Swimming

August 27, 2015

When I was eighteen, I got a job as the mate aboard a charter fishing boat, Misty, captained by Ron, a forty-something air traffic controller who got fired when President Reagan broke their strike in 1981. Ron cashed in his retirement and took a chance on running a thirty-eight-foot game boat out of Port Jefferson on the north shore of Long Island. His wife screamed, his daughter cried, his friends thought it was great.

On a breezy morning in July, I was getting the boat ready and our clients came down, a young couple and their two boys who were maybe ten and seven. Things always felt a bit awkward when customers first came aboard. People were unsure where to put their things, what to do or where to sit. I turned on a small brass lamp in the cabin and made coffee, started the engine, and told them Captain Ron was on his way and they should relax.

The father’s name was Bob, and we started talking. He was working as an air traffic controller. Scab, I shuddered, hoping it didn’t get mentioned to Ron. Beth was Bob’s wife. She looked at our "Blues" sign in the window and said she never cooked bluefish. Was it any good?

I described a family recipe where we soaked the fillets in milk for an hour before grilling them. “Delicious,” I said. Bob asked if we’d fish for flounder. I explained that flounders ran in spring and fall, and we wouldn’t work the bottom unless the blues weren’t biting.

“I only eat flounder,” Bob said. I shrugged and went to work rigging for bluefish.

Captain Ron hopped aboard, said a quick hello, filled his coffee mug, and went up to the bridge. He was lean with a smooth, beardless face, and dark hair cut above the ears. He wore a blue cap and a navy nylon jacket with “Misty” silk-screened on the back. At his signal, I freed the ropes and there was a blast of gray smoke, the prop churning roily flowers that bloomed across the surface. We turned from the dock and cut across the choppy harbor. The boys, Peter and Sid, were leaning against the sides, pointing to the high sandy bluffs of Belle Terre.

“That’s where my girlfriend, Theresa, lives,” I told the boys, and they made faces. Theresa and I had dated for over a year while we were both in high school, then she went to college, studying child development and education. When she came back that summer, our relationship wasn’t the same and we had less and less to talk about.

Beth asked if I was in college, and I told her I would be going that fall to a small school in South Dakota, studying biology.

“South Dakota, wow. Will you be near the Missouri River? That’s an amazing system. Some different fish, that’s for sure.” I was a little embarrassed telling some people about heading off to a no-name school on the prairie, but Beth made it sound cool. “I went to a small college,” she said. “You’ll get a lot of attention from your professors.”

“And I can play football,” I added.

She looked right at me, smiled and nodded, and I felt an electric zing.

The breakwater was rough. Misty pitched high and the boys’ Batman thermos rolled off the bench and broke. Another wave caught us and Beth lost her feet and slammed against the ladder. I asked if she was okay and told everyone to sit in the cabin. “It’s the roughest part. We’re in the breakwater.” I corralled the boys toward the cabin door. “Just sit down. Are you all right, Beth? I’m sorry about that.”

Misty plowed east toward buoy 11. The waves softened and I heard Beth singing John Denver’s “Calypso” to Sid on her lap. She looked okay, and we smiled at each other. Bob, however, looked like shit.

Ron idled down, and I snapped an umbrella rig to the swivel at the end of the first line. The umbrella was a cross of heavy wire, each arm trailing a foot of monofilament and a large hook jacketed in colored tubing. It looked like a ceiling mobile mimicking a school of sand eels. I lifted the rod and swung the umbrella gently over the side, flipped the reel clutch, and let the hooked tubes swim slowly behind us. We used wire line, and each tag marked ten yards. After four tags, I yelled to Ron and he put up six fingers. We were heading for the shoal’s edge and going deep.

Peter came out on deck and kept his feet pretty well. “Are there sharks here?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. But I told him they were small and harmless.

“Are there great white sharks?” he interrupted.

“Hey, you know a lot about sharks. Have you seen Jaws?” His parents hadn’t let him, and I nodded. “It’s pretty scary,” I said. “Great whites live out there in the ocean,” I pointed east into the offing. “Threshers and blue sharks sometimes come in the sound. There’s nothing stopping them. Fish swim where there’s water.”

