Do Clams Bite?
Chapter 17: In Which I Learn That Great-Grandmother Was No Stranger to Sawdust
YOU CAN READ THE FIRST HALF
DINNER, my father kept up a rapid chatter, yakking with unusual enthusiasm
about this and that. My parents rarely ate dinner at Grandmother
and Grandfather’s, and their presence made the evening seem a little like
a party or a holiday gathering.
May Castle, a longtime friend of my grandparents who was friendly with my parents too, had been at the house when we returned from the bay, and Grandmother had invited her to stay for dinner. May had insisted that she would stay only if Grandfather made cocktails, Manhattans. Everyone was in high spirits by the time we sat down, but my father talked and laughed most and loudest. I had caught his volubility, and I filled any gap that he allowed me to fill with stories about my playmates, stories that included plenty of sawdust. These stories rarely went very well at the dinner table at home, since most were of the you-had-to-be-there type, but they were enjoying great success here, especially with May, who laughed uproariously at some and squeezed and tickled me after each. Since that time, I have seen other survivors of near-disasters react as my father and I were reacting that night to our having survived the clamming expedition. They go on and on in an uproarious manner. We were eating the clams that Grandfather had gotten, fried.
“You know, we ought to sell our house and buy something closer to the water,” my father suddenly said to my mother. Eyebrows went up around the table. “I really miss it.” Grandfather snorted and went on eating. My father got up to get another beer.
He usually drank a beer called Bendernagle’s Old Bavarian, a beer widely advertised on billboards that depicted a smiling blond barmaid with breasts like prize-winning cantaloupes, wearing a Bavarian costume, leaning toward the potential Bendernagle customer, and pouring a can of Old Bavarian into an enormous crockery stein that, miraculously, she was filling to overflowing, foam sloshing over the lip and dripping onto an invisible floor. This woman played a prominent role in a series of dreams I had begun having. You will probably not be surprised to learn that in these dreams I was wearing my little woolen bathing suit, stuffed full of clams, and that I was quite uncomfortable.
“If only Fat Hank hadn’t sold Leroy Lager,” I said, or, in my enthusiasm, shouted, “we’d be rich, and we’d be driving around in a white Packard, and we could buy Small’s Island and fix up the hotel and live there.” I beamed around the table, expecting that people would jump into my fantasy, and that we’d spend a happy hour rehabilitating the hotel and assigning rooms to one another, but only May had any enthusiasm for the idea.
“I’ve spent many a happy night there,” she said.
“May—” said Grandmother. May raised her glass to Grandmother, as if she were toasting something, and said no more. From the expressions on the faces of the others, I saw that I had said something wrong.
“Peter,” said my mother, “you shouldn’t talk about things that you don’t know anything about, and even if you do, you shouldn’t make fun of people who are dead, and especially not your ancestors.”
I wasn’t quite sure where I had gone wrong. I had supposed, when I made the remark, that I was on safe ground with Fat Hank, and that the only risky part was my desire for the island.
“What do you know about Fat Hank?” my father asked me. The table was quiet now, and I had everyone’s attention. I swallowed once.
“Well, he was the only child of Black Jacques, the dashing and swarthy Algerian, who invented beer.” I waited the briefest of moments for a laugh, but I could see quite quickly that there wasn’t going to be any. “Not beer, but Leroy Lager. It was a really great beer, sturdy and honest, not like the insipid pisswater that they try to pass off on you now—”
“Peter!” interjected my mother.
“—and there was a poem on the back of each bottle,” I said, trailing off at the end to a whisper.
My father burst out laughing, but not as he had been. This was a dark laugh.
“Where did you get that?” he asked.
“From Great-grandmother,” I said.
My father made a sober face and rumpled my hair. “Don’t believe everything you hear up there,” he told me. “You know, Peter,” he said, “your great-grandmother is pretty old.”
“I know,” I said. Of course I knew. Everything about Great-grandmother was old. The paint in her rooms, the curtains, and she herself were yellow and brittle with age; the paint cracked in intricate networks and curled away from the wall in places, stiffly, in one spot forming the shape of an owl that watched and listened to the talks we had together; the threads in the curtains had grown so brittle that they had cracked in the breeze, and Great-grandmother’s hair had become as stiff and brittle as the hair on a coconut. I worried every time she shifted in her chair. I was afraid that she would break and I’d be blamed for it.
“Well,” he said, speaking as slowly as Great-grandmother herself, picking each word carefully, “she doesn’t remember things quite the way they really happened. She, uh, changes things a little.”
“You mean she makes things up,” I said.
“Not on purpose. She just doesn’t remember the way they really happened, so she says what she thinks should have happened or what she wishes had happened—”
“Or hadn’t,” May mumbled.
“—instead of what she remembers. Understand?”
“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t believe a word he was saying.
