28 February, 2009
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: A STROLL ALONG THE SHORE
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
A man and a woman are walking arm in arm along a quiet beach at sunset, just after the sun has dipped below the forested coastal hills and left its pale pink imprint on the feathery clouds over the ocean. It looks like a poster you might find in a college dorm room in 1967.
They aren’t completely alone, this man and woman. Down the beach some kids have built a driftwood fire and the sounds of a guitar rise with the smoke. In the other direction someone is walking a dog, and at the foot of the cliff some people are picking through the rocks for agates. But these few distant figures only impart a greater sense of solitude to the picture, and to the focal point of the picture, a man and a woman, arm in arm, strolling the beach at tideline, courting the incoming waves.
Claudia has not spoken since they left the boardwalk. At Wilbo’s request they stopped off at the Burger Shack so he could stash his concertina and tablet behind the counter. There she nodded to Mac timidly, clinging to Wilbo’s arm like a shy child clinging to her father. She kept her arm in his as they sought the beach, through the notch in the wall and down to the waves.
Now the sun is down and the sky is lightly streaked in its fleeting glow. They stroll slowly at the water’s edge in bare feet, having kicked off their shoes at the notch. Claudia keeps her body pressed up against Wilbo’s side, fitting into all his contours. Wilbo does not question her silence. He enjoys her touch, more than he should, he thinks, but he doesn’t think about that very much. Mostly he is just an enormous bundle of awareness, a single, shimmering sense organ, taking in everything, without filters, the ocean, the sky, the sand under his feet, the air against his skin. He can’t remember when he last felt this wide open, this receptive, this wondrously frightened. Maybe that one acid trip, during the human be-in, Golden Gate Park, 1968. It feels a bit like that.
He wonders what she’ll say when she finally says something. He knows better than to be the first one to speak. An especially large wave, the seventh perhaps, breaks over their feet and sends them scampering over the dry sand. They laugh, but their laughter is muted. She quickly takes his arm and presses back against his body. They cover only a short distance after this adventure, and then she begins to speak.
“Wilbo,” she says. For some reason she finds it necessary to break the silence with his name. “The Lighthouse. That card you gave me. I went back the next day. Yesterday. I walked right up to Jimmy and I said, Jimmy, are you a Jesus freak? Tell me the truth!”
She stops talking and she keeps walking. Wilbo is unsettled. It wasn’t what he thought she would say. All this time he thought she was with him, attached to him, sharing his moment of hushed wonder, this brilliant vulnerability. But no. She was thinking of something else! Her silence says, respond to this! Ask me, “What did Jimmy say?”
So he obliges. “What did Jimmy say?”
“I can’t believe what he said. That’s the thing. He said, Claudia, I’m not a freak. Please don’t call me a freak. I’m just a man who loves Jesus..” She stops walking and talking this time. She pulls away from his side and just stands there for a moment, agonizing over something.
“I’m so confused, Wilbo. They’re Jesus freaks. Every one in that place is a Jesus freak. Even Toni. Jimmy says they even have a church that meets there on Sunday mornings. Of course I wouldn’t know about that. Sunday mornings I’m dead to the world.”
Claudia sighs. She takes Wilbo’s arm again and runs her hand down his wrist, grasping his hand in hers, fingers laced.
What am I gonna do, Wilbo? I don’t want to move out. I like living there.”
Wilbo is perplexed. “Well, why would you need to move out?”
She gives him a look that says isn’t it obvious? “They’re my landlords, Wilbo!”
“Well, I’m not like them. I could never be a Jesus freak.”
Wilbo feels his exasperation rising and his high spirits plunging. “So? What if they were Hindus, or what if they were Buddhists or… hell, what if they were deadheads? Is there some hidden clause in the contract that says you have to embrace their belief system if you want to live in their apartment?”
“You don’t understand Jesus freaks, Wilbo. That’s what they’re all about. Their whole thing is to turn other people into Jesus freaks. I think there’s a cash reward in heaven for every person they win over. If you’re not in, you’re out. That means you go to hell. Mahatma Gandhi…goes to hell! The Dalai Lama… goes to hell! Jimi Hendrix…goes to hell!” She’s starting to raise her voice and fling her hands out like she’s flinging mud balls, every time she says the word hell.
Wilbo, wishing to calm her down, resorts to a joke. “Well, it sounds like you’d be in pretty good company.”
She doesn’t laugh. She shakes her head like she’s trying to get water out of her ears. “I’m so confused. Jimmy, he’s such a sweet guy. How could he be a Jesus freak?” She lets go of his arm and sits down suddenly, crosslegged on the sand. She bends her head down and pouts her lip.
