Fiction by James Cato
It wasn’t about her looks. She had lovely skin and a sugary smile and nice clothes. In fact, when she hired me to breed shrimp on her aquaponics farm half the boys in the town stopped speaking to me. Nobody knew her origins and myths circulated on where she was sleeping, who she fancied. Curtains shivered from peeping husbands when she blew through.
It wasn’t about her wits, either. During my interview her eyes slit sly and she lobbed roundabout questions about the work I could do. Notably, she didn’t say one word about my prosthetic arm. “Scared of bugs?” she asked. “Are you a good worker, or one of those plain people? What are your thoughts on that beer I gave you, that sour, do you like it too much, to an annoying extent?”
The sweating can slipped a bit in my good hand. I told her I liked bugs fine, that the beer was tasty but that’s all, and I worked real hard but I didn’t know what she meant by ‘plain people.’ She leaned back so her collarbone expressed and hired me right then. I did find it strange that she chose the one-handed guy to do manual labor but figured it was because I wasn’t drooling over her like most other fellows in town.
And it definitely wasn’t about her constitution. She led me around to her fields stocked with 40-foot gunmetal drums and showed me how to grip a giant freshwater crayfish with your fingers pressed behind its pincers to keep it from springing away. She plunged a hand right into a sunken pipe to drag it out. “You idiot,” she laughed when I tried and failed to do the same. “It’s in their nature to bail on you. Wait till we shuck ‘em though. They won’t be going anywhere.”
While I worked, she kept tabs from afar, chewing rainbow chard. The stems shook in her fist like a nest of eels while she stretched out on her yoga mat in the cheatgrass. I didn’t want her to catch me looking, so I kept to my tasks, squeezing out filter sponges and securing screen hoods to prevent any crawdads from escaping. When I did need to capture one, I learned to let it pinch my carbon fiber finger, then simply lifted it to its destination.
To me, the little pinch was like holding hands.
“You idiots don’t deserve this easy money,” she told me. “Your whole damned landlocked-floodplain-state of South Dakota is free gold. You all crave seafood and I’ve got it. I pass off big ones as lobster and the young as shrimp—a pound of bug makes triple profit margins at the restaurants in town. Talk about a cash cow!”
She actually went and purchased a disfigured calf with a withered flank from the beef ranch for 50% off and named it Cash, so I spent a lot of time with her literal Cash Cow. She even joked about the guys chasing her in town – “I picked crawdads over raw–dads,” she snickered. So it wasn’t about her sense of humor.
It was about the shucking. In the mornings I sponged, skimmed, and filled the ponds alone. By mid-afternoon each tub would gleam like a nickel and I’d toss in feed pellets for droves of crustaceans to speed through like a comet shower. The process brought me real pleasure. I even named individual creatures – Eggplant with purple claws, Big Bruce with antennae long enough to pick up dish cable, Shy Shelly who never left the PVC pipe condo.
But in the evenings she came over to the pools for the shucking. She’d clunk two buckets by her feet while Cash watched with big wet eyes. Then she’d wrangle Big Bruce, for example, and rip his flippy tail from his body. It really made a ripping sound. She’d twist off his wiggly swimmerets too. Gobs of shells and legs followed in piles inside the waste bucket until all that was left of Big Bruce was a slick pink thing with eyes. And then she’d say: “Can’t squirm away now, can you?” before dumping him in the product bucket.
I didn’t like that. It made me nervous, couldn’t say why. Maybe because I couldn’t tell her how dad’s runaway mower caught me as a kid, how it didn’t reduce me like she might think. I began duct-taping the socket to my skin, fearful that she’d tug it, even steal it. She claimed she peeled them alive to disguise their non-lobster identities, but I swear she enjoyed having a spectator; she seemed to enjoy my discomfort as her captive audience.
“How do you like your nudes?” she asked one day with Eggplant in her grip. “Topless close-ups in the bathroom mirror? Or close-ups on the bed?” Looking away, I told her I didn’t know but wide angles seemed best to see your whole lover. “You idiot,” she said. “Nudes never include the face. You’ve got to keep the dummies hooked, fragmented. Otherwise they’ll be plain people and run off!”
That’s when I decided to become one of those plain people. She’d made a miscalculation with me somewhere down the line; I wasn’t sticking around. So I fled her landlocked restaurants, her shrimp trapped in buckets under the rolling sky, her poor crippled cow, and her orbit of obsessed lovers for the endless sea of the prairie beyond her property. I waited for a day when stained clouds boiled up on the horizon and flinty drops slashed down, when I could leave without locking any of the screen hoods over the ponds. Like she said, the state was a floodplain. I hoped the crawdads would find peace plodding away through the plains as I had, proud noses upturned as their tanks overflowed—I certainly smiled for them when the town ran clean out of lobster.
James Cato is an environmental organizer and lives in the Pennsylvania backwoods. Look for him in SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. His story collection BECOMING ROADKILL is forthcoming from an indie press near you. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com/fiction.