THE RAGGED CLAWS OF MICHELA PIATTA
My parents would take me and my sister vacationing to Spencer Cove in Maine and we would stay in a little blue rental house near the beach. It was 1958. Elvis Presley had been inducted into the Army as U.S. private #53310761 and my sister was inconsolable. She mourned and played Love Me Tender about 53,310,761 times before I finally cut out of there. I headed into the town.
I always loved going to Torritto’s Fish Market. I wanted to be a Marine Biologist someday and Torritto’s outdoor market always had cool looking fish that otherwise I would see only in my Golden Nature Guide to Fishes paperback pocketbook.
There were a lot of tourists in town and I thought to myself that someday someone should write a Golden Nature Guide to Tourists.
When I finally got to Torritto’s this time there was a lady in a big white apron standing in the shade of the awning alongside the fish display tables that were full of ice. The tourists were laughing and I noticed that the lady was wearing a gutted dried King Crab like it was a crown. The crab legs stuck out over her shoulders. I laughed. She was ladling out to the tourists what looked like chowder from a giant stockpot. The pot was set upon an improvised brick fire ring. I approached one of the fish display tables but I kept looking over at the ‘crab lady’.
There was then a lull in tourist foot-traffic. The crab lady looked over at me and I grinned and she came over to me, walking regally and suppressing a smile, clowning for me, keeping her ‘crab crown’ balanced.
She spoke to me, “You buy a fish?” she asked in a thick Italian accent.
I was pretty shy, “No, ma’am, I like to look at the fish,” and I withdrew my Golden Nature Guide from my back pocket and held it up so that she could see the cover that was glossy and illustrated with colorful sea fish including with a big swordfish. She pursed her lips thoughtfully and then chuckled and shook her head very slowly, “We no got big a fish like that.”
I feared that she thought I was not smart, “No, no. I know that. I like to look at these fish and learn their names,” I pointed at the fish.
She folded her hands in front of her apron, “Yes. Pretty fish.”
I pointed at the crab on her head, “That’s a King Crab, Paralithodes camtschaticus. They come from Alaska, not from around here.”
She pointed up to her crab crown, “Tourists like. I cook frutti di mare chowder very good. Tourists like. Customers like. Mister Torritto say he like a the more business. Mister Torritto give me job.”
She was very enterprising; she even had a name tag and she tapped it and said, “Michela,” and held her chin up while skillfully balancing the crab crown, “Michela Piatta, Queen a del Frutti Di Mare Chowder.”
Michela then tapped my Golden Nature Guide and asked me, “You got a name?” and she smiled.
I said, “I’m Skip.”
She confirmed, “A Skeep.”
I made my own joke, “Now I do sound like a fish.”
Michela misunderstood and she asked, “You like a to fish?”
I grinned wryly with embarrassment, “I’m kind of afraid of deep water,” but I amended, “I like tide pools. I feel sorry for the cool fish when they get caught and they’re gasping with their eyes wide afraid,” and I made a wide-eyed face and held my throat, “I don’t really like to fish.”
Michela looked up and away over my head, “My son he like a to fish. His papa he like a to fish.”
I put one and one together, “They are fishermen?”
Michela answered me while still looking over my head, “Sì. They fish,” and then she added quietly, “They fish good.”
I wondered politely, “Did they catch these fish?”
Michela looked back down at me. After a minute she said with what I thought was disappointment, “No. No, they no catch these fish.”
Michela then said brightly, “A Skeep, you like cup a frutti di mare chowder? Molto saporito. My son like a you, I give him frutti di mare chowder.”
I had to tell her that I only had ten cents. She clapped her hands, “Perfetto! Che costi esattamente ten cents.”
I could see that a cup was posted as costing twenty-five cents, so I could not refuse. She took me over to the big stockpot. I looked down into it and there were thick white bubbles and lots of different chopped sea food. My cup even had some calamari pieces with tentacles and I said, “Mmmm, mmm, calamari.”
Michela beamed, “You like a calamaro. Molto saporito. My son like calamaro best like you, a Skeep.”
I dug in my front pocket and I dutifully gave Michela my ten cents. I had planned to buy a comic book but I could hardly believe how good the chowder was; it was so full of tasty fish and crab and calamari.
When I was done I handed my empty cup back to Michela. Michela set it on a little table with an assortment of other colorful cups and little bowls waiting to be washed in the nearby sudsy bucket. I thought that they looked like they all must have come from her cupboard.
Michele then said, “You come here. I show you, you like this.”
Michela lead me into the little shed behind the fish display tables. Mister Torritto was inside sorting fish and crabs and squid on a table and he had a long bright sharp knife.
Mister Torritto looked over at Michela and he bowed his head and said, “Queen a Chowder.”
Michela removed her crab crown and set it on the back table.
I said hello to Mister Torritto. He looked at me and smiled, “When you going to buy a fish?” That embarrassed me.
Michela saw my embarrassment and she said to Mister Torritto, “He buy frutti di mare chowder,” and she winked at me, then she said to him, “I like a show a Skeep the funny fish you got.”
Michele beckoned me to the back table and lifted a sheet of canvas covered with ice. There on top of more ice was a big flat fish with both eyes on the same side of its head above the mouth. I got excited, “Cool! That’s a halibut!” I had never seen a real one, “They live on the bottom of the ocean and they eat anything, like crabs and lobsters and fish and anything else that comes along!”
Mr. Torritto came over and joined us, still holding his bright knife, “Very good money for Torritto. Very good,” then he looked down at me, “You watch Torritto filetto, OK?”
I think both of my eyes flipped to one side of my head, “Can we see what’s in the stomach?”
Michela made a sour face, “Nello stomaco?”
Torritto answered her saying, “Egli è un ragazzo, Michela. He a is a boy,” then he looked down at me and shook his head, “You sure a boy.”
I answered proudly, “I want to be a Marine Biologist. That is how a Marine Biologist studies fish.”
Mister Torritto proceeded like a surgeon, slicing and folding the skin and muscle, lecturing me as he demonstrated, “Knife a must be very sharp. Very sharp. You listen, you a cut away from you self, away from you self. You cut head to tail you don’t stop. Now this time you stop. You see this? This a stomach.” He laid the stomach on the ice in front of me and said to me, “You want a cut stomach?”
I said, “Sure.”
Mister Torritto warned me, “You cut little bit. You cut very slow.”
As I slit the gut sack a wad of partially digested shrimp tumbled out. I heard Michela mutter, “Oh, ignobile.”
And there was something else. I dug at it carefully with the tip of the sharp knife. I hooked it and lifted it away from the gut sack.
I announced, “A button. A pretty thick one, too. Some fisherman must have lost it,” and I laughed and I said so cleverly, “Hey, Michela, maybe your husband or son lost it.”
I looked up to Mister Torritto to see that he was not amused and in fact his eyes were narrowed and his mouth was tight. He just stared at the button like he didn’t dare look away. Then he rolled a worried glance toward Michela. I followed his gaze.
Michela had turned her back to us. Her hands were clasped together in front of her mouth. I watched her shudder and even I realized that she was sobbing quietly.
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