That summer I was sixteen. I had a job at a dog groomer’s. I cleaned clumps of hair out of shower drains. I brushed down show dogs. I clipped long, crescent shaped toenails, trying my hardest not to cut the quick. When a Weimaraner had a panic attack I was the one scooping up dog shit with a dustpan. The job paid seven sixty an hour, minus taxes. Weekends, the hours were good. I made enough to help with the rent, to help buy groceries. That summer — that year really, and some of the years that followed and some of the years that came before — we were always on a fifteen-day countdown to something: shut-off, eviction, repossession. The bills came marked up in red. My mother used a steak knife as a letter opener — one swift, vicious dissection and the bill fluttered out. We counted pennies. We rationed ourselves. We always had crock pot soups with the ham bone at the bottom, hot white rice, bruised half-price apples, cheap casseroles, unsweetened cornflakes. We had orange juice but we watered it down. We mixed the milk with powdered milk and water. We knew how to make things last.
One day my mother sent me to the store to buy a few things with my paycheck from the dog groomer’s. Pinto beans, angel hair spaghetti, butter. I was picking out a stick of butter when I saw the lobsters. Right there, between the French fries and the display case where fish lay in half-frozen heaps: a circular aquarium stocked with brindle-colored lobsters. Maine Lobsters, the sign said. Fourteen bucks a pound. Ham was two bucks a pound. Roast beef, on a good day, was four. A cheap pack of hot dogs cost ninety-nine cents. So did a pack of chicken livers.
There was a man in a white butcher’s suit standing by the vat of lobsters. He tapped at the glass, saying, “Look at these beauties.” One lobster pressed back at the glass. Tail thrashing. Bound pinchers thrashing. I bought a lobster. The man in the white butcher’s coat pulled it out of the water with metal tongs. The kind of tongs you use to flip hot dogs at a barbeque. He gave me instructions on how to cook a live lobster. “You know how to cook corn?” he asked. “It’s not so different.” Then he dropped the lobster into a white bucket. There was about four or five inches of water in the bucket. It had a handle, and a white top punched with holes. I could see the lobster through the holes. I didn’t even remember to pick up spaghetti.
The whole bus ride home I kept looking at that white bucket sloshing in the seat next to me. Thinking, look at that, I’ve got a lobster. Then I got home and I got to clanging around. Pulling out the tall silver pot from beneath the sink, raking through drawers looking for the hot dog tongs. I found a whisk and a once-white spatula, but no tongs. Every now and then I looked in on the lobster. He was curled up along the rounded edge of the bucket, not moving at all. Quiet, like he knew what was coming. Like he could hear the burner flicker on. Like he could feel the heat. I set the pot on the back burner. I put in a couple gallons of water, added salt to taste. The water boiled. I fished out the lobster and I held it just above the tail. He squirmed against my grip. His tail curled up high into the air.
Later, my mother got back from a double shift at Wendy’s. She was beat, soaked in sweat. She looked at me and the lump of bright red on the cutting board. Without saying a word, she set the table with our mismatched china (if you can call it china). We used a nutcracker and a butter knife to pry open the claws. We ate the soft white meat on Ritz crackers. We washed it back with orange juice. The next morning I would be back at the dog groomer’s. The next morning I would be the one bleaching the floors wearing high rubber gloves that left rashes on my wrists. But that night — that night we ate the lobster.
Heather Wilson is a writer and research communications specialist living in North Carolina. Her work has been published in Off Assignment and Entropy.