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The low tide would be a minus zero point seven at five to six that Saturday morning in April, and if he was going surfing, Soc Smith wanted to be in the water by a quarter to six, so he was up at five o’clock. He had checked the surf the morning before on his way to work, and there had been a decent swell with a few sets coming through, so he was hoping for the same today. He’d loaded his board and wetsuit into the Woody the night before, so all he had to do in the morning was drive down to the beach, and if it looked good, put his suit on and throw his stick in the water. Since he didn’t have to go to work that day, he could stay in the water for as long as the sets kept coming through. Friday night he’d told his wife, Jayne, that he’d help her in the yard in the afternoon. However, if he surfed till noon, he’d be too tired for any yard work. Soc didn’t have the pep he’d had as a teenager and young man.
There had been a gentle sprinkle the night before, so the lawns and streets were glistening as he drove to the beach. There was only a scattering of clouds, and they were moving slowly east, leaving the sky clear. Day was just barely breaking, and his headlights cast two narrow, shiny funnels onto the pavement in front of him. When he got to the cliff, Jesse Vaca was pulling his Chevy truck into a parking space just ahead of him. Jesse’s board was in its bag in the pickup bed. Soc pulled in beside him, and they got out of their cars together and walked over to the edge of the cliff to look at the waves. As early and damp as it was, it was quite warm.
“So, wha’da ya’ think?” Soc asked as they stood gazing out at the surf under the dawning sky. Nobody was in the water, but a few other surfers were standing on the cliff checking it out, too.
“Not lookin’ too bad,” Jesse said. “I’m go’n’a go out.”
“Yeah? Doesn’t look that good to me,” Soc said. “Wasn’t too bad yesterday. Better’n this. That’s for sure.”
“Look at this set. Some nice little ankle snappers there.”
The mountain ridge across the bay to the east was beginning to show some color. The sun peaked over the horizon at the slot where the river flowed into the bay. Tiny, one-foot waves creamed into the beach below. The tide was so low that there was sand fifty yards out from the stairs. One surfer was making his way down the steps. At the bottom he attached his leash to his ankle and walked on the sand along the cliff until he was knee-deep in the water. He slid onto his board when it got to his upper thighs. Soc and Jesse watched as he paddled to the outside.
“That’s it. I’m goin’ out,” said Jesse.
“Think I’m go’n’a pass.”
“I’m go’n’a give it a try. Nothin’ else, I can just go out and paddle around.”
“Hey, go for it. See ya’ later.”
It wasn’t worth it for Jesse to drive all the way into town and not get in the water. He lived nine miles up the mountain at the upper end of the Valley. Even when it was completely flat, Jesse would get in and, as he put it, “paddle around.”
Backing out of his parking space, Soc saw him take his board out of the back of his pickup and remove the bag. He headed out to the point to see what it looked like out there. The waves at Indicators were a little bigger than they were at Cowell’s. He’d tried to surf there once, but it was way too big for his liking. He went over the falls on the first wave he’d tried to catch. It was only a chest-high wave, and he’d caught many that size at the other break, but they weren’t nearly as fast as the one he’d caught here. He wiped out good. He was under water a long time and going through the spin cycle, and when he got out, he started throwing up. It scared him, and he hadn’t gotten back in the water for another couple weeks after that.
After he rounded the point at Indicators, he could see that the waves at First Peak and Middle Peak were shoulder high and looking glassy. He’d never surfed these waves. They were too big and too fast for him, and the guys who surfed them were young, aggressive kids. Too competitive, no fun. Many’s the time when he’d stood on the cliff at the point and heard some young guy in the water hollering an obscenity at some other young guy for some silly infraction the latter didn’t even know he’d committed. And on the nicest of days, too. He rounded the point and was on his way back home.
He pulled the car into the garage. An old rusty hamster cage sat on top of a case of motor oil on the floor against the back wall. He inched in slowly until the rubber ball that hung from the rafters touched his windshield. He got his board and wetsuit out and stored them on the rack and in the cabinet he’d made especially for them.
