When Mike Stencil was still in college - well before anyone had ever dreamed of calling him "Father" and a long time before he ever met Jerry O"Brien - there came a winter of confusion and a winter of sadness and a winter of wild introspection. A small airplane with his brother at the controls and a lot of December winds took them south from Salt Lake City to a coastal town in southern Mexico, where Mike was able to stay up late listening to music in a hotel bar, drink cerveza before noon, stroll through a sleepy little village, write poetry in the afternoons and wish that he had studied Spanish in High School. The better part of a month was spent in a Mexican haze, looking at people in the streets from behind his sunglasses and growing the first real beard of his life.
A wild New Year's Eve in a club brought many, many beers and an invitation to go sailing the next day - from another Jerry, fancy that, a Jerry much better off than the one who would enter Mike's life many years later on some dirty streets in a city in Upstate. This Jerry sailed the coast, plying the beautiful waters of the Pacific, drinking beers and giving day trips to Americans he met in exchange for more beers. "Come around noon," he told Mike, "we'll have something to eat and drink."
A sunburned afternoon of sailing and drinking left Mike woozy and probably staring too much at the young lady from NYU who also happened to be along for the ride. "I'm Jewish," she kept telling him, cheerily, in different contexts.
"As if I care," thought Mike.
The afternoon lolled along with the waves, and the beer flowed freely. Captain Jerry steered his gorgeous boat back to the tiny harbor from which they had begun and after swinging at anchor while the last of the beers were finished off, the captain and passengers watched the sun dip low in the western sky.
Suddenly the young Jewish girl sprang up. "Let's go," she cried, grabbing Mike's hand. She hit the water before Mike really knew what was happening, and like a fool he followed after. The rush of cool water brought him to his senses, and when he hit the surface he looked up to see Jerry smiling and waving adios.
Mike looked around while he treaded water, and saw the Jewish girl backstroking away from him, smiling and laughing. "Who the hell is she, and what am I doing in the water swimming after her?" he thought to himself. Having nowhere else to go, he began lazily paddling toward her and toward the shore, some 150 yards off.
Streaks of orange and yellow sunlight played over the top of the water all around him, the sounds of the tiny harbor bouncing around the inside of his head that was woozy and already hurting from too much beer, and the smell of the salt water and the diesel of distant boats filtered into his nostrils. "Beautiful," Mike thought. "Absolutely beautiful." It was then that he saw the shark.
No, there was no shark in the water - this story does not end with a shark attack and missing limbs. It ends with a young Mike Stencil asleep in a lounge chair on the veranda of his hotel, hours after swimming to shore in the midst of a panic attack over a non-existent shark. It was a shark that he saw in his mind's eye - a shark that bared its hideous teeth and sank them deep into his legs and violently thrashed him about from side to side. It was a shark that he then saw go and attack the young Jewish girl and rend her limb from limb. It was a shark that had been in his sub-conscious all his life, perhaps. It was the same shark that would haunt him all his life - those dead, black eyes staring at him whenever he felt insecure, whenever he felt the grip of self-doubt and failure seize him. The shark that would surface and make a deadly bee-line for him whenever he was at his lowest - it would play upon all his fears and upon all of his insecurities. Those sharks can be real bastards, and they don't care who they eat...who they dismember...who they leave washed up on life's beach.
Mike Stencil awoke with a pounding headache. It was Sunday and church bells were ringing. Fresh clothes and fried bread and a walk and some Kerouac read in the open air of the village square made him feel human again. He swam no more for the rest of his time in sunny old Mexico.