“There. Look,” I said to Al*, who was high and fishing in his pockets for his menthol cigarettes. “The sharks. The sharks are feeding. In the shallows, look.”
Two small, sharp triangles sliced the surface of the glassy water, cruised, then disappeared. A second later, water erupted, the line of a tail cutting the torrent. A few feet away, a second set of black-tipped fins surfaced for a short glide before submerging.
“Bet you wouldn’t go swimming now!” Al said. “I left my cigarettes in the car.”
“I would,” I said, counting in my head. One, two, three, four. Four sharks, maybe two or three feet long. Just little guys. We sat at a plastic table on a concrete patio on the ocean side of Islamorada at a restaurant Al loved. The purple glove of dusk settled over the ocean. The sun set on the opposite side of the island, shooting a spectacular blast of golden sunglow through the open bar of the stilt-house restaurant where we over paid for fried conch to have a ringside seat of sharks feeding at dusk.
“Oh, here they are.” Al dropped the pack on the table, extracted a white tube, gathered his lighter and meandered to the bar. His mojito sweated on the table, ice cracking in the heat and settling in creaks. I am a recovering alcoholic, and the only thing as interesting to me as encountering wild animals is the behavior of someone else’s booze in a glass. Al returned. We talked about my husband, his young lover, our mothers, our jobs. He figured out why I don’t drink. “I’m functioning,” he said. “Highly functioning.”
The sharks fed in their graceful violence. Then dark fell.
I met Al at The Conch On Inn, a strip-of-rooms Old Florida motel a hard right off Highway 1 in Tavernier, a clip north of Islamorada. We both ended up there because we needed cheap, dog-friendly accommodations for a getaway, me from life and him from tenting his house for termites. His angelfish, Bob, fell on the floor of Al’s trunk when the bowl tipped over on the ride to the Keys from Pinellas County. Bob somehow survived the trip. “He’s peppy. Just swimming around now in his bowl on the back of the toilet in the room.”
Al lives up in Redington Beach, not far from me in Gulfport, which we found out after striking up a conversation in the canal-front courtyard at the Conch. Our lazy, heat-leaden conversation in the August Keys afternoon meandered to Kentucky and my time there in graduate school. Al revealed he worked at Keeneland, the big-deal Kentucky horse track about a half-hour’s drive from where I studied. Al grew up in Cocoa Beach to horse people and went to an elite boy’s private school where they spent half the year in Kentucky and half the year in Florida. Our lives have strange intersections, including this spur-of-the-moment decision to escape to Islamorada.
Al is funny, thoughtful, and proud of his middle-aged beach bum persona, flip flops and Hawaiian shirts and Jimmy Buffet hairdo. “I’ve had a lot, and I’ve lost a lot. I like where I am now when I don’t have to think about that stuff.” His belly protruded, sending his shirt buttons on a rollercoaster ride from chest to belt buckle. Al’s talk-radio-host voice pitched through a topic, so he leaned in to murmur the juicy details and leaned back to throw open his mouth and laugh at punch lines. For many years, Al and his first wife ran a dog rescue out of their house. He told the most beautiful and sobering stories about puppies.
I drove us home to the Conch. The night held no moon. My headlights bobbed between the double yellow lines and the shoulder. We made guarded hints about politics, then dropped into peals of relief to discover our mutual dismay at the Trump sign nailed to the Conch’s white gate.
“Thank you for agreeing to have dinner with me,” Al said. We stayed on opposite sides of the motel, about five doors apart. “Maybe we’ll catch up sometime back in the real world.” He laughed.
“We will,” I said. I left him in the courtyard, his Jack Russell terrier bounding in the grass. He lit a cigarette.
I did not give him my phone number or email. The next morning, I paddled to Indian Key at dawn, came home, loaded my kayak and dog, then make the winding, long drive back to Gulfport through the Everglades. I do not know why I knew Al would find me, but I did.
Months passed. I thought of Al and the beauty of the sharks feeding when I passed the Redington Beach exit on 275. Life went on. Other things happened. Al drifted from my mind.
The phone at my cubicle rang one early afternoon, a strange area code I didn’t recognize. No one calls on my work phone unless it is a wrong number. I prepared to deliver the news to the caller.
“Is this Marlowe?”
“Yes.” I did not recognize the voice.
“Did you go to Islamorada recently?”
“Yes.” A short pause. “Oh my god! AL!”
That laugh. “I finally tracked you down. I’ve been a little . . . busy with stuff lately.”
“How’s Bob? Did he make it home? Is he happy?”
Bob, the angelfish who survived on the floor of Al’s trunk, died when they got home from the Keys. “Oh,” I said. “What about you?”
“I got some news when I got back,” he said. “A bit of some surprising news.”
The news was bad. Cancer. A stroke. Chemo. Radiation. No clear medical reason for the stroke. “But let’s meet for dinner, okay?” he said. “Wahoo’s in Reddington Beach. I can meet your husband.”
Andy and I met Al for fish dinners in October. His hair was gone, the protrusion of his belly shrunken to the point where his shirt buttons billowed in the breeze. “Well,” he said, scooting his seat to the table and eyeballing Andy. “You seem nice and this isn’t weird!”
They drank beer. Across the inlet we saw the dock to Al’s house. We laughed, shared stories. Dusk came, night fell, Al grew tired, and we went home.
I have not seen him since.
We speak in text messages these days.
I blacked out. No one knows why. 11 more radiation about 11 more chemo to go. Part of 39.
JEEBUS! I write back. I invite him to Thanksgiving dinner with our parents. I hear no response.
Then Merry Christmas, happy Holidays and all that. Chemo kicked my ass. Want to feel better soon.
I keep waiting to see him again. I traveled to Kentucky for New Year’s to a wedding. I texted Al from Lexington. Thinking about you! Please let me know when you are up for visiting. Hugs and health!
A little more work to do, he tells me. Happy face emoji. Visit soon. Happy face.
A few days later, I receive a new text, the last he's sent me.
Two things I think about this thing. Islamorada. Dogs and dinner.
I think about these things, too, Al. Sometimes, when I travel, I travel to run away. What happens, though, is I always end up finding someone.
There were sharks in a purple dusk. There was Al.
Dogs and dinner.
*editor's note: we changed Al's name