Stranger on the Gradient
by Tom Sheehan
Duncan Coffey felt a mild agitation. At first, he marked the subtle change as curiosity and then, making small measurements, corrected the feeling. A retired rewrite man for TheSaxon Sentinel, he was frightfully aware that his capacity for surprise had long fled him. Odd moments told him he might have another person sharing his skin. This was one of the odd contemplations now at him. His old fishing pal Ed LeBlanc used to say he had bitten off more than he could chew in this life, dwelling too often on little things, getting hung up in details, losing the big picture.
But now, this day, the agitation, the contemplation, had a shadow in tow.
As if wakened from a sweet dream by a raucous noise, he had seen again the new man in town, Theron Thredbalm, talking to a few of the neighborhood kids on the porch of the little red house down at the side of the river. For a week or more he had been looking downhill, locking on, as he might have put it. At the sight of the new man the agitation had resurfaced with a sharp density, as though suddenly pulled from a scabbard. He was not sure where the image had come from, but it was shadowed. The cool edge of it had a flavor. It could cut his tongue.
Dreamy Duncan, in a kind of serialized clarity, had been leaping from thought to image to thought swift as a kaleidoscope maneuver, when he’d caught himself once more riding down this same hill on a sled. And right on top of Thelma Burton.
The geography of his past was thick as an atlas, and he knew the pages often flew open in random breezes. In the specie of this memory he was twelve and she was fifteen and he believed, for a quick moment, he had never again felt anything quite as soft as Thelma Burton. Their mixed breaths had flowed downhill after them from mouths and nostrils during a dozen rides, and from other sledders as well, all as airy and light as a distant locomotive’s smoke. In minute cloud rushes, fully ethereal, there came pronouncements of their steam, her perfume, and the undeniable entity of something brand new for him. Entirely brand new. Birthed. Coming out from deep within. Or going down into. Core deep. He was never sure which. The newness almost had a taste to it. The later rides, he was convinced, were provoked by Thelma. Suggested. Dared. His horizon had expanded. And the stars, nailed home in place by The Illustrious Carpenter, had made a brilliant night more brilliant. There were times later on, life moving its sure traffic, the newness becoming old hat, that he thought he had bedded Thelma Burton. Many times over. The image of the night, with all its richness, had lasted more than half a century, still soft and still lit up.
He shared his imaginations with no one person, neither the memories, nor the shadow now dancing in his mind clamoring for more attention. The mix was always going on for an old man; it was what he had lately agreed to in a startling accord, experience makes its way with a man, whether he knows it or not.
Duncan Coffey, widowed going on eight years, just turned seventy, sat his favorite chair on the house-wide porch, looking downhill at the river. An old knee injury called out more alerts. He put aside a twitch in one instep, apparently the residue of a midnight cramp. Mid-morning coffee, no mere token for him, was at hand. Summer sat about him rich as pocket lint; the breeze’s breath was honeyed, the sun stretched its long fingers through trees, the coffee grew pugnaciously thick, like camp coffee, the kind Eddie used to make with egg shell components to keep the grounds in place. Sounds of summer children hurried like ballpark noises up and down the hill. Now and then, he thought, it sounded like a distant parade, from a past Fourth of July or a somber Memorial Day. His only grandson Emmett waved occasionally from the riverbank where Duncan remembered the trout were once freely counted. At one point of the river the alders were a canopied umbrella where the cool of a day was notorious.
There was very little that Duncan knew about Theron Thredbalm, who, as it turned out, was a runner. And men, for a variety of reasons, run. Some run for competition, for exhilaration or health, some for atonement or a kick at depression. Some run out of fear or desperation.
Some men, experience tells you in strange ways, are chased.
Theron Thredbalm could turn his nose up at most anything. Yet men on the move do not always have that freedom. Above his nose the thick dark brows conformed his face as one between rugged and questionable. His facial bones said rugged, the brows and expressions said questionable. The brows were mustache thick. His ears were fist-tight against his head and his chin sat pointed and, it too, questionable. A Van Dyke would have improved his looks. His eyes were too quick for the face, giving the promise of finding an object on either horizon, fore and aft. Then, too, one might swear Theron Thredbalm could see in the dark.
Duncan Coffey brought all he knew, all his experience, to bear on the antics of the new man in town. As a classic rewrite man for the paper, he had read a lot between the lines and had read more stories there than were found in the print. He had seen that the new man wore an old seaman’s cap stained by salt and sweat and could somehow feel the pace of the arrival’s trip working on him. Now and then, he assumed, Theron Thredbalm would try to hum an old ditty, but might not reach a tune.
Earlier by two weeks, Thredbalm’s jam-packed van had come slowly down along the edge of the river road. Occasionally, mandated by inner mechanics, he seriously studied the geography spread out around his route, nodding approval halfheartedly at times. Some views brought a quick negative shake to his head that hastened him down the road in a minor frenzy. One might think he was a realtor on a search for opportunities; a neighborhood’s structure bothering him, a too level stretch of wet land looming impossible, an area where too much space lay between small houses and spelled out apathy.
He had tried to sing, Hey, ditty ditty, we’re far from the city, but the words refused to come aloud.
