Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 10 • Summer 2004 • Fiction

The Sea That Sometimes Frightened Us

Jan Steckel



A girl runs down the beach, bare feet punching the sand, ponytail whipping. She disappears into the shadows under the pier. What is she running from? I find out.


Under the pier, the sand is cool, and I bury my feet until the soles stop burning. A dead skate lies on its back, its mouth a mere slash over its pale belly. Fish, this city makes me sick. Santa Monica is tolerable only at the water's edge. As you go inland, the waffle iron of a suburb fades into the bone-white of greater Los Angeles.

Jackie is coming with her guitar hung upside-down on her back. I saw her passing a joint in the parking lot with half the Mexican soccer team. She doesn't know I know her name, or that she moved in the fall from Long Beach. Hello, I say. I'm Alex. I'm a senior too.

Your lips move, but I can't hear you over the jet. It makes a great ripping sound in the sky like skateboard wheels on asphalt. Skinned knees and bloody elbows, but don't we look cool making our skateboards rear like stallions, or pedaling dirt-bikes with no hands? The coolest of all is to set a ghetto blaster in the center of the street and roller-skate disco circles around it. You can dye your hair purple. You can smoke long brown Colombian cigarettes and wear glass globes with goldfish swimming in them dangling from your earlobes. You can wear clear plastic tennis shoes or a diamond in your left nostril.

Desert cities shouldn't be founded. There's nothing wrong with the desert itself. Red rocks rise out of the plain. Coyotes howl at night. There are lizards and ground squirrels and salty hot pools filled with fish that live nowhere else in the world. I appreciate white bones on flint sand, or scraggly plants struggling up a dune.

Santa Monica is not exactly desert. It's cooled by the ocean breeze and the fog that rolls in at four o'clock. Mica glitters under your feet in the hills with fossil shells lodged in their cliff-sides. In December as I walk to school, morning mist makes haloes around mercury streetlights. Now that it's spring, however, it will rain, and rain, and rain.



On the cliff's edge, I stand upon a strip of grass called Palisades Park. The bluff is hollow with squirrels' burrows. Do the dozens of holes comprise a single giant warren? The squirrels pop in one hole and out another, small eyes alert. Drop a raisin on the ground, and six of them scamper out after it, their feathery tails upright as they run, and you can see through the reddish-brown brush, like Alex's hair when she brushed it out.

She says she will leave soon, but I can make her stay. Since I met her last month, we ditch sixth period almost every day and head for the pier. We share taquitos and guacamole, ride the merry-go-round sidesaddle, and watch pelicans stop suddenly in the air, duck and plummet. I lead her to the back of the bait shop on the pier's end. We climb down ladders to a supporting beam underneath, from which my marine biology class suspends "microenvironments." I draw up my orange crate by its rope and show her inside the starfish, chiton, and living chestnut cowry.

She beats me at skee ball game after game. We trade the prize tickets for thirty-five black plastic spiders and drive up the coast to the Getty Museum. She drops a spider on the shoulder of a torso attributed to Praxiteles. When the guard turns his back, I place another in a chariot horse's mouth.

That was five days ago, but I haven't seen her since. What makes her suddenly prefer calculus to me? I run to her sixth-period class at the last bell, but she is already gone. Four nights in a row her second-story window is lit, but she's not at her desk. Tonight I'll climb the flowering pear to her garage roof and tap on her windowpane.

SLIDE AREA -- USE AT OWN RISK, a sign says, absolving Santa Monica of landslide deaths. I step over the fence to the edge of the bluff. The Pacific is true to its name, a calm, flat blue. The Channel Islands look as if I held them in my hand. In the southwest, across infinite ocean, there blows no breeze.



I am awakened by raccoon feet on the roof. They'll shred trash bags and leave paw-prints on the driveway. A rap at the window frightens me out of bed.

You are laughing silently on the roof of the garage. I slide the window open and help you remove the screen. My white nightgown hinders me as I climb over the sill. Your arm is warm around me. I try not to get splinters in my feet.

