I was working as assistant chowdermaster in Mendocino County's worst seafood restaurant, which shall of course remain nameless. I have no desire to interfere with anyone's livelihood, particularly someone as well-meaning and earnest in their desire to feed the people as the proprietors of [redacted]. Their innate decency and lively, unorthodox approach to the hospitality industry made them a pleasure to work for, despite an almost complete ignorance of fundamental culinary principles and a surprisingly elastic definition of what constituted “seafood.” This liberal attitude toward traditional zoological classification, doubtless inculcated during a youth misspent in seedy southern European harbors, resulted in an at least partially land-based chowder, including some species of a taxonomic order featuring prominent gnawing incisors. Their argument was that anything with a reasonable proximity to the ocean qualified as marine life, supported by the “you are what you eat” maxim.
“By that reasoning, I suppose that makes me Aqua-Man,” I said once.
"Funny boy, eh? Put you in chowder, mebbe," said my boss.
Well, there were already gulls, wharf rats, and sand fleas in there, a little prime, nicely aged tweaker couldn't hurt.
The chowder was thickened with jellyfish and kelp, giving it a particular zest and texture that some said was metaphorical of the harbor itself. It both caused and cured a number of maladies and I may have already said too much, being as the chowder's preparation violated any number of public health statutes, EPA guidelines, considerations of taste and decency, and the Endangered Species Act.
Fishermen couldn't get enough of it, though, and came in droves on Friday when we concocted a fresh batch for the week. Demand for the dish dwindled gradually until Thursday, when concentration had rendered it down to a viscid, acidly pungent sludge digestible by only the cast-iron-est stomach-ed.
Still, there were a few stalwarts who insisted upon only the late-stage version, attributing all sorts of medical, magical, and restorative properties to it. Also, like many otherwise odious concoctions, it acquired some repute as a hangover cure, a rumor we fostered and nurtured by insisting each bowl be accompanied by a healthy shot of whisky.
In addition to myself, there was Demetrius, the Chowdermaster General — more of a figurehead, really, I did all the actual work, though it was his proprietary recipe — and Laszlo, the owner/manager, calling the shots, the remainder of the rank and file including Theresa and Zabrina, the wait staff, Filigonio the prep cook/busser, and Ringo the dishwasher. We were one big, happy, family, mostly, a cultural stew not entirely unlike the chowder itself.
One Thursday afternoon I was plying the waterfront for chowder fodder as the fishing boats came in, having already checked and emptied the land-traps we had salted around the harbor, and found myself aboard the doughty vessel Marnie B, whose captain always set aside such fruits d'mer as might not be immediately salable on the open market and therefore perfect for our purposes. Into my buckets went sculpin, hagfish, eels, rattail, batfish, jellynose, and..."Say, Cap'n Jimmy, what’s that furry-looking thing there?" I inquired.
"Looks to be a cat," returned the captain.
"Doesn't look like any catfish I've ever seen," I said.
"Not a catfish, a cat. Like meow meow."
"How'd a cat wind up in your net?"
"That I couldn't say. Perhaps he was made to walk the plank. Gar-gar-gar-gar-gar!" went what appeared to be laughter but sounded more like a bilge pump clogged with an octopus.
"Well, toss it on in, I don't think it's been dead long." I hoped Filogonio knew at least one way to skin a cat. I doubt fur would do anything positive for the chowder's flavor profile.
Buckets full, I went back to the restaurant to unburden myself of my haul, turning it over to the capable hands of Ringo and Filigonio for prep and headed back for a second load.
I was strolling the waterfront in the golden gloaming when I heard a call,"Ahoy, chowderman!” from behind me. I turned to see a vessel unknown to me and a sailor on deck waving.
"Ahoy there! Word on the docks is you may be in the market for some second-tier seafood."
"You heard right, Cap. Permission to come aboard?"
"Granted, and gladly. Welcome aboard the Sea Bitch!"
