Fiction · 09/07/2011

Junket

“It wasn’t the mall,” I hear Jessica say. “He left her at a Safeway. Tied up in the trunk of her car.”

I hear this from a distance, just as I hear the drone of the boat’s engine and the echoing sound of a soda can being opened by one of the men on the bridge. An hour earlier, I had taken Dramamine as a precaution against seasickness. Now the world feels slow and far away.

We are on Jessica’s twenty-two-foot Bayliner. By we, I mean Jessica, her husband Paul, Steve and me. We are going to gather clams. Or at least that’s what Jessica said we were going to do when she called me up on the phone.

“Clam season started,” Jessica had said. “We thought we’d do a day of it. You and Steve want to come?”

“I don’t know a thing about boating,” I said.

“Don’t be daft, Pam. Seattle’s got more boats then anywhere else in the country.”

“Per capita,” I corrected. “More boats per capita.”

Despite not knowing a thing about boating, I am paid to know statistics about who owns boats and what that says about their other buying habits. I work as an account executive with an advertising firm.

Jessica is a nutritionist at the county hospital. On a small foldout table on the cockpit of the boat, she feeds us pasta primavera and stories about young women in trouble.

“Can you believe it?” she says now. “A twenty-year-old girl dresses to meet her friends for dinner at a local restaurant. On her way into the restaurant, a man with a bandana tied over his face accosts her in the parking lot. Just his eyes show. Sort of like Jesse James, right? He holds a long knife and forces her to get into her own car.”

Through my drug-induced haze, I see Jessica’s animated face. Her perfectly kohl-lined eyes widen as the narrative develops.

I don’t really like Jessica’s stories. They smack too much of hype and desperation. I see plenty of that at work — accounts that are limping along until the agency brings in some hot-shot art director from New York or LA to save the campaign. Directors, who bet high, risk all, only to be fired two months later when it all comes crashing down upon their heads. Not like me. No trailblazer, I succeed instead by listening closely to my clients’ demands, walking the fine line between what they say they want and what they really need. I’m constantly reminding the creative team to stay on message, peppering them with the latest research. My approach may not win me lots of awards, but it keeps me employed because my clients know that I’m cautious, careful with their money.

“Jesse James robbed banks,” I say now, trying to catch up with the story.

Steve gives me a sharp look, almost as steely as the cutting blade of the kidnapper’s knife. Steve is why I really took the Dramamine. I thought it might take the edge off. Lately, that’s all our marriage is — edgy and pointed — like running smack into the sharp end of a table over and over again.

Steve likes Jessica. He says of all my friends she is the most involved, most caught up in life.

“The rest of you just stand back, making comments about how other people live,” he says to me one night after we return home from a party.

I say that I think my friends are very clever.

“Being clever is not exactly the same as being fun.”

“Neither is being criticized.”

“I don’t criticize you,” he says. “I just don’t like you all the time.”

The bruises are starting to pile up.

“That poor girl,” Steve says to Jessica now. “What happened then? She must have been terrified.”

“That’s what’s so wild,” Jessica says. “The guy makes her drive around for a while. Then about two hours later, he tells her to pull into a Safeway. He needs a few things he says. But to make sure she doesn’t get away, he locks her in the trunk. He tells her he will let her out when he gets done shopping.”

“Only he doesn’t come back,” Steve prompts.

“Right. So she is locked in there all night. Think of it, think how dark and cold in there it must have been.”

We are all silent for a while, thinking of it. Something about the story doesn’t make sense.

“That’s all he did?” I say. “No rape, no robbery? Just drives around with her and locks her in a trunk?”

Jessica shrugged, “Maybe he got scared. And in the morning when the store parking lot got more crowded, the girl banged really hard on the sides of the trunk and someone came and let her out.”

“It just goes to show you,” Steve says.

“Shows what?” I say.

“The whole power trip thing. The man and woman thing.”

The man and woman thing. The love thing ($15.8 billion spent for Valentine’s Day in the US). As a child, I watched my mother waiting night after night for my father to return from his latest business trip. The TV would run all night long, and in the morning when it was time for me to leave for school, I would see her asleep on the sofa, still sitting up, her mouth slack and slightly open. And when he returned, we would have fancy four course dinners she spent all day preparing, her eyes burning more brightly than the dining room table lit up with candles.

“It’s so nice to have us all together again, Pammy,” she would say to me as we brought the laundry down to the basement to wash. “Family is the very most important thing.”

Then I would watch her inspect my father’s dirty shirts, sniffing at the cloth, inspecting the collar. I thought how amazing love must be that she wanted to carry his smell around with her. It was only as I got older that I realized she was searching for a trace of lipstick, some other woman’s lingering perfume. (Women who believe their husbands are cheating turn out to be correct 85 percent of the time).

