The set up to the joke was bad enough: What was lower than a guy rifling through an ex-girlfriend’s trash? The answer was obviously being that guy, especially in Friday Harbor where anyone who spotted me would spread it all over town by lunch. On an island of just over six thousand people off-season, there was a good chance that anyone driving by could tell you not just how long Virginia and I had been together (not long) but also the day she had arrived on San Juan, the scope of her duties as curator for the Westcott Bay Institute for Art and Nature and the fact that she was five months pregnant. A sizeable portion of those people, the females in particular, had known she was pregnant before I did, and I was the kid's father.

    “I'm not asking for anything from you,” was how Virginia had answered when I called to ask if the baby was mine.

    “Wow,” was all I could say. I would have given anything not to have taken a hit of pot before dialing the phone. I would have given almost anything to have had another. “I can help.” I was working my way up to say that I wanted to help. I didn't know it then but I was just scratching the surface of what I wanted in connection with that baby.

    “I don't need anything, really.” Her voice softened some. “We'll be fine.”

    We. A lump rose in my throat and I found I couldn't speak. I imagined her and the baby linked together as if cut from a square of construction paper. Standing alone in my cabin with the wood stove coughing up smoke, I think I might have even moved my hands apart as if to unfold the imaginary paper dolls: one, two, three.

    If I gave a shit what people thought I might have worried that there was something unmanly about wanting a kid this bad. Certainly in my younger days getting someone pregnant was best avoided. Of course, that was before my life had begun to seem like the sped-up section in a cartoon movie. Summer, spring, winter, fall going by so fast that all you could do was watch the pages of the calendar fly off. It had never hit me before now how the weight of a child might be less a burden than an anchor.

    The alley, so far, was clear. I tucked the paper bag under my arm like a football and ran to my truck.

We’d just started going out the summer evening I picked her up at the Westcott Center for Art and Nature with a cooler of cheese and meat and crackers and a bottle of Martin's sparkling cider, which I hoped she wouldn't mind drinking instead of wine. She had recently arrived on the island to take the curator job and I had promised to bring her to Lime Kiln State Park to look for whales.

    “Mind emptying the prayer wheels?” Virginia handed me a paper sack without looking up and swept the donation box with her hand to catch any bills that might be hiding in the corners. “I have to throw the old ones out so people can put new ones in.”

    “Throw them out?”

    She glanced up. “Well, I recycle them, actually. With the newspaper.”

    The air smelled like dirt, salt, and lavender. Besides my bum knee and a rotten tooth I was in pretty good shape: strong and employed and sober. Me and my boys had worked up a halfway decent set list that included a couple of songs that always got people dancing and a red-headed girl was about to climb in my truck with me. Perhaps I could be forgiven for wanting to believe that things would never change. Virginia wouldn't get tired of me, I would never grow any older, and winter would never come.

    I crossed the field at a fairly good clip for an old man. I probably would have eaten the contents of those prayer wheels with a little salt and pepper if she'd asked me to. I was determined to show that girl some whales.

    The Salish Sea had been lousy with orcas just ten years before when I had arrived on the island, but lately they had been rare. The cormorants seemed to be disappearing, too. Some people said it was pesticides that made their shells too thin or it might just have been, like the whales, a sharp drop-off in the fish they ate. There was a tiny island off Waldron that used to be jet black in nesting season. Now it looked like a bun with poppy seeds sprinkled all over it. I hadn't seen a whale in months, but with Virginia I felt I could get lucky.

    We ate our food and smoked a joint and didn't see any whales. Afterward we drove back to her place and I watched her drop the bag in the alley next to the newspapers. That's when I should have said something, I realize now. I should have tried to tell her the little bit that I knew about need and desire and what happened if you didn't give those things the respect they deserved. Instead, I just followed her up the stairs.

The windows in my truck were steaming up so I cracked one to let in some air. The first prayer was folded to the size of a gram packet of cocaine. I smoothed it against my leg. I hope Stuart and I get married. The handwriting was rounded and the circle on the i in married was in the shape of a heart. Jeez. I shook my head. I hoped Stuart knew what he was in for. To Jackie’s guardian angel, said another. Please keep her safe.

    The next one was torn from a bit of ferry schedule in a long thin strip. I pray to find true love and happiness once again in my life. Well, amen to that, sister, I thought.

    None of the slips were signed (most people figured that God, or the universe, or whatever they were praying to knew their name) but from the very first one I'd recognized them as the hopes and dreams of women. It was one man in a hundred who would interrupt a walk to scratch out an anonymous prayer. If he did I imagined the kind of thing he would wish for would be more money, a better car, or a chance to get laid. I’d come to think of those prayers as a code I could break. They seemed to be written in a language that women were born knowing. I had about four months to learn.

    I leaned my back against the seat and stared at my windshield. It was a gray, drizzly day, the glass blurry with mist. If the weather cleared we would start tearing the shingles off a cabin on the westside of Orcas Island, near Turtleback Mountain. I didn't have much else to do, these days, besides work. In the evening I would practice a few new songs on the guitar and split wood for my stove. Then I'd do what I usually did in winter: smoke a joint, make a sandwich, and go to bed early.

    If I could have talked to the author of that note I would have told her that she was damn lucky to have found true love once in her life, not to mention again. I didn't believe God took much notice of me and I'd never been one to pray. If he did happen to glance down and see a middle-aged alcoholic roofer sitting in a truck holding stolen garbage and mooning about true love, I expect he'd laugh his ass off. I wouldn’t hold it against him either. I unfolded the next paper and the message written on it in a kid's handwriting said, Please let it be sunny tomorrow. I laughed. Now there was something to pray about.

    Before taking off, I took another look across the road at Virginia's window.  She had wanted to be an artist and had even studied painting at the university. She showed me some of her stuff and I'd told her it was great, of course, good enough for any museum. The truth was, she was a much better curator than she was an artist. Even I could tell that her paintings were too controlled. She wasn’t a girl who liked surprises.

It would be damn cold up there on the roof today, I thought, finding a spot on the bench to wait for the ferry. The wind would rub us raw. I had a sudden image of my brother's wife, Renata, and the pies she’d make from blueberries she grew on their land in Northern California.

    Before coming to San Juan I'd spent some years with them and could still remember how fast a slice of warm pie could melt a scoop of vanilla ice cream. In addition to the wife, my brother had a good cabinet-making business and a dog and a house and for a time there an admirable tolerance for my drunken escapades. He forgave me for all kinds of shit until the weekend he was out of town and I totaled his truck. I stood there with blood in my mouth and even through a haze of booze I could see that the damage I'd done was beyond repair. I packed my things and left town before they got home.

    They’d wanted a kid badly, I remembered, and though they were the most clean-living people you could imagine, it had never happened for them. And now here I was, with all my screw-ups, about to be a father.

    “You all right, dude?” It was Eddie Stowers, another guy on our crew.

    He was about twenty and his dad owned one of the bars my band played in sometimes. I lifted my face from the cradle of my palms. “Eddie.”

    “Hey.” He dropped down onto the curb.

    There was room on the bench and it's not like I hadn't known him since he was in the fifth grade, but guys never want to get too close.

    He said, “I am so hung over.”

    I straightened my back and reached into my shirt pocket for a cigarette. I saw him watching and offered him one.

    He shook his head. “I think I would vomit, dude.”

    The ferry chugged into sight from Anacortes and headed straight at us.

    “On second thought.” Eddie sat back up and held his hand out.

    I tossed him a cigarette and my lighter and hoped he wouldn't puke on my boots.

    The boat glided into the slip and I stood up. My brother had been the fearless one when we were younger. At just eight, he’d throw his board on the street and skate around the blind curve without a moment’s hesitation, his mouth open in a big-toothed smile. The walkway clicked down in front of me and I shook myself as if I were a dog and self-pity was so much salt water and sand. Once again.

