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Saltwater Crucible

Bruce pulled into the dirt lot and killed the engine. The car hitched and gurgled like a seizure victim. Each gasp bespoke his destitution, broke and jobless, bills unpaid, a wife and child at home. He’d been laid off exactly one year ago. Disappointment clouded his wife’s eyes like cataracts. She tried to hide it, but truth was easier felt than heard.

“Dad? Are we gonna check it or just sit here all day?”

His son’s voice yanked Bruce back. Jack gazed up with green eyes so genuine that Bruce almost wept with sheer love. But even Jack had grown mouthy of late, as if sensing Bruce’s shame, watching the old man frump around in his underwear all day like some unwelcome houseguest. Bruce had struck out with every suitable employer in the region, nary a call back. What more could he do? He’d always dreamt of free time to surf, work the garden, paint the house. But in the past year he’d accomplished nothing - not a wave ridden, not a tomato harvested. Humiliation had paralyzed him.

So he watched the phone, compulsively checked the answering machine, and settled into a narcotizing unreality of daytime television. The midday sunlight reflecting off the screen was disconcerting. Based on the commercials, he should either be caring for an infant or in traction, seeking a lawsuit. He was neither, just a healthy deadbeat. Such was his self-pity that he struggled to emerge from bed each day. His wife had finally booted him from the house this afternoon and demanded he go surfing.

“Dad? You awake, or what?”

Bruce shook the thoughts away. “Yeah. Let’s go look.”

They left the car and climbed through poppy and mustard to an overlook. Bruce shielded his eyes from the waning sun and studied the ocean. Swell hugged the headland like string stretched around a fingertip. The crowd was thin for such conditions, the sky a cloudless, forgiving blue. Unshackled from its yearlong funk, his heart beat a steady patter of stoke.

“Looks good, huh dad?”

Bruce nodded.

“You gonna surf this time or just sit on the beach?”

The comment stung, but Bruce ignored it.

They unstrapped surfboards from the rusted racks of the rusted rig, shouldered their backpacks, and humped west past poison oak and the occasional seagull carcass. The trail skirted an estuary thick with cattail and bulrush.

Salt air and anticipation cleared Bruce’s head. Negative thoughts had collected there, like a garbage bin he could not empty. Chagrin. Self-doubt. The impotence of a wage earner gone to seed. And those rigid creditors. The smug pinhead at the bank treating Bruce like a common vagrant.

Bruce was down but he’d worked two decades in the mines of middle management and had a degree from a marginally accredited state university. Granted, it was in something called “Human Studies,” but at least he had the damn piece of paper.

He and Jack reached the sand and surveyed the water. Calm wind rendered the ocean smooth and dark like polished obsidian. Overhead waves peeled over a tide low and rising.

Jack gawked at the liquid perfection. He’d only been surfing two years, a fifth of his life, but understood the rare synergy unfolding before them. Bruce had taught him well.

They suited up, tiptoed over the slick mudstone reef, and paddled through a surging channel. Kelp bulbs popped up random and freakish like slippery brown corpses. Bruce stiffened in the cold water. Advancing age and a surfless year had rendered him elastic as steel pipe. His body loosened, slowly, with each rhythmic stroke.

“Stay in the channel,” Bruce called.

Jack looked back and scowled. “Thanks for the tip.”

Bruce smiled at the sarcasm. To his pleasure, the boy didn’t hesitate, just sniffed out a paddle route that was spooky in its sophistication. At the main peak, they straddled their boards landward of five surfers hunched over and staring vacantly like invalids.

Within minutes, set waves piled on the horizon. The pecking order was by age, ability, and aggression. Jack hadn’t a chance. Crafty graybeards snagged the first two. The pack jockeyed for the third.

Bruce boxed out the interlopers and nodded at Jack. “All yours, buddy.”

Jack dropped in and carved turns with the impatience of youth. He tore through sections with such zeal that Bruce’s back hurt just watching him. The boy’s skills were developing as fast as his sarcasm. He wouldn’t need the old man’s help much longer.

