A note in a bottle, a little boy, and a lonely woman.
|The woman was so absorbed in her thoughts that she failed to hear the gentle tinkle of the bottle hitting the rocks beneath her feet. She sat on the end of the dock with her feet dangling over the water. If she displayed any emotion at all, her lips showed only the slightest smile.
“Ma’am? If you don’t pull your lines up occasionally, you’re just feeding the crabs.”
This piece of advice was tendered by an eight year old boy occupying the opposite side of the dock. He put a large crab in his cooler and began to pull up the chicken necks he had tied to a dozen strings, coiling each string around a flat stick.
“OK… Yes, Oscar, you’re right, I am.”
She smiled at him, a towhead with a smattering of freckles across his nose. If not for the T-shirt and shorts he wore – and had it been the Mississippi instead of the Chesapeake Bay – he could have passed for Tom Sawyer.
She started to get up but Oscar offered helpfully, “I’ll get ‘em for you, Ma’am. You gotta pull ‘em up anyway, it’s almost sunset.”
“Ok, thanks, Oscar. Then I think I’ll just sit here a while longer and enjoy the view.”
She watched him pull up her lines and lay them beside her. Then he loaded his cooler and crabbing gear onto the woman’s bicycle he used and peddled off toward town. He was too short to reach the seat and pedals at the same time, so he stood up and pedaled.
The bottle tinkled again and this time she looked down.
The bottle bobbed on the tiny wavelets and from time to time gently touched the granite riprap along the shoreline. Thinking a half-formed complaint against rogues who would carelessly toss a bottle overboard, she reached down with her net and captured it. She started to get to her feet to put it into a nearby trashcan when she realized there was a piece of white paper inside the bottle.
‘A candy bar wrapper or something,’ she thought, then looked again. It looked more like a piece of lined note paper, carefully folded the long way.
Girlishly, her heart gave a flip as she thought, “A message in a bottle!”
She twisted the rusty cap and shook the bottle. The paper fell into her hand.
Carefully she unfolded it and began to read. The paper seemed stiff with age.
‘June 11, 2002. Message #7 since 1998.
‘Hello. My name is Steve. I am 29 and lonely.
‘I shouldn’t be; I am married and have a year old son and a good job. I shouldn’t be lonely, but I am. I have a hollowness inside that almost consumes me.
‘My life, to any outsider, would seem perfect, but it’s not. I was raised to consider marriage a one time thing, so I don’t have much hope that it will improve.
‘I hope somebody finds this. And I really hope that somebody is a woman that, ideally, I could someday meet and just talk to.
‘Just talk, even if just one time.
‘I’ll know you if I meet you.
The woman read and reread the letter, then carefully folded it and put it between the pages of a small notebook. She lightly screwed the lid on the bottle and without thinking, dropped it inside the large sweetgrass bag beside her.
As she looked up, she saw the last sliver of the sun disappear across the Bay, painting the few clouds on that side of the sky with countless shades from orange to magenta.
She was spellbound as she gathered up her belongings and walked slowly to her car, pausing often to look back. As she put her net and basket in the trunk, a Sheriff’s Department car stopped at the dock and the driver, a young man in a tan uniform got out.
She opened the door and sat down, pausing for a last look.
The deputy was silhouetted against the majestic sky. He pointed a camera at the horizon and she could see the sunset filling the display screen. It was an exceptionally moving scene, power and authority juxtaposed with even more power and even greater authority, and she regretted that her camera was in trunk, knowing that by the time she retrieved it, the spell would be broken.
“Can I help you with any of that, Miss Marcie?” The boy said as he strapped his gear to his bicycle. At fifteen, he was tall and lanky and showing signs of becoming a handsome man.
“Oh, I hope so, Oscar. I’m hung up on something under the dock,” she said, kneeling.
He dropped to his chest and reached down, tugging the chicken neck loose from a piece of driftwood. Just as quickly, he jumped up and grinned, turning back toward his bike.
“See you next year, I guess.”
“I’m sure you will, and you’ll be driving by then, won’t you?”
“I hope so! I already have my truck – I saved up the money. I can’t wait.” He shook his head and smiled, “I can’t wait.”
“See you then. Maybe you can take me for a drive.”
“Sure will. Say, did you find any more bottles lately?”
“None since the third one, a couple of years ago.”
He waved, got on his bike, and pedaled off.
She leaned against a piling and let her mind drift – the same direction it always had since she found the first bottle years back.
In her mind she saw him tall and dark haired, bright white teeth, and a slightly hurt look in his eyes from the years of unhappiness he had endured. He was divorced now, the note in the last bottle said with sadness. A man of honor, she thought, who would have rather endured the suffering than run from it. But it was his wife who left, and who left him with a young son to raise and a living to make.
Secretly, she dreamed of the man mysteriously appearing, knowing her without speaking. She wouldn’t need to be swept off her feet – the touch of a feather would do it.
She had never been married, which was a source of puzzlement to her. She felt sure that there was nothing wrong with her: she was intelligent, attractive, and had many friends. Long ago she realized, as one of her co-workers had put it, she had just been the victim of the numbers gap: when the boys and girls paired off, she was left out.
It wasn’t the way she wanted it, and in her dreams, saw herself as a good wife, loving and loyal and willing to work at a marriage.
Perhaps even a mother.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Oscar tinker with his beloved truck – eleven years old but paid for, he had proudly told her. Try as he might, the truck merely groaned weakly when he turned the key. Finally in desperation – and probably embarrassment - he broke down and called his father.
A few minutes, a police car appeared and the deputy got out.
“No luck, buddy?”
“No, sir. It just won’t start. The battery’s good, I’m pretty sure.”
“Ok, turn the key and let me watch.”
The man stood there with his hands on his hips, peering into the engine compartment as the truck groaned again.
“Ok, ok. That’s enough. There’s smoke coming from the battery box. You got a Coke?”
Oscar just looked at him a moment, then reached into the truck bed and took a soda out of his cooler. His dad popped the top, took a sip, and poured most of the rest of the bottle on the battery terminals.
“Let her sit two or three minutes and pour some bottled water on it to get the stickiness off.”
“What’d that do?” Oscar asked.
“There was corrosion between the terminal and battery connector. Once it starts, it gets worse and worse and it gets hot because lead oxide is an insulator. It was so hot, I saw smoke.
“As the connection got worse, it drops the voltage and makes less current available to crank the starter.”
“The Coke removed the corrosion…” Oscar offered hopefully
“I hope so. Try it now.”
Oscar poured water over the terminals and sat under the wheel. The motor spun two or three times and started.
“Tighten it up, then go by Sonny’s.” his father said, “and buy a couple of red and green felt rings to put under the terminals; they help keep the corrosion down. He’ll know. Go home and take the battery cables off - there is a terminal brush in the roll-up tool bag in the Mustang. Brush the terminals and connectors and wipe a bit of motor oil around the posts and connectors, where they make contact. Tighten it up real good. That ought to do it.”
“Thanks, Pop. I wish I knew half the stuff you know.”
“You will, and more. I’ve just been around longer.” He paused and looked down, thoughtfully. “I never change the oil in my truck that I don’t remember what my grandfather told me: ‘Turn the filter hand tight, then half a turn more.”
He slapped Oscar’s shoulder. “That’s four generations back, for you.”
Oscar nodded. “So now I know something that Papa taught you; that’s pretty cool. When I teach it to my son, it’ll be five generations.”
“That won’t be the last thing you learn that came from Papa. Most of the practical things I know came from him or Dad.
“Why don’t you go ahead home and take care of that battery. I still have an hour and a half to go. I’ll be at the ball field by the second or third inning, I hope.”
“Ok, you be careful, Pop. It’s just the two of us.”
“You know it, Bud.”
The deputy watched his son drive off and turned to leave, then saw Marcie.
“I wasn’t being nosy,” she said laughingly. “I was already here.”
“That’s ok. Nothing private.” He walked toward her.
“Oscar’s a fine young man,” she observed. “Did you know he took me for a ride in his truck?”
“Oh, so you’re Miss Marcie… Yeah, he told me. That was nice of you to make a fuss over his old truck.” He smiled down at her. “He earned every penny it cost.”
“So he said. That’s something to be proud of.”
“Yes it is, but it’s not why I made him do it. I’ve seen too many kids hurt acting like… acting up. I figured if he worked hard enough for it, it would mean enough to him that he wouldn’t tear it up. And get hurt, to boot.”
“That makes a lot of sense, but Oscar is a pretty level headed young man. I wouldn’t worry too much.”
“My name is Oscar, too, by the way.” He bent low and extended his hand. “But I’ve done some writing. My nom de plume is Steve.”
Her eyes opened perceptibly and he laughed. “Yeah, that Steve. Oscar told me you found some of my bottles. He doesn’t know I sent them, though.’
He squatted beside her, resting lightly on the balls of his feet and began untying a knot in one of her crabbing lines.
Marcie’s face flushed as she tried to think of something clever – or maybe just not stupid - to say. Finally, she half-stammered out, “What made you think of writing notes and putting them in bottles?”
He lowered his head and stopped moving his hands as he thought. “Uh, I was lonely, but I wasn’t available. I guess I thought there was no real chance of anybody finding a bottle. But I could imagine that somebody would, without much chance of being placed in a bad situation.
“Of course, that’s all changed now.”
She bobbed her head. “I know.
“I guess it was kind of a lame thing…” Oscar mumbled.
“I don’t think so. Who knows how many other women found one of your bottles? I’m sure they all thought it was romantic.”
“Romantic.” He chuckled. “Sounds better than lame, that’s for sure.”
He looked at his watch. “Do you like baseball?”
“I do. I watch college baseball religiously.”
“Oscar is the starting pitcher tonight, for the first time.” He sounded nervous, “ High school, though. I’d be pleased if you could meet me there – I still have a while to work.”
She stood up, smiling. “It would be fun. I would love to see Oscar pitch. I’ll wait for you in the home team bleachers.”
Oscar descended the stairs two at a time, his duffle bag effortlessly balanced on his shoulder. The silver bar gleamed on his tan beret.
Marcie smiled at him proudly. “My son, the first lieutenant.”
Long ago, they had decided as a family that Oscar had two mothers. One of them, Marcie, loved him as her own and never missed a ball game, band concert, or PTA meeting, and definitely not his graduation from college, Officer Candidate School, Ranger school, or anything else he was involved in. She didn’t even correct people when they said he favored her as much as he did his father.
If she had thought about it, she would have concluded that – if it really was true – it had to be the love they had for each other that did it. That made them grow alike.
His second mother, Oscar hadn’t seen in eleven or twelve years, but Marcie made it plain that she must have had a reason for leaving him, even though it might not have been a very good one. She stressed to him that since there could come a day when his other mother contacted him and tried to explain; he must be willing to forgive her.
He accepted her advice with a studied, “Ok.”
Now he was reporting to a new duty station as executive officer of the military police detachment at Fort Meade and she was bursting with pride. A certain measure of worry, too, but Oscar was a lot like his father – he exuded confidence and ability, and it was typical for people to unconsciously step aside whenever they were present.
He bent low and kissed her on the cheek. “Be careful Mom; there’s just the three of us.”