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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

All Issues
OCT 2020 Issue
Fiction

SWAJ

Editor’s Note: There’s brilliance in this oblique take on life in quarantine. By queering Jaws, the ur-text of an unseen menace holding a town in terror, Christopher Bollen reveals the humanity of those in the background, the extras, the victims. On a wide scale, we see the struggles of unemployment during lockdown, being a closeted teen in small town America, and the obliteration of ‘summer’. On a finer scale, Bollen brings a masterful eye for the minute detail that reveals character—witness a gas station manager “wiping his nose with the underside of his wrist” even though his hands happen to be clean. But whatever the scale, “SWAJ” is achingly fun.



Dead of summer. I was lucky to get this job. Delivering sandwiches for Loeffler’s Deli isn’t exactly what I had in mind for myself after high school, but we are living in unprecedented times.

Before the disaster, I’d been waiting tables up at the Gilded Clipper. I actually liked the uniform, the red bowtie with a matching cummerbund and the little brass swordfish pin with a fake ruby eye that we wore proudly on our shirts. I know it was just a costume, part of the upscale-dining experience. Still, putting it on for the night, feeling the sharp corners of the bowtie on my chin as I listed the chef’s specials to a table gathered around a reclaimed ship’s wheel, made me feel important, ordained. For the past two summers, I’d languished in the herd of busboys at the Gilded C—but loyalty apparently counts for nothing at that restaurant because after the third shark attack, I was among the handful let go.

“Michael, your father runs the only pharmacy in Amity,” the manager, Don, with his liquid brown eyes and rust-orange mustache, told me. “I’m sure he can hire you for the summer. Even if the whole economy tanks, people will always need their medications. These other guys don’t have options.” To think I once had a crush on Don. To think I wasted an entire afternoon driving to a dress shop in Quogue just to see whether Angela, the girlfriend he always talks about, actually existed.

Don was wrong about my father. He would never give me a job at his pharmacy. He disapproved of nepotism as staunchly as he believed that young men should pay their own way through college. I waited two days to give Dad the bad news. I figured he’d blow up and threaten to kick me out of the basement. But for a man with so few surprises in him, he managed to pull one out as I stood in the living room blaming my dismissal on the lack of hungry tourists. He simply folded up his copy of the Leader, set it gently on his lap, and said, “You better find something else quick.” I nodded obediently. Then he added, staring at the floor, “Take whatever job you can, before they get any scarcer, just as long as it isn’t selling belts.”

I tried to keep my face from going red and the air from getting stuck in my throat. But I caught the sharp point of his reference. Last August, when I was seventeen, I sneaked away on a Saturday morning and took a ferry over to Fire Island to explore a scene I’d only heard muttered about derisively by the Amity fishermen. Weather-wise, it was the wrong afternoon for such a visit, a lacquered gray sky quickly turning to rain, but it proved ripe for my purposes. On the boardwalk, I met a 36-year-old accessories designer from Manhattan named Terry Bartholomew and we spent the most redeeming twenty minutes of my life in the damp garage of his shared ocean-side house rental.

Terry smoked a joint afterward, rolling it from a massive bundle of grass he kept in a brown lunch bag. I didn’t partake, only watched him, already half in love. I couldn’t give him my phone number, but he scribbled his down, and I waited until the following Tuesday to call him. It was, to put it mildly, a disappointment. Terry’s manly, hairy beauty dissipated into a prissy, untuned voice, complaining about the bitchy merchandise buyers at the department stores who refused to stock his extra-wide snakeskin belts with diamanté buckles. I listened to Terry with Amity ears, unaroused, embarrassed, scared I sounded like him, and never called him again. My father must have listened too, eavesdropping from another phone in the house. I don’t know how much he heard. We never discussed it, not a word, but he began to drop little incendiary objections about belts—ridiculous accessories for vain women and girlish men who can’t keep their pants up. It was a stance that must have seemed utterly bizarre to my mother and little sister, but it couldn’t have been clearer to me. The Gilded Clipper’s red silk cummerbund, I was relieved to discover, didn’t count as a belt.


I went looking for work. At that point no one had actually seen the shark, and yet it was all anyone in town could talk about: The monstrous Great White prowling the coves of Amity, waiting to eat your children, your grandparents, you, and, more important than any of those potential victims, the tourists with gobs of money who drove out from the city to dip a toe in the ocean. We make a big show of looking down on the invaders from the city—all they do is eat, eat, eat, and then beach themselves in the sand until they can eat more—but Amity is a lonely town without the summer influx. In winter there are barely a thousand people, and unlike some of the more picturesque East End villages—Southampton, or Sag Harbor, or Amagansett—Amity doesn’t possess the rustic charm of clapboard architecture or cobble-stone side streets bathed in weedy wildflowers. Amity is like an ugly face made pretty by a suntan; once the color fades, it’s all pock marks, stray hairs, and holes. Amityites will tell you we need the money, and that’s the honest truth. But we also need the tourists themselves. We crave their crassness and insatiable appetites, because we Amityites are a people in contrast. More than anything else, we define ourselves as not them. But now, with the tourists too scared of the shark to venture to our shores, we’re stuck alone with each other.

