SORTING THROUGH CLAMS
by David H Weinberger
I am sitting next to my father’s bed as he sleeps. He is ten days into Hospice care and has become frail since he discontinued treatment for his cancer. I never thought I would find myself staring remorsefully at the man who sometimes treated me so unkindly. His belt would swing, his words would slay, and I would cower in his shadow. And yet, there must have been more because I ache with the thought of losing him.
I take his small, wrinkled, and wiry hand in mine and try to remember that it belongs to my father. I run two fingers across the top of his hand, feeling mostly loose skin and pronounced veins, up his bruised forearm and bicep, and to his shoulder. All are withered and weak and I struggle to make a connection to the vigorous father I knew one August day thirty years ago when he took me out with him on his clamming boat.
On that day, my father raked the bay floor with short pulls and shorter releases. He occasionally let me pull the rake and I felt the floor violently tugging against my efforts. As a diminutive ten-year old, I was not equipped to pull a thirty-pound rake filled with clams, but my father let me continue for a bit, a sly smile on his face as he watched me struggle. After a few inefficient pulls, my father took over and then hauled the rake up hand over hand on the pole, pulled the rake above board and dumped the catch onto the cull racks.
My father was not always a clammer; he held odd jobs for decades before he discovered his true calling. His last job before clamming was as a manager of a rental store where one day he rented equipment to a clammer. They became friends and this friend talked my father into giving up the rental store and starting a new career.
Over the next four weeks, my father outfitted himself with the necessary tools of the trade: boat, steel rakes, aluminium poles, cull racks, and bushel baskets. He purchased new clothes for himself too: an accepted clamming uniform of sorts. Wool cap, knee-high waterproof boots, rain gear, jeans, T-shirts, and flannel shirts. On weekends, he would lay out all the equipment in the front yard and do an inventory to see what he still needed. My siblings and I would swing on the tire swing and watch him check each piece and listen to him ignore our constant questions concerning the equipment. That was not uncommon in our home: my father didn’t really speak to us much, regardless of what we were doing. Even though he did not talk during his inventories, I thought it was fun to see him lay it all out, like laying out my GI Joes or Matchboxes to see how the collections were growing.
The largest part of the equipment parked in the driveway, the boat, was actually small and beat up, and I thought, not very fancy or trustworthy. My father repaired it, painted it gray and red, and to my surprise, it was soon ready for the Great South Bay. He got clamming lessons and advice from his rental friend, quit his job at the store, and became a clammer.
It was difficult from the beginning, both in terms of the back-breaking and repetitive work and especially when it came to providing financially for a family of seven people; the commute was long and expensive, he did not make much money, and he was away from home most of the day. But it became easier with experience and as he became more familiar with the better clamming spots, buoy placement, and other tricks of the trade.
After about two years, my father felt comfortable enough on his boat out in the water that he thought it might be enjoyable to bring his kids along for a day of clamming. This was a surprise to me because none of us kids seemed to have a very close relationship with him. We talked and played mostly with my mother, helped her with housework and groceries, shared our problems with her and cried in her embrace. My father was never a part of these activities. He simply seemed to bring money home and discipline us when things went wrong. It was like we were strangers to one another.
It was also clear to me that my father didn’t need any help on his boat; he was much too independent for help. At home, help meant finding a missing tool, or handing the right tool at the right time; he never let us do anything that I found meaningful, like hammering in a nail, securing a bolt on the boat, or cutting a piece of wood. If we asked him for help, like with a Wood Derby car or a plastic model, he would usually do the job himself rather than teaching us how to do it ourselves. In spite of these misgivings, I thought that, perhaps, time on the boat with one of his kids may have been his way of getting to know us a little better.
And although we didn’t really understand or feel close to our father, we looked forward to these clamming outings: a day off from school, in a boat, alone with our father clamming. We waited impatiently for our turn to come and we were always ecstatic when it came. I was confused as to whether the excitement of working with my father was because I was missing out on a day of school, the imagined fun of clamming, or maybe just being singled out in a large family felt good. It could easily have been finally getting to see that friendly seagull that my father fed on a daily basis and which he constantly talked about.
But it was not all unbridled excitement. I waited my turn with trepidation. I worried about what we would talk about, if we talked at all. I did not know if we would get along all day on the small boat. When my father was at home, an exchange between us was more likely to be an argument than a conversation, a slap rather than a hug. Still, the worry I had was not enough to keep me from anticipating an outing.
When my turn finally came, my father woke me in the morning and it was difficult to find the excitement from the night before: it was early and I still wanted to sleep. My father was wearing his normal clamming clothing. I had the same outfit, prepared by my mother, except with Toughskins instead of Levis, but I was happy I would be wearing my father’s clamming uniform. We grabbed our coats, loaded the Suburban, and drove off to Bayview Harbor in Bay Shore. Not a word was spoken between us during this one-hour drive; I thought that I would be good company on the drive but I probably slept most of the way. When we got to Bay Shore, it was dawn, with soft light and a thin fog all around. It was spooky walking out onto the dock to get to the boat, with the strange surroundings in the boat yard and harbor: a rusty sign swinging above a dilapidated door to a small dark building, a mangy dog sleeping in the shadows under an upturned boat, lobster pots stacked all over hiding who knew what, fishing nets strewn here and there. All mysteriously blanketed by fog. My father simply carried out his job and did not seem at all bothered by the spookiness, or notice that I was scared.
Once the boat was loaded, the motor warmed up, and the boat inched out of the slip, I started feeling better. We rounded the bulkhead and I could see the distant bay with fog covering the surface. My father said the fog would be gone by daylight, and later it turned out he was right.
Right away I was in awe of the bay: the grand houses along the coast that I could barely see through the fog, the feel of the boat motoring into the flat, glassy bay. I sat on the floor, leaning against the console while my father stood behind the console steering the boat. I was amazed that he knew where he was going, because of the fog and because the bay seemed like one big open space void of any bearings. Within an hour, we were at the first buoys. I asked when the friendly seagull would show up. He told me not to worry because he would definitely show up around lunchtime. Before the arrival of the seagull, however, it was time to work.
We grabbed baskets, cull racks, and nylon mesh sacks from the cabinet built into the bow. My father started with a six-foot pole section which ended in a T-handle, connected several pole sections together, and then attached the clam rake to the last pole section. He lifted the heavy rake over the side of the boat and let it drop into the bay. I watched the pole disappear in the water as he lowered it hand over hand to the bay floor. Once the rake had sunk into the muddy sand, he started raking. I could not help but stare at my father’s muscular forearms and biceps; I had never noticed them before. I guessed that years of clamming had built up quite a bit of muscle. I compared them to my puny arms and wondered if they would ever grow to look like his.
He used those muscles to pull the rake back out of the water, reversing the hand over hand motion he had used before. When he reached the rake filled with the catch, he dumped the contents onto the cull racks, four racks stacked on top of one another, each having different sized gaps to catch different sized clams. My father then gave me a lesson on sorting since I would be in charge of it throughout the day. We started the sort by cleaning out anything that was not a clam. At the time, the early seventies, the bay was still full of diverse life: lobsters, oysters, and horseshoe crabs. Some, like lobster, he kept for family meals, the rest were put back in the bay. We also sorted out the plastic and empty glass bottles that were pulled up. These we put in a garbage bag and left at the harbor.
Once the racks were clear of non-clam items, we shook them so the clams either fell through the gaps or nestled between the rods, separating the clams according to size: little necks fell to the bottom rack, top necks the next, then cherrystones, and finally, the larger chowders in the top rack. We put each sized clam into a separate bushel basket and I watched the baskets fill up throughout the day. When the baskets were full we dumped them into nylon mesh bags. We dumped the smaller clams, the ones that fell through all the racks, back into the bay so they could live to maturity and supply the next generation of clams. We drifted lazy circles around the buoy for a while going through the same work motions: dropping the rake, raking, lifting the rake, dumping, sorting, and beginning again.
After clamming for about an hour, we motored to the next set of buoys and the same work began again. The morning hours passed in this manner, raking, motoring, raking, motoring. The fog had lifted exposing a clear blue sky and a bright sun high in the sky. I sat with my father and we ate lunch. It was the identical lunch that I took to school, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a piece of fruit, a Hostess Ding Dong, but it tasted better on the boat. My father put a piece of his sandwich on the bow of the boat and a seagull landed and started eating the sandwich. Finally, the famous seagull he always talked about. The seagull did not leave with the sandwich, but instead, ate it on the boat, as if he were an invited guest to a special luncheon. With my eternal doubt, I asked my father how he knew it was the same seagull each day and not just one of the dozens that happened to be around. He laughed at my doubting and claimed that it was the same one, that he could tell by the coloring on the wings. I wanted to believe him because it was a cool story but I doubted that it was the same seagull or that he could tell the difference; he might know about clams but I did not think he knew anything about birds.
After lunch, the rest of the day was spent in the same repetitious manner, with an occasional visit from another clammer to discuss where it was ‘hot’ on the bay, who was working on the water that day, or what the weather had in store. When the clamming was done for the day and the clams were bagged up, we took the boat to Lincoln Harbor to sell the clams. We pulled up to the dock, unloaded the bags of clams, and climbed out of the boat. The man at the counter weighed the bags and paid my father in cash. It seemed like a lot of money but even with my young eyes I could see how hard my father had worked for it.
We climbed back into the boat and began the long cruise back to Bay Shore. I fell asleep listening to the whine of the motor and when I woke up, my father was unloading the boat and locking tools back in the bow. I helped carry the few remaining items to the Suburban and we headed home.
On the way, instead of sleeping, I stared out the window going over the day. My father and I both smelled of the bay and especially of clams. The job of sorting clams was exhausting over a long day, and a bit slimy and frightening with all those claws that frequently appeared. It was, however, certainly easier than pulling a full clamming rake. I looked at my father driving. He was whistling a tune we used to sing at home. He seemed very happy. I smiled because of that. If I had already learned to whistle, I would have whistled along with him.
I continue to hold my father’s hand as he sleeps. I thank him for giving me the job of sorting the clams so long ago. Today, I think there was more sorting on that day than simply clams. I suppose my father and I were quietly sorting through our thoughts and feelings for each other: separating the valuable ones worth keeping from the ones not so valuable, holding little worth or better thrown away. I cannot forgive him for his harshness when I was a child. But perhaps that is something I have to let fall through the racks, discard in favour of more valuable memories that get caught in the racks.
About the Author:
David H Weinberger is an American author writing in Berlin, Germany. His stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, The Ravens Perch, Gravel, and elsewhere. He holds a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and taught kindergarten for eight years in Salt Lake City, Utah.