* * * * *
OF CLAMS AND MEN
The garvey engines idled at the starting line. When the referee's green flag dropped, they roared loud as tornadoes, and the flat-bottomed boats took off, churning up the bay's murky bottom and spreading giant plumes of spray behind them.
From the water's edge, hundreds of boat-racing fans shouted, stomped, and clapped for their favorites. I yelled my head off for Erik Johanssen on the Stella Rae. At 18, Erik was ten years older than I was, he had built his own boat, named it after his girl, and was about to win the semifinals to the cheers of the crowd. I wanted to be like him—not in ten years, but right then. Of course, I would never have his white-blond hair, blue eyes, and dark tanned skin. But I would settle for being a red-haired, lightly freckled version of him, as long as I could have my own fast boat and be my own man.
When Erik won his heat easily, a throng of people waited on the shore to congratulate him and claim prime viewing space for the next semifinal. I sprinted up the bay beach toward the briny scent of steaming clams, which rose from makeshift racks over a pit of glowing coals. As part of the Alton Beach Men's Association, which sponsored The Annual Garvey Race and Clambake, my father took his turn at the clam stand, which sold clams steamed or raw. At the stand, Dad worked the raw bar, shucking littlenecks and cherrystones and setting them on ice. Between heats of the earlier races, he got so busy that his clams on the half-shell didn't even make it to the ice.
Now that it was mid-afternoon and most of the spectators had already eaten their lunch, his business had slowed considerably. Dad watched me trot across the sand and waved a tanned arm. "Hey. How's the boy?"
"Dad!" I felt the tips of my ears turn pink and as hot as the sun-beaten sand. "Don't call me that." We had talked about this the week before, and he had agreed not to treat me like a kid anymore.
"Sorry about that, Kevin. It's hard to break old habits, I guess." He shucked a clam, squirted a few drops of lemon juice on it, tipped his head back, and sucked it down with a loud "sloup." Squinting against the sun, he washed the clam down with beer from a tall, red-and-white, paper cup. "How are the races going?"
"Great! Erik was first in his semifinal. I think he'll win the whole thing." I filled Dad in on everything he had missed. He listened intently, slicing lemons, shucking clams, and occasionally gulping one down.
"You ought to try these littlenecks. They're incredible. Really fresh." He repeated the squirt of lemon, tip of the head, and strange slurping noise.
"Dad, those clams are raw. They're still wiggling."
"That's how you know they're good! You've got to get them while they're still alive and kicking. You know Charlie Byers, down on Sixth Street? He and his sons have been raking up these little beauties all day. Every couple of hours, they bring in a fresh batch, and I ice them down right away." Shuck, squirt, tip, slurp.
It seemed to me, then, savage—almost cannibalistic—to eat something while it was still alive. It was dreadful and fascinating all at once, like the dead mallards Dad brought home after a morning's hunt. He would tie the birds together by their feet, and their emerald green heads would dangle from their long slack necks as he hiked home from the duck blind, his gun over his shoulder and our retriever Ginger trotting at his side. The first time I saw his catch, I spotted drops of dried blood that had trickled from the corner of the beak to the cold breast feathers. A glassy brown eye stared up at the sky, vacantly, helplessly. For a moment, I felt the world contract to fill that eye. It was a simple world, a world of "Eat or be eaten." In this perfectly balanced world, the central problem could be solved by only one equation, in which life and death cancelled each other out and the answer was an infinitely repeating number. I often shivered at the thought of it.
"I don't know, Dad." I eyed the small icy mountain of littlenecks suspiciously. "I heard you can die if you eat a bad clam."
"That's no problem. Just don't eat a bad one." He picked out two clams and handed me one. His voice dropped slightly. "Let me tell you a secret or two about clams." I leaned in.
"Here, look at the clam's mouth. See how yours is shut tight and mine is open a little? Well, yours is fresh, but mine might not be. I'm going to see if a little heart massage can bring it back to life." He squeezed the clam between his fingers and thumb a couple of times, and the clam clamped its shell closed. "Looks like this clam's still got some kick left in him."
"Now give your clam a sniff, like this." He closed his eyes and inhaled extravagantly as if trying to take in the essence of all clam-ness through his nose.
Gingerly, I put my nose near the clam's mouth, closed my eyes, and inhaled. "It smells kind of ocean-y, I guess."
"Good. It should smell clean, too. Not stinky, like rotten fish."
