I went up to the beach with my father’s red-topped cooler full of beer. The sun scratched at the top of my head and my feet settled into the warm sand. Don’t know how, but it took a minute for me to notice him. Huge. Like a God damn train. Had to have been about sixty, seventy feet from nose to tail. Skin as if the Lord had carved him out of the sky. I’d seen pictures before, but nothing like this.
There were people standing all around him. They gawked and took pictures and whispered as if not to bother him. I was humbled to see a blue whale washed to shore on his side like that. But empowered in a way. To know that my place of rest would be his grave. It surprised me how thin he was. Thought he must’ve been starving for a while. I could see his ribs and I tell you they were big around as trees.
His eye, about the size of my head, give or take, was half-open and his flipper kept on moving up and down. I could see he was trying to open his mouth but didn’t seem to have the strength to push it through the sand. And people just kept taking their pictures and whispering. They covered their noses but the smell didn’t bother me none. I guess some people just never smelled bad meat before.
Every so often the water would swell up and splash over him. I tried to imagine how that must’ve felt. Made me think of Alison, my ex-wife. How she’d call and leave messages promising I could see my son if I’d talk with her. How she’d show up at whatever restaurant alone and pick fights about shit that didn’t matter anymore. About working too much and never paying her enough mind. She had brought my boy a few times. Just enough to get me thinking that she’d keep on bringing him. She had taught me to feel that empty promise of home.
I pushed through the crowd to get close. Some guy tried to stop me, asked if I thought it was a good idea to get near him like that. “He ain’t going nowhere,” I said. “He ain’t dangerous.” So I walked up and put my hand on him and held it there. On his jaw, I guess. Wasn’t real sure.
But damned if he didn’t look right at me. I wasn’t sure that he could actually see me, if his eyes worked that good above the water. His flipper stopped moving and he just looked right at me. It was odd, having his attention like that. Felt I had to do something with it.
“I know you’re scared,” I said. “Hell, I am too. Scared all the damn time of something or other.”
“You’re gonna die soon. Probably sometime tonight, if I had to say.” Now, of course, I knew he couldn’t understand me. Hell, didn’t know if he could even hear me. But that didn’t stop me from trying.
I sat down next to him and twisted the cap off my first beer and kept on drinking. Leaned my back against his big body. Sat there and read out loud to him just in case he could hear me. Read some Joyce, read some Faulkner. The sun started to set behind us and I read to him about the dirty Italian girl and the wet bread and that got me thinking.
“Think I’ll name you Quentin,” I said. “How about that?”
“You’re lost like him,” I said. “Gonna die like him.”
I thought about that for a minute, closed the book over my finger. “Named my son Jason,” I said. “Guess that makes you two like brothers.”
I dropped my last empty into the cooler, stood back up, and looked over him. Tried to see if he was still alive. Could hardly tell in that light though. I pressed my forehead against him and gave a short prayer for the both of us. I wanted more than anything to give him a right Christian burial. Hole in the ground, bible reading, flowers. The whole deal.
Brent Holden is an undergraduate in the creative writing program at Ball State University. He is the lead poetry editor for The Broken Plate, his university’s literary magazine. He has had the privilege of studying under some rather fantastic writers: Jared Yates Sexton, Michael Meyerhofer, Todd McKinney, Sean Lovelace, and Mark Neely. This is his first official publication.
Lead image: “Footprints” (via Flickr user Angie Garrett)