Cape Cod Grandpa 1968
by Alice Kaltman
He can be Grandpa. I need a grandpa.
A horseshoe crab that has seen things, done things. Still living a long horseshoe crabby life. Ginormous. Crusty with barnacles and tiny mussels. Experienced. I already have a whole slew of his dead relatives lined up in size order outside the crappy shack my human family has rented for two weeks. Mother Crab, Father Crab, Big Kid Crab, Middle Kid Crab, Little Kid Crab. My Horseshoe Crab Family. They smell like rancid salted putrid dry cracked brittleness, but my human parents support my ten year old imagination, or maybe they’re just fed up with me, their dreamy son, so they let the mini-monsters lay there, baking in the sun on the splintery deck, stinking up our beach vacation.
But Grandpa is still very much alive. I stare at him—him because he is already Grandpa Horseshoe Crab as far as I am concerned, even if he is a girl, but I don’t know really how horseshoe crab private parts work, or girl parts either so, whatever. I could pull him by his tail back to the dark, sopping wet world he’s come from, or I could plop him in my bucket with some saltwater and bring him up to the cottage, where my father is on the deck dousing the rusted grill with butane, and my mother is doing laundry stuff, where they aren’t talking to each other in the loudest way, where they might as well just lay down next to the Horseshoe Crab Family and give their stupid stand off a rest.
Grandpa could be like a real pet. I could take him out of the bucket every now and then to visit his dead offspring. He could crawl up to them and tell them tales of the old country, back in the bay. I can almost hear it; Yiddish moans, oy vey iz mer, vos lebn iz dos?
Like my human Grandfather, back in Queens. The kvetching, not the stories. My Queens Grandfather didn’t tell stories. He could barely lift himself off his donut seat cushion, the one the visiting nurse put on his old leather chair, the chair my father called “the Throne” which was a joke because that was one sorry ass chair if ever I’d seen one; all cracked leather and duct-taped. No, no stories from that Grandfather. When my dad and I visited all he did was scowl at us. After enough spittle collected around his lips, he’d shake his head and mutter wet “putzes” before collapsing back on the donut, starting his way to a good long snooze.
Then came the last big snooze. Then the funeral, then the shiva. “Well good riddance,” my mother sighed once Aunt Rhoda, always a lingerer, finally left with her stale rugelach and rubbery dried apricots. That night my mother stayed up late stuffing suitcases with bathing suits and Bermuda shorts, Coppertone and cold cream, Maxwell House coffee and jars of Fluff.
Now here we are in Cape Cod. First family vacation in five years.
Grandpa slithers in the damp, gravely bayside sand. So. Slow. Like, how does anything alive move that slow? If she turned her head, my mother would see us from where she stands on the deck, hanging towels to dry on a line. I can’t see my father behind the giant cloud of charcoal smoke he’s created. I know my parents are in extra shitty moods because my two older sisters are refusing to do anything but lay around on the bunk beds at the far side of the dark, moldy one-room cottage reading Archie Comics while stuffing their faces with salt water taffy, cheeks puffed and jaws working. My sisters are as pale and sourpuss-ed as they’d been two days earlier, when we’d left the city to come to this ‘bayside paradise’. That was what my father called the cottage until he actually saw it in real life. Since we’ve gotten here, he mostly says nothing much at all, just takes his stack of New Yorkers, pack of Chesterfields and his beach chair down to the beach in the morning where he bakes and smokes and reads in the sun with breaks to play in the water with yours truly. My mother comes and goes from the beach like the restless creature she’s always been, so she’s staying a nice shade of tan. My father and I are already red as beets, complete with peeling shoulders and testy skin.
It will soon be dinnertime. I have to make a choice. I decide; I’ll bring Grandpa home. I scoop up some bay water into my pail, then lift Grandpa by the tail. For a split second he dangles, surprisingly heavy in my pinched fingers, globs of wet sand dripping from his underside like melting ice cream. Suddenly his body snaps off his tail and crashes to the sand, which is soft, but not soft enough to not crack old Grandpa, not soft enough for his eight little legs to not twitch ferociously before settling to still.
Over my ten years on the planet there have been worms suffocated in unventilated jars, lady bugs accidentally smushed in plastic bags, and garden slugs that withered to leathery bits. But Grandpa’s death, the crack of his shell, his tail still dangling like a weapon in my sweaty hand, all that really gets to me. I’m bawling like a baby. I look up at the cottage. My parents are turned away from me, not talking to each other, smoking as usual, still glum, but what else is new. I can smell the burgers sizzling now. My sisters have come outside with their comic books and are reading, sprawled on the chaise lounges. If those two lizards see me like this, I’ll never survive. So I suck it up, wipe my tears. I’m no putz. I’ve kept those other murders secret. Why should this be any different?
Alice Kaltman is the author of the story collection STAGGERWING, and the novels WAVEHOUSE and THE TANTALIZING TALE OF GRACE MINNAUGH. Her new novel, DAWG TOWNE is forthcoming in June 2021 from word west. Her stories appear in numerous journals, most recently; Lost Balloon, The Pinch, Joyland, and BULL, and in the anthologies THE PLEASURE YOU SUFFER, ON MONTAUK, and FECKLESS CUNT. Alice lives, writes, and surfs in Brooklyn and Montauk, NY.
Photo: Michael Browning/Unsplash