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Alas, poor Phineas...

A FORTUNATE professor has just been granted $135,772 for a three-year study of the nervous system of crabs. Resounding cheers are due from both academic and nonacademic quarters for this charity; the gracious gift comes from the National Science Foundation in Washington. For me, pshaw and alas!, the news comes much too late. Phineas, my pet crab and longtime boon companion, packed up just last Tuesday and backed out of the house and departed. Not one word about where he would go. I had spoken to him sharply that morning about his systems, and he had taken umbrage. I was hasty, I admit, but we had been close for so long that I assumed he would take my admonitions in the same spirit they were offered, and in the same compliant manner he had accepted my advice over the years.

Phineas was always extremely nervous. Soon after we were acquainted he told me of his problem, and explained that all crabs are taut and apprehensive as a consequence of their millions of years of accumulated worry. A crab always goes backward, while every other creature moves forward in an otherwise unanimous common surge onward and upward, eyes front and purpose clear. Thus a crab always knows where he has been, but has no notion of where he's going. This gives the crab a deep sense of deplorable inferiority, and leaves him destitute in the matter of security.

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Phineas told me of his youth, when he was one of 72 children playing about in a cranny. There had been no incident to disturb the equanimity of his boyhood until it came time for the brood to leave home and seek separate fortunes in the broader world. One by one they ventured forth into the bounding, and boundless, sea, and one by one they were victims of a ferocious striped bass of 38 pounds who lurked in wait outside the briny bower.

Phineas didn't share this catastrophe, since he was the last to leave and the bass had no more room. Phineas saw the shadow of the great bass over his shoulder as it (the bass) swam away, and realized at once what had happened, leaving his memory seared forever.

From that time forward Phineas was extra cautious about being backward, and always looked behind before crossing a street, and so forth. I remember his poignant delight when I fashioned him a small front-view mirror that permitted him to prance about the house in carefree style, no longer bumping against furniture and walls. That gave me some relief, too, as my meditations were no longer interrupted by the constant thump-thump of Phineas's collisions.

We always had to be careful about noises that would frighten Phineas. His startle response made him a real jumper, and if somebody thoughtlessly slammed a bulkhead door, Phineas would likely go right up on the piano where, I should add, Phineas was not otherwise permitted to go. As long as Phineas was with us we had to forgo the evening bowl of popcorn - the first time he heard the popcorn popper popping he went into a lamentable frenzy of terror, and it took many days of pampering to restore him to his customary carefree ways, part of that time devoted to coaxing him down from the fireplace mantle.

Besides the mantle, bookcases, divan, and piano, we had several off-limits for Phineas, and he was under strict orders not to intrude when we had company. Most bourgeois and lowbrow people who called were found to be quite unready for Phineas, so we early made a rule that he should stay in his room. The only exceptions were professors and college presidents, who took readily to Phineas and delighted in his congenial converse and the erudition and culture of his remarks. When we knew that somebody from the academic world would call, we would always tell Phineas so he could put on his necktie and make a favorable impression. With me, things were less formal. He would come and cuddle while I was reading a book before the fireplace, and as Phineas was a decapod it was always amusing to me to see him reach forward and turn a page of my book when it was time. I regret speaking roughly to him as I did, and I miss the little fellow more than I can say. He had been unruly, true, and he deserved censure, but I realize I was hasty and brusque.

I remember with chagrin, now, my very words. I said, ``Phineas! Whatever makes you so crabbed?'' At which, you see, he left. Next month the National Science Foundation will award a three-year grant so some professor can come and study me.

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