Cowabunga Sunset

by Ross West

 

The salty beach air was filled with the lazy calls of sea gulls. Crowds of people who’d come to spend the day at Cowabunga! Ocean Park were having their fun playing on the sand and in the water. I got a resupply pack from the Maintenance & Repair Shop and lugged it out to the floating wooden dock next to the kayak rental booth. After opening the pack and taking out the electronic controller, I punched in the command. A harbor seal stuck its head out of the water and with a few kicks of its powerful tail propelled itself up onto the dock next to me. Another command launched the seal into its roll-over routine that brought it to a rest propped up on one fin, underbelly exposed. I inserted the special wrench and opened the door in the seal’s chest. Out popped the old toaster-sized battery unit. I slid in its replacement, snapped the door shut, and tapped the Done button on the controller. The seal barked, scooted across the dock, and dove back into the water.

That afternoon I worked a shift at lifeguard Tower Two. When it ended, the owner of Cowabunga!, Greg Becker, was standing there waiting. He was forty-five or so, shaggy-haired and a little chunky, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of dude shorts.

“Hey man,” he said. “You’re Jacob, right? How about if you and me take a little walk.” I’d only been on the job three days—had I already messed up?

We went down to the busy waterline, past some kids building an impressive sandcastle.

“I like to meet the people who work here,” he said.

“Cool.”

“We’ve got almost a mile of beach,” Greg said grinning and slapping his belly. “Boogieboarding, snorkeling, volleyball, pipeline surfing—you name it.”

He pointed at the dark blue sky streaked with a pair of clouds shaped like white feathers. “The Sky-Tron dome covers the whole park—gives us a completely programmable environment. Those sailboats on the horizon and those surfers out there riding the reef break, all holograms. What you feel is the artificial sun’s infrared heat.”

“Awesome.”

He laughed. “That’s just the word I like to use.” He picked up a shell and chucked it into the surf. “So why do you think all these people come here?”

I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. All I could think of was, “To have fun?”

“Exactly,” he said. “For fun and to get away from the crazy stuff outside the park. Half the world’s starting to look like freakin’ Mad Max. Drought, starvation, water wars. Even in this country, things are getting a little . . . scary. So, it’s important we give our visitors a vacation from all the doom and gloom. Make sense?”

“Totally.”

Greg stopped walking and faced me, dead serious, looking me right in the eye. “You and the rest of the staff make that vacation happen. You are the Cowabunga! vibe.” He talked to me like an adult—very different from any of the teachers and coaches and bosses I’d ever had. “People are suffering,” he said. “This place is a hospital, the beach is our medicine. And you, my friend,” he tapped a finger against my chest, “you are Dr. Feelgood. Can you dig it?”

It was like he’d knighted me or something, like all of a sudden I knew what I was supposed to be doing. I felt ten feet tall, ready for anything. Oh yeah, Greg, I could definitely dig it.

*     *     *

In high school I had mostly played water polo and hung out with the guys on the team—guys who had girlfriends and were always telling stories. But I was shy and didn’t have much free time between practices and games, school, and two part-time jobs I worked to help Mom with the bills. The guys used to razz me pretty hard about my lack of experience in the female department. Cowabunga! changed all that.

A few days after Greg dubbed me Dr. Feelgood, I was up on lifeguard Tower Four when I looked up the beach and there she was. She was wearing a staff T-shirt and gym shorts, walking barefoot on the dry sand. Flipflops dangled from one of her hands, the other brushed aside a wavy strand of chestnut hair. Never had I seen anyone so beautiful.

I asked around. Her name was Mary. Just hired. The next week our shift supervisor assigned the two of us to pair up later that afternoon doing Special Needs Aquatic Support. I couldn’t believe my luck and bounced through my morning duties grinning, whistling, and feeling all kinds of stupid goofy happy.

Mary and I met in the parking lot just as the van arrived from the state hospital. The driver, a nurse named Roberto, had brought us one tiny and very shy little girl about five named Jeannie. The Special Needs intake form had a note in the Additional Information box. “Uses wheelchair. Eleven surgeries. Hospitalized more than half her life.”

We made our introductions and got Jeannie into a floatation jacket then wheeled her down the access ramp into the water. Her face scrunched up with fear.

We stopped, the water just lapping over her thighs. Mary bent in close, stroked one of her little stick-like arms.

