My umbrella was stolen from in front of my apartment door, which is all the way at the end of our complex, with a long, separate hallway. It never rains in Southern California, and this week it does. Every day. The thief went off and stayed dry. I’m left to search for a new one. I’m a large guy and large umbrellas are expensive when you try to live on the cheap because your freelance money is stuck in some bureaucratic detour. I reject the small, collapsible ones. They are rickety and barely cover my shoulders. Rite-Aid has a large one, but it’s 13.99 and of inferior quality. The plastic handle feels like the dashboard of my old Escort, the spokes are flimsy despite being heavy.

At the Dollar Store, only collapsible ones. I go to Albertsons, and the ones that cost 13.99 at Rite-Aid are 16.99 here and I buy one, then return it immediately. CVS has only collapsible ones, Wal-Mart is out of umbrellas.

I feel like a crusader in one of the last and desperate crusades, ill-equipped and without hope of reaching what has long become unattainable. I want my old umbrella back, the one I bought in Koreatown at the 98-Cent Store at my street corner. Its handle was clad in foam, and when I opened the umbrella, underneath the silver fabric, the night sky showed, every single star fixed above me.

***

Saturday feels like emptying the full bag of my vacuum with two fingers, through the round, rubber-sealed hole, because it’s too expensive to buy a new bag. After a week of rain, it’s sunny again, and I have no plans, the day is mine, and all I find is dog hair, soot, two dimes, and an orange-and-white NASCAR earplug.

***

I was just given this fancy notebook, pages small and thick. Every word counts. Everything I might have written in a Safeway notebook seems inadequate for this notebook, which comes with a fancy pen.

What did Moses think of his ten stone tablets? Maybe if he’d been presented with scrolls, he wouldn’t have been so terse. Maybe he wasn’t satisfied with “Thou shalt not kill,” but it was written in stone, and there wasn’t space or time for some explanation, for example “only if you’re attacked in a dark alley,” or “only if your girlfriend, the one you intend to marry, is attacked,” or “only if it’s legally okay.”

Maybe he thought of other laws, but they didn’t seem important enough for stone tablets. “Thou shalt not wear socks in your sandals,” or “Thou shalt not leave the toilet seat up after you’re done urinating.”

***

I run to stave off feelings of inadequacy. My freelance money won’t be released until the IRS sends me a certain certificate, which can take up to 45 days. Or longer, in the case of which I’ll receive a message after 30 days. Meanwhile my credit card groans.

I run to stave off age, which at 44 is sometimes still possible, although now it’s like running after a ball in the outfield and you know you’ll hit the warning track soon. The forehead widens like a desert, the back needs a pillow top these days, thoughts of cosmetic surgery keep buzzing around my head when I sit in the bathroom with the mirror mercilessly placed in front of me. Do people want to see their faces while taking a crap? ‘Wow, that one really contorted my face.’

So I run, the cheap solution to extending my life and to feel that, yeah, I have the stamina to live another 43 years, to live 50, 57 years. I run, and I run along the beach, which should lighten my mood and doesn’t. And in the beachfront parking lot halfway home, I stop, because I see movement in the water out of the corner of my left eye.

A woman and her daughter have seen it too. “Sharks,” the young girl shrieks. Seven or eight of them. An old man on his bike stops next to me, his eyes watery as he scans the water. “Whales?” I ask. He scoffs. “Dolphins.”

“Dolphins,” I yell out to the mother and daughter. The girl squeaks in delight.

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STEFAN KIESBYE is the author of Next Door Lived A Girl. His second novel was recently published by Tropen/Klett-Cotta Verlag in Germany; the American edition, titled Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone will be released by Viking/Penguin in 2012. Stefan lives in Los Angeles with his wife Sanaz and their dogs Dunkin and Nozomi.

32 responses to “Notes from Long Beach in Four 
Short Fragments”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    “I reject the small, collapsible ones.”

    Words to live by. In every situation.

    Hooray -Stefan is back!

  2. barry says:

    “After a week of rain, it’s sunny again, and I have no plans, the day is mine, and all I find is dog hair, soot, two dimes, and an orange-and-white NASCAR earplug.”

    word.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    “I sit in the bathroom with the mirror mercilessly placed in front of me. Do people want to see their faces while taking a crap? ‘Wow, that one really contorted my face.'”

    Seriously, right?

    Why would I ever want this information ratcheting around in my head?

    I’m humble enough already.

  4. Don Mitchell says:

    +1 about the mirror. I hate that in motels. Not only does everything not feel quite right, nothing has the right texture, the shampoo and conditioner bottles in the shower look the same when I don’t have my glasses on, so it’s a crapshoot, and the door-mirror. Yes. And the coffeemaker in the bathroom.

    Did you notice the “+1?” It shows I’ve been visiting other sites, sites frequented by the semi-literate.

    +2 about having you back. I was wondering if you were ever going to post again, or if Long Beach had swallowed you up and wasn’t going to regurgitate you. Or blow you out like a dolphin’s hot fetid breath.

