The Whale of Catoosa

by Craig Morgan Teicher

Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.

Washing the dishes after dinner, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Whale of Catoosa, which I read about on the Internet. It’s a big, not-quite-life-size, cartoonish blue whale set at the edge of a shallow body of water, as if it had come up to visit. I read that a man made the whale for his wife to commemorate the anniversary of their marriage. Then I read that this was not quite the truth. The whale was constructed sometime in the 1970s. Then, since its builder’s death, the residents of Catoosa, Oklahoma have maintained it, or his family has, and it has become some kind of roadside attraction, something people stop for a few minutes to see.

It’s hardly worth thinking about, but staring at a picture of the whale—it wears a little baseball cap and smiles—I think of questions: How does this whale, which could be based on a kindergartner’s drawings or something weird locked deep in the inner imagination of a quiet adult, like Mount Rushmore, speak about love? How did she—the man’s wife—know what it meant? What was the secret between them about whales? And is that why the citizens of Catoosa maintain it—in tribute to, if not in search of, that secret? Or is that too serious a question for such a silly and almost perverted thing?

And why did the balloon someone bought for my son’s birthday last week, now only about two-thirds full of helium, venture on its own through two rooms when we weren’t looking such that I found it waiting above my daughter’s changing table? Is it too much to eat an entire cantaloupe? What, finally, will result from the whale’s eternal happiness? It seems to me that its smile gives something to the world while it takes something else away. Plants do this too, in a way that is helpful to humans. Are joy and irony always at war, and what happens when they strike a balance? I learn that, in fact, the whale was built by the man as part of a water slide park. Its fins are actually slides.

Could my wife have been happier? Could I? Will my daughter and son? If that balloon is a symbol, whatever it represents might not be worth understanding. And yet isn’t this what it’s like most days, such that the real questions can never get asked?


Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems, awarded the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry. He also wrote Cradle Book (2010), a collection of fiction and fables. Teicher serves as vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. He is Director of Digital Operations and Poetry Reviews Editor of Publishers Weekly and teaches at The New School and New York University. Craig lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children.

May Yang is a Tulsa based artist and designer. She works primarily with printmaking techniques to produce work that explores her cultural background as well as the environment around her. May graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2008 focusing on graphic design and printmaking. While there, she interned for Dolphin Press & Print, the school’s print workshop. Continuing her interest in collaborative printmaking, May attended the Tamarind Institute of Lithography in Albuquerque, New Mexico. May is currently (and constantly) working on new