Eric knew why barracuda hung like logs in the shadows beneath the old Coast Guard marker. They were waiting, stalking with their pike eyes. They looked like they were frozen there, four feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic. When a barracuda saw what it wanted it shot out from the shadows like a torpedo with stiletto teeth, striking like the whisper of a shortsword. Eric knew what they were up to down there. He had spent time in the shadows of the small side streets off Duval, hanging, waiting, just like the barracuda.
“A barracuda will take your leg off in a second,” the old man said. Willie sat in the stern of the aluminum outboard rigging to troll for one of the fish. “You won’t even feel it. It’ll take it off clean, like a razor.” Willie looped his line through the eye of the heavy-gauge leader. He pulled it tight with his teeth and spit out a piece of nylon that had broken off the end of the line. “Toss me one of those baits. Barracuda won’t kill you, son, but you’ll bleed a barrelful and that’s when the sharks come in. They can smell you bleeding a half a mile away.” Willie threaded the bait onto the hook on his line.
Eric sat in the bow of the 14-footer facing the man. He didn’t care for the way the old guy called him ‘son’ all the time. He wasn’t anybody’s ‘son’. Eric would have put an end to this ‘son’ business long ago but Willie Ray was just a stupid cracker who had his raising in some snaky, moss-curtained backwater south of Montgomery up in Alabama and, as the old man would say, you can’t change what don’t. Anyway, Willie was the boss. He captained the Manta, a 60-foot charter fishing boat that Eric crewed on. It was a job and Eric got a room rent free. Crewing on a charter here in the Keys didn’t pay a whole lot, but Eric was thinking of ways he could make it pay more. He was owed.
Eric sliced mullet into strips to use as barracuda bait. Mullet smelled like rubber would if it rotted. In the sun it got sticky and clung to Eric’s hands, his flip-flops and the aluminum bottom of the boat. “I hate this.”
Willie tipped his head toward the buoy. “Well, they like it.” He leaned over the side of the boat and washed off the mullet residue on his hands with seawater. The old man dried them on dirty khakis that hung loose on his bony hips. The pants were stained with fish blood and burn holes from hot ashes that fell from cigarettes he forgot that he was smoking. “Not the smell so much as the silver skin when the sun hits it on the water. All shiny-like. That’ll make ‘em hit. You ‘bout ready?”
Eric nodded. He put the bait into a small Styrofoam cooler to keep it from sliming in the sun. He slid the cooler into the shade under the seat in the bow of the boat and grabbed the life jacket that was there. Lifejackets. Ugly as sin and made you look stupid, like those fat, doughy snowbirds in their white sneakers and socks that came down here to fish on the Manta. Watching them parade around in their sun hats all zinced up and greasy in their orange life jackets made Eric want to feed the fish. He could picture the fat fucks floundering around out there in the waves in their orange life jackets, hanging in the water with their pasty legs dangling down making them better bait than the mullet. But he was glad for the jacket today. He draped it over the bare aluminum of the outboard’s bench seat to use as a cushion and to keep his ass from frying off.
Willie pulled the rope to start up the aging Johnson 30-horse. It coughed out a cloud of oil and then turned over. He shifted into a slow forward gear and began the wide circle around Marker G. There were some seas and the small outboard bobbed from crest to crest. The old man cast back behind the boat and let his line drift out about 50 yards. He set his reel and placed the handle of his fishing pole into a plastic holder fastened to the gunnel. He dug into the chest pocket of a ripped-worn t-shirt for a cigarette. “Now, remember,” Willie yelled over the motor, “don’t let the boat get caught sideways in one of these troughs. That’s why they put that buoy out here, to mark where the current cuts across really strong. You go sideways, son, and the boat’ll flip.” He lit the smoke and threw the stick match over the side. “You’re pretty much a goner at that point.”
“You tell me that every time we come out,” Eric shouted back. The outboard was making a wide arc clockwise. Eric let his line out over the starboard side so that his bait would drift in closer to where the barracuda were hanging. “I know how to handle a stupid boat.”
The cigarette dangled from Willie’s mouth, being ashed by the wind. The debris hung on his t-shirt. “I’m just tellin’ you. You’ve been known to screw up the details.”
Christ. Here we go, thought Eric, the goddamn boat thing. Him and his details. It had nothing to do with details. But it was good that the old man thought that’s all it was. It was better than having him know that Eric had been too green that night to read the current coming up the channel. And that Eric had seriously misjudged the diesel’s power when the throttle was just over idle because he didn’t want anyone to hear him trying to slip the boat up the channel and out to sea. That there were people up on the mainland that would have paid top dollar for the Manta if Eric could deliver. The current running up the channel that night was too strong and Eric was afraid that juicing up the throttle anymore would wake the old man and everyone at the resort across the way. He stood helpless on the small flying bridge as the boat slid further back down the channel being pushed by the water. He saw the docks of the resort close in behind and panicked. Eric ran to the stern and jumped to the salt-stained, wooden structure before it started to break apart under the weight of the boat. In the morning, after seeing the Manta bobbing in the wreckage of the docks of the Deer Run Resort, the old man blew a gasket. He asked Eric if he had secured the mooring lines before he had left for the night. Eric lied and said he was sure he had. Willie asked again. Eric said he was pretty sure. Willie wanted to know what was it, you did or you didn’t. Eric said he couldn’t remember. The old man wanted to know if Eric was one of them shitepokes. Shitbirds. That’s what people in Key West called folks who lived in the trailers on the coral flats by the salt ponds near the Navy base. Worse than your everyday conch, people said. Worthless, like gulls, scrounging for scraps and crapping all over everything. Maybe you’ll remember this, you shitbird, Willie said. This ever happens again and I’ll kick your ass all the way back to Key West and let you work out the details about whatever it is down there you seem to be avoiding.
Eric had spent the past two years paying more attention to the details. Going back to Key West wasn’t really an option even though he thought those sailors had it coming. The Navy stole from him; Eric figured he’d steal from the Navy. A squid gets too drunk and starts flashing stuff around and sometimes things happen. But the Navy always seemed to get what it wanted so there was no way Eric was going back.
The sun at midday was hot and bright on the green-blue of the Atlantic. Willie squinted against the brightness and pulled the visor of his old fishing hat down close over his eyes. “They must be cooling their heels down in the shadows of the thing,” Willie said over the chugging of the Johnson. “I got nothin’ so far. You?”
Eric shook his head and said, “Nope.” He bent over and dug for his sunglasses that were in the pocket of the work shirt he had stashed under the seat with the bait. He found them and slipped the glasses on.
“My hair went white when I was just 21. You know that?”
“Yep.” Eric knew all right. He rolled his eyes. Good thing for the sunglasses. The old man had two stories to tell and he told them all the time. Eric was glad the stories would be done with soon.
“In the Navy. I was a seaman second-class. Sonar.” Willie dug in his shirt pocket for another cigarette. “The Threadfin was on maneuvers east of Guantanamo. This was back in the Batista days.”
Eric knew the story. The sub had been ordered down to 450 feet. When it hit depth, the sub’s batteries suddenly quit and everything went dark. Willie said you could hear the screw slowing down like a fan blade stopping after you shut off the switch. He said it was dead quiet until the joints of the metal plating around the hull started to groan from the weight of the water overhead—pushing down hard as if to pop the sub open like a hollow can. The old man said it seemed like forever, but only a couple of minutes passed and then the batteries came up. He said none of the crew spilled but they all knew they had been this close to being fish food. And thinking about whatever was lurking around at that depth waiting to eat you gave a guy the heebie-jeebies. Willie said all he could think about was being nibbled on by something out there in the black and cold, twirling his dead body like some high diver, doing a twist, his hair swirling around like anemones. The old man said he went to sleep that night with that playing through his brain like a motion picture he couldn’t shut off. In the morning in the mirror he saw his hair was like whitewash. Everybody at chow called him Gramps. No one laughed much, he said. They were all probably thinking there but for the grace of God. But back on shore, he said, girls didn’t even see him anymore, like he turned old. Willie said it was like he was a ghost. Like they would walk right through him not noticing a thing. He said the only women he could get after his hair went white were in Havana, and that brought on other problems. Then came Castro and the old man said he just gave up on women altogether.
Eric was drifting in the drone of the old guy’s blah-blah. He had given up on women too, at least for now. Girls down here could smell money and he didn’t have any, so they would look right through him like he was invisible, just like Willie. He had gotten lucky a couple of times, but those had been with shack-jobs from up in the ‘Glades, and they were no different than the girls from the Flats where he grew up. Eric thought the Manta could change that. He was thinking that money would change his visibility. He felt something grab the mullet. His attention snapped back. A barracuda had slammed his line like he had hooked into concrete. Eric’s pole bent, the tip arcing almost to the water. He almost lost the rig, but held it now like a ball bat. He let off the drag to let the fish run a little.
“Let off your drag a little and let him take it.” Willie killed the Johnson and the boat bobbed, drifting with the waves. He reeled in his line so there would be no tangling.
