Read A 52-Hertz Whale Online

Authors: Bill Sommer

A 52-Hertz Whale (7 page)

Dear Darren:

Thanks for your encouragement with regards to my career goals. It's reassuring to hear that the showrunner on Testy Snobbin, who sounds like a “late bloomer” (Mom's term for me), still has success with girls on some level. But even if that wasn't the case and my fate would be to live out the rest of my days as a lonely man eating Cheetos in front of old Jacques Cousteau reruns, I'd still become a cetologist. Judging by your moratorium on talking about Corinne, it sounds like you wouldn't be that opposed to joining me on the couch for a little
Cousteau Odyssey
marathon either. (Really, there's something for everyone in that series, even a segment on indigenous plants and animals in fresh waters if rivers are more your thing.)

As for my short-term job prospects, I have some news.

I was offered a position at Star Arcade for $8.30 an hour, and I started last Saturday. When I showed up for training, I figured that, at best, I would work the prize case for kids cashing in their Skee-Ball ticket winnings. At worst, I thought I'd be scraping hardened gum off the bottom of the Fast Wheels race car seat or unclogging the coin deposits.

Instead, I was led by this teenager with an earring in his chin (how is it even possible to pierce bone?) to a back room. Chin Piercing led me over toward jumbo stuffed animals hanging on hooks and pointed to what I thought was a white rug. “This is what you gotta wear, man,” he said. He threw me the heap of white fur. When I asked him what exactly it was, he wiped his hand across his mouth, but he couldn't stop smiling.

Well, come to find out that it is an Abominable Snowman costume. In case you are like me and have no idea what an Abominable Snowman is, here is a summary of my Web research: the Abominable Snowman (also known as the yeti) is basically a bear-like creature (mythical) that lives in the Himalayas and scares the shit out of people with its height and ferocity. Anyway, it turned out I needed to wear this Abominable Snowman costume and stand on the sidewalk on King, the street that, you'll remember, every single person in our town passes on their way anywhere.

The costume smelled like cigarettes and BO And it was so big that I couldn't see out of the eye holes or breathe out of the little screened opening. I tripped twice on the way to where I thought the front door was. And I ran over a little kid (which I didn't realize until I heard the crying). I also think I pawed some girl's chest by accident. Eventually, after I'd made a complete fool out of myself, Chin Piercing grabbed my arm and escorted me out, depositing me out on the curb. I had to hold this sign that said “Abominable Gaming at Star Arcade.” People beeped car horns and yelled stuff at me like, “Forget to shave?” For my entire two hour shift, I stood in the rain, contemplating running into traffic. Tomorrow is Day #2 at Star Arcade. Baking Club isn't looking so bad now.


James Turner

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 15, 2012 at 12:25 PM
Subject: Shells

Dear Stanley,

Happy birthday and sorry I didn't make it down for the cake. I was caught in a horrendously long meeting with some policy makers on the benefits of creating a boat-free zone in the ocean, a sort of “whale lane,” if you will.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I've been racking my brain as to who could have sent me those shells and I think I've made some progress. I questioned a couple of friends from my marine biology days back at UMass and even called my ex-wife, which probably only further validated her belief that all I care about is the ocean and its related creatures.

No dice there.

Then I thought harder and came up with an entirely different hypothesis.

What if the shells came from someone else? Like maybe Elsie? What if this was her way of getting in touch with me after all these years? Maybe she's clean and she wants to reconnect and she doesn't know how. Shells were always so important to her when we were little. On vacation in Oregon, she used to bring bucketfuls home from the beach, clean them, then line them up in little rows on the outdoor porch to dry in the sun. They cluttered up her bedroom at home—it drove my mom crazy. But Elsie made these little sailor's valentines with the smallest shells, mosaics that were actually quite beautiful. I still have one that is a picture of two birds, one flying and one perched on a tree branch. Elsie wasn't much of a student, but the one thing she actually did study was her field guides and she could tell you anything you wanted to know about seashells. So all this makes me think I've got the mystery finally solved.

