Jeff didn’t often go surfing at Ocean Beach, there was a better chance for large waves at Fort Point. But Iggy and Andrei insisted. He had to admit the winter heatwave made it seem like summer, even with all the sunbathers he couldn’t help but enjoy the day. They stayed in the water until the crowds ebbed and the water stretched up the shore.
He noticed her then. Not for the first time, he supposed. She had been in his peripheral vision throughout the day, walking here and there on the beach, keeping her distance from the crowd. But with less people out now that the sun was setting it was hard to ignore her.
The old woman wore a grey-blue muumuu and rough-looking shawl over her hunched shoulders. She shuffled over the sand with plastic bags on each arm, full and swinging with their weight. No hat covered her unruly salt-and-pepper hair: strange, really, for a homeless person in winter. She carried nothing else.
Jeff paddled back out to the waves.
When the three of them came back to shore, a high fog was already settled above them. Iggy halted in unzipping her wetsuit and pointed to the street, “Hey! Look who it is!”
The Muumuu Woman was there, emptying the plastic bags into a trash can at the top of the stairs to the beach.
“Jeff, check this out. Oh, but grab something first,” Andrei said, shoving his wetsuit into his duffle. He shouldered his bag, hefted his surfboard, and started to walk in a zigzag toward the woman, looking down all the while. Iggy, rid of her wetsuit, grabbed her things and joined Andrei in scanning the sand. Jeff watched them, bewildered.
Occasionally, Iggy and Andrei would bend down and reach for something. Jeff packed his wet things away and grabbed his board. He couldn’t even see what they were picking up but they were halfway to the stairs so he followed them.
Once they reached the stairs, they rushed to the Muumuu Woman who waited by the trash can. She cupped her hands together and held them out to Andrei.
“Here you go, Meemaw,” he said brightly. Instead of handing her money or food, he deposited a handful of debris: bottle caps; wads of wrapped, used gum; straw wrappers; scraps of hard plastic.
“Thank you, dearie,” she cooed. She dumped the scraps into the trash can.
Iggy moved up next, holding the hem of her swimming shirt to carry her finds in a makeshift pouch. She looked triumphant.
“Ooh, you found quite a bit,” she complimented Iggy as if she were a toddler returning with seashells instead of refuse.
Iggy and the woman emptied it all into the trash can. Andrei started the car and turned up the radio. Iggy went to go attach her surfboard to the top.
Jeff went to sidestep the woman, having not grabbed anything on the way up. Her gentle, doe-eyed faced wrinkled inward in disgruntlement. It made her look 30 years older. In fact, she looked ancient. Her eyes were so dark they looked black, glaring out from the folds of her wrinkles. It was enough to give him pause.
He looked away, hurrying to the car, but he could have sworn she muttered something dark under her breath. Board safely strapped on top, he got in to hear Andrei give an appreciative whistle.
“Look at those waves. Downright vicious.” The waves rolled in erratically, foaming like rabid dogs. Andrei pulled out the parking spot and Jeff noticed the woman was gone.
“Who was that?” he jabbed his thumb behind them as Andrei drove off.
“You mean Garbage Lady?” Iggy ventured.
“Whoa. Rude," Andrei interrupted. "I think of her as Little Meemaw. She walks around Ocean Beach and picks up trash. I’ve seen her pick up glass barehanded.”
“No, you haven’t. She wouldn’t pick up something like that without gloves,” Iggy chided.
“True story, I swear.”
“Okay,” Jeff said, “But why did you give her trash?”
“You saw,” Iggy peered over the passenger seat shoulder, “It makes her happy. Plus, she praises you just like a grandma. It’s great!”
Jeff remained quiet in the backseat as Andrei and Iggy traded stories of little variation about the Muumuu Woman.
He went back to Ocean Beach a week later just as the heatwave broke. It was overcast and windy, which had cleared the scene of sunbathers and casual beachgoers. Except for the Muumuu Woman.
He walked down the beach, put on his wetsuit, and looked at the water. He had heard there would be high waves, but these looked treacherous. It seemed a shame to have to drive back after coming out this way. Something brushed his leg. He looked down.
An empty Doritos bag. He picked it up. He could just throw it away as he got back to his car. Although, the Muumuu Woman was closer than the trash can. Surely, she would take it. Sticking his board into the sand, he jogged over to her.
