‘Under the Wave at Waimea,’ by Paul Theroux: An Excerpt

The Island of No Bad Days

The one wild story that everyone believed about Joe Sharkey was not true, but this was often the case with big-wave riders. It was told he had eaten magic mushrooms on a day declared Condition Black and dropped left down a forty-five-foot wave one midnight under the white light of a full moon at Waimea Bay, the wave freaked with clawed rags of blue foam. He smashed his board on the inside break called Pinballs and, and unable to make it to shore against the riptide, he swam five miles up the coast, where he was found in the morning, hallucinating on the sand. More proof that he was a hero; that he surfed like an otter on acid.

His being found on the beach at dawn near Banzai Pipeline was a fact, and he’d taken LSD, not mushrooms. But so much of the rest of his life had been outrageous, and sometimes heroic, glowing with sensuous happiness, that his fellow surfers never questioned whether the wave had been a monster, or if he’d been on it, or broken his board, or swum alone to Pipeline, nor did they accuse him in pidgin of bulai — lying. Sharkey had shown himself the equal of the best of them. When he’d first been asked about the Waimea story, he’d been young — eager to make an impression, and prone to embellish. In time he learned that exaggeration was always a side effect of fame and fiction a feature of every surfer’s reputation, the yearning to be a dog off its leash.

The appeal of surfing to Sharkey was that it was improvisational, a question of balance; of staying on your board on a radical feathering wave, a dance on water, at its best a display of originality, perhaps not a sport at all but a personal style, a way of living your life, a game without rules, incomparable. And some of the greatest rides, on the biggest waves, were never seen by anyone except the surfer. The surfer rode the wave, the wave blobbed softly, and it was over, the epitome of performance art. The surfer paddled to shore, the wave was gone, there was no trace of the ride — something like a fabulous death.

[ Return to the review of “Under the Wave at Waimea.” ]

His lover, Olive Randall, knew the truth, because (being new to his life, and English, and a nurse) she’d asked in her forthright way, “So what about it, then, you grinning numpty?”

And she looked for more. Sometimes—the way the earliest humans studied a stranger—she examined his body to read his history and know him better. He slept naked, and often in their first month together she woke beside him and searched for meaning in the ink on his skin. Much of the imagery was obvious, some of it obscure, a great deal was a record of risk; his disfigurements were those of a warrior, battle scars and scabbed wounds and the sutures from wipeouts and jellyfish stings and face-plants.

In the early hours of muted sallow daylight his tattoos were mottled like bruises, but after sunup they were sharpened, as he lay, facing away from her, his back exposed, a great blue wave covering it like a dragon’s mouth, fanglike foam on its jagged crest tipping past the top of his spine, the well-known print of the Japanese wave at Kanagawa that most people recognized, except that in this depiction Sharkey was surfing the great curved face of it. In his tattoo he was crouched on his long board, one arm extended, as he had surfed a forty-five-footer at Waimea or the great wave at Cortes Bank. But Cortes was so far offshore — a submerged island more than a hundred miles in the ocean west of San Diego — only the boatman had seen him, and few people knew that it was one of his triumphs.

Tribal slashes of black, licks and ribbons, covered his upper arms and deltoids, and the syllable Om in complex Tibetan brushstrokes on each declivity of his shoulders. His arms—“full sleeves”—were enclosed by bands of sharks’ teeth, stylized, triangular. A snake circled his left wrist like a bracelet, an ouroboros, its tail in its mouth. On his right arm more sharks’ teeth, a frigate bird on the back of his hand — his power animal, he called it — flattened, his wings outspread, also serving as the image of a compass. Some were faded, some were fresh, all had meaning.

Hawaiian dots, many of them like pinpricks, a constellation of them on his fingers, and balancing that pattern the Southern Cross on his right foot, below an anklet of dolphins. Tattoos hammered into his skin, rat-tatted with blunt inky spikes in Tahiti and Samoa and poked into him with a chattering needle in Santa Cruz and Recife and Cape Town; Devanagari script from India, a lozenge that looked Egyptian, single words, like the name on the meat of his thumb — an old girlfriend? Olive had finally asked him, but no. “My mother,” and he seemed lovable saying that.

“Your mum,” she said. She cocked her head at him and kissed him. “Your muvva.”

Perhaps, she thought, the whole of his life was inked across his body, that she’d know him better by studying his skin. He was hearty, and twenty-four years older, but the lover she’d longed for, passionate but secure and successful enough not to intrude in her privacy. She wanted to be loved, but not possessed. Sharkey was too self-absorbed and fanatical about surfing to be possessive.

He stirred; he seemed to know, hyperalert in his nakedness, that he was being observed — and perhaps felt her warm breath on him. Then he turned over and saw that she was wide awake, hovering; he kissed her, embraced her, her small warm breasts fitting his hands.

Sharkey loved to sleep, because his sleep, like the saturation of a drug, was so much like drifting in the ocean, toppling and bobbing like flotsam, and he was, as they said in Hawaii, a waterman, the Shark.

