All Stories, Short Fiction

Tom Sheehan Week – Friday: STORY 100

Spiel: I am tone-deaf, and as my father used to say to me, “You couldn’t hold a note in a briefcase,’ but I love music in many levels, like Sole O Mio by the great baritones, tenors,. country guitars, opera and good musicals, and was brought to this story by that drive in me for connection.

Banjo  

Tom Sheehan    

His stature, what there was of it, was the cause of it all. From a meek and mild beginning, barely making it into the world, to the inevitable and cataclysmic end.

Banjo. He was called Banjo, not because he was bow-legged (which he was and, at 5 feet 1 7/8 inches and stretching for all he was worth, quite pronounced); not because most of his life he could play without a single lesson any instrument that had strings and required picking or twanging (from balalaika to ukulele and zither); not because a lost testicle at the start of puberty had driven his voice two octaves up the scale, but because he was born of a blind mother, named by his hard-drinking, puzzle-playing, acronym-bedeviled father, raised at times of critical issues by a maiden aunt, all as Benjamin Arthur Norman Jobleski. Banjo, short for short.

His father, Joe Jobleski, pipe wrapper of the old school, a man of fists and thrust jaw, sitting at his favorite stool at the club, always remembered Banjo being born, how he came weak and wimpy into this world, the runt of the litter, scrawny, red as a tossed new penny, bony and near fleshless, fingers like Q Tips, toes like firecrackers in the gutter on the morning of the Fifth, a chicken lobster, a cull at the pound, and born of a blind woman who had not so sinned before.

“The smallest Jobleski in two centuries,” he’d often said at the Vets Bar, an empty glass never in front of him for long, where two of his older sons had already found similar and lethal tastes. It was here where nights and weekends were spent away from home, where the eyeless scourge that was his wife Mary could not penetrate the leaden and stark sanctuary of peers.

“Came like a chip of wood on that salty water, did Banjo,” he had exclaimed to his constant companion, Big Mike Shigalski. “Flushed out of the tube, riding the waves. Maybe he can go out in a blaze of glory. Huh! Maybe! Maybe not! Not enough fuel to light a lantern. A friggin’ candle. Bless Mary, she can’t see him. Held him like a doll, though, crinkly, like crepe paper. Afraid he’d break up right in her hands. His arms so puny, his legs, sticks and twigs. I was scared of holding him myself. Could lie like a pack of hamburger right in my palm. One of those special four-pound jobs, and half of it’s fat at that.”

Mike knew the way to get additional rounds, how not to cut a night right in half, how Joe Jobleski turned on his bar stool to look around the room any time one of his four other sons or his daughter Aleksa were mentioned, always seeking approval, nodding in a strange self-centered way, waiting for the odd clap on the back, the soundless clap on the back, approbation, approval in the gesture, words held back as though all in attendance understood the non-speaker, the back-slapper. It was not an emptiness about his friend that was most pronounced to Mike, but the constant dread swirling about him, a threat swinging itself, a pendulum cutting through the air. Trouble or pain waiting to happen, sharp as a knife. The dark eyes under the mass of gray eyebrows, the jaw set as stiff as an anvil back at the shop, did not allow much expression on Joe’s face. Stolid, rock-ribbed. Stubborn might have been said of him, but never to his face.

Mike looked at the hulking shoulders he knew were as powerful as his own, riding clean and confident like bareback riders on bones that would never break this side of collision.

“Can’t win them all, Joe. You got yourself a handful of giants. The boys will do you proud, you can bet on them, and Aleksa…well, no one’s ever going to screw around with her, unless she wants them to, that’s for sure.” A small laugh was punctuation, an afterthought. “Paulie, he’s going to be the best running back this town has seen since what’s-his-name went to Tech or Charlie Choo-Choo at Chapel Hill. He’s got a ton of you in him, Joe, a whole ton! It’ll break out before you know it. And Andy looms like Bronco, only a freshman at that, lots to learn. Coach says he can hardly wait on him. Knees like trip hammers. Puts his shoulders where they belong, squared away, downfield all the time, a real North-South runner. No East-West shit for him.”

“Yah!” threw in Joe, “and his baby brother won’t even be big enough to make the cheering squad.”

“You can’t win them all, Joe. You got to take something like this in stride. It’s not the end of all things Polska.”

He smiled a self-effacing smile, felt himself pandering, thought light of it, stared at the neon of the night light above the rear door blaring EXIT, the ring of redness becoming once again, as it did nightly, a mushroom of red, a blare of red that might otherwise be a trumpet of sound. He said, “Shit!” under his breath as if a decision had been made, though he knew he’d go through the same torture time and time again, sucking up.

Joe had thought about those things for a long time. Some days and evenings he would sit at the club, if Mike wasn’t around to engage him in useless conversation that always turned on one thing, and think only of how he had been cheated of another robust son. They were his pride and joy, like medallions he could wear at a minute’s notice, extensions of himself, his name now and then in print. Christ! He could feel them in his backbone. And Banjo, the tiny son, the aberration, the anomalous offspring, seeming never to leave the hands of his blind and now utterly sexless mother for the better part of five years, grew slowly and aching as the neighborhood target runt of all runts. Banjo was persecuted, dawn to dusk, hounded, driven, plagued by all those his age, and some even younger. Pinched. Kicked. Bitten. Cussed. Punched. Knocked down. Back pockets ripped wide apart so that the seam of his pants would snap and his drawers would show. No Jobleski ever came to his rescue. Never once. No Paulie or Mike or Andy or Stash. No

Aleksa either. They barely abided him, not wanting to share any of his deformity. Touching surely was sharing.

And Aleksa, secretly, down in her stolid, unyielding body, in her man-looking body, behind her deep eyes and Jobleski jaw, behind the air of nonchalance she was able to evoke at will, hated her runty brother, and absolutely, positively hated her mother for mixing up their places in her womb. She had thought, from the early days when her breasts began to fill themselves, when strange things happened within her and odd delights came sliding and slipping through her, that her mother had placed her in the wrong niche in that dark cavern, on that hidden sea, carried her in the wrong place, gave to her brother Banjo the body that was supposed to be hers. “I hate the two of them!” she would mouth deeply while in the shower, her lips curling her testament, her hands finding secrets, sources of electricity, discovering that proportion and graceful symmetry were not to be her choice attributes.

So Banjo grew, unwanted, unloved, object of utter derision, nearly cast aside from the bosom of the family, held only by the arms of his blind mother, her fingers touching, measuring, finding in the dark silence some of the same pains that the rest of the family found, and held by Aunt Stacy only when men of the house were away or Banjo would slip over to her house for a visit, for cookies, to have her rub his feet and little legs for hours on end, as if the chilblains worked in him. Stories would fall from her red dialectal mouth until he fell sleep. Dreamed about her red mouth, he did, how it was wet but vise-like the way it held the bare tip of a cigarette for hours on end, dangling, bringing now and then of a smile the final curve to her lips.

Plague is a word and a condition that is long apart from us, long apart from Jobleski and the tenor of their times. Except for Banjo. Somewhere in his sixth year, the runt, the family failure, the blot on their fair horizon, tired of the pounding, tired of the smashing, tired of the soreness almost a permanent part of his body, began to hit back.

Oh, Lord! Banjo began to kick. Began to punch. Began to stand against the armory that gathered in all the other Jobleskis. He fought tooth and nail their fingers in his ribs, their knocking-rapping fists on his skull, their aimless but aggregate punishment, their name-calling and diatribes, the jokes about Tom Thumbs and little peckers and dwarfs and pygmies and midgets and half-grown jockeys, the incredible allusions to the blind woman who had carried and delivered him, the distances they tried to put between themselves and him, the endless assault against kin.

More than once he believed himself kinless, stray, urchin, orphan. But rising in his small and abject frame, like it did in cubs or pups coming eventually of age, predators at length at their appointed places, came courage and ingenuity and a will to survive that belied such territory.

Paulie: The first time you put your dick in, kid, you’re going to fall right through. Balls out you’re going, right on through. They’ll be looking for you for a month of Sundays and nobody in high heaven will be able to find you. Don’t let go, Banjo. Don’t ever let go the last cunt hair you grab onto because it might be the last lifesaver you’ll ever know. If you go down that long tunnel, kid, you’ll never come back. What the hell would we do without you? Why we’d be friggin’ lost. That’s where we’d be. No more friggin’ punching bag, no more little shit of shits to make our days. You can count on that. We’d be lost without you. Can you imagine it, the runt adrift on a cunt hair and never seen again!

A rock the size of a baseball suddenly off Paulie’s head. A knob just as big coming along shortly thereafter. Another rock and another hit and Banjo escaping under a fence, his route secret and sacred and plotted well in advance. He’d show them a thing or two. He’d bust balls or die trying. Pursuit would be over in minutes, he knew. They could never catch him, never go the places he went, never put themselves through the smallest slot or space where only light had gone before him. And under Aunt Stacy’s rear porch, tight up against the decking, he slipped into and through the smallest fissure of all, letting himself into a sanctuary of stone that no man had entered since it was sealed for structural safety. A root cellar long passed over and forgotten, buried under the addition of the wide screened porch. His Shangri-La. His oasis. Twenty-one square feet of bliss and darkness.

When he slipped down to the familiar floor, felt his secrets and collectibles, touched the skins of their miniature bodies, inhaled their steep and lovely aromas he had refined with sprays and perfumes stolen from innumerable sources, when in that darkness he could almost see the eyes of each one of the dolls, he said his prayer, as if it were an entry code, curse of passwords: When the time comes, when the whole wide world knows the great Jobleski brothers are just doll collectors, they’ll shit their Jobleski pants from one end of town to the other. I’ll see to that. I’ll show ‘em!

Andy: Let me settle it right up front, kid. Something is out of whack here, way out of line, like the milkman coming up the steps when he should have been going out with the empties. Fell on the old dame on that friggin’ couch and she never knew the difference, milkman or drunk at prongin’, makes no never mind to the blind except in the final counting. Could probably tell the difference in your bone structure or fingerprints. If you ever get the red-eye, why, we’ll know for damn sure! Christ, he used to look at me sometimes and I thought he was going to set me on fire. Hated empties that were dirty, cluttered with white sop and stinking with sour milk. Hated to stoop when any one of us was within fifty feet of him, the lazy bastard! Hated every goddamn one of us! Hated every Polack this side of Warsaw, and them there just as much. Just a shanty Irish bastard with the awful red eye who you might be looking back on one good day like you owe him special. Rootstock from the grand island of eternal sotted souls, and all that diminutive crap that goes with little people. For that’s just what you are, one of the fuckin’ little people only drunks own up to!

Andy’s creamy white, almost delicate Ford hard-top, shiny, sun-catching, spit-polished like the elite in military circles, chromed grille sole residue of a Packard nobody had seen in thirty years, suddenly sitting on four flat tires, a dead chicken floating above the front seat with his neck still twisted in that final knot, a slowly running hose caught up by a rear window tight against the upper edge and yet pouring a second cubic yard of water into that yawning cavern.

Stash: You were probably adopted and she didn’t have the heart to tell you, once you began to grow—or not grow, fact is. Never told one of us either. Was her painkiller, you were, her mighty small aspirin, killjoy, all in one. When you bleed, the blood’s not the same. Take it from me!

Stash’s card collection withered: Ted Williams’ card, the Splendid Splinter, Terrible Teddy, .406 and balls out for the batting title like nobody else in the whole world would have dared, went in one hurry to fifty pieces if one, like Chipper’s rookie card. Stan Musial and Red Schoendeinst, teammates, glued together upside down as if they had been having fun in the back of the locker room. Even in that pose, no longer of prime value. No longer pristine. No longer neutral in the Polish community all around the Jobleskis, and a forevermore different. Potato Man Yaz, Red Sox’s Yaz’s card split up the gut. Whitey Ford, rookie card, face of a newborn, gutted dead center. Frankie Sinkwich gone forever.

Aleksa: She cheated you and she cheated me. You could have had these arms, these shoulders, these wrists born for swinging, for driving balls to dead center on a line. I could have been you and you could have been me, but no way was she going to do that, so we’re stuck, me here in this weight lifter’s garb and you there in your pygmy pants. We’re going to be locked up here forever and she’ll have a last dream of us as we might have been. If we count our blessings, we’ll be in the minus column, and you know it as well as me. She played a rotten goddamn trick on us!

Run up on the flag pole, standing like a singular white birch of lonely beauty in the front yard of the Jobleskis house of odd additions and strange angles, for all the world to see on the following morning, was just about every unmentionable Aleksa’s chest of drawers would yield. Slapping in the breeze were assorted bras, black to flesh colored, pockets turned out to the wind, stringed, wired, strapped, all making as much noise as the underdrawers and panties and plain old fashioned snuggies that lay straight out on the taut rope. Body messages. They talked on the wind. They spilled secrets. Body remnants. Portions of her loose on the world. Cups filling now and then with masses of air. Bloomers for bare seconds stuffed with the shape of her more-than-ample ass, all the odors gone, all the aromas tossed freely to clouds and other spirits of the air, discolorations and other stains still hard in some crotches.

Burning clean out of her skin, cursing at the top of her lungs the language stolen from the backroom of the PAMVETS, pounding up and down stairs and in and out of each room of the house, she sought her runty brother. “I’ll kill that goddamn runt, that little shit poke. I’ll kill the little bastard! If anyone gets in my way, he gets it, too!”

Banjo, of course, had long since departed, slipping out of the house just before 2 A.M. as quietly as he had slipped into her room, rifling her secrets, and slipping just as noiselessly into Aunt Stacy’s unknown sanctuary, hiding a pair of autographed panties, Aleksa indeed would kill for, in a pocket of fieldstone.

Banjo thought about his loot and his articles of revenge often enough, how to widen his collection, how to strike the deadliest blow. But he always stayed away from the football trophies of his brothers, a mass of gold and silver and mahogany wood adorned with running backs and stretching ends and bruising tackles at deadly mission. These mementos would, he knew, be the most fitting salute of all. None of his family could ever approach his thoughts, his calculations, his absolute deviltry. Every punch, every kick, every slap had its due. It was all coming around again. What goes around comes around. It made him smile a small smile. Disparity in life can be ennobled.

In the dark hideaway he slept peacefully.

He slept there many times over the next few years, there, or upstairs in the house with Aunt Stacy who loved to have him over. She couldn’t stand the others, even Aleksa, at least not for very long. She found them too cruel and too boring and, in spite of their obvious strengths, to be too weak at will. The first ally of Banjo would have been this quiet woman who wore a little too much rouge, a lipstick perhaps two shades too dark for her face, the clothes of a woman who had no one man to live up to, to please, but delighted in many acquaintances.

That she loved Banjo was important to her and to her blind sister. One was a springboard and one was a sounding board, and at the core of their relationship they had made the puny little boy becoming a puny little man the secret of their existence. They did not live for each other, but for him. And when Mary died in her sleep one night as Banjo was approaching his sixteenth birthday, him still plagued, still persecuted, still a virgin and the lone one in the family, Aunt Stacy was impetuously proud of his survival, all the facets of it. “That little man of mine,” she would say to herself, “will outlast all of them.” And in the periphery of her hearing, at the edges of her memory, all the castigation and curses they had hurled down upon him came back to her with incredulous clarity. Too often the broad-shouldered, big-armed, thick-skulled hulks had centered their attacks on Banjo’s male equipment: His dick’s so small any chick’d say he had no visitation rights…even after he had been there! D’ja see the size of his balls? Like peas they are, or IT is, the last ball remaining from the master set. Pea-Ball is what we shoulda called him, or Pea-Balls Minus One, or Pendulum Without Affair, or Who Gives A Shit Anyway!

They had all laughed and back-slapped and hoisted off another drink, and Stacy, in her cool aura, not batting an eyelash over her rouged cheeks, managed a slow interior laugh and said under her breath, “Watch your ass, Stash. Remember what happened last time!”

Two days after Mary was buried, Banjo sat in front of the library thinking about his mother, how horrible the funeral had been, how much crap and derision was still tossed in the air by the whole family, as if she had been a simple hired hand, a maid servant, a ball of lint which had just blown through their lives. Her hands had been soft and warm and the tears on her cheeks were forever pearl full of special light, and none of them ever could tell him that his mother’s eyes were lifeless. The pearled tears were special, jewels they’d never seen, but he would carry them always—he’d even carry them in the growing and continually fermenting hunger and desire to bring to his siblings the ultimate pain.

Inside the library he saw the tall blonde sitting off in a corner. She had been there before, at the same table, a little lax about how her dress rode up on her thighs, long and valley-like, a summons, the mystery of her crotch seeming to call out to him. He prayed she would not cross her legs, and took a seat with the surest tunnel of vision possible. Black or purple panties, he decided. Black or purple. His favorite colors. Now and forever. Every so often a squeeze of one thigh or the other, or both in concert, and the dark image would narrow, gap down, slink, like a wondrous eye winking at him. Back to him came a choice reading and some author he’d never remember, talking about The Seven Cities of Cibola, or The Mound of Venus, or the graffiti he’d seen on a wall once, When you come right down to it, guys, there’s nothing like cunt. He lay the Atlas of the whole United Sates of America and all its territories over his lap to hide his erection, and liked himself at that particular moment because he’d never allow any of his brothers’ or father’s aspersions about penis or testicle, or lack of, or the small bunch of his ass to come back tauntingly upon him. He could now cast them over the side as if he were throwing out an anchor in the middle of the river,

Intent on that long vision, driving his eyes past the faint barrier that lay at the end, purple or black it didn’t matter now, he flinched when her white thighs locked up completely, then opened slowly, oh ever so slowly, like the drawbridge over the river when a grand yacht was heading out to the lake. A pair of deep green-gray eyes was staring at him. In his chest he caught more than an ounce of breath. The erection might sound out a warning alarm. It came up so hard against, he guessed, South Dakota. That made him smile, and that smile, South Dakota and all, made its way across the room to the warmest reception this side of Aunt Stacy. She didn’t move her legs again. The thighs stayed white. Her look was soft and appealing. His erection burned. The book in her hand was raised so that he could see the title, DREAMS WE DON’T UNDERSTAND. A light went on at the back of his head and it brought another dimension of smile to his face. A smile, a wider smile, came back to him. He thought his pecker was going to explode; there’d be a Minuteman Missile going up from one of the silos near Bismarck or Lincoln, whichever one of those cities belonged in South Dakota. He could never remember. He’d never forget this smile coming across the silence of the library, across the deep red rugs, moving its aura on air already filled with aura. Nor would he ever forget the most personal signature ever sent his way.

Outside, in ten minutes, they found that their fathers had named each of them with some deviltry, or rancor, for unknown reasons. Banjo was explained, and she was Eloise Abelard, a joke of her father’s, she was sure. “My mother cut him off at three months of her pregnancy and I think it was his way of getting back at her with sarcasm if nothing else. I don’t think they ever slept together again, each going at the other in their own way. I didn’t like growing up.”

“So here you are talking to the smallest guy in the library, on the street, in the whole town practically, maybe even this side of South Dakota.” He looked at her with clear eyes.

“What’s that mean?”

He told her. She laughed as he had heard no one ever laugh, throaty, honest, without any crap or flip in it, no phoniness, just plain laugh. It had fur on it. It warmed him. He told her. She said that she had seen him before, had seen him looking up her dress, had been warmed by it, flushed but warm.

“You have the whitest thighs in the whole world. I can play anything with strings.” His eyes were so clear she could have been startled. She should have been startled. Clarity is precious, she thought. So much in her life had not been clear, but this was special. She had a vision of what his life must have been like. Pain came on her. It was in his aura and she felt it. But he didn’t bring any of it to hurt her. He came at her clean and clear, out of crystal. The real pain was disparate, separate.

“Your eyes say you’ll never lie to me.” Her hand was in his. “You’ve music hands.”

They saw each other just about every other day, at the library, at the edge of the river, back on the hill out behind the Evert’s Florist Shop and flower gardens. He kept her away from the Jobleskis. She kept him by her side. They had their intentions. She was seventeen. He was sixteen. She was 5’ 6’’. He was 5’1 & 7/8″ stretched out, proud, not minding his height for the first time, not sworn to revenge, not filled with plans for coping and getting even for the constant transgressions.

One day, just about at the top of the hill after a slow meandering walk, a faint mist cutting across the sunset, a bird calling uphill, smell of new grass making them heady, she took his hand and put it on her breast. “I’ve been dying for you to touch me,” she said. “I’ve been practicing on myself, but it’s not like this. I like this. Here,” she gestured, “go underneath. Touch my nipple.” She took his hand with her hand, fire must have been at it, and slipped it inside her bra. “Be easy.” Her lashes came down over her eyes. Mouth open. Lips red as a forgotten sunset. Moist. Shiny. A breath catching itself in her throat. If she told an absolute outright lie, he’d believe her until the very end of the world came throbbing under them.

“I love you, Eloise.”

She laughed a little laugh, her chin shaking lightly, and said, “Maybe tomorrow we’ll get to Louisiana.”

Both of them laughed long and loud, tears in their eyes. He saw his mother’s tears on Eloise’s cheeks. True crystal. Gems. Life! He took his hand away from her risen nipple, which had stayed against his palm as certain as a nail halfway through its job. The bird called back up the hill waiting for an answer. Grass continued to be cut somewhere over the hill. Any pain in the world he could stand. He had come this far in life and it had all been worth it. Clear across the library again he saw her white thighs. Perhaps he might tell Aunt Stacy about her. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe she was just for him forever. A bird answered. More cut grass news came on the wind. Fuck Stash and Andy and Mike and Paulie! Even fuck Aleksa! Fuck the old man!

Now, his world was different.

A week later, all the Jobleskis but Banjo at the Flag Day picnic in the Vet’s grove beside the river, Eloise and Banjo slipped through the back door of the house.

“They’re all gone, Benjy?” She looked around and felt the pain flowing about her. An old wound rode about in the air, a cry. “Why did we come here, Benjy?”

“I wanted it to be here because of my mother. You remind me of my mother. Your hands are so warm.” He took her down to the den. She saw shelves so heavy with trophies they made her eyes blink. Gold and silver and stained wood and colored enamels and plastic inserts and the family name repeated endlessly, and a great variety of athletes in poses cast in cheap metal. None of them, she knew, were Benjy’s. There would be justice, she thought.

Laying back on the couch, almost giddy, loving the daring he placed them in, the idea of sharing consuming her, her legs out in front of her, longer than they had ever been, she said, “Benjy, put your hand under my panties. Go easy. I’ll tell you what I like. You tell me what you like.” His fingers felt the thick hair, then softness, then mystery, then depth, then more mystery, then a little knob she introduced him to, then more moisture than he had dreamed. He kissed her and her mouth opened like Ali Baba’s cave. “We’re going to call this Going to Louisiana. But don’t laugh and don’t stop what you’re doing, and a little harder and a little faster if you want, and if you like it.”

And his mind was going to explode and every pain he ever felt in his life was long gone and her legs opened wider and he saw all that whiteness and his mouth was dry and he couldn’t swallow.

Then he heard the funny sound, from another room, and raised a finger to his lips, and moved away from her and slipped quietly from the room. The hand that clapped over his mouth, the arm that squeezed his body as hard as a vise, the other hand that slammed

under his crotch and lifted him a meek feather into the air, had to be a Jobleski arm. He could not see, but he could smell a Jobleski. His voice was stuffed back into his mouth and he was carried from the house.

“Old Pea-Balls, you’re going under cover.” It was Stash and a fist hit him on the side of the head. He was being carried over one hip like a frigging rag doll. Hatred surged and seethed in him. The whole coming scene ran through his mind in a mere second, then he was slammed into the trunk of Stash’s car and the trunk door slammed down on top of him. Buzzing ran through his head. Darkness clawed its way into his eyeballs. “You, prick!” He screamed, “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you, you rotten son of a bitch!” But he didn’t scream for long or hate for long or waste his time for long because Eloise was out there with him. He had to get out.

Stash, with quickness, perhaps expertness, had surprised Eloise. Had pinned her down on the couch where her dress was still up over her hips. “So, you were going to screw the midget, huh? I’ll show you what a real piece is, honey baby. A real piece.” He tore her pants off in one stroke. “You scream and I’ll kill that little shrimp. You got it? And you’re going to do some other tricks, too. Tricks I bet he never knew anything about.”

“Please don’t do this.” She didn’t want to scream. His hand was down there in Louisiana and a shudder went through her body. He began to explore slowly with that hand. His mouth came down over hers, yawning and wet and full of booze residue. She didn’t know what it was but knew she would remember the smell of it all her life.

She didn’t hear any sound. She only felt the abrupt and violent shudder that went through her attacker. Then he went limp on her, all his weight against her the way she had dreamed a thousand times, a thousand touches, a thousand reaches in classrooms, at the kitchen table, even in church. And Banjo stood over the two of them with a baseball bat in his hand and the ugly echo of provoked flesh and bone still sounding in the room.

They walked out of the house, past the car with one rear door open and the back of the rear seat pushed away from the clips that had held it in place. He did not say a word, just kept moving her away from the house, and the hatred and the seething and the mechanics of revenge fully operational in him.

That night, high on the hill, after he had entered her at her request, after she had argued with him for hours and moved his hands on her body and touched him as he had never been touched, they made plans to leave town. They’d go to a cousin of hers more than two hundred miles away. They’d never come back. They’d be together forever.

Later, Banjo thought long and hard down in his dark retreat, Aunt Stacy overhead telling company how much she liked her sex and what parts she liked the most. He thought about Eloise and then about a TV show on the wild dogs of Africa and how the runt of a litter had been given the hardest time of all and had finally walked away and died, the broad savanna flung out beyond the fallen body like space beyond a star. The image crushed him. The sadness of it all came over him with an extraordinary force, as whole episodes of his life came flooding back through the tight quarters of the old root cellar. And out of the clear blue sky came a vision of one of the old Minuteman missiles deployed across the north Central States, their huge silos extending like inverted skyscrapers down into all of Mother Earth, peckers screwing the old dame for all she was worth.

The clarity Eloise had seen in his eyes was in his head; he saw everything he wanted to see, needed to see, how all of it would come to pass. And on the Fourth of July to boot! In salute of everything grand and beautiful and majestic from sea to shining sea.

Remaining out of sight while any Jobleski was at home, he came back to the house on days only when it was empty, all of them at work or at school or practice for one team or another. He loosened the metal cover that had been placed over the old well in the back yard, the well Paulie had fallen into one day and would have drowned if Aleksa had not screamed the alarm. Making trip after trip, he lowered his special equipment and supplies into the well, cans and other containers of every odd description, all without covers, supporting everything by ropes from the flanged bar across the opening and just under the metal cover. Working assiduously, without help from any quarter, much as his life had been spent except for his mother and Aunt Stacy in the occasional breach, Banjo Jobleski primed the engines of revenge.

They had all gone to the Vet’s grove for the Fourth of July picnic and beer blast, Joe the father, stalwart daughter Aleksa and sons Paulie, Andy, Mike and Stash, still wearing from a mysterious source the ugliest of bruises and swelling. He could have been hit by a car or lightning. Nobody knew and Stash wasn’t telling. Somehow, most everybody who had known the Jobleskis over the years realized that inexplicable causes and happenings could be attributed without failure to one Benjamin Arthur Norman Jobleski, shrimp, midget, pygmy, dwarf, Peckerless, Pea-Ball, Shit Poke, ad infinitum, though such attributes were not openly discussed near Jobleski muscle.

So, while the beer flowed and prowess was being heaved on the air and broad backs were being clapped and slapped and a hundred hands would be run up under a hundred skirts even before dusk fell, Banjo came out of the vast savanna he had retreated to and went about his work.

All the trophies, every last one of them, collected from the den and sundry bedrooms and out of closets and eventually from the cellar, like a rich vein had been found, were placed in the living room. Every bra and pair of underpants that Aleksa owned, except those that she was wearing at the picnic, were draped over and around the aggregate trophies, as if a window decorator had been employed. Next came from hidden places about the house every smashed instrument from which he had once extracted music, the clutter of ruin, the remnants made by Jobleski boots, the denial of dreams. Finally, deferring to age and for no other reason, the old man’s collection of anagrams and puzzles and acrostics and acronyms were placed across the front of the exhibit. Banjo looked down at odd papers

and read the acronyms the old gent had come up with for a variety of causes: ROMEO’s, for the older guys who gathered each Tuesday morning for breakfast at Sarah’s Diner, Retired Old Men Eating Out; ABRACADABRA, still a mystery, but not worth spending these last minutes on: BANJO in letters as broad and stolid as any he had ever seen, now faded and diminished on what was most likely the original paper, a memento of rancor saved for history. He thought of his mother’s tears and how he’d never know the full extent of her pain, because all her pain must have been much more than his. After all, he had survived, hadn’t he?

Outside, leaving the house for the very last time in his life, he walked all around the edge of the building, another one of the large cans tipped on his hip. He used a number of them, tossing the empties and near empties down in the well, careful not to hit any of his hidden assets still hanging by ropes. He took another piece of rope from another full can and laid it out from the house and played the other end down into the depths of the well. The crude metal cover was put back on top of the well and bolted down, drawing down the four nuts with a ratchet wrench. The wrench gleamed its stainless-steel brilliance on the rust-colored cover when he placed it perfunctorily on top. It was odd how the wrench caught in gleaming silver the last of the sun, as if it meant to hold on to the day for as long as it could. He hummed to himself. Memorialized. Memorable day. Fourth of July. Sea to shining sea. The Fat Lady singing. Sousa. Cohan. Kelley. Cagney. Connaughton Kate. Benjamin Arthur Norman Jobleski. The world, amen.

From a pod of dolls, as if they were swimming atop one another in boxes, arms out, legs back, heads down, he took one at a time those he had long collected and hung them in trees and scattered them as shot residue on Jobleski ground for all the world to see; Barbie dolls and cry baby dolls and Ken dolls and wetting dolls and sucking dolls and ballicky dolls, every one that had ever fallen under his hand for reasons he never knew and only now fully understood. Then, cool and collected and without any remorse at all, the tears gone, the pain gone, he knelt and flipped a switch on a device he had rigged and walked off into the broad savanna, off into that space beyond the star.

He was walking away from the whole brood!

On his own two legs, and walking away.

That other runt dog of the TV had walked a short way into that endless space and staggered and finally fallen on his side. There had been no ceremony. No yapping. No sniffing or final licks from any of the others. But he was walking away, all the way across that broad savanna. The pearls on his mother’s cheeks came back to him abruptly, then disappeared forever.

Benjy Jobleski and Eloise Abelard were two miles away, getting a ride from a salesman on his way to Harrisburg, when over the hill behind them, back toward town, a redness of fire filled the evening sky with a sudden clarity, and Banjo’s wondrous collection of

gasoline and cans and metals of every sort, and odd cases of shotgun shells and bullets and an uncounted number of stolen sticks of dynamite, and old powder wrappings and odd combustibles and exquisite fire and conflagration itself and dozens of the most special trophies of all that his brothers had been awarded, went absolutely haywire in his own Minuteman Missile silo and shot straight up from the precincts of hell.

 

***

100 Stories.

 

All Stories, Crime/Mystery/Thriller, Tom Sheehan Week

Tom Sheehan Week – Thursday: Story 99

Spiel: This ends up as a fictional account of a real-life murder in my younger days that never quite let go of my imagination, until it came out this way in this murderous presentation.

 The Cochran Resolve

Tom Sheehan

 

Closing on forty-five years on the Saugus Police Department, all of it on the street it seemed except for the last few years of count-down to his retirement, Silas Tully owned up to a few things. If he were asked to give a thumbnail sketch of himself, he would have replied simply, but very graphically, as follows: God-fearing, American to the absolute and final core, stiff believer in the Marine Corps and its heady history, a cop every day until his last day, and a detailer. That he loved, and lived by, details, was a paramount importance in all he did. So it was not odd that in 1990, late in the year, the leaves crisp and yellow as butter or red as lava flow, the stadium a full bandbox of sounds on Saturdays, that dates and anniversaries and common events came piling across the back of his mind like some inner movie was being run for the hundredth time.

Silas Tully always paid heed to such home movies. Now the old headlines grabbed at him, tossed their thick and tall blackness and page-wide shrieks into his mind, their gripping attention reaching out to him. MURDER they had screamed, VIOLENT MURDER, a girl, a nice neighborhood girl, some fifty years ago, garroted and strangled and fiercely and barbarously treated and then dumped off the side of a lonely road.

He’d been just a spanking brand new fifteen year older when the murder had taken place, and even now, after all the years on the force, after all he had seen and wished he hadn’t seen at times, the newer murders, the later crimes, the heinous parts he had been in on, it still came at him as if it had happened only yesterday.

It had happened almost fifty years ago, and Silas Tully found an old reproduction of a LYNN DAILY EVENING ITEM, one he had finally Xeroxed before it gave up the ghost, the cream of wheat texture of it, the aging yellowness falling away to near dust. He read again the lead paragraph, a paragraph some reporter had written when Silas was a mere fifteen years old, a paragraph hard enough to make any man sit up, even today: Twenty-four hours after the mutilated body of attractive Frances Cochran, nineteen year old bookkeeper, of 54 Water Street, was found in a thicket near the Salem-Lynn-Swampscott line police were seeking the driver of a ‘34 or ‘35 Chevie with yellow trimmings. The Chief of Police had reported that a mysterious caller to a local radio station had advised that a body could be found off Danvers Road. Frances Cochran had disappeared on July 17 and was the object of an intense search for three days before her body was discovered. After the tip to the radio station, two Swampscott patrolmen had found her body.

Silas Tully could still feel the taste in his mouth, all these years later, that the story had induced. He found nothing so despicable as hurting the fair sex, and knew that much of his character and all of his police life had been painted by that distaste. Now and then he shook in anger at such doings. It made him work much harder than the guy next to him.

The girl’s body was found with her face and head bludgeoned into a pulp, her skull crushed and parts of her shoulders and torso burned in a crude attempt to burn the body. Her teeth were broken and her entire body maltreated. Her clothing was torn to shreds. “Absolute barbarism and the work of a crazed fiend or a maniac,” said the chief. A tree twig, about an inch in thickness, was found lodged deeply in Miss Cochran’s throat. The body was sprawled in a tangle of brush about thirty-five feet from the road. 

 The beastliness of it all still came full charge at him, a horrible sense of the deed working on him as strong as it had when he was that mere boy. Over and over again he read the story, assimilating every detail, categorizing and filing each little item, each entity or bit of information, and slowly and surely, the way a glacier makes its way out of the mountains, a matter of resolve began to fill him. From every known source he gathered additional details, taking Xeroxes of everything in the files of THE LYNN DAILY EVENING ITEM and THE SALEM EVENING NEWS. In turn he was led on to clippings from a number of Boston papers, the GLOBE and the HERALD and TRAVELER and the RECORD and AMERICAN and the old POST, and subsequently to an innumerable number of magazine articles and specialty features on one of the most brutal of crimes.

Certainly, for those along the North Shore, from tightly-packed Winthrop under the sound of aircraft popping in and out of Boston’s Logan Airport to the water-world that was Gloucester and Rockport and Manchester-by-the-Sea, the crime was one for the century.

And for the fact that half of that century was about to pass, Officer Silas Tully, God-fearing, American, Corps’ man, cop forever, detailer (Ars Punctilio, as Chief Noel Rebenkern had so often referred to him), sitting daily now in the soft chair easing him down the road to retirement, decided to have a go at it himself!  

The chief wondered what the hell was keeping Silas so busy, reading and poring over notes and literature, making copies of clippings and magazine, burning both ends of the candle while retirement was just over the hill. But he knew his man as well as any man did, and if this bulldog of a cop had got his bite onto something, then someone someplace or somewhere should be wary. In his own way he pictured Si a long time in the past working behind the Japanese lines a mere two hundred yards off the beach of some now-quieted but memorable Pacific island. It could make the most alert man nervous.

“Si,’ he said, one day late in October, coming into work and the crisp air of the outside a cool and vivid memory on his face as he passed by Silas in a corner office, “What the hell has got you so perked up? You’ve been poring over that material for near a week now.” He hitched his belt up and pulled at it, as if to redistribute his bodily matter and to make himself taller, the way the textbooks say subordinates should be addressed. Halfheartedly he coughed and muffled it with an open hand, but felt clumsy and so readable. It was obvious to both of them he was about to make a dictate.

With a shrug of the shoulder that said Hell, you know what I’m up to, Si, he offered the dictate and said, “Take it easy. You’ve earned your time. I don’t know of anything that’s so goddamn important that you’ve got to get all involved in it now. You must be driving Phyllis absolutely nuts. And she thought it was going to be easy!” An image of Si’s wife floated to him from a distant corner of the station. He could see her pale blue eyes looking inquisitively at both of them, her head shaking in either frustration or impatience, and finally, as it always had come about, the relenting smile which had become part of her make-up, had become part of her life as the wife of Ars Punctilio. It had to go with the territory.

“She still doesn’t like my truck, Noel. Thinks I think I’m still a kid.” The big red F350, a massive ball of power that Phyllis at times thought was right at the cutting edge of senility and a thought which she invariably let go from whence it came, was parked right outside the window of the office where Silas was working his way through the Cochran case for the umpteenth time. He held up the old ITEM headline and the chief had instant memory of the case, the classic and perfect crime of the century, still unsolved after fifty years. A flicker of passionate disgust passed through him as a few of the old details came into his mind. Most of all, as a man first, and then as a cop, it was the garroting which had inflamed him long ago and which came back on him so quickly and just as strong as it had previously been.

The evilness of it was liquid on him, crawling on his skin, his mouth foul and dry. Desperately he wished he could see into Silas’ head, to see how things stacked up in that fertile mind, to mark what he had marked, even so early in the game. They’d been through so much crap together, but the garroting was something by itself. He thought, as he had before, it was a maniac leaving some kind of clue to his identity, an aberrant signature of an aberrant mind. Silas nodded when the chief made that thought verbal; it registered with a big check mark because he too had had that same intuition. The cut of the cloth was evident in each.

“So,” continued the chief, “what are you up to?”

Silas looked up at his old partner. The square jaw of Noel Rebenkern was still square, but the neck was thicker and somewhat softer, the hair thinner on top, and the steel blue of his eyes had with the years watered a bit. Their thoughts could have been in unison: he’d been through a number of hells with this man, starting way out in the islands of the Pacific almost half a century ago when each was a mere boy, through the silent agonies and noisy carnage that had spawned themselves off Route One and its fast world, the speed lane that halved Saugus. Silas thought, My old pal won’t be long behind me when I leave this post.

“I’m going to give it a whirl, Noel,” he said, “one last swing through the hinterlands as they might say. There’s got to be something they didn’t pay attention to, some little idiosyncrasy left untouched, smoldering all these years, perhaps a piece of matter so small or so insignificant it didn’t appear to matter at all.”

His forehead V’d itself as if pointing right down his distinguished Roman nose, the flesh of his inquisitiveness furrowed deeply. It was evident to the chief that his old comrade was poring over every detail with the same old determination his whole career had been marked with, for he was a computer in himself, a forty-five year old filing system, and was possessed of a filter that caught at the most minute bit of slag and slush one could imagine. Whoever you are, my weird soul of souls, beware if you’re not dead, if

you didn’t die out on the islands when we were there, if you didn’t join up after killing that poor girl and get wasted in the hell of Europe, if you’re still kicking around Lynn all these years later, I don’t give a shit how old you are now, you better beware!

Silas’ eyes had darkened, the skin on the lower part of his face tighter than it had been minutes ago, still wearing the russet cordage of the weather and the years, almost a sandpaper quality to that organ. There was a lock about him, a fusion of all his parts coming into one feeling, one sense, one duty. He’d been that way ever since the chief had known him, a determination that seemed to take over every facet of his being, the bulldog cop taking a grip and never letting go until some kind of accomplishment had been made.

“Do you want some time away from here, Si?

“Don’t treat me special, Noel. I didn’t ask for that.” They were eye to eye, superior to subordinate, friend to friend.

The chief reddened a bit. “For Christ’s sake, Si, you are special! You’ve done your damn job better than any man could’ve, better than I could’ve. We both know that. I just got through the paper work a little easier, so don’t give me any of this happy horseshit you appear to be swinging around here. Take all the time you want. Take off the blue if you want. Go plain. Go where you want. Dig in where you want. We both know the cut-off date. So does Phyllis. If you got to do this, do it.” He let his stomach sag back against his belt and let out a mouthful of breath, unmistakably a period at the end of a sentence.

It was settled then, cut and pasted; Silas Tully set about to solve a nearly fifty-year-old murder. The distaste was still in his mouth as he thought about the golden anniversary coming up in 1991. Frances Cochran, nineteen, pretty dark-haired bookkeeper from Lynn, bludgeoned, burned, beat to absolute hell by a fiendish madman, garroted finally in some grotesque measure he could not fathom in all of human kind, lay dead almost fifty years, and his own marker, his forty-fifth and final year on the Saugus Police Department, was also coming to its own celebration.