Anyway, I put a call in to the halfway house to see if they might know of her whereabouts. And then last night, I had this dream that I found Elsie living near the sea and she smelled like strawberry ChapStick and bath soap again like when we were little. We drank lemonade from sweaty glasses on the dunes and went for a swim. After a while, she got tired of swimming and the waves started to claw at us. A storm was churning on the horizon. I saw her go under once then twice. Her mouth formed a silent scream and the tide was strong. I'm not a strong swimmer, but somehow, Stanley, I was able to grab my sister's wrist. She struggled against me—almost fought—and it felt like she was trying to pull me under with her. I've heard that people do that when they're drowning sometimes because they panic. But I saved her.



From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 17, 2012 at 3:52 PM
Subject: RE: Shells

Dear Peter,

I don't check this email as much as I should now that Jan's back. Thanks for the birthday wishes. The party at work was real nice cause when I got home I just warmed up a Hungry-Man Salisbury Steak dinner like always and watched Fox News. My mother didn't call, but she's got dementia and thinks she lives on a deserted island with Bob Barker from
The Price Is Right
. The real shitter was my dog. Dogs don't get birthdays, dumb animal didn't even sit with me on the couch.

Did you hear anything from the halfway house?

—Stanley P. Duckett

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 17, 2012 at 8:20 PM
Subject: RE: Shells

Hi Stanley—

The people at the halfway house were very hesitant at first to give me any information about my sister. There's HIPAA and client confidentiality, etc., etc. But I told them how our dad passed and Elsie's my only living relative. My voice cracked a couple of times, and I think they felt sorry for me. Anyway, the area code for the number was somewhere down in Florida.

When I got home from work today, I tried to call and some man answered. He sounded drunk or bored or both. When I asked for Elsie, he acted like I was her secret lover even though I told him multiple times I was her big brother. I tried to explain about our dad dying and the seashells arriving. Angry Guy wouldn't put her on the phone. “She don't have no brother,” he finally said and then hung up. I stood there with the phone in my hand, feeling like he disconnected a vein to my heart.



From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 17, 2012 at 9:02 PM
Subject: Christmas

Hey Mom,

Hope things are good and that you're surviving your annual football season widowhood. Darren hadn't returned my last email so I just called him and it turned out he had a little run-in with Corinne and her new boyfriend and it kind of sent him into a tailspin. But he sounded like he was recovering. Talked a lot about work. Said he had an idea for a documentary about all these guys who work at a life insurance office. Not exactly sure why that would be interesting, but I guess that's why he's the creative one in the family. Talking to him made me miss work though.

Speaking of work, I have some unfortunate news. It doesn't look like we're going to be able to make it in for Christmas. John used up all his PTO helping me out after the twins were born and when he got sick earlier this year. I brought up maybe just coming by myself with the kids, and it totally hurt his feelings. He said he wouldn't have minded if it wasn't their first Christmas. He's so hard to figure out sometimes. I swear, it's like he's got a condition. Random Unpredictable Sensitivity Disorder or something.

Tell Dad I said hi if you talk to him before the season's over.



From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 18, 2012 at 7:22 AM
Subject: RE: Christmas

Hey Katie,

It saddens me that we won't get to see you guys on Christmas, but I understand.

I was ready for football season this year. I joined a book club, and I've secretly been going to the driving range or playing nine holes at the public course a couple of times a week. Hoping I can beat your father's butt come springtime. Hopefully he won't divorce me if I do.

Yes, Darren's the creative one. That's for sure. Thank God you're practical. One dreamer child is great, but I don't know if I could handle two of them.

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 18, 2012 at 12:12 PM
Subject: RE: Christmas

I think you meant that as a compliment, Mom, but I have dreams too. Just because they don't involve Hollywood doesn't make them not real.


