|Fun With Mammals
MOTHER'S DAY in the Year of the Rat, and I'm riding shotgun for my brother-in-law Phil in a borrowed flatbed semi as we throttle north on Interstate 91 toward Canada, but instead of packing a firearm, I'm trying to keep a wine cork on the tip of a nine-inch hypodermic, just in case the narwhal wakes up ahead of schedule. Bill, our father-in-law, is riding out back, because someone has to keep the whale's porcelain-smooth flesh from getting chapped in the breeze. He's got a fifty-five-gallon drum of saltwater Phil mixed up that he's ladling from. Occasionally, udder balm must needs be applied. Bill drew the short match, and I have every confidence in him. Sometimes in the rearview I can see him tucking a corner of the blue tarp back under a bit of those three thousand pounds of gelatinous, mottled blubber as it hangs over the edge of the bed. This particular leviathan's got a small, small face, eyes rolled back in its tiny head. And of course who could forget the magnificent horn? Phil took great care strapping the beast down to the flatbed as it slept. Getting himor her, I can't tellout of the tank and up there was a whole other story which Phil has yet to tell us. When Bill and I showed up, he had the whale already loaded and was sitting in the cab sweating, with the motor running.
Phil's the worst lawyer I have ever known. He puts in the minimum number of hours per week to get by. He gets distracted in the courtroom and has to excuse himself to urinate two, three times a session. His closing arguments are a nightmare, great dissociative works of stream of consciousness punctuated by an occasional moreover! or thus! It's the stress. He sweats buckets. He gets migraines, his shirts and ties absolutely soaked. I watched one of his cross-examinations once. He was leaving damp footprints all over the courtroom. The judge was speechless. To his credit, Phil has done his best to get past all of this: he's tried primal screams, yoga, high-protein diets, even self-hypnosisand then he decided to return to just plain heavy drinking.
Last week, he was defending a client accused of smuggling narcotics into the country when poof!the guy turned up missing from his palace in Westport, Connecticut. Phil thought other members of the cartel were worried he'd turn state's evidence. Wherever the man had disappeared to, Phil was relievedno need for another court appearance now. But the narwhal would have died. The drug guy had it in a blue underground tank so he could watch it through his transparent bedroom wall while he made love. "It makes sense," said Phil. I'm still not sure what he meant. Then there was nobody around to feed the damn thingupwards of three hundred pounds of mackerel per diem. It had already lost a few dress sizes. That crunched-up face smiling through the thick glass of the tank first thing in the morning. Clicks and little whirs of loneliness, now that the master was gone. So Phil comes up with this no-brainer. One of his golf buddies' firms is handling the bankruptcy case of something called an oceanarium in Nova Scotia. Phil figures if he can get the narwhal there inside of twenty-four hours, he'll just out-and-out give it to them as a donation (he's the de facto executor of the drug dealer's will), claim a huge tax deduction, and save the day for the failing oceanic institution. "That thing's adorable," he said as we drove off. "It's got to be worth big, big bucks. And I'm giving it away. I'm handing it over, gratis. All for the children of eastern Canada!"
That was four hours ago, and we're making good time into southern Vermont.
"You should have seen how small Earl was," Phil says, after long silence. Suddenly, I notice Phil's way nervous. Serious sweating has commenced.
"Who's Earl?" I ask. I take a glance in the mirror. "Hey, I can't see Bill."
"Who's Earl? The guy who owns Babu." Phil takes a swig from a chrome hip flask. "The guy who owned Babu."
"Who the hells Babu?"
"Babu, the narwhal?" says Phil. "Hello?"
"Can you see Bill on your side?"
Phil thrusts his head out the window, his shoulder-length hair having come undone from its ponytail and whipping madly now around his face. He takes the opportunity to examine his teeth in the semi's big rearview mirror Then he looks back. "Jesus, Babu's fluke is hanging off the side!"
