Exploring the art of prose


“The Deepest Part of the Lake” by John Haggerty

Echoes in fiction are enormously satisfying for the reader. By returning to or repeating an object or a thought or even just a word, the writer creates not only depth but also a sense of a whole. All these things are connected, the writer is saying. The echoes allow the reader to not only understand the connections that are being made within the story, but also the ways in which the story reflects the outer world.

“The Deepest Part of the Lake,” by John Haggerty, is less than 1,000 words. Haggerty chooses his words carefully, with a poet’s attention to the line. In the second sentence of both the opening and the closing paragraphs, a word is repeated. In the opening paragraph, the word “arc” is used as a verb to describe the way a bridge crosses a body of water. In the final paragraph, the word “arc” is used as a noun, to describe a character’s life. Making this connection between the beginning and the end of this story adds to its meaning and allows the reader the opportunity to connect the various strands.

The most exciting thing that ever happened around town was when they found out that Russian mobsters from LA had been dumping bodies in the lake. It was the bridge, arcing gracefully out over the narrowest but deepest section of water. Shelley, looking at it from the shore for the first time with LA Russian mobster eyes, saw how irresistible it must have been. A midnight trip up I-5, being careful not to drive conspicuously slow or recklessly fast, a couple of hours and there you are. You stop the car, pop the trunk, wrestle the weighted, stiffening corpse over the guardrail and then, splash, it’s gone, and it’s nothing but vodka and caviar for another couple of months.

Seven bodies were eventually fished out. The LAPD was there for three weeks, doing whatever it is that police departments do when they find things like that. They commandeered the campground and the boat ramp, and that put a serious dent in everybody’s pockets, it being the height of the tourist season and all. The Trout Basket shut down completely for the duration, so Shelley had a lot of time on her hands.

Dean would pick her up in the morning, make some joke about their big last summer after high school, and they would drive aimlessly around for a while. But in the end they would drift down to the lake, powerless against the gravitational pull of it. They sat on the shore for hours at a time, sweltering in the sun, watching the police boats make slow, inscrutable circles under the bridge.

Shelley believed that Dean was trying to get her pregnant. She wasn’t sure why she thought this, but she was certain that it was true. She actually had dreams about it, that she was in his room, lying on the bed while he sat at his desk beneath the Sonora High pennant and the picture of the football team, doing that squinty, vaguely sweaty thing that he did with his face when he tried to concentrate, using a safety pin to poke holes in strip after strip of condoms. The dreams were so vivid and convincing that she asked Margie from the Basket to help her get the pill.

They went to a Planned Parenthood office in Modesto. The anti-abortion protesters were there, heavily laden with bibles and placards of dismembered fetuses. It was a hot, smoggy day, and they all seemed a bit downcast, but perked up at the sight of Margie’s car. Their attention focused magnetically on Shelley, and they began shouting things at her, promising her money, threatening her with fiery torments in the afterlife, screaming, “Please, mommy, don’t kill me,” shrieky, high-pitched fetus voices. Margie stood there on the curb for a few moments, surveying the scene. “Jesus. Dumb fucks,” she said, and pulled Shelley past them into the building.

The work at the lake stretched on and on, as if the police would be there trolling for Russian mobster corpses until the end of the world. It all felt so sad to her then, the long curve of human existence. These men had come all this way, from Moscow, Siberia, the Russian steppes, wherever it was they were born, only to end up all fishy white and bloated on a makeshift coroner’s table in a fisherman’s campground in the Sierra foothills. Perhaps if they had known, they would have been just as happy to be vacuumed out of their mother’s womb in Novosibirsk, saving everybody a lot of time and trouble. Or maybe LA was enough, getting off the plane, blinking at the palm trees in the bright California light, taking in their first lungful of the overheated air of Brad Pitt and Marilyn Monroe. When they felt the gun barrel press against their skull or the garrote tightening around their neck, Shelley hoped that they were grateful for the time they had been given, for having gone somewhere, done something, even if the only trace of it would be a barricaded boat ramp and a little bit of police overtime.

She glanced over at Dean and wondered what he would say. She could see it then, the protracted arc of his life. Rising from stock checker to manager of the PAK’nSAVE. Putting on the pounds. Never missing a Sonora High football game, not a single one. Becoming famous for it, for his desperate, unwavering loyalty. And being willing, finally, to settle for that, to be the superfan, the Guy Who’s Always There, long after the Friday nights of his strength and beauty and youth were gone.

JOHN HAGGERTY’s  most  recent  work  appeared  in  Carolina  Quarterly,  Fourteen Hills,  Indiana  Review,  and  Michigan  Quarterly  Review.  He  lives  in  Northern California  and  is  the  founding  editor  of  The  Forge  Literary  Magazine.


Author’s Note

I once had a writing professor who said that he never started a story until he had completely defined every scene in it—the purpose of the scene, the information divulged, the emotions to be engendered.

It was one of the most shameful things I have heard in my life. Shameful for me, I mean. My writing process—if it can be dignified with such a phrase—is almost the exact opposite of this. Most of the time that I am “writing” is spent wandering around in the literary wilderness. By which I mean looking up obscure internet facts, finding reasons to become politically outraged, staring at the wall in terror and napping. We probably don’t need to share this information with my wife.

My dark little secret is that I seem to have very little control over what I write—perhaps none at all. I understand why people believe in muses. Invisible spirits that capriciously grant inspiration to abject humans around the world—it’s as good a theory as any. In any event, I really can’t take very much credit for any of my work.

Unfortunately, this creates an awkward situation when I’m asked by a prestigious publication to write an essay on craft—I really can’t claim to have a whole lot of it. Craft, I mean. All I can give you is a summary of how I wrote “The Deepest Part of the Lake” and hope that it will be of use to someone.

This particular piece came into the world in a state very close to the way it appears now—bridge, mobsters, Planned Parenthood, Dean. I wrote it in the space of a few hours during a forced-march flash festival that my writer’s group was putting on. There is a kernel of non-fiction in it—Russian gangsters from Los Angeles were, at one point, actually using a lake in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada (the New Melones Reservoir for the curious) for the disposal of their victims. Everything else in the story came from—well, we’ve talked about that.

Looking over that initial version, I thought it was nearly done. But experience has taught me that when I think I’m 90% finished with a piece, I’m really closer to halfway there. So, as I do with these things, I put it away for a while, hoping that either I would become smarter or that the muses would revisit me.

When I came back to it, I thought there might be enough material there for a short story, rather than a flash. So I added some backstory and spent a long time thinking about possible plots, maybe something involving the Planned Parenthood center, or perhaps some parallel narrative involving actual Russians. But after considerably more time wandering in the wilderness, the story stubbornly resisted my efforts to expand it. Eventually it became clear that this piece really wanted to stay short.

I finally came to the realization that the story needed just a little bit more from the mobsters. They are the catalyst for Shelley’s musings, and the metaphorical arc of their lives—a long journey leading to an abrupt and unpleasant end—felt like the anchor that the story needed.

The section starting with, “These men had come all this way…” then, is the only section of the piece I can legitimately take credit for. It’s not much, but I think it’s what the muse would have wanted me to do.

So now, finally, comes the craft section, in the form of some of my personal suggestions for writers:

JOHN HAGGERTY’s  most  recent  work  appeared  in  Carolina  Quarterly,  Fourteen Hills,  Indiana  Review,  and  Michigan  Quarterly  Review.  He  lives  in  Northern California  and  is  the  founding  editor  of  The  Forge  Literary  Magazine.