By Rodger Jacobs
The Santa Monica Pier was cluttered with the usual batch of late summer tourists, plump and pasty-skinned Midwest families ambling about in their Universal Studios T-shirts with mini camcorders strapped to their wrists. Trace hated tourists and always felt like one himself whenever he visited such L.A. landmarks, which inspired a jaded “I would rather be anywhere but here” persona just in case somebody actually did mistake him for a tourist.
Josephine suggested they walk along the shore, maybe sit for a while and just enjoy the waves rolling in. There was a red tide in the Santa Monica Bay that afternoon and earlier they had enjoyed the sight of a school of dolphin feeding close to shore; so close, in fact, that the L.A. County Lifeguards rolled out their boat – which resembled a fishing trawler, oddly enough – to make sure the dolphin didn’t swim too close to the slim handful of human waders in the noxious, chemical-filled bay.
The city of Santa Monica long ago banned smoking on the beach so when Trace settled down in the lush sand on the towel that Josephine brought along for just that purpose, he immediately began searching for things to do with his hands. He poked at the sand with his walking stick and unearthed sea shells. He sifted the sand out of a batch of half-shells and gingerly placed them on the hotel towel.
This is a good project, he thought. He needed a project, something to do with his time while he lazed at the beach because just lazing at the beach in and of itself wasn’t very challenging or interesting to Trace. He had writing assignments to think about but the deadlines were so far off in the future that he could afford the luxury of not fretting over them. Not now, not during the day at the beach he had promised to both himself and Josephine. He dug the tip of his walking stick into the sand and pushed himself to his feet.
He didn’t know that Josephine was snapping pictures of him as he shuffled along the shoreline, cell phone holster on his hip, stick in hand to steady his arthritic gait, collecting sea shells where he could find them obscured in the sand and washing the residue off of them in the breaking tidewaters.
“Too many mussel shells,” he complained to Jo when he dropped off the fifth batch of shells.
“There are crabs in this one,” Josephine said as she examined a large shell Trace discovered a few yards away.
Trace peered at it from a safe distance – he didn’t like small. crawling things -- and, sure enough, at least three microscopic crabs were frantically scrambling around the interior of the shell.
“I’ll be damned,” Trace said. And he walked away to continue his hunt for shells.
When he finally got bored, he stuffed the cleaned shells into his shoulder bag and suggested that they should begin the drive back to Glendale soon before the evening commute began.
Strolling through the Third Street Promenade – an open-air shopping pavilion anchored mostly by trendy apparel shops and restaurants that Trace wouldn’t be caught dead in – he paused to light a cigarette.
“Are you sure they allow smoking here?” Jo asked. She didn’t smoke and she frequently let Trace know how his habit unnerved her.
“They only banned smoking on the beach,” Trace said.
But when it came time to extinguish the cigarette he could find no public ashtrays like they have on busy Brand Boulevard in Glendale. The sidewalks of the Third Street Promenade appeared to be devoid of spent cigarette butts. He didn’t know what to do, how to discreetly snub out his smoke. It was as if he had landed on The Planet of Non-Smokers.
Coming toward him was a plump, middle-aged woman in a wheelchair being pushed by another matronly woman. Trace needed to get out of their path and to get rid of the damn cigarette. He spied a crushed butt on the sidewalk just outside the display window of one of those chic boutiques. He pretended to be eyeing the display window while covertly crunching out the cigarette with the heel of his shoe.
“Why did you do that?” Jo asked when he caught up with her on the walkway.
“They don’t have any goddamn ashtrays around here,” he grumbled. “I had no choice.”
“Well, you should have seen the look that woman gave you,” she said.
“Oh, screw her,” Trace said with a scowl. “She probably got herself into a wheelchair by giving someone a dirty look like that.”
Josephine sighed and they continued on in silence for a few moments until Trace broke the silence by bringing up a more pleasant topic, perhaps a side trip on the way home to a favorite old watering hole of theirs. His treat. It was the only way he knew how to admit that he can be an asshole sometimes.