Last words & epigraphs
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The sun hung above the rocky point in front of them as Jiggs and Ken drove past a roughly lettered sign that said, "Pack Your Trash." They pulled into a glass-littered camp- site at the edge of the sandstone bluff. The water below them had changed to gun metal gray and a hundred feet out a lone surfer was sitting astride his board near a dark kelp bed and a cluster of black rocks that rose out of the surf. To their left Jiggs noticed a white pickup, with a steel pipe frame above the bed, parked parallel to the bluff, a tent trailer hitched behind it. A plastic magnetic sign on the truck's door said, "Buel Snyder, San Jose, CA, 'Celestial Plumbing.'"
Jiggs brought the Bronco to a stop. As he yanked on the hand brake, Ken jumped out leaving the door hanging open.
"That's Buel out there," Ken said nodding toward the water. Still watching the surfer, he released the bungee cords on the roof rack and pulled down his surfboard.
As Ken watched, the surfer paddled ahead of a slow wave, leaped to a stand as the wave began to lift the board, and knees bent, angled across the face of the wave with the grace of a city kid on a skateboard.
"Whoo-eee!" Ken whistled. "Look
at him, would you?" Ken leaned his yellow long board against the
Bronco and rummaged under the seat for the board wax.
"Voila!" Ken held the wax can above his head. He watched as the surfer paddled back to the outside of the shore break. "Buel's got stamina for an old guy, I'll say that."
Jiggs yanked at his cutoffs and did another knee bend. He glanced around at the littered ground of a half dozen campsites along the ridge and noted the rusty fifty-gallon oil drums that were placed at intervals along the bluff. "He's not so old by the looks of him."
"Well, everybody's got a different schedule then," Ken said. He glanced at his watch. "They made some improvements on the house." He nodded across the road.
On the other side of the dirt road Jiggs saw a white Spanish style house, flanked by what looked like outhouses--a couple painted hot pink, a couple pastel blue. The screened-in porch on the side of the big house was obviously new. "Who lives there anyway?" Jiggs asked.
"Some Mexican guy named Guillermo. You'll see him later when he wants the two bucks.
"Two bucks?" Jiggs said. "For these crummy campsites?"
"Why not?" Ken said. "For all us aging California surfer hippies two bucks is nothing."
"Come on," Jiggs said, "a laborer here makes eight bucks a day."
Ken shrugged. "So that's four campsites. Doubt you'll see four in use."
"So, if the surf's so great here, why no more people?"
"This place isn't here for everybody."
"Hard to find."
"Near impossible. You got the guided tour."
"Okay, Jiggs said, "it's no big deal." He slammed the car door. "Are they the cuatro casas?" He cocked his head to the left at the weather-beaten sheds down the bluff which seemed to be collapsing into each other for support. "They the four houses?"
"Nah," Ken chuckled, "that's the fishing camp."
Ken stood the surfboard upright beside the Bronco and ran his palm along its fiberglass surface.
The launch ramp's behind the shacks," Ken said. "They keep the boats in them." Ken applied more board wax with an athletic sock he had found under the seat. He swirled the surfboard on its skeg and began waxing the back.
Jiggs turned to look back at the buildings across the road. "Ken," he said slowly, "you mean to tell me this place is named after four outhouses?"
"Yep, kind of poetic, ain't it?" Ken pulled his wet suit from the back of the Bronco and threw it over the open door.
"Look Ken," Jiggs turned to watch the slow curl of a listless wave halfway out to the point. "Is this place really worth the trouble? The surf looks dead."
"Would Buel be out there if this place weren't magic?"
"Who knows? I never met Buel."
"Jiggles, you haven't lived until you've seen this place at midtide," Ken said. "You wait and wait and suddenly it's there. All those southern swells, those water pussys just bursting at your back. You know how it is."
"Don't remind me." Jiggs stepped on a rusted can and then flung the flattened tin and some shards of glass into the blackened stone circle in the middle of the campsite. "Big fire tonight," he said.
Ken yanked his wet suit off the open Bronco door. "Sure," he said. "Sure. Knock yourself out."
Ken turned to the water and watched the blond surfer leap to his feet, executing quick roller coaster turns on his short board to increase his speed as he rode the wave.
"Oh hoo, Jiggs my boy," Ken whooped. He yanked on his black wet suit. "I'm off." He grabbed the yellow board and swung it over his head.
Jiggs followed and watched Ken run down the littered ravine to the beach, his yellow board balanced over his head. "No leash?" Jiggs yelled down after him as he watched Ken head for the water.
Ken grinned up from the white rock ledge below. "Some people don't need one," he shouted. "Come on."
"Where's this Cal you told me about?"
"Don't know," Ken yelled back. "He always meets us here." Ken waded out into the water pushing the surfboard in front of him. When he was knee deep, he hopped onto the board and started paddling out--his legs bent up out of the water--depending only on the power of his thinly muscular upper body.
Jiggs walked back to the campsite. He leaned against the Bronco and folded his arms above his belly. The surf was coming in, wide rolling swells in sets of five with a four to five minute wait between sets. Jiggs noted again that Buel was a good conventional surfer who grabbed a right and just hung in there. Ken was a goofeyfooter who took the lefts facing shore, his back to the wave, his arm in the tube. Ken had told him that he, Buel and Cal had surfed together every June since they first met at Cuatro Casas five years before, glad for each other's company away from the brash young surfers at Trestles and Malibu who competed mercilessly for every wave, snaking out other surfers, dropping in without warning, every wave a battle of wills and egos. Jiggs could understand this. It was part of his recent displeasure with the sport. Jiggs supposed they had all been merciless once, but as Ken said yesterday as they drove down 101, they'd done it all eighteen years ago at Topanga.
