Doc was collecting marine animals in the Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula. It is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely. The sea is very clear and the bottom becomes fantastic with hurrying, fighting, feeding, breeding animals. Crabs rush from frond to frond of the waving algae. Starfish squat over mussels and limpets, attach their million little suckers and then slowly lift with incredible power until the prey is broken from the rock. And then the starfish stomach comes out and envelops its food. Orange and speckled and fluted nudibranchs slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of Spanish dancers. And black eels poke their heads out of crevices and wait for prey. The snapping shrimps with their trigger daws pop loudly. The lovely, colored world is glassed over. Hermit crabs like frantic children scamper on the bottom sand. And now one, finding an empty snail shell he likes better than his own, creeps out, exposing his soft body to the enemy for a moment, and then pops into the new shell. A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil and lovely and murderous again. Here a crab tears a leg from his brother. The anemones expand like soft and brilliant flowers, inviting any tired and perplexed animal to lie for a moment in their arms, and when some small crab or little tide-pool Johnnie accepts the green and purple invitation, the petals whip in, the stinging cells shoot tiny narcotic needles into the prey and it grows weak and perhaps sleepy while the searing caustic digestive acids melt its body down.
Then the creeping murderer, the octopus, steals out, slowly, softly, moving like a gray mist, pretending now to be a bit of weed, now a rock, now a lump of decaying meat while its evil goat eyes watch coldly. It oozes and flows toward a feed lag crab, and as it comes close its yellow eyes burn and its body turns rosy with the pulsing color of anticipation and rage. Then suddenly it runs lightly on the tips of its arms, as ferociously as a charging cat. It leaps savagely on the crab, there is a puff of black fluid, and the struggling mass is obscured in the sepia cloud while the octopus murders the crab. On the exposed rocks out of water, the barnacles bubble behind their closed doors and the limpets dry out. And down to the rocks come the black flies to eat anything they can find. The sharp smell of iodine from the algae, and the lime smell of calcareous bodies and the smell of powerful protean, smell of sperm and ova fill the air. On the exposed rocks the starfish emit semen and eggs from between their rays. The smells of life and richness, of death and digestion, of decay and birth, burden the air. And salt spray blows in from the barrier where the ocean waits for its rising-tide strength to permit it back into the Great Tide Pool again. And on the reef the whistling buoy bellows like a sad and patient bull.
In the pool Doc and Hazel worked together. Hazel lived in the Palace Flophouse with Mack and the boys. Hazel got his name in as haphazard a way as his life was ever afterward. His worried mother had had seven children in eight years. Hazel was the eighth, and his mother became confused about his sex when he was born. She was tired and run down anyway from trying to feed and clothe seven children and their father. She had tried every possible way of making money — paper flowers, mushrooms at home, rabbits for meat and fur — while her husband from a canvas chair gave her every help his advice and reasoning and criticism could offer. She had a great aunt named Hazel who was reputed to carry life insurance. The eighth child was named Hazel before the mother got it through her head that Hazel was a boy and by that time she was used to the name and never bothered to change it. Hazel grew up — did four years in grammer school, four years in reform school, and didn’t learn anything in either place. Reform schools are supposed to teach viciousness and criminality but Hazel didn’t pay enough attention. He came out of reform school as innocent of viciousness as he was of fractions and long division. Hazel loved to hear conversation but he didn’t listen to words — just to the tone of conversation. He asked questions, not to hear the answers but simply to continue the flow. He was twenty-six — dark-haired and pleasant, strong, willing, and loyal. Quite often he went collecting with Doc and he was very good at it once he knew what was wanted. His fingers could creep like an octopus, could grab and hold like an anemone. He was sure-footed on the slippery rocks and he loved the hunt Doc wore his rain hat and high rubber boots as he worked but Hazel sloshed about in tennis shoes and blue jeans. They were collecting starfish. Doc had an order for three hundred.
Hazel picked a nobby purplish starfish from the bottom of the pool and popped it into his nearly full gunny sack. “I wonder what they do with them,” he said.
“Do with what?” Doc asked.
“The starfish,” said Hazel. “You sell ’em. You’ll send out a barrel of ’em. What do the guys do with ’em? You can’t eat ’em.”
“They study them,” said Doc patiently and he remembered that he had answered this question for Hazel dozens of times before. But Doc had one mental habit he could not get over. When anyone asked a question, Doc thought he wanted to know the answer. That was the way with Doc. He never asked unless he wanted to know and he could not conceive of the brain that would ask without wanting to know. But Hazel, who simply wanted to hear talk, had developed a system of making the answer to one question the basis of another. It kept conversation going.
“What do they find to study?” Hazel continued. “They’re just starfish. There’s millions of ’em around. I could get you a million of ’em.”
“They’re complicated and interesting animals,” Doc said a little defensively. “Besides, these are going to the Middle West to Northwestern University.”
Hazel used his trick. “They got no starfish there?”
“They got no ocean there,” said Doc.
“Oh!” said Hazel and he cast frantically about for a peg to hang a new question on. He hated to have a conversation die out like this. He wasn’t quick enough. While he was looking for a question Doc asked one. Hazel hated that, it meant casting about in his mind for an answer and casting about in Hazel’s mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum. Hazel’s mind was choked with uncatalogued exhibits. He never forgot anything but he never bothered to arrange his memories. Everything was thrown together like fishing tacide in the bottom of a rowboat, hooks and sinkers and line and lures and galis all snarled up.
