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ISSUE:  Winter 1996

I know some fellows who believe fishing is more than recreation and more than a bad habit. I even know a stand-up dozen guys who’d rather drop a line in a mud puddle than play 18 holes at Pebble Beach. Soulmates, those guys. But I’ve never been one to claim fishing is the be-all and end-all. I’ve got a grown daughter married to a chief petty officer up in Norfolk; she and her kids are worth the sunrise to me. And the love of a woman—I mean the real skingrain kind of love—that’s surely the blood equal of solitude on the water. It has its certain place. When I drive down to the pier with my gear and my coolers and my all-night shark radar mood, however, I don’t care to be interrupted.

Now that I’m retired, I go for shark maybe 30 times a year. Big Al was the one got me to tally my excursions; he’s damn competitive that way. But the days when I seriously counted brook trout and salmon and tequila shots and hard ons are pretty much behind me. It doesn’t make sense to apply that kind of bullshit to snagging sharks. Sharking is primarily attitude. Like climbing a mountain to meet one of those mysterious lama monks, something like that. You got your rituals, you keep to yourself. Sometimes you hook a beauty, but mostly, almost always, you don’t.

Frankie, the guy who’s running Frisco pier this season, is good about my quirks. I pay my four dollars just like everybody else only I stay out all night, even after he shuts down at two, and that’s fine with him. I’ve never had any trouble with the help here—they’re ex-Navy lots of times, or ex-cons, sometimes just ex-schoolteachers happy to bum around again like they did when they were 18. Frankie is solid, and he’ll make change for the cigarette machine if you want it. He know’s I’m good for free beer, too, which pleases him since he doesn’t like to sneak it from the snack bar.

On a weeknight I’m pretty much guaranteed my spot at the end of the pier, just past the utility shed. Tourists beat me there on occasion, but they don’t stay. They get restless if a fish doesn’t latch onto their bait after about ten minutes. Besides, Frankie tells them their luck will be better mid-pier where the surf begins to break, which is mostly true. He knows I like my elbow room. He also knows I’ll get it—at the southern corner, best place to keep my line clear—one way or another.

I can be downright gentlemanly once my bait’s in the water and the sky’s gone dark and hovering. But I’m a big man, wide enough to cover the top of a Coleman cooler with haunch. The beard, the black cap, and the smeary Indonesian tattoos give some tourists the idea I might be a biker, so they sidle clear. Others, especially those whiny-type dads trying to teach their sons to fish, they got something else to prove, some need to hang out over the everlasting end of the pier like they’re Columbus on the edge of the world. So they get too close to the rods I set up to catch bait, tangle their lines and mine, then swear at themselves or wise-eye me like I’m some bum on a park bench. In either case, they soon leave. Sometimes because of the bowie knife I pull to cut the tangled lines. Sometimes because the babble I produce as I hunker down on my cooler, a beer in each hand, doesn’t dovetail with their idea of a family vacation.

So I’ve got a perfect evening. A Tuesday in early May, three weeks before the tourist season cranks up. Wind out of the north, five to ten knots. Clear sky, and Big Al is nowhere in sight. Chances are he’s on the pier at Nags Head because he’s a lazy coot who won’t steer his ass another hour south to take me on. Am I complaining? I am not. The night’s a joke when we’re both rigging floats, swapping tales about the mako the charters have brought in, or the hammerheads the surfers have skedaddled from. I don’t like how I get sucked into it, verbal sparring of the lowest, toothiest sort, but it’s a weakness of mine. One of several.

The only company I’ve got is 50 yards back where a lanky, slow-moving couple in bill caps and dark green work clothes are bottom-fishing with cut mullet. I like their looks. They’ve each got a tackle box, they hardly speak a word, their eyes are focused on the scalloped water of the middle distance. The woman’s had a good day, I saw her bagging fillets when I passed by. The man, well, maybe he hasn’t caught a damn thing, but I can tell by the set of his head that he’d never think of complaining. He might think about trying another spot tomorrow, or the day after, but he’s too aware of his good fortune to bitch and moan. I like to see people inhabiting their fishing time like that—you know, living right in it. Gives me hope that the world may yet learn to leave us all alone.

