Authors: Norman Ollestad
HEARD MY DAD’S
feet banging the loose wood boards along the side walkway. A part of me woke. A part of me clung to the peaceful cocoon of sleep. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He was supposed to be working on his malpractice case with his law partner Al, whom he went into private practice with a few years ago. They were supposed to be helping some poor guy who lost his leg because someone built a crappy bridge that collapsed, something like that.
The sliding door swished open. Dad never knocked when he came to get me early in the morning. I guess he didn’t want to wake them up. I burrowed deeper into the promise of Sunday morning—no basketball or football or skiing and certainly no surfing. Nick’s going to make his Sunday morning pancakes soaked in maple syrup. It’ll be like nothing ever happened. I rehearsed my plea to Dad: I have hockey camp coming up at the end of August. Come on, Dad. Just one day off.
My bedroom door squeaked. Sunny lifted her head from the corner of the bed. Dad’s warm palm touched my back. Warm lips on my cheek. I pressed my eyes closed, hoping he would have pity on me—poor tired little boy.
Good morning, Boy Wonder, he said.
I moaned, evoking exhaustion.
Sure is a beautiful day out there, he said.
I whimpered like a child lost in a dream.
Time to get up, he said.
I’m too tired, I said in a strained whisper.
The wind will be up early so now’s the time, Ollestad.
I hurt my whole body…falling. I scraped up my whole body.
Let me see.
I pushed down the covers and showed him my hip and elbow and hand.
Salt water is the best thing for it.
Oh man. It’s gonna sting like hell.
Just for a second. The iodine’s good for it. Get up.
My whole body aches, Dad.
Just one good ride, Ollestad. It’ll be over before you know it. I’m going to be gone for a week so you get a vacation, he said, smiling.
No, I whined.
As far back as I could remember I was on a surfboard. It wasn’t until last summer down in Mexico that Dad got serious about me riding waves as opposed to just farting around, as he called it, in the whitewash.
No, I moaned.
Hey, I didn’t get to learn until I was in my twenties, he said. All I had was baseball. You’re lucky you get to ski and surf when you’re young. You’ll be ahead of the game.
I need a day off, I said as I pulled up the covers.
He looked away and it reminded me of how cowboys did that in the movies when they lost patience and were trying to simmer down. His faded red trunks hung under two ridges of muscle sculpting his lower abdomen and his shoulder dimpled when he patted Sunny and told her she was a good dog for helping me get ready to surf. I thought he was going to repeat the story of how he financed his first ski trips in the late ’50s: showing Bruce Brown surf films in the town halls of Aspen and Sun Valley. Instead he dropped my beavertail wetsuit on the bed.
Put it on, he said. I’m going to wax up the boards.
We hauled our surfboards toward the point where the pond leaked into the ocean. We passed by yesterday’s boxing ring and I remembered getting hit in the nose and then my mom getting hit in the eye. If I told my dad about it, and told him what Nick said to me about running for help, would they get in a fight? I envisioned Nick grabbing a wine bottle and swinging it at my dad, splitting his forehead. I had always sensed that my dad didn’t want to know the gory details of my mom’s private life, didn’t want to get involved. The wine bottle splitting Dad’s head and his silent plea not to know joined forces, persuading me to keep my mouth shut.
We paddled side by side until a group of bigger waves, set waves, rose on the horizon. He pushed my board from the tail and told me to paddle harder. We barely made it over the first two swells. The third swell was the biggest and the lip of the wave curled over my head and I punctured through its belly and the lip slapped down on my legs. The salt stung my wounds. When we cleared the rock shelf I sat up. My hip was stinging and the wetsuit pressed the salt water tight against my raw skin.
My dad had previously spoken about
fighting through things to get to the good stuff
or some such concept, and as he shook
the salt water out of his curly brown hair, he talked more about people
giving up and missing out on fantastic moments
Accordingly I pearled on my first wave, nose-diving and swallowing water, and he told me to keep trying because I’d be so happy once I got a good ride. I snapped back that I hated surfing.
I saw Chris Rolloff paddling out. I had not seen him in a few months. He was two years older than me but we were buddies. His dad lived in the Rodeo Grounds (or Snake Pit) below where my dad lived on the rim of the canyon. We started hanging out after I saw one of his dad’s surf movies at the yellow submarine house.
Rolloff tried to catch a few waves but didn’t have the strength to get one. So my dad paddled inside and pushed Rolloff into a wave.
He rode the whitewash almost to shore. Rolloff hooted and thrust his arms up and I felt spoiled for not wanting to learn as badly as he did.
When Rolloff paddled back out he was beaming.
Hey Little Norm, he said. Your dad stoked me.
That was a good one, I said.
I’m totally into it.
Me too, I said.
Here’s one for Ollestad, said my dad.
