(Mr. D’s Watery World)
Although at the most only some few hundred feet wide, you may know of it as a separate, complete continent—a fabled land, unveiled by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and Sir Francis Drake, and storied in more recent times by tawdry full-color magazine ads, noxious Gidget movies, overamped Beach Boy schmaltz. Surviving that, and minus the unicorn, it’s still fable enough, to those who go there at all hours and in all seasons.
Water meets land, simply put, but what water and what land, with five thousand miles of ocean lined up to push against the western face of the brave new California world. There is stubborn friction between the two, producing in its heat a tiny buffer zone: the long, thin, sandy strip hugging the coastal curves. There are, as well, certain harmonies to this constant friction, including the wind, always the movement of wind, and the white birds moving with the wind, and the sounds of the birds/the wind/the water all moving together, so that rhythm becomes the sense as much as the feel of the place. Then the people come, nearly naked, into this sandy no-man’s land, to be close to the motion and be part of the rhythm.
They will say that August is the best here. The body is dark by August, and after swimming you can lie on the sand under the sun for entire afternoons, letting water droplets dry in little salt circles on the skin. The California sun is at its finest in August, burning away the fog, leaving overhead a blue that seems thick enough to touch, warming the back, arms, and legs, drugging the mind into pleasant August dreams. And something happens to the surf in August. It rises, starting its season.
Oceanographers cite Aleutian storms or plot the causes on charts of shifting currents: huge secret rivers flowing inside the Pacific. But those who faithfully watch every morning from the cliffs—searching out over the flat immensity to the far, ruler-perfect horizon—simply know that one day in August it will happen. One day the long green-grey humps will be there, way out, and will come closer, apparently faster, growing larger and larger, buckling the flatness, until the swollen welts meet an outthrust arm of land, or a submarine trough, or a sandbar, or even a sewage pipeline, and, tripping at one end, crack, toss up white-tongued, hissing heads—and are: Big Surf,
When the big surf comes, it brings thunder, a primordial bass heard miles before you reach the cliffs. And when you stand on the cliffs, particles of shattered ocean water hang thickly in the air, tangy and odorous, drifting above the beach in a private, local fog, misting into the hair, running like sweat down the face. The ground vibrates from the roaring shorebreak. The water is colored part iron and part foam and froth. People gather along the edge of the cliffs, unmoving, “mortal men fixed in ocean reveries,” as Melville says in a famous book about another coast in another century.
While witness of such elemental power, there is great excitement in the stomach, a thrill, a nervousness, a fear. Somehow, under the curtain of spray, it seems night, not day. The iron water climbs and curls. Abruptly the wave’s distant northern end begins to collapse with a throaty RRRRRRR, churning up white forceful geysers that devour, cannibalize, its own falling, telescoping self.
Out in this wildness of violent seawater a bit of color is seen—caught—down in a sinking ravine. The color drops from sight, and several beats pass before the color is seen again, stuck on the face of a wave, hurled forward, licked by wind and water. On the cliffs people now unconsciously clench their teeth. The color stays on the wave, escaping, always ahead of the closing disintegration, and it becomes apparent to everyone that this figure, whose quick little dance steps send his silver surfboard on graceful and delicate flight, is in command of all that wet fury, or at the least, in defiance, They gawk, unaware that salt stings their lips.
There is also, in contrast, a sweetness peculiar to August, and a sadness, because September is school. Like most enchanted lands, this one is peopled mostly by the young, and they must eventually leave, say goodby to the afternoons, goodby to privileged freedom, goodby to beloved summer and perhaps to summer love. And each August there are those who understand they will not be back August of next year, since there finally will be no more school and age marches on.
So August can be claimed the best, on the California beach, and this particular day, today, was the best of August.
(Mr. D by Day and Night)
They were watching Mr. D out in heavy twelve-foot surf. Other surfers were there, with him, but when he went up on his silver board all eyes clung to Mr. D, as they do to the brightest luminary in any performance, The late-afternoon sun, lowering above the Pacific, dimmed by ocean mist, sat more like a pale moon behind Mr. D’s back. He was up and moving, coming in among the noisy, agitated tons of foam, seemingly only a casual passenger on the silver board, arms relaxed, hips loose, face passive, while the powerful legs sent the board cutting up and down, back and forth, dissecting the wave. He stalled the board until the falling wall reached out to swallow him, then he shot from the monster’s mouth, free. It was never merely fancy, never merely cute, but pure by the cleanness of its professional authority, which the onlookers recognized either from instinct or surfing films, and saw live only through the person of Mr. D. In proper finale, he kicked off the wave a scant moment before its final explosion into whitewater.
