3. Little Fish, Bigger Fish — Chapter 3
I am serializing my collection Stories from The Last Basin currently available on Amazon. The stories are best read in the order of Table Contents:
Little Fish, Bigger Fish
by John Anthony, 2021
At Lifeguard Station 9, David followed protocol for laying out his beach towel, that is, he extended the single line of towels and bodies further in the direction of Station 10 (which is, when facing the surf, to the beachgoer’s left), slipped off his jeans and tee shirt, and sat down to assess the waves. A few of the group that were aware of the new arrivals said “Hey,” to which he replied, “What’s happening?” but didn’t expect an answer. His friend Jimmy laid his beach towel next to David’s and also sat down. The lifeguard stations up and down the beach flew the surfboard prohibiting yellow and black-ball flag as they did every day of summer from 9am to 5pm, but today they added the red flag signaling the obviously dangerous surf conditions.
“Plenty of kooks wading around in the shallows,” Jim said.
“There’s a big, deep channel before the bar, just a few more yards past them. Bet they don’t even know it’s there,” David said, pointing. “The back wash is draining the channel up the beach towards Station 8. There’s the rip, a hundred yards or so.” A flood of white water was pushing out to sea past the breakers, identifying another channel, this one perpendicular to the beach, and had cut through the sand bar that formed the seaside edge of the beach channel. This was the rip current, fed by the convergence of opposing lateral currents. “What do lifeguards call kooks wading in the water?” David asked Jim.
“Guaranteed employment,” and he laughed at his own joke. “Shit. Look at that.” A body surfer was standing on the sand bar, his back to the beach. A wave had sucked the water he was standing in down to his knees. The face of the wave reared up in front of him. If five feet of the swimmer was showing, then the wave’s face was peaking at around fifteen feet. The swimmer hesitated another instant, then dove into the wave just as the lip broke and the curl closed out up and down the beach. The swimmer’s head popped up and he began sprinting using an ocean crawl, working to get outside so he could rest and count the swells in the sets and choose the one he would ride back into the brawl.
“Brutal,” Jim said.
“You’re a pussy,” David answered. Luna Fiore, who was lying next to David on her stomach with bikini top untied for the purpose of even-toned tanning had to swivel her head like a sea lion to maintain her modesty.
“Be nice, shitmouth,” she told David.
“I am being nice, Luna,” David answered. “Who is that out there?”
“The hell do I know? Tie my strap.” David did as he was told, and Luna sat up and looked out at the swimmer while adjusting her top. “That’s Kip,” she said without hesitation. “When’s the last time you had your eyes checked?”
“Don’t need to see as long as I have you nearby. Tell me this: How do I always know it’s you when you’re in the water?” Luna flicked some sand at him and flipped back onto her stomach.
“That was a general, not a specific, request to be nice. Untie me now, please,” she said, resting her head on her hands, facing away again. David diligently followed directions. Mostly, this mingling of teenage boys and girls at their beach hangout naturally adhered to a fairly rigid platonic standard.
“I’m done wasting these waves,” David announced. “Jimmy? You coming in?” he asked, grabbing his Churchills.
“Maybe I’ll just get my thrills watching you get crushed for a bit.”
“Perfect, don’t need to worry about saving your ass,” David said and sprinted into the surf past the kooks splashing water on each other until he hit the channel. He took a deep breath and sank down — Jim knew David had paused to slip on his fins — then re-emerged swimming until he reached the sand bar. Once there he repeated the ritual Kip had performed earlier, diving, swimming, timing, and repeating until he was where he wanted to be, which was next to Kip who was treading water.
“This is like hopping on a moving fucking freight train,” Kip shouted.
“Didn’t know you . . .” David began to shout, but a bigger swell emerged and began to push them towards the beach and they had to swim out to stay in position, then David continued, “. . . had such relevant experience.”
“Fuck yeah — with your mama!”
“You’re disgusting,” David said, but Kip wasn’t paying attention. He was watching the swells.
“This is my wave,” Kip yelled. “Count to seven and watch for pile-ups.” And he was off, sprinting through the water to match the speed of the swell, then he was gone. From where David watched, the swell grew to five or six feet, a decent size wave for board surfing a point break like Topanga or Malibu. But body surfing a beach break meant the face would be ten or twelve feet breaking into very shallow water. David began counting the set.