    I wondered if it was rare that life offered you an opportunity to do something over, or if it was just rare to recognize that you were getting a second chance. If I'd been any less desperate it would have been easy to miss, but there it was, and damn if I wasn't going to snap it up. I could do things different this time. I could be a better father than I'd been a brother. I could be a better man.  Stepping onto the boat, I leaned into the almost imperceptible shift that signaled the transition from solid to shifting ground.

I stopped into Café Demeter after work to buy a slice of pizza before heading home and there was Virginia, eating brownies at the counter. There is nothing like watching a pregnant women get bigger to bring home how quickly time is passing. She must have grown five inches around since I'd last seen her. Her arms were cut and strong and you could see the veins in her neck, but her middle looked like someone had stuck a bike pump in her mouth and stepped down hard.

    She lifted a glass of milk to her mouth and at that moment saw me, her eyes bright over the rim. Her parents, both psychologists, had strung their divorce over most of the years of her childhood and, as a result, she had learned to hide what she was feeling from everyone, sometimes even herself. She didn't just have a poker face, that girl, she had the face of a cold war spy. She lowered the glass and left a milk mustache clinging to the invisible blond hairs on her top lip. I had the urge to stretch out my finger and wipe it away.

    I said, “I opened a bank account.”

    A flicker in her eyes was the only sign that she was surprised. “You didn't have a bank account?” The roundness of her face made her look about five years younger than she was.

    I stuck my hands in my pockets. “For the kid.”

    I had checked the balance the day before and it was already up to four hundred dollars. Stuff could really add up: baby food, school supplies, vitamins.  As for skateboards, even an Angel Boy Kickflip Complete could cost over fifty bucks.

    She pushed her plate forward on the counter. “You didn't need to.”

    “So, how's it all going?” I gestured vaguely in the direction of her belly.

    She glanced down. “I have to see the doctor twice a month now. Soon it'll be every week.”

    I shifted my feet and scratched at my whiskers. “Everything’s okay, though, right?”

    She said, “It’s called prenatal care. They make me get on the scale. Take blood. Listen to the baby's heartbeat with one of those little microphone things. Next time I'll get an ultrasound.” A sly grin crept over her face. “Look for the little penis that we all hope it doesn't have.”

    Listen to the baby's heartbeat? My mouth dried up. I couldn't remember a time since I quit drinking that I wanted something so badly. With another woman I might have swallowed my pride and begged. Things had to be approached differently with Virginia.

    I pretended to throw a casual glance at her body. “It's probably driving you crazy that you can't work out.” 

    “What?” She straightened her back. “Why do you say that?”

    Virginia was inordinately proud of her muscles and on more than one occasion she'd insisted on arm-wrestling with me, a roofer. It had always been kind of a no-win situation as far as I was concerned. She was pissed when I won, more pissed still when I let her win.

    “I just thought. With the baby and all…”

    She cleared the dishes away with a sweep of her hand and plunked her elbow down on the counter.

    “I just got off work, Virginia.” I couldn't be seen to give in too easily.


    I pretended to think it over. “How about if I win you let me come to the next appointment with you? The one where you check the baby out?”

    Her eyes narrowed. We both knew she was cornered. I mean, hadn't she just called me a pussy? How could she back out now? She screwed up her mouth and then, with difficulty, hoisted her body back up onto the stool. “If you tell them you're my boyfriend, I'll kill you.”

    I took a step forward. “I wouldn't dare.”

    Elbows on the counter, we locked both hands and eyes. She let out an exhalation of air and then started to push. I held back just enough and wondered, how could I not have seen it before? How could I not have noticed how much she was like me when I first arrived on the island, fresh from screwing over the one person in the world who still cared about me? I couldn't arm-wrestle her into needing me when she was perfectly sure that she didn't need anybody.

    So I was not surprised when, after I slapped her arm down on the table she made a series of excuses about her center of gravity and a wet spot on the counter and the light shining in her eyes. I was not surprised when she slipped out the door to the café with a back-up bag of biscuits and said she'd call me before the next appointment.  And I was not surprised in the least when she did not call.

