On a whale watch, sober
“It’s just that I can feel my heart. I mean, I can always feel my heart. It’s in my ears, in my knees, in my shoulder blades. Not all at once, you know. It just — it moves? It’s in my palm, now.”
Carla’s coffee’s gone cold, so she dumps the final swig in the harbor. “You have a reservation for seven people, sir.” She taps her clipboard. “Says so right here.”
The man on the dock tucks his palm into his pocket. “Yeah I know,” he says, “but everyone else’s hungover.”
His shirt cuffs are pristine. He’s wearing a tie — he’s wearing a cardigan over his shirt and his tie. Carla makes a point of looking at his shoes. Suede. She calls him sir to his face, but in her head, he’s got an epithet. He’s Rob in English Wool.
“Just me today,” he says.
“You’re not dressed for a whale watch.”
“No. No, I’m dressed for a wedding. It’s at the lodge later today. We’ll be back by four o’clock, right?”
“Your friends realize we have a 48-hour cancellation policy?”
“Yeah, they know.”
Carla’s been on deck for half an hour now. Her bangs are damp from the fog. “They won’t get a refund,” she says, sweeping her hair beneath her hat.
“They won’t care.”
“We usually get back around one. You ought to be fine on time,” she says. She strands him on the pier a moment longer while she adjusts her rain boots, tugs the tops over the last inch of her all-weather socks. “You really want to go on a one-man whale watch?”
And Rob says he does. So he gets a rain poncho, a life vest, and his very own Illustrated Whale Fin Guide: Minke whale, Gray whale, Orca.
One last-ditch effort doesn’t sway him. “It’s the last whale watch of the season, so that card’s probably as much of any whale you’re gonna see.”
“I got it, Captain. No refund.”
* * *
The bow of the catamaran tips through a bubble bath fog, and Rob curls his fingers around the clasp of his life jacket. He holds his knuckles into his kicking sternum.
They’re half an hour off the mainland when Carla kills the motor. She lets the boat come to rest 40 yards off the island’s shore. “San Matilde Island… This is where they
“Do they come right up to the boat?”
Rob rubs at the seawater on his lenses with a cashmere thumb. “You got binoculars I could borrow?”
“A kid dropped them in the water last month.”
“You don’t have another set?”
“…what do you do while you wait?”
Carla reaches for her thermos, but remembers that it’s empty. Now she has to answer the question. “Sometimes it isn’t as long a wait as you’d think.”
Carla knows she should have stopped giving tours two weeks ago. She hasn’t seen a whale since September. That’s why she doesn’t believe it when the first black orca slips by, just ten yards away.
They both startle at the whale call. It sounds like a carbon-based bottlerocket, and others just like it follow. Happy foggy Fourth of July.
Rob hinges at the hip to peer over the side of the boat. Another fin brushes past, level with his nose.
“That’s the L Pod,” Carla says.
“You recognize them by their sounds?”
“No. It’s this guy’s dorsal fin.”
Another black blade brushes past the catamaran. It’s been tagged. Orange spray paint.”
“Is that — ?”
“It’s a penis, yeah. There’s another one that says Be free. Not very legibly, but… High school kids.”
“How many are there?”
“Should be seventeen in this pod.”
Rob sticks his finger in the water. The sea is beating. “I thought you said they’d be gone by now.”
“It’s so late in October. They should be.”
“So why are they still here?”
Rob sees the answer first. It’s dead on the shoreline.
They take the catamaran to the island.
* * *
“These corpses do all kinds of eerie things,” Carla grimaces, walking around the whale carcass. The sand around the body is damp. “Some bloat so much they explode.”
It’s still pretty fresh, though. Rob pries the mouth open. They feel the teeth and the tongue and the inside of the cheeks.
“This is downright biblical,” he says. He walks around to the tail. He pulls his thumb down its rubbery fluke, makes it squeak, then he taps it up with his index and middle fingers. It bounces.
“It’s really light… I bet we could lift it.”
Sixteen whale fins cut back and forth like tombstones in the mist, twenty yards off the beach.
“These things weigh five tons, and we couldn’t lift a horse between the two of us.”
“No, I really think we can.” Rob pushes up his sleeves and slides his hands, palms-up, beneath the tail. The fluke covers his forearms. He lifts with his thighs, and the whole back half of the whale peels from the sand.
“You take the head,” he grins.
“It’s like a balloon,” Carla whispers.
“What time is it?”
“Quarter to twelve.”
There’s a shallow rut on the whale’s jaw and bristle in its pores. When Carla raises the massive chin to hers, cupping it in both palms, she can’t see Rob’s crepe-sole boots on the opposite end. But the whale’s underbelly is raining, and she knows it’s dappling the suede.
“Where to now?”
* * *
They run through the forest holding the whale above their heads like a Chinese dragon.
It’s just started to rain.
Carla slows, and lets the front half rush over her, dragging her fingers on the white stomach. She takes a pectoral fin in each hand, right where they meet the body and she lifts her legs. It carries her now. She’s like a paper airplane. She curls in her knees and dangles between the poplars with eyes closed. Her heart is in her chest; that’s Anatomy 101. She calls over her shoulder, “Where’s your heart, Rob?”
“It’s behind my brow.”
Carla dips her head backward and stretches her neck to touch the belly button with her forehead. Then she strikes her hat along the slick stomach, kneading the deep flesh with the crown of her head until she finds what must be the bottom-most rib. She keeps guiding her head forward. Her chest follows, until her arms are strained taut behind her, her body projected 45 degrees, like a galleon masthead.
She touches her feet to forest floor again and keeps running through the rain.
They lay the carcass down on the railroad tracks that span the bridge between the island and the mainland. It sags there, restored to its full tonnage. The bridge creaks, so they run.
And from the catamaran on the sea through the fog, they watch the body burst like fireworks when the train barges through it.
October’s nearly over, the whale pods are gone, and later there will be wedding cake.
Erin Peraza is a Philadelphia-based writer of short fiction and screenplays. She has had an artist/writer collaboration published in Symbiosis Magazine, and her story “On a Whale Watch, Sober” won second place in the 2014 Phi Kappa Sigma Prize. She was also featured in the Emerging Philadelphia Writers program of LIVE at the Writers House. Erin is currently working on her fiction portfolio, while she works and eats at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania.