The Rare and Lovely Blue
The Bay Area offers a self-blindering, binocular existence, a life spent genuflecting to red-green onramp meters, a constant overriding sense that time is being squashed flat. This is especially true in Silicon Valley, where the famed Stanford Linear Accelerator is not smashing atoms at all, but minutes, hours, and days, until they resemble small scurrying ants.
On my morning escape from the hallowed bottomlands of Computerville, I considered the possibility that my imminent freak-out session lacked sincerity. Certainly, I had made some grand gestures. I had traded in my five-year-old Honda for a brand spanking new Mitsubishi Montero-Sport and had talked my supervisor, McNeal Conowith, into a four-week sabbatical that I planned to extend for as long as it took to heal my aching heart. (McNeal was quite understanding, having survived a freak-out of his own five years before that took him all the way to Juneau.)
My lack of intent came instead in the small things, the bloody little mosquitoes of hesitation. At each and every intersection, I imagined two or three forgotten, essential items. And then I stopped for a latte in Cupertino, ten whole miles into my trip.
Then there was my route: north up Interstate 280 through San Francisco. The eastern route through Milpitas and Fremont would have been quicker. Halfway to The City I spotted the lumpy cartoon statue of missionary Junipero Serra at the Hillsborough rest stop, pointing one long stony finger and scads of accusations in my direction:
Oh, Sister Sandra, I know where thou art headed – directly into a major metropolitan rush hour. Listen to me, hermana, and confess thy weaknesses. Thou art irrationally fond of carbon monoxide. Thou art tuned into the time compression, married to the stopwatch that never stops, the wrinkled cardboard beg-signs, the staticky mutter of talk-radio pundits as the man next to you shaves in his rear-view mirror while steering with his knees.
It was very pleasant, in any case, to cross the Golden Gate Bridge – that bright orange paint job never anything short of shocking, even after all these years, even with the towers cut off by a drift of morning fog. I treasured that one final slice in my rear-view mirror before drifting into the soft Irish spaces of Marin County, then across the swampy hood of the North Baylands and the 505 grassland shortcut out of Vacaville. It wasn’t until I hit the I-5 junction northwest of Sacramento that the almighty time-suck began to lose its grip, before my fellow navigators lost that hawkish day-planner ache for arrival, arrival, arrival.
I was soon whizzing my way along the high, snaky bridges over Lake Shasta, blasting the recently-deceased Frank Sinatra at levels he never anticipated. I made it to Grant’s Pass, Oregon before I surrendered my first day’s journey and checked into a motel.
The second day began with a French toast breakfast at a cheesy diner with mirrored walls and waitresses with names like “Jolene” and “Billy Sue.” From there I proceeded north to Eugene, then headed west through the underachieving Siuslaw Mountains. I turned north again at Florence, onto the lovely Highway 101, along the coast to Hirshfield, checking off postcard lighthouses as I went.
I crossed Hirshfield’s wide and graceful WPA-era bridge (reminding me of the strings of a giant cello) into a main and modern shopping strip. It took me three U-turns before I found Third Street, hidden between a discount shoe emporium and a warehouse-sized doughnut shop. I followed Third down a residential quilt of scattering children and trails of chimney smoke before I rolled into the Knickerbocker Beach vista point. There, to my left, I found the mariner-gray, four-story bulk of the Hotel Bel Canto, my destination and, I hoped, an escalator to salvation.
I rounded the corner through the Bel Canto’s vaguely British garden entrance (taking note of Gilda’s, a low-slung Italian bistro across the street) and entered its pleasantly musty lobby to find a ten-foot-high mural depicting the decadent opening court scene from Rigoletto. Knowing Hessie, this seemed about right.
As I strolled to the desk, one eye on the Duke of Mantua, I was passed by a quick-footed teenager who leaned across the front counter, gave the desk clerk a facetious smile, and said, “Are you aware that Jesus hates you?” then breezed on downstairs. As for the clerk, who had barely raised an eyebrow at the joke, he had to be Jeremy, a fantastical character pre-assembled for me in Hessie’s rambling letters. Up top he was completely bald – purposely so, I suspected – and he sported a goatee small and sharp enough for Cupid to use on one of his little arrows. He wore a big cream-colored Irish sweater, thick burgundy corduroy pants, and black Buddy Holly spectacles with tiny brass wings marking their upper corners. Around his neck he wore a snake – yes, really, a snake, a pearl white creature with a sleek little head like the hood of a Corvette, with pop-up eyeballs in mandala patterns of tiger-stripe yellow. Despite all of this, the snake seemed rather docile, even content, so I felt no hesitation stepping up to the counter.