Thredbalm was on the hard side of fifty. His hands were seemingly forged from labor. The fingers were long, a few of them arthritic in appearance, and calluses grated their palmed texture on the steering wheel cover. A slight cough made him uncomfortable. That too gave him measure. Near his feet a dog, a good-sized mongrel deep russet in color, slept without a stir. But every so often, like a metronome, his tail wagged with an engine beat. The toe of Thredbalm’s right boot touched the dog when the van slowed down, a sense of connection in order.
For hours Theron Thredbalm had not smiled, the fingers of his left hand tapping endlessly on the steering wheel in a tempo a musician would find difficult to identify, patience not a quick virtue. For nearly three hundred miles his eyes had stretched, absorbed, and covered ground. In essence, he was a mobile prowler.
Just past noon two Saturdays earlier, he had come through the middle of Saxon, sitting on the river from a long run down an intermediate hill. A piece of road meandered down from near the summit of the hill and he could see dozens of houses on the route.
He had no idea that from a porch of one of the houses a retired newspaperman had seen his approach.
Thredbalm saw a wide path, somewhat parallel to the small road, slowly twisting itself downhill behind the houses. It could be a bike path, he thought, a blueberry picker’s path, a place for sleds or toboggans in the winter. Itinerant or seasonal traffic might swell at times. Quick study showed near the river a rather small house with a barn at the back side. The house had a small porch, needed work, and promised minor solitude. The barn loomed bigger than the house. The house was barely a hundred feet from the river, and two rock walls perpendicular to the river partitioned the plot of land from other property. The grass was thick around the house, brush and weeds at their will, all as if unattended, and the barn, its old red paint faded almost to a hueless standard of New England barns, leaned from the onslaught of an earlier century.
For the first time of that journey Thredbalm had smiled. One angled eyebrow entered the occasion. “We might be home, dog,” he said, his foot touching the animal again.
It was the grade of the hill that did it, the auspicious gradient, and the way it ended at the river right near the empty house. Downhill has both mercy and promise in it, he believed.
Four days later he had moved into the house. The van was emptied of tools, a few chests, a canvas covered mattress and a rope bed among other things. Emptied, travel signs and road residue washed out of it, the van took on a sprightlier appearance, began a general neatness about the place. Two days later the grass was cut, the brush and weeds laid low, and two stout beams, pushed at an angle against the barn, drove the barn toward the perpendicular. On the following day he fixed a boy’s bicycle on the front porch. The boy said he lived in one of the houses on the hill and had ridden his bike down hill, only to have the chain come loose, and a wheel fall off. A pedal was discovered to be loose.
“I have all the tools in the world in my barn,” Thredbalm told the young cyclist, Emmett Coffey. “I can fix anything, or make anything.” His smile was as broad as his jaw, as heavy as his brows. “When a man works on a small boat he has to be able to fix a lot of things.” He smiled and patted Emmett on the head. “I make all kinds of models, too. Boats and ships are my favorites. I was a lobsterman for a long time. Now I can’t fish anymore or haul lobster.” He showed one arm with a long scar from wrist to elbow. As he smiled at his new acquaintance, a distance sat in his eyes, and the hint of a shadow.
It might have been the same shadow Duncan Coffey had seen.
Thredbalm attached the loosened chain, patched a slow leak, tightened the pedal, tousled the boy’s head and sent him on his way. The boy came back a day later with a friend. The newcomer, on his porch, fixed the friend’s bike. Late that afternoon Thredbalm, under the alder canopy, took four decent sized fish from the river and cooked them for lunch. Two days later three boys shared the fishing spot. On another day he fixed a boy’s bicycle that had been useless for months.
Incessant traffic came down hill in the good days that followed. In the winter, Thredbalm knew, sledding and tobogganing would bring more traffic past his door. He had run himself into good ground at the foot of the hill.
“Did he say where he’s from?” Duncan Coffey asked his grandson. Full of curiosity though not a reporter, he had worked for The Saxon Sentinel as a rewrite man for most of his later years. “Seems he come out of nowhere. McCallister said he just put his money down and leased the house on an option basis, what there is of a house. Though he does seem to get to things that are needed.” He nodded and added, “Did a decent job on the house and grounds, and I’ve seen him jack those new barn supports a bit each day, getting it back to the straight side up.” The compliments flowed without bias.
Emmett replied, “Told me he was a fisherman who hurt his arm and his leg and can’t do it any more,” knowing the curious glint in his grandfather’s eyes was his usual glint. “Said he was from way up Maine someplace, but mostly from boats. Fishermen who don’t own their boats usually don’t live no regular place, he says. Move around like a school of fish, loose as the wind, way he puts it.”
Emmett was holding his bike beside the porch of his house where his father sat an unpainted Adirondack chair. “He fixed this like nothing, Gramp.” He leaned heavily on the handlebars now secure in place. “And he fixed Mickey’s bike wasn’t working for almost a year, just getting rusty. Put oil over everything. Runs like heck now. Showed Mickey the big scar on his leg, too. Mick says it’s red as a fire engine. Says he’s going to make Mickey a mechanic who can fix anything.”
Duncan Coffey was far from mechanical and was always concerned the way things presented themselves. With some careful measure, he said to his grandson, “Well, let’s do this as an assignment of sorts. You keep me posted on what Mr. Thredbalm does and I’ll keep a good account of it. When they come to vote for Neighbor of the Year, I might have enough ammunition for him. But don’t you give it away. Now that’s a promise on both parts.” He put his arm around his grandson and added, “Kind of makes you a leg man or a stringer for the voting.” He smiled a rather serious smile at the air.
