I woke up in a puddle of drool, only that’s not what it felt like. It was a hot evening in late July and I had fallen asleep with my face mashed against the vinyl seat of our Country Squire station wagon, mouth wide open. Drifting for a moment in that space between awake and asleep, it felt like my face and the seat were melting and mixing into a thin paste that would harden as it cooled and leave me stuck to the seat forever.
It wasn’t the drool alone that pulled me fully awake; it was also the sound. The driveway at the beach house was topped with a mixture of crushed clamshells and gravel and the sound of our tires on that driveway came up through the rubber and steel of the car and into my toes, my stomach, my teeth, my ears.
The drive from our house in Wilmington took about two hours, even though it was only 70 miles away. In spite of my excitement about a week at the beach house, I didn’t usually stay awake for the whole trip. Inevitably, we would make the drive on a summer Friday evening with beach-bound traffic clogging the roads. My parents’ voices would blend with the murmuring voices on the radio and the hum of the engine into a potent spell that could lull me asleep in minutes if I wasn’t careful.
I wanted to stay awake so I could see the Dover Air Force Base. The route to the beach house took us right past the main gates. If we were lucky and our timing was right, I could roll down my window, stick my head all the way out, and stare up at the huge transport planes floating just above the highway as they slowed for a landing. They looked unreal hanging there in the sky as their shadows chased our car south. It wasn’t until years later, when the Marine barracks was blown up in Lebanon that I learned Dover Air Force Base is used as a morgue by the military. When I found out it added new weight to those long-gone transports floating above our car.
Once we passed the base I felt okay about going to sleep. I would climb into the back-back and lie down next to my brother Jerry or spread out on the middle seat by myself. Sleep came quickly with that spell in the car.
When we arrived that first evening, Uncle Vince and my cousin Donna were out in the water with their long-handled crab nets. There were ten lines set, each with a raw chicken neck tied on as bait. They were walking slowly through the stomach-deep water going from line to line, checking for crabs. Just offshore, in a few inches of water, sat a wooden bushel basket with quarter-inch gaps between the slats. Jerry and I kicked off our shoes and walked out to the basket to see how many crabs were inside. The water soothed my stub-toed suburban summer feet.
There were about forty crabs in the basket, all of them blueclaws. The one on top was a mudder. It was much bigger than the other crabs in the basket and much more lively. It had used its size and strength to continuously fight its way to the top of the heap all day, even as new crabs joined the crowd. When we came near to look in it raised its claws menacingly and brandished them the entire time we stood there.
The slanting sun threw a warm light on the dark blue coloring the sides of the raised claws. The crabs’ shells were a shade of green that just matched the color of the water—a rich, deep green somewhere between olives and pines.
I looked up from the basket and out to my uncle, who was standing next to one of the broomsticks we used to anchor the crab lines. One end of the broomstick was pushed into the sand at the bottom of the bay and the other end poked out of the waves to mark the location of the line. The stick had thirty or forty feet of heavy cotton twine tied on near the end above the water line. Tied to the other end of the string, sitting on the rippled sandy bottom, was a chicken neck. The row of broomsticks protruding from the water made a dotted line parallel to the shore about fifty feet out in the Bay.
My uncle had the string in his right hand, letting it run over his flattened palm and fingers as he stalked out toward the bait. The crab net was in his left hand, its long handle sticking out from his armpit and pointing back at us on the beach, gathered around the basket.
The small waves were rocking the basket of crabs rhythmically against my shins as I watched him inch his way out. He walked so slowly with his legs under the surface that the only way I knew he was walking at all was the increasing distance between him and the broomstick. From where I was standing I could see the muscles of his back and shoulders tense a little. It looked like his legless torso was slowly drifting out into the bay.
He stopped. The only movement was his right arm pulling the string to raise the chicken neck an inch or two off the bottom. Then even his arm stopped and he stood perfectly still, washed in the glow of the low-angled orange sunlight. He stood there with the chicken neck underwater dangling just above the sand. It felt like a movie to me—the entire screen filled silently with Uncle Vince and his net and a sense of something about to happen.
The scene exploded as he stabbed the net down and through the water, in one seamless motion catching the chicken neck and the crab that had been tearing at it. He dropped the bait back to the bottom and walked to where I was standing to add this crab to the day’s catch. He held his net still for just a second and then flipped it so the crab would fall in with the others in the basket. I watched it fall, legs grasping at the air, and as it fell a thought came to me, fully formed: I will catch a crab this week.
Just before sunset my grandmother came down to the water’s edge and asked me to bring her the basket. She must have been about fifty then, but she was an old woman to me. Its weight felt good in my arms as the warm water ran out the bottom and down my legs. I placed the basket in the sand at her feet and then kneeled down next to her in the sun-heated sand. She called out to Uncle Vince to give it up for the night and start bringing in the lines. She had her big white enamel pot, flecked with black, balanced on a wooden cutting board. Jutting out from the pot were her tongs and the heavy blade she used to chop the crabs.
