Authors: Alan Russell
He could feel the ocean’s pounding through his feet, could feel its pushing through the heavy sea air. Others were aware of
its strong rhythm, their chanting/groaning called out in time with the waves, as evocative as galley slaves at the oars.
Everyone caught the scent at the same time. There were glad cries. Surely the grunion were running; by the ubiquitous smell,
there was an ocean full of them. But the promise changed along with the scent. The hint became an olfactory fist, a reckoning
of decay and death and brine turned rancid. The smell became an assault. The neon grunion buckets were raised not for fish,
but to lips, and it wasn’t grunion that were deposited within.
No more chants, there was only retching. Delivered from the sea were not a horde of six-inch grunion, but a solitary leviathan.
“Call me fucking Ishmael,” said Am.
The whale wasn’t white; the fog had lifted enough for Am to see it was a dark gray. Handkerchief over nose, he made his approach.
The dead whale was its own monument. In a body of water, it is difficult to gauge how immense these mammals are. Am suspected
it was a gray whale (also called California gray whale, though mostly by Californians). From the shores of La Jolla Strand,
he had often witnessed their spouting plumes off in the distance. Their annual migration is one of nature’s great commutes,
the whales traveling over five thousand miles, from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of California.
The whale was half in the water and half out. The strong surging of the ocean could neither take the whale closer to shore,
nor return it to the sea. The whale was firmly landlocked. Am had heard of living whales beaching themselves, but this one
had been dead upon arrival.
The beach was deserted; fear, confusion, and most of all, the smell, dispersing the crowd. As safety and security director
of the Hotel, Am knew he should be tending to the scattered guests, but having endured their grumbling, and even worse, their
chanting, he didn’t have much sympathy for them. Let them eat fish, he thought. He doubted if many of the Grunion Fun!ners
would be going to the fish fry.
Alone with the whale, with the huge presence, Am asked, “What happened to you?”
His voice was masked by the cries of birds. Hundreds of gulls had appeared, and they were sounding the dinner bell for thousands
more. One of the mighty had fallen, reason for lesser beasts to rejoice. At least most of them. Curiosity, and sympathy, propelled
Am past the shoreline. It was a different kind of whale watching than he was used to. San Diego has a flotilla of whale boats
that carry curious people, not harpoons. Am walked into the waves, unmindful of the water, searching for some visible wound
on the whale, something to account for its death, but there was nothing he could see.
The whale had died on its way back to the Arctic Ocean. Gray whales migrate in pods, staying close to the coastal waters.
Am couldn’t help but wonder about the whale’s end. Had the creature died alone? Am had seen film footage of cetaceans helping
their young and their injured. He wondered if the pod had slowed down for this one, had helped the whale into shallower waters.
Maybe he was being anthropomorphic. Somewhere in Am’s old record collection were a few whale-song albums. He felt an urge
to play one, to broadcast it over loudspeakers. It would be an appropriate dirge, even if it couldn’t be heard at the moment.
The gulls were beyond raucous, acting and sounding like humans confronted with a thirty-ton ice-cream sundae.
Am raised his arms and shook them, shooing off the birds closest to him. Thinking of the whale songs made him nostalgic. In
the seventies, when a record track was more important than a career track, he had enjoyed sipping wine with friends and listening
to the whales. The otherworldly calling of the giants had spurred on some discussions that went deep into the night—and sometimes
other nocturnal activities as well. He remembered making love, half of his ear to the whale’s cries, the other half to his
partner’s. Their eldritch chorus had transported him. It was a special moment; almost, if he dared to admit it, a holy one.
Wine, woman, and whale song. The trinity sounded contrived, but it wasn’t. The trinity sounded dated, and it was.
His hand moved, and surprised him. We’re taught to avoid the dead, but Am reached out to the whale. What was he grasping at,
old memories? The blubber didn’t feel as he expected. There was a firmness to it, a roughness that went beyond the barnacles,
hitchhikers that had attached themselves by the thousands. The crustaceans had gone along for the long ride, but now that
Sighing, Am withdrew his fingers. Making love while listening to whale calls was one thing, but walking out into the surf
to commune with a dead whale was another. He started back to the Hotel, every step a fight not to lose his shoes to the grasping
combination of water and sand. A movement, a flash of a match, startled him. He forgot to keep his toes curled hard into his
shoes, and forfeited one to the muck. A wave came in and tried to claim the shoe, and a tug of war ensued before Am triumphed,
coming up with his footwear and some seaweed.
