Sail Away: The First 3,000 Words

The following draft — and that’s all it is, a “shitty first draft” as Anne Lamott likes to call them — is the first segment of my NaNoWriMo novel, Sail Away. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is held each November, where writers are offered the challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. In the spirit of this global event, I will be sharing excerpts here throughout the month, and I encourage my readers to comment, offer ideas and suggestions, and help me shape the outcome of this story. Thanks for reading, and I hope you join along in the fun! ~rus


Sail Away

A novel-in-progress by Rus VanWestervelt
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

Bottles. Everywhere.

This basement is damp. My father never really “finished” it like he had always intended. Some green paint on the walls and a gray coat on the floor did little to make this space under our house “livable” by any means. The cabinets that he built into the walls around the support beams helped, and when we were kids, we loved rummaging through them to find some of Dad’s old traveling treasures.

Now, in this damp basement, my sister and I are surrounded by boxes. We’re here to take what we want, and pack up the rest. Donate it. Trash it. Mom doesn’t care. She just wants it all out of the house.

The smell. The memories. Everything.

Sally and I fought about this when Mom first asked us to clear out this space. Sally’s 5 years younger than me, and she was Dad’s “Little Girl.” I didn’t have any kind of special Dad – Son relationship like that. Dad did see something different in me that I never quite figured out, though. And as he got older, and more ill, I sensed desperation in that relationship, at least on his part of it. I’m not really sure if it was some kind of desire to trust me with something. I hear all the time about fathers “passing on” some great family wisdom to their eldest son.

I am the eldest, but by default. I am also the last of the Stemmer males. When it’s my time to kick it, I won’t be taking any deep family secrets with me to the grave, because he never shared any with me when he went to his.

Sally and Dad had a different kind of relationship. Every one of these antique bottles down here has a story, and Sally is the keeper of each of them. I don’t think Dad even shared much of these memories with mom. I guess that’s why she’s so quick to get rid of them.

In my eyes, they are nothing more than empty glass bottles, filled only with mystery and memories of the time he spent away from home.

That’s not the case for Sally, who hears a story in each one. Mom feels pain as if each is broken with jagged shards. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind hearing and feeling a little of both now that he’s gone. But I am deterred by the heavy, damp chill down here. It’s as if his soul is lingering still. There’s unfinished business between Dad and me, and I sense he won’t be gone entirely until we work all that out.

Silly. I know. Just put the damn bottles in the plain brown boxes and get the hell home.

“Where do we begin?” I ask Sally.

Her hands are on her hips, covered by an oversized, black Towson sweatshirt. She has to be just dying in that bulky thing. She points to the corner where the box freezer is, then shakes her head.

“That should probably be last, don’t you think?”

“If at all. Mom might still use it.”

“I’ll ask her later. I don’t want her coming down here today.”

In the center of the room is a pretty cheap pool table, warped from the years of humidity. Dad always regretted not buying the slate table; I never knew why until I got much older and played pool at college. When I asked my buddies why the balls didn’t drift to the bumpers on these tables, they thought I was joking. I played along with it, but I could barely hide the embarrassment of believing all along that our table at home was the best you could get.

I later learned that Dad made other compensations with the things he bought and did, but I never found out why. He died too soon for me to ever really ask him. Not a topic you bring out of the blue with a character like Jacob Stemmer, Sr. That would not have ended well at all.

Dad played billiards on that table with us for years when we were kids, and he loved to play. It always seemed like he won on that first game we would play on Saturday mornings. And after he dropped the eight ball into the called corner pocket, he would walk over, shake my hand, and say, “Good game, son. Play another? Double or nothing?” I never knew what that meant, but it always made me feel like I had a chance to beat him in that second game. I rarely did. At least I believed it was possible, though.

When I got to high school, everything seemed to change. Dad took an extended trip somewhere, and when he got back, I was too involved with my friends to notice that he had closed down the pool table. I got my driver’s license and that was that. Mom sent me down to the freezer to get some meat for dinner one night, and that’s when I realized the table had been converted into a flat space for storage.