Time and duty of the most inordinate order came at him and took hold of him. Into overdrive he went, calling on adrenaline when he needed it, rarely resting, and testing Phyllis to the limit. Through every resource available, he went back through the case. Police files, through a compassionate network of the brotherhood, found their way to him from Lynn and Swampscott and Salem, and from departments as far west as Idaho where one suspect had been apprehended, and Ohio where another man was once questioned, and also there came files from the district attorney’s office, and musty documentation from the coroners’ offices, for poor Frances had been exhumed and a second autopsy performed on August 8 of that eventful year of 1941.

All the suspects, and there were a lot who had been questioned, were re-studied. He pored over those who had been recently released from prisons and were known to have been around the area at the time of Frances’ death. And there were musicians and cooks and students and street people and acquaintances and neighbors and cabbies that had been queried. There was the car, a square backed car spotted by at least two witnesses who had seen Frances get into it on a side street off Eastern Avenue….square-backed Chevie, ‘31-’35, with yellow wooden spokes on its wheels, perhaps with yellow trimming, and driven by a male whom she had obviously known.

In the first twenty-five years after the murder there had been more than twenty confessions, all fizzling out, falling off into the dream world that some people have to inhabit, or have to cook up for themselves. Rewards had been offered over the years, lots of them, from a variety of sources and for a variety of reasons. Silas was quite sure some of them had been offered because there really appeared to be no chance to solve the case. That disturbed him also. He could not stomach anybody making points on somebody else’s pain, let alone most atrocious murder. When the image of the garrote came on him again, he determined to find out what kind of a man would do that kind of act. Whenever he went away from the act, something brought him back to it. He paid attention to that fact, much as he did everything else. Nothing was going to escape him. Nothing at all!

An inch wide the stick had been. And lethal in its own right! It made him shiver. He remembered Joe Dixon and Joe Ditson long ago after the war and after they had come out of a Japanese POW camp. Their stories had made him shiver, too. Every now and then he’d catch himself in a weird and frightful reverie of their plight and of Frances’ plight. His skin would crawl with the known terrors. His resolve grew in proportion.

Phyllis began to relent. Her smile came up more readily.

December eventually came howling down out of the Maritimes, the snow drifting at times nearly five feet high across schoolyards and playgrounds and at other times shutting Route One down to a minor crawl. Silas Tully was like a ship on the lone sea of a month of storms, moving anywhere and everywhere in that redoubtable red truck of his, high slung, ground-clearing, ominous in its power, red as a fire bomb, taking

winter head on, as it had not been taken on before by a proximal retiree. On his way at times he remembered the awesome and orange Walter Snowfighters of the Eastern Mass. Bus Company and how they had kept much of the North Shore roads clear of snow back there in the days when Frances could have seen them. He passed by places where clear-cut and exact pictures came back to him, full of details and all the background in place, places he had known, obviously places that Frances had known too. He felt driven. His recall was working in top order and damned if he wouldn’t show retirement itself a thing or two, if he had to die trying.

Before long every cop in Lynn and Salem intimately knew of him and his mission, and when he passed by their beats or their stations or dropped in again to get the name of a still-living retired cop who might have heard a word or two, they smiled and muttered small asides about senility and Alzheimer’s disease, but still held out one last long and thin line of hope for him. They shared the blue charge, and though he may have been against the windmills, they quietly acknowledged his mission and his drive.

One of them was a bright young cop from Lynn who had graduated from Salem State. His name was Rick Sanborn and he had read about the case and let much of it filter through his mind. Nothing showed itself to him, nothing that held any light, but after much thought, he came to a conclusion and called Silas Tully about it. What he offered was nothing more than what Noel Rebenkern had offered…the fact of the garroting.

“I know it might sound odd to you, Mr. Tully, but that thing with the stick really bothers me. I think it’s the most interesting thing there is to discuss. Not that I can add anything to it, or discuss it any more than this, but I swear it almost talks to me when I think about it. There’s something so apparent about it that we can’t see it. I feel it right in my bones. It’s so dark and so unnatural, as if the devil himself was in on it. You might think I’m like crazy or something, but it really hangs on me. I know I’ve only been around a short time and you’re an old hand at all of this, but I just had to tell you how it bugs me all the time. Even when I was in school at Salem State, and I’d be thinking of old cases or tough cases you kind of hear about, this one kept coming at me.”

 

They had had a number of discussions about the case. The youngster was adamant, though quite unsure why he was so homed in on the awful stick.  Silas Tully kept a track record of the garrote image. The way it continually reared its ugly head did not go unnoticed.

When the preponderance of his gathered facts began to tip itself sideways, threatened to spill itself all over itself, he plotted and laid out a graph. Everything he knew he put onto that graph, and after a hundred attempts of making verticals and horizontals show some attachment or connection, revising the very structure with each attempt, every revision becoming a little clearer, he began to see all the tangibles and intangibles in a different light. No one, he knew, had ever seen what he had seen; at least, not from this perspective.

That it was merely a different view, a different focus, was not lost on him at first, because somewhere under his eyes, somewhere on the spread of the page, a single clue might leap out of darkness, one lone bulb or candle glow in the utter darkness of the mystery, one fallible and untested little item would come forward that would unscrew a murder now fifty years unsolved and still counting.

In January of that extra tough winter both Phyllis and the chief were on him to slow down, not to quit outright, but to slow down. “Fat chance I’ll have at Florida!” Phyllis said when he came late for supper for the third day in a row. “It’ll close on empty before we know it. You’ll fall over at that damn desk of yours or behind the wheel of that truck and it’ll be all over.” But even as she said it, she tempered it and laid a soft hand across his shoulder, tapping home her love.

One thing Silas Tully always noticed were the small signals left out in the air or in the corner of a room for the taking, a sigh, a tap, a look another soul might never catch a glimpse of, the huge and ponderous world and all of life beating its way at the smallest edge. He heard the microwave’s new-tech signal, electronic, radar-related, almost mystic in its new-age music, sounding as if something had been decoded, broken down, realized; she’d been watching for him all the while, as she always did. The warmth of the house slid around him like a favorite jacket taken down from an old nail in the back hallway.

Neil Rebenkern, always from some distance watching his old comrade and compatriot, at least understood the drive and the compulsion that had targeted Silas Tully. He’d spoken once to Reed Clanberry, as Reed rolled himself out from under a cruiser whose transmission had pissed the bed, hydraulic fluid a red stain over a good portion of his shirt and his hands as black as if he had been baking potatoes in them over a camp fire. “What the hell I’m afraid of is that he won’t get to his friggin’ retirement at all. He’ll just close shop one day and check his badge. It’ll be all done, and Phyllis will come down here and we’ll have a nice chat and she’ll go away from here red-eyed and he’ll be gone off with all the others.” Talking to Reed always helped him, for Reed was always on his back or on his butt while working on one of the cruisers in the police garage, down and dirty in his support of brother officers, though his bent was machines, how they ran, what the theories said they should do.

“He’s a big boy, chief,” said the elongated and prone Reed, still laid back on the roller, the near seven feet of him hanging over the small roller like one of the Three Stooges on a child’s bed. “So, let him have his way at this latest escapade. He ain’t been wrong but once that I know of, and we didn’t want to celebrate that one too much. Just let old Jarhead go his way. If it’s there, if anything’s there, he’ll bring it home.”

Noel Rebenkern nodded his head and walked off. It was cut and pasted. Even the damn mechanic had the good-to-the-bone feeling about Silas. He walked off, pulling at his belt line for the second serious time in one day. The skinny, overly long mechanic had unsettled him. Damn, I ought to know better that that!   In the corridor between the garage and his office his words had no hollowness to them. From then on, he would keep his mouth shut. What the hell! His own retirement was not that far off either. Either one of them, Silas or him, could slide into oblivion on the greased skids, as long as nothing came out of the woodwork to scald the town manager or the board of selectmen, as long as nothing could screw up the works. Saugus was, normally, a quiet town split by the pike, having its own brand of politics, its own nirvana this side of Boston and that side of Manchester-by-the-sea and Prides Crossing and the dollar signs sitting behind stone walled estates.

The reveries were coming on him again. They were rather serious now, full-blown pictures of those other times, and the feelings that went with them. Such moments might have frightened him if the anchor of Silas was not always a part of those reveries; good old Silas, jawed-down Silas, bulldog Silas, comrade. The old sentiments piled on top of one another and he realized that Silas had made life most interesting, had colored it for him, and had drawn from him the highest comparisons every step of the way. Even as he walked away from the long mechanic those thoughts came on him again; he pictured Silas, for the umpteenth thousandth

time, poring over details, his mind locked down to one microbial trail, pulling straight with him an array of genes and DNA’s, and the chief thought of being in the fourth row of Dodger Stadium the year before and Pavarotti, alone even with the other two tenors, locking on, getting ready to sing Nessum Dorma. In a quick moment of change he then compared his old friend to Denver’s John Elway stepping up to the line, down six points, thirty-eight seconds to go, the ball on his own 38-yard line. Piece of cake!

Clarity and reality hit him as he thought of Frances Cochran, and her crushed head and battered face and immolated body. An utter helplessness came over him. He thought all there was left for her was Silas Tully, like Pavarotti getting ready, Elway about to make something happen.  A jolt of unnerving energy flushed through his body, carrying him away from comparisons. All there was left for her was Silas Tully!

Silas Tully, for all the thoughts and considerations and condemnations of his task, for all the small asides that were strewn in his path or beside it, for all the occasional almost-suppressed laughter which trickled in his passing wake like weak-kneed commentaries, kept at it. Again, and again and again, for long days on end and weeks on end, he kept at it. And that terribly long winter passed and spring seeped onto the land. A freshness, and a new eagerness he had not thought possible, came on him just as the land swelled with newness of its own.

On him had also come a few clarifications trying to express themselves with all their own vigor: (1) whoever that foul murderer was, he must have at one time been in the wide and circuitous net which the police had cast out after the discovery of poor Frances’ body, a net which swung as wide as Idaho and Ohio, a net which had caught up fellow students and neighbors and itinerants and those usual suspects who had records or who had been recently released from prison and he had been let out of that net because of a perfected alibi or other reason; and (2) the act of the garroting itself which he could not shake. No matter how hard he tried, he could not dissuade himself that there was nothing insignificant about the employment of the horrible stick. If the stick had been used before, she had been bludgeoned, he surmised, she would have been dead anyway, or close to it, and there would have been no reason for smashing her head open. If her head had been smashed first, there would have been no reason to garrote her. He made it that simple to himself. That the killer was maniacal did not say he was stupid, for he had eluded the police for half a century…if he was not dead…if he had not died out there on a Pacific beach…if he had not died in Marine garb in a Marine firefight. No way! Never a Marine!

Late April had come and the new smells were everywhere, and the chief’s boat, Just Too Blue, was in the water of the Saugus River, right near the penciled memorial stone erected for another police officer downed in his tracks. Silas had spent a lot of time over the years fishing on the craft with Noel or just beering-out out there on the Atlantic, away from phones and the traffic and the mayhem, aging themselves on the ageless sea. Now retirement was rearing its head for good and the dreadful punches of time came at him, coming brutal and bony and downhill all the way, punching their way into his abrupt consciousness at times, walking him to the edge. Retirement might be like a death sign.

Frances, gasping for air, choking, pain riding her body like a malevolent lover, was with him every second of his wakeful hours and had obviously been with him as he slept. Her grip was frightful and grew more

ominous. Phyllis felt it, he felt it. Unknown sources in his body made demands on him, sometimes twisted him and he fought to maintain his equilibrium, his sense of purpose, his life-long effort of trying to be personally uninvolved with crime and its victims. In this case it did not work. There was something else…. he did not feel blameless and that bothered him.

Wanting a new perspective, a new lift to go along with new raw feelings, he borrowed Just Too Blue for a day and sat, anchor down, out near Egg Rock, the mound of granite rising from the bay off King’s Beach where he could look back at Lynn. The tide rolled under him. Time rolled under him. The agony was no less and no clearer out on the cool surface. He wished he could look back omnisciently at one piece of a clue, a small piece of any clue…the single strand of red hair found on her body, the car with the yellow wheel spokes, a tire track left undetected, a footprint, a thumb print. If only he could look into the minds of the suspects, still believing that he had once been in the net.

And the garrote came back to him there on the wide sea.

Visibly, willfully, he turned from it, shunting it aside. His graph lay spread out on the deck, the awfully intricate grid of lines seeming to go unconnected and crazily in every direction. But somehow the lines came plotted to him and a number of variables of their connections appeared readable.  He wanted to tighten some screws, but futility came at him. On the high sea, the endless water spreading behind him as if going on to infinity, chances were slim to none at catching that blackguard murderer. They were like the chances of finding one wave in the unending series of waves rolling under him to be a special wave. Here Silas knew himself to be a very minor drop of matter in this vastness, as well as in the matter of this business of solution. For a moment he felt overwhelmed by his own tininess, one small wave among the thousands and thousands of waves, until the thought came to him that for Frances Cochran, fifty years dead, forgotten by so many, so many of her peers gone, her parents long gone, he was the only hope, the last hope of resolve.

From there on the face of the Atlantic, the continuity of life itself rising and falling underneath him, underneath the keel, he looked back over Lynn and the death of the girl and all the information which he had come across and which now lay in turmoil in his mind, though sketched and gridded on his pad of paper. He saw himself back at the station going over the matter, and at home probably driving poor Phyllis nuts, and plying his way through snow and rain and hail to get more information and wearing his welcome thin no matter where he went. He saw his tracks crossing and crisscrossing all the North Shore and points beyond. He saw the exodus of thousands of young men for the war of wars, and, unknown to him at the moment, with that exodus he would come to see one strange-eyed young man in the act of escape.

He saw the enormity of the sea and the task.

And he came back to the garrote again! Or it came to him! It would not go away.

The grid lines of his graph fell under his eyes. All the names of all the suspects fell under his eyes. Poring over each one, each one became a personality, and he sought a chink in the armor. Then, on that wide and limitless sea, on that great expanse, like he was a thimble afloat on eternity, he had a new idea. It burst upon him!

The engine cranked into life and the sound immediately seemed to be swallowed up by the enormity about him. But he headed for the Saugus River and Noel’s slip at the yacht club.

Mere hours later he was poring over old issues of the LYNN ITEM looking for photos. A few came to light of the type he was searching for. Here and there, at that time with war starting shortly after Frances’ death, lots of young men enlisted and photos were shown of neighborhood friends and teammates and other groups going off to war together. In one small photo of a dozen men, all of them exuberant and smiling in ignorance at the adventure waiting on them, one face was downcast, averting that intimate exchange of gazes that’s called for by the photographer. The young man could not have made himself any smaller, any darker, any more secretive…. and any more obvious! His name was not given, but that would pose no great problem, thought Silas. Most of them were French Basque. The Raiders from Boston Street where it abruptly found Flax Pond.

Whatever took him to the Boston Public Library to search for information on Basque witchcraft, until this day he cannot fully explain, except that the boy with the averted look, and the very act of garroting itself, had somehow been grounded in the reach of the Basque as it touched on him.

In his studied research he read about the bruxos and the xorguinos, Basque men and women who practiced witchcraft and black magic in the Province of Gupuzcoa along the Bay of Biscay, and in the mountain range of Amboto where they still talk about the Lady of the Caves, and her ointments of pulverized toads and a Basque herb called usainbelar.  All about the witches he read, immersed for hours and hours in the spread of Iberia, the bays, the mountains, and he almost leapt up from his seat at a description of a Basque witch being killed. It was a vivid description of how she was first strangled with a stick thrust down her throat and then she was burned at the stake or thrust into a barrel of tar or pitch and if she got loose from the stake or got out the barrel, she was thrust back into the fire.

And he found an old passage, so shockingly similar, about witches’ executions in the highlands of Scotland which made him leap once again in his seat…and  thay was sticket in the throte with a garruote and thay wer brunt quick eftir sic ane crewell  maner, than sum of thame deit in desspair, renunce and blaspheme and; and utheris half brunt brake out of the fyre and wes cast quick in it agane, quhill thay wer brunt all thay daith.

Silas could picture all of it, and its horror charged over him. So many innocents had been executed this way in countless villages and towns of the Old World. And it had come to America, it had come to Salem right down the street, and, he was further convinced, it had come just down the road in Lynn to poor Frances Cochran.

The Red Raider with the averted eyes was not difficult to identify, nor was his military history, and three weeks later, after Silas’ request for information about the young man‘s basic outfit was printed in the LEGIONNAIRE’S MAGAZINE, he had a damn good picture of what Lamon L’Supprenant was all about. And he was still living. In Salem. A Basque. Into, well into, the occult, into sorcery, into black magic, and the bruxos, and the xorguinos. He wondered about the garrote.  But, furthermore, L’Supprenant had been a redhead in his early days, and one of three redheads who were questioned.

His uncle, he also found out, had been a cop.

In the service, in a Division Headquarters Company of the U.S. 7th Infantry Division, a vital force in the Pacific war, a long time in the islands, brought out of there to Korea later on, L’Supprenant’d been a strange chicken, full of wild and woolly things, and he was remembered for his strangeness by some old comrades. Of the three who wrote back to Silas, not one questioned why information was being sought, and Silas interpreted that to mean each one of them might have thought, even after all these years, that Lamon L’Supprenant needed explaining.

Only one person could be approached with all this information, flimsy and outrageous as it was, and that was Noel Rebenkern, chief, comrade, friend, though the last qualifier could certainly be strained by something as touchy as this case and the parameters it was at, fifty years of grayness and obliquiness. But chinks appearing!

He told Noel all he knew, all of the Basque’s history, as it had come revealed to him, and brought it right down to the single strand of red hair, and the picture of the Red Raiders going off to war.

Noel might have leaped on him. “You got to be crazy, Si! You can’t go anyplace with all that crap. Jesus, man, if Danvers State Hospital was still open, you’d be there on the hill before you could blow your nose. They’d put you in a white jacket and take you down a long corridor. And they’d throw the friggin’ key away!” He kept shaking his head as if disbelief was all around him, and his eyes went opaque and then a queasy gray. More of his age showed, more than he wanted to show.

Gathering himself, he added, “There’s no legitimate way to present any of it. All the work you’ve done could go right down the tube. No!” he added vociferously, slamming his fist on the desk, “you haven’t got a

chance in hell!” He looked at Silas’ face. It was not unnerved, not upset, not in any sort of quandary. His lifetime fiend, Silas Tully, was a kid again. “What the hell are you going to do with all of this?”

The soon-to-be-gone policeman looked him in the eye. “I’m going to smoke him out!” There was something beyond affirmation in his voice, something beyond definition. By God, he had become younger! A sparkle was in his eyes. His skin had a tingle and a shine to it. His mouth was as firm as he could ever remember it.

“Si, he’s got to be about seventy years old now. He’ll probably have a heart attack if you go right at him. If he’s the right guy, that is. That’s like fish in the barrel.”

“You mean you don’t think we should go after him, that we shouldn’t have gone after the German war criminals no matter how old they were, time served being enough for killing six million Jews. You got to be kidding me, Noel!”

“What I mean, Si, is you can’t go lambasting after him and there’s no hard proof. You’d get killed in court. He’s got rights and the burden is on us.” He said us the only way he could, being a party to the whole thing. “One thing else I have to say. There’s a lot of guys our age who have been obsessed with this murder, who have been obsessed since the day it happened. It grates on them as much as anything else, and I’ll tell you why I think that’s so.” Pausing, knowing the value of the caesura, trying to provide room for everything to sink into his determined, and obviously obsessed, comrade, he continued, his hair a bit grayer, his neck a bit thicker, his belt line, too:

“You’ve got to look at the time period, Si. It was just before Pearl Harbor, and things were calm somewhat, even though Europe was in turmoil. It was a special time, especially for women, with things on the upswing all around; Prohibition gone, the New Deal at work, things getting better for the house. It was a special time indeed. Why, I’ve known a bunch of guys, a lot of them from the Brickyard in Lynn, who said their doors were never locked at night before the war. You just didn’t worry. All the big brothers were around and girls didn’t worry so much. When the war started, they tell me, especially the guys from the Brickyard, with all the big brothers off to war and a bunch of creeps around, they began to lock their doors. They had to.

Times began to change. Right then, after Pearl Harbor, times began to change. But all those guys from around here thought about Frances Cochran for a long time, out on the islands, in Europe, under the frigging waters of both oceans, like somebody had cut into their space and violated one of their own.  It really pissed them off, like their kid sister had been grabbed. A lot of them told me, with all the advanced training they got, bayonet drills and all that stuff, they’d’ve killed the son of a bitch in a second if they’d’ve caught him. Even old Teddie BB in Cliftondale told me once he couldn’t remember how many times he thought about Frances when he was alone on guard duty way the hell up there in the goddamn Aleutians. He used to talk about it with Dashiel Hammet who was in his outfit, on Sitka, I think. Said they used to come up with some great stories about it and how the son of a bitch could be caught and strung up by his you-know-whats. You know what, every now and then when we take a ride after church on Sunday or on the way to a ball game down that way, he’ll drive by the place. He still gets pissed, I tell you!”

