Jonah drove to the dock at Dulac, Louisiana, to meet Olene for their first date. They were going snorkeling in the Gulf of Mexico. Her family’s fishing boat was an eighteen-foot Boston Whaler. The young woman stepped on board carrying a bag with suntan lotion, snorkeling gear, a large red beach towel, and a six-pack of diet soda. Jonah paid for the gas and brought sandwiches. It was a cool morning. The fiberglass surface of the boat felt mildewy and damp.

“You drive,” Olene said, moving to the bow of the Whaler.

The outboard Evinrude engine growled to a start then quieted to a steady rumble.

The Whaler pulled away from the dock, easing past the slips of fishing trawlers and charter vessels. Some of the power boats, running their engines, puffed smoky exhaust from their transoms, while a couple of paying tourists stood patiently on the dock waiting to go fishing. A brown pelican ruffled its wings and settled on a piling and looked out over the morning harbor. Another casually paddled around in the oily water. As the Whaler left the mouth of the harbor, Jonah accelerated. The Whaler began to bounce over a short chop of waves as they turned clear of a channel shoal. Looking ahead Olene said, “Go straight out.”

“How far?”

“Out to a rig where it’s real deep. I want to see where you work. And who knows . . .” She smiled coyly. “Maybe your wish will come true.”

Jonah felt his face get hot. “Which one?”

“Maybe we’ll see some whales,” Olene said with a little laugh. She said see some whales in a playful, suggestive way, and it seemed that she might really be talking about making love. Either way, she was getting to him, and as they looked at each other he felt a brief spark, a moment of sudden connection.

The lovely woman stood with her feet square on the deck, holding the bow line and leaning slightly back, like a water-skier. She wore a red bikini bottom and a sweatshirt with University of Louisiana printed across the chest. The wind lifted her hair and shook her sweatshirt. They hit the wake of a fishing boat a little too fast and the hull bounced hard. Olene bent her knees to absorb the bounce but somehow lost her balance and landed on her bottom.

Jonah stopped the propeller and went forward. He felt horrible and embarrassed.

“Are you okay?”

Olene was laughing. “I’m fine.” She saw his worried look and teased him. “You did that on purpose just to give me a big bruise on my ass.”

“I’m sorry, I’ll be more careful.” He gave her a hand up, pulling her to him, and as she got to her feet he had the sudden urge to kiss her. She went to the bow as before, and Jonah drove the boat farther out into the Gulf. With the sound of her laughing still in his mind, he could see her shoulders through the sweatshirt, her naked legs, the roundness of her bottom through the bikini, the birthmark on the back of her right thigh. She stood gracefully, concentrated on the feeling of the boat moving across the gentle surface of the water, adjusting to each dip and rise. Except for the occasional bump of a small wave, the ride seemed to make her peaceful. On the horizon floated the pristine white profile of a large cruise ship on its way to New Orleans.

The Whaler carried them over a startlingly clear and shallow sea where the water was turquoise and radiant as a meadow of fine opals. They passed a dozen small oil rigs, and as they traveled further out from shore, the ocean grew deeper and darker but without losing its gemstone light.

“Right there,” she said. “That’s the oil rig where we usually fish.”

Two boats loaded with fishermen were already anchored next to the oil rig.

“Too crowded,” Jonah said. “Let’s go farther out.”

The girl nodded, and he hit the gas.

Barely within sight of land, he killed the engine and the Whaler glided to a stop.

Jonah pulled off his tee shirt.

The propeller scar on his chest stood out purplish-pink and ugly.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

“Propeller on a shrimpboat.” Almost three weeks had passed since he’d been cut, and the wound was healing nicely. He explained that commercial divers sometimes have to unfoul tangled fishing lines on propellers. Someone turned on the shrimpboat propeller while he was working.

“That’s bad. You’re lucky to be alive.”

“I know it.”

“Can I touch it?” Olene asked.

“Sure.” He wanted her to touch him, and moved closer.

