There was this kid. He was an odd kid. Long blonde hair. Denim jacket. Torn shirt underneath. Frayed shorts. Black shoes. He looked like he might be holding half a mind. He said that he was homeless. He said that he had a van to sleep in, so maybe you’d say that he had something, but all and all, he had nothing. He said that he was like everyone else there, those living among the Redwoods of Northern California.
I saw the kid trudging. The trees were all around us. Big canopy above. The trail confined, a one-way lane. The light filtering down to the bark. The skin of those behemoths looking like they’d been licked by flame. I watched the kid slow. He stopped swinging his arms. He held a big blade. A big machete kind of a thing for foraging. Or for whatever, really.
The kid said, “They close the park down after dark.” And I said, “So.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s what I say, too.”
And then, as I’d regret later, I asked him if he wanted to join me for a bite to eat.
The kid ordered French fries and a grilled cheese. He wanted a tomato in there. It sounded like a half decent order, so I ordered the same. What was I thinking? I think that I felt like he needed some company and some kind of agreeable agreement. I needed some things, too. So I said, “I’ll have the same.”
I got a chuckle out of the kid. I asked him, “Why don’t you find some work here? In town?” And he said, “Because I don’t like it here.” He said, “It’s a prison for me.” He said, “I take flowers and things from the woods and then I sell them for next to nothing.”
The lady who was waiting on us, she squinted. She started squirming. She shook her head. She was staring hotly at us while she poured more coffee in our cups. When she went back into the kitchen, I got to what I needed to get to with the kid. I asked, “Is it true that you can find certain people in those campgrounds down near the ocean?”
“You mean the ones we passed on the way out?”
The kid seemed stumped by the question. He took up his spoon and he stirred his coffee. He stirred and stirred and stirred. He put the spoon down and then he started drinking until he finished it. He put the cup down and then he started turning it in circles. Spinning it. Without looking over at me, he asked, “What do you do?”
“I find folks for a fee.”
He wrapped himself with his jacket. He was smiling now. Rocking in his seat. He said, “You can find lots of people down by the ocean. I’d say it’s the best place next to heaven.”
I took out a map that I’d gotten when I’d first arrived in town. If you need a free map in Crescent City, California, stop by the Redwood National Park Welcome Center; they’ve got more maps than they need. I opened it between us. The kid had stuffed his hands in his pockets and he was watching the street. He started to sort of whistle. We watched as a girl with a backpack walked along the window. She stopped at the entrance. She held the door for a moment and then turned and walked right back to where she’d come from. The kid looked down at his shoes.
He was like that for a time. His thoughts were with his shoes. I saw the waitress heading back into the kitchen, so I stuck my finger on the map. I asked him, “Can you show me which campgrounds are good for looking?”
The kid pointed. He said, “This one, and this one. Sometimes here, too.”
I thanked him and then the waitress delivered our lunch.
The kid shoveled the fries into his mouth. He chewed and chewed and chewed.
After he swallowed, he washed it down with more coffee and then he asked: “Will they have to go home?” He thought about it and then started pushing his sandwich around the plate. He said, “If you find them, will they have to go?”
And I said, knowing that he needed to hear it, “If they want. I don’t make that call. I just deliver a message from the people who want them back.”
The kid liked that. He said, “That’s how it should be.”
And then he motioned for me to pass him the ketchup.
The kid thought that Tony might know a thing or two about where people were that day. And so we walked for a time until we were up on a ledge that overlooked the ocean.
Tony was there. He shook hands with the kid and then he was talking, talking, talking. He’d recently had his neck re-tattooed. He showed us. The kid and I watched as he presented each piece of the work. He held his chin and fingered the colors and strained his voice as he showed us what was what. It was the same for his arms, and his legs, and his chest. He was being reborn. Redesigned. Re-imagined.
I peered out. I saw a campground below. I saw the tops of tents. I heard the scattered sound of voices. I saw a fire burning low. The coals dimming. Slow faint smoke.
Tony asked, “So who you looking for?”
But before I could answer him, the kid said, “He won’t say.”
I turned back to Tony, and he was holding that big blade. His arm was extended, and he was pointing it at a stump. He swung the thing up over his head and brought it down on the rotted wood. It created a sound like thwap. He tried to dislodge it, but it wasn’t going to give, so he spit into the dirt and then he left it for the kid to deal with.
I said, “I’ll know when I see them.”
Tony smiled. He said, “There are people looking for me.”
“What kind of people?”
He chuckled at my question. He looked like he was thinking about it, and then he touched his neck again. He said, “It took all of this ink to cover up what was there before.” He held his throat like he was choking himself.
I watched the kid struggle with the blade. He was fighting with it. His hand slipped on the handle and then he tried again. I walked with Tony back to the ledge. He pointed down at the campground. He said, “I’ve slept in some bad bad places, but down there is the sweetest sleep you’ll find in the world.”
He looked out over the Pacific. He was holding his throat again. He breathed in the air. Even from where we were, the salt went right into you. It was there in your eyes. It was with you. He said, “Listen to that.” He asked, “You hear it?”
And we did. We listened to the crash of the waves. We listened to the washing in and the washing out of the water. We listened and we heard the shrieks of joy, the hollering, the play of all those folks below us.
