The Killing of a Lobster

The trapper arrives at the dock with a large white pail of lobsters. My son, Henry, and three of my friends have been planning this meal since the day our group arrived at their summer house in Maine: a white farmhouse on the edge of the sea. We’ve hiked up mountains of rocks, paddled in lapping waves on the ocean and skinny dipped in a pond with the legend of a snapping turtle. We've secured the house from mosquitos and taken mushrooms gazing up at the Milky Way. We’re doing the whole Maine thing, and that includes this local lobster man showing up with fresh lobsters for the best and biggest meal of the trip. 

There, on the sea dock, I look into the pail. I know lobsters only turn red once they’ve been cooked, but it’s far darker in that pail than I’d imagined. There’s a lot of movement. That’s when it hits me: who is going to kill the lobsters?

I look around and can tell from a few faces that this is not just hitting me. We are all realizing that someone is going to have to kill the lobsters. Has any of us ever killed a lobster? I know that I haven’t. Henry threw up when his sister cut her face, he can’t do it. Every single one of us is completely out of our depths here. We don’t want to kill anything. We’re all city kids who, up until now, have been paying kitchen staff to do this.

I pull out my phone and search YouTube, “how to kill a lobster,” hoping none of the real Maine people on this dock can see my screen. I focus on the image of the knife going into the back of the lobster. It doesn’t look hard. It doesn’t look hard enough. These lobsters are just laying there, it seems, waiting to be killed. It looks fine. I tell everyone I can do it.

I can’t.

When we return to the house, I stand beside the bucket and lean nauseated onto a kitchen chair, staring into the mass of writhing bodies in the bucket. They crawl. They look at me. 

I realize I hadn’t anticipated the actual aliveness of these creatures. The lobsters in movies are fake. They kind of hang limply. These lobsters fight for life. Maybe this is what people mean when they distinguish a lobster from a “Maine Lobster.” Maine lobsters are supposed to be superior, and today I am realizing they are. They are gladiators. I hadn't taken this into account when I had pledged myself as the butcher. 

I feel ashamed and guilt-ridden but I break my news to the group,
“I’m sorry. No way. They’re huge and alive. Why didn’t we just ask the trapper to kill them? Can we go back and get that kid on the dock to do it? He looked capable.”

“You can’t do that.”

“I can’t do this”

“It’s too sad.”

Someone has to do it.”

I’m so mad we don’t have an Uncle to do it. Uncles act like they love this stuff.

No one is volunteering, until it gets awkward and then, due to gender-role pressures, Adrian, the oldest man in the house, says he will do it and I’m even more upset with myself.

We are all drinking wine, even Henry at this point. We are all stressed. Half the group is on the other side of the room. One is a Vegan.

Adrian studies the video. “Okay, I got it. I just have to put the knife here.” He points to the lobster but I don’t look, I can’t look. 

I offer a nod and supportively say, “Don’t worry, Bebe. It will be easy.” 

I know Adrian really doesn’t want to do this when he puts on the oven mitts. He lifts the first lobster from the pail and places it on a cutting board. His face is twisted. He holds the knife over the spot I still will not look at, and he plunges the knife into the body with a crush of shell. I look, thinking the worst is over, but it hasn’t even begun. While impaled to the cutting board, the lobster begins violently thrashing its tail and the Vegan screams a primal cry. Adrian stands as far as possible from the lobster with his hand still on the top of the knife. What is happening? Why isn’t it dead? Adrian hit the spot, I know he did because he’s a Capricorn. Adrian stabs it again and the thrashing slows. Henry salutes the lobster with his hand, admiring its tenacity. This scenario repeats for all of the lobster killings and by the end of that hour we are all drained.

To this day, I sense Adrian remains traumatized. And when I recall that night, I feel guilty. The dinner was technically delicious, but I just couldn’t enjoy it the same way I could have before I watched a person who didn’t want to kill dinner, kill dinner.

Maybe everyone in Maine feels this way when they kill lobster.  And they all hike and skinny dip in ponds and take mushrooms and lay out under the Milky Way. We did the whole Maine thing, and the next time I visit I’ll do all of the same things, except I will order a lobster roll or bring an Uncle.