Culinary relativism: The last temptation of Greer

FICTION.Killerwhales_jumpingby January Anderson

“Aw, come on, Airy! Tell me the killer whale story? Please?”

“Again?” Ariel loosened her waitress apron and fell onto the couch, tossing her “Capn’s Catch” nametag on the coffee table. She rolled her eyes at 9-year-old Timmy, the neighbor’s kid who visited often. She’d just gotten off the graveyard shift—Timmy’s Saturday morning was her Friday night.

“For Pete’s sake, Timmy! You’ve heard it so many times you gotta know it by heart. Why don’t you tell it?”

“Okay, okay…um…” Timmy squirmed. “You know this guy, and he’s an abalone diver and…I forget. Pleeeeeeeeese, Ariel?” he pleaded.

“If I tell you again, you promise to go outside and pull weeds or something and let me sleep?”

Timmy agreed readily. Ariel sighed and began the tale that an abalone fisherman friend had told her years ago.

“Kenny is an abalone diver who’s been making a living at it since he was about 15. He learned from his father, who learned from his father. When Kenny goes to work, instead of wearing a jacket, he puts on a rubber suit connected to an air hose and basically pokes around the bottom of the ocean for snails—that’s what abs are, just big snails, but really good to eat.

“He’s been in the water with all kinds of things. Seals, dolphins, hammerheads, Great Whites, you name it. He’s seen a lot of killer whales and says they’re really, really smart—smarter than dolphins, maybe as smart as people. Orcas mostly eat fish, not people, even though they could, easy. Kenny says they just seem to have a rule not to eat humans.

“Well, one day, Kenny and Panama Pat had been diving out by Santa Cruz Island from Kenny’s boat, the Sally J. They were done for the day and crossing the channel to Santa Barbara. A ways from the boat a couple of killer whales surfaced, looked at them, and disappeared.

“Kenny and Panama waited for the whales to come back up again close to the boat because killer whales always do that, Kenny says. But instead, the whales surfaced further away.

“‘That’s weird,’ Panama said to Kenny. ‘Maybe they’re gonna go around and come up astern.’

“After a few minutes, the whales surfaced even farther out, looked back, and swam away from the Sally J as fast as Kenny and Panama had ever seen orcas go.

“‘Boy, that’s strange!’ Kenny said. ‘I’ve never seen killer whales act that way.’

“‘Yeah,’ Panama said. ‘They’re acting almost like they was guilty or something….’”

***

Greer Dettins thumbed the stiff plastic laminating on the menu and reviewed the list of hamburger variations. Cheeseburgers. Swiss cheese mushroom burgers. Onion burgers. Hamburgers with bacon, avocado and cheese. Hamburgers with nothing but a scrap of lettuce and a blood-like dab of ketchup.

Anymore, his stomach didn’t squelch at the barbarity of it, but his mind did. It made him, Greer thought, out of place, alien—a familiar feeling most days, but not the kind of thing you got used to. Sure as hell not in a place like this.

It had looked decent enough from the road, a 24-hour converted Denny’s called “Capn’s Catch,” on the freeway’s edge of a wind-bitten California waterfront town. Greer figured the half-dozen customers charging their hands on warm coffee mugs, settled in booths or elbow-propped at the counter, to be garbage workers, commercial fishermen, farmers. It was four o’clock in the morning.

With a businesslike weariness, he caught the waitress’s eye.

“What can I get you?” She leaned against the booth, pen and pad poised.

“The chef’s salad without the meat, cheese, or egg, double tomatoes and avocado. Oil and vinegar, whole wheat rolls, margarine, no butter.”

Her pen twaddled across the pad. “Sounds healthy. Juice to drink?” She nailed him levelly with eyes so blue it was like looking into sky. She was young, a few pounds crowding thin but not quite fat. No wedding ring, maybe five years younger than himself—and nearly pretty, he thought.

“Coffee, and not de-caf,” he said.

She raised her eyebrows.

“What?” Greer was annoyed.

“Nothing.”

“I’m not a health fanatic. I just don’t eat animals, that’s all.”

“S’fine with me,” the waitress shrugged as she left. Vaguely flattered, Greer felt himself blush. By the time she was back with the coffee, he’d willed the heat from his face. He avoided her eye while she leisurely appraised the stream as it poured into the cup.

“You look like a tired working guy in for a quick bite before heading home,” she ventured. “On this shift, you get so you can spot ‘em from the wierdos.”

