The Man at Pier's End

Submitted into Contest #152 in response to: Write about a character whose life changes for the better.... view prompt

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Coming of Age Friendship Sad

On nights like tonight, I find myself drifting among the stars. Even ten years on from my last visit to this corner of the sea, it still takes my breath away. Specks of light mark the dark canvas overhead like jewels in a divine tapestry. Bits of sand hug my toes as the tide rolls in and out again like sleep on a restless night. This place, more than any other, is full of cycles. Cycles of life, cycles of death, cycles of birth and rebirth. Much of what was here ten years ago is gone, replaced by something new. Even so, the brushing of the wind on my skin is the same as it was. I wonder if it remembers me, or if I too have become something that is not quite the same. 

I remember that, despite the late hour, I felt warm under the big black sky all those years ago. The sea breeze flew past me in a mad dash up the coast. The ocean beyond stretched out forever, only a few lights from cargo ships on the horizon marking the distinction between water and sky. Every few seconds, my legs were met with the cool touch of the risen tide. It left the sand beneath my feet porous and clinging to my heels as I walked.

It wasn’t out of character for me to be up so late. What made that night different was the lack of a stiff drink in my hand. My friends had been left behind, far too intoxicated with their own drinks and the attention of others to bother with me. My only company was the sound of the waves rolling against the sand and the unzipped hoodie that clung to my back as the wind swept it about. I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself as I made my way down the beach. Some vacation this had turned out to be, I thought.

In the distance, I saw a wooden pier stretching out into the water. The lights that lined it were still on, though I couldn’t make out anyone from where I was. Wasn’t that a waste of power, I thought? It’s not like it’s a lighthouse. One for sharks, maybe.

The wind rocked the assembly of posts and planks side to side like a great ship. It creaked and groaned as it moved, but I never got the impression that it would fall. Like a willow, the pier swayed with the wind, becoming one with it. The end of the wooden construct was the most precarious place of all, furthest from shore and closest to the never-ending expanse of the sea. It seemed to me a place nature had denied to human beings, and yet there it was. I imagined the water went down at least a hundred feet below that point. Who knew what was down there? 

I started jogging up the beach toward the pier. My hoodie kept sliding off my shoulders until eventually I took the thing off and wrapped it around my waist. I needed to see the view from that place.

When I arrived, the pier still looked empty. Gift shops straddled the entrance, offering cheap clothes and snacks, but the lights were off inside. What was going on here, I wondered? A small ticket booth guarded the entrance to the pier, flanked by a pair of turnstiles. I peered into the booth and found it empty, nothing inside but a stool and some stationery. A list of entrance fees was scrawled on the glass. Unfortunately, I had no money nor anyone to give it to.

Beneath that were the pier’s hours: 6 AM to 12 AM. So, it's past midnight, I thought. No one to stop me, then. I pressed up against the inert turnstile. It didn’t budge, merely whined in resistance. I looked up at the end of the pier, so far out of reach, and groaned in frustration.

But then I saw it. A shape that my tired, drink-addled eyes had initially failed to register. It turned to look at me. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, and I froze. I had thought no one else was here. 

I squinted in an attempt to make the figure out. It looked like an older man wrapped in a coat. He was hunched over, but I could just make out a long narrow object protruding from his chest. Was that… a fishing pole?

The man removed the object from his chest and leaned it up against the railing next to another of its kind. He moved slowly and deliberately like he had practiced each move he made for a lifetime before performing it. The man marched down the pier toward me, and as he approached, I noticed that the left sleeve of his coat was folded up and held in place at the shoulder. A chill ran down my spine as I became increasingly aware of the left hand I had wrapped tightly around part of the turnstile.

The man came to a stop mere feet from me. His face was wrinkled and pockmarked like a dry riverbed, and small tufts of thin white hair stuck out of the speckled ascot cap atop his head. Around his chest was a harness made of interconnected straps that all came together at a hollow cylinder that protruded from his waist. I wondered if he had made it himself based on its lack of logos or markings.

“I can make you one if you like it that much,” the old man growled. I started in place and met his eye.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to—"

“What’s a young fella like you doing out here so late at night?” I could feel the deep bass of his voice echo through my ribs.

“I wanted to see the pier, but it seems I’m… a little late for that,” I said, chuckling in an effort to diffuse the tension.

The man stared at me as if through a two-way mirror. I squirmed under his eye. “W-what are you doing out here? I thought the pier was closed.”

“It is.”

“…Okay, so why are you here?”

“You’re a man of many questions, I see,” he mused.

