ALL ALONG THE PACIFIC by C.B. Calsing
Ten interconnected short stories spanning 150 years of California history, with original artwork by renowned California painter Diana Bittleston.
C.B. Calsing's breakout collection of short fiction takes you on a fascinating journey through time along the coastline of San Luis Obispo California in a way no one has ever done before. C.B. Calsing's historical romp through the San Luis Obispo area of California is a delightful journey through time, as could only be told through a native daughter with a fascination with not only the history but also the interplay of human lives and how they weave together to create this amazing tapestry we know as life.
An informative exploration of years gone by, and days that happened perhaps last week, her collection is timeless and her voice is one to watch and enjoy now and for years to come.
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To Wade Alone
by C. B. Calsing
Betty Carmichael sat on a wooden rocking chair, especially designed for her small frame, and watched the roustabouts tear down the sideshow tents, the dining tents, the dressing tents. Late evening had fallen over the trampled-flat field, and the time had come to move up the coast to the next engagement. Still, from beneath the far side of the big top came the cries of astonishment and peals of laughter that heralded another successful performance. Inside the tent, the audience wouldn’t hear the songs of the workers as they and the elephants lowered acres of canvas to the ground. Betty heard them. She listened carefully.
When the audience exited the big top, the city that had stood around it — the rides, the games, the general ballyhoo — will have disappeared, returned to the untilled lot that had existed the day before. Already, the local who supplied horses for the hippodrome exercised his steeds. For another nickel, those wanting to stay longer, and pass a bottle in the evening, and lose a few more coins could find a place on the hastily erected track fence.
Betty sighed. She’d never seen the performance within the largest of the tents. With rubes present, she exhibited herself only if they paid, and her size precluded her from a spot behind the curtain. The other performers worried she would fall underfoot, or that one of the horses or elephants would trample her in the dim light. She resented this particularly, since a troop of male clowns, none much larger than herself, had an act during the main performance, and no one ever worried about them getting squished. They had strength in numbers, though, and each a full three inches or more on Betty’s thirty-nine.
This time of night, when the star performers held the audience in sway, Betty could sit in her chair and take in the evening. Here on the edge of the action, she could smell the sea air coming in from the beach. The coast lay only a few miles more to the west. Betty had never seen the ocean, but the matron of the unwed women’s train car had told her of a vast expanse of foaming gray with waves that, the caretaker assured her, would go clear over Betty’s little head. Betty had seen the Mississippi River, but only from the window of her train car. Her parents had never taken her to see Lake Superior, despite living so close.
Tonight the train would wend its way along trestles and across bays, but they’d reach their destination far before dawn. Betty felt the activities of the day weighing on her already. The lost opportunity to witness the darkened waters of the Pacific added to her somber mood. Such a vision she had in her head of the ocean! She wanted it proven correct, to see those mighty waves the matron described, even touch a toe into the cold, frothy waters.
Another round of cheers erupted from the big top. The Chinese acrobats, a big hit on the West Coast because many Chinese bought entrance to the cheap gallery stands, would probably perform next. Betty knew that much from what the road manager told her. She’d seen them practice but had never watched their entire costumed act. When they’d run through full dress rehearsal, Betty had already taken her seat between the giant and the fat woman in the freaks’ tent.
The road manager carefully determined the order in which he arranged the display of the freaks, to play up each individual’s abnormality. During the show, Betty appeared particularly diminutive when she sat on her rocker, knitted, and chatted with the fat woman, Babs. Babs had the Human Skeleton to her left, and the manager had planned their nuptials as next season’s big promotion.
Betty smoothed her skirt and looked down at her tiny hands. The road manager had tried the same thing with Betty and the giant, who sat on Betty’s other side in the tent, but the giant, a true gentleman from Belarus, had refused to marry in a publicity stunt.
“Lez go, lovely.”
Betty raised her eyes, across the thighs, the broad torso, up to the dark, hooded eyes of Long John. Unlike many roustabouts, Long John, a man the color of western earth with slick black hair falling into his eyes, had served many seasons on the tour. He reminded Betty of the Indians in the penny dreadfuls she read as a child. He moved silently, as if he could come up behind her and take off her head without her ever knowing. She did not like Long John; she hated having to rely on him.
