Accompanied by hope, escorted by desire, Kroll drove five hundred miles north to a dock where the road ended, and the sea began. There, still at the wheel of his leased silver Infiniti, Kroll entered the belly of a great ferry and was transported through mist to an island where he couldn’t find a place to have breakfast.
At seven restaurants, he was turned away, asking for eggs. He was too late; they stopped serving at ten. Kroll wanted to say “ten is too early” but the waiters’ eyes warned him: On this island, people ate early; it was possible that they might not accommodate Kroll even for vacation.
By eleven, he was ready to give up on the idea for breakfast, perhaps even on the idea of the vacation, when he peeked over a picket fence and saw a garden restaurant in full service. This restaurant was the most attractive—festooned with fern, redolent of roses. The moment Kroll was seated under a yellow umbrella; he felt a surge of pre-meal optimism.
He was savoring his first sip of coffee when he became aware that a woman had approached his table and was tugging at the other chair. Kroll didn’t look at her directly but perceived the woman through his peripheral vision, as a blocky form, dressed in white. Avoiding her face, he saw her feet: horn-nailed, supported on cork soles. He heard her say “Do you mind if I join you?”
Kroll did not take time to consider but answered “Yes.” Without truly looking at the woman, he had seen enough: the false rubies on her sandal straps, two tote bags fanning tourist brochures. He could forecast the conversation: an enforced chat on the “glorious” weather, the “therapeutic” effects of the sea. Kroll had been anticipating a quiet half-hour with his scrambled eggs and the island paper. Why allow a stranger to spoil the first meal of his vacation? He would have to offer eventual excuses—why bother to begin?
“Yes,” he said, “I like to eat alone.”
She made a sound and Kroll looked up. Her face collapsed; the cheeks sucked into a vacuum. She lost all natural color, retaining only two smears of rouge, a socially induced stigmata. She turned and ran, tripping, from the garden.
Instantly, Kroll wished he could take back his words. With the simplicity of a lesson learned in Sunday school, he foresaw a vignette in which he, Kroll, would seek out human companionship, and be cruelly turned away. How could he have been so rude? What was he doing—if not asking for an epitaph?
Why hadn’t he at least softened his response? He could have said that he was “waiting for someone,” that the other seat was “taken.” On the surface, he would have been telling the whitest of lies; examined on a deeper level, the statement was even true. The second seat was being saved; its vacancy held the promise of his trip. He hoped to meet a woman, but a desirable one.
Kroll wanted to run after the woman and explain, “That had nothing to do with you. It’s me, this point in my life.” And he would have followed her, but, at that moment, the waiter appeared, bearing Kroll’s plate, garnished with orange crescents and the severed head of a chrysanthemum.
‘I won’t elaborate,’ he decided, then paid the check and went after her.
Kroll found the immediate street cobbled and empty. But he wasn’t discouraged. He was sure he would recognize the woman when he saw her again: those horned feet, the red spots high upon her cheek. It was a small town on a small island, and she was a large woman, moving heavily, on unstable sandals.
Kroll spend the day searching. He ran a zig zag course through shopping mews and wharves. He went so far as to climb a lighthouse to get an overview. But no matter where he looked, there was no sign of the woman, her wide, white shape. She seemed to have vanished from the island, leaving Kroll to contemplate the possibility of the sea.
He patrolled a mile-long stretch of barrier beach, but saw only a dozen fishermen, posted single-file, their legs braced, rods extended, empty buckets resting at their feet. Kroll, rodless, stood behind the fishermen, picking up their sense of expectation, as he squinted out to sea.
As Kroll watched, a flock of birds zoomed in low, unfurling in formation, a white-to-silver pattern that reversed itself. As if in response, the entire sea began to roil, a thousand silver ripples.
“Blues,” said the fishermen.
‘How beautiful they are,’ thought Kroll, until he saw the first one, hooked upon the sand. As stunning as they had appeared at sea, the fish were homely on land; as individuals they had unintelligent expressions and petulant lower lips.
There followed the commotion of the kill, as hundreds of bluefish were yanked from the water and slain, their throats and bellies slashed by serrated blades. The sand caked with blood, and Kroll had to tiptoe around the slimed heaps of entrails, the fingernail-sized scraping of scales.
