Barry had spent the afternoon growing sour in a wheelchair at the foot of the Cow’s End Cafe along Washington Boulevard. He had complained to sweats, to his friend Eldon who sat across from him, about the saltwater marshes surrendered to development in Playa Del Rey and the surf spots lost to overcrowding from Fried Fish to Redondo. They’d shared a smoothie because Barry didn’t want coffee or pain killers to cloud over their first walk down the pier in five weeks since his surgery.
When Barry was sent home at the end of May, Eldon had asked to push him down the pier, but Barry had dismissed the idea, saying he’d rather walk than be “driven.” The week before, he had seen Eldon’s eyes wander west and Barry thought he’d give it a go, but he didn’t even make the sand before Eldon had to circle back for the wheelchair. Today, 20 minutes before sunset, Barry would press through the pain that had balled up inside his throat.
Barry raised himself with the sidebars of the chair, his arms quivering him up to his feet.
“I’ll bring the wheelchair,” Eldon said, standing in alarm.
“Leave it. I hope the stupid thing gets swiped,” Barry said. “Bring the jackets.”
Barry walked down the sidewalk whispering bits of vulgarity between squeaks of his foam beach clogs and the cluck of a rented cane. Strolling next to Barry in his sweatsuit, Eldon looked the part of a flower, arranged for an event in capped Oxfords, pleated slacks, a silk shirt, and a coconut-thread fedora. They’d each resettled in Los Angeles after World War II and met straddling their long boards on the Venice breakwater between Santa Monica and the Marina.
The third of July had arrived sunny and calm. Heading down the sidewalk toward the beach, they passed the gutted pay phone where they had met every morning for three decades, their surfboards rocked against their hips. It was clear from how the business signs grew larger and louder that the Westside was becoming more of what you saw in the Valley. A circle of teenagers stood on the sidewalk outside a brand-new Mexican restaurant. Lots of thump-thump music and sheet metal. All of the kids poured their eyes into cell phones or fit their gaping mouths around foil-wrapped burritos. That was it, Barry thought. More gigantic burritos, no mariscos, no more of that Italian restaurant Amici Mare where Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan played without a piano and the chef mixed carrots into the ragú of his lasagna. The odors drifting the sidewalk had lost the lightness of ocean air and the breeze smelled syrupy and burnt.
They left behind the sidewalk and moved onto the pay-to-park lot adjacent to the beach. The cement was sand-covered and Barry had to square his hips over his feet to avoid slipping. Dozens of gulls took to flight toward the ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. Families toppled out of cars and Barry maneuvered to avoid the doors flying open. Eldon moved closer to Barry to serve as a barrier against the children wielding their toys. Boogie boards were skipped across the ground and teams of children in loudly colored jerseys kicked at a deflated soccer ball. Most of them raced along in a blind hurry, the rest were happy to drag their feet like flippers.
Barry had said as much to Eldon before, but he could see that there were fewer American families than there used to be. There were more foreign tourists, immigrants or refugees it seemed, and what looked like every U.N. member state plowing toward the beach. A bottle rocket flew by a couple paces in front of them with a whistle and a pop. It seemed an illusion as sudden and abrupt as a camera’s flash, but then Barry spied a boy grabbing fireworks from a cellophane-wrapped basket carried by a father who was hustling along an impossible armload of sand toys. Two more explosions overhead incited return fire from down on the beach, and Barry and Eldon reached the neck of the pier as blue sparks cascaded onto their path ahead.
Barry saw Eldon looking at him the way his friend had when he startled with the clatter of a saucer or the sneeze of a dog under the café tables. Barry had piloted in the Good War over the Pacific, and thank God, Eldon was always too polite or too embarrassed to ask for war stories.
“Let’s say to hell with it.” Eldon pointed ahead. “After the holiday, we’ll come back.”
But Barry kept walking. He went farther through ripe-smelling water and chunks of fishing bait before they stopped for him to catch his breath. He leaned his belly against the rail, Barry looked down to the beach and saw it filling more than usual, more because of the coming Fourth. The people were disarranged. There were no perched umbrellas and none of the signs of people who plan to stake claim. All of them seemed to wander in a confused procession toward the sun, and the white noise of the crowd seemed to collide with the sound of waves crashing in. Behind his back more children sped along, reckless and foolish with their bodies. One group had two dogs bounding along with them and Barry wanted to warn them about the city ordinance.
“No dogs on the pier!” he yelled, too late to catch the kids.
“I’ll bet the parents eat the citations,” Eldon said.
