by Tom Mahony
His name was Frank. He lived in a windowless van. During the day, he usually parked by the point. Nobody knew where he went at night. I’d surfed the point with him a few times. We never spoke, just sat in the line-up a respectful distance apart.
People said he was creepy. Said there was something odd about him. They suspected all sorts of things, from dumpster diving to petty theft to the recent murder of a young girl from town.
I didn’t know what to think. The town was hitting hard times. He was the easy scapegoat. But, sick of my own cynicism, I wanted to believe in something. I needed it. We were surfing the point one fine day: blue sky, no wind, good swell. A set jacked on the reef. I caught the first wave and surfed toward shore. As I paddled back out Frank caught a wave and pulled out beside me.
“Nice one,” I said.
Frank glared at me. Then his face softened. “Thanks.” It was the only word I’d ever heard him say.
We paddled to the line-up, straddled our boards, and studied the horizon.
Frank turned to me. “Swell’s supposed to pick up this afternoon.”
“If the tide don’t kill it.”
And that started it. When I saw him the next day, we talked some more, and I learned his story. His daughter had died years ago, wife left him. He drank too much, couldn’t keep a job, just needed a break. Yeah, everyone just needed a break.
One day after surfing we stood on the point watching the waves.
“You happy living in a van?” I asked him. “That’s a tough slog.”
He nodded toward the ocean. “View’s pretty good.”
I laughed. “You need anything?”
“Don’t need charity.”
“Not charity. I’m rebuilding my garage. I could use some help.”
He thought about it, then nodded. “Sure. But no charity. Just work.”
* * *
Frank worked hard, maybe the way he’d been before spiraling down. It could happen to anyone. I’d been through some stuff. My daughter had saved me. What if something happened to her? Life was nothing but a house of cards.
I let him park his van in my driveway. Didn’t quite feel comfortable with him in the house, but my daughter took to him. He was good to her. I fought to overcome my entrenched wariness, but he slowly earned my trust.
After a week, I let him stay in the guest room. I saw a change in him. More open, laughed a few times.
“You know,” I said one day while we surfed the point. “People are afraid of you.”
“Got no reason to be afraid.”
“They think you killed that little girl.”
They’d found her a few months back, raped and murdered.
Frank shook his head in irritation. “Why? Because I live in a van? I’m just trying to find some kind of life. Nobody understands what I’ve been through. Things aren’t always what they seem.”
“Not always, but sometimes.”
“Well, not this time.”
“It’s hard for people. Knowing when to believe.”
“Yeah, I used to... I had a daughter once...” His voice trailed off.
After the surf we grilled fish outside his van. I was going to ask him to move into the small apartment we were building above the garage. Maybe work the rent off through labor.
Frank nodded at a cooler perched on the driver’s seat. “Grab us a couple of cold ones.”
I crawled inside the van. As I reached for the cooler, I saw something: duct tape sticking out from under the seat. Normal for a surfer, but something caught my eye: a few strands of blond hair stuck to the tape. The murdered girl had blond hair. I remembered her picture from the news.
I sat there for a minute. Didn’t know what to think or believe about Frank and myself and the people from town.
I turned to Frank. “Hey.”
He looked at me.
I held up the duct tape. “What’s this about?”
There had to be an explanation. Had to be. “Tell me.”
He looked wary but didn’t answer.
The truth hit me right then. “You did it.”
Frank just glowered with that cold dead stare. It shook apart the reality I’d constructed, the reality I needed.
“Why?” I said.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“What’s there to understand?”
“Just let me roll outta here,” Frank said. “You’ll never see me again.”
Thoughts tore through my head. I allowed myself a moment of sympathy. Maybe I wouldn’t understand. Things weren’t always what they seemed.
I thought of my daughter living next to Frank. There was only one thing to do. Frank had been through some tough times, way more than most. Maybe he deserved a break.
So I made it quick. He suffered a little bit.
When his corpse floated up on the point the next day, people just shook their heads. That weird guy died in a surfing accident. The guy in the windowless van.
Always thought that guy was creepy, they said.
Good riddance, they said.
Copyright © 2009 by Tom Mahony