My mother, sister and I had been out in Nassau County, Long Island for about a year and a half when my real dad came back into my life. I had just turned eleven. Bernie—my step-dad—had taken me and some of the guys from my class to the batting cages for my birthday. We had not seen Al for two years. The last time was at our old apartment on East 92nd St. in the city, where we lived before we came to live with Bernie in his big Long Island house. Neither my mother nor my sister mentioned my father, and so I didn't either. My sister and I had received a few postcards from places like St. Louis and Las Vegas when we still lived in Manhattan. He wasn't much for writing, a few words here and there, but he filled the backs of the cards with little sketches of him and ourselves. We hadn't received any since moving out of the city, and it didn't seem that the postcards had survived the move. Maybe he didn't know our new address. For long periods I didn't think of my dad at all. We had Bernie, who was more attentive than many actual fathers, more attentive than Al had ever been, in fact, so there wasn't a glaring absence.
People where we lived liked to talk about Israel a lot. It seemed to be for them some sort of fantasy world, not quite real, but terribly important, where they were a stronger and purer type of people. The word was spoken with slow reverence, and conversation ceased when the region was mentioned on the news. People walked around fearlessly when they wore their green IDF tee-shirts, as if the thin fabric was bulletproof. They stuffed cash into preprinted envelopes in the belief that it would blossom into trees as soon as it arrived in Eretz Yisrael.
When I heard the word, "Israel," I saw my father, because he had actually lived and even fought in a war there. He was the only real thing I could associate with the place. But I couldn't be sure he wasn't part of the fantasy too.
Bernie called my sister and me into the dining room. We came in to find him and my mother sitting at the table. The dining room was generally reserved for serious business. We ate here on holidays or when we had company; otherwise we sat at the table in the kitchen. The only person who used the room on a regular basis was Bernie, who would spread the files he brought home from the office out on the table in the evening. My mother warned Becca and me against entering the room when Bernie had his files out, for fear that we would disturb one of his carefully sorted piles. She would shout at us if we even made too much noise in another room of the house while he was working, but he himself never complained. He just smiled half a smile, without looking up from the screen of his laptop or the sheets of numbers in front of him.
When Becca and I came into the dining room that day, though, there was nothing on the table except my mother's mug of tea, and the paper towel she had used to protect the finish of the wood from the heat. The mug was still full to the brim, and the paper towel was shredded into little pieces. Becca and I sat down facing our parents. Were we in trouble? We must have been, because my mother was silent. But I hadn't done anything.
"Your mother," started Bernie. We looked at her, but her grinding fury was terrifying, and we looked back at Bernie. "And I have been in touch with your father. I should say, he's gotten in touch with us. He's back in New York now, in Brooklyn, and he would like to see you kids."
"You don't have to see him," my mother interjected. "Don't feel bad if you don't want to. There's nothing he's done for you that you need to feel obligated."
"No," said Bernie, "You don't need to feel obligated. You needn't feel obligated one way or the other. This is a decision you have to make for yourselves. He's invited you to spend next weekend with him. If you need some time to think about it—"
"I don't want to go," said my sister Becca, who was fourteen and getting pretty good at saying things with indifferent confidence. "I'd rather spend the weekend with my friends. It's Sarah's sleepover party, and you said I could—"
"That's fine," said Bernie.
"I think you made the right decision," said my Mom. "There's no reason, considering how well you guys have adjusted, that you need to—"
"I'd like to go," I said. I didn't know if this was true or not. But they were dangling something in front of me—something they didn't really want me to have—and I had to snatch at it. "I'd like to see him." Becca glared at me, like I'd said it just to spite her. My mother frowned, but nodded in acceptance. Bernie smiled his usual distant smile behind his round glasses and neatly clipped beard.
Bernie was going to drive me into Brooklyn, but he got called in to work. Al, of course, didn't have a car. My mom made different excuses for why she couldn't take me. In the end, Bernie and Al worked it out that I would take the Long Island Rail Road. My mom dropped me off at the station, and Al would meet me at Atlantic Terminal on the other end.
There was no one waiting for me when I got off the train at Atlantic Terminal. I leaned against a pole and listened to my headphones. I had just gotten Tupac's ‘Me Against The World.' I was just a kid in Brooklyn, chilling, listening to my headphones. No big deal. I tried to look cool and tough.
