MAURICE RODRIGUEZ | Crabs in a Bucket
I used to turn up rocks at Calf Pasture to collect what I thought were Rock Crabs. I was in fourth grade, so forgive me for thinking the crabs I found under rocks weren’t, in fact, Rock Crabs. I collected them without aim—my only hope was to fill up my sandy green bucket with as many crabs as it could hold. Sometimes, with my classmates, I would build what looked like a dohyō in the sand using smaller rocks and oyster shells. We’d carefully grab two crabs out of the bucket and pit them against each other. Whoever remained with the most appendages won. The winner was tossed back into the Long Island Sound like a skipping rock.
I didn’t go to the beach much during middle or high school unless it was to watch fireworks, or more accurately, watch people fight, hoping guns were never drawn. But what is more American than drawing guns on the Fourth? How else do we flex our independence? Those summer days were sweltering. We’d all sweat like Mookie wishing we had our own Rosie Perez to come home to. On any other day, the salt air would’ve provided relief, but with so many people gathered nearly shoulder to shoulder from the sand to the pavement, comfort was absent. Families sat together on rocky sand, cushioned by beach towels and blankets. Vendors floated around selling treats, sparklers, and glowsticks. In the parking lot, other people smoked weed, drank cheap liquor out of red party cups, and battled for sound out the trunks of their cars, playing Tego Calderon and Dipset. Neither side had a Radio Raheem.
Between the families huddled together on the sand, whose towels and children’s sticky fingers overlapped, and the lost twenty-somethings dulling the weight of the present with each hit and swig—we collided beneath the shade and shadows. When the streetlamps became our only source of light until the multicolored flares lit up the dense sky, the heat we carried with us and stored beneath our slick, mosquito-bitten skin was released unto each other. Intricate handshakes would foreshadow the way our bodies intertwined and bent. Throats suffocated beneath the pressure of thin forearms. Air Force Ones brought the stars and stripes to celebrate this holiday, imprinted on ribs and temples. Fists kissed pinched faces. Ayo, run my thirty meant a lifetime of dread would be packed into thirty seconds—longer than any math class you’ve ever attended or skipped. It didn’t end until your arms wilted, lungs burned, or you were left unconscious. Even then, your suffering might’ve been prolonged beneath the blows of batons and flashlights, or bruised by plastic backseats. Whoever remained with the most appendages won, but we were all tossed and drowned out in the long sound of fireworks and screams.
In recent years, I’ve started going to Calf Pasture again. At first, I didn’t return to turn over rocks in search of what I now know are Asian shore crabs. I forgot all about them. Instead, I’d go there to walk and collect all the subtleties I missed out on as a child in the murky water, or as a teenager blinded by the heat of summer and intangible anger. I walked the beach to recollect all the sensory details that were always there but easily overlooked. On one of my walks from the sandbars that only appear during low tide, I discovered the real reason why I collected Asian shore crabs as a child.
The sandbars smelled like sulfur and beer depending on how many men were fishing with their children or alone. Some played the music of their home countries, which always sang about longing or loss. If they had poles, they casted their lines, buried a plastic pipe in the earth, and stood their poles up within them as they sat on upside down paint buckets—waiting for bent tension to appear in their straight poles. Others sat further out on the rocks with a makeshift hook tied to a line, waiting silently until they felt a pull on their calloused fingers. Wasps gathered around their bait. As I walked by, I noticed they weren’t the only ones in search of their next meal. Gulls violently broke the surface of the lapping sea, and if they were lucky, they’d resurface with unlucky fish. Once they found a secluded place to land, they laid the fish flat and pecked at their most vulnerable parts. Some were picked clean, left as skeletons at the shoreline, while others remained eyeless and gutless but still kept their shape. At least they were blind to their pain and disfigurement. Other birds gently floated on the surface until they dunked their heads under and came up with clams, who were then rained down from the sky onto the parking lot and devoured. Their shells sounded like broken glass bottles when slapped against the pavement.
