by Tay Berryhill
As Argyle Wells zipped past Potomac Park on his way to dinner in Georgetown, he saw a vagrant squatting in the shadows who turned out to be a crocodile. Upon recognizing his mistake, Argyle blushed for two reasons. One, he'd swallowed the old tale about crocodiles resembling logs, which wasn't true, and so now regretted his folly in gingerly stepping around every log he’d ever encountered. Two, he'd confused the obviously well-bred crocodile with a bum.
The reptile sat erect on a boulder, resembling Lincoln at his memorial had Lincoln’s limbs been short and scaly. He looked squarely into Argyle’s eyes and winked. Initially Argyle stiffened with suspicion--the croc might be a salesman, or a wily log impersonating a salesman--but edging closer, he spied the beast’s red power tie, a sure and potent sign of credibility. He relaxed.
Except for watching C-SPAN and old movies, Argyle had never been this close to a crocodilian, so when the croc shook his hand, a wave of surprise registered. The paw felt buttery soft and free of calluses, and his voice was hypnotically soothing. He smelled of expensive aftershave. Brut, perhaps.
The croc questioned Argyle about his life and ambitions, and Argyle bragged of pulling himself up by bootstraps to become a food critic. "An honorable profession," gushed the reptile, "for everyone needs to eat and know what they are eating. As Sartre wisely said, ‘To eat is to appropriate by destruction; it is at the same time to be filled up with a certain being.’" He smiled.
Argyle admired the perfectly straight teeth, and couldn’t suppress the urge to compliment his new friend. "You’re quite articulate for a crocodile. And clean, too."
After an uncomfortable pause, the reptile thanked him for his condescension. "Your mistake is an honest one, sir, but I’m an alligator."
"There’s a difference? I didn’t know."
"You should." The alligator’s voice flattened. "Knowing might save a man in your position. Ignorance won’t reserve a table at the top of the food chain." He patiently explained that alligators were philosophers, mystics, passionate seekers of truth. Of all creatures, alligators knew God’s will and the meaning of life. "We’re bilingual--speaking both the Queen’s English and American--so as to share The Truth with all who wish to know it. Crocodiles, however, speak only the language of lies, and can never be trusted."
Argyle hungered for the meaning of life, but he was late for dinner. He glanced at his watch. "Does imparting The Truth take very long?"
"Not at all!" The gator brightened. "Every truth can be summed up in just a few lines. It’s the ingestion that takes time. Ask a question and I’ll demonstrate."
"Sure. What offenses are required to impeach a high-ranking politician?"
"Only one of late. A BJ."
Argyle accepted the gator’s invitation to meet the next evening for a "slice of enlightenment," but a question nagged. "How can I be sure you’re not a crocodile telling lies?"
The alligator handed him his card. Although Argyle couldn’t read it, the reptile assured him it said ALLIGATOR.
Argyle met his wife in a four-star French restaurant. Unable to make neither heads nor tails of the menu, he asked her to translate.
Trish sighed. "You really should learn to read. Not all food critics are illiterate."
Argyle didn't argue. In print he couldn't differentiate bouillabaisse from bourguignon, nor a menu from a manual, but his taste buds detected intricate flavors as keenly as a dog’s nose divined bouquets of urine. Everyone knew that one did not have to read or reason to be a critic. One only needed a mouth. A finger was also essential, to point and say, "I’ll have that."
Argyle set his voice recorder to tape lip smacks and belches, his customary notations to remind him whether or not the food was good. He told his wife about the alligator.
"Are you sure he was an alligator?"
Argyle shrugged, "It’s impossible to know for sure."
"No. It’s a matter of deduction." She patiently explained that alligators have broad rounded snouts and a slight overbite, while crocodiles have narrow snouts and teeth "as crooked as they are. Alligators may be harmless gossips, but crocodiles are vicious liars."
Argyle admitted his confusion, for the fellow he’d met had a thin snout and wonderfully straight teeth.
