My Hula Girl

At first, Sturgis liked telling Thornton the story. He’d been living at the Pedro Point parking lot with his dog since last winter. The best he’d found since they’d been forced from the lot at Hope Ranch, overlooking the Santa Barbara coast. This lot, too, had a view of the ocean, though mostly blocked by beach cottages that sprinkled the shore. The lot had everything else: the smell of salt air, the sound of surf, and San Pedro Valley creek that spilled into the ocean at the south end of Linda Mar Beach. In the winter, the creek roared when it rained and from time to time got close to overflowing. In the summer, mallards and coots weaved through cat tails as the stream meandered around shifting sand bars. Towheaded kids tossed breadcrumbs to tease a rise from a steelhead trout that lived under an old concrete slab someone had dumped. A few of the fish were huge. At dusk, a Black-crowned Night Heron would sometimes park on a post with a view of the stream. It reminded Sturgis of Groucho Marx, that squat profile with a beak that hinted at the cigar. Puffing and waiting for the shiny steelhead fry. 

Sturgis knew most of the regulars, but parents with little ones didn’t seem trusting of Sturgis’s stout frame and deep tan. There was something out of place for a forty-something adult who spent so much time at the beach. But everyone loved his big Black Lab, Wally, who wagged his tail and made them smile. 

Thornton, Sturgis’s attorney, shifted in his chair. “So why do you think it was the bike shop owner who called the police?”

Sturgis looked at Thornton in the way a professor looks at an over-eager student. “I’ll get to it, relax.”

Sturgis thought he added value to the place. He picked up other people’s trash, he showered daily, and he kept his car clean, even folded his bedding. But there was an incident on Earth Day when the bike shop owner, a guy named Frank, told him relocate and not come back.

“Wasn’t everyone notified that the lot was off limits for the day?” Thornton jotted notes along the margin of his report. 

“Let’s just say that I received a personal invitation to leave,” said Sturgis.

The Friday night before the event, around sunset, city officials had posted signs that the lot was closed from 8 pm Friday until 8 am Sunday morning. Sturgis strapped his board to the station wagon roof, preparing to move for a day or two. Wally lifted his head from his nap on the fold-down tail gate of their ‘73 Chevy wagon and released a low growl. Frank walked toward the wagon, waving a piece of paper. Probably a note, like others he’d left on the Chevy’s windshield, that overnight parking was not permitted. Each signed, The Management.

“I told you that you couldn’t park here any longer,” said Frank.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m leaving for the weekend,” said Sturgis.

The driver’s side window was down, letting the ocean breeze tickle his little brunette Hula Girl, attached to the dash with two-way tape. 

“Cute Hula Girl,” Frank said. “Aren’t you a little old for dolls?” Frank stuck his head in the window and gave the girl a flick, setting her into motion. Sturgis placed his hand on Frank’s shoulder and applied pressure.

“If you want to keep that arm I suggest you be on your way,” said Sturgis.

“Dude, get a grip,” Frank pulled away massaging his right shoulder. As he headed back to his shop he turned and yelled, “If your car’s here in the morning, I’ll have it towed.” 

Sturgis stroked the air, like he’d swatted a mosquito, and returned to his tasks. He tidied up the area around his station wagon. Even brought a broom and brushed the sand into tiny piles he tossed into the creek. Before the interruption he’d enjoyed the high from a great surf session. A sturdy west swell pumped lefts off the point like a machine. As peaks pushed over the rocky reefs, the spindrift held rainbows as each wave broke. He wasn’t going to let Frank ruin a perfectly good vibe.

“Let’s get back to the Earth Day event,” Thornton poured himself a cup of coffee. “Talking about your surfing adventures isn’t going to sway a jurist.”

Sturgis said he didn’t think it would ever go to trial. He remembered the heft of the two-by-four. That hollow thump, like hitting the back of an acoustic guitar with a wooden mallet, the gentle give of flesh and bone.

“The sound is beautifully descriptive,” said Thornton. “The plaintiff’s attorney will find endless ways to use it against you. STURGIS! NEVER SAY THOSE WORDS AGAIN. NOT EVEN TO ME.”

Sturgis nodded, and took a breath like he’d just remembered something that he didn’t want to discuss.

“So tell me about Earth day,” said Thornton.

“We didn’t attend. Too many people. There was a strengthening northwest wind in the forecast, so we drove toward Santa Cruz to watch kite surfing at Waddell Creek.”

Waddell flowed out of Big Basin, through a valley and into a shoreline that leaned toward the south. The prevailing summer wind created some of the finest wind and kite surfing in the area.

“I think we’re getting a little off topic,” Thornton checked the black and white wall clock in his office. “When did you return to the parking lot?”

“The Sunday evening after Earth Day”

A south wind brought thick rain and twirled it overhead like the spinning mess might fester into something more sinister. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, the wind and rain stopped. The lot was a clean sheet of liquid reflecting the north side of the bike shop. Clouds coalesced into Rorschach blots that reflected on the parking lot surface. 

“So, you were stoned?” asked Thornton.

Sturgis ignored the question. 

Frank had ridden his beach cruiser from behind his shop. “If your car’s here in the morning, I’m calling the police.” He circled Sturgis’ station wagon once and left the lot.

Sturgis turned toward the sea and watched a V of brown pelicans pass the creek and turn toward the point where the dark blue ocean picked up strands of orange from the sky. Usually watching birds eased his mood, but that day it seemed to pull him apart, and he was hungry. He and Wally walked across the parking lot to Zach’s Place for a beer and a bite. Zach gave Wally a bowl of water and some kibble. He let them eat on the back patio. Sturgis devoured a large veggie pizza and a pitcher of beer. He was reeling as he passed the bike shop. A flicker of light drew his eyes to the GoPro display where he made eye contact with a four-inch brunette Hula Girl. When they got to the car his Hula Girl was gone. Limp pieces of two-way tape draped over the dash.

Thornton looked up from his notes, “Is there any way to prove it was yours?” 

“It was pretty generic, but it did say Pacific Beach on the stand.”

“You have any photos of it mounted to your dash?”

Sturgis shook his head, No.

He knew he’d be better off waiting for morning to deal with the Hula Girl. He pulled up the tail gate, slid into his sleeping bag and snuggled next to Wally. It must have been after midnight when the thunder started. It was weak at first, maybe on the south side of the mountain. He went to the woods to take a leak and nearly tripped over a pile of two-by-fours left over from the Bike Shop remodel. When he returned, thunder and lightning set Wally to barking. He spent the rest of the night cuddling a scared Wally as rain pelted their home. 

In the morning the wind and rain vanished. Sturgis walked to the beach where a pair of Oyster Catchers cackled to each other as they pecked their red beaks into barnacle encrusted rocks. A small wave repeated in front of the pump house. He had time to catch a few before Frank opened the bike shop. Sturgis pulled on his damp wetsuit and told Wally to stay. He caught a hand full of waves before a slew of surfers paddled into the lineup. He caught a wave to shore and walked back to feed Wally. When he turned the corner past the creek, a police officer was circling his car. A county humane truck was leaving the lot with at least one howling hound inside.

“Can I help you with something officer?” he asked.

“Nice board,” said the officer. “This your car?”

Sturgis placed his board on the roof racks, “Where’s my dog?”

“Your dog tried to bite me, so I called Humane.”

“My dog would only bite if you tried to get in the car,” said Sturgis.

Sturgis looked up to see Frank circling the lot on an old beach cruiser. He stopped at the back of the station wagon with one foot on the bumper. 

“I’m going to miss you Amigo,” said Frank.

Sturgis walked toward Frank as the officer stepped between them and asked Frank to leave.

Thornton’s chair squeaked as he rose to his feet, “Did they take you to the station?” 

“I told the officer that I wasn’t going anywhere until I had my dog back.”

“So that’s when you were arrested?” asked Thornton.

“I took a few deep breaths and went peacefully.”

Sturgis said his sister had posted bail and got Wally out of the pound. They drove back to her place, a cottage on the coast near Santa Cruz, where Sturgis met her boyfriend, a middle aged, tired looking public defender who couldn’t hold his alcohol.

“Hey, I can hold my alcohol,” said Thornton. “At least as good as you.”

Sturgis got a kick out of this interaction, but then it turned serious again.

“We don’t have much time before the arraignment,” said Thornton. “So, let’s get back to the night of April the twenty-seventh.”

On his return to Pedro Point he passed the parking lot and saw the bike shop lights were on. It was dusk. Sturgis figured, sooner or later, Frank would go out for a smoke, and he could retrieve the Hula Girl. He parked on the opposite end of the lot, so he wouldn’t have to walk past the bike shop. At Zach’s he ordered a pizza to go and told Zach about the Hula Girl. Zach rolled his eyes and said that Frank had pissed off so many people. Sturgis sat at the front counter scanning an old Surfer Magazine when someone knocked on the window. It was Frank. He sat on his beach cruiser, both feet on the sidewalk. Frank flicked the Hula Girl he’d mounted to the handlebar, gave Sturgis a toothy smile and peddled away. 

“So, you smacked him right in front of Zach’s?” asked Thornton.

“I continued reading my magazine. I had no interest in a scene.”

Sturgis felt good that he hadn’t taken the bait. When the pizza was ready he got a coke and headed for his car. He wolfed down the first slice and chased it with a swig of Coke. He stared at the strands of two-way tape and remembered the day he got the Hula Girl. He and Tricia had been in San Diego celebrating their anniversary; together for five years. A late summer squall had barreled up the coast and drove them into a funky Pacific Beach dive. They’d laughed until nine over Corona and lime, then stumbled into a tourist shop that sold tee shirts, coffee mugs, and more; all emblazoned with Pacific Beach in bright blue letters. She’d picked up a plastic Hula Girl and danced around Sturgis setting the Hula Girl in motion. She told Sturgis that he could mount it on his dash, so he’d always remember her. Sturgis knew he’d always remember her. He couldn’t imagine being without her. Their parallel tracks at the university. Their love of surfing. Their love of dogs. Her bright green eyes. But Sturgis didn’t know what was coming and had been totally unprepared.