The sun had turned orange, there was five minutes until sunset. Ahead of them a brown pelican, a friend of theirs, sat on a post it had painted white with droppings. A fishing hook was buried to the shaft under one of its eyes and the growth that bubbled forth was in need of lancing. Boys and girls surrounded it and were inching closer with sparklers. When a boy held his sparkler close enough to burn the pelican, it squawked and flapped up a wind as best it could. The children scattered and Barry tried to catch the major offender. Realizing the boy had already escaped, he trapped an unsuspecting little girl between his eyes. Pigtails sprang out of the sides of her head and candy had stained her cheeks a chemical blue.
He shook his finger at her. “Young lady, those birds are protected by federal law.”
The girl stared expressionless at Barry before she became ugly and toothy.
“Go smell yourself. I didn’t shoot anything at that bird.”
Then she ran off before Barry or Eldon could say a word. The girl’s crudeness landed cold on Barry, and Eldon squeezed up his face to share the disgust in what he and they both had heard.
Barry walked on imagining them tucked inside the barrel of an ocean wave, though when Eldon reached out his hand to steady Barry, he slapped it away with a fleshy smack.
“Goddamnit, I don’t need the help.”
“Then I wasn’t offering it,” Eldon said.
Once they reached the circle-end of the pier, to what looked like the basin of a soup spoon, there were minutes left and 50 feet to cross. A rocket fight had broken out. Children no taller than Barry’s cane were shooting rockets from their fists and aiming in all directions. Across the neck of the pier behind them, north and south sides had joined in a rivalry and each wasted the night’s stockpile to get the better of the moment. Barry and Eldon flipped coats over their heads and moved through the crossfire. Children squealed and complemented their shooting by punching and kicking at each other, and parents did little but stagger after one child or another.
Barry and Eldon huddled together during the crossing. As rockets whistled across their eyes, the men fell into formation. Barry followed his friend’s heels and imagined himself in the thrust of a B-25 Mitchell bomber. Fifty years ago, he had ridden as a nose gunner on the Galloping Grange, an aircraft that flew in the Doolittle Raids over Japan. The mission was FDR’s retaliation against the Japanese for Pearl Harbor. Sixteen B-25s shipped out of Alameda and Barry and his crew bombed targets in Yokohama before retreating toward an airbase in China. They ran out of fuel at nightfall and ditched their plane in the Pacific. Barry hit the ocean water and floated until Chinese fishermen pulled his lifeless body into a boat. To think of his body now, Barry remembered the exhaustion back when and the first time he saw death coming into relief.
A child in foam clogs slammed into Barry and the collision stopped them both. The child stumbled off. Barry couldn’t ask for an explanation, and he hid under his coat, swallowing up air to settle the flutter in his chest. Eldon walked to their usual vantage under a junction box, and Barry had to veer toward the closer rail, a distance away from his friend. Barry shed his coat and turned back east. He saw that Eldon was looking back too. The celebration wasn’t familiar. It was a human barnyard. A work of fire. Eldon had told Barry stories about fatherhood, about how he had pulled his infant son through four days of roseola fever by singing like Anita O’Day. But Barry thought, better than all the wisdom of love, and if he could find the strength, he’d bum rush the herd of children and snag one of the little boys to choke quietly by the throat.
The sun was halfway into the horizon when Eldon walked back toward Barry.
“You’d need a teacher for every one of them,” Eldon said, setting his fedora on his head.
Barry flared up at Eldon’s words and bit down hard.
“Oh hell, words are just rubber bullets. It’d take you tackling and pinning one down. You’d have to pull his attention up through his ears and make it feel like his head was coming apart. Then when he’s kicking and squealing the little piggy—ask him the big question—ask him what he feels.”
“Ask him if he feels what?” Eldon said.
“Ask the little shit if suffering isn’t the truest goddamn feeling left in this world.”
Barry stood shaken by the heat of what he had said. The sun formed a liquid on the horizon when he heard music, not from a boom box, but from a brass instrument. He turned to the sound and saw a teenage boy playing a saxophone on a skateboard and rolling toward them on the pier. The boy could’ve been Jewish or Japanese for all he could say, and he moved almost faster than his eyes could focus. He had hair slicked back, a white T-shirt, horn rimmed glasses, and his playing was barely audible over the mixture of howls and explosions that came.
There was a burst of applause when Barry turned and saw that the sun was gone. He’d missed his chance to see it drop into the Pacific and the green flash leaping into the sky. The boy skated in a loop around the pier and played in a familiar 5/4 time that he recognized. He played the children into submission, blowing louder as they scattered toward the sides of the pier to watch him. Barry listened carefully and placed the song at nearly the same time as Eldon.
“Dave Brubeck,” Eldon said, “‘Take Five.’”
“Paul Desmond on saxophone,” Barry said.
Header photo by 12019, courtesy Pixabay.