The Last Marlin: The Story of a Father and Sonby Fred Waitzkin
Young Fred Waitzkin is a Jewish boy stretched between the divergent values of parents who cannot tolerate one another. Fred's father, Abe, is a brilliantly talented salesman whose relentless will drives him to succeed-he literally brightens American cities with fluorescent lighting fixtures. Abe marries Stella, an abstract artist and daughter of a wealthy… See more details below
Young Fred Waitzkin is a Jewish boy stretched between the divergent values of parents who cannot tolerate one another. Fred's father, Abe, is a brilliantly talented salesman whose relentless will drives him to succeed-he literally brightens American cities with fluorescent lighting fixtures. Abe marries Stella, an abstract artist and daughter of a wealthy industrialist with whom Abe forges an alliance. When his parents' marriage disintegrates, Fred retreats into fishing, learning the trade from the master captains of Bimini. In scenes ranging from Long Island synagogues to evenings with famous painters to the boats of drug smugglers and the once marlin-rich waters of the Gulf Stream, Fred sinks boats and battles thousand-pounders believing that fishing is the only hope. Woven through this compelling narrative are moving insights about childhood, families, and a love of the sea.
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WHEN I BEGAN VISITING BIMINI AS A TEENAGER, I PASSED LONG days in the white fiberglass fighting chair on my father's boat trolling for marlin off the pines north of the island. Even back then fishing for me was a combination of action and fantasy. With long stretches to burn between strikes, I learned to love daydreaming on the ocean. While I stared at the baits and listened to the throbbing diesels, I thought of Sexy Mama dancing topless to the thumping beat of conga drums at the Calypso Club halfway between Alicetown and Porgy Bay. I was a drummer myself and imagined her shaking her chest to my beat. I tried to seduce her with passionate slaps and rolls and then I slowed the rhythm until her movements were earthy and we were both dripping sweat. She wouldn't let me touch her. I drummed on the armrest of the fighting chair until her shapely legs and full coffee-colored breasts faded in my mind to office buildings in midtown Manhattan, new high-risers sheathed in plate glass and glimmering with thousands of fluorescent lighting fixturesI loved thinking about fluorescents. My dad was a lighting fixture salesman, and we were always talking about his newest deals and the finer points of selling. In the fifties there was no one in New York City landing more big fluorescent lighting jobs than my dad.
I kept an eye on the big mackerel and bonefish baits skipping through the white water behind the boat and frequently I bounced up in the chair and pointed astern. But the dorsal fin and long sickle tail sliding off awave or coming up behind a distant outrigger bait was usually an illusion. The wash of wake and waves churned up legions of record-breaking blue marlin and accolades I would receive on the dock at the Bimini Big Game Club or I could see myself modestly describing my latest eight-hundred-pound catch to envious fifteen-year-old buddies on Long Island.
Then half-asleep I would glimpse a long brown shape beneath the surface forty yards astern streaking toward me and suddenly a massive head coming out right behind the boat, swinging at the mackerel. This was no fantasy. Again the marlin lifted itself out, grabbed the bait, crashed back in, throwing water like a depth charge. I struck with the big rod, my shoulders wrenched forward by a violent lurching weight, bracing against the footrest, and then after the fish's long first run, I reeled until my right arm burned, slowly lifting the rod with my back and legs, winding on the downswing, pumping and winding while the boat backed down into the sea and I was drenched in blue water. I could hear my father's deep cough and feel his tension and excitement behind me. "Look at him jump," I could hear him say. "Look at him jump." After an hour or two of lifting and cranking, this immense beast of my dreams was alongside and we were actually pulling him on board Dad's Ebb Tide.
The value of this curious semi-somnolent blood sport was confirmed to me by its association with Ernest Hemingway, who was, of course, my favorite writer and who, I believed, understood and enjoyed life better than anyone else. In the thirties, when Bimini was anointed sportfishing capital of the world, Hemingway lived on the island, writing and trolling for marlin and bluefin tuna. There were vast numbers of marauding sharks offshore, so many that when a large fish was hooked and slowed by the drag of the reel, it was forced to confront an impossible gauntlet of ten- and twelve-foot killers. When the marlin or tuna was finally cranked to the boat, the pioneer angler cursed his bad luck, for the trophy fish was now backbone and a dead head.
