Chapter Thirteen - Kicking
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The rain came down hard and L.J. Merrill’s thoughts spiraled into
darkness. It was another cold, wet day of an endless El Niño winter. A
constant string of storms had turned the blue Pacific into a sickly brown,
though that made little difference to him. He was kicking, and he didn’t care
about the ocean anymore.
The lights were off and the curtains closed. He listened to the water
pouring through the gutters outside his bedroom at the bottom of his parents’
home overlooking Laguna Beach. He thought of his once fantastic life now
down the drain. A squall rattled the windows and he laughed softly to himself.
Ah yes, so this must be what they call rock bottom.
He raised his hand in empty, sweeping gestures.
The legendary L.J. Merrill! Free citizen of the surfing world! Explorer,
adventurer, surf guide without peer! The man who had ridden a thousand
He let his arm fall to the side of the chair.
Stuck in a dark, damp room trying to change his life.
* * *
When he came back to Southern California with the tour group from
Chile, L.J. Merrill knew something was wrong right away. Ian Clark was not
at LAX to meet him. He caught a shuttle to John Wayne Airport and then
another down to San Clemente. Even though it was long after dark, he asked
to be dropped off at the Geosurf office. There his fears were confirmed when
his key didn’t turn in the lock . He panicked for a second. He had been in
dozens of tight spots around the world, but this time he knew he’d finally
reached the end of the line.
He took the key out of the lock and for the first time in years he thought of
his parents. He looked down the street and saw some phones near a gas
station. He remembered calling them once a long time ago when he was in a
jam in Central America, only to be told he had made his choices and he was
on his own. But he knew his parents had never given up hope that one day he
would leave his wanderlust behind him because they knew what he’d been like
before surfing took over his life. They were under no illusions as to what the
rush of surfing could do to a young man, but he’d always scoffed at their fears
and refused to think of riding waves as an addiction. It was only surfing, he’d
told them, and he could walk away from it any time he wanted. Now, he
realized, it was time to see if he could keep his word.
It was a surreal moment at the kitchen table late that night. A prodigal
son had come home, and there was an unspoken understanding the word
“surfing” would not be mentioned. There was small talk about the plumbing
and his dad’s new car, and his mom’s hair looked good. She offered to go and
make up the bed in his old room. Before he could reply, she bustled off to get
clean linen for him. While she was out of the room, his dad asked him to stay
home through the holidays. He said he would think about it.
Merrill woke up late the next morning and went upstairs to the kitchen.
He kissed his mom and noticed she looked like she had been crying. His dad
was reading the morning paper. He put it down right away. L.J. had never
seen him do that before.
“Say, John, the Angels are in the playoffs. Want to see the game tonight?”
“Maybe. Yeah, that sounds good, dad. Can I use the phone for a minute?”
“Why don’t you have some breakfast first? I can make you some waffles if
The tone in his mother’s voice was pleading, and waffles had always been
his favorite breakfast.
“Uh, yeah Mom, that would be great,” he said, feeling her tug at his
heartstrings while reaching for the yellow phone on the wall, “But I’ve got to
make a call first.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Merrill, but he is out of the country,” said a voice he did
not recognize, “Mr. Clark did instruct me to say that if you called would you
please come over to the office at your earliest convenience?”
Merrill thought for a second. “Ok, I’ll be over there right away.”
“Uh, could you make it in an hour or so?” she replied in a suddenly
“Sure, why not. How about two this afternoon?”
“That would be fine Mr. Merrill.”
L.J. hung up the phone. He was instantly back on the plane looking
through the viewfinder, on the phone to Clark, getting drunk with the tour
group, at LAX with no one to meet him. Yes, this was really happening. This
time he didn’t panic.
“Hey, mom, can I have some eggs, too?”
His mother almost feinted, and his dad suppressed a smile.
“And Dad, you need any help around the house today? How about I mow
the lawn? And, uh, I’m sorry, I should have asked first, but can we stop in San
Clemente for a minute this afternoon on the way to the game?”
When they pulled up at the Geosurf office, a large security guard was
standing outside the door. L.J. got out of the car and walked right up to him.
“Sir, could I see some identification?” said the rent-a-cop.
“I don’t need any identification. I’m L.J. Merrill and I helped build this
place. Who the hell are you?”
