Home » Literary Fiction » BELLY OF THE WHALE by Linda Merlino

BELLY OF THE WHALE by Linda Merlino

Belly of the Whale
Literary Fiction
Kunati

I must have passed out, because I don’t remember who put me on this gurney without a blanket. There are sirens screeching, doors opening and closing, and the thunder of running feet in heavy boots. Someone wheeled me against a glass window where the cold and snow pound along its polished seams and frozen surface. My mind is lukewarm but the rest of me could freeze to death, and my head won’t turn, but I know I’m not alone. I fear that the dead are gathered here in this corner of Whales Market, that the sums of several lives are laid out on gurneys like me, and that yesterday I thought the worst thing happening was my breast cancer.

Could I be dead? Has someone pronounced me dearly departed? Perhaps a coroner with a New Hampshire quarry for brains has gone to get a tag to tie on my toe. People make mistakes; even trained personnel can overlook a faint pulse or the almost indiscernible beat of a heart. The last twenty-four hours have been too significant, too necessary for story telling, to be lost in death. My legs are stiff, neither one will move, but I am breathing, I can tell anyone who is willing to listen who I am and what happened last night at Whales Market.

My name is Hudson?no, no not the river in New York State?the car, Hudson. I was named after a 1955 Hudson Jet. One of the last of its kind to roll off the line in Detroit, and later owned by my father, Victor Catalina. No, not the automobile; Catalina like the island off the coast of California, the place my paternal grandfather had marked as his destination when he arrived in the United States. Giuseppe Catillano became Joseph Catalina, thanks to Ellis Island, immigration’s mistake marking forever his destination and his surname as one. The sad thing is, or maybe not, my grandfather never made it to Catalina Island, never, ever. He was sent to live with relatives on the North Shore of Boston and stayed there until the day he died.

Speaking of dying, a person could die here wedged behind this cash register. There are police cars, fire trucks, ambulances and about a hundred assorted official-looking, parka-clad men stomping around and not one giving me the time of day. The sun should be coming up soon, although you may not be able to see it because the snow is still pretty intense. A true Nor’easter of a storm blew through yesterday, and I wouldn’t be freezing if that damn blizzard had blown out to sea. This is Gloucester, Massachusetts, and we don’t get these kinds of snowstorms very often. The weather on Cape Ann deals its injustices in other ways, out on the ocean.

I never imagined my final resting place would be Whales Market. I never thought that my last image would be a box of microwave brownies in aisle three. Cancer was supposed to be my executioner, its effects taking me down like a poison-dart gun.

Last spring I was in the best shape. I could easily run a half-marathon, passing Whales Market and threading my way along the wharf, ending up at the Harbor. Now I can barely walk from my kitchen to the living room without stopping to sit down.

If all this is confusing, please bear with me for a while. I need to explain what has happened to me, to Willy Wu and to Ruby Desmond. When I do that, everything will make sense. I am a thirty-eight-year-old mother of four kids, the wife of a loving husband, and a woman who yesterday had it up to her bald head with pink ribbons and walk-a-thons. Yesterday was Tuesday. Tuesday is the day I drive to Boston Women’s Hospital for chemotherapy. Five months ago, an Ivy-educated oncologist removed both of my breasts and fed them to the sharks off Ned’s Landing.

Okay, that last part isn’t true, but the rest is fact, and since then I have become very jaded on the subject.

Speaking of subjects, I know I’m getting off mine. I’ve got to start some place where it’s warm and I can think without shivering. That place is my bed.

Ten Nettles Cove is about a mile from here. That’s where my bed is, my kids too, and my husband. It’s yesterday morning and the sun is just coming up. A triangle of light always juts across our bed like it’s the seventh day of creation every day. The light sparkles and radiates against the bed covers.

My husband, Jack, likes to spoon. You know, spooning is when one person moves up behind the other, knees lock with knee-backs, and two bodies make a concave form of love and security. Jack sometimes has to pull me from my corner of the bed, the almost-over-the-edge place that I hurl myself toward during the night. I go there more often since the cancer came, since the front of me is like the back of me, and I can’t tell which end of me is top or bottom. Jack stretches out his long arms, scoops his fingers under and around my shoulders and gently reels me back toward his warm body.

Once planted in the spoon position, he talks to me in sleepy whispers. At one time he spoke through my long hair that fell tumbling over the pillowcases, soft, dark, thick strands that muffled his words. Now the pillow holds a head that is almost bare, adorned by a few scarce patches that seem stubbornly resistant to the defoliating chemicals inside me. My husband’s words are an early morning chant that never changes, never deviates. Jack says the same sentence, over and over.

