All Stories, General Fiction

Just Plain Hard Work of Ages, Work of Comets by Tom Sheehan

The tip of the shovel had talked to him with a dull thud, not just through his ears, but totally. It came into his hands and up the stiffness of his arms, through the quick riot of nerves on red alert, through all passageways of recognition. It was wood! At its tip was wood, a cavernous wood, a chesty wood, an enclosing wood. Promise poised itself, much like awards’ night and names to be named. Light leaped at his back, behind his head. Down through the awesome sky of darkness he could feel a star draining, down through thirty-five years of a hole.

For a moment everything was frozen and he’d know this time forever; not a single moth traversed the light’s span, not a sound was made or heard; above him, millions of miles away but at his back, the weight of a lone star was known. He did not look at his friend, sure that Eddie would not wake up no matter what he did. This was his time.

He scraped slowly with the shovel blade, moving gravel and hardpan and small rocks across a flat surface.

Indeed, the star was heavy. It bore down on him, but the tool was a toothpick in his hands. John Deere and Napoleon DeMars be damned. They’d not known this, light of a star warm on the back of the neck, and dry was his throat, dry his lips. He dared not seek the wine bottle someplace behind him. In this vacuum he heard nothing. Even the silence was heavy, field of an anode, grip of a battery, the moon held at bay from good old Mother Earth.

Cleared, the wooden surface he’d hit was about two feet by three feet. That it was man-made seemed obvious. In the air hung his father’s face, his father’s words about dreaming the good life. The sweetness of the wine came back like a retort. It crawled in his mouth smoothly crusty as talc or chalk. It coated his teeth, more so the backside nearer his tongue. At investigation it had granules as small as anything the tongue tip could isolate. The star loomed. He wasn’t sure now whether it was overhead or underfoot, but it was here!

Now a muscle began to talk to him, high on his back, just under one shoulder, at first an ache as dull as a starting toothache not yet localized, then telling of its small rawness. Perhaps it was descendent, alighting from someplace far away. Eddie could never understand all of this. It would drive him off the hill in a mad hurry. It would drive him off, noisily on his way. He’d fall, he’d scramble, he’d tear his knees. There’d be a glut of curses and terror in his heart, for this is where it had all been coming, all the damn time, all the crazy time, all the days and all the nights and all the bottles and all the kegs and all the nips secreted in pockets from bosses and supervisors and the merest of friends when his throat had been driest.

He’d been coming here since his father had told him of the good life that dreams would bring him to. No longer were there any secrets. It was all out here in the open in this magnificent pit under the weight of a single star; and then he could hold off no longer, and the bottle came alive in his hand and leaped upward and emptied downward and celebration came his due with the sweet mustiness working its reverent way.

The star was still heaviest on his head, all the onus of it; not on his shoulders or his back, for he could have shoveled forever, but on his head, thick with a headache and a throb and the punch of a star known by no man.

Struggling for leverage, he inserted the tip of the shovel under one edge of the flat surface at his feet. Like a crow bar, the long-handled shovel exerted enough energy to pry loose a piece of wood. Gold and silver and stones shone up at him! His father’s face, old bottles, old inscriptions, odd shining, the loosing of dreams, the whole angular mass of lights and reflections, all came at once, blinding him, a blitz of a blitz of light and color he’d not know again.

It was the barest, most lucid moment of his life that came at him then. And he knew he was trapped. Life would change dramatically and abysmally and he’d never catch up to where he was right now.

All of it he saw, and there were no dreams and no silence and no small darkness where he could huddle himself alone with his memories.

Dreamer Tory Malzone, the star burning on his neck, still a ponderous weight in his mind, tipped the bottle once more to his lips, and drank off the contents. Then slowly he began to cover the star buried so long at his feet.

Treasure there is someplace in life, at your feet if you stop to breathe, around the corner if you turn it the right way at the right moment, at the end of a quiet lane you might find yourself in by accident. Of this Tory Malzone was sure. Absolutely sure!

Two things rang true about Tory Malzone from the very first word said of him; he drank inordinately, excessively, purportedly without care, and he dreamed the same way, full-blown, full-scale dreams, wide, ambitious, Mississippian, artistic no less, and with an inveterate regality. His father had said to him one day when Tory was just a boy with a supposed minor attention span, advice which he remembered just about every day of his life (at least sober, and part way to that other place he inhabited so often), “Dream all you want, son, dream like you might be king, which you won’t be, but they can’t take it away from you; just don’t do it crossing the street or walking down the railroad tracks. Pay all your dues as they come up, crow a little bit when in luck, shut up when you lose, but dream all you want. It might just become the biggest pleasure of your life. There are worse things to hold onto.”

