Fiction: The Language of Crabs

Read More: A brief interview with Chelsea Sutton

The body wore blue corduroy pants. It was male. Approximately 20-25 years old. Found at 11:34pm on the northern part of Karasota Beach. A cigarette tucked behind his ear, lower-lid green eye-liner on both eyes, a scrap piece of lined yellow legal paper jammed into the tiny almost-faux pocket of the corduroys. On the legal paper was a note, in shaky black ball-point: Maybe the future / was never ours / written on bath stalls / of sad-sack bars.

The time, 11:34pm, was noted because 14-year old Sammie Gorey, who stumbled upon the body, was a fan of the Wendigo Girls, a band whose longest and most complicated song ran exactly 11 minutes and 34 seconds, the numeric value and meaning of which had been debated on internet forums since the invention of internet forums. Upon seeing the body, Sammie (in shock) turned away and happened to glance down at the oversized digital sports watch she’d inherited from her grandfather – the famous marathoner Edward G. Gorey (not to be confused with the famous morbid visual artist). The numbers 1 1 3 4 were, of course, significant enough to distract her for several minutes, so that her call to the police did not come until 11:40pm.

When the police dispatcher, Dave Glassky, got the call, he immediately tipped off the editor of the Karasota Caller, Claudette Benson, whom he had slept with, many years ago, when she had a particularly bad falling out with her husband Jack Benson (the not-as-famous-as-Edward-G.-Gorey marathoner, after he hurt his knee and ended his running career forever.) Dave figured that a dead body on a beach was the perfect bargaining chip for one more date – lunch, dinner, coffee, whatever you want Claudette. Claudette had settled for a mid-afternoon meetup at the Smoothie Shack in exchange for access to the crime scene.

Sammie’s mind had lingered on Jack Benson that night, as she sat alone in the salt and sand of the beach – a particular memory of his face as he watched her run. When her grandfather was busy on the road or doing interviews (being an 75 year-old marathon runner was quite a novelty), Jack would coach Sammie for her long distance track practice, and his stare could make her run faster, so she thought, though this was not reflected on her final times. She imagined that stare every time she wanted to run faster or think faster or make Time itself go just a little bit faster.

As it happens, the bit of writing in the body’s pocket were lyrics to another Wendigo Girls’ song, though not the one that is 11 minutes and 34 seconds long, and therefore not the one playing in Sammie’s mind as the cops and Claudette Benson marched down the beach to meet her and the body at 11:56pm.

How crazy would that be?

untitled

The detail that made the headlines, however, was not the blue corduroy pants or the green eyeliner or the time at which the body was found. The headline in the Karasota Caller was this: Local Singing Crab Meets Snapping Crab in Unexplained Death Investigation. From the beginning, death was the secondary story.

untitled

Sammie Gorey – a freshman at Karasota High School, home of The Snapping Crabs, and new recruit to the Varsity swim team, despite vigorous opposition from most of the senior team members, including Claudette and Jack’s daughter, Lydia – had been on the beach for several hours already before finding the body. It was nearly midnight when a crab scuttled across the icy sand and sat on the toes of her oversized combat boots.

Sammie still hadn’t spotted the sea monster the girls on her swim team had told her about, the one they sent her out to look for, to take a picture of, because all of us have done it and if you want to be a part of this team then you have to do it too and don’t come back to practice until you do.

Right before sunset, Sammie had tried swimming toward the green buoy bobbing around about a mile off shore, thinking that perhaps the sea monster might be more inclined to show itself further out into the murky salt water. But a quarter of a mile in, Sammie had turned back. She would say later, to the police, who questioned her still-wet jeans she’d pulled over her thin wetsuit pants and the dampness of her Varsity sweatshirt, that she just got cold, that the current was too strong, that her eyes were stinging. And she believed that. And so did they.

But it was really the growing darkness of the water that made her turn away from the green buoy, the effect of being able to see nothing much below her in the black water, and nothing above her in the overcast sky – not like swimming in the school’s pool with its chlorine and depth markers. It was the closest thing to nothingness Sammie had ever tasted, and so she went no further.

