by Margaret Mendel
The changing seasons are subtle in San Francisco, but in the spring the days begin to stay light longer, and the ocean’s current pushes a saltier smell ashore. It was 1967. I had been living in the Bay Area for a little over a year when one April evening I went to Fisherman’s Wharf to buy a crab for dinner. I’d recently separated from my husband, James, who several months earlier joined up with a group of hippies and moved in with another woman. We hadn’t been married two years yet. His actions wounded me deeply and after I’d spent a couple weeks crying, I became comfortable with being alone. In fact, I welcomed it.
I climbed aboard the Van Ness Avenue bus, rode it down to the bay’s edge, and got off several blocks from the fishmongers’ stalls. The bay stretched out in front of me, a turbulent, gray sheet of water. Alcatraz looked closer to shore than usual, but then I supposed that it was just the evening light playing tricks on the rough water.
I took the shortcut through a back alley where the old Ghirardelli chocolate factory was being turned into mall. Construction debris was everywhere. Streetlamps flickered off and on, casting long undulating shadows across the street. Bricks and large sand piles blocked much of the sidewalk, forcing me to be mindful of where I stepped. One window on the top floor of the partially renovated building caught the spark of the dimming sunset and reflected a brilliant amber light. The other windows in the building, untouched by the falling sunlight, looked to be cold, black holes.
“Hello there,” a voice called to me. I could just make out the figure of a man holding a briefcase standing in the doorway of the vacant building. A shadow fell across the top half of his body and only his legs and part of the valise were visible.
He stepped into the street, walked toward me, and said, “I need assistance.”
“What can I do for you?” I replied.
His was a clean-shaven, older man dressed in a suit. Probably a lost tourist, I decided.
“Well, you see, I’m opening a stationery store on the second floor of this mall. I need some advice from a person like you, who might use the store.” He put his briefcase down and pointed to the floor just above where we were standing.
“I don’t know anything about stationery stores,” I replied.
“You don’t need to know anything about stationeary stores. I just want your opinion on its location. That’s all.”
I certainly had no intentions of going into that deserted building with a stranger and I said, “You should get someone else.”
The sun had quickly set. All the windows in the building now reflected a cold darkness. At either end of the block, I saw crowds of people milling about as the streetlamps began to glow brightly. But no one walked down the street where I stood.
“I can’t help you.” And I turned to walk away.
The man stepped forward and I thought he was about to grab my arm. “Wait, don’t go,” he said. There was a sharp tone in his voice. “I want a young person’s opinion. Someone like you.”
“I’m not going into that building with you.” I thought that would be enough said and he’d leave me alone.
“Oh, now I see. Look, I am a married man. I’ve got a wife and a couple of kids. I wouldn’t do anything wrong.” He smiled, but rather than looking friendly, he appeared to be offering me a challenge.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t. But I’m not going in there.”
I wondered why I didn’t just walk away from this man. I searched his eyes for a clue why I continued to stand there, talking to him on this dark, deserted street and a chill crept up my spine when I thought about going into that building with this stranger.
Then his briefcase caught my attention and I wondered what could be inside. A shot of fear raced through me and I imagined instruments of torture. In an instant, I visualized my death. I saw my body lying among the rubble in the construction site and I realized that when I had first seen him I thought he looked like a spider suspended in the doorway. Now I envisioned him moving toward me, cautiously, trying to lure me into his web. I stood just outside his reach; playing the innocent as he attempted to bring me into his lair.
In a fraction of a second, I imagined myself locked in a stinging dance of death with this stranger. I was his victim, tangled and wrapped in a web, constructed of my own stupid naivety.
“Get someone else to give you an opinion,” I said, wrenching myself from his hypnotic spell and hurried up the block.
“Wait, wait, I won’t do anything wrong. I really just want your opinion,” he shouted after me.
I kept walking, careful not to stumble on the construction rubble. When I got to the end of the block, I glanced back to see if he had followed me. He was nowhere in sight. Another shot of terror ran through me and I imagined him returning to the doorway of the building, waiting, watching for another unsuspecting victim to walk past, where he would attempt to entice another prey into the building.