“Can I tell you a secret?”

With tears about to spill out of her eyes, Jeannie gave a shaky nod and a quivering

“Yeah.”

“Jacob here is about the best swimmer in the whole wide world. Did you know that?”

Jeannie shook her head.

“See that island way way out there?” Mary pointed at the man-made atoll we called Gilligan’s Island, a quarter mile offshore. “He can swim all the way out there and back.” Mary rested her hand on my chest. It felt so good, my thinking went a little blurry. “Isn’t that right, Jacob?”

“Uh, yeah, done it a hundred times,” I said. I smiled and gave the kid’s cheek a brush with the backside of my finger, something that used to help when I babysat my cousins and they were headed for a meltdown. It didn’t work any great miracles with Jeannie, whose hands remained clamped on the armrests of her chair while we rolled her farther down the ramp. The water came up around her and the flotation jacket lifted her out of the wheelchair. Mary and I held her, one on each side, but even so Jeannie was panicky, straining her mouth upward and gulping down breaths like a hungry baby bird.

Every time she bobbed down and the water came up close to her mouth, we made sure she bobbed right back up. After a while she calmed down. She made a few tentative strokes and seemed surprised by how the water supported her, how easy it was to move her frail body. She was getting the hang of floating and paddling and kicking. It wasn’t long before she was flinging herself back and forth between Mary and me.

“I’m flying,” she squealed. She was a little motorboat, spinning around and around, slapping the water to make big splashes, giggling.

Jeannie swam and we played until Roberto honked the van’s horn and waved his arm.

“I don’t wanna go,” she cried.

We rolled her out of the water and got her all bunched up in a towel.

She pushed her fists into her cheeks. “Don’t. Wanna. Go.

“You can always come back,” Mary said.

Her face lit up. “Promise?”

I took her hand and gave it a squeeze and a little shake. “Promise,” I told her.

Roberto got Jeannie and her chair strapped into the van. She bounced happily up and down, talking to us through the glass, saying words we couldn’t hear. When the van turned out of the parking lot, she waved and blew us a kiss.

I waved back. “What a cutie.”

“Hope we see her again,” Mary said.

We just stood there in the parking lot like neither of us wanted to leave. Mary loosened the hair she had pinned up. It fell halfway down her back, and she pulled it into a ponytail.

“So how did you know I’ve been out to Gilligan’s?” I asked.

The corner of her mouth curled up in a sneaky little smile and she aimed her green-green-green eyes at me. “I’ve been watching you.”

I froze.

“See you tomorrow,” she said and walked off toward the Operations Center. I couldn’t take my eyes off her—the graceful way she moved, her swimmer’s shoulders, how her ponytail swayed.

*     *     *

When I showed up for my shift the next day, Greg was waiting for me at my locker.

“You were good with that little girl yesterday,” he said, surprising me. “I saw your whole session through a telescope from upstairs. Couldn’t hear what you said but didn’t need to.”

He was close enough that I could smell alcohol on his breath. Maybe I should have been paying attention to that—I’d heard rumors—but right then I was just happy to hear him say I’d done a good job.

“I got kind of a special project coming up. Could use a little help,” he said. “Thought you might be the guy.”

I shrugged like, sure, I’m up for it.

“Come on then, I’ll tell you about it.”

We walked along the water chitchatting like we did it all the time. Me and the big dog. Far down the beach he turned away from the water, crossed the dry sand, and took a path that sloped up through clumps of beachgrass to a small bluff. I knew it was the place he stayed at when he was in the park, but I’d never gotten a good look.

From the top of the bluff I saw a hammock slung between two stout palm trees next to a lanai shaded by a canopy of bamboo stilts covered over with palm fronds and beach grass. Under the canopy were a couple of little tables and some wicker chairs—including a big one obviously for Greg. The hut itself was like something a castaway would bang together—weathered boards and bamboo. Looked like it wouldn’t stand up to a strong wind.

We went inside—it was a regular modern apartment. Greg rattled ice into a blender, unscrewed the caps from different bottles, splashed in a couple of jiggers from each one, squeezed a lime over the top, and let it rip. When the clattering roar stopped, he reached into the cupboard to get glasses and over his shoulder said, “You and Mary Yeager seem to be hitting it off.”

