He remembered a party at a beachfront house overlooking the surf break they called Off the Wall. “Party” meant a small room crowded with shrieking young people, the heat and smack of their sweat, the sustained pressure of their bodies and bare legs, jostling boys with big shoulders, girls in shorts, a woman with purple and blue fish scales tattooed on her upper arm, a ring in her lower lip, others with nose rings and wearing T-shirts with slashes. A TV screen on the far wall showed surfers on the boil of curling waves.
Sharkey stood marveling, believing that he was anonymous, liking the sight of this great health and the suggestion of recklessness in the heat and noise, the shouting girls, their brown toes, the wild-eyed groups, all of them contending.
A tall girl nearby with sun-scorched hair and a stipple of tattoos across the tops of her breasts and a swimmer’s pale pickled-looking fingers looked up, smiled at Sharkey, broke away from her shouting group, and approached him.
She screamed “Hi!” to be heard above the din and stood, confident, just his height in bare feet, looking him straight in the eye.
Sharkey nodded. “How’s it?”
“What was your secret, when you were starting out?”
Her shouted question got the attention of some boys, who drifted over to hear his answer.
But he said, “Ask these guys. It’s their party.”
“You were killing the Pipe before any of us were born,” one of the boys said.
Sharkey was cautioned. You’re old, they were saying.
“Did you have a longboard then?”
“A wooden board that looked like my mother’s front door,” Sharkey said, and swigged his beer. “We all had longer boards in the 70s. Even Gerry and Butch.”
“Van Artsdalen. An outlaw. A wild man. A waterman.” But none of this registered. “Even Jock had a giant board.”
Hearing his name, Jock Sutherland waved and said, “Balsa-wood core,” and withdrew, going shy, as he bowed his head and vanished.
“This guy killed it today,” the tall girl said, putting out her long arm and snatching at a young man’s shirt. “Double-overhead A-frames!”
His neck was looped with leis, which flopped as he twisted aside, and he smiled but kept his eyes on Sharkey. The flowers bulked under his chin, and the respectful way the others awaited his reaction Sharkey took to mean that he’d been a winner.
“How old are you?”
“Nineteen,” the boy said, tugging the garlands away from his chin, the flowers from his mouth.
Sharkey could imagine him sliding across the Pipe, cutting back, whipping around, the hotshot moves that won points these days. With this in mind, Sharkey said, “I remember when it was considered a victory to just stay on that wave without wiping out. No other moves.”
“Tell him your secret,” the tall woman said, and it sounded like a taunt.
“You know how it works,” Sharkey said.
“It’s a dogfight now,” one of the other boys said.
“Okay,” Sharkey said. “It wasn’t a dogfight then.”
The tall woman said, “What was it?”
Her tone was that of someone asking an aged veteran about a long-ago war, of antiquated weapons and maneuvers, former days, and again Sharkey understood that they saw him as an old man.
“There weren’t many of us,” he said. “But it’s always a dogfight in the lineup, you know that. And there were plenty of locals—it’s their territory. Remember, the Hawaiians killed their first tourist.”
“Captain Cook,” Sharkey said.
They were slow to respond; they leaned back and opened their mouths wider, as if to listen more clearly. Sharkey realized that only a few of them—the tall woman and perhaps one other—knew who he was, and so when he spoke it was in a protesting tone.
“If you’re in the lineup, be respectful—take the wave that nobody wants, the one with no exit, that breaks in front of the reef. Be willing to fall. On the Pipe, the hardest part is making the drop, because it’s so steep. And you might just get dumped on the reef. Or worse.”
One of the boys at the back asked, “What’s worse?”
“Underwater tunnels. Those caves. I’ve been put in a cave.”
Even the boy wearing the piled garlands of flowers was listening now, but Sharkey could tell from the attentiveness of the others that they were spectators and not hard-core surfers, and probably saw a guy talking because he was half drunk and old, and old people never listened.
“And there’s the hold-down.”
“The two-wave hold-down,” someone said.
“The three-wave hold-down,” Sharkey said, protesting again, asserting himself. “Three bombs hitting you. Under the wave at Waimea.”
“That’s suffocation,” the boy said, speaking through the thickness of lei blossoms.
“But you keep climbing up your leash,” Sharkey said. “Up the heavy evil wave.”
The tattooed young woman said, “You still surf the Pipe?”
“I choose my days.”
“How about the Eddie?” one of the boys said. “You compete in the Eddie?”
“I surfed with Eddie Aikau,” Sharkey said. “I knew Eddie Aikau. Yes, I surfed in the Eddie. I surfed with Eddie’s brother, Clyde. I can still handle big waves—know why? Because it’s straight ahead, less stress on my joints. No kick-outs. Economy of movement.”
Why am I lecturing them? he asked himself. Am I trying to impress them? He smiled, pitying himself, finding himself laughable.
“Waimea’s awesome,” the young woman said.
Except for the winner and his garlands, they had to be tourists and first-timers, though Sharkey could not tell whether they were dazzled by what he said; if not, he was making a fool of himself with all his talk.
Aware that he was boasting—and why was he boasting to these youths?—he said, “Phantoms, off V-Land, is gnarly. Jaws is even bigger. So’s Maverick’s. And there’s the Cortes Bank, off San Diego. That’s killer.”
Speaking again through his flowers, the garlanded boy said, “You surfed Cortes?”
“You’ve been everywhere,” a toothy boy said, looking hungry and a little surprised. He didn’t know Sharkey either.
“In your day,” someone started to say.
“My day,” he said, and shook his head.
I’m old—I’m ancient to them, Sharkey thought, not hearing the rest of what was being said. I’m craggy, I’m gray, and they think I’m past it. And it was true—he was lean, and sinewy rather than thick-muscled. He was deeply lined and leathery from decades of sun, with bright lizard eyes and a lizard face and long skinny hands, and many of his tattoos were sun-faded and others indistinguishable from bruises.
I am unknown to most of them. I am the past.
“My day is every day—today and tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve been there”—and he pointed at the TV screen, which was showing a man on a big wave in Portugal. “Nazaré. Used to be unridable. It’s a gang bang now. Try Chile—the wave they call El Gringo. That’s a wave. Try El Quemao—more dangerous than most—not just huge but it breaks on a dry rocky reef.”
A traveler’s tales, boasts about destinations like playing cards, snapped down in a game of trumps.
“Lanzarote, Canary Islands. I smashed a helmet in half there,” Sharkey said. “Shippies—Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania. A slabbing wave, a mutant. It creates steps. I air-dropped off the steps.”
You don’t know me, he wanted to shout. I’m not old!
They stared at him as though looking at a stranger, staring at a corpse, implying with their eyes the idle notion “You won’t be here much longer.”
One of them turned aside and said, “He reminds me of that guy a long time ago who ate mushrooms and then surfed Waimea at midnight.”
Briefly he hated them. Then he laughed and murmured, They don’t matter!
He thought with wonderment, I’m old. When did it happen? It wasn’t sudden—no illness, no failure; it had stolen upon him. It could have been while I was surfing, going for smaller waves, becoming breathless and needing to rest as I paddled out. Or maybe on the days I stayed home, making myself busy, unaware of time passing, and then it was sunset and too dark to go anywhere except to bed. I hadn’t really noticed except for the ache in my knees some days. And growing old is also becoming a stranger, with a different and unrecognizable face, withering to insignificance, ceasing to matter. Nothing more will happen to me. So soon, so soon—and how sad to know that I will only get older.
[Excerpted from the novel Under the Wave At Waimea, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 13, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Paul Theroux. To purchase a copy, click here. Feature Image by Wayne Levin.]