by Aaron Colston ’14
Otto sculled down the river, his rhythmic stroking pattern bearing him across the surface of the water. Like a bird soaring seamlessly through the air, Otto’s dolphin cut into the river; every time his oars slid into the water they made ripples that permeated the body of the river, creeping along the face of the water and becoming waves upon waves, eternally.
At three o’ clock Otto ended up at the boat house where a huge crowd gathered around the television in the lobby, peering over his uncle’s shoulders.
Otto got out of the dolphin, unlocked the oars, and sat them on the dock. “Can I get some help here?” He asked, turning around. He everyone in the boat house was mesmerized by the program on the television, and ignored him. “Uncle Dave!” he hollered, and the man looked up, in a daze. He nudged his way out of the crowd and helped his nephew take the boat out of the river. Otto asked him what happened.
“You’re not going to believe it,” David said.
“Jack Bailey died last night.”
Otto stopped walking. Jack Bailey? Dead? “You were right—I don’t believe it,” Otto managed to reply. “When did they find out?”
“This morning,” David told him, as they placed the dolphin on the rack.
“But he broke the world record two days ago!”
“That’s what I said. But I guess that doesn’t make you immortal.”
A couple people in the crowd hissed at Otto and his uncle. They sheepishly went over and joined them in watching the newsflash. It featured parts of Jack Bailey’s life: growing up as a boy, he was a prodigy in sculling and crew. As a man, he was a business owner, a world-record breaker, a legend.
When the documentary ended Otto walked over to the boat racks, where the singles were kept. His eyes fell immediately on Jack Bailey’s single, which was a vibrant red with a clean white stripe down both sides. Otto reached out with his hands to touch the single. His fingers shivered. He was touching Jack Bailey’s single. The same single he sculled in on the day he broke the record. Otto pried his fingers off the boat. He didn’t know why he was so excited. This wasn’t the first time he’d touched Jack Bailey’s single.
He remembered the night vividly. It was humid. Sitting on the dock of the boat house, he could see the sunset ebbing into the horizon, and the stars scattered across the sky. He tried finding constellations–Big Dipper, Little Dipper. Orion’s Belt. He couldn’t remember any others. He tried using his imagination to make some up, like drawing lines in connect-the-dots. There weren’t a lot of stars out tonight to draw with.
Jack Bailey slid his single beside the dock. In the moonlight, Otto could see Jack Bailey’s features as clear as day. The thick white mustache, the hair graying at the temples. The shoulders that could carry a horse down the fastest running river. The legs, lean and bulging with strength.
“Well, boy?” Jack Bailey called, holding onto his single as he stepped onto the dock. “Help me get her out,” Jack Bailey said. Otto leapt onto his feet and ran over to Jack Bailey. He and Jack Bailey took the single by the handles. They heaved the single onto their shoulders. Otto touched the stomach of the single, sliding his fingers back and forth like a pious, reverent child easing the beads of a rosary through his hands.
At a quarter to six, there were only eleven people left in the lobby of the boat house, lounging comfortably. Otto sat on the carpet and rested his back against the leg of the sofa, which he liked because he could see beyond the storage bay for the boats and look at the dock and the river. Normally when he sat like that he would imagine getting into a boat. In his imagination, he would scull out into the dimming light of sunset. This time, as he imagined going out onto the river and sculling, he saw himself in Jack Bailey’s single. There was completeness, an assured feeling of rightness somewhere inside of him as he imagined it. He sighed with longing.
“Jesus, he was a good man,” David burst out suddenly. He sat on the couch, near Otto.
“One helluva businessman,” one man said.
“I’m sorry?” Otto’s uncle asked.
“Come no one wants to talk about ‘business’. The man was found dead just this morning. Give everyone time to breathe.”
“I don’t think anything’s wrong with–” he paused. Collected himself. “The man’s left a legacy, a legacy. Can’t blame me for thinking about that. I worked with him for twenty-five years, I should be able to say something about it.”
Otto watched the man get up from his chair, who scratched his head. “It’d be a helluva waste, a helluva waste,” he murmured to himself. He breathed deeply. He stretched his hand out like an artist preparing to paint a picture on a gigantic canvas. He dipped his tongue into his palette of words and began to paint against the silence of the room.
“You walk into Bailey’s Sporting Goods…right in the boating section, you see it. Jack Bailey’s single.” Eugene paused, admiring his work. He continued. “The boat that broke the world record: ‘The Red Osprey’. It looks down at you, glistening–” then, with one sweeping stroke of the tongue “–it’s like it has a life of its own.”
