The Sack They Left Behind

This version of the award-winning story was well received by the fans and readers of espressofiction.com.

Roxie and her pals will continue their story in a new novel: 3 Women Walk into a Bar.

Under a full moon, thousands of people line the most popular beaches of Southern California, in anticipation of a grunion run. The race to pick up the fish that have come ashore to spawn provides an exhilarating experience for young and old.

You sit at a small, tiled table in a dark coffeehouse in San Diego, sip cappuccino and fold your napkin into origami shapes that only you understand. Ignoring the blinking cell phone message from your boss, you choose instead to eavesdrop on the conversation behind you.

The man’s voice is low, falsely tender when he says, “Maybe it would be better if we didn’t see each other for a while.”

“Jerk,” you whisper.

The woman hesitates then answers, forcing air through a tight throat, “But John, how are we going to work this out if… Oh.”

You open Cosmo and flip quietly, pausing at the cologne samples. There is no scent in the world to mask rejection.

“Kelly, It’s not–”

He doesn’t get a chance to finish. The glass door slaps closed behind her, a cowbell good-bye.

You think she deserves better, until you turn around. As a little girl, you dreamed of a man who would sweep you off your feet. You never once imagined his car, job or voice, but when you dreamed of Prince Charming, he looked like—this guy in the chair behind you at the Cuppa Joe in San Diego.

Grunion are small slender fish with bluish-green backs and silvery sides and bellies. In their unique spawning behavior, they leave the ocean to lay their eggs in the wet sand, making these excursions only on  particular nights. Their arrival can be predicted a year in advance and shortly after high tide, sections of California beaches are covered with thousands of grunion.

Three Fridays later, you’re squeezed in at the bar between Michelle and Claire eating greasy Happy Hour food and working on your second Coors. Michelle yells over the music, “How’s John?”

You want to tell her you’d rather be with him instead of here with two lonely women hoping to score, but they’re your friends, so you grin and sip your light beer.

“Come on, Roxie. We want details.” Claire re-applies her lipstick. Sometimes one layer is not enough, especially in a dark bar.

You know you won’t get out of it so you try to remain vague, not wanting to jinx a thing. You’re good at vague, having done it for years.

“He’s great. You guys should meet him. You’d love him.”

“Does he have any brothers?” Michelle always asks the same thing.

“Nope.” You tell the truth. “Just sisters.”

Disappointment hangs in the air until Rusty rings the big-tipper bell. You cheer and he struts over, chest puffed importantly, rag in one hand.

“Ladies! How we doing tonight? Can I get anyone another beer? How ‘bout you, Roxie? Ready for some shooters?”

He remembers your drinks, who gets the lemon, who eats the cherry. He serves you with slick promises and a toothy grin, wipes your spills, listens to your conversations more than you know, makes you feel special. You wonder if they teach all that at Bartender School, then you wonder if Rusty has a girlfriend, or two.

“Ohmigod. Look at that slut.” Michelle points to a petite bleached-blonde with the largest breasts you have ever seen in person. She’s wearing a shirt made of three bandanas. You do the math and figure she should have used four. The girl dances by herself, perched on silver heels she probably borrowed from an older sister.

In a few hours, the club will clear the happy hour food from the dance floor. They’ll roll away the draped tables and store the Sterno. In a few hours, someone will dim the lights, turn up the bass and charge admission to a fresh crowd of young, tan, sexy bodies—but the girl in the bandana top doesn’t know that—or maybe she does.

Everyone has turned to watch her dance. She’s lipsynching  “Ride the White Horse” as she flings her hair, grinds her hips and shakes her huge breasts. You feel sad for her, embarrassed for her, humiliated for her.

Men howl and whistle.

“Oh, yeah.”

“That’s what I’m talking about!”

“Go Baby!”

Your friends watch—mouths agape—unable to look away.  They’d never admit it, but they’ve wanted to do that for years.  Flattening their asses on these bar stools Friday after Friday— for what? They want to scream, “Look at me! Here I am! I have breasts, too!”

You excuse yourself. Halfway to the restroom you hear a crash and turn to watch the bandana girl fall into the banquet table. Servers rush to help her as heavy silver dishes crash to the floor, chicken wings and broccoli florets roll into corners.

She rises on Rusty’s arm. Red clam sauce runs down her leg, a pendulous breast escapes her makeshift shirt. You hear your friends laughing. Claire’s applause is deafening.

Early Spanish settlers called this fish “grunion”, which means grunter, as they are known to make a faint squeaking noise while spawning. The grunion belongs to the family, Atherinidae, commonly known as silversides.

You’ve been spending the night at John’s for a month. Not every night—just weekends, with the occasional too-tired-to-drive-home excuse. Your friends are starting to complain and your cat has begun to ignore his litter box.

“John?”

You want to say, “Sweetheart?” or “Babe?” But it’s too soon and you’re afraid those words might scare him or that you’ll sound dumb. Instead, you snuggle into his body, spooning yourself into the perfect fit that only lovers have.