Eddie and I were together again on the ferry the next morning and the next few mornings after that. I took one of the inside seats but Eddie always sat on the deck for the fresh air with his fleece pulled tight, pale-faced and shivering in the damp. Hung over again. Stupid kid. I was living proof where that kind of behavior led.

    I looked at the churning gray water and thought about the whales. Most of the tourists didn’t realize that there were two kinds of orcas in the sound. The resident whales, who raised their families in pods and fed on salmon, and the migrants who'd eat just about anything: seals, birds, porpoises. The migrants traveled in small groups and were unpredictable. Nothing you could make your living from if you were a captain like my friend John. The residents had been hanging out in large communities in the sound for generations. They were the ones everyone missed now that the salmon were scarce, the ones marine biologists knew by name.

    Eddie pushed through the swinging doors with his fleece collar up over his chin and a knit cap pulled down low over his ears. He plopped down on the seat opposite, his legs splayed wide.

    “Jesus. Cold out there.”


    “Gonna freeze our assess off up there in that wind.”

    “No kidding.”

    Eddie glanced out the window at the gray water and a kind of spasm went over his face. I thought he might be feeling sick again and I scooted a little farther away from him on the bench.

    “Sorry to hear about the kid, man,” he said. “That's rough.”   

    “No, it's all right.” He was young so what did he know? “Virginia and I will find a way to work it out. Lots of people do.”

    He looked at me in confusion. My palms started to sweat and I rubbed them against my jeans.

    He stared back out the window. “Alison told me and well, I thought you knew and all. About the heart thing.”

    “The heart thing?”

    He shook his head. “I don't know.”

    “Spit it out, Eddie.” I wanted to torture this guy, this green-behind-the-ears Eddie Stovers with his ridiculous hangover and useless pity. I was thinking he had better plan to steer clear of me later when I had a framing nailer in my hands.

    “I guess Virginia told Alison that they found something going on with the baby's heart.”

    “Can they fix it?” The absurdity of having to ask Eddie Stowers about my own kid's heart almost made me cry.

    “Something about how the baby's heart doesn't develop all the way on one side.”

    He hunched up his shoulders as if he were protecting his neck from something that was about to fall from above. I found I couldn't look at his face anymore and stared at the rip in his jeans over his knee. He had scraped himself there, I noticed. He had a scab. Eddie went on about a hole in the baby's heart and all of a sudden the fight went out of me. I listened to his nervous voice and stared at that scab and thought, my boy.

Our crew boss, Harold, was waiting at the ferry landing with his van. When we took a cigarette break around 11:00, I casually asked to borrow Harold's phone and walked around the back of the house to call.

    She answered on the second ring. Virginia's phone was often buried under papers on the counter or tucked into the pocket of a jacket she had discarded in the front hall. Even with those obstacles built into conversation, I had never known her to hurry when the Ramones started in on “I Wanna be Sedated,” her ringtone. Clearly this was a woman who had recently received bad news and was waiting for more.

    “This is Virginia Holbrook.”

    I swallowed.

    “Hello? Is anyone there?”

    “It's, um.” I cleared my throat. “Darrel here.”

    “Hi. Hold on.”

    She set the phone aside and I could hear rustling papers. She got back on and said, “It's called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which means that the left side of the heart is underdeveloped and unable to support blood circulation after birth. Without treatment, babies with this defect usually die within the first few days of life. Treatment entails a series of operations.”

    Her voice trailed off at the end as she lifted the phone away from her face. I had less than a second left before I would be listening to dead air.



    “What did they say his chances were?”

    “Not so great.” She cleared her throat. “It's a she.”

    The feeling of loss made me unsteady on my feet. I stared at the little black device in my hand and it was all I could do to keep myself from chucking it down the hill. Cell phones? Jesus. We didn't even have wires and cables connecting us. The world was changing too damn fast.

    I swallowed. “How are you doing?”


    “Yeah. You.” From top of the house I heard the sound of shingles being wrenched off. They were a good bunch of guys. I knew they'd give me a few minutes. I was less sure about Virginia.

