Short Fiction: Beneath the Gate

Posted: August 10, 2009 in Short Fiction
Tags: , ,

[New short fiction from Erin Snyder.  Erin is an unemployed writer currently living in New York City.  He maintains several websites and blogs, including The Middle Room, located here: ]

Of the four days Dale Brogan had scheduled in New York City, three were committed to meetings and negotiations over a proposed merger.  His company was entertaining these discussions to fuel media and investor interest.  Before he even left for the city, Dale’s CEO had pulled him aside to let him know there was no way in hell he’d see his company married off.  “Try to sound like we’re taking them seriously, though,” the old man had said, laughing.  “Talk them up, give them the works.  After all, we’ll look like shit if they don’t make a good offer.”

On Friday night, after his final, futile meeting, Dale bought a half dozen bobble-heads depicting various celebrities, three overpriced mugs advertising Broadway shows he’d never heard of, and a bag full of key chains he could hand out at the office to coworkers whose names he couldn’t remember.  Then he ate at a “real New York deli,” so he could answer “yes” to everyone who asked.  He even walked through Time Square, which he decided was, in fact, as bad as expected.

And he realized that he had no idea what he should do the next day.  What else was there in New York?  He knew there were various boroughs and neighborhoods, though he had no clue what that meant, and no real interest in finding out.  He could just stay in his hotel room, order room service, and watch TV, but that was an invitation for trouble.  He needed an answer to the question, “What did you do in New York?”  He needed something spectacular.

That’s what led him to Pacey Seghers’s Private Tours.  He found the listing online in an ocean of other touring companies and services.  Pacey’s stood out because it looked small and unprofessional.  Most of the others looked like overproduced affairs, but Pacey’s looked like a real New Yorker with a boat; nothing fancy or excessive.  Dale picked up the hotel phone and dialed the number.

“Hey,” someone said on the other end of the phone.

“Hi,” Dale said, a bit thrown off.  “Is this… Seghers Tours?”

“What?  Oh.  Yeah, this is Pacey,” the voice said.  “I do private tours down the Hudson and up the East River.  One person, small group, whatever you need.”

“Great,” Dale said.  “You don’t have an opening tomorrow, do you?”

“Ah,” the voice said, trailing off for a minute.  “Yeah.  Know what?  I can do tomorrow.  Come by around ten, eleven.”  He blurted out an address, which Dale jotted down on a post-it note.

“Fantastic,” Dale said.

“Sure.  See you tomorrow,” Pacey said, hanging up the phone without ever taking Dale’s name.

*     *     *

“You the guy who called last night?” Pacey asked, when Dale showed up at the dock.

“I’m Dale Brogan,” Dale said, offering Pacey his hand.  “Where are we going?”

“We’ll head around the bottom of the island,” Pacey said.  “See the statue.  Everyone wants to see that damn statue,” he said under his breath.  He led Dale along the dock to his boat, a cabin cruiser that looked like it was at least twenty years old and hadn’t been cleaned more than once in that time.  Pacey saw Dale looking it over and laughed.  “Don’t worry.  She’ll stay afloat.  Hop in.”

They started out almost at once, and Dale was relieved to discover Pacey seemed to know what he was doing.  He even started talking about the area, which celebrities lived where, and locations where various movies and television shows had shot.  He provided this information absently, like he was talking in his sleep.

They traveled south around the lower tip of Manhattan, and Pacey nodded towards the Statue of Liberty.  “I don’t want to get too close,” he said.  “Some of those larger ships would be just as happy to cut us in half.”

The tour continued as they swung north up the East River, until Pacey stopped the boat beneath a bridge.  They were sitting between what looked like a park in Queens and some island separating them from Manhattan.

“That’s Wards,” Pacey said, motioning towards the small island.  “Astoria’s on your right.”  He stooped to grab a cooler.  “Come on.  Best part of the tour’s right here.”  He stood by the back of the boat and looked around.  There were no other boats nearby, and Pacey grinned.  He opened the cooler, and the smell of rotting fish filled the air.  He reached in and grabbed something grey and slippery then tossed it into the water.