“It’s weird,” she said, tracing the scar with her fingertips. Her face softened and looked thoughtful. “But it looks ugly and somehow pretty at the same time.”

She paused.

“It says something about you,” Olene said. “Like you’re rough, you’re not afraid.”

“Is that good?” He looked at her face when she answered, at the delicacy of the skin beneath her gray eyes.

“Yes.” Olene took her hand away, and her cheeks turned red.

Jonah didn’t know what to say, and he began to feel awkward.

“Do you have any scars?” he finally asked, kidding.

“No.” She laughed and looked up at him. Her eyes were moist and bright.

The boat rose and fell with the easy roll of the sea. Waves gently slapped the hull and fell softly away with silvery gurgling. Nearby floated a large patch of sargassum weed.

“You think we should snorkel right here?” she asked in disbelief. Her eyes narrowed.

“Yes. You study marine biology. Don’t you have to do stuff like this?”

“No. It’s mostly working in a lab. More than half the class get seasick and have to wear a Dramamine patch just to go out on the bay. Be serious. I don’t mind swimming around oil rigs, but this? There’s nothing here; it must be hundreds of feet deep.” She stood up and leaned over to peer down into the blue.

“Maybe,” Jonah said, working on a pair of swim fins. “Come on Olene. It’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know,” she said. She thought for a minute, then looked apprehensively at the water, and back at Jonah, at the scar on his chest. She fingered a strand of hair near her face.

Suddenly, she pulled her sweatshirt over her head and gracefully tossed it to the bow. She did it so quickly that for an instant he thought she was taking everything off. Her breasts bounced as she sat down to pull on her fins and the sheer fabric of her bikini top hid very little. It was almost as if she had painted her breasts red. Her skin looked smooth and soft, with a delicate pink glow, and a line of nearly imperceptible downy hairs grew just below her navel and led innocently downwards into the triangular front of her bathing suit. And somehow, now that she was almost naked, she looked bigger, more formidable, more womanly, and she seemed to know it. Olene gave Jonah a funny smile that said, I know what you’re thinking.

“Okay,” she said, “let’s do it now, before I change my mind.”

Jonah watched as Olene shuffled and scraped with fins on her feet to the side of the Whaler next to him. She put the snorkel in her mouth and paused a moment.

Then she pointed down into the water at the reflection of them next to each other on the smooth surface shaded from the sun. He waited while she stared, mesmerized by the peculiar image of them wearing masks on their faces and holding snorkels in their mouths. An eddy passed through the reflection, making it stretch and twist.

“Ready?” he asked.

They broke through their own images into indigo blue and bubbles.




A wave of vertigo briefly touched her. Olene quickly scanned the water all around, fearful, expecting anything. But nothing came. The cavernous blue dimension underneath overwhelmed her. She blinked, trying to gather some resolve.

She surfaced and blew water clear from her snorkel. Then turned around three times, feeling distinctly alien to the watery and unresisting environment, hardly noticing the coolness on her skin. Jonah floated parallel to the surface next to her, staring down into the depths.

Olene fought off the urge to climb back into the Whaler, took a deep breath, and lined herself up next to him. She forced herself to gaze downwards for a proper look, the way he did. Suddenly she breathed rapidly and had the urge to pee.

Columns of sunlight pierced down through the lustrous blue water, phantom wisps of creatures among them, visible only from the corner of her eyes—evasive shadows. Tiny specks of plankton floated by like electric blue dust.

She turned several times to face the motion of the phantoms and came each time to rest her panicky eyes on the shifting sunlight. Like a lidless eye, the awesome blue deep stared up to meet her gaze at every turn.

Under the hull of the Whaler, she pressed her back and legs against the comfort of its solid surface; a little less exposed.

She looked down again, but the view still spooked her, maybe because of the great empty space beneath her.

Jonah looked at her through the glistening motes and she bravely signaled she was fine.

Gradually, as the minutes passed, her fear began to give way to amazement; the shafts of sunlight seemed to diffuse and soften with accumulating depth into a deep, rich blueness that had no solid object.

