Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Pier

Orange Crush, sometime in the late 70s
(Photographer: Brother of friend of Mom's...)
She was in bed, but not asleep. A harsh ray of summer sunlight poured through the long thin opening where the dark curtains almost met in the middle of the window. It hit her right between the eyes. Still tired, she showered with the tiny complimentary soap, dried herself with a thin white towel that smelled of bleach, and dressed herself in yesterday's clothes.

She left the mini-mart with breakfast and a package of bologna in a brown paper bag. A peanut donut rested on a napkin in the passenger seat as she sipped her coffee and boarded the on-ramp.

She couldn't tell a soul what she was thinking. The truth was that she wasn't at all surprised things had turned out this way. The news hadn't really shocked her. It seemed to make sense. It had been a strange feeling, sort of numb or blank. She thanked God for her dark sunglasses. She hadn't cried. She'd never even felt sad. This callous feeling was foreign to her, something she'd never felt before, and she'd wondered what's wrong with me?

She hadn't thought about him in so long, but as they began lowering the casket into the grave, it all started coming back to her. That one summer. She was 8 or 9 years old and he was about a year or so younger. So long ago, but still, she'd never forgotten.
She sat up in bed and scanned the camper. Everyone was still, eyes closed. Nothing but the hum of slow steady breathing. Perfect! she whispered to herself. She pulled her nightgown up over her head and tossed it onto her pillow, stepped into her shorts, and pulled on a t-shirt. Swiftly. Silently. As if it were all one graceful move. Before departing, she took the hidden plastic sandwich bag from beneath her pillow and slipped it into her pocket. Stepping as lightly as possible, she made her way toward the door, opening it just enough to slip out, and closing it gently behind her. She wiped the dew from the outside doorknob onto her shorts and jumped off the tiny camper patio onto the sand.

The birds were still asleep, but the fish weren't. She breezed past the array of tents, coolers, lawn chairs, and sandals as she made her way toward the pier. The morning sand was still cool on her bare feet, but the wood planks of the pier had already been warmed by the sun and they felt good. Her pace slowed as she walked purposefully over the wood, feeling each warm knot and each cool space between planks.

She settled down at the end of the pier, seated as if poised in a throne, her spine perfectly straight. Her bare feet dangled over the edge and she looked out across the lake. This early, it was all hers. She owned it. She removed the slice of bologna from the sandwich bag and shoved the bag into her back pocket. The lake was calm and the sandy bottom visible through the pale green water.

She tossed a pinky nail sized piece of bologna into the water and watched it as it slowly began to sink. About halfway down a beautiful streak of blue and gold swept past and devoured it. A bluegill. She recognized some fish from fishing with her dad and her uncles, but she knew this one because it was the state fish of Illinois, her state. The fish tracked back in search of more. She dropped another bit and watched the bluegill dart toward it. He was so quick. He seemed to be inhaling the bologna. Curious, she tossed the remainder of the big round slice into the water, wondering how the fish would handle such a thing. The larger slice floated on the surface of the water. The bluegill pecked at it briefly, like a hen, and then gave up. She felt bad and decided to revert back to bite-sized offerings tomorrow. The bologna drifted away from the pier and out into the lake and the bluegill disappeared. It was obvious that he was not entertained. She was sure he'd looked up at her and frowned before moving on with his day.

She heard the echo of a motor boat engine being tugged on the other side of the lake and then, footsteps on the pier. She sighed unhappily as she turned around. Oh, great she whispered beneath her breath. The last time she'd seen him he'd pontificated on the joy of pinching his baby brother each time he'd fall asleep, causing him to wake crying. He'd taken great pride in getting away with it without his mother ever figuring out he was the cause.

If she'd been wearing her bathing suit she'd have jumped into the lake and swam the way of the bluegill. But here, fully clothed, and at the end of the pier, she was cornered--forced to socialize with the runt. She couldn't recall exactly what runt meant, but she remembered it being used pessimistically in Charlotte's Web, and the little nt sound at the end of the word felt appropriately curt and condescending.