Trish deduced the beast was either an alligator who’d undergone extensive plastic surgery, or a crocodile benefiting from modern-day orthodontics. "What kind of shoes did he wear? Crocodile or alligator?"
Argyle hadn’t noticed. "He was barefooted, I think."
"Does he like salt? Crocodiles enjoy salt, but alligators can’t tolerate it."
"We didn’t discuss food."
Trish looked surprised. "Then what did you discuss?"
"The meaning of life. He claims to know it."
She shifted uneasily in her chair. She rarely discussed religion. "If this fellow is an alligator, then he's undoubtedly a mystic." Reptilian brains, she said, are not slaves to logic, nor are those of mystics. Ergo, they're the same.
Argyle couldn’t follow his wife’s logic because the couple next to them was loudly arguing.
"It’s a very simple syllogism." Trish yelled above the fray. "All mystics are illogical. All alligators are illogical. Therefore all mystics are alligators."
"And if he’s a crocodile?"
"Crocodiles are logical, and therefore not mystics which makes them liars. If he is a crocodile he cannot offer you truth."
Argyle knew his wife was correct. She was an evolutionary biologist and knowledgeable of such things. She had never lied to him. And although he was illiterate and she was an accomplished reader, he, a food critic and she, an evolutionary biologist, they shared the belief that food was the ultimate reality. The world was eat or be eaten, and that was the way it was and the way it would always be.
Yet Argyle felt empty and longed to know if there was something more. Trish flagged the waiter.
When the garcon arrived, Argyle pointed to the table across from his and said, "I'll have what they're having." The waiter nodded, collected the couple’s leftovers and delivered them to Argyle along with their stale argument. Argyle changed his order to something more agreeable. He tapped a page on the menu. "I’ll have this."
The waiter ripped out the sheet and left it. Trish insisted the server wasn’t to blame. "You must be explicit with literalists. Concrete. You really should learn to read."
Argyle grunted into his recorder, and didn't leave a tip.
That evening Argyle slept on the sofa, curled beneath newspapers he couldn't read. He considered the alligator. Every part of one was edible, or so he'd been told.
To eat an alligator would be to eat a mystic. Would one ingest knowledge as easily as assimilating nutrients? Suppose he ate a crocodile instead? What lies and dialectics would become him?
He tried to see it logically. Hunger, an abstraction, was sated by food, a concrete. Could hunger be satisfied by another abstraction, truth? It seemed too much to fathom. His head hurt and he took comfort in the conclusion that all mystics were food. He dreamed of sampling both mystics and crocodiles. They tasted like chicken.
The next evening, Argyle found the alligator in the same place. If an alligator, he could be trusted, and Argyle would know the ultimate truth. But if he were a crocodile, his words would be false, and Argyle would know nothing.
He pushed the button on his recorder. "Tell me again, sir. How do I know you are an alligator?" He hoped to catch him in either a lie or irrefutable logic.
The alligator smiled. "Such a question can only be answered by logical observations. I am not logical; therefore I cannot answer that question."
Argyle saw it was true. The alligator was not logical or he could've answered.
The alligator smiled. "But you have come for the truth, and there is only one truth. So come closer that I may tell you."
Argyle did, and the alligator glanced around to insure no one else heard before whispering, "All alligators are predators, and all predators eat prey, therefore...."
Argyle could not follow the reptile's logic because he was screaming into a mouthful of gleaming veneers. Too late he saw, strewn on the shadowy grounds, bones and empty bottles of bicarbonate. A salt shaker lay among them.
Crocodiles could not be trusted and that was the truth.
After the screams ended, the only thing left on Argyle’s recorder was the smacking sound of satisfaction and a resounding belch.
Tay Berryhill writes and paints in Birmingham, Alabama. Her work has appeared in flashquake, Cezanne's Carrot, Quad, and Children Come First. She loves dogs and cats, clockwise and otherwise.