Pass the Paradox
Our next project was teaching me how to Rollerblade. Watching Frosty cruise in every morning, blissed out from his jaunts to Velasco, had finally gotten to me. I took him to a shop on 101 and demanded he pick me out some wheels. We found a good intermediate pair, comfortable and big-wheeled for long trips, but not so fast that I would lose any limbs. Beyond the kneepads and wrist guards, the primary safety measure was learning how to brake. In order to scrape that rubber heel against the asphalt, you had to slide your right foot forward while angling your toes to the sky. A natural move for your average Hindu dancer, but not for me.
Thanks to a childhood interest in ice skating, I caught on to the rest pretty quickly, and was soon joining Frosty on his morning rides. He was right about the road to Velasco: it was gorgeous, a nature-bound avenue shaded by Douglas fir, cypress and big-leaf maple, the only sign of civilization the occasional seaside motel. It had recently been repaved, affording a surface as smooth as (dare I say it?) frosted glass.
During the course of these trips, Frosty and I learned to cultivate mutual silence. There was something so calming about the side-to-side sweep of the blades, that to break it seemed blasphemous. Besides, talking was difficult, the words flying off in our self-created breeze.
All the more surprise when Frosty interrupted our Saturday morning with a dozen questions about Frosted Glass Woman – and waited until we were cruising rapidly downhill to do it.
“Do you believe in her? Are you an apostle? Would you buy a bumper sticker? Would you vote for Frosted Glass Woman for President?”
“No! I don’t believe in her. Not in the flesh.”
“Do you believe in her story?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you believe in the power of her story? Do you think we would be better people if we took her sacrifice as an example?”
That seemed reasonable, but if he was going to force me to shout out my answers while flying along on three-inch circles of plastic, I was damn well going to make him work for it.
“Would you say that most people, religious or not, would point to Jesus Christ as a fine example of humanity?”
“Sure,” said Frosty.
“Okay. Wouldn’t you agree that a high percentage of people who follow Jesus use it as an excuse to behave like self-righteous assholes? To condemn those who disagree with them to eternal hell? Even slaughter them in Christ’s name?”
“Yes. But whe…”
“So how do you know those who take up Frosted Glass Woman won’t do the same? Inquisitions. Witch-burnings. Jew-killings. The production of phony relics using automated sand tumblers.”
“Whoa!” said Frosty. “You’re talkin’ crazy, now!” After he was done laughing, he took a long time conjuring a response.
“It’s my belief,” he began, “as a student of religion, that Jesus never intended to inspire an organized church. Look at all the time he spent battling the Pharisees and their ticky-tack rules. Incorporation creates bullshit, and I like to think that old Hay-Zeus would have preferred a direct God-to-worshipper phone line.”
“‘Religion,’” I quoted, “‘is spirituality in which the spiritual has been killed. Spirituality doesn’t lend itself to organization.’ Tom Robbins.”
“Hey!” said Frosty. “I’m gonna steal that one. So. Given that Frosted Glass Woman probably had no intent to inspire a spiritual movement – no real artist would – let’s decree that at no time shall her story be exploited for the formation of a hierarchical, tax-exempt bullshit religion, and that to do so shall be considered a crime – nay! a sin – against her very name. Do we have a quorum?”
“Yes!” I shouted.
“All those in favor?”
“Settled!” Frosty clapped his hands together in affirmation. He then restated the original question in the voice of a big-haired Southern gospel preacher. “Now TELL me… Do you BELIEVE… in the POWerrrr… of Frosted Glass WOMAN!”
At that very moment my left blade gobbled up a twig and lurched me forward. Fortunately, I had followed Frosty’s advice about always staying on one blade at a time. I made a rough landing on my right and recovered my balance without having to test my new wrist guards. Frosty slowed down to offer me a hand. Once I regained my breath, I granted him my answer:
He smiled broadly and squeezed my fingers. “Good,” he said. “Then you are ready for Mecca.”
The only thing he would tell me was that it was south of Eureka. I hoped that didn’t mean anywhere near the Bay Area. I dreaded what rush-hour exhaust and flashing lights might do to my soul. We took his Nissan, leaving my nasty SUV in Hirshfield, and spent the night in Gold Beach, at the world’s nicest Motel 6.
The next morning, I still had no idea where exactly we were going, but after we hit Eureka I could imagine our Mecca around each bend in the road. My favorite version was a little hot springs, a crown of rocky bathtub-size pools perched on a clear-water creek headed for the ocean. And two redwoods the size of the Space Needle. So much more the surprise when we crossed a bridge into Fort Bragg, turned right at a Denny’s, and pulled to the roadside across from a drab-looking industrial lot. Getting out, I noticed broken glass along the gravel, imagined it was some sort of teenage drinking spot.
