Step one: Avoid the fish case for the first three days of your new job. It’s freshly stocked with brightly colored flesh that you can barely begin to identify, let alone weigh and cut for customers. Is there a right way to cut a chunk of salmon? Don’t ask: the learning curve is steep enough right now that it seems more important to figure out the table numbers, the difference between New England and Manhattan chowder, the order-ticket shorthand (mercifully, you have a cheat sheet in your apron pocket), how to work the cash register. It seems much more important to not screw up with somebody’s money when they want change on a hundred-dollar bill than it does to wonder about those giant Dungeness crabs, bigger than both your hands together, piled high in the left side of the fish case.
Step two: On a day when the special is a full crab dinner, learn from another server that you’re expected to clean the crabs. “What,” you say. “What.” You’d thought, as a vegetarian who hasn’t eaten meat or fish in twenty-five years, that you’d hate working at a fish house with a vengeance. It’s a surprise that you’re enjoying it with a vengeance instead—but you’re also the server who washes her hands every time a bit of tartar sauce gets on one finger. You’re pretty sure you have the cleanest hands in the place. Also, sometimes, the most chapped hands.
You’ve learned to identify everything in the case by now: the jewel-colored king salmon, the darker, chunkier albacore tuna, the halibut and the ling cod (indistinguishable at first, until you realize that the ling cod has the prettier name but the halibut is prettier in the flesh—less stringy, with a redder undertone), the scallops and the steamer clams and the tiny bay shrimp and the oversized tiger prawns.
Until now your metrics for a good day have been “haven’t set anything on fire” (this would be harder if there were candles on the tables, but you’re not complaining) and “haven’t dropped a drink on a customer.” Your new metric is “nobody has asked me to clean a crab.”
Step three: Take an order for that full crab dinner. Be cheerful about it, too, because the full crab dinner costs $28.95, and that means good tip money; also, as a vegetarian who can’t eat 90 percent of what’s on the menu, you’ve settled on “just be enthusiastic” when talking to customers. (Your shining moment will come when somebody asks, querulously, if there’s anything a vegetarian can eat, and you’re able to say “You asked the right person,” walk him through his very specific pecan burger order, and then reassure the cooks that yes, he wants wheat bread instead of a ciabatta roll; yes, he knows it’s weird; yes, you know it’s weird too; yes, you’re sure that he wants wheat bread and not ciabatta. And can you please grill the patty in a separate pan and remove that onion?)
But back to the crab. You snag the first old hand you see, a year-round server shaped like a fireplug. You view him with reserve—you’ve heard him tell the cooks that they should speak English—but so far he’s patiently answered all your dumb questions. Say, “I have to clean a crab.” Say, “Help.”
He’ll glove up and pull a crab from the case, explaining that for the crab dinners you want to pick out a crab that still has all its legs. It hasn’t occurred to you that it matters how many legs a crab has, but now that you look, you see that they should have eight legs and two claws. Later, when you remember to ask what you should do with the crabs missing two or four or five appendages, someone will point to a small bucket of crab legs that you haven’t noticed before.
Walk back into the kitchen, where the other server demonstrates, step by step, pulling off the triangular flap near its anus, then the spikes below that flap, then wrenching the entire shell off. He’ll yank out the gills and drag two fingers through the shallow white cavity of the crab’s body to remove the soggy yellow guts, then rinse the whole thing off in the big stainless steel sink. You’ll feel the expression on your face moving from skepticism to dismay to what-the-actual-fuck.
“There,” he’ll say. “Next time you’ll do it, and I’ll walk you through it.”
The cooks will be laughing by then. “Doom,” you’ll remark to the kitchen at large.
Step four: At the fish case, take an order for two crabs packed in ice to cook at home. Let good service override your common sense, and ask, “Do you want those cleaned?” He’ll say yes. Of course he’ll say yes.
Grab the nearest server again—this time one of your housemates, who is also your girlfriend’s sister (it’s an insular little world you’ve landed in this summer on the Oregon coast). Ask, “Will you clean one while I do the other?” Say, grimly, “I can do it,” and also, “but I really don’t know what I’m doing.” Say to the customer, “Don’t mind me. I’m just learning things.”
The server–housemate–girlfriend’s-sister will look at you, look at the crabs, say, “Do you really want to do this?”
“No,” you’ll say. “But I can and I will.”
She’ll hand you the bill she just tallied. “Why don’t I do that, and you ring him up?”
Tomorrow. You’ll clean a crab tomorrow.
Step five: Be determined, dammit. You will clean the next crab that comes across one of your order tickets. Lo and behold, another customer orders the full crab dinner. You run upstairs to find both the fish case and somebody to supervise—you’re still not dumb enough to try this alone—but there’s someone waiting at the fish case already. A customer. “Can I get four crabs to go?” he asks. “And do you guys clean them?”
Chicken out. “We sure do!” you chirp cheerfully. Catch the movement to your left. “Oh. Hey. You’re either Kevin or Jeremy, right? Are you cleaning a crab? Want to clean four more for this gentleman?”
Step six: Take—you guessed it—yet another order for a whole crab dinner. Or maybe it’s a crab to take home. It doesn’t really matter. The upshot is that this crab needs cleaning.
The year-round fireplug server is on hand again. He pulls a crab from the case and passes it to you. “First this,” you say, tugging at the triangular flap. It’s called an apron, but you don’t know that yet, and anyway it won’t make sense to you when you learn.
“Yup,” he says. “But be careful about—”
“These,” you say, slipping a finger under the spikes and pulling them off carefully.
One of the cooks reaches over. “I will do it for you,” he says gallantly.
“No, no,” you say. “I can do it. I have to learn.”
He watches, looking skeptical and not a little amused. “Okay,” you say. “Then the shell. And it’s just, like…you just pull?”
“Yup,” says the server.
A cold rush of watery guts splashes out as you wrest the back off the crab. Pull off the gills—they look like little gray spikes, but flabby and floppy and flappy and consequently more alarming than the actual spikes under the apron. Use two fingers to swipe out as much of the guts as you can. Try not to think about the bright yellow viscera left clinging to your latex glove. Try to breathe through your mouth, because if it smells like anything other than the generally oily, fishy smells of the kitchen—well. You really don’t want to know, do you?
Displace the disinterested dishwasher to rinse the whole thing: don’t use the tap but rather the big sprayer, running cold water thoroughly over the crab. Then again. Then the other side. Then your gloved fingers, because even though you’ll be stripping off those gloves in about fifteen seconds, eurgh. Notice the barnacles encrusted on the crab’s claws—presumably barnacles don’t matter to the cook, or to the customer. Presumably, too, better not to ask.
“Good,” the server says briskly. “Now just give it to the cooks.” He turns to shout to the rest of the kitchen, “She’s like a hard-core vegetarian, guys! This is a big deal!” No reactions—it’s possible that they don’t understand but much more likely (and, you think, very reasonable) that they just don’t care.
Congratulations—you can now clean a crab. Eventually you’ll be able to do it without supervision, then to do it without grimacing. Even later, when your girlfriend groans, “I need to clean a crab,” you won’t even think twice before offering to do it for her. You’re learning to grin and bear it, to decide that if you have to do it, you might as well enjoy it. But that will come later. Right now you just need a new metric for whether or not you’ve had a good day. Has anyone asked you to refill the ketchup and tartar sauce bottles yet?
Tamzin Mitchell holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire and works as a proofreader and editor. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Waxwing, Cosmonauts Avenue, Crannóg, and elsewhere, and have been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She was last seen in Berlin.