The man on Huntington Dog Beach throwing the ball for his yellow labs only has one useable arm. I watch him out of the corner of my eye because I’m morbidly curious but I don’t want to stare. He somehow still manages to pick up a retriever toy on a string and throw it with an underarm twist. As he throws with his good arm, the other arm hangs off his shoulder like a dead weight, swinging around on its own accord from the gravity of his movement alone. I notice as well that his leg on that left side also swings out of sync with the other leg. Still, his shirtless body reveals lean, taut muscles, despite being mid-fifties, a few years older than me. He’s runner-thin and his arm muscles gleam and his abs ripple. His attentive labs dote on his every move. One lab dives into the water, grabs to toy and drops it in front of him. It’s fascinating watching him but I don’t want to appear rude.
So I walk down the beach with my camera looking for some dogs to practice taking pictures of. It’s September but Huntington Dog Beach doesn’t know that autumn is coming. The sun shines endlessly off the ocean and the warm rays feel good on my naked arms. But perhaps because it’s the middle of a work day, there is no one else on the beach to photograph. I wander back toward the man throwing the ball slowly and focus my camera on his labs. I am a little afraid of him, perhaps because of the unabashed manner in which he handles his lopsided body.
As I ask for permission to take some shots of his dogs, he welcomes me with half of an award-winning smile.
“That’d be great” he says out of one side of his mouth. “That’s a nice camera.”
“Thanks” I say. I try to imagine him zipping a jacket. Typing on a keyboard. Buttering toast.
He continues. He just belts out the next sentence like a song. “When both of my arms worked, I loved taking pictures.”
I watch him skillfully manipulate one side of his mouth. The other side, the same side as the ill-working arm and leg, sits as still and as flat as a beach horizon line. I tell him I am an animal photographer and a writer from the Bay Area down here to meet an editor about a job and take some pictures.
“God, I’d love some nice pictures of my dogs.” His eyes lights up. “My dogs here are such fab companions. This one, Lulu has ADHD and is always up to no good. Always on the move.”
I can’t help but wonder: how does he snap a leash on them with one working hand?
“They are gorgeous.” I tell him. “If I get anything good, I’ll send them to you.”
“Would you?” He smiles his lopsided smile. “I’d love that.”
So as I shoot, crouched down like a coiled spring, legs aching a pleasing ache, he chats.
“I had cancer in my jaw and the docs had to take a piece of bone from my leg to rebuild my face. They hit a nerve that put a stopper on one side of my body. The kicker? The cancer is still there.”
Ouch. I think. “Well you seem to be managing pretty well.” I say.
“I can’t chew. It’s a problem keeping weight on. All my food is now made into liquid. Hamburgers, fries, bananas go in the blender with almond milk so I can keep the calories down.”
I try to imagine what it’s like peeling a banana with one set of fingers.
As he tells me about his diet and nutrition routine, his voice is fast and scratchy and I can see him trying to solve the mystery of dis-ease. I get the feeling he’s especially hungry since the cancer is eating him up. I think about fighting the thing that’s eating you with food. What a complex mind trick dis-ease is.
I listen and shoot more. His vitality amazes me. I stand up, turn, bend on one knee and move with the light of the water and waves, all the while conscious of my own body next to the stark inadequacies of his broken vessel. I am almost ashamed of the ease of my mobility. But I’m also grateful for it.
He chats on. In thirty minutes, I learn a lot about him. He grew up here in Huntington Beach. He used to live in a house that Marilyn Monroe once lived in before his mom lost it in the divorce. He is married with grown kids. His younger daughter put herself thru nursing school. He’s a proud father.
After a while longer, he says he needs to get going. He asks if I am going to capture the sunset with my camera. He tells me “I used to shoot a lot when I had two working arms. The best place to shoot the sunset is up on the cliffs.” He gesticulates with his head. His working hand is holding the dog toy. I wonder what it’s like to not be able to point.
“Go up past the Jack in the Box into that neighborhood and park up on the hill looking toward the water. As the sun reflects into the lagoon, you’ll get some super images. When I had two working arms, that was my favorite place to take pictures of the sunset.”
“Insider knowledge is much-appreciated! Will do.”
He hands the dog toy to Lulu and pulls his cell phone from his shorts pocket. He almost drops it.
“Oops-got it.” He giggles and looks hard into my eyes. “One small crack does not mean I’m broken.” He says to me out of one side of his mouth as one side of his lips turn up. “Do you have an Instagram account?”
I tell him my handle: sherricoyote. After fuddling for a few minutes with his phone, he hands it to me and asks for help locating me. I find my account and show him a few pictures and connect us.
“Thanks” he tells me. “I hope you got some good ones!”
He turns to walk up the beach lumbering through the sand to where he set a backpack. His dogs flank his sides, smiling like only dogs can do. I watch him pick up a backpack and throw on a jacket. He doesn’t bother trying to zip it up. He manages his load by swinging the pack over one shoulder.
As we part ways, I wonder if I should have offered to help although I don’t think he needs it.
I turn the opposite direction to walk up and down the beach a bit more enjoying the warm sun, celebrating the health of my own two legs. As I walk, I try dragging one leg behind me for a few steps. I let one arm hand like an anchor as I try to imagine what it would be like to carry someone else’s burden. Somehow, the desperate reality of being alive both haunts and delights me. The weight of being human hurts, but somehow, it hurts less when we see people we assume are worse off than we are. But we all have cracks. That is the very thing that unites us all: our inveterate vulnerability.
Most people I know are somehow compromised. My mom: heart attack. My husband: colorectal cancer. My friends: migraines, alcoholism, degrees of depression, thyroid issues. Yes, survivors, but they are more than that. They revel in the wake of that trauma. Even though some ailments lurk under the surface or in the past hidden from everyday existence, this guy can’t hide anything. His physical challenge is just out there, exposed under the gleaming sunlight for the world to see. My own Type 1 Diabetes is easier to hide, despite the fact that I have an insulin pump affixed to one arm and a continuous glucose monitor to the other. I look a bit cyborg. I could wear long sleeves to hide the devices, but I don’t. And even though my disease is not detectable in my gate, I get flaunting it. It has made me realize that I can overcome anything life tosses at me-just like my new friend.
After about twenty minutes, I head to where I parked. It’s about a mile away. As I approach my car, I see my new friend just finally getting into his truck. He has parked right in front of me. I imagine the daily difficulties of simply walking and think about the grace in which he handles himself.
After he gets in, I walk past and he rolls down his window and opens up the side of his lips that work.
“I hope you got some good photos of my pups.” he says.
“Me too.” I smile. And I really hope I did.
Sherri Harvey teaches English in California’s Silicon Valley, holds an MA in Modern Fiction and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She spends her days taking pictures, galloping her horses, hiking with her dog, writing stories and meeting people. She adores the great outdoors: go outside and play! She has published both essays and photographs in Literary Traveler, World Nomad, Wanderlust-Journal, Reed Magazine, Dime Show Review, the Same Literary, daCunha Global Storytelling to name a few. Check her out at sherriharvey.com or sunsherphotography.com.
Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms (among others) are symbolized in Vienna not only with monuments but also with museums (two, in Schubert’s case: his birthplace, and the house in which he died), but it is Beethoven who is represented most. With several museums devoted to him, some of which contain his own personal effects, there exist in and around Vienna more sites associated with Beethoven than with any other composer who graced the city.