Whale Scouts

by Mary Fifield

Three dollars in pennies. A handful of over-the-counter decongestant pills, expired. A piece of fabric printed with elephants from a pair of pajamas he had as a kid. A compact fluorescent light bulb. Folded liner notes from "A Love Supreme." A rusted USB flash drive. Hair in a hair brush. A dried oleander flower. A flint of quartz.

Once all of these were stored in their appropriate plastic bins, Pilsao could relax enough to go to sleep. His dog was still out foraging in the gutters, but Pils had every confidence that Sup would return soon enough. Pils himself hadn’t eaten today, and he had lost his appetite anyway in the effort to restore order to his surroundings. There were only so many things he could keep track of.

Still, on the whole he was managing. Of all the ways his life was different now, the catheter was one of the scariest, but he'd figured out how to keep it clean even in the outdoors. He had come a long way, from Sequim, Washington, and his life was, actually, fine. He had chosen it, so that meant something. Most Tuesdays he got himself to the clinic for treatments, and most of the time the meds were well-balanced. Maybe they would remove the catheter soon, maybe they wouldn’t. He was adapting to it—that was the important thing.

Paula Ixitil, unfortunately, was another matter. For the moment she was sleeping on the blanket he ripped in half for her when she arrived begging for something in an incomprehensible language. He had watched her dart across the highway and nearly get killed, scramble up the embankment, and plunk down under a eucalyptus tree across the street. She slumped like she was close to death or to giving up, and she was far too young for either.

From across the street, he stood debating what, if anything, he should do. Meanwhile Sup propped himself up from where he lay on the grass, took one look at the figure, and crossed the street to her.

Don’t, Pils said to himself. Don’t make friends. Don’t bring her . . .

Moments later the dog was nudging the girl to an upright position and barking till she had to move, and he guided her right to Pils’ cart.

“Sup,” he groaned.

The girl, he couldn’t tell how old she was then, said something that sounded like “Masack mitzay ya cock woo.” She seemed to repeat the same words in a voice that hardly had enough air to make a sound, yet her eyes were so insistent that he got uneasy looking at her. He assumed she wanted food, but when he gave her a fistful of crackers, she chewed them with unexpected restraint. “Blanket?” he offered, noticing the dried eucalyptus leaves and detritus stuck to the back of her flowered skirt and shirt. He didn’t see the point in mentioning anything—it looked like she hadn’t been clean in a long time. When he handed the blanket to her, she draped it over her shoulders and simply said “Gracias,” nothing more.

That was two weeks ago. Without his asking, she had showed him a plastic ID from Guatemala with her picture and name, some city or town he couldn’t pronounce, and a couple of dates, the older of which was obviously her birthdate. She was a Gemini, like him, ten years and eight days younger. A little old to be his child. But he wanted to have kids someday, and maybe that day was now.

In the cramped truck she was so hungry, hungrier than she ever had been, even when the potatoes had gone rotten in the ground last year, which was the worst year of her life, when she was eight going on nine. Her stomach had ached almost every day, and then her papa got hit by a car on his way back from selling corn at the market in Huehuetenango. By the time she and her mother and her brother Juanito had hitched a ride to the hospital, the nurse had covered him in a sheet from head to toe. Her mother gasped and wailed, and Paula had never seen an expression like it on her mother’s face. She looked confused and angry and terrified all at once. The next thing Paula knew, her mother grabbed her and Juanito by the wrist and led them out to the sidewalk, where she sank down and hugged their heads to her armpits. Her huipil smelled like wood smoke, pine, and old cheese. “Mama,” Paula whispered and tried to free herself, but eventually she gave up because she didn’t want to hurt her mother’s feelings. All her mother did was cry into her heavy chest and squeeze her children. Paula could hardly breathe.

By the time Paula was nine going on ten, her mother had already left for the north. The rains that hadn't come for two seasons had poured down so fast and heavy that they flooded the fields and drowned the small corn. "Mami, maybe the rains will be normal next year," Paula pleaded on the last evening they were together.

"I don't think so m'ija, and anyway it doesn't matter," her mother said. She was putting on all her clothes—two huipils, two skirts, and two pairs of tights—because she could only carry a small bag. "We have to eat now."

Paula and Juanito moved in with their aunt and four cousins, who lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Guatemala City. She dreamed about her father almost every night. Sometimes he had a vulture’s head and other times he was wearing a glowing yellow vest, just like the guards who keep people from stealing copper wire from the half-finished buildings in the rich neighborhoods. Tía told her that her mother would come back someday soon, but Paula didn’t believe her. Then Juanito nearly got killed by a drug gang on the way home from school, and Paula dreamed for the first time ever of a hummingbird, Iq, the soul that gives life, breath, and courage. She knew she must go. Even Tía said so when Paula told her about the dream when they were standing at the sink washing dishes. The Iq was Paula’s nahual.

“But Juanito must go, too,” Tia said. “It’s safer to go together, m’jia.”

Paula frowned and scrubbed the pan. But I have my nahual, she thought.

“And he’ll be kidnapped into a gang if he stays here.”

“He’ll try to hurt me, Tía,” she protested. “I know he will.”

“Listen,” Tía clutched Paula's chin and stared right into her eyes. “You punch him if he does.”

At the bus station in Zone One, Paula threw her arms around Tía and squeezed. Sit by a window, m’ija,” she said. “And when you are hungry, look for dumpsters. Americans throw away a lot of food.” Her aunt kissed her hard on the top of her head, and she and Juanito climbed on the bus. They rode along the highway through all the same towns and villages they had passed dozens of times with their parents since they were babies. Nothing was different until they got past La Libertad and arrived in La Mesilla, a town she knew only because Tía had written the name down on a piece of paper that she put inside an envelope with her ID card, Tío’s phone number in Merced, California, and some money. Paula tucked it inside her tights, exactly like her aunt told her to do.

The coyote and his wife were very old and light-skinned. In La Mesilla, the man shoved Paula, Juanito, and the teenagers into a small compartment under the bed of his truck. There were no windows, but Paula remembered what Tía told her and wedged herself under an air hole. In the middle of the night Juanito would try to drag her away from it, even though he had an air hole too.

They were trapped in the truck all day and stopped for a few minutes at night for a handful of crackers and a few sips of water. Paula was the only girl, and they usually let her pee behind the truck, but the old man always watched. Then they piled in the truck and kept driving along the windy roads, nearly suffocating from the heat. The first couple of days Paula threw up on herself until she learned that by eating slowly she could keep her food down.

On the last night, she thought she was asleep when she felt something yanking hard on her leg. Her head whacked against the underside of the truck bed as she was being pulled. She felt fresh air on the crown of her head, but she couldn’t see. Her eyes wouldn’t open.

M’ija!

Paula felt her cheeks being squeezed and her head being rocked back and forth. She fluttered her eyelids until a slit of light came through.

“Wake up!” It was the old woman. “Agua!” she snapped. The old man handed her a plastic jug. “Drink this,” she commanded in Cakchiquel. Paula gasped—that was the language of her village. How did this old white woman know it?

She took a sip, then realizing something must have happened to her and she could get away with drinking more, she began to gulp.

“Sit up,” the woman said gently. “You can sit up.”

Juanito was hovering over her shoulder.

“What happened?” she asked him.

He hissed: “You almost died, idiota.”

The day after Paula appeared, Pils chained his cart to a light post and took her to his appointment at the clinic because he knew he should see if anyone could help, or if anyone could even speak to her. She spoke a little Spanish to the case worker Edward, who informed Pils she wanted to go to her family in Merced. But she didn’t know their names or where they lived, and Edward said he would have to call immigration because that was the clinic policy and it wasn’t safe for her to live on the street.

“But she’s with me, she’s safe,” Pils insisted.

Edward grimaced.

“Edward, come on. Look at me!” Pils was six foot three and once weighed two hundred pounds. Even eating half the calories he used to, he was still formidable. Thanks to his size, no one had tried to rob or rape him in the three years he’d been living outside. He had proven that he could take care of himself, and Edward had once told him that some high-functioning dual diagnosis patients practically recover when they become a caretaker for someone else.

“I could lose my job, Pils.”

Pils sprang up and grabbed Paula by the wrist and ran out of the clinic before Edward knew what happened. They ran all the way to the park and climbed up into a tree. Edward knew where he usually camped, and he knew how upsetting it was for Pils to have to move his cart, which meant doing an inventory of all of the items in their plastic bins and worrying that Sup would get lost in a new place. Pils clung to a branch, willing his mind to find a solution, while Paula perched across from him with that same intense expression on her face, but somehow she looked comfortable in the tree, just like any other kid. He figured she probably climbed trees a lot wherever she lived.

He realized after a while that Edward wasn’t coming after him, and if the two kept a low profile they could probably avoid the cops. They came down from the tree, set up Pils’ tent, and shared the can of beans he had left over from his last trip to the food bank. She washed the spoon and rinsed out the can in the drinking fountain so they could use it later, then she wrapped herself in the blanket and curled up just outside the tent with her arm around Sup’s neck. When he told her she could sleep inside the tent and he would sleep outside, she either didn’t understand or didn’t want to do it. He slept outside too, just on the other side of the tent, where he could hear if she was in danger.

For a few days, this routine worked well. They managed to communicate about basic things—food, hygiene, where to go during the day— and Paula laughed once or twice. He convinced her that it was safe to let him stand guard outside the bush where she went to the bathroom. So that she could shower, he smuggled her into the women’s day shelter in the care of Nancy, who used to have sex with him sometimes and was working part-time at the shelter now that she was clean and off the streets. Then on the eighth night after Paula arrived when he was doing his nightly check of items, she started sniffling and blubbering to him.

In the string of her words, the only thing he could understand was “dinero” and Merced. The rest was either Spanish or her weird language. But she did seem to be repeating herself, working herself up each time.

“What?” he asked. “I don’t understand.”

She sobbed, A chin ick dinero porque tengo que irme waj june Merced, or something like that.

She pointed to each of the little bins and repeated herself.

“Don’t!” He pushed her hand away. “Don’t touch those!”

Then she stopped abruptly and wiped her nose. Her small head dropped and her stringy hair fell over her face. He felt horrible, but she had to learn that she couldn’t just touch whatever she wanted. It was his responsibility to teach her such things.

With a grown-up sigh, she shuffled off to her spot behind the tent.

He hardly slept that night wondering what was wrong with her, trying not to think about what was wrong with him, listening for predators and cops, the same thing out here. He rummaged in the tent for his pouch of decongestants—the nighttime kind—and swallowed one dry. He didn’t know when he’d be able to replace that pill, but he had come far enough not to let his OCD interfere with his tools to manage his OCD. Lie down, Pils, he told himself, trembling as he positioned himself supine on the damp park grass, aware of a faint odor of dog shit and star jasmine, intermingled with the tart, charcoal of his own human funk. Find your place, he whispered. Find your place. He closed his eyes and started to cry, which happened about half the time he did this visualization. His father—who spoke some Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese, the languages of his ancestors, and played jazz piano every Sunday afternoon—kayaking with him in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. His father paddling behind him, and Pils, about ten, tasked with scouting for orcas. The pumpkin-colored sun, the blue-black glassy water cluttered with kelp bulbs, all that serenity. . .all that serenity. He breathed in time with it. . .All. That. Serenity. The steady rhythm of his father’s paddle. And then the thrill when he caught site of the black and white crescent bursting through and dipping under water. The exclamation in his voice and the pride and gratitude in his father’s: “That’s it, Pils. Way to spot ‘em.”

He settled into the ambiance in his head, feeling the pill kick in. He would finally be able to sleep. Sup came galloping into the camp then and nuzzled Pils’ face. “Go,” he pushed the dog away. “Go sleep with Paula.” He’d been about Paula’s age when he went kayaking with his father. That was the kind of thing he could do with her, too, one day. Give her the chance to spot whales . . . .

The grass was not very cold, but Paula couldn’t stop shivering. Her mother must have been so worried. She hated to make her mother worry. Tio’s number was the only one she knew, but she didn’t have money to call him. Pils had those coins, though, if she could figure out how to steal them. She had to get to Merced, especially since Juanito never would. Just after the old man left them in the desert near some place called Nogales, Juanito got shot trying to steal some chickens from a yard, even though she told him that they should try to steal food from dumpsters like Tia said. Paula knew he wasn’t dead when she ran off to hide in the ravine, but even after the gunman went back into his house Juanito never moved or made a noise. When it was pitch black and the light outside the house went out, she scrambled up the dirt bank as quietly as she could and hissed his name. Twice. He didn’t answer, and there was no one she could call for help. So she ran. Now she got a stomach ache every time she thought about Juanito, even though she didn’t like him and once even asked God if she could trade him for her cousin. Her mother would be sad every day for so many days when she found out he died. Paula couldn’t die too and break her mother’s heart.

Rolling over in the blanket, she almost plastered her face into a pile of dog poop. She started crying and wriggled away from the tent and the smelly clump. She missed the farm she used to live on with her family. She missed the creek where she collected water and washed her clothes. She missed the mountains where the rain clouds used to bunch up every year and the purple flowers she picked to dye the skirts her grandmother wove. She even missed the crowded busses where she always sat scrunched with her face in someone’s armpit and hid when gangs stopped the bus.

She had to find a way to get to her mother. She could not stay here with Pils, even though he was nice to her and she had gotten so tired of running and hitchhiking. Poor Pils. It made her sad that he slept outside every night. It was not safe, but at least he had his nahual. Suddenly the dog was there licking her face, which felt slimy but good, and she hugged his neck. He flopped down right next to her to keep her warm, and she drifted off to sleep in his fur.

The next day after breakfast, Paula tried explaining again to Pils that she had to leave, but she didn’t know any of the words he did. She pointed and gestured, but he just looked at her with his little black eyes and rubbed his wrinkly knuckles. She sucked in her breath and stomped her feet. He started laughing.

“Merced!” she finally shouted. “Merced!” She hugged the dog tightly. “Muchisimas gracias,” she said to Pils and strode off through the park, commanding the dog to stay with Pils. The dog trotted after her anyway.

