“I found something,” Dad says. “On the beach. Something you’ll like.” Then he leaves me sitting in the kitchen of my folks’ Salishan timeshare, staring at a black-and-white photograph on the wall: a spiny seashell that doesn’t exist on our cool, gray side of the Pacific. And wondering.
My dad has always been a scrounger, a finder, an amateur archaeologist, really, panning South Dakota rivers for prehistoric arrowheads and spear tips when he was a kid, picking Wyoming sand-stone — with a four-year-old me — for fossilized seashells, which were not uncommon since that part of the country had been underwater during the Devonian Period. Dad has a collection of buffalo head nickels and silver dollars. Shoulder patches from different army units. A samurai letter opener from R&R in Tokyo. And he assures me that one day, it will all be mine.
Dad comes back with a smooth and gleaming triangle. Ivory colored, about an inch and a half in length, with serrated edges. A shark tooth. “great white,” he says.
My eyes are wide. “You sure?”
Ma shuffles into the kitchen, takes her oatmeal out of the microwave. “He’s sure.” Then she leaves to go sit on the patio and watch for whales.
“I showed it to a guy at the Hatfield,” Dad says. “It’s yours.”
Dad hands me the tooth. Which shakes, vibrates a little, in my palm, as I hear that first low, musical note, the next. Bass strings and oboes. Then I hear chun-chun, chun-chun, and I flashback to a crowded movie theater and the first time I heard those same ominous notes as the screen lit up with the title of the movie:
It was July of 1975. I was 15, and my brother was 13, and for the next two hours, we jumped and yelled and laughed along with everybody else in the theater. And we cheered when — 43-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT — Chief Brody shot the compressed air tank that was still in the shark’s mouth and blew the leviathan to chum.
I was hooked, and I saw Jaws 13 times in the next few years, which, in the days before VHS and DVDs was quite a feat. I tracked that shark like some geeky Ahab, from that first packed multiplex to the rain-warped screen of a drive-in theater before I gave him up.
In high school, some eight millimeter nerds and I made our own killer shark movie. We didn’t have a 25-foot mechanical shark, but we made a plywood dorsal fin in shop class, scrounged some home movie shots of a dead great white on display at SeaWorld, threw some red tempera paint in Yaquina Bay, and told some kids from the drama club to splash around and scream their heads off. Then we spliced it all together into some kind of story and it all actually turned out pretty cool.
“Thanks!” I run my thumb over Dad’s shark tooth. And I wonder if I should tell Dad about a shark adventure that I’m not very proud of.
A few years ago, I all but stumbled over a shark, dead on the beach near Pacific City. I instantly remembered Quint’s fishing shack from the movie — the coolest man-cave of all time: Fish nets. Hooks and ropes and gear. Centerfolds. A hammock. And dozens of toothy shark jaws, hanging on every wall and boiling in pots and wired to the window so that Spielberg’s camera could do a slow track out through those jagged teeth as the Orca sailed out to do battle with the mechanical shark. Remember that scene?
I wanted my own pair of jaws. After making sure the shark was dead, I dragged the beast up the beach, and hid it between some driftwood logs. Then I jogged back up to the parking lot above the beach and retrieved a laundry bag. And a machete. Back down to my stashed shark. I hacked off his head with the machete. It was not a clean, efficient, sushi-chef operation. Dark blood. Cartilage. A deep-sea, rotten cat food smell that crawled right up to the back of my nose and made me gag. And all through the nasty process, that shark stared up at me with lifeless eyes and appeared for all the world to be smiling.
I stuffed the grinning shark head in my laundry bag and fled the scene. On the way back to my car, I crossed paths with an old lady, picking up trash with a long-armed clamp device of some kind. She wasn’t at all thrown by the sight of a large bearded man, out of breath from some type of sinister exertion, carrying a red-soaked laundry bag in one hand, and a Vietnam-era machete in the other.
“Good morning,” she said.
I gave the woman a smile and a friendly nod. “Good morning!” Then, when the coast was clear, I stashed my trophy in the trunk and made a hasty getaway, keeping my eye out for state cops and PETA do-gooders. I felt guilty, but I was committed.
I felt better by the time I arrived at my place, down close to Nye Beach since, in my neighborhood, bloody, death-smelling sacks, and shiny, red-stained blades aren’t frowned upon. As long as you keep the music down, that is.
I threw the machete into the bathtub, turned on the shower and couldn’t help but think of “Psycho,” as sandy fish blood swirled down the drain. Then I stashed the dead shark’s head in the freezer – along with some elk steaks and some baby octopuses I was going to use for gyotaku.
I hit Google. How do you extract the jaws from a dead shark’s head?
Rule number one: You don’t boil them — like Quint does in the movie — because if you do that, all the teeth will fall out. The cyber experts advised burying the head for a month or so, to let bugs and worms do all the cleaning work. Sounded easy enough.
And so, upon a midnight dreary, I took that foul-smelling shark head to a vacant lot across the street and buried the evil-looking thing. A month later, I dug up that shark head. There was still a lot of meat on it, and it smelled like Moby Dick’s own outhouse — in July. I started whacking away with my trusty machete. Half-blind from that awful stink, I cut my left index finger. Deep, too. I wrapped my wound in about 40 layers of toilet paper and, when it finally stopped bleeding, I consulted the internet experts again, trying to find an easier, less painful method of stripping away shark meat. I came across a horrifying account of an unfortunate man who, in the process of preparing a similar set of shark jaws, also cut himself. Flesh-eating bacteria set in, and the poor guy had to have his arm amputated to the elbow.
Panic. I washed my injury, but didn’t think mere soap and water would be enough, so I soaked my finger in fizzing hydrogen peroxide and then stinging alcohol. I tried not to worry. Tried. But it was no use.
The young doctor in the emergency room was amused by my shark story. He examined my cut, asked a few questions, and pronounced me fit for duty.
That hacked and rotten shark head went into the trash. The whole thing was a dumb idea, anyway. So I found a dead shark on the beach. Big deal. Not to mention an embarrassing detail I have thus far omitted: That poor shark was about four feet long, a juvenile, probably. A baby.
I did come away from the whole story with a cool shark souvenir, though: That ER doctor was also a “Jaws fan,” and he wrote up the incident as a “SHARK RELATED INJURY” and added it to my medical records. So, as Bill Murray says in Caddyshack, “I’ve got that goin’ for me.”
Out on the patio, Ma starts yelling at a pair of right whales — who don’t have the common decency to mate further below the surface so tourists won’t be offended. She threatens to call the local chamber of commerce.
I took that tooth home, stashed it away. Every once in a while, I think about the shark that lost it. Chances are, that shark is still out there, cruising the coastline. Think about that next time you go surfing. And try not to hear those low notes in your head. Then again, maybe it’s a momma shark — that knows what I did to her baby — and she’s looking for me.
“Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies. Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain. For we’ve received orders for to sail back to Boston. And so nevermore shall we see you again.”
Steve Sabatka’s young adult novel, “Mister Fishback’s Monster,” is available from Black Bed Sheet Books. He recently visited Avalon, California, and an exhibit of pre-production sketches, story-board art and screen used props from “Jaws.”