Wally the Wrong-Way Gray Whale

(OR, A WHALE OF A CHRISTMAS TALE)

Gustavo had dozed off leaning against the rail of the Belmont Pier, but the flap of wings startled him awake. His eyes snapped open just in time to see a squawking seagull swoop down and steal one of the small pieces of fish that he and his dad were using to bait their hooks.

“That’s the first bite we’ve had all morning,” Gustavo complained. “Why do you always want to fish here? We never catch anything.”

His father grinned, but calmly cast his line into the ocean with a flick of his fishing pole before answering. While he waited, Gustavo rubbed his hands together to warm fingers stiffened by the early morning chill in the ocean breeze. Usually, his dad would be giving him a ride to school in his delivery truck right about now.

“Special delivery!” his father would always shout when he dropped Gustavo off in front of the playground.

But this wasn’t a normal Friday. That night would be Christmas Eve, so they both had the day off.

When his father finally turned to face him, Gustavo recognized the mischievous twinkle in his eye. “One time, m’ijo, I caught something on my hook that was very strange, indeed,” his dad said.

“Oh, really?” Gustavo asked. His dad was always trying to freak him out with tales of “very strange” things like La Llorona, the ghostly woman in white condemned to wander the earth for all eternity, crying out for her lost children.

“Really,” his father said. “Although I should really say that it caught my hook. I was watching the sun rise over the ocean, so I wasn’t really paying attention to my line until I heard something tugging on it. When I looked down at the water below the pier, what should I see but a tiny man, holding my hook in his miniature mitts. He had rosy cheeks and a long white beard and wore a pointed red hat.”

“You mean … Santa Claus?” Gustavo asked with wide-eyed wonder.

“That’s what I thought at first, too,” his father said. “So I called out, ‘Santa, how did you get down there?’ But the man yelled back in a high-pitched voice, ‘No, I’m not Santa. But I get that a lot. I’m a gnome. Name’s Ole.’”

“A gnome?” Gustavo asked. “One of those little statues that grownups put in their gardens?”

His father looked up and down the pier to make sure that none of the other fishermen were listening, then leaned closer to Gustavo and whispered, “That’s what grownups tell children, and most of us probably believe it ourselves, but it’s not true. Garden gnomes aren’t statues. They’re alive.”

“If gnomes are alive, why don’t they run away?” Gustavo asked.

“You know how your fingers get stiff when it’s cold?”

“Yeah,” said Gustavo, rubbing his hands together again.

Well, because gnomes come from a place near the North Pole where it’s freezing cold all the time, they get stiff when it’s warm. So when grownups buy them from gnome trappers and plant them on their lawns in Southern California, they can’t run away because it’s so hot. Their bodies are paralyzed by the heat.”

“Wow,” Gustavo gasped. But then he frowned. “But if gnomes can’t move when it’s hot, how did Ole escape?”

“That’s what I asked him,” his dad said. “He promised me that it was ‘a whale of a tale,’ but he’d only tell it to me if I did him a favor.”

“What kind of favor?” Gustavo asked.

“He shouted, ‘I’m burning up down here. Put me in the cooler full of ice that you brought to keep the fish you catch in.’”

“You mean, this cooler?” Gustavo asked, inching slowly away from the white foam box by his feet.

“Si, that’s the one,” his dad said. “I reeled Ole in. Then I dropped him inside the cooler, and he told me the story of Wally the Wrong-Way Gray Whale. Want to hear it?”

“Well, okay, I guess,” said Gustavo, still looking suspiciously at the cooler. “But it had better be a good story.”

“What did I tell you?” his father asked. “It’s a whale of a tale. Really. It’s a Christmas story that almost no one’s heard, even though most of it happened right here in Long Beach.”

“A Christmas story? Right here in Long Beach?” Gustavo asked.

“Si, right here in Long Beach,” his dad said. “But it didn’t start here, exactly. It was actually a little farther south, along the coast of Baja California.…”

***

You see, every winter gray whales migrate south from where the people call them antokhak to where folks call them ballena gris, all the way from the Chukchi Sea down to the lagoons of Baja California. It takes the whales two or three months to swim that far.

During the migration, people living all along the coast of the Pacific Ocean take boat trips out to watch the whales. And some of the whales watch them back.

Wally was one of those whales. He was young, still a calf, but brave enough to break away from the other whales in his pod, swim up close to small boats, and listen to what the people had to say. One day, less than a week before Christmas, Wally was posing for some tourists snapping photos of the white spots that mottled his dark gray skin when he heard a little girl ask her mother what Santa Claus looked like.

