THE BEAST OF TIN CAN BEACH
Back then in 1956 we all called it Tin Can Beach. It was a wilderness stretch of sand on the ocean side of the two-lane Pacific Coast Highway, California’s Highway One. On the shoreward side of Pacific Coast Highway at that point there were tidal wetlands. Tin Can Beach got its name from the no-man’s land of debris, mostly flattened crumpled rusted tin beverage cans that bordered the highway and extended onto the beach sand for several yards in a tinny tarmac. It might as well have been a border of jagged cactus for it kept out most of the self-respecting beach-bound residents and tourists who just moved along farther south, past all the oil derricks lining the shoreward side of Huntington Beach, down to quaint Newport Beach and then finally on down to the little artist’s colony called Laguna Beach.
I was living with my sister at our maternal grandmother’s beach bungalow in Belmont Shore, a town north of Tin Can Beach that was itself 200 million cubic yards of mud dredged from the bay and developed in the 1920’s. When I was just three and my sister was just ten our mother had left us and my father had lost his mind and couldn’t take care of us. Grandma and Grandpa took us in but then Grandpa had a stroke so now Grandma was the boss. And finally there was my best friend, Grandma’s dog Skippy, the little white terrier with a black face and a black tail. Grandma told me I used to curl up in his dog bed with him and sleep. I guess Grandma could have told me just about anything, except that she was a simple, honest New Englander who had come out West when our Mom and Dad had honey-mooned in Southern California and found out about good jobs with the oil companies.
One day Grandma was going to the Veteran’s Hospital to visit Grandpa and bring him “Ma’s Gingerbread” that would make him light up in a smile. My sister Janine was then fourteen years old and she was put in charge of me and Skippy for the day.
“Now, Janine, there are to be no boys here while I’m gone. You can take your brother and Skippy down to the park,” She smiled, “They both like to look at the whale skeleton display.”
Janine whined, “Oh, gawd, Gran-MA. What am I supposed to do while they’re both chewing on the whale bones?”
Grandma said simply, “Earn your fifty cents an hour.”
Janine looked like a girly-girl with her long wavy blonde hair and pretty face but she was a real tom-boy. She liked to play baseball and she would tease me ominously because I didn’t. She was even a surfer when who ever heard of a girl surfer? And despite that, or maybe even because of that, boys were always following her home.
Grandma had only just driven away when a boy in a red and white Chevrolet Bel Air showed up. Ever since I was a toddler I could identify cars.
Janine ordered me, “Come on, Poindexter, we’re all going for a nice ride.” She always mocked me with that hopelessly awkward Poindexter character from the cartoon show Felix the Cat.
The bushy bleached-blonde boy behind the wheel looked at us with a sour glower and asked Janine, “What’s going on?”
Janine answered, “They’re my chaperones,” while she was securing her surfboard next to the boy’s surfboard on the roof rack and then holding the passenger door open so Skippy and I could get into the back seat, saying to us, “Chaperones, this is James,” and Skippy gave James a friendly bark. I swear James growled back or maybe he just revved the engine.
I knew that James would not object to anything Janine wanted to do. I never saw any of them object. What was wrong with all of them? She flashed a smile at him as she got in and pulled the door shut and then she changed the radio station to a song that she preferred to hear and finally she stared straight ahead, saying, “Let’s go. Time’s a’ wastin’.”
James was quietly unhappy for awhile, hanging his left arm out the window and pretending to care about what was passing him by outside in the neighborhood as we headed toward Pacific Coast Highway. He was obviously thinking about what was passing him by inside the car. Soon enough he turned and offered Janine a cigarette. I never saw her smoke before but I knew she would smoke because it was cool and Grandma wouldn’t find out. I was thinking, “I should tell,” but I liked the smell of freshly lit cigarettes. It made it smell like our house used to smell when our Mom and Dad would have parties.
Then James started casually to ask Janine stuff that was instantly so boring to me that I just turned to watch the waves and the seagulls with Skippy. But maybe not with Skippy’s trembling enthusiasm.
I did finally hear Janine say, “Sure. How ‘bout some fries, extra ketchup? Let’s stop at the new Jack In The Box up here… Oh, shit, James, look at that.”
I scooted across the vinyl back seat with Skippy toward the opposite window as our car rapidly slowed down, asking, “What? What?”
We were about to pass an accident scene that had occurred in the northbound oncoming traffic lane. A Ford Fairlane and a Plymouth Belvedere had collided head-on across from the new Jack In The Box. In the open window of the Belvedere was a raised arm with a woman’s hand. There was a streak of blood running down the outside of the door. Motorists had stopped and gathered around. Highway Patrol would come along eventually. We drove slowly past without a word. We didn’t stop for any fries with extra ketchup.
After a few more miles we performed what we used to think was the risky maneuver on this trip: we pulled over parallel to Pacific Coast Highway and halted on the tin can carpet leading to Tin Can Beach. The southbound traffic still whooshed past at 40 miles-per-hour a few feet away from us.
Janine turned to me and Skippy saying, “Watch where you step and carry Skippy until we’re on the sand, got it?”
I made a sour face behind her back, saying, “Yeah, yeah.”
But Janine whipped her head around and caught me, saying, “And you don’t tell Grandma about that accident. Or any of this, got it?”
I sighed, “Yes, your majesty.”
