1. Life & Culture

Dispatches From Next Door: Cast off, she finds peace

MADEIRA BEACH — She cracks open the first can of Busch at 6:22 a.m. "Ching ching," she says, holding it up to her roommate. "To a good day, a good trip." She has endured five days on land and off the water. Too long. She needs to go. The sun has just risen as she climbs onto her purple Schwinn Ranger and rides south. Down Gulf Boulevard, down to the docks. "Hey, baby," she hoots at a friend. He hollers back. Here, everyone knows "Hollywood" Kim Imhoff. Here, she doesn't walk, she struts. Kim can fish and fight and spit as well as any man on any boat, and she knows it and so do they. Kim is 44, a sinewy 145 pounds of bones and bungee cords wrapped in a hide of sun-broiled leather. Not long ago, two drug addicts attacked her outside a gas station. They knocked out her two front teeth with a brick. No big deal, she says. They didn't get her $13. In a brawl last year, she hit a woman in the head with a purple, battery-operated dildo. Kim went to jail but won the fight.

Soon, the Rodac, a rusting 32-foot commercial fishing boat, chugs through John's Pass. Kim, her glittery pink toenail polish chipping, has stripped down to a lime-green bikini and begun prepping the deck. She flashes a peace sign to a passing boat. Another gets a middle finger. She laughs. Two hours out, Kim sits cross-legged on the ice box, listening to the diesel churn and the waves lap. Her Caribbean-blue eyes search the distant seam between sea and sky. Land is gone, beyond sight. "This is me," she says. "This is what I want."

When she was very young, on warm nights in Daphne, Ala., her stepmother would go to work and leave Kim alone with her dad at the mobile home. Before he could find her, Kim would speed away on her Sunflower bicycle, its white tassels flapping. Hidden in the sand dunes, knowing what was to come, she would stare at the water and beg it to take her away, until, through the quiet, she heard the keys jangling on his belt. The abuse continued for years. At 17, Kim bore her father's son. He took the baby. Broken in every way, she fled to Florida with a friend. Here she found liquor bottles and crack pipes and often jail cells. But here, again, she found the water.

It's midday, and a cigarette dangles from the gap in Kim's teeth. She pulls back the line like a bow, drawing up six hooks from 70 feet below. "C'mon," she says to the fish. Kim feels a tug. She cranks the reel and, in seconds, a 19-inch red grouper pops up. "Keeper," she yells. She slaps the fish onto the ice box, hammers a spike into its head. She slices it open and jerks out the guts. Kim grins. Out here, only out here, the urge to get drunk and raise hell — to destroy herself — vanishes. The shakes don't come. "Seahab rehab," she calls it. Behind her, held upright within a roll of duct tape, an open beer grows warm.

Hours later, the fish chilled and the sun plunging into the Rodac's wake, Kim leans on the ice box, her feet on the rail and her eyes turned east. Her all-day smile has waned. She can see the condos, the land drawing near. As the boat pulls into the dock, she slips into the cabin. Kim asks the captain for $5. She crumples the bill and steps off the deck, back to her bike. She pedals north, her bikini straps flapping, each stroke pulling her farther from the water. A dozen blocks away, she reaches a strip mall. She parks her bike and walks into a store. "My usual, please," Kim says to the clerk. The woman reaches to the bottom shelf. She sets a pint of vodka on the counter.