Joyland

The Midwest |

Oysters

by Aaron Burch

 Pilot went first. First because it was his family’s cabin, first because he was going to show us proper form, how to do it. First because he always went first.

The bulkhead was maybe five feet tall, but we could still see a good two feet of above the water. The tide had come in but was still pretty shallow, is what I mean. Only a couple hours before, there’d barely been any water at all. A few hours and a couple sixpacks split between the four of us earlier and we’d been walking around down there. Each of us double-fisting a beer and a bucket in one hand, picking oysters right up off the ground with the other. Right now, four buckets filled to the brim with fresher oysters than I bet you’ve ever had waited for us over by the firepit, while Pilot inched out to the edge of the concrete bulkhead separating water from land. Toes over the edge, a peninsula bed covered with oysters under three feet, max, of water right below him, he looked like a camp counselor, like it was his day to try to teach the campers how to dive.



Here’s a different story—same four of us, same cabin—from a few years before:

We were throwing oysters on the fire. Sitting over the flame like that, those oysters heat up, pop themselves open. You take them off the fire, set ‘em aside, let ‘em cool a minute. The heat cracks the seal, gives those oysters the tiniest bit of… flambé, let’s call it, make it sound fancy, then you pry ‘em the rest of the way open, put it to your mouth, tilt back your head, and slurp.

They’re perfect.

Then you throw the empty shell out over bulkhead, down onto a bed of equal parts oyster community and graveyard.

So, this one year, I did just that—maybe it was my first or second oyster of the night, maybe my twentieth, I don’t remember, it doesn’t really matter. We’d been drinking all day. I bit down and felt a crunch. Or I heard a crunch. I don’t remember that anymore either. Have you ever bit down on a rock? An unpopped popcorn kernel? Felt like that. I thought I’d broken a tooth. My dad did that when I was young. On—you’re not going to believe this—Malt-o-Meal. Don’t ask me to explain. He chipped his tooth, never got it fixed. For years, probably all the way up until they got divorced, mom would tease him, would notice whenever he was tonguing his rough, chipped-off tooth, and would yell at him to stop doing that weird thing with his mouth.

I was saying. I bit down, startled at something hard and spit it into my hand. A pearl! I put it in the coin pocked in my jeans, that small pocket inside the pocket, for later, went back to cooking and eating oysters.



“You’re gonna jump out, but then flatten your body,” Pilot instructed. “Lead with your hands and just kinda…” Pilot used his hands to try to model what we were to do. “You just kinda, like, skim your way into the water.”

He thought about that. You could see him thinking it through, wondering if his own description was apt. Then he nodded. It was.

“It’s gonna feel like you’re gonna bellyflop, but you’re not,” he added. “You’re gonna think you’re going to but you won’t.”

I wondered why he was so sure we wouldn’t. How he knew.

I wondered at things that might be described as seeming like they were going to happen but then didn’t. I can’t remember what I thought of now but I remember creating a nice little catalog.

And then he dove. And his body did in the air exactly as he’d told us it would.



Here’s another story:

In college, we ended up at some random party one night. The way, in college, you can wander the streets at night until you find a party, until you find enough people drinking on a porch that they probably won’t notice four more randos wandering through the rooms of the house, drinking their beer, talking up the guests. This particular party was at a house with a deck off the back that butted up to some empty parking lot I’d never noticed. Maybe I’d never been there before, maybe I’d just never seen it from this angle—I wasn’t totally sure where in town we were. We’d wandered so far. So randomly, so drunkenly. I remember I kept telling anyone who would listen that I’d never before seen such a specific demarcation between residential and commercial before. I was fascinated by the specific, almost visible line of this and that, rather than a blocks-long bleed. Here and there, before and after. Twenty years ago and I still remember using that word. Demarcation.

We ended up out on that deck and when I finished my beer, I chucked it overhand out into the parking lot. It hit the ground and shattered into a galaxy of shards that made me woop! in reply. It sounded like a firework exploding. I grabbed one of my friends’ empties—not Shotgun’s, he only drank cans—and threw it into the sky. I watched it arc through the clear night like a satellite, until that pop of joy when it exploded into the concrete.

I kept at it—grabbing empties from whoever would let me, skyhooking them into the perfect backdrop of night—until some guy appeared. The owner of the house. Or, renter, I guess, probably. My house, he kept calling it, while telling me I needed to stop doing that. Or he was going to throw me out of his party. “All of us?” I asked. “No. Just you.” I stared into his eyes as I upended the beer in my hand into my mouth, gulped it down like Shotgun when he shotgunned one of his cans, and flung it out into the lot, nonchalant sidearm like throwing garbage out an open passenger window. I don’t know what made me do it. I normally would have apologized. I normally wouldn’t have done it in the first place. We got kicked out—all of us; he said we all had to leave—and so we left. It was a boring party anyway. That’s probably my friends’ favorite story to tell about me.