I was having zero luck with the job search. And once Sheriff Martin Brody officially closed the beaches, even more of us were out of work. I applied to park cars at the yacht club. I applied at The Yellow Napkin to scoop ice cream onto sugar cones. I volunteered to fold towels at Maxx Muscle for less than minimum wage, partly because I figured it would be a treat to cruise the clientele. I asked my only friend who wasn’t from high school, Daisy Wicker, if she could get me a job at The Bibelot, but she said no one, not even our kind, was buying antiques right now. I love Daisy. She’s four years older than I am, with long brown hair drizzled with split ends, and full pink lips that tend toward brooding. She’s forever being dumped by an older woman who lives way up in Mattituck. But what I like best is her bluntness: “Don’t they need someone at Maxx Muscle to measure all their shrinking penises?” “I already tried them,” I told her. “They’re cutting their hours in half.” My last stop was Eddie’s Relief, the gas station that once prided itself on being the only stop for fuel between the highway and the Hamptons. I should have known my chances were zilch. Eddie was reading a copy of the Leader with the headline, TWO KILLED BY MONSTER SHARK OFF AMITY BEACH. Number of Victims of Killer Fish Rises to Three.

Eddie had a tick of wiping his nose with the underside of his wrist even when his hands weren’t covered in grease. When I asked him if he needed any help pumping gas, he wiped his nose, peered over at me for a good minute, and told me if I really wanted to help him, I’d call the sheriff’s office and file a complaint against Brody for ruining everyone’s livelihoods by keeping the beaches shut and the tourists at bay. “Better yet,” he grumbled. “Kill the idiot! That’d be your first assignment, day one. I already rang up the mayor with my thoughts. You want to see real carnage? You want to watch a bloodier death than shark bites? Let this nonsense of closing beaches and scaring everyone play out for one more week. Then you’ll get a front row seat on the bloodletting. ‘Cluding mine!”

I felt bad for Sheriff Brody. It was true, though. The beaches were deserted, like stretches of vacant football fields off season, and yet we were still trying to peddle Amity summer merchandise in the empty bleachers. The few high-school friends I kept in contact with were bussing over to Montauk or East Hampton to find work where the shark seemed disinclined to venture. I was thinking of doing the same. I even considered calling Terry Bartholomew to ask for help, hoping he might connect me to his pot dealer so I could try selling small quantities to the locals. But it had been nearly a year since our tryst, and I wasn’t so delusional to presume my bumbling acts in that Fire Island garage had earned a spot in Terry’s sexual trophy case. There must be dancefloors full of boys like me in Manhattan. I was walking down Water Street, feeling sorry for myself, when plump Rose Loeffler stepped out of her deli carrying a giant wedge of provolone. The wedge nearly slipped from her fingers, and I rescued it before it bounced on the sidewalk.

“Thank you, Michael,” she said, her cherubic face tightening into a smile. “How are you?”

“Unemployed,” I replied.

She nodded like it was the chorus of a song she’d been listening to all summer. “Isn’t there a Constitutional right about citizens being free to congregate wherever they want to, shark or no shark?”

“I think Brody’s just trying to—” Keep us safe, was the intended terminus of that sentence, left unspoken because I was reading Rose’s face for the desired response. I sensed she wanted a different answer. “—show what a big man he is by taking on this fish on his own.”

She nodded approvingly. “I hope Ben Gardner is the shark’s last lunch, so we can go on serving our own!” Rose cringed at her own tactless joke. But I was too taken aback by the name to cringe along with her. Ben Gardner was a beloved town fisherman. His wife was a regular at Amity Pharmacy and once tried to teach me the clarinet.

“Ben? He was eaten too? Oh my god!” It dawned on me that one reason the townsfolk were desperate to open the beaches might be to offer the shark a larger menu, so that the only items weren’t the locals. Couldn’t the city people be offered up instead?

“Ben’s missing,” Rose said pointedly, “from his boat, which had giant teeth marks in it. You do the math. And from what I hear, Brody sent him out on some cockamamie fish-hunting expedition, chumming to draw the shark close. Don’t we have a military for these kinds of situations?” Her smile didn’t ebb, but she glanced at me with the cold gaze of calculation, weighing invisible pros and cons. “You know, when the news came in about Ben, my delivery boy up and quit. He was terrified. This was not his kind of beach town, he said. I told him, your deliveries never cross dangerous bodies of water, unless you count the drunks outside the Randy Bear. He wouldn’t listen. And now we need a delivery boy for the lunch rush. Doesn’t pay much, but...You got a bike, Michael?”

