A pet is any living thing around which a human feels comfortable making silly noises. I believe this to be true because in the merchant marine I met Simon, a young Puerto Rican who came to adopt a pet radish.
No one else aboard ship spoke Spanish, and he desperately needed someone to share his thoughts, fears, joys. Though I was his friend, I could not be his companion because the language gap between us was so wide.
Simon at first tried to befriend the ship's cat, an aging and demented creature named Swipe, who derived his only remaining pleasure from hiding under ledges and clawing passing ankles. Swipe nearly always missed on his first try. Usually, the target would feel the hit on the cuff and have time to dodge, suffering at worst shredded denim.
Convinced that the cat would respond to affection, Simon determined to salvage him. Simon and I went on a Swipe hunt and spotted him lying in patient ambush behind a toilet bowl. Simon extended a finger in friendship. Swipe waited until Simon's finger was very, very close, then bit it right to the bone. After cleaning and bandaging his wound, Simon shrugged and abandoned the attempt.
He solved his problem the next afternoon while we were sitting in the ship's huge refrigerator. We'd been selecting vegetables for dinner and had gotten up to the R s (the steward, a punctilious man, liked us to do things in alphabetical order). Suddenly, Simon stared into the five-gallon can as though he were about to declare it a shrine; he then reached in and plucked out a radish that was sprouting. He looked at me in amazement. Then, with the radish cradled in his hands, he bolted. He returned 10 minutes later with a tranquil expression that he maintained all the way through the zucchini.
When we returned to our compartment, there was the radish. Five toothpicks pierced its surface ever so slightly; radiating like spokes, they held it suspended in the mouth of a jar. He had lashed the jar in place on a shelf so that it couldn't slide around in rough weather, then filled it with water so that the radish was half immersed.
At that moment, our third bunkmate, Dennis, came in and began to rummage in his duffel bag. A skinny, redheaded kid from Newark, N.J., Dennis had a permanent sneer and a Dead End Kid's accent. Dennis hated Simon. Simon's sunny disposition, goodness and ungrudging acceptance of life was a deep affront to Dennis' sense of the fundamental unfairness of the universe. Dennis incessantly tried to anger Simon. I did what I could to act as a buffer, but Simon saw as play most of what Dennis did to him.
Simon, looking as if he were about to hand Dennis a cigar, turned him around and proudly pointed to the new arrival.
"What is that?" Dennis asked.
"It's a radish," I said.
Dennis looked at me. "I hate plants," he said. Then, casting the radish a malevolent glance, he left.
"It's only for decoration," I called after him.
But one morning, after a week had passed, during which the radish had wildly sprouted translucent root hairs from its wet bottom and pale green shoots from its exposed top, I came into the compartment and found Simon speaking softly to it. He looked up at me and gently said, "Sylvia."
"Sylvia?" I replied.
" Si. Se llama Sylvia."
"Sure. Sylvia," I answered sagely.
Every day after we went off duty, he'd go down to our compartment and change the radish's water or trim its shoots or just sit in front of it and chat with it (because I knew almost no Spanish, he wasn't afraid of my eavesdropping). After a time, I adjusted to the idea that my friend was having regular tete-a-tetes with a radish, and I soon found myself referring to Sylvia as "she." Actually, she made an excellent pet: She made no noise, required no walks, littered no boxes.
By the end of a month at sea, Sylvia sported a resplendent green coif and I, because it so pleased Simon, had fallen into the habit of saying goodby and hello to her during the day. Dennis began to give me the same sneering glances he'd been giving Simon.
One afternoon, unable to stand it anymore, Dennis grabbed Sylvia from her jar and held her aloft, her roots dangling helplessly. Simon made a grab for her, but Dennis held her out of reach. I told him to put her back in the jar. But having finally found a way to get to Simon, he only laughed. Simon kept trying to reach for her. I got up to help Simon, and Dennis put Sylvia in his mouth. I sat. Dennis took her out.
"It's not a pet; it's a radish," he told Simon.
"He can't understand you," I said.
"It's food," he said, again bracing her between his teeth.
"No!" pleaded Simon.
"Stop torturing him!" I yelled.
Dennis took Sylvia from his mouth and looked at me. "It's not a she," he said. "It's a radish. You're as nuts as he is." Then he bit her in half. He chewed and swallowed, then tossed the remaining half into Simon's lap. Simon looked down at the clean teeth marks, then slowly up at Dennis. Shaking his head almost imperceptibly, Simon rose from his bunk. He stepped in front of Dennis, looked at him, then shrugged and left. Unable to speak, I just stared at Dennis, who smiled smugly and stretched out on his bunk.
Half an hour later, Simon returned, carrying a new radish. With new toothpicks, he carefully mounted it in the mouth of the jar. Then he looked at Dennis and me and said, "Maria."
Maria lived a long, happy life.