“What’s wrong?” Robbie asked. He knew her so well.
“It’s that lobster,” Mary said. She wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand and pointed to the rafters. “It’s overkill.”
Robbie folded his arms in front of him. His light blue work shirt was unbuttoned to the waist, his tan chest speckled with paint. With less than a week to go before Memorial Day weekend, they’d been working around the clock to set things up. “This is a clam bar. I think the town fines you if you don’t have the requisite lobster buoys, fish nets, and plastic critters.”
Mary peeled the sweaty T-shirt fabric from her skin. She moved to take a step down the center aisle, but Robbie grabbed her hand and pulled her to him. “You fixin’ to break the law, missy?” he said.
Mary fell into his arms. She was exhausted, but in a good way, with a healthy ache in her young muscles. They kissed. Mary smelled alcohol on Robbie’s breath and wondered when he’d managed a drink. They’d been together all day.
“I can’t believe it’s really ours,” Robbie said.
“I can’t either.” Thanks, Mom and Dad, Mary thought. She knew Robbie liked to downplay their contribution, which was why she didn’t readily share these thoughts with her husband, how she secretly carried her parents with her into this venture, consulting them at every turn—how her mother, who’d had a good eye for design, might have laid out the interior, or what kind of bargain her father might have struck with the shellfishermen out on the cove. Things may not have gone down between Robbie and her father the way Mary would have liked, but the restaurant wouldn’t have happened without the money they’d left her. She was hell-bent on making it succeed, as much for her parents as for herself.
From as far back as Mary could remember, running a restaurant was what she always knew she was meant to do. Her great-grandfather, referred to only ever as “the Captain,” had operated a legendary clam shack off the Mid-Cape Highway in Eastham that was long gone by the time Mary was born. But she’d grown up with a sepia photograph of him framed in the upstairs hall, him standing in the doorway of his establishment holding an enormous live lobster. Something about that bit of family lore had captured her imagination, this and a love for the food she’d enjoyed as a Cape Codder from her earliest days.
Mary nestled her chin into Robbie’s neck, looking over his shoulder at the new carved wood Clambake sign at the end of the driveway. “I just know this place is going to make it. I can feel it,” she said.
“You can feel it, huh?” Robbie let her go and walked down the aisle. He bent over to collect a speck of paper from the floor. Seventy-Eight dove out from beneath one of the tables and lunged at his fingers.
“I mean it,” Mary said. “I know I’ll be good at this.”
“Let’s hope so.” He scratched the tiger kitten behind its ears as it wove in and around his ankles.
“Unless this lobster jinxes us,” she added, glancing upward.
The door opened and a breeze rushed in, carrying with it a few blades of fresh-cut grass and Mary’s great-aunt, Lovey. She was wearing her drip-dry navy polyester slacks and a beige short-sleeve sweater with a gold circle pin centered below her collarbone.
Seventy-Eight made a dash for freedom before the door swung shut.
The older woman slid her tan pocketbook up on her forearm and clapped her hands. She brought them to her chin. “My goodness, will you look at the place,” she said. Her blue eyes sparkled.
“Auntie!” Mary said. Since she was a child, Mary had always lived to make her aunt proud. “The tarps came today. And the tables. Of course no chairs yet, but they’re coming Wednesday. What do you think?” Mary held her breath.
Lovey took her time looking around, eating up every square inch. “It looks like a real restaurant. Why, I’d love nothing more than to sit here on a brisk summer evening with a cup of hot chowder—”
“You will, every night if you like,” Robbie said. He came up and gave Lovey a peck on the cheek. “I’m glad you’re here. You can help Mary and me settle a dispute.”
“Can I get you a glass of wine?” Mary asked. She started for the bar. It wasn’t stocked yet, but there were a few bottles in the cooler that Mary had brought from the house.
“That would be nice.” Lovey set her handbag down on the nearest table. She turned to Robbie. “What is it I can help you with, dear?”
“It’s about the lobster,” Robbie said.
She wagged her finger at him. “I saw something on Julia Child the other day. Do you have any idea how they make baked stuffed lobster?” Her face reddened. “They take and slice the lobster right down the tail”—with the heel of her right hand, she sawed at her left palm—“while it’s still alive!” Her eyes widened. “Then they spoon the dressing right in the gash and then into the oven he goes! Ach!” Lovey pressed her hands to her mouth, then shook them out. “Who could do such a thing?”
Mary smiled. Her aunt had always been an empathetic soul, particularly when it came to “God’s creatures,” as she called them. Though empathy was one thing and the woman’s love of a good lobster roll was quite another. “We’re only going to steam them, Auntie. They die instantly.”
Lovey’s shoulders relaxed.
“The doors to the steamer are so thick you can’t hear them scream,” Robbie added.
From behind the bar, Mary gave him the evil eye, trying not to smile. She found the wine. There were two bottles, though she could have sworn she’d brought over three. Then again, she’d been making so many trips back and forth, she couldn’t keep track of where anything was at this point.