My face got hot in like two seconds. He handed me a glass filled to the brim with the icy margarita.

“She seems like a real fine young lady,” he said with a wink and a smile.

I sipped the sweet, strong drink and hoped he wasn’t going to say anything more on the subject.

“So here’s the deal,” he said. “Some people are coming to look over the park in a few weeks. It’s an annual inspection—required by the bank that loaned me the construction money.”

I gave him a nod, like I knew all about borrowing a gazillion dollars.

“During their visit, I’ll want someone with me in case I need anything. Sound like something you could do?”

“No prob.”

“Alright,” he said, laughing as we bumped fists. “Welcome to the inner circle.”

“Cool,” I said.

“Today we’ve got something to celebrate.”

Greg handed me a piece of paper he said had just arrived—some news about his loan. One paragraph was circled. “I read it once, but I’d kinda like to hear it again. Would you mind reading it?”

“Out loud?”

“Yeah, I’m—” he waved his hand back and forth. “It’s a kind of dyslexia.”

“Okay, yeah, sure.” I cleared my throat and read.

The intensifying global emergency of catastrophic climate change (including the worldwide disappearance of beaches resulting from rising sea levels) is forcing governments to enact unprecedented draconian restrictions, eliminating freedoms of activity and expression. Constrained consumers are resentful of these imposed austerities; their compensatory desires thus stimulated, they crave respite and distraction as never before. One year of not only positive but accelerating revenues substantiates the value proposition offered by Cowabunga! Ocean Park.

I looked up from the paper. “Is that supposed to mean something?”

“It means,” Greg said with a big smile, “we’re making enough money to stay afloat.” He held out his glass and I clinked it with mine. “And much to my relief, it means the visit from the bankers ought to be a piece of cake.”

*     *     *

Nights were super popular at Cowabunga! We had bonfires and weenie roasts and smores, full moon surfing, couples taking romantic walks along the sand. But about a week after Mary and I worked together in Aquatics Support, the park closed early—the staff swept all guests off the beach and out the doors well before the Sky-Tron kicked into its sunset routine. A maintenance crew was coming from the wave machine company to do their quarterly check-up on the hydraulics. My job was to let them in and make sure they had whatever they needed.

With the crowd and the staff gone and the crew not yet arrived, I was the only guy in the whole huge park. Very peaceful. I went for a walk on the deserted beach and stopped at one of the concrete fire rings that held a pile of ashes and charred wood left from the previous night’s luau. I found it amazing that in the middle of a global climate train wreck we could have open fires on the beach. Outside in the real world just about anything that released even a puff of greenhouse gas was regulated seventeen different ways by six different government agencies. Not to mention the EcoGuardian vigilantes that would go after “Earth killers” by burning down their businesses, cars, and homes. But Greg wasn’t about to have a beach without campfires, so he purchased ten times more carbon offsets than were required and ended up winning a Green Hero award. Smart guy.

My phone rang. The maintenance crew leader said one of their trucks had broken down and they’d have to reschedule for another night. Before we even finished the conversation I was already thinking about Mary and working up the courage to ask her if maybe she might want to come hang out and go for a swim.

“Perfect,” she said when I called. “I’ll be right over.”

I went into the Control Room, fired up the Sky-Tron, and nudged up the intensity of the sunset routine. I paced around and looked at the clock about five times, then went back to the Sky-Tron and cranked all the inputs to the max.

When Mary arrived, we ran to the beach, laid out our towels, and dove in. Soon we were beyond the breakers, moving in the open water as easy and happy as a couple of otters. As the sun dipped lower, the western half of the dome throbbed with ever more intense neon colors—orange, red, gold, green, and purple. I told her what I had done.

“You made us a tie-dye sky,” she said, a big grin on her face. She slapped water at me and dove. I felt her gliding smoothly past my calf.

We swam back to shore and toweled off in the fading light of the greatest sunset in the history of the world. I lit a fire while Mary opened a bottle of red wine. We sat and drank and laughed, watching the flames of the crackling fire. We drank some more and got a little buzzed.

“Oh my god,” she giggled, looking at the eastern horizon, “What is that?”

The full moon I’d programmed on the Sky-Tron was rising. It wasn’t a normal full moon—no, this thing was gigantic, twenty, maybe thirty times regular size, with the Man in the Moon gazing down on us, quite pleased to be setting the mood for what was to come.

