Christmas, seventeen

By Steve S. Saroff

There was one morning when I was seventeen, and very hungry, when I saw the ocean. It was in Oregon, on that road by the cliffs, and there was snow. The night before it had been fog, and I had been given a ride by someone who was drunk. He was going fast, and we couldn’t see the road. I was asking him to stop, to let me out, but he kept saying, “What’s wrong? I can drive fine.” After a few miles there was a bar alone there with a few cars parked in front. Then he stopped. He wanted me to come inside with him and drink, but I got my pack out from the back seat and started walking away. I remember him yelling at me, “Told you I could drive.”

Even walking, in the dark it was difficult to see, so after I had gone about half a mile, I got off the road, on the side away from the cliffs. There were a lot of bushes and the ground was sandy and hard, but I found a flat place and I got into my sleeping bag. There were no cars on the road, and I fell asleep listening the to soft sounds of waves from the other side of the road, down somewhere beneath me.

When I woke, the ground and all the bushes were covered with snow. I was cold and wet. The fog was still there too, and the snow came out from this cloud and it was beautiful. I got the wet sleeping bag into the pack, and went back onto the road, which was glistening and black, the snow and fog swirling above it. To get warm, I walked fast on the road, but there was no traffic. The cliffs down to the ocean were not as steep as they had seemed in the dark. There were rocky paths, small trails, that went down and disappeared in the mist, and I walked down one of them to the beach.

The snow covered the sand right to where the waves washed against it. I walked along that line, putting my footprints in snow, then in wet sand. Small waves came out from the mist, and the snow swirled about them.

I forgot how hungry I was; I thought that there was nothing that I wanted.

Then, in front of me, I heard laughing, and two children came running out of the snow, chasing each other. They were hitting at each other with some kind of long, green plants. They ran up to me and stopped. They were each wearing rain coats buttoned up to their chins, mittens, and stocking hats. Their eyes were bright and wide. They were both smiling. The older, taller one asked me, “Did you camp here last night?”

Before I could answer, the younger child said, “We live up there!” and pointed up towards the road.

I took off my pack, put it down in the snow, and sat on it. I asked, “What are these?” and touched one of the plants.

“Kelp,” the older child said, “It grows out there,” and she pointed to the ocean.

“Sea otters sleep in it,” the younger one, the boy, said. “They float on their backs and hold onto kelp when they sleep. Sea otters who had bad dreams pulled these out.”

“You are so stupid,” the girl said.

“Am not.”

And then they chased each other, running around me, pushing and pulling at each other. Then again, they both stopped.

The girl asked me, “You don’t know what kelp is?” And she held out the length of sea weed for me to hold. I took it from her and she said, “This is a short one. Some are really long.”

I told her that I had never seen the ocean before, and the little boy clapped his mittened hands together, sending a spray of sand off of them, and he laughed and said, almost yelling, “You never saw the ocean!” Then he leaned his face close to mine and asked, “How come?”

I told them I grew up far away from the ocean, and I pointed to the cliffs, and said, “I grew up way over that way.”

The girl said, “It’s ok. We grew up right here and we have never seen snow on the beach. We don’t know,” and she waved towards the cliffs, “What is ‘way over that way.'”

The little boy had run down towards the waves and was bent over at the waist, his hands on his knees, shuffling slowly and looking intently down. His sister yelled to him, “What are you looking for?” and he answered her by yelling back, “Shut up!” She immediately dropped the kelp she was holding and ran down to where the boy was. Instead of pushing at him, as I had expected her to do, she started searching the sand by her feet the same as he was doing. I watched them for about a minute, and then, rapidly, the little boy knelt down and picked something from the sand, and then ran to me, with his sister running behind him.

“Here,” he said, “This is for you.” He was holding out to me a white, round thing that was hard and thin as a piece of cardboard.

I took it from the boy, and then the girl said, “It is a sand-dollar. It is fragile. He always finds them. I only find broken ones.” As she said this, she leaned her elbow on the boy’s shoulder and he grinned. She said, “He has very good eyes but I can run faster,” and they both then raced away, along the footprints that I had left.

I held the sand-dollar and looked at where the children had disappeared. I could hear them faintly laughing from somewhere in mist. Then, when I was about to give up and keep walking, the laughing grew louder and they came running out from the fog, back to me.

The girl was in front, but the boy was close behind her. They were panting, and they came up to me fast, almost knocking me over from where I was sitting. They were pushing large shell things at me, and they both were talking at once. He said, “I found both of these but she took one.” And she said, “He only saw them first, he finds everything first, but I picked them up first.” And he said, “Did not. You took it.” But they were laughing, not really arguing, just happy.