His name: Richard Delpheemier, but as he walked along the beach, the silver board under one arm, the voices calling to him said Mr. D.
Super, Mr. D.
The ride of the day, Mr. D.
There was a careful edge of respect cast around what they said, and how they said it. They were, first of all, in awe of his legendary talent. It was Mr. D alone, no one else, who went out into winter storm surf at Idiot’s Hollow. Then, Mr. D was an impressive 32, a surfer for more than 15 years, since back in the days when surfboards were really boxy old paddleboards and most Californians had never seen even those. The kids knew he had been there long before they arrived—born and raised by the beach, actually—and they believed he would be there after they were gone, that somehow he was exempt from the usual rules of pragmatic life. Finally, he taught many of these kids at the high school, less than three miles from here, where his classes had waiting lists and where he was also called Mr. D.
To the whole world he obviously spent his life in the sun, for his brown hair had streaked to blonde, including the hair on his arms, legs, and chest, and the darkened skin made the blue eyes bright and startling in his face. The elongated face was strong-featured, yet nearly handsome, matched with a lanky body wonderfully lean, flat-stomached, and etched by the clear definition of hard muscles—mature but altogether youthful. He taught mathematics and swimming at the high school, and there were few days of the year when Mr. D was not someplace in water.
Where he sat down, next to his gear, he was encircled by the latest beach generation, wearing their wetsuits, slogan sweatshirts, shaggy hair, miniscule bikinis, and speaking their latest beach jargon. Here the browns vs, the whites didn’t mean racial conflict, but us against them, the insiders vs.the outsiders, the natives vs, the tourists, our little big world against their big little world. They moved close to Mr. D, yet never too close, never across a certain boundary that almost could have been traced in the sand. They were familiar— made jokes, made praise, asked questions—but were never personal.
Gradually they left with the last of the long afternoon, sauntering off in their hypercasual fashion after numerous false starts, reluctant to go or to separate from each other, making voluminous final comment on the state of the surf— past, present, future. This quotidian ritual constituted their formal obeisance to the ocean, before dragging away the towels and surfboards to return another day, tomorrow if possible. Mr. D made no jest of this farewell scene, with its public confession of attachment. He had his own ocean rituals, only more practiced and interior, more complex.
They were all eventually gone, except for one, a girl. Becky—everybody knew she came early, left late. Everybody knew Becky, Her tan was crossed by a tumble of authentic gold-blonde hair, but the full sum of her face and figure totaled in excess of reality, a dream product packaged up in cellophane for exclusive export, stamped California Beach Nymph. Archetypal, yes, yet very much in the flesh: lithe enough and ripe enough to be mistaken for 20.
Shorebreak rumbled, water raced sissing across damp sand, gulls drifted, Mr. D and the girl, Becky, sat and watched as if ignorant of each other’s presence.
“Hello,” the girl finally said.
“You were unbelievable today.”
He never directly answered compliments about his surfing, because in the process it reduced a complicated event to a simple action. Compliment: Great ride, Answer: Thanks. Result: Case dismissed. Besides, a “ride” was what children took in an amusement park—the word itself proved inadequate.
“Too close?” Becky asked, moving, changing position.
They exchanged looks, and she smiled. Even her teeth had exact symmetry.
“Too close?” she repeated.
“No, I don’t think so, do you?”
Pause. “Maybe not close enough?”
They laughed mildly, her expression showing the precocious assurance of a girl armed with a woman’s body. He answered “Maybe not,” and a relaxed conversation followed. Beach talk,
Meanwhile the surf was going down. Over the years Mr. D had, naturally, developed refined judgments on this subject, enough to know that by late tonight the ocean would be almost normal once more.
Becky placed a single finger momentarily on his bare shoulder.”You’re cold, Rich,”
Out by the point, near the rocks, a huge kelp bed rose up and down with the swells. When the kelp moved in, the surfing got tricky, and a surfer could find himself still traveling forward while his board stayed behind. Then, to rejoin company, it was like swimming back through a sea of slimy ropes.
