Fiction: Shrimp House

by Eleanor Stern

When she’d lived a modest number of years and already felt exhausted at the abundance of them stretching before her, Marty’s parents kicked the bucket. Marty and her mother and father had months before evacuated to this new and better city when a hurricane threatened to ravage their own. The hurricane did its ravaging. It tore the city to bits, killed it and flooded it like a hungry, spitting animal. Marty’s parents shook their heads, saw how their old house had filled with water, and settled down in their new city. They put little Marty in school and thought they might celebrate the end of those awful months with dinner. A truck struck them while they hurried across the street to make their reservation. At the moment when the truck collided with her father’s left arm, Marty was biting down on a glob of canned peach with her small teeth. The can had been opened by the hands of Jessica the babysitter. Sweet Jessica would be the one to tell Marty what had happened the next morning, twisting her frizz of unbrushed hair around her finger, slipping the news to the child as gently as if it were another shimmering bit of peach. Marty frowned. She did not cry. After seeing satellite photographs of her home brimming with sludgy water, after hearing whispers of sharks swimming down her old street, Marty simply wanted to lie down and rest. She felt very jealous of her dead parents and her dead city. Tired and much heavier than she looked, Marty already wanted to die too, if only to get the messy business out of the way.

There was nowhere for Marty and her parents to go but back to the city from which they’d come. The one they’d left months ago, at night, in the thick silence that comes before a storm. Back then, Marty had slept in the backseat while her father drove. She returned to the city  in a freezing airplane. At the same moment, another plane flew her parents along the same route. Two new dead bodies and one living one arrived in a city that was itself like a corpse, and when Marty’s plane dropped onto the runway, waking her from a nap, she assumed for a moment that she had died too.

 At her parents’ memorial service she hugged her uncle, who looked like her father but was not. She found this disgusting. It was as if someone had propped up her father’s body and dressed it in a suit. Before the storm Marty saw her uncle and his beautiful smooth-skinned wife only on special occasions where she’d lean on her uncle’s bulging stomach. Now she was off to live with them, and she did not lean on her uncle during the ceremony. They buried Marty’s parents that day in a cemetery near her old house. When Marty passed the house on the way to the burial it lay dead and bloated. After the funeral she rode with her aunt and uncle to their new house, the one they’d moved to when the hurricane soaked theirs.

The new house sat on a big dirt lot on the edge of the ruined city. Marty worried that it would fall off the edge of the planet. Every morning after the funeral she woke up feeling like sat between the ribs of a bear, having been swallowed but by some cruel calculation still unable to die. After her uncle’s beautiful wife had fed her a limp waffle or some cereal, Marty would go to the front room, in which a white column rose spinelike from the marble floor. She’d walk in a circle around the column until lunch, holding it with one hand, hoping she’d step out on the other side and see something really exciting— something that would shock the life back into her. All she ever saw, no matter how many times she circled the column or in which direction, was the  staircase rising to the second floor and the set of dark double-doors that nobody ever used. 

Outside, the city stirred and sat up. Its tired people put their dead into the ground and they sang songs to mourn them. Some of them painted over the waterlines on their houses. Others let those lines show, as a reminder. In the houses next door, Marty’s neighbors told one another stories about all the things they had lost. Some people had lost a mother or a brother or a dog. Some lost dignity and others photographs and some of them lost their goddamn minds. On her walk to school Marty watched them pass around their grief, paint it new colors, glaze it bright, and she said not one word: she was waiting for her parents to come back. Every day might be the day they’d rejoin her in the newly risen city. 

Soon enough, the city got shiny and expensive in some places. Newcomers poured in, tempted by the strangeness of the undead place, and who can blame them? Marty didn’t go back to her old neighborhood much but she did once, with her aunt, and her aunt said, God knows your parents wouldn’t have been able to buy that house, not the way this block is getting these days.” At this Marty stayed silent, thinking that her parents might have to find a new place to live when they returned. And she knew, with every ounce of her pumping blood, that when her parents and her city had both come back to life, she would come alive too. The cold numb that had settled on her months before would warm and evaporate. 

