Category Archives: Short Story

In The Tide Pool

It was another beautiful day in Santa Cruz. Actually, no one is sure what a bad day in Santa Cruz would look like. In Santa Cruz, in fog, rain, wind, when swells run twelve feet high and fishing boats bounce like a bobber on a line, or most of all, in delightful, sunny weather that nukes shoulders and noses to crisps—not one day exists that isn’t beautiful. This day was one of the sunny ones, but Mr. Anthony Herman was not interested in the sun drenched beaches, the tide-pools, or the waves, nor did he care that his nose was rapidly reaching glow-in-the-dark capacity.
What interested Mr. Anthony Herman was all the bikini-clad teenagers. Mind you, his interest was not lascivious or peccable. It was paternal. His interest in each girl faded as soon as he determined she was not Jennifer Herman, sixteen, last seen heading over the ridge to “go explore the tide pools.” She was now an hour late.

“Tony.”

He didn’t look back, knowing that Stella, his wife, would only try to implore him to ‘wait up,’, or ‘don’t be angry,’ or ‘come back here right now.’ She would take their daughter’s part whenever she defied his edicts. Pausing at the top of the low, rocky ridge, Tony swept the extensive beach and tide-pool complex, seeking vainly the blue-eyed, leggy blonde, clad in a yellow and lime-green, flowery bikini. First he examined the beach area, where, strange as it seemed to him, nearly a third of the young girls were blonde, leggy, and dressed in yellow or lime-green bikinis. None, however, moved like his daughter did, striding purposefully, long blonde curls bouncing with every step forward into her future without the fear that always paralyzed her mother. At least she had got her determination from his side of the family. But the stubbornness? Definitely that came from her mother.

His glare next swept the tide-pool area. It took but a moment. Only one person was crawling about among the pools, presently accessible by a particularly low tide. He neither noticed the scarcity of salt water not gave the lone figure more than a glance. The person was male, so of no interest to him. Just as Stella was struggling over the last few feet toward the top of the ridge, Tony plunged down the other side, eager to reach the beach.
“Tony,” Stella vainly expostulated. Already he was half-way down the other side and gaining momentum as he went. She sat down on a large knob of sandstone, puffing for breath. With a desultory wave of the cigarette clenched in her fist, she gave up hope of reasoning with the man she had married. Lately he had seemed like a different person, especially when it came to the subject of Jennifer. Stella’s breathing subsided, and she took a long pull on the cigarette, holding the comforting smoke within her for several seconds, then slowly exhaling, letting go of hope along with the smoke.

A wisp of Stella’s smoke swirled through Sirauk’s olfactory senses. The sleek gull’s eyelids opened. He spread his black wings and lifted off the ridge, uttering a harsh “cowauk” in the direction of the smoker not knowing that his protest had failed to register with the offender. Now that he was airborne, other more primal urges seized Sirauk’s attention. With a subtle shifting of his primaries, he swung into a new flight trajectory to bring him over the exposed tidal pools. Perhaps there would be a nice sculpin or a tasty crab in one of the smaller pools, easy prey for a gull like Sirauk.

Swooping down, Sirauk soared over the outer pools, studying the offerings below him. Suddenly, before him a human form rose up. “Cowauk,” he shrieked, soaring easily up and over the creature. “Cowauk,” he muttered as he rose high over the beach. He sped out over the waves, then dropped to settle on the ocean. Turning his head, he probed among his feathers with his red beak. Gathering oil from his glands, he settled down to some preening. He was really not all that hungry—yet.

Amanda Skillings was not the image most people had in mind when the term ‘bird watcher” was used. Unlike the caricatures of cartoonists, she was not old, being just past her twentieth birthday. Nor was she dowdy, having the slim physique most people associate with fashion models. Nor was she frumpily dressed, as she wore the ubiquitous bikini and had received more than her fair share of masculine attention as she had moved along the beach. Nor was she a housewife. Instead, she was single, a biology major at the nearby University of California Santa Cruz, and a dorm mate of three young coeds. In fact, the only thing she shared in common with the common caricatures of bird watchers was that she was female—and this was the most uncommon thing she shared with her fellow fraternity of bird watchers.

Unlike the other young women on the beach that day, Amanda had not come in search of masculine attention, for she carried a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Guide to the Western Birds in one hand, a pencil and sketch book in the other, and wore a pair of binoculars about her neck. Already she had listed thirty-five species among the notes and drawings that were rapidly filling the pages of her sketchbook.

At this moment she was watching the delightful scurrying of a small flock of sanderlings. She loved the contradictions of these tiny birds—their bodies motionless and their legs a blur as they raced after the receding waves, snatching up tiny tidbits, then whirling about to race ahead of the next wave’s pursuit until, at last, the water receded and the whole thing started over. Amanda could watch this unceasing activity forever and not be bored.

It was just as the sanderlings turned again to race back after the receding wave, that Amanda sensed the gull lift off and swoop down toward the tide-pools. She swung her binoculars into action, swiftly centering the gull in the lens and adjusting her sweep to the speed of the gull’s flight.

“Larus Hermanni,” she exalted in such excited tones that Tony, storming past her, swung around to see if she was speaking to him. A moment later, he plunged on with his mission.

Amanda kept her glasses on the gull until it settled on the water. Now it was only visible when it crested each incoming swell, and even then, it was too far away to make observation worthwhile. She paused to make a brief note in her sketchbook, glanced once more in the gull’s direction, and saw it crest another swell. Then she moved on. She hadn’t even noticed the boy among the tide-pools.

Had Amanda set up a spotting scope on the top of the ridge, she could have glimpsed the simple laboratory on the other side of Monterey Bay where lusty Edward “Doc” Ricketts had studied the various tide-pool creatures that lived along the Pacific coast of California amid his avid pursuit of anyone wearing a skirt. His research of the creatures of the littoral zones led to his seminal book, Between Pacific Tides. His research among the young ladies of Monterey lead to John Steinbeck’s seminal book, Cannery Row.

Had Amanda talked to her biology professors, they could have told her about their colleague, the very Presbyterian Dr. Jack Calvin. Dr. Calvin had done field studies in these very tide-pools. Here, dressed in suit and tie, he had stood above the water line, refusing to get wet as he gave directions to his graduate students doing all the grunt work. Her professors could have told her how Dr. Calvin edited the second edition of Doc Ricketts’ book, keeping it alive for a second generation of Marine biologists.

Had Amanda attended Stanford, she could have sat in Dr. Joel Hedgpeth’s marine biology classes and learned from one of the men who had done that grunt work for Dr. Calvin. Dr. Hedgpeth had edited the third edition of Between Pacific Tides, introducing it to a third generation of tide-poolers. But Amanda was not interested in marine biology. She had given her heart to the hawks and all their feathered brethren.

Thus Amanda didn’t know that these three imminent biologists had all agreed that hermit crabs had such low brain functions that they operated entirely from instinct, being incapable of thought. While the boy in the tide-pools took interest in this theory, Oureey took no interest in it at all. But then, Oureey was only a hermit crab, and thus she was unable to take any interest in any idea at all. Without understanding, she was driven to find food, to find cast off turban shells she could appropriate, to find a mate, and to vanish inside her shell at the least disturbance of any type.

Thus she did not remember, so she could not plan. Oureey didn’t remember how, an hour earlier, a sudden dark shadow had covered the pool. Oureey couldn’t recall vanishing into her shell. She couldn’t recall the splash as the water was disturbed by the entrance of a foreign object. Oureey had no way to express the terror that overwhelmed her by the unnatural disturbance of the pool—which was her world even though she didn’t know it. She had hunkered down within the Black Turban shell until she forgot she was afraid. She had crawled out of her shell, oh, so slowly. But as no danger lurked, without thought, she peacefully returned to the pursuits that drove her. Thus had passed a very pleasant hour, although she didn’t know anything about pleasure or time.
This time, the shadow came suddenly. Two foreign objects plunged into the pool. Whoosh. Oureey squeezed back into her shell. Waves rocked her about, but she hugged tight to the safety of the shell. Slowly the rocking ceased. Still, Oureey hunkered down. Her hunger re-awakened, she finally, cautiously, crawled forward.
Again, the danger had passed, although Oureey had no memory of it. Once more, without thought, she returned to her searches.

Beyond the tide-pools, perched on the top of the sandstone cliffs that overlooked Natural Bridges State Park, Tom Abbott saw the boy fall. The boy had been crawling along a narrow rim of rock that divided two pools. He had paused to search one pool, and Tom had patiently watched the boy’s searching. Tom was a most patient man, for he had watched and waited for an hour already. A few more minutes didn’t matter.

Then the boy turned to search the other pool, lost his footing, and slipped headfirst toward the water. He thrust out his arms, plunging them into the water until they lodged against rock, halting his fall with his face just inches from a cold baptism.

Tom watched with interest as the boy remained in his awkward position. Ripples roiled the pool’s surface, ripples cause by the thrust of his arms into the pool to stop his fall. Tom waited along with the boy as the ripples slowly dissipated.

Abruptly, the boy sat up. His head slewed around like an owl’s. He scanned the nearby ridge, the beach, and around to the backside of the pools. He didn’t look up the cliff side where Tom watched. But Tom sat among the tall grasses that grew on the ridge tops, so he did not fear discovery. Suddenly, the boy stood, attempting the impossible—trying to run while slowly sauntering.

Up on the cliffs, wild laughter rang out, but the boy did not hear it for the roar of the waves, the shouts of the happy throngs on the beach, and the “auks” of seagulls swallowed up Tom’s mirth. “That’s one to tell the guys,” Tom chortled.

Lewis hurried from the tide-pools, his feelings verging toward sheer panic. He kept glancing about as he hurried toward the near ridge, looking for the murderer he feared. He saw a young woman standing near the end of the ridge, staring down at something with a pair of binoculars, and chose to ignore her. Ahead of him, climbing the ridge, was a large, overweight man dragging a petulant teenage girl by the arm. She was arguing with him, but the man said nothing, although his red face spoke eloquently. Lewis ignored them.

Lewis hurried up the ridge, feeling so young and vulnerable for all his twelve years. All he cared about was getting back to his family. He wanted to hide, to take cover, to shelter within the love and care of his family. Most of all, he wanted to forget what he had seen in the pool. Yet his mind wasn’t cooperating. Again and again, the thing flashed into his mind, rich in detail and so scary at the same time.

He had slipped on the rock, plunging forward toward the pool. He had stuck out his hands, finding flat enough rock to halt his fall. He had stirred up ripples in that act, turning the pool into a blurry, turbid window. Then the ripples had cleared.

He plunged down the other side of the ridge. Below was the beach where he had often body surfed. Beyond were the sea stacks and the two beautiful rock bridges that culminated the far ridge. He ignored them all now. Off to the left was the picnic area. There was his mother, his father, and his much older brother—the only remnants of safety and civility left him because of what lay in that pool—what had lain between his hands and just inches from his face.

He hurried past a group playing volleyball. He looked behind himself to make sure no one was following him. No one was. He trotted past the church youth group playing beach football. Then he slowed to a walk.

By the time he reached his family, the worst of his fears began subsiding. He plopped down in their midst.

“Have a good walk?”

“Sure,” he told his mother.

“How were the tide-pools?”

“Fine,” he lied to his father.

Inside he was screaming. He wanted to let everything spill out. He wanted to run to the park ranger’s office and tell them everything. Yet he knew, he just knew they wouldn’t believe him. Yet it was real. He had seen it. He had hung between water and sky, held by his arms and maintained by surprise. He had stared at it from a closer distance than any he had used to stare at in the human anatomy books he was always checking out of the library. He dreamed of being a doctor. He read anything he could find on first aid, anatomy, and medicine. And he had memorized the shapes of every internal organ of the human body. He knew what he had seen. He just didn’t know how it could have gotten into the tide pool.

He had once seen a dead seal, killed by sharks. He knew there was no way such a thing could naturally have been stripped from the body of a seal or sea lion, then wash ashore into a tide pool, and survive the battering waves, to lie so perfect and pristine, awaiting his discovery. That left him with one other alternative—it was human. Yet how had it appeared in the tide-pool?

He puzzled it over, paying no attention when the angry man, the sullen wife, and the argumentative daughter walked past, heading for the parking lot. His brother noticed the young woman bird watching as she walked down the beach. Suddenly his brother felt the need to do a little more body surfing. But the boy was oblivious to her passing.

When the time came to leave, he had still said nothing of what he had seen. He knew that it was now too late to say anything. If they would not have believed him three hours ago when he first came back, why would they believe him now, after waiting so long? He knew he would carry this incident with his through the years, sharing it with no one, forced to relive it periodically. He carried his secret with him to the car, treasuring it up in his heart during the short ride home, pondering over it as he lay in bed that night.

The setting sun hovered over the ocean, streaking the water’s crests blood red. The tide was turning. Each incoming wave ran higher up the sand toward the waiting tide-pools. The foghorn from distant Lighthouse Point was the only human element to disturb Sirauk, but he was too busy seeking beach-hoppers among the washed up seaweeds to notice the disturbance.

Oureey moved along a crevice in her pool. She was finding a wealth of edible flotsam. Unknown to her, a wave was sweeping up the beach, reaching hungrily for the pool that was her home.

The wave splashed over the rock barrier, swelling the pool into a frothy brew of foam, orts of seaweed, and grains of sand. A sculpin flashed out of a crevice to seize an edible fleck, then vanished back into the crevice. Palm Tree Kelp swirled amid the receding water. Oureey slipped into her shell. A neon red nudibranch clung to the rocky bottom, riding out the wave side by side with a Gum Boot Chiton.

A foreign object was caught up by the wave, dashed against the far rim of the pool, and then dragged back against the nearer rim. The force of the retreating water battered it against the rock. At last the force dissipated and the thing floated back into the midst of the pool. So it would be treated again and again, until its shape would crumble and the thing would become organic molecules. For days to come, the object would nourish the denizens of the pool. Oureey would welcome the end result without ever understanding. Sirauk would fly over, but see nothing for himself.

But in a bedroom in Cupertino, a young boy would dream that night, and in his dreams he would hear himself screaming although no actual sound passed his lips as he dreamed. There, in his dream, he suddenly discovered he was falling into a tide pool, unable to stop himself. And in the center of the tide pool, he found himself plunging into a pristine human brain.

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Filed under Childhood, Short Story, Summer, The Ocean

My Story

There are things I like to avoid lie the plague—like dead people. I went to John’s apartment to take care of some business, you know, and there he was, sprawled on the kitchen floor, dead as a doornail.

Well, I took the tiger by the tail and called the cops. They got there pretty quick, too, considering that the sugar from their donuts was a thick as thieves around their lips.

They were like a kid in a candy store, snapping pictures of the deceased and dusting for fingerprints. Sgt. Tomlin sat me down in the living room to take my statement. “Why did you come here?” he asked.

“Well, we, John and me that is, we are scout leaders,” I told him. “We needed to discuss an upcoming trip to Philmont.”

“What kind of trip?” he asked. Seriously? If only these walls could talk, I mean, the man couldn’t think outside the box much less find his way around the inside of the box. I’m not even sure he could think outside a bag or recognize beans when the bag was open. The man is like a low hanging fruit. I thought about saying a flippant “Acid trip, Dude,” but instead I told him about Philmont’s incredible outdoor scout program.

After about an hour of Tomlin’s stumbling interview, he joined the other cops searching for clues. They say every dog has its day, but this was not Tomlin’s day, nor was it Detective Billson’s day. It was I who found the threads from a red pair of pants, still clutched in John’s cold dead fingers. Billson ragged Tomlin for overlooking the thread he himself had missed, sort of the pot calling the kettle black. They both needed to wake up and smell the coffee.

But at the end of the day they got their man. Seems that the man in the red coat that was missing the thread found in John’s hand had stopped at the 7-11 store across the street to stock up on beer. The rookie cop left outside to guard the patrol cars caught him jaywalking.

Well, now I need to find someone to replace John for our Philmont trip. There are plenty of fish in the sea they say, so I should have no problem finding someone soon.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

(If you’ve stuck with me this far–this was a deliberate writing exercise to see how many bad clichés I could work into a short story.)

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Filed under Humor, Scouts, Short Story

My First Backpack

My Yucca backpack looked like Half Dome strapped to my back.  I would have sworn it weighted the same.

“Keep putting one foot in front of the other,” I told my brain, which was busy receiving and transmitting many messages.

“Left foot, lift!”

“Now step forward.”

“Foot to brain, I am unable to break contact with earth.”

“SOS.  SOS.  SOS.”

“Shoulder to brain.  If this weight isn’t removed quickly…just saying.”

“Heart to brain.  I think the kid’s gonna die.”

“Left foot.  Lift.  Come on, you can do it.  Lift.”

