The backpack hangs from David’s right shoulder and swings perpendicular to his back as he walks south. He is six feet tall yet cannot weigh over 140 pounds. His shaved, pale head is like a translucent orb floating atop his lanky frame. He wears cut-off skinny-jeans and an apricot-colored V-neck over his sunken chest. No shoes, no socks, cool sand collects between his toes.
To his left are Easter-colored summer condos rented by hoity-toity Portlanders. To his right is his friend Jonah, smoking a joint, and, farther past Jonah, the waves’ crash gives the sole evidence that there’s more than just black horizon out there.
Inside the backpack are a malleable piece of wire mesh, a grill lighter, and two Ziploc sandwich bags of pot.
“So,” Jonah says, exhaling. “I’m a brother, again.” He is short, barely five feet three inches. His stature and pudgy belly, plus his knobbed nose and round, flushed cheeks, belie the blackness of his Vans, jeans, and Ian Curtis T-shirt.
“Good for Hank.”
“No. Mom,” Jonah says.
“Yep.” Without breaking stride, Jonah bends down and picks up a child’s lost yellow shovel. He hands the joint to David.
“So . . . you’re technically half a brother again.”
“And how many kids is this now?”
“So, like, two and a half siblings total.”
“Ha. I suppose.” Jonah spins the shovel’s handle around his right pinky finger.
“And what did they name it?”
“Taggart. ‘Tagg’ with two gs for short.” Jonah makes air quotes--ferocious pinchers--around “Tagg.”
David slaps Jonah on the back--“Tag. You’re it.”--to which Jonah hocks a loogie into the sand.
Ahead, white tents dot the otherwise empty beach like settlements on a new planet. To the left of these tents, on the paved strand, is the rinky-dink ferris wheel present at every small town carnival, the one that looks like it could fall off its spokes and roll away any minute. Come afternoon, the wheel will start turning, the tents will be opened, and the gambling wheels will start clicking. Even David will admit to being impressed by this set-up, considering how incompetent the Borough of Moby usually is and that this year’s Sacagawea washed ashore not two days ago. But that’s how it has to be in the race against decay.
Although each tent is closed and identical, both young men know which ones house what; the festival’s layout never changes. The northernmost tents sell your standard carnival confections: cheese fries, corn dogs, funnel cakes. David swears he can already smell that deep-fried aroma, an odor which makes him want to barf and gorge simultaneously.
The middle tents are for games. They involve spinning a wheel or throwing a ball or tossing a ring. More whale-specific events are grouped in the southern area of the carnival. One tent sells baked goods, like whale-shaped cookies with blue icing. Another houses Story Time with Sacagawea, where the token Asian woman, the closest Moby has to a Native American, will dress as the historical guide and tell children how she led Lewis and Clark to present-day Oregon and to her now-namesake whale.
As David and Jonah pass the last tent, David remembers being eight and digging in the sand like a dog, searching for plastic organs to run to a hollowed-out, made-to-scale plastic blue whale. He won tickets to some minor league baseball game and didn’t regret giving Jonah a black eye over who found the liver first.
They trek for another mile until they reach a temporary circular metal fence with a quarter mile radius. An arc of its circumference is a string of buoys, though it is too dark to see them bobbing in the ocean. Temporary coin-operated binoculars, like those seen at zoos, are also erected. On the opposite side of David and Jonah, but inside the cordoned area, are three beachside houses. The location of this year’s beaching, like many of the beachings before it, had called for a small evacuation. Such is human ignorance to squat near a natural disaster, their obstinacy not to settle elsewhere once nature makes the disaster plain.
In the area’s center, facing the town, rests the great blue whale, the largest outline of any mammal, barely perceivable in the moonlight.
. . .
ΚΣΥ--Spray-painted red on blue-gray, each letter about the size of a movie poster. Kappa stands above her right eye. The remaining letters curve clockwise around the eye, like a bad face tattoo, with a sigma at the three o’clock and an upsilon at the six o’clock. David is able to touch the upsilon, crossing out the forked lines with his right index finger as he walks to her tail. He touches her cautiously, picturing her eye awakening from death. One would need microscopic vision to perceive the point of contact between human epidermis and a surface like mishandled Roman sculpture: smooth in some places, jagged where dead white barnacles still cling.
David clenches his jaw, and his head and shoulder muscles tighten. He feels a lack of oxygen and, realizing he is holding his breath, lets carbon dioxide bursts from his lips like air from a punctured tire. Disgust over the graffiti does not trigger these responses. Although he shook his head when he learned a fraternity had driven sixty miles on a weekday to desecrate a beached whale, he also wanted to one-up them. He told his plan to Jonah, his sometimes literary rival and the only peer still around from high school. Jonah would twitch like a nicotine addict if he went more than fifteen minutes without doing homework, so David was surprised when Jonah asked to come along without David even prompting him.
As David shambles over Sacagawea’s slippery flipper, he hasn’t forgotten the beat cop. David’s clenched jaw, tightened muscles, held breath--the whale’s size isn’t the cause, either, per se. She is longer and taller than an 18-wheeler, and he almost tripped while walking on her flipper, as big as a Lamborghini, but what impresses him is the lack of variation in her shape.
He remembers seeing live elephants once, during a field trip with his third grade class to the Oregon Zoo. Whereas the elephants’ bodies quickly transitioned from tusk to trunk to torso to tail, Sacagawea’s body is a single slab of humbling blubber maintained for yards upon yards without deviation or interruption. Her shape’s continuity and totality fills the interior of David’s vision, nudging all other sights to the periphery, like a mountainside, until, finally, her tail truncates this staggering mass, giving him and Jonah a means to board her.
When they reach the top of her head, they rest Indian style across from each other, the two blowholes between them. Jonah has his back to the tail and the sea; David’s back is to the town. The blowholes are raised bumps, like a pair of giant nostrils. David expected the whale to reek, but he swears he smells peppermint, like that grown in central and eastern Oregon.
David removes the wire mesh and a bag of pot from his backpack and secures the mesh and then the pot into the blowhole on his left. He doesn’t fill the blowhole; rather, he pushes the mesh and pot deep inside, where the blowhole narrows.
“Give me that shovel.”
Jonah hands him the shovel he found earlier. When the pot is packed, David removes the grill lighter from his backpack.
“I’m thinking,” David says, “cover the blowhole with your whole face. The other blowhole--”
“I don’t know man, I just . . . just breathe deeply, from the bottom of your lungs, alright?”
David lowers the lighter. It catches, emits a soft pulse in the dark.
Jonah freezes, and David has to grab Jonah’s right arm and pull him flat on the whale. Jonah assists in the maneuver by craning his neck, so his face lands on the empty blowhole, though not exactly, there is a slight bounce of his head against the whale’s rubbery body, but his face settles into place, and he is taking a long, long hit. As Jonah inhales, David notices Jonah’s clenched eyelids, like Jonah’s deep in the throes of R.E.M.
Coughing, looking like he might vomit, Jonah props himself up with his elbows. He brings his knees forward so that his torso can be vertical, holds this position for one second, and then falls, slowly, onto his back.
“How do you feel? Did it work?” David asks.
“Like one of those balloon guys in front of car dealerships,” Jonah says.
David bends over to relight the packed blowhole. He looks up in time to see a pair of shoes disappear as Jonah slides headfirst down the tail. Jonah tumbles across the beach, not looking back, shouting “Lights! Lights!” and leaving David to wonder what his friend sees.