Now, the Chukchi Sea is up by the North Pole, but Wally had never heard of this “Santa Claus” before, so he used his flippers to paddle even closer to the boat to eavesdrop.

“Santa Claus is a jolly little man with rosy cheeks and a long white beard who wears a pointed red hat,” the girl’s mother said.

“And he brings toys to all the good children, right, mommy?” the little girl asked.

“Yes, he brings them the toys that they asked for in the letters they sent to him,” her mother said.

“Toys?” Wally whispered to himself. “All I got for Christmas last year was a new family of barnacles that cemented themselves to my left side. How can I get toys?”

He leaned in closer to listen.

“But what if I changed my mind, mommy?” the little girl asked.

“Changed your mind about what, honey?”

“About the toy I asked Santa to bring me?”

“Well, it’s too late to send another letter now,” her mother said. “It wouldn’t get to Santa before Christmas Eve. I guess the only way to let him know what you wanted now would be to go up the North Pole and tell him yourself.”

“Oh,” the little girl said. “Can we go to the North Pole, mommy?”

Now, because they move around so much, gray whale calves don’t get to have too many toys. But at that moment, more than anything else, Wally wanted for Santa Claus to bring him a Kaptain Krill Amphibious Action Figure. He was supposed to spend the holidays with the rest of his pod in Baja, but he made up his mind right then and there to turn around and swim all the way back to the North Pole and tell Santa exactly what he wanted for Christmas, instead.

Wally was so excited, he shot two spouts of water out of his twin blowholes. The people on the whale-watching boat clapped their hands and took more pictures.

“Where are you going, Wally?” the other whales in his pod called as he turned around and set off in the opposite direction with two strong strokes of his flukes.

“To the North Pole to see Santa Claus!” Wally shouted back.

“Stop, Wally,” the other whales cried. “You’re going the wrong way!”

But Wally didn’t turn around. He swam and swam for hours and hours until he saw something very strange – someone had built a wall in the ocean.

***

“Wait a minute,” Gustavo interrupted. “A wall in the ocean? Who’d build a crazy thing like that?”

“Just look behind you, m’ijo,” his dad said.

Gustavo looked out past the end of the pier, and, sure enough, he could see a wall stretching from one end of the beach to the other.

“Why do you think the waves are so small in Long Beach?” his father asked.

“You mean … Wally was here? In Long Beach?” Gustavo asked.

“Yep.”

“Cool,” Gustavo said. “But wait a minute. I thought this was supposed to be a story about how Ole got away.”

“I was almost to that part,” his dad promised. “Now, as I was saying.…”

***

Wally floated in front of the seawall, not sure which way to go. He looked left. He looked right. He spotted an opening not too far down the wall, so he swam to it and through it.

He paddled around a long finger of land pointing to the east and into a part of Long Beach called Alamitos Bay. Now, it just so happened that Wally had arrived as the people who lived on the bay were beginning their Christmas Boat Parade. A long line of decorated boats was winding its way through the narrow canals of Naples Island, puttering past crowds of people standing in front of beautiful homes draped with strings of Christmas lights. Even the palm trees were lit up.

And there, in the last boat of the parade, was a jolly little man with rosy cheeks and a long white beard wearing a pointed red hat. Just like the little girl’s mother had described him.

“Santa Claus!” Wally cried and started following the parade.

Fast as whales are, however, they don’t have outboard motors, and Wally couldn’t quite catch up to all the boats. By the time he was gliding through the canals, most of the people who had been watching the parade had gone home to drink hot cocoa. Wally was terribly disappointed, but then he glimpsed something floating just up ahead.

Bobbing in the calm water was a tiny man with a pointed red hat, rosy cheeks, and a long white beard.

“Santa?” Wally asked.

“No, I’m not Santa,” the little man said. “But I get that a lot. I’m a gnome. Name’s Ole.”

“A gnome?” Wally asked. “Why are you in the water?”

“I’ve been standing next to that rosebush up there for years, petrified by the heat,” Ole said. “But when everybody was leaving after the parade, a little boy kicked me into the canal.”

The little man’s story was interesting, but Wally had more important things on his mind. “Listen, do you know where I can find Santa?”

“Sure, kid,” said Ole. “Santa lives up at the North Pole.”

“Do you know the way?” Wally asked.

“To the North Pole? You bet,” Ole said. “I was born in captivity, but my family is originally from Alaska. Gnome, Alaska. If you’ll give me a ride up there on your back, I’m sure I can show you the way. It’s in my blood.”

So Wally flipped Ole onto his back with his snout, and they set off for the North Pole. Now, Ole swore that he could find the way to the North Pole, but he admitted that he wasn’t sure about the best way to get out of the seawall. So they headed over toward the Aquarium of the Pacific to ask some of Wally’s fellow marine mammals for directions.

