Past the Farallones

by Michael Thériault

How, Sean? thought Danilo; how would Sean care?

The others, too, appeared surprised. Sean had always seemed the hardest of them, even though each of them who gathered on weekday mornings for coffee–except Danilo–had decades of toil in his tradesman’s calluses and reluctant tendons. Sean’s big hands had boxed, but not well; his five companions at coffee knew at least that he could take a beating and was willing to step swinging fists into one. The odor from his pores, the spider-veined swell of his cheeks attested to his appetite for Jameson’s. Danilo saw something dark in this appetite. He expected he wasn’t alone in seeing it.

Maybe it was from Belfast, where Sean had family. He had shown them his photo with Gerry Adams.

He had described his cousin Michael, “googly-eyed when they blew off the back of his head.”

“At least,” he had said, “not in front of his ma.”

He had talked of his cousin Tom, who had the reputation of doing to Loyalists what they had done to Michael.

Even Gianni and Bob, who had served in arms if not combat, and Pepe, who could recount travails of family in Nicaragua, often retreated in discussions when Sean pressed a point.

But now, “Someone,” Sean said, “should go check up on Ben.”

Bob nodded, then pushed the glasses back up his long nose. “It’s been, what? Six weeks? Two months?”

“He could have passed away,” Gianni said. “How would we know, what with his wife already passed, and no kids?”

Sean grunted. Danilo recalled that Sean’s wife after the divorce had tried to convince the Church to annul their childless marriage.

Tad shook his head. “I drive by his house,” he said, steering the words slowly through Polish vowels and consonants. “The lights go on and off. He’s there.”

“Sick, then?” Gianni said.

Pepe said, “My wife saw him in Safeway last week. He didn’t even say hello, but she said he looked good.”

“Good,” said Bob, “might in his case be an exaggeration.”

“Maybe getting into an even deeper hole over his wife,” said Gianni.

“Hard to get deeper than swearing at the priest trying to comfort you,” said Pepe.

“Oh, you can go deeper,” Gianni said. “I worry each anniversary might be harder for him. Gets to a certain point, what does he do?”

Sean looked at Danilo. “You. We’re all old pricks. Any of us could have said a hundred things over the years that added up to piss him off. You’re almost young enough to be his grandkid. And, you”–Sean’s mouth smiled, his eyes did not–“you’re prettier than any of us, even with the pincher and the gimp.”

Danilo looked away from Sean and felt his cheeks go hot. He could not for an instant overcome his anger enough to unclench his jaw. Then he realized that the others were waiting, eyes on him.

“I’ll go,” he said.

“Tell him to get his sorry ass back down here,” Gianni said. “Tell him I’ll get his coffee if he’s too cheap. Bob will even spring for a muffin.”

“Let’s not get carried away,” said Bob.

“Tell him he can have Bob’s favorite chair,” said Gianni.

“I’ll ask,” said Danilo, “how he’s doing.”

“That’s it, you ask how he’s doing,” Sean said, and again Danilo felt the heat in his cheeks.




From the café’s door Danilo turned north on Mission, then uphill on Ben’s street. From the sidewalk across from the two-story stucco house that stood elbow-to-elbow with others like it, he paused to look for some sign Ben was home. The shades were open in the second-story bay windows.

Fearing that Ben might be watching, he limped up the hill.

Not a block up, recalling Sean’s eyes, he turned back.

He crossed the street and went to Ben’s door.

He saw no one through its little arched window. He stepped up from the sidewalk toward the doorbell button in the recessed entry. He stepped back.

Sean or no, Danilo decided, he needed just a little time to think through his approach; and after weeks, what was the rush?

He resumed climbing the hill, toward his own house.

Inside the front door he brought the mail that had come through its slot to the kitchen table. He made a ham and swiss sandwich and washed a peach. At the table, as he ate, he thought, Tito and Miguel wouldn’t be back from school until after four, and they were of an age where they wouldn’t care if he was home to greet them or not. Charlene would be home from her dental hygienist’s job about six. If he started dinner five-thirty, that left him still a good few hours beforehand to visit Ben.