Should he put the shoe on, or go barefoot? It wasn’t a hard choice. Barefoot, pants rolled up, Am felt better. He looked around
for the light-bearer. Even over the waft of whale, he smelled a cigarette burning. The figure was standing in the leviathan’s
shadow. Am wondered how long he had been under scrutiny. Whoever was there didn’t seem to be bothered by the whale smell.
Odor or not, Am knew the curious would soon arrive; as many, and as loud, as the gulls.
Am needed to make some calls: to the lifeguards; the neighboring Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Sea World; the half-dozen
bureaucracies of the city that would involve themselves in beached whaledom. There would certainly be enough whale to go around
for everyone. What he feared most was that there might be too much. The clean-up job was likely to be the whale of a tale.
Am turned. The smoker had stepped away from the whale’s shadow. He cast quite a shadow himself. The man was round, and somehow
familiar. The shadow nodded to Am, and he found himself nodding back. Confronting Hiroshi Yamada, the Fat Innkeeper, was almost
as surprising as confronting the whale. Hiroshi was the new owner of the Hotel California, or at least the son of the absentee
owner. At the beginning of the year (not as, as Am was wont to observe, December 7, 1941) he had arrived at the Hotel with
a coterie of countrymen from Japan. This was the first time Am had seen him alone. Much like Mary and her trailing lamb, wherever
Hiroshi went, the other Japanese were sure to go. It was almost as if they were joined at the hip, but sour grapes might have
colored that observation. One of Hiroshi’s cohorts, Makato Takei, had taken over Am’s former position of assistant general
manager. Musical-chairs management had relegated Am into his current post, a fit he thought as complimentary as an East European
Hiroshi pointed to the whale. “The whale must have just died,” he said. “I see no signs of deterioration.”
“Nor I,” Am said.
Yamada’s English was very good. Usually, one of the Fat Innkeeper’s underlings did his speaking for him. Yamada took a deep
breath. To all appearances, he liked what he smelled. His body expanded, especially his neck. Yamada was about thirty years
old, not so much fat as large. He was built like a mini sumo wrestler, his more than two hundred pounds spread over a five-foot-eight-inch
“Do you think the Hotel should look into salvaging the whale?”
“Salvaging?” The whale wasn’t some galleon filled with gold or silver. Am couldn’t understand what Yamada was saying.
The Japanese man translated his English: “Make use of it.”
He said the words very slowly. The slowness, Am suspected, was for his benefit. Belatedly, he understood Yamada’s implication
and all but shouted, “No!”
The Fat Innkeeper opened his eyes wide with surprise. Too late, Am remembered that the Japanese avoided confrontation whenever
possible. They didn’t even like to use the word “no,” much preferring that their disapproval be understood without their having
to express it openly. In that regard, the Japanese culture was much like the hotel culture, with the altogether too direct
word of “no” rarely uttered to a guest.
Dumb, thought Am, reconsidering what he had done. It is bad enough to contradict a boss, but to defy a Japanese boss directly
goes against all the conventions in that culture. The Japanese way would be to speak in nuances, to skate the issue and try
to finesse the point subtly. But how do you skate around, let alone finesse, a dead whale?
His friend Sharon had advised Am that when talking with the Japanese he should start with a point of agreement, a safe topic,
and try to build on common ground. Practice
she said, root-binding. By not taking any firm stands, by hearing and listening, direct arguments could be avoided. Maybe,
thought Am, he and Sharon should have been practicing
Their relationship was a long-distance one now, conducted mostly over the telephone. Sharon had been working for Yamada Enterprises
for over three years, and had learned much of the Japanese way. Under her surreptitious tutelage, Am was trying to navigate
the cultural minefield.
Okay, he thought. How do you root-bind when you feel root-bound? Maybe he should comment on the eau de whale, crinkle his
nose and say, “Sure stinks, don’t it?” But one man’s meat is another man’s poison. There were cheeses that Am thought tasted
worse than last week’s socks that were considered epicurean delights. And what about Napoleon’s letter to Josephine? “I will
return in a week. Do not bathe.”