*     *     *

My big day as Greg’s gofer came, and we met the visiting bankers, Melinda Lanz and Lou Jordan, at the Operations Center. Greg introduced me as his assistant.

“We’re glad for an excuse to get out of the office,” Melinda said with a nice smile. She was about forty, kind of pasty-looking in her shorts and sandals, but in good shape.

Greg toured them through the building, showed them how everything was state-of-the-art and blah, blah, blah. They asked one very technical question after another. Greg had all the answers. When they ran out of things to ask him, he led the way to the double doors that faced west.

“Now you’ve seen the infrastructure,” he said, “but this is the real Cowabunga!” He flung open the doors, and we stepped out into the bright sunshine and the bustling scene of sunbathers, Frisbee tossers, joggers, inner-tubers, kayakers, body surfers, picnicking families, roaming clumps of kids, and an old couple with long poles fishing from the jetty.

Melinda shaded her eyes with her hand, took it all in.  “Wow,” she said, slipping out of her sandals. “Oh, the warm sand feels so good on my feet.”

Lou stared at the water where a pod of gray whales was playing near the surface, spouting and showing their flukes as they dove. The head and fins of one of the whales rose into the air and splashed back into the water. People on the beach cheered.

“Animatronic,” Greg said, clapping his hands together. “Every afternoon at three.”

“But those are real,” Lou said. He pointed at a group of surfers floating on their boards waiting for waves while two riders cut up and down the face of a perfectly formed six-foot curl. “Must be one heck of a wave machine.”

“Built by the Swiss, believe it or not,” Greg said with a chuckle. “My main contribution was developing the lattice supports that hold up the dome. Graphene nanotubes and positive air pressure—the architects and engineers went nuts.” He craned his neck from horizon to horizon smiling and shaking his head as if he could hardly believe what he had created.

“When I was a kid, I lived at the beach. Never felt more alive.” His face turned solemn. “Then a few years ago, they started talking about beaches around the world disappearing. I said to myself, hey man, this is a bigass problem. In fifty years or maybe a hundred we’ll get ocean levels under control and natural beaches will come back—that’s the hope, anyway. But in the meantime, my job, my sacred duty, is to keep the flame of the beach vibe alive.”

“Sacred is a strong word,” Melinda said.

“Global warming is just bummer after bummer after bummer. A soul killer,” Greg said. “People need a break—a way to recharge. We’re Homo ludens, man—Homo playful. We need to have fun. And we can’t afford to bum out and give up. The stakes are way too high.” He opened his arms to take in all that surrounded us. “We need surfers and slackers, parrotheads and pirates, a place where lovers can rub lotion on each other and lie in the sun, where kids can chase each other into the surf.”

He was on a roll and would probably have continued but something behind Lou caught his attention. The rest of us turned around and saw a tall white-haired man in a funeral-black suit lumbering across the sand toward us, a thick envelope in his hand. When he arrived, he adjusted the hang of his still buttoned coat and said, “Gregory Becker?”

Greg nodded.

“I’m with the Office of Cultural and Historical Disambiguation,” the man said, passing the envelope to Greg. “You have ten days to comply with this order and cease all operations.”

The undertaker turned and walked off.

Nobody moved. Greg just stared at the envelope in his hands like he was holding a dead cat. Then they all started looking at each other, even at me, as if I had any idea what the hell just happened.

Lou ran his hand through his hair. “I, uh, guess that just about wraps things up,” he said with a sympathetic shrug. Melinda patted Greg on the shoulder and said something about it being up to the lawyers now. The two of them shook hands with Greg and off they went.

He plodded down the beach in the other direction. I caught up with him and asked if he wanted me to come along. He made a grunt that could have been a yes and I followed his silent, hunched form all the way to his hut.

Once inside, he went straight for the blender and dumped in ice cubes and what seemed like a ton of booze. When he hit the button, the ice made a hellacious racket. He slopped the chunky slush into two big tumblers and handed me one. He took the other glass and the pitcher and fell heavily into a chair. I felt sorry for him and figured I’d stick around to help however I could. But nothing was happening—he just sat there brooding, staring off with a blank look on his face. Once in a while he took a sip. When he drained the pitcher, he made another batch.