Looking down, she suddenly thought of a mouse she had once seen dropped into a

glass tank for a python to devour.

Then her hands were intertwined with his.

She pressed the lens of her mask against his and shut out the ethereal light. She

could see Jonah was smiling.

Holding his hand, she followed him toward the patch of sargassum weed.

She eased over the surface of the sea. The sun warmed her back in between the waves lapping gently over her.

Olene put her hand out to touch the sinewy dense tendrils of the sargassum weed. Among the holly-shaped leaves there were bubbly growths that looked like grapes. She squeezed one between her thumb and index finger and realized the curious bubbles contained air. Looking even more closely, she saw a tiny crab retreating from her intrusive hand. The whole weed thrived with life like a little floating city, an Alice in Wonderland world.

The brightness of colors and tiny sea life exhilarated them. Without warning, Jonah dived downwards, trailing bubbles, and she watched him grow smaller and smaller.

Olene began to fear that he was going too deep, that he would drown down there. She watched as he stopped and turned in a circle, looking all around, then up at her. He waved to her, then turned downwards and incredibly went even deeper, until his figure seemed only a dot in the immense blue eye of the sea beneath.

Miraculously, just when she thought Jonah would drown, his figure grew a little larger, then a little more, gathering momentum with his rise from the deep, headfirst, his mask lens opaque with surface light. Olene thought he swam too slowly to make it, and it frightened her, but then he came closer. His head was shrouded in bubbles as he exhaled just before breaking the surface.

Then his head broke the surface.

She grabbed hold of him and, putting her head out of the water, spit out her snorkel.

“You scared the hell out of me,” Olene said. “I thought you were going to die.”

“Oh . . . sorry.” He seemed surprised.

She took his hand and gave him a squeeze.

He gave her a squeeze back.

She looked up out of the water and realized that they’d drifted some distance from the Whaler. She swam back to the boat, arriving just ahead of him, and climbed aboard.

While they ate cucumber-and-bologna sandwiches, the water dried on their bodies. Her salty wet hair stuck out in all directions and he said there was a red oval mark around her eyes and nose from the mask.

“Thanks for bringing me here.” The clear deep blue had scared her but it was beautiful.

“Maybe next time we can swim around a reef or an old oil rig. Something full of life.”

“That’d be great.” And she meant it.

By the time they returned to the dock and unloaded the Whaler the late-afternoon shadows crossed the ground. Olene smiled when he asked her to dinner later that night.

“I wish I could, I really do, but I have a ton of schoolwork I have to do, and I also have to work at the Catfish tonight,” she said. “Thanks for asking.”

“Maybe next time.” He seemed to pull back into himself.

“Definitely.” That made it better. “Hey, if I write a letter, how do I send it to you when you’re out at sea?” she asked. This question seemed to touch him. His face lit up.

“Mail it to me care of the dive company and they’ll get it to me on a supply boat or a personnel chopper. Even if I’m there only a couple of days. But I figure I’ll be gone a lot longer. Maybe the rest of the summer.” Jonah suddenly looked around the harbor, a little anxious.

“Is something the matter?” Olene asked.

“No, I just felt like someone was watching us,” he said. Then he kissed her goodbye. Olene was caught off-guard and hardly reacted. She worried that he might think she didn’t like him, so she kissed him goodbye and set the record straight. He tasted delicious and salty, like the sea.

As Olene watched Jonah walk across the parking lot to his El Camino, she liked how he moved and how he looked. He had sturdy, broad shoulders, a certain confident roughness, yet kind, intelligent eyes and an honest smile. But there was something deeper she liked about him, something that she couldn’t quite put her finger on—a good kind of strangeness, something about him and the sea. Jonah was a good man, and she would see him again if he asked.


Click here to continue your journey into Jonah: A Novel of Men and the Sea by Howard Butcher.

Also check out the first excerpt, “The Tiger Shark’s Head.”