Our July/August Third Annual Summer Reading Issue is on newsstands now! To celebrate our literary history in our 50th anniversary year, this summer we’re also re-publishing a bunch of archived poetry and fiction. First up, is “What the Belgian Wrote,” a March/April 2013 short story by our very talented books columnist Grace O’Connell. Grace also guest edited a fiction piece in this year’s Summer Reading Issue and is a 2007 This Magazine Great Canadian Literary Hunt winner for her story “Love Will Save The Day.” We hope you enjoy her piece from the archives and stay tuned for more great writing from the archives!
It was the last Sunday of the month, so Kalman was throwing a bottle into the ocean. Sometimes on calm days the club rented canoes and paddled out from the shore to maximize their chances. That was what Martin, the club president, said. But Kalman wasn’t sure exactly what it meant. The chance of what, and increased how much? And what were their chances on days too cold to rent the canoes?
The Bottlenecks were Martin’s idea, so he called the shots. The rules weren’t many. You couldn’t miss the meetings, which was fine with Kalman. You had to bring a bottle every time. Whatever else, you had to write your address and telephone number inside the bottle. That was about it. You didn’t have to say what else you’d written, if anything.
Sometimes Kalman couldn’t think of anything to write, so he would fold the paper an extra time and push it inside with only his basic information. Capping the bottle, he would dip it into the wax he melted for sealing. When he first joined, Kalman melted the wax in whatever vessel was handy, then spent an hour scrubbing it clean. Now that he was an old hand, he had a small bowl set aside for melting the wax. He didn’t bother cleaning it. When the wax ran low, he chopped up dollar store candles with a bread knife and threw them in the bowl. He melted the wax in his microwave oven, which his ex-wife hadn’t bothered to take with her.
After joining the club, Kalman found himself noticing bottles more. He noticed them in women’s hands, or parting their lips; he noticed them broken on the ground.
The point of the club was to have someone else find your bottle. There were other clubs in other countries doing the same thing all the time. So far five bottles had been found by club members around the world. One of the club people who found a bottle was a young girl with a lazy eye in Kent. She wrote to the man who had thrown the bottle, who lived in Belgium. When he found out she had not only discovered his bottle, but that she too threw a bottle in the ocean once a month, the Belgian came over to meet her. A short while later they were married. Martin told Kalman and the rest of the club this story almost every month.
Walking home from the August meeting, Kalman was squinting into the sun. His arms ached from paddling. He stopped in one of the city squares, where the only bench was occupied by a young woman with dark hair cut short up the back of her neck. She was sitting to the extreme right of the bench, drinking liquid from a plain looking bottle. It was green glass, smooth and tapered in her hand. Kalman sat down on the bench, so much to the extreme left that the corner jabbed into his rear. Shifting, he saw the girl was looking at him.
“Hi,” she said.
“That’s a nice bottle,” said Kalman.
“I’ve had it for years,” said the girl. “It was my mother’s, it was the first bottle of beer she ever drank from.”
“Really? That’s a long time to keep a bottle.” And then, so she wouldn’t think he was being judgmental, Kalman added, “Wow.”
The girl put the bottle against her cheek. “Too hot out here,” she said.
Kalman nodded, and looked quickly at the place between the girl’s breasts. He thought she maybe wasn’t wearing anything under her shirt. Her breasts were the little triangle kind. He thought of the girl with the lazy eye in England, and wondered for the first time what the Belgian had written in his bottle.
“Okay. It wasn’t really my mother’s. I just ripped the label off. It had lemonade in it. But I have had it for a while. Not that long. But a while.”
She looked at a small gold watch she was wearing. “I have to go soon,” she said.
“Right,” said Kalman. “It was nice to meet you.” He held his hand out.
“Do you want to walk me home? It’s not far.”
“Oh,” he said. His sore arms screamed and he winced. “Yeah, okay, definitely.”
She got up somewhat awkwardly, like it was a complicated process. Kalman thought her feet looked unusually large. They walked along the street for a short while without talking. The girl kicked a rock, twice, and then missed.
“Do you recognize me,” the girl said.
Kalman flushed, frantically scanning his mind.
“Are you the girl from that coffee commercial?” he said finally. “The one with the yellow flowers?”
“No, no. I work at A&P. I see you come in a lot. I’m a cashier. You buy a lot of root beer.”
For the life of him, Kalman could not place her. She was so young and pretty. He couldn’t believe himself.
“It’s okay,” she said. “That you don’t remember me. That I remember you and you don’t remember me.” Then a short while later: “Well, this is me.”
She had stopped in front of a wooden door, whose stoop was right on the main street. She took a keyring out of her pocket and tried half the keys on it before she managed to get the door open.
“Do you want to come in? I have water in the fridge.”
Inside, her apartment was at the top of the stairs. It was one long, narrow room with several small tables lining the walls. Kalman turned his face from the low bed under the window. He noticed that the walls were covered in mint coloured brocade. He could see the staples just under the ceiling and down above the baseboards.
The girl put her bottle down on the windowsill and fetched two plastic water bottles from the fridge.
“It’s not fancy,” she said. “It’s just store brand.”
Kalman smiled as he tipped it into his mouth. The water was barely cool, as if it hadn’t been in the fridge long.
“I think I had better go,” he said after he finished the water. Before he could leave, she put her hand on his arm. Her face was flushed red when she looked up at him and said, “Could I have some money?”
“I don’t have any money with me,” he said. She nodded and she was chewing on her lip from the inside, pulling her mouth to one side.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m really sorry.”
“If you need money, why don’t you become a model?” he said.
“I’m not pretty enough,” she said.
“Sure you are.”
“No. I’m really not.” Now she looked angry.
For a moment neither of them said anything and Kalman felt strange.
She took her hand off of his arm.
“Why don’t you come visit me sometime,” she said. She walked to the window and picked up the green glass bottle. “Here,” she said. “You can have this.”
Kalman accepted the bottle and fled to the flat, even street below. He was running before he noticed it and felt cruel when he realized she would have seen from her window. If she was looking.
Kalman took the bottle out of his backpack. He had sealed it with purple wax, buying the coloured candles at the dollar store rather than the plain white ones he usually bought. He thought it looked pretty, the purple wax dripping down the green glass.
He and Martin were sharing a canoe.
“I told you about that girl, the one with the lazy eye, right?” Martin said while he steered the canoe from the back. Kalman was lilypaddling from the front, but Martin was a large man and had no problem moving through the waves without Kalman’s help.
“She found that guy’s bottle. They got married two months later. Isn’t that something?”
“That’s pretty neat.”
Martin was looking out into the open water – or at least in that general direction. Kalman couldn’t see Martin’s eyes behind his sport sunglasses.
“See, it’s all about tides. If you know the tides, you can make your bottle end up wherever you want.”
Kalman nodded. The skin on his upper arms was already starting to burn where his t-shirt left them exposed.
“That’s a nice bottle,” Martin said generously. “Can I see?”
They traded, and Kalman examined Martin’s bottle. It was a clear bottle, maybe one of those summertime coolers that college girls got drunk on. Kalman felt a hook pull behind his navel, like he was in an elevator. The paper inside was yellow.
“What did you write?”
Martin started, and almost dropped his paddle, as if he had forgotten Kalman was there. “In the bottle?”
He took off his sunglasses and wiped them on his t-shirt. “You know. Just the usual stuff.” He rubbed the sunglasses meditatively. “Fucking hot out here,” he said.
Then he knelt up in a half-squat, half-stand, so as to not tip the canoe, and whipped his bottle a good forty yards.
“Wow,” said Kalman. “What a toss. But how do you know what the tides are like out there?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Martin and he began to turn the boat. “Oh, sorry,” he said. “Do you want to throw yours now?”
“I haven’t got an arm like you. That was some throw. I’ll just drop it on the way in. Do bottles close to the shore ever go anywhere?”
“Oh sure. I think that Belgian guy was just standing on a freaking pier when he tossed his. Didn’t even paddle out. And that girl found it, didn’t she?”
Kalman hung his bottle over the front of the boat. He mimed dropping it into the water, dunking his whole hand, but he couldn’t seem to let it go. He yanked the bottle back in and stored it between his feet.
“I’ve got a good feeling about that one,” said Martin. “Somebody’s going to get these.”
She said: “lie down on the bed with me,” and Kalman did. He could hardly believe he’d even knocked on the door.
“So what do you do, Kalman?”
“I’m a chemist.”
“Cool. Did you go to school for a long time?”
“A while. Not as long as I could have.”
“So what exactly do you do? Are you trying to cure cancer and that sort of thing?”
“I work for a food company. My job is to figure out how to get the dehydrated ingredients in a dried package to taste like the chef’s recipes. Like those pasta side dishes. Soup. You know what I mean? Do you ever make those?”
