Charlie wears broken glasses held together with tape and toothpicks. He is unemployed and occupies a one-bedroom apartment in Westchester, California, a half-mile northeast of LAX. Charlie eats in his car. His 1991 Nissan Stanza is a mausoleum of fast food, Frito Lay and Little Debbie wrappers. When Charlie was in the sixth grade, some of his classmates took to calling him “blubber butt.” Although the nickname didn’t stick, he has not quite gotten over it.
Limulus is a distant relative of the sea spider and one of the oldest creatures in the ocean. These spiders were among the first creatures to move from surf to sand, where they adapted and flourished. Before birds took to the air and mammals roamed the earth, there was Limulus. The dinosaurs came and went, and Limulus remained, the last of its kind, its way of life unchanged. It is estimated Limulus has not altered its appearance in 200 million years.
Charlie is grossly overweight. He loves canned nacho cheese slathered over tortilla chips. He can eat peanuts and pistachios by the pound. Drive Thru signs appear before him like blazing neon visitations from heaven. Sometimes he shows concern for his appearance, but most of the time he does not. Every so often he will discover he can no longer fit into a favorite pair of pants, and he will become agitated. Charlie has tried dieting, but he is easily discouraged. He is not weak, but his weaknesses are profound. After a night of spicy food, Charlie dreams he is a platform diver, his body fit and firm, his skin the color of a copper penny.
Limulus is a descendent of the Eurypterida, an order of sea scorpions that thrived in freshwater swamps and estuaries 400 million years ago. Some of these sea scorpions were over six feet long. Today, the Eurypterida are extinct.
Charlie’s parents, Martin and Miriam Kronk, were high school sweethearts in Cold Hamper, Wisconsin, and were married after they graduated from Hiawatha High in 1956. When Charlie was born he weighed nine pounds, seven ounces. He went to the University of Michigan where he studied engineering. The aerospace boom brought him to California. He had plans to interview with Boeing and TRW, but Raytheon hired him after his first interview. He was assigned to the laser-guided weapons systems division, where he remained for over twenty years. Fifty-five days ago, he was laid off. They gave him a cardboard box and sixty minutes to clear out. A senior project manager took his key on the elevator ride down to the parking structure, and then waited for him outside the gate to collect his access card. Charlie has not talked to either one of his parents—now divorced—in two years, ten months and eight days. He cannot say why this is so.
The shell has three parts: shield, abdomen, tail. At the end of the tail is a rather nasty-looking triangular telson with serrated edges. It is said if a beachgoer steps on this appendage, he will be poisoned and die. This, of course, is complete rubbish. Despite his monstrous appearance, Limulus is quite harmless.
Charlie has sported a crew cut for the better part of thirty years. He gets his hair cut every other Wednesday by a barber named Stan at a place called The Mane Attraction. He chose, and continues to choose, Wednesdays for this appointment because there are very few barbershop-closing-worthy holidays that fall on a Wednesday. When Stan’s mother died, the shop was closed for three weeks straight, and Charlie became so upset he went home and gouged deep grooves in his kitchen table with a steak knife. Charlie broke down and went to another barber, a Pakistani fellow who covered Charlie with scented powder and offered to give him a shoulder massage. Charlie declined, because he hates Arabs. He calls them camel jockeys, towel heads, goat ropers. He has always used these words, and no one at Raytheon ever complained until the new project manager, Ahmed Farquar, started sending e-mails to Corporate.
Limulus often falls while trying to climb over and onto things he has no business scaling. His poor balance is compensated by the telson, which is how he flips himself over when he finds himself on his back, so to speak, spidery legs wriggling wildly in the current. He simply plunges the spike into the sand and rights himself, like Bela Lugosi rising from a coffin.
Charlie has not had a sex partner in five years, four months and counting. His last girlfriend was a chubby Hawaiian woman named Melanie who cooked enormous meals for him. She prepared steaming bowls of saimin with chicken, green onions, fried wontons. He loved the slow-cooked pork she seasoned with butterfish and served in sour-smelling taro leaves. On Sundays she cooked all day long. The fridge was always stocked with leftover rice, macaroni salad, fried Spam, Jell-O. She was homesick all the time and eventually went back to the islands. He told her he’d tried to wrangle a transfer, but this was a lie. He did no such thing.
What does Limulus look like under all that armor? It’s not pretty. At the head are two small appendages he uses for grasping. Next are four pairs of clawed legs. These legs are spiny and are located near his mouth. The legs propel him forward but they also act as jaws. Limulus rousts food out of the sand, secures the morsel with its graspers, and grinds it up into bite-sized pieces that he sucks up into his orifice like a vacuum cleaner. His diet consists of mollusks and worms. He is very fond of the bristle worm, a creature that uses its pronged, venom-filled proboscis to paralyze its prey. Limulus circumvents the bristle worm’s defenses by dropping on it like a dome over a serving platter, and ripping it to pieces with his toothy legs.
Charlie scours the personal ads looking for lusty ladies he will never have the courage to call. The letters “SAF” torment him. After an hour of this, he is back in his sputtering Stanza, headed for Secret Garden Video. Japanese schoolgirls, Thai nurses, Korean B&D. This is what he needs. He races home, his spoils in a blood-red plastic bag on the passenger seat. He lights up the living room with the dull glare of poorly lit pornography from the other side of the ocean. After he has pleasured himself, he rummages through his kitchen cabinets, looking for something to eat.
