NOTE: This chapter marks the end of Part I. Part II will begin with Chapter 15.
Living on the Mendocino coast is a challenge. There is great beauty in wild nature but it comes with the difficulties of everyday life unless you’re a trust baby or a member of the retired rich. Will is a trust baby. The check from his estranged parents arrives every month. He cashes it and spends his way into the good graces of the local community. He’s everyone’s friend unless they are on the other side of the political fence. That would include developers, loggers, and lots of the businessmen and women. The “alcohol farmers,” that is vineyard owners, for example, and any farmer who uses pesticides. Contractors because they build tourist facilities and tourists because they raise rents and prices. Will likes to show up at board meetings and public events where he projects an Atticus Finch persona with an exaggerated southern accent. He is careful always to appear sufficiently progressive so as to appeal to the counterculture that he thinks is on the winning side and whom he hopes will accept him as one of their own. Mac thinks it’s Will’s undetected smoldering cigarette wedged in the crevice of an overstuffed chair that ignites the fire that destroys the Frolic Café.
I mean, it could have been, thinks Mac as he sits on the steps of the barbershop and watches the smoke rise from what once was the building where he lived and is the place where he worked. He goes over the events of the night before in the Cellar Bar.
Will stands by an overstuffed chair and waves his cigarette around as he speaks.
“Did ya see muh piece in the Beacon? Did you lahk what Ah had to say? Wasn’t it fahne the way Ah held the loggers to accownt?”
The cigarette falls from Will’s hand. Mac doesn’t see where it lands. A drunk woman, the one who he sees passed out on the stairs after the bar closes, stands up on the same chair.
“I’ll tak’on n’man in the bar,” she says in slurred words. She holds a cigarette. It isn’t there when she jumps off the chair. Mac doesn’t say anything to the bartender. Maybe he should have. Maybe he caused the fire by not speaking up.
Will stands in the street with the firemen. He mixes with them, pretends to be one of the guys. He always does this, tries to become one with some group or the other. The firemen are those who risk their lives morning, noon and night. They are the men who pull visitors from the surf, neighbor helping neighbor or anyone else without thought of reward. They are loggers, fishermen, carpenters, farmers—men who work—the men Will wrote about in his “fahne piece,” old-timers, men he will never touch. They are not fooled. They glance suspiciously at him the same way they look at the tourists who hang out with the locals in front of the Foghorn Tavern across the street.
“What do they know about it? By Golly! It went up like a tinderbox, wasn’t nothing could be done,” says one of the men in his scarlet jumpsuit.
“A close call. Too damned close!” says another who glances thoughtfully at the concrete wall between the firehouse and the restaurant.
They did as much as they could do. The surrounding structures are untouched. Mac is relieved to see the boss’s house, though scorched, is not seriously damaged. Overhead, splicers are already at work mending the burned phone lines. One man pulls out a penknife and slits the plastic wrapping around a new cable wide as his arm. Hundreds of varicolored wires flare into his hand. “This is going to take weeks,” he says to his partner.”
Some of the staff joins Mac on the barbershop steps. Gary, the day cook, walks up. “The siren went off,” he says, “and I looked out the windows. I thought it was a forest fire in the hills. There was so much smoke you couldn’t see the cars in the street. My son brought the news. ‘Dad, it’s the Frolic,’ he said. He was in tears.”
Marla arrives and everyone goes quiet so they can hear what she says. She and Lorna have worked at the Frolic longer than anyone.
“I thought it might just be the bar but gosh, it’s really the whole thing.” Tears fall from her eyes. “My God, look. There’s the cash register I stood behind and the kitchen where I started. They look so small now. This has been my life! What are we going to do?”
“Heartbreaking,” says Flash. “It burned out so fast. I can’t understand it. Micah and I cleaned last night and there was no sign of anything. No smell, nothing when we left. Was it arson?”
“Nobody knows,” says Rafan. “I can’t imagine anyone would do such a thing.”
“Speaking as a writer,” says Flash, “this was the best job I ever had.”
“The Frolic was so special,” says Joyce who arrives without a wig. “It was special for us and for everyone who came in. What about the boss and Brin? Are they okay? Wow, I used to live right up there,” she points. “The wall is scorched all the way up to the window by my room.”
“It’s like an old friend died,” says Sharon who cooks days with Gary. “I practically raised my son in that kitchen. On his birthday I told him he could eat whatever he wants. He asks if he can have Wonder Bread toast, something I never allow, so that’s what he got. So many memories gone.”
“Brin’s okay,” says Lorna. “We helped her move everything out of the house when they thought it might burn. It didn’t, thank God. There’s the boss over by the burned-out entrance. He’s picking up the charred metal seagull that hung in the frame above the sign. Oh my God, it’s all so sad. I sat with the boss in that window table and we talked every morning. Now gone, all gone.”