Hudson like the car, Catalina like the island, Hudson Catalina, I love you.” It’s a game we play, Jack and I. I don’t answer him the first time, the second and sometimes even the third or fourth, because I want to hear him say Hudson Catalina, I love you, again and again. Jack knows that my playfulness has a serious center. The game is all about me, reassuring me, taking care of me, and so he is patient. Jack gives me time to process his words, his love, and his unflappable presence, as he waits between pauses for my response. There is a ritual in our dawn’s talk, a knowing that each of us is there for the other, and when I’ve been silent long enough, Jack will kiss the nape of my neck.

Like a child who has gotten the coveted piece of candy, I close my hands around his embrace and say, “Jack like the bean stalk, Emerald like your eyes, Jack Emerald I love you back.” Except for yesterday. Yesterday morning I couldn’t answer him because my body was beyond caring about life and had taken my mind and soul with it. All my reserves, I thought, had been drawn upon. Jack wiggled his tongue inside my ear. This would normally send me spinning around into his face. That whole wet tongue thing in my ear gives me the creeps, and he knows it. “Not feeling very good this morning, honey?” Jack said.

I couldn’t find my voice. Answering would take too much effort, too much energy. “What can I do? You have to tell me, Hud, you can’t go silent on me.” He was so close that his imploring glanced my cheek. The only thing I could emit was a huge sob. One violent shuddering cry clamored out of my floppy-skinned body. Jack’s grip tightened around me. He pressed himself closer than a simple spoon should allow.

“Okay, Hud, get some tears out. I read in one of your recovery books that you need to grieve for yourself. Give yourself permission to have your own personal pity party,” he said.

“Jack ?”

Words starting forming somewhere in my brain, but they were slow in coming.

“Hey.” He flipped over me so that his embrace was forward instead of backward. “You missed the full moon last night. A huge snow moon if I ever saw one.” Jack’s face nudged mine to tilt up. “The weatherman says it’s going to hit us real hard later today.”

“I don’t care.” I said the three words and shoved my chin deeper into my chest. “You’ve got Boston Women’s today. We have to work something out just in case the roads get bad,” he said.

“I don’t need to work something out. It isn’t going to snow worth a damn. Besides, I said I don’t care. Just leave it like that, Jack.” I unraveled myself from his arms and legs and sat up. He lay there looking at me with that corner-of-his-mouth grin that usually makes me smile back. But this was yesterday, and yesterday I was not in the mood for his grin or his kind words or anything. I just wanted to disappear, wave a wand and poof myself into oblivion. How could I tell that to Jack? I couldn’t cut the cord of his faith. Instead I found my legs, stood on the cold floor and went into the bathroom to throw up.

“Hud, are you all right?” Jack said from the other side of the bathroom door. “Let me in, please.” His tone was desperate and scared. “Go to work, Jack.” I managed to answer between the dry heaves. “Just go to work.”

The tears were coming, rolling over my cheeks, connecting with the mucus from my nose and washing the stinging bile off my lips and chin. His head banged on the door?thud-thud, thud-thud?a deadly pounding of frustration. “I can’t help you, Jack, I can’t help myself anymore,” I said. “Let me be, just let go, and let me be.”

My head sank deep below the rim of the toilet. I gripped its edges until the blood drained from my hands and the skin on my fingers shone porcelain on porcelain. Faint shadows of iron and rust stains were etched along the water line. The sediment from my belly floated close to my face.

I flushed the toilet. Down, down its contents swirled, down into the dank recesses of unseen places. Take me with you, I thought, consume me in your depths, swallow me whole. But there was no chance of that. Jack’s banging continued, and I wondered how much time had elapsed. I didn’t know the minutes. I only knew that his agony was palpable.

“I’m going to take a shower, Jack. You get the boys ready for school, and I’ll be dressed when your sister arrives.”

This kind of talk was reassuring. The least I could do was tell him what he wanted to hear, not what was really coursing through my head, not that death sounded sweet and peaceful. Our children and he would be fine without me. His sister, Kathy, my best friend from high school, would take care of the children. Kathy Emerald was used to putting out other people’s fires. Her knack for intervention was unmatched. She would not fail me or her brother in this calamity. No, Kathy would be a stable presence until Jack married again, as he would, I was sure. This scenario played itself out in my mind over and over. Sometimes I would even go so far as to imagine Jack and his second wife in bed together.

This disease messes you up. Your normal thinking is awash in chemicals and you go to dark places that you never knew existed inside your head. The banging stopped, and Jack moved away from the door. I visualized him shrugging his shoulders, rubbing his forehead and resigning to my mandate.

