We are so thrilled to publish the inaugural issue of The Lion's Tail. This monthly online magazine features long-form creative nonfiction and literary journalism that pushes the boundaries, encourages us to find our edges, and discover the stories we might not otherwise hear.
This month's issue features Anita Oswald and her essay, "Blood Beach." A random encounter as a young mother forever alters the course of her life, and years later she discovers the haunting truth behind this experience.
As a note: names and some identifying features have been changed in this essay to protect all those involved. As editors, we have confirmed that the events in this story are based in fact and that the changes do not affect the integrity of the writing or the powerful story it reveals.
I admit it. I was trawling the internet, trying to jog my memory for a new story line – a departure from nostalgic stories of my childhood. I thought of a man I met in my early adulthood: an encounter so bizarre it altered me for life, and took me from innocent to cynical in a flash. I hadn’t thought of him in years, wondered if he was still around. What had become of him? Did he still live in California? Curiosity prodded me and I typed in his name. I recognized Ricky in a passport snapshot my ex-husband carried with him for years. There were several later pictures of him, but it was definitely the same guy. I moved my mouse over the image, clicked. My jaw dropped.
I’d scraped elbows with the Devil.
The photograph and the caption catapulted me back to the early ‘70s. A younger me. A more trusting me, still eager for life. The Summer of Love had dissolved in drugs and exploitation. While many tried to cling to the psychedelic dream it offered, the world was becoming a darker place. Before the AIDS crisis, it was a golden age of sexual experimentation, one where “whatever gets you through the night” was the mantra for many. Social mores were abandoned and taboos were broken, but people struggled with how to reconcile their values with newly discovered freedoms. Some tried to find answers in gurus and cult leaders. Headlines reported how the Zodiac Killer terrorized Northern California. Altamont, Black Sabbath, and the Manson Family had replaced Itchycoo Park, Sergeant Pepper, and the Hog Farm in the headlines. Paranoia ruled. People were afraid.
When I met my first husband Joel, I was a Bohemian Catholic college girl of the ‘60s. Raised in the Midwest, I rebelled against 14 years in the Catholic school system and the restrictions of formal religion. Joel’s parents were wealthy Catholics with a social conscience. Joel was a fan of Baez and Dylan. He tutored inner city kids, demonstrated against the Vietnam War, and raised money for the Farmworkers. We met at an avant-garde film festival and married after a whirlwind romance when I found myself pregnant. Joel, a Jesuit school boy, wanted to marry in the Church. I was neutral, but the elderly campus priest would not perform the ceremony when I refused to say an Act of Contrition, so we went to a Justice of the Peace to make it legal. After a monster snowstorm, we left the Midwest and migrated to California in search of the sun and the sweet life. Joel decided he would attend law school and change the world.
Although we used precautions, I was pregnant again before I stopped nursing our first daughter, Aine. Money was tight with a toddler, a baby, and school to pay for. During the summer after our second daughter was born, I languished in a Southern California beach town in a cottage owned by my in-laws. Rent was free so we could save the money for his tuition. Joel drove our rusted 1959 psychedelic VW bug to his summer job as a social worker during the day. I was mired in a limbo of nursing, diapers, and baby food. As the summer passed, his ardor for me cooled and he grew distant. He had trouble getting up and was late for work every day.
The town we lived in was barely awake. This was before the condo boom, when the bean fields and ranches disappeared in a frenzy of developmental greed. In the early ‘70s, there was little entertainment in the beach town – a decrepit movie theater that ran outdated Elvis movies, a folk music club, and free meals at the Hare Krishna temple. I could not suspect that there was something sinister out there, waiting in the dark.
It was the summer of 1970 when Joel told me he wanted me to meet a friend. I didn’t remember Joel mentioning him before. He said Ricky was an old school buddy and they’d run into each other at a burrito stand on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Our destination was a bar in the next beach town north on the PCH. Tanned from hanging at the beach, I dressed in a light mini frock that pulled across my breasts, once small but now full from breastfeeding, and pulled back my long, straight hair. The place we were to rendezvous with Ricky was one of those converted hamburger shacks that dotted the California coast. The bar had a split personality – it served fast food to hungry surfers and beach goers during the day. At night they turned on the jukebox, rolled out the dance floor, and served beer and wine. I vaguely remembered passing it, a nondescript frame building nestled between a couple of beach front duplexes, and a funny name – the Buoy Bar.
We left the girls with Joel’s teenage brother that evening and headed out in the Beetle along the highway. It was a luscious night, balmy and warm. I opened the canvas sunroof and stuck my hand out the top, gazing at the Milky Way while the Beetle putted along. As we drove, a cloud of bats flew across the highway, obscuring our vision. I cried for him to pull over but Joel drove on, unperturbed by the phenomenon.