Jiggs went to the back of the Bronco to unload. Even though there was still a fair amount of light he suspected it would get dark suddenly, as soon as the sun plunged behind the Punta. He pulled the cooler out from behind the seat and placed it near the fire circle, then returned to the Bronco to get Ken's tent, a folding camp chair, the Coleman lantern, the sleeping bags and water jugs. Feeling as if someone were watching him, he glanced over to the white house across the road.
There was a yellow bicycle leaning into the tall fence-row of organ pipe cactus in front of the house. Inside the screened porch a dark-haired man sat in a wheelchair. A young Mexican man stood not far from him, leaning against the screen wall and gesturing to the other man. Strange to see a wheelchair out here, Jiggs thought as he set one of the water jugs up on the Bronco's fender. No problems on the Baja he'd been told, just don't drink the water.
After he finished setting up the campsite, Jiggs climbed down the steep ravine path Ken had used. The sun was dragging a blanket of purple behind it and he knew he would have to hurry before it got dark. From the rocky beach the surfers looked like birds bobbing on the water's surface, their boards distant from each other, the black kelp bed between them. Jiggs wandered along the water's edge periodically disturbing preening gulls in the rock pools who squawked and flapped their wings as he passed. When he came upon a large collection of grey, lightweight driftwood in the cup of a boulder, he gathered an armload of the largest pieces.
When Jiggs got back to the campsite after several trips, his arms full of sandy driftwood, he saw the young Mexican zigzagging away along the edge of the bluff on the yellow bicycle. Jiggs glanced across the dirt road. The porch was deserted but he could see a small flickering light within the house. He stacked the wood beside the fire circle and collapsed on the folding chair with a beer. After about ten minutes, the sea breeze picking up, the Mexican came back on his bicycle along the same path at the edge of the bluff. He dropped the bike to the ground in front of the house and went in the screen door to the porch. The dark-haired man in the wheelchair rolled back out, and as Jiggs watched the man pulled himself up to a stand in front of the wheelchair. Under the young Mexican's scrutiny, he brought one stiff leg forward and then moved the other up to meet it. In this manner he slowly made his way across the porch.
Jiggs was still squinting in the deepening twilight, watching the man on the porch, when Ken and a fit-looking blond fellow in a bright blue wet suit came climbing up the bluff from the beach, their surfboards balanced over their heads.
"Jiggs 0!" Ken said, "here's Buel."
Jiggs stood, nodded at the blond man and sat down again.
"Not bad, not bad at all," Jiggs said as he settled himself back into the folding chair. "I'd give you old surfer types a B+."
"Jiggs here is a tweedy college professor," Ken said offhandedly as he stood his board on end beside him.
"See any tweeds?" Jiggs lifted his beer and looked down at his cutoffs. "I was a damn adjunct lecturer, Ken," Jiggs said, "it hardly counts for anything."
Buel laid his board on the ground carefully, unzipped his wet suit at the neck and extended his hand. "Glad you could make it." He smiled. "Do much surfing?"
"No," Jiggs said. He half stood to shake Buel's offered hand. "Went skiing at A. Basin at Christmas and the knees still aren't the same--torqued them bad."
Ken looked down at his feet.
"Got to do a lot of swimming then," Buel said.
"So they tell me." Jiggs nodded
toward the house. "What's the story with that guy over there?"
"Cal?" Jiggs turned to Ken who was staring out to the black rocks of the punta.
Buel told Jiggs that Cal had stayed for a few extra days last year after he and Ken had left. One night Cal and Guillermo, the young Mexican man on the porch, had gone to Rosario, gotten blind drunk, and on the way back had driven off the bluff. Guillermo had been driving Cal's car. Nothing much happened to him. But Cal's head injury had resulted in moderate brain damage and severe weakness on one side. Cal had never left Cuatro Casas. Guillermo was taking care of him.
Orange flames leaped ten feet into the blackness above the bonfire and sparks flashed like sequins into the flounced skirt of the sky. Around the fire Ken and Jiggs had arranged the Bronco front seats and the bench seat from Buel's truck, covering them with bright striped serapes Guillermo provided as protection against the damp sea air. Ken's and Buel's wet suits were thrown over the open doors of Buel's truck to dry. Around the fire, their faces were glistening from the heat of the blaze.
"You've outdone yourself, Jiggs," Ken said. "So when are you going to hit the water?"
"We're going to have to cool that fire or move the seats back about five feet soon." Jiggs said. He glanced over at Ken who was rolling a joint from a stash Guillermo had just given him.
"Gracias, old buddy," Ken said to the swarthy young man who sat on a log next to his seat, the Mexican's soiled baseball cap and blue satin Royals jacket a strange contrast to his dark Indian face.
"Con mucho gusto," Guillermo said to Ken with a shy smile. He snapped his fingers and quickly turned back to the fire.
Ken turned to Jiggs. "Guillermo here doesn't speak much English, but he knows what's good."
Jiggs nodded and pulled his bucket seat back a couple feet from the fire.
Buel came out of the darkness behind them. "Good blaze" he said. "I've been walking along the bluff." He dropped into one of the car seats. "The cosmic mother's out wooing tonight for sure."
"Wooing?" Jiggs said.
Ken looked up from his methodical activity, rolled his eyes and went back to work.
"What took you guys so long?" Buel asked as he stretched his legs out toward the fire. "I've been meaning to ask all afternoon. I made Cuatro Casas two days ago." He noticed the row of carefully rolled joints growing on Ken's knee. "Never mind," he said with a smile, "I don't need to ask."