I then made my way towards the pier, leaving behind the brittle oyster shells and other buried mollusks who spat saltwater up at my calves. On the pier, I saw a variety of fish being beheaded, gutted, and filleted. Mussels piled together on the wooden pillars. Sunlight danced on the rippling surface. Beyond the pier, the Norwalk Islands are scattered throughout the Sound, where White people with boats go clamming in the mud. Osprey, seals, and deer, among other wildlife, inhabit the restricted islands. Depending on the day, when a smog doesn’t coat the horizon, I could see the Manhattan skyline. I wondered if anyone ever looked back at me.
From the pier I followed the walkway between the sand on my right and the grassy area on my left, both littered with people. Where some found shade beneath beach umbrellas, others cooled off under full trees. Light seeped through leaves like a Monet painting. Squirrels got uncomfortably close to old women reading on park benches, who were supposedly watching their grandchildren swinging from the playground—the screeching metal of weathered hinges imitated gulls squawking for fries. On the sand, young women, who looked more like bugs beneath their oversized sunglasses, burned under the sun. They rotated their bodies intermittently, making sure to cook evenly on all sides. Some achieved the brownness they aspired for—others became imitation crab meat. They say it’s the highest form of flattery. Above their twitching bodies, the laughter of young men hovered over the sand like waterfowl shadows. They played volleyball, frisbee, and catch. Some of their bodies were taut, muscular without effort, and others had waists spilling over their shorts, melting beneath the sun like gelato—they all moved gracefully.
The furthest end of the beach from the sandbars, where I began my walk, is actually called Shady Beach. I never understood why it was separate from Calf Pasture, especially considering there’s no border and only a small wooden sign with a yellow engraving that says, “WELCOME TO SHADY BEACH” to distinguish it from the rest. There’s also a separate parking lot, but otherwise, they bleed into each other. However, by the time I crossed the threshold into Shady Beach, I recognized a stark difference in the atmosphere. It felt livelier in that small pocket of densely packed trees, which suddenly became much fuller, closer to the ground, and more vibrant. Even the horizon seemed bluer now, more turquoise than the pine-like hue by the sandbars or pier.
I smelled charcoal, spices, and weed becoming one with the sea breeze. Families contested for the strongest scents and sounds. It felt like entering some sort of world fair, except this was just an ordinary summer Saturday at Shady Beach, and no one needed flags to distinguish themselves from one another. Plus, they weren’t for sale. Two men were adamantly arguing about who made better jerk, despite the fact that both of their women prepared all the food. A young girl was inflating and deflating her empty Capri Sun while sitting at the foot of her grandmother’s sari. A group of young men donning black and yellow bandanas played dominoes while older relatives and family friends danced Salsa in the background. I realized that the music was playing from an old boom box instead of a Bluetooth speaker hooked up to a phone as I’m accustomed to seeing. It dawned on me that I hadn’t actually seen a phone at all. The scattered clusters of teens hunched over picnic tables rolling blunts weren’t hunched over screens; some were just carving obscenities into the wood with pocket-knives. While my body stood immobile, I scanned the picnic tables for any trace of a phone I could find. A familiar figure caught my attention as my mind’s eye came up empty-handed. It let go of its failed search and reached out towards this body, attempting to grasp onto a connection propelled by gravity. It latched onto her surface.
Beside the last park grill, she stood with her back towards me. Her tight reddish curls were choked by a black strap, bunching every strand up like a lunch lady’s hairnet. She wore a loose, knee-length black floral dress and was barefoot. Her soles left imprints on the grass when she moved. As she turned around, she removed the camera that hung from her neck, knelt down, and placed the polaroid in a book. When she stood up, our eyes met. This was my grandmother—younger than I ever remembered her.
I instinctively held my hand up to offer a half-wave hello, but she didn’t react at all. She couldn’t see me, and the reality of the moment fully set in. A wave of vertigo overwhelmed me; my heart thud against my chest cavity, and I inhaled all the scents of Shady Beach all over again, attempting to compose myself. Anxiety is no friend of mine, but we’re well acquainted, so I was aware this didn’t feel like any ordinary panic attack. Usually, after a deep breath, I might relax myself by focusing on one sense at a time. I’d whisper beneath my breath, What do you feel? smell? taste? see? hear? But in that moment, how could grounding myself work? At the time, I thought there was no way I was in the same world where I began my walk. How could I have been? The only explanation, I thought, was that I had to be dreaming. Sometimes, when I become conscious of the fact that I’m in a dream, my mind wakes itself up. Pinching myself is the next step. And when that doesn’t work, my body simply writhes itself awake as a last resort. Nothing worked. This was no dream state.
The only thing left to do was return to Calf Pasture. I hurriedly wrapped around the restroom building, repeating to myself over and over: What the fuck is happening? I tried not to make eye contact with anyone again as I made my way back. I didn’t want to fabricate another familiar face. That’s all it was, I told myself. A fabrication.
I was proven wrong when I finally noticed how differently everyone dressed. I guess I was too enamored with the sounds, smells, and vibrancy of Shady Beach to recognize what people were wearing under the shade. Then again, 90s streetwear is pretty popular even today. I saw more women wearing blue jean shorts in a one-mile radius than I had since middle school. Apparently, ankle socks weren’t a thing yet either. Men wore more sports jerseys than in Nelly’s “Tip Drill” music video. By the time I made it closer to the pier, I noticed the usual landmarks were either much different or completely absent. Hurricane Sandy destroyed Calf Pasture, and afterwards the city revamped everything from the park benches to building a completely new pier made to withstand future disasters. Art installations were added too, like the 35-ton concrete and steel “O” sculpture titled “Odin”—now missing.
I felt oddly calm by this point. Whenever I have a nightmare where I’m falling into a seemingly bottomless distance, I reach a threshold where I unconsciously submit to my imminent death. It’s as though I fall at a rate so quickly that not even fear itself can keep up with. If I were in a nightmare, this would be the moment when I wake with a sense of comfort knowing I’m still alive, and that I was only hanging off the edge of my bed. Instead, I sat in an empty swing, but for some reason, I didn’t have the strength to move it. I could have no effect on the past, not even a swing.
I remained still, void of movement and thought, for a moment that felt as though it could’ve lasted either seconds or years. But what did time matter anymore? Nothing seemed to matter anymore as I let all the sights, sounds, and smells I soaked up earlier just wash over me. I felt out of focus as I gazed into the blue horizon, until a voice that sounded like my own drifted by me. This voice took hold of me and jarred me out of my stupor in the same way that the smell of pie allures cartoon characters. My body moved before my mind told it to.
I followed the man with my voice, who was currently attempting to charm a young vendor selling paletas. He traded some quarters in exchange for a coconut popsicle and her number written on the back of his hand. He wore some clean 7s, black nylon shorts, a tucked red tank top revealing a body sculpted by hard work and genetics, a red paisley bandana wrapped around his big head, and small hoop earrings. I didn’t even need to see his face to know who he was. It’s the only face that almost perfectly resembles the one I look at in the mirror every day. I knew this was my father, not simply by his voice or known charm, but by the same red bandana wrapped loosely around my infant head in a picture of us from my mom’s attic. In that photo, and in this moment, he has the same high skin fade and short hair on top. Today, he shaves his head entirely for the same reason he kept it short when he was younger—ashamed of the afro it would become if he allowed it to grow. The last and most unforgettable giveaway that this was indeed my father, was the Tasmanian Devil tattoo holding a Colombian flag on his shoulder.
I caught up to him and walked beside him, wanting to see up close the younger version of him I had only seen in dusty polaroids. I’m reminded how grateful I am to not be as short as him. It’s uncanny though how much he looks like me. Once, when my grandmother was in the hospital, a cook at the cafeteria set his eyes on me for a while, and I thought maybe I had something on my face or in my teeth. He finally asked me, “You’re Mauri’s son, ain’t you?” I couldn't recall ever seeing this man in my life, and so I hesitated to respond quickly enough before he added with a smile, “Don’t worry, you’ve never met me. You just look exactly like him.” There were also moments when I was younger in the passenger seat of my mom’s car when she would just stare at me for a short time whenever we came to a stop. She’d tell me how much I reminded her of him, the way I’d rest my chin on my palms and stare into the horizon, lost in thought. I finally understood what she meant as we made our way back to Shady Beach.
