5. Grunion Run
I am serializing my collection Stories from The Last Basin currently available on Amazon. The stories are best read in the order of Table Contents:
by John Anthony, 2021
The telephone’s loud ring rattled the imagined retreat of Patrick’s apartment. Annoyed, he pushed his chair away from the typewriter and walked across the small living room/home office to the little end table upon which the intrusive machine lay impatiently disturbing the peace.
“Hello? This is Patrick Beckett,” he said.
“This is Shelby Knight,” the female voice at the other end of the line replied.
“I’m sorry, I don’t recognize that name. I think you have the wrong number.”
“Patrick! It’s me, Michelle.”
“I did know a Michelle once, but she wasn’t a Knight.”
“Oh please stop teasing me, Patrick. You know who it is.”
“I knew who she was, but that was a long time ago, back when we were kids.”
“It has been a while. I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry for?” Patrick asked. Sorry? He was concerned he missed something important, such as his mother had passed away or some other significant event deemed at least as consequential, and Michelle was calling with condolences. It’s true. he may have missed his mother’s passing as they hadn’t spoken in years, but it’s likely Erin or a less close relative would have mentioned his dear ma’s end before someone as far, far removed as Michelle broke the news.
“I’m sorry I called you out of the blue.”
“Oh. That’s not a big deal. I mean, you said, ‘I’ll call you when I’m settled in.’ That was when? Just eleven years ago at the end of next month? I knew you’d eventually get around to it.”
“You kept track. That’s scary-compulsive-passive-aggressive and a whole different kind of being sorry. I may have to hang up.”
“Please don’t. I’m seriously sorry. Otherwise I’m going to have to apologize for my atrocious manners, and then you’ll apologize because you’re you and that’s what you do, and then I’ll apologize for being me, a certified ass, and you might well agree at which point I might object in my defense and only unwittingly reinforce the point and you’ll feel sorry again, and it’s going to become a whirlpool of apologies swirling down that inevitable toilet that always mistakes the word sorry for flush now, twice,” Patrick said. Then, in order to de-escalate because he felt he may have been a bit aggressive and he’d been told aggressive was different from assertive, he said, “It’s actually nice to hear your voice. Really. I recognized it the second I heard you speak. We humans don’t hear as well as a dog does, but we never forget the voice of someone we’ve cared about. I guess a dog does the same . . .”
“That’s almost sweet, Samson,” Shelby replied hesitantly. Yes, she once called him Samson affectionately, a play on his middle name, Samuel. It was sure to melt his heart. “I do have a reason for contacting you, if you’ll let me get to it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, becoming pissed off at himself for the reflexive apology; he felt the whirlpool begin to spin. “I’m listening.”
“So, what are you doing tonight?”
“Tonight?” Patrick tried to think of something to say besides nothing but being asked by her — by Michelle — he couldn’t fabricate a story fast enough. “Nothing,” he answered and “Why?” he asked.
“Brad was called away to settle some dispute with a director on an out-of-state shoot. Money issues, of course. It’s always about budgets…” She trailed off.
“Yes. My understanding is that it’s called show business for a reason. Cost of goods sold, accounting for expenses, profit margin, and that stuff. Kind of like the grocery business but different. At least people need to eat.”
Shelby ignored him and forged ahead. “I made reservations for two at Michael’s in Santa Monica tonight. They aren’t easy to get, reservations I mean, even for me. With Brad traveling, now I’m a one. I thought you might join me as two for dinner?”
“I might join you for dinner? I haven’t seen you in over a decade.”
“So? Wouldn’t it be fun to catch up?”
“If I accept, may I pass judgment about the fun thing later?”
“Fair enough. But I am looking forward to seeing you. The reservation is for seven o’clock. I’ll pick you up?”
“How do you know where I live?”
“The phone book, Patrick. How do you think I found your number? You’re listed.”
“I can’t afford not to be. I’m freelance; clients need to reach me. I guess you’re kind of freelance as well, I suppose.”
“Kind of. But I’m represented, and I have to be unlisted, and it’s a nuisance. So, shall I pick you up?”
