Critical Thought: Mollusks

I don’t like to explain literature. I think literature, like all things, should be first and foremost enjoyed. That’s my yardstick for judging any piece of writing. Do I enjoy it? All too often literature is stuffed down our throat, especially in our education system. I think that’s why so few people read. They’ve developed a bad association with literature. We’re taught that literature is not meant to be enjoyed; it’s meant to be analyzed, parsed, explained, interpreted. Few people read for pleasure. I think that’s why there’s been such a rise in self-help books. People read self-help books not because they enjoy them but because they think it might improve their lives.

We’re at a funny place in our culture. A lot of people are writing, but few are reading. It’s like we’re performing to empty seats. The only people I know who read regularly are other writers. It’s a very closed circle. The danger is that we’re all talking to, and writing for one another.

In his essay collection Broken Vessels, Andre Dubus recounts meeting the writer Richard Yates for a beer. Dubus congratulates Yates on winning a Guggenheim. Dubus asks Yates how much money he got, but Yates plays coy.

“‘I don’t want money,’ [Yates] said. ‘I just want readers.’ ”

Dan Moreau has work appearing in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, William and Mary Review, Red Cedar Review, Short Story, Words and Images, Sierra Nevada Review, and The Green Flash.

Mollusks

Max and I were standing in the main concourse of Grand Central Station when we saw him. He was wearing a three-piece banker’s suit, which was odd, since the only clothes I ever saw my father in were slacks, an apron and undershirt. He owned and ran a shoe repair store in Brooklyn, an establishment that is occupied at the present day by a Vietnamese nail salon. What made this encounter even stranger was that my father had no business being in Grand Central Station or Manhattan for that matter. He never left the borough except to take my mother to the symphony at Lincoln Center or to see his accountant on Chambers Street. In fact, he would have as hard a time explaining his presence there in the middle of the day as I, who should have been at PS 31, would have.

Every now and then he glanced up at the gilded clock in the middle of the concourse. At one on the dot he was met by another man, also in a suit, his accountant. After shaking hands the pair set off for the exit on 42nd Street. Naturally, Max and I followed.

We tailed them down 42nd toward Broadway. At Times Square—the old Times Square, the one that made you feel dirty just walking through it, not the new and improved family friendly one that Giuliani and his thugs cleaned up—at Times Square they headed north on Broadway. All this time I wondered if my mother knew about my father’s clandestine trips to the city to meet his accountant who, last I heard, was doing five to ten in a minimum security prison for tax evasion.

At 50th and Broadway they ducked into Jeffrey’s, an eating establishment that today houses a Starbucks or, as I like to call them, public toilets. Jeffrey’s was the kind of place where for five dollars you could eat like a king—this was the early seventies—and where waiters treated their job like a profession. Inside there was a zinc bar, signed pictures of famous patrons, starched white tablecloths and polished silverware. Your water glass never dipped below the halfway mark. The rolls were always fresh, the butter always chilled. My father and his accountant took a table near the front. They tucked their napkins into their collars like bibs, a sartorial precaution which gives away men of my father’s generation and makes them look like oversized babies.

“Come on, let’s go,” Max said. “This is boring.”

“Hold on,” I said, peering through the window.

The food arrived. Jeffrey’s specialty was raw oysters served on a bed of ice and halved lemons and with a bottle of Tabasco sauce. My mother was a devoted member of Hadassah, and I grew up in a kosher household and never tasted shellfish until I left for college. We never ate out. My mother hated restaurants and only trusted food she had a hand in preparing. If she knew my father was committing epicurean adultery and breaking one of his religion’s core beliefs, I don’t think even our rabbi could talk her out of killing him.

To watch someone eat is not a pretty sight, even less so if that person happens to be eating raw oysters. That afternoon my father and his accountant must have ravaged an entire oyster bed. The shucked shells, like stacked chips, were piled high on their plates. The pleasure my father derived from eating oysters bordered on the sublime, he would later tell me. The day we buried my mother the first thing he wanted to do afterwards was go out for oysters. “I think,” he said ruefully, “she would’ve wanted it that way.”

My face pressed to the glass, a pain shot through my ear. Someone was twisting it in a way I didn’t think was anatomically possible.

“What are you boys doing?” It was a waiter from the restaurant. He had grabbed both Max and me by the ear.

“I’m waiting for my father,” I said.

“Oh yeah? Where is he?”

I pointed at him through the window. The waiter dragged us inside and produced us to my father like two collared crooks.

“Is this your son?” the waiter asked.

A hush fell over the restaurant. My father looked at me, wiped the corner of his mouth with his napkin, and shook his head. “Never seen the boy in my life.”

The waiter threw us out and said if he ever saw us again he’d call the cops.

Years later, when I asked my father about that day, he claimed not to have any recollection of it. Yet I still remember it with the clarity of consommé. My father had disavowed me for a plate of mollusks.

That night, dinner at my house was quieter than usual. My father seemed diminished in stature. No longer the gourmet in the three-piece suit enjoying his favorite meal, instead he was sitting at a Formica table in our sticky kitchen, wearing his usual slacks and undershirt. He hardly touched the vapid food my mother had prepared. Finally, in an attempt to make some polite conversation, my mother asked me if I’d done anything special that day. I looked down at my plate of cooling spaghetti, shook my head and didn’t say a word.

by Dan Moreau