A Pier at the End of Summer
June 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
As it is now officially sum-sum-summertime I offer a bit of light prose for a lazy afternoon in the hammock or on the beach.
It includes infidelity, descent into madness, heroism, crime and a trip to the seashore to boot.
You can read it all right here or you can download the PDF and print it out for reading offline just in case that summer thunderstorm knocks the power out in your neck of the woods.
Click the link for the file: A-Pier-at-the-End-of-Summer-JohnTruelove
A Pier at the End of Summer
Drake Mathews opened the door to a balcony overlooking mountainous dunes, covered in thick blades of grass and golden sea oats. Beyond the dunes, the beach stretched into the endless waves of the Atlantic. On the horizon, green clouds had massed and the strong breeze that blew through his hair and into his stuffy hotel room smelled of salt and the approaching storm. Drake had not bothered to close the front door when he’d carried in his bags and the squall he created blew it shut with a violent bang. The sudden noise startled him and he jerked around, expecting to find something worse than a darkened foyer. He parted the dense curtains that covered the large picture window and the afternoon sun spilled over the room’s modest furnishings. He had rented an efficiency apartment that came equipped with a refrigerator, sink, stove and a small bar with two stools that served as the kitchenette’s dining table. There was a full-size bed, a heavy looking love seat, and a wobbly coffee table of artificial wood, all facing a television. Below the window, an air conditioner was fitted neatly into the wall, but he preferred the natural air and the ocean noises so he left the unit off.
From the suitcase he’d thrown on the bed, Drake removed a short stack of shirts he planned on hanging up, a toiletry kit, and a Colt .45 handgun, placing the items side by side on the stiff mattress. The duvet and pillow shams were dark blue with a seaside print of white shells, fish, sea horses, star fish, and life preserver rings. He laughed to himself when he realized that he had laid the pistol directly on top of a life preserver and he returned it to the suitcase beneath his boxer shorts.
He slid a bottle of bourbon from brown a paper bag and absently tossed the empty, wrinkled sack on the floor. Leaving the bottle on the bar, Drake took what he figured served as the room’s ice bucket and went to find the hotel’s ice machine.
Drake Mathews made the trip from New York to the coast of North Carolina in a little less than ten hours, stopping at intervals only long enough to refuel, buy coffee, and use the bathroom. Ultimately, he was more interested in leaving the city in the shortest time possible than he was in reaching his destination. He had called the borough of Queens home for over twenty years – until a series of events sent him spiraling into a crisis that caused him to make less-than-pragmatic decisions.
He found the ice maker humming alongside a Pepsi vending machine tucked away in a stifling little room under a stairway. It was a hot, late-summer day and on the west side of the hotel, without the immediate benefit of the coastal breezes, the heat rising form the black asphalt of the parking lot was suffocating. By the time he got back to his room, both he and his ice were sweating profusely. He found a glass in a cabinet above the kitchen sink, filled the bottom with a handful of watery ice, and put the rest in the freezer. He gave himself a good sized pour from the new bottle and took a seat on the balcony, watching tendrils of lightning sizzle in the approaching clouds.
The beach was deserted by the time the first big drops of rain began spotting the sun-baked crust on the top of the sand. Drake went inside and made another drink. The film of water on the ice had refrozen quickly and the cubes were now fused into a solid brick, which Drake chipped at with a fork. A resounding explosion of thunder ripped the air like cannon fire through the walls of a paper castle, and the sheets of rain that followed were so dense they obstructed any view past the first foothills of dunes. Tiny pebbles of hail ricocheted off the window and Drake propped himself up on the bed to watch the storm through the rain-streaked glass before falling asleep.
When the divorce papers sent by the firm representing Mrs. Drake Mathews arrived at his office, he was expecting them. Their previous marriage-counseling sessions revealed in minute detail her festering dissatisfaction with him. The therapy was refereed by a female psychologist in her late fifties who sat comfortably in an oversized armchair with her legs tucked beneath her as if she were watching television. She listened intently as each partner spoke, hoping to hear among the accusations and criticisms anything that could be salvaged and used to repair the couple’s union. Drake’s wife did most of the talking, though, and she was so forthcoming about their private matters that he felt very little inclination to speak himself. During the time his wife had the floor, the doctor’s impartial gaze would often shift its focus to him. She studied his facial expressions and body language for anything that might have betrayed what he was thinking. One particularly heated diatribe culminated with his wife admitting to having had an extended affair. When this admission came to light, there was no need for the therapist to interpret Drake’s feelings; without a word he had stood and left the room.