Each night, he collected Betty, her trunk, and chair and returned her to her bunk on the train. Standing there in the starlight tonight, he’d already, silently, picked up Betty’s trunk and had it balanced over one large shoulder. In that trunk, Betty stored all of her belongings: her knitting, the cabinet cards of herself she sold on the side, a few mementos from home. Silhouettes of her parents, a small Bible she’d received at her baptism, a brooch woven from her grandmother’s hair.
In only a few more moments, the performers beneath the big top would conclude their routine, and the rubes would head for home. Betty’s time in the open had ended. She stood and turned to walk toward the dark mass of the locomotive on the far side of the field. Steam already billowed from the smokestack, rising above the train in luminescent clouds.
Betty stepped tentatively over the uneven ground. She knew Long John followed her, trunk over his shoulder and the back of her small rocking chair clutched in one meaty fist.
They stopped at the stair to the unwed women’s train car. Betty knew what must come next. She never liked it. She could not easily reach the first step. Every night after a show, Long John, with a grunt, would lower the trunk and chair to the ground. Then he stepped forward and grabbed Betty’s waist with his fingers.
She glanced down. In the dim light now issuing from the train car, she could see his fingers meet at the middle of her waist. She felt the pressure where his thumbs did the same on her back. His hands encircled her like a barrel’s metal hoop, holding her even more stiffly than the whalebones in her corset.
Betty gritted her teeth, and Long John lifted, in one oddly graceful movement, setting her down on the surface of the rail car. Betty turned down the hall of small berths, found her own, and entered. Long John came in behind her, placed her chair and trunk high on the rack to keep them out of the way, and left without another word. Betty exhaled, happily free of his presence.
The car matron had already lit one small lamp for Betty, and it cast a dim glow through the cabin. Betty’s room sat on the side of the train facing away from the circus, so she could not watch the breakdown of the big top. In less than an hour, the workers would finish, and the train would head up north toward Salinas. After Salinas came San Francisco. Betty had heard wonderful things about San Francisco. Entire countries, it seemed, existed within it. China, Italy… people there pulled crabs out of the cold water that were larger than her head. And of course, Alcatraz, where notorious war prisoners from all over the world served their time. It seemed unreal to her, yet the road manager had assured her she’d see others, more amazing, eventually — New Orleans, New York, Chicago. Even, if the Queen’s health improved, London, where they’d give a command performance with Betty dressed in the Queen’s black. The manager had promised Betty she could sing for the Queen, something she was not allowed to do in the freaks’ tent, even though the talker used her “voice of an angel” as one of the baits to get people inside. Betty suspected the manager didn’t want her to sing because it would make her a more prominent attraction and he’d have to pay her more.
Betty decided to get ready for bed. Sleep could come hard on the train when the chorus girls returned from the last procession in the main tent. Betty, though close to most of them in chronological age, possessed little in common with the willowy dancers clad in their faux oriental chiffons and silks. She worked hard not to envy their tallness and perfect symmetry of limb, but it seemed a battle she’d eventually lose.
Betty removed her boots, looking glumly at their sturdy brown leather. Fancy young girl’s boots pinched her chubby feet, so she wore the boots of a schoolboy. She unbuttoned her show dress, a piece as good as anything from Paris but made for a child. The hem of it covered her feet, so the manager saw no reason to spend the same expense on custom shoes. Betty carefully hung the dress from the rack, standing on her tiptoes to do so. She unlaced then unhooked her corset, stepped out of her bloomers and camisole, and put on the chemise already laid out on her tiny bed. She climbed beneath the freshly laundered sheets and quickly nodded off, enjoying the momentary stillness.
It seemed that the giggles of the chorus girls, the shrill whistle of last chance, and the straining and screeching of the wheels breaking the friction hold on the track arrived all at once. All familiar, comfortable sounds to Betty, she awoke only to acknowledge the rightness of it. Before long, the chugging and swaying of the train lulled her back to sleep.
