“What brings you to these parts haulin’ a whole truckload of wood?” he asked, tilting his golf cap a little back on his head and fixing me with a curious smile. He had the graying hair and easy affability that distinguish a good hotel manager.
“It’s my usual run from Myrtle Point to Grants Pass,” I said, “except that by the time I had the load on I decided to put off going back because the hour was a bit late and the rain was a bit heavy.”
Then, boring even myself, I told him my little joke about the pickup I saw pulling a boat. “Rainin’ so hard,” I exclaimed, “He could’ve turned it around and hauled the truck behind the boat!” While I waited for him to finish acting like he was laughing at this hopelessly weak humor, I ran back over my reasoning for transforming a standard wood haul into a vacation on the coast.
Basically, I had a queasy feeling that I might get killed in a crash on the dusky, rainy highway during the long run back to Grant’s Pass. There’d been a fatal accident minutes before, on a stretch of highway I’d be obliged to use if I went back home. I’d seen the paramedics and I’d heard about it on the radio. I didn’t relish going back that way, at least not right then. Besides, I found myself close to the beach and had been yearning to take a short vacation. By going in an unexpected direction, I hoped that I would once again cheat fate, and get a chance to sit on the beach, as well!
“I’m here to listen to the surf,” I told him.
“Wow, you’ve come to the right place for that!” he said. “I tell ya the last three days have been wiiiindy!” He sang the word, sounding a little like a wind chime himself.
“Yes, I heard a loaded semi got blown over on its side crossing the Bandon Bridge.” I said.
He nodded at this old news. “Which room do you want?” And then without giving me time to answer and seemingly to preempt any worn out questions he feared I might ask, “They’re all available, and they all have ocean views.”
“I’ll take number 2,” I gestured up toward the stairs and balcony that gave access to the attic room perched atop the first building in the row of sturdy gray A-frame structures. It would be the cheapest room. I’d rented it before. It had an ample bed and a prime spot to sit in a chair in front of a thick plate glass window that looked out over a short expanse of green grass, then the beach and finally the ocean.
“You got it,” he said. “The ice machine’s over there,” he gestured toward a hallway that glowed with blue light. “I won’t be needing any ice,” I said, pulling my thin and inadequate green hoodie up around my neck. “Well, I just need a little information,” he said (by which he meant he needed a credit card number), “and I’ll get you that key!”
Since I hadn’t planned to stay out overnight, and therefore had no luggage, my sole possession turned out to be the tall green thermos containing the rich remnants of coffee and cream that I’d concocted that morning and which had proven quite powerful. There was still some left. I set the thermos down in the middle of the kitchen table. If the cream hadn’t curdled, I planned to enjoy an effortless indulgence first thing the next morning.
Dismissing the need for keys (one advantage of having no luggage) I firmly closed the door of number 2 behind me, trotting down the stairs and across the lawn. I then entered the long path that cut straight down to the beach, carved as it was through a head-high expanse of gorse , a cement floored, spine-clad tunnel that in the end gave way to open dunes. Not hesitating, I made my way over the yellow, mealy sands, which had indeed seen high seas quite recently, leaving them firm, wet and trackless. Tufts of grass protruded like bad hair recently scrubbed. Soon my feet beat upon the open beach, which seemed to bulge upward, newly enriched with sand. Was the sand coming in, having been deposited by the ocean waves? Or was it going out, having been mined from the dunes?
Peering far out to sea I discerned great rolling breakers crashing quite robustly as they shallowed, but the smaller waves approaching the shore, bloated as it was with excessive sand, were obliged to thin out and slow down, dispersing like a thin watery membrane over the overfull jiggling belly of the post-storm beach, a membrane that glistened multicolored in the sun, rose and receded, each subsequent welling wave hissing a little, pushing before it a dancing line of frothy white meerschaum. I stopped abruptly at one of these lines of demarcation. The water gurgled as it was sucked back to the sea and a vagrant wind whipped a fleck of foam down the strand where it turned, caught, got loose again, skittered, and then was eaten by a wave. I observed the sky. Behind me and over the land mass hovered a vast ceiling of dark clouds. However, far out over the sea the storm was dispersing, and just above the horizon a significant opening had occurred. In this solitary zone the sky was bright azure, lit by a sun that announced its position by lighting from behind the clouds that obscured it, tingeing their edges in pure gold. Even as I watched, the clouds shredded away, blown by the same wind that was driving those enormous breakers, and the round sun slowly took form within that patch of blue. A few strands of dark cloud remained, stretched across the face of the sun. I fancied that they were like sunglasses, and indeed the plausibility of this illusion was enhanced by the clouds as they seemed to form a pair of amused and omniscient eyebrows above the sunglasses. As the sun broke through these last clouds, it hung for the longest time, naked and flawless, a finger’s breadth above the sea, and let forth a golden glow of radiance that enchanted my eyes.