What Drake did not expect was to be told that the position he’d held for fifteen years had been eliminated as part of a corporate downsizing initiative. Even more unexpected was having the news delivered by his regional manager, the same man who had been sleeping with his wife. The lawsuit he filed against his company was settled out of court and in his favor, but the proceedings had been humiliating and rumors circulated through his industry. And as he began his search for new opportunities, he discovered that the stigma attached to his name left a cautionary flag on his resume and always preceded him to interviews.
During the tumultuous legal proceedings, Drake began to notice a hollow feeling above his stomach. He assumed he’d developed an ulcer and joked with his regular physician that part of his soul had been sucked out; a battery of tests was conducted. His doctor had offered up Brazil as a fine destination when Drake mentioned he might take a long vacation. He was actually reading a copy of Frommer’s guide to South America when the doctor called to tell him he did not have an ulcer and suggested a specialist.
When Drake woke, it was still light outside, but the brunt of the storm had passed, leaving in its wake a fine drizzle that misted out of a gray sky. The temperature had fallen considerably and the hairs on his arms rose as he shivered against the chill drifting in from the balcony. He got up to close the door and felt the spongy carpet beneath his bare feet. Some of the storm had found its way inside and soaked a large area of the floor. He noticed the empty glass on the bed and hoped that the damp spot on the crotch of his trousers was only spilled whisky and melted ice. He shut the door and went to the bathroom to take a shower.
The next morning was cool and breezy, with billowy clouds floating in a peaceful sky. Drake walked down a path cut into the dunes that led to the beach. At the entrance, the local police department had posted a sign that warned of strong rip currents. He was headed toward a fishing pier that he could see from his room. When he had checked in to the hotel, the desk clerk had given him a brief overview of the nearby businesses and attractions. The pier was open to the public and was attached to a shop that sold fishing supplies and groceries. The shop also ran a short-order grill and Drake was able to purchase a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a pair of glazed donuts wrapped in a thin membrane of clear plastic. The massive wooden pilings held the pier’s wide deck high above the crashing breakers and the gentle, green undulations above the deep. The worn older planks, cracked and warped by the costal elements, were interspersed with newer replacements but all bore some scar or stain left by fishermen and the life they wrestled from the ocean below.
At the end, where the pier widened into a rectangle, a colony of sportsmen tended several lines. Some leaned on the railing and others sat on the tops of large red and blue Igloo coolers. By the look of the group, Drake reasoned they had been fishing all night.
Drake also noticed a fierce looking gull busy trying to make a meal out of what might have been the dried viscera of a fish. The bird pecked at the spot, circling around it on rubbery feet. It paid no mind to him as he took a seat on a tall bench nearby and propped his feet up on the railing. He set down his cup and fumbled in the pocket of his shorts for a pack of cigarettes. Drake had given up smoking years ago but had picked up a carton at a gas station in Virginia along with a disposable lighter that he held in the shelter of his cupped hand as he lit the tip of the cigarette and inhaled deeply. He had already smoked half of the pack – they were incredibly fresh and delicious – and a bargain by New York City standards.
At forty-seven, Drake found himself without a relationship or a career. The hollow space inside him remained, promising a dismal outlook on his future health; he had neglected to contact the recommended specialist. The studio apartment he had moved into after the separation from his wife seemed to decrease daily in size as though it were shrinking while Drake slept. There were days when he would not leave his room at all. Instead, he tried watching the walls for any movement, but reasoned they might have been moving too slowly to be perceived by the naked eye. He remembered as a teenager watching his stepfather mark the level of booze in his liquor bottles to deter uninvited potation. And so, with a ruler and heavy pencil, he employed a similar method of surveillance by drawing firm ticks on the hardwood floor an inch from the baseboard. He would check the marks mornings and evenings with the ruler to record any activity. It was hard to be certain, but there was either no change or the gradation of his ruler was not precise enough to measure distance on such a small scale.
He had inherited his .45 pistol from an uncle and had lived with it in violation of New York City handgun laws for many years. He enjoyed shooting as a youth and considered himself a good shot, although this particular weapon had remained locked in its case and hidden away since the first day it came into his possession. Once he was again living alone, Drake took time to clean and oil it properly as he became reacquainted with its solid weight, the diamond-patterned grip, and the tension of the trigger by firing imaginary rounds into the plaster of the encroaching walls. When the muscle in his forearm grew too tired to continue he would lift the barrel to his temple and give the trigger a final pull.
He was thinning out years of financial records from a file storage box when he came across a postcard sent to him years ago by someone with whom he’d since fallen out of touch. “Greetings from Poseidon’s Oceanfront Hotel – Cypress Island, NC” was printed on the front above a cartoon sea god wearing a pair of sunglasses. On the back was a blurb about the hotel and the island community. He researched both in greater detail the following day.
