• Daisy the Whale

    Josie Abugov

    Summer 2023

    One morning when I was ten years old, on the second day of summer in 1938, I looked out my window and saw a dead whale lying in our backyard. I already knew her as Daisy, and I could smell her all the way from my bedroom on the second floor. I ran down the stairs and into the yard, where Dad stood in his work clothes directing a crew of men to move Daisy into the back corner of our one-acre yard, the corner farthest from the house.

    I’d visited Daisy at San Pedro before. In April, Dad’s boss, Mr. Johnson, had hired some guys to go whale hunting, which wasn’t considered cruel back then. They caught the biggest one they could find, and they kept all forty-five feet of her on the San Pedro Pier for a few months while they started to embalm her. This was all part of Dad’s job. He was a scientist, but on the day I was born, when the nurse asked him his occupation, he said, “I am an inventor.” My birth certificate, under Father Occupation, reads inventor.

    They kept Daisy on the pier for two months. Every day, crowds would gather and take photographs and watch Dad drain Daisy of her bile and blood and other liquids, and then wince as he injected bucketfuls of embalming fluid into the crevices of her body. The whole thing smelled like eggs and chemicals. Sometime in mid-May, Dad got a call from the sheriff, who said he was going to fine Dad and the crew because they didn’t have a license to embalm a blue whale on public property.

    So Dad called up Mr. Johnson, this white man he met in Arizona, the one who financed his scientific projects. For a whole lot of money from the city, Mr. Johnson had promised to fully embalm a blue whale that would stand at the entrance of the brand-new county science museum. The museum gave Mr. Johnson official supervision over the project, but Dad did all the brain work.

    Mr. Johnson told Dad that getting a public license like that was one big scam and the sheriff was a real oaf, so not to worry, it would be no problem. However, Mr. Johnson couldn’t relocate Daisy to his own house because it was on the top of a cliff in Malibu—even if they managed to get Daisy up there, she’d probably roll back into the ocean. But he would send over a big tow truck so Dad could pick her up and move her to our backyard in Alhambra, which was just a little town back then.

    For five days, Dad anticipated the tow truck’s arrival in front of our house, but he was too nervous to tell mom: Honey, I’m dropping off a sixty-thousand-pound whale in our backyard for who knows how long! Can you imagine? Mom would’ve had a fit! When Mr. Johnson’s truck finally arrived at the crack of dawn on that second day of summer, Mom was fast asleep. Dad had been pacing around the house since 4:30, full of whale-induced anxiety.

    Dad woke up my half-brother, Will, and took him on the drive to San Pedro that morning. Will was in high school then, but he was always skipping class to go around with friends of his in LA. Dad was trying to teach him a lesson about discipline, and I guess he thought a sunrise whale-collecting trip demonstrated the kind of grit he wanted his teenage son to have. It was still dark when they took Mr. Johnson’s tow truck all the way down to the pier.

    I do wonder what that drive was like because the two of them, Dad and Will, turned out to be very mysterious men. Will had one child with a high school sweetheart, but she moved to New Mexico when the kid was a baby. Will never mentioned his son, at least not to me. He went looking for them, of course, but as far as I know he never saw them again. And Dad always said he was born in Dayton, Ohio, but at his funeral, my Aunt Adele told me he grew up in Chicago. But back then, everyone lied about themselves. I shouldn’t say that they lied, they just chose what they wanted to tell you and didn’t include the unhappy stuff. No one ever talked to children about the racial things, and it wasn’t something you would ask. That didn’t mean you didn’t know. Of course we knew.

    In any case, Dad and Will came back with Daisy, and the other men arrived later that morning. As soon as I saw her, I dashed down the stairs. I was the youngest kid in my primary-school class and very shy back then, but I was always the happiest when it was summertime and I could be home with my family, playing in the backyard with our baby chicks and the pigletsDaisy was the cherry on top. But then I looked at Mom’s face. Even as a child, I could tell she was seething. Not that she could say anything right then.

    Like I said, it was a different time. Women were different. No, that’s not right. They were the same, felt the same, knew the same stuff, but just couldn’t say it all the time. That’s not right either. Once when I was little and I couldn’t fall asleep, I stepped outside, and Mom was drinking dark liquor and reading the biggest book I’d ever seen. Whenever we’d complain about going to mass or waiting at the salon while she got her hair pressed, she’d always say, There’s no such thing as boring things, only boring people. She read the The California Eagle and The LA Times every morning on the porch with a coffee and a cigarette. She’d left Louisiana when she was twenty with  her six sisters and one brother because they couldn’t get a library card down there. There were other reasons too, but the point is, once a blue whale is already in your backyard, there’s not so much you can do about it.