It was almost six-thirty, and Jayne was just getting out of bed. He went into the bedroom through the sliding glass door off the patio. He took his shoes off, put on his fleece-lined slippers, and went through the living room out the front door to pick up the morning newspaper. He tossed the paper onto the dining room table as he went into the kitchen and started boiling water for a cup of hot spiced cider. He warmed up a couple of bran muffins in the microwave and used the left-over spiced cider water to make a cup of instant oatmeal. After he got everything set up on the dining room table, he sat down and spread out the front page of the newspaper, and, as he ate, he skimmed that section.
By now Jayne was bustling around the kitchen brewing a pot of coffee. She kissed Soc’s bald spot as she went to Caroline’s bedroom to turn her computer on. She communicated by email every morning with their daughter, Caroline, on the east coast and her cousin in Portland, Oregon.
“No surf?” She asked.
“Nothing worth getting wet for.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I know how antsie you get when there’s no surf.”
When she returned to the kitchen, she put some food out for the cats, filled her coffee cup and went back to her computer. The cats were all that was left at home. Caroline was a college junior in Massachusetts.
Soc didn’t really read the newspaper. He only skimmed the headlines of the first section. If he saw a story that interested him, or if he knew the person the story was about, he’d read a paragraph or two to get the gist. The only kinds of stories that he read all the way through were stories about local surfing. Every year when the Cold Water Classic was held, Soc read all the stories that were written about it to see how well they matched up with the actual event, the last day of which he always attended. Then he’d move on to the last two pages for the political cartoon, letters to the editor, again looking for familiar names at the end of each one, and the vital statistics. He skimmed these religiously every day looking for familiar names among the births and divorces. When he’d go to the obituaries, he only read the ones of the people who were younger than he was, curious to know what killed them. Soc looked at the first obituary in the upper left hand corner of the page, and to his astonishment he read:
No services will be held for Socrates Smith who died Friday after a brief illness. He was 53.
A native of Los Angeles, he lived in Santa Cruz for twenty years. He was employed by a Scotts Valley electronics firm.
He is survived by his wife Jayne Smith and his daughter Caroline Smith.
Contributions are preferred to The Surfrider Foundation.
He couldn’t believe his eyes. At first there was the surge of excitement at seeing his name in the newspaper, but the delight was immediately tempered by the awareness that where he was seeing it was in the obit’s. He was so shocked that he couldn’t tell Jayne what he was reading. All he could do was stare at it and chuckle. He wanted to call out to her, but couldn’t. He was stuck somewhere between laughter and a heart-sinking feeling that something was very wrong, and he might not be able to fix it. Finally, he caught his breath and said,
“Hey, Babe. You might wan’a take a look at this.”
She must have heard some urgency in his voice because when she got to the dining room table, the casual Saturday morning look on her face had changed to panic.
“What’s wrong, Honey?”
“Check out my obituary.”
She quickly read through the item in the paper.
“My God, Soc,” she said. “What do you suppose it means? It’s got’a be a mistake. Let’s get that newspaper on the phone and find out what the big idea is.”
Just such innocent statements from Jayne were what endeared her to him. Whenever there was something that was seriously wrong, she was going to make it right, and she’d take on a determined little-girl we-can-conquer-the-world attitude, and by God it’ll get straightened out, or else!
“Have to wait till Monday,” Soc said. He was talking a lot calmer than he actually felt. “Probably nobody there today. I don’t believe this. Who do you suppose wrote that little blurb? Must be a practical joke. Someone’s messin’ with me. And then maybe not. Maybe it’s for real. But how could it be?”
That’s what he said, but he wasn’t sure he believed any of it. When he stopped talking, he realized that he’d been rambling, and he knew it was only because he was confused and unsure of what was going on. Then he began to wonder if Jayne detected his uncertainty, but he couldn’t tell, so he just kept to himself as he got into the comics.