By David Watson
Do you remember Abraham? Yes, that Abraham, the one God ordered to take his son up the mountain and make him a sacrifice. Do you remember Abraham? The thing I wonder and that I guess everyone wonders when they hear that story is this: what if God hadn’t intervened in the last moment to stop Abraham from cutting the boy’s throat? I guess this is a moot point when you are talking about someone who is all-powerful, but what if there had been a snag in the plan? What if the angel had been waylaid like the angel in Daniel who was kept at bay by the Prince of Persia for twenty-one days? I guess I don’t really know what would have happened to Abraham then. I suppose he would have tried to explain to his wife why he left on a camping trip with their son and came home alone. Maybe he wouldn’t have gone home at all. I mean, maybe it would have been better for him to hit the road after a stunt like that. Light out for Ur of the Chaldeans and never look back. Maybe there are some tests that you simply can’t pass.
There was our man and he was standing in the rain outside of a bus depot. He wore a gray raincoat, executive cut, and he carried an attaché case and smoked a black cigarette with a little gold ring just above the filter. He had dark hair and pale skin and those deep craters under his eyes that looked like he had smudged eyeliner pencil into sunken little half-moons with his thumb. He was staring at the multicolored chart on the wall of the depot that tells all the places that the buses run and all the times that they arrive and depart. In three days this man, sitting on a California beach, would open the fingers of his right hand into a V and use those same fingers to mash out both of his eyes.
The depot was a building made of gray bricks so big that they looked like cinderblocks, all stained from people extinguishing their cigarettes and cigars on the side in ugly black smears that never quite seem to wash off in the rain. The roof was slightly inclined and there were tin rain gutters that were supposed to direct the water toward the down spouts into the big forty-gallon plastic barrels. But it had already been raining for two and a half years without ever even once showing the slightest sign of letting up. So the gutters were filled up and the barrels were filled up and the water was just pouring out like soldiers going over the top at Verdun or the Somme and splattering away on the ground in deep old puddles, flowing away in little rivulets carving their way across the parking lot. Doesn’t that just beat everything straight to hell? Two and a half years. That’s nine hundred and twelve whole days, plus one very soggy morning. He was wondering if there was a bus going somewhere that the sun was shining.
A lady sidled up to him. He couldn’t hear her over the sound of the rain and the water pouring down out of the gutters and anyway he wasn’t really listening for any ladies sidling up beside him. This lady was very tiny. So tiny that when he finally did notice her he wondered to himself how it was that she hadn’t been sucked away in one of the parking-lot rivers. She was wearing a yellow slicker and had big horn-rimmed spectacles and her hair was wrapped in plastic sheeting to keep it dry. It was a cold day. Autumn was turning into winter and the days were getting shorter and the wind was starting to take on a serrated edge. He coughed and the little lady turned to him.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” she said. She smelled like damp baby powder and mildew.
“I know,” he said.
“It’s bad for you,” she said.
He nodded. “That’s the idea.”
She didn’t say anything after that for a moment and then she asked him where he was headed and he said that he didn’t know.
“What do you mean?” she asked him. “How can you come to the station without knowing where you are going?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it. Somewhere sunny.”
“Is that supposed to be a joke?” she asked. “Because it isn’t funny.”
“No. I guess not. Still though. Wouldn’t a little sun be nice?”
“I am going to see my grandchildren in Topeka,” the tiny woman said. “I’s my grandson’s birthday and I’m going for a visit.”
So he got on the first bus bound for California and it took him all the way to San Francisco. Three thousand miles and he sat by the window the whole way. You know what he saw? Ruin. Everywhere they went there was nothing green or growing anywhere. Everything was dead. They drove through huge stretches of what had once been wheat fields (green grass, gold and amber stalks, rich soil, all beneath a blue sky, green tractors, and red irrigators) and all those fields had become enormous playa lakes that reflected rain clouds and any headlights passing on the freeway. They drove through the mountains. There used to be trees in the Rockies, big fir trees and oak trees and ash trees and birch trees and all kinds of trees. But now the trees were all rotted away beneath tangled heaps of moss and lichen because moss and lichen are just about the only things that can grow in the constant damp. Every stop along the way he saw more people dressed in wet clothes, wearing wet shoes over wet socks. It isn’t right, he thought, that a man could get jungle rot in Nevada. But sure enough.
“I guess I thought it might be different here,” he said to no one in particular as the bus turned south toward San Francisco. “But it really is just the same everywhere.”
