Beverly decided to walk down to the beach. She knew she wasn’t supposed to. She had been given strict orders by her daughter never to attempt the outside stairs without help, let alone to cross the lawn, cross the street, or go onto the beach. But.
It was such a beautiful day.
Only rarely in the spring did the Pacific Northwest get a day like this. “It would be a sin to waste this day sitting inside,” she said to the picture of her husband, Herb.
He was chuckling. “Oh, it would, would it?” he seemed to say.
“Yes, it would,” she replied firmly.
Beverly prepared for her outing. Old polyester slacks. If they got dirty, she wouldn’t care. T-shirt, because it was at least 75 degrees. Sweatshirt, because the breeze might be chilly. Scarf tied firmly over her bristly white hair. Sunglasses. Bottle of water. She stopped at the door, knowing she was missing something. Shoes. She sat down on the chair by the door and took off her slippers. She contemplated the two pairs of canvas shoes she kept there. The nicer-looking ones fit better but had to be tied on. Her feet were such a long way down. She took the easier course and chose the slip-ons. They were ratty-looking and she wouldn’t mind getting them wet.
As she edged her way down the outside stairs, holding on tightly to the iron railing, she reflected that the shoes might have been a mistake. Her feet—praise God—were not a bit swollen or sore today. However, she had worn light socks and the slip-ons were a bit loose. But the thought of going back up five stairs and sitting down and changing shoes and coming down the five stairs… no. She continued her careful shuffle and made it safely to the bottom. Ha!
She stood for a minute, catching her breath and looking out at the water. The ferry to Vashon Island was passing, a few seagulls accompanying it. Someone must be feeding them. She could see no whitecaps at all, not even on the unprotected waters beyond Yukon Harbor. She was glad she had worn the T-shirt. A shadow passed over her and she looked up to see a kingfisher land on the telephone wire along the road. He perched there, contemplating the water.
“Good luck,” Beverly called up to him. Now, where was her walking stick? Argh. All the way across the carport. Her grandson must have been playing with it. Probably James, who would wear his brown robe and pretend to be Gandalf. She shuffled carefully across the cement floor and grasped the smooth wood with relief. Now she could attempt the lawn. The neighbors must have been mowing. The air smelled of freshly cut grass and lilacs.
Beverly tilted her head back and scanned the sky. No eagles, no osprey, no hawks, no herons. Just a couple of seagulls and a crow. She lowered her head and applied herself to the task at hand. She could hear Herb’s voice: “Would you please stop looking at the sky and watch where you’re going?”
“Yes, yes,” she muttered as she marched across the lawn. “If you’d put in the path I wanted years ago, this would be easier. All this lawn makes no sense.” It was an old argument, which she had seen no reason to terminate simply because he was dead. “Look at those geese on the neighbors’ lawn. That’s all a lawn is good for.”
“And you like watching the geese!” her husband would say.
It was true. They could be nasty creatures, but the rarely seen goslings were a delight. And there was something about the self-confidence of the mature geese which appealed to her. Like crows. So cocky and sure of themselves. And the blue herons, which reminded her of English butlers. She always called herons “Jeeves” or “Carson.”
She had reached the road. She stopped, panting a little as she looked both ways. It had been so much less busy when the kids had been young. She worried constantly about the grandkids when they were on the beach. When the ferry traffic came through, their formerly quiet street was like a highway. No traffic now, though. She marched across, imagining that she looked like a goose—rear end waddling. Not that she was fat, but things did tend to sag, no matter how much she tried to exercise.
When she reached the safety of the other side, she stopped and looked back. Was she being observed? It was the middle of a workday, so most of the neighbors would be gone. But there were some who might feel it their civic duty to call Beverly’s daughter and report this forbidden activity. There were advantages and disadvantages to having lived in the same place for forty years. Her daughter had said, “I’ve asked the Stanleys to keep an eye on you. I don’t want you to go down to the beach at all, but I know you will, so I’ll put in a railing.”
She had done that last summer. Beverly had looked into her daughter’s eyes and bitten back her sharp retort. Behind her daughter’s pomposity Beverly had seen the love and worry.
