Deer Isle, 1946
Carapace n. a thick hard case or shell made of bone or chitin that covers part of the body of an animal such as a lobster.
Once upon a time, in Stonington, Maine, before sunset, at the end of a hot war and the beginning of a cold one, a young woman dressed in white, outwardly calm but with trembling hands, sat on a bench by the harbor, eating ice cream.
By her side was a small boy, also eating ice cream, his a chocolate. They were casually chatting; the ice cream was melting faster than the mother could eat it. The boy was listening as she sang “Shine Shine My Star” to him, a Russian song, trying to teach him the words, and he, teasing her, mangled the verses. They were watching for the lobster boats coming back. She usually heard the seagulls squabbling before she saw the boats themselves.
There was the smallest breeze, and her summer hair moved slightly about her face. Wisps of it had gotten out of her long thick braid, swept over her shoulder. She was blonde and fair, translucent-skinned, translucent-eyed, freckled. The tanned boy had black hair and dark eyes, and chubby toddler legs.
They seemed to sit without purpose, but it was a false ease. The woman was watching the boats in the blue horizon single-mindedly. She would glance at the boy, at the ice cream, but she gawped at the bay as if she were sick with it.
Tatiana wants a drink of herself in the present tense, because she wants to believe there is no yesterday, that there is only the moment here on Deer Isle—one of the long sloping overhanging islands off the coast of central Maine, connected to the continent by a ferry or a thousand-foot suspension bridge, over which they came in their RV camper, their used Schult Nomad Deluxe. They drove across Penobscot Bay, over the Atlantic and south, to the very edge of the world, into Stonington, a small white town nested in the cove of the oak hills at the foot of Deer Isle. Tatiana—trying desperately to live only in the present—thinks there is nothing more beautiful or peaceful than these white wood houses built into the slopes on narrow dirt roads overlooking the expanse of the rippling bay water that she watches day in and day out. That is peace. That is the present. Almost as if there is nothing else.
But every once in a heartbeat while, as the seagulls sweep and weep, something intrudes, even on Deer Isle.
That afternoon, after Tatiana and Anthony had left the house where they were staying to come to the bay, they heard loud voices next door.
Two women lived there, a mother and a daughter. One was forty, the other twenty.
“They’re fighting again,” said Anthony. “You and Dad don’t fight.”
Would that they fought.
Alexander didn’t raise a semitone of his voice to her. If he spoke to her at all, it was never above a moderated deep-well timbre, as if he were imitating amiable, genial Dr. Edward Ludlow, who had been in love with her back in New York—dependable, steady, doctorly Edward. Alexander, too, was attempting to acquire a bedside manner.
To fight would have required an active participation in another human being. In the house next door, a mother and daughter raged at each other, especially at this time in the afternoon for some reason, screaming through their open windows. The good news: their husband and father, a colonel, had just come back from the war. The bad news: their husband and father, a colonel, had just come back from the war. They had waited for him since he left for England in 1942, and now he was back.
He wasn’t participating in the fighting either. As Anthony and Tatiana came out to the road, they saw him parked in his wheelchair in the overgrown front yard, sitting in the Maine sun like a bush while his wife and daughter hollered inside. Tatiana and Anthony slowed down as they neared his yard.
“Mama, what’s wrong with him?” whispered Anthony.
“He was hurt in the war.” He had no legs, no arms, he was just a torso with stumps and a head.
“Can he speak?” They were in front of his gate.
Suddenly the man said in a loud clear voice, a voice accustomed to giving orders, “He can speak but he chooses not to.”
Anthony and Tatiana stopped at the gate, watching him for a few moments. She unlatched the gate and they came into the yard. He was tilted to the left like a sack too heavy on one side. His rounded stumps hung halfway down to the non-existent elbow. The legs were gone in toto.
“Here, let me help.” Tatiana straightened him out, propping the pillows that supported him under his ribs. “Is that better?”
“Eh,” the man said. “One way, another.” His small blue eyes stared into her face. “You know what I would like, though?”
“A cigarette. I never have one anymore; can’t bring it to my mouth, as you can see. And they”—he flipped his head to the back—“they’d sooner croak than give me one.”
Tatiana nodded. “I’ve got just the thing for you. I’ll be right back.”
The man turned his head from her to the bay. “You won’t be back.”
“I will. Anthony,” she said, “come sit on this nice man’s lap until Mama comes back—in just one minute.”
