JEFFREY THE WHALE AND THE THEORY OF AWESOME Joe Collins
TIMOTHY THE STORYTELLER
Timothy is a storyteller, and a good one at that. John Wilkes Booth: life of, death of, pursuit of; the Morton Salt Girl: conception of, evolution of, immortality of; Jordan and the Flu Game, ’97 Finals; Sebastian and the arrows. Someone gives him an opportunity for a story and he pops like Christmas lights.
He’s got this theory about stories being Rivers, Lakes or Waves. He’s got theories. Someone asks him about the ocean and he shakes his head or shrugs his shoulders. I’ve never seen it, he says. Someone asks him about the rain and he’ll say, God, or something, and start telling you a story.
JEFFREY THE WHALE, SPIRIT-CHIEF OF LAKE MICHIGAN
As the story goes, his name went something like Raimaguen—ray-ma-GOO-en. No one knows exactly. Most extant transcriptions differ. Raimaguen, Ramagune, Ramakhwyn, Chief Raemakün. He was the whale spirit of Lake Michigan. Actually, Whale itself is another unfortunate bastardization, like Chief. Raimaguen wasn’t a chief, just as he wasn’t a whale. But that’s what folks called him—Chief Ray, which became Geoffrey, and then Jeffrey. Of course, this was all a very long time ago.
TWO DOGS SPECIAL
Timothy is a monkey. He is small and holding your hand. Monkeys love holding hands. Timothy, heart-lipped, is kissing you right on the t-shirt, on the navel, on the button so it leaves a mark. One day, Timothy and you are walking through a six-car parking lot to a small hot dog stand, Uncle Kevin’s Red Hots—Unky’s. Unk, Timothy says.
The sky is low and for fishermen. It may or may not be a monkey thing, but Timothy loves hot dogs, extra toxic relish. He’s holding your hand, wearing his Jordan shoes, his Bulls jersey with T I M O T H Y pressed on the back, arched over the number 5. You’re wondering if you’ve brought cash—CASH ONLY @ KEVINS.
You can hear the dog snap in your mouth. Two Double-Dog Specials. Timothy whirls a long arm and slaps you directly in the heart. He does this. Love you too, buddy.
MICHAEL JORDAN & THE THEORY OF AWESOME
Timothy’s favorite story is the Jordan story. Not the against-all-odds, cut-from-the-high-school-varsity-squad one. No way, Special K, he’ll say. It’s the flu game. 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and a lost lunch. Pippen carries him off like some kind of hardcourt martyr, a wizard, a wishing well scraped dry. He’s all of these and more. He’s an athlete. He can’t even keep down his Gatorade. Grown men are weeping. MJ can will a victory into existence. This is proof. This is the Theory of Awesome, Timothy will say. In this town, he was God. And you’ll believe him. Chicago 90, Utah 88—by the rims around his eyes.
JEFFREY THE WHALE & THE END OF MASS SUICIDE
It’s 1887. In the twenty years since the Great Fire charred its existence, the city of Chicago has gone about recovering marvelously. One would expect Jeffrey the Whale, from the depths of his watery home, to sound his approval. Only he does not. Turns out the city is in the habit of dumping its sewage into the river, which, in turn, flows into the lake—the birthplace and historic stomping ground of Jeffrey the Whale.
Jeffrey, by now, has accrued a certain celebrity status. He’s a mascot of sorts—surfacing, spouting, twisting, and genially scaring the pants off of lake-farers. In five years the city will host the World’s Columbian Exposition and many are counting on Jeffrey to drive ticket sales. But Jeffrey is sick. It’s hard enough being the only whale in a fresh water lake. Many Chicagoans are worried. They haven’t seen him in months. Some think he is angry. Some say he is responsible for the unexplained sinking of The Miss O’Tamia.
Other citizens are too busy dying. In the last 40 years 80,000 Chicagoans have died of cholera and typhoid fever, an epidemic caused by the poisonous quality of their drinking water. By contrast, the Great Fire had claimed only 300 lives. The situation was dire.
TOWARDS A THEORY OF AWESOME
Timothy has this theory he once called the Theory of Awesome. It’s pretty important to him, you think. In fact, you even suspect this theory ranks highest among the hierarchy of Timothy’s theories. He nurses it like an invisible trophy. You’ve seen this. You’ve seen him whispering to it, hunched over, wavering. These are the times when he does not wish to be bothered. These are the one-ended conversations that will sometimes cause him to cry and to fall silent for days.