“They’re not gonna get me,” she says. “They’re not gonna corner me with their little pamphlets and start asking me questions like where do you plan to spend the rest of eternity? I don’t do little pamphlets. Wilbo, help me up.” She holds out her arm.
He pulls her to her feet and immediately she starts out across the beach, doing a little dervish dance with her arms out like windmill blades. “Wilbo, Wilbo, Wilbo!” she says in singsong as she whirls past him. “You know who I am, Wilbo?” Her voice is birdlike as she spins to a halt in front of him.
“No, Claudia. Who are you?”
“I’m that girl in the song. The Elton John song. I’m the tiny dancer. The one who says to the Jesus freaks, the boulevard is not that bad. Hey, that’s true, Wilbo. The boulevard is not that bad!”
Wilbo chuckles. “Never said it was.” But inside he’s torn apart. She has these moments, he’s thinking, these moments when she acts just like a child, like she’s a freshman out of high school. God, what am I doing? What am I doing here? I’m nearly out of control with desire for this girl, and she’s just a child!
“Do you think you’ll really leave the apartment, then?” he asks. “Where will you go?”
She looks down demurely. She kicks the sand with her toes.
“Oh, I don’t know. No, I don’t think I’ll leave. I probably just won’t go down to the coffee house anymore. I can’t leave that apartment; it’s way too cool. Besides, I have to go back home in the summer anyhow, when the classes are over.”
“Yeah, home. Los Angeles, remember? I promised my dad I’d go home for the summer. He says we still have some bonding to do. I have to get some medical tests. It’s stupid but he wants me to do it. I fell down at Christmas. A couple of times. He worries about me. He’s sweet that way. Besides, I might get to be a back-up singer on a Don Henley album.” She grabs Wilbo’s arm and gives it a tug. There’s a trace of a whine in her voice when she speaks again. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” she says. “On the beach. I want to go back to my place. Let’s go back. Just talking about the apartment makes me want to go back there.” She grabs both of Wilbo’s hands and pulls on them. “Come on, Wilbo, come back to my apartment with me. We can put on some music. Maybe we can dance or something. I’ve got a bottle of wine.”
Wilbo’s head is spinning. He’s feeling something like an intense nostalgia for a time that was only five minutes ago. It’s like someone tied a series of graduated fishing weights to the loopholes on the perimeter of his heart. He takes Claudia’s left hand in both of his. The gesture seems corny, like something from a movie.
“Claudia…” his voice sounds as corny as the gesture. She gives him a quizzical look. But he continues. What choice does he have? “That thing we did… the Syncho Quinto… The first time we did it, it was like a contest. But this time it was… it was…”
Claudia pulls her hand away. “I don’t always get you, Wilbo. Sometimes you talk just like an old hippie.”
He feels infuriated but he stifles it with a quick breath of salty air. His voice trembles a little.
“There are hidden things, Claudia. There are things hidden behind what we see in front of us. There’s voices hidden in the waves at night. There are other conversations going on in the overtones of our voices when we talk to each other. There are the things we see in dreams. They call that the occult. It’s just as important as the things we see in from of us. Maybe more.” He is astounded by these strange words coming out of his mouth. He thinks maybe he is being possessed by something.
The way she cocks her head to look at him reminds him of the skunk, the way it cocked its head to look at him when he threw back the shower curtain.
“No, Wilbo, I can’t let you talk like that. If you talk like that, this isn’t going to work. That’s creepy talk. That’s old acid head talk. You have to be wild and strong, Wilbo, not creepy.”
Wilbo is about ready to give up, abandon the project, walk away, but then a weird thing happens. It’s a visual thing. He’s staring at Claudia and suddenly there’s something like a shimmering of light around the contours of her body, blue light shifting into magenta. He watches a smile appear on her face, but it’s not her smile, it’s not her face. It’s more like another person is emerging from her body, like a bird pecking out of an egg, or a reflection breaking out of a mirror to explore the other world. He only glimpses it for a second- an older woman, smile crinkles at the corners of her eyes, a sweet sadness at the upturn of her lips. Then he blinks and the image is washed off his retina.
Claudia speaks. “How old are you, Wilbo?”
He comes back to the moment with a jolt. He knows what she wants to hear. “I’m thirty-three years old. That’s what you want, isn’t it? An old man. How old are you?”
Her reply is sharp. “I’m nineteen, OK? No, I’m not old enough to have a bottle of wine! What is this, anyhow? Did my dad send you to spy on me?”
“Now, wait a minute! This isn’t my doing. I didn’t approach you. You’re the one who approached me. I was just minding my own business. You came at me like a meteor! All that kinko syncho quinto! You came up to me that day on the boardwalk, and then you came all the way down to the Dogfish to find me. You said it yourself, you put a spell on me. What is it that you want from me?”