“That won’t be necessary. I can walk to Michael’s from my apartment.”
“Right. The phonebook.”
“The dress is casual. I’ll see you at seven. Can’t wait!” and Shelby disappeared from the line, much like she disappeared from Patrick’s life when she left for college.
* * * * *
As the time for dinner with Michelle approached, Patrick grew nervous about what to wear. His usual dress had not changed at all since high school: Converse sneakers, well-worn Levi’s, and a tee-shirt sporting a faded surfboard brand or most recently, an Elvis Costello or Talking Heads concert memento. It seemed to him that this dinner would be more than his version of casual. He dug through his closet until he found some dusty chinos which he beat clean and then ironed. He also found a blue cotton-twill, button-down, oxford dress shirt last worn at his UCLA graduation which also needed ironing. He hung it up in his bathroom while he showered and shaved hoping the humidity would loosen some of the shirt’s wrinkles. His shoe selection came down to a contest between his Converse sneakers or his flip-flops, so the choice fell to the former. He slipped on a jacket (in May the Santa Monica days were warm, but the evenings were chilly) and stepped out his front door. The sun was still shining but drifting rapidly toward the western horizon. The calming, familiar scent of the night-blooming jasmine covering the ground surrounding his building was already announcing the imminent evening. He walked the few blocks distracted by thoughts of seeing Michelle again. When he reached the restaurant, he entered and found there was a line of expectant diners waiting to speak to one of the hostesses. Dutifully he waited and when it was his turn, an attractive young woman smiled at him and asked, “Reservation for?” Patrick was caught off guard.
“Sorry, I’m not sure,” he said feeling a little embarrassed. “Maybe Michelle or Shelby. Probably Knight — with a K.” The hostess didn’t blink; Patrick guessed that not knowing what name someone had invented was likely common at these kinds of restaurants.
“Here we are, Shelby Knight for two. She hasn’t checked in yet. Would you like to be seated or would you rather…”
“I’ll wait outside,” Patrick interrupted. He was growing uncomfortable tightly surrounded by so many people anxiously anticipating spending what for him would be a very good week’s pay on an evening’s meal. He walked out to the sidewalk and took a position at the edge of where the parking valets hustled to unload passengers and then find a distant place to park the arriving cars. It wasn’t long before Patrick spotted what he guessed to be a mid-sixties red Porsche Cabriolet slowly make the right turn from Wilshire onto Third, followed closely by a police car, red lights flashing. With the top down, Michelle’s sun-bleached blonde hair was unmistakable. It had been the feature that struck him most the first time he saw her, and which triggered his pursuit of her, a pursuit with a relentless ambition unthinkable to him now. He hadn’t given up, even after he had somehow won her heart. Michelle pulled up to the designated valet drop off, set the parking brake, looked at Patrick with a big smile and waved. Reflexively, he waved back, along with a smile he projected might be akin to the village idiot’s. She then proceeded to rummage through her bag looking for the requisite driver’s license as the police officer approached.
The smooth functioning of the valets and their efforts to park the arriving diners was thrown into disarray. People stopped their cars in the middle of the street, blocking traffic, ignoring the valets’ attempts via frantic hand signals and reversions to Spanish imperativos to simply circle the block. Most pretended they lacked understanding and abandoned their cars to the scurrying valets.
The police officer was as unperturbed by the commotion as Michelle was. He took her license and asked for her registration then walked, in a deliberate manner, back to his patrol car. Michelle turned to Patrick and smiled again, giving him a palms up shrug indicating she had no idea what she had done. None of this chaos surprised Patrick, nor did Michelle’s real or feigned ignorance of any misconduct on her part. She had been born to be an actress, a condition that lacked a cure.
The officer returned to the driver’s side, still refusing to acknowledge the increasingly serious traffic jam he had been party to causing. He handed Michelle back her license and registration, which she dutifully put away along with the sunglasses she had pushed up into her hair like a plastic headband.
“Shelby Knight?” the officer asked.
“Guilty,” Patrick heard Michelle project, with a nonchalance reserved for the stage. He couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was smiling at the officer the same way she had just smiled at him.
