Swallowed

When she is seventeen, my grandmother gets married in the mouth of a thirty thousand pound whale.

At sixteen, she’d run away from home and nine younger siblings constantly begging for food, baths, bed. God knows her mother was almost blind by then and her Papa did heaven-knows-what-who-knows-where late at night and into the morning.  She intended to follow the tracks to fame and fortune: Pittsburgh or Chicago. But going hungry makes its own route.  When the she saw the advertisement for salesgirls in the paper, she stood in line with several other girls.  But she had drawn straight lines with an eyebrow pencil down her shapely calves, and got the job.

In 1932, the Seattle Whaling Company’s main attraction is its embalmed whale, which fills three box cars.  Twenty-five cents for the price of admission, ten cents extra to stand in the mouth.  For six months, she gives tours of that black, taxidermied monstrosity.

Imagine her standing there as they stop in the small towns of the East, as they lower the sides to let the crowds ascend.  Imagine how she twinkles, in her one best dress—yellow—her auburn hair in Marcel waves.

“This is,” she says, in her low gravelly voice, part seduction, “the mouth of the whale.  You may step inside, but please step up. Don’t trip.”  The man in the sailor’s cap next to her collects the dimes.

She gives the exact same warning all along the Eastern seaboard until she meets her first husband (not my grandfather): a shy hemophiliac, who sees her red mouth, the curve of her cheek, the rhinestone clips on her shoes, and falls, enchanted, completely swallowed by the tiny girl in the dark abyss of that enormous mouth.  Later, his mother will curse his decision to visit her sister in Delaware.

The couple stand in the mouth of the whale for their wedding photo, the only existing photo of them together.  The white satin of her borrowed dress shines like a liquid flag against the whale’s open mouth. In his scuffed shoes, the boy does not look at the camera. Instead, his eyes glance down to her bouquet of white flowers, which could hardly have masked the smell of forty feet of formaldehyde.  She will later blame his movement for ruining the picture; the captured moment is blurred.

Now my grandmother has her breadwinner, her escape.  She will never be condemned to go back to those hungry demanding mouths, her barely-there parents.

But when they settle with his mother, a short distance from that great, grand city she once longed to live in, the train whistle pains her—chichichichicago.  When her quiet husband stands against the cool refrigerator in the Midwest humidity, they both sweat. She makes it clear babies are not for her.  So, in his soft way, he arranges a job waiting tables at The Treasure Cove, the only nice restaurant in town, where he also works.

Sometimes, he imagines the restaurant is a real cove—and he is treasured.  On warm nights, when hard work curls the hair onto her forehead, over the candles on the table, she grins at him in the dim light.  It is almost like seeing her again in the great dark expanse of the whale’s mouth, glowing like a star, an incandescent bulb, glowing with love.

But she’s seventeen—love and the money from the restaurant just aren’t enough. Things are only getting worse in Washington.  War is bound to come soon and she’ll be left, left with her mother-in-law in this town where there’s one traffic light.

In the kitchen, she throws salt shakers at his head. He backs away, horrified.

“I want to go home,” she cries, “I want my mother,” though this is not true.  She is just bored in this town, this house, she feels trapped by the restaurant, and the lack of lights.  It just sounds better—to run home, to weep on her mother’s lap, to ask Papa to go to the priest, have the marriage annulled.  How could it be holy in the mouth of a whale?, she’ll say.

She turns, flourishes her arm, the same flourish she used to indicate the height, the girth of “This Monster of the Sea.” He stands and watches the air to see if some real spark rests there before it fades away into nothingness.  She watches his helplessness, then turns and runs out the swinging door and into the other room.   The sun is setting and the flickering light through the window makes him dizzy.  He sits on the floor of the kitchen and wipes his hands on his pants.

The next morning, she claims she has a headache, stays home and while his ever-watchful mother is off at the store, she packs a bag, slides it under the bed.  She waits.  She knows the moment will come.

Three days later, she tells him she’s sick again.

She can’t know that this will be the last night of his life.  She can’t know that tonight he will back into the sharp point of a pencil left on a table by a regular customer.  She can’t know how it will pierce the skin of his thigh, how he’ll pull it out—angry, annoyed—but keep working.  She won’t ever know that he’ll be thinking the whole night about saving a little extra to buy her some perfume at the end of the week so she’ll let him hold her in the dark again, against the petrifying night.

She does imagine he’ll be waiting for her outside the restaurant.  She’s supposed to come in the DeSoto but she is already on the train.  The letter that starts, “Dear Richard,” is on the bed.  She does not know that—with the lead of the pencil is writing itself into his fragile blood—he’ll feel faint and decide to go home early.  He will decide to walk home in the pouring rain.

