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"Clam Set", short story excerpt

Monday 7/6/20

My sister used to joke, when she talked about her boyfriends, that she was not someone for whom the word “nut” was a verb. “At least so and so gave me some warning this time,” she might add.

I am not sure if she intended for me to get the joke when I was twelve and she was seventeen. There are jokes you say that you wish to be funny, but you don’t necessarily want someone else to laugh, to even understand more than that they ought to laugh, or will someday. Jokes can stake out an awful lot of temporal space for themselves. Some jokes are like, “I own the past, that’s when I was funny, you’re not going to find me that way anymore.” Another says, “I rule today, right now, at this graduation party, or even here in the ER, because you must laugh if you want to keep going, and you want that, don’t you?” And another joke says, “Ah, patience. I’m coming. We’re going to have our day, you and I. We might even need each other, we might not. We’ll have to see when we get there, if you get my meaning.”

My jokes were accidental, the kind you don’t necessarily want to let slip out, but you’d take credit if someone else said your joke was fine and it was witty, perhaps inquired, “Can I use that?” My sister is a person who inters and becomes inured. She’s a lockdown person. A circler of wagons. When life goes wrong, she’ll pause, advise that you tuck yourself away, all but say, “Okay, let’s look at this, let’s really look at this,” as though she has crossed a street to get a better view, squeeze nothing from the sides of the frame. She’s my sensible sister, and when she came home from her dates, to make her nut joke, I’d think, “Here comes the SS,” which I thought could be a joke, because a lot of times what you think can be a joke depends on something else you don’t know about yet.

“Clam” is a verb I will use. I go clamming with a rake in a place I am passing through, words that are technically correct but feel inaccurate as I sink in low tide, unsure if tide is the right term, or if some amount of water must be present for tide to be tide. Otherwise, it's perhaps but an unwound cone of earth that just happens to be wetter than your shirt when you sweat, and without the visible sea, what do you really have? A strait of scampering crabs and a shit-out-of-luck starfish vulnerable to a gull up for trying something new.

When you leave a place, and you leave a person, you can realize people are places, too. My husband had been married before we met, and it must have been the most innocuous comment to him—like saying you wanted sorbet rather than sherbet for dessert—but I thought about it often, after a point.

“I’ll always love her, of course,” he said when I asked. I wasn’t threatened. We were never that way, we are not that way. I’ll still say it now. You cannot deprive everything of the tense that it is due, even when that tense is less germane than it had been before. I was curious what it was like in his experience, or desperate for insight or consolation wherever I could find it, in whatever lesson I might learn, that I could leverage against emotion, because it was becoming that way for me, with him, with us, with me with us, and neither of us had technically gone. Is there an “of course” in love? “She’s a part of me,” he clarified. I must have looked confused. The polite term for how my features convey what I am thinking is an “expressive face,” which is how my sister knew when I knew what she meant by nut as a verb, or it could have been that there were two boys involved in that particular account.

Sometimes you get the joke when you’re in your car, and there’s people still inside, but most have left, and the engine turning over covers your laughter such that you wonder if there was any. A place in you is different than a part of you. It’s similar to how I sink into this sand, this black mud, beneath the brown, an aquatic variant of roan, with the flecks of brine, the trace of salt, rising up between my toes. I’ll be leaving, though I sink all the same. It used to fascinate me how the terms “land’s end” and “landfall” mean the exact same thing depending upon where you are standing. The flecks want to beckon you, wave you in, wink you in, really, with how they coruscate in the sun, but those marbleized purples of land, of exposed beach that hadn’t been beach an hour before, that you can nonetheless plow with your toes, say, “hey, let’s think about this here, the sea can be tricky business.”

Low tide sand, a few layers down, is exactly the color you get on the inside of a clam shell where it’s part sugar pine green, part rinsed out amethyst, and you want to ask, “which would you rather be?” as you realize the beauty is the blend. It’s like a sexy bruise, almost, the inside of a clam shell, if you’re into that kind of thing. There are colors I have seen that have made me say to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” as though I should have dreamed them up, would dream up others. Focus. Put your mind to it. Every smart idea, looking back, no matter how complicated the idea was, also seems so simple in a way. You’re not going to be able to think of an exception.


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