So riveted to this spectacle was I that when another lazy line of meerschaum approached my boots I didn’t even flinch. Suddenly, shouting like a gradeschooler, at the last moment I outran the wave, and once safe from wetting turned again toward the sun. Now the light was streaming across the ocean, radiating generously, illuminating the storm clouds from underneath, tingeing them with gold and red. This widened the display and soon my view of the ocean was one of cold sea below and churning clouds above, opposing darknesses split by bright light. Like the lackadaisical waves that occasionally made me change position on the beach, the sun itself dropped slowly, ever so slowly, and finally dipped under the horizon. Wafting clouds covered the last vestige as it winked out, upon which they in turn became thoroughly backlit, glowing like molten metal. I closed my eyes then. I could still see the sun, and the path of its reflected light upon the water, emblazoned in my mind’s eye, so that I hoped to never forget what this sunset was like. For many minutes after the sun disappeared, its golden light continued to bathe the underside of the storm clouds, until this spectacle too diminished. Finally, a single swath of bright red light remained, piercing through the storm, shaped like a jagged harpoon, already bloodied, that wounded the darkness of night.
All this time the wind and rain had diminished, until now it ceased. Along the dunes and among the sodden shore grasses I found an elevated spot to sit, settled myself down in cross-legged posture and tuned my ears to the waves as they broke offshore. One rumbling receded into another, and then as my mind relaxed, I heard it. OMMMMMMM! The ocean was chanting OM! I chanted with it. OMMMMM! And then again, OMMMMMMM! Stopping, I realized that I was getting carried away, letting my ego chant on ahead of the ocean. I slowed down and chanted once again, listening at the same time for the cadence as given forth by nature. There it was, an OM exactly in conjunction with the OM of the ocean! I continued to sit there, oblivious to the wet sand that moistened, eventually, my underwear, chanting long with the ocean, not caring who or what I was, not recognizing any separation, at one with the ocean, at one with OM.
Retracing my steps back up to the little room, I immediately wanted a drink of water. I hate to turn on lights, so this left me groping about a bit in the tiny kitchen, wondering where the glasses were kept. Then I realized that the one thing I had brought with me was… just what I needed. Unscrewing the cup from the top of the green thermos, I filled it with tap water and drank. It was surprisingly good, this water. I had another cup. Then I screwed the top back on the thermos, went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet for a whizz. Shedding the rest of my clothing as I approached the bed, I soon found myself naked between the sheets.
My sleep was deep at first, as it tends to be when I’ve had adequate exercise. Nonetheless, in the depths of the night I awoke. Distant breakers were thrumming away, but as I lay there listening, I became aware of the sound which, judging by my dodgy dreams, was the sound that had awakened me, a disturbing and sad sound–the soft and gentle and ragged sound of someone weeping. Upon hearing this, I suddenly became so very, very sad that for a moment thought perhaps I was the one crying. But it was not so. Someone, or I should say some woman, because it was undeniably a woman’s throat that made these utterances which so softly filled the room, was sobbing, very consistently, stopping only to gasp a short breath within the measured eruptions of her sorrow. I thought, “Surely I am dreaming.” But I was awake. Then I thought, “Surely she will soon stop!” But she didn’t.
I arose from the bed, wrapped myself in the bedspread and went soundlessly, expectantly, to the window. I thought perhaps she was out on the lawn. Outside the storm had broken apart and stars shone down on a dark sea. The dim illumination from a yard light showed the lawn below my window to be empty. No crier there. Where was she? I laid down again, still listening to this soft grief welling up in the darkness. I then intuited that she must be downstairs, perhaps lying in a bed situated directly below my own. That would make her very close to me. I imagined consoling her, wiping her tears with the backs of my hands, her thin snot lubricating perhaps my chest, the heaving of her bare shoulders, the smell of her hair rising up to dilate my nostrils, heated with emotion. I would use a man’s only trick, holding her in my arms, tensing the biceps a little to give the impression of strength, whispering over and over that inevitable, feeble mantra of the male. “It’ll be all right,” I would say. Then, feeling as if I had actually shared this intimacy, and lured by the open vulnerability of her grief, I suddenly felt the blood rush to my loins. Watching this phenomenon occur, not acting upon it, I mentally shook my head, lay motionless upon the sheets, and scolded myself at the wrongness of such an attraction.
Breathing steadily, I soon centered all sensation again on my heart, which left me with nothing but compassion for this poor woman’s loss. Because loss it was–what I was hearing was not the bright angry cry of a woman who’s been lied to; nor the embarrassed, nauseated sobbing of a woman who’s had too much wine; nor the snorting, tear-spurting, half-laugh-half-cry that women are inexplicably fond of producing directly after making love; nor the worried cry that grips the heart, fearing the worst, when teenage children are late coming home from the movies. No, this was the sound of helpless tears being wrenched from a broken heart. “Either she’s lost a lover or she’s lost a child,” I whispered to my pillow. I hoped she hadn’t lost a child. I prayed for her. Then, feeling the weight of my own attachments to wife and children and children’s children, and still durged by this gentle sobbing, I nonetheless was able, eventually, to fall again into an unpleasant slumber.