Beverly edged her way down the boat ramp, hanging on to the railing on the left side, and stepped, at last, onto the pebbly beach. She drew a deep breath of pride and sea air. Salt water, seaweed, fish—they had been the scent of home all her life. She had never wanted to live anywhere but the Pacific Northwest. She liked to travel, but this was home. Her daughter wanted her to move into a nursing home, and Beverly knew it would be necessary soon. But not quite yet, please God. Not quite yet.
Beverly edged her way alongside the ramp until it was high enough for her to prop her butt against it. She rested there, looking down at the dried seaweed and rough sand, broken shells, rocks, driftwood and bits of broken glass. The sun was glinting on the water so brightly it was hard to look at even with her sunglasses. She could see Mount Baker very faintly through a far-off haze. A couple of sailboats passed in front of Blake Island. Old pilings to her left were all that remained of the business that had been done here—long before her time—in lumber and bricks and fishing. One brown gull bobbed past her.
A bit of a walk, Beverly told herself—and then she had to argue with her husband about it. “I won’t go far,” she promised him, “just to the pilings.”
“Remember that you have to come back again!” he insisted.
She shuffled carefully over the pebbles, cursing her loose shoes. Below her feet, dried seaweed and sand, broken shells, rocks of all sizes, pieces of brick, driftwood, seaweed of tan, green, brown, red, broken glass in various stages of polish, dead crabs—ooooh. Beverly flinched back in surprise as a moon snail shell moved and a hermit crab scuttled in front of her. Beverly’s floppy shoe went one way and her foot the other. She slammed her stick into the ground on the water side, trying to regain her balance, but the stick hit a barnacle-clad rock instead and stuck, then slipped. With a screech and a howl, Beverly crashed to her side where she lay, gasping, wondering if anything was broken.
Her head was ringing a bit, but she could still see clearly. She was angled toward the water, and her feet were up the beach. The slope was slight, but there was a definite tilt to her body. Her walking stick was half underneath her, as was the pocket which held the water bottle. She could feel them digging into her side. Her sunglasses had come off and lay, one lens cracked, about a foot away—right next to the crab, who Beverly eyed with disfavor. “This is all your fault.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Beverly blinked. Conversations with her husband, she figured, were a not-unreasonable eccentricity for an elderly widow. Talking to a hermit crab, however… “Did you… speak?”
The crab stepped out of his moon snail shell and approached her. Beverly pulled her head back uneasily.
“I feel it necessary to defend myself,” said the crab with dignity. “You invaded my territory AND you nearly stepped on me, and you conclude it is MY fault that you fell?”
Beverly closed her eyes. Clearly she had hit her head harder than she had realized. Keeping her eyes closed, she took inventory, making slight movements of all extremities. Everything seemed to be working without any more than the usual arthritic pain. Her head ached, but she wasn’t aware of any disorientation. She knew she had fallen on her beach, and she knew she needed to get up before the tide came in. “I need to get up,” she said.
“Please do,” said the small, precise voice.
Beverly opened her eyes. “I’ve never had a conversation with a crab before,” she said with a sigh. “But I suppose there’s a first time for everything.”
“Cliché,” said the crab disapprovingly.
“Excuse me?” It was bad enough to talk to a crab, but to be criticized for what she said was beyond all!
“A trite or overused idea,” continued the crab. “An obvious and overused statement.” He had large, oval, black eyes on short stalks, and white markings on his legs. He was about two inches wide, and the inside of his shell was pearly with an iridescent glow.
Beverly attempted diplomacy. “Your shell is beautiful.”
“MUST you say so? I would rather not speak of it.”
“But why not? Don’t you like it?”
The crab tapped his front leg against a rock petulantly. “Can you not see that I have outgrown it? I must move into a new one, and I am exTREMEly upset about it!”
“Ahh.” Leave it to me, Beverly thought, to start up a conversation with an excitable, depressed, melodramatic hermit crab. “Herb,” she muttered, “I think I need some help here.”
“Who is Herb?”
“For a creature with no discernible ears, you have excellent hearing.”
“YOU have poor discernment.”
Beverly abandoned diplomacy. “Herb is my husband, and he is far more pleasant to talk to than you are.”
The crab tapped his front leg again. “I surmise that Herb is not here.”