He walked back to the town, and all along the way, he passed men with fish. Some men carried their fish in their arms, like unconscious children; others lugged them, still hooked to the line. Kroll saw fish strapped to the racks of bicycles and fish stacked five bodies high, in the backs of pickup trucks. He followed the fish traffic to the main street dock, where a banner proclaimed an annual event, the “Bass and Bluefish Derby.”
Kroll fell into line with the fishermen as they filed into a singled “Weigh-IN” hut to register their fish. He read the chalked writing on the blackboard: Last year’s winner weighed sixty-two pounds. This week’s top contender was a forty-eight pound “striper”. As Kroll turned to leave the hut, he bumped into a tall man, carrying a two-foot-long fish. “She’s not good enough,” the fishermen said to Kroll. “Do you want her?”
Kroll looked at the fish, whose face was fixed in a sneer. ‘This will make a story to tell someone,’ he thought, taking the fish into his own arms. Inwardly laughing—what fun his vacation would be from now on—Kroll imagined himself telling this tale to a woman he had yet to meet, as they shared this fish, probably meuniere. So certain was Kroll of this future sequence, this as-yet-unmet woman that he could almost wink at her over the fisherman’s yellow-slickered shoulder. “Thank you,” he said. “Thanks a lot.”
He had walked perhaps ten steps with the fish heavy in his arms, when Kroll saw the woman from the morning. She was kneeling at the edge of the pier, doubled-over, kneading a heap of nautical rope and crying.
“Please,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
She looked up. Her make-up was applied a quarter-inch too high, outlining positions her eyebrows and lips may formerly have held. Now the effect was a face out-of-focus, a photograph doubly-exposed. Kroll had to blink, to realign the image in his eye. She didn’t recognize him, until Kroll introduced himself as the one who had rejected her at breakfast.
“But now I want to take you somewhere wonderful,” he said.
She allowed herself to be helped to her feet, clamping her hand around his elbow. They went at once to a dockside “raw” bar, where she ordered a dozen quahogs and a five-pound lobster. She began to eat and, simultaneously, to gulp pills that she carried loose in her tote bags.
Kroll didn’t have to speak for a long time. Rita Lubo, for that was her name, did all the talking, whispering her saga of woe, as she cracked the lobster back and mined the claws for additional flesh. This morning’s hurt was nothing new; she had been abused by many. Her life was a history of pain, an inventory of hurt.
She had been raised by foster parents “who were in it for money”, and were so cheap, they “cut my clothes from old couch covers.” To compound the maltreatment, the foster parents accepted a girl, the same age as Rita, and favored this other little girl with choice cuts of meat, while Rita Lubo was raised on pig’s feet. She had married at fifteen “just to get out of that house.” The wedding had been a sad affair— “There was no cake, only a kind of muffin.”
She married a magician known as “The Astounding Armand.” “The Astounding Armand” really put her “through the wringer,” “he hit every base.” She had served “The Astounding Armand” as wife-mistress and assistant, “squeezing myself into boxes too small for a cat, hiding doves in my armpits,” until “The Astounding Armand traded her “down the river” for a younger woman with collagen-puffed dolphin-like lips.
Since then, Rita Lubo had suffered at the hands of litigious landlords, cruel cousins, mercenary doctors…She lived by her wits, she told Kroll, and by her looks. “The men still pester me,” she said, looking at him all too directly.
‘You must be kidding,’ Kroll thought. Rita Lubo had to be sixty-eight to his thirty-four. Surely, she didn’t think his interest in her was physical? He would have left the raw bar, if she had not concluded “You’d never know to look at me; I just had a quadruple bypass.” She gestured to her solar plexus, indicating an incision, “You should see my zipper.” For one moment, Kroll feared Rita Lubo was going to open her dress, perhaps even her ‘zipper’ and reveal her heart, which, she told him, had lain useless on a side table in the operating room while renowned surgeons had labored on her arteries.
Kroll could see no way to leave her now, so he escorted Rita Lubo to her hotel. She talked nonstop the entire time, occasionally pausing in mid-street to take a pill or feel for pebbles in her sandal. She performed what Kroll regarded as inappropriate grooming gestures—working a matchstick as floss between her teeth, reapplying lipstick while gazing into the side-view mirrors of parked cars.
