The Tide King

After getting fired for colliding with a car turning right, Tyler went to the seediest bar he knew to console himself with filth and grime and terrible beer. He got all this plus some kind words from his tenth-grade health teacher, who was there sipping lagers.

The Tide King
Photo by Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

by Michelle Panik

The water is high, and it’s still coming up.

Today is the first of two King Tides that’ll happen this year, in which a precise convergence of conditions—celestial positions, the Earth’s orbit, and weather—makes for extreme fluctuations in tide: very high and very low. All morning, waves have been crashing against the sandstone cliffs of a San Diego beach called Windswept, wrenching off great big pieces of beautiful earth and dragging them down the shore and out to sea.

Out in that soup is 26-year-old East County resident Tyler Savage. In a purple (yes, purple) wetsuit, on an old beater of a board, he’s spent the last two hours trying and failing to surf. Wave after wave, Tyler has lain on the board (too far back), and paddled (fingers only splashing the water). What happens next has varied—he’s gotten throttled on a late takeoff, gone over the falls, and simply muttered, “Oh, shit,” and bailed out. But the result is always the same: no ride. Not that Tyler’s deterred. Dozens of sets have rolled through in the time Tyler’s been out, and he isn’t showing any sign of quitting.

Tyler paddles for another wave now, but he’s in the wrong spot. Even though he doesn’t know how to surf, he senses something’s wrong and tries pulling out. But he’s too late, and all he can do is hold on and ride the board, sideways, over the falls and into the drink.

As he’s underwater, churning and reeling, his body a rubber band stretched every which way, he thinks about his girlfriend, Reina—beatific, buoyant Reina—and how he has to break it to her that he’s been fired.

Reina loves that he’s a teacher. Was a teacher.

Upon learning what he did for work, she’d immediately launched into, “Mrs. Duncan, third grade, Hope Elementary. She had this snickerdoodle air freshener she’d spray when we were working hard. I mean, it smelled like fresh, warm cookies. I’d do anything for her to spray it.”

This was a frequent occurrence; when people found out what Tyler did, they raved about their favorite teacher. And Tyler, loving every glorifying minute, never interrupted.

Tyler hadn’t had an amazing teacher that inspired him to go into the profession. No, what he’d had were 13 years of adults telling him to do better, to try harder, to sit still already. Tyler was a happy kid but not good with details or focus. He’s the only child of an executive and an aerospace engineer for whom parenting was another line-item in their list of successes, and—being good leaders—they delegated whenever possible. Miraculously, he made it to community college and then a commuter university, where he graduated with a business degree.

After college, he fucked around and failed at a bunch of things: managing fast food, shipping packages, and twirling a sign. After getting fired for colliding with a car turning right, Tyler went to the seediest bar he knew to console himself with filth and grime and terrible beer. He got all this plus some kind words from his tenth-grade health teacher, who was there sipping lagers. After sleeping it all off—the beer, the rejection, the paralyzing fear over how he’d pay rent—Tyler applied to a teaching credential program and, by the time he was through, decided on elementary school.

In the 10 months Tyler and Reina have been together, she’s always been supportive. Last year he taught first grade and, when it didn’t work out, Reina said fourth would be better. When fourth grade got bumpy, she said kids were resilient, and he even more so. She’s never given him reason to doubt her, but he can’t help it; it’s in his nature to worry that, when he tells her he’s been fired, she’ll be yet another person he disappoints. And so he’s out in this roiling ocean, trying to conquer one of its colossal waves.

Finally, Tyler surfaces, heaving and coughing, and mutters, “Well, that sucked.”

Not that there’s anyone around to hear him. Tyler’s the only guy out because, while King Tides might sound cool, they’re terrible for surfing. A lot of water doesn’t mean waves will have any shape, but Tyler doesn’t know this. He doesn’t know a lot of things, the most immediate of which is, Now what?

He floats on his back beside his board, which is tethered to his ankle, and wonders what his students are doing right now. With such short notice, the secretary’s probably their teacher.

Early this morning, the principal had called Tyler into his office and fired him. The state test results had come back and, with bar graphs, pie charts, and indisputable numbers, the principal made it clear: Tyler was a terrible teacher.

