Orson chuffed as if in agreement.
“I don’t know what’s happening here, but I think a lot of people are going to die before this is over—and some of them are likely to be people we love. Maybe even me. Or you.”
Orson’s gaze was solemn.
I looked past the cemetery at the streets of my hometown, which were suddenly a lot scarier than any bone-yard.
“Let’s get a beer,” I said.
I climbed on my bike, and Orson danced a dog dance across the graveyard grass, and for the time being, we left the dead behind.
The cottage is the ideal residence for a boardhead like Bobby. It stands on the southern horn of the bay, far out on the point, the sole structure within three-quarters of a mile. Point-break surf surrounds it.
From town, the lights of Bobby Halloway’s house appear to be so far from the lights along the inner curve of the bay that tourists assume they are seeing a boat anchored in the channel beyond our sheltered waters. To longtime residents, the cottage is a landmark.
The place was constructed forty-five years ago, before many restrictions were placed on coastal building, and it never acquired neighbors because, in those days, there was an abundance of cheap land along the shore, where the wind and the weather were more accommodating than on the point, and where there were streets and convenient utility hookups. By the time the shore lots—then the hills behind them—filled up, regulations issued by the California Coastal Commission had made building on the bay horns impossible.
Long before the house came into Bobby’s possession, a grandfather clause in the law preserved its existence. Bobby intended to die in this singular place, he said, shrouded in the sound of breaking surf—but not until well past the middle of the first century of the new millennium.
No paved or graveled road leads along the horn, only a wide rock track flanked by low dunes precariously held in place by tall, sparse shore grass.
The horns that embrace the bay are natural formations, curving peninsulas: They are the remnants of the rim of a massive extinct volcano. The bay itself is a volcanic crater layered with sand by thousands of years of tides. Near shore, the southern horn is three to four hundred feet wide, but it narrows to a hundred at the point.
When I was two-thirds of the way to Bobby’s house, I had to get off my bike and walk it. Soft drifts of sand, less than a foot deep, sloped across the rock trail. They would pose no obstacle to Bobby’s four-wheel-drive Jeep wagon, but they made pedaling difficult.
This walk was usually peaceful, encouraging meditation. Tonight the horn was serene, but it seemed as alien as a spine of rock on the moon, and I kept glancing back, expecting to see someone pursuing me.
The one-story cottage is of teak, with a cedar-shingle roof. Weathered to a lustrous silver-gray, the wood takes the caress of moonlight as a woman’s body receives a lover’s touch. Encircling three sides of the house is a deep porch furnished with rocking chairs and gliders.
There are no trees. The landscaping consists only of sand and wild shore grass. Anyway, the eye is impatient with the nearer view and favors the sky, the sea, and the shimmering lights of Moonlight Bay, which look more distant than three-quarters of a mile.
Buying time to settle my nerves, I leaned my bike against the front porch railing and walked past the cottage, to the end of the point. There, I stood with Orson at the top of a slope that dropped thirty feet to the beach.
The surf was so slow that you would have to work hard to catch a wave, and the ride wouldn’t last long. It was almost a neap tide, though this was the fourth quarter of the moon. The surf was a little sloppy, too, because of the onshore wind, which was blustery enough to cause some chop out here, even though it was all but dead in town.
Offshore wind is best, smoothing the ocean surface. It blows spray from the crest of the waves, makes them hold up longer, and causes them to hollow out before they break.
Bobby and I have been surfing since we were eleven: him by day, both of us by night. Lots of surfers hit the waves by moonlight, fewer when the moon is down, but Bobby and I like it best in storm waves without even stars.
We were grommets together, totally annoying surf mongrels, but we graduated to surf nazis before we were fourteen, and we were mature boardheads by the time Bobby graduated high school and I took my equivalency degree for home education. Bobby is more than just a boardhead now; he’s a surf mensch, and people all over the world turn to him to find out where the big waves will be breaking next.
God, I love the sea at night. It is darkness distilled into a liquid, and nowhere in this world do I feel more at home than in these black swells. The only light that ever arises in the ocean is from bioluminescent plankton, which become radiant when disturbed, and although they can make an entire wave glow an intense lime green, their brightness is friendly to my eyes. The night sea contains nothing from which I must hide or from which I must even look away.
