Short Fiction

Two Characters Caught up in Shantytown by Tom Sheehan  

Judd Helme, as a youngster, was held by his naked heels out over the edge of this very same bridge by his drug-addicted father, and in front of his mother, now long deceased. The act was done in view of a small group of onlookers, one of whom related to me the events of that situation. Nobody knows why Judd was not dropped. It was only after a considerable amount of time, and rehabilitation, that the witness was able to tell me the circumstances, he too being hit by the slam-bang of it all, he too taking a look down into that awful reflection… thinking, as he often said, that memory comes in most horrid shapes, and most horrid visages.

No one can tell this story about Judd Helme but me. I am the cartographer, the journalist, the diarist in all these movements, scenes and words, these tokens of time. You’ll have to trust me and my place in all of it. So I tell it now, watching from where I have always watched, eagle-eyed yet custodial, making it fit the present. I do not have a telephone or a television, but my view is peerless; I live on the other hill above the Coolichee River and the bridge that spans it.

I see everything the river knows.

The river tells me everything it knows.

It happens again today, the memory leap. I can see everything converging.

Another street person, from up on the hill, from Shantytown, old Keir Gargan, pushes along the bridge his shopping carriage loaded with who-knows what, tatters and ribbons and rags blowing in the wind, perhaps junk per se. Discredited he looks, to say the least, and dirty, one glance saying he is soiled in raiment and person and has been that way for a long spell. But he is not yet ill at ease in any social manner.  Now and then he puffs and blows on gloveless hands. Irreverent and irresponsive, it seems, he comes up behind old acquaintance and fellow streeter Judd Helme dangling in a threatening lean over the rail of the bridge over the Coolichee River, not far inland from the old Atlantic itself.

He’s as cool as the day is, old Gargan, soft-shoeing along the paved surface of the bridge. No hurry to his pace, ambivalent in his approach, always ambivalent, how he manages.

Judd Helme’s leaning over the rail is treacherous, I know. I see it. He is leaning again into dare and history, into doubt and the future. You’d figure he’s in somber contemplation, but has been seen by the old French relic in the same posture on several other occasions. Keir Gargan read Judd’s mind in those instances. It is not unlike his own mind, or like his used to be.

Judd, he knows, hears the click of infinity as well as he hears the clack of the carriage’s damn-near-square wheel. Both must sound like old single shot rifle bolts slamming home, attention coming in the ranks. Keir knows it, the before and the after.

I can say this: it’s as if I hear the same echoes each of them hears in their contemplation. It’s pealing and illustrious. It’s musical. And I steal it. Like a sound painting. One of the Masters. I’m a thief of thoughts, you see. My argument is credulous; if I hear the river, and what it knows, I hear everything. And I hear the river.

I know: mild November comes atop them in grayness and the square wheel announcing the carriage also carries the tink-tink of returnable cans and clink of bottles, the rattle of them bound with meager promise. These are Keir Gargan’s mild economics in slow motion… tinkle and crawl of them, penny push, pocket stash. High and low he’s been in search, behind brush and billboard, barrel and cache; now, at a nickel each, it’s worthy effort. As a child he was grounded in this work, at two cents apiece in youthful days; all bottles of pop, tonic, soda, name it what you will. Yet it was the feel of the bottle, long before cans came along; the touch he remembers, the cylindrical till at hand, now and then a weapon of one sort or another, Time deciding which, darkness or an alley often a decider too.

I know: Gargan himself, like Helme, is also more than nondescript. He is more than looking older than he is, more than destitute. But he breathes normally, and betrays no surprise in the words he tosses out, as if he were the dealer of cards. His walk is not impeded by thought or utterance, that musical soft-shoe some people go through life with. He struts on his way, the tongue loose with its barbs, loaded with irony’s juices, coated with the phlegm of acidity. “Wait until tomorrow, Judd,” Gargan yells out in mock terror as he moves across the bridge, his palms up suddenly in plenitude, past the out-leaning Helme.

He could have said, You had one chance before, but offered, “No turkey down there, Judd. No stuffing and gravy and mashed potatoes down there today, Judd. No asparagus spears or cranberry red for you, Judd.”  One hand, turned from offertory, rolls across his sparse midsection in mild mockery, one hand in half salute. Does he pretend he doesn’t remember all this?

I hear: his voice sail out over the river. The carriage wheel clacks out the caesura, a breath caught in place. “Oh, my boy,” Gargan adds at stressful punctuation, “wait until tomorrow.”