Pils watched her storm off. She couldn’t actually be serious about going to Merced by herself. She didn’t even know where it was. “Sup!” he called after his dog, who ignored him. As the two moved slowly but steadily away from him, he grew nervous. Maybe she was serious. He realized she probably had no idea how to get to San Diego either, but she managed to arrive here in one piece. Miraculously. Pils felt a strong urge to run after them, followed by a terror of leaving his things unattended. Oh, fuck, this was one of those situations Edward warned him about, the moment when what was keeping him safe would trap him. “Sup!” he screamed. They were not coming back, he thought with a tight chest. His breaths were short and choppy. He lowered himself to the ground. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried with every cell in his body to conjure his father, the sea, the hollow sky, but as soon as an image formed it fragmented into a dozen thoughts and fears. He bolted upright and leaned over between his splayed legs. He didn’t have much time. That was a fact.

He worked as quickly as he could, which was still painstaking, but eventually all of the items were accounted for, the tent was folded, and his camp was squeezed into the basket of the shopping cart. He trembled as he pushed it forward, but he kept repeating something he must have read or learned from some counselor along the way: the path is just a bunch of individual steps strung together. Steadily he crossed the park, past the joggers that looked at him sideways if they even acknowledged him at all, the kids swinging upside down on the jungle gym, and the adults half-watching, distracted by their phones. Paula and Sup had a big lead on him, but with each step he felt a greater sense of purpose. Paula was too young to travel to Merced by herself. He must find her.

Yet now that he was on a mission, the park seemed enormous. When he first arrived at Balboa Park three years earlier, before the catheter and the meds, he would never sleep in one spot more than a couple of nights. He learned the canyons and the overgrown bushes, the desiccated streams and the concrete water fountains, the dangerous bathrooms and the ones that were filthy but otherwise innocuous, the people who were surprisingly sane and balanced given what he had always thought about the homeless, before he became one. Some of those people almost became his friends, but more often than not they disappeared or were arrested. Occasionally they found their way back to society and their own permanent shelter. They were ephemeral, and he missed them too much when they were gone, so he eventually chose a suitable spot and put down roots. His world contracted to that radius of grass, and he never left it for long, never even contemplated doing such a thing. Until today.

When at last he reached the intersection of Sixth and Park, he saw no sign of Paula or Sup. He tugged on his cart to keep it from rolling into the street. Impatiently he scanned the opposite sidewalk, ready to spring across the street as soon as there was a break in traffic.

On the other side he shoved his cart one direction, then turned around half a block later and went another. Think, where would they go? He had no idea—he hardly knew this little girl, and his dog always came back to him. Pils, don’t start crying. Come on, Pils, he talked to himself. A couple of white, tattooed guys in trucker’s caps, beards, and clunky eyeglasses headed his way, so involved in a conversation between themselves and their phones that they didn’t see him approach.

“Hey guys,” he tried to sound casual, “have you seen a dog about yay high, kind of a blonde lab and terrier mix? With a little Guatemalan girl?”

They gave each other a quizzical look and put a couple of steps between themselves and Pils’ cart. “Uh no, dude,” the shorter one said. “Sorry no, we’re not from around here.”

Douchebag, he thought as they strolled away, what the fuck does being from around here have to do with it! He pressed his hands to the crown of his head, fighting an imminent headache. He had traveled a good ten blocks from the edge of the park and a lot farther than that from his camping spot. Tearing the tarp off his cart, he rummaged furiously for his plastic bins. They were all here . . . they had to be all here . . .

Suddenly he felt a slippery tongue on his bare shin.

“Oh god, Sup,” he choked. He looked down at the dog who turned his old white and yellow face up and gave him a blank stare. “Where is Paula?” he asked, working as quickly as he could to check all of the bins and be able to tie the tarp over the top again.

Sup sat at Pils’ feet and yawned. “Paula? Sup, go find Paula!”

No response from the dog. Pils’ heart felt like it had fallen through his body. She was already gone. Already . . .

Sup barked twice and padded down the street toward a cluster of people too far away to really make them out, but he spotted a figure that could have, possibly, been Paula. There was no way to know for sure unless he followed his dog, with every step putting distance between himself and the last spot he knew as home. Someone else would claim it before too long. Come on, foot on pavement, Pils, he coached himself. Foot on pavement. He kept it up, kept talking and stepping, hands clutching the bar of the cart. Soon there was a rhythm, a forward motion that seemed to propel him with little of his own effort, like the paddle slicing through water again and again.

About the Author

Mary Fifield

Mary Fifield's fiction has appeared in J Journal, Midway Journal, Fiction Southeast, and others. One of her stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and another was a finalist for the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Good Men Project, Cargo Literary, and other online and print publications. She received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from San Diego State University and is working on her third novel.