Short Story Breaking and Entering for Would-Be Marine Biologists
“Yes, there are still whales, there are still haddock, crabs, seals. Their hearts beat, muscle and sinew unaltered by steel scale or steam-powered fins. For now, anyway.”
It’s low tide. The loose stone road winds in and out of a salt marsh. I drive slowly, skirting the muddy banks creeping up between renovated cottages. Reeds and pussy willows sway in the breeze, creating a narrow corridor of brown stalks in my headlights. The parking lot has been abandoned since summer, like the rest of the Cape, evidenced by the boarded over bathrooms and tipped lifeguard stand. A harsh wind stirs the sand, creating calligraphy by the water’s edge.
I only drive down to Red River Beach at 4:30 a.m. when I need to prove to myself there is still life in the ocean.
As I approach, the gray mass of sea and sky merge somewhere off on the horizon, the expanse stretching into infinity. During the summer, the hot sand is filled with hundreds of people.
Now, it’s just cold wind, dried seaweed, and piles of pink seashells.
They crack beneath my boots as I walk towards the water. I notice a discarded horseshoe crab and bend to retrieve it. The hollow shell weighs nothing, its eight pincered legs and tail hang stiff and motionless.
Just a molt I remind myself, prying the prehistoric shell from its legs, revealing the slit the creature slipped through. It’s an escape route when the body becomes too confining. It plops through that back door, new shell soft, waiting to expand and grow thick in rebirth. Researchers harvest their blue blood to run vaccine tests. They say it doesn’t affect them, but birth rates drop with each syringe.
Above the clumps of dried seaweed that symbolize the high tide mark, I lower myself to the chill sand, reclining, turning my face towards the sea. I’ve been having these dreams lately where the ocean is empty. Just water and salt. The fish have been harvested or killed through climbing acidity levels. Sharks are snatched up for their fins. Passing cruise ships insert E. coli with each toilet flush. Local mollusks have been in decline for years—a fact my father mentions every time I visit. In my dreams, we replace them all with something more sinister and metallic. Android bass, automatic orcas. When I look out over the water, it is still and clear, no cloud reflections to mar the glassy sheen. Not even sediment stirs with the receding tides. It’s an aquatic desert singing the demise of plankton and humpback alike.
As my vision comes into focus and the sun peers over the horizon, a flock of seagulls materializes above the choppy surf some distance out. I watch as they wheel and dive towards the surface, plucking silver minnows from below. They harvest the fish in a frenzy of squawks and caws, a large school surging just beneath them. I move to the water’s edge, squat down, cup a handful of salt water, and splash it into my face. The sting and burn churns my brain to see that yes, there are still whales, there are still haddock, crabs, seals. Their hearts beat, muscle and sinew unaltered by steel scale or steam-powered fins.
For now, anyway.
“You’re going to be late tomorrow?” my friend, and employer, asks. The heavy thwack of his knee kicker nails another section of red oak in line with the rest, tongue and groove hiding the last connection.
“If I make it in at all,” I reply, handing him the next board, the unsanded grain rough against my palm.
“Just don’t get arrested, Hyde. I don’t want to sand and stain this whole place alone.”
At that, Mark sends me off to rip boards on the table saw. Three and a fourth inches needs to be sheared down to two and a half for the edging. As the blade whirls in a circular blur, I feed sections of the flooring through, easing the end, attempting to keep my fingers attached. A marine biology degree did little to prepare me for using power tools, but with the present decline of my bank account and the state of the job market, I take what I can get. Seventeen dollars an hour installing floors is better than the midnight shift at Stop and Shop cleaning out rotten grapefruit, like my father. His fishing license only allows for so many fish to be removed from the sea. The dwindling population of cod and haddock doesn’t seem to be making a rebound anytime soon, if at all. He can make more sweeping corn husks off linoleum tiles than gutting grouper at the weigh station. They repo’d his boat anyway. I saw the Demeter dry docked at Ryder’s Cove. No way he’s getting it back without a fistful of bills.
