Snowy Egret Feathers
Sometimes, when I talked to him and he talked to me, I lost track of who was talking. We would begin a conversation as he lit a teepee of kindling, and I’d find myself falling through time like a dying leaf. A minute later I’d feel a chill and find whole logs reduced to embers, the night teetering off toward morning.
I’ve encountered this substance before, when the scent of a magnolia tree strikes me just so, or a burst of night air sweeps in through the car window – or an old jazz tune causes my insides to try and escape my body. It’s not easily describable. If I wanted to try, I’d take you to a broad plateau in a place like Utah, overlooking hills of lager-colored grasses, light up your father’s favorite brand of cigar and whisper an unknown combination of syllables into your ear. Call it “ineffable.” Call it “universality.” That was my steady breakfast, lunch and dinner there on the beaches of Hirshfield, Oregon.
Does anything matter unless it first passes from one person to another? Introspection is fine, even healthy, but it dies inside the body. What often passes for conversation is just introspection turned inside-out: your turn to speak is done, and now it’s my turn. “Discourse,” from the Latin “discursus,” to run about. “Intercourse,” from the Latin “intercursus,” to run between. (Stop that giggling!)
Okay, I’ve gone too far with this. Back to the story.
I found my greatest bliss in October and November of that year, wholly engraved by a man without a real name. Occasionally, when I had time to myself, I realized this was a golden time. Meaning, temporary. And I tried really hard not to think about it.
One day, wandering along a row of shops behind the waterfront, I happened on a gardening store called Carbon’s. There I found some spools of wire – the soft, pliable kind used for fixing floral arrangements. Right next door was a hippy-dippy bead shop called The Venerable Bead. Admiring the African trade beads along the back wall, I stumbled upon a basket full of hemp twine from Hungary.
That night, I appeared at Frosty’s campsite wearing the eye of the goddess around my neck. I had wrapped the wire around its opposing angles and notches, then worked the end into a loop and attached it to a length of twine. When Frosty praised my ingenuity, I pulled out my second necklace.
“The Shmoo!” he cried. “You found the fucking Shmoo!”
“Your goddess returned it to me yesterday,” I said, delighted at his response. “I slipped it into my pocket when you weren’t looking.”
“A resurrected Shmoo,” he said, holding it to the lamplight.
“Roughly equivalent to a rare and lovely blue,” I said.
“It’s gorgeous.” He leaned back to give me a kiss.
“Yes it is,” I said. “And if you ever throw it back in, you’ll be going in soon after. And you won’t be coming back.”
An hour later, roasting those orange marshmallow circus peanuts over the fire (an inspired thought that didn’t pan out in the execution), I felt an itch, and sent it quickly in Frosty’s direction.
“The road. My God, Frosty, how I’m dying to hit the road!”
“Okay,” said Frosty. “Where to?”
It took me a minute, but when the idea arrived, it seemed ridiculously obvious.
I took a couple days to chill out at the hotel. Sleeping under a hatchback can be a little wearing, and it was also starting to get cold, despite the human heat-generator who shared my bed. The first day I spent in the Carmen Suite – which had become my permanent residence, pretty much – and in the listening room, where I indulged a sudden fascination with 20th century composers like Benjamin Britten and Alban Berg. On the second day, I took a long, long walk, ignoring all small, colorful objects. It was overcast but relatively mild, and for some reason there were kids all over the place.
To an adult, a beach is a chance to take a walk, read a book, sleep, get a tan, drink a beer. To a kid, a beach is nothing but a mile-long construction site. Castles, tunnels, tiger pits, driftwood logs planted in the sand like dead trees. This particular day, the vogue was stick and sand etchings: flowers, hearts, romantic linkages, and in one case, a twenty-revolution spiral.
The prizewinner, though, was a series of small ridges built into concentric circles, with a notch at each oceanward nadir, and a shallow tunnel dug out like a driveway toward the breakers. Evidently, water would come up through the notches, swirl around each of the ridges, then run back out to the surf.
This image would have been the first thing I told Frosty the next morning, if it weren’t for the blood dripping from his hand. He cradled it and ran for the campsite faucet, cursing up a storm.
