Crab Bait

Published by Xavier Review

Myrtle Ruth Mason died this morning, in her bed with a registered nurse by her side. I hadn’t seen her in years, about thirty five or so, not since we’d stopped going to the beach in Pass Christian.

She had been a friend of my parents, in a group of fortunate, good-looking couples raising their families together in central Mississippi. I was young and still believed friends loved each other’s children like their own. Even as a teenager, when we lost our money and had to sell the beach house, I had no idea we were moving on to other friends. Fact is, when Myrtle Ruth Mason died, I hardly knew her. But she saved my life once, I’m sure, although neither of us knew it at the time.

It was the summer I turned seven, a tomboy still, restless and lonely. My older sister had abandoned me for hairstyles and boys. Those endless mornings I spent hiding in the hollow trunk of an old dead tree where I could watch my sister paint her nails by the swimming pool. Then Mother taught me how to cross the small beach highway by myself and my world came alive. Camel back wars and such adventures from summers past paled in comparison to the heady independence of my new boundaries. I could play for hours on our pier watching the seagulls catch updrafts, counting the breaking waves, and tracing ships on the horizon.

That morning I had scampered barefoot over the hot pavement and jumped the patches of sand stickers along the edge of the highway. I trudged across the vast man-made beach then raced to the end of our pier where I stretched tall on the top board of the rail letting the gulf wind sting my sunburned shoulders.

Everyday I baited four round crab nets which hung by strings from the rail. That day I had caught nothing. Thinking old bait was to blame, I pulled a net up for inspection. The wet strings slapped down on the boards by my sandy feet and the salt water trickled off and ran under the belly of a discarded and sunbaked catfish—fins cocked, ready to take revenge. Sure enough, the water-logged strip of steak which had been bloody and bright that morning was no better than wood pulp. I decided the sun swollen cat-fish on the pier would make better bait than the steak because it stank and bottom scavengers, like crabs, love rotten meat. I untied the stretchy bit of steak, leaned out from the pier railing, and chucked it as hard as I could, watching it sail through the summer air and land in a gentle swell with a plunk.

When the catfish was tied into the net his whiskers twitched and his dead eyes bulged. The string cut deep into his smooth skin. I lowered the net over the railing and down until it broke the surface of the gulf and swayed to the bottom where the catfish rocked gently on the rippled sand.

I lay face down on the boards watching for crabs through the cracks. The waves lapped hypnotically against the barnacled pilings. The air around me was thick with salt and tangy fish odors. I dozed off for some unknown time then woke to discover my catfish had been gnawed. Behind one front fin his flesh was shredded. I rolled over, wood grain impressed in my belly, and crawled to check the other nets but I found no crabs, none, no tracks in the sand, nothing.

I looked back toward the beach and watched a seagull circle over and land on our shelter roof, which was halfway out the pier. He stretched his magnificent wings in silhouette against the blinding sky. Suddenly the gull lifted up and arched into a headlong dive. With the speed of a crashing plane he cut through the waves and disappeared but in three beats of my heart he broke upward carrying a sparkling flash of fish in his beak.

I decided to go climbing in the rafters of our open air shelter. We had the best pier on that stretch of the beach. Two long legs reached out into the Gulf of Mexico. They were separated and connected by a crosswalk like a capital “H”. On each leg of the pier where the crosswalk connected them, stood a shelter with a large green roof and benches in the shade underneath.

One pier leg we shared with our ten neighbors who were upwardly mobile and able to enjoy vacation homes. But the other leg belonged to the Masons, who owned the Big House. The Mason’s had purchased the Big House with adjoining property which they then sold in small parcels to their friends, us and the others I’ve lost track of.

Anyway, that day, the day I was crabbing alone. I decided to climb in the rafters of the shelter. I shimmied halfway up the pole before I first saw it—pulled off the highway in one of those cement parking bays you see on beach roads so people can stop and look at the gulf; so, it didn’t startle me when it stopped but it was strange all the same.

This maroon car.

The beach road was pretty far across the sand but I could see the pointed fins on the back of his car. The convertible top was up and somehow it didn’t quite sit right, not snapped all the way around. A small muscular man got out of the driver’s seat and stretched his arms sideways, looking first up then down the beach.

I pulled both legs up in the rafters and straddled from beam to beam. After awhile, I turned up a wasp’s nest—paper dry and abandoned. I plucked it off by its stem and was just about to hop down to escape the stagnant heat—when I heard footsteps. Then I saw the top of that man’s head pass under my feet like a shark under water.

I smelled Wildroot.

