At seventeen, Panama Jones was achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful… from his Mexican green eyes to the arch of his feet to the warmth of his smooth, sweet skin.
He didn’t think about it much, all he thought about while working part time as a janitor at the Vasquez senior center on Whittier Boulevard was making enough money to hang on to the studio apartment he shared with his mom, Lourde.
After work on a Monday in August, he cashed a paycheck for $237.12. He bought two milanesa tortas at La China Poblana and ate a late dinner with his mom at home. He put two hundred bucks in the drawer in the TV stand for rent. An hour later, Lorde’s boyfriend showed up with a stash. The two of them smoked an old one then found they were out of papers. “Do us a favor would you mind and get us some?” Lorde asked Panama. She opened the tv drawer, took out a five and handed it to him. She opened it enough that the boyfriend noticed the cash. Panama noticed the boyfriend seeing the cash. They locked eyes, for a second.
“Sure.” Panama told his mom as he took the five and left, hoping the weird feeling he had would go away.
Panama left, closed the door and was three yards down the hall when he heard the deadbolt latch shut. He went back and tried the door. Locked. He knocked. He heard them talking. He knocked harder. No one came to the door. And he knew. He wasn’t welcome. He said a silent goodbye to his mom, hit the boulevard and started walking. It was a little after eleven.
Panama dropped down Alameda to Venice then headed west. He bought a donut and coffee at the Donut King then didn’t stop until he hit the beach a little before seven am. He’d never been there before, never seen the ocean, never left home. The cool mist surprised him. It cocooned him. He had three and a half dollars and nowhere to go but he knew he wasn’t going back.
Before the sun set that day, he ventured in. The force of the waves close to shore surprised him; knocked him down. 34 year old Chelsea was just ending a long ride on a short board. She grabbed him up. Then she took him in. For three months and four days, she called him “Baby.”
“Hey, Baby, bring that lotion over here. Lie down, now… roll over on your back.” Or “Baby, you hungry?” And sometimes, “Baby, you’re gonna break my heart.”.
She shared her bed with him, her food and soon enough, her heart. She knew she couldn’t keep him but she tried.
“Just get in there, Baby, get in there. Hold your breath and dive under until you feel the rush pass over.” Chelsea taught Panama how to get past the first set of waves until they got to the breaks that were big enough to ride. He took to surfing like religion. Indeed, it was his savior. Every time he went under a wave, he forgot everything. Every single wound, every single fear. The first time he rode one, good things almost seemed possible. He used Chelsea’s board every morning while she was at work. But afternoons and weekends, she wanted it for herself.
“A good used one’s under two hundred bucks.” She’d tell him, “You can save that in no time bussing tables on the or even working at McDonalds.”
She could’ve bought him one but she knew he’d probably take it and run – he was starting to talk about the breaks at other beaches he’d heard about: Point Dume, San Onofre, Imperial, San Felipe.
She also knew he could find another woman to buy him one. And he did.
Women gave Panama everything: shelter, food, sex, pot, love. They turned him on to the chili verde at Felix’s in Redondo; the surf breaks at Solana, San Elijo, Rosarita; the strips at Huntington; Lady M weed; Astro Burgers’ onion rings; Kama Sutra positions four through sixty-nine and the Yellowtail marinated in tequila and lime at Joe’s café in Ensenada.
Panama had just finished a plate full of the fat, sizzled fish and was buying some twinkies – they called them “Bimbos” down there – at Boom Boom carneceria just down the street from Joe’s when he first met Leland Hays. He’d been between women for a few months, sleeping on the beach, making a few bucks selling joints to surfers from the two ounces of Salinas Gold a woman in San Diego had given him.
“Could get you killed.” Leland mentioned as he slipped Panama a twenty for a joint of the smooth weed.
“Hey man, be cool.” Panama backed away, “Just a couple sticks’s all I got–“.
“I am cool.” Leland leaned in, “Just sayin’, sellin’ can get dangerous. Cartel doesn’t like competition–”
“Three sticks. That’s all I got– just need a few bucks for food.” Panama walked away.
Leland’s words slowed him, “I can get you five, six hundred for a few nights work. Easy money.”
“Easy money.” Words that should’ve made Panama run. But he was so young then… stoned and way less worldly than he thought. Five or six hundred was enough for a month’s stay at the San Ysidro Motel – he was a little scared of sleeping on the beach ever since a friend of a friend had got his head cut off one night sleeping at Imperial. Plus he could get a board of his own. He’d sold the second hand one a woman in Pismo had bought him – he’d had nowhere to keep it.
He followed Leland across the street. As Hays got into a sweet, sweet ride – a new blue VW van, Panama was right behind him.
“How easy?” he asked.