There’s Nothing Else — Lauren Shapiro

It was an artist-designed t-shirt, displayed in the small, overflowing gift shop, on the historic boardwalk. “Jones Beach” was writ large in large gray, block letters. Within the letters were drawings of Adirondack chairs, beach umbrellas and other summer paraphernalia, all in different shades of gray so that the entire effect was of reading Jones Beach as though it were carved into sun-bleached driftwood. Underneath this, in script embroidered in deep blue, the artist declared, “There’s Nothing Else.”

Well, that was my sentiment exactly because the “else” that the Jones Beach waves washed away to nothingness included the custody battle and the child support battle that had become a child neglect accusation, which meant that I and my court-appointed attorney, who had 125 cases, were up against my ex-husband, his new wife, their private attorney, and the Administration for Children’s Services, who they had managed to enlist on their side. We had gone through six judges in six years who understood what my ex-husband was doing, but who also understood the politics of child neglect cases. Being in untenable positions, somehow, they all managed to get off the case. Over these years, I had become friendly with enough of the court personnel to know that, by the seventh judge, the system had reached the Peter principle, and maybe I should have settled the case—make a deal, sell off one of the children and his child support in exchange for the other child and withdrawal of the ACS charges.

I bought the shirt; I needed to bring that message home. My daughter instantly claimed it for a beach dress. She bobbed along the boardwalk, like a carbonated message in a bottle, headed for the bay, the waveless, knee-deep, oceanic equivalent of the kiddie pool. She had her pail and shovel. The concession stand sold butterfly nets for gathering minnows. We waded in.

Sand, sky, sun, shells and living water. There’s nothing else. Nothing.

Nothing, that is, except swooping, shrieking seagulls.

“What are the seagulls doing, Mommy?”

My parenting philosophy was that if she was old enough to ask a question, she was old enough to hear the answer, and besides, the answer was flying in her face. “They’re catching minnows with their beaks,” I tried, minimally, making it her option. She took it.


“They eat them.”

“They eat them! No! Seagulls get out of here! What’s that?”

“A part of a minnow that a seagull dropped.”

“Oh, I hate you seagulls! I hate you!” She caught a minnow with the net and tipped it into her pail. “Ooh, fishy wishy. Are you scaredy-waredy?”

The minnow replied by somersaulting out of her pail.

“Oh, no! Oh, no!” She scooped more water into the pail, and her next minnow stayed put.

Once she had the hang of it, I ambled back to our blanket and watched her from there. I started idly formulating explanations for later about why we couldn’t take the minnows home with us. Once the gulls were gone, we could talk a bit about salt water and oceans being different from fresh water and sinks, and how she had done her part to protect the minnows, and then there would be the drama of releasing them back into the ocean and watching them swim back where they belong, and we would go back where we belong

I watched a woman wade over to my daughter; she was showing her how best to catch minnows. Yes, let the village help raise your child. Relax. There’s nothing else. No spiteful ex-husband spewing out papers to a dismally dull-witted family court judge, someone’s political favor, sitting there deciding my children’s futures. No, nothing but wind, water and sun, nothing else—except a grab, a sudden high-speed swoop, and my child racing towards me.

“Mommy, Mommy—she took my net, and she caught a big crab—and she said she’s going to eat it! Stop her! Stop her! Make her throw it back.”

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

With my daughter at my side, I asked the woman to put the crab back in the water. In retrospect, I could have argued that since she used my daughter’s net, it was my daughter’s crab. After hundreds of hours in family court listening to less-reasoned arguments than that, it should have occurred to me, but it didn’t. This woman was appalling, and yet, I argued that she was violating a child, as if she didn’t know that, as if that would change her and the outcome.

The woman answered. “No, I’m going to eat it.”

“Not with our net, you’re not,” I said.

She removed the crab and handed me back my empty net. “Now, I need a stick,” she mused. She found a twig, and walked away, with the crab hanging on by one pincer. It dropped off. She picked it up and forced the twig into its mouth. It fell again.

“Do something. Do something about that killer woman,” my daughter sputtered. “And those boys—you know what they’re going to do with all their minnows—use them for bait! They’re using them all for bait.”

“They can’t keep the fish that long,” I tried.

“Yes, they can. They told me! They did it last week. They take them home, and they get dead, and then they use them for bait.”

I looked at the boys with the bottle, at the woman, at the crab, and my daughter, somewhat surprised to see her still wearing a shirt that read “Jones Beach. There’s nothing else,” when there was everything else.

“They’re not doing anything wrong,” I said, because it wasn’t her complaint that the woman had tricked and used her; that was my complaint. Nor was it her complaint that the boys had been brutally honest; children generally are. Her complaint was that might makes right, and that the animals were not on the agenda at King Arthur’s Round Table. That was true, and now, somehow, once again, I was going to have to explain the inexplicable.

“People eat crabs. People fish. People eat animals. You, too. When you eat a hot dog, you’re eating an animal. It’s the way life is.” Brilliant.

“I’ll never eat a hot dog again. Never.” She was sobbing. “Can we start a sea creatures’ rights organization?”



“Because big fish eat little fish.”

“What do the little fish eat?” she cried.

“Littler fish.”

“What do the littler fish eat?”

“Even littler fish.”

“And what do the littlest fish eat?”

“Ocean plants.”

“Well good for the littlest fish!” she screamed, and she ran back into the ocean, shaking her fist up at the seagulls, and chasing the crabs and minnows away from the people, driving them and back with her butterfly net, back into Sea of Blood.

I stood next to her as she raged.

I did not try to stop her.

Wasn’t I shouting into the wind too?