When I first came to the island there were still tremendous numbers of sharks. I was appalled and fascinated that these powerful hunters appeared in the Gulf Stream whenever a game fish was wounded. We even watched hammerheads and tiger sharks finning along the white bathing beach or slowly moving through the clear water of the Bimini harbor. I could hardly wait to step off the boat in the late afternoon to begin preparing my rigs. In a few hours I would be chumming the water off the Game Club's dark and rickety east dock while my father sat in the bar sipping a Scotch. I caught some big sharks from that dock. One moonless night I hooked one that started leapingI could hear the heavy thud each time the shark slammed into the calm water. Suddenly it turned back in my direction and the shark rammed the shaky piling right beneath my feet. I was impelled to drop the line and run for my life, but I wanted Dad to be proud of me. I heaved on the thick line wishing he would bring his drink out here and take a look. I actually got the eight-footer onto the dock, a female blacktip, and a dozen little ones wriggled out of her. They squirmed at my feet, and in the confusion of the moment with the mother bucking and snapping at my legs, I didn't know whether I wanted to kick the baby sharks into the water or to crush them with my shoes.
At the Compleat Angler Hotel, where Hemingway resided much of his time on Bimini, you can see photographs of the writer holding his Tommy gun beside gargantuan dead sharks. Such was his strength and prowess as an angler that he landed the first unmutilated bluefin tuna brought to the Bimini dock. On my first trips to the island I studied photographs of boatloads of large marlin and wahoo he had landed. I thought of the waters off Bimini as Hemingway's Garden of Plenty, a gorgeous blue world landscaped with tuna, marlin, broadbill, shark, kingfish, wahoo, cero mackerel, grouper. It was a child's vision of immutability. Hemingway's smile from the flying bridge of the Pilar promised limitless catches, thrilling times ahead. Bimini was a place where you could pull in fish forever, where you could troll and never grow old, where your father would never die.
As a boy I was confused that fishing was a source of tension in our home. I believed that if we kept trolling plentiful waters, Mom and Dad would get along while we made great catches, our family would prosper and endure; but Mother wasn't interested in dropping a line or even coming on the boat. Dad was the fisherman. She considered it boorish and brutal, a big waste of time except when she could work themes and colors of the ocean into her strange art. I kept thinking that Mom would come around. Only today at seventy-eight, when she remembers my father Abe and my brother Bill, does Mother refer to the family sport with a trace of warmth. For Stella, decline has always conferred a measure of distinction.
Mother says that I was conceived in a house across the road from Revere Beach at the north end of Boston, where my parents lived for two months during the first year of their marriage in a cozy, bright room with a view of the ocean. Stella was twenty and had plans to write a great novel. She wanted to be by the sea, to listen to the surf as she had summers with her family in Far Rockaway. As a teenage girl Stella had been romantic and rebellious and had bridled against the provincial outlook and materialism of her immigrant parents. My mother's father was the founder of Globe Lighting, a large fixture manufacturing plant in Brooklyn. It was important for him to show the neighbors his success. He drove a Cadillac and painted the wood in his home with gold leaf, put in taffeta drapes and Persian rugs trying to re-create Versailles. Stella was embarrassed to invite her friends over. Isadore Rosenblatt was a forceful businessman and a patriarch with a master plan for all members of his family, including his eldest daughter. But his merchant dreams were insufferable to my mother, who yearned to be an actress or a writer, something more exotic than the telephone operator job her father had in mind as her springboard into the lighting industry.
Stella met Abe for the first time when the young manufacturers' rep from Boston stopped by the Globe factory wearing his trench coat and felt hat. There was something mysterious and dashing about this young man. "I was struck by your father's hypnotic eyes. I would talk to him about Emerson, Thoreau, Dickens, and he would smile and nod. I believed that he loved these writers," she says tartly.
We are sitting on the raised deck of her small Cape Cod home with a view of the woods at dusk. I've been visiting her for a few days, pressing her to tell me about Abe and Bill, and she has grown tired of it. "I don't share your interest in nostalgia," she declares, the past suddenly between us like an alien land. She is right. I am easily seduced by memories, comforted. Mother would prefer to begin each day with a fresh slate, like a new being. Speaking with her about our lives has been fitful; I ask her questions, she is moved to describe past events, then she becomes angry or emotional, and I resolve to leave her alone. But soon Mother can't resist telling me something more.
"Abe promised to take me away from New York, that we would make our own lives in New England. He could convince you of anything."