I know a boy named Rob who used to barefoot-dance his shirtless way up the Strip to sell Quaaludes in front of the Tiffany Theater. He worked the line at midnight before the Rocky Horror Picture Show. He was tall with hot dark eyes, very wild in play. A couple of times I skipped the movie and ran around with Rob and his friends. In the small black hours we invaded municipal parks and woke senior citizens with our whoops. Rob bayed at the flashing billboards and shook a chain-link fence till we all dropped off like apples. Sometimes in the smoggy daytimes he slept in the Pussycat, that twenty-four hour porno theater on Second Street.

Rob had a girlfriend, Monique. One night last summer she and I bought a dozen whipped cream chargers full of nitrous oxide. We drove down Sunset in Monique's purple Barracuda and parked behind the Tiffany, where the Hollywood foothills drop away; below us sparkled the lights of the L.A. basin. She slipped a balloon over one of the canisters and snapped the top open. The balloon inflated with a violent hiss. The freezing metal of the canister burned her fingers, so that she cursed and chucked the empty cylinder out the window. She held the balloon to my mouth, and all the gas forced itself into my lungs at once. When I let my breath out it came out laughing, because I thought I'd figured out how people's bodies get tricked into using drugs. "It feels like an orgasm!" I said. I explained that sex was a trick to get us to make babies, and drugs simulated sex. Monique asked me if I'd had my lesbian experience. I kept laughing, and we went through the other eleven canisters.

After you and I came back from the museum on Friday, Jackie, I got a phone call from Rob. He told me that late the night before, Monique had made her peculiarly Los Angelene exit by jumping off a downtown parking structure. He didn't have a phone number, and I couldn't find him over the weekend at the Tiffany or the Pussycat. For the last four nights I've lain in bed wondering how Monique can be dead if her face still hangs in the air on the other side of my eyelids. She is laid out in a filing cabinet, because there is no more space in Los Angeles for graves.


You think I don't know you're crying. I turn your face and kiss you. I am sorry your friend is dead. I hold you tighter so you won't fall from the roof and assure you it couldn't happen to you or me. It's only a casual accident, like a hand passing through a cobweb. Our deaths so young would be like match heads doused with teaspoons of water, when what we want is a storm disgorging on the hills ablaze. When I die I want flashfloods and earthquakes, filling the canyons with rainwater and tumbling the bluffs into the sea. Fragments of quartz will roll along the bottoms of newly-made rivers, and only the white tip of yucca will show like a water lily in the middle of the stream.


In the fall I'll go to college on the East Coast, and at Christmas I'll walk back across the desert with new friends. Hawks will turn above our heads and poppies bow beneath our feet when we come westward. We'll crunch across salt flats all night and reach the city at dawn. I will run to the end of the pier and shout, "Crawl sideways all you crabs from under barnacled pilings. Bring sand-fleas and the leopard shark who steals the bait from the line. Remember me to mussels in black bunches like tar-stained grapes on the rusted chain and to the keyhole limpet peeking out. Whisper to the purple olive and the chestnut cowry that I am come. Notify the grunions' eggs like grains of glass and the hermit ensconced in his stolen throne, the pelican's broken egg and the holdfast torn shrieking from the rock that today we take our own back."

I will throw up my arms to the hazy sky and bellow. Sandpipers will come skittering and avocets stepping high with long bills airborne like trumpets. Gulls will flap down screaking in ragged gray and white, behind them oil-black cormorants flying with necks outstretched. The lordly pelican will glide like a lost pterodactyl.

I will call red-brown squirrels from cliff-side burrows and gray light-footed tree squirrels from pine tree and telephone line. From the hills I will lure coyote and his younger brother, the little fox with glowing eyes. Down will amble the shameless raccoon, stopping to lick his paws, followed by the tentative deer. I will summon all the disinherited to ridge, foothill and ocean-border, to witness the destruction of a city monstrous but not great.

