I picked up an Upper Left Edge paper in a health food store in Portland one day in about 2000. Inside, I read things obviously written by kindred spirits. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen this paper before. When I finished the “Ask Uncle Mike” column, I knew I wanted to know this Michael Burgess. I wrote him a note. When I met him at Huber’s, I took a step back upon spotting him with his whiskey, rolling a cigarette and wearing a worn cowboy hat in a fairly elegant place. I’m practically a teetotaler, I hate cigarettes and, well, cowboy hats… eh. He seemed to know everyone there. The more we talked, the more his maturity, common sense and philosophy impressed me. Besides, I’m a sucker for a good conversationalist.
We went out a few times and became fast friends and unlikely lovers. At some point he said, “If you want to see if you’re compatible with someone, go on a road trip together”. I went with him to a book signing in another town, a trip that was more fun than conclusive. He seemed wise so that a lady in the audience at the bookstore where he spoke asked him whom she should vote for in the upcoming presidential election. Without hesitation he simply said, “whomever you want”. Later he admitted that “bonehead questions like that” peeved him. We sort of passed our road trip test and soon I was introduced to a Cannon Beach I hardly suspected in my fifty-plus years as a Portland resident. He lived in Lincoln City but most of his friends were in Cannon Beach, where he had lived before.
First he took me to Jupiter’s Book Store where he worked part time. There he introduced me to his friend Billy Hults, who was working there that day and was the former owner. Billy showed us his new cowboy boots, which he previously never thought he’d be caught dead wearing, but later grew to love. Michael and I settled in by the warm wood stove, comfortable with the smell of musty old books, and the well-worn rocking chair and talked to Billy for a long time. Billy was the publisher of the Upper Left Edge. The store had helped subsidized the paper.
It was evident that these two were long time friends and loved one another. They talked about Michael’s recent book signings, baseball, creative ways Billy was going to come up with the next month’s rent, and about going to hear “the music” that night. I asked Billy why he was called “Reverend Billy”, as he didn’t seem like any preacher I had ever experienced. He said he was the reverend of the “Rastified Church of Cowboy Buddhas”, or something. Not wishing to exhibit my ignorance, I changed the subject to his music, of which I knew even less. Michael mentioned Billy played a washboard for the “Bond St. Blues” but said he actually had played with many bands.
Turned out Billy was a Northwest washboard legend, an activist, and famous for some colorful history with Bud Clark, the funkiest and best mayor Portland ever had. But that was all before I met him, and now approaching 60 he and Michael were winding down a bit. Well, burning out, actually. A week or so after that, back in Portland, I was to walk from my NW Portland apartment a few blocks over to the Green Door tavern and there was a band playing, “The Freak Mountain Ramblers”, and find Billy playing in the band. It was interesting listening to Michael’s conversations with Billy at the bookstore. They got political, spiritual, literary, sage, scientific and ridiculous. Evidently they also drank, smoked, and played poker with a closed group of guys in town, all with inscrutable morals.
Michael was a witty and clever writer, very handy with words. He was a deep thinker and could be counted upon to have a well-thought-out opinion about everything. If pressed he would go into some kind of quantum physics explanation that made me sorry I pressed. This all made him a terrific tongue-in-cheek astrologer for Billy’s paper (Blame it on the Stars) and a sort of “Dear Abby” columnist there as well (Ask Uncle Mike). The letters that made up his advice column were somewhat ordinary but his answers were anything but that and had recently been assembled into a book called “Letters to Uncle Mike”; hence the book signings. The book was so hilarious I bought a copy for every friend and relative I had. Michael had been a columnist for Portland’s “This Week” magazine years before, which I vaguely remembered. Currently he and Billy were talking about doing the previously mentioned mayor’s biography. It was going slowly, as they always bickered when working together. Billy wanted control. Michael was a procrastinator. The book never got written. He and Billy had enough history together to rehash for the rest of their lives, though, and they did.