“Well, two, but…”

“If you must know, I’m good friends with one of the owners. He lets me in for some after-hours fishing.”

“Oh. For free?”

Yes, for free,” he said. “Now, if you don’t mind…” He turned to go.

“Wait!” I cried, reaching through the turnstile.

The man looked over his shoulder at me, and I immediately flushed red. He must think I’m insane, I thought. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, so how could I possibly explain it to him?

“Wouldn’t you… like some company?” I asked.

“No.” He started walking back down the pier.

“I know how to fish! My dad taught me.” He stopped. “Lakes, rivers, the ocean, the whole bit!”

“You don’t use a float, do you? I’m not sharing a rod with a man who still uses a float.”

“No, sir. Not since I was eight.”

He sighed, long and low. “Okay, kid. I suppose having someone to man the second wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

The old man fished for a key in his pocket and unlocked the turnstile, his eyes locked on me. 

“Thanks,” I said as I pushed through the metal gate.

The old man grunted and walked back down the pier. I followed him to the edge of the platform and was overcome by the view. Seeing the ocean from the beach was one thing, but as I leaned over the railing and stared into the murky green depths below, I was struck by the power and enormity of what lay before me. The wind blew past me in powerful gusts that possessed my clothes and sent them waving about. The crashing of the waves was louder now, and rather than merely being a witness, I was part of them, tossed about with each new surge as they and the wind combined forces to sway the pier back and forth. More than danger, I felt life there in a way I rarely had before.

“Here.” 

I looked over, and the man had one rod locked in the harness and held the other in his outstretched hand. I took it from him, and he went right back to his business like I wasn’t even there. A tackle box and a big cooler sat nearby.

I motioned toward it. “Anything in there?”

“Not yet. I’d like to leave with at least one or two though.” He never took his eyes off the water.

“How long have you been at it?”

“ ’Bout 20 minutes. Now, quit asking questions and get that line in the water. Dinner ain’t gonna catch itself.”

I shook my head and moved down the pier to his left. I let out a bit of line and dangled the rod over the railing. Using the weight of the lure, I swung the line under the pier and back out, pressing the release as I did and sending the line flying out into the water. The lure hit with a splash, and I set the reel in place with a click. All I had to do then was wait.

The familiar weight of the fishing rod in my hand reminded me of long afternoons with Dad, sitting on rocks and leaning up against trees, chatting the day away. He always said fishing is communion with your fellow fisherman just as much as it is communion with nature. This man only believed in the latter apparently.

The rod was black with bits of silver spiraling up the sides. The reel, however, was predominantly silver with black highlights. The guides that lined the blank were silver as well. I turned the pole over in my hand to inspect the other side of the reel and noticed a bit of tape attached to it. The tape was crinkled and worn at the edges but in faded marker was written the name ‘Jack.’

I snuck a glance at the old man before returning my focus to the line. He did look like a Jack, although marking a rod with just your first name was hardly helpful to anyone hoping to return it. A son, perhaps? I smirked at the realization that the cranky old bastard used to fish with his kid.

Upon further musing, my eyes widened. Oh, shit, I thought. Is his son dead? I hope I’m not somehow invading his private rendezvous with his son’s spirit or something. I looked over at the old man again. He didn’t seem particularly incensed by my presence, so long as I kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t imagine he would have let me in otherwise unless he intended to sacrifice me to his son’s ghost…

In hindsight, the only spirits present were the ones being metabolized in my liver. The night passed in complete silence save the reeling in of an empty hook followed by a cast to another corner of the sea. I spent my time admiring the movement of the water below, watching it rise and fall as the waves came and went. I wasn’t sure what time it was, nor did I care to ask.

After what could have been hours, a new sound met my ears, one not unlike the wind. A slow, deliberate whistle was lilting through the night. I didn’t look, but I knew it came from the lips of the old man. It lacked the freeform spirit of a whistle made up on the spot. No, this was a song, one I’d never heard before nor have I heard since. Much like the man himself, the tune was slow and steady, as if it were moving in time with the swaying of the pier. Up and down the whistle went, and so too did the sea and the wind and the pier with them. Forlorn and haunting, the song rang out into the night, and the night sang back in kind with the stirring of the wind and the rolling of the waves. It was a lament. Of what, I couldn’t say.

I wondered then about Jack and about the man’s arm. I wondered if he had anyone to take fish back to. I wondered about his friend who let him in but didn’t stay. I wondered how he felt on nights like this one. I wondered why he let me in. Perhaps he didn’t want to be alone out here while the world slept. Just this once.