There were about forty crabs in the basket and she was done with them in less than ten minutes. She would grab one with her tongs where the shell comes to a point, lift it out of the basket, and hold it pinned to the cutting board. Then she would line up the blade with the center of the shell and bring it down hard and sharp through the crab and into the board. She would pick up her half and put it in the pot and I would do the same with mine. I always thought it was magic, and a little sad, when the half I picked up was still moving its legs or stretching out its claw.
She saved the mudder for last, and even though it was nearly dead and had frothy bubbles spilling out of its mouth, it was still impressive. She held it up to catch the last of the fading light on its white underside.
“That sure is a big one,” she said.
“Yeah. It sure is,” I said, wondering how many years was old for a crab. “I wonder how old he is?”
“Not as old as me…and you should say ‘was.’”
“Was. I wonder how old he WAS.”
And with that she brought her cleaver down hard and fast and through the crab. As she did, some salty water flew up and landed on my lip. I licked it away. I picked up my half of the mudder and looked at it again in the dying light as its lifeless legs dangled. The underside glowed orange with the sky and the blue on his claw looked like it would come off on my fingers if I rubbed it.
“I’m going to catch one bigger,” I said, more to myself than to my grandmother.
“Someday,” she said, just as quietly.
Jerry and I slept in a queen-size bed in a room on the bay side of the house. We usually had just a sheet over us as we slept with the windows open. That night I had the left side of the bed, closest to the window, and I fell asleep with the sound of the waves washing into my head through the screen.
I had a dream that night. In the dream I am in the Philadelphia Phillies’ dugout at Veterans’ Stadium. I am sitting on the bench in a Phillies uniform with my baseball glove in my lap and an old brown baseball in my hand. I raise the ball to my nose and inhale, filling my head with the smell of cut grass and leather. I look up from the ball and the manager is signaling to me to hustle out and play right field.
As I trot out to my place in the outfield I spot my family in the stands, but none of them seem to notice that I am in the game. When I am in position I wave my glove to the pitcher to let him know I am ready.
As the first pitch is thrown I know that it will be hit to me. Even before the batter swings I am sprinting back toward the fence. I hear the crack of the bat as I feel the Astroturf under my feet change to the red dirt of the warning track. I begin my leap. I find myself flying up, floating six feet off the ground, waiting for the ball to come to me. My shoulders are even with the top of the fence as I look up to find the ball glowing white against the black of the night sky. It is arcing down to me as I raise my glove. The ball falls silently, weightlessly, into my leather mitt. I float there for a second, ball in my glove, six feet off the ground, before I start falling back to earth. As I fall I raise the ball to my nose once more and smell the grass and dew and dirt and leather.
When I land my uniform and the stadium and the ball are all gone. My feet splash down in the waters of the Indian River Bay behind my grandfather’s beach house. I have a net in my right hand and I start out toward a crab line twenty feet away. There is a soft breeze brushing past my face and carrying with it a sweet sea smell. I have no shirt on, just shorts and some old Keds on my feet.
I get to the stick marking a crab line and grab the string in my left hand and follow it out. It takes a long time to get to the end and as I’m walking I hear nothing but the sound of the waves lapping against my thighs. Suddenly, the line goes tight in my hand and it feels like the chicken is being yanked away from me. I scoop the net down into the water and come up with the bait the same way Uncle Vince did, but I keep my eyes shut.
As the net comes out of the water it feels heavy—heavier than just one scrawny chicken neck would feel. I keep my eyes closed a second longer and in that second I see my sneakers on the rippled, sandy bottom. The sunlight is making them glow as if from inside and the laces are dancing around my ankles in the currents.
I open my eyes and there is a huge crab in the net. I turn to go back and dump my crab in the basket, but the basket and the shore are a mile away.
I wake up from the dream and it is still dark outside. A warm wind is coming in through the screen and it brings with it the sound of the waves chasing each other up the beach. Jerry is asleep next to me, his breathing matching the rhythm of the waves. I have to go to the bathroom.
I climb out of bed as quietly as I can and stand at the window for a second. The wind feels good on my face and chest. It smells like the breeze from my dream and it brings my dream back to me—the smell of the ball, the flying leap, the heaviness of the net, and the certainty. I stand there at the window and sink back into the smell and the sound, picturing myself out in the water with the net in my right hand and the line in my left. I already know what it feels like to catch a crab—I just need to do it.
I walk to the bathroom. There is a florescent tube over the mirror and its light makes me look yellow as I walk by. I don’t want to be yellow, so I reach back and switch off the light.
As I stand in the dark, peeing and listening to the sound it makes, I can feel a few grains of sand between the soles of my feet and the cool, flat tiles. I look down at my feet and they are black against the grey of the floor. I stand staring down at them for a long while, not really thinking about anything, almost falling asleep. I snap out of it when a chill shakes my body.
