A white Christmas in the Central Valley of California is not one blanketed by snow. Rather, it is the rising of the tule fog, chill and damp and blinding, that softens the landscapes and swathes all distances in white. It nestles in, after a few brief shreds in October, and a few test mornings in November, to a day-after-day grayness, whiteness, thickness that lifts a little in the afternoon and drops down to rest on the ground at night. At times even during the day the fog is so opaque that you cannot see across a street, across an intersection. Travel is hazardous, for everyone knows that following close to the red lights on the car in front of you is the only way to figure out which way the road is going. Keeping your eyes on the tail lights, you try not to follow too close for fear of a sudden stop and rear-ending your guide; keeping your speed close to that of your leader, you pray that she doesn't suddenly accelerate and leave you blind in the disorienting whiteness.
Dangerous as it may be for traffic on the highways, what the fog does to the Christmas lights of people's decorated houses is glorious. The tiny colored pinpricks of light are transformed into glowing orbs of pastel color, muted a little, made magical and alluring, like a dancer in veils. The thickest foggy evening is the time to go out walking around the neighborhoods, seeing the houses outlined in misty glows, trees crowned with leaves of light, rooftops, shrubbery, windows, doors, all ablaze with color reflecting off the cotton candy fog.
One Christmas, there was a house on Elm Street, upon whose roof had been built a wire frame of no apparent purpose. In the light, one could see that there were strands of Christmas lights strung along some of the wires, weaving this way and that. By night, red lights sketched a spanning structure, and green the water beneath, and in bits of blue and white, the skyline behind the Golden Gate Bridge. That particular year had been one when I hadn't been able to get to San Francisco for what seemed like a thousand years, and I missed The City very much. I drove past that house every night that I could during the holiday season, silently praising whosever genius it was to make such an incredible portrait. I have driven past that house every Christmas since then to see if the display will be repeated; I've grown old enough and confident enough by now that if I see it again, I will knock on the door of the house, introduce myself, and thank the artist for what has been in my life, my most very favorite Christmas display.
It was the fourteenth straight day of weighty, thick fog, and we were ready for a glimpse of sunlight. Bodie and Andersol and I stood in my driveway, leaning on my van, watching Gabe range back and forth between our front yards, sniffing the markings of passers-by. We were waiting for the return of John LeMay, who had first appeared this morning in a suit and tie and wingtip shoes.
He'd shaken hands with the Talles while I introduced them, then tugged at the knot of his tie. "Looks like I'm a little overdressed?" he said, making it a question. "Guess I should have asked Sully about it yesterday."
"You look great," Andersol said, smiling. "Don't worry, you'll see lots of suits in San Francisco."
"But I'm going to stand out like a sore thumb with you guys, ain't I?" We guys were dressed in jeans and running shoes, hooded sweatshirts with jackets over them.
"Now, John," I said to him, "Mary has asked me to correct your grammar while you're out of her hearing. Do not say 'ain't'. And as to the suit, you can pretend to be our lawyer when we get ourselves arrested."
"What?" he sputtered.
"Don't take either Sully or Andersol too seriously," Bodie put in mercifully. "Just try to ignore them. You know, if you want to dress more casually, I can lend you some of my stuff."
"Oh, I got stuff," he said, his brow wrinkling in worry. "I just don't want to hold you up if you're ready to go."
"Go ahead, get comfortable. We never hurry on a play-day."
"Okay, be right back."
Andersol raised her hands to cup them around her mouth as if to shout something at John's retreating back. Bodie elbowed her, making her grab her ribs and glare at him. "I was just going to tell him to make sure his fly was pulled up before he came back out," she said.
"I knew you were going to shout something nasty at him, I could see it on your face. Cut him a break until he knows that you're out of your mind," Bodie admonished.
Andersol turned her back on him. "He's actually kind of cute for a skinny guy, isn't he?" she asked me. "Pretty gray eyes."
"He's all yours -- go for it," I told her, laughing.
While we'd waited, I double-checked on Gabe's accommodations for the day: he had access to yard and garage, with food and water and an enormous smoked beef bone for chewing. The old television in the garage was turned on to a news station to give him human voices to listen to. German Shepherds are very people-oriented, and the scent of my five nieces and nephews in the garage (that was their favorite play area) would keep him happy.
When John came flying out of his mother's house pulling on a jacket over an NYPD sweatshirt, I started the van, and we headed off to Pleasanton, where we could catch the Bay Area Rapid Transit train. There is little point in driving into San Francisco, especially when you just want to look around and have fun. The public transportation system in SF is clean and easy to get around with. You don't have to look for parking, you don't have to worry about your car getting dinged in a parking garage, you don't have to pay through the nose for the parking if you find it ...