The same could probably be said of my mother.
The last ripped board falls to the floor, slicing through my daydream of boats stacked on iron shelves thirty feet tall. I gather them up and hand them to Mark, who continues the pattern of interlocking joints, the floor slowly appearing beneath our feet. That’s the nice thing about construction. You do the work, see the expansion, the tangible results.
“If something happens,” I say over the thud of hammered nails, “I need you to take care of the tanks. I’ll leave instructions taped to the glass. You still have my spare key, right?”
“Yeah,” Mark replies. “But it’s not a lifetime thing. Your little buddies run out of food and that’s it for me.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I mean be careful, is all.”
Dad hands me a black ski mask across the kitchen table. It matches the rest of the apparel he’s picked out for our evening. His fingers run over crowbars and flashlights, wire-snips, and knives.
“What if we do something else?” I ask, pulling the mask over my face. The tight fabric muffles my words.
“You got a better idea, Hyde? When those labs call you back about your research on algae populations or getting cod to mate faster, let me know. Until then, we’re breaking into the shell shops.” dad replies.
They’re not really shell shops. They sell t-shirts and hoodies. Bottled sand from local beaches. Saltwater taffy. But each tourist shop on every single downtown street sells shells. Queen conchs, polished clams and quahogs, chambered nautilus, sea anemones and starfish dried to a crisp. They sell boiled seahorses to hang on Christmas trees or to adorn cubicle walls. I don’t know what tourists think when they buy these curios—that said seahorse washed up on shore after a long and fulfilling life, only to succumb to old age with his withered wife and thousands of offspring ringing his aquatic hospital bed? No. It’s dredged from the ocean floor along with all of the other still-living organisms. Importers dip them in acid to strip away organic material. It’s what gives the conch its polished look, the nautilus its tentacle-free facade: evolution reduced to a department store trinket.
“The mollusks will still be dead,” I say, testing the tip of a flaying knife. He’s sharpened it. A droplet of blood blossoms from my skin.
“True. They can’t be saved. But routine raids will send the message. Wasted dollars hurt more than a stab in the dark sometimes,” Dad replies. Observing the gathered knives, I don’t know how accurate his statement is. Battle axes and highland claymores would look more appropriate in his hands. The thin lines of skinning knives disappear in his expansive palms.
“What if we paid fishermen to put them back? Your old buddies would do it.”
“If they did, someone else would swoop in behind their boats and pick them up again. It would be a never-ending cycle of us paying people off. You destroy the market, not the worker.”
He sounds like he’s been reading manifestos again. He nudges the checklist across the table. The four shops he plans to hit in Provincetown are written on it. All are on Commercial Street. The storefronts overlook old wharves and private beaches. He wants to work his way down the coast, town by town—Truro, Wellfleet. I’ve told him the police will figure out the pattern. He’s convinced he’ll outsmart them with Moriarty flair. Arguing rarely changes his outlook.
“Memorize it,” he says, pulling on his own ski mask. The tangle of beard froths in a disorderly mess beneath the mask’s boundaries. He hasn’t trimmed it since mom left. She liked fine things. French cuisine. Designer brands. Expanded cable packages. With dad’s reduced income, fourteen channels weren’t cutting it. She remarried a plumber who made ninety bucks an hour.
The radio’s clock reads 2:15 in green glowing numbers. My eyes dart to the rearview and side mirrors on loop, constantly expecting a police car to appear from the shadows. A sour coating lines my tongue. My stomach turns acidic whenever I’m nervous, phlegm and bile backing up my throat. Steely Dan plays through the speakers. Dad whistles the flute lines off-key as we drive down Commercial Street, scouting the area before we enter the stores. His calm only makes me more anxious. The smell of gasoline wafts from the back of the van. Dad tells me not to worry, that he spilled some earlier. But that doesn’t dissolve my headache.