"We stopped at K38," Jiggs said. He jumped up to throw a few pieces of driftwood on the fire.
"Wasn't any good was it?" Buel looked up at the sky. A star or two shone through holes in the dark clouds. "Hey," Buel paused a minute, "did you hear about the guy who fell off the bluff at K38 not too long ago?"
"No," Ken said. He tossed some marijuana stems over his shoulder.
"Amazing," Buel said, "this guy was camping there in the parking lot next to the kilometer marker with his girl. Fell off at night and nobody knew. She did a lot of screaming and they finally went and found him. He was okay, though."
"The world's a dangerous place," said Ken.
"Yeah, isn't it," said Jiggs.
"I don't know about you guys." Buel glanced in the direction of the house. "Lately I've been trying not to put anything that isn't pure into my body."
"You always were strange, Buel," Ken said.
"It's important." Buel's tanned face was outlined in the firelight. Ken waved a thin, tight joint in the air. "Well, this is pure unadulterated--" He pulled a burning stick from the fire, lit the joint and took a drag.
"Talking about adultery," he said after a moment, staring down at the glowing joint he held cupped into his palm, "I've given up on women."
"El amor es un bico," Guillermo murmured. He was sitting on a stump facing the fire.
"Yeah, well Guillermo's the real lover round here." Ken elbowed Guillermo off the log. "Love's a bug, he says, a real bug. But I tell you women are too loony on their moony days. Avoid. Avoid."
Guillermo sat back down on the log and said nothing.
"I don't know about that," Buel said, "some of my best friends-" Buel smiled. "I thought you liked loons, Ken."
Ken flicked an ash toward the fire. "You forgot," he said, "I don't practice anymore." A burning stick popped and sparked. "Worked in a surf shop in Laguna Beach for a while this year, Buel. Met Jiggs again there, in fact. Hadn't seen him in years."
Ken took another drag from the joint and offered it to Jiggs who shook his head. "'I'm so tense!'" Ken pounded his feet on the ground in front of him, "I need a Xanax!"
"Sounds like you caught something from your patients," Buel said.
"'Que cuando pica,'" Guillermo sang, staring into the fire, his hands hanging between his knees, "'no se encuentra remidio. "'
"Sure, sure, Guillermo," Ken said, "there's not a thing you can do for it."
"Surf it through," Buel said.
"Yeah, sure." Ken passed the joint to Guillermo who had stopped singing and was staring again at his hands. Guillermo took a drag, walked the joint over to Buel and padded back to his place in front of the fire. Jiggs noticed he was wearing soft moccasin-like shoes.
"It's been a long time since I smoked," Buel said after accepting the joint from Guillermo with a nod and a smile. "Last year, I guess. As I said, I've been trying to keep my body pure."
"Since Cal--" Ken said.
"You got it."
Guillermo glanced up when Calls name was mentioned. He quickly looked back down into the fire. In the darkening night they could hear the rising tide rolling onto the rocks below.
"I've been overextending myself," Buel said, "those contractors are after me all the time."
Jiggs got up. He pulled some driftwood from the stack and tossed it into the fire. A column of sparks rose into the dark sky.
"Yeah," Ken said above the crackle of the fire. "Can you imagine--" he chuckled, "Buel, the surfing plumber."
"Why not?" Buel asked. He took a long drag from the joint, extended it to Jiggs who shook his head and then passed it on to Ken who put the joint out in the dirt in front of him. They all sat quietly for a few minutes, leaning forward, staring into the orange and blue flames of the driftwood fire, the night still and beginning to cool around them.
Jiggs thought he heard something move in the pile of driftwood at his right. He listened closely. Nothing. He stared out into the dark desert beyond the flickering circle of light from the fire. Only an hour ago he had watched the twisted shapes of the cactus fade into the dark. By now small animals would be coming out of their cooling burrows, eyes luminous in the moonlight as they stalked the trembling prey that would sustain them. Creatures that in daylight froze in their tracks in adaptive invisibility could not use this ploy at night when predators, like bad dreams, sought them out by odor and intuition. Jiggs strained to listen for other sounds from the dark beyond them, but heard nothing more than the crackle and hiss of the fire. A heavy scent hung in the air.
"That's Queen of Night cactus you smell." Jiggs jumped as Buel spoke out of the dark behind him. "Okay," Buel said as he moved into the firelight, "I have a question for you, doctor."
"Me?" Ken asked.
"Yep," Buel said as he sat down again and stretched his legs out before him on the serape-covered seat. "This is a good one. What is the first level of consciousness?"
Ken laughed. "Guilt," he said with only a moment's hesitation.
"Movement," Buel said with a smile.
"Yeah," Buel said, "but I can't explain it." He leaned forward and stared into the fire for a long minute. "But did you ever notice--" He sat back in the seat. "--if you turn in your sleep, your dream changes?"
"I feel a little like that now." Ken laughed. "It's just cell memory, old buddy."
"No, I never noticed," Jiggs said shaking his head. "Movement."
Guillermo glanced up from the fire. "Where you been?"
Jiggs looked at Guillermo as surprised as if he had suddenly taken off in awkward flight.
"Don't worry about it, Jiggs," Ken said. "Buel's been teaching our friend a little English."
"I'm serious," Buel said. "Movement."
Buel gestured to Ken who gave him another joint and the plastic lighter. "My wife's into metaphysics," Buel said. "Did I tell you?" The joint glowed in the darkness in front of him as he lit it. "She's off to England." Buel's voice was high and strained as he held in the smoke. "--wants to study one of those haunted castles."
