Kelp Fiction

He rolled into town with the tail-end of a week-long west swell. He’d been surfing the North County out in the emptiness and bull kelp and big sky. A strong north wind helped him in, blowing against the ample backside of The Wreck, lending it the abilities of a sailboat to skim along the cracked highway. Out where the land disintegrated the bluffs and the kelp beds made the ocean glass, he came to a stop in a parking lot with a perspective far down the coast, a point swept away to the north giving shelter. Elephant seals lay lumpen and huge on a haul-out, at times tossing their great heads to provide a fanfare of strangled barks. He cracked a window and sniffed the air, smelled cedar and marijuana and dust.

The Wreck was just about the last thing binding him to this earth. It kept him moving from one free park to another and much as he hated the noisy old vessel, always fearing it would turn on him for the times he’d cursed it, right now it was home and still it would be until it choked the last rattle. Maybe then he’d die with it and they’d both go off to some forlorn junkyard and be crushed together, oil and blood. He noted similar wrecks in the lot as old surfers came to the shore, to be reborn anew each time, blessed no matter the malignancy of the land.

It was an average sort of day with the odd one running and the crowd had dwindled to a few. The sort of day that drew the long-termers dialled into the intricacies of the coast and the ebb and flow of the crowd. Tuned into the sferics they’d emerge, like some nascent kahunas, riding off invisible oceanic sense far greater and more experiential than the weather map. Perhaps it was a shift in the wind that drew them out, a micro-slide of pressure, some lengthening or intensification in the rhythm of the swell. There were surfers here, ocean people, as linked with the place as fishermen or sailors and equally cursed by the inevitable return to the stricture and structure of earth.

Three out the front on the pavement drew his eye and he kept his window down to hear them talk. They had dry hair and the air of old-timers going to seed - protruding bellies and one aged dog between them who was losing the gain in his hind legs. In the centre of the three was a somewhat familiar man, perhaps some surf star of a previous decade, and he held court with his cronies. A pattern emerged, seemed that the man would hold up the core of the narrative aided and abetted by his friends who would chime in with some affirmation or a throwaway slice of minor disagreement. They stood at the railings and he wondered just how often they’d stood there, in those precise footprints, as sopping wet kids through alpha males and now waiting for the right day, always waiting on land and sea, shooting the breeze for what it was.

He christened the speaker Troutface because of his often-open mouth. Of the other two, the ganglier he called the Elk and the third the Cop, for his bushy moustache straight out of some Highway Patrol stereotype. Troutface spoke with the pace of a veteran storyteller, his voice slightly hoarse, over-articulating his words. His dialogue was informed by what went on around the trio in the lot itself and, of course, out in the water. But if the action was insufficient, Troutface would weigh in with a: ‘Here’s one for ya, remember the time when…’ With the window down everything they said was audible, so he pushed his back into the worn fabric of the seat, hooked his arm up on the door-sill, and took it in.

Troutface: “There’s Kelp Bed Moyles streaking up the outside, look at that man go. You know how he got that name, Kelp Bed?” Both the other guys shake their heads but you bet they do. “I gave him that name back when he still rode a longboard the first time round.’ He paused for effect. ‘It was a big day, biggest day of the Winter.’ Therein the precedent for ten thousand surf stories. ‘Bigger then ’84, bigger than Steak’s wave from the lighthouse to the boardwalk, bigger even than Grey Whale.’ The other two guys are nodding their heads, they know where this is going but the Cop still breathes out some air at the mention of Grey Whale.

‘So I turn up here at dawn, haven’t slept a wink because it’s just thundering in.’ and Troutface pounds his fist into his hand, gives a roar to indicate the building swell. ‘And it’s absolutely peaking, not a breath of wind. And the only other guy to show up, man, it’s Tony Moyles. Young Tony Moyles, barely graduated from the shoreline, toting a brand-new Hobie his rich uncle bought him. So what do we do?” He leaves the question hanging but it is insistently rhetorical. No matter who responds, we are gonna learn the answer.

“So I take the jump-off but Moyles won’t come out there and wait for a lull, he takes the stairs and makes the longest paddle wide. Now there are triple-overhead waves between the sets running wide, waves swinging in from the south, monstrous wedges looming up outta the West but the real beasts are coming from some unknown direction a shade off North-west, standing up into giant bowls.”

