Balled-up, compressed, I feel my feet touch the familiar, algae and eel grass-covered rock ledges. Just freed from the turbulence, the swirling, the rolling; I push up, burst through the already-thinning layer of foam, half my body sprung into the air. I’m laughing, even before I take a breath. My trusty nine-nine noserider is floating, dirty wax-side-up, only a few feet away. Walking toward it, I think, for a second, how the water is alive; velvety, silky-warm, like the last south swells of August, but without that deteriorating dead seaweed, day-old-gumbo-on-the-stove-feel.
Still, when I exhale, blow out, it’s a half-liquid half-cough, with a sort of bad-sinuses kind of taste. It’s like when I used to smoke. And then- I breathe in, out- it’s gone. I crawl onto my board.
Mid-afternoon, it’s almost a maximum low tide. Only a few clouds, spread and distant, are visible; clouds that will help form the night-and-morning-overcast typical of the local coast in summer. The waves here have always been faster, hollower at low tide. Only about one in three, in these conditions, connect from the outside break to… to here, close to what would be, in bigger surf, the channel on the far side of the inside break.
The flow toward high tide will match the flow toward sunset, and will give more push to an increasing swell. At least that’s surfer-theory. The waves are my idea of perfect, three feet on the shoulder, five at the peak. It doesn’t seem crowded, though, and as I paddle over each swell, I can see clumps of surfers, bobbing, waiting for a set wave.
It’s obviously that lull, the onshores slacking, but the water not yet glassy. The surface is rippled, or, maybe, dappled, dappled like the Depression glass Janet collects, with tiny little concaves, translucent mini-waves; but here, this surface is moving. I watch the waves peeling toward me from my right. The surge of energy that is a wave moves through the indentations, lifting, evening them .Another line, a mound, rises, leans forward until the light breaks through the smooth thin top, like crystal, millions of shades on near-white, curling, spilling forward.
Oh, god; listen to me. Concentrate, Lawrence.
All the little surf kids, all the high school surf jocks, are still in school. The after-work crewmembers are looking at their watches, anxious to fit in a few waves between deadlines, and due dates, and scheduled meetings; oh, and families. But me- I’m sort of stupidly/blissfully paddling out toward my favorite old lineup spot.
I look toward the beach. “Jan! Janet! Jan-net!” Of course she can’t hear me. She’s walking away, almost to the stairs. She sets something down- blue, glass, reflective- on the second step, picks up a towel she’d left there, wraps it around her waist. She’s wearing a sweater. Odd. She turns toward the water for a second. I sit, turn the board toward shore. I wave, wave with both hands. She turns back toward the stairs. Glare. She couldn’t see me for the glare.
I’d forgotten how the ocean, when the waves are worth mentioning, sounds. It’s not that roar-lull-roar, counting the seconds between, like the clock with the surfing picture Jan gave me, the one in my inner office. It’s a steady sound; more like the sound of tires, not-fully-inflated, on gravel. At least that’s the sound I sort of mentally recorded the last time I was up on the bluff, looking over at this place, my favorite-of-all-time spot. That was…trying to remember… a while ago. The wind, and there wasn’t much, coming up the cliff… I had had to squint, my eyes had watered-up so.
It’s not really an inner office. It’s just a, you know, office.
There is a ‘crack’ sort of sound, occasionally, when the first wave of a set breaks. Breaks. I never realized how much imagery there is in that word. The wave breaks, shatters as the energy slams into, submits to the rock ledges… breaks. I’m paddling again, along the edges, the shoulders of the waves, effortlessly- left, right, pull, balanced on the board, already at the inside peak. It’s usually almost as big as the outside break, and, when the outside waves section off, close out, it’s a good place to… shoulder hop.
I was always a shoulder-hopper.
Someone is knee-paddling behind, then beside, then next to me; faster, easier, though I seem to be doing fine. I had watched him on his last ride. When two surfers took off in front of him, he…it was pretty amazing, actually. He turned off the bottom, went almost straight up, floated, side-slipped, right on past the two clueless kooks with their butts out and their arms posed like frozen crossbars. “Surfin’!”
I had looked right at him as he rode toward me. My chest off the deck, both hands on the rails, ready to turn turtle if… I probably looked a little too jazzed to be cool. Well, his expression suggested I had gotten a little too… exuberant. He turned way too close to me, sprayed me with the rooster-tail (once a clever metaphor, now standard surf jargon), and laughed as he rode on.