I squatted on the rater and twirled the wasp’s nest between sandy fingers. The man stopped below me and ran one hand over the top of his head. Hair so greasy it looked wet. He slowly rubbed the same oily hand across his undershirt then pulled the shirt off over his head. His skin seemed alive, then I realized his rolling muscles were colored with tattoos: anchors and hearts, ropes and dragons, devils and angels.

I yelped and it so surprised me that I thought someone else had made the noise.

He spun and saw me up in the rafters. “There you are,” he said as if he knew me, as if we’d just left off a conversation to be picked up again. “What are you doing up there?” He asked.

“Nothing,” I peeped down my ankle bone at him.

“Does your mommie know you are up there?”

“Uhuh,” I lied, trying to remember something she had told me about not talking to strangers, but as strange as this man was, he didn’t seem like a real stranger, after all he was on my pier, in what my mother always called, broad daylight.

“Come on down,” he said quietly and I felt like I had to do what he said. I rolled over and flipped my legs around a pole to crawl down. I was still hanging by my arms when I felt his hands on me. One reached up to my ribs, and the other cupped between my legs as he helped me down. But I didn’t need any help, and I said so as soon as I hit the floor and wiggled away.

There wasn’t anything wrong, I told myself, with the way he touched me like that. I’d always ridden on my grandfather’s leg, like that, pretending it was the boogity horse. It was the same. Wasn’t it? He wanted to, though, touch me there, I thought,and some instinct made me backup against the railing and watch him.

The man reached in his black pants pocket and slipped out a bottle of Coppertone. “Where are your parents?” He asked. “Do they know where you are?”

I darted my eyes around looking for Mother. I saw Myrtle Ruth Mason in the distance, going out on her leg of the pier with a pole and a bucket of shrimp. She always wore those glamorous sunglasses with points and a big sunhat. But I wasn’t supposed to go over to her pier uninvited. Mother had a thing about the Masons. We had to mind our manners more with them than with other friends.

The man handed me the bottle of lotion saying, “Here honey, rub some of this on me.”

Mute, I clutched the Coppertone and stared at his nipples. At that time I thought of them as titties. I could read already, real good. I read the word “whiskey” tattooed neatly around one nipple and “bourbon” around the other.

“Rub it on my chest,” he said. I didn’t move.

“What’s wrong?” He asked. “You’re not afraid of me are you?”

I shook my head, no, and slowly unscrewed the suntan lotion and let some of the white liquid drip onto my palms. I reached out and smeared it on his upper arm muscle and watched his tattooed cherub shine.

“That’s right,” he twisted. “And now around here.” I touched his shoulder lightly with the palm of my hand but then stopped and backed away slowly, never taking my eyes off those bourbon and whiskey nipples.

“I need some on my stomach, baby, here,” He pointed to the hairs going down from his belly button.

“I’m finished now,” I whispered.

Suddenly he stood up and moved toward me, but I pointed at Mrs. Mason, who was casting her line off the end of her pier and I lied fast. “There’s my Momma.”

His head whipped around on his neck. Mrs. Mason turned to look across the water at us with one hand on her hat in the breeze and the other hand holding her fishing pole. I took that as an invitation.

“Well goodbye,” I said heading down the stairs towards her section of the pier. He took off.

Mrs. Mason watched me as I walked the bobbing cross walk. White teeth flashed beneath her sunglasses when I reached her side and squinted up at her face.

“What did that man want?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said and we watched the man run the last few yards across the sand and slip into his car.

“Did he say anything?”

“Not much,” I said, shading my eyes so I could see the car pull out of the parking bay and loll down the road like it had a low tire.

Then I sat down by Mrs. Mason’s feet and played with her shrimp and watched her cork bob. She would occasionally break the comfortable silence with observations about the seagulls and pelicans. After awhile I got to worrying that Momma would come down to get me for lunch and think I had invited myself over to the Mason’s piers. So I left.

I headed toward home. On the edge of the beach highway, I curled my toes over the curb and waited for the traffic to subside. When a safe opening came I lurched on toe-tips across the lanes then raced to my dark hollow in the dead tree.

Through a crack in the bark I watched my older sister. She wore her new bikini. She sat on the edge of the pool dangling her legs into the water; her hair was carefully flipped at her shoulders. Daddy rose out of the water and grabbed her leg. She shrieked and jerked away from him. Then she dashed laughing to the lounge chair. She said something to Daddy and he sat down beside her and smeared suntan lotion on the back of her legs. They were laughing in the sunshine.

I looked down at my toes half buried in the dirt and scratched at the surrounding ground with a stick making a little canal. Deeper and deeper I dug until I turned up an unformed thing, a lot like a slug. I can’t remember what it’s called but there’s a terrible word for it.