The Audacious Magpie
A Novel in Real-Time
Chapter 2: Meeting Gus
January 18, 2014 (continued)
There I stood with the bottle in my hands, thrilled to find a match to the one at home and suddenly feeling nervous that I had committed to telling the story. I'd only shared it with my family so far. It was so unbelievable that without the daily reminder of the empty bottle and envelope of cash, I never would have believed it myself.
In any case, Gus wasn't going to give me a choice. "Well, we still have some work to do, so let's hear it," she joked, pointing at the wrapped packages of cheese.
"All right," I drew in a breath. "Just a warning that this story is a bit far out." I paused again to wash my hands and started slicing a block of cheddar, thinking about where to start. I decided to just dive in. "So, just after moving here, I raced in the New York triathlon."
"Wait, what? Me too!" Gus was enthused and I was delighted. This second major coincidence of the night gave me the necessary shot of confidence to continue. Growing up, my charmingly superstitious Gran had always said: Life will provide you with little signposts along the way to let you know you're on the right path. Finding the bottle and hearing that Gus had also raced made me feel I was on the straight and narrow.
"Did you love it?" she asked excitedly, her dark eyes twinkling.
"I loved it," I affirmed.
"The river was a little gnarly, though, huh?" she asked with mischief. "At one point an old toothbrush floated by me."
Another signpost. I shook my head in disbelief. "I have to say, that's a hell of a segue, Gus. What do you suppose floated by me?" I raised my eyebrows and pointed down at the rubbish bin.
Her jaw dropped. "A bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon?"
"Well an empty bottle, but yes."
Gus listened with wide eyes.
"You see," I continued, "I was so nervous about bumping into someone during the swim that I went to the very far edge of the ramp to jump into the river and I ended up being pretty close to the main flow of it. About halfway through I turned to breathe and there was the bottle floating by my shoulder. Normally, I would have pushed it away, but on my next breath I caught sight of money -- and not just a dollar or two. It seemed crazy, but I grabbed the bottle and kept swimming!"
Gus burst out laughing. "You finished the swim holding a big glass bottle?"
"Ha! Yes!" I gleefully joined her in giggling at the silliness of it. "Isn't that the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard? Here I was, with all of these serious athletes, swimming like a one-armed toad! Eventually I just shoved it down the front of my suit! I must have looked so strange -- like a scuba diver with her tank on backward."
We both laughed at this.
"I ran with the bottle in my suit to the transition point where the bikes were. I wrapped it in a towel and shoved it to the bottom of my bag. You can't imagine the motivation I felt during the rest of the race! For most people, they couldn't wait to get to the finish line. I couldn't wait to return to Pappy!"
"So? How much money was in there?" Gus asked, still laughing.
"$714 dollars. All different sizes of bills rolled up like miniature scrolls."
"Such a strange amount!"
"Not so strange, actually. Do you remember the date of the race?"
"July 14th! Of course! The bottle must have been put into the river that day. What did you do with the money?"
"I actually haven't spent any of it yet," I admitted. "It came to me in such an unusual way. I've been thinking about a fitting way to spend it."
I wasn't sure what Gus would think about this, so I concentrated again on the hard block of cheddar, waiting for her response.
"That makes 100% sense," she said earnestly. "Some would say money is just money and it doesn't matter, but I think you're right. It feels like Jack-and-the-Beanstalk money. You can't just throw it around, you have to be careful. You don't know if it's blessed or cursed."
"Exactly!" I looked over and we smiled in mutual recognition of having reached the same conclusion. Another signpost.
"Ok," I paused, moving onto the Camembert. "Tell me, why did you run the race?"
I wanted to know more about Gus. I want to know more about most people, really. I've always believed that with enough questions, you can find strings that will link your heart to almost anyone. This had worked for me well back home and like thick ropes, bonds built over time kept me tied tight to old friends.
That's where my constant chattering comes from really, not from a fear of silence like so many perceive. Stringing stories together has always helped me build a bridge across the moat that most people keep around their hearts. Since moving to New York, this had proven to be harder. The moats were wider here, as though people safeguarded distance like a rare commodity.