(Excerpted from: The Physics of Surfing, Dude!; First Edition, 1967, with permission) All waves have peaks and troughs and measuring peak-to-peak distance yields wavelength. The shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency, frequency being the number of waves that pass in a given period of time. When you take waves of different wavelengths and mix them up (technically, sum them), the peaks and troughs won’t match and through cancellation and enhancement (in-phase and out-of-phase or interference), you end up with a heterogenous wave pattern. Most of the time the pattern will be fairly obvious: five small waves, a bigger wave, then a big wave, then repeat. In our example, all seven waves form a set. Unlike electromagnetic waves, ocean waves don’t all move at the same speed. A pile-up means there’s a larger pattern that may appear so irregularly that it’s hard to discern that there is actually a pattern. Using our example of the seven-wave pattern, if we overlay another wave pattern with one wave in it that is moving faster or slower than the main set, sometimes the one wave will be cancelled by the action of the other waves in the set, sometimes it will reinforce one of the waves in the set, sometimes it will reinforce the biggest wave in the set (creating a monster wave), and sometimes it will pile-up behind a breaking wave. If this happens when you kick out of a wave (or resurface after a wipe out), you’ll be suddenly faced with another wave breaking right on top of you, so like, take a deep breath and pray to James Maxwell, the patron saint of wave mechanics, dude.
The sixth swell looked good, but he trusted Kip’s advice and it paid off. He began his sprint to catch the seventh wave. He felt the surge that meant he was in for a ride, angled his body down in a mostly futile attempt to avoid the falls (that very occasionally fatal ride where one’s body is carried up and over the lip of the wave and then driven into the sand with tens of tons of water following you, and, in rare and unfortunate body-to-bottom alignment, breaking your neck). The goal was to turn right or left — it didn’t matter, this was a beach break — and then for a moment hear the roar of the air compressing inside the tube and watch the sky’s light change from blue to sea-green. Timing was everything; if you didn’t linger you could turn into the curl and pop out with fifteen feet of water beneath you but enjoy the moment for an instant too long and you entered the spin cycle and your body turned into a human pretzel. In the latter case you merely hoped a) you could hold your breath long enough, b) figure out which way was up, and c) hope you didn’t surface in the face of a pile up. David, having started battling these waves since he was twelve, always expected a pile up and rarely was caught without a full load of air in his lungs and prepared to dive to stay alive.
David surfaced from his first ride feeling great. He checked the lifeguard station and noted he was already being pushed past it, towards Station 8. He swam back to the outside, skipped the next big one and started counting swells again. Over the course of about forty-minutes, he repeated this routine six times. He faced one pile-up. His experience told him by the coming afternoon, this intruding wave set, the one that caused the pile-up, along with the shift to an onshore wind, would turn the southern swells into confused mush. The morning surf was perfect though, and he felt great, strong, ready to take on anything the Pacific could throw at him.
By now he had been pushed by the lateral current all the way to the rip. Here the waves were disrupted by the outflow, so it was time for a reset. Outside, the lifeguard rescue boat was collecting kooks that had been caught in the confusion of currents and that the beach lifeguards had wrangled and dragged out to the boat. It was too hard for them to safely bring their wards back to the beach, so they loaded them into the boat, packing them like sardines in salty coconut oil, a total of about ten rescued souls, and two lifeguard senior operators. When the current rescue boat was filled, an empty boat arrived and the one with the miscreant beachgoers motored back to the Santa Monica Pier, where they docked and unloaded. Counting the walk over the pier, it was approximately a mile back to Station 9, but it felt longer. David and his friends called it the walk of shame and thought they were being original.
A lifeguard swam by David and held up his orange rescue can and David waved him off. He relaxed in the rip current, letting it do the work until its strength dissipated outside the surf line. Then he swam lateral to the beach. Even in August the water was cold; the only time it broke seventy degrees Fahrenheit was in September when they were sitting in class. He watched the lineup, began his count, and sprinted for the sixth wave. He managed to kick to the bottom so when it broke it pushed him out to the front of the white water. There he stayed until he was past the channel and into the shallows. He stood up, automatically reaching to slip off his fins, when he realized his left eye was burning . . . stinging . . . stinging and burning at the same time. He splashed some water in his eye, but it didn’t help. “Fucking jellyfish shit,” he said to himself. He was partially correct, but what he didn’t perceive was that this particular bit of jellyfish flesh carried a mote of transubstantiated matter and had deposited it directly into his eye.