But the neighbors kept talking and the city kept pumping and Marty saw that her parents would not come back. Instead of getting together with the neighbors to hear them recite where they’d gone and how they’d found out about the flood and when they’d gotten back, Marty stayed dead quiet. She could not even seem to mourn along with all the other mourners in town, because, after all, her parents had not been killed in the storm. They had been taken not by flood or wind but by coincidence, in a city they’d chosen after betraying their own. Marty felt a kicking, snorting shame at this betrayal of theirs. So she hung back, did not swap stories of exile and loss and return like the others. She walked round and round her column instead.

Even though the column did nothing but disappoint Marty, she liked it. It helped her move from hour to hour. The shame still kicked and shoved, but the column helped her maneuver around it. This was how she thought of the beautiful aunt who heated the limp waffles in the toaster. The aunt and the column made the heavy days of Marty’s life feel lighter. She’d find more of these things as she grew, adding them to a mental inventory. At school she added Sascha and his dark unibrow to her inventory. They even kissed once behind the cafeteria trailer. She also added: the aftertaste of strawberry yogurt at lunch, the sound of an “R” in her Spanish teacher’s mouth, and the distant smell of burnt wood (this was left over from the same fire that had licked through the school, just after the hurricane, and forced the administrators to move the cafeteria into a trailer). So Marty survived, like a dog licking up spills under the table. But she stayed numb. She had never loved, and she would not love for many years, until the day she entered Shrimp House.


She did not want to go to Shrimp House. As she grew, Marty became better at mining fragments of energy. She had her strategies. At school she’d tense every muscle in her body and hold it until it hurt before she relaxed back into the desk. At sleepovers she’d look for a bathtub, since her uncle’s house had none, then disappear to take the hottest bath she could until her head went sugary and her heart drummed in her calves. Then she’d sit on the toilet naked until her lightheadedness faded and she almost felt like a person. By the end of eighth grade she had nearly forgotten how tired she was, how much she wanted to die and be buried near her parents. But her first week of high school wore her energy thin. Marty, tall for her age and still heavier than she looked, walked to Shrimp House with a backpack stuffed to bursting.

“I asked Rob and he said go ahead, start tomorrow, be there at 3:45,” her uncle had said the night before in the kitchen. Marty rarely needed spending money. She usually felt too tired to go to movies or buy Icees at the 7-11 by school. Still, her uncle had been hounding her about getting a job. He’d ended up just getting one for her, as a bus-girl in the restaurant his buddy Rob ran. 

“I wouldn’t have got where I am,” he’d said, gesturing at the house, “if I hadn’t had all those summer jobs scooping ice cream. Alright. Enough of that, time for me to head to bed.”  The hug he gave Marty then had such tenderness that it made Marty wish she loved her uncle. Her uncle loved her. She was the child of his dead brother, and he’d cared for her, bought her large fries when she asked for a medium, hugged her every night, gotten her a job at Rob’s place. But she could summon only guilt and water-thin affection while she hugged him back and promised to show up, 3:45 tomorrow.

Marty had never met Rob or eaten at his restaurant. He spoke in a Vietnamese accent and had one very muscular arm. The other arm was only a little muscular. Marty did not love Rob any more than she loved her uncle, but she did like him right away.

“Come on in, I’ll take that, welcome to Shrimp House,” Rob said, yanking Marty’s backpack from her back with his muscly arm. The place lay in a quiet strip mall, and the August afternoon sun made the smears on its windows glow. “Chinese Food: Shrimp House,” said the sign outside. The place was nearly empty, with a couple of slow middle-aged men dotting the tables. It did not serve Chinese food. The menu had a couple of dishes that looked Vietnamese, but most of it seemed vaguely Italian. It looked like the sort of place where you’d go to give yourself food poisoning. 

