Alex’s Dilemma

A red convertible wove down a twisting narrow road leading to the beach access point. Alex drove. He was fond of this car, which had been his wife’s before the event. He knew that he would have to sell it soon; however, now he was intent on experiencing a communion associated with her last actions. At the secluded parking area, he reversed into the same corner that she had parked. He closed the convertible top and left the keys in the ignition, as she had done. He made sure that the doors were not locked as she must have done.

He took the narrow path which led to the shore. When he reached the top of the first dune, he paused to look back at the car. The green marine dune grasses contrasted with its brilliant red paint drawing his eye to its singularity. He wondered whether she had paused and looked back as he did now. Had she seen the same scene?

He continued to follow the footpath which he thought to be very narrow and sandy. A sheep bleated at him as it ambled out of his way, and a lone bird rose to the sky with a warning call. He didn’t hear the ocean until he scrambled over the third band of dunes. When they gave way to the shore, he paused to catch his breath. He scanned the beach, happy that he was the only person there.

He took off his flip-flops and slid down the sand onto the beach proper. First, he walked to the rocks on the right-hand side of the beach close to the place where he had immerged from the dunes. He recalled that fateful morning and how her pink towelette bathing coverall and shoes had seemed to wink at him from where she had left them on the grey rocks. He walked over and sat upon the rock to immerse himself in his longing and to revel in the transitional magic of the place. He took off his shirt and laid it and his shoes in the same spot that she had placed hers. He looked out across the beach to the rocks at the far end.

He began to walk. He chose to paddle along the edge of the water where the sand was damp and hard. He let his feet draw in the cool moving wetness of the ocean. Occasionally he dodged when a larger wave broke and pushed itself up the beach. Seagulls squawked and flew overhead. Mingled in with their cries he thought that he heard a faint human voice. It came from the ocean – it startled him as he wondered if it could be Monica’s voice. He paused and gazed out to sea. Far away, beyond the inshore capped waves, he imagined that he saw an arm waving. The call from the waters became more distinct,

“Alex, Alex, come to me, Come…..”

It had been over a week and so logic told him that she couldn’t still be swimming. He waved back, and shouted into the wind,

“I’m here. I love you. What do you want?”

He knew what she wanted, but he had to ask. The wind swallowed his words leaving him a sense of emptiness. Then he heard her voice again,

“Alex, Alex, come to me, Come…..”

He wondered what would happen if he responded to her call. It came from a long way out. Even if he waded, and then swim he knew that he couldn’t make a round trip. If he swam out until he was exhausted, as they speculated, she had done, what would it be like to find oneself exhausted in deep waters? Would he struggle as he drowned – and what would that be like? Or would he instantly be joined with her again and enter a new existence?

A large wave broke upon the shore splashing his shorts. He turned his attention back to the beach and continued to walk. The gulls seemed to have abandoned him and her voice gone. He concentrated on listening and instead of hearing her voice he heard children’s voices. They weren’t his children but instantly reminded him of his pressing obligation to his sad motherless children.

He longed to be able to tune out the dual calls from inland and sea. He longed for anonymity and peace without responsibility. He tried to concentrate his attention on the shore-line and the path he had chosen along its wet edge. When he reached the end of the beach he turned and began to walk back toward his shoes and shirt. Half way, his toes disturbed something gold mixed among the broken sea shells and sand dollars strewn in the shallow waters. He stooped and picked it up. A wedding ring, he turned it in his hand. Inside it was inscribed

 “Alex & Monica.”

He knew that this was impossible, but no, there it was in his hands. He twirled it over and over and brought it up to his lips and kissed it. He licked his lips savoring the residual salt. He held it in his hand as tightly as Bilbo Baggins and Frodo held theirs. For a while, he stood motionless in astonishment, then he dared to glance off shore. Again, he heard her voice.

“Alex, Alex, come to me, Come…..”

This time he responded: “But the children, your children?”

He received no answer and continued his walk, all the time wondering what he should do when he reached the end of the beach. Turn left and plunge into the waters to make that last swim to give her back her ring as a symbol of their loving union. He knew that was what she wanted. Her ring felt hot in his hand; pulsating and reminding him of his longing for her warmth and loving embrace. Turn right and trudge back to the pressing responsibilities of life without Monica. Left or right, which was it to be? When he had reached that fatal decision point, he paused happy that he heard no more voices only his own inner voice responding to a ring held tight in his fist.

He turned towards the left; a pause, a deep breath, then, instead of plunging into the waters, he flung the ring out to sea.

“Good-bye for now my darling. I love you, now and for eternity.”

Without further hesitation, he calmly turned right. He retrieved his shoes and shirt and scrambled up over the dunes. The red convertible, bright as ever, was waiting for him to drive home down a twisting narrow road.

The Bamboo Floor

For several years, Ralf and Rosie dreamed about replacing the carpet in their bedrooms with wood. The carpet was a white Berber which looked fantastic when they moved in but over the years, the passage of children and pets had made it lose its pristine look and become worn and stained. By the time that they had enough spare cash to make their dream a reality, their pets had died, their two daughters married and moved away, and they were retired empty nesters. One warm fall morning Rosie spilled coffee onto the master bedroom floor. The resultant stain gave them the final nudge, and they went floor shopping. Rosie wanted a light-colored finish to harmonize with the décor which she had assembled to go with the Berber. Ralf was anxious to be environmentally conscious. Their two desires led them to select a bamboo floor.

“The stuff grows like weeds!” said Ralf. “The row that our neighbor, David, planted on his side of our north fence a year ago, is already up to his eaves.” Rosie nodded in agreement, and Ralf continued, “David says that he planted a non-invasive variety, but it is sending up shoots in our yard. I’m convinced that you can see it growing. One day nothing and the next a long shoot pointing straight as an arrow toward the sky. When I missed cutting one off because it was concealed behind a bush, it grew to four feet tall in a week and was stiff as a spear shaft. You could almost have harvested it right there and turned it into flooring!”

The wood flooring salesman confirmed Ralf’s knowledge about Bamboo, “Our supplier,’ he said,” harvests bamboo by cutting off the stacks, or culms, at ground level; the truncated stump then regrows. In about five years this, the ultimate renewable resource, is ready to be harvested again.

Rosie looked at the bamboo flooring sample and traced her finger along the recognizable shapes of bamboo culms. “How do you prevent these stalks from coming alive and re-growing.”

The salesman laughed, “It’s dead!”

“You may laugh;” Rosie responded, “but did you know that in Honduras the branches put into the ground as fence posts grow? The Hondurans like it that way because termites only eat dead wood, it also ensures a good sturdy footing. So, you see, I was thinking that some ‘dead’ wood isn’t really dead.” Rosie studied the salesman’s look of rejection and became apologetic, “and, well you see, bamboo is so invasive and virile, I wondered if maybe ……?” Rosie’s voice trailed off in a question.

The salesman took a sample in his hands and fondly rubbed its smooth surface, “This bamboo will not regrow. As I said, it is dead. It is well treated; let me explain. The split culms are cut into strips and bundled. They are then boiled, yes boiled, in a solution of boric acid and lime to kill insects and to remove sugars and starches.”

“There are insects to kill?”

“Yes, but don’t look for bodies in the final product. After the boiling, it is allowed to dry. If a dark final product is desired it is carbonizing by steaming under pressure and heat. Most bamboo flooring is then laminated using urea-formaldehyde. It pressed to cure the adhesive.”

“Is this when it is beginning to look like wood planks?”

 “You got it! It then has to be planed, sanded and milled. The last step is the application of an ultraviolet curing lacquer to give the floor its final durable finish.”

Rosie felt reassured. Ralf said that the urea-formaldehyde gave him some concern but rationalized that it was a small premium to pay for the ability to utilize such a renewable resource. They contacted an installer and were soon carting furniture into their garage to vacate the bedrooms. The carpet came up easily with a lot of dust. Rosie hoped that their new floor would house less dust and help reduce her allergies. Of course, their floors proved to be irregular obliging the installation team to spend a day grinding and pouring concrete. The dust made Rosie miserable. When the bamboo planks arrived, they proved to be warped and unacceptable. Ralf called their salesman who undertook to try to locate a replacement product. Several hours later, he called back with good news. He had located a new supplier, one with whom he had not worked before, who had enough, slightly less expensive, product in stock. He told Ralf that he would be happy to know that this supplier’s product was reputed to use less boric acid and lime and decidedly less urea-formaldehyde.

The replacement bamboo looked good and wasn’t warped. The installer laid it in one day, and the next-day Ralf and Rosie moved everything back out of their garage. They were delighted with the end product and luxuriated in the new look it gave to their home. The distinct reduction in dust meant that Rosie felt better than she had felt in years. This time of satisfaction might have been the end of our story, but it isn’t.