I have always liked one-of-a-kind original type people, and both of these guys were that, living their lives genuinely, fully and uniquely, with a happy go lucky slant in the face of missing health insurance and teeth, taped glasses and poverty.
Billy’s workday was about to end so Michael and I headed a couple of blocks west where I then met Steve McLeod, Michael’s other best friend. Talk about original! Add the words eccentric, hermetic and artistic, and you’ve begun to describe the other third of this circle of long-time friends. None of these guys cared one whit what anyone thought of them, at least not enough to keep them from writing and being themselves. I’ve found this to be a trait sought by many but seldom achieved. Some of the retired conservatives of the town thought of them as questionable local color. While they sometimes cast a disapproving eye toward their habits, and cackled about rumors regarding their actions, these guys were too respected by the majority of the village population to be scoffed at. Michael saw himself and his friends as “village elders”.
Steve, according to Michael, didn’t invite many people into his apartment. I thought that a waste, as he was a bright and interesting guy with a lot to talk about. Here was a good old introverted lefty. The living room of his second floor apartment was piled high with dried bull kelp he’d gathered off the beach, something I had hardly paid attention to in my growing up days at the beach. Now here it was in a form and setting I couldn’t ignore. I was intrigued.
I was so impressed with his paintings, which I saw on his walls and later in galleries and businesses around town. He was a long established local artist who could do amazing things with sunlight striking ocean water. And he was doing it with house paint on Masonite board, which he said was less toxic and less expensive. It was still breathtaking. Buyers often found another abandoned painting on the backside. Steve looked a little rough around the edges in his holey jeans and uncut hair and yet was handsome, with a savvy twinkle in his eye. More fascinating hours passed. They told me the story of the four Nike containers turning over at sea dumping 60,000 pairs of tennis shoes, which later washed up on Washington and Oregon shores. Steve had arranged a swap meet of the coastal people to bring their found shoes and find mates. Steve himself had enough shoes to last him for many years after he had sold about $1300 worth with Nike’s permission. National Geographic magazine sent a journalist to Cannon Beach to interview Steve, and he took the man beachcombing. This resulted in his picture being in the magazine. I gathered from our visit that day and subsequent visits that Steve was painting less and playing with kelp more, for some reason.
Then we all headed down to the American Legion hall, an old wooden building on Hemlock St., where, on Mondays, local musicians played protest songs, of all things… the best live music on the Oregon coast… for free! There was Billy, his ten thimbled fingers zipping along his washboard, utilizing the attached urinal and cowbells. I was spellbound. These guys were good. I later gave Billy my eight old silver thimbles that had lain in my sewing box forever. Steve raved about the old-fashioned popcorn maker there. It indeed turned out to make the theater popcorn of my childhood memories. That was Steve’s dinner on Monday nights when he didn’t spring for a hamburger. I could see that the patrons, musicians, and waitresses were all long time friends. I was beginning to get the feeling I was in a different world. It was a world that became a vital and tender chapter in my life. That was the first of many visits to Cannon Beach to see my new friends.
Michael was contracted to write the English adaptation for the dialogue in La Belle Helene, Offenbach’s operetta, for the Portland Opera to be performed at the Keller Auditorium. We holed up in a hotel in Portland where I got to read as fast as he could write. But it became evident that neither he nor I knew exactly how all the Greek characters were related and who did what, and it was crucial to know. Time was running out. In lieu of reading the Iliad I went to the library’s children’s section and found books telling the basic story. I made an outline of who was who and Michaels wit did the rest. All of his friends got free tickets and he and I attended three times. I did gently try to convince him to leave the stained, scruffy cowboy hat in the car, considering the glamorous occasion, but no dice. After the last show we went backstage where he signed his autograph for the actors and got the kudos he deserved and then off to Cassidy’s to celebrate among his friends. He wanted to thank me for helping and when he got paid, he bought me a cowboy hat, just like his.
Throughout that best autumn of my life, I drove to the beach weekly, and Michael often dropped me off at Steve’s before heading over to the bookstore to discuss a project with Billy. Steve showed me how to pick Chanterelle mushrooms in certain secret places. I learned that a mushroom picker needs long sleeves for the hike across deer trails and small creeks, over fallen logs and upward through the stickers into sometimes old growth forest. On the way he pointed out bear scat, salamanders, all kinds of other mushrooms, and elk bones.
I loved it all. I had never been in an old growth forest, I’m ashamed to say. The experience was as much about the forest as the ‘shrooms for me. I waxed poetic when I lay on my back on a soft mossy log and looked up at the treetops swaying in the breeze a yard each direction. The longer I sat and took in the humid, clean forest smell, the more critters I began to see flitting about. On foot in the woods I saw deer up close, learned the difference between a crow and a raven, and learned how to find my way out, most of the time. I was soon adept at recognizing chanterelles from quite a distance by the distinctive caramel colored glow revealed by the slanted rays of the late afternoon sun. One of us hollered out “Patch!” and the other came bounding through the bushes, as thrilled as kids discovering Easter eggs. He showed me that we must not simply pull the mushrooms out of the ground but, instead, cut them off with a knife so more can grow from the rooted stump. Then he blew the spores off of each one he cut to encourage future seeding, and leaving smaller ones another week to mature. A true environmentalist, Steve didn’t just talk about it but applied it to every part of his life. We often came out with five or six pounds of chanterelles (those days are over) and took them back to his place, brushed them clean and sold them to local restaurants, saving a bag or two for personal friends. We always kept a few aside for dinner. Steve was in excellent shape from years of hiking in the woods and the on the beach and I was shaping up myself.
On his visits to my apartment in Portland, Michael introduced me to some books, movies and music that I had somehow missed in my earlier life. We usually sat at the table and talked until 3am…a big change in daily habits for me but he was never boring. I learned a lot from him and still find myself quoting him. Michael was the quintessential gentleman; and I believe courtesy was one of the most important virtues to him.
Michael took pride in being a third generation Oregonian. Watching John Wayne movies with his folks was comfort food to him. In light of his parents’ fifty-year-long marriage, his past divorce was, as he perceived it, a stumble on his path of a life well lived. He wanted us to stay together. While he respected me, I felt a lack of passion for me. We shared humor and a common view about life, and our conversations were intriguing… but impersonal. Having not “succeeded” in a relationship bothered him. My presence filled a space in his picture of a complete life. But he wanted neither to go forward nor part ways, and there was also a little flickering flame in his heart for a lady down the coast, of whom he had spoken often, and for whom he felt somewhat responsible. He was tired and seemed to be not up to yet another relationship. I understand that more today having arrived at a similar place in my life. After a year we agreed to just be friends. He said what bothered him most about splitting was that he didn’t like failure, though I had hoped it would be he didn’t like losing me.
Steve and I talked about keeping our friendship intact in spite of my falling out with Michael. We talked on the phone for about three weeks as something more than friendship developed.
My next trip to Cannon Beach was to see Steve. He asked me to cut his hair… in the woods so the birds could make nests with it. He sat on a log and among the spiking Foxglove I used my sewing scissors to separate the nesting material from the man. And so began the realization of a love between us. I have cut his hair in many locations since then and have realized that it is as much for the woman’s touch as the general improvement. It seems that being needed is one of the components of love for me.
Steve talked to Michael about us, hoping to preserve their friendship. They were, to my great relief, able to remain friends. When I moved in with Steve, I was glad he and Michael continued their Tuesday coffee get-togethers at Steve’s place. I always found someplace to go so as not to impact that long-standing tradition. One more conversation awaited Michael and I and I hoped that with the passage of time, that would occur. I wanted to tell him that I did not see all endings as failure.