My father's desire for the water was a quality Stella found attractive initially, because it played against his salesman lifestyle and materialist cravings. One day in Revere Beach Abe came across a dory in bad shape. He bought it for next to nothing. This first boat was a humble beginning for a passion that would be passed on in curious variations to his children and my children. That winter Abe worked on the little dory, sanded, painted, reinforced the stern for a little engine. But most important, he cut a hole in the center of the open boat, built up a little throne to sit on, a toilet. All my father's relatives were amazed that no water came in the hole. Even as a young man Abe had terrible intestinal problems, cramps, diarrhea. His eyes would bulge from the pain, but he wouldn't say a word about it. The summer before I was born, Abe and Stella rode up and down the Charles River in his dory. Abe loved the boat. It was medicine for his physical pain, a retreat from tension and his abiding anger. Stella cannot recall why he gave up the dory after one summer, and there is no photograph of the double ender, which saddens me. Abe didn't own another boat for ten years.
Mother realized that the marriage was a mistake from the start. She was humiliated and angry each time my father brandished her pedigree to impress his customers. Globe was one of the giants in the lighting industry, and the little New England distributors Abe cultivated from Bangor to Manchester danced on their toes in the presence of Izzy Rosenblatt's daughter. One time Abe introduced Stella to a customer and the man inquired unctuously, "So how is your father?" Stella answered, "Fine, how is yours?" which made Abe furious. My mother has always been one to clobber her foes with words, to dazzle with hyperbole and fiction. They must have been something in the early years: my father, who believed in convention and connections, who charmed with his smile, intimidated with his big green eyes; Mother spinning tales, lashing out without regret, shocking his customers and the Boston relatives. "There was an atmosphere around his friends and family: what a coup, Abe has married the boss's daughter. It was disgusting to me."
She believed that my father decided to give her a baby only to quell her restlessness and disappointment, to keep her trapped. One of his salesman buddies had counseled him, give her a handful of babies, she'll stop complaining. Nonetheless, Abe surprised her with his caring touch as a father and she began to enjoy the life they were making together. Babiesmy dad's salesman buddy had been right on target.
Even as a young mother Stella was resolved to make her own career. Borrowing Abe's assertiveness she went to Filene's basement and sold them on the idea of a radio program, Beauty Is Yours. Her weekly show began with the song "A pretty girl is like a melody ..." Stella disseminated beauty tips over the air: the best cream to use if your skin is oily, how to dress if you are underweight, choosing the perfect scarf for a pudgy face. She became the beauty sage of New England, each week answering scores of letters from adoring fans. But the show was a fiction. Stella knew next to nothing about women's beauty products, she has never cared about such things. Over the years my mother has amused herself creating false personas, re-creating reality. She is impatient with prosaic distinctions between truths and lies.
During the early years of the marriage my father began his own little manufacturing business, Lee Products, specializing in wiring troughs and electrical boxes. He sold his electrical enclosures throughout New England. But my father didn't make a hit in Boston, didn't earn any real money. Dad was not suited to be an inside guy. Abe knew that he could sell, but his little shop did not have the capability to manufacture big jobs and Dad lacked the patience to acquire more machines and hire more men, methodically to build his business. It was his style to stay out late wining and dining customers and to sleep late. Abe was frustrated, impatient to make a big success. And often he was sick, doubled over in pain, as if fights with his dad, with whom he did not get along, and competition in the electrical business took a direct physical toll on his frail body. My first memory of my father was from the lawn of a hospital. I was two years old, standing beside my mother, who was pointing to a window two or three stories above. Dad was in the window wearing a bathrobe, waving.
Soon after my brother was born my father moved the family to New York and took over the sales division of my grandfather's business. This was his dream, to test his selling prowess in the big leagues, to be in a position to sell thousands of costly recessed fluorescents instead of dozens of chunky panel boxes. By all accounts my father became a tremendous success, the top commercial lighting man in the New York area. He sold the lighting for the United Nations buildings, Aqueduct Race Track, the Seagram Building, the Socony Building, Time-Life, many others. At dusk, when the Manhattan skyline began to sparkle with lights, it was my dad's workthat's how I saw it.
For my mother the move to New York was high treason and she suspected that for some time her father and mine had been plotting their business association behind her back. "Abe never discussed anything. He just did it," she says. "I was in California when he bought the house in Great Neck. No discussion. Can you imagine just buying the house without my being there? I hated Great Neck. I hated the house. It was an insult. I hid in the closet when a busybody neighbor came to visit with her husband. She came many times. I could hear her calling through the window, `You can't keep hiding from us. We're your neighbors.'"