As if reading my thoughts, Gus's mood became quiet and she started to lower her own drawbridge.
"I really ran the race for two reasons," she revealed after some consideration.
"The first was to honor my mom's recent battle with cancer. Pouring energy into training really helped me cope with being so far away during her treatments, like at least I was doing something, even if it was just running mile after mile or biking up hill after hill.
"Like so many mothers, she was the stronger one through it all, calling to check on me constantly. She'd ask if I was eating enough and lamented that I had to train in a cold pool." Gus smiled at this thought. "I had mentioned in passing that sometimes the water was cold and this idea always weighed on her. She hates the cold.
"She successfully finished her treatments in May and was able to come out to New York for the race. She was there right before the finish line, wearing a little newsboy cap to cover her still-sparse hair. Seeing her there and giving her a huge hug before I ran the last few hundred meters was one of the more satisfying moments of my life." Gus's eyes shimmered.
We were both silent for a moment.
Suddenly, a girl with the largest Afro I've ever seen came into the kitchen, her smile filling the room like a floodlight.
"Gus!" she cried, "where have you been? You just missed Depeche and you know they were Mode for you."
Snapped back into the moment, Gus laughed at the pun. "Lenny, this is Izzy," she said, introducing us. Before I could say anything, Izzy draped her arm around my shoulder.
"Lenny as in Kravitz?" she asked, beaming.
"Isabelle, seriously?" Gus playfully scolded.
She draped her other arm around Gus. "I know, that was über goober," she admitted, hanging her head in mock shame. "What have you guys been doing in here?" she asked, lifting her head and giving us a soft shake.
Izzy spotted our trays on the counter. "You sure put 'em to work, Gussy!" Turning to me she gave my shoulder a squeeze. "Thanks so much for your help, Ms. Kravitz."
Suddenly the music got louder and the beat had Izzy jumping. "It's our song!" she became ecstatic as the first yelp of Come on, Eileen hit our ears.
Izzy grabbed us each by the hand and led us down the hallway into the living room. "It's just about Midnight so let's get Runnin'."
Gus leaned back to catch my eye and mouthed the words "too much Pappy." I just grinned.
We crooned "too-ra-loo-ra-ray" with the crowd that had formed, sounding like a pack of hound dogs. The night wore on with Take a Chance on Me and Like a Virgin -- classics from our childhoods heard while riding in the backseat.
At about 2am I searched for Gus to say goodbye and found her back in the kitchen scooping ice cream. "I've had such a good time. It was wonderful to meet you."
"100% agreed," she said, giving me a hug. "When you need a break from this cold, give me a holler and let's have coffee."
"Tomorrow I'm heading to Sweden for 3 weeks to see my grandparents and work from there," I explained, "but when I'm back, I'd love to."
"Sweden? Yikes! From one polar vortex to another, huh?"
"Yes, but they have a special word for it over there," I paused and smiled. "They call it vinter." Gus chuckled.
"By the way," I reminded her, "you never did tell me the second reason for running your race."
Gus blushed slightly. "Ah yes. Well, it is on this list of 101 goals that I'm working to complete in about 3 years. The idea is to make the goals very specific and then the short time frame assures that you don't put them off."
"I love it. When is your end date?"
"February 15, 2015."
"Tell me what's on the list." My curiosity was piqued.
"Ha! Oh wow. Well, there's a lot," Gus hesitated.
"Yes, 101 to be precise."
This made her smile. "One that I'll be starting soon is sending my friends a poem every day for a month."
It wasn't possible. So many signposts. I'd have to tell Gran that her theory was right.
I had no choice but to share the last piece of the bottle discovery with Gus.
"I swear I couldn't have planted your lines any better if I was writing a script for tonight," I told her. "Do you know what else was in that bottle with the $714? One of the most puzzling and beautiful poems I've ever read. I'll mail it to you before I take my flight tomorrow."