Breaking Pierpont

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We heard about the storm a few days before. A hurricane coming in from down south off the coast of Mexico. The remnants were heading up the coast. Each gust was whiplash from that southern storm. Travis was stoked about the high surf advisory. The city wasn’t. They were closing off all the beaches. I told him if he went, I would go.

Travis threw his can into the fire. Tony took his pocketknife and punched a hole in the bottom of his own. He chugged and covered his chin with foam.

“This fucker’s not going, Trav. Doesn’t matter what he said last week, he won’t be there tomorrow.”

“He said he’d go, Tony.”

Waves pounded the shore. Even here in the Cove, where jetties cut the surf, they were getting serious. I drank my beer. Sand floated in with the swill and I felt it on the back of my tongue. The bonfire lit up the sand that surrounded it, and the three of us faced our fire. Tony burped. Our eyes squinted from the heat while our backs felt the cold bite from the foggy marine layer that crept up onto the beach. A waxing moon shone through the clouds every once in a while. Out on the horizon, faint in the fog, the oil platforms’ emergency lights looked like Christmas bulbs. I shivered and drank my beer. The wind was getting stronger.

“That fancy fucking school doesn’t leave Nick any time to surf.”

“Nick can handle himself,” Travis shot back. “Right?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m going.”

I stared at Travis’s beer can in the fire. The color faded off the aluminum.

“Fuckin’ right,” Tony said. “See you cocksuckers at five.”

Tony got up, stumbling for a few wobbly seconds. The beer can curled in the heat. Wind swept the flames.

…………

It was four-thirty in the morning. I hadn’t slept. Cheap beer churned in my stomach. Dad was asleep in his room. Not wanting to wake him, I grabbed my wet suit and climbed out of my bedroom window. The rain was coming down hard and the wind blew it into my face. Sneaking around to the front of the house, I waited on the porch. In a few minutes, I saw Travis’s pick-up. I strapped my board down on top of his, and then ran through the rain and climbed in the passenger side.

Water slid down the inside of the window, down the door, puddling at my feet. The clouds had eaten up every last star in the sky.

We drove straight through Pierpont. As we passed Tony’s street, I asked Travis where he was.

“Fuck Tony,” Travis said. He didn’t look at me. Cones shone out from his headlights. He stared into the storm. “If Tony tries to get out there he’ll fucking kill himself.”

I couldn’t get past what Travis said. Tony had always been the better surfer, had in fact taught Travis when we were just groms surfing beach breaks at Mondo’s. Just three shits splashing on hand-me-down boards. If Tony couldn’t handle what we were about to do. . .

“What makes you think we won’t?” I asked.

Travis picked up a Red Bull he had stashed away in the glove compartment. He cracked it and drank half in a quick gulp.

“Travis?”

“Look, if you don’t want to do this then get the fuck out at the next light. We need to get onto that pier before daylight breaks.”

The wind blew and the engine revved high and then low as Travis shifted gears. Our surfboards rattled in the bed. I tasted vomit in the back of my mouth.

The road curved along the beach, unlit by a sun that wouldn’t peak over the coastal mountain range for another hour, but the sky was turning blue-grey. It was that pre-dawn hour when the grizzly older surfers show up on the promenade with cups of hot coffee. They’re almost always there, like the sea gulls and the squirrels and the morning cold. But they probably hadn’t been there that morning. They wouldn’t stay to see the sea like liquid mountains rising, cresting and crashing.

We parked under the freeway, no other cars around, and Travis stared out to the beach. He looked passed the uninhabited bike lane and beyond the gulls trying to make headway against the storm, and into the breaks, tirelessly pounding the pier and the shore. He raised the Red Bull and finished the can. His face was tense, angular. He turned to me, and he said, “The fuck you looking at, fag?”

I couldn’t stop. My bottom lip dropped, and I tried to either answer him or look away, but I couldn’t decide what to do, so I didn’t do anything but stare.

“You’re either doing this with me today, or you can just stay the fuck away from me, okay?”

“Travis, I don’t–”

“I’m serious.”

“I’m just saying, Tony probably had a good reason for not coming, you know?”

“I don’t give two shits about Tony. He didn’t want to come. That’s his fucking deal. But you said you’d do it. You can’t just take off and come back every once in a while for a couple drinks just because you feel guilty. I know you’ve got your own shit to deal with at that new school, or whatever the fuck ever, but it was us first. OK?”

Neither of us spoke for a moment. The freeway hung above us. We normally heard more traffic, but that morning it was still. I didn’t know if it was the storm muffling out the cars, or whether we were just as alone as it felt.Travis was so focused on getting out there. No matter what. And he was right. I told him I’d be there. So I sat in his truck,and listened to the rain pour. Travis had kept every promise he’d ever made to me.

“I said I’d do it, Travis.”

“I know you did. Get your fucking board.”