“Ah yes, Mr. Merrill. I’m sorry sir, but I have my orders. You are not to
enter the building.” The guard grabbed the radio mic on his shoulder and
spoke quickly. “Hey Joe, he’s here.”
“Listen, asshole, get the fuck out of my way!” Merrill started to see red,
literally, as his blood pressure shot up and his brain flushed with anger.
The guard took two steps back and planted his feet. One hand went to the
mic on his shoulder, the other went to the gun at his side. The door opened and
another guard walked out with a board under each arm. Merrill’s jaw
dropped. They were yellowed with age and had dings and scratches all over
them. They had been around the world four times.
“Joe, we’ve got a problem.”
The guard dropped the boards on the concrete and put his hand on his
“Hey, what the fuck are you doing? Those are mine!”
“Yessir, I know. I’ll have to ask you to step back and keep your hands
visible, please. Al, keep an eye on him. I’ll be right back.”
“What the fuck is this? You guys can’t do this to me!”
The guard said nothing. His hand on his gun and his feet spread wide said
“If your buddy damaged those boards I’ll - -”
The door opened and the other guard emerged carrying two boxes and a
“Any trouble, Al?”
“Not so far.”
The guard put the boxes on the pavement next to the boards. “Mr. Merrill,
here are all your personal items and an inventory. Sir, Could you please sign
this? I’ll thank you to cooperate. We’re just doing our job.”
The legendary surf scout looked at his boards lying on the concrete. All
the memories of riding them in paradise surf around the world came rushing
back to him. The boxes contained maps, photos, and souvenirs from a career
of finding perfect waves and a partnership now destroyed.
L.J. Merrill snapped the clipboard out of the guard’s hand and scribbled
his name across the form without even looking at it. He put the pen on the
clipboard and tossed it back to the guard, who then handed him an envelope
with his name typed in capital letters and marked “Confidential”. He was
about to open it right then and there when the whole thing hit him like a rogue
wave on an outside reef. He was fucked, and he knew it. But he also knew his
dad was watching, and that gave him just enough courage to somehow salvage
a shred of dignity.
“Do me a favor, guys. Put all that stuff in the dumpster around back, and
tell Ian Clark I’ll see him again someday,” he said before tearing the envelope
in half and tossing the pieces at the dumbfounded guards. Then he turned
around and walked to the curb where his father was waiting in the car.
“You all right son? Shouldn’t we get your boards and take them home?”
He looked at his dad and saw the pain of a father who had lost their only
son to years of selfishness. And he thought of his mom and what it would mean
to her if surfing no longer had a grip on his soul.
“I won’t need them anymore, dad. I promise. Let’s get out of here.”
* * *
L.J. Merrill had made good money working for Geosurf, but had never
saved a dime. Though technically an independent contractor who paid most of
his own expenses, he was much more the classic vagabond surfer living as if
the money would never end. He landed in California knowing a check for eight
grand to cover the trip to Chile was waiting for him. He also knew that check
had been in the envelope when he tore it in half and tossed the pieces at the
So the legendary L.J. Merrill moved back in with his parents. He took all
the old surfing pictures off the walls of his room. He put up curtains over
windows. He didn’t want to see the ocean when he woke up. There were some
old boards in the rafters of the garage. He gave them away to some kids down
the street. After a while word got around he was in town and some of his old
surfing buddies started calling. He told his mom to simply take messages
which he never read. For the first time in fifteen years he was home for the
holidays. He kept busy helping around the house, running errands for his mom
and spending time with his dad in his shop. He went to church with them on
Christmas Eve. Never once did he go down to the beach. After two months
away from surfing, L.J. Merrill was starting to feel like a changed man. He got
a job framing houses and found he had his dad’s talent for carpentry.
But a chance meeting doomed his recovery.
It was at a New Year’s party. Merrill thought he could risk seeing some
friends and toasting in a New Year for which he had high hopes. He was
greeted warmly by people he hadn’t seen in a long time. Some of them asked
about Geosurf, and he was proud of himself when he politely and firmly
refused to talk about it. But then he ran into an old client, and Jack Richards
just laughed when Merrill told him about the promise to his parents, throwing
away his passport and his New Year’s resolution to never go near the ocean.