“Herb is wherever he wishes to be. Herb is dead.”
“Then it is not surprising that your conversations with him are pleasant. They are imaginary.”
Beverly had had enough. “You are not nice.” She attempted to pull her right arm and the walking stick out from under her. She rolled backward and pulled forward, but very little seemed to happen. She was uneasily aware of the rhythmic swish and slurp of the waves approaching her head.
She could hear the buzz of a motorboat, but she knew there was no way they could see her. She had not worn her neon vest, which she was supposed to wear whenever she went in the yard. She could remember when it had been she who had given the orders: “Wear your jacket! If you ride your bike, you must wear your helmet!” A long time ago.
Beverly swallowed thirstily. Maybe she could get her arm out if she let go of the stick? But then how would she get up without the stick? But how would she get up without her arm? She rolled back, let go of the stick, and pulled her arm forward a couple of inches. “Agh,” she moaned with the sharp pain of it. So she had damaged something, after all. Hard to say just what—elbow? shoulder? The pain seemed all over her right side now. The water bottle pressing against her side was doubly torturous—first because it hurt, and second because she was so thirsty.
“Why should I be?”
She had forgotten the crab. “Why should you be what?”
“Why not? Life is short!” I must be hallucinating, she thought.
“Have you ever thought about why clichés become clichés?” snapped Beverly. “It’s because they are true!”
“A human-centric way of thinking,” grumbled the crab. “The sea has been here for millions of years.”
“It’s all relative,” said Beverly. “I know, I know—cliché. Do you have anything useful to contribute? If not, why don’t you go away?”
“Because,” said the crab, “you are lying against the shell I was inTENDing to make my new home.”
“Well, I am sorry about that, but I may be here awhile, and I’m sure you can find another.”
“Again, a ridiculously human-centric thing to say.” The crab tapped his foot on his current home. “Unbroken shells larger than this one are not easy to come by. And unoccupied ones are nearly impossible. I have spent a lot of time cleaning this one—as you mentioned, it has developed a spectacular sheen due to my labor.” He turned around. “I can’t talk about this.” He went slowly back to the shell and crawled inside.
Beverly could see now that the shell was not large enough for him. No matter how he tried, he could not get all the way inside.
“I am sorry,” she said. “My daughter wants me to move out of my home, so I know how you feel.”
“And will you have to fight someone for a new one?” he demanded, his back to her, his voice echoing hollowly.
“No, of course not!”
“As I said. Human-centric. Just because you must leave your home, you think you understand my sorrow and fear, but you will not have to risk losing your leg—or your life—in acquiring a new home.” He turned around. “Will you?”
Beverly was suitably humbled. “That’s true.”
“Even worse would be if more than one crab hears about my plight. There could be a free-for-all of crabs fighting for new homes, each one hoping to move up to a better standard of living.”
“Oh, dear. If you’ll excuse my saying so, that seems very uncivilized for a creature as obviously erudite as you are.” Did you hear that, Herb? I used the word ‘erudite.’ You taught me that one—seven letters, means showing great learning.
The crab ventured a few steps out of his shell, obviously pleased. “Well,” he said, “I am not an average crab.”
“I didn’t think so.” Beverly became aware that the top of her head was a little damp from spray. “Mr. Crab, if you have any suggestions that will get me upright, it would be beneficial for both of us.” Beverly attempted to roll again, and the pain made her vision go black for a moment.
“Can you whistle?”
“Pardon me?” she gasped.
“That idiot dog which belongs to your neighbor is currently polluting your yard. If you whistle, he’ll probably come and bark at you—if he doesn’t get hit by a car. Either way, it may draw some attention.” A seagull landed suddenly by Beverly’s head. “Oh, shit,” said the crab, and withdrew into his shell as far as he was able.
“Yah! Yah!” screeched Beverly. She flapped her left arm wildly and the seagull squawked and flew off.
“Thank you,” said the crab.
“You’re welcome. I’m Beverly.” She waved her left hand at him.
“I am Winston.”
“I will attempt a whistle, but my mouth may be too dry. And if that obnoxious terrier gets hit by a car, I’ll feel dreadfully guilty.” She tried to whistle, but only a squeak emerged from her parched lips.