Steve wore only second hand clothes, even if his out-of-state brother bought him new ones. Nike’s stiff barnacled shoes were often a size or two too big and the found shirts abandoned on the beach were terribly worn but he resisted my attempts to spruce him up and I soon didn’t bother. I was trying to learn to live and let live with the kind of people who I loved because of their minds and their spirit, not their clothes. Steve was the original minimalist- except during the brief period of time when we had three TV’s because Steve’s scavenging was becoming as addictive as Imelda’s shoe shopping. His lifestyle was both alien and fascinating to me.
Often, to my chagrin, he soaked kelp in the bathtub, or grossed me out a bit when he dipped kelp in his coffee for a tad more pliability for some odd little kelp creation. Our sense of aesthetics collided often. We read that you could get the maggots out of Boletus mushrooms by soaking them in salt water, for instance. We had a fight when he tested the theory on the dining room table and the maggots came marching out of the bowl and onto the table dropping down onto the shag carpet. We argued when I wanted to clean the bathroom sink drain and he protested that the circling gnats were his friends and didn’t deserve to be assaulted with Ajax.
I was his first and last long-term relationship and this lifelong bachelor made many concessions for me. One of my sweetest memories was awakening one morning to see Steve standing in the doorway and smiling at me. He said he was asking himself how he got so lucky. This was the kind of love I had been looking for.
In the beginning I had asked Steve if he would get rid of some of the kelp to make room for my furniture and belongings. He begrudgingly bagged it up and took it somewhere. He hid it in tall grass to retrieve later. He hid it in the overhead space in the garage. He hid it in undisclosed places and kept sneaking it back into the apartment. We struggled over the kelp issue for a while.
Then one day I was walking on the beach and found a piece of red seaweed that had dried on a rock. I held it up to the sun and was dazzled when the sun shone a beautiful burgundy through it. I raced home, wetted it, pinned it to a fishing float, as I had seen Steve pin things onto the floats, where it dried in the shape of a lampshade. I did the same with some green and brown pieces of seaweed. With about ten “shades” lying around I wanted to make little lamps out of them and I wanted a lamp base that was equally botanical. That could only mean one thing: bull kelp.
My experimentation with kelp began; wetting it, shaping it, stretching and scrunching it. I ran electrical wires through it and crafted ways to make wizardly looking little mini lamps. I needed more and more kelp and soon was begging Steve to haul all the kelp back, and indeed to go with me to find more. I became picky about what kind and how big and it had to be clean; the heads had to be in good condition, the body still inflated and preferably sun bleached. I was on the hunt for more red seaweed too and discovered red shotgun seaweed and brown boa feather kelp and then bladder wrack. I was talking and dreaming kelp.
Steve was soon hiding his best pieces of kelp in far corners for his own use as rattles lest I try to talk him out of his. As long as he had lived with kelp he never really knew what else to do with it other than the rattles and I was going through his stash quickly. We talked kelp, we hunted kelp, we experimented with it and read about it at the library, learning the botanical names of the stuff. He wrecked my microwave blowing up seaweed in it! I lamented his “ruining” good pieces of kelp by painting them blue. He was frustrated that I wouldn’t accept his idea of integrating my kelp sculptures with the foam that comes with meat packaging. To this day we argue like kids about it. We explored beaches many people don’t utilize in trying to find kelp that the kids hadn’t stomped on the heads of, or that were perfectly sun dried on rocks and between logs. Where others strolled with their buckets of shells, we were dragging leaf bags along, combing the wrack zone, that line of debris where the tide recedes; where all manner of incongruent sea life coalesces. Steve and I shared a passion we never would with anyone else. Steve knew much about how to work kelp and take advantage of its ability to become as leather when wet, and wooden when dried. I followed through with finished products in my own style. But I was determined to have the resulting sculpture be purely kelp, seaweed and perhaps driftwood or found bones from the beach, especially when making baskets or rattles. His style was different and the only way to discourage him from giving me too much input was to instruct him in how to frame his paintings.. He hit the roof when I did that but he then understood.