Too, there is an air of rampant but coached disdain in his tone. He could be kidding; he could be not. “Today is Thanksgiving and they’ll give us a meal fit for kings. Believe me. That’s later today, with a little head bowing, of course, and a little begging, the kind they always expect from us. Behaving like what they are. Believing like what we do. Take it from me, I say; believe it. If they do nothing else, they’ll put out a meal fit for kings, the prayers and thank yous included as part of the humanitarian way, of course.”

Then, clucking, ducking his head as if avoiding a tossed rotten egg, he adds, “Or should I say in a humilitarian way?” He titters, walks off like a ticket collector at a theater line, knowing how the scene behind him unfolds itself, unsaid gestures, stationary words.

I hear: the wheel clacking again as Keir heads uphill, his simple task and directive about concluded. He yells again in his retreat, the small breeze playing the beard on his face, “Get wet tomorrow, Judd. Tomorrow’s soon enough.”

Tittering, self-pleased, pleasant, immune to response, he waves backwards over his head, which lolls in self-admiration, acceptance, a point made. He could have brushed his hands off at a job well done. The limp knocking at his right leg is in concert with the square wheel. Life has its edges, it says, even for the halt and the lame.

I know: in his turn, Judd eyes the cool water once more, alert to the magnetic pull. He is suddenly aware, by finger warmth, that the lint in his pocket bottoms is grainy and not wooly, like course sand, or some ferric remnants, perhaps a cache of sorts rusting away so near his body, catching at sweat, coming up off-orange in color. He digs in a corner, feels the thread line, thumb-rolls a small piece back into soft but measurable reality as dry as a rolled snot. Dust unto dust, an old voice says to him from another realm.

I see: Judd watches the man and the carriage as it heads uphill.

I knew: earlier, again, for one bare moment out on the bridge over the Coolichee River, the skies filled with snow’s threat, endless gray in every direction, Judd Helme smelled himself, at first in mild disdain. Then it became a loud wake-up call. Christ, Judd thinks, he could have made himself sick. He didn’t like his own smell, almost vile. The odors, ranks and ranks of them, assailed him, rising certain as steam or vapor, his nose separating, cataloguing. He couldn’t remember how many times he’d thought of jumping from the bridge over the river when all existence came at him in irreparable bounds. Dumpster smells stabbed him, damp alleys, how many old loading docks he had slept under in the company of rats, now and then a slob of a woman pushing herself at him, her dress linens like stained grain bags, eyes at memory, a leg hooking his leg and a hand groping, Mother Earth at her poorest. Time with its worst odor, and spent, spent, spent. He looks again at the mirror of the river. He has a sudden aversion to the reflection from the river face. It’s been there forever. It calls his name.

I know: all of that, from my position on the hill, through reconstruction of facts; but the mirror leaps up at him from the still waters of the Coolichee now that the wind is low, the current slow, his mind moving at the edge of trance self-induced, or having significant other cause.

I would assume: it is an unexciting existence Judd benignly sees in the portrait, the image; there is little else on either surface to come at him, the river’s or his mind’s. His life has been so: in school he was average, mediocre in all efforts, cheating now and then, failing at athletics; in the army also, where he served without distinction, never volunteering, never stepping forward, content to follow the man ahead of him. Now and then, drawn by a faint impression of thoughts long gone, he remembers the hollow sound of a bugle call might well have come across the desert sand to him, but it never really beckons him, though the music of a few notes still hangs in the back of his head, which he dubs lazy nostalgia. The one stripe he earned in the army was only decided by time spent in one grade and kicked onto another.

Only Fred Glibbers’ face comes to him from any assembly of comrades, he too a lost soul, the two of them as if marooned on a small island of selves by the vast army loosed at Desert Storm. Judd wonders why he remembers a bit of Fred Glibbers’ face, nothing else being left of the man; he sees the face in the reflection of the Coolichee River all the time, or every time he has hung over the edge of the bridge. He thinks, It is a rare thing when a lost image tries to resurrect itself.

Judd knows Keir Gargan’s passing voice is the age of experience talking to him most directly. The clack of the wheel passes on, fades away. Keir Gargan, for all intent and purpose, is again ghostly. The deliverance fits him.

In Shantytown, Judd Helme has discovered a place where he can sleep each night without being rousted during the night or too early in the morning. He has found a place where he fits. But the days of Shantytown seem numbered. Officials, never enamored by the cluster of blue and gray tents on city confines (the unpaved inner-city parking lot on the upper hill), are pushing to close the camp as soon as they can.