Now he’s looking over at me as both of us paddle. It’s like when someone in another lane, in heavy freeway traffic, going the same speed, looks a split second too long, maybe gives an empathetic shrug; then looks back, resets a serious, late-for-something face. He’s on a long board, too; not so unusual for an old guy like me, but he is… probably about eighteen, nineteen; looks, and I thought this even the first time I saw him, exactly like Peter… Peter Holden, my old friend from high school. Actually, acquaintance is more like it; he was in the hot surfer crowd.
Peter had,,, of the people I knew; Peter was the first to…die. Dead. This kid…
“Didn’t you see me?” I ask the Kid, instantly realizing why I never became cool. He just nods, paddles quickly beyond me, toward the outside break. He stops paddling, throws both legs out, sits down on the back half of his board, looks at me, spins the front of his board to the left. Using the backward thrust and the bounce-back, on his stomach now, the Kid glides toward the smaller group of surfers in the lineup for the inside break.
Balanced on his knees again, but not moving, he watches me as I approach.
The inside break. Still, at this tide, the palm tree, not much taller, roots dug into the cliff, and the telephone pole at the far end of the parking lot are lined-up; and so am I.
Janet Gilmore Bachus-
I have to stop here. A second. Got to… catch… my breath. I used to be able to, to climb the whole way, even… run it. That was the old stairs; same formation, though; four steps, landing; twenty-four, this landing. There used to be a sign carved into a railing board, here, that said, “Old farts stop here.” The old stairs. From here…breathe… from here you can look straight out at the surf. Lawrence was always, once I recognized his surfing style, easy to spot, even in a crowd. His legs were spread and bent, like springs. He called it a ‘fight or flight’ stance, like he was ready for whatever the wave did. I thought he was like a matador; ready. Then, sometimes, he’d just be standing, stretched out, one hand in the wave.
Kind of cocky I thought. Way cooler than he was out of the water.
It’s twenty-six more, slight landing; thirty more to the very top. The top.
Okay. I’m going. It seems like, when we lived here, I used to always recognize someone in the parking lot. Even on crappy days, with storm surf or no surf at all, one or more of those people like… breathe… lift your leg… people like Lawrence. Always here, people who just can’t keep from looking at the ocean, can’t help imagining being out there. Someone like that was always there, just watching, mind surfing.
Didn’t think it’d be this tough. Not just the stairs, the whole ordeal. Oh. Susan. “Susan, you came down. I…I did it, but, here, take this. It’s not… empty; not quite. Susan. Susan; I couldn’t.” I look up the remaining stairs. “Where’s your brother?”
“Waiting, in the car,” my daughter says.
Sure. Of course. “Give me a… minute. I’m…ah… breathing.” I laugh. Susan doesn’t. “A minute.”
“Sam wants to go,” she says. “He says we can go wherever you want to eat.”
“Sure.” Susan follows my hand, looks out into the water. “Your father used to stay out… hours,” I say; “never seemed to get cold.”
“Uh huh,” Susan says.
Lawrence- “I used to be a local,” I say to the guy sitting closest to me in the lineup, the guy in the wetsuit with the blown-out knee. Torn Wetsuit Guy, he’s sitting near Goatee Guy and, um, Sunburn Guy. He doesn’t respond. Hell, these guys have to know each other, and they’re not even talking among themselves. It’s that ghetto/gang mentality, like human contact in the water will…The Kid… I’ll call him Peter; might as well; Peter emits a fake cough, obviously intended to sound like a fake cough, then chuckles, nods at me when I look over.
“Local, huh? Sure. That would have been… when?” Before I can answer, Peter says, “I did see you.” He pauses for a little longer than would seem appropriate. “On that last ride. Wasn’t sure you saw me.”
The three Guys, each aware of an outside set at the same time, quickly drop to their bellies and paddle out and to the right. Peter stays put. He’s gauging the first wave. He turns, watches Sunburn Guy, too far out, too far over, arms flailing, miss catching it. Peter spins his board, ready to take off, looks over at me, throws both hands out and toward me. “It’s yours,” the gesture says.
“Mine? Shit!” I’m paddling furiously, almost afraid to look back. The shadow, the lift. Paddle, fool!
There’s a moment, at the top of a wave, when a simple leaning forward, maybe putting some weight on the hand you’ll push up with, makes the difference between taking-off, missing the wave, or going over-the-falls. Your board starts dropping, the wave dropping out below you. The current phrase is ‘throwing yourself over the edge,’ or ‘the ledge,’ or, more simply, ‘committing.’
It’s really just a simple shift in balance at the right moment. This over-examining, expanding on one moment, is a little, um, ‘precious.’ That’s what my old boss would have said. “Precious.”
