Now he was an old man who liked to take chances.
In the distance, he counted three separate waterspouts bridging the space between the slick blue water surface at the edge of the Gulf Stream and the gray-black phalanx of clouds belonging to the approaching late-afternoon thunderstorms moving steadily out of the west. The waterspouts were narrow cones of darkness, swirling with all the force their landed cousins, tornadoes, had. They were less subtle, though; they did not possess the terrifying suddenness that belonged to storms on the land. They grew instead out of the inexorable buildup of heat and wind and water, finally arcing between the clouds and the ocean. They seemed to the old man to be stately, moving heavily across the waves. They were visible from miles away, and thus easier to avoid-which is what every other boat working the edge of the great river of water that flows north from deep in the warmth of the Caribbean had already done. The old man was left alone on the sea, bobbing up and down on the slow rhythms of the waves, his boat's engine quiet, the twin baits he'd set out earlier lying flat and motionless on the water's inky surface.
He stared at the three spirals and thought to himself that the spouts were perhaps five miles distant, but the winds racing within each funnel at more than two hundred miles per hour could leap those miles easily. As he watched, it occurred to him that the waterspouts had gradually picked up their pace, as if they'd grown lighter, and suddenly more nimble.
They seemed to be dancing together as they moved toward him, like two eager men who kept cutting in on each other on the dance floor as they jockeyed for the attentions of an attractive young lady. One would stop and wait patiently while the other two-moved in a slow circle, then suddenly swing closer, while the other bounced aside. A minuet, he thought, danced by courtiers at a Renaissance court. He shook his head. That wasn't quite right. Again he watched the dark funnels.
Perhaps a square dance in some rural barn, the air filled with fiddle music? A wayward breeze suddenly caused a pennant on one of the outriggers to flap hard, making a slapping sound, before it, too, fled, as if it were frightened by the stronger winds moving relentlessly in his direction.
The old man took in a sharp breath of hot air.
Less than five miles, he told himself. More like three.
The waterspouts could cover that distance in minutes if that was their desire. Even with the big two-hundred-horse engine in back, which would shoot the open fisherman across the waves at thirty-five knots, he knew he was already too late. If the storms wanted to catch him, they could.
He thought their dance in a way elegant, in a way stylized.
But it had energy. Enthusiasm. It had rhythm and syncopation.
He strained and imagined for an instant that the winds carried sounds of music. Strains of blaring horns, beating drums, and wild soaring strings. A quick, decisive riff from a guitar. He looked up at the darkening sky, huge black thunderheads that muscled their way across the blue Florida air toward him. Big-band music, he told himself abruptly.
That's what it is. Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. The music of his youth. Music that burst with jazzy excitement and force, bugles driven with abandon.
A thunderclap riveted the distance and he saw a streak of lightning flash toward the ocean's surface. The wind picked up around him, steadily, whispering a warning in the snapping of the lines to the riggers and the pennants. He looked again at the waterspouts. Two miles, he said.
Leave and live. Stay and die.
He smiled to himself. Not time for me yet.
In a single, quick motion, he twisted the ignition key on the console, firing up the big Johnson motor, which growled at him, as if it had been impatient, waiting for his command, reproaching him for trusting his life to the vagaries of an electronic switch and a gas-powered engine. He idled the boat in a half-circle, putting the storm at his back. A spatter of raindrops spotted his blue denim work shirt, and he could abruptly taste the fresh rainwater on his lips. He moved swiftly to the stern and reeled in the two baits. He hesitated one moment longer, staring at the waterspouts. Now they were a mile away, looming large and terrifying, looking down at him as if astonished at the temerity of the insignificant human at their feet, nature's giants stopped in their charge by his insolence, hesitating, shocked by his challenge. The ocean had changed color, the blue deepening to a dense dark gray, as if trying to reach up and blend with the approaching storm.
He laughed as another thunderclap, closer, like a cannon, exploded in the air.
'Can't catch me,' he shouted into the wind.
And with that he thrust the throttle forward. The open boat surged through the gathering waves, engine pitch high like a mocking laugh, the bow rising up, then settling into a plane, skimming across the ocean, heading for clear skies and the last, quickly fading sunshine of the long summer day, a few miles ahead, and closer to the shoreline.
As was his habit, he stayed out on the water until long after the sun had set. The storm had wandered far out to sea, maybe causing some problems for the large container ships beating their steady paths up and down the Florida Straits. Around him, the air had cleared, the sweep of heavens blinking with the first stars of the night-deep sky.
It was still hot, even out on the water, the air surrounding him with a slippery humid grip. He was no longer fishing, in fact had not really done so in hours. Instead, he sat on a cooler in the stern, holding a half-finished bottle of cold beer in his hand. He took the opportunity to remind himself that the day was coming when the engine would stall, or his hand wouldn't be quick enough on the ignition switch, and a storm such as that evening's would teach him one last lesson. This thought made him shrug inwardly. He thought to himself that he'd had a luxurious life, filled with success and replete with the trappings of happiness all of it delivered by the most astonishing accident of luck.
Life is easy, he reminded himself, when you should have died.
The old man turned and glanced off to the north. He could see a distant glow from Miami, fifty miles away. But the immediate darkness around him seemed complete, although oddly liquid. There was a looseness to the atmosphere in Florida that he suspected was created by the ever-present heat and humidity. Sometimes, as he looked up into the sky, he longed for the tight clarity of the night in his home state of Vermont. The darkness there had always seemed to him to be pulled taut, stretched to its limits across the heavens.
It was the moment for which he waited out on the water, a chance to stare up into the great expanse above him without the irritation of light and city noise. The mighty North Star, the constellations, as familiar to him as the breathing of his wife as she slept. He picked them out, comforting in their constancy. Orion and Cassiopeia, Aries and Diana, the hunter.
Hercules, the hero, and Pegasus, the winged horse. The two dippers, the easiest of all, Ursa