“Mayday.  Mayday.”

“OK. Slide then.”

Leaning heavily on my walking stick, I managed to slide my left foot forward two inches.  “Gonna make it.  I can do this.”

I looked back from where I had come.  I was approximately fifty feet from the start of the trail.

“Gonna die.”

 ҉

 I was the newest scout in Troop 404.  On my first backpack.  Having traveled 50 feet with only 26,350 more feet to go.

I had packed my Yucca pack thoughtfully, desiring nothing to weight my down but essentials.  Iron skillet, needed for breakfast. Check.  Surplus Army folding shovel, needed for digging a latrine and a grease pit.  Check.  Ten pound sleeping bag, the lightest available in 1963, and it was not close to 32 degree rated.  Check.  My share of the grub, including several tins of beans and a pound of raw hamburger.  Half a pup-tent, also army surplus.  My tent mate had the other half.  Metal canteen filled with water.  Deck of cards.  Two changes of clothes.  Tent stakes and poles, wooden.  First aid kit.  Snake bite kit.  I could not thing of a single superfluous item that removed might lighten my load.  I needed my Boy Scout Handbook.  I was engrossed in my Hardy Boys mystery I had brought along.  I needed that two-pound metal flashlight.  Yup, I needed it all.

Something in my pack was gouging into my back.  “Feels like the hammer,” I decided.

 ҉

 A Yucca pack in is a big canvas sack attached by two narrow, unpadded straps to your back.

“Didn’t you have a pack frame,” you enquire.

“No,” I would have answered, “never heard of such a thing.  Is that like a left-handed smoke shifter?”

The closest solution we had was to take a narrow piece of fabric, sling it under the bottom of the backpack, then tie it about your forehead.  That took some of the weight off your shoulders.  Of course, when you got to your camp site and slipped off the pack, your neck compensated by tilting your head back.  You would walk around like a birdwatcher, unable to see the ground beneath you.

As the slowest hiker, I was at the front of the line, the other neophyte backpackers immediately behind me.  “I think… (gasp)…I… (gasp)…can’t,” I wheezed.

“(Gasp)…shut… (gasp)…up and… (gasp)…keep… (gasp)…walking,” myself replied.

And then we started uphill.

 ҉

 I can recall every detail of that climb.  This mountain was as sheer as El Capitan.  I began to climb, my fingers searching for small ledges and protrusions, my feet hunting for toe holds.  I became quite familiar with every pebble and every grain of sand I passed.  How long this lasted, I have no idea.  I didn’t have time to observe things like the shrinking shadows of the pebbles.  I only had eyes for this cliff.

Before long I had become so familiar with it, I introduced myself.  “Hi.  I’m Louis,” I said.

“Ralph’s the name,” the cliff replied.

“Ralph is what I feel like doing.”

 ҉

 At last my hands found Ralph’s top.  I pulled myself up, stepped onto a flat surface, tottered forward a few steps, then stooped over into a new prayer position, hands braced on my knees as I sucked in air.  “Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.”

The other newbies crawled over the ledge, tottered a few steps, and joined me in this new prayer posture.  Of course, our prayers were silent ones.  To busy sucking oxygen to murmur a groan.

When our religious observations were over—which just happened to coincide with our regaining our ability to breathe without strange whistling sounds—I became aware that our Senior Patrol Leader was standing beside me.  Your standard Senior Patrol Leader can be a rather sadistic fellow.

“Look around you,” he instructed me.  I looked around.

I was atop a long ridge, overlooking deep valleys.  I elevated my gaze, becoming aware of yet another ridge, a ridge as steep as the one I had just climbed.  A ridge that continued to rise with my upward sweeping gaze.  A ridge that was at least twice as tall as the one on which I stood.

Dismay washed over me.  No, washing doesn’t do it justice.  It hit me like a giant Tsunami, sweeping away breathe, hope, courage and all dozen attributes of the Scout Law.

“This,” said our Senior Patrol Leader, savoring the flavor of each word rolling across his tongue, “is…little…” (he paused, a pregnant pause, a wicked delight plastering his face into an ugly caricature of humanity) “…Kodiak!”

“That…” he pointed to the mountain before us, “…that,…my friends…is…” (this pause was long enough for a sustained drumroll) “…BIG……..KO…………DI…………….AK!”

 ҉

 It took us two weeks to ascend Big Kodiak and make our descent into the massive gorge where our camp was to be established.  We all thought it strange we had not experienced darkness or seen moon or star the entire two weeks.  But we weren’t complaining.  We hurriedly set up and settled into the comforts of camp.  It was just as we settled down for what we hoped was a month’s rest when our Senior Patrol Leader came by.

“Well, guys, it’s time to fix lunch.  And to think, it took you all mourning to hike into here.  Tomorrow…” he savored each word, “…you…get…to hike…back…OUT!”

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Filed under Backpacking, Camping, Scouts, Short Story

But Not Tonight

We lived beyond the knowledge of those living ten miles away. We believed it to be Shangri-La among the fields of prune trees and apricot orchards. When the winter rains fell and dry creeks roared to life, we, the happy tribe of lost children, stared out the tear-streaked glass longing for spring. Then, when spring transformed the prune trees into white-clad Cinderella’s and yellow mustard waved tribute at their feet, we poured from our front porches to enjoin the rites of spring.

First, there were long tubes of wood to be brought outside. “Lumber,” some called them, “timber,” others proclaimed. The long crack in Gate’s had been carefully taped up and an ugly nick in Tom’s had been smoothed down with rasp and file over the rainy days. Everyone agreed that these repairs would suffice.

Second, webbed, leather hand protectors were brought out. Eagerly we worked the winter stiffened calfskin, each one seeking that personal preference of malleable perfection. No one asked what substances others used. Those were closely guarded secrets. Mine (and I’m finally revealing my closely guarded secret from all these decades past) was simply lots of spit. I couldn’t afford anything else.

Last, there were the leather spheres essential to our seasonal oblations. Jimmy’s had a fresh coat of masking tape, Tony’s was brand new. Mine was blackened from use and scuffed to boot. Clearly we would use Tony’s first and Jimmy’s last.

These simple utensils at hand, it was time to begin the sacred rites. Joey and Tom divided us quickly into two equal groups. Then Joey topped a bat which Tom caught with one hand. Joey immediately placed a hand on top of Tom’s, and hand over hand they raced until Tom’s hand closed over the top.

“Tom’s up,” we called. Joey’s team took the street. Tom’s team sat on the sidewalk in front of Joey’s house, Tom assigning us our order. “Gate first, then Steve. I’m third, Brian fourth…” and as usual, “Mark, you’re last.” Tom, Joey, Dave, those three could drive a ball past the end of the street and into the front yards of the houses beyond. Me? No one played back when I came up to bat. I was lucky if I hit the far fence of Jimmy’s yard, which wasn’t saying much as it was only five feet past first base.

Home plate was the rectangle of painted house numbers on the curb in front of Joey’s house. First base was the same painted rectangle in front of Jimmy’s house, and third base was the same in front of the house no one stayed in for very long. Second base was the small cover over the electrical access in the middle of the street, which being only five feet beyond the manhole cover/pitcher’s mound, made our diamond rather asymmetrical. The yards of those houses that were in bounds, (Tom’s and Andy’s) were fair territory, but the houses were all out-of-bounds.

I came up in the second inning, determined that today was my day. Today I would drive the ball. Today I would force the outfielders crowding second base to sprint hopelessly after a ball heading to the far corners of the street. I swung at Matt’s first pitch. Bat and ball met in the sweet territory where crossed two trajectories. The ball soared up, up, and still up. I flung my bat aside, racing toward first, rounding the bag, looking out into the street trying to find where the ball would land. No one was racing down the street towards a vanishing ball. I glanced back. Matt stood on the pitcher’s mound, glove extended toward the sky, and there as I watched, the ball settled into the pocket of his mit. I was out, another lousy high-flying pop-up.

The rest of the morning was futility for me. Every ball I hit found its way into someone’s mit. I was out, out, out when I came up to the plate.

I wasn’t much better on the mound. I usually pitched, mostly because I wasn’t very good. My pitches were high, low, outside, inside, but rarely over the plate. Not that it mattered. No one else pitches much better. We depended upon defense and scoring to win games. The idea was my lousy pitching would be hard to hit, but the reality was that no one had much trouble hitting off me.

