A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 9

One morning, in the beginning of August, about the time I was polishing off my bowl of Special K, Avery came charging into the house, banging the screen door behind him.

"Granny! Granny! Can we borrow Pop's fishing poles? The fish are in over at Wayside," Avery explained.

"The fish are in where?" I asked.

"Yes, Avery. Pop won't mind, but I've got a doctor's appointment at 9:30, and I can't take you boys," she said.

"Sure you can, Granny. Just drop us at the entrance, and we'll walk down. You'll have plenty of time to get to the doctor's," he said.

"I've got to meet some friends at the Mary Ester cutoff, after I leave the doctors'," she said.

"You tell us what time to be at the entrance to the Wayside, and we'll be waiting, you can drop us off here on your way to Mary Ester. Won't take five minutes," Avery said.

The deal was sealed. I didn't know what the excitement was all about, but in a few minutes we were loading fishing gear into the car, and we were on our way to the Gulf of Mexico. I'd only been fishing a couple of times, and that went about as good as anything else I did.

We got out of the car and with the fishing pools in our hands, we headed for the Wayside Park pier. It was lined with fisherman. Out beyond the end of the two or three hundred foot pier, were fishing boats lined up on the horizon. I'd never seen anything like it.

"It's like women drivers on dollar day," Avery said, pointing at the boats, as we took a spot on the pier.

"What's that?" I asked, pointing at the dark area that ran all the way around the pier on both sides.

"That's fish. The fish are in. With the fishing boats so close, the sharks are out, and the fish have all come in to get away from the sharks," Avery explained, handing me a pole with two baited hooks.

"Go ahead. Toss the line in," he said confidently.

I did what he said. As quick as the sinker and the bait hit the water, and began to sink, I felt a hit, and another one, and two more.

"I think I've got something," I said, shocked by the discovery.

As quick as I brought in my line, Avery had two fish in the bucket and he was baiting the two hooks again.

"Go ahead," he said. "Give me a chance. I want to catch a few."

As quick as the lines went into the water, there were two more fish, maybe twelve or fifteen inches a piece, on my hooks. I brought in my line, Avery brought in his line. Four more fish went into the bucket, and Avery had my hooks baited again, before baiting his own. By the time he got his line into the water, I was reeling my line in with two more fish. All up and down the pier, our experience was being repeated by dozens of other fishermen. It was a mad house. I'd never seen anything like it, but I didn't have much time to think about it, because I had two more fish on my line.

As fast as we could get our lines in the water, we had more fish, and more fish, and after fifteen minutes and a bucket full of fish, Avery was worn to a frazzle. He hadn't stopped since we got there.

"Let's take a break. Someone's hooked into something big at the end of the pier," Avery said, leaning his pool against the railing and heading for the large platform at the very end of the pier.

I followed suit, figuring we had enough fish for a month.

At the end of the pier a guy with the biggest fishing rig I'd ever seen, was cranking on his reel, bringing his line in a couple of feet at a time. Each time he'd wind in the line, he'd dip the rod, and wind in some more line, and once he got the fish up to the pier, everyone wanted to lean over to see what it was.

Avery joined the crowd. I stood back, not wanting to get in anyone's way.

"What is it?" Some one asked.

"It's huge," another guy said, leaning out over the railing to see.

Avery leaned out. I couldn't see anything. The man kept reeling in the line, as the fishing pole had a serious bend in it. Then, I saw it. Just for an instant, it hit the surface, and then dove back into the Gulf, trying to undo itself from whatever was keeping it from doing whatever sharks did.

"It's a tiger," Avery announced. "Don't fool around with it if you intend to catch it. That is a serious shark."

"A what?" the guy who was leaning out over the railing asked.

"It's a tiger shark. Maybe eight feet. Maybe a hundred and fifty pounds," Avery said. "You've got yourself one serious fish there."

I took two steps back from the railing. I didn't know what a tiger shark was, but I intended to give it plenty of room. It sounded like something that needed plenty of room. I wasn't getting near it.

After another fifteen minutes, and a real struggle trying to get the shark up over the railing and on the pier. The tiger shark lay at the feet of twenty people who were standing around it, once the fisherman landed his angry catch.

I gave them plenty of room too.

Avery, the only kid I knew who was smarter than most adults I knew, used the toe of his sneaker to nudge the side of the shark. The tail came up, and the fish flipped itself sideways, as twenty people took one giant step backward.

Avery nudged it again.

I couldn't look.

What was he doing?

"I ain't reaching into his mouth to get that hook," the fisherman said, using a pair of pliers to cut his line. "He looks mean. What do I do with him, now that I caught him?"

Another guy who looked like he knew what he was doing, came from behind the shark's head. He'd retrieved a butcher knife from his tackle box, and he slammed the huge knife down through the shark's skull, and it embedded itself into the pier.