Frosty pulled out a pair of white storage buckets. We took a long asphalt path parallel to a chain link fence, the land beyond guarded by several scarlet-necked vultures. The asphalt gave way to a trail of hard-packed sand, cutting through grass and clumpy shrubs to a narrow beach. The sand was vaguely orange, almost rust-colored, and the beach eventually transformed in to a series of gray-blue rocks extending into the water like beached whales.
Before I could step down the final shelf to the beach, Frosty slipped in front of me and took me by the waist.
“Here’s the deal. For the first half-hour, you are allowed to look, and to pick up individual items, but you are not allowed to put anything in your bucket. This place is way too much of a good thing. Once you’ve adjusted, I’ll take you to where the really good stuff is. Understood?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“In that case,” said Frosty. “Go for it.”
He kissed me on the forehead, like a kid on the first day of kindergarten, and sent me on my way. I proceeded with careful steps, noting the shiny flecks here and there in the odd-colored sand. Then I heard the shout of a child, and looked up to see three or four families near the water, picking through a pile of stones.
But that’s the thing. Those weren’t stones. I made my way ten feet further, then looked down to find I was traversing a kind of pebbly sand composed ENTIRELY OF FROSTED GLASS. A few feet further and the pebbles became stones, two to three inches long, everywhere. Holy shit. My legs began to undergo “the hardening,” too overwhelmed by abundance to make a move.
It’s easy to understand my reaction. Our daily hunts had trained me to react to frosted glass the same way a shortstop reacts to a ground ball: see it, pick it up; see it, pick it up. After a while, the conscious mind takes a sabbatical and leaves the muscles to do the job all on their own. See it, pick it up, hundreds of times a day.
So just imagine you’re standing at shortstop one day, and they hit you one hundred and twenty-three ground balls, all at once. You think you’re gonna catch a single one? No fucking way.
I stood there a full minute, trying to think myself into motion. Ah – Frosty’s instructions. No collecting. I took a first step and walked on in singular amazement, stopping occasionally to swipe a foot through the layers and thrill to the spark of green, brown and white. A minute later, Frosty came and handed me a piece of white with little numerals embossed in the surface – an old milk bottle.
“I think… that if you had you tried to describe this place to me… I still wouldn’t have had the slightest idea.”
“Much like the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse,” he said. “Follow me.”
He led me uphill to a small cliff overlooking a triptych of craggy formations.
“This is the junk section,” he said. “I generally avoid it. Check out those nasty-looking towers there and you’ll see some scaly-looking strata, a few pieces of metal, the occasional tire – even, if you know where to look, a full-blown kitchen appliance.”
He pointed to the far side, where an old kitchen stove dangled from the seawall.
“A dump!” I said.
“Yes. Long time ago, the rocket scientists of Fort Bragg decided to set up a dump right next to the ocean. The Pacific chewed right through it, pulling out all the glass and washing it back on shore all smooth and shiny. Later on, they evidently cleaned up the place (I hope) and reopened it as Glass Beach.”
We continued down the path, which ended at a small bluff overlooking a crescent-shaped beach. It was about two hundred feet long, covered stem to stern with white glass.
“I call it Crystal Cove,” said Frosty. “This is where you find the real humdingers. Watch your step!”
We slid down a stretch of loose dirt, then wiggled through a rocky notch to a boulder. Frosty invited me to take the lead. I launched myself. When I landed, my feet disappeared beneath the glass. I immediately sprawled on my back, waving my arms and scattering the chunks with a flurry of clicks.
Frosty landed over me in a push-up, caging me in a house of limbs. He rolled to one side and unsheathed a grin that threatened to crack his face.
“Isn’t this fucking incredible?”
I nodded in agreement.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m releasing you from your bondage. But keep this in mind. You have to set your standards extremely high or you’ll go nuts. Nothing goes in the bucket unless it’s extraordinary. Got it?”
I took my bucket and wandered off, leaning down to inspect the occasional standout. Frosty seemed content to sit and watch. His gaze settled on my shoulder blades, warming me as I knelt down at the far cliffs.
I began to notice things. The least interesting of the primary colors was green, which was also the scarcest. The best you could find was when the water had taken a thick bottle-bottom and worn it down to the shape of a natural pebble.
The browns were more interesting. The best were ancient pieces that had been gouged and gnarled until they resembled bits of tree root, so thick and dark that you had to raise them to the sun to make sure they were actually glass.
The rare and lovely blue was more available, but just as fragile. The largest was still less than one-third the size of the goddess-eye.
Oddly, the most intriguing color was the most common: white. Sheer numbers and antique thickness created a world of variations, and a pleasing heft. One piece looked like a railroad spike curved like a banana. Another was shaped like a section of orange; still another was curled around in a pencil-thin spiral. The milk bottles offered dates, company names, art deco ornaments, even an occasional pastoral scene. I was studying one with a log cabin under a many-rayed sun when Frosty ran a hand along my arm.