Ken's laugh ended in a bout of coughing. "Do
tell," he choked out. "Do you believe this guy, Jiggs?"
"Geez," Ken said. He turned to Buel. "So who's going to take care of you while she's away? Any little honeys?"
Buel smiled. "The cosmic mother," he said slowly.
"Are plumbers supposed to talk like this?" Jiggs asked.
"In California they do." Ken threw the roach into the coals. They sat in silence for a few minutes, staring into the flames of the sputtering fire, the night settling in upon them.
"My father died this winter," Jiggs said barely above a whisper. He cleared his throat. "Just got purple in his chair one night watching the tube. Late show. My mother found him in the morning."
"Too bad," Ken said glancing at Jiggs quickly and then back into the fire.
Buel and Guillermo were silent.
"Indian television." Ken pointed to the fire.
"Yeah," Jiggs said. "Yeah."
Suddenly Ken got up and galloped around the bonfire, slapping his sides. '"Oh, I'm so nervous!'" He stopped at Guillermo, pulled the baseball cap off the Mexican's dark head, put it on his own, and ran around the fire circle again. "Wait, wait," Ken said as he came to a halt again in front of Guillermo. Ken took the baseball cap off and peered down into it.
"Guillermo wants to tell me something." Ken bent down so the Mexican could speak into his ear. "Oh," Ken said, "Guillermo says he has to go check his goats."
"Those goats we saw by that shack coming in?" Jiggs asked.
"Sure," Buel said from the bench seat, his eyes closed. "Guillermo goes off on his bicycle to visit them all the time."
"In the dark?" Jiggs asked.
"Sure," Buel said. "He sees in the dark."
"So to speak."
"Reflex. He just knows the place."
Guillermo touched Ken's arm and spoke to him quietly for a moment. Jiggs could hear the rapid lilt of his Spanish.
"Here's one for you guys," Ken said. "Guillermo says his goats are stoned all the time. That's right," Ken said as he shook his head. "Stoned." He grinned. "Guillermo says he puts his head next to the goat's skull and he can feel the stillness in there. Feel the goat just being."
"They eat all that prickly pear," Jiggs said.
"No," Ken replied. "I swear that's what he said--just being a goat. Besides, cactus is good to eat. Isn't that right, Guillermo?"
"I swear that's what he said. Stillness. At least," Ken said, "that's as close as I can understand him. Guillermo's pretty messed up himself. But he says he lines his head up next to this goat's so maybe he can catch onto how it is--to just be--natural like."
"Okay," Jiggs said, "maybe like those country people who sit on their porches and watch traffic."
"Sure" Ken laughed, "they put their heads up next to cars,"
"Listen to the fenders, maybe." Jiggs chuckled.
"Those goats down there may be into stillness," Buel said, looking up at the dark sky, "but the hogs there are a whole different story."
"Exceptional beings," Ken said. He sat down on the car seat next to Jiggs. "Hey, I had a friend who had a pig so smart he named it 'Number One.'" He poked Jiggs in the side. "It looked like that big black one we saw, Jiggs. Liked to chase cars. Can you imagine a pig galloping after you as you drive down the road?"
Ken jumped up, blew out his cheeks and ran around the fire circle. After a couple more circular gallops he sat down. "Just like--that," he said winded. "But Guillermo has no respect for pigs. He just told me. Well, his hat told me."
Guillermo shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"Guillermo, did I tell you that goats and pigs have a fine intelligence?"
"Too much of the weed," Buel said.
Ken grinned into the fire. "Buel would call it a 'first order consciousness'."
Jiggs laughed. "Completely gone."
"Sure," Ken continued, "pigs can climb ladders, go get the mail, bring in the newspaper, and if properly outfitted can get a beer out of the fridge."
"What do you mean by 'properly outfitted'?" Jiggs asked.
"Oh, if you have a can dispenser," Ken said. "You wouldn't expect a decent pig to nose around in a six pack would you?"
"No, no, no." Guillermo said. He rose from his place on the log and gazed out over the dark expanse of the desert. "Buenas noches," he said turning to them. "Yo tengo dolor."
"Dolor?" asked Ken.
"Si, tristeza de estomacjo."
"What did he say?" asked Jiggs.
"Oh--sorrow in his belly," Ken replied. "Stomach ache."
Jiggs rose and threw several light grey sticks of driftwood into the fire.
Guillermo went quietly to the edge of the bluff to pick up his bicycle. He stood there and seemed to be listening to the sound of the water lapping against the rocks below. After a few minutes he hopped on his yellow bicycle and wobbled off.
"So what does he do now?" Jiggs asked.
"Puts Cal to bed, I guess," Ken said.
"No cosmic mother for Cal," Buel said from his place on the car seat.
"What's going to happen to him?" Jiggs asked.
"Maybe you should ask about Guillermo," Buel said.
"Look, it's like this," Ken said throwing a glowing stick back into the fire. "With a brain injury there's rapid recovery in the first five to ten days, significant recovery by six months. After a year, not much more. If he were a kid he could recover almost completely. But he's not a kid."
"So how old is he?" Jiggs asked. "He must have been in good shape."
"He was the best," Buel said.
"About our age," Ken said. "Thirties, forties--I'm not sure."
"Age isn't important," Buel said. "Courage is important. Doing is important. Take Viet Nam for instance. It didn't take courage to go there. Just bravery, just withstanding. Going to Canada would have taken courage. What did you do, Jiggs?"
"So Guillermo's been taking care of him for a year?"
