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.