The heat and the hypnotic shimmer of the ocean messed with his head.
He was sitting on the beach with his wife. A six-foot-long rubber float raft lay on the sand between them. They were refugees from the north and lived in an apartment in Miami Beach. Their marriage was in trouble.
He stood up and told his wife he was going to paddle the raft to the Bahamas. He was tall and thin. He was forty-one years old.
He had been losing weight. His wife had noticed this but she didn’t say anything because he hated to talk about his health. He was also secretive about the pills he had been taking lately.
“Probably not a good idea,” she said. “Looks like a storm coming in.”
He looked at the sky. The bright blue immediately above them was darker further out and a strong wind was coming up.
“I’ll send you a postcard from Nassau,” he said.
He picked up the raft and walked to the water’s edge. The raft had no paddle. His own thin arms would be his only source of power.
He waded into deeper water. A wave washed over him and pushed him down and he had difficulty mounting his craft. He managed to climb aboard and lie face down on the raft. He began pushing the water back with his arms.
The waves came at him stronger now but he persevered, head down, pumping water with all his strength, making progress, heading out to sea.
He cast a quick backward glance. He was further out than he thought. He pictured his wife on the beach, walking to the water’s edge and looking for him, wondering if he had lost his mind.
It was heavy going. His arms became tired and he had to rest. In one fluid movement he swung his legs down into the water, sat upright on the raft and stuck his legs straight out in front of him and lay on his back.
The water was calmer out there. Lying on his back, he perceived a tendency in the sky. The clouds formed their own vast continents, at once white, gray, and downright black.
He was in a reflective mood. He thought about this new place they had landed in. As a finicky fellow he certainly had his difficulties with the beach. Take the tar. Tar on your bare feet is worse than chewing gum on your shoe, a fate that often befell him when he walked the streets of Manhattan.
How many shoes had he thrown down the incinerator chute of the apartment building in New York rather than deal with scraping off the gum? He never threw the clean shoes down the incinerator. He reckoned he had more shoes for one foot than most men.
He thought about the people he had loved who were no longer on the planet. All of them gone too soon. It was quite a list. In chronological order: His father at age forty-five (stroke); his brother at twenty-four (car crash); brother-in-law at thirty-three (suicide); his best friend at thirty-five (cancer); his son at seventeen (suicide); and his mother at fifty-nine (heart attack).
He, on the other hand, was still kicking—or in this case, still paddling. When he thought about it, he figured he’d had a charmed life.
Feeling rested now, he sat upright on the raft, swung his legs back through the water and out behind him so he was face down on the raft again and off he went, pumping his arms like hell, pulling at the water, dragging it back, propelling the raft forward.
The clouds that looked threatening before had passed over and the sky was mostly blue and the wind was calmer. He thought he saw a dark shape in the water near the raft. Then it wasn’t there.
He kept his eyes on the horizon, a slightly curved line, a definite demarcation between two shades of blue. He began to believe he could make it to the Bahamas.
Admittedly, he was mad.
In any case, it was too late to turn back.
— Bill Michelmore
Originally published in the Miami Herald