The problems began the next spring when Rosie began to have nightmares; and to sleep poorly. She told Ralf that she heard tap-tapping, crackling noises, particularly on the north side of the bedroom. At first, even she, dismissed the noises as imaginary, but it seemed to her that each night, they got louder and more intrusive. Ralf suggested that they might have rats in the wall. He inspected the attic – nothing. Just to be sure he placed rat poison in strategic locations. He checked the outside of the house to see if there were any rat entry points – nothing. He did find a row of sturdy bamboo shoots growing like giant spears planted in the ground along the house perimeter and in the area up to the north fence. He suggested to Rosie that, perhaps, the wind had been causing these to tap-tap upon the bedroom window. He meticulously cut them all down. By now, David’s side of the fence was an impenetrable thicket. He and Ralf discussed it as they stood in their respective driveways. David said that the bamboo kept his south wall cool but that his wife wanted him to remove it. He told Ralf, “The ladies have a way of insisting on things! One of these days I know that she will get someone to come in and eradicate it!”

The nocturnal noises continued and became more intrusive, tap-tap, creak, creak, groan, groan, pop, pop. Rosie moved out of the master bedroom into the largest spare room on the south side of the house. About a week later, when she was cleaning Rosie noticed what appeared to be a bamboo shoot under the window, behind the dresser on the master bedroom north wall. At first, she thought that it was an optical illusion and was actually a shoot growing outside. Then she wondered whether it was a shoot placed by Ralf as a joke. Ralf assured Rosie that it was no joke and pulled out the dresser. There to their utter horror were several bamboo shoots apparently growing through their new floor. The floor along the entire north wall was discolored and a little warped. Ralf took photographs and called on David. Together Ralf and David cut off the offending culms, and Rosie patched the floor with wood putty. All agreed that now was the time to call in an expert to eradicate David’s bamboo. They learned that bamboo grows from rhizomes, which spread under the surface of the ground. The eradication team worked from the outside of the patch cutting out the rhizomes followed by cutting the culms. They installed root barriers along the foundations of both houses, although they said that they had never, ever, heard of bamboo pushing through a concrete slab. They warned that no eradication is one hundred percent effective the first time but if David and Ralf diligently dug up shoots as they appeared in a few years they would be bamboo free.

 For a while, things were calm and then Rosie began to hear noises again. She said that they were worse than ever. Ralf was pleased when Easter rolled around, and they left town to visit grand-children. After Easter, they returned, anxious to take up residence again in, ‘the palace,’ as Ralf called it. It was raining when they got home. Ralf the found the house to be eerie and un-naturally quiet, wrapped in the soothing patter of rain on the roof. Rosie paused as she entered; she said that over the music of the rain she heard a chorus of groans, pops, squeaks and crackles; she looked terrified. They trundled their suitcases to the master bedroom which they found to have transformed itself into an impenetrable bamboo grove. Their new bamboo floor was warped into living hills and valleys. Culms even grew through their bed and some of the tallest were already pierced through the roof. Rain dripped in.

 

Pismo Beach – a short story

In June 2010, Gary and Gloria decided to take a vacation and ’do’ the Californian coast. They were an unlikely couple for Gloria was a vegetarian and ardent naturalist, and Gary was a personal trainer at a local gym. He loved any sports involving speed and, for a good meal, could think of nothing better than a thick steak with all the trimmings.

They flew to Los Angeles and, after a couple of days in that city, took their rented RV north along the coast on highway 101. They traveled leisurely, frequently stopping to enjoy the local attractions. After Santa Barbara and a visit to the Los Padres National Forest they came to Pismo Beach. They were both happy to detour down the 5 ½ mile drivable beach in search for the perfect camping spot. Their different tastes mirrored the dilemma of Oceano Dunes State Park, which has an ongoing disagreement between preservationists and recreationalists.

Gloria had her agenda mapped out in her aspiration to see some of the endangered species making the dunes their habitat – the endangered snowy plover and east tern in addition to eighteen or so named species. Gary, on the other hand, looked forward to renting a dune buggy and riding the dunes in the exhilarating thrill of jumping over their tops and spinning in the sand.

They both knew that the dunes are a favorite site for Hollywood and that when an audience sees clips of people crossing a desert, the scene was probably filmed at Pismo. When they saw the vast stretches of sandy undulations, they gave each other a quick high five in recognition of its size and beauty. An onshore breeze blew that evening. They both noticed that the beach smelled, not of seaweed or salt water, but of cinnamon.

At sunset, they stood together with the Pacific Ocean, and sinking sun behind them. They held hands enjoying each other’s presence while they admired the rolling sands. Each remembered a movie scene in which a group of people walked along the ridge of a dune just like those before them. Now that the drone of the beach buggy motors was over for the day, Gloria was sure that she heard the trilling high-pitched ‘purrt’ followed by ‘tur-weet’ of the snowy plover.

