No Barnacles in Heaven
It was the same bridge but a different memory, proving that everyone intersects with time differently, though few more differently than Erik Jersted. On this fiery October evening, Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Bridge arced steeply, as it always does, over the Intracoastal Waterway. It has to, or the bridge would be forever opening for the armada of sleek yachts that throb down from the North in the fall, ferrying their owners away from the season of brutish weather and nasty colds.
Twenty-one years ago, almost to this very day, I hired on to work for a winter as a lifeguard on Fort Lauderdale's beaches. For seven months I lived just across this bridge, riding a garage sale bicycle up and over to get to a job no one would rightly call work. Each morning when I pedaled to the apex of this bridge, the breeze brought the smell of the sea, cementing the promise of another idyllic day.
The ocean is like music. It resurrects memories, jumbling them ashore on a flood tide.
As Erik's pickup labored up the bridge, my mind gathered memories. I remembered how the Atlantic gave up its night face as dawn fired the horizon, morphing with ease, from darkness through lightening shades of blue to the palest green. The sun sent soft morning rays, soon to be replaced by a harsh, urgent light. The elements all gathered strength as the day progressed. The morning breeze, as warm and delicate as a baby's breath, by afternoon created a steady, white-capped beat. The sand that sifted between the toes, cool and fine at dawn, attained skillet heat by squinty-bright afternoon, so that inexperienced sunbathers started for the water with calculated ease and finished, mouth queerly puckered, with a knees-high sprint that would have done any track star proud. In the afternoon the squalls came off the ocean. The day's baking press seemed to crescendo in anticipation, and then came release, the air going cool, the first fat, warm drops and, without transition, rain running in sheets across the water and the beach, the tourists fleeing for the bars and hotel lobbies across Highway A1A. Many times I climbed down from the lifeguard stand and stood alone in the drumming rain. It was warm on my skin, and I liked the way the fat drops kicked up tiny coralline explosions and scrubbed the day clean. Looking back now, I realize I also liked the way the rain closed down time. There was no past and no future, only the moment's cocoon of salty-warm wet.
Everyone's memories are different, but the ocean remains the same. It is a happy gift.
I turned to Erik and smiled. "I remember riding across this bridge," I said.
"I remember jumping off this bridge on fire," he said.
Erik continued to look straight ahead, closely monitoring the surrounding traffic. These days he is a cautious driver, though that was not always the case.
I waited, but Erik offered nothing more. He doesn't see his own life as particularly interesting. He often needs prodding.
"You were on fire?" I asked.
"There were these clowns doing this exhibition in Fort Lauderdale, lighting themselves on fire, doing this diving thing," he said after a few beats. "My friend says to me, 'We can do that.' So we got some towels and doused them in gas and walked up on the bridge. We wrapped the towels around us and lit the towels on fire. He went first."
His companion's leap would have made the clowns proud, a flaming ball of linen and wild yowling summarily snuffed by the Intracoastal. Erik, on the other hand, experienced difficulties. Alarmed by the first human fireball, the bridge attendant was now sprinting up the bridge. Hanging over the side of the bridge, Erik applied a match to himself and flared brightly. The flame promptly went out.
Once motivated, Erik is not easily deterred. "I had to pull myself back up on the bridge and light myself again. The bridge attendant was running toward me, and I went up in this big ball of flame. Must have hit a wet spot on one of the towels."
Erik, I learned in the days I spent with him, has many unusual memories. When he talks about them, he speaks matter-of-factly, as if he's telling you how much soap to add to the laundry.
