Feature

Home of Oil and Water

A drug peddler cuts a deal with The Dead Boys in the seaside town of Beachton in this piece of short surf fiction set in the 1970s. From TSJ 13.2.

The Beachton locals stand in post-surf revelry, sepia-tone shadows on their native berm, crusted with tar and salt and the stench of rotting sea life. They’re indifferent to the slush around them, the red tide rip that coagulates and runs like tobacco chew dribbled inside the surf line.

“It’s your Mother Ocean’s period,” a man shouts in a voice so raspy it prompts those around him to clear their own throats. “The cleansing has begun.”

The wetsuit-clad surfers chuckle at the commentary from a vagrant they’ve nicknamed The Mad Humper. He approaches them, partially hidden behind a mildewed Styrofoam cooler that squeaks against his skin, already shiny with sweat. Before he reaches them, he stops and plants himself squarely in front of an orange sanitation tractor, defiant in the face of the hard-hat worker who bounces with contentment in his dreary machine. Behind him, a shiny rake claws at the fluffed earth, collecting trash. The worker choreographs a bullfighter’s turn, laughs at his showmanship and then grows serious, appraising his handiwork the way a sailor studies the wake behind his boat. He is forced to stop just shy of the local freak. He puts his machine in neutral, removes his hard hat, and turns so that his legs dangle over the side.

“Give me 50, Hump.”

Immediately the Humper sets his ice chest and begins pumping our military-perfect push-ups. Sand cakes up on his chin as he counts off each push-up on the rise, pressing angrily against that which hovers invisibly above him. The tractor sputters and burps, and Hump gargles the tainted air. He grunts out a total of 55, then springs to his feet like a gymnast, meticulously brushing the sand out of his chest hair. The maintenance man slaps the top of his hard hat and grins until he notices a lifeguard truck angling along the berm.

“Better watch your beers, Hump. They’ll fine your ass.”

“Hey, the sand feels nice,” Hump responds, exposing himself.

“You’re a sick puppy,” the worker tells him, and then he leans forward and grips a black knob, revving the engine before shifting into gear. “No wonder they sent you back.”

“I’m ex-CIA,” Hump insists. “I’ve screwed the world at large.”

“And I’m JFK,” the driver shouts. “Now pull your damn trunks up.”

“Yes sir!”

After a 30-yard drill with an imaginary rifle, he is stopped by a group of middle-aged volleyball players who prevail upon him to knock out 20 more push-ups. When he is finished, he rubs gobs of sweat through his gray crew cut until a tall blonde woman in a one-piece black bathing suit bends over her personal cooler and withdraws two chilled beers. The Mad Humper barks like a seal when she hands him one. She remains silent but her arctic blue eyes implore him to calm down and to please step back. He jiggles what’s left of the ice in his battered cooler and sloshes down the beach.

*

By 1976, a freshly poured blacktop road curves around an island of fake foliage where a circular wooden sign proclaims: Welcome to Beachton, Home of Oil and Water. Beneath it, The Mad Humper rests in his grave, part of the unofficial city seal, like the skull and crossbones vandals have painted on a nearby beach. The vandals, known as The Dead Boys, surf daily, emerging like ghosts from the water, rising and falling within the crest of foamy swells, providing lithery backdrop—Beachton’s waterlogged ambassadors of coastal funk. Most of them are construction workers by trade, athletically sculpted and, to the average homeowner, slightly intimidating in their steel-toed work boots, surf shorts, and leather nail bags. While they work, their surf shop-issued T-shirts remain neatly folded on the seats of semi-functioning cars or artfully draped over the handlebars of fat-tired bicycles. On the job, they are considered craftsmen, if one doesn’t mind the stream of snot and saltwater that drains out of their nostrils and stains the partially framed walls of dream homes.

“Did you guys see this?” 

The local newspaper, a personal-ad-driven freebie called The Beachton Tide, is spread out on a stack of lumber. Next to an article touting the fact that Beachton residents consume more beer per capita than any other city in America, the editor has penned a poignant plea, a call to deluge city hall with letters, an all-out “war against gentrification.”