Small went after Pilot. He got up to the edge of the bulkhead. Inched his toes across the edge like Pilot before him, like preparing for a dive. Which I guess is what he was doing.

Another clean dive, another beat of held breaths while we waited for him to surface, another woop! when he came up for air.

Then Shotgun. Same prep: feet to the edge, toes dangling out over the water, hands floating out in front of him, one atop the other. Just like Pilot, just like Small. He turned to look at me, waiting to anchor, shot me a big smile, dove.



I’ve got a couple of stories about Shotgun. One’s better than the other, but it’s less relevant and, honestly, he’d maybe be a bit embarrassed if I shared.

So. The slightly-more-relevant-to-this-story story is this one time in college we all got together for the Fourth of July. Drove out to the Indian Reservation to stock up on the good stuff. “Have any of the… good stuff?” we’d gone around and asked each Native American standing at the counter of each firework stand. We stocked up, took all this good stuff to a basketball court near Pilot’s house. We took turns lighting off mortars, shooting roman candles at each other, finding new and different and increasingly dangerous ways to light and shoot bottle rockets. Until one bottle rocket shot into our pile of fireworks and, I shit you not, set off everything else in a bloomin’ onion of a firework show. When it all finally died down, we went and rummaged through the debris, looking for anything not spent. And then a pop, and then Shotgun holding his hand, screaming, blood everywhere. Fuckin’ horror show.

I don’t know if that story is about how Shotgun should have been more aware, should have seen and known whatever he’d picked up was gonna explode, or if it just goes to show. If shit hits the fan, it’s gonna be the fan pointed right at Shotgun.



Shotgun came up out of the water slower than Pilot and Small. I was standing on the bulkhead, waiting for him to surface, waiting for my turn, and he stood up in that shallow water, facing right at me. No woop! Instead, blood everywhere—forehead, down his face, all down his chest to his swim trunks—but what I remember was how white his face was, that look he gave me. Like, what did I do? Like, Am I going to be okay? Like he was so in shock he didn’t need clarification or assurance so much as he actually had no idea.

He turned to face the other guys, and I looked at them, like telepathically trying to prepare them. Like praying for them to have some kind of answers that I myself didn’t have.

I tried not to think about that ground that Shotgun dove his face right into, all those oyster shells—some still full of oysters, some cracked open and discarded—and rocks, and probably empty beer bottles we tossed in while drunk, and who knew what else, all waiting to scratch and dig into his body. I tried not to think about infection. I tried not to think about how much blood a body can lose before needing serious attention.

What happened was we stayed in the water, kept drinking. Someone had the idea that the salt water would be good for his scraped and bleeding skin, and drinking would be good for… I don’t know. Maybe we’d argued that it would help that pain, once the shock receded. Probably we just wanted to keep drinking. Probably we had no idea what else to do. I went and got the rest of the beers, threw them into the water one-by-one, saying a little prayer with each one. All the beers in the water, bobbing along next to everyone like little paper boats, I jumped down off the bulkhead into the water. Jumped. I didn’t dive.

We drank all those beers, stayed in that water until our bodies shriveled into themselves.



Maybe these are all stories about forgiveness. They’re all true stories, except for the parts I made up.

One year someone told us it was illegal to throw oysters on the fire like that. You’re only supposed to open them by hand, and then leave the shells on the same beach. This is so the shells can be reused. They’ll grow new oysters inside them. “They’ll be resurrected?” I joked to the guy who told us. He didn’t think it was funny.

I wasn’t actually there at the cabin the summer this happened. I was supposed to be, I’d bought my plane ticket and everything. But then something came up, I had to back out. Doesn’t really matter, the reason I couldn’t make it. Except to say: I probably should have gone to the cabin.

I also made up the story about the fireworks and Shotgun’s hand. That’s one I made up a while back; I find myself reusing it here and there. I made up some of the other stories, too, actually, or I changed details, changed names. I did find a pearl one time. I forgot all about it until weeks later. I found it in my jeans, doing laundry. I’d thought I would take it to a jeweler; have it shined up, put it on a necklace. It was smaller than I’d remembered, not anything worth turning into something to give someone. Still. I did one time find a pearl in an oyster I’d picked up off the ground with my own two hands.