Fred pointed out over the dashboard. “You see those smoke stacks?” Justin looked out the passenger window and down the foggy coastline. There on the other side of the bay was an ugly power plant with two enormous stacks billowing smoke into the marine layer. He nodded.
Fred flipped on his blinker and turned into the parking lot. “They weren’t here when I used to take my boy clamming,” he laughed. “But that’s when he was still young enough to hang with his old man. The stacks went up when Bobby was in high school.” Fred found an empty parking space—there weren’t many cars in the lot so it was easy—and pulled in. He turned off the ignition and reached over the steering wheel for his faded baseball cap sitting on the dashboard. Justin pulled his beanie down over his eyes and folded it up to his brow. “You ready to show me how to dig for some clams or what?” As Fred opened the door, the cool morning air rushed into the cab alongside the thick stench of salt and seaweed. “Got the equipment in the back,” he said. Justin rubbed his eyes awake and took a deep breath, “Let’s do it then, buddy.”
Once Fred had strapped the net to his waist, put on his heavy rain boots, and grabbed the rest of his gear, they headed down towards the water. “We caught it at the perfect time,” he said with a satisfied expression, looking out at the nearly still bay brushing against the shore. “Lowest tide I’ve seen in a while.”
Justin walked a few paces behind, watching as the green net that hung from Fred’s side swayed back and forth against his leg. In Fred’s left hand hung a clam “gun”—a long, hollow, cylinder instrument that Fred said “sucks the clams right up.” All Justin carried was a white broomstick with a rope attached from his belt to the broom’s end.
Justin was new to town. He met Fred a few weeks back at Red Herron’s—a hole in the wall bar in the middle of the small town. It was Tuesday and near closing time. They watched the Yankees play the Sox—though neither of them really cared much about who won. Justin asked Fred what there was for a man to do in this town besides work and Fred smiled and told him about catching clams on the weekends and how he always used to go with his son when he was younger. Justin had stopped counting how many beers they had gone through. He commented that he had never eaten a clam, and here they were.
Justin picked up his pace to catch up with Fred’s speedy walk and, looking down at the broomstick in his hand, noticed a pair of initials etched into its splintered end. “So remind me again, what’s this thing for?” A strong breeze snapped at Fred’s blue windbreaker. “When I spot one, you’re going to jab the end of that stick into the sand.” Justin spotted a few figures roaming the water’s edge ahead of them. “Why?” he asked.
“You’ll see. Just make sure you’re good and ready when I tell you.” Fred stopped and pointed to the sand a few steps ahead. Justin followed Fred’s finger but didn’t know what he was looking for.
“That’s one right there,” Fred said. He brought the gun over a tiny hole in the sand and pushed his weight into it, wedging it down with back and forth motions. Then he braced his legs, pulling up on the handle, and spread out the thick clumps of sand with his rain boots. When there was nothing, he neatly fit the gun back into the hole and again pushed down. “The monster clams are always deeper than you think.”
Justin looked out at the other people combing the beach and watched as the thick, low-hanging fog rolled in. Again, Fred pulled up on the gun’s handle, shaking its contents at his feet. Justin saw the white foot of a clam squirming in the air.
“Ah ha!” Fred exclaimed as he reached down to scoop it up. “There’s a four pointer right there! A good one—good eating too.” The wind picked up for a moment and knocked Fred’s cap from his head. His thin, grey hair flailed in the gust as he bent over and brushed the hat off, slapping it back on with a grin. “That’s one. The limit here is fifteen a day. So we’ll see how many we can get before the tide comes in.” Fred reached to his side with the clam in hand and dropped it neatly into the net.
Neither of them said anything for a few minutes; they both kept their eyes focused on the ground directly in front of them as they combed the beach. Fred slowed his pace. “That broomstick you got there…” Fred said as he came to a stop and looked at Justin, “I want you to jab it into the sand right where you are.” Justin did what he was asked and watched as a hole appeared out of nowhere a few feet to his left. Fred stepped towards the tiny opening. “See there? See the hole? When you poke the ground and a hole comes up—that’s where the clam is hiding. Now you want to position your gun, with the hole in the center, and push down fast.” The water again got sucked from the sand around the gun. “Ah ha!” Fred said again as he dumped the contents of the gun and immediately saw a clam. “There’s a four by three!—Nice clam.” He reached down and grabbed it. He tried to drop it into the net a few times but missed, as if his hand and the part of his brain telling his hand what to do weren’t in tune this early in the morning. He eventually looked down at his side and guided the clam carefully into the net.
“And you’re trying to tell me those things taste good?” Justin asked. Fred gave a hearty laugh. “They’re better than they look!”
“They’d better be a whole lot better than they look, because they look fucking awful, Fred.” They both laughed at this and the clams in Fred’s net stopped squirming. They tucked their feet back into their hard shelled bodies and resigned to their fate, hiding from the brisk morning wind.
“You’re a natural,” Fred said, slapping Justin on the shoulder. “You have a way about you when you’re out here. It’s something an old man like myself learns to pick up on.” Justin chuckled and peered around for another hole in the sand. “How about your boy, Bobby?—he got an eye for this too?”
At first Justin thought Fred hadn’t heard him, but then the old man looked up and put his hand on his head to keep his cap from flying off again. “He looks a little like you actually—tall—little over six feet. Back in high school I always joked with him about being the next Roger Clemens. He was quite the superstar around here.”
