Authors: Fred Waitzkin
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For Bonnie, Katya, Josh, Desi, Jack, and Jeff
I met Jim in July of 1983 on a tropical island rife with offshore breezes and nights lusty with renewal and reckless hope. I came here to fish in the Gulf Stream each summer, to get time off my back.
We were the only two customers in the tiny End of the World Saloon, but I barely noticed him when I sat down at the sandy weathered bar.
Hello, Ebb Tide, said Cornelius, a heavyset bartender who wore gaudy gold rings from a half-dozen years earlier when he'd worked for Colombians off-loading bales of marijuana. I had known him since I was a kid. He always called me Ebb Tide, the name of my fishing boat. Cornelius pulled a Heineken out of a beat-up cooler and set it on the bar in front of me.
The End of the World was an unpainted plywood shack set precariously on the windy south point of Bimini Island in the Bahamas. I loved drinking beer here at night so close to the channel you could hear the tide running and the sound of jacks crashing on schools of baitfish. A hundred nights I drummed on the rough wooden planks to the refrains of Bob Marley coming from Cornelius's rusty boom box. Each time I come back to the island I expect to find the place has been blown into the channel by a hurricane or nor'easter. Someday it will be.
I brought you a nice one, I said, lifting a white plastic bucket off the sand floor of the shack. There was a six-pound Nassau grouper curled inside. Cornelius smiled, showing off his two gold front teeth. Grouper was his favorite. The one in the bucket was big enough to feed his wife and kids with enough left over to make a peppery soup the following night.
Where'd you catch it? asked the stranger who had pulled up a stool beside me. He stuck out his hand and we shook. He had a strong grip. He was wearing a tight T-shirt and looked battle tested like an aging fighter. On his muscular arm he had the fading tattoo of a full-figured mermaid.
A couple hundred yards off the concrete ship, I lied. Cornelius smiled a little and then walked to the far side of the bar, where he opened the lid of another cooler. He knew there weren't any groupers on the sandy bottom near the old wreck.
What kind of bait?
What'd you catch it on?
Cornelius was back with my bucket, and scratching around inside there were three small crawfish. That was our deal, fish for crawfish.
Jim caught my eye. In the Bahamas crawfish were out of season and these three were shorts. He glanced back in the bucket.
What bait? he asked again with a naughty grin. What's the big secret?
Like many fishermen, I feel authorial pride about the wheres and gimmicks of what I do. Three, four times this stranger asked without giving me room to breathe. I didn't want to tell him, but he was in my face bullying and at the same time challenging me to keep my secret. He was a tough guy but also funny.
Why not? Why not? he pushed.
It felt like he was prying himself into my life. I couldn't shut him up.
I caught it with conch slop.
I didn't know they ate conchÂ â¦ will you show me?
Show you what?
We could go out together. I love fishing.
Jim's salesmanship felt familiar, but I didn't pin it down immediately. I wanted to say no, but turning him down on the spot felt like an opportunity lost. And he knew it.
Jim looked amused. What other fish do you catch off this island?
You can catch anything, almost anything, I said. That's the beauty of fishing here. The Gulf Stream comes right up to the shore.
What about tuna?
I found myself describing the big schools of black fin that come up at dusk off Picket Rock and Gun Cay. Before long I was telling him what lures I use and how far behind the boat I troll them. He wanted to hear every detail and I fell into a rhythm of giving up hard-won secrets, one after the next. I was saying so much that I felt ridiculous, but I kept talking until we started to laugh. Then he punched me hard on the shoulder. My shoulder throbbed, but I tried not to show it.
Jim was fast and powerful for a fifty-five-year-old, with big appetites, and handsome, with a worn-out toughness.
A sultry offshore wind was rushing through the open windows of the shack. Jim breathed it deeply. It must have been around ten o'clock by now and we were still the only two customers at the bar. We had been exchanging memories of our parents, wives, women we'd enjoyed. One story opened up the next. We were drinking beer and laughing at ourselves as if we had the truth collared.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
This place is like my backyard, I said, pointing out the rotting window frame of the shack toward the bay with expanses of mangroves to the south and east.
You wouldn't believe the fish you can get right here in the harbor. Big snappers, tarpon, sharks.
Right here in front of this bar?
I pointed to a little jut of sand a hundred feet away.
One night when I was a kid, fourteen or fifteen, I came here with a bucket of bloody tuna scraps. Some local guy told me you could catch big sharks right over there at night. I had brought a hand line and a big hook, the size of my hand. I tossed my bait as far as I could and let it drift out with the tide. There was no End of the World Saloon twenty-five years ago. No one was around. The wind was blowing like tonight and it was the dark of the moon, pitch-black. The tide was racing out of the harbor.