“I know what the hell I’m doing.” Eric felt his line racing out. His palms tingled. The thing was really running and Eric would have to slow him down soon.
Willie had his line all the way in. He propped his pole on the seat in front of him. “Just don’t act too quick. You bring him up too fast and your line’ll snap. Or, your pole. He lit another cigarette. “Where’d you put the gaff?”
Eric wished that the old man would just shut up. All he wanted to think about was the barracuda that was running away with his bait. “It’s behind you by the gas can.” Eric tightened up the drag to slow the fish down. He could feel Willie moving around behind him.
“I don’t see it.” The old man tossed a rag into the middle of the boat. “You sure you put it back here?”
“It was there this morning when I gassed up.” Eric set the drag and pulled back on the pole. The barracuda didn’t budge.
“It ain’t here or I’ve been struck blind.”
“Well, it was there this morning. That’s all I know.”
“You set that drag already?”
Eric didn’t answer. He had had enough questions. He braced his foot against the side of the boat and grunted trying to pull against the damned fish that wasn’t cooperating.
“It’s gonna break,” Willie said. “You set yourself way too early.” He bent over the seat in front of him and lifted the cooler that held lunch. “The gaff’s not here. It’s not on board.” He sat the cooler down, disgusted.
“I don’t know what to tell you.” Eric grunted again. He was hot and sweat rolled into his eyes. Now that the boat was just drifting, the aluminum shell cupped the sun’s rays and cranked up the heat. He didn’t dare let go of the pole with either hand so he tried to blink away the salty drops. “I swear it was in the boat.” This damned fish, he thought.
“How much you wanna bet that it’s sittin’ right on the dock.” Willie picked up the rag he had tossed down earlier. Sweat ran through gray whisker stubble. He wiped his brown mummy of a face. He lifted his cap and ran the rag over the close-cropped white hair. “You better hope that fish throws that line. Without the gaff there’s no way we’ll get him in the boat without him taking a piece out of one of us.” The old man tucked the sweat rag into his back pants pocket. “Details. Forgets the friggin’ gaff.”
Eric had lost patience with the fish that wouldn’t move. He had also lost his with Willie. He clenched his teeth and jammed his feet against the side of the boat, pushing as hard as he could with his legs. “Screw the damned gaff!” Eric pulled against the barracuda as hard as he could. He felt his face flushing hot and the pressure behind his eyes began to ache. “This thing ain’t coming anywhere near this boat!” For a second, Eric felt like he had hooked into air. There was nothing. The recoil of the broken line sent him reeling back, his shoulder blades slamming into the edge of the boat behind him. A long wisp of nylon fluttered out over the surface of the sea, waving empty like a taunt. Eric pushed himself upright. He stretched his back to take the sting away from his shoulder blades. He twisted his shoulders as far to the left as he could and then back over to the right.
Willie watched the line flay around in the wind. “You know what? You try and force a thing too much and it’s gonna come back to bite you. I’ve seen it happen time and again. You gotta let things happen the way they’re supposed too. This time you lucked out. Just remember to pay attention.”
Eric reeled the broken line in. He’d had it with all the hillbilly shit. The old man would learn sooner than later that he had been paying attention. Eric noticed that part of the leader was still attached to the line. He hadn’t forced it to snap. The barracuda had cut right through the metal with its teeth. Eric wanted to toss it right back to the old man, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. He tucked his pole beneath the seats of the boat.
“Let me tell you about details. When I first went to sea, there was this old Chief. Now you know, son, when a sub is running on the surface it don’t move very fast.” He lit another cigarette. He inhaled deeply. Smoke came out with the words as he continued the story. “So, this old Chief would chum off the side of the Threadfin with scraps of food he’d gotten from the galley. And he’d stick a chunk of whatever onto the hook of his rig and toss it out alongside the ship. It was the damndest thing. Most times he’d tether himself to a safety line he ran down from the conning tower. But this one day he didn’t. We were coming back to port and we were just out past the Dry’s.” Willie took a last drag from the cigarette he was smoking and flicked it in an arc out into the sea. “He either had a heart attack or stroked out, but he pitched in face first and disappeared in the wake behind the Threadfin. See, if he’d’ve been tethered…”
“I thought you squids had to have someone on watch? Why didn’t they make sure the Chief was secure?” Eric knew the story well enough. He poked for holes. The wind had come up and the seas were getting rougher. Looking over the side he could see the water churned to a milky yellow-green. Eric knew they’d bag it now. Barracuda would go deeper to get out of all the motion.
