Gray water sloshed against the hull of the small fishing boat and rocked it from side to side. Robert sent his line zipping through the fog. Pearly drops glistened on his wool coat, clinging to his thick gray beard and fat caterpillar eyebrows. He sat in the bow of the small skiff, pole gripped loosely in his callused hands. His closest friend, Eustace, sat in the stern smoking a cigarette. The tiny flame brightened every time he took a puff. Robert and Eustace became brothers in the Navy; though they barely spoke, they went through Basic together, served three tours together, and that meant something.
They went to each other’s weddings, their wives became friends, and, a few years after that, their kids played in the park. Now, 40 years later, they fished every weekend. Even when Robert got a divorce and their wives drifted apart, they fished, but they still didn’t talk much. A thin reed of a man, Eustace’s mouth rarely parted from his precious Marlboro reds. Robert, a man of action rather than speech, didn’t care much for conversation anyway.
Eustace dropped the charred butt of his cigarette, his third since they arrived at dawn, into the water, reached into his jacket pocket for the worn Marlboro package, and pulled out another. He brought it to his lips and lit it. Smoke and fog swirled together around his hollow cheeks as his flinty, gray eyes sought some glimpse of the water.
“This is mermaid weather,” Eustace said, pulling the cigarette from his lips only long enough for the words to escape. He took another puff and let the cigarette rest between his teeth.
“Don’t start with that bullshit. There’s no such thing as mermaids,” Robert spoke gruffly. Eustace, of course, didn’t answer; he blew a smoky breath and gazed at the water with wary eyes. The silence between them stretched, broken only by the waves smashing against the hull.
Robert smiled: something tugged at his line. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Another tug. Patiently, he reeled in the line. The fish pulled hard and Robert pulled back, his attention on the battle between him and the fish. Eustace ignored him, tossed yet another cigarette butt into the water, and fished another one from the pack.
A high pitched giggle startled him into dropping the thing before he could light it; it landed with a plop in the water. His eyes flickered excitedly through the thinning fog. A faint splash resounded off the port side and he glimpsed a large red-gold tail as it disappeared beneath a ripple. Eustace’s eyes brightened and he glanced over his shoulder at Robert, but the other man reveled in his triumph over the largemouth bass. She appeared again just as Eustace turned. Black hair falling over her pale shoulders, she smiled at him coyly and waved before sinking back beneath the waves with another giggle.
Crowing his success, Robert lifted the fish above his head and presented it to the fog choked world around them. Eustace kept his eyes on the water, silently attentive in case the mermaid broke the surface again. This time she saluted him with the cigarette he’d dropped. Her eyes, black like he imagined the sea bottom would be, filled with laughter and she tossed it at him before sinking. The soggy tobacco landed at his feet. He swallowed.
“This is one big son of a bitch,” Robert said as he turned around, dropped the large fish into the ice chest, and clapped Eustace on the shoulder. Eustace glanced from his friend to the water and back again, pictured what he might say if the mermaid appeared again. But she never did.