"Yeah, but where's Bill?" I ask. Phil applies the brakes and begins shifting gears like a lunatic. I can see the trailer fishtailing behind us. "Easy!" I say. "You don't even have a license to drive one of these."
Phil shoots me a glance. "Always so technical," he says. "So negative. This isn't about me or you. It's about Babu!" He winces as the trailer's rear end takes out a hundred feet of guardrail and we come to a halt. "There we go! That's beautiful! Satisfied now?" He jumps out of the cab and I follow.
Out back there's nothing left of the salt stew Bill was ladling onto Babu with a small shovel. But we do locate Bill himself who lies wedged up against the cab, still alive, but with one of his legs seeming to disappear into the creamy blubber that is Babu. Babu has rolled over on top of him.
Phil struggles to push the narwhal's fluke back onto the flatbed. "Bill, I don't see the udder balm." He throws up his hands. "Look! Babu's skin is all rough here, and here. Look at this dorsal fin! Bill, excuse me, but what the hell have you been doing for the last three hours?"
Bill is slicked with a thick layer of what appears to be whale mucus. "Sorry, Phil, but the wind, well, it was whipping pretty strong once you got to the interstate." I've never heard Bill raise his voice above the hushed monotone in which he communicates withwhat I can only term the outside world. He's retired. "But not from life," he often whispers. He refuses to let things bother him. His is a stoicism born of either outright raving madness or a species of genius, the residue of some life-altering encounter with a yawning abyss.
"Come on, Bill!" Phil looks at his naked wrist. "Where are we?" I run to the cab and return with the road map.
"We're making good time," I tell him.
He ignores me. "Has Babu been moving or. . ." Cars scream past. Phil can't seem to find the word.
I lift Bill to his feet. "Or what, Phil?"
"Moving, you know, by itself."
"Like breathing?" Bill asks.
"Yeah, there's been breathing," says Bill. "I'd direct your attention to the blowhole."
Phil pulls back the blue tarp. The narwhal's horn is sandwiched between two huge pieces of flaking white Styrofoam held together with duct tape. "Oh, yeah," says Phil. "See it working there, the little flap?" He pauses. "What I mean is, has there been there any other, you know, movement?"
Bill shakes his head. "No, Phil, no other movement." His suit and tie are utterly ruined. But he's out to help. He wants to do his part. "Though it's been hard to tell, like I said, because of the"
"Wind? Yeah, thanks, Bill. That's all for now. You want to ride up front? I think it's time for Pete to spend some QT with Babu. Do you mind, Pete?"
I must admit I feel a little dizzy over the task ahead. "No, not at all," I say. But I do insist on lunch. I'm not tending narwhal on an empty stomach.
"Pete," Phil says, "timewise, we're certainly up against it." He wipes a sleeve across his forehead. He looks around. In the wind, the ragged blue tarp slaps at Babu. "Oh, all right. Next exit. An X-Mart or something. Can you live with a Clif Bar?"
"Phil, a fistful of nuts, anything."
"I'm a little hungry myself," whispers Bill.
Phil's suddenly beside himself "Well, hell, we're not having a sit-down meal, guys! Is that clear? Let's get this thing in motion!"
From the flatbed, I witness Phil's agonizing ascent through the gears, the accordioned guardrail coming loose from the rear axle with a sound like horrendous reptilian screeching in deafening slow-mo. Down the exit to a busy intersection we go. Phil swings the rig out into the traffic, and the motorists waiting at the red light barely escape being dipped by the rear wheels of the trailer. Moments later, driving into a Cumberland Farms parking lot, we nick a corner of the fuel kiosk, which falls to the asphalt while I try to act nonchalant, jouncing with my ankles crossed as I lounge atop Babu.
"OK. Go!" I hear Phil call from the cab. "Get me a six of Dew if they've got it. Warm, please!"
