seals are my favorite animal
When the men came the second time, I was sponging up the kayaks. Someone, a fat man, had taken old tippy out, the longest kayak we had and the least predictable, and I had my head stuck all the way inside the cockpit, my arm extended as far as it would go, mopping up the brine and the big runnel of sand that had collected there when the man made his entrance into the bay. A rock crab had scuttled into the dark crack of the prow and was waiting for me to leave, but I took my time, wanting to sponge up every last grain, sticking my right arm out of the hole, squeezing the sponge, dunking it into a bucket of freshwater I had placed there for that purpose, and mopping up again. When I finally came out, the inside of the boat was smooth and shiny as abalone, and the black car with the tinted windows was cold in the driveway.
I opened the door to our little shop, and the bells overhead tinkled. There were three of them this time, and they seemed to fill up the shop. Mother’s glittery grey eyes lit on me. She was standing behind the counter, her arms rigid as old wood; it wouldn’t have taken a genius to see that she was angry, pissed off beyond belief, her face pure as bone and just as white, her hair loose and tumbling, the color of baby robins. Before I entered the shop, I had been scared. I thought about running. Now I realized I had nothing to be afraid of, and my mother, seeing me, realized it too. She stood up, relaxed her arms, and suggested we go outside and talk on the deck.
But first she crossed the floor of our shop and hung a sign on the front door that had us doing something else, something fun: out fishing or diving for abalone or eating oysters. The men parted to let her pass, quickly stepping back and straightening up, and I was surprised at how fast they moved, for such big guys, and how little they wanted to touch her.
Outside, we sat around our glass table. The umbrella was down and there were big smears of seagull shit on the surface. One of the gulls, the one that likes to hang around a lot, was perched on the edge of the roof gutter. He has a big orange dot on his beak with a little red streak in it that reminds me of egg yolks. My mother doesn’t feed him, but she also doesn’t chase him away. I have to clean up his shit, sponging the table and the porch railings once a day, so I’m not as fond of him as she is. As he ruffled his wings and cried out, I realized I was glad to see him. It evened things out a bit. The new guy, who seemed a little younger than the others, edged away from the table, his hands in his lap. There was a red cooler off to the right between the table and the bay that I knew was filled with all kinds of icy drinks – water, lemonade, ginger ale, soda – but mother didn’t look at it once.
“So what is it you men are here for now?” She asked.
The tallest of the men, the one who tended to smile the most, smiled now. “We just wanted to hear him tell it again,” he said. “See if he remembered anything new.” He had a kind voice too, but his long straight nose seemed offset somehow, not centered to his face, and it gave him a crooked appearance.
“I don’t,” I said.
“He doesn’t,” my mother said, and just for a moment I was irritated with her, at how much she wanted to protect me.
“You haven’t found him yet?” I asked, crossing my arms, but my own voice terrified me; it had such a wobble.
“Tell it again,” the second man said, the one who had eyes green as kelp, clear as sea glass. “Maybe something new will come out.”
So I took a deep breath and told them. The man had come into the shop around eleven. He wanted to rent a kayak. He had on a blue windbreaker and weather proof pants and I was alone. A tall man, even taller than my mother, with a stubbly haircut that made his ears seem big for his face. He seemed a little hesitant, asking, as if I might turn him down.
“How long did he want to rent it for?” Green eyes asked.
“Three days. He said he would bring it back on Wednesday afternoon, and he came in on a Monday.”
“Is this usual?”
“It isn’t unheard of,” my mother said. “On account of the boat-in campground across the bay. Most often people just go overnight, but sometimes people take a kayak on a Friday, bring it back on a Sunday. Or even longer, if it’s a holiday weekend.”
Mother and I go there sometimes. Our paddles, dipping into the bay, shimmer with green light, stars flash overhead, and the dark heads of seals trail us. Sometimes, we light a small fire on the beach, and mother tells me stories of her epic journey up the wild Pacific coast when she was just a year out of high school, the one that landed her on the cover of Outside magazine. Other times, she doesn’t say a word, wrapping herself in a silence so thick the night can’t touch her. Is she thinking of Paul Letters? Even the bobcat, padding through the grass, doesn’t disturb her. In the morning, we’re up early, long before the rangers start their patrols, and always in time for our first customers, who are never our favorites for the day, too grumpy or too chatty, an early morning brightness to the women that’s hard to come up to.