A week later Emmet told his grandfather that Brinny Driscoll had also been made an apprentice to Mr. Thredbalm. “Imagine that, Gramp, he’s a ten-year old apprentice of toolery. That’s what he says he is, an apprentice of toolery. Isn’t that something! Just like Mickey. Goes in to do some work each morning on the way to school. Says he can handle a dozen of Mr. Thredbalm’s tools, even some of the electric ones.” He shook his head in a testament of wonder. “Spends some time there after school, too. Even skipped one of our ball games. Said he had work to do. Showed us a leather pouch he carries on his belt with some tools in it. Everything you need for a bike. Just like maybe a Sears catalog would show.” He rolled his eyes again, and sent off the same head shake of wonder.
His grandfather raised his eyebrows anew. “You just keep the tabs on that tool man, Emmett. We might get him nominated as the man of the year. Yes sir, Man of the Year hereabouts in good old Saxon, and The Sentinel might just put his picture on the front page.”
On the way home from visiting a pal in the nursing home, evening full of a new meadow’s cut, an early star winking hello out over the river, the old rewrite man stopped in to Clarrigan’s Pub for a cool beer. Ban Driscoll was at the bar. He was industrious at beer and peanuts, and his lunchbox sat on the bar top. Duncan had always liked Ban who never worried what neighbors talked about, who they talked about, what they said. Ban and he had been taught by the same teachers on their way through Saxon schools, though they graduated years apart. Ban, from the day of graduation, had worked at Trenholm Lumber at the edge of town. One look at his hands could tell you that, or the leathered look of his face and the extreme V-cut tan on his chest. His life was a gift to labor.
“’Lo, Ban,” Duncan said, tapping the broad back of Ban Driscoll. “How’s the slivers been doing?” He turned to Colum Clarrigan, “Give us two more, Colum, for the good of the thirst.” He reached over to shake hands with Clarrigan.
The stout barkeep offered a hand could smash a keg, and a wide smile. “Jazus, Dunc, ain’t seen you a bit. Thought maybe you had swore off since the picnic.” Their laughter filled the small pub. “Wasn’t going to tell you, Dunc, but I seen her lookin’ at you in church out the corner of her eye, and more than once. They ain’t no more offense there from that little kiss you give her.” They laughed again.
Ban and Duncan sipped at their beers, nibbled at a fresh bowl of pop corn Clarrigan had plopped in front of them.
Duncan said, “How’s the boy doing, Ban, that young one, Brinny? I guess he must be set to grow like a weed. Like Arthur did. He still on the same ship? Never thought him once to become a sailor.”
Ban Driscoll sipped, popped a piece of corn. “Never forgive me for naming him Arthur, that boy. But he likes the ship. More than a thousand men aboard from what he says and he’ll know them all before he changes ships, as he puts it.”
He sipped again. “Brinny’s another matter, too. I think he’s going to be a mechanical genius. Nothing like me or his brother. Kid can fix anything.”
Ban Driscoll nodded, looked off, sipped again. Duncan thought that if Ban had a scale in his hand he couldn’t have measured anything clearer. “He going to summer school still?
He get that part squared away?”
“When he’s a mind to," Ban said. “I swear he could do it in his sleep, but don’t care. New interests just get hold of him. Maybe it’s variety working its way. Don’t know with kids, like I never knew Arthur plain hated his name. Never had one idea about that at all. Brinny carries a small tool pouch on his belt, got it from that new guy who fixes bikes. Says he’ll be able to do it all himself pretty soon, getting taught some tricks of the trade. I got home one night he had put a new pair of hinges on the bulkhead doors like a carpenter did it. Said he wanted to surprise me.”
He sipped his beer. “Sure as hell did. Megan been wanting them doors fixed for a year or more.”
Duncan sipped, chewed some popcorn, and said, “He’s changing some, then? Maybe like Arthur, coming on his own.”
Duncan Coffey saw the shadow in Ban Driscoll’s eyes when he said, “Never know from kids, one day to the next.”
From his porch, Duncan kept watch. He thought he was in some kind of laboratory or perhaps at the helm of a human telescope. The little house, and its inveterate traffic, was, daylight to dusk, continually in his view. Pretending it was a journal of sorts, he began to take notes. He sounded it out clearly in his mind: Proposing a man’s picture to be on the front page of The Sentinel would need backup, would need facts. He saw Thredbalm fix bikes on the porch, on the rear steps, now and then take them into the barn. On several occasions, early and late, he saw Brinny Driscoll enter the barn, stay a while, depart on his bike. Emmett spent much of his time at the ball fields down the river. Maybe he wouldn’t become a good man with the tools, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Duncan Coffey, he announced to himself, has never palmed a hammer with any kind of love or skill.
He kept his journal up-to-date, saw a schedule develop, and could predict goings and comings. As if by rote, Theron Thredbalm and his dog often went off on Sunday afternoon and came back early on Monday morning.
Emmett came from the ballparks and a cluster of games each day. He smiled at his grandfather, told him about games and his turns at bat, generally smiled his way through a conversation. “I hit a grassburner, Gramp. Went by the third baseman like it was on fire. Coach says he ain’t seen that ball yet.”
The old rewrite man believed not even Thelma Burton could make him feel warmer. And Brinny Driscoll, on his bike newly painted a bright red, rode past the house. He waved at the pair on the porch, flew downhill, ducked behind the little red house.