“Don’t you know that once a junkie, always a junkie? Kicking is a lot
harder than you think, L.J. Like they say about heroin, ‘You can get it out of
your body, but you can’t get it out of your mind.’ So when you start chipping
again, here’s my card. You can work for me as my personal trainer and surf
scout, on year-round retainer. No freeways, no pounding nails, no living at
home with Mom and Dad. And all the waves you want.”
Merrill told him to fuck off, and they both laughed.
“Ok, L.J. good luck . Oh, yeah, I hear Ian Clark’s selling some secret reef
to Wavelife. Know anything about that?”
L.J. Merrill knew he dare not even begin to think about Richards’
question. He simply smiled and said he had to get going.
* * *
Another squall hit the windows, and Merrill gave up. There were tears in
his eyes as he dialed the number on the card. He heard Richards’ voice telling
him to leave a message.
“Sure, Jack, I’ll leave you a message. You're right. I can’t handle it. When
can I see you? The number at this phone is - -”
Just then the other line picked up.
“See you at Aliso Creek Beach Park in half an hour.”
Merrill hung up knowing he was going to be used, again. But he was a
user himself, and as long as he could feed his need, he didn't care. He
collapsed in a chair like falling into a pit of personal failure . He thought of his
parents. What was he going to tell them? For the hundredth time he kicked
himself for trusting Clark with the digital video of the most perfect big waves
on earth. Then he remembered what Richards had said about Clark and
The tears stopped. His eyes opened wide. A surge coursed through his
veins with a kick more powerful than a thousand perfect waves. The rush hit
his brain with simultaneous thoughts of betrayal, a corporation, the most
amazing surf he had ever seen, and a way to get even.
I will tell Richards the whole story! This is the chance of a lifetime!
It was as if a patch of blue sky had opened in the black clouds for God to
shine a light on him, though he knew it was not the grace of the Good Lord
warming him, but the fires of revenge.
But what about mom and dad? What am I going to tell them?
He knew he’d tried his best, but kicking his surfing addiction was not
going to happen without first getting even with Ian Clark.
Mom, dad, I’ve got to do this. And it will be my last surf trip, ever.
Even as he mouthed the words he was going to say to them, he knew they
sounded no more sincere than those of a crack addict vowing to take a last hit
and not one more. He felt bad for a second, and then the moment passed. It
was time to score, and he had an appointment with his connect. He got out of
the chair and crawled across the floor, his eyes searching beneath his bed. He
wedged under it and reached into the farthest corner against the wall. He
grabbed an aluminum briefcase he had not touched in a long time.
* * *
“Well that’s just too bad, L.J., but what do you expect, trusting Clark?
Business is business, bro, and that’s what you get for thinking you could just
L.J. Merrill was just staring ahead as the rain came down harder. He
couldn’t see the ocean through the rain or his tears. The momentary rush of
elation in his bedroom had been replaced by the deep depression of an addict
on a roller coaster ride.
“Yeah, but if people knew what happened, if I could just tell ‘em - - -”
“Don’t be a dumb shit, Merrill.” Jack Richards saw no reason to go easy
on an addict who needed him for a fix. “Clark PR’d your exit so smoothly
most people think you’re retired in Hawai’i even as we speak. And listen, pal,
nobody would pay attention to you anyway because you’re not a player
anymore. You’re useless. You are now nothing but flotsam drifting away on
the tide. Besides, even if the facts were known, as long as Clark supplies the
goods to people throwing money at him, why should they care if some surf
junkie gets trampled in the process?”
“Yeah, but this is surfing! It’s supposed to be something special! We’re
supposed to be a brotherhood!”
“What are you, high or something? Loyalty, friendship, right and wrong –
none of that means a fucking thing when there’s a buck to be made. Believe
me, I know what I’m talking about.”
“Yeah, but Jack,” he sobbed pitifully, “If someone ripped you off for the
most important thing in your life, wouldn’t you want to get back at them?”
Jack Richards paused. He had never thought about just what was the most
important thing in his life. His wife and kids? No, better not go there. Surfing?
Maybe. Money? Probably.
“L.J., if someone took surfing away from me, I’d probably think about
doing something. But money? Now you’re talking. Tell me the deal you had
with Clark. Maybe my lawyers can shake him down for five, six figures.”
"Fuck money! I want something else."
“What do you mean, fuck money? You’re broke! What else is there?”
“I found the best big waves on the planet! Clark stole it from me and - - -”
“Yeah, I know all that. You already told me. What does that have to do
“What if we get there before Clark and Wavelife - and you're the first one
to ride the most perfect big waves in the world?”