    They put a big tent over Daisy and the men left in Mr. Johnson’s truck. For a while after that, maybe a week or so, she just sat there. Dad and the crew, and sometimes Mr. Johnson, worked all day under the tent embalming her, just like they did at San Pedro, only it wasn’t some kind of performance for crowds of people.

    Mom stayed angry with Dad for days after Daisy arrived. When she brought him his dinner plate, she’d smack it down on the table. He liked his coffee with milk and sugar, so she’d bring it to him black. And she pretended the whale wasn’t there. Back at the pier, she always seemed so curious about Daisy. She used to walk up close enough to hear the fruit flies buzzing in the folds of Daisy’s belly. She’d narrow her eyes, then look up and widen them, as if she were standing in front of a great piece of art. Once, Mom took out her right hand and laid her palm on Daisy’s stomach. One of the guys in the crew yelled at her to step back, lady! because he didn’t know she was the boss’s wife.

    Here in the backyard, Daisy obstructed the one acre of space that Mom had. If the whole backyard is now your office, she said to Dad over dinner, then maybe I’ll start spending my days on the beach in Malibu or off on sailboats hunting whales.

    When Dad didn’t respond to this, she added, She’s gonna kill the grass. 

    But after a while, Mom’s annoyance started to subside. I think she’d forgotten she actually liked having Dad around. She was used to eating breakfast with me in the morning, tending to the animals and the garden, driving into LA to see her sisters and the ladies she knew from Louisiana, spending a lot of time with her thoughts. I don’t mean she was lonely, more that she liked to think but never grew up with the time to do it.

    Dad really didn’t disturb Mom’s peace of mind. He was hardly some life-of-the-party guy. He knew she needed room to do her little things, so he rarely asked for favors, washed his own dishes, and left her alone when she was reading on the porch. Both of them were sort of solitary in their own way. Mom realized she didn’t mind sharing her one acre of space with Dad. She started bringing trays of lemonade and cookies to the men outside. She’d stand in front of Daisy again, the way she used to at the pier. She still complained about the smell, the cocktail of formaldehyde and rotting flesh, but she liked being able to step outside and see Dad, now that he wasn’t driving to and from San Pedro every day, or working all night on experiments in his makeshift office, or driving to Pasadena to study condors and airplane models.

    Have I told you about Dad and his birds? Dad loved them—the larger and more predatory, the better. But he also liked carrion eaters, especially condors, the biggest vulture in North America. They flap once and suddenly they’re up and away. He was convinced that the mechanics of how they fly and their proportion of wingspan to total body weight could be modeled to create a very fast and sleek airplane.

    Anytime we saw a plane fly over, we’d all run outside and watch in awe. Dad would run out too, his notebook in hand and, after the plane disappeared from view, start writing—calculations, figures, drawings. He did the same with birds. Mr. Johnson’s house sat on a hill between the mountains and the ocean, and Dad would stand by the window and gaze at the birds flying. I remember sitting on his lap in his office while he showed me bird sketches—seagulls, hawks, and buzzards—overlaid with figures and calculations I didn’t understand.  

    This bird-plane business was the real reason Dad worked for Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson owned a lab in Pasadena where he let Dad sketch his birds and airplanes, in exchange for him leading projects for Mr. Johnson. The year before, he had tested a new formula of nail polish remover that, due to a higher concentration of acetone, made doing your nails a lot more efficient. When Dad first moved to Alhambra, Mr. Johnson put him in charge of monitoring the gas tanks of five different Ford models. Back then, Dad said he felt more like a mechanic than a scientist. He liked the whale compared to some of the other assignments, at least at the beginning. Because even though Dad liked to read alone in his little office most days and spoke very little, he still got something out of everyone on the pier watching him work, then coming home to tell us kids all about the embalming process, and I think he loved imagining Daisy front and center of the new museum.

    Things didn’t work out like that. The museum people changed their minds and, instead of Daisy, commissioned a reconstructed dinosaur skeleton to stand at the entrance, which threw Mr. Johnson for a loop because he spent too much money on the whale hunting and the crew and the embalming fluid, expecting this massive return at the end.