“That’s me,” he mumbled, wishing he’d brought something to read. He grasped for the coffee. She wasn’t wrong—he was returning home from a month-long road tour of county fairs, and he was tired of hotels. He’d decided to drive straight through the night.

“What do you do?” she persisted.

“I’m an animal trainer. Reinforced behavior specialist. I train parrots.” He said the words dryly.

“Oh! Yeah.” She nodded, as if satisfied. “That’d give you a different perspective on things.”

“It does.” His tone was short. She lifted a brow in acknowledgment of the dismissal as she left. Greer frowned.

It was another five minutes before his salad was up. The waitress announced it by setting on the table a wire-handled holder of oil and vinegar and a saucer of sliced lemon.

“So what made you say that?” Greer asked, allowing a slim smile.

The waitress paused. “Say what?”

“That being an animal trainer would give me a different perspective.”

Mechanically inventorying the table’s contents, she answered, “Probably because you didn’t order the cheeseburger.”

“Of course I didn’t order a cheeseburger. I’m a vegetarian.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know that. You may think I’m nuts, but I can hear people thinking food. I can be back in the kitchen and hear some guy in booth seven thinking ‘pie.’ No kidding. I’m really good at hearing people think coffee. I thought I heard you thinking cheeseburger, but now I can see why…why not.”

Greer was intrigued. “Dogs can sense when their owners are thinking about going out. Must be the same kind of thing.”

The waitress was all business again. “Might be. Never thought of it that way.” She hurried off to return shortly with his salad.

“You know,” Greer said, leaning back as she set his dinner in front of him, “what you do for a living isn’t all that different from what my birds do.”

“And what’s that?”

“I run a little parrot circus with a macaw and a couple Amazons. We do shows at county fairs and schools, things like that. The birds aren’t pets—I think of them more as business partners. They’re the ones paying for this meal.”

“Smart birds?”

“They’re more intelligent than most people think. They can learn almost anything—how to water ski, paint pictures, drive cars, answer telephones, play basketball, ring bells, shoot cannons…you name it.”

“That’s one way to make a living.”

Greer’s eyes fixed on her face. He was enjoying himself. “One of the first things I teach them is how to retrieve. When they walk a ball or get in a scooter, it’s just a variation on retrieving. Like you retrieved this salad from over there.” He grinned. “And you did it for the same reason.”

“You mean me bringing you food is like a bird doing a trick?”

“They’re not tricks.” Greer bristled. “They’re behaviors. Kids at school assemblies always ask, ‘How does the bird do that trick?’ I tell them, ‘He sees the ball, he picks it up, puts it in the basket, and I give him a sunflower seed. It’s exactly the same thing as your dads when they go to work and get a paycheck.’”

The waitress regarded him solemnly. “That’s why you didn’t order a cheeseburger?”

Disconcerted, Greer dug into his breast pocket for the sunflower seeds he sprinkled on salads to boost the protein—seeds and nuts were vital to a human vegetarian diet, but few restaurant menus reflected it. He was about to say as much to the waitress, but she spoke first.

“Can I bring you anything else?”

“I think I’ve got everything,” he said. She smiled an “okay” and bustled off.

Halfway through his salad, Greer decided to ask for more bread and coffee after all. He was craning his head to spot the waitress when she rounded a corner and headed toward him with a steaming coffee pot and a basket of rolls.

Greer gasped. “That’s incredible! I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a human.”

“No?” She stood with the coffee. “You know, I still could swear I heard you thinking cheeseburger when you first came in.”

“Kind of.” His fork pinned an avocado slice against a chunk of lettuce. “In my business, you come to hate the idea of people eating meat. Working with animals, I’ve come to realize there’s no difference between us and them. They fall in love, get their feelings hurt, feel happy or sad. They even blush when they’re embarrassed, but you can’t see it through their feathers or fur.

“And really, we only do a few things. We push—when you’re writing with your pen, you’re pushing it across a piece of paper. We pull. We walk, run, and retrieve. And that’s about it. Everything else is just a variation.”

He triumphantly lifted a fork-full of salad and planted it in his mouth, crunching loudly.

“I guess this means you’re only going to leave me a sunflower seed for a tip.” She laughed at her own cleverness.

Greer smiled in spite of himself and pointed his fork at her. “You remind me of an Australian shepherd-type dog I used to have. Orca. He was a mind reader with a sense of humor.”