“Rich, you’re cold.”
“You’re ignoring me.”
He turned to watch Becky wriggle her feet down into the lingering warmth of the sand, an act she did innocent of its charm.”Ignoring you?” he asked, “That’s likely?”
“Not listening to me, then. I said you feel cold,”
“Well, it’s late, all right. Here, take your sandals.”
“Am I being sent home?”
She rose, limberly, and hooking the sandals with her toes, stepped into them and snapped out the sand with one supple motion, “Damn it,” she complained, “I spend half my time feeling ten years old.”
“And 15, the other half.”
Her eyes, grey ocean-color eyes, wavered, reluctantly met his, and he was sorry, quite sorry, that he had teased her with the truth.
“See you tomorrow?” she asked,
“Tomorrow night, too.”
She stood still and looked down at him, unblinking now.
Mr. D’s wife was in the living room watching television. She got home at about five o’clock from her managerial position at one of his own father’s two large appliance stores. Dinner would be in the oven, since Madeleine never counted on him much before dark on days of good surf.
He took a shower first, washing away the chill and salt, the warm water unkinking his muscles, making him sleepy. Around his hips a strip of skin flashed shocking white, almost luminous, a hidden piece of the original man or the original child, still untransformed and unconvinced by the intervening sunshine years. Standing in his steamy shower, he no longer noticed yet another contrast, equally habitual with him—while he surfed at the beach his wife had been away at work. It was her choice, a matter of boredom in a childless marriage, not of money, and he had calculatingly become a schoolteacher just so he could be unencumbered on a day like today. Certainly she herself had known this, her future, before they were married five summers ago. A graduate fresh out of San Francisco State, she had stood on the cliffs admiring him, and seeing what he was even for that first time, there could be no other conclusion to reach. So Mr. D imagined it.
“A news special, darling,” Madeleine said, nodding toward the set, bringing his dinner into the living room.”I thought you’d like to see it.”
Hard, now, to remember her as she had been that one summer, five years past, when Richard Delpheemier did the unimaginable and within three months was mesmerized into marriage. More elegant than ever, she possessed the same flawless, faintly olive skin, but had that black thick hair, coiled immaculately, ever blown around her loose and damp? Had that face, a lady’s poised, soft face, ever squinted into the ocean wind? He had loved her that summer, as he loved her still.
There was a ringing.
“For you, Richard,” said his wife.
“Could they call back?” Drowsily he ate, the television set unfocussing before his eyes.
“She says it’s important.”
“She says Becky.”
“Becky. Becky, Becky. Do you know her?”
“She sounds like a student.”
He went to the phone in the kitchen, where he could see his wife’s back and slim shoulders as she sat in front of the television.
“Mr. D? Could you come to the cliffs right away?” Her voice wobbled tinny and distant over the receiver.
Because he was one of the earth’s few inhabitants who rode moonlight surf, Madeleine asked no questions. His silver board, ready as usual, remained lashed to the top of his car.
A gibbous moon dazzled in a clear sky. Becky waited on top of the cliffs by her bicycle, waving once to him as he drove up and parked. They said nothing, but she took his hand when they followed the path down to the beach. She wore tight white pants and a white sweater, and in the moonlight he could see her rich young body jiggle and sway. Yet the way she held his hand, her silence, made it seem as never before that he was walking with a child.
They sat together on the sand, the waves rolling and rumbling with a subdued, background sound, As predicted, the ocean had indeed quieted down already. Without looking at him, she said, “They found out.”
Instantly, he realized he would not panic at anything she said, and for that incidental benefit, at least, he thanked himself. He took a short irrelevant moment to study the moonlight tinseling the water, before asking in a level tone a pointless question: “What do you mean, Becky?”
“Us. Mom and Dad found out about us,”
The beach always had such a different character at night, much more secret, more gentle. Even the sand seemed smoother, slipperier, velvety.
“How, Becky?”—another pointless question,
“She caught me taking pills from her bathroom. She wanted to know why. Then she found out my period didn’t come this month and got me scared. I thought maybe I’d just skipped one. But she got me scared.”
For God’s sake. Why had he assumed her to be so accomplished, with access to a paramour’s accoutrements? Dear Becky. A 15-year-old girl should never have a night like tonight, never a night that ended on the sand talking about this to a man who was 32, never, never.
“I didn’t tell you, Mr. D, but I didn’t take pills last month. She must have hid them or something. I kept searching every day and then it got so late I just never told you. When she found that out she called in my father and they got me scared. They started yelling that I was probably pregnant.” She looked at him for the first time.”Were they just saying that?”
She was the student trusting the teacher for the right answer. Of course he could know nothing—until next month, anyway—although he didn’t burden her with a confession of ignorance. What he felt was that, yes, it was true: she looked far too female and fertile ever to be skipping periods. He didn’t tell her that, either. Instead he stared rather fascinated at the young, curved body. Incredible that the abdomen inside those tight pants could possibly grow and swell into bulging maternity. Not Becky. His child started in her? The queasy, potential irony of all this he knew was that he had deliberately postponed having children with his wife—a responsibility which had been put away for a later, rainy day. Yet he didn’t deceive himself. Pregnant or not, the results of tonight were going to be nearly the same for him, if not for Becky.
“Were they just scaring me?”
He made a statement, not an inquiry: “They wanted my name.”
She nodded, glancing away again, finally grasping his answer to her unanswered question.”I told them. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t tell, honest, but they were saying all kinds of things. I’ve never seen them look that way before. It was foolish of me, foolish, foolish . . .so sorry, Mr. D . . .sorry.”
“You weren’t the foolish one.” He found it was easy as ever to put his arms around her. In fact, this was, he analyzed, a test: caught in the spotlight of his own carnal appetite, exposed before the world, what did he feel about this girl temptress. Surprisingly, something affectionate, genuine. Surely not love?
“What now?” Becky asked, simply enough.
In an emotional muddle, which included both pity and a romantic spasm, he picked her up, cradled, and carried her toward the water, kicking off his sandals. The cool water rushed to his bare feet. So tense were his muscles that Becky floated almost weightless in his arms, the familiar fragrance from her hair mixing with the ocean’s pungency. Her breath whispered dizzyingly close to his ear: “Could we go away somewhere?”
He staggered, stupified at her innocence and her audacity.
“You would run away with me?”
“Tonight if you want.”
Momentarily, in the glow of tender appreciation that this faithfulness aroused, he actually didn’t reject the idea, with its illegality piled atop illegality. How remarkable any of her innocence remained or that it could last through tonight. He was nearly jealous of her unexpected mettle, the backbone she showed in trying to carry their affair on beyond this poor collapsed conclusion. Becky, come whatever, whenever, would apparently survive. He suspected, guiltily, that loving her might have come to pass, had circumstances given them a full year together.
Water swirled and held his ankles. Murmurings: the ocean and Becky talking to Mr. D.
Back up on the cliffs, he tried to say something adult and reassuring to her, but no honest words became available. She held her bicycle, waiting for those words, waiting to have the compass of her life pointed, not wanting to leave, trying to keep them together, their same old August, They stood as if suspended and distracted by the moonlight.
Obscurely, he said, “Listen, don’t let anyone make you ashamed. Promise not to get bitter about this summer.”
“I won’t,” she said immediately.
“Come right back here to the beach next summer. Enjoy yourself. Learn to surf. Mix with the other kids. Stay your
” Let’s not talk about next summer, Rich. I’ll be here on the beach tomorrow, if you want me to come.”
“What I mean is—” What he meant was inchoate, impossible, but deeply wished, so he said it anyway: “Kindness. Be nice to yourself . . .to me.”
Becky nodded sternly, puzzled, fiddling with the bicycle handles. He unstrapped the surfboard from the car.
His wallet and keys he left on the seat. He almost turned and said Goodby, or even Goodby, Sweetheart—the sort of frank endearment he had never used with her before—but the moment passed. Halfway down the path, car lights popped into view over on the road that followed the snaky curves of the cliffs. The lights swung back and forth. He could drive that road with his eyes shut, and once had done so, to prove it to his wife. When he reached the beach, Becky called down, cutting the night: “It’s my folks! I think they went to your house!”
