The Fossilized Penis Bone of a Whale
by J. David Liss
My father collected all sorts of interesting natural objects from the sea and from Africa. From the Dark Continent, he had a lion’s tooth amulet, a variety of ivory statuettes, and his prize, a hippopotamus tusk. From the sea, he had a sawfish bill with a scrimshaw sunset in beautiful pastel shades of purple and green. He had prehistoric shark teeth, and walrus ivory, and most notable, a fossilized walrus oosik. Oosik is the Inuit word for the penis bone that certain mammals have, though not humans or whales.
Dad arranged these things in an order he liked. When he looked at them, you could see in his eyes that he felt the wind of the South Seas blowing through his hair. For years after he died, the collection sat on the shelves in my mother’s living room until the day she volunteered with the Friends of the Library. This gave her access to the display cases in the main reading room and she signed up to put Dad’s sea-tossed treasures on display for the public.
She placed everything in the case beautifully,with a terrific 5”x7” black and white picture of my father smoking a pipe and looking like quite the adventurer. That picture brought back the fact that he was a strange set of contradictions, my father. He sat glued to his armchair and the TV. But I always got the impression he was on his way out to somewhere far away.
My father was dissatisfied with his station in life. He was a smart man who had had the emotional crap beaten out of him so many times that he disconnected his feelings from his daily living and spent his time constructing defenses against the next beating. One of those defenses was not fully participating in his own life.
I don’t really blame him for this, thinking of the old saw about touching fire twice. But I think he saw marriage as the doorway out of emotional solitary confinement. He loved my mother and wanted her to rescue him. Love and attention, the two things he didn’t receive from his family of origin, would have done it, would have allowed him to have full heart. But those were things my mother reserved for herself, or for people she thought worthy of them. These were usually people who dressed well and had financial success. Dad was a mailman. That job was safe. It was not glamorous.
I think at some point he must have realized that the doorway he thought my mother opened for him out of solitary confinement had closed. So he embraced solitude and lived in the TV set, interspersed with fantasy novels and videos. Now and then he would stand by the shelves that held his memorabilia, pick up something, look at it and gaze off. I felt he was imagining the life that it once held: hippopotamus, whale, shark, or lion.
What wasn’t on that shelf was the stash of marijuana he kept hidden in the basement, thinking that my brothers and I didn’t know about it. I am haunted with the thought of how lonely my father must have been to need to medicate himself with pot.
Back at the library, the display case looked like a pirate’s chest filled with exotica. There was a neatly typed placard in front of each item saying what it is. One read, Scrimshawed Sawfish Bill. One read Prehistoric Shark’s Tooth (10 million years old). The placard in front of the oosik said, Fossilized Penis Bone of a Whale. I remember looking at it and thinking, “that’s from a walrus, not a whale.”
Everyone in town comes to the library. Every child under the age of 15 who looked in the case walked away saying to his or her friends or mother or the nearby librarians, “That’s the penis bone of a whale.”
“Mom, that’s the penis bone of a whale.”
“Did you see the size of that bone? It’s from a whale’s penis.”
“How would you like to go out with the guy who had a penis bone like that whale?”
“Mom, do I have a penis bone?”
It went on and on. My father would have hated that his prized collection was completely lost in the asinine avalanche started by the word penis. But if I were to say to my mother that the word was getting in the way of her intent to have people remember my father, her response would have been, “But that’s what it is. It is a penis bone. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Controversy is a means to becoming the center of attention.
So in my town, my father won’t really be remembered for anything he did, said, or was. He’ll be a beached whale, by himself, watching a blank TV set as minerals seep into his bones and turn him to stone.