Evalyn Lee is a former CBS news producer who now lives in London and is working on her first novel: "The Rise and Fall of Jackie Bridges."
My car rocks to a stop on its chassis. The joint is quiet and the silence hot. I don't like wearing a tie. I pull it down to the first button as I open the door of my Chevy. Then I take it off and put it and my office jacket on the vinyl bench seat. The small figure of the woman I want walks toward me. The swing of her hips knocks me sideways. I'm the first customer, her best customer, standing in the parking lot of her dad's crab shack on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
The brown paper tablecloth rustles as I sit down at a corner table overlooking the dock.
"What can I get you?" she asks.
"You know what I want," I say. "But I guess a tray of crabs will have to do me."
I even like the way her dirty white Keds gap away from the arch of her foot. There is something innocent and enticing in the dark of that sweaty shadow. I imagine running my thumb along the edge of her foot and licking the smell of her off my finger as the hiss of the match ignites my first cigarette out of the third pack of the day. I've been up since three and at work since four. By eleven o'clock I'm hungry.
I want this woman.
The plastic pitcher of beer I didn't order is now sweating in her hand. She puts it down, slopping foam onto the brown package paper that covers the table. I lift the jug with one hand and pour the contents down my throat. Some of the beer cascades over my bottom teeth and out onto my office shirt. She picks up the empty jug, turns, and walks away. When she comes back she dumps the tray of red boiled crabs onto the table. There are thirteen crabs, a Maryland dozen. But when she hands me the wooden mallet, her fingers stray from the handle and stroke mine.
"Take a load off," I say, patting the bench beside me.
"Dad will kill me," she says, then laughs and sits down.
I take the hammer to the back of crab number one. The Old Bay spice hops off the cooked red shell. My blow is hard and precise and cracks the crab in two.
"You should quit smoking," she says. "It's a bad habit."
"Enjoying the sight of your figure is a bad habit," I reply. "Tell your dad to stop using you as bait for college boys."
"What would you know about being a college boy?" she says, back on her feet and walking away.
I snort back a laugh, let my cigarette fall to the ground, and set to work. I am teasing the succulent flesh of this just-caught and cooked crab. In a swirl of saturated butter, I twirl the first gobbet of white meat in the small clear-plastic bowl. The hot butter burns as it slides down my chin, and I swallow the sweet meat. Then I attack, crack, and savage the remaining dozen at a speed no college boy, no Annapolis Naval cadet from down the road can match. The brown paper turns black with the crab juices and carcasses. I put my finger deep into the shells and scoop out the innards. I eat those too. I'm sitting, sucking on each leg as if it were a straw when my Mary reappears.
I want more than food from this woman.
She looks down on me from her short height at the mess I have made. "Have you ever thought of getting a job as a picker?"
I take the compliment as it was meant. "According to your dad I can't be a picker if I want to pick you."
She says nothing.
I'm still not ready to ask her for what I want, so I wave an empty crab leg like a pointer. "I bet you those two buoys out there are numbers nine and ten: green, nine, red, ten. Could be our lucky numbers?
She says, "I don't believe in lucky numbers."
Mary is squinting, sure of herself and her river.
"I bet you are wrong."
Suddenly my life seems very clear to me.
I get up from the table and hand her my dirty mallet.
"I'll take that bet. And if I'm right, we're getting married."
I take off my shoes and strip down to my skivvies. Tenderly, on my bare, flat feet, I jog across the lot. Then with a speed this woman still doesn't know I have, I run down the dock and launch myself into the water. It is soil-rich and bath-warm. I do a fast crawl. I enjoy the sound the water makes against my ears. I can swim as myself in this water. It is indifferent to my job, my life. I know that beneath me the blue crabs are swimming too. They are the beautiful swimmers of the river.
As I take a breath, I look back over my shoulder and make out the gray glow of Mary's uniform. She's on the shore watching me. I reach the first buoy. She's right and I'm wrong but I still want to win this bet. I want to marry this girl. I want to climb the ladder to stand next to Mary as near to naked as I can get and let her feel my body wanting her body. I swim back. I shake my head like a dog when I get out. The water runs right off me and through the slatted wood of the dock. She is watching me, saying nothing.
My white cotton skivvies are translucent with water. The sun is wicked hot.
"You were right," I say. "Keep me company while I dry off."
She says looks me up and down and asks:
"What do you want for dessert?"
The trees are full of cicadas calling to the wind: "chee-chee, chee-chee."
I spread myself out on the bench. The steam from the kitchen windows, where her father, Joe, is working, puffs out in white billows that smell of poached crabmeat, a little salty. The sun on my skin feels good. Her father calls her name, and my Mary walks back into the kitchen.
I call out: "Hey, you didn't take my order."
My eyes fix on the door waiting for her to reappear. I sit bolt upright when the screen door slams and her father, Mr. Joe Valiant, walks out clutching a white plastic bowl of vanilla ice cream with a white plastic spoon. The ice cream is all melted. He's been holding it awhile.
Mr. Valiant looks at the river as I put on my trousers. Then we talk. I never do eat that ice cream. Talk over, I go back to the car to put my tie back on. Mr. Valiant goes to sit out back with his pickers.
I walk into the shack past the crab crates lining the walls of the kitchen. I'm spooked by the blind dance of the crab eyes on their short stalks. They look worried. I watch them scuttle in the crates with their claws up. The way they're holding them out toward me, like they're asking for a chance to survive.
There's crab juice on the inner edge of Mary's sneaker. A single red piece of shell sticks to the skin of her arch. She says nothing as I get down on one knee. A crab-water tide climbs the leg of my khaki work pants. She's told me that she doesn't want her hands to smell like crabs all her life. I tell her that her hands don't smell like crab juice; they smell clean and salty. But she's not prepared to listen for another year to any more of my foolishness without a wedding ring.
My knee is getting colder and wetter. The steam from the vats of boiling water curl around her hair, and it feels to me like she's totaling up the sum of my life, doing the bill in her head without a pencil, comparing me to other men: to Vietnam, free love, the college boys.
After a while she says, "You better mean this for real." Then she wipes the crab guts off her hands and looks down at me. "Dad doesn't think much of you. You'll have to prove him wrong."
"This is for real and for keeps," I say. "Marry me."
I hear the slow beat of a fishing-boat engine as it returns to the dock. Her chest rises and falls under her uniform. Her breasts seem to pulse.
I'm beginning to smell like the wastewater of the crab shack.
Her lips part, then she says: "Say 'please.'"
"Please marry me, Mary Valiant."
"Yes, William Jones, I will marry you."
Suddenly the wet cement floor of this crab shack feels too weak to hold me up. Everything around me feels like it is made of light and paper. I hold tight to her left hand. It's the only thing that keeps me from punching through the wooden ceiling, keeps me from dispersing into the water sluicing down the drain of the aluminum sink back to the river. I hear the crabs doing their scuttle dance in their wooden crates, and I know I don't begin to understand the meaning of her answer.
Down on my wet knee, I look up into her face. It is not a pretty face. But it's the face I love best in the world. Her face says it will cope with the life I have to offer, that it will allow me to come apart and put myself back together a better man. I kiss the salty top of her sweet hand to seal the deal.