The Lobster

(Based on a true story)

Wait a minute. If you think this story is about a crustacean, well it is, but it also has a prologue, which you might want to consider as part of the main story. Judge as you will.

The year was—well never mind—but a long time ago. I had developed certain ties with a young woman, a girl, as they say in the parlance, very pretty at that and living in a town in Eastern Greece, Chalkida, where I was serving as an interpreter at the Military Academy for Officers there. The duties were light and consisted mainly of translating volumes of military training manuals for officers into Greek, with an occasional trip to Athens, or elsewhere, when an American officer needed a translator with him, so I had to accompany with him to interpret his exchanges with other Greek officers, for the most part.

Well, Maritsa (she became Mary subsequently) came into my life just weeks before I was transferred to Athens, where I spent two more years, still doing the same thing as before at the TAMEION, a large building near Syntagma Square, where the American Mission was housed. Life again was relatively easy—for an army person, as I continued to translate and interpret for American officers who quite often travelled to the ends of Greece—like Mount Olympus or Western Epirus, where Greek troops were camped, for this was the time of the Cold War, while the Korean War was still raging. I traveled throughout the country, and a good thing it was, for I learned the geography of Greece, which has plenty of mountains and crevices between them where villages were nesting.

A fine life it was, but I missed Maritsa. And if you know what a nineteen year old and a twenty three one (me) feel, you will understand what we felt. I was smitten, head over heels—as they say–and then some. So every weekend or two, depending on assignments, I traveled to Chalkida to see Maritsa either with a military driver of a jeep who lived in those parts, and who every weekend when not needed for service he asked me, “Mr. Lieutenant, would you like to go to Chalkida?” He knew of my passion, and I said yes. When he wasn’t available, I took the little two-wagon train, or the automotive, as they called it, and in just two hours I was in Chalkida. We spent as much time together as we could and from that point of view things were progressing nicely (and only Eros himself can get you to the bottom of this).

How did a lobster get into all this?  Well, Chalkida was a fishing town and known for its delicious seafood. Sometimes I went out evenings with the American officers who loved seafood and ordered big platters containing clams, scallops, roasted octopus, calamari, and, above all, lobsters. The lobsters in Chalkida were famous for their size, redness, and unwillingness to give up the spirit, whatever that might be in the crustacean underworld.

One day, upon my return to Athens, I decided to buy one of these creatures as a gift to my Uncle and Aunt, who lived in Marousi, a suburb of Athens, and who had been nice to me—I learned English from my English aunt who was an English teacher—and I wanted to give them a gift. It was to be noted that they at that time did not know my liaison with Maritsa. And then it occurred to me that they loved fresh seafood, and in particular lobsters, which were either unavailable where they lived or small-sized. What if I bought the biggest lobster in Chalkida and took it with me to Marousi? As for buying, it was relatively expensive, but I had a salary in the army sufficient for my needs and always carried some pocket money.

So, I looked for the biggest lobster I could find in the fish market. Maritsa, who was with me, looked at it with open mouth.

“It’s so huge!” she said. “What are you going to do with it?” I said it was a gift for my uncle and aunt.

“And how are you going to carry it there?”

That, indeed, was the question. The lobster was about a foot and a half long, still very much alive, its claws as big as your forearm, and still ready to bite—and I imagined one of them could sheer off my finger.

I always carried a small suitcase with me, and I thought I could put the lobster in there. I didn’t carry too many items with me, and after some struggle I managed to squeeze the monster in there and then lock the suitcase. It was still clattering and turning in there, but eventually it grew quiet. Maritsa came into the carriage, and looked at me as I was placing my suitcase with the lobster on the rack above my seat.

We kissed and parted, and she went out casting a side glance at the suitcase.

“I hope your uncle and aunt like the lobster,” she said, and stepped out.

Parting with her was so emotional that all my thoughts were already ahead to next weekend, when I would be able to see her again. After a while I dozed off, when a sudden jolt awoke me. The train came to a stop a bit too suddenly, which happened in those days, as an animal could be on the tracks, but really I didn’t have time to scout the reason. The suitcase fell from the rack and hit the floor, the suitcase opened, and the lobster jumped out. It lay on the floor, its claws opened and moving in every which direction, as if ready to attack anyone near it.

Some of the passengers began to scream, as if the Loch Ness Monster had jumped in their middle. It took me a while to grab it again and place it back in the suitcase, which I tied with a piece of rope that one of the ladies in the carriage provided me with.

I had to take the bus from the train station to Marousi, which meant that I had to walk about quarter of a mile carrying the rather heavy suitcase with me. After I arrived at my uncle’s, I was so tired as if I had performed one of the Labors of Hercules. My aunt looked at the suitcase wondering what was in it. When I untied the rope and opened it, the monster was still alive and moving its claws. I explained that I meant it to be a gift—she knew of my army assignments—and, being a practical person, she thought of how she would be able to put it in pot and boil it, as it was too big to place it in a pan and put it in the oven. She had to go down the street to a neighbor, Mrs. Karapanagiotis, who came up with the largest pot ever invented.

They both had to struggle to place it in it, after they had brought the water to a boil. The monster would not go down easily. It clawed and yanked and threatening to overturn the pot. But it eventually was pushed in and held down with a stick until one of the women managed to put the lid on top and hold it there. It took about five minutes before the struggling monster was quiet. I imagined there was a hell for lobsters somewhere—even Dante could not have thought of that—and for a moment I felt a pang of regret for the creature I had helped to torture.

But the meal was exquisite. As Mrs. Karapanagiotis had played such a vital role in subduing the monster, my aunt invited her and her husband to come to dinner, and we all sat down to a grand feast. My uncle, who rarely praised me for anything I did, expressed a nod of approval:

“How did you get this thing here?”

I was filled to capacity and tired.

“No problem at all,” I said.

My thoughts had already reverted to the next weekend.