"Yeah, Jiggs, a year," Buel said. "Why do you ask? Why didn't you answer my question?"
Jiggs was silent. He went to the Bronco and came back wearing a faded flannel shirt over his T-shirt, and carrying a fifth of Jose Quervo. "Tequila?" He asked as he offered the bottle.
"That stuff makes me crazy," Buel said. He got up and threw a dry bush into the fire. It blazed and smelled like burning sage. "I want to get out early." Buel shook his head. "Look," he said, "I've got it straight from God, Herman Hesse, and T.S. Eliot."
"That's quite a crew," Jiggs said.
"Only the best," piped up Ken.
"You know the Sanskrit, da, dattaim, dattyamin?"
"No," Jiggs said.
"It's from The Wasteland, what the thunder said, man, where've you been?" Buel smiled. "My wife and I talk about it a lot. Anyway, at first I thought the words meant 'to care,' 'to sympathize,' and 'to discipline.' Now I know it's first 'to give.'"
"I have no idea what you are talking about," Jiggs said.
"That's what I'd guess," Buel said. "It's not convenient, hey? To step out of your own dreary conformity for even a moment?"
"Come on, Buel." Ken reached over to take the bottle from Jiggs. "Shit," Ken said. He took a swig, and then handed the bottle back to Jiggs. Ken nodded over to Buel who, in that short time, had fallen asleep in his chair.
Jiggs stared into the fire, the bottle of tequila between his knees. After a few minutes Buel got up slowly. He pointed to his tent trailer at the edge of the bluff. "See you both in the morning," he said and he slipped away from the fire.
Ken jumped up. "Yeah. Yeah. Me too." He gave a brief wave of his arm, crossed the campsite and disappeared into the dome tent at the edge of the road.
Jiggs tossed another piece of wood on the fire and then sat down on the ground in front of it, his back against the Bronco seat. He smelled the salty spray of the water behind him, now at high tide lapping against the rocks. He could feel the dark of the desert creep in upon the dying fire.
Jiggs wondered how he had been talked into this trip. He hadn't surfed in years. Ken had called it his annual "geographic cure," and claimed he was tired of driving all the way down to the Baja alone. Ken could be pretty persuasive when he wanted to be, and Jiggs wasn't doing much anyway. Sometimes, Jiggs thought, when you go a long way you learn something, and sometimes you don't. He hadn't learned anything so far, but he had had plenty of time to remember things he would have preferred to have left behind.
It had been raining for several days after the funeral and restless, Jiggs had been wandering through the house. His mother found him downstairs in the small tidy workshop under the kitchen.
"What are you doing, James?" she asked him.
"Nothing much." He picked a power drill off its hanging bracket on the pegboard, turned it in his hands, and put it down on the workbench. "Just looking around."
"So many things crowd in around you in a lifetime," she said, looking at the orderly arrangement of tools hanging on the walls. "Why don't you take the tools back East with you? That's something he would have liked."
"I doubt it," Jiggs said. "I don't have any use for them."
"Maybe someday you will."
"You know I'm not handy," Jiggs said. He glanced out the casement window. "Where's all this California sun you brag about?"
"I saved the tools for you, James." She looked down at her hands. "Your Uncle Harry wanted them. I love your Uncle Harry you know, but I told him they were for you."
"Why didn't you consult me first?" he said. You make a thing poorly, he thought, and it falls apart, use it some more, and it's broken again. "Why bother?" he said aloud.
"He liked to keep busy, James." She turned away. "Switch off the light when you're through." He had heard her slow footsteps on the wooden stairs and then the click of the latch as the door closed.
Jiggs took a sip of the tequila. A small grey lizard scurried out of the pile of driftwood, skittered across the sand in front of the fire, stopped for a moment as if listening, then turned toward Jiggs. The lizard side-stepped up to Jiggs' hand that was resting on the sand beside him, paused, and then climbed on top of it. . Jiggs studied the creature. It was about nine inches in length including the thin iridescent blue tail, the rest of it the soft grey color of kid gloves. Its narrow, ribbon like tongue flicked in and out several times. Its eyes were small black beads with glints of yellow that reflected the fire.
Jiggs didn't move. He had never been fond of animals. He'd ignored the dog when he was a boy, let the fish tank become a stagnant pool in which dead moths floated on the surface and bewildered mollies slowly succumbed long before he noticed, becoming rigid monuments to his neglect.
The lizard crawled up his arm, stopped at the elbow, then proceeded to his shoulder and across his chest. It hung there, little claws caught in the threads of the flannel shirt.
There is nothing wrong with this creature, Jiggs thought. In fact, everything right with it resting on him as it was, unafraid, curious, taking a risk that he would not fling it into the fire.
Jiggs looked out into the desert. Clouds were visible in the night sky, and in front of him he saw the outline of a saguaro cactus in the pale moonlight. The cactus looked like a man poised, waiting. It was too late, he thought, he could never please him.
The lizard inched up his chest and flicked its tongue at the juncture of his neck and chin. Jiggs felt it as a dry caress, something like the kisses his mother had given him as a child. He sat up abruptly. The lizard fell to the ground and scurried back into the woodpile.
Jiggs stared back into the dark of the desert. He couldn't see the cactus anymore but he felt the wind begin to stir, and he imagined the frozen windmill he had seen near the vegetable farm they drove through to get there begin to turn with a rusty creak in the dark. Nothing real. Nothing real. He heard the surf wringing its hands wavelet upon wavelet all the way to the punta, and it came to him suddenly that Buel's cosmic mother guided each wave along with the palm of her hand.
