by Clyde Edgerton
(Written in 2004)
We stop to get groceries at a little grocery store in the village of Zapata, southwestern Mexico, near the Pacific coast. A big wooden barrel full of brooms sits just outside the wide front opening to the store, and just inside are bins of fruit almost chest high. I’m tempted to stand at the fruit bins for a while—the smells are sweet and some are strange: cantaloupes, tiny bananas, mangos, and papayas.
The grocery store reminds me of the one my father ran back in rural North Carolina in the 1950s. A “reacher”–a long handled, two-fingered metal hand–retrieves goods from top shelves. Anybody can use it.
This little town has no paved streets other than route 200–a two-lane hard top, the main road down Mexico’s west coast. The nearest town with paved streets is more than an hour away.
We’re here to pick up Diet Coke and ice cream. My buddy, Vic Miller, will be speaking the Spanish I wish I could speak. We’ve just been fly fishing on Rio Caliente. No luck, but the riverbanks were plush with dark green plants, weeping willows, and the water–as clear as air. Before fishing, we managed to get our rental car stuck in sand and a friendly Mexican holding a machete walked across the shallow riverbed and helped us push the car onto firm ground. Vic talked and joked a while with our rescuer, who, when we returned from fishing, was bathing in the river, a little board resting on the riverbank holding soap and shampoo.
Over a decade ago I was stuck in a river in Florida in Vic’s Jon boat with a tub of weeds wrapped around the engine propeller. Vic stood, waist deep, with the engine tilted so that the propeller was out of water, unwrapping weeds while his seven-year-old daughter, Maisey, cried in frustration over a halted adventure. My daughter, Catherine, also unhappy, was along.
“Sing something,” Vic said to me.
I started in on John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream:” “She was a level headed waitress on the road to alcohol. I was just a soldier . . . Blow up your T.V., throw away your papers, move to the country, build you a home.” Maisey stopped crying, and Vic is forever remembering that day.
One night about five years ago several friends and I were on a small houseboat that putted very slowly along the bank of the Apalachicola River. Vic, just ahead of the boat, waist deep in the water, walked along holding a spot light in his left hand (the light bound to the boat by a long extendable cord plugged into an electrical outlet) and a .38 revolver in his right hand. He was stalking a bullfrog for next morning’s breakfast. We could hear the frog bellowing on the bank in the weeds not far ahead. A big branch caught the top of the boat and stopped it. Vic kept walking, the light cord comes unplugged, the light goes out, a few seconds pass, and only then, in black darkness, there’s a gunshot. In a few minutes Vic appears at the bow, dead frog in hand, shot between the eyes. Had I not been there, I wouldn’t believe it. There’s still something implausible about that incident, but it gives me faith in some other Vic stories.
Vic has revived a dying dog with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; he fought a bull in a bullring–and lost.
He quotes Shakespeare, Keats, friends.
He’s had several open heart operations, he’s sixty-two, he’s been told there can be no more operations and he lives every day as his last. He’s been married more than twice. I’ve never asked him how many times. He’s been bruised and stitched up after all sorts of encounters, at least one with a crocodile, and another with a wild boar.
My wife’s Uncle Duke, a New York movie producer, owns a villa in the Careyes resort area. It’s near the little grocery store where we’re shopping. Duke is generous to friends and family. My family is staying in his villa for ten days, and I’ve asked Vic to join us. Knowing about the relative isolation of this part of the world, the dangerous and wild rocky coast, I figured way back when we were invited that if I could get Vic down here, just sort of turn him loose and follow him around for a few days, something would happen. I knew Vic would bring his fly rods, snorkeling gear, maps, walking shoes, and his warped sense of living on the edges of normality.
A few days before, on the hour ride north from the airport in Manzanillo to the villa, Vic, my wife Kristina, my son Nathaniel, and I left no room for a car seat in our tiny taxi. Nathaniel must be held in the back seat. I sit up front holding the hand rest and dashboard because the driver tailgates, swerves around slow trucks, and takes the inside of sharp curves. Vic talks about how his truck caught on fire last week. He put the fire out with beer. His truck is fine, though.
It’s fun to ride along and listen to Vic tell stories, though I’m worried about Nathaniel not being in a car seat, yet not worried enough to rent another taxi. There are no child seat laws here and for some irrational reason that makes me worry less. I hold on, listen to Vic.
He shot a duck a few days back, just before dark, and left his hat on a branch in the woods to mark approximately where the duck went down so that he could return to find it. He will kill nothing he doesn’t eat. He came back next day, parked the truck, looked for but couldn’t find his hat, then couldn’t find the truck. He finally found the truck, but then got stuck in the swamp.
The taxi driver was crazy, I decided. Kristina, behind the taxi driver, handed Nathaniel over Vic’s case of fly rods–propped lengthwise in the taxi—to Vic, who was behind me. We were speeding along. Vic was bouncing Nathaniel on his knee and talking to him. Vic’s door came open; he yelled and slammed it shut. Nathaniel had opened it.
Vic lives with the Kuna Indians in Panama. Not exactly with them—he lives in a sailboat just off the coast from their village. He enjoys their company, entertains them, eats their food and celebrates with them. He’s now visiting his hometown, Albany, Georgia, for a while but will return to the Indians after taking in as much American life as he can handle. He likes the way the Kuna live, the way they treat their children and each other. He’s trying to develop a commercial market for their art.
Vic recently sailed his forty-four foot sailboat back to the states. He told us about the trip as our little taxi sped north on Route 200 from the airport. On that trip back to the states he was blinded for a few days after being accidentally gouged by a thumb. He tried to navigate by the “feel of the wind against my cheek,” and one night as his vision returned he barely made out Polaris, the North Star, and changed course. His ragged blind navigation saved several days on a trip, which still took five weeks, rather than the normal two. He was in trouble once during that trip and a harbor patrol boat sent from Grand Cayman came to his rescue but Vic refused to allow them to tow him in.
When we arrive at the villa from the airport we are greeted by Kristina’s mother, Hannah, her father, P.M., sister Merritt, and family friend Maggie. Hannah informs us that a guide will take us ocean fishing the next morning at nine-thirty. I’ve been counting on Vic to do the guiding, to track down a boat, and to run the nature show, but this little fishing trip will be a good way to start. Vic can talk to the guide; find out places of adventure, things to do.
The first night at dinner, Vic tells of how he came to live with the Kuna. The chief, named Brown, was talking with Vic, and Vic noticed that he kept scratching his arm. Vic offered Neosporin. The chief used it and then took off his shirt and asked Vic to apply some to his back. Vic did. Soon a group of Indians lined for his “magical” medication. He ran out of Neosporin, but to continue to please them, he reverted to dabs of toothpaste. They came to trust and like him, and he set anchor.
The fishing guide’s name is Sergio and he and Vic talk fishing, weather and ocean tides in Spanish. Along for this initial fishing outing is my father-in-law, P. M. I pick up Spanish pieces of a story Vic told us earlier and is now telling Sergio: When Vic flew in to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in 1960 (he was eighteen), twenty years or so before Sergio was born, on a DC-3, the co-pilot sat on a milking stool, and the landing strip was dirt. When the aircraft took off, it didn’t have the power to clear the mountains on a straight out departure so it just corkscrewed up into the air until it was high enough to make it out.
We’re trolling with heavy-duty rods and reels. The coast is mostly rocky bluff with occasional sandy beaches. In the rocks are crevices and caves. Swells move into the rocks and leave waterfalls, crash into crevices and caves. Plumes of water, like geysers, spurt into the air.
After about thirty minutes we have a strike. P. M. brings in the fish, a species of tuna that Sergio says we should throw back because it’s no good to eat. The meat is too dark. There’s a discussion between Vic and Sergio. We’ll keep the fish and cook it.