At last, they arrived at a white gingerbread tourist house, where she said she had been given a terrible room. Did Kroll want to see how she was treated? How she had to sleep?
“I’d love to,” he said, but he was tired and had yet to claim his own hotel reservation. In his mind’s eye, he saw the sanctuary of that spoken-for room, the spell cast by its fresh-laundered linens, stacked towels, sealed glasses. “I’ll say good night here,” he said, adding to be gracious, “Thank you for your company this evening.”
“You don’t trust yourself in a room alone with me,” Rita Lubo said, her lower lip jutting in a smile of confirmation.
To prove she was deluded, Kroll accompanied her to her room. They climbed two flights of stairs, Rita Lubo preceding Kroll, as he imagined was proper etiquette. On the third floor, they entered a room that was as Rita Lubo described it—barely wider than the bed.
“The bathroom’s there.” Rita Lubo pointed to a door. Kroll went obediently into the other room and when he emerged, only minutes later, he found the room stained red, a pomegranate shadow cast by Rita Lubo’s scarf draped over the lamp. Straining to see in the warm gloom, Kroll discerned Rita Lubo posed naked as an Odalisque upon her rented bed.
“This is nice,” Kroll said to be polite, “but I have some severe problems and I have to go now.”
“But I’m beautiful,” she said, as if confiding a secret. “Look. I’ll show you pictures.” She produced an album that peeled maroon flakes, like skin. She flipped the disintegrating pages, displaying sepia portraits of herself. And Kroll could have cried: She had been beautiful, with bright believing eyes, and lips that turned up at the corners. Her body had been lush, curving.
“See.” Rita Lubo resumed her pose, tilting her head at an angle that must once have been appealing. Kroll offered civilized excuses, he was physically debilitated, crippled, committed elsewhere…. But Rita Lubo cut him off, “It’s my operation, isn’t it?”
Kroll saw no alternative but to touch her just below her solar plexus. To this surprise, her scar turned to silk, and he was able to murmur assurances. He thought of offering some sexual courtesy, an act of carnal condolence. “I have many disabilities,” Kroll said, his lips pressed to her ‘zipper.’ And with what Kroll had to concede was kindness, Rita Lubo ruffled his hair and said, “Poor baby.” Was it the mojitos he had imbibed? Or was it an illusion? Rita Lubo transformed into her younger self, voluptuous and desirable. Unfortunately, this metamorphosis lasted only 15 minutes but that was too long and too late. Kroll had been intimate with someone, it seemed, her younger self, but snapped back to consciousness with the elder version.
The next day set the pattern for all that followed: Kroll squired Rita Lubo around the island. Instead of the vacation idyll he had envisioned, he found himself trudging beside Rita Lubo on souvenir-buying excursions. While Kroll stood in hot sun outside each shop, Rita Lubo spent hours inside, selecting the most clichéd of trinkets: seashell necklaces, driftwood mobiles, a small tom tom. Every time he mentioned departing, she suffered what she called “a spell” and cracked a capsule under her tongue: “Nitroglycerin.”
Kroll quickly came to hate her, his blood roiling. He fell into hate the way he had hoped to fall into love: the sensation deepening each day, thriving upon each new-discovered nuance. He came to loathe the sound of her breathing, the way when she could think of no more to say; she substituted a wordless singing, a high hum that tore at Kroll’s ears.
He wanted to say, “Look. I hurt you, but I made up for it. Now I have a right to be by myself, so I can meet someone better. This is my first vacation since my divorce and I’m paying for it with my father’s death benefits, so I am counting on having the time of my life.”
Kroll controlled his hate; he knew Rita Lubo did not deserve it. He hated his hatred of her and made every effort to compensate, complimenting her taste in clothes, the way she styled her oxidized hair. He was relentless in his politeness; always dashing ahead to pull open a door, extend a chair.
