Afternoon

D. E. Steward

Down the sidewalk below Martine and her children pass by from their car. Ben is running Out ahead, Nicole trying to stay up with him, Martine following with a rolled straw beachmat, towels and a basket in her arms. She has a white beachrobe and sunglasses, her legs are smooth and brown. Ben is almost to the sand, he is light and fast and blond, eight years old. Looking through the people on the beach to scan beyond the surf for ,'nips, he sees none and drops his interest to feel the breeze and the silicon hot dry grittiness between the bottoms of his feet and his flapping zoris as he runs high on his toes.
     Nicole is fixed on the growing distance to her brother but when she hits the sand she slows her short stride run, resigned that since he did not turn to wait for her that she will not be with him again until both of them are at the water. She is six.
     Below Charly's open front windows Martine stops and turns, looking up. She can see the ceiling and part of the back wall of the living room. From her perspective it looks bright and rich and clean, foreshortened angles of the ceiling plane, a beige-like capuccino froth ceiling evenly lighted by reflected sun. She shifts everything she is carrying to one arm and lifts her sunglasses momentarily to her forehead with her other hand. The big open windows remain empty in the sun. Charly is slumped below her line of sight watching a daytime television show.
     Ben is almost to the water now running through the people on the sand. Nicole comes slowly along behind humming to herself. Upstairs Charly is staring at a splatter drop of beige wall paint on the black metal of the upper lefthand corner of the television set's frame less than an inch from its milky screen. He is losing interest in the program and reaches over and turns it off. The refrigerator in the kitchen goes back on.


Some scant high cirrus swept up against the stratosphere, not Clouds enough to even mute the Sunlight and by evening they will have gone and the sun will go down red into the ocean, Good weather every day. The lift of sun and skv, the delicacy of the steady offshore breeze ruffling the thermal equilibrium Of my dry skin and lifting the hair around my ears '
     A big tanker about four miles out, loaded and riding low, bearing north out from Orange County coastal oil fields, its bridge an assertive vertical while amid ships it looks almost awash from here, a void from the bridge house to the bow. The bulling snout of it powering through the swells out there, carrying crude or gasoline up the coast.
     I'd like to be swinging my way down its runway length now heading for the prow
with my footfalls on the waffle catwalk stretching out ahead between the ventilating pipes and pumping valves. My tongue folding back to clean my molars with stomach full of lunch just finished in the bright spacious lounge on second deck. The international food of merchant ships, maybe beef from Uruguay picked up there with the salad and green vegetables two weeks ago, potatoes and good beer still left from Rotterdam, ice
cream and cheese from Genova, conversation in some language that it is impossible to guess from here because the ship is too far out to read its flag. If I were walking the long flat wave level distance to the bow wanging the salty painted pipe rails with my palms and feeling the steel beneath my feet lifting and settling back from the gentle California ground swell with nothing ahead but deckplate, clanging catwalk, rails, valves, pipes and
sky, when I glanced past the gunnels over the side the ocean would be dark and green. When I reached the bow and climbed the steep ladder to the stem to lean past the bowsprint there on a forward rail, I might look over here at the coast at the city flanking off around the bay. The people on the beach would be indistinct, a bothered clutter of sand, but the low vastness of the city out both sides stretching against the mountains far behind would be emphatic and seem like an equal medium to the open ocean swelling my
consciousness portside. After looking over here at the smog-trapped city, the ocean open to the western horizon would seem more identifiable and less hostile in its pelagic grace. I would stand and watch the water fold along the hull and if I was lucky see a porpoise or a ray or some other large living thing, and I would watch the birds. Studying the few high cirrus, I would wonder if by tonight my ship would be in different weather, picturing
the coastal chart and estimating what town or city would be abeam after supper when I took my evening stroll to watch the sun go down. If I were out there now on that tanker, I would know its destination and would understand the course and headings penciled across the chart slipped onto the charting table in the navigator's cabin behind the wheelhouse underneath the radar and radio masts. I would be going somewhere. But from here, the window of a building that does not move, someone about as motile as a rug, I only see a tanker that in minutes will have passed over the horizon to somewhere else, moving away at fifteen to twenty knots stopping only for a day or two at a time at discharge and loading points across the world.
     From here I only see changes in the weather and the light that silently intrude themselves into my room and hear nothing but my breathing, the steady outside noises of people and their cars, and the refrigerator going off and on. Gladly I would trade the stasis of my pat serenity for the directed motion of that ship out there because with the sense of doing things, of being beyond the circumcision of time and spatial latitudes set by oneself alone, there is complete absorption, grand relief involved in things that are more than one person does alone. Everything here for me becomes solipsism and it is mere abstraction to feel identity with all that out there and plot it in my mind, too easy to bring it all into these rooms, to have it come to me between the beach and Ocean Boulevard while clinging tight to all that is kind to my moralities here on the lee shore of my sunny room.