    When Dad got this news, I was eating a cookie and drinking lemonade, sitting next to him as he embalmed Daisy’s thousand-pound tongue. As soon as Mr. Johnson stepped inside the tent, I could tell something was off. Dad told me to go back to the house, but I eavesdropped from right outside the flap.

    Mr. Johnson promised Dad that he would find another buyer, but for now he had to pull the finances until he secured one. In the meantime, he needed Dad to keep embalming, especially if he wanted to keep working on his plane. Dad, Mr. Johnson explained, would have to fund the crew, the materials, and all the various instruments they were renting.

    It’s obvious now that this was the moment when things went downhill, but what you need to understand is that Mr. Johnson was truly a friend of Dad’s up until that point. After Dad had left wherever he was from in the Midwest, he wound up in Arizona, where he met Will’s mom on the Navajo Nation. He stayed there for years and studied chemistry, physics, and math while apprenticing for a man who ran in the same circles as Mr. Johnson, who fell in love with Dad’s brain and creativity.

    When Will’s mom died of a bee sting, Dad was too sad to stay around, but he made Mr. Johnson Will’s godfather and traveled farther west to California with his toddler son. Mr. Johnson and Dad wrote letters to each other every month, and a few years later, Mr. Johnson showed up in Malibu and gave Dad a new job. Until the day my half-brother died, I don’t think Will ever knew his mom’s name. But that’s beside the point. The point is, what was Dad supposed to say? The whale was already in our yard and Mr. Johnson was the source of what little money we had.

    At dinner that evening, things were very quiet, the kind of quiet that meant Mom and Dad were fighting. In those days, kids didn’t talk about themselves all mealtime. I’d chime in if Mom or Dad said something funny or strange, but mostly, I sat and listened. Usually, mealtimes were peaceful, but that night I just eyed my rice and beans, antsy to eavesdrop on Mom and Dad after my bedtime.

    I smushed my ear against the bedroom wall I shared with them. I had never heard mom so angry, her cursing at odds with her airy voice and melodic Southern drawl: How the hell do you think we’re gonna afford this? You’re telling me we have to figure all this out so you can keep messing around building a goddamn airplane? Dad remained measured, controlled. He said, I know, I know, but he didn’t change his mind. Eventually Mom sighed. I heard her smoothing down the comforter on the bed. Dad asked quietly, What are we gonna do? Silence filled the house until Mom interrupted.

    I guess we’ll bring San Pedro to the yard.

    Adelaide, my Dad said, what do you mean? 

    We can turn the backyard into a whole carnival, charge everyone a dime to go under the tent to see the whale. She paused. Fifteen cents for a picture. Maybe it’ll even be fun. 

    A few days later, a line of cars curved down our street, kids and their parents waiting to see Daisy the Whale. Dad stayed in the tent all day, still embalming Daisy with that awful-smelling fluid, but sometimes he’d look up from the task and stand for a picture with the neighbors. You should’ve seen just how shocked they all were that we were living in that house, way out there in the boonies, let alone that Dad was a real scientist and Mom had a college degree.

    Mr. Johnson was so relieved we had sorted everything out. He looked for a buyer while we kept embalming and kept the crowds coming. He still drove to the house a few times a week. Dad always made me say hello to him, even though I thought he was very tall and scary, with his bald head and sharp eyebrows. When he came through the front door, I’d say, Hello, Mr. Johnson and fidget my feet. He’d respond, Hello, little girl, in a big, bellowing voice.

    But the carnival was wonderful. Mom, with her hair down her back, wore her poofy tea-length skirt and button-up blouse, and gave out popcorn and homemade peach ice cream to everyone waiting. As she walked down the line, five foot two and a twenty-three-inch waist and all, she told everyone about the science of embalming and all these facts about blue whales—the blue whale has the largest heart of the animal kingdom, but it only beats twice per minute. Bump . . . bump. She looked perfect, really. Every night, she took notes on Dad’s notes and read marine biology textbooks that she checked out from the library.

    The world, or at least the world from my bedroom to Daisy’s tent, felt like my playground. In the mornings, before the carnival opened, Mom woke me up and we’d make ice cream and she’d ask me to quiz her on whale statistics. She was also trying to memorize Moby-Dick, so we’d be in the kitchen, and she would tell me, these are times of dreamy quietude, and what was it again, when one would not willingly remember that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang, as we patiently spun the ice-cream maker’s crank.

