BIMINI, BAHAMAS, 1983
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 conch 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.
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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