She admitted this many years later over several pints of Guinness during a reunion with a fellow high school swim team member. The darkness of the beer would make Sammie think of it. The void itself swallowing you up as little fish are nipping at your feet because there are always these fish around that want to eat the skin off your feet, you know them? Anyway, Sammie would say, how are you? How are the kids?

So, in her damp clothes Sammie sat on the cold beach with the crab sitting on her boot, her drift-wood color hair sticky on her forehead, her camera hanging around her neck, empty of sea monster photos. Sammie tugged at the waist of her pants where a small, slightly flabby belly was emerging, despite exercise and cutting out sugar cookies from her diet. Everything had the oozing smell of rotting fish, salted and stored for the winter.

The crab click-clacked itself higher up on Sammie’s boot, and she dug her heels deeper into the sand. There was a humming sound coming from the crab, but Sammie kept her eyes on the dark horizon line and the green buoy. She thought for a moment that maybe the girls had made the whole sea monster business up just to mess with her, which only made her want to stay more – there had to be something weird to take a photo of out here, something that could resemble a monster, and boy wouldn’t they be embarrassed. Wouldn’t they find Sammie amazing, wouldn’t they feel sorry.

The humming from the crab got louder.

And then humming turned into what almost seemed like human words, and the word-sounding noises turned into lyrics, until Sammie was listening to a crab belt out the rock hit “Fat Bottomed Girls” in pitch-perfect Freddie Mercury vibrant vibrato, alone on the beach in early December.

untitled

In her statement to the police, Sammie said that the crab sang its heart out until Sammie was paying full attention to it, and then switched quickly to a perfect rendition of the ‘90s Canadian alt-rock-almost-rap “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies and scuttled north along the beach. Sammie followed, of course, as the crab led her straight to the body with the blue corduroys, where they were met by a cast of other crabs that joined in on the final chorus of the song.

While Sammie took note of the time of 11:34pm and called the police, the crabs began an Ella Fitzgerald-style rendition of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

When the police arrived, they had moved on to the frenetic slippery sounds of “O’Death” by indie rock band Lowtide.

The real question of course being – US pop music is one thing. But how would Northern Pacific crabs even hear a Melbourne indie rock band, let alone memorize a perfectly appropriate song for this moment?

The crabs, along with the body, were taken into custody.

untitled

In her reviewing of the police reports, Claudette found Sammie’s proper use of the word “cast” to characterize a group of singing crabs dubious, to say the least.

“How would she know that?” Claudette asked her husband, Jack Benson.

“Did you pick up more pasta for dinner?” asked Jack. His eating habits hadn’t changed since he quit running marathons, and it was obvious. Claudette tried her best not to look too long at Jack, like you would an eclipse or an accident on the side of a freeway.

“Sammie didn’t kill that boy,” said Jack.

“That’s not what I was thinking,” said Claudette. It is what she was thinking.

untitled

At swim practice, Sammie showed the senior girls some of her pictures of the crabs. “They were super into posing,” said Sammie. “Like they needed something for their album cover.” She laughed.

The seniors of the Snapping Crabs Varsity Swim Team looked at Lydia Benson, the team captain, whose idea it had been to send Sammie out to find a sea monster in the first place. Can we laugh? They thought. We’d like to laugh.

Lydia snorted. “No pictures of the body, then?”

“The police took those.” Sammie tucked the crab photos back into her swim bag. She’d spent her last four dollars printing the photos at the kiosk in the pharmacy.

“I told you to find a sea monster,” said Lydia. “You musta got your brains all mushed up from too much chlorine. I mean I know this is your first year on the team and all, but you know you’re not supposed to drink pool water right?”

The other senior girls laughed. Lydia tore off her cover shirt, dove into the pool, and did her signature butterfly-stroke away from them. The senior girls admired Lydia’s slim body. Why can’t we look like her, they thought.

“I heard Lydia’s mom and dad have been fighting ever since they ran that picture of the body,” said one Snapping Crab.

“He was sorta cute,” said another.

“I heard they’re getting a divorce,” said one more.