I lay out the pieces of my rig like I’m a mechanic, or maybe a gourmet chef. The tide has shifted, but I’ve got an hour before I need to drop my float and there are preparations to be savored. The hook—a six-inch single barb—and the three-foot steel leader are old though you wouldn’t know it by looking. I keep things polished. I got one white garbage bag, a spool of cat gut thread, 800 yards of 80 Ib. test on a top of the line Daiwa reel, and my best St. Croix rod. The St. Croix’s short and thick around as a longshoreman’s thumb, looks more like an instrument of punishment than anything else. In my second-string cooler I’ve got a four-day old amberjack, stinkingest piece of bait I’ve had all season.

So I’m at it, a heavy man working light on his feet. Stuff laid out on a pair of striped bath towels, each thing in its place. I re-oil the reel. I finger the leader for chinks or flaws. I back off and crack open a beer just so I don’t rush. That’s when I see her, a wisp of a woman clearing the glare of the halogen lights posted every 20 yards or so. She’s got a bucket in one hand, rod in the other. She’s walking that slow, self-absorbed walk, heel to toe, no hip swing, and I see exactly how it’s going to be. She’s going to set up in my outpost, right on my sea-splashed fang of a world, and I’m going to have to deal with it.

She stops short when she sees me, takes in the clutter of my passion and flattens her lips. In her forties, I’d guess. Too thin for my taste but practically dressed in a yellow shirt, jeans, and a pair of boy’s tennis shoes. Got a blue windbreaker knotted around her waist and a bandana on her head. She looks me in the eye just once to be polite, then threads her way around my stuff to set up in the northern corner. I can’t figure right off what she’s after—puppy drum, maybe— but it’s clear she’ll stay out of my way. I peg her as one of those edgy divorced types who like to see if they can hack loneliness in the dark.

I get back to business. Rig the pole, check the wind, blow the garbage bag up like it’s a balloon and tie it off with cat gut. Then the best part—lifting that vile jack from the cooler and running the hook through its gristly eyes. My homemade float will carry that sucker out with the tide a couple hundred yards before the cat gut melts and drops the bait in deep water. And there she’ll lay, grand and sour and available.

The waiting is the heart of it, of course. My companion knows that. She baits her own hook deliberately and without distraction. She never even looks at me, barely nods at the sightseers who wander out after their seafood and wine dinners in the village. Out of respect for her concentration I don’t holler when I drop my masterpiece over the rail. I just roam back to my cooler, spritz a cold one, and take a gander at the stars which make me think of the pale sky over Okinawa which leads me to consider the fade-out of my marriage. No regrets. The wife and I both wrung what we could from 25 hopscotch years in the Navy. Then she bailed to live with her sister in West Virginia. I see our daughter more often than she does, the grandkids too, but I’m not fool enough to think that makes me a better person.

I wonder if my lone friend in the corner has children. I watch her for a few minutes—my float finally out of sight in the black draw of wind and water—and I make guesses at her life. No rings on her fingers that I can see, so I decide there’s an asshole left behind in a good brick house somewhere, a drinker maybe, middle-aged guy scared of his own life. She’s a good person, I decide that too, though I can’t quite say why she gets my vote. Then I notice the bandana, how it folds and flips in the breeze, how it reveals uneven tufts of downy hair all over the back of her skull, and I rethink her history with the knowledge that the score has been less in her favor all along.

She’s dyed that brave hair platinum blond, bless her, a fact that nearly makes me laugh. Skinny, sick, a stubborn sense of humor. She deserves a night like this with the timbers shivering under her feet, wind singing off the guide wires, the sky endless. All the nights she wants. I watch her lean into the chest-high rail as her bait does a freefall. When she sets the line, her shoulders and back relax, and I see her hips begin to sway. One, two, three. One, two, three. It’s a thing I haven’t noticed. The rhythm of the surf beneath us, the way she hears it anyhow, has her waltzing above the waves.

Seeing this makes me restless, so I stand to check my line which doesn’t need to be checked. I’m wondering how I’d be doing in the Texas hold’em poker game at Eddie’s in Virginia Beach when I hear a commotion on shore. Hell. One look tells me all I need to know. Four or five loaded guys have piled up a bonfire and are set to create some mayhem. I can tell they’re drunk by the hee-haw quality of their laughter. Their faces are nothing more than orangish half moons from this distance, staggering planets around a sparking sun. No problem. I can tune them out. Which I do until a crescendo of shouting causes me to take another look. By God, I get acid in my throat then. The punks are muscling an inflatable raft into the surf, two guys clinging to the sides, and I know they’re planning to row some bait out into my territory and poach on my shark.