Headed south along the rocky seashore, we pass the Goldsmith estate high on a cliff (twenty-three thousand acres, thirteen thousand set aside as a preserve). There’s a round tower on the estate that reminds Vic of an abandoned astronomy tower on the north Pacific border of Costa Rica. It was once rented by the owner as a honeymoon suite. A parrot lived in the tower and would occasionally come to the owner’s table for dinner, singing, “Ooooohh, ahhhh, yes, yes, yes.” Occasionally, the parrot flew down into the village below, but was unable to fly back up out of the valley. The owner would walk through the streets and listen for it.
We pass sandy beaches with coconut groves, and Vic tells about an Indian he knew in San Blas, Panama. The man was called Iguana. His legs were withered and useless. He climbed up palm trees after coconuts. He would climb down from the top of the trees shoulders first, like an Iguana.
Vic talks about diving among feeding sharks at a reef in Walkers Caye, Bahamas. Distracted by the view, he found a shark tugging on the belt of his equipment.
P.M asks him what’s the weirdest thing he’s ever caught, fishing.
Vic thinks for a few seconds. “A cadaver. I was with a group of folks in a boat looking for a drowned man in the Kinchafoonee Creek in Leesburg, GA. We were using long poles with big treble hooks on the end and just as we got underway I thought I’d hooked a stump, and asked what to do. ‘Bring it on up,’ somebody said. I did, and as I pulled up I leaned over the side of the boat. I was looking for the stump but instead suddenly there was a big swollen face staring me in the face.”
We’ll catch two more fish on our half-day outing: a tuna and a jack. Vic will fillet the two tuna, cut the fillets into chunks and fry them in a spicy flour and cornmeal mix. Next day he’ll convert a large flowerpot into a smoker and smoke the jack. The tuna was pretty damn dark. I can understand why the locals don’t eat them. The smoked jack was delicious.
On the third day we collect tiny gray fish, each not much larger than a fingernail, from a near-by beach. It’s easy, in the seawater that collects among the rocks as the waves come in, to catch them in a shallow pan and then pour them in the plastic bottle for Nathaniel. We’ll return them to the sea after a few hours. But there is one beautiful tiny fish that seems impossible to catch—they are scarce and very skittish. They look as if they’re squeezed from a tiny tube of dark blue paint and their bellies are orange.
The problem is how to catch one.
I realize I’ve stumbled into an adventure, perhaps the adventure of the trip. I will use clichés of big game fishing—the fish exploding on a power run, my fighting the big fish into submission, stopping the initial run, owning the fight, taking a 300-pound big eye on 80-pound tackle—use those clichés to write about catching our quarter-ounce “Big Blue.”
But how do we catch it?
Vic’s idea is to invent a “slurp gun” that will work something like a hypodermic needle in reverse and suck Big Blue safely in to a small chamber.
We look around Uncle Duke’s villa. On a shelf is a clear plastic tennis ball container holding two balls.
“If we put a hole in one end of that,” says Vic, and then pull a tennis ball backwards somehow, with a clothes hanger or something, it’ll create suction, won’t it?”
“Should. We’ll have to cut a hole in the tennis ball.”
We look at each other. “I haven’t seen any tennis courts around here, have you?” says Vic.
“Nope. So these balls and container are probably here for a slurp gun. Uncle Duke won’t mind.”
I find my Leatherman and go to work, cutting holes and designing.
“Let’s try it out,” said Vic.
The living room to the villa is open on the ocean side and built into the low wall which keeps you from walking off into space is a small swimming pool, about the length and width of a taxi.
We find a box of raisins in the kitchen and drop them into the pool. I moved the gun with-in a couple of inches and pull back on the straightened clothes hanger that passes through and curls up on the far side of the ball. The raisin moves away from the end of the gun.
“What the hell?” says Vic.
I try again. Same thing. I examine our gun. “The ball’s not in there tight enough. Water is rushing around it and out the hole.”
For three hours we re-design and experiment.