Since there was never much for Marty to do at work, she had plenty of time to screw around in the kitchen with Rob and Rob’s weird, quiet adult son Daniel. All she had to do was throw on a hat and wash a couple of dishes, and then she got to watch Rob cook the shrimp. These he knocked from blocky bags in the restaurant freezer. They slipped free, frozen into great dead tangles. The skillet’s bubble bath of butter and garlic accepted the shrimp tails with grace. Marty would lean her head to the side and watch the clots of shrimp shed their gray translucency and twist into the loveliest pink animals. The moment she watched Rob cook shrimp she wanted to be like them. The shrimp started off cold and without feeling. And then, somehow, they turned delicious and alive. They curled like buttery question marks, and Marty imagined that they had a great curiosity about the world, having been reborn into it, and that they looked around themselves with love and wonder. She loved them back, as she had loved nothing for years.

Her love for them did not prevent her from eating the shrimp. Rob would let her sit at a table in the front of the restaurant when business deflated to nothing. He’d give her a bowl of shrimp on top of noodles or rice or between slices of bread, bristling with green herbs. They tasted fantastic, and though she loved them she felt no guilt, since Marty understood that they had been reborn in order to be delicious, in order to commune with the hands that cooked them and the teeth that chewed them. Still, if she was not too hungry, Marty did not eat the shrimp right away, since she preferred to talk with them. They were her friends. She only did this when the front of the restaurant was empty—if Rob and Danny were back in the kitchen, and if the restaurant had no customers. Or no customers except for Rhea, who came sometimes on Thursdays but was too deaf and too crazy to care if Marty talked to the seafood. 

“The moment I met you, I understood what kind of person I wanted to be,” Marty while she worked on her sandwich. She ate the butter-logged top slice of bread, and talked to the four shrimp huddled on the bottom slice. They lounged like kids at a slumber party.

“It was not me,” volunteered one of the shrimp in the middle.

“No, not you specifically. It was a different shrimp. But every one of you amazes me,” said Marty.

A very Christian girl in Marty’s grade had once explained that she did not pray to ask God for things. Rather, she said, she prayed because she wanted to thank God for all of the miracles that she saw in the world around her each and every day. The teacher had waited for her to pause, then said, “Thank you, Bradlee. Let’s get back to those vocab words.” But now, with her shrimp before her, Marty thought that Bradlee had a decent point.

 She thought that God was probably not real and that, even if he was, and if he and Marty ever met, he’d at best be some sort of kind but kind acquaintance to her, like her uncle and aunt and column. But her shrimp! She wanted to praise them for all of the miracles that she saw in the world each day. If she had not met them, she never would have noticed all those wonders. Sometimes, Marty would silently say a  little prayer while she ate the food that Rob made her. Sometimes she said one while she walked home from work, or after she’d hugged her uncle at night. The more numb she felt as she hugged her uncle, the harder she tried to pray.

On a Thursday just after Labor Day, Rob served Marty a scoop of white rice with peppery shrimp on top and an orange shock of pickled carrots for them to rest on. Marty sat cross-legged on a chair near the restaurant’s front door and talked to one of the peppery shrimp. They had a sweeping conversation about the difference between field hockey and ice hockey, the merits of veganism, and the tropical storm creeping up from Cuba.

“Who is this singer or bard?” a smaller shrimp cut in. “She is, maybe, some artist? Visionary?” Marty had no idea what this shrimp was talking about. They talked like nobody she had ever met, as if they had invented language all by themselves.

“Who?” She asked. Three of the shrimp hummed together and laughed uproariously” Marty understood. Rhea the crazy lady sat in a corner table, drinking a coke and singing words Marty couldn’t understand, as if her voice came from underwater.

“That’s Rhea,” Marty whispered to her shrimp. “She’s totally insane.”