If I’m lucky, they’ll capsize before they clear the surf. If I’m unlucky, they’ll get out there and cross my line and cause big trouble for all of us. I grab the gut-smeared rail and shake it with my hands, wishing I had a rifle so I could pop a hole in that oversized doughnut of a raft. I don’t quite swear out loud, but I hear a rattling scrape behind me and sense the woman looking at me, at my quivering temper, wondering why I’m suddenly so out of whack. She’s right. You’re right, I think. Where’s my God damn poise and equilibrium?

I don’t like how I feel—flummoxed, out-maneuvered—but I manage to let go of the rail.

Enough time passes for me to get halfway through a cheddar cheese and mustard sandwich. Then I hear a sound that doubles the coils in my guts and takes me back 15 years to when a steam pipe blew on the supply ship I was assigned to and scalded the unlucky sods working nearby. Deep pain and panic. I can’t see much, just a couple of dark figures zigzagging from that bonfire to the surf, but I assume the worst. The idiot raft has gone over in the waves.

I’m down the pier in half a minute, over the rail by the snack bar before Frankie’s even gotten out the door. “Call Leon right now,” I say. “Get him up here.” Frankie’s long face is thick with sleep and confusion, but he understands the important part. Two deputies with lifesaving equipment can be here in three minutes and we might need them.

I pump my legs through sand. The first guy rushes up to meet me like I’m a longlost cousin, arms straight out in front of him. He’s wet to the waist and shivering, though not from cold. The second guy comes in behind me like he’s been up to the parking lot or something, looking for help that isn’t there. They’re both hopping from foot to foot, saying something about Wayne and Talbot and the raft, though it’s all coming out in hoarse fragments that don’t help me a bit. I don’t know what I’m going to do, of course. I’m overweight and don’t swim that well, regardless of my years on the pitching decks of the USN. I take it as a good sign that I’m absorbing a lot of detail with Kodak-type clarity, like the fact these fellows are both wearing shirts from the University of Tennessee, though it’s hard not to connect those neon orange shirts to the general stupidity of the situation.

We all three trot into the surf up to our knees. There’s some shouting coming from beyond the white fringe of the breakers, but it’s impossible to tell how desperate it is. The story I’ve got by now is that Wayne and his brother were in the raft. Then Talbot, who was fishing from shore, hooked something big and heavy, a thing he swore was a shark, and the boys rowed over to see what it was. That’s when the yelling started. Maybe the raft capsized, maybe it didn’t. All they know is that Wayne and his brother, who doesn’t appear to have a name of his own, are wearing life jackets and both know how to swim. Talbot, who is drunk enough to worry even these two locos, decided to follow his fishing line to the source of the trouble. According to the report I’m getting, Talbot’s never soaked himself in anything bigger than a bathtub.

God almighty. The first thing I say is, Boys, maybe it’s best we wait for the law. Your friends will be washing up around our ankles any minute.

Second thing I say is, Do you have a flashlight?

They do. Talbot’s got one with him too, though he apparently hasn’t managed to turn it on. I assess the situation one more time. The surf’s not that rough, but the current is strong. I turn on the light and hightail it down the beach about two hundred yards, guessing at the raft’s drift. One Tennessee guy stays near the fire to flag down Leon when he arrives; the other one follows me like a duckling after its nettled mother.

Of course I’m an S. O. B. so I can’t stop thinking about my bait, how it’s lying out there unattended, how my night’s a ruin. These fellows have trifled with the ocean and with me—the way I see it, they’ve only got one strike left. I wade in, waves smacking at my thighs and chest. I haven’t been in salt water this deep since I slipped off a dock in the Philippines, many, many whiskeys ago. Go from sandbar to sandbar, I tell myself, keep your own damn head above water while you try to pinpoint that raft.