Eventually, near talked out, both sides presented, they could have drawn a line in the sand, if there had been any sand in the chief’s office. Peace was made and Si was going to do it his way. He had bit it off and chewed it up.

Smoking him out, to Silas Tully, was not a strange and roundabout approach. First, for a few months, he got to know Lamon L’Supprenant from behind the windshield of the big red truck and now and then the little car he had got for Phyllis. Everywhere L’Supprenant went, Silas was right behind him; and sometimes, knowing the routine so well, he was in front of him. A smoky and dark side of L’Supprenant became

obvious. Not much of what he did was done openly, much of it behind locked doors in the company of likewise dark and furtive friends.

That they practiced some kind of witchcraft or sorcery or black magic was evident, and that they took great profits in it showed as well, too. To Silas’ trained eye the access to any of the half dozen places where things happened, were strictly controlled and under guard. He could only hazard guesses as to what might take place behind such cover.

But that guesswork did not have to wait too long. On July 18, 1991, fifty years almost to the day that Frances Cochran was killed, the body of a girl was found in the tall grass alongside the Happy Valley Golf Course in Lynn. Her head had been crushed, her jaw smashed, her clothing torn from her mutilated body. Also, a small wooden stick similar to a tent peg had been stuck down her throat. She too had been garroted! And a single strand of red hair was found on her body. Laboratory DNA tests showed that it matched the strand of red hair found on Frances Cochran’s body fifty years earlier.

The city of Lynn went berserk. Police said there was not a single clue besides the strand of red hair; no witnesses to the deed, no sounds in the night, no suspicious activities along Lynnfield Street, and, this time, no car with yellow wheels.

The connections were obvious and a sweeping terror started throughout the city.

Noel Rebenkern, in his office, faced Silas Tully. “If you get him on this one, Si, you’ve got him on the other one. There’ll be no question. I just wished we’d’ve done something sooner. Now, don’t you feel bad. I’m the one who put the reins on you.”

“I’m willing to bet that that poor kid knew this son of a bitch from some place. Maybe from one of those damn places I couldn’t get into. Or if she didn’t know him, she knew one of his young friends.”

“You mean like an acolyte or an apprentice getting some OJT! Jayzuz, what the hell have they got going?”

His head shook back and forth in disbelief. He felt a lot older than he had earlier in the day. “Well, Si, I guess it has to be your shot. How you want to call it. You know those guys from Lynn will be calling you, not a bit of doubt about that. They won’t have those silly little grins on their kissers now.” His face lit up a bit as he added, “Unless they think you’ve got something to do with it.” His guffaw filled the room.

“Thanks for the memories,” answered Si. Then he nodded, and looked a poser for a short time, then looked at the chief and said, “Some more smoking out, but this time with contact.“ And he explained what he was going to do to loosen Lamon L’Supprenant from his hold on life.

For four days in a row after the discovery of Angel Corkery’s body at the Happy Valley Golf Course, and after the Lynn chief asked him to come down to see him sometime, the following typewritten notes, each one on successive days, were mailed by Silas Tully to Lamon L’Supprenant at his Salem address:

  1. I used to think Frances was the only one.
  2. When you find out who I am, I’ll be waiting for you, but not at all as innocent as             Frances or Angel. I’ll be a lot stronger and a lot meaner.
  1. You ever try that stick on me, that sick garrote, I’ll put it to you where the sun don’t shine.        
  1. I don’t care how old you are, you are going to pay! Nothing is going to help you now, not the Lady of the Caves or your crushed toad skins or your usainbelar or any of your acolytes or apprentices. You, my evil one, are due, and Frances and Angel, God rest their sweet souls, may have some peace once again.   

When Lamon L’Supprenant tried to bolt, in the middle of the night, a young man with him, and bags of mysterious goods piled onto the back seat and into the trunk, Silas Tully and Lynn police officer Rick Sanborn and two Salem cops were there to grab them. In one of the parcels confiscated from the L’Supprenant car, police found a decorative box with two X’s cut into the cover and eight more strands of red hair gathered inside, all the same source, all from Lamon L’Supprenant. They also found a ritual of avenge which detailed the garroting and murder of a L’Supprenant relative which had happened a hundred and fifty years earlier in France. Lila of the Caves had gotten the promise of revenge from her sons, from her descendants.

It was only a Saugus cop who had stood in the way of another four hundred years of sacrifices, one every fifty years.

***

 

All Stories, General Fiction, Tom Sheehan Week

Tom Sheehan Week – Wednesday: Story 98

 Spiel: Growing up, meeting folks at all levels of life, leaves an imaginative boy   with a grasp on life and how it could be lived or should be lived when one compares or contrasts those met in the daily grind, as to what might be the best way to continue, get hip and get going.

One Oh for Tillie

Tom Sheehan                                                  

It didn’t announce itself, the difference in the room, but it was there, of that he was positive. It wasn’t the soft caress of the new blanket, or the deep-sensed mattress he’d never slept on before, or the grass-laden field-laden air entirely new to him pushing through the open window and tumbling like puppies on his face. If he opened his eyes he’d know, but he had kept them shut—-enjoying the self-created anxiety, the deliciousness of minute fright that he’d conjured up. There was apprehension and a plethora of mental groping going on that had taken hold of him. Being alone was also new to him, but being aware of a presence did make a difference, if he could only believe what he was telling himself. At thirteen he knew you sometimes had difficulty believing yourself.

But the fact of presence suddenly hit him its full force, though it had an argument attached to it. He didn’t want to leap wildly out of bed (there was a chance he could be embarrassed), so he pretended again, this time emergence, slow and oh so deliberate emergence — from his woolen cocoon, from a dark and mysterious Caribbean cave close upon the jungle, from under the lashed canvas aboard the ship of an evil one-eyed captain of pirates, from behind the dark curtains of a magician or castle wall. What he could not do was look out of the back of his head, though he tried, trying to move the slits of his eyes, now finding morning by its faintness, so that he could see behind him.

Cautiously he moved, as if by his innate stealth he could fool anyone into thinking he was motionless or asleep or unconscious. His right ear found the pillow, telling him he had moved far enough. He opened his eyes and the girl Tillie was sitting there at the small desk, or the woman Tillie, or whatever you’d call her Tillie. She had not said a word the night before when he met her rocking away on the porch, staring straight ahead, not acknowledging him, not once looking up at him, just rocking her slow rock. Twenty or thirty she could have been, but he wasn’t sure of how to make that measurement, what elements to compute with. Where she had been in a blue dress and yellow sweater on the porch, she was now in the simplest of night dresses or nightgowns through which in a widening swath morning’s faint light moved and made soft mounds, pleasant roundness of her flesh. Her breasts lifted themselves right there under the slight cover and his eyes had found them immediately, the nipples dark the way they had been the night before. Still she did not look at him, still she said no word, made no sound, and kept one hand secreted on herself. At once he knew she was not a danger, not a fearsome threat to him, though he could not tell how he knew. High on her forehead was a scar showing its whiteness, a very human and vulnerable scar that said that she herself had been hurt, had suffered pain at some time. On her left shoulder, faint but red, rose a birthmark. It looked to be wings open to the wind, it said she was susceptible and not ghostly. The speechless mouth was formed with pretty lips puckered on themselves, full. Hair was a soft blond, though it tumbled about her head but in a not ugly fashion.

Even in the pale kiss of dawn her cheeks had much color in them, at least heightened from that of her face. Her eyes as yet showed no color, but were not malevolent or fearful though they carried the same sense of distance in them others had shown, a long reach into something he could not begin to understand. A coarse ache crossed through his chest and he wanted to swallow. His mouth was dry.

For the very first time she turned slowly to look at him and dawn caught itself in the eyes looking at him. Something unknown had softened her mouth, made it elegant and wet and shiny; a word had not done it, or a smile or any movement on his part, but it was rolled like a smooth petal and had a lovely pout to it. He fought to remember everything that had brought him here, to the Cape, to this room, in front of this girl who had not yet uttered a sound.

As she stood dreamily, slowly in the light of the false dawn throwing itself upon her, particles of morning faintness falling with some kind of fever all over her ample body, and as she looked naked in that soft reach with the darkness at her midsection and at her breasts, yesterday all came back in its crowding way. He was surprised at what he remembered so quickly even as she began to move from her place. A phenomenal silence hung about them in this house that had promised so much of sound.

It had been a slow, easy, green morning at that, yesterday, and had been since the very earliest part of daylight when his father had gentled him up with a push at the shoulder. “Don’t run.” he had said, “but walk to the nearest exit.” The constant smile came with the voice, and over that broad shoulder, it seemed, he could hear the birds of Saxon in their small riot of gaiety, a sure sign of the day, its goodness, its promise, the sun having already laid bare most of the secrets his room had but a few hours earlier when he pitched awake in the darkness. His newsprint ball players on the walls, as if they had sprinted into position, long-legged and gangly and floppy-panted, were now the icons they were meant to be, Williams and DiMaggio and Slats Marion full-figured in a splash of sunlight, suddenly each one three-dimensional across the chest, shadows behind them, life-emerging; for a moment he thought Billy Cox would loose the ball in his hand all the way across the room to first base. He heard the birds again, as if scattered in flight from their roosts, raucous and noisy as fans at a game, the way he pictured the Sooners breaking away from the line to become propertied. Sleepily he locked on to the second sun of his father’s smile, tried to remember what they had been saying in the other room as he had dozed off a on the night before.

It had been Mel’s voice, deep and rugged, carrying the whole diaphragm with it, the words coming square and piecemeal as if each one was an entity, which had first penetrated his move into sleep. “Mike’ll love it down there, Bill.” He paused, let the weight of each word have its way. “He’ll have the whole farm to run around on. Charlie and Mav will keep him busy with the cows and the chickens and the gardens. Nothing heavy, for sure, no barn building or rock walls to set up, but enough for him to break out. Hell, he’s starting to grow like a weed and Mav’s cooking will put admirable meat on his bones. And there’s always new life coming around the corner.” From the last he got the implication that Mel thought he was much younger than he really was. Most older folks had that way about them, he agreed to himself.

Quietly and sort of pleased, he knew they were talking about his summer and him, him thirteen, lanky, a stick of bones just finding a hair or two in his crotch, the wonder of a host of things either pressing down on him with almighty force or trying to come through his very skin, other messages scratching for light. Mel he could see as clear as ever; blond, muscled, the blue Corps uniform rippling across his chest and upper arms like a sail under attack of the wind. Once, according to his father, Mel had been a desperate youngster, fully at rebellion, always rambunctious, in the darkness of home beaten by his father for much of his young life, until the man had had a heart attack with a strap still in his hand. “Mel was looking for a payback for the longest time,” he’d said, as if to cover a lot of ground with a few words, as if Mel was due as much room for whatever transgressions had been yet accounted for.

“He can stay the whole month of August if he wants…and if he likes it,” Mel had continued. “All summer for that matter. It’d be one less mouth to feed and he’ll come back bigger and stronger, maybe so you wouldn’t recognize him come the end of August.” That square and stubborn chin of his usually moved slowly when he talked, and he would have bet few cries ever leaped from his mouth, even when his old and mean father was beating on him. No, sir, not one to cry, that Mel, all blond and good looking and packed full of muscle, who walked like a bomb might go off if he got triggered wrong. It sounded great to be going down to his farm with him, even if Liv was going along, and her a teacher at that. “There’s something about the earth or the elements or whatever you want to call it that gets deep into you down there in Middleboro. It’s high green all summer, wild growing making up for winter coming down the road, vegetables leaping up out of the ground like they’ve been shot, cream as thick as molasses and Mav’s ice cream every night of your life makes it all so perfect you can’t believe it even when it’s happening. It’s a dream much as anything that I know of, an aura, a feeling. I don’t know if it’s the food or the air or if it’s in the damn water, but it’s something that’ll pop his backside as good as a ramrod. Hell, I bet he sprouts an inch or two just this summer. You got a ball player coming on your hands, Bill, and you’ve got to give him room.”

He’d known that Mel had been left a large piece of property down the Cape way from his butcher of a father because Mel was all that was left of the Grasbys (a brother drowned in a small pond when he was only six, a sister killed in a car crash at only sixteen when she had been drinking and another sister not seen around these parts for more than fifteen years), that an old couple, Charlie and Mavis Trellbottom, worked it for him while he was still working on his enlistment, that Mel was on his long leave of the year, that Liv Pillard, his girlfriend, was going down to the farm with him for just about all of his leave. The aura and taste of a farm suddenly flooded him, his head being jammed with smells of hay and new cut grass and barns wet with whatever steamed up barns and made them dank and memorable other than horse or mule sweat or a cow’s splatting wildly across a dense plank floor. All the sounds came back, the clacking and strapping sounds and the noisy wetness you get conditioned to, and the aging by which wood speaks so eloquently and so disparately as if the popping stretch of boards and the checking of beams is each one unique unto itself, each one a message of age and sorrow, a cry.

“Barns bend but never break,” he’d heard his father say once after such a visit, and such came fully at him. He’d been but once, to Billerica that time with a cousin for a long and adventurous weekend, and parts of the quick visit had stayed with him; rafts of bees or hornets at their endless commotion and business, spiders dancing on silver rails so high in the peaks it made him think of circus trapeze swingers, hay dust so thick in his nose at times he thought he might not be able to breathe, another near secret odor that had to be leather almost making its way back to life, the moan of a solitary cow, a stool being kicked over and milk sloshing its whiteness on heavy planks, in one corner of the barn the close-to-silent scurry of a mouse with a cat arched in mid-flight as if its bones were broken.

Suddenly, not knowing why, the way things had been happening lately, Liv Pillard eased herself into his mind; tall, bosomy, hipped, standing in the door of a classroom watching her students return from recess, skirt full against her thigh, pushed by her rear, her mouth the reddest mouth he’d ever imagined, the long auburn curls in a slow dance about her neck whenever she moved a fraction of an inch. The graceful lines of her calves, at her hips, had more meaning in them than he could fathom.

A hundred times she had smiled at him, he figured, because his father and Mel were long-time friends, because their roads high and low and often had drifted through Parris Island and Quantico and Nicaragua and Philadelphia and the Boston Navy Yard, because they played cards from cribbage through every realm of poker with the same dead-earnest intensity no hand or prize could shake and could drink beer for whole weekends at a time without seeming to move; had the same set of the chin, they did, jutting and chippy, asking for it one might have said, proud, bearing absolute silence at times, whole unadulterated reams of it that could threaten a body as much as could a fist. Their competition was in place of a war, it being a time between wars.

Shopping, picking up supplies in special stores, getting the oil checked a couple of times because of gauge trouble; the ride to the farm was a long and convoluted trip. Liv and Mel sat up front in the long roomy roadster, him in the back, the sun and the wind pouring down over them, Liv’s hair caught up in them like a pennant, every which way flying and catching gold and throwing it away as if she were philanthropic. Now and then he closed his eyes with his head on the seat, her perfume not less than gentle in his nose but new and mysterious, new grass smell edging it out, the perfume coming back, more new grass and occasionally lilacs loose about the road, once in a while her head out of sight, and he wondered if she slept fitfully as he did.

A trucker honked at them as they passed, then honked again and pointed at the car to his striker craning his neck to see the car as it pulled away, Mel throwing his hand in the air as a nonchalant goodbye. He himself had no idea of what was so special about the long-hooded Packard, except that it was long and black and speeding to a grand farm in Middleboro with animals and strange crops and all the ice cream he’d ever want, and him leggy and sprawled across the back seat, and Liv’s perfume coming relentlessly at him.

Mel slowed the car at the crest of a small hill, and then stopped. “There it is, kid,” he said, his jaw pointing, his sharply hewn nose pointing, a readable smile on his face.

Land spread itself everywhere, whole patches of it cut up and divided by more greens and yellows and rock walls and punctuating tree lines than he could imagine. It spread from horizon to horizon and coming from his own private library of National Geographics were unrolling pictures of the pampas and the savanna and a sense of space at once so vast and so intimate it walloped him, like a hand aside the head. He heard his grandfather’s voice, some letters of words, some syllables, bent in half by the tongue and others stretched for all they were worth, lifting themselves out of a forgotten cave, a grotto or cairn he had put aside for too long, a place where stone took on new dimensions and new spirits, the slight figure of the small man in a forgotten doorway, the booming voice so often attributed to the upstart young poet Yeats now knocking heads asunder. Cluttering on top of Liv’s resurgent perfume came the sweet odor of more new cut grass, somewhere a whole crop of it, and then a vaguely refined field smell came rolling in, dutifully at recall, coming from the green sea of a field on a crest of combers; clover from that other visit he realized, where the barn had been memorialized, ripe as the Atlantic itself, rich as brine. In the middle of all laid out before his view was a long sparkling white house, the main part of two floors and sundry additions plunked like excess punctuation, also white, easy and casual afterthoughts at a glance, which had been appended at random, he surmised, or had been required by different men and different needs.

From the chimney of one of these, squat and like a hen coop, the one farthest from the main house, smoke rose slowly, its column meandering ever so slightly, uninterrupted for all intents, lazy as the beginning of this very day had been. A wide porch spread out on the two sides of the house he could see, and promised more at each of its further ends. A horse and wagon, piled high with perhaps hay, a shade of yellow not yet seen in the fields, crawled across the front yard; its facing side was gray and neutral and had no contour top or bottom, but belonged, picture-perfect.

A shed off to the side had the same color, weathered, beaten and angled, wearing a thousand storms for sure. It leaned into its own existence. Time was trying to mark this place and this event for him, time and what else was working along with it; the indelibles indeed were afoot but he could not bring them all the way home, could not decipher them the way they should be: a painting inching itself into reality, another clutch in his gut as if something were being pulled out of him, a tendon, a muscle, a useless organ through the eye of a pore. Emptiness carved its hollow way through his stomach. He felt cheated somehow, but could not lay identity on it.

A woman on the porch shook a mat or a small rug over the railing. Her motion was quick and lively, and seemed to be the only thing moving. Liv’s perfume came again, more than lilac, more than any petals known, more than recall could demand. And with it the realization that taste had been introduced. In such a short time, taste had been introduced; it caught itself at the tip of his tongue, lingered, left. It was not a sweetness, he knew. He tried to recall it. It came to him that a variety of borders had been built around him in his short life and were being broken down, but he could not determine the extent of them or the extent of the breakdowns. At the edges of his senses, likewise at the point of division, identity of a number of things for a new moment was unknown.

Then, the way ideas are crystallized, from a small world controlled by an inner energy, the great merger came, the meshing of sights and scents and somehow reachable mysteries. It pushed together the picture-perfect wagon and the woman at dusting and the sudden ebullient clover and the inviting spread of the house and the wide issue of fields going off to where stars waiting night were hanging out and the mix of planets. Liv’s perfume crawled down the back of his neck and Liv looked up at him from the front seat and he looked down at her and saw one absolutely splendid nipple of her twisting standing alone in the cup of her gaping bra like the knob on the gate lock in the back yard at home. The rush was upon him.

Her teeth were as white as the house. His stomach hurt. Wind whirled in his ears.

Holding her hand visored over her eyes, the two o’clock sun slashing down on the side of the house and across her stance, the woman on the porch had seen them coming down the slight ramp of road. Brown hair was piled on top of her head and pulled into a bun. Near sixty at least, she had a wide forehead, comfortable eyes which traveled easily over the three occupants of the car, a mouth that was as soft as prayer, and arms bare right to the shoulders. An elaborate pinkness flowed on her skin, a rosy pinkness, gifted more than earned it appeared, and it softened everything else about her—eyes, mouth, and the angles of her joints. Almost as a salute, one shoulder dipped subtilely as if a sign of recognition, or acceptance. Pale blue, front-buttoned, her dress wore remnant perspiration in dark patches, at both arm pits, at the belt line, at one breast, perhaps something wet had been held close to her body, perhaps something wet and dear.

The boy could see that she moved very deliberately, bringing her arm casually and gracefully down from her face. That same hand waved at them but he could tell mostly at Mel, for a smile came with it. He thought of the ice cream promised, for this must be Mavis Trellbottom. Into a dark recess the wagon had most likely gone, for it was out of sight and there were doors of all sizes in the barns, and the yard was quiet and serenely peaceful.

She yelled, “Mel!” full of surprise and endearment, and then in a cry two octaves higher, “Charlie! Charlie!” and not they’re here but “Mel’s here.” The voice was as sincere as her face. The boy felt she would have yelled “Mel” even if the president were with them.