“So, what happened to Tricia?” asked Thornton. “Maybe she has photos of the doll.”

Sturgis paused and looked out the window. He thought about the memorial service, how much it rained. He remembered being tongue-tied when he tried to read his prepared eulogy. “It’s a long story,” said Sturgis. “and not relevant.”

“She could be a character witness,” said Thornton.

“She’s dead,” said Sturgis. 

Thornton looked at his shoes, then shuffled his papers long enough to give both men a break. 

“I’m assuming you didn’t just hop back in the car and drive back to your sister’s,” asked Thornton.

“I came to get my Hula Girl.”

Sturgis took the tape from the dashboard and remembered Tricia’s laugh. That full belly laugh that made everyone around her smile. Bits of tape flaked into the pizza box. He closed the box and opened the door to take in fresh air. A black crowned night heron squawked low over the lot, heading to the creek. Sturgis followed the bird past the bike shop and saw Frank adjusting a mountain bike’s suspension. The Hula Girl sat still on Frank’s beach cruiser. Sturgis went to the woods to relieve himself and nearly tripped on the pile of two-by-fours, lying under a cypress tree. He picked up four, thinking he could build his sister a planter box. On the walk to his car, Frank was standing at the bike shop door, smoking a cigarette.

“Nice evening,” said Frank. “Sure miss you and the dog.”

“I’d like the Hula Girl back,” said Sturgis.

“You’re too old for dolls,” said Frank. “Or was that your wife’s?”

Sturgis looked away from Frank and pulled the two-by-fours close to his chest, as if to protect himself from his thoughts. 

“Hey, no hard feelings,” said Frank. “Wait a minute.”

Frank ducked into the shop and returned with the Hula Girl in hand. He held the doll out, but as Sturgis arranged the wood in his arms to accept it, Frank dropped the Hula Girl onto the sidewalk. It bounced and the head came off.

“Oh, sorry man,” said Frank. “Clumsy, clumsy.”

Sturgis put the two-by-fours on the sidewalk as Frank’s foot came crashing down on the doll’s head and cracked it like an egg. Sturgis thought Frank might hit him while he was down, so he brought up a two-by-four to defend himself. But he’d moved so fast that the board clocked Frank in the forehead. Frank’s knees buckled, landing him in a heap at the feet of the broken doll.

“This may be a good time to take a break,” said Thornton.

“Guess I’m up a creek,” said Sturgis.

“We’ll need to clean up your testimony with a few dos and don’ts but I believe there is pretty clear evidence of extreme provocation. 

“You mean temporary insanity?” asked Sturgis.

“I mean, that doll meant a lot to you, Frank was a jerk, and I think a jury will feel your pain.” Thornton took a yellow marker to a section of his notes. “And Zach called me this morning. Left a message about seeing the whole thing.”

Sturgis told Thornton that he planned to take flowers to the hospital for Frank. He’d leave them at the nurse’s station with a note that would read, “You should never take another man’s doll.”


Sturgis wiped the smirk off his face. “I was just yanking your chain.”

“OK, smart guy. Where you gonna sleep tonight?”

“I’ve got a friend at Ocean Beach. He said I could stay with him a few days. 

“No problem, just be here for the arraignment next Wednesday.”

Thornton pulled a box out of his desk and handed it to Sturgis. “Found this on Etsy. I hope it’ll help relieve a little of the…well, you know.”

Sturgis opened the box, pulled back the blue tissue paper, to find a new Hula Girl with the Pacific Beach logo stamped across the base in bright blue letters.

“Bring it to the arraignment. It might come in handy.”

Sturgis held the doll in both hands and remembered Tricia’s green eyes. He tried to hold himself together but as the Hula Girl’s head started to bob, he started to weep. Thornton pushed a box of tissues across his desk, “I got you Sturge. I got you.”

Tom Adams

I’m a writer, living on the coast, a few miles south of San Francisco. I write short fiction and memoir. I love the smell of salt air. I love coffee.

I love to write about the surf, rising tides, wave pools and robots. I’ve written about memory loss. And there’s psychology from living with a marriage and family therapist for half my life.

I worked in corporate IT, corporate software sales, and video production. I always wanted to be a short order cook.

I can see the ocean from my home but write in my study with the windows closed and music in my ears.

I like to hike and bike and surf a standup paddle board. I like to fly fish with my brother.

I love a sunset stroll, holding my wife’s hand as pelicans cruise above us. I love a crescent moon reflected on still water.