by Anne Azel
The first time I saw Mission Beach, California was at night six years ago. It is an animal prowling. The scent of booze, drugs and sex excite me. Here you live on the edge. The hunt is dangerous. Light has been reduced to strips, neon messages from the All Consumer - the God of cities. They gather round the bar doors waiting to be called. " We are here Lord, your chosen ones." Ready to party. The man in white slacks, open shirt and gold chain, the woman in red, tight breasted and heavy thighed, the black pimp carrying success like a shield against poverty, the child-woman, cool and scared, they wait. The hunt is all about waiting.
The bar tender has seen it all and carries within his heart the answers to the universe. If you ask him he'll hold up a mirror so you can see yourself. No one asks. Truth is painful. The old guy in the corner invites young girls to stay at his place. He can't get up, not even with pills and voyeurism. His dick was pickled years ago on cheap whiskey and rum. The woman works. She's an "executive assistant." She meets them each night and helps them out. On a good night she can afford her habit. On a bad one she drinks to forget what she saw in the mirror.
It is a dark land of dangle-dicks and bimbos. A hunting ground. Night manoeuvers. Emptiness and escape. The mission of the beach is a deadly game and I loved it.
Daylight. Mission Beach is a child's playground. The scent of sea salt, hot asphalt, and garden flowers. Here you live on the land's edge. The play ground is holy ground. Light floods your stage, the New Age God of health jogs past - chest bare, shorts wet. The volleyball God of the beach. They tend their gardens and live in a bee hive of dwellings, one on top of the other. "We are here Lord, your chosen ones. Ready to sun worship." The woman admires the mould free rug on her patio, the children play and yell awake those who would be better off sleeping and forgetting. A couple meet for coffee down the street. Boys skate board and leave in their wake a vocabulary of fucks because they are too young yet and can't. On a good day the sun sparkles on the ocean. On a bad day the tide brings in fog.
It is a land of sun tan oil and sweat. A playground. Sun lovers. Laughter and need. The mission of the beach is to play and nobody played better or harder than me. Mission Beach is a life of extremes.
I have become a life of extremes. Extreme sport, extreme drinking, extreme efforts, extreme relationships. Desperate relationships. My studio apartment over looks the beach and harbour. It is prime real state and reeks of my success as a photographer. I see the world through my lens. Carl, my editor and friend, insists it is my mechanical dick. He calls me a butch with a zoom toy. Carl is my friend. I have enemies who would say worse.
Pouring a coffee, I settle with my morning paper on my front patio enjoying being home after several months away on assignment. The beach is nearly empty this time of the morning and the boardwalk is owned by the jogging sun-bronzed gods and goddesses of fantasyland. Having no life beyond the voyeurism of my lens, I am content with this hollow existence. It rings true to me.
From the apartment upstairs, the first bars of Jingle Bells ring out. I look up with annoyance. December is an illusion on Mission Beach. It is an excuse to string a few lights and up the prices of drinks. December is red and green cherries speared with plastic swords if we are lucky. Was it Christmas? Surely, not yet. Mission Beach people are immune to such simple belief. We practise only the exotic, and then only if it is in. Christmas is never going to be in here. Christmas is for the mid-west along with snow, cold and barns without air-conditioning.
I return to my paper enjoying with grim delight, reading about the horrors of the enlightened world. A twig of mistletoe drops in my lap.
"Oh, I'm sorry." A voice from above.
I look up and see two ripe and full breasts leaning over the balcony. If I was a zoom lens I'd be at maximum extension. The face above is cute. I mentally record my first impressions; great knockers, blond hair cut short, green eyes sparkling, skin a glowing red of painful horror. Newbie to the California sun.
"Nice sunburn. Were you going for the well cooked look?"
She pulls a face. "It hurts. I had no idea how strong the sun was on the water."
"Live and burn." I hold up the mistletoe. "I believe this belongs to you."
"Sorry. I was putting up some garland."
My eyes drop with difficulty below breast level. Sure enough there is a thatch of poinsettia leaves draped artistically above my head.
"I'll come down and get it."
"Please do. Several gulls are puckering up and I'm starting to feel quite nervous."
I go get another mug and a carafe of coffee. Never let it be said that I am not a Mission Beach prowler at heart. She arrives bare foot and red on my patio. I focus on her facade. They are a pair of monuments to the female experience. "Now you are here have a coffee with me."
She smiles. It is quite a nice smile. Open and honest. Not the sort of smile one sees very often in my neighbourhood.
"Thanks, I'd love a cup. I didn't know anyone was living down here."
"I've been away for several months. Your apartment was empty when I left."
"I've been here six weeks. I just have the place on a three month lease." She slips gingerly into a chair. The sun burn hurts.
I busy myself with pouring coffee. "I'm Judy Krane."
"I love your work."
"Thanks. You are?" I pass her a cup of coffee. It's my first pass. My next will be more demanding.
"Nancy Steele. I'm an author."
I look up in surprise. "N. G. Steele?"
"Yes. Have you read my books."
"Everyone in California has read your books. Lesbians like myself consider them required reading, straights want to be politically correct and fundamentalists want fuel for the sacrificial fires."
She laughs. "I guess that's why I'm having to do so much promotional stuff here."
I look at her with open hunger now and enjoy the blush that flows up her cheeks. Holding the mistletoe up, I lean forward and gently kiss her lips. I like the taste and want to go back for a bigger helping but she pulls away and reaches to take the dangerous weed from my grasp. "You are bad."
"Why thank you. So now we know each other so much better, how about we do the bar scene tonight? I can show you my medical papers so you know I have no nasty diseases and then you can show me a good time."
Nancy crunches up her nose. "Uck. That is a pathetic line. The bar scene wears thin very quickly. Besides, it's Christmas Eve. Don't you have plans."
"No. I'm just back.. Do you have plans?"
"Well, not really. I have a few ideas."
"Do they involve sex with me?"
"No. Are you always so bold, Judy?"
"Jud and yes, always. I see no reason to beat around the bush I want."
"You are rude and crude."
"Thank you again but flattery will get you nowhere. I have my standards and they usually involve more than a kiss on the first date."
She looks at me closely. "You know what I think, Krane? I think you are all talk."
I wiggle an eyebrow. "Try me."
She drains her coffee mug and puts it on the table with a determined thud. "Okay. Seven o'clock tonight. Wear something comfortable but suitable for a night out."
I blink. She laughs. She won.
I knock on her door a little after seven appropriately attired in dress slacks, a silk t-shirt and a linen jacket.
I smile. "Hi."
The place is very much like my own. Corner fireplace, picture window looking over the water, a bar kitchen to the side and bedrooms and bath in the back. What is different about this place is it is decorated for Christmas.
"Is that a tree?"
"Good guess." The response comes from inside a kitchen cabinet.
"Is it real?"
"I had to drive miles to find one."
I go have a closer look. Sure enough it is real and decorated rather nicely with hand painted wood ornaments and little fairy lights.
I'm offered a glass of warm spiced wine. There are plates of fruits and nuts, cheeses, crackers, fancy sandwiches and fruit cake. I eye the fruit cake suspiciously. It has to be a trap, I figure. No one eats fruitcake. They only make it so you can joke about it.
I get comfortable in a big, over stuffed chair and relax to the Philadelphia orchestra playing a melody of Christmas favorites. What I wouldn't do for sex.
"I thought we'd just have some nibbles before going out."
I laugh. "Nibbles? You've got enough here to keep an average Californian family going for a month. Where are we going?"
"It's Christmas so the food has to be special. We're going to church. The midnight service."
I laugh into my wine. "There aren't any churches in Mission Beach, just cults and franchised TV religion."
"Of course there's churches. There is a lovely old mission one I found along the coast that will be beautiful."
My good mood starts to evaporate. "You're serious?"
"I've come on to a holy roller?"
It is her turn to laugh. "No, silly. I just think that it's good to reaffirm one's basic beliefs now and again."
I give her a look. "God thinks you and I are abominations. There is no room in the inn for our kind."
"It is not the dogma I am interested in reaffirming but the message of peace and good will."
"Lady, that's good will to all men kind. Our kind are met with stakes and firewood."
"Lets dance instead of arguing."
I smile. Dancing is good. I stand and offer my hand, pulling her close and burying my head in her hair. It smells of mountain air and wild flowers. I kiss her neck.
"I can be great." But I stop and try to be contented with just holding her close.
Later, we eat and laugh a good deal. The wine has gone to my head and I feel mellow and content. I like the music. I like the tree lights and I like sitting here with Nancy. I must be hammered.
