On our first Ocean City, Maryland, beach run of the season, my husband Dezil was hot for picking crabs for lunch. He dragged me with the kids, Nate and Mindy, to an all-you-can-eat seafood palace where he insisted we take seats on the patio, front row and center to the parking lot. Eating outdoors was part of the charm, Dezil believed, but this palace held court in a strip mall. Most appealing was the way curious drivers, headed for the liquor store or swimsuit shop, located at the busier ends of the mint-roofed complex, chose to idle their cars beside the tables. Too lazy to pull over, come in, and inquire properly, potential crab pickers shouted questions to waitresses about the size, sex, spice, and disposition of the day’s catch. I’m not fond of exhaust or food you have to bang open. I would have preferred to stay on the beach and soak up rays, along with a homemade pina colada or two. Nobody but me uses real coconut anymore. The kids take after Dad, though, and as I was out-voted, I tried not to hiss about the flies biting my arms or pout over the beers Dezil would be pounding, leaving me to be the responsible one again and get us safely home.
We pondered our selections while Nate, Mindy, and I waited for our Mountain Dews, Dezil for his pitcher of Bud. Dezil slapped his menu on the table: He’d have the blue crabs, of course. Mindy, always easy, said she’d have a burger and fries. Nate, the dandy, fretted with his gel spikes and wiggled in his seat. “They have Alaskan king crab legs,” he said. “I want those.”
Indeed, there was an all-you-can-eat Alaskan king crab leg entree, as well as the anticipated Maryland blue. The prices for these feasts, which previous forays had taught me included dry fried chicken and feed corn for cows, were listed according to age: The meals ran ten dollars more for children over ten.
Our waitress, Sue, a pretty blonde with freckles and ponytail, big surprise, came over with our drinks and a roll of brown, thick paper on which to dismember marine life. She passed the paper to Dezil. He clutched at it, a man with a mission.
A car pulled up just then. BMW. The driver tooted his horn twice and craned his neck out the window, yelling “Hey! Got any jumbos?” Sue delivered her perky sales pitch to the nicely wheeled young stud while we juggled our drinks and fought the breeze, struggling to spread the brown paper flat across the table. The Beamer dude said thanks, he’d come back with his buddies. For a moment I envied his carefree wave, but when Dezil said, “That’ll be Nate,” my chest got tight and I had to fight the urge to hug my son. PDA — public display of affection — went over about as well with Nate these days as raisin snacks and dress shirts for church.
I coughed. “Fumes,” I said.
Dezil gave me the family eye roll.
Sue cleared her throat. Were we ready?
“She’ll have a cheeseburger,” I said, pointing to Mindy. “I want the stuffed shrimp. My son would like the Alaskan king crab legs, all-you-can-eat.”
The waitress stopped smiling and said with a scowl, “How old is he?”
I didn’t skip a beat. “Ten,” I said, returning her stare. “He’s ten.”
She didn’t buy it, I don’t think. Nate has some shoulders on his lanky frame. But she finished the rest of the order and sashayed into the restaurant. Nate was beside himself, bouncing on the picnic bench. Splinters, I thought.
“Why’d you tell her I’m ten? I’m eleven,” Nate said.
Stepped on his toes, I did: One year is a gap of great magnitude to a boy who’d graduated beyond light-up sneakers.
“Dad.” Nate latched onto his father, who was sitting next to him, happily drinking beer, gazing at traffic. “Mom said I was ten.”
“Then you must be ten,” Dezil said, giving me a conspiratorial wink. His baby blues were not yet cloudy, and I liked how the stubble along his jaw line firmed his chin, the blond-brown glints a nice contrast to his sun-beaten cheeks.
“But that’s dumb, that’s lying,” Nate said. His eyes, although the same sleepy almond shape and tranquil color of Dezil’s, had a stranger’s wary, icy glare.
“All yours,” I said.
“Well,” Dezil began, “There are regular lies and there are white lies. Do you know what a white lie is, Nate?”
“You said not to lie,” Nate said. “Ever.”
Dezil glanced at me for help. I nibbled my straw, smiling encouragement. He tried again. “A regular lie, the bad lie, is when you don’t tell the truth and what you say harms somebody. A white lie is okay because no one gets hurt.”
Nate looked unconvinced.