“You mean the ones you add water to? Or milk?”
“Yeah. Sometimes butter too. The butter makes a big difference. The lipids – well, it’s not important.”
“That’s an interesting job. Much better than being a cashier.”
“Are you in school?”
“What do you want to do when you’re done being a cashier?”
“I dunno. Maybe go somewhere. Travel. If I can save enough.”
Talking like this was surreal to Kalman. He felt like an undergrad, as if he should have a joint between his fingers and be lying on his side, head propped on his fist. He remembered such conversations from his university days; it was the way he used to talk to Angela when they first started dating. Talking about the things they would do, how she would get a tenure-track position and Kalman would go into research.
There had been after a ski trip on their reading break. They were traveling back in a handful of borrowed station wagons, each of them half empty, the arrangements dictated by the social politics of their university circle. Kalman was in a backseat, stretched across the length of it, seatbeat off, a guitar at his feet. There was a sound like a gunshot and then, for no reason at all, the back window transformed itself into bubbles. Before he had time to think, it fell in, and the bubbles were tiny pieces of glass pebbling his legs. A few shapely teeth remained at the borders but otherwise the whole of it was spread out on Kalman’s body, his seat, already getting lost under the seatbeat fastener. They never knew what broke it – a rock flying up, a pre-existing crack, faulty manufacturing. It didn’t matter.
“Don’t move,” said Angela, who was driving. “I’ll get off the highway.”
She ushered their friends into Wendy’s for hamburgers and climbed into the backseat with him, methodically picking the glass off, throwing it into a paper bag she’d snatched from the restaurant. When he was free of it, she looked over her shoulder and shut the back door. She climbed up and straddled him, and as she kissed him her long hair got into both of their mouths. She was moaning softly, small underwater noises that Kalman found arousing and embarrassing at the same time. They had already been dating for a few months at the time, but he hadn’t felt comfortable to tell her about the stray piece of glass that had fallen into the waistband of his jeans, that was pressing into his hip as she ground against him.
“Doing nothing is doing something,” she had said to him when she brought the divorce papers home. “But you still don’t understand that, do you?”
The girl was still lying beside Kalman, stretched out so she was taller than him. Her ribs seemed too wide for her small body, and the bottom of her ribcage stuck out strangely under the thin shirt she was wearing.
“I miss the weight of a man on top of me,” she said.
Kalman said, “Do you want me to lie on top of you?” He heard himself say it and was astonished at the recklessness of it. But all he felt was a warm hollowness, a gentle bobbing inside his stomach. Not quite seasick.
She laughed, a big surprising horsey sort of laugh.
So he got on top of her, not like a lover but like he was floating on her in the ocean, his arms tucked into his sides. He lay his face on her neck, craning back to see her: the giant foreground of chin and jaw, the eyebrow vanishing point so far, far away.
“Feel better?” he asked.
She brought her hand up and stroked his hair. His erection was pressing against her skirt.
“A bit,” she said. After a while she said, “That should do it for now.”
He climbed off and they lay side by side. She rubbed the top of her foot against the sole of his.
“I always notice now when people buy those dehydrated soups and noodles. It makes me think of you.”
Kalman had a terrible impulse to ask her to marry him, sharply followed by an impulse to leave.
“That’s nice of you,” he said.
She got on her knees then and climbed onto him, much as Angela had in the clunky old wood-paneled station wagon. She took off her shirt and her skirt, and then had to stand up to take off her tights. She did it somewhat gracefully.
While they were having sex, Kalman could think nothing, but afterwards, he wanted terribly to say something kind to her, something kind but measured out, something cleanly divided from having to say anything further. She hadn’t opened her eyes the entire time, as if swimming in a chlorinated pool. He ran his hand along her jaw, and under his fingers she was as smooth as glass. Inside her, surely, he had been a message. Something he’d almost been able to read, like when the subtitles of a movie went by only a bit too quickly.
Beside him the girl turned over, preparing to sleep on her side. Even while moving, she kept her eyes closed. It looked strange, like seeing a sleepwalker moving confidently through the dark. Kalman dressed, standing beside the bed and remembering to put his socks back on last. He said nothing, agreeing with the girl that she was asleep when she obviously wasn’t.
Then he left, closing the door gently, half expecting it to shatter in his hand.
Grace O'Connell is the author of the novel Magnified World. She lives in Toronto, where she works as a writer and editor.