After seven days, Kroll’s hatred turned antic. He would not pose in selfies with her. He sprinted ahead of Rita Lubo, doubling back to snap candid shots of her as she stood, panting in place, hanging onto her sunhat. Several times, Kroll deliberately ‘missed’ his subject, capturing the background, instead—seagulls in flight, a man with a metal detector. Kroll didn’t know which worried him more: his prancing or Rita Lubo’s increased panting. Each day, they moved faster, travelled farther. Kroll sensed that something was going to happen, and it did.
They were standing on a pier, taking pictures. “Get me with the buoy,” Rita Lubo said. Kroll lifted the iPhone, and took aim, but instead of Rita Lubo’s distorted visage; he saw the face of a beautiful young woman. Reflexively, he clicked the shutter.
When he lowered the iPhone, he saw the girl, but for only a few seconds: She was riding past, on a sailboard. Kroll heard the snap of wind in her sail; he felt the breeze of her passing. Then she was gone, zipping down the inlet toward the open sea. Kroll was left with an impression. Her windsail was orange, her bathing suit, navy blue. She had an athlete’s body, a Botticelli face. It was only when stared at the image on his phone that Kroll realized that she had smiled at him.
He turned to Rita Lubo and said, “That’s it. I’m going now.” Before she could respond, he ran. He ran hard, along the planked pier, but Kroll was no contest in a race with the wind. The girl and her sail diminished, then disappeared.
On his phone, her image seemed to become increasingly detailed: apricot colored the girl’s cheeks, gold glinted in her brown hair, a dimple deepened in her chin. She beckoned to him: a delayed invitation to follow.
The next days formed a new pattern. Kroll walked the beaches, keeping his eye peeled for the girl. Kroll walked miles. He saw occasional bathers, sometimes nude—the wild beaches were known for this—but he saw no sign of the girl.
Kroll contented himself with the photo that, although blurred, captured the girl’s beauty. The girl and the photograph melded in Kroll’s mind to the point that when he did see her, in a new context, he almost failed to recognize her.
She was floating several hundred feet off shore, her toes pointed at the sky. Kroll waded in, wanting to be sure. Yes, that curling hair, the blue bathing suit… Kroll inched his way into the ocean. The water was cold, the current deceptive. The surface appeared calm, with the beaten look of an old bronze, every dent, a glimmer. Below, a riptide tugged Kroll to the right, while ahead, the floating girl bobbed out of sight.
He knew where she had gone. There was a cove around the bed, unreachable at this hour, except by water. He tried tracking her, but the sand became an ooze that gulped air and emitted unlikely creatures.
At low tide, Kroll returned. He treaded amidst upturned crabs and decomposing skates. Turning the bend, he was rewarded by the sight of an orange sail, folded, resting on a rock.
He sat sentry by the sail: Kroll waited, watching the water. After fifteen minutes, he thought he spotted her, a small form darting in the waves. The figure was covered in black: a wet suit?
What style she had—swimming sinuously around in that strong sea. Her antics made him smile. She seemed to be at play—executing a series of high-flippered kicks. Yet Kroll feared for her, too: Why did she always seem to be taking chances? No sooner was he immersed, then rocks rained upon his head. He fled back to the sand. There, he sat, bruised and respectful, listening to the graveled roar, and watching for the dark, distant shape of the girl.
After an hour, two young men emerged, wearing wet suits and breathing hard. They ran close to Kroll and carried off the orange sailboard. Kroll wanted to say “Hey” but couldn’t be sure: He was left to wonder: Had he seen the girl at all? Or had he been watching one of the boys? Or, worse, a human sized black fish? A seal? Whatever Kroll had seen out there, it was gone.
One evening, Kroll became even more suggestible. He walked into the pink of the sunset and saw her, bent in supplication to the incoming tide. What an interesting girl she was, doing that. He was pleased to risk his life to join her at the end of the jetty: He groped his way there, crawling on all fours. Too late, Kroll saw that what he reached wasn’t ‘her’ at all, but an installation left over from World War II: a hunk of sea-rounded cement with protruding metal spokes, some seaweed tacked on as ‘hair.’
Kroll had just given up his search, when he found her: She appeared nude, skipping in the frill of low tide. She was only a few dozen steps away, tossing her hair, smacking her arms against the chill. She was laughing and dancing, a circuitous course that would spin her onto the sand.
