by H. K. Rainey
I never know what time my eye’s going to open. When it happens, I’m usually in the same room I fell asleep in, usually, but the time could be anytime. Sometimes, I go to sleep at two a.m. and I don’t wake up for weeks. I feel things while I sleep, wiggling into my dreams like roundworms made of tiny, flashing throbs of electricity— an electric hum perhaps, a buzzing under the skin similar to what Bruce feels when he’s had too much black coffee. When I come back in to waking, I can’t feel my legs and it’s a state of nightmare paralysis. My body won’t move and I feel cold. But, don’t worry, I’ll try to relax. This is what I wanted to tell you about one particular Thursday when I woke up to the weak, golden sun pushing its fingers through the Venetian blinds:
On the news, Maine fishermen are trapping 28 million pounds of lobster, topping the 1989 record of 24 million pounds. This Thursday, much is being made of crustaceans. Bruce isn’t watching. He’s in the kitchen making more coffee. When he comes back into this room, his brown robe hangs open, revealing curlicues of black chest hair, huddled in clumps still matted from water that fell onto his chest after he brushed his teeth. In one hand he grips the mug, “World’s Greatest L♥ver”, that’s nearly overflowing with black Sanka. His plaid shorts are twisted, crooked at the fly, his knees and ankles knobby, mismatched against the meatier part of his calves and thighs. He wears crew socks, elevated on his shins to different levels. Looking at me, he lifts his mug to his lips and sips, coffee spilling over his bare knuckles.
“Oh, shit!” he nurses the knuckle, absentmindedly, spilling the rest of the coffee painfully down his chest. Halted momentarily by his slightly protruding gut, the black current waterfalls onto his boxers.
“Goddammit!” he curses again, dropping the cup. As the black puddle spreads across the greenish linoleum, pooling up in places, Bruce scampers for a towel to put out the scalding fire in the meat of his chest. Ironically, Bruce’s day has begun in the same manner in which it will end: painfully and curiously near his heart.
Lobsters may exhibit negligible senescence. Bruce does not. That’s why, prior to going to his job at the Agency, he straps on a bulletproof vest along with his gun, puts on his tan suit, white oxford shirt and his black Rockports. He likes the bulletproof vest because it makes him look thinner, and I gather that he’s terrified of dying. He’s never said that. Lobster fishermen should also be afraid of dying. There is a high risk of drowning when working in deep water. Bruce is in love with Kate, even though he can’t admit it. Since she started working at the Agency, he goes in early just to see if he can catch a glimpse of her. On workdays, he will drink only one cup of coffee while he dresses and watches the early morning traffic report. I know by the way he doesn’t linger over the news like I do, that he’s excited about seeing her and doesn’t want to waste time. Sometimes he will wear wrinkled pants to work. He is hoping she will offer to come over and iron them. She never comes. I know it’s just because she is avoiding any appearance of impropriety. She is clearly a morning person.
When he gets to work, Mel calls Bruce into his office.
“This is bad, Bruce,” the boss says, first thing. No hi hello. “It’s the Russians.”
“Oh, no!” says Bruce, because if there’s one thing he gets excited about, it’s the Russians. “What is it this time?”
“We had an agent undercover in Moscow. Last night, she missed her check-in. She’s disappeared, Bruce. I’m afraid the Russians have her.”
“Claudia?” Bruce looks genuinely upset. He gets mad whenever a lady is in danger. No, incensed.
“I’m afraid so.” Mel sits down behind his desk just as the phone rings. “Hi. Hello?” The expression on his face sours into an even deeper seriousness. Often, one lobsterman will attend to as many as 2,000 traps. That seems like a lot to me.
“It’s Martha,” Mel says, lowering his voice as though someone besides he and Bruce were in the room. “Vasilev Slovinsky arrived at the Russian Embassy today.”
“Slovinsky?” says Bruce, clearly in-the-know. “He’s one of the Russian heavy hitters. One of the big three. What’s he doing here?” I’m always glad there are only three big ones, else I might be speaking Russian right now.
“I don’t know, but it worries me, too. Surveillance cameras caught him entering the country with an unidentified woman. If that’s Claudia, then we’re in real trouble. Martha’s looking through the tapes to try to get a clear ID. I want you to get over to the embassy right now!” thundered Mel. “And don’t get caught poking around. I don’t need to lose my two best Agents to the Russians. Not today.”
Bruce was disappointed that he hadn’t gotten to see Kate yet, but the Russians always took precedence. Women second, but first, democracy! As he bulleted out of Mel’s office door, Kate came into focus, carrying a load of ill-stacked papers. She looked up from them at just the right moment to see Bruce rocketing to the hidden elevator. And just in time to catch her knee on an aluminum desk in her path. The files went sprawling onto the floor, the look on Kate’s face, one of surprise.
“My stockings!” she mourned, seeing to the run. Bruce helped her gather loose papers into the file folders stamped with the agency symbol and just, perchance, looked into her brown eyes. They brightened strangely and then drifted downward, muddy pools, hidden in the rushes of her long lashes.