So began my career in sandwich delivery. There may not be vacationers on the streets, the stores might be papering up their windows right and left with FINAL LIQUIDATION and EVERYTHING MUST GO, the Leader might be declaring the town coffers all but empty, but Amity still has a healthy appetite. The locals ate the run of the Loeffler’s lunchtime “between the slices” chalkboard specials. Liverwurst with pickles on wheat. Roast beef and swiss on sourdough. Paul’s “ain’t-it-spicy” Chinese chicken salad on rye. The special sandwich Rose dreamed up, a “Shark Beach BLT” with an actual bite carved out of one side, fashioned from a repurposed cookie cutter, was the rare misstep in the otherwise savvy understanding of customer stomachs. And it was up to me and my navy-blue Huffy bike, which had been my Christmas present in the 8th grade, to deliver them. Tips were rare. Two dimes, a quarter. Once a crisp dollar from the psychologist who was treating poor Mrs. Kintner over her grief for her eaten son. Delivering for Loeffler Deli was not going to pay for college, but at least it kept me employed and out of the house when my father banged on the basement door.

Occasionally, an order would come in that would send me to one of the beaches that was officially off-limits. As I peddled toward Russet Cove, a semi-private U of sand popular among the teenagers, I dreaded the last name scribbled in Rose’s wiry handwriting on the ticket: Ferlinghetti.

I steered my bike and the ration of seven sandwiches toward the dunes. Shirtless Ted Ferlinghetti and four of his friends were tossing a frisbee on the otherwise empty beach. As much as I hated Ted, I pined to see a flash of his black armpit hair every time he snagged a high throw above his head. Two girls I didn’t know with long straight hair wearing rope bikini tops sat on a blanket nearby, sipping on beers. Amity High was a tiny place, a drain filter of a school that collected the poorest kids who couldn’t afford private or test into the more advanced regional school with its AP classes over in Westhampton. Ted Ferlinghetti could have been a bully, but to his credit, he elected to elide easy categories. Still there was a lingering charge of violence in him that simultaneously turned me on and kept me perpetually on my guard.

Ted dropped the frisbee as I hopped off my bike, and he strutted over to collect the bag of sandwiches. “Michael!” he yelled from close range and gave an obnoxious snort as if to test whether his friends thought my delivering sandwiches was funny. His muscled body was silver from the shine of tanning oil in the sun. He had curly dark hair and his top front teeth were chipped. “Nice summer job, man! Or is it permanent?”

I smiled and handed him the bag. I knew that Ted was cursed to remain in Amity for the rest of his life, and however mean he was, that was too severe a punishment; plus, I had ravaged his body in hundreds of obscene ways, surprising even myself with my creativity, during the math class we had together. Those fantasies were so real to me, I almost felt like I had permission to reach out and stroke his oily chest.

Ted distributed the sandwiches, lobbing them to his friends, and when the bag was empty, he crumpled it. “Wait, no napkins?”

“Sorry about that,” I said.

“It makes it harder to give you a tip.” He offered a menacing smile. “Tell you what.” He pulled a folded five-dollar bill from the pocket of his tight, brown corduroy shorts. “Five bucks. It’s all yours. All you need to do is go for a quick swim.”

“Huh?”

“Right out there.” He nodded toward the ocean, a flat horizon of copper blue without a single wave or dorsal fin fracturing its surface. “Just thirty feet out and back. Five minutes. Five dollars.”

In theory, I was as terrified of the shark as anyone else in Amity, with one slight, and now I realize, significant caveat: I was never going to swim in the ocean. Had the Great White not materialized, I still wouldn’t have clocked a single afternoon splashing around in the town’s popular swimming spots. It’s not that I’m embarrassed about my body in a swimsuit—or not only that. I find all the required interactions of a day at the beach—the forced jocularity and hysterical relaxation—exhausting. I was never in any actual danger of being eaten by the shark.

“Ted,” I whispered. “We’re not allowed to swim.”

“No cops around,” he said and winked at me. I suspected that Ted knew about me, knew what I wanted, and was willing to use it to get me into the water. “Come on, Michael. You scared? Three minutes. Just up to your neck. Don’t be a pussy.”

The two girls glanced over their shoulders. Their eyes slid over me and they went back to talking to each other. They wouldn’t be sprinting in to rescue me or even gather up my severed body parts.

“No,” I mumbled softly. “It’s not safe.”

