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The Lobster That Wouldn’t Sleep by Tom Sheehan

It had happened again and bright-eyed, thick-chested Judd Farro, half clad in the yellow foul weather gear of his trade, couldn’t remember how many times it had happened over the years. The sea, obviously, has its own rules and regulations, he thought, its own machinations, and you don’t really count on them. But here, in its own great mystery, the lobster with the bold X on its backside was caught anew in one of his traps, big as life, healthy, and as if daring to say Here I am again. The X was indelible, unmistakable, and struck him with an awed intensity.

Judd Farro, lobsterman, knew the sea in his knees and in his heart: the endless rock that caressed him in the shift of tides and the swells at play, either out on the broad expanse or lodged in port softly bumping in that slow time dance against the dockside. And there was too the endless ache in his heart when he was not out on it. That he didn’t know the sea as well as he should in his mind was completely acceptable, for with the sea came the immutable laws governing it and all those who toiled on it, like he and his kind, and the absolute idiosyncrasies that played with those same laws. But even so, Judd was comfortable with his lot in life, skipper, owner, husband, father, a man who celebrated the vast sea itself; who was iron-fisted, muscled, beaten brown by sun and wind and salt. Much of his lot in life he had gotten from his father, a lobsterman before him, who had plied his way in and out of the small estuary that was the Saugus River, just north of Boston, to gather his crop from the great Atlantic, to do his great battle of survival out there on the Father of All Oceans. It was his father, Ivan Farro, an oak slab of a man, legendary on the river and in the trade, whose words were very early carved into young Judd’s mind, along with the great guffawing laughter that came with his introductions: We’re the Farros, lately of Egypt, now of Saugus. People warmed to the genial and hardworking giant, and the father’s ethics and strains passed clearly to the son.

It was Ivan Farro, at a party one evening at his home when Judd was just a boy, who first lined up a dozen lobsters and declared, “I am going to put all these lobsters to sleep in the middle of the kitchen floor.” The heart and soul and meat of his trade, and most undoubtedly of all there with him, inched about on the old birch flooring with the clumsy gait of elephants, dark little out-of-this-world creatures with their claws tied back by broad-banded elastics. Some were bigger than others, but all were keepers to this hardy band of men who fought the sea for these ungainly treasures.

Some of the lobsters appeared as if they could just drill their way down through the floor, so rambunctious they were in their actions. Others appeared not so boisterous, perhaps a bit weaker, having less desire for survival.

“Hey, Ivan,” came one strong but gargled voice, “Those ‘uns on the end ain’t weaks is they? You could told if you gave un a hotfoot!” His own laughter preceded all other responses. Judd couldn’t see who said it, but he guessed at Herb Comeau. Because of his line of site, he couldn’t see Herb in the kitchen, but a hazy flavor of him crept into his mind, small, cigar-y, white-toothed all the time in that part of his mouth where the cigar wasn’t clutched, all of the sea on him the way it was on his father, the signature of the river and the sea and the salt and the lifetime under the sun, and the smell of the boats, the unmistakable mix of diesel and salt that brands some men for life.

Ivan shot back. “Should I take their boots off before I light them up, or do you just want me to put the whole dozen of them to sleep like I promised?”  He held a lobster out as if it were a token of his promise.

