“Need help, bro?”
Bailey fumbled with the boat’s gas cap. He didn’t need help. It only took one of the dock boys to run the line from the pump to the boat, but all three of them sat on the dock’s edge and rested their dirty feet on his boat, ogling his date. They were shirtless, brown, and ripped from a summer of marina work. Bailey tugged at the seam of his polo shirt, wishing it didn’t fit so tightly against his stomach. He wanted them to hurry up and charge him for the gas so he could take off.
“You going out by yourselves?”
Bailey ignored the question.
“Be careful out there, girl,” the dock boy said to his date.
“Careful of what?” she asked.
“Lot a things,” he answered, pulling the gas line into a coil between his legs. “Storms, waves, other boats.”
“Sharks,” his buddy added with a smirk. “Baracudas, any fish that bites, lobster, crabs . . .”
“We’ll be fine,” Bailey cut him off. “But we’ll be off now—you can just charge the gas to my dad’s card.”
Not one of the dock boys mentioned oil. Bailey didn’t think of it until after they untied and started out into the bay. He turned to watch the marina recede from view, a brown blur framed between the symmetrical wake of the outboard engine. His father always stressed mixing a quart of oil into the gas tank with a fill up. But, he stressed a lot of things, and many of them turned out not to matter much.
“Ok up there?” Bailey asked his date, but she didn’t hear him, or at least didn’t turn around.
He wished she’d join him behind the steering wheel. She sat only inches away, but on the other side of the thick plastic windshield, staring into the water ahead. Wisps of blonde hair, escaped from her ponytail, whipped against her face. With the boat moving this fast, she might as well have been in another zip code. Bailey put a fingertip up to the windshield and traced the outline of the bikini under her white t-shirt in the film of accumulated salt.
He wanted her to come back and watch him drive the boat through the series of buoys and navigational markers. If she asked, he could explain how they guided the boat along the channel out into the ocean, avoiding the shoals. He could explain the purpose of every lever and gauge on the steering console.
At school, when he invited her fishing, he hadn’t said anything about a boat or that it would be only the two of them. He hated that they’d passed all the luxury yachts on their way to the dock slip that morning. Maybe, he worried, she’d thought he owned one of the sixty-foot Bertrams, with a cabin and a wet bar, instead of his dad’s open fisherman.
It wasn’t a bad boat, he reassured himself. He knew kids whose parents owned yachts, and most didn’t allow them to take them out on their own. Most employed licensed captains and mechanics. His father said a man should never own something he couldn’t fix himself.
They approached an older fishing boat from behind, one of those rickety rusted-out trawlers that looks like it’s about one leak shy of becoming a coral reef. His dad had a funny name for boats like that, but Bailey couldn’t remember it. When they came close enough to feel the turbulence of the fishing boat’s wake, Bailey flattened the throttle against the console, flying past the fishermen at top speed. He turned to stare at the men on the trawler as they passed by, but one of them gave Bailey a hard look, and he fixed his gaze back to the front of his own boat.
Bailey steered the boat past the Cape Florida lighthouse, leaving the bay and marina behind. When he spied the familiar tower at Fowey Rocks, he steered them left, pointing the bow of the boat north into the Gulf Stream. The water changed from murky green into a cobalt blue. It grew choppier, too, and he watched her grow clamped and defensive in the seat in front of him, white knuckling the handrails.
He pulled back on the throttle, and she lurched forward in her seat.
“Sorry,” he said, cutting the engine. It was their first interaction since he’d helped her climb aboard at the marina.
“This water is amazing,” she said, regaining her balance. “So blue it looks fake—like a painting.”
He tried to remember what his father taught him about the Gulf Stream—it was the depth, or the temperature, or something about the algae that colored it.
“Sailors used to navigate by the color of the water,” he made up. “This blue water runs north to south.”
“Rough, though,” she said, bracing against the console.
He opened the cooler and pointed out the cans of beer between the bagged ice and bait.
“Fishermen’s secret,” he said, parroting his older brother. “A few brews and you’ll never get seasick.”
He popped the latch on the storage bin that ran the length of the boat floor and pulled out two black fishing rods. Forgetting to first open the bail on the reel, he wound a length of fishing line around his hand and pulled hard. It caught, and he winced as the line cut into his palm.
“Can I help?” she asked, joining him in the back of the boat.
“You ever rig a ballyhoo?” he asked.
He drew one of the frozen baitfish from the cooler and poked her in the stomach with it.
“Hey!” she said, stumbling backwards.
“I’ll take that as a no,” he said, opening the tackle box.
She scrunched her nose as he slid a long silver hook into the fish, starting beneath the gills, and exiting out of its belly. With a length of rigging wire from the tackle box, he pierced through the fish’s eye socket and tied a knot around its beak. He wiped a bloody hand against the boat’s white deck.
“It’s weird, right?” she asked. “Starting with fish?”
“I mean, why go fishing if we already have fish? It’s like if I wanted to bake a cake and the very first ingredient was a muffin.”
“You can’t eat ballyhoo,” he said.
“I mean, some people eat them.”
He repeated the steps with a second ballyhoo and attached the rigged baitfish to the fishing rods, which he placed in the trolling holsters. Returning to the console, he popped out the throttle into neutral and turned the key. The engine grumbled, clicked, and fell silent.
“Everything ok?” she asked.
He remembered the oil. Fuck. He tried two more times, and the engine only clicked and exhaled some blue smoke. On the third try, the engine again grumbled, clicked, and right as he felt certain doom, roared back into life. He made a mental note not to shut it off again until they were safely back at the marina.
For a while, they trolled the Gulf Stream, the slow-moving boat more skiing the hilly waves than cutting through them. He watched the lines for tautness, planning to let her haul in anything they hooked. He imagined a moment, like on TV, standing behind her with his arms over hers, bracing her. He’d guide her hands as they finessed the fish—pulling back on the rod to create slack, then leaning into it as she reeled, fast but not hard, so the line didn’t snap.
Instead, he drank beer, and she grew more seasick.
“It really does help,” he said, offering her his can.
“Smells like fish,” she said, taking a tiny sip.
“From sharing the cooler with the bait,” he said. “It’s a delicacy—like a Bloody Mary with Clamato.”
It was something else his brother said, but he knew it sounded stupid. Nobody drank Bloody Marys in high school. He opened another beer and remembered what his brother told him about drinking with girls. He’d said to pretend you’re drinking a lot but actually take it slow, so they get tipsy and you don’t. Nothing was going to plan.
“Let’s reel these lines in and go somewhere we can swim,” he said. “In the bay, where the water is calm.”
This time, she stood behind the windshield with him as he drove the boat.
“Wanna drive?” he asked.
“I never have before.”
“You drive a car, right?” he asked. Between the wind and the engine, which seemed to be getting louder, he had to yell awkwardly to be heard.
“Sort of,” she said. “I’ve got a permit.”
He stepped back from the console. She jumped over, a bit panicked, and grabbed the steering wheel.
“Relax,” he said. “It’s easier than a car—there’s more space for mistakes out here.”
The water calmed some as they approached the bay. When the Fowey Rocks tower came into view, he told her to turn right and watch for the lighthouse.
“They’re coming right for us!” she said, pointing toward a yacht approaching them from behind. “What do I do?”
“Nothing,” he yelled. “You’re fine.”
“But it’s coming right for us!”
“It’s fine,” he screamed. “It always looks they’re coming for you, but really there’s plenty of space.”
A couple minutes later, the yacht overtook them, with several hundred feet of water between them. The lighthouse came into view, and they passed a few boats headed out of the bay, but she seemed more confident in her driving and didn’t mention them. About a half-mile from the lighthouse, the engine revved unexpectedly. Its roar progressed into a piercing hiss and then died. He stumbled onto her from behind as the boat lurched to a slowdown.
“What happened?” she asked, sliding out from between him and the console.
“Don’t worry, it’s not your fault!” He yelled, even though it was quieter now. He knew as soon as the words left his mouth how ridiculous they sounded.
“Did something break?” she asked.
“Look, don’t worry.”
“It sounded bad—will the engine start to get us home?”
“If it won’t, I can fix it,” he said. “Why don’t we go for a swim?”
“Here’s fine,” he said, heaving the anchor overboard. As it sank, the rope whizzed through his hands, probably thirty or forty feet. He worried he’d run out of line before the anchor found the sea floor. Finally, it stopped, and he let it drag against the bottom for a bit before tying off the last few feet of rope. The boat rocked and strained against the mild current but seemed to stay in place.
“I have to ask something, but don’t make fun of me,” she said.
She hesitated, looking more annoyed than embarrassed.
“Are there sharks out here?”
“You’ll be fine,” he said, smirking.
He walked back to the console and toggled the ignition a couple times. Click. Click. Nothing. Through the windshield, he watched as she took off her shorts and t-shirt, folding them neatly on top of the seat. He marveled at the idea of bikinis. No different than bras and panties, he thought, and yet here they were. He wondered again if she’d known it would just be the two of them when she got dressed that morning.
“You coming?” she asked, perched on the boat’s railing.
“Of course,” he said. He wanted to wait until the last possible moment to take his shirt off, when she was already in the water. He wasn’t fat, just soft in places, and pale—not hard and tanned like the boys that worked on the dock. She was perfect.
She went over the rail with a quick shriek and splash.
“Want a beer?” he asked.
“I guess so,” she said.
He pulled the two cans of beer farthest from the bait and sent one her way with an underhanded toss. He popped his open and took a long swig. He was in trouble. What had his dad always said would happen if you didn’t add oil? Frozen pistons? It sounded bad. Or maybe it was ok—something frozen could thaw. He pulled hard from his beer and felt a bit better. He drained it and grabbed another before jumping in.
The water felt warm against his body, contrasted against the cold beer. It was a lot of effort to tread water with just one free hand. They finished their beers and tossed the empties back toward the boat. Hers bounced off against the rail and floated away.
“Let it go,” he said.
They faced each other, only their heads above the water. He wondered if this was the time to kiss her. It felt like the perfect moment, bobbing together out here, no one else within sight. She was so pretty, and now they were finally alone, free from the stress and distraction of everyone else. It had taken every last drop of his courage to ask her out.
“You sure there aren’t any sharks out here?” she asked.
“What about other varieties of, um, menacing fish?”
He ducked underwater, flipped, and dove down. The water chilled, and the pressure hissed in his ear. On his way back up, he opened his eyes and found her, pulling her under with him by the waist.
“Hey!” she shrieked when they both came up.
“Just messing,” he said.
“I’m getting back in the boat.”
He swam behind her and hung onto the lowest rung of the ladder as she climbed aboard, dripping onto him. Back on the boat, he found the towel he’d packed and wrapped it around her in a bear hug. It was another one of the TV moments he’d fantasized about—a second chance for that kiss.
“Who is that?” she asked, slipping out of the towel. A boat approached from within the bay.
“It’s the dock boys,” he said, squinting to make out the three of them aboard the marina’s service dinghy. He pulled the towel over his own shoulders and took a fresh beer from the cooler.
“You two alright?” one of the dock boys asked, cutting the motor on the dinghy.
“We stopped to swim,” Bailey answered him.
“Here?” the dock boy asked.
“Here,” she answered.
“Damn,” one of the boys spotted his beer. “Y’all got brews?”
“We do,” she said. “But they taste like fish.”
“Fish,” she said. “It’s a delicacy.”
“Damn bro,” the second dock boy said. “Skunk ass brew—you sure you’re ok?”
“We’re fine,” Bailey answered. “Thank you.”
The dock boys ripped the pull cord and restarted the dinghy motor, speeding back toward the marina. He offered her another beer, and she accepted but held it unopened. She’d put her clothes back on over her wet bathing suit, and her bikini soaked through her shirt.
He drank another beer and toggled the ignition, playing with the engine choke and throttle, trying to produce anything but an empty click.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” she asked.
“Hey, don’t you have one of those trucker radios in here?” she asked.
They didn’t. His father said distress radios were for people who didn’t know how to fend for themselves.
He removed the cover from the outboard, exposing a nest of wires and switches. His father kept a manual in the console. He found it, but it was beyond comprehension. One at a time, he pulled levers and toggled switches, trying the ignition after each. A knotty panic developed in his stomach, tighter every time she asked what he was doing.
“This looks really complicated,” she said, hovering over his shoulder.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “So many wires.”
“I know, right? They shouldn’t make it so confusing.”
Bailey felt the knot subside, a bit. He looked up at his date, letting some of his worry escape into his face.
“Why didn’t you tell the guys from the marina what was wrong?” she asked.
“Because I can fix it,” he said, turning hard back toward the engine.
The sun began to set, layers of burnt pink and orange stacking up against the horizon. He watched her watch it, her arms folded tight against her chest. No boats had passed within a few hundred feet of them since the dock boys. He could barely read the manual in the fading daylight, much less understand it. Neither of them spoke for a while.
She turned first to investigate the hum of a boat that appeared in the distance. An old fishing boat headed toward them on its way back into the bay, one of those creaky forty-some footers with crab traps piled on the deck. A ref-raft, his father called them, after the Cuban or Dominican fishermen on board. When it came within shooting distance, she climbed onto the railing, shouting and waving frantically.
“What are you doing,” he scolded her. “It could be anyone.”
“We’re stuck,” she said, the word landing with a thud.
The boat slowed as it approached, and when close enough, a man hopped from the fishing boat on Bailey’s, bearing a rope and plastic bumper. He tied the boats together, and two other men made the jump.
“You stuck?” the first one asked. He wore a yellow button down shirt, but fully unbuttoned, and his gut protruded over denim shorts. He looked heavy, but hard. The same patches of stubble covered his mostly bald pate and his face, with markings under his eyes, drab green against brown skin. Either a scar, Bailey thought, or maybe a gang tattoo. The other two were skinny and younger looking.
