A Man and His Dog
Ted was worried.
It was the second time in a week where the solitary woman appeared in the distance, striding aggressively along the scenic ocean bluff. It was odd, he thought; where’s the lumbering man in the off-white windbreaker and faded cap?
But this day was different. The woman walked alone, singing softly into the ocean air.
At one end of the leash, Chloe strained ahead, looking impatiently back as Ted’s long strides shortened and stuttered. A quick look towards the oncoming figure explained it all. “She is alone,” thought the gracefully graying beasts. “Again. Why? Where is the other of the pair? And why this week, this day?” The thoughts quickly left the canine’s brain, swooshed away by the appearance of one of the 63,245 squirrels that call the trail side fields and hillocks home.
At the other end of the leash, Ted had similar thoughts. As a careful and precise man, Ted did not easily trust that there were 63,245 squirrels. As a practical and pragmatic man, he realized the folly of counting them all. Chloe, he decided, could have this point. He let slack into the lead, silently transmitting his concession through the woven strap that kept the two connected.
“Maybe he broke free of his leash,” they both thought.” No,” they quickly realized, there had been no signs of a harness, or collar, or any such restraint. The man was often slightly behind, appearing to struggle with the pace set by the alpha. He likely had not the strength nor the stealth to escape.
Chloe grew more worried. Her angular face turned instinctively towards the ocean, taking in the crags that lined the bluff trail, angling down in places, while a few yards away dropping acutely onto the rocks below. “It would have been quick,” Chloe thought. A hip check would have upset his balance just enough to send him skittering towards the edge. He did like to take cellphone photos, so it would not be unusual for him to stand on a sandy patch of trail, better to get a shot of a swooping seagull or a preening pelican. Timed right, the crash of surf upon deadly rocks could easily drown out the sound of a surprised “what the fu…..aaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhhhh!!!!”
The afternoon fog came on little cat feet, gauzing the hills and altering the sound of the sea. As the distance between the duo and the solitary strider lessened, minor details become both more explicit and less. The approaching white-billed visor served as a locator, marking distance and direction. The arms swung forward and back in a precise rhythm, palms facing rearward, slightly cupped, an artifact of years of competitive swimming and piano training. The finely ground gravel whispered as each Keen-covered foot landed and lifted. It sounded familiar and odd at the same time, as there was no accompanying “whoosh” of a nylon windbreaker.
The distance closed. The three met at the dragon-headed bench, where the woman sat with one leg casually curled atop the faded redwood slab. Ted remembered how the man would often mumble “five more minutes” as he reached into the bulging pockets of his off-white windbreaker crowded with Kleenex. Each sheet emerged mysteriously wadded, so there was no telling which was new and which was not.
Ted and Chloe put on their most nonchalant faces and greeted her in the usual way. The trio exchanged small talk about local goings-on. Finally, Ted asked, as casually as he could, about the other half of the team.
“Oh,” she replied, “he is home, uh, working.” Chloe looked up slowly, flashing a look that said, “yeah, right!”
Realizing that no further information was forthcoming, Ted and Chloe waved and resumed their walk towards the parking area.
Gloom, or Doom
The fog continued to gather, enveloping the white water line and swirling around the protruding rocks. As the neared the section where the trail ran close along the cliff’s edge, a blast of wind opened a momentary window to the shore. They froze. On the rocks below, a glimpse of off white stood out against the inky black of the protruding rocks. Just as quickly, the thick mist rushed back and obscured the view. Ted peered into the near distance, studying the scene as intently as if it were a balance sheet for the Friends of The Fiscalini Ranch annual report.
Chloe sat still, lightly panting as she sniffed the sea air. The blended scent of seagull and seaweed overwhelmed any possible trace of other organic matter. It was a moment of uncertainty that grew more sinister with the faint sound that rose from below, A bleat? A cry? A desperate plea? They could not tell. Still, the flash of off-white on the rocks below kept them rooted to the spot.
Ted turned to his companion and said, “We should call someone, Chloe! But who? And how? Neither of us has a cellphone, and only one of us has thumbs.” He absently reached for his belt, subconsciously feeling for the beeper he carried years ago, All he found was a small grip of poop gloves tucked neatly between belt and waistband. Chloe, remembering she was thumbless, scratched her right haunch and thought of the oatmeal cookies that were cooling on the kitchen counter.