“We could end up like Malibu,” the editor warns.

The consequences hit The Dead Boys as hard as a sack of cement—Beachton is in danger of becoming an elite colony of single family dwellings, dwellings in which surfers like themselves could no longer afford to dwell. In protest, they pick up their reciprocating saws and begin to destroy the housing development they’ve been hired to build. The shells of single-family houses collapse in an orgy of splinters and wood-scented heat, pelting them like dried flesh out of knot-free bone. A mushroom cloud of sawdust blows inland as The Dead Boys leave town with their warm tools and sheets of salvaged plywood. They caravan a few miles north to a bluff overlooking a spot where waves once peeled off a sandbar and now is home to a barnacle covered pipe that surfaces at low tide, carrying Beachton’s treated waste out to sea.

“What do we do guys?”

“I heard there’s a south swell coming.”

“Our jobs, moron.”

“We could offer to rebuild, at double the wage,” another one offers.

“I’m tired of pounding nails, it’s like were building our own coffins.”

“What about buying some shit from Kraychek? You know, kind of work with him.”

“You don’t work with Kraychek, you…”

“Obey him,” one of them finishes. “You know, that guy’s like a dad that’s your own age.”

“I’m just saying that he’s up from Mexico. We can buy low, sell high, and split.”

The next morning, one of The Dead Boys wakes up in his surf trunks, counts out the money, and departs. He is barefoot, trudging downhill toward Beachton’s greasy ocean. The sky is heavily overcast and cool and early morning moisture clings to his cottonmouth.

“So this is dawn,” he says out loud to himself, yawning and still half drunk. He’s never been one for dawn patrol, but Kraychek didn’t allow any options. He stops at the bottom of the hill to pick glass out of his calloused heel, then, seeing Kraychek in the distance, opens his palms and extends his arms, as if consecrating the blandsky.

“It’s called June gloom, remember?”

“And it’s only May,” Kraychek responds.

The Dead Boy approaches a sea wall upon which he rests one leg and squeezes another green shard of glass from his foot. Kraychek looks past him, taking in the mangled construction on the hillside then, he, too, begins attending to his own bulbous digits, attacking nodules of tar lodged between his toes with the end of a discarded Popsicle stick. He methodically flicks each piece into the sand. The smell of saltwater and a clammy wet rubber odor wafts from his armpits as he works. The Dead Boy notices his wetsuit sleeves neatly draped over the wall, saltwater dripping in the sand. He executes a boy-to-man grip on Kraychek’s right shoulder, feeling the strength therein.

“Hey, thanks man,” he says, “for the opportunity.”

“Looks like opium, doesn’t it?” Kraychek remarks, pointing at the tar and expecting no responses other than the dumbfounded look on the boy’s face, which he views out of the corner of his bloodshot eyes.

After each lump is excavated, Kraychek pours clean sand over his toes and rubs, prompting The Dead Boy to fold his arms and rub the heel of his foot against his shin, generating a patch of warmth beneath the gray shell of Beachton’s sky. A seagull lands on the sea wall and appears to be watching Kraychek. The Dead Boy fidgets, digging a foot into the sand, seeking warmth

“The sun’s over there and there and over there,” Kraychek observes, raising the Popsicle stick to point out three small gaps of light. 

He doesn’t raise his eyes, but continues working surgically on his toes. The openings stretch and run like water, allowing increasingly larger drops of sun through the gauze-like cover of cloud. The beach becomes tainted with a rolling light that glares and flattens, the way a night wave shimmers just before it breaks. Kraychek, satisfied with the cleanliness of his feet, looks up in appreciation.

“Think of it as aqueous light,” Kraychek suggests, his last words before he crosses The Strand and begins pulling surfboards out of a filthy white station wagon. He instructs The Dead Boy to sit still, and so he does. He leans his back against the cold cinderblock wall, folds his arms across his chest, and digs his feet into the sand. Within minutes, he’s into a numb, hangover-induced sleep.

When he awakes, there are several surfboards stacked at his feet. Kraychek is on all fours, his body arched like a centaur, framed against lines of building surf. The Dead Boy rises and runs his hand along the rails of one board.