With a few powerful strokes he was out beyond the shore surf, the board skimmering over darkened water. Stroke. Stroke. Going out to find a wave—always an irresistible excitement, and now a wave in the moonlight—why hadn’t he done even more of this at night, just the ocean and the lone surfer, by themselves, like years ago. On these windless nights the water rolled oily and smooth and warm by contrast to the cooler night air. Stroke. Stroke, and he was there, where the swells were peaking into fat humps. He sat up and straddled the board, bobbing, two hundred yards from land.
He could see the three of them up by the cars. Poppa Bear, Momma Bear, and standing slightly apart his own shapely Goldilocks. The man descended the path, appeared on the beach, cupped his hands to his mouth. Sonofabitch? Statutory rape? The sound of shorebreak made it impossible to hear. Whatever, he deserved it, every word. If he were the father of such a girl, he would shout, too.”I’m sorry,” he said aloud, conversationally.”You won’t believe me, it doesn’t change things, but I find I care about her.”
He cast his shirt to one side, where it began to drift away and submerge. That left only his pants. A swell came, gathering a bit higher than the others, and he swiveled the board, hitched it into position, and then, instantly, the wave and he were together. Without a single paddle he was up, on his way,
Silver board in the moonlight. Water hisses past underneath, the board trembles, alive in its fashion. Spray brushes his skin, loud crumbling water races for his legs, a wake of white foam spreads behind, cool air crosses his face and hair, his feet grip the waxed board, up, back, crouch, part of the sea. In his concentration he absorbs only sensation—thrusting forward into space, riding the rolling power of a liquid mass.
When he peeled off the wave and sat back down astride the board, there was a man, a dozen yards away, calling to him.
“Sir? Will you come here?”
The man wore a suit, and evidently his trouser legs were wet, Mr. D wondered if sand had gotten into the man’s shoes—something else to anger him. Mr. D also wondered what he himself would do now: water or land. Raising his hand in a half-salute, he said, “Nice ride?”
(The Decline and Possible Fall of Mr. D)
He paddled back out, and kept paddling, beyond where the waves were breaking, beyond range of any voice from shore. Beneath the ocean’s translucent surface his ghostly arms rippled through their rhythmic stroke. Below him would be thousands, millions of fish, a whole world down there that knew nothing of the shadow passing overhead nor of a Becky or a Madeleine. The shadow kept moving on, toward the open sea.
It took nearly half an hour to get out far enough to see the city lights. Then he turned and faced landward again, lying on the board, chin resting on his hands. In striking panorama, handfuls of golden sequins were flung against the dark low hills. His city for 32 years. To the left, behind that radio tower, stood his old childhood house with its huge eucalyptus trees. Over there would be the high school, where he had once been a student and was now a teacher. And about that spot was his own home. What might Madeleine be doing right now in the warm well-lighted house? Because of a few missing pills he wasn’t with her. In earlier days there had been prophylactics, creams, jellies, even Coke douches, clumsy but undeniably apparent. Today they trusted a little something you swallow. Secret, invisible—hoards of women walked around with tiny pills working inside their bodies, including Madeleine. Maybe it was too easy.
The board rocked him, gently, seemingly detached from those lights and from the life he had lived on that black land. Had it all started with Becky because it was easy? Because he had a taste for young girls? Once, late on the last day of a teaching year at the high school, Mr. D had been walking alone down an empty hallway when a girl stepped in front of him, kissed him flush on the mouth, and fled. That hadn’t charged his passions. He and Madeleine, as a matter of fact, had laughed about the episode, and they both were oddly touched when they imagined how the girl must have dreamed and plotted and waited there, sweating, in the hallway.
Young girls. There were his girls’ swimming classes, which he didn’t tell Madeleine about. On one day a week for four years every girl in the school passed before his eyes—literally—as he stood tanned and muscular, his arms folded across his chest. He took pleasure, and a proprietary satisfaction, in watching them mature over the four years, in seeing them discover their own bodies. Their walk as they moved by him became more knowing, slower, more straight-backed, more centered about the hips. Some managed to pause before him and twist sharply at the waist, or bounce and bobble, various unsubtle acrobatics, all experimental, or perhaps they instinctively wanted to attract this rather famous sun-blonde man.