Finally, after failure upon failure, we come up with a gun that sort of works. The principle is like our original, yet we are working with a two-liter plastic water bottle, thin and tall. The tennis ball container is discarded. Two halves of a tennis ball–slightly smaller that the opening they’re in–will be pulled back (with straightened coat hanger) from near the small mouth opening of the plastic water bottle, and behind the tennis ball is our design discovery that allows suction: a partially inflated plastic freezer bag that is up against all walls of the bottle interior. The back of the gun, i.e. the entire bottom of the plastic bottle, is open; we’ve cut off the bottom, and the “pulling back” is done with a curved hand grip in the coat hanger.
This slurp gun looks somewhat like our first one but it will actually pull a raisin into the opening–about fifty percent of the time.
We head to the beach.
I crouch among the suitcase-sized and smaller rocks along one section of the otherwise clear beach. Small waves wash in, leaving clear water in little pools. I look for Big Blue. Finally, after about ten minutes, I see one. I stalk Big Blue. What a beautiful fish. It darts out of sight below a rock, back in sight, then into a tiny cave. I wait. It comes out. I slowly but steadily move the slurp gun into range. Big Blue darts away, disappears. In the next twenty minutes I try and miss six times. I move to other pools. Plenty of little grey fish but no blues. Ah, I see another. I’ll use a new tactic. I hold the gun still near the area I think he’ll swim by soon. I wait. I wait. He swims toward the lip of my gun. I pull the coat hanger. He swims away. I wait again. In a few minutes he boldly swims to the lip again. I pull. I pull the entire innards of the slurp gun out of the water bottle and low and behold flapping on top of the plastic freezer bag that I’ve caught between my elbows is Big Blue. I scream to Vic. He’s nearby with a pan, catching greys. He comes running, and I manage dump Big Blue and the freezer bag into the pan.
We take Nathaniel his batch of fish in another plastic water bottle. He’s delighted. We all admire our catch for a few hours and then return them en masse to their home.
Two days later, Merritt suggests a group hike at Turtle Beach, several miles away. She drives Vic, Maggie, and me to a narrow dirt road exiting Route 200, marked with a handwritten sign, “Polo.” We drive along for a while and then through a gate near the yard of a private residence. This seems to be a kind of checkpoint, but no one is on duty. We drive through thick gnarled, scrub oaks and underbrush to a fork—“Polo” to the left. We go right, and finally emerge on a wide grassy plain that leads to the ocean. We find a magnificent, crescent shaped beach at least three miles long with rock outcroppings at each end. No humans, no structure in sight. We remark that its beauty has probably doomed it to be a future resort spot. We decide to walk to the northern tip where there may be a river or creek for fly-fishing.
The beach is high and wide. A kind of plain leads from the level flat beach downward to where very tall, powerful waves are breaking. After each wave thunderclaps down, tons of water flow rapidly up the incline and, in places, onto the flat top. The water then rushes back down the incline creating a terrific undertow; the tall waves suck up sand and shells as they break–extremely close to shore. But the middle and upper parts of the waves are light green and translucent.
Right away we see a lone, little sea turtle headed across the beach for the water, something we’ve seen in films but not live. We scan for others but there are none. We follow him along. He makes the wet sand, is washed back ten feet or so by the surf, twice. We refuse to help him—he will need the strength he’s building–and finally he disappears, sucked out to sea. The surf is extremely foamy.
Merritt looks north. She points. “Something just ran into the ocean up there.”
“Probably the way the water was breaking,” I say. “That’s a powerful undertow.”
“No, it was something alive, like a log.”
We continue north. In a minute I see the log. “It was a log,” I say. Not very big, washed back onto shore. It suddenly rises on four short, stubby legs and runs into the ocean.
“Crocodile!” says Vic. He’s been mainly looking for fossils, quietly and patiently scratching in the sand. It’s as if he were struck by lightning. He is new. He scrambles into his flippers, grabs his mask and heads for the beach. “They think you can’t see them underwater,” he says over his shoulder. “In the water is the best place to catch him. Boy oh boy, won’t this be something for Nathaniel.”
Merritt points again. “There he is.” The croc is floating about forty feet out, nose and eyes above water, just beyond the breakers. The water is so clear you can see the rest of her. She appears to be a little over a yard long. Vic calls out, “Hang on, Bernadette, I’m coming to get you, sweetheart.”
(Backstory: Early in our vacation, my mother-in-law Hannah asked Vic. “Could you please shave?” Or “Don’t you have another shirt?” Something like that. All in fun.
Vic’s response was, “You sound like Bernadette.” One of his ex-wives (name changed to protect the innocent). All in fun.
From then on, when anyone gave orders about anything, the response was, “Don’t you go Bernadetting me.”
A big wave knocks Vic on his ass and drags him underwater, out of sight, up toward us, until he appears—rolling in the surf. I notice that he stays relaxed, doesn’t fight the water. He charges in again, manages to stand, and dives beneath a great wave. He surfaces beyond the breakers and swims toward where we last saw the croc. But Bernadette is now out of sight.
After fifteen minutes of searching, Vic gives up and is washed in to us. We walk along looking for Bernadette in the water. No luck.
We give up for the time being, thinking we might see her on the way back up the beach.
“It’s pretty simple,” says Vic. “You just catch them around the neck where they can’t get their teeth back to you. And then grab that tail and get it under your arm, so they can’t get all that torque going.”
As we walk north we notice a swampy area ahead and to the right. It’s about three hundred yards from the ocean, across the beach. Bernadette’s home, probably. As we approach we see a pond with brackish, brown water. Vic unpacks the fly reels and we begin fishing. Merritt and Maggie continue walking north along the beach.
When it’s finally clear we’re not likely to catch fish, we walk back toward the ocean, headed toward the north end of the beach.
From the sand, close to the breakers, I look behind us and there, a hundred yards or so back, resting on the beach near the top of the long incline down from the flat beach, is Bernadette—or a log.
“Vic. There’s Bernadette. Or a log.”
Vic looks. He crouches. He’s new again.
At this spot on the beach, where we are—but not back where Bernadette is–the tide has washed a four or five foot vertical wall into the sand. Vic slides down it, gets as close to the water as possible, and starts creeping toward Bernadette. He moves slowly, like a cat. But the surf, even knee deep is powerful enough to stagger him. She turns and runs into the water. Vic comes back and we move away from the water to the top of the flat beach, out of sight of where Bernadette will, we hope, come back to rest. And there she will surely watch for innocent little sea turtles. Or Vic.
We wait five minutes or so, and sneak back to where we can see. Bernadette is back.
“There’s that big washed up stump back up on the beach on a straight line from where she is,” I say. “Why don’t we just go back up the stump—she can’t see us from there—and then charge.” What am I saying, I think. “I mean, then you can charge.”
“Because she’ll outrun us. They’re fast as hell. But only for short distances. The only way to do it is cut her off from the ocean, come in from the ocean. That’s what I need to do. And you be ready on the beach in case she heads for the swamp. They won’t attack you unless they’re cornered. Just have a stick to hold her off, in case.”
“In case of what?”
“I don’t know. Just in case.”
I’m thinking, he’s going to try to make it out through that impossible surf and then come back in on Bernadette through that impossible surf—maybe washing right on top of her.
Bernadette rests on the beach at the far reach of the waves, but just below the crest of the beach, where the incline up from the water meets the flat beach top. Occasionally, surf washes around her.
“I don’t think you can make it out through that surf. It’s rougher that it was an hour ago.”
He’s donning snorkeling equipment. Not listening to me.
Maggie and Merritt are walking toward us from the north. I point south. They understand and move so Bernadette won’t see them.
Vic tries to make it into the ocean. He’s rebuffed in an almost violent way. He tries again—same thing. He gives up. He’s shaken. We sit on the beach and talk. I’m afraid he’s going to try again. He stands. Merritt and Maggie are near-by, watching. This whole thing has gotten a bit more serious with those savage giant waves, waves like the ones you see on surfing movies, but they are breaking right onto the sand. While Vic stood before one a few minutes ago, he had to look way up to see its top. He looked very small in front of it. It brought him back in and now I know him well enough to know he’s going to try again no matter what I–or anyone–says.
“I wouldn’t do it Vic. It’s too rough.”
No response. He’s putting on the damn flippers. I suddenly see how the original Bernadette was perhaps “Vicked”—more than once.
We’ve discussed what I’m supposed to do. Cut off Bernadette if she heads for the swamp. I visualize the film: Bernadette heading for the swamp. In front of her: me heading for the swamp.
As Vic starts for the ocean I start up the beach toward Bernadette but out of sight of her. I know she’s near that big log that I can see. I’m thinking, I will not wait here until Vic is safely to sea, or drowning. Because if he starts to drown, I may be crazy enough to go after him, and if Vic can’t handle the surf I know I can’t. We’d both drown. I don’t want to drown, so I walk south toward Bernadette. I don’t even watch Vic enter the ocean. Then it strikes me—if he gets in trouble, he’ll probably be washed in close enough to pull out. I stop and turn. He’s beyond the waves. I walk slowly south as he swims in the same direction beyond the breakers. The waves come in as great swells, and Vic is riding the swells as I walk.
I get to the log and stop. Vic is straight out from me. I picture Bernadette resting between us. Facing me. The crest of sand prevents me from seeing anything but the tops of the waves close to shore. I hear the thunderclaps of their breaking on the beach. I wait. Vic turns toward me and starts swimming in. He’s wearing the goggles and the snorkel is in his mouth. I see his head above water looking at me as he relaxes, letting the swells bring him in. I give him a thumbs up. He responds. Now he’s close enough to bob up into sight at the top of a swell and then out of sight. I’ve got to get my timing right. I will be able to see when he’s on his last swell just before it breaks and then I’ll have to pause, then walk toward the ocean. Because, if Bernadette sees me before seeing Vic, she’ll have that early jump toward the ocean that we don’t want her to have. Vic’s job is to cut her off and pounce on her. Somehow. My job is to watch.
Vic is at the top of a swell, in sight. Down, out of sight. Up. It’s the wave that will break. He and the wave disappear; I hear the “boom,” and pause: thousand one, thousand two, thousand three. I walk toward the ocean. Over the crest I see the vast ocean and surf and Vic, on his knees, embracing Bernadette. He’s holding her neck and tail. He stands, staggers. And walks toward me with the prize.
“My goggles,” he yells. I look. Flippers and goggles are being sucked into the ocean. I go after them. My knees are recovering from racquetball injuries. I’m not in shape. But I manage to retrieve the flippers. They float. The mask is gone and will remain gone.
Back up on the beach, I get a close look at Bernadette. She looks like . . . well, like a crocodile.
I see how Vic is holding her. “Get your rods and stuff,” I say. “I’ll carry her to the car.”
“Be sure you hold the tail.”
I take her. She’s heavier that she looks. The eyes are magic. I turn her on her side. She’s very relaxed. The lid closes over the eye on top.
I’ve got my adventure.
“I want you to be the one to take her in and show her to Nathaniel,” says Vic. “We can put her in the swimming pool, get a leash. Then we can bring her back, tonight.”
My arms are so tense they begin to go numb and I give Bernadette back to Vic. We wrap her in t-shirts—she seems to be asleep–sneak her into the villa.
“I think she’s asleep,” I say.
“Don’t count on it.”
I will refuse to take her into the villa. Nathaniel will see the true catcher carrying the caught.
We reach the gate, the checkpoint. A man sits in a white truck. We throw up our hands. He nods and waves us through.
Everybody at the villa is astounded. Especially Nathaniel. Vic promptly places Bernadette into the little swimming pool and gets in with her. This is not quite the modeling behavior I want for Nathaniel, is it?
But on the other hand…in a few years I’ll tell Nathaniel this story and let him know that without Uncle Vic, our trip would have been far less memorable, and it Nathaniel is lucky he’ll get to spend more time with Uncle Vic and see what it’s like to live a day like it’s your last.
A shorter version of this story was published in “Southern Fried Farce”
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