“Do you hear it’” she asked.

“Hear what, the ocean?”

“No, that – yes, there it is again…that high pitch bird call. I believe that it is a snowy plover.”

Gary drew Gloria into his arms, “That’s what I love about you, you see and hear things that others miss.” He drew her even closer and lifted her off the ground to twirl around like a doll.

She laughed as she spun and shouted, “And that’s why I love you Gary, your pure joy in living!”

When he released her, they took up their pose to continue to stare out over the sands. She was searching for evidence of a concealed bird’s nest and he for dune buggy tracks. That was when he saw the sands moving. It was a curious undulation of the ground, a sequence of shifting grains in a moving line across the dunes. He paused before he pointed and spoke,

“Hey, Gloria, did you see that – the sands are moving, and it doesn’t appear to be the wind. It’s like a rolling wave.”

“Where, show me where? It’s not an earthquake is it?”

“No I don’t think so, it is almost as though some living thing is moving just below the surface.”

Gloria looked where Gary pointed and saw the end of the movement as it slipped between two dunes and was gone. They turned away from the sands and faced each other. Perhaps it was the impact of the cinnamon spicy smell, or the fact that they were two people in love, whatever the reason they dismissed the rolling sands. Gary put his hand on Gloria’s neck to fondle her as they returned to their RV.

The next morning Gary drank his coffee quickly as he made plans to rent a dune buggy. Gloria said that she wished to skip the buggies and stay close to the RV. She told Gary that she wished to spend her morning walking the beach, bird-watching, sunbathing, and reading her book. Gary knew that she would enjoy her activities as much as he intended to enjoy his and set off to walk to the dune buggy stand. Soon he came up to them lined up in neat rows with their rear-mounted pennant flags flapping in the breeze and their large wheels facing inland. The wind now blew offshore and carried a much stronger smell of cinnamon. A man with a nametag marked “Joe” approached Gary,

“Want to rent one?” he asked. Gary evaluated the man and looked into his astonishingly blue eyes. He was tanned with skin, which looked like old leather and yet his stride was youthful and his voice strong.

“Yes please!”

Joe looked toward the hut behind the row of buggies and called, “Hey Jess, our first customer, could you bring a helmet and bottle of water?”

Jess emerged a few seconds later carrying a helmet and water. The two men watched Jess as she approached; she wore shorts and a scanty top. Her hair shone in the sun, her skin was tanned and healthy, and her walk had a sexy swing.

“That’s my girl,” said Joe, “it’s her birthday today, seventy-five, and not a day younger!”

“Did I hear right?” Gary asked, “surely you didn’t say seventy-five? She doesn’t look a day over forty-five!”

“Yep, ‘is indeed, after all I’m almost eighty,” said Joe.

“No way,” Gary exclaimed, “I mean you both look so young, healthy. What‘s your secret?”

Joe looked around and said, “Neat isn’t it? We don’t know how it is either, but we have our suspicions. It’s this beach; it’s that spice that smells like cinnamon. It turns out that it’s like a drug – a good one. We gather it when it blooms on the surface of the sands. We even carry a little with us when we go elsewhere for we are hooked!”

“Why doesn’t anyone know about this?’ asked Gary ‘A spice which slows aging, surely there’s money in this.”

Joe’s blue eyes sparkled, “Maybe, but the wife and I are happy, and we don’t want to see this place destroyed by the EPA and FDA and all those other acronym people. We are convinced that if they heard about it; they take over and destroy everything with their investigations. Why, they’d probably end up declaring the whole dunes an environmental protection zone, and the spice an illegal drug like marijuana. Then where would we be? Probably we’d be heading for the morgue.”

Gary nodded as though he understood although he didn’t. He wondered what Gloria would say. He signed Joe’s release documents, paid his fee, put on his helmet and mounted his buggy. He straddled it with ease. He felt good about his ride and felt anxious to get started. Joe showed him the controls and gave his final instructions.

“You may go where you wish in the unfenced area, and remember that this sport is dangerous. Recently, we have had more accidents than usual. Keep your helmet on at all times and watch out for other riders – the flags on their high pennants are to alert someone’s presence when they are hidden behind a dune.” Joe hesitated and looked around before he added, “Since it is so early in the morning and there is no dew, you may see a sand-worm. If you do, stay away from it.”

“Is it sand-worms that make the sand roll across the ridges and valleys? My girlfriend and I saw the phenomena yesterday evening and wondered what it was.”