“Not safe?” he squealed. “That thing’s probably long gone by now. The Atlantic’s a big ocean. How about I’ll go in with you! We’ll run in together. Holding hands! And you still get the five bucks. Come on, don’t be a—”

I looked out at the sea again, the flat silky blue, and for the first time, I sensed the shark out there, right under the surface, waiting for me, as if its purpose, all along, had simply been my extermination. “Pussy, pussy, pussy. Hairy pussy.”

I climbed on my bike, backed it out from the sand, and without another word to Ted, peddled toward town. Along the way, as snippets of the coast appeared at cliff turns and from between the pricey clapboard mansions, I had the unshakeable feeling the shark was following me.

Then I fell in love. He was standing on the sidewalk, out in front of the Abelard Arms Inn, on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon, his face starry with perspiration. He was tall, just over six feet, more narrow than lean, and he was dressed in the typical rich-summer-person uniform of khaki pants and a bright white short-sleeve cotton shirt with a small green alligator sewn on the chest. He had the crisp aura of privilege, oblivious to the fact that he was blocking a pedestrian path as he searched through a bag for what turned out to be a file of photographs. He glanced up at me as I neared him, and I admired his face, long and thin, with light blue eyes and a surprising deep crosshatch of lines at their corners for someone who couldn’t have been older than thirty. His thick hair, brushed-back but still unkempt, was blond from the sun, and it struck me that he had the head of a lion, not the lazy established males, but the hungry unproven loners who possess a skittish grace. Our eyes met, and for a reason I would only discover later when we were naked in his hotel room, we both smiled with a kind of mischievous greed—slightly caged with eyes shifting around at passersby to make sure no one else noticed.

“Hi,” I said, shocked at my own bravery. “You look lost.” He didn’t look lost. I assume I did.

“No,” he said, keeping his smile. “I’m staying right here at the Abelard. I noticed your delivery bag and wondered where I could pick up a sandwich.”

“I can get you one!” I promised. “What do you want?” He laughed, shifted his bag on his shoulder, and ordered a turkey on pumpernickel.

“You sure it’s not a problem,” he said, not in the tone of a question, more out of customary politeness.

“I can get it to you in, ohh, five minutes.” Four if I ran to the deli and back instead of rode my bike.

“Bring it up to room two oh seven. I’m Matt, by the way. Matt Hooper. I’m here to save your town from that shark. Not that you asked.”

I can’t remember whether he explained what he did for a living before or after we had sex on his hotel-room bed. He did eat the sandwich first, and we must have made small talk then, but I was so petrified, my blood rushing through my ears, I couldn’t say what subject we discussed. I remember afterward lying with my head on his chest, drowsy from our exertions and from the Abelard’s gale-like air conditioning, while Matt explained the field of Ichthyology. He was an expert on fish and traveled around the world, as far away as Australia, to observe sharks and dolphins in their native habitats. He had gone to Yale and had spent summers as a kid out on Southampton, with his older brother David. It was clear that he came from wealth. I could tell that by the pony leather bags piled by the TV stand, dangling with more brass tackle on them than a fisherman’s vest. Matt lived on Cape Cod, near the Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, in a little shack all alone in Hyannis Port. He’d been invited to Amity by the editor of the Leader, with the mayor’s blessing, to explain the shark’s predatory behavior and also, perhaps, to rid us of it.

“You really think you could kill it,” I asked, lifting my head. I’d left a tiny puddle of saliva on his chest, right by his brown nipple, and quickly wiped it with my hand.

“Maybe,” he said. “But I’m really here to observe it. To see it with my own eyes! God, the thing sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime beauty. Like a kind of god.”

I thought of the fat, gray shadow menacing the waters, darting from dock to cove, following me on my deliveries through Amity, biding its time until I’d make the careless mistake of entering the water.

“Observe it how?”

“From a boat,” he said. “Or as close as I can get.”

“But?” I widened my eyes in fright.

“But what?” he said, grinning, a flirt of the life-and-death variety. It got him off to make people worry for his safety, I could see that about him.

“It could eat you,” I said.

He pushed me off, located his underwear on the extra-long, olive-green shag, and brought them up to his hands in the grip of his toes.

“Michael,” he said, and studied me for a second to make sure he’d gotten my name right. “It was fun. You’re a wonderful kid. But this is just a crazy little fling, okay?”

I nodded. “It’s not like you live here,” I added to downgrade the possible repercussions for his own comfort.

He confessed to me, as he got dressed, that he slept with both women (I liked that he didn’t call them girls) and boys (I liked that he didn’t call them men). He was open, fluid, curious, freaky, but also not nailed down, not “nail-down-able.” Did I understand?