Tears pooled in Bruce’s eyes. He wiped them dry and loitered in the shoulder while the set continued. The ocean suddenly felt foreign. Menacing. He couldn’t summon the mental or physical resources to engage the peak. Bottom-rung stragglers fought over lingering scraps. When the ocean went flat, Bruce floated alone with his thoughts.

He dunked his head underwater to cleanse his mind. Twenty years he’d spent at that office, working more Saturdays and swells than he cared to remember. And when business slowed they discarded him like so much refuse. He’d exhausted his search for comparable work. What remained was a younger man’s game, something Bruce would’ve appreciated thirty pounds ago. It wasn’t about the money. It was the dignity.

But, after a year, dignity was an unaffordable luxury. He had no other choice. Time to grovel. To accept defeat. Tomorrow, he’d make a few calls, restart his career at the entry level. A step down in work was, at least, a step up from the couch. He’d been setting a poor example for Jack, loafing around the house. He had to break his sorrow, not for himself or his wife - she was a rock - but for the boy.

Jack paddled back out with a grin three feet wide. “Did you see that?”

“Sure did.”

“How big was it, do you think?”

“Overhead, for sure.”

Jack nodded in satisfaction, scanning the water for waves. “Why aren’t you catching anything?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Sets continued through a sinking sun. Bruce remained waveless, preferring to run interference for the boy. Landlocked a year, he’d forgotten how to harness moving water, how to navigate chop and the sporadic thud of fins on kelp. He felt like a man fresh from prison, once basic tasks now peculiar.

Watching Jack’s elation, Bruce recalled a time when the measure of his worth, and that of his peer group, was ocean knowledge and how one applied that knowledge to wave-riding. Other skills and aspirations, except of course ogling girls, were deemed suspect. The crucible forging his worldview had been the pungent reek of kelp, water pounding reef, and the concurrence of sky and ocean.

And here he was, decades later, enmeshed in a middle-aged drama of unsolicited resumes and overdue mortgage payments, so distant from that simplicity that it seemed illusory. A world in which the knowledge of swell, tide, and wind was irrelevant. A world in which he hadn’t a clue.

Waves stacked on the horizon. Everyone, save Bruce, caught one. He hung near the channel while the set reeled through an empty lineup. Passing on such juice was criminal.

The perfection taunted Bruce like a schoolyard bully. He ignored it until, blotting out the sun, the day’s prize bore down upon him: A flawless, rising pyramid. Double overhead. You could find religion, or at least hopeful agnosticism, in its shoaling symmetry. Three strokes and it was his. Yet he froze.

As the wave peaked, Jack shouted “Go dad, go!” from the inside. The boy’s words broke Bruce’s trance, rustled some dormant yeti, long since collared. His self-pity was an evil little gremlin needing a neck-snap, slice-and-dice, mesquite-grill reprimand.

Bruce dropped in shaky and awkward, legs distended. He hesitated at the bottom, losing momentum while the wave walled over the reef. But he adjusted and launched down the line. With each turn, a slow rebirth came. Sections were read and run, carves were laid with the precision of a stonemason. He raced past the smiling, hooting Jack and, as he pulled out, hooted back.

He returned to the lineup and sat beside Jack.

Jack’s mouth hung agape. “You killed it, dad.”

The boy’s eyes glittered. And germinating in that light, like a rush of wildflowers on a fire charred hillside, were the seedlings of Bruce’s latent stoke, a resurrection of forgotten purpose. The burdens of land were, for a brief moment, irrelevant. Bruce simply smiled, nodded, and agreed.

Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in central California. He studied fiction writing under Jim Dodge and has an M.S. degree from Humboldt State University. His fiction has appeared in Surfer Magazine, and he is currently circulating a novel for publication.

Surfing photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk
Photo of lone sufer statue courtesy of Christopher Bruno.


 


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