Oyster Fest by Emma Burger

Provincetown, Massachusetts was a manic-depressive place to grow up. Summers were ecstatic. Swaths of vacationers crowded the beaches. For ninety days, every rental property up and down the Cape was full. With this seasonal influx, P-Town was transformed from a sleepy Portuguese fishing village into a frenzied, sun-soaked non-stop beach party – a bastion of American liberation, self-expression, acceptance, and sexuality.

My summer job, from the time I could have one, was as a crew member on the ferries that shuttled summertime people from Boston to Provincetown and back again, in a constant back-and-forth. The ferries were filled with drag queens, groups of mid-60s lesbians, hot gay guys, hot gay guys and their cute kids, backpackers, Portuguese and Jamaican seasonal workers, boat-shoed WASPs and Boston area college kids in for the weekend. My job was to collect their tickets, catch the heavy rope as we pulled out of Boston Harbor, mix their gin and tonics, and pull the occasional small child off the side rail before they became shark bait.

It was the best job. For twelve weeks each summer, I was Moses, leading the summer people to the promised land. Summertime P-Town. Quite possibly the happiest place on earth.  

Cape Cod was a famously puritanical peninsula hanging tenuously off a famously puritanical state. It was the place you learned about in school where a bunch of Protestant pilgrims once peacefully broke bread with the tribes living there. In truth, it was the place where ships of English colonizers, teeming with foreign parasites, systematically slaughtered the native population. For all Cape Cod’s natural beauty, its stunning beaches, its wondrous, raucous, idyllic summers, it could also be a frigid, buttoned-up place. Its story gruesome and bloody .

Kids like me, who grow up on the Cape, learned early on in life to take nothing for granted. Living out at the very eastern tip of the continent, dangling precariously in the North Atlantic, you had to learn fast about feast and famine. The Cape giveth and the Cape taketh away. Each August, we’d watch our parents as Labor Day drew near – their eyes wide with a manic energy as they scrambled to hoard every last penny the summertime people were willing to part with. 

By that point, month three of the high season, our parents were exhausted. Desperate for the respite of Labor Day and the Great Shutting Down. Tempting as it was to take it easy those last few weeks – to spend them, like tourists, laid out on the beach in the last of the summer sun, boozing on decks at cocktail hour – that wasn’t an option for most of us locals. It would be a long, scarce winter. Plenty of time for rest later, austere as the relaxation might be. No, those last few weeks of August were a sprint. The imperative to squeeze every last drop out of summer was urgent, burning bright, even as the days grew short and fleshy bodies trickled off the beaches, the last of them dawdling.

We marked the changing of the seasons with the Oyster Fest, an all-day shellfish binge, scheduled the precise moment the last straggling Norfolk County lacrosse mom caught the ferry back to Boston. Finally, the Cape seemed to sigh, it was just us. I’d go to the Oyster Fest every year with my dad, where we’d slurp dozens and dozens of oysters. Once we got sick of raw oysters, the acid of the lemon and the mignonette sauce burning the backs of our throats, we’d move on to the barrels, where hundreds of the ugliest crustaceans you’d ever seen were roasting, waiting to be shucked, still steaming around long wooden tables.

My dad loved it, and loved that we’d created this tradition together. This one tradition we’d kept all my life. By the time I was ten though, the smell of those oyster roasting barrels made me sick to my stomach. The steam rising up from the barrel between us clouded my vision, enveloping the two of us in a nauseating cloud of brine and sulfur. When the air was sufficiently thick with mollusk smog, the sweaty teenage boys working the festival would come around to each barrel. They’d sink their giant metal hooks into the gaseous cauldrons, heaving out grotesque boulders of malformed oysters. The ones deemed too ugly for the summertime people. Too ugly even for the Cape Codders themselves to shoot down the backs of their throats, raw. They were trash fish. Bottom feeders. Sacreligious.

Years later I’d learn just how right I’d always been. “Anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales,” I read, “of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses. Everything in the waters that has not fins and scales is detestable to you.” 

And they were detestable, in their slimy, mucusy, semen-like form, when slurped grotesquely by the summertime leisure class. They were detestable in their hideous knobby, barnacle-like form, having stewed in their own steamy stench for us locals to gobble down hungrily in a desperate attempt to fortify ourselves with the last fruits of summer, anticipating the lean winter months ahead.

It must’ve been fourth grade or maybe fifth when the Oyster Fest first started spinning me, predictably, into a deep dark depression, which would build until Thanksgiving, then stretch, languishing, until April when the first summer sun peeked through the sandy Provincetown dunes, signaling summer’s long-awaited return.

That year, I’d stood next to my dad at the oyster roast, my eyes just inches above the table. I was allowed, for the first time, to shuck my own. I gripped the red rubber handle of my shucker tight, pushing all 65 pounds of me into the little crevice at the oyster’s gnarled crotch. My soft, ten-year-old left hand held the far end down, as I’d watched my father do for years. I wiggled the shucker, pushing and pushing, pleading with the stubborn shell to pry open for me as effortlessly as it did for him. Shards of the hot, stone-grey mollusk flew across the table as I chipped away at the corner. Finally, the knobby shell gave way, opening with a final thrust of the shucker. As the top half lifted, the blunt blade jabbed angrily into the fleshy part of my palm, breaking the skin and sending a gush of blood over the small puck of oyster meat I’d spent the last fifteen minutes trying so diligently to get to.

