Two old fishermen sat on a log staring into the darkness draped over a cove at the end of a long, winding path that cut through the woods. They lit cigarettes and kicked out their legs, stretching their aching knees laced arthritis. The air was crisp and dry, but comfortable and unusual in August, when most fishermen sought to avoid the discomforts of the hottest summer month indoors as the vicious gnats and cinder worms descending into the intertidal zone at dusk. The fishermen liked the cove because they’d done well there and seemed to always hold fish throughout the years. The stars shone down on them and one fell out of the sky into the sea, diagonal, across the horizon.
“The last one was nearly four minutes long,” Todd said, staring at the sky.
He inhaled a string of smoke and blew it out into still air watching it disintegrate into the lights in the murk. The tide was in. The old men exercised the patience they’d gained over many years of fishing together and spending too much time trying to catch fish outside of the times they were easy to catch. The waves tumbled and turned shelter pebbles and shells in rhythmic and steady repetition. The chords of the sea sounded like music to Galen, who was lost in memories of the nights when he and Todd caught so many fish in the cove they’d lost track of time until they were forced to stop when the sun had risen and their position had been compromised by the sun in the sky.
“They appear to be getting bigger,” Galen said.
“What’s that, the waves?” Todd asked.
“No, the stars.” Galen said.
“They’re all over the place tonight,” Todd said. “And I am certain they’ll be the last thing I think about before I get planted in the ground.”
“Planted? No-drift,” Galen said.
“You are correct,” his friend replied. “Drift me out of the Narrow River. Scatter my ashes where I stuck the leviathan striped bass by the rock in the river.”
“I still remember the fish,” Galen said. “Nobody believed you when you said you caught it.”
“World records are meant to be broken. Even when people don’t believe you. But you believed it…” Todd said.
“Still do.” Galen said.
“Then, I can’t ask for much more,” Todd said.
He inhaled smoke slowly and murmured something to himself that was distant and incomprehensible. He readjusted the position of his rod and laid down on a flat rock next to the log. They stared into the sky and Todd began humming.
“The fishing has been spotty this season,” Galen said.
“It’s always been spotty,” Todd said, as he pulled his cap over his eyes.
“When it’s spotty, people get lucky,” he continued:
“There’s no shortage of one-hit celebrities – Lucky like a squirrel is when he finds a stash of nuts under a tree in a hole dug out by some other squirrel that either isn’t there, or met his end in the mouth of a coyote.”
“Could happen to any of us,” Galen said.
“What’s that? The nuts or the coyote?” Todd asked.
“Both,” Galen said. “But I’d rather have the nuts.”
“I’d rather have the coyote.” Todd said.
When the wind was out of the southwest, a vibrant full swell pushed heavy sets into the cove. Blankets of white water connecting with the reef churned eddies around its edges, dislodging silver baitfish and stone crabs clinging to bubble-weed. Bass and bluefish corralled bait against the stones like packs of wolves slashing through herds of wild deer. And when the old men found the cove like this they rarely said a word, catching, dehooking, and releasing fish with clinical precision. But the wind had shifted from the North an hour ago and the sea was quiet and serene in the cove.
“Seen the lights out at the cliffs for the past three nights,” Galen said.
“Probably – there are always fish there,” Todd replied.
“Billy likes to spark-plug bass right up next to the cliff. Drops a Menhaden down, three ounces in its gullet, two cranks and wham!” Galen waved his arms in the air and drew a long circle with his right arm and bowed deeply into a phantom hook set. He pulled upwards convincingly.
He laughed and glanced at Todd in the darkness, but could barely make out the unique features of his old friend, so he imagined him as he’d been many moons ago, when he was dusty and lean, chiseled with courageous brown eyes that had witnessed war and erased its images from memory.
From the north side of the cove, a pair of lights came into Galen’s peripheral view. Descending from a garden of ferns were the unmistakable silhouettes of two men. Galen watched them hurry over the stones, without pausing. They came down the path, through a row of washed-up logs, to the front of the end of a fence separating a military base from the Atlantic, took a right past the first point, then moved straight ahead towards two atlas-sized rocks that stood for two-thousand years at the entrance of a footpath that was once overlaid with balsa plank wood by fisherman from another era when striped bass the size of men were commonplace, and where Galen and Todd now sat, sprouting overgrowth and life all over as nature, certain of her power, sought to erase it from the memories of men.