By the time I walked back to the cottage, Bobby was standing in the open front door. Because of our friendship, all the lights in his house are on rheostats; now he had dimmed them to the level of candlelight.
I haven’t a clue as to how he knew that I had arrived. Neither I nor Orson had made a sound. Bobby just always knows.
He was barefoot, even in March, but he was wearing jeans instead of swim trunks or shorts. His shirt was Hawaiian—he owns no other style—but he had made a concession to the season by wearing a long-sleeve, crewneck, white cotton sweater under the short-sleeve shirt, which featured bright quizzical parrots and lush palm fronds.
As I climbed the steps to the porch, Bobby gave me a shaka, the surfer hand signal that’s easier to make than the sign they exchange on Star Trek, which is probably based on the shaka. Fold your middle three fingers to your palm, extend your thumb and little finger, and lazily waggle your hand. It means a lot of things—hello, what’s up, hang loose, great ride—all friendly, and it will never be taken as an insult unless you wave it at someone who isn’t a surfer, such as an L.A. gang member, in which case it might get you shot dead.
I was eager to tell him about everything that had transpired since sundown, but Bobby values a laid-back approach to life. If he were any more laid back, he’d be dead. Except when riding a wave, he values tranquility. Treasures it. If you’re going to be a friend of Bobby Halloway’s, you have to learn to accept his view of life: Nothing that happens farther than half a mile from the beach is of sufficient importance to worry about, and no event is solemn enough or stylish enough to justify the wearing of a necktie. He responds to languid conversation better than to chatter, to indirection better than to direct statements.
“Flow me a beer?” I asked.
Bobby said, “Corona, Heineken, Löwenbräu?”
“Corona for me.”
Leading the way across the living room, Bobby said, “Is the one with the tail drinking tonight?”
“He’ll have a Heinie.”
“Light or dark?”
“Dark,” I said.
“Must’ve been a rough night for dogs.”
The cottage consists of a large living room, an office where Bobby tracks waves worldwide, a bedroom, a kitchen, and one bath. The walls are well-oiled teak, dark and rich, the windows are big, the floors are slate, and the furniture is comfortable.
Ornamentation—other than the natural setting—is limited to eight astonishing watercolors by Pia Klick, a woman whom Bobby still loves, though she left him to spend time in Waimea Bay, on the north shore of Oahu. He wanted to go with her, but she said she needed to be alone in Waimea, which she calls her spiritual home; the harmony and beauty of the place are supposed to give her the peace of mind she requires in order to decide whether or not to live with her fate. I don’t know what that means. Neither does Bobby. Pia said she’d be gone a month or two. That was almost three years ago. The swell at Waimea comes out of extremely deep water. The waves are high, wall-like. Pia says they are the green of translucent jade. Some days I dream of walking that shore and hearing the thunder of those breakers. Once a month, Bobby calls Pia or she calls him. Sometimes they talk for a few minutes, sometimes for hours. She isn’t with another man, and she does love Bobby. Pia is one of the kindest, gentlest, smartest people I have ever known. I don’t understand why she’s doing this. Neither does Bobby. The days go by. He waits.
In the kitchen, Bobby plucked a bottle of Corona from the refrigerator and handed it to me.
I twisted off the cap and took a swallow. No lime, no salt, no pretension.
He opened a Heineken for Orson. “Half or all?”
I said, “It’s a radical night.” In spite of my dire news, I was deep in the tropical rhythms of Bobbyland.
He emptied the bottle into a deep, enameled-metal bowl on the floor, which he keeps for Orson. On the bowl he has painted ROSEBUD in block letters, a reference to the child’s sled in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.
I have no intention of inducing my canine companion to become an alcoholic. He doesn’t get beer every day, and usually he splits a bottle with me. Nevertheless, he has his pleasures, and I don’t intend to deny him what he enjoys. Considering his formidable body weight, he doesn’t become inebriated on a single beer. Dare to give him two, however, and he redefines the term party animal.
As Orson noisily lapped up the Heineken, Bobby opened a Corona for himself and leaned against the refrigerator.
I leaned against the counter near the sink. There was a table with chairs, but in the kitchen, Bobby and I tend to be leaners.