“You know I don’t like the word squid. They’re sailors. Anyway, it wasn’t the watch officer’s responsibility,” the old man said.
Eric cocked an eyebrow. “Yes it was.”
“Well, yeah it was, but this was a very green officer. A new ensign j.g. And there is no way some junior grade officer is gonna tell an old Chief that he’s gotta hook up.” Willie had noticed the weather too and began to put his gear away.
“So, what you’re tellin’ me is that everything that happened was the Chief’s fault?”
“Pretty much. With all his years at sea? You’re damned right it was his fault. He didn’t look after the details and look where it got him.”
The wind was picking up salt spray off of the top of the wave crests. Eric reached for his shirt. The sun was still hot, but with the wind and the water he felt a chill. He put the shirt on and buttoned a couple of the lower ones to keep it from flapping. “Well, I just think someone should have been in charge of double-checking. Something that don’t seem to happen much ‘round here.” Eric caught the old man’s sharp glance. “They ever find the Chief?”
Willie looked at Eric for a couple of seconds before answering. “No. Never did.” The wind gusted and he screwed his cap on tighter. “Wasn’t for lack of trying, though. The O-W sounded man overboard. The engines were brought to a full stop. We put a couple of teams over the side in inflatables. Nothin’. God knows what happened to him down there.”
Eric thought he probably did. If the guy’s body never popped back up then something had it. Maybe the barracuda hit first, mistaking the tiny bubbles from the Chief’s descent for something else. Mistakes are made when things aren’t too clear in the chaos of limbs flailing and the quiver of fear that radiates out like the buzz of neon. Eric remembered a metallic smell, like copper, rolling out like fog, getting everyone worked up like sharks in a frenzy. Eric could still smell it. There were two of them. Stupid squids. Boots probably, at their first duty station with their still fuzzy haircuts and new Navy attitude, drunked up and stumbling around in the dark behind Cocoanut Joe’s. Wasn’t his fault they had walked into a conch bar. They should have been paying more attention. “Sharks probably got him.”
Willie nodded. “That’s pretty much what the Navy thought. The cook said he’d given the Chief steak scraps. We had steak a lot. Ate more steak on that submarine than I have in my whole life. Those poor bastards on the destroyers and the freighters, they ate green wieners.” The old man shook his head and swiveled the arm of the Johnson around so that it was positioned straight ahead. “The Navy took good care of us guys in subs, ‘cept me when my hair turned white.”
“And the Chief.” Eric smirked. He could think of a couple more. The salt spray that had dried on his face made his skin feel tight and crunchy.
“Trade places,” Willie said. He crouched low holding on to the seat in front of him and made his way to the front of the boat.
Eric stayed low and went astern. He brought the lifejacket back with him and draped it over the aluminum bench. He straddled the seat for leverage to pull the recoil to start the old motor.
“You know,” Willie struck a small stick match to light another of his filterless cigarettes. The match head snapped off in flame and landed in his lap, burning another hole. He brushed it aside and lit another. He puffed a couple of times to make sure the smoke was lit and picked a piece of tobacco from the tip of his tongue. “There were some of us,” the old man spit more of the cigarette debris out into the wind,” maybe even most of us, who thought the Chief took a header on purpose.”
“Sure make things easier for the Navy,” Eric said. He brought the throttle over to ‘start’. “The Navy gets whatever the hell it wants.” Like the bleached-out white coral flats with the trailer houses where Eric and the people folks called shitepokes had lived. The Navy reclaimed the Flats for expansion and condemned the trailers. There were a lot of people, including Eric, left to their own resources. Sometimes when folks are tapped out and in the straits they don’t always make the best choices. They lash out at easy targets. Eric saw the Navy sitting right in front of him, and the Navy owed him.
“You know what, son?” Willie held his cigarette between two fingers and aimed it at Eric like a smoking pointer. “You walk around all the time like Jesus himself gave you a chit that was good ‘til the friggin’ rapture. And that chit says “pay up”. Well, no one owes you dick. We all drag around our own little bags of shit. Quit bellyaching and get over it.”
“I’m just saying that if everybody went with the guy offing himself, there wouldn’t be a lot of questions and the fucking Navy would have a lot less explaining.”
“I tell you what. You do your twenty years and then come back and talk to me about the Navy. Until then you need to shut your friggin’ yap.” The old man told him to start it up and turned to face forward.
