It was Monday we got the whale. It breathed and blinked. We pushed it. But even two hundred of us couldn’t budge a whale.
We did what we could. We held our poles up by its mouth and took heroic photos. Took one of myself and sent it to my mother. We took one of Sarah Mae’s three-year old and sent it the Siuslaw News and the Register-Guard. Sarah Mae dressed him up in his daddy’s hat and waders. We gave him a harpoon twice his height and somehow got him to hold it right by the whale’s nose, while it was still breathing. Timothy Nailor snapped it. And that’s our number one postcard to this day.
Two nights, we kept Brady out there, our man keeping an eye on the whale. This, another cold November, one year after our Forgotten Year, our Dreaded November. The man looked scared. He looked as scared as we did, every morning, waking up. So we told our Brady, be brave. ‘Brady, you better bundle yourself up. You take that there space heater out there and clip it into your battery. You sleep tight in that van, Brady. We’ve got a lot riding on this whale.’ The good Vanessa brought him a quilt and told him, don’t get eaten by that whale, you’ve got a baby to raise and he gave her belly a kiss and told her no whale could stop him. She went home to her mother’s. We got Brady drunk on the beach. The whale was a sign, he thought. Here it was. All fifty feet. He looked at Vanessa’s mother’s house, yellow in the trees. ‘Be a man, Brady,’ I said. He looked away from the house, then at me, then at the whale. ‘I think I’m gonna,’ he said.
There are things you learn from, camping trips you learn how much loneliness you can take, shopping for one, taking up your parents’ mortgage. We left him in his van. I hiked back up the beach to my place. I waved to Brady. I waved to the whale. Did it care? It sang all night.
Next morning Brady proposed to Vanessa. He got he roof of his van and shouted it through megaphone. (He’s a summertime lifeguard.) It woke damned near everybody up. But if you live by the beach, you better live by the beach. We brought our chairs and tables. We put a pastor (can’t remember his name) on a little step by the whale, two feet from its mouth.
I watched the whale’s giant eye. The film over it—fleshy and garbage-bag-like, it moved in and out of view. It had a life of its own. It swam this way over the eye, then that way. It disappeared then reappeared. Like a great black bowling ball. And we were all reflected in it, dented, lopsided. I touched my own eye. Were my eyes like that? We’re they just as lopsided, only smaller? Will people look at my body when I die? Could I die like that, wait there like that and die with people watching? It sat there, still and patient as a car park. I sat there, just as still, in a row of seats, surrounded with our town, half for a wedding and half for a whale. We wept. Two people meant to be together.
Brady and Vanessa spent their first night of marital bliss under a whale. They slept in Brady’s van. Brady insisted he aimed to keep his word. He was a new man since the whale, the whale’d turned him around. Things do that. Whales do that. He always looked afraid of the ocean, like he wasn’t meant for the beach, like he wanted to move. Now he knew where he stood. He was a shaky man.
Two days and night she we were all blissed out on whale songs, until Wednesday morning I woke up in silence. I shuffled out on my deck and saw Brady, unbalanced and pale. He was waving his arms like a flyer-man. He said it shook him. It made his van tremble. Woke him and Vanessa up. They’d never seen anything like it. Poor man was without shoes. He looked at the whale now like it a was a falling object.
“A god has come down and died on our beach,” as the Siuslaw had put it. Tourists poured in. Californians came in winter coats. They bought everything. We ran out of things to sell. I sold all my little lighthouses then I started selling fishing nets. Sarah Mae sold all her china, anything with whales or boats or fish. Brady sold all his bottled sloops, even ones he hadn’t finished.
Money fell like stars from these people. We ate it up like shame. Who were these people? We’d spent a year in Hell. We’d all suffered the same. The depression. Misery. The madmen called it, ‘The Year We Deserve. Repent!’ ‘Burn in Hell. Hell is here!’ They flew flyers all over the streets. We stopped using the streets. They started going door to door. We all pretended we were dead.
Everything shutdown. It was the Black Plague of beach business. The Peters Brothers tarped up their go-karts and Sarah Mae burned all her seaglass.