His father was only half right in his advice. There were the dreams, the endless and rich flow of them; and there was the mesmerizing bottle, the endless temptation somehow just a little too much each time for him. That too was dreamstuff of another order, a whole magical elixir which, inexplicably, came to be in itself both cause and effect, end of a means and means to an end, a thing by and for itself. What else it gnawed at, licked its chops over, was all of time.

Thus he had come, into his thirty-seventh year, a bachelor cut right out of the drinker’s mold, a bit shaggy most of the time, starting to thin in his hair, eyes clear only slightly more than half the day. As a town laborer his hands were callused by pick and shovel, his back still showing ridges of muscle not yet worn down in their due. But, above all of this, indisputably, he was an Earthmover of the first measure. Tory Malzone did not call himself a laborer or a shoveler, not a handyman hidden under another title, but Earthmover. Not two words, but one word, rolled up into its cosmic greatness, its spatial and glorious reach. He had dreamed it into existence, into place. No foreman or job super, and no peer could take it away from him. Earthmover he was and Earthmover he would remain.

Eddie Higgins, tea tippler extraordinaire, brass rail bucko of the first order, current co-owner of the trench they were at the moment excavating under the hot August sun, flung a shovelful of gravel high, wide and handsomely to the other side of the pile and said, to Tory and the massive sense of oppression hanging like hate in the air, “”I’d give my best arm for a cold one right now, Tory. A frosted glass, a bottle with ice still clinging to it, sliding slowly down the side of the glass, slippery, oozing, cold as the fires of hell when they are long out. What the hell time is it?” The wrists he held up were bare of adornment.

His dry tongue rode around the orbit of his dry lips, raspy, abrasive, catching on high dry spots. His beard was a day and a half old. Sandy hair he had, full of moisture the sunlight kept catching hold of. The large and awesomely veined hands spread about the shovel handle seemed sculpted out of a blue-red granite, the veins as vivid as tattoos. Thickly square on the ends, his fingernails looked as if they had been abraded by a rugged rasp. One might have called him handsome, but no one, after a second look, would have called him out of place in the trench.

In his best friend’s face, Tory could see a bit of the hangdog holding forth. Did his own eyes have that same look in them, the last mile look, an also-ran look, their assurance and the day itself practically shot to hell already, and it not yet three p.m.? He decided very quickly that they did. If he had looked sharper, he knew he would have seen it a lot earlier. Hell! He would have seen a lot of things a lot earlier, but what the hell makes time so special now, now when all the dyes are cast. He’d kept saying that to himself for so long it seemed that it must have preceded anything being wrong in his life in the first place. Effect coming ahead of the cause. He tried to think that over and decided to take a huge shovelful on his next scoop, it was easier that way; the body allowed so much relief of itself, for itself, and that included the mind. Such an out! Giddiness, a surge of joy he knew was temporary at its absolute best, flowed through him. The bright, flashing tip of the shovel slammed into the earth, cocked itself almost at once under a measure of hardpan and gravel he thought no man could possibly dredge up, and then the body pitch and sense of timing came geared together smoother than the best wine could ever be, or ever do. A definite knack was required of all this, that was for damned sure.

For the briefest moment he was partly relocated down the street, on a high limb of a tree looking back at himself in the trench, seeing himself for what he was and where he was and what he was doing. The shovel, came his immediate response, was no different than a scalpel. Surgeons, too, did their digging, didn’t they, down through the matter of the body and the brain, clawing and pawing and ultimately finessing their way through to some resolution, some appointment in the narrowness of spaces, just as he was here in earth’s open aorta, this passage across the face of the earth, this single line of a massive network that would never be fully measured. Struggling in his mind was the idea of eternity and the plane he was currently on extending itself out into space and into limitless time. Being a part of that plane was important; on a pedestal or in a ditch, makes no difference, you can extend yourself only so far out on that limitlessness.