He is fifty-four and, for the moment, a professional lifeguard: three days a week in Lauderdale, two days a week up the coast in Pompano Beach. He is supremely capable: he can fix almost anything. He can save your life. He has plucked hapless swimmers from rips, jump-started stalled hearts, and tended to plane wrecks in the waters off his lifeguard stand and car accidents on A1A behind him. In Fort Lauderdale, where tropical heat and fruity mixed drinks turn vacationers toward self-destruction, lifeguarding extends far beyond developing a righteous tan. Erik has bellows for lungs, thickly muscled shoulders, and powerful hands. He twice rowed a dory from Bimini to Florida. The faster trip took fourteen and a half hours. He has spent his life in, on, and under the ocean--rowing, swimming, diving, surfing--and though the Fort Lauderdale Chamber won't tell you this, the ocean is a treacherous place. Erik once saw a man fall from a boat and disappear--as fast as you read this sentence--without a trace. Regarding water, Erik appears to fear nothing. He has fended off aggressive sharks, surfed enormous waves, and been dragged behind a fishing boat at night when one of the boat's trolling lines snagged his lobster bag, filled with a half-dozen plump lobsters.
"I wasn't about to let go of that bag," recalled Erik. "I don't know what that fisherman was doing, but it took him a while to notice he'd hooked a really big fish."
You would be lucky to walk down a dark alley with Erik. Yet he has the demeanor of a child. When he is thinking about something, he goes away. You speak to him, but he doesn't hear. Out of the blue spurt private thoughts, candid and unguarded. He is always losing the keys to his truck. He gives the last of whatever he has away. He used to bring homeless people home, until his wife Sharon finally requested an end to that.
Erik himself has not had an easy life. His father was in the merchant marine and rarely home. He and his brother ran wild. At twenty-four, with a wife and child, his brother simply disappeared. The accident report said he fell off a sailboat. Erik is not so sure. Erik is not school bright, but he is world wise. Anything he lacks in book smarts he makes up for in heart. He left the beach for twelve years and became a minister for a Baptist church in Fort Lauderdale. His official title was Minister to Senior Adults, but he also spent a lot of time ministering to dying AIDs victims. Fort Lauderdale has never been a bastion of chastity; few know this better than Erik. Some AIDs victims accepted the Lord in their last moments; others told God, and Erik, to fuck themselves. This Erik could handle. But then the church built itself a new and overly grand home and strayed away from ministering, focusing less on helping people and more on raising funds. Two months before I arrived, Erik left the church and came back to the beach. When he did so, he forfeited sixteen years of seniority and benefits. He returned to base pay--$12.75 an hour--and no benefits.
This isn't enough for Erik to live on, so he has to take odd jobs. One evening, the sun already low on the horizon, we were driving to a dock at Lighthouse Point, twenty minutes north, to scrape barnacles from the bottom of a ninety-foot yacht.
Through the windshield of Erik's Chevy pickup, ahead of the snaking lines of brakelights, the last pink light of day dissolved into the west.
Erik had been lost in thought, but now he suddenly perked up. "I don't know of any other boat-scrapers who work in the dark," he said brightly. "But you know what? It's beautiful down there. Serene. Real peaceful. I'll probably never own a boat like that. But to go underneath and clean the running gear, I really feel privileged."
The truck's air conditioning hummed. We turned into Lighthouse Point and drove past the sprawling, low-slung homes and well-tended yards of the wealthy.
"I don't make a lot of money, but it doesn't matter," said Erik. "When I was having a lot of stress at the church, I'd come out to the beach in the morning, and I'd go into work happy. I knew then it was time to come back. I was so unhappy at the church. I actually had so much stress, I went to the doctor and got on medication. I actually had a breakdown. I didn't have a balanced life. I went to the hospital and got treated for depression."
Inside the truck, sand on the floor, dive knife on the dash, it was almost dark. Ahead of us lay two hours of scraping in inky blackness under a stranger's yacht.
"I've realized that you have to make the most of your gifts. At fifty-four years old, I guess this is it. I wake up happy and go home happy."
I heard his words, soft, satisfied, and certain. And I knew both of us were doing the right thing.
I had planned on starting in Key West, a logical beginning for a south-to-north traipse up the eastern seaboard. But journeys, at least good ones, don't proceed with sequential logic, which was why one of my first stops was Fort Lauderdale.
