As the Tank Turns

Days before Junior’s flight from justice, I sensed he and Wynnona weren’t on the best of terms. But never did I think he’d stoop this low.

Not until that fateful morning.

***

Incredulous, Laura and I stare at Junior’s empty cell, knowing his tiny, semi-gelatinous body is scurrying around the house.

“It’s only a matter of time before Tex finds him,” I mutter, redirecting my focus to the scene of the crime.

One cell over, Wynnona lingers.

Well, in a sense.

While crafting Junior’s escape narrative, I realize how much of a sadistic bastard he really is–how effectively he’d disguised his disturbing tendencies, even though we could, quite literally, see right through him.

“He must’ve scaled the wall somehow,” I mumble, stroking the nonexistent chin hair I won’t sprout until senior year of high school. “And then…this.”

I still can’t quite get over the sight.

Wynnona’s stumpy body drifts and thumps against her cell walls, ricocheting back and forth like a cadaverous Pong ball. What’s worse is that she knows she’s a Pong ball.

He’d left her alive, but snacked off her legs and remaining claw.

“That’s gross.” Laura scoffs, then turns and walks away.

I move closer, stooping and peering into the cloudy cell.

Bless your tiny heart.

Mercifully, Wynnona dies shortly thereafter.

And I escalate the charges against Junior from assault and cannibalism, to lobsterslaughter.

The hunt is on.

***

Two weeks prior, an eccentric great aunt had sent us our very own Freshwater Lobster Rehabilitation Kit.

My eyes stopped on the word “rehabilitation.”

Because the only “rehabilitation” I knew about involved Dad taking battered wild birds from neighbors who’d bring them up to the porch. And after he’d wave on the diligent do-gooders, more often than not, he’d perform a quick examination, sigh, put on his “fixing gloves,” and walk out to the backyard.

Our pet cemetery was enormous.

***

We’d ripped through the box, pulling out small plexiglass squares, a water pump, and a container generically labeled “Lobster Pellets”–feed that looked just like cockroach crap, and smelled like fish. Assured by the box’s instructions that we’d soon be receiving the actual lobsters, we’d set to task and completed the tri-level plexiglass structure with compartmentalized cells, the “Lobster Apartment Complex.”

Much to our parents’ chagrin, we’d placed it prominently on the kitchen counter, right in front of the prescription medications. I’m sure more than a few conversations between them ended with “The decongestant’s behind the damn lobster tower thing. Don’t mistake it for the Lobster Pellets again!”

Judging from each cell’s size, I’d assumed the lobsters had to be tiny. But a little part of me envisioned a thin, wary postal carrier wrestling a violently-shaking, hole-pocked package from the back of their USPS van up to our front door.

We’d open up the box and the lobsters would be large, unwieldy miscreants until we’d woo them with fishy pellets. And then I’d be able to use the yarn leashes I’d made to walk them up and down the sidewalk, answering passersby with a jaded, “Why, yes, this is one of my nine, yes, nine, lobsters. Oh, you don’t have one? Well, that’s unfortunate.”

Yes, the lobsters would be my key to stardom–to me ascending middle school’s social ladder. I could feel everyone’s envious gazes already.

But then, the package came: a plain, taped, run-of-the-mill brown box. No claws boring through the sides, no antennae swaying in the breeze. Laura and I unpacked the large Ziploc bag that had smaller, water-filled bags nested within it, each of which contained the half-inch lobsters.

Firmly stuck in a country music phase, we named them immediately: Junior, Wynnona, Teensie, Dot, Bessie, Flip, Dead-Head, Buzz, and Mischief.

***

Much to my dismay, the crustacean crew seemed innocuous enough—not the raucous bunch I’d hoped they’d be.

Little by little, though, we glimpsed their sordid dealings.

Like how Teensie, the runt, had become the others’ in-flight snack: her back half and one claw completely devoured. I’d guessed the culprits were those nearest a small cloud of stringy excrement.

But being the tenacious little crustacean she was, Teensie lasted through the night, almost as if she had something to prove to the others–no doubt raising her remaining claw in a show of defiance. We tore off a napkin corner, wrapped up her little body, poked a hole in ground, and raised a toothpick over the in-filled grave, with a white tape banner and Sharpie epitaph reading “Teensie.”

To say our hopes were undercut a bit by Teensie’s death the first night wouldn’t be too far from the truth. But we held fast to our shared goal of raising the rest to adulthood.

And, for a while, it seemed like they’d make it.

But then Bessie and Dot started acting lethargic; I tried to reason away their malaise–rationalize it as normal behavior. Because, compared to Flip, they were all lethargic.

Flip provided more entertainment than all the others combined. For most of the day, he’d crawl to the left side of his cell, touch his front legs to the side, flip backward twice, and land on the opposite side. Again. And again. And again.

Whenever I’d walk into the kitchen, I’d channel my best sitcom star voice and laugh, “Oh, that Flip,” expecting sudden, hysterical laughter from an unseen viewing audience.

After the first week, though, entries in our Lobster Log became increasingly macabre:

Feb. 28, 1994: Wynnona and Junior lost one pincher each. They haven’t grown a new pincher yet.

March 4, 1994: Mischief died today. We don’t know why.

March 7, 1994: We are sending the dead ones back to where they came from. And we are getting two more lobsters in place of the dead ones.

March 10, 1994: Today, Dot died.

March 19, 1994: Junior got into Wynnona’s cage and ate her pinchers and legs. After that, Junior got out of Wynnona’s cage, fell onto the floor, and our dog ate him.

Soon enough, we realized our goal of releasing fully-grown lobsters into a moss-lined, freshwater stream would never come to fruition.

But what devastated me more was that I’d never get to make anyone jealous of my lobsters–no walks down the street, no hushed, awestruck silences from my classmates as I walked into my science class, leashes in hand and lobsters in tow, slopping along the classroom carpeting.

***

With the lobster search eating away a precious Saturday, Laura and I give up early. By now, Junior’s either been surreptitiously destroyed by Tex or Scooby, or is gliding away in one of my Matchbox cars.

Weeks later, Mom finds Junior’s dried, desiccated corpse behind Tex’s bowl. With little fanfare, she sweeps him up with a whisk broom, dumping his dusty remains into the garbage can.

As I watch, a smile creeps across my face.

Wynnona would’ve appreciated that.

***

In the end, no stream is glutted with lobsters. No awards are given for lobster husbandry. No one achieves “popular prep” status.

Instead, our pet cemetery grows by nine small graves.

But that’s something, right?

We may not have ensured the lobsters’ survival, but we’ve still helped out in nine small ways.

A failed exercise? Methinks not.

Because, everything grows out of something. And we all need a little fertilizer to flourish.

4 thoughts on “As the Tank Turns

  1. Oh, kind of sad! But also hilarious! You had an eventful childhood, Matt. Or maybe it’s just the way you narrate it.

    • HA! The more I talk to other people and they’re like, “WTF, I never did anything like that,” the more I realize we did have sort of a bizarre childhood. But I wouldn’t have it any other way 😉

  2. You have got to have the most fascinating parents in the universe. Their encouragement of your exploring and self-expression is fabulous.

    • They. Are. Amazing!

      I’m sure there were plenty of facepalm-worthy moments with us running around. But they managed pretty damn well! 😉

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