About the fifteenth inning the score was tied 22 to 22. Gate smoked the ball. Kenny, running from first, went racing for home, Gate flying behind him. Danny raced into Tom’s yard, dug the ball out of a juniper bush, and threw it to Tony at third. Tony gloved the ball, turned, and tagged Gate as he stepped on base.

“Out,” screamed Tony.

“Safe,” yelled Gate.

“Out,” hollered Tony holding up the ball to back up his claim. “Out,” yelled Tony’s teammates.

“Safe,” reiterated Gate. “Safe,” argued his teammates.

“Out,” screamed Tony, hurling his mitt on the base to underscore his assertion. “You’re out. I tagged you before you touched the base.”

“Did not,” bellowed Gate, waving his hands to emphasize his point. “Touched base before you tagged me.”

“Did not,” Tony’s team backed up their man. “I saw him tag you. You’re out, out, out!”

“I saw his foot touch base before the tag,” replied Gate’s teammates. “Safe by a mile.”

For several minutes we yelled back and forth, neither team willing to budge. We knew the compromise that we would settle on. Gate would go back to second where everyone agreed he had been safe. As it wasn’t the third out, Tony got the out. We had a one run lead and the game continued.

It was after lunch break that I got my first bit of luck. Batting in the thirty-five inning, the pitcher got one over the plate and I swung with all my might. At the crack of the bat and ball, Robert on third raced for home as I raced for first. The ball dribbled about two feet in front of me, coming to a halt in fair territory. As each team up had to provide the catcher, the pitcher, Matt, had to field the ball. He raced to the ball, scooped it up, and collided with Robert. The ball flew out of his hand as Robert fell on home plate. I stood on second base, safe.

The rest of the afternoon descended into a boring game of outs broken up by rare runs, and at dinner break, our team trailed by three runs. Dinner break was longer than lunch break. Father’s had come home from work, causing time outs as they drove through the playing field into their drive ways. As usual, Jimmy’s dad parked on the street, adding an additional hazard to our game. We were called in for supper, all at different times, so by the tine we reassembled we had about an hour of daylight left. It was inning fifty-six.

Now it was my team’s turn to put up or shut up. We scored a quick run, then, after two scoreless innings, we got two more runs. The game was tied. By then, the sun was down and light was leaking out of the sky. It didn’t matter. Our eyes were adjusting to the growing dark and we could see just fine. It was parents, looking out of well-lit rooms, who would call an end to our  games a good ten minutes or more before it would have been too dark to play. As we came to bat, they hadn’t looked out yet.

Robert drilled a line drive into Daniel’s glove. One away. Roger knocked the ball into Andy’s yard and was safe at first. Time came up and I was on deck. “Come on, Tim,” I called. “Get a hit.”

“We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher,” roared my team. Matt wound up. He threw. The ball loomed out of the dark. Tim swung. Roger was running. The ball rocket off Tim’s bat. Danny, raced after the ball, scooped it up, threw to second. Matt, covering the base, caught the ball and tagged Tim. Roger held up at third. Two away.

I came up, the worst hitter on the team. The go ahead run was on third, but if I got out…. I refused to think about that. This was my moment. I gave the bat a practice swing, then stepped to the plate.

Matt hurled the ball and I swung, bat biting the air. Strike one. Matt threw again. I swung fouling the ball straight back into the bumper of Joey’s dad’s truck. Strike two.

I stepped back to the plate, glaring at Matt. He reared, threw, and I swung.

The ball rocketed off my bat and I was running toward first. Dave raced backward’s from first, stopping at the far fence in Jimmy’s yard. Joey raced into Andy’s yard, stopping on Andy’s side of that fence. Allen raced to the front corner of the fence. Yes, another pop-up. All three strained to see the descending ball. “Mine,” yelled Allen.

I stopped on first. Roger had stopped a step from home plate. We watched the ball soaring down, Allen’s glove making a swipe at the ball, missing, and the ball hitting on the very corner of the fence, then ricochetting off into Jimmy’s yard. Roger stepped on home. And then Gate’s mother’s voice, “Tony, Gate, Danny, Matt, time to come in.” The game was over.

It was the darkness that gave me my sole moment of baseball glory. Had my high pop-up occurred in the better light of just twenty minutes earlier, Allen would have made that catch easily. As it was, I had hit the ball so high, it had disappeared into the dark, then came hurtling down not giving Allen time to judge the ball. I didn’t care. For once I was the hero. For once I had driven in the winning run. For once I felt what it was like to be a Willie Mays or an Orlando Cepeda. I would go home, get ready for bed, and lay my head down to sleep in triumphant.

For tomorrow the sun would come up and we would rise and go forth and play another day-long game of baseball, and I would be the same lousy ball player I had always been. But not tonight.

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In The Tide-pool

It was another beautiful day in Santa Cruz. Actually, no one is sure what a bad day in Santa Cruz would look like. In Santa Cruz, in fog, or rain, or wind, or when swells run twelve feet high and fishing boats bounce like a bobber on a line, or most of all, in delightful, sunny weather that nukes shoulders and noses to crisps—not one day exists that isn’t beautiful. This day was one of the sunny ones, but Mr. Anthony Herman was not interested in the sun drenched beaches, the tide-pools, or the waves, nor did he care that his nose was rapidly reaching glow-in-the-dark capacity.

What interested Mr. Anthony Herman was all the bikini-clad teenagers. Mind you, his interest was not lascivious or peccable. It was paternal. His interest in each girl faded as soon as he determined she was not Jennifer Herman, sixteen, last seen heading over the ridge to “go explore the tide pools.” She was now an hour late.

“Tony.”

He didn’t look back, knowing that Stella, his wife, would only try to implore him to ‘wait up,’, or ‘don’t be angry,’ or ‘come back here right now.’ She would take their daughter’s part whenever she defied his edicts. Pausing at the top of the low, rocky ridge, Tony swept the extensive beach and tide-pool complex, seeking vainly the blue-eyed, leggy blonde, clad in a yellow and lime-green, flowery bikini. First he examined the beach area, where, strange as it seemed to him, nearly a third of the young girls were blonde, leggy, and dressed in yellow or lime-green bikinis. None, however, moved like his daughter did, striding purposefully, long blonde curls bouncing with every step forward into her future without the fear that always paralyzed her mother. At least she had got her determination from his side of the family. But the stubbornness? Definitely that came from her mother.

His glare next swept the tide-pool area. It took but a moment. Only one person was crawling about among the pools, presently accessible by a particularly low tide. He neither noticed the scarcity of salt water not gave the lone figure more than a glance. The person was male, so of no interest to him. Just as Stella was struggling over the last few feet toward the top of the ridge, Tony plunged down the other side, eager to reach the beach.

“Tony,” Stella vainly expostulated. Already he was half-way down the other side and gaining momentum as he went. She sat down on a large knob of sandstone, puffing for breath. With a desultory wave of the cigarette clenched in her fist, she gave up hope of reasoning with the man she had married. Lately he had seemed like a different person, especially when it came to the subject of Jennifer. Stella’s breathing subsided, and she took a long pull on the cigarette, holding the comforting smoke within her for several seconds, then slowly exhaling, letting go of hope along with the smoke.

*

A wisp of Stella’s smoke swirled through Sirauk’s olfactory senses. The sleek gull’s eyelids opened. He spread his black wings and lifted off the ridge, uttering a harsh “cow auk” in the direction of the smoker, not knowing that his protest had failed to register with the offender. Now that he was airborne, other more primal urges seized Sirauk’s attention. With a subtle shifting of his primaries, he swung into a new flight trajectory to bring him over the exposed tidal pools. Perhaps there would be a nice sculpin or a tasty crab in one of the smaller pools, easy prey for a gull like Sirauk.

Swooping down, Sirauk soared over the outer pools, studying the offerings below him. Suddenly, before him a human form rose up. “Cow auk,” he shrieked, soaring easily up and over the creature. “Cow auk,” he muttered as he rose high over the beach. He sped out over the waves, then dropped to settle on the ocean. Turning his head, he probed among his feathers with his red beak. Gathering oil from his glands, he settled down to some preening. He was really not all that hungry—yet.

*

Amanda Skillings was not the image most people had in mind when the term ‘bird watcher” was used. Unlike the caricatures of cartoonists, she was not old, being just past her twentieth birthday. Nor was she dowdy, having the slim physique most people associate with fashion models. Nor was she frumpily dressed, as she wore the ubiquitous bikini and had received more than her fair share of masculine attention as she had moved along the beach. Nor was she a housewife. Instead, she was single, a biology major at the nearby University of California Santa Cruz, and a dorm mate to three young coeds. In fact, the only thing she shared in common with the common caricatures of bird watchers was that she was female—and this was the most uncommon thing she shared with her fellow fraternity of bird watchers.

