(Erik Mclean)

The Locking Spine

On the belly of every blue crab there is a key. It’s called the “locking spine.” It’s embedded in the middle of the crab’s chambered underside, connected to the carapace at the crustacean’s posterior by a hinge. If you pull on this key, the top shell of the crab will come off, exposing its innards and the sweet meat inside. But where are our keys? How are we split open?

Eating crabs is a strange pastime for mountain people far from the ocean. But in Maryland, the taste for crabs extends even to Appalachia where folks in the holler will boil them in beer by the bushel, pour their steaming bodies onto a newspaper-covered picnic table, and crack them open by hand until the lemon juice stings the places where the claws and spined shells inevitably cut you. In some ways, this ritual is fitting. Mountain people like to think of themselves as hard but they are vulnerable underneath. They will cut you if you try to get at where they’re tender, but they are tender. If you crack them open, it is soft and frilled like clouds or lace pillows. No one will show you this, of course. They would have to be broken into. Most of my memories of eating crabs are among people who would be cracked open; my father’s and mother’s friends.

Really, though, they were my father’s friends, all or mostly men. Where were my mother’s confidents exactly? Had she any? Some of my father’s friends were friends of my mother as well, but the women in her life were coworkers and people she knew from high school who had become acquaintances when my mother got married and had me. They saw each other occasionally, caught up and back my mother would go to her family life, mostly with me, waiting for my father to get home or hanging out with him and his friends. So many of these memories end up revolving around men and what passed for masculinity among them, the first glimpse of masculinity I could get, which is to say a glimpse of fragility and of people who didn’t know how to be men or maybe how to change what it meant to be a man except through violence, suffering, and silence. These are the things they hid beneath the surface of a beer and eventually, in the dark, tried to quiet with pills.

[Read “Urban Youth Use Myths and Drums to Become Men“]

These men would gather in the summers at my paternal grandparents. The land rolled around the house where a bowl in the green lawn dipped behind to the cellar door and a picnic table covered in newspaper. The grill smoked beneath a pine tree where the far lip of the bowl rose up before the yard fell sharply away down to a long green pasture owned by the neighbors. My grandfather had built up a retaining wall with cinder blocks and put his shed at the crest of this hill behind his house: just a small structure for his lawn mower and tools but made to look like a grand ole barn. Coolers would sit against the house loaded with beer and sodas while the thump and crack of a wooden mallet echoed down into the valley. People would often use a mallet to crack the harder crab shells when they failed at the subtle tricks by which the succulent meat could be extracted whole with just the right pull of the joints. So many of those people are dead now, but I can hear them laughing and the clink of horseshoes away at the bottom of the hill where the shade grew deep and a clearing had been made to build a fire in. These people who were breaking themselves apart were always building things.

Mike, who built a railing for my grandparents’ porch years before beating his wife near to death in the middle of the street and then killing himself with a hunting rifle. I remember him scolding me for not saying grace over a bowl of Chef Boyardee spaghetti. At his house with his daughters I remember seeing Nickelodeon for the first time and You Can’t Do That On Television before we knew Alanis Morissette could say “fuck.” I felt ashamed for not doing what I never knew to do and maybe that’s also the first time I realized that shame came before grace. There were many things I didn’t know and didn’t know I didn’t know, like how someone who laughed so much could be so violent and how such a public spectacle could lead to so personal a justice. I didn’t know yet how to break into a crab; where its soft spot was and how to avoid its briny guts.

When you eat crabs, they still have eyes. They can’t see you, of course, but when you’re eating them you can’t help but think they’re watching their kinfolk be devoured and wondering when they’ll be next, waiting. I wonder if my father’s friends watched, waiting, wondering who will be next? Sometimes, the mallet punched a clean hole right through the shell like the bullet hole in Mike’s skull. Other times the shell fractured and cracked and this prolonged the process and shredded the clumps of flesh within. I remember my dad’s best friend Brian cracking open a Budweiser while I watched Saturday morning cartoons. I had gone to the kitchen with an empty cereal bowl and he sat at the bar with a six-pack, the first can already empty beside him. “Never do this,” he said, opening another one. I must have been six or seven. I didn’t understand this imperative at the time because drinking seemed to make everyone so happy. They did it a lot anyway. I hadn’t realized yet how the things we enjoy can be the things that end up hurting us the most.

