The Ferryman

The Ferryman

 

Charlie turned on the coffee and looked out the window. The sun was almost up when he began to stretch into tai chi movements. His bare feet gripped the tiles as he flowed into the first movement with a long inhale if breath, slight pause, then turned into another to exhale just as slowly. Lowering his left arm to go into a third position he paused to stare at the tattoo just below his elbow. It marked him, made him feel branded, and forever connected. He raised his fingers to his lips before gently laying them against his arm.

The image was of a small boat dragging a rock at the end of a frayed rope. Whenever someone asked him what it meant, he would say it had something to do with how we carry our own burdens. But it was more than that. For Charlie the boat used to carry his hopes and aspirations and the rock was the weight of reality that kept the boat from getting very far. But now so many years later, the tattoo was also a reminder that parts of his life had been kept on hold by the weight of memories.

He put an English muffin in the toaster and pulled cream cheese and raspberry jam from the refrigerator. Filled his favorite mug with coffee, creamer and just a dash of bourbon. This was his favorite breakfast. The smells and flavors were direct connections to the two people he had loved the most, his mother and Kevin.

Once he left home his mother’s homemade raspberry jam came twice a year, Christmas and his birthday. And continued until she lost track of who she was and Charlie moved back home to care for her. There was no one else and Charlie knew this day would come when his father died a few years earlier. He decided to stay and start up a real estate business in town as soon as he could sell the one he owned out of state.

The first several years of back living with his mother Charlie cooked all the meals. Toward the end he would fix only a breakfast served later than usual before the caregivers came in to manage the rest of her day. She still knew how to use a spoon, so breakfast was often a bowl of cereal. But her favorite was a toasted English muffin and raspberry jam that she scooped onto the muffin to push around until every large hole was filled. She did this with each half then licked the spoon before handing it off to Charlie. Next holding a half in each hand she bit into first one then the other until there was nothing but fingers to lick. Charlie would gently wipe her face and hands while finishing a story made up to amuse her.

When she passed away Charlie had no desire to move out of the house. It was his now. What he couldn’t remember about the place from childhood would come as little surprises with the same delights of discovery. Other than the necessary repairs there were few changes Charlie would make to the house and property.

 

The dash of bourbon in his coffee was pure Kevin.

They met as boys more than fifty years ago. Each trying to navigate their way through an adolescence pre-programmed with the expectations of manhood. Both had been enrolled at one of those summer camps designed to familiarize young boys with Nature. And it was here the two found the time and place to discover their own. They paired up for every activity offered from swimming to art classes. Their favorite being together in a small boat with Charlie rowing along the shore so Kevin could record pond life with drawings and notations. The sun, the water, the abundance of wriggly things to study and being in each other’s company was just so exhilarating at that age.

Later when they were both eighteen years old and planning their futures, Kevin designed the tattoo that each would have put on their arms as a symbol of how they navigated their own way into manhood.

Choices of college and career separated the two by great distances. They tried keeping in touch as much as possible. After a few years the calls and correspondence naturally ended when they became more involved with their own lives. Neither one of them married nor had children. Neither one wanted a permanent relationship that took the time and care required.

When Charlie was in his early forties, Kevin surprised him with a sudden visit, bringing his clothes, his dog and his bourbon. Charlie had plenty of closet space, a fenced back yard and a liquor cabinet that rarely had more than wine and an open bottle of scotch. There was as much room in his house as there was in his heart for almost anything Kevin wanted to bring along. He stayed for over six months before leaving, coming back only to go again for one reason or another. And each time he’d promise to stay in touch. He didn’t. Months or years later he would be back on the doorstep needing Charlie’s welcoming embrace and loving companionship. Charlie accepted Kevin’s absences because there was always a return, a joyful return. Kevin would be back.