“What are we doing?” Dale asked.

“Just watch.  You see that?”

“See what?” Dale said, leaning over.  He couldn’t see the fish at all.  Pacey tossed another one in, and Dale watched it slowly drift down until it was nothing but a dark blur beneath the surface.  Then, suddenly, something darker and far larger moved around it, and the fish was gone.

“Ha!” Pacey said.  “Saw that, right?”

“What… what was that?” Dale asked, leaning closer.

“Here, I’ll see if I can get her to come up,” Pacey said, laying down on the boat.  He dangled the fish into the water, letting the head drop beneath the surface.  Everything was still and silent, and Pacey sighed.  “Come on, Hennie,” he said.  “Come on.”  He reached in further, until his hand was submerged.  He lay there without moving for almost a minute.  “Hey, Dale.  Do me a favor.  Look around, make sure no one’s nearby, right?”

Dale looked all around.  “No other boats,” he said.

“Good.  Here, have a gander,” Pacey said.  Dale looked down into the water.  The creature beneath them was huge; larger than the boat, and when it moved, the water shifted with it.  “Pretty cool, right?” Pacey said, dropping the fish, which was caught by a tentacle and brought to a round mouth.  It had many, many mouths, each lined with thin, hair-like teeth.   The loose skin on the fish peeled off, sucked into one of the creature’s maws, until only bone remained.

One of the tentacles broke the surface almost at once and flopped over the side of the boat.  Pacey patted the scaly side and tossed it another fish.

“What is it?” Dale asked.

“Best damn part of the tour,” Pacey said.  “Guarantee you, you won’t see this on any of those yachts.  Hennie, here, has been a family secret for a long time.”

“But… what is it?” Dale asked again.  “Never saw one of those at an aquarium.”

“Well.  It’s Hennie,” Pacey said.  “Old Hennie’s been here a long, long time.  Know where we are?  We’re on Hell Gate.”  He raised his eyebrows while he said this.  “Don’t worry, though, just a name.”

“Are there a lot of those things around here?” Dale asked.  The sun had come out from behind a cloud, and he could feel the heat beating down on him.  He covered his forehead with his hand to keep the light out of his eyes.

“No, just Hennie,” Pacey said, petting it.  “My dad introduced me to old Hennie when I was a boy.  Bout this tall.”

A tentacle longer than the length of Dale’s body was exploring the boat, feeling around.  It was only a few feet from Dale, and he had a closer look.  It was dotted with white, unblinking eyes, each the size of a quarter.  He leaned in close to it and squinted.  The tentacle looked back at him then began moving closer.  Dale stepped back.

“Don’t worry,” Pacey said.  “Hennie won’t hurt you.  She’s just looking for food.”

“Long as I’m not food,” Dale laughed.  He reached out with a finger and touched the tentacle.  It was almost leathery in texture.

“Nah.  Hennie, she just eats dead things.  Won’t touch food unless it’s been rotting for a few days.  She mostly stays near the bottom, but I come out here and feed her.  Only, well, she’s getting sick.”

“Water’s filthy,” Dale said.  “I’m not surprised.” One of the tentacles had found the cooler and reached inside.  It wrapped around one of the fish and pulled it out.  Other tentacles came after, grabbing food then bringing it to the mouths.  Dale tried to count the tentacles, but he gave up around fifteen.

“It ain’t the pollution,” Pacey said.  “It’s her diet.  She’s an old thing.  Something like Hennie, well, fish ain’t what she needs.  I tried bringing her lamb once; hamburger, too, but it’s not close enough.”

“Close enough to what?” Dale asked, watching the creature eat.  It was strangely hypnotic, the tentacles acting in tandem, several mouths eating at once.

