the man interrupted. He lifted his large hand to be shaken. I had to reach up and grab his hand at an awkward angle. He gripped my four fingers and shook them, then he said, "What kind of handshake is that?" Then he laughed.

My mother laughed.

"Fuck you both," I said under my breath. I took off my stocking cap and my hair fell down around my shoulders.

"What the fuck is that?" the Fisherman asked.

"Can I have a beer?" I asked.

"How old are you?" the Fisherman asked.

I didn't answer. He walked over by the two other women and dug into a cooler. One of the ladies said something and he stopped to talk to them.

"He's the best thing that's ever happened to me," my mother whispered. "Look at him."

"What happened to John?" I asked her. It was a valid question since John was her husband and this man was not, but she didn't answer, instead we watched the Fisherman. He smiled at the ladies and put ice in two glasses. He filled the glasses with brandy, then he put an orange and a cherry in one and a splash of water in the other. He picked up the drinks and carried them over to us.

"Brandy old-fashioned for the lady," he said. "And brandy and water for the Fisherman. Cheers." He raised his glass.

"Will you get David his beer, baby?" my mother asked.

He set his glass down, went back to the cooler and found me a beer, which he left unopened in front of me, before picking up his glass, raising it toward us and drinking it all in one gulp. He tossed the ice in the sink and put the glass down.

"So this is it?" I asked, gesturing toward the restaurant around us.

"Yep," my mother answered. "This is going to be a nice place. We have one menu item that costs sixty dollars."

"Wow."

"If everything goes as planned we'll be rich. We just have to pay off that credit card and we'll be in the clear."

"Credit card?"

"A business card," she said. "It's like a loan but it's a card."

I looked around the bar. It was well stocked. Behind the three levels of liquor bottles was a large mirror. At the far end of the bar were giant cocktail glasses. I pointed at them and asked: 
"What are those for?"

"Family-style margaritas," my mother answered. "Should we get out of here?"

I looked down at my still unopened beer. "Yes," I said.

"Hey, baby," my mother called to the Fisherman. "Get Susan to cover the bar. We're going drinking." Then to me she said: "You remember your cousin Susan, right?"

I remembered Susan but didn't expect that the beautiful woman who entered the bar was her. She walked behind the counter and began to wash glasses, her loose blonde hair bounced on her shoulders with the up and down motion of her hands in the sink. The Fisherman stared at her hungrily. As my mother and I walked toward the door my mother shook him out of his daze with a shout: "Get your coat, baby. Let's go."

The second bar that we went to was called The Laughing Heron. A workingman's bar, it was dark and the tables and chairs were made of raw lumber. The aisle between the tables and the bar was packed with men who looked like they had spent most of their lives laboring. I noticed some painters, some fishermen, one man who worked either in a coal mine or in the foundry, and a large group of men who apparently spent all their time lifting things that were very heavy because they all had biceps the size of my thigh. 
"So what happened with John?" I asked my mother again. She had just told me that I wouldn't be seeing him or my half-brother and half-sister.

"He's probably getting it from behind," the Fisherman said and laughed. "Do you want me to tell this story?" he asked my mother.

She nodded and then looked down into her beer.

"One day your mother was at the restaurant and she spilled shit all over her pants. So she drove home quick to change and she walked in to see your step-dad face down on the kitchen table with a dick in his ass. I'll spare you the details, but your mother went up and changed her pants and then went back to work."

"I knew there was something wrong with him," my mother said. "He never cared when I gained weight. He once told me 'Carolyn, you can get as fat as you want.'"

"Maybe he loved you for who you were," I said.

"That guy only loves cock," the Fisherman said.

"We only had sex once, David," my mother said, looking up from her beer. "Nine months later, the twins were born."

"He was a fag. I'm going to piss." The Fisherman got up quickly and his chair fell backwards. He looked down at it then walked toward the bathroom. My mother stood, picked up his chair, and then sat back down.

"I really screwed up when I left your father," my mother said. "I haven't had the best luck with men since him. Richard left me. John is, well, whatever happened with John. There were others, too. In Arkansas, I knew a man, a rich man and I don't know. Every time I get what I want something changes inside me and I want something else."

Before she could go on the man next to me swung his arm back and knocked the beer out of my hand. It fell to the floor and broke. Beer sprayed all over the feet of the man and my mother. He turned to me and said:

"Watch what the fuck you're doing, pretty boy." His sideburns went down his jaw line, up around his mouth and joined his mustache--his chin was clean shaven.

"What did you just say to my son?" my mother yelled, rising from her seat.

"I told your faggot son to watch what the fuck he was doing," the man yelled back.

"You better watch who you're talking to," the Fisherman said from behind us. "We're going to leave but you better hope I don't see you again."

"Fuck you," the man said and turned away from us.

My mother paid our tab and we left.

+++

The Fisherman and I sat at my mother's table after she went to bed. He sat at the head and I sat to his right. In front of us was a bottle of brandy, a bottle of water and a bottle of coke. A dim light burned in the corner of the room.

"I once had sex with five women at the same time," he told me.

I sipped from my brandy and coke, wondering what this boded for my mother.

"You could probably do that," he said. I looked up at him. "I could get you a job as a male escort. You've got the face for it, but you'd have to cut that fucking hair away from it."

Outside, the rain dripped from the eaves.

"I'd have to see your cock, of course."

I didn't answer.

"I love blondes. Blondes with Heavenly Bodies. That's the name of my club in Chicago. I'm part owner."

I hoped my silence would encourage him to change the subject.

"Blondes get me into trouble with your mother. There are a couple of girls at your mother's restaurant I'd like to fuck, like your cousin Susan."