He got off the bus somewhere between L.A. and Frisco. It doesn’t matter where precisely, just somewhere along the way. It was a rinky-dink town. You know the type: a gas station rusting out from under itself; a diner whose sign is missing letters; a no-tell motel with rooms for nineteen dollars a night; several bars that might be dive bars but aren’t because dive is a concept of relatives and here in Podunk, CA, everything is a dive, a warsh, the tried and true walking nightmare of a mad somnambulist. Everything was gravel and soot and the aching, backbreaking odor of despair. It was the kind of place where noir things happen on rain-swept nights and even the rich banks of clouds can’t protect a body from the deep-down crazies brought on by the obscured light of a full moon. The kind of place where a car breaks down and its owner moans, “No…anywhere but here.”
But there was a beach not far from the bus depot. The last twenty miles into town he could see it from the highway: the gray sky, water that moved like lead in a crucible, whitecaps churning up on the beach, driftwood and seaweed scattered like a net in whose grommets lay decaying fish, caked in sand, picked at by the birds.
He left the terminal behind, crossed the street, waded through the mud and muck of the embankment down to the place where the soil turned to sand, and he kicked off his shoes and pulled off his socks and walked barefoot onto the beach. The rain had darkened the sand and left it cratered with minute pockmarks as if an ant army had loosed its miniature artillery and made no man’s land of the dune. Several yards ahead a fish, gray-scaled and white-bellied, flopped in one of the shallow pools that the rain had turned into small, isolated seas. He walked along the beach, looking out towards the horizon. In the distance the sky and ocean faded together into a single ashen thing, an elemental merger of water and air. A taut breeze was rolling off the waves and it carried with it the smell of brine, kelp, and ice. He rubbed his hand along his face and felt the three-day stubble beneath his fingers.
About fifty yards down the beach he saw a man sitting and watching the waves. This stranger wore a brightly colored shirt with no sleeves, a pair of Bermuda shorts, and had his hair bound back behind his head with a handkerchief that was white and red. His hair was golden, as if it had been gobbling sunlight for the course of his entire life, storing it against the day when the sun would disappear. Now, in the never-ending, rain-soaked gloaming his hair blazed out like the sun’s reflection in a polished mirror. His feet were buried in the sand. The stranger turned and saw our man coming down the beach towards him and he raised a well-muscled arm and waved. The golden haired stranger was sitting on a long tow board with a high fin and a blue stripe that ran the middle and ducked away around either end.
“Out for a stroll?” the surfer asked.
“You might say so.”
“What’s your name?” the surfer asked. Our man raised his shoulders and let them drop. The surfer looked him over top to bottom and then nodded.
“Yeah. I dig. I know why you’re here. You thought you might find a sliver of sunlight. Isn’t that right, traveler?”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
“You should know by now,” the surfer said. “There isn’t going to be any sun ever again. Those days are over.”
“You still come out here to surf?” our man asked. The surfer looked at him for a moment as if he had not understood the question.
“You’re sitting on a surfboard.” He pointed and the surfer turned and then his face broke into a wide smile.
“Oh,” the surfer said, “I don’t surf. I found it right where it is now. Seemed like as good a bench as I was going to find down here.”
“So why are you here?”
“I’m here every day,” the surfer who was not a surfer said. “I like to watch the ocean.”
“In the rain?”
“It rains every day,” the surfer who was not a surfer said. “I don’t see how you can let it stop you forever.”
“So it is.”
They sat in silence for a long time. Waves broke on the shore, seagulls glided through the rain and called out to one another in voices that seemed to come from a great distance, and from the road came the sound of cars and trucks shifting down to stop at the traffic light on the corner by the bus station. Our man looked at his watch. It was a quarter to noon. Behind the clouds the sun should have been almost in the center of the sky.
How do you remember something like the sun? How do you pick out a single sunlit day to rest the mind upon when every day for a lifetime and for a thousand lifetimes the sun has been the world’s one constant? That was the trouble that plagued our man. He could remember the sun, but only as an abstraction. Now that it was gone it did not take a definite shape in his memory, remaining, instead, a general theory of light and heat as divorced from the reality of the sun as Planck’s constant is divorced from the cooking of a marshmallow over a roaring fire.
What might have been different for our man if at that moment the sun had appeared--if the clouds gave way, as the Prince of Persia gave way to Daniel’s angel, and there had been a moment of illumination? Would even a single ray of clear, unfiltered light have been the hand of God staying Abraham from the terrible sacrifice? But the clouds did not break and for a little while the two, our man and the strange Kuebiko, sat side-by-side staring out over the water.