Even before Charlie came into view, Mel was out of the car and had picked the rug-shaking woman named Mav right off the deck of the porch. Slippered feet showed, much of her legs, a flash of underclothing, and her hair sort of brown in another minute might have come loose from the top of her head. A featherweight, the boy thought, as Mel swirled her about, more than warmth written all over the pair of them. A small stick of jealousy stabbed at him, a jab a lightweight might have tossed, but jealousy none the less. She enjoyed the roughhouse greeting, it was evident.

“Hi ya, Duchess!” Mel had yelled, and then hugged her tightly to his frame. On his face, as innocent and as real as morning sunlight on a green leaf, was expressed the most honest emotion the boy had ever witnessed. Even at thirteen, short of experience in the world, he realized that look would not be seen by him very often in this or any lifetime. Another message in the air, another barrier broken, another lesson to be learned plain as dealt cards.

Suddenly he was aware that much of the classroom was at hand. This very summer, this very farm, these people now caught up in his very breathing, would grant him a whole new range of knowledge. He would in no way be able to hold off what was surely coming at him. He looked at the people around him. Liv was still locked to her seat in the car, her face catching the sun at such a generous angle it played games with his eyes. Mav was still caught up in the arms of the young Marine dressed in chinos and a blue polo shirt that seemed to measure his biceps. An older man, unhurried, deliberate in walk, gray haired but moving with an obvious strength, denim straps wide over his shoulders, wearing army boots with the issue buckles still in place, probably rock-solid and not arguable and, more than likely at one time or another, the undisputed King of the Hill among his acquaintances, was striding across the yard. Charlie Trellbottom was a strider, all the way a strider.

Energy lifted off him as easy as steam off the swamp back home, and would have been solid-looking to the most casual observer; white hair as thick as goodly pelt, face weathered, wood-burned marked like one of the barns standing behind him in the sunlight, shoulders almost as wide as Mel’s. No way was this strider like his own grandfather who was probably about the same age but he did evince the same kind of energy. A band saw smile cut itself across his face as he said, his voice a flawless timbre that made the young visitor think of old tools they didn’t make any longer, “The Marines have landed, Tripoli is saved.”

The two hugged and slapped each other like old teammates after a long separation, and the boy could measure the immediate sense of warmth rushing through him. They shook hands all around. He was welcome! The air could have hailed him: Welcome, Michael, and said, this is another home for you. He pretended he heard that from some corner of the yard, the guinea hens roosting in the trees and now squawking like ladies in a knitting circle, a rooster strutting his 5th Avenue stuff, a lift of steam almost audible off a hundred surfaces.

The slight creak he heard in a pause of the welcomes and a moment of other truce brought his eyes to a pair of toes moving up and down, back and forth, at the far left corner of the porch. Patent leather shiny as gills, yellow socks dandelions could have painted. That’s all he could see of a third person, one which incidentally had not been mentioned either at home by Mel or in the car on the drive down.

The creaking sound said rocker to him, and Mavis, noting the tilt of his head, the eyed interest, said, “That’ll be our daughter Tillie, but she doesn’t say a whole lot.” He thought it most apologetic and that it didn’t sound like her; already his mind made up that she didn’t make excuses, didn’t beat around the bush, and said what was on her mind no matter the audience or how the cut of it went.

Mel introduced him to Mavis and Charlie and without the slightest hesitation she hustled him off to his room, pushing the tote bag into his arms. On the way off Charlie said he’d take him for an initiation ride on the wagon after supper. There was an actual chuckle in his voice. Liv had slipped her arm around Mel’s waist and the sun glanced a halo off them. As he turned to go with Mavis ahead of him, as Charlie turned away for some obvious chore, he saw Liv slip a hand into Mel’s pocket. The feeling he had had in the back seat of the car came back to him. It’s none of my business, he tried to say to himself, but he couldn’t manage it. He also wanted to say that there were so many things he didn’t know about, but wouldn’t shoot himself down so quickly, not that he even wanted to. He wasn’t all the way stupid! Time would see to that.

Mavis Trellbottom, in her blue dress splotched darker in spots by perspiration, took the stairs easily. The oak steps and risers talked incorrigibly under her feet, not a whimpering under weight but a composite of a little anger and a lot of tiredness, the tiredness of holding on, nails and pegs clutching at centuries, a statement against over-use or abuse, a statement of time.

The noises were distinct, individual, as if they were on slow-played piano keys or singular strum of a string, and he cold easily pick out the separate notes. On a bet he could identify the source of each one of them, even with his eyes closed. A hazy picture leaped up in his mind of black-haired, wild-eyed, tart and acidic Jamie Stevenson in the back of the Cliftondale School classroom at home shooting his mouth off, crying abuse too, although only when it suited his purposes. Sometimes Jamie, when tromped on, would not utter a sound, and this house might sometime also do the same. But proof had been initially offered that this rambling house would be one of sounds, that it would never be truly quiet, even at sleep. If it were suddenly, without wind or cause, to shift sideways, he thought, there’d be beams creaking, lintels stretching their whole selves with accompaniment, joists threatening his ears, all with their unique notes.

A delicious odor of richness, like piccalilli let loose of jars, followed them up the stairs. With it, or because of it, he knew beans and brown bread from Abie’s red brick oven and hot dogs and the same piccalilli. His senses kept stretching themselves all over the place just waiting to be tested. The walls were papered with a small flower pattern with a pink background. Two pictures of revolutionary soldiers hung on the stair walls. A mirror in a gold frame filled the wall at the head of the stairs, and five doors gave promise to the next life, choices set out for his undertaking.

“I’ve put you down the end so you can hear the farm as it wakes up in the morning. It’s new for you, as Mel tells me, being up there just outside Boston. Must be tough for a boy to grow up there when there’s so much of this. You’ll like it here because it was Mel’s room when he was a boy and he always loved it. Now don’t be bashful…anything you want just give me a yell…food, more blankets, anything. The bathroom is over there. Charlie and I are at the other end on the first floor and Tillie has the room above us. You’ll be all by yourself. If you like sounds, night sounds or morning sounds, cows, roosters, chickens, guinea hens, this is the place for them. Mel used to make up stories all the time when he visited. Made his own joys he did when he was down here.”

She was right on the money, he thought, as if she had read his mind. There’d be other special things from her. Her last statement brought him all the way around to Mel’s father and what he had heard of him. To be away from Saxon and his father must have been a real treat for the young Mel, and this kind woman showing him the ropes must have known all of what went on back there. She’d never spill that knowledge though, of that he was sure as dawn. If his father had beaten him what would his life be like right now, what would he have become? That vision left him hurriedly, but the awful taste lingered as he measured up the room.

His room had a nice enough bed with a pile of blankets, a chest of drawers beside one window, a small desk and chair, a small table with a big white bowl on it and a white pitcher, which he swore he had seen pictures of. A rack at the side held two towels and a face cloth. A big stuffed chair loomed out of another wall as if it had just appeared out of nowhere, it was so big and so out of place in the room. The walls had a green-tinted paper that was very comfortable on his eyes, though he could discern no apparent design. There were three doors to the room. Mavis drifted out of one of them saying, “Find your way back when you’re ready and we’ll have something to eat. Mel’s always hungry.”

He had settled himself into the room, put his things away, explored doors, gone down a hallway quietly, came back, and went another way. He saw the room where the girl must sleep, pale green walls, white curtains, no pictures. He heard Mel and Liv behind the door of another room at their honest noise, which must have carried on from the car as quick as you could think, crept back quietly so as not to disturb them (or be heard being more like it), went down the stairs, saw the girl Tillie close up for the first time really.

In a short while he heard all about her, as if all of them were apologizing to him for springing the surprise of her on him. They took turns in telling him about her at the table where Mavis had presented her broiled chicken dinner. Tillie, in a yellow dress, her hair tied up atop her head, her skin as white as Mavis’ was pink, but in that same gentle fashion, moved, ate, reached, but said nothing. Her eyes did indeed have much of distance in them, or depth, like a bottomless well came one image through his mind, and never once came across his eyes paired up, or acknowledging him. That’s when he first noticed her breasts, center-darkened against the dress’s pale yellow material, the way a nipple would announce itself, broad and darker as a picture might show, at times at play behind that so thin retreat. Her hands were delicately shaped, the nails neat as a made bed.

Mel had said, “Tillie had a very bad accident a few years ago, when she was just twenty-one. She was engaged to a great kid, whom I’d known a long while. He was in the Corps and he called and said he was on his way home on a quick leave and was driving up to see her. She rushed off in her car to meet him and hit him head on at Bailey’s Crossing just south of town. He never came out of the car alive. They had to cut him out and she didn’t know until almost two months later when she came out of a coma.”

“Hasn’t spoken a word since,” said Mavis. “She hears us, knows us, loves us, but just can’t talk—won’t talk. It may be that what we’re saying right now doesn’t even register with her, at least not fully. We don’t know. Even the doctors don’t know, haven’t helped a whole lot except hold out for the promise of something good to happen.” The slackness in Mavis’s jaw at that moment was an infrequent lapse, he thought.

Charlie nodded at him. “We don’t know what will bring her out of this, but we’re positive something will happen before we pass on. She’s a wonderful girl. She’s filled our lives for us, even now when we have to do so much for her.”

He liked Mavis and Charlie immensely. Charlie’s eyes were like some exorbitantly costly gem, and with the light of the sun still playing in the room took his eyes on more warmth and life.

They absolutely shone when he looked at his daughter, when he spoke of her. Tillie still made no move that acknowledged any presence in the room. She continued to eat, robotic, he thought, just the way she rocked for hours on the porch—rocking, nodding, touching her toes, pressing on them, lifting back her head bare fractions of an inch, as if practice was the art of perfection. Her listlessness seemed overpowering to him.

He wondered how he’d ever become as accustomed to it as were the others, even Liv, more beautiful than ever, her face shining with a hidden light of some kind, whose perfume crawled down the back of his mind in a slowly tantalizing swallow. “Hope is as beautiful as she is, Mike. It’s one of the loveliest of contemplations in life, I’m sure you’ll find that out, if you don’t know it at this moment. I think Mav and Charlie would say right now that it’s the best thing in their lives, that it’s just as beautiful as Tillie is.”

Nothing it seemed could be more beautiful than Liv, and he had heard her behind the door in that long secretive hallway, the music of her wordless voice, the mystery of what posture she had been in, what stance, what exposure. Pictures spilled all over his insides and he wondered if he had given anything away. Every sound he had heard he could remember. Did his face show it? He looked at Tillie, his mouth open, hoping for refuge, for escape. She did not move, though the darkness at her breasts was deeper than it had been minutes ago.

Mavis put more chicken on his plate. He looked into her eyes and saw the faraway there too, the long, long tunnel out into space or down into earth. A smile flickered across her mouth, as if she had shared a secret with him right in front of the others. He could not find it. If it was there in front of him, he could not find it, but the slightest curve of that hidden smile was given him again. God, she was as warm as his mother was! And like his mother, could leave messages right out in front of other people’s noses.

It wasn’t always that he could read them, at least not right off the bat, but something would come of every communication. His father was direct in his messages. There’d be nothing here at this table from his father. It would be unsaid. A girl had been hurt. A boy had died. Things had changed. It was like war. After a while the sounds of battle pass.

Now this girl, this speechless girl, this silent Tillie of the accident, came slowly toward him. In the narrowness of dawn, in the narrowness of the small bedroom, she came towards him. Liv, that other girl, that other magical figure, had drifted in and out of his mind, with her whatever stance or position trying to break free from behind that door of yesterday, with her music of sounds shifting its notes in his mind in absolute total recall, every living breath of it. Liv, that other girl, had come at him and gone away.

This girl Tillie moved so effortlessly, as if she needed no energy, oiled, lubricated at every joint, almost a spirit of movement, everything that the barest of dreams had dared came sliding towards him. Again, in the false dawn, she looked at him, as she had not looked at him on the night before. He saw distance closing itself down in her eyes, saw the telescope of time working its long way in, collapsing hours, years, the screech of tires, the impact of metals and rubber and blood, how sound must have suddenly stopped for her that night. He saw space there moving irretrievably away; none of it would ever come back, none of it could ever come back.

He understood, for the first time in his life, silence of the unborn, the unknown, the calamity of graceless death. He knew at length what wailing and keening were that he had heard so much about, heard the longing one should never hear, heard it all coming from silence as she slid in beside him. With the whitest of arms, the very fairest of arms, oh so deliberately lovely, she lifted the thin blanket of his cover and lay down beside him. Warmth, as good as coals, flooded him, all the length of his body. Patches of flesh were suddenly hot, burning their way onto him. He didn’t know where they were, but someplace against him. An entirely brand new odor he’d never known and would never forget for as long as he lived came rolling over him.

With the same ease of her advancing motions, hardly movement at all, grace be it for a name, she placed one of her darkly auburn blazing-reddened nipples against his mouth, adjusted it oh so casually, caress of longing someplace behind it. She spoke. Tillie spoke. She said the sound “Gently” as if it had come out of some mysterious and solemn rite, old as all the centuries themselves, as if it had been said the same way before, and at the same time as if it might be a most serious order or command. His mouth opened. His lips were dry. Her hand reached to hold him softly by the head, cupped him to nursing at that wetting place.

He did not know how long he remained still, the horrific heat against him, or if he slept, if she moved, if he moved. There was newness now and hands everywhere and a mouth not his and a gentleness and a fire he’d never known and sounds beyond them. Sounds were in the air and the wash of the morning whispering at them, and hands again, instructive hands, hands at his hands, movement of hands, knowledge, moisture, life exploding a whole arsenal of secrets. The back of his head filled with aromas bent on attacking him but were so startling and so smooth they might not have even been there in the first place, only dared to be. And finally a small and barely audible “oh,” a lovely “oh,” a remarkably beautiful “oh,” an “oh” worthy of all speech and all language, leveled across the room as though it might barely reach over the thin shroud on the bed or might go on into all of time itself, the first “oh” that Tillie Trellbottom had given up in seven long years.

He didn’t remember her leaving or his falling asleep again or waking up more than two hours later and the house silent again down into its dampest roots, down into its deepest part of being a house. Then a rooster called out bright as a bugle, a surly cow answered, a horse, in the high trees the guinea hens began a noisy clamor. Other sounds came that he could not identify. His father’s face loomed in a shadow and he suddenly knew what his father had meant about waking up in the morning under a tepee. A languid tiredness rolled through his body, but he was sharply awake and extraordinarily hungry. It made him move quickly to the wash basin.

Only Mavis was in the kitchen and, as if she had timed his schedule, placed a plate of ham and eggs and home fries at the table for him. “You’ll not be this late again because Charlie won’t let you. He’s been gone for over an hour with the wagon, Mel and Liv have gone for a walk. Tillie will probably stay in her room for much of the morning.”

Mavis continued to move even as he explained that he had been tired and had fallen back to sleep. She wore flat shoes, white ankle socks and had on a neat gray dress not yet adorned with dark stains. But that promise was there even if the fluid motion she did things with was no surprise to him, as if that grace of hers was part of her own private language. There was so much to language that was not said, that was left unsaid but known. Ideas came cramming into his head, it seemed volumes of them; where they came from, what they sprang out of, he had no idea, at least not a direct idea. It might be too that he’d explode, so much moved on him and in him. He breathed on his plate to ease the canister of his chest and the threat that was building itself there.

He wanted Tillie to come into the room, wanted that desperately and could feel the want riding on his face. He wanted to see her eyes again, wanted to see how she was dressed, wanted to see what he could remember. He kept his face to the meal, low over the table whenever Mavis might turn towards him. Redness must surely sit on it for there was heat still resident on his skin.

The morning sun, still angled, still in a wake-up attitude, spilled all over the table and the countertop and lit up much of the room. A vase of purple flowers had taken over what the sun hadn’t grabbed, lilacs he said to himself, knowing he would not have noticed them on another day, but the perfume of them carried its vital message. All this whatever he deep-voiced to himself had opened all his pores, all his nerves. Things so shortly occurred, so shortly known, came slowly out of some private place he had put them. Perhaps they could no longer be managed. Tillie had said only, “Gently” and “Oh,” and nothing else, of that he was positive. It said a mountain had been moved, a roadblock torn down and done away with. It said miracle in a very small and private way as far back in his mind as he could put it. Another aroma, he realized, was in the room; it did not say purple flowers but said her. 

To leave the room at that moment was important to him, but he could not manage it. It would be escaping from Mavis. It wasn’t right. If only Tillie would walk into the room or call down and say she was going to stay in her room forever, then he could move. How would her voice sound in the morning air? How would Mavis turn around and look at him if Tillie spoke? What would Mavis say? Would she scream at him? Would he run? Would Charlie or Mel come after him? Would Liv wag her finger at him, even after he had seen her nipple stand like the gate knob? He remembered sweet skin against his mouth; that was talking in another way. He remembered air being in short supply. Suffocation had been a possibility.

He began to shake and finally realized he was frightened. Down here there would be no way to turn, nobody to turn to. There was no assumption of help. A violation had taken place and punishment was in order. His father would be furious. His mother would cry.

Mavis gave him seconds. She must have eyes in the back of her head, he thought.

“Charlie will be back in a short while. He’ll take you to the high field on the wagon. You’ll have your license by noon.” A deep chuckle came with the promise, and then she moved about the room, sunlight falling on her, sunlight following her. She was warm, she was a magnet, and she was another aura in his young life. He couldn’t begin to mark all that had come at him in such a short time. Was there no end to it? Was this a confidante in motion, this woman in front of him? Her gray dress had the neatest edges, her skin was still of a blessed pinkness, and they cut across each other the way designs cut, the way advertisements move within themselves.

“A horse is a horse is a horse, as they say.” She spoke with her hands full and didn’t use them to make added expression, to accentuate. “Be good to Blackie and he’ll be good to you. He wears the wagon. The wagon doesn’t wear him. Don’t tell Charlie I told you, but he still has trouble cutting left, so mind your fence posts and the corner of the barn if you head off to the low fields. Keep the reins honest in your hands. The answer is in your hands. That’s all I’m telling you. Now here he comes.”

She wasn’t even mad at him. That was amazing. She must know every breath taken on the farm, the source of every sound. His mother would. She’d know everything there was to know; who sneezed or coughed in the night, who cursed in the back yard or took the Name in vain, who suddenly got too big for his hat or his britches. Nor was Charlie angry, still wearing a smile bright as a new saw.

Charlie made off with him as if he were abducting him. Before he knew it, he was away from the house, away from Mavis and the kitchen, and Tillie had not called out to him, had not said another word. Perhaps he could breathe now, now that nobody was angry at him. Swinging around he saw the high field spread out before them, not really high but it was on a risen slope of land and kept a firm contour, a place to itself, and Tillie barely hung on at the back of his head.

The clover was rich, the sun was warm, and his high and commanding seat gave him a great survey. In his hands the reins had meaning, he soon found out. Blackie was a gallant giant of a horse, black as despair, black as hopelessness, he thought, with ears that flicked like broad knives at the flies, like a pair of hands waving. Electricity from him came in surges down the leather of the straps, a great amount of electricity, and a great amount of power. The wagon seat made him think he was on top of the world. Life was somehow ennobling, for all he had come through, spreading it and himself in great patches of experience.

Blackie now and then pranced and danced as if to speak unsaid words. He seemed to say, “You have the reins but I have the power.” It was not like that with Tillie. She had coaxed and coached and guided him, but also had the power of every move. Pieces came back at him, then chunks of her and chunks of heat and great masses of moisture and an ache and emptiness in his chest as if he had cut all ties with the human race. It was all so unfair to feel this way. After all, she had spoken, the miracle of miracles; she had used language, she had told him how it was supposed to be, how she wanted it to be.

Suddenly he wanted to lash out at Blackie, to drive very hard, to leap past all of the fields, to be home, to be away from all of this. Is she thinking of me back there in her room, came a live and ringing thought in his head, like he was talking to himself. It was so confusing, so much of all of it so unnecessary. But a restless edge kept cutting into him, making unknown demands. Finally, relenting, he took himself back to his room even as Charlie loomed beside him bigger than much of life. He brought back what he had seen of her, and how he had closed his eyes at first, and then filled them endlessly even in the faintest light.  He remembered how it fell across her whiteness, how shadows get rounded and curved, how light falls into darkness and answers fall away with the light. There’d been mounds of whiteness and expanses and crevices and openings, and her hands had argued at first, and then pleased. His had argued and argued, until, light making more of her whiteness, they had begun a new life of their own, had traveled and touched and been instructed. How empty now his head felt, how dry his mouth, and Charlie was pointing to a pile of logs across the field.