Once, over peanuts and bananas, Timothy casually remarked that Awesome cannot be trumped. He was excessively happy at the time. It was part way through a Sopranos episode, and while the way he said it didn’t exactly merit capital-A transcription, you added this later and in your mind because, well, he hardly ever talked about capital-A Awesome.
“Tony Soprano,” he said, smirking, shaking his head. He cracked a peanut shell. “Tony Soprano…”
DOUBLE-DOGS & A FINGER
Timothy is your brother. He pushes into Unky’s Red Hots first—bing. He’s been here before, so many times. People don’t really look.
“Timmy!” Kevin says. Kevin loves him.
“Kevin!” Timmy says.
Timothy orders the two Double-Dogs w/ fries, Dr. Peppers, and grabs a stack of napkins. Outside a breeze picks up through the parking lot. Grease-bottomed brown tumblebags cross and wave, stick themselves under tires. Business is pretty regular today—bing, bing—and the wind is taking care of the humidity.
By the time Kevin produces the four hot dogs, Timothy has the entire joint focused on a story he’s already halfway through. It’s the one about the funeral director who has part of his finger cut off in a bar fight at a ski resort in Colorado. People are so engaged they’ve stopped eating. Kevin is shaking his head. And this is where Timothy decides to stop and eat.
“What’d the fingerless guy do? The crypter?” someone asks.
Timothy is snapping through his first hot dog. He swallows.
“Well…he yells, ‘Get the fuckin’ shotgun!’”
“And they did. The guy’s friends went to their truck and got their fuckin’ shotgun and that was that. Fight was over.”
Bing. He starts in on the second hot dog.
“What about the finger?”
“Guy drove himself to the hospital right after. He’s the only one sober enough to drive. So they pack it in ice and take the truck. And he’s still got that finger.”
AGAINST A THEORY OF AWESOME
You’d been seeing Joline for almost month before Timothy found out. Joline sold Pumas at the Puma store. She was short and cute and never swore. She wore bright colors and she wasn’t really unintelligent.
Timothy absolutely had to meet her, so you arranged it.
When she came he mostly slapped the trees in your backyard and spun himself on his tire swing. At one point she excused herself to go to the bathroom and Timothy whispered to you that she had all the qualities of a winning romantic comedy. He snickered and spun. The rest of the date was rather uneventful. Timothy played hoops in the front driveway and Joline cheered him on.
A few weeks later he was spinning himself again on the tire swing when he stopped abruptly and declared Joline Non-Awesome, as if this were a perfectly regular quality to possess, Non-Awesomeness; as if judgments like these were somehow proprietary and—in this instance—his, and moreover would not bother you in the slightest way. The frankness of the statement recalled his storytelling persona—only his back was turned to you, so you weren’t able to see his expression.
“Joline the Non,” he laughed. “Joline the Non!” More laughter. “Joline the NUN! Joline the NUN!” This was all very hilarious to him.
TIMOTHY THE MONKEY AND THE PAWPRINTS OF HISTORY
Timothy is not particularly religious. He is fond of the lessons of antiquity, legend and history. He enjoys nature walks. You suspect that some of his fondest memories are those of your walks through Chippewa Woods Forest Preserve.
Today it is warm enough for Timothy to roll down the passenger window of your car and stick out his face, making the kiss-face heart lips into the wind. You get out and walk deep into the woods, past the bike trails and human trails and the more noticeable of the animal trails. You arrive at the particular area of The Chippewas you call your own. You’ve been coming here since you were very small, first with your parents, now alone.
Timothy is a monkey, so he enjoys the forest, the trees. The light is scarce, or courtly, or majestic this deep in The Chippewas. Timothy doesn’t climb the trees because you cannot climb them with him, so you walk, holding hands. Scattered here and there, leading to various places of note and recollection—the small pond, the rotting tree, the abandoned or occupied beehives, the sitting rock—scattered in a thin and incomplete webwork are the shoe and paw prints that are most certainly yours entirely. Timothy slaps a tree. You can’t help but always wonder whether he notices the prints he crosses and crosses are his and are yours.
He grabs a twig and pokes you and you laugh a little, play his game. Every so often he will stop of a sudden and sort of gather his surroundings, as if orienting himself all over, like he was just smacked with consciousness, or like he was a time traveler just returned to the present. You’ve noticed when this happens he is usually standing on top of his own paw prints, but there are a lot of paw prints and it could be coincidence, it could be your imagination.