Right over there? Jim asked, pointing at the nearby beach.
For a kid, battling a man-eater seemed like all of the adventure life had to offer, I continued. This was my coming-of-age moment. I was scared to death, also really excited. After a half hour, I hooked something very big that ran back and forth in the black water just beyond the small breakers while I hung on for my life, dug my heels into the sand. I was determined to hold on. After ten minutes I had this big thing tumbling in the surf and then I hauled it up on the beach. I pulled and pulled until the shark was about twenty feet from the water. It was heavy, maybe ten feet long, and sat there for a while stunned while I took it in. Suddenly the shark started jumping and thrashing around. Must have sensed it was no longer in the sea. Soon it was all covered in wet sand like a second skin, a disgusting sight. I was repelled by my shark, but I forced myself to touch it a few times. Then I didn't know what to do. The shark was too far from the water and half-burrowed in the sand. I didn't know how to push it back in. I wanted to show off this prize catch to my dad, but he was asleep in our hotel room up the road. I wanted to show it off, but no one was on the beach but me. I'd expected a big celebration from this victory, but now all I had was a sandy shark flopping on the beach. I didn't know what to do. I left it there dying.
Jim took that in. We didn't talk for a bit. I felt like we were buddies, that I could say anything to him. It happened very quickly.
Then, finally, into his sixth or eighth beer, he said, I've been going through a run of bad luck. Jim was drinking two to my one. I lost my wife, my business, my home, he said. I lost everything I had.
Everything I had.
He didn't spell it out, but it was my impression there was something illegal and shameful about the affair, some terrible disgrace.
I went to the Brazilian Amazon, he said. To make back everything I lost, and a lot more.
The Brazilian Amazon! He was in a different league. My victories and defeats were so much smaller than his. He'd lost his wife and business, his home. I had some melancholy moments to relate. I had local fishing knowledge. I lied that I was a novelist. In truth, I wrote freelance articles for magazines. I was trying to keep up with him. Before long I created a brief love affair, then blushed. I sensed that he could look right through me. If telling the dark truth had become a competition, Jim won easily.
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At the time, I was renting a tiny cottage on the north end of the island. During calm summer afternoons, my wife and I trolled the Gulf Stream in an open twenty footer that I bought used in Fort Lauderdale for thirty-five hundred dollars. My father had first brought me here as a teenage boy. In our New York life he had usually been preoccupied with some business deal about to close or he was furious with Mom or with a customer who had crossed him, but on this windswept island he became mellow and yielding; “I feel like a new man,” was how he put it. Our island visits imbued a longing that went beyond catching giant marlin or breathing the heavy night air suggesting pleasures I did not yet know. Every year of my life I return to Bimini hoping to alter my life's direction or, more modestly, to feel like a new man.
Jim had spent the past three months cruising the Exumas with his young wife, Phyllis, on a plush sixty-five-foot trawler yacht. That captured my interest. He had been healing, he said, since returning to the States after nearly three years in Brazil. Following this leisurely cruise he wanted to start a new business in Miami. He was going to shop for a house on a canal where he could keep his yacht tied up in the back.
I'm good at making money, he remarked matter-of-factly. I've made a lot of people wealthy.
What a crass thing to say, but I didn't care. I hung on Jim's words.
Why don't we team up for a week? I suggested, trying to hold his interest. I know fishing and you own a big trawler. I'll teach you to fish. I can take you to the best reefs for diving.
I'd never been more awkwardly out front in my life. I barely knew this man.
But Jim didn't seem surprised by my suggestion.
He and his wife had been planning to anchor for two nights off the north end of the island where there was a pristine and mostly deserted beach. He proposed that we should leave for our cruise in three days. We'd meet at the fuel dock of the Blue Water Marina Thursday at noon. We shook on it.
It was past midnight and I was sitting in the bar by myself finishing a bottle. Cornelius had left an hour earlier with the grouper. Jim was goneâmaybe he'd stepped outside to take a piss. I'd had a lot of beer. I didn't remember him saying good night. I had this notion he'd put the idea of the cruise into my head. That he'd toyed with me.
I turned off the lights and closed the door behind me. When I walked onto the narrow Queens Highway Jim was nowhere to be seen. The wind had picked up and there was no one around. I walked down to the little jut of beach where I had once left the dying shark. I half-expected to find some trace of it, some lasting marker.