‘Yes, that would be a sand-worm, these days they are getting bigger and more aggressive. Jess and I have discovered that they don’t like water, so, if you fall off, or one threatens you, just squirt a little water in its face, and it will leave you alone.”

Gary was off. Soon he was speeding up the smooth wind ward faces and jumping over the leeward slip surfaces. Each time that he jumped he let forth a cry of joy. This was exhilarating and fun. As the morning wore on other buggies joined him. They filled the air with their drone and masked the smell of cinnamon with their fumes. Gary drove further into the dunes in an attempt to escape them. He was only curtailed by a fence which carried a notice about its presence, and the fact that it cordoned off a section reserved as an endangered species habitat. He dismounted and walked up to the fence which he thought to open, to allow himself into the alluring reaches beyond.

Gary heard a hiss of moving sands before he saw the sand-worm. It surfaced between him and the relative safety of his buggy. It was about twelve feet long and almost three feet in diameter. It opened its mouth and bared a piranha-like set of small sharply pointed teeth. Its body was the color of cinnamon and had segments like those of an earthworm. Gary stood motionless and quickly realized that it couldn’t see him. He deduced that it was waiting for him to make a sound. Ever so stealthily he slid his body around the sand-worm, so that he could reach his water bottle and get back on his vehicle. He pressed the ignition; the engine gave groan and died. The sand-worm approached and snapped at his feet. He squirted water in its mouth. It backed off to burrow into the sand. Again, he attempted to start the motor, without success – it was dead.

Gary sat for some fifteen minutes; he wondered how he was going to get back to the shore. He prayed that another rider would come within shouting distance, but none came. He decided that he would be obliged to trudge through the sands to find help, but as soon as he took a few steps away from the buggy he heard the hiss of the sand-worm moving through the sands. He retreated to the vehicle’s relative safety. The sand-worm now seemed emboldened; it surfaced and circled the buggy ever getting closer. It alternately snapped its lethal-looking teeth at Gary’s feet, and rocked the dune buggy with its powerful body.

Gary became convinced that if he did nothing, the sand-worm would win. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but suspected that it wouldn’t include a pleasant outcome for him. He noticed that the sand-worm moved by rolling its body and saw that, like a snake, its cavernous mouth was an extension of its body. He tore off the dune buggy’s accelerator handle which formed a crude hook-like tool. Then he tucked his water bottle into his waistband. Gary had ridden a few Broncos and even a few bulls in his time and had decided that he would leap onto the sand-worm’s back and grip it with his ‘hook.

Gary knew that he only had one chance and that his leap had to be accurate. He jumped as it passed and landed on its back behind the gaping mouth. He straddled the creature and opened one of its segments to get a secure grip with his hook. A few grains of sand entered between the folds of the segment. The sand-worm writhed and started to move across the sand. Gary was pleased to find that it didn’t roll or attempt to burrow into the ground.

“So far so good,” Gary thought, “now I’ve got to figure out how to make this beast go where I want it to go.”

He experimented and discovered that he could direct the sand-worm’s movement by adjusting the location of his hook. He steered it toward the beach. As he approached the shore, the sand-worm became increasing reluctant to move, or maybe it was getting tired. Gary decided that it was time to dismount. He took his water bottle in his right hand and held it like a gun as he slid off his ride. The sand-worm immediately turned and burrowed into the sand. Gary watched the sandy surface undulations which marked its slow retreat.

When Gary got back to Joe’s stand, he saw that Joe was engaged with customers, so he found Jess and handed her the ignition keys. He hurriedly told her that the buggy had stalled in the far reaches of the dunes. Before she could question him, he turned and walked down the beach back to the RV and Gloria. He found her beside the RV lying on a towel reading; he lay beside her and began to tremble. Haltingly, he told her about his extraordinary experience. He had expected incredulity, but she seemed to register concern but little surprise. She pointed to her book which she had put down on her towel, Dune, by Frank Herbert.

“It is all in there, the rolling sand dunes, the cinnamon-colored spice, called mélange, causing blue eyes and treating geriatric symptoms, and, of course, the sand-worms.” She reached and hugged Gary. “My super-man, I can’t believe you managed to ride one!” She gazed out over the sands and added, “Now we have another endangered species to join the snowy plover.” After another pause, Gary noticed tears in her eyes. She spoke quietly. Her voice pitched almost as high as the snowy plover’s call. It was Gloria’s plea for planet earth. “What shall we do? It’s going to become our mission, we have to make sure that our beautiful planet doesn’t degenerate into a desiccated sandy replica of Herbert’s planet Arrakis.”