All Stories, General Fiction

The Softest Hands by Tom Sheehan

World War I was more than 20 years down the drain for most people, but Tommy Heffernan was looking up, with a slight discrediting look on his face, at Tim Kiely the bartender who was talking to or, more to the point, entertaining three drinkers sitting at his bar in Kiely’s Pub. The 2 o’clock sun bounced off Highland Avenue west of Malden Square and tried to come in through the windows shaded from years of accumulated cigarette smoke. Like always, Kiely couldn’t whisper; too much beyond his control, too much audience pull.“I know you boys come all the way from Somerville to hear the stories that grow from here. They come, glory be, without warning, like a knock on the door, trick or treat. For instance, take that lad down there at the other end of the bar, Tommy Heffernan, Colum’s boy. He was scorched in France, really bad. WW I’s green stuff they say. How many years ago’s that? He’s not worked a hard day since he come home from the Kaiser’s playground and might never work a hard day in all his life remaining, though the boy can put away a pint or two with the best of them. This I’ll tell you, though, that this lad, sick or not, for whatever ails him that the gas brought too close, has the softest hands in the whole world. Watch out for the cards in his hands, or a needle and thread.”

He tittered with his half laugh.

Doubts of some sort had to be placed on Kiely’s delivery, even if his words were tempered by small asides … this was the West End of Malden, this was a bar, these men, though repeat visitors or patrons, were out-of-towners, and Heffernan was a local. Kiely, even as he talked from one end of the day to the other, kept the bar rag moving across the top of the bar, keeping the shine in place, some luster in his life. No one had ever seen him wash the windows, only the bar top, as if added hard work would throw his reflection back at him or into the faces of customers.

One of the current customers, a big fellow with bridge-type shoulders, topped off by a green tweed scally cap set at a jaunty angle, jaw lopped from an anvil, all saying a primeval strength abided there, came right back at him, saying, “What the hell does that mean, Timmy? Sounds like you’re marking the poor slob a lesser man for what he’s been through. For God’s sake, he paid his freaking dues. Let him be. Sounds like you’re painting him too soft to be a man when he’s already been there and done it, and all on the hard end. It’s apparent you don’t turn him away from his seat there at that end, taking his money all the while. I saw him there the last time we came in, and you didn’t tell us anything about the man.” His face lit up.  “What was that other story you told on that visit, us coming all the way from Somerville? It escapes me now, stories only going so far these days.”

“Oh, c’mon now, Chuck, you forgetting about the lady who was a bookbinder for Ginn & Co. over there in Cambridge for 60 years, even after she took her arrival day here from the Old Country as the date of her birth and she was about 11 years old already. Social Security boys weren’t going to pay any death benefits until Ginn & Co. said if she wasn’t 65 at least, then she started bookbinding for them when she was an infant. Feature that response, eh, boys?”

“They pay?”

Lots of laughter from them all when Kiely said, “After they deliberated for a few more months; numbers being what they are.”

Tommy Heffernan, on his third pint of the afternoon, his work at home tending his mother and father mostly done for the day except for a late-night check, agreed on two things that he heard from Kiely’s intonations … that the green gas in the trenches beyond Paris had touched his skin with a different pulse, and his hearing, now proved again, had suffered a miracle of improvement. There were days he swore he could hear the snow falling, hear it hit what had already come down as a fluffed blanket, him at last and irrevocably knowing what a caress was.

A poem, he was ready to swear, forged around in his head about the moment just before the crack of dawn being a time of true silence, or butterfly wings stilled to the absolute, but nevertheless in all the appurtenances of silence he heard the snow touching down.

“Nothing touches it for silence,” he told his father Colum late one night when they were listening to Talking Books from Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, where the traffic lights were accompanied by bells or whistles for the sightless citizens and students at the school. Heffernan didn’t tell his father that every time they put on a book record from Perkins, as the first click of the phonograph needle slipped down into a groove, he heard a Watertown traffic bell, saw a white cane swishing against a curbing, finding a telephone pole directly in front, avoiding it, a gentle man moving past.

Around his whole person, not sure where or when it started, came sensations he had never been aware of, never privy to in any degree. He’d listen. Touch. Taste. Smell. The final assessment said he’d wait on whatever revelation came to him. The agreement swelled down inside.