They find me, of course. Two ratty-looking boys in life jackets, their long rock-n-roll hair plastered to their foreheads and necks. One of them’s got a cut up arm but they’re safe, been trying to swim the raft in against the tide which hasn’t been easy. They look surprised as hell to see me, and hangdog grateful. What about Talbot, I ask, shouting into the wind that’s picking up again, where is he? The brothers look befuddled, then a little weepy. The one I think of as Wayne, who looks most likely to have that name even in his present condition, stops dog-paddling with his free hand and grabs at the front of my shirt. I must be crazy, mistaken. There’s only them two with the raft. Talbot would never come out yonder, he says. He don’t know how to swim.

By now Mr. Tennessee shirt No. 1 has joined us and we’re set to drag the raft to dry land. Or we will be, once the Three Musketeers stop spitting and slapping fives. Talbot, they pant. Talbot, man, we got to find him. I can see a wheel of lights beyond the pier now, the tiny lighthouse flashes of the rescue van. We may get lucky, I think to myself, and be out one drunk fisherman instead of three. Tugging on the raft is going to flare up the bursitis in my left shoulder, I’m thinking that too, when Mr. Tennessee shirt who’s stumbling beside me says, What if a shark got hold of Talbot after he got hold of it? He looks behind him as he says this, then back at me with eyes the size of line spools. He wants me to tell him it can’t be so.

I ask the soggy brothers, Did you all see what Talbot had on his line? No, Wayne says, they never got that far, a breaker flipped them. His brother, who has got the cut arm and a mustache with maybe five hairs in it, appears grateful they missed their chance. Probably hooked a lunker drum, I say. Naw, says Tennessee shirt, no way. The drag was set tight and the line played on out. Whatever he had was damn big. Tennessee’s hands fly off the raft to measure just how big and his eyes are filled with braggart’s pride for his buddy until he remembers why he’s staggering through the strongest undertow on the Atlantic coast, losing his shoes to the devil’s kiss of the tide. Then it’s like the bones in his long hillbilly neck have collapsed and his chin’s at his chest in prayer or cruel sobriety, I can’t tell which.

Don’t worry, boys, I say. He probably just snagged one of those Nazi subs that was sunk offshore during the war. It won’t harm him none.

Wayne snorts and sticks out his jawbone so I’ll know he gets the joke. I have less luck with his brother who practically crawls back into the raft to get his legs out of the thundering, ghostly water. My main point is well-taken though: We can’t do toot for Talbot until we get our own selves back to land.

Ten minutes of coughing and kicking and we’re in, Frankie’s jeep is working its way down the beach while Leon sweeps the water with a portable searchlight. I can’t help but notice how much that light resembles the Atlantic moon, slightly bluish, slightly creamy, when it sails across these same sands on a silent night. The pier’s gone dark too, though I can’t figure why Frankie thought dousing the lights would be a help. All I know is I’m sorry I’m not up there playing captain on my own black skeleton of a ship. I don’t look forward to what Frankie and Leon are going to find.

The jeep stops about 500 yards south of where I’ve fallen to my knees. I spit and wheeze salt water into my beard, allowing myself a cuss or two in honor of lost stamina and lost youth. The other three sound as whipped as I am but take off down the beach anyway. They’ve got to get to their buddy. I admire their dog-pack loyalty. It’s part of what got me through my six month cruises in the Pacific. It’s part of what makes one man tolerate another.

By the time I limp my way to the scene, I find Leon in the posture I’ve anticipated, on his knees by the victim’s swollen face, his movements hindered by his stiff, glowing vest and loaded equipment belt. Leon’s a local boy who did four years with the Coast Guard in Michigan before getting on with the Dare County sheriff. I know him because his dad runs a good charter boat. He looks at me, then flicks his serious eyes to a slick grayish lump behind him in the sand. God almighty.

Talbot caught himself a ray, a big one, and that’s at the heart of this whole fiasco. Of course it takes a shitload of ignorance to mistake a ray for a shark though I’ve seen it happen more than once, especially in daylight when a flapping wing looks like a dorsal fin to a tourist. Imagine the look on Talbot’s face when his rod bent, all wicked with drink and pride, just scared enough to get bullying. He thinks the only big, bad creatures in the sea are sharks—the dumb ass. I note that he managed to foulhook the poor thing which is why Leon has brought it to my attention. I pull my knife and kneel by the ray’s blunt, cowlike nose. Locate the hook by hand since it’s buried on the underside of a wing, then cut it loose with a sizeable chunk of rubbery flesh besides. Like most ocean critters, the ray can’t make a sound, even in agony, and I’m halfway pleased about that. The noises coming from behind me—whispering, sobbing, the occasional chunk and clang of medical equipment—is plenty enough for me.