Judd, watching from the second floor landing of the old colonial keeping room of the house they lived in, almost leaped to attention again at his father’s words. He craned his young neck to see into the kitchen from his place between the balusters. The broad back of his father bent over as he knelt on the floor. Judd shifted his position a few balusters and saw his father pick up one of the lobsters, still struggling for the open sea, for the sea bottom and its myriad food, its claws trying to menace the grip that was on it.  Slowly he began to rub the back of the lobster, riding the knuckles of one hand up and down the dark green but splotched back of the deep crustacean, the ugly grasper of sorts, the clawed menace the likes of which had once gotten desperate hold of Judd’s little finger and almost kept it. Perhaps a full minute his father rubbed, all the time keeping up a constant run of chatter that Judd could make no sense of: The sea is full, but the pan is clean. The waves are rough, but the butter’s keen. You’ve been done in by baits and chums, now sleep, me Buck, until eternity comes.  All the while he rubbed, he repeated the words, sometimes changing his delivery, sometimes bringing them almost to a tune, now and then a lilt, now and then like a deathbed vow in a voice as serious as Judd had ever heard, chambered, dark, resonant, the echo of the sea somewhere in it, bottom talk that Judd could only sense but knew was real. Much later in life he’d think of the words mystical and mythical and all they conveyed and how either seemed for that time to be the most fitting, for he was watching his very own father in this strange rite, his very own father taming the terror of the deep. The once-vicious grip on his little finger came back in clear recall and he could feel it all the way up his arm as he knelt on his elbows. He loved that giant of a man as he loved nothing else in life, except, of course, his mother.

“Now sleep, Bucko,” said his father, “until the pots aboil’, and he placed the lobster on his head and the two points of his claws, like the Tricorn, an even and balanced position which Judd had never before seen a lobster in, upside down in this crazy world. He remembered riding the swing in the Ballard School playground that way and how the blood had rushed into his head and made him so dizzy he had fallen off the swing and had taken a good whack on the back of his head. Now here this lobster remained perfectly still and there was no sound from the kitchen except the claws of the other eleven lobsters trying to find their way home. Judd’s mouth hung open and he was afraid that he’d have to hold his breath as long as the lobster stood on its head. It was almost as if an enjoyable panic was toying with him. He was certain that he could breathe if he wanted to. Well, almost certain. He took a quick breath to prove himself right.

The lobster stayed in that clumsy position, not one claw moving, the thick tail motionless, and his father reached for a second creature at his knees, and began the words again: The sea is full, but the pan is clean…and before Judd could believe it there were eleven lobsters standing on their heads on the kitchen floor, and not a word from Herb Comeau or Lance Kujawski or Dave Penney or any of that intrepid band, or from their women, suddenly drilled to silence by the still parade. Judd could smell rising up to him the salt and the diesel and the acrid edge of whiskey and tired beer in the mix. And the mass of clams in the buckets and the oatmeal his mother had fed to them the night before to clean them out. And the exciting newness and freshness of sugar and butter corn he knew would be his on the next afternoon, corn all the way down from Middleton or Danvers or from a little stand his mother had found way out in Georgetown, a nice ride’s worth on a Sunday morning.

To Judd the array of motionless lobsters looked like sentinels on guard duty, for his father had arranged them in a perfect row, using the edge line of one piece of birch flooring as the crown point, a place where lobster heads bent at neatness and sleep. And mystery.

But the last lobster was a rebel, a far more desperate creature than its companions, something of a different order or a different breed, resistant, stoical, culled for this very one and special moment, for even as Ivan Farro carried on for the fortieth or so time the ritual of his words, singing them, praying them, uttering them almost as oaths, cajoling, entrancing, the last lobster did not do his bidding. Even when his father’s voice came as an old sea ditty, rollicking in its words, full of creaking beams and sounds that were never port sounds, that last-stand lobster waved its claws in the air, snapped its tail at Ivan’s hand, called the sea onto itself, failed to buckle under.

At length the other lobsters had fallen over, Herb said he was hungry, Ethel Bridgeman had turned the heat up under the big pots on the stove, and Lance and Dave began to gather the other lobsters from the floor.

“Not this one,” said Ivan, ‘Not this Bucko! This Bucko’s going back in tomorrow.” His voice was strictly serious. He held the lobster over his head. “No quitter, this one. No siree! I’m going to mark him and if any of you guys bring him up in your traps, do him and me the honor of chucking him back. This guy’s a tiger!”

He took a knife from one of the drawers and scratched a large X on its backside. Then he took an indelible marker off the shelf and drew the X right over the etched mark. “See here, guys.” He held the lobster out toward them. “See my mark. If you bring him up, toss him back in. He’s earned his time. Do me that favor.” He found each of their eyes with his own eyes, and the promises were silent, and absolute.