Inside, people are plastered to the windows. It's like that diner scene from The Birds. They move aside as I enter. Hushed voices. A small boy is crying in his mother's arms. "That's all right now," she says, glaring over his red hair. "That man's not going to hurt you."
"Far from it," I say. "Tell him." Then, for no reason I can discern, I whisper: "I'm the man from U.N.C.L.E."
"What's that under the plastic out there?" the cashier asks, as I lay out my hastily gotten booty on the counter.
"What?" I don't turn around. "Under that plastic out there? You're standing there asking what's out under that tarp? Is that what you want to know?"
"Yeah, what's that mound you rode in on? You smell like fish."
I look him up and down. "And that's bad?" I ask.
I feel all their eyes on me, my wet ass, all the way out to the rig. But then I realize I've forgotten something and have to go back.
"What the hell do you want now?" the cashier says.
"Do you carry udder balm?" I ask, without missing a beat.
He just snorts and shakes his head.
"Right." I take my sweet time leaving. I meet the eyes of each customer in the place. "I didn't think so."
Outside, I mount Babu again, and as we pull away, I give the crowd a little stiff-wristed Elizabethan wave, then fall ravenously on my bag of unsalted sunflower seeds.
The afternoon passes without incident.
Around dinnertime or so, however, events take a darker turn. A quarter of a mile behind us, a Vermont state trooper is keeping pace. What's more, I think I detect the first indications that Babu may be rousing from slumber. I'm feeling slight movementsthere's no other way to say it. I knock a few times on the roof of the cab.
"What!" Phil screams out his window.
"Something's amiss with Babu!" I yell.
"Babu's waking up!"
Phil takes the next exit at fifty miles per hourhe's learning not to downshift too soonand Babu slides off almost completely onto the road. We pull into an empty commuter lot surrounded by pine trees. Up on the interstate, the trooper passes without slowing.
Phils out of the cab in a second. "Pete! Look at Babu! For God's sake, he's hanging off again! What's with you guys? Can you show a little effort?"
I slide off the whale. "I'm pretty sure Babu's waking up."
Just then Babu begins to flop like a hooked bass in the bottom of a boat. It would be comical, if we weren't all covered in narwhal slime as a result.
"Pete, how did it get to this point? I gave you simple instructions. You were supposed to inject at the faintest hint of Babu's stirring."
"I know, Phil, but..." I look over at Bill, who nods placidly in stoical solidarity.
Indeed, we begin to notice certain movements traveling along the soft white underbelly of Babu.
Bill clears his throat. "Phil," he says, "is Babu a lady whale?"
Phils turning left and right, grimacing, twitching, his hands in his hair. He's trying to act nonchalant, trying not to sweat. "Jesus, what kind of a question is that, Bill?" He takes a swig from his chrome flask. "What's your point?"
"I ask because I think what's happening could very well be whale birth," says Bill. Then, quietly as ever: "Behold, a sentient being is emerging into the world."
Phil throws down the flask. "Dammit! That's not it!" He hoists himself onto the flatbed next to the writhing whale. "Hand me that hypo, will you?"
I run to cab for the needle, come back, and pass it up to Phil, at which point he proceeds, riding the bucking narwhal like some demented prophet, to deliver the last dose of sedative through Babu's thick flesh. Slowly, the whale falls off to sleep.
And yet the movements do not completely cease.
"Aw, hell." Phil leaps from Babu. "Pete, come up here." I climb onto the flatbed. He takes a deep breath with his eyes closed, counts to five, then reaches into the birthing canal of the sedated cetacean and begins rooting around for a time with his head facing away. "All right now," he says and starts to pull. "There we go. OK."
At first I don't believe what I think I'm seeing: two bright blue New Balance running shoes glistening in the failing light of evening. Phil's got hold of one of them, twisting it, yanking it. "Mother of God!" he yells. "Everythings going wrong today! What else can happen? Somebody tell me." He whistles sharply. "Guys, do I have to issue a formal invitation? Help me out here, will you?" Bill takes hold of a protruding ankle and I grab the other sneaker. Phil gets down on his knees and begins massaging Babu's great abdomen from front to back as we pull and pull and pull. Sure enough, slowly our labor bears fruit. We succeed in extracting from Babu's interior a small man, who now lies panting on the flatbed beside us.