Claudia responds immediately. There’s a fire in her voice. “Well, first off, I don’t want you to go all hippie on me, you know what I mean? All peace and love, like sitting around burning incense, sticking daisies into rifle barrels. Peace and love. Like my dad. That’s over, man. This is the wild time. I want you to be wild.”
“You can’t just do that, Claudia. You can’t just be wild for wild’s sake. There’s something we have to overcome. There’s this huge thing we have to overcome. You have to have a code of ethics.”
“Yes, that’s right. Ethics! I don’t mean the old kind of ethics like don’t cuss, don’t fuck, don’t smoke pot. It’s a new code of ethics we need. One that says don’t kill, don’t hate, be kind, love your enemies, look for the truth, be honest!” Following this litany of modern virtues he hears a little voice in the left hand side of his brain, Doralina’s voice. It says, and don’t forget- favoring women! But he doesn’t let this voice out.
Claudia screws up her face like she’s tasted a lemon. She stamps her feet in the sand. “Oooh!” she cries, “I hate myself! I’m a stupid girl! What was I thinking?”
Wilbo can’t stop the flow of words from his mouth. “You got it wrong, Claudia. You don’t need an older man to help you be wild. You need an older man to protect you, to take care of you, to help you find your way…”
“Shut up! Shut up!” she holds her hands to her ears. “I don’t need protection. I’ve been smothered with protection. I’ve got the whole fucking record business to protect me. I want to be Janis Joplin. I want to be Sylvia Plath. I want to see everything and know everything. I want to walk on the wild side.”
“Those people are dead. You’ll just be dead, that’s all you’ll be. You won’t see anything.”
“Let me be dead, then. It’s better than being kept in a room without any windows or doors!”
“I don’t want you to be dead, Clauda. I want you to be alive and happy. I want to help you be alive and happy.”
Claudia puts her hands over her eyes, then over her mouth, then she throws them to her sides. “You’re a Jesus freak, aren’t you?”
This angers him more than he can understand. “I’m not a Jesus freak!”
"Yes, you are. You’re either a Jesus freak or you’re an old man. Or maybe you’re both. I can’t stand you. I want you to leave me alone. I’m going home! Don’t follow me, OK? You can’t come to my place.”
With these words she stomps off across the sand but her first step is an awkward one, and she stumbles to her knees, landing splash! in a small pool of water left by the creek at a higher tide. She picks herself up.
“Ok, I’m clumsy, don’t laugh at me!” she wails, and she breaks into a run, making little sobbing noises under her breath.
Wilbo doesn’t pursue her. He stands there dumbfounded, watching her figure grow smaller and smaller, until she reaches the concrete wall. Then he raises his arm, as if that would catch her attention.
“Don’t forget your shoes!” he calls out.
But she forgets her shoes. Without turning back, she disappears through the notch in the wall, like a candle flame going out.
Wilbo stands there for a long time, trying to get a grip on his feelings. One image keeps repeating itself, the way she stumbled and fell, and got her knees wet, they way she stood up and said, “Ok, I’m clumsy.” This image overpowers all the others. He feels no anger. He feels something like tenderness mixed with dread. His thoughts grow troubled.
What if I’ve lost her? What if I’ve actually succeeded in driving her out of my life? I wouldn’t want that. I want her in my life.
He starts walking for the cement wall. He’s not quite sure what he’s going to do. He’s pretty sure he’s not going to go after her. But he starts walking.
At the notch he reaches around in the hiding place behind the driftwood until he finds the shoes. First he pulls out his big clonking boots, then her dainty little red leather sandals with the star-shaped eyelets. Such small feet! he thinks. Then he does a very corny thing. He presses the sandals hard against his chest. A powerful, sappy emotion rises from that point in his chest where the sandals touch, and fills his eyes with tears.
“Claudia!” he exclaims out loud. Then he comes to his senses. Totally embarrassed, he looks around furtively, hoping no one has seen or heard him. It doesn’t appear so. There’s no one in sight except for the kids down the beach, quite a distance, with their campfire now burning low.
With his boots in one hand and her sandals in the other he sets out across the beach. I just need to get back home, he tells himself. I need to sit and ponder. He thinks about the bottle of Almaden Tawny Port, under the bed. Maybe it’s time to finish that off. It’s not till he reaches the place where the trail curls around the shoulder of the cliff that he remembers his concertina and art supplies still stashed under the counter at Mac’s Burger Shack. That’s all right. They’re safe there. I can get them in the morning. All this time he’s fighting off an emotion like something out of the movies, like when the soft violins come in just as the actress turns to leave, like that scene in Old Yeller when the little boy’s father comes home and the little boy says, Pa, I had a dog…
Damn movies! I’ve seen too many God damn movies!