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For seven years now the old man had been a widower, and for five, retired. What had he done with those five years? He had busied himself with errands, bills and appointments, squandering his days on increasingly inconsequential tasks.
Most of the painful memories of Iselde were now gone, but when he lay in bed at night, he didn't always think of her. Ninety-two years is a long time to spend with the same woman. There had been another, before Iselde, whom he might have married. But didn't. She would have said yes, wouldn't she have? He was very tired.
Once he had agreed to partake in the Golden Dividend, his son Kenji collected the funds from five generations of his descendants, Kenji chipping in the last big chunk himself.
The family gathered for a final celebration prior to what the brochure had called the 'translation" (but which those with an inordinate fondness for terminology had more correctly described as a 'disincorporealization"). In a way, it seemed like a funeral, with Kenji and nephews and great-grand-daughters saying all sorts of nice things about him. Yet it was so festive, as if they were seeing him off on a grand sea cruise. Bon voyage!
As he stepped into the lens of pearlized light projected by the translation apparatus, none of his family members knew which part of his life he had chosen to relive. That was the custom. Most assumed that it would have been a few happy months with his wife.
They would have assumed wrong.
While the old man mainly watched Steamer, his eyes also wandered to the women at the beach where Steamer surfed or in the crowd at the Emerald Palace where Steamer played surf guitar.
He saw her at Malibu, but never at the Palace.
She didn't walk down to the waves, but galloped, her surfboard held like a lance.
When she rode the surf, she was no Wilma dropping in on others" waves. She had a shorter, narrower board than Steamer's; this made her faster and let her cut sharper turns.
Usually she was the only girl on the waves. At the time, most of the surfing was done by men and centered around hanging five, walking the nose and riding out the gnarliest waves. This woman's active style, slicing back and forth over smaller waves, was completely out of synch with the rest of the surf scene. If she had been a guy, the other surfers would have tried to imitate and compete with her. But, because she was a woman, they assumed that she (like most other surfergirls) was just surfing to meet guys; once she settled down with one man, she'd stop surfing. When guys found out that she wasn't interested in them, they ignored her.
Steamer couldn't ignore her; she was too interesting. When they finally met face-to-face at a luau, Steamer found out her name: Caroline. Her world was as far from California as his. She was a struggling poet; Steamer had never met one before. She followed the civil rights movement, especially in her home state of Louisiana; Steamer's hometown had few blacks and the freedom rides and marches on Washington seemed completely alien to him. He asked her to come see him at the Palace that night, but he didn't think she would.
She did come, and after the concert, they walked along Redondo Beach. He was attracted to her from the beginning, because of her big dreams. She wanted to get involved, despite Malcolm X's remark that "whites can help us, but they can't join us." She wanted to write poetry.
"What really bugs me, though, is that my poetry isn't very..." She trailed off.
"Very what?" Steamer asked.
"Very complete, or profound, or powerful," she said with a sigh. "I think some of my smaller pieces are OK, in a quirky kind of way, but I don't have any... vision."
When Steamer gave her a puzzled look, she recited, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"
"Oh, yeah, I know that!" Steamer said. 'that's... That's....um..."
"Langston Hughes," Caroline said.
"Yeah! Langston Hughes!"
Caroline said, "those black writers have power in their voices, because they have a vision." She told him about a man she knew who had participated in a sit-in at a Woolworth's with other blacks. They were all dressed up like they were going to church, but the white men beat them up anyway. They dragged the black women out of their seats by their hair and put lit cigarettes down the backs of their dresses. The white cops stood around and did nothing. When it was all over, the cops arrested the blacks for protesting, but didn't do anything to the whites who had beaten them.
"That's horrible!" Steamer gasped.
"Oh, it just makes me furious!" Caroline looked around for something to throw. Not wanting to throw the shoes in her fist, she scooped up a clod of sand and flung it as far as she could into the waves.
When she had calmed down, she said, "Maybe my writing will help in some small way..."
They walked on, talking about Malcolm X and King and civil rights. Then Caroline asked, "Steamer, what do you dream about?"
"Um, I, uh..." he said with hesitation. A dream is personal, perhaps the most personal thing there is. He was afraid she'd find his silly. He'd never shared it with anyone before. If he told her, he would be reaching for a level of emotional intimacy he had experienced before. It was completely terrifying.
"Steamer?" Caroline stopped walking and looked into his eyes. They were green, but the lights on shore were like solar flares in her pupils. It was too intense, so Steamer closed his eyes and mumbled, "I-I have a dream. I..."
"I..." Steamer said. Then he began again. "What I really want most to do is to build underwater cities... I guess, the thing is..." He fumbled for words, but when she smiled at him, he went on. "Sometimes when I'm out on my board, I think of the ocean as this primordial force. The water's in control, not you. Maybe you can shred the smaller waves, but the big ones shred you. I know this might sound idealistic and dumb, but if we could just bring people out here, I mean people of all races, and sit them in the sand and make them watch the ocean, I mean really watch the ocean, or maybe give them surfboards and set them out on the waters... They would realize just how pathetically small we all are, and how our differences aren't that big at all... But the best thing would be if we could all live together "underneath" the water, like in some underwater city, so we'd constantly be reminded who were are. Oh, no, you're looking at me like you think I'm a commie."