Anthony was glad to do it. Picking him up, Tatiana placed him on the man’s lap. “You can hold on to his neck.”
After she ran to get the cigarettes, Anthony said, “What’s your name?”
“Colonel Nicholas Moore,” the man replied. “But you can call me Nick.”
“You were in the war?”
“Yes. I was in the war.”
“My dad, too,” said Anthony.
“Oh.” The man sighed. “Is he back?”
Tatiana returned and, lighting the cigarette, held it to Nick’s mouth while he smoked with intense deep breaths, as if he were inhaling the smoke not just into his lungs but into his very core. Anthony sat on his lap, watching his face inhale with relief and exhale with displeasure as if he didn’t want to let the nicotine go. The colonel smoked two in a row, with Tatiana bent over him, holding the cigarettes one by one to his mouth.
Anthony said, “My dad was a major but now he’s a lobsterman.”
“A captain, son,” corrected Tatiana. “A captain.”
“My dad was a major and a captain,” said Anthony. “We’re gonna get ice cream while we wait for him to come back to us from the sea. You want us to bring you an ice cream?”
“No,” said Nick, leaning his head slightly into Anthony’s black hair. “But this is the happiest fifteen minutes I’ve had in eighteen months.”
At that moment, his wife ran out of the house. “What are you doing to my husband?” she shrieked.
Tatiana scooped Anthony off the man’s lap. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said quickly.
“You won’t be back,” said Nick, gaping after her.
Now they were sitting on the bench eating ice cream.
Soon there was the distant squawk of gulls.
“There’s Daddy,” Tatiana said breathlessly.
The boat was a twenty-foot lobster sloop with a headsail, though most fishing boats were propelled by gas motors. It belonged to Jimmy Schuster, whose father, upon passing on, passed it on to him. Jimmy liked the boat because he could go out in it and trawl for lobsters on his own—a one-man job, he called it. Then his arm got caught in the pot hauler, the rope that pulls the heavy lobster traps out of the water. To free himself, he had to cut off his hand at the wrist, which saved his life—and him from going to war—but now, with no small irony, he needed deckhands to do the grunt work. Trouble was, all the deckhands had been in Hürtgen Forest and Iwo Jima the last four years.
Ten days ago Jimmy had got himself a deckhand. Today, Jimmy was in the cockpit aft, and the tall silent one was standing pin straight, at attention, in orange overalls and high black rubber boots, staring intently at the shore.
Tatiana stood from the bench in her white cotton dress, and when the boat was close enough, still a bay away, she flung her arm in a generous wave, swaying from side to side. Alexander, I’m here, I’m here, the wave said.
When he was close enough to see her, he waved back.
They moored the boat at the buyers’ dock and opened the catches on the live tanks. Jumping off the boat, the tall man said he would be right back to off-load and clean up and, rinsing his hands quickly in the spout on the dock, walked up from the quay, up the slope to the bench where the woman and the boy were sitting.
The boy ran down to him. “Hey,” he said and then stood shyly.
“Hey, bud.” The man couldn’t ruffle Anthony’s hair: his hands were mucky.
Under his orange rubber overalls, he was wearing dark green army fatigues and a green long-sleeved army jersey, covered with sweat and fish and salt water. His black hair was in a military buzzcut, his gaunt perspiring face had black afternoon stubble over the etched bones.
He came up to the woman in pristine white who was sitting on the bench. She raised her eyes to greet him—and raised them and raised them, for he was tall.
“Hey,” she said. It was a breathing out. She had stopped eating her ice cream.
“Hey,” he said. He didn’t touch her. “Your ice cream is melting.”
“Oh, I know.” She licked all around the wafer cone, trying to stem the tide but it was no use, the vanilla had turned to condensed milk and was dripping. He watched her. “I can never seem to finish it before it melts,” she muttered, getting up. “You want the rest?”
“No, thank you.” She took a few more mouthfuls before she threw the cone in the trash. He motioned to her mouth.
She licked her lips to clean away the remaining vanilla milk. “Better?”
He didn’t answer. “We’ll have lobsters again tonight?”
“Of course,” she said. “Whatever you want.”
“I still have to go back and finish.”
“Yes, of course. Should we, um, come down to the dock? Wait with you?”
“I want to help,” said Anthony.
Tatiana vigorously shook her head. She would not be able to get the fish smell off the boy.
