|ROCK BOTTOM FEEDERS by Sheldon Birnie|
Frank woke slowly, his head pounding along to the sound of water lapping against the rocky shore. Thousands of stars and a bright full moon shone through the darkness above, reflecting in twinkling waves across the water.
Moaning, dizzy and nauseous, Frank blinked. He wasn’t sure just where he was or what he was doing there, but his feet were wet and he felt a strange tingling sensation all over his body. Behind him somewhere, a babbling creek dumped water into the bay.
It all came back to him slowly through a haze of pain. He was 43 years old and on the bender to end all benders, devastatingly hungover if not still wasted from the previous day’s boozing.
Something, at some point, had gone wrong. Real wrong.
The last thing he could recall clearly, he’d been drinking in a bar not far from the ferry terminal. How much time had passed since then? Hours? Days? Frank did not know. He’d been drinking hard for weeks, since before he’d hopped on the Greyhound back on the prairies and headed west, redoubling his efforts to reach oblivion once he’d hit the coast. Time had begun to lose meaning.
When the web of deceit he’d been spinning for years came unwound and he’d finally and irrevocably fucked up everything in his life, he’d fled. Why stick around while the lake froze over and the walls and the bank and the long list of varied creditors he’d accrued over the past few years, who had yet to clue into the fact he was beyond broke, closed in? He’d always wanted to live between the mountains and the sea. If not now, then when? There would be no happy retirement in Frank’s future, unless he won the lottery, and maybe not even then, if his soon-to-be-ex-wife had anything to say about it.
Diane had left him. Of that he was sure. However, he had trouble identifying just why, at the moment. The drinking, maybe. But who didn’t like a cocktail now and then? Diane certainly did. And how. Most likely it had been the gambling, and no doubt the subsequent loss of their home and business. Yes, that was it. All the money they’d had was gone, along with the house, the restaurant, the truck, the boat and the third wheel. The run of bad luck had started as a trickle before escalating into a full-on fucking tsunami and then, bingo bango bongo, Frank and Diane were way beyond broke and wasn’t that a surprise to Diane.
“I never want to see you again,” she’d screamed from the porch of her mother’s house when he’d stopped by earlier that fall, for one last ditch effort to patch things up before adding, “You’re a fucking disgrace, Frank!”
Then she’d turned and slammed the door in his face, leaving him standing on the front step in the cold wind, alone.
They’d spent 10 decent years together. The restaurant they’d run for the last seven, The Dock, had been a success. The dining room had commanded a beautiful view of the lake, with a menu that leant heavy on the seafood, and nautical decor that catered heavily to the tourist crowd. Tourists were happy to scarf down flash frozen fish dishes while they dined out, a chance to forget their Midwestern worries for the weekend and soak up the brilliant prairie palette on display (most evenings) between eight and ten every evening, while the locals were happy for a different place to wet their whistles for six months of the year that The Dock was open for business.
Neither Frank nor Diane had particularly liked seafood. That was just what The Dock had always served, and what the tourists who came back every year expected. Sure, Frank would admit he’d come to develop an unhealthy penchant for deep fried crab cakes, but that was incidental. The fact that The Dock was a sure-fire money maker which also featured a prominent lakeside lounge had been the prime selling features for both Frank and Diane.
“If we’re going to be drinking on a patio all summer,” Diane had said over innumerable drinks on countless occasions over the past seven summers, “we might as well be making money doing it.”
When they’d first bought the place it had been a rundown fixture of the lakeside cottage community for decades. They’d got it for a bargain, thanks to small town family connections and the previous owner’s mounting and costly health problems. All they’d really done to the place was slap a few coats of paint on the walls and replace the ancient, cigarette-and-fried-fish reeking carpet with industrial laminate. Over the years, they’d replaced pieces of the kitchen, but even then, they’d bought used equipment. As a secondary source of income for the couple, The Dock had been easy money six months of the year.
Now, though, the good times and the easy money were gone. Long gone. Their marriage was over and The Dock had new owners. Maybe the new couple would replace the basa burger with bison, but it didn’t matter at all to Frank. They could turn the menu upside down or burn the place to the goddamn ground for the insurance money for all Frank cared. At least, he thought bitterly, he and Diane had never had kids.
Painful as it was to admit, Frank had gambled and lost every last cent and then plenty more on credit and he didn’t have a goddamn thing to show for it. He’d always enjoyed putting a bet down on a football game, had bet the ponies when he’d had an opportunity. The slappers were bad enough, but he’d learned the hard way years ago to stay away from them, especially when he’d had a few to drink and felt like getting lucky.