Steve, being the veteran beachcomber always had to walk about twenty feet ahead to discover “treasures” before I did. He was good at using found beach materials to make assorted sculptures like the one now hanging over the fireplace at the Cannon Beach Hotel. There, in fact, is probably the best collection of Steve’s paintings that I know of. But he was also looking for objects brought in by tidal currents that could help Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a friend and oceanographer with whom he collaborated during the Nike episode. Curt has utilized Steve’s beachcombing expertise and careful note taking to acquire information and items of interest to him in studying ocean currents and they are currently watching for debris items from Japan’s reactor ruptures. It gives him more purpose, to be combing the early morning beaches, in search of items that will help people like Curtis prepare us for the results of disasters like what has occurred with the reactors in Japan.
Steve’s heart was infused with the spirit of the sea. He seemed almost at one with the ocean air itself as I watched him nimbly hop from logs to rocks to sand with his trained eyes and feet. I tried to imagine the fateful day when he blew into town, so handsome in his twenties, on his motorcycle. His bike broke and while it was being repaired he made friends with locals who put him up. He never left.
I was enjoying being his partner on his beach and forest excursions. I soaked up the whole Cannon Beach experience: tidal effects, Salal berries on trails, the place where seals barked on the rocks and Steve barked back at them, the galleries, the nasturtiums that grow so robustly in the cold ocean mist. He laughed so hard at me the day I was startled when the loud speakers in town bawled out mooing cow sounds as the “Cow” Tsunami warning test. He showed me trails on windy cliffs that lead to beaches otherwise difficult to access. He took me to one beach, while on a seaweed hunt, which could be reached only from a cliff side by way of a rope that looked dangerously grey and weathered. But he had brought two pairs of gloves, and down we went to what we thereafter called Rope Beach. Why did we go down there? I don’t know; there was very little kelp or treasure there. I barely made it back up, being a city girl in her mid fifties. When I read later that he took the National Geographical reporter down that cliff as part of his “Nike “ interview, I realized it helped create the beachcomber mystique that he enjoyed springing on unsuspecting inland dwellers.
Sean Ohrenich, a local gifted wood turner, was asked to hold a show at the Cannon Beach Art Association Gallery. He was a friend of Steve’s and we bumped into him and his little Corgi around town a lot. He invited me to show with him. At my first show I was so green and nervous. Ron Logan, from Michael’s poker circle, bought the first kelp lamp from me at that show and I will be forever grateful for that show of support. Sean and I ended up doing two more shows together other places on the Oregon coast over the next year. I decided to try to sell my work at the Starving Artist Faire in Astoria, after reading about it in the Hipfish Astoria paper, and Steve showed me how to set up a booth, something I had never experienced. I had about twelve lamps to sell. He helped me manage the electrical wires and my arrangement but he didn’t stay the three days of being “on” for the people that such events demanded. I sold every lamp, then did that show for the next five years and made new friends in Astoria whom I hold dear to this day. The RiverSea Gallery sold some of my work for a while after that. The White Bird gallery in Cannon Beach, my favorite, later agreed to carry my kelp sculpture, which I doubt would have happened if not for Steve’s relationship with them. They have sold his paintings since Steve and Evelyn George founded the gallery (named after the song “White Bird”) back in the 70’s. Happily my relationship with the White Bird continues.
I had never before thought of myself as an artist but kelp is an unusual medium and not having much competition (everyone thinks it must smell fishy) has let me shine for a little while. Steve brought me this experience. He opened a new door for me. Eleven years later sculpting kelp is my therapy, my escape from the computer, my claim to artistry; I’m still obsessed with it. I’m indebted forever to Steve for the gift. And now I’m indebted for the dry kelp he hauls up off the beach for me. Besides that, he’s the only person I know who I can talk with at length about kelp.
