Maverick’s Challenge is a short story written by Don Herald and shared with The Ugly Writers.
The Pacific – she’s dark and angry today.
There’s lots of movement beneath me, kicking my board left, then right, up then down. But I‘m fixed on the horizon. Suddenly, there it is. One bump, slightly bigger than the others, coming at me like a slow-moving freight train. With a few quick arm strokes, I pivot toward the shore, riding the wave’s growing swell.
The sound is deafening, like a 747 screaming toward take-off. Slashes of cold water spit high into the air, needle-pricks on my face, salt washing into my eyes. I struggle to keep my focus on the board tip in the boiling, hissing blue-green crest.
I feel the powerful hydraulics rising beneath me. Like an invisible fist, I’m suddenly punched upwards. I feel the new wave’s push. I stand, reposition slightly into a low stance and drop over the rapidly accelerating lip. Immediately I’m cutting beneath the crashing curl, then into the compressing barrel within my fragile, imaginary bubble of air.
I’m invincible. Nothing can touch me. Nothing can hurt me. A few seconds of pure joy and absolute fear all mixed together. It’s a peak moment. It’s what I live for. In these moments, all else doesn’t matter. No other exists.
On the edge of control, I’m blown out the tube and into the swirling foam and pounding currents of the dying wave.
I drop to my board, turn and wait for the jet ski to pick me up, then race through gigantic collapsing waves to just beyond the breakpoint where once again I’ll wait for my next big ride.
____________ ¯ ____________
I spent most of the day surfing the wave sets at Table Tops. It’s where you’ll likely find me any time I’m on a home break from the Big Wave Tour. I’m tired and need some rest. Driving to Aunt Maeve’s place, my cell starts playing the opening bars to ‘Oh, Canada.’ It’s Mom.
Usually, we only text, not often, but just enough to say we keep in touch. Something serious must be going down. I pull over onto the side of the 101 in case I need to give Mom my full attention.
Frightened words whisper over my phone.
“Danny? Oh my god. It’s – it’s your Dad. He’s…” The static crackle and shrill hum of a weak cell connection wipe out her next words.
“Mom? What’s going on? Where are you? Mom, can you hear me?”
“I’m here, son. Just catching my breath.” A long pause, the sound of deep breathing mixes with static on the line. “His heart. A heart attack.”
She begins to cry. I haven’t heard Mom cry in a very long time. My gut turns over and over, unwanted memories sticking pins deep into my soul. I struggle to breathe, feeling I’m about to vomit all over the dashboard.
“He’s taken a turn. The doc says he likely won’t beat it. Oh my god. It’s all so unbelievable.” Another pause, more deep breaths.
“Found him on the driveway. Beside his truck. Still breathing, mumbling wild stuff. Paramedics worked on him for quite a while. ‘We’re taking him to Royal Jubilee. Come with us,’ they said.”
She pauses, another deep breath. Then says it straight out, no bullshit.
“He’s dying, Danny. Can you come? Please. In spite of,” she hesitates as if searching for the right words, “In spite of everything between you.”
Another hesitation, this one much longer than before.
“I know he’d want you here.” More static bursts mixed with breath sounds. “You still there?”
I’m sure she’d been practicing the words again and again before calling. Over the years, she’d always placed herself between us, hoping for peace but regretfully having always to settle for what we’d become to each other – nothing.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m here. Ok. I’ll take the first flight I can get. I’ll be there in the morning. Don’t worry, ok? You at the Jubilee?” I already knew, but I needed to ask just the same.
“Yeah. The cardio unit. They’ll be moving him soon. Just ask at the nurses’ station. We’ll be here. Oh – and Danny?”
Her voice seems to have a happier edge to it. I think maybe it’s because she’s just made the impossible happen.
“Thanks for coming. I know it’s hard for you, son. Coming back, I mean. It’s for him. For me. Bye.”
____________ ¯ ____________
Mom sits on the other side of the bed, sometimes holding his hand; other times trying unsuccessfully to read the paperback she’d bought yesterday in the gift shop. She’s tuned into the changing rhythms of the rasping breaths. She often strokes his limp arm in the unshakeable belief he knows she’s there. Long ago, in our days together, she was always there – trying to make peace between him and me. A few times, it was for the better, but more often, it was for the worse.
