The office was empty when Evan finished working that evening. He slid into his wetsuit, walked down to the beach, and paddled out. The ocean was glassy and peaks dumped on the sandbars. A dozen surfers greeted the swell.
He straddled his board and noticed his nemesis, Gordon, bobbing thirty feet away. They locked eyes for several moments. Gordon’s mouth twisted into a frown. But as though the ocean muted terrestrial anger, he dipped his head perhaps one inch. Evan returned the nod. Tension dropped, gently, like a neap tide. They floated in silence. Conversation seemed taboo, an imposition on the sacred triad of wind, wave, and beach. But when the current pushed them close together, Evan chanced a query. “How is it?”
Gordon shrugged. “Getting better with the rising tide.”
They squinted into the setting sun. A wave feathered on the horizon. Gordon caught it and surfed toward the beach. He returned to the lineup and detoured south a hundred feet before straddling his board.
Evan longed for a wave, eager to surf near Gordon, to remedy recent shortcomings, to show that, at least in the water, they were equals. Respect in the water triggered respect on land. But Evan’s patch of ocean went flat as Gordon caught another wave.
The man was a smooth surfer, a soul cruiser. His style was spare and uncluttered. Drop in, drag a hand, and glide down the line, shunning superfluous turns. What he lacked in maneuverability he gained in positioning, tucked into the guts of the wave, just standing, trimming. It was supremely fluid.
A set arrived. Evan caught a beauty and raced through the inside, skipping across the face as it shoaled over the sandbar. He found the groove and beat several tough sections, carving with precision. He exited near Gordon and they paddled out together.
“Nice one,” Gordon mumbled. The words sounded grudging, forced, but laden with respect.
“Thanks,” Evan said. “Been out long?”
“What are you riding?”
Gordon slid off his board and pushed it over. It was a 7’10” single fin, apparently shaped during the Carter Administration, with thick rails, a narrow tail, and minimal nose rocker. Rather than oozing high performance, it looked better suited to floating cargo down the Mississippi. Despite the board’s age, it was clean, with nary a ding besmirching the fiberglass, and had a certain flowing symmetry.
Evan returned the board. “Sweet ride.”
“My dad shaped it,” Gordon said quietly. “It was the last one he ever shaped.”
Evan considered asking why, but declined. He hated discussing his dad’s death, and Gordon’s demeanor suggested a similar worldview. Emotional wallowing seemed pointless. For the moment, they had good surf and a looming sunset. Rare treasures.
Other surfers caught waves to shore as the sun dipped lower. By sunset, only Evan and Gordon occupied the lineup, trading waves beneath a deepening twilight. They didn’t snake one another or paddle circuitously to finagle wave position. Each man controlled the peak until he caught a wave and relinquished position. In turn, each man surfed well, devoid of flailing or kookiness which might question his right to hold the peak. The sovereignty was based on respect and ability.
Evan caught a set wave as the light faded. He dropped in late and shot down the line. Gordon paddled toward the shoulder. The wave offered no room to maneuver and Evan poured on the speed to get past him. They would easily avoid each other if Gordon would angle back into the wave and take a beating from the whitewash, but he tried to beat Evan to the shoulder, a rookie move. Evan pulled out at the last moment. Too late.
They collided and tumbled over the falls in a tangle of boards and bodies. When they surfaced a few seconds later, three gashes penetrated Gordon’s board. Gordon’s eyes were wide. “What the fuck was that?”
Evan hacked up some water. “Why did you go for the shoulder?”
“I thought I’d make it.”
“That was stupid.”
“You ran into me,” Gordon growled. “Don’t ever surf near me again.” He caressed his damaged board and uttered the ultimate insult: “Kook.”
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