Bayou Chico crabs smelled like earthy mud but somehow edible like a vegetable. They were amber and brown with a body about the size of my daddy’s hand with beady shiny black BB eyes sitting atop their body. They seemed lopsided to me with one large claw on the left and an atrophied one on the right. At 5 years old, I learned from my older brothers how to pick up a crab by the back so that the claws could not pinch me. They told me to pick it up like it was a sandwich, with my fingers on top and my thumb on the bottom, the top of the shell was hard and brittle but underneath it was soft. I had seen empty crab shells with no body home and was able to crack pieces off at the edges but the middle was thicker. There were hard points about the edges to stick you, but in the very back, they taught me to put my thumb on the bottom and lay my four fingers on top of the hard shell. Then I could pick up the crab and its claws couldn’t get me. However, they said it would wiggle so I had to hold it tight or I would drop it.
One bright spring morning about the time I was learning to pick up crabs, my brothers decided to catch crabs for mom to cook. It had to be a month with the letter ‘R’ in it for the crabs and oysters to be safe to eat, so it must have been about April. But now I know those crabs were too polluted to eat anyway. They caught one crab and brought it into the kitchen, and put it in mom’s best Nortika china bowl from the dish drainer, then placed a Nortika china plate on top. I knew something was wrong but I was just too young for it to register. Most of this story I actually do remember but it has been told so many times in my family, I truly can not remember what I remember and what I have been told. However, the crab was in mom’s Nortika china bowl and I knew someone was going to get into trouble. Mom loved her shiny kitchen and that crab was stinky and muddy. After they stashed the crab, they went back down to the water in search of more crabs.
Our house on Bayou Chico had tall pine trees in the yard and at the back edge of the yard were ten marble steps installed by my dad that cascaded down the hill to the water’s edge. The “crab kitchen” was large but cozy with knotty pine paneling and cabinets. The floor was black and white checkerboard tile with a large chrome and gray Formica table with eight chairs where we ate most of our meals. To go outside down to the water you had to go through a small den on the back of the house that had a black and white TV and a couch. The knotty pine paneling extended from the kitchen into this alcove. The wall into this alcove had two large pass through window cutouts on either side of the door that my brothers would perch in to watch TV while mom puttered around the kitchen. On the back wall off that alcove were wall-to-wall chalice windows with a chalice windowed door that led outside to the back porch. Chalice windows have five-inch panes that overlap like roofing tiles when closed but when open, catch the breeze off the water to great effect.
This particular crab catching morning, mom had those windows opened to dry her freshly mopped floor. It smelled of ammonia still and the early morning light shone across the tiled floor to make a pattern from those chalisled windows onto that checkerboard tile like a basket weave. Mom had gone to the washing machine in the garage and to the side of the house to hang clothes on the line so she missed the crime of the crab being placed into her china bowl.
The dainty tinkle- tinkle sound the crab legs made on the china bowl was so delicate that it barely caught mom’s attention. She dismissed it. However, I knew what was making the sound. She would get a puzzled look on her face and return to cooking or cleaning. Mom’s kitchen usually smelled of onions and green peppers sautéing. Many of her favorite recipes started that way.
As she started to put the dishes up out of the dish drainer, she finally picked up that china bowl and was so surprised by the crab when she removed the plate that she flung the whole thing and screamed. Of course, it shattered and the crab was on its back flailing those claws and legs with its soft side exposed. I remember her shriek so loud that I must have started screaming too. She got the broom and was flailing the bejesus out of that crab running to the back door screaming, “Who the hell put a crab in my china bowl? Shiiiiit! Joe, Greg, John, Gary get in here right now!” she yelled out the back chaliced door down to the water. Then she sat down on the floor and started laughing so hard it scared me. All this time I was screaming and crying and I guess I started laughing too so that when the bravest of my brothers came in, they started laughing at the broken china bowl, the comical upside down flailing grab and mom on the floor with a broom in hand disheveled. I think their laughing at her was what got them in the most trouble.