Big Guy – Lamb
January 4, 2024
We’re looking for whales—me, the captain, the guide, and this family: a mom, a dad, and their little girl. The dad’s too heavy to get out of his wheelchair, so they just roll the thing aboard and secure it to the deck with ratchet straps.
I ask the captain if he thinks Dad might compromise the integrity of the vessel. He doesn’t laugh. He’s got a hook in his ear, but not a real one.
“Not so small yourself,” he says. “Siddown.”
As we leave the harbor, I move to the bow. Cold water spits up from the bow wave, hitting my face and hands. It all stings in the wind.
December is prime for seeing gray whales as they migrate from Alaska to Baja. I read about it. A humpback would be ideal to see, maybe a blue—something bigger than my shame so I can finally let it go, send it down into the darkness with a friend.
Fourteen weeks ago I almost killed a kid. I took the bend in the highway at legal speed, lucid as one can be on his way home from closing at Tucanos, and there he was, lying flat in the road, his head where my tires were headed, where he knew they’d be, wearing all black, yellow in my headlights. I swerved. I missed him. I pulled over and got out to help, but he was already on his feet and sprinting toward the car behind me. I watched him run right into the fender. It took him like a vacuum. It was some kind of updated station wagon—dark green with gray panels. A young mom, maybe 25, was driving with her five-year-old son. Once she regained control of the car, she pulled over and looked at the mess, then put her boy on her hip and hobbled down the road where she paced until the ambulance came. I walked toward her, leading with my hand to let her know it was okay, it wasn’t her fault, there was nothing she could’ve done. But she screamed like a rearing animal until I turned around and walked back to my car. Her son was wearing a men’s tee shirt like a dress; on it were two stick figures in beach chairs, stick legs stretched out, stick hands clinking beers, above them the words, “Life Is Good.”
I was on the roadside with the police for two hours. They kept arriving behind fire and paramedics, lining their squad cars along the shoulder, reds and blues glowing high against the pines.
The officers talked a lot, which I appreciated as a distraction until the talking slipped from procedural to casual. I wasn’t familiar with cops, but I was familiar with this behavior; you see it in people working jobs they’ll never quit, no matter what, even if it means unhappiness. Until the accident, I was one of them. I know you have to sometimes forget your better self at work, or else remember the bleakness of your station.
Officer Poulous kept telling late-arriving officers that he recognized me from the restaurant. “Remember this monster from Tucanos? … This is the guy who brings around the grilled pineapple. Love that shit … He looks exactly like that Gonzaga center, right? You see it, right?” He never spoke to me directly, and if he had, he still wouldn’t have noticed I was having trouble breathing.
At some point Officer Reyes introduced himself and walked me to the tree side of my car. He was short and cartoonishly yoked, but he had a meekness that honored the circumstance and calmed me some. He said they found eight photocopies in the pocket of the kid: four copies of his middle school ID in the left, four copies of his letter in the right.
I didn’t know Poulous was standing behind me until he spoke. “Prolly thought they’d fly everywhere, like when a bank robber gets popped running away … you know how the money flies everywhere? Everyone thinks they’re in a movie.”
Reyes made a wounded face as Poulous walked away. “He thinks he’s in a movie too,” he said. “Just, you know, a different one.”
When he handed me one of the copies of the letter, I just stood there shaking. I had to lean against the door of my car. I caught my breath and tried again to make it through the first sentence. It was typed and formatted professionally, the way they teach you in computer class, which broke my heart. Since the moment of the accident, any added context for this kid’s life only amplified the detail of his lingering image. I couldn’t bring myself to participate in his death on the narrative level, so I just stood there shaking.
I was embarrassed and ashamed. I shouldn’t have needed comfort. I was alive and safe, and I’d been saved from a much greater guilt. With one swerve I missed manslaughter and put it on the car behind me. I began a new wave of pain, which would expand from the driver, hurting everyone in her life by degrees until it joined that of the kid. One big inflicting circle. These tragedies weren’t mine; yet, there I was, claiming them by my hysterics. I’d never felt less like a man.
Maybe sensing my disgrace, Reyes took back the letter and leaned against the car beside me. He shook his head and exhaled for both of us.
