Ebb Tide, by Syn Ferguson

Kiko walked from the commuter drop, glad of a chance to stretch his legs and breathe fresh air after a day underground at work. He'd known that Starsky had given up the car when he and Hutch bought the beach cottage, but this was the first time it had touched Kiko personally, brought home the fact that Starsky now had to carry groceries on foot or wheel them in a cart. It had been a long time since Starsky had last played chauffeur. That had been their time alone together, a frame around Kiko's visits to Hutch.

Of course there was no place for a car here. The narrow street had been blocked off for a decade; garages, if there ever were any, would be media centers or home offices now. He caught the tang of woodsmoke among the flower scents as he started up the hill. On each rooftop, whether Disney cottage, tipsy shanty or adobe box, spark protectors perched like birds, beaks pointing into the wind. Kiko wondered if everyone had illegal wood-burners or if there was a variance this close to the ocean. He imagined it had been Hutch who went for the charm of an individual dwelling, and Starsky who saw to the perimeter, but this street didn't look troubled by gangs or roadmen, and it certainly seemed more livable than the megablocks being built in the valley.

Starsky had given him the address and asked him to come for the evening tide. The sun was setting now, wallowing in fire out beyond the offshore power rigs. The hot light gilded the shingled walls of one house and striped the stucco wall of the next with orange. At the top of the hill Starsky walked out of a cottage designed in driftwood gingerbread. He leaned on the weathered wooden gate and, seeing him clad in a sweatshirt and denim cutoffs, Kiko relaxed a little. The unruly curls were threaded with silver now, but it was the same, essential Starsky, as trim and vital as ever.

"C'mon in," Starsky said. "Glad you could make it. Have any trouble getting here?"

"No. You still give good directions. I'm sorry I was in Japan, Starsky. I would have come back if I could."

"Doesn't matter. Funerals are pretty much alike. You look great, Kiko, no more gut." Starsky reached out and patted Kiko's middle.

"They're on fifteen hundred calories in Japan. I got the foreigner's allowance, but they look at you. Good chance to diet. This is a great place, Starsk."

It was. The hibiscus hedges hung lanterns of bloom over bright, dry-scented geraniums, lantana, and nasturtiums so thick they hardly left a path to walk on. Water rationing didn't mean much to plants that could thrive on a sea mist.

"Really great," Kiko repeated. "How long have you been here?"

"Four years. We were spending half our time at the beach anyway. The big house was too much to keep up. Here, it takes an hour a day and we have our own beach."

Four years? And he hadn't seen them for two before that? Kiko stumbled and Starsky grabbed his elbow.

"Watch out for that cat. He won't move 'til you step on him."

Small talk, Kiko thought. Why should he be worrying about my feelings? But Starsky was promising to show him the beach later.

"We won the sand castle contest last year."

Kiko paused in a shadowed hall, fighting a stinging in his eyes. "Yeah? I can't picture Hutch making mudpies."

"It was his idea. We built a Viking longboat being rammed by a whale. Hutch gave directions and I shoveled fourteen fucking tons of sand in six hours." Starsky steered him around a corner and down a step into a blaze of light. "Some view, huh?"

The burning west poured gold into a long, book-lined room. Two chairs faced the glory and Starsky pushed Kiko into one of them, bustled away, and came back with two drinks chiming faintly of ice. He sank into the other chair with his and silently toasted the sunset, then leaned back with a comfortable sigh.

Kiko rubbed his palm over the butter-yellow leather of the overstuffed wing chair. It would have been Hutch's, of course, substantial to its hardwood bones, a style that centuries couldn't better. He could see Hutch in it, tan skin, pale gold hair, his eyes that startling, northern blue. Looking around the room, Kiko could see Hutch everywhere -- in the books, the plants, the oriental carpets on the shining floor, the blackened andirons in the stone fireplace. It had been that way in the big house, too -- a quiet and order demanded by a room where everything was there because it belonged, because it was loved.

"I confine the slums to the basement. This room was Hutch's." Starsky had always been willing to credit Hutch with the class in the partnership. "He loved it,"

"It's beautiful, Starsk. The love shows. I--"

Starsky shook his head, not willing to be derailed. "He left you something. A letter." He made a long arm toward the bookshelf, retrieved a white envelope and passed it over. "G'wan an' read it. I helped with the hard parts."

The sun blurred on the horizon, its fire breaking up and turning liquid as it sank out of sight. Kiko read until his eyes filled and he couldn't see any more. He held the letter back toward Starsky.

"I can't take it, Starsk, I -- I wasn't that close to Hutch any more. I don't deserve it." He tried to inject a little adult control into his voice. "This must be everything you both owned. You'll need it."

Starsky's long lashes masked his eyes for a moment as he drew circles with his glass on the arm of his chair. "Wait 'til you get old, kid. You'll find out how little you really do need. The house is paid for; I've got my medical insurance and my pension, wouldn't want to travel without Hutch. I'm set. We talked it over before we moved out here. How many kids have you got now? Three? Four?"

"Only three."

"Yeah, well, that's plenty to educate. That's what we want to use it for, so you might as well have it when you need it."

"But--" Kiko gestured weakly with the letter, "--almost a million? After I--" His voice quit on him. Damn it, he thought, I'm a grown man. I've got three kids and two of them are in high school. But he couldn't finish.

Starsky got up and leaned over the back of Hutch's chair, rubbing Kiko's neck and shoulders with practiced hands. He didn't say anything.

"I hadn't been to see him in six years," Kiko said finally.

