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How to Crack Blues
By Nicole DeSalle


It’s not your first time to this Baltimore crab house. This four-hour drive just for dinner has been a family tradition for several years. But this time your father’s brought New Girlfriend, so tonight, see it through her eyes, see it new: See the waitresses, breezing by with orange trays piled high with steamed crabs. See the tables, covered with brown paper. See the customers, splitting claws with wooden mallets.

“What’s that all over them?” New Girlfriend asks. “Mud?” 

With your best poker face, say: “Yes. Here in Baltimore, we love our mud.” Wait until the last drop of color drains from her face before you say: “Kidding. It’s just seasoning.” 

Now, choose your crab. Ignore the black eyes peeking through the mud-like spice. Slip your plastic knife into the crab and pop off the carapace. This is Gross Anatomy, Baltimore style. Scrape away the feathery gills, the lima-bean sized organs, the squiggly white intestines, the mustard-yellow guts. Break the body in half. Break those halves into quarters. Peel the cartilage from the lower quadrants.

See that cup-shaped, silky lump at the end of the knobby swimmer leg? Offer that to New Girlfriend as a peace offering because she’s still sulking over that whole mud thing. Let her taste the Holy Grail that’s spurred this four-hour pilgrimage, that’s worth all the breaking and picking and hair-thin cuts to your fingertips. Smile at Dad when he gives you that you’re-a-good-sport-kiddo wink.

Now, crack your claws. Position the blade of your plastic knife on the pincher and bring your mallet down, thwack. Ignore the bits of crab shell in your hair. Just keep working that mallet: twacktwacktwack. Your mallet’s a judge’s gavel, a director’s clapboard; your mallet cries ACTIONNEXT, and MOVE ON. And when you’ve sucked all the meat from those claws, take sip of soda, and get ready to crack your next crab. 

Do you hear me? Crack the crab. See the boy at the next table? He’s doing it wrong. He’s putting his crab back together instead of taking it apart. The boy sits between a man in a polo shirt and a woman with hoop earrings, but it’s hard to tell if they’re his parents because Hoop Earrings has reached under the table and placed her hand on the knee of the bearded man across from her. But Bearded Man seems to be married to the woman beside him who tugs his sleeve and says, “Share a slice of key lime pie with me, Hon?” 

Meanwhile, Boy is hunting through the mounds of crab shells and rebuilding it all. He arranges the bits of shells together until the two pincher claws, the six legs, and each segment of those two knobby swimmers surround the carapace like planets around the sun. 

Idiot. Everyone knows you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. 

A live crab is blue, a steamed crab, orange, and when the meat’s in your belly all that’s left is a mountain of shells, which the waitress rolls up in the brown paper and stuffs into a plastic-lined bucket. You can’t take an orange crab and turn it blue again. 

On the long ride home, you’re nauseous from the smell of crab. It’s the same every time. You can’t rid the smell from your fingertips no matter how many times you wash your hands. You try to sleep, but the smell keeps you up. Not to mention, the radio’s at full volume, and Dad and New Girlfriend are singing along to those doo-wap sha-langa-langa la songs, the same ones he sang with his last girlfriend, too.
Nicole DeSalle has an MFA from Texas State University. Her most recent publication in Sky Island Journal has been nominated for the 2019 Pushcart Prize.