Charlie Moses loves cigars. They make him feel like a big shot. Even with dark crescent moons of dirt beneath his fingernails he puffs away like a robber baron behind a big oak desk. The sight of a sea lion basking on a rock often prompts Charlie to remind those around him that if he were ever to adopt a sea lion he would name it Stogie due to the animal’s resemblance to a fat, brown cigar. His brother, known to everyone as Crash, suggests the ripe odor as another reason.
Charlie likes oysters, too.
“You know that old saying about only eating oysters in a month with an R in it? Well, that’s why I like February – there’re two Rs. I reckon that means I eat double,” he says.
I had been searching for Charlie and Crash all day. When I finally found them they were no longer on their boat but seated at a dockside table of the 6 Belles Tavern overlooking the bay and the fishing boats moored in the harbor. I was now eavesdropping on their conversation.
“It’s a good thing February is a short month,” Crash says, “Else you’d eat yourself to death.”
Charlie Moses laughs, pats his enormous gut and sucks another briny slug out of its half shell, washing it down with a hearty swig of beer. Then he gives his cigar another puff and produces a fetid billow that drifts across the table like fog over the bay.
Crash motions to the waitress for the bill. I would have to speak with them later, in a less public location.
The Moses brothers inherited the fishing trade from their father Luther Richmond Moses along with his boat the Barnacle. It was a humble craft that took its name from what Moses senior considered to be the boat’s primary catch. Validation came at the conclusion of every fishing season when a bountiful harvest was scraped from the hull.
The elder Moses never expected his sons to follow in his wet footsteps into the family business. He expected to become a wealthy man, sell the Barnacle and retire young. I confess I am to blame for that fancy.
I first met Luther many years ago before Charlie was old enough for school and Crash was earning his nickname through repeated failures at taking his first steps. It was the height of the season and nearly every pot was brimming with crab and those being hauled to the surface by the Barnacle were no exception.
Dungeness crab is a delicious treat and they are easy enough to catch yourself should you be so desirous but when someone like Luther has done the work of luring them so conveniently into a cage, resisting the urge not to pluck one for yourself is difficult. I was in the process of doing just that when the block and tackle aboard the Barnacle groaned into motion. To my horror I found my hand trapped between the bars of a cage being hauled in and I was part of the days catch. I broke the surface and found myself face to face with Luther Moses who hung over the stern with his mouth agape. He halted halted his machinery leaving me and the cage in the water and I thrashed desperately to escape. “I was putting up quite a fuss,” to quote Captain Moses.
I have friends and relatives who are vociferous regarding our superiority over Earth’s other creatures and while I can’t say I disagree with most of their points, I have a more humble opinion about myself personally. Still, I felt slighted at Luther’s casual reaction over his encounter with a beautiful, enchanting mermaid; he was more concerned over the pilfering of his crabs than beholding one of nature’s most reclusive creatures. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was in the presence of a man so coarse he would lambaste a unicorn if he caught one in his lettuce patch. His accusation of me being a thief was justified – at that moment at least – but I am far from being common. Is it bromidic to say my ego throbbed as much as my poor twisted wrist? He activated the ship’s grinding winches once again and I was lifted fully out of the ocean, swinging from that monstrous cage of indignant crabs. Water dripped down on my tangled hair and my tail flapped helplessly in the air like an ordinary mackerel – it was humiliating.
Flotsam and Jetsam, indeed. Luther welcomed me aboard with a few more prosaic bon mots that sounded as if they’d been borrowed from the churlish mouth of a picaroon. I sat on a slimy deck that reeked of vanquished sea life and only slightly less sour than the barleycorn on Luther’s breath.
“I guess I hooked the mother lode today, huh, my little fish?”
I wasn’t too sure what he was implying. A twinge of fear prickled at the end of my fin when I considered the fate of the other captives, completely helpless now even behind their spiny armor. He seemed all too eager to sail me back to the docks and flaunt the prize he’d snatched from Neptune’s realm. Some cabal of greed and lust covered his eyes in a vitreous glaze transforming them into portentous mirrors in which I saw a reflection of myself gutted, stuffed and mounted like a barracuda. They caught a splinter of sunlight, flashed and the scene changed to one of me swimming in a subaqueous freak show staring out at grotesque, contorting faces pressed to the glass walls of my aquarium prison.