“Jesus H. motherfu… Oh! Hi,” he concluded, rather sheepishly. “Excuse me for not greeting you properly, but apparently this is the morning I have chosen to become an idiot!” He turned the tap and stuck his middle finger under the water.
“What the hell did you do to yourself, Frosty?” I knelt beside him, trying to ignore the Hitchcock streams of red mixing with the water.
“Well, that’s a complicated story,” he said. “Can you hand me that towel?”
I picked it off the clothesline and he pressed it to his finger. Then I went to his car for the first-aid kit. He explained the accident as he applied a Band-Aid.
“The folks who made my Rollerblades went out of business last year, and now I can’t find the right kind of brake – that little block of rubber that screws to the back. So what I do is, I buy the closest size brake I can find, then I carve it down so it fits the slot. Just now, I had the bright idea of holding the brake in my hand and running it up and down a hacksaw blade. I missed.”
A shudder shot through my spine, nearly collapsing me to the ground. Frosty laughed.
“I’m with ya there. I could cut off my own finger for all I care. But let someone else get so much as a paper cut…”
“Ooh!” I cried. “Don’t even say ‘papercut’ – it gives me the willies! Are you going to be okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. The only reason it’s bleeding so much is, it got me right under the fingernail.”
That did it. I fell backward onto the ground and let all that creepy energy flop me around like a landed halibut.
“Ooh! Ooh! Stop! Don’t tell me a thing more!”
“Okay. See – it’s all wrapped up now. Out of sight. The Band-Aid is your friend.” He extended his finger for my inspection, not realizing that he was now flipping me off.
“Well!” I said. “No need to be rude.”
It was warm enough that we could take off the T-top, and I never realized what a spiritual experience that could be. What’s more, Frosty had brought along my all-time favorite breakfast food, cherry, er… frosted Pop-Tarts. After that we lit up a pair of green-skinned East Indian clove cigarettes, feeling very naughty and exotic.
We were anxious to get to Portland before nightfall, so we made only two stops. The first was in Depoe Bay, a little strip of old-style storefronts across from a large seawall. The rocks below contained natural funnels leading to two blowholes; whenever a strong wave came in, it pushed the water up in great geyser-like spouts. They called them the Spouting Horns. I think I got more pleasure from Frosty’s childlike fascination than from the Horns themselves. I had to promise him a bag of salt-water taffy before I could drag him away. Our second stop was at the cheese factory in Tillamook. Frosty wanted the full tour, but I resisted, eager to get to a town with more than three stoplights. We settled on the gift shop, where Frosty bought about a year’s supply of Happy Cow snacks, and a small bag of delicious – though odd looking – cheese curds.
We arrived in Portland an hour before sundown and checked into the Mallory, a great old hotel recommended by Hessie. We dumped our bags and took a quick hike downtown, where the buildings were gloriously tall and sleek. I was beginning to understand the extent of my urban withdrawal. We found a store with Celtic folk art, then stopped to admire an old Presbyterian church. It stood across from a many-fountained park, occupying a strip between two avenues. A trolley squealed by, delighting me with its artificial breeze.
We got back to the hotel around seven, almost losing our way in the darkness, and then took a decidedly inefficient mutual shower. At eight-thirty, we were off to the Koffeehouse. Being a little skittish about city driving, Frosty let me take the wheel. (I noticed there were fewer SUVs in Portland, where they might have some actual use, than in Silicon Valley.) I managed to get us to the East Side, even to the right street, but I forgot the address, so we drove up and down for twenty minutes looking for a sign.
We stopped to ask this homeless-looking guy for directions, but when Frosty rolled down the window we were met by a burst of classical music. I looked past Frosty’s shoulder to find a red Victorian, its wide front window revealing a violinist and pianist, playing to a crowded room. It was then that I recalled an important fact about the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse: it had no sign.
Sign or no, the place was packed, about 50 people, most of them teenagers, drinking espresso, listening to Rachmaninoff. I felt like I had wandered into a parallel universe.
We were greeted by a bubbly hostess. “Hi!” she said. “You must be Sandra.”
“Y-yes,” I said, feeling famous.
“Thank goodness! I’m tired of swatting people away from the Brahms table.”