Jiggs stood up on his stiff knees and walked over to the edge of the bluff. He thought of Cal being clumsily lifted into bed by Guillermo after waiting in his chair a long time in the dark.
Jiggs crossed the glass-littered campsite and crawled into the back of the Bronco to sleep.
It was six in the morning. The sun had just dealt its first cards over the lagoon behind the white house. Buel, in shorts and a T-shirt, stumbled out of his trailer. He looked up at the brightening sky and then down over the bluff to the surf below. The tide was low, pulled back from the rocks with haze hanging near shore, but beyond it, in the pale morning light, the water was spread out like a blue satin cloth. No wind. The waves were coming in in threes with a long wait between sets. It looked good. Or good enough. Calm. Buel went back into his trailer and emerged with a red and blue bundle under his arm. He crossed the dirt road still moist with morning.
In ten minutes Buel banged out the screen door wearing his blue wet suit, pushing Cal in the wheelchair ahead of him. Cal was wearing a red wet suit and a dazed expression. When they reached the edge of the bluff Buel stopped.
"Now just look at it," Buel said.
Cal gazed out over the water, his dark hair standing up like an accidental punk hairstyle. He rubbed the side of his thumb along the padded arm of the chair. "I haven't been here," he said, his voice halting and low, "--long time."
"That's what I thought," Buel said standing beside the wheelchair, his arms folded across his chest. "Take a good look."
Cal glanced down at his wasted legs and then out at the water. Buel waited a minute, and then knelt alongside the wheelchair. Under his knee the low-lying succulent cactus on the edge of the bluff split and bled. They studied the water silently for a few minutes.
"What do you think?" Buel asked finally.
"Good--enough," Cal said, his head tilted to one side, his face expressionless.
"I'll take the boards down." Buel jumped up and headed for his truck. "wait here," he called over his shoulder. Cal nodded.
Buel came back from the truck with two
long boards, one orange, one white, under either arm.
Buel looked at Cal in surprise, then chuckled. He disappeared over the side of the bluff and down the ravine to the white rock beach below.
Cal watched the small, gray-winged white gulls ride the updraft that swooped up the side of the bluff. When they reached eye-level, they tucked their black heads and feet for a drop to the water. The red berry cactus beneath his chair had an odor both sweet and salty.
In a few minutes Buel reappeared over the rise.
"Here we go," he said. He swung Cal up out of the wheelchair, which fell to its side and collapsed with the movement. Buel carried Cal high in his arms over the bluff and down the trash-strewn gully to the beach.
"You ought to be glad you're not walking on this stuff," Buel said when they got below. "Broken bottles, wet paper. No respect. Just no respect for the earth that is alive, after all."
The surfboards were at the edge of the dark water, propped up on their skegs on the white rock, their noses wet.
"This is--crazy," Cal said as Buel set him down beside the boards.
"Doing anything at all is crazy if you think about it," Buel said taking a deep breath and bending to touch his toes. "Anything at all."
Buel stretched his arms out behind his back and glanced at Cal. "Put your feet in for a while," he said. "Let me figure this out."
Buel surveyed the surf in front of them. To the right large rocks rose from the water halfway out to the surf break. The dark punta jutted into the water at an angle in front of them and to the left, calmer water was dark with kelp. The waves were coming in like an arm sweeping across the surface, occasionally rolling under the black-green patches of seaweed to lift it out of its path.
"How do you feel about kelp?" Buel asked Cal who was sitting awkwardly on the rock shore, leaning on his left arm, the pale flesh of his forehead knotted into deep ridges.
"Kelp," Cal said squinting up at him. "A little's okay."
"Right," Buel said as he zipped up his wet suit at the back of the neck and waded into the water in front of Cal. He grabbed the man under the arms and pulled him up to a stand in the cold water. "Can you do that for a minute?"
With one hand under Cal's shoulder, Buel pulled the orange long board out and steadied it in the water in front of Cal. "Get on," he said.
"Do it," Buel said, his stance wide, his hands on either side of the orange board.
Cal grabbed the board with one hand and fell onto it, belly down.
"All right," Buel said. He leaned over, still holding the board steady and attached its leash to Cal's thin ankle. "You don't need to lose this thing," Buel said as he adjusted the velcro anklet.
Cal nodded, his thin body stiff and crooked on the board. He raised his head to watch the surf forming at the punta.
Buel fastened his own leash, quickly hopped on his board and reached over again to steady Cal's.
"How's your paddling arm?" he asked.
"Fine." Cal strained to pull the slack half of his face into a smile.
"Okay," Buel said, and he pointed to the surf break.
They paddled out slowly, lazy swells moving
under them like a fat man in a hammock rolling over in his sleep. When
they got to the kelp beds, the glistening seaweed on long tangled roots--as
disturbing as water snakes--caught on their boards and entangled their
feet which they hung behind them as rudders. Each time they got tangled
they quickly kicked the slick seaweed off and went on.
When they reached an area of calm, Buel asked if Cal could get himself into a sitting position. Cal nodded and with his left arm--his face determined, then suddenly relaxed--Cal pushed himself up on the board.
"Now just think how we look from the bluff," Buel said.
Cal shook his dark hair back out of his eyes. "Pelicans," he said in a husky voice.
"Sure Cal, bobbing on the water." Astride his board, Buel faced the red sandstone bluff, his back to the punta. He could see the wheechair lying on its side, the sun rising behind it, and to the left of it Ken's dome tent and the still-smoking fire.
Cal braced himself with his left arm and
adjusted his position on the board. The swells were gentle beneath them.
After a few minutes Cal's shoulders dropped and his expression softened.