The people in the lounge admired the man’s work. But then Otto’s uncle laughed. “So you want it up there, like a relic?” David asked.
The man shook his head furiously. “Not a relic!” The word made his face twist with disgust. “Remove that from your vocabulary, Dave. Snatch it, snatch it and spit it out!” Otto’s uncle quieted down, although he couldn’t help but snigger intermittently at the man’s sudden nakedness.
“Then what would you call it?” Otto asked. He was surprised that he had spoken up among all these adults. The people in the lounged looked at Otto in sympathy, and then looked at the man. He thought about it for a while.
“A treasure. A bona fide treasure,” he said.
“A treasure!” David cried, bursting into laughter.
The man sat down, his cheeks red with embarrassment as the chair rustled beneath him. Otto returned to looking at the river. He closed his eyes and thought back to the humid evening when he’d touched the single.
“What’s your favorite bird, boy?” Jack Bailey had asked, while he and Otto sat on the dock together.
“I dunno, Mr. Bailey. What’s yours?”
“Oh,” Otto said.
“Why the osprey?”
Jack Bailey gave it a moment or two. “When I was a kid, I lived in a house by the lake. On the shore my father and I put up a pole. On that pole, every day at five o’ clock in the morning, an osprey would come and perch on it.”
Otto hung onto every morsel of Jack Bailey’s words.
“It would call: whew, whew. Or, a sharp cheeap, cheeap. Whenever I got up it was because of that bird. I’d get up out of bed and get out on my boat, and scull up and down the lake until I had to go to school. Then, when I got back from crew practice, I’d get back into my boat and watch the osprey—my osprey—preen its feathers, fly around the lake, making its calls.
Lots of times I saw it eat the fish in the lake. I would see it circling in the air, high, about eighty feet, and then swoop down and catch a fish with its sharp talons. There were lots of fish, so the thought never came to me that the osprey would go away.” “Did it?” Otto asked.
Jack Bailey nodded. “Lots of times.” He chuckled. “But the first time it happened I was scared it’d never come back. My mother (she was an ornithologist, you know) told me that they were common mostly in California, Florida and pretty much everywhere on the globe except New England. So I guess I should have felt pretty great that I had such a rare bird around.”
Otto and Jack Bailey let quiet sit between them for a little while. “But the bird would come back, right?” Otto asked him, suddenly. Jack Bailey grinned.“Yep. That would make my week. I could have the lousiest week a boy could have had, and if that osprey was there, I’d be great. If I had a great week, the osprey just made it better.” Now Otto was eager to see the bird. “Where is it now?”
The humor in Jack Bailey’s face left. He stared at Otto, and the boy could see that Jack Bailey was weighing whether or not to answer.
“As usual I woke up to the osprey’s call. I didn’t think the day would be any different. But when I got out of bed, I heard a pounding bang. I knew it was a gunshot, because of the way the bang tore at the air. Then, there was the screech, and right away I looked out the window. There I saw the osprey dead on the grass by the lake, floating in a pond of dark red blood.
“I ran outside and so did my parents. Sometimes I think about how I must have looked picking that bird up in my arms, my pajamas soaked with blood. If I’d known how much trouble ospreys make for fishermen, I wouldn’t have reacted so badly. I don’t blame the guy who shot my osprey. He had to do it.” Jack Bailey coughed.
“Everyday, without fail, I wake up at five o’clock in the morning, and hear that osprey.” Jack Bailey said those words as if he were amazed at himself. “Whew, whew, cheeap, cheeap. Every day, without fail.”
Jack Bailey’s eyes glazed solemnly. Otto looked at him for a while, and then at the single he and Jack Bailey had put on the rack. After that, Otto returned to looking at the stars. He watched them sparkle, and remembered from class that those stars were dead, but the light was just arriving to earth. The thought filled Otto’s imagination and was stirred in with Jack Bailey’s osprey the basin of his mind.
Otto looked at the clock on the wall. Six-fifteen. He set his watch to it, and made sure it was just right.
“I think there’s a better use for the boat,” a woman said. When Otto looked around the couch to her, he could see the woman biting her nails in thought. “It’s just a guess.”
Her figure shifted; she adjusted her shirt and crossed her legs. She dressed like she always did when she came to the boathouse: a bright-colored shirt, bright tennis shoes, mute-colored pants. Otto watched her carefully, up and down, up and down. She was very beautiful. Otto’s throat suddenly felt dry.