In the end, online poker was his downfall. It was a slippery slope, and so easy to sluff off the losses when they only appeared on an electronic credit card statement for a card he’d taken out in their joint names for the express purpose of gambling online. A card that Diane had never known about, until its balance in full came due and Frank was forced to admit he had no way to pay for, as he’d already extended credit on every conceivable asset they owned.
Now, not two years after he first logged on as DockDude69, Frank’s divorce was proceeding through the lawyers, and he had no way to pay for his half of it. Instead, he’d hopped a Greyhound westward, disembarking at the end of the line before stumbling on to a ferry a few days later on the fumes of his rapidly diminishing MasterCard balance.
He’d crashed with his older brother Bob those first few days on the coast, in the nice old West End home he shared with his wife Sharon, who still looked as good to Frank at 50 as she did when he’d made a drunken pass at her a couple weeks before she and Bob were married, 20 years earlier.
“Happy to have you,” Bob had said, and he’d meant it, Sharon had smiling patiently at his side. “Stay as long as you want to, bro. We’ll have some fun.”
But brother Bob had three kids who didn’t need to find their sad old Uncle Frank snoring through a hangover on the couch every morning when they woke up to get ready for school. Bob hadn’t said as much. No, Bob would never, but he didn’t have to. Bob knew it. Frank knew it. And while Sharon, bless her heart, had never once mentioned the fumbling drunken fool he’d made of himself those 20 years earlier, Frank knew she hadn’t forgotten it, either.
After a few days on the couch, Frank had left a Thank You note on the breakfast nook table, helped himself to a fresh bottle of Bobby’s finest single malt, and hit the road.
Now, here he was, lying on some miserably rocky beach in the dark. With some trouble, Frank rubbed his face with his gritty left hand, shooting pain down the arm well past the elbow. The smell of brine, rotting vegetation and blood cut through the clouds of boozy stink he exhaled with every breath. A wave of nausea washed over him, like the waves lapping at his feet which, Frank realized through the haze were bare. Where had his boots gone and why did it feel like his toes were being slowly flayed, cold little wet piggie by cold little wet piggie?
He’d met a woman that first day off the ferry, he remembered. Half cut, he’d waltzed into a restaurant by the harbour, sat down at in a booth overlooking the sea, and ordered the oysters.
“Fresh?” he’d asked the waitress.
“You betcha,” replied the robust redhead who didn’t look a day over 40, though she may well have had a couple years on Frank.
“I’m in,” Frank had said with a wink. “Let’s do it.”
The two had continued to flirt as Frank racked up his bill. He’d managed to get her phone number from her, which he dutifully called from the payphone at a pub she’d told him she might enjoy meeting him for a drink at, after her shift was over. While he waited, he kept on drinking, ordering a lavish dinner of crab legs and a sirloin steak, rare, that he had to admit was above and beyond anything The Dock had ever served during his tenure.
Carla, the waitress, met him an hour later. They’d spent the rest of the evening boozing at a pub up the road from the ferry terminal. He’d then spent the night naked and drunk, rolling and groping, fucking and sucking across the floor and futon in her one bedroom apartment. When he’d awoken in the morning, she was off to work an early shift.
“Call me later, big boy,” Carla’d said with a lascivious wink as she headed out the door. Frank had a shower, got dressed, and finished off the heel of whisky they’d left on the coffee table, before heading back out to hit the nearest bar.
It had been Frank’s first night in over a decade with a woman who wasn’t Diane. Never once during their marriage had he strayed, sexually. Rather, when the two began to drift apart, Frank had found solace in gambling and online pornography, while Diane had taken to drinking ever more wine in the evenings. Occasionally, they’d come together in the bed they shared, and they almost always enjoyed those times together. But all the good loving in the world wouldn’t bring back the money Frank had secretly blown chasing a run of good luck that never arrived.
The night with Carla had been fun, sure. But it had also been sloppy. Lying on the beach, every part of him awash with pain, Frank could not remember if he’d seen Carla again or not, because from the previous afternoon on, Frank’s memories were blotto. If he had, he’d certainly said or done something to lose favour with the busty, red haired waitress. Why else would he have stumbled down to the beach to pass out? Clearly, he had a long way to go if he were ever to get back into her, or any other lady’s, good books again.
Shutting his eyes against the night, Frank groaned. His head pounded. Even the ground beneath him seemed to crawl. Good Lord. What a mess.
Could this, he wondered, be rock bottom? Had he finally hit it?