I’ve just joined her, arriving in Vancouver three hours ago on a red-eye from Los Angeles, then taking the seaplane shuttle over to Victoria.
____________ ¯ ____________
Mom’s older sister Maeve lives in Solana Beach, an upscale community north of San Diego, California. It’s a short walk to the ocean and some of the best surfing beaches in California. I went to live with her seven years ago – I was fifteen.
Maeve is single, never married. Got some big, hush-hush civilian job with the US Navy. In the early years, she’d come to visit us quite often. When my father started hitting the bottle hard and was making life difficult for Mom and me, well, Maeve stopped coming. But she’d often call and talk to Mom. But never, as far as I recall, when my father was home.
She’d always treated me like a son, so when she and Mom hatched the plan to have me go live with her – ‘so you can learn to surf the big waves and actually go to school’ – it was an easy sell to my father and friends in the village.
Mom, Dad and me – we lived on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island in the small town of Sooke, about an hour’s drive from Victoria. Our house was a wood-sided, paint peeling old bungalow. Mom kept a small vegetable garden fronting onto Eustace Road, just a short walk – or in my father’s case, a zig-zagging stagger – from The Legion. My memory of those years with him was that most days he spent equal parts at work or drinking with his buddies at the Legion. Whatever time he had left over, he’d be at home sleeping or terrorizing us.
Back then, I wasn’t much into schooling, which is weird considering my mother teaches at the Edward Milne high school. No gung ho keener for the books, my only passion was for surfing the Pacific waves that pound Vancouver Island’s west coast all the way up to Tofino. Some say hindsight is 20/20, so I’ll admit that my mild ADHD probably really helped keep my energy and focus more on surfing than the books.
When I was about four, I got my first surfboard. My Dad – he wasn’t drinking too much back then – made it from a piece of industrial strength Styrofoam. He said he found it in the waste bin at work, but I think, to use his words, Dad ‘set it free’ from the warehouse. That home-made board worked quite well.
It wasn’t long before I outgrew the small rollers off our town’s public beach. ‘Your kid’s a natural with the board’ the experienced surfers would always tell my parents. I constantly nagged Mom to take me where the waves were larger and by definition, far more dangerous. I was seven or maybe eight by that time.
One day, a ‘grown-up’ sized board arrived by FedEx. Unknown to me, after asking a couple of the locals what board design would work best for me, she’d ordered the Sled model from a board maker in Tofino. Then, early one Saturday morning, Mom drove me and the Sled aways up the coast to Sombrio, a surfing beach popular with the local hardcore types and other surfers passing through on their way north to Long Beach – the primo surfing destination near Tofino. On those waves at Sombrio Beach – that’s when I got serious about surfing.
____________ ¯ ____________
The body in the bed is host to many coloured wires, plastic tubes with red and pale yellow stuff spitting through, clear vinyl drip bags hanging from poles – all of this with the occasional beep, bell or chime sounding softly in the background. Under a pale blue flannel blanket, the chest rises up, down, then up again, over and over. Sometimes the eyelids flicker, open wide, slowly move back and forth between Mom and me, then close.
I barely recognize him – the face sunken and parchment-pale, lips faint pink, cracked and sometimes slowly moving as if he’s in silent conversation with some invisible person.
Mom’s voice breaks into my thoughts.
“He’s proud, you know. Of what you’re doing on those surfboards. Sometimes I’ll catch him watching your competitions on the Sports Channel. But he’ll always quick switch to a movie just so I don’t find out what he’s up to. ‘Course he’ll never admit his pride, not even to me. He’s a stubborn old coot, that’s for sure.”
She smiles at his body, patting the top of the hand with its four crooked fingers and bent thumb while doing a quick air kiss alongside his closest cheek, now dark with rough beard stubble thickened with sticky drool.
“I don’t get it,” I say, a bit too loudly given the situation. But I push ahead, knowing she’s not going to like what I have to say.
“I really don’t. With him, it was always university this, college that when I was a kid. You remember? ‘I don’t have no education’ he’d shout at me. ‘So no fuckin’ son o’ mine is gonna be a surf bum in California, smokin’ dope and chasin’ slutty women. You’re fuckin’ goin’ to college to learn about being an engineer, or maybe, god forbid, even a lawyer.’”
