For David, the whole thing had started as an offhand comment, and then a challenge.
Easy was camped out in an abandoned barn in Holland, and Malarkey was giving one of the replacements the skinny on the Toccoa gang. “-and that guy? The one with the shark-like grin? That's Joe Liebgott. Watch out for him. Teeth like those, he's liable to bite.”
“Hey,” Joe had drawled, teasingly. “We got sharks in the Bay.”
“You do?” Muck had asked, just as Popeye questioned, “S'at right?”
“Sure.” Joe shrugged. “One even ate a tourist a few summers back. Bit some guy from Arizona clear in half.”
And though at that time David hadn't known a thing about sharks, he knew a thing or two about Joseph D. Liebgott. Knew enough to know when Joe was exaggerating the truth. Besides, the anecdote didn't sound very true, anyhow.
So, David said as much, earning a short but sharp glare from Liebgott. “Yeah? How the fuck would you know, professor? They teach you about sharks and shit at Harvard?”
When David caught back up with Easy after being wounded—after Bastogne—, Joe was different. Instead of the quick witted, easy-going man David had know since their Toccoa days, Joe was now devoid of all warmth and tenderness. All that was left was bodily rage, and sometimes, just outright cruelty. When he shot David sneering grins after each and every biting remark, it was easier for David to see the shark comparison—and it bothered him.
Worse than the guilt of not fighting with his fellow soldiers in that frozen hell of a forest was the thought that the battle had changed Joe and David hadn't been there to do anything about it. Worse still was the fact that Joe now hated him for it.
After Landsberg and the camp and the horrors that David cannot reconcile to this day, things changed between him and Joe.
One bullet on a mountainside and a dead Nazi commandant later, it seemed all was forgiven. Joe had seen David at his worse—“I'm just sayin', Web, the others made it back. You could have, too. You should'a been there, ya know...?”—and now David had seen Joe at his—“You shouldn't have killed him...we don't even know for sure if he was...anyway, its over now, okay? Its over, Joe.” After that, when Joe casually smiled at David, his grins were no longer shark-like and full of deadly intent; they were somehow softer and held a trace of familiarity that made David's heart ache.
When David returned to the states after the Japanese surrender, he spent the holiday season with his family before returning to school. During those few odd weeks when nothing felt normal—because home no longer meant Sunday dinners at his family's antique dining room table, but rushed meals full of K-rations and foxholes and German artillery—, David spent most of his free time with his little sister.
One afternoon, he took her to the aquarium where they saw, among many other aquatic animals, a sand shark. It took nothing more than a single glance at the shark's large, white, sharp teeth for David to hear Malarkey's voice in his mind, “-that guy? The one with the shark-like grin? That's Joe Liebgott.” David couldn't help the fleeting image of the California native that rose in his mind. So, he wondered over to the side of the large shark tank and read the plaque aloud to his sister, who peered up at the great predator with wonder and intrigue.
Over the course of the next several months in between the classes at Harvard, David started to learn all that he could about sharks, all the while hearing Joe's voice in the back of his mind. “How the fuck would you know, professor?”
One evening after an unusually grueling midterm, David was feeling particularly exhausted, which often lead to thoughts of the war and feeling particularly sentimental. Half asleep, he decided to write Joe a letter, reminding him of that first conversation about sharks and informing him of David's newest curiosity. One letter became two—because he simply had to tell Joe that bamboo sharks didn't swim, rather they walked across the ocean floor. And then later David had to begrudgingly write an apology letter when he read that there were , in fact, sharks in the San Francisco Bay. Several types of sharks, actually, one of which very well could have bitten a tourist from Arizona in half.
And the more that David learned about sharks—and the more that he wrote to Joe about sharks—the more the two seemed interwoven in his mind.
Sharks had excellent hearing, and Joe could hear the whistle on a kraut tank from a mile away. Because of their stiff fins, sharks could only swim forward, never backwards: Joe was unapologetic about the past, but always pushing forward. David stumbled across the most interesting comparison one sunny afternoon as he was taking a stroll through Central Park. Reading an article on the mating rituals of sharks, he discovered that one of the most common ways a shark showed interest in its mate was by biting.
Standing there by the great lake, the former private had a sudden, erotic vision of Joe biting him on the neck. Hard.
David was beginning to think he had a problem.
Still, David was many things, but he was not a quitter. So, he continued with his reading, and continued to write Joe letters, though he never received a response. He thought, perhaps, that he might have the wrong address. Or, more likely, that Joe simply couldn't be bothered.
That is, until he could be bothered.
Jesus Christ, Web, the fuck do I give a shit about sharks for? Why don't you just write a damn book about it already if you care so much? -Lieb
The brief reply, found waiting in David's dorm room one evening, did something to his idealistic heart. Joe had been getting his letters, and he'd been reading them, and he thought David should write a book. That suggestion more than anything made David's breath catch. For all of his teasing about David's education and intellect, it appeared that Joe believed in his ability and supported him in his academic endeavors.
David knew instantly that he would write Joe a book about sharks, even if it killed him.
It wasn't until David was standing on the stoop of the Liebgott family home in San Francisco that it occurred to him that he should have written first.
Of course, it was Joe who answered the door. David thought, fleetingly, that Joe looked good. He took a quick stock of the changes since the war. Joe's hair was longer but tidier than it had been in Europe, the dark locks swept cleanly away from Joe's face, and he seemed stronger somehow, like he'd finally put on some weight—probably from his mother's home cooking.
“What are you doing here?” David was pleased to note that while Joe looked surprised to see him, he also looked pleased.
David gave Joe a soft grin. “I came to write a book about sharks.”
Huffing a laugh, Joe muttered, “Jesus Christ,” and stepped aside to let David in.