I headed to Fort Lauderdale looking for Erik. When I arrived in Lauderdale in 1981 for my own brief stint of lifeguarding, Erik was already a legend. Even then he looked out for others. I came down there with six friends, and Erik found us a home, which happened to be right next door to his. Living next door to Erik proved exciting. He rode a motorcycle. Some nights he would dress entirely in black, slap duct tape over his license plate, and then roar through the town with the police in hot pursuit, an orgasm of adrenalin that ended with Erik booming into his driveway and hiding in his dark home with minutes to spare. On the beach his workouts were both feared and renowned. He paddled and rowed until everyone else was all screaming nerve endings, then he paddled and rowed some more. Like some powerful black hole, he absorbed us into his lifestyle. We swam, rowed, paddled, and ran, and at night we drank and got thrown out of bars, though we never came close to exhibiting Erik's wanton disregard for pain or prison. We knew him simply as the Master. Others might have seen him in a similar light. Women streamed in and out of his house, which emanated screams of pleasure.
Erik lived so large that even after I left Fort Lauderdale and moved to California, rumors reached me, each one more unbelievable than the next. Erik had been arrested after doing pull-ups from the end of a crane. Twenty stories up. Naked. Erik had gotten married. Erik had become a minister.
The Fort Lauderdale Beach Patrol operates out of a small office at the International Swimming Hall of Fame. I exited I-95 onto Sunrise Boulevard, heading east past seedy storefronts hawking "Cash 4 Boats," "Cheap Beer," and "East Coast's Best Body Piercing and Tattoos." Sunrise spat me out at the beach. The ocean was a lovely expanse of blue, with nothing immediately visible for sale. Then a plane buzzed by towing a banner: "Your Ad Here."
I walked into the beach patrol office, the same small but blessedly air-conditioned box of twenty-one years ago. I asked the guard behind the counter if he knew where Erik ministered.
"Actually, he's back on the beach," he said. "He was working at the morgue or something. I think it got to be too much for him."
He regarded me curiously, with perhaps a touch of trepidation.
"You a friend of his?"
Erik, I knew, had gone through some hard times. I had heard that he had taken to proselytizing with the same vigor he had once applied to sinning. People don't always respond well to those who wish to save them--possibly some thought Erik had a screw or two loose. But I remembered the man who had found us a place to live and taken us under his wing. I smiled.
"We're old friends," I said, though truth was I wasn't sure he'd even remember me.
The guard nodded noncommittally. "He's at the tower right up the street."
It was a slower-moving Erik Jersted who came stiffly down the wooden walkway of the city's spiffy new $40,000 lifeguard towers. He remembered me, or at least he said he did, though the hundreds of guards who had come and gone since we last met might have made this a white lie. He squinted at me in the white-bright sun, shook my hand, and gave me a warm smile. After twenty-one years he looked exactly the same--leathery, lean, and muscled, though gray had crept into his hair.
I told him he looked great, which was true.
He didn't smile. "I'm fifty-four," he said. "When you're fifty-four, everything aches."
His partner Al called down from the stand. "Hey, Erik. One of us needs to work the phones in the office. You want to go?"
The office was cool and air conditioned. Al obviously wanted to go, but Erik still commanded respect. Al looked to be half Erik's age.
"You go," said Erik. "I don't know how to work the phones, even though I've been here twenty-five years."
Al scurried off.
Erik nodded toward the tower. "Come on up," he said.
It is strange to confront my past suddenly, especially a past fat with happy memories. I worked for eight summers as a lifeguard in New Jersey, along with my brief Florida stint. At forty-three I still have dreams where I am back on the beach, dreams so vivid that I wake guiltily because I am sorry the dream is over.
For Erik, shuffling back up the walkway was just another trip. For me, it was nostalgia come to life. Imagine yourself thrust suddenly into the arms of an old lover, with nothing changed. You will have some idea how I felt.
We sat on plastic lawn chairs, cool wood beneath our bare feet. In my day the stand was a box with a bench just off the sand. This stand had sides with scalloped tiles and glass doors that opened to the water. It was far superior. Behind us A1A had experienced a face-lift, too. Where there had once been a string of raucous bars fronted by barfing collegians, there was now a squeaky-clean beach promenade with white serpentine walls and pretty flowers and no barf or collegians that I could see.
Excerpted from Off-Season by Ken McAlpine. Copyright © 2004 by Ken McAlpine. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.