The shark's tale flicked one time, and it went still.

"He won't hurt anyone now," the man with the knife said. "Let him die and we'll get him off the pier. For you. He's not much good. He just swims, eats, and makes little sharks."

I didn't like seeing anything killed, even a shark. What was the point of catching him and not knowing what to do with him? It was a waste, but so much waist went on in life, it was just one more thing.

Avery glared at the man, and then he walked over to me.

"Come on. We've got five minutes, before Granny comes back," Avery said.

"Why do men fish for something that they don't want?" I asked.

"That guy doesn't know anything about fishing. Once he hooked it, wasn't much he could do but reel it in or cut it loose," Avery said, as we grabbed the poles and the bucket of fish on the way to the entrance to the Wayside Park.

As we got to the road, Granny was turning off of 98. She got out of the car to open the trunk. She didn't want smelly fishing gear in her Buick.

"Where'd you get all those fish?" Granny asked, amazed by the bucket chock full of fish.

"Caught 'em, Granny. Told you the fish were in," Avery said.

Yes, he did. He cleaned all those fish and gave them to Granny.

She said, "You don't want any? There's two dozen here."

"Granny, we've got a freezer full of fish John and I have caught. You keep these. It'll keep you in fish for a few days," he said.

That would have been the great adventure of the summer, if you counted seeing that shark being caught, but the following week, Avery came charging into the house one morning, the screen door banging behind him. August was half gone by that morning.

"Let's go sailing. It's beautiful out. Come on, Dick. I've signed out the sailboat at the marina for this morning, but if someone gets to it first, we're out of luck. Granny, we're going sailing, Avery yelled."

"Well, let me fix you some sandwiches. Wouldn't do to get out in the middle of the bay and find out you're hungry," Granny said, swinging open the door of the refrigerator.

Granny gave her blessing and four thick meatloaf sandwiches. We were off to the marina to borrow the marina's sailboat. It was only twelve feet long, but it was a sailboat. I was game. Whatever Avery wanted to do was fine with me. He was the doorway to adventure after all.

"Where do you want to go?" Avery asked, tacking along the shoreline, once we left the marina entrance.

"I don't know, Avery. You pick a place to go," I said.

"Destin Bridge," Avery said. "We'll go to the Destin Bridge."

The Destin Bridge could be seen from my beach. It loomed on the horizon, the biggest structure visible from the western end of Choctawhatchee Bay. It didn't look far, but it was eight miles to the Destin Bridge if you drove from Granny and Pop's via Route 98. I'd asked how far it was one day, and Granny watched her speedometer to give me the correct answer. We were going over the Destin Bridge.

The day was perfect. The breeze was just enough to cool the surface of the bay to a pleasant temperature. Unlike Joe's boat, the sailboat was silent, except for the swish of the water against the hull and the jangling of the metal hardware, holding the sail to the mast, when the breeze caught the sail just right.

An hour or more, after we turned toward the bridge, we were passing the islands, where I'd first water skied.

"Want to explore the biggest island?" Avery asked.

"Sure," I said, liking how it sounded.

"We'll take the sandwiches, and we can have a picnic," Avery said, eyeballing the bag with the food.

One thing was for certain, if Granny fixed us something to eat, it was never long before Avery wanted to get into it. Her meatloaf was special, but her ham salad, egg salad, and tuna salad were Avery's favorites, and Granny knew what Avery liked, because he made a point of telling her how good it was.

Avery knew how to endear himself to adults. He was thoughtful and polite. He had excellent manners, and he was smart enough to use these tools to impress adults and to get whatever he was after.

I wasn't so clever, but I recognized cleverness, when I saw it, and for the first time, as we circled the islands to get a better look, I thought about going home in another two weeks. It did nothing for my mood. I didn't want to go back. I hadn't seen my parents in two months, and my life had never been as good as it was in Florida.

As we picked a site to land the sailboat, Avery began talking like he was a pirate. We were going to storm the shore and look for Black Beard's treasure. I couldn't keep up with him as he charged over the biggest hill on the few dozen acres of land.

I had trouble with my pirate act, but when I played, I usually was alone, and as smart and able as Avery was, he was 12-years-old, and he didn't mind acting like it, when he felt most like being a kid.

"Granny sure knows her way around good food," Avery said, munching down on one of the meatloaf sandwiches with mustard.

He looked to be totally absorbed by the food, as he broke off pieces of meatloaf, putting the pieces in his mouth.

I looked at the sky. I felt a chill, as clouds covered the sun.

"We better go," Avery said. "I don't like the looks of those clouds. We don't want to be in the middle of the bay in a storm.

"We still going to the bridge?" I asked, as we shoved off.