“You’re in that TV show…” the officer said almost as a question.
“On the Hunt,” Michelle answered. “Have you ever watched it?”
“No, ma’am, I mostly work evenings. You play a detective, right?”
“Yes, officer, but please don’t hold that against me,” Michelle answered, and the officer laughed, but not because it was a silly non sequitur Patrick thought, which would have been the only reason he might find it funny.
“Ma’am, I pulled you over…” the officer began.
“Actually, I was stopping here at the valet. I’m sorry but it wasn’t until I parked that I noticed you were behind me,” Michelle said, her part now the innocent ingénue.
“That’s kind of my point, ma’am. Driving requires paying attention. Actually, it’s your responsibility.”
“You rolled right through that stop light on Wilshire when you made your turn. You realize you have to come to full stop before proceeding to make a turn, don’t you?”
“Absolutely, officer. This car is brand new. I mean it’s obviously not new, but it is to me and it’s my first car that has a manual shift and I think I forgot to press the clutch and the engine sounded like it was going to stall so I remembered the clutch and I guess you’re right; I did roll right around the corner.” Patrick didn’t need to see her to know the expression on her face as she gave that little confession.
“What year is this?” the officer asked.
“A ’65 365c Cabriolet. Perfect condition,” Michelle replied.
The officer looked only at her. “I can see that,” he said. “I’m going to let you off with a warning, seeing as you’re kind of part of the team, shining a positive light on the profession and all. I suggest you find an empty parking lot and practice working that clutch. Promise me?”
“Yes, sir. Work the clutch. Cross my heart.”
“You have a nice evening and drive safe,” the officer said with a smile before returning to his car. Michelle grabbed her bag as a valet took the officer’s place and opened her door. “Thank you,” she said, taking her receipt. Then she walked around her car to where Patrick was standing. She was wearing a flower print summer shift and the 1984 summer season’s latest: Italian leather strappy gladiator sandals which looked humble but were likely Gucci. She hugged then kissed Patrick on each cheek as the police officer tapped his siren twice to clear a path for him to turn sharply from the curb, getting away from the mess he had instigated and back to his patrol business.
“Nice entrance,” Patrick said.
“Always, it seems. But that’s show biz. Let’s get our table,” she said and grabbed his hand and rushed him inside, dragged him past the glares of the people waiting to be seated, and right up to one of the hostesses. “Sorry,” Michelle said without introducing herself, “We were tied up.”
“Yes, we heard Miss Knight. We held your table for you. Please. This way,” she said, leading them down a short hallway, menus in hand, glares left behind.
Patrick had walked by Michael’s maybe a hundred times since it opened but had never been inside. He was surprised to find that the front of the building was closer to a facade than a restaurant and the primary seating area was under a garden-filled tent. Given the frenetic bustle of the valet and the restless crowd eager to be seated, entering the dining area was as though stepping into a rustic dreamland. Patrick imagined the place had been conjured by Oberon and Titania for their own private parties. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Michelle said to him.
“Magical,” Patrick said as they were seated. But he truly didn’t want the evening to be magical. Magical was how he remembered their time together in high school, and like all magic, it had been sleight of hand, misdirection, props and mirrors, special effects. That’s what he had come to believe, that he had been naïve, and that Michelle had never been a reliable memory. Even now she was in complete control, ordering a bottle of wine for them while his mind stumbled through his closely held impressionistic moments of when they were together. When she was done ordering, she placed her elbow on the table, leaned her head against her hand, looked straight into his eyes, and made that smile again.
“What’s with the Porsche?” Patrick asked.
“That? My little red monster? Brad bought it for me,” she said in an uninterested way. “He said he’d write it off as a business expense.”
“He’s quite the romantic.”
“I can tell. How is it a business expense?”
“I suppose it helps the paparazzi sell photos of me. Any publicity and all that shit.”
“I guess,” Patrick said. “It would seem to be pushing the definition a bit.”
“Brad says that’s what accountants are for. It’s a cute little car, but it’s a pain to drive, when it’s not in the shop.”
“As I gathered from what you told the cop,” Patrick said, and Michelle laughed.