    “I can handle it. Thanks for asking, though.”

    It struck me suddenly that I wouldn't even have to run away this time. I could just hang up the phone. The house we were roofing was on a ridge and from the corner where I stood, slouched in my hoodie out of the wind, I could watch sea birds diving for crabs. Virginia would leave. I saw it as clearly as I could see the heavy body of the ferry cutting through the water on its way to Shaw. If that baby died than she would disappear from the island like smoke from a campfire.

    I kicked my foot against the side of the house, my boots still damp from the morning. We were in that season on the island where some things never totally dried out.

    Let me be your anchor, I wanted to say. Let us be anchors for each other. I was afraid, though, that she'd misunderstand what I was asking for. What I was offering.

I started to ask if I could come over, but she interrupted, with more than just her voice breaking. “I have to go.”

    “Virginia, please.” Then silence against the wind.

On the ferry back to San Juan I became convinced that one of the prayers in the next bag would belong to Virginia. Even the ones I'd already read became suspect. To Jacqueline's Guardian Angel? It was a measure of how whacked out I was at the time that it seemed possible that I might have hung out with this woman for three months, that I might have watched her casually dump a pile of prayers into the alley for recycling, and have somehow missed the fact that she believed in guardian angels.

    I hustled from the ferry landing to my truck. It was five-fifteen and I'd worked hard all day and my stomach was growling but I didn't stop for food. Driving with one hand on the wheel, I found an open bag of Doritos in the glove compartment. This was it, I realized. The test. I had to sift through that pile of anonymous prayers and find the one that was written by her.

    There were some low gray clouds coming in from the ocean and the sculpture park was chilly and shadowed in the dusk. I left my truck on the gravel lot and headed straight out across the grass. The weather had been bad by midweek so there weren't many in the wheel. To teach my children respect for the earth and its creatures, said one. Another, Please let me find my way home. One said simply, My child. My pulse sped up. This could be the one. In my excitement I ignored the fact that it offered no insight, no instruction. By now I'd convinced myself that her merely writing the prayer meant that she needed my help. My finding it meant I had help to give.

    I started to walk back to my truck. Wouldn't she use the word baby, if she were writing? The handwriting was blockier than I remembered hers being. I wasn't sure I should go. At best she would tell me to go home. At worst she would tell me never to come back. I stood still in the darkening field. No, the worst would be that she was home, alone, contemplating the death of a baby that she and I had made together. I looked at the paper in my hand. Virginia's? Not Virginia's? I would be taking a chance by going over there. From way over the hill I heard a cow low. I started walking. The truth was I didn't have many chances left. I figured I ought to take the ones I had.

    Virginia answered the door in a man's extra large t-shirt and sweat pants. Her hair was a wild tangle around her head and she looked like she had been sleeping or crying. Maybe crying in her sleep. The smell of fried food wafted out the door. Her eyes took a while to focus on me. When they did, she got an expression on her face that would have made a less desperate man run. She had always acted like she could kick my butt. For the first time I believed that maybe she could.

    “What are you doing here?”

    “I thought you might want company.”

    Her face scrunched up as if she were about to spit. I braced myself. Instead, she began to sob. Not since she was six years old, she'd told me proudly, had she let anyone see her cry. I wrapped her snake and bowling ball body in my arms and kissed the top of her head. “Shhh, shhh,” I whispered. I thought, My child.

The prayer wheels sold to a collector from Bellingham. The baby died. We called her Polly and she fought hard after each of her three operations, hard enough to make her scrappy mother proud, but in the end she just couldn't do it. We took her out on my friend's boat, out to find the whales that used to live in the sound.

    John has a small boat, with just enough room for a couple of paying passengers in the back and two or three more in the cabin. On this trip there were just the three of us. About a hundred yards east of Decatur Island a pair of Dall's porpoises appeared behind us. Black and white like orcas but with the small sleek body of dolphins, they followed us for about half a mile. There was pure pleasure in the way they threaded our wake, diving and jumping through the bubbles, weaving a braid of energy and joy with each other and the cold water.  Virginia and I stood outside in the freezing spray and watched them until they disappeared, suddenly, just as they had arrived. Virginia stepped back inside the cabin, near the box that held Polly's ashes. I stayed outside in the wind and spray and let the ocean bathe my face in new salt.