May leaned toward me and whispered through a mist of Manhattan, “She’s not the only one—I do it myself,” and kissed my ear.
“May—” said Grandmother again.
“Let me tell you about Black Jacques,” my father said. He drew a long breath and took a pull at his beer. He glanced at Grandfather. When he looked back at me, I looked hard into his eyes, and I said to myself, “He’s going to make this up.” May put her hand on my knee and gave it a squeeze.
“Black Jacques,” my father said, “was a clammy. He was a short, fat man with black hair and a black beard. That’s why he was called Black Jacques. He worked hard, when he was sober. You have to give him that,” he said, to the others, turning from me for a moment. “Now, as far as beer goes, he was well known for drinking it, and I imagine that he did make quite a lot for his own use, but he was not in the beer business, and there wasn’t any Leroy Lager, and Black Jacques didn’t hang around with poets and that kind of crowd.”
“Well—” said May.
“All right, all right,” said my father. “In a way he did, I guess. His cronies liked their beer as much as he did, and you will find, Peter, when you grow older, that people start to behave in lots of funny ways when they have too much to drink. Some of them decide that they’re God’s gift to women. Those are usually the ones who are too loaded to get it up.”
“Bert!” said my mother.
“Hmmmmm. How do you know that, Bertram?” asked May
“Let me speak my piece,” said my father. “Other ones decide that they’re great poets. Those are usually the ones who are too drunk to hold a pencil. So, if you like, you could probably say that Black Jacques hung around with a lot of great poets and famous lovers. So much for that. Now this beer of his—”
“If you want to get technical about it,” said my father, “he did put up some beer in bottles, but this wasn’t any sort of real business. It was just a guy brewing some beer so that he could drink it with his friends. And these poems that keep coming up, they were just some obscene—”
Grandfather had been eating throughout my father’s talk, contributing only the one snort noted above. He was passionately devoted to the fried clam. He ate them slowly, with his fingers, as we all did, for that was the only effective way to eat the clams he cooked, which crunched spectacularly and were likely to snap in two and fly off the table if you tried to cut them or stab them with a fork. Every time I fry up a batch of clams now, following Grandfather’s instructions, and sit down to eat them, I take on his single-mindedness. I want to eat through that plate undisturbed, undistracted, undiverted. If Grandfather was asked a direct question while he was eating, we would have to wait until he was between clams for an answer, and even then it would be reluctant and brief. Now, he stopped with half a clam in his hand and half in his mouth, and he said, smiling, with his skin crinkled at the edges of his eyes, “They were great.” He meant that to be all he would say, but before he could take another bite of the clam, a chuckle took control of him, and he paused again. “Great,” he repeated.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” said my father. “Anyway, it was Henry Leroy, my grandfather, who wound up having to support Black Jacques, and in fact you could say that he had to work from the time he was a boy to support his father’s habits, and what did his father do to thank him? He—”
“That’s enough, Bert,” said Grandfather, very quietly, as he might have told me that he had seen a crab when we were rowing slowly in and out among the grassy islands in the flats.
A silence followed. I looked down at my plate and let my eyes drift out of focus, blurring the food into an unappetizing lump. May ran her hand up and down my thigh and now and then gave me a little pat, as if to say, “Chin up. This won’t last long. It’s part of growing up.”
“Well, anyway,” said my father after a long while, turning to me again, “the point is that Black Jacques isn’t anybody to look up to.”
He stopped. I waited to find out why Black Jacques wasn’t anybody to look up to, but my father seemed to think he had said all he needed to say.
“Why?” I asked at last.
“That’s something that will have to wait until you’re a little older,” said my mother. There was a strong tone of relief in her voice, as if she thought it likely that I would never be a little older, and that the matter was, therefore, and thank God for it, closed. I was embarrassed. I knew that if it was something that had to wait until I was a little older, it had to be about boys and girls. Being embarrassed made me feel small and powerless, but when I raised my eyes, surreptitiously, without raising my head, I saw that except for May, who was grinning, they were as embarrassed as I. I had no way of realizing then why they were embarrassed. I didn’t realize, couldn’t have realized, that the boy-and-girl business went right on being embarrassing when people got older. Only very much later did I realize that this embarrassment was a source of power. Studying the uneasy faces, I could see, however, that the uneasiness, the embarrassment around the table, offered a little opening for me, a little chink through which, before I started to cry, I could strike a blow for Black Jacques, that tall, dark, well-muscled Algerian who was standing somewhere in my mind holding an overflowing stein of Leroy Lager, his arm around the Bavarian barmaid, reciting a bawdy poem. I didn’t hesitate an instant, and in my ignorance I tapped that source of power.
“When Great Grandma was a girl, she liked Black Jacques better than Fat Hank,” I said.
“You said it,” burst from May.
“Peter, go to bed,” said my mother.
I started sniffling.
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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.