The old men straightened their backs and sat upright. Galen drew his pack close and put out his cigarette in a small pool of water in a hole in the log. The first of the two red lights, walking heavily, was an impressively sized man, who barked orders and opinions at his companion. The companion, Galen observed, was substantially smaller, but carrying himself with a more imposing confidence, lept over structures along the path, lightly, as a mountain billy goat. They stopped their trek at the edge of the water, when the smaller one caught wiff of evaporated nicotine. He nudged his friend in the ribcage, turned and faced the old men.
“Didn’t mean to graveyard your spot,” the tall man said.
“We saw you from the top of the path,” his companion continued. “But we thought you’d left.”
“So we decided it best to check it out,” big said.
He laughed loudly and roughed the pebbles beneath his steel-spiked boots. He lifted his rod up by its full length and placed it atop his shoulder and drew his blades back, amplifying his chest through his wetsuit. His partner was steely dead-eyed and cold looking at the old men sitting on the log.
“We’ve been pounding this spot for the last few seasons,” the big man said.
“But we haven’t seen you here before,” small said.
“Have you been fishing here for long?” the big man asked.
“Generations,” Todd answered.
“Oh, yeah?” The small man looked at his friend and Galen saw him wink through the darkness between them.
“Well, let me tell you something,” big went on: “there ain’t any.”
“You’re wasting your time,” small said.
“My old man always said: pay it forward,” big said.
“If I know it, I should share it,” he continued.
“Thanks,” Galen said.
“What’s your old man’s name?” he asked.
“Ronald Sheldon,” big answered, smartly, smiling.
“Owner of Top of the Dock?” Todd asked.
“You bet,” big said.
“Honest man.” Todd said.
“Fantastic fisherman,” be replied.
For the first time Todd felt uncomfortable on the log that had been his footstool and couch for longer than his tired mind could remember. It felt moist and rough to touch. Galen lit another cigarette and handed it to Todd, who watch the embers burn through the densely packed tobacco and rolling parchment.
“There was a star that lasted nearly for minutes earlier,” Galen said.
“See it?” Todd asked.
“Nope,” big answered.
“We’re fishing.” small said.
“Nobody has any time to stargaze when there are fish in the surf,” he continued: “especially in this spot.”
“Right,” big said. “But there are no fish-so we’re leaving. Charlie-Os is open ‘til 2 a.m. in August. Happy hour for fishermen, who wudda thought?”
“Enough time for a drink,” small said.
“Good luck,” Todd said.
“No such thing,” replied small.
“Fair enough, boys,” big said. “And be careful on these rocks – the can be pretty slippery at high tide, even when it’s calm.”
Small stared through his tall friend and motioned towards the overgrown boardwalk. They switched their headlamps on and turned to face the cove, washing a wave of white light on the reef and rocks covered with sea fauna and birdshit. In the sweep of small’s headlamp, Todd saw a flash of silver zip past the furthest point of the beam. He estimated the fish was close to four-feet in length, and he knew his estimates to be accurate and true. Still, he was silent and reserved in the darkness behind the young men. Big let out a deep-throated belch and said something about bird shit and began to walk towards the path as small lept over the rocks with the grace of an olympic gymnast, two steps behind. The old men watched the lights of youth extinguish into the the dark dense woods and then sat for a long time, smoking, after the lights and sounds had disappeared.
“I saw a bass, way past the reef,” Todd said.
“Me too,” Galen said.
“Top of the Dock. Sheldon. He was a good, honest man. I miss him.” Todd said.
“Was he with you the night you hooked into the leviathan striped bass? Galen asked.
“He helped me weigh it,” Todd said.
Todd bit into the butt of his cigarette, half gone, and stood, stretching his aching back. He swung his pack over his shoulder, cinched his belt tight around his waist and exhaled deeply and descended the rocks down to the edge of the surf using his rod as a walking staff. Galen joined him a short time later and the old men fished for several hours and watched in wonder and awe as the stars fell, one after the other, into the sea.