“How you doing, Ben?” Danilo said aloud; but what to say next? How would he even answer the same question if Ben asked him?

“Some good days, some bad,” he said, again aloud.

One of two nylon chokers had parted suddenly and let an end of the pipe drop into the trench where Danilo had waited to connect it to the valve. The end had struck first the valve, and with it his left hand; this had cost him the three fingers, leaving him–lucky for him, his coffee companions told him–thumb and index finger. (“Me, I would have preferred keeping the middle finger,” Gianni said.) Then it had bounced from the valve and crumbled his left leg. For weeks after Charlene had brought him home from the hospital he had not ventured on his crutches farther than from his door to a taxi, from the taxi to his doctor’s or physical therapist’s, and back. On the very first day he could limp along crutchless he had gone down to Mission Street and in the Nicaraguan family’s café with its painting of an ox cart and red-roofed village found the daily gathering of retired City tradesmen.

He was almost thirty years younger than Sean, the youngest of the others, dark where they were gray, smooth where creased. He took their company, because it was company, but he hardly knew how to talk to them, except when they recalled work. Even there he found obstacles; they had been at Public Works, he at Water.

Ben had been in the café that first day. He had not invited Danilo to bring a chair among them–that had been Gianni and Pepe–but Danilo had noted the regard, neither friendly nor hostile, but curious, from the hazel eyes of the small quiet man whose chair was pulled back just a bit farther from the table than the others. In time Danilo had found that Ben’s quiet was typical; when the others were animated, Ben often seemed to listen and think.

There had also been the one time they all had gone fishing together on a boat out of Half Moon Bay to the steep waves and granite reefs around the Farallones, thirty miles outside the Gate, and while the others had shared tequila and shouted jokes Ben and Danilo had silently labored leader after multi-hooked leader of rockfish up from the depths. When Ben had brought up on a jig at his leader’s end a blue-tinged lingcod well over half as long as he was tall, he had not crowed, but simply smiled as he worked the hook free–thumb and middle finger in the lingcod’s eyes to avoid the spines at its gills–from among its backsloped fangs and added it to the fish in his burlap sack. The ocean, the fierce fish, Ben’s smile, his quiet and competence gave Danilo a sense of something for which he had no word, something approaching beatitude.

It came to him that he missed Ben.

But would Ben now want to talk, to emerge from his quiet, any more than he had in the café, and to someone so much younger?

The mail was junk: Realtor’s ad showing two homes that had sold in the neighborhood for exorbitant sums; offer of a bank card with a fake card glued to it; a sheaf of fliers, among them one for the Safeway.

Danilo thought, Ben is looking at the same mail.

Then: All across the neighborhood men and women are sitting alone like this, looking at the same mail.

Danilo suddenly wanted away from his table. He certainly didn’t want to join Ben at his, not just now, even if Ben would let him.

It could be a good night for something special for dinner, something that took a little time.

He hurried through his lunch, picked up the Safeway flier, and was out to the sidewalk.




“And?” said Sean.

The others waited.

Now Danilo’s forehead burned. “I didn’t get by yesterday,” he said. “I will today.”




Danilo rang the doorbell; listened; heard nothing.

The guys want to know how you’re doing.

I was walking by and thought, I’ll stop and ask how Ben’s doing.

Ben, been a few, how you doing?

And–Sean sent me–he imagined himself saying, and was angry with himself for imagining it.

From inside, still silence. “Thirty, and, twenty-nine, and…,” he whispered, and at the end of the count rang the doorbell again.

He glanced again and again through the little panes of clear beveled glass in the door’s window, while trying to appear as though he did not.

All through another count, silence again from within.

Danilo stepped down from the entryway and turned up the sidewalk.

He recalled the expectant faces that morning in the café, and Sean’s.

He stepped back into the entryway.

“Ben, you home?” he called at the door. It was his jobsite voice, which had carried across traffic and streets, through foam earplugs and walls of power tool noise. He was sure it could be heard through the house, even through the yard behind.