Then he held my hand.
I cried there for a good three minutes, holding his stout hand. I don’t know why I couldn’t let go. Maybe it was his mild grip, or the way he didn’t once look up at me or the onlooking officers. Maybe it was the thought of the boy on his mom’s hip, big collar sliding off his shoulder, or the thought of the dad hearing the story and thinking of the boy on his wife’s hip, or the possibility of the boy having no dad—the mom having no partner in this new and ruined life. Maybe it was the returning thought of the poor kid who lived for thirteen years and said, I’m good.
The motor stops and everything lurches forward. Amber light strobes all over the boat and onto the water. I hustle to the stern, where the mom’s pulling the safety ring in over the railing, the guide behind her, guiding the slack into a loop. “The line’s not long enough!” Mom says.
The guide comes to me, grabbing at my sleeves and hood strings, barking in my face, “Go get her!”
I almost do. I want to. I feel myself drifting toward the edge, toward the helpless little girl. I recognize the miracle of this appointed opportunity to make things right, to maybe satisfy the moral balance, or at least absolve some of my guilt, which is unfairly mine but is still mine.
I look at the guide. Hold on, I think. This is her job, her liability, her responsibility. There has to be a protocol here. You want to be the hero, but that’s not how it works. You can’t just step over everyone here and be the hero, even if they want you to.
“This is your job,” I say. “Aren’t you trained for this?”
“No, no—I can’t!” she says. “I’ve got a cold intolerance. My lungs will literally freeze up. Swear to God!”
I look over to the captain, who’s calling in help over the radio.
“Can you get us closer to her?” I ask.
“It’s not safe,” he says.
“Then you jump in,” I say.
“Can’t leave my post,” he says. “As long as there are souls aboard, my hands are tied.”
Now they’re looking at me, all these souls, waving their hands, shaping desperation with their faces. I’m in such dumb wonder at them, I forget about the girl for a moment. For a moment, I feel a building electricity, a current of unyielding ire. I don’t know what to do with myself.
I wave my hands right back at them.
Dad loses it. “Are you kidding me right now? Come on! Be a man!” I just look at him. I don’t even have to say it. He convulses in his strapped-down chair like, Hold me back!
“Please,” Mom says, “I can’t swim.”
“She’s drownding!” the guide says.
I hug the railing with both arms, so they can’t push me in, and lean over the side to get a good look at the girl. She’s drifted pretty far from us, or we from her, but I can see her pink face deep in the opening of the oversized life vest. She’s not saying anything. She’s not even swimming, just bobbing there in the chop, shivering.
“She’s definitely not drowning,” I say. “She’s got a vest.”
“We all got vests!” Dad says.
Were we all equal strangers to the girl and to each other, I’d understand their response. I’m 6’ 9”, in my late-twenties, at least formerly athletic; saving an overboard child is my ostensible duty, especially in such unable, or unwilling, company. But there are higher duties pending. Professional. Biological.
The guide comes to me again, calm now. She ungloves her hands and puts them on my face, holding my cheekbones in her palms like plums. She looks at me like I could be this family’s savior, like I could be her eternal love. Her tongue is pierced, which I think she wants me to see, like it might persuade me. “Please,” she says, then whispers, “Please.”
Through her parted rows of teeth, I see the bright steel ball. I see myself reflected, my face bowing in the gleam. I look at Mom. She’s riding Dad’s sobbing shoulders, muttering to herself, cursing me or uttering a prayer.
As my feet break the water, my body forms a perfect pencil. Plunging, I feel the chill as if through glass. I’m warmer than I ought to be and eased in this suspended moment, a body entering a greater body to save a smaller body, one soul to the abyss for another.
My head submerging, another thought is taking shape. It’s clear and conclusive, like salt:
You are not the one.
You have no authority.
Every trouble hereafter is
consequent to your presumption.
I’m swimming on my back now, one arm holding tight the girl, the other pulling deep, slow strokes behind my head. I hear cheers and joyful weeping as we near the boat. Someone throws the safety ring within my reach, and, as they pull us in, I look out on the folding ocean. It’s dark. Not far away I see a darker mass, a smoothing, rising toward the surface.