Then he handed me his clam. "Try tapping our clams together gently. You can roll them together here if you want." He cleared a small space at the cool, shaded end of the stand.
From opposite ends of the small working space, the clams wobbled toward each other. They collided with a solid "pock," like pool balls on the green felt tables at BJ's House of Billiards, where I was allowed to watch but not play because I was underage.
"That sound means they're full of the good stuff—clam meat and juice." A broad smile washed over his nut-brown face. "And that means we've got ourselves a couple of live ones, here."
"Good!" Thinking that I'd somehow passed the clam-inspection test, I felt highly satisfied with myself.
Dad's clam was back in the heel of his hand as he slipped the clam knife between its shells. "How about it then? Are you game?" With a few deft moves, he sliced the meat from the top shell, ripped off that shell, tossed it into the growing pile, and loosened the meat from the bottom shell.
"Game for what?" I wasn't sure if he was thinking of promoting me to clam inspector or apprentice shucker.
"To try these gems." Squirt, tip, slurp. His clam was gone. "Here, I'll open yours for you. Shucking can be tough." He already had my clam in one hand and his knife in the other. In the blur of the rocking blade and a hastily tossed top shell, it dawned on me: He meant for me to eat this clam—alive.
He set my clam down before me like a sacrament. Its briny broth glistened on the sparkling salver of its shell. It did smell clean, sweet, and kind of ocean-y. But for a second, I thought I saw it move and I remembered how Dad's clam had pulled its shells tight around it. I'd have done the same if someone wanted to eat me.
"I don't know, Dad. I don't think I'm gonna like it." By this time, Dad had shucked himself another littleneck and seemed to be waiting for me.
"How do you know until you try? You've never eaten a raw clam before." He took a few slugs of beer and looked thoughtful. Just then, a few garvey racers came up to the stand. They cleaned out Dad's stockpile of clams on the half-shell, paid up, and moved on. Then Erik Johanssen loped up to the stand.
Erik thumped my Dad on the back. "Hi, Sam." I marveled at Erik's ease and familiarity. He had joined the Men's Association earlier that year, and already he and Dad were like brothers.
"Hey, Erik. I hear you're really ripping up the bay today." Dad elbowed Erik in the side and returned to shucking.
"Yeah, I'm doing pretty well. At least, I made it through the semifinals."
"Pretty well?" I interrupted. "You're doing great! You're blowing all those other boats out of the water."
"Erik, you know my b…" I glared so Dad wouldn't call me a "boy" again. "…uh, my son Kevin? He's a big fan of yours."
"Oh, sure. I heard him shouting from the beach." He nodded and turned his dark sunglasses toward me. "Thanks for your support. I need it."
"Are you kidding?" I squeaked and then cleared my throat. "You're going to win it all! No problem."
"Well, let's toast to that." Dad handed Erik a few newly shucked clams and took a couple for himself. Mine was still staring at me from the ice where he had left it.
Dad lifted his clam in salute. "Here's to the man who's going to win the race." I lifted my clam, but my stomach flopped wildly like a just-caught fish trying to shake off the hook and slip back into the water. Dad clinked the edge of his shell against Erik's and mine. "Down the hatch." He tipped his head back and swallowed, his neck stretched long like a heron's gulping down a baby frog. The soon-to-be hero of the Men's Association did the same. My lips pressed themselves tightly against each other, and I set my clam back down.
Erik touched the brim of his cap, signaling his thanks, and returned Dad's toast. "Here's to the men who cheer the winner on." Again, they clinked shells and swallowed their clams with gusto. My stomach tightened itself into a small ball, as if it somehow wanted to hide from an assault of living flesh.
"Hey, Kevin. You haven't touched your clam." Dad seemed shocked. "Don't you want to toast the pride of the Alton Beach Men's Association?"
I shook my head and felt the blood rising into my ears again. I didn't want Erik to think that I wasn't supporting him 110 percent. I wanted to explain, but my guts were feeling stormy and I was afraid to open my mouth.
"Sam, it's no big deal. You can't expect a kid to like raw clams."
"But Kevin's no kid."
"Really?" Erik lowered his sunglasses to get a better look at me.
"Yeah." Dad shucked a couple more clams. "Just last week, he told me he wanted to be treated like a man, do the things men do." He handed Erik another clam and kept one for himself. "And you know what that means." Again, Dad lifted his clam in salute. "Here's to you, Kevin." Erik raised his shell to meet Dad's.
Then they both looked at me.
