Do Clams Bite?
FROM TIME TO TIME, my parents would take me to stay for a weekend with my father’s large and sturdy parents, whom I called Big Grandfather and Big Grandmother, or simply Grandfather and Grandmother. My parents stayed just long enough to fulfill an obligation. They would ordinarily leave after dinner if we went on a Friday, and after an hour or so if we went on a Saturday morning. I would stay until Sunday evening. Though I loved my big grandparents dearly, I was never comfortable during these visits, in part because Grandmother and Grandfather were so much larger than anyone else in the family, and in part because all their furniture was upholstered with scratchy scarlet fabric, but mostly because, as soon as I was old enough, if the weather allowed it, Grandfather would take me clamming with him on Saturday and Sunday.
Grandfather clammed in the flats, where the water reached somewhere between his knees and his waist and somewhere between my waist and my chin. He would hunt for clams by “treading,” feeling for clams with his toes. When he found one, he would duck beneath the water, bring the clam up, and drop it into the front of his brief wool bathing suit. Soon his bathing suit would fill up with clams, bulging enormously at the front, and he would waddle to his boat, the Rambunctious, where he would empty the clams onto the deck. I knew that I was expected to do as he did, but even thinking of dropping a clam into the front of my bathing suit brought a stab of pain between my legs; my stomach grew cold and empty. I was sure that clams must bite and that they were likely to snap at me in there. Every moment of every visit was marked by fear of being bitten if I did as Grandfather did and fear of disappointing him if I did not.
Each of these visits began with a climb up the stairs to the rooms where Great-grandmother Leroy lived, at the very top of the house. I began to move more slowly as I neared the top of the stairs, not out of any reluctance to see Great-grandmother, but simply to adjust myself to the pace of things in her rooms, for in Great-grandmother’s rooms everything moved slowly, and while downstairs events marched on toward the time when I would have to go out on the bay with Grandfather and suffer through the squirming anxiety that came with the thought of dropping snapping clams into my little woolen bathing suit, here at the top of the house I would be, for a while, outside the rush of forward motion. Great-grandmother herself had lived so long up here, above things, that she had slowed to immobility and beyond, had begun to move backward, slipping farther into the past with each reluctant tick of the old clock that she kept on the table beside her. From my visits, I had acquired a sense of how this had happened, and my initial impatience during early visits to Great-grandmother—to be away, to get downstairs, to be moving, to do something, even to do something frightening—slipped away little by little, with each succeeding visit, yielding to an insinuating somnolence, a comforting drowsiness. The longer I spent with her there, the thicker the atmosphere became, as if the room were filling with one of the undulating gelatin desserts my mother was fond of making, and I could relax, stretch out, float, and drift. But always, sooner or later, my mother would call from downstairs, and I would have to say good-bye and descend into confusion and haste.