There was muck everywhere. Clogging up the shallow trenches of my fingertips, in the threads of my red thermos. Charlie had it on him too.
“Grab the hose,” he said.
I starting walking around the side yard.
“No, hey, its under there, under the deck.”
I bent down and pulled it out from beneath the lattice. It was down there uncoiled like a mess of leftover spaghetti.
“You want it on you?” I said.
“No, I want you to water the flowers,” he laughed. “Shit.”
There weren’t any flowers at Charlie’s house. He only lived there three months of the year for the mussel harvesting. He called it “the fetch”. I met him in a bar in Pittsburgh during the off season. I had just lost a child. He was throwing down whiskey sours and blabbing off in Japanese at the bar.
No one spoke Japanese in Pittsburgh besides me.
I turned the hose on him. He was standing next to a sycamore in the driveway, leaning up against it as the stream of water hit him. After a day of digging, simple hose water could knock you over. That’s the way it was. It was my first day and I was already feeling old at this, I could already feel the muck damming up in my blood. Thick.
I had learned Japanese in high school, at least good enough to go to Kobe on a student exchange senior year. The whole place smelled like fish. I remember the eyes of the women there, shifty most of the time, but I knew that in between those shifts they were staring at me.
“Now the back,” he yelled. “Put your finger over the nozzle and make it come out real hard. C’mon, you know how to do it. Hard like a jet now.”
When I heard Charlie rambling Japanese in the bar that night I sat there for a while on the stool cracking peanuts and thinking about Janey and how big she was the last time I saw her and about how I needed to get out of this place. Then I said something.
Charlie ran this mussel outfit out here on the Ohio River during the season. He’d come out and gather all the snappers he could and sell them to McGregor’s Seafood Wholesalers. But before he sold them, he took out the slugs.
I had Charlie’s slugs in my pocket when I was hosing him down. They were bulbs of hardened mucous from the mussel. They looked like tiny glossed heads of cauliflower in my hand. If you didn’t know you would’ve thought they were rejected droppings from a plastic factory or tiny lumps of gelatin.
“They’re mutants,” Charlie said. “as far as pearls go. Most people think that pearls only come from oysters. That’s only halfway true.”
“They’re pearls?” I said.
That morning Charlie had shucked one of the mussels, one that had a thick hinge on the back like an old trunk. Those were the ones that had them. He split open the shell with the base of the knife blade, cupping the shell in one hand. With the tip of metal he drew apart the gray folds of membrane like old curtains, and there on the inner surface of the hinge was the slug. He flicked it out.
“The Japs love slugs,” he said, fingering the crumb.
“Why? What can you do with that?”
“Put it in an oyster,” and he dropped it into a zip lock baggie filled with hundreds of them. It looked like a bag of mice eyes, without the irises, the pupils, just that white like condensed milk, retarded marbles.
“It’s like, what’s that called? Making gold, you know like making it, not finding it.”
“Alchemy, I think.” I said, with the hose still in my hands. “Is this ok?”
“Yeah – only the oysters do all the work. They’re the ones that sit there and smooth these out. You hardly ever get a pearl that you want out of an oyster. Most of the time they’re all misshapen. This way, they come out round – every time. While they’re doing all that, we’re back in Pittsburgh doing nothing,” he said, his boot sunken into the muck.
At the bar Charlie had written his phone number down on a guest check, told me he needed some help out in Ohio if I wanted, needed some help back in Pittsburgh dealing with the Japanese, just needed some help. I had said sure, thinking that the farther I got away from that coast the better, just to get away from Janey and what was growing inside her. I felt bad about it, I swear I did, like I could feel it hardening up in my stomach. Charlie cleared the peanut shells off the bar with his forearm, bought me a glass of sour mash and we toasted to shucking mussels.
“Get my ass now,” he yelled, his hands up high on the tree trunk.
While I was spraying down his backside and his legs Charlie told me how it worked. He sent the slugs out to a shop in Cinci where they were shaved into cubes. The cubes were sold to oyster farms in Japan. They’d slip those cubes right into the bellies of those oysters and 7 months later they’d pry `em open and scoop out the pearl.
“It doesn’t seem right,” I said.
“What? What’s not right?” he said and rubbed his hands. “It’s right. It’s all right. There ain’t nothing wrong `bout it. Now my hands. C’mere and get my hands.”
While I stood there beneath the sycamore with that hose in one hand and that bag of slugs in the other all I could think about was the baby. I didn’t even see it. She was up in Maine at her parent’s and she had called to say that I didn’t need to worry, that it was gone, that she had given it away. She had given it away. It sounded like it was just a pet, like giving away one of the litter. I couldn’t think of someone else raising it, making it something that it wasn’t intended to be.
“Get my hands now, my hands.”
I had been spraying down into the dirt.
The muck was everywhere.