He was afraid to approach. After all, she was naked and what would he say? Kroll choreographed his motions, walking with false casualness, to the spot where she now stood, air-drying herself in a series of spirited shakes. He was close enough to see the goose bumps on her skin, when she bolted, darting into a demi-cave.
By the time Kroll came close enough to the cliff to peek in, the girl was surrounded by a half-dozen other nudes. As he watched, the group engaged in what appeared to be familiar play—slathering one another with gobs of red and black clay. Within seconds, they became instant sculptures of themselves, their pubic hair curlicued in wiry relief. Masked in mud, they were a tribe, something for National Geographic but not for Kroll. He moved on….
During the next few weeks, Kroll made several sightings of the girl. She seemed to favor the wild beach, entering by sea, remaining for the afternoon, then sailing out by evening. So far as he could see, she had separated from the group—a good sign—and now wandered, as alone as he.
Kroll extended his vacation, week after week. The summer season ended, and the fall began. Now only a few fishermen worked the surf, casting into a sea that grew increasingly gray and cold. The men began to dress for the weather, in hooded slickers and high waders. They carried great wide-mouth thermoses of coffee and lit small fires on the beach.
The island paper carried a feature that said one could tell when the tourists had left: The seagulls would begin cracking clams on the now-deserted asphalt roads.
One afternoon, as Kroll walked from the town to the beach, he heard the crack of clams hitting the road. Yet, he remained on the island, and so did the girl, and also Rita Lubo.
He saw Rita Lubo in the town, on a line advertised “Free Fish for Senior Citizens,” part of the post-Derby fish give-away. For a moment, their eyes met.
That same afternoon, he saw the girl for the last time. He had assembled a picnic basket, and a plan: He would hike into the cove at low tide, wait for the girl to sail in, offer to share his wine and cheese…. Beyond that stage, Kroll could do no more than dream. He had bought a costly Sauvignon Blanc.
He walked to the nude beach, if it could still be considered ‘nude’ without anyone on it. It was a gray day, with a cutting wind. Kroll watched the ocean, willing the girl to appear.
While he waited, Kroll built a small fire against the chill. Perhaps it was this fire that drew the fisherman—for Kroll saw the man approach from a long distance: He was a tall man, slickered against the wind, heavy with gear.
Without asking, the fisherman set up camp beside Kroll, and began to offer him fish lore. He had been taking bluefish from these waters for over thirty years, he told Kroll. “They come back here, to the same spot, year after year. And they get smarter each year.” The fisherman claimed the bass had “hook memory”, they could recall the sensation in their lower lips.
Kroll listened; half his attention directed at the frothing sea. As he spoke, the fisherman pulled in several big blues, he greeted as “choppers.” He grinned and said, he never missed when he used his “Rebel” lure. The fisherman loved to lecture, and in a deep monotone, he showed Kroll how to kill the fish, clean them, prepare them for grilling. “You could roast one on those stones,” he said, indicating Kroll’s fire.
Instantly, Kroll pictured himself and the girl, drinking the Sauvignon Blanc, and dining al fresco on a “big chopper.” The fisherman saw his smile and gave Kroll his rod and line. “Now you try.” After several false starts, Kroll sent forth a thrilling cast; whirring out to sea. There was a sudden snag, as if the lure had caught on a log. “I’m stuck on something,” Kroll said.
The fisherman smiled. “Big chopper,” he said, “Let out more line.” Kroll did as he was told, and the line sang once more. In spite of himself, Kroll responded—there was life out there, underwater, and connected to him now. He felt as if engaged in exciting conversation, and he laughed out loud.
He followed the fisherman’s advice and for every two turns of line taken in, he let eight turns of line run out. Kroll’s arms began to ache, but he would not let go. He enjoyed the arch of the rod, the extended underwater pull.
For the finale, the bluefish streaked, changing direction. Kroll could feel the line slacken. He reeled with all his speed and strength until, at last, he could actually see the fish, blue-silver, break the surface, facing him through the foam. ‘So, you’re the one who put me through this,’ the fish seemed to say.
Soon, he had the bluefish, a good twelve-pounder, upon the sand, and she was flipping her tail. The fisherman reclaimed his lure, and said, “You know how to kill her,” and offered Kroll his knife.