When I got married, I took care about who I chose; picking someone who I felt sure loved me more than I loved him. Somehow I thought that would prevent him from straying, would keep him to me. But Steve has finally figured out the truth, and is beginning to resent it. He’s beginning to resent it like hell. And now perhaps too late, I am just starting to realize the high price of settling.

“So where are we headed?” I ask quickly, raising my voice above the roar of the motor and the wind.

“The San Juans,” Paul calls down from the bridge. “They got some really great clam beds near Mosquito Pass.”

Paul is wearing a bright yellow slicker and a thick cable sweater, and the beginnings of a day-old beard. He looks like the Gorton’s fisherman.

I hear the jingle play in my head, “Trust the Gorton’s fisherman for great seafood.”

At the cove, clouds have come in from the west. They settle over the area like a giant bowl of Junket, a dessert my mom used to make which alternated a layer of blueberry Jell-O with a layer of white curdish foam. This is what the cove looks like. A spot of blue, then frothy clouds, then blue, then thick clouds rising up over the greenish water like steam.

“Did your mom ever make you Junket?” I ask Jessica. Maybe it’s why she became a hospital nutritionist — all that gelatin when she was a kid.

“Junket?” Jessica says. “Never heard of it.”

“It’s a type of Chinese boat,” Paul says.

“Those are junks,” Steve says. “I think a junket is a type of excursion.”

“That’s right,” I say. “Only it’s paid for at someone’s else expense.”

“Most things are,” Jessica says.

Steve smiles at her. He’s flirting, playing with the food on his plate, shaping the pasta into the outline of a heart.

She applauds silently, a demure but clearly calculated move to ensure that Steve catches a whiff of the Shalimar that she dabs on each of her wrists.

Steve sneezes.

I laugh. I feel the noise echo in my head, growing frightened when I realize just how cruel I have become. I force myself to concentrate on the horizon, to balance my body with the boat as it bobs up and down in the waves.

Paul cuts the boat’s engine, and throws down an anchor.

Jessica hands me a set of rubber boots.

“The water’s really cold,” she says. “You might want to put these on.”

“I’m not going in the water,” I say, confused.

“How else are you going to get the clams?”

“I thought we did it from the boat. Like fishing.”

“You have to pull the clams up from the bed,” Paul says. “You can use a net or shovel, but I prefer to use my hands. That way you can feel around for the big ones.”

I look at Steve. He has already begun rolling the bottom of his jeans up to his knees, preparing for his immersion in the muddy water.

I sigh and wrestle with the rubber boots, trying to slip them over my pair of canvas sneakers. I feel awkward and slow. The thought of plunging my hands and legs into a foot and half of icy water fills me with dread. Even in late September, even after a sun-drenched summer, the waters of Puget Sound rarely rise above fifty degrees.

I think how good a hot rich bowl of clam chowder will taste. I’m just about to offer to stay on board and begin boiling the water, when I see Steve climb over the side of the boat.

I hear the splash as he lands, see the wide grin on his face.

“This is really great, Pam,” he says, looking up at me, his feet and calves totally submerged. The wind causes little indentations to dot the water like green dimples. Steve holds his hand out to help me into the water.

A peace offering. I take it.

Sliding my blue-jeaned butt against the side of the boat, I lower myself into the water; almost instantly, my rubber boots feel icy damp, shooting a dart of pain up through my legs and torso and into my chest. I gasp in surprise.

“Don’t worry,” Steve says. “You’ll go numb in a minute or two.”

From above me, I hear laughter. Jessica stands by the transom, looking down on us. She’s got a wool blanket wrapped around her shoulders and a paperback novel in her right hand. On the cover is a picture of a half-naked woman. Between the women’s bare breasts is a silver revolver, the muzzle covering the edge of one brown nipple.

“Aren’t you coming in?” I ask.

“Someone has to mind the boat,” Jessica says. “ But I’ve put up some coffee for when you all come back on board.”

I hear a gleeful squeal and awkwardly turn around in the water. Paul holds a large-sized clam up for all to see. The shell is grayish-white.

“Found the bed,” Paul says, happily. “We should be able to fill up a couple of buckets in no time.”

And to demonstrate, he tosses the clam into Steve’s red pail where it lands with a tiny splash.

Steve and I wade through the water to join him.

I roll the sleeves of my wool sweater back up to my elbows, take a deep breath, and then plunge my hand into the freezing water. I feel along the muddy bottom, groping for something hard and round.