Freaks By the Sea shutdown. Ned’s Shoot ‘Em shutdown. ‘No frog-legged kid? No Toad-for-Tuesdays.’ Freaks was a staple. Freaks was a glue. People came down from Seattle for Freaks on the weekends. And people even from Georgia, from Kentucky, from god-knows, but people loved Freaks. We even loved Freaks. It’s what turned Man around.
Courtney Man built Freaks to bring the freaks into the fold. They just came in one day, all got off the bus. A tattooed lady, an amphibian kid, a man with no bones (so he claimed), a strongman, a woman with eyes in the back of her head and a heart she held in her hands. We hated them. They walked into Mo’s. The two acrobats rolled in like a wheel. They all asked for chowder. They took Mo’s “captains table” all to themselves. We didn’t recognize them for people. We were scared they would eat us or breed and switch out our children. But Courtney Man saw them and knew they were good. When they left, it killed Courtney. He went around breaking everyone’s windshields with a bat, then he died in the snow.
Courtney drank from thirteen. He’d get drunk and forget where he was. He had a town all made up in his mind, would tell you an address that didn’t exist. Find him with his eyes in the wall or flower picking and yawing his mouth. ‘I live in the library.’ Pull him out of the Shoot ‘Em every night, dead drunk in a booth, or out in the beach grass. ‘I live in the lighthouse.’ Drag him out, toss him in Siuslaw. And any old girlfriend happening by would come out and yell at him—you ne’er-do-well pantswetter shit, you vile old dog-tit licker, you snubnose horsehandling snakeinthegrass—then we’d be there to drag him out and take him home. By morning, whether we’d showered or suited him, still he’d crawl back into the lights at the Shoot ‘Em, order anything red with a little booze in it.
The freaks gave Courtney a north star. Our greatest success story, he borrowed from daddy to build Freaks and paid him back within the year. He started showing up to things on time. For the first time, he found people could depend on him. Patricia West, Sarah’s sister, even took a liking to Courtney, though we warned her, though she knew, and the two went steady for a time.
The day the freaks left, the strongman had to peel Courtney off the door to the Greyhound and drag him back to us like a calf to slaughter. We piled over him and tried wave to the freaks. You could see some of them crying, the frog-legged kid and the leopard-skin lady. Courtney balled and spit like a snake. It took six of us to carry him back and throw him into the Siuslaw. I guess that’s the last time Patricia ever had to yell at him. He disappeared. Three days later we found him.
We took it as it come, held our heads down and hid under tables. Kids became criminals and moms became drunks. People stopped talking to one another. No one said hello on the street. I swear some people just plain vanished. Like they wandered into the sea caves and died. We were a nowhere place. Like a mountain range had closed up around us and no one would ever hear from us again. I woke up every morning expecting the ocean’d dried up.
So we boarded up the taffy shops and burned down the driftwood. Kite sellers sold their kites back to the distributors and begged for a good price. Surf shops blacked out their windows.
Ray’s ran out of food. I went three months without seeing a vegetable. I just ate canned chowder and stared at the empty sea. I took little strolls to Heceta Head, wondered, was it the impenetrable haze in the air or was it just me? I’d drive out to the dunes, or to Sea Lions’ Cave, or Mo’s, just to hear anybody, see anybody. Worse thing I ever saw in my life was Courtney’s mom hang a dog. She tied its leash to a steak in the ground and dropped it over her fence. She watched it from her side of the fence and I watched it from across the street. You can treat it like a nightmare, mix it all up in your head, take away the hanging and put a happy dog in Courtney’s arms. But what could his mom do, except hang more dogs? I’ve held small beings in my hands while they died. I couldn’t do anything for it. It twisted around. I thought I could save it. I couldn’t.
Dark days! Nothing left but to keep your head up and wait for a miracle. ‘The Day the Whale Stood Still.’ ‘The Big Grey Blessing.’ ‘The Great Beached Hope.’
The police came. They wanted to help now that it died. Sure, it was a tragedy. But how much more of a tragedy if it had never come. Was it a tragedy that they crucified Christ? I sure ain’t eating chowder no more.
