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The Paddle Out

A fictional story of one last ride in the old world.

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The winter was dry, too dry, until it wasn’t. When the rains finally came, they kept coming. Slow, steady, torrential, a brief time out, a sliver of sun, and then the cycle repeated. In the springtime of the plague, it seemed that even the sun had forsaken Southern California.

During one of the breaks when the sun popped out to remind us of how much we’d taken for granted, Jesse decided to throw his old 8-foot Tolbert in the back of his pickup truck. It was a weird impulse to grab the Tolbert, a board he got maybe 15 years before and didn’t use much after the novelty had worn off. When he bought it, he was on the older side of young, a newly single dad who’d returned to the mainland after he and his father had finally quit the cult in Hawaii. That was enough in itself to make it a talisman of sorts, propped there in its own corner of the garage all these years. 

Jesse had left the Laguna Beach scene bloodied and broken by the time he followed his old man out to Hawaii. He was gentle by nature but huge in stature, and there were things inside him that didn’t take much to trigger. It wasn’t long before the boys were rolling up to Huntington or Long Beach, even Venice and Malibu if they were really bored. Not exactly looking for trouble, but not shy about it either. Sometimes it got heavy, and Jesse was glad to get out before the hijinx turned into a lifestyle and the lifestyle got you racked. He’d seen it before. We all had.

The religion in Hawaii, a mix of New Age bullshit and old-world asceticism slathered in a spiritual-warrior sauce, didn’t quite take. Nevertheless, Jesse was surprised by how much he wanted it to. Or, at least, how much he was happy for a little time-out, some peace, and the trappings of a family, until the usual nonsense revealed itself to all but the truest believers.  

When it did, his old man withdrew into the wilderness of himself, but Jesse picked up jobs pounding nails and framing houses. The surf stayed true, though, and having cut his young teeth at Wedge, he was good enough and big enough to paddle out wherever he wanted. Plus, he had a look in his eyes that the locals recognized and respected. 

Mainland reentry was rough, though, and he fell back on old ways—booze, blow, and brawling. Soon enough, he’d knocked up one of the party girls from back in the day. But, baby mama wasn’t much interested in family life. So there he was, a single dad with something bigger than himself to think about.

Jesse got the Tolbert at a large retailer a few miles inland, a shop for kooks. It was the kind of place he wouldn’t have been caught dead in when he cared about that kind of thing. But he didn’t want to deal with any of the old gang anymore. He liked the anonymity. 

It had been awhile since Jesse had gotten wet—fatherhood had seen to that—so he went looking for a board that would put a little float under him. He wouldn’t mind a little snap, either, just in case muscle memory kicked in. He was in the back looking through the used rack, getting depressed about the prospects, when he noticed a cockroach scurrying along the baseboards. If it hadn’t disappeared under the Tolbert, Jesse wouldn’t have seen it. When he did, something in its self-assured plainness appealed to him. The Tolbert had an air of anonymity about it. Like you could be a ghost on it. Plus, the price was right. Jesse didn’t so much choose that board as it chose him, like a dog will do when you go to the pound.

*

The shelter-at-home orders and then the curfew had been in place for almost as long as it had been raining. The little house on the East Side was getting crowded. In addition to his son, now a teenager almost as big as he was, there were two little girls and a beautiful wife, a beach girl who grew up like Jesse, and had similar scars and was similarly tired of adding to them.

They were fine, or as fine as anyone in those times. They’d stocked the garage freezer with chicken, steaks, and sausages, filled the shelves with canned vegetables, and were experts when it came to homemade poke or tacos. They could make it out of the curtains if they had to. 

Money was okay, too. For most of the first wave, construction had been deemed essential, like doctors, nurses, and first responders. So work had been steady enough, though most commercial projects had ground to a halt as emergencies were declared and resources shifted to converting the warehouses and chop shops along the industrial stretches. 

Doing fine, of course, had taken on a spiraling degree of relativity by then, and Jesse wasn’t spared from having to say goodbye to a friend or a loved one. The worst part was not being able to do it in person.

