A Small Rectangular Dredge

By Renée Bacher

Some snails, like Janthina, float all their lives at the surface of the ocean and are wafted about by the wind.

Nina says, “Jack, stop reading out loud, get the seashells out of the hall and let’s get moving. I have to be on time for my interview.”

She checks her hair and makeup in the full length hall mirror on the way to give the boys breakfast. Half moon shadows peek out beneath her under-eye concealer, but her liner is nice and she still does not need mascara on her long black lashes. For that, she is grateful. She leans forward in her bathrobe, fingers crawling together in her hair, flattening her part and exposing her roots; ¼ inch of darkness. As her friend, Jan would say, sometimes good is good enough.

Jack continues to thumb through the book and she feels a surge of adrenaline and dread. Everything about this morning feels wrong, including the fact that she is going to be late. And yet, she does not want to go on this interview or get this job. She does not want to resume her career in public relations, the brief one she had chosen by default when med school suddenly felt wrong. But now Matt is trying to slash her child support in favor of his latest dating accessory, a midnight blue two-seater Porsche. Now she needs a hefty pay check if she wants to keep the house and some stability for the boys.

The plate-like tentacles, or rhinophores, found in nudibranchs have been shown to be very sensitive to chemical changes in sea water.

“Jack.”  She knows if she pushes too hard, he will melt-down, which will delay them further. If you push, he explodes — just like his father. Just like his father in so many ways.

“Okay!” A blast of air puffs out his cheeks, signaling a strike is imminent.

She cannot stand him.

There, she has said it.

She hopes she said it to herself.

Yes. But still, he glares at her as if she has said it aloud.

What mother feels this way about her seven-year-old? The harsh words come back up for another pass, but she chokes them down, pursing her lips as he glares at her.

He could have been grossly disfigured but the shards had missed the most important parts of his face…

She is a horrible, horrible mother. She knows her older sister, Frankie, probably never feels this way about any of her kids, and she has four of them. And she lives in a little rent controlled tenement walk-up on Avenue A where she couldn’t get space from those kids unless she let them loose to frolic among the junkies in Tompkins Square Park. How lucky Nina is to live in a house with a yard, even if her husband has left her. And even if he has slept with nearly every nurse in his office for most of the nine years they were married before he left her. How lucky Nina is to live in Los Angeles, 3,000 miles from comparison to her older sister, who has the four easy-going kids, the fun and offbeat career as a puppeteer for Sesame Street, which she can return to at any time. And the good marriage. Everyone thought it was Nina who was going to have that, marrying the nice Jewish doctor. But she put that misconception to bed not long after the misconception that everyone thought she would be the nice Jewish doctor.

She sidesteps the shells in her bare feet and heads to the kitchen. “Come eat first,” she says. She should be grateful she has a child who can read like this, grateful seashells are his obsession instead of idiotic television shows and toy guns.

Jack stomps behind her, trying to make as much noise as possible with bare feet on berber carpet. She glances over her shoulder and feels her anger stick in her throat as she notices he has not done what she asked; he holds the sea shell book in one hand and a fistful of shells in the other.

She fell in love with Jack at first suckle, and yet, she can trace the seeds of I-can’t-stand-him back to when he had to sleep with a pacifier not only in his mouth but with one gripped tightly in each fist. At first, it seemed silly and sweet, but not on the night she could not locate all three at bed time. She stood there in her milk-soaked night gown, icy against her nipples in the overly air conditioned house, singing his favorite lullabies one after the other in the face of howling. He only liked a certain kind of pacifier — an imported silicone kind that was carried only at Pain et Chocolat, which had closed hours earlier, alongside the $75 Petite Bateau stretchies.

She leaned over the crib, and patted, patted, patted his arching back until she realized it was just making him madder, then went outside and leaned against his closed door (while Matt snored on the couch by the light of the TV) and looked at her watch for seventy three minutes. Seventy-three minutes. No, the pacifier schtick was not sweet; it was demanding, gluttonous, rigid. He would grow up to be difficult. He would grow up to be a hoarder like her father, Ivan, who single-handedly owned more golf clubs than did the entire population of Scotland.

Her three year old, Eric, sits on a stool at the counter, eagerly awaiting his breakfast like the good boy that he is. So easy, that Eric, with his obedient brown hair combed back off his face in one swoop of a wet brush, his sweet cheeks absorbent of all the kisses she can bestow. Worst thing he does is to continue his two year old exploration of the world by mouth. He chews his shirt collar, bites hunks out of fancy soap and samples acorns on the front lawn.

“I’m hungry, Mommy,” Eric sings.

“Eggs?”

“I love eggs.”

“I bet,” Jack says, climbing onto the stool beside him.

She had already made the eggs and they sit golden and warm in the pan on the stove.

“How about you, Jack?  Eggs?”

“I hate eggs.” He puts down his shells on the counter and holds the book open with two hands.

“Oatmeal?”

“No.”

“Cheerios?”

“No. I’m not hungry.”

“You have to eat before school.”

“Okay, a pop tart.”

“I don’t buy pop tarts.”

“I don’t want anything.”

What scares her most is that this child she loves, this child who grew inside her and for whom she would lay down her life, well, she currently finds him as annoying as the most annoying children of other people. She is clenching her teeth and holding her own hands so she will not snatch the seashells and the book from his obstinate little hands and drop them in the trash, so she won’t press back his chin with the heel of one hand and drop the eggs, that he happened to like just last week, in his mouth.  Wasn’t there supposed to be some kind of biological thing, a hormone or something, that’s supposed to take the edge off of thoughts like these?

She opens a packet of microwaveable maple and brown sugar oatmeal and dumps it in a bowl, pours milk to top and sticks it in the microwave. All you have to do is make it and serve it, to be a good mother on the outside. The rest is up to him.

Mollusks are always spineless, often live in the mud and are sometimes parasitic. Most bivalves move freely through the sand or mud substrate but many (such as oysters) attach permanently to rocks or wood; some even bore into it.

They met in medical school, Nina and Matthew. And Jan, who would become her very best friend. The first sign should have been that she bonded more with Jan than Matt. Jan was so quick to pick things up and yet she had the patience to explain a concept as if she had difficulty understanding it originally herself. Matt looked at this business of understanding medicine more competitively. After they’d become involved, that is. At first he’d flipped down the seat beside her in an anatomy lecture and said, “Can I buy you a drink?”

When she thought about it, marrying Matt was a little like musical chairs; the music had stopped and he was what seemed like the only place left to sit down. Surely this had to have been bitterness, she thought, looking back from the position of a woman scorned. Surely there had been tender moments, looks exchanged, and so forth, only she could not recall a single one at the moment. Oh yes, his obsession with her good skin. That was tender, wasn’t it? He himself had scars on his chin and upper lip from an accident he’d had as a toddler — fallen, head first, into a bucket of broken glass in his parents’ garage. His baby pictures were not pretty. He could have been grossly disfigured but the shards had missed the most important parts of his face, spared his soft brown eyes and faded over time so that offset by his white lab coat, the faint scars now looked sexy. But never to him.  When he got it into his head that he wanted to marry her, he really, really wanted to marry her. This was tender too, yes? But when she dropped out of medical school after only a year, six months after Matt had proposed and she realized that a marriage could barely withstand the weight of one doctor, no less two, he accused her of attending medical school only with the intention of bagging a doctor, never of actually becoming one. And maybe he was right. Maybe she did do this subconsciously.

Eric hums a song from preschool as she shuffles his eggs from spatula to plate, butters his toast and pours him and Jack glasses of juice. At least she is 50% good mother on the inside. The microwave beeps and she puts the bowl in front of Jack who is still reading. He does not look up. She pushes the sugar bowl at him. “Here put more sugar on and it will taste like a pop tart.”

Eggs and sperm of bivalves are shed into the open sea water. The developing young are free swimming for many days or weeks before settling to the bottom. The larvae of fresh water mussels attach to the gills of fish and suck the blood of the host until they are ready to drop to the bottom as young mussels.”

Jack always seemed to need her but never seemed to want her. She hates to dredge this all up, but she took it personally at first, figured it was something she had done wrong: Not holding him right (her father’s, suggestion); not feeding him right (her mother’s, suggestion); too many baby sitters (her Grandma Isabelle’s suggestion); not getting him into a good bed time routine (Matt’s suggestion, or rather, insistence, although he did nothing to get Jack into a good bed time routine himself as he was not only not home while she was struggling to get Jack to bed, but probably in bed with someone from the office. Or on an examining table).

Jack didn’t smile much as a baby and she thought it was her fault. When her father was generous, he called Jack different. Sometimes he called him odd. Nina wondered if perhaps Jack knew that she had talked herself into being in love with Matt. Maybe babies could know these things, the way birds knew when a storm was coming and vacated the sky. When Jack did smile, he smiled for Matt. Her mother said he was stubborn: “The more you want him to smile for you, the more he’ll smile for Matthew.”  Sometimes Nina thought she should have him evaluated. Other times she thought she should have herself evaluated.

Matt was the one responsible for Jack’s interest in sea shells, which he sparked the summer she was pregnant with Eric and they vacationed on Cape Cod. Matt and Jack combed the beaches and dredged the marshes, returning to their rented cottage with black bearded muscles, heart-shaped cockles and razor clams while she napped with Eric snuggled inside her. To top it off, Matt took Jack to a store that sold exotic shells and added Jewel Boxes and Sanguin Clams to the collection and bought Jack his now well-worn field guide to identify them all. It’s not that she had something against collecting, after all, she did have a small collection of first edition books, her favorite a signed copy of A Moveable Feast that Matt had purchased for her on their first anniversary after a trip to Paris. But Jack’s collection was a passion beyond any she had ever known. He went to bed thinking of seashells and awoke dreaming of them. How could this be normal? How could it be healthy?

“Eat the oatmeal, Jack,” she says, taking the lid off the sugar bowl, dunking a tablespoon in it and dumping it on.

A vertical cross section of a piece of shell, magnified about 7,000 times, looks like a brick wall, with calcite crystals representing the bricks and the protein conchiolin the mortar. In transverse section, the crystals resemble shingles on a roof. The size of the crystals is determined by the rate at which their formation takes place and this, in turn, is determined by the temperature of the water.

Every night, she lies with her boys just before they fall asleep. (Jan, who is now a pediatrician, suggested it when Matt left). They jam into one single bed, Jack’s, with Nina in the middle, Eric on the inside and Jack near the edge. The nightlight glows yellow, like a Yield sign. Clean laundry bursts from dresser drawers since she has stopped folding and realized that just shoving it into the right spot is enough. Her boys’ hair is fragrant with the No More Tears baby shampoo she still uses, although they are not babies anymore. This is the only time Jack tells her anything. Or rather asks her everything.

“Why did daddy leave us?”

“When Eric cries, why do I sometimes get tears in my eyes?”

“When the humans become extinct will the dinosaurs come back?”

“Who made God?”

She never knows what to say. He always talks rolled away from her, facing the edge. If she touches his back, he says her hands are too hot. If she strokes his hair, he says it makes a loud, annoying noise in his head.

Meanwhile, Eric is rolled in to her as close as he can. If he were any closer he would be behind her. He is warm and moist and often falls asleep within five minutes of touching her. Usually he is too busy nuzzling her to talk. Occasionally, if he has had a nap late in the day, he steps up to the plate for her. He says:

“Daddy didn’t like eating the green beans, that’s why he left.”

“You get tears in your eyes because you are going to sneeze.”

“The dinosaurs are never coming back. Right Mommy?”

“I don’t know about the God one. What is God?”

The molluscan phylum has many examples of close associations with other animals. In some cases, such as commensalism, the two organisms live together and benefit from the association without one harming the other. In other instances, such as in parasitism, one of the associates suffers as a result of the feeding activities of the other. There are many gradations between commensalism and parasitism.

Eric finishes his eggs, his toast and is just swallowing his last gulp of juice. And Jack has not yet taken one bite. They will be fine there alone, she thinks, as she turns to head back to her bedroom and get dressed in the navy suit and gold silk blouse draped across her unmade bed.

The proboscis of the parasitic snail is modified into a long, hoselike tube bearing a sucker for attachment, a stylet for piercing the flesh of the host, and a special pump to suck blood. Some univalves, like the Natica moon snails, drill small, round holes through the shells of their molluscan victims. In some cases, the action of the radulae is aided by an acid secretion that softens the shell.

On Friday, Matt said this to her on the phone: “Listen, I’m not going into it now. I have a liposuction in the morning.”  It was 11 o’clock at night and he was weasling out of taking the boys for the weekend, although two weeks earlier he had served her with papers saying he wanted to be the custodial parent. Her cousin Jaimie, in New York, told her it was a common divorce lawyer scare tactic so that she would give him anything else he wanted graciously.

He had said the word liposuction as if it was a noble thing he would be performing, something reverential, important and glorious, like repairing the cleft palates, pro bono, of a bevy of children in the Third World. He had originally planned to go into psychiatry but when he realized, during the requisite years of therapy that sitting still and listening were not his forte, he switched to plastic surgery, then dermatology. As a dermatologist he could drain a cyst, excise a birthmark or freeze an age spot and be onto the next in a matter of seconds. He ended up being a plastic surgeon too. She figured it was a constructive way for him to hack things up and then put them back together.

“Did you hear me?” he repeated.

Liposuction. It made her think of vacuuming behind the sofa and picking up meat at the butcher. She was the one who had done these tasks in their marriage and yet he got the glory and the money. What she got was disdain at dinner parties for being a stay at home mom.

“Suit your self,” she had said about the weekend and slammed down the phone, then noticed Jack, in his pajamas in the door way, seashells in hand.

“Just get the hell back into bed!” she shouted at him. “I put you in there three hours ago!” Fifty percent horrible inside and out.

She pulls on the hose, buttons the blouse, zips the skirt and steps into her pumps. Shoes are her weakness and to her embarrassment, she stopped counting at 53 pair. This is her only other flaw, besides being a horrible mother to Jack on the inside. Oh how she does not want to go on this interview. The suit has no give. The shoes feel too tight. The kids feel too young to be in daycare until 6. She can’t imagine what this might do to Jack.