We’d driven a couple of miles north when Joel pulled off the highway and parked in front of the bar in a sandy lot where the tired ice plant tried unsuccessfully to hold back the beach. Walking through the beaded curtain in the entry, it took a minute for my eyes to adjust. The bistro was really dark; I made out that it was decorated in some nautical theme – ropes, life preservers, anchors. I thought, “Geez. Do they have a Saturday night fish fry?”
Even in the dark, Joel seemed to know his way around. He and I slid into one of the red fake leather booths patched with duct tape, and the waiter came over with menus. The fare was the usual bar food – hot dogs, hamburgers, fries. “Strange Days” blared from the jukebox. Two male couples swiveled on what served as the dance floor. I glanced over and saw a blonde, pale, shaggy-haired man nod in our direction from behind the bar, and leave his station. As the bartender snaked his way through the dancers, several nodded and smiled. Some reached out to touch him.
As my eyes began to adjust to the dim lighting that offered anonymity, I looked around and I realized that I was the only woman in the place. Why did Joel bring me here? Joel introduced his buddy Ricky, the bartender.
The pallid blonde man leaned forward, slightly pressing against Joel. “Welcome to my home away from home. Peace.” Ricky’s hair was longish, grazing his shoulders. He had a pleasant countenance, large brown eyes, long lashes, shaggy eyebrows, and a handlebar mustache. His lips were full and sensuous. When he opened his mouth to speak, you could see that his front teeth were set back and his incisors were prominent, like David Bowie. He dressed in a striped sleeveless tank top, bellbottom hip hugger jeans, and flip-flops. One ear was pierced. A motorcycle key chain with leather fringe hung to the right side of his jeans. The chain immediately called one’s attention to the fact that he wasn’t wearing underwear. There was a faint and oily gleam of sweat on his forehead. He smelled like cigarettes, deodorant, and aftershave. I guessed he was about 25. Ricky was not fat, but not really in shape either. There was softness and sensuality about him that I found unsettling. He sat down in the booth next to Joel, opposite me.
Joel told Ricky he'd have a beer and a rare hamburger, something new for him. I groaned when he placed his order because I had been a vegetarian since I’d first become pregnant, and the sight and smell of meat disgusted me. I said I’d have a Coke. Ricky signaled to a waiter and placed our order.
I watched the couples do the Bump, touching hips, groins, and buttocks to the beat of the music [SB1] when I became aware that Ricky moved his hand over to Joel’s and squeezed it. They both got up, Joel following Ricky. Through glances and murmured hellos, they made their way through a small crowd of dancers to the center of the floor.
The jukebox blasted “Sympathy for the Devil.” Ricky and Joel started gyrating. Each simultaneously lifted his right foot off the floor and dangled it in the air, pointing directly towards the other. That peculiar, ritualistic dance move confirmed to me with certainty that something was up between the pair. Joel’s version of dance was a strange habit of standing and rocking on one leg, with a cigarette in hand. Now I saw they were both doing it. Frozen, I couldn’t stop watching. I felt like a voyeur.
Erotic and confrontational, Ricky and Joel looked like a couple of bantams getting ready for a fight. While Ricky was still teetering on one foot as if he were about to strike a Kung Fu move, Joel looked moist and ecstatic. Slowly, menacingly, through the cigarette smoke Ricky moved closer to Joel. He reached out, grabbed behind his neck and kissed him. I thought I saw a glint of teeth. This excited the crowd. The men swaying around them nodded, leered, formed a circle and urged them on with shouts of approval. Joel, the acolyte, basked in the attention. And then the crowd of men moved in and I could not see Joel any more.
The song ended and Ricky and Joel returned to the table. Joel smiled awkwardly when I remarked about the marks on his neck. “Love bites,” he smirked. While the two men gushed over the genius of Cat Stevens, I scrutinized Ricky. What did they see in each other? There was something disturbingly feminine and ominous about Ricky in spite of the motorcycle poser dress he adopted and his macho facial hair. He seemed very curious about our young daughters, about natural childbirth and nursing. When he told me he lived at the beach behind the bar, I asked him if he surfed. He grinned, “No, I like the nightlife.”
Reluctantly, Ricky said he should go back to work. Suddenly Joel seemed drained, whiter than usual, and exhausted. He wanted to leave right away.
Back in the Beetle Joel drove in silence, quite unusual for him. After this shocking disclosure, I decided to interrogate him.
“How do you know this guy? You never mentioned him before.”
“Well, uh, yeah. I thought he’d gone to Canada to avoid the draft, but it turned out he was in the military all this time. The Marines – but then he left the service. He went to college – he wanted to be a teacher. “
“Why is he working in a beer bar then?”
“He’s taking a break and he’s in between career jobs. Looking at his options. He was discharged from the military.” Then Joel blurted, “He’s afraid he can’t teach – that someone would find out he is gay. That’s why he left the military. He wanted to teach and but he was afraid of being exposed. He got involved with a younger guy.”