The police asked what they could do. I said why don’t we set it to sail, or give it a Viking burial? So they drove out on the beach and lined up their cruisers. The put their bumpers up against the whale, ten of them, starting out slowly, hoping to roll a whale into an ocean. And it seemed like it would. All their engine-revving, they leaned into the whale. But then they broke the skin. Their cruisers bit through its skin and then thrust into the blubber, some stuck inside and some hit bone. No crane could lift the whale. No dozer could push the whale. We got on what sides of the cruisers we could, jammed firewood under their tires, roped them to tow trucks. Maybe the cops were a little ashamed. They promised to be back with explosives. They revved up what cruisers would start and whimpered away through the trees.
School went on, though most teachers seized the opportunity of a giant whale to show off the wonders of Biology and let the kids outside to poke around its great body. Ms. Sarah Mae, cruel and scarred facially, closed the blinds. Children have to be reared. They have no nature. Nature to a child is devilish and unfiltered. If you don’t bridle them, they traipse through your town breaking out windows and torturing cats. Children are shadows, otherwise wraiths—you have to light a light for them before you send them into the caves, or they’ll just come out goblins again. Maybe I agree with Sarah Mae. Maybe to some, a beached whale is too much.
After school, the kids climbed the whale and slid down it. The world was their playground. Who were we to deny them? But then they sunk into the skin. ‘Help, help, we’re stuck in a whale!’ ‘Let that be a lesson, don’t climb on a whale!’ Some of us said let’s leave them, they deserved it. But we’d encouraged them, told them live it up! But we were tired of kids. We lived in a town full of kids and never got time on our own. In the midst of all this, the kids worked it out for themselves. The big ones plucked out the little ones and they all slid down together in a string. Kids don’t trust you. Tell them one minute the whale’s all fun and games then run out next minute waving your hands, blowing up about bombs. Say one thing wrong and they’re out to get you! They don’t see the humor in it—how can you trust them? Tell you what, I’d rather see every last one of those whale-smelling kids in a lineup shaking some old lady down, or having done, than see any one of those reckless shits taking up space in the mayor’s office, swearing over the Bible not to do us one dirty. I know you boys. I know your game.
Whales explode. I’ve heard it. The insides rot and it lifts up like an airship, then sure as chambola, boom, like hydrogen, our whole town in flames. ‘I wanna be the boy who sits on the whale and explodes it!’ ‘I wanna be the boy who runs this town into Hell!’ The fuse. ‘I wanna be the boy who leads other boys far below the paths of righteousness!’ ‘The boy who boys remember!’
Kids that sneak in through its teeth, I’d like to see them eaten. Or hanged. I was one of those kids. What’s left for you after the whale? Life after the whale. You can’t be in it for long. I watched them in a spyglass. They snuck in like rats, through its gums, through its throat, to its ribs.
I was already drinking. Ned tapped on my window. He had a bag of Foster’s. What could I do? Foster’s, the stuff of families. And what’s a little more fuel? He had Sarah Mae with him. ‘Sarah Mae.’ ‘Eric.’ She had her shirt on backwards. Ned pushed me on a Foster’s. (We made it through high school together.) He typically reeked like a tire. ‘What’ll we do?’ ‘We get into that whale.’ ‘And then?’ ‘We crawl around inside it.’ ‘And then?’ ‘We never come out.’ ‘We’re grown men. And Vanessa. And Sarah Mae. And then?’ ‘We become legendary.’ I was drunk. And in high school you learn without peer pressure there’s nothing to live for.
We snuck in on Vanessa and Brady. In the act of some new abomination. You can get away with a lot in a beach town. We took their beers out of their fridge and took them with us. Brady came out with a towel on. ‘We’ve got to go and see the whale.’ ‘It’s what we’ve all been waiting for.’ ‘You must come with us.’
It was dark out except the weird shine off the whale, maybe the moonlight, definitely the moonlight. We cast down into the sand and I peeled up the caution tape. I held it. It was wet. We were old. It was plastic. The gaps in its teeth were too narrow. We had to squeeze in like apes. Maybe it was easier for kids. Vanessa didn’t crawl but scuttled. She looked like she’d swallowed an airbag. She had a little her inside her, clinging to her, she held a hand under her belly like she had to support it, like it could come out. She lost her hat, her shoes and her handbag, all to the teeth. We dragged her. We pushed on into the whale. I took out my flashlight and immediately saw undigested fish, drifting up and down the whale, as if through a corridor. It was an uncomfortable sound. Some maybe jiggled just on the ocean we kicked around. Or maybe the water moved on some biological process left on in the whale. It was from somewhere in the dark then, somewhere I couldn’t reach my flashlight, we heard a fish jump.