Tyler was stunned. Didn’t the principal know he had a way with kids? His classroom was fun—they bragged about soccer goals and he congratulated. His classroom was safe—they told him privately about their home lives and he listened. After underperforming at a random string of shitty jobs, a teacher was the greatest thing Tyler had even been. And now he’d been fired from it, too?

Tyler was so thoroughly hurt and shocked that he’d just stood up, told the principal, “Well, thank you,” and left. He isn’t the quickest thinker, but he’s polite.

Even if he’d had the wherewithal to protest, it wouldn’t have done any good. This is a charter school, and there’s no union—or anyone else—to support him.

Tyler thought about how he’d picked his class up from the STEM lab yesterday, and they’d told him about their lesson on King Tides. Tyler liked how they talked about the brute force of pummeling swells, and he liked their cocksure claims of being able to reign over this oceanic movement by surfing it. Like Little Mermaid’s pop with a board. King, man—King of the Tides.

Without thinking any more, Tyler went to his apartment and grabbed the wetsuit and board left by the last tenant. Then he drove 30 minutes to Windswept, where he tried for one wave after another and, like everything else in his life, missed.

Here comes a wave now, and Tyler tries turtle-rolling to go under, but its might is too much. He’s bucked off his board, and into the wash he goes for another titanic crushing. Still, Tyler surfaces and wants to keep trying. Except this last wipeout has snapped his leash, so he scrambles for his board and paddles in.

At the shore, he climbs the 92 steps and stands at the cliff’s edge, sopping wet, watching ocean annihilate land and wondering what to do. He doesn’t want to go back to his sad, little apartment. Reina’s apartment is better, but she’s working at the retirement home, and her roommates hate him. So, Tyler remains stagnant, watching swells of water overwhelm the shore.

He’s finally about to leave when a news van pulls up. Its side screams “Channel 7 Action News” with a stylized lightning bolt and vibrant colors. Tyler thinks he could go for a little action. Later, perhaps, when Reina’s done serving little dishes of cubed Jell-o and wiping mouths. This day’s a total bust. Not that Reina would want to get it on with a loser like him.

A blonde woman in a skirt suit steps out. It’s Lana DiCarlo, the reporter who covered the airport fire, and the slow pursuit of that stolen military tank. A lot of shit happens in this small city and, although Tyler isn’t much for civics or politics or even gossip, he watches Lana DiCarlo report it out because she’s easy on the eyes.

Lana has a cameraman and producer with her, and she asks if they can interview him.

Tyler, with nowhere to be, says, “Why not?”

They flip on the camera and lights. Lana asks what Tyler thinks of the high tide—“It’s cool.” And if he remembers the last King Tide—“Nope.” And, finally, if he thinks it’s another sign of global warming—“I’m not gonna get political.”

It’s a meaningless little interview. But viewers will like it for his purple wetsuit and simple answers, and the spliced-in footage of angry waves smacking the shore.

Lana unclips her mic and asks where’s a good place to get a beer and a burger. This surprises Tyler. Not because he doesn’t think a woman like her could be interested in a guy like him, but because she really takes him for a local surfer. Well, there’s a victory.

Aching for this fantasy to continue, he remembers the bar he passed on his drive into Windswept. He tells Lana and Lana tells her crew, who’s editing, that she’ll be back. They walk and talk, and Tyler thinks how cool it’ll be to tell his buddies he got a beer with Lana DiCarlo.

It’s dark inside The Shanty. Darker than Tyler thinks a beach bar should be, not that he’s ever been in one. Tyler’s lived his whole life 20 scorching miles inland.

They order two beers and a double cheeseburger. They drink their beers and she eats and they chat. Little stuff: the bar’s décor, traffic and, of course, the King Tide. There’s a TV on the wall, which Tyler can’t help glancing at. When their conversation lulls, he points and asks, “What’s that?”

Being in local news, Lana knows. It’s a California Brown Pelican nest in a box that’s cantilevered off the edge of a research pier. The birds only breed naturally on a few Channel Islands, and scientists want to widen their presence. A wealthy socialite liked their idea and is funding it. Fifty years ago, interfering with nature so directly was frowned upon. But Mother Nature has become so fierce (while also becoming so fragile), that such assistance is no longer taboo.