He lined me up under the two-foot peak and gave me a little shove. I knew it would be my last one if I didn’t wipe out. I focused on each step of the process. I got to my feet, bent my knees, leaned back, then corrected my balance when the board reached the bottom. Being goofy-footed I stood with my back to right-handed breakers, pressing the heel of my left foot into the tail of the board, leaning back toward the wave. The board curved into the pocket. I streaked for thirty yards, bending my knees and weighting forward and backward to control the pitch of my board across the moving wall.
I came ashore in front of my mom’s house. She was watering her plants again and I could see her black eye. I hauled my board to the house. When I got to the ivy I rested.
How was it? she said.
Did you see that last one I got?
Her clear eye fixed on me and the lid batted down a couple of times.
Yes, she said. Good one.
I knew she was lying.
Of course it was a white lie, sweet, yet I was ashamed and the board suddenly felt really heavy going up the porch stairs. Her lie seemed to give Nick the edge in the battle of who would be right about me, and I resented her for it.
Look, said my mom. Norm’s on a good one.
My dad’s arms hung at his sides like an ape-man. His upper body was quiet as his feet crossed over, walking him to the nose. His toes gripped the edge of the board and skimmed the water. He leaned back, a curved prow. He rode like this to the sand and casually stepped off the board and let it wash up on the sand before scooping it into his arms.
My mom watered with her good side toward him.
Good morning Janisimo, said my dad.
Good wave, Norm, she said.
Little Norman got a beauty too, he said. Did you see it?
She nodded and I cringed. He trotted up the stairs and my mom kept faced away from him and he did a double take on her. I watched him and he didn’t seem to notice the bruise. He walked the board to the side walkway and put it up on the shelf. I handed him mine and he put it away.
He leaned down and kissed my cheek and salt water shed off
his mustache and tickled my nose. He looked at me. Chunks of different-colored blue cracked his irises and his cheeks bunched up like rosy apples. He told me he loved me.
I’ll be back in a week, he said.
Adios, Boy Ollestad.
He walked back toward the beach. My mom heard him coming and tried to appear busy with some weeds in one of the pots. My dad circled around to her bruised side.
Ah shit, he said.
My mom spoke in a whisper with her back to me. My dad’s eyebrows forked down between his eyes, then he looked away like he was pissed off, as if casting the piss into open territory would help disperse it.
My dad appeared to be gathering anger and I liked it, thinking that this was step one in him becoming a force against Nick. A charge of redemption welled up inside me. Then like a reverberation I imagined Nick’s red eyes stalking my dad and there was something in Nick’s hand, a weapon.
At the end of the shadowed walkway I saw my dad studying me. Something raw lurked deep down in his eyes—a look he got when he rode waves or skied powder. He was looking over my mom’s shoulder. She was still talking. He nodded and said something to her before walking toward me. Mom turned with him and her eyes followed Dad down the walkway. Even with a shiner she looked young and innocent gazing at my dad with moist, yearning eyes. Her lips peeled apart and her body leaned toward him. Dad didn’t stop or look back. I wondered if that was how he left when he finally moved out for good. Had Mom hoped he really wouldn’t leave—that it was just temporary? Jacques had gone back to France and Dad hadn’t spent the night at the house for a couple of weeks. He surprised me one evening
coming through the sliding glass door in the kitchen after work in a gray suit with a bow tie and wire-rimmed eyeglasses. He limped but didn’t use crutches. He read me a bedtime story and once I was asleep he confronted my mom. She was planning on going to Paris to see Jacques.
It’s either Jacques or me, my dad said.
She wouldn’t answer one way or the other. I refuse to choose, she said. A couple days later Dad moved out.
Mom and Dad kept up their appearances at bridge night for a few weeks, playing as a team against other couples like they had been doing for years. Their friends all held out hope that they would get back together. Jan and Norm were seen as the perfect match.
Mom’s eyes blinked a few times, as if tamping something down, and she turned back to the weeds in the pot. I tugged on the string attached to my zipper and began peeling off the wetsuit. I wasn’t holding out hope that they would get back together—I had known them as two separate entities far longer than as a couple, so it seemed normal to me.
So, he said when he came astride me.
I looked up at him, brushing my hair out of my eyes. His shoulders were silhouetted and they looked wide and blocky—a powerful image.
Nick’s full of shit, Ollestad. Don’t listen to him.
I know, I said, thinking Dad never said that to Nick’s face. They were always real friendly to each other and there was never any sign of tension. Not even jealousy. At least none that I ever saw.
Steer clear of him, okay? said Dad. That’s what I do.
I thought of how I might do that, maneuvering around his body in the living room, eating dinner in my room, playing with Sunny in my fort.
What if he grabs me?
My dad looked away, casting something off again, this time into the muted light. He made a faint growling sound in his chest that I’d heard before.
Don’t say anything to Nick, my dad grumbled. Nod your head and just stay out of his path.
I was perplexed, trying to figure out how to do that, and he added,
Stay at Eleanor and Lee’s as much as possible while I’m gone.
