Do Clams Bite?
Chapter 2: Sawdust
YOU CAN READ THE FIRST HALF
DOOR AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS was fitted with glass panes from top to bottom,
and Great-grandmother had hung a gauzy curtain over it. Through the
curtain I could see Great-grandmother sitting in a chair by the front windows,
where she was always sitting when I came to visit, carving a coconut with
a kitchen knife. I knocked lightly, politely, and then turned the
“Hello, Grandma,” I said.
“Well, Peter,” she said. Her voice was small and thin, but strong, and she had a habit of clicking her teeth in the pauses, so that she sounded as if she were knitting while she spoke. “Are you here again already?”
“Yes, here I am. I came for the weekend.”
“Are you going out on the boat?”
“Yes,” I said. I felt my lower lip tremble a bit. “But,” I added, by way of assuring myself that I still had time, that I’d be intact at least while I was here, at the top of the house, “I’m going to visit you for a while first.”
Her rooms were furnished with odds and ends, some from rooms where she had lived before, some just things that Grandfather had found here and there, things that had been in other people’s rooms, things with pasts that hadn’t included her. She didn’t quite trust these strangers among her furnishings. When Grandfather got her a chaise longue from somewhere or other, she had draped it with a worn rug that she knew well so that she wouldn’t have it staring her in the face all the time, and once she had had me drag a floor lamp into a closet because she didn’t like having it look over her shoulder when she read her mail. The only recent acquisitions she felt comfortable with were the gifts of other children who visited her. She had many little friends around the neighborhood, children I didn’t know, since at that time I lived all the way across town, away from the water, and so didn’t see any of these children at school. I visited only occasionally and didn’t have much time away from the adults when I was visiting. Festoons of paper chains hung over every door and window, and her shelves and tables were crammed with tissue paper carnations in juice glasses and jelly jars, paper baskets, necklaces of painted macaroni, and rows of knickknacks made from clamshells. But pride of place went to the coconuts carved to represent Leroys.
(I mean here not the nut itself, the part of the coconut that one buys at a supermarket and belabors with a hammer and an old screwdriver in an attempt, usually unsuccessful, to draw the milk off cleanly before whacking the damn thing to pieces to get at the meat. The nut has a singularly tough and woody shell that nobody’s great-grandmother could carve with a kitchen knife. I mean instead the complete fruit, the outer layer of which, the husk, is, when mature, dark brown, fibrous, and easily carved.)
The carving of these coconuts was a project that she had begun before I could remember, but it was unlikely that it would ever be completed, since she not only kept extending its scope to include more and more distant relatives but regularly revised the carvings she had already done, working to bring the features closer to what she remembered—or supposed—them to be. She had completed heads of all the major Leroys that she had any memory of, and was now filling out the ranks of minor cousins and people related only by marriage; she had not yet carved a head of herself. Whenever I visited, she would quiz me about the exploits of these Leroys, and I had gotten them all down pretty well, but there were gaps in my understanding of what I repeated for her, enough gaps so that the Leroy history as Great-grandmother presented it seemed to me a perilously leaky affair that was likely to sink if the weather got at all rough. Often, when I was reciting for her, I employed a narrative analogue to a widely used technique for keeping afloat a clamboat with a soft bottom, a boat that leaks more or less all the time. One takes the boat out to the clam flats and there crawls under the hull and pokes sawdust into any visible gaps and, for good measure, gives the whole bottom a good coating. Then one drinks a few beers or digs a few clams while the sawdust floats into the cracks and swells with water, stopping, or at least slowing, the leaks. This is not a permanent solution, of course, merely a stop-gap measure, but some boats have been kept afloat this way for years. The hull provides the form, the sawdust the substance, and the result is an artful deception: the illusion of a solid hull, an illusion so substantial that the boat floats. Sometimes, when I was reciting for Great-grandmother, I threw quite a lot of sawdust into the gaps, but she rarely seemed to notice, or if she did, she didn’t seem to mind.
Soon, I knew, she would ask me if I wanted a candy. She kept a bowl of hard candies on the table beside her, but the first time that I had tried to take one I had discovered that they were all stuck together. I had tugged on one, then another, and they had all come out in a cluster. I had stood with all the candies in my hand, wondering what on earth to do next. I thought for a moment of smacking them on the edge of the table to break them apart, but I could tell that that would not be the right thing to do up here, so I set the cluster back in the bowl, and popped a candy-size ball of air into my mouth. For the rest of my visit, I made elaborate sucking noises and poked my tongue into my cheek to make it seem that I was eating one of the candies. The deception seemed to work, but I learned from it a truth about lies: once we have injected any little lie into our relationship with someone, it has to be maintained. I now went through this candy-ball charade on every visit.
“Take a candy, Peter,” she said.
“Mmmm, thank you,” I said. “Cherry—my favorite.”
“Sit over there, by the window.” She indicated the wing chair where I always sat when I visited her, an old pink one with an antimacassar. “You’re not wearing hair oil, are you?”
“Your father always used to wear hair oil, and he made a mess of everything. Does he still wear hair oil?”
“Do you know which one of these heads is your father?” she asked.