 

Not long after moving into his childhood home Charlie found a perfect parcel of land. Fifty plus secluded acres with a stream running into a small pond suitable for fishing. As soon as he closed the deal he had a bare bones cabin put in by the water, added a dock and bought a small rowboat. During warm weather he would go there to row around the cattails and lilies, peering into the water watching darting bluegills and the herons trying to catch one. This was Charlie’s favorite place to be.

The single room cabin was furnished with cupboards and cook stove at one end and twin beds in an “L” shape lining a corner at the opposite end. The fireplace was to the right of the front door with a single overstuffed chair nearby. A window across from the door looked out toward the pond. In front of the window were two chairs tucked under a table.

The only other person to come to the cabin was Kevin. His notebooks and drawings from those visits lined the shelf over the fireplace, right under a wooden board where he had carefully lettered the motto of their boyhood summer camp:

“to improve and elevate the character of manhood.”

Neither one of them could keep from smiling when they read those words.

 

After breakfast Charlie cleaned up the kitchen, showered, shaved and dressed for work. He was in his seventies now and wasn’t needed in the office to take calls or show property. There was a dependable staff to do that part of the business. He just liked seeing what was new in listings, who was selling and who was interested in buying.

After spending a couple hours at the office Charlie went across the street to the diner. He sat at the counter, ordered a chicken salad sandwich and a second cup of coffee with cream, no bourbon. The last piece of cherry pie looked tempting but he turned it down, paid Rita and left a tip. On his way out the door he ran into the sheriff.

“Hey Charlie. I’ve been looking for you.”

“What’s up, Hank?”

“Sam says he finished the letter and wants you to come by his cell and pick it up.”

“I’ll head there now.”

When he got to the station Charlie nodded to the patrolman at the duty desk and asked if he could go on back.

“Go ahead, Sam’s got about an hour before the state boys come pick him up.”

Sam wasn’t a bad man, just bad at staying out of trouble. And this latest offence was more than the county wanted to handle so they were moving him along to be someone else’s responsibility.

Charlie heard about Sam being picked up a few days earlier and stopped by the jail to see if he wanted Charlie to check on his property while Sam was away. It wasn’t the first time Charlie offered to keep an eye on things and it likely would not be the last.

He found Sam a bit at loose ends, fidgety, angry, maybe a bit regretful, maybe not. The two of them talked. The next day Charlie asked if he could give some paper to Sam and if Hank would let him have a pen if someone watched him until he was through writing and handed it back.

It was one of the many times Charlie left a long rolled up piece of blank paper to be filled in with words by someone with something to say.

It all started with his own letter not long after one of Kevin’s visits. He was sitting at the table in the cabin looking at Kevin’s unfinished bourbon left on the counter and thinking about how messages were left in bottles and sent adrift to float away. No telling where they went or even if they went very far before crashing against a rock and spilling out quickly vanishing words into a tide that only cared about coming in and going out. A tide of waves that rushed back and forth over broken glass shredding personal stories.

But what if the bottles of stories were kept floating safe and bobbing in among the cattails and water lilies of a pond like his? It would be a safer place for them to be. They would fit in more with their surroundings if they were upended so the base of the bottle was kept just above the surface looking like the leaves of a water lily. Brown or green beer bottles would hardly be noticed.

To test his idea Charlie wrote his feelings for Kevin. He poured out as much of his heart as the paper allowed. Then rolled it tight to fit into the neck of a Heineken beer bottle, squeezed in a wine cork and hammered it down with a wooden mallet. It sat on the mantle with Kevin’s journals until he had another bottle ready to join it. No bottle of words should be left all by itself in the water. It should have company.

So he wrote another letter. This one to his deceased mother. He filled the paper with recollections of all the times she comforted him, made him laugh and the sheer dependability of her. This one was put into a brown beer bottle, sealed and stood next to Kevin’s until Charlie could take them out to a perfect place among the cattails.