We will take sledgehammers to the General Telephone building. We will set palm trees blazing like torches: whoosh! and the burning fronds stretch toward a startled sky. We will explode one by one the flashing signs of the Strip and stand in the Tiffany parking lot overlooking the city, watching the millions of lights wink out for the first and final time. We will throw our hands up dancing as conflagration follows earthquake, as the overpasses tumble like Jericho and the freeways buckle like tortured snakes.


Moonstruck little girl, you shiver in your nightgown, and your ribs like hard cords vibrate against my arm. Slender silver feet feel cold as the grunion that spawn on the beach. May I step back through your window with you? Careful not to tear your hem. Closing the window shuts out the chill breeze but not the moon. Mercury-colored light pours through the pane and turns the brown rug silver.

You hold the covers up for me, and I slide in beside you. You lay your cheek on my breast, and your hair tumbles over us both. Your even breath warms my chest. Nowhere is as safe as here. Like puppies curled against each other, we begin to fall asleep.

I think I hear the modulated static of breaking waves, shsha, shsha. North of the pier a small abandoned boat lists on the sand. In my dream you have fallen asleep inside the broken hull. I take my guitar outside and sit on the sand. I quietly play an old tune, careful not to wake you. A hand-dredge leans against the boat's abraded side. Bits of kelp and paper flutter in the rusty metal netting. We could drag for sand-crabs to sell for bait. You would like to watch the wriggling soft-shells scramble, as the brine drains away. We could look a fish in the eye while we broiled him and eat his sweet mouth-watering flesh without a shudder.

My feet burrow into the sand. You sleep nearby, but you'll leave in the morning. I have few chances left to change your mind. Before I met you, Alex, my insides ached as if something there yearned to stretch its legs and kick its way into the sunlight. I think it was my soul that lay too long asleep, smothered under dull thoughts like leaden sheets wrapping my arms to my sides. Then in a single afternoon, in a walk of a few hours, water bubbled from the rock, and I knew I still lived. Yet I have nothing of my own to give you. My songs are not my songs, but something singing through me. I feel as though I were a bell on a buoy, and the bobbing of the waves made me ring, but I couldn't lure you into the water. I stop playing and lean over the silent guitar strings. Laughter in the noise of the ocean rolls back to me: nothing.



Jasper my cat shivers under the piano, and thunder jangles the strings over his head. All day long he missed the sun to curl up in. Gray shingles turned black and shiny. Every leaf was slick, and drops illuminated the trees. The bee slipped down the horn of the trumpet-vine blossom. Mom said, Open the drain of the swimming pool before it overflows. Then she and Dad went to the play.

I drink cocoa at the kitchen counter. In the hills the dust of the running trails turns to sludge. Clay clogs the storm drains. Undramatic mud slides have closed the Coast Highway. The bluffs above the road don't tumble roaring and bury cars. They just slowly dissolve, stretching tendrils of liquid land across the highway to the sea.

A rap at the window makes me jump. All the windows start to rattle like maracas. I run to the back door and throw it open. The wind rushes in rolling pale pebbles across the floor. I reach down and straighten holding hailstones like pearls in my hand. When the lights go out, I find candles in the kitchen and switch on the radio. People are sandbagging beachfronts. The radio announcer fears for the piers up and down the coast. An unusually high tide, born of a rare conjunction of sun and moon, makes the storm more damaging.

The hail has melted again to water drops. I hold my hand up to the candle. The webbing between my fingers glows fire-red. The wick at the blue heart of the candle-flame looks unperturbed, as if it burned without being consumed. Yet I know it consumes itself, as the inexorable mud creeps across the highway to the sea, as the city crumbles over decades, as the whole coast by minute increments disappears into the Pacific.

A sudden cracking of branches frightens me. I start and tip the candle, and a hot drop burns my hand. I run to the telephone to call you, Jackie. The line is dead, of course. The radio says freak tide and storm have pushed the waves over the breakwater, and the weak-kneed pilings of the pier have finally given way. The bait-shop, the fishermen's perch, and the place where we rented dories have all fallen into the sea.