Buel remembered those first runs, the
excitement of the avalanche of water moving under him and catching up,
always at his back. The pure energy moving through water and driving
him ahead of it, a wall of water rising behind him. He felt within it,
part of it, yet separate and powerful, full of grace in that element
that at once bathed and stung. Often the water threw him against rock,
often it lapped gently at his feet as he knelt on his board, the sun
rising each morning beside him like a woman elegant in public and passionate
alone. He was often tumbled by the power of a hot wave, then soon soothed
by the lapping caress of the sea mother who entangled in the rooty snare
of her kelp beds. Buel knew there was nothing he could say as he rode
the board beside Cal, each of them staring out to sea with the dazed
look of fishermen.After a few minutes Cal lifted his chin several times
toward the bluff. "Guillermo," he said.
"Guillermo," Cal said, "is there."
"Do you see--" Buel asked. "Oh, yeah," Buel turned to look at an oncoming wave, "he's standing by you, all right." Buel yanked at his wet suit sleeves. "Now look," he said, "it's starting to set up. When the first one breaks, I'll take it. You grab the second."
Cal gave him a startled look.
"Well, do you think we're going to sit here all day? I've watched you walk on the porch." Buel said. "I know you can do it ."
Cal shook his head.
"You outsurfed everybody here for years. You know the punta and you know what kind of stuff comes through here. Do what you've always done. Tumble a little maybe, you can always pull your board back with the leash and just plain hang on."
Cal nodded. "Yeah," he said with a crack in his voice, "smoking along."
"Forget it. The surf's setting up. Get ready."
A wave swelled before them. "Now!" Buel yelled. He paddled before the curl, leaped to a stand and rode across the face of the wave at the front of his board. He turned on the wave to watch Cal who was frantically paddling one-armed in front of the second wave.
"Now!" Buel shouted. "Do it now."
Cal hesitated, then pushed against the board with his stronger arm, a wobbly lead foot beneath him. He got to a half stand before the white water caught up with him. Standing precariously for a moment, on one leg and the weak toes of his trail foot, he lost his balance and fell.
Buel unleashed his board, dove in the water and went after him. For a moment he could see Cal's dark head in the surging white water and then it was gone. Buel could see nothing but a mad sweep of foam going toward the rocks.
Buel swam toward the spot where he had last seen Cal's head bobbing above the surface. He swam to the rocks beyond it and found Cal, his arm around a green, moss-covered rock, the orange surfboard a short distance away. Cal's wet hair hung in his eyes and thin river of red flowed down his cheek form a cut above his left eye.
"Are you all right?" Buel was breathless. He let his legs drop and found the water was only waist deep.
Cal nodded. "All right." He was moving one arm in a modified side stroke.
"You can stand here," Buel said. "It's not deep." He waded over and touched Cal lightly on the arm. "Cal, pull in your board."
Cal yanked his leg to himself and the surfboard came bouncing toward him. He lay his left arm across it and rested his face against the smooth surface.
Buel rescued his own board from the surf and hopped on. "Let's go," he said.
Cal pulled himself onto his board and they paddled slowly back to the calm kelp-filled area where they had lined up before.
"What did you tell me years ago?" Buel said when they reached their destination. "'Rely on your board,' you said, 'I'm here but the board's better.'"
Cal wiped a hand across his forehead, looked at it, and smiled. The bleeding had slowed. "No," he said slowly, "not me."
"Yes," Buel said. "You. You gave me that hideous orange board you're riding. And there's still some of your magic in it."
"Magic," Cal said flatly. He glanced down at his thin arms and then over at the seagulls that were riding the swells a few yards away, their wings tucked, like trim little boats. Cal shook his dark head and then slipped off the board into the water.
He came up on the other side of his board. "Underwater," Cal said, "is easier."
"Kick, you turkey," Buel said. "Hold on to the board and kick your legs." Buel hopped off his board and swam behind Cal. He stood and grabbed Cal's thin legs in the water and began moving them in a rhythmic scissors kick. "Okay," he said, "keep it up."
While Buel watched, Cal maintained a slow kick, his left arm across the surfboard, he cheek resting on its wet surface.
"All right," Buel said when Cal slipped off the board again and came up shaking his head. "Okay, friend."
Cal moved his arms unevenly in front of him. The surfboard, still attached to his ankle leash, bobbed beside him with each movement of his legs. "Not good--enough," Cal said. He leaned across his board and lay there for a few minutes, his ribs retracting, his breath coming in rhythmic whistles. He slowly pulled himself onto the board and up into a sitting position. Cal rested a minute, his dark head down, his chin on his chest. He slowly turned to watch the water behind him.
"Not good enough," Cal mumbled as he stared at the flat line of the horizon to the left of the punta.
"Okay, so it's not the Banzai Pipeline," Buel slapped at the water. "So you're not Duke Kahanamoku, and it's not the ultimate wave. Damn it Cal, you've done enough surfing to know that three fourths of the time what you're really doing is fishing. Fishing for a wave. Just being there."
Cal stared at the long horizon that had been gradually brightening into a clear morning sky. His breath came in gasps. "It's something," he said at last. "At least," he threw his head back and shook out his dark hair. His face was pale. "--something."
About half past six that morning Jiggs climbed out of the back of the Bronco where had had been sleeping, stretched and looked over the water. He saw two surfers out riding their boards. When he turned the sun had just cleared the roof of the white house. Jiggs went back to the Bronco and pulled out his sleeping bag.
Ken emerged from his tent scratching his lean belly.
"Oh," Jiggs said nodding toward the bluff. "I thought it was you out there."