My heart pounded and I felt a deep sense of relief arriving at the well-lit end of the wharf. “You fool,” I berated myself in a half whisper. “Why did you even stop and talk to that man? When are you going to wise up?”
Throngs of people moved about, shoulder to shoulder, chatting and pointing at the mounds of cooked crabs and shrimp. The steam from the boiling cauldrons of water fluffed around the different cooking stations, giving the place an eerie look as darkness settled onto the bay. Sweaty men, smelling of cooked seafood, called out to the tourists to buy their crabs. I maneuvered my way through the crowd where the smells and excited talking filled my ears and nose with sensations of the living.
From a mound of freshly cooked crabs I picked out my dinner, a large, bright orange indigenous crab with a full set of claws and legs. When the merchant turned the crab over for me to get a complete view of my purchase, I saw that I had chosen a female, with its broad underside tail closely hugging the contour of her belly. In one motion, the merchant pulled back the tail, lifted it firmly at the point where the tail joined the back shell, and pulled off the belly section. Steam burst out of the crab’s freshly cooked body and its juices dripped into a sink. The steam quickly disappeared into the night air, adding to the smells of the wharf that teased and taunted both tourists and seagulls.
The crab was rinsed while the legs dangled in a strange pose of limp resignation. Then, once the crab had been wrapped in newspaper and shoved into a plastic bag, I held my dinner, ready to be taken home.
Walking back to the bus stop, I avoided the dark street where I had encountered the stranger. I would have no choice but to pass the building under construction, but I took the longer route this time and stayed on the lighted sidewalk. As I went past the building, I imagined the stranger still standing in the doorway. He was like the devil, I mused. And with that thought, my imagination got away from me again. I could not keep myself from distorting his image. He became nonhuman, a messenger from Hell, who could take whatever appearance necessary to capture his victims.
I was scaring myself and I wanted to stop thinking. My heart began to thud loudly again. Had I encountered a demonic being? Had the devil actually come to gather me up? Maybe that was the way these things happened. The healthy are taken by strangers, ominous strangers who pose as normal people, and gather up the unsuspecting victims. Was tonight my night to die?
I realized my logic was screwy and that fear rather than clear thinking had taken over. I looked up at the top floor windows, and then quickly turned away again. I did not want to see if he was standing up there in an open area watching for me, following me as I made my way to the bus stop. Then I really freaked out and wondered if he would follow me home.
I quickened my pace.
Reaching the bus stop, I stood under the streetlight and found comfort in knowing that I’d be home in a short while, where I could lock the door. I blamed the shadows. They were exciting my imagination. I leaned on the lamppost, wishing the evening were warmer. I wanted to touch something warm, something living, and something comforting.
I heard footsteps, and saw the long shadow of a man come up the street, moving toward me in steady, even strides. The pulse pounded in my throat. It’s him, I thought. He’s coming to get me.
I could not take my eyes off the shadow, as a man dressed in a dark suit and carrying a briefcase approached closer and closer. Will he just touch me? I wondered. Will I feel a sharp sting, fall to the ground and everyone will think I died from a heart attack? My pulse raced faster as the apparition came closer.
When the shadowy figure reached the glow of the streetlight where I stood, the man with a briefcase, totally unaware of my fear of him, walked past me without saying a word. He walked through the lighted area, then back out the other side. He continued walking up the block and then disappeared into the night.
I felt foolish and wished I could stop my absurd visions from frightening me, but my mind had gotten out of control. A bus pulled up, I jumped on, grateful to be moving. I glanced out the window several times and thought I saw the stranger walking on the street. Another time I thought I saw the stranger driving a car. I made one transfer from the bus to a Market Street trolley, got off at my stop and walked the short block to my place.
Once inside my apartment, I wasted no time in locking the door, though out of a macabre curiosity I pulled back the curtains to look out and see if the stranger waited for me on the street. I saw no one.
Unwrapping my dinner, the aroma of the sea reached up and touched me, gently, almost as though it were a hand softly shaking me, reminding me of what had happened earlier that evening. And again I saw the image of the stranger coming towards me. Had I really been able to elude death tonight? I looked at the crab and wondered if this would be my last meal. Would there be a knock at the door, with the stranger standing on the other side, waiting to take me?
