Story from Saint Catherine’s Baby by Gabriel Constans
The Barking Seal Admiration Society – Part 1
My sister Joanne had come, for respite, from our hometown of Modesto, a land-locked metropolis eviscerated in the the scorching Sacramento Valley in Northern California. We were spending the afternoon on the wharf in Santa Cruz, a city on the edge of the Monterey Bay, just a touch south of San Francisco by way of Highway One; a scenic, precarious strip of pavement, hugging the coast like a black snake.
I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for twenty odd years, but you wouldn’t know it by the looks of me. My usual slacks, short-sleeved dress shirt and wide-brimmed Fedora, to cover my receding brown hair and shade my ever paling skin, stands in stark contrast to the shorts, wet suits, Hawaiian prints and Birkenstocks worn by most of the tanned, beach-faring home grown crowd. I don’t surf, the ocean’s much too cold for my liking; and I hate it when sand gets in my socks and shoes, grating roughly against my skin. To top off the oxymoron of my seaside existence, my work with an advertising agency in San Jose, though personally rewarding is not something I flaunt in this liberal college town.
Holding her floppy white straw hat, Joanne skipped down the old wooden peer, her right arm swinging freely. The pier stood on creaking stilts of old oak pylons that had been driven into the sea floor at the start of the last century. A space in the middle of the pier had been created for tourists to feed the seals. Joanne stopped at the railed opening to see the gluttonous sea creatures lounging on the braces below. As I caught up, she barked, clapped and laughed loudly, imitating the chubby, sumo-wrestling otters’ boisterous demands for food.
She was laughing like she had when we were two little toe heads. I remembered the times she interrupted my Lone Ranger play, as I made serious sound effects of guns firing and bullets ricocheting past my head. I wore my plastic red cowboy hat and holster and she’d be outfitted as a petite ballerina; her blond pigtails held to the side by bright pink, silk ribbons.
“Get out of the way!” I’d yell, pointing my six-shooter at the bad guys. She danced closer. “Stop it Jo!” I’d yelled again, using the form of Joanne she hated. She danced closer still, twirling, curtseying, falling and playing dead; her square-toed, laced ballet shoes sticking straight into the air. Everyone knows ballerinas and cowboys don’t mix, but she would keep jumping up and falling down, giggling and laughing, with total disregard for my need to save the land from desperados. Unable to keep a straight face, I’d holster my guns and clap at her performance, just like I’d seen our mother do before she’d died of cancer.
Joanne was still barking at the seals when a skinny woman wearing a blue-green scarf joined in. Momentarily startled, Joanne stopped and stared. Realizing the stranger wasn’t any crazier than herself; she smiled, laughed and resumed her barking and clapping. hey were like mimicking mimes imitating an innocent bystander.
The new addition to the barking seal admiration society turned and clapped towards Joanne, who eagerly returned her applause. They both bowed, barely avoiding knocking each other in the head. The woman’s scarf slipped forward and fell, revealing a shiny hairless scalp. She grabbed the cloth by the corner before it hit the pier. She stood grinning with the brilliance of a sparkler and quickly wrapped and tied her silk scarf. Joanne took off her hat and briskly rubbed her short soft brown curly tufts.
Feeling somehow drawn to this barking skeleton with no hair, I moved closer and listened to the enraptured duo, as the lady pointed at Joanne and said, “Chemo?”
Joanne nodded. They hollered, squealed and embraced; as if they were long lost sisters.
“Robin,” the woman exclaimed, bowing slightly.
“Joanne.” She curtsied.
They hugged again. Joanne, holding the sleeve of Robin’s full length, blue print dress, turned her in my direction. “This is my big brother Rueben; my great protector and occasional pain in the butt,” she snickered. “This is Rob . . .”
“Robin,” I interjected. “I heard.”
Dispensing with my usual reserve, I took Robin’s hand, knelt on the wood planks and kissed the back of her thin wrist. “It’s a pleasure, Ms. Robin.”
She bent her knees and bowed her head formally. “The pleasure is all mine Sir Rueben.”
I stood, offering my hands as their princely escort. Joanne, on my left, placed her right hand on mine, as Robin did the same on my right. With her free hand Robin lifted her dress a few inches, as Joanne pretended to do likewise, though she wore pants. We walked regally towards the bench at the end of the pier, with our noses turned theatrically skyward.
I brushed off the bench, pretended to place a cloth upon it and invited them to sit on their royal throne. They sat, squished comfortably together, as I descended onto the thick weathered wood next to Robin.
“Come closer,” she said, grabbing my pant leg and pulling. “It’s chilly out here.”