Unlike the other young women on the beach that day, Amanda had not come in search of masculine attention, for she carried a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Guide to the Western Birds in one hand, a pencil and sketch book in the other, and wore a pair of binoculars about her neck. Already she had listed thirty-five species among the notes and drawings that were rapidly filling the pages of her sketchbook.

At this moment she was watching the delightful scurrying of a small flock of sanderlings. She loved the contradictions of these tiny birds—their bodies motionless and their legs a blur as they raced after the receding waves, snatching up tiny tidbits, then whirling about to race ahead of the next wave’s pursuit until, at last, the water receded and the whole thing started over. Amanda could watch this unceasing activity forever and not be bored.

It was just as the sanderlings turned again to race back after the receding wave, that Amanda sensed the gull lift off and swoop down toward the tide-pools. She swung her binoculars into action, swiftly centering the gull in the lens and adjusting her sweep to the speed of the gull’s flight.

“Larus Hermanni,” she exalted in such excited tones that Tony, storming past her, swung around to see if she was speaking to him. A moment later, he plunged on with his mission.

Amanda kept her glasses on the gull until it settled on the water. Now it was only visible when it crested each incoming swell, and even then, it was too far away to make observation worthwhile. She paused to make a brief note in her sketchbook, glanced once more in the gull’s direction, and saw it crest another swell. Then she moved on. She hadn’t even noticed the boy among the tide-pools.

*

Had Amanda set up a spotting scope on the top of the ridge, she could have glimpsed the simple laboratory on the other side of Monterey Bay where lusty Edward “Doc” Ricketts had studied the various tide-pool creatures that lived along the Pacific coast of California—amid his avid pursuit of anyone wearing a skirt. His research of the creatures of the littoral zones led to his seminal book, Between Pacific Tides. His research among the young ladies of Monterey lead to John Steinbeck’s seminal book, Cannery Row.

Had Amanda talked to her biology professors, they could have told her about their colleague, the very Presbyterian Dr. Jack Calvin. Dr. Calvin had done field studies in these very tide-pools. Here, dressed in suit and tie, he had stood above the water line, refusing to get wet as he gave directions to his graduate students doing all the grunt work. Her professors could have told her how Dr. Calvin edited the second edition of Doc Ricketts’ book, keeping it alive for a second generation of Marine biologists.

Had Amanda attended Stanford, she could have sat in Dr. Joel Hedgpeth’s marine biology classes and learned from one of the men who had done that grunt work for Dr. Calvin. Dr. Hedgpeth had edited the third edition of Between Pacific Tides, introducing it to a third generation of tide-poolers. But Amanda was not interested in marine biology. She had given her heart to the hawks and all their feathered brethren.

Thus Amanda didn’t know that these three imminent biologists had all agreed that hermit crabs had such low brain functions that they operated entirely from instinct, being incapable of thought. While the boy in the tide-pools took interest in this theory, Oureey took no interest in it at all. But then, Oureey was only a hermit crab, and thus she was unable to take any interest in any idea at all. Without understanding, she was driven to find food, to find cast off turban shells she could appropriate, to find a mate, and to vanish inside her shell at the least disturbance of any type.

Thus she did not remember, so she could not plan. Oureey didn’t remember how, an hour earlier, a sudden dark shadow had covered the pool. Oureey couldn’t recall vanishing into her shell. She couldn’t recall the splash as the water was disturbed by the entrance of a foreign object. Oureey had no way to express the terror that overwhelmed her by the unnatural disturbance of the pool—which was her world even though she didn’t know it. She had hunkered down within the Black Turban shell until she forgot she was afraid. She had crawled out of her shell, oh, so slowly. But as no danger lurked, without thought, she peacefully returned to the pursuits that drove her. Thus had passed a very pleasant hour, although she didn’t know anything about pleasure or time.

This time, the shadow came suddenly. Two foreign objects plunged into the pool. Whoosh. Oureey squeezed back into her shell. Waves rocked her about, but she hugged tight to the safety of the shell. Slowly the rocking ceased. Still, Oureey hunkered down. Her hunger re-awakened, she finally, cautiously, crawled forward.

Again, the danger had passed, although Oureey had no memory of it. Once more, without thought, she returned to her searches.

*

Beyond the tide-pools, perched on the top of the sandstone cliffs that overlooked Natural Bridges State Park, Tom Abbott saw the boy fall. The boy had been crawling along a narrow rim of rock that divided two pools. He had paused to search one pool, and Tom had patiently watched the boy’s searching. Tom was a most patient man, for he had watched and waited for an hour already. A few more minutes didn’t matter.

Then the boy turned to search the other pool, lost his footing, and slipped headfirst toward the water. He thrust out his arms, plunging them into the water until they lodged against rock, halting his fall with his face just inches from a cold baptism.

Tom watched with interest as the boy remained in his awkward position. Ripples roiled the pool’s surface, ripples cause by the thrust of his arms into the pool to stop his fall. Tom waited along with the boy as the ripples slowly dissipated.

Abruptly, the boy sat up. His head slewed around like an owl’s. He scanned the nearby ridge, the beach, and around to the backside of the pools. He didn’t look up the cliff side where Tom watched. But Tom sat among the tall grasses that grew on the ridge tops, so he did not fear discovery. Suddenly, the boy stood, attempting the impossible—trying to run while slowly sauntering.

Up on the cliffs, wild laughter rang out, but the boy did not hear it for the roar of the waves, the shouts of the happy throngs on the beach, and the “auks” of seagulls swallowed up Tom’s mirth. “That’s one to tell the guys,” Tom chortled.

*

Lewis hurried from the tide-pools, his feelings verging toward sheer panic. He kept glancing about as he hurried toward the near ridge, looking for the murderer he feared. He saw a young woman standing near the end of the ridge, staring down at something with a pair of binoculars, and chose to ignore her. Ahead of him, climbing the ridge, was a large, overweight man dragging a petulant teenage girl by the arm. She was arguing with him, but the man said nothing, although his red face spoke eloquently. Lewis ignored them.

Lewis hurried up the ridge, feeling so young and vulnerable for all his twelve years. All he cared about was getting back to his family. He wanted to hide, to take cover, to shelter within the love and care of his family. Most of all, he wanted to forget what he had seen in the pool. Yet his mind wasn’t cooperating. Again and again, the thing flashed into his mind, rich in detail and so scary at the same time.

He had slipped on the rock, plunging forward toward the pool. He had stuck out his hands, finding flat enough rock to halt his fall. He had stirred up ripples in that act, turning the pool into a blurry, turbid window. Then the ripples had cleared.

He plunged down the other side of the ridge. Below was the beach where he had often body surfed. Beyond were the sea stacks and the two beautiful rock bridges that culminated the far ridge. He ignored them all now. Off to the left was the picnic area. There was his mother, his father, and his much older brother—the only remnants of safety and civility left him because of what lay in that pool—what had lain between his hands and just inches from his face.

He hurried past a group playing volleyball. He looked behind himself to make sure no one was following him. No one was. He trotted past the church youth group playing beach football. Then he slowed to a walk.

By the time he reached his family, the worst of his fears began subsiding. He plopped down in their midst.

“Have a good walk?”

“Sure,” he told his mother.

“How were the tide-pools?”

“Fine,” he lied to his father.

*

Inside he was screaming. He wanted to let everything spill out. He wanted to run to the park ranger’s office and tell them everything. Yet he knew, he just knew they wouldn’t believe him. Yet it was real. He had seen it. He had hung between water and sky, held by his arms and maintained by surprise. He had stared at it from a closer distance than any he had used to stare at the human anatomy books he was always checking out of the library. He dreamed of being a doctor. He read anything he could find on first aid, anatomy, and medicine. And he had memorized the shapes of every internal organ of the human body. He knew what he had seen. He just didn’t know how it could have gotten into the tide pool.

He had once seen a dead seal, killed by sharks. He knew there was no way such a thing could naturally have been stripped from the body of a seal or a sea lion, then wash ashore into a tide pool, and survive the battering waves, to lie so perfect and pristine, awaiting his discovery. That left him with one other alternative—it was human. Yet how had it appeared in the tide-pool?

He puzzled it over, paying no attention when the angry man, the sullen wife, and the argumentative daughter walked past, heading for the parking lot. His brother noticed the young woman bird watching as she walked down the beach. Suddenly his brother felt the need to do a little more body surfing. But the boy was oblivious to her passing.