“We’re fine,” Bailey said.
“No, we’re stuck,” she said.
“Why you lying to us, partner?” he asked Bailey.
The older man grazed his hand over the exposed outboard engine and approached the console, giving the ignition a couple fruitless turns.
“Dead,” he said.
“We’re fine,” Bailey repeated.
“Don’t seem fine to me.”
The man picked up a beer can off the console and shook its contents in his hand. He took a long swig and chucked the rest overboard.
“Don’t know why I did that,” he said. “Shit just makes you dumb and slow.”
“We gonna tow you in,” he added.
He barked at the two skinny men in Spanish, and they set to work on a towline. Rifling through the console, the older man picked up Bailey’s wallet from inside the glove box and pocketed the cash.
“Thanks,” he said to Bailey.
He kept looking through the wallet and held up a couple condoms he found.
He said something in Spanish, laughing. Bailey couldn’t understand a word of it, even though he’d made an A in Spanish class.
“You’re straight evil, bro,” the man said to Bailey. ”What were you gonna do, take her out here, get her faded, and then slip the blade?”
“Sucio!” One of the skinny men yelled. “Dirtbag!”
He tossed the condoms into the ocean and patted her on the head.
“Don’t worry, girlie, we won’t need these.”
She shivered and stared in the direction of the lighthouse, which was beginning to flicker.
“You cold?” the man asked.
“I’m fine,” she said.
One of the skinny men, who’d helped himself to a beer, shook it up and sprayed a stream of it onto her chest.
Bailey started to take his shirt off, to offer it to her, but the skinny guy walked over and poured the rest of the beer on him.
“Hey, what’s the story, guy,” he said.
“Here,” the older man said, removing his yellow shirt and handing it to her.
“I’m fine,” she said, holding it in front of her.
“It don’t stink,” he said. “Put it on.”
One of the two younger guys returned to the fishing boat. They began the slow tow back into the bay. Bailey tried to look at her, to reassure her it would be ok, but she stood with her arms crossed and stared at the lighthouse. He wondered how long she’d been scared. He felt his fear start to wane as they neared the marina, but the fishing boat kept moving straight, instead of turning in.
“Why aren’t we going to the marina?” she asked.
Bailey shot her a look, wanting her to be quiet.
“It’s right there. Turn.” She insisted.
“I got this,” Bailey said to her.
“Look,” he said, turning toward the man, “this is my dad’s boat, and I need to get it back to the marina right now.”
“Calmate” the man said. “Calm down, I know you worried about your dad, but I’m the daddy out here.”
“If it’s more money you want, I can get it at the marina.” Bailey insisted.
“I don’t want none of your money,” the man said. “I only took what I did as payment for the tow, so you wouldn’t feel like a bitch.”
“Please,” she said. “It’s late, take us to the marina.”
“We got to get paid for our haul first,” the man said, pointing toward downtown, on the other side of the Powell Bridge. “Business first, then we take you back.”
“We crabbers,” one of the skinny men said, laughing through rotted teeth.
Bailey wondered where they planned to take them, not knowing anything about how commercial fishing worked. The traps looked empty. They headed toward the city, busy and brightly lit, but he knew it was farther than it appeared. In between was nothing but open water and shadowy, mosquito-laden coves of mangrove.
“I speak Spanish,” she said, her voice trembling. “I heard everything you said before, but please, just . . .”
She said something in Spanish, and the crabbers seemed to take a minute to consider it before answering back in Spanish. Bailey wished he understood what was happening. He considered telling them all to speak English, but realized how helpless that would sound.
“Please, please, just take us back,” she begged.
Bailey stared at her and then back at the marina. She’d put the yellow shirt on, either because she was cold or she was scared. He remembered how scared he’d been to ask her out. He didn’t even like fishing—just wanted to spend time with her. They were in the same math class, and he’d always liked her. She wasn’t a brain or anything, but she wasn’t one of those girls who pretended not to care. He didn’t even like fishing. The boat had been his brother’s idea.
Bailey saw something moving in the distance, a dark figure cutting close to the surface of the water. He mistook it at first for a shark or a dolphin. When his eyes adjusted, he made out the dock boys in their dinghy, out for one last round through the bay.
He started toward the back of the boat.
“Hey, chill out,” the skinny guy said, grabbing him by the collar.
“No,” he said. Bailey shook loose from the man’s grip and balanced himself on top of the dead engine. He waved his arms and screamed, crying, begging, helplessly releasing everything he’d tried to keep together.
“Help!” he screamed, as the skinny guy pulled him off the engine by the arm. “Help! I’m fucked up, I mean, I fucked up! I need help!”