We are alike in many ways. We’re the same height, virtually the same weight, and the same body type. Although he has very dark brown hair and eyes so raven-black that they seem to have blue highlights, we have been mistaken for brothers.
We both have a collection of surf bumps, too, and as he leaned against the refrigerator, Bobby was absent-mindedly using the bottom of one bare foot to rub the bumps on the top of the other. These are knotty calcium deposits that develop from constant pressure against a surfboard; you get them on your toes and the tops of your feet from paddling while in a prone position. We have them on our knees, as well, and Bobby has them on his bottom ribs.
I am not tanned, of course, as Bobby is. He’s beyond tanned. He’s a maximum brown sun god, year round, and in summer he’s well-buttered toast. He does the mambo with melanoma, and maybe one day we’ll die of the same sun that he courts and I reject.
“There were some unreal zippers out there today,” he said. “Six-footers, perfect shape.”
“Looks way slow now.”
“Yeah. Mellowed out around sunset.”
We sucked at our beers. Orson happily licked his chops.
“So,” Bobby said, “your dad died.”
I nodded. Sasha must have called him.
“Good,” he said.
Bobby is not cruel or insensitive. He meant it was good that the suffering was over for my father.
Between us, we often say a lot with a few words. People have mistaken us for brothers not merely because we are the same height, weight, and body type..
“You got to the hospital in time. So it was cool.”
He didn’t ask me how I was handling it. He knew.
“So after the hospital,” he said, “you sang a couple numbers in a minstrel show.”
I touched one sooty hand to my sooty face. “Someone killed Angela Ferryman, set her house on fire to cover it. I almost caught the great onaula-loa in the sky.”
“Who’s the someone?”
“Wish I knew. Same people stole Dad’s body.”
Bobby drank some beer and said nothing.
“They killed a drifter, swapped his body for Dad’s. You might not want to know about this.”
For a while, he weighed the wisdom of ignorance against the pull of curiosity. “I can always forget I heard it, if that seems smart.”
Orson belched. Beer makes him gaseous.
When the dog wagged his tail and looked up beseechingly, Bobby said, “No more for you, fur face.”
“I’m hungry,” I said.
“You’re filthy, too. Catch a shower, take some of my clothes. I’ll throw together some clucking tacos.”
“Thought I’d clean up with a swim.”
“It’s nipple out there.”
“Feels about sixty degrees.”
“I’m talking water temp. Believe me, the nip factor is high. Shower’s better.”
“Orson needs a makeover, too.”
“Take him in the shower with you. There’re plenty of towels.”
“Very broly of you,” I said. Broly meaning “brotherly.”
“Yeah, I’m so Christian, I don’t ride the waves anymore—I just walk on them.”
After a few minutes in Bobbyland, I was relaxed and willing to ease into my news. Bobby’s more than a beloved friend. He’s a tranquilizer.
Suddenly he stood away from the refrigerator and cocked his head, listening.
“Something?” I asked.
I hadn’t heard anything but the steadily diminishing voice of the wind. With the windows closed and the surf so slow, I couldn’t even hear the sea, but I noticed that Orson was alert, too.
Bobby headed out of the kitchen to see who the visitor might be, and I said, “Bro,” and offered him the Glock.
He stared dubiously at the pistol, then at me. “Stay casual.”
“That drifter. They cut out his eyes.”
I shrugged. “Because they could?”
For a moment Bobby considered what I’d said. Then he took a key from a pocket of his jeans and unlocked a broom closet, which to the best of my recollection had never featured a lock before. From the narrow closet, he took a pistol-grip, pump-action shotgun.
“That’s new,” I said.
This was not life as usual in Bobbyland. I couldn’t resist: “Stay casual.”
Orson and I followed Bobby across the living room and onto the front porch. The onshore flow smelled faintly of kelp.
The cottage faced north. No boats were on the bay—or at least none with running lights. To the east, the town twinkled along the shore and up the hills.
Surrounding the cottage, the end of the horn featured low dunes and shore grass frosted with moonlight. No one was in sight.
Orson moved to the top of the steps and stood rigid, his head raised and thrust forward, sniffing the air and catching a scent more interesting than kelp.