The one-way cobblestone street is abandoned. Even bar lights are mute. Historical storefronts rise three stories, some adorned with murals left in streetlight shadows, others display See You Next Summer signs in windows. Between buildings, waves caress beachfronts, most gated off by chain link fences attached to private homes. Off in the distance, the breakwater’s black stones rise out of the sea, sheltering the harbor from an oncoming surge on some distant date. I feel the weight of equipment in my pants pockets. The crowbar lies across my lap. Since I put it there, I haven’t been able to bring myself to touch the cold steel.
My eyes move from passing tattoo parlors and sex-toy shops, Cape Cod themed novelty stores and art galleries, to the fishing hooks my father has stabbed through the roof lining. The silver barbed question marks glint with each streetlight we duck, another reminder of why we’re here.
“Think about the seahorses,” dad says without taking his eyes off the road. He knows I’m nervous. I’m sure he can smell my sweat dampening my jacket. He knows my senior thesis was on their declining population. I read him my research detailing the black market trade of dried seahorse bodies for use in holistic medicines. All snake oil remedies for circulatory problems and kidney cleanses. My professor said my proposition to increase ocean trafficking laws worldwide would be infeasible, but it was a nice sentiment. You can’t regulate the black market , she told me. Someone would already be taxing them otherwise.
“So, you’ll call me Skipper. You never know if they have surveillance cameras in these places,” my father says, as we circle the rotary at the end of Commercial Street, passing the last hotel in town. “And the last thing we need is to be picked up for a name drop.”
We double back on a parallel road.
“Then what’s my name?” I ask.
“Why do I have to have to be the dumb one?”
“He’s not the dumb one. He’s . . . optimistic. You could use a little of that,” my father says, turning down a side road, neglecting his blinker. Beneath his mask, I know he’s smiling at his “joke”.
The road is lined with remodeled Capes, original single-story houses expanded and renovated into three-story monstrosities. Each supports sky flung decks attempting to snatch a water view over their neighbor’s shoulders. Rainbow flags flap in the wind. Not a single light illuminates a window. I’m sure the plumbing’s been shut down for the winter, rentals only open during the summer months. Dad parks in a driveway of a more contemporary abode, flat stucco facade sticking out like a sore thumb. I try to tell him it might be more beneficial to pick a less obtrusive hiding spot, but he refuses to move.
We dip through the shadows along the sidewalk until we reach the back entrance of Cape Cod Fish and Apparel. He tests the lock, then wedges his crowbar above the latch, throwing his weight into the bent metal. The antique door splinters around the edge, swinging in with an unoiled shriek. I wait for an alarm to sound, but the only noise that makes its way to my ears is the light lap of distant waves. My father’s heavy boots clomp over the floorboards, navigating winding aisles of t-shirts and beach apparel, until he finds the display of arranged conches. Flinging them to the floor, he stomps them underfoot in a near jig, brittle shells pulping in a cloud of dust, crackling like thin pond ice.
“You think we should be a little quieter, Skip ?” I ask, peering through the narrowed slits of my mask.
“The Provincetown Police Department doesn’t even have men working this late. Who’s going to notice?” he asks.
“No one, I guess,” I say, tearing down shelves, the hollow clunk of clams and oysters bounding on the hardwood floor. Beneath my heel, they give out in weak implosions, crab carapaces collapse like paper. The pufferfish is the strangest in its demise, taking on the appearance of a deflated spiny football. I can’t bring myself to boot the seahorses. Dad takes care of them, crumpling them in his fist until they are wadded up in unrecognizable blue-brown lumps. There’s no other option than destruction. Scattering them along the shore wouldn’t send the message.
“Do you remember when you were four and used to mess with the seagulls at Harding’s Beach?” he asks, a clump of dried coral in hand. “You’d get as close as possible, then stomp the sand in front of them. I was sure you’d get carried off one day.”
“Yeah. There was that one bird who bit me, but that’s the closest they came to revenge,” I laugh, touching the scar on my forearm.
“It always surprised me how much that bled,” dad says. “Lessons learned, I guess.”
When the stock is depleted, dad slips a can of spray paint from his belt loop. He rattles the ball bearing around inside the canister to stir up the liquid. Across the back wall, in a crimson smear, he stencils the words Shells are Murder in dripping letters. Then we exit through the unhinged door, leaving it to swing eerily inward with the wind. The next two stores, Andrea’s Aquatic Adventures and Sandcastles R Us, fall in a similar fashion. One’s door was a bit of a challenge until dad broke through the glass with the crowbar and unlatched it by hand. The other we almost believed was inhabited by night clerks who turned out to be an automated deep-sea diver band. My father whistled the flute parts of Steely Dan once again. I imagined the trio was waiting for their cue to accompany him and had to resist dropping a quarter in their animating slot.
The last stop is SeaTrade. The backdoor is off an alley that shares its space with a dance club whose decorations allude to German sex dungeons and the deepest circles of hell.
At the door, my father stops and swings the crowbar into my path. He holds it there, waiting.
“You do it this time, Gilligan,” he says, handing me the bent metal hook. “I want to check something out real quick.”
“What? We’re almost done. Let’s just hit this place and go. ”
“You’ll be fine. Now take it.” He jabs the tool into my palm.
I do as I’m told, slipping the curved end into the space between door and jamb, leveraging the wood until I hear a tearing pop. Dad disappears around the corner of the building as I step inside. Unswept dust and dried brine make me sneeze. The store’s nearly empty. Moonlight falls through the glass, illuminating piles of glossy cowrie shells and coral, puffed sea urchins, and curled seahorses. Abalone and shucked clams sit on the shelves. I upend a table, spilling the contents in a downpour of calcified bone.
I can’t stomp quick enough, my anger at store owners, the tourists, this total misuse of my degree, shifted to the hollow bodies beneath my feet. A curtain of dust rises around me, wrapping me in the scent of the sea. Tears pool in my eyes, irritated either at the dust or the carelessness of my own species. So much unnecessary death. The entire window is decorated with seahorse ornaments, hooks and string looped through their skulls, all dangling from suction cups. I reach out to tear them free, one after another. As I pocket the last, a shadow rises up in the window before me. I jump back, startled, before I realize it’s my father. He raises a red gas jug to the window, gives it a little shake, and starts to pour. I turn and bolt for the door, dredging paths through the heap of shells, scattering them across the floor.
As I round the building, I catch my father’s arm as he cocks it back, a Zippo lighter in hand. Dad has more than a hundred pounds on me, old man muscle heaped up on his forearms and back. Pushing his arm is like leaning into a bank vault door. If he doesn’t want to move, I’m not going to be able to make him. He looks down at me through the slits in his mask, a wry tilt to his head.
“Put that away,” I say. “They’ll get the connection. The other three stores, the smashed shells, the spray paint. It’s basic enough. We don’t need to burn this place down.”
“If it was basic enough, we wouldn’t be out here in the first place. People don’t get it. They’ll get this though,” he says, grip tightening around the Zippo.
“Seriously, this will only make things worse. They’ll label you a nut job and no one wants to support a terrorist.”
At that, I feel his arm give a little, a slackening of muscle.
“But we need to make a statement.”
“We have. Forget the fire. Just spray paint the front window. Make it big, twice the size of the others.”
His thumb flips the lighter’s cap closed. I release his arm. Stepping back, he unloops the spray paint canister from his belt and tosses it to me. Then he turns and runs down the road.
“Take care of this one,” he calls over his shoulder, disappearing towards the beach.
“Come back,” I call to him.
“In a second,” he replies.