“People,” Pacey said.  “That’s the short of it.  Old things, that’s what they’re meant to eat.  When I was young, Hennie was better.  Back then, every week or so the mob had a boat out here to dump a body.  They didn’t even know about Hennie: they just liked that it was deep.  Back then, Hennie got to eat like she’s supposed to.  Now, forget about it.  City’s a different place these days, safe for tourists and college kids.  Not so good for Hennie, though.”  The tentacles still explored the empty cooler.  Pacey looked at Hennie and said, “All gone.  No more fish today.”

The creature continued to splash around for another minute or two before vanishing below, back down in the rocky depths beneath the Hell Gate Bridge.  Pacey kept watching the water for another minute or two then started towards the cabin.  “Oh, I got some beers in the fridge.  You want one?”

Dale sat down and yawned.  “Sure,” he said.

Pacey grabbed a couple cans and tossed one to Dale, who opened it and started drinking.  “Hey,” Pacey said.  “Do me a favor, when we get back.  Don’t go telling everyone about Hennie, right?  I mean, you want to tell some friends, that’s cool, but I don’t want the other tours catching wind, you know.  They got bigger boats, and they’d just muscle me out.”

“Sure,” Dale said.  He held the beer against his head and wondered if he’d gotten sunburned.  He’d have to check a mirror when he got back to the hotel room.  The motor started up, carrying the boat away from Hell Gate Bridge and the creature lurking below.  It had been a weird day, but at least he’d accomplished his mission: when he got back home and everyone asked what he did in New York, at least he could say he saw the Statue of Liberty.

  1. Hsiang says:

    Very nicely done, Erin, you got the numinous intertwined with the everyday and captured the feeling of a traveler “stuck” in an exotic locale to a tee. I really felt for poor Hennie. Wish I had a couple of zombies to push overboard for her. Like feeding the ducks at the park.

  2. braak says:

    Man, I like that our most regular commenter is a literary critic.

    That is rad.

  3. Hsiang says:

    Thanks, but it’s not like I’m John Clute…or am I?

  4. braak says:

    Well, you are known for your combination of ideational fecundity and combustible language.

    Unlike Erin, who is known primarily for his combustible fecundity and ideational language.

  5. Dave says:

    Nice piece of writing there – I was rather worried it would fall into the “unwitting tourist falls victim to friendly but callous local and his pet monster” trap, but it wound up beautifully.

    Combustible fecundity sounds painful. Or an out-take from Hancock.

  6. Erin says:

    Braak: Funny you should mention that. I wrote a story a few days ago about combustible fecundity.

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    I think what I was most taken with when reading this as a submission is how “at ease” the story is with itself. It doesn’t bang you over the head with extended characterization of the two players. It doesn’t dig deep into either man’s psychological reactions to this undeniable bit of weirdness in their lives.

    In short, it all just happens, and lets the reader fill in (or leave empty) whatever blanks he or she needs to.

    One of those stories where you start smiling because the story’s not going quite where you expected it to. Happy to have read it, Mr. Snyder, keep ’em coming.

  8. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I claim Jeff’s response. And in the spirit of supporting independent artists, I filed for rights to it before him (stupid Holland for posting online–sucker!) so he no longer owns his opinion. I do.

    I really enjoyed this, Erin. Sort of like what Jeff said; I find it strange, yet also a combination of coziness and laid-back “chill”.

  9. Jesse LaJeunesse says:

    This is undeniably the prettiest story about a Thing That Should Not Be I’ve ever read. I suspect that would still be true even if I had ever read another story in that genre that even attempted to be pretty (which is sometime to say on its own). It had that moment of satisfaction, and I find those moments in stories rare and fulfilling.

  10. braak says:

    I especially like Erin’s clever play off of the standard trope that Dave mentioned: hapless tourist gets fed to monster by callous local. By having that trope in my mind, the suspense of the story builds dramatically, only to leave me pleasantly surprised and actually satisfied by the ending.

    Good show, Erin.

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