Sharks

By Robin Antalek

Essay

The fall I was fifteen my mother had surgery that would hollow out her insides, scoop them clean like a wide mouthed spoon against the split open flesh of a watery honeydew melon and keep her in the hospital for ten days. This was back before insurance companies got involved and surgery actually meant you recovered in the hospital. Children were discouraged during visiting hours and while my father might have been able to sneak me in, he was too disoriented by the absence of my mother for that long, to even consider what I might need.

The doctor had told my father that my mother would have to take it easy for a month after the surgery and somehow my father equated this with the purchase of an electric clothes dryer. Pre-surgery, my mother hung our laundry on the clothes tree out back: an aluminum contraption with a center rod spiked into the ground like a beach umbrella. The actual lines criss-crossed at the top in the shape of a square, reminding me of the God’s Eye’s I was forced to make during my brief attendance at Vacation Bible Camp out of yarn and popsicle sticks. It was an oddly inefficient design, poorly engineered, that usually toppled under the weight of the wet clothes listing severely to the left or the right if things weren’t balanced just so causing the entire process to begin again, this time with cursing.

I went with my father to Grant’s Department store where my old fifth grade math teacher from Saint Ann’s also worked part time in the appliance department. While my father perused the dryers, Mr. McGowan brought up the subject of monthly payment plans, obviously aware of our financial situation since he had been on the committee that had expelled both my brother and me into the world of public school and the glories of smoking in the bathroom, for non-payment of tuition. Of course they had messily hidden the money issue beneath my mother’s vocal support of Roe Vs. Wade, but I knew the truth. After a few Old Milwaukee’s, my parents could be very forthcoming on a variety of subjects.

While I pilfered candy from a dish by the salesmen’s desk, I noticed my father flinch as he looked at the price tags, finally arriving in front of an avocado green dryer that had the lowest price. It was a basic model, Mr. McGowan exclaimed, his complexion ruddy, with broken capillaries that spread across his cheeks like the silvery threads left behind by slugs. It would do the job for the little lady, he said as a last resort to sway my father.

If my mother had been here she would have turned and walked out. As a matter of fact if my mother knew my father was even considering this she would have called him a fool. There was no way that I could even tell her about his idea: My father hovered over me when he called her room every evening after dinner and handed me the phone. Her voice would always start out strong and then dwindle down to a thready whisper. Every call ended with me saying I love you and my mother repeating it back only it sounded like she was on the moon not the hospital ten blocks away. I hated the phone calls and besides, they were so not the time for telling the truth. I knew that by the fake tone my father took every time he announced into the receiver, “here’s your girl! Like my mother had just won the grand prize on Let’s Make A Deal.

But I could tell my father wasn’t going to budge on purchasing the dryer with money we didn’t have. Servicing the pools of southwest Florida paid the bills, my mother’s job as a nurse provided a little extra, but without her income there was nothing left over. In his lifetime my father had been a pilot and an engineer but for some reason was now devoting his life to a fledgling pool business. I was just beginning to figure out that there weren’t enough Old Milwaukee’s in the world to get that truth out of him. Pride was not even going to allow him to consider a payment plan and we left Grant’s Department store with a handful of candies I’d swiped and Mr. McGowan’s beady little eyes boring into our backs as we bid a hasty retreat out into the buckling heat of the asphalt parking lot.

 

An idea landed in my lap innocently enough. At the very end of the town pier, an old wooden structure that extended out into the Gulf of Mexico like a multi legged sea creature, there was a group of guys who fished for shark after midnight. For obvious reasons, the town discouraged shark fishing. Once the sharks established a feeding area, it would be hard for the sharks to distinguish between a bloody hunk of chum versus the tasty thigh of a tourist.

But the shark fishing continued because the meat was just exotic enough for area restaurants (tasting just like chicken, no lie, albeit a little chewy, so more like conch) and the remainder of the shark: the jaw and the teeth, could be cleaned and dried and sold to the tourists – an entire jaw from a six foot shark could bring ten dollars, maybe more. The way I saw it: five jaws equaled an avocado green clothes dryer. I was no sissy. At my father’s urging I had been baiting and cleaning fish for years. I had cut the jaws out of sharks that had turned up on shore after the red tide. How hard could this be?

