Editor’s Note: “The Big Paddle” is one of 33 short stories in Gen F, an anthology of Comic Tragedies, Humiliations, and Reversals of Fortune for Those Displaced by Technology and the Economy. The entire collection is available on Amazon Books.
“Let them think what they liked, but I didn’t mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank — but that’s not the same thing.” – Joseph Conrad
“The Big Paddle. It has a certain elegance. It’s not bloody or messy. It even has a dignity of form, far beyond the nobility of choice…
“Mike put a bag on his head and sucked gas. How artful is that? The punter used propane. I wouldn’t want the last flavor in my bouche to remind me of a greasy Grill Master. Why not use helium and have a balloon party? It’d taste sweeter. You can intro Saint Peter with a hearty handshake and a squeaky clown voice. That’d be hilarious!
“Ted drove to the mountains above Pasadena, got out of the car and aimed his cranial effluence so as not to blemish the BMW. Why deprive the kids of a cash asset? I wonder if his pinky was extended as he pulled the trigger? There are many, many ways to go.
“The Big Paddle is way old school. Old El Dingo first told me about it. When a waterman has the Big C or is ravaged beyond daily pleasures and dignity, he takes the Big Paddle to the far horizon. He paddles to where the sun sets and the green flash flares. Paddle until you can paddle no more.
“I may not have the Big C but I’ve been ravaged. I’m not that old but my soul has been there and done that. I’ve served my time well. I’ve pulled all the bells and the whistles. I nabbed a coupla brass rings. I gave as gladly as I have received. My life is sustainable, an easy recycle. Bring on the wind and the tides! Let nature take its course! May the fauna find a little meat in this hearty shell!
“I’m ready because my arms are killing me. Thank God the swells are small. I should have trained for this, but what’s the point of that? I’ve never been one for gyms, though I’ve never not had a membership. Regardless, I should have been in better shape for this. Who woulda thought? Hell, how far can an old timer get? Fuck, I can still see the lights on the coast.”
After an hour and a half drive, Muk McKaylee crossed the Pacific Coast Highway and slid into an easy spot near Trancas on Broad Beach Road. The light to the West was shading into a deep blue halo. While the engine kicked and cooled quiet, Muk unscrewed the cap of a plastic vodka bottle and took a draw. Then he stupidly looked around to see if anyone was watching; helluva time to get a DUI. Someone was. He locked the bright red eyes of a brown surfer in the station wagon next to him. The rig was aimed at the highway. Two boards were strapped to the roof. Window to window, the kid was laughing, smoke expelling from every orifice.
Muk raised the bottle as a salute with a nod. “Vices is nicest,” he said to himself.
The guy rolled down the window. Muk laughed and did the same.
The surfer handed him a half-inch blunt, and with a cough, said “No surf. Six. Lucky, a foot.”
“It’s dark now, ya know?”
“Yeah, almost.” Muk answered optimistically.
The station wagon roared to life and Muk was left to himself. The blunt was mixed with too much tobacco but he got a taste of the green. He smiled. It was a nice gesture. “Good manners may be dying, but they ain’t dead.”
With the window down, Muk did not find the sweet ocean air that he expected. It pinched. The breeze smelled of dead fish, thick salt and rotting sun-baked kelp. He pushed the window button and his world became closed, sealed and introspective once again. The joint oxidized the stink.
Muk had not been to Trancas in a decade or two or probably more. It wasn’t how he remembered it. The funky, single story beach houses had been mansionized with the same thick pastry lines found in every new second-rate resort.
Muk smiled. He wasn’t sure why he came here. There was nothing truly significant about Trancas. Except for his youth. The beach burb was always an adventure point on the party map. Somewhere between downtown, Hollywood and Trancas there was always a girl, a party or a baggie. To no one he said out loud, “This sure doesn’t look like it used to.” He took another pull from the bottle and leaned back into his seat.
“Home as resort. No hearth, no heart. All the old families have been bought out long ago and replaced with fresh new money eager to audition for the good life.” Muk rubbed his eyes, “The beach culture has eroded with the sand.”
Every great action in life, triumphant moments of danger, glory and endeavor, begin with a sharp breath and a sudden lurch of the body. Muk McKaylee sat up fast and snapped a look around the car. He took his wallet and plunged it deep into the pocket behind the passenger seat. He wiggled his toes to remove the rubber sandals from his feet. He grabbed his keys and palmed a fresh pint bottle from the glove compartment. Then he stepped out of the car into the blue evening, the very last twilight of his life.
He was wearing a wetsuit, his old one, a little tight around the gut, but it still wore fairly well. Muk didn’t need the warmth, especially into death, but the black rubber lent to the cover of darkness. The choice of this moonless night was no accident. If he had arrived earlier, at sunset, he feared good intentions. He didn’t want some worrisome citizen to call the county guards or 911. Paddlers aim along the coast, not at the horizon. He didn’t want a Coast Guard helicopter fussing above, messing his move. These days, everyone is in your God damned business. Even alone at sea.
Muk pulled the eleven-and-a half foot Hobie surfboard, a Corky Carroll model, from the back of the beat-up SUV. He wondered how old the board was. Sometime in the Sixties? A generous neighbor had given it to him in the early-Eighties when he manned up as a freshman in high school. He was a proud owner; the well-shaped deck was a universally revered classic. Muk gave it a wish with a smile. “May it wash up on a Japanese shore where some kid will find it and become a rockin’ surf god.”
The key now back in the ignition, he buttoned the rear window to rise. Muk popped two Valium and carefully locked the car. He balanced the keys, out of easy sight, on top of the driver’s side rear wheel.
Muk never remembered much. It always took a friend’s better recollection to link to his past. As he ambled to the beach, a lost flower suddenly bloomed. “Tracey! A beach house, somewhere near here. Late afternoon sunlight cut through bamboo blinds. Parallel shadows danced across the topography of a rumpled silk blanket. Must have been the fall, chill edging warm days. You could hear the ocean break, close outside. Something was playing on the stereo, something pop and sweet, something kinda sad and longing. Damn, what was it? And Tracey. Under the blonde hair, lost in the nape of her neck.”