Message in a Bottle
by David Cain
(a sample from my next novel, Message in a Bottle)
I took a job by the river. Other jobs offered me a little more money but I really liked the location of this place, down by the river. My office was small but it had a wonderful view, overlooking the river, perched above a beautiful spot where dark waters rushed between rocky shores. A large perfectly clear plate-glass window presented me with a panoramic view of a lively scene, the undulating flow of a murky surface, erupting in splashes between green and grey boulders, cutting through the marshy beginnings of a distant forest. I could watch patrons of the restaurants and shopping district as they milled about the promenades along the opposite shore. An airport upstream provided the intermittent roar of big jets as they began their ascent over the path cut by the water, but tucked inside my office, I felt the planes more than I heard them. The view made up, in part, for the poor salary I received. I needed more money, don’t we all, but I didn’t really mind the trade. I compensated for the pay by spending part of my day staring out my window.
I often sat in my fat office chair and mindlessly watched the boats roll past, big commercial ships loaded with freight, small cruise ships filled to the brim with drunk passengers on a temporary floating bender, tiny fishing vessels with rugged and weary men, trying to make a living or trying to escape their troubles on the shore. Sometimes an old couple, decked in fishing gear, would sit behind their poles for hours on end, seemingly never speaking a word. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. At least they spent their day together.
Only rarely did I spot a fish from where I sat, the occasional sparkle of scales in the sunshine that might dazzle me momentarily, even less often the jump of a slender specimen as it fought its way upstream. Most of the fish I managed to catch a glimpse of had found themselves caught in the beak of some great fisher bird or dangling from the line of one of the grizzled fishermen. Up high in my office building, I was spared the stench of fishy waters. I didn’t mind that bit at all.
The birds, and there were millions of them, were mesmerizing, constant flocks swirling in the air pockets swelling above the cool rushing water, patient waders and some who perched nearby, calmly watching the water for some prey to appear within striking distance. Large birds of prey would circle overhead, watching activities far below until their round paths descended and fell in a brutal strike on some unseen victim. Vultures would signal the end of one feast and the start of another, more macabre feeding. A scene so full of life was also full of dying.
Sometimes a freight train rattled across a bridge a few hundred yards upstream, the steady three minute rumble of shifting weight and creaking timbers. From my vantage point, I could only see a few cars of the train at any given time but the building shook slightly for the whole period of its passing. The trains only went in one direction, east to west. I sometimes wondered how they managed to get home.
A sidewalk wound and crawled along the shoreline in a park created by the city to beautify this mostly useless bit of land, with occasional benches to provide respite and a place to ponder the slightly savage ecosystem that flourished so near our peaceful community. I would sit in my office and watch the silent dramas unfold as some lady sat down to nibble on her tiny lunch before some young rake in a t-shirt and skateboard would sit beside her to chat. She didn’t seem to mind. Busy little office workers would meander down the sidewalk, lost in thought, oblivious to the bounty of nature that surrounded them, worried and concerned and stuck within their minds. Sometimes, a pair of young lovers would wander slowly along the shoreline, treasuring each moment spent, hand in hand, lost in each others eyes. An overly efficient speed-walker sometimes used the sidewalk as a course for his exercise, preparing perhaps for some great competition of fast walkers. More than one lonely traveler took a slow stroll, wishing some other fellow river lover would come walk beside them, maybe chat a bit. Joggers and dog walkers, I saw every breed.
My imagination often took hold of the people I saw. I couldn’t help make up stories about them. I’m sure none of my guesses were anywhere close to the truth but it was a fun way to pass the day.
One morning, I had come to work early, avoiding traffic and getting a jump on the day. I was eating a bagel spread with cream cheese while I sipped my coffee and marveled at the beauty of the river scene laid out before me, beyond my glass wall. The office was perfectly quiet and the weather was mild that day, the sun rising into cloudless skies, the wind a gentle breeze. Blinding bits of sunlight reflected off the unsettled surface of the mighty river that raged below. A crane swooped into the scene and found a place to stand in the water, ready to extract some poor breakfast from under the gleaming surface.
As I finished my bagel, I looked Into the distance, along the long sidewalk, and saw a lone figure walking slowly in my direction. I say that walked toward me only because the general tendency of his motion was to walk toward our offices but his progress certainly didn’t make his destination obvious. He would stop, stand and stare at the water, turn back, walk several meters and then stop again. A few minutes later, he would resume his sauntering pace, headed back in my direction. He stopped again and almost headed both directions at once, undecided and unsure.
I watched the clown, for I had so dubbed him for his strange patterns, with more attention than I might usually pay, staring because, for no real reason, he amused me. I made up stories to explain his strange behavior, entertaining myself with the possibilities. I suspected there was something at the end of his journey that he dreaded, that he was taking two steps forward, realizing his fears and taking another step back. I tried to calculate his rate of progress and decided that he might reach the spot in front of me by lunchtime.