The circling hands stopped long enough to shake him. "You were busy -- out of the country half the time. Oh, maybe he didn't understand at first. All he could see was that it was hard on you and Mona to pay him back. Hell, Kiko, he knew your mother couldn't afford college for you. He had the money; he'd been saving for it half your life." Starsky squeezed his shoulders once more and went to stare out the window. "It wasn't hurting him to help you."

"I know, Starsk. He'd just done so much for me, I couldn't take that, too."

Starsky nodded, black silhouette against a sky the color of wine. "Oh, he came around. He was proud of you."

"Proud of a software designer? Come on. If I'd been a cop or an architect or a cellist, Hutch would have understood it, but he hated computers. I disappointed him. It wasn't right to keep the money for something he didn't--"

"Bullshit. You're so damn good at what you do half the time a civilian can't even track you down. He was proud of that. And he was proud of you for doing what you thought was right. Hell, every cent you paid him back was reinvested the same day for your kids, and I can tell you where it's going if you don't take it!" He gestured dramatically at the Pacific.

Kiko snorted. "You'd do it, too! I'm grateful, Starsk. I just feel bad that I didn't come out -- bring the kids more-something. I felt awkward. It wasn't because I didn't care."

"He knew that." Starsky took deep breath and shifted his weight back on his heels. "Blow your nose and come on. I'm gonna show you something I want you to do for me."

Kiko put the letter in his pocket and followed Starsky to the kitchen. The one-time detective opened the refrigerator and took out a white cardboard container.

"Ashes," he said matter-of-factly. "That damn urn in the cemetery is just to keep the environmentalists and the brainless bureaucrats off my back."

"You've been keeping his ashes in a take-out food box?"

"Who'd suspect left-over Chinese? C'mon. I promised Hutch I'd do this."

Starsky led the way out the kitchen door to a rickety stairway stretching down to the beach. It was as overgrown with flowers as the front of the house. Kiko followed him down to where a scant twelve feet of dry sand separated the rocking waves from the pale cliff. Starsky inhaled deeply, facing west. The sky had faded to rose and green, but there was enough color left to highlight the distinctive bone structure of his lean, mobile face.

"Tide's going to turn any time now." He looked back at Kiko in his business suit and the crooked grin flashed for a moment. "Better wear old clothes next time, kid. You got to get wet to do this right. He wanted his ashes to go out with the tide."

The water was marbled with violet and indigo and dark kelp green under moving veins of foam. Starsky walked out into it, thigh deep, and waited until a big wave ran past him toward the shore and began to pull out again. Bracing himself against the undertow, he flung the contents of the box outward in a smoky plume that fell hissing into the rush and whisper of the waves. He stood for a moment, then turned and waded back to shore.

"Just like that, kid. I aim to catch up with him."

Kiko took a deep steadying breath and promised, "I'll do it, Starsk." They faced each other for a moment and he knew he had to say something else or start crying. "Of course, I may have to disguise you as a burrito."

Starsky punched his shoulder, accepting the promise, the need for lightness now. "I always knew you got something from me, Kiko. Musta been good taste."

They climbed the stairs and walked back to the front gate in companionable silence, Starsky's shoes squelching water, Kiko's letter shifting crisply in his pocket. Outside the gate, Kiko turned, wondering why they hadn't talked more about Hutch, wondering what he could say to one friend of the other, feeling his own life at full tide, while Starsky's must inevitably ebb. He tried to sum up what Hutch had meant to a scared kid whose own father split when the barrio presented so many options for destruction. The only words that came to him were ones like big and clean and bright. That would sound stupid. Instead, he asked a question.

"Would you tell me something?"

"Sure."

"You don't -- I mean, you really seem okay, Starsk. Are you? With Hutch going first and all?" The minute he got it out he wished he hadn't asked. He hated to turn the knife, but Starsky made it all seem so casual, so natural, and Kiko had to know what it was like to lose someone you loved that much.

Starsky stood still in the twilight, his face shadowed. There was a breath of sea salt and male sweat and flowers around him. He ran a long forefinger across the top of the gate.
"I don't mind too much. Hutch -- always took things hard. It would have been worse for him. So it ain't too bad."

The tears he hadn't shed before spilled silently down Kiko's face. Starsky never had thought anything was too hard to accomplish, or too much to endure if it would save Hutch pain or make him happy. The desperate phone calls or fatal accident Kiko had half dreaded would never happen, because bad as it was to be left behind, Starsky could always believe he had saved Hutch that much pain, that much loneliness.

A hot hand of premonition squeezed Kiko's heart. Losing Hutch was like losing the sun, but when Starsky went it would be like the earth falling out from under his feet. And he would have to go on living. Starsky had just shown him how it was done. Starsky had shown him a lot.

Kiko made his voice level. "I guess it's not so bad, if you look at it that way." The pain eased a little. Starsky hated soapy scenes, but he also understood debts had to be paid. "Starsk -- thanks. Thank you for everything."

The man was almost invisible in the quick-falling shadows, but his voice came warmly from the dark.

"You're welcome, son."

The End
 

Author's comment: This little story, lost for years, came back to me as a kind of time capsule. It was what I predicted for the future twenty years ago. Some of what I envisioned hasn't happened -- yet. I also find it interesting that Ebb Tide was written before I scattered my mother's ashes in the Pacific, and before I had a social worker's knowledge or personal experience of the bonds children build with the people who simply transport them from place to place -- people without expectations, who accept without judging. Makes you wonder about foreknowledge. I'm glad to have it back. It holds up for me. I hope it does for you.



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