“People have been saying that for years. Find a new rumor,” said the first. “People think the body is Lydia’s brother she never knew about. Or it was her dad’s, like, boyfriend or something.”

“He couldn’t get a guy that cute,” said another.

“You think Lydia’s dad is cute!” said one more.

“I meant the body. The boy. He was cute,” said another.

“You have a crush on Jack! You love old guys! You love beer guts!”

And they laughed and laughed. And forgot about Sammie.

untitled

Sammie had met Jack Benson years before, when her grandfather, Edward G. Gorey the famous marathoner trained Jack for a cross-country ultra-marathon. Jack, then 38, had run nearly every marathon in the US, though never came close to Edward G. Gorey’s time, even at the age of 75.

Sammie was only 8 years old at this time, but liked to jog beside them, would often sprint past them and leap and tumble over imaginary obstacles, like boxes or fallen trees, or baby elephants that had wandered into her path. She also liked to read all the fan mail her grandfather received (many people thought he was the morbid visual artist Edward Gorey), and tear each letter into tiny, tiny pieces. She’d sing Wendigo Girls songs to herself (send me through the air / I smell your twisted ears / listen to my stare / and hear my beating years) as she tore the written words apart, and on these runs she’d let the bits and pieces of the letters flow from her pockets, knowing and enjoying that the love from anonymous strangers had never reached their intended eyes, and now belonged to the wind and the grass and the race track and the sea gulls.

The romance of an 8-year-old.

“She’s quick,” said Jack most days. Or “she sure is fast,” or “she’s got some legs on her,” or “she’ll give us a run for our money.”

“You should see her in the water,” Edward G. Gorey always said in response.

More than once Jack wrote a fan letter to Sammie, hoping she might receive it in the pile of letters to her grandfather and tear it up, just like the others, so that his words, too, could billow behind her as she ran faster and faster away from her grandfather and himself, away from the men on the race track going in circles.

This is what Jack had always hoped would happen as he ran – that he might disappear into the wind itself, and perhaps this little girl, already so much faster, so much stronger, so much lighter than he would ever be, could help him be light too.

Nine out of the ten letters were simple. Keep running, Jack wrote. You’re the best out of all of us. I’d love to see you swim. Hope you keep it up! And he always signed Your Biggest Fan.

The tenth letter he wrote after a fight with Claudette. Teach me to be lighter, he wrote to Sammie, the 8-year-old. I feel as heavy as the ocean. And no one really knows what the ocean weighs, do they? Hold me. Run with me. Let me be light, like you.

He never sent the letters. But Sammie found them one day, folded under the seat of his truck when he sent her to grab his extra water bottles from the backseat while he and Edward G. Gorey stretched in the damp grass.

Sammie did not understand all the meanings of all the words in the letters, or in the odd order they were in from this odd old man, but they made her smile, they made her feel warmed up, like she was wrapped in a towel after a long swim in a very cold pool. So she took them.

Sammie tucked the letters into the elastic of her underwear and ran back to the men, water bottles in tow.

untitled

The days went by, and the crabs continued to sing. They were kept in a tank at the coroner’s office, always no farther than seven feet from the body with the blue corduroy pants. If they were moved to eight, or nine, or – heaven forbid – ten feet away, the crabs would sing the annoying electronic “Final Countdown” by Europe at a very high, very intense volume, non-stop, until moved back to an appropriate distance. Some of the artists the crabs covered were as follows: Third Eye Blind, Aretha Franklin, The Clash, Tom Waits, Selena, Metallica, Ricky Martin, Michael Jackson, The Lumineers, Rancid, and B.B. King. They did not sing any Wendigo Girls.

After reading this discovered crab rule in the Karasota Caller, Sammie called the police station to point out that the Wendigo Girls had several seven-minute songs whose meanings could be extracted to reflect this crab issue (seven minutes being parallel to the acceptable seven-foot distance) but the police were not concerned.

The crabs also covered a little-known garage band called Waffles & Eggs started by 13-year-old Dennis Mayhue – Sammie’s cousin – which lasted only six months, and had only one known fan (Dennis’ mother) and one original song titled “Does Wanda June Love Me?” The lyrics of which went as follows: Does Wanda June love me / does Wanda June care / does Wanda June see me / or am I not there?

