Over millions of years ago Breakheart Woods, between Saugus and Wakefield in Massachusetts, had been bookmarked by boulders and blow-offs and earthly cataclysm, and to this day, somewhere in its innards from those first struggles of granite and earth fire, from violent fractures and upheavals to be known again only at the end of it all, was a cave, a cave as dark as a heart, a cave that once, I believed, pulsed with a heart. Now we were searching for that cave, in earnest.
Nobody I knew growing up had ever seen or visited the cave, but I knew it was there; I’d been told. The old man of the benches told me, the reclusive reader told me, this late and distant friend told me. Once he had said, as we sat on a Breakheart bench under the sun, books swapping owners, time spilling its nearly empty cup for us, that we were in a syzygy with his home, his place of rest, the word syzygy perhaps salvaged from his reading. He twisted his stiff neck, eyes dark as hidden sin or pain, it seemed, as they rolled across my face, the breeze twisting his hair into a small errant banner. Over one slightly muscled shoulder he had looked with what appeared to be unerring accuracy into the depths of Breakheart Woods. I had no idea how far into the woods he looked, how far knowledge and familiarity took him, but I felt the astronomer’s true line of that course; he and I and the cave were fatefully cast in a spatial line of supposed sight. He knew and I didn’t, not as yet, that I was part of that syzygy.
Now I wondered, did that paradisiacal cave hold his sickly frame or house his corpse? Had it become, in turn, chamber, then crypt, for one man separated entirely from the rest of the world? Thinking of the old man at that moment, I thought of Charlie. My old pal Charlie, if he had been here, would have called it the dead-gone grotto had he been around for the search. Charlie, too, alliterative Charlie, Charlie my book merchant, all-too-dead Charlie, had left me, sprinting into death like the final leg man on a 400-meter relay, carrying the dread disease as surely as a baton. He too would have been here for the search, looking for the old man of the benches, along with the rest of our friends. I had friends to count on.
Surprise, disbelief, query, all manner of reaction from my companions came to mind. I’d guess disbelief figured to be the headliner for my pals. But, October crowding us, its breath tinged by Montreal and points north, we were really into the search. I mean really into it, all five of us, with maps that laid out sections and quadrants for the search, and we were spread our responsible ways to cover all depths of Breakheart Woods. Pal Jay even brought whistles along for all of us, which was par for him. I never would have thought of it, that’s for sure.
My long-time pals, to a man, were convinced, finally, we were looking for the old man of the benches. I was convinced we were looking for his body.
At about 150 feet apart, we were spread out in a line, obligated to look under every rock of any size, into each solitary crevice, under distinct cliff faces and behind every blow-down whose roots in the endless dance of earthly upheaval fanned the air. To deploy our own fan across each foot of Breakheart’s ground was our goal.
It wasn’t so much that the others believed me, that I thought the old guy was dead in the woods, most likely entombed if I was to believe his words, but they trusted me, and we were the best of friends. Enough said, that’s all it took. We each had secrets of youth none of us had divulged to this day. I asked them to help and they came the next morning, dressed warmly, October primping on us, lunches packed, Thermoses in a variety of slings and backpacks, hanging in as always. If I were the type I’d have cried. We’d been classmates and teammates forty some years before and nobody else would have believed me anyway. Old men, at least older than we were, don’t ordinarily crawl off like elephants to die, especially in Breakheart, part of the Commonwealth’s park system, squeezed in between Saugus and Wakefield, a bare twelve miles from downtown Boston. In summer it probably held more homeless people than we could contend with. Finding one man would be difficult.
All my pals but Charlie were here. It was a point with Charlie that still held true: We thought about him, always, when he wasn’t around. Some people do not disappear, no matter what happens to them.
Jay Brazos didn’t ask how I knew about the old man, but did I have any leads, had I seen him coming and going in one dedicated route, if there were any time differentials we could surmise on, draw from? Any propensities I had observed? Jay once was a tackle, a good, rugged one, who many years ago turned accountant. Big thumbs he had, but good at figures, and loyal. He had as much energy as any man I’d ever met, but never wasted it. Shortcuts were part of his make-up, a bit of the contrast working in him, CPAs being detailers, meticulous from the word go.
Kurt Ogden was as good as gold, as he was in all things. He shrugged and smiled amiably and innocently, still. His grin said, I’m here, lead me. Being himself, he was, knowing he’d never be a leader, but wouldn’t be last either, and handsome in a way that said he should have been an organizer, a point man. He’d be grateful to his dying days we hadn’t called him KO. That would have made some days tougher to handle.