“Absolutely,” I said. “I’m like that too. I’m just having fun.” Yet it scared me all of a sudden as I lay there naked that he could leave town at any hour, that he’d be gone in his green Pinto with the shark decal on the window. Maybe Ted was right. Maybe the shark had already moved on to another town with a better buffet of humans. Or maybe the shark would prove easy to kill and would be slaughtered by this evening and there’d be no further reason for Matt to hang around. For the first time, I felt in league with the beast and prayed that it would flourish in these waters, at least for a few more days.

“You look pale,” Matt said. He snapped his fingers, crossed the room, and dug through his suitcase. He pulled out a small scarlet drawstring pouch and shook out a charm, shaped like a fossil, its top capped in silver.

I was reluctantly getting dressed, trying to hide a mustard stain on my t-shirt, but I could see there were several more of these charms inside the pouch. “From Macao,” Matt said as he presented it to me. I caressed its smooth, sharp edges with my thumb. “A tiger-shark tooth. It’s meant to protect you from getting bitten. You wear that, and you won’t be scared anymore.” He laughed, looking a little embarrassed about the gift, and gathered up his file of shark-bite photographs. “Alright, get out of here. I’ve got a meeting with your sheriff in half an hour. He’s a real asshole, isn’t he?”

I lingered at the door, nervous, pushing the tip of the shark tooth into the padding of my thumb. “Can I come back?” I asked.

He smiled. “As long as you bring a sandwich.”



* * *



I returned each afternoon at the end of the lunch rush, a standing date between Matt and me, bringing along his turkey on pumpernickel. Loeffler’s allotted me one free sandwich for my shift, and I donated it to Matt, so that he could scarf it down, leaving only the long, tan legs of the crusts on the wrapper, before we spent fifteen minutes rolling around on the creaky Abelard double bed. I’d used some twine from my father’s knickknack drawer to hang the shark tooth around my neck. Matt yanked lightly on the pendant as he lay next to me. “See, you’re safe,” he whispered and then pretended to take a huge bite out of my arm, before gently, lovingly, guiding my head between his thighs. I had already learned with Terry on Fire Island what a rare blessing it is to actually get to do what you fantasize about—but it is a living, breathing heaven to be able to do it twice, and then three times on consecutive weekdays. I was, without question, in love with Matt, deeply, irrevocably, devotedly. I wanted to ask him about the best community colleges around Hyannis Port. I wanted to invite him to meet for a beer at the Randy Bear where we could play slow songs on the jukebox and listen while our elbows touched on the mahogany bar. Instead, I made small forays into his progress on the shark hunt. I was relieved to hear that despite spotting a long, ominous gray shadow off the coast, they’d been unable to close in for a kill.

“What will you do once you catch it?” I asked.

Matt winced. “I’m afraid there’s no catching it. Way too big. It’s like a semi-truck going ninety miles per hour the wrong way down the highway with giant lawn-mower blades for a front grille. Don’t tell your sheriff, but I plan to photograph it before we kill it.”

“What will happen after you kill it?” I asked lightly. “I mean, you’ll still need to stay in town in case it has brothers and sisters. There could be more than one shark attacking us, right? There’s no telling how many are out there.”

Matt looked at me, catching the worrisome hope in my voice. “Nah,” he bellowed. “There’s only one feeding on your neighbors. Sharks aren’t like dolphins. They don’t hunt in packs. We’ll get this bad boy and then I’ll high-tail it back to the Institute.” He climbed off the mattress and I quickly leaned over the side of the bed to retrieve the gift that I’d put in my pocket for him. It was an exchange for the shark tooth, and I pictured Matt wearing it on the helm of a boat, keeping him safe. Matt disappeared into the bathroom and reemerged with his pants on.

“I meant to ask you,” he said. “What do you know about the sheriff’s wife, Ellen?”

“Mrs. Brody? She’s nice enough.” I noticed that he was listening attentively to my answer, and a spike of jealousy jabbed into my brain. “And pretty, I guess, for an older lady.” I liked Ellen Brody and I was ransacking my head for anything else degrading that I could say about her.

“My older brother, David, dated her when they were kids. Did I tell you about David? He’s—”

I was sick of hearing about his older brother, David, or anyone else who took up space outside of this hotel room. I stood and moved toward him, my heart twisting, my teeth gritted, and handed him the pin. He glanced down at the brass swordfish as if it had just emitted a tiny electroshock.

“For the shark’s tooth,” I said grabbing the pendant at my neck and holding it out as if it were a crucifix. “Something to keep you safe too. From me.”

“You shouldn’t have.” He stared up at me with a tilted head before giving the pin a closer appraisal, even squeezing it in his fingers to test the metal. I thought it looked more expensive when it wasn’t pinned to the chest of a waiter. “Xiphias gladius,” he said. “My gosh. I hope that isn’t a real ruby in its eye?” He sounded concerned, like I might have raided the pin from my mother’s jewelry box.