Duncan Coffey knew it was up to him, or that other person sharing his skin.
Early Monday morning, darkness still about the land, the mountaintop yet settled with clouds, he slipped into the barn beside the red house. In his chest the heartbeat was metronomic but at a high speed; he could feel the pulse beating at his neck and wondered about the carotid telegraph he had heard about, had even written about in more than quasi-ignorance. Once again, he was reading between the lines. He knew he made a difference in everything he had ever written; he had put himself into it. Now the darkness wrapped him. There was nothing else to go on. There were no preliminaries. No clues. No first paragraph to sink his teeth into. No legman’s first impressions to absorb. Nothing but his own extensions.
And the shadow.
He flashed his light and saw the layout of tools on one whole wall as neat as a grandmother’s pantry. A vise at the end of a work bench loomed as a rocky outcrop in the
dark landscape. The frame of a bicycle hung on a chain from an overhead beam. The smell of new paint flooded the interior of the barn. Another bike frame and odd parts of handlebars, sprockets, fenders and reflectors rested in one corner as insignificant as a junk pile. The absolute neatness of the tool arrangements kept hitting his eyes. And all teeth, all blade edges, all gripping or working surfaces, were as clean as new. They shone like new silver dollars in the till.
Neatness, though, did not infiltrate the shadow or provide definition.
Duncan Coffey hid himself behind a wall remnant, behind barn boards and two-by-fours, standing since the Revolution, it seemed.
For two hours he waited, and heard the van coming down the hill. The door of the house slammed and then Thredbalm’s voice came to him. “Here, dog. Here’s breakfast.” A metallic clunk echoed from the porch. Another voice said, “Good morning, Mr. Thredbalm. We got a lesson in some new tools today?” It was Brinny Driscoll’s voice bright as the sun.
“Come inside the barn, Brinny. I have to talk about those new tools supposed to come yesterday. The man promised me. Always got to keep the promise made. Makes a man of you, what my pappy always said.” The two entered the barn.
The shadow evolved again, twisted on itself, spiraled.
“They didn’t come yet, Brinny. Good thing, too. That old leg wound of mine’s really bothering me some.”
“Think you should go to the hospital now?” Brinny said. “Does it still hurt like the other day?” There was a pain in Brinny’s voice. In the semi-light of morning he was a small boy standing at the foot of history.
“Sure does, son. Hurts like hell. If you rub it like last time, it just might go away. Here, give it a try.”
Duncan saw Theron Thredbalm drop his jeans. “Right there on that there scar, son. You just rub in that magic like you did last time and we’ll get some new lessons going soon.”
“That’s good,” Thredbalm said, “now rub here where it hurts too.”
The old rewrite man, Duncan Coffey, a pitchfork in his hands, his left knee screaming profanities up through his thigh, his mind like shells going off on a dark terrain, the carotid messages loose as curses on the sides of his head, through his temples, leaped from behind the wall. “You son of a bitch, Thredbalm! You got some kind of fire coming your way now!”
The tines of the pitchfork were raised at a high threat. The shine from a bench light glinted on them. The door was ajar. Morning light crept in on tender feet. The high, dark corners of the barn evolved and were known. Long shadows began leaping with light.
Grandfather Duncan Coffey turned to Brinny Driscoll, not begging, not pleading, but demanding. “Go get the cops, Brinny!” he yelled. “This rotten son of a bitch is not going to touch another kid in Saxon. Run, boy, run! Run before I kill him! Run! Run!”
Brinny Driscoll only got to the path where two teen-age neighbors, in running shorts and running shoes, were loping by. They rushed into the barn.
Theron Thredbalm, after all, did get his picture in the paper, right there on the front page of The Saxon Sentinel.
En Route from Square One
by Tom Sheehan
Polky Welker had not seen his old teammate Dan'l Skinner for nearly thirty years. In that time he heard about him in random, roundabout ways, nothing steady at all. Only minor notes about Dan'l’s unsettled existence, his crude life, came to him.
If today he had met Dan'l on the streets of Wakefield, he wouldn’t recognize him. But that’s where Dan'l had mostly abided, on the streets, his days and nights at odd push and pull, between liquid taste and deep discomfort, between much burlap and little silk. That life, it seemed, had been on the downside of everything once dreamed about in their younger years. Now new word had come; Dan'l hospitalized, hurting, his existence more of inert shambles, perhaps closing down its long stand. It was a life many pals had thought would have ended much earlier.
The nun receptionist pointed Polky Welker down the antiseptic hallway of St. Margaret’s Hospital. The slight enunciated crackle of starched cowlings seemed coming to him from a distance. His steps echoed cap pistol shots on the tile floor. They hurried behind him trying to overtake him, scurrying. The sounds multiplied against the corridor surfaces, the fire doors, routed tiles of the floor. Time yielding itself for observation, page turning. He tried to remember who had said that. No face came to him; he could not find it. Searching did not bring faces out, he realized; coming of their own accord.
Old faces made themselves special.