In his house in the woods, on a bluff above the sea, he lay buoyant in sleep, levitated in noiseless night and darkness. There he hovered, tremulous with the ripple in his sinuses of small snores—hours of that, until in the aqueous shallows of slumber the day got into his dreams. Someone must have mentioned surfing while stoned or asked him if the story was true, or repeated it to him — of his eating mushrooms and paddling into the surf at Waimea in the dark, and the rest of it, swimming on his board out to sea for safety and ending up thrashing ashore beyond Pipeline, the old tale haunting him in his dreams.

He was so expert a big-wave surfer that stories like that — his own fictions, the wilder exaggerations of others that were attributed to him — added to his fame and made him a legend. His admirers were the most inventive, eager to improve upon their hero.

The dispute in his dream unsettled him, because there were always doubters. But he smiled when he woke from it, because he was so young in his dreams and, awake, he knew he was sixty-two. And at once he was aware of Olive’s warmth and her nakedness, and he turned over and slid toward her. She parted her legs to welcome his searching hand and enclose his body. Then he lay in the dark against her, as on a wave, and rode her while she clutched at his arms as though climbing through a hold-down, and in their delirium their bodies were phosphorescent, lit with desire.

He sank to sleep after that, then floated, drugged and wrung out by the convulsive lovemaking, lying on his back, his mouth half open, like a castaway, adrift again.

As the sky above the treetops paled at his uncurtained window, he stirred—the light seeping into him, reddening his eyelids—and he settled lower into his soft bed in a body-shaped pod of warmth. In the rising light the dream came again, more vivid now, in full color; he was flat on his board, paddling in turbulent water, and anxious — the anxiety woke him — and he blinked, recognizing his room, and was free of the dream.

Every morning he woke and was content, knowing the whole day was his. He flung out his arm, snatching at emptiness — Olive was no longer beside him. She’d risen, one of her early starts, to work at the hospital. Their lovemaking now seemed unreal, a ghostlike hold-down in the dark glimmer of dawn. But he could smell her body on the sheet, which was still damp where she had lain.

[ Return to the review of “Under the Wave at Waimea.” ]

Sharkey stretched, he yawned like a dog, he roared with satisfaction, then kicked away the sheet and swung himself off the bed, swallowing air, roaring again. His voice alerted the geese outside on the lawn, which replied in urgent squawks, startling the peacock into a fit of screaming. Now the sun was a hot blade at the window, and a dewy blue stillness of thick dampened petals sweetened the morning.

In this blossom of solitude he remembered the night before, and he fell back on his bed to recall the details of the evening.

It had been a party at a beachfront house overlooking the surf break they called Off the Wall. “Party” meant a small room crowded with shrieking young people, the heat and smack of their sweat, the sustained pressure of their bodies and bare legs, jostling boys with big shoulders, girls in shorts, a woman with purple and blue fish scales tattooed on her upper arm, a ring in her lower lip, others with nose rings and wearing T-shirts with slashes. A TV screen on the far wall showed surfers on the boil of curling waves.

Sharkey stood marveling, believing that he was anonymous, liking the sight of this great health and the suggestion of recklessness in the heat and noise, the shouting girls, their brown toes, the wild-eyed groups, all of them contending.

A tall girl nearby with sun-scorched hair and a stipple of tattoos across the tops of her breasts and a swimmer’s pale pickled-looking fingers looked up, smiled at Sharkey, broke away from her shouting group, and approached him.

She screamed “Hi!” to be heard above the din and stood, confident, just his height in bare feet, looking him straight in the eye.

Sharkey nodded. “How’s it?” “What was your secret, when you were starting out?” Her shouted question got the attention of some boys, who drifted over to hear his answer.

But he said, “Ask these guys. It’s their party.”

“You were killing the Pipe before any of us were born,” one of the boys said.

Sharkey was cautioned. You’re old, they were saying.

“Did you have a long board then?”

“A wooden board that looked like my mother’s front door,” Sharkey said, and swigged his beer. “We all had longer boards in the seventies. Even Gerry and Butch.”

“Who’s Butch?”

“Van Artsdalen. An outlaw. A wild man. A waterman.” But none of this registered. “Even Jock had a giant board.”

Hearing his name, Jock Sutherland waved and said, “Balsa-wood core,” and withdrew, going shy, as he bowed his head and vanished.

“This guy killed it today,” the tall girl said, putting out her long arm and snatching at a young man’s shirt. “Double overhead A-frames!”

His neck was looped with leis, which flopped as he twisted aside, and he smiled but kept his eyes on Sharkey. The flowers bulked under his chin, and the respectful way the others awaited his reaction Sharkey took to mean that he’d been a winner.

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen,” the boy said, tugging the garlands away from his chin, the flowers from his mouth.

Sharkey could imagine him sliding across the Pipe, cutting back, whipping around, the hotshot moves that won points these days. With this in mind, Sharkey said, “I remember when it was considered a victory to just stay on that wave without wiping out. No other moves.”