“I don’t know if it’s real or not. It might be. I found it at an old antique store that my friend runs. It’s supposed to bring you luck. Maybe it will get you your shark photos.”

He breathed through his nose and touched my cheek with his warm, calloused palm. “You’re a very special young man,” he said softly. “I appreciate it. A good way of remembering you.”

Every morning proved a highwire walk of hoping. Coming down to the breakfast table, I feared news splashed across the Leader’s front page that the shark had been captured or killed; I prayed that it had been spotted, that it had bitten off a foot or even a forearm, to keep the fear alive, but I never wished that anyone had actually died—just enough of that person eaten so there would be a reason for Matt to stay.

When my father told me that he had to give Janice, a gray-haired angel who had worked at the pharmacy for fifteen years, her notice, I decided it was only fair that the people of Amity sacrificed for my happiness. “Even after they slashed all the broker fees,” my father grumbled, “there’s been no takers for house rentals for July or August. Two stores shuttered on Main Street, not to reopen any time soon.” He slammed the coffee pot into its cradle so hard that I checked to make sure it hadn’t cracked. “That mother-effing shark is murdering us. Orders are down at the pharmacy thirty percent.”

“They have a very capable fish expert here from Woods Hole,” I informed him. “They’ll get it soon.” But I begged every saint I could think of to watch over the shark and protect it from us.

The lunch rush ended fifteen minutes early, thanks to the halted construction on the town’s new waterfront gazebo. I order my usual turkey on pumpernickel and hurried over to the Abelard. I noticed that Matt’s green Pinto wasn’t parked in its usual spot across the street, and when I sailed by the front desk of the hotel, Mr. Portnick whistled. “Hey, slow down, Michael. Your customer is out today.” I turned to face him, the alcove dark and dingy and only his circular glasses holding light.

“Where is he?” I demanded.

Mr. Portnick pinched the skin at his Adam’s apple. “I presume he’s out trying to save our town! If you want to leave the sandwich with me, I’ll make sure he gets it when he comes in.”

Heartbroken, I biked around Amity, hunting for the frog-green Pinto. I didn’t spot it anywhere, not at the police station or in front of the mayor’s office or by the docks where the fishermen were mending their nets with grandmotherly concentration.

“Did something happen?” I asked them. “Did they catch the shark?”

The eldest fisherman erupted into croupy giggling. “When they git ‘em, you’ll haar a cheer all o’er town. Then you’ll knaw.”

I arrived home late that afternoon, checking to make certain that my father was out. Then I proceeded to dial the Abelard every fifteen minutes asking for Mr. Hooper, for a Matthew Hooper from the Oceanographic Institute, for room two-oh-seven please, disguising my voice each time. The fourth time I called, asking for that marine-life expert who went to Yale, Mr. Portnick hissed into the receiver, “For god’s sake, Michael, stop calling! He isn’t in!”

There was nothing I could do, except to meet up with Daisy at the Randy Bear. She was the only person I could trust in Amity, and as we sat, swiveling on our bar stools—both of us fidgety by nature—I confessed all the delicious, sordid details of my love affair with Matt Hooper.

Daisy nearly spit out her bourbon at the news. “You’ve got to be kidding!” she shrieked at a very low level so that the bartender wouldn’t overhear us. “I met Matt two nights ago at the Brody’s house. They had a little dinner party, and I got the weirdest feeling they were trying to set me up with him. Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.”

Brody. The name soured in my ears. Ellen Brody. Why was she haunting my romance? “I can’t stand that woman!” I sneered. “Matt mentioned her too. Apparently, she used to date his older brother.”

“She’s got bravado,” Daisy said. “I’ll give that to her. She was flirting up a storm with Matt, right in front of her husband. Like, you know, touching his wrist, talking close to his ear. I felt sorry for her a little bit.”

I shook my head in fury, and Daisy, realizing I was getting worked up, patted my hand. “Cool your jets, Ke-mo sah-bee. No one, not even someone as cocky as your charming Matt Hooper, struts into town and sleeps with the sheriff’s wife. Trust me.”

She was probably right. And yet for the next two days, when I appeared as usual with a turkey on pumpernickel at the Abelard, I was told by Mr. Portnick that Matt was out, Matt was, in fact, so far out, he was a mile out at sea past Montauk Point and wouldn’t be home until very, very late. I was desperate to ask whether Mr. Hooper came back at night alone or if he ever had company, but I couldn’t figure out how to broach the subject without endangering myself and left the inn on the verge of tears, dumping the sandwich in the trash can.

The next day’s Leader splashed details of a near attack. The beaches had been opened due to pressure from the Chamber of Commerce. And within a few hours, a boy swimming off High Beach had almost been cut in two by the ferocious shark. Brody and Hooper had saved him just in time. It seemed so unfair, this poor starving animal working slyly and assiduously to creep up on an unsuspecting morsel, only for his prey to be whisked to safety before he could close his mouth around it and savor his prize. But in another second, I realized my insanity, and was glad for the boy’s survival, and for Matt that he’d gotten his eyes on the creature. That would keep him in Amity for a few more days.