Tyler listens as Lana talks. Or, he at least looks at her eyes. Privately, he’s thinking about Reina, and how probably the only thing she can talk about at length are bed pans. Tyler’s pretty sure he loves her. Even though the pay isn’t great, Reina always says she likes the work and the people. She seems genuine about it, which is good enough for him. No way she’d want a career that had her out of the house at 5AM like Lana DiCarlo. No way she’d get fired, either.

Lana has wolfed down her burger in a way Tyler respects, and they order nachos to split. A different bartender delivers them, and he looks at her and says, “You’re from TV.”

Lana confirms.

“Here for the King Tide,” the bartender adds.

She nods. “I interviewed Tyler about the waves.”

He stares at Tyler. “What’s your break?”

It takes Tyler a minute to understand he means surf break. He swallows and says, “Here.”

“Windswept?” The guy doesn’t believe him for a second.

“Yeah,” Tyler says, thinking, Shit. I get the one bartender who’s also a surfer.

Tyler has no idea that most of the people working near Windswept surf Windswept; that’s the whole point. Half of The Shanty’s bartenders, several kitchen guys, and all the baristas at the next-door coffee shop surf.

Still thinking he can carry this off, Tyler says, “I don’t get in the water too much anymore.”

His voice verging on a snarl, the bartender asks, “Where you from?”

Without thinking, Tyler answers truthfully. “Santee.”

The bartender laughs. So loudly that even Lana’s taken aback.

She says, “Not everyone can afford beach-front living.” But then she asks Tyler, “You drive here from Santee to surf?”

He gulps. “I did this morning.”

Neither the bartender nor the news woman, who both work with the public, want to humiliate the kid—which is what Tyler is, a kid, along with being a kook. They let the conversation fizzle out.

Tyler knows some shift in dynamics has occurred between himself and Lana. Like when one of the other fourth grade teachers offered to help him with his lesson-planning—something like a mentor, he guessed—but Tyler declined because he didn’t have time for that. After that, every time he saw her, she sighed.

It’s late afternoon when Tyler and Lana reemerge from the bar. They walk in silence through the hueing afternoon back to the beach. Tyler decides not to tell his buddies what happened—local news is a trashy waste of time, right?

No. Because after teaching antsy kids alongside teachers who narrowed their eyes at him all day, Tyler would go home and put Lana DiCarlo on the TV. Or Nichelle Takamura or Windy McAlister. One of these reporters would be in an Oktoberfest crowd or on the sidelines of a 5k. Watching them, Tyler would feel like he was there with those people, was one of those people. He felt a part of something. But now, Lana has seen him for what he is, and he wants to forget this last hour.

Back at the beach, Lana’s crew is waiting in the van.

She tells Tyler the piece will air at 10 and, like a dutiful student repeating the answer to a math problem, he nods and says, “Ten.”

The van drives off. The ocean is even higher now. It’s slamming into the cliff’s deep crevices, which are formed by rain, deepen with every storm, and are filled with ice plant. Gutsy waves are ripping off sections of the succulent and dragging them out to sea, where they float alongside kelp holdfasts—another thing that’s no match for the ocean’s force. Every 15 seconds, a new wave plows ashore, taking its anger out on the land.

For the first time, the ocean’s enduring might is starting to wear on Tyler. Hoping like crazy that Reina’s home, he calls just to hear her voice; he doesn’t have to confess anything yet.

A roommate answers and says Reina’s still at work.

“Can you take a message, please?”

After a long pause, she says, “Go ahead.”

Tyler gives his message, adds a chirpy little “Thank you,” and hangs up. Even he knows she didn’t write any of that down.

He doesn’t understand why Reina’s roommates don’t like him, and part of him wants to ask Reina. But he worries that she’ll ask her roommates, who’ll say he’s no good for her. So instead, he keeps being friendly and courteous.

Tyler really wants to talk to someone. Anyone. Literally. So, he calls his mom. And, though the odds aren’t great, she actually picks up.

“Hi, Mom,” he says.

And then, incredibly, he’s there; he’s finally on the verge of saying it—“fired”—when she asks, “Is your girlfriend coming for Fourth of July?”

If she’d asked yesterday, Tyler would’ve said yes. But today he doesn’t know if they’ll be together tomorrow, let alone summer.