In the brief silence that followed he puzzled out what to do next. Shout again?  Question the neighbors? Knock?

From somewhere well beyond the door came a hardly audible, “Go away.”

Faint as the voice was, Danilo thought he detected a quaver. He reached out to knock, but pictured again the older man at his table and pulled his hand back.

Danilo felt that his shout had been a transgression, that the old man’s solitary quiet was somehow inviolable. He felt at the same time tugged away and toward something he couldn’t picture.

Home was not that something, he knew, but he limped slowly there.




He flipped the mattress–some pain in the effort–replaced the pad, put on fresh sheets and the blanket and comforter. He put the thick pillow for Charlene’s dark brown curls and round cheeks at the head of her side of the bed.

He tried not to imagine it, but imagined making a bed just for one.

This happened not just to someone older like Ben, and in different ways. His cousin Berto’s neighbor had lost a wife younger than Charlene to some illness that had been a complete surprise. Sal at the garage had bought a ring, but before he could ask the question his girlfriend had dumped his things at the shop and had the landlord change the locks on the house she’d leased for the two of them. Then there was Sean, and whatever it was, dark or not, that had led to his divorce.

He recalled sitting on Ocean Beach tight against Charlene, wrapped against its usual chill in a shared blanket, one moonless and fogless night in their marriage’s early weeks. Before them, apart from the near waves just visible in the City’s glow and from the lights of a ship and a fishing boat and the distant every-quarter-minute flash of the Southeast Farallon beacon, the Pacific was deep black all out to where it collided with stars.

The warmth of them together against dark and cold: Against anything, he knew then, they would be a team.

But recently: The two of them on the couch before the television, the boys already in their room for the night, and as he watched her lean forward the ache to pull her blouse untucked from her pants and run his hand up the round fleshy expanse of her back spread through his torso, and he said, “Charlene,” and she said, “Shhh….” That was one hush among many, each worse, in a way, each lonelier than a silent kitchen.

These hushes had proliferated as she continued to work and he no longer could.

Miguel and Tito would someday go their own ways. Miguel already talked about college away from home, and had the grades. Tito was at least as sharp, looked up to Miguel, and would likely follow his example, even if it led him far away. If after college they had any notion of being on their own, there would be no returning to the City, unless they got rich.

He imagined himself–again despite himself–alone at his kitchen table; he imagined himself alone in the chill of the beach.

He flung his own pillow at the head of his side of the bed and against his imaginings, then, wondering if it would be junk again, went to check the mail.




“I was sure he wanted to be left alone,” said Danilo.

“How would he even know it was you?” said Gianni, almost shouting.  “You should have said, ‘It’s me, Danilo.’”

Bob said, “You should have said, ‘The guys are wondering how you are,’ or something.”

“Something more,” said Gianni.

“’The guys are worried about you,’” said Pepe.

“’The guys are waiting for you to come back,’” said Gianni.

“’Sorry if we did something to piss you off.’”

“’If we can help….’”

“’Anything you need, just….’”

“’If we can give you a hand, let us know.’”

“’…just say so.’”

“’Tad misses you,’” said Tad.

“I miss him too,” Danilo said.

“Then you should have stuck it out,” said Gianni.

Danilo thought: Better alone at my kitchen table, less lonely than this scolding; better, too, than their gripes about wives or children, their catalogs of illnesses and the recently departed, their finger-wagging about politicians, their waving the Chronicle in the air.

A picture of what had tugged but eluded him at Ben’s door came to him: The black Pacific.

Less lonely, himself alone with the sound of waves unhushed in the dark, the foam close by all he could see of them, the lights of a ship pulling him out, out past where the needles and crags of the Farallones had vanished into night.

Then Sean, who hadn’t spoken, did.

“The man wants to be left alone, we leave him alone,” he said, and the others fell silent, and Danilo loved him.

Michael Thériault has been an Ironworker, a union organizer, and a union representative at various levels. He published fiction in his twenties but set it aside to support first a family, then a movement. He returned to fiction recently. “Past the Farallones” is a product of this return.