The group had wasted the whole night. Trying to keep a small bonfire going, smoking a meager supply of pot. Beers gone tepid. Kelly, the oldest, feeling dull. She was thirty. Too old to waitress in a beach town, too old to hang out with this crew.
One boy went to take a piss. He came scuffling back in a hurry.
“Holy shit! There’s a whale down there. Washed up!”
Kelly pushed up on her elbows. “A whale? Are you sure?”
“I touched it. It felt like rubber.”
“I’ll call Martin,” said Kelly.
“A guy. Martin, my old restaurant manager. He knows about whale stuff,” Kelly explained.
The boy stared at her. “You know a whale rescue guy?”
She did. Martin had become some kind of whale whisperer. The older you got, Kelly learned, the more life unspooled a string of curious knots. A kite tethered by an endless line, pieced together with half-remembered yarns and threads.
Weird shit happened. Like the time at the restaurant, she and Martin were talking about an obscure band. Martin let them play music at the end of the shift. The band came on the radio. Martin was in the back. But Kelly knew he was smiling.
He was not surprised when Kelly called. Right away, he started hauling on his hip boots and slicker, phone between shoulder and ear.
“Have you notified the Coast Guard?” he asked.
Kelly smiled. He sounded so formal. “Yeah. Somebody else said get a crane.”
“No. That won’t work. Find a barge. The Coast Guard will know,” Martin had his car keys. Kelly heard their tiny tinkle. “Keep the whale wet. Splash him down. I’ve got a corset, cables.”
Kelly let him go. She was remembering the shitty restaurant in the mall. Where Buds meet for Taste. Martin had been the shift manager.
They used to smoke weed out by the dumpster. It was a monster, stranded out in the parking lot. One night the busboy broke a whole bag of trash down the side. Looks like a giant puked, Martin had joked. Kelly laughed, while Martin hosed the mess off.
Now, she waited. Martin the Marine Mammal Master. Kelly had seen a write-up in the paper. She knew someone famous!
Dawn was pinkening the horizon. She approached the whale. The sharp scent of sea foam, salty surf. The glistening eye studied her. One of the boys had fetched a couple pickle buckets from the restaurant. The little crew was wetting the creature down.
Kelly wanted to do a good job for Martin. He had been a nice guy at the restaurant all those years ago. She bent to the tide and began splashing handfuls on the whale. Dizzy. A field of purple swam behind her lids. A rush. Like a wall of nerve endings, tingling.
The crashing surf churned to her knees. Not enough to help the whale.
But Martin would. Guide it offshore, far away from the beach town.
She could see him with that greasy hose, washing the giant’s puke off the dumpster.
Kelly turned to watch the receding surf. Rip tide conditions. The off-season business in town sucked. She exhaled, as if holding a throatful of pot.
Come on, Martin.
One time Martin had cupped his hand over hers, guiding a soup ladle into a cup. Smooth, no spills.
In the distance, Kelly saw a boat. The Coast Guard. She pressed her hands against the whale and closed her eyes. She was still wearing the light cardigan from the restaurant. It was soaked, dragging her down. She shrugged it off and let it go.
The current took over.