Sizzilean. Move over bacon, here comes something leaner! Bacon goes away and Sizzilean comes floating down to the plate. Why sizzle fat when you can SizziLEAN? Man in tuxedo puts laundry, Cheer, and ice water into cocktail shaker. The ice goes clack clack. He doesn’t smile. That is a satisfying sound. The Russian Embassy is cold as a prison. Bruce spends hours poking around there, but his heart’s not in it. He can understand what they’re all saying, since he happens to be fluent in Russian, and knowing that makes the overheard conversations all the more boring.
“Did you know you can remove ink stains with ice water?”
“Really? I thought Slovicek bought a lemon farm in Italy!”
“I’m a huge fan of the paranormal in literature.”
“Do you think yellow makes me look wan?” Bruce ponies up to the information desk, putting on his babe-magnet: fake laughter and a white-toothed, wide-mouthed grin.
“I’m a reporter for the Washington Post and I have an interview with Comrade Slovinsky. Could you be a doll and show me where he is? Hahah!” The gorgeous brunette in the tweed skirt won’t ever check his credentials because he looks so handsome. If she did, he has a press badge, very authentic-looking, in the pocket of his tan blazer. They’d never know the difference. It’s too bad that Vasilev Slovinsky has been expecting him. Bruce used to fuck Claudia, see, just like he fucked all the other top lady-Agents. That’s why Slovinsky caught Claudia and brought her back to the states. She’s bait. Artificial bait is now being manufactured to lure lobster, crab and other crustaceans into the traps. Some questions have been raised as to the safety of the artificial bait. The bait is usually protein, actually, peptides. The lobster detects the amino acids and is drawn to the trap.
“Come in, come in!” says Slovinsky. “What can I do for you?”
Slovinsky already knows where Bruce lives. He got the information from Claudia. Women are weak aren’t they? And she already has a beef against Bruce for breaking her heart. It is not certain whether lobsters feel pain, but Claudia certainly does. Damn that man to hell, she thought, as the knife was drawn against her throat. 2010 Huckleberry Way, Apartment #2. Can I go now? Slovinsky invites Bruce to the Embassy Ball to be held that night, but he doesn’t tell the caterer to set the extra place.
“Of course you’ll need a partner,” Mel says, back at the Agency. Of course, Mel chooses Kate. Bruce protests, then says:
“I’ll pick you up at eight,” to which Kate looks uneasy.
“What?” Bruce questions the unquestioned question.
“Well, it’s just. . .” Kate looks at Mel for help, not finding any. “Well, I’d rather come to your place, if that’s okay. I don’t want them to think anything of it, you know, mother and the boys?” Bruce rolls his eyes.
“Fine.” He says, picking at some lint on his jacket. “Come at eight.” Kate nods.
Lobsters are normally boiled alive, even without their claws. I’m a pepper, you’re a pepper, she’s a pepper, he’s a pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too? Bruce has just had time to get out of the shower, stand in front of the mirror sucking his gut in and out, put on a new, black tuxedo, and comb his hair when the doorbell rings. It is Kate.
“Hullo, Kate!” Bruce sounds cheerful, then sounds self-conscious about sounding too cheerful.
“Hi. . .” whispers demure Kate, her voice so lovely and low. Kate looks around the room, sizing things up. She looks at me, but it’s like I’m not even there. That’s how I know she loves him. He waits a minute, letting her enjoy the “grand tour” with her eyes. Then, gingerly he says, “Shall we go?” offering her his arm. She nods. They walk toward the door.
Bang! Crash! The front door bursts inward, shattering from the lintel, dissolves onto the floor. Outside, now inside, two men dressed in black with masks over their heads bully in. I can see the white of the skin around their eyes in the eyeholes of the black masks. Like raccoons in reverse. They have guns. Bruce tries to scream for Kate to get behind him, but his voice fails. I watch unblinkingly. Kate is floundering first one way, then the other, trying to get out of the reach of the guns. There is nowhere to hide in the small apartment. One of the Russians lets out a string of expletives in his birth language. The words sound like the stuttering of the machine guns. Kate’s running for the kitchen when suddenly, her back explodes into a rose of blood, flowering onto the floor. She thrashes for a minute, then is still. Bruce is backing up. He remembers then, with the malicious muzzle of the gun pointed at his chest, that he was so excited about seeing Kate that he forgot his bulletproof vest. Shit.
“Are you going to—“ he said.
Bang went the gun. Bang bang bang. A moment of confusion flashed across his face. The most common way of killing a lobster is by placing it, live, in boiling water, or by splitting: severing the body in half, lengthwise. The answer was yes. Bruce fell in just nearly the same spot the coffee had fallen that morning. Bounty is the quicker thicker picker upper, I should have told him. One of the Russians removes his mask and looks straight at me. He motions to his friend, saying in plain, unaccented English.
“Turn that shit off would ya? It’s giving me a goddamn headache.”
“Can we bring the TV with us? It’s probably worth something to somebody.”
“Yeah yeah, all right. Gather up anything else that looks valuable.”
The unmasked man approaches me. My eye closes. I’m not sure I ever want to open it again. ¿
HK Rainey is the author of the poetry collection “Memory House.” Her MFA is from Mills and she is the founder of the Anger Management and Revenge reading series. She has been on occasion been known to grow a mighty beard; very mighty.