When the time came to leave, he had still said nothing of what he had seen. He knew that it was now too late to say anything. If they would not have believed him three hours ago when he first came back, why would they believe him now, after waiting so long? He knew he would carry this incident with his through the years, sharing it with no one, forced to relive it periodically. He carried his secret with him to the car, treasuring it up in his heart during the short ride home, pondering over it as he lay in bed that night.

*

The setting sun hovered over the ocean, streaking the water’s crests blood red. The tide was turning. Each incoming wave ran higher up the sand toward the waiting tide-pools. The foghorn from distant Lighthouse Point was the only human element to disturb Sirauk, but he was too busy seeking beach-hoppers among the washed up seaweeds to notice the disturbance.

Oureey moved along a crevice in her pool. She was finding a wealth of edible flotsam. Unknown to her, a wave was sweeping up the beach, reaching hungrily for the pool that was her home.

The wave splashed over the rock barrier, swelling the pool into a frothy brew of foam, orts of seaweed, and grains of sand. A sculpin flashed out of a crevice to seize an edible fleck, then vanished back into the crevice. Palm Tree Kelp swirled amid the receding water. Oureey slipped into her shell. A neon red nudibranch clung to the rocky bottom, riding out the wave side by side with a Gum Boot Chiton.

A foreign object was caught up by the wave, dashed against the far rim of the pool, and then dragged back against the nearer rim. The force of the retreating water battered it against the rock. At last the force dissipated and the thing floated back into the midst of the pool. So it would be treated again and again, until its shape would crumble and the thing would become organic molecules. For days to come, the object would nourish the denizens of the pool. Oureey would welcome the end result without ever understanding. Sirauk would fly over, but see nothing for himself.

But in a bedroom in Cupertino, a young boy would dream that night, and in his dreams he would hear himself screaming although no actual sound passed his lips as he dreamed. There, in his dream, he suddenly discovered he was falling into a tide pool, unable to stop himself. And in the center of the tide pool, he found himself plunging into a pristine human brain.

(This story idea came from a real experience.  In working out the story, I suggest the whole thing was a prank–anatomy students of the bay area are famous for just such pranks.  But I really don’t know how that brain got in that pool.)

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Tea With Rudolph

            Mark was seven years old when he first heard the Eroica Symphony.  He sat the 33 1/3 long play record on the Hi-Fi and dropped the arm.  When the arm picked up an eternity later, he knew that everything had changed for him.

            He had always been different from the other kids.  Not one of the popular kids, but also not one of the problem kids: a watcher, he called himself.  He wasn’t allowed to participate in the life at school, just allowed to watch the other kids live.  But the Beethoven Symphony changed all that.

            Two thunder-clap chords and he escaped time upon them.  The cellos sang the opening theme and he lived a lifetime in every note he heard.  His older brother complained, “It’s quiet stuff, then suddenly it’s loud, back and forth with nothing in between.  But he knew his brother was wrong.  The whole universe was in between every note.

Although that record was the only Beethoven record the family owned, he occasionally heard other Beethoven pieces on KDFC.  Even before he began piano lessons, he had learned that there were 32 piano Sonatas by Beethoven.  He was determined to learn all of them.

            Two years later, he began asking his teacher, Mrs. Robillard, every other month,  “What about the Beethoven Sonatas?”

            She would smile, always smiling kindly, and would say, “Not yet.  You are not yet ready,” but never slightingly, never condescendingly.  “Why don’t you try this Three-Part Invention by Bach?” or “this Sonata by Czerny.”

            Finally she permitted him to try the Beethoven Ecossaises and the German Dances.  These were delightful pieces, but not the Beethoven he wanted.  They were youthful Beethoven, full of verve and flash, but lacking the profundity of the Eroica Symphony or the Waldenstein Sonata.

            Then, at last, she ended a lesson with the words, “Buy the Beethoven Sonatas and bring them with you next week.  It is time to start.”  At his next lesson, she assigned the first movement of the Sonata Quasi Il Fantasia, often wrongly called the “Moonlight Sonata.”  He began learning it as soon as he got home, playing until dinnertime, and then playing it after dinner until bedtime.  “How could something that was so simple be so difficult to play?” he asked himself over and over.

            He asked that question of Mrs. Robillard.  “You will find it to be true in everything,” she answered.  “The simplest things are the hardest things to do well.  Any average piano player can master the mechanics of this piece, but to make music of it?  Ah, that is another matter.”

            By his eighth grade year in Junior High School, he had become his church’s pianist, playing with Harland Shippam, the organist, for all the hymns.  Every couple of months he was asked to play a prelude, an Offertory, or a postlude by himself.  Mrs. Robillard always decided which piece was ready for these events.

            Not long after this, Mrs. Robillard broke into his playing of the Sonata with a question.  “Have you fallen in love?”

            Reticent as any teenager to discuss matters of the heart with an adult, he haltingly replied, “Yes, I have.”

            “But it ended unhappily, didn’t it?”

            He looked down at his hands on the keys, unhappily giving a nod of agreement.  He, having no knowledge of the rules of dating, had made some unknown, apparently unforgivable, mistake.

            “I could tell,” Mrs. Robillard said.  “It is in your playing.  Next time you are asked to play the prelude or Offertory at church, play this piece.”

            It was, at most, a month before Harlan asked him to play an Offertory the next Sunday.

            “Would this piece be too long?” he asked, showing Harlan the music.

            “Are you playing Beethoven now?”

            “I am.”

            “It will be fine.  Play it next Sunday.

***

            Within his church choir was an elderly German woman, Helga Kunkel.  Harlan, the organist, and his sister, Maple McFarland, the choir director, always called her Miss Kunkel with deep respect.  In the 1930s and 1940s she had sung in the Berlin Opera Company.  Mark never liked the vibrato that opera singers filled their voices with, so he had paid little attention to Helga’s singing.  He was quite surprised on the Thursday following his playing the Beethoven in church, to find a letter waiting him at home.  It was from Helga.  He read the note to his mother.

            “My brother requests that you join us for tea this Saturday at two o’clock.  He particularly desires that you play for him the Beethoven Sonata you played in church on Sunday.”

            He showed the letter to his mother.  “What should I do?” he asked her.

            “You will go,” she replied, “and you will play for him.”

***

            The Kunkel’s lived in a small ranch house just a few blocks from the church.  Helga opened the door.  “Come in, come in,” she welcomed him.

             Just to the right as he entered the house was the piano.  Large bookcases stood on each side of the piano and shelves stretched over the piano between the bookcases.  These were filled with piano music.

 “This is my brother, Rudolph.  Rudolph, this is the boy I told you about, Mark,” she introduced them.

             “Come, come,” Rudolph waved him to a comfortable chair.  “Thank you for joining us for tea.”  Helga bustled out of the living room and a few minutes later returned, bearing three cups of tea in fancy bone china cups and several German pastries on a platter.  They settled down to eat and talk and drink.

             After some small talk, Rudolph began the conversation.  “So you are a pianist?”

             “I hope to become one someday,” he replied.

             “And you are learning Beethoven’s fourteenth sonata?”

             “I’ve just begun work on the second movement.”

             “Did you know that I was a pianist once?”

             “No,” he replied, surprised at this admission.

             “You know my sister sang in the Berlin Opera Company?”

             “Yes.”

             “I was the pianist for the Berlin Opera.  But that is a long story that can wait until after you play for me.  Are you finished with your tea?”

             “I am.”

             “Then please play.”

             Somewhat ill at ease, unused to playing at command and unsure how a pianist once employed by the Berlin Opera Company would view his playing, he took his place at the piano.  Rudolph’s copy of Beethoven’s sonatas was open on the piano rack.  He poised himself, taking a long, slow breath.  Then he began to play.

             When he released the last pianissimo chord, he again inhaled slowly, then turned to his audience.  Rudolf and Helga were looking at each other, a smile on Helga’s face.  “Did I not tell you?” she softly asked her brother.

             “Good,” Rudolph turned to him.  “Good.”  Mark could tell Rudolph’s approval indicated he had surpassed Rudolph’s expectations, but he wasn’t sure how good Rudolph really thought him.

             “Now if you would retake your seat and, perhaps with a little more tea, Helga, I will tell you my story.”

 ***

            “When the war began, Hitler needed musicians.  Our performances would indicate to the world that life still went on the same in Germany.  We musicians received deferments.  I was glad, for I had no wish to fight for Hitler.  I was content to stay within the small world we musicians created for ourselves—our oasis of beauty and peace.