I became afraid that he wasn't going to come. I became sure he wasn't going to come. He wasn't going to come. Maybe if Becca was with me, because he couldn't leave his princessa alone at night. But he wouldn't come just for me. He had better things to do. Business that came up, that he had to take care of. Maybe he'd never meant to come. Maybe he wasn't even in the city. Maybe Bernie had misunderstood. Maybe I had misunderstood.
A body flew at me from the shadow. I stuck out my arms in defense, but failed to block the hard jab to my side.
"Getting big, eh there, fella?" My father jabbed me again in the side with his right, faked a third right, then landed a light left to my chest. "Come on, now, fella." He put his arm around me, and we walked off towards the subway. I was still shaken from his greeting, and chafed at the tightness of his arm around my neck, but the last thing I wanted was for him to let go. I was proud to be walking down the street in Brooklyn with him. Of course he had come.
We didn't talk too much on the train. He asked me how I was doing, how my sister and mother were doing. I told him they were fine. I was struggling hard to remember that he was my dad, the same man who had once lived with us, danced with my mother to the radio in the kitchen, and taken us all to Greenpoint on Sundays to eat cheese dumplings and potato pancakes. He wasn't part of a Middle Eastern fantasy. He was a man, a real man, with strong arms and a little potbelly. He tucked into the Daily News, and I pulled a book from school from my backpack.
We picked up a pepperoni pizza and a two-liter bottle of Coke on the way home from the train station. The only table in Al's one bedroom apartment was the coffee table. We sat on the couch and ate the pizza straight out of the box. We both drank Coke with ice. My dad poured arak into his. The sweet licorice smell filled the room. Above the couch there was a large black poster, bearing the coat-of-arms-like-logo of the rock band Queen. The only other decorations on the wall were a plastic Israeli flag and an old snapshot of the four of us in Central park, when I was about six and my sister maybe nine. Like the flag, the photo was held on the wall with bits of black electrical tape. When I went into the bathroom to pee, I saw a faded pink bra hanging on the shower curtain rod.
There was hardly any furniture besides the coffee table and couch in the main room, and the bed in his little bedroom (the apartment was not really much smaller than our old two-bedroom in Manhattan, but living on Long Island had already warped my sense of scale) but the two rooms did not feel empty because of the stacks of books everywhere. There were some paperbacks, I think, spilling out of banker's boxes, but what I remember most were the large hard-covers, which were stacked in piles so dense and high I thought of them as integral structures, not stacks of individual objects. I asked him if he had read all these books.
"No, no," he said. "In my life I've left behind two entire libraries. I wouldn't risk another. I read a book and let it go."
"So what's all this?"
"This? Merchandise. Got to make money, kiddo. You'll learn that sometime. Hey, take a look at this." He pulled out an old leather bound atlas from the middle of the stack (their pre-1991 vintage identifiable, because the Soviet Union stretched across half the world) and showed me the various places he had lived. I could locate Israel by myself, but wasn't quite sure where Poland was. It turned out it was tucked in the shadow of the USSR.
My dad had a small TV, which sat on one of the stacks of books, and we watched the TGIF lineup of sitcoms on ABC. I followed the plots, while my dad made comments about the teenage actresses.
"Your girlfriend look anything like that?"
"I don't have a girlfriend."
"A good looking guy like you? Not even one girlfriend? I find that very hard to believe."
After a few shows, and a few more araks for my father, he turned off the TV.
"Look, I know I ain't been around lately, buddy."
"OK." I wished the TV was still on.
"No, it's not OK. It's gotta change. It's gonna change. But fella, listen. It's never been that I don't love. I'm father, of course I love. It's just, I've had my life. You see, I am the wandering Jew of Europe? It's a curse, maybe. Old story. OK, this is life I've had."
"Izzy, buddy. We're friends?"
"Sure we're friends."
"Becca couldn't come with you?"
"No. She wanted to. She had to go to her friend's bat mitzvah."
"Tell her what I tell you."
"But you and me, fella."
"Hey, fella, I was thinking, in the morning we go crabbing?"
"Like fishing. You know. But for crabs, instead."
"OK. Sure." I still didn't exactly understand what we'd be doing, but I knew that other boys' fathers took them fishing. "That sounds fun."
