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Authors: Chris Crutcher

Whale Talk

BOOK: Whale Talk
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Chris Crutcher
Whale Talk

For Ben Dodge

(1982–1997)

Contents

Chapter 1

In the end, write it down. Back up and find…

Chapter 2

Among his many other quirks, my father, John Paul Jones,…

Chapter 3

Boys’ sports at Cutter High School are driven by the…

Chapter 4

Within the next two weeks we round out our swim…

Chapter 5

Our family legacy of helping kids runs deep. The more…

Chapter 6

Time passes, and the swim team gets better and better,…

Chapter 7

Finally Andy Mott shows. I believe I may have mentioned…

Chapter 8

Practices go better than I could have imagined through Christmas…

Chapter 9

We’re famous in Cutter for a couple of days after…

Chapter 10

I catch my dad working in the garage on one…

Chapter 11

It’s eleven-thirty when the bus pulls up in front of…

Chapter 12

If I am going to accept the Rich Marshalls and…

Chapter 13

The monthly Athletic Council meeting is set for lunchtime of…

Chapter 14

The ride home is a trip. We stay long enough…

Chapter 15

The next morning what little slack there is between Barbour…

 

In the end, write it down. Back up and find the story. Mr. Simet, my English and journalism teacher, says the best way to write a story, be it fact or fiction, is to believe aliens will find it someday and make a movie, and you don’t want them making
Ishtar
. The trick is to dig out the people and events that connect, and connect them. No need to worry about who’s wearing Nike and who’s wearing Reebok, or anybody’s hat size or percentage of body fat. Like Jack Webb on the
Dragnet
series on Nick at Nite says, “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”

The facts. I’m black. And Japanese. And white. Politically correct would be African-American, Japanese-American and what? Northern European-American? God, by the time I wrote all that on a job application the position would be filled. Besides, I’ve never been to
Africa, never been to Japan, and don’t even know which countries make up Northern Europe. Plus, I know next to nothing about the individuals who contributed all that exotic DNA, so it’s hard to carve out a cultural identity in my mind. So: Mixed. Blended. Pureed. Potpourri.

Adopted.

Big deal; so was Superman.

And like Superman, I was adopted by great people. The woman I call Mom—who
is
Mom—Abby Jones, was in the hospital following her fourth miscarriage (and final attempt at the miracle of birth) where she met my biological mother, Glenda, right after my presumed bio-dad, Stephan, had assisted in my natural childbirth only to come eyeball-to-eyeball with the aforementioned UNICEF poster boy. A second-generation German-American married to a woman of Swiss-Norwegian descent, he was a goner before my toes cleared the wet stuff. Any way he matched up the fruit flies, he couldn’t come up with
me
. Because my mom is one of those magic people with the natural capacity to make folks in shitty circumstances feel less shitty, she consoled Glenda and even brought her home until she could get her feet on the ground. Evidently Glenda was as surprised as Stephan; she’d had a one-night stand with my sperm donor to get even for a good thumping and had no idea
the tall black-Japanese poet’s squiggly swimmer was the one in a billion to crash through to the promised land.

Things sped rapidly downhill for Glenda as a single mother, and two years later, when she brought Child Protection Services crashing down on herself, getting heavily into crack and crank and heavily out of taking care of me, she remembered Mom’s kindness, tracked her down and begged her to take me. Mom and Dad didn’t blink—almost as if they were expecting me, to hear them tell it—and all of a sudden I was the rainbow-coalition kid of two white, upwardly mobile ex-children of the sixties.

Actually, only Mom was upwardly mobile. She’s a lawyer, working for the assistant attorney general’s office, mostly on child-abuse cases. Dad likes motorcycles; he’s just mobile.

We never did hear from Glenda again, Mom says probably because the separation was too painful, and shameful. Sometimes I find myself longing for her, just to see or talk with her, discover more about the unsettledness within me; but most of the time that ache sits in a shaded corner of my mind, a vague reminder of what it is not to be wanted. At the same time all that seems out of place, because I remember nothing about her, not what she looked like or the sound of her voice or even
the touch of her hand. I do admit to having a few laughs imagining how history rewrote itself inside Stephan’s head when my shiny brown head popped out.