As long as his abode is standing, Helme believes he will not leave. At those moments he affirms he will not jump from the bridge, the magnet forever.

“I will stay here until I am shoved out,” Helme once vowed. He is aged, forty-years old but looking sixty, folded, bent, pruned-up, arthritic in minor joints. He is a former laborer at bricks, stones, gravel of Mother Earth. He is one of those 100 or so people hanging on to their last foothold at Shantytown. “Perhaps we’ll be driven out at the point of a bayonet. But we are not homeless. We have these homes. We have a place with a name.” There are times he feels the force of argument, but not always.

Each time Judd walks away from the waters of the Coolichee, he goes directly to the collection of shacks, tents, and quick-saved blow-downs of Shantytown, and the only people he knows, who have given the place its name. Shantytown is more than a collection of lost souls in quick cover: it is communal living at imagination’s widest extension. It is a place where prayers are tenants at all hours, as well as bitching, a hum that one can hear in the near-silent darkness or at high noon, that predicts a word like susurrus with the same hum. People do not need to pack up and leave every day, lugging their belongings through the streets on stolen grocery carts, as they did when they lived down in lower city shelters.

Everything in life, to Helme’s view, is rag tag, nondescript, and ageless. He thinks of Gargan’s shopping carriage, the image of it, how it moves almost a load of nothing to almost a place that is nowhere. None of the people of the cluttered commune have anywhere to go. Yet he dreams of a goodness he cannot create in his waking hours, a hope shorn of its roots yet waiting to be caught.

Of the lot of them in Shantytown, Judd Helme believes himself the most homeless and the most broken. Staring down at the water of the Coolichee River has always made him feel that way, and always expose his hidden thoughts. The water bounces visions back to him in traces of oil, slicks full of color, separations of some order too distant to be known. Those sensations come along with him like fabled scars or the most personal baggage, clutching, or having handles for constant grasping, toting a lifetime.

There are moments where such weights might crush him. That ominous pressure he feels, oversize rocks in place. Pain, anger, frustration itself, are made of iron the bearer cannot release. Water below has no temperature, no touch of freeze, no choke hold on air’s passage. It is just another dimension, another level looking for a new name. It may say elsewhere or newness or escape. It might never say hello because it would be the grand goodbye.

Old Gargan knows what he’s talking about; that’s experience for you, dragged as baggage out of Korea, the Philippines, a dozen old camps and stations of his life.

I’ve been everywhere, he says; I’ve been everywhere. He can see the face of the singer but long ago lost the name. He sees a train speeding at him down the miles of Kansas fields. A small, quiet town lunges at him; a face flies up from beside the tracks. Eyes are caught pretty blue, the mouth is rose red and wet, and the night folds again around them. Her name is Mary or Madeleine. She wants what is not hers, too young to own it for good. Ownership and promise came for one night, a lifetime of promise. Then, shantied for sleep, desperate at new dreams, a shotgun pries at his ribs, steers him down the tracks to jump another freighter heading out of life. He’d been posted close to death innumerable times, yet here he is pushing a shopping carriage with one square wheel, that quiet old town too far down the tracks to come back; I am noisy, here I come. Listen to what I say. I am death’s slave, shackled forever to meagerness. Here I go.

If you jump now, someone eats your meal. It’s that simple; someone else eats your meal; someone won’t go hungry.

He says to an acquaintance at the edge of camp, “Don’t worry, Judd won’t jump or fall. Not today, anyway. I know that boy, right from the beginning, through all travails become and begot. A whole lifetime gets squeezed in on a person and if you don’t grab at it and hold on at the beginning, it will haunt you forever. That’s the good Lord’s truth. Rivers never lie. Never lie. They move the silence around you. They tote your barge and lift your bail, but you’re never free of your first river. I know that and Judd knows that. How many times you figure he’s looked at that damn water looking back at him, the Coolichee taking a stab at him, leaving this long impression? How many times since it first looked up at him? The eyes becoming the eyes, the nose becoming the nose, all that identity clearer to the river than to that young kid dangling forever. We don’t know and he won’t know. It won’t be any closer than that first time the river looked back at him, looked him right in the eye, saying his name over and over again. His hunger must be stronger than his fear of death. And we’ll have cranberry sauce to boot.”

I see: after the Thanksgiving meal, the cranberry gone, the thank yous and amens made slightly tolerable, Keir Gargan takes Judd Helme’s place at the rail, assumes his son, jumps.


Tom Sheehan

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