She’ll find out the facts later: how the milkman found him at dawn, crumpled in the gutter, heaving and rasping; how his death at the hospital was quick; how the town will say they never liked her much anyway; how Mrs. Lodge will say some things that don’t come out of Christian women’s mouths.  But who can blame her?  He was her only son.

My grandmother is finally contacted by one sympathetic doctor who feels she has the right to know; he telegrams her parents’ home in Pennsylvania, where she has retreated until she can think of a new plan.  When she hears the news, she drives her father’s car all day to get to Meadville. Though she has never loved Richard, she wants to see him one more time, wish him safe passage from that dark house.  She wonders if she sees him now, when he can want nothing from her in return, if something in her heart will open.  In the car’s headlights, the night unfolds like a piece of velvet, thick and warm. It nearly suffocates the town; its few, rare lights barely managing to glint out an existence against the consuming blackness.

It is, by chance or fate, raining again, and my grandmother has forgotten her umbrella.  She gets out of the car and heads up the walkway to the house.

“Stop right there.” Mrs. Lodge stands on the porch, her hand held out.  The raindrops pelt my grandmother’s skin.

“I just want to see him.”

Mrs. Lodge shakes her head. “You should’ve thought of that when you took off from round here to go back to whatever hell you’ve come from. Your things are here.”  She points at the bags on the porch.  “Take them and go and never ever come this way again, you hear?”

The door slams behind the woman’s strong inflexible back. My grandmother stares at it and lets the hard rain pummel her.  This dousing is not a baptismal, it is not a washing clean—rather, this moment will sink into her soul forever.  She knows now she will never love anyone.  She will have several chances. She will have three more husbands—and four daughters she will bite, and hit, and lock in rooms. They will never forgive her either.  They, too, will shut doors in her face.

She walks up the steps to the porch.  She looks into the parlor window. Everyone is dressed in black, clustered around Richard’s prostrate body, lying there, in state, as they say.  She cannot see his face. She waits for one last glimpse. She remembers his soft lips on hers. She remembers the way he used to rub her hand, tenderly as if to push away the slightest tension.  She remembers how he looked at her over the tables in the restaurant.

His mother’s face suddenly glowers on the other side of the window.  They are nose to nose, and Mrs. Lodge pulls the curtains.

My grandmother turns and heads toward the car.  In the street, one suitcase pops open, and her clothes tumble into the road.  Cream-colored slips and blue skirts, a nice blouse with small birds printed on it.  The clothes soak up the dampness.  She kneels down and stuffs them back into the suitcase but the clasp is broken; there’s no shutting it.

She gathers the wet clothes in her arms—no wetter than she already is—and slams them into the trunk.  They lie there, crumpled like roses after a storm.  She looks back at the house.  There’s a glowing candle in their old bedroom, a tiny light in the dark night and she is taken back to the whale and the electric light just inside of the entryway.  Every night she had to unscrew the bulb just to be safe, so the whole museum didn’t go up in flames.

There was no wonder in that whale for her. Sea Monster!  Forty Feet of Terror!  Stand in the Mouth, This Dangerous Creature Could Swallow You Whole!  It was just a game, to lure in the customer. “Tell ‘em about the ambergris, Milly,” the man had told her. “Tell ‘em how it comes from the whale and it’s the basis of all perfume.  We sell ‘em the perfumey stuff for a quarter, say it’s a deal for a rare commodity. We’ve got vats of it in the back. Vats.”  Once she traced the entire length of the poor dead whale with her fingertip.  All she got was chemicals on her hand.

When she gets into her father’s car, she drips there, snuffles through a few tears and counts the money in her purse. She’s got far more here than anyone imagines.  She knew where her sisters stashed their pin money, where Richard kept the second honeymoon fund, in what jar his mother stuffed the emergency cash. Her father will never get this car back; it will fetch a good price at the lot outside the city.

She puts the car in drive and heads toward Chicago. The headlights are dim, so she follows the staggered center line.  She could be passing farms, fields, lolling cows, small towns with midnight diners, young lovers, dying parents, crying children; she doesn’t care.  There’s no reason to stop.  She keeps driving into darkness.

*   *   *

Christine Butterworth-McDermott is an associate professor of English at Stephen F. Austin State University, where she teaches creative writing, fairy tales, and acts as the poetry editor of REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters. Her poetry and fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Bellowing Ark, Borderlands, California Quarterly, Fourth River, Hiram Poetry Review, The Medulla Review, North Atlantic Review, and RATTLE. Her chapbook, Tales on Tales: Sestinas, was published by Finishing Line Press (2010), and her first full-length collection, Woods & Water, Wolves & Women, has just been published by her university press.

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