In two hours, we didn’t get a bite. Purple jellyfish pulsed by. Sid said he saw a shark, but I didn’t believe him. I climbed up to Ron on the bridge. He liked reports from the cockpit. Bob was sick and not really into fishing, I told him, but Beth and the kids were troopers. Another half hour passed and only one strike—two quick pulls on Beth’s line. When she lifted the rod, it was gone.

“Sometimes sea robins, even sundials, leap at those tubes from the bottom,” I told her.

“Sundials?” she asked. When I described the translucent flat fish, she looked in my eyes and asked more questions. I liked her. She was much more interested in fish than Theresa. Bob became irritated and asked me how long we’d go without a bite. “Beth had a bite,” I said, getting a little short with him, which was unusual. Normally I just wanted smiles and tips from the clients. But Bob seemed like a schmuck who couldn’t even rise to a day of fishing. Then he vomited over the side, retreated to the cabin and curled up on the bench. I felt sorry for him.

“I really don’t like to fish,” he said when I went in to get some coffee. “My wife planned this whole thing. Hell, I thought, for the boys and all, it’d be great. This is lousy.”

“Beth fishes a lot?” I asked, surprised.

“Not with me. Oh, God, no. She spent a month down in the Caribbean with her sister on some Sierra Club nature trip. They fished and snorkeled with sharks.”

I looked out the cabin door and saw Beth, drawing line from her clicking reel, checking the drag like I’d shown her. Maybe it was unfair to compare my girlfriend Theresa to Beth, but I liked Beth’s attention to fishing. Theresa would go out on the water with me, but she never showed real interest in the technical and biological aspects of fishing. Beth was an angler.

We had some good tide left, and I climbed the bridge to ask Ron if I should shuck clams and try for porgies on the bottom. Ron rubbed his nose and pointed to the fish finder. “There are blues here,” he said. He could have easily anchored up and put a few porgies in the cooler, but Ron thought big and took risks.

The Long Island Sound was calming and the air grew very warm. Bob felt better and came on deck in his tee shirt, and the boys pulled off their pants to shorts underneath. Beth stripped down to a one-piece red bathing suit and cracked a beer. I didn’t know how old she was—probably thirty—but I liked her a lot. Her breasts curved like heavy dreams. Ron leaned over the bridge.

“My buddy’s kids caught some snappers off the dock last night,” Ron said. “They’re in the fish box. Why don’t ya clean them while there’s nothing going on?”

I pulled the eight-inch snappers off the ice and set them on the board, slitting open their bellies and cutting off their heads as Beth and the boys watched. It struck me that the phallic-looking fish, once slit and rinsed, became positively vaginal. I ran two fingers past the drapes of skin and down through the glistening slick cavity, rinsing again. “These are good eating,” I said to Beth, and she nodded.

The wind was dropping off. Bob sat quietly in the fighting chair, and I was about to ask Ron if he needed a beer—then noise like a mad tin clock. Both reels sounded and the poles were alive.

“Fish on! That’s it, Beth. Keep the tip up.”

But Bob was having a hard time. He had pulled the pole from the holder and somehow loosened the drag. Line peeled away while he cranked. I reached over, thumbed down the star drag, and his rod jumped with the fighting fish. He kept switching the rod from under one arm to the other. I planted the rod butt into his seat gimbal. “That’s it, Bob. Just sit down and reel.”

Beth was standing as she reeled. I was impressed. Twenty yards from the boat, her fish broke the surface in a round splash. She brought the bright streak alongside us and I gaffed it. A nice eight-pound blue. Ron gave a thumbs-up from the bridge. Sid got scared and ran under his father’s legs; Peter reached down and grabbed the blue’s flipping tail before I could get a rag on it. “Careful,” I yelled.

“Its tail’s warm,” he said.

