The whales are wearing party hats. “Let’s be precise: The curators have adorned the cetacean skeletons to look as if they’re wearing party hats,” Zeke would say if he were here and not in the hospital bed that’s supplanted the couch in their living room back in Vermont. If not for Zeke’s stroke, Lucinda would never have found herself sitting through — so far, according to the book in Jonathan’s lap — 91 chapters of “Moby-Dick” read aloud in 10-minute morselsby a parade of earnest devotees, many of them motley in appearance and less than brilliant in their delivery.
Without pretending to ask her out of anything more than pity, her son Jonathan insisted she join him and Cyril in New Bedford for the readathon. Both Jonathan and Cyril, the man she is now accustomed to thinking of as her second son-in-law, had hugged her at the airport more firmly than usual. “Now you will see a world you never dreamed of, the world of Melville geeks,” said Cyril, grinning as if deranged.
“But you’ll have fun, I promise,” Jonathan said. “Cyril had to drag me by the ears the first time I came along. Now I’m hooked.”
“Correction: harpooned.” Nudging each other, they shared the laughter of the happily married — or of couples who know how to look as if they are.
The skeletons, massive as moving vans, hang at the summit of the atrium to appear as if they are swimming overhead. Two of the whales wear large cardboard top hats; the third wears an explosion of colorful, curly ribbon. And now Lucinda notices the little one — the baby — its smaller skull sporting a pirate’s hat trimmed with glitter, more Halloween than New Year’s.
A man in a plaid shirt with a shaggy, ashen beard is reading about one more high-seas encounter between the Pequod and another ship. He looks as if he’s taking a break from splitting wood. He reads well enough until he gets to the dialogue between the sailors, which he performs in ludicrous accents. His misplaced conceit is embarrassing.
Lucinda chides herself for being so judgmental. She doesn’t go for confession too much anymore; if she did, she’d already be composing her recitation for Father Jess. She’d have to confess, as well, her inability to feel thoroughly proud of Jonathan and the life he’s made. He and Cyril are professors at Berkeley: Jonathan in gender studies, Cyril in American literature. (Jonathan’s “Sexual Identity in Firstborn Children” and Cyril’s “The Fine Hammered Steel of Woe: Ecclesiastes and Melville’s Ambivalent Soul” sit on her bedside table, beneath other books she is far more likely to read.) They were married the previous summer. At 50, Jonathan is almost 10 years older than Cyril. When Lucinda found herself giving advice about the wedding, what disoriented her was not that her son would be marrying a man but that, after so many years alone, he would be settling down in any conventional sense.
“I’m going to stretch my legs,” she whispers.
Jonathan whispers back, “Cyril should be up in about 10 minutes.” Jonathan read yesterday afternoon, the scene in which Ahab makes his brooding entrance. But Jonathan is just the sidekick. This is Cyril’s show.
She climbs the stairs to the mezzanine, where she stands level with the skeletons. Melville’s relentlessly magnificent language drifts over her. The book is funnier than she remembers from college, and it is breathtakingly poetic in places, but in others it is inexcusably ponderous. Last night, she was nodding off during that notoriously skimmed chapter, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” when she was jolted awake by a passage describing a Vermont colt frightened by the scent of a buffalo hide. Vermont? How had Vermont — home — crept into the story?
Was Zeke asleep? Had he eaten his dinner? Earlier that week, she made his favorite dish for New Year’s Eve: smoked salmon lasagna. He ate a few forkfuls. Lucinda and the hired aide drank champagne while Zeke sipped mournfully at his carbonated cider.
A wall placard tells her that while one of these whales washed up dead on a beach, two others were killed when they collided with ships; one died because a fin was sheared off by the ship’s propeller. That one was pregnant, her calf still in utero — and here it is, suspended beneath the false shelter of the mother’s rib cage.
Why does the work to which she gave so much of her life follow her everywhere? Pregnancy in its human form, not to mention mothers who look alarmingly young, are commonplace — but pregnant whales? She knows that Father Jess believes her faith foundered when Mal, her older son, died at 39. How could God create a scourge like AIDS? How could He allow the son of such a devout Catholic woman to end his own life? (How, for that matter, could God give her two gay sons?) Let the young priest think whatever he likes; the mortal complications of regret are beyond him.
When Lucinda looks over the rail, she sees Jonathan looking up at her, beckoning. Obediently, she goes back down. As Cyril heads to the podium, Jonathan shifts toward her so that their thighs are touching, and the open book rests half in his lap, half in hers.
Cyril begins in his low, elegant voice. He has the Devonshire cream complexion of his English mother, the thick dark curls of his father (who, lacking Zeke’s senatorial veneer, looked utterly at sea by comparison, his toast at the rehearsal dinner brief and somewhat baffled).
On Jonathan’s left hand, which anchors the open book between them, a thick wedding band refracts his devotion. She is lucky to have such a good son, lucky that Zeke is open-minded enough to agree, lucky that Jonathan was not claimed early as well by the disease that killed Mal 22 years ago.
Cyril pauses to survey his audience. “ ‘For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity’ ” — this he enunciates gracefully — “ ‘not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.’ ”
Felicity. Oh, Felicity.
When Cyril returns to his chair, Jonathan gives him a one-armed hug, shifting his legs away from his mother toward his husband.
She gets up again, this time without excusing herself. The elevator will take her to exhibits away from the reading, away from the skeletons. What is a whaling museum, really, but a shrine to a peculiar type of butchery? Or, seen through the eyes of most people here, a cautionary tale. People who come to museums like this one feel the safe distance of what they believe to be enlightenment. But the actions of their time, too, will be judged in ways they can’t possibly know.
The passage Cyril read reminded her of Felicity, Mal’s beloved parrot, his only constant companion for the last few years of his life in New York. A close friend of Mal’s — the friend who helped him take his life — lives with Felicity now. For several years, he sent Christmas cards including pictures of the bird, who will certainly outlive Lucinda.
Mal, with his astringent wit, made genial fun of her work with all those far too young mothers, but he admired her deeply for it. The work, and her imagining his continued approval, is what kept her sane, what got her out of bed, after his death. In those dark, driven days, she paid frequent visits to Father Tom. Older but less conservative than Father Jess, he assured her that God had made her two sons the way they were, that Mal and Jonathan would be blessed and welcomed to the kingdom of Heaven so long as they fully embraced Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Of the two, Mal had been the less attentive to her, but he had been honest. He told Lucinda he was gay over Thanksgiving break in his first year of college. Jonathan waited until a week after Mal’s funeral, two decades later. Surely he’d known for most of that time, never mind the girls he’d clearly enlisted as decoys. But what about Mal? she asked Jonathan, holding her anger at bay. Had he known? “I think he suspected,” Jonathan told her. “But I figured you and Dad couldn’t take it — two of us ... you know. I didn’t want Mal to carry that secret around.”
But, she protested, once his brother was ill and then dying almost because he was gay — a decline that went on for years — wouldn’t the closer kinship have been a comfort?
“Mom, I’m negative. I don’t think that would have helped him at all. I think he’d only have felt more alone.”
She threw herself into work at The House, into her girls and their babies. She was called pro-motherhood, pro-sisterhood, pro-family, the “right kind of Catholic.” She became, in the eyes of too many people, a saint. And saints, like tyrants, fall hard. All it took, really, was the sight of one of “her” girls — how she wished she had no memory for faces — slouched on a stoop in the saddest part of Montpelier, some years later. Even in her state, the girl recognized Lucinda, too. “You,” she said. “You ruined my life.” Lucinda fled, but for her the work was never the same again.
“Mom! I thought we’d lost you.”
Lucinda stands on the deck of a scaled-down ship. She looks down at her son through the riggings, as if she’s about to depart on a voyage. “Forgive me,” she says gently. “Cyril was terrific.”
Jonathan beams. “Wasn’t he?” He climbs the stairs to the deck. “Are you feeling all right? You look awfully tired.”
“I don’t sleep well in hotels,” she says.
“I thought you were a pro at that — traveling with Dad.”
“Yes, I was. Was.” That life, too, is over.
They pass paintings of carnage in exotic places, a case of Asian porcelain vessels, a doorway flanked by a pair of whale ribs six feet long. “We’ll go out for a great lunch after it’s over. Cyril knows this amazing Portuguese place.”
What doesn’t Cyril know?
They ride the elevator in silence. At the bottom, the atrium is more crowded than ever. Approaching them, as if she’d been waiting for their arrival, is a woman with free-flowing auburn hair, a camera in one hand. “I’m sorry,” she says to Jonathan, “but I saw you earlier and I recognized you — from ages ago. From Malachy’s memorial in New York. You’re his brother, aren’t you?”
Vera is her name. She was a junior colleague of Mal’s at the newspaper. “We still talk about him. Still miss his wicked, delicious take on the world.” She turns to Lucinda. “Mrs. Burns, you look great. But what are you guys doing here?”
Lucinda waits for Jonathan to embrace his role as Cyril’s cheerleader. Instead, he says, “You knew Mal?”
“Pretty well. I mean, as office friendships go. We helped start that music scholarship. In his name.”
“Wow, that’s right.” Jonathan is still grasping Vera’s right hand between his. “I miss him all the time. Like, every day.”
Vera nods. “He talked about you.”
Lucinda can see that this is probably not true. Jonathan’s eyes glisten. He hugs Vera tightly and thanks her.
“Well, back to my assignment.” She points toward the atrium, awkward in her attempt to break free.
“Wow,” Jonathan says again, looking after Vera. “My God.”
Why doesn’t Lucinda share Jonathan’s happiness? Is she jealous that others knew Mal in ways she never did? Mal was her most difficult baby; she came to feel, in meeting his demands, that she owned him more than she’d owned Christina, her first child, or, later, Jonathan.
She waits for her surviving son to lead her back to the reading, though they can hear the narrative loud and clear from where they stand. She touches his sleeve. “Jonathan,” she says. “We never speak about him anymore. Sometimes I forget that you lost him, too.”
“I speak about him often,” Jonathan says. “To Cyril.” He walks away from her, just like that.
She lags behind, ashamed. At Jonathan’s wedding — on a grassy hillside with a dizzying view of San Francisco Bay — Lucinda remembers, more than anything else, what she felt when she watched Jonathan and Cyril proceed (radiant with glee, nearly romping) back up the aisle after their vows. Zeke squeezed her arm. She felt the profound relief of a mother seeing her child engulfed by joy, but she understood, too, exactly why she couldn’t quite join in. She wished that it were Malachy’s wedding.
Jonathan has saved her a seat amid the thickening crowd. Once she sits beside him, he puts one arm around Cyril’s back and the other around hers. “Here it comes, the big photo finish,” he whispers.
Lucinda tries to remember the end. The white whale escapes, of course, but does everyone go down with the ship, down into that dark, violent vortex? Are they all doomed? No; how silly of her. Ishmael remains behind on the surface. He’s the one who lives to tell the extraordinary tale. That’s the thing about surviving: You get to tell the story. You might even, Lucinda thinks, live to tell the next one, too. You get to be the keeper of the artifacts, the curator, the museum itself.