“Who do you think we should ask?” Wally asked Ole.

“How about a dolphin?” the gnome suggested. “Dolphins are supposed to be smart, right?”

“That’s what everyone says,” Wally replied. “But if you ask me, they’re too smart for their own good. They made up their own language, and it’s just impossible to understand all that clicking.”

“Maybe we don’t need directions, after all,” Ole said. “When I was growing up, my older brother always told me the North Pole was easy to find. You just had to look for the biggest Christmas tree in the world, and it would be right there.”

“Sounds logical,” Wally agreed. “Let’s try that.”

Now, gray whales like Wally have this move called spyhopping, where they poke their heads straight up out of the water and then paddle themselves in a slow circle to look around. So that’s what they did, with Wally holding Ole gently between his jaws so he could take a look, too.

“There’s a big tree over there,” the gnome called out. “And it looks like it’s on top of a whale’s back!”

“Really?” Wally asked. “Let’s go!”

But when they got there, it wasn’t a whale at all, but a big old boat called the Queen Mary. There was a Christmas tree on it, though, one that seemed almost as tall as the ship’s three towering red smokestacks.

“Maybe the boat’s going to take the tree up to the North Pole for Santa,” Wally suggested.

“Good point,” Ole said. “Let’s ask somebody.”

They spotted an old woman walking along the ship’s railing, so Ole called out, “Excuse me, madam, is this ship sailing for the North Pole?”

“The North Pole?” she shouted back, laughing. “Why, this ship doesn’t go anywhere at all.”

***

“Wait a minute,” Gustavo interrupted. “A ship that doesn’t go anywhere at all? Who’d believe a crazy thing like that?”

“Just look to your right, m’ijo,” his dad said.

Gustavo peeked over the pier’s railing, and, sure enough, he could see a huge ship with three towering red smokestacks. And it sure didn’t look like it was going anywhere.

“Huh. How about that,” Gustavo said, shaking his head. “But isn’t there an even bigger Christmas tree around here, anyway? On top of the big hill?

“I was almost to that part,” his dad said. “Now, as I was saying.…”

***

So, Wally and Ole did the spyhopping thing again, and this time the gnome spied what sure looked like the tallest Christmas tree in the world, right on top of Signal Hill.

“But how can I swim up there?” Wally asked. “It looks awfully far from the ocean.”

Wally swam back and forth in the harbor, pacing, as they tried to figure out how to get closer to the North Pole. Suddenly, a Christmas tree came floating around a corner.

“Where did that tree come from?” Wally asked.

“It’s a sign, kid. Let’s go check it out,” Ole said.

Wally swam in the direction the tree had come from, and pretty soon they came to the mouth of a concrete channel much wider than the canals of Naples Island. Turns out the Christmas tree wasn’t the only thing floating down it into the ocean. Wally and Ole saw a baseball bat, a soccer ball, a doll, and even a toy sailboat drifting out toward them.

“Look at all those toys,” Wally said. “That must be the way to Santa’s Workshop!”

“Yeah,” Ole agreed. “It must be a shortcut to the North Pole.”

So Wally started swimming up the Los Angeles River. At first, the going wasn’t too tough, but soon enough the water started to get shallow and Wally began having a really hard time swimming.

“Hey, kid,” Ole said. “Maybe we should turn back.”

“No. I need to see Santa in person to ask for that Kaptain Krill Amphibious Action Figure,” said Wally, grunting with the effort of trying to keep his belly from scraping against the bottom of the concrete channel.

No sooner were the words out of his mouth, though, than they stopped moving altogether just below a freeway overpass.

“What’s wrong?” Ole asked.

“I’m … I’m stuck,” Wally cried, his flippers paddling at the air. “The water’s too shallow.”

“Can you turn around?” the gnome asked.

Wally flopped against the floor of the concrete channel, but it was no good. He was stuck.

“It’s no use,” he said. “I’m just too tired.”

“How long has it been since you slept?” Ole asked.

“About two months,” Wally answered.

“Two months!” Ole exclaimed.

“When gray whales migrate, we don’t take any breaks for 6,000 miles. Except for me. I took a break to go find Santa and got myself into this mess,” Wally wailed, starting to cry.

“Quit your blubbering, buddy boy,” Ole said. “We’ll get out of this yet.”

“But I can’t help it,” Wally whined. “I’m covered in blubber.”

“Jeez. I’m sorry, kid,” said Ole. “Don’t blame yourself. It’s my fault. I really thought I could get us to the North Pole.”