“Our fellow didn’t camp there,” Green eyes said.
“How do you know?” Mother asked.
“He didn’t have a reservation.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” she said, and I shot her a look. Was she willing to spoil them, our secret trips? Suddenly, I was angry. As angry as I’d been that day for being left alone in the shop, cooped up, while Gary and Reed and all the other kids were having fun at the skateboard park. When the man asked me how much it would be to rent a kayak for two nights, I didn’t pull out the pricing sheet mother reserved for men – single men or men in groups, it didn’t matter – but the separate sheet for women only. Any woman at all. If the woman had kids, and no man with her, mother heaped a twenty five dollar discount on top of that.
I turned the sheet around so he could see it.
“Seventy five dollars a day,” I said. “Have it back by 5pm.” He nodded and pulled his wallet from the back of his jeans, opened it and took out a credit card.
“You’re a little young to be working here by yourself,” the man said, more a statement than a question.
I nodded. “My mother is normally here. This is her shop.” I jerked my thumb at the wall, towards the framed magazine cover I had insisted on hanging when we first moved in, but didn’t bother looking at now. “That’s her.”
The man’s eyes glanced over, but just for a moment. He smiled.
“Are you able to show me the boats or do I have to wait until she comes back?”
“I’m able to show you. But first you have to sign a waiver.” I brought it out, handed him a pen. The man started to read it, but it was a long piece of paper so I summed it up for him. “Basically, it just says that if you don’t bring back one of our kayaks you owe us three thousand dollars or something like that.”
The man laughed. “That much?”
“We only stock the best,” I said, echoing my mother.
The man kept reading, his pen poised in the air.
When he got to the end, his signed quickly, a big blue scrawl, then threw down the pen.
Outside, he wanted to try out a lot of different boats. I watched him from the dock, hands in my pocket, feeling like the grownup. He tried sit on top kayaks, fishing kayaks, and touring kayaks. He fiddled with seats, foot pegs and skegs. I thought he was going to settle on one of our Dagger Stratoses, a big, heavy duty boat used mostly used for rock gardening – nothing could break it – but instead he settled on our only Denali, the biggest kayak we have, the one with the roomiest cockpit. This was not something we normally let customers do, try on so many boats, but the man seemed to be enjoying himself, and I liked being outside. The light that day was perfect. It poured down on the bay, fresh as spring rain. October light. Honeyed air. When the man got out grinning from the boat he had chosen, I felt a surge of that old, sickening hope. What if, after all this time? But just for a moment. I kicked it to the curb as quick as I could, knowing, by now, what it could do to me.
“Did you notice if he took anything with him?” Green eyes asked. “Food, beer, extra clothes?”
“Probably he did. I had to go into the store to get a life jacket for him and a tide chart, and while I was in there the phone rang, and it was some woman from Napa who wanted to know if the seals were done pupping.”
“Peter?” Crooked Face said in his kindest voice, leaning towards me. “Did the man you helped that day seem at all depressed to you?”
“Objection your Honor,” my mother said. “It is not reasonable for my twelve year old son to speculate on a total stranger’s state of mind.”
“Was he a total stranger, son?” The third guy asked, the young one, who hadn’t said anything up to now, who hung back from the others and kept one dirty eye on the gull, his hands busy with notes. “You never saw him before?”
“I already told you he was,” I said. Mother had taught me to recognize customers, the importance of it. They like it if you remember their name, even better if you remember what boat they had last time. I have a good memory for this, and not just because of the tips.
When I came back outside, the man had already climbed into the cockpit. He had put on a pair of black wraparound sunglasses, and our paddle was sitting in his lap. I handed him the life vest, which he shrugged on, and the tide chart, which he studied, but just for a moment, before folding it up and sticking it into his pocket. Then I untied the dock line and pushed him off, almost glad to see him go.
“Why do you think he might have been depressed?” I asked. It was a strange word, heavy on the tongue.
None of the men answered, so mother had to.
