By Kenny Mitchell
My mother pulls up to the curb of the penitentiary in the same scratched minivan from my childhood, the one with a pungent stale grease and cigarette smell that clings to the cushions. A man with tattoos, shriveled after years of malnutrition, squints in my direction from the fenced courtyard. We’d become as close of friends as two inmates can be, even shared a hug or two if guards weren’t around—just to feel free. I don’t think he knows I’m leaving. I’m a whale who has just barely come up for air; you glimpse only the top of its back, but it is magnificent. My father is next to my mother in the front seat, and my sister, now in her late thirties, has been exiled to the back seat with me. We are silently trekking to Red Lobster to celebrate our reunion.
The stench of the sea is sharp when we enter. A tank greets us—cold and cramped with two lobsters handcuffed in rubber bands, sluggishly crawling in the dismal cell. A child smears her hand against the glass and rubs her nose to the tank, seeking lobster kisses. There’s an offhand comment from my father about how they fed lobsters to convicts in the 18th century, and I can understand that. Feed the trapped to the trapped.
At our booth, I’m shoved against the wall side of the bench. My father plops a foot and a half away from me on the same bench. I realize his hand is now missing a finger. The raised scars on his skin are like sea foam. What’s eaten away at him?
He orders a lobster for us to share, and I ask the server how it is prepared. The server informs us that the lobster—heart still beating—will be dunked, headfirst, into a vat of boiling water, where its clear, viscous blood will pool out of its shell. It will let out a scream as its killer’s murder weapon seeps into the air pockets in its skeletal armor, the section that separates its cold heart from the world.
“Oh, it doesn’t feel pain,” the skinny teen adds.
Something about him, the way he leans the slightest bit backward, a relaxed smile on his face, tells me his armor is thick enough to withstand the heat of the world. A new child stands at the tank, tiny urchin-like fingers jabbing at the glass. He wants to witness a lobster fight. Writhing ensues within the tank as a lobster’s shuffles become more frantic.
The boy cheers them on.
A cook asks the boy to move to the side, and he rips the lobster from the tank. The lobster stares at me as he is escorted to the kitchen.
“Sir, what can I get for ya?” the waiter asks me.
All I can think is that I miss prison food: it wasn’t bound, trapped, watched for entertainment. My mother is across the table from me. Her eyes gleam with understanding, and she smiles slightly. As if she knows, she takes her dainty fingers, with all the care in the world, and quietly slides her keys in my direction. I close my chapped hand over hers—giving them the slightest squeeze of a thank you. Before she moves away, the two of us are suspended in that moment, our hands linked together.
Keys hidden in my clenched fist, I tell my father I need to go to the bathroom. I slip out from between my father and the wall, and I am standing at the tank, watching the last lobster. The server turns to ask my mother what she would like to order, and I hoist the slim tank, surprisingly heavy for such a small space, and run out the door..
I drive to the ocean in my mother’s minivan. No one followed me, so I drive cautiously. Why go fast when no one’s chasing?
“It’s a shame they don’t give you names,” I say to the last lobster in the passenger seat. I name her Dawn. For my mother.
At the beach, I remove her cuffs and lift her from the tank, and she looks at me with squinty eyes. I bring her to my face so we are equal.
I smile at her. I have neglected to smile for years and am trying to relearn. She reaches out her hand gingerly, as if to stroke my cheek with thanks, and her claw scrapes at my nose, hard.
I fling Dawn to the ground, and there’s a scream at my feet. Dawn is in pieces. Her clear blood mixes with the blood from my nose. I suddenly remember a Lobster Fact sign in the restaurant: “A lobster’s claw exerts about 100 pounds of pressure!” The stench of saltwater burns, and the skin on my nose has peeled raw.
I kneel at Dawn’s deathbed. A second Lobster Fact sign: “Lobsters have a great sense of smell! They feel different scents through tiny hairs on their body.” And I wonder if that’s why she attempted to take my nose with her.
I cradle Dawn’s broken pieces and wade with her into the sea. I let go, and she sifts to the bottom.
I can almost hear her whisper, There is so much more to feel! The sand beneath your feet. The flow of the water as it carries you home. The taste of the sea, and the smooth sensation of seaweed tickling your back. Anything that will grip you gently, that will wrap its hands around you tenderly, that will lift your chin in a sweet, most sensuous way. One day, he will hug you. Even when people are watching.