IT WAS THE END OF AN ERA, one that I suspect historians may look upon as the last decade of American innocence. It was a time we remember in terms of images and sounds rather than historical events—pink Cadillacs, drive-in movies, stylized street hoods, rock ’n’ roll, Hank and Lefty on the jukebox, the dirty bop, daylight baseball, chopped-down ’32 Fords with Merc engines drag-racing in a roar of thunder past drive-in restaurants, all of it backdropped by palm trees, a curling surf, and a purple sky that had obviously been created as a cinematic tribute to our youth.
The season seemed eternal, not subject to the laws of mutability. At best, it was improbable that the spring of our graduation year would ever be stained by the tannic smell of winter. If
we experienced visions of mortality, we needed only to look into one another’s faces to reassure ourselves that none of us would ever die, that rumors of distant wars had nothing to do with our own lives.
My half brother was Jimmie Robicheaux. He was a hothead, an idealist, and a ferocious fist-fighter in a beer-glass brawl, but often vulnerable and badly used by those who knew how to take advantage of his basic goodness. In 1958, he and I worked ten days on and five days off for what was called a doodlebug outfit, or seismograph crew, laying out rubber cable and seismic jugs in bays and swamps all along the Louisiana-Texas coastline. During the off-hitch, when we were back on land, we hung out at Galveston Island, fishing at night on the jetties, swimming in the morning, eating fried shrimp in a café on the amusement pier where the seagulls fluttered and squeaked just outside the open windows.
The Fourth of July that year was a peculiar day. The barometer dropped and the sky turned a chemical green, and the breakers were full of sand and dead baitfish when they smacked on the beach. The swells were smooth-surfaced and rain-dented between the waves, but down below, the undertow was terrific, almost like steel cable around the thighs, the sand rushing out from under our feet as the waves sucked back upon themselves.
Most swimmers got out of the water. Perhaps because of our youth or the fact Jimmie and I had drunk too much beer, we swam far out from the beach, to the third sandbar, the last one that provided a barrier between the island itself and the precipitous descent off the edge of the continental shelf. But the sandbar was hard-packed, the crest only two feet below the surface, which allowed the swimmer to sit safely above the tidal current and enjoy a panoramic view of both the southern horizon and the lights that were going on all over the island.
The sun broke through the thunderheads in the west, just above the earth’s rim, like liquid fire pooled up inside the clouds. For the first time that day we could see our shadows on the water’s surface. Then we realized we were not alone.
Thirty yards out a shark fin, steel-gray, triangular in shape, cut across the swell, then disappeared under a wave. Jimmie and I stood up on the sandbar, our hearts beating, and waited for the fin to resurface. Behind us we could hear the crackle of lightning in the clouds.
“It’s probably a sand shark,” Jimmie said.
But we both knew that most sand sharks were small, yellowish in hue, and didn’t cruise at sunset on the outer shelf. We stared at the water for a long time, then saw a school of baitfish scatter in panic across the surface. The baitfish seemed to sink like silver coins into the depths,
then the swell became smooth-surfaced and dark green again, wrinkling slightly when the wind gusted. I could hear Jimmie breathing as though he had labored up a hill.
“You want to swim for it?” I asked.
“They think people are sea turtles. They look up and see a silhouette and see our arms and legs splashing around and think we’re turtles,” he said.
It wasn’t cold, but his skin looked hard and prickled in the wind.
“Let’s wait him out,” I said.
I saw Jimmie take a deep breath and his mouth form a cone, as though a sliver of dry ice were evaporating on his tongue. Then his face turned gray and his eyes looked into mine.
“What?” I said.
Jimmie pointed southward, at two o’clock from where we stood. A fin, larger than the first one, sliced diagonally across a swell and cut through a cresting wave. Then we saw the shark’s back break the surface, a skein of water sliding off skin that was the color of scorched pewter.
There was nothing for it. The sun was setting, like a molten planet descending into its own smoke. In a half hour the tide would be coming in, lifting us off the sandbar, giving us no option except to swim for the beach, our bodies in stark silhouette against the evening sky.
We could hear music and the popping of fireworks
on the amusement pier and see rockets and star shells exploding above the line of old U.S. Army officers’ quarters along the beachfront. A wave slid across my chest, and inside it I saw the pinkish blue air sac and long tendril-like stingers of a Portuguese man-of-war. It drifted away, then another one, and another fell out of a wave and twisted in an eddy like half-inflated balloons.
It was going to be a long haul to the beach.
“There’s sharks in the water! Didn’t you fellers see the lifeguard’s flag?” a voice called.
I didn’t know where the girl had come from. She sat astride an inner tube that was roped to two others, a short wood paddle in her hands. She wore a one-piece black swimsuit and had sandy reddish hair, and her shoulders glowed with sunburn. Behind her, in the distance, I could see the tip of a rock jetty that jutted far out into the breakers.
She paddled her makeshift raft until it had floated directly above the sandbar and we could wade to it.
“Where did you come from?” Jimmie said.
“Who cares? Better jump on. Those jellyfish can sting the daylights out of you,” she said.
She was tall and slight of build and not much older than we were, her accent hard-core East Texas. A wave broke against my back, pushing me off balance. “Are you fellers deaf? Y’all sure don’t act like you care somebody is trying
to hep you out of the big mess you got yourself into,” she said.
“We’re coming!” Jimmie said, and climbed onto one of the inner tubes.
Waves knocked us over twice and it took us almost a half hour to cross the trough between the third and second sandbars. I thought I saw a fin break the surface and slide across the sun’s afterglow, and, once, a hard-bodied object bumped against my leg, like a dull-witted bully pushing past you on a crowded bus. But after we floated past the second sandbar, we entered another environment, one connected to predictability where we could touch bottom with the ends of our toes and smell smoke from meat fires and hear children playing tag in the darkness.
We told ourselves a seascape that could contain predators and the visitation of arbitrary violence upon the unsuspecting no longer held any sway in our lives. As we emerged from the surf the wind was as sweet as a woman’s kiss against the skin.
The girl said her name was Ida Durbin and she had seen us through binoculars from the jetty and paddled after us because a shark had already attacked a child farther up the beach. “You’d do that for anybody?” Jimmie said.
“There’s always some folks who need looking after, at least those who haven’t figured out sharks live in deep water,” she said.
Jimmie and I owned a 1946 canary-yellow Ford convertible, with whitewall tires and twin Hollywood mufflers. We drove Ida back to the jetty, where she retrieved her beach bag and used a cabana to change into a sundress and sandals. Then we went to a beer garden that also sold watermelon and fried shrimp. The palm trees in the garden were strung with tiny white lights, and we sat under the palms and ate shrimp and watched the fireworks explode over the water.
“Are y’all twins?” she asked.
“I’m eighteen months older,” I said.
She looked at both of us. “Y’all sure favor for brothers who aren’t twins. Maybe your mama just liked the way y’all looked and decided she’d use just one face,” she said. She smiled at her own joke, then looked away and studied the tops of her hands when Jimmie’s eyes tried to hold hers.
“Where you live, Ida?” he asked.
“Over yonder,” she said, nodding vaguely up the main drag.
“You work here in Galveston?” he said.
“For a little while, I am. I got to go now,” she replied.
“We’ll drive you,” he said.
“I’ll take a cab. I do it all the time. It’s only fifty cents,” she said.
Jimmie started to protest. But she got up and brushed crumbs of fried shrimp off her dress.
“You boys don’t get in no more trouble,” she said.
“Boys?” Jimmie said, after she was gone.
GALVESTON ISLAND was a strange place back in those days. The town was blue-collar, the beaches segregated, the Jax brewery its most prominent industry, the old Victorian homes salt-bitten and peeling. It was a vacation spot for the poor and the marginal and a cultural enclave where the hard-shell Baptist traditions of Texas had little application. Every beer joint on the beach featured slot and racehorse machines. For more serious gamblers, usually oil people from Houston, there were supper clubs that offered blackjack, craps, and roulette. One Sicilian family ran it all. Several of their minions moved out to Vegas in ’47 with Benjamin Siegel. One of them, in fact, built the Sands.
But nonetheless there was an air of both trust and innocence about the island. The roller coaster in the amusement park had been officially condemned by the Texas Department of Public Safety, the notice of condemnation nailed on a post hard by the ticket booth. But every night during the summer, vacationers packed the open cars that plummeted down warped tracks and around wooden turns whose spars and rusted bolts vibrated like a junkyard.
Churchgoing families filled the bingo parlors
and ate boiled crabs that sometimes had black oil inside the shells. At daybreak, huge garbage scows sailed southward for the horizon, gulls creaking overhead, to dump tons of untreated waste that somehow, in the mind’s eye, were refined into inert molecules of harmless matter.
But inland from the carnival rides, the fishing jetties, and the beachfront beer joints and seafood restaurants, there was another Galveston, and another industry, that made no pretense to innocence.
During the next two days we didn’t see Ida Durbin on the main drag or on the amusement pier or on any of the jetties, and we had no idea where she lived, either. Then, on Saturday morning, while we were in a barbershop a block from the beach, we saw her walk past the window, wearing a floppy straw hat and a print dress, with a lavender Mexican frill around the hem, a drawstring bag slung from her shoulder.
Jimmie was out the door like a shot.
She told him she had to buy a money order for her grandmother in Northeast Texas, that she had to pick up her mail at the post office, that she had to buy sunburn lotion for her back, that she was tied up all day and evening.
“Tomorrow is Sunday. Everything is closed. What are you doing then?” he said, grinning.
She looked quizzically at nothing, her mouth squeezed into a button. “I reckon I could fix
some sandwiches and meet y’all at the amusement pier,” she said.
“We’ll pick you up,” he said.
“No, you won’t,” she replied.
The next day we discovered that a picnic with Ida Durbin meant Vienna sausage sandwiches, sliced carrots, a jar of sun tea, and three Milky Way bars.
“Some folks don’t like Viennas,” she said, and she pronounced the word “Vy-ennas.” “But with lettuce and mayonnaise, I think they’re real good.”
“Yeah, these are a treat. Aren’t they, Dave?” Jimmie said.
“You bet,” I said, trying to wash down a piece of simulated sausage that was like a chunk of rubber.
We were on the amusement pier, sitting on a wood bench in the shade of a huge outdoor movie screen. In the background I could hear pinball machines and popping sounds from a shooting gallery. Ida wore a pink skirt and a white blouse with lace on the collar; her arms and the top of her chest were powdered with strawberry freckles.
“Dave and I go back on the quarter boat in the morning,” Jimmie said.
She chewed on the end of a carrot stick, her eyes staring blankly at the beach and the surf sliding up on the sand.
“We’ll be back on land in ten days,” Jimmie said.
“That’s good. Maybe I’ll see y’all again,” she said.
But if there was any conviction in her voice, I did not hear it. Down below, a huge wave crashed against the pilings, shuddering the planks under our feet.