Doc asked, “How are things going up at the Palace?”
Hazel ran his fingers through his dark hair and he peered into the dutter of his mind. “Pretty good,” he said. “That fellow Gay is moving in with us I guess. His wife hits him pretty bad. He don’t mind that when he’s awake but she waits ’til he gets to sleep and then hits him. He hates that. He has to wake up and beat her up and then when he goes back to sleep she hits him again. He don’t get any rest so he’s moving in with us.”
“That’s a new one,” said Doc. “She used to swear out a warrant and put him in jail.”
“Yeah!” said Hazel. “But that was before they built the new jail in Salinas. Used to be thirty days and Gay was pretty hot to get out, but this new jail — radio in the tank and good bunks and the sheriff’s a nice fellow. Gay gets in there and he don’t want to come out. He likes it so much his wife won’t get him arrested any more. So she figured out this hitting him while he’s asleep. It’s nerve racking, he says. And you know as good as me — Gay never did take any pleasure beating her up. He only done it to keep his self-respect. But he gets tired of it. I guess he’ll be with us now.”
Doc straightened up. The waves were beginning to break over the barrier of the Great Tide Pool. The tide was coming in and little rivers from the sea had begun to flow over the rocks. The wind blew freshly in from the whistling buoy and the barking of sea lions came from around the point. Doc pushed his rain hat on the back of his head. “We’ve got enough starash,” he said and then went on, “Look, Hazel, I know you’ve got six or seven undersized abalones in the bottom of your sack. If we get stopped by a game warden, you’re going to say they’re mine, on my permit — aren’t you?”
“Well — hell,” said Hazel.
“Look,” Doc said kindly. “Suppose I get an order for abalones and maybe the game warden thinks I’m using my collecting permit too often. Suppose he thinks I’m eating them.”
“Well — hell,” said Hazel.
“It’s like the industrial alcohol board. They’ve got suspicious minds. They always think I’m drinking the alcohol. They think that about everyone.”
“Well, ain’t you?”
“Not much of it,” said Doc. “That stuff they put in it tastes terrible and it’s a big job to redistill it.”
“That stuff ain’t so bad,” said Hazel. “Me and Mack had a snort of it the other day. What is it they put in?”
Doc was about to answer when he saw it was Hazel’s trick again. “Let’s get moving,” he said. He hoisted his sack of starfish on his shoulder. And he had forgotten the illegal abalones in the bottom of Hazel’s sack.
Hazel followed him up out of the tide pool and up the slippery trail to solid ground. The little crabs scampered and skittered out of their way. Hazel felt that he had better cement the grave over the topic of the abalones.
“That painter guy came back to the Palace,” he offered.
“Yes?” said Doc.
“Yeah! You see, he done all our pictures in chicken feathers and now he says he got to do them all over again with nutshells. He says he changed his — his med — medium.”
Doc chuckled. “He still building his boat?”
“Sure,” said Hazel. “He’s got it all changed around. New kind of a boat. I guess he’ll take it apart and change it. Doc— is he nuts?”
Doc swung his heavy sack of starfish to the ground and stood panting a little. “Nuts?” he asked. “Oh, yes, I guess so. Nuts about the same amount we are, only in a different way.”
Such a thing had never occurred to Hazel. He looked upon himself as a crystal pool of darity and on his life as a troubled glass of misunderstood virtue. Doc’s last statement had outraged him a little. “But that boat—” he cried. “He’s been building that boat for seven years that I know of. The blocks rotted out and he made concrete blocks. Every time he gets it nearly finished he changes it and starts over again. I think he’s nuts. Seven years on a boat.”
Doc was sitting on the ground pulling off his rubber boots. “You don’t understand,” he said gently. “Henri loves boats but he’s afraid of the ocean.”
“What’s he want a boat for then?” Hazel demanded.
“He likes boats,” said Doc. “But suppose he finishes his boat. Once it’s finished people will say, ‘Why don’t you put it in the water?’ Then if he puts it in the water, he’ll have to go out in it, and he hates the water. So you see, he never finishes the boat — so he doesn’t ever have to launch it.”
Hazel had followed this reasoning to a certain point but he abandoned it before it was resolved, not only abandoned it but searched for some way to change the subject. “I think he’s nuts,” he said lamely.
On the black earth on which the ice plants bloomed, hundreds of black stink bugs crawled. And many of them stuck their tails up in the air. “Look at all them stink bugs,” Hazel remarked, grateful to the bugs for being there.
“They’re interesting,” said Doc.
“Well, what they got their asses up in the air for?”
Doc rolled up his wool socks and put them in the rubber boots and from his pocket he brought out dry socks and a pair of thin moccasins. “I don’t know why,” he said. “I looked them up recently — they’re very common animals and one of the commonest things they do is put their tails up in the air. And in all the books there isn’t one mention of the fact that they put their tails up in the air or why.”
Hazel turned one of the stink bugs over with the toe of his wet tennis shoe and the shining black beetle strove madly with floundering legs to get upright again. “Well, why do you think they do it?”
“I think they’re praying,” said Doc.
“What!” Hazel was shocked.
“The remarkable thing,” said Doc, “isn’t that they put their tails up in the air — the really incredibly remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we’d probably be praying — so maybe they’re praying.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” said Hazel.