It was such a good feeling to know that your words were secured in a place where they could forever float about bumping into the written ones of others. Such a good feeling that Charlie thought he would offer the opportunity to others. People needing to express emotions about saying goodbye, or simply remembering and wanting to record that memory. It really didn’t matter what was on the paper. If the writer felt better about something after putting it into words and rolling it up tight for Charlie to set free, that was all that mattered.

At the art supply store he found large thin Japanese printmaking papers that could be cut into long strips to roll up and have on hand. There was plenty of space to write as much or as little as was needed to make the writer feel less forgotten. Feel that they mattered or at least someday what they had to say might matter. There was an intrigue of mystery when, way into the future, these words would be read by someone who was suddenly pulled into a small part of a life already lived. Who could resist this magical way of putting their thoughts down in such a way that resulted in a release for them and offered intrigue to others.

The first person he told about the writing of thoughts or feelings was Rita. He saw her almost daily behind the counter at the diner. She had a daughter away in college and an ex-husband that she never could resist talking about. It was clear that Rita still had more to say. So when Charlie told her about his notes in bottles idea, Rita thought how good it would feel to have someone in a place far away know what a bastard Jack was. She asked for a second sheet of paper two days later when Charlie came back in because one just wasn’t enough.

After Rita it was the Stanleys who lost a son in Afghanistan and wanted their unfinished letter to him sent off in search of a way to connect. And his friend, Gladys, the town librarian who just wanted to recommend the books she liked best to someone in the future. The bakery shop owner thought it a good idea to leave his secret recipe for the best scones around to a possible future baker. And so it went, several years of collecting the words and stories of those who needed to share them.

He let them all think their messages in bottles were going out to sea on Charlie’s next business trip to the coast. Something about them journeying across great expanses of water to land on foreign soils in the future had much more appeal to the writers than bobbing about together among the reeds of Charlie’s pond.

He asked each of the writers to roll their paper up and place it in an envelope, seal it and write their name on the envelope. This small ritual gave them time to change their mind about leaving their story behind or confirm their intention to send it on. Each of these papers were kept rolled up tight in their envelopes until Charlie took them out to his cabin.

On the table in the cabin was a large wooden bowl full of small rocks and corks. Next to the bowl was a coil of baling wire, cutters and pliers. It was here where Charlie carefully unrolled each message to read and then roll up even tighter to fit into the neck of one of the bottles that had been cleaned and dried on the counter. Once a wine cork was stuffed into the mouth of the bottle and hammered in tight, Charlie cut enough of the baling wire to wrap around the bottle below the flange where he twisted it tight so as not to slip off. The two long ends of the wire wrapped around opposing sides of one of the rocks and were twisted tightly together. Neither rock nor bottle could come loose. After they were secured he would take the bottles down to his rowboat and paddle out toward the cattails where he placed them close enough to gently bump into another person’s story.

Sometimes with the breeze rustling through the cattails and the soft clinking of bottles it was almost like the words were being read aloud in lilting whispers. Or maybe more like songs sung quietly all at the same time. Sad as some of the stories might be in print, bobbing about in the company of one another couldn’t help but lift the spirit of their words.

 

He pulled out Sam’s rolled paper, read the words and sighed. Then placed it in a bottle and set it next to the one he had prepared earlier in the week. Before taking them out to the boat Charlie sat by the fireplace with a small glass of bourbon. Kevin would not be coming back. His last note to Charlie was in the other bottle.

A half hour later Charlie put both bottles in the boat. He picked up the oars and smiled at the thought that, ‘Fuck you, Hank’ and ‘I have always loved you’ would be whispered on the water.

What Would Jesus Do?

Ellie was leaning over the kitchen sink listening to the Christian radio station and wondering what to do with her vegetables. If she put the same old vegetables in the same old pot, how was the soup not going to taste the same as it did a few days earlier? Five months ago when her husband, Gerald passed, she was glad to not have to fix meat dishes anymore. Meat required some degree of planning ahead. Would it be beef or pork that needed thawing? Would it be fried or baked? How long could she serve it as leftovers before Gerald realized there was no meat in the casserole? Just vegetables and noodles with a can of creamed soup.