Every day was an adventure with Steve. I loved his unique slant on life. Being never married, no kids, renting one apartment for over 25 years at that time (I guess 35 years now), driving one old German Opal for some 20 years, hand painted with house paint and brush, the man has truly left a light carbon footprint on this planet and lives life as freely as a man could. His brother keeps buying him new shirts and he keeps wearing old found ones. He drank cheap instant coffee when I moved in and I tried to get him to drink good coffee. But he said he didn’t want to get too used to it in case he had to go back to the inferior stuff. He once got lost in the woods and slept there overnight. He didn’t think it was as big a deal as I did. In fact just recently he told me he fell between some high rocks down on Indian Beach and barely made it out with the help of his walking stick. There was always a side of him I could not understand. But he is genuine and does his own thinking, and I respect that. I discovered him to be a voracious reader and he made good use of the local library. We often read the same good books on his recommendation. He regularly took me on a walking trail around the north end of the city, past the treatment pond where we were sure to see an eagle, hawks or herons. We walked through the recycling center where I couldn’t believe I was now dumpster diving for the latest Victoria’s Secret and other magazines. Then we passed into the woods where we sometimes saw elk peering through the trees at us.
While walking on the beach one warm morning looking for sand dollars an eagle flew low over our heads. Steve said, “Watch this. He’s going after one of the murres nesting on that rock. They can’t take off very fast so if he approaches from behind them and suddenly comes up over the rock he can take his pick”. That’s exactly what happened. The eagle held the murre in an aerodynamic position and flew back over us and up onto a tree branch where he ate his lunch.
While at Cannon Beach I tried to make a living as a postpartum doula/lactation consultant as I had in Portland. The people on the coast can’t afford a doula though. The ones who could are retired and are well past childbearing years. The ones having babies depend on public health nurses. I was driving back and forth to Portland a lot seeing clients there. But I could hardly wait to get back to the beach. We struggled financially as everyone there does, selling mushrooms, sand dollars, my kelp sculpture, his paintings, and living very, very frugally, both drinking cheap instant coffee. I was stretched between the work I love and the new life I also loved.
One day Steve decided to build a loft over the high vaulted living room. Did we go to the lumberyard for boards? Of course not. We combed the beaches until we found enough faded gray boards of the right length to hold the mattress, a wooden crate and lamp to read by and a few more boards to create the thin path to the bed. At the other end he threw a few more boards down and there he stored his kelp where he knew I would be afraid to venture. I worried he would fall to the living room below some night teetering to bed after a few too many at the Legion. He didn’t, though, not for a good seven years anyway.
He loved music and listened to Utah Philips on the radio. And he loved to dance. He took me to what is now the Lumber Yard and used to be Clark’s and something else before that to dance and listen to the music. Steve was as agile and spry on the dance floor as he was on the slippery tidal rocks. He treated me to a concert there once to hear some favorite musicians of his, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammar. We bought their CD and it was our favorite music. Sometimes we went to another place to listen to karaoke but it closed down. At some point Saturday nights out lost it’s appeal. Utah Philips died and a few years later we were sad to hear that Dave Carter died. Nothing lasts.
Swallows nested in a hollowed out float that Steve erected on his south sunny balcony every year. He knew almost to the day when they were due to return. It was a daily joy watching the parents working so hard, then shells falling to the deck just before the babies poked their little beaks out of the hole. They are so used to him being below that they let me step very near to snap pictures of them.
One day a Great Blue Heron landed on our roof with a thud. He had his eye on the landlords Koi pond. He wasn’t the first. The landlord had set up an elaborate electric fence around the tiny pond to protect his little prizes from raccoons. Steve named the heron “Slim”. The landlord put wire over the pond; still the fish were quickly disappearing. Once the landlord even ran out with a pellet gun to try to end the (expensive) pillage, but the neighbors reminded him it was illegal to threaten the herons. As the guy pulled his hair out we giggled shamelessly as Slim got every fish over a period of about 2 weeks and then disappeared as suddenly as he had come.
