I’d like to say I knew he was special from the first. The fact remains I had just eaten eleven of his brothers and sisters, finding them delicious but interchangeable. There he lay then, on a shimmering palette of rock salt, ready to be splashed with mignonette sauce and slurped as a gluttonous afterthought.
Fortunately for both of us, the shucker had been off his game. My briny little adversary clung with his admirable adductor muscle most forcefully, almost comically, to his shell. An exploratory sally with the butter knife both distressed and enlightened me. As I prodded the resistant flesh with that cold, dull blade, I felt something prodding back: nothing less than the sea-heavy thrum of life itself. I put down the oyster and regarded him, my fingers twisting in my luxurious beard.
“All right, you win this round, Dan,” I said.
No sooner had I pronounced the name than I knew it was correct. Of course, a human name didn’t do him justice. Dan was part of something deeper, something I could approach only by means of the sturdy consonant, giving way, as it did, to an almost meditative hum: “Dan. Daaaaannn.” He was shapely and dignified without appearing puffed up, and his complexion was flawless. But what I’m not capturing is a certain endearing insouciance. Dan didn’t take himself too seriously. With his plump charm, offset by a yolky self-composure, Dan was something special. Yes, here was one oyster I would never eat.
The waiter noticed our connection—it would have been impossible not to. But his training or natural discretion would not allow him to acknowledge it except in the most conventional way: he referred to Dan as a “leftover” and asked whether I wanted him “boxed up.”
“Yes, that’s right, you’d like to put everything in a box, you and your kind!” I shouted, instantly regretting my outburst. Minutes earlier, I had been no different than the unfortunate waiter; in a way, I too had been “waiting,” knowing not for what. The tip I left was fat with remorse.
I made my way toward the exit, cradling Dan in my outstretched palm, the baffled eyes of other diners on me. By every law, I owned this oyster—but as so often happens, the truth was more complicated. I had heard of World War I fighter pilots meeting for reunions long after the conflict had ended—German, British, American, all quaffing punch from the same bowl, bound by experiences no one else could understand, their shared glories and unimaginable terrors, and even their common jests, transcending mankind’s petty skirmishes. Dan and I were so much more awesome than they. They were jerks compared to us. We had met on a battlefield wilder and stranger than the sky, a battlefield I call life, where eat or be eaten is the only rule—and we had come to a beautiful truce.
The simplicity of Dan’s example amazed and humbled me. What kind of a bum hand had he been dealt? Separated from his parents and his numerous lovers on the Florida Gulf Coast, tossed in a crate sloshing with dirty ice that numbed his senses, deposited into the darkness at the back of a truck. Didn’t we all go through life that way? Unlike Dan, though, I had no excuse. For the first time in my life, I knew what I had to do. I was taking Dan home. And on that return trip, I was going to show him everything he had missed.
Before buckling him in for safety, I regarded the pool of “liquor,” his natural broth, which filled his shallow shell, and in which he so eagerly bobbed. The first speed bump we encountered would slosh that sweet essence onto my seat covers, where it would be of no use to anyone. “Now, don’t be nervous,” I told Dan as I lifted him tenderly to my mouth. I was careful not to brush my lips or tongue against him and give him the wrong idea. We were in this together. Dan was a champ. Only after I had taken care of every drop did I feel right about securing him properly in the passenger seat, in keeping with state traffic laws.
Dan’s juice was seasoned with something more than salt—it was spiked with rebellion. I felt it surging in my bloodstream. Old quacks in musty tomes rhapsodized about the revivifying power of the miraculous bivalve. How I used to laugh at them. I was wrong. I felt young again, idealistic, poetic.
“Let’s get out of here, Dan,” I said. “I want you to see the wild American night! What do you think of that?”
“Oooooweeeee,” I imagined might be his mental reply.
“You said it, Dan!”
Those are the only kinds of oysters for me, the mad ones, burning, fevered in the mad, American streets of the night of fevered streets of American dreams, roasting only in their secret oyster thoughts of succulent madness. I peeled out of the strip-mall parking lot, flinging pearl-like chips of gravel that pinged against the window of the oyster bar. As we sped down the dark and legendary highways, we took turns swigging from a bottle of black-market aftershave lotion available only in Belize. A hint of saffron lends it an urgent piquancy. Phantom purple trees flew past. Dan and I gunned it south, Florida bound. The only stop I wanted to make was in Collins, Mississippi, birthplace of Gerald McRaney, television’s “Major Dad.”
“I just know you’re going to love the Gerald McRaney Museum, occupying Gerald McRaney’s magnificently restored childhood home,” I told Dan. “Built in 1922, the McRaney home displays traditional features such as ornate balustrades.”
“Oooooweeeee,” thought Dan.
It’s funny how you can live just miles from a place, and always dream of going, but never quite make it. I was done putting things off. Dan had already taught me so much. He grew excited as I recounted some of the plots of my favorite Major Dad episodes, like the one where Major Dad decided to take piano lessons despite the mockery of others. Dan and I could really identify with that! Major Dad wasn’t shy about exploring other parts of himself, parts that didn’t fit in with the “Major Dad” persona that other people were always using to keep him from realizing his full potential as a human being. “Would you like that boxed up” indeed!
