I was in Santa Monica for a day last week, sampling baked figs at the farmers' market on the Third Street promenade, a sweet sunny day that makes an old Midwesterner like me a little nervous. We fear seduction. Some days in California are so tender and delicious that a person could abandon all commitments and wind up living in blissful stupor in some cult devoted to the worship of the sky.
I have work to do. I haul it around in a black case the size of an anvil and when an hour or two opens up, in an airport or hotel, I dig in. I don't lie on beaches, looking up at the sky. It's blue in Santa Monica. You don't have to look at it for long to figure that out.
My hotel was on the beach, so I headed back that way, crossing the Pacific Coast Highway on a pedestrian bridge. And there, 50 yards south of me, police cars and flashing blue lights. The northbound lanes of the PCH had been closed. A car sat in the middle lane, its rear end smashed in brutally. And south of it, a yellow tarp spread on the pavement. A body lay beneath it.
Then eight cops and EMTs lined up on either side of it, like pallbearers, and then they spread out a long white sheet which they held as a screen while the yellow tarp was pulled away and a police photographer took pictures with an enormous camera. A man in a dark suit bent over the body, studying it closely. The eight men stood quietly, hardly moving, and they looked straight at each other. They did not look at the body. It was a still-life scene, except for the flashing lights and the southbound traffic passing: eight men standing at attention, guarding a body, and two men moving with great delicacy around it, gathering evidence.
A blue sky over Santa Monica and on the beach, people lay on towels, sunning themselves. A few swimmers in the surf. Roller bladers out on the sidewalk and joggers, grunting about the presidential campaign. A day in which you've witnessed death takes on an aura of fragile loveliness. You breathe the salt air and you savor this on behalf of the dead and note the pencil-line delicacy of the long cane poles of the Japanese fishermen on the pier, the two triangles of white sail taut with wind on the distant boat, the skinny boy in blue trunks swinging high on the flying rings on the beach and soaring to the next set of rings. You see the portly man wade into the water and shudder as the water touches his testes and you feel it, the shudder of mortality. And visions of the fallen one stay with you.
A few hours later, online, news that the victim was a woman, 44, whose car had been rear-ended, that she had gotten out of her car and stood waiting for help to arrive and was struck and killed by a third vehicle. Her name was Alma and she was from Los Angeles.
The day goes on and though you don't keep in mind the sight of the pallbearers around the body, the death attends you wherever you go. You imagine the woman's plan for her day, maybe lunch in Malibu and a meeting at her kids' school and supper and a movie afterward, a simple day in sunny L.A., and you abandon your own plan to work and instead you walk around looking at the shining world on behalf of Alma who died on the highway.
You buy a mango-papaya smoothie and a cafe mocha and in the face of death they are spectacular. You sit at a table in the brilliant sunshine, the light splashing off the stone facades and aluminum moldings. She was standing by her car waiting for help to arrive when she was struck by another vehicle and killed, and 30 minutes later men were standing at attention around her. It would be intolerable not to know the name of the woman. Attention must be paid. She trails alongside you as you walk into a bookstore full of art books and you pick up one with pictures of California beach houses, all whites and yellows and pale blues, sun-drenched rooms, bowls of flowers, cotton curtains, and the sea beyond. A beautiful world, Alma, and every day is a gift. I'm sorry you had to leave early.
(Garrison Keillor is the author of a new Lake Wobegon novel, "Liberty," published by Viking.)
© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.