It is a scene he has replayed before, but only in his mind. Being in the kayak, rocked by waves, this far from shore.
He looks down into the water, its impenetrable depth, as if this somehow will provide an explanation. Here is the sensation: moving farther and farther out. Not willingly.
In this part of the Gulf of Mexico, the land sinks very slowly into deeper water. Swimmers can walk hundreds of feet before the water might reach a mouth, a nose. Usually it is quite calm. It is the Mississippi Sound, not actually the open Gulf. It seduces all kinds of marine life, such gentle sloping. Little harm to be had here.
He checks his watch again, then watches the tension at the tip of his fishing pole. If he has hooked into some monster fish, surely he should have sensed the moment of strike, the battle of wills, the ultimate tug between survival and domination. And yet he feels certain he is being pulled.
Subtle, it is. And now, finally, the line is grabbed sharply and just as quickly released. He starts to sweat, the excitement, the future master, the champion. “Bring it,” he says toward the open water, but his voice is swallowed in the rising wind. All he hears is ‘bring’.
Another sudden strike. He jerks the pole hoping to set the hook, but there is no further tension. Only release, slackness. The one that got away, again.
It might be the tide. He had forgotten to check which way it was running. He was not familiar with tides. The last time he fished on a large body of water it was Lake Erie. No tides.
It is getting on toward the time when he had planned to head back. He does not want to give up on any last chance for a catch, even a nibble, so he maneuvers a way to grab the kayak paddle and still maintain a grip on the fishing pole.
He slowly points the kayak back toward the shore and sees the distance he has traveled. He cannot recognize a single object on land, not the pier, not the elegant Episcopal church, not the tall house with its two tiered porches.
Paddling in this fashion is at best awkward. One end of the paddle dips more deeply, the other strikes a mere glancing blow at the top of a wave. The kayak seems to dance a signal of distress, wobbling left to right.
Something in this watery version of a three legged race awakens what lays beneath. There is a third strike, by far the strongest and it nearly tips him over. In his determination to hang on to the fishing pole, he grabs it with both hands, drops the paddle, and in the ensuing seconds of pulling back on the straining pole, its tip now floundering wildly up, down, sideways, a wild and willful shaking to be free, he sees the paddle slip over the side into the water. It floats nearby. The pole is yanked hard again, nearly out of his hands. He focuses his attention on fighting the biggest fish he has ever encountered, the chance for a trophy win, a story to be retold.
If he takes one of his hands off the pole to retrieve the paddle, he is not certain he will have the strength to maintain his grip. He looks again at the end of the dancing pole, waiting for the pull to lighten up just for an instant, the paddle would be within easy reach, he could quickly grab it. His moment comes, the tension, not gone, lessens, and when he looks over to grab the paddle, he sees that it has been caught in its own current, moving rapidly, now a good ten feet distant.
It is at this moment he realizes the fish has been playing him, the fish has been on his line for much longer than he realized, waiting to separate him from shore.
No, he is just beginning to panic. He has to get a grip. On the situation. Perhaps there will come a point where the fish is played out, and he can use his hands, arms, to move the kayak. He would tie the exhausted fish over the side. If he leans forward he might be able to doggy paddle the small boat, game winning fish in tow. He might be able to return home before dark.
He will have to wait. The fish has turned the kayak and is making a dead aim for the middle of the Gulf. He swivels briefly in his seat and sees the shore slip away with each rising wave.
He has a knife. It is in the left lower pocket of his shorts, the pocket with the missing button. He would need to free up one hand to reach for the knife. He would cut the line. He would rescue his pole. For that matter he might let go of the pole, though it had been in his family for ages. When he turns to look for the paddle, he sees it floating in the waves, 30 feet away.
Could he use the fishing pole as a thin paddle? Perhaps reverse the pole so that the reel was in the water, anything for a little traction.
Who would believe him? This story. A few more unrelenting waves, sudden rocking motions. He makes the decision.
“I salute you!” he yells into the waves and wind, as he reaches for his pocketed knife, and comes up empty. He didn’t bring it? He made certain he brought the sun block. Check the other pocket. Wet tissues, a handful of change, quarters and nickels.
If someone were watching him from the beach, straining their eyes to see him way out here, he would look like a speck, a small thing bobbing like a cork. They might look away quickly, uncertain as to what they saw.
The fish drives forward powerfully. Through the fishing line, down along the bend of the pole, there is such focused intelligence, not cluttered by thought. Confidence that seems unwavering.
He steadies himself, adjusts his balance, one last glance to the side where the paddle is nowhere to be seen.
What finally reels him in is this: a single mindedness, a life shared, above and beneath the ever changing surface, wind rising, waves cresting, swelling.