As winter blew over our home I convinced him to move some of the kelp and light up that wood stove in the corner, long buried. We settled into our jointly and strangely decorated apartment. I sometimes came home to find a note such as: I’ve gone over to Christmas Beach (our own nickname for the cove-like Crescent Beach because it was very warm in that protected spot that year on Christmas day) to see if the west wind brought in anything interesting.” Or “I’ve gone down to Indian beach to see the clouds”. He would hunt for treasures in the sand for a while and then he sat and smoked his pipe and looked out at the sea. He enjoyed home cooked meals. He talked about eating pork chops in his past that sat unrefrigerated so long they turned green. A part of him hung onto the life of the bachelor and there was always a thread of longing and appreciation for his single days, which he felt many of his attached friends envied. On Mondays we went to hear the music and eat popcorn and drink beer. On Sundays we never missed the nature show on TV. Funny how couples settle into routines together. The weekly event he most looked forward to, though, was getting together with Michael and Billy to drink, smoke and discuss every possible thing. It continued on every Tuesday for many years before and after my arrival. When Billy got cancer they went to his place instead.
A sea gull with a tumor growing on the side of its beak sat on the nearest corner of the roof edge of the apartment building next to ours and waited for the handout that often emerged from Steve’s door. He and Steve had been acquainted long before I arrived. He laid bread on the banister of his building walkway thinking it was his main source of food. We imagined the old bird probably couldn’t hunt and fight the other gulls over fish any more. I told Steve that bread wasn’t healthy for birds and suggested cat kibbles, something I learned from volunteering at the Audubon Society. Soon we were mixing table scraps and little brown cat kibbles with hot water, making hand rolled meatballs with it and arranging them on the banister. Harry, as we had come to call the gull, came pattering down the banister to gobble up the “meatballs”. We decided to name him Harry Patter. Soon one or two meatballs became six meatballs. Crows and other gulls joined him for dinner and fights ensued as poor Harry stood aside. We stopped for a few days and began again with one or two meatballs each morning. We felt a little less the special part of Harry’s life later when we learned he made the rounds at all the food spots in town, being easily identifiable with that tumor. But he was part of the routine of our lives that year and of Steve’s afterward.
Perhaps Steve and I were too old or too independent to make so many concessions, and “Lady Vodka’s” hold had been stronger and longer than mine, creating more than a little havoc between us. So like all good things, we ended. He was to say we split because we couldn’t make a living. But it had been a very good year. I had been embarrassingly naïve in my thinking that we would come from such different lifestyles and meld together, peacefully and forever, even for this love of the century. Steve kept custody of Harry, we divided the kelp and I returned to my old reality in Portland. But I left Cannon Beach enlightened and enriched. As with Michael, Steve was plagued with feelings of failure. But I have never believed that a good friendship was less valuable than a marriage or a permanent cohabitation. And Steve will certainly forever be a dear friend.
I wondered at how one person could change another’s life so much and so well in one year. I’m not sure what I am to him but Steve is an icon in my life. We still enjoy long phone conversations between visits, and we reassure each other that we will always love one another and that it was all good. Because of Steve there is kelp on the shelves in my Portland kitchen, under my bed and sometimes soaking in my bathtub. I think of him when I dip my kelp in my coffee (just for a second or two to bend it a bit more). On one of my visits to Cannon Beach I stopped at our favorite mushroom picking sight. The whole mountain next to it had been clear-cut letting so much sunlight into our woods that the mushrooms could no longer grow. I cried. Earlier in my life I would neither have noticed nor cared on such a personal level. It affected me more than I could have expressed. Every bald mountain is a loss for Oregon but for us it was also a loss of mushroom picking sites and the sweetness of being in the forest that was part of our beginning. We have one favorite place left and he has one more place he doesn’t share with even me. We used to have about four or five places.
As Harry grew older, Steve lost his enthusiasm about supplying meatballs every day though Harry had developed an attitude of entitlement. Steve complained to me during a visit that Harry now hopped on the roof right next to his studio and tapped on his window aggressively and indignantly, withdrawing a few more kibbles from his lagging source. He finally disappeared or died. Steve lost another friend.
When Steve called me one day saying Billy had cancer I could almost feel his world being rattled; he dreaded losing his dear friend. Billy hung on a long time and made as much music as he could in the time he had left. When he died he still had Michael left and they continued Tuesdays with just the two of them. But what a large vacancy Billy left. Later, when Michael was in the grip of his first heart attack, he had the distinct feeling he had a “choice”, as he told Steve, and he “chose” to remain. When I emailed Michael then he either chose not to answer or didn’t receive it. I knew I would run into him some day when the time was right.
One day when I hadn’t been to Cannon Beach for a long while I stopped in Jupiter’s to meet the new owner, Watt. Thankfully he is another genuine, original, one-of-a-kind person. I mentioned Michaels name and he gently informed me of Michaels passing days prior. I was stunned. Why did I think I had forever for that last talk? Why didn’t I try harder to reach him? I felt numb with shock and sadness, then thought of how Steve must be feeling and headed over to see him. I never saw a sadder man. He was carrying so much grief over the loss of his last best friend that he looked shrunken. I truly feared he might not want to carry on. But he does carry on. His loneliness seems to have shifted to a contented solitude now. In that moment I decided no petty arguments warranted not coming to see my friend. Steve, Michael and I had talked about death, (hence the quantum physics) and we neither feared death nor worried about the ones who continued on their journey. We just hated knowing we couldn’t share company with them anymore.
Sometimes I traded Steve a haircut for a bag of kelp on my visits from Portland. As I discovered over the years, kelp that is dried and ready to use is hard to find, certainly in a day’s visit from the city. If I take it to Portland it never dries there. So I’m grateful for every piece he gives me. The next best place I find it is in Newport. Over time he has decided he is so used to his hair being uncut that he doesn’t want any more haircuts. We never run out of interesting things to discuss, past, present and future. And we squabble. He promises me a bag of kelp over the phone. When I arrive he picks out pieces that he doesn’t want me to take after all. I say,” Just give me what you want to give me.” He says to just take whatever I want. So I pick out what I want and then he takes back the pieces he can’t part with. We do the same dance every time and laugh about it too. I’m happy, standing there on his 70’s orange mildew smelling shag carpet, looking around at the minor changes. The sliding glass doors still open onto the balcony hosting a chaos of beach finds, and unfinished projects, buckets of something, the swallows in the corner. The kelp is piled high again. My first seaweed wall hanging is still on the same hook. Goofy tin foil is wrapped around the once-again-unused woodstove to reflect light, which I don’t bother questioning anymore.
I can’t look in any direction in Cannon Beach without recalling a story or some strange and wonderful adventure; memorable encounters with the real people. We hike more slowly now. We pass on Rope Beach. We cook a meal instead of hunt mushrooms, and skip beachcombing if it’s too cold. He compliments me on the kelp baskets I have at the White Bird before going into suggestions of how to change my work. I start shaking my head in protest and we, instead, discuss the village news to avoid an argument. Sometimes we go listen to Monday night music. And we miss Michael and Billy. The last time I was at Steve’s we listened to tapes of Michael reading his letters out loud and it felt like we three spent the evening together. We silently share memories of things we’ve discussed enough, things we can’t bring back or change. As my future shrinks, my past has swollen to fill my mind and my heart with bittersweet memories and lessons, especially the time in Cannon Beach and with these strangely intertwined people. I hold dear memories of a short period of time that I could not have planned nor even imagined when I picked up that Upper Left Edge at the health food store. I decide to never stop returning.