From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 18, 2012 at 6:23 PM
Subject: RE: Job News

Dear Abominable SnowManiac,

I must admit, the mental image of you bumbling around like a half-sedated yeti made me LOL when I first read it, and continues to make me SALOTI (smile and laugh on the inside—I just made that up, BTW) each time I think of it. Though, due to my incredibly long time in writing you back—will get into that below—I'm sure you're an Abominable Ace by now and are no longer running into stuff. And you've probably cashed that first paycheck! Welcome to the rat race. But don't worry, a surprisingly large number of cetologists got their start as arcade mascots, so you're on the right path. (I just made that up too.)

My work fortunes have improved slightly as well. Rob/Bob has been allowing me to hang out in the writers' room lately, which is hilarious, mostly for the wrong reasons. They have this whiteboard, but these people—
, please remember—have the worst freaking handwriting imaginable—like doctors' scrawl on prescription pads mixed with Jackson Pollock paint splatters. So they tagged me with writing down their bullshit ideas on said board. I was actually pretty nervous and honored to do this for a couple of days, so I tried to write out exactly what they were saying, other than chopping a word or two and throwing in some useful abbrevs. I didn't want to get yelled at for messing with what they were saying.

But a couple of days ago, Rob/Bob yelled at me for writing down everything too literally. He's like, “You're not a monkey with a typewriter, Darren.” To which I responded, “Thank you!” And he was like, “It's not a
-head! You're not supposed to copy out every
word like a
robot. You're supposed to
paraphrase! Do you know what that word means?” And I was like, “Which one,
?” And he goes, “No, you
! ‘Paraphrase'!”

I was starting to get the sense that I was really close to getting fired, like as close as the elastic of your underwear is to your skin. So I told him I did know what “paraphrase” meant and that I would do it if that's what he wanted.

This was the first time I've really gotten chewed out at this job, but that sort of anger is actually not uncommon on set or in the writers' room. Even though the show is (supposedly) a comedy, everyone's super-tense because they're (rightfully) in constant fear of getting canceled if people stop watching the show because they realize that it's about as interesting as reading spam email backwards. It's pretty toxic in there, and everyone's always sniping at each other. I didn't want to turn into a scapegoat, so I did as he said and started trying to get at the essence of what they were saying instead of transcribing every word of their caffeine- and sugar-induced diatribes. So far, it seems like I'm doing pretty well. (Irony alert: The guy who couldn't read between the lines to save his life when it came to his ex-gf's hints is an ace at decoding the messages of a bunch of professional dorks.)

It's nothing much, but it gives me more of a sense of accomplishment than delivering the perfect latte.

How's your little Italian girl?

Please forgive my late response,

The Abominable Showman

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 19, 2012 at 8:21 PM
Subject: Today's meeting

Hey Rob,

The other writers have asked me to speak for us as a group. We find your actions today both insulting and disturbing. We realize that the show is in a rough place. And I understand your desire to shake things up a little bit. But what we need is to build cohesion, and instead you've given us this silly stunt. That's all it is, nothing more. And if it blows up in our faces, we're all going to have to clean it up. Please, just tell the kid you're sorry but you just weren't thinking straight.


From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 20, 2012 at 1:23 AM
Subject: Michael

Hello Coach Olmstead,

Thank you for your response to my last email. I understand you wanting to set high standards for your players. I respect that. I just did not find some of the advice in your original letter feasible. I understand now what you were trying to do. Maybe in the future you could include language that indicates that some of the ideas presented are suggestions and not requirements. Ideals are wonderful, but when reality does not conform to them, as a parent I have to deal with the life I'm living in, if that makes sense. For example, I am an NP (nurse practitioner) and I am working a string of many nights in a row and I have found evidence that Michael has been having friends over in the evenings after I've left. He denies this, even though I am sure he is lying. I can try to take away certain privileges, but I can't really ground him because I am often not there to enforce it.

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