Who was Sarah Mae to me? And who was she to Ned? I tote a barge all day for a living, a people barge, a ‘ferry.’ I watch the people get on and get off. There’s too many. Always too many and always the same. Same schedule, same people off and on. In many ways I miss Flornce. I miss the life on the beach. I don’t have much but the ferry. I sell books on the internet to make a little money. I guess I read to pass the time. I have a few friends but you never make the same kind of friends without these sort of deathlike experiences. You get used to drownings, you see them all the time together. You save each other and you see other people die. You just don’t make friends like that now, not on the ferry, if they die it’s their own damn fault. I’m just the operator.
It was when we came to the thorax, Vanessa took a bone in the water and drew an exploding whale on the whale wall. The whale had bones, had a skeleton, but it all looked more like a cave made of flesh, like a throat full of pale stalactites, albino drippy fingers, like venomous teeth piercing down through a neck, like we were now walking into yet another mouth, one from the outside biting down on the whale. Ned boosted me and I put my hand on one of the bone-things. It felt rock-stiff but clammy. I pushed on it. There was some give, it was fragile, like maybe if you pushed it it could snap. Like a finger then some membrane would rush out.
The police would come back with their explosives and blow it all to high heaven. The famous little town with the great big explosion. If the dust ever settled, we’d sell blubber charred on hot biscuits at point of detonation. ‘Come one! Come all! Chew my fat! See my legend! I could really be somebody,’ said Vanessa. We pushed her and she fell in the ocean. She looked like a buoy. We forgot she was pregnant. When we helped her up she pulled us in. She hit me with a grouper.
What if we had gotten stuck in the whale? What if we had been exploded? Did it make any difference? What didn’t I have then that I do have now? I didn’t want to leave the whale, but why? Why care? I loved that town but I don’t think I’ll go back. I left. Is it an embarrassment thing? Did I wear out my welcome? I’ll never see another whale up close like that. You can write your way into something and never figure it out. It’s an impossible thing, a beached whale. “Eric Thralby” means nothing to me. It’s like I don’t even exist. I had these friends. We got stuck in a whale together. I don’t talk to those people. I don’t know them anymore. Eventually, we ran out of Foster’s.
We walked back toward the real mouth. A little light came in through the teeth. Sure kids could get in and out easy. But we were fat and old. No matter how hard we pushed the lips wouldn’t give. I wedged my hand between two teeth. Brady and Ned pushed on me until my fingers slipped through. I felt my wrist pop out and I could squeeze the fresh air in my hand. And then hands on m hand grabbed me and pulled. And then hands like a small army of dentists slipped in through the cracks and widened the mouth so light streamed in and slipped out. ‘There’s more. There’s more,’ I said. They exploded the whale a few hours later at 3:45 p.m. It took two hundred units of dynamite. This was November 12, 1970, in Florence, Oregon.
The explosion caused large pieces of blubber to land near buildings and in parking lots some distance away from the beach. Only some of the whale was disintegrated; most of it remained on the beach for the Oregon Highway Division workers to clear away. In his report, Linnman also noted that scavenger birds, who it had been hoped would eat the remains of the carcass after the explosion, did not appear as they were possibly scared away by the noise. The explosives-expert veteran’s brand-new automobile, ironically purchased during a “Get a Whale of a Deal” promotion in a nearby city, was flattened by a chunk of falling blubber.
I asked the mayor of Portland, at that time Terry Schrunk, would he be sending the people by droves or in swarms? By bus load or truckload? He said he’d come himself. I have pictures now of me and the whale and me and the mayor.
What I loved most was the heat I felt in him. When he looked into my eyes, I told him, Look, I’m sorry, I’m not strong enough. He knew we couldn’t help him. He just had to die there. And then we blew him up.