“That was bullshit. He just wanted to pull me over so he could gawk at me. I played along, as I always do. The price of minor fame it seems.”
“How’s the show?” Patrick asked.
“Gratuitous and formulaic,” Michelle said, and Patrick was surprised at how matter of fact she had sounded.
“Is that how you feel or are you just saying that for my benefit?” Patrick asked and Michelle’s smile disappeared.
“Why would I say anything just for your benefit?” she said, somewhat sternly. “I’m a trained actor. Have you forgotten I earned a B.F.A. from Julliard?”
“That I will never forget.”
“It seems you did. I sent you an invitation to my graduation and you never even replied with a ‘congratulations, although unfortunately…’. You were still the hurt little boy, misunderstanding why I would choose to go to school so far away. I’m worried you still are.”
“No,” Patrick protested. “I’m happy for you. I’m proud of your achievements. Yes, it was petulant not to reply to your invitation. Yes, I wasn’t as mature, as focused, as you were. I just hadn’t realized it then.” Michelle continued to look at him. “And if you’re unhappy acting in a gratuitous and formulaic TV series, then it makes me unhappy, too. All I ever wanted was for you to be happy, despite how it may have appeared.” The waiter approached them and Michelle perked up.
“Let’s just order a bunch of appetizers and munch on them until we’re very-very full,” she said enthusiastically.
“Sounds great,” Patrick replied, and then watched as Michelle took over again, providing a list of small plates from the menu to the waiter.
“Bring them out slowly, please. Two at a time?” she suggested.
“Yes, Miss Knight. Will there be anything else?”
“A bottle of San Pellegrino, please, and two glasses.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and Michelle turned back to Patrick.
“I first had Pellegrino in ’68 while touring Italy with my uncle’s family,” Patrick said
“Was it delicious?”
“My uncle’s family? I wouldn’t describe it as delicious. We were in a crowded Fiat without air conditioning.”
“The Pellegrino, smart-ass.”
“As I understood it, it was somehow safe to drink. I love it now.”
“Listen,” Michelle said. “I don’t want to give you the takeaway that I’m unhappy. The people I work with are all very smart and they’re all a lot of fun. Really. Who could dream one could get paid so well to have so much fun? And I feel privileged to have been given this role. It’s as secure a position that’s possible in an industry that seems to relish insecurity.”
“It’s built right into the language you use. You’re given a role when it should be that you earned it.” Michelle shook her head smiling.
“No. Not that. I’m too young to need to earn my roles. Do I look like Joanne Woodward, amazing as she is?” Then, lifting her eyes: “Oh please, Lord, give me ten more years of simply being given my life, my calling, my work!” she said with the cadence of an evangelical minister praying for salvation. Now it was Patrick’s turn to smile.
“Oops. Didn’t mean to pull the fire alarm.”
“You just never know when that insecurity is going to appear. There’s no ominous soundtrack to warn you that the serial career killer is sneaking up. I know I should be prepared but I won’t be.”
“Sounds like a tough life.”
“Life is tough for everyone, don’t kid yourself. There’s no easy path.” The waiter arrived delivering their first two dishes. “That looks yum!” she said and reached across the table to pick up a plate of grilled octopus salad. As she leaned over to reach it, a small gold heart on a delicate chain slipped out from beneath her dress where it had been hiding.
“That necklace,” Patrick said. “Is it . . .?”
“Yep,” she said as she slid half the octopus and greens onto his plate. “From you, on my eighteenth birthday. The only time I don’t wear it is when I’m in wardrobe.” She set the rest of the grilled octopus down in front of her. “You were my first boyfriend. I loved you very much. I’ll never forget that.” Patrick looked at her. He thought maybe he shouldn’t ever speak again. Maybe that was the last thing he wished to hear pass from her lips to his ears. Michelle pointed with her fork at the salad in front of him. “Eat,” she said, “This shit is freaking gold!”