“Let’s say you have a friend, and he’s really, really, really fat, his butt is four of yours, no six, and another boy comes up to you both, and in front of him, he says, hey, your friend is really fat. Then if you said, no, he’s not, well, that’s a white lie, because you didn’t tell the truth because it would hurt your friend.”
“Honey, I think in that case, Nate would say, it doesn’t matter to me, I like him the way he is. I mean, if his friend is TITANIC FAT, he’s gonna know it.”
Nate giggled at this, but Dezil pursed his lips and furrowed his brow.
“Okay, let’s keep it simple,” Dezil said. “If Nate wants the Alaskan king crab legs he has to be ten or else fork over some of his allowance because I’m not spending 25 dollars on lunch for a kid.” He lifted his glass to his mouth and took a healthy slug.
Dezil’s tone caved Nate’s grin. Fortunately, Mindy spilled her drink on her shorts, the wind blew a flyer advertising Hooters in my face, and our food came, along with a wooden hammer for Dezil to beat the living crap out of his repast. Nate snapped and worked a King crab leg, and grinning again at his good pull, slurped with pleasure.
“Bet you’re glad you’re ten now,” Mindy said. While barely five, Mindy had been the brunt of enough older brother word jabs to hold her own in sibling sparring. She ate her burger in a circle, twirling the bun with each bite.
Dezil took another tack. “There’s this restaurant at home where people used to order food and eat it and then when they were done they would complain to the manager that it was horrible and they wanted their money back.”
“And that’s a white lie?” Nate said, picking hunks of knuckle meat like a pro. Nimble fingered, like his dad.
“No, no,” Dezil said. “That’s bad! A bad lie! Those people ate the food but wanted it for free. The manager started calling the cops, and the cops would come by and say, hey, you ate it, you have to pay for it or we’re taking you in.”
“They’d get arrested?” Nate stopped eating.
“Yep.” Dezil was proud of his rescue of us. He whacked a big claw with the hammer. Crab shell flew.
“Will we get arrested if Sue finds out Mom lied?” Nate wanted to know. His eyes filled with fear, as if he were expecting at any moment to be hauled away in cuffs.
Mindy ceased twirling her burger. I ate the tail fin of a shrimp. Dezil put the hammer down, slow. I could tell by the way he drew in air and gestured inanely at Nate that he felt the way I had earlier, cornered, without clothes.
“Nate,” I said, leaning over the table. I was going to do a no-no, take his hands in mine, but they were covered in sea slop. I sat back. “Let’s talk about this later.”
We dug in. Mindy being Mindy spilled her drink on me. Nate requested extra legs, and then asked Sue for another plate, and still more. Dezil got his wish of picking crabs until his hands and lips were stained orange and burnt from Old Bay. The Buds did their trick: When the check came Dezil reached for his VISA without recalculating the tab, or thumping his palm to his heart in mock despair. He hummed, beach baby beach baby give me your hand, give me something that I can remember, scribbled his John Hancock, and we set sail.
On the drive back, we passed a mini-golf course that Nate loved, walking distance from the condo. Dezil said to drop them off, he’d play a round with his boy. Nate seemed like all was forgotten, but I’ve tended to his bruised knees and contrary moods long enough to know he was stewing.
“Here,” I said to Dezil, tossing Nate’s hat out the window. “Make sure he wears it.”
Dezil dunked the cap on Nate’s head, resulting in playful bats to his upper body, compliments of his son’s scrawny arms. Dezil tussled with him back, pinning those arm sticks to his hips and flipping him upside-down onto the grass. They looked sweet, yin and yang out for a bit of competitive male bonding.
“Sea Shore Store,” Mindy hollered as we pulled away. In her mind, she was getting the best end of the deal; I, however, would rather sit in Coastal Highway traffic in 90-degree heat sans air conditioning than waste one minute shopping for ocean artifacts painted unnatural shades of pink and blue with feathers glued on at unappealing angles for no intelligent, aesthetic purpose. But a promise is a promise. I had bribed Mindy to behave on the three-hour drive to the beach, agreeing to indulge her in a Sea Shore Store shopping spree during our stay if she ignored her brother’s taunts and held her pee for the duration.
Maybe I would get lucky. Maybe they had retired the three-foot dancing Hawaiian doll with its nonstop barrage of Polynesian tunes. For the last six years, the brown-eyed beauty and her wiggling hips had greeted patrons the second they cracked open the door, before they could think up a less stress-inducing bribe for their kids and retreat.