“It’s a little early for sandwiches,” Mr. Portnick said when I arrived at eight in the morning at the Abelard.

“I know,” I murmured, before offering up a cover story. “But I had an idea where the shark might be. I want to tell Matt. I know they’ve been out looking for it on that fisherman, Quint’s schooner.”

“Oh, you know where it’s been lurking, do you?” Mr. Portnick said sarcastically, leaning over his desk. “Do tell.”

“It’s private,” I said. “I’m only telling Matt.”

Mr. Portnick sighed and reached for the phone.

“Sorry to bother you so early, Mr. Hooper. Michael’s here again for you.” I heard Matt’s hearty, crackling voice on the line, and Mr. Portnick blinked twice and let out another sigh. He hung up and shuffled some brochures around on his desk. “Go right up. I suppose you remember the room number?”

I climbed the stairs, uncertain of my plan. I hadn’t thought about anything beyond getting past the front desk. My hands were sweaty, my pulse racing, but there was nothing else to do but knock on the door. Matt swept it open, and a wash of sunlight filled the room. I had never seen it without the blinds drawn. I glanced at the bed, terrified to find somebody—Ellen Brody or a young man—sprawled across it. But the bed was made, the starchy peach comforter already tucked militantly in at the corners. That left only Matt to behold, dressed in the same outfit he wore when I first saw him, except for his bare sunburnt feet. He had an amused smile on his face, a tight twist of the lips, and he issued a faint grunt, expressing either bafflement or frustration. I didn’t wait for him to ask me in. I stepped into the room, and it took all my strength not to lunge for him, to pull him onto the bed and hold him until he stopped resisting and went limp in my arms.

“I was just about to leave,” he said, putting his hands on his hips. “It’s a big day. Quint, Brody, and I know where the shark is.”

He wasn’t wearing the swordfish pin. I wanted to remind him that it would bring him luck, but my mouth was dry and I was having trouble moving my tongue.

“So today’s your last day, maybe?” I managed.

“Maybe,” he said. “Look, I really have to get the equipment in the—”

“I meant to ask you, before you left,” I said, stumbling over my words. I wanted to tell him that I could be packed and ready to leave with him by noon. But I turned into a coward and let the sentence take a different path. “I’m really interested in oceanography. In Itchiography.”

“Ichthyology,” he corrected.

“Yeah, that. I want to do what you do. Study fish. Help them. I want to save the fish.” Matt nodded thoughtfully at the news, as if he understood the calling.

“Gosh, Michael, why didn’t you tell me earlier?” He laughed and rocked on his heels. I could sense his relief, and he grew comfortable in front of me, like it had been between us the first time we met. “I think that’s terrific! I’d be happy to give you some pointers. When I get back to Woods Hole, I can mail you some books to read. We can talk about this another time, and—”

I didn’t want him to leave the room, not yet. I stalled for time. “Are there any internships up at the Oceanographic Institute? Or classes? Maybe I could come and study up there. I don’t want the fish to die. It’s not right how we invade their waters and exterminate them whenever we feel that they get out of control. We should save them at any cost.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” he said genially. “And sure, I can give you some contacts. I’m really glad to hear of this interest, Michael. Really.” He clapped my arm and spun around to pick up a steel box that contained an underwater camera. He sprung toward the door, and I quickly blocked it, my shaky fingers reaching for his belt buckle. He stepped back.

“No,” he said sternly. “There’s no time for that anymore.”

“What about later today?” My voice came out as a whine. “When you’re off the boat.”

“Michael, please. We had a nice encounter with each other. But let’s put that aside. I need to concentrate on the shark.”

I could feel my face burning. I tried to fight off the rejection, biting the insides of cheeks, nodding affably, even giving a little idiotic laugh. Instead of his belt buckle, I reached for the steel case in his grip. “At least let me help. I can carry your equipment down. Assisting is the only way I’ll learn.”

“Sure,” he said warmly. “I’d appreciate that.”

As we walked along the hotel corridor, lacking anything of substance to say to one another, I repeated my newfound interest in Ichthyology. I asked him a question about gills and respiration, but I didn’t hear a word of his convoluted answer. All that came into my mind were the the four soulless hours of sandwich delivery ahead of me with no visit to the Abelard ever again. I’d left his room for the last time.

On the street, the green Pinto was nowhere in sight. Instead we marched toward a blue pickup truck with the stenciled insignia of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute decorating the door. On the truck bed loomed a large aluminum cage made of thin bars glittering in Amity’s aquatic morning light. I squinted at Matt. “What is that?”