In denim and a puffy ski jacket that cost a bundle, boots that cost twice as much, a backpack he must have gone out last night to buy, Shjon Borraille (Jon B we’d called him since the fifth grade when he moved into town from the Maritimes) looked as though he were bound for Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. In spite of his money, in spite of his gold and his stocks and his silver spoon, Jon B was steel down to the last fiber. He was a rich boy who was a blocking back way back when, a devastating blocker, and would, in the depths of Breakheart, be the last man to quit the search. It wasn’t that he had anything to prove, to us or to himself, but it was the way he was made. The genes, he’d often said, come when the fire’s going, not when it’s out. Itching to get his section done and then help out somewhere else, he’d beat the clock if he could.
Lastly, Dermott Hulrihan and I shared at least four pints of blood over the years, once when he went through the windshield of his sister’s car, and once when I almost sliced my arm off at the old icehouse, the crazily vibrating band saw still screeching in recall. We were best friends besides, at home in each other’s house, with each other’s family. When I said I needed help, he was at my side in ten minutes. This time, though, he didn’t have to bring his electrical tool kit or his TV repair kit or his brake-fixing tools.
Right up front I decided that I’d have to tell them the whole story, realizing it would have to grow and be formed as I told it, building it up, bringing them on. I needed all four of them. So I made the preliminaries known, that I thought an old man was dead in Breakheart, that if he wasn’t dead then he was most likely sick and socked away in some kind of rocky cave or shelter, which had been home to him for about two years. I’d met him at the benches of the reservation, sopping up the good rays. Now, he’d been out of sight for three days, where he and I had met daily for something like thirty-seven or thirty-eight days in a row, at the benches of the park.
I told them, as clearly and as truly as I could, not letting anything mask the feeling I had found in myself for a vagrant, for a street person, about an old but quizzical man who had come out of nowhere into my life. The quadruple bypass I’d undergone two years before had also put me on the street, a walker and wanderer trying to keep going the sole organ the aorta serves with distinction.
So, I said, every now and then in life you have these absolutely brilliant illuminations about another member of the species. If you’re lucky, that is, and awake at the time. It can be the clarity of a person so explicit you feel you know them down to the bottom of their feet, what’s between their toes. And instantaneous, in part. It doesn’t happen very often, it’s true, or not often enough, but when it does it grabs you right by the socks and shakes you up. It was that way with Charlie. We all know it. We know why he went so fast, toting what he thought was all that dread disease with him, keeping it for himself.
It seemed it was that way with him, the old man of the benches, nameless for the longest while. His face had come at me as I passed him by, sitting on a bench near the first pond of the reservation. There had been no obvious, unbalanced measure about him, like his face was so interesting and his clothes so decrepit, no opposites that had attracted me. An aura about him, I would say, being a more accurate explanation.
From a distance I had seen him before, enough times to believe that he was homeless, that his nights were filled with uncertainty and conjecture, that he had no close ties to anybody around us, but that he was a survivor despite whatever rigors had beset him. In his wayward way there seemed to be a purpose emanating, a role to be fulfilled, a routine to be discharged. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something solid existed with him or in him or alongside him, a shadow in a place I couldn’t find though the sunlight angled in on him like a spotlight, old Sol at his best.
Neither smile nor scowl did he wear, his eyes gray or pale blue behind dark-rimmed glasses breaking his face into quadrants, his hair closer to white than gray, making it cleaner than one might think it would be. It was almost shoulder-length, an old Hippie, a hanger-on we could have seen and passed by a hundred times; perhaps graced by the tumultuous Sixties and still carrying the torch, perhaps, again, Kerouac at a standstill. Acknowledged outright they’d been slept in, the clothes he wore were not disgraceful in any measure; though they were not neat, they were not dirty, at least not contemptuously dirty. Not back-alley dirty. Not Dumpster dirty. From the beginning I could feel myself drawing a host of conclusions, making assumptions. Making excuses, I suppose, for what had attracted me, feeling myself an odd lot in the bargain.
The truth of the matter is that I had seen him around for the better part of two years, around much of the town, always in a slow and meandering walk, without appointment as Charlie would have said, but had never really noticed him. Truth of the matter is, blatant it might seem, I had not accepted him.
And one day in late August, at Breakheart, that old Roman Sol slipping his fingers and hands through the treetops, a breeze keeping those extremities company, we came to the same bench together and looked into each other’s eyes for the first time.
