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July 02, 1989|HARRIET DOERR

LATE ON A SEPTEMBER AFTERNOON, WITH barely time for a side trip before dark, Elizabeth Troy left the main highway and followed a winding road to a seaside town she used to know. Once there, she found its light and sound, its single wooded hill, its mile of beach now widening at low tide, so improbably familiar that at first she thought she was lost. The rack of sunglasses in the drugstore window, the flag on the grocery, the pines and eucalyptus on the hill across the road, the whole look of the place struck her as magic, a triumph of recollection over reality.

Standing on the cement walk that only ran for a block and a half, breathing air that came quick and blue from the sea, she was glad she was here, a few miles west of the freeway, in a place she hadn't seen for 15 years.

She parked in front of an empty lot, in case the Alvarado brothers and Mrs. Nye still owned their stores and might notice and recognize her, and waste time talking. She thought she had glimpsed a dark Alvarado head behind the meat counter of the grocery and Mrs. Nye's glasses gleaming behind the drugstore counter.

Beyond Elizabeth, the pink stucco post office was closing for the night. A border of nasturtiums erupted against its side in hot reds and saffron yellows, the intense shades that figure more often in memory than in fact. Elizabeth turned to face the ocean.

Here there was a change. The end of the pier had broken off and taken with it fishermen's benches and a bait hut. A life preserver still hung from a loose guardrail. Elizabeth watched a jogger run north on the beach and two others pass him, running south.

Footsteps approached her and stopped. It was an Alvarado brother, the oldest one, Juan, who had never learned much English.

"Juan," she said, and shook hands.

Juan said, "Welcome," and smiled the wide smile she remembered.

"I'm only passing through," she said.

"Then you live here now," said Juan.

"I have to leave before dark."

"Which is your house?"

"No, I'm just passing through."

"Welcome," said Juan, and they shook hands again.

There was less than an hour of daylight left. Elizabeth crossed the street, passed the closed Unitarian church and the closed real estate office and walked down Seaside to Pine. Pine Street climbed the hill in the rough shape of a question mark and shone with a recent coat of tar. Unpaved lanes ran off it.

At the second crossroad, Elizabeth turned right. This had been a street of garage studios and houses split into apartments. Couples halfway between her age and her mother's used to rent here by the month in summer. During the week, the wives took care of one or two small children, rinsing sand from their hair, pulling up blankets at night. The husbands came for weekends and, on Friday night and Saturday, couples went from house to house, carrying corn chips and glasses out of which martinis splashed to dot the dust of the lane. Sometimes, over the weekend, the composition of the couples changed and new pairs formed, only to regroup by six o'clock Sunday into the original pairs--the father and mother of the child who, bathed combed, and bearded with cookie crumbs, was already learning to survive.

Sometimes the halves of couples failed to rejoin. This happened in the case of Elizabeth's cousin Jane, who left her new husband for someone's house guest so suddenly that her eggplant casserole was still in the oven and her wet bikini still on the line.

Today, towels hung from the balcony of one apartment. A motorcycle stood at the front door of another. Four had signs offering them for winter rent, and a converted garage was for sale.

ELIZABETH, CONTINUING UP PINE, PAUSED ON THE curve to look back at the glittering sea, then turned in the direction of the house where she had spent her summers as a girl. Scuffing through pine needles, she passed a row of new houses, compact and functional, before she came to one she recognized. It had belonged to Capt. Benton-Smith, who was wounded in the first attack on Gallipoli in 1915 and spent 24 hours bleeding on the beach. The captain's scars were visible when, before taking his swim, he sat on the sand in his Panama hat and the black trunks that came to his knees. His cheerful nature and reasonable attitude toward the rout ("We should have given the buggers a shot at the generals") turned the white cavities carved out of his neck and shoulders into metaphors of scars, acquired without pain or fear.

The captain spent all his summers here, attended to by Irish Meg, a woman of such a frank green gaze and broad white smile that everyone assumed he loved her and, hale as he was, took her regularly to bed. Now ice plant overran Capt. Benton-Smith's lawn, and ivy wound its way through the louvered shutters of his house.

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