If you think I'm hungry now, it's just a touch of realism to compensate for the, uh, quaintness of last week. St. Cecilia's Day saw me taking the pontoon across the Wocksihatchee River into Bullville, y'see, and as I tested the limits of my accelerator I became aware of a seething trepidosity within the very gullet of my heart. As I sped along the center divider, it became clear I was about to suffer another of my chronic Roquefort attacks, so I set my sights on the nearest self-serve salad station, where I might quench my impending Pangfest. The signs led me to a modest little eatery on the southeast corner of Workman and Doolittle, situated inside what looked to be a lovingly converted 12th-century torture chamber. I parked my jeep in the philodendrons and brushed aside the paisley art nouveau bead curtain, which triggered a strain from "Make the World Go Away" to herald my arrival. The proprietor was a short burly gazabo with a Karl Malden chin and a Kirk Douglas nose wearing a "Gimme a Break" T-shirt--no small accomplishment for a nose, I had to grant. He led me up to a life-size porcelain dodo equipped with a saddle, and as I mounted my extinct steed, the treadmill underneath began rolling (run, no doubt, by a pair of besmocked rhesus monkeys), and I was conveyed up to the counter.
"Can I get you anything?" asked the burly-nosed one.
"Who, me? Oh, no. I just came in to munch on candle wax," I chirped, ever the ideal customer. As it turned out, my goal probably should have matched my words for once. For this was no ordinary Mexican-Albanian delicatessen like the ones I so fondly remember back in Trussville, Alabama; no, I had stumbled upon what was probably the last remaining endangered-species abattoir south of the Bougainvillea Circuit. (At this point, dramatic musical flourishes, evoking the mood of Wagner's unfinished oratorio "Das Scheißbad" superimposed upon the bootleg version of "Funky Time" as sung by the Vienna Choir Boys under the direction of Irwin Corey's hat, ought to arise; but it's sort of hard to know how to spell all that, and Mr. Joyce is in the other room.)
"Perhaps this creature can recommend something," I murmured dubitatively as a waitress materialized behind the counter. Her uniform resembled those of the tour guides at the opossum ranches back home, and I made a mental note to congratulate the management on its choice of shin guards. The panelescent chandeliers shone brightly eggshell across the tawny streaks of her auburn tresses, and I marvelled at the myriad convolutions of color sparkling through that wavy protein display as its ends dropped inside the candle holder and ignited, activating the overhead sprinkler system.
"I'll try the California Condor chef's plate with Chrysler dressing, and a side of Sulfur-Bottom Tongue," I requested, eschewing the Bulgarian translations on the bill of fare. "I want everything rare."
"You wouldn't be here otherwise," came the deserved rejoinder. "What are you drinking with that?"
"Just bring a wet sponge," I replied while tucking the vinyl tablecloth inside my dashiki, "but only if it's been killed recently."
"We'll bag you one from our outdoor aquarium. Your choice. You can watch from in here if you like." She indicated a color video monitor suspended directly over my genitalia by a string of catgut. I observed the screen briefly, but could make out only a studio aide chalking X's on a snorkel.
"Surprise me," I instructed, secretly hoping they wouldn't.
The waitress's Adidas creaked demurely as she hobbled off toward the kitchen, her sumptuous form reminiscent of a royal Lipizzan gelding. I fought back my lust by jabbing the butter knife into my upper sternum.
"Twenty thousand restaurants in this town, and I gotta choose the one that serves Poppin' Fresh," I grumbled in a futile attempt to turn my mind to other matters.
Over by the jukebox (which played a recording of a Dutch carillon striking out a medley of Irish ragas by Poulenc) stood a fellow with a portable concession box. He was hawking save-the-whales merchandise--predictably without success, given that his moccasins were mink. Even customers who were there to punch up Buffy Sainte-Marie records were rebuffing his advances. My curiosity was piqued by this inopportune one-man crusade, and I could not resist looking to discern what punditries might be on the man's lips. Wellaway! I would have been better off watching the sponge divers overhead, for that cetacean solicitor met my glance at the very moment that I, quite unconsciously, plucked my cuticle--a gesture universally recognized as one of the come-hither variety by those eager so to interpret. Before I could brandish my cuticle scissor as a disclaimer, the Whaleman had seated himself in the wicker beanbag alongside me.
I could now make out his leather T-shirt. It depicted an outraged Jonah emerging from the mouth of an oversized blackfish, aiming a harpoon toward the startled crew of a Japanese whaling vessel. The balloon emanating from Jonah's forehead proclaimed, "LET MY PEOPLE PLAY GO!" Upon seeing this, I formed a nervous smile of approval; proud of the sanctimony instilled in me by my Rosicrucian mother back in Trussville (and fearing the possibility of a similar harpoon concealed within my companion's jodhpurs), I chose not to call attention to the implicit anachronism.
"I hear you can get great humpback here," he oozed.
"Find your own waitress," I warned.
"You are obviously of high breeding and tough guts. It's too bad your gastronomic sophistication is not accompanied by a social conscience." He was going into his spiel now. "When was the last time you shed a tear for your feathered, furry and formless friends who are threatened every day by extinction? Your kind should go suck a Curad. Of all the services to subsidize!"
"Well, of course I haven't seen the wine list yet," for it was true, now that I thought about it.
"Get technical. How are you gonna take it when God puts your buns in a warmer? We may be top dog now, for what that's worth on this world, but how long do you think we'll be able to keep a position we haven't earned? Someday the rotisserie spit will call your number, and you'll wish you'd ordered bean curd today."
"Wise up, Flukie," I argued. "'Tis not the goose's place to worry for the peacock's fate. Besides, what makes you think the future of us two-faced bipeds is worth considering, anyway? So a few giants of the sea bite the big one by our hand, or an extension thereof. Isn't that merely a reflection of our own inner death wish? Will the sparing of one life form do anything to improve the chances of our own? If it's all the same to you, our own species demands all the rescue efforts I can muster just now." I proceeded to ravage the surface of my Poppin' Fresh with an icy butterpat.
"That argument's full of holes; it's all those sponges you eat. How can you condone separatism throughout the animal kingdom without generating it within your own species? The first rule of life is, there can be no exceptions."
"Don't press your luck."
"You know I'm right and won't admit it. You're just doing this to be a squinch."
"Yes, dear." (WARNING TO READERS: Do not attempt this sort of flippancy at home, even if you're a trained expert.)
"If you truly believed in your position you would attempt to defend it against me, but you know you can't, so nyaaa."
"Look--all I know is I came in here with a genuine biological need to fulfill--I was hungry. And I have sought to fulfill that need by working with, and not against, the situation I find myself in. I'm not out to change anybody's mind. And I certainly didn't come here to take people's money."
One of the sponge divers was being chased across the video screen by an outraged jellyfish. Another diver, in cahoots with the first, lurked behind an impending snare trap with some peanut butter and two slices of bread.
"Yeah, well, maybe I don't expect to change your mind either," said the Whaleman, pointedly taking a different tack. "But I can give it something to chew on before I'm chased out of here, for unlike you, I know how to state my case rationally and convincingly. Now then, you cretinous baboon--"
We doubtless would have gone on chatting indefinitely, had we not been discourteously interrupted by the sound of crumbling plaster directly behind us. As we turned, we saw a curious process unfolding: A large crack had formed in the exact center of the wall behind us and was now spreading out to all four corners as its point of origin began to bulge inward. Our brains processed this information and concluded that some object was proceeding dead ahead without regard to the wall's presence.
I turned to remark on this, but the Whaleman was already halfway to the back door, and I took this as a sign that I, too, might want to consider the self-preservation instinct. Immediately I leaped on top of the counter and dropped behind it, glancing back at the wall only long enough to witness its total collapse. Plaster dropped everywhere in bleeding chunks, splashing into people's Passenger Pigeons (a truly marvelous drink concoction, I wish they still made them) and doubling the depth of the redwood sawdust floor.
Soon my entire world was engulfed by the sounds of horrified (not to mention annoyed) patrons leaping from their tables and crowding their way toward the back door. Even the proprietor couldn't avoid becoming part of this mad rush; he was followed close behind by his insurance agent, who was yelling something unintelligible in a language I never use.
As the last of the plaster gave way, I glanced up again to see a monstrous gray shape emerge and begin sliding across what had once been the dining floor, crushing tables, stools, rubber plants, short waiters, and God (is He endangered too?) knows what else was still in its path, hurtling pieces of wreckage every which way... The leviathan form kept inching its way relentlessly across the floor, finally coming to rest just a few feet away from where I had once had only my appetite to occupy my thoughts.
At some point during all this I had again stopped looking and crouched down securely on the floor behind the counter. Now, at the first moment of silence, I took my hands away from my head and reached up to grasp the top of the counter. Slowly I pulled myself up to see just what it was that had changed my plans for the afternoon, if not a great many subsequent afternoons.
It was the head of a whale.
The Department of Health had arrived.
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