The illumination and clarity I’d experienced before leaped at me. Immediate attraction, there was. It was undeniable. I liked the way his white hair curled under his ears, the fisherman’s ruddiness of his face so full of world exposure, the crows’ feet lancing the skin about his eyes, the intelligence sitting in those eyes reminding me of an old English professor at Boston College, Beacon Street John Norton, one of the warmest and sincerest men I had met in life. His hands looked industrious despite the rest of his appearance. The dark cover and white pages of a book stuck up out of his once-yellow cardigan pocket. I put him at seventy-five years of age, perhaps a bit older.
Even before we spoke I had a flashback over forty years old. The recall jammed itself at me, clarity coming with it, and a face from Winslow, Arizona, and I was heading home from Yang Du and Mung Dung Ni and Inchon and Seoul and all the ugly pit stops in between. Winslow, Arizona, and the train at rest, and the train captain saying we had a fifteen-minute layover. I had sprinted to a small cabstand. Four cabbies were lounging against their cabs. One face out of the four came at me, something immediate and accessible written on it past a smile, interest and compassion, an I’ve been where you’ve been kind of expression, a clarity of acceptance.
“How close is the nearest shoe store?” I said.
“What do you need, kid?” His smile was working, his body already leaning to an unannounced action, a sprinter at the gun line, a quick hand reaching for the cab door handle.
“I’ll be five more days on this train and I need size 8 1/2 moccasins and I’ve only got fifteen minutes.”
We ran two red lights after he flipped open his door for me, the horn blowing all the way. Just off the main drag we ran into a store. Four people were in the store, a man behind the counter, two women talking to him, a man in the far corner. The perfumes of new leather assailed me.
“Harry!” the cabby yelled. “Kid here is on his way home from Korea, Sonny’s outfit, the 7th Division. He needs 8 1/2 moccasins and pronto!” Pointing back over his shoulder, he added, “I don’t think the train will wait for him,” his voice loaded with minute irony.
Harry, the clerk and owner, I presume, to this day, spun about even as the whistle of the train echoed threateningly across town, across the leathered interior of the store. The box of 8 1/2 moccasins was hurled at me. I reached for my wallet and the both of them said, in unison, “Forget it, kid.”
We just made the train. He said his name was Earl Coombs, his godson and Harry’s son was in the 17th Regiment of the 7th Division. For the next five days, swooping across America, laying by in Chicago and a few other points, I was the only one on the train of five hundred returnees not shod, required for the meal car, with heavy combat boots.
The illumination of the spirit of Earl Coombs had never left me, and the Korean Parallels, the 38th being one, came loping along together. I said “Hi’ as I sat on the same bench with him. He nodded and replied, “I’ve seen you around a lot. You must live nearby. On an exercise regimen, probably cardiac I’d guess. I come here a lot myself. Sometimes I read.” One fingertip touched the top of the book sticking out of his pocket. “Sometimes I watch the birds or the chipmunks, now and then the people.” There was no mockery in his face, nor was there any in his words.
Suddenly prevailing in me was the realization I should not ask any questions of him. I really don’t know why that came upon me so quickly, except some of that clarity or illumination told me it was necessary. Of course, I wanted to ask him where he lived and what he read and a number of other questions sloshing their way through the mud in my mind. But we talked lightly about the weather and the birds and the industry of the squirrels and chipmunks. Little else was volunteered by him and less was asked by me, though I squirmed in my seat for information.
A dozen or so times we spoke in the following weeks, once or twice he hailed me down, a yell or a wave from a distance if our paths appeared not to be crossing at the same juncture. Little was transferred between us except the quiet amenities of listening, paying attention to words and noting the appropriate time to speak. He was decently shaved most of the time. His clothes went through a small routine of change, though nothing apparently went out of use. Once I saw him pick something off the pavement of the ground and thought it to be a coin the way the sun angled from it. He pocketed the picked-up item. That’s when I began dropping coins about the area. Not that I salted the place, mind you, but here and there let a quarter or a dime slip from my fingers. It made me feel good that I didn’t have to make an offer or donation outright. And on many occasions it was his hand that picked up my offering.
That was not one of my original ideas, I will admit. Years before I’d seen my grandfather, the storyteller, the Yeats reader, the Roscommon Emigrant, dropping coins in my sure path, both candy coin and book coin, now and then Hershey coin or G-8 and His Battle Aces coin. And there was a neighbor who, putting in terraced steps of cement in his hilly garden, liberally set coins in the wet cement and spent his nights listening to us chip away at dimes and nickels with our little hammers and our little chisels, the glow of his cigarette signaling his porch watch. I have never forgotten his investment in the neighborhood.