When we returned to the last park grill, I began to recognize more than just my grandmother beneath the shade. My uncle Jonny was feeding fat scraps to Zoe, his English Bulldog who panted heavily and happily beneath the park bench. She seemed to have dug out a small ditch in the sand to lay in and cool down. I often think of the measures life goes to find relief from the integral source that sustains us.
My aunt Beatriz, the oldest of my father’s siblings, was cutting up steak for my cousin Christian—who seemed to be filled with overwhelming innocence that would dissipate in the years to come. Next to them sat my aunt Sandra, who looked alive beneath her freckles for the first time in my life. Ever since she became a Jehovah’s Witness, her life on Earth seemed to pale in comparison to whatever she believes follows our final breath.
Finally, my aunt Diana appeared from behind the tree, and angrily whispered at my father as quietly as a Colombian woman could whisper, “Where have you been, motherfucker?” Before he could answer, she continued, “I had to pick Hope and the kids up, man. Did you forget you have children all of a sudden?”
Until this point, the thought of myself existing separately from my own, perhaps now intangible body, never crossed my mind. I knew I was in the 90s, but I didn’t consider whether or not I was born yet.
“I was busy with work,” my father responded, absently averting Diana’s eyes.
“Yeah, working on a bottle maybe. I smell that shit on your breath.” She saw through his lie as well as I always have. He shamefully ignored her. Not even coconut could mask the smell of rum.
I didn’t care to hear Diana dig into him any further, or watch my father dig himself deeper into the relief of cool lies. All I wished to see was my mother. I walked out to the shore, where she was sitting on a rock, the ocean lapping at her small feet. The breeze gently tangled her long brown hair. She wore a black-and-white striped shirt and a pair of overalls, rolled up like capris and one strap undone. I had always thought my mother to be beautiful in youth from her archive of polaroids, but film failed to capture her ethereal mien. In her arms, she cooed to my sister Angel while keeping an eye on my cousin Kathy and me, who were playing with snails clinging to smooth rocks and outgrown shells. She was doing what all mothers are expected to do—take on more than is humanly possible.
I sat beside my mother, rested my head on her shoulder, and watched Angel take in our overstimulating world through almond shaped, green eyes. Her freckled face was flat, and her oversized tongue stuck out like Zoe’s did. Her toothless smile at the sound and vibration of my mother’s humming could warm Death itself. Despite needing more attention than me or any of my cousins did at the time, she rarely cried like other babies do. I wonder if we cry as children because we take in more than we could ever possibly understand, always under the assumption that the world is meant to be understood. Angel never seemed concerned with that though. It’s as if she knew since birth to take life as it comes.
I saw my father approach us with a green bucket in hand. Diana must’ve chewed him out long enough to break him down. I guess he swallowed his pride.
“Hope, can I sit next to you?” He hovered over us waiting for a response. Time seemed to slow down when I lifted my head from her shoulder, but she was simply letting him stew in his wrongdoing like she would make me do whenever I fucked up as a teen. She finally nodded, but instead of saying yes, simply continued humming to Angel.
He sat beside her other shoulder and hesitantly placed his hand in the middle of her back. With his other hand, displaying an ink mark no longer resembling anything, he held out a finger toward my sister. As she always does, she took life as it came and wrapped her small fingers around it. I saw disappointment in my parents’ eyes. My mom must’ve noticed the smudge mark, and without bothering to ask, seemed to affirm what I already knew. On the other hand, my father was disappointed in something he will never come to understand—not even today.
My mom was 20, and my father 19, when I was born. In the two years following my birth, my mom matured at a rate that my father resisted. Then, Angel was born with a hole in her heart and Down syndrome. My mom was unaware of what that meant, though doctors, friends, and even some relatives alike asked if she planned to keep my sister—a question that left her incredulous. Meanwhile, my father internalized these sorts of questions and my sister entirely as a fault of his own—a curse, maybe. He had always attempted to escape his maturation by partying and seeing other women on the side, but Angel’s birth seemed to have pushed him towards the edge of alcoholism. Even to this day, in spite of giving up the liquor, that shame resurfaces through subtle acts. On one holiday, he was showing a friend of mine around his house, and in doing so, revealed a collage of photos hung on a door—none of which displayed Angel. Actually, in all truthfulness, there was one photo of her where I was holding her in my arms, but another photo overlapped it, leaving only my head available to the eye. He subtly tried to readjust the overlapping photo, but like my mom noticing the smudge on his hand, I noticed the visible shame.