We heard the ocean living with us there.
And then we heard the kid say, “The cops are here.”
We stood in the middle of the road. The kid and I watched the lights. The officer’s car was parked and running behind the truck. The doors were open. We watched the officer push Tony’s head down. He helped him into the police car. He wasn’t harmful or rough or disconcerting. He was working.
The kid kicked a rock into the bushes. He said, “One time, me and Tony, we tried to chop down one of those big bastards.” The kid looked up at the Redwoods. He wore this look that said he was sorry for what he’d done. He said, “I think we hurt it.” The kid looked away, he started watching his shoe as he ground it into the dirt.
I lied to the kid and said, “I’m sure Tony will be back.”
“I don’t know about that, but he’s good with stuff like this. Not scared of it. He’d help anybody who needs some help.”
We watched as the officer said something to Tony and then he shut the door. He headed back to us, lowering his round cowboy looking hat. He walked like he wanted to be somewhere else. Like he was meant for something else. We didn’t see his face until he handed back our identification. He said, “You’re lucky I didn’t find you in his vehicle.”
The kid took his thoughts back to his shoes. I said, “We weren’t anywhere near his truck. Like I said, we were talking to him. We were having ourselves a hike.”
The officer said to the kid, “I’m not giving you back that knife. I don’t care what you use it for, it’s a weapon.”
The kid nodded. He wasn’t looking up. He was keeping his thoughts out of sight.
The officer turned back to me. He said, “You saw what he had. A gun like that is made for killing people. That’s about it.”
I agreed with him. I felt bad for Tony; he seemed like he was trying, but I was there for other things. I said, “That’s your line of work.”
But I could see that the officer didn’t exactly agree. He looked at the flashing lights.
He frowned. He said with no kind of conviction in his voice, “Enjoy the park.”
When we got down to the campground, it was abandoned, but there must have been twenty tents or more.
The kid said, “Everyone is out with the ocean.”
It was cool there. The roots of the Redwoods were cut into, carved, burned. There were plastic chairs. There were articles of clothing. There were beer boxes cut into different kinds of crowns. There were lines for drying clothes and tarps for changing.
There were flies and wasps swarming around a trashcan.
We walked among the tents. He opened a flap and then another and then another. The kid was looking inside each as he passed. He stopped at the end of the line. He held the fly. He looked out at the beach. And that was when I knew he wasn’t going to go anywhere else. He was holding it and looking at me, and I was sad to be done with him, but I knew he had done all he was able to do. He let the fly fall. He looked at his shoes.
I said, “You did good work.”
And he said, “You think so.”
And I said, “I think so.”
Out on the coastline the fog was rolling on in. It was crawling over the broken rocks. It was covering the snaking road to town. There was still plenty of sun out there on the sand. There was still a large group gathered. There were bodies dancing. There were bodies running with their dogs. There were people sitting on the long washed up pieces of wood. I was sure that Bridgette Bailey, or whatever it was she went by when she was living on the beach, was there somewhere. I opened my wallet and then I handed the kid a crisp hundred-dollar bill. I needed to go and start asking around. There was only so much time.
The kid took the bill and held it up to the light. He studied it. He tugged on it. He asked, “Are you sure this is real?” He said, “There are so many colors.”
I laughed. I said, “Yeah, they changed the look of it.”
But he didn’t laugh. He wasn’t smiling. He held the bill back up to the light. He said, “I was thinking I’d get more than this from you.”
I put the wallet away. I said, “That’s it.”
He said, “Okay.” But he didn’t seem, “Okay.” He wore this desperate kind of look I hadn’t seen on him. It was pooling in his features. He looked at his shoes but he didn’t stop there; he opened the tent. He crawled inside. I heard him clanking around. I heard him searching for something, anything. He was muttering. And then I heard him say, “This is mine.”
I heard him ask, “Did you hear me?” He yelled it, “This tent is mine!”
I turned from him, knowing our time needed to be done. I walked the trampled path through the dead grass and then I walked onto the sand. The seashore opened up for me and I felt the salt again. It was there. It was with you. I saw that the fog was closing in. The waves were rising and crashing. Rising and crashing. The seagulls were flying low. I felt this odd kind of feeling being out from under those ancient trees. I thought to myself that there were certain places we simply shouldn’t stumble upon.
For their beauty. For their fragility. For how they made you feel.
I started to struggle. I was out there, sinking in that sand. The closer I got, the more I cursed my heavy protective shoes. The faster I went, the more I sank. I was sinking. I was slowing. I needed to stop.
I looked to the fog and that was when I heard the kid. He was calling out to folks. He was yelling his siren song. I watched as people started looking back to us. As they held their instruments. As they crossed their arms. They were all watching now and suddenly still, transfixed.
What was I? I was stopped was what I was. I kept watching the crowd and then he went and hollered. He was demanding. Accusing. Threatening. He was saying that I was what I was. They inched together. They were gathering. I tried to move towards them, but the kid was telling them to be unwilling; to be inhospitable; he was warning them that I was the one who was looking for those who wanted to be forgotten.
© Calder G. Lorenz
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick]