The next morning I slipped out the front door after breakfast and wandered down to the beach. Surprisingly, it was deserted except for a few people milling around the pier to the north. I held my hand to my forehead in order to shield my eyes from the blowing sand. The waves rolled in, one after another, frothing with spray.
I took off my shoes and walked to the edge of the water, which was delightfully warm. I had an uncontrollable urge to jump in, but didn’t. Having just arrived from Texas, I wasn’t really ready for a day at the beach. I must have looked like a beachcomber with my sneakers slung over my shoulder and my pant legs rolled up below the knee.
But I didn’t care. I was in Florida—the Sunshine State. No more stepfather to thump me on the head to remind me to use my right hand. No more rawhide belt across my backside when I couldn’t sit still or talked too much. No more forced naps on Sunday afternoon. No more…
I stopped mid-thought. There was a boy about my age walking toward me, carrying a surfboard.
“Hello,” I shouted, raising my voice above the wind.
“Hey,” he replied, stopping.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Looking for waves.”
“Seen any yet?”
“Too choppy,” he replied. “Hey, you live around here?”
“Well, sort of. My family got in yesterday. We’re staying at my grandmother’s beach house on the main road.”
“No, we’re here for good.”
“Well, my name’s Tim,” he announced suddenly. “I live a couple of blocks that way, over by the boat canal. What’s your name?”
“Bill,” I said.
“Well, actually, most of my friends call me Billy,” I said, extending my hand.
Tim ignored my hand.
“Hey, let’s go watch Shark Man,” Tim blurted.
“Yeah, he’s on the pier. He’s already caught one.”
We turned and headed toward the pier. As we approached the weathered structure, I could see several people looking at a small shark lying on the beach.
“I told you he caught one,” Tim said.
I stopped, careful not to get too close to the dark leathery mass thrashing about on the sand.
“Hey, let’s watch him catch another one.”
I followed dutifully as Tim dropped his surfboard and headed up the stairs of the pier. There were several people at the end of the pier, including a boy holding a large fishing hook. His hair was bleach-blond, his skin blazoned by the sun. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen years old. We stopped and watched him lift a headless fish dripping with blood from a small ice chest at his feet.
“Shark bait,” Tim announced, his eyes riveted on the boy as he pushed the barbed hook through the middle of the fish.
Once the hook was fastened, the boy pulled several yards of fishing line from his pole. Then he climbed onto the railing at the end of the pier, stared into the swirling water below, and jumped.
“What’s he doing?” I exclaimed.
“Shark bait’s too heavy to sling into the water,” Tim said, “so he’s swimming it out to where there might be other sharks.”
“Sure, how else is he going to catch one?”
As we talked, Shark Man swam thirty or forty yards out past the end of the pier, dropped the baited hook, then turned and swam back to shore. Once on the beach, he scrambled up the stairs to the pier, ran out to the end, picked up his pole, and waited.
It wasn’t long before the pole dipped sharply. Shark Man responded instantly, yanking the pole up and back as hard as he could.
“Now what’s he doing?” I asked, intrigued by the scene.
“Setting the hook,” Tim answered.
For the next half hour we watched the boy run from one side of the pier to the other, tugging at his pole as he reeled in the line. And sure enough after a half hour of this we could see a shark thrashing about in the water, its top fin slicing through the waves. It was a large fish, much larger than the one on the beach.
“Probably its mother,” Tim said, watching the shark intently.
“Or its father,” added a fisherman standing nearby.
As the shark got close to the pier, Shark Man began inching toward the beach, pulling the large fish into shallow water. The more it thrashed, the harder he pulled on the line.
Once the shark was in about a foot of water, the boy tied the line to the pier railing and scrambled down the stairs. As he did, he slipped on a pair of gloves that he kept in his back pocket, and raced to the water’s edge. Catching the line with his gloved hands, he started to pull, inching the muscular fish closer to shore.
“Watch this,” Tim said, happy to be my tour guide.
Like a cowboy in a steer-roping contest, Shark Man jumped into the water and grabbed the shark’s tail with both hands. Then, while the shark thrashed about, he wrestled it out of the water and up onto the beach.
By now a large crowd had gathered. Everyone huddled around, watching, careful not to get too close to the shark.
“Will he kill it?”
“Doesn’t have to. A fish out of water is a fish out of water.”
“What do you mean?”
“Fish don’t breathe like you and me. They get oxygen from the water they swim in. Take that away, and, well….”
I looked closer at the large shark lying on the sand, struggling to breathe. Then at the smaller shark, which now lay motionless as if it were dreaming of its past life in the water.
“Hey, I’ve got to go,” Tim suddenly announced, “maybe I’ll see you around again.”
“Ah, yeah,” I replied, as Tim picked up his surfboard and headed down the beach.
Then, almost as an afterthought, I called after him, “Ours is the small beach house, on the double lot, by the main road.”
Tim waved, but didn’t turn around.
I hung around the pier a little longer, then headed home. Not a bad catch for my first day at the beach—two sharks and a friend.