It’s interesting being “of color” in a part of the country where Mark Fuhrman has his own radio talk show. My parents have always encouraged me to be loud when I run into racism, but I can’t count on racism being loud when it runs into me. Very few people come out and say they don’t like you because you aren’t white; when you’re younger it comes at a birthday party you learn about after the fact, or later, having a girl say yes to a date only to come back after discussing it with her parents, having suddenly remembered she has another engagement that night. Not much to do about that but let it register and don’t forget it. I learned in grade school that the color of a person’s skin has to do only with where their way-long-ago ancestors originated, so my mind tells me all racists are either ignorant or so down on themselves they need somebody to be better than. Most of the time telling myself that works. Once in a while my gut pulls rank on my mind, and I’m compelled to get ugly.

I called “All News All Talk Radio” a couple of days after the first time I heard the spectacularly racially sensitive ex-L.A. detective giving Spokane and the rest of
the Inland Empire the hot poop on big-time crime fighting. The talk show I called had featured the mayors of an eastern Washington and a north Idaho town declaring that the racist label put on this region is undeserved, blown out of proportion due to the presence of the Aryan Nations fort over in Hayden Lake, Idaho, and the existence of several small militias spread out between central Washington and eastern Montana.

The mayors had departed when the talk-jock finally said, “We’re talking with T. J. from Cutter, about fifty miles outside our great city.”

I said, “So this racist label, it’s undeserved?”

“I believe it is,” he said. “An entire region can’t be held responsible for the ignorant actions of a few. Certainly you can’t argue with that.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I can’t. But if the racist label is about perceptions, and in this case,
undeserved
perceptions, why would you guys have the Mark Fuhrman show?”

“Have you tuned in to Mark’s show?”

“Not purposely,” I said, “but I was scanning the stations and landed right on him.”

“How long did you listen?”

“Long enough to convince myself it was really him, that you guys weren’t just pulling my chain.”

“Then you heard a man who knows a lot about crime prevention and an accomplished professional radio man.”

I said, “His voice was okay.”

The jock said, “What’s your point, T. J.?”

“That if you guys are running the most powerful AM station in the region and you’re worried about people’s perceptions of that region as racist, you might think twice before you give one of the true
icons
of racism in this country two hours of drive-time radio every week.”

“We didn’t hire Mark to talk about race relations. We hired him to talk about criminals and the criminal mind, and about the intricacies of police work. He’s written books on the subject, you know.”

“You didn’t hire him because of his famous name?”

“No, sir, we did not.”

“So when you decided your listeners needed to learn about Spokane, Washington, police work, you figured you’d get better expertise from a dishonored ex-L.A. cop rather than some retired veteran Spokane cop who might have covered Spokane’s streets for twenty-five or thirty years?”

He said, “How old are you?”

“What does that matter?”

“You sound like a kid.”

“You tell me why that matters, and I’ll tell you how old I am.”

“It matters because if you’re too young, you might lack the experience to carry on this conversation intelligently.”

“I’m a fifty-six-year-old retired Spokane policeman,” I said, and paused a moment. “Guess I don’t have the voice for it.” I hung up.

I’m really not bothered by the race thing most of the time; at least I can say I don’t bring it up first. And I’ve never wanted to be anyone else, and I don’t want to be any other color. My bio-daddy must have had a pretty good brain because I have a big-time I.Q. and, Simet says, monster talent in articulation, plus I’m almost six-two and just a little under two hundred pounds. I can stuff a basketball from a standstill, and I’ve been clocked in a little more than ten-point-four seconds for a hundred meters. When I was thirteen, I qualified for the Junior Olympics in two swimming events, and I’m even a pretty fair cowboy, having spent parts of three summers at Little Britches Rodeo Camp. That’s a pretty fair résumé for a guy who, until this year, never participated in one second of organized high school sports.

And I’m not hard to look at. Mr. Simet says I look like Tiger Woods on steroids, so I get plenty of chances to socialize. For every girl whose parents are terrified of a muddied gene pool, there’s a girl who would use me as a threat to do just that. And there are plenty of girls who don’t care one way or the other.

The truly unique thing about me isn’t my racial heritage, or my brain or my size or my athletic abilities. Momma Glenda didn’t leave me with much to remember her by, but she certainly left me with the all-time moniker. A lot of kids whose parents grew up in the hippie generation have names like Autumn or Somber or Twilight or Destiny. Who knows what their parents were smoking to name them after seasons or moods or times of day, but good old Glenda went them one better, naming me in her “spiritual” period. She may have been a little too “spiritual” on mood-altering funstuff to imagine my first day in kindergarten.

“Tell everyone your first name when your turn comes,” Mrs. Herrick said, nodding to the pencil-necked, tow-headed kid next to me. The kid said, “Roger.”