“Hey,” he called over the wind. She stopped and looked over. “You’ll take this, right?”
She squinted at the bag, then looked him in the eye, “Fill it up.”
Jeff could only blink back. “What?”
“Fill it up,” she repeated with emphasis. She turned to go.
“Fill it with what?”
She looked back at him and arched a brow. Then, shuffled onwards.
He looked after her, incredulous. She was a homeless lady picking up trash, what right did she have to order him around. He stomped back to his surfboard, which the wind then decided to knock over. As if that improved his mood. Jeff moved to pick it up when something reflected the light. He plucked it from the sand: a piece of a candy bar wrapper. He placed it in the chip bag. Might as well as he was on his way out.
A light, hollow tapping sound came over the breeze. Jeff looked to the wet-packed sand. A Styrofoam cup was rolling down the sand to the water. He stepped quickly and snatched it before the tide got a chance to reach it. Into the bag it went.
And so, the next half hour passed. Just as he was about to leave, something always caught his eye. Suddenly, he had a Doritos bag full of trash.
The Muumuu Woman giggled to his left and he suppressed the urge to jump in surprise.
“Just whiles away the time, huh? I’ll take that, hon,” she took the bag and stuffed it into one of the larger ones hanging on her arm. She pointed to the water, “Waves are good now.”
He looked. She was right: large but not quick and jarring. He turned to thank her and, just as he thought to ask himself why he was thanking her, he found that she was gone. He looked up and down the beach. She was nowhere in sight. With the way she shuffled, it was impossible for her to carry herself away that fast. He shook his head, grabbed his board, and hit the waves.
He returned to land as the street lights went on. Under one of them was a trash can and the Muumuu Woman. Her hair seemed to glow white, even under the orange hue of the light.
He tried to pick up scraps on his way, but the darkness hindered him. He barely had a handful when he reached her.
“Sorry,” he uttered, looking at his measly gatherings. “This was all I could see.”
“No worries, hon. You picked up so much earlier.” She accepted it into her hands and tossed it in the can. The Muumuu Woman clasped her hands together and smiled up at him pleasantly. Her smile lines by her eyes were pronounced, she had delightfully round cheeks.
“Why do you ask for trash?” he asked. Why not ask for money? Or food? He thought.
“I ask for you to pick up your trash.”
That irked him, “None of this was mine. It’s someone else’s trash.”
“Yours. His. Hers. Theirs. No one will really admit whose it is. But it lies all over the place. And no one picks it up. You’re all so much like children. So ungrateful.”
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me. I’m a surfer. I see what people leave behind on the beach.”
“Exactly. You all have no respect for me and what I’ve given you,” she scolded, waving her finger at him like a mother. Her hair looked whiter and undulated like a cresting wave in the wind. Her eyes looked bigger, more alert.
“What have you given me?” he cried over the howling wind. I just met you. You don’t know me.
She squared her shoulders and stood up straighter, jarringly tall in comparison to her former hunched posture.
“What have I given you? What have I given you?!” She yelled over the wind, over the crashing waves behind him. “I give you fish to eat. I give you passage. I give you a place to swim. I give you culture. I give you medicine. I give you beauty, horror, marvels.
“I am the mother to every living being. I gave you a chance at life, a chance to thrive. And all I want in return,” the wind stopped, the waves hushed, “Is that you give me the same.”
Her shoulders hunched forward, the light dimmed in her eyes, and she was just a little, old woman in a faded muumuu.
“Goodnight, dear,” she mumbled. She turned and walked up the road toward Point Lobos.
His eyes followed her until a rolling fog moved in and swallowed her up.
Jeff came back two weeks later. A coworker, Greg, wanted to see how San Francisco surfing compared to that at Santa Barbara. They arrived mid-morning, only a couple bundled-up people milled around the beach.
After an hour, they returned to shore and Jeff saw a small hunched figure by the trash can. Jeff took a plastic bag from his pack and started scanning the sand. Greg did the same. They looked at each other and then at the woman up ahead.
“You know,” Greg said, “It’s only fair.”
“We get so much from her.”
“We should at least be decent kids and pick up after ourselves.”
Jeff laughed. The woman waited patiently by the trash can.