“The whale came a long way,” said Am.
Hiroshi nodded. “Yes.”
“Those who live along this coast have sort of adopted these whales,” said Am. “They think of them as…”
Dogs? No. In some parts of the orient, dogs are admired more on the plate than on the leash. And besides, a dog was too small
and too domesticated. “… spirits.”
The Japanese understood about spirits. Am had prepared for the Yamada takeover differently from anyone else. Some of the Hotel
staff had studied the Japanese language and culture, but Am had read Japanese folktales, believing that a country’s folktales
are the Cliff Notes to its soul.
“Yes,” said the Fat Innkeeper, still nodding. “Such a large animal would have a large spirit. And a generous one, to come
ashore to us in this way.”
If a cow died on Am’s doorstep, mightn’t he view it as manna from heaven? This was a hundred cows, and then some. Hell, this
was a barbecue roast for the city of La Jolla—that is, if any La Jollans had a propensity for whale blubber. But how do you
explain Bambi-syndrome in Japanese? Was there a way to announce delicately that a public-relations disaster would ensue if
Yamada carved steaks out of the whale? God, Greenpeace would be picketing before the night was out.
“Yes, the spirit decided to call.” Decided to leave his thirty-ton carcass as a hell of a calling card. “Now we have to respect
the vessel left to us.”
The Fat Innkeeper thought about that for a bit. He was still offering a small smile, still trying to understand why this great
bounty from the sea couldn’t be utilized, couldn’t be cubed and served with a little seaweed and soy sauce.
“But since the vessel is landlocked now,” Hiroshi said, “and will never sail again, its useless wood could warm the house.”
Even without a Japanese translator, Am figured the roundabout interpretation was, “Let’s do some carving, and store some whale
in the walk-in.”
He wiped perspiration from his forehead. How do you genteelly explain that sacred cows aren’t to be butchered? “The little
children,” Am said, “that go to Sea World might want to come see this one instead.”
Hiroshi still didn’t look convinced. Spirits and little kiddies hadn’t yet moved him, and Am wondered what would. He also
wondered what Ikkyu-san would have done. The hero of many Japanese folktales, Ikkyu was a combination acolyte/jester who was
always finding himself in difficult, if not impossible, positions.
Am’s favorite Ikkyu story had the acolyte traveling with a priest to a temple. The call of nature struck Ikkyu, and he started
to open the front of his kimono at the side of the road, when the priest admonished him to stop, as the deity of the road
was there. Farther up the road they came to a field, and Ikkyu again prepared to urinate, but the priest stopped him once
more. “You can’t go there!” he was told. “You’ll violate the deity of the harvest.” They continued along, the acolyte’s bladder
pressing him further, when they came to a river. Ikkyu was about to relieve himself into the water when the priest angrily
told him, “The water deity is in the river. Nobody would ever do it there!” The acolyte hurried forward, and stopped by a
large boulder, but again he was interrupted by the priest, who chided him for even thinking of violating the deity in the
large rock. A desperate Ikkyu looked around for some spot that wasn’t holy. Then a thought came to him. He scrambled up the
boulder and started peeing on the head of the priest. “What are you doing?” cried the priest. “There is no
on your head,” said Ikkyu-san, and continued right on urinating.
The story was special to Am even before he explored the footnote, and the pun, surrounding
word that means both “deity” and “hair.” The priest’s tonsure must have looked like an especially attractive target. Am figured
that if he was to survive under Japanese ownership, Ikkyu was as good a role model as any. At the moment, though, he decided
it would be better to act like the priest.
“To many,” said Am, “the whale is holy.”
Hiroshi looked at the whale, a distinct longing to his glance. Then he turned back to Am. “You will take care of it?” he asked.
“I will,” said Am.
The two men looked at one another. For once, the Fat Innkeeper’s phalanx of fellow countrymen was not between him and one
word, and a Japanese philosophy, that translated to “outside person.” Sharon said that the Japanese felt that the rest of
the world was deprived in that they had not been born Japanese, a severe disability to their way of thinking. And though they
might be living in foreign lands, in their own mind they were never the outside person. They were