“And then, if he could, he’d grab me by the shirt collar, lifting me up off my toes. Sometimes he’d punch, but mostly he’d just slap away at me, swearing in my face, sprayin’ spit ‘round like there was no tomorrow.”
“You remember that, Mom?” I knew she remembered all too well, but I just had to say it right here, right now, over his sleeping body. “You’ll forgive me if I fail to see any fatherly pride in his words or actions over our years together.”
The body in the bed stirs, then stiffens. Eyes open, lips move. “Daniel? You here now? Fuckin’ late, boy. I’m waiting…” His voice fades off to a low, raspy murmur then abruptly stops.
And Mom, right on cue, just as she always did when words failed between us, gets up from the chair and gives her husband a hug, soothing him with whispered words – “Yes, Jacob, our Danny’s here. He’s come all the way from California just to see us. Now you be polite to our son.”
But his eyes close, the body relaxes, and he slides away into whatever dreamland he’s found for himself.
Mom looks up at me, eyes full of tears, but soft.
“It’s not too late, you know. You can still make it right. Sure, he looks like he’s out of it. But I know he can hear you, feels you here beside him.”
My voice rising in frustration, I desperately want to point out her total denial, not only about his present physical condition but, more importantly, what a violently abusive brute he really was.
____________ ¯ ____________
One day, I realized I was big enough to really do something about putting an end to his years of violence toward me, but mostly toward Mom. So I do. I give him some of his own medicine. I’d just turned fifteen, but big for my age and very strong from all the extreme surfing.
He’d come home totally drunk from an all-day session at the Legion. Mom said or did something that pissed him off. He gives her a real solid, open-handed whack across the face, sending her staggering back into the fridge door. An edge of his Masonic ring opens a small gash along her cheek line.
Without really thinking about it, I give him a hard push on the back of his shoulders to get his attention. He spins on me. ‘Don’t you fuckin’ give me any o’ your attitude, Danny boy. This here ain’t none o’ your business.’ I smile at him, knowing he can’t ignore it.
He lunges at me, but his drink makes him slow and uncoordinated. I step forward while grabbing the iron skillet off the stove and swing it up and hard. I hit him full in the face. Blood gushes. A couple of teeth pop out, spinning onto the floor. His head jerks back, the eyes roll up, he falls backwards onto the counter, then slides unconscious to the kitchen floor, right at Mom’s feet. She starts screaming and with both arms, pushes me hard in the chest.
“Danny, what have you done?” Dropping to her knees, she starts to cry. Her hands are feeling around on the floor, getting blood on her fingers, which then trace dark red random swirls onto the linoleum. “There. Got it. A tooth. He’ll need it.” She looks at me, holding up the broken tooth in her bloodied fingers. “His smile, Danny. Always was his best feature. I sure loved that smile.” Mom seems confused about what’s just happened to her husband.
“I’ve finished it, Mom.” No emotion. Just a simple statement of fact.
And then, just because I can, and quite honestly because I really want to, I give him a vicious kick in the face. The impact drives his head back into the corner of the cupboard. I find the sharp crunching sound strangely satisfying. My blood is up. All the years of his abuse on Mom and me are fuelling my rage.
“Oh, Danny, what have you done? You’ve almost killed your father.”
I notice his right arm – fingers facing up, slightly curled, bloodstained – sticking straight out from under his head. I stomp on the fingers as hard as I can. Once. Twice. Three times, until I hear bones pop and shatter. It’s the hand he always uses to slap and punch us. Not anymore.
I’m aware that someone is screaming my name.
I’m on autopilot now. I pull back my leg and kick him full on in the balls. His unconscious body involuntarily shudders and twitches, then becomes still. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it feels good, really good to take it to him like this.
“Please, son, no more. No more, please.” She pulls herself up with the help of the kitchen counter and drops the tooth into an unwashed coffee cup.
Mom grabs my arms and pulls me into her. I can feel her heart beating against my rib cage. Or perhaps it’s just my own. But who the hell cares? She holds me tight until my blood cools and her tears dry.
I help carry him to the chesterfield in our front room. She tries to make him comfortable with pillows. She wets towels in the bathroom and tries to wipe away the blood. He moans with each touch of her hands but still seems totally out of it.
