Authors: Norman Ollestad
I didn’t respond and he turned and walked around the spit. On the other side was a patch of sand ending where the big black rocks bordered the cove. As we got closer I saw two fishing boats on the wet sand, rocking like cribs. They’re not canoes carved from wood, I thought. Little dories overstuffed with nets and buckets and spears—metal not bamboo.
Look, my dad said.
Barely visible above a hedge line of mangroves was a group of steeple-shaped roofs made from coconut palms.
My dad shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it and I realized we were lucky. It made me nervous that we were relying on luck.
He followed a path trampled into the shells.
Should we just walk right in? I said.
He opened his hands.
I don’t know what else to do, he said.
But what if the people who live here don’t like strangers?
Then we’ll leave. Don’t sweat it, he said.
He took my hand and we walked toward the roofs.
ANDRA REFUSED TO MOVE
and the airplane’s floor rug was under my arm. Sandra needs an adult to order her under the wing, I thought. Not an eleven-year-old kid that she thinks is a brat. I put the rug down beside her and crawled back toward my dad.
I needed to smell him, feel his skin. There wasn’t much I could do without him—I could not move him or Sandra on my own. Why hadn’t he woken up? I must be doing something wrong. What the hell is it?
I crossed into the funnel, and navigating the ice curtain drove away all extraneous thought. The fog heaps and wind and snow seemed to erase the terrain and I had to go on my memory of where I thought he was—down a couple feet then across fifteen feet or so. My laser focus held all thought noise at bay. Until I found him.
I nudged my nose into Dad’s ear. Cool but not cold. With the
crown of my head I rammed him, like an animal might. He was dead weight. I couldn’t accept that I was too weak to carry him to the shelter.
You’re too heavy, I said, blaming him for my weakness.
My chest thumped with frustration. I put my hands over my face. I turned away from him. I drew my fingers down my face. Finally I opened my eyes. Then clawed up and over to Sandra. I dug into the mountain, cursing it and everything that was mounting up against me—even Nick pointing out my
—all the way to her seat. Nick’s full of shit, I declared silently as I took Sandra’s hand. She shied away from me. I flicked open her seat belt buckle and pulled her out.
Let’s go, I said, reminding myself of my dad—how he always took care of her. It was my job now.
What are you doing? she said.
For a moment I recalled her sitting on a bar stool, in Utah maybe, scolding me for being a spoiled brat because I was insisting that my dad leave the boring bar and go down to the game room.
Then I saw that her skin had lost its caramel color, turned pasty from the extreme cold. She’s just scared, I decided.
I set the rug behind her seat, hoping it wouldn’t get blown away. I moved beneath Sandra and lodged my hands below her fancy leather boots.
Move with me, I said. We’re crossing to the wing. We can get under it.
I talked her through it and she followed my instructions. I used my entire body—knees, pelvic bones and chin—to crab us off the edge of the funnel.
My knee caught the corner of the trail first. I guided Sandra’s boots onto the ledge and told her she could put pressure on it. Relieved, I rested for a moment.
Great, I said. Now turn onto your side and sort of walk while you lean against the hill.
Sandra’s hip and shoulder plowed into the mountain as her boot heels dug into the trail and her good arm helped drag her across the chute. The trail saved us a lot of time and energy. About ten minutes later we slid onto the relatively even ground behind the big trunk.
I have to get the rug, I said.
No. Don’t leave.
I’ll be right back.
What if you slip?
I grunted and moved upward to find the trail. Millions of specks jumped off the ledge like white fleas, making the ground appear raised. Trudging on I found the rug behind the seat, then paused, wondering about my dad. I wanted to feel him again. I tried to locate him amongst the dizzying gray formations. Streaking white flakes rained down on me and a turbine of wind seemed to shake the mountain.
I have to get warm, I told myself.
I strode away from him on my four paws. I felt my muscles bulging out of my shoulders. My body seemed to have already adapted to what my mind was unwilling to accept—I was on my own.
