One of the problems with life in modern America is how difficult it is to know that you’re winning at it. In simpler times, it was enough to out-earn and out-consume our neighbors; now, most of us haven’t even met our neighbors. The horrors of the sepia-toned and antiseptic-scented nursing home has tarnished the allure of the long life. Fame, earned or purchased, is wasted on the lazy and disrespectful millenials, who seem to think their own lives are more important. Book clubs are out of vogue.
In such a world, it’s easy to become lost, to wonder why we bother to exist at all. We want to scatter our possessions and live out a Dave Eggers novel in the jungles of northwestern Brazil, or to donate our lives to some anonymous and probably corrupt charity organization. But instead, we have saved ourselves as a people by creating our own small hurdles to overcome. In search of tension to instill some vigor in our clichéd, meandering life stories, we have developed a fifth form of literary conflict: man versus food.
Thus I found myself in the concession line of Safeco Field under the turbulent skies of an early autumn. I must do this, I thought to myself, as two boys in front of me asked for a refill for their collectible bottomless plastic soda cup without receipt. I must do it for myself, and I must do it for everyone.
I reached the front of the line, and in a voice that conveyed confidence as well as a touch of consideration – the cashier’s heart was not so young – I said, “Please give me a Mariner Dog.”
She stared at me. “It’s okay,” I whispered, with a comforting half-smile. “I’m ready.”
Wordlessly, for words are useless in a time such as this, she disappeared and returned (hands trembling) with a Mariner Dog.
The Mariner Dog is not the sort of food that mortals eat. It is 0.3 pounds of dog lovingly embraced by a niacin-enriched white-flour bun, gripped tightly like yin and yang. The exact ingredients are a secret, not for fear of corporate espionage (who would dare?) but because its nameless progenitor evaluated all the possible descriptions and found them wanting. It is slightly warm to the touch.
Shamed by its nakedness, I dressed it in onions and yellow mustard from an empty and likely symbolic condiment kiosk nearby. I avoided the ketchup because I am not a monster. As I slowly, ritualistically completed my meal, I did not look at the shocked faces around me, because I needed my courage. I did my best not to smell.
Returning to my seat, I knew I could delay no longer. I faced the void, mouth open as if to scream, and took a bite.
The Mariner dog yielded almost apologetically under my teeth, separating like the Red Sea. The meat and the bread are one, texture losing meaning, melting like hot dog-flavored chocolate. Even in my confusion – is this a trap? – I detect notes of allspice and myrrh.
The mustard carries with it memories of seagulls picking through the refuse of abandoned beach parties. Of finding crabs among the rocks and making them fight. Of kelp lingering around a bared ankle in murky seawater. The onions are tasteless.
And then I bite again, heedless, not yet finished with the feelings of the first. There is a sense of spiciness – is it intentional? Psychological? It tastes like Pat Putnam hitting a warning track fly. I am confused. I am losing my grasp on chronology. The Mariner Dog is almost gone already, but I have just started. I have forgotten its flavor, but I have always known it. Jeremy Reed seems like an exciting prospect.
And then it is gone, gone before I can even take the requisite photograph of it nearly eaten, as custom dictates. If not for the wrapper, the gunshot of mustard on its wrinkled exoskeleton, I might disbelieve that it had ever happened at all. I feel older, in the way that conveys a sense of loss every bit as much as something gained.
I had faced the Mariner Dog and I had won. The prize: an understanding of my own mortality.
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