As I sat stewing, I felt something through the pole. My pulse quickened, and I took a deep breath to calm my nerves. I waited for a moment, giving whatever was there time to get a grip before I started reeling in slowly. The old man stirred, and I could feel his eyes on me. Once the slack left the line, I tilted the rod up to set the hook and reeled harder. I could still feel the weight on the end of the line, and I prayed it wasn’t a crab.

“You got ‘im?” the old man asked.

“Feels like it,” I replied.

He grabbed the cooler from the other side of the pier and brought it over to me. He popped it open, ready to receive whatever came up. He placed a pair of pliers next to it.

“You know what to do?” he asked.

“I think? It’s been a while.”

“…Let me know if you need help.” He walked back to where he had left his rod and locked it back into his harness.

Finally, I pulled the line up over the edge and onto the pier. At the end of the line, sat a striped bass over two feet in length. The fish squirmed, its scales glistening in the light. I wrapped my hand around its belly with one hand and grabbed the pliers with the other. As delicately as possible, I gripped the hook and moved its tip down toward the hole in the fish’s lip. I pursed my lips and pulled, driving the hook out of the bass’ mouth. I let out a deep breath. I’d forgotten what this part was like.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“I’ll take it from here,” the old man said.

Internally, I breathed a sigh of relief. He took the fish from my hand and smacked its head against the railing with surprising force, stunning it. Then, he placed it in the cooler and closed the lid.

“It’s getting late, kid. You should head home.”

“…Right.” I looked down the beach toward the hotel my friends and I had booked. I might not be able to get in now without my card. Hopefully, they were still up.

The old man reeled his line in and started to pack up his equipment, removing the lure and breaking his pole down for easier storage. I was impressed with the dexterity he possessed, using his legs and even his teeth once to grip things. I followed suit, although I never had to use my teeth.

“Need help carrying?” I asked.

He looked me dead in the eye. “Do I look like I need a hand to you?”

My cheeks flushed red. I stuttered for a moment, fumbling for something to say, and the old man laughed a deep bellowing laugh.

“Yeah, kid. You can help.”

I carried his stuff to his car just down the boardwalk. It was a quiet trip. When we finally packed everything away, he hopped in the front seat and started the car. As I turned to go, he rolled down his window and leaned out the door, the sleeve of his coat dangling.

“Hey, kid!” he said.

I turned and looked him in the eye expectantly.

“Good work tonight… and thank you.”

I smiled and nodded, and off he went.

I never saw him again after that. I went back to the hotel that night, thinking about what had happened. My plastered friends were still up watching Comedy Central and let me back in. Rest did not come easy for me. I kept thinking about the pier and the man I had met there. It occurred to me that I had forgotten to ask his name. Though we had hardly spoken, I felt a kind of kinship with him that I couldn’t explain.

Now, I stand on the same beach ten years on, and I’m still thinking about my encounter with him. Though I’m far removed from the problems I faced near the end of my college career, I still deal with many of the same feelings. Nighttime brings with it a latent sadness, and time has not changed that.

I check my phone. 11:32. I need to get up there so I can see the view and ask about him.

I turn from the shore and head over to the pier. My feet leave sand and meet concrete first followed by wood. I step up to the familiar ticket booth, now occupied, and pay the man inside. He unlocks the creaky turnstile, and I step onto the pier. It creaks and sways beneath my feet. I make my way through the remaining tourists and anglers until I’m finally at the end.

I lean up against the railing. The sea glistens emerald-black out into the night beyond. The wind whistles through my hair, and I’m reminded of a song I once heard long ago, one not unlike the wind. I adjust my stance and grab the railing before me, only to touch metal instead of wood. 

It’s a plaque. My heart sinks.

Engraved there is the following: 

Jacob Carver Sr.

1941-2022

"The Sun came up upon the left,

Out of the sea came he!

And he shone bright, and on the right

Went down into the sea."

June 28, 2022 01:27

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4 comments

Bob Faszczewski
15:38 Jul 07, 2022

Interesting story. Glad you gradually rolled out the plot.

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Katy Borobia
18:17 Jul 02, 2022

I think this is very beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

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14:42 Jul 02, 2022

So melancholy and reflective. Well done :) I feel like I've been there. Pretty sure actually. There was a beach in CA with a pier I used to go to late at night to get away and think about things. This story reminded me of those times. Thanks :)

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Ben Mears
15:43 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks so much for the feedback! I had a similar experience that inspired this story, so I'm glad that came across clearly. I'm happy you liked it!

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