Crab prepared on a picnic table with the chambered underside made visible.

There were so many funny stories that depended on Brian almost getting hurt. At the time, our house sat at the top of a steep hill. There was a high front porch at the bottom of which was a shallow flower bed along the length of the house, then a narrow sidewalk, then the hill plunging down directly onto the road. You had to walk up a steep set of concrete steps to get to the sidewalk from the road and another set of wooden steps to get on the porch. Brian loved to sit on the edge of the porch, which had a low wall all around it to guard people against falling. It was a good platform for sitting and on which many of my action figures would wage precarious battles. My mom hated Brian sitting on this ledge, especially when everyone was drinking. Everyone knew this. Naturally, Brian thought it would be funny to take a controlled tumble from this ledge and so he waited for my mother to walk out the front door when he threw himself backwards off the porch. He managed an inelegant flip and, surprisingly, landed on his feet in the uneven pebbles of the flowerbed studded with laurels. “Goddammit, Brian!” my mother yelled as he doffed his green Mayflower hat and took a deep bow. But he bowed too deeply, lost his balance against the low lip of the flowerbed, and tumbled head over heels across the sidewalk and down the hill into the street. Everyone roared with laughter, except my mother. Brian was not broken, but he was beginning to crack.

Of course, at this time I didn’t know about the pills or weed or other things that grown ups did. They drank openly and there was never really a problem with anything as far as I knew. I was well treated and well looked after and entertained and never in any real danger. I was, in spite of what someone who knew all the details but was outside of it all might think, sheltered. I would later learn, when my parents divorced, that I was not exactly secure in the way that children think of themselves when mommy and daddy are taking care of everything, but there was a roof over my head and food on the table. We had even moved out of our trailer and into an honest-to-god house. I had a playroom. My dad and I played Nintendo on the living room floor and I eventually had a Sega Genesis to myself with a 13-inch TV in my room. We were on food stamps. So, everything was weirdly hunky-dory from where I sat. Whatever was wrong was under the surface and kept from me, like the room in the basement into which I was absolutely forbidden to go for no explicit reason, the unstated explanation being that there was sometimes weed hanging to dry in there. All of this would be revealed, eventually.

What is now called the opioid crisis simmered for years in the holler. Behind all this laughing and beer swigging and cracking of shells was this pain that needed numbed. This is not an excuse. Too often I hear people from back home waxing poetic about the “good old days.” I remember even when I was little there was a somewhat popular, saccharine country song by the Judds that must have come out around 1985. It was called “Grandpa” and the entirety of the lyrics was a lament about social degradation and an appeal to Grandpa to “tell me ‘bout them good ol’ days.” Ironically, it was that marriages lasted and promises were kept and the line between good and bad was clear and well-defined. On one level, knowing the stories that were told about my moonshine-running great-grandfather locking his epileptic daughter in the attic and drunkenly handing out his pay to strangers on the corner only to go home and threaten his family with a shotgun, about my great-great grandfather whose arms were crushed in heavy machinery in a tire factory where he bled to death and left my great-grandfather to be orphaned when his mother died six years later of pneumonia, of my other great-grandfather who hauled timber and ran moonshine being arrested on Christmas day as his family watched from a house soaked in gasoline to hide the smell of liquor, well, knowing all this, it was hard to understand what “good ol’ days” anyone was talking about. But if you squint just right and dull your mind with something, the nostalgia becomes a thick enough filter to make this all seem like some fairy tale where everything worked out okay because there were still people alive to tell the tale. It would be more appropriate to think of them as survivors recounting their trauma, but that would take the sheen and glow from things and besides, people listening to the Judds wanted a clear trajectory. They had no way forward—the factories were gone, prisons were rolling in, education was not in the cards—and so backwards was the way forward. The future was bleak and unknown, but the past was something known and could be purified through the still of memory so that whatever devil lived there appeared as a fond old friend who would slap you on the back, offer you a drink, and shoot the shit with you on the front porch while you waited for hell to come. Nostalgia was the thickest shell and the one people most cast around for and nestled into.