“No,” said Kroll, “not the knife.” The fisherman shrugged. “Well, hit her on the head.” Then he was gone, leaving Kroll with the flipping fish. Kroll knew he was supposed to kill it. Everyone expected it of him: even the fish. Kroll remembered the fisherman saying, “You must honor the fish.” Kroll couldn’t say that he wanted to “honor” this fish, especially after hearing so much about its memory, and how it would return every year, if Kroll didn’t strike a fatal blow to its head.
Kroll picked up a football-sized stone, and his eyes squeezed shut, struck the fish on the side of its face. He opened his eyes; saw the fish thrashing, its fish face a mask of what Kroll took to be fish agony. And he knew he couldn’t go on with the killing. This was a powerful fish; he would have to batter it to death.
Instead, he carried the fish back to the surf. Maybe it was simply stunned by the single blow—after all Kroll had once been struck in the head with a baseball bat and he was none the worse for it now. Kroll waded in, holding the fish aloft. He didn’t have to go in deep: the fish seemed to see the water and twisted from his grasp. Immediately, it began to swim, albeit weak circles in the foam.
Kroll waded back to the sand, and stood, his wet pants sagging, to watch his wounded fish’s progress. The recovery he hoped for didn’t happen: Instead the fish swam dazed back-flips, spinning downward in a fatal spiral.
Kroll thought ‘I should have killed it on the shore. Now it’s only suffering more.’ He should have listened to the fisherman: This was why they spoke of “honoring” the fish. Alone of all the men who fished this island shore, Kroll had failed to honor his fish, to be a man. Trying to spare living creatures, he only added to their pain. He was the worst kind of killer: an incompetent.
He waded back into the sea to retrieve the dying fish. It wasn’t hard to find: It was still doing the back flips and seemed to roll its eyes at Kroll as he grabbed it. Kroll held the slippery body with some difficulty, but he managed to return to the beach. His eyes sought out his killing rock, but by the time he found it, it was no longer needed: the fish expired in his arms.
Kroll set his fish down on the hot stones built around the fire. Having failed to “honor” the fish one way, perhaps he could still redeem it, and himself, by using the fish for food: a natural justice.
The fish had just started to sizzle, when Kroll thought of chilling his white wine in the ocean. He was carrying the bottle to the water, when he saw what he had so longed to see: The girl, riding her sailboard straight into the cove.
‘Everything is working out perfectly,’ Kroll thought. There was symmetry to the situation: the girl, the fish, the fire, the wine. He could forecast the events that must follow, and he cried out in delight, “Over here.”
She wore her wet suit, and her cheeks burned pink from the cold. The wind seemed strong, and she moved fast, gripping the control bar, her legs braced to her board.
Later, when Kroll was able to review what happened, he saw that he had offered her no other course, than the one she so abruptly took. How must he have appeared—waving a wine bottle, and what had he cried? Was it “Please, cheese…”?
No wonder she had changed direction, swinging the hand-bar, catching a new wind out to sea. And what had Kroll done then? Had he really run into the surf, screaming “eat with me” to the girl’s hour-glass-shaped, retreating back?
He should have been more casual; the girl would have alighted and joined him as a matter of course. Sniffling—he seemed instantly to have caught cold—Kroll shuffled back to shore and opened the Sauvignon Blanc.
Sometime later, Kroll sank to the sand. Above, the night sky swirled. He shut his eyes against the rotation, his brain contracting inside the hardening shell of his skull. Then he must have passed out, for he entered the underwater world of a dream, where mermaids swam through a tentacled sea.
When he awoke, the beach was dark; the sand dunes dimpled in shadow. The fire burned low, an orange glow. Rolling over, Kroll met the cooked stare of the bluefish. He saw its belly had exploded, exposing segments seeded with roe.
Kroll started to shiver. Shivers rippled through him, working his body like a funhouse skeleton. To secure himself, he doubled over, bringing his knees to his chest. Kroll curled into the scalloped hip of the dune, wriggling until the sand conformed to his own bones. He lay there, making himself smaller and smaller, until, at last, he began to feel warm.