Anything that did not fit into the trunk of his Toyota four-door was carried to the curb on trash collection day. He left the same night feeling better than he had in months.
Drake finished his breakfast and carried the litter to a garbage can chained to a light post. He lit another cigarette and was about to make the trip back to his hotel room when he heard a commotion at the end of the pier. The group of night fishers had congregated on one side and were looking down at the water as one pointed to a piling where an inflatable raft with the print of the North Carolina state flag was snagged by its tow rope. A few yards away, directly below where Drake was standing, a woman clung desperately to a piling as white-capped swells washed over her. A crowd had gathered on the beach and an old man in bib overalls and a John Deere cap joined him at the railing, mumbling something about rip tides and drowning.
Drake handed his wallet, room key, cigarettes, and lighter to the man. Stepping out of his flip-flops and removing his shirt, he climbed over the side and jumped in feet first. The ocean swallowed him whole and its waters closed off the world above him, shutting out all light and sound as his plunge took him well below the layer holding the sun’s warmth and into a black, cold vacuum. For the instant his body remained in place, neither sinking further nor rising, he wondered if it felt something like this in the end.
When his head broke the surface he was facing away from the pier and it took a moment to establish his bearings. The ocean was calm but the sea was lapping at his face as he treaded water to keep afloat. It was difficult to see. The tiny droplets clinging to his eye lashes distorted his view – tiny, inaccurate lenses that refracted the light bouncing off the surface. He looked up and saw the old man on the pier and traced his position to where the woman hugged the piling. When he swam close enough he could hear her whimpering in panic. He coaxed her into taking his outstretched hand and when she had released her hold on the pier, Drake dove and swam underneath her. He surfaced again behind her and quickly wrapped his left arm around her neck and began towing her to shore. The barnacles encrusting the piling had lacerated the woman’s arms and legs badly and, as Drake swam, she left a trail of blood drifting behind the two of them like scarlet ribbons fluttering in the breeze.
The crowd awaiting them on the beach included two paramedics and a police officer. Three men had waded into the surf and they helped Drake and the woman out of the water. Exhausted, he found a spot just beyond reach of the incoming tide and sat down in the dry sand. One of the rescue workers began treating the woman’s cuts while the other examined Drake and asked if he needed further assistance. Drake waved him away and the medic returned to assist his partner. Among the gathering was the fisherman from the pier, who had brought Drake’s things down to him in a grocery bag. He also carried a roll of paper towels and pulled off several sheets for the dripping hero.
While Drake wiped his face, he noticed that a pair of brightly polished black shoes had appeared beside him. Looking up he could see his soggy reflection in the dark sun glasses of the police officer. It was peculiar to see someone on the beach so formally dressed. Drake knew that he must have found the full uniform uncomfortable, judging from the beads of sweat that dotted his pink brow and the oily rivulet that trickled from the thick stubble of his crew cut.
When the officer asked for identification, Drake retrieved his wallet from the shopping bag and extracted his New York driver’s license. The officer read Drake’s information into a walkie-talkie and in a few moments a hollow, disembodied voice spoke back in police code that Drake couldn’t understand. From the rear pocket of his blue trousers, the officer produced a thick tablet and took down some details on Drake’s license before handing it back, along with the pink copy of a summons.
As it was explained to him, jumping or diving from a fishing pier was in violation of town ordinance and was clearly posted on all such structures. Drake could pay the $150 fine in person or by mail, and if he wanted to challenge the citation, he could appear in court at the time and location printed on the ticket. Drake was too tired and dumbfounded to protest. He was parched and a sudden wave of nausea only added to his weakened condition. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to stand, much less stumble back to his hotel room. The fisherman, whose principles of justice and civic duty had been challenged, came to Drake’s defense. But his initial appeal was ignored and further, more pointed indignation only bounced off the back of the retreating officer and was silenced by the sand where it fell. Drake, now fully prostrate, could see the old man scratching at the shaking head beneath his John Deere cap and heard him muttering colorful phrases about local law enforcement.
After a few days of debating how to handle the situation, Drake finally decided it would be best to settle the matter in person. He had done his best to try and forget about the whole incident and enjoy himself. With complete abandon he indulged in activities and substances a man his age would have normally avoided or at least taken in moderation. He partook of the culinary offerings around the hotel with ravenous gluttony, surviving on a diet of cheeseburgers, fried food, and doughnuts, finishing each meal with a delicious cigarette. He swam at his own risk, walked for miles on the beach without the aegis of sunscreen, and drank heavily from the whiskey bottle that was soon replaced with another. However, his recent misdemeanor remained an irritant and the pink ticket served as a constant reminder. He had fastened the summons to the refrigerator by a flexible magnet advertising a local restaurant, presumably left behind by a former tenant. The slip had an unpleasant chemical odor that Drake inhaled every time he needed a cold beer.