House sounds began. The high-low voice of our thirteen-year-old son grew impatient as his younger twin brothers engaged in their morning wrestle. The boys took their cues from Jack. The thought of their mother being sick, so sick that she couldn’t make dinner, wash laundry, shoot hoops or drive them to school, was avoided, denied?whatever it took not to face the truth. This morning to them was just like every other morning, and Jack’s shush to be quiet carried no hint of what lay ahead. Even the whispering of some message I couldn’t hear, but knew was about me, didn’t alarm them.

Still on my knees, I crawled over to the tub, leaned my weight against the frigid tiles and slowly pulled myself upright. The water shot out of the showerhead, and I got within range of its outpour, clothes and all. I closed my eyes and saw the face of my four-year-old daughter, Annalise. She was named, in part, after my deceased mother. Jack thought it was a way to honor my mother; I saw it as a morbid reminder. Dead was dead. I didn’t want to be reminded every day that my mother was gone. I didn’t see the possibility that my mother could be an angelic protector of my precious little girl. Annalise’s name became even more of a sore issue when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My mother died of breast cancer when I was fourteen, and I have been haunted ever since by my own predisposition. How many chips would I wager, if gambling were my game, on the odds of our genetics spitting out another female destined to be felled by cancer? My mother had only one daughter, which made me the sole target on the DNA dart board.

In a recurring dream, cancer comes disguised in a black hood, stalking the tinseled landscape between my wakefulness and sleep. What stroke of genius devised my destiny? What heavenly cynic trundled Annalise across the valley of unborn infants to be my child? Why? So she could be the next in line, another daughter in the familial legacy of lost breasts and early demise waiting for the past to repeat itself?

God knows I went to sleep trying not to think these negative thoughts, trying to hold fast to my last, thin thread of hope, but I awoke yesterday morning to find that all hope had vanished. The minute my eyes opened I could foresee nothing but my own death. I never wanted to end my life by my own hand, I never wanted to die young, but even without thoughts of suicide, it seemed that my demise was about to happen, that I had no choices left. I must roll over for cancer. Let it win, let it take me.

If I confessed this to Jack, he would have called me a drama queen, and he would have been right. It is true I tend towards the dramatic when there’s a crisis. Some people gather their wits about them, sort through all the mire and come out on the other side transformed. This is an admirable quality, which I lack. Jack, on the other hand, is the one among us who sees only the silver lining. He is the motivator, the optimist, the Hud-we-can-get-through-this kind of guy a person like me needs.

I said this to myself still fully dressed, a continuous spray of water spilling off my scalp. It took a few minutes to unbutton my pajama top and pull off my bottoms. I worked the soap to create a rich lather and distributed it over my body. The fine smell of lavender filled my nostrils and calmed me. Water was good medicine. I felt its power forcing me to practice my limited knowledge of deep breathing and internal focus. Never quite clear on this concept, I struggled with exactly how to regain inner control, how to cope, if only long enough to fool Jack.

About the Author:

Life is our daily teacher. One lesson begets another and then another.

Once-upon-a-time life kicked me off my writer’s path and led me to pursue a more practical profession. My childhood dream of becoming a journalist was silenced.

Years later, I became a single parent, not by choice but by necessity, and my most trustworthy partner became a ballpoint. The fiction in my head turned into words on yellow legal pad. I wrote anywhere, any time, on my dining room table, and on my lunch hour. No place was my sacred space. I wrote in my car during soccer practices, under an umbrella on rain drenched sidelines, in fast food restaurants and in chain hotels. I wrote during championship after championship in cities and states, from Jersey to Phoenix.

The quieted yearning to be a writer reawakened onto the pages of a novel. My first was self-published after five years of juggling work, kids and day-to-day. A flawed but beautiful story emerged onto paper and “Swan Boat Souvenir” enjoyed local acclaim and success.

I knew there was more to do, more to write and that the next book would be published traditionally, that the next manuscript would have the benefit of an editor and the advice of professionals. After months of writing, Belly of the Whale went from paper, to computer, to draft after draft and finally into the arms of Kunati Publishers.

My children are grown. My passion to write remains a constant. Each book I complete is dedicated to the magic of believing in my dream, to my son and to my daughters.

You can visit on the web at www.lindamerlino.com.

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One thought on “BELLY OF THE WHALE by Linda Merlino

  1. Pingback: Pump Up Your Book Promotion June Authors on Tour - Day 9! « Pump Up Your Book Promotion Virtual Book Tours

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