September came, the days still warm, the nights getting off a bit on their own, and I still had not prodded him with one question. Thoroughly likable he was, a man of few words, no self choruses, no dictates or tastes used to spread his good word, serious about his own place in the scheme of things. I noticed that the book ends changed colors a few times, so he was progressing, had resources, finished one and went on with another. My curiosity kicked me endlessly, but that illumination would come full circle, I knew.
I told him all about myself, about you guys, how we’ve hung in together all these years, my surgery, how slow it was coming back, how good the walking is. I think he got to know you somewhat, each one of you. He knows about Charlie. One day he told me he was reading a French poet named Baudelaire, but not in French. Said he liked him a lot. But he didn’t look too good, coughed and choked a bit and said he’d fight off everything that came at him, in place or out of place. I liked that in him. I liked it a lot. It reminded me of you guys. You’re like him, you know, down deep, not backing off, saying your own thing in your own way. I guess that’s what grabbed me the most—he’s like you guys. And there’s nothing more important than that.
A couple of days later, a few coins lighter, I left a poet’s book on the bench after he had walked off to wherever he goes. I went off and watched him come back and take the book. I could tell he was pleased, even from a distance. The next day I brought a big Italian sub sandwich cut in quarters. We had a picnic of sorts. He ate and coughed and recited some words he had put by for me. I was really touched by them. Nothing ludicrous or silly about any of it. He reminded me of my grandfather, who used to read Yeats to me on the summer porch with the moths floating around like linnets, but I bet he’s not ten years older than any of us, though he’s been chewed up by something in this life. I’d bet a whole great big chunk has been taken out of him. We’ll never know, will we, what’s coming down on top of us? How it’s going to hit? Some of us are going to get hit in the mind or the heart by a runaway train, like Charlie was, here one day and gone the next. Others by a slight so weak we’d never see it otherwise except it bothers the mindset we’re in.
But we came together for thirty-seven or thirty-eight days in a row. I knew he was sick with something besides heartache and loneliness, but he said he’d never go to a hospital he couldn’t afford, and he’d never be put by in a pauper burial. Eventually he alluded to his nights and how he kept warm. “Mother Earth has a warm embrace if you nestle deep enough. Sleeping in a natural curve is a bodily enlightenment.”
We spoke of poets he had read, the dislikes he had. Once he said, talking of Sandburg,
“Carl’s not good, Carl’s bad.” His eyes were lit up.
I said I loved “Chicago” and “Grass.”
“Believe what I said,” he replied. That was the first inclination I had that he was playing word games with me. The light almost sang in his eyes. I saw Professor Beacon Street John Norton all over again. I felt the air passing through an open window of Gasson Hall, May pushing itself through the linden trees, the last class of the year, his eyes giving out answers.
Dermott had leaped all over that. “You finally meet a kindred spirit, a poetry buff, unlike us poor slobs, and you disagree. You’ll never change.”
I knew he was saying that you have nothing if you don’t have a tool in your hands, something to grasp, to lean on. He slapped me on the back and said, “But you’ve always had it your way and we’ve stood by, but not without a question of sanity!”
What the old gent was doing, I told them, was giving me his secrets, letting me in on things, telling me what I wanted to know all along and had never asked: where he spent his nights, how he lived, what kept him alive. He respected my respect of his privacy, that I wasn’t a do-gooder digging in his back yard for all his bones.
Jay asked, “So what did you learn? I trust you just told us something that we missed and you found out, but it’s past me. Way past! So give!”
“It wasn’t just that,” I said to them as they looked at me like the Buster Brown dog, all quizzical and suddenly disbelieving. “That was only one more thing in a line of information that he had been feeding me and I had not caught on. He had been enjoying himself, playing at me and with me, oh-so-good-naturedly, though. I didn’t know what he had done in life because he never said anything of his past, what had driven him out of the mainstream, no details. The only bit of distaste he had ever uttered was that he didn’t care one bit for what he called kiss-ass opportunists. The immediate clarity, of course, was playing with me, and it suddenly came to light. He had told me what took him to the streets. I could feel it and see it.”
“Yuh, and what else?” Jay demanded.
I roped them all in with my eyes, each one, one at a time. I laid it on them. I said, “He lives in a cave or underground or under a blow-down.”
Jay and Dermott laughed like hell. Jay said, “Don’t tell me you’re giving us this Carlsbad shit! Saturday! October! A game at the field! Cut the crap, Tom! You’ve got to have more than this to drag us out here.” His face was reddening, his lips pursed in an old read.