The clock on my phone said 4:19. In three hours I’d be with Mary. She and I had been spending every spare minute together, and after work we were going to have a little celebration—one week since our first night together on the beach. We’d be at her apartment. Alone.

He slapped the fat envelope on his thigh, his breath suddenly faster and louder, his chest rising and falling in short, sharp spasms. He tossed the envelope at me.

“Here,” he said. “Read it.”

I opened the packet of papers and read aloud the cover sheet that explained what was inside, a list of what sounded mostly like legal documents.

“Also included for purposes of overall context is an initial assessment taken by the OCHD in response to—”

“That,” Greg said, thrusting his finger toward me. “That’s the one. Read that. Every word.”

I found the document and read it to him.

To: Office of Cultural and Historical Disambiguation
From: Delilah Mallet-Grimshaw, Assistant Director, Office of Narrative Compliance
Subject: Progress Report, Case No. 1307

Background
In accordance with the Accuracy in Historical Representations and Communications Act (8.3.26b), I am reporting progress related to actions taken by this office.
On April 19 it was reported that a commercial enterprise—Cowabunga! Ocean Park (hereafter referred to as “the replica beach”)—was operating in violation of numerous provisions of AHRCA.
Field investigators were dispatched. Upon confirmation that the replica beach promoted and/or portrayed inaccurate historical representations, an Action Team was formed for further investigation (electronic surveillance warrants obtained). Formal analysis, assessment, and response preparation activities ensued.

Objectionable Representations
Numerous violations of Class 1 restrictions were identified including, but not limited to:
• Romanticized and unhistorical representations (as set forth in AHRCA subsection 1.1.4: “No description of an historical time, place, situation, etc., may be shown/presented inconsistent with the full and accurate context of the historical dynamics of anthropogenic geodegradation.”).
• Denial of basic tenets of science-backed consensus on mechanisms of climatic change and associated impacts.
• 103 specific infractions of the Code of Observance.

Greg snorted. He tried to rise out of his chair, stumbled, caught himself. He went to the kitchen and got ice from the freezer.

“Continue with the execution,” he called out, slurring the words while he emptied a bottle of booze into the pitcher.

I read on.

Action Plan
Sole proprietor of replica beach, Gregory L. Becker, to be served with a Letter of Finding enumerating violations of the AHRCA and demanding cessation of operations. Letter will inform recipient that failure to comply will render the proprietor subject to the full extent of the Act’s punitive remedies (17.1–67).
Replica beach operations to be suspended. Historical Reconciliation improvements to begin under auspices of the Office of Cultural and Historical Disambiguation, Office of Narrative Compliance.

Anticipated Outcomes
Successful removal/remediation of offensive, unhistorical, and dangerous misrepresentations of significant natural and cultural activity associated with ecological dynamics/degradation/dysfunction.

The blender screamed like it was mixing gravel. Standing right next to it, Greg didn’t seem to notice. His forehead was shiny with sweat, his eyes twitched from side to side.

When the noise stopped, I said, “You got a nice-looking hammock outside—mind if I give it a try?”

This caught him off guard and he was too drunk to notice my little strategy to get him out into the fresh air. Glass in one hand, pitcher in the other, he wove his way to the door. I followed close behind, ready to grab hold if he started to fall.

Once in the hammock, I made a big show of rocking back and forth. “This is awesome,” I said.

But he wasn’t listening. He thrashed around the lanai, mad, mumbling. “Pissy little pissant bureaucrats . . . addicted to their pissant power.” He scowled and kicked over one of the little tables, then thrust his flushed face close to mine and growled, “Beware the man”—he paused, burped—“who knows only one book.”

He went on raging, but it wasn’t aimed at me. I figured he needed somebody to be there, to vent to, so I just swayed in the hammock and listened to him rant about people being blind and stupid, about there being many paths to the top of the mountain. Eventually the booze caught up with him. He settled into his chair and passed out.

Something big was up—definitely—but I didn’t really grasp what all it meant. And anyway, in a couple of hours I’d be with Mary in her bed—next to that, what else could possibly matter.

*     *     *

When the government lowered the boom, everything went down the crapper fast. Greg fought with every ounce of his strength, his lawyers made appeal after appeal—and struck out every time. He showed up at the Operations Center less and less, mostly he spent his time alone in his hut drinking and smoking weed.