I didn't wonder where I was when I woke up in my father's apartment the next morning. I felt no more awkward waking up on father's couch than I did waking up in my bed out on Long Island.
For breakfast, my father put out slices of black bread. This bread was far denser than the bread I was used to eating, and though it seemed a little stale he didn't offer to toast it. I vaguely remembered eating bread like this when I was younger, but I'd grown used to eating fluffy grocery store wheat bread. I smeared on lots of butter (at home we were only allowed margarine), and used all the muscles in my throat to choke the morsels down.
When we were ready to go, he hoisted a sack of gear onto his back, and handed me an empty cooler to carry.
"What about the rods?" I asked.
"We're going, like, fishing. Right?"
"No rods, fella. For crabs you use traps." He tapped his pack.
We walked down the Coney Island boardwalk. I'd been there a few times with my family, but only in the afternoon. Families didn't hang around Coney after dark back then. Now, in the early morning, it was pretty much deserted, aside from a few old Russian women who looked like they were rushing even though they were strolling, a shirtless man drinking a can of beer, and some homeless people who'd crawled out from under the boardwalk, squinting at the sunlight.
We turned off the boardwalk and up the T-shaped fishing pier that stretched much further out into the Atlantic Ocean than I could swim then, or can now. A pile of break rocks extended out from the shore, parallel to the pier, and we stopped just across from where they ended.
"Here," said Al, kneeling down to reach into his backpack. He pulled out two hooped wire baskets, and a greasy brown paper bag.
"What's in there?"
"Chicken necks." He showed me the yellow grey lump of bumps before he began fastening it to the bottom of one of the baskets with a piece of twine.
"Those are the real necks of chickens?"
"Where did you get them?"
"Butcher shop. Where else? It's good crab bait. Cheap meat. Crabs are bottom feeders. They love this kinds of meat." He scored the necks with his pocketknife, so that the yellow skin separated and the pink flesh was exposed.
"Do people eat them?"
"Sure, if they're hungry. You eat chicken, don't you?"
"Yeah, chicken wings. Not chicken necks. People cook them up like chicken wings?"
"No, there's not so much meat for that. It's more for a stew. Listen, trust me, if you're hungry enough, you'd be happy to eat chicken neck stew. Maybe even today you'll find this out, if we don't catch any crabs." My face must have betrayed my fear, because Al let out a deep laugh.
He tied the baskets onto some braided lines, and tied the other ends of the line onto the railing of the pier. The rail was full of grooves worn by similar lines, which made me think that what we were doing wasn't so strange.
Al showed me how to toss the trap out over the water like a Frisbee. The baskets opened fully in the air, then fell straight into the water. We gave it a couple minutes to give the crabs time to smell the bait. When we finally pulled the baskets up, I felt sure that I felt the weight of crabs in mine, but as soon as the basket rose into the air I realized that it had just been the pressure of the water.
We threw the baskets back in. In the distance, there was a big boat, stacked high with different colored shipping containers. Beyond that, I could make out a distant coastline.
"What's that out there?"
"There? A boat."
"No, not that, the land. Is that New Jersey?"
"No. Staten Island. Still New York City."
"Oh. So can you swim there?"
"Me? Sure I can."
We pulled the traps in again, and to my delight there was a crab in my trap. I hadn't actually believed that we would catch anything. It was a terrible thing we caught, with wart like growths and splotches of mud across its uneven shell.
"Look! Dad! I caught one!"
"Yeah, so I see. Or maybe it caught you? But it's just a spider crab. No good for eating." He took the trap from me and turned it upside down, shaking it until the crab fell back into the ocean. I felt a little cheated of my catch, but at the same time was happy to see the thing gone.
Next throw, we pulled up a couple spider crabs each. Al dumped them on the pier and kicked them hard, so that they skidded across to the other side. He walked over and kicked them again, booting them far out into the water. I understood why he did it. They were ugly, and deserved to be kicked.
"We don't want them on same side as us," he told me. "They'll keep coming back now that they know about the bait."
We moved farther out on the pier, and our luck changed. My father pulled in two rock crabs. They were about the same size as the smaller of the spider crabs, but they had smooth backs, and looked altogether more sanitary. After that, we started pulling them in left and right. "This is the spot," my father said. Not counting four we threw back because they were too small, and one we threw back because it was pregnant (you could see its bloated egg sac hanging from its underside) we ended up with thirteen crabs. Five of them I hauled in myself. Not bad.