    Dad would come into the kitchen and kiss mom on both cheeks and then on the mouth, which I thought was so gross. And then he’d fake-scold me, with a smile on his face and his attention always a little directed at mom. He’d put me on his shoulders, carry me outside, into the barn, and plop me down with the two piglets, where he said I belonged because I was chubby and needed a real good bath.

    For the rest of his morning, before the carnival opened, Dad sat in his usual place, in the middle of the yard, and bird-watched. He’d lie on the grass and look up at the sky, his notebook and a glass of milk beside him. If a plane flew overhead, he’d stand up, as if seeing it six feet closer was going to reveal that much more of its mystery to him.

    The first time I saw a group of kids from school standing in line to see Daisy, loose change and candy in their hands, shyness hit me like a bag of rocks. I ran all the way up to my bedroom. Will must have seen me, and he stopped me as I was hustling up the stairs and said that I shouldn’t hole up in my room on such a sunny day. We waited by the wooden door to dodge the kids from school and then sat in the barn with the animals. He had brought some sheets of paper and colored markers, and he helped me practice drawing stick-figure portraits of our family and the animals, even though our heads were all squiggly since the ground was bumpy packed dirt.

    Will didn’t leave the house that summer like he did during the school year. Sometimes his friends from the city would drive over to us and hang around Daisy. Mom and Dad went a little easier on him after they met his friends, who all seemed like good kids. Before, Mom and Dad thought Will just didn’t like school and wanted to mess around, but really, I think it was hard for him to get along with the other students at the Catholic school. And I get that.

    I just don’t think people knew what to do with him. I mean, he was handsome and the girls loved him in a funny way. He ended up married five different times. But back then, being all mixed up like that, with a Black dad and an Indian mom that wasn’t around, it confused people. And God bless him, he didn’t make it any easier for them. He grew his hair down his back since it was all wavy, and whenever someone asked him why he looked the way he did and not quite like the rest of his family, he’d press them, I don’t know what you mean. No, really, what do you mean? 

    But anyway, suddenly, mom opened the barn door and there she was with all these kids from my class. I was embarrassed at first, drawing pictures on the floor with my brother and hiding from the festivities, but they looked so impressed. You have baby chicks and a whale in your backyard? I sort of perked up, and Mom said they could skip the line and see Daisy for free if they listened while I told them a little bit about the science of whales. She brought each of them a glass of lemonade.

    Walking them around the yard and leading them under the tent, I felt like the most popular girl in primary school. You should’ve seen their faces—their jaws dropped like cartoon characters. Their faces crunched into grimaces at the smell, mostly chemical and artificial, but with a new hint of something else, perhaps evidence of former life. I was so accustomed to having a whale in our backyard, but then I saw Daisy through their eyes: the crisp rorqual lines along her belly, the smooth gray skin on her dorsal side, the cavernous black inside her open mouth. 

    When the sun set, Mom started to usher folks away. Dad had to drive to Mr. Johnson’s lab in Pasadena that evening to test out some new condor theories and plane mechanics. Thinking back, and it’s been almost fifty years he’s been dead, I realize those were the things that gave Dad happiness—dreaming of flying and looking rather quietly at all the life happening around him.

    Mr. Johnson soon disappeared. Whenever he came by the carnival, he said he was so close to getting a new buyer and joked that there’s a crazy market for embalmed whale these days. But one day, Dad went to the lab after working on Daisy, and his key didn’t work. He knocked and knocked. A man came out and asked what the trouble was. Dad recognized this man from inside the facility, but he forgot his name and couldn’t read the tag on his lab coat. Dad explained that he worked for Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson went to Hawai‘i, Dad told us the man said. Not sure when he’s coming back. The man wouldn’t allow Dad to enter the facility, not even to collect his stuff.

    After that, Dad wanted nothing to do with Daisy. I thought he would’ve been more torn, unsure if Mr. Johnson really left for good. But Dad knew. Mom was baffled at first, then outraged. You can’t just act like you don’t have kids or a job or bills to pay. We can figure something out like we did last time. When Dad stayed silent, Mom continued. I don’t think I’m ready to close the whole thing down. 

    The next day, the carnival opened as usual. Mom wore her poofy skirt and summery pink lipstick, arms wide and voice charismatic as she offered whale facts to the crowd. But Dad wasn’t in the tent. He remained in his office by the barn and didn’t eat dinner with us that night.