“No, it’s my fault,” Wally said. “I should have spent Christmas in Baja with the rest of my pod, but I wanted that stupid toy so much. In Mexico, they throw big parties at midnight on Christmas Eve. It’s so much fun to go with my family, but now I’m going to miss everything. If I saw Santa now, the only thing I’d ask him for is to get us out of here, so I could be with my family for the holidays. Maybe Santa could do that, huh?”

“No offense, kid, but you’re so big, it would take about eight Santas to push you up out of this channel,” Ole said.

Suddenly, something that looked like a shiny silver whale rumbled toward the overpass. It was a bus, but in the spot where most buses have a picture of a greyhound, this one had … a reindeer?

“Hey, kid!” Ole shouted. “I got a good feeling about this bus. Use your spout to shoot me up into the air, and maybe the driver will see us.”

“Okay,” Wally said. He took a deep, deep breath, and the next thing Ole knew, he was riding a spout of water about 15 feet up into the air. The bus driver must have seen the gnome because he slammed the brakes, and the bus screeched to a halt in the middle of the overpass.

Just as Wally’s spout began to run out of steam, Ole saw the door of the bus open and … eight Santas pile out onto the shoulder of the freeway!

“Kid, kid!” Ole yelled as he sank back down toward Wally’s blowholes. “Eight Santas! We’re saved.”

***

“Wait a minute,” Gustavo interrupted. “Eight Santas? That’s impossible. Everyone knows there’s only one Santa Claus.”

“Don’t you remember all the different Santas we see at malls around Long Beach, m’ijo?” his dad asked. “What did I tell you about them?”

“Oh, yeah!” Gustavo said. “Santa can’t be everywhere at once, so he hires helpers to ask all the children what they want.”

“Exactamente. The bus that stopped on the overpass was the one that picks up all of Santa’s jolly apprentices from the malls at the end of their shifts,” his dad said. “Now, as I was saying.…”

***

Filled to the brim with Christmas cheer, Santa’s helpers clambered down the concrete embankment, laughing all the way. Using the giant plastic candy canes they grasped in their black-gloved hands as levers, they managed to lift Wally up and get him turned around with a hearty “HEAVE HO, HO, HO!”

Even though Wally was still tired, the river’s current carried him back down to the harbor.

Wally had learned an important lesson. The best Christmas gift of all isn’t some fancy toy, but the chance to spend that most special time of year with the ones we love. And, just to make sure that he didn’t get lost again, Ole insisted that he follow a whale-tailed cruise ship back to Baja.

“But what about you, Ole?” Wally asked. “Do you want to come to Mexico with me?”

“Nah, kid. It’s even hotter down there,” the gnome replied. “Just drop me off here in the harbor, and I’ll take my chances.”

“Okay,” Wally said, rolling over on his side to plop Ole back into the water. “Good luck, Ole. And Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas to you, too, kid,” Ole said, watching his newfound friend swim away.

***

“Wow, that really was a whale of a tale,” Gustavo said. “But what about Ole?”

“What about Ole?” his dad asked.

“Wally got to go home to this pod, but who did Ole get to spend Christmas with?” Gustavo asked.

“M’ijo, I work for a delivery company, remember?” his father asked. “Let’s just say that a family in Gnome, Alaska, unwrapped a very unusual package that Christmas.”

“You mean?” Gustavo asked.

“Yep: Special delivery!”

“Wally the Wrong-Way Gray Whale” in its entirety for the first time on MY 40. A shorter, earlier version was published by the Press-Telegram in 2004.

Academics of Mistletoe

Standing under it at the college’s Christmas celebration, the first temptation of the professor of mythology was to tell the professor of botany how the only vulnerability of the Norse god Baldr was a mistletoe arrow to the heart.

Her first temptation was to explain to him that mistletoe was a hemi-parasitic plant native to Northern Europe.

Both of their second temptations were to kiss the other.

They went with that, instead.

“Academics of Mistletoe” was originally published by Paragraph Planet in 2013.

Adrift

“Time to decorate the tree!” I grumbled. I slid the red plastic disc across the green surface of the shuffleboard court, hoping it would become an “ornament” when it stopped inside the triangle-atop-a-trapezoid pattern that looked like a Christmas tree.

On the balcony above, the woman in the straw sunhat lowered the book that obscured her features and arched an eyebrow above the frames of her sunglasses.

In an effort to win her full attention from whatever literary fireworks flashed across the pages, I began showboating. I kicked my right leg into the air like a pitcher with a wild windup. Then I snaked the shaft of the cue underneath it to line up a between-the-legs shot. For my next trick, I went with behind-the-back, adding a flamboyant half-twist on the follow through. That put me in the perfect position to fire index-finger six guns indiscriminately into a crowd that, except for one member, was imaginary.