I pull up my underwear and shuffle down the hallway toward my room. But instead of going to bed, I go to the kitchen. The window in the kitchen is closed and all I hear is the hum of the refrigerator in the dark. I walk straight to the back door and unlock it. There is no real plan in my head; I just want to be outside. I pull the wooden door open and again feel the breeze like a living thing caress me. I unlock the screen door and step out onto the peeling rust red paint of the top step, sure that I am the only person awake in the world.
As I walk across the lawn in my bare feet and underwear the longer blades of grass tickle my ankles. I stand on the bulkhead for a second, smelling the creosote used to waterproof the wood. Pegasus is high overhead and as I look at him a shooting star blazes through his belly and off into nothingness. I stare at the sky, stars filling my eyes, the sound of the waves filling my ears. I step down to the sand and it is still warm from the day’s sunshine. I stop where the sand and water meet, wind-driven waves rubbing against my ankles and calves like a cat. I look to the horizon and find my constellation—Scorpio—and I am intensely aware of each star in it. Something about the night has made the stars stand out from the black background. It is as if they are hurtling through space right at me.
I stagger a bit with the surging water pushing and pulling at my legs and the stars singing in my head. I feel like I am what joins them together. This night, I am all that joins them together. I imagine that if I weren’t here the stars would drift away.
I stay that way for a long time, letting the stars etch themselves into my mind.
The breeze blows a little stronger, sending ripples of tiredness through my head and a chill over my skin. I go back inside quietly and go to bed.
The next morning I woke up with Jerry and we went down to the water to watch Uncle Vince set up the lines. While he was out in the bay I lifted a frozen chicken neck from its yellow Styrofoam tray and tied it to the end of a line. Jerry watched closely but didn’t say anything. I picked up the stick and walked down the incline of the beach to the row of cinder blocks that marked the end of the property.
I walked out into the water and drove the broken end of the broomstick into the bottom, twisting as I did. The sound of the sand grating against the stick came up to me, magnified by the wood.
As I pulled the chicken neck through the water toward me it left a trail of oily rainbows that burst silently to the surface. I grabbed the string about a foot from the end and let the chicken dangle, dripping in the air. I looked to make sure it was tied on securely. Satisfied, I threw it out as far as the string would let it fly. Before it even splashed in the water I turned and headed back to the beach.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Jerry asked.
“I’m gonna catch a crab, dummy,” I answered.
“You’re not allowed.”
“Try to stop me,” I said, picking up a crab net.
Uncle Vince was sorting through the chicken necks, trying to find the meatiest ones. But I could tell he had one eye cast my way as I walked out into the water, net in hand.
When I thought the chicken had sat on the bottom long enough for a crab to find it I took the string in my left hand where it was tied to the stick. I slowly started walking next to the line, letting it run out over my open hand. I stopped to see if I could tell by the feel of the line if there was a crab nibbling at the chicken on the other end.
As I stood motionless in the water, trying to see down through the green to the chicken on the bottom three feet below, a seagull wheeled out of the low morning sun and its shadow glided silently over my skin. I had the feeling it had come to watch me. I turned my head to follow its flight and saw Jerry and Uncle Vince on the shore, staring out at me.
I pivoted back to the business at hand and gently pulled the chicken up off the bottom just an inch. When I did, there was a tug on the line that was unmistakable. There was a crab claiming the chicken as his own, trying to pull it out to deeper water. I let the bait sink back and then stood perfectly still. A wind snuck by and covered my skin with goose bumps. I forced myself to count to ten and then gave the line another little tug. Again, the line jerked tight. It was still there.
As I waited I replayed the scene in my head of Uncle Vince scooping up the bait with his net yesterday. Then I held my breath and stabbed my net down into the water where I hoped the chicken, and my crab, were. As I raised the net up out of the bay to look inside I knew before it even broke the surface that I had caught my first crab. I felt its unmistakable weight in my arms. As I lifted the aluminum and mesh net out of the green, I looked in and there it was. Big and beautiful and mine.
It wasn’t a mudder, but it was definitely a keeper. I let the bait sink back down and turned to put my crab in the basket. Jerry came over to look and Uncle Vince took a peek before I dumped it in—the first crab of the day.
“That’s a nice one,” he said. “Why don’t you show your brother how to do that?”
We drove home on a Sunday night. I was spent, so I climbed into the back-back and leaned a pillow up against the inside of the tailgate. I lay flat on my back, looking up through the glass and into the darkness. Jerry was sprawled across the middle seat, asleep. My parents’ voices floated back to me from the front seat, but not their actual words. The sounds and vibrations of the engine and the wheels came up through the car and into my body. But my thoughts were somewhere else. We were on a dark road that ran along the Delaware River and the sky was thick with stars.
They were shining for me again, and again I felt connected to them—like they needed me to keep them in place. I felt somehow bigger than I had just a week earlier—like there was more of me. My dream and my crab and my night in the water and the stars somehow stretched me out. I stared up out of that window for as long as I could keep my eyes open, not wanting to blink, not wanting the stars to spin away and be gone. I didn’t want anything to chase away the feeling I had of flying in the stars. And I drifted off to sleep as I floated up to meet them.