"Yeah, if it starts to rain. We hold up under the bridge, until it passes. Storms don't last long this time of year. It's probably going to pass. We haven't had a thunderstorm all week."

I remembered one day when we were out, and it did rain. We were on one side of Route 98, and it was dry, but it was raining on the other side of the highway. I'd never seen such a thing before. Everything in Florida was new to me. For one thing, at home, I could see a few blocks. In Florida, I could see forever, and it was beautiful.

As we began to get nearer to the bridge, Avery spent a lot of time looking at the sky. He didn't say anything, but I could see the concern on his face, as the wind picked up suddenly, and the smooth waters of Choctawhatchee Bay turned choppy.

Avery spent a lot of time looking up into the sky. He checked the distance of the three islands. He steered directly toward my beach.

"This isn't good. We should have stayed where we were. This is bad," he said, using the tiller to turn us back toward my beach.

"We're going back?" I asked.

"From your mouth to God's ears. I hope we can get back. This is very bad. The wind is going to turn us over," he said, spending most of his time looking behind us.

Gusts of winds filled the sail and began tipping the boat. After a particularly close call, the small craft settled back down, and Avery had turned white as the sail. He turned the boat toward the islands.

The sail began to whip in gusts that came from one direction, and then came from another. Huge raindrops began pelting us. The sailboat began to rock. Avery looked over his shoulder. He looked at me. Avery was tan as a Florida boy could get, but his face had drained of color.

"We aren't going to make it to the island. I don't suppose you've learned to swim yet?" he asked, sounding desperate, but he knew the answer.

"You were going to teach me. There's no water where I live. I'm not afraid of water," I said.

I wasn't afraid of much. Life was what it was, and whatever came my way, was whatever came my way. Fear was built into my life. It neither peaked or diminished. Not yet, anyway.

"We're going into the water. I don't see how it can be avoided. I can swim fine. I can swim to safety, but I can't leave you," he said.

As Avery reached for the sail, the boat began to tip. We both went into the water. As I reached for the side of the boat, something silver flitted away past my legs. I watched it disappear.

"What was that?" I asked, watching Avery watch where I was watching.

"The centerboard. It keeps the boat stable. We can't get anywhere without it," he said, immediately regretting his comment.

"We're fucked," I said, watching his face for the truth.

"Let me think," he said. "I don't suppose you can swim toward those islands."

"I can't swim, Avery. I can dog paddle. I can float, but I can't swim that far, even if you gave me a crash course in swimming."

"Let me think," he said. "Put your feet on the boat. It won't sink all the way. It's fiberglass. As long as you keep your feet on it, you'll be OK," he decided, once he couldn't think of anything else to do.

We both kept our feet on the boat. It had sunk far enough that the water was up to my waist, but my feet could use the boat to keep me floating. I looked toward the islands. I knew I couldn't make it that far. It was silly to think I could. I'd drown if I tried to get there. I was staying with the boat.

Avery didn't have to tell me, the water was now up to my chest. The boat was sinking deeper into the bay. He kept looking at my face, and each time he did, he looked more frightened than the last time he looked. I was OK, as long as Avery was with me. I trusted him.

"Can you keep your feet on the boat?" He asked.

"It's what I'm doing," I said.

"With both of us standing on it, it's sinking deeper. I can swim to shore, get help, and come back for you. By removing my weight off the boat, it should move up in the water a little. It shouldn't sink completely."

"I'm listening," I said, sensing there was more to come.

"If I leave you alone, will you be all right until I come back?" He asked, sounding like a boy who had figured out what he needed to do.

"I'm fine. I'll be OK. You go ahead and swim for it. I'm not going anywhere," I said, not completely sure I wasn't going down if the boat went down, but I didn't want Avery staying with me, until he was too worn out to swim to shore.

He could swim to the island, which was a few hundred yards, but that didn't help my situation. If he swam for shore, it would be hours before he could get help.

Could I hold out for hours? I didn't know.

"I can't leave you. I got you into this. I'm staying with you," he said.

"Don't be a fool, Avery. Staying with me is stupid. You can swim to shore. Swim for it. I'll be OK," I said, thinking I would.

I'd always been OK, and I'd be through some crazy shit. I was still here, and there was no point in Avery staying. It made no sense for him to drown, if I drowned, but I had no feeling I was on the verge of drowning.

Maybe this was as far as I was meant to go. I'd finally had some fun. I was finally accomplishing things I'd never dreamed of doing. I'd stay afloat if I could. If I couldn't, I couldn't. No one would cry for me.

"You mean to tell me, you were prepared to die?" Carlton asked. "You are out in the middle of a bay. You can't swim. The boat you're using to keep your head above water is sinking, and you aren't panicking?"