“Got something!” I say triumphantly and pull it up for the world to see. It’s a tin can, dented on one side and covered in rust, the sort used for pet food.

Steve laughs, “That will sure taste great in a soup.”

I glare at him. “I’ll have you know that this can represents $2.75 billion in cat food sales in the past year alone.”

“Judging by the rust, whatever cat ate what was in that can has long since been diced up himself for Chinese food.”

“Ew, gross,” I said, quickly dropping the can back into the water.

“Stop pussyfooting around, guys,” Paul says. “Let’s get to work.”

So we set to it, though I feel around somewhat gingerly now, afraid of what I might find.

“There aren’t eels or stinging fish here, are there?”

“Could be,” Paul says. “Or sand sharks.”

I stand up immediately, “I’m going back to the boat.”

“He’s kidding,” Steve says.

“I’m going back.”

As quickly as I can, figuring if I keep my feet moving nothing will have to time to bite me, I make my way towards the boat.

Back on board, I strip off the heavy rubber boots and gratefully accept both a blanket and a hot steaming cup of coffee from Jessica. By the time I’ve changed my clothes and come back on deck, the others are back too.

Paul spills the bucket full of clams onto the deck, squirting them down with a tiny hose. Then he takes a long thin knife and shoves it into one side of the seam of the shell.

“You got to slice the muscle,” he says. “Otherwise, the suckers will never open themselves up to you.”

I decide the shells look like portable homes. Or perhaps like a locked trunk, held in place only by a thin strip of metal, which functions like a stretched muscle.

In the news story, the person who rescued the girl used a blunt screwdriver to pry open the trunk. Jessica’s tale made me recall seeing the rescuer on the late night news, telling the reporter how long it took him to crack the trunk. He was afraid, he said, that the girl would run out of air before he got it open.

I wonder if it is dark and cramped inside the clam’s shell. If clams get claustrophobia.

Then I think that it might be nice to have a portable home, a place where you are safe from predators, ambitious art directors and fears about your marriage. The shell is as exactly big as the animal — a perfect fit. I think what it must be like to live in a dark, cool world where you only need exactly what you have. If I lived like that I think I’d fight too if someone tried to pull me out. I cling onto my shell for dear life.

“Hey, you ever eat a raw clam?” Steve asks.

“Oysters and mussels, sure,” Paul says. “But clams?”

“Why not?” Steve says. “Why ever not?”

And Steve cuts easily into the soft flesh of the animal with the knife Paul offers him. When the shell at last opens, Steve lifts it to his lips and the clam slides softly into my husband’s mouth.

“Yum,” he says. “Yum, yum, yum.”

I look away, feeling the bitter bile rise up from my throat. I try to recall the many wonderful husbandly things Steve has done, some of them not so long ago, like the time he bought me roses after a big account fell through or the comforting warmth of his large working class hands as he rubs my belly when I have menstrual cramps.

But as I fight to regain control of my stomach, the bitterness remains. I feel myself struggle with it, wondering if love can rise above the complicated layers of hope, despair, and the painful, chronic disappointment that has served as the backdrop of our marriage.

“What’s with you?” Steve says.

I shake my head, unable to speak.

“Guess what I heard on the radio while you guys were out digging up dinner?” Jessica says.

“What?” Paul says.

“The girl in the trunk?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s all made up.”

“Huh?”

“She locked herself up in her car. They say she did it to get attention. There was no man in a bandana or nothing. She drove her car to the Safeway, waited until no one was around and just crawled right into her trunk. She had a bag of Doritos hidden in her purse. Something she could munch on while waiting.”

“Nacho Cheese or Cool Ranch?” Steve jokes. .

I give him the smile he expects, a peace offering of my own.

“It just goes to show you,” Steve says again.

“Anyway,” Jessica says, “The radio says they are taking her to Western State Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. If they say she’s not nuts, they will probably arrest her for false charges. Wasting the police’s time on a hoax.”

“What do you mean if she’s not nuts?” Steve says. “She locked herself in a trunk for God’s sake.”

“Well,” Jessica says. “That sure is one for the books. Hey, did you hear about the attempted murder on Capitol Hill last night? Some drug dealers broke into the house of this woman? Only the woman turned out to be a police officer and arrested them on the spot.”

I look over at my friends. And at Steve. For them, the story has already retreated into the landscape, to a place that has no real bearing on their lives. But for a long time I will think about this story, will wonder periodically what it must be like to lock yourself away from the world — listening only to the sound of your own heart beating in the dark.

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Sandi Sonnenfeld’s short stories and essays have appeared in more than two dozen literary magazines and anthologies including Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles and others. She’s also the author of the memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), for which she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. For more, visit www.sandisonnenfeld.com.