“What are these?” I asked, holding a dark, dense, shell, turning it over in my hands.

“Oysters,” the girl said. “They wash up with the kelp. These are alive. Grown ups eat them. We hate them.”

The boy said, “If you have a knife, I’ll show you.”

The girl said, “Yuck.”

The boy said, “Yuck.”

I laughed, and then the boy said, “You should try one,” and then he ran up towards the cliffs and came back in a moment holding a big rock with both his hands.

I said I didn’t want to make a fire, but the girl said, “No, you eat oysters cold.” I laughed again, but she said, “really, I see them do it all the time.”

The boy had put the rock down by my feet and he was looking at me and he asked, “Do you have a knife?”

I told him I did, and I unzipped a pocket of the pack and got out a Swiss army knife. When the boy saw it he said, “When I am ten I will get one of those. I already know how to use them.” He then told me to watch. He took off his mittens, and smacked the thin end of one of oysters on the rock, breaking some of the shell away. Both the girl and I were looking carefully, and he held the oyster up to us and said, “See, if you look in there you can see that it is moving.”

The girl said, “This is sad.”

The boy said, “Birds break them too.”

The girl said, “You are a bird.”

The boy ignored her. Then he told me to hold the oyster and he took the knife from me and opened the long blade and he took the broken oyster from me and slid the knife into it.

“I think this hurts it,” he said. “I don’t like doing this.”

The girl said, “Then why do you do it?” But she was leaning close, as I was, watching him.

He said, “Because it is the only way to open them unless you smash them like birds.” He moved the knife around for a moment and then said, “See?” And then handed the knife back to me, gently lifted the two shells apart, and held the shell with the oyster’s body under my nose.

The girl said, “He likes showing off,” and she again leaned her elbow on his shoulder and again he grinned.

I asked them what I should do, and they told me again that “grown ups” eat them. I ate the oyster then, and I made a face and said, “Yuck,” and the children laughed and made faces too and ran around me, and pushed at me, and pulled at my hair. The boy opened the other oyster and held it out for me and I ate it, and again the children laughed and pushed at me, and then, for the first time in more than a year, I was laughing.

Then I heard a woman’s voice call, and the girl said, “That’s our Mom. She’s looking for us.” The girl yelled loud, “We’re over here, Mom!”

The boy said, “Don’t tell her that I used your knife, ok?” I said I wouldn’t tell anyone. I thought the children would leave then, but they stayed next to me, holding the oyster shells, grabbing them from each other’s hands, and arguing about pearls and if the white inside of the shells were the same as pearls. I sat on the pack, and I looked up the beach and saw through the snow, their mother come walking towards us.

I know now that she was young, but when I saw her I felt like a child and thought she was a grown up. She said hello to me and said, “I hope they haven’t been a bother to you.” Then she saw my pack, and I saw her looking at my boots, the raggedness of my clothing. She stepped next to her boy, and she put one arm around him, and she touched the girl’s hat with her other hand. Then she said, “These guys have never seen snow before.”

The boy said, “He has never seen the ocean before.”

The girl reached in front of her mother and pushed her brother, and said, “we showed him how to eat oysters. He ate two of them.”

I remember her, the mother, how she smiled then, her arms around her children. Behind her the waves, the snow. I remember little things the best. The dark sweater she was wearing and the knit pattern of it. Her eyes and the color in them. The way she looked again at me, looked at her children, as if she were weighing who I was by the expressions on her children’s faces. I remember her saying then, to her children, “Come back to the house now. Let’s warm up,” and how she then looked at me, paused, and said, “You can come up there too, have some coffee or something.”

I could hear cars then up on the road. I remember feeling snow on my face, and I remember feeling my throat tighten. The children were smiling at me, but I didn’t know what to do. Instead of going with them, I stood up, swung on the pack. Then I said goodbye, thanking the children, thanking their mother for the offer, and walked back along the snowline, along my tracks.

That night I was in Portland. Gray lines of the homeless waiting for food at a mission, gray lines of us by a labor office looking for work, and then just the early darkness of winter. I went back onto the highway, but couldn’t catch a ride, so I climbed up under a bridge and slept for a while there. The roaring of traffic turned into dreams of waves and water. In the morning I woke up and smiled. The children had laughed and run; the world was not all concrete and steel. It was the moment that I knew I would not always be drifting.


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