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Another Summer/Pandemic Diversion

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


The Whale in the Room

Most homes proudly display objects that their families use to signal something about themselves. It might be an old photo of ancestors they can’t quite remember—or, perhaps, even identify. Maybe a cookie jar from a distant childhood. A grandfather’s pipe, a grandmother’s rolling pin. A flag that supports the search for Vietnam-era MIAs and POWs. A souvenir carved coconut from a tropical honeymoon. A ticket from 1969’s Woodstock Festival of Music and Art. Bronzed baby shoes once worn by someone who is now a grandparent, several times over.
People keep these things—despite the admonitions of clutter-hating evangelists of home decorating—because they mean something, even if they’re not exactly sure what. Sometimes they’re kept because the objects spur them to think about the meaning of their lives. The objects also initiate conversations, especially with people who have never visited the home before. The objects are even preserved and displayed for no reason that anyone can remember.
Still, they are kept.
My house doesn’t have any of those things. Well—that’s not exactly true. I do have one thing. I don’t remember when I got it. I can’t even recall when I had it professionally framed—but I did. I pass by it every day and—all too often—it makes me stop and wonder.
The frame contains a receipt, the kind you used to get in diners and luncheonettes. They usually wound up impaled on a spike by the cash register, but somehow this one survived. At the top, in deep indigo ink, is printed “Guest Check.” Most of that line is missing on ours; it must have been torn, in haste, from some waitress’s order pad. Below the title, on a field of pale blue-green, are delicate lines for ordered dishes. The slip’s edges are slightly yellowed. I recall that this one has written, in the careful script that no one uses anymore, “BLT, W/W T, Mayo—$.75”. On the next line down, “Pepsi—$.10”. There’s no date on the slip but, with those prices, it is obvious that it was written a long time ago. You can’t see any of that, now, because the slip is framed to exhibit the back side only.
Today, peering out from its archival matted frame, you can just make out three words, written with a fountain pen, in faded peacock blue ink. There is nothing else. The inscription that has so captured my attention for all these decades is deceptively simple: “Call me. Ishmael”.
Of course, I know the source of the words, but something about them doesn’t quite compute. Why would someone write the opening line of Moby Dick on a luncheonette check? And why alter the quote with a punctuation mark? I might be way off-base—maybe the text has nothing to do with the book at all. But, if it’s not Melville’s Ishmael, who is—or was—my Ishmael?
I once knew someone, in college, over half a century ago, who had a dog named Ishmael—but I doubt that a long-dead dog has anything to do with this. The faded ink of the inscription could date from that time period, but the whole thing is just too unlikely to waste time on. 
Sorry for the distraction.
Looking carefully at the faded message, it’s hard to tell if its only punctuation is a period or a comma. That raises other questions.
If it’s a period, the message was probably written by Ishmael himself. It’s an instruction, possibly even an order, to some unidentified recipient. What was so important that the note was necessary? And for whom was it meant? Was the waitress—or the cashier—supposed to get in touch with Ishmael? While the message is quite curt, there’s no exclamation point to suggest any urgency. Perhaps the message was supposed to be a romantic invitation—although, if so, it lacks very much in the way of poetry, or even sentiment. I can’t imagine our imaginary waitress (or cashier) being too strongly moved by it. 
Unless they were already romantically-involved, and the note is a couple’s shorthand that both would understand.
The absence of even a hint of a time or date for the recipient’s response is, like everything else in the document, maddeningly vague.
On the other hand, what if that lone punctuation mark was not a period. If it was a comma, then the message was addressed to our Ishmael. All the same questions we’ve asked, so far, could just as easily be applied in that situation—but in the other direction. If so, the very existence of the guest check actually begins to make sense. Only the recipient would have been a position to have kept it. That he did suggests that it had some special meaning for him. Perhaps he made that call. Perhaps it led to something momentous in his life, something he wanted to relive in memory, again and again, forever. On the other hand, perhaps it led to the greatest disappointment of his life. Perhaps it was an emotional scab he could pick at, compulsively; or an old war wound he could rub, whenever it ached with a change in the weather.
There is yet another question. Why did neither Ishmael nor his correspondent continue to keep the guest check? At some point, it found its way into my house—so, whether by accident or conscious decision, it left their possession. Did joy fade with time, or pain relent?
Despite spending so many years on it, I have gotten no closer to solving the mystery of the annotated guest check. It’s almost a Zen koan—an inscrutable phrase that provokes (and unprovokes) understanding. It tugs at me, every time I walk by it, as cool and mute as a gravestone. All that I know, for certain, is that I feel strangely (and endlessly) moved by the happiness (or unhappiness) of Ishmael and his correspondent—whoever they were.
They call me.


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The Whale in the Room is protected by copyright, and is provided for your personal use only. It may not be copied or retransmitted unless this notice remains affixed. Any other form of republication—unless with the author’s prior written permission—is strictly prohibited.



Copyright ©2020 by Gary Allen.

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