I snuggled closer. The waves thumped against the pilings below. We watched the surfers, as they drifted around the rising swells, waiting for the crest of a perfect wave. When their experienced eyes saw nature’s roller-coaster approaching, they began paddling and stood bravely on their miniscule pieces of wood; daring the foamy, curling blood of the sea to give them a thrill before extinguishing itself on the sandy shore. I thought about trying it once or twice, but the idea of swimming in freezing water, sharks, stinging salt-water in my eyes and the possibility of drowning; made my fledgling desire vanish faster than a crowd of punk rockers exiting the concert of a polka playing accordion band.
“Was it breast cancer?” Joanne asked, breaking the comfortable silence.
“Still is,” Robin said, matter-of-factly. “It’s such a happy camper, it’s decided to pitch tent.”
“I’m sorry,” Joanne said; her face transformed into a Japanese Kabuki mask of sorrow.
“Not your fault,” Robin replied dreamily, looking past the horizon. “Not anybody’s fault.”
“What a rotten deal,” I said.
“Yep, a rotten deal,” she said softly and exclaimed, “I’m starved.” She stood, took hold of our hands and tried pulling us off the bench. Her grip was surprisingly strong. “Sir Rueben,” she bowed. “Lady Joanne,” she bowed again, “Queen of the barking seals. Let us partake of some fine delicacies at the great dining hall of fish and chips.”
Turning our backs to the sea; Robin promenaded, with her two newly aggrieved squires, past the barking seals and tourists snapping pictures, towards the castle of greasy potatoes and dead fish meat.
After finishing a second order of fried breaded cod at Barcello’s Fish Fry and stacking the grease stained, white and red checkered throwaway containers in a heap; Robin grimaced and lurched forward.
“I think I’m going to be sick!” she covered her mouth.
The waitress behind the counter, who was as worn and painted over as the pier itself, noticed Robin’s distress and came as fast as her arthritic knees would allow.
“You OK?” she barked, with an urgency that implied, “You better be.”
Robin put her hand on the spotted Formica top and rolled her head from side to side. I placed my hand between her shoulder blades, moved my fingers up her spine and massaged her neck. Leaning closer, I heard her laughing under her breath. She looked at me and smiled, then jerked upright, “Just kidding!”
Joanne rolled her eyes with relief. The waitress was not amused. “Ha. Ha,” she scowled, lumbering back to the other end of the counter, muttering silent obscenities.
“Why’d you do that?” Joanne admonished, “It wasn’t funny.”
“Hey,” Robin replied, “When did you turn into the queen of pathos?”
Joanne’s frown turned into a smile, as she pushed Robin’s shoulder.
“Ouch!” Robin yelped, clasping her shoulder and grimacing with pain.
“Oh no,” Joanne’s face contorted once again. “I’m so sorry.” She looked at Robin with alarm. “Are you OK?”
Robin’s mischievous grin returned. She winked, letting Joanne know the joke was on her.
“Why . . . you!” Joanne waved Robin off good naturally and pushed her on the shoulder again as Robin renewed her painful grimace, then laughed hysterically, almost spitting with pleasure.
Robin turned discreetly in my direction and whispered, “I’ll act sick more often, if you promise to rub my back like that again.” I started to look away but couldn’t. She took my hand like a precious jewel and stroked it as gently as a soft kitten. “You have beautiful hands,” she purred. I glanced over her shoulder and saw Joanne watching out of the corner of her eye.
As we headed towards the car to pay the meter, not wanting to pay thirty-five dollars for a two-hour stroll, because of a parking ticket, it seemed as if the three of us had been together all day.
Reluctantly, we took our leave, as Joanne was driving back to Modesto that afternoon and offered Robin a ride.
“I’ll walk. Thanks,” she said, looking admiringly at the sky then back at me. “It’s such a beautiful day. I don’t live far.”
Joanne gave her a long hug. “Thank you,” she said.
“For what?” Robin asked.
“For reminding me how good it feels to laugh.”
“What else is there?”
They held each other’s hands, one on top of the other. Robin gently extracted her fingers from Joanne’s and turned her luminous eyes on mine. I wasn’t sure what to say or how. It felt like I’d known this woman all my life.
“Let’s go Rueben,” Joanne broke in. “I’ve got to get packed.”
My lips parted and crackled a stifled, “Goodbye.”
Robin stood quietly, nodding farewell. I started to walk away, when a desperate surge of adrenaline turned me around. Robin hadn’t budged. I hurried back.
“Could we . . . ah . . . get together sometime?” I said.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she smiled suggestively, reaching into her shimmering dress pocket and handing me a card.
Lowering my hat against the sun’s glare, I read. “Robin Magnolia. Consultant.”
“Consultant for what?” I wondered out loud.
“Surfing,” she replied, taking my hand in hers and kissing me on the cheek.
“Life surfing,” she whispered. Call me.”
Joanne shouted, “Come on Rueben! I’ve got to go.”
“See ya,” I said, letting her hand drop and heading towards the car. It took all my strength to not spin around and take her in my arms.
Part 2 (Conclusion) Tomorrow