At first it was strange to drive by the hollowed-out husks of the old corporate castles—O’Neill, Hurley, Billabong, Vans, RVCA, Quiksilver, Volcom. Strange to think about how much those names had shaped those streets, those lives. This town was once a little Seattle by the sea, though it trafficked in something more esoteric and ultimately more fragile than technology. 

Still, those who were sitting squarely in the pocket when the swell was rising made their fortunes. More than a few of them were the same punks Jesse knew from back when. In most cases, the rich just got richer—some scion of Newport Beach parlayed his real estate-developer daddy’s fortune into an even bigger one. Not all of them were fortunate sons, though, and Jesse didn’t begrudge the tides that had lifted some of his scrappy homies, even if he sometimes envied their double-lot spreads over by the Back Bay.

Strange, too, how quickly it all went away, like it was never real. The names and logos clung to the sides of the buildings like banners of fallen empires. For Jesse, those banners still sparked flashes of good times at Trestles and Rockpile and Echo Beach. Good times, even when the inchoate anxieties of the young and restless followed him out into the lineup. The worries never lasted too long out there, though. A few solid rides, a few beers, maybe a bonfire down at Crystal Cove, and then waking up on the beach or in one of the old abandoned cottages. At times, it could even feel like you knew who you were. 

When it was time to go home, or sober up, was when the clouds would start forming. It was those in-between times that got him. It was then that he wondered about his own mother. Wondered who she was and why she left. But he didn’t talk about it, not with his dad or his buddies. He just got another tattoo and, slowly, his body became a puzzle board in ink.

*

The surfboard had been collecting dust in its corner in the garage for years when Jesse found out that Tolbert, the shaper, had a conversion, something like a born-again experience, after nearly drowning on a massive day at C Street. He wasn’t in over his head by any means, but shit happens and, as the story goes, he’d had a bad feeling that morning, a feeling he didn’t listen to until he found himself getting rag dolled by a seven-wave set the likes of which he couldn’t recall ever coming through the point. When he crawled onto the sand, coughing up water, snot, and blood, he found God and a renewed commitment to shape the kind of utilitarian stick Jesse was now tying down to the bed of his truck.

The board would be flagrant, of course, practically flaunting the driver’s refusal to stay home except for essential business or emergencies. In Jesse’s mind, though, this was something of an emergency. The sun was out, for a change, and it was head-high, mid-tide, and offshore at River Jetties. Not the most glamorous spot on the coast, but it was at the end of local jurisdiction and far enough from the hospitals and chaos to maybe not draw any heat. 

What if he did, though? Jesse still knew all the local cops, one way or another, and the most they’d likely do is tell him to go home. Regardless, if the world was ending, what was the harm in catching a couple of waves?

The drive to River Jetties would normally take about 15 minutes, but these were days of no traffic. Orange Avenue was empty but for the handful of people out walking dogs. Jesse thought it looked like a neutron bomb had gone off. Before all this, every other block would have had a sign pointing cheerfully to an open house where a steady stream of prospective buyers—God knows where all that money came from—would kick the wheels on a $1.2 million starter cottage. 

In those days it was easy. Paint the house light gray, do the trim and doors in light blue, mark it up 100 percent over cost, and watch the moths march to the flame. Jesse felt both pity and contempt for these fools. At least, he told himself, his little outfit had been building rich-people homes for people who were really rich. That was pretty much over now, too. Nobody but the government was buying anything anymore.

IF THE WORLD WAS ENDING, WHAT WAS THE HARM IN CATCHING A COUPLE OF WAVES?

On Newport Boulevard, he couldn’t help himself and crossed over at 17th. Almost all knowledge had become social-media received knowledge, and Jesse wanted to see things for himself. The medical center was still sealed off for a two-block radius, even though it had been more than a week since the uprising against the quarantine-at-work order. 

Jesse decided not to test the local PD by going in for a closer look. Still, he managed to catch a drive-by glimpse of the lines of people in masks snaking down the street, waiting to be tested or triaged, and the health workers and personnel in space suits tending to them, and the National Guardsmen making sure no one made a run for it.