In that instant, I had a vision of myself swaggering into the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club as the “bad boy” of the pro tour – all trash talk and cutting catchphrases, personifying the youth movement the sport so desperately needed to attract widespread media attention.

Back at the Hyatt Newporter, I came crashing onto the deck as the sole of my sandal stuck in the sap of the lavender jacaranda blossoms carpeting the courtyard. When the woman in the sunhat tittered and turned her attention back to her book, I realized that I was, indeed, adrift.

I wouldn’t have even noticed the shuffleboard court if not for the weight of Bob Dylan’s genius, which had stretched the handles of the plastic shopping bag from the Barnes & Noble on Fashion Island to the breaking point just as I had drawn even with it. The 788-page songbook had been thumping against my leg as I had hustled across the courtyard separating the valet stand from the hotel room my wife’s company was putting us up in while she attended a conference there in Newport Beach. But the real jolt came when it registered that I had left my guitar at home. So much for my plan to show off by learning to play “Just Like A Woman” before Heidi returned from her afternoon session.

So I was drifting, like the koi lazing through the channels cut into in the courtyard at Fashion Island, enlivening only for crumbs of attention. There in Newport, I was – like the mall koi – a decorative object, one meant to complement my wife’s ensemble at corporate mixers. Perhaps the woman in the sunhat was in the same boat.

I scraped myself off the shuffleboard court, pried a wilted jacaranda blossom off my forearm, and began another game.

Maybe she would notice.

“Adrift” was originally published by Fewer Than 500 in 2016.

Lower My Mace?

Turned out the drunk who hollered “$20 to blow this” was referring to his dashboard breathalyzer.

Didn’t immediately lower my mace, though.

“Lower My Mace?” was originally published by One Forty Fiction in 2012.

Honeysuckle

Feelers first – that’s the way the honeysuckle vines grew over the chain link, groping blindly for something to cling to.

Feelers first – that’s the way they grew. And that’s the way she cut them down.

The multicolored beads of rubber on her white work gloves looked like sprinkles on frosting, but there was no sweetness in the way the hands they covered ripped the vines away from the fence then severed them with a pink-handled pair of scissors. We hadn’t lived in the craftsman bungalow long enough to have acquired authentic garden shears.

“They’re seasonal,” I protested. “Like the tree.”

I pointed up at the jacaranda that shaded the sidewalk, its foliage withering like the fronds of a fern dying of thirst in the corner of a dimly lit bar.

“They’re dead,” Heidi insisted, swiping a dismissive hand through a cluster of brittle, heart-shaped honeysuckle leaves.

I worried my knuckles across the ridge of wire twists ­– worn smooth and dark by the oil of sliding fingers ­– crowning the waist-high fence in front of the house painted to match the ocean that lapped against the base of the bluffs a half-a-dozen blocks down. Rubbing one of the vines between thumb and forefinger, I thought about how the fine, soft hairs resembled the ones at the base of Heidi’s neck. I leaned across the fence to impulsively plant a kiss on them.

She stiffened. Took a step back and hitched up the faded jeans that had once fit her hips so snugly. Heidi had been spending more and more of her time at the gym lately – maybe because she was getting tired of spending it with me; maybe because she was getting ready to spend it with someone else.

“That’s dead, too,” she said, wiping away the wet imprint my lips.

“Dead? We just signed a thirty-year mortgage thirty days ago, Heidi. Don’t you think it’s a little too soon to pull the plug?”

“It had been on life support for a long time, Charlie. Buying the house was like … what do they call them in living wills? Those measures you don’t want your life to be prolonged by?”

“‘Heroic,’” I spat, “although that’s hardly the adjective I’d use to describe your actions.”

“Whatever,” she said, retreating into the house.

I looked down at my fingers, which had curled around the chain link. Like most things between us at that point, it was merely utilitarian ­– practical, not pretty. But that stark structure had nevertheless become a trellis for something beautiful, something that had insinuated itself into spaces where nothing had been meant to grow.

As I reached out to open the gate, I noticed how the honeysuckle had climbed over the hinges, but not the latch. She could still get out.

“Honeysuckle” was originally published by Fewer Than 500 in 2015.

‘Uniform First’

He starts to slide my last paycheck across the top of his desk. He stops halfway. “Uniform first.”

Sliding it toward him, I take a last look at the word stitched into it before he snatches it away: “Security.”

“Uniform First” was originally published by The Binnacle in 2012 after earning an honorable mention in its Ninth Annual Ultra-Short Competition.