“I’m sorry,” he finally voiced, almost inaudible above the lapping waves.
My mom’s deep blue eyes peered into his green ones, the same ones he passed to his daughter, and said nothing for a moment.
“I’m gonna eat. I haven’t eaten all day. Watch your son,” she said, standing up from the rock. She then grabbed Kathy gently by the hand and led her back to her mother, leaving my father with two of me.
I watched my father and I collect Asian shore crabs in a bucket. If I could’ve joined the two of us, I would’ve. A lifeguard eventually told him to stay away from the rocks we had been sitting on just minutes earlier without any issue, but my father simply told him to go fuck himself.
We continued our search; while I lifted up small, flat rocks maybe revealing only one or two crabs at a time, my father lifted rocks of almost Sisyphean magnitude, revealing dozens, maybe hundreds of crabs at a time to my younger eyes. There were more than we could possibly fit in our bucket, forcing us to sometimes toss back smaller ones for larger ones. He told us that we would fry these later—only one of me understood what he was even saying, but the younger seemed to have actually believed him, offering a clueless smile in response.
The lifeguard, sunburnt and flustered, returned with a tall, lanky, and pasty police officer who approached my father.
“Son, could you show me your crabbing license?”
My father, ignoring the condescending tone with which the officer spoke to him, replied coolly and looked into his black sunglasses, revealing no eyes behind them, only my father’s reflection.
“Sir, I don’t have my license on me. My wallet is just over there with my family if you’d like me to grab it.”
The officer begrudgingly walked with us, one of me in my father’s arms, towards the picnic table. We left the bucket of crabs behind. Both of me wanted to go back for it. Neither of us could.
My family spoke Spanish in hushed tones, confused as to why a police officer was approaching them. My mother looked as though she had seen a ghost, or like I did when I finally realized I was in 1995. My father asked if anyone saw his wallet and my mother handed it to him. He then handed the officer his driver’s license.
The officer chuckled and said, “I asked for your c r a b b i n g l i c e n s e. I don’t care if you can drive.” He dragged the words “crabbing license” out loudly and slowly like you might with an elderly person.
“I wasn’t aware you needed a license to pick up crabs. They’re all over the beach,” my father responded in honest confusion.
“That’s why you should always look up the regulations on public grounds before you carry on as you please. You’re going to have to pay a fine, son.” The officer, probably not much older than my father, reached for a notepad in his back pocket.
“Are you fucking kidding me, dude? It’s not that serious. No one’s getting hurt over some fucking crabs,” Diana responded hostilely.
Again, the officer chuckled before he responded, “Do any of you have papers?”
“What the fuck does that have to do with anything,” my mom responded as less of a question and more as a fuck you. She was now red in the face, and not from the sun.
“It’s not like we just carry our fucking green cards with us at all times, asshole,” Diana spat, not physically, but verbally.
“Chill, chill, chill. Officer, I have my papers in the car. I parked by the other end of the beach. Just give me a few minutes to grab ‘em,” my father responded, having had plenty of run-ins with police before to know the drill by now.
The officer chuckled once more, and this time, took off his dark shades, revealing bottomless brown eyes.
“Son, have you been drinking?”
My father looked at him for the first time with anger, unable to mask his agitation any further at this struck chord.
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything. I’m of age and everyone drinks here—it’s a park. We have parties here, sir.”
“Look, you’re going to have to come with me. I’ll drive you over to your car where you can get your papers.” The officer reached his hands out towards my father, attempting to grab me from his arms, and the three of us recoiled.
My mom stood between the three of us and the officer and vehemently told him to never even think of putting his fucking hands on her son. She grabbed me from my father’s arms, sat beside my sister in her stroller, and put me on her lap.
With arms halfway up, my father took a few steps back and said, “Hey, there’s no need for that. Not in front of my family and every other fucking family here.”
