By Andy Kimmelman
In that selfsame place
A gray brown grain among
Silver tan sand.
The fire won’t start. Sizzling, steaming wood denies us any right to ignite its hardy fibers swollen with combustible carbon, trapped in musty damp, deposited there by misty beach breezes. Our humble host, Old Ben, will soon retire, leaving us fire-less in the now-gathering purple darkness. We tear slickly crisp pages from chemical magazines, flames burning acrid blue and green. Still, the wood fails to light or even dry decently. An entire wet cord savaged by entropy. Not a strapping Boy Scout but always prepared nonetheless, I seem to have lost my survival touch; with the fuel wood’s vote of no-confidence in my skills, so dwindles that of my companions. The endless cyclical dampening of fuel, wills and spirits alike. I stand solemn, dejected as Mark and Jack feed the unread leaves of pop culture commentary into the standing cold pit as the wood ignores our efforts. The girls mill about watching with anticipation, hands in pockets, unwilling to give practical or moral support. Hot dogs and marshmallows lie uncooked; hands remain unwarmed.
Heart-fires ignite effortlessly, and mine rages on, a thick stand of redwoods engulfed in flames. Twin infections today: the first, a thorny choking sinusitis tearing through my throat; the second, the thickening swell of jealousy warming up six inches below. Maybe it’s petty playground emotion, a high school toy rusty with nostalgia but still taken out now and again. Needless fifth wheel on the chuckwagon, that’s me, and I draw away and into. Sappy, honey sweet, insulin coma Mark and Jill carry on lovey-dovey on a plane above our own friendship. Cloying, yes, but everyday banality still. This kills me: Maggie and Jack tumbling down-beach, two kids disguising their affections with punches. He’s an idiot, my bestest best friend Jack. I can handle him alone, the two of us rapping like mad beat displaced-in-time beatniks over too much coffee and weed. Maggie and I, when at times together, those times unlike any other, her nonstop speed-freak-without-the-speed-iness slows to a relative snail crawl. Now Jack eggs her on, speeds her back up, the two galloping away after each other’s confused feelings. They do the same at home; their behavior is unchanged by the imposing Santa Monica Mountains silhouetted above us, across the highway. I sit now in mental solitude, poking and stoking the embers of the slow burn.
“I sit now in mental solitude, poking and stoking the embers of the slow burn.”
Now, packed all into our six-man tent, cozy in body if not mind, the wind whips relentless about us. Yards away sad-sack suburbanites slumber in camper vans, RVs, pop-ups, propane-fueled warmth. Yet the Great October Sandstorm of ’04 bombards us without end. Yep, this here’s the big one, folks; round-the-clock coverage on the Weather Channel, CNN anchors blown sideways, faces buffed to a smooth shine by sandpaper gusts. Space-age tent-fabric technology cannot withstand it, as devilish grains push through and fill our every pore. We bite the dust and grind it in our teeth. My phlegm-filled cough now mixes with sand, chokingly. Jill and Mark huddle beneath shared blankets, glowing as one against the cold. Jack and Maggie, too, their snuggle more platonic but no less exclusive. The windblown and busted side of the tent collapses on top of me, holding me close, swaddling me in nylon love. Shit.
Lo, salient saline Pacific,
Crash! On sandy shores
Each grain sits idly,
The waves do not care.
The fourth cord of wood combusts, sparking embers blowing from the iron ring. Old Ben has come through, bringing drier fuel from the top of his personal stack. Despite Hoover-dammed nasal passages, I can smell the embracing aroma, mellow birch, crackling piòon, sharp cedar mingle in billows of smoke. Heat radiates from the sand beneath us and from the bourbon within us, all five passing the bottle each to each. We break out s’mores and childhood memories of the same, oozing comforting fondness. Conversations and flames grow, glowing, warming bodies and spirits. Our pungent familiarity carries on waves of laughter to neighboring campsites. Elders and parents, awash in long-forgotten lost collegiate glee, shoot disapproval in our direction. We spot two young girls nearby, not more than twelve apiece, glowing in similarly precious firelight, dancing with bare happiness atop a picnic table. Caught up in free-feeling bliss of their own, they neglect to mark us as their unknowing parents do. We thank their unnoticing by simply continuing our vulgar carrying-on, the beach embracing us approvingly.
Deep leaden clouds shadowed our coastal highway journey here, but now, just at sunset, a clear line breaks above the horizon, a blazing blood orange sun bursts through to begin its dip into the welcoming ocean. Smooth, round rocks, bathed and polished by ancient waves, provide front row seats as we gather on the lilting edge of the surf. Seabirds swoop and dive for hidden fish, as they always do. Torpedo cranes smash into the Pacific, reemerging as quickly, laden with the evening’s catch. And just at the line where the iridescent glowing waves begin to curl and crash, triangles of dark gray cut the surface from below…dolphins! A family of bottlenose dolphins, five or six at least, holds us enraptured. Speechlessly we watch as they play, accustomed to and ignorant of the stunning beauty of the day’s end, they are at the same time an inseparable piece. They continue swimming obliviously, whether it’s a gorgeous sunset or a violent sandstorm. As humans, we can stop to recognize the aesthetic beauty of a gorgeous sunset, but that doesn’t make it any better than the sandstorm; the dolphins know this in their animal wisdom. The sensual harmony astounds, and we five are as much a part of it. Locked into weekday workman fantasies of distinguishing ourselves, separating from the all-encompassing; that scene is not now. Silent, none of us asserts our coming into oneness. Exactly.
Now just after two in the morning. My tent-wall companion batters me awake again, but the sand-brimming gusts seem to have mostly subsided. Our rainfly blew away long ago, lost to the winds, and stars glimmer through the open mesh ceiling. I’m pulled up, outside, carried by feeling more than mechanical legs alone. A full and brilliant moon lights the way back to our shoreline rocks. The tide, also pulled by the moon, has waxed higher, occasionally crashing just at my feet, though I know it will not submerge them. The gray water and horizon blend; I face the dark warm edge of nothingness. Countless stars shimmer and twinkle above, a pointillist abstraction. The long cloudy arm of the Milky Way stretches across the sky, wrapping us in its stellar embrace. Waves crash. The moon shines on. I do not mistake my vision of it for that which it is, for that which we are. My mind empties of nothingness; it fills with everything.
The lone (not so)
Lonely bodhisattva sits
In silence, half lotus.
Not the grain, one,
But the beach himself.
About the Author:
When not publishing pieces in student magazines, Andrew Kimmelman is an English and education student at USC and runs an outdoor education program for a middle school in Koreatown. He also enjoys pro audio equipment, building things with power tools, indie-folk music, and fine literature. Andy has aspirations of becoming a youth camp director in the future.