The morning light filtered in through a small leaded glass pane in the door. I swung my legs out of bed, and then sat there for a moment, first muddled, then pensive. I cocked an ear. The soft wailing had ceased. Thankfully, I proceeded to relieve myself once again in the toilet, pulled on my socks and my pants (there was no wondering which clothes to wear!), and sidled over to the thermos. I lifted it, heavy with promise, and unscrewed the cup and the cap. A gentle waft of steam exhaled, followed by a warm chocolate flow that filled my cup. The cream was not curdled. The coffee was thick and good, and it was waking me up. I sat in the chair, looked out at the ocean and sipped. I remembered the woman, and how she had cried. My heart still harbored a bruised place for her. Setting down the cup, I became aware of the surf once again, inexorable, cold and beautiful, completely free of emotion, washing up against the shore, cleansing all. I closed my eyes. The sun was still there, burning brightly behind my third eye. I inhaled, filling my heart with light, and then on the exhale, I let her go.
The hotel manager met me again in the same spot in the parking lot. “Here’s the key,” I said, handing it over, dangling from its little circle of red plastic. “I didn’t even have to use it!” I smiled.
“Oh,” he said, putting it in his jacket pocket. “Did you get to hear much surf?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, “and the sunset was phenomenal! By the way,” I hesitated to bring up the subject, but then out of curiosity, proceeded, “who was the woman down in number 1?”
“There was nobody down in number 1!” he sounded surprised.
“Well, how about next door in number 3, then?” I was beginning to feel a chill run up my spine, lifting the sparse hairs from beltline to neck, there below my thin green hoodie, which now seemed to have lost the last of its already feeble ability to insulate me from the cold. My teeth rattled until I clenched them shut.
“There was nobody in number 3, either,” he claimed. “Didn’t you know, you were the only guest here last night!”
“No,” I ventured, “I didn’t realize that.” Then I thought of something that might explain everything, “Well then, how did you and your wife sleep. Any disturbances? Arguments?”
He laughed. “We’ve been around each other so long there’s nothing left to argue about! Both slept like rocks,” he said. “We’ve been kept up by the wind these last few nights, but last night was quiet and we finally got some good rest.” “How about you?” he queried.
“Not so good, really,” I admitted.
“Why was that?” he wanted to know.
“Well,” and then I decided to go ahead and stick my foot in it, ” I kept imagining I heard someone crying.” I gave him a strange little twisted half smile, as if begging his patience in mentioning something that we both knew was a bit crazy.
“Oh,” his head dipped forward and the bill of the golf cap blocked his face from my view. He tugged it down even further, stiffly pulling it down with well manicured forefinger and thumb, then became very interested in the toe of his white leather shoe, with which he was endeavoring to dig a small hole in the blacktop. He twisted it first left, then right, then back again.
“What!” I grabbed his arm and made him look at me. “Is there something I should know about all this?”
“Well,” he said, blinking at my stare, then dropping his eyes and lowering his voice, “there was a woman and her little girl who stayed in number 2 just about this same time last year.”
“Right,” I said impatiently, “so what of it, lots of women and little girls probably stay in number 2.”
“Yes,” he said quietly, then cleared his throat. “They were staying for the whole week. Husband was away, or left them, or something. They kept going down to the beach to play.”
“Yes,” I said impatiently, “everybody does that.”
“Well, right,” he said and then there was a long pause.
“So what of it, what happened!” I was almost shouting.
“It was a Saturday,” he said. “Sneaker wave came in and took the little girl away. Happens sometimes that way in October. One moment they’re there, and the next moment–gone! Don’t ever turn your back on the ocean in October! I should’ve told ‘em that! I usually do… ” His voice trailed off, then he sighed and started up again. “The woman was all right. She came splashing right back out. The little girl–we never saw her. We had the news out here. Right on this spot. It was in all the papers. You didn’t read about it?”
“No,” I intoned. Or maybe I had. My entire body went rigid. Uncontrolled shivers coursed from my heels up the back of my legs, over my buttocks to the nape of my neck, over the crown of my head and then back down again. For some reason I visualized the fleck of meerschaum from the day before, blown across the cold strand by an errant wind, eaten up by the ocean. “Did the mother,” I paused. “I mean did the mother go away after that?”
“No,” he said. “As a matter of fact she stayed there in number 2 for the rest of the week. We tried to get her to go. She must’ve had family. But she stayed there by the window. It was as if… It was as if she was waiting for the little girl to come floating back to her. Just sat there and,” his voice broke, “and sobbed her heart out–the whole time.”
Then he looked up at me, and I could see that all the blood had drained from his face.
Richo Cech, November 26, 2011