“Like Superbowl Sunday.” Ventures the Elk, but Troutface swings right back in. “Like that but bigger and meaner.” All three nod in agreement, whether it’s true or not, worthy of some contemplation. “So I’m sitting out there, way outside, and when the sets come I can see Moyles taking his path. I’m waiting for one of the big ones, and I sit out twenty minutes or more, then I see some coming in. Just then Moyles makes it out, and he’s puffing and panting and doesn’t know which way to paddle.” Troutface is getting more animated.

Just then a lady walks by and all three curtail their mid-story expressions and adopt a serious look. The Elk takes his hat off and the lady smiles back at him. Chivalry isn’t dead, the Elk seems to be saying, just not practised. No sooner has she stepped beyond earshot than Troutface weighs back in.

“So I paddle for the biggest wave I ever saw out there, and ride it down through the middle, but the thing turns into a mountain of foam and I drift off the back. I look out to sea and there is Tony Moyles caught inside this Monster!” Now they are all laughing. “And Moyles doesn’t know whether to go out, or in, or try and ride it. In the end he makes a bee-line for the kelp, gets caught up in it something awful, and the damn thing just mows him down. Moyles loses his brand new board forever, ends up swimming in on the beach through ten foot shorebreak an hour later.” They wait, because that’s what they do. “That moment forth; Kelp Bed Moyles, man. Even his wife calls him that!” There’s a pause, then the Cop sparks up: “What did his uncle say?”

But Troutface and the Elk are gazing up the strip. “There goes The Rapist. New board, again. Everything you got, the Rapist needs one better. Boards, cars, women…” All three shake their heads at this, cast stern eyes on this individual. Then the Cop sparks up again: “You bet his wife doesn’t call him that!” And they all set to laughing once more and in his seat he cracks a smile.

Just then on the point one surfer drops in on another. The guy inside comes smoothly off the bottom and disintegrates the lip, the spray from his turn forcing the unknown drop-in off the back. The three nod their approval like judges. Troutface starts up again, like an engine. “Good genes. Best father-son surf team in town right now.” But the Elk has a rejoinder. “That’s only because Harbour Bill is away.” All three repeat it. ‘That’s just because Harbour Bill ain’t here.” Such is the stature of a local legend, the man in the Wreck thinks, enforced and reinforced and proven and reproven until just the name is infused with some incontrovertible power. He sees the shade of reverence come over the old guys, hears it in their tone.

A man with no teeth wearing a tinfoil yarmulke staggers by. ‘Hey Metalhat,’ says the Elk. But the guy just ambles past, eyes dead, meth taking his soul. ‘Here’s one for you.’ Troutface, unaffected, to interrupt any hope of silence. “So, Bubba and Yosemite Sam are out at the Big Creek sawmill where Bubba works.” The Elk checks a fact. “Yosemite Sam, your cousin? Big guy with the big teeth?” “Naw, that’s Yosemite Mike, Yosemite Sam is a small guy always wears a hat.” “Ah” the Elk swivels his long neck, apparently satisfied with the response.

“They get this piece of solid redwood, on a tip from Bubba, for Yosemite Sam to carve a board out of it. Now Bubba gives him the tip and also, because of his job, he gets him a discount. Now Yosemite Sam heads off and makes this beautiful big plank into a board and sells it at auction for a thousand bucks to some Hawaiian! But he never gives Bubba his cut. So you’ve got these two guys, who’ve known each other forty years, and they aren’t even speaking.”

It’s not the greatest story, there isn’t much response. After a while of silence, the three guys meander on their way, this not being the day for them. He wonders if there is ever a day now, or whether the days are gone and the parking lot is the session, like the old dog with his back legs going. He shakes his head as if to clear the thought from his mind. Within a minute he is suited up, pulling a long and slender spear of a board from the Wreck. The tide has turned and, without having seen this place for years, he knows what that means. In the distance the three retreating forms, shadows, their words echoing about his skull as he descends the stairs and picks his way through the boulders. On the point the toothless man is silhouetted by the decline of the sun, rays reflecting off the odd little hat. He walks into the water, kisses goodbye to the land, sets himself free.

This story is based on real parking-lot stories overheard in California, 2010.

Marcus Paladino is doing great things with a lens. View more here: