Authors: Kem Nunn
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary
Deek had lived in the valley for nearly thirty years and liked to say that it was neither America nor Mexico, but rather a country unto itself and that was what he loved about it. Jack compared the valley to the forbidden zone in
Planet of the Apes,
a vast wasteland caught between the gates of two cities, a repository of fringe dwellers and secret histories. Jack had lived in his car till he was thirty-five, when a woman had gotten him out, but she was long gone and he lived now on the Otay Mesa in the back of a pickup where his family had left him some land and where he could ride his horse to work each day in the valley below. Deek lived in Garage Door Tijuana with the Oaxacan Indians in a thirty-foot travel trailer. He’d come to the valley so far down on his luck that the first job he’d taken was driving for Blue Line Cabs, a taxi company notorious for running illegals across the border in the seventies and eighties. In short, the cowboys, like Fahey himself, were representative of what the valley attracted, and one could not quite imagine things working out for them anywhere else.
Jack Nance, who now was forty-two years old and still rode the
occasional wave, when he could find one small enough, on a long board off the beaches just north of San Diego, remembered Fahey from his days of drug running for the Island Express. And once at daybreak, on a huge winter swell now some twenty years past, he’d parked atop Spooner’s Mesa with a handful of friends and a bag of dope to watch the waves beyond the mouth of the Tijuana River—like rolling mountains of water, their peaks lost to the fog, somewhere out past Third Notch, and had seen both Hoddy Younger and his protégé, Sam the Gull Fahey, ride what just might have been the Mystic Peak.
Deek Waltzer, thirty years older than Jack Nance, and not a surfer, knew Fahey only as a recluse and convicted felon, the proprietor of the Fahey Worm Farm, an establishment of such dubious reputation it was known even among the migrants he’d driven from the border, back in the day, and he missed no opportunity to disparage the man’s character.
“That was the old man,” Nance would tell him. “Back in the day. Fahey’s different.”
To which Deek would only shake his head, stating with dead certainty that to this day the name of Fahey was still maligned among the Indians and the farm measured as a place to avoid, if only to escape its restless spirits.
But Jack was willing to dismiss such judgments with a wave of the hand. “Sam Fahey was a surfer, still is, if you ask me. There’s nothing out there to be afraid of now.”
“Probably still a drug runner too, if he’s anything at all,” Deek might respond, at times going so far as to challenge Jack’s story at its very core. “Maybe it wasn’t even him you saw out there that day,” he’d say. “You ever think of that? Maybe that was someone else and Fahey just took credit for it because he’s a liar and a thief like his old man. And you were looking at those waves from a long way off. You’ve said so yourself.”
But Jack would only offer up a sad smile and say that he knew quite well what he had seen. “It was him, you stubborn son of a bitch. It was the Gull and Younger. They rode the Mystic Peak and as far as I know no one’s done it since.”
“Yeah, well, they’re not likely to either, now that the water’s all fucked up.”
“They’re not likely to ’cause the guys that ride waves like that are all over in the Islands, or off in Tahiti, or up in Northern California, pulling each other into them on a bunch of fucking Jet Skis. It’s not like it was.”
To which Deek was apt to reply that nothing was like it was and this would give both men pause, after which Deek would go on, “And I guess you’re going to tell me he’s not like he was either.”
“No,” Jack would say, “he’s not.”
“And what do you suppose happened?”
It was the question many such conversations came to in the end and Jack had yet to answer it. “There’s some guys,” he would say, “they get all the gifts, and they piss it all away.”
And that was about the best Jack could do and the older man knew it. “Yeah,” he said. “And some are just born bad.” It was generally his final word on the subject.
“Some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to endless night.” And those were often Jack’s last words, the only lines of poetry he’d ever committed to memory, and these not taken from any book but from a movie in which they were so quoted but which, regardless of their source, seemed to have some particular application to the life of Sam the Gull Fahey, which Jack Nance was apt to see as both a profound mystery and cautionary tale.
The cowboys watched as Fahey parked his truck and walked over to where they stood with the burro. He was wearing a filthy pair of
jeans and a sweatshirt with an absurd-looking worm airbrushed across the front. His hair fell to his shoulders, sun-streaked and tangled. In general, he appeared wild and unkempt. His eyes were tucked away behind dark glasses, the lenses black as two chunks of coal, the frames held together with silver duct tape.
“Where’d you get the zebra?” Fahey asked them.
The burro had been tricked out with black and white stripes, spray-painted as though it was the product of industry and not a living thing. The street vendors of Tijuana seemed to think it pleased the tourists.
“Found him on the beach,” Deek said. “What brings you over here? One of your worms get away?”
Fahey was still looking at the burro. “What part of the beach?” he asked.
“He was up by Border Field,” Jack told him. “You remember that old storm drain used to run down out of Las Playas? Well, somebody’s dug it out again. Fucking thing runs right under the fence. Been wide open for three weeks. You’d think the border patrol would’ve found it by now.”
“I guess you could always tell them.”
Jack just smiled. “Let ’em find it on their own,” he said. “Keeps things interesting.”
Fahey knew all about the old storm channel, that and every other route of passage between the valley and Mexico. The truth was, he was sorry to hear someone had opened it back up, but he saw no reason to say so. He was thinking about the woman he’d left sleeping in his bed, and for a short time all three men stood there in silence. Fahey looked at the burro. The animal was staring back at him from the side of the trailer, its long ears rotating in the slatted light. “What will you do with it?” Fahey asked.
“Wash him up, drive him out to the adoption center on the way to Trona.”
“His good luck then.”
“No shit. Fish and Game said they put you onto those dogs.”
“I’ve got three of them in the truck.”
The men walked over to have a look.
“Damn,” Deek said. “You got right on top of them.”
“Actually, it was the other way around.”
With the woman sleeping, Fahey had risen early and gone to get the dogs. He would stop in at Fish and Game for the bounty, then on to the animal shelter in San Ysidro where the dogs’ bodies could be disposed of. After that he would try to find some medicine for the woman.
“If someone got sick from the water, what would you give them?” Fahey asked. He waved toward the ocean, a silver strip of which might be seen catching sunlight above the greenery of the valley.
The cowboys traded looks. “Drinking it or swimming in it?” Deek asked him.
“Swimming. But there were cuts.”
Deek looked him over to see if he was talking about himself.
Fahey waited in the rising heat.
“Wash the cuts with Betadine,” Jack told him. “Get some Cipro, probably five hundred milligrams twice a day. Bill Daniels told me there were four dogs.”
“There were these and a border collie. The collie got away.”
“What happened?” Jack asked him.
“I shot and missed.”
The cowboys just looked at him.
“Okay,” he said at length. “Betadine and Cipro . . . Thanks for the tip.”
He went to the cab of his truck and got inside.
Jack Nance waited a moment then walked over to the open window. “Good south swell running,” he said.
Fahey looked out over the valley, toward Mexico, just long enough
to suggest he might actually be giving the matter of the swell some thought. “Yeah,” he said. “I noticed.” Fahey started the truck.
“They say we’ve got an El Niño in the works. Suppose to come early.”
“I’ve had my eye on this typhoon’s been brewing off the Philippines. You get that thing bumping into a good storm out of Siberia, who knows . . . We could get something down here.” He gave it a moment to see if Fahey would respond. “You ever look at that site I showed you?”
When Jack Nance heard Fahey had gotten online to sell his worms, he’d provided him with the link to a surfer’s website that tracked storms and predicted swells. Fahey had looked at it a couple of times before deciding it was a waste of time. He wasn’t going anywhere. There would be waves or there wouldn’t be. He would ride them or he wouldn’t and there was nothing the site could tell him about that.
“Listen,” Jack said. “I was wondering . . . you still set up to shape boards out there?”
Fahey just looked at him.
Jack fidgeted at the window. Fahey’s look made him nervous, for reasons that would have been difficult to explain.
At length Fahey nodded.
“I was wondering if maybe you’d shape me one.”
“What for? You going to ride the Mystic Peak?”
“Never in a million years. But I was thinking, it might be cool to have, you know, one of those guns like you and Younger used to shape . . .”
Fahey watched heat waves rippling at the foot of the mesas. “I guess you could come out some time. We could talk about it. Bring your checkbook.”
Jack smiled. “And a case of beer.”
Fahey put the truck in gear. He started to drive away then hit his brakes. The dust swirled around his open window. He leaned out and called back, “That Betadine . . . how do you use it, exactly?”
“You mix it with some distilled water, maybe half and half, take a cotton ball and wash out the cuts.”
Fahey nodded. He pulled himself back into his truck and drove away.
The cowboys watched him go.
“Strange son of a bitch,” Deek said. He took a can of Skoal from the pocket of his shirt and put a pinch between his cheek and gum.
Jack nodded. “We used to call him the Electric Gull.”
“I know,” Deek said. “You told me.”
“He had this way of holding his arms when he surfed, like a gull swooping across the face of the wave. Kind of cool, though. Then he started eating a lot of acid so we called him the Electric Gull. But that’s how I know it was him I saw that day, Outside the Bullring.”
“The acid part I’ll believe.” Deek’s clearest memory of the Electric Gull was that of Fahey stoned out of his gourd, staggering around in the middle of Ocean Boulevard at the foot of the pier, throwing empty beer bottles and yelling, “See the drunken Indian eat glass.” The story did not pale in the retelling. In truth, Deek had been just a little bit frightened by Sam Fahey that night and found that he still could be, on occasion. The man had a way of filling up space Deek was not especially comfortable with, though he would probably never have come right out and said so. “I wouldn’t go near him with a pole,” was about as close to such feelings as the old cowboy was likely to get.
But Jack had heard it all before. “That was the night they unveiled the Surfhenge monument downtown. I believe the Gull was upset about something.”
“Fucked up is what he was.” Deek nodded after the departing truck. “What were you talking to him about before he left?”
“I was asking him about shaping me a board.”
“Wha’d he say?”
“He said to bring my checkbook.”
“Yeah, well . . . I wouldn’t pay him till he was done.”
“Hoddy Younger used to shape these big wave surfboards, back in the day. He shaped them for the straits. But people like Hap Baker, Buzzy Cline . . . they used to come down here and buy them from him on their way to the Islands. Younger taught the Gull how to shape. There’s a kind of lineage there, you know. It would be a cool thing to get . . .” Jack’s voice trailed away.
“While he’s still alive, you mean.”
They watched the last of Fahey’s dust, thinning before the sky.
“Betadine and Cipro. What do you suppose he’s up to out there on the farm?”
Jack shrugged once more. “Who knows?”
Deek put a line of tobacco juice into the dirt, then stuffed his hands into the hip pockets of his jeans. “No good, most likely.”