When I was ten or eleven my father purchased Babe Ruth's boat from the slugger's widow. I recall going to her apartment in the Bronx with my father to give her the check and to get the title. She was dressed in a bathrobe and stunk badly of alcohol. Garbage was piled in the kitchen. There was no cheering, no more home runs in her life. The Babe had been gone for many years.
The twenty-three-foot speedboat was narrow-beamed with a varnished mahogany finish like fine furniture. "A work of art, a sculpture," Mother said when Abe showed it to her. It was fastthat's what I liked. It had a big inboard that growled at idle speed, issuing a challenge. In the Long Island Sound we took on all comers and rarely lost. One time in the Babe Ruth boat, that's what we called it, we cruised up the Hudson River past the building on the Upper West Side where my mother's parents lived. My father pointed to a balcony on the seventeenth floor, two troy people sitting in chairs. My father waved exuberantly. I can still see the smile on his facehe was on top. Mother sunned herself and appeared not to notice her parents.
During the first winter my father sanded the boat down to raw wood and then, after filling little cracks with putty, brushed on a half-dozen coats of varnish. Sometimes I patted the smooth hull like a horse's neck. I couldn't believe that it was ours. I wanted to help with the work but Dad became impatient when I sanded against the grain or put too much varnish on the brush so that it dripped. Mostly I watched him work. It was a pleasure watching him stroke on the varnish or tinker with the big engine. My dad was a terrific craftsman and mechanic.
When we went to work on the boat the following winter, Dad discovered dry rot. He pushed a screwdriver through the pretty hull to show me. It was like the boat had cancer. I kept insisting he could fix it, but he shook his head. "We're gonna get rid of it," he said. I couldn't believe that he would get rid of it. I still dream about the Babe Ruth boat.
Dad would often stay out until ten or eleven entertaining his customers. I waited impatiently until I heard the sound of his Buick turning onto the driveway. Then I would run to the hall so that I could give him a hug when he opened the door. Dad explained to me that his customers, his "contacts," as he sometimes referred to them, were his true friends. Perhaps he noticed some flicker of incomprehension on my face for he insisted that I would understand this someday. By now Dad was known in the trade from Bangor to Miami, and whenever he arrived in his Buick for an appointment, he never had to wait. His chin quivered a little when he described how he was received. This made me feel very proud. Once or twice a year he returned to New England to make calls on his old customers and sold some boxes and troughs for his little Boston business, which was now run by his brother-in-law and his father. Although he was making big money in New York, Abe seemed to know that someday he would need these old contacts. This was a form of insurance.
When I was eleven I once traveled with him from Boston to New Hampshire making calls for Lee Products. His customer would usually come into the outer office to greet my father, put a hand on his back, ask how he had been feeling. My father would receive these greetings with a devoted smile, would refer to a recent episode in the hospital as "a rough time." One of them whispered to me that my old man was a great fighter, other men would have given up. I smiled but a shudder went through me. Many nights I had sat at the top of the stairs listening to his moaning. In our home there was often talk of Dad getting sick or doing better, going into the hospital or making a terrific recovery. I worried constantly that I would lose him. But with his customers Dad used his health as a leverhe opened hearts with his courage or his neediness, whatever it took.
I waited in the outer office with a secretary while Dad went in and made his pitch. The longer the meeting took, the better. I wanted it to last forever. I could wait. My father was selling. In the car I would ask him, Did you make a killing? I was thirsty for every detail. As we drove to the next distributor he would tell me about how many troughs and boxes of various sizes and gauge metals he had sold. All of this was so important. After this trip I told my mother that I wanted to be a salesman. She became very upset and called the life of a salesman banal. We argued bitterly. I insisted that I wanted to do what my father did.
Our next boat was a Richardson, a cabin cruiser. My mother actually urged my father to buy this twenty-seven-footer, entranced by the cerulean blue of its hull. On weekends my seven-year-old brother and I would fish for sea bass and porgies off the buoy in front of Sands Point. My brother held his rod with great seriousness, he wanted to catch more than I did. Usually we caught begals, a ratty little fish, flipped them back over. My father always looked so happy when we reeled them in. Occasionally a small boat would come around selling ice cream Popsicles, what a treat. My mother would sit on the bow sunbathing. She had no interest in fish.