The waves roar all night with silver fishes shining in them and none but the moon to see. Clamber with me onto sharp wet rocks, Alex, and watch the eddies swirl in the sand. See that white palace on the point's end, high above the empty beach? There are the rooms I built for you, the pictures hung, the chairs arranged, and all that's missing is your own sweet laugh. I even made a harpsichord of gingerbread for the largest room. Hear it tinkle now, like sandpipers running on the strand. It's moonlight recaptured, refiltered, silver for the ears, vision for the soul -- Scarlatti, Vivaldi, shades of the brilliant I've brought to this our home.

How will I maintain you? On mussels and cherry-clams, white sand for sugar and sea-foam for milk, honey when sunlight drips in yellow through the windows, soup in abalone shells and fish served whole with fishy eyes glaring from the plate and the bait still live in their stomachs. Will you live in that high house with me? Our children will run light of foot from crag to crag and leap down into drifts of sand, playing with seals and conversing with mermaids. Thus will they learn a more fluid, bubbly language, running apace with their thoughts and mutable as sand-castles built below the tide-line, shaped and reshaped with every utterance. They will be better than we were, love, because they will swim like otters in the sea that sometimes frightened us.


The water's still green in the aftermath of the storm. The other night I drove down to the beach and stood in the sheeting rain. To the north the waves piled up and jostled each other in their hurry to break. The rain blew so hard off the water that I couldn't face straight out. Sea-green is not forest green, and the forest is the final resting place, not the bottomless swallowing ocean. The ocean is cold and unconcerned. She doesn't care to kill or not to kill; she only breathes deeply, and a ship overturns, drowning sixty men. The sensitive child she frightens away: he screams as the waves chase after his feet, and drops his pail in the sand.

For me the north-east mountains in summer, when the creeks are just trickles. Leave me sunning myself on the wooden deck of a house, not of a ship, and the children shouting with their berry pails below. A brown and green house this, not your airy white one of mariners' bones or Dover chalk. Who told you I wanted a Moroccan palace? I live in the forest where the mushrooms grow. How will you entice me from it? With your wild horses? Your white sea-foam? I have a fire burning on wood, and none of your cold sea-coal.

We are in a field of tall grass that reaches above our heads. We wade through it, and the wind makes ripples around our ears. There is a high trilling sound that surrounds us like the grass; whether it comes from the ground or the sky or a dry beetle hidden in the weeds is impossible to tell. You are uncomfortable here, Jackie, with your ocean miles away. This is river country and daytime forest, sunny sky and hot, insect-laden air. The cold damp rocks of your sea-chamber call, but not as loud as yesterday, do they? Say no so we can love a little while, kissing sweetness and arm-around-the-waist embrace, my dark and gleaming-eyed girl. The children all have straw-colored hair, and they laugh with the sound of laughing crows, not harpsichord silver. Oh no, oh no, all brass bells, these --

What's this? It was sea gulls I heard screaming, while at our feet lies a cormorant dead in the sand. Its neck twists like the work of a tipsy glassblower. Up and down the ruined coast it's all the same: nothing but beach-wrack after last night's storm. This city doesn't need me to destroy it, but I won't stay here to fall off a high place, or crumble, or drown. No, don't argue, don't end us like two gulls raucously disputing over a piece of carrion. You and I are not alike, nor ever can be -- only for a moment, before the tide drains away and leaves us isolate pools on the shore.


The words are one thing and the music another, but there comes a time in the imagination of the singer when the words are the music and the music the words. Why don't you listen to the waves? You are yourself, and therefore alone, but we are not always ourselves.

Jan Steckel is an Oakland, California writer, a bisexual activist, and a former pediatrician. Her fiction has appeared in Lodestar Quarterly, So to Speak, Margin, Yale Medicine, Scholastic Magazine, and elsewhere. Her poetry chapbook "The Underwater Hospital" is expected to be published by Zeitgeist Press in 2006. You can find more of her work at www.jansteckel.com.

Go To: Issue 10 or Lodestar Quarterly home page