He says, “I have no idea.”

And she sighs and says, “Well.”

Tyler and his mom talk for a couple more minutes. She doesn’t comfort him, not that he was expecting her to. He’d only hoped that getting some words out might help a little. It doesn’t.

She says, “Projects and deadlines are really humming around here,” and Tyler knows how to answer.

“Bye, Mom.”

Still not wanting to go back to his lonely apartment, he remembers the Brown Pelican nest. It was empty on the TV, but Tyler wonders if it could be occupied now. Maybe with a mother and chick, nestled in nicely. He hops into his car to find out.

The research pier is at the bottom of a steep road, and when Tyler pulls into the parking lot, there’s just one other vehicle. It’s a truck at the lot’s other end, but even so Tyler can see gas cans and a perfectly rolled sleeping bag in its bed.

“Bed,” he thinks with a chuckle. Sleeping bag, truck bed. It’s a word joke, and it’s making him really miss teaching.

His first year in the classroom, part of him was always questioning if he really were a teacher. Could he actually be the one in charge, the one whom kids thought had the answers? Considering the path he’d taken, the most likely answer was that he was a fake, a fraud, a failure.

Until Fiona Blasé joined his class. A tall girl with tiny hands, she shifted between aggressive and withdrawn, and was always noncompliant. After six weeks in Tyler’s classroom, with his easy smile and the infinite think-time he gave students, she started doing math problems. Not many, and usually not entirely correctly. But, it was more learning than she’d done with any other teacher since her twin brother had died. Tyler never doubt his teaching ability after that.

Tyler walks up to the pier, hops its fence, and heads to the nest. The moon is a low sliver that barely backlights the scene. When Tyler reaches the nest, he puts a hand on the railing and leans over as far as he thinks is safe. Which, really, is too far. Twigs and straw and all manner of materials are peeking out of the plywood box.

But there’s no bird—not a mother nor a chick, and not even an egg that needs simple warmth. The mother must be away, off gallivanting with other birds, squawking up a storm.

It’s par for the course—another disappointment in Tyler’s day. Still, Tyler’s surprised to find himself this frustrated; it’s just a stupid bird he was hoping to see, and there are thousands all over San Diego, squawking and pooping and strewing trash.

He looks down into the dark, furious ocean, which won’t stop beating the shit out of California. A monster wave body-checks the pier pilings, and Tyler feels it in the movement of planks under his feet. Gripping the railing for support, Tyler tries giving a hearty, “Hell, yeah.”

But his enthusiasm for the ocean’s power is gone. This thorough whipping it’s giving to what should be its counterpart is tiring, and Tyler wonders if it’ll ever end.

Of course, it will. The tide will go down. And then, the tide will rise up again. It’s a truth as old as time, but Tyler is too exhausted to understand this. He only wants this abuse to stop, now.

Tyler steps in front of the camera, which is broadcasting night-vision footage of an empty nest. Thinking of the lady who bankrolled it all, he yells, “Thanks for nothing!”

He walks out to the pier’s far end and sits on its edge with his legs sticking out under the railing and swinging free. Waves keep shoving through the pilings, rattling him.

Five months remain in the school year. What the hell is he gonna do? Get another crummy restaurant job? What will Reina think? And what about Fiona Blasé? Who’s going to get that tiny inch through to her now?

Everything and nothing is passing through Tyler’s mind, and it isn’t pretty. Eventually, he squints into the distance and sees a dark shape emerge in the dark sea.

Whale? He wonders. A great white would be cool, but he’s not that lucky.

When it gets closer, Tyler realizes what he’s seeing isn’t a beast of a marine animal, but a boat.

Or, a piece of a boat. The goliath waves that Tyler couldn’t conquer have busted up a watercraft and are propelling its wreckage to land. Somehow, two people cling to it. Tyler calls out and they respond with words he doesn’t understand. It’s Spanish, a subject he never could get his mind around.

But Tyler keeps trying, shouting, “Hey!” And, “Are you okay?” And “What are you doing out there?”

They counter with their Spanish, not a word of which he understands.

This continues—English, Español. English, Español—until one guy falls off the flotsam with a deep splash. Tyler gasps, squints, and, after a minute, sees him surface.

“Over there,” Tyler yells to the other guys, pointing to their buddy. But they don’t make any move to rescue him. So, Tyler shouts and points again.

They still don’t understand. Or maybe they don’t care. Meanwhile, this guy is slipping under the peaky waves, great big rolling pins of water pushing everything to shore. But not quickly enough for this guy, who’s being held down longer each time.

Tyler gives one more tremendous, “He’s over there!” and then, cursing, kicks off his shoes, and dives in.

He jumps too close to the guy he’s trying to save and his impact creates more waves, sending the man under again. Tyler dives down into the dark and fumbles around for what seems 20,000 leagues away. He feels something, possibly an appendage, but can’t grasp it. He surfaces for an enormous breath, dives down again and, this time, grabs this forsaken body. Breaking the surface with his arms hooked under the man’s, they float face up, Tyler’s body under his. With an imperial strength Tyler has never before known, he frog-kicks them to the beach.

The other men have already reached land and are running to the pickup truck, which has pulled around to the front.

“You’re okay, you’re okay,” Tyler tells the man, whom he now sees is small and skinny—a preteen.

The kid gets his bare feet underneath himself, wipes his face and, before Tyler can ask his name, stumbles towards the parking lot. After a few shaky steps, his coordination and speed increase, and he climbs into the pickup’s bed. The truck careens towards the exit, engine knocking. And then it’s gone, and Tyler is left with nothing.

Complete silence.

It takes Tyler a minute, as it would take anyone—burger flipper or lifeguard or computational mathematician—to understand what has just happened. A kid was drowning—a kid so desperate to leave his shitty life that he set off over land and sea—and Tyler had saved him. And then, out of imminent danger, the kid vanished. Tyler didn’t get any sort of thanks, and Lana DiCarlo isn’t here to interview him about it.

If Tyler had a tide app, a quick check would show that, at this very moment, the tide is beginning its long, slow descent. It will continue backing off for 12 hours, until three more feet of this pier’s pilings are exposed, and news crews will return to marvel at the wide expanse of beach, the magnanimous retreat.

Tyler has to tell Reina what happened. He dials and the same roommate answers.

But when Tyler asks, “Is Reina home?” instead of sighing, she enthuses, “Sure! She’s right here.”

Reina gets on and says, “Was that you on the news?”

Tyler looks around the empty parking lot. Then, he remembers the interview from hours—eons—ago, Lana lobbing him questions of zero consequence and he answering laconically.

Tyler confirms it was him, and Reina asks, “Were you surfing?”

Technically? No.

What he says is, “That’s not the half of it.”

She says, “I can’t wait to see you.”

And—bingo—there it is; Reina’s intimate, eager voice. The one that never lost faith in him. The one who said his youth was wasted on his parents. The one who didn’t mind that he’s often late, or absent, or wrong. The firing doesn’t matter.

He says, “I can’t wait to see you, either,” and hangs up.

And then, even though he’s a royal fuckup for whom nothing goes right, this is what he thinks will happen next:

He’ll drive too fast to Reina’s place and do a terrible parking job. Then he’ll knock on her door and, when she opens, pull her into this mammoth hug. Maybe her roommates will crowd behind her, watching, but they won’t concern him either way. To him it’ll just be himself and Reina—his queen—who matter. It’s possible she’ll smell medicinal, or of Salisbury steak, but he won’t care. A moment later, he’ll put her at arm’s length for a good look at this woman he now knows—with more certainty than anything else in his idiotic life—he loves. He’ll tell her what happened on that pier. A kid—he saved a kid! There was no time to think, he just did, he saved, and it was perfect. He’ll be a bit breathless when he’s done talking, and Reina will pull him back into her. He’ll command his lungs to slow until they match hers. And then, with her hand pressed to his neck, her pulse detectible, he’ll hear these words: “Tyler, I’m proud of you.”

Michelle Panik’s short stories have appeared in Flyway, The Dodge, and Terrain. She is a prose reader for Chestnut Review and a book reviewer at MER. After earning her B.A. in Writing and Art History from UC San Diego, she got her M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Maryland. In an effort to hang out with her kids more, she traded her adjunct teaching job to substitute teach in their school district. She lives with her family on the edge of California in Carlsbad.