“Merrill, that’s the same pitch you used to sell me a trip to Peru,
remember? And it turned out to be nothing but huge storm surf pounding
against sheer cliffs.”
“Well, this time it’s real! It is the heaviest thing I have ever seen! Here,
see for yourself.” Merrill pulled his digital camera out of his aluminum
briefcase and turned the power on. The “battery low” light came on as he
swung out the small LCD screen. He pushed play and handed the unit to
Richards. Forty-five seconds later, Richards pushed the back search button and
ran it again. He stared intently at the images, then hit the slow-motion button.
He held the camera even closer, but the image suddenly went dark. “Battery
out” flashed across the screen, and the unit switched off.
“Has anyone else seen this?”
“No, not except for Clark.”
“And Roberto Mercante and Cheryl Corlund and Heath Larson and
Noaloa and who know who else. Mercante and Clark flew to the South Pacific
last fall and Corlund’s in New York pitching an LBO. And Sonny-boy quit the
tour and is training with Larson on Maui.”
“How do you know all that?”
“Gossip on the websites, friends in the islands and connections on Wall
Street. Something’s up at Wavelife, that’s for sure. Jeez, Merrill, you really
want to take them on? Cheryl Corlund plays for keeps. Somebody who would
trust a guy like Ian Clark doesn’t have a chance in her league.”
"That’s why I need you, Jack. You are the only guy who can help me. I
know how we can get there first and score the place as big as it gets. You
offered me a job, and that’s the job I want. We’ll fuck Clark and Wavelife, and
you’ll get to ride the best waves of your life, I promise you.”
“What’s this going to run me?”
“C’mon, Richards,” said Merrill, sensing his pride coming back to him,
“If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. Isn’t that what the
rich always say?”
Richards burst out laughing. The rain had stopped and the skies were
clearing a bit. He checked his watch and pulled out his wallet.
“Ok, L.J. You’re on. I gotta get back to my office. Here’s five hundred
against fifteen hundred a week. What’s next?”
* * *
Jack Richards took a look at the huge world map covering a wall of his
office. The blue pins showed all the places he had surfed since he’d started in
junior high school. The green pins showed all the places he had made money,
starting with his first million, when he was fresh out of college with degrees in
computer science and business administration, short selling stock in a start-up
software company. More pins clustered around the Bay Area until the dotcom
bubble burst and he got a law degree, turning to IPO’s, junk bonds and
takeovers nationwide before striking it rich in the arcane world of shareholder
lawsuits. Now he was forty-three, and although he had surfed all over the
world, there were more green pins on the map than blue ones.
He thought about Merrill’s plan. The waves looked phenomenal, and there
was something about Wavelife’s involvement that got some old juices flowing
again. It would be no problem to break the news at home that he was going to
be training for a big surf trip that might last two to three months. His wife and
two children were used to him being around only when it worked into his
schedule. They had their gold credit cards and all the toys and gadgets they
wanted, not to mention a huge house with a full time cook and go-fer to take
care of them. His announcement would make little difference to them one way
or the other.
That made him remember why giving them everything money could buy
didn’t give him any satisfaction: his wealth was nothing more than his
obsession to always outdo himself. And here he was, once again, out to prove
something, and as always, nobody but him would even care since the only
thing he every truly cared about was himself. He knew his relationship with
his family had turned into nothing more than another transaction. He didn’t
have their love or their respect, and he knew why.
His therapist had told him the last time he saw the guy a few years ago.
The only time his self-esteem was real was when he was making lots of money
or surfing really well. But now, he realized, he didn’t need more money, and if
Merrill’s plan worked, his surfing career would reach an ultimate plateau.
Then what would he do with his life? Tell his wife and kids he was sorry and
he was going to make it all up to them from that moment on? Maybe he should
give his therapist a call.
He turned on his computer to find the number in his database. The
desktop screen came up and his automatic programs kicked in, first to show
his positions in the market, and then the swell models for surf around the
A half hour later, he remembered why he had turned on the computer in
the first place. He opened a drawer and wrote “Call therapist” at the bottom of
a long to-do list of things he never quite got around to. Then he went back to
his stock analysts’ on-line newsletters and prepared to make some trades while
checking the wave action models for the Southern Hemisphere.