“They bite! See those teeth?” I squeezed the gills and the jaws unfolded, exposing a row of dental razors. I pliered the hook from the mouth and tossed it bleeding into our fish box. It coughed up a glossy pink squid. Sid came over and both boys held the lid open and watched the twisting fish.

Bob was still cranking, but his rod lost action. He had let the wire run too high up one side of the reel and it sounded like a couple of coils had slipped between the spool and the casing. When I took his rod, I knew the fish was off and we’d have to work on the reel. “It’s okay. It happens.” I sighed, explaining about guiding the line evenly.

We got Bob’s line straightened out and let the boys have a turn in the chairs. The fish were biting. Beth leaned over Sid and helped him reel. My eyes slipped into the deep cleavage of her chest.

                                                                                  ***

We caught about six blues. The kids were laughing, smelling their hands, walking around the cockpit with sandwiches, throwing pieces of cheese and bread to the gulls. Captain Ron and Beth drank beer and talked warmly. There seemed to be some kind of vibe between them, almost as if they’d known each other before, and I started thinking maybe they had. Then Ron pointed to me. “He wants to give this all up for South Dakota.”

“You told me to take some risks,” I said, feeling more confident now that we had caught fish.

Ron shook his head and smiled. “But South Dakota?”

Before we called it a day we’d try one more thing: jigging on the ledge. Back on the bridge, Ron and I studied the sonar lines on the fish finder, then Ron turned to look at Beth again.

“She’s hot, huh?” Ron said to me and smiled.

“Definitely.” I nodded.

“And she can handle a rod, too.” He laughed, slapping my back.

“God, Ron. I bet she can.”

Ron occasionally indulged in a bit of bawdy talk, but I hadn’t heard him get quite so steamy over a customer still aboard.

Back on deck, I stowed the trolling equipment and passed out conventional jigging outfits—Ugly Sticks with red Penn Jigmaster reels loaded with smooth, twenty-pound test monofilament. “Okay, Bob, last chance.” He looked funny—Yankees hat tilted over his eyes like an awning. Bob had a nice face and a good build that had been neglected for a few years. The engine stopped and it got quiet. For a moment everyone hushed to the chuckle of water under the hull. Then there was the drone of a jet over the island.

“Take her in, Dad,” Sid said.

“She’s not mine today.” Bob smiled at the boy.

“Are you a controller?” Ron asked.

“Yeah. I retired from the Air Force five years ago—bad experience, lost a friend, bounced around—I work at La Guardia.”

“Nice job to walk into,” Ron bristled.

“I needed it.”

The tension was rising, so I just handed Bob a fishing rod rigged with a two-ounce diamond jig. “Let’s jig. Here, Bob, let me show you. Keep the lure dancing.” I couldn’t understand why Ron didn’t say he was sorry to hear about Bob’s friend. That was ugly. Beth picked up on it, too, glared at Ron, and walked off toward the bathroom.

“Now what’re we fishing for?” Bob asked.

“Anything,” I said. “That’s it. Give it a few cranks.” When he did, his rod arced in a near semicircle, its tip underwater.

“Holy shit!” I sounded. The pole jerked repeatedly and line ran through the guides. “Now that’s a fish. Give and take,” I coached. “Keep the rod up. That-a-boy.”

Beth came out on deck. “What’ve you got, Bob?” The boys stared into the water.

“Okay. Let’s get those lines down there,” I ordered. “Might be a big school.”

But Ron said, “No.” He jumped on deck and lifted his hands like a symphony conductor, watching Bob’s rod for a moment, then directing: “Keep those lines up. I don’t want any tangles. This could be a huge bass.”

Ron’s words excited me. I leaned over the side, watching the line disappear into the green sunlit water. I looked back at Bob, and at that moment I wanted him to catch this fish more than I wanted anything in the world.

Beth saw it first. “Jesus, look at that thing.” Bob was sweating. I pulled Sid off the gunnel and saw a magnificent striped bass, broad silvery-olive flanks streaked boldly in black.

“Must be forty pounds,” Ron said. As if the fish heard his voice, it dove.

