Attached below is a story that was not included in BAD THINGS HAPPEN, posted here for your enjoyment. In the process of collecting stories for my first book, some had to be left behind, but they are not forgotten! Over the next little while I'm going to be putting up the ones I think people might like to read again, the ones I love the most, and maybe even some of the very weird ones nobody even knows about.
Hope you like them!
THE BOARDWALK AT MIDNIGHT by kris bertin
Is it true you were in the circus? Wesley asks.
Yeah, I was. Why, do guys talk about it? Jake asks.
People do talk, Jake agrees.
What I’m wondering is what kind of leotards you wore, Jake.
Jake stops walking and stands stiff in front of Wesley, his hands all balled up at his sides. He pokes Wes in the chest, hard.
Don’t get smart with me, kid.
I ain’t getting smart with nobody --- I was being serious. Calm down, by God.
Jake makes a face, then continues walking, Wes coming up behind him. The wind picks up and they smell the harbour air coming at them. The both of them clutch their hats.
You were a strongman, right? That’s what everyone says. Makes sense --- a guy like you. What are you, fifty?
Fifty and you’re built like a steel boiler! Hell of a stature. That’s old circus muscle, am I right?
Yeah, Jake says. Sure.
I worked down here, eh? Wes motions beyond the buildings to the docks. I worked with the stevedores. Portuguese. You walk a barrel off a boat, that’s hard work. You’re building some kind of muscle, I’ll tell you. I mean, I don’t look like you or nothing, but then again I don’t have the height neither.
Is the place down here or what? Jake points.
The men stand between two buildings, looking down an alleyway. A fog’s coming in the off the water and makes it so you can’t see anything.
Yeah you cut down water street, hang a louie, you’re there.
They start walking.
You’re married, right, Jake?
How would you rate it? Marriage, I mean.
What do you mean how do I rate it?
I mean is it worth it in the long run?
You talk too much. I don’t like talking before a job.
I’ve been going with this girl for a while, right? The one I always mention? Story goes, according to her pals, if I don’t put a ring on her finger soon enough, it’s bachelor-town for me.
Wes shrugs again.
So get a ring. Jake squints, spits, puts his collar up. The two cross the parking lots and hit the boardwalk.
Our dad walked out on us, and I always wondered how you could do a thing like that --- but here I am, in a fix, and it’s all I can think of. Maybe if I don’t pop the question, I’ll be saving her a whole lot of heartache, that’s what I’m thinking. It’s what the old man should have done.
It’s your whole generation. Guys don’t have your heads on straight.
What’s that? Wes asks.
I said it’s your generation. We went too soft on you.
But not you, right? I’ll bet your kids got it on straight.
You’d better believe it, Jakes says. I heard my boy talking like that, I’d slap him one, let me tell you.
Hey, Jake, come on now, Wes raises his hands like he’s hurt. I’m not some bum here. I got half a year of college in the bag, I’m a Presbyterian for Christ’s sakes. I have respect, you know --- I’m not running around on her or nothing --- I just don’t know the right move. If I’m right for her, you know? It’s a goddamned moralist dilemma.
Get a ring. That’s the right move.
Now, I appreciate what you’re saying here, but you’ve never met her. You don’t know if she’s sweet or got a face like a bulldog or a poodle or if she’s backwards-inside-out.
Is she what?
Is she sweet?
Yeah, Wes nods. I reckon she is.
Cold feet, Wes. That’s all it is.
Jump right in. No decision’s worse than wrong decision.
Wes sees Jake looking around, and he does the same thing. He clears his throat.
Well, Christ but what if it comes to divorce? A wrong decision might wreck up the whole works. And cost a pretty penny that’s for sure.
Don’t believe in divorce, Jake shrugs, then points. Down near a lone lamp-post is a café, set at the water’s edge. The water’s black.
Don’t matter if you believe in divorce or not, Wes says, it’s a thing that happens.
Just look in your heart-of-hearts, okay? Now quit talking about it.
I don’t know, Jake.
What would your mother say?
Your aunt then.
I don’t got any aunts, Wes says.
Just marry her, okay? I know a guy who can get a ring and that. Okay?
Alright, here we are, Jake points again.
They see two men at a booth near a window. It’s after close, and it’s dark, just one light on in the whole place. They’re having coffees and sandwiches, cigarettes. One’s in a suit with eyeglasses. The other is wearing a white shirt, a tie.
So we just go up to the window? Wes asks.
Yeah. Just stand next to me.
Can I smoke?
He and Wes walk up to the café, slowly, their shoes echoing out over the water. Coming through the fog, they appear in the window gradually. The dim light catches onto them and paints their faces white, like two bodies just washed up from the waves.
There’s a moment where the two men are smiling with their coffees. The next, one of them, the one with glasses, is recoiling from the window. The other one looks cross, and, through the window, tries to wave Jake and Wes away. But Jake and Wes stand still, staring down at the men. The man in the tie gets fed up and shakes his head. He starts to get up and the man in the suit and glasses grabs his friend’s arm.
Then Jake reaches into his pocket and produces a plastic bag. It’s filled with water. Inside, a goldfish flits about.
What the hell is that? Wes asks. You got a fish in your pocket?
Why are you showing them a fish?
Stop talking, Jake snaps out the side of his mouth.
They stay still for a moment. Wes tries not to look in Jake’s hand. The man in the tie breaks away from his friend. Heads into the darkness.
Hey, the other guy’s coming out here, Wes says.