And the party had continued and the pot had boiled and young Judd Farro had fallen asleep at the head of the stairs.

All of it he remembered again as he looked at the marked lobster, the X as plain and as bold as the night of the party so long ago. Whether it was the same one was doubtful, but you never knew when it came to the sea, rules or no rules. Perhaps a new breed had been uncovered, or set in motion by his father, perhaps a new Genus Exus Homarus abroad on the deep. He remembered so clearly the night of the party and the alignment of sleeping lobsters. And the strange one who wouldn’t sleep like the others, and the storm that beat at the coast very suddenly a few cold months later and his father going down into the depths forever, and the smiling little Herb Comeau from Moncton or Memramcook or wherever he was from with his now eternal cigar, and Josh Billings and his son Peter, and Eddie LeBlanc and the Fewers and the Donovans and the Capeccis and the Savios and the Gallivans and others from the Saugus fleet. If he said all of their names any more it would hurt him, so he cut some of them off, but an ache as big as the sea itself had settled on him once more.

Judd Farro held the lobster over his head and yelled to Yancey Dewey off his port bow. “Hey, Yance. I got that big old sucker again!”  The old mythic lobster, a dark green and splotched character swept up from the drama of the sea, serious as a clutch of dark bones, was waved in the air, a semaphore of impractical sorts. When Judd, at length, heaved him over the side, the splash was gone quickly.

Suddenly Judd was in the middle of a grand reverie. This hard-working man, who fought against the hard sea, all things around him buffeted by the fishing laws and the Maritime Laws and the low catches of the times and the often bare scratching for survival that colored every moment of his days, was caught in a reverie. But the reverie he enjoyed. It said it had captured him up as if scooped by a great fist. It said that someone was standing right beside him. It said someone was sharing the deck with him, sharing the slight cut of the breeze on his skin and the roll of the deck marking its meter at his knees and his hips; and sharing the wide expanse flattening out beyond everything just the way Kansas grass or Iowa grass surely must go on forever, or the void out past all the stars. And the soft and hollow ache coming anew in his chest.

Yancey Dewey, pulling and yanking at his own traps, yelled, his voice carrying cleanly over the water. “The sleepless monster takes the bait again! You can bet one thing on it, Judd.” He stood straight up from his task on the deck of his boat, a mark of punctuation for his words. “Your old man’s got a hand in this. Said he’d never let go and he sure hasn’t.”

The endless roll of the sea was yet broadcasting at Judd Farro’s knees, at his hips, swinging its mythical and timeless magic, and far over the small white caps running under the most patient of winds, from a distance without measure, from either that far not-so-illuminated point of reference on the horizon or from the confines of his own mind, he heard the chant his father had sung: The sea is full, but the pan is clean. The waves may be rough, but the butter’s keen. You’ve been done in by baits and chums, now sleep, me Bucko, until eternity comes.

Judd Farro, deep within himself, as far down as he could go, knew that the sleepless lobster would come again into his trap, that the indelible marking would endure, until the time came when he would be stretching out for it himself, the sea all around him.

The sea, respectfully, unconditionally, has its laws and regulations.

Tom Sheehan

Banner Image: Lobster pots – Diane M Dickson

6 thoughts on “The Lobster That Wouldn’t Sleep by Tom Sheehan”

  1. This is the best and most poetic story of the sea I’ve ever read. And the best about a spirited lobster. Unforgettable! June


  2. Thanks for the grand comments, which start a day off on the best foot forward, and the biggest challenge of all is to rewrite/revise/attend the 15 stories rejected. The most difficult part I find is weighing the task versus plunging into a new story. Joy splits these pages wide open. Tom


  3. I’m twisting around, my head as far around as it will go, trying to see in the mirror if there’s an X on my back. I can’t see one but I sure hope there’s one there.

    The pots aboil…knew the sea in his knees…white caps running under the most patient of winds: there are so many treasures here. Thanks!


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