Old Eureka, despite its bleak mug, dark corners and toothless grin, had some charm for those kids like me willing to dig under the chain link and ignore the danger signs.
What a magical time. Miles-long stretches of the waterfront were hollowed remnants of business past. The mud and stink of Humboldt Bay had long been lapping at the foundations of many of these buildings, gnawing at the redwood pilings until they were mostly, if not entirely, eaten through.
Moss and seaweed and barnacles had done their fair bit of demolition, as well, not to mention the slow decay brought about by the inexorable downward pull of gravity and the occasional violent shuddering of local temblors that gave the fatal shove to pillars long sapped of structural integrity.
From G to C streets, it was a wonderland for macabre-minded youth like myself, who dared one another in our teen years into earning various badges of courage by clambering over or tunneling under the rusted cyclone fences and crossing the damned threshold into Eureka’s vagabond underworld.
For hours sometimes, even one whole night. Or so we planned.
We brave few, back to back and shoulder to shoulder, fought off the slavering demon dogs of hell.
Or not so much.
The dare was simple. Who among the three of us was willing to break the obviously posted ‘No Trespassing’ law and rummage around in the industrial wasteland that began across the street from Globe Imports and continued for blocks down to the foot of C Street, spending the night with nary but a backpack full of dim flashlights and a half-eaten box of cornflakes.
No fear existed between these two ears in starting out. I was intent on schooling these fools, Mike and Kyle.
Mike, as I’ve written here before, was one of my best friends. Kyle was a school chum and a recent addition to our crew. He played bass in our band, got all the girls, and sang like Bono. I resented the hell out of him.
This was a test of masculine fortitude, performance under pressure, bravery in the face of the unknown. I was prepared, I wagered, having sized them up. We’d be home in time for Beavis and Butthead, but it wouldn’t be because of me.
The three of us came upon the rusted fence and stared first up and then down at the obstacle, deciding how to mount our offensive.
Mike, the most fit, looked at Kyle and me, slapped his hands together to get the blood flowing, and just climbed the fence.
The razor wire on top slowed him briefly. He maneuvered one arm, one leg, adjusted his balance to the opposite side, then brought his other arm and leg over. Dropping to the other side, he waved two fingers at us through the fence.
Kyle stuck his long middle finger through the same hole and flipped Mike off. I tossed my backpack over to him.
Then Kyle turned to me with an arched eyebrow. “Let me see your jacket.”
It was cold, and I didn’t want to take my jacket off. But time was of the essence. We were standing on the sidewalk across from a busy storefront. Trespassing. I shrugged out of my denim coat and handed it to him.
Without answering, and with a mischievous flourish, he flung my jacket up and over the razor wire. Without looking back, he started climbing.
With tedious precision, he inserted his perfectly white sneakers into the holes of the chain link fence and paid careful attention to keep his chinos off the metal wires. Once on top, my jacket became a saddle to pivot upon. On the other side, he climbed down a couple of feet then let himself drop lightly to the ground. He checked himself for dirt — shoes, pants, shirt, hands — then smiled wide, the village prince.
Now the two of them stared at me.
There was no way in hell I was climbing that fence. I probably weighed as much as the two of them put together, and the tip of my size 13 sneaker would have easily stuffed two holes in the chain link.
Astride that jacket saddle, I would’ve caused the entire fence to collapse in, I told myself, an explosion of bars and barbed wire whose clangs, bangs, and boomerangs would’ve sent the town into a panic. I glared sidelong at my partners in crime, fearing they were thinking the same thing.
If you can’t go over, you go under.
“Sonofabitch,” I said, looking down.
Enough traffic had made its way past this fence over the past 20 years that the edge was loose near the ground. Recent rains, however, had filled whatever gouge was there with filthy gutter mud and floating bits of ugliness.
“Hold up the fence,” I blurted out, simultaneously silencing any debate and steeling my own will for the task ahead.
They exchanged a glance and that pissed me off even more.
They each grabbed a loop in the fence and pulled back as hard as they could. It generated less than a foot of space above the murky water. I got down on my knees then onto my back, eased my head through first and felt the icy water soak into my hair. Momentary panic ensued as the bottom of the fence scraped against my neck, but leveraging my arms, I was able to push up even harder from directly below, creating enough room to shimmy my neck and chest through.
Mike, seizing his chance to help pull me through, let go of his end. Like the steel tines of a bear trap, the hardened fence wires slammed down on one side, puncturing the flushed skin of my pale belly.
“Oh my God, James,” Mike yelled, as a mother cradling a yoga mat and herding two little girls filed out of Globe Imports.“I’m so sorry. Oh shit. Oh shit.”
The mom stared at us.. One of the girls pointed and said, “Are they homeless?” She tugged on the mat. “We have chickpeas in the car.”
The mom, horrified, shushed her daughters and hurriedly guided them toward the parking lot.
I began to bleed, in pinky-thick rivulets that ran off my squirming belly and mixed into the suddenly shrunken mud puddle beneath me.
When I finally stood on the other side, I was covered in blood, mud, gravel, grime, tears, and whatever other mayhem must’ve settled out to form that puddle.
Kyle, trying to help, stood on the tips of his toes to pull down my jacket. It came with an horrific and prolonged ripping sound that at first failed to register.
Putting it on, though, I immediately felt a wicked breeze fanning my back where the razors had split my coat from the top of my ass to between my raw shoulder blades. The tickling winds were a shove from the Gods telling me to hurry up and cross the threshold to Eureka’s undercrust — Great Things Await Thee.
After we rounded the corner and disappeared from view, I slugged Kyle hard on the shoulder. “Why didn’t you use your own goddamn jacket?”
“Well, I didn’t want to get it dirty,” he explained. “It’s beige.”
[To be continued]
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.