Who were they shitting? They said it was a rare whale, but all it turned out to be was a juvenile humpback from out on the Stellwagen Bank, one of the 40-foot regulars the Whale Watch crowds from Kalamazoo all go ooh and ahh over. They said the poor bastard had gotten rammed somewhere off Rockport.
There was all this blah-blah about "scientists" taking blood samples. But when George Smoller got there, the scientists, far as he could tell, were just orange-vested garbage guys with chain saws, spilling blood on the sands of Lobster Cove as they carved the hulk up, pissing off the flies and seagulls zooming in from all over the world for the hold-your-nose banquet of the year. George stood on the dunes watching the forklifts load the huge fetid chunks and vertebrae onto Wentz Waste Management trucks hauling them off, presumably north to Gloucester.
Marini, the head of the DPW, put a ho-ho-ho arm around George's shoulders and said, "Hey Noodle, if you go up to a Gloucester fish place for lunch and see whale steak on the menu, don't even think about it. Get your ass out of there and head for a hamburger stand."
"Noodle" was the nickname Marini had given George about a year ago—for obvious reasons. Zero body fat was a no-brainer for George, and zero meant zero. If it could ward off long-term care later on, even a week of it, why, it was worth having hunger pangs.
When George got back in the car, which was old and gray but lubed and Febrezed, he sniffed the tops of his shoulders for remnants of Marini's odor. The thought of it lingering there made him more nauseous than the stench of the rotting whale, but only because the whale hadn't touched him. He sat there behind the wheel, rubbing, brushing, and whisking the whole shoulder portion of his shirt, as if he were cleaning it, then ironing it with the flat of his hand. It made no difference this absolute waste of time made him feel desperate and foolish. It was just something needing to be done, a personal care necessity, and if he didn't do it now he'd only think about needing to do it, and sooner or later he'd feel the thinking was more of a pain in the ass than the doing, and finally he'd stop the car and get it over with.
"Can't you see yourself? Can't you? Can't you see anything?" George's wife, Holly, screamed questions like that at him all the time these days, often in triplicate for vicious emphasis. She had screamed such a question at him just this morning as he was packing his bag, folding and refolding everything so much he could have packed five normal bags instead of one.
"Where are you going?" she demanded. "Where are you going off to? Where?"
But when he'd answered and she'd calmed down and thought about it, about his decision to go by himself all the way to Ketamesset Island, Maine, she came around and relented. In fact, she did a stunning turnaround. She said the kids and their school projects needed her, oh did they need her—free and clear of the distraction George had become—and she urged him to "go, go, go." Perhaps if he went back in time to the boonies, she said, he'd settle on a period, on a state of mind when things had been good and even great between them. When he'd still been the George she'd married. The footloose George. The George who didn't give a fig. The George who was a cabbage and not a pansy. Who'd roll deodorant under one arm and forget the other.
George's Massachussetts driver's license described him as six feet tall, while Holly's had her at five-four.
As he left the house that morning, her parting words to him were:
"Don't come back until you weigh more than I do."
Ketamesset Island was a journey and then some. It was way, way up there. The ferry times were set by the mood of the sea.
George traveled swiftly, making better time than he expected. He did this in spite of all the mind-fucking crap slowing him down far more than any convoy of Downeast logging trucks ever could. When bugs splattered against the windshield, he attacked the mess at once, flicking on the wipers and the spray switch. But if that didn't work, he swerved onto the shoulder and leapt out with his Windex and Brawny, sometimes finishing with a squeegee to make the cleanest possible sweep. Then he'd randomly scratch an itch on his chest or thigh and feel a bump on a bone. With no more free will than a slave, he'd slow down to a pathetic crawl and palpate himself—until he was assured the knobby thing was just a harmless node. These days, George was never more than a month away from a physician's appointment. Preventive care, that's what it was, that's what he told himself. Even for a man twice his age, he booked an amazing amount of doc time, pushing his health plan to its absolute limits.
But Ketamesset Island was going to be his baptism, his release. He had a plan. Either it would work, or it wouldn't work. He got out of the car in the dank twilight and peered into the swirl of fog. It was cold enough to make him think of fumes rising from dry ice. He found the fog had a sound to it, a moan of January in the middle of June. He peered until a surge of walrus-cold water brought the Ketamesset ferry crunching into the dock. The crunch made him think of the whale getting rammed off Rockport—back where the waters were chicken soup compared to the puffin-dotted swells goosing the rocks up here.
