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Shanty Days


Brian Bienkowski




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Hunched over, I spit to complete my tobacco-juice circle around the eight-inch hole. I hear shuffling.

“Anything?” my father asks, breaking the dull white noise of whipping wind.

“Nothing,” I reply.

“Yeah, me neither,” he says, seeming to forget his hour-long nap and long-dead minnow.

He pulls at the frozen zipper to look outside. It finally gives and the mesh window reveals horizontal snowfall, making it impossible to see more than ten feet out.

“Can’t even see the cottages ... it’s kind of nice,” I say, fingering the ice chunks in my beard.

“A bad day on the ice always beats a good day at work,” he says for the third time in as many days, alluding to us being completely ignored thus far by Houghton Lake’s fish.

The sides of the old, canvas shanty are flapping violently and the air now smells of hot chocolate. My father tips his 1960 army-issue thermos and groans approvingly with his first sip. He readjusts his bucket to break the ice now formed over his hole.

I bring my minnow up to the surface and toss it into tobacco-stained snow. The wind is picking up heavily as I spike another minnow through the head with a tiny hook attached to a teardrop-shaped lure. I lower it eight feet and sit back without hope.

“I need my lucky lure,” my father whispers to himself.

He stands up gingerly. His camouflage snowsuit is stiff with ice and cracks as he reaches for his gloves.

“You’re crazy, old man,” I say.

His pink face breaks into a smile, highlighting the lines that have formed on his face in recent years.

“Need to change our luck, buddy,” he says. He messes up my hair and unzips the door to go outside.

“Good luck, don’t be feeding them!” he says, without waiting for a reply.

I unzip the window and watch him trudge through the snow with his head down. Ghosts dance around him as the wind reorganizes the surface of the lake.

He disappears after ten paces or so. I take a long drink of whiskey from my pocket flask. It burns going down, giving a false impression of warmth.

As I close the window my pole is suddenly jerked from between my legs. I fumble the flask, spilling it on my lap as I grasp for the suddenly alive pole.

It hums as the drag lets out line much too quickly. My heart is pounding as I struggle to get control. I snap the short pole skyward, feeling a great weight on the other end.  I regain composure and start battling just as my father taught me.

“Don’t reel too fast … let the fish do the work.”

The advice he’s repeated countless times echoes in my head as I prepare to fight alone.

I keep the side of my hand on the line to guide it and it slices my index finger. The fish is dashing in short, quick circles but slowly losing steam. I begin reeling in a slow, deliberate manner, inching it toward the hole. I lean forward, hoping to catch a glimpse in case my line snaps.

A long, flat bill passes three feet under the hole, followed by a dark, green-spotted body. It is the largest pike I’ve ever seen.

I bring it to the surface - trembling uncontrollably - using two hands because of its weight. The fish is docile and hooked impeccably and cleanly through the upper lip. I remove the hook on my first try and lay the fish across the ground to measure it – 38 inches.

I see blood and fear that I’ve injured the fish - forgetting about my damaged finger. I pick it up once more and it shows me its razor teeth. I gently lower it back into the hole. I don’t let go for a few seconds.

The fish remains at the top of the hole for a while as we observe each other. It eventually slinks away - vanishing into the dull green, murky water.

My heart rate paces and skips, I tape up my finger and take a long drink from what’s left in the flask. I put in a wad of chewing tobacco and sit back, leaving my pole un- baited.

I hear soft footsteps outside, and the zipper goes up. I hurriedly reach for my gloves.

“Anything?” my father asks instantly, his lucky lure dangling in his red, swollen hand.



Brian Bienkowski

Brian Bienkowski currently splits his time between Lansing, Michigan, where he’s finishing up a master’s degree in journalism at Michigan State University, and the Ukrainian Village neighborhood on Chicago’s west side.   Born to a loving family on the outskirts of Detroit, he was fortunate to have grown up exposed to the raw, industrial cities of Lower Michigan and the pristine natural settings in the northern part of the state.  He is a contributor to the Lansing City Pulse, Great Lakes Echo, EJ Magazine and Mindful Metropolis.  While a journalist at heart, he enjoys fiction writing for the lack of deadlines and escape from the nuances of the editor/reporter relationship.   



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