I said, “The.”

“Excuse me?”

“The.” She should have said, “Tell everyone what people call you.”

The other kids giggled. My fists clenched, blood rushing into my head.

Mrs. Herrick said, “Uh, do you have a middle name?”

“Tao,” I said, pronouncing it correctly as “Dow.”

“Your name is The Tao? What kind of name is that?”

I shrugged. “Mine.”

To her credit, Mrs. Herrick glanced at her class roster to see if I was telling the truth and moved on, but as you might guess, that wasn’t the end of it.

“It’s a book,” I told Sue Eldridge and Ronnie Blackburn later, my back against the jackets hanging on hooks at the rear of the room. I was as yet unaware it is also an entire philosophy.

“Why did your mother give you the same name as a book?” Sue asked.

“Just did.” I wanted to explain that my
real
mother, Abby, didn’t do that; that it was my buy-O mother, but I hadn’t been real successful articulating that in the past.

Ronnie laughed and turned to the rest of the class, who were pulling on their coats for recess. “His mom gave him the same name as a book!” he yelled to them. Then a light clicked above his head. “Hey,” he said, “me, too. My mom gave me the same name as a book,
too. I’m Curious George!” He squealed in delight, falling to the floor between giggles, scratching under his arms like an ape.

Suddenly he was struggling to push my knee off his chest.

“Stop!” Mrs. Herrick yelled, but I punched Ronnie Blackburn in the nose anyway. It was the beginning of a series of unplanned three-day vacations that would dot my educational career like chicken pox.

But there’s worse news about my handle, and if you’ve been paying attention, you know what it is: My health dictates the health of the nation’s economy.

“How’s your son doing, Mr. Jones!”

“The Tao’s up today, sir.”

“That’s good news. Try to keep him happy.”

Think I don’t get carried away with those? To avoid confusion, and raucous laughter whenever my name is mentioned, I’m called T. J.

 

It’s over now. I’m at the end of the summer following my senior year in high school; I have my diploma in a lockbox and the advantage of hindsight. But I want to tell it without that advantage—tell it as it unfolded—Mr. Simet says any story is only true in the moment.

My father always said there are no coincidences;
that when two seemingly related events occur, they
are
related and should be treated that way. My father had very good reasons to try to understand how the universe works, which I’m sure I’ll get into later.

The seemingly related things that I believe kick this story off happen on the second day of school. Coaches have tried to get me to turn out for sports since junior high. Sometimes they’re insistent and sometimes downright nasty, accusing me of lacking the high school equivalent of patriotism, even to the point of calling me a traitor. But I’ve always eluded them. I’ll play basketball three or four hours nonstop on open gym night, and I’ve always taken a couple of guys to Hoopfest in Spokane, which is the largest three-on-three street-basketball tournament in the country, and my team has won its division every time. I think I could have been a pretty fair football player; I’m sure not afraid to take a hit or to put a good lick on a guy, but something inside me recoils at being told what to do, and that doesn’t sit well with most coaches, who are paid to do exactly that. I don’t blame them; I know it’s me. But the better you know yourself, the better chance you have of staying clear of trouble, and I’m pretty sure I’d never have lasted a full season of football with Coach Benson or basketball with Coach Roundtree. At one point or
another in the heat of a game, Benson and Roundtree retreat to the time-tested and highly grating tool of public humiliation as a motivator, and that particular tool brings me back in your face faster than a yo-yo on a bungee cord, at which time I immediately suspend the notion of giving a shit.

So why was I considering joining a swim team that didn’t exist before this year when I haven’t been competitive in the water since fourteen, except for trying to beat Dad into the shower every morning? It’s Simet. He catches me after third-period English and says, “Jones, didn’t you used to be a pretty good swimmer?”

“I’m still a pretty good swimmer,” I say. “Wanna try me?” Simet and I enjoy a longstanding rivalry wherein one of us challenges the other to some athletic contest. We handicap it based on our abilities (he lies like a student with a term paper due to get an advantage) and then make a friendly wager, say my English grade against some unsavory task he needs done, like stirring his compost heap when the temperature rises above eighty, or washing and waxing his Humvee, which looks better dirty.

He says, “I want to try you, but not against me.”

“Who?”

“Someone different every week.”

Visions of age-group swimming pop up: permanently chlorinated hair and eyes, clogged sinuses, ear infections. “This has a familiar ring.”

BOOK: Whale Talk
9.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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