Reef Danceby John Decure
There is a certain poise that comes with understanding the ocean's moods, tapping a pulse borne of a distinct, untamed, unfathomable energy source. An equilibrium, located on a singular track between the sucking trough and the pitching crest. A sense of perfect balance on a rolling, temporary stage, not a single movement wasted. A spray-blinded late takeoff in
There is a certain poise that comes with understanding the ocean's moods, tapping a pulse borne of a distinct, untamed, unfathomable energy source. An equilibrium, located on a singular track between the sucking trough and the pitching crest. A sense of perfect balance on a rolling, temporary stage, not a single movement wasted. A spray-blinded late takeoff in roaring Santa Ana winds. A confidence, knowing your instincts won't let you down.
Thirteen years ago J. Shepard's mother rose before dawn, packed a bag and walked out of his life forever. Since then, the rolling surf has been his only escape, a refuge from the daily stress of his job defending parents in the overburdened L.A. juvenile dependency court, and from the dark, unanswered questions of his past. When J. is assigned a high profile case, one in which a mother is accused of selling her child to the highest bidder, even a day in the surf won't let him escape. J. can't hide from the media attention that the case draws, and nor can he hide from the painful memories of his own desertion that the case congers. He realizes that if he does not confront the mystery of his own past he will always be stuck in equilibrium, unable to move against his emotional and physical tide. He will be stuck in the darkest spot in the ocean, the reef dance.
J. simultaneously throws himself into the case and search for the reasons behind his own mother's disappearance. In order to succeed in both areas, however, he must rely on an old friend, Jackie Pace, a wayward surfing legend with a sordid past, that no one believes is reliable. But J. needs his friends help, and Jackie must rise to the challenge not just because he is J.'s friend but because he is much more intimately linked to the mystery than J. could ever know.
Reef Dance will suck you into the surfer's pacific, pulling you deep within it's mystery, and the turmoil of one man's soul.
Read an Excerpt
Sigmund Freud didn’t surf. Of this I was certain.
Such was the nature of my distraction on this particular morning. I could hardly focus on the Madden case—my last one of the day, thank God. Instead, my mind’s eye continuously replayed the splendid barrel I’d tapped into last night at the pier just before dark. I set down the file and sighed, feeling the surge of rolling sea beneath my feet, the breathlessness coming back. Stroking deep and with great purpose, adrenalized, my surfboard’s speed matching the rushing peak as I slide to my feet, descending in a low crouch. Banking squarely off the bottom, just ahead of the hissing clatter, the wall ahead forming and gathering itself, dragging muddy green sheets of water off the shallow sandbar, readying to throw. I redirect slightly, set my inside rail in a down-the-line trajectory, weight forward and tucked. The wall hits the bar, the upper third pitching onto the flat in a lazy hook, the wave’s ceiling spinning above my head like a beaded veil.
Everything is moving in slow motion. I am locked in, encased in the deepest, purest part of the wave, invisible from shore, entranced by the swirling symmetry. When you’re locked, you have little choice but to give yourself over to the wave’s dictates. Some barrels you make, some you don’t. This one I make.
Somebody spoke, and my surfing reverie ended.
“How about three-D? The Madden minors.”
Judge Foley, finishing up a drug-baby case and itching for another, tugged at the collar of his black robe like it was cutting off his air supply. “We ready on this one, people? Talk to me.”
No one said a word.
It was Friday, August 30th, 1992. An election year, a time of imminent change. George Herbert Walker Bush was still in the White House, but the boys from Desert Storm had come home to find a stagnant economy, and lately, a good-ole’-boy named Clinton was dogging Bush in the polls, promising a new beginning.
A new beginning sounded cool to me. I was at work today, in the Los Angeles County Juvenile Dependency Court, browsing the Madden file and, quite honestly, wishing I was somewhere else. Foley was racing through his morning calendar, scarcely glancing up from the stack of manila files to match the names to the faces as he called each case.
Marquez. Jeter. Washington. Lopez. Nguyen. Mornings like this, busted-up families rumble through here like a herd of bug-eyed cows on a cattle drive. Every court day the pace is hectic, but with the weekend glimmering like a distant oasis, Fridays push the tempo harder yet. Friday mornings in Department 302 always remind me of a tune from that old TV show, Rawhide: Load ’em up—load ’em up! Move ’em out—move ’em out! Rawhide.