Matt grinned at his own daring, relishing my distress. He hopped onto the truck bed and I couldn’t resist staring as the waistband of his pants dipped to showcase a peek of his ass. That too I would likely never see again. He stood by the cage, the way a fisherman might pose next to a huge catch on the dock for a picture, and rattled one of its bars. “I spent all morning assembling it,” he said proudly. “We’re going to lower it off the side of Quint’s boat, with yours truly inside, and I’m going to take pictures of the shark before we kill it. No one’s ever photographed a fish that big before.”

“You’re going to be in the water like bait while it swims around—” Matt enjoyed my horror, and laughed in satisfaction.

I hoisted the steel box onto the truck bed. Matt stretched his arms and scanned the shops around the hotel, the majority of them shuttered in the worst tourist slump in Amity history.

“Hey, do you know where I could get a quick egg sandwich to go?” he asked.

Loeffler’s Deli would be open by now. I told him I could run and get him one. “Are you sure it’s not a problem?” he asked. He knew what my answer would be. I loved fetching him sandwiches; it seemed that feeding him was the one last gift I had to offer.

I waited outside the deli for Rose to fry up Matt’s egg and for Paul to slather the butter on the bread. Next to the deli was the hardware store, and through its front window I saw Ellen Brody at the counter having a pair of keys copied. She was pretty, with her hair waving over her ears and a pair of red-tinted sunglasses perched on the top of her head. She wore a white silk blouse and a loose linen skirt. When she exited the store, a shaft of light blinded her and she struggled to pull the sunglasses over her eyes. The harsh sunlight also revealed a winking silver chain that ran between her breasts, and I saw the shark tooth dangling from it, a pendant exactly like mine, to protect her from being bitten.

“Michael!” she cried, as if I had purposely materialized in order to scare her. She put her hand over her heart. “I didn’t see you. How is your family?”

“Okay,” I mumbled. I tried to work up a smile for her, but I couldn’t part with one for my competition. Or maybe she wasn’t my only competitor. How many others were there scattered around Amity, wearing their own tiger-shark tooth and believing they were safe?

“Tell your father,” she said, “that I’ll be in to pick up those prescriptions for Martin.” Then she departed along the sidewalk, clicking her brand-new keys together.

I hurried the sandwich back to the truck. Matt was crouched on the bed, testing the cage bars, screwing them tighter. Inside the cage, he had already placed diving equipment and air tanks.

“Here you go!” I said. He grabbed the sandwich, unpeeled the wrapper, and took an enormous bite out of it.

“So that cage is all that’s going to keep you safe from the shark?” I asked, staring up as he chewed, my head at the level of his sneakers.

He swallowed the egg and bread down. “No! I’m not that stupid! That shark is a maniac! A twenty-foot White! I’m also going to be armed with a very special underwater gun. I borrowed it from the Institute. You load it with a twelve-gauge shotgun shell, and when I’m done taking pictures, and that monster swims in real close, bang!”

Matt clapped his hands together, wiping off the sandwich crumbs. “Speaking of, I left the gun up in the room.” He peered down at me with his beautiful light blue eyes. “Well, fish assistant, can I trust you to climb up here and make sure all of these bars are nice and tight, while I go get it?” I nodded eagerly and pulled myself up onto the truck bed. Matt patted my shoulder. “Just give each of them an extra hard twist to the right—righty tighty. I’ll be right back.”

I went to work turning the bars as Matt jogged across the road. He reappeared a few minutes later, with a long black case that might have held a saxophone.

I jumped from the truck, and he let me hug him. Our chests pressed together for the duration of one breath. Then I let go, backing up, as he laughed awkwardly as he locked the tailgate.

“Your town’s going to be a whole lot safer the next time you see me,” he said.

I waved from the sidewalk as he drove away, holding back my conscience. I had only made the fight a little fairer. Matt had his special underwater gun and I had loosened four bars of the aluminum cage, twisting them left instead of right. How hard can a shark really strike a cage? It would be Matt versus the fish, and, as the truck disappeared down Water Street, I had no idea which one would win. Even then, I half-believed in happy endings. Matt and the shark might never find each other in the ocean. Instead, the Great White might cough up every single one of its victims before swimming off, and the town could go on pretending that summer was a harmless season.

Contributor

Christopher Bollen

Christopher Bollen is a writer who lives in New York City. His first novel, Lightning People, was released in 2011, his second novel Orient arrived in May 2015, and his third, The Destroyers came out in June 2017. His most recent novel, A Beautiful Crime, contrasts two grifters on the run with the grandeur of Venice. He is also an editor and critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times, Artforum, New York Magazine, and The Believer. He is currently the editor at large of Interview Magazine and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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