I turn, walk through the kitchen, out the back door onto the porch where I sit quietly, trying to let my emotions settle.
A few minutes later, Mom comes out with mugs of hot, milky tea for myself and her. We sit in silence for a long time.
“Danny, your Dad needs to go to the Clinic. I’m pretty sure the nose is broken, those stomped fingers don’t look too good either. As for the kick in the balls, well…,” she pauses for just a heartbeat, “well, who the hell knows about that.” I think I see a faint smile, but I can’t be sure. I say nothing.
“I know your Dad. He won’t go to the cops about this. He’ll make up a story that he got jumped by some punks looking for money while he was coming home from the Legion. He was too drunk to defend himself, too drunk to recognize the guys who attacked him. I know him. He’ll never admit his fifteen-year-old son just beat the shit out of him.”
I’ve never heard her swear before. I can’t help but smile. She looks at me for a moment, then says, “So that’s what we’re going to do.”
She sits silently again. And then words I’ll never forget. Words that changed our lives.
“Danny, you’ll have to leave. You can’t stay here now. Not with all this,” she says, waving her arm in the general direction of the body in the front room.
“I’ll call Aunt Maeve in California. She’ll understand the situation. She’ll love to have you come live with her. She lives right near the ocean. Every day after school, you can surf the big waves you’ll need to become an excellent surfer. Someday, maybe even a professional. But, Danny, you’ll have to promise me you’ll go to school every day and do well in your studies. Living with Maeve, she’ll make all kinds of opportunities happen for you. She’ll raise you like her own. It’ll be the best thing for everyone – given all of this.”
She takes my hands and holds them on her cheek. They feel wet, and that’s when I notice Mom is crying once again.
But I’m not buying what she’s offering.
‘No, Mom, I’m not leaving you here with him. He’ll never forgive me, forgive us for what happened here tonight. You’ll always be in danger. One day, he’ll kill you when he’s been drinking and pissed off at the entire world. No, Mom, I’m not leaving you.”
Mom looks at me for a long time, sipping her tea, staring over the brim of the mug. She decides on something, then speaks.
“Danny, please listen carefully. Trust me. I know your Dad. Yes, I know what he’s capable of doing to me, but I believe with all my heart that this’ll be a real lesson for him. I know how his mind works. His fifteen-year-old son gave him the worst beating he ever got. He knows you could’ve killed him – by accident mind you – but you didn’t. You deliberately smashed every finger on his hand, so it’ll never work right ever again. From tonight onwards, the hand’ll remind him that what happened to him came because of all the bad stuff he did to us with it. I know it sounds crazy, but trust me, I know him. Oh, he’ll still drink too much, yell and fuss, but he’ll never lay another beating on me. I’ll be safe here, son. You go live with Maeve and do something really great with your life. Something I’ll be proud of. Something that could never happen if you stayed here in Sooke or even Victoria for that matter.”
Mom takes a sip from her mug and deliberately leans in toward me so there’ll be no mistaking the truth of her next words.
“I’ll be ok, son. Trust me.”
It was a long speech from her. She sat back into the deck chair and closed her eyes. In her mind, she now had everything under control here at home. I was heading off on a jet to Aunt Maeve’s place in California. Discussion closed.
And that’s how I came to live these past seven years with Maeve in Solano Beach. And how she made sure I had both the time and the best coaching to make it as a pro competitor on the Big Wave Tour sponsored by the World Surfing League and Red Bull.
____________ ¯ ____________
Mom stretches across his body and lays two fingers onto my open mouth.
“Danny, stop. Just listen to me.” She pauses. “I don’t need a history lecture from you today.” The eyes hold me tight, her fingers warm on my lips.
“Son, you need to make it right between you. Before,” she looks down into her husband’s blank face, “Before you can’t anymore.”
Tears trickle down her cheeks onto the blue flannel hospital blanket covering him. He stirs but does not awaken. If he’s aware of us, like Mom believes, he already knows what my answer’s going to be.
I lift her fingers from my lips, kiss them, then hold her hand between mine.
“Mom, I feel nothing toward him. I came back here, not for him but only for you. I’m hoping you’ll come to accept this – it’s long over between him and me. I’ll never forgive him for all the hurt he brought upon you so many times when I was growing up. I heard those beatings when you thought I didn’t. Too many times, I heard your cries and moans behind the locked bathroom door after he’d stormed out of the house.”