“Rhea! She is totally insane!” The shrimp murmured to one another, as if spreading news of a prophet. Marty took great joy in their joy, because, as she had so often heard on greeting cards and other such things, to love somebody is to feel that their happiness is your happiness. She could not bring herself to eat these shrimp just yet, even though they insisted that she must be hungry after her shift. Instead she picked them up one at a time and placed them in a takeout container from the kitchen like a patient mother buckling quadruplets into a carseat. She lay the container in her backpack among the textbooks and the crumpled paper bag from lunch. Rob let her off nearly an hour early. There hadn’t been a customer all day except for Rhea, who never ordered anything.

“I’m closing up,” he said to her. “You want Danny to drive you home?”

“Nah,” she said. “Thanks, Rob,” Marty felt a glow everywhere, emanating from the shrimp onto herself and Rob and Danny.

“It’s no trouble,” said Rob. He looked even more tired than he usually did in the evenings. “Right, Danny?” Daniel grunted into the mop liquid he was mixing. 

“I’m good,” she said. She had another place to go. Marty bolted from the strip mall with her backpack. When she caught sight of a waist-high fence outside of a brick house, Marty propped her backpack on the fence’s edge and dug the takeout container out. With the sweat of her hands sticking up the box, she kept walking until she reached the parking lot of St. John the Evangelist. She’d never been inside of the place, but she passed it often: stucco walls the color of a dog’s belly, round windows. Marty walked to the front door. But the door did not open. Marty felt shaky, then, as if she was going to be caught, as if she was somewhere she should not be. Suddenly she was conscious of her shining skin and the humidity that puffed her hair from its braids. But when she looked across the parking lot, she saw what looked like another church, smaller but solid.

“Temple Beth Nucha,” said the sign outside. And under it, a star, squat and six-armed. Marty looked back at St. John, then over at Temple Beth Nucha. A synagogue didn’t seem much weirder than a church. So she pushed open the door with her shoulder and stepped from the gathering darkness into the cool hallway. There she pried the lid off the shrimps’ container so they might hear her prayer of thanks. On each side of the carpeted hallway lay dark rooms. Marty and her shrimp crept on until they found one that was lit and open, with a woman clacking at a keyboard inside. She wore a purple T-shirt stretched over wide hips and she looked up when Marty entered.

“Hi?” Marty said, and she placed her container down on the woman’s desk, then extended her hand. She had never before stuck out a hand to shake an adult’s, but this felt like the occasion to try. Marty wished she didn’t have such horrible nerves. She pumped out sweat in spite of the air conditioning and couldn’t keep her hand from shaking. The woman smiled at Marty, and then her eyes turned downwards, towards the shrimp nestled in their box. Her face contorted in surprise, then fear. 

“Is this a prank?” she asked.

“It’s not just a prank,” Marty said, “this is real. I’m ready. I’m gonna do it.”

“Do you have a gun?”

“Do I need a gun?” Was a gun necessary if she wanted to say a prayer? She tried to remember everything she knew about Hanukkah. 

The woman’s hand migrated to the phone on her desk.

“I’m going to call the police now,” she said, her voice quivering. “I’d like you to leave the building.” Marty yelled, then, a quick loud sound that tore from her, and then she said,

“I just want to pray— I just wanted to say a prayer here with my shrimp—” the woman looked from Marty’s face down to the shrimp. Her eyes scanned Marty’s pockets, her hands. She kept one hand on the phone, though her voice slackened.

“Honey, you cannot have that in here. I’m going to have to ask you to toss it or leave.” Marty did not understand. She wanted only to enter this place with her shrimp. She had no intention of replacing whatever God was worshiped here, all she’d asked was to bring her own objects of exultation.

“I—I’m here to pray. I’m just going to bring them, they’re not gonna do anything—” the woman pushed her chair back from her desk and stood. She did not touch Marty, but she took hold of the container of shrimp and made for the trash can by the door.

