Starting today, we’re going to be exploring a new genre of literature–what we’re calling Surf Fiction. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but these stories will feature surfing as the central plot point, with characters who are surfing too much or not enough. These stories will explore how each characters’ lives are shaped around this obsess..ahem…hobby, and all the crazy things that happen in and around a water-based lifestyle.
To get the series started, writer Jeff McElroy has allowed us to serialize the final story in his collection Californios. Over the next eight weeks, we’ll follow an unnamed narrator as he makes his way through an isolated part of the Central California coast with classic rock and reggae on the radio, icy waters to wake his beer-soaked bones, and a prophetic Native American to stir the kind of paranoia that makes solitary nights feel endless.
This is Surf Fiction on Korduroy.
Humqaq, part 1
By Jeff McElroy, from his short story collection Californios
Like Ishmael, I was jonesing for water. It was the old I’ve-had-enough-of-this-inland-bullshit-I-just-need-to-get-down-to-the-beach-before-I-go-nuts. I needed to go surfing. This was back in the early 90’s when I was nineteen or twenty and my fingernails always reeked of garlic & onions from serving too many California Fusion bullshit meals to dot-com young professionals and aging hippies at Café Fresco on State Street, Santa Barbara. The same folks who’d protested the Vietnam War by torching the Bank of America building in Isla Vista now made me wait while they swirled and sniffed pinot, often sending the bottle back to the kitchen (I drank it later in the piss-smelling back alley with the Mexican busboys). Normally, I’d surf all day and make it to work just in time with a wetsuit tan-line around my neck and sand in my hair. But shit, ever since I’d started morning classes at City College, I hadn’t even seen the coast in weeks.
So one night, after cashing out my tips, rolling silverware in cloth napkins with our patented origami signature trademark whoop-de-frickin’-doo folding technique, and trying everything short of mime to tell that last yuppie couple sitting in my section that, um, we’re closed now—I decided to ditch classes for the next few days and head up to Jalama, that scar of sand wedged between impossible bluffs and sea on the wind-blown Central Coast of California. I left straight from work, apron and all, hopped on the 101, and headed north. I lit a cigarette and watched the city lights disappear in my rear-view. Figured the yuppie couple was making numb love about now on their gazillion thread-count sheets.
Before taking the turn-off for Jalama, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, I needed to drive a few more miles down the road to Lompoc for beer and newspapers to light my fire. Lompoc-town, in the shadow of Vandenberg Air Force Base, was all empty streets, low-income housing, and dark bars with red lights and flickering neon beer signs. I rolled past faded red bricks of turn-of-the-century buildings covered with murals of U.S. military glory—renditions of bald eagles keeping vigil over stick-figure paratroopers commemorating the 156th Airborne at such-and-such a battle—faux-Rockwell depictions of valiant, blue-eyed, square-jawed infantry charging into the orange haze of combat.
I pulled my truck into the sodium lights of the Circle K parking lot and killed the engine. The lot was empty except for a tall man in a black cowboy hat leaning against the graffiti wall, his hat pulled down low. He kept one hand in his pocket and used his other hand to bring a cigarette to and from his lips. I went inside and bought a few sixers of Bud. Back out in the wind-chilled autumn air, I had to walk up close to the cowboy in order to grab the newspapers. The headlines spoke of genocide in Rwanda. I set down my bag of beer on the sidewalk and started looking for the free papers. The real estate stuff. All I could find was the glossy photograph paper shit that doesn’t burn so well. Then I noticed a stack of papers still wrapped in twine by the cowboy’s boots.
I nodded my head at the cowboy, but he kept his face hidden in the shadow of his hat. I kneeled by the stack and noticed the papers were X-rated ads printed on dry newsprint paper. Figured I could use the paper for something more than the fire, a little something for the eyes later in the lonelier parts of the night. I was trying to rip the paper out from the twine when the cowboy lowered a big hunting knife below my chin. I rolled onto my back with my boots up, ready to kick out. The cowboy dude laughed and cut the twine for me with a quick upstroke. He returned his knife to its holster and stood straight again. Sitting up, I noticed that he was Native American. He had high chiseled cheekbones, ruddy skin, and a braided ponytail disappearing into his black coat. He had three ropy scars under his right eye. They were shining in the light of Circle K.
“Shit, dude,” I said. “I thought you were…thanks.”
He said nothing, just kept on smoking. I grabbed the papers and beer and got them in the back of my truck.
“Hey. You.” He said.
I turned around and faced him.
“You best beware,” he said. “The raven comes.”
“What the hell you talking about, dude?”
He took one step around the corner and was gone. I watched his smoke swarm around the yellow security lamp along the side of the place. I was trying to think about what he meant. The raven? He was probably some drunk bastard, or just plain crazy. Fuck it. It was time to go camping.
*Photos by Josh Gill