I hummed a few bars of the Rawhide theme, watching a heroin addict who resembled a torn-up rag doll stumble out of court after losing her bid to win custody of Shaquilla Bowles, her newborn drug-baby. Then Foley looked up from his pile of grief and fixed on me.
I smiled. “Yes, Your Honor?”
He showed me the face of his watch, a faux Rolex special—so much for county salaries—as if he was about to instruct me on how to tell time. “Ready on Madden, Shepard?” he said. “I’d like to call Madden before noon so we can all go home.”
“I’m studying the file as we speak, Your Honor.”
He yawned into the sleeve of his robe. “We’re waiting, counselor.”
Jamming to get the Madden case through before lunch was fine by me. A solid southwest swell was still hitting in Christianitos, my hometown beach, and the water was summertime warm. I could picture the scene, the wondrous, movable stage of blue-green waves tumbling forth, the riders under the pier hooting and scrambling for position, their surfboards banking through the shallows. At water’s edge, hungry gulls scavenging for sand crabs in the shorepound. Hot sand littered with college girls in brightly colored bikinis, baking in the midday sun and misting their bronzed skin with plastic squirt bottles while they studied the pages of Cosmo and Mademoiselle for back-to-school beauty tips and September horoscopes. All of it a million miles outside these institutional-gray walls. Christ, beach days like this were made for surfing.
I scanned the county social worker’s emergency detention report on the Madden case. The text was an eyesore, a crude, hastily scrawled hieroglyphic. The county’s position, however, was clear: removal of the two Madden minors was essential to their protection and safety.
“Minor #1 indicated his unwillingness to consider viable transitional options.” (This meant the kid said no way was he going to any foster home.)
“Minor #2 stated that in the event that removal was unavoidable, she desired placement with her sibling.” (I doubted a five-year-old girl would’ve put that fine a point on her situation.)
Then, the kicker. “Mother” (my client) “exhibits domestic capabilities incompatible with effective parenting.” (The woman was a slob.)
But my mind was not on my work, which is why I say that Freud didn’t surf. Take his theory on random thought: that a great percentage of our idle thoughts are about sex—random randiness, you could say. I remember how that theory got my entire Psychology 101 class tittering years ago in college. I was a rank freshman, skating on the thinnest intellectual ice imaginable, and I readily bought in too, nervously laughing along with the others while I strained for a peripheral perve on Adina, an Italian beauty just across the aisle. I think where Freud went wrong was not in the theory itself—Christ, I should’ve received course credit for studying Adina as hard as I did that semester—but in his attempt to apply it across the board. Take me. My mind just doesn’t work that way. Adina aside, these days I generally think about riding waves a hell of a lot more than sex.
I picked through the Madden file some more, but before I could absorb anything fresh the court reporter stopped tapping and people rose from the chairs at counsel table. Another shattered family shrank away from Judge Foley, a mother and three small girls weeping in each other’s arms while a grave old woman with a permanent scowl kept Father, a handsome young Latino, at a safe distance from her granddaughters. Father was a dapper cat, his black slacks neatly creased, his silk gold shirt snugly buttoned at the top. He slicked his hair as he strolled by, gamely passing me a “How’s it?” kind of nod.
Yeah right, guy, I thought. As if getting booted from your own home for making your stepdaughter service you is an everyday occurrence for you, you strutting piece of shit.
I’m not at all keen on people who exploit the innocent. He saw the blankness in my eyes and swallowed his grin on the spot. Sin verguenza, brother, have you no shame? My fists were clenched as he drooped by me, my heart thumping to protect a child I would never know. This job still takes my breath away daily.
“Next, twenty-two, Baby Girl Trujillo,” Judge Foley droned, squinting at the chalkboard over his clerk’s desk that posted the numbers of cases ready to be adjudicated. “Twenty-two was on the board a minute ago—what happened?”
I calmed myself with a little deep breathing and gave the Madden report another go. According to the county, my latest client, Darla Madden, had a home resembling a full-service dump. Spoiled milk in the fridge, a leaning tower of dirty dishes in the sink, and a pile of “moist feces” on display in the living room (I puzzled briefly at how the worker might’ve field-tested the shit for consistency, but there you have it). A little something for every taste. The Department of Child Protective Services had moved on a tip from a disgusted neighbor, an unlucky renter who’d spent weeks patrolling the complex to pin down the unholy stench that kept wrecking his summer barbecues. I’d read enough and was ready to go find Darla Madden and interview her. Moist feces. Perhaps her aroma would find me first.