Frank opened his eyes again. Across the water, a red light blinked on and off, on and off in the darkness. Was it a buoy bobbing on the waves, or a signal light on a lonely island of rock? It didn’t matter. What mattered was figuring out where he was and how he got there and what in the Christ was that nipping and gnawing he felt in his legs and arms and back?
Pushing himself up off his back, Frank felt a sharp crunching under his elbows and his palms, which preceded a flurry of sharp pains rippling up his arms.
“Oh my god,” Frank croaked, eyes watering as he shuffled frantically upright.
The ground crunched beneath him while something needled him at every pressure point. He raised his hands up before his eyes and stared at them in the gloom for what seemed like a long time, but couldn’t have been more than a couple seconds. Then he blinked his blurry eyes, and looked again to confirm that what he thought he’d seen was, in fact, what he had seen.
It was. There was no mistaking it, horrifying as it was.
Dozens of tiny crabs clung to the flesh from his shredded palms, their little legs moving helplessly in the moonlight, searching desperately for purchase.
Flailing, swatting, pin-wheeling his arms madly, Frank scrambled up off the rocky beach, which was crawling with shadowy crustaceans. The pain in his feet as they slapped against the rocky sea bottom obliterated any discomfort he’d experience upon waking, hungover, on the beach only moments earlier.
Scrambling backward, Frank screamed again when he caught sight of his feet out of water, covered in a seething mass of miniature creatures. Though his feet were still submerged in the cold water, but he could feel them biting, pinching, clawing their way up the flesh of his legs beneath his loose fitting cargo pants.
Frank fell back on his ass with a sickening crunch. He tried to brush the crabs off his arms and hands, but their claws and their tiny pincher-mouths, their mandibles and maxillae, held tight. Worse, for every successful brush, the crabs that were knocked loose tore off strips of flesh as they fell to the rocky shore below, where they were joined by dozens, hundreds, thousands of their kind, all seething up from the sea.
“What the shit?” Frank babbled, his mouth tasting as foul as the bilge water of a frigate long left adrift to the currents.
For all the thousands of pounds of crab The Dock had sold over the seven years he and Diane had been at its helm, not one had ever come through the back doors off the supply truck live. They hadn’t even come in their shell, but long processed into deep fryer-ready cakes far removed from their wild, bottom dwelling lives. The only live crabs he’d ever seen were in the tank at the Superstore, or the one time he and Diane had visited the aquarium, when they’d visited brother Bob and Sharon shortly after they’d first been married. He’d never even thought about them, outside of doing inventory or considering a tasty treat, not once.
“Why?” Frank howled as he pushed himself upright once again, turning to run up the beach.
Why was it, he wondered fleetingly, that something so terrible could come upon him all at once? What drunken, woebegone romantic impulse had compelled him to stumble down to this beach to rest his booze besotted head and not taken rest in a back alley or park bench instead?
The night provided no reply to Frank’s desperate query. Instead, his feet, bare, lacerated and throbbing with pain, slipped on a large, slimy piece of cast off kelp. He fell back down to the beach, cracking the side of his head against a barnacle encrusted rock.
His vision blurred, eyelids unfathomably heavy, Frank made one last vain bid to get up and run. But his limbs seemed a million miles away, attached to some other body. A body, perhaps, that had never known the thrills and spills, the lofty peaks nor the festering lagoon like depths of the problem gambler; a body that had never left the placid, uneventful shores of Lake Manawaka; one that had never fucked up a fine and good thing so utterly, so completely; one that hadn’t hit rock bloody bottom, running in vain from facing up to the consequences of his actions; a body that wasn’t, at that very moment, being made a feast for crabs.
And still they poured from the sea, swarming up ahead of the creeping tide, water glistening off their shells in the gloom like a million drops of rain on a flat, clear lake as their tiny legs skittered sideways over the rocky beach. Among their countless dime and dollar size brothers and sisters emerged crabs the size of fists and rocks and small dogs and larger still from the waters, dripping and sparkling in the moonlight, headed ashore; claws clicking open and shut, open and shut, open and shut with mindless, mechanical certainty. Headed for Frank.
Frank screamed again, a wordless cry that echoed in his ears as if from the darkest depth of the sea. He continued to scream as the scurrying crabs made for the soft meat of his belly and the jowls of his chins, soft and sweet from years of feasting on the deep fried bounty of the seas, and the puffy, wet pouches under his eyes from trying to drown the memory of those years in booze. Frank’s world went black, fully and completely, as the seething mass of crabs dug in for the kill.