“Ready for a break?”
“Sure.” I looked up and found I was having a hard time controlling my eyes. Frosty’s face refused to come into focus.
“Ah,” he said. “Glassblind. Don’t worry. You’ll be seeing a little funny the rest of the day. It’ll be okay tomorrow.”
“That’s good to know,” I said, feeling drugged.
He pulled a bag out of his pack. “Here. I brought some mozzarella, and some ginger beer. Eat, and I will…”
“Tell me a story?”
“Hmmm… I’m getting predictable.”
“How could Glass Beach not have a story? Is it Frosted Glass Woman?”
“Frosted Glass Women,” he said.
I chewed saucily on my cheese stick. “Any preparatory rituals?”
“No,” he chuckled. “Piling through half the world’s supply of frosted glass is ritual enough. Here we go…”
In the earliest times of the Earth, when the second moon still hung in the sky like a purple marble, when the salmon were seven feet long and smiled, the frosted glass women had reached an impasse. Though they had been scattered about the planet, it took them only a matter of decades to follow their natural bond to the western edge of what we call North America. This reunion brought feelings of peacefulness and joy, but soon they began to take each for granted, began to pull apart in small but damaging ways.
The first division came along the lines of color. The whites disliked the browns, the browns (who preferred to be called “ambers”) detested the greens, and the blues, being the rarest and loveliest, took great pains to despise everybody. The second divisions came along the lines of anatomy, when one of the greens found a way to divine each woman’s origin on the sacrificed body of Frosted Glass Woman. This was fine if you were found to be a kneecap, a forearm or chin, but not so good if you were an armpit, or the space between two toes. The insults were not subtle.
Fortunately, none of this bickering led to physical violence. With their quick-healing skin, violence was useless, and they were destined to live as long as their glassling progenitors.
This was, however, a deceptive assurance. Unlike all the other creatures on Earth, the glass women had but a single gender, with no alternative means of procreation. They seemed to be doomed to a certain, albeit far-off, extinction.
The most brilliant of the glass women came from the tip of Frosted Glass Woman’s left index finger. We will call her Sandrina. This was no surprise, since the tip of the creator goddess’s strong-side hand contained more dexterity and muscle intelligence than any other spot on her body.
Sandrina’s entire being coursed with creative impulses, and she found many ways for expressing it. Once a week the glass women would gather in their crescent-shaped cove to build bonfires and watch Sandrina perform. She would begin by weaving a fanciful tale – often the adventures of Frosted Glass Woman on their legendary birth planet. Then she’d perform an intricate, graceful dance while singing in gorgeous, high-pitched tones. Her songs would strike the skins of her listeners and create wonderfully pleasing, empathetic vibrations. It was a sign of her talent and popularity that glass women of all colors would congregate for these performances, forgetting – for at least a while – their petty bigotries.
Sandrina did, however, have a dark, moody side. This was just as much her birthright as her creativity, for the tip of the index finger contains an enormous number of nerve endings – more, in fact, than any other part of the body… except perhaps the clitoris. (Embarkayada, who descended from that part, would begin to giggle uncontrollably if you got within ten feet of her.)
Being so sensitive is no guarantor of moodiness, but in this case it wasn’t so much the sensor as the thing being sensed. With every square inch of skin, Sandrina could feel the eventual death of the sisterhood. She spent long hours on a rock, facing the ocean, attempting to find a solution in the fabled powers of blossomfire.
Sandrina carried yet another dark secret, one that she could never manage to translate to her sisters. It was a painful sense of incompletion, a feeling that, despite their small differences, there was a sameness to the glass women that made their young world bland and stultifying. Without some other brand of intelligence, vastly different from their own, they had no way of seeing themselves from the outside. She envisioned this force as the rock against which they might strike their flints - a happy conflict generating light and heat.
During her lengthy vigils, Sandrina became intrigued by the life of the ocean before her, thrilling at the spouts of far-away whales, black dolphins hurling themselves into the air, pelicans taking their fierce dives at the water. She developed a special fondness for sea lions, whose rough-sounding barks and groans always seemed very close to speaking. Her favorite was a large male with a wide face and long gray whiskers. He arrived every day at the same time – late in the afternoon, a half-hour after Sandrina took up her meditations – and never tired of entertaining her by tumbling haphazardly through the water, bursting through the surface to bark and slap his fins together. These antics never failed to bring Sandrina out of her funks, at least temporarily, and soon she returned his kindness, bringing him colorful balls to play with, throwing him strips of salmon (which the sisters had learned to cure with smoke), and singing to him in her beautiful high-pitched tones. He was most fond of her singing, and would listen to her for long stretches, motionless in the water, his snout pointed in her direction. When she finished, he would splash the water with his fins and let out a series of merry barks. To Sandrina, his barks sounded like “Bort,” so that’s what she called him.
