I wasn’t going to make it. I knew that. I had only been in the water for ten minutes. Not even that. Five. And I was tired. We were still in the bay. Hammer’s Island was still there. I banged my hand against the canoe. My fingernail was broken. I was just going to stop.“You okay, Dee?” Reilly looked down at me, her paddle across her legs. She was a three-time Bawigian; she had a tattoo of a fish on her wrist.
“Yeah.” I didn’t know why but I started again. I would make it out past Hammer’s, and that would be it.
“You’re doing great.”
I hated how dark the water was, how my arms went out in front of me and became brown and gross. The sunlight went down in long sharp lines and then got lost, like there was something there, branches, something reaching up, fish in the gloom. I closed my eyes and counted my strokes. I made it to ten before hitting the canoe again. “You want to take a break?”
“It’s not a big deal. We’ve got all day.”
I could see the other canoes getting further ahead. There were twelve of them, painted green and red. 22 swimmers, everyone ahead. I kicked and counted, my eyes open, my arms coming across my face, digging out, pulling back. I had to remember to kick. I got to 20 this time. I was going to stop and then started again and got higher. I looked up at 50. The canoe was still there, Reilly looking at me over her paddle. I really liked her. I counted and kicked again. We were down from Hammer’s, out in the open lake, the deepest part, a hundred feet down, more. I thought about something coming out from that, that long prehistoric body, its row of teeth, swimming faster and faster, coming at me, coming after my arm as it came back, my toes dragging behind. I had to remember to kick. I did it twice and dragged again. I had water in my ears; it was humming and starting to hurt. I banged my head against the surface. “You’re almost a third of the way.”
I floated there, almost treading backwards, thinking I would just get her to pull me up, and kicked and reached again. I counted to 50. My arms were heavy. I couldn’t kick. I was gasping for breath. I counted again. I made it to 40 this time. I stopped. There was a canoe just ahead.
“Jasmine’s getting out.”
She was the only other Frog in the Bawigi.
“You’re doing great.”
I kicked and counted again. I made it to 50 and kept going. I was at 100, but I wasn’t swimming right. My arms were flopping down and I wasn’t kicking at all. I wasn’t going anywhere. I flipped onto my back and let my legs flutter. The sun was over the front of the canoe. I was cold. I wanted to get out.
“You’re halfway, Dee. Suze and Lizzie just got out.”I wasn’t going to make it. I knew that. I had nothing left, but I would go as long as I could. I flipped over and counted again. I got to 80, and I was going to stop. My hands were pruned. I couldn’t feel anything, like I had something around me, like my skin had a skin on top of that. My legs felt like that too. It wasn’t in me. I was going to drown, something like that, and then I had Jabberjaw in my head. Jabberjaw was a cartoon shark in a cartoon band with cartoon teen-aged kids. He played drums. And he was a giant shark, a Great White. He must have been 20 feet tall, towering over everyone in the band. Jabberjaw was always getting into trouble because of his lamebrain ideas and bumbling antics.He had a crazy laugh, “Knuck-knuck-knuck!” He laughed like that whenever he got into trouble. “Knuck-knuck-knuck!” He was always in trouble. That’s what drove the show. “Knuck-knuck-knuck!” It wasn’t just Jabberjaw laughing in my head; it was Marlin Perkins too, the old man from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Jabberjaw was the subject of today’s show. Marlin Perkins was on the edge of his desk with a picture of Jabberjaw over his shoulder, Jabberjaw, the crazy cartoon shark, dancing on the water. “We seek the mysterious Jabberjaw in the clear waters off Cozumel,” Marlin Perkins announced. He said ‘Jabberjaw’ like he had practiced it too much or knew him like a brother. “The mysterious Jabberjaw in the clear waters of Cozumel.”He repeated, intoning each syllable, Jab-ber-jaw and Co-zu-mel like lyrics, words he was teaching. Jabberjaw! I stopped and looked up. We were in the channel, turning through the islands. The harbor, the end of the Bawigi, was over a mile away.
Reilly’s head bobbed above the water. She looked very cool. I was happy about that. I was happy that I was going through the islands. I was happy that I had made it to here. I was happy that I was still in the water. I didn’t care that I wasn’t going to make it. “The mysterious Jabberjaw in the clear waters of Cozumel.” Marlin Perkins’ face was big, like Jabberjaw’s, bright blue and white. And then Jabberjaw was saying Marlin Perkins’ lines: “The mysterious Jabberjaw in the clear waters of Cozumel.” He was laughing at that. “Knuck-knuck-knuck.” He was laughing like he was teaching it to Marlin. “Knuck-knuck-knuck!” Marlin Perkins tried it, but he didn’t have the ending right. It was too hard, too enunciated. “Knuck-knuck-knuck!”Jabberjaw laughed it slowly, like a baby. And then he explained it like Marlin would understand: “The mysterious Jabberjaw in the clear waters of Cozumel. Knuck-knuck-knuck!” Marlin Perkins tried it again. “Knuck-knuck-knuck!” Jabberjaw replied, “Jabberjaw in the clear waters of Cozumel.” And then Marlin Perkins had it. “In the clear waters of Cozumel, the laugh of the Jabberjaw his hallmark, professing his lamebrain ideas and bumbling antics. Knuck-knuck-knuck!” Jabberjaw was on the edge of the desk with him now, listening, his front fins crossed in his knees. “Knuck-knuck-knuck!” They did it together. “Knuck-knuck-knuck! The mysterious Jabberjaw in the clear waters of Cozumel.” Their voices were combined, Marlin Perkins’ professorial tone, Jabberjaw’s high-pitched chuckle. “The mysterious Jabberjaw!” Marlin Perkins patted Jabberjaw on the back. “Knuck-knuck-knuck!” I was doing frogs kicks now, my face just above the surface. The bay had narrowed to a line of cottages on each side. I focused on Reilly’s paddle, in and out of the water, the curl of the far side of the blade, the line of bubbles, out and just ahead, cutting through the brown water, the light off that, flat and the bubbles and out again. “The mysterious Jabberjaw! The clear waters of Cozumel. Jabberjaw! Knuck-knuck-knuck! Jabberjaw!” Marlin Perkins was tired, waiting for commercial, sitting behind the desk. Jabberjaw wasn’t a cartoon anymore. He was just lines, smudged, not even talking. “Knuck-knuck.” Marlin Perkins tried to get him going but that was it. I could see the bottom. Swirls of light slid up and down off the green rocks, and then there was sand and the dock. I was there.
“Knuck-knuck.” I loved that shark.