“You’re so clean,” said Alexander. “Why don’t you stay here with your mother? I’ll be done soon.”
“But I want to help you.”
“Well, come down then, maybe we’ll find something for you to do.”
“Yes, nothing that involves touching fish,” muttered Tatiana.
She didn’t care much for Alexander’s job as a lobsterman. He reeked of fish when he returned. Everything he touched smelled of it. A few days ago, when she had been very slightly grumbling, almost teasing, he said, “You never complained in Lazarevo when I fished,” not teasing. Her face must have looked pretty crestfallen because he said, “There’s no other work for a man in Stonington. You want me to smell like something else, we’ll have to go somewhere else.”
Tatiana didn’t want to go somewhere else. They just got here.
“About the other thing . . .” he said. “I won’t bring it up again.”
That’s right, don’t bring up Lazarevo, their other moment by the sea near eternity. But that was then—in the old bloodsoaked country. After all, Stonington—with warm days and cool nights and expanses of still and salty water everywhere they looked, the mackerel sky and the purple lupines reflecting off the glass bay with the white boats—it was more than they ever asked for. It was more than they ever thought they would have.
With his one good arm, Jimmy was motioning for Alexander.
“So how did you do today?” Tatiana asked him, trying to make conversation as they headed down to the dock. Alexander was in his big heavy rubber boots. She felt impossibly small walking by his side, being in his overwhelming presence. “Did you have a good catch?”
“Okay today,” he replied. “Most of the lobsters were shorts, too small; we had to release them. A lot of berried females, they had to go.”
“You don’t like berried females?” She moved closer, looking up at him.
Blinking lightly, he moved away. “They’re good, but they have to be thrown back in the water, so their eggs can hatch. Don’t come too close, I’m messy. Anthony, we haven’t counted the lobsters. Want to help me count them?”
Jimmy liked Anthony. “Buddy! Come here, you want to see how many lobsters your dad caught today? We probably have a hundred lobsters, his best day yet.”
Tatiana leveled her eyes at Alexander. He shrugged. “When we get twelve lobsters in one trap and have to release ten of them, I don’t consider that a good day.”
“Two legals in one trap is great, Alexander,” said Jimmy. “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of this. Come here, Anthony, look into the live-well.”
Keeping a respectful distance, Anthony peered into the tank where the lobsters, already banded and measured, were crawling on top of one another. He told his mother he didn’t care much for their claws, even bound. Especially after what his father told him about lobsters: “They’re cannibals, Ant. Their claws have to be tied up or they would eat each other right in the tank.”
Anthony said to Jimmy, his voice trying not to crack, “You already counted them?”
Alexander shook his head at Jimmy. “Oh, no, no,” Jimmy quickly said. “I was busy hosing down the boat. I just said approximately. Want to count?”
“I can’t count past twenty-seven.”
“I’ll help you,” said Alexander. Taking out the lobsters one by one, he let Anthony count them until he got to ten, and then carefully, so as not to break their claws, placed them in large blue transfer totes.
At last Alexander said to Anthony, “One hundred and two.”
“You see?” said Jimmy. “Four for you, Anthony. That leaves ninety-eight for me. And they’re all perfect, as big as can be, right around a five-inch carapace—which means shell, bud. We’ll get 75 cents a piece for them. Your dad is going to make me almost seventy-five dollars today. Yes,” he said, “because of your dad, I can finally make a living.” He glanced at Tatiana, standing a necessary distance away from the spillage of the boat. She smiled politely; Jimmy nodded curtly and didn’t smile back.
As the buyers started to pour in from the fish market, from the general store, from the seafood restaurants as far away as Bar Harbor, Alexander washed and cleaned the boat, cleaned the traps, rolled up the line, and went down dock to buy three barrels of bait herring for the next day, which he placed into bags and lowered them into the water. The herring catch was good today, he had enough to bait 150 lobster traps for tomorrow.
He got paid ten dollars for the day’s work, and was scrubbing his hands with industrial-strength soap under the water spout when Jimmy came up to him. “Want to wait with me and sell these?” He pointed to the lobsters. “I’ll pay you another two dollars for the evening. After, we can go for a drink.”
“Can’t, Jimmy. But thanks. Maybe another time.”
Jimmy glanced at Tatiana, all sunny and white, and turned away.
They walked up the hill to the house.