    After each of John's recent whale-watching trips the passengers had gone home disappointed, with pictures of seals and birds substituting for the sight of orcas leaping from the water.  For generations these whales had made their home in the bays and straights near San Juan. Ninety-percent of their diet consisted of salmon. The migrant whales ate seals but John said that these resident whales, who collected in larger, family pods, had been known to starve themselves if they couldn't find salmon.

    The sea was growing rough and, whales or no, John wouldn't stay out after dusk. When we got to the farthest spot he consented to go, we cut the engine and bobbed on top of the sea. We scanned the horizon without speaking, each of us turned in a different direction. I was glad that neither Virginia nor John could see my face. The things I had been determined to give, love, advice, enough money for a new skateboard or a visit to the dentist, had not been required of me, in the end. I merely had to be present, it turned out, as a friend and a witness. I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my hoodie. My brother might never have forgiven me, I realized, but then again he might have. He'd done it before. Either way, I could've found out if I'd stayed.

    “I think I see something.” Virginia's voice was scratchy. She had spent the last few weeks ill with a sore throat brought on by lack of sleep.

    “Where?” asked John. We turned.

    She pointed. We followed her arm out into the open ocean.

    She narrowed her eyes. “Maybe not.”

    John started the engine. “No, I see something, too.”

    “Where?” I strained to see. The water was dark and growing darker. Each swell in the distance looked like the curved back of a whale. Or nothing.

    “Oh, God,” breathed Virginia. “There they are.”

    “I don't…”

    She took my head in her hands and gently pointed my face in the right direction. Still I saw nothing. The boat cut through the water. And then I did. A pod of what looked like seven adults and a couple of calves. The adults were big, maybe 25 feet long, their flukes jet black. One of them dove and then breached, scattering water from its body like light. We watched them as long as John would let us and then we did the hardest thing that either of us, alone or together, would ever do. We left Polly with them.

    John took us back into the harbor with a steady hand. I held Virginia's shaking body in my arms, lending her my weight, keeping her feet anchored to the boat. I was worried that she might try to join the whales and the baby. I held her tight, my own feet firmly planted on the deck and whispered into her ear, “Please let me take you home.”

    Unlike the whales, what would sustain us over the weeks and years to come was back in the harbor, on land, among people. Some months later I would be playing “One More Saturday Night” at the Whistler downtown and I would look out into the crowd to see Virginia arm wrestling with a young guy from the mainland.

    We would lock eyes, each of us knowing what the other knew, that before our baby had died, she had lived, if only for a short while, and that she’d had red hair. We would glance around the room and be comforted by the awareness that the people around us remembered, also, that we'd had that baby.

    In that crowd of familiar faces memory always had its own place at the table. What each of us knew about the others, our hook-ups and break-ups, our marriages and our children, had the force of gravity. We revolved around each other like planets, each of us knowing our place. Perhaps it was a similar choreography that kept that pair of Dall's porpoises from knocking into each other, I thought, as they leaped and dove through our wake in the cold dark water.

    It wasn't just the big things we remembered, like Polly, but the little things, too. How a pod of breaching whales off Lime Kiln Park used to draw kayaks to it like filings to a magnet, and how the 200 year old oak on Cyril's property was split in half by lightning, and how, during one season at the Westcott Center for Art and Nature, there had been some prayer wheels into which nameless women had deposited their hopes for themselves and their parents, their children and the world.

Lise Saffran is the author of the novel Juno’s Daughters, which is also set on San Juan Island, WA, and is where, in her daydreams, she is living a parallel life. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former fellow of MacDowell and Hedgebrook, she lives in Missouri with her husband and two children.

Back to Freight Stories No. 7


Lise Saffran

Resident Whales