Two hours later on the beach Martine calls to her kids, hands Ben a towel, dries Nicole off. They sit together on the sand facing west and talk while munching on cookies and drinking lukewarm grapefruit soda out of plastic cups. Ben asks his mother if they will stop to see Charly on their way back to the car. She studies him, her gray level eyes. Ben likes Charly because Charly talks to him and because one day last spring on the Schnells' lawn in Westwood Charly taught him how to hold a knuckle ball. Ben started baseball when he learned English, in Houston four years ago. Now he speaks English better than French, Nicole does too because she speaks mostly with him. When their parents are not around they speak only English together now.
     When Ben finishes his snack he leaves his mother and sister sitting there to walk along the water line. Standing with the ocean at his back facing the mix of bodies on the sand, he feels a vivid sense of something finished, something done. Lying early morning in his bed one day this week not quite awake he reasoned for the first time that everything he does has to be approached, then participated in, then done, that life is a matter of passing from one situation to the next. This new idea of his has made him sober recently because now he thinks he understands the reasons that people wear watches and what is actually meant when he is told that something is over with. So he is very conscious that their day at the beach is done, that they will now move on to something else, and he feels manly understanding this as he watches Nicole's blithe uninterrupted enjoyment of the sun. She is running back to the water now and Martine calls to her. Ben strides down and takes her by the hand to lead her back to their things piled ready on the sand.
     With the fingers of both hands Martine tries to comb her hair before she picks up the beachmat, towels and basket. And then she hoists the lot and the three of them trail through the bodies, towels, transistor radios and folding chairs, stretching endlessly away both sides and for fifty yards ahead before the asphalt where the beach and city meld.
     Ben watches everyone they pass, the men on their elbows with their stomachs held in as they toss pickup conversation out, the girls and women in groups of two and threes, sometimes alone, prone and greasy to the strength of sun all flaccid and mysterious to him behind their hats and glasses with their skin like another kind of clothes. The people kissing, holding other people or bracing in the sand, the readers, the flat cheap diaphragm electronic sounds of radios and tape players resonating variable against the light but steady offshore breeze the families surrounding piles of things with
little children dancing around their grandparents while the uncles and the parents and the older kids sprawl or pass food around laughing and talking. The tourists who have driven or flown here to the California coast to see what things are like right at the edge and who have left their rented cars or dusty loaded private cars, pickup campers and vans somewhere in the parking lots or on the streets behind and sit with smiles of foolish satisfaction at simply having made it here to Muscle Beach. The surfers around their boards stuck upright in the sand who are in isolated groups studying the pattern of the
swells to estimate the time that they should launch themselves back out there again outside the people jam. Some people hustling dope, but Ben does not realize that. These, and some religious people with New Testaments just starting to fan out from an old school bus in the parking lot, are the only ones who are wearing all their clothes. Kids of all ages detached from babysitters and families standing curious or playing in the sand. A
touch football game with much passing and shouting. Self-conscious looking men with dark glasses and well-kept hair just wandering around. The watchers on the wall. The people walking on the asphalt way that runs along the back of the beach. The mothers pushing baby strollers. The joggers, the skateboards and the bicycles.
     Coming off the sand herself, Nicole turns distractedly trying to see the ocean once again but cannot because there are all those people filling everything in front of her. Martine shifts her load and takes Nicole by the hand. Ben is ahead up the concrete sidewalk. He looks up at Charly's apartment house and sees Charly there in the open windows. Charly sees them and he waves. Ben waves back almost formally and then turns to his mother and sister.
     "Charly's at home."
     Martine sees Charly now and smiles.
     "Hello," shouts Charly down to them through the sunny air.
     Martine smiles and tries to lift an arm to wave and almost loses the beachmat. After she recovers it she smiles again. Nicole looks up and squints but cannot make out
yet who they are talking about. Ben stands with his back toward Charly's windows
waiting for his mother and sister to come up to him. Martine looks up twice more as
she moves slowly up the walk. With her children by her side now, she calls up,
     "Hello."
     "Martine you look nice and brown."
     "We came this morning. It's been a perfect day."
     "I thought you might have come to the beach today."
     "The waves haven't been high at all. Bert and I went far out once. He's getting
very good."
     "Were you body-surfing?"
     "He doesn't know how. You'll have to come out and teach him that sometime."
     "What are you doing? Why don't you ? come up for a minute?"
     "We should get home. We all need a bath."
     "You can take showers up here."
      Martine checks her children's faces. Both are smiling up at him.
     "That's nice, we will come up for a few minutes."
     Charly salutes and turns away to find his pants. He puts them on, hangs his
bathrobe on the inside of the bathroom door and puts on a shirt that he goes and
picks up from the bed. Buttoning his shirt he opens the door and stands waiting in
the outside hall. The stairs are dark. The bright light of the opening at the bottom
of the stairs is empty. Charly shuts his eyes tight and opens them and the light
seems even brighter. Now Ben and Nicole appear in it together as though flashed on
a screen.
     "Hey Ben, do you mind checking in my mailbox and if there's anything in it bringing it up? It's the aluminum one just to your right, the first one beside the door."
Ben disappears again. Nicole stands there at the bottom of the stairs.
     "Hello, Nicole. How are you7"
     "Fine."
     Martine is there now in the light. And Ben behind her. They all come up the stairs.
     "I'm sorry Claude and I stayed so late the other evening."
     "Here give me some of that stuff, Martine. Why don't you let the kids carry anything? Come on in."
     Ben has Charly's mail. A Safeway flier, a sample box of detergent, a come-on from a record club and two letters. One typed envelope from his sister in San Francisco and the other a hand-addressed British aerogramme. Charly dumps Martine's beach things in the hall inside and takes the mail from Ben,
     "Do you have some disinfectant, Charly? Nicole's cut her toe."

     "Here's some alcohol. And if I'm not out of band-aids they're in the medicine cabinet."
     "It's only a slice. Hold this for me, Ben. "
     "Here, I've got three left. You want a big one or a small one?"
     Martine takes a small one and fits it around Nicole's left big toe. High outside there is a boom and then a rumble that shakes the window panes. Ben runs to the living room to look out and Charly calls after him.
     "You won't see anything, Ben. By the time you hear the boom, the plane's gone.
     Nicole leaves her mother's side and goes to where her brother stands staring out the open windows in the living room. Martine smiles up at Charly from reaching underneath the tub. Charly looks long at her, lifts his head and shuts his eyes. In the kitchen the refrigerator goes back on.

 

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