What else is catching up? he asked himself, hearing whispers, asides along the way. I could be walking through the halls of the past. The plaster walls were clean, square, with good edges. Instantly and purposely he admired the journeyman’s eyes in the work, knowing it was a minute ruse to divert himself. Images of all sorts continued to flood him, faces, shapes, gestures, and a host of voices and the arsenal of identifications that grow on people, which stay with them forever. An itch touched one forearm. Almost at once an old injury spoke to him in one knee. The color of that oft-elusive game also came back from the distance. The fiery trees of October. The natural bowl of the field. The wooden stands. The crowd noise. The band. The cheerleader who cried when he was injured, her tears broadcast to him by others, who provided night’s moisture in the back seat of an old Chevie. This day, he wondered how much of his past would he not want spilled from its old crucible. Secrecy is not an art with me, he avowed; never has been.
Making this trip, now making this move, he could not believe what he was up to. Fifty miles away, a hundred miles away, he had known things forgotten for years, knew them crowding him anew. The pine trees dwarfed him, their scrabble on the sides of the hills, in and out of gullies and ravines as though fire had chased them. And new cut hay was liquid atop his mind. Taste for the open field came loping alongside the car.
What drove his feet this way, steered them, brought him here, he did not know. Was this encounter real? Was any of it to be real? He could not imagine how the past could be caught up this way, dragged out from wherever, yet it was there at hand. The disbelief itself was close to vegetative; he could smell it, taste it, and feel the awareness. The ripples of energy at his backside were not to be ignored, nor the cavernous emptiness ballooning in his body, almost electrical in nature.
The dull edges of memories, now sharpening their blades, worked on Polky with similar treatment. Life for him, although different in the long stretch, had also moved with shadows and clouds, and he expected little more in the old hometown he had not visited for a long time. Dan'l, he thought, would prove to be no different than many people he had met in that stretch, lonely from the word go and not able to fight it, finding life too demanding or too shabby at times to contemplate.
The first thing coming to mind when he thought of Dan'l’s life were the secret notes Dan'l used to get in school. He’d find them in his locker, small missives of salutation quickly noted gifts from an admirer of sorts. There’d be an envelope with the handwritten and too cute message on it: A Dinner for Skinner. Inside there’d be a memorandum to one of the restaurants in the area saying the bearer was entitled to two dinners, cost no object, for bearer and companion. It went on once a week for two years of high school and Dan'l the football-scoring champ both years in the Valley League. Once he was also the state scoring champ, the year they won the sectional title. It was, as Polky would describe it to friends, the forerunner of the gift certificate.
Nobody ever found out who the mysterious benefactor was. Then, just at the start of the summer when their junior year was finished, a new Ford convertible was left in front of Dan'l’s house with his name on the same kind of envelope with the same obviously altered handwriting. The title of the black convertible with the off-white top was in the envelope. Dan'l, in front of the little bungalow where he lived with his widowed mother, looked in the envelope for gas money.
That’s the way things happened to Dan'l, and on this visit by Polky an old friend brought them together again. The friend was Bob Terrell, who had been the janitor at the school for years beyond memory. Now, like an old jalopy rusting from its last ride, he was parked in a side room of his son’s house, living out his last days.
Polky and Dan'l had been teammates so long in the past neither one would be able to remember games won or lost, never mind the scores if such manifesto was demanded. Rather, there stayed the image of the other at his own particular act of impact or acceleration. Once there was the time, thinking themselves closer than battlefield comrades, when they moved on into the world and were soon lost to each other. Fortune and misfortune, as it happens, deepened that foreseeable break, Dupres "Polky" Welker riding riches onto one side of oblivion, Albert "Dan'l" Skinner, never needing much start, into the other side of the same place.
Their paths, as seen, were about to cross again.
Wakefield was a small town at the edge of the Catskills, hung on a good river, and abundantly blessed with good working stock. The young of the city had energy, and dreams, and worked industriously for dreams’ ends. Some of the young men loved the combat of football, head-knocking, leather-helmet stuff before those buckled hats became the plastic weapons they are today. Dan'l Skinner, from the earliest playground moves, could run faster than any two boys, and Polky, though from the richest family in town, a banker’s son, was a head-knocker of the first order, a blocking back in the old single wing formation, one of the last bastions of Knute Rockne’s pretty little dance routines. They grew, twisted as a pair of vines, into each other’s young lives, dependent on one another, Polky knocking down tacklers for Dan'l, Dan'l scoring often.
One sportswriter called them "The Gold Dust Twins." Another named the pair as "The Welker-Skinner Athletic Club."
Parting, though, bid those monikers adieu.
Polky, from Stanton Heights, in a scenic view parking area on the side of that hill, a wayward and fluctuating kind of hunger and yearning propelling him from a distance to this place, looked down on Wakefield at the foot of the hill, hanging at the edge of the river, blending in with the twist of geography and contours. A long study of the community carried self-evident characteristics of its people: the rocks, the cliffs, the dramatic shot of outcroppings had formed its citizens, bade them stand in place in the face of time. So many were abiders, hanging by, life a cut path for them from the early impact of reason. Once, he remembered, Hank Henry, a tall and lanky end with a little acne, had made the final pronouncement: “I’ll get married, get a mortgage, get some children, pay the mortgage off, and be free to die. Just like my old man.” There wasn’t much else to look at, or for.
Not much had changed, Polky thought as he stood on Stanton Heights, and corrected himself to admit everything had changed. He was fifty-five years old, tanned and wealthy looking, hair in a crew-cut so long borne that he looked like a retired colonel of Rangers or an airborne vet come back for a peek. At a shade over six feet, his frame carried well, his eyes deeply impressive and chin a willing one at first glance, he seemed formidable, yet doubt marked his face. Staring down at the center of the community, he kept wondering what had brought him here. Riches had come upon his riches to his hand, though tragedy had not stayed away from him; both of his wives had suffered early and terrible deaths, and his one son, Archie, now off on another archeological dig, a long one, was set for life, but the old blocking back knew he was hounded.