For sure, this ferry was not of the Staten Island variety. It took a half dozen cars, max, and packed them like frozen tuna bodies headed for the Tokyo fish market. Down below it was even tighter. George was wedged on a bench between two young women. The skinny little one on his right must have had a rare metabolism. Overheated all the time. Even in the glassed-in cabin, the penetrating sea mist gave George the shivers, like ghost fingers, but this woman kept wildly fanning her face with one of those laminated cards that carry the safety instructions. While she fanned, she talked in business buzzwords to the old goat on her right, who had that native Mainer look. A Central Casting face that could have been on a can of chowder.
She seemed like an eager beaver on break from her first professional job. "I am the bridge between process development and manufacturing," George heard her say to the old goat. To which she received no reply, not even a quiver of his bushy eyebrow.
If the young woman on George's right was skinny and little, the one to his left was ridiculously large. She was one of the largest human beings he had ever encountered, men included. And she was young, too—a girl really, student type, maybe just out of college, which made her largeness all the more striking. In her case, large didn't mean tall and it didn't mean fat, in the sense of rolls of flesh sagging all over the place. The girl was hefty, you would certainly say that, but what struck George wasn't the heftiness, either. It was the scale at which she happened to be built. Monumental. Every physical feature was super-sized, as though she were from a different race of people. Making this effect even more bizarre was her face, which was sweet and shy, the face of a regular girl with simple dark hair and glasses. An Asian-looking girl, slightly, her skin tinged Hawaiian or Latino or even Eskimo, for all George knew. He thought she looked studious and sincere, an earnest person.
The girl wore normal blue jeans, but enormous normal ones, and a jumbo college sweatshirt to match. The college's name was none George had ever heard of. He pictured it as an obscure campus in one of those underpopulated prairie states, where such a huge girl could have vast spaces to roam.
While the ferry hands were still casting off, the girl and George had a brief conversation, initiated by her. It was when it was obvious to both of them that for the rest of the trip the sides of their bodies would be in serious contact—squeezed together, really—with no room to make it otherwise.
"I'm sorry it's so tight," the girl said, looking down on him from her superior height. Her voice was sweet and painfully embarrassed.
"Everything's fine," George replied. "Don't give it a moment's thought." Their eyes met, and he saw in them the deep sorrow of a female who longed to be pleasantly average, who hungered to be demure, yet was condemned to live life as a giantess. Pulling back his gaze, George couldn't help letting it wander, couldn't help surveying the circumference of her thighs, the great mass of denim it took to form the basin of her lap. As for his own thighs, his noodle thighs, they were thinner at all points than her arms. The contest wasn't even close.
There followed several moments of silence. Silence it was, yes, but hardly the silence of non-communication. As the tough little ferry bulled its way across the swells and troughs, their legs were thrown into involuntary action, bumping and rubbing, bumping and rubbing. They hit a wave, which bucked the boat so violently it threw the two of them all over each other—so much bouncing and jouncing their only face-saver was to commence nervous small talk. He soon found out what she did, which was marine botany. It turned out she was a graduate student on a thesis mission: She was on the prowl for algae—red, blue, green, many colors—in particular she was stalking some rare variant indigenous to Ketamesset.
At the end of a studious monologue on kelp, underwater grasses, and assorted Gulf of Maine flora, the girl told George her name was Sandrina.
Ketamesset Island featured as many choices of hotels as ferries. The Inn At Ketamesset was it, the only game in town—and in spirit and structure it had much in common with the dank ferryboat. Compact, barebones, functional. About a dozen rooms in all, each sparse and monkish throughout. No AC anywhere—why would one need it? Prim curtains, a beat-up bureau the color of crusted brown shoe polish, well-worn plaster walls with fresh white paint slapped over the copious chips and dents. All the rooms were the same, all the beds were old-style institutional, metal-framed—no kings and no queens. George watched Sandrina stretch herself out on the neat chenille spread, and it was a sight to behold. The bed seemed to shrink to a cot. He slipped his noodle skeleton beside her, such a feeling of pliancy in his bones he felt he could conform to her every jut and rise, as though he were a seaweed blade in dark waters.
They were fully clothed. Neither of them made a single effort to remove a single piece of attire. Neither of them attempted a caress of any kind. What was between them was still as formal as it had been when the ferry set forth—and yet he had wandered in behind her when she had opened her room door and she had said nothing, nothing at all, just hitched her backpack over a wall hook and unfurled herself onto the bed, hitting it with immense grace—the ease of a sea lion slipping into the surf. Soon he was aware of no sound but the crashing waves below the Inn and her deep somnolent breathing, accompanied by the huge heave of her torso, swelling and compressing with each slumber-breath. Before nodding off, she raised her arm to give him an extra corner of space. This George used efficiently, parking his snoot in the giant armpit of Sandrina's sweatshirt. It was an armpit he trusted, and it acted on him like chloroform. He became drowsy at once and sank into a different kind of heat, the Saharan kind that produces wavy dunes and mirages.
