May 8, 2014
“No go ahead sit!” she said in that way old Jamaican ladies often sound, like they yelling at somebody. I was stepping away to give her this little access spot on the back bayfront. Somebody’s ma, somebody’s grannie for sure. She shoved the black milk crate down onto the ground. I didn’t know if it was an offer or an order. She was probably 70 pounds and I weigh 180.
Paper trash, cups, beer bottles, the fallen pavement sinkhole and broken up slabs of concrete breakwall facing Biscayne Bay, chain link fencing, and to the side a small metal gate preventing people from getting onto a dock. Only one boat still using that dock.
I sat on the concrete breakwall, legs dangling. In the water, a yellow algae-covered boom stretched 30 feet around the mouth of an outflow pipe to catch shit people might dump in the streets. It all starts there.
Sticking the spool of fishing line onto a metal spike, she grabbed a shrimp from the live bait bucket. Her fingers, those sticks of wood, bent perfectly like animation puppets in film. The shrimp – his long fairy arms and antennae waved. She impaled his unprotected belly with the silver hook and followed the curve. He froze, arms and antennae splayed. You could see the hook pushing up through his gut in the plated, semi-translucent flesh.
Wearing an elegant ivory v-necked sweater with black slacks, a watch, a silver necklace and earrings as if going to play golf with Bill Clinton, she wound up and cast the baited handline.
“Fucker,” she said in that Britishized Jamaican voice beneath her baseball cap. Sounded like “foker”. Her cap had a Roswell alien face on it. Without a tangle she brought the line in one hand over the other, re-baited and tossed out again.
I simply rocked a gray Target tank top and satin black and red basketball shorts.
Occasional wafts of sewer methane mixed with the fertile bay’s smell of salt water and coconut oil baking in my skin. Downtown Miami in the distance you’ve been here before and the silky almost-hot afternoon sun – heat in the South relative, only the end of April. It felt good.
She brought the line in, hook empty again.
“I can see I’m feeding the fish today!” she said, or yelled. “These shrimp I keep by my air conditioner! Maybe I should just stayed in my apartment with them but you know I come here to fish at tree o’clock, or sometimes in the morning!”
A big swirl opened in the bay and something large caught our side vision. “Oh there!” she said.
A mermaid’s broad flat tail, brownish-yellow, slipped back beneath the waves. I jumped up – it was a manatee. First time for me. Over the decades boat propellers had sliced them to near extinction.
“A maaahther and a babie,” she said. “Yep.”
I stared, hoping for another sight. It’s always a little startling to see something big in the water. On the other side of the gated dock, a big brown back rose at the surface. “There,” I said. I didn’t see the little one.
“Yep, sure is!” she said, handlining in her shrimpless hook again.
Supposedly manatees are what actually started the sailor legend of mermaids long ago. Big ol homely pretty sea cows.
Long trips across the ocean away from women must’ve really been something.
I had a thought: how come there never were any black mermaids? I pictured a Jill Scott-looking mermaid.
Or how about some old azz mermaids? Or a Mom mermaid?
“What you fishing for?” I asked.
“Snapper. I fish for them mangrove snapper. But not the small ones. The police take you to jail with a bunch of those.”
She looked south, motioning her head at the busy causeway about a mile away that connected the island with the mainland, where somebody driving a Lamborghini at 100 mph had recently crumpled it under the back of a Tahoe and they had to put a blanket over the passenger’s side because the body was too mixed into the car and they couldn’t get it out. The driver and the lady in the Tahoe made it.
“I wouldn’t mind go up there. Drop my line straight into the water and catch a lot of fish. I would go there if my son were here.”
I stared into the water below my feet, seeing tiny little fish. “I’m looking for one snapper down here,” I said.
“You not gon find one. Another one. Umm parrot.”
“Parrot?” I said. At that moment a fat football of a purple and lime-green parrotfish with a little beak mouth looped up to the surface and slid back down along the boom.
“There one is,” I said.
“Parrot not biting!” she said, whipping the baited hook and lead weight out again. The line threaded through her left hand, shooting out like a strand of spider web. “Yeah I try to catch them but they only eat the moss on dat ting,” she said.
The fishing line straightened. She handlined in a flapping little mangrove snapper maybe 6 inches long. She pulled out the hook and tossed him back in the water like Mariah Carey flips her hair. Glimpse of the shining fish – open mouth. Body silver-red; trace of yellow. Whitish pink forked tail. I worried – I’d read that if you touch a fish’s body with dry bare hands you can damage their protective coating and days later they’ll get an infection and die.
“The Cubans and the Jews fight over everything!” she said, looking out over the bay, as if yelling at a cat in her kitchen. I stiffened. Don’t start on some racial shyt.
“When I come here 26 years ago, there were tree or four black police. Now it’s pure black police! Everybody tink all blacks are the same, too. Jamaican and Caribbean is different from Africa or America.”