Dad knew that Eleanor showered me with unconditional love, that she was my fairy godmother. Everyone always said that Eleanor and I had an immediate, inexplicable connection from the moment I was born. And I never passed up a chance to stay with her and get treated like a prince, so I said okay.
I’ll call Eleanor when I get home, he said.
I nodded and he looked worried. He put his hand on my shoulder.
I’ll be back later, he said. We’ll see how you feel in a couple hours. Okay?
I nodded again, not understanding what a couple hours would change.
He moved directly in front of me, reeling me in with his infectious smile.
See you in a couple hours, he said.
Okay, I said.
He took the walkway toward the access road this time, stepped into the sun and vanished.
I spent the rest of the morning at my fort with Sunny. I came home to get some milk because it was hot out. My mom was on the phone and I guzzled half the bottle.
She hung up the phone.
That was your dad.
He wants you to come with him to Grandma and Grandpa’s.
I scrunched my face.
It’ll be fun, she said. You guys will surf on the way down and the ferry’s really neat. And you know Grandma and Grandpa will be thrilled to see you. Besides you get to skip a week of summer school.
There was no accounting for the fact that my fear of surfing in Mexico outweighed my fear of confronting Nick again, even after he had just given my mom a black eye.
I don’t want to go, I said.
Well you’ll have to talk about it with your father. He wants you over there right now. Let’s pack up.
She moved toward my room. Staying put, I rested my hand on Sunny’s head.
I shook my head.
Why do I have to go?
Because. Because it will be good for everyone. You haven’t seen your grandparents since last summer. Don’t you miss them?
Well according to your father you’re going, so you’ll have to work it out with him.
Why? I thought Sandra was going.
Apparently she’s not going anymore.
Shit, I said.
the baby tree, trying to veer out of the icy funnel. I reached my right arm as far to the right as possible, anchored my fingertips into the ice and raked my body laterally. I repeated this several times before my fingers gouged crust instead of ice and I knew I was outside the funnel. It took a long time, maybe thirty minutes, to climb the remaining twenty feet to my dad. I wasn’t going to slip again. I knew I had gotten lucky nabbing that tree.
I hiked past pilot Rob. His disembodied nose was dusted over and one side of his body was collecting snow, forming a drift. Soon he would just be a lump under the snow. A fact, like the wind and cold, that I filed away, not quite believing.
My dad was only two or three feet above me when I found him. Same position: seated, his upper body doubled over, his wrists bent over his knees.
I put my lips to his ear.
Dad. Wake up. Wake up.
I shook him and that broke my footing. My feet skated for purchase and I had to let go of him for fear of dislodging him and sending the two of us down the ice slide. The snow was softer in this spot and luckily my fingers got a good hold. I decided to dig out a shoe step so that I could attend to him.
While I kicked my shoe toes into the crust Sandra began to jabber—a circle of mixed-up words and phrases. My Vans only blunted against the snow, hammering my toes until the pain forced me to stop. I looked to my right and uphill a few feet. Sandra was still perched on the edge of the funnel. I watched her for a moment. Her eyes drifted, the lids opening and closing in time with her alternating eruptions and low murmurs. Consciously I turned her noise level down and she faded away.
I kicked into the snow again. My feet were numb and stiff now and that helped me hack out a step. Then with my other foot I hacked out another step. I had two secure leverage points. I clamped both hands around my dad’s arm and shook him.
Wake up. Dad. Dad. Dad!
Wind spearheaded down the chute and scraps of plane teetered and I heard my seat groan, making me turn my head. Poof, my seat shot down the curtain. Gone in a flash. I let go of my dad, worried again that I might send the two of us down the icy chute.
I rested my palm on my dad’s back. He didn’t seem to be breathing. What if Sandra’s right, I thought. What if he’s dead?
I watched the wind-driven snow thrash from all directions, wave after wave. My toes cramped from having to grip the tiny notches in the snow—the only thing keeping me from plunging down like my seat. Another blast of wind nearly tipped me backward and I had to hug close to the ice curtain. Even the trees I saw earlier looked cold and afraid, huddling for protection, I thought.
The wind hushed and I leaned toward my dad again.
Daddy, I said, pressing my palm to his back.
But he was folded in two like a broken table.
He had taught me to ride big waves, had pulled me from tree wells and fished me out of suffocating powder. Now it was my turn to save him.
I wormed my shoe tips deeper into the notches. Got plugged in. With the heels of my palms under his shoulders I pushed. He didn’t budge and I was pinned under him like a scrawny stick trying to hold up a big rock. So I got over him and tried to pull him up. Too heavy. If only I was bigger and stronger.
Why am I so small? You’re such a weakling.
I stared down at him. My fingers quivered and pain seeped into my heart. His curly hair tickled my nose as I leaned in to kiss him, hugging him tight to my body.
I’ll save you. Don’t worry, Dad.
He’s still warm, I told myself and squeezed him closer.