Dan was listening patiently, sprinkled with aftershave lotion. He hadn’t complained once—another moment with him, another lesson learned—but I suddenly realized how thoughtless I had been.
Any marine biologist will tell you that oysters are the filters of the sea, eagerly gobbling up pollution and impurities, only to poot out fresh, clean water from their buttholes. If Dan were truly to enjoy himself, he needed a more conducive environment. I stopped at a hardware store and got a bucket to put him in, which I filled with water and a healthy portion of iodized salt. Then I threw in some cheese and crackers from a gas station. An inauspicious start, perhaps, but I planned to treat Dan to some spectacular meals along the way. With his alchemical power to transform filth into wholesomeness, imagine what he could do with a nice Waldorf salad, for example. Why, he’d soon be pooting out mystical ambrosia!
In a way, I was envious. Isn’t that what we all want: to digest the vagaries of this dirty world and fart out something beautiful? Dan was already so much more real than I was and he didn’t even know it. That was the glorious thing about Dan, sitting there with his top off. I took off my shirt and threw it out the window. I didn’t need shirts anymore. If you wear a shirt you’re just a piece of garbage to me and I feel sorry for you.
I blasted some rock-and-roll music. “You ever heard Dan Fogelberg before? He’s got the same name as you!”
“Ooooooweee,” said Dan. I could tell he was digging hard on some Dan Fogelberg.
We reluctantly quieted the radio on the outskirts of Collins, Mississippi, and coasted into town with our headlights off. It was barely past ten but Collins lay exposed, deep blue, and silent. The parks were hung with empty swings pushed by melancholy breezes, the few sidewalks unoccupied, churches and homes alike covered in a soft blanket of shadow.
Dan and I stopped at the end of Japonica Street and made our way on foot, with a whispering chorus of sprinklers as accompaniment, to number 1625, a deceptively modest two-story balloon-frame house, all white and trim, its one concession to outward glamour a fancifully designed wrought-iron fence topped with graceful, swordlike finials of fleurs-de-lis.
Having distracted the guard dog with a sumptuous antelope steak I had been saving on ice in the trunk, Dan and I made our way across the backyard. Dan shone in the moonlight, opaline, glinting in the depths of his bucket like the untold treasure he was, magnified and dreamily distorted, his grayness tending to silver.
In a reflective pause before trying the knob, I stared at the window over the sink, as dainty as a dollhouse window, framed by duckling-patterned curtains. I thought about how many times Mother McRaney must have stood in that very spot, drying a dish and waiting with some anxiousness for young Gerald to come home. I imagined her looking like Gerald McRaney in a dress.
I am delighted to report that the back door of the McRaney place was unlatched, in keeping with the tenets of genteel country living. I knew the house almost by heart thanks to its elaborate interactive web presence. But nothing could have prepared me for the jolt of the physical place, the tactility of it, the McRaney-based smells baked into the fabrics, a wonderful, heady effluvium of cherry-flavored pipe tobacco, and spoiled lard, and hamster feces. The McRaneys were known as big hamster people. The lavish treatment they gave their hamsters was a favorite topic of gossip around the old courthouse square. But who’s laughing now? Gerald McRaney on his way to the bank, that’s who.
The door opened directly onto that Holy of Holies, the Southern American kitchen. Just inside, in a china closet repurposed as a display case, I found to my utter astonishment the ultimate grail: Devil Crème, a mid-twentieth-century paste made of mutton brains and eel testicles, perfectly preserved in its distinctive coffin-shaped tin. So Dan was a good-luck charm as well as a friend! By putting my interest in the culinary arts in a proper perspective, he had prepared me to recognize and appreciate the most exquisite dining opportunities all the more. He had truly “whetted my appetite” in a way no other oyster had ever done.
I was thrilled to confirm that all the makings of a ten-year-old Gerald McRaney’s breakfast were currently on display: not just the precious container of Devil Crème, still technically banned since 1962 by special amendment to the Mississippi state constitution, but also the individual cellophane-wrapped wafers of Melba toast, the condensed milk, and the sorghum molasses. I would do as my forebears had done, breaking the Devil Crème into chunks and drenching it with the sweet, thick milk from the rusty can. From thence, merely a crumbling of toast and a drizzle of sorghum separated me from a seminal dining experience, time travel on the magical wings of a wooden spoon. Intended by its makers as a lubricant for velocipede chains, Devil Crème was first consumed as a foodstuff during the Great Depression, mainly in Arkansas, though the cult eventually spread as far south and east as Mobile, Alabama, and continued long after mere economic factors would have necessitated. That was the genius of a long-gone populace: subverting cheap commercial products into complex dishes, approaching a kind of makeshift transcendence.