My calculations were upended when the man suddenly adopted a steady, determined pace, covering a hundred yards in a matter of minutes. I watched, fascinated for no reason at all. When he stopped again and turned toward me for a moment, I felt the slight shock of an unexpected recognition. I knew the fellow.
We had attended University together, some six years before. I had been an engineering student while Tim had been studying literature. We didn’t have any classes together; he lived down the hall in my dormitory. We had friends in common and eventually became friends in our own right. I liked him; he was a dreamer, full of ideals and a readiness to suffer, if that’s what it would take to reach his goals. I think he wanted to be a writer; a poet or a novelist, something like that. His dreamy approach suited him better than engineering suited me. I respected that.
I watched him with greater interest, knowing who this wanderer was. I had to change my stories; now the question was what was Tim doing, walking so strangely along the river? What did he dread, up ahead? What was on his mind? Knowing Tim, as I did, brought a whole new range of possible into my imaginings. I doubted he was worried about his job or his car or anything mundane like that. I suspected he was having some kind of existential crisis, questioning the very values he had inherited, searching his soul for some deep, philosophical answer. Or he was in love. I had a strong feeling that was probably the right answer.
As he drew closer, his jacket and slacks coming into focus, I could see that he was holding something strange in his hand. Occasionally catching the sun with a gleam of sharp light, I thought it might be a weapon at first, a large knife or a silver gun perhaps. I began to grow worried, concerned that Tim’s indecision had a sinister side, one of impending self-harm. He definitely was more of the suicide breed than a suspect for murder. I didn’t think he could kill anyone, frankly. So my eyes were wide with wonder, watching carefully, trying to discern his intent as he handled the thing he held. Then, as he passed the thing from pocket to hand and hand to pocket, I realized it wasn’t a weapon he had in hand. It was an old glass soda bottle.
He never made a move to drink from the bottle and, from what I could see, it appeared to be empty. It may have been an illusion, the shine of the glass disguising the dark brown of the cola I suspected once filled the void. The way he handled it certainly gave the impression of emptiness, for he turned it over and over without any regard for up and down. Yet he held the bottle warmly, almost lovingly, as though it mattered to him.
As he came close to my office building, he pushed the bottle deep into a pocket and started to climb the boulders that lined the shore. I felt a twinge of concern as I watched him clamor up the huge stones, worried that his leather dress shoes were wholly inappropriate to rock climbing. He seemed to slip once or twice but kept his footing and continued to advance toward the shoreline.
For a moment, as he stood atop a large rock, looking like a hero silhouetted against the dawn, I had another moment of anxiety, afraid Tim was about to throw himself into the raging river below him. The rapids were dangerous and more than one person had lost their life in its turbulence, accidentally or on purpose. I thought for a second about running outside, shouting and calling, trying to stop him from doing something we would all regret. Another moment of suspicions and I would have; I’m sure of it.
Instead, he drew the soda bottle from his pocket and kissed it as though saying goodbye to a loved one. As I pondered this strange show of affection for what most people would consider trash, I watched him lean back, cock his arm and Tim threw the bottle with all his might over the river that streamed madly past him.
A small splash marked the water where the bottle struck and then it disappeared beneath the surface. A few moments later, I saw the bottle bob back to the surface, sparkling in the morning light. The current caught hold of the glass bubble and it began to roll, jump, dunk and bounce along the surface of the river. Tim shaded his eyes as he tried to follow the bottle’s journey.
I never considered the idea that Tim was merely disposing of trash, throwing the bottle for lack of a stone to throw. The kiss, if anything, seemed to speak of greater concern but his whole demeanor seemed to speak of the importance of the glass container or, more likely, the thing contained within. I suppose, if it had been someone else, I would have thought them strange but wouldn’t have assumed something bigger was going on. But I knew Tim. He liked dramatic gestures. He loved living life romantically. He has a young Werther’s style. I was sure he was dramatizing his sorrows.
Sitting thirty feet above the place Tim stood, I could see the bottle as it floated downstream for a long time, much longer than Tim could see it go. At one point, I saw the bottle headed toward a large rock that rose above the waterline and feared that it would smash to bits. I don’t know why I cared what happened to the bottle, except that Tim cared and so I cared with him. The rushing water carried the glass treacherously close to the mass of granite and then suddenly thrust it away, saving it from the calamitous smash that I thought inevitable. The bottle continued its journey unscathed and vanished into the chaotic green distance.
Tim sat down, cross-legged, on the boulder. I couldn’t tell from the distance but it seemed as though he had buried his face in his hands, as if to cry. Maybe the sheen of his cheeks was a trick of the light but it seemed consistent with a veil of tears. I felt like I could see his shoulders shake with a sob. Finally collecting himself, he stood up and stared a while longer at the path his bottle had taken. Then he rose, climbed down from the rocks and began to walk away, determined this time, with no indecision or distractions. I saw him disappear from view behind one of the buildings downstream.
I shook my head, shrugged and turned on my computer. I had work to do. I couldn’t spend all day watching the river roll by.