Panic never leaves her. It only recedes for intervals, like the tide in Bahía de Navidad. For days, the ocean can lap in benign ripples on the sand, then suddenly rise in swirling breakers that smash to shore, shaking the hotel in its foundation. Monica lies in the penthouse bedroom facing the ocean, trying to make herself get up. It’s a vacation, the waves a sea of mirrors reflecting the sun. Already children splash in the pool below, their stridor drilling into her brain.
“Mommy,” Robbie cries, as he leaps on the bed, startling her. “There’s a whale on the beach.”
“A whale?” Monica smiles at him in his Mickey Mouse pyjamas. “Are you sure?” She drops her head on the pillow and closes her eyes. From across the way, the hotel owner’s parrot lets out a wolf whistle, soft and sexy, each note drawn out. Then a series of cluck, cluck, clucks and chirps and whoops. She visualizes him in his large black cage, his green feathers clipped. From below, a rhythmic sweep of a broom on the outdoor hallways and stairs, a perpetual sound in the daylight hours.
“Mommy.” Denise stands in the doorway, her pink/blue bathing suit, an iridescent mermaid’s skin. Already the boys have begun to take notice. She stares at Monica, her expression anxious. A camera hangs around her neck, nestled between her breasts like a third eye.
“It’s true, Mommy.” Robbie takes her hand and pulls. “Come see.”
Monica lets herself be coaxed into a sitting position. “Where’s Daddy?” she says. “Show Daddy the whale. Mommy wants to rest a little more.” She lies back down and closes her eyes. Where is Lorne, anyway? It’s just like him to put this silly whale idea in the child’s mind, then go off and leave her to deal with it.
Robbie’s fascination with whales began two weeks ago, when one beached itself off the west coast of Vancouver Island. On TV, rescue workers poured seawater over the scorched grey flesh, spoke about sunburn and dehydration. It reminded Monica of another TV story in which a woman was found dead on a lawn chair, poolside in Vegas. She’d fallen asleep in the sun – six hours in 108 degrees – while all around her children and swimmers and sunbathers skirted her red, blistered body. Monica stared at the stranded whale on TV, while Lorne patiently explained to Robbie that whales have emotions, and can beach themselves out of grief and loneliness.
“I’m going down to the pool,” Denise says. She turns and pads away, her bare feet making sucking slapping sounds on the cool ceramic tile.
“Daddy’s gone fishing with Travis,” Robbie says, accusingly.
Monica sighs, a part of her relieved. Perhaps away from them all, Lorne and the boy can come to some understanding. “Maybe later, Daddy will take you fishing too.”
Robbie scrunches his eyebrows together. “But what can I do?” he says, and she embraces him and kisses him repeatedly in the side of his neck while he wiggles and struggles until they are both laughing. “Come see,” he says.
She sighs, and lets him pull her out of the bed. Together, they go to the verandah.
When a furious tide rolls in, small fish rise on the waves and land on wet sand. Pelicans circle overhead like wartime bombers, diving at the first sign of silver flapping on land. The air is black with wings, like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Or the helicopter scene out of Apocalypse Now. Monica steps into this dark moving sky, whose shadows projected, magnify on sand. Below, at the far corner of the courtyard, near the outdoor barbeque, Lorne and Travis stand together. Although only fourteen, Travis is as tall as his father, his body gangly like Lorne’s was before the thirty pounds around his heart. Monica watches them anxiously for signs of trouble, but today, father and son are curved over the ceramic counter and sink, dark heads together, their hands black and wet.
“Hey!” she calls. “What are you doing?”
“We’ve caught an octopus,” Lorne says, holding out an inky squishy pulp.
Denise darts across the courtyard, camera at her eye. “Hold it,” she says and snaps a photograph.
Lorne frowns at her.
“Sorry,” she says. “Relevant narrative.” She smiles and caps the lens. For the past six months, Denise who is thirteen-going-on-thirty has been snapping these “relevant narratives” and pasting them into a scrapbook, which she calls the storyboard of her life. Although Lorne has bought her the latest digital camcorder, Denise prefers stills, which nobody sees because she has rigged a small padlock on the scrapbook.
Robbie tugs at Monica’s hand. “Let’s go down, Mummy. I want to touch the octopus too.” His voice is reverent, excited, the whale forgotten.
