Dec 25, 2009

The caretaker from down the road, an old surfer, suggested we all go out to the point, to look at the sunset. My wife has been in love with this man off and on for many years and so off we went.

We passed the cottage where big-wave Dave used to live, until he did what he always said he would — he finished his 40-foot sloop and set sail around the world. We walked past the pool where the wealthy heiress, now in her 70s, swims nude on full moon nights with lovers she finds among the local tradesmen. We went past the caretaker's own house, which has been condemned because it sits on 60 feet of mud and is gradually sliding off the hillside. "Like ice cream slipping out of your palm," as the caretaker put it. His face is volcanized and red as corundum. Even his voice is sunburned.

The others went on through the gardens and up the path to the point beyond. I stayed back, by the caretaker's house, to see where the shifting has caused door frames to slant, picture windows to break, and a stone fireplace to crack; and to consider a soil expert's conclusion that even without an earthquake the whole property would slide away within 10 years. And when it happened, not over weeks or days but with no warning, in minutes. The caretaker has refused to move; his wife and son have left. Now he's weighing whether to follow them to an apartment up in Carmel or else ride the fault line.

Of course he'll stay. After all these years he has no choice. Otherwise, he would have no identity. The hillside is his, the trails down to the beach — he built them all, along with fir patches and the lean-tos where he keeps his kayak and surf boards. The beach itself is his, the kelp beds, the rocks, the abalone, even the spectacular view. It's all his. Asking him to give that up would be as though you asked a millionaire to give up every last bit of his fortune, along with the ability to make more.

Eventually, I followed the others along the path, which runs through a small eucalyptus grove and a lemon orchard, and then up a steep angle to a fork. I had forgotten the way and went to the right, through a gate. The path is well supported, edged with large stones. It's all the caretaker's art. At the top of the ridge the main house stands, a simple boxlike design in the 'barn tradition' you find here. The place belongs to one of the country's great entrepreneurs and sportsmen but he hasn't stayed here in many years. Instead, he gave it over to a one-time mistress.

She lives alone and everyone on the point will tell you she is 'strange fiction.' She was once her lover's pilot. She raced cars, sailed boats and took up surfing in her 30s. Her father was the president of an Ivy League university. She majored in physics. Meanwhile, her sisters are rumored to be insane. She herself is schizophrenic and last year changed her name to include the words, "Aphrodite Mary harmonic." She has told people that she is now a Baptist fundamentalist. Someone else told me she had become a Mormon.

She has no children and rarely sees another person. I have seen her perhaps three times in 16 years and not for a long while. She came across as very polite but distant.

I reached the top of the path and stopped to marvel at the simplicity of the house and imagine what the views must be like. All the windows were covered with curtains. You wouldn't think anyone lived there. Then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something: a figure. A woman. I thought it was a statue. It was nearly transparent. For a moment I wondered if it wasn't a hologram, or one of those street magicians that stand stock still at Fisherman's Wharf, waiting for a passerby to trick.

It was as though you came across a deer in a clearing and didn't know if you'd been seen. We both held absolutely still. Perhaps, we were each other's apparition.

She wore plastic surgical gloves, a plastic smock with a hood, white pants covered in a smokey plastic, clear goggles. She held a book in her right hand. It looked like a bible. Her left hand hung in mid-air as though about to turn a page.

She stood on a deck, outside a sliding glass door. The door was closed. I remembered that someone said the house smells like cleanser. She is terrified of bacteria.

She and I remained absolutely still. For a minute, then two. A long time. Long enough to take her in, long enough to be taken in. Long enough to feel comfortable in the not-knowing, to become as familiar to each other as two statues on a rampart. Finally, I called out, "I'm sorry to disturb you but did some people come by this way?"

She looked up. Very calmly. She pulled up her goggles. I thought of Amelia Earhart. "I haven't seen anyone."

Thank you, I said.

"Merry Christmas to you," she said and then regained her pose.

1 comment:

Anjuli said...

I have read this over at least 5 times- Each time slowly- picturing everything- I think by the fifth time- I was almost actually there- standing watching the two of you, frozen- then the stilted communication- and the final "Merry Christmas"

Isn't it amazing how wrong turns can produce interesting encounters?