Ten thousand | Phil Gunn

Catch the next wave, it may be your last.

Ten Thousand

By Phil Gunn

For the What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Award


Ten thousand repetitions to perfect a technique. Ten thousand hours to master a skill.

Hour after hour until knuckles bruised and shins bled the old man drilled the number into him.

After the training he’d run to his mother, forgetting the aches in the warmth of her embrace. Her soothing whispers would dry the tears and for a moment he’d lose himself. She’d been dead for five years. The old man he hadn’t spoken to in ten.

He had a kid of his own now. On weekends he’d take her out to the beach, show her how to skimboard and they’d laugh together as she slipped across the wash. Eat ice cream and watch the surfers glide over the breaks, holding hands and talking about nothing.

“Does it hurt?”

She poked at the welt streaking across the floating rib on his left side. His reaction was exaggerated but the pain was real.

“Ouch, that stings. You trying to beat me up?”

She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his shoulder. Her eyes were welling.

“Oh baby, I’m just kidding.”

She buried her face in his chest. He stroked her hair as he looked out at the crashing waves. The tides were rolling in and most of the surfers had left except for one, dogged in the search for a perfect curl. The rips were growing fierce and time after time the board would flip and dunk him under but he kept at it.

“I don’t like watching you on TV anymore.”

Her nose was running. He reached out to wipe but she pulled away.

“Don’t tell me you’re getting bored.”

She rolled her eyes. He kissed her forehead, drying tendrils of hair tasting of brine.

“I don’t like seeing you get hurt.”

“That’s what the other guy should be worried about.”

Furrowed brows and pursed lips. Just like her mom. She didn’t get much of his features. But her eyes, hazel flecked with gold, they were his mother’s. Only thing he had left to remember her by.

“Why do you do it?”

He’d never asked himself that question before. Even when he’d wake up groggy at four in the morning to puke, or notice the crimson tinge in his piss, or how his hands trembled, the last thing on his mind was the why.

“Mom says you love it more than you loved her.”

“That’s the way she tells it, huh?”

“Do you love it more than me?”

“Of course not, baby.”

He held her tight and hoped the words were enough. If he told her ten thousand times, would she believe? He’d tried on himself. It didn’t take.

She’d drowsed off with her head resting in his lap. Drool leaked from the corner of her mouth and he dabbed it away with a towel. Gentle snoring. On the beach a surfboard stood embedded in the sand. The setting sun rested at its tip, a dying candle flame. He sat and watched until the chill set in.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

She’d been asleep when he carried her to the car and strapped her in. How long has she been watching me, he wondered.

“Well, I thought about it and the answer is yes, I am the greatest daddy in the world.”

She punched him, her small fist ricocheting off his deltoid. She pouted and shook her hand.

“Don’t you get scared?”

“Yeah,” he said. “All the time.”

Every single time.The crowds, the opponent, his corner, bloodlust and fury and expectation in a roaring torrent drowning out his thoughts until all he could hear was his galloping pulse. Sweating palms and quivering knees, until his feet touched canvas and the adrenaline coursing through his veins turned flight into fight. And when the bell rang the world disappeared. Slips and feints and parries and covers and the jarring contact of bone on bone were set to the broken rhythm of a tune audible only to him. Alone he walked the razor’s edge where microseconds cost lifespans and there his limbs reversed entropy, finding life in the bludgeoning death of every close call. Time and space distorted. Three minutes stretched to infinity.

“Daddy, you okay?”

They were pulling into the driveway. A quick embrace and a kiss on the forehead.

“Love you.”

“Love you too, baby.”

She blew him another kiss which he caught and slipped into his pocket. Going through the motions. Would it ever be enough? Not even over ten thousand weekends. The gap would continue to widen. Inevitability clutched at his throat and he tasted copper. With it came the scent of sweat and a ringing in his ears, blurred edges of his vision tunneling to a place where for three minutes at a time the future could be forged with blood and aggression.