I’ve become a bit too loud. It surprises me.
A nurse comes into the room. She asks if everything is all right. Mom pulls her hand from mine, straightens her blouse and says with mustered dignity and a weak smile, “Oh yes, Miriam dear, my son Danny here just got a bit carried away, you see. What with his father’s condition and all.” She waves an arm over her husband as if she expects her words and gesture explains everything.
Satisfied there’s nothing untoward going on, nurse Miriam quietly leaves, wisely closing the door behind her.
Exhausted, Mom lowers herself into the chair. She picks up her husband’s right hand once again.
“I tried to keep the peace between the two of you, you know. I really tried over all those years. I’m so sorry that life with your father couldn’t have been better. But I tried. I really, really did.”
“Yeah, Mom, I know. But you know what?”
After meeting nurse Miriam, I’m almost whispering my words.
I point at the body in the bed.
“Between him and me, it just wasn’t about me wanting to surf and not go to college. It was about him treating us like shit for all those years.”
“You want to know something? If you hadn’t sent me to California and Aunt Maeve, I’m sure I would’ve fucking killed him if he’d tried to beat you again.”
There was one final thing. I needed to say it out loud – for both her and myself.
“More important, I didn’t like what I was becoming with him in our lives.”
Jacob Gustaf Nair, 51 years old, died four hours later at 2:35 pm on September 25th in room 732 of the Royal Jubilee Hospital in downtown Victoria, British Columbia.
____________ ¯ ____________
I’m finishing the last of my three judged sets at the most dangerous surfing competition in all of California – Maverick’s Challenge, near Half Moon Bay.
Today’s waves are cresting, on average, at thirty feet. All of us are recording good scores given the most extreme conditions. I’m being taxi’d on a fast-moving pick-up sled towed behind one of several jet skis the WSL tour must always use because paddling safely back to the beach on your own is impossible. We’re moving quickly through the churning currents of the shallows near the shore. While pleased with my overall score, I’ll finish just off the Mavericks podium today. Better than last month’s competition off Maui but still not yet good enough to move me into the top ten rankings of the Big Wave pro surfers.
Heading toward the judges’ stand high up on the beach, I’m looking for Mom and Maeve in the massive crowd of spectators.
Earlier this morning, Maeve said, “You won’t be able to miss us, Danny. Look for our bright red maple leaf T-shirts. We’ll also be holding up a big Canadian flag – just so you’ll know it’s us.”
“Yeah, Danny. Look for two old broads, drinking beer, yelling themselves hoarse into the roaring wind off the Point,” Mom said. “Hey, maybe if we get really lucky, we’ll have a couple of those buff California beach bum surfers enjoyin’ our company too.” She and Maeve laughed, high fivin’ each other with a little too much gusto.
“Yeah, right, ladies. In your dreams.” I was laughing. Then out the door of our motel in Half Moon Bay for the short drive to the WSL competitor’s tent at Mavericks.
Ever since Mom arrived for a visit three weeks ago, Maeve’s been trying to talk her into selling the place in Sooke and moving to Solano Beach.
Two days ago, before we all headed up north to Mavericks, she tried her ‘retire here’ pitch once again.
“Hell, Marjorie, there’s lots of great places to rent nearby. It would be like when we were kids back in Jordan River.” Maeve glanced out at her infinity pool, sparkling and softly gurgling in the early morning sun. “Ok, maybe not exactly like Jordan River, but you know what I mean.” They both laughed and with much enthusiasm, noisily slurped their usual morning OJ and champagne mimosas.
The jet ski is nearing the beach. The driver must pay careful attention to the changing currents as he whips back and forth between the jagged rocks poking up around us.
I catch sight of a fluttering Canadian flag high on the rocky hill to the left of the judges’ stand. I raise an arm, pumping the victory sign. The flag quickly disappears, replaced with two frantically waving red and white T-shirts.
Jeezus. My favourite women have stripped off their shirts and are dancing wildly around in bright red bras, white shorts and flip flops. Only in California, you say. So true.
Life is good these days. Sooke seems like a very, very long time ago.
My family is here.
Maeve’s neighbours have taken to calling us those Crazy Canucks.
If only they knew the truth of it.
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