"I really hadn't lived yet, Carlton. Death didn't scare me. My parents scared me. I feared them, but I didn't shake and quiver, when they were giving me hell. I knew it would end. I caught hell a lot. It wasn't any fun, but it was the same hell every time. I didn't know what death would be like, but if I died, I died."

"I'd have been losing my mind," Carlton said.

"Because your life was good. You had something to live for. I had nothing to live for, except going back to my parents," I said.

"I can't imagine it," he said.

"I'll set your mind at ease. I didn't drown," I said.

Carlton laughed.

"Now I've got to figure out where I was. I need to think about how much to tell you. I don't want to bore you to death," I said.

"You aren't boring me," he said.

I had been face to face with Avery for maybe a half hour. Avery kept saying he needed to swim to shore to get help, but he was still with me, and that wasn't getting us rescued. We both were still keeping our feet on the boat, and the water was up to my chin.

I figured I should tell him that Avery did swim for shore, and I'd never known a silence, a loneliness, like I felt, once he was gone. My toes kept contact with the sailboat and the water was up to my chin.

"OK! I'll swim to shore and bring back help. Promise me you'll keep your feet on the boat. Don't leave the boat. That way, I'll know how to find you. I'll be back in an hour or two," he said, leaving the boat, me, and the angry sea.

The rain had stopped. The wind wasn't quite as bad. The boat sank a few more inches, as Avery pushed off, swimming straight for my beach. He was a strong swimmer and in a few minutes, I could no longer hear his strokes, or see him.

The water was around my chin. Shortly after Avery left, the boat came up a few inches, and the water was around my neck. It was dark. The water rolled over my head from time to time, but it always settled back down. My toes were now all that touched the boat. I spit the water as it came up on my face.

I was still floating. I wasn't scared. I'd stay afloat, until Avery got back. I had to keep floating. If anything happened to me, Avery was going to blame himself, and I didn't want that.

I got into the sailboat. No one dragged me out into the middle of the bay. I willingly went, and I had fun, doing it.

I would not drown. I made up my mind, I would not drown.

My toes once again lost contact with the boat. My feet frantically searched for the suddenly missing perch, and it was no longer there. My chin dipped below the surface of the bay. I kept expelling water. I didn't want to take a breath. As the idea of treading water, until Avery returned, came to mind. How long could I tread water?

Once more my toes touched the sailboat, and this time my feet were perched on the side of the boat. My chin was out of the water. I felt cool air on my neck, as the boat seemed to stay steady. I applied no more weight to it than was necessary.

I stayed as still as I could, placing no weight on my platform.

I wondered how long Avery had been gone.

With only my head above water, a fleet of boats couldn't find me.

I don't know how long I'd been in the water. It wasn't the least bit cold, but the rain was cold. The winds picked up, the swells washed over my head in a way that I could time. I made a point of not trying to take a breath, at the time a swell was due.

The rain stopped, the swells smoothed out. The water rolled me gently, as I kept my mouth and nose above the surface. I could still only see about four feet. The water was still rolling in a way that kept me from seeing my beach. If seeing my beach was a comfort, not seeing it wasn't encouraging.

Would Avery be able to find me? It was a big bay.

I wondered if I'd ever go stumbling through the brush, and throw my towel down to sunbathe there ever again. I could still see the islands, a little west of where I was. A half an hour ago, I might have been able to dog paddle my way over there, but that wasn't possible any longer. My arms and legs had begun to feel heavier and heavier.

Without warning, there was a huge splash next to me. I came out of my reverie. As someone put his arm over my shoulder.

"You're still here," Avery said. "I didn't know if I could find you. The swells are so high."

Avery was delighted. I was tired. The next thing I knew, he was boosting me into a speedboat. A man I'd never seen before pulled on my arm, as Avery pushed me into the boat. I lay flat on my back, in the bottom of the boat. Exhausted. I could hardly get my breath. I didn't realize how tired I was, until I lay down.

I didn't hear or see Avery for a few minutes. He dove to hook a line to the sailboat, and then, he was back in the boat, putting a towel over my shoulders.

Smiling like the Cheshire cat, he looked delighted to see me.

"You don't know how good it is to see you," he said.

"You told me to stay there," I said.

"Yes, I did, and you did it. I didn't know if I'd find you. They sent a boat from the marina. I didn't swim all that far when he saw me. They figured we might run into trouble in the storm. They sent someone to make sure we were OK."

Once we got safely back to the marina, the reception was a bit cool. The boat looked OK, but the centerboard was on the bottom of Choctawhatchee Bay, and that isn't where it belonged.

Once we walked back to the house, Granny wanted to know if we got caught in the storm.

"Yeah, we did," Avery said, and I let him do the talking.

"We're OK," he said, applying the no harm no foul rule.

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