“You... are Jeremy.”
“Ah, my reputation recedes me.” He let out a small but dexterous smile. “And who might you be?”
“I am Sandy Lowiltry.”
“Ah.” The smile again, slightly bigger. “Ms. Lowiltry. I have been blessed with instructions regarding you and...” Even bigger. “The Carmen Suite.”
Jeremy unwound his reptile friend and settled him atop a black bust of Richard Wagner. “Yes,” said Jeremy. “The suite is all yours.”
“At least, for the next three days. The Swensons from Long Island had to cancel. A death in the family.”
“That’s great! Oh, I don’t mean. Well you know...”
Jeremy raised a helpful finger. “Yes,” he said. “I do. In any case, Hessie said the first night is on the house, and she wishes you a happy convalescence.”
“Oh,” I said. “Does that mean that Hessie isn’t here?”
“Had some business in Portland. But she’ll be here later tonight. She said she’d call you when she gets in.”
“Oh, good. It’ll be nice to see her.”
Jeremy extended a clipboard with a couple of spots for me to sign, then handed me my key, attached to a small castanet.
“Go straight up the stairs, then turn right down the hall and it’s the third door on the left. Believe me, you can’t miss it. If you turn left at the top of the stairs, you will find our lovely, scenic listening room, stocked with tea, coffee, cheap cookies, fresh fruit, board games and the widest selection of operatic LPs on the West Coast. Anything else you’ll need to know?”
“Yes,” I said. “Does your snake mind being petted?”
Again, the small smile. “If Stinger were any more tame, she’d be marked ‘Made in Taiwan’ and sold in a novelty store next to the plastic doggy-doo. But, she prefers being held. It’s a body heat thing.”
“Naturally,” I said. Stinger extended her head from Wagner’s pate as I ran a finger along the narrow ridge behind her eyes. I found her scales surprisingly dry and pleasant to the touch. She responded by unscrolling her forked red tongue in my direction.
“Forgive me, Stinger, but I think I’ll wait for our second date before I try holding you.”
“I seem to inspire that same reaction myself,” said Jeremy, and smiled half-wickedly.
The Carmen Suite was just the amusing little wonder that I had expected – and, just as Jeremy had said, remarkably easy to find, what with the pearl-handled Spanish dagger embedded in the door, trailing a vivid little stream of blood into the suite number.
The room itself you could probably predict. Blood red and black everywhere, a canopy of black Spanish lace over the bed. An old rosewood secretary with artful black notches in the wood, holding a humidor full of cigars with Spanish names, and, just above, a gorgeous antique fan of black and gold, spread out against the wall like a peacock’s tail. The wall offered photographs of Spanish soldiers from various wars.
Along the opposite wall hung a complete toreador’s outfit – spangles of orange, yellow and gold covering the jacket and fringing a pair of black pantalones. The outfit was preserved in a narrow glass case, next to a crossed sword and sheath. Atop the nightstand were three decks of well-used Tarot cards with vivid illustrations and a weathered black Bible printed in Spanish. Further down in the corner I came upon a small bookcase holding all manner of operatic paraphernalia: a small white bust of Bizet, various scores, programs, framed letters, several recordings, and even an ancient copy of the source work – Merimee’s novella of the same name. A quick look up revealed that the curtains covering the northward windows were made from red bullfighting capes. The entrance to the bathroom was set off by a cascade of dangling gypsy beads.
And now, finally, I take you to the Carmen Suite’s main attraction: literally bursting from the northward wall above the false mantel, a huge, fierce big black bull, and I don’t mean just the head, I mean head, horns, shoulders, forelegs - even that big brass ring they put through the nostrils; all of this fearsome animal aggression charging wild-eyed and murderous right toward the bed.
I possessed enough road-weariness to grab a little nap, even with El Furioso tailgating my dreams, and woke up an hour later to find myself remarkably refreshed. I decided to check out the beach. I slipped on a comfy sweatshirt from Sedona, Arizona, my oldest pair of blue jeans and a pair of walking shoes, and made my way down a short trail to the sand.
It was a gloomy day on Knickerbocker Beach, but in a very real, physical way, I found it comforting. The fog was cutting in a hundred feet above the sand, just at the top of the cliffs leading to the Gerrymander Lighthouse, effectively sealing off the sky before it showed too much potential. It was a similar effect out to sea, the visibility winking out about a half mile from shore. But I was perfectly happy to see my new environment self-contained and horizonless, like one of those souvenir bubble-worlds that you turn upside down to make it snow.