Bob’s shirt darkened with sweat, his cheeks muscled into a smile. I was anxious, remembering a great bass that had snapped my line three years ago. Bob’s fish started coming up again. Ron held the landing net. The fish rose, its mouth a round purse clasped by the shining jig. Beth pulled out her camera and began shooting photos, repeating, “What a fish, Bob. What a fish!”

The bass swam close, and Ron scooped and missed. I gently pushed the kids out of the way and followed the line. Bob stepped left and the fish made a final dive for the blue shadow of the hull.

“Shit. I lost him.” Then it pulled again, but softer, and the line wouldn’t come up.

“What the hell?” Ron leaned over the side. Beth stood holding the camera in one hand.

“What happened?” she asked.

“He’s gone.”

“Where’d it go?”

“He’s stuck.”

Everybody was talking at once.

“He’s dead,” Sid said.

The boys were climbing over the sides, and I had to yell at them to get down. Ron looked at me. “Must be hung up on the boat.” We both knew that with a straight pull, the fish would break off.

I put my hand on the taut line and it still had some spring and pulse to it. “He’s still there,” I said.

Beth rubbed her husband’s shoulders. “Hold on, hon. He’s still there.”

Ron looked at the rod tip and felt the line, and sure enough, the fish didn’t have a straight pull, but was fighting part of the boat, maybe a splinter in the keel. Ron tried to hit the keel with the boat hook, but it wasn’t long enough.

“Do you have a diving mask?” Beth asked. “I could go down there and push him off.”

“No way,” I said, suddenly scared that I would have to do it. I was the mate. I was a diver. I was supposed to do those things—even crazy things.

“Henry will do it,” Ron said. We could hear the soft thump of the fish beneath us.

Beth kicked off her sneakers. “Really, I’m the best swimmer here. I know how to dive. I’ll go.”

Sid ran to his mother, yelling, “Nooh, no.”

Beth hugged him. “Oh baby, it’s okay.”

“What about sharks?” Peter pitched.

“How many beers have you had?” Bob asked.

I rummaged around looking for a mask, thinking, I might really have to do this, though I never would have offered. Beth was brave.

“I don’t need a mask,” she said, and went over.

Ron conducted what looked like a sudden allegro in the line: “Follow it down and just try to pull it off the keel.”

Beth took a deep breath and disappeared, her hair dancing up like sea grass as she palmed Misty’s mossy hull. I imagined the bass’s coppery tail flashing through the fuzzy blue-green shadows as it pulled against its own torn mouth.

It lasted no more than a few seconds. We heard thumping, and Bob’s pole arced sharply, then relaxed. Ron and Peter leaned to look. “Where is she?”

I set Sid down and jumped to the other side, stretched over and took both of Beth’s hands as she broke the surface. “Incredible,” she gasped. “I saw him.” She put one foot on the wooden fin, and I pulled her up. Something let go inside and I hugged her, my lips grazing her cheek. Her shoulders were dripping warm. The fish was gone. It must’ve made one last bolt before the diving woman and torn the hook from its mouth.

                                                                                  ***

At the end of that summer, walking the moonlit beach on the last date with my first love, Theresa, I knew changes were coming. “I can’t believe you’re going to South Dakota,” she said for the hundredth time. “That’s so far away. Do they even have water there?”

“The Missouri River,” I said, a little annoyed.

The ferry sounded its deep horn, and Theresa looked like she was about to cry.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“No, I’m sorry, Theresa.”

There were feelings closing and opening between us. I kissed Theresa, but my mind turned to Beth, her hair streaming out in the sunlit water, her naked body rising up to mine. Theresa and I were falling out of love, and my erotic imagination was casting.

“I want to go swimming,” Theresa said. She set down her cup of wine, slid out of her jeans, pulled off her tee shirt, and stood there in her bra and panties. I took off my shorts and shirt. A night heron flew close along the shore, veering and squawking when it saw us. I reached to hug Theresa, but she put her hands up. “Let’s just swim,” she said. We pulled off our underwear and slipped into the warm water.