             “But in 1944, Hitler was losing the war.  He needed men for his armies, so he revoked all musician deferments.  I received my orders to join the army.

             “We had two weeks training, barely time to learn which end of a rifle to shoot out of, and then we were sent to the Eastern front.  I was not a very good soldier.  My very first day on the front, I was captured by the Russians.

             “I was taken to a prisoner camp.  It was a miserable place.  I was put in a small cell, barely enough room to move a step or two.  We were given a thin cabbage soup—more water than food—maybe a small piece of cabbage or a scrap or two of potato in a bowl.  That was our dinner each day.  And we were given a single sheet of very poor quality paper every week, to write a letter home on.  Of course, I didn’t write any letters.  Here, let me show you.”

             Rudolph went to the music bookshelves, pulling a large folio from the shelves.  He handed the folio to Mark saying, “Open it.”  Then Rudolph settled back into his chair.  “I used my paper to write music.  I had to draw the staffs as small as possible to squeeze as many measures of music onto a page as possible.”

             Mark opened the folio.  Course, gray paper, roughly 11 inches by 17 inches, contained tiny lines of music, each, despite its small size, clearly written in a neat hand.

             “Some of the guards were kind.  One would occasionally give me an extra sheet of paper.  When some of the other prisoners learned what I was doing, the ones who had no one to write home to would send me their paper through a friendly guard.  I had to hide my extra pages, of course, for we were not permitted more than one blank sheet of paper at a time in our cells.  Most of the guards, however, never searched my cell thoroughly.

             “The Russian government wasn’t interested in letting us Germans go home after the war.  For my one day on the front, I spent four years in that cell.  We were not released until late 1948, those of us who survived.  So many did not.”  Rudolph had leaned close to me and was turning pages in the folio, telling of the different pieces.  “This one I wrote when the news of Germany’s surrender reached us.  It is filled with hope.  And this one,” he said, turning a page.  “See the smear here, this tiny blurring of these notes.  A guard came to me one day in early 1947.  He told me a German held on the floor above mine was dying of tuberculosis.  This prisoner was also a musician, like I was.  He was drafted in 1944 and captured soon after reaching the front.  This man was dying and he had told the guard that he wished to see some music one more time before he died.  So this guard came to ask me if he could take some of my manuscript to the dying musician.

             “What could I say?  I gave him six sheets.  After the musician died, the guard brought my music back.  He said, ‘The musician told me to thank you for letting him hold and read your music.  He wept as he turned the pages.  Then a coughing fit struck him and he could not turn away fast enough, but spit up on this spot.  He was horrified, apologizing numerous times.  He kept those sheets by him where he could touch them and see then until he died.’”

             Rudolph paused for a few moments, then he murmured, “Poor lad,” before turning the page.  “We were released in 1948.  I made copies of all these pieces, normal size, which was wise as my sight is now not good enough to read these originals.  Then I had these bound to help preserve them.  Come to the piano and I will play one of these pieces for you.”

             As Rudolph played, Mark knew he stood in the presence of a master.  His fingers deftly grasping the keys, brought forth music of an order and a level he had never heard before save on some of his records.  The piece was difficult, full of darkness and inner storm.  Yet it was grand and exultant at the same time.  The piece stormed to its triumphant end.

             “Well, enough of this,” Rudolph said.

             “Oh no, Maestro.  I would love to hear more.”

             Rudolph nodded his head in acknowledgement of the praise, but returned to his chair.  “When Helga and I came to America, early in 1949, we had to take factory jobs.  Neither of us worked as musicians again.  Helga sang in church choirs.  I focused on composition.

             “Come, boy, it is almost time for your mother to pick you up.  Continue your studies of the sonatas.  It will be time well spent.”  And though there were so many questions he wanted to ask, Mark felt too unworthy to ask them.  They made small talk until his mother arrived.

 ***

            After the visit, Rudolph began coming to church with his sister three or four times a year.  He also came to the monthly father-son breakfasts, never missing one.  He became good friends with Pop Shippam.  About a year later, the discussion at breakfast somehow became a sharing of where the older men had served in World War II.  A couple of the men had been in the Pacific, another with the Flying Tigers in China.  One had been in the Filipino resistance.  Most, however, like Mark’s father, had served in Europe.  When the sharing came around to Rudolph, he said, “Pop, had we met in Europe 25 years ago, we would have been trying to kill each other, and now we are friends.  Will we ever learn?”     

The room fell silent.  Finally Pop said, “Thank God we didn’t meet 25 years ago.”

***

            Mark was a senior in high school, playing in orchestra, and still studying the Beethoven Sonatas.  The sole cellist in the school orchestra wrote in his yearbook that year, “You’re a better piano player than people think, but I can tell you are concentrating on the Beethoven Sonatas.  Good luck and don’t stop playing the piano.”

             A day later the phone rang just before dinner.  His mother took the call.  When she hung up, she called him.  “The phone call was from Helga.  Rudolph died of a heart attack today.”

             He felt his body go numb.  Then his mother said, “Helga told me that her brother specified that he wants you to play,” she read off the note she had made, “the first movement of Beethoven’s fourteenth Piano Sonata at his funeral.”

             When he could trust his voice, he asked, “Why me?”

             “I don’t know why.  All he had written was that he wanted you, and only you, to play this piece at his funeral.  This is a high honor, you realize.”

             “Too high,” he thought.  “Of course, I’ll do it,” he said.

 ***

            But the funeral home didn’t have a piano.  Their organ was in terrible shape, some stops dropping out immediately as they were played, some continuing to play after they had been released, and some not playing at all.  It was his highest musical honor and his greatest musical regret at the same time.  He didn’t get to play at the funeral.

            He never thought to ask Helga what would be done with Rudolph’s music. Two years later, when Helga died, he was living in Mexico.  When he returned, he was unable to find what had been done with the music.  Too late, he wondered why he never asked her for a copy of some of Rudolph’s pieces to study. 

            Too late.  They are terrible words, for they say so much about a person.  Too late to know what Rudolph really thought of his playing.  Too late to know why Rudolph chose to tell him his story and to play him one of his pieces.  To late to do anything but to remember and to honor one who once played for the Berlin Opera Company, to remember an unknown musician who died longing to see music one more time, and to remember the question, “when will we learn?” and to be haunted by the silence that followed the question.

 

(The above story actually happened as described above.  The major change was I gave Rudolph and Helga fictional names).

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The Quartet

(This story is fairly autobiographical–except for the part about a successful career in composition.  So far I’ve only had one piece published and one piece recorded.)

It yet haunted him, from across the Rockies, the Salt Flats, the familiar Sierras, all the way to that Polk Street, San Francisco warehouse entryway a generation lived and gone ago.  They had parked blocks away, parking spaces being the rarest of commodities in San Francisco—ten college friends out to celebrate Don’s night before his wedding with espressos at Ghiradelli Square (back then one had to drive fifty miles to find an espresso).  Flitting eagerly through deserted streets toward caffeine fueled ecstasy, they turned down Polk Street and there they most improbably were—four musicians crowded into that warehouse entry—cello, viola, violin, violin, chairs, bodies, stands, scores—and out of the throats of their instruments pure Beethoven danced joyously round the empty street.

He paused, sound struck into timeless listening.  “Hurry, hurry,” his friends called, finally laying hands on him, dragging him unwillingly away to demitasses of bitter elixir and regret.  But now, half a continent away and half a lifetime past, they forever played in his heart—hauntingly—and he forever listening.

He had gone on an after-the-wedding search, scouring record stores, buying up stringed quartets by the sackful, racing home to drop needle on vinyl, filling the room with Hi-Fi tributes to that night.  He had read, no, studied, no, consumed The Art of Stringed Quartet Performance, mining the text for nuggets.  He had stopped in at the Clef House—best music store he ever found in a life time—found the stringed quartet section, and stood there pouring over Samuel Barber’s score until he had to buy a Rachmaninoff prelude or a Schubert Impromptu to make up for the concern he had caused the store clerks.

And now his own composings—largely sketches for future sonatas and symphonies—were pushed aside while sketches for a stringed quartet began to dominate his piano rack.  Possessed, that was the only word he had to explain his obsession.

Yet at his senior composition recital it was a movement for his first piano concerto he played.  When the crowds had thinned, he was approached by a stranger.

