The beach bobbed in the distance. From the boat it looked like a thin, hazy thing. Dreamlike, Byron called it. And it was.
Stephenson polished off his beer then set the bottle down next to the others. he had been cautious about those. Looking at Byron, asking if it was ok if he just placed his trash down on the deck. Byron had responded with a simple nod. Of course, no worries. The old merchant marine had a way of putting you at ease with simple gestures like that. A curl of the lip, a jovially raised eyebrow. Five minutes in silence with him and you felt like you were visiting with an old uncle.
A low, deep toot rumbled from Byron's seat and he let out a soft grunt. "You shouldn't have heard that."
"Heard what?" Stephenson said.
Stephenson was thirty-five. He didn't mind. Coming from Byron is sounded like a compliment.
"You think we'll actually catch this thing?" Stephenson tugged on the fishing rod he'd purchased from Byron's shop twelve hour earlier. Brand new, a shiny gold finish on the rod and reel, it looked out of place in Byron's fish shop. He had expected antiques. Wooden tools for weathered, gruff seamen. But everyone needed to make a living. And antiques didn't cut it.
"Oh, we'll catch him." Byron had finished his drinking early and since moved to coffee. Leaned back in his chair, he somehow managed to balance the mug between his crossed legs while holding the rod steady against the [holster]. With his gray beard, potbelly, and scarred face, Stepehnson didn't think the old guy was capable of something as nimble as crossing his legs, let alone balancing a mug of scolding hot coffee.
But that was the thing about old timers, he thought. They were always surprising you. Young men had such a narrow view of masculinity. Of what it a real man did and looked like. Most the older men Stephenson knew could sow and knit, they gardened ferociously. Bud, an old family friend who'd learned every trade a man could learn in three lifetimes, carpenter, master electrician, plumber, roofer, swore by yoga. "Saved my life," he recalled him saying. "Ten minutes in the morning and that's it." Stephenson had started to laugh, imaging this older man whose hands he remembered thinking as a kid were permanently stained, practicing downward dog in a pair of spandex pants, but stoped when the conversation took a darker turn, all those late night conversations with older men tended to take, when he mentioned that it had saved his life. He'd been drinking heavily to mask the pain. Back, knees, hands. A lifetime of manly labor had left him nearly physically broken by the age 55.
A wind blew in from the coast sea and Stephenson shuddered. It hurt him to think of old Bud. Just as it hurt him to think of his father, or his uncle Jacob, or the countless men he'd grown up admiring, whether it was singers or actors or great writers. Having spent most of his life more concerned with his parent's generation of culture he had watched these men in their prime when he was a child, dip, as all celebrities dip, in their post-prime years, only to ripen in old age, and either reinvent themselves, or rediscover that spark that made them so special. But after that, there was just aging. The slow, steady decline that no diet, no matter how strict, no workout routine, no matter how personally tailored, no medicine, no matter how expensive, could ever stop. They were dying before his very eyes, and no matter how rich and famous and talented they were, nothing would stop the inevitable.
Byron cleared his throat. He was leaning over the arm of his chair, rummaging in a compartment under a seat. The coffee mug sat undisturbed on his lap. "Got a decent blanket in here if you need it." Byron held it up slightly, not quite removing it from storage, to show Stephenson without embarrassing him by simply pulling it out and giving it to him.
"Thank you, I'm fine. Just caught a chill."
"Cold night," Byron agreed. "It'll get colder. We'll be wanting these soon."
A silence past. Stephenson felt the need to fill it. Somehow he believed it was his duty to get the old man talking. He couldn't explain that feeling, but it got the better of him.
"You ever see anything like... like what happened the other day?"
"With the boy on the beach."
"Sure. Life in a beach town your whole life. Make fishing your profession. You're bound to witness a grisly thing or two."
"You ever, ah, see it happen. First hand, I mean."
"See someone die you mean?"
Byron nodded. Another silence past between them and despite himself, Stephenson couldn't break it. "Not sure which is worse," Byron said, saving him the trouble. "The dying or the death."
"What's the difference."
Byron shrugged. "Death happens quick. You ever hear on TV shows or movies, they were there then they weren't." Stephenson couldn't think of a specific example, not a line from a show or movie, but he knew exactly what Byron was referring to. He nodded. "Dying takes a long time."
"I'm sorry." Byron looked over at him. It wasn't a quizzical look. He understood what Stephenson had meant. He was more checking in to make sure they were understanding each other. "