He’s four, and Lorne is a hazy memory, having recently returned after an eighteen-month absence which he and Monica explained to the children as an overseas posting. Lorne works for an oil company, and the children are accustomed to his absences. But Monica suspects Denise and Travis sense that Lorne’s latest omission from their lives was due to problems between him and her, problems which although the children never heard about, they could see in the askance glances of their parents, feel in the icy tightening around their hearts.
“Don’t lock the door,” Travis calls out. “I’m coming up to put the octopus in the fridge.” Monica watches them slide the creature in a pail, watches Lorne stride toward the concrete slab at the front of the hotel.
That was a relevant moment, she thinks, a rare occasion with Lorne and Travis appearing – at least in the storyboard – as if they are united. It reminds her of the last photo, the one Denise took of them last week while they were building a tackle box – Lorne’s choice for Travis’ grade eight woodworking project. What is not visible in that photo is that Travis wanted to build a chess table or a bookshelf, but his father considers these unsuitable and unnecessary objects for a young man who he thinks spends far too much time reading novels when he should be outside playing sports and doing boy things.
They built the tackle box to bring here with them to Mexico. They are in Obregon, a small village north of Manzanillo, booked into the most modern, albeit most expensive hotel in the village. It rises out of the sand like a fairy castle, all turrets and domes, some of which are penthouse bedrooms, others decorative covers for water reservoirs and laundry facilities. Each of the four floors has three apartments, and a wraparound covered verandah large enough for individual tables and chairs. At night, Monica, Lorne and the children eat dinner off blue-and- white Talavera plates set on madras tablecloths. After supper, Travis and Denise escape to the village with a pack of teenagers they met two days into their holiday. Monica and Lorne play Go Fish with Robbie until his bedtime, then tumblers and blender of margaritas in hand they melt into other couples downstairs around the pool, and drink until the children return.
The holiday is half pleasure, half business, a perk paid for by Lorne’s boss Chester Fowler who, along with his wife Heather, joined them a few days after their arrival. Monica is not thrilled with this arrangement, viewing it as a test for which she has not studied.
Robbie stares after his father, toward the beach. “I told you, Mummy,” he says, and for a moment, he looks just like Lorne smirking at Monica over something. “Look. There. It’s a whale.”
The large blubbery mass does indeed resemble a whale. Sunlight reflects off pale blue jeans and faded blue checked shirt, so that it forms a silvery shape on dry sand, just above the high tide mark.
“It’s a man,” Monica says. “I hope he’s all right.” She goes inside, changes into shorts and shirt, slips into her flip-flops and the two of them head downstairs. They pass Travis on the landing, but Robbie is now too excited about the whale to care about the octopus.
“Could he be a man-whale?” Robbie says. “Like a mermaid only a man.”
“I don’t think so.” Monica ducks at the second landing where the ceiling is not quite high enough for her to clear the top stair.
“Is he dead then?” Robbie says. “Was he sad?”
“Let’s wait till we see him, all right?” Surely all of them out there have seen the man. She takes Robbie’s hand and together they cross the luxurious grounds, past the swimming pool, past the hibiscus, banana plants and palms, past the outdoor barbeque area, past the gate onto the concrete slab where hotel guests are settled on recliners and lawn chairs, their flesh oiled and sunscreened, turning in the sun, like hogs on a spit.
Lorne and Chester slouch in deck chairs, a plastic table between them on which two bottles of Estrella weep round wet pools. They’re playing poker.
In front of them, the man lies on his side, legs together, one arm straight out, supporting his large dark head, his hips a mountain in the centre of his sloping body, his feet together, the black toes of his shoes turned out like tail flukes. Flotsam and seaweed are scattered about him, collected in the folds of his clothes, imbedded in the crevices of his flesh.
“Good morning, Monica,” Chester says when he sees her.
“Another lovely day in paradise.” He laughs, as if he has said something original.
Monica nods, then looks at Lorne. “What’s the matter with him?” she says, indicating the man on the sand. “He’s not – ”
“Passed out drunk,” Lorne says. “No need to worry.” He and Chester return to their card game.