…………

The pier was raised up above the promenade, and it funneled the wind, which blew cold stinging rain in our faces. The wood stairs up to the pier were slick, and our boards nearly flew out of our hands the whole way up. Travis’s board was 6’8, Creamy white. Mine was 7’0 and yellow. Travis had shaped both of them in the shed behind my place out of a couple Clark Foam blanks that my dad got in trade for an H-VAC job. They were both a little heavy from older, thicker polyurethane, but Travis spent weeks sanding down the blanks, getting the rocker to match an Al Merrick board he’s always liked, mixing the resin, glassing the boards. They came out gorgeous, even though the fiberglass and the foam were starting to separate on mine, and air bubbles had formed on the deck. At the top of the pier, there was a chain-link fence rocking back and forth, a bold DO NOT ENTER sign slapping the links. From up on the pier, the wind was almost unbearable.

Travis went first. His toes gripped the fence. I tossed his leash up over, and he used it to pull his board while I lifted it. The wind caught the board and it rocked in my hand. Still hanging on the other side with one hand, Travis slid it over the top. The chain link scratched the glass. He jumped and landed, board in hand, flat-footed on the other side. He helped me get my board over before I started climbing.

I pulled myself up the fence. But it shook back and forth more violently the higher I made it. From the top I could see out to the end of the pier. The flag had been taken down from the flagpole. Familiar smells wafted: dead fish, bird shit. The ocean grumbled beneath us, telling me to go the fuck home.

I’d never surfed waves like this—ones that could bash your head into the pilings of the pier, hold you under and drag you out to sea. Tony was right. I hadn’t been surfing much. Not since school started. Foothill wasn’t the type of place you could sneak away from during third period. Campus security actually cared whether or not you were there. My teachers noticed if I was gone, and the work was hard enough that I couldn’t afford to miss class. Besides that, there were different social pressures. While my teachers had some faith in me, the other students placed bets on how long I would last. Travis and Tony and me were from De Anza middle school. Not that middle school should determine your whole life, but it usually does. Kids like us didn’t get accepted to Foothill. We weren’t supposed to have futures. Except that I had gotten in to Foothill. I threw my name into the lottery and got accepted into that fucking magnet school. Travis and Tony ended up at Ventura High. They surfed every morning, usually without me.

I climbed down and grabbed my board.

As we walked, I watched the whitecaps spray through the planks of the pier. Rainfall battered us and the boards. The ocean surged and plunged between the beams.

“When you jump, don’t land on top of it. Just toss the board away from you,” Travis yelled.

“Yeah, okay. But what if it snaps.”

“Swim like hell.”

We were three quarters of the way down the pier, the beach behind us and the ocean roiling below. I turned to look and saw what I could make out of Ventura. The hazy coastal range soaked up the rain. Porch lights and a few neon signs. Everyone I knew was asleep except for my dad. He was probably just getting into his truck to drive up over the Grade. Then he’d put in his eight union hours fixing H-VAC units and come back home to sleep. He must have half expected me to be in school that day. The sky was turning a brighter shade of morning grey, merging into the grey of the sea. The surf rolled, rabid with foam.

A squall rose and my board shot out of my hand and smacked into a bench. I chased it down and knelt beside it to check for dings. The ocean surged and I felt it—felt the water wallop the pier—felt it rise between the slats—felt the pier tremble. I slipped. My board smashed against the side rail.

Travis strode to my board and grabbed it with his free hand. It was still in one piece. I stood up. He handed it back to me. The Channel Islands were washed out and so were the oil platforms that bore into the ocean between the islands and where we were on the pier. From just off the left side, at the end of the pier, Travis told me to hold his board. Then, he gripped the banister with his two rough hands and he leapt over the side, landing on the outer edge of the pier. He took his board from me without saying anything.

I looked over the railing, scared shitless. Travis shouted at me, instructing me to put my board by him so he could try to keep it in one place. I did as I was told. Then I made my way over the railing. My feet stuck on every slat along the way. But once I stood on the other side, I felt like at least I knew what I was going to do next. The wind was dying down. The rain was more of a mist. Travis looked out to where the waves were coming in. He said, “Just remember to paddle. Stand up as quick as you can. It’s nothing but a gnarly fucking wave.”

Maybe I was numbed to the experience by then. There was this monstrous thing rolling toward us. It was foamy, but not yet starting to break. That’s what’s really scary about a large wave: it has almost no shape far out to see, and it’s almost impossible to tell what it will finally end up being until it hits the shelf and stumbles, rising ten, twenty feet and collapsing with the sound of thunder. So we watched this hill, large but not yet ominous, until it reached the shallow water and raised up. Travis didn’t move, so I didn’t move. It wasn’t until it was under us, when the peak of the wave nearly touched our feet,that reality set in. Because just as unexpectedly as the water had risen, it receded, leaving a twenty foot drop below my feet and the thrashing beast crashed, and the railing seemed like it would shake free of the pier.

“Set’s coming in.” Travis looked at a succession of ripples off in the distance and handed me my surfboard. They were about to hit the land-shelf and build on themselves. Travis just gripped his board in one hand and leapt off the pier. His body receded beneath me and he threw his board out in front of him; it spun like a white leaf in the wind until it stopped short, caught on the leash. They both landed in the water, and sank. The board popped up first, then Travis’s head. He paddled away from the pier. I couldn’t let go of the railing. Travis set up on the wave, paddled into position and got under what had become a monster, and I watched, not yet realizing that another wave was coming my way, breaking high enough to thrash over the top of the pier.