“Is the hash in here Kraychek?”

Kraychek, ignoring the boy’s question, unwinds from a complex yoga position and pulls his hair back into an absurdly neat ponytail. Numerically, they are the same age—21—but Kraychek is weathered and strong suffering from premature nostalgia. He is obsessed with a particular past, a past he knows only from pictures in archived copies of Surf Guide magazine. He is convinced that he has missed a golden era, and that the best waves have already broken, without him. The melancholy he experiences from such an impossible perspective has sent him south, to mainland Mexico, where he is the lone American cog in a wheel of Australian-funded drug distribution. They deal exclusively in Thai sticks and Lebanese hashish, preferred for the twin qualities of purity and ease of transport. Kraychek sells only to his fellow surfers, all of whom he despises, while the Aussies perform the heavy lifting: coordinating pickup and delivery of product with a growing flotilla of custom yachts. 

Pulling out of his squat, Kraychek draws effortless balance on the rolled edge of a concrete wall. He studies the waves out front, shorebreak tubes charged with plankton and slick with oil. Out of habit, he has paddled into a few of them before dawn and his upper torso, scarred as it is, glistens, seemingly smooth by the oily surf. He is a contradiction, limber and young and as rock, shaped over time by the flow of saltwater.

“When are you heading back down to Mexico?” the boy asks, his voice a high-pitched betrayal of self-confidence.

“When I feel the weight of the masses on those hills,” Kraychek responds, hugging his knees as if preparing his back to absorb that crush of humanity—the summer crowds. The thought of them makes him cranky. He rotates his neck and The Dead Boy feels the pull of his attention. Like everyone else who spends this kind of quality time with Kraychek, he doesn’t want him to leave. He hopes that some aspect of his character might rub off on him, the formation of which is a popular topic among The Dead Boys, as if they are theologians debating certain aspects of the recorded life of Christ.

His story, as they tell it, began in Hawaii when Kraychek, a military brat, wandered away from his Punahou classmates while on a field trip to Maui. He was enticed by a particular wave breaking on an outer reef—a majestic, almond-eyed tunnel, aqua blue, and sinfully unridden. The shore was lined with local fishermen, dark and solid as pier pilings. They puffed on Kool menthol cigarettes and sucked up bottles of Primo beer, conversing in the tropical code of pidgin English, which Kraychek unwisely attempted to crack.

“What, no one surf out dere, too big for you?”

The locals glared at the intruding haole. Having been on island for less than one semester, and not realizing the hallowed ground upon which he trekked, Kraychek just glared right back at them, a somewhat menacing haole boy of 5-foot 7-inches , and already muscular from high school wrestling. He stood long enough to watch a wave spit as it veered off the reef and eventually reformed into a vicious shore pound, rocking the beach and uprooting the fishermen’s poles. It was enough to turn their attention back to the sea, and Kraychek, sensing their anger, took the opportunity to run.

The next day, he was set on fire.

It was part of a hazing ritual called Kill Haole Day, a violent rite of passage for Caucasian high school kids. The young Hawaiians rationalized it as revenge for the unsolicited visit from Kraychek’s ultra-haole predecessors, the Christian missionaries. In the 1960s, their islands, it seemed, were being invaded yet again by military men on leave from Vietnam, drug-dealing longhairs, and panhandling Hare Krishna. Tolerance was at an all-time low.

The young locals attacked Kraychek with impunity.

“You be like one-kine Molotov, haole boy…burn,” they chanted in their warm pidgin lilt, surrounding him with flaming cane sticks cured in kerosene. He tried to run but ran into a human picket fence of flame and white teeth and the occasional fist, which always seemed to connect with his jaw. He struggled for his life until everything went silent and he was face down in a gully of sugar-cane mud. It was a haven of sorts, cool on his parched skin, alive with bugginess and putrid heat. He raised his head, slowly, for fear of a kick or a punch or a flame, or worse: darkness, Then, one by one, they came out from behind the stocks of cane, eventually pulling Kraychek to his feet. They carried him into the bay at Honolua and all but anointed him, one of their own.