I was among the people who were lucky enough to keep their jobs. Over the next eleven months we watched as Cowabunga! got completely overhauled and changed into the Beach Museum—the BM, as we called it. The transformation was slow and painful, like watching a beautiful animal die. It was without doubt the worst year of my life.

I had the most seniority of anybody left on the staff and one of my jobs was to break in the new hires. This kept me pretty busy—morale was so bad we had a hard time keeping people on the payroll.

My latest trainee was Randall, a chubby baby-faced guy just a couple of years younger than me. Like almost all the hires since the swimming requirement had been eliminated, he wasn’t half as physically fit as staff members used to be. I took him to the employee dressing rooms and got him squared away with a locker and a set of work clothes to match the ones I already had on.

He awkwardly wiggled into his pea-green rubberized rain suit and the knee-high rubber boots. The bosses said this gear was designed to protect us from contact toxins and environmental pathogens—what it was really good for was making us sweat like pigs.

I unscrewed the cap from a tube of white zinc oxide cream and squeezed a thick gob onto my finger.

“Really?” Randall said, narrowing his eyes.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “it’s just sunblock with an SPF of like ten thousand.” I applied the white goo to his nose, cheekbones, and forehead in kind of a starburst pattern. “The dome filters out all the UV radiation, but the Narrative Control Team decided this stuff emphasizes the E.D.N.’s section on the resurgent ozone hole and skin cancer.”

“What’s the E.D.N.?”

“Environmental Degradation Narrative,” I said, looking in the dressing room mirror and applying the white stuff to my own face. “It’s our bible, the document that controls everything we do.” I wiped the excess cream on a paper towel. “Time for the tour.”

I led him down to the beach, which the E.D.N. had staged with a soiled diaper, cigarette butts, random plastic crap, crude oil and beach tar, dead fish, rotting bird carcasses, and a condom. Not far offshore, a one-tenth-scale cruise ship was anchored in a vast gyre of floating plastic trash—from a bilge pipe in its stern plopped chunky gray-brown sludge.

Randall’s face pinched with repulsion.

“Right over there used to be our number-one surfing area,” I said, bobbing my chin toward a patch of flat water.

He squinted to see through the smoke (non-greenhouse) rising from a pile of (simulated) burning tires. “Surfers? Here? Are you kidding?”

“The wave machine’s still out there—it’s just turned off. The accountants say it saves a ton of money. And why not? With the E.D.N., the water’s so filthy it would be like surfing in a toilet.”

Randall ran his wrist across his sweating forehead.

“A little warm, huh?”

He fanned his face with his hand.

“The temperature is set for 93 degrees with 95 percent humidity under an always-overcast sky. The only break is every day at four when we get a Category 1 hurricane—the air-movers make a godawful howl. Keep your peepers peeled for flying debris.”

He looked like he’d just taken a mouthful of sour milk. “Didn’t this place used to be like a resort?”

I told him how the government brought in the Narrative Compliance people to transform the place—Artistic Director, Experience Designers, code writers, a crew of construction workers, and the main man, the Story Czar who, with his one droopy eye, oversaw the whole project.

The Czar, I said, was big on living-history dioramas—his vision was for schoolkids on field trips to have the experience of learning about global warming by talking to real (fake) people: a boatful of climate refugees, island people whose village was half-submerged, an environmental scientist in a lab coat, a UN delegate working on global policies.

“Do the kids go for it?” Randall asked.

I laughed. Some of the laid-off Cowabunga! staff got rehired to put on costumes and be actors in these dioramas, I said, but they got laid off again when the Czar replaced most of the living dioramas with holograms—much more cost-effective.

“So what we do now,” I said, “is march kids through the museum’s fourteen Info Stations. At each one a hologram lectures them about another glacier melted, another forest burned, another species gone extinct.”

I picked up the pace and we made our way onto a tongue of beach that jutted out into the sea. “Just out here is something pretty cool,” I told him. We arrived at a child-sized body lying face down on the sand, wavelets lapping around its lifeless form.

“The Experience Designers went through a bunch of different models before they settled on this one. The first version was too stiff—like a mannequin. Then there were a few that were too loosey-goosey, sort of jiggly like water balloons. Technically this guy is the CMBC-6, the sixth version of the Climate Migrant Beach Corpse. We call him Ricky.”

