So here we are back at the beach, spread out across the sand like a bad army--an army with no discipline, no leadership. An army that hangs out by the sea.
"Wanna play some poker?" the boy asks.
He has come to the beach prepared, with a backpack full of prized possessions: two baseball gloves, a football, a Frisbee, a couple of paddle ball racquets. And on the bottom, a deck of cards.
"I'm not that good," he says, shuffling the deck, the tattered cards carrying traces of bubble gum and chocolate milk.
"Really, I'm not that good."
He says this the way Bat Masterson used to say it, with a little wink and a nod, daring you to give him a try.
It means that first he'll win your wallet. Then he'll win your watch. If things go well, maybe he'll win your car keys.
If things go well, the boy will cruise up Pacific Coast Highway in his newly won minivan, trying to peer over the steering wheel, looking for his sixth-grade buddies and maybe one of those "Baywatch" girls.
"Wanna play some poker?" he'll ask the "Baywatch" girl. "I'm not that good."
"Maybe later," she'll tell the boy.
"OK, maybe later," he'll say with a wink and a nod.
Finally, we are back at the beach. We have arrived here to soak up lots of California sunshine after a long El Nino winter that makes the beach feel better than ever.
It's not an easy beach. It requires a long drive, then a mile's walk from the parking lot to the little cove along southern Orange County's rocky shore.
But to us, it's worth the extra effort. Because a good day at the beach beats a great day anywhere else.
"Hey, Dad, wanna dance?" the little red-haired girl asks.
She is 20 feet away from me, wiggling wildly to a Steppenwolf song on the radio, dancing as if chased by bumblebees.
"Come on, Dad," the little girl says. "Let's dance."
She has never heard this Steppenwolf song before. She thinks it is a new release, that it was cut in some Hollywood studio last week and is just now coming out over the airwaves for the first time, headed for No. 1.
I try to imagine what it must be like being 7, when 30-year-old songs seem new and there are hundreds more out there just as good or even better, just waiting for little girls to discover them.
"Maybe later," I tell the little girl.
"OK, maybe later," the little girl says with a wink and a nod, dancing down the beach.
And I lie back in my beach chair, with my lovely wife on one side and my lovely barbecue grill on the other, wondering how a day can be so perfect. How a breeze can be just right--not too hot, not too cold--and how the waves seem to wash away all the junk you keep in your head.
Mind-altering. That's what the beach is. A legal, perfectly healthy, mind-altering drug. A drug you can take in any amount, without a prescription. Even without a bartender. Not that we don't have one in attendance.
"Want a margarita?" my lovely wife asks, twisting the top off the big blue margarita thermos, the one she bought over the winter with just this in mind.
She knows one drink, this bartender. A margarita. Apparently she makes them well, because all the other mothers surround her, holding out their plastic cups and giggling like sorority sisters. Like pledges in Kappa Kappa Margarita, the best sorority on the beach.
"Maybe later," I say.
"OK, maybe later," she says with a wink and a nod.
We will come to this beach half a dozen times this summer, and each time we will vow to come more often. For our friends and us, it is the only place where everything seems to stop, the only place where we can read 50 pages of a book in the middle of the day or even take a nap.
We come like an invading army, then stay all day, until the sun disappears into the water. Each time, we bring too many things. Then the next time, we bring more.
"Dad, you're snoring."
"You're snoring," my lovely and patient older daughter says.
"I wasn't snoring."
"Yes, Dad, you were."
She is standing over me now, too tall to be my daughter. Seems like just last week we were bringing her to the beach in a baby carrier, with a little white bonnet to keep the sun off her face.
Almost 15 years later, I look at her in her bikini and wonder where the time went. And the bonnet.
"Wanna walk to the tide pools?" she asks.
The beach is her favorite place that is not a Gap store. She would live here if she could, studying the tide pools every day and the sunsets every night.
"Sure you don't want to play poker?" I ask, because if anyone really wants to win my car keys, it's this girl.
She smiles and considers the question.
"I'd rather take a walk," she says.
"OK," I say. "Let's take a walk."