Or so the story goes.

Years later, Kraychek’s eyes seemingly float within the weathered flesh of that violent youth. His pupils are brittle, like fired marbles, radiating a stoic, pissed-off heat, not so much a result of that adolescent beating as from prolonged squinting into various tropical suns. He is, it seems, always waiting for something to be delivered, be it hash from Lebanon or waves from God, and it has creased his face with permanent worry.

The Dead Boy picks up one of the surfboards and gently dips the nose into the sand.

“I copied an old 1940s Simmons,” Kraychek admits, with restrained friendliness. “I chamber them and stuff the cavities with product.”

The Dead Boy smirks and knocks on each balsa wood surfboard as if locating deeply held secrets.

“Man, they’re too nice. I almost hate to break them up.”

Kraychek snarls at him. 

“So, you got the money?”

“Yeah, here it is. Thanks, Kraychek.”

“Try not to get busted,” he says, disappearing behind a pair of sunglasses, “and, then, maybe you can come down after the rainy season and get some actual waves.”

*

At a Western Union stall near the Greyhound Bus station in down town Los Angeles, Kraychek wires some money to his account in Tepic, Nayarit. He then proceeds over to Olvera Street in what has become a sort of ritual with him, immersing himself in faux Mexico before returning to the real one. He eases into speaking Spanish with a new bartender who prefers to speak English. Kraychek offers to buy him a shot of tequila, which he politely refuses.

“I must go to my other job,” the bartender tells him.

Kraychek wants to make friends with every Mexican he encounters. He still finds them warm and tender and tortured, like, he imagines, the Hawaiians were before they focused all their anger against guys who looked like him. In his dream world, Kraychek foresees bringing the angriest Hawaiians to Mexico to show them what they’ve lost, and transporting the greediest Mexicans to Hawaii to show them what they will become, for Kraychek, when he isn’t peddling drugs, fancies himself a student of the human condition.

“Your bus leaves in 18 minutes,” the bartender warns, addressing the thoughtful gaze lodged behind a long-necked bottle of beer, Kraychekhas no reaction. The bartender clears his throat.

Quince minutos, señior.

Gracias,” says Kraychek, almost smiling, he slaps a $20 bill on the bar.

He drains his beer and is prepared to leave all the change. He hopes that will make his point, that he is a brother, a professional native. Money, of course, has that effect. The bartender looks embarrassed at the size of the tip. He knocks his knuckles against the bar and tells Kraychek to return the next time he’s in the States and they will drink and listen to the band that his uncle plays in.

As the bartender speaks, three tourists look at a menu posted outside and then waddle in and sit down at one of the larger tables. The woman is square and stocky in her Green Bay Packers T-shirt and black stretch shorts. She has a meaty, Midwestern smile, and a presence that puts her in absolute control of the table. The bartender excuses himself and walks over to take their order. The woman orders a margarita and her husband, a much smaller man with an angular, intelligent face peeking out from beneath a Goodyear Tire cap, requests a Mexican beer. The daughter wants a diet anything, but settles, with some consternation, for a regular Coke.

“Happy Birthday, Papa,” the woman says when the bartender returns with their drinks.

“Thank you, guys. I guess this means I’ll have to keep you another year,” he says, and they laugh and touch glasses.

The teenager sips her Coke and observes Kraychek staring at her.

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” she blurts, and her mother turns and looks at Kraychek.

“Teenagers,” the mother says by way of apology, shaking her head and then whispering something to the girl.

Kraychek looks away. The bartender wipes the rim of a wine glass clean and stands on his tiptoes in order to slide it into a wooden slot. He lifts another glass and inspects it beneath the light. Kraychek picks his shoulder bag up off the floor and rests it on the stool next to him. The bartender steps back and glances toward the kitchen. Kraychek unzips the cloth travel bag, withdraws a tattered notebook, and writes: “Beachton—Where Surfers Go To Die.”

“What do you do,” the bartender asks cautiously, “for a living in Mexico?”

Kraychek appears to give the question serious thought.

“I live in the past,” he says.