The White Whale

Standard

The book lay on my bedside table.  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.  On the cover was the tail of a white whale as it dove in the water.  The bookmark—like all my bookmarks, it was some useless piece of paper I’d found lying around, probably an expired coupon for canned soup—poked out three-fourths of the way in, exactly where I’d left it five months ago.  And in all that time, I hadn’t touched it.  Not once. As if to prove this, a thin layer of dust blanketed the cover and the surface surrounding it.

I’d bought the book on an impulse.  I usually only read popular fiction, genres that ended with the word “thriller”—mystery thrillers, horror thrillers, techno-thrillers, spy thrillers, thriller thrillers.  Whatever was on the bestseller list that week and had a catchy name.  Nothing serious.  Just something to kill time with before hitting the sack or going to work.  I had just selected my next piece of throwaway entertainment and was heading toward the store’s checkout lane when Moby-Dick caught my eye.  It was in a stand marked “Paperback Classics.”  I had never read it before and had always wanted to.  It was one of those “greatest novels of all time” I had on my imaginary wish list but kept putting off.  Well, I thought, today is the day.  I snatched it up, and that was that.

“Call me Ishmael,” the book began, and I thought, fine, whatever floats your boat.

But soon it became clear that this was one of the most boring books I’d ever read.  It started off well enough, but then it just dragged on and on.  This Melville guy wasn’t all that he was cracked up to be. But I wasn’t the kind of person to give up on a book, so I continued reading, force-feeding myself the pages, hoping the next chapter would be better than the last.  Plus, I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t finish the Greatest Novel of All Time.

One night, after putting the kids to sleep, Jean came into the bedroom and caught me reading it.

She glanced at the title and smiled.  “Oooo, Moby-Dick,” she teased.  “Isn’t that a little highbrow for you?”

I feigned surprise.  “What?  I love the classics.”

“Uh-huh.  And what do you think of it so far?”

I shrugged.  “It’s…good.  Well, you know, it’s about whales…and stuff.  Lots of symbolism…and stuff.”

She laughed.  “And what does the whale symbolize?”

“I don’t know.  Your mother?”

She made a face and threw a pillow at me playfully before going into the bathroom.

Now, months later, the memory stung my heart.  I missed the playfulness we had once shared.  I couldn’t remember the last time I made a crack about her mom, or the last time she made a crack about my taste in literature.  An invisible barrier had grown between us.  No more humor.  No more laughter.

I sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the abandoned book on my nightstand.  Jean’s melodious voice drifted down the hall as she read the kids a bedtime story.  Outside, I could hear rain coming down in buckets.  Thousands of fists pounded on the roof like machinegun fire.  I saw a bright flash in the window, followed seconds later by a soft boom in the distance.  It hadn’t rained like this in a long time.  Perhaps it was a sign.  My gaze turned back to the dusty book.  I had stopped reading it, after all.  Not because it was boring, but for another reason altogether:

I had been reading it when my father died.

It was a Sunday morning.  I had it open on the breakfast table.  One hand scooped cereal into my mouth, while the other held open the pages.  The phone rang.  I answered it.  And my mother told me.  He was dead.  Passed away peacefully in his sleep.  He just went to bed and never woke up.  Simple as that.

Nothing dramatic happened when I heard the news.  The receiver didn’t fall out of my hand in slow motion.  My throat had gone dry, but that was it.  I didn’t know how to react.  My brain was unequipped for this type of situation.  Finally, after a long pause, I told my mother I would come over right away.

The funeral was a few days later.  When I pulled up to the church, my brother Trent was waiting for me outside.

“Greg,” he said, and hugged me tight.  “I call dibbs on the coin collection,” he whispered in my ear.

When he pulled away, he was grinning, but his face was red, and his eyes were wet.  I tried my best to smile back.  He had a way of saying inappropriate things in the wrong settings, but I knew it was just his way of coping.  He greeted Jean and the kids, and we all went inside.

The open casket rested on a table at the front of the church behind a podium.  Friends and family members dressed in black trickled in and filled the pews.  Trent, who was always better with words than me, delivered the eulogy.  It was good.  Not too long or too short.  There were funny parts, but he kept his sense of humor in check.  He got choked up several times throughout the speech, as did some of the mourners in attendance.  My mother didn’t cry, however.  She had always been strong, but I supposed it was also because, more than any of us, she was ready to let my father go.  In her old age, she knew that they had lived long and happy lives, and had accepted the fact that one day he wouldn’t be there anymore.  She didn’t see this as a permanent separation but a temporary hiatus.  Soon they would be reunited in theKingdom of Heaven.