“Tell him your secret,” the tall woman said, and it sounded like a taunt. “You know how it works,” Sharkey said. “It’s a dogfight now,” one of the other boys said. “Okay,” Sharkey said. “It wasn’t a dogfight then.”

The tall woman said, “What was it?”

Her tone was that of someone asking an aged veteran about a long-ago war, of antiquated weapons and maneuvers, former days, and again Sharkey understood that they saw him as an old man.

“There weren’t many of us,” he said. “But it’s always a dogfight in the lineup, you know that. And there were plenty of locals — it’s their territory. Remember, the Hawaiians killed their first tourist.”

Someone whistled. “Captain Cook,” Sharkey said. They were slow to respond; they leaned back and opened their mouths wider, as if to listen more clearly. Sharkey realized that only a few of them — the tall woman and perhaps one other — knew who he was, and so when he spoke it was in a protesting tone.

“If you’re in the lineup, be respectful — take the wave that nobody wants, the one with no exit, that breaks in front of the reef. Be willing to fall. On the Pipe, the hardest part is making the drop, because it’s so steep. And you might just get dumped on the reef. Or worse.”

One of the boys at the back asked, “What’s worse?” “Underwater tunnels. Those caves. I’ve been put in a cave.” Even the boy wearing the piled garlands of flowers was listening now, but Sharkey could tell from the attentiveness of the others that they were spectators and not hard-core surfers, and probably saw a guy talking because he was half drunk and old, and old people never listened.

“And there’s the hold-down.” “The two-wave hold-down,” someone said. “The three-wave hold-down,” Sharkey said, protesting again, asserting himself. “Three bombs hitting you. Under the wave at Waimea.” “That’s suffocation,” the boy said, speaking through the thickness of lei blossoms. “But you keep climbing up your leash,” Sharkey said. “Up the heavy evil wave.” The tattooed young woman said, “You still surf the Pipe?” “How about the Eddie?” one of the boys said. “You compete in the Eddie?” “I surfed with Eddie Aikau,” Sharkey said. “I knew Eddie Aikau. Yes, I surfed in the Eddie. I surfed with Eddie’s brother, Clyde. I can still handle big waves — know why? Because it’s straight ahead, less stress on my joints. No kick-outs. Economy of movement.”

Why am I lecturing them? he asked himself. Am I trying to impress them? He smiled, pitying himself, finding himself laughable.

“Waimea’s awesome,” the young woman said.

Except for the winner and his garlands, they had to be tourists and first-timers, though Sharkey could not tell whether they were dazzled by what he said; if not, he was making a fool of himself with all his talk.

Aware that he was boasting — and why was he boasting to these youths? — he said, “Phantoms, off V-Land, is gnarly. Jaws is even bigger. So’s Mavericks. And there’s the Cortes Bank, off San Diego. That’s killer.”

Speaking again through his flowers, the garlanded boy said, “You surfed Cortes?”

“You’ve been everywhere,” a toothy boy said, looking hungry and a little surprised. He didn’t know Sharkey either.

“In your day,” someone started to say. I’m old—I’m ancient to them, Sharkey thought, not hearing the rest of what was being said. I’m craggy, I’m gray, and they think I’m past it. And it was true—he was lean, and sinewy rather than thick-muscled. He was deeply lined and leathery from decades of sun, with bright lizard eyes and a lizard face and long skinny hands, and many of his tattoos were sun-faded and others indistinguishable from bruises. I am unknown to most of them. I am the past.

“My day is every day—today and tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve been there” — and he pointed at the TV screen, which was showing a man on a big wave in Portugal. “Nazaré. Used to be unridable. It’s a gang bang now. Try Chile — the wave they call El Gringo. That’s a wave. Try El Quemao — more dangerous than most — not just huge but it breaks on a dry rocky reef.”

They stared at him as though looking at a stranger, staring at a corpse, implying with their eyes the idle notion “You won’t be here much longer.”

One of them turned aside and said, “He reminds me of that guy a long time ago who ate mushrooms and then surfed Waimea at midnight.”

Briefly he hated them. Then he laughed.

He thought with wonderment, I’m old. When did it happen? It wasn’t sudden — no illness, no failure; it had stolen upon him. It could have been while I was surfing, going for smaller waves, becoming breathless and needing to rest as I paddled out. Or maybe on the days I stayed home, making myself busy, unaware of time passing, and then it was sunset and too dark to go anywhere except to bed. I hadn’t really noticed except for the ache in my knees some days. And growing old is also becoming a stranger, with a different and unrecognizable face, withering to insignificance, ceasing to matter. Nothing more will happen to me. So soon, so soon—and how sad to know that I will only get older.

He was now convinced that the beauty of his life was a certainty that nothing more, nothing greater, would happen to him; that, at peace, he asked for nothing; that he was only on another wave, sliding, climbing, paddling up its back, hovering at its lip, tipping and then racing through the tube — a man surfing, moving in an easy crouch through turbulence, all the time reading its features and its froth, anticipating its alteration, keeping a fraction ahead of his roll, just a man on a board, flying across the swelling slope of heavy water.

[ Return to the review of “Under the Wave at Waimea.” ]

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