Wednesday, November 01, 2006

story: Phil


by Tom Mahony - pacificoffering (at)

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It looked like a body, floating in the kelp, under the blanket of Pacific fog. Jake couldn’t tell. Too far offshore, the morning light too weak.

He stood on the cliff, sipping coffee, contemplating. He’d stopped to check the waves, hoping for a surf. Hoping for some stoke before confronting another day of vagrancy. He had no job, no woman, and no prospects. Not even a home. With Phil—his roommate and best friend—vanished, Jake couldn’t pay the rent, already way past due. The landlord booted him yesterday. Everything he owned filled his truck.

The waves were small and blown. Jake didn’t feel like groveling in the mush. But this thing, the body or likeness thereof, haunted him. Phil. It might be Phil. He disappeared last week during a giant swell, surfed this very reef and never returned. His board washed up on the rocks, but no body. Could it be? Jake paced the cliff. Only one way to find out.

He slipped on his wetsuit, grabbed his board, scrambled down the sandstone, and hopped into the ocean. Frigid water stung his exposed limbs until they grew pleasantly numb. He stroked past crumbling waves into open water. Nearing the kelp, he felt, with deepening dread, the floater was Phil. Had to be. Just too coincidental, the mystery solved. Jake could not fathom his death.

Phil was a sketchy character of dubious scruples. But he set the bar, called the shots, made the plans. He devoured life, knew the answers. A dynamic enigma. Invincible. Phil scorned modern society. Jake did too, but lacked the balls to leave.

Since childhood, they dreamed of ditching the country, permanently, for a windswept Baja headland, surfing, fishing, taking local brides. Just talk, fantasy, but Jake never abandoned the dream. Nothing held him here, no job, no house, no family save a distant sister. Yet he remained, wasting into oblivion. Poverty stymied the adventure planning, sure, but inertia was the kicker. Phil needed to trigger the journey—a wink and nod over beers, supply list scrawled on a cocktail napkin, wheels in motion.

The past week, Jake doubted Phil’s demise, figured he just split town for reasons unknown. Had expected a postcard, replete with outlandish story, any day now. But the floating body changed things. Phil was gone. The dream was dead.

Jake’s heart thudded as he reached the kelp bed. He began to regret paddling out, didn’t want to see Phil’s corpse. Didn’t want to drag him to shore, up the cliff, and into his truck. He considered heading in and forgetting the body altogether. Keep pretending Phil was alive, somewhere, raising hell. Keep pretending the future held possibility.

He hesitated, groping for a valid reason to bail. But reality sunk in. Denial would change nothing. Just get it done. He paddled into the kelp. Apprehension grew with each stroke. Thirty feet to go. Twenty. Ten. He reached it.

Relief overtook him. He straddled his board and laughed out loud. Wasn’t Phil. Wasn’t a body at all, just a large black duffel bag, perhaps washed up in recent storms. He started toward shore, but curiosity stopped him.

He grabbed the bag, fumbled with the zipper, and looked inside. His jaw dropped. The duffel bulged with several handguns, and, sealed in freezer bags, cash. Lots of it. He rifled through the cash, shaking with excitement. Stacks and stacks of bills. Millions of dollars worth. Excitement turned to paranoia. Somebody must be looking for the duffel. Somebody with serious issues. And he held it, floating in a kelp bed. Time to head in.

As he zipped it shut, something caught his eye. A yellow drybag. Inside was a wallet, passport, map. He opened the passport and stared in disbelief. Phil stared back with his classic shit-eater.

What the hell?

Jake studied the map. Baja. Notations were scrawled beside a familiar headland deep down the peninsula. A remote fishing village of fine surf and friendly people. Since childhood, he’d frequented the place with Phil.

Truth hit Jake like a revelation. Phil hadn’t died surfing, only pretended to. The washed up surfboard was a nice touch. Upon reflection, he realized Phil’s prized possession—his guitar—went missing when he did. Jake felt a surge of anger, abandonment. Why would Phil split for Baja and leave him behind? And, more importantly, did he make it? The abandoned duffel was a bad sign. He’d been snared in something deep. But Phil defied expectation.

Jake sat frozen, wondering what to do. His life could change this instant, if he had the stones. He scratched his head and studied the fog. The kelp smelled like a whale’s ass. Or so he imagined. The decision came slow but certain.

He zipped the duffel, slid it on like a backpack, and paddled inside, catching a wave to shore. He unpeeled his wetsuit, dressed, and drove to an alley. After removing the money and drybag, he tossed the duffel into a dumpster.

Impending tasks cluttered his head as he drove off. He would stuff fifty grand through his sister’s mail slot. Another fifty to a local do-gooder group. Perhaps send anonymous roses to that top-heavy girl in the downstairs apartment who always smiled at him.

Then he would buy supplies. Food, water, surfboards, camping gear. The best he could find. All that would fit in his truck. He was headed south of the border, to find Phil, to surf and live in peace. And he was never coming back.

= = = = =

bio: Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in central California with an M.S. degree from Humboldt State University . His fiction has appeared in flashquake, VerbSap, Void Magazine, Laughter Loaf, Long Story Short, and Surfer Magazine. He is currently circulating a novel for publication.

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