“What stopped him?”
Before Fred could answer he pointed, yelled, “There’s one!” and scurried off. “Rats!” he said, scuffing the sand with the toe of his boot, “Guess I misjudged it.” He reached back and patted the two clams in his net.
Justin shrugged and they continued down the beach. He looked up and saw the two smokestacks in the distance. The fog continued to roll in. Soon, he thought, the stacks would be all but swallowed up. “Is it always this heavy?”
“The fog,” Justin said. “Is it always thick like this?”
Fred didn’t acknowledge what Justin had said though, and just kept walking slowly forward with his head down, like some kind of hound sniffing out a fox. Justin laughed at the old man and shook his head. “Use that broomstick again, will you?” Fred said. Justin gave the sand a few hard jabs and watched as the holes bubbled up and revealed themselves. He looked from one to another. “I think we got a couple.” Fred picked one and began using his gun. “I bet they are some good ones too.” Justin sat back and watched Fred work. In a matter of minutes, they had three more clams. Fred took a deep breath and looked down the coast. “Beautiful.”
Justin glanced at the back of the old man. “I’m really happy you brought me out here, I think I needed this.” The collar of Fred’s blue windbreaker cracked in the wind. He stared down the coastline towards the smokestacks and didn’t say anything. There were a few people walking their direction from near the water. They had white, five gallon buckets in their hands and gunny sacks and nets hanging at their sides.
A man walked by in a yellow rain poncho. “Tides coming in pretty quick.”
Justin nodded at the man, “Thanks. You catch anything good this morning?”
The man looked down into his sack and then at the five clams in Fred’s green net. “Caught my limit,” he said. “But there’s plenty more out there for you—just got to hurry.” Then he walked off towards the parking lot and the morning sun, which seemed to be just now rising over the line of scattered trees bordering the beach.
“You heard the man, Fred, we got a ways to go.” But Fred was still staring down the beach, frozen in the same spot, staring at the smokestacks fading into the fog. “We still need ten more, and I might just have worked up an appetite for some clams now that I think about it.” Justin walked up next to Fred and threw his arm around the old man’s shoulder.
Fred sat the gun at his side and reached both hands up to his cap, bending the bill with his palms. There were only a couple of people left on the beach. Most everyone, it seemed, had gone back to their cars and to their homes. Justin looked at Fred’s truck, which seemed suddenly lonely in the small parking lot. He put his hand up to his forehead and looked towards where the sun rested deep in the fog. He thought it looked like a golden marble resting on the top of the highest tree. He imagined it losing its balance in the wind and tumbling down the tree’s branches and into the sea. He was picturing this when Fred’s hat blew off his head for the third time. Justin tried to grab at it, but was left scurrying as it tumbled down the beach. He eventually managed to get his hands on it and walked it back to Fred, who still had not moved even an inch. “Crazy old fart,” Justin muttered to himself as he turned around and saw the smokestacks down the beach, losing themselves in the marine layer.
As Justin got closer to Fred he noticed the old man smiling and waving at him, motioning for him to hurry. When he got there he handed the cap over and nodded at the old man. “You find another one?” Fred looked deep into Justin’s eyes, as if figuring something out, and gave him a puzzled look. He took his cap and reached it back towards the net at his side. Justin watched as Fred missed a few times, then slowly looked back and guided his hat into the net as if it were a clam. He looked at Fred’s thin hair, fluttering on top of his head. “Hey Fred, are you doing all right?” For some reason Justin thought Fred’s flailing hair looked like someone drowning and waving for help in a cold body of water.
Fred looked at Justin, a toothy smile stretching from one ear to the next. “Bobby…” he said, looking intently at Justin. “Where are all your clams?”
Justin stared at the old man for a long moment, confused and reeling, as they stood there together on the empty beach. “Huh?” he muttered.
Fred unlatched his net and slowly handed it to Justin. “Here, Bobby, take mine. The tide is coming in and I don’t think you’ll be reaching your limit anytime soon.”
Justin took the green net and looked at Fred without saying anything.
“But that’s alright…” Fred continued. “There’s always tomorrow and the day after that.” He looked past Justin and down the coast. “You see those smokestacks?” Fred asked, pointing. When Justin turned around to look, the fog was too thick to see anything. “When I used to take you here those stacks weren’t up yet. Yup, it’s the truth,” Fred said. “But that was back when you were still a kid. Funny how some things don’t change.”
Justin took a breath and smelled the salt and seaweed blowing in the air. He looked out at the sea, even though he could hardly see it anymore, and listened to the small breaking of the waves. He turned back to Fred and cleared his throat. “So are we going to dig up some monster clams this morning, or what?”
Fred laughed at this. He bent over and slapped his knee and his grey eyes grew wide and he laughed and he laughed and he laughed. “You’re a natural, Bobby. Hell, I think you’re the one that should be showing me.”
Justin nodded and began walking out towards the water. Fred followed close at his heels, with his eyes down, looking for the next hole to bubble up in the sand. The tide did what it always had done and would always do—pushing the continent forward and pulling it back as it tumbled over itself. Fred pointed and Justin jabbed at the sand with his broomstick. He noticed, for the second time that morning, the fading initials carved into the stick’s splintered end.
ARTWORK BY: Mel Weiner