I’ll ponder this tendency to give too much weight to trivial events later. I’m not thinking now. Joyfully so; relying on muscle memory… something. I take off, but late. The drop is too steep, too quick. I belly-board, leaning into the wave, side-slipping, probably yelling because… because I’m on it; in it, riding, full tilt, leaning in, pulling in, twenty-nine colors of clear, blue-green crystal spinning over my head; speed and sound and color. I may be screaming. “Surfin’!”
Definitely screaming. I don’t stand up until I clear the first section, and then, clumsy, labored, slow, I rise, catch my balance, careful, careful, well back of the middle of the board. Trying, cautiously, to set up for a pitching section, crouching, I catch a rail and, again, I’m tumbled, inside the wave and under the water, tucked into a fetal position, hands over my head in a move both instinctive and practiced.
Sunburn Guy is on the next wave, pumping his short board furiously, making three moves when one smooth one would be enough. He doesn’t see me, standing in thigh-deep water, my board resting on the green, exposed reef farther in.
“Hey!” I dive to the right at the last second.
On the next wave, Torn Wetsuit Guy, too far over, falls, top-to-bottom, on the takeoff. Peter spins and takes off from the shoulder, fades left, bank-turns off the advancing lip, stalls at the bottom, sets up, walks to the nose as his board climbs the wall. I don’t know how a wave can be so green at its core, so transparent at the curl, so Laguna-Beach-school-of-art. Yet, Peter is a shadow in the glow, casual, barely moving, his back foot changing the pressure slightly, subtly. It’s glide to side-slip, step back, a turn off the bottom, all still well forward of the middle of the board, head-dipping into that last little closeout section. His board pops out. I grab it.
Peter stands, spins water out of his hair, blinks water out of his eyes. “Late 60’s?”
“What? Yeah. Sorry. I’m just surprised you’re…”
“Talking to you?”
“Yeah. Great ride. Sorry. I mean, um, like, good ride. I moved away in the seventies… work; but I came back in…”
“Ninety, ninety-one; a few times after that. Visiting, I’d guess.”
“Yeah. Wait. What?”
He’s paddling away. I turn, sink the tail, pull forward. When Peter slides to his knees, I follow suit, surprised at how easy it is, painless; how my legs and arms move…together.
I’m almost yelling, “Yeah. Ninety-five was the last time, but I did do some surfing in… we took a vacation to… Hawaii; I went to, you know, some tourist beaches. Rented board.”
I almost run into him when he moves from a kneeling to a sitting position.
“It’s funny,” I’m thinking, or saying, not sure, “when someone reminds you of someone, you automatically…” I drop to a prone position, my hands deeper in the water. Yes, I am speaking. “You automatically think that person will respond like the…”
“Always wanted to surf Hawaii,” he says, “Went through there once.”
Janet- We haven’t cleared the parking lot and I’m already looking back. “Look, Sam,” I say, “there used to be a restaurant your Dad and I’d go to. It’s close. I… I know we, we have to get back before…”
“Your flight,” Sam says.
“Plenty of time, Mom.” That’s Susan, with me in the back seat. She’s holding a little too tightly to my arm. And I’ m holding too-tightly to hers.
“Maybe we’ll just go to the 7-Eleven over by the freeway,” my son says, “Isn’t that what Dad used to treat you to?”
“Sometimes we’d go to the A&W. They had car-hops. Car-hops; they were… nevermind. Long time ago.”
Lawrence- Torn Wetsuit Guy has gone in. Goatee Guy is looking for a last wave. The clouds have advanced, filled-in, closed ranks. Kids on shortboards, toys, really, and people off-work, and folks who think of surfing as not much more than a workout are scattered from the outside break to- turning to look- as far down the beachbreaks, as far down the bluffs, golden, glowing, as I can see. More people are, finally, going in than are coming out. The sky at the horizon is… it’s colorless. The color hits in the final half hour before and the first half hour after sunset. The deepest parts, the cores of the advancing waves, are already black, the upper reaches almost purple. A painting of this would look unreal. Not like, “unreal, man!” Unreal as in not real, not true to our memories.
In between rides, and I am doing better by the wave, Peter had… we talked. His voice was… who can remember a voice? “The water,” he just asked, “Does it feel cold to you?”
“No, it feels warm.” I look down. “Seems pretty clear.”
“The red tide, though; it’s coming in. On the tide. It’s… See, to you, it’s like a dream. You don’t feel the Santa Ana’s about to kick in. You know the tide’s rising, but you don’t feel the upwelling. It’ll cloud the water… it’s plankton, and… stuff. After dark, the soup, the breaking waves, even, they’ll glow.”
“That’s bio… bioluminescence. It’s science.”