That was Ellie’s favorite, noodles and vegetables with either cream of mushroom or cream of onion soup stirred in. Smash up some saltines for a topping with a bit of shredded cheese and pop it in the oven. She could get four meals out of that one casserole dish. Sometimes when she didn’t feel like scrubbing, peeling and chopping vegetables, she’d just open a can of tuna fish and mix that in instead. Tuna wasn’t meat. It was fish. Just like her sockeye salmon in the red can. With canned salmon she’d mix in some of those smashed up saltines, add an egg, shape into patties and fry in butter. She rather enjoyed the crunch of those fish vertebrae that were left in the can with a bit of salmon skin….added texture.

She turned on the kitchen tap to clean the morning’s harvest of six potatoes, four carrots, two bird-pecked tomatoes and one large onion when she heard the preacher on the radio ask, “What would Jesus do?” Stupid question, Ellie thought, he’d do what he always does, the right thing. These preachers always tossed out two options for Jesus when they were getting to the end of addressing their flock. A congregation of people Ellie thought might be a bit dense to even waste time deliberating on an answer. One option was nasty, mean, thoughtless, and the other was kind, forgiving, and tender. Of course Jesus was going to go for the latter. He had years of practice and did not need anyone giving him advice. Why didn’t those preachers use their Jesus connections to find out something useful?

“Is the neighbor’s dog ever going to stop barking?”

“How do you feel about hip replacements?”

“You had a way with water. Do you have any idea how to elevate these vegetables beyond soup?”

But no, the preacher always asked, “What would Jesus do?” after dragging out some dramatic dilemma that would end with this inevitable question just before the half hour was up. Then the news came on for five minutes, and finally Ellie’s favorite, Southern Gospel Hour.

When Gerald died, one of the first things Ellie did was turn the radio dial off his right wing talk show in search of anything else, and stopped when she heard the deep tone of Mahalia Jackson singing, “Take My Hand Precious Lord”. Hearing that hymn took Ellie all the way back to little white dresses, shiny shoes and her dearly loved Louise. They were bittersweet memories of a childhood empty of any affection beyond what the housekeeper showed her.

Ellie smiled remembering every afternoon on her break Louise would push her way into the front porch rocker and hold out her arms. Ellie would scramble up past rolled stockings to a generous lap of folds and flowers. As the chair rocked slowly back and forth she would tell Louise all about her day, making it up as she went and keeping her ear close to Louise’s chest to hear the rumbles of suppressed laughter deep within. After twenty minutes or so, Louise would lift Ellie down, grab her little hands and say, “Pull!” Ellie went back to her swing, Louise into the house to start dinner.

No, she was never going to move that dial any place beyond 84.2 AM Radio.

Ellie thought it was too bad she wasn’t allowed in the kitchen back then. If she was, she’d know what else to do with these vegetables. Because Louise would have shown her. She would have told her all about how those vegetables needed to be cooked and seasoned before dumped hot and buttered into the white dish that Louise held as she served the family. Ellie kept her eye on that dish in Louise’s hands and watch her slide her big thumb over a newly chipped edge before taking up the spoon and serve the vegetables as she moved around the table. First Ellie’s father, then her mother before smiling down at Ellie as she put extra melted butter over the potatoes and carrots that were spooned onto her plate.

Louise was instructed to only serve the vegetables after slicing the meat and placing it to the right of father’s plate. Only he would determine the portions to serve his family. Later Ellie’s mother would be doing the same with the dessert, varying the sizes as she deemed appropriate.

Ellie never went hungry but was always aware that she could be if she didn’t measure up to the servings they gave her. Whatever was needed to be appropriately fed today would be her pattern to follow tomorrow. Simple. She never went hungry and that was good enough.

