Monday, April 6, 2009


By Jim Parks
A steady pull, that’s what one needs in these circumstances. Just pull along in the water, don’t fight the tide, just rest between strokes, change positions from side to back to breast stroke and relax.

He knew his position. The hell of the thing was the tide was falling off the Little Bahama Bank to the Tongue of the Ocean, that one mile deep, one hundred twenty-five mile long, twenty-five mile wide trench between New Providence and Andros, and it was hard on him.

It was just a matter of controlling one’s fear. He knew that in his rational mind, but in the primordial mind, the one he couldn’t control, he knew the danger of appearing weak, a prey for the bull and Mako sharks that prowl the banks when the tides rush out.

Overhead, jetliners made their whistling descent to the airport. He could see the amber lights of Golding Point power station and the lighthouse above the golf course.

Oh, he knew where he was, okay. Just beyond, the cricket fields and the split in the road that took one over the hill, either to Bay Street and downtown or to the local fellas’ neighborhood and Fox Hill beyond.

She had flipped just before dark fell like a curtain and the pink sky turned to a blaze of bright orange in the northwest, then to a greenish flash just above the horizon that spread upward and outward to that deep, inky blue above the ocean.

Snotty weather, too snotty for Lady Patricia he discovered when he left Fresh Creek inlet on Andros. But friends are friends and after they "passed good time," people looked at their watches and made their goodbyes. After the lobster and conch were eaten and rum drained from the bottles, he had napped a little and made all secure to go back to Nassau town.

His heart had been heavy when Patricia got on the plane for Miami. She and he, the boat and the waves and wind, beat against the northeast and he started a long reach for that magical place.

Now, in the water, the chop, he gazed up at the airplanes and sensed they were mocking him.
"Watch it, old man. That’s no way to be thinking. It’s only been a few hours of swimming. Just keep pulling along steady."

She went down in a hurry. Her iron ballast in the bilges, window weights from sashes, shifted when he came about and a plank had sprung. Her ribs had taken all the pounding they could handle. He missed his grab for the bag with his fins and mask and snorkle, and as she went down, he went up her mast hand over hand, careful not to get tangled in the shrouds or the lacings for her main sail.

"Shit, shit, shit, shit!" he shouted. It would have been comical if he had seen it on a movie screen or in a television program.

He started to swim, crying, "God, help me. I will survive if you allow it."

A piece of plywood from the deck in her cockpit popped up beside him and her tiller, a piece he had made from laminated red oak gleaned from the abandoned dunnage on the docks at Man O’ War Cay, floated to surface just behind it.

He grabbed them and crawled aboard, starting to make his pull for the power station that was just peeping over the horizon with its amber lights blazing.

What about the sharks?

If they hit me, there’s nothing I can do about it. If they don’t, then I will have been worrying about nothing in particular.

He knew his capabilities, how far he could swim.

But how far would that be? His course made good, over the ground below him a mile deep, would be one thing. His course through the water was another matter, what with the bulldozer force of the tide. The board and the tiller’s buoyant qualities were helping him. He wasn’t completely immersed.

His course. He adjusted it. He constantly made for a point just about ten degrees above the lighthouse because he knew his aspect in the water was not very efficient and he would be pulled across the inlet and out to sea, into the shallows of the Exumas chain if he didn’t.

The trick was to keep his wits about him, not to thrash and panic, to control his fear. He had the image of two great boxers circling each other, feinting jabs and landing hooks, looking for that chance to land an uppercut with a lot of stuff in it.

Like that, it was all in the stance, the footwork, the timing, and the insouciant lack of trepidation.
He laughed out loud, a bellow that astonished him. Rough going.

"Get rough with it, sailor man!"

It was going to be an all-nighter. Already, two hours had passed and the prospect of New

Providence was getting higher on the horizon. His chronometer strapped to his wrist told him the tide would go slack in another couple of hours.

Well, will we dance and sing all night?
Yes, we will, yes, we will.
Eat up everything in sight?
Yes, we will, yes, we will.
Everybody, drink, drink this toast
Drink this wedding toast.
Drink, oh, drink this toast
To the two we love the most.