I didn’t cry either but not because of strength or any spiritual reasons.  I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t feel anything.  My emotions seemed constipated, like sand packed so tightly in a funnel that no grain can pass through.  I thought that seeing my father’s face would release the pain buried inside of me, but when it was my turn in line, and I looked into the casket, the sight was almost comical.  My father’s usually messy hair was neatly combed.  He wore a suit rather than the usual dirty T-shirt and jeans.  His skin looked rubbery, and his face was covered in makeup that made him look orange.  It was as if he had passed out, and as a joke, someone had dressed him up to look like a gentleman.  This wasn’t my father.  It was a caricature, a funny-looking mannequin that slightly resembled him.  It was just a shell.

After the funeral, life went on.  On the surface, nothing had really changed.  I still went to work.  I still played with my kids.  I still made love to my wife.  But something was different.  There was a certain passivity to it all, like I was just going through the motions.  I watched comedies but didn’t laugh.  I read bedtime stories to my kids but with little enthusiasm.  I was experiencing the world from a distance. Sounds, images, and feelings were all muffled, as if I were sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool.  Somehow the death of my father had made me…numb.  At first, I thought it would go away after a while, but days stretched into weeks, and weeks strentched into months.

Death is a strange thing.  It affects everybody differently.  For my mother, it was trivial.  She saw it coming, she acknowledged it, and she waited for the day it would come for her.  For Trent, it was more sudden and painful.  It scratched his soul, but the wound would heal in due time.  For me, it was more subtle but, in a way, more devastating.  My grief was a silent grief.  One day my father was alive, and the next day he was gone, and in his place was a black hole, a vacuum, like a bubble that couldn’t be popped.  I loved my father, and I missed him but only on a superficial level.  For some reason, the tears wouldn’t come.  They couldn’t break through.  I was tortured by the numbness, by my indifference.

Moby-Dick was left on my nightstand and stayed there.  The morning my mother called was the last time I had opened it.  The book just sat there like its own piece of furniture.  I ignored it without even consciously thinking about it.  I avoided touching it when I reached over to turn on the lamp, as if it were poison, as if it would burn me the moment it came into contact with my skin.  I didn’t even want to look at it.

Jean didn’t comment on it, or tease me about not finishing it.  When she dusted the room, she was careful not to disturb it.  Jean was good like that.  She understood.  She had made the connections before I was even aware of them.

It was like a twisted version of Pavlov’s dog.  Somehow my mind had associated the book with my father’s death.  The very thought of it made me feel guilty, as if reading it or enjoying it would disrespect the memory of my father.  The idea was ludicrous, but even being aware of its absurdity didn’t weaken its effect.  Why my subconscious had chosen the book in particular, and not the cereal I had been eating, or the chair I had been sitting on, I didn’t know.  I guessed, in a way, the story paralleled my own.  The book itself was my white whale.  Moby-Dick was my Moby Dick.  But, unlike Ahab, I couldn’t face it.  I was too afraid.  I was too scared to hunt it down.

Yet, in the back of my mind, I knew I would have to face it eventually.  Maybe I could live the rest of my life in this semi-trance, but my family deserved better.  They deserved my love, not some plastic imitation of it.  Jean sensed that something was wrong, but she was patient.  She gave me my space.  I knew she wouldn’t wait forever.  Even she had a breaking point.  Eventually, she would tell me to see someone, a psychiatrist.  But I knew it wouldn’t come to that.  I had to figure it out myself.  I didn’t want to, but I had to.  For Jean.  For the kids.  It’s what my father would have wanted.

The book was the key.  I knew it would hurt, but that’s why it would work.  It was the only thing that could hurt me now.  Everything else would bounce off the bubble, but the book was the needle that could pop it.

I took a deep breath.  I reached over and, with a moment’s hesitation, picked up the book from the nightstand, leaving behind a rectangle of clean wood.  Nothing happened.  I wiped the dust off the cover. My finger traced the outline of the whale.  I brought the edge of the book to my nose and sniffed the pages.  It was just a book, a collection of paper and ink.  It was crazy to think that this was the gateway to my salvation, that this insignificant object could set me free.  But somehow I knew it could.