[Read “Saudade: Happy Melancholy, Nostalgia for What Is Absent“]

But it was so deceptively fragile. It seemed like such a sure thing until you thought too much about it and then your thoughts became a hammer and that shell started to chip and so you needed something to make the hammer fall less hard, to keep the image before your eyes. Eventually, it would become a nostalgia for your own life, your own youth, the version of yourself that had potential, in high school, when you ran wild and free and everything was before you and you hadn’t dug yourself into a shell that was getting smaller as you grew. Eventually, it wasn’t the future or the present or anything outside that you came to escape. Maybe it started that way. Disaffection with the world led to a desire to numb yourself into accepting the place you have come to occupy. But soon, as the years start to wear on you, it’s yourself that you need to escape. 

The friend my mother won in the divorce, his nickname was Foose. He tried to outrun himself on fast bikes. He loved motorcycles and always had and he would upgrade every few years. Years after my parents had divorced my mother warned him that those bikes would be the end of him. That was about the last words they spoke before he lost control of his bike and ground himself into the pavement. 

Another of my father’s close friends from elementary school played in bands his whole life. He could carry off a convincing Ozzy Osbourne and “Crazy Train” was a staple of his band’s set. He fell out of this crowd and into cycles of drug abuse. His bandmates abandoned him because they were mostly conservative and believed in personal responsibility. He overdosed on fentanyl about a year ago and died alone. All the ways that people finally crack. That things at last become too much and the shell finally gives way. Not with the easy pull of the key but with the persistent thud of the mallet. 

I was 11 or 12 when I had to tell my father his best friend was dead. I was at my grandparents’ house, the site of all those crab feasts, when my mother called. I answered and she told me Brian was dead more or less straight away. She gave me a choice—I could tell my father or she could. But my father wasn’t there at the time and he and my mother weren’t exactly on speaking terms and so I said, no, I can tell him. Brian had died in his sleep from a mixture of alcohol and pills. He wasn’t at home. He too died alone, on a couch, in a house known for its parties. How can people who laugh so much, who are so loved, come to such an end? When I told my father, there was no mistaking the mixture of surprise and anticipation, like this thing had come with such inevitability and overdetermination that its actual occurrence seemed unreal; a certainty so ironclad that it became almost impossible to conceive. This was the sad paradox in which these lives and deaths played out. 

My father cried. He was emotional and in this instance it was healthy. That locking spine got pulled back and those lace guts came pouring out into his cracked hands while I watched. I am lucky my father lived. I am lucky my mother lived. I am lucky. We were lucky. I don’t want this to be a sad story, but it is a sad fortune to survive your friends and see all the promises of youth forfeited in darkness through neglect, abuse, and recklessness. I don’t know what compelled my father to live when he did and I would do so many of the same things that made these men corpses. Again, this is the strange paradox of living with a shell about to crack. You are protected even while your defenses are crumbling and your most vulnerable parts are coming out into the open. There is no easy answer and maybe no answer at all except the ones we are able to give to ourselves when we get up and say, “This is what I’m going to do today.” The answer is to live, but not to live only. We all say “yes” to life when you think about it abstractly until we don’t anymore. But really, we’re saying yes to this, to this moment, to these people in this concrete commitment into which I throw myself. The problem with these people whose carapace finally pulled away and left them strewn naked and dead on some lonely floor was their “yes” was one looking back. Because it was only an affirmation of the mythic past it turned out to be a denial of this moment and their present life. All that looking back leads to death because looking back is not looking forward and forward is where you are going. But the future is unknown and sometimes unbearable and there is so little sometimes to soothe that anguish. I can’t blame them for dying, really, but I can hardly blame the living either. What’s there to blame, really? And that, maybe, is the key.

Donovan Irven

Donovan is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction. He currently teaches eighth-grade science and offers philosophical consultations with the Lawn Chair Philosophy Foundation. The author of two novels and a collection of philosophical essays, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in EmergeQueen Mob's Tea House, and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Literature from Purdue University.

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