His left eye burned as he walked back to Station 9. He let it. It was a hazard of swimming in the ocean. Better than stepping on a ray; he’d seen what that does to a person’s leg. Better than getting bit by shark. He’d read about what that does to a person’s flesh and bone. Better than swimming in a lake; fresh water never felt as clean as saltwater, and it was harder to stay afloat. He had the beach, which was more than most people. If he got stung in the eye, tough it out, this was his life. When he reached his towel he sat down. He was already dry from the walk. He closed his left eye and looked at the row of towels and then out to the surf line.
“Where’d Jimmy go?” he asked no one in particular.
“Seems he left,” Luna answered without looking at David.
“Did he give a reason?”
“He said he wanted to go play some volleyball at the gym rather than die.”
“’Get crushed by these mothers,’ were his actual words. Maybe where you see cowardice, he sees a finer art of bravery.”
“I don’t think he’s a coward, I was just busting on him. Hope he’s not pissed off.”
“No one stays pissed off at you.”
“Where’s Julie, Kate, and Nancy?” David was becoming aware that a good portion of the towels were empty. “Lunchtime already?”
“No. They went fishing for lifeguards,” Luna answered, a cue for David to look at the current residents of the rescue boat, but he couldn’t make them out. His left eye was leaking tears.
“I can’t see them,” he said.
“Jeez, David!” Luna said, sitting up. Her bikini was fully secured. Then, “They’re on the boat. You really need to get your eyes checked,” turning to look at him. “And what the hell is wrong with your eye anyway?”
“Nothing,” he said, opening it.
“What the . . .? Do you have pink eye?” Luna said with a certain urgency tinged with revulsion.
“I think a piece of jellyfish may have stung me there,” he answered, then changed the subject. “They’re baiting the lifeguards? For sport?”
“Trying to get an invite to tonight’s party.”
“Why would those guys invite them?”
“The same reason you would if you could but they can; they will have booze. Let me look at your eye.”
“Point taken,” David said, turning to her. “See anything in there?” Luna moved closer for a better look. David could feel her breath on his cheek, it felt . . . intimate, a word that snuck into his head and gave him a bit of a shock.
“Maybe,” she said, “Come with me.” And grabbing his hand, she stood up and pulled. David resisted.
“Go where? Not to the station. No fucking way,” he said. Going to the lifeguard for help was not cool.
“Just down to the water.”
“That’s okay, then.” David stood up and let her pull him down to the water. He’d known Luna since elementary school. She had become an attractive young teenager, long dark hair, a body that could handle a bikini, but she was his friend from way back. She was just acting like a sister would. When they had waded into the water up to their thighs, she told him to bend over, which he did, and she started to splash water in his face. David pulled away and abruptly stood up.
“Sandy water? You think that helps?” he asked.
“Sorry!” Luna said laughing and grabbed his hand again. David realized he hadn’t really touched her since a third-grade field trip when he was obliged to hold hands with her. She dragged him further out into the white water until they stepped into the channel and they found themselves afloat.
“Jeez!” Luna said, throwing her arms around David’s neck. “We’re going to get crushed here.”
“Don’t worry,” David said. “Hold on and dunk when I say dunk — dunk!” and they both went down and David rubbed his left eye furiously with his right hand, then pulled them to the surface. They both took a breath while David instinctively looked outside to size up the set.
“If that didn’t get rid of whatever was in my eye nothing will,” David said.
“I feel good . . . about that,” Luna gurgled. “But you know I’m not a strong swimmer.” David pulled her close. Body to body. He said, “Listen. We’re fine. Hold on to me as tightly as you’re holding now, but on my back. Piggyback.” Luna followed his instructions and, still clinging, worked her way quickly until she was behind him. David could feel every part of her body as she circled him, and he was sure she felt every part of his.
“Try not to choke me,” David said, and she loosened her grip. “But if you have to at least we’ll die together.” He could feel more than hear her laugh at his words and he knew then that they — she — would be okay. He started to swim, using the breaststroke back to shore. He felt them both starting to rise in a building swell and he swam harder, as hard as he could. This time it wasn’t just for him. He needed to stay ahead of the break or he’d lose Luna in the churn where no one could hold on, and he refused to lose her. He heard the wave crash behind him and suddenly they were both being carried toward the beach by the surging white water. David felt Luna’s lips touch his ear from behind. “Thank you, David,” she said. He didn’t just hear her; she had entered him and was speaking to him from within. He’d never experienced anything like it before, an overwhelming rightness as to who he was with and where they were together. He wanted to speak to her in the same way, but he didn’t know how. He may have believed himself altered, but he was only practiced in one way of expressing himself. “No problem. I’m a sea god!” David declared and realized it sounded stupid.
