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NUMBER 55
By Kenneth Frank Doig

Twice I hesitated at number 55. The third time I read it carefully. My taste buds hungered for adventure.

I peeked over an enormous menu at red-lacquered tables crowded with smiling diners. Chopsticks clicked like crickets. Eager epicures pointed into a titanic aquarium of lobsters, shiny shells, and spiny things. The cook removed a giant goose-neck clam and displayed it on his towel like a bottle of rare wine. Everyone bowed.

"The food will be good," I said to my wife. Linda nodded with that look she gives me when I suggest the obvious.

I ordered the sweet-and-sour and Linda the noodles, the usual when we get take-out. Linda added, "And the moo-goo-gai-pan."

"You must really be hungry," I said, sensing opportunity.

"They have doggie-bags."

The waiter and I had a tug-o-war for the menu. "I'll have the oysters gou... Uh, number 55."

Linda leaned back from the table. "I didn't think you liked oysters," she mumbled. I sounded out her lip movements, "Those cost as much as the lobster."

She never cooked me oysters, and I like to try new foods. They're an aphrodisiac. My father loved oysters. Finally I asserted, "There's no `R' in this month."

The feast arrived, and just as I had predicted, the cuisine proved excellent. Well, we hadn't tasted the oysters yet. Great-gray steamed morsels lay slumbering on a bed of bamboo, kale, and Hitachi mushrooms. I skewered one with a chopstick.

The first bite terrified my taste buds. "Try one," I said in a high-pitched voice.

"I don't like oysters."

I knew she didn't mean it, so I put one on her plate. Her teeth seemed to vibrate as she politely tore off a small piece of flesh. Her hand swept across her face like a magician, and the bite gracefully disappeared under the edge of her plate like gum beneath a theater seat. Two cups of tea followed the culinary indiscretion.

Her look said she would never fix me oysters. And, what is the opposite of aphrodisiac? That left only my father's love of these tasty little critters. I speared another oyster.

"I like them." I chewed once and swallowed the whole mass. Were oysters supposed to taste like that? It was like finding a fly in my egg-flower soup and not complaining because it might be a secret ingredient.

A bite of sweet-and-sour pork snapped me back to reality. Oysters were now part of my lurid past. I should have been wary of my future when I cracked open the empty fortune cookie.

Our waiter spooned the left-overs into pristine white cartons with red pagodas. When he reached for the oysters, I shook my head.

"Brian will eat those," my wife said, switching hats to nourishing mother. Standing six-inches taller and sixty pounds heavier than me, our son would eat the oysters. His grandfather would be proud.

The next day about eleven, Brian wandered from the war zone he calls bedroom and sounded his battle cry, "What's to eat?"

"Left-over Chinese," Linda called.

"Eat it all!" I added. This would surely be the end of number 55.

On a late afternoon trip to the kitchen, I noticed something awry. Behind the milk hid a red pagoda. "Brian," I hollered, "you didn't eat these oysters. They're really good."

Sounds in the kitchen draw the whole family. Brian, Linda, Dodger Dog, and Annie and Pugsly cats were pulled as if by giant magnets on the refrigerator door.

Brian stared at the open container. In a rare fit of tact, he said, "I don't eat gray food."

"But, did you taste it?" I tried putting the carton in his hand.

He turned and opened the fridge. "What's to eat?" he countered, as he went into a foraging mode. Linda shrugged.

Our two cats and dog crisscrossed between my legs like a precision-military drill team. I looked down and had a vision of sharks at a feeding frenzy. Would there be enough?

Pugsly is a gray mass of fur with a hunch-back from having her head down eating. Her sides hang low and flap when she waddles like that loose skin under your arms.

Annie was named for the orphan, a scrawny calico kitty rescued from a tapeworm. When she begs, her purr rattles the windows.

We adopted Dodger Dog from a short chain on a mountain cabin. He ate bugs to stay alive. Even at ninety in dog years, he's an avid eater.

I spread the oysters-goo-whatever on a banquet platter and lowered it to a place of honor in the center of the kitchen floor. Three ravenous beasts converged.

"Yes," I cried, the gastronomic affront vindicated.

Dodger Dog backed off. The two cats circled and circled, hunched low like hunters in short grass. They stopped and stared across the plate at each other as if to see if the other had caught anything. They continued their ambush tactics, ears thrown back. The cats halted in unison, and confused feline faces stared up at us.

We broke up laughing. Linda and I hugged each other to keep from falling down. "This was worth it," Linda said.

Annie mewed a throaty challenge and batted an oyster. She dragged it off the plate in her teeth, hissed, and ran for the water bowl.

Pugsly sniffed it and retreated to assume her classic pose in front of the fringe, her long tongue darting in and out.

Dodger Dog picked up the oyster in his front teeth. It dropped with a plop. Next try he took it by his side teeth, lips curled back to avoid contact. He chewed gingerly, trying to miss his gums and tongue. He quickly swallowed.

"Good dog," I cried in unctuous tones.

Again he chewed until some of that black stuff inside oozed. He dropped it and went on to the next morsel. I think he ate four. Rejected lumps lay strewn across the linoleum. Dodger Dog went to his bed, and we didn't see him the rest of the evening.

The garbage disposal whirred and threw up a white cloud from the added baking soda. The last bamboo shoot washed into the vortex, and number 55 disappeared forever.

The next morning I shuffled out to the coffee pot. After several gulps, I stood there waiting for the caffeine jolt. What tickled my toes? Ants covered my bare feet. They also blanketed the oyster hidden under the baseboard. Then it hit me, one of those rare insights that transcend eternity and give deep meaning to life. Ants and my father will eat anything.

I don't like oysters.



Note: Dodger Dog died at age 20. He could hardly move, but he was still smiling. Pugsly still hangs around the food bowl. Annie Cat drags live mice into the house and lets them loose to chase.

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Last update: June 8, 2001
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