* * *

They sat in the afternoon sunshine, avoiding the oil stain in the driveway, leaning up against the rear wheel of his dad’s massive old Oldsmobile, the one he had given his mom when he got the new one. It was a wheezing rattle trap just good enough to get her from the job to the grocery store to the dentist’s office to the post office to the bank and back to the grocery store, thence to the laundromat.

Patricia’s golden hair and deep tan contrasted with her obviously fair complexion. She smiled and passed him the joint.

"I got this from Tillie. She met this dude hitchhiking and he can get it for ten dollars a lid, man.
It’s some bad shit."

Her English accented with the native Dutch was charming. Her dad, a petroleum engineer with a lot of experience in offshore operations in the North Sea, had relocated to the boom town to be nearer the corporate office. He could hardly believe his good fortune. He had scored an exotic, a European girl, because he made her laugh. It was that simple.

He inhaled deeply and felt the glow, the slight pressure inside his head, just behind his eyes, the little thrill from his balls up his spine to his neck and the roots of his hair.

He stared at her long, bare toes in her flip flops and followed the elegant lines of her shins to her knees and heavily muscled thighs. She wore one of his cowboy shirts knotted above her midriff.

Oh, she was a keeper. She wore a little ring he had gotten at the flea market, an Indian ring made of multicolored beads and wire that she twisted and turned on her elegant finger. Around her neck, she had a shark’s tooth he had gotten on an expedition to California to try to learn to surf.

She wiggled, giggling and starting to say something and he made a gesture with his hand, palm down, grabbing hers and handing her the joint with the other hand.

"Baby, don’t. Just feel the vibe. Just feel it."

She sighed.

"You’re such a moody fuck, Jimmy."

"I know it, honey, but, hey, I’m all yours."

They harmonized a capella on Billie Holliday’s "Lover Man, Where Are You?"

He grabbed his harmonica from a shirt pocket.

"No, baby, here’s where it changes. This is where the change comes. Dig?"

He gave her the chord.

She sang it perfect pitch.

It was a moment, but it sustained him now in the fifth hour of the swim.

He was a heartbreaking couple of hundred yards from the little harbor at the power station
where they dock the tankers delivering diesel. The rip of the tide kept sweeping him out and away from the place where he wanted to be. Then the surge would carry him too far when he tried to correct back to the northeast. He knew he couldn’t make it there. Too much sharp coral. Cliffs too high.

He had been vomiting sea water and the diarrhea was starting to bother him. With every stroke, he felt it squirt out inside his shorts, just warm water really, but it was steadily dehydrating him.
There was no way to keep the stuff out of his mouth.

He thought of a large glass of iced tea, a milk shake, a freshly cut cantaloupe, a squirting, ripened peach.

He thought of Patricia’s exquisite ass when he thought of the peach, of her posing with one foot planted flat and the other pointed with the toes resting on the gunwale of the boat, shouting "Yoo hoo, beautiful people."

He could have all that if he just didn’t give up.

* * *

He rested a little bit, just sidestroking along, guiding himself with his feet and his hands.

"Got to get with it, man. Don’t want the sharks to think they’ve found something that is dying."
Dying? Where did that come from?

He didn’t believe it when the first fin appeared right in front of him, slicing through the water like a knife. A second appeared off his left side and he felt something shove him from behind.
He did a little dance in the water, panicked, screaming for all the world to hear. His head dipped under the water and he heard the high-pitched sound of a record player turned to five times it normal speed.

Almost like a burst transmission of encoded radio signals, something he didn’t understand.

Another shove. He followed the direction he had been thrust into, fighting to outrun whatever had pushed him

"I guess this is it."

He turned to fight and there it was. The massive bulge over the eyes, the bottle nose, the flattened tail, the blow hole spouting spray and air like a pneumatic tool suddenly unhooked from the hose.

The truth was, he could barely see. His eyes were swollen almost shut.
He kept swimming, following the guide of the porpoises. They were shouting their eek, eek, eek noises at him, fussing at him, making him mind.