She had a single earring in her left ear, a baker’s dozen in her right, climbing the cartilage all the way around. I was surprised she didn’t keel over. We followed all that silverware to the Brahms table, which didn’t seem all that special. In fact, it was a little low to the ground, a long cherrywood coffee table with a glass cover. Under the glass we found a Brahms collage: a page from the First Symphony, a brief biography, and two portraits – one a photograph, the other a black-and-white sketch.
I excused myself to go to the restroom, noting the tables as I passed: Grieg, Mozart, Liszt, Dvorak, Copland – the usual suspects. I secretly lusted after the Rossini (a much happier soul than Brahms) and was surprised to find my recent discovery, Alban Berg, under a fringed lamp in the far corner.
At the stairway I was greeted by a sprawling, wall-wide collage of women’s faces, clipped from magazines, newspapers and books. I could name Golda Meir, Myrna Loy and Nancy Sinatra, but otherwise I was stumped. The bathroom was another thing completely, walls painted in a deep aquarium blue, fruit-colored fish streaming in and out between the fixtures. When I sat down, I found myself under the manic stare of a tuxedo-clad dummy, perched in a rocking chair cattycorner from the toilet. Was he a musician exiled after a poor performance? Whatever, he gave me the creeps. Avoiding his gaze, I discovered a small pier built into the top of the wall, a young fisherman dipping his line into the water, a phony hundred-dollar bill attached to the hook.
I returned to our table just in time for my Caffe Borgia and a violent mazurka. The teenyboppers began to clap along, so I had to yell to our hostess.
“Honey!” I said (that was her name, Honey). “How did you recognize us so quickly?”
“I told her to look for the most attractive couple she could imagine.” My answer came from Hessie, creeping up behind Frosty with a sly smile and a head of hair that had, amazingly enough, stayed the same color. She had, however, sprouted a large silver stud on her left nostril.
“Hessie! You’ve been pierced!”
“New boyfriend!” she said. “Tattoo parlor.”
I stood to give her a rambunctious hug. It occurred to me that she was the only woman I knew that I would greet this way. Her natural radiance demanded it.
“Hessie!” I said. “This place is so… it’s just…”
“Indescribable? You see why I never gave you the details? You have to see it for yourself.”
I remembered my manners and extended an arm toward Frosty, standing patiently behind me. “Hessie Nygaard, this is Frosty.” He greeted Hessie in the Continental fashion, holding her hand, not shaking it. Lord, he was good.
“I’ve heard innumerable things about you,” he said.
“Oh no!” said Hessie, laughing. “You’re the legend. This is like meeting Rasputin… or the young Elvis Presley.”
“Well!” said Frosty, his big Siberian bellow. “Sit down and I will tell you about the revolution. Or Jerry Lee Lewis, whichever you prefer.”
I hadn’t considered the kind of nuclear fission I was inviting, introducing two such brilliant eccentrics. I sat there for two hours, enraptured, as my companions swatted rhetorical tennis balls at each other, scrambling across a fruit salad of subjects: gourmet vegetarian pizza parlors, Coltrane versus Parker, the fallibility of utopian ideologies in real-life political practice, the calming powers of cedar groves in Washington State, the comparative aesthetic properties of mounts Hood, Rainier and Shasta. I felt drunk just following the conversation, and imagined the room was levitating.
Which it was, in a sense. As my friends began to lose their voices over the hum of violin, piano and chatter, Hessie flashed a Cheshire grin and asked Frosty if he noticed anything different about the Brahms table.
“Well. It’s certainly very… nice,” he said, lamely. “It’s a bit larger than the rest… umm, and the cherrywood is very… nice. Am I getting closer?”
“No,” said Hessie. “The Brahms table is built into a rather deceptive underfloor hydraulic system. Over the past two hours, it has gained precisely twelve inches in height.”
Frosty burst into laughter, drawing attention even in the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse. “Damn! Woman, you are a god-damned genius!”
In the afterglow of lovemaking, the lights of Portland performing cakewalks across our windows, I kissed my way along the freckled slope of Frosty’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. “Life… cannot get any better than this.”
“If it did,” he answered. “We would explode into tiny little pieces – and then maybe someone would make a world of us.”
“Amen,” I said, falling back on a pillow stuffed with – I had no doubt – snowy egret feathers.
Photo by MJV