“You see, Peter, if our friendly customer killed himself, his life insurance policy probably wouldn’t be paid out. That’s what this is really about, isn’t it guys? I saw the story in the paper. The guy had a wife and two kids.”
“We’re just trying to find out what happened,” Green eyes said softly. “And yes, we have reason to believe it might not have been an accident.”
“What reason is that?”
Crooked Face reached into his jacket and takes out a large brown envelope, pulled out a few photographs.
The first one showed a towering rock sheer as a shark fin; beyond it, the sky, near the horizon, was rosy with light. Crooked Face pointed to a dark fleck in the water. In the second photo, the water was blurry, the sky brighter, and the dark fleck had grown into something sticklike. In the third photo, the sticklike shape had resolved into the shape of a man paddling a kayak.
“Is this the man in question, son?”
“No? Look again. Take your time.”
It looked as if the man was wearing a jacket, but who wouldn’t be? It looked as if his hair, cropped short, was ruffed up by the wind. I couldn’t see his face, because there was no face to see, the photo taken from behind.
“No,” I said again. He asked how can I be sure, but there’s no way to explain that the man could not be my father, that I was nobody’s son.
“A blurry photo of a kayaker? That’s proof of something?” My mother asked in her best, worst voice.
A couple who were sailing took it. They were out by the Farallons. When they blew it up, they realized the thing in the water they thought was a dolphin or a piece of driftwood was actually a kayaker. They had seen the article in the paper – the same one you did, ma’am – and contacted the Coast Guard.
Mother didn’t say anything, and neither did I. The Farallon Islands are really out there. You can only see them from shore on the clearest of days. There is nothing beyond them. Hawaii. Japan.
The gull cried out. It squatted deep, so I knew it was set to launch. Over here, I wished, fiercely. Make a mess! But in a few moments the fat bird was free of us and winging over the bay.
I looked back at the photos. That wild strawberry glow was off to the man’s right. He was not returning. The right side of his paddle was raised up, high up, like a man who wants to say goodbye to someone a long way off, but I knew that was just my imagination talking. When you’re paddling, one side is always going to be high up like that, unless it’s the other.
* * *
Something woke me. My first thought, hearing the soft mewling, was that a baby seal had crawled into the house. My heart started to race. I gripped the covers. How to get it out without touching it? The number one rule if you live here, on the shores of Tomales Bay, or anywhere near here, is never touch a baby seal. Never! A lot of tourists find one on the beach and think it’s in trouble, when really the mother is only hunting for food. And then, if they do touch it, to comfort it or move it away from the water, the seal’s mother, the only protector it has, might abandon it for good. My own mother said this is a perfect example of what they call irony.
I love seals, they’re my favorite animal, but the babies always make me so nervous. In spring or early summer, right after they’re first pupped, they can be super curious. They’ve never seen humans before, or much of anything, and don’t know enough to be afraid. Some of them swim straight for you, their big eyes wetly open, fixed on you, and you have to squash your own natural feeling to help them and paddle away as fast as you can.
Then I realized the mewling sound is my mother, that she’s having one of her bad nights. She hasn’t had one in so long I had forgotten the sound of it. In the old days, I would have gone to her, hugged her blanketed lump, more for my sake really, than hers, since it never stopped her crying. Instead I grabbed my pillows, my sleeping bag from the closet, and headed downstairs. I walked on the sides of the stairs, which didn’t creak as much as the middle, unlatched the screen door, and slipped out. It was a dark, cold night, but immediately I felt better, just to be out in it. I threw my stuff into the old rowboat we use to check on our crab traps and untied her. I rowed out to the middle of the bay.
On my back, oars in their locks, I counted twenty seven shooting stars. Most of them were faint and went out quick, but one was so bright it was like someone had struck a match and streaked it against the night. I don’t think it went out at all, just fell behind the hills on the other side of the bay.