“I know those dogs,” she said. “You named him Orca because he was black and white like a killer whale?”

Greer nodded, mouth full.

“We get killer whales along the coast here.” She pulled her order pad from her apron and tallied his check. “Commercial fishermen say they’re so smart it’s scary. One diver I know says he wants to be reincarnated as one. He says they’re ‘free spirits.’”

“‘Killer whale’ is a misnomer. It’s a myth that they eat humans. I figured you were smarter than that.” He popped a piece of roll into his mouth.

The waitress refilled his coffee cup.

“Mister,” she said sweetly, slipping the check on the table, “orcas eat whatever they want.”

Greer snorted good-naturedly at her retreating back. After he finished his meal, he turned the check over and unhurriedly counted out money from his pocket. He wrapped a couple of dollar bills around some sunflower seeds and, smiling, slid it beneath the plate. She wouldn’t find it until after he was gone.

He was pushing open the front door to leave when he heard her call him.

“Wait,” she said. She held a small paper bag, weighted at the bottom. “I think your old dog Orca would really want this.” She hesitated. “You said there’s no difference between us and them.” She put the bag in his hands and ushered him out the door. “Have a safe drive. Come back again.”

Greer lifted the bag in an awkward salute and walked to a dusty cargo van with “Paradise Parrot Circus” painted on the side. Feeling the waitress’ eyes burning a hole in his back, he drove away.

He’d gone a few miles before he pulled the van to the side of the coast highway. The broad hulk of the Pacific surged darkly in the west. The air was heavy with pre-dawn’s secret, poignant stillness.

After awhile, Greer looked at the bag on the seat. The rich smell wafting from it slammed memories into his gut like softballs. Summer afternoons and riding bikes. The Foster Freeze. Greer rolled down the window and gazed at the sea. The rich salt air infused his head. A hint of dawn made the ocean seem restless…ruthless…waiting….

He opened the bag and gingerly withdrew a cheeseburger with a pretty frill of lettuce and poppy-gold cheese at the corners. It was tucked into silky wax paper, the replica of a thousand cheeseburgers he’d gulped as a boy. Its warmth felt good in his hands.

The birds’ cages were covered and tucked among the circus equipment behind him. Their occupants, perhaps dozing, were silent in their isolation.

She was essentially correct, he knew. Killer whales ate whatever they damned well pleased.  And Orca would have wolfed this burger in a heartbeat and grinned from ear to ear.

Slowly, Greer brought the cheeseburger to his nose….

Five minutes later, gravel spurted from the van’s tires as it high-tailed away.

***

“Air-eee!” Timmy cajoled. “What happened next?”

Ariel had paused too long, smiling over sunflower seeds she’d fished from her apron pocket. She hoped the handsome customer who’d left them for her would be back, even if he was cranky. She popped one of the seeds in her mouth.

“You know exactly, Timmy. I’ve told you six million times.”

“Please?” Timmy sat straighter.

“Alright. So the killer whales were high-tailing away from the Sally J like the law was after ‘em. Panama said to Kenny, ‘They’re acting almost guilty, like they done something bad. Like they robbed a bank or something.’

“But Kenny and Panama saw a lot of strange things on the ocean, so by the time they got home they’d forgotten about it.”

Timmy’s eyes were bright. “Then what?”

“So, next day, Kenny saw a story in the paper about how a couple of empty kayaks were found floating off Santa Cruz Island the day before. A guy and his girlfriend were gone, no trace. The Coast Guard figured they’d been attacked by a Great White.

“But Kenny laughed at that theory. There wasn’t any mess, and sharks are so stupid they’ll bite anything—a chunk of Styrofoam, fiberglass, an oar. But killer whales are smart. And neither kayak was scratched, just one floating upside down. The only things gone were the people.

“Kenny said, ‘Something got ‘em alright, but it wasn’t any Great White. I bet it was those two killer whales me ‘n Panama saw lookin’ guilty that day. They tipped those people out of those kayaks and ate ‘em. They were bad boys.’”

As always, Ariel ended the tale with widened eyes and a “spooky” face.

Timmy shivered and grinned. He could hear that story a thousand times. §

January Anderson, a freelance writer and former New Times contributor, grew up in Morro Bay and now lives in Southern California where she writes, swims, and tries to corrupt vegans in her spare time.

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