In seconds a bell sounds as the door’s opened. Then the man in the white shirt and tie is coming towards them, in the wind, brandishing a truncheon.
You get him, Jake says without breaking his stare.
Jake doesn’t look away, even for a moment, doesn’t move even as the wind picks up and tosses his hat into the harbour. He doesn’t even twitch or look over as the man with the club shouts get back. There are sounds; the club bouncing off the building, the dull sound of hands on fabric. Then there is pleading, a scream for help. Jake doesn’t acknowledge the foot-scrapes on the deck or the dull thuds of a struggle. The man inside is frozen too, seemingly unable to do anything. Only when glass breaks and there’s a real scream does his head shoot around, just in time to see his friend getting dragged back out through the shattered front door.
When the man in the suit looks back to the window, Jake is still there, huge and unmoving. The bag neat and tight in his palm. There are more dull thuds, then a large clatter. Sniffles and sobs coming through the darkness. A tremendous smash, then silence. Later, the clearing of a throat.
The man in the restaurant closes his eyes for as long as he can, and when he opens them, Jake is still there. He takes off his eyeglasses, sets them down, and covers his face. When he uncovers it, the hand, the fish, it’s all there, except there are two men now. One of them, Wes, has blood on a pantleg, a big splotch across his grey coat.
When he covers his face for a third time, the man inside decides he isn’t going to uncover it again. He lets out a sound, but from the outside, no one can hear what it is. In minutes, he’s completely alone.
You didn’t tell me about any fish.
The fish? Jake asks, rolling the bag around in his enormous palm. They walk along the boardwalk, away from the café, coming in and out of the lamp-light.
Yeah the fish. Why a fish?
It was just the job. S’what they wanted done.
Doesn’t matter why, Jake says.
But do you know?
You gotta forget about it. Doesn’t matter.
Sounds like you do know what it means though. And who was that guy?
Kid, Jake stops, it doesn’t matter. It could be anything. It could be nothing. Guy says you hold a fish, you hold a fish. If you need to know, you know, but you don’t ask why.
Alright, Wes shrugs.
What’d you do to the guy? The other guy, Jake asks.
I dropped a cinderblock on him. Split his melon open. I dunno.
You kill him?
Maybe. He might make it, though. You think?
Put him through the shop door, too.
Yeah, Wes says quietly.
Heh. Hey, that’s alright, Jake says, clapping him on the shoulder. He makes like he’s going to throw the fish in the harbour like a grenade, but doesn’t.
He was saying stuff about his business or property or something. I hate guys like that. Like having a café makes him so big, you know? Mind his own business.
Yeah I don’t like those guys neither, Jake says. You can have a smoke now, kid.
Wes lights his cigarette after three tries. A gentle rain is coming down through the fog.
I think I killed the guy.
I think you did too.
You know, I got involved because of mom, but now she’s gone and here I am still.
Just a job, Jake says.
I didn’t mean to kill the guy, Wes says, wiping his coat. What a mess.
Let’s say you finish college, you go out --- teach a bunch of kids or whatever. You do a bad job with their morals ---- not even on purpose --- and what happens to those kids?
Yeah, Wes says.
You do it long enough, you might be turning out a half dozen sickos a year. Rapists and real maniacs. Who’s to say a job’s good or bad? You know what matters?
I see what you’re saying, but I don’t think---
You know what matters? Jake stops.
Family. Jake points at Wes’ chest, right at his heart, to the left of the gore.
So you’re saying go for it.
I know a guy. We’ll get you a ring.
You’ll see. It makes all the difference, Wes. Coming home to a family? Nothing like it.
You pop the question, we’ll have you two over for dinner.
I wasn’t a strongman. Strongman’s a nobody. You know what a strongman is?
He’s a phony, doing parlour tricks. I was an acrobat. Tumbling, trapeze, you name it. That’s where the real strength is. Strongman just uses trick weights, or if they actually lift, it’s just technique --- turning your ankles the right way, you know?
I didn’t know that, Wesley says.
Here, Jake says, handing the little golden fish to Wes. He climbs onto the edge of the boardwalk, wraps his hands around the lamp-post. His face reddens, reddens some more, and he breathes out --- suddenly he begins to rise. Soon he’s suspended himself at a right angle from the black pole, so he’s completely horizontal.
Looks like a tornado’s taking me, huh? Jake says.
Yeah, I see it.
Takes real muscle for this, he says. He’s completely sideways.
Yeah, Wesley takes a drag.
I’m telling you. Pop the question. That’s what you gotta do, Jake smiles, suspended over the black water.
ABOUT THIS STORY
This story--originally titled THE MAN WITH THE FISH--is technically the first story I ever had published, and my first US publication too, in the University of Maine's literary journal "Words & Images". It's one of my oldest--written in the spring of 2010. I only ever thought this story could be a part of a larger, contemporary short story collection for a little while, but that while was long enough that it was included in SHORTSTORYCOLLECTION.RTF, six personal computers ago. Ultimately, it would feel out of place amongst ten other modern stories, so it has been, as it should be, left out. But it's a very weird, fun, and earnest story and one that I'm proud of, even today.
You'll notice some very familiar recurring themes here (marital anxiety, dysfunctional family, violence, guilt) and some very obvious noir influences. It's also the shortest story I've ever written, and gets the job done at just 1900 or so words. I don't know if I could do as good a job with those parameters today. This story has a great ending, a strong anchoring image/symbol, and an interesting dynamic between the who characters. I couldn't imagine writing something like this today, but I'm happy to share it with you nonetheless. I hope you liked it!
Thanks for reading,