I’m left with the spray paint. I shake it lazily, waiting for words to come, some eloquent phrase to embody all my anger and sadness. I see the mechanized bass from my dreams, harbor seals with metal fins. The ball bearing rattles off the insides of the canister, rhythmically clinking in the still night air. I pop the cap and wave the nozzle back and forth, pressing down to release a stream of red haze into the wind. The letters appear in a messy scrawl over the glass, the scent of paint harsh in my nostrils. If they die, We die! As I finish, my father returns, his arms cradling a large scoop of sand. He tosses it onto the puddle of gas pooling around the storefront and sidewalk.
“Can’t just leave it,” he says, staring up at the words I have written. “Not bad. You’ve got to work on your penmanship, though.”
Far away, blue and red lights strobe over distant storefronts. The shrill chirp of a siren echoes down the corridor of close-knit buildings. My father and I look at each other and simultaneously lunge towards the alleyway, sprinting back along side streets and shaded passages. I follow his lead as we retrace our steps past summer rentals and darkened hotel windows. We cross over to Bradford Street and track south to where the contemporary house awaits, our gray van tucked behind a row of arborvitaes, their green needles the only sign of color among leafless trees. The squeal of police sirens is somewhere far off as our engine chokes to life and we rattle off down the street, looping back towards the highway. We pass a rendition of the Marilyn Monroe triptych painted across a wooden garage before merging onto Route 6.
Across the divider, more police cars stream towards Commercial Street, none taking notice of our flight.
In the basement of my rented house, my father and I sit on flipped milk crates. We stare up at three fish tanks I’ve arranged along the concrete walls. Each is six feet long, the salt water a dim gray in color. Strands of seagrass and clumps of brown sargassum float about, some anchored into the sandy bottom, others drifting with the pull of the filter. Pieces from broken lobster pots cluster in their corners, decommissioned from my father’s old business. Lined Seahorses use them for shelter and breeding grounds during their monogamous courtship.
Around seventy of the tan seahorses swim through the water. Some are entwined in the seagrass, others flutter their weak dorsal fins towards the surface. I’ve been breeding them for the last year and a half, hoping to deposit their population back into Cape Cod Bay when the water warms.
My college papers proposed strict bans and hyperactive monitoring. Since I was told it wouldn’t work, I bought the tanks, visiting local pet shops until every seahorse in stock was liquidated. It was the only way I could think to help.
I take down the feeding instruction note I left for Mark: Three scoops of Brine Shrimp a day . I crumple the paper and jam it into my pocket. Inside the denim fold, my hand brushes something dry and spindly. I pull out the seahorse ornament from the store. Its long spiny snout and curled tail are warped from the confined space.
“Got yourself a memento,” my dad says with a chuckle. “You can hang it somewhere.”
“I don’t think I need another reminder,” I reply, thinking back to my nightmares of android sharks. The blurred realities of motorized manatees.
“Then let me have it,” he says, snatching the seahorse from my grip. “I was going to take a piece of the burnt wreckage, but I was deprived of that one.”
“It’s better this way,” I reply, staring up at the seahorses as they maneuver through the forest of eelgrass, lazily making their way towards their lovers.
“I’m not arguing the point. You were right,” he replies. “What time did you say this thing’s going to start?”
I look down at the watch on my wrist. Five o’clock rounds the bend. At dawn, Lined Seahorses perform a courtship dance with their partners. Scientists say it’s how they re-establish their bond every day, reinforcing the connection between male and female. I’m rarely awake to see it happen.
I point towards the bottom corner of the center tank where two seahorses approach one another, their bodies undulating in slow forming S’s. Once they reach each other, they wind their prehensile tails together like humans holding hands. They swim in tight circles, brushing seaweed in their fluttering waltz. Through the rest of the tank, others mimic the routine, pairing off, their bodies colliding with intricate and sudden flicks of their fins.
Dad doesn’t look away. He doesn’t notice as my eyes drift from the tank to him. He peers up into the illuminated depths like a child at an aquarium, his black robber’s mask clutched in one fist. I want to thank him for dragging me out of my pacifism, but I don’t want to ruin the show. It’s rare for anyone to witness something like this.