“Michael Roark is my name, assistant conductor for the San Jose Symphony Orchestra.  Your concerto, I know I can get a premier for you when you finish the other movements.”

He didn’t know what to say.

“I know the music directors of over 50 orchestras.  I’m no composer, but when I find one of worth, I can serve as an agent, obtaining premiers of new works, promoting, that sort of thing.  All with a legal contract spelling how I will obtain for you grants and fellowships.  Here’s my card.  Call me.  I find you worthy.”

He put it off for a week, had a long talk with his parents, sat up one night listening to Schubert’s quartets while talking it out with Doug, his best friend, and gave countless sleepless nights to contemplation.  In the end, he called.  The contract was amazingly simple, understandable, and the terms reasonable.  He signed.

Orchestras want symphonies, concertos, and suites—brass, percussion, woodwinds, and strings—and with Michael’s steady garnering of commissions, he found himself writing large format works, and the stringed quartet sketches were soon buried under the growing mound of scores.  As his fame grew, so did his commissions—a cantata, another concerto, a movie score, yet another symphony—and the years passed over the stringed quartet sketches now yellowing.

His fifty-second birthday—now living in Aspen—his wife, children with spouses, and one grand baby gathered.  After cake and presents and all were in bed except the honoree, he placed a CD in his player and the glorious Beethoven C# minor Quartet lifted him out of tempus into karios.  When the last echoes of sound passed beyond hearing, he found he was weeping.  “For beauty, yes,” he thought, “but also for lose, for the stringed quartet I know lies within me under the avalanche of symphonies.”  Moving to the piano, he took up his pen and began a new sketch.

Michael called full of birthday wishes, always a day late, not wishing to intrude on family.  “Good news,” he relayed.  “Dallas wants your next concerto to open next season.  I’m sending you the contract for your approval.”

“I’ll look it over.  But, Michael, I have a birthday request for you.  All my life, I have wanted to write a stringed quartet.  I want you to find me a stringed quartet willing to premier—Julliard, Kronos—I don’t care who.  Just find me one.”

There was a long pause, Michael absorbing this request.  At last he broke silence.  “You know, stringed quartets don’t pay.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Again, silence.  Then, “I could obtain ten years of commissions within a month you know, even demanding higher commissions.  But a stringed quartet?”

“Michael, can you find me a more soulful piece than Tchaikovsky’s second movement of his first quartet?  A more delightful than Dvorak’s American?  A more stirring than Barber’s adagio?  A more joyous than the last movement of Beethoven’s 16th?  Or a more haunting than Smetana’s last movement From My Life?  Think of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, or Mozart’s, or Haydn’s.  There’s a whole world of glorious music wrongfully neglected.”

“And if you add to that body of music, will it be any less neglected?”

“Most likely, yet maybe my fame will help draw attention to what so many have missed, maybe bring new awareness to the genre.”

“You really want to do this?”

“All my life.”

“You know, it will be far more demanding—sort of like writing a sonnet in poetry.  It will tax your abilities—and your performers will be far more critical than any critic you’ve run into so far.  Are you sure you are up for this?”

“I am.”

“OK.  I’ll see what I can do.  But let me remind you—there’s no money in this.  Recordings are rare for new works and sales are so small, there will hardly be any residuals.”

“I’ve enough residuals to never write another piece and live happily pottering about my house the rest of my life, thanks to you.  Just humor me, OK?”

Michael did.  So he wrote the new concerto—and yet his heart wasn’t in it as in the past.  Most of his time was giving to the stringed quartet, writing, revising, rewriting, sometimes tearing up whole pages to start over.  Every Thursday, four friends from the Denver Symphony came up for dinner and a night of playing and criticizing the work in progress.

Michael was right.  His trial group was critical, but he was even more critical, always finding fault, always feeling how short his reality fell below his ideals.  He wanted San Francisco walk-down-the-street-into-glory.  Instead, he had nothing like.

Michael called.  The San Francisco conservatory Stringed Quartet would play the premier.

By his fifty-third birthday, he had completed only two commissions—both critical disappointments.  The quartet was still in flux.  Michael called the next day.

“S.F. wants the score for fall’s season.  Can you get it to them in time?”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s the matter?”

“You know how easy composition is for me—never second guessing, always confident.  But this, it torments me.  It’s in me, but no matter how hard I listen, it just isn’t in the notes I jot down.”

“Now I’ve talked to your Denver friends.  Peter absolutely loves what you have done.  He wishes you would stop revising.  Sasha thinks it surpasses Sibelius’s, rivals Shostakovich’s.  Calvin thinks two weeks max of finalizing the movements and you have a winner.  You don’t want to know what Brenda thinks.”

“What does Brenda think?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“But I do.”

“She thinks you are reaching too far, not content to write your great quartet, but trying to write The Great Quartet.

“She’s right.”

“No one will ever do that.”

“Tell that to Beethoven.”

“So what do I tell S.F.?”

“I’ll send it as soon as it is done.”

“Soon, make it soon.”

He took the two weeks Calvin suggested, tightened up some of the looser ends, smoothed out a rough spot or two, shook his head over the first movement’s exposition, re-wrote the second movement’s coda, added an extensive pizzicato section for the viola in the Presto movement, rewrote measures 33-68 of the finale, yet when he set the supposedly finished work before his friends, and when they had played through it, he felt nothing but despair.  This was not the stringed quartet he longed to place before the world.

“Stringed quartets around the world will be clamoring to play this,” argued Sasha.

“This is beyond my expectations,” exclaimed Calvin.

He just shook his head.

“You send this in,” argued Peter.  “Consider it a learning process.  You will receive numerous requests for your second quartet.  This one won’t be seen as a failure, but as one of the greatest quartets since Brahms.  Your second will be even greater.  And each one after that one as well.”

But the next morning, he tossed the manuscript in his fireplace.  He carefully stoked the fire until nothing was left but ash.  Then he began afresh.

“Dukas burned nearly everything he wrote,” protested Michael.  “Those who had played his music considered him a master and mourned the works of genius he forever destroyed.  Even what little survived are treasured as masterworks.  Are you to be another Dukas, depriving the world of you masterpiece?”

“It’s not the same.”

“I disagree.  So now I have to tell S.F. there’s no chance of the promised quartet.  No.  That’s unacceptable.  Set down like Handel and give me something I can send them by May.  May.  This Year.  Not a year from now.”

“I’ll try.”

“Do it.”

He wondered if being in San Francisco would help.  He wrote the Montalvo Arts Foundation and was granted one of the residences for two months.  He flew out, arriving at the Villa mid-day.  He quickly unpacked, checked out the piano reserved for his use, then he took a walk about the grounds—down through the formal gardens, around behind the villa to the amphitheater, climbing up one of the stone stairs, then up one of the trails through the chaparral into the redwoods.  That night he wrote out eighty measures—the new adagio theme.

That weekend, he drove up to San Francisco.  Parking was even a rarer commodity than he had remembered.  After fruitless blocks of taken spaces, he found a place near the yacht harbor.  It was a bit of a walk—far longer than that far gone night—but at last he found himself on Polk Street.  Yet that also was not the Polk Street of his youth.

The warehouse was gone—whether torn down or sporting a new façade, he could not tell.  The entryway no longer existed and he could not be sure even which building it had been.  He walked on down to Ghiradelli Square, a last attempt at remembrance, but even the espresso shop was gone, replaced by a tourist trap.

He took the long way back—down the coast highway—pulling off in Montero to stop at the Village Green for tea and scones.  Here he blundered about forgotten lanes, finally found the green, but the delightful English tea shop was gone.  With that, he abandoned his plan to drive down to Santa Cruz, taking the highway at Half Moon Bay across the peninsula, then south to the villa.

It was two days afterward before he could return to work on the quartet.  He primarily composed from memory, regaining much of the music he had burnt.  Even yet he revised, yet within a month, he completed the score and flew home to Colorado.

The following Thursday, his friends played through the work.  As before, they approved, congratulated him, predicted the work’s success.

But he knew he hadn’t accomplished what he wanted, hadn’t written the quartet he knew was in him.  In the two days he had sat in the Montalvo studio not writing, he had realized he would never write that quartet.  Like the warehouse, the Village Green, the espresso shop, that quartet lay hidden in his past, no longer available.  His best was but a pale image, a fading echo.

He mailed the quartet to Michael.  Then he put the CD of Schuman’s Third Symphony in his player and lost himself in its beauty for a brief while, ignoring what he had learned about himself.  Yet before the symphony concluded, he turned it off.  Already he was planning his next concerto.

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