Sharp memories invaded him: noise in the huddle almost too much to bear in the big game of the year when Dan'l snapped at them and said, “Polky, you get the linebacker on the 42 Power and I’m outta here,” staring down every body in the huddle. Clearly Polky could see that full image… Dan'l slamming inside the tackle right behind him just as he popped the linebacker and felt Dan'l bounce off his backside and light out for the end zone fifty-yards away. It had happened so many times that way, Dan'l seeing weakness on the other side and strength on this side, and calling the play as if he had choreographed the whole stunt in a dream.
“I don’t have a clue in hell who it is, Polky, and I ain’t going to spoil none of it. Man likes to see touchdowns, give away free dinners for two, well, hell, might as well be me.” Dan'l had leaned closer to him and whispered, “Besides, there’s not another tailback in fifty miles can do it, Polky, don’t have you blocking for him.”
“Nobody ever said anything to you, Dan'l, give the secret away? No clues? No small idea?”
“Look at it this way, Polky, why’d I want to spoil it? No sense in that. Curiosity versus the cat. Ride the donkey while you can my mom says, and she’s as pretty as she is smart. Foxed that old realtor, she did, into giving her the house practically for nothing.”
Dan'l had been a handsome kid, six feet of speed and power, blue eyes the girls loved, could walk the walk like a cock, but produced also. Big-time college stuff, for sure.
“Just the curiosity part of it, Dan'l. That’d drive me nutty wondering who.”
“Well, I confess I thought about it a time or two, not pushing it you know, just thinking about it. Brought it all down to getting the notes into my locker. Nobody ever seen leaving them there, sliding them through the air vent. Nobody. Not ever once. Thought a bit about that but didn’t push what I came up with.”
“Who’s that, Dan'l? One of the teachers?”
“Hell no, they wouldn’t get there no earlier than they had to. I always thought it had to be Bob Terrell, the janitor. Was the only one in there before dawn, stoking the furnace, warming things up.” Dan'l had raised his eyebrows, “and dropping notes in my locker outta site of everybody ‘cause there was no one there.” Then Dan'l Skinner had put out his hand and said, “This is our secret, Polky, now till the day we die. We don’t put anything on Bob Terrell. And we don’t mess with my good fortune.” All these years later Polky finally heard the stress Dan'l had given “my good fortune.”
Polky reflected on his own life as sat on the side of the hill. His father dead in a car accident his second year at Dartmouth, his mother of cancer when she was not even forty years old. Both his wives had felt the hammer early in their lives, and in their marriages; Pauline in British Columbia from an avalanche, buried forever or until the eternal thaw, Martha to the sharks off the coast of Australia, nothing but redness left on the water. So hard had he prayed for Archie that he had prayed him practically out of his life, Archie forevermore off on those yearlong digs that gave him such energy, such a rush of animation, appearing reborn, a new self about the world. Archie could stand off there by himself; he had to.
Now this unwanted call had come; Dan'l hauled into the hospital from his night’s bed on an open grate of the school, sucking up the exhaust, catching the brunt of the Montreal Express as it whistled down the valley; no longer fast enough to stay ahead of the damage being inflicted upon his body; no longer calling the plays. Polky could see his eyes across the huddle, the way a dream might be buried back there or the way he might see the next play and how it'd develop, his legs itchy, his teeth hardly grinding at all, his nostrils flared but little, Dan'l at the helm.
“Glad I could get you, Polky,” Dave Wardell had said on the phone, his voice not a bit recognizable as the running guard he had paired up with on a thousand missions, solid and propitious Dave now a lieutenant on the police department. “Seeing you and Dan'l were so close back then. Near froze to death last night or the night before. Found him at the school, in the back where the smokers used to sneak off to. Like he never left school at all. I swear, like he never left school at all. Nobody knows what happened to him, so screwed up all his life, booze, fights, you name it and you’ll find it. But he’s hurting and I thought it only fair to let you know. One of the younger guys remembered his name and told me. We got him into St. Margaret’s Hospital down the valley, madder than hell he is but not able to do much about it. Just cursing his head off, the nuns and nurses if they haven’t heard it all before, are sure getting it now. You planning to come up here?”
“I’ll be there, Dave. Thanks for calling. How’s Daisy? Long time since I’ve seen her.”
“Plump and happy and a grandmother now. Come by when you get a chance. She’d love to see you. We’re in her parents’ old place.”
At least Dave had ridden the road the right way, Polky thought, then had a picture of Dan'l straight out on the heated grate back of the school, the wind his comforter, the grating his bed. For the moment he was pleased that he had little tears left in his pot. A lot earlier he had surmised you only get so many of them, and then you get dried up. Sadness, like drought, drawing on you all the way; shabby, burlap without the silk.
Earlier, down off the hill, wandering strangely about known places of the town, feeling corners becoming familiar in his approach, character of bricks in walls still in place for thirty or more years, finding his feet on sterling paths once as intimate as the back of his hand, he had found his way to old Bob Terrell, living in a son’s house, a small blister of an in-law apartment hanging against a dark gray gambrel with no dormers.