The assistant coroner cried for days after hearing that one.

The body in the blue corduroy pants had no identification, no dental records, no relatives – at least no one who seemed to recognize his face, which had been posted in newspapers, social media feeds, bulletin boards in coffee houses, the local news. A face that was changing, ever so slightly, each day, despite refrigerators, despite formaldehyde, despite the crabs and their endless song.

But rumors were spinning. The body had athletic legs, like a long-distance runner, and the only other long-distance runners in town were Sammie’s grandfather and Jack Benson, who’d hurt his knee halfway through the ultra-marathon years before. Since then, he’d become a fisherman and spent his free time sinking deeper and deeper into the corner seat at the Pickle & Pub. It must be Jack or Edward, the rumors said. How many long-distance runners can there be in the world? Jealousy maybe! Murder! Intrigue!

And the crabs sang the folksy “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” by Bob Dylan, which only fueled the rumors since the name Jack was in the title, and the masses are not known for their nuance.

Jack and Claudette denied all connection to the body. “Jack is a fisherman now,” said Claudette in a weekly article she wrote and edited herself in the Karasota Caller. “He put all that running nonsense behind him.”

The police dispatcher Dave Glassky had a theory that the body in the blue corduroy pants was Jack’s illegitimate son and Claudette should leave him right away.

Most of the sophomore high school theatre kids thought they recognized the body as a theatre camp counselor from three towns over, but no one could remember his name.

Mrs. N. Franklin at the Karasota Dental Office thought his muscles also resembled that of a ballet dancer she’d seen in New York during a production of The Nutcracker (she was a sucker for a good pair of calves).

Claudette became more and more sure that Sammie herself had killed the body in the blue corduroy pants. Sammie had the same kind of muscles in her legs, like her grandfather and like past-Jack, though the girl was beginning the balloon up a bit despite all the exercise. Still, that was no reason to murder someone. Claudette demanded handwriting analysis on the note in the pocket of the blue corduroy pants.

Most of the staff of the postal office, Jimmy’s Café and Gentleman’s Club, and the volunteers at the local animal shelter believed the body was a spy and the lyrics were a secret message to his communist allies.

Still, most others circled back around to Jack and Edward G. Gorey. The various love triangles possible between the two and the body in the blue corduroy pants. The digital sports watch found on the body’s wrist. A sample box of coconut water found near the body on the beach that night, a sample box that could only, possibly, ever be given out at the end of a marathon.

But still, the crabs sang on.

untitled

Sammie had kept Jack’s letters stuffed between the slats in her bed frame, sleeping every night with his words under her feet. He still came over for breakfast some mornings – she’d wake to Jack and her grandfather talking low over coffee in the kitchen, their running shoes tied neatly in the Edward G. Gorey signature lacing knot, even though Jack didn’t run anymore, even though her grandfather urged him to heal, most of us have from something. She’d think about Jack’s letter. Hold me, it had said. Let me be light, like you. She had memorized it, repeated it to herself at night, lifted the pages to her nose for the sweat that had soaked into the paper.  She wanted to hold him, give him what he wanted. She liked the idea of being needed. But she didn’t know how. So she’d wave to Jack when she saw him by the docks in his fisherman overalls and wool jacket before heading out on the boats for the day. I feel as heavy as the ocean, he’d written, and she could see it, the whole ocean trapped behind three plastic buttons.

Jack’s wife Claudette had already written three editorials in the Karasota Caller, singling out Sammie as a suspect in the supposed murder of the body in the blue corduroy pants. Sammie thought she was finally understanding what Jack meant by heavy as the ocean. The Wendigo Girls had at least three songs that dealt with that sort of thing. So while people avoided her at school, and the rest of The Snapping Crabs laughed at her, and her teachers ignored her raised hand in class, Sammie would sing the Wendigo Girls to herself and imagine the kind of conversations Jack and Claudette might have had around the body in the blue corduroy pants. She did not know much about how married people might talk to each other, but she imagined it could go something like this:

untitled

Jack stumbles home, drunk, smelling of fish.