During the second summer we took the Richardson all the way to Montauk. There were big seas in the Long Island Sound, towering rollers. Mother watched Dad with admiration as he steered us through the waves. It was so unusual for her to look at him this way. We tied up at the Montauk Yacht Club alongside pricey Wheelers, Huckinses and Ryboviches, run by captains and mates for owners like Bob Maytag, the washing machine magnate, and Denny Phipps, who would soon become president of the New York Thoroughbred Racing Association. These were the kinds of boats my father yearned to own, stallions of the sea that could power through twelve-foot breakers searching for broadbill swordfish, makos and giant tuna off Block Island or No Mans Land, an island south of Martha's Vineyard. "Someday," he told me. I figured one or two more killings and we would have her.
At the Montauk Yacht Club, everything was larger than life. In the late afternoon grand boats bristling with near unbendable rods and golden reels pulled up to the dock with eight- and nine-hundred-pound tuna and makosfish that were stupefying, out of this world. I couldn't imagine landing such giants. I peppered captains and mates with questions about where they'd trolled, what baits they'd used. They dismissed me as a pest. In the evening I wandered the endless winding wood-paneled halls of the hotel, which were studded with photographs of record game fish. Even the practical jokes had a mythic quality. One afternoon an enormous kid, known for his angling prowess with tuna, tied my brother by his feet and hung him from the tall scaffold where they weighed in fish. I found Bill hanging there like a forty-pound white marlin. When I lowered him down, he was furious but wouldn't discuss it.
In the evenings, in the crew bar, captains and mates ate thick steaks and traded stories of fierce battles with colossal fish on distant oceans. They fished off Panama for striped marlin, traveled to Chile hunting for thousand-pound broadbill. One story in particular stayed with me. An owner sent his forty-foot boat, manned by the Cosello brothers, an experienced, fearless crew, to Peru to fish for fifteen-hundred-pound black marlin in the Humboldt Current. One afternoon the brothers went out fishing and never returned. It was believed that the boat had been dragged under by a giant squid, a hundred-footer. One of the mates in the crew's bar wore a large white shark tooth on a gold chain and spoke of mammoth blue marlin in the Gulf Stream off an island called Bimini. The past winter his boat had battled a world-record-sized blue marlin off Bimini, but before they could put it in the boat the fish was mutilated by sharks. I was determined to go to these distant places and battle giant fish.
In the Richardson we fished off Montauk Point for bluefish. When one hit, it felt like it would pull your arms off. My mother always rooted for the blues to get off our lines, which infuriated me. I recall Dad cleaning them while they wiggled and the smell when Mom fried fish as we trolled our wire lines. Stella learned to brace herself against the seas and how to cook in a tiny galley, but all the while she knew she should be someplace else.
By the time my dad bought the Richardson, my mother had started spending time painting in her studio, which they built onto the end of the Great Neck house. During our summer fishing trips to Montauk she drove to East Hampton to work with Willem de Kooning, who was borrowing Robert Motherwell's studio. During the school year she traveled regularly to the city to study with the legendary teacher of abstract painting Hans Hofmann, and to attend the lectures of Meyer Schapiro at Columbia. When I came home from school the walls of the house were shaking with the irreverent solos of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker on the hi-fi. I hated this music but she told me to keep listening, that I would come to love it. She read aloud passages from Jack Kerouac's On the Road. I found them strange and stirring. Mother attended parties in the city where Negro drummers pounded out Afro-Cuban rhythms and smoked dope, homosexuals held hands and kissed. When she told me about these escapades I felt humiliated. My parents lived in different worlds.
I fished despite my mother. How could she find it so distasteful? When my dad was away on business she brought painter friends such as Malcolm Morley and Louise Nevelson to the house. Mother and I would sometimes drive to Port Washington to visit her best friend, Betty Holiday, a painter and photographer. Betty lived sinfully with a young lover. Although she was a beautiful woman with blond hair below her waist, her huge self-portraits were haunted by madness. Life-sized sketches of nudes hung on her bright studio wall, the hips and thighs of Betty's women dissolving into lusty abstract motion, tantalizing. While I tried to glance casually at the nudes, Mother and Betty spoke rapidly about art, how to get more deeply into the work. Painting was everything. My father didn't approve of Betty. I felt that coming to visit her was an act of betrayal.