Normally these episodes just end. Today, after his brief moment of pseudo-awareness, looking like he’s on the crest of some profound declaration, Timothy begins digging at the mud. The footprints are gone within seconds. He’s digging towards nothing and for a long time doesn’t show any sign of fatigue. His eyes are tearing up, so you ask him what’s wrong, what are you digging for, and he when he stops he just says God. Again. But what else can he say, he’s a monkey—it doesn’t even really sound like God—it’s probably just you.
FISHING & PITCHING
Unky’s Red Hot’s, you’ve agreed, are the best hot dogs for fishing, so that’s what you bring. You have a spot along the lake that Timothy likes.
Timothy isn’t particularly fond of catching fish. Still, he enjoys fishing. He enjoys throwing fish back into the lake like he’s Black Jack McDowell—nodding at the sign from the distant lighthouse, the cursory footwork of the wind-up, and the delivery: a catfish arcing head over fin back into the lake—strike one. Do the fish enjoy that? you wonder. Maybe. But how can a fish enjoy that? It’s suffocating. But then maybe it’s never been above water before, maybe it’s always wanted out and now it’s back in there and it’s telling the rest of the fish what it’s like on the outside and how much it hates them all and always has and how now it’s doomed to be miserable and alone.
The lake loses a bit of its shimmer as the sun goes behind some clouds. Timothy sits down and begins his wavering. He’s talking to himself about the whale, from what you can make out. You cast your line again. Probably the fish don’t feel much. Probably they’re just interested in hot dogs, the taste of the hot dogs when they bite down on them and get caught on the hook.
SAVE THE WHALE
In what will become one of history’s greatest so-crazy-it-just-might-work moments the city decides it is high time their river stopped dumping their sewage into their drinking water. No more water-borne illness for us, they say.
In 1892 work begins on the Sanitary and Ship Canal, the goal of which is to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, rerouting the sewage and resultant threat of typhoid to the Des Plaines, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, a route that will eventually carry their shit to the Gulf of Mexico.
When the canal is near complete in 1899, those who still believe in him listen closely to the short waves of the lake for Jeffrey the Whale to sound his approval. By now most believe he is dead. The state of Missouri moves to take legal action to halt the opening of the canal, fearing water-borne illness. Chicago, in turn, opens the canal with little fanfare in early 1890, before Missouri can do anything about it.
JOLINE THE NUN
You’re not the type of guy who gets a lot of girls, so you’re pretty pleased with Joline the Nun. You guys have an okay time. The nickname bothers you though. You get upset at Timothy because you think he’s jealous, because when you see him digging up dirt in the forest nonsensically or going on about the earliest knowable split seconds of the universe or shooting his bee bee gun at GI Joe’s in the backyard he’s doing it alone. But there aren’t really any available female monkeys in your neighborhood for him to chase after—and even if there were, he’d probably frighten them away with his low chanting and stuff.
What irks you more about the nickname is how coincidentally true and therefore humorous it has become—Joline hasn’t been ordained or anything. Still…
And so you laugh sometimes but it stings—an airless, waterbed-footing type of laugh—and Timothy knows this, you can tell. Maybe he’s jealous, maybe not. But one day you guys are having a laugh, hitting some golf balls down the alley, and it occurs to you that the nickname is funnier to you than it is hurtful. It occurs to you that things with Joline the Nun are probably over.
MONKEY & PUMA
Timothy is a space monkey in a space suit. He does this some times. Actually, the space suit is one of his favorite outfits. He wears it when he’s feeling especially quirky or outgoing. It’s very elaborate and cost your parents a lot of money. It’s a genuine replica or something. If the earth were to lose its atmosphere one day, Timothy stands a good chance of surviving, you think—at least for a while.
Today’s the day you’re going to end things with Joline the Nun. You’re supposed to meet her for dinner when her shift ends at the Puma store downtown so you head down there with the space-suited Timothy. You tried to get him to change and you tried to get him to stay home but you were unsuccessful; today is a space suit day, and he knows you’re going to dump Joline the Nun.
There’s usually no trouble getting Timothy into retail stores throughout the city but today is an unlucky exception. When Joline the Nun finally sees you arguing with her manager she pleads a case for Timothy—she’s always been kind to him—but the manager has a business to run, he says. People won’t buy furry, dirty monkey shoes. You call him a few names and Joline the Nun turns red in the face; you tell him Timothy is your brother and he laughs in yours. Get this fucking space monkey out of here, he finally says, so you tell Timothy to hang out outside while you go with Joline the Nun to retrieve her things from her locker in the back. You’re thinking things won’t take very long and you’ll come back alone and, because he looks a little upset, you tell Timothy that as soon as you get back you’re going to get some food. He doesn’t like Joline the Nun and he certainly doesn’t like her manager and this hurts you, so now you’re both upset.