Monica stands, uncertain, staring at the native man whose face she can clearly see: the closed eyes, the hair tousled over his cheek. She wonders if he is someone she has talked to, bartered with, if he has walked this stretch day after day, a carapace of T-shirts, hammocks, jewellery and masks on his back. He’ll get sunstroke, she thinks, touching her own pink cheeks. Fortunately, at the moment, his shoulders create shade for his head. “How long has he been there?” she asks.
Chester’s wife, Heather, looks up from her book. “It’s disgraceful,” she says, crossing her legs at the ankles.
Monica frowns, wondering what she means. It’s disgraceful that he’s been there so long? That no one has done anything? She stares at Heather whose sunglasses are black and enormous, like a stingray perched on her nose. Beside Heather, Lorne is tense, leaning forward, face tight, signalling Monica with the narrowing of his eyes. She stares at the thick paperback Heather has laid face-down on her lap, and is now pressing, breaking the spine. She makes herself think of PTA meetings, softball games and high-school pageants; she makes herself think of Robbie’s incantation every night, “Please God, keep Daddy safe so he can come home,” of Travis and Denise who wear their longing in the curved shoulders, in the hard edges of their blue eyes.
Heather pats a lawn chair next to her, and Monica sits down. Travis who has come downstairs, sits at the edge of the concrete, legs swinging over the four-foot drop, fishing pole planted in the sand, eyes fixed straight ahead.
Monica has disliked the Fowlers since they arrived, disliked their disparaging of everything Mexican, the condescending smiles they give her when she disagrees with them, the types of statements like the one Heather just made. For four days, Monica has been choking on her words, while Lorne sits, comfortable, his large hands constantly in motion, his lips stretched into smiles, his body thrust anxiously towards theirs. She knows it’s no good between her and Lorne, that he’s only back for a while, that his affair soured. He’s a tourist here in their lives, and yet when she thinks of him permanently gone, her throat constricts and her heart palpitates until she’s sure it will leap out of her chest.
“Is it a whale-man?” Robbie asks.
“Aren’t you cute,” Heather says. “Yes, you’re right, it’s a kind of animal.” She smiles.
Robbie looks at them, unsure, but pleased that they’re all beaming at him. “A whale is not an animal,” he says, puffing up like a blowfish. “It’s a mammal.”
“We’re all mammals, honey,” Heather says. “But some of us are more mammals than others.” She shrieks with laughter, and Lorne and Chester howl along, although Monica can make no sense out of her statement.
Travis glowers at them all, gets up and marches, stone-faced, down the beach. Monica watches him go, a flapping of wings in her heart, magnifying, projecting black.
“Oh look!” Chester says to Robbie. “Your whale is moving. Maybe it’ll get right back into the ocean where it belongs.” He points to the man, whose leg is slowly bending at the knee. At each movement, he and Heather and Lorne hoot and whoop, as if the man were performing a circus act for their amusement.
“It’s not really a whale,” Robbie says then.
“Of course it is, honey,” Heather insists, patting his arm. “It’s doing tricks for us, can’t you see?”
Robbie glances at Monica who begins to shake her head, but Lorne snaps his fingers and Robbie turns to him, to his father who smiles and nods.
Monica glares at Lorne and gets up. She’ll go to the lobby and see what can be done. Denise is sitting by the pool, sleek and wet, eyes curious. She has been watching and listening to us, Monica thinks. Denise observes everything, and is a chameleon. In a room of people, Denise has the uncanny ability to say exactly what each person wants to hear. Monica feels a fist pressing against her abdomen. She wants to say, I’m here, I’m here, I’ll always be here. Waves merrily instead.
In the lobby, she uses a combination of English and broken Spanish. Then frustrated by her inability to communicate clearly, she mimes the man on the beach.
“The policemen will take him away. Soon, don’t worry,” the desk clerk says, misunderstanding her motive. She tries to explain, then gives up; smiles and shakes her head instead.
In front of the hotel, the beached man moves in slow motion, like an octopus out of water. An elaborate dance – he draws up one knee, his elbow slides in the sand, a finger crooks, his nose twitches, his foot wiggles. The Fowlers point to him and laugh whenever he moves. Robbie is sitting on Lorne’s lap, his face flushed and excited. Monica feels her stomach tighten again. “Robbie,” she calls from across the courtyard, but he doesn’t hear her.