Now there’s a change, Polky said under his breath, as the old janitor answered his knock at the door. Bob Terrell was scarred by life, a cane immediate in hand, one eye appearing closed forever with a savage scar leaping down from its brow and disappearing at chin line, dentures if there were any off in a cup. Behind him, bustling, a breath of sweet warm air, stove fed, woodsy, came at Polky, and he could see the flames in a glass-fronted cast iron stove. On the porch, piled like corrugations, drawing his attention, a stack of logs neat as baker’s bread loaves, as brown. He picked up four splits and cradled them in one arm as if in offering.
“Gaddam, boy, the only one ever to do that’d be Polky Welker. Only ever had manners I remember. That you, gaddam blocking back. Old school king shit. That gaddam you? You hear about Dan'l, the shit he’s been in? C’min, boy, and bring the offery with you.”
With a vague off-balance twist he about-faced and went back into the room; the room hanging on his son’s house sat like a glove around a bed against one wall, a sink and a two-burner countertop stove and cabinets on another, the black cast iron stove, eyed like a god, porting directly through the ceiling, a couple of chairs including a deep-set Morris, a TV on a small stand, a single shelf with half a dozen books, a whole lifetime scrounged down into four tight walls. It did not really look oppressive. Polky thought it to be a statement from the stove, outside the wind still whirling a Montreal breath.
Polky placed his offering into an iron ring beside the stove. Heat danced from the stove in unseen waves. “It’s me, Bob, come to see you and Dan'l. It’s been a haul and a half, I’d say, for all of us.”
“No gaddam pity, Polky. I’d been there and done it had the chance, and did much to make it so. Old and camf’table the way the boy wants it and bothers me none long as I’m warm. Putting the coal away all those years give me a need for the heat. Now I’m beat up.”
“What happened to Dan'l? I mean his whole life just screwed up. I keep thinking it was all the free stuff he got when we were playing ball, tearing up the valley league. God, he was a deer.”
“You mean the dinners and the car and stuff? ‘Pears everybody knew about ‘em.” Bob’s bad eye had still not opened, and the scar, long as a bayonet thought Polky, became redder as he sat beside the stove in the worn Morris chair, accepting his heavy rear with ease, his cane swinging on the chair wing in slow rhythm.
“We talked about that a bit, Dan'l and me. I thought it was arranged by a teacher, slipping those notes into his locker, but he had other ideas; didn’t want me to rock the boat and ruin his hand-outs.”
Bob Terrell’s scar was redder and the bad eye still closed, as he said, “What kinda ideas Dan'l and you put on the wheel, Polky? I allus thought you were too busy getting’ on that kind of stuff. You was different than all ‘em, pay no mind to locker room horseshit and rumors and stuff. I never heard you once toss a word upon any soul, girl or otherwise.” The good eye was steady on Polky and he could feel it, as if an interrogation lamp beamed on him.
“Dan'l had an idea you were the only one who could have handled all that secret stuff about the envelopes, about Dinner for Skinner, all that secrecy. We all knew you were here before dawn every day. None of the teachers did that, didn’t do what you did, Bob. They must still talk about how you never took a day off, none that I can remember, and never spoke a word about anything or anybody. I guess we have a mutual respect there.”
“My word was sure my bond, Polky, never broke it to the man all the while he was alive and not even after he died. Never said word one, not to a soul. But I sure wondered all those years and did some sly figurin’ on my own account about the whole sitiation, just to keep my thinkin' straight and simple as a shot glass.” Old Bob’s one eye was still like a searchlight, focused on Polky. “Never woulda guessed in a hunnert years, the man coverin’ tracks, doin’ good outta somethin’ bad. He’s long gone now.” The bonds of promise appeared to be loosening and Polky suddenly began to feel a sense of insight moving on the situation.
“I’m going off to see Dan'l now, Bob, visiting hours about to open. Anything I might say to him for you? I heard from Dave Wardell that he might be in the hospital for a lengthy stay if he gets through the next day or two.”
“He that bad, Polky? God, I’ve seen him all these years walkin’ stupid drunk at all hours, sleepin’ in the police station as a cold night favor, someone’s cellar I hear now and then, in the back of Smitty’s boathouse down there on the river, in any car in a hunnert driveways. Shit sure thought he’d be dead the next day a hunnert times. Should have no liver left, that man.”
He reached and grabbed his cane and twirled it like a baton in his hands, the one eye following the black rubber tip like it was the moon on its dark side. “I kept my word a long time sayin’ nothin’. Maybe things is different now, expect to get squared off, putting the horse on the right cart.” An animate leverage came on his face, perhaps the confessional face, a believing face, heightened by the bayonet-sized scar, now as red as if it had its own beating heart.
Polky had questions popping up his backside and held them off as long as he could. “How did you get that scar, Bob?”
“It was him done it, Polky, old Dan'l hisself, drunk as a hillbilly on Tennessee shine one night, out in the back of the school. I come down to check on somethin’, maybe noise, and he lights inta me with a bottle. Near killed me, had the cops there, in the hospital myself near a couple a weeks. Your father, it was just before he died, you still at college, Dan'l like to have been drunk two years already, momma kicked him outta the house, your daddy came down and held everythin’ down quiet and easy.”
“My father had respect for Dan'l the way he could run up my tail in high school. Must have had a real soft spot for him the way he made every block of mine count for something good, good yardage, first downs, long runs for touchdowns. Could run like a deer, old Dan'l.”