All of it hit him, as it often did, but there was no getting away from it; here in this life, locked to this place. He drank, he dreamed, he knew it, and nothing was going to change it. That was one sure thing in life, and having anything that was a certainty was often a joy to hold to one’s self. One could grab onto a certainty. Could almost wear it. Toga. Mantle. Robe. A cover against most anything. Better than a body bag, for sure, or a poncho looped about you in war’s action, in the rain, in a far land. Been there, almost done that, he thought.

Again, looking at his companion in the trench, fellow Earthmover on the face of the earth, color and complexion added to that assessment as he noted the redness pervading his friend’s face. Eddie, as usual here in the late noon of the day, was brick red, partly due to sunlight and partly due to whatever it was they had managed to knock off the night before. There had been bottles and glasses and kegs and cans and liquid movement for much of the night, and he couldn’t remember past one certain point… when they had the argument about hidden treasure on Vinegar Hill.

He had yelled at Eddie. “Damn fool drunk! What do you think old man Haskell and his kid have been digging up there for these thirty-five years? Not for their health, I tell you. They know something, trying to keep it from us. I keep seeing a box at the end of my shovel, a metal box, the pot at the end of the rainbow, and I know it’s full of gold and jewels and enough other crap to knock our eyes out. Every day of my life I’ve dreamed of it, even before I knew they were digging up there. I hear the sounds that come with it, the sound my shovel makes at contact, the squeak of old hinges trying their wings once again, the spill of such shining you couldn’t imagine in a hundred years. We could lie on the beach until our last drink had its way with us. I tell you, Eddie, there’s something up there, and they know it, and we know it. The stupidest thing we could do is to just plain forget about it. That’d really scratch a lifetime.”

“You dream too much, Tory, my friend.” His voice was thick and tortured in a sense, as if words were being squeezed out of him. Resting one foot on the heel of the blade, he leaned on his shovel. His chin sat on the tip of the shovel handle, posing him part Atlas. Tory knew he’d remember his friend that way forever, whenever that came, as Eddie continued: “You stare out at space all day like you expect to see a star. You’re never going to see one in the daytime, so why look? Then, the way you always do, getting loose or getting tight, I don’t know which it is, you turn around and stare at the ground under your damn feet like you’re in some holy place, or like something’s going to pop up in your face you’ve been waiting for. It’s just not going to happen like that, Tory. Things don’t go that way for us. All that stuff is way, way beyond us. We’re in our place, come hell or high water. We dug our way in. There’s no way out for us.”

There was a basic finality to his words, one without question, as if all had been drafted and done long before them, cut, shucked and dried. He added a closer he thought would be a telling one, “And, besides, you think too damn much! All the time thinking!”

Nothing new in those words; he’d said them before and most likely would say them again. A smile was offered with that pronouncement, a half smile of instant neutrality, of taking back a piece of what had been said.

Tory smiled too, realizing he had just gone through the old argument. It must be a sign of our desperate straits, he thought, or our universal acceptance of being where we are and what we are. But I’d still rather have a drink, too! There was, appreciatively, nearly a kind of music and rhythm to his voice as the phrase sounded slowly in his ear, at the back of his head, at some hollow place he had no control over, indeed where much odd conversation took place in the accompaniment of spirits. Almost a song, he said under his breath. A thousand times he had uttered that phrase, and knew it was a part of him. Against the current obstacles he managed to wet his tongue, remembering, tasting.

Everything didn’t have to be so cut and dried, did it? A laugh began in his throat, as he found appreciation for his own humor.

“I’m going up there after work tonight, Eddie, and if you don’t want to come with me, that’s okay. But I’m going. Soon’s they’re are out of there, I’m up there.” He let it sink right in with his friend, who, he knew, could never take the chance that he might come up with something, something big.

The bottles purchased had been dirt cheap, a Muscatel they sort of withdrew to when finances demanded. Before evening they were well into the storied steps of the bottles, Tory’s tales at last charming and mesmerizing Eddie so that he agreed to make the climb up Vinegar Hill, “come hell or high water.”

They would have celebrated, but they were already primed at partying.


Tom Sheehan

Image by Goumbik from Pixabay

4 thoughts on “Just Plain Hard Work of Ages, Work of Comets by Tom Sheehan”

  1. Hi Tom,
    I think that hope can be relative. It may be doable or it may be unrealistic. You just wonder if each individual realises which? They couldn’t act on that realisation as that could take away the hope.
    Excellent as always!!


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