Dad had covered the pool table with the familiar large, brown cloth that looked like a retired flannel sheet for a king-sized bed. On top of that rested bottles. Boxes and boxes of bottles.

I didn’t care. I got mom her frozen pork chops, dodged a few boxes of bottles, and went up the old stairs two at a time. I couldn’t wait to get out of that musty old basement.

“We could start here, in the middle. Looks like Dad boxed up many of these himself. Should be pretty easy just to carry them out to the curb.”

“I guess.”

I pick up one of the bottles and hold it in my hand like the gravedigger in Hamlet, analyzing it as if I know what I am doing. It’s an odd, oval shape, dark brown, like the color of one of those root beer barrel candies.

“Does the county recycle old glass too? Or just the stuff that’s under a hundred years old?”

“Not funny,” says Sally. “Dad found that bottle in an old dump along the Chester River, far up where it’s just nothing more than a rambling brook maybe three feet wide. It was used for medicine. Something about the amber color and the way it held out the light to keep the medicine fresh.”

“You’re joking, right? You know all that from this one bottle?”

Sally smiles, but not out of any kind of pride for knowing any of this. I could tell that she was working a memory with Dad – a kind of memory that I never had.

“I know that and a little bit more,” she says.

“Go on.”

She takes the bottle from my hand and holds it up to the bar light that hangs over the pool table. She turns it in her hand as if she were analyzing the cut of a diamond.

“Yes. I remember him telling me about this one. It came from a family with many children close in age. The bottle was first given to the mother and father when the children were very young. You can tell because it’s bigger than most of the other medicine bottles made for children back then—“

“Back then?” I ask. “How old is it?”

“Dad knew the exact year, but I can’t remember what he told me. I just remember it was back in the early 1800’s.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“No, not really.”

“How in the world did he know that the family had a lot of kids around the same age?”

“I was getting to that, Jake. The bottle is definitely for children’s medicine. You can tell from the shape and these markings around the bottom rim of the bottle. But it’s bigger than most of the other bottles they made for kid meds. Whatever was in this bottle had to handle at least three sick kids, if not more.”

I look at her incredulously.

“Think of it this way, Jake. The parents had to buy the family size. That’s all.”

I snatch the bottle out of her hand and toss it into the box with the other bottles, making a lot of noise as the old bottle settles in.

“Indestructible. Don’t make them like this anymore, do they?”

Sally just shakes her head. “That’s because they’re all plastic now, you idiot.”

We work our way through five boxes of green, amber, and clear bottles, and I do my best not to ask too many questions. Sally made the point that she knew a little too much about these bottles, and I simply don’t care anymore. I just want to get home where I can clean up and head over to Kelsey’s Bar to watch the game.

“You know, you can always come over and watch it with us. I promise the kids won’t be too loud. They actually like watching the Ravens play, and they know their stats.”

I wipe my hands from the dust of the last box and grimace. “You still stock Bud Light over there?”

“BYOI, brother. Bring Your Own Import.”

We both laugh as we return to the cleared pool table, and I tell her I might be over by half time.

I run my hand over the smooth, flannel sheet that is draped over the table. The flashbacks resume, and I can remember all of those games we had played before dad closed it down.

Sally sees the memories that I am sifting through. It is pretty obvious, though. I’m wearing one of those smirky, yet grateful, subtle smiles that gives it all away.

“You know,” she says, “the cue sticks are still on the wall behind you. We could play a game before we get back to bottle boxing.”

I turn to the wall over my shoulder and, at first, see nothing but more boxes and bottles.

“I don’t see them. I don’t see anything but more – “

The tops of three pool cue sticks rise above the stacks of boxes. Instantly, I can make out the chalky stains of powder blue that cover the felt tips.

“Damn if they’re not. I thought he got rid of these when I was still in high school.”

“Dad get rid of anything? Jake, really.”

I turn and push a few of the boxes toward the steps on my left and pull the shorter cue from the rack. I put it on the top of the cloaked pool table and roll it from one end to the other. It wobbles and thumps as it makes its way across.

“Just as warped as the table itself. Look at that curve at the top of the stick! How did we ever play with these cues?”

Sally smiles. “I think the warp of the table and the bow in the sticks must somehow cancel out each other. Right?”

She looks at me now with a different kind of grin. I catch the change and look back.

“Do we have time for a game?” she asks.

“Double or nothing. I’ll even let you take the opening break shot.”

“Like I need the handicap.” Sally flips me off and then blows me a kiss. “Now get over there and grab the edge of the sheet. I seem to remember some kind of ceremony in how this thing was removed. Like we were folding the American flag or something.”

We stand at opposite ends of the table and lift the old flannel rag. I start humming Taps, and she shoots me another look. When we finish folding the sheet, we turn back to the table and are puzzled by what is underneath.

Instead of the Kelly green felt that we expect to see, stained with chalk from the tips of our cuesticks scraping against the top of the table, the light of the lamps that hang overhead are dulled by a big sheet of plywood.

“What the hell is this?”

Sally looks at me and shrugs her shoulders. “Maybe he put it there to handle the weight of all the boxes he was stacking on top. Help me get it off of here.”

We return to the ends of the table and try to get a grip on the wood, but it is sealed tightly around the table’s edge.

“Stuck after all these years of being down here in this damp place. Ridiculous.”

I crouch down and study the seam where the bottom edge of the plywood meets the outer rim of the table. There is no space at all between the two surfaces. I walk around the entire perimeter of the table and notice that, unlike the warped condition of the sticks and the table’s surface, this seam is straight, unwavering, and seemingly impenetrable.

“Sally, this thing is sealed airtight. I don’t think this wood is going to budge without a hammer and some kind of wedge.”

The door to the basement swings open, and light fills the stairway.

“How are the two of you doing down there? Are you almost finished?”

Mom’s voice wavers a bit, a mixture of concern and dread all wrapped up in the Ambien she is taking to get the sleep she needs to get through these days alone.

I turn quickly toward the stairs at the sound of her voice, as if she just caught me doing something I wasn’t supposed to. My hand slides along the top of the wood and finds a three-inch splinter that goes in my skin with the ease of a needle.

“Damn it!” I grip the back of my hand and I can feel the wood under my skin. My hand bleeds as I try to rip it back out.

“Jacob! I didn’t mean to disturb you! But is that any way to talk –“

I walk to the front of the stairs and apologize. I look up at her, a great silhouette of a broken woman. I am struck by the mirage of what I see, and what I know.

“Sorry, Ma. Just got jabbed with a splinter on Dad’s pool table.”

“Ugh. That old thing. You can get rid of that too. Been nothing but an eyesore for years. Come up here and let me put some peroxide on that hand of yours.”

“Jakey needs mommy to fix his boo boos,” Sally taunts in a childish voice that only the two of us can hear.

I turn to Sally and now it’s my turn to give her the finger.

“Be right there, Ma.”

The stairway door closes as she mumbles something about blood and carpets, and I turn to Sally.

“Maybe we should call it a day,” I say. “Nobody’s pushing us but Mom to get all this stuff out of here.”

“I wonder why Dad sealed this up like this,” she says, bringing us both back to the table. “I mean, it’s not like the table was dangerous.”

“And if it were,” I add, “He probably would have gotten rid of it altogether.”

“We’re talking about our father, remember. Just look around you.”

I turn toward the stairs. “I don’t really care. My hand hurts. I’m going up.”

“I’ll be up in a minute.”

Sally walks slowly around the table, feeling the edge. Her focus is intense, like she’s trying to make sense out of what Dad’s done.

I stand on the bottom step and peer around the corner, watching her. “Still on for that BYOI after halftime?” I ask.

She groans in agreement, but I don’t think she really hears me. Mom calls from the bathroom about peroxide and infections. I head up the stairs taking the steps two at a time, leaving Sally and Dad, the boxes of bottles and memories – not to mention the remains of our old covered pool table, in this old, damp basement.

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