The rumble of thunder outside suddenly conjured a vivid memory of my father.  I had been six at the time and my brother only four.  We were in the old one-story house we grew up in.  There was a storm.  The power had gone out.  Trent and I were hiding underneath the dining table.  With every flash of lightning, with every roar of thunder, we screamed and hugged each other.

Two feet appeared beneath the tablecloth.  A hand lifted it up, and there was my father, grinning at us, shining a flashlight in our faces.

“Come on, boys,” he said.  “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

There was another flash of lightning, silhouetting my father in the dark.  Trent and I screamed, but my father just chuckled.  Putting the flashlight in his pocket, he reached in and picked us both up, one perched in the crook of each arm.  We held him around his strong neck, and he carried us through the dark, to the sunroom in the back of the house.  He sat down in a chair facing the tall windows, and we sat on his lap, still hugging him tightly.  Rain tapped the window panes like millions of little fingers.  The trees in our backyard leaned sideways against the wind.  There was a flash of lightning and a loud BANG that rattled the windows.  I shut my eyes and yelped, burying my face into my father’s shoulder, but he only laughed.

“Oh…this is a good one,” he said, an expression he used when reeling in a big fish or expelling a loud fart.  “Look, boys.  Look.”  He pointed out the windows, and my brother and I reluctantly turned our heads.

With every flash and boom, my body twitched involuntarily, but the longer I watched, the more relaxed I became.  I started to see what my father was seeing.  This wasn’t a storm.  It was a show.  Nature was putting on a show for us.  The wind, the rain, and the lightning was the orchestra, and the thunder was the symphony.  Flash.  Boom.  Flash.  Boom.  My brother and I gazed into the tumultuous sky, hypnotized.  The lightning bolts left bright spots on our retinas, but we welcomed them.  Soon we were laughing along with my father, eagerly anticipating the booms, the cracks, the crashes.

It became a tradition.  Every lightning storm, we sat in the sunroom together and gazed out the windows.  When I moved out of the house, I had forgotten about it.

But now, sitting in my own house, I remembered.  I knew what I had to do.  I stood up as Jean came into the bedroom.

“Just put the kids to bed,” she said.  “Have you looked outside?  It’s pouring.”

“I’m gonna go read,” I said in a low voice.  My throat had gone dry.

Her eyes flickered to the book in my hand, to the spot on my bedside table, to my eyes.  There was something like relief, like love, in her face.  She didn’t ask any questions.  She understood.  She had made the connections.

She gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Don’t stay up too late.”

“I won’t.”

I crept quietly down the hall, stopping to peek into the kids’ bedroom, and then went downstairs to the sunroom.  It was like the sunroom of my childhood, only bigger.  I settled in a chair facing the windows.  Lightning flashed, and a sound like a gunshot pierced the air and shook the house.  I twitched involuntarily like I had done on my first lightning storm, but soon I relaxed.  I sat in the dark for several minutes, watching nature’s symphony, savoring the booms and cracks.

“Oh…this is a good one,” I said to the empty room.  My voice came out flat.  I tried again, imitating my father’s inflections.  “Oh…this is a good one.”

Surprising myself, I laughed.  I laughed for the first time in a long time.

At last, I turned to the side table and flipped on the lamp.  I looked down at the book in my hands.  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.  The Greatest Novel of All Time.  Lots of symbolism and stuff.  My heart beat loudly in my chest.  My breath came out in short rasps.

People used to believe that lightning created a vacuum, and the clap of thunder was the air rushing in to fill it.  Five months ago, I saw the lightning, but the thunder never came.  Time had frozen.  The vacuum hung in midair, a bubble shielding me from the world.  And now, it was time to pop it.  Now, the thunder would finally come.

I opened the book.  My heart leapt into my throat.  My hands shook.  I read the first word on the page.  Then the second.  Then the third.  I could feel the vacuum closing.  I could feel the air rushing in. Tears welled in my eyes, rolled down my cheeks, splattered on the pages like the first droplets of rain before a storm.  Soon, the sounds of thunder faded away as I returned to the world I had left so long ago, the world of Ahab and the great beast that haunted his dreams.  My tears became the sea, and my grief became the whale.

Mediascover is the online short story studio and blog of indie author Victor A. Davis.