Judging from the smile it was evident that he realized the worth of his unusual catch but I quickly apprised him that the value of my release would be worth far more than anything he might be dreaming about.
“Then the legend is true?” His smile widened, the corners of his mouth disappeared in a forest of whiskers, possibly touching behind his head.
“Yes, well, depending on the legend you have heard.”
“In my legend, I get 3 wishes.”
“One… wish, actually. But it can be anything you desire so consider it very carefully.”
He sat down on the crab pot and gave his stubbled chin a contemplative massage until he’d rubbed the smile into a worrisome scowl. Despite my first impressions of Luther, I could see that he was a thoughtful man who did not take ponderous decisions lightly. We sat for a good while as Luther considered whatever angles his schemes might take. Except for the gentle, wet slapping of waves against the hull and the occasional screeching gull, we sat in ruminating silence.
At last he chose wealth and this is where the story takes a sad turn. I was young and inexperienced; I had never granted a wish before. Looking back, of course, I should have consulted with an elder member of my kind. But to be young is also to be brazen and so when Luther wished to die a rich man I thought my job was all too easy.
“What is your name, gentle fisherman?” I asked.
“Luther. Luther Richmond Moses of Inuit Cliff, California.”
“Then free me Luther Richman Moses of Indian Clip, California. Free me and your wish will be granted.”
He grumbled something about trust as he pried my sore wrist free from the bars. I flopped starboard, threw myself over the gunwale and swam away. Fifty yards out I surfaced again to wave a final goodbye but Luther had his back to me, bent to the chore of emptying his crab pot.
That was the last time I ever saw Luther and there was certainly no reason for a reunion but I was always curious how his life had turned out with the great wealth his single wish had brought him. You can imagine how I felt when I learned that instead of enjoying a life of luxury he had toiled for the next 30 odd years on the Barnacle and had died with next to nothing. Worse still, he was interred beneath a modest headstone donated anonymously with the inscription: Rest in Peace – Luther Rich Man Moses. I was mortified.
“Well, that is some story,” says Crash as he waves away a rancid cloud from Charlie’s Honduran.
“Are you sure we can’t get you something?” asks Charlie. He lifts a can of beer out of cooler. A shard of ice still clings to the metal and Charlie plucks it overboard.
I found the Barnacle and the brothers a mile or two offshore and introduced myself. I was welcomed aboard; Charlie helped me over the gunwale. Crash went below to retrieve a piece of lawn furniture that unfolded into a chaise lounge. The chair was more germane to a summer patio than the deck of a fishing vessel but it was very comfortable and allowed me to recline fully.
Veneration for phenomenon was apparently not a family trait and my ego experienced a familiar pang from the time I’d met the elder Moses. In their defense, I reasoned the boys had heard the story since childhood and were partially insulated from the full shock of a mermaid in corporeal form. They were a good natured pair and bore me no animosity considering their Father’s tragedy for which I was responsible. They even found humor it.
“We always thought it was one of the old man’s fish stories. He had quite a few.” Charlie let loose a loud belch. “Pardon me.”
Crash shook his head in agreement, “Something he made up to entertain us kids. But when that headstone showed up…”
Charlie finished for his brother, “It gave us pause.”
“A damned good laugh, too.”
And they chuckled again together.
I had come prepared to make handsome restitution but to my surprise the brothers were hesitant to accept. In light of past events they were concerned what form the remuneration might take. It was only after I assured them that I had learned from my mistakes and guaranteed periodic audits of my handiwork that they finally acquiesced, albeit with lingering trepidation.
Charlie still loves his cigars. And although his tastes have become more refined, the higher quality leaf does not emit an exhaust any less offensive according to his brother. Charlie still loves oysters, too. Only now he is less likely to limit his indulgence to months with an R in the name.
The Barnacle was sold and the Moses brothers quickly acclimated to their new lives as men of leisure. They had plenty of time for cocktails at the 6 Belles Tavern every afternoon and would often discuss the validity of their late father’s other fish tales especially one he told concerning a unicorn in his lettuce patch.