The snow crab pyramid was starting to take shape.
One snow crab lifted on top of the one already there. (The aluminum pinchers hover, dart, squeeze, heave.) Another on top of that. And another. And another. Until there is a stack of snow crabs resting on top of another stack.
The manager of the restaurant featuring the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet kept lingering nearby. He looked like a worried heron as he monitored the shrinking stack of snow crabs.
There goes the pyramid now, lightly balanced on Vincent's forearm. Me and Prof and Pee Wee and Gavin watch him sit and spread out with his crabs, his arms as big as throw pillows. I make him out to be about the same size as one of the smaller New England states.
'You should go slower with our shelled friends," cautions the Professor. 'The manager is giving you looks that would curl Fu Manchu's moustache."
'I'm going easy on the crabs tonight," protests Vince. 'My sister says they've added something called Calcutta chicken to the menu, and I wanna make a plate with the nine varieties of chicken on it."
'Geez," says I. 'You're gonna sprout feathers."
'Chicken is very healthy," instructs Vince.
'Yeah, but you're eating healthy for a basketball team," Pee Wee says. They are cousins, though you'd never know by looking.
'Who's Fu Manchu, Unc," asks Gavin. He is Prof's nephew by marriage, though he wastes little time bragging on the kid.
We get busy sipping our won-ton soup and gnawing our spring rolls. Gavin insists on telling us all about his first visit to his new squeeze's parents in their doublewide near Natalbany.
'Her dad drives a pickup truck with a decal that features a Confederate and the slogan "Fighting Terrorism Since 1861,'" relates Gavin. 'The first time I see him he's drinking Bud Lite in his pajamas."
'My ancestors are so proud you've married into our family," Professor says. He cups his hand behind his ear. 'I think I can hear them singing hymns of thanksgiving on the banks of the Styx now."
'I getcha, Unc, even if I don't fully understand ya," Gavin says between hiccups. 'I got a bad habit of dating down."
The Professor smiles at me like a boy whose puppy has died. 'Remember when our bad habits used to be things like smoking hashish or stalking other men's wives? Now they are things like clearing out ear wax with a house key."
'Watch this," winks Pee Wee. 'Say, Vincent. I bet I can tell what you had for breakfast."
I couldn't make out what Vincent said. He was doing something awful to some crab claws and by the noises coming out of his mouth, I wasn't sure if they were peeled or not.
'Vincent, you still eat Pablum every morning?" persists Pee Wee. 'Why you eat baby cereal every morning?"
Vincent pauses to sip at his diet tea. 'Keeps me feeling young," he explains.
Now Pee Wee starts bugging Vincent to go with him to the next Hornets game.
'I can't go," Vincent says. 'Gotta go to the doctor."
'Whatcha gotta go to the doctor for?" Pee Wee asks.
'I ain't gonna tell you. I been going to the doctor almost five months and you ask me every time I go why I'm going and I tell you every time why I'm going. And yet you still have no idea why I'm going. So I ain't telling you no more."
'Aw, go head on," Pee Wee says. 'Dip them claws in some Pablum."
Things stumble blindly on. Pee Wee calls for his bill inasmuch as he has to get back to the barbershop and demonstrate once again the futility of ever trying to look good. Did I mention that Pee Wee's job is to say something inappropriate to virtually every female he meets? (You females usually know of his kind; do you ever feel a sliver of pity for them? I thought not.) And that means eight to 80, blind, crippled or crazy.
He has no expectations for any of them. But hope for all of them.
Pee Wee counts out some bunched bills onto the plastic plate and says, 'There's a quarter. There, that's for you, little darling."
Little darling is a cute little girl who stands there with the bill and a couple of fortune cookies on the plastic plate, looking ever so vulnerable. She doesn't get what Pee Wee's shoveling her way and smiles a skinny little smile.
So Pee Wee says it all again. Same pretty and confused look from the cute little girl. So he says it yet again. Staring at her misunderstanding with sad eyes till she takes the quarter. And leaves the fortune cookies.
Pee Wee never even reads his fortune cookie as he heads for the door, just about eye level with the stack of snow crabs on Vincent's plate. Guess he didn't have to.
After a little time, Gavin starts giggling. Just looking at Vincent and his Pike's Peak of crab shells and giggling like a fourth grader in church. I wouldn't have been surprised if he was smoking something. I've seen people smoke stuff. 'What's so funny?" demands Vincent. 'Are my panties showing or somethin?"
The Professor tries to get between them. 'Gavin's reach for wit seldom exceeds the variety that endlessly repeats a word like hemorrhoid and giggles frantically between repetitions," he explains.
'Tell me the truth, pal," gasps Gavin. 'I couldn't eat that many crabs if I had a warden and an executioner waiting for me. Now, how many of these could you eat if you had to pay for each one individually? Tell the truth."
Vincent gives him a look that ought to be bleached. 'Well, to tell you the truth, Donny Osmond, I don't know you well enough to tell you the truth."
The tall manager who's been hanging around like a heron comes over to the table shaking his index finger like it was on fire. 'You don't eat no more snow crabs. You eat more white rice," he kept repeating.
Vincent looks like he's been wronged, deeply and deliberately wronged. 'Hey, the sign says "All You Can Eat' and this sure ain't all I can eat. Besides, white rice ain't good for you."
'Cantaloupe is good for you," insists the manager. 'You eat two cantaloupe before one snow crab."
'It would be easier to shovel up all the fallen leaves," surmises the Professor around a new toothpick, 'and glue them back on their branches."