Before I could answer the Fisherman stood and went to the kitchen. He came back with an ice cube tray. He put one cube in his glass and three in mine, he brought the tray back to the kitchen, and returned empty handed. When he sat back down he filled his glass very near the top with brandy and added a few drops of water. He drank half of the glass in one swallow.

I poured myself one finger of brandy and four fingers of cola. I lit a cigarette and looked up at the Fisherman.

"So I rubbed their cunts with my feet, I had one riding my cock, I finger fucked one of them and one sat on my face," he said and his eyes went soft in the memory. He smiled at the ceiling then turned his eyes back to me. "Five women at the same time, and they paid me to do it. Really, you could do it, too. You could make a thousand dollars a weekend, and all you would be doing is fucking women."

"I couldn't do that," I told him and reached for my drink.

He grabbed my arm with his large hand and dug his fingernails into the soft underside of my wrist. He spoke forcefully through his clenched teeth:

"Show me your cock."

He pulled me out of the chair and stood me up. He pushed me backwards up against the wall. I reached for my belt with my left hand and began to unbuckle it. He let go of my right arm and with both hands I dropped my pants. I stood there with my eyes closed. When I opened them the Fisherman was sitting again. He was staring.

"You couldn't even please one woman with that little thing," he said and laughed.

The phone began to ring in the kitchen. I pulled up my pants, walked past the Fisherman into kitchen and picked up the receiver. It was Graham.

"How does it feel to be an uncle?" he said.

"I don't know why I came here," I said, but he was so excited that he didn't notice. As he began to tell me about his baby boy, my mother came down the stairs and the Fisherman came in from the dining room. At a pause in the conversation I passed the phone to my mother and went up to my room.

After a time I heard a crash in the kitchen and my mother yelled. The Fisherman yelled back. They fought for a while and I thought at first that I should go stop it but a voice in my head told me that it was no longer my business. After that, I fell asleep.

When I woke up and went downstairs the Fisherman was still awake and still drinking. He looked up at me and smiled over a half glass of brandy. His eyes were red and his hair was messy but otherwise he seemed unfazed.

"I told your mother that you showed me your cock last night," he said. "We had a good laugh about it." He lifted his glass as if toasting me and then drained it.

I walked past him to the bathroom.

"And you need a fucking haircut."

+++

The Fisherman and I stopped at a bar on the way to the barber shop. I had a bloody mary. The Fisherman had three brandy and waters. We drank in silence until he was halfway done with his second drink.

"You need to start taking care of your self," he began. "You're all mousy and queer looking. You need to look sharp. Get a haircut every two weeks, I mean a short hair cut, not any of this hippie bullshit. Trim your fingernails. What do you do for fun?"

"Read, mostly."

"Stop doing that. Go dancing. You got to go to where the pussy is. Trim your pubic hair, for Christ's sake, and get a god damn sun tan."

The bartender interrupted us and asked the Fisherman if he had paged someone from the telephone. The Fisherman said yes and ordered another drink.

"It's the barber. I told them to call when a spot opened up. I'll go tell them that we're on our way."

He went off to the phone and I finished my drink. When he returned he drank his new drink in one swallow, set a twenty on the bar, and then we left. It was raining again. He drove me two blocks and pointed.

"That's the barber shop. I'll pick you up in twenty-five minutes."

I got out and ran through the rain to the door. I walked in and said:

"My name is David and I have an appointment for right now."

The receptionist had long blonde hair with bangs.

"We don't take reservations," she said.

"My mother's friend called here to set something up for me."

"We can give you a haircut. It's no big deal. There is no one waiting."

After my haircut I reached down and picked up a clump of my hair. The barber had taken off about a foot. I looked like a respectable young man in the mirror. My hair was short and stood up from my scalp in little spikes. It was so different that I couldn't stop looking at myself in the mirror and almost didn't even notice that two hours passed before the Fisherman came to pick me up. I didn't ask him where he had been.

My mother made a huge fuss about my haircut then handed me a hundred dollar bill and said, "I want you to help out tonight. If anyone asks you for anything, do it. I have a lobster in back for your dinner."

I put the money in my pocket and walked out into the dining room. The restaurant was very nice. Each table was set with a white table cloth, wine glasses, fresh roses, and candles. Each seat had a cloth napkin, two forks, two knives and a spoon. The tables by the windows had nice views of the lake and the forests on the other side of the lake. Just before sunset I saw a heron stalking through the shallow water near the shore, hunting. As I watched it, the bird stopped, posed on one leg, and then struck. In the last light of the evening I saw it take its prey from the water--a crayfish hung from its beak.

The people had come slowly at first, but by eight o'clock the restaurant was full. I followed the Fisherman around the dining room and watched him stare at my cousin. Apparently, he had no purpose or function as a manager and as if to prove this ordered dinner at eight thirty, while the dining room was still full. He had crab legs, lobster, steak and a large beer. Halfway through his meal he got up and went to find Susan. He asked her if she would melt him some more butter and bring him another beer. She brought him the butter and after she set it down he grabbed her wrist and pulled her face toward his. He licked her from her chin to her ear, pushed her away. He told her that she forgot his fucking beer then picked up his silverware and went back to his meal.

Susan saw that I had seen what happened and approached me later that night.

"You have to say something," Susan told me. "She's your mother. He's taking her for a ride and she doesn't even know."

"If she cared what I thought," I told her, putting my hands up in defense, "she never would have left me."

My cousin walked away, disgusted.

After the dinner business was finished I asked my mother to bring me to her house so I could go to sleep, because the bus was coming the next morning at five thirty. She tried to get me to stay and eat my lobster but I told her that I'd rather just leave.

 

Raymond Strom was awarded the 2009 Henry Roth Memorial Scholarship for "The Crayfish."