As quickly as they had come, they were gone, and he found slack water.
He breast stroked toward the fuel dock as easily as if he were in a swimming pool in a motel courtyard.

The surge pushed him against one of the massive earth mover tires used for fenders and he climbed aboard it, reaching up for another grasp, and pulled himself up to stand on its top. From there, it was easy enough to climb to the next one stacked atop it, and grab the chain that held it to the dock.

He crawled onto the creosoted planks and pulled their pungent aroma in as if it was some magic elixir.

He rolled over on his back and said goodbye to "Lady Patricia."

It was a short period of mourning. Almost immediately, he began to shiver.

* * *

He regained consciousness and checked his chronometer. The numbers and hands on the analogue dial glowed green and sickly, the way he was feeling. He’d been asleep for about fifteen minutes, and he was starting to shiver uncontrollably. His body temperature was the same as the water, which was probably at least ten or fifteen degrees cooler than the air.

He jumped to his feet and made a run up the dock. He found his way blocked by a chainlink fence and gate secured with a sturdy chrome padlock and a length of rusty log chain.

He cursed the thing and shook it.

"Who the hell they think they’re gonna lock out?"

Up and over the gate, resting one sneaker on the chain, another on the cross bar of the gate. He almost tore his shorts off on the barbed wire on top, then leaped down and caught himself.

He staggered to the guard post where he could see a Bahamian in a funny cop uniform asleep with the newspaper on his lap.

"Mister. Mister. Help me. I’m cold."

The Bahamian jumped to his feet and grabbed his night stick and a flashlight, blinding him in its beam."

"Mon, what the hell you doin’?"

"I sank my boat."

"What boat, boy? What kinda boat?"

"Sloop. Native sloop, man."

"Where you come from, boy?"

"Out there."

He pointed to the water past the dock and the inlet, out in the Tongue.

"Mon, you crazy. It’s sharks out there bigger than you! This private property. What you want me to do about it? You trespassin’."

He couldn’t stand up any longer. His rectum released another rush of the warm water, which ran down his legs with all the rest of the sea water, and he collapsed.

"I’m cold, man. So cold."

He felt the weight of some fabric draped over top of him. He grasped it like a baby in a crib, shivering and wiping the mucus out of his nose and mouth.

"Blow your nose on the flag, nigga, blow you nose on the flag!"

The guard was whipping him with the newspaper.

He couldn’t help but laugh. He had made a swim of about seven miles over the ground and no telling how many through the water, and here this goon was chastising him with a newspaper for blowing his nose on something he couldn’t see.

"I’m sorry, sir. Please leave me alone."

* * *

He awakened when someone nudged him with the toe of a highly polished boot. He could see blue trousers with a wide red strip up the outseam.

"Sir, how did you get here?"

"I swam, sir."


"Because I wrecked my boat, The Lady Patricia from Man O’War Cay, and I swam over to here."

"From where?"

"I make it about seven mile off of Golding Point Light by dead reckoning, sir."

"Mon! You so lucky to be alive!"

"I know you are right, sir."

"Does she present a hazard to navigation?"

"In what way, sir?"

"Would another boat or ship ground on her hulk?"

"I don’t think so, sir. I believe the water is more than a mile deep out there, at least somewhere. She is in very deep water."

"I am going to call ambulance for you, sir. Are there any other survivors? Was anyone lost."

"No, I was single-handed."

"You are so foolish, mon. So foolish."

There was dark laughter from a dozen people gathered around that he couldn’t see.

Someone else: "Dat nigga got no sea sense, none whatsoever."

* * *

At Princess Margaret Hospital, he was aware of lights passing over his head as the cot was rolled into the ward. He was asked his name, his social security number, if he had a passport, what was his address in the U.S. Was there anyone that they could contact?

He was aware of the smell of crisp starch and green soap, alcohol and the smells of human misery, body odor, infection, sweating sick people.

He answered between snores and was awakened by someone pressing with their knuckles on his breastbone. It hurt mightily and awakened him right away each time.

"I’m the doctor. I’m going to start an IV in your left hand with saline solution. You are very dehydrated. You would have lost consciousness in awhile. We are going to keep you under blankets until your body temperature returns to normal. Please try not to do anything too foolish while you are here, you bloody American."