At one point, my dad, who had been sipping from his thermos all morning, went off to take a piss in the rest room on the boardwalk, and left me to watch our crabs. Now that we had moved farther out on the pier, we were close to the old men who had been out fishing when we arrived. Two of them sat across the pier from me on plastic crates, and passed a small bottle of something purplish back and forth. Their long fishing poles were propped up against the railing. I wondered how they would know if there was a fish on the line. One of the men caught me watching. He gave me what would have been a toothy grin if he'd had any teeth, and raised his bottle in a mocking toast. He had a long filet knife stuck in his belt. It looked like a fearsome dagger that could cut me wide open. I was scared, but then I remembered that my father would be coming back any moment.
On the ride back to his apartment, I sat with the Styrofoam container on my lap. I couldn't believe that I had a box full of wild sea creatures with me on the train, and I kept lifting the lid to look at them, until my father told me to stop.
When we got back to his apartment, he took the cooler from me and dumped the crabs into his empty bathtub. A few of them landed on their backs. My father found a flat screwdriver on the windowsill, and flipped those ones right side up. A few more adventurous crabs scuttled across the floor of the bathtub. The rest sat where they landed, flicking their little mouths and occasionally flexing their pinchers. One didn't seem to be moving at all. My father jabbed it with the screwdriver. Its little mouth moved, and some bubbles flitted through the little bit of stagnant water pooled in the bathtub. They were alive. Life was the opposite of death. That they were really alive meant that we were really going to make them dead. A stream of liquid trailed behind one of the scuttlers.
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's shit. You don't know shit when you see it? That's something you're going to have to learn, you want to get by in this world."
Al turned on the faucet, washing the shit and sand down the drain. When they were clean, he grabbed them one by one by the back legs, and tossed them into a paper grocery bag. We went into the kitchen, where he put the bag into the freezer.
Al put his one pot on the stove, and twisted together a long tinfoil spiral.
"A rack. To hold the crabs."
He cracked a twenty-ounce beer from the fridge, took a good long swig, then poured the rest into the pot.
"Why did you pour that in there?" I asked.
"We're going to steam the crabs in the lager."
"I'm just a kid, I can't have beer."
"Feh. Already I was drinking beer when I was your age. Besides, the alcohol boils off."
"Oh. So can I have a sip of the beer?"
He took the bag of crabs out of the freezer, and dumped them into the pot. I peeked in. They weren't moving.
"Are they dead?"
"No, no. You can't cook dead crab. Bacterias. They are just stunned, slowed down from the freezing."
"So we're going to eat them alive?"
"No, of course not. They will die in the steam."
"I don't think I want to eat a crab."
"What? We go to the trouble of catching nice crabs all morning, and you don't even want to eat them?"
"I don't, I don't think so."
"Look at the rich American boy, so soft, so picky. So pechech. Maybe you'd prefer lobster? Well, fine then, more crab for me."
"Listen, I don't want lobster either." I reached for any justification other than the fact that I was a pussy. "People can't eat shellfish."
"Oh, can't they?"
"I mean, shouldn't. It's wrong?"
"Where did you hear that?"
"At the synagogue."
"What synagogue? Who took you to the synagogue?"
"Who's Bernie. Nu?"
"You know who Bernie is. My stepfather."
"No. Wrong. Stepfather? Feh. What's that? He's your mother's husband."
"I'm the only kind of father you got."
"You know this?"
"Good. It's good that you know." He turned on the burner. The beer began to boil. Soon the crabs would die a hard death in the pot. I took a deep breath. It was ok. I went into the cabinet, found some plates and silverware and began to set the table.
"So you'll be doing the honor of sharing the meal with me?"
The crabs were surely dying now. Soon they would be dead and cooked. My father and I would crack them open with butter knives and eat their flesh with desert forks. The meat would be the richest thing I'd ever had in my stomach, and bits of sand we had not managed to wash off would grind down my teeth. The crabs were dead, but I was alive and my father was alive, and we were together. If the crabs had to die to make this happen, then so be it.
Ben Nadler is the author of the novel Harvitz, As To War (Iron Diesel Press, 2011). He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and studies and teaches at the City College of New York.