"No, I'm don't think you're a commie," Caroline said with a laugh. "I think you're really great." She smiled at him in a way no girl had ever smiled at him before. "I think your idea is really beautiful, and so are you." That last statement made Steamer completely nervous and jittery.
The old man was sitting on the sand a few yards away, in the dark, watching. He winced at he saw Steamer, guessing that this was what Caroline wanted, reached out for her. Then Steamer suddenly jerked his hands back to wipe the sand on his trunks, before gently but awkwardly embracing her. He kissed her with profound dyskinesia, almost poking at her with his lips.
The old man found the moment excruciating emotional, and a little embarrassing. He had loved Caroline with an irrationality he had never been able to achieve with any other woman. Caroline was the one who had taught him to kiss.
"I think it's time," the old man said, crying, into his chest. "Could you mark---" He stopped himself, and the tears dried on his cheeks. "No, cancel that," he said into his chest. The old man remembered with a smile that there was one more thing he had to see.
For the retiree partaking in the Golden Dividend, the key question must be: "What part of my life do I want to relive?" The old man had chosen those days in California because that was when he had met the goals he'd set for himself. When everything he touched became beautiful.
Choosing the Start time was easy: when he had said goodbye to Mr. Blyden. But the Stop time? It should be after some great peak of emotion... After the first two hundred foot noseride? After the first gig at the Emerald Palace? After that first date with Caroline? No, there was one more moment when it all came together. He had to see that again.
Steamer had been preparing for that night's encore for weeks. He had even bought a second guitar, a black Flying V, and had modified it with a special Dobro to complement the Strat.
The obvious encore would have been "Surfin' in the Sea of Love." The Impact Zones had just recorded that instrumental romp in hopes of getting a record deal and some airplay. The song was always a hit with the crowds. But it wouldn't be that night's encore.
Tonight would be the world premiere of Steamer's multi-part masterpiece, with not one, but two killer guitar riffs. Better riffs than the Kink's "You Really Got Me," or the "Day Tripper" riff the Beatles stole from Ray Charles.
One riff rocked, sounding best on the Flying V. The other was softer, sweeter, and sounded better wet on the Strat. That night, the set closed with "Surfin" in the Sea of Love," the crowd stomping and shrieking.
Then Steamer said into the microphone, "Our last song tonight is really special. This is a song I wrote for the most wonderful woman in the whole world, Caroline."
The song began with the quiet, lilting Strat riff, like waves gently nipping at the shore. Suddenly it was overpowered by a rising storm, a blaring cacophony of sax, electric piano and guitar. Then a building undercurrent of thumping bass and tom-toms. The Strat riff tried to take back control, but was swept away as the music swelled like a monster wave at Waimea Bay slapping a surfer down like a thirty-foot-tall tongue. The song launched into the killer Flying V riff, the sax highlighting the whitecaps. This was the passion of torrential waves, of the Caroline he loved, knocking him down and kissing him.
The song climaxed with wave after wave of 20-inch heavy crash cymbal, which then melted into a swirl of swish and sizzle cymbal, like little waves, exhausted on the shore, and the small remnants of the Stratocaster riff drifted into the air.
Completely drained, Steamer fell to his knees on stage.
Caroline leaped out from the crowd and kissed him furiously, then helped him to his feet.
In that moment, the old man saw Steamer on stage: Steamer's left hand on Caroline's waist, his right hand on the Stratocaster, both feet on a surfboard. Everything he had come to California for, all in one perfect tableau.
Too wonderful. Too wonderful to last.
The old man saw Steamer looking at Caroline, as if to ask her something very important.
But he knew Steamer would be too afraid.
Time to mark the time. Stealing away one last glance at the tableau, the old man made his way to the men's room. There he locked himself into a stall and sat, tears streaming down his face.
Oh so wonderful, so wonderful. But soon the harsh things would come.
He said into his chest, "Now! That's enough. Mark this as the Stop time."
"The Stop time is thus marked." The words rang silently in the old man's head.
A pinpoint of light, with the complexion of a pearlized pickguard, appeared above the hook on the stall door.
Whew. He had escaped the horrible things to come.
That night Steamer had almost asked Caroline to marry him. But he didn't. He had decided to wait until the next day, until after he had talked to some LA DJ's about getting some airplay for his masterpiece. Surfing, the music, Caroline... they were all bound up together into a singular fate. But the next day Steamer would find out that no one wanted to play his song. The DJ's said that surf music was dead. Why? It lacked social relevance. Steamer didn't understand what that meant until:
August 11, 1965. Now he understood.
The black LA neighborhood of Watts was burning. The worst race riots in American history. A commission would later call it "a formless, quite senseless, all but hopeless protest." The riots raged for days, leaving thirty-four dead, over a thousand injured, four thousand arrested, and two hundred million dollars in property destroyed. Nothing was accomplished. So much for the California dream.
What did this have to with surfing, surf music and Caroline? Everything.
The riots took place five miles from where the Beach Boys grew up. Yet afterwards they were still singing about catching waves and babes. Caroline was different now. When Steamer asked her if she wanted to go surfing, she screamed, "Don't you get it? The blacks in Watts don't surf!" "Caroline, no..." he pleaded feebly.
Abruptly, she left him to go home. She wanted to "participate." She would chronicle the movement.
He never had the right time to ask her to marry him. Now it was too late. A few weeks later, the Impact Zones, their crowds siphoned off by the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion, lost their gig at the Emerald Palace. This was happening to all the surf bands. The Trashmen split up. Dick Dale packed up his Fender Reverb and Lansing speakers and took them to Las Vegas for a lounge act.
Not long after that, the Beach Boys began their descent into schizophrenic, drug-induced navel-gazing. The Surfari's drumbeat would be stolen by Keith Moon, whose band, the Who, hardly played any surf songs at all. Then, the final insult: Jimi Hendrix, who had earlier asked Dick Dale for equipment tips, would pronounce, "You'll never hear surf music again."
It was too much.
Surf music was dead, and Caroline was gone.
Steamer went home to Minnesota. Back to Blyden's Hardware, with vague plans to go to college somewhere, maybe major in some kind of engineering. The old man in the bathroom stall shivered as he thought of all these horrible things to come. He didn't need to relive "that".
As the pinpoint of light enlarged to the size of a clamshell and then a football, the old man sighed.
Whew. He had escaped.
The football swelled to the size of a porthole, through which the old man could see a vast plain of pearlized whiteness. He stepped into the light. He had had a great time California dreamin'...
But he felt that something was missing. What?
He remembered that many times during his life, in the midst of life angst or career despair, he had reviewed bits of his past. He especially enjoyed rereading engineering papers he had written. Then he would be renewed, ready to take on new tasks. As he thought of his time revisiting California, he felt better than he had since Iselde had died. He was energized, ready to move on!
Did he remember his dream? Underwater cities. Just three days before his family had said goodbye at his translation party, a holofax had come from an engineer he had known in Hong Kong. Attempts to expand the usable land by dumping dirt into Victoria Bay were too slow. The Chinese were considering building underwater condos, possibly an underwater convention center. Would he be interested in helping out in a feasibility study?
No, he said. And at the time, he could not have. He was too tired. Now he felt invigorated.
"Hello?" the old man spoke politely into his chest. "I want to go back to my old life. Send me back, please."
"No" said a voice that rang silently in his chest.
"I want to be released!"
"Once a subject is disincorporealized, the body is destroyed and reincorporealization is impossible" the voice said unsympathetically.
He was trapped!
In desperation, the old man thought: Who's fault is this? His son! Kenji! Now he saw it. Ever since Iselde had died, Kenji had been cold to him. Kenji was the one who had suggested the Golden Dividend in the first place, the one who had collected the funds. Ken, how could you do this to your dear old dad?
At that moment, he understood the critics' cow metaphor for the Golden Dividend: He was the cud. The Golden Dividend wasn't a reward at all. It was a disposal.
Well, the old man thought, I may be trapped in the past, but I can change it. Steamer could enroll at UCLA, maybe spend part of his summer doing research in marine engineering. He could ask Caroline to marry him, before it was too late...
"No, the past cannot be changed."
Of course! The specious and simplistic brochure had to right! Why would retirees be allowed free reign to change history? He was a bolus, isolated and insulated from the flow of time, completely irrelevant.
A pinpoint of pebbly grayness appeared in the pearlized whiteness. At least he had picked a good time to relive. Surfin' curls, a big blonde girl...
Oh no! Some quick calculations told him that his one hundredth anniversary with Iselde would come in five months. And he would be in California, not with her, but with Caroline!
Why had he chosen this time to relive? He had been attracted to Caroline because she was the one who followed her dream, but Caroline was wrong for him. Only the memory, polished and distorted by a hundred years had made her seem right.
He had squandered his last chance to see Iselde. Amid the pearlized whiteness, the spot of pebbly grayness enlarged to the size of a clamshell, then a football.
"Let me out!" the old man shouted. It was a formless, quite senseless, all but hopeless protest.
His dream had been deferred, but not by segregation or police that stood by while others beat him. It wasn't Kenji's fault. No, the old man realized that he had spent his entire life deferring his own dream. A moment there wasted daydreaming, years spent building tunnels, a summer sidetracked in California. Now two summers! Soon three! Time wasted by the tiniest of bad choices made throughout the day. Well, perhaps not "wasted", because in that time had become quite a good surfer, guitarist and engineer. And he'd learned how to kiss. But still, it was time he hadn't invested in his dream. He had been distracted once too often.
The football of grayness enlarged to the size of a porthole, through which the old man could see a plain of pebbly grayness. He expressed no fury, no anger, not even a self-deprecating laugh. With just a pathetic whimper of resignation, the old man stepped out of the lens of light and onto the gray pavement of the parking lot of Blyden's Hardware Store.
Originally published in Pogonip.
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