I ship the ray back out to sea, its five-foot span quickly buoyant in the fanning glitter of water. Tennessee shirt No. 1 helps me—the ray must weight near sixty pounds—and it’s then he tells me that Talbot’s still alive, passed out more from alcohol and fatigue than from water in his lungs. “They want to take him on up to the clinic in Nags Head,” he says. “So I reckon they’ll do that. We thank you for your help.”

“You’re welcome to it,” I say, running my fingers through air until I realize my hat’s missing, washed away during our crazy water dance. “Maybe do me a favor next time you all come down this way—” And I start to tell him to stick to trout fishing, for Chrissake, and leave the bigger game to wised-up, busted-up bastards like me. But I don’t. Back to the old rules. No judgment, no chitchat,

“Yes, sir,” he says with good church manners, finishing my thought for me. And he thanks me again. I nod to Leon and his partner who are lifting Talbot into the back of Frankie’s jeep. Old Talbot will puke in there, I’m sure of it, and Frankie will be mad as hell. It’ll add an extra hoot onto the story he’ll be telling in the snack bar by lunchtime, however, which is worth the time it’ll take him to scour his floor mats. Frankie loves his stories. I lumber off into the night solo as can be, my body aching from skin to bone, and the last words I hear come from Wayne’s brother who’s asking Deputy Leon what he knows about them sneaky Nazi subs.

She’s still there, by gosh, fishing with no more company than the milky starlight. I make out her yellow shirt the same time I make out the stripes on my towels which are still flat on the pier under the weight of extra tackle and beer cans, I wonder if she’s had any luck. I wonder if she knows what happened out there, beyond her ken. I wonder if she cares. Figure I’ll ask her as much after I check my orphaned line, maybe bend the rules one last time and offer her a drink. So I lift my St. Croix from where it’s nestled tight in its premium corner and . . .nothing. Line’s been snapped clean off. I can feel the loose filament whipping back toward my mouth, my eyes.

“I heard it run,” she says, her voice low but smooth with the lull of an accent I can’t quite place. “Went real fast for ten, fifteen seconds. I was worried you’d lose the rod.”

But you didn’t pick it up? This is the unforgiving question that breaks into my mind. I take a step or two toward her, the St. Croix in one fist, my other hand lost in the salty mat of my hair as it searches for my cap.

“I watched it for you,” she says, turned around now so she doesn’t have to speak over the sharp ledge of her shoulder. “I did that, with the time I had.” I see she’s no longer waltzing, and I also see, or think I see, that she’s younger than I first thought. Or maybe I get that from the lack of hair at her temples. She’s not joking with me though, and she’s not shy. Her words are steadily matter-of-fact, just like I like them.

“Think I had a shark?”

One side of her mouth pulls tight, and I see dry wrinkles there, etched from worry and pain. “I think you had trouble, and I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. Trouble.” I lay my rod at my feet and turn away. I had a rare chance and it didn’t stay mine. She knows there’s not a damn thing you can say to a person about a time like that.

“Those fellows make out all right?” She’s bent at the waist over her tackle box now, all dark legs and whispers.

“Guess so, fools that they are. They’re alive.”

“That’s nice.”

I stop wiping my face with a towel and focus on the woman again. She’s standing straight, and her eyes are hard in a way I recognize. My daddy’s eyes when he was rigid with angina. The eyes of a luckless yeoman crushed in a cargo bay.

She repeats herself. “That’s nice. I’m glad.” She wrestles every word until it comes out easy.

It’s nightwatch black and talk—even the sound of talk—is no good. I’m not going to save her from a damn thing. She’s not going to ask anyone to try. I move into my corner, and she flips the bail on her reel and gets back to business. We stay that way a long while. It occurs to me that I’ll probably never come out here without thinking of her, and knowing that is a strange sort of gift after the kind of night I’ve had. I’ll be out here again, a hundred more times I hope, and somehow so will she, sketched darkly against land’s end. Gone in body, held in memory, like we all might hope to be.


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