Came the time that Heffernan swore he could hear a dog wetting the fire hydrant out front or a tree across the street from the house he shared with his mother and father, the old man sick and blind abed for a number of years, his mother herself hopping along, slower each day he was afraid to admit. He dreaded the day coming when all things got tossed in the air, all of it in utter turmoil, knowing he could take care of his father forever, lighting the old man’s pipe for him after cutting up an Edgeworth plug, all the sundry tasks and the dedicated stuff, sharing the Talking books sometimes well past midnight, but his mother would be the demand of a greater order, perhaps too imposing for him. Among women he had trouble being himself, relaxing, even pleasuring.

Kiely probably had exclaimed a bit about that in his watch at the bar, which had been six days a week for over 15 years, always bringing the green gas poisoning from the Kaiser’s Playground into the frame of talk about Heffernan as his prime initiative, as though he had known a touch or two of it staying home, back here in the West End of Malden while France was so distant.

But Tommy Heffernan never let himself say Kiely hated him, dodging the subject at each infiltration, letting it pass. His father, when told, said, “You’re right, Tommy. It’s not worth saying a thing to the man. Besides, on a cold snowy day and the wind cutting in from Chelsea and Charlestown and Everett, it’s too damned far to walk to McDonough’s Pub.” He added, “I made that trip a few times before all this.” His head swiveled all compass points, measuring.

They laughed together. “That the time Ma went looking for you, to tell you Uncle Sean died in Medford and the wake was an hour away, her going into five pubs before she found you?”

At the bar, leaning in to his customers over the line from Somerville, Kiely said, “Let me tell you about the night Heffernan asked for help. Came down here he did looking like Hell had walked all over him and asked some of the boys to go back to the house to help him get the old gent back into bed. Slipped out of bed in the late afternoon he had and Tommy couldn’t get him back up, so three of the boys, some of them vets themselves, all the way from France, mind you, went back there and got the old gent back on deck. Tommy couldn’t do it by himself, not with those hands, those slim arms.”

Big Chuck, with the green scaly cap, said, “Don’t you ever frigging let go, Timothy? What the hell is it with you? Mad at him for some small reason we can’t see, don’t know but have to make up from what you give us? That’s raw, man. Raw.”

“Oh, no, it’s not that. He’s an admirable sort in his own way. It’s just the damned worry and wonder about him. That’s all, I swear. A veteran’s a veteran and no arguing there.”

He wiped the whole length of the bar again, though he only had the four customers at the time, Heffernan down at the far end, the sun still working on the windows, trying to come inside, not having much luck.

“Yah,” big Chuck said, “and the little guy, for all we know, might have been a frigging hero over there. Do you know how many heroes never get to page one in anything? My Uncle Teddie, he’s been through a few campaigns, said he saw too many heroes go unannounced, unknown, unheralded right through the day they got out of the service. Skinny little guys, fat slobs couldn’t run a lick, slow thinkers, taking on what the Germans could throw at them and coming home upright. We don’t know anything about what he did. Want me to ask him?”

“Hell, no,” Kiely said. “Let it be. Let it rest.”

The Somerville boys came back to Kiely’s a few weeks later, another tall gent with them who had not been with them on other visits. Tommy Heffernan was sitting at his same spot down the far side of the bar, almost in shadows. Kiely was polishing the bar top with a damp cloth he tossed back over his shoulder when he saw them, sent them a smile, flicked his thumb in the air as if to say he was glad he had customers, he had someone to talk to, business would get better, he was healthy in spite of all things, the choice up to them.

“What’s new with you, Tim?” Big Chuck said, and introduced the fourth man. “This is Willie Clougherty, my brother’s best friend, thought he’d come along and hear some of the tales. His aunt used to work at Ginn & Co. and maybe knew the lady who had trouble with the Social Security bozos when she died, or her folks had the trouble. You’ll have to go from A to Z on that with him, fill him in, share it all.”

Kiely drew four Guinnesses and slid the scrape stick across each schooner when they settled, setting them on the bar, wiping off a few spots. “First I got to tell you that Tommy down there lost his dad a week or more ago. Found him dead in the morning, came in that afternoon for his three Guinnesses.”

“Why the hell shouldn’t he, Tim? You setting him up again for us? I don’t know what the hell’s with you. That boy might have been a damned hero over there and we’ll never know because he sure as hell ain’t going to tell us, not that boy.”

Turning to Willie Clougherty, he said, “Heff down there got gassed in France by the Heinies, has been taking care of his blind dad for years. Spends his odd hours away from the house right here in this pub ‘cause his house is two doors away. Only reason I can figure.”

Kiely, nodding at Clougherty, said, “Chuck here thinks I malign the poor slob, but I never did, just wonder and worry about the boy and how he gets by. He’s my best customer. Some days I’d be damned lonely if he wasn’t around. When I open at nine in the morning sometimes, he’s coming in the door right after me. How a man gets so driven is beyond me.”

Tommy Heffernan was still looking into his Guinness, as if all the answers were housed there, his slim arms resting on the edge of the bar, him sitting straight upright on the stool as if he was at attention in the ranks. He heard Tim Kiely’s rag wiping the bar top, the toe of a shoe moving slightly on the floor, a Ford start up outside, probably Charlie Donovan’s Ford, the engine shaking like an infant in the cradle wanting attention. He could see Charlie smile when the engine started.

Big Chuck said, “How’s he doing, Timmy? He alright?”

“Yeh, seems okay, back to his routine. No change, I’d guess, with him. Life goes on for some folks.”

He knew Heffernan heard every word he said. It bothered big Chuck more than it bothered Kiely.

A slash of sunlight hit into the room and raced up to the bar and faded. Kevin Noonan, undertaker in the west end of Malden, walked up to the bar, the sunlight still in his eyes, seeing only Kiely behind the bar and the four gents from Somerville. “Hi, Tim,” he said, “Morning gents,” acknowledging the others.

“Little early for you, Kevin. No business today?”

Smiling, Noonan said, “I was just looking for Tommy Heffernan.” Even as he spoke, his eyes adjusting to shade and shadow, he saw Heffernan at the far end of the bar.

With a polite nod at Kiely and his four Somerville customers, he turned and walked to Heffernan.

“Tommy, how you doing today?”

“It’s okay, Kevin. It’s okay.”

“How’s your mother doing? She handling things in her usual manner?”

“She’ll get by, Kevin. They have a way with them, don’t they? You were looking for me?”

Noonan put his hand on Heffernan’s back. It was a gentle touch. “I meant to tell you something at the wake, Tommy, but I got caught up in a dozen other things. Two others waiting on me, old Billy Sullivan and Charlie McGoldrick’s mother, both dozing off for good within an hour of each other. My dad getting sick, like we don’t have enough, huh?”

“You’re right there, Kevin. What was the something you were going to tell me?”

“Oh, yes,” Noonan the undertaker said. “How long has your dad been sick, Tommy?”

“It’s all of 7 years, Kevin, best I can remember. “

Noonan touched Heffernan again on the shoulder, again as lightly as before.

“Tommy,” he said, “I’ve been in this business of getting people ready for the last trip for a lot of years. I have to commend you. You’re the one who stayed home. You’re the one who did a great job. Among all those I’ve seen, and that’s a lot that’ve gone on, a lot of folks, your father had not a bed sore on him, my boy. Not a single one, Tommy. You must have the gentlest and the softest hands in the world. I want to buy you a Guinness. I want to sit with a home-grown hero.”

He slid a stool next to Tommy Heffernan, hefted himself up and sat down.

At the other end of the bar Somerville’s Chuck looked into Tim Kiely’s eyes like the eye of God was doing the work.

Tom Sheehan

Image: – Google images

5 thoughts on “The Softest Hands by Tom Sheehan”

  1. Hi Tom,
    I keep giving you general writing plaudits and sometimes forget to mention the story!!
    So here goes,,,
    I thought the first paragraph was brilliant and grabbed you.
    The ending regarding the no bed sores, I know what a sense of pride a carer has if they can achieve that with the long term bed ridden.
    The sentiment at the end was beautifully judged!
    All the very best my fine friend.


  2. Beautiful descriptions throughout which really transported me to the scene. I particularly thought some of the physical descriptions were brilliant: “a big fellow with bridge-type shoulders, topped off by a green tweed scally cap set at a jaunty angle, jaw lopped from an anvil” – this being one of many stand out examples.

    Liked by 1 person

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