Claudette: Why are you so late coming home? Get caught in the rain?

Jack: Brought a crab home for dinner. Not good enough to sell. See? It’s all cracked down the middle.

Claudette: Doesn’t matter I guess.

Jack: Tastes the same.

Claudette: I mean, why you’re late.

Jack: Why is there shit stuck to the bottom of my frying pan?

Claudette: Guess who I saw today?

Jack: Do you know where the butter is?

Claudette: I was downtown and I catch sight of the Pickle & Pub.

Jack: I gotta eat this crab tonight. It’s ‘bout to go sour.

Claudette: And I stop in because why not?

Jack: Minced garlic. Don’t tell me we’re out of minced garlic.

Claudette: So I go in, all wet from the rain, and it’s real dark in there. And my eyes have to adjust. And I see somebody.

Jack: There it is.

Claudette: I just passed through, went right by this handsome man in blue corduroy pants and this Queen song was playing on the stereo, and blue corduroy was talking to somebody. Guess who?

Lydia enters.

Lydia: Mom, I want to know who you saw!

Claudette: (to Lydia) Thank you sweetie. (to Jack) I saw you. You and your grown son you never told me about.

Lydia: I have a brother?! My whole life has been turned upside down!

Jack: Are we going to eat dinner or not?

untitled

Another way Sammie imagined it:

Jack: I brought a crab home for dinner.

Claudette: I don’t want your crab. I don’t want you. I don’t want you sneaking around with some boy in blue corduroy pants – who wears corduroy pants? Corduroy is unforgiving – unforgivable – except in children. Children’s overalls like Lydia’s. Lydia had blue corduroy overalls when she was seven years old and it was the cutest thing. But it was not cute on this boy, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he was smiling at you, or that you were holding onto his left butt cheek and he had one hand in his pocket and the other on his drink so he couldn’t stop you, wouldn’t stop you. I’m talking purely from a fashion point of view – blue corduroy just won’t do. Not with his skin type – people with such dry skin shouldn’t wear corduroy at all, least of which such a dark shade. Made him look thin, too thin, like he was looking to disappear, like he was already a ghost being swallowed up by the night. I remember you asking me, when we were first dating, if I was going to be fat. Because my mom was fat. And you didn’t want me to get that way and you were seriously worried about it, or seemed to be in that moment, because, well, you asked me. A completely hurtful question, out of the blue, like well if you are that scared I’m going to be fat and fat is unacceptable, then maybe we should just stop now. But I didn’t say that, I said something like “I don’t know. Also, she’s not really fat.” And you said that yeah she was a little and you just didn’t want me getting fat too – and then it was quiet because what do you say – and then we just kept on. And I still don’t know if you think I’ve gotten fat like my mom – and my mom has lost so much weight now that it’s like, well, I’m probably definitely fatter than her now, but not fatter than her then, so where does that put me? Is that why you went to the bar with the guy in the corduroy pants? Because blue corduroy is less of a fashion faux-pas than being fat, is that it? But what’s the fat line? Is fat like shades of blue – like how at some point the color blue gets so deep and infinite that you can’t tell anymore if its blue or black or what, and at some point you don’t know where you even begin anymore or where you end or why you can’t fit into those blue corduroys that have been hanging in the back of your closet since college. Is that what you were afraid of, really? That I’d be such a deep shade of blue that I’d swallow you up?

(pause)

Jack: Where’s the butter?

untitled

Or, perhaps: […]


Subscribers can read the full version by logging in.
Not a subscriber? Sequestrum is a pay-what-you-can journal:
Our rates are variable so that everyone can enjoy outstanding literature.
Access this and all our bi-weekly publications (and submit for free).

Subscribe Today



___________________________________

Chelsea Sutton writes weird fiction and impossible plays and films. She was a 2016 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow, and she has just finished her first short story collection, Curious Monsters, which was the runner-Up for the 2018 Madeline P. Plonsker Emerging Writers Residency Prize. MFA UC Riverside. Chelseasutton.com

Read More: A brief interview with Chelsea Sutton