“What do you want to do today?”

“Stay here,” he says. “All day.” He moves his hands over you and you want to agree. But why doesn’t he ever take you anywhere? Why is it always, “Come over here, we’ll do pizza and a movie.” And then you end up in the bedroom making the sounds lovers make and sometimes showering afterward.

So you ask. And a few hours and a trip to Trader Joe’s later, you’re sitting on the beach sharing wine from organically grown grapes, a chunk of cheese and warm crusty bread.

After lunch he holds your hands, gazes into your eyes, and says, “I love you, Roxie.”

The day could not be more perfect.

Grunion spawn three nights after the highest tide of each full moon.  A single male swims in with a wave and strands himself on the beach. Gradually,  the beach is covered with grunion.  When the tide drops, the run slackens then stops as suddenly as it started. No more fish will appear until the next night or series of runs.

You’ve surfed and swum all afternoon. The wine is gone; the beach is almost deserted. A few pathetic tourists in oversized sunglasses and billowing cover-ups raise their cameras, determined to take a piece of this day home with them. A San Diego sunset is not easily forgotten.

John pulls you closer.  With his lips on your neck he murmurs “Roxie.” You sigh and lean into him. The nest you have made is comforting—cooler headboard, ocean footboard, piles of clothing and damp towels for walls.

When the sun goes down, you celebrate with a joint he smuggled out of Tijuana two days ago. It burns, but feels good to hold the smoke in your lungs then exhale, “Ahhh,” to the rising moon. You share the last beer and in a moment, you step into the ocean to pee, without saying that’s what you’re doing. The water is warmer than the air and you don’t want to get out—until you remember Jaws—then you come barreling from the surf, spraying sand as you fall onto the blanket—wet, drunk, and happy. Far up the strand you see a bonfire. Every few seconds, a voice carries down the beach, a slice of conversation out of context.

John falls asleep. You whisper, “I love you, too”, cover him with a sweatshirt and wander down to the water’s edge where a fish flips, his silver belly glinting in the moonlight.

Observing grunion is more interesting than catching them. Females ride a wave accompanied by as many as eight males.  She swims far up on the beach and drills herself into the semifluid sand, until she is buried up to the pectoral fins. The males curve around her on top of the sand, as the female continues to twist, emitting her eggs below. Males discharge their milt onto the sand near the female then immediately leave for the water.  The female frees herself from the sand with a violent jerking motion and returns to the sea. This entire process takes about thirty seconds, but females may remain on the beach for several minutes.

You hum a song to the fish as you poke it with a stick, the tune timed to the slap and curse of the breakers. You never hear the men come up behind you.

The hands that grab you are not John’s—not soft or slim or tender. You scream as they drag you across the beach. The sack they shove in your mouth tastes of rotten fish and makes you gag. They laugh. You kick at their slippery bodies, slap at shadows. They rip off your bathing suit top, use it to tie your wrists, then yank down the bottoms—not quite far enough. You feel the spandex cauterizing stripes into your sunburned thighs as they try to spread your legs, sand everywhere.

You think there are eight of them but probably only three. Some go twice. At one point you hate yourself, your body betraying you as this man is less brutal than the one before. He whispers in your ear Spanish words like beautiful poetry. If only you could twist your head around. You want to see the face of a man who can speak so sweetly while hurting someone so much. All you can think is, “Where’s John?” And, “Why me?”

The cries of the circling gulls wake you. The morning is overcast, but this is San Diego, there will be burn-off by noon.  You can’t feel your legs, then look down and realize why; the lower half of you is buried under sand and fly-ridden kelp. A crab scuttles away as you push yourself up, the torn bikini top dangles from your wrist. You twist to wrench yourself free, crying out as pain bullets through you, a slash across your eyes. Then you dig yourself out, slowly. One blood-stained thigh at a time, moaning at the rasp of sand on your bruised body, at two legs that refuse to work.  You spit sand and fish scales, taste blood and disgust in your swollen mouth. You drag yourself across the churned-up beach, past the stinking sack they left behind, and down to the water’s edge.

The grunion has been known to Southern Californians for more than 70 years, yet some are still skeptical of its existence. To be invited out in the middle of the night to go fishing with only a gunny sack and light does sound a little ridiculous, but in reality this is the most popular method.

Years later, when your children ask you about San Diego, you spin tales of fantastic weather, friendly people, beautiful sunsets and majestic palm trees. Their eyes widen at the mention of moonlit grunion runs and the crowds of people who flock to the beaches hoping to scoop up a slippery silver fish and save her—only to bring her home, roll her in flour and cook her in a frying pan.

Excerpts based on a CA Department of Fish and Game brochure.

One response on “The Sack They Left Behind

  1. Georgia

    Good story, sad, but good! I love to read stories about San Diego. Look forward to reading, “3 Women walk into a bar.”