I willed my shaking hand to pick up my clam and clink it against their shells. The man in me pried my lips apart, shouted "Down the hatch," and quickly tossed the clam toward the back of my throat. I tipped my head and let the clam slide down. It was sickening, like salty snot with lumps and a life of its own.
My stomach heaved in revolt, and I tried to shake off the shiver of disgust that was creeping up my spine. Suddenly, I was acutely aware of the scent of clams mixed with the smell of boat fuel, and I felt queasy and green all over.
But Erik shook my hand, and Dad clapped me on the back, congratulating me on facing down the raw clam. "How about another?"
"No thanks. I want to go watch the boats get ready for the final." I knew the truth would disappoint him. In reality, I was planning to lie down in the tall reeds until I felt better or threw up, whichever came first.
"See you later, my man!" Dad called proudly. As I jogged off, I realized that being a man was going to be trickier than it seemed.
When his mother told him the clam story, the day was a little moist and tangy, somewhat like the day she would now try to reconstruct for him. She began by describing for her son the seriousness he'd shown on his face, and the chubby fingers working to pull apart the two shells that were the color of sidewalks. She told him (now he rolled his eyes) about his cheeks, how they seemed filled with amazement at the strange chewy flesh of the clam.
Now, who's to say what he felt touching those clams for the first time? Not even him, since he didn't remember. He was just three at the time, a little boy in a blue Hawaiian shirt, huge pink blossoms exploding all over, the sort of shirt he would object to strongly now.
Since her memory wasn't perfect either, his mother invented the exact weather, recalled the fizzy seashore air, and also how the sun shone off the bright aluminum clapboards of the cottage.
Now fifteen, he had been "down the Shore" many times with his father and the new family, and could supply some reliable details of his own. He figured in the snap of flags along the beach, the yip of dogs in the too-close yards of neighbors.
Being a teenager, he needed to add the gaudy lights of boardwalk rides, and the cheap T-shirts and CDs he could buy there, too. She didn't know, of course, that he was adding these brushstrokes to her story, or she would have pointed out that they didn't apply to his toddler self. Things were different back then.
What was good for her, she thought, telling her son this story, which she was so glad she'd remembered, was that she could tell it the way she wanted it heard. It was just she and her son standing now in their kitchen, and the day was of similar weather.
She described for him how all the grownups were so surprised that after that first clam, he reached for another - and another! She said "all the grownups" when she told him the story, realizing that she'd not specifically mentioned his father.
She told her son how he finished the whole plate of nearly twelve, and how they all laughed when he looked up and exclaimed, so clearly, "Wow, those were great mushrooms!"
She waited now for him to react to the word "mushrooms," which he almost missed.
Oh, he understood then, after a few seconds; he had mistaken one thing for another.
Yes, she said, the clams felt so like mushrooms in his mouth, she guessed—the chewiness, the darkness of them. She would have said "earthiness," but earth and sea were so different, weren't they?
He smiled. He'd been picturing himself on his new surfboard, able to stand up finally, for the first time, riding that green shimmery water right into the beach, without falling, as he had done just a couple of weeks ago on his annual shore vacation with his father and stepmother.
His mother smiled, and suddenly remembered the first time she'd been to the seaside cottage with his father, some years before the clam-eating incident, before the boy was born. She saw herself lying on the beach, when the first shooting star she had ever seen came right down toward her. She screamed, and jumped up, thinking someone had shot off a firework of some kind. The boy's father had laughed, and she remembered feeling so foolish and stupid in front of him. But soon she laughed, too. It was funny that, somehow, she'd mistaken the star for something else altogether.
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Melissa Montimurro lives with her husband and four sons in rural northwestern New Jersey, where she
teaches writing workshops in the schools and in private and group home settings. Her work has
appeared or is forthcoming in Kalliope, Literal Latte, Bugle, Iris, Runes Review, Clay Palm Review,
ForPoetry.com, three candles, Snowy Egret, Tundra, American Tanka, The Comstock Review, and others.
Her chapbook, Onion Festival Seeks Queen, in which "Shooting Star" first appeared, was released
this spring from Pudding House Publications.
Nancy Priff, as well as being a writer of stories and poems, has written and edited more than 75 videos on medical and
health-related topics as well as dozens of books and supplementary materials
for health-care professionals.
Although she currently lives in Ambler, Pennsylvania, she was raised on Long
Beach Island and spent the first half of her life in South Jersey.