AD’S CURLY HAIR
had dried in a big puff. I stayed right on his tail as he led us toward the coconut palm roofs. I wished he were wearing a shirt or shoes. Not just surf trunks.
The path squeezed between the mangroves and widened to a muddy trail that cut through the tiny village. Except for the mangrove trees abutting the sand, most of the jungle had been cleared away and replaced with caladium and hibiscus and aloe vera plants. The huts looked like old-fashioned schools, made of palms, without windows, except the hut on the end was shaped like a cone and open on the bottom so you could duck under and enter it from any side.
Women and children and old people swarmed around two center huts. They stopped and stared when they saw us.
My dad called to them. No one moved except a little girl who waved to us. She was dressed in a tattered skirt. Most of the mothers wore ragged clothes of all styles and colors. Only the
older men looked uniform—thin ponchos, baggy cotton pants and deeply lined faces. Nobody wore shoes. The women’s clothes were ornate with gold stripes and ruffled hems like Vegas dancers, the material especially threadbare and faded.
Donde esta los hermanos? Los padres?
said my dad.
A woman pointed and rambled quickly in Spanish.
, said my dad.
We crossed over the mud path along a tree limb that had been laid down, balancing one foot in front of the other like longboarders walking to the nose. The children stared at me as if I were a green-tentacled Martian.
My dad led me around the farthest hut, where chickens scattered from a pile of seeds and took cover behind a pen. Inside were pigs. Big and fat and black. Behind the hut was a grove of widely spaced
trees. The jungle grew thick and heavy right up to the meadow and under the overhang was a stable of horses. Four men worked on four horses, cleaning, shoeing, and feeding them. All the men wore cowboy hats and boots. I had never seen big horses like that in Mexico—just burros. My dad waved to them and they turned and watched us approach, although none stopped their work.
The shortest darkest of the bunch left his horse and met my dad at the gate. He had a mustache like my dad’s, but black. He looked about my dad’s age, but his oily dark skin made it difficult to be sure.
My dad apologized for his shirtless appearance, and he pointed into the jungle and I recognized the word
. The man called back to one of the cowboys who was wiping down a horse and he nodded without skipping a beat or looking. The man turned back to my dad and gestured toward the huts. My dad thanked him and we left.
What did he say?
We’re in luck. They have a place for us to sleep.
I don’t want to spend the night here.
We don’t have a choice, Ollestad.
I’d rather sleep on the beach.
In the rain?
Maybe it won’t rain.
Maybe, he said. What are you afraid of?
I don’t know, I said. Can’t we just find a hotel or something?
He laughed. We passed the pigpen and came upon the main trail. The kids stared at me again.
It’s your hair, said my dad. They probably have never seen blond hair.
There were things I had never seen, like Mars or teenagers with guns, and I had never imagined I could be one of those things to somebody else.
We walked across the tree limb and found the path to the beach. I looked back and everyone was still standing there watching us, doing nothing else but watching us.
When we reached the sand he told me to collect my puka shells, and I did. He also gathered more pukas. Then we headed back to the village. He told me to give one of the abalone shells full of pukas to the first girl I saw. It would be a gift for their kindness.
As we came through the barrier of mangroves a young woman stood on the bare back of a horse, across the trail, picking papayas off a huge tree.
, said my dad.
She teetered for a second then found her balance. She shot him a scornful look, nodded and cut her eyes away. Her hands kept feeling the papayas. She was a real beauty. Black hair, thick and shiny all the way to the middle of her back. Long arms, smooth and brown. Sleepy dark eyes. A slightly curved-down nose. Snarly lips. A scar under her eye. She was not like any girl I had ever seen before.
Give them to her, I heard my dad say.
I snapped my eyes over to him. I shook my head.
Come on, he said. Just set them down.
I was confused. Then I did what he said. We walked away and I glanced back and she was gone.