“I’m not asking you. This is an order. Now turn around and place your hands against the tree,” the officer yelled, veins bulging in his tense throat as he reached for his cuffs.
My grandmother put herself between my father and the officer, and in broken English, told the officer what he was doing was wrong, that he should be ashamed of himself. Morally, ethically, and lawfully, she was right, but structurally, she was wrong. The officer was doing what their branch of power has always been designed to do: abuse and oppress, and he was doing that skillfully. He called for backup and pursued to wrestle my father against the tree, who barely exerted just enough force to keep his dignity against a simultaneously weaker and more powerful opponent—depending on how you look at it.
Other families began to crowd around mine as though any of them could offer aid. The sounds and smells which permeated Shady Beach just hours ago seemed to evaporate in an instant. My mother sat in the thick of it all, holding me tightly with one arm and rubbing Angel’s belly with her free hand. The four of us cried, and each of us went unheard.
Shortly after my father was arrested, most of the surrounding families offered their condolences to my own. His arrest caused a rift at Shady Beach—birthday parties and other celebrations came to a premature end, rendered fat and burnt spices carried by the smoke of coals no longer floated beneath the trees, the sound of Salsa no longer permeated the air, and everyone began packing their cars. My family dispersed: Jonny left with a fine for bringing Zoe to the beach, while Beatriz, Christian, and Sandra returned to my grandmother’s house, and my grandmother was on her way to the police station against their wishes. Even the sun began to dwindle down at the horizon—though its heat still lingered. Only Diana and my mom remained with their children.
I sat beside Kathy and myself beneath the tree my father was assaulted under. One of me was drawing in the sand, and the other wished he could. Angel was finally asleep in her stroller. Diana and my mom spoke softly seated at the picnic table.
“You don’t think he can get in that much trouble, can he?” my mom asked, behind eyes reddened and swollen from crying.
“I don’t know, Hope. He’s been getting into a lot of shit lately. Maybe this is what he needs to wake up.”
My mom lowered her eyes and picked at the skin of her cuticles, a habit she still maintains under stress today. Diana picked up on the bad habit.
“Don’t worry about my pain-in-the-ass brother. He’ll be okay. Why don’t we get outta here and head back to my place?”
My mom nodded an okay, lifted her eyes, and turned her gaze towards the bruised horizon.
At that moment, I wondered if she was prepared for the worst. Neither of them knew what I did. Neither of them knew, even if they could sense it in the pits of their stomachs, that my father would not be okay. Neither of them knew that none of us would be okay.
Only one of me knew that my father would be deported for the next decade. Only one of me would have to experience meeting him again for what would feel like the very first time. Only one of me would refer to him as “dad” again. Yet, neither of us were prepared.
Only one of me remained at Shady Beach when the sea and sky were nearly indistinguishable from each other at the horizon. Hours must have passed since my mother left, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about where I was anymore. When I was.
It wasn’t until a stranger’s voice overlapped with the white noise of the waves that I gathered what was left of myself.
“Oh, sorry to bother you, man. I didn’t see you there. You don’t mind if I smoke here, do you?”
I didn’t answer until he repeated himself because I didn’t think anyone would be talking to me. I didn’t think anyone could recognize my existence anymore, if I did, in fact, exist. I left the stranger to his own troubles as he argued tirelessly on the phone with someone at the other end, and made my way towards the shore. My shoes sunk a bit into the sand and left prints, confirming to me that maybe I really did exist again.
When I reached the shore, I noticed the green bucket was still there. I knelt down, and to my surprise, it was still full of crabs. I picked it up, and emptied them into the Sound. They scattered for the protection of new rocks. I thought, for a passing moment, about taking the bucket with me, but I wasn’t sure if one of me would return for it again. I wasn’t sure which one of me would need to revisit this place. This time. This story.
And so, I return to Calf Pasture.
Maurice Rodriguez is an emerging Latino writer and translator from Connecticut, and is a prospective MFA student at The New School where he studies Creative Writing. He also teaches writing at the University of New Haven. Follow him on Twitter @yosoymojo for updates on his writing.