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.





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.