“Is that a bottle of water?” Winston pointed with his largest claw.
“Yes, but I can’t reach it.” Beverly attempted again to reach across herself for the stick or the bottle, but she couldn’t quite reach either, and she was extremely reluctant to try another roll.
Winston scuttled forward. After several attempts, he managed to get his largest claw clamped around the neck of the bottle. He dragged it forward an inch, then two. Beverly grasped the top with her left hand. She drew it with difficulty to her mouth and twisted the cap off with her teeth. Water spilled out, but she managed to pour some into her mouth. “Ahhhh,” she sighed. “Winston, you’re a genius.”
“Whistle,” prompted Winston.
Beverly pursed her lips and after a couple of squeaks produced a shrill whistle. Almost immediately she could hear the terrier yipping excitedly as it came her way. Beverly closed her eyes, praying not to hear the skid of a car. There was none. Winston scrambled into his shell as the dog dashed over to them, sand flying from his small paws, his frantic yelping music to Beverly’s ears. Only a few minutes later she heard Mr. Stanley’s irritated monologue: “Shut up, you damn dog, what the hell are you doing over here? Boomer, you mutt, you know the wife’ll give you grief if she catches you over here, and she’ll give me even more grief if you get smacked by a car, so just stop your caterwauling and—Beverly!”
Beverly closed her eyes and pretended to be unconscious so as not to have to deal with the worried questions and the scolding. There would be enough of that later. Right now she was just too tired. Soon enough Mr. Stanley had called for help on his cell phone, and he went up to the road to signal the ambulance. The terrier bounced back and forth between him and Beverly, unable to stand the excitement of his importance. To her relief, the dog eventually decided he was needed more beside the road, and he ran up, yipping excitedly at every car and being sworn at by Mr. Stanley.
Beverly opened her eyes. “Thank you so much, Winston,” she whispered. “I hope I didn’t damage your shell.”
The crab emerged cautiously. “You didn’t. I can see it.”
“Well, why don’t you get it then?”
“I was going to, but your plight distracted me.” If a crab could look sheepish, he did.
“Well, I’m glad of that, but get it now, for heaven’s sake. Before the ambulance guys stomp all over here getting me off this beach!”
“I’m afraid of the dog.”
“I’ll take care of the dog,” said Beverly grimly.
Winston came forward and grasped the shell, which was just in front of Beverly’s thigh. Winston began backing away, towing his prize. Boomer chose this inopportune moment to check on his find and dashed back to Beverly, yelping. Setting her lips determinedly, Beverly raised her left arm and with perfect timing, managed to scoop up the dog as he attempted to run past her. She grasped him close as Winston slipped into his new home and scurried into the water.
“Goodbye, Beverly! Good luck in your new home!”
“You too! And thank you! Thank you, thank you so much!”
“Beverly,” cried Mr. Stanley, and she could hear him crunching across the beach. “You’re conscious! There’s no need to thank the damn dog, he has no idea what he’s done! How are you feeling? And what the hell were you doing down here, anyway?”
“Talking to a hermit crab.”
“Finding inner peace,” said Beverly.
She could hear other footsteps, and Mr. Stanley said, “I think she’s delirious.”
“Probably dehydrated,” said a new voice.
“I am not a bit dehydrated,” said Beverly. “My water bottle is right here.” Herb, she thought, I believe I’ll be moving out of our home soon. I hope you won’t mind.
“Mind?” said Herb, “Why should I mind? Home is just a place to hang your hat!”
“Cliché,” murmured Beverly. “And human-centric, too.”
Susan McDonough-Wachtman has been writing since grade school. She’s written children’s stories, short stories, romances, historicals, essays, fantasies, mysteries, science fiction, numerous letters to the editor and a blog called Renaissance Sue.
She’s been a burger tosser, customer service rep, ad taker, curriculum developer, parent, teacher, reader and gardener. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with two cats and one husband.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Crabby Converse”
In “Crabby Converse” author Susan McDonough-Wachtman takes us on a delightful and wistful journey that shows that the indomitable human spirit never dies even in our later years. This piece reminds us that memories are what we create during our lives and that those memories and our imagination are what keep us alive and moving in our world, no matter how it changes around us.