The second time Betty woke, the sound of the fire alarm filled the train. Brakes screeched. When the train finally came to rest, Betty scrambled out of bed and threw on a dressing gown over her nightdress then laced on her boots. She opened the door of her small cabin and looked into the hall. Chorus girls filled it, dressed in scanty silk bloomers and chemises, their hair wrapped up in kerchiefs to keep it set as they slept. Betty smelled no smoke.
“Oh, Miss Betty.” One of the girls threw her hands to her face to express her evident shock at seeing Betty watching everything so calmly. “We really must get you out of here. There’s a fire, you know.” The girl turned and headed for the exit.
“Miss Betty!” The car matron this time. She too stopped and looked down at Betty. She bent at the waist to get to Betty’s eye level, putting her hands on her knees. Her motherly breasts swayed. “Are you afraid, little one? Come on then.”
She wrapped an arm around Betty. Betty, reluctantly, embraced the matron. She couldn’t argue with the older woman. The matron rested Betty’s head against her shoulder as she would a babe who needed burping. Betty sighed deeply. She had meant to wait for the car to clear out before leaving, so the girls wouldn’t trample her in their tizzy. She wished now for the trampling rather than the coddling.
She closed her eyes and thought of the home she would build someday. Low counters so she could fill her own water glass at the tap. Doorknobs only two feet up so she could turn them, Electric lights with switches low enough on the wall so she could use them on her own. All the furniture scaled to her size, with only one chair for a big person, so that visitor would feel out of place in the tiny, delicate house.
The matron set Betty down in a cluster of chorus girls, and they surrounded her like a circle of aspen; their diaphanous underthings flittered in the ocean breeze.
Through the shifting curtain of silk, Betty could see the front of the train stopped on a narrow trestle, nothing but air beneath for a hundred yards. The trestle spanned a small bay, and to the west, gunmetal flecked with white, lay the Pacific Ocean. So close. Despite the chittering of the chorus girls, the threat of danger hanging in the air, a smile pulled at Betty’s lips. She looked for a way down, and her smile grew. In the moonlight, Betty could make out the pale cut of a switchback road heading down the side of the cliff where her end of the train sat.
She looked back at the south end of the train, toward the caboose. Smoke billowed out of one of the menagerie cars. Betty could see workers separating the car from the rest of the train. Handlers harnessed elephants to the caboose and towed it and its adjoining cars some feet away from the burning car. On the north end of the train, the engine steamed to life and pulled the bulk of the train to the far side of the trestle. Betty watched as her own car passed over. Now she smelled burning hair, and over the murmur of chorus girls and the distant surf, she could hear apes screaming, oddly human, from the isolated boxcar.
The apes’ cries distracted the chorus girls, who huddled together and grasped each other. The mass they formed pushed Betty out of the group and behind it. She continued to gaze on the scene silently. A bucket line formed from the tank car, full of water, to the burning car. Pails of water moved down the line. The contents doused a few flames, but more leapt up.
Betty turned away and walked toward the edge of the switchback — a relic, she assumed, of the railroad industry. They must have had to move equipment to the bay below to construct the trestle. Sand and shells littered the path beneath her boots. She smelled salt now over roasting animal flesh. The salt drew her down, down the road to the water, away from the train, away from the chorus girls and car matron. She walked toward the beguiling Pacific.
Betty rolled “Pacific” around in her head. It meant peace, tranquility. Though the sea’s surface could change between swell and tide, it appeared forever constant, a sheet of malleable glass that, when calm, could look the same now as it would in a hundred years. Beneath its veneer, mussels and barnacles and limpets always lived on the same place on the same rock. The same kelp drifted in and out, anchored to the seabed by holdfasts, swell after swell. Betty thought of her parents’ home in St. Cloud. She’d grown up there, sheltered and protected. They never sent her to school, never brought friends around for her to play with, never even gave her a brother or a sister. Her parents were barnacles, tiny animals content to stay in a single place, allowing the tides of the world to bring them what they thought they needed. Betty, though, was a great whale migrating about the wide world on the current of a locomotive. In this, at least, she was big. Of course, her parents did not recognize this. She’d horrified them when she’d joined the circus — a place she thought she would be welcomed, her deformity a unifier rather than a reason for distance — but at the end of the season, they never scoffed at the money she wired home.