The doll could be heard with torturous clarity from every cluttered corner of the store. But Mindy got such a howl out of the place, running from the pirate exhibit to the conch creatures to the squirt guns to the machine that flattens pennies into souvenirs, I chalked the musical assault up to a necessary evil and said five more minutes well after my mind cried uncle and shut down, paralyzed.
“These are the kind of crabs I like,” Mindy said, coming to an abrupt halt.
Hermit crabs in a variety of mollusk houses, one sporting stars-and-stripes, one spotted black, others neon yellow and glittery purple, scrambled all over each other in a windowed display, claws waving wildly. A mass of shells bumping and wobbling in convenient waist-high sight designed to entice tiny people to bug their parents to buy one.
“No way,” I said.
Mindy smashed her nose to the glass. “I’ll take good care of it.”
A teenage sales clerk with rites-of-passage pimples knelt beside Mindy. “Do you know why hermit crabs live in shells?” he asked.
Mindy slipped her arms around me, smiled shyly.
“Hermit crabs are soft and squishy. They twist and flex their bodies to fit into empty snail shells for protection.” The clerk pointed through the glass, toward the cluster of colorful sand pets. “As they outgrow their shells they need to find new ones. When they come across another shell where they’ll fit better, they slide on in.”
“Don’t they ever get stuck?” The irritating din of the singing doll filled me with a nasty urge to trip the persistent fellow up.
He stood. “No, ma’am,” he said, looking at me like I had seaweed for brains. I half-expected him to give me the family eye roll. “They know instinctively what’s best, and move on at the right time without any trouble.”
I thanked him, questioning to myself whether he had his facts straight or was completely full of shit, and told Mindy her five minutes had expired. She ran over to the plastic pirate swords, grabbed two, for herself and Nate, and we bid the dancing girl good-bye for a good four weeks, hopefully more.
In the car, Mindy ripped her sword from its wrap. “Dad and Nate probably would have tried to eat my crab,” she said, battling Captain Hook in the back seat.
I laughed, rubbed my throbbing forehead. “You know it.”
The guys were ready in their swimsuits when we returned to the condo, but Nate was plenty sunburned from golfing without a hat, damn Dezil let him take it off, so we played Junior Monopoly on the shaded balcony for the rest of the afternoon and pigged out on leftover cheesesteak subs and onion rings for dinner, making a candy dash for nonpareils and peanut butter chocolate bark once the sun had set. Dezil polished off a few more brews in between reading books to the kids. I did my nails a campy light mauve while I listened to his endearing, drowsy renditions of Frog and Toad and Goose Bumps.
Mindy crashed on the couch, so I let her be.
I shooed Nate to the kids’ bedroom and tucked him in, feeling way past prime time.
He said, “Mom?”
“Dad said a white lie is when nobody gets hurt, but I ate a lot more than a ten year old, so don’t we owe them money?”
I was done. But Nate’s pinched face said he was back at the crab palace, confused by our rule tweaking and worried about being an accomplice to cheating the restaurant of its due.
“Listen, Nate. We should have either paid the full amount for your meal or told you to chose something less expensive.” I ran my fingers through his deflated gel spikes. His hair left a sticky film on my skin. “Don’t feel badly. It’s not your fault. Sometimes parents get confused, too.” If you can’t explain your thinking logically, satisfying a child’s honest expectations, face it, you’re wrong. Admission seemed a small price to pay for promoting the finer qualities of my son’s budding character.
“But I really wanted those legs,” he said, getting teary from the tired weight of the world.
“Oh, I’m sure we would have swung it. We’re on vacation, ya know.”
He gave me a kiss and I sang to him, glad Mindy was asleep, too young to ponder past hermit crabs and ice cream cones.
Dezil’s shadow crossed the room. From the doorway, he said he was whooped. He was a party animal, but not after nine. “I’m hitting the sack,” he said.
When Nate was settled, I crawled in beside my husband.
“What’s the word?” he said.
“That puny pale fib will come back to haunt us.”
“Two, three, five years max.”
“Smack on the ass.”
Dezil dug his face into his pillow. He mumbled, “Can’t nail them all.”
I turned out the light. The dark licked at our outlines, then swallowed us whole. Before long, snoring filled the room. Loud, hearty sucks of breath, the kind courageous, comatose men employ to ward off indecision. After 14 years, the racket still unnerved me. I wrestled with sleep, like everything else, the way good mothers do.