“Dan, you’re in for a rare treat,” I said. I put his bucket on the stovetop for convenience. I couldn’t help but notice that he looked cold and hungry. In my giddy state I had forgotten that some of us don’t have the luxury of waiting around for exotic banquets. Some of us don’t take comfort and excess for granted. All Dan wanted was a little warmth, and perhaps some hearty fare, a crust of black bread or such, to help him pass the night. I turned on the heat for him. The tiny blue flame licked the bottom of his bucket, and Dan seemed cozy indeed. I could almost hear him sigh with relief. Luckily, the pantry and refrigerator of the McRaney house were fully stocked, whether for authenticity’s sake or in preparation for some convivial gathering of the museum’s board members. Could be that this bright green parsley was meant for Gerald McRaney himself! No matter. I chopped it up and put it in Dan’s bucket to tide him over until I had finished preparing the Devil Crème. No more brackish muck for him. From now on, Dan would eat only the finest and freshest of everything. Again I envied him. Flavors I had long taken for granted would be startlingly new to him. Oh, that we could all taste with Dan’s tongue.
“You’re going to love parsley,” I told him. “Often used as a garnish, it is sometimes overlooked as a mild but effective source of seasoning.”
Butter, garlic, a dollop of heavy cream, fresh sprigs of thyme, and some coarse black pepper—Dan wanted comestibles no fancier than this for his evening’s repast, and I was all too happy to oblige him.
Would that I had been capable of like restraint. When I had smashed open the china closet and peeled back the tin lid of the Devil Crème, it emitted a red mist that stung my eyes and made me weep the bloody tears of a dying stigmatic. Did I take it as a warning? I did not. I had faith in canning, one of the most venerable of American preservation methods. I was momentarily stymied by the jar of sorghum molasses, stuck as it was to the bottom shelf with its marvelous adhesive power—God himself could not move a jar of sorghum molasses with drippings down the side. I had to bend at an awkward angle to spoon it onto my bowl of Devil Crème. As for shelf stability, sorghum will last forever, like the honey in the tombs of mighty pharaohs.
My first bite of Devil Crème “country style” revealed astringent undertones, not unpleasant, and caused me to suffer a severe attack of tinnitus. The second bite managed to be both velvety and earthy, and I detected for the first time a surprising note of vanilla. The third bite, I saw ghosts. My innards clenched.
I rolled around on the floor, coming to realize that previous generations had been full of nothing but idiots. Satan had Frenched me that night, and what could exorcize his taste from my mouth? As if in answer, a wafting aroma fluttered down to soothe me.
It was Dan.
He was simmering now, transmuting into something angelic. Dan in his wisdom had anticipated my struggle. Maybe he had even tried to warn me. But I had been too stubborn to listen. So instead he had “stewed in his own juices,” quite literally. The cynical may call it passive-aggressive. Was Our Lord on the Cross passive-aggressive? I leave it for the reader to say.
I struggled to my feet. “I can’t believe it, Dan! I can’t believe you’d sacrifice yourself like this. Let me get a ladle.”
It was then that I experienced a blazingly genuine case of old-fashioned Eisenhower-era diarrhea.
My search for a ladle summarily abandoned, I reached in with my hands, searching for Dan in the soup.
“There you are, Dan! As much as I’d love to eat you, not even that can help me now. In fact, it might even make matters worse. But there is something you can do for me, Dan. Quick, go for help!”
I threw him out the back door, then fell to the cool, yellowed linoleum. He just lay there on the lawn until the dog came along and picked Dan up in his mouth. They trotted off together. Dan didn’t even look back. I knew he was leaving me behind.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, Dan. I understand.”
Was I sad to see him go? You bet. Yet in so many ways I was becoming the oyster that Dan had made me want to be. What had I done but absorb the foul leavings of mankind’s unrelenting gluttony? And now I was pooping out a fiery truth.
We had come to a crossroad and parted there, Dan and I. My journey was over, but his was just beginning. The dog, whose name was probably Red, was already headed down a country lane, taking Dan to Florida. I knew they’d encounter hardships along the way. They’d probably team up to fight off a mountain lion. But there would be good times too. Foiling a bank robbery. Boxcars and campfires. Winning some money on a game show. Red finds a harmonica! Some bad feelings when they both fall in love with the same gal, but even at the time they know it’s something they’re going to laugh about later. And laugh they do.
But a hush falls when they climb the crest of, I assume, the Appalachian Mountains and look down at the lush, rolling landscape of Apalachicola.
Writhing on the kitchen floor in an agony as visionary as it was intestinal, I could see it all. Red’s paws are sore by the time they reach the sugary dunes, swollen beyond recognition! But he’d do it all again.
“You’re home, buddy,” he says.
He drops Dan out of his mouth there at the edge of the gentle surf.
But Dan doesn’t answer.
Oh my God in Heaven, Dan is dead.
Red noses Dan into the water, then settles wearily into the sand and watches the Devil Crème sun, red as he is, sink into the bay.
This excerpt comes from the seventh issue of Lucky Peach, the Travel Issue, which hits newsstands today. If you loved this — or even just strongly liked it — why not subscribe to the magazine? At least visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.
Photography by Naomi Harris.