I screamed. I didn’t feel anything initially as the knife penetrated my hand – mostly just relief that the harrowing task of opening the stupid rock had been accomplished, my hero’s journey complete. It took all of three seconds for me to realize, staring down at the crimson river of blood snaking its way down the long wood table, that the blood was mine. The throbbing pain set in suddenly once I put it together, hot salty tears rolling steadily down my face. My dad ripped off his T-shirt. How unselfish and unself-conscious he must’ve been, how enviably unneurotic, to know instinctively that that’s what he should do in that moment, standing bare-chested in the middle of Oyster Fest as I bled profusely. He wrapped my wound tight, creating a makeshift tourniquet with the fabric. I watched in horror as the white of his shirt quickly turned a brilliant red.

I don’t remember the rest of that afternoon. He must have taken me home and bandaged me up properly. He must have unwound the bloody fabric, plastered solidly to my hand in the half hour’s drive home. He must have looked at the open wound, familiar from years of working on a commercial fishing rig, and known that it wasn’t deep enough to need stitches. He must have felt comfortable washing out the cut with warm water and soap, dressing it with antibiotic ointment, and bandaging up my little severed palm, as he’d done for his crew members hundreds of times before. He’d saved us a trip to the Hyannis emergency department – an hour’s drive away at least. A long night of waiting to be seen. His quiet resourceful competence the result of years of having nobody to rely on but himself. 

That was the last time I shucked or ate an oyster. I’d go to the festival in my teenage years with him to keep the tradition alive and keep him company, but I wouldn’t touch a shucker. I’d float around the raw bar rather than go anywhere near the roasting tables. I’d eat baggies of saltine crackers and make small talk with the little old ladies who knew my dad. They’d ask how my summer had been, how busy it was on the ferry that year, what grade I’d be starting, and I’d answer curtly. My mouth was moving, but my mind was elsewhere – the realization that summer was over and winter was about to begin slowly sinking in. 

As the dread crept up, I’d find myself wandering away from the festival, toward the harbor and the water’s edge, just five hundred yards away. Mostly, I needed to get away from the stomach wrenching stench of the oysters, which seemed to get somehow stronger and more revolting every year. I’d walk out to the end of the pier, relieved to finally be alone, and sit at the edge, my legs dangling, thick splinters poking uncomfortably into my bare thighs. It took everything not to jump in, fully clothed, the dark, murky harbor water strangely alluring. I’d stare down at the pink jagged scar on my hand, raised just slightly from the smooth flesh of the rest of my hand. It was a reminder of the fleetingness of summer, the deep ache of knowing nothing lasts. It was a reminder of the dirty, ugly reject oysters we’d tried so desperately to fill ourselves up on, so eager that we’d hurt ourselves in the process, just to access that little, slimy chunk of briny meat. 

By November, summer was just a faint memory, as distant as if it had possibly not even happened at all. The P-Town we’d known just months ago seemingly separated from us now by years and miles. As the narrowing winter days closed in on us, our recycling bin filled up faster and faster with discarded Michelin and Coors Light cans. I didn’t blame my dad though, or even think of it as a problem. In fact, it would’ve been more of a problem in my eyes if those bins sat empty. Insanity was the only sane reaction to an insane world, I’d read. To drink was the only sane reaction to a long Provincetown winter. 

It was my job to drive the ever-replenishing supply of bottles and cans to the dump, twenty-five minutes from our house. That was the type of place Provincetown was in the winter –  there was nobody to even come by and pick up your trash. It didn’t bother me though, those endless trips to and from the dump to take out our recycling. The well-tread route felt deeply familiar to me, meditative even. I could practically drive there with my eyes closed, the rhythmic clinking of glass bottles in the backseat reminded me my dad was human. He was alive. Perceiving the world. Dissatisfied with reality on its face. He too wanted more – to escape this place. He wasn’t an alcoholic, not really anyway. To drink was human.

Sometimes when I’d get back from the dump on those cold early winter nights, when it was dark at 4:30 and the westward wind would whip at our windows, my dad and I sat together at our little wooden kitchen table, shivering. We’d prod our spoons half-heartedly at dinner, unappetized by yet another kale and linguica soup from the Portuguese bakery down the street. I would imagine other lives for us. A big Italian family maybe, praying before our dinner, hugging, kissing, arguing over big bowls of spaghetti with gravy. What substantive conversation we might be having about politics, art, tradition, the Pope. How anemic my little life felt in comparison.

Emma Burger is a writer and healthcare professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021. You can find her work in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Across the Margin, Idle Ink, Memoirist, The Whisky Blot, or The Chamber Magazine or on her website, emmaburgerwrites.com.