Limulus does not venture out during the day. He buries himself in the sand and rests. Sometimes he rustles about for tasty-looking bivalves. When night falls on his undersea burrow, Limulus emerges from his lair. Rearing himself up on his spike, he bursts upward into the water, paddles furiously, and plummets to the bottom once more. In this manner, Limulus proceeds in leapfrog fashion. Swim. Sink. Swim. Sink. Ad infinitum.
This is how Charlie was fired: after the weekly status meeting in the Nike conference room, his supervisor, Chuck, told him to “hang on a minute,” and asked the last man out to shut the door behind him. Chuck wore cologne. His fingernails were impossibly clean. “We’re eliminating your position.” Chuck waited for Charlie to say something. Charlie waited for Chuck to continue. Chuck launched into a prepared speech. Charlie could scarcely hear what Chuck was saying. His paycheck was already on the table. The air conditioner roared like a DC-10 in terminal distress.
The female lays her eggs in early summer. As she swims toward the beach, a male grasps her tail, yet another suitor seizes the male’s tail, and so on, forming a chain of horseshoe crabs hitching a ride to shore.
Charlie blames Ahmed for his dismissal. He was the one who got all the credit for the asymptotic arrays Charlie had worked on all summer. He was the one who landed Charlie in sensitivity training after complaining about his “unprofessional language.” He was the one stinking up the lunchroom with that rancid donkey meat he ate.
She digs a pit in the sand near the high water mark and lays her eggs. The eggs are tiny, no bigger than a grain of sand. Limulus does not possess a copulatory organ; he must climb atop the female and release his payload into the sandy pit of eggs. When the female finishes, she moves on, and her males follow.
In the middle of April, Charlie goes to Rite Aid and buys cards for Mother’s Day, both his parents’ birthdays (May 12 and June 2) and Father’s Day. He sits in his Stanza and signs the cards while wolfing down a bacon double cheeseburger with mayonnaise and jalapenos. He does not compose a message. He drives to the 24-hour post office by the airport and sends the cards on their way.
Abandoned by their parents, the little eggs are devoured by minnows and gobbled up by sea birds. Breezes blow the eggs about the beach. Within a few days, the hard outer shells burst open, revealing a clear shell through which the creature can be seen. In a matter of weeks, the crabs hatch and catch a ride out to sea on the tides where they are preyed upon by clamworms and calico crabs. Those who instinctively burrow into the sandy bottoms survive.
The summer of Charlie’s thirteenth birthday, he joined the swim team at the local recreation center. His excessive girth made him buoyant, but not fast. The warm-up laps exhausted him, and by the middle of practice he would cheat by touching the bottom with his feet. There was a three-hour gap between the end of practice and the completion of his mother’s shift at the local library. It was during one of these lazy summer afternoons that Charlie asked Stephanie, a Samoan girl, if she would like to “go see a movie sometime.” Stephanie was the biggest girl on the swim team, but she was not as big as Charlie, and she declined his invitation. Humiliated, Charlie went to the boy’s locker room and trashed the place. A few days later, Charlie was kicked off the squad. He told his parents he’d quit. They didn’t push him for an explanation.
When Limulus grows too big for his shell, the shield splits open and he escapes through the fissure. He hides in the sand until a new shell hardens. The horseshoe crabs one encounters on the beaches are not dead crabs, but discarded shells. Filled with seawater and sand, they acquire a corpselike appearance.
Charlie sits in a diner, looking for a mate. He composes a personal ad that reads “Mature SWM grasshopper seeks SAF sensei for companionship and marriage. Enjoys walks on the beach and a nice bottle of wine. Age not important.” Charlie reads the ad over and over again. He is pleased with his effort. He puts the ad in an envelope with his check and mails it. Who is he kidding? He doesn’t know the first thing about wine, and he hasn’t been to the beach since the layoff and he wandered down to Dockweiler Beach in El Segundo and freaked out in the surf. He gets in his car and drives to the beach. It is a beautiful day and he is truly fat. There is no other way to put it. He feels like a cancer, a blubber butt. It is a long walk to the water, but he makes it. The waves rise up to greet him. The collapsing crescendos fall apart with formulaic precision. He imagines the slope of the beach, the height and velocity of the waves. The smallish swells crash, burble, and hiss. He marvels at the way the sunlight makes the crests of the waves transparent for a split second before they disintegrate. In spite of his sandy socks and soggy shoes, the rash that is beginning to rise, he is glad to be here. He thinks of his personal ad as a message in a bottle, and he a castaway. Hope in a bottle. There’s poetry in that. He finds a horseshoe crab on the beach and kicks it over. A dozen flies rise into the air as one, and remind Charlie that he is hungry, famished even.
Limulus is content, his complacency is eternal. He feels no urges, no compulsions. He is not driven by desire. All he wants is a soft patch of sand and a bristle worm or two. Alone, he patrols the seafloor, a stubborn refugee gliding along the gloomy bottoms, safe and sound in his suit of armor, too timid to take chances on new ways of living in the world.