On the way home I made my mother stop for lunch at Dad's favorite seafood restaurant. The walls were covered with aged fish mounts and photographs of striped bass and bluefish. Then before driving back to Great Neck I insisted that we stop at the bait store to buy a box of sandworms; I always double-checked to make sure the box had a clump of seaweed to keep the worms fresh and moist.
I often fished by myself off the floating dock at the Great Neck Estates Park. One time in the early spring I caught a three-foot eel, kept it squirming at my feet for an hour until my father came for me and I could show it off to him. Occasionally I would attempt to entice my brother Bill into fishing with me, but usually he would say no.
Even as a child, Bill preferred his own company. He loved to walk along the water's edge, skipping rocks into Manhasset Bay or kicking over horseshoe crabs and skates that were rotting in the slime. When I offered to come with him, he turned me down. I could never get him to play ball or to go bowling. He spent time alone with his dinosaur collection, studied books on sharks and sea turtles. He loved Mother's rock garden in the backyard. When Mom blew up the engine in her old Morris Minor, they planted the rusty car in the garden, placed rocks and shrubs around it. Flowers were soon growing out of its windows and trunk. Bill was intrigued by his mother's unusual sensibility; only she could really touch him. It annoyed Bill when her friend Betty visited in the afternoon and the two women sat for hours in the studio talking about painting, not noticing the darkening light. One evening when Betty left to drive home she discovered a big pile of rocks on the hood of her car.
Bill's only friend was a next-door neighbor, Ezra. Sometimes they would go off for hours, and more than once they were brought back by the police for breaking windows with arrows or shooting them into bags of cement piled in front of half-built homes. While the officer explained things to Mother, Bill's expression was unrepentant, fierce. One afternoon four or five children stood on the street in front of our house pelting rocks at Bill, who stood his ground on the driveway flinging rocks back at them. When I rushed outside to help him the kids ran off and Bill became angry, lectured that he didn't need my help. I would try to persuade Bill to sleep in my room. No thanks. Should we play together with your dinosaur collection? Not today. I loved Bill and kept trying. Bill's taste always tended toward the extravagant and bizarre. And so it was not altogether surprising that months before his eighth birthday he showed genuine enthusiasm for my great fishing scheme. While I read fishing magazines and developed my plan, he faithfully kept the secret for an entire winter.
My mother was planning to spend the next summer in Province-town on Cape Cod painting with Hans Hofmann in his outdoor studio. I had learned that during July and August giant tuna, the most powerful of all game fish, proliferated off Race Point on the west end of Provincetown. I am talking about big tuna. During their annual spring migration up the coast, the bluefins grew huge dining on bluefish off Hatteras, North Carolina, and menhaden in New Jersey's mudhole and the Nebraska shoals south of Rhode Island. When they arrived at Race Point to gorge themselves on mackerel and blues in the rip, many of them had reached eight or nine hundred pounds. Bill and I intended to catch one from a small boat. It would be like bringing down a rhino with a slingshot. We would be the talk of the crew bar at the Montauk Yacht Club.
During the winter I collected gear, large hooks, three nylon handlines. I wanted to catch a bluefin the way the old man had fought the marlin in Hemingway's bookI wanted to feel the fish in my hands. I liked the idea of suffering while the fish was suffering, one of my favorite parts of The Old Man and the Sea. When it died two hundred feet below, I wanted to pull my eight-hundred-pounder up with my arms without the leverage of a big rod braced in a fighting chair.
Finally it was summer. We celebrated my twelfth birthday with Mother in Provincetown. It wasn't hard to convince her to rent us a small outboard for an afternoon's cruise in the shallow bay; she was thinking about her painting. That summer Hans Hofmann was in the habit of taking Mother's paintings and ripping them in half, then putting the bottom on the top. I didn't understand this. Maybe she was learning how to paint upside down. The man at the boat rental warning us, "Don't take this skiff out into the ocean. She's not fit for the ocean." I nodded okay. Why would we want to go out there?
I had purchased a half-dozen large squid at a fish market. Gunning the engine, I left the shallow bay and headed east, keeping the skiff about a hundred yards off the beach. The wind was in our faces, and there was a three-foot chop on the ocean. Bill looked into the seas with a resolute expression. After a few minutes he was soaked. Over the years, whenever I could get him to come with me, he was first-rate, a real fisherman, no complaining no matter how rough the sea or bad the fishing. That day it took us about an hour to get to Race Point. I hadn't realized it was so far. The boat was an old fourteen-footer and each time we came off a wave the flimsy bottom shuddered and water seeped in along the seams. Bill bailed with a can.