They loaded the logs on the wagon as Blackie kicked at dust and knocked at flies and swung his tail in the air. Sweat ran down his chest; he could feel the little balls of it flowing on his skin. He smelled different. Charlie would know it in a second, how it leaped from under his arms and made itself known, telling tales, telling everything sweet and unsweetened, everything calm and hysterical, ratting on him. His perspiration felt like little balls of steel cruising on his chest. Oh, Christ, would this ever end? he said.

As they unloaded the logs in the yard, Mavis and Tillie sitting on the porch, bees working the air, buzzing, the sun working, sizzling on hard surfaces, heat beginning to touch everything, the guinea hens raucous in the trees, his muscles found other meanings. He dared to throw some of the logs a bit farther than he ought. Mavis watched, Tillie didn’t, rocking her chair back and forth as part metronome, sporting yellow socks he thought were disgusting to look at; she had such lovely lines to her legs. He threw another log beyond the pile as he recalled how the lines of her legs met, how they rolled into and out of darkness. Mavis smiled at him, waved them on to lunch, turned on the porch like a judge who had made a quick decision. He thought of his mother preparing a small speech on transgressions.

Lunch, though, was quick and quiet, and Tillie said nothing and he said nothing and Charlie said they’d get another load of wood. They worked at the next load for over three hours, took a swim in a small pool in a stream on the way back, and unloaded the wood just before the supper call was made. After supper he sat on the porch steps near Tillie with a huge bowl of ice cream. Once in a while he looked up at her as she rocked and slowly ate her ice cream. The whole yard seemed to fall into a temporary silence, as if it had somehow been earned.

It was announcement when he said, “That was a lot of work today, Charlie. I know I’ll be in bed early tonight.” Charlie laughed a small laugh and nodded at him. Mavis said, “You’ll be surprised how much you grow in one summer down here.” Tillie rocked her chair. He was going across that void again, he knew, across the darkness to that other light. There was no other way.

For hours he lay way over on one side of the bed, waiting, making camp, the tepee up and the tepee down. The center pole seemed bigger. He’d never have a laugh with his father about this, but he’d try to share it with him somehow. Maybe years down the road. Maybe masked like a story. He’d not brag, though. You don’t brag about miracles. You have nothing to do with miracles except letting them happen and knowing what they are when they do happen. He thought of dress blues and manly chevrons and quick and immediate leaves, and Mel and Liv in their room and how they had all but disappeared from the earth in such a short time.

This was like a hotel for them and Liv’s hands were live hands, which he had seen. Was everybody like that? If Mavis and Charlie went to bed together at the same time, who would start things off, who would reach if they were to reach? Charlie was tired too. The gray of Mavis’ dress had gathered dark blue of perspiration into it. Did it run on her like little steel balls? It made sense to have odors because they were so distinctive, said so much, gave so much away. Liv’s nipple was not like Tillie’s, he was sure. Tillie’s stuck out like a bullet. It had been so real and now it wasn’t. Was it possible that she had never been there in the first place? The air told him different. She was in the bedclothes, the smell of her. That was real. Who made up his bed? Was it Mavis? The tent came down.

Moments later, just after midnight, he pitched camp again. He caught her on the smallest bit of breeze coming down the corridor. Silence was still her marker. There was not the slightest creak of the floorboards, and the door he’d left wide open. She moved as she had before, and soon said, “Gently” again, and later “Oh” again, and he obeyed every gesture and made some of his own with the breath caught up in his chest like a ball of fire. He did not think of Mavis or Charlie or Mel or Liv or his mother or his father, but he did think of the young marine rushing home to this lovely whiteness. It made tears, too, like little balls of steel on his skin, and in the faint streak of dawn, as she took her mouth away with her, she said, “Today we’ll have a picnic.”

She was not in the kitchen for breakfast, and he ate hungrily along with Charlie. He was ravenous. Food odors leaped at him in quick announcements and there was nothing he did not like or could not identify in an instant, so sharp were his senses, so deep his sudden concern for aromas and the things that walked on the air, which pulled at him. Other revelations had mounted their stands (only two days old and it promised to be one hell of a summer); his shoulders felt wider, his upper arms thicker, his wrists stronger. Time no longer had any urgency to it. You could say handling the logs had done it, but he wouldn’t hold just for that. He had paid his way, it was true, had made his contribution. It was like the artifice of mental reservation, you could talk about two things at the same time, and both of them would fall into place. His father would be pleased at the general nature of things, though the crux of it unknown; nothing would be said directly for the first time, but eventually notice would be in the air. It’d be like shaving or jock itch or sudden stains on his shorts that would demand no explanation. Of this he was certain; it would be unsaid, as so many important things were, unsaid but accepted.

Charlie said they would spend one more morning on firewood, and would be back for lunch. At lunch, the sun living amongst them, splashing on every surface, she sat stiffly at the table and he was certain only he was aware that the great distance in her eyes had closed down on itself. It was that different. Suddenly he knew how difficult it was to speak sometimes. Profoundly he knew he was moving into one of the great events of his life. As long as he lived some parts of these moments now building about him, now filled with stark and rich aromas, now filled with color, now waiting on sound like a dream trying to be recalled, would have a special place with him.

He knew that the two nights here on this farm, and their implausible emergence, would somehow fade away, and that others, if they were to come, would fade away also, but these moments would stand.

And it was gray-blue Mavis who began the moment when she looked at him and asked, “What are you men up to this afternoon?”

The word men was firm as an oath as she said it. It was not a negligible word. It was not an easy word. It was not thrown out to be cute or to question. It carried more than mere conviction; it carried absolute knowledge, it carried every sound of the night, every shadow, every bit of memorable whiteness, it carried all the resurrection she had waited on for such a long time. It was almost a salute, yet her mouth gaped in awed wonder and her eyes shone with an ancient thanksgiving and her heart leaped in her chest, as Tillie said, “Mike and I are having a picnic.”

Charlie nodded, the long wait done.

***

 

 

 

All Stories, Crime/Mystery/Thriller, Tom Sheehan Week

Tom Sheehan Week – Tuesday: Story 97

Spiel: One major hero of mine in WW II days was Frank “Parkie” Parkinson who wrote a letter to me from the desert in North Africa saying he was dreaming of coming home and seeing me play high school football after he had watched my older brother play. He promised he’d do his best. Boy, did he ever get that done, For a few years after he got home, and I’d be in a game, I’d see Parkie on the sideline chains in games at Saugus High School, Marianapolis Prep in CT, RI, NH, Long Island (NY), Manning Bowl in Lynn,  MA,: and some later college games, Parkie ever on the sideline chains, the yard markers. And he did not own a car, thumbing his way everyplace he went. He had come home from the war with a bottle in his back pocket, hardly without liquor on his breath from then on, but never drunk at a game. He hung on for 20 more years.

Escape from North Africa

Tom Sheehan

Hardly with a hop, skip and jump did Frank Parkinson come home from Tobruk, Egypt, North Africa, madness, and World War II in general. A lot of pit stops were made along the way where delicate-handed surgeons and associates did their very best to get him back into working order. From practically every vantage point thereafter we never saw, facially or bodily, any scar, bunching of flesh or major or minor skin disturbance. There was no permanent redness, no welts as part of his features, no thin and faintly visible testaments to a doctor’s faulty hand or to the enemy’s angry fragmentation. It was as if he were the ultimate and perfect patient, the great recovery, the risen Lazarus.

But he was different, it was easy to see, by a long shot.

Parkie. Tanker. Tiger of Tobruk.

And it was at the end of some trying times for him when I realized, one afternoon as we sat looking over the sun looking over sun-lit Lily Pond, a redness on the pond’s face as bright as my pal’s smile, the pond face we had skated on for almost twenty years, where we had whipped the long hand-held whip line of us and our friends screaming and wind-blown toward the frosted shore on countless coffee and cider evenings, that he had come home to die.

The September sun was on for a short stay, and we had bagged a dozen bottles of beer and laid them easily down in the pond, watching the flotilla of pickerel poking slowly about when the sediment settled, their shadowy thinness pointing, like inert submarines or torpedoes, at the bags.

Our differences were obvious, though we did not speak of them. The sands of North Africa had clutched at him and almost taken him. Off a mountain in Italy I had come with my feet nearly frozen, graceless pieces of marble under skin, thinking they might have been blown off the same quarry in which Michelangelo had once farmed torsos. Searching for the grace that might have been in them, I found none. I kept no souvenirs, especially none of Italy and its craggy mountains, and had seen nothing of his memento scenery. But once I saw a pair of tanker goggles hanging like an outsize Rosary on the post of Parkie’s bed at Dutch Siciliano’s garage where he roomed on the second floor. In each of his three small rooms, like the residue of a convoy’s passing still hanging in the air, telling of itself at the nostrils with sharp reminders, you could smell the oil and grease and, sometimes you’d swear, perhaps the acid-like cosmoline and spent gunpowder, rising right through the floorboards.

We left the war behind us, as much as we could. But with Parkie it was different … pieces of it hung on as if they were on for the long ride. I don’t mean that he was a flag waver or mufti hero, now that he was out of uniform, but the whole war kept coming back to him in ways in which he had no control. There are people to whom such things befall. They don’t choose them, but it’s as if they somehow get appointed for all the attendant crap that comes with life.

Furthermore, Parkie had no control over the visitations.

I don’t know how many times we have been sitting in the Angels’ Club, hanging out, the big booms long gone, when someone from Parkie’s old outfit would show up out of the blue. It was like Lamont Cranston appearing from the shadows; there’d be a guy standing at the door looking in and we’d all notice him, and then his eyes and Parkie’s eyes would lock. Recognition was instant; reaction was slower, as if neither believed what he was seeing. There would be a quiet acceptance of the other’s presence; they’d draw their heads together and have a beer in a corner. Parkie, as sort of an announcement, would speak to no one in particular and the whole room in general, “This guy was with me in North Africa.”

He never gave a name. All of them were odd lots, all of them; thin like Parkie, drawn in the face, little shoulders and long arms, nervous, itchy, wearing that same darkness in the eyes, a sum of darkness you’d think was too much for one man to carry. They’d hang on for days at a time, holing up some place, sometimes at Parkie’s and sometimes elsewhere, drinking up a storm, carousing, and one morning would be gone and never seen again, as if a ritual had taken place, a  solemn ritual. Apparitions almost from slippery darkness! Dark-eyed. The nameless out of North Africa and whatever other place they had been to and come from. Noble wanderers, it seemed, but nameless, placeless, itinerants from who knows what!

Parkie never got a card or a letter from any one of them, never a phone call. Nothing. He never mentioned them after they were gone. That, to me, was notice he knew they would never be back. It was like a date had been kept, a vow paid off. It wasn’t at all like “We’ll meet at Trafalgar Square after the war, or Times Square, or under the clock at The Ritz.” Not at all. The sadness of it hit me solidly, frontally. I’d had some good buddies, guy’s I’d be tickled to death to see again if they walked in just like his pals did, and I knew that I’d never see them again.

Things were like that, cut and dried like adobe, a place and a job in the world and you couldn’t cry about it. Part of the fine-tuned fatalism that grows in your bones, becomes part of you, core deep, gut deep.

The sun’s redness shivered under breeze. Pickerel nosed at the bags. The beer cooled. Parkie sipped at a bottle, his eyes dark and locked on the pond, seeing something I hadn’t seen, I suppose. The long hatchet-like face, the full-blown Indian complexion he owned great allegiance to, made his dark visage darker than it might have been. With parted lips his teeth showed long and off-white or slightly yellowed, real incisors in a deep-red gum line. On a smooth, gray rock he sat with his heels jammed up under his butt, the redness still locked in his eyes, and, like some long-gone Chief, locked in meditation of the spirits.

For a long while he was distant, who knows where, in what guise and in what act, out of touch, which really wasn’t that unusual with him before, and surely wasn’t now, since his return. Actually, it appeared a little eerie, this sudden transport, but a lot of things had become eerie with Parkie around. He didn’t like being indoors for too long a stretch; he craved fresh air and walked a lot, and must have worn his own path around the pond. It went through the alders, then through the clump of birch that some nights looked like ghosts at attention, then down along the edge where all the kids went for kibby and sunfish, then over the knoll at the end of the pond where you’d go out of sight for maybe five minutes of a walk, and then down along the near shore and coming up to the Angels’ where we hung out.

Most of the guys said when you couldn’t find Parkie, you knew where to find him.

He looked up at me from his crouch, the bottle in his hand catching the sun, his eyes as dark as ever in their deep contrast. “Remember that Kirby kid, Ellen Kirby, when we pulled her out of the channel on Christmas vacation in her snowsuit and she kept skating around the pond for a couple of hours, afraid to go home. We saved her for nothing, it seems, but for another try at it. I heard she drowned in a lake in Maine January of the year we went away. Like she never learned anything at all.”

Parkie hadn’t taken his eyes off the pond, stillness still trying to take hold of him, and he sipped and sipped and finally drank off the bottle and reached into the water for another. The pickerel force moved away as quickly as minnows.

Their quickness seemed to make fun of our inertia. If there was a clock handy, I knew its hands would be moving, the ticking going on, but I seriously wouldn’t bet on it. We seemed to be holding our collected breath; the sun froze itself on the water’s face, the

slightest breath of wind held it off. There was no ticking, no bells, no alarms, and no sudden disturbances in the air, no more war, and no passage of time. For a moment at least we hung at breathlessness and eternity. We were, as Parkie had said on more than one occasion, “Down-in deep counting the bones in ourselves, trying to get literate.”

“We just got her ready to die another time.” The church key opener in his hand pried at the bottle cap as slow as a crowbar and permitted a slight “pop,” and he palmed the cap in his hand and shook it like half a dice set and skipped it across the redness. The deliberate things he did came off as code transmissions, and I had spent hours trying to read what kind of messages were being carried along by them. They did not clamor for attention, but if you were only barely alert you knew something was cooking in him.

“You might not believe it,” I said, “but I thought of her when I was in the base hospital in Italy and swore my ass was ice. I remember how she skated around after we pulled her out with that gray-green snowsuit on and the old pilot’s cap on her head and the flaps down over her ears and the goggles against her eyes and the ice like a clear, fine lacquer all over her clothes. I thought she was going to freeze standing upright on the pond.”

Parkie said, “I used to think about the pond a lot when I was in the desert, at Tobruk, at Al Shar-Efan, at The Sod Oasis, at all the dry holes along the way, but it was always summer and fishing and swimming and going ballicky off the rock at midnight or two or three in the morning on some hot-ass August night when we couldn’t sleep and sneaked out of the house. Remember how Gracie slipped into the pond that night and slipped out of her bathing suit and hung it up on a spike on the raft and told us she was going to teach us everything we’d ever need to know.”

His head nodded two or three times, accenting its own movement, making a grand pronouncement, as if the recall was just as tender and just as complete as that long-ago compelling night. He sipped at the bottle again and tried to look through its amber passage, dark eyes meeting dark obstacles of more than one sort. As much a fortuneteller he looked, peeking into life.

All across the pond stillness made itself known, stillness as pure as any I’ve known. I don’t know what he saw in the amber fluid, but it couldn’t have been anything he hadn’t seen before.

I just had the feeling it was nothing different.

When I called him Frank he looked at me squarely, thick black brows lifted like chunks of punctuation, his mouth an Oh of more punctuation, both of us suddenly serious. It had always been that way with us, the reliance on the more proper name to pull a halt to what was about us, or explain what was about us. He drank off a heavy draught of beer, his Adam’s apple flopping on his thin neck. The picture of a turkey wattle came uneasily to mind, making me feel slightly ridiculous, and slightly embarrassed. Frank was an announcement of sorts, a declaration that a change, no matter subtle or not, was being introduced into our conversation. It was not as serious as Francis but it was serious enough.

His comrades from North Africa, as always, had intrigued me, and on a number of instances I had searched in imagination’s land for stories that might lie there waiting to get plowed up. Nothing I had turned over came anywhere close to reality, or the terrors I had known in my own stead. No rubble. No chaff. No field residue.

Perhaps Parkie had seen something in that last bottle, something swimming about in the amber liquid, or something just on the other side of it, for he turned to me and said, “I think you want to know about my friends who visit, my friends from North Africa, from my tank outfit. I never told you their names because their names are not important. Where they come from or where they are going is not important either. That information would mean nothing to you.”

For the moment silence was accepted by both of us.

Across the stretch of water, the sun was making its last retreat of the day. A quick grasp of reflection hung for a bare second on the face of the pond and then leaped off somewhere as if shot, past the worm-curled roots, a minute but energized flash darting into the trees, then it was gone, absolutely gone, none of it yet curling round a branch or root, and no evidence of it lying about…except for the life it had given sustenance to, had maintained at all levels. It was like the shutter of a camera had opened and closed at its own speed.

Parkie acknowledged that disappearance with a slight nod of his head. An additional twist was there: it was obvious he saw the darkness coming on even before it gathered itself to call on us, as though another kind of clock ticked for him, a clock of a far different dimension. He was still chipping away at what had been his old self. That came home clean as a desert bone; but where he was taking it all was as much mystery as ever.

The beer, though, was making sly headway, beer and stillness, and the companionship we had shared over the years, the mystery of the sun’s quick disappearance on what we knew of the horizon, the thin edge of warmth it left behind, and all those strange comrades of his who had stood in the doorway of the Angel’s Club, framed as they were by the nowhere they had come from, almost purposeless in their missions. They, too, had been of dark visage. They too were lank and thin and narrow in the shoulder. They, too, were scored by that same pit of infinity locked deeply in their eyes. They were not haggard, but they were deep. I knew twin brothers who were not as close to their own core the same way these men were, men who had obviously leaned their souls entirely on some common element in their lives. I did not find it as intense even with battle brothers who had lain in the same hole with me while German 76’ers slammed overhead and all around us, chunks of grand Italian marble in the awful trajectories.

The flotilla of pickerel nosed against the bags of beer. Parkie’s Adam’s apple bobbed on his thin neck. He began slowly, all that long reserve suddenly beginning to fall away: “We were behind German lines, but had no idea how we got there. We ran out of gas in a low crater and threw some canvas against the sides of the three tanks that had been left after our last battle. If we could keep out of sight, sort of camouflaged, we might have a chance. It got cold that night. We had little food, little water, little ammo, and no gas. It was best, we thought, to wait out our chances. If we didn’t know where we were, perhaps the Jerries wouldn’t know, either. Sixteen of us were there. We had lost a lot of tanks, had our butts kicked.”

He wasn’t dramatizing anything. You could tell. It was coming as straight as he could make it. Whatever was coming, though, had to be wild, or exorbitant, or eerie or, indeed, inhuman. The last option rode through me like cold fact. The hair on the back of my neck told me so.

“We woke up in the false dawn and they were all around us. Fish in the bottom of the tank is what we were. No two ways about it. Plain, all-out fish lying there, as flat as those pickerel. They took us without a shot being fired. Took us like babes in the pram. All day they questioned us. One guy was an SS guy. A real mean son of a bitch if you ever met one. Once I spit at him and he jammed me with a rifle barrel I swear six inches deep. Ten times he must have kicked me in the guts. Ten times! I couldn’t get to his throat, I’d’ve taken him with me. They stripped our tanks, what was left in them. That night they pushed us into our tanks. I saw the flash of a torch through one of the gun holes. You could hear a generator working nearby. Something was crackling and blistering on the hull or the turret top. Blue light jumped every which way through the gun holes. It was getting hot. Then I realized the sounds and the smells and the weird lights were welding rods being burned.”

“The sons of bitches were welding us inside our own tanks. A hell of a lot of arguing and screaming was going on outside. The light went flashing on and off, like a strobe light, if you know what I mean. Blue and white. Blue and white. Off and on. Off and on. But no real terror yet. Not until we heard the roar of a huge diesel engine. And the sound of it getting louder. And then came scraping and brushing against the sides of our tanks. Sand began to seep through the gun holes and peep sights.”

“The sons of bitches were burying us in our own tanks! All I could see was that rotten SS bastard smiling down at us. I saw his little mustache and his pale green eyes and his red nose and a smile the devil must have created. And his shining crow-black boots.”

I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t ask him a question. A stunned sensation swept clean through me. First, disbelief, a surging block of disbelief, as if my veins had frozen in place. The dark pit in his eyes could be read; the darkness inside the tank, the utter, inhuman darkness that had become part of Parkie and part of his comrades, the imagined sense of it hitting me slowly. It crept inside me. I knew a sudden likeness to that feeling; it was peering over the edge of a high place, the ground rushing up to meet me and then falling away and the long descent, the torturous fall becoming part of me…in the veins, in the mind. A shiver ran through every part of my body. And then hate welled up in me, stark, naked, unadorned hate, hate of the vilest kind, the kind you can’t wear, can’t carry.