In all her years with Gerald it was she who served the food at meal time. Put as much as she thought he would eat on his plate and do the same for herself. The table always set for just the two of them. Never any children that needed to be fed. She asked Jesus about that a long time ago but he never got back to her.

As the gospel music filled the kitchen, Ellie, lost in thoughts of Louise, scrubbed and peeled the potatoes and carrots, sliced up the onion and cut out the bad parts of the tomatoes. Then she boiled the potatoes and carrots together in a pot and melted some butter in a pan for the onion slices. When the boiled vegetables were soft enough and drained she mashed them together and liked the color. She liked it very much. Next she slowly stirred in the browned onion slices with a bit of salt and pepper. It looked good. Later she would heat it up in the oven with some cheese slices spread on top and use the tomatoes as a side dish. It made her hungry just thinking about this new dinner combination and how good it smelled. Putting it in the refrigerator for later, Ellie pulled out two slices of bread, an egg to fry in the butter left from cooking the onion and the jar of mayonnaise. Lunch would be one of her favorite sandwiches, an over medium egg between two slices of white bread slathered with mayonnaise.

Tomorrow she would go into town. The milk was beginning to taste funny and fresh green vegetables were needed. Whenever she tried to grow them, bugs, worms and rabbits got to them first. So mostly her green vegetables came from a can. But on the days she went to town, a bag of fresh spinach or kale would come home with her. Whatever she didn’t eat fresh would be chopped up and put into soups and casseroles.

She could be going into town today but had already made other plans.

After lunch and when the kitchen was cleaned up, Ellie headed out to the shed to find a shovel. Today was the day she was finally going to bury Gerald’s guns. God, how she hated those things. She did not want them in the house one more minute. Today was the day to get it done. She never saw Gerald use them. He probably just wanted to own them, then own a few more.

He never went hunting with the men he hung out with in town. He probably wasn’t asked that often. Ellie suspected that he wasn’t asked because it was one more thing that he wasn’t good at, shooting straight. The men never knew how many guns Gerald owned. And even if he told them, they likely would not believe him.

Ellie knew this because one day she overheard one of them say, “Did you ever notice that when Gerald clears his throat, the next thing he says is a lie.” They laughed at that because Gerald always was clearing his throat before finding his voice. And Gerald couldn’t keep from exaggerating. A forecast of flurries was a blizzard coming. A downpour instead of showers. Like Ellie, the men would politely wait for Gerald to finish his predictions and then pick up the conversation where they left off.

There was no way she was going to tell them about the guns she found stored in a chest shortly after Gerald passed. He had taken great care to wrap each one in an old towel before putting the biggest ones on the bottom then placing the smaller ones on top. There had to be more than a dozen in there. Maybe two dozen! When did he buy them? And where did he buy them? Flea markets most likely. Not by mail. Ellie would have seen the boxes. No, had to be from the flea markets when he said he was going out to rummage through old tools that might be useful.

So where to start digging? Some place where the ground was soft. The garden! Where else? At one end Ellie had tried to grow beans. It was not successful. The few that tried to climb her carefully tied strings just seemed to give up after one twist around. There was little effort to climb further and since they were within reach of a rabbit, well that was that. Canned green beans were just as good and more dependable. Yes, down here at the end by the shed was perfect. It was out of sight from the driveway and the neighbor. Now the question was, how deep? How deep did guns need to be in the ground so as not to pose a problem? Three feet seemed like a safe depth. Five feet long and three shovel widths wide. After a little over two feet deep, Ellie thought it was good enough.

She took her wheel barrow around the back of the house and into the garage. Put the guns in in the order she took them out of the chest. That way the long ones would go in first and the small ones could fill in the spaces before going on top. She kept them in their towels just in case someone came by and she could say she was just taking rags to the shed. A few boxes of bullets were also in the chest and those too would go in the hole.