He turned right on Victoria, the mainline across town, over the river and into Huntington Beach. It was now mostly a service road for emergency and supply vehicles. Jesse felt a bit ashamed about the surfboard jutting out of the back of his truck like a shark’s fin, but he kept going, propelled by a desire for some kind of lived experience in the middle of all this limbo as he waited for the old world to finish dying and the new one to begin. In the meantime, these streets had quit making memories. If they came back to life, Jesse knew the new memories would be bereft of their usual context. 

He wanted one more ride in the old world.

*

Near the end of Victoria, just before the river, he could see workers putting the final touches on the field hospital that he had assigned his crew to work on a few weeks before. His boss wasn’t happy about it. There were still rich people paying for rich people stuff then, but the Army Corps was maxed out up the coast. The call had gone out for men who know how to do shit to pitch in. So Jesse told his boss to go fuck himself. Besides, his crew was his crew.

He sent the boys to Victoria Park where they ripped out the playground, leveled the grade, and assembled the hospital kits. Jesse could eyeball these things by now and it took him a ten-minute walk around the perimeter to calculate the proper dimensions, logistics, and optimal traffic flow. The side street along the park going east to west would work for two-way emergency vehicle access. A walkway to the back of a condominium complex offered a corridor for supply delivery and a sterile area for staff. The west end could be cleared and fitted for a helipad. The triage and main facilities would run north to south along Victoria. The refrigerator trucks could load out with efficiency and discretion at the north end.

It took Jesse ten more minutes to sketch it all out on a piece of paper, and that was that. They did the job in a week. County Health said thanks, the mayor said thanks, the Red Cross said thanks, and his boss said you’re fired. His crew was told to go home and quarantine. He hadn’t seen them since. Was it right to look at the scene of tragedies in waiting and feel proud? As Jesse passed the field hospital, he felt something like that. This place would save lives, too, and would help bring memories back to life when it was time for new and better memories to bloom again. Someday.

*

Jesse drove a few miles along the river toward the beach. The river was swollen and fast from the rains. Something else, too, something he’d never seen before. The river was clean. No garbage bobbing in the churn, the banks clear of the usual litter and shopping carts and plastic bags that clung to the trees along the channel like they were trying desperately to not end up in the ocean.

He turned off PCH where Foggy’s Surf Shop and Blitz Burger sat empty and ancient. Jesse thought about how it had been a while since he darkened the doorway of either and how it might be never until he did it again. He parked at 68th Street, wriggled into a vest, and put some wax on his naked and white Tolbert. He walked barefoot along the deserted street, and passed by the deserted playground and the locked public restroom. The summer rentals were all empty and the second-home owners were sheltered away somewhere less infected.

Toward the end of the block, where the street ends and the sands spill over onto the built world, an old lady was walking a tiny dog along the narrow patch of grass that had once been the local dog walk. As he approached, Jesse watched her bend down gingerly to pick up her dog’s shit. She snapped upright when he got within spitting distance and, for a moment, her eyes went wide and feral. But the fire quickly simmered down as recognition returned.

“Haven’t seen many of you guys around here lately,” she said.

“No, I expect not,” Jesse replied, stepping out into the street.

“I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s okay, I was just startled, not scared.”

She slowly waved her hand in front of her, gesturing at everything.

“I’ve seen plenty,” she said. “It’ll take more than all this to frighten me.”

“I imagine so,” said Jesse, casting his glance downward in deference.

That’s when he spotted the cockroach waddling alongside the curb, thick and immutable, flaunting a gray piece of popcorn between its mandibles. A few ironic jokes and even more sighs started to form, but Jesse didn’t let them go too far. Instead, he whispered, “Fuck you, too” and squashed it with his large, bare foot. 

“Oh, excuse me,” the old lady said, remembering the bag in her hand before pushing it through the lid of the trash can that had been fashioned for such purposes a long time ago. “I suppose it helps to keep up good habits.”

“I think you’re right,” said Jesse. “You take care of yourself.”

The woman smiled distractedly and Jesse stepped onto the empty beach. The sand was warm and soft. The sun, the blessed sun, made the water sparkle like in old photographs. Jesse walked toward the river’s mouth. It was deeper and wider than usual, the sand high along its banks. A small pod of dolphins swam from somewhere up the churning channel and out into the bay. 

Jesse paddled out.