What he absolutely didn’t tell Madeleine about happened in the pool. If not frequent, it was common, in its haphazard manner. The girls would be thrashing in the water, practicing kicks, swimming, wading, most of them shrieking, and then a hand was on him. Sometimes the hand would linger on his back, as if seeking temporary support. Sometimes the hand would be underwater. He doubted that the girls planned or shared their furtive contact—compulsion of the moment, more likely. Year by year the girls’ faces changed, but this touching remained, a part of their growing up. What could he do, put an announcement in the Freshman Handbook? ATTENTION GIRLS: PLEASE STAY AWAY FROM MR. DELPHEEMIER’S CROTCH. Besides, to be candid, he enjoyed having a role in the timid sex beginnings of these girls, before they went on to be exploited by lovers and husbands, and on to exploit themselves, like every other natural resource. He could participate in their sexuality when it was mysterious to them, idealized, still awesome, and Mr. D had never touched in return.
So he was sentimental. Why then had it started with a girl who needed to steal birth control pills from her mother? The first day he saw her had been enough. May. Decent four-foot surf. She had come and stretched, sunning, on the sand near him, a few pale tendrils of hair reaching out from under the bottom strip of her bikini. Beckoning fingers. Her family had just arrived, making it easier, because officially she was not from school. But the end explanation was remarkable Becky herself, who kissed without fleeing, who despite her certified age had been like an apple that ripened in spring, a diamond that formed in a mere hundred years: she showed up on the beach one afternoon and offered him virgin perfection. Such an offer, from such a person, would never come again in his life, Mr. D knew. He took it. Madness, yet he took it. She resembled a dream he once had—finding 30-foot benign surf—and he could not refuse such unique, total pleasure.
Certainly he, of all persons, should have known that those waves can rise only in dreams, that the pleasure of being in great surf has nothing to do with benignity, peace, and safety, but rather with frightful impending destructiveness. To surf was to feed off the continuous destruction of a wave or be yourself destroyed. Now, he found, to take Becky’s offering had meant the sacrifice of Becky . . .not only her corporeal virginity, her other more precious virginity as well, the true child, killed before its time, which is always, at best, time too short. Becky soon would look back and see what she lost and who had taken it.
Once more he turned the surfboard away from land and paddled swiftly, steadily, the lights on the hills dropping lower and lower behind him. For an hour he paddled, and when he finally stopped, the board rocked under only the moon and a chilly sky filled with stars. Mr. D had twice seen drowned bodies after they drifted ashore, bloated things, ashen, and he did not choose to be discovered that ugly way himself or to be seen at all. From here the currents would mercifully carry a corpse seaward.
At least the mathematician within Mr. D methodically arranged the numbers of his new life, Criminal charges might be filed. If so, possibly rape, or at the least, contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Perhaps the police were searching for him now, asking at his house, and his parents’.
“Is Richard Delpheemier inside?”
“Why, no, officer. Is something wrong?”
“May we look around inside, please?”
“But officer, what’s wrong?”
His position at the high school . . . almost surely lost. “Teacher Dismissed on Morals Charge.” Local boy makes bad. Long-time surfing phenomenon, “Mr. D,” disgraced. Whispers in the school corridors: “Did you hear what happened to Mr. D?” No job, no money. His father’s business, lucrative enough, would be best off without him: “Depraved Son of Prominent Businessman Joins Family Firm.” All those years his disappointed father had first cajoled and then silently pleaded with his son to take over the appliance stores, and now it still could not happen.”Just this one summer give up that surfing and give the stores a try,” his father said every summer. Would his father in the days ahead face his customers with the same easy, practiced smile? Mr. D could not and moreover would never bring himself to look squarely into his mother’s face.
If Madeleine hadn’t heard about Becky tonight, she would by tomorrow. Tomorrow she would hear about everything. What might that patient woman be thinking at this minute— either mentally trying to digest his infidelity or growing alarmed over his absence—waiting isolated in their house that was not much of a home. Would it hurt her if he never returned from the ocean? Yes. Madeleine would despair, grieve and grieve. How strange love was, because marriage with him had included too many hours apart, too many long discussions about travel, about children, about their future. She finally gave up discussing and took a job—surrogate son for his father.
Mr. D’s naked skin shivered, trembled. Cold. Remorse. Sadness. What hour must it be. The big Pacific sloshed against his little board, while the profligate moon persisted above.