Climbing the aft ladder, I saw on the deck a selection of the usual garbage fish plus a few lingcod, snapper, and monkfish. All in all an excellent haul and richer than our usual fare.
"I'll take it all," I said. ''Let's talk terms."
"Alright, then," said the captain. "Come below and have a drink, we'll discuss it."
I don’t know if this fellow knew I was constitutionally incapable of refusing offers of intoxicants, but the possible motives I imputed to his action — perhaps softening me up for a deal advantageous to him, or maybe sexual harassment — proved naively unrealistic as the next thing I knew I was waking up alone and shoeless on the floor.
I made my way slightly unsteadily to the deck and saw, in addition to the crew smartly engaged in their usual seaborne duties, miles of open water in every direction.
"The hell! " I shouted incredulously.
Ah, she rises," said the captain.
'"What the fuck? Have I been shanghaied, or what?"
"Press-ganged, really, is a better term. Our official legal position is that you stowed away and were offered gainful employment in lieu of prosecution or burial at sea. I presume you'll choose the former?"
Well, what the hell. I am nothing if not adaptable, and this was hardly the worst fix I'd ever found myself in after being given doctored alcohol. "Alright I guess, sign me up," I said, warming to the notion. "What am I to be? Deckhand? Navigator? Yeoman purser?"
The captain chuckled . "You're to function as ship's cat," he said.
"But I'm not a cat. I'm a man, sort of," I complained.
"Really? Take a gander in the glass," he said, handing me a mirror. Sure enough, in addition to whiskers decorating my cheeks, the word CAT was written on my forehead in black marker. I thought either adornment sufficient to convey the concept and the other purely gratuitous, but whatever. "Okay," I conceded. "Let's stipulate for the moment and for our purposes I am indeed a cat. For pete's sake, why?"
"Our cat fell overboard on the last trip out, and its bad luck not to have one aboard. We were unable to locate an actual cat, and then you happened along and well, there you go. Everyone's happy."
My critical faculties, always on point, immediately deduced several things wrong with the plan, and I voiced the primary one. "Presuming cats actually do bring luck, do you not think that who or whatever's in charge of dispensing it can tell the difference between me and an actual cat?"
"Ah, now you're venturing into theological territory. I'm just a simple fisherman and you're a symbolic cat. Discharge your duties well and you'll be rewarded. Fail to do so and we'll jettison you. Are we clear?"
"Crystal. What exactly are those duties?"
"Cat stuff. You know. Loll around on deck. Peer inquisitively at the catch as it's brought aboard. Clean yourself. Purr contentedly when appropriate."
"But I can’t purr, don’t have the mechanism."
"I know that! You think I can’t tell the difference between a cat and a God-damn tweaker? A rough approximation will do. Now, no more human speech from here on out."
None of that, either. Don't tum this into a goddamn comedy routine, just be a cat and bring us luck."
I sat down on the deck and began licking my upper arm. "By George, I think he's got it," said the captain.
I got into the spirit of the thing and catted it up right smart. I went so far as to stroll confidently and insouciantly along the gunwales, prompting some alarm, and stretched and yawned luxuriantly in the sun. I don't know if my performance was in any way responsible, but it was a very successful outing and I could not possibly be faulted for my efforts. The captain agreed and, on reaching port, gave me enough of the catch for a big batch of first-rate chowder and a bouillabaisse besides.
"You've been a fine cat and we'll miss you," he said.
"Well, I know someone with a litter of kittens that should be about ready," I said. "Would you like me to get you one?"
"That'd be grand. Off with you, now. Scat, cat."
When I got back to the restaurant, Laszlo was livid. "Where you been? Chowdermaster took sick. Filo and Ringo making chowder, mebbe kill everybody. Get back in kitchen."
"Aye aye, sir," I said.
"What's that on you face? You Halloween, what?"
"Nope, just a part-time cat and a pretty damn good one, it turns out. Now, if you'll excuse me, I got chowder to make."