“Like Asians, huh. People can’t tell between Chinese or Japanese or Vietnamese or Korean. It’s a big difference.”
She nodded her head. “Yah. Dey all the same. Except for wicked Red China. Oh and da Philippines. They Magay over there.”
I searched my memory for what Magay was – some thing or place Filipino.
“Over there, yah, a lot of boy go with boy. Ma gay than anywhere. Crazy. And when the white bring Africa over to here we all end up mixing.”
“Well you know everybody mixed now. All around the world.”
She looked again at the causeway. “I wouldn’t mind go there at night if my son were here.”
“Sometimes I ride my bike across there.”
“They don’t want you to fish up there! And a lot of homeless. They kick them from under the bridge or the beach and they go up there” She paused. “I wouldn’t mind going fish on there if my son were here. I’d drop my line between the bridge.”
“Catch lots of big fish.”
“Yah lots of fish.”
I said nothing else. I had heard her. I didn’t want to even know her name yet. I would see her again.
“Miami Beach is not for the poorer class.,” she said.
“Ya just come in, get drunk, and kill one another. That’s what dey doing.”
“I seen this one woman, she walks down the street and screams her head off at everybody.”
“Yah. One white one? Uh huh.” She nodded her head.
She pulled up her empty hook again. “What the fuck you doing that must be two dozen shrimp! When I get off work, I could just stayed in my fucking apartment and get someting to eat and relax by the air conditioner! When the water go north, it bad. It better to go south. More fish.”
I decided she was talking about the tides.
She said she needed to change the water for her shrimps. “One die dey all die.”
I took her extra bucket, leaned over and hauled up a fresh load of salty bay water, still cool with the season.
I thought about those mangrove snappers out there at the bottom of the bay smart enough to mouth off the impaled live shrimp from the sides of her hook. And what were the stuck shrimp thinking?
“I used to be able to catch shrimp but now they not here. You buy them.”
I thought about them in the bucket of water… very alive, like suspended backward-darting insects. What made them all die when they saw one die?
She began packing up her cart.
“Kingston,” I said randomly. “Now I hear that’s crazy.”
“Kingston! I’m from Jamaica and I don’t go to ‘Kingston.’ Everybody kill each other over there. The cops too. In Jamaica they don’t ask questions. This one cop we called him Idi Amin that’s about as ugly as you can get he was that ugly.”
We started walking out. At the corner I put my hand on her upper back. Her small body was dark brown wood.
Alright I’ma get something to drink. Nice meeting you.
“Ok Baby”, she said looking straight ahead. I be back out here tomorrow.
I knew I wouldn’t. I simply wanted to remain random and untethered. I’d see her again.
“What the fuck you doing in the middle of the street you stupid!” she yelled. I looked back. Some dude was crossing busy West Ave. in traffic. She was glaring at him.
Back in the 90’s, out on the collapsed High Plains grass sea of western Kansas, north of the meat-dismembering town of Scott City, I’d fugitived up in a small State Park, a pup tent my home. At night I had become awed there were fireflies, tons of them, that far into the dry American West. In the unusual rich vegetation by the spring-fed creek, little glow sticks twisting up then winking out. I hadn’t spoken with anybody in a few weeks.
For hundreds of miles around, the land writhed with emptiness and devastation except in stricken imaginations. A region where history was still bloody on the ground, right at your feet.
Western Kansas was the first time I’d gotten that the Sun was not overhead but out there, just blasting away at all these millions of miles, incidentally smacking Earth in that outward force. And even in the face of that, our delicate little atmosphere could make us cold as well as hot.
That summer was ending. I walked in the sun-balmed afternoon, favorable prairie winds temporarily freeing me from the death stink of cattle feedlots and slaughterhouses 15 miles away. In moments I could believe in warmth and vitality. A scrim of clouds slid across the sun like 1930s curtains above a sink.
A woman a black woman an American black woman was standing near the earthen-dammed lake with a fishing pole casting her line. I noticed her head turn a little to the side, and again, not looking directly, the way mine was probably too, the way a person wants to look, say something, but just for whatever reason doesn’t.
I walked up. She reeled in and her hook snagged on a long tree root partially submerged in the water. I stepped out onto it and freed her little chartreuse plastic worm with the curl tail and a hook inside its plastic belly.
The lowering sun was across the plains sea and bigger than you probably know. We were the only two humans around. The air was dry and clean. Neither asked what the other was doing out there, though I surmised that she, for some Godforsaken reason, lived nearby. North, East, South, West, the nearest big cities were Bismarck (660 miles), Kansas City (380 miles), Amarillo (255 miles), and Denver (285 miles). Green cottonwood leaves on the tree branches above rippled like water, and soon would turn bright yellow then fall.
Back then, I was pretty grim and silent during those years. Those years. We talked; I’ve forgotten a lot about what. Her son was gone out of the house, or maybe she didn’t have one.