No!” Marty yelled, a tear threatening the corner of her eye. “Please.” The woman looked at her with a terrible pity. It was as if she knew that Marty had never loved anyone until she was fifteen years old, and as if she had heard that Marty did not miss her dead parents even a little, and that Marty’s parents had died because they had run away from home like cowards, when home needed them, and then they’d walked in front of a truck. The woman stepped back from the trash can, then used her free hand to grab Marty’s upper arm, hard.

“You come with me,” she said, and lugged Marty back out of the front door, into a green car in the parking lot. The woman sat in the driver’s seat and handed Marty the container of shrimp.

“You eat this, baby,” she said. “And when you’re done you can come in, if you want, or I’ll drive you home.” Marty ate her shrimp one at a time. The woman watched her. When she had finished, she felt that her aunt and uncle might be worried about her by now. She asked the woman to drive her home. 

“I talk to the shrimp, you know,” she told the woman after typing her uncle’s address into the GPS. 

“They talk back?”

“Yeah.” The woman didn’t answer. She pulled up on Marty’s quiet street a few minutes later. The cicadas were calling. “They’re saying this storm is a category three now. Y’all stay safe.”

“My parents died,” Marty explained to the woman, “and I never even cried.”

“I’m not the rabbi,” the woman said, “I just work in the office.”

“That’s ok. I just wanted to tell you.” She wanted to say more, but didn’t.

When the car pulled away, regret constricted around Marty. She had eaten all her shrimp, and all the words she had not said to the woman clogged her mouth. Maybe she should have told her that she had never loved anybody except a few bits of unshelled seafood. If she had, maybe she and the woman would have talked for longer, and the woman would have understood and they could have loved each other for a few minutes, or “connected” with each other, a word Marty heard people use frequently and did not understand.. Marty felt the same longing that she felt when she talked to Rob in the kitchen or when she hugged her uncle. She wanted to untie her tongue and give it to these strangers. She wanted to be understood and to understand, she wanted to love them, she wanted to cry for her parents and she wished that she had cried at their funeral and had leaned on her uncle and let her baby-tears sting his skin. 

The hurricane gave Marty a four-day weekend. There hadn’t been a real storm the year before, and two years ago, Marty and her aunt and uncle evacuated. This time they stayed put— it was only a category three. Even though she distracted herself by helping her uncle unload hurricane beer from his trunk and passing nails to her aunt while she boarded up the windows, Marty worried that the levees wouldn’t be tall enough to handle the storm surge. She needed to talk to the shrimp about it, but Rob closed Shrimp House for the storm. She imagined what her shrimp might have said to her: that they’d come from water, that they knew the water well, and that there was nothing to fear this time. They would chatter over one another, drowning out the weatherman until Marty felt safe between their voices.

Marty hated the terrible density of the quiet before a hurricane, like water filling her ears after a bath. The night the storm was due to strike she lay in bed with one mug of hurricane beer and one of hurricane tea on the chair next to her. She hummed just to hear a sound.  Marty could not tell the quiet of the night from the quiet bloating her own insides. At eleven or so her aunt came to say  goodnight, and she wanted to tell her aunt that she was afraid of the storm surge and the quiet, and of herself, the girl who felt nothing but shame for her own dead parents, the girl who did not have so much as a single shrimp to comfort her. Instead she said, “love you,” not knowing whether this was true, and then she slept.

The hurricane ripped through the night. Marty did not know whether she was awake or asleep, but she saw floodwaters rising outside her windows—unless it was just a dark so sludgy that it, too, could drown a person. She watched the water press against the glass and wondered whether it could hurt her. Then two pink figures danced by. My shrimp, she thought, out for a swim. Only as they swam away did she look more closely at their naked backs and think, “no, not the shrimp. My parents have swum by to say hello. The flooding must have loosened the dirt of their graves.”

And then there was a sound, high and long. It might have been Marty’s shrimp calling a greeting from somewhere in the floodwaters, glad to see her visit them in their own habitat for once. It might have been a first wail of grief straining Marty’s unpracticed lungs. And it might only have been the wind.