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.
* * *
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.
Excerpted from The Dream Merchant by Fred Waitzkin. Copyright © 2013 by Fred Waitzkin. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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