I probed for more details about his friendship with Ricky. He admitted that he first met Ricky one night in a cruising spot under the pier. I pressed him. I wanted to make him say it. Finally, he found the words. “Well, we are more than friends. I love him.” I reeled at the confession. “How long has this been going on? Who the fuck are you?” Joel spoke, almost in a whisper: “I am not sure; I am trying to work that out. But I know I am not what I thought I was.”
For a few days after this unusual introduction to Ricky, life went on as usual on the surface. I didn’t really know how to respond – this was so out of my realm of experience, but now Joel wanted to share. His confession unleashed stories of his past sexual experiences. He shared shame of hiding that he was attracted to men even as a very young boy, the pain of being alone – an outsider. He told me Ricky was teaching him things about himself. “I never knew I could feel this way.” Joel begged me not to tell anyone. He feared exposure and rejection by his Catholic family so much that he said he’d prefer to live a lie. Amazingly, he said he still loved me.
To ground myself, I continued my daily walks to the beach with the girls. The pounding of the waves drowned out every other sound. Sweet smells of coconut oil and baby lotion blended with onion rings and greasy hamburgers from the Jack in the Box across the Pacific Coast Highway. Flowered bikinis swung from lines at the shops that dotted the boardwalk. Sometimes an old man in a trench coat would wander by, combing the beach with his metal detector for lost treasure. My beautiful tow headed toddler played at the shoreline, splashing in the small waves that lapped the sand while my new blue-eyed baby girl slept in the covered stroller. Fearless, my toddler laughed when the waves washed over her, wetting her curly ringlets and knocking her on her tiny bottom. Ostensibly nothing had changed, but everything had changed for me. I felt like some prop in a very twisted beach blanket movie.
Joel’s parents’ large Tudor home was on an acre in the middle of the town. Secluded from the street by a tall hedge, the estate had several outbuildings for entertaining, and a cottage that served as a guest house. Across the yard, there was a barbeque house with a complete kitchen where Joel’s parents would host large parties. At night, an umbrella of eucalyptus hid the stars from view.
One night around 3 am, I woke to find Joel gone. I got up to get a glass of water. Standing naked at the sink where I bathed the babies, a pot scrubber brush the only ornament on the wooden shelf above the sink, I turned and surveyed the room, devoid of decoration, cold and barren except for the outline of a crucifix that Joel’s grandmother had hung. Joel had removed it and placed it in a drawer, saying it was “old-fashioned.”
I went back to bed but the lawnmower hum of our VW engine in the driveway made me stir from my dozing. I was drifting back to sleep when I saw the light go on outside the barbeque house. Could be one of the boys – maybe one of Joel’s teenage brothers had snuck out again that night. When a few minutes passed and Joel didn’t come into the guest house, I put on my robe and walked out in the moonlight. The yard was overgrown, fragrant with honeysuckle and night-blooming jasmine. I called out, but no one answered.
As I approached the entry, I thought I heard some scuffling and animal noise. Could it be a neighbor’s cat? Maybe it was the old owl that hovered nearby in the jacaranda tree, kept at bay by my faithful tomcat, Blessed Oliver Plunkett. I moved closer to the open door and listened. Then I switched on the overhead light.
There, seated on the overstuffed cushions of the patio furniture, were naked Joel and Ricky. Both men squinted as their eyes adjusted to the light. Joel looked sheepish and crossed his legs to cover himself. His skin was so white; his hairless chest shone with a faint glimmer of perspiration. There was blood on his neck and on his groin. Ricky sat with legs spread wide, flushed, oiled, and fleshy, his softening penis at odds with his defiant sneer. He was not a natural blond. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. Something that looked like jumper cables lay near his feet. I recognized that the device was a sex toy.
I confronted the pair. “What are you two doing out here?” And to Joel, “Is this what you want? Him?” Joel shrugged. His eyes were glassy, and he seemed to possess a callousness I had never seen before.
I felt outrage at his apathy. Our sex life had gone from perfunctory to non-existent in the short time since he’d met Ricky. He was unfaithful to me – with a man! I seethed, “If you are going to have sex in a public place, why are you using me as your cover?”
Ricky muttered something. I asked him to repeat himself.
“Don’t be so uptight. Be cool,” he drawled
“Uptight? Did I hear you correctly? Joel, you need to make a choice. You cannot see him again. Do you understand?”
Neither answered me. Then Ricky stood up and moved towards me menacingly. Joel seemed to be in a trance. My nipples hardened and some milk leaked from my breast. I stepped aside, and my robe fell open slightly, revealing my golden brown cleavage and the rosary I wore as a sentimental good luck charm – my father’s first communion rosary. Ricky made a hissing sound and sucked his breath through his teeth. He shrunk back to the couch.
In a minute, Ricky regained his composure as he slipped his tight jeans over his bare feet; the holes in the crotch of his pants exposed a pink testicle. He turned, revealing round buttocks, slowly taunting me, then pulled up his pants, and slipped on his flip-flops. His toenails looked too long to me, and I felt queasy. He languidly turned and reached for the faded turquoise tank top that was slung over the chaise lounge and pulled it over his head. Seeming in no hurry to move along he stretched and yawned, goading me,
“Well, I guess the party is over?” Then, he leaned forward, slipping his hand around Joel’s waist while the other hand slid between Joel’s legs. He pulled Joel toward him and slowly kissed him. Then he squeezed Joel’s crotch hard. Joel winced and then his eyes rolled and his eyelashes fluttered like he was fainting. Ricky seemed invincible. I felt outrage at his bravado.
I picked up one of the beer cans that littered the floor and threw it at him. “That’s it – Ricky, get out!”
As I stormed back to the cottage, the men seemed to vanish into the dark. I did not hear the VW's hum or Ricky’s motorcycle rumble, but they were definitely gone. While I sat in the dark in that small room, I thought about what I would say to Joel when he returned. Whatever their relationship was, I knew it wouldn’t include me. Now I was in survival mode. I fumed. Why couldn’t he have told me before I got pregnant? Asshole. It’s over.
Thirty-five years later, the remembrance of the pain and horror of that night still stung me. Worse yet, the banner under the photograph of young Ricky, that picture Joel carried in his wallet for years, read:
The Tally Killer. Awaiting execution in San Quentin.
Killed hundreds of young men and drank their blood.
And then came a realization. I had thrown a beer can at a monster!
I clicked on the summary and learned that, after Joel had presumably parted ways with his lover, Ricky had gone into sales, leading a double life. Captivated and repulsed by his story, I learned that Ricky's business travel had taken him through many cities where he killed for pleasure: drugging young men, draining their blood, and sadistically murdering them, tossing their bodies out like trash beside the highway. For years, the cases went unsolved. And then, abruptly, his homicidal spree came to a halt when a highway patrolman pulled him over for drunk driving. A search of the car revealed a corpse and souvenirs from other victims. The log he kept of the murders became part of the evidence that convicted him, evidence that dated back to the 60s. I suspected that I probably had not heard about the trial because it came on the heels of the AIDS epidemic, and the prey were young gay men, outcasts of society, so the trial coverage was only in local papers. Ricky was tried and convicted and had been on Death Row ever since, where he seemed to adapt nicely, spending his time playing bridge. The Buoy Bar had burned to the ground – authorities suspected arson.
After the initial shock, horror, and then relief passed, I began to wonder if Joel knew about Ricky and the trial. Since we’d divorced many years before, I’d seen my ex-husband only a few times: a college graduation, a wedding, and a christening. Still, I thought this was fairly staggering news that someone Joel had been close to was a convicted murderer. This would be the sort of thing someone might share, but Joel never said a word to me. “Surely he knew – he’s a lawyer. That jerk never told me.”
It took me several weeks to get over my macabre discovery. I could not speak about. The revelation was too dreadful, the possibility of what could have happened to me and my babies beyond frightening. I went over it again and again in my mind. Was there any indication that Ricky was a sadist and maybe a vampire?
Eventually I confided in my husband, my daughters, and a few friends from my writing circle. They, too, were aghast. And then they all wanted to know more – how did I know this man, was he a friend, did I know he had a dark side? I had to sort out my feelings and it took me some time to process all my emotions. Confiding in friends helped.
Over time, that grinning picture of Ricky pulled me back to my present life. And then the awareness came over me – what a strong, resourceful, brave woman I was – and how resilient I had been, even then, when I was vulnerable and inexperienced. I was just 21, with children to support and a life to reinvent. I challenged Nosferatu! I marveled at my courage.
I read more about Ricky’s heinous crimes. Nothing in any of his photographs hinted at the evil that lay beneath his benign surface. It sent a chill through me to know I’d had a close encounter with a fiend. Did my ex-husband ever feel grateful to me, or think that I might have saved his life? I guessed probably not. It didn’t matter whether he acknowledged it or not – I’d survived a bad marriage and a brush with the Devil. I’d gone on to put myself through school, raise my daughters, support my family, have a career, remarry, and even achieve a life goal of writing and seeing my work published.
And as I read on, more curious facts came to light. While Ricky had settled in to prison, spending his life playing bridge and waiting for an execution that would not come, his fellow inmates were not doing as well. There had been a mysterious outbreak of anemia and blood-related diseases. Some of the inmates, forgotten by society, had died. And locals complained of an invasion of bats in the area around the prison. Was Ricky a real vampire?
I rubbed the rosary beads around my neck, said a silent prayer, and looked at the photograph of Ricky for the last time.