“Yeah. Um. I’m, uh, sorry; you seem so familiar. I mean, sorry; I’ve been staring, probably. It’s rude, but… you remind me… a friend in high school who… oh, he was a good surfer. I was… I was trying to be.”
Peter looks outside, scans the horizon. The others are sitting on their boards, waiting in the almost glassy water. He looks back, moves his feet, his board rotating until he’s close, facing me. “We weren’t really friends, though; were we, Lawrence?” There’s a pause. He’s waiting and I’m… I’m not processing. What? Think. What? He waits until I close my mouth, and smiles. “Lunchbox. Your nickname. Lawrence ‘Lunchbox’, um, a second… Bachus.” He laughs. “Oh, I get it. Lunchbachus.”
I’m not laughing.
Janet- Susan is looking inside the decanter. It’s glass, brilliant blue- dark, on the purple side- her father’s favorite color. “It’s depression glass,” I say. “Your father’s favorite color.” I add, “Mine, too.”
“Mom,” Susan says, then hands the decanter, but keeping a hold on the stopper, to her brother. We’re at a traffic light. He looks inside, shakes his head, gives out one of those “Sheesh” sounding things, hits the accelerator.
“You know,” he says, “Decanters are for wine… usually.”
“It was a joke between your father and me; the…”
“So, this all was what he wanted. And you…” Sam’s slows his words, “…came back here… to…”
“I couldn’t. I told you, I couldn’t.” I couldn’t. “Not everything. Not all of it. Why do you even care?”
Lawrence- “You’re not the…first to see me,” Peter says, scanning the other surfers now jockeying for position near us. “Them. They’re…” He makes sure I’m looking at him, as if some expression of his might clear my confusion. “They’re, like, on a different… zone; a, um, different… time; yeah; time is different for them.”
“But,” I say, four or five surfers in my peripheral vision, “you said others have…”
“Yeah. Well; the others would stay awhile. They’ve… all gone…on, somewhere.
“You’re a… ghost?”
Peter seems a little disappointed. He looks away. I’m thinking; trying to think. “Boo!”
I can barely respond. Things are clicking. No, not yet.
“Maybe,” Peter says, “Maybe I am a ghost. I can’t think about it too much.”
“But you,” I say, “You were…Peter… I remember that you, you joined the Marines because you were older, going to get drafted. What do you remember?”
“Running,” He looks around, then back. “Running; not away from something. Charging. Screaming. I was out of ammo but I kept pulling the trigger. Running. I told you, Lawrence, I… I can’t remember more. Or won’t. Those who do…”
There’s a wave. Empty. I take it, get a short ride. I’m straining to remember how I got here as I paddle back out to where Peter is sitting, looking toward the cliff.
“Maybe this is, for me, heaven,” he says. “I don’t know. My mother… she knows where I am .I see her sometimes, on the cliff, on the stairs. She’s alive, if you… She’ll only go so far down. And I, I never go too far up. The parking lot. The edge, near the cliff. That’s it; nowhere I can’t see from the water.”
“You say, ‘others,’ like you,” I say, more a question. “And other people have seen you?”
“See that old guy over there on the yellow board?”
“The guy with the scar? Yeah. Is he…like you? Is he a…?”
“Ghost? No.” Peter can’t seem to help laughing. “But he is an asshole. Brian Hanson. He was a grade behind you. Cheated on his wife. Nancy. ‘Nice Nancy.’ He used to meet up with some chick here. He…”
“Brian Hanson,” I say, loud enough to carry. Louder, “Brian Hanson.”
Brian Hanson, of course, doesn’t respond. Asshole that he is, he wouldn’t even if he did hear his name called out.
“Lawrence,” Peter says, looking sideways at another approaching wave, Brian Hanson and two others stroking hard to catch it, “What do you remember?”
JANET- Susan got into the front seat with her brother when I got out. I hurried to the guardrail at the edge of the bluff. I’m just frozen here, looking out. There never was the brilliant sunset that I’d promised them; just a line at the horizon, white almost, burnt orange, maybe, at the ends. The water is silver, though, shimmering, moving. A few surfers are still out, bobbing in the, um, shimmer.
“Lawrence,” I say to the shimmer, “Sam says I have to… closure, he says, your request, he says; and, oh; and I…” I can’t help but laugh. “You’d laugh, Lawrence; your silly wife left your favorite decanter in Sam’s car.”
I look around. My children are arguing. Sam, Sam won’t even turn off the engine.
“Your son,” I say to the thin line of clouds at the horizon.
Lawrence- I have too many questions. Yeah, I remember some things. I try to remember my own pain. Can’t. I look at my left hand, move my arm. Peter swirls his hand in the water, lifts it, lets water drip out of it.
“What about after dark?” I ask. Where do you, I mean… what about dark?”
“I can see fine. Can’t you?” I can. He looks up at the cliff. High tide has passed by now. The swell is just strong enough to allow the waves to continue to break. We’re lined up closer to the rocks, closer to the beach. I can see the palm tree, but not the telephone pole; silhouettes against the unseen street lights in the parking lot.
“You married Janet, Janet Gilmore… Janet from another planet. Right?”
“Um, yeah. Janet. Peter. Coach Walters used to love to call your name. ‘Holden, Peter. Holden Peter.’ Remember?” As he did then, Peter doesn’t respond. At all. Or maybe a slight head shake; disappointment. I follow his eyes, where they’re looking; up. There she is, leaning over the guard rail that didn’t used to be there. Janet, Janet from another planet. She’s looking right at us. I turn back, look for a wave. I need a wave. Yes. I take off, ride it until I hit the beach. I drag my board up to the high sand.
Peter takes off on the next wave, rides it straight in, leaves his board in the water. He says something, words louder as I run toward the stairs. “I have questions, Lawrence. If you don’t… Do you know what happened to…” His voice is lost in the general noise; the grating and grinding and a wave breaking outside, a jet high overhead, a seagull, cars pulling out of the parking lot, people in their houses. My feet on the stairs are silent, though. I take two at a time.
Janet- “I did what you wanted, Lawrence.” Again, I feel like laughing. Not because I’m silly. I’m rarely silly. I never did quite do what he wanted. Not all of what he wanted. Ever. “I had to hold on to some… keep part of you… with me. Lawrence?
Lawrence- “I know.” I’m so close to her, but I can’t… feel her hand. She shudders, but not from the touch.
She’s real. She’s here. Beyond her, outside Sam’s car, Susan is saying something, trying to grab Sam. He runs toward his mother, pouring something out of my favorite wine decanter into his hand. Some of it leaks out, onto the pavement. He throws the rest. Straight at me. Janet turns. Too late. The decanter hits her arm. I try to catch it; reflex. It drops, shatters. Janet looks at the blue, broken glass, at Sam. Susan, even with her brother now, is looking at me, her mouth open as if about to shriek.
Jeez; I’m about to shriek.
Janet follows our son’s eyes, turns around. Sam is looking at me, saying, “What? What?”
Janet- The lighter ashes are…caught in the air, hanging, suspended, forming… What? I gasp, inhale; cough. I see Lawrence, only younger. Only, just for a briefest moment. “Lawrence,’ I say to the now-empty space. I hear a cracking sound. In the water. There’s this glow… a breaking wave, with a… a… someone is on it; has to be. All I can see is the trail, the broken wave. “It’s glowing.” I say this to Sam and Susan, each staring at the other. “Lawrence,” I say this to the glow.
Lawrence- “Bioluminescence. It’s science,” I say. “I’m here.” The red tide has come in. The Santa Ana’s are moving the trees seaward, the clouds back. My son scoops up the last of the broken glass, puts it in the cardboard serving tray from the place that replaced the A&W his mother and I used to go to. The bottom of the decanter, like a rough-edged ashtray- that shouldn’t be funny- is intact. Sam looks at his mother, his eyes filled with tears. I wasn’t a good father. I know that’s what he thinks- always gone, always working. Like him, now. He runs for the stairs and down.
Time passes at just exactly the same speed as always.
I touch Janet’s cheek, at that little bit of gray ash between her lips and nose. The tear continues down her face. I stand beside my wife and daughter. Somewhere in this time I tell my wife how much I hope, hope I hadn’t… disappointed her. “All I ever wanted…” I start to say more, but… don’t. I watch her, circle around her, wonder if she feels me there.
Sam returns, winded, with sand from my favorite beach in the bottom of the broken decanter. He puts that into the cardboard tray with the broken glass and the tiniest bit of ashes his sister had regathered. “Not ashes,” Sam says. “Just sand.” Susan holds the tray, a memento, her other hand on her mother.
More time passes; slower, maybe. The street lights hold back a darker dark. Stars, muted by the thickness of an empty coastal sky, start to shine like…like… usual.
They have to go. Susan lives elsewhere. We…Janet doesn’t live here anymore.
“The ocean was always the other woman,” Janet says to our children at Sam’s car, the engine still running. They get in.
They all look right at me, afraid to take one step farther from the railing, as Sam takes one last turn around a parking lot empty except for the one or two folks who always seem to be around here.
After they leave, after they’re gone, I look over the cliff, over the ledge, and, feeling how the coolness of the slight updraft meets the offshore breeze, I let go.