Mac listens but stays quiet. A line has been crossed. Some kind of phase change like ice to water or water to steam. He sees something he thought might save him disappear before his eyes.
Myrna walks up and gives him a hug.
“Don’t worry Mac,” she says. “I still have my job at the market. We can pay our rent. We’ll get by.”
“I know,” says Mac. “I’m going to volunteer to help the boss for as long as I can. I can’t get unemployment since he pays me under the table but I’ll find a way to bring in some money. I’ll pay my share.”
Linda walks up, her blond hair in a frazzle. She doesn’t work at the Frolic anymore. She quit and started a pet-sitting and animal care business. She’s got a Siberian husky with different colored eyes on a leash. “Maybe it was a grease fire,” she says. “I always worried about that when I worked in the kitchen.”
“Nope,” says Flash. “We always check the kitchen carefully before we leave. The firemen say it started in the Cellar Bar.”
“You always check the kitchen carefully,” laughs Linda. “Then how do the potatoes you put on to steam at night always end up boiled dry and burned the next morning?”
“An anomaly,” says Flash, “a deviation from the norm.”
As the ashes rise up from the smoldering embers of the Frolic Café, Mac’s memory awakens again. At least partially. The fog in his head recedes like the smoke from the fire, converging and swirling this way and that, revealing first one then another remembrance past. He slips away from the barbershop and wanders off toward the headlands. He wants to be away from the crowd, alone, somewhere he can think about whatever recollections might come. At the end of Ukiah Street by Dr. White’s house he turns north for two blocks then left onto Little Lake and out to the ocean.
His eyes are draw to a lone figure on the edge of the cliff. It’s an old man in a jacket and crumpled wool hat. Mac walks toward the man slowly until he stands beside him.
“Beautiful isn’t it,” says the man.
“Yes,” says Mac, “it is.”
Giant waves roll in and crash onto the rocks below shooting spray higher than Mac can see.
“First time ‘ere,” queries the man.
“I’ve been here a few months,” says Mac.
The man points his finger south toward the bay.
“Right over there’s the remnants of the chute my granddaddy and his pals used to load redwood lumber onto schooners bound for Frisco. Back then the giant redwoods were like big ole pumpkins. Old growth. The saws cut right through’em like a knife through butter. Hain’t no more like ‘em left. Today the trucks are haulin’ pecker poles so knotted up they’ll tear a saw apart.”
Mac thinks about the old growth redwood that once was the Frolic Café. It’s nothing but smoke and ash now. A wreck of sea-birds struggles through the foam blown up by the ocean.
The man points in the opposite direction to a cove protected from the big waves by Goat Island.
“Down there you could get a bucket a mussels large nuff to feed a family in ten minutes,” says the man. “Abalones big as hubcaps easy pickins under the rocks. The rivers round here were so fulla steelhead you could walk across’em. Deer so friendly they practically jumped onto the dinner table. Huckleberries. Crabs. Not so easy now. You gotta work for ‘em and they ain’t the same, not as good. Those days are gone now just like the Indians that used ta live here.”
“What happened to the Indians?” asks Mac.
“Savages,” says the man. “They were lazy, lived on acorns and bugs and had grass and bark huts. The white man brought ‘em civilization and religion but they weren’t ready for it.”
“Didn’t they have their own religion?” asks Mac.
“Yeah, well they had their own religion I guess, just about as spooky as ours. Dressin’ up in paint and feathers, hoopin’ an hollerin’. Prayin’ to animals and ghosts and dancin’ round like a bunch a fools. I guess we got decent churches now and real preachers and Bibles and songs that make some sense. Whatever. T’Indians’re gone. Gave up. There’s winners and losers in this game son.”
Mac doesn’t respond. It’s a downer hanging around with this character. Mac walks slowly away along the bluff.
“Don’t know why you’re ‘ere, do ya?” says the man.
Mac looks back. The man is gone.
“Hey! Hello! Where d’ya go?” yells Mac.
A seagull flies up over the bluff and nearly knocks Mac over.
“Squawk! Squawk! Squawk!”
Mac’s heart pounds loud.
No, I don’t know why I’m here but something pushed me to come. There is some reason somewhere.
Mac gazes out to the steel-blue sea. Up close white-foamed waves churn, dangerous, indifferent. He is here to bear witness, to see, to experience, to love, just to be. There is nothing more. There is nothing less. Hope is the reason for the map Myrna found. His family’s hope that someone would find this place. But why? When the first Rosales stepped onto this strange land, did he envision a new dawn or a nightmare? And what was it exactly that followed?
Mac shivers in the icy wind and takes in the full spectacle of the ocean that surrounds him. Time halts, resumes. Mac turns away from the ocean and walks back to the Frolic. There is work to be done. There is danger in a crisis but also opportunity. People live out their lives in front of you. Pay attention. That’s all he has to do.