Wheeling her way out of the garage, around back and out to the garden took a bit more time and effort than she thought it would. She rested on the edge of the wheel barrow between the wooden handles and wiped the sweat with her apron. Maybe she should move that old wooden bench by the shed door over the burial site. Plant a few of her woodruff plants under the bench so they could grow there in the shade. Something good should come from Gerald’s gun collection. Might as well be a place to sit and feel the tickle of woodruff on your ankles.

Ellie stood up and pulled out the first long gun. Placed it in the hole and decided to alternate how they went in, just to conserve space. She could feel the barrel end and laid it next to the handle end of another, then the reverse with the next. Once all those were in she carefully spread the short guns over them, and put the boxes of bullets into the corners. When everything was in the hole she shoveled in the fresh dug dirt and packed it down with the back of the shovel.

Next she dragged the old bench over and squared it up on the mound of dirt and took a seat. Looking over her garden Ellie decided that maybe she would do a bit of weeding tomorrow when she came back from town, planted the woodruff, and dug out a few more potatoes.

It was always better to think of the things she might do than look back on the things she’d already done. Those things were over. Ellie had moved on. It may not have always been in a straight line but she stepped away from her yesterdays with hardly a glance back. She would square her shoulders and slip easily into another day of doing the things she planned on doing. She might have to make adjustments if something unexpected came up but managed to either take care of it or pretend it wasn’t happening. Easy. Living alone and old age simplified her life, her routines and responsibilities. Ellie enjoyed what could be called a “controlled aloneness”. Be seen hanging something on the line once in a while kept the neighbor from stopping by too often to see if she was okay. If there were tea towels and underwear pinned there then Ellie must be fine.

Still the neighbor would check in every few weeks if she had not seen Ellie in town or out in the yard. She was much younger than Ellie and a regular church goer. Or so Ellie thought because when she went back to her own yard, she’d wave and say, “Have a blessed day.” Only Jesus people say that. Ellie would smile and roll her eyes heavenward as if to give recognition to where blessings came from.

The only other person to come by was her old friend Margaret coming at lunch time to have some of Ellie’s soup and make suggestions. Those visits were much more appreciated. Ellie liked Margaret’s company. They were both widows of a similar age. Margaret being the more sociable of the two would come by for a visit if she had the time, bringing fresh bread from the bakers or some homemade jam in the hope Ellie would invite her to stay for lunch. Not that she enjoyed Ellie’s vegetable soup that much but it was a meal she did not have to eat alone. On the other hand, Ellie only left her house to get groceries, do her town business and come back home. No stopping to chat.

Another difference between the two was that Margaret missed her deceased husband and Ellie did not miss Gerald. Not in the slightest. If there was a rating scale for husbands, one to ten, ten being the highest, Ellie would have put Gerald at a solid 3.5 with an occasional 4. He would have received a higher rating if there was just one time Ellie could recall Gerald asking if she’d like to go out to dinner.

She didn’t think Gerald was a bad husband. He was simply Ellie’s only husband, so there really was no personal experience for comparison. Getting together seemed the right thing to do when neither one of them had anyone else in their lives. They were loners but not lonely. Neither one of them had any expectations of the other. Gerald worked, Ellie took care of the house and kept him fed. She had noticed early on in the marriage that they preferred their own company to that of each other. Problem was that although Ellie assumed Gerald wasn’t a bad man, she had no idea if he was a good one. Gerald just was. And after he retired Gerald was always somewhere around, showing up at meal times. They didn’t talk much because there was nothing to talk about. Neither of them had questions or answers if there had been. Over fifty years of shared space and considerable silence seemed to make the marriage work. And continue to work with a certainty of going on for even more years.

So when Ellie came back in the house five months ago and found Gerald laying on the floor, red faced and gripping a meat-filled sandwich he made himself, she did not come closer. Instead she backed up quickly so as not to hear a last gasp if there was going to be one, and waited twenty more minutes in the garage.

That should be enough time for Jesus to figure out what he was going to do.