Alexander went to take a bath, to shave, to shear his hair, while Tatiana, placing the lobsters in the refrigerator to numb them, boiled the water. Lobsters were the easiest thing to cook, 10–15 minutes in salted boiling water. They were delicious to eat, breaking the claws, taking the meat out, dipping them in melted butter. But sometimes she did think that she would rather spend two dollars on a lobster in a store once a month than have Alexander spend thirteen hours on a boat every day and get four lobsters for free. Didn’t seem so free. Before he was out of the bathroom, she stood outside the door, knocked carefully and said, “You need anything?”
There was quiet inside. She knocked louder. The door opened, and he towered in front of her, all fresh and shaved and scrubbed and dressed. He was wearing a clean green jersey and fatigues. She cleared her throat and lowered her gaze. Barefoot she stood with her lips level with his heart. “Need anything?” she repeated in a whisper, feeling so vulnerable she was having trouble breathing.
“I’m fine,” he said, walking sideways past her. “Let’s eat.”
They had the lobsters with melted butter, and carrot, onion and potato stew. Alexander ate three lobsters, most of the stew, bread, butter. Tatiana had found him emaciated in Germany. He ate for two men now, but he was still war thin. She ladled food onto his plate, filled his glass. He drank a beer, water, a Coke. They ate quietly in the little kitchen, which the landlady allowed them to use as long as they were either done by seven or made dinner for her, too. They were done by seven, and Tatiana left some stew for her.
“Alexander, does your…chest hurt?”
“No, it’s fine.”
“It felt a little pulpy last night . . .” She looked away, remembering touching it. “It’s not healed yet, and you’re doing all that trap hauling. I don’t want it to get reinfected. Perhaps I should put some carbolic acid on it.”
“Maybe a new dressing?”
He didn’t say anything, just raised his eyes to her, and for a moment between them, from his bronze-colored eyes to her sea-green passed Berlin, and the room at the U.S. Embassy where they had spent what they both were certain was their last night on earth, when she stitched together his shredded pectoral and wept, and he sat like a stone and looked through her—
much like now. He said to her then, “We never had a future.”
Tatiana looked away first—she always looked away first—and got up.
Alexander went outside to sit in the chair in front of the house on the hill overlooking the bay. Anthony tagged along behind him. Alexander sat mutely and motionlessly, while Anthony milled about the overgrown yard, picking up rocks, pine cones, looking for worms, for beetles, for ladybugs.
“You won’t find any ladybugs, son. Season for them’s in June,” said Alexander.
“Ah,” said Anthony. “Then what’s this?”
Tilting over to one side, Alexander looked. “I can’t see it.”
Anthony came closer.
“Still can’t see it.”
Anthony came closer, his hand out, the index finger with the ladybug extended.
Alexander’s face was inches away from the ladybug. “Hmm. Still can’t see it.”
Anthony looked at the ladybug, looked at his father and then slowly, shyly climbed into his lap and showed him again.
“Well, well,” said Alexander, both hands going around the boy. “Now I see it. I sit corrected. You were right. Ladybugs in August. Who knew?”
“Did you ever see ladybugs, Dad?”
Alexander was quiet. “A long time ago, near a city called Moscow.”
“In the… Soviet Union?”
“They have ladybugs there?”
“They had ladybugs—until we ate them all.”
Anthony was wide-eyed.
“There was nothing else to eat,” said Alexander.
“Anthony, your father is just joking with you,” said Tatiana, walking out, wiping her wet hands on a tea towel. “He is trying to be funny.”
Anthony peered into Alexander’s face. “That was funny?”
“Tania,” Alexander said in a far away voice. “I can’t get up. Can you get my cigarettes for me?”
She left quickly and came out with them. Since there was only one chair and nowhere for her to sit, she placed the cigarette in Alexander’s mouth and, bending over him, her hand on his shoulder, lit it for him while Anthony placed the bug into Alexander’s palm.
“Dad, don’t eat this ladybug.” One of his little arms went around Alexander’s neck.
“I won’t, son. I’m full.”
“That’s funny,” said Anthony. “Mama and I met a man today. A colonel. Nick Moore.”
“Oh, yeah?” Alexander looked off into the distance, taking another deep drag of the cigarette from Tatiana’s hands as she was bent to him. “What was he like?”
“He was like you, Dad,” Anthony replied. “He was just like you.”