Over the course of the next year, Bort seemed like the only relief in Sandrina’s life. The glass women were more devoted than ever to her evening performances – and more oblivious of their underlying messages, returning to their colorist, anatomist ways the moment they set foot outside the cove. Sandrina, meanwhile, felt no closer to the powers of blossomfire than the day she had started. The darkest day of all was when the rare and lovely blues announced they were moving far away to the mountains. Though the rest of the women pretended that nothing would please them more, they knew in their heart of hearts that the loss of these few would leave a terrible cobalt void in their collective identity.
Upon hearing the news, Sandrina fled to her promontory in a panic. She knew that, for her people, this could be the end of everything. She stood there for hours, consumed by fits of sobbing, ignoring a gathering storm. She stayed even as the rain began to fall, as the wind grew more and more violent, as darkness fell over the coastline.
It was at her darkest, most fragile moment – the time when, oddly enough, she felt closer than ever to her goddess mother – that Sandrina heard a deep wooden sound from the waves, and found Bort pounding his flippers against the swirling waters. Despite the depth of her troubles, she found herself overcome by laughter.
As her laughter subsided, Sandrina experienced a wave of emotion deeper than any she had ever felt. She thought that it might even be the blossomfire, a sphere of orange warmth emanating from the cradle of her hips, rising to a spot just beneath her eyes. As she grew accustomed to it, she heard Bort again – only now she could trace the patterns of his barking, and she realized that he was singing to her! His brown baritone filled her ears, sank through the center of her body and joined with the blossomfire in a lovely sienna-colored fire. The message was too clear to miss. She could no longer stand the separation of rock and water between them. She rose to the edge of the promontory, smiled to the dark, cloud-swallowed sky and pushed off, flying into the turbulent waters.
Frosted glass women had nothing to fear from water – their skin enabled them to float remarkably well. Still, the tossing of the waves caused Sandrina much consternation. She could also see that she was in danger of being hurled against the rocks. It wouldn’t be fatal, but it wouldn’t be pleasant, either.
She felt something tickling the back of her neck, and turned to find Bort, whiskers playfully extended. Sandrina kissed him on the cheek, and was surprised to find that his coat, which looked so rubbery and smooth, was covered with coarse, sharp hairs that scratched her face. Bort wrapped a flipper around her waist and pulled her gently beneath the surface.
The next morning, Sandrina awoke on the crescent-shaped beach, just at the edge of the now-calm water. She thought she heard a high-pitched song – like the ones she had sung for her sisters – and stood to find the source. Instead, she heard a sound like the crackling of a fire, and found her skin breaking off in chunks all around her.
Passing a finger over her belly, she found that her body was covered with a new kind of skin, rubbery like Bort’s but without the coarse hair. She watched the sky brightening in a yellow line over the mountains, and knew that she had never felt so alive.
Sandrina’s new appearance horrified her sisters. But they cared for her nonetheless, and trusted that her stomach’s odd swelling would bring something fortuitous and critical to their existence. They were even more unnerved by the violence of her labor, and by the strange red and pink fluids that emanated from her body. But, when they lifted the strange new creature from her belly, with its one tiny flipper at the junction of its legs, they understood that life on the young planet would never be the same.
Once she had recovered, Sandrina told her sisters about the storm, the sienna fire, and Bort. The sisters saw it as nothing less than the long-rumored blossomfire, and descended on the promontory to dive into the surf and seek out sea lions for themselves. The next morning, they awoke in the crescent-shaped cove, rose to their feet and let their old skins crackle from their bodies. And that is how Glass Beach came to be.
Frosty signaled the end of the story with a self-amused chuckle, flitting his eyes toward the darkening waves of Crystal Cove. I could no longer hold in my own blossomfire, so I made my confession.
“I love you, Frosty.”
His answer was typical sea lion. “Wow… You do?”
I flashed on the old Sinatra song “…saying something stupid like…” but was snapped out of it by Frosty’s boyish grin. I guess that was answer enough.
“Come on,” he said. “Grab a bucket of mortality and I’ll buy you dinner.”
We jaunted over to a microbrewery across the street, where we salved our tired backs with the strongest double bocks they could bring us. Their menu revealed a selection worthy of the Cordon Bleu. I consumed a mouth-warming seafood jambalaya, while Frosty oohed and ahhed his way through a venison steak with walnut dressing. Halfway through God’s own crème brulee, I had a thought.
“Wouldn’t you rather say, ‘bucket of immortality’?”
“Why?” asked Frosty.
“Sandrina gave up her glass skin so that an entire species might live – thereby guaranteeing the immortality of her genes.”
Frosty stabbed a crème-coiffed fork in my direction. “Yes, you’re right. And so am I. Please pass the paradox.”
I waved down the waiter instead and ordered another double bock. All praise to the Goddess!
Photo by MJV