We rode BART to the Embarcadero Station and rode the escalator up to Market Street. Ah, the wind from the Bay in our faces! We squeezed into a crowded streetcar and listened to people speaking French, Spanish, German, Japanese, all the way to Fisherman's Wharf. The sun was splashing through fluffy white clouds and deep blue sky, shade then brilliant, then shade again. Winter flowers blooming in planters: nemesia with its lollipop colors, and red cyclamen and white snapdragons and bold yellow primula. Thousands and thousands of tourists and City-lovers, playing and laughing and feasting in the city most longed-for in all the world.
At the end of Pier 39, John whipped a tiny pair of binoculars out of an inside jacket pocket to look at Alcatraz, bathed in sunlight between clouds. Bodie, watching John's intent expression, asked, "Professional curiosity?"
"You ever been there?"
I shook my head no while Andersol nodded yes. "Yeah, creepy place," she commented.
"Did you want to take the tour?"
Good move, Bodie, I thought. Offer up a Christmas day off to see an ugly, drippy, frightening old prison. I looked at my feet to keep from letting my lack of enthusiasm show too much.
"Maybe another time," said John. He laughed. "I'll come down and take the tour after I get in an argument with Ma. Put things in perspective."
The twins and I laughed, too, and suddenly John was a friend. We wandered in and out of little shops on Pier 39; Bodie and John were left behind in the coffee and tea specialty store when Andersol and I decided that the silk shop would be more interesting. We found each other in the swirl of tourists again, each of us clutching plastic bags of booty.
We looked at seashells, pearls, chocolates, a store devoted to Christmas (I bought this year's ornaments for my sister's kids), knives, rubber stamps of everything imaginable, insects framed under glass (John bought a big black beetle for his partner's son) in a nature store, handmade sweaters of alpaca wool, and slabs of fish grilling on a huge stove that was right near the window. We decided to walk on down the Wharf, towards the pungent but inviting smell of the outdoor seafood vendors, where we ate bay shrimp from small paper cups with plastic forks.
By the time we got to the Hyde Street cable car (there wasn't much of a line because it was early on a weekday), we were all grateful for the chance to sit down. We rode all the way back to Market, where Bodie fished a map out of his jacket pocket, led the way to a bus stop, and solemnly handed out dollar bills to each of us.
"Hey," said John, but did not continue when Bodie held up an index finger in front of John's face and shook his head. John had to look up to meet his eyes, Bodie being in the six feet four range or so. John looked at Andersol and me, puzzled at Bodie's silence. He didn't know it was just what Bodie did when he had A Plan -- Andersol and I were used to it.
"He has a job as a mime at the mall in Stockton," Andersol told John. "Sometimes he can't keep from bringing his work home with him."
I was still laughing when the bus pulled up.
Bodie's surprise destination turned out to be the Cliff House, a restaurant overlooking the ocean. Unlike Fisherman's Wharf on the Bay side of the Peninsula, Ocean Beach was dim and cold -- windy, the fog drifting on shore and the ocean looking gray and fierce. The short walk from the bus stop to the restaurant left us shivering and glad to go inside. Seated at a window table, in its Phineas T. Barnacle Bar, Bodie and Andersol and I began pointing out menu choices we'd tried and enjoyed on previous trips.
"You guys come down here a lot?" John asked, looking around at the beautiful restaurant.
"There are a lot of nice restaurants in San Francisco," I explained. "But there are some nice restaurants that cater to the comfort of tourists -- this is one of them. You can come here dressed up after going to the theater, or you can rest here after climbing around the Sutro Bath ruins and the beach. We like that kind of open-mindedness, and the food is good. I love the nacho appetizers."
"What say we all order a different appetizer and share around?" Bodie said, and so we ordered a seafood sampler, a cheese and fruit platter, fried calamari, and the aforementioned nachos. Andersol and I decided to split a bottle of fume blanc, while Bodie and John ordered beers.
Upon the arrival of the drinks, John raised his glass. "I want to thank you guys for inviting me along here. It's been great. Here's to you."
We clinked glasses. "And to new friends," amended Andersol.
We had a good time. We sat and talked quite a long time while the calamari were tasted and praised, and the cheeses nibbled, asking John questions about New York City, and why he had an accent but his mother didn't (she was from Ohio originally, it turned out), and encouraged him to tell cop stories, some of which were scary and some funny. He did almost always scowl, maybe from years of trying to look like a mean cop to head off trouble. He was very successful at that!
Then Bodie got quiet, and Andersol elbowed him. John looked sidelong at me, not knowing what was up, but neither did I.
Bodie sighed, and looked out the window at the dark water, and the surf pounding the beach, barely illuminated by the lights of the city. His face was solemn and full of concern. "Sully, I've got a question for you."
"Ye-e-ehssss?" What's going on here? I thought, feeling a twinge of fear, not knowing what question could possibly subdue the Talles into seriousness.
"Sul, how long do you think I need to wait before I ask your sister Jesse to go out with me?"