I was watching the waves at a left point break we call Palmitos while soaking my foot in a tide pool. I’d just kicked the ficus root that’s humped up like an armadillo in the middle of the path that cuts down from my casa to the beach. It’s a big chunk of black bark and harder than marriage, and I’ve probably smacked my toes into that fat bastard a hundred times—back when I first tried to surf this wave, and back when that first time nearly killed me.
I should know better than to walk around in the jungle before sunrise. But that’s a lesson I just can’t seem to learn.
The tide pool was unexpectedly cool, considering that last night was a dry night. The only thing that can break a big heat is a heavy rain, but it hadn’t rained for days. Maybe it was because of the wind, which was coming steady onshore and opposite to where it should be blowing this early in the morning. But when I turned my face to it, it felt right—and like it was time to go.
I was leaving Mexico, probably for good. Today was my last day.
I picked up my surfboard and hobbled a few steps before belly flopping over the shore break and then gliding down the back of a wave and into the current that loops out to sea. I surf a Red Fin, an old-school California longboard still considered a big deal by people who care about such things. The board is dinged up and waterlogged, but it still paddles straight and true, even if it rides a little lower in the water than I’d like it to—like we all do.
I wasn’t going to try to make my last day at Palmitos heroic. I just wanted to get in and out with a few decent waves and a good feeling. Nothing epic. No magic. I’m not one of these kooks who croon about how surfing can save lives or cure cancer. I’m just grateful for the energy that somehow hooks up to give me a one-of-a-kind wave that I can ride for a few special seconds, and how it feels like I’m getting a little bit of a peek into this mystery while I’m doing it.
I caught my first wave of the morning. It was a head-high peeler with enough pulse to make me forget about my foot. I had three or four more just like it, fat and clean backhands, nothing scary, not too big, and everything I needed to say good-bye.
By the time I made it back to my casa, the dump trucks were already lined up. I had tried to sign the place over to a local couple—something that was more about reparation than generosity—but they wanted no part of it. “The future here has too many gringos,” they said, and moved to Compostela to start a farm. So I decided to just tear it down and put the lot up for sale.
A couple of cholos covered in LA gang tats and wearing backward baseball caps were pitching and catching adobe tejas from the roof and stacking them like cords of wood in what was left of the garden. A backhoe was dragging my Suburban down the muddy ruts of the driveway. It was paint-balled with blasts of scat from the bats that dive-bomb for figs when the higuera blooms, but the dependable old beast had survived a million miles of memories.
Someone was unhinging the casita’s front door. My little piece of paradise was being torn down.
“Are those surfboards for sale?” someone asked.
“Everything is,” I said, and then turned around.
An albino gringo wearing a camouflage bush hat had his hand on the shoulder of a very pale boy. Or maybe it was the zinc sunblock. They were both covered in it. For the last three days I had been having a yard sale, and it looked as if these guys might be my first paying customers. They were searching through a stack of old surfboards I’d dragged out of the bodega.
“I want my kid to learn to surf,” the gringo said.
“Lucky kid,” I said. “There’s a Wavestorm in that pile.”
“But not on a foamy,” he said. “He’s going to need a real board.”
I tried not to shake my head and just smiled instead.
“What about this one?” his kid asked.
The pale boy had already dug his way to the bottom of the pile, and he was holding a surfboard that I had inherited from an ex–pro surfer I used to know. It was the board my son had learned to surf on.
“Is that a Town and Country?” the dad asked.
I nodded. Town & Country Surfboards was a big-deal Hawaiian brand, and the board of choice for a lot of guys who rip the North Shore.
“It’s a Glenn Pang,” I said. “He’s a shaper.”
“I know who Glenn Pang is,” the dad said—not with any attitude, exactly, but it was clear that he wanted to let me know that he knew. “That guy made incredible boards.”
“He still does,” I said.
“How much do you want for it?”
“It’s not for sale.”
“I thought you said everything was for sale,” the boy said.
He looked like he was about to cry, and his dad took the board from him. It was missing a fin, but I could see by the way this guy was holding the board that he appreciated it.
“That board’s for free,” I said.
“You’re giving away a TC Pang?” the dad said. He was pretty astonished.
“Yeah, I am,” I said. “How do you like that?”
“I do,” he said.
I could see that he thought there might be more to this story—and he was right.
It was mid-August and a couple of years before the golf-course designers and condominium contractors devoured the peninsula, back when the future didn’t feel so close and corn tortillas still counted as a health food.
We were walking through the jungle after an early session at Gagger’s. I had my Red Fin under my arm, all twenty-four pounds of it, and Winsor was balancing the six-foot-two TC Pang on his head. Our feet were covered in mud to the ankles. The narrow trail was slick. It was hard to walk.
“C’mon, Pirata, let the boys get ahead of us,” Winsor said. “They’ll attract the mosquitoes.”
“Jesus Christ, Winsor,” I said. “They’re your kids.”
“They’re Meagan’s kids,” he said and shrugged, as if he barely knew his current girlfriend. “The gook mix is, anyway. That other one she inherited from an ex. But no way that makes them my kids. Even if the ex is dead.”
“Did you kill him?”
“Nah,” Winsor said. “I can’t even remember if I ever met him.”
You could see what was left of Winsor’s big-wave conditioning rituals. He still had those epic shoulder caps and a chest about two feet thick, but most of it had been covered up with an inch of fat because of all the street tacos and beer. Lots of beer. Even now, he had a can of Tecate jammed into the back pocket of his board shorts, and he was swigging from another one in his left hand. I had never seen Winsor without a beer or some kind of a buzz.
“But I’m not saying it’s impossible,” he said. “It’s in me to kill a guy like that.”
Gagger’s is a right-hand point break that used to be called Sewer Pipe before the locals had the pipe stopped up with concrete, which caused it to rupture and permanently saturate the sand with raw sewage. No matter how many times that pipe got flushed out or a hurricane swell reshaped the beach, it still stank like hell. It was an unbearable, gag-making kind of stink, the kind you’d get at a rendering yard. But if the waves were good enough, it got to be that you didn’t mind. The shit smell was worth it because it kept the lineups thin.
Surfers will paddle into waves just offshore from a nuclear power plant if they think the radioactive waste will keep the tourists and kooks away. If someone could bottle the stench at Gagger’s, they could sell it as crowd control, cash in, and kick back.
But an effort like that would take the kind of focus and energy I haven’t had in years, and one that Winsor probably never had—except maybe when he trained for the Pipeline Masters and actually made it into the quarterfinals before getting knocked out by Kelly Slater, back when Slater was just a kid. A long time ago.
Gagger’s is about a ten-minute drive from Sabanita, once a small fishing village that’s since morphed into a surf town on Mexico’s south-central west coast. I had been lucky enough to stagger into the “little blanket”—which is what sabanita means—about six years ago, and it was exactly what I needed to wrap myself up in at the time.
The break at Gagger’s was always kind of a petri dish, but during tormenta, which is what the Mexicans call monsoon season, it became a full-on bug hatchery. Despite Winsor’s using his girlfriend’s kids as decoys, I could see that the fatback on his fat back was feeding a swarm of mosquitoes, and a squadron of them was buzzing around the black patch that covered up the hole where my left eye is supposed to be.
So every once in a while, I had to slap myself in the face—which is something I should probably do more often.
When we finally made it back to my Suburban, the boys were already inside, with the windows rolled up and the dual-side AC on. They each had an earbud from the same iPod jammed into one ear and were singing along with something that sounded like Spanish rap.
“Did you guys have fun?” I asked.
Even though they weren’t blood brothers, these two thirteen-year-olds were homies from the same hood—the messed-up parenthood. They had matching headfuls of bleached-out dreadlocks and the kind of tropical tan you only get from growing up outside without ever having to wear long pants or a shirt with sleeves.
Obsidian had pale-blue eyes. Jade’s were deep brown and almond shaped. Both of them needed braces and a better attitude. The duo had it worked out that they would act like everybody was always talking to the other one, so neither of them ever had to respond. It was a calculated kind of unavailability that approached performance art. But I had picked up on the scam.
“Hey, assholes,” Winsor said as he pushed our surfboards up between the seats. “This man is talking to you.” He half closed a fist and knocked Obsidian hard on the collarbone. “Did you have any fun?”
“Up until now, loser,” Obsidian said. He was the braver of the two, and Winsor’s favorite target. “Why’d you hit me?”
Winsor climbed in on the passenger side. He cracked open the beer from his back pocket and tossed a small bag of marijuana into the glove compartment.
“I’m in the mood,” Winsor said. “You don’t like it—kill me in my sleep.”
“We talk about that,” Jade said in a way that was soft but not gentle. He usually let his stepbrother do their talking.
“It’d be an honor to put you out of your misery.”
“Have at it.” Winsor grinned.
“C’mon, Winsor,” I said. “They’re just kids.”
“Meagan’s kids,” he said again.
I closed my door and started the Suburban. It was a ’97 GMC with an overhead console package and power door locks. The tinted windshield was cracked and there were 373,000 miles on the odometer, but it was long enough to lock my nine-foot Red Fin inside, and in a pinch I could live in it.
“Was your dad a surfer, Obsidian?” I asked, illegally U-turning over the muddy potholes of Calle Punta Mirador and trying to change the subject.
“I don’t know,” he said. Obsidian never talked about his dad. “He just fixed guitars for this band.”
“Cool,” I said. “Would I know it?”
“Dave Matthews?” Obsidian said, and squirmed a little.
“Bullshit.” Winsor snorted and spit out some beer.
“More like a Dave Matthews tribute band—the Lip-Syncing Dicks.”
It was the kind of malignant pimping the surfer-burnout routinely taunted the boys with, but it looked like this little tumor hit Obsidian particularly hard.
“My dad surfed,” Jade said as he slipped his stepbrother a hard chunk of surf wax. “In Vietnam. My aunt is the Napalm Girl.”
“Like Miki Dora was my dad,” Winsor said, as if the groms had a clue about the Malibu surf star and Beach Party stuntman. “You guys are idiots if you think the world is that small.”
“And you make it even smaller,” Jade said.
Winsor ignored him, lit the joint that was stashed behind his ear, and took a hit. He offered it to me, but I shook my head. I was feeling a little too out-of-body already.
“If people invent shit around me, they’re going to pay the price, and that’s right,” Winsor said, apparently to himself.He exhaled a long stream of smoke, and I cracked my window.
“Look out!” Obsidian yelled, and then winged the chunkof wax just as Winsor turned. The lump of Sticky Bumps smacked him on the left side of the head.
“You little prick,” Winsor said, and started swinging—but both boys scrambled for cover behind the Suburban’s third seat.
Winsor rubbed his ear.
“This is what I get for putting mac and cheese on the table,” he said, and then looked over at me. “Think about that if you ever want to have kids.”
I made the turn into the village of Sabanita from the Punta de Mirador side. The dirt road turned to cobblestone and a stray dog barked, announcing our arrival.
From the book: PIRATA by Patrick Hasburgh. Copyright © 2018 by Patrick Hasburgh. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.