A little after eleven, I am poked from my contented stupor and packed into Nancy's Volvo. I offered my 'Vette but it doesn't meet with approval. It appears 'Vettes are for beach bums and Volvos are for Christmas. I had no idea.
The mission is adobe. The wall around has an arched wood door and pots of poinsettias and geraniums line the courtyard. Warm light shines through the windows and music floats behind the ringing of the steeple bell. The church is simple inside, the wood benches old and worn to a shine with wear. The scent of hot wax, fresh flowers and old oak fills the air. People arrive in groups and become one within. The church is a cocoon of peace, an island of normality in a chaotic existence. At first uneasy, I become comforted.
It is a woman who takes the pulpit. "Merry Christmas, peace on earth and good will to all."
We stumble out an hour later warm and hyped on brotherly love and Christmas hymns. I open my mouth to make an observation.
"Not a word!" she warns.
On the drive back, I hold her hand. I figure this sisterly love thing could be a whole new line. I think I'm seeing the light. But it is a rude awakening back at Mission Beach. I'm given a kiss on the cheek and sent on my way.
"Will you come up tomorrow morning and have breakfast around ten? I want to give you your present."
Present. How could she have got me a present? I shake my head and decide the night is yet young. I could still get lucky. I head up to the main drag where electrical daylight brightens my world. The clubs are packed and people stand in line on the street. I walk the strip. I pass some kids smoking pot sitting on the street corner. The scent is sweet and appealing. The scene isn't. A hooker gives me the once over. I walk on. My favourite bar is packed too but I'm allowed in because I'm known. " It's the photographer, Krane," I hear the doorman tell those who wait. I am more an exhibit in a side show than a patron. I bring customers. I eventually find a bar stool.
"You haven't been around lately. Where've you been?"
"Church. It's Christmas Eve."
He laughs and places my drink in front of me and winks. "As if. Tracy's here. She asked about you."
I nod, down my drink and walk out.
Five in the morning and I'm in my car heading up the coast. By seven I'm back. I haven't seen so much dawn since the days when I could drink all night and not pay for it the next day. I feel blurry eyed and woolly headed. I don't allow myself to think. If I thought I'd have to admit that I was acting crazy.
From seven a.m. to nine I'm in my dark room. By a quarter to nine, I'm showered, dressed and drinking coffee in gulps. The phone rings.
"Seasons Greetings, Jud!"
"A very merry, Carl. What do you want?"
"I've got a job you might be interested in."
"It's Christmas day!"
"I'm Jewish and you are damned. We gotta work."
I laugh. "What's the job?"
"Photographing old gold mine sites in Colorado for some government initiative. Seems the old shafts are being designated as historical sites. I figure any day now my a-hole will have a heritage plaque on it."
"It's old enough. Give me the particulars and I'll get back to you." I'm grinning now. What was it that preacher said last night? Something about looking for signs and following your star.
I knock on Nancy's door exactly at ten, freshly scrubbed and pure of soul. Wonderful smells waft out as the door opens.
"Come in. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas." I smile and mean it.
I'm hugged and kissed and led to the table. Orange juice and vodka awaits as an eye opener followed by French toast and real maple syrup, crisp bacon and spicy sausages.
"Do the cholesterol police know about this place? Starch and fat have been pretty well eradicated from the west coast, you know. If the smells seep outside people will die just from shock."
"A little sin never hurt anyone."
"My thoughts exactly. Your bed or mine?"
She laughs. "You are so silly. Here."
A small box is pushed in my direction. It's all wrapped in fancy paper with a huge bow on it. I am a kid again. My hands shake with excitement. It doesn't matter what is inside. It is the gift. The gesture. The anticipation. The love. I can't recall the last time I was given a Christmas gift. It is Nancy's latest book. A Woman's Journey. I open it up. She has signed it.
"It's perfect. Thanks."
With embarrassment I slip the plain brown envelope across the table. She picks it up with delight. Inside, are three photos of an old mission made beautiful by the soft morning light and the trappings of Christmas. She looks up at me, her eyes filled with tears.
I shrug. "I went back there this morning."
She comes and sits on my lap, hugging me close. "Deep inside, Jud Krane, you are a very, special person." We kiss then. I know I am not going to score. I don't want to. This is not a victory: it is a beginning.
"Where did you say you lived?" I ask.
"I might be up that way for a few months. Could I stay with you?"
"I wouldn't have it any other way."
The Lord works in mysterious ways.
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