“Anyway, we weren’t talking about real lobsters, Lovey, though baked stuffed does sound yummy.” Robbie grinned. Mary admired her handsome husband, even more so with that mischievous flicker in his eye. “In any case, we meant that lobster,” Robbie said. He pointed to the rafters, to the larger-than-life red crustacean caught in the net.
Lovey ignored his teasing and looked up. “What’s the trouble? I think it looks fine.”
Robbie grinned, victorious. Not so fast, Mary thought. She knew her aunt better than anyone.
Lovey walked down the aisle until she stood directly beneath the plastic creature. She cocked her head. “Though I see why some might take issue with it.” She tapped her cheek with her forefinger.
“Why’s that?” Mary asked.
“Well, we don’t cast nets for lobster, do we?” Lovey turned to Mary. “Your father kept dozens of pots out back. Don’t you remember—?” Lovey stopped mid sentence and looked at Mary. Her face grew long, as though she’d immediately regretted bringing up Mary’s father, who’d died just two years earlier.
“It’s okay,” Mary said. She smiled. It was good to talk about her parents. How else would they be remembered? “Of course. I used to love helping him set the traps.”
With that, her aunt seemed to relax. “I’m just saying, if someone’s a stickler, you might catch an earful.” Lovey Rollwagon being the Queen of Sticklers.
“You’re being too literal—,” Robbie started.
“And I supposed the most egregious error of all is that the lobster is red,” Lovey said. She folded her arms and shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“So?” Robbie said.
“So, they don’t turn red till you cook them!” Lovey said.
Robbie frowned. “Oh, yeah.” For once he seemed at a loss.
“Unless the oceans are getting that hot,” Lovey continued. “Did you know about that, dear?” She turned to Mary. “That the oceans are warming up? They think the whole planet is getting hotter thanks to pollution. I read something about it in the National Geographic. ‘Global warming,’ it’s called.”
“That sounds awful,” Mary said. Her aunt was always informing them of the latest impending catastrophes and natural disasters, though this one Mary had already done her share of fretting over. The idea of the sea level rising as a result of melting polar ice caps didn’t bode well for the Cape. One day this place would be waterfront. “But you’re absolutely right about the lobster. It makes no sense.” Mary scanned the counter for a corkscrew. “And never mind that, it’s tacky.”
“I can’t imagine anyone eating a lobster that size, can you? My goodness. Imagine the leftovers. Lobster salad up the wazoo.” Lovey let loose with her staccato laugh.
“I don’t think they even sell fake uncooked lobsters,” Robbie said. “They’re all red.”
“Because they’re made in China,” Mary said. She found a wine opener in the sink and screwed the metal spiral into the cork. “Do they even have lobsters in China?”
Lovey turned to her great-nephew-in-law. She patted down the hem of her sweater. “Well, dear, as a decoration, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said. “But you did ask.”
“That he did,” Mary said. A little leverage and the cork gave way.
“If it’s any consolation, I imagine the folks who come here from places like New York don’t know red lobster from green,” Lovey said. “Just like they don’t know red chowder from white.”
Robbie laughed. “Now you’re just being a snob,” he said. “Far as I can tell, the people who get most upset about red chowder are the ones who once came from places that serve it. I’ve lived here all my life and I have nothing against red chowder.”
Lovey wrinkled her nose and turned to Mary, who was coming around the bar with a glass of wine. “You’re not planning to serve that Manhattan variety, are you?” she asked, as she took the drink with both hands. If there was one thing Lovely regretted, it was having been born in the Bronx.
“Never,” Mary replied. Challenging the unwritten plastic-lobster rule was one thing. Serving Manhattan clam chowder was simply against the clam bar code, a matter of ethics, heritage. Loyalty, even.
© 2010 Lynn Kiele Bonasia
In the first days of the summer season, a young waitress’s tragic accident stirs up unresolved pain from Mary’s past, leaving her longing for connection. At the same time, Mary’s life is further upended as she begins to suspect her beloved great-aunt, the one person in the world who loves her unconditionally, is descending into Alzheimer’s disease. Then, in walks Dan, a lost love—perhaps the greatest of her life— returning to the Cape after disappearing years before without an explanation. As Mary faces these challenges and losses, it’s her rekindled romance with Dan and her burgeoning unlikely friendships with a warm, eccentric collection of local characters that keep her afloat.
Set against the backdrop of Cape Cod sand, sun, and seafood, Summer Shift is the story of a woman’s struggle to find the peace, love, and human connection that have eluded her for decades.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Mary Hopkins, a successful Cape Cod restaurant owner, is reasonably satisfied with her stable life. But at the beginning of a new season, when a young waitress is killed in a car accident, Mary realizes she knows nothing about the people who work for her. Meanwhile, she struggles to cope with the fact that her beloved great aunt Lovey has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, when an old flame shows up at her doorstep, Mary is forced to abandon her careful existence and confront her own dark past.
As Mary fights to regain her footing, she becomes inextricably involved in the lives of the surviving members of her employee’s family and ultimately finds that moving forward usually involves forgiving the past.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1.) What effect does the beginning of the novel, in which Mary and Robbie open the restaurant, have on the theme of failed expectations that pervades the story?