Otto remembered the sheer joy on the woman’s face and the great excitement showing all over her body the day that Jack Bailey won the world record. Otto remembered the way she went over to Jack Bailey that day, how she strode down to the dock and embraced him like a flower embracing a bee, and how Jack Bailey grinned a big grin and kissed her on the mouth.
The lips that had kissed Jack Bailey moved. “We could give it to charity,” she said. “I think Jack would have wanted that.”
David leaned forward. “Are you saying that because you can’t have it for yourself?” He asked the woman, who sat across from him. Otto could see humor twinkling in David’s eyes.
“Oh, no,” she said. “If I got that thing I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I would probably hang it up on a wall or something too.” David’s chuckle betrayed his humor. “But wouldn’t it be nice to have it? The Red Osprey. Jack Bailey’s single. All yours. It’d make a pretty good conversation piece.” She shrugged.
“I suppose. But…God, I’d rather have him instead of that rusty boat. What’s a girl going to do with a boat, anyway? She can’t talk to it, can’t hold it, can’t kiss it. It’s just a boat–a rusty old boat.” A glossy film covered her eyes. They welled with water and gentle brooks streamed down her cheeks. The woman wiped her eyes with her fingers and took a tissue from the table.
David reclined into the couch, and Otto saw bewilderment splattered across his uncle’s face. “We’ll just have to wait for the will, Hannah,” someone in the group said to the woman. “He had to have left you something. He loved you.”
“He better have left us something,” David exclaimed, trying to cheer her up. “We let him use this place free of charge!” The people in the lounge laughed aloud. Even Hannah, whose eyes were red and puffy, managed to smile a little. Otto smiled too and looked at the river. He could see himself sitting with Jack Bailey on the dock.
“So, what’s your favorite bird? You haven’t told me yet, boy.” Jack Bailey asked him.
“I don’t know anything about birds, sir.”
“Do they have wings?”
“Do they have beaks?”
“Can they fly?”
Otto remembered a lesson he had in class. “Well, an ostrich can’t fly, but it’s still a bird.” Jack Bailey shook his head. “Alright, as long as it isn’t an ostrich.”
“But I like the ostrich,” Otto objected.
“Alright, fine. So your favorite bird’s the ostrich.”
“No, I want to change it. I want it to be a falcon.”
Jack Bailey chuckled. “Are you sure?”
Otto looked suspiciously at Jack Bailey. “I changed my mind. I like the ostrich better.”
“Ostrich it is.” The way Jack Bailey said it made it sound official. Jack Bailey patted Otto’s head. “Ostrich it is.”
Otto looked at his watch and saw that it was seven o’clock. By now the people in the lounge were beginning to leave. Only Otto and his uncle were left. Otto was told to double-check the inventory of oars and boats in the storage bay. He made sure each and every wherry, aero, dolphin and single were in their desired place. All boats were present and accounted for–including Jack Bailey’s single.
Otto put down the clipboard he used for inventory and approached Jack Bailey’s single. He let his fingers slide up and down its stomach. Near the single’s stern, he could feel scratches—scratches too deep to be accidental. Otto stood on the tip of his toes so he could see.
—————————————–“For Otto, the Ostrich.”
“Uncle Dave!” Otto cried.
When his uncle arrived Otto showed them the engraving. Otto’s uncle David tugged at the air as if he was pulling a train whistle and hollered. They saw, and believed.
Without a word, Uncle David helped Otto take the single down to the river. As Otto waited in the water his uncle went back to get the oars. Otto locked the oars in and took a deep breath.
He pushed against the dock, and the single glided along the face of the water. When far enough into the river, he began his stroke.
Went down the river until his legs and arms and back got tired. When he couldn’t go anymore, he stopped. The water carried the boat along, and it slowly came to a stop.
Otto stared up at the stars, and this time he could see an entire galaxy’s worth. He connected the glittery dots, sketching and drawing shape after shape, until they became real, astral paintings, celestial masterpieces.
He drew Jack Bailey in the stars, the Jack Bailey that he knew and loved. He drew him looking down, watching the boy in his single.
Somehow Otto could see countless faces of people smiling ear to ear, causing an overwhelming joy to rise in him. He was raptured upwards with the boat, and he could see himself rowed across the black water of the sky. The stars waded in the rippling waves left by Otto’s single.
It was his now. The whole universe was his. He belonged now to the universe: there, living, breathing, rowing. Sleeping.
Otto sat up, his head swimming. From the look of it, it was morning. He glanced at his watch.
Otto yawned and stretched. He sculled back to the boat house, where an entire world was waiting.