“Yes. It’s that one.” I pointed to the one that she had identified as my father. All the heads looked more or less alike to me; I distinguished them primarily by location, although I could tell the women from the men because the women wore hats, dusty hats with broken feathers or stained bands of silk.
“Very good. Now which one is Black Jacques?”
“The one in the middle of that shelf.”
“You’re a good boy, Peter. What was Black Jacques famous for?”
“He invented beer.” This was an old routine for us. Some time, much earlier, I had made this mistake, and it had made her laugh, so I had perpetuated it as part of the ritual of naming the ancestors.
“No, no,” she laughed. “Not all beer, just the best beer.”
“Leroy Lager,” I said. “It was a sturdy and honest beer, a drink for sturdy and honest folks, not like the insipid pisswater they try to pass off on people nowadays.”
“And on the back of each bottle was a poem, a poem that Black Jacques had commissioned especially for the entertainment, enlightenment, or puzzlement of Leroy Lager drinkers. He paid handsomely for those poems, and they raised the tone of taverns across the land. The period when Black Jacques produced that amber nectar has come to be known as the Golden Age of Brewing.”
“And how well did Leroy Lager do in the days of Black Jacques?”
“It depends on how you look at it. It was a great beer, and it had the finest label in the history of beer-bottle-label publishing, but sales were disappointing. Rotten, in fact. You can’t sell pearls to swine.” I knew that wasn’t quite right, but it was close.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” she said. “Black Jacques would have liked that. So, who was his son?”
“Great-grandfather. Fat Hank.”
“Tell me about him.”
“He wasn’t always fat. When you first met him, he was quite the fellow. Everybody’s friend. You were just a slip of a girl, and he set your heart aflutter when he tipped his hat to you.”
“I was young and foolish.”
“Yes. And by the time you saw him for what he really was, it was too late. That’s the tragedy of your life. If only you’d been born earlier, you might have had the father, Black Jacques himself. Now that was a man! Fat Hank wasn’t half the man his father was, and he ruined the business as soon as it came into his hands.”
“He turned Black Jacques’s hearty brew into something so wishy-washy that you couldn’t tell it from water, except that you could get drunk on it, and he began accepting flaccid and self-indulgent poems for the labels. In place of a few trenchant and pithy lines on one of the Great Themes, the Leroy label now offered the anguished sniveling of shiftless egoists whose works were so rambling that some of their poems had to be continued onto several labels, leading to the introduction of packages of six bottles and, ultimately, cases of twenty-four. Well, the result of all this was that after a few bottles anybody with a regret, a pang, a fear—any weepy drunk—could write a poem suitable for the once-proud Leroy Lager label. Many more poems were accepted, and the rate of pay for these dropped as the number of poets increased. Sales of Leroy Lager boomed, since poets drink a lot, and every drinker began to consider himself a poet. So, you see, things tend to get worse as time goes by.”
She sighed and smiled at me with a mixture of sorrow (because what I’d said was so true) and pleasure (because I’d remembered it so well). “And what was Fat Hank’s reward for destroying everything that Black Jacques had worked so hard to build?”
“He made a pile of money.” I looked through the doorway into Great-grandmother’s bedroom. A picture of Fat Hank stood on her dresser. He was fat; that much was incontestable. Even his coconut was round, with heavy cheeks and a flat base. But he didn’t look like someone who had made a pile of money. He was standing in front of a garage with his hands stiffly at his sides. Behind him was a sign that said Honest Service, and to his left was another sign, only partly visible, with a picture of a tire and the words Puncture Proof.
“Grandma?” I asked, slowly, hesitantly. I wanted to ask her what had become of the money from Fat Hank’s watery brew. I wanted to ask her why Fat Hank wasn’t wearing white pleated trousers, a sleeveless sweater, and a white shirt, and standing beside a Packard. I wanted to ask why we weren’t rich.
“What, Peter? Do you want another candy?”
“No. No thanks. I’m still sucking this one. They last a long time.”
“Longer than I would have thought possible,” she said. “What do you want to know, Peter?”
I suddenly knew what I would ask her. The question began to form as I opened my mouth, and pushed aside the other questions that I had thought of asking. It was so big a question that I coughed and sputtered from the size of it, as I might have if I had stuffed too many hard candies into my mouth. It took a moment for me to recover.
“Are you all right, Peter?” she asked.
“Oh, yes,” I said, wiping tears from my eyes. “I swallowed my candy, that’s all.”
“This must be quite a question that you want to ask, if it chokes you on the way out. Is it about boys and girls?”
“Oh, no. I know about that.” I didn’t, but I thought that I was supposed to. “Grandma, do clams bite?”
She looked at me for a while, not, as I had feared, with disgust, as if I had asked a question that only a timid little boy would ask, but with surprise and bewilderment. After a long time, she said simply, “I haven’t any idea.”
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Little Follies is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
“My Mother Takes a Tumble,” “Do Clams Bite?,” “Life on the Bolotomy,” “The Static of the Spheres,” “The Fox and the Clam,” “The Girl with the White Fur Muff,” “Take the Long Way Home,” and “Call Me Larry” were originally published in paperback by Apple-Wood Books.
Little Follies was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.