Why can’t Jack be just a little bit different, just a little bit flexible?

Her dad would probably rescue her if he knew all the details of the financial situation Matt was leaving her in. He would rescue her because she had been the favorite, because she had always taken his advice and this would be her reward. He would rescue her and tell her to keep it from Frankie, because Frankie won’t let him rescue her, but she’d be jealous just the same.

And anyway, her dad’s got problems of his own. Her dad’s got Grandma Isabelle, who he has hated his whole life, who he hasn’t spoken to in five years, going crazy with grief living on her own since his father died. Mistaking dishwashing liquid for cooking oil. Eating food that has passed its prime and ending up in the E.R. And he’s got his sister, Marla, who hates him, who hasn’t spoken to him in 10 years bungling it all. How can he step up to the plate and put his mother in assisted living where she belongs with everything that has come to pass? Meanwhile, she could burn down her whole apartment complex by accident and he would have to feel partly responsible for doing nothing. Boy is Nina ever glad to have moved to L.A. and away from all that. She’ll never go back. Not ever.

“Mom!” Jack shouts from the kitchen. “Come quick!”

She scurries down the carpeted hall, her heels crashing onto the Mexican tiled kitchen floor and sees Eric gagging and banging his fists on the counter. Jack’s got him in a bear hug, his arms around Eric’s waist, one hand holding the other in a fist balled up over his gut.

“It’s my Sanguin clam. I told him not to touch it but when I turned around he grabbed it and ate it.”

Nina stands absolutely still, her whole life in the room before her, unable to budge at the sheer weight of what the seconds might bring. Tears trickle from Eric’s red, bulging eyes, but he is dead silent, his face turning red, crimson, violet, blue. Nina’s feet are cemented into her shoes which are cemented to the tile. She is transfixed, watching her son, her favorite son, dying, like the sparrow she heard fly into a window as a girl. She ran outside and watched it in the grass, its feathered breast beating double-time until it was still. And her mother said, “Aw,” while she cried and cried and then shushed her and then said, “Stop carrying on already. This is not normal.”

In a moment, life as she knows it will be over.

She looks at Eric and tries desperately to move towards him but is paralyzed with uncertainty. She could make it worse. He could bring it up and she could knock it back down. She tells herself this although her training tells her otherwise. She tells herself this because her feet will not move, her face is numb and little grey dots are starting to obstruct her vision. She remembers feeling this way in front of her med school cadaver, with the shriveled skin like salami.

Jack wrinkles his nose, clenches his teeth and jams his fist into his brother’s gut as hard as he can. Eric lurches forward, and a sea shell missile flies from his white lips and lands on the floor.

“Oh my God,” Nina says, as Eric straightens up and gulps the air like it’s his first breath. Her feet come free and she rushes at him as he rushes at her, vomiting a spray of warm egg, toast and orange juice.

He tears at her suit and sobs as she thinks of her luck, as she thinks of how many people might be dead, had she faked her way through med school.

“How did you know how to do that?” she says to Jack.

“Daddy taught me.”

“Why?”

“He says I’m going to be a doctor some day, like him.”

She slides to the floor in her suit, Eric’s egg, toast and orange juice vomit, saturating the front of her silk blouse. Eric takes a step back, his shoulders still sobbing. Jack takes a step up to him and wipes his brother’s mouth with his own sleeve, then hugs him.

“You’re okay now, Eric,” Jack says, patting his brother’s back and looking at Nina. He has tears in his eyes and she watches him blink them back with long black lashes, just like hers.

“Mommy,” Eric croaks.

She looks at the clock and settles in on the floor.

Jack smiles and retrieves his shell from where it has landed. “I’m not going to be a doctor, of course. I’m going to be a malacologist.”

He picks up his book and continues to read aloud:  “A small rectangular dredge can be handled by one person and hauled with a line from the stern of a row boat. By feeling the line, you can tell whether the dredge is skipping over a rocky bottom, fluttering uselessly in mid-water or digging into oozy mud. Dump the contents on a wooden sorting board. Place the fragile  specimens in jars. Save a large sample of sand and rubble in a cloth bag. At home, the dried bottom sample may reveal choice miniature shells.”

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About Renée Bacher

Renée Bacher is a graduate of the writing program at Columbia University. A freelance writer, her nonfiction has appeared in publications that include The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Prevention, Working Mother and Travel & Leisure. "A Small Rectangular Dredge," is part of a collection of connected stories in progress. It was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Beautifully told story with analogies that hit home. Renee knows how to draw the reader in quickly and bring her characters to life. And the idea of your own child being as annoying as someone else’s annoying child resonates in a painful way.

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