A Good Death

“Señor Rick, we go surfing?”

“Fuck off, kid.”

Ernesto sang and fingered packages of chicles close to the man with faded board shorts and long, stringy gray hair falling over sunburnt shoulders.

Rick eyed the woman behind the counter. “Careful with those bananas. You people always bruise them,” Since retiring here, he found himself saying that a lot. You people.

¿Me los compres?” Ernesto held a pack of gum.

“I ain’t buying you shit.”

The cashier smashed the bananas in the bag.

“You’re out of Negra Modelo again.”

The woman smiled, knowing they were hidden in back. “Lo siento.”

Lo siento, That’s all you people ever say.” He shook his head. “Fucking beaners.”

The woman winked at Ernesto and motioned to keep the gum, charging Rick for it. Ernesto followed Rick across the road to his trailer on the uneven patch of ground bought with savings from odd jobs and recycling cans. The crude outline of a foundation lay half-buried in the dirt.

Rick sat on the stairs and pulled out a beer.

“You still here? Where’s your dad?”

¿Mande?

¿Papá?¿Dónde está?

Ernesto’s chin dropped. “No tengo.”

¿Madre?

Ernesto swept the dirt with his toe. “No tengo.”

Rick knew the boy’s mother was the town whore, even visited her on occasion. But the boy always said he didn’t have one. “You and me both, kid.”

While Rick drank, Ernesto hurled rocks at the ocean and kicked an empty plastic bottle, pretending to win the World Cup for Mexico. The ocean was placid and dark blue in the morning haze. Rick spotted slow, sequential lines scoring the surface. He never held a job or woman more than six months. His only real friend died years ago. He had no redeeming quality or skill except one: he could see waves farther out than anyone. Back in San Diego other surfers watched Rick, following when he moved to catch a set.

Rick chucked his bottle into the pile and went inside, emerging with a duct-taped wetsuit and a short board stained in several spots where saltwater had seeped in under the fiberglass.

Ernesto cheered. Rick ignored him and descended the crude switchbacks he had cut into the sandstone cliff. The boy followed and narrated, but Rick understood little.

At the bottom Rick scrambled over boulders, his practiced, graceful movements belying his age. Shore waves filled the spaces between rocks, rose and fell, and he steadied himself on his board, feet sliding on slippery stones. A wave lifted him, and Rick started paddling.

Ernesto watched from shore, oblivious to the rising tide. As Rick headed out a set wave curled to his right, sending wisps of spray into the air. He paddled harder. No wind. Water smooth and shiny as polished wood. His board glided, but the wave came fast and hard. He lowered his head and pushed.

Ernesto held his breath. The wave looked immense.

Rick’s arms felt laden. To his right white water, in front a shrinking stretch of dark blue almost black. His board tilted vertical, pierced the curl at the top, crashed onto the wave’s backside.

Ernesto stood and gasped.

Now in the froth, Rick charged toward the trough. His board slowed, body fatigued, but he made it over the next wave, gliding past the third wave and onto the rollers.

Ernesto cheered, so entranced he didn’t notice the water encircling his feet like a snare. He jumped, but water caught his feet, stones beneath gave way. He fell        and a wave covered him, pulling him out to sea.

Rick sat peacefully. Blue sky. Blue ocean. Moon and earth and water and wind creating a perfect wave. No wind and no people save the boy who trailed him like a surfboard leash. That poor, futureless boy.

He chuckled and with passing curiosity looked for the boy. Thinking his glaucomic eyes deceived him, Rick squinted. No boy on the beach or cliff trail above.

Another set approached. Close to shore, a dark spot moved in the white water churning over the rocks. An arm flailed. “Fuck,” said Rick.

To Ernesto the water had always looked warm, peaceful, inviting. Even though he couldn’t swim, Ernesto often begged Rick to take him out. But this was cold, dark, frightening. These thoughts—not his whoring mother or absent father or the village kids who called him hijo de puta—ran through his head as he struggled to stay above water. Just his shock the world wasn’t what he expected. The water pulled him under.

Rick paddled hard, but progress was slow. The boy’s head appeared and disappeared.

Ernesto cried, making it harder to breathe. He pushed downward with his arms and legs, trying to swim ashore. It seemed farther away.

Rick turned into a wave on his belly. His board surged forward. He guided it alongside the boy and pulled him on.

“Kid? Kid?” He didn’t even know the boy’s name. The boy didn’t move. “Fuck.” He slid into the water and faced the boy forward, removing his leash and wrapping it around the boy’s ankle. A loud noise like rocks crashing came from behind. He looked back.

The wave was upon them. Rick pushed the board toward land and dove into the face, but the wave sucked him upward, spit him out onto the shallow rocks. His eardrum popped. He let his body go limp and waited for the wave to pass, then pushed off the bottom.

Ernesto had never felt such power, such fear. He gripped the board as the wave roared, enveloping him in spumes of white water. A large, flat expanse of white opened before him.

Rick was almost at the surface when the next wave hit, slamming his head into a rock. His last thought was of a girl he had a crush on in high school. Then he thought of the boy.

The wave pushed Ernesto south to a stretch of sand. He held the board and caught his breath. Another wave nudged him. Something bumped his arm. A body, face-down, tendrils of gray hair floating around its head.