The waiting area just outside Foley’s courtroom was almost empty—something intense was unfolding a hundred feet down the hallway. A dense cluster of bodies jostled about, making a racket much louder than the standard prime-time din. In the middle of the pack stood a woman in a loud orange blazer, jabbering away as she cornered someone with a microphone. A bearded TV cameraman, his hardware balanced behind one ear, stood next to the reporter, a black wire coiling down his back like a poisonous snake. Nearby, an assistant in a headset held a loop of cable in one hand and steadied a boom mic over the reporter to catch all the jabbering.
TV cameras in this place? So much for the tenet—no, make that the law—that dependency matters are confidential. The jam of onlookers, a motley crew of the usual hapless-go-lucky dependency participants, crowded in around the reporter for a better look. I studied their faces.
For three years now, I’d boldly ventured into the waiting throng each morning to take on parents too poor to afford a lawyer. At this point in time, they all looked familiar to me.
The thin brown duke in his gray porkpie hat with a black felt band, khaki chinos and an untucked, oversized white-cotton undershirt, his forearms defaced by the obligatory set of gang tattoos. The duke’s teenaged girlfriend, a graduate of the Tammy Faye School of Mascara Application, crowding in behind the duke as she hoisted a diapered, screeching child above her shoulders. Next to them, a rail-thin black woman with an inverted pyramid of pink curlers on her head adjusted her drooping cut-off shorts with a definitive yank, parking the flimsy fabric well up the crack of her ass. Lovely.
Dependency work is a mostly sad affair because of what it does to your perspective. For starters, the sheer volume of cases is absurd. Twenty-four departments on four floors, all of them cranking out thirty-plus hearings a day. Misery, desperation, confusion, ignorance, brutalization, victimization. Interchangeable parts from one pathetic saga to the next. Lawyers referring to their clients not by name, but by the labels “Mother,” “Father” or “Minor,” not out of insensitivity, but by necessity. With a caseload of three hundred, no one can possibly remember names.
“Mother” is zonked out on crystal meth, convinced that she and the kids have to go totally nude twenty-four-seven because how else will God be able to see their souls? Keep your shirt on ma’am, you say without irony. “Father” was caught inserting hot dogs up his four-year-old’s ass while home alone on baby-sitting duty? Don’t make any statements to the social worker until your criminal case has concluded, sir, and, by the way, thanks for ruining the next hunger pang I get at Dodger Stadium. “Minor” is hyperactive, asthmatic, three grades behind in school, and likes to pound on other kids. You also read from the worker’s report that Mom had a prenatal affinity for cheap wine and diet pills. Oh.
The tools you have to make any kind of assist in these sad lives are so comically insufficient, you know there’s really nothing you can say. (What damn good is an apology from your lawyer?)
When every day you ache for changes you can’t make, you get tired inside.
“Darla Madden,” I called out. No one noticed me. “Darla Madden,” I said much louder. Nothing but TV crew ruckus. Few cases rate TV news coverage around here. The most vile child murderers and molesters, whose gruesome deeds occasionally rate media attention based on sheer shock value, invariably enter the building in police custody. Burly officers spirit them through secured, unseen passageways behind the courtrooms. It’s usually quite devoid of drama, and as with every dependency case, the public is shut out of the courtroom. But there they were, an entire mobile crew, zeroing in on the misfortune of some anonymous child and managing to create a game-show atmosphere at the same time.
“Darla Madden!” I shouted. Nada. This TV thing was beginning to seriously cramp my morning. I knew Madden was over there, in the midst of the brouhaha, soaking up the spectacle of live TV coverage as if it was all part of a free giveaway. I was still banking on an early exit as soon as I finished with Darla. Still, I wasn’t about to enter such a disordered fray just to find her. “Hey!” I shouted at the orange blazer. “Mind your own business!”
The crew people swung around and faced me. I recognized the reporter’s hair, a thickly layered, unnaturally brown-blond mane, parted straight down the middle and caroming off her shoulders in a small flip. The color was disturbingly tinny: Miss Clairol with a touch of copper metal-flake. I remembered her name. Holly Dupree, “Channel Six News at Six.”