Only one appropriate suicide existed for him: catch a colossal wave at mid-ocean, a tsunami, and be borne in, league after league, to be smashed against the cliffs. No such luck, he knew. Yet once there had been an episode when Mr. D almost hit the cliffs and finished himself, back in the early times when he was just a kid and not Mr. D, back when hardly anyone along the road even noticed those few surfers. Alone, on a rainy and wild winter afternoon, at Idiot’s Hollow, he had taken firm hold of his board and his thumping adrenalin and ventured where no mortal had dared before. Simply to batter out through the storming, furious whitewater had left him exhausted. Surviving that, he hunched there in the pouring rain, panting, solitary, the undulating water bulging upward into real rushing hillocks. Enormous noise and energy surrounded his own jot of flotsam: he had known exactly that his decision whether or not to throw himself over this actual watery precipice had slight connection with “sport” or “adventure,” but instead with his hunger to open a certain rare and brutal door where he might be chosen to enter. No riches waited beyond the certain doorway, and the price of failure— besides risking life—could be a private humiliation heavier and deadlier than shirking the attempt altogether. One made that attempt right now or, in confessed honesty, never truly tried again, To be gained, then, was simply becoming Mr. D, although he foresaw that only through some ruthless, compulsive intuition.
Timidity guarantees the ocean will win, He had gone full throttle and picked a 20-foot terror that never quite let him get off. . .and no beach waited at Idiot’s Hollow ., .rocks and cliffs stopped the waves. It had broken his nose and before it finished held him tumbling underwater for a long, long ghastly period. Still he rode it and returned that winter and the next winters. Out there during those years, by himself, is when he measured within himself the extent of his native powers and passions—surfing formed a context for the entirety of being, Over all the globe, fewer than a dozen men could duplicate what Mr, D was able to do, passing through the door and beyond.
Not dust to dust for him but from seawater to seawater, Holding his breath, he slipped off the board, and leaving behind puddled moonlight, dove straight down into cold blackness. Deeper, deeper, he dug inward with his strong swimmer’s arms, heading so far down that when his breath gave out, and he swallowed water, he could never surface alive.
His air was going . . . gone. Quickly pressure mounted on his chest, the squeeze started in his lungs, tighter and tighter, an irresistible, convulsive reflex to suck in—gasp. Gasp.Christ. . . Idiot Hollow over again, only worse.
A greater reflex , . . surfers were never, no never, made to drown . . .no . . .please float. . .float. . .rise .., rise. Strengthless, he did begin to rise, floating up with dreamy slowness. Minutes also floated by. More minutes passed and he strangled and strangled on the blessed, killing urge to breathe. Hours passed. This time . . .impossible . . .impossible, everybody. No . . .be still, be still. . .a single tensed muscle and the empty lungs wring shut. Impossible. Impossible. Relax, be limp, rise, rise.
Even in his frantic sleep he felt the gasp coming. No longer would it be held back—no more feats of stamina, no more lifesaver’s lore, no more surfer’s wiles. Mr. D, mortal, must breathe. The water shot into his lungs, burning terribly, and like any inland commoner he began to thrash, inhale, drown. Excruciating pain pierced his breastbone, the water bruising, the salt scalding his lungs’ tender membranes.”Help,” he called wordlessly, meaning help from the agony, striking out in all directions with his arms and legs, trying to dislodge the enemy from his throat. Twirling, twisting his desperate body, he saw following along inside himself a smeared trail of rotating bright spots, then other spots, little stars.
His board shone in the moonlight, shifting like a trustworthy silver steed at tether. Climb on, Master, Why gone so long, Master? Guiding his drooped head across the surfboard, he stayed barely afloat, gagging, vomiting out the water, mucus streaming from his nostrils, but breathing, dragging in harsh gulps of searing air.
Alive, except that Mr. D, clinging, began to sob, wrapped around with the privacy of the Pacific Ocean,
When he eventually hauled his sick self fully up on the board, he calculated that it would take the remainder of the night to paddle back ashore, resting often. He should arrive with the dawn. Then? Then he and Madeleine . . .something. Move away. Something, anything, together.
The final arrangements he would complete upon reaching the surf line about sunrise. There he would wait and catch the best wave of a set, as always before. Using whatever strength he had, he would surf that wave the best he possibly could, as always before. While it would only be a middling wave—the surf by now was down—he would concentrate and remember every motion of it, all the way in: the last ride, the end of an entire world, but not the end of sweet life.