Denise has moved her lawn chair to the concrete pad. Monica watches her inch closer to her father. In and out. Back and forth. Lorne has been the perfect gift bearer: bikes, skates, pointe shoes, flute, piano, soccer ball, camcorder, computers, cell phones, CDs, DVDs, TVs, laptops, iPods. Only she notices the children stiffening when the phone rings. Be careful, she wants to say, watching Robbie and Denise near their father’s riptide love.
“Oh honey,” Heather says, “we can’t let that alabaster skin get tough now, can we?” She laughs, reaches into her bag, and pulls out sunscreen which she spreads on Denise’s arms and back. “When I was your age,” she says, in a southern US drawl, “My mother never let me out in the sun without a hat.”
Monica bristles. She huffs over to them. “Perhaps that’s because you lived in Arizona,” she says. “In Vancouver where we live, we mostly get rain–”
“Mum,” Denise says in a please-be-quiet-and-don’t-embarrass us- all tone.
They are all staring at her as if they are the family she is the outsider. She curls herself into a deck chair a little apart from them, and closes her eyes. Last night, while they were drinking around the pool, they heard a commotion on the beach. Went out and found people from the village lined up along the high tide mark.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Turtle release,” a tall young student said. “Leatherbacks. Endangered.” He explained that the 300 tiny turtles had to be set on the waves in darkness so that birds wouldn’t eat them. And even then, only a tiny percentage survived the ocean’s trials.
They ran upstairs and woke Robbie. Carried him down to the water’s edge. Watched his small hands reach out and place the wriggling turtles on wet sand. Black creatures ran toward the ocean like wound-up toys, following instinct, while Lorne’s soft voice explained about nature, the cruelty of it.
Now, in the hot sun, it seems impossible that they were here, last night, on this same hard sand where the man lies beached, his face now in full sun. Monica scans the shore: she can just discern Travis walking steadily away from them.
In the distance, finally, a dune buggy. And soon, a policeman bends over the sleeping man, shakes him, all in vain. Chester gets up, stomps down the three steps to the sand, yelling at the policeman, hands waving in the air. “This is our beach. We’ve paid good money for it. Get him out of there.”
The policeman hardly glances at the gesticulating man, his eyes scornful. He turns the man over, checks his pulse, tries to lift him, but can’t.
No one offers to help.
“They’re all the same, really,” Heather says. “Back home, they’re lying on the sidewalks.”
“Good-for-nothing,” Chester mutters. “I wouldn’t stand for it if this was my hotel.” He yanks a beer out of his personal cooler and flips off the cap with the opener attached to his keys.
The policeman arranges the man on his side, away from the sun. “I will be back with help,” he says to the audience collected on the concrete pad, and drives off, wheels spitting out sand. Monica shades her eyes and stares after him. In the distance, Travis’s body shrinks smaller and smaller. A huge lump rises in her throat. Lorne reaches out and squeezes her hand.
“Daddy, look!” Robbie says. He runs to the edge of the concrete and jumps off. Unbuttoned, his shirt puffs in the air like a carapace. Lorne and Monica and the Fowlers applaud. He scurries up the stairs and does it again, and again, while they beam and clap and laugh. Denise pulls out her camera. Both children are bright-eyed, in love.
Then Robbie plucks the fishing pole out of the sand. He runs to the beached man, plants the pole at his head and stands there, triumphant.
“How marvellous!” Heather squeals. “You’ve got yourself a whale.”
“Moby Dick,” Lorne says. Robbie doesn’t know what this means, but he is drunk with the admiration in his father’s voice.
Denise grabs her camera and hops onto the sand. “Look at me, Daddy,” she says, her voice tight, framing Robbie and the man in the viewfinder. Before she takes the photo, she turns for a moment toward Lorne, toward his wide toothy grin.
“Beached” first appeared in Room 35.2, 2012, pp.82-92. Reprinted with permission. “Beached” also appears in People, Places, Passages: An Anthology of Canadian Writing (Longbridge 2018).
Genni Gunn is an author, translator, and musician. Her eleven books include Thrice Upon a Time – finalist for the Commonwealth Prize; Mating in Captivity – finalist for the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award; Tracing Iris – made into a film titled The Riverbank; and Solitaria, long-listed for the Giller Prize. She wrote the libretto for the opera Alternate Visions. Her most recent book is a collection of travel essays, Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place.