The opportunity arrived when, aided by Old Milwaukee’s and exhaustion, my father turned in before eleven o’clock. By eleven thirty he was sound asleep and I was on my bike headed to the pier, his heaviest fishing pole and a bag of tackle strapped to my handlebars. When I got there, I propped my bike up against a piling and walked to the end of the pier with the pole. I was wearing a t-shirt of my brother’s and it rattled around my torso like a sheet in the wind, baring more of the body I was trying to hide, to be invisible among the guys. The pier was empty except for the glut at the end, guys passing the time with a cooler of long neck beers, their fishing poles held loosely in one hand or leaning against the railings, a deep bucket of bloody chicken parts in a tall white plaster bucket – dripping over the sides and trailing off towards the bait table like a bad crime scene. The air smelled like pennies. A few of them glanced my way, seemed to take in the pole and the plastic bag of tackle I clutched in my fist and dismissed me with a smirk.

I walked over to the railing and looked down. It was obvious that for the amount of lines in the water some of the guys had more than one pole going at a time. The tables were empty, the wooden board of the deck glistened from the bait buckets, not a catch in sight. The water lapped against the pilings and made a clucking sound. Occasionally, a cigarette butt would arc over the side and land in the water below, the hiss of the flame as it extinguished forever lost in the wind.

I hung over the railing for a while getting up my nerve. Hoping a shark would appear and make me less obvious when a guy sidled over to me and hoisted his body at a dangerous angle over the top railing of the deck so that he had to look back up at me. When he had my attention he said, “You think a shark is gonna come up and bite cause your cute?” I simultaneously frowned and laughed nervously. He was older than me, but not by much. I was pretty sure I’d seen him around school last year, but not this current year. So he either graduated or dropped out. I was guessing the latter. He offered to help me and before I knew it he had taken the pole from my shaky hands and threaded a bloody mass onto the hook. He squeezed it in his fist, allowing the juice to run down his arm in thin cock-eyed rivulets. I took the pole from him like I did it everyday and arching back, I cast the line over the side. He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as he wiped his bloody arm against his t-shirt.

After a while he lit a cigarette and cracked a beer, offering me the first swig. I took it, keeping one hand on the pole, and drank deeply until my throat felt funny from the foam and I handed it back. I noticed the others were starting to pay more attention to me because he was, although I wasn’t sure it was the kind of attention I wanted. The wait for a shark went on forever, the only sounds in the dark were of a beer being opened or the strike of a match followed by sulpher as it skunked the air. When it finally happened the guy whose line it was reacted quickly and quietly. He braced himself in a wide leg stance as he strained to bring up the shark. The muscles in his calves shimmied and quivered. Others moved in to help him, peering over the side, offering encouragement in muted voices. When I think of it now they reminded me of nurses in the delivery room, administering direction in low, firm voices, that didn’t interfere with the real work at hand.

When he finally pulled the shark in, the sleek gray body was scarred in the pale underbelly, it’s body, supine against the planks of the dock, shuddered like a child at the end of a temper tantrum, the hook and line still imbedded deeply in its throat. Out of water the shark continued to thrash but it was clearly losing the battle. By the time I turned back to my father’s fishing pole it was gone, along with the guy who had baited the hook. Whether he had taken the pole or it had slipped over the side in the confusion of the moment, I’d never know. In a panic I ran to the end of the pier, to my bike, intent on getting home and into my bed before my father knew I was gone. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I swerved as headlights illuminated the road from behind. I glanced over my shoulder quickly and caught the outline of a familiar truck and behind the wheel my father, his face all pale angles in the light of the moon, his mouth an angry grimace, his brow furrowed in worry. Instead of stopping to accept my inevitable punishment, I continued pedaling as my father trailed slowly behind, ushering me home.

 

In the driveway as I dropped my bike, he stayed in the truck. I could feel him watching me as I slid open the glass door on the carport and walked inside, careful not to look back and meet his eyes. I lay in bed too afraid to sleep, face and teeth unwashed because I was scared of the consequences if I left my room. I considered the fact that he wouldn’t tell my mother because then he would have to admit to the plan of a dryer and she would have been furious, still it didn’t make me feel any better about losing his best fishing pole.

What I didn’t know then was that in the morning my father would wake me early with a gruff announcement of breakfast. After eggs and toast we would take a ride to Ace Hardware where he would purchase a bag of cement and then he and I would spend the morning beneath an aching sun digging a deeper post hole for the clothesline and then filling in all around it with the pebbly gray concrete. I would hold the post steady with both hands as he poured the cement. Sweat dripped down my forehead and the tip of my nose causing my face to itch but I wouldn’t release a hand from the pole afraid to move, afraid of disappointing my father again.