Did Paul Letters see it, from his house in Japan? Probably not, since he lived in Tokyo, a bigger, brighter city, even, than San Francisco, which is where the three of us lived for so long. But maybe if he had taken a drive, or was walking on the beach somewhere. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that: a shooting star both of us shared. I never wished on stars like other kids did, so it’s not like we were competing. To be honest, aside from a little curious, I don’t think I felt much of anything. I guess I feel a little guilty about that. There are photos of me when I was little, five or six, walking hand and hand with Paul in Golden Gate Park, hugging his knees when he came home from work, but that was a long time ago, and even then, I always called him Paul, and mom always called him Paul Letters, at least to me, as if his first name couldn’t be said without his last. As if it was a joke the two of us shared. There are things I miss: Giants games together, all three of us. The hot chocolates he used to make. The fact that no matter how hard a math problem I gave him, he always solved it, and solved it by taking a short cut, which made my teachers a little crazy, or sometimes scared.
Mostly what I miss was how mother was. She never wears pretty nightgowns to bed anymore, or makeup to go out, or sings when she’s making dinner. She’s moody as the sea, these days, and only happy on the water, and sometimes I’m afraid I’m going to lose her to it, the way I lost the kayaker.
I read a whole chapter in The Hobbit and ate my entire lunch before he came back into the shop. Soon as I saw him, it flashed bright in me again, my old hope, and this time I wasn’t as good at keeping it down.
“You’re still here!” He said, grinning. He’d taken off his windbreaker and was wearing a black tee shirt; his sunglasses were pushed onto the top of his head.
“Is everything OK with the boat?”
“Everything’s fine. I was well on my way when I realized I forgot something. Something important.” He held out some money, and I took it. I couldn’t help smiling. It wasn’t unusual for customers to tip, but rarely as much as a twenty. And they never came back the way this man had.
“No problem,” I said. We stared at each other. Then the man grinned and nodded. In a moment, he was going to leave.
“Have you ever been to Drake’s Estero?” I asked.
“Uh, no. No, this is my first time up here.”
“You should go! It’s so great! One of my favorite places!” I pulled a map out of the drawer and pointed to the long finger of Tomales Bay. “Here’s where we are,” I said, tapping the spot. “And here’s Drake’s Estero. You can park here, where the old oyster company used to be, and launch from this beach.” I traced the route for him with my pencil, talking all the while about what he would see on a clear sunny day like today, the gentle leopard sharks and the enormous bat rays. The huge rafts of birds on the sandbars: pelicans and cormorants and gulls. It’s so strange, how they huddle close but never mix. And seals! He would see more seals than he ever had in his whole life. I didn’t show him the pupping grounds. Even to this stranger, whom I liked, I wouldn’t show that. But I told him about all the big males that hang out at the mouth of the estero, just before the surf line. Paddling, you find yourself suddenly surrounded, seals in every direction, watching you always.
Whenever I’m in a bad place, at school say, or lonely on the bus ride home, I imagine myself there, kayaking, only I slow everything down. Beads of water from the ends of my paddles arc through the air; the distance between us starts to close, but close slowly, the seal’s black eyes rolling up at the last minute; his sleek, spotted head plunging sideways, submerging, but always popping up again, never too far away.
I pushed the map towards the man. “You know what? Maybe I could take you sometime. Or my mother and I could.” What it would be like, the three of us: skimming the water, flying, spray in our faces, my mother showing off, the way she does sometimes with me, rolling and rolling like it wasn’t anything, just some trick she mastered a million years ago and did better than anyone else, her head sleek as a seal in her neoprene cap, her body and the boat a single creature.
Or maybe just the two of us, the man and myself. No campground there but plenty of places to pitch a tent in the bluffs. At night, we could light a fire, feast on shellfish, swap stories.
The man didn’t say anything. Instead, his hand closed over mine. Not tight. I could have slipped out if I wanted. But tight enough for me to know he wanted me to stay. His eyes brown, not black, all of a sudden hungry. His lips on mine for what felt like forever. The bells over the door tinkling as he left, unwatched, because my own eyes stayed closed.
Read Maria Kochis’ “Seals Are My Favorite Animal” in the print edition of The Arkansas International 6.
Maria Kochis is an ardent writer, hiker, lover of wolves, novels, and nature writing. She is working on a collection of short stories exploring how interactions with nature, wilderness, and the changing environment affect personal narrative. She works as a Humanities librarian at a university in California. She has just completed her first novel.