- American Short Fiction - http://americanshortfiction.org -

Filler

Animal-Crustacean-Lobster-8 [1]My daughter is still young enough to draw pictures of fairies on all of her school notebooks, but at other times her oldness is startling. For example, when she was the flower girl at her mother’s second wedding, she explained to me that she needed her underwear to match her dress, in case her dress flipped up. Her mom and I are on good terms: I was also invited to the wedding, and I attended, and at one point I was even asked to stand up and speak, but I don’t remember what I said. When I woke up the next morning, my lips purple from wine, I started calling everyone I knew and apologizing. Everybody said that it was fine; I was fine. I only had nice things to say, even then.

One of the many things that I love about my daughter is that she loves food. When she was three, when most children are at their pickiest, my wife and I were amazed by what she enjoyed. Soup with kale in it, breaded veal, snails covered in butter that we would pry from their shells with a hat pin, then arrange on a plate for her to eat with her pudgy hands. And most of all she loved lobster—which is an easy food to like, but still outré for a three-year-old. On nights when my wife and I would hire a babysitter to go out with friends, we would brag about our daughter’s eating habits.

She is a foodie, we would say: maybe she’ll be a chef. But the real issue was not whether she would be a chef, but the galaxy of other things that taste in food implied. She was going to be cultured and smart. She would never have to stand at the edges of a crowd and feel uncomfortable. She would always have something witty to say, and she would never be lonely, and neither would we.

I have custody of her this New Year’s Eve, so we are going to have a movie night and eat lobster. Her step-father, my ex-wife’s new husband, drops her off early and she goes upstairs to her old bedroom while he and I talk downstairs. He is exactly my wife’s type, which means he is a lot like me, except fatter. A long time ago, this bothered me. Talking to him was like a horror movie. But now I’m over it, and the two of us are friends.

“By the time I’m old,” he says, “I’d like to have a quiet New Year’s.”

He is referring to how my ex-wife loves New Year’s Eve more than anyone I have known. Once, we flew to New York and were trapped in a crowd for hours, drunk and without a bathroom. At midnight the man next to me pissed on my shoes, which made me even angrier because I did not have the guts to piss.

I take the new husband into the kitchen and show him the lobsters I got from Walmart. They are in the refrigerator, and still alive, and one of them is incredibly huge, twice as big as a house cat and covered in barnacles; it looks like something that could battle Ultra-Man.

“He hadn’t been in the tank long,” I say. “When I got there, all of the employees from the food department were standing around, looking at him.”

Right now the giant lobster is just sitting in the bottom of a plastic storage bin on my refrigerator’s bottom shelf, along with another smaller lobster for my daughter. When he hears us talking about him, he looks up wearily and twitches his antennae at us through the plastic.

After the new husband leaves, my daughter and I watch her favorite movie, which is Shrek 2. My next-door neighbors are out for the night, I know, and so I crank the volume to unreasonable levels. We can feel the floorboards shake. My daughter gets up and dances to the music and sings along accurately. I sing the parts I know, and the other parts I hum. When the movie is over, I tell her that I am just going upstairs to use the bathroom, and when I come back down we are going to eat the lobster. And so I rush upstairs and I am more drunk than I realize—halfway up I stumble, and almost fall—and when I get back downstairs, I discover that my daughter has taken the two lobsters out of the fridge, and is racing them on the vinyl tiles. Their claws are wrapped in rubber bands, so she remains unjaded and unpinched.

While she is still squatting over them, on the floor, she points to the little one. “That is Grabber,” she says. She points to the other. “And that is Big Moe.”

Without saying anything I pick the two lobsters up and I put them on the counter, which is easy for Grabber, but Big Moe is big enough that he is hard to lift one handed, and when he coils his tail in angst, I almost drop him. Then, looking back at my daughter, I start to panic. I call my ex-wife and she picks up on the fifth ring. I can barely hear her over the gush of the crowd and the music in the background.

“Order pizza,” she says.

Of course I do. I ask my daughter what she wants, and she understands the situation immediately. Just cheese, she says. Pepperoni, maybe. And I think that I am an idiot who doesn’t even know his own daughter. But we have a good night anyway, and we watch a movie she hasn’t seen before, with wooly mammoths in it, and after I put her to bed I go back downstairs and haul Big Moe back out of the fridge and get out my carving knife and hold him down, while his legs click against the graphite countertop.

There is a way to kill lobsters before boiling them that is supposed to be more humane, where you jab them in the back of the head with a knife before dropping them into the water, and this is supposed to kill Moe instantly. But when I boil him I still hear the steam bursting through his exoskeleton, and it still sounds like a scream, and I still drunkenly eat all of him and take his bones out to the garbage right away so that my daughter will not find them.

In the end, I fool nobody. My daughter wakes up excited and I wake up with a headache, and after breakfast, when my ex-wife comes to pick her up, my daughter asks to look at the lobsters one last time. I’m too hungover to lie, and when I open the refrigerator there is just Grabber, rubberbanded, placid, and resigned. My daughter can do fractions when other kids are just adding. She reads books meant for teenagers. She understands this.

Despite what my ex-wife will say, this was not about passive aggression but just dumb gluttony—I was drunk and had wanted to eat Big Moe for hours—but years later, when my daughter is in college and in a moment of extreme cruelty—right after I tell her how proud she makes me—she will explain that New Year’s with me was the turning point. It is why she is a vegetarian, it is why she is committed to the environment, it is why she volunteers in animal shelters: everything good about her is not about what I did right, but what I did absolutely wrong.

And years after that, at her wedding, when it is my turn to stand up and speak, I will tell everybody that story about the lobsters as a testament to what a good person my daughter is, and how much she loves animals, and how because of her kindness she will never be lonely, but I will pare it down. I will leave out the details about the pizza and the movies, and I will leave out the eating, because that is just filler. People can figure that one out on their own.


Anthony Abboreno is currently pursuing a PhD in Literature and Fiction Writing at the University of Southern California. In 2008, he earned a Master’s in the same subjects at the University of Southern Mississippi. He has work forthcoming in Reunion: The Dallas Review.