My dad handed the rest of our pukas to the first grown woman we saw. She was an elder and she sat outside the center hut, watching over things. She said
and she wasn’t opposed to looking into my dad’s eyes like the young woman had been. Someone pulled my hair and jolted me out of my stupor. I turned around and a little girl was running away shouting. My dad told me to let them touch it. I stood stiffly and the kids inched up to me as if I were a rabid dog. One of the mothers shooed them away and spoke to my dad while the entire village surrounded us, staring at us. My dad seemed impervious. I watched the ground.
Someone gave my dad two blankets and I followed him to the cone-shaped hut on the end. The entire village moved with us and stood outside the hut even after we entered a slitlike doorway. My dad put the blankets down and laughed. I laughed too. It was strange seeing all those eyes peeking through the slit.
The glamorous life of a rock star, he said.
We sat there trapped for a long time. Then the
and dispersed the crowd. The short guy with the mustache poked his head through the slit. My dad laughed at whatever he said and they suddenly seemed like friends. When the
left an elderly woman with no neck brought us beans and tortillas and a drumstick.
Is it from those chickens outside?
Do they eat the pigs too?
I put the drumstick down, then my dad made me take three bites. By the time he was finished eating it was dark. We set the plates near the doorway and felt our way back to the blankets.
What do we do now?
I insisted on lying close enough to touch him. There were bug noises and a few human-sounding noises and it was so black I could not see the pathway right outside the hut. We were lost in complete darkness and buried away at the edge of a jungle, and Topanga Beach didn’t seem so isolated, or even very wild, anymore.
I dreamed of the papaya picker slaughtering a pig before the roosters woke me. My dad was gone. I sat up with a start, confused about where I was. Scattered clouds hung outside the slit. The path was already caking under the bald tropical sun. Sweat made my whole body sticky. I called for my dad. I went to the slit and peeked out. The village was empty. It was eight or nine o’clock, I guessed. A fragment of sunlight burned my cheek and I wondered what it would be like at noon.
I crossed the broken tiles of mud and searched for the path to the beach. The clouds over the ocean cracked in the same
pattern as the dried mud. There was no one around and a rush of panic made me move too quickly over the shells and they cut my feet.
My dad was helping lift a net full of fish out of a dory. Two elders hauled one side and my dad hauled the other with one hand grabbing the middle. The elders sweated under their ponchos and palm-woven hats, juxtaposing my dad’s minimalist wardrobe of surf trunks.
Take the other side, he said.
I hooked my fingers into the slimy net. A dying roosterfish, eyes stuck open, looked right at me. We put the net down outside one of the middle huts. Inside the hut I counted five palm-woven mats edge to edge on the ground. How many people slept in there?
Let’s get wet, said my dad.
My dad was way ahead of me when I stepped out of the hut. A stampede of kids appeared. I turned my back on them and got a good grip on my board and walked quickly toward the beach. The kids trampled over the shells and looked down at me from both sides of the path. A couple of boys ran their fingers over the surfboard and fired questions at me.
Surfing, I said, fashioning my hand into a surfboard riding an imaginary wave in the air.
I saw my dad way out on the sand spit gazing at the surf. The waves were eclipsed by the slight rise of the spit and his arms hung blithely at his sides, the board dangling. He was motionless. Big surf, I thought. Shit.
Some of the kids lost interest in me and lagged behind and the others began throwing rocks and shells into the ocean. I slowed my pace and hoped my dad would disappear around the
spit. I was barely moving and thought about just sitting down. But if he turned and saw me lollygagging it might piss him off.
The kids spotted a turtle and surrounded it and hucked rocks at it. They poked it with a stick as it shimmied toward the safety of the ocean. I wanted to yell at them but it was their beach and every beach was different with its own rules. So I walked on.
There was a horse tied up near a papaya tree where the jungle met the beach. I wondered which
was here. When I came up behind my dad on the sand spit I startled him and he became flustered for a moment. His mouth opened like he was going to say something but closed a second later. He walked off the spit and down the beach.