* * *

He saw visions of people coming and going, people he knew, some that he didn’t.
He awakened once screaming Patricia’s name. He thought he had seen her disappear beneath the waves.

Another time, he awakened when someone punched him in the arm and told him to be quiet.

He was aware that he had been talking about the Houston waterfront.

"That’s what you call the Washburn Tunnel, man. It goes under the ship channel from Pasadena to Baytown. You got to use it to get over there from the refinery. Good place to get away from the fuckin’ traffic."

He was laughing bitterly.

"Huh? You don’t know about Houston traffic?"

He awakened all the way and saw the doctor for the first time, a spare man with a pencil thin moustache and coffee colored skin, his curly hair slicked back with pomade, wearing a crisply starched lab coat.

"You from Houston, mon?"

"Yes, sir."

"I have some colleagues that were trained at the Houston Medical Center. You know that place?"

"Yes, sir. Is that where you went to medical school?"

"No, mon, I got my diploma troo da’ mail."

There was laughter up and down the ward, a dozen sick Bahamians and the nurses, all giving him the business.

"I got my diploma da’ same place you got your ideas ‘bout how to sail da’ boat, mon. Hey, mon, you know, if banana come on banana boat, right, mon?"

"Yeah." He said it cautiously. He knew this was going to cost him something.

"And pineapple come on pineapple boat, right, mon?"

"Yes, sir."

"Den, what kinda boat AIDS come on?"

"I dunno."

"Ha ha ha. Coptin’s dinghy!"

There was an explosion of laughter.

"You better check your dinghy, mon! Or did you sink dat, too?"

There was another crescendo of laughter.

* * *

The next time he awakened, a nurse was poking his shoulder with her finger. The IV was gone.

"This is Miss McWhirter from the American Consul’s office, sir."

"Hello, Miss. What can I do for you?"

"You can leave the Bahamas."


"Because," she said from inside her exquisite helmet of brown hair and aviator glasses, tapping a pencil eraser against a manila folder, "the Bahamians don’t appreciate your wrecking an undocumented vessel in their waters. Not to worry. While you’ve been asleep, the investigation has cleared you. There is no foul play, no one was lost; according to the people on Andros, you left there alone. This has been ruled an accident caused by an error in judgment on your part. If you will sign here, you will be cleared of any liability, including your hospital fees."

"I’m very grateful, Miss."

"You will be needing this."

She handed him a crisp new passport.

"Have nice day, sir."

"Same to you, Miss McWhirter."

"Oh, and one more thing. Here’s a copy of the front page story about you in the newspaper.

Ooh, that stings, he thought.

Inside the manila folder she handed him was a Federal Express envelope. There was a short note from Patricia and an airplane ticket to Amsterdam.

"Come home, lover man. All is forgiven."

* * *

They gave him a crisp new suit of scrubs and called him a taxi.

On the ramp outside the door, the doctor hailed him.

"Well, now that you’ve had your ridiculous Huckleberry Finn adven-chuh, I guess you can brag about how you battled the mighty ocean sea to a stand still, eh?"

He grinned.

"Something like that."

"That’s about what I expected, mon. You silly American fuck."

The taxi driver smirked at him.

"You wreck dat boat, mon?"

"Yeah, mon."

"You oughta be shamed to look anybody’s eyes you meet, doddy. Dat was good boat, mon. I’m gonna tell da boys from Man O' War Cay on you."


"Where to, doddy?"

"Barnett’s Bank on Bay Street."

Inside, there was the smell of fresh ink and the cool authority of cash and electronic equipment. He withdrew all his cash and had it converted to traveler’s checks. Up the street, he bought a mackinaw at a yachting supply store and hailed another taxi to the airport.

When he walked aboard the American Airlines shuttle to Miami, he smiled at the flight attendant.

"Did you enjoy your trip to the Bahamas, sir?"

"It was some kind of ridiculous Huckleberry Finn adventure, honey. I haven’t quite made up my mind yet."

# # #

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