The ocean lost its alure. He began to see it, not as the benign, uncaring (if at times generous) giant it had always been to him, but as an angry, hostile and sadistic queen to whom he owed his untiring devotion. He found himself shunning the queen, going to museums, writing books, shuffling through the streets, reading Shakespeare (yes even this!). Then one evening, (yesterday evening to be exact), he looked up and saw the moon in it's last quarter. Damn... he thought, I remember the olden days when, with pseudo-Amerindian A-frame dip net, I plied the waters near San Francisco in search of a tiny, sparkling-golden fish with the scent of cucumber. Alas, what has become of this man I used to be?
But as he reconsidered this question, he remembered the deadlines, and the bad back, and the holes in the waders, and the long drive to the smelt grounds, and the pounding surf, and the cold hazy windy misery of that ol' South breeze. And then of course there was the cliff. There was simply no avoiding the fact that the smelt, if they were even running, were running along that stretch of beach whose only shoreward approach includes an agonizing, death defying, back wrenching, climb down (and then up) a sandy escarpment known to fishermen simply as: the cliff.
Oh Christ, I'm just too old for that friggin cliff. He heard himself say... but even as the words echoed around in his head, he found himself moving instinctively towards the old truck, found his hands fumbling for the keys, found the door swinging open--and then he was on the highway as the sun descended, flying southward to the smelt grounds.
There were three other fishermen below the cliff when he got there. 2 local bass pluggers and one of the day smelt regulars. Not a fish between the three of them. He watched. Four seals in the surf zone. A tern hovering. Obviously this was what was keeping the guys on the beach. Still 2 hours till sunset so the fish were probably surf smelt not nighties. He hitched his pants and eyed the cliff.
One hour later the tern was gone and the seals were lying on their backs staring up at the clouds. That weird south breeze had picked up and the shore break was now looking uglier than Aunt Esther's gorilla cookies. I can't believe I drove all the way down here for this, AGAIN! He shouted to no one in particular. His voice, buffetted by the wind came out sounding puny and ridiculous--even more puny and ridiculous than it usually sounded in comparison to the wind and the roar of the waves.
Queen Ocean laughed, a laugh of sharp sadistic glee--or maybe that was just the California gull wheeling over head. In any case, the smelt man returned to his car and turned on the baseball game.
Any person who thinks the 2012 San Francisco Giants might offer a glimmer of solace to a wounded spirit has another thing coming to him. Once again Brandon Belt struck out on three consectutive pitches. Once again the home team seemed to be inventing new ways to lose. He switched the radio off, and caught that last line of direct sun, the day's last gasp, never quite green as they say it is, but always, nevertheless, momentous. A cold wind blew from the sea. The two bass pluggers turned from the waves and trudged towards the cliff.
He looked at his waders, Gus' Discount cheapos, slightly torn at the crotch; and began to visualize what his face would look when that first wave splashed up between his legs. The wind breathed cold again. He shivvered. The terns were gone. Then all of sudden one of the bass guys was standing next to him. Hey man, he said. You never blog anymore...
At 8:15 it was positively crepuscular. An owl flew by. Early riser. Both the bass pluggers were gone. The day fish man was climbing slowly up the cliff with empty buckets, nets, a big napsack and a lawn chair.
He watched the day smelter's slow, laborious progress up the cliff and thought. No way man. No way i'm going down there tonight. It's too cold. The fish haven't run since August of 2011, I'm tired, I'm sick, I'm not into this anymore, I got better things to do, it's too damned spooky walking around alone on the beach in the middle of the night, my back hurts, my wife is so pretty and warm and waiting at home with a piping hot bowl of crock-pot chilli, what the hell am I doing here on this cliff, in this parking lot, staring down at this cold sadistic queen of bitches who would like nothing better than to snatch me by my crotch-torn discount waders and drag me to my death in the clammy miserable invertebate deeps. I am not going down there, I am not going fishing tonight, I am not going down there. I AM NOT GOING DOWN THERE.
And then as if from Poseidon's grotto, a voice called from the growing darkness; it was the day fish guy newly arrived in the parking lot.
Hey man, I see you gotta A-frame in the truck. You going down there?
This was the moment of truth. He looked at the day fish man. A tough, handsome, slightly salty and sand smeared fisherman's face looked back at him.
Yes, Goddamn it, I'm going down there.
As it turned out, the dayfish man was named Angel. You can't make this shit up. Angel, after skunking all day on surf smelt, was hoping he would run into someone who wanted to go for nighties (he'd left his A-frame home). But the night smelt runs have been so miserable this year he wasn't thinking he'd find anyone. Until he saw a curious looking A-frame with psuedo Ohlone pictograms all over it, sitting in the back of the Ford Ranger next to his car in the lot.
And so, together they descended the cliff and marched to the wild wild Pacific shore. The seals were gone. The birds nestled down for the night somewhere. 22 minutes till true dark. 8:39pm. They waited.
I can't believe I'm down here again, he said. This water looks awful.
Angel felt the sand with his feet. Yeah, but the sand is good. He said.
Look Angel, I gotta leave at 9:15, okay?
No problem, said Angel. It's your gear, leave when you want.
At 9:01 he handed Angel the A-frame. Suggestion of blue on the horizon. Still light enough to see eachother at a distance of 100 feet. Angel dipped. Nothing. Dipped again. Nothing.
They put the net aside and waited till 9:15. Truly dark.
So, it's 9:15 you wanna leave? Angel asked
Another pivotal moment. No. I'm staying.
At 9:18 Angel produced the first night fish. They both laughed. 300 more and we'll be in business!
Then at nine thirty, despite having no head lamp, and the shore fogged in, and it being pitch black Angel said he saw seals about 100 yards down the beach.
Then all of a sudden the seals were right in front of them in the swash, rushing through the waves, chasing night smelt everywhere.
They're here, Angel said.
And then everything changed. The air smelled great, the sound of the waves was an orchestra of wonderment, the chilly wind was clean and fresh, he heard himself laugh, he felt himself smile for the first time in weeks. Angel handed him his A-frame and he dipped. Not a big run but 5-10 fish per wave. In 30 minutes they'd scored 15 pounds of night fish, and they both decided it was enough. They ascended the cliff in 5.5 minutes without breaking a sweat. He said goodbye to Angel in the lot, turned the truck towards San Francisco and drove home... smiling, content, devoid of anxiety and smelling slightly of cucumber. The cliff, he said aloud. What cliff?