    That’s how it went for weeks—Mom continuing the show, Dad avoiding the maggots that began digging craters into Daisy’s rotting skin. Eventually, the smell got so putrid that people stopped coming. Neighbors started talking. Mom stored the ice-cream maker in a cabinet. I’d still smush my ear up against my wall at night, but it was always quiet. Dad had begun sleeping in his office in the backyard. I no longer saw him lying on the grass in the mornings, waiting for the planes and birds to pass overhead. He didn’t eat meals with us. From my window, in the evenings, I could see his makeshift desk lit by candlelight.

    And then one night, I was woken by a terrific crash. I shot up from my bed in terror. I looked out my window at the commotion. In the dimness, I could see that Daisy’s tent was crumpled in the back corner of the yard, and a crew of men circled the perimeter, just as they did when they first moved her to the back of our house. Flashlights illuminated the yard. In the middle of the grass, right where Dad watched his planes and drank his milk, Mom and Dad stood in their pajamas, buckets of embalming fluid around them. Mom was yelling at him. Come back. Crying. Or just go. Waving her arms. Do something. 

    She kicked over the buckets until the fluid puddled around her bare feet. Dad didn’t move as it inched toward him. He didn’t reach toward Mom. The summer breeze wrapped his T-shirt over his scrawny belly. Even in the dim moonlight, I could see he hadn’t shaved in weeks. 

    I turned from my window and cried myself to sleep. Before I opened my eyes the next morning, I convinced myself that Dad would be working on Daisy in the backyard, and Mom and I would soon be making ice cream and trading passages from Moby-Dick. But when I looked through the window, I saw the Daisy-shaped impression of brown, dead grass and, where Mom and Dad had watched the destruction, a pond of embalming fluid.

    Mom didn’t leave her room until late that afternoon. Dad was gone—not holed up in his office, but away away. No one ever told me, but I knew. Will made me toast for breakfast and a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. We didn’t talk much. Mom walked with pain when she cooked us dinner. For the next few days, it was so quiet you could hear every creak in the floorboards. 

    I don’t remember if it was weeks or days after Dad, but one morning over breakfast Mom said she was leaving to bring him back home. She drove the beat-up car that Will took when he went to LA and departed before lunchtime.

    Will and I waited for two days for them to return. Every hour hurt. I started to imagine Will as my new scientist-father, but then I started to cry because he didn’t even like school or care about Dad’s birds.  I missed all the things Mom would do with me, do for me—the breakfast and the ice cream and making me feel like the most popular girl in school, even if just for a few hours. She turned our one acre of the world into a carnival. And then I started to miss the things she did that had nothing to do with me. Her books I couldn’t read, cigarettes I couldn’t smoke, and the accent in her voice that meant she had a life before and outside of me.

    I was sitting in the backyard on a hot afternoon when Mom and Dad came home. Adelaide found Dad on the San Pedro Pier, barely conscious, Will told me years later, notebooks open and the pages flapping in the summer winds. She had slapped him across the face again and again until he finally came to. When she saw he recognized her, her panic left and she was angry. Her hands stopped shaking. Her belly growled; she hadn’t eaten since she’d gone looking for him. All she wanted was to rip his pages to shreds and throw them in the ocean. Insteadshe stuffed them into the waist of her skirt and led Dad to Will’s car. On their drive back to the house, they took turns sharing the milk she’d brought.

    I was standing in the yard when Mom and Dad stumbled through the front gate. I noticed the skin on Dad’s face was cracked and peeling, probably from having slept nights on the pier. I could see his bloodshot eyes. Had he spent those two days staring at the sky? Waiting for a plane to fly low enough so he didn’t have to stand and squint at it? Maybe he was waiting for a condor to pick him up by his shirt and take him somewhere new. Maybe that’s too hopeful.

    From where I stood, I could see Mom and Dad through the kitchen window. They were holding each other and crying. If Daisy had still been there, she would have been lying right behind me. I could have turned away from the window and stared at her instead. I could have touched her belly as Mom had, counted the strange lines on her stomach, held my breath when her odor of rot threatened to sicken me. But all that remained of her was that awful patch of dead grass and, overhead, carrion birds circling.

    Josie Abugov writes fiction and nonfiction. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she graduated from Harvard in 2023. 

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