by Dan Cardoza
I live near Mendocino, in Northern California, in a rooted shack that clings to the muddy banks of the mercurial Navarro. The local beaches, Agate and the Headlands, are too crowded. I prefer Irish Beach, a few anfractuous miles south along Highway 1.
Even though I can’t hold a job, I convince myself to head to work one more day. Today I’ll be nominal labor at a fish cannery. It’s a complicated niche, I don’t expect to get past the morning shift.
I brake hard. Scorched carbon from pickup-truck tires leaks up from the floorboard, filling my nostrils with gun smoke. A forked-horned buck glides effortlessly over the glossy pavement. He hops the yellow doubles and disappears into the black cypress, no worse for the scare. It’s not the first time we’ve met, saved each other. Again I pause: Do I really want to do this?
Nature is the closest thing to truth. She is cruel, but honest. She’s much less sentimental than us. We float just above her somehow. She keeps us tethered with some sort of multifilament string. I compare it to the leader I use when fishing for German brown trout. Lately, I want to cut her loose, if just to save her. If this means I float away, so be it. We don’t deserve her after all we’ve done.
I glance at my watch, at the rear view, continue my drive south. There’s plenty of time before sunup. I’ll make it.
I drive the familiar contours of the gravely road that branches off the pavement. Soon I scrape to a halt at the dead end of the dirt. I quickly jump out, a little late after all. I’ve been told I’d be the last to arrive at my own funeral. As the stiff wind slams the door, I poke another unfiltered Camel into my mouth, cup my palms against the misty salt, light it up.
I’m here, at the end of the earth, the beginning of the ocean. I use boot leather, fingers, and my spidery-sense to amble around and over thistles, and driftwood as thick as elephant trunks. The wonderful stink of dead seaweed opens my nostrils like horseradish. In the dampened pitch of ending darkness, I work my way to the rusted edge of the Pacific. This day, the ocean is riotous, demanding sacrifice.
I’ve walked the miles of Irish Beach before, clean out to the end of the jetty’s elbow and beyond. At the fist of the jetty, jagged granite boulders tighten their grip on the Point Arena Lighthouse.
I admit, I’ve never trekked this far into the starless edge of night, never for the last time, never on my 29th birthday.
There’s barely enough light to balance a straight line without my Bic lighter and a second Camel. But before I can create fire, all effort at flame is lost. The wind insists on roiling its diesel engines and railcars down the length of the shoreline. I lean back into it to regain my balance. The ground trembles in the wake as I move forward.
I’m pumped and ready for work, buzzed from my morning coffee, flavored anxiety, and extra espresso. My Bluetooth is doing its best to resurrect Hendrix. All Along the Watchtower is looping. But I can barely hear the edgy guitar licks, over the white noise of the cannery. When it appears, the cannery exists as a mirage. A colossus nested in the thinning granules of darkness. It’s a silhouette, a mammoth structure chock-full of twentieth-century urban decay.
I can hear the innards churn and whir, in a metallic tenor of worn pinions and faulty gears. Each cog thirsting for grease. The massive boiler’s smokestack exhales fuchsia: superheated steam. The engine’s failing horsepower is palatable. Sprockets grind sparks into smoke, meld in a cacophony of destruction.
This is my reality. This is now.
Before you know it, I’m smack-dab in a Steinbeck manufactory. Delicate fans and fins seize and destruct. Empty cans of bluefin tuna, anchovy, and giant mackerel fall empty to oily floors. The dying infrastructure tingles, vibrates the soles of my feet. The shifting sand is a temblor. Dorsal, caudal and tail fin thrash. Starfish crush beneath its weight.
The sand explodes into the sky. Receding waves pound foamy spring fists on the surf. The ocean imposes its Titanic, as the ruthless stars ogle, gossip, disrespectfully yawn.
Focus, I tell myself, as I punch the clock, get to my workstation. We all work assembly line here, in this horrifically beautiful new dawn.
We pass buckets half full of sandy ocean water, in our attempt to undermine her belly, in hope that she’ll fall back into the receding tide. We wage a brutal tug-of-war, complete strangers, against the Pacific Ocean.
Some of us dig furiously, using real and makeshift shovels. Others comb the beach for hope. We use anything and everything to scoop. But the horror won’t stop.
By 9:00 a.m., it’s low tide. Scores of us are dying, exhausted. Now we can only watch. The tide flows shallow at first, then thickens. The sea wants us, too. Seagulls shriek their metallic strange dinner knells. Before they dine, they baptize themselves in the red holy water.
One killer whale has died, only one. It means nothing. There is no lesson here.
With the passage of time, I’m back in AA meetings.
I am not sure why. I’m almost certain it won’t get any better. It’s only a matter of time now. We left the best of us on the beach that day.
We too will rot, wash away. But on that one day –– we all received communion. We were all blessed with hope.
Photo via Pexels by Laker