I’d seen the woman’s work before. A few years back a popular Olympic athlete was outed by the scoop-whores at Channel Six after someone spotted him being treated at an AIDS clinic. Holly Dupree did the “exclusive” with the athlete’s mother the day the story broke, pinning the woman to a parked car and reducing her to a sobbing wreck with the news that her only son was dying (he’d apparently kept his illness a secret). That night, the station replayed the wrenching scene at five, six and ten, accompanied by Holly’s inane babbling about “the high price of sex in the nineties,” “a real-life tragedy” and assorted other scripted horseshit.
“Are you on the case?” Holly said.
“I’m J. Shepard,” I said. “I work here. I’m a lawyer.”
She smiled. “I see.” Patronizing me. “Thank you.” Her crew collectively turned its back on me as if I’d vaporized into thin air.
I contemplated strolling over and engaging Holly in a little spirited wordplay, but the salty scent of the Pacific Ocean still lingered somewhere deep in my bones, and my thoughts returned to warm water currents and late-summer lines of energy peeling evenly over the sandbars beneath the pier. Holly Dupree was not worth the trouble. One more case, over and out.
“Darla Madden? Darla Madden!” Again, nothing. “Surf’s up, Darla the default,” I said under my breath. I turned to re-enter Department 302.
“Mister?” a boy said as I turned the doorknob. “She’s comin’.”
The kid was chunky and pale, with a grimy red face and a potbelly protruding from his grease-stained Aquaman T-shirt. Dark, unwashed hair brushed across his forehead in jagged tatters. He was sporting a wide set of whitewalls above the ears and collar from a very recent in-home haircut, but the back and sides of his neck were gritty with dirt. Without a doubt, the boy now tunneling a finger deep into his nostril was little Eric Madden, Son of Slob.
“Mister?” He pinched a crust of snot and smiled.
“Pick a winner,” I said.
“Young man, don’t you run from me like that!” a throaty voice bellowed. Eric cast his eyes to the floor and stepped aside.
Darla Madden was a rolling mountain of a woman, a startling sight in terms of sheer volume alone. She’d broken from the commotion and lumbered through the low-slung furniture of the waiting area, slowing to avoid the edge of a couch here, the arm of a padded chair there, as if she’d hitched a ride on a shopping cart with a particularly wobbly set of wheels. She wore a billowing yellow dress, the kind of full-length job that looks like a nightgown but thankfully reveals nothing, the bright polyester sloping down her wide shoulders and careening off the front of her huge bust-line like a shade-giving canopy. Her face, round and baby pink like Eric’s, was damp with perspiration and fixed with the kind of worn-out expression one often sees in the eyes of the obese. Ringlets of dark curls bounced behind her ears.
I felt the blood rush to my head as she fluttered her false eyelashes and extended her hand.
“Hey, mister sharp suit. You my lawyer?”
“Darla Madden?” I asked, swallowing as her ripe musk lit a fire in my nostrils.
“In the flesh.” She slid a meaty forearm over Eric’s shoulder and tousled his hair with affection. “Go and sit with your Uncle Pete, young man,” she ordered him.
In an instant, Eric was off, sprinting toward a stainless steel water fountain that jutted from the wall two courtrooms down the crowded corridor.
“Right now!” she shouted after him, but Eric was well out of range.
I took her into the windowless interview room located just off the short hallway that leads into the courtroom, and opened the file.
Actually, the allegations against Darla Madden in the county’s court petition weren’t much: filthy living conditions and the cryptic reference to freshly deposited excrement for added emphasis, but no charges of physical or sexual abuse, the two top drawing cards in dependency court. And yet, the emergency social worker had still seen fit to pull Eric, who was twelve, and his sister Stacy, five, out of the home and give temporary custody to their paternal uncle, Pete. The case was a bit of a rarity: a “dirty house” detention.
“I’m J. Shepard.” I handed her a card, which she held away from her body and inspected.
“Dependency Court Legal Project . . . what’s that?”
“A law firm. The county pays me to represent people who can’t afford a lawyer, which is just about everybody in the place.”
She raised her right hand as if to solemnly swear. “You got that right, Mister Shepard. I’m as poor as a church mouse.”
