This story is by Nona Nicklin and won the Grand Prize in our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Nona Nicklin spent the better part of two decades as a teacher of French, Latin and English to middle school students at a private school in California. Her interests include Shakespearean studies, music and rereading favorite novels. Visit her website to read some of her published stories.
Thanksgiving Day, 2011, was haunted. My husband’s family had sealed a time capsule forty years earlier, and our apartment buzzed with electricity from the moment Matt, my husband’s brother, texted Sport a reminder of its opening that day. Sport listed the items he remembered having included: a 7-inch Astron Scout rocket, an issue of Mad Magazine, and a chipped bowie knife.
I wrinkled my nose. Don’t you bury a time capsule? He shrugged, saying they’d stored theirs in the garage.
Sport closed the hatch of the Jeep and, through its window screen, he re-counted the number of pie boxes, three. He commented that the whipped cream should be fine, especially on a day like today. The ride north from Glendale would take only three hours. Plenty of ice in the cooler.
He patted his jeans pockets, then held up a forefinger. His phone, he’d be right back. When he finally hopped into the passenger seat, he dumped a small pile of books and a laptop at his feet.
His phone? He tapped his back pocket. He wanted to stop by Starbucks first, but we were running late. He assured me it would be fine.
I kept to the posted speed limit, unwilling to risk safety to make up for lost time. Brown hills pressed in on us from the left and rows of radishes flickered past on the right. Moorpark behind us, I waited for further explanation of the time capsule, its notion foreign to me, but Sport’s head was bent toward a book. The judder of train tracks under the tires caused him to look up, and I asked him whose idea it was, the time capsule. His mom’s.
He closed the book and told me the story of how he had come home to find his mother sitting in her corner of the sofa, book upside-down in her hand and her cigarette burnt down to the filter. She was waiting for him, she had said. They were going to put little treasures into a box and open it in another forty years. Everybody was doing it, and wouldn’t that be fun? And it was fun, finding things to put in.
Sport turned his attention to another book, and I turned the car toward the ocean and watched as tidy patches of farmland receded in the rear view mirror.
He’d forgotten something, he was sure of it. So, we took the nearest off-ramp and drove to the end of the road, a parking lot near the beach. The sea wind whipped at Sport’s hair as he raced to the back of the car. He stood there, rifling through the hatchback’s contents, for nearly five minutes. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out what he’d forgotten. Sport scratched his head and paced. His father had laid into him pretty hard once after Sport had sold his grandfather’s decoy ducks at a garage sale.
They weren’t Sport’s, his father had scolded him, they were his only on a first-right-of-refusal-basis. Keep his ducks in line.
I asked if he wanted to drive. Sport said that sounded good. As we pulled onto the highway, Sport pointed at a beach house, whitewashed with high bunchgrass, a fence leaning toward us. It reminded him of the one his family had stayed at, but only a few times because the furniture was dangerous. Dangerous? Glass-shelving, glass dining table. Coming in from the bright sunlight into the dark living room, the memory of his mother, face down among the shards of glass, still made his insides go cold. Now I understood our house rule: no glass coffee table.
At Rincon Point the highway veered north again. The water remained its usual gray-blue when clouds refused to break. Sport’s phone chimed. He leaned forward and handed it to me.
Hi! I sounded too enthusiastic.
Dick wanted to know where we were. Sport’s dad had a tenor voice, needle fine. Just south of Carpinteria, I said. He grumbled that the kids were hungry and they weren’t waiting any longer. I assured him that we’d be there soon. He told me to tell Jonathan, Sport’s given name, that his rudeness was intolerable. I made room for silence. He insisted that I tell him, and I lied that I would.
The short pier with the solitary palm tree appeared on the shoreline. It had always struck me as odd. Sport corrected me: it was an oil derrick. The shock of this fact threw me. I wavered between laughing and crying at my mistake. It’s an unsettling sensation: to see a thing a hundred times and suppose it for one thing, only to discover it is quite another.
Sport gripped the wheel tighter and peered ahead, into the future. Whatever link to the past the cardboard capsule held, inside were tangible proofs of a childhood lived, evidence of a marriage dissolved. Touching a thing makes it more real, so I have been told. My husband’s fingers began tapping the wheel, as though they understood their part to play. To touch the past, to make it more real.
Dick asked for a drum roll, and the nephews, nieces, uncles and aunts, everybody quick-slapped their thighs, the banister, the tiled floor. Then he motioned, and we watched, breathless. The blade hissed, as it sliced the length of paper tape from one end of the box to the other. When the last of the tape was cracked open, the box flaps hung, limp like broken wings. Inside, wadded newspaper promised treasures below. Dick reached out a hand and plucked the first bit of newspaper away. In lettering echoing back to the 1960s, the word Disneyland cued audible recognition. Within the thin paper bag was a giant, folded map of the park (petting zoos and monorail intact), a silken scarf with Tinkerbell on it and two 8x10s of the Peter Pan ride.
Before Dick removed another crumpled piece of wrap, he suggested a game. Who could remember what they had put in? Mark ticked off a mechanical pencil, a pack of gum and a lava lamp. Joanne, Sport’s sister, said she could only remember a Barbie-like doll, but not an actual Barbie doll. Sport rehearsed his recollection, and Dick was sure he had put in a fishing reel. The moment of truth has arrived, he said. And ta-da.
The first sign that something had gone terribly wrong was the slope of clear glass, a King’s Crown bottle. More wadding landed on the tile, revealing a White Label Dewar’s bottle, also empty. Next came Coffee House Liqueur, Chivas Regal, Smirnoff, Canadian Club, Brambuie, Jack Daniels, all bottles in miniature, empty and having been washed clean. The first few layers looked to have been carefully packed, but under the tidy assemblage lay a topsy-turvy jumble. Dick’s fishing reel, the dollie, the rocket, the lava lamp, all had been displaced; and Dick looked up, his lips working but voice mute. Mark and Joanne bent forward and fumbled through the glass, digging. Sport watched, the right corner of his mouth upturned.
At last, Mark stood upright, hands on his hips. He’d hit the cardboard bottom and seen no sign of anything but more empty booze bottles. Dick couldn’t believe it. Joanne said only wow.
Sport whispered a lone laugh and nodded his head. They all wanted to know what was so funny. Sport pointed to the time capsule, his finger jabbing in accusation.
It wasn’t just disguising vodka in vinegar bottles or the surprise of a half-drunk bottle above a ceiling tile, but the time capsule, too: off limits to them, don’t open for forty years?
Dick blinked. Matt and Joanne’s faces hardened, the long line of their noses identical. Sport outright laughed. His dad warned Jonathan that this wasn’t funny. Sport waved, dismissively. Point scored from the grave, Mom!
Then, having touched not a single item from the broken box, Sport took my hand in his, bid everyone a happy Thanksgiving, and jumped in the driver’s seat for the long ride home.