He appointed a date for himself and on that morning he made himself presentable by showering, shaving, and dressing in clean, pressed clothes. He chose a short-sleeved shirt with a square hem that hung a few inches over his belt, allowing the generous yellow linen to move freely. He left the top two buttons undone to further accentuate what he hoped was a casual demeanor.
Police headquarters was a short drive from the hotel and was set up in a squat cinderblock building that also housed the island’s volunteer fire and rescue. The only person in the building was a chipper civilian office clerk who greeted Drake with a big smile and offered to help in any way she could. He asked to speak with the officer whose name he remembered stamped on the gold plate above his badge and whose signature, written neatly on the ticket, greeted his trips to the refrigerator with a cruel smirk. The clerk said she was waiting for his return from a local eatery where he’d gone to pick up coffee and a ham biscuit for himself and an egg sandwich with ketchup for her. Drake was more than welcome to wait, which he did, passing the time by reading the notices pinned to an enormous bulletin board.
There was an electric eye at the front door which triggered a mild, little beep that announced the station’s comings and goings. When Drake heard the alarm, he turned to see the policeman carrying his takeout order in a small cardboard box printed with the name of a snack cake. His eyes were not hidden behind the dark frames of his glasses and grew wide when they saw Drake approach him from the bulletin board. The officer dropped the box but before he could bring his free hand to the gun in his holster, Drake was already aiming the .45 he’d kept concealed beneath his shirt. He fired two shots directly into the officer’s chest and the force of the pistol’s caliber sent the policeman’s limp body crashing into the wide blood pattern that splattered the wall behind him. The clerk sat frozen behind her desk as the report reverberated around the room. She had turned white and seemed to be choking on a scream stuck in the back of her mouth, hanging open on the hinges of her slackened jaws. He delivered two more slugs into her soft abdomen, knocking her out of the chair.
Drake looked down at where the box of food had hit the floor. The lid of one cup had come off on impact and coffee – with cream – had spilled into a light tan puddle on the linoleum. He tucked his .45 back into his belt and picked up the other cup. He removed the lid and blew lightly on the black coffee before taking a sip. He peeled the foil wrapping from the sandwiches, smelled both and selected the ham biscuit. When he stepped outside, the only thing that noticed him was the electric eye as its high-pitched tone bid Drake farewell.
The ham biscuit had given him a bad case of heartburn and he crunched on a chalky antacid tablet as he walked out to the end of the pier. Drake deftly folded the pink ticket into a paper airplane and launched it out across the ocean. The weightless jet teetered on its makeshift wings until it was caught and blown backwards by a strong draft, forcing it to make a crash landing in a bait tank. A cluster of silver fish pecked at the fuselage as if the wreckage were a morsel of food. Drake plucked the dripping paper from the tank and deposited it into a trash can.
The television brought the evening news and the day’s gruesome headline into his room with all the sensationalism the networks reserve for unthinkable crimes committed in small towns where nothing much ever happens.
Drake thought it was all very entertaining as he alternated between the whiskey bottle and a can of beer. The only progress in the investigation was a series of still images taken by a security camera. The grainy black and white photos captured the lone gunman committing his crime as it progressed in ten-second intervals. Drake wanted to take all of the photos and bind them into a flip book so he could watch the murders like a silent movie, as his thumb releasing frame after frame after frame.
It was hard to see his own likeness in the photos, but he wondered if the hotel manager had recognized him as the tenant in room 222, and was, at that very moment, calling the hotline number listed on the bottom of the screen. He picked up the unloaded .45 and squeezed a few empty rounds towards the imaginary strike force kicking down the door. Then he aimed and fired at the blonde anchorwoman whose beauty was spoiled by her solemn recitation of the grisly details. He continued firing phantom bullets randomly throughout the room, piercing the metal skins of the stove and refrigerator, exploding the lamp’s earthenware base into jagged shards, and leaving the walls riddled with charred, smoking holes.
A chimerical blast chased after each make-believe slug like a harried messenger too late with the news of its deadly arrival. The concussions echoed off the walls and gradually dissipated into the soft thud of ocean waves striking the shore. Soon, the voice of the Atlantic was the only sound to be heard in the apartment, and into the ringing ear of Drake Mathews it whispered, “The end, the end.”