Blocked by skyscraper ridges rising off Cape Mendocino, the Mad River veered north not far from Eileen’s base, meandered 70 miles through pines and firs into redwood country until finally emptying into the Pacific above Arcata. He was waiting for her in the parking lot. They climbed over a dune, stepped together onto the beach damp under thick fog shrouding the ocean 50 yards away. They aimed down the slant of sand to the sound of waves. Fog sealed up the dunes behind them as they walked through the curtain of mist past the curving seaweed line marking high tide. Saturated air formed a thin gauze filter through which the ocean revealed itself against a gray horizon pushed close to the shore.
Sealed by the fog in a private world they strolled the edge of the sea half-surprised when a phantom gray-shaded human stepped out the mist 20 yards ahead. The apparition faded behind their tracks and a gathering of sandpipers took its place. With their pointy bills they gathered beach hoppers and pillbugs and baby sandcrabs, dashed in unison from one entree to another, added choral tweeps to the ocean’s crashing song.
Past the birds the beach dipped like a shallow funnel to tilt the ocean a few yards farther away. In the trough Jeremiah hunched, swept wet sand aside, rose holding something that he rinsed down in the cold water. Those few yards away, not even a first down on a football field, the mist stole some of his identity, recast him like a fuzzy motion picture from another age caught in a cloud. He walked back holding a sand dollar and there was no reason for the old-timey mountain-man figure with his thin hair flat on his head and dewy brown beard to yank at something inside her and make her feet feel unstable like maybe if she crouched with her hands to the ground the dizziness would pass and she wouldn’t fall.
He was just a friend and they were walking on the beach. They played basketball. They ate sandwiches and joked about getting food on their faces. They knew what it meant to stare down flames and snuff them out with dirt and water and tenacity. He respected her for that, didn’t call her you ladies or girls. That might explain part of the feeling but not all of it.
They strolled through the next gray curtain into a room where a shadowy hulk disclosed its true essence, a castaway chest-high tree trunk pointing toward the hidden dunes, cratering down the sand to collect a puddle of sea from the retreating tide. She grasped the roots, climbed and stood on the high seat, for no reason spun a circle with arms stretched to where in theory the sun ought to be, jumped off, grinned as he stepped ground-level to her side.
I take the high road and you take the low one, she said, for no reason.
In the next fog-walled room a stream six inches high and 10 yards wide cut a channel through which it joined and lost itself in the sea. Here they turned. On the way back before the big log she veered around jellyfish, spotted a tarnished dull golden curve, plucked an old coin out of the sand. It had a worn cross on one side and a shield on the other and letters smoothed over by time.
“We’re rich!” he shouted, dove to the ground, dug like a dog. “Buried treasure, come to papa!” But all he gained was wet sand-caked pants.
This time they both climbed the log, sat on its sandy bulk, speculated about the coin. Spain or Mexico, they decided. Where they perched perpendicular to the shore she had to look past his profile to scan the ocean. It struck her for no reason how the waves spoke the same language they’d spoken for millennia long before any humans ever sat on any log and discovered what they had in common and what they didn’t. She already knew he didn’t vote and didn’t think it mattered. It was a big cop-out and she never imagined her heart getting tugged by somebody who thought that way. They both wanted to work outside, not in an office; in the country, not in the city. Perhaps that was enough.
No, it was not enough, even with the heart-tug. She knew the heart told lies.
If the waves spoke the same language they had always spoken then they told both truths and lies.
“I won’t get played,” she said to the waves and to Jeremiah, and realizing the incongruity, she modified, “I don’t mean to say I think you’re doing that.”
He sat there quietly absorbing what she figured had to be a jolt from a gray room they hadn’t yet entered in all this fog until he found his words, facing across the beach as though looking into the misty past.
“Had a girlfriend. And I didn’t take her seriously. Guess I wanted all the fun, and she wanted more, and I wouldn’t give it to her. Finally she said enough. Called it quits. Guess if you asked her now, she’d probably say she got burned.”
Two phantoms entered their room, took shape as a middle-aged man and woman holding hands as they walked past the log toward the scooped-out treasureless sand and the shallow stream.
“If I’m playing you now I’m playing myself, too,” he said. “I admit the first time I saw you it was like I was on the prowl, thinking I was free, but that’s not how I feel now. And I don’t mean to mess it up and I’m happy to stay friends if that’s what you want.”
“I don’t know what I want. I thought I did.”
She looked in front of her and after a bit when no other phantoms appeared she made a calculation, placed her hand on his on the log in the space between them.
“Please let’s take our time,” she said.
Later at the restaurant in Arcata Square he tapped his fork at two o’clock and six o’clock around the circle of his plate to demonstrate what he called a slopover when a fire jumped their line two places in the Los Padres.
“So there we were standing in the burn getting hotfoot and Ramirez calls us on the radio, says it’s clear. We walk out at the edge where it went past our line and go right back to work cutting at the new flank. No time to think about how we just got our asses chased. Is that the way it was with you?” he asked just as the waitress brought their lunch.
““What’s that, dear?” asked the waitress.
“She said yes ‘cause she’s crazy for that fish,” answered Jeremiah. “Used up two napkins mopping up saliva. Told me you didn’t even have to cook it.”
“Well, it’s baked, and I hope you like it,” the waitress said to Eileen.
Eileen laughed. “I never said that. He said he’s an idiot. That’s why I said yes. I was agreeing with him.”
“Ohh! She just doesn’t want to admit when it comes to fish, she’ll eat it right out of the water.”
“Aw, you two!” replied the waitress, smiling, as she backed away and left.
He leaned toward her.
“Seriously. Do you care if your fish is cooked?”
“What are you, a sushi-chef wannabe? No way you experiment on me. Feed it to a corpse.”
“I get no reaction from a corpse.”
“At least you won’t get barfed on.”
“Should I take that as a no?”
“Baked, broiled, barbequed, roasted, fried, seared, just not raw.”
“See, we really are finding out about one another.”
“Okay, my turn,” she said, leaning toward him. “Are you ever an idiot, and if so, do you admit it?”
“Ooo, you don’t know me and you want me to admit I’m an idiot? For real?”
“Well, are you chasing me?”
“Then I demand to know. When are you an idiot?”
Keeping a smile lit within his eyes, he leaned back against the booth.
“When I look at you, I’m an idiot. When I think about you, I’m a fool. That’s when I’m an idiot. And these days, it seems like all the time.”
A sweep of warmth took hold of her as she looked down at her plate and took a quiet bite of salmon. It was a good line and she was beginning to think he meant it in more than a get-her-into-bed sort of way. She chewed on the words and the emotion of their speaking, held them in her mouth, and swallowed.