I stepped into his footprints and peered out. Just offshore I saw her—those snarling lips and the scar under her eye so distinct. She floated on her back and her breasts stood out like big acorns, firm and brown. The smell of papaya fruit was all around and in that instant I named her Papaya. I watched her and my arms hung and I was dead still, a miniature version of the man standing in this place only moments before. Had my dad been watching her? Did she know? Then her eyes opened. They tracked all the way into the corners and only then did she see me.
She flipped over and dove. She swam along the white ocean floor, her brown color beautiful like a trail of brown sugar. She popped up far enough away that I could not see her body through the clear water. She seemed to catch her breath looking out toward the big reef and then she swam farther out.
My dad was way down the beach and I saw his footprints going past her yellow T-shirt and white skirt. I knew that my dad had been watching her but I didn’t know if she had let him and only afterward had been surprised by me, or whether she had been surprised that anyone was there at all.
I looked for her and saw her splashing halfway out to the reef. It worried me that she might get tired and drown. I envisioned paddling hard and whisking her out of the deep sea and onto my board. She thanked me. You’re safe now, Papaya, I said.
My adrenaline was pumping. Then a gaggle of kids rounded the spit, apparently finished with the turtle and ready to pursue some new curiosity. Full of erratic energy I trotted down the beach.
My dad was waxing his board and mixing sand into the wax when I finally reached him. He studied me and it seemed like we both were starstruck and speechless and floating in some weird space.
Cleaned up nicely, said my dad, glancing at the reef.
Totally, I said.
The Mexican kids must have thought we really were aliens the way we just lingered there—the heat and the aroma and the girl congealing into an orgy of sensations, and Dad and I laughing like drunken half-wits.
I was close to the reef and my dad was behind me for some reason. Coming out of the trance, I realized the waves were twice my size. I sat up on my board. The reef halted the swell’s forward momentum and the swell lurched upward then heaved outward, hollowing out the face of the wave. The leading crest was pointed like an arrow as it knifed down and impaled the surface of the ocean. My dad paddled up next to me.
Perfect left-hand tubes. I’ll be damned, he said. I’ll be goddamned.
A vein rippled with thumping blood from his bicep to his shoulder and his eyebrows forked down over the bridge of his nose, as if he were a savage poised to attack.
I felt ridiculous—these waves were too big and strong for me.
A tube like that will change your life, he said.
I don’t want to change my life, I said.
Another swell bared its vicious claw.
You want to watch it for a while? he said.
I thought about it. Yes meant that later I would stop watching and actually try to surf it. No could mean that I wanted to surf it now.
I’ll test it out, he said.
This was a reef wave, a quick combustion of energy that lasted about six seconds, nearly opposite the long reeling point break in Baja. The reef wave dissolved where the water got deep again, where there was an opening in the reef—the channel. My dad paddled through that opening and out past the reef, before cutting over to the take-off spot. In the unlikely event that I would decide to paddle out, I felt that the channel would protect me, and once out there, if a giant set came I could take refuge in its safe harbor.
My dad paddled for the next swell. He got right under the peak and a tumult of water gathered from the floor of the wave and shot up the face, loading the lip. The heavy lip stacked over the face of the wave, separating my dad’s board from the coveted arc where a surfer did his thing, and my dad was stuck on the roof. He gripped the rails of his board, sat up and leaned back. Just as the roof collapsed against the reef, the nose of his board ripped free and Dad spun around out to sea. Barely avoiding getting pummeled against the reef.
Faintly I heard voices. I turned and the beach was alive with cheering kids. Behind them the dark jungle flourished as
if about to gobble them up. Rounding the sand spit came the
on horseback. One of the boys from the village was in the lead.
I looked for Papaya’s yellow shirt against the shells, but it appeared to be gone. The
made their way along the wet sand and the horses shied away from the lapping waves.