The black moon was still spinning in old Bob Terrell’s hands, one eye still closed and the other on fire, matching the redness of the livid scar. The Morris chair creaked under him as he shifted weight, pushed himself to one side, sized up argument.
The whole world came right side up for the moment. “Hell, Polky, it wasn’t none of that,” Bob Terrell said, his butt sitting square and still. The eye, though, the good eye, was leaping out of the past, filled with unknown images, his voice as suddenly somber as deep church bells. It was an announcement held back from all of time, and the set line of his mouth showed deep concern at what he was about to say. A change had come cross the old man, body language making a statement, an inner power taking over in a hidden way. At once it was both subtle and dramatic. Polky could feel it in the room the way a shadow might filter in, stealing light, taking hold of a small section of slanting rays.
“Polky, your daddy was Dan'l’s daddy too. No one in life I ever told that to. Not till now, so help me God. Was me all the time slippin’ them notes in his locker. I even parked that new Ford in front of his house that night, wantin’ it for myself so bad I could taste it.” The black moon of the cane tip had stopped rotating, old Bob Terrell’s long secret spilled from his mouth.
Sunlight spilled its slanting blocks through the hospital windows and made angles on the painted walls, and his fingers knew the heat on the walls. A shimmer rose from the surface of a small table where the reception area ended and the corridor started. One of the few trees on the hospital grounds drove its shadow ahead of him in the corridor where a slight change in temperature was noticeable. He thought of the shadows and the clouds that sailed on through his days and was not sure of what he was going to say to Dan'l, and how he would make those words come out of his mouth. The receptionist had pointed to a door halfway down the hall, Number fourteen she had said and turned away.
Since he had left old Bob his mind had filled with the options at hand, how the conversation would be initiated. “I have to tell you, Dan'l, that we’re brothers.” “There’s something you should know.” “While I was here in town I thought I’d drop in and say hello. It’s been a long while.” The options expanded, took up room in his mind.
None of them gelled clearly, as a host of images beset him again. The angular shadows in the hall did it, he thought, being there again as they often were, and then thought once more of Pauline as he had every day since she had died, so elegant there on that white crest, waving back at him, promising it to be her last run for the day, the mountains of British Columbia like a huge pile of bricks behind her silhouette.
Once she had said, in the quiet after loving him heedlessly, “There is no one like us, not in all the world.” Her graces slammed against him, how she could mount the mountain or him with never a thought of ineptness or embarrassment infringing on motions, no pause at measurement or consequence; Pauline, so slim at the waist, thighs like his, yet ethereal. The image brought the tide-like tumble of snow down behind her, the silent roar not heard until long minutes later, his Pauline being swallowed up by everything she loved. Every damn thing in the world she loved eating her up. The image came like a train out of his past, driving down on him, roaring in the tunnel of the shadowed corridor.
Then in a test of balance, or perhaps forced acceptance, as he openly thought sometimes, came the new picture of his father. He saw him slipping into the back door of Dan'l’s house set in the abrupt triangle between the railroad tracks and a small woodworking company, as plain as a bug under a microscope. Day after day, night after night he might have crossed that threshold. How had he dared to do it? Obviously caught up by the charms of Dan'l’s mother or another hunger, leaving his own wife at home, and in time his son. Polky vaguely remembered her red lips, and how he had once sensed the fullness of her breasts working against a purple dress.
He fought off that memorial challenge and, as he had done so often in life, enlisted his own pain to relieve another pain. Came quickly out of the shadows … Martha’s frantic strokes that almost brought her out of the Pacific water, the great swimmer she was. He had loved her in her turn, having been driven to athletic women; Pauline so slim, so skilled, so graceful; then Martha, best of the best, unparalleled in the pool or the wide Pacific, stroker of strokers he mouthed in memory, until the shark had come alongside her, the day closing down from its near-perfect beauty, the sun halfway to bed as the horizon scissored it. There was a major triangulation that took place, one that he’d always remember; the half sun, the flash of Martha’s arms, the black blade of a fin knifing beside her. Eventually, the scream had stopped in his mouth as the commingling flare of sunset and blood spread its dark rainbow across the water.
Polky Welker, about to meet his brother for the first time, squeezed his eyes tightly to discharge Martha from his mind. The red sunset atop the wide Pacific leaped away as the door opened. The trade came; the eyes of the young nurse looking at him, sad, urgent, unable to frame words, told another chapter of his life. He knew he’d remember Dan'l’s eyes across the huddle, only when he needed them.
Bio: Sheehan, in his 91st year, has published 36 books and multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Eastlit, Frontier Tales, Western Online, Literary Yard, Rope & Wire Western Magazine, Green Silk Journal, Faith-Hope-and-Fiction, etc. He has received 33 Pushcart nominations and 6 Best of Net nominations with one winner, and other awards. Newest books are Beside the Broken Trail, Between Mountain and River and Catch a Wagon to the Stars with 4 in publishers’ queues, including Jock Poems for Proper Bostonians, Alone with the Good Graces and The Keating Script. He served as a sgt. in the 31st Infantry in Korea 1951-52, and graduated from Boston College in 1956. His most recent reading was about the First Iron Works in America for The Saugus Historical Society. He has read for 17 years at Out Loud Open Mic in Melrose, MA.