    Go back to Koreatown, or if there’s a Chinatown, go there. The Chinese know how to make serious black fabric umbrellas.

    I wore sandals with white socks for about three terrifying minutes yesterday, in Morgantown, West Virginia. I had to go down from the 4th floor of a motel to the car to get my running shoes and my sandals had given me a blister so I needed to wear them with socks. Jesus H. Christ, what if somebody saw me? Terrifying. But if anybody did, they didn’t tell the cool police. Whew. Except today an invitation to join the AARP came in the mail. Maybe somebody did see.

    • Oh yes, there’s a picture somewhere of me in socks and sandals, and if I’m ever going to write about fashion sins, and if I should find that pic again, I’ll post it. Horrid. The dumb thing is, it’s actually comfy…

      Yeah, Long Beach can swallow one up alright, it’s the Buffalo by the sea and with good weather…

      And yes, the texture of motel bathrooms is horrid. And mirrors should be in the right spot, away from you, far away…

  5. This is haunting, funny and brilliant. Do they hand out ear-plugs at NASCAR, or is it BYOEP? I feel culturally deprived having never attended a race. Going to check out more of your stuff!!

  6. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    You can actually buy NASCAR ear-plugs in large quantities, which I do because I can’t sleep without them. It’s more of a marketing tie-in, and NASCAR is printed on each plastic wrapper. However, my brother-in-law works for a Nascar team, but I’m sure he’ll need more heavy-weight equipment. Anyhow, those ear-plugs are pretty, and come in marbled green/white, purple/white, orange/white, and yellow/white. the green ones are the best!

  7. Stacy Bierlein says:

    A brilliant piece. And the perfect thing to read as the fog rolls in again today on the Southern California coast. I love this: “What did Moses think of his ten stone tablets?”

  8. Joe Daly says:

    Very nice. Had to chuckle at ” It never rains in Southern California, and this week it does. Every day.”

    Whenever people visit me from the midwest or the east coast, it also rains. I find myself consumed with guilt for this, apologizing profusely for the bad weather. I don’t know if this is because I feel bad for them or because my ego needs them to think I live in paradise. Either way, there’s something offensive about rain in Southern California.

    Loved the part about running as well. I used to run to feel better physically, then mentally, and then I just started running for the sake of running. Rock on, brother.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      So true. When somebody comes to visit (and especially from the Midwest) and it’s foggy and cold, how do you explain what a wonderful choice you made and how much better and richer and more glamorous your life is now? Especially compared to theirs!

    • Dana says:

      You do live in paradise! When you apologize for the weather doesn’t that imply some sort of control? 😉

  9. You guys should try welcoming anyone, at any time, to Seattle. Strangely, almost no one carries an umbrella here. It’s a sign of trying too hard, or something. Especially teenagers. I see them standing in the pouring rain, waiting for the bus, not even trying to get under a tree, just wearing a t-shirt. The world is full of people heartier than I, apparently. But not any more jealous than I am at not owning NASCAR earplugs.

    • Enjoyed this, Stefan. Particularly the literal and metaphorical implications of sharks and dolphins sometimes, upon first glance, appearing indistinguishable.

      Sean, my Seattle co-hort, for what it’s worth, I always use an umbrella here b/c my thick, curly hair gets kind of sci-fi if I don’t. But you’re right: it’s considered a badge of honor not to and I don’t get it.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      If you haven’t had NASCAR plugs, have you really lived?

  10. Irene Zion says:

    Long time no see, Kiesbye!
    What?
    Have you been writing another book or something?
    Costco has the best umbrellas. They are enormous and sturdy. I forget how much they cost, but it’s Costco, for heaven sakes.
    Dolphins are better than sharks, if you happen to be swimming.

  11. Dana says:

    Nice to see something from you Stefan!

    I hate umbrellas. I’m always certain that I’ll put someone’s eye out. Probably mine. I don’t bother with them.

    Love the part about the journal. I so understand that feeling, having been given several journals over the years; travel journals, garden journals, hardcover sketch books. I generally manage to fill two pages before I’m filled with self consciousness and want to rip the offending pages out of the perfect little book. I’m sure Moses was concerned about missteps with the chisel too. Shorter commandments, less room for spelling errors.

    Mirror in front of the toilet? Masochist?

  12. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Hi Dana,

    yes, umbrellas do that, especially the spokes that everybody tried to lodge in your eyes. And I didn’t have much luck with gift journals either. Most stay empty or half-abandoned.

    Masochist? Generally, yes. But my old apartment just came that way…

  13. Erika Rae says:

    Your style is so recognizable, Stefan. I haven’t seen you on here for a while, and even so, it’s like reading an old friend.

    My favorite part of this was about the notebook. I have a fancy notebook, too. I hardly write anything in it because I feel like if I’m going to use a page, it better be for something profound. So little of what I think qualifies for the notebook. It’s depressing in a way. I do feel better about the 10 Commandments now, though.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Hey Erika, how cool you read it. And if I can make you feel good about
      the commandments…

      the pressure these notebooks exert is really horrendous, and they come with all these expectations by the givers, and that’s even worse…

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