Finally, ahead of us, I saw the rip, a breaker six or eight feet tall that stretched down the beach for half a mile. From that little boat it looked like a tidal wave. The idea was to keep the bait beneath the curl of the wave, at the edge of the white water. That was what they said in the magazine. The giants would be milling there, feeding on mackerel and blues. There were probably hundreds of them right beneath the white water, some over a thousand pounds. My heart was beating in my ears. The big moment was here. I rigged one of the squid onto a hook and played out the handline. And then I began to worry. What would happen if we got a strike? The beast would hit like a truck. How would I stop it? What if I couldn't? Just holding the handline with the pull of the trolled squid through the ocean was tiring my arm. What if a tuna hit and the line got twisted on my hand? But now, looking astern, preparing myself for the strike, I had lost track of the towering rip. Too late to turn off, we were right into it. Before I could shout to Bill we were clobbered by a ton of wave, sputtering, flooded, the gas can was floating in my lap, life preservers over the side. Somehow, Bill had stayed in the boat and was crouched in the bow holding the gunwale with two hands. But we were sinking. All my planning. I never imagined this. Nothing else to do. I turned the bow to the beach and gunned the engine. Bill couldn't swim. What would happen to my brother if we went down? The motor screamed but the logy boat barely inched ahead. We were mostly underwater when I felt the bow plow into the sand.
Bill and I sat on the beach, some distance apart, and watched the boat turning over and over in the big surf, her flimsy bottom coming apart from the sides. Eventually a Coast Guard officer came up to us on the beach. "What were you kids doing out there?" the man asked me incredulously. My mother was about fifty yards behind him, climbing down a sand dune. She was waving a white handkerchief in the breeze as though we were all playing a scene in a Fellini movie.
Grimly I went back to flounder and eel fishing off the dock in Great Neck. Mostly I fished alone. I was biding my time. All my friends were studying hard for their Bar Mitzvahs. I tried to study but each week I lost my books. Rabbi Guttman got red in the face fighting back his anger with me. I was thinking incessantly about fish. The water in the Long Island Sound was turgid and rank, nothing like what Hemingway described off Cuba, but still there were working birds, and occasionally small fish broke the surface. Each little flounder was a victory. I fished to spite my mother, couldn't stand the way she painted, nothing was recognizable or lyrical. Thick lines of dark colors obscured traces of warmth and form. She was patronizing about my taste in art, which made me furious. She showed me the work of Jackson Pollock, which she greatly admired. I didn't like his painting either.
Occasionally I trolled lures for striped bass in Manhasset Bay. The water was polluted; there were signs posted that swimming was dangerous. Old-timers used to say that they once caught thirty-pound bass here, but the fish had disappeared from this end of the Sound years ago when the water became rank. But one afternoon I caught a five-pounder. My fingers trembled as I tried to take the treble hooks out without breaking its delicate lips. It was a lovely-looking fish, black stripes with a greenish cast in between, wonderfully white flesh when it was cleaned. We broiled my bass that night for dinner. It tasted of diesel fuel. I have never enjoyed eating striped bass since.
When I was thirteen we flew to Miami and went out on a party boat for kingfish. When these forty-pounders hit and made their runs in the green water, they left a bubbly wake like a torpedo. I decided that kingfish were my favorites. That same winter my mother dragged me kicking and screaming to the Philip-Fort Dance Studio on West 44th Street in Manhattan, a seedy-looking place that smelled of sweat. But there was a funky piano paced by the wild rhythms of three black drummers. I had never heard such music. It was seductive and pulled me in. I couldn't get this place out of my mind. Soon I became a regular at the dance studio. I would leave Saturday services in synagogue filled with the strains of mourningthough he was alive, I believed that the Kaddish was for my fatherand take the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan for my weekly conga drumming lesson that was held in a tiny back room crammed with a half-dozen of us pounding away. I was good at drumming, the best in my class. Occasionally I was invited to drum in the front room overlooking the China Bowl restaurant. Black girls in leotards would curl and leap to my white Jewish-boy rhythms. One night one of them kissed me on the lips, held her body against mine. I ran back down Seventh Avenue to Penn Station, rushed home to Great Neck in a sweat, tried not to think about it. I fished for Olatunji and for my father and for Ernest Hemingway. I dreamed of catching kingfish off Miami and of the black girl, though I avoided her at the studio. What a fool I was. She was so beautiful.
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