Empowered by my limitations, I made off for the chunky rocks at the northern end. Walking on sand quickly tired me out, so I found a flat rock to rest upon and stared out to sea for a while. The late-afternoon surf seemed to be picking up, as I watched the waves strike a rock a few hundred feet away with increasing fury. The rock was about thirty feet high, shaped like the narrow end of an egg, and split down the middle, forming a tight channel between its two sides. When the water streamed into this gap, the waves would rumble around and build up pressure until they erupted in a long stream of spray out the top, much like a...
Had someone said that? I turned and found that yes, someone had.
“Whalespout Rock,” he added. “It’s a wonderful invention. I wish I had thought of it.”
I had no idea how he’d gotten so close to me without my knowing. He stood next to my perch, eyes level with mine, arms folded like a lumberjack, a professor, a scholarly lumberjack, a lumberjack who read Nietszche, an academic who felled trees between classes, a rather wiry young man about thirty-five or so who I’d have to place in the sub-species of elf. Very tall elf. Did I mention good-looking? A very attractive woodsy scholarly elf, standing there with his arms folded, like an attorney.
Do I seem confused? Let’s try particulars. He had small, sharp eyes, not beady, but perhaps avian, like a predatory bird, a head of close-cropped blond-wire hair receding from his forehead in an uneven manner. He had a sharp chin – almost too sharp, but balanced by a medium-sized, aquiline nose, a basic European model. A generous mouth, full lips, but not quite feminine, and his ears, they were elfin. Really, they were. I half-expected Vulcan tips tucked away beneath his hair.
It was his clothes, though – that was the thing, strangely immaculate given his surroundings, strangely bright given the overcast. He wore straight-seamed, indigo-blue jeans that looked like they should still have sales tags over the pocket; a braided leather belt, black with a hint of burgundy and a small brass buckle; earth-colored loafers, barely ruffled fringes over the tongue, a flash of argyle socks, squares of brown and red on a black background; and finally, neatly tucked over a baby blue, close-collared T-shirt, a brilliant white long-sleeve cotton dress shirt that looked like it had been ironed five minutes before. That was him, my logger/professor/lawyer/elf, and he spoke in a rumbling baritone, a barely detectable Scottish growl leveling in on the ground floor.
“Lousy glass day today.”
“Lousy what?” I answered.
He proceeded unchecked. “I call it a Flatiron Beach. Level as the Texas Panhandle and wet, not from the breakers, but from the water seeping up through the sand. It leaves the glass half-buried, and the green and amber look just like dark flat rocks. The clear is still a possibility, though. Amazing that I spotted this one.”
He handed me a piece of glass (Oh… glass! I thought). It was about the size of a guitar pick, an inch-long tab of cobalt blue, a squarish base with a small groove where the bottom of the bottle must have been, extending into a rounded, tongue-like edge. The surface was smooth to the touch, but if you looked close you could see tiny pockmarks like pores of skin. I took it and let my thumb settle into the groove, rubbing the spot like the hollow in a worry-stone.
“The rare and lovely blue,” he said. “So where do you come from?”
“Oh... well, I’m just up from...”
“Oh, look - dolphins.” His eyes turned to the water, honing in on a spot just south of the Whalespout. I followed in time to catch a single black fin knifing into the steel surface, then a breathless three seconds later a trio of them shot up at once, half-exposed bodies of slick black-blue in the dimming light. I had never seen such a thing. After they went back under I lasered in on their presumed path, praying for a reoccurrence. A minute later, I tired of the wait, and turned back to find that my elf had vanished.
“Have a good one!”
It came from above, a hearty shout followed by a jolly, contented laugh. I twisted around to find him forty feet up on a series of steps carved into the cliff. I gave a rather meager wave and he turned to go, his loose-jointed stride folding neatly into a grove of evergreens. After a moment, I dropped my gaze and found the rare and lovely blue still there, a dark island in the palm of my hand.
It was dusk when I began the trek back to the Bel Canto, although on a Flatiron Beach, the exact passage from day to night is hard to pin down. There, in the shadows above the bulkhead, I was surprised to see Hessie’s baby blue ‘65 Mustang. I cruised into the lobby to find her at the tail end of some joke she was telling to Jeremy.
“...a super-callused fragile mystic plagued with halitosis! Hah-hahahaha!”
No one ever laughed louder at Hessie’s jokes than she herself, which was nice because it took the pressure off her audience.
After she was done tailing her hahaha’s into a mud-spring giggle, she looked to her left and found my bemused smile (that’s what they tell me – bemused). She immediately dashed over and locked me in a bear hug.