The soft swish of sand replaced the crunch of gravel under Betty’s feet. She looked down. The sand glowed in the moon, the foam of the waves the only thing brighter. Now salt — no cheap chorus girl perfume, no horse or elephant sweat, no burning hair — reached her nose. Salt and kelp and moonlight and the swoosh of the surf directly to the west. Betty walked toward the sound, stopped, removed her boots, and dug her toes into the powdery substrate. She detected tiny imperfections in the sand; she assumed a shell, a shred of dried kelp, a sticky blob of tar. She left her boots. As she walked, they became a dark patch on the sand progressively indistinguishable from seaweed or drift wood or whale bone.
Betty walked toward the water, holding her peignoir up around her knees. Above, in the distance, she heard the train whistle. She kept toward the water. Had they already extinguished the fire? The matron had to count to make sure all were in her train car before they left, but would she notice a missing midget?
Looking up, Betty watched the train back up over the trestle. They must have extinguished the fire somehow. She wondered if any of the apes survived. Their cost would surely come out of their handler’s salary if they hadn’t. He smoked in the car sometimes, or left a lamp burning. Betty shook her head and returned her gaze to the water. Small waves crashed and broke close to shore, while larger ones ruptured farther out, sounding like the muffled applause of the audience under the big top.
She wanted to put her foot in, just to feel the cold against her skin. She wanted to write home to St. Cloud to tell her parents that one night, when the monkeys burned, she waded in the Pacific, by herself. No Long John with his hands around her waist. No matron checking on her; no chorus girls fawning over her as they would a china doll. Two more steps and the sand became wet beneath her feet. Two more steps and the first live water wrapped around her ankles. Betty’s feet froze. Cramps crawled up her legs. She stepped out farther, feeling the surge and pull of the waves around her calves. Up above on the bluffs, she heard the train whistle again. If they came looking for her, could they pick her out in the darkness? Would her white dressing gown, floating around her, look like sea foam on a wave?
To her knees now. Now thighs. Another step and Betty let her knees fold, and she submerged, her head below the icy water. It roared in her ears. She felt herself lift and sink with the waves as they sped at the sand. Unidentifiable matter swept past her, brushing tendrils of goose bumps across her body. Betty thought of sideshow mermaids in jars of brine and dried shark specimens and the anchors and swallows on the tattooed man.
She found firm ground and stood again, pushing her hair back from her face as she did. Behind her, she heard shouts. She turned and watched bobbing lanterns descending quickly down the switchback and across the beach toward her.
In her distraction, a wave pushed Betty off her feet. Water closed over her head. Her eyes stung, and she struggled to stand. She came up, her mouth full of water, her nose smarting with half-breathed sea. She refused to look at the beach, refused to acknowledge her caretakers as they came for her. She took in deep draughts of air. Her limbs trembled with the cold. She wanted this moment alone, an experience all hers.
She rose and fell with another wave and another. The chill seeped into her, sat in her head behind her eyes, in the place behind her belly button, in the muscles of her calves. She wanted the sensation.
Hands grasped her waist and hauled her from the ocean.
“There, now,” Long John grunted as he carried her at arm’s length back to the beach. What had been waist deep to her only reached the bottom of his knees.
Betty shivered, colder than she could ever remember. Colder than midwinter snow in St. Cloud. The car matron took her shawl from her shoulders and wrapped the Betty up in it before telling Long John to set her down. Berry welcomed the warmth, but more welcomed would be dry clothes and a spot by the caboose’s potbelly stove.
Another worker stood nearby, holding Betty’s boots, and she could just make out the road manager, lifting a lantern, at the foot of the switch back. In its light, he shook his head. Betty had caused a delay; her pay would be docked. He retreated up the road, most likely to make notes in his log.
Betty drew a shaky breath, the chill of the ocean still clinging to her bones. She stepped into and laced up her hated schoolboy boots. She couldn’t get high-heeled boots; no one made them small enough. The matron’s shawl enveloped her as would a blanket.
At least they let her walk back on her own.
Copyright 2009 by C. B. Calsing
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