“My god,” Randall said. “That’s disgusting.”

“Narrative Compliance says it really hammers home the tragedy. The schoolkids are totally grossed out, but it’s the only thing in the park they actually pay attention to.”

Randall looked at me, trying hard, as I hoped he would, to understand what the Beach Museum was really all about.

Heading back toward the parking lot we saw a grimy yellow school bus pulling to a stop, the noise of high-spirited kids pouring from its open windows.

Randall’s face brightened. “I’m planning to become a teacher. The ad for the job said I’d get to work with kids. Good for my resume, you know.”

I nodded like I cared, and for a second I wanted to tell him how, by Info Station 4, the squirmy kids from this bus would be turned into yawning, glassy-eyed zombies. Just then I remembered Jeannie, the little girl in the wheelchair—how I had promised her we’d always be here for her. How we weren’t. How it must have broken her heart.

I wiped the sweat from my face. “Class field trips now make up ninety-six percent of our visitors. That’s the business model,” I said, my voice sounding as flat as one of the holograms. “We don’t make squat on gate receipts anymore. Everything’s subsidized by the government.”

Next to the bus, the teachers herded the boisterous kids into a line.

We came to lifeguard Tower One, the place where I’d last seen Mary. She too had kept her job during the transition to the BM, but it hadn’t taken her long to see where things were headed. She was smart that way, a lot smarter than me. We were standing right by the tower in our knee boots and our dorky rubber rain suits. “This place is the shits,” she said. Staying was crushing her spirit. We both knew she had to go. She said she wanted to find somewhere that was more like what Cowabunga! used to be.

“You could come with me,” she said, but not with much hope. We’d talked about going off together and she knew my answer, at least for now.

“I need to do this,” she said, apologizing. “It’s not about you, it’s all my stuff. Do you understand?”

“I do, totally.” The guilt was tearing her up and

I didn’t need to make it any harder on her than it already was.

“When I find a good place, I’ll call,” she said, brushing a tear from my cheek. “Maybe Greg will be okay, maybe then you could come be with me.”

“Every time my phone rings,” I said, “I’ll be praying it’s you.”

She gave me her warmest, twinkliest smile, then took my head in her hands, looked into my eyes for a long time like she wanted to remember, then kissed me soft and slow.

“Be brave,” she said.

She turned and walked down the beach. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. I felt everything all at once and felt nothing but numb. I watched her get smaller and smaller and then she was gone.

Randall said something I didn’t hear. “Sorry, what?”

“Is that the end of the tour?” he repeated.

“Yeah,” I said. “That pretty much gets you up to speed.”

*     *     *

After I got off work that night, I walked up the beach to see Greg at his hut. I found him on the lanai, slumped in his big chair, looking to be in even worse shape than he’d been the night before. His squinty face bloated, his skin so red it looked sunburned, the beard he’d grown, matted and wet with spilled drinks. He waved the half-full pitcher at me. I nodded. He poured me a tall one then collapsed back into the chair, exhausted from the effort.

“Should I get the book?” I asked.

He raised a finger, let it fall.

I found the fat biography of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. We were at the part where the creepy manipulating psychiatrist had taken control of every aspect of Brian’s drugged-out life. I knew the story, knew Brian was about to escape and get his life back, and I thought maybe it would give Greg some hope. I read for only a few minutes before I heard raspy rhythmic breathing. His eyes were closed. Gone for the night. I wondered how long he’d last. Another week? Probably not a month. I covered him up with a beach towel.

It was a moonless black night. The lanai was softly lit in by a couple of strands of little Christmas lights strung in lazy arcs. They gave off a friendly warm glow, like a campfire in a dark wilderness. I sat, sipped my drink, and thought of Mary. I imagined, like I imagined a hundred times every day, she was off the grid someplace in Peru or Thailand or maybe New Zealand, doing whatever it was she needed to do. She hadn’t called yet, but she would. I was sure of that. She’d call and tell me she’d found a place. And I’d go to her, wherever she was, anywhere on earth, and everything would be like it was before.

#     #     #


 

Ross West has placed fiction, essays, journalism, and poetry in publications from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. His work has been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest, Best of Dark Horse Presents and elsewhere. He served as senior managing editor of Oregon Quarterly magazine and as text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.