I gripped the rail tightly when that second wave hit, and felt wood cut into my arms. It was like hugging a serrated knife. My board went over, a quick drop stopped by the leash. It’s weight, or maybe just shock, kept me from pulling myself up and over, or from reaching down to undo the leash. I knew that if I let go I would be a piece of seaweed slapped against pilings, or just another mussel drowned in the brine, except that mussels don’t drown.

I hated Travis for everything that was happening. He knew I couldn’t do it, and he sure as shit knew Tony couldn’t. This was stubborn suicide. As I tasted the salty brine in the back of my throat I thought about Tony, probably checking the surf report as we spoke. Travis knew Tony wouldn’t come. But he also knew that I would. He expected me to be here, just like he expected both of us to either graduate or drop out of school together. Maybe, since he knew that wasn’t going to happen, he wanted the two of us to go out at the same time. He didn’t care if the storm crested into a wave that sucked up the whole city. He needed me and him on the same side.

The rocky basin of the shore became visible as the tide sucked back the sea. When I looked down, I could see the pilings clear to the sea floor. I clung to the railing and tried to get back over, but I couldn’t get a good footing. As I turned to the horizon and saw the growing blue-green wall of water blend with the grey of the sky, my knees gave out again. Heavy rain battered the face of the wave.

With the surfboard velcroed around my ankle I couldn’t climb back over the railing. The wave barreled toward me, alive and unstoppable, a howling wall. I followed the line of the wave and saw a speck rising into the curl. Travis was paddling. He wasn’t setting himself up on the wave. He was hauling heavy ass trying to make his way beyond it before he went over the falls.

I squeezed the railing and fumbled to undo my leash, but my fingers were numb and the velcro strap kept slipping in my grip. My leg blurred when I shifted focus to Travis, who was completely upside down, his body contorting to the curl of the wave, his hands releasing his board’s rails. That was it. He’d go over the falls and disappear into the sea, a busted ear drum denying him even the ability to know up from down. That’s what had happened to even the best surfers who pushed their luck. But more often it seemed to happen to guys like Travis, for whom surfing was it. It was either die a brutal death on one last ride, or live long enough to become one of the grizzly old men drinking AM-PM coffee during the dawn patrol, remembering the times you didn’t go out, when you should have, when you might have died the right way. It could’ve happened to Tony, and it was about to happen to me. I thought back to all those mornings the three of us paddled out by the Pierpont schoolhouse, practicing cutbacks on mushy waves, lighting bonfires. It was hard to think back to when it started, but I remember that sickening knowledge that it would end, a knowing that I fully understood when I got that “Congratulations, You’ve been” letter from Foothill. I wanted to jump into the water right then and go through the wash with Travis. Who cared where our corpses washed up?

Travis vanished, and the massive wake of the wave came down. The white-water exploded into the air, catching my board and snapping my leash. The pier shook. The rail came loose and I fell into the ocean, rolling towards the shore. It was like being hit by a car, that sudden unexpected impact knocking your head against everything near you. It was like being swallowed. It was like being chewed up. It was a feeling that all those fucking kids at Foothill wouldn’t know. Even the ones who did surf wouldn’t understand. If we died, nobody would mourn our futures. This would be our legacy, as stupid and shitty and futile as it was, it was as good as Travis figured things might get. A story his friends, those future grizzly old men, would talk about until they died their unexciting deaths.

The wave slammed me against a rock jutting out of the sand. All that was left of my board was the leash around my ankle. When I rubbed my hand through my hair I saw the long streak of red across my palm. I was close to the entrance of the pier. Travis was lying motionless on a stretch of pebbles about fifty yards away. The rain pelted our bodies, and the tide kept rising up, tugging at Travis’s body.

The ocean still churned up deadly waves as I struggled to my feet. Even if I wanted to help Travis, I couldn’t move fast, or easily.  Each rumbling crash made me nauseous. Every muscle ached.

A piece of my surfboard washed up near him. Two feet of nose, where his signature was preserved under the glass. The three of us were in my dad’s shed when Travis wrote that signature with a carpenter’s pencil. “You’re a fucking artist,” Tony said. And in fact, Tony was the first person to surf both the boards. Travis said he wanted to make sure they weren’t shit. The first time Tony stood up on one of Travis’s boards, it was a type of precision none of us had seen before. Tony dropped in and the wave barreled over him, one of those forever tubes that you remember for the rest of your life. Travis wanted to give Tony that board, but Tony thought I should have it. “It’s perfect,” he said. “But it’s an inch too short for me.”

I started walking toward Travis’s body, but then he stirred. His arms quivered as he put his palms down and lifted his torso. Travis looked at the piece of my board, then down the beach, at me. He picked up the fragment and chucked it into the sea. His own board was intact further up the beach. He lifted it over his head and walked back to his truck.

I walked along the side of the bike path, rain beating down and the wind slapping my face. When I got up to the parking lot, Travis had driven home without me, but Tony was there with his Corolla. “You guys are fucking retarded,” he said and drove me home.

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