“I can tell you right now.” Eric didn’t start the motor. The boat rolled in the swells that had begun to grow larger and deeper with the wind. “You listening?” Eric waited for a reaction but Willie’s back was still to him. “’Lot of your new little squids over at the base are missing mommy. They come down to Duval and get stupid drunk ‘cause they’ve never been away from home before and all the sudden realize that no one else but ma gives a flying fuck. They stumble into places where they shouldn’t be, shooting their mouths off, looking for trouble with people who have already been messed with by the Navy. It’s like messin’ with them barracudas. Sometimes it ain’t pretty what happens to those squids.” Eric saw Willie’s back straighten up and go rigid. “Maybe if the Navy did a little more explaining, certain people wouldn’t get hurt.” Eric pulled the recoil to start the old Johnson. It sputtered then caught. He sat down and shifted to forward. He swung the boat’s bow around and pointed it toward the smudge in the distance that was Big Pine. He heard something in the wind about goddamn shitepokes but heard nothing else because he throttled the outboard wide open.
Small, white clouds were now racing across the pale blue of the sky, twisting and shredding apart. Eric watched the old man take off his hat and fold it into the back pocket of his khakis. The swells had grown larger in the wind. Willie gripped the sides of the bow with both hands and tried to ride just above the hard, aluminum seat. Eric knew the old man’s bony, fogey ass was taking a pounding from the rough seas. Him and his little bags of shit. This ride could be one of his. Eric was glad he had remembered to bring the life jacket back with him.
The boat pounded harder west against the waves towards the island. Each wave threw the bow a little higher. Eric watched the old man grab for the bowline that was tied to a ring at the nose of the boat. He must have gotten tired of crouching over the seat. Willie held the bowline with both hands and leaned back standing up, like a water skier, letting his legs absorb the sharp slaps of the water. They were getting pounded. One big slap bounced Eric off of his life jacket and on to the floor of the little 14-footer. He lost his grip on the throttle. The motor, uncontrolled, snapped sharply to port. The boat veered to starboard at a ninety-degree angle and was hit sideways by the next wave. Eric struggled to get control of the boat. He heard something slam the hull beneath him. What the hell could he have hit. The coralheads were closer inland. Eric knew he had at least 75-feet of water below him. He turned over on to his knees. With both hands he grabbed the back of the seat he had been thrown from. Eric could feel the boat begin to go over. Frantically he reached for the kill switch. When the motor died the boat righted itself. A large swell lifted the stern up and set it back down. It seemed dead quiet now that the motor was not screaming at full bore. Eric turned around. He did not see Willie. He didn’t remember hearing a splash. The old man didn’t cry out or anything. The goddamn thump. Willie. All Eric could hear now was the sloshing of water against aluminum. The old man must have pitched right out of the boat. Or something. Too much happened too fast. Eric let the boat drift. He watched for signs. He saw Willie’s ballcap rise on a wave top and pass over to the other side. The bright yellow nylon cording of the bowline had strung itself out and floated in the waves like a snake. Eric waited until the yellow line made its way alongside. He pulled it from the water and crawled to the front of the boat. He retied the rope to the ring on the bow. It was important to remember the details. Eric scanned the chop around him. Nothing was out there now but the sharp stab of silver slivers from the glare of the sun off the sea. He lost track of the ballcap. Eric crept back to the stern and started the old Johnson. He pointed the bow back to Big Pine and a break in the mangroves he knew about. Eric needed time to think.
Eric waited in the mangroves with the mosquitoes until there was just enough light to bring in the little outboard, alone. He kept the engine low and slowly made his way toward the dead palm that stood at the point where the channel had been dredged. When he hit the channel he cut the Johnson so there would be little wake and he drifted in on his momentum. Eric caught the quicksilver flash of a large tarpon as it dashed through the twilight water towards open sea. Probably panicked when it hit the dead-end of the channel thinking that there was no way out.
Eric watched the safely moored Manta bob in the slight wake that followed the outboard in. He slipped the small boat in next to the dock behind the larger charter. He used the yellow bowline to tie up. Eric opened the old man’s tackle box and took out a half-smoked pack of Chesterfields and a handful of wooden matches, slipping them into the pocket of his work shirt. Eric left the fishing gear where it was and climbed up the gray, wooden ladder of the dock. He sat down on the weathered bench by the fish-cleaning station. He dug one of the old man’s cigarettes from his pocket and lit it. He breathed in the smoke deeply and blew it out slowly into the darkening humidity. There was lots of money up in Miami. Time to change his visibility. Shitepoke. Bullshit. Eric wondered if the Chief had really done a header off the fantail of the old man’s sub. What would they say about Willie? Eric finished the Chesterfield and tossed it in the channel, where it hissed as it was snuffed out by the water.