As the first light of day streamed in, he remembered having dreamt something bizarre: he was floating in a snifter of some exotic liqueur, overpowered by dense herbs, alcohol, and unfamiliar sweetness. But by then he was stretched on the chenille bedspread of his own room, alone, not quite sure how he had managed to get there.
George made himself rise to unpack and wash up. The tang of Sandrina was still in his nostrils. He inhaled it with the salt air, and the combination threw him into a rare flight of optimism. The good mood might have lasted all day if he hadn't decided to change his underwear from the night before. He found a shit-stain in the crack of the tighty-whitey and plunged into an immediate panic attack, freaked it wasn't the right hue of brown. Something about it was purplish. He scrubbed and re-scrubbed it, wrung and hung it. Then he had a second-stage freak over the panic attack itself, fretting and sweating the palpitations would shoot his blood pressure to kingdom come. Maybe even burst some valve in his temple.
In this anxious state he descended the creaky staircase to the breakfast room. He entered and found Sandrina, enshrined by the early sun. She was dressed to hit the rocks and the algae beds—no longer last night's behemoth of mystery and languor, just the scholarly mega-girl of the ferry ride. She dwarfed the table she sat at, like a grownup forced into nursery furniture. In front of her was a teacup and a bowl of austere flakes. To George, this breakfast looked incapable of fueling one of her calves, let alone the entire Sandrina. "Stop trying to become smaller," he wanted to tell her. "Accept it. Have a fucking omelette. Have two." But then he himself rummaged at the buffet, passed up everything hot and buttery and came back with the identical no-fat special. At the other tables sat the handful of guests, all sleekly athletic and surrounded by wetsuits and related paraphernalia. The bleak island was known for one thing above all else: the most grueling performance kayaking on both sides of the Atlantic. The water so frigid and wild at all times of year, even summer, that one spill could kill.
George sipped his tea and told Sandrina his plans. For today, tomorrow—for whenever he had the balls.
"I'm a nervous wreck," he said.
"Now tell me something I don't know."
He said he would take out a kayak and attempt an Eskimo roll. He would only be doing it for the second time in his life. The last time was in the relatively tropical fiords of the Cape Ann marshlands, bathwater compared to the lethal eddies off Ketamesset—and he had botched it. He had swung himself half under and run out of steam, unable to complete the arc. He had had to hold his breath for what seemed like forever, undoing the cockpit skirt and wriggling out. For the Ketamesset attempt he would wear nothing protective, not even a wetsuit. The act would be totally out of character for him, and that was the whole point. It would be like ECT, a total system shock, body and brain. If he survived the deep-freeze plunge, perhaps he'd be purged, rid of his mind-fucking rites and rituals, rid of the pussy-George he'd grown to be—the George who lived life as if a fart from a bird had all the power to blow his head off his neck.
She listened. Professorially, sympathetically, and answered him only with her warm bespectacled eyes. They said, "Best of luck, but I doubt you'll do it."
He felt what she was really saying was, "You're not my giant. You're not my Jack. I thought you could be my beanstalk, maybe. But all you are is..."
Three days later, the closest he had come to voyaging off in a kayak was a mere dory ride, courtesy of the innkeeper who had gotten fed up watching him, hour after hour, languishing on the porch, staring into the air while all the other paddle jocks churned the waters to a frigid boil. George frittered away two full afternoons peering into a trench flanking the garbage shed, where workmen were installing a septic tank big as a torpedo. The brand name of the tank was Hercules, made in Minnesota. When he wasn't watching the workmen shovel dirt around the tank, every move of theirs so baleful you'd think they were burying some mythic body, he turned his thoughts to the kayak ordeal and tried to juice himself up for it. He used visualization, a trick he had read about. He tried to picture himself in the upward arc, emerging triumphantly from the grip of the sea, washed clear of fear—as pumped as some ocean monster ready to chomp. But then he'd walk to the boathouse, pick up a paddle, and freeze in his tracks.
The innkeeper manning the oars was no minnow himself, although he wasn't Sandrina-sized either. And he got to know you quickly in an earthy kind of way, his voice cutting the fog as he rowed.
"Let me tell you something," he barked at George, "You have absolutely no buttocks."
George listened to the moaning fog and felt it had seeped into his head. He fumbled for a comeback line, without success.
"You and I could have surgery together," the innkeeper went on. "They could take some meat from my buttocks and graft it onto yours. But then you'd have another problem. For the rest of your life you'd never get me off your ass."
The very next day George was back on the ferry, alone and bummed, plowing through the dry-ice fog for the mainland and home. His state of alert, if not red, was at least yellow, over a pair of concerns on the health front. First, island tap water. He had brushed his teeth with it and swallowed a goodly amount. Second, septic backup, a known source of giardia and other bugs galore. He'd seen it with his own eyes, those shovelers right under his nose. Why had they suddenly freighted in the Hercules? Why were they planting it with that look on their faces, like the plague had struck?
Normally, these woes would have killed his appetite, numbed it like a gut shot of novocaine. But as George drove off the ramp, he became ravenous—and not for a celery stick or a bowl of flakes and flax seed. For the first time in eons, he had a craving for one thing only. A honker of a bologna sandwich.
The road he was on was one of those early backwoods highways, one step up from the logging roads, its shoulders sagging, its yellow line three decades overdue for a paint job. Yet, 18 miles of it took George to a diner with a tar roof topped by a tin chimney, a cigarette machine from the Truman era, and a wolf-sized watchdog chained to a rusty tanker anchor. Up at the counter they had a Kaiser roll, size of a flotation cushion, and they crammed it with so much bologna George feared the dog might break its chain when he caught a whiff. "More mustard," George said. "Slap it on." He salivated as the old gaunt woman, her nicotine fingers yellow as the mustard, threw on an extra-heavy slather and packed it up in wax paper with pickles and chips.
George had a plan: drive till noon, stop, and attack the sandwich. Suck it down with the Pepsi at his hip, secure in the console beverage hole. But the bologna smell made him salivate like the diner dog, and soon he was groping the passenger seat as he sped along, tearing at the wax paper, liberating the naked sandwich and hefting it to his bared teeth. One hand on the sandwich, one hand on the wheel, was this earth or heaven?—all he lacked was a third hand to operate the Pepsi.
Then came the ringing in the ear. Tinnitus. He had read about it. Mostly harmless, but sometimes, sometimes, the sign of something deeper than the ear, maybe even growing in the brain. He discovered the ringing in mid-bite, and it jangled everything. Even his eyes. He glimpsed new faded lines in the road, not just yellow but white. Letters so washed out they seemed obsolete and expired, not meant to be noticed anymore. He drove over them and sank his teeth in all the way, sending a gusher of mustard out the sides and onto his shirt. Shit! Fuck! The shirt would be ruined. He flailed about, he stretched for the glove compartment. He wanted soda water, a napkin—first aid for the stain, but all he could grab was the fucking brown Pepsi. And the sandwich, where would he put it? And the wheel in his left hand, what to do with it? He suddenly noticed the ghost-pale white letters and even the yellow line had vanished, and now different marks were passing under the car. Railroad tracks—he felt the bumps as he sped across them, and an instant later he glimpsed the monster blur in the rearview mirror. With it he heard the tinnitus change from separate beats to a single screaming, raging bellow. He saw red warning lights too—where had they come from? As the train roared through, the words stamped on the mirror howled in his brain, scaring the shit out of him even more. Beware of objects in rearview mirror. They may be closer than they appear.
George pulled over to the weeds and rocks, stopped the car, and got out when the spaghetti in his legs turned to bone again. His eyes panned and re-panned the scene—the tracks, the warning lights, all of it silent and still again, as empty as if a locomotive hadn't thundered by in 50 years. No gate arms at all, down or up, just the now-darkened flashers and the long, bleached-out letters on the road. Now he saw what they spelled. S-L-O-W. His ears were dead quiet, tinnitus vanished, the only pounding deep in his rib cage as he eyeballed the distance from his car door to where the locomotive had nearly flattened him like a penny on the tracks. How close had it been—one breath, two?
George Smoller looked down at his shirt, white as the driven snow except for the yellow drool of mustard winding past a three-button stretch. He thought of all the doctors' appointments he had made, all of his scares with bumps and lumps, all the Styrofoam-tasting fiber he had forced down his gullet, all the capsules and ampules and powders he had bought, all the preventive crap he practiced daily, obeying every word of every brochure from his HMO, kissing every ass of every sawbones wagging a finger from the WebMD screen.
Then he thought of the rest of his sandwich.
He climbed back in his car and seized it. He took fat, jagged bites of the white roll and pink meat. He ate the way a predator would tear apart prey. The mustard squirted on everything, his shirt, his pants, his fingers, his chin. He licked his lips and went on, wishing he had another sandwich—an even bigger one. He took a huge swig of the Pepsi and gnashed his teeth.