What always shocked the Moby Dickheads was a whaleboat’s flimsiness, how squat the gunnels, how thin the planks separating whalers from depthless ocean and the 65-ton sperm whale they’d stabbed. All yesterday I’d been stuck working the whaleboat exhibit. That meant eight hours of explaining the mechanics of the hunt and naming the tools of slaughter: harpoon, lance, piggin, waif, boat hook, fluke-spade. The Dickheads visited the museum every summer for Melville’s birthday. The main attraction was our Moby Dick Read-a-Thon, held aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the only wooden whaling ship left in the world.
I wasn’t supposed to have the overnight Read-a-Thon shift, but Anne called in sick, so here I was, walking back to work at three in the morning, slipping through the shipyard gate. A rat crossed my flashlight beam carrying an apple core in its mouth and I nodded in solidarity. The shipyard smelled of wood shavings, tar, and oil paints. The moon bounced bright off the river.
When I got within earshot of where the Charles W. Morgan was berthed, I could hear a Dickhead reading all slow and dramatic: “These fritters feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body.”
I dropped my bag at the foot of the Morgan’s gangplank because I was ten minutes early. The tide was high, and the ship’s heavy hull loomed above. I crossed the wharf and stepped into the darkness of the whaleboat’s shed to check my phone without anyone catching its blue glow. I almost screamed because there was someone already in there. A kid.
“Are you a ghost?” the kid asked.
“No. Are you?” Where the fuck did this kid come from?
“I wish,” he said. He took a step forward and he was wearing those shoes that light up. They flashed tiny red lights all over the inside of the shed.
“Are your parents on the Morgan?”
“My dad is. That book is boring.”
“Yeah,” I admitted, “Sometimes it is.” What kind of Dickhead brings their kid to an overnight Melville reading and lets them wander by the water in the dark? There were no railings at the edge of the wharf. The river wasn’t the wild Atlantic, but it would drown you just the same. “Your dad know you’re over here?”
There was enough light to see the kid’s shrug. I figured he was nine, maybe ten? Old enough to be a pain in the ass, young enough to get away with it.
“Go back to the Morgan,” I said, “No one’s supposed to be over here.”
“You’re over here.”
“I work here.”
I shone the flashlight on my nametag. “You need to get back to your parent.”
“What’s that?” the kid asked, pointing in the whaleboat to a long wooden pole, a barbed iron lashed to its tip.
“That’s what they used to kill whales? Is it heavy? Is it real? Did it kill a real whale?”
“Yeah, it’s heavy. But no, it’s a reproduction.” I felt the story bubbling up, worn smooth by repetition. The stealthy row to the whale’s glistening skin, the hurl the dart the throw, the line flying out of the tub, the crew tossing water on the hemp to keep the friction from setting everything alight, a Nantucket Sleigh Ride. I swallowed it down. It was too early in the damn morning and this wasn’t my kid.
“Can I touch it? Please? My dad would be so jealous.”
We stared at each other, and he stamped his foot so the lights strobed again.
“Come on, let’s go.” I walked out, unsure what I’d do if he refused to follow. There was a scrambling noise, a grunt, and as I turned to catch him in the act of a forbidden touch, he shoved past me, dragging the harpoon behind him, picking up speed.
“Hey!” I yelled, “Stop! You’ll fall in the river!” He stumbled a bit but kept going.
I took off after the kid, but he drew up at the edge of the wharf and heaved. There it was, the harpoon wobbling clumsily out into the air. The moonlight caught the iron tip and flashed and for a moment it was really fucking gorgeous. There was a splash. The kid raised his hands,
triumphant. Behind us, somehow, the reading droned on undisturbed.
The kid and I looked at each other. He was scrawny, panting from the effort. He had that homeschooled look, a bad haircut and wide, unsocialized eyes.
“Don’t tell my dad.”
I pulled out my phone. “I’m not on the clock yet,” I said, affecting disinterested scrolling. I was texting Dave from shipyard, who owed me a favor, and Carl the shipsmith, who owed me dozens, to see if they could cobble together a replacement harpoon. The kid was an ass, but he’d created wild magic by not giving a damn; I couldn’t hand him over to the Dickheads.
While I tapped at my phone, the kid turned and ran, clanging up the gangway to the Morgan. I gave him a few minutes, then boarded the ship myself. When I took my place to read, all the Dickheads were sitting in a circle like children at story time. All except the kid, alone up on the brick try-works, where whalers had fed the fritters, boiled the blubber, rendered the oil. The kid swung his feet and his shoes lit up, the red lights leaping across us like a spattering of salty blood.