“Sandy Sandy Sandy Sandy - Sandy! Oh it’s good to see you!” She telescoped me back to arm’s length and gave me a studied once-over. “You look fan-dipulous, bubbala! You’ve lost weight! And you’ve... oh, my. You’ve lost something else, too… haven’t you?”
Drop all deceptions major and minor when dealing with Hessie Nygaard. She can tell from a five-second scan whether you have, in the last month, locked your keys in the car, ordered something too spicy at a Thai restaurant, had illicit sex. It was no wonder she was twice-divorced; who’d want to live each day being read like a book?
Fortunately for me, Hessie had made a much more obvious change than I had, which afforded me a handy escape hatch.
“Jesus, Hessie! You look like Marilyn Monroe!”
Hessie’s hair was, in fact, done up in a disarranged pile of white-blonde, ribbon-like curls. They were not particularly suited to her, but they were definitely striking.
She twirled one of the ribbons around a pinkie and flashed a coy smile. “Thank you. I wish I had a body to match. I’ve been dating a stylist from Vancouver – heterosexual, no less – and he likes to... try things out on me. These little trinkets probably won’t stay more than a week, but it’s a nice trip while it lasts. Hey Sandykins, are you hungry? Jeremy tells me they’ve got some killer shellfish rigatoni left over from yesterday.”
Jeremy, hunched over a card file across the room but still listening, confirmed Hessie’s statement by whistling an affirmative downward glissando. Not that I needed any encouragement; my long walk on the beach had left me downright famished.
“Do you mind if I change first? I’m a little damp from my walk.”
“Tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind a hot shower myself,” said Hessie. “That fucking drive from Portland gets a half-hour longer every time I make it. Come knock on my door when you’re all set. I’m in the Magic Flute suite.”
“You always were a sucker for that mystical stuff.”
Hessie fluttered her eyelashes in that superhuman way of hers (faster than a hummingbird’s wings). “I take whatever scraps the customers leave me, honey. And confidentially, that single floating Freemason eye in the shower really creeps me out. In any case, it’s 304, third floor, on the left, just past Boheme and Rosenkavalier. Look for a...”
“Magic Flute? On the door?”
“You are oh-so quick. ‘Bout a half hour?”
“Sure. That’s fine.”
We were done stuffing ourselves on rigatoni, my hands flying around in faux-Milanese gestures of glee every other forkful, and were finishing up a couple of vanilla flans with caramel syrup when Hessie finally arrived at the inevitable subject.
“So this thing that you’ve lost, Sandymysweet...” ( Hessie often speaks like a gay man.) “This thing wasn’t... George, was it?”
The Bel Canto dining room was situated downstairs from the lobby, a series of windows spread out like a poker hand on the oceanward wall. There wasn’t much to see out there tonight – just the amorphous blue-white of cloud cover – but I was glad nonetheless to have somewhere to direct my blank stare.
“To put it short, Hessie-pie... it was more like George lost me.” Uh-oh. Those familiar rumblings in my face. “Listen....” I managed to return my gaze to Hessie, whose perpetually bloodshot blue eyes were taking on that dreaded air of compassion. “I promise... sometime soon, I’ll give you all the gory details – in fact, I’m sure it’ll be cathartic when I finally do – but right now my tank’s getting close to empty and...”
Damn. More rumbling. No no no. No more helplessness. No more weakness. I pulled my new worry stone out of my pocket and began to click it nervously against the table.
“Sandy? Whatcha got there?”
The question didn’t quite register, but then I saw what I was doing with my hands and held my chip of glass to the candlelight.
“Oh, uh... a present. From...”
“You met Frosty!” Hessie beamed at me as if I had just won an Oscar.
“Frosted Glass Man. Oh, he is the star character of Knickerbocker Beach. And you met him on your first day!” She gestured at my hand. “May I see it?”
I placed the glass in her hand and she studied it with great curiosity. She seemed doubtful about something, then she pulled out a pen light attached to her car keys and held the glass in its beam. I half expected her to whip out one of those jeweler’s monocles.
“Oh, honey,” she chanted. “Honey honey honey. Little ol’ Sandy Lowiltry. Sandy Sandy Sandy...”
Fearing she might go on indefinitely, I gracefully interjected.
Hessie placed the chip in the center of the table. “The rare and lovely blue. You are a marked woman.”
This idea struck me as simultaneously preposterous and, well, intriguing. I pretended to believe only the former.
“What can you possibly be talking about?”
Hessie snickered to herself like a guilty Scooby-Doo, crossed her hands and waved them like an umpire signaling “safe.”
“No, no. No, precious Sandy. I leave the discovery process to you. But I will say this: you might be in for an adventure.”
Photo by MJV