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The Tale of Trot and Dim Johnny

By Tom Sheehan

As all accidents are about to happen, or strange encounters take place, fate stands at the edge of the road waiting to announce itself, an unseen signpost, an unseen hitchhiker. Such was the plan when Banford J. Hibbs pushed his wheelchair out of the driveway and onto the sidewalk. Both his legs had been left on the rampant sands of a Pacific island half a century earlier. He did not see the boy with the white cane until he had almost knocked him down.

“I’m sorry, son. I didn’t see you,” Banford Hibbs said. In a gray shirt his arms bulged from wrist to shoulder, exhibiting long sieges at arduous labor. His eyes were clear, he was clean-shaven, an odd bump accented an otherwise long straight nose, and his hair was military-trim. The boy, not in any great contrast, was clean-faced, dark-haired, but wore dark glasses, as if hiding within himself.

“I didn’t see you either, mister,” the boy said, and the grin leaped across his face. “My name’s Dim Johnny. It’s not really that bad a name. Kids got used to it. Tells a story.” Bright teeth filled a mouth formed with full lips, and one would gather he spent little time frowning. The remnants of the smile lingered at the corners of his lips, the way smiles like to hang around pleasant people.

“Well, Dim Johnny, from my days in a rehab hospital, after losing my legs, all the guys started calling me Trot. It’s been Trot ever since. Trot locked up in a wheelchair. Trot do this and Trot do that, Trot never swung a baseball bat.”

The boy giggled. “That’s kind of like my name. Getting us to laugh a little bit at ourselves so we don’t spend the day sulking in a corner, like my grandfather used to say. He read a lot to me. I still hear him.”

“Do you like parades?” Trot looked up and down the street, through breaks in the small crowd gathered along the curbing.

“I don’t see too much in parades, but I like to listen, to everything.” He slanted his head as if it were an exclamation mark.

For the first time in all his parades, Trot heard the crowd and all its props: cap guns, whistles, whirling plastic bird’s wings, yells and exuberance of all kind and manner. He’d always seen a parade but had never heard a parade, not really heard it. That his ears were opened made his eyes open. “Someday you’ll be in a parade, Dim Johnny. I’d bet on that.”

Just the way fate hung at the edge of the roadway like the announced hitchhiker, so did prophecy, and the tingle was alive in Trot Hibbs’ phantom toes. Both feet, he said to himself.

“Hey, Trot,” hailed a voice from the crowd. “Just in time for the parade. They remember us today, you know, but the ranks’re getting thinner. There’s only us sergeants and chiefs of boats left now.”

Trot recognized the voice even before he saw the