With trepidation and relish I picked up the crab, broke open the legs and ate a juicy claw. I picked out the meat with my fingers. The crustacean tasted like the ocean. Sucking out the meat and juices, I emptied the legs of everything, leaving hollow shells piled neatly in one corner of the newspaper.
Eating took the edge off my fear and mercifully for a brief time I forgot about the stranger who could be lurking outside in the dark. I licked my fingers and methodically opened the crab’s body, crushing the tiny compartments that hid the carcass’s most fleshy part and picked out the long fibrous meat with the end of one of the crab’s legs. What a shame this poor creature comes with its own picks. And I diligently dug into every crevice, pulling out the precious tidbits. Licking my fingers again, I felt a trickle of crab juice ran down my arm. I paid it no mind, but continued to eat uninterrupted, the feast that had possibly brought the devil to my door.
After I sucked out every last bit of meat from the crab’s body, the remains lay scattered on the newspaper. I picked up the body once again and inspected it, making sure that nothing had resisted my search. I sucked long and hard on one section and stuck my tongue into a tiny compartment to taste for any hidden morsels still left in the carcass. Nothing remained but shells, crushed and mangled and sucked dry.
I had been sitting on the couch, using a low bench as my dining table and I lay back on the cushions, sated and completely relaxed. “That old devil’s going to have to come and get me because I can’t move,” I said, and put my legs up on the couch, closed my eyes and thought that if I had to die, this was the way I wanted to go. And then I fell asleep.
The next morning, I awoke and, much to my surprise and pleasure, I had lived through the night. The sun radiated a bright sunflower yellow through the curtains and even though I smelled of crab juice, I felt fresh and clean, maybe a little foolish about the night before. But I noticed a change in me. During the night I had resolved something. I felt as though the weighty problems that had been gnawing at me during my marriage were gone. Not only did my mind feel unburdened, my limbs now moved about effortlessly as I quickly closed up the remains of the crab into the newspaper and took the bundle outside.
“The cats’ll have a good old time with this garbage today,” I said as I dumped the package into the trashcan.
The garbage was in the alley just outside my back porch. I looked around, curious to see if anything was different about the surroundings. I saw no lurking stranger, no signs of attempted forced entry. Nothing had been disturbed.
I sighed deeply and walked back into my apartment. It felt great to be alive.
Brushing my hair back from my face, I smelled the crab odor still on my hands. I washed them, looking out the kitchen window and decided to go to the park with my drawing pad and pencil. I made no coffee or ate breakfast and picked up my art supplies and a jacket and went out into the sunshine, out into the world that had been terrifying the night before. Today, I had nothing in the universe to fear.
Two weeks later, James came to see me unexpectedly. We hadn’t had much contact since we’d separated. He looked the same. We talked about the unseasonable hot spell and the student demonstrations on the college campus where he now worked in a bookstore.
“I want you to come back,” James said when our trivial chatter had lapsed. His head was bowed, his voice shaky.
“What do you mean you want me to come back?”
“I’m sorry I hurt you. I don’t know what got into me. I was terrible, I know. Please forgive me, please.” Tears began to run down his face.
I felt manipulated and angered. I could feel the blood surging up into my neck. My face felt flushed. “How dare you come crying to me, after all you’ve done,” I snapped.
“I really want you to come back. It’ll be different this time, I promise.” He ignored my angry comment, and wiping at his tears, he managed a smile. Then he walked over to me, took my hand in his, and said, “Please come back.”
He rubbed the top of my hand, and, leaning forward, he kissed me tenderly on the mouth. His lips were warm and soft, but something about his touch felt cold. I thought my old anger and emotional hurt had left me feeling this chill. Yet, I still thought it was my duty to attempt to make the marriage work. So that night I entered once again into the role of wife, though I wanted to tell James, “No! Not now. I’m too happy to be married to you again.
I don’t remember saying this. Perhaps I didn’t even consciously think it. And I went back to my old life with James. We made love that night. But a shift had occurred in our relationship. At the time I did not know this — because our bodies were so close that first night — I couldn’t tell if James had really been transformed, or if it was I who had changed. Nothing was clear to me back then; after all, it hadn’t been all that long ago that I had eluded the devil.