* * * * *
And with that long-awaited assurance from Michelle, the wall Patrick had built brick-by-brick suddenly came tumbling down. He had seen her, pursued her, won her with a singular purpose, then lost her in a moment that had caught him on his heels, made him feel as though it had all been somehow a construct of his own deception. But then she, without prompting, had confirmed what he had always wanted to believe. Now, nothing else mattered. The rest of the evening passed in a rush of plates and wine and laughter and remembrance. Patrick wondered why he hadn’t torn down the wall years earlier.
“Samson,” Michelle said. It was the first time she had used her pet name for him since she telephoned him earlier. “It’s getting late.”
“Of course! Let’s get the check so you can get going. I didn’t mean to keep you out all evening.”
“You misunderstand me. I was thinking about something else.”
“At 11:15 tonight it will be high tide and it’s a full moon,” she said. Patrick, surprised, tried to put the pieces together. He knew it meant something, but he had buried it. It was exhausting work building walls and digging holes.
“Help me out, Michelle,” he said.
“The grunion are going to run tonight! Let’s go watch. Please?” It had been years since Patrick had thought about the grunion run. Now, between hustling to make the rent and writing page after page of ultimately rejected stories, both short and long, he realized he had become detached from the things that had made him. The grunion run was a rite of spring, the seminal time of regeneration and propagation, and for every kid with activated hormones, easy beach access, as well as pliant or too tired parents, it was an excuse to experience the nocturnal transformation of the beach with friends or lovers or better, both. The small, skinny, silvery fish were an excuse, not a quarry. For decades past, when the grunion rode in on the surf, then laid their eggs and fertilized them in what came to be known as their mating dance, Southern Californian’s had flocked to the beach to not only watch this wonder of nature, but also to scoop and fry them right there on beach bonfires or charcoal grills for a midnight snack, truly fresh from the sea. Patrick and Michelle and their friends had never tasted one. They went and watched and wondered and snuggled and kissed, and did the things teenagers do, but never once grabbed a grunion. Patrick was startled and saddened that he had forgotten this part of his life, and especially the part with Michelle. And that he had forgotten touched him with a gentle kiss of shame.
“Sure. Let’s go,” he said. “Which beach?”
“Doesn’t matter. Sorrento.”
“Are they expected there?”
“Who cares? That’s our beach.”
“And it’s close. We could walk.”
“We’ll take the Porsche. I packed a blanket in it, just in case.”
“So this was premeditated,” Patrick said.
“Just a little bit. I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
“Forever it seems,” she said.
Michelle insisted on paying for dinner, but she let Patrick tip the valet. She drove up a block (utilizing the clutch more than competently) to California Avenue and turned left, then crossed Ocean Avenue and onto the Santa Monica incline. Almost as soon as she was on the Coast Highway, she turned left into the Sorrento Beach parking lot and pulled into the row closest to where the pavement ended and the sand began. Patrick helped her put up the convertible top, then she popped open the trunk (in point of fact, a small space under the hood) and Patrick grabbed the blanket she had stashed there. Michelle slipped her sandals off and tucked them into the trunk. Patrick followed her lead and took off his sneakers and socks and left them there as well. The sand, which was capable of burning the soles of careless feet during the day, was now cold as they walked across it. It felt odd and familiar at the same time. What a gift, Patrick thought. Michelle had brought back so many memories he should never have lost. They walked close together, occasionally touching. It always was a long walk, Patrick thought, but never long enough. A few feet from the high tide line they stopped and dropped the blanket. A handful of people wandered around in the wet sand at the edge of the tide, scanning each receding wave. The moon shone brightly. It didn’t appear that the grunion would be running this beach on this night. It didn’t matter though. They spread out the blanket and sat on it, this time purposely close, shoulders and arms touching. They stared out into the bay where the moon reflected off the water, whispering remembrances and smiling. It was hard to believe that anything could be better.
“What does this mean?” Patrick asked softly.
“Mean? Why does it need to mean something?”
“You give up too easily. That’s not the Samson I remember.”
“I guess I’m out of practice,” Patrick said, mostly to himself. Michelle laid her head on his shoulder. “Help me,” he asked her, for the second time this evening.
“It means some memories shouldn’t be forgotten so easily. That’s all. Nothing more.”