Suddenly, a new set of sounds floated through the mist, seemingly coming from around the bend that led to the parking area. The thud of footfalls floated through the thick, damp air. The crackle of disembodied voices, speaking in acronyms and numbers, adding yet another element of mystery to an already edgy vibe. As Ted and Chloe stared into the fog, a figure began to emerge, headed straight towards them.
A sturdily built man rumbled up the slight incline, dark hair visible through the mist. As he neared, more details came into focus. The man was draped in a Bill Belichick-styled sweatshirt, raggedly cropped sleeves falling defiantly over a long-sleeved athletic shirt. Long shorts reached down towards black laced work boots. Grey goatee and sharp sideburns immediately identified the approaching figure. Ted immediately thought, “what’s the guy from Metallica doing here? Are those sounds a rough mix from an upcoming album?”
Chloe growled softly. She knew who the man was, as sure as she knew Ted would slip her one of those oatmeal raisin cookies from the kitchen counter. He was no rock star.
He was The Chief.
With pleasantries complete, Ted began filling The Chief in on Chloe’s suspicions. “Just about every day those two make an appearance here on the ranch. But for the past few days, he has been absent. At first, we thought nothing of it, but something about the he’s-home-working line didn’t ring true. I mean, really…working? At what?”
Chief thought for a minute before replying. “I have to admit; this is a bit strange. I hadn’t seen him at any of the meetings lately, so I sent him an email to see if everything was ok. I got a reply, but something seemed…off. The typewriting just didn’t look authentic. And now you’re telling me that…”
Before he could finish his thought, a violent gust blew across the shoreline, revealing the scene Ted and Chloe had described. Chief saw it immediately. The off-white shape splayed atop the rocks was visible for just a few seconds. It was enough. He raised the radio he was carrying in his go-bag (actually, a black leather fanny pack) and began barking codes and numbers into the device, ending with the command to “launch the dinghy.” Chloe, who had also started barking, stopped, cocked her head, and thought, “launch the dinghy? I hope to heck that isn’t a euphemism.”
Within seconds voices came back through the handset, asking for clarification, directions, and a request to pick up some rice cakes on the way back to the station. Ted realized that there was no time to waste, and that he had given his last coupons to Dan during the great firehouse flood of 2019. A calm, clear voice broke through the escalating chatter, bringing everything to a sudden stop.
“Hi, guys! What’s going on? And what in the world is a dinghy?”
Ted gasped. Chief gasped. Chloe peed a little. “Whothewhattheheck!!!” they all thought, staring in disbelief at the man stuffing wads of Kleenex back into the pockets of his off-white windbreaker.
They looked at each other, then turned to peer over the cliff to the rocks below. One, then two outlines appeared, followed by a few more shapes emerging from the lifting marine layer. The largest, a good-sized, light-colored seal, turned to look up at the assembled group, which by this time had grown to include a passing group of visitors from Fresno and three women from the UU church. With a wave of a flipper, the seal wiggled and waddled to the edge of the rock, then slid gracefully into the water.
Ted, Chloe, and The Chief turned around to look at the man in the off-white windbreaker. They shrugged, looked back to the sea, and silently agreed that, well, there was a resemblance, anyone could have come to the same conclusion, he had been absent from his usual routine…
“Hey, what the heck is that?” shouted one of the Fresnonians, pointing into the swirling surf. “Is looks like some kind of visor.” Ted froze. The Chief froze. Chloe peed a little more. They turned slowly, afraid to see the reaction of the man in the off-white windbreaker. But he was gone, leaving nothing but two wads of Kleenex and a half-eaten oatmeal raisin cookie.
“So, do we still need the dinghy?” The Chief asked quietly. Ted took a long deep breath, ran a few mental calculations, and slowly shook his head. “No, I think it best we just go on about our day and see what, or who, tomorrow brings.”
Chloe picked up the discarded oatmeal raisin cookie and began the slow walk back to the car, the marine layer filling in the space behind her. In the distance, floating just above the ranch, a barely audible soprano voice could be heard, keening for a lost love. Or visor. It was hard to tell.