Jiggs gestured toward the water and continued rolling up his sleeping bag on the Bronco's hood. "Take a look."
Yawning, Ken went to the edge of the bluff.
"That's Buel," he said. "And--what the hell? Cal's out there with him."
"Buel must have taken him down," Jiggs said. "Early."
"Wonder how he talked him into it," Ken said. "How'd he talk Guillermo into it?" Ken wandered toward his tent.
"How come Cal hasn't drowned yet? " Jiggs shouted after him.
"Damned if I know," Ken said shaking his head. "Archimedes, maybe. Ever heard of him?"
"Of course, but what?" Jiggs watched the dark figures bobbing out on the water beyond the kelp beds. "That's crazy out there."
"Buel's got it under control," Ken said. He squinted up at the sun. "Good surfing day on the Baja."
Jiggs looked up and saw Guillermo coming along the bluff path toward them on his bicycle, a milk pail hanging from the handlebars. Goat's milk sloshed from the pail as Guillermo jumped off the bike beside them and stared out over the water. "Madre de Dios," he said.
"Heap big mathematician," Ken yawned. He turned to Guillermo.
Balancing the bike and the milk pail on its handlebars, Guillermo pointed to the wheelchair that was lying on its side further down the edge of the bluff.
"Cal?" Guillermo said.
"Geez," Jiggs said walking up to them, "I didn't even see that chair."
"A body in fluid," Ken said, stretching. "I need some coffee."
"How can he do this?" Jiggs squinted at the surfers who were riding their boards near the rocks.
"Is buoyed by a force--" Ken continued,"--equal to the weight displaced."
"Ken, cut it out," Jiggs said.
Guillermo lifted the milk pail off the bicycle handlebar, set it on the ground, then lowered the bicycle into the cactus berries at his feet. He squatted beside the milk pail at the edge of the bluff and watched the bobbing surfers out on the water.
"Looks okay to me out there," Ken said. "Come on, get up Guillermo. We can have coffee now that you've brought the milk."
"Look," Jiggs said, "how can he do this? It's just plain stupid to have Cal out there."
"Why?" Ken turned to go back to his tent. "Buel would say Echidna the sea mother has it covered."
"Verdad," Guillermo said, his gaze still fixed on the two figures out on the water.
"All right, Ken," Jiggs said, "I don't mean how can he do it scientifically, or even mythically, I mean-- well, humanly."
"Ah, there it is, Jiggs. When there's nothing else--" Ken turned away. "You figure it out." Ken turned to Guillermo. "I saw a stump down the road that will be perfect for the bonfire tonight. Mind if I borrow your vehicle, Guillermo? Think I'll check it out."
Guillermo nodded and turned back to watch the water.
Ken moved the milk pail aside and picked
up the bicycle by its rusty handlebars. "'After I roam up and down--'" he
shouted. He hopped on the bike and rode in a circle in front of Jiggs
and Guillermo, "'o'er the waste as a wanderer.'" He kept the
bike wobbling in place, "'and lay my head in the bowels of the earth."'
He rode close to Jiggs and then wobbled out beyond the fire circle. " '
Let mine eyes see the sun.' " He glanced up at the sun which was
over his tent now, and then back to Jiggs. " 'When will the man
who is dead ever look on the light of the Sunshine?' " Ken turned
and rode off toward the bluff path. "Gilgamesh," he said. "The
best thing about this bicycle," he announced over his shoulder, "is--no
"He's truly crazy," Jiggs said.
Guillermo said something in Spanish. Something about aqua, water, Jiggs thought, but he couldn't make it out. The young man shrugged.
Jiggs walked to the edge of the bluff and watched the two men, one blond in a bright blue wet suit, one-dark haired in red, ride the calm between sets.
After a few minutes Guillermo nodded to Jiggs and sauntered away along the ridge path. Several yards down Jiggs saw him cut across the road past the small pink and blue houses and head toward the lagoon.
Maybe the goats were still gathered at the shed for their milking, Jiggs thought, or maybe Guillermo was going there simply to put his head against the skull of his favorite goat. Jiggs squatted down on his stiff knees and picked one of the cactus berries. The sticky pink-tinged juice stained his fingers. He glanced up to see Cal on the water, standing on his orange board. He was leaning to one side in an awkward, unnatural stance, but he was surfing, nevertheless, all the way to shore. Jiggs heard a whoop from below.
Jiggs dropped the cactus bloom. He jumped up and ran to the Bronco. He pulled out his wet suit which was stuffed under the driver's seat and put it on quickly. Moving to the rear of the Bronco he released his old green long board from the roof rack and with the heavy board under his arm, he charged down the gully to the beach.
When he got there he found Buel at the edge of the water pulling in the boards. Cal sat on the rocks, his head down. "What are you risking his life for?" Jiggs demanded.
"What?" Buel said glancing up at Jiggs in surprise.
"You heard what I said." Jiggs dropped his board at the water's edge and waded over to Buel. "He's been battered on the rocks. Look at him."
"Haven't you ever gone against rocks?" Buel stood. "It's part of it. Jiggs, sometimes you have to do something."
"Do something? You mean you couldn't think of anything else? He could have died."
Buel looked down at the water at his feet. He shook his head. "He could have died before, but he didn't." Buel reached back to unzip the neck of his wet suit. "We got the cosmic mother looking out."
Cal shifted his position on the rocks. He looked from one to the other. "Hey." Cal had a lopsided grin on his face. "Water--'s fine."
Jiggs watched Buel pull the boards further
up on the rocky beach. Then Buel went over to Cal and lifted him in his
arms. He steadied himself, and started the climb up the soft side of