"All right, guys, here's the deal." Phil stands up and wipes his hands on his back pockets. "I want you to meet my client, Earl."
Bill and I exchange pleasantries with the man, who's wearing relaxed-fit jeans and the top of a wetsuit two sizes too small. He's a little shaky, sure, and completely covered with slime, but who's going to hold that against him? He removes the scuba mask and snorkel he's been wearing. It seems that the small tube that he was breathing through, the one running from the snorkel into Babu's blubber and then out into the vast ocean of air we all take for granted, must have become partially occluded in the recent rumble up on the highway, and it was all Earl could do to signal his distress to the outside world. Seems Earl was hoping to make it to Canada alive, but here he stands, still in the USA, reduced to nothing more than a pathetic incarnation of his own twisted tradecraft.
A few moments of shared silence pass, and then it's as though I myself wake up and realize where I am. "This is all well and good, but what about our friend Babu?" I say. "What now?" All three are looking at me in wonderment. "Let's get a move on. We need to get this narwhal to the sea, and I mean now."
Once I've sounded the alarum, to a man we begin to scramble, even Earl. Phil meets me at the cab. "Hold on there," I say, talking out of my mind, barking orders like a drill sergeant. "You stick with Babu and your client. I'm driving this rig now. I'm taking charge."
Phil obeys without a word.
And so we strike out due east through the humid May night into New Hampshire. Bill assumes responsibility for navigation, staring for hours at the maps by the light of a little flashlight held in his teeth and consulting a military compass, and it isn't long before the road signs begin intermittently to include words like beach and neck. With a pink Magic Marker, he circles what he thinks is a pier on the map, but when we get there, it's just barely wide enough to accommodate the full girth of the semi, and I stop the rig and we jump down and join the boys in the back.
Our vigil begins. We will wait for the narwhal to wake. Earl lights a small fire on the flatbed with driftwood, and we watch the flames cast shuddering shadows on the whale's shiny skin. Hours pass. Bill and Earl begin a game of chess with a small magnetic set they find in the rig's glove compartment. We listen to the hiss of the waves. And we wait. All the while I'm thinking that when Babu comes to life, someone's got to barrel-ass the whole goddamn kit and caboodle down the pier and into the foaming brine. And I realize that that somebody's going to be me. I didn't seek out this fate, but I'll be damned if I'm going to shun it now that it's been thrust upon me.
If only Babu would wake up! We remove the makeshift Styrofoam clamp from her horn. Pressing my ear to her abdomen, I listen for a heartbeat among the deep gurgling and popping noises. And I'm thinking someone's got to ride out back, to guide Babu safely into the Atlantic once the rig begins to sink. Someone who can swim.
But we haven't gotten that responsibility assigned, we haven't thought it through as it should be thought through, haven't imagined all the imaginables, plumbed the possible downsides, foreseen the dangers, assessed the risks, quantified the intangibles, or reasoned out the effects, before Babu, her great bulk undulant and crying out for the healing salve of the sea, begins to stir.
|© Pete Duval
This electronic version of "Fun With Mammals" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher and author. It appears in the author´s collection Rear View, Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Book ordering available through amazon.com; amazon.co.uk
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Peter Duval holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. His stories have appeared in many publications, including Northwest Review, Exquisite Corpse, Descant and Sun Dog. His recently released short-fiction collection Rear View, Houghton Mifflin Company, is the winner of the 2003 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for fiction, selected by Jay Parini and awarded by Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Duval currently works as an independent Web applications developer, and he lives with his wife, poet Kim Bridgford, and their son in Wallingford, Connecticut.
issue 44: September - October 2004