“Well, don’t worry, I won’t be sending you a bill. That’s one thing about this wonderful experience you can actually bank on. They can charge you for removing your trash, but not your kids.”
I regretted my words as quickly as I’d spoken them. Darla’s eyes swam in a glaze of tears, her chest heaving in a hiccup as she fought to compose herself. But it was too late. I handed her a tissue and closed my eyes as she began to weep in earnest.
A dirty house detention. In the grand scheme of government-regulated child welfare, Darla Madden’s shortcomings as a homemaker were of almost laughable concern to the county. But there was nothing funny about her current state of abject humiliation.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Madden,” I said. “I know it’s hard having your kids taken away from you. Trust me, I do.”
She straightened. “That man!” she said. “Bastard!”
“That . . . stupid social worker, the one who took my Eric and Stacy. They’re my pride and joy. He hates me, I know it!”
I flipped through the social worker’s incident report attached to the petition. “Ms. Madden, if you don’t mind, I think I should tell you a few things about this court and these proceedings. When I’m done, you can tell me about your case.”
She smiled, wiping the tears with the back of her thick hand. “You’re all right. I can tell you care about me.”
“It’s my job,” I said.
I suspected that Darla didn’t quite believe me. “Well thanks for the hanky, anyway.”
We weren’t getting anywhere. “Okay,” I said, “California’s got laws about how a kid can be treated. County social workers go out to do an investigation when the Department of Child Welfare gets a report that a child has been abused or neglected, or abandoned, and—”
“How about sold?”
“Sold? What are you talking about?”
“You heard me. What if somebody tries to sell their kid?”
“Ms. Madden,” I said, “if you’d just let me get through the basics with you without interruption.”
She bowed her head. “Sorry. But, can I ask ya just one little babysellin’ question?”
“No, you can’t. Look, Ms. Madden, a minute ago you were crying about your kids being removed, remember?” She nodded. “Well what do you say we stick to your case and how we’re going to get those kids home today, all right?”
“Oh.” She smiled. “I get it. So you’re the only one in here doesn’t care, huh?”
“I thought you just told me I did care.”
“I don’t mean about me. Nah, I mean about the baby-seller case.”
She ignored my impatient sigh. “All right,” I said, “let’s hear it.”
“Well,” she said, her voice dipping, “word is, this young girl had a get-rich-quick scheme that backfired. She gets herself pregnant ’n’ finds about five different rich couples to adopt her baby. Guess when a girl’s both white ’n’ pretty good lookin’ everyone wants the fruit of her loins, if you get my meaning.”
“Don’t worry, I get you,” I said. “What else?”
“Well, so they’re all givin’ her money and clothes and expensive things, jewelry, sky’s the limit! But here’s the catch: they all think they’re the only ones gonna get the baby, ’cause none of ’em know about the other couples! But wait! That ain’t even the worst of it!”
“Don’t tell me,” I said wearily, “she wants to keep the kid.”
It stood to reason. Why else would the case land in here if custody of the baby wasn’t the key issue? In dependency, custody is that which defines winning and losing, the ultimate prize.
Darla looked deflated. “How’d ya know?”
How could I not have known?
“Now, if the county thinks a kid’s been abused or neglected—”
“We talkin’ about my case again?”
My face went stony. “They can remove the kids temporarily,” I continued, “but they’ve got to get a judge to agree with them that the abuse or neglect happened. If the judge agrees, he can decide where the kids will live and who can visit them, what schools they go to, medical procedures—a whole host of things.”
She sighed and shook her head. “It don’t seem fair.”
“Today, the judge will decide whether your kids come home right away or not.”
Darla suddenly looked scared. “You will get ’em home to me today, won’t you?”
Meet the Author
John DeCure is a writer familiar with both of the worlds that Reef Dance explores. He has been surfing since the early 1970's and has written for Surfer Magazine and the Surfer's Journal. In his first job as an attorney, he spent two years defending parents and children in juvenile dependency court. He is currently a prosecutor with the State Attorney General.
A second-generation Californian, John lives in West Los Angeles with his wife and their small son. Reef Dance is his first novel.
John DeCure was a deputy trial counsel with the State Bar of California from 1993-1998. He is the author of Bluebird Rising and Reef Dance. He lives and surfs in Southern California, where he was born and raised.
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