In the shallows they untangled themselves and stood up. David once again found himself on the wrong side of Station 9.
“Jeez, that felt good!” Luna said. “Let’s sit for a minute, before we walk back.”
“Sure,” David said. Luna sat next to him, so close that their shoulders occasionally touched. She sat quietly, with an indecipherable or maybe enigmatic smile on her face — David was unsure of the correct description. Her silence felt so loud it quieted the roar of the waves.
“Luna?” David asked.
“I’m just enjoying the moment.” So David simply laid back in the very warm sand. He stared at Luna’s back, her long dark hair darker now from the water lay heavy and motionless on her tan skin and reached almost to her waist. Minutes passed. This did feel good, David thought, but wondered if they were feeling good about the same thing. Then Luna followed David back, only she lay on her side facing David. Her hair fell into the sand.
“We’re going to have to rinse off again,” David said.
“I know,” Luna replied staring at him.
“Are we enjoying the moment for the same reason?” David had to ask.
“I hope so. It would be a waste to have not shared whatever that was.”
“But what was it?”
“Don’t really know so I can’t name it,” Luna answered.
“I’m good with that. But I still feel it or remember it or something. Maybe we should go catch another wave.”
“That wasn’t just catching a wave. That was creating something new. Being swept from safety into the channel, then propelled by the ocean’s contractions, emerging to lay on this warm blanket of sand . . .” Luna trailed off then rolled onto her back, speaking to the sky. “I don’t think it’s possible to create the same thing twice.” It was David’s turn to roll onto his side and face Luna.
“Very descriptive. You should be a writer,” he said.
“You’re the one that’s going to be a writer. You’ve been telling me that since the third grade,” she said, still staring at the sky.
“I’ve been saying lots of stupid things since the third grade”
“Do I need more evidence, then?” She turned her head and smiled at him, a smile that slayed him.
“How come you’re not busting on me the way you usually do?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’m sure it will resurface soon enough.”
“Good. I was starting to worry you forgot who you were with.”
“I’d call you a jerk now, but I’m just not in that kind of mood.”
“What do we do next?” David asked and Luna closed her eyes.
“Water it, weed it, watch it grow,” she said to no one or maybe just to herself. David lay back down to think, but Luna wasn’t going to let him. She was on her side again, looking at him, her left hand on his left shoulder. “I have an idea,” she said.
“Okay,” David said. The sun was directly overhead and blindingly bright, but next to him Luna’s face was suddenly incandescent, and it became David’s turn to close his eyes.
“We had this plan for tonight. I told my parents I’d go to St. Monica’s Saturday evening Mass with them so I wouldn’t miss beach time in the morning.”
“Your usual routine.”
“Right. But there’s a summer dance tonight at Lincoln Park so I asked them if I could meet the gang there afterward. It’s right across the street so they don’t even have to drop me off.”
“I thought you guys were planning to get an invite to the lifeguard party?”
“The girls are going, one way or another. The dance was a cover. I don’t have to go with them. Will you meet me there? We can listen to the band or dance or find some place to just talk. Or am I being stupid?” she asked, lifting her hand from David’s shoulder. David opened his eyes, looked at her and smiled. He took her hand and placed it back on his shoulder. “Yes, yes, and no,” he said.
“Translate from David for me please,” Luna said.
“Yes, I’ll meet you there.”
“That’s the first ‘yes’.”
“Yes, I can’t imagine not meeting you there.”
“I didn’t ask you that.”
“That was implied. And no, you are most definitely not being stupid,” David finished. Luna smiled than laid her head on David’s chest for a moment, before jumping up.
“I have to rinse off and get back!” she said.
“What? You in a rush?” David asked, still under the moment’s enchantment.
“Now I am,” she dropped to her knees. “Don’t take this badly, but the girls look at you as an immature boy.”
“Proudly correct,” David affirmed.
“So, I have to prepare for the double-double-cross. Both my parents and my friends need to believe my two different stories.”
“And if they talk to each other?”
“Then I’m screwed in every direction.”
“That’s unpleasant,” David said. “Just don’t worry about it. If you’re somehow found out, your parents will appreciate you didn’t go to an alcohol-fueled jock-fest and I guarantee the girls will get over it, and if they don’t . . .”
“You’re right. Who gives a shit if they don’t?”
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