JEFFREY THE WHALE
It was a metaphor, but it also wasn’t—these people would really try to create harmonies with whales. They would chant to the whale spirits and the whale spirits—or spirit—would chant back to them, and they would find their harmony. I mean, to us they wouldn’t sound right. This was a long time ago, remember, and they had a different notion of music, different scales—so their harmonies would sound atonal to us maybe, and maybe that’s why we’ve forgotten. People would call or chant or whatever and the whale would call back, air, earth and water, and the people would sing their harmonies based on what they needed or what they wanted—a set of different little prayers sort of. But the harmony was based on the tonality of the wale call, of course. So, depending on that, certain prayers just weren’t possible at certain times. And Jeffrey—Raimaguen—whatever the name really was—is said to have had the most dynamic range of any whale-spirit.
In one story, a young boy with a cracked oar and capsized canoe escapes drowning only by the current of his mother’s clear-ringing call. Some say he was returned on the back of a whale. This would’ve been Jeffrey. Jeffrey was proto-Awesome, Awesome primeval.
SPACE MONKEY IN THE RIVER
Maybe he’s happy.
“That’s my brother!” you say. People look at you with that look.
Maybe he thinks he’s having an adventure. Floating in water is the closest most people will ever come to taking leave of the atmosphere, you think. So maybe. He could also be crying and wondering where you are. You think of the jet pack hookup to his replica space suit and you’re hit with a stupid idea.
“Get a jet pack!” you yell, frantic. “Somebody get me a jet pack!”
And what else can you do? It’s unlikely anyone has a jet pack. The people are ignoring you. You think if there are any stores that sell jet packs on this side of the city. No.
Timothy is slapping the river with both hands between the little crests of sunlight. Things did not go well with Joline. They went longer than you expected. You had some words for each other. People were crying and angry. When you left the store the day was overbright and Timothy was gone.
At first there were probably just a few people congregating around the river and pointing, but you weren’t near enough to see this. Then CLTV broke in, but no one broadcasts CLTV in their shops, so you didn’t see the helicopter shots until CNN picked up the local feed. By the time you got to the river where he was, floating, space helmet down and opaque, there was already a large crowd of folks looking down at him—folks just getting off of work, folks jogging, folks just standing and pointing, talking on their cell phones, waving to the helicopter.
You’re on the Randolph Street Bridge and he’s about to float underneath you. You mutter a few things to yourself and take a deep breath. So many people are looking at him, but you can’t even see his face. How do they know he’s a monkey? They must have seen him before he flipped his visor down. It’s good that he flipped his visor down, you think. And you think that there really is no other option. So you hurl yourself off the bridge.
A DIFFERENT VERSION
In those days, the skies were unscarred by airplane or edifice, and the city’s famous bedrock lay restful and unburdened. Whale calls rang and echoed and fish spawned in abundance. In the other, older versions of the story, it is the boy who fashions the song, a brave young call along the encroaching water. And the song carries him, barkless and bearingless, elsewhere, eastward, past the dawn and the unknown, into the green-striped whale-wrought horizon. And his mother is left to weep and to call and to pray for him. To never see him again.
TOWARDS AN AWESOME
Timothy is a monkey and not a very good basketball player. His favorite court is the one on Foster Avenue Beach near the end of Lake Shore Drive. It’s hard to get on that court, but sometimes you guys will go during the day, in November or something, and it’s pretty quiet. Sometimes it’ll be snowing, and he’ll want to go because he knows. Sometimes you oblige. He loves basketball, but his shots often miss. One of the games you play instead of one-on-one involves you sitting on your ass and trying to make free throws. It begins with you guys taking turns—him on his feet, you cross-legged—and it usually ends with him stuffing your every attempt, because of course you can’t move, planted on your ass, and of course he wouldn’t let you move if you tried. Slap. He’ll slap it so hard it will roll out onto the empty beach through the snow. And he eats it right up. He looks out to the lake and back at you with his mouth open like something’s going to come out that costs more than one syllable, more than just a monkey noise. And he stays silent like that and really it’s okay because he knows what you’re going to say next. He knows you’ll say it for him.