I told them nothing was so clear to me in life. The old man was special. I needed their help.
There was a silence in the air, a silence all about my friends. I saw them, all at once, in so many postures and situations over the long years. I loved them dearly and needed them. I clutched for the closeness one more time, as if it didn’t come this time it might go off for good. I reached for it with my soul. They looked at me the way they had looked at me on more than one occasion, I can say. The measure was made again, for at length, in the midst of a moving silence, I think they saw something of what I had seen in the old man, something Beacon Street John Norton tried to tell me one day in class when nobody else was listening. And I had heard.
They broke and walked off, setting themselves apart by 150 feet or so, and we began to fan through Breakheart for an old man none of them had known, perhaps dead, perhaps buried. For four hours on an October Saturday, the sun glorious, the leaves catching coins of light as they took wing, the thinning shade cooler, we fanned ourselves through the woods of Breakheart, hailing each other, checking out here or there a possibility, waving ourselves onward. We did hill and dale and cliff face and swung about and over the small mountain of stone by the lake.
It was after a lunch of sandwiches, when the coffee was gone and the legs seemed to go the way of the spirits, that Dermott, on my left, standing at the foot of a small cliff, hailed me and then the others. It was accompanied by Jay’s whistle cutting through the thinning trees off to Dermott’s left.
Dermott was shaking his head, and then he nodded to me as we all gathered at the cliff face. The light was in his eyes and I knew he had found something he had not expected to find, though he had been willing to try. Pointing to a small aperture at the base of the cliff, cut low into the stone and behind a small clump of brush, he handed me his flashlight. “You check, Tom,” he said, and looked at the others with solemnity sitting on his face, stiff as a graven image. His head nodded slowly.
The aperture was small and I squeezed through. A stone, about the size of the opening, was pushed aside. I cast the flashlight beam inside. It was a cave at least ten feet deep and over six feet high. I caught an unlit lantern, then a second one, a pile of books on a small block of stone, some bottles, some cans on another stone. The light leaped back at me from a small mirror wedged in the wall. It was dry as bone in there. On one side wooden boxes must have been reassembled, for they stood as a unit almost three feet high. On the other wall, to my left, was a canvas cot with the three sets of crossed legs. On it lay the old man of the benches partly hidden in a sleeping bag. He was colder than the inside of the cave.
A slip of paper was a chance semaphore beneath the cot.
Tom—I saw the light go on before you did. I know you’ll not be long. Please leave me here. This is home and the celebration will be ours. I have no more family in the whole world. It was my pleasure talking with you. Guido Poti.
PS: You can have my books, but leave Sandburg, leave the Grass. I’ll try again.
We left him there in the middle of Breakheart Reservation, socked down into that tomb. No pharaoh, but fair. Nobody will ever find him. I’ve gone back a number of times. Once, late of an August evening, stars tumbling over my shoulder, a breath of a breeze, I carried a bucket of water from the Second Lake and set some cement in place, a few more rocks, as if I were just visiting at Riverside Cemetery. A number of times I dropped a wild flower or a found stone or an orange leaf from the cliff top, just to change the look of the terrain I suppose, or to make a comment.
Once, in the near darkness, I saw the lights of his eyes coming back through the trees, as if he’d been off someplace for part of the day.
I don’t tell the guys about those visits, and they don’t ask.
Banner Image: Breakheart reservation – By GMushinsky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
5 thoughts on “The Hermit of Breakheart Woods by Tom Sheehan”
Tom, it is a true gift to be able to bring to life characters in such a thorough, human, and memorable way. It was something of a spiritual adventure to read this beautiful story. We all build our own cave, don’t we? Best wishes, June
This is one of the pieces I read to start my day off on a good footing, as again I did this very morning, and my thanks to June for taking time to respond with best wishes.
For better or ill I have returned to the world of cyberspace. The first thing I read is this. It’s very good. A little too good, to a person has too much of a competitive nature. I’m envious.
Thank you for writing it. It gives me something to shoot for.
Irene, welcome back from the orbital trip and stopping to read this story. Shoot away with love and energy and a whole lot of fun. All this keeps an old man tied to his memories for a while longer, leaping very early from the comfort of his bed to get going, bringing a title or an idea along as pushy company; compelling joy!
I think both of the ladies who are very well read within the site have commented perfectly.
I totally agree and it is a pleasure to continue to work with you!
All the very best my friend.