Well, then ... why did he ride the ocean? What was his purpose? The more he stared at the question, the more jumbled the answers grew, his whys like old clothes crammed in a drawer. They'd seemed to fit once, but the longer he looked at them now, the more holes and wrinkles he saw, the more whys he didn't even recognize. Where the hell to begin?
THE FIRST WHY
He thought back to the first time he stood on water. It was 1977, in Florida. He was five. His brother Sean was eight. Their mother, Judy, was charring under the Cocoa Beach sun, belly rising with her third son. She'd work two jobs, sometimes three, anything to pay the mortgage on their cinder-block tract house four blocks away. Pulling bodies into ambulances as bullets hissed in Cocoa's Little Vietnam; racing to blazes as a firefighter; slapping down drinks and burgers as a waitress, bartender and cook; cleaning up debris at construction sites; and thumbing 10-year-olds Out! as a Little League ump. In her off hours she'd plunk her lounge chair on the beach and lie there, morning till dusk, letting the waves and breeze lull her to another place. "Find something to do," she'd murmur when the boys grew restless. If she opened her eyes, she'd have to take in her husband, Steve, at the Islander Hut just a few hundred feet away, hunched over a beer and a cigarette and a pinball machine, or face the undone repairs and unpaid bills at home.
Sean found something to do. Steve, a surfer, had just given him his first surfboard. Kelly followed Sean out with his thrift-store Styrofoam boogie board and lay there, hopelessly horizontal. Everything between the brothers was cutthroat: Who could race to their sparkly purple dune buggy first to get the front seat, who could jump in the bathtub first to claim the deep end, who could devour his corn chips fastest and who—guess—would get pounded into submission when he squawked.
There was far more at stake, of course. In their parents' troubled marriage, Kelly was pulled magnetically to his funny, feisty mother, the pillar he could lean on. Or could he? He was so haunted by the words she'd blurted at his father—"I just want to get my stuff and drive away and never come back!"—that Kelly would wait and watch in agony at the door when she went for milk and bread.
Sean's compass spun straight to Dad, the blind-in-one-eye pirate loved by everyone in Cocoa Beach. The kind of guy who, when someone called the cops because Hondo, the family dog, was loose on the beach in violation of the leash law, would beeline to his bait-and-tackle shop, grab a couple of thousand feet of fish line and tie the German shepherd to the dune buggy's bumper so Hondo could run just as wild as before. The cop would throw up his arms. Steve would explode with that tar-and-nicotine laugh. That's what made it all so confusing. Dad was a hoot.
Sometimes Dad's collar needed fish line. Sometimes Mom had to reel him in at 3 a.m. His clothes might be on backward. His passenger might be a woman. His big, gnarly feet, the toes so long and strong they could clamp Kelly's twig arm when they tussled, would crackle like small-arms fire as he stumbled toward bed.
Kelly was the mediator, the boy who yearned to be the bridge. He flung red herrings into his parents' arguments to derail them: "Do eagles have babies?" He hollered, "Stop! It's O.K! We all love each other!" when they raged. He sobbed and begged her not to when his mother asked her sons for permission to end the marriage. Eventually he started protecting himself, wrapping his pillow around his head when they fought. Once, when it went on for hours, he slept all night on the concrete driveway.
But he wasn't going to just lie there when Sean began surfing Cocoa Beach's 14-inch waves. Kelly lifted his stomach off his boogie board, got one foot up on it ... then a knee ... then, ohmygod, he did it!
Insufficient. The runt had to outdo Sean. He studied the effects of wind, currents, tides and waves, feeling them beneath his feet even when he stood on sand. The ocean was speaking to him, he sensed, sending signals. He'd lie in the shallows, watching the subtlest ripples, and use his boogie board to waft replies.