Parkie put his hand on my knee. His grip was hard. “I never wanted to tell you, none of you. We all had our thing. You had yours. I had mine. I’m so sorry your feet are so screwed up. I wish nothing had happened to you. But a lot of guys’ve had worse.”

“What happened?” I said, letting his hand carry most of his message, letting my own small miseries fall away as if they did not exist. Not by comparison anyway. My feet had iced up practically in my sleep. I knew the ignoble difference.

“The sand was almost over the entire tank, and the noise inside the tank started. Screaming and cursing and crying. Cries like you never heard in your life. God-awful cries. I know I never heard anything like them. And coming out of guys I’d known a long time, tough guys, valiant guys, guys with balls who had gone on the line for me. I heard some of them call for their mothers. There was screaming, and then whimpering and then screaming again. And curses! My God, curses to raise the friggin’ dead. The most unholy of curses. Everything dead and unholy and illegitimate, raised from wherever, were brought against the Germans and that little SS bastard. He was castrated and ripped and damned and denounced to the fires of hell. You haven’t heard profanity and terror and utter and absolute hatred all in one voice at the same time. The volume was turned way up. It filled the tank. It filled that makeshift and permanent vault. And our useless and agonized banging barehanded against the hull of the tank. Knuckles and fists and back-handers against the steel. And the outside noise drowning it all out.”

I was still reeling, shaking my head, feeling the same glacier-like ice in my veins. And the heat of hatred coexisted with that ice. I was a mass of contradictions. Parkie kept squeezing my knee. The pickerel kept nosing the bags, hung up in their own world of silence. Silence extended itself to the whole of Earth. The quiet out there, the final and eventual quiet out there, after the war, was all around us.

“Suddenly,” he continued, “there was nothing. The sand stopped its brushing and grating against the steel of the tank, then the diesel noise grew louder, as if it was coming right through us. And powerful thrusts came banging at the tank. I didn’t know what it was. And then we were being shoved and shaken, the whole structure. And I heard curses from outside and a lot of German on the air, and we seemed to be moving away from our hole in the ground. Whatever it was was pushing at us. And then it went away and we heard the same banging and grinding and grunting of the engine nearby. Then the blue and white light again as a torch burned around us and the tank heated up, and lots of screaming, but all of it German. And there were more engine noises and more banging and smashing of big bodies of steel. Finally, the turret was opened and we were hauled out and canteens shoved in our faces and the other tanks were being opened up and guys scrambling out, some of them still crying and screaming and cursing everything around them.”

He reached for the last bottle in one of the bags. The bag began to drift slowly away in wavy pieces. The pickerel had gone. The bottle cap snapped off in his hand. I thought of the tank’s turret top being snapped open, the rush of clean air filling his lungs, a new light in his eyes.

“Then I saw him,” Parkie said. “The minute I saw him I knew who he was. General Rommel. He was looking at us. He looked me right in the eye, straight and true and bone-steady and no shit at all in it. I didn’t think he was breathing; he was so still. But I read him right off the bat. The whole being of that man was right in his eyes. He shook his head and uttered a cry I can’t repeat. Then he took a pistol from another guy, maybe his driver, a skinny, itchy little guy, and just shot that miserable SS son of a bitch right between the eyes as he stood in front of him. Shot him like he was the high executioner himself; no deliberation, no second thought, no pause in his movement. Bang! One shot heard round the world if you really think about it. He screamed something in German as if tossed at the whole German army itself, each and every man of it, perhaps rising to whatever god he might have believed in because it was so loud, so unearthly, and then he just walked off toward a personnel carrier, not looking at us anymore or the SS guy on the ground, a nice-sized hole in his forehead.”

He drained off the last bottle, mouthing the taste of it for a while, wetting his lips a few times, remembering, I thought, the dry sands, the heat, the embarrassed German general walking away on the desert, the ultimate graveyard for so many men, for so many dreams.

“They gave us water and food, the Germans did. One of them brought up one of our own jeeps. It was beat to hell, but it was working. One German major, keeping his head down, his eyes on the sand, not looking at us, pointed off across the sand. We started out, the sixteen of us, some walking, some riding, some still crying or whimpering. Some still cursing. The next day we met some Brits. They brought us to their headquarters company. We were returned to our outfit. Some guys, of course, didn’t get to go back on line, but were sent home as head cases. Can’t blame them for that. I kept thinking about General Rommel, kept seeing his eyes in my mind. I can see them now, how they looked on his face, the shame that was in them. It was absolute, that shame, and he knew we knew. It was something he couldn’t talk about, I bet. If he could have talked to us, we might have been taken to one of their prison camps. But he knew he couldn’t do that to us. Make amends is what he had to do. He had to give us another chance. Just like we gave Ellen Kirby another chance at drowning.”

In his short flight he had circled all the way back to the Kirby circumstance and all that played with it.

Francis Dever Parkinson, tanker sergeant, survivor of Tobruk and other places in the northern horrors of Africa, who walked away from death in the sand on more than one occasion, who might be called Rommel’s last known foe, who rolled over three cars on U.S. Route 1 and waged six major and distinct bouts with John Barleycorn thereafter in his time, who got to know the insidious trek of cancer in his slight frame, whom I loved more than any comrade that had shared a hole with me, who hurt practically every day of his life after his return from Africa, hung on for twenty-five more torturous and tumultuous and mind-driven years, knowing ever Egypt’s two dark eyes.

*** 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Stories, General Fiction, Tom Sheehan Week, Writing

Tom Sheehan Week – Monday: Story 96

Spiel: This story connects us, you over there UK=wise and me right here, living almost on top of the First Iron Works of America, 1632-1638, and now a National Park. It is where I worked beside the site archeologist, Roland Wells Robbins, for parts of 8 years, (in high school, prep school. college and two years in an infantry regiment in Korea) the adventure of finds and determinations with rod and shovel; one rod and many shovels.

Improper Burial at the First Iron Works of America

Tom Sheehan

With one glass eye and with one wooden leg, but with a shovel in his hands, 72-year old Napoleon deMars was an earth surgeon.  But he felt cold and clammy when his long-handled shovel painstakingly pried up the buried object.  It was disinterment! White of bone came at him, from the grave.  It was a human skull, opened at a wedge in the frontal lobe, and Napoleon knew it most likely had been murder.

The skull, and apparently some of its bones holding on to the last known form, lay at the end of his half day’s work, a trench at the First iron Works of America, in Saugus, a mere dozen miles from Boston’s Freedom Trail. The site was being excavated for and from history.

It was September of 1952. Excavation had been under way since 1948, on a small scale, but steadily. Not a single piece of diesel-driven power equipment had been allowed in there as yet. It was a pick and shovel site, a whiskbroom site, toothpick and cotton swab country.

Now it was a graveyard.

Napoleon, for all his years, for all his toted calamities, felt nauseous.

Three people of varying importance were at the Iron Works site when the grisly discovery was made: Napoleon deMars, the seventy-two year old, one-eyed, one-legged earth surgeon; Dr. Roland Wells Robbins, site archeologist who had found the ruins of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond a few years earlier, now in charge of unearthing the site of the very first iron works which had brought to America all the experience Europe was able to muster back in the 1600’s; and Silas Tully, police officer of the town, on the force only a matter of six years after his service in the Marine Corps in the once-noisy Pacific.

On that high-blue September day, clouds lain over someplace else, the faintest breath of salt coming off the river, at eleven o’clock in the morning, Napoleon deMars put down his shovel. It was a half-hour to lunchtime and he never stopped work, he never cursed his place in life, he never gave cause to any boss. Here, at the Iron Works, at $2.35 an hour and the best wage he had ever gotten, where he often thought that he could shovel until he was eighty, he put his work aside.

He looked out over the First Iron Works in America, up off the banks of the Saugus River on the North Shore above Boston. The site was a conglomeration of excavations, mounds, slag piles, marked stone walls which had been retrieved from history, a half dozen trenches cutting across a small piece of Saugus crooked as lightning, ragged as crossword puzzles, and the scattered piles of artifacts yet to be catalogued and put away.

Napoleon walked up the site with the marked limp he had carried with him for more than half a century. The broad band of a suspender hooked over one shoulder and slipped into his belt line where, down inside his pants, it connected to the crude wooden leg he had worn for so long. In reality, this one was his third, and no lighter than the first. Around the site he looked for Rollie Robbins, boss man, a little prissy Napoleon had often thought, but more knowledgeable than any man in town on this kind of an excavation. Often enough he’d seen the light go on in Rollie’s eyes when a new discovery was made, when a ditch gave up clues or artifacts, when the 17th Century struggled up out of a pile of dirt or the bottom of a hole like a woodchuck checking the lay of the land.

Now, Napoleon had found this new discovery. With effort he tried to reach back into history the way Rollie did. Long had he marveled at how much Rollie could pull out of a small find, the way a rock sat on its neighbor or what it was made of or how the demarcation in a trench of the natural soil line could tell time as good as a calendar.

Napoleon used his head to signal Rollie, as if giving signals to his dog, and nodded to his current digging spot.

Roland Wells Robbins, dark-haired, round faced, handsome in his ruddy outdoors way, just now beginning to widen at the belt line a bit, tipped dark-rimmed glasses off his face and looked at Napoleon. From long standing he admired the old man, who kept his shovel moving more industriously than any two of the other laborers. Napoleon was also a good luck talisman for Rollie, his charm piece.

He remembered the day he had hired the old man, who began methodically shoveling his way through three hundred years of fill. His single eye was a marvelously good organ. A cannon ball popped off his shovel that first day; a half dozen clay pipe remnants (with one bowl intact) turned up an hour later, on the second day the crusted remains of a matchlock pistol were held in the air just as the crew broke for lunch. For that one moment Rollie the archeologist had palmed devilish antiquity.

“What is it, Napoleon?” Sweat was a dark stain on Napoleon’s shirt under the

one-strap suspender. An off-yellow color it was, almost like an old tobacco stain, and made Rollie think of his grandfather for the first time in many years.

“Where I’m digging, boss. Down where you sent me yesterday to trench out. There’s a skeleton.” The old man’s one eye had a remoteness in it. “It’s in the fill. It’s in some clay. I don’t think I hit it with my shovel, but the front of the skull has been crushed. I didn’t tell any of the others. It must have been a nasty death.”   A story wagged deep behind his one eye, his brow leaning over it darkly.

Rollie looked at his watch, smiled at Napoleon. “Thanks, Napoleon. Tell the others they can go for lunch. I’ll check it out myself.” Down the slope Rollie’s gait was deliberate, drawing no eyes.

Down into the trench Napoleon had cut he eased himself. A neatness came at him immediately; the floor of the trench was level; the five-foot sides were cut down as if they had been carved or sculpted out of the sand and gravel and blue-gray hardpan. The pile thrown out humped a long mound stretching away from the trench. The neat trench itself was about eighteen feet long.  Beneath him he saw the bones of the skeleton Napoleon had unearthed. The skull indeed was crushed in at the forehead. Arm bones and torso bones had been exposed. A quick little chill spun on Rollie’s skin and danced off someplace. Never before in any of his digs had he seen this.

There’d been pots and pans and rocks and stones and clay pipes and glass bottles of every sort and pieces of wood with enough left of their grain that stories could still be extracted from them. But never the hard remains of a human being; just the subtle remains, the storied remains, never the boned and final remains.

The other workers thought it odd that Rollie and Napoleon during lunch had quickly set up a canvas tent over the trench. They hadn’t seen a tent on-site in almost a year. It was, obviously, now out of bounds for them.

The third party on the scene, a daily visitor to the site, was Officer Silas Tully of the Saugus Police Department. For a couple of years, he had watched as Rollie Robbins pieced together so much of the original site from piles of rock and slag heaps and baskets full of artifacts, and now wondered what a tent signified. Curious, he made his way down to the tent, stepping over trenches with his long legs, jumping over small piles of slag or rocks, avoiding larger holes and pits. Rollie and he had become, if not friends, at least daily conversationalists on the topic of excavation, or evidence, whatever way you wanted to look at it.

Each loved the way details and mysteries worked on them and each found in the other a sense of mirror. The particulars of each calling worked resolutely.

Si Tully slipped aside the canvas door flap of the tent and stepped inside. Rollie looked up at him from the bottom of the trench, a nonplused look on his face as if a policeman was absolutely the last person he wanted on site. With some effort, Rollie climbed the ladder out of the trench. Touching the blue sleeve of Silas’ shirt, a pained look, as if he had been surprised at the cookie jar or caught peeking in the girl’s bathroom, flooded his face. In the hanging light of a Coleman lamp buzzing its ignition as noisy as bees, his face reddened deeply.

“Si, we just can’t let too many people in on this until we found out what it’s all about!” His eyes affected beseeching. “They’ll trample the hell out of the place. It’d take us months to recover. We can’t let strangers in here.”

“Find out what’s what all about?” Silas said, and then, swiftly directed, he looked along the length of Rollie’s arm pointing at the skull in the bottom of the trench, its forehead obviously crushed at a point of history.

Six years on the force and this was Si Tully’s first skull and, moreover, his first skeleton. Bodies he’d seen, that’s for sure, in the islands on the turnpike at crash scenes, laid out on the median strips more times than he cared to remember. This, though, was a new mystery to him; an unknown, a victim how long in the historic grave no one knew or might never know. Something told him that Rollie had made assessments, that one or more leads had already surfaced, that this gruesome crime would be solved. It was second nature to the archeologist. This could be most interesting, a bizarre and intriguing find at the archeological site, more than history unfurling itself.

Si spoke again. “It’s my town, Rollie, and it’s murder clear as a bell, and I’ve got to report it. You know that. No matter how old it is.” The former Marine, the military man, early in this new episode, could see lines being crossed, basic command structure being aborted.

Rollie had seen the quizzical light in Silas’ eyes before. Again, he touched him on the arm. This time it was as if he were drawing the young policeman into a strictest confidence; the secret of King Tut’s tomb, a hidden room beneath the Sphinx, a new Rosetta Stone unearthed in old Yankee Saugus.  Consciously he decided not to tell Silas of the other waiting discovery; there were stars to be earned! Treach had paved the way.

Rollie stood beside the trench looking down at the skeleton, down where history was always telling him stories. A storyteller might have been reciting the sad and gruesome tale to him, a tale of love turned sour, of madness, a tale of clandestine deeds performed or perpetrated under cover of darkness. In the air he could feel hatred, and despair.  A man, he thought, a seaman perhaps, had come home from the high angry seas only to find more trouble at the hearth. His mind kept telling him it had a will of its own, despite the training, the years of experience. Mystery, he knew, did it. But he thought with some eagerness, he lived on mysteries.

Robby still held Silas by the arm, working on the mystery, the love of details in the policeman which made his own life go ‘round.

“I’m going to get Professor Hartley out here from Harvard. Loves this place he does and he’ll love this challenge. I can see him marshaling the forces at Harvard, getting his cronies in the labs to do us a few favors. His forensic friends will have a small busman’s holiday on this, their own little murder to play with. They’ll love it, the boys of the old school, in a deep, dark secret, rolling up their pant legs and getting down and dirty. They’ll give us the answer to every question we can come up with, you and I. Then, with it all laid out, you can go to the chief or the State or whoever else and lay a clean solved case right on the blotter.”

There was affirmation in his eyes, in his voice.

He squeezed Silas’ arm. They were standing there on the edge of history. It could have been The Valley of Kings under their feet, or Chitzen-itsa or a Ming Dynasty tomb somewhere in China. Again, he squeezed Silas’ arm, brothers of the mystery.

Early Sunday morning two station wagons rolled into the parking area of the Iron Works. Rollie and Silas met Professor D’Jana K. Hartley, tall, effectively studious-looking in his tweed leathered elbows, but not in a boring way, and his cohorts from the ivy halls; two more archeologists, a forensic expert and his young sidekick with blond hair and extremely bright eyes, a professor of Humanities who looked to be the most intelligent of all, a man who carried from the trunk of one car a canvas bag of assorted gear, and a young good looking woman wearing denim, boots and a yellow blouse fitting her so well that most others would not believe she was from Harvard. None of the site diggers, that’s for sure, noting how compelling yellow was.

Napoleon deMars watched them approach. Leaning on his shovel near the tent, he was still on the clock, still at $2.35 an hour, and no one, not one soul, had entered the tent since he’d received his orders from Rollie. Perhaps the victim was as old as he was, perhaps a person he had known in his youth. His mind went skipping back through the years for a noted loss. Nothing came to mind. Napoleon watched the Harvards at work and admired the deftness of their hands with the small trowels and brushes they employed, yet was certain the soft leather boots they wore must have cost a week’s pay. He tried to hear the whispers and small asides that connected them, made them such outlanders down in the hole he had cut into the earth.

Professor D’Jana Hartley’s crew were crack specialists.

Quietly they went their turn back into the minor history of the skeleton in the trench of the Iron Works. Small talk amongst them, as much whisper as anything could be, as if covering a trail of a known confidant, had scanned a series of possibilities: an indentured servant, probably a Scot, a slag toter or bog digger or barrow pusher, who had fallen astray, perhaps with another slave’s woman or the Iron Master’s wife, and they tittered at a remark about a new ax of Cane manufactured on the very spot and which had done the improbable deed; a late visitor to the site, pocketbook or pouch laden with crown coin or Spanish gold pieces, fallen under the swing of a metal bar, come slowly as an ingot of first life out of the very furnace whose ruins lay at their backs, in the hands of another indentured servant waiting to buy his way out of contract.

Now and then a giggle caught itself on the tall air. Napoleon, intently watching every move, hearing every sound, thought of his grandchildren at the cookie jar and smiled at the likeness of things. He’d work till ninety if they let him, and if the other leg would hold its own, here in this affable cradle of history. On the way home, he’d buy a box of cookies for the cookie jar; it was a fair swap.

The dig, though, was a Chinese checkerboard of ups and downs, holes and trenches and piles and mounds of earth, almost a battle zone of sorts. The slag pile looked like it might have oozed out of the place where Rollie had said the furnace originally was. It was twenty feet high or thereabouts and ran towards the river for ninety or more feet.

When the sun caught a slick side of slag, like a shiny piece of coal with an enamel surface, one would think of a semaphore signal leaping from darkness. The land sloped away from the Iron Master’s House on the high point to where the salt water reached at high tide, a good two miles and a half up the Saugus River from the Atlantic Ocean, itself a trove of history.

Legend had it that a pirate captain, Treach or Langton perhaps, had brought his ship a good way up the river and then landed a long boat further up, a boat which had carried much of his plunder to be buried in Dungeon Rock, now a huge hole 135 feet down in solid rock and bare miles away in the Lynn Woods Reservation.

The young policeman, at the same time, was not standing still. A minor conviction had told him that the skeleton was not too old; at least, not of Colonial age. This conviction he accepted as coming from an intelligence and a feel for things that he had cultivated while on the job and while in the military. Immediately he had gone to a retired postman, a neighbor of his for years, who was a veritable historian of the town, gossip or rumor or fact. Silas had found out that the stagecoach road from Boston to Newburyport had, at one time, run right past the backside of the Iron Works.

That, too, was on what was now Central Street. That Central Street, still clear in Silas’ mind, had once swept right on by the front of the Iron Works. Somewhere in town, a long time ago, but not as long as some might think it, a person had disappeared, or had been murdered, or had been buried in the lap of history. Silas Tully made his mind up that he was going to solve this case, that he would find out whose bones had been buried at the Iron Works.

The weekly Saugus Advertiser and the Lynn Daily Evening Item seemed to be his best choices and he began a one-man search for a person who had suddenly gone unaccounted for. Through reams and reams of old copies he labored. To old time reporters and editors, he talked and in turn haunted the cracker barrels and barroom back rooms and sundry other locations they had directed him to. These were places where history walked, where history talked, where the tongues of history carried on the legends and the lineage that might never make its way into print. Over-the-fence stuff. Dark alley stuff. Stories he never heard before surfaced, debris riding up on the tide, swollen drains dumping pieces of the town into the river, silt of lives streaming away. Old copies of Saugus Gazette and Saugus Herald and Lynn Transcript, Lynn being the next being town over, to the east, brought nothing to light. No headlines, no want ads for a lost person, no missing person with no single accounting. No melodramas in the local library of a missing girl or boy or a triangle affair gone haywire.

But he was resolute.

It was Ars Veritas that brought things into focus after Rollie’s discovery of the coin.