Most disturbing was the story his brother had told her. Last summer the runt had buried a live toad and turtle and let them die beneath deep mounds of sand. She imagined their gasping for air and inhaling the dry granules. It was horrifying. What type of person was capable of such things? He was a bad seed. She thought of this incident each time she saw him and always looked at him with disdain. He seemed to enjoy it.

He'd come to inform her that her father was looking for her. He wanted to discuss the stash of bottles she'd been collecting at the dump. How could Dad have found those? she thought. He grinned like the Cheshire Cat. Runt! she thought as she stomped away, up the pier, and back toward the camper.

She'd been warned about wandering around the dump and especially about collecting items there, but she loved it. It was like visiting a toy store where everything was free. She'd been collecting empty soda bottles to surprise her mom. The bottles would serve as vases. She'd fill them with wildflowers and place them all around the campsite. It would be like a wedding, but better.

Midway to her campsite she decided to turn around and head up to the outdoor church. Dad might cool down if I give him a little time. The church was empty. She'd never been to a service, but she loved visiting the quiet space when it was vacated. She sat down on the concrete theatre-like steps and looked at the stage. I could pray... No, if any of that stuff actually works, I should save it for something big, something really important.
After hours of driving and a quick stop at a deli in town, she pulls up to a log in the campground parking lot.

She walks toward the pier with two brown bags in her right hand, one with a package of bologna, the other with an Orange Crush and salami sandwich (for old times sake).

Her black dress and high heels are glaringly out of place, but she doesn't think of it, not even for a minute.

She sits down at the edge of the pier, places her bottle of soda beside her, and bites into her salami sandwich. Her beautiful black shoes fall from her feet and drift out into the lake. She watches them float away.


  1. Your writing is such a pleasure to read.

  2. Wow I was mesmerised - your descriptions are incredible. I felt like I was there at the lake with her. Your character description of the runt is great - in very few words you've managed to sketch him as an awful little 'runt'. Brilliant!

  3. Been thinking about this for the past few days, images returning to me in no particular order -- the bologna and the bluegill, the donut, waiting in the car to board the ferry (I assumed), the lake. I recently started experimenting with writing flash/sudden fiction, so it's great to see how other writers of very short fiction shape their stories. And, okay, let's talk about scene stealing photos! Orange Crush is almost iconic. Very nice.

  4. I agree with Char -- the parallel is quite compelling. And the images are so rich.

  5. flows so nicely. just the right hint of rebellion/sadness

  6. You write so wonderfully. I was laways an outsider and somehow I rebel so I can toally relate to that and Charlotte's Web was such an important book for me growing up. The word "runt" is still racing through my mind.

  7. This one lingers. I've been thinking about it for days. I keep going back to the shoes at the end. That's letting go...You are gifted, Denise.

  8. I love visiting here to be enriched by your words.

  9. Thanks, everyone. I really enjoyed writing this piece. Thanks for reading.

    I have some images sticking with me too. Ever since I wrote The Pier I've been craving a peanut donut.

    Shae, I'm not familiar with the terms Flash Fiction or Sudden Fiction, but I think I get the gist. Something like NPR's Three Minute Fiction?

  10. I always love to read your writing - every word is perfectly chosen; every space, every comma, every indentation has meaning... And I feel like I'm right there - with the smells and the textures and the sounds... You have such a gift, my friend. Thank you for sharing it here with us.


  11. The little images from our 70s childhood are so powerful here... no one who didn't grow up in the Midwest just then could possibly get it: bologna (pronounced baloney of course)... love it.

  12. Maria, Thank you so much. You are such a thoughtful person. I'm glad you choose to spend some of your precious time here. I know you are a busy woman.

    Kristen, Really? Was bologna a Midwest thing? I had no idea. We used to put a slice of bologna atop a slice of bread in the toaster oven and watch the bologna turn into a dome shape. Entertainment :)