James was surreptitiously lamenting to Janine, “I packed a blanket and a pillow and an umbrella and an ice-chest with… drinks.”
Janine said nonchalantly, “Bring it.”
I started taking bounding hops with Skippy in my arms across the tin can wasteland in the sandals that Janine had brought me from Mexico. They had soles made from tires. Skippy was yipping excitedly at each jostle. Janine scolded, “Take it easy, Poindexter. If you fall on your face you’ll slice it right off. And I’ll feed it to Skippy.”
James carried his surfboard under one arm and the metal ice-chest with the blanket rolled on top of it under the other arm. Janine carried her surfboard and the umbrella similarly with ease.
We had the beach to ourselves this morning. James dutifully arranged the blanket and ice-chest and umbrella while glancing repeatedly at Janine who was impatiently posturing with her surfboard and nagging me, saying, “Just dig for seashells or whatever you do. There’s a rip tide here, so don’t make me have to save you. Maybe I won’t bother.”
I said hesitantly, “There’s no rip tide here. You’re just saying that.”
Janine took a step toward me, “You want to find out?”
I backed up, “No, no." I was not a good swimmer.
A big wave slapped the sand. The waterline was steeply slanted from storm erosion and the foam charged hissing up the incline toward us, but suddenly it fainted and slid backwards.
Skippy barked at the foam and chased the sandpipers as they tried to probe into the bubbling little dens of all the sand crabs. I was grabbing and sluicing handfuls of wet sand looking for cool little seashells that I would put into a pail. I even found some baby abalone shells! I would look up once and awhile and see Janine catching waves and riding them for a long ways, switching back and forth, up and down to catch momentum. Janine and James were riding farther and farther down the shore. Finally I saw them come out of the water far away. I saw James wrap his arm around her and kiss her. I automatically mumbled, “I am telling Grandma.”
Suddenly Skippy was barking and growling at something behind me. I turned and there were two boys with long greased-back hair walking with a little girl. The shorter one held the little girl’s hand. The really tall pimply one looked down at the little girl, asking, “Is this the guy who stole your pail?”
The little girl looked scared and she tentatively nodded. The short kid grinned maliciously.
I said quickly, “I didn’t take her pail. This is my pail. You can ask…,” and I turned around but I couldn’t see Janine or James. My eyes filled with tears in a flash. I could hear Skippy barking more viciously than I had ever heard the little guy bark. I turned back around, saying, “This is my pail.”
The short kid said, “I don’t like your dog. I’m gonna shut him up,” and he ran toward Skippy. Skippy was startled and bounded backwards but he bared every inch of his fangs.
I cried, “Leave him alone!”
The short kid was growling back at Skippy, chasing him around and around, flailing his arms menacingly. The little girl pressed her arms under her chin and looked at me and began to sob.
The pimply kid shook his fist at me, “So you think it’s ok to pick on a little girl?”
I howled, “I’m not doing anything.”
The pimply kid lunged and grabbed my arm. I screamed. He dragged me down to the hissing surf. I was screaming, “Stop! I can’t swim.” Then he flung me into the broken waves.
Because I was a little kid panicking I was rolled under by the turmoil of spent waves. I completely lost my sense of which way was up as I rolled in the murky surf. I hardly had any air because I had been screaming. I was in terror.
Suddenly something clamped onto my arm and in my childish hysteria I thought a shark was taking me out to sea to eat me. I screamed one final time underwater and began choking, but I was being dragged up the incline onto the shore. Janine dropped me in the sand and rocketed toward the tall pimply kid who was not afraid, sneering to Janine, “What’re you gonna do?”
When Janine was literally a foot from the tall pimply kid she lashed out with her foot and struck him between the legs. He collapsed forward in gasping agony. Before he hit the ground Janine had grabbed his hair and was pulling him downward, accelerating the impact of his head onto the sand. Then she bounced his head several times and finally yanked his head back and shoved a handful of sand into his mouth and then viciously rubbed a handful of sand into his eyes. The pimply kid was screaming and gagging and crying and crawling and vomiting sand.
James finally arrived running and saw the carnage Janine had wrought, asking somewhat fearfully, “Are you ok? Jesus, Janine.”
The other short kid had stopped chasing Skippy in order to witness the thrill of bullying and the agony of revenge and now trembled turning about to run and abandon the little girl as well as his defeated friend.
Janine hollered like a banshee, “Come back here, you little shit, and get this little girl.” Janine was twitching with aggression.
James figured it out, saying, “Janine, let’s go. That kid isn’t coming near us. Let’s go. Hey, little girl,” and James, exuding his best surfer mellowness, propped up the weeping pimply kid onto his feet and asked the little girl to take the pimply kid’s hand to lead him back to the short kid. That little girl quietly obeyed but the short kid did not come forward, waiting for the little girl to lead the pimply kid all the way to him. James called out with a final, “Better get your friend into the surf to wash out his eyes.”
Skippy ran furiously to me and I picked him up. We slowly trudged back to our umbrella oasis with a quietly seething Janine in the lead, who was saying for my benefit, "Stay here. We've got to go back and get our boards." I was humbled and grateful but James and I were both a little scared of Janine, the both of us glancing at each other and James saying softly to me, "Your sister is the Beast of Tin Can Beach," knowing I would not tell and me smiling.
Janine turned back to us and gave us both The Finger.
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