An informal, unsigned, handwritten report came to Rollie Robbins a mere three    days after the Harvard entourage had first hit the Iron Works. Line by line, item by item, he considered the information set forth: 

The subject is male, thirty-one years of age, dead of a savage blow to the frontal lobe of the skull. Death was immediate. It is estimated that he has been covered (Rollie almost giggled at the word) since mid year of 1905.  His watch stopped at 2:17 of a day, in the AM we would assume, and was German, a Gersplank, very limited in production and rarely seen this side of the Atlantic. He carried a small sum of coin. One leg, the right, was 3/4 inch shorter than the other. He had been an accident victim prior to his demise, his hip and thigh bone both having been fractured, the right side, and most likely about two years prior to his end. He was perhaps in military uniform at the time of his death, as determined by tunic buttons found at the site, an officer of a captain’s rank, United States Cavalry, 22nd Regiment Massachusetts. 

No military identification was found on-site, which we find questionable and suspicious in nature, inasmuch as his pouch was neither emptied nor removed. Two bones in right index and right middle finger were broken which we assume to have happened at or close to the scene of discovery, at time of death, meaning struggle. A length of chain had been dropped or had fallen onto the body and was found, remains of it, rusted solid on top of the spinal column. 

No other objects or material were found in proximity of the remains except for a small figure of jade of unknown origin discovered a mere two feet from the left hand, the figure tending towards Chinese but not yet confirmed, but probably pre-Ming. 

In summation, we offer the following: Victim was a 31 year old professional military man with healed bone fractures of hip and leg and was probably in uniform at death but must have been on a limited duty roster; did struggle at time of death as evidenced by broken fingers but was mortally wounded and died immediately from severe trauma to forehead. May have had Chinese or Far East connection, if indeed the jade piece found nearby does not prove to be Incan or pre-Incan. Our camp is exactly halved on this last point. 

The lack of any evidence of fabric, other than his pouch, gathers suspicion the more we have thought about it, especially concerning tunic buttons and no tunic residue of note. It is possible that his uniform was biodegradable and has passed on, but we doubt that. Therefore, we think he may have been nude (stripped under duress) and pushed bodily into a hole. If he was nude, the evidence of tunic buttons indicates they may have been placed there to mislead any subsequent authority inquest, and we must ask why. Certainly, the person who committed this deed did not expect it to be discovered in the foreseeable future, but was covering tracks for any discovery some years down the road. It therefore causes us to think he was known to the victim, was himself in the military, tried to put sand in the gears (so to speak) (Rollie giggled), or, as D’Jana Hartley said on last resort, it was a military man who killed a civilian and tried to thwart any future identification by throwing in the tunic buttons, like the proverbial hand of gravel as in dust unto dust, probably off his own shirt, a kindly killer who took the shirt off his own back. 

We have a worldwide network working on the jade figure and feel that it was indeed a portion of loot from some local robbery. We shall keep you advised as to all incoming information or any changes in our collective thinking. In close proximity to the remains was found a 1903 one cent piece, but we do not know if this coin was interred with the remains or had later fallen into the hole during excavation.

Archeologist Rollie Robbins, giggling at much of the report, finding the humor effective, the conclusions as palpable as his own, and, for the most part, felt the mystery deepen.

Saugus patrolman, and armchair detective when he had to be or needed to be, Silas Tully, at receiving the report and the information on the 1903 cent, found his new starting point and went right to it. For no reason apparent to himself, he gave a grace year to the passage of time, skipped 1904 and went right to 1905. 1905, it appeared, after much scrutinizing of papers and books and magazines and other information almanacs, was the year of the Russias, or, as he quipped to himself, the year the Russians didn’t do too well. The Japs whipped their butt all over hell in their war; they lost 200,000 in the Mukden battle alone, had their naval fleet destroyed in the Strait of Tsushima, lost Sakhalin Island outright, got badly overrun in Manchuria, and a number of other places. Crewmen of the great battleship Potemkin mutinied and eventually turned the ship over to Rumanian authorities. The Russian Grand Duke, Sergei Aleksandrovich, the uncle of Czar Nicholas II, was assassinated by a bomb thrown into his lap by a revolutionary. The Russian pot certainly was stirring and much of the world was in turmoil, and, of course, he realized, being on this side of the information trail one could see to where a lot of all this was leading.

A few other events attracted his eye, disparate events, no obvious ties between them, but events that rode on top of tidal debris, like cheese boxes or pieces of flotsam, bobbing to be noticed: the Cullinan Diamond, all 3,106 carats of it, was discovered in Transvaal and insurance underwritten by a U.S. company; the body of American Naval hero John Paul Jones was found in a cemetery in Paris and was moved to the United States, perhaps in a cask of rum for a preservation attempt; the Russian-Japanese War was ended by a pact signed practically in Saugus’ own back yard, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after a key role was played by the old stick-swinger himself, President Teddie Roosevelt, and closer to home, just a few miles away, the palatial home of W. Putnam Wesley, on the Saugus-Wakefield line in what had become the Breakheart Reservation, was robbed in the dead of night by an unknown male who threatened three servants with bodily harm or death if they tried to escape from a pantry they had been locked into, chopping off a butler’s finger with an old sword to prove his vow.

Silas Tully went to sleep that night after chewing all these things over in his mind, locked in on all the international stuff, he knew he was out of his element. But down deep something fervent told him he was going along for the whole ride. All the way.  And a bare thread of light, the thinnest lisle possible, gossamer at best, seemed to be pulling at these disparate events.

Upon W. Putnam Wesley he settled for his first stepping stone towards a solution. Filthy rich to say the least, much of it come by way of his grandfather from the California gold fields and parlayed by his father, Wesley had various shades of darkness sitting around him. He had journeyed far and wide, especially in Europe and the Far East, often with a large entourage. His interest included, after money, artifacts of historical intrigue (such as dueling swords or dueling pistols from famous encounters), objects d’art tending to explicit sex of any selection, gems so special that there might not have been a match with another, all things Chinese that might be described by one or more of the aforementioned.  He had had four wives, three of which died in the midst of a long trip or voyage. Silas found one report of his fourth wife having taken a shot at him, in jest as they declared. Silas figured the threat of that single shot to have saved her life.

Wesley was called Puttee from his earliest days, both from his middle name and from his adventurous youthful habit, when playing soldier games, of wearing strips  of cloth which circled his legs from ankle to knee, much in the manner of real soldiers. His name he wore well.

The sixth sense was working overtime for Silas a few days later when he sat with Rollie under a tarp at the Iron Works site. They discussed their points of view and all the data of the Ars Veritas report.

“It’s a crime of passion,” Rollie finally affirmed, his voice steady, convincing in its stoic way, his dark serious eyes looking out over the site and seeing, oblivious to Silas Tully, what the site would eventually look like. His baby, Rollie’s baby, put to bed.

“A marriage is involved,” he continued, “a triangle affair. I think we must look to the Hawkridges. Powerful, money by the handfuls, owners of the site for a long time, their papers still scattered throughout the Iron Master’s house like they’ve just gone away for the weekend and will be back on Monday to square things away.”

He seemed to mull over his own words before he added, “Perhaps the Hawkridges were so powerful that the absence of one of the family could easily be explained.”

“You’ve found something?” Silas said, turning to face Rollie as they sat on a fence rail. The light in Rollie’s eyes was amber, obvious. Silas, from day one of their acquaintance, knew that Rollie’s bent was to the romantic, to the clandestine, Rollie’s eye having that other light in them.

“Yes,” Rollie said. “One of the Hawkridges, Carlton Theophus Hawkridge. About thirty years of age that I know of.  Went off on a trip somewhere around 1905, perhaps a bit later, and was never heard from again.”

“How do you know that?”

“From a few letters I found in a box in the upper rooms. Went off supposedly very quickly on a trip for his health. Not the most likable fellow, not from what I gather, but family.”

“Do you think the family did him in?” Si’s eyes were deep with question, his scowl like punctuation.

“I really don’t know that, but we scrambled at the beginning of all this to go a lot further back than we thought we could. “What have you come up with?”

As though he expected no reply, Rollie looked away from Silas, seeing the sun

catch on the water of the river, an angular slicing of light in the late afternoon, sometimes gold, sometimes blue, that leaped across the river and onto Vinegar Hill where he just knew Treach’s treasure was buried. The hole being dug he could picture, the chest being lowered, the rocks being piled up. He could see the descent of the crew back down to the longboat, could see their soft and easy float down the river to the ship shifting slightly at anchor. He knew where his next job was coming from. And if the skeleton in the trench was one Carlton Theophus Hawkridge, or could safely assumed to be so, the move to the next dig would be a cinch.

So much depended on the young policeman sitting beside him. Spoon feeding him would be a challenge. Subtle as a snake it would need to be.

Silas Tully gave nothing away. Not even the fact that he knew he was not a rank amateur, that knots in spite of all apparent were being slowly tied, that the gossamer thread would come to rope. If Roland Robbins had his blind romance, he had his own.

“I just keep poking along, Rollie, trying to tie things together. It’s all so far away, as if never touching us with reality.”

“If it’s Hawkridge, Si, I can see a spread in the Boston papers for you. Perhaps a magazine article. You could turn this old Yankee town right up on its ear! They’ll be beating a path to your door. You couldn’t beat them off.” His smile was broader than a shovel blade. And the shovel blade was slicing deep into a pile of manure.

“The Japanese tried that, Rollie. It didn’t work for them either.”

There was a declaration he hoped Rollie would understand. Edging off the fence rail, he waved slightly, almost half-heartedly. “I’ll keep you posted, Rollie. You do the same.” There was another one.

As Si walked off, Rollie looked out over the site, saw a glancing shaft of light leap off the river and leap up to the crest of Vinegar Hill. Treach just knew he was coming after him! Bet on it!

The gossamer thickened indeed later that week for Silas Tully.  An article in an old issue of a discontinued Boston paper, about Old Ironsides and the Charlestown Navy Yard, tied together John Paul Jones and W. Putnam “Puttee” Wesley.  It was a single line implying that the container bringing home the body of the hero was used to illegally convey some priceless artifacts. And Puttee Wesley was accompanying the body home, a service he so graciously volunteered to perform, inasmuch as he was in Paris and on his way home.  President Roosevelt accepted the offer. The thin line of gossamer, with a little more body to it, seemed to fall like a shadow of netting on the piece of jade that had lain so long in the earth beside another body.

Silas had come to abrupt attention, as if the old Commander-in-Chief himself had walked in on him. Life was full of little pieces of goodness. Find them, that’s all you had to do. They were at your feet, in your back pocket, around the corner.

Puttee Wesley, he decided from all that he ingested of him, was not afraid of playing either the pirate or the brigand or the smuggler to get any of the items his heart desired. If money wouldn’t buy them, he’d get them one way or another. In 1919 he had died suddenly, unprotected by his money or his treasures, from a bout with influenza.

The family then, as many families do under pressure, had scattered, their fortunes wasted, and little evidence of Puttee Wesley’s existence hung on. Breakheart had become pond and forest and a scattering of trails, the huge mansion gone to ground, a bare bit of stone foundation thrusting out of brush. But to Silas there came echoes repeating themselves like gunshots down between canyon walls, the continuing onslaught of the same notion…all these things, Jones and Puttee and the jade piece and the skeleton, were caught up in the same web, the same gossamer spinning out of his mind, spinning out of the twist of all the years.

Rollie Robbins had tried to plumb Silas’ mind a number of times, tried to steer him to the Hawkridges, but fell short with each attempt. The stubbornness of the young policeman, though a craggy veteran, bothered him more than he let on.

Treach had waited this long, but he might not wait forever. Even in death the pirate might be a most rambunctious ghost.

It took a strange turn of events to swing matters in the correct direction, the kind of luck that Silas Tully knew would come of endless scratching, endless probing, endless digging, his own l’affair archeology.  If his French were much better, he’d be able to spell it right.

It was a naval clerk at the Pentagon who remembered Silas Tully’s numerous inquiries about the John Paul Jones transfer, who had seen Silas’ letter concerning the suspicions surrounding the hero’s remains being brought home, who a long time earlier in his current assignment had begun reading old documents in the Navy archives.

Seaman First Class Peter J. Leone wrote the following to Officer Silas Tully of the Saugus Police Department: 

This is not an official document and is only sent to you on a personal basis because of the interest you have excited in me about the Admiral John Paul Jones situation. I have come across a number of old documents and communiqués concerning the Admiral’s coming home to where he should have been. If there is anything else I might furnish, I will try, but I think you will be interested in what has caught my eye in the files. The president at the time, Theo. Roosevelt, was advised of certain shady deals that might be attached to the movement of the Admiral’s remains. The information came in a letter to him from a Bruce Jacob Bellbend, a captain in British intelligence, who had accidentally come on the information while on a separate assignment. It did mention illegal movement of precious artifacts that had been taken from unknown sources. The president assigned a personal representative, Captain Arthur G. Savage, U.S. Navy, to proceed to Paris and accompany the remains home and to investigate and report to him any and all findings he might come across. None of the captain’s reports are in file, but I did find the following information about him: he was from Grand Hawk, Minnesota, was a graduate of the Naval Academy, was captain of the U.S.S. Standish at one time, did suffer a serious accident aboard ship that required medical leave (hip and leg injury in a fall, right side), had a deep scar on his left cheek of unknown cause, was a gutsy and devoted leader of men, and loved nothing better than his country. He was reported as being missing in July of 1905 and nothing more is known of him, as though he had gone off the face of the Earth.    

Silas Tully brought his case to rest, though it lay at his feet for a few days, being stepped on, turned over, cemented back into place. He could see Puttee Wesley or one of his henchmen knock the captain on the head, take him under cover of darkness to where Central Street was being filled in, dropping him in the hole, throwing on top of his bare body the buttons of some army tunic to throw leads elsewhere in case the body might be discovered. The jade piece, still unidentified, was sacrificed to help the scattering of leads. The remnants of chain continued to be nothing more than a corrosive coil in his mind.  The precious artifacts put away for the time being.

Silas Tully told it all to his wife Phyllis and none of it to Rollie Robbins.

Napoleon deMars, with the help of two grandchildren and two sons-in-law, held sway over the tent for another week until the remains of the unknown body, as it was officially treated, were laid quietly to further rest in a shaded area of Riverside Cemetery, just outside of Saugus Center, alongside the railroad tracks no longer in use.

One evening thereafter, Rollie Robbins, maverick archeologist, ramrod of stones and bones, continued to watch the late afternoon sun glance off the river with surprising richness. Flares of light flew like spears, shy sparks reigned as though diamonds had been loosed from chest or pouch. Gallant red wing blackbirds from both sides of the river flew across and through shafts of late light like arrows onto their targets. Dusk, as part of shadow, settled itself softly, a dust, atop the colonial town. Vinegar Hill and Round Hill and Hemlock Hill and Indian Slide and dark passages of Breakheart Reservation shifted into the shadows that history continually lends to its constituents. Treach had such a night, he was sure. And he was out there, his subtle remains, waiting for him in those shadows.

And one night a few weeks later, when all was quiet, the sky a dark canopy, Silas Tully, a policeman always, a Marine forever, a patriot feeling the pains of wounds he had long forgotten, his eyes raw with sadness, thinking of the admiral and the captain and the president and the seaman at the Pentagon, knowing the town he loved would cement the ultimate resolve, affixed above that single grave at the Veteran’s Section of Riverside Cemetery a wooden sign he had carved one long night filled with the deepest of thoughts. It read: ARTHUR G. SAVAGE, CAPTAIN U.S. NAVY, WHO DIED IN THE SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY.

There would be no fanfare, no clarions or trumpets or drums. No gunfire. The captain would sift into the past, along with all the other veterans from all the other wars, all the warriors the town had ceded to history.

He’d have a flag atop his grave on Memorial Day, put there by the American Legion. The breeze and the sunlight would catch at it, flapping it about. Children would wave back. A few seniors, offering up their own kinds of parades, would offer serious nods. The wind would come back again and again, a rapture of touch, a salute of sorts. Nights would accept the continual silence abounding in Riverside.Silas Tully thought he could give Captain Arthur Savage nothing more precious than that.

When he told his wife, she loved him all over again.

***

 

100 Stories.

All Stories, General Fiction, Tom Sheehan Week, Writing

Tom Sheehan Week.

So, Tom Sheehan Week – what a pleasure it has been to set this up as a Christmas treat for visitors to the site, regulars, newcomers and those who pop in now and then. Anyone who has looked at Literally Stories must be aware of Tom – the writing legend that we have had the honour to feature 100 times.

We read thousands of pieces of short fiction and interact with hundreds of authors at all stages of their writing career and there is a small handful who constantly send us amazing pieces of work and we grab them with both hands. Tom Sheehan is one of those writers and we are so very grateful that he has stuck with the site almost from the beginning. His work is a delight to read and even when he sends us something that, for various reasons, we decide is not the right fit for us he is polite, friendly and professional. Thank you, Tom, for all of that. I could wax lyrical about the beauty of his writing but I think Hugh has that covered in his comments and so I will just say that I second everything he has said.

So, this special week. The stories have been chosen by Tom – we gave him carte blanche in honour of his achievement with no interference at all from us. Of course we have read them, we read every one of his submissions but for this week the site is his. So, click on the link at the bottom of this post for the first of five stories chosen by Tom for you.

Diane

***

When we decided to celebrate Tom’s 100th story, it was a pure joy to think on. Around July time, he knew he was getting close and bombarded us with stories. It was a pleasure to read through them all. At that time we were sending out around fifty rejection letters a week so it was refreshing to immerse ourselves into his work. Whether we accept or reject his stories, they are always a breath of fresh air.

I am in awe of Tom Sheehan as a writer and I admire his outlook on the world.

Tom is inspirational and I think he is inspired every single day by just looking and listening.

His stories can be imaginative but they all have a strong bond with specifics. This could be a person, a sport, a tool, a memory or an emotion.

Tom will always write, he will never run out of things to write about as when he wakes up in the morning he is surrounded by inspiration. Between that and his unique ability to have words flow effortlessly and beautifully, that is writing talent at its pinnacle. We all struggle for ideas, Tom just lives out his day and simply focuses on one aspect and he can and will write about it.

Tom is in tune with all his knowledge, perceptions and humanity and that is blatantly obvious when you read his work. I don’t think there has ever been or ever will be another writer like him.

The other attribute that Tom has in abundance is respect. He respects the past, the people he has met and the world he lives in. This gives his words a beautiful richness and wonder, no matter what subject he takes on.

His work is plentiful but Tom is a one off genius.

It is my absolute pleasure to work with you Tom!

Hugh

***

Tom is one of those writers who, when he falls into his lyrical rhythm, could turn a telephone book or a takeaway menu for the local Chinese restaurant into a thing of beauty.

For me his real strength is his ability to turn everyday people into interesting and readable characters, who have believable conversations. This sounds like something that should be easy to achieve, but it’s the product of repetition and the endless quest to hone his craft. Tom brings us wit and wisdom in equal measure and, most importantly of all, he makes us care about those we share the pages with for a short while.

Many congratulations Tom – and thank you for all the wonderful words you’ve seen fit to share with us.

Nik

Continue reading “Tom Sheehan Week.”

All Stories, Horror

Red Christmas by Mike Ramon

It was cold enough to freeze your balls off; he wanted nothing more than to be back at home, sitting in his big green recliner and sipping a hot cup of cocoa with little marshmallows floating in it. But no, the little bastards needed their toys. That was bad; worse was that those toys had gotten more complicated (and more expensive to make) over the years. Once upon a time, a little red truck or a simple rag doll would have been enough. Hell, even the days of the Etch A Sketch and Easy-Bake Ovens hadn’t been so bad. A few brats burned themselves with those ovens, but was that his fault? No, siree; they’d asked for ‘em, and they’d gotten ‘em.

Continue reading “Red Christmas by Mike Ramon”

All Stories, Writing

Week 254 – A Shout From Noddy, A Nod To Next Week And TT Showing His True Colours.

Here we are at Week 254.

We have a few things to get through on this posting.

This will actually be our last before Christmas but I’ll get to everything in order.

Continue reading “Week 254 – A Shout From Noddy, A Nod To Next Week And TT Showing His True Colours.”

All Stories, General Fiction

Pacheco Boulevard by Kent Quaney

I
A pear can break a window if you throw it hard enough, which David has done, shattering the top pane of the patio door, the sound lost in the blast of our crazy loud backyard. Half the block is here for a barbecue on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon, knocking back beers from Styrofoam coolers, holding sweaty shouted conversations over the racket of Pacheco Boulevard.

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All Stories, Fantasy, General Fiction

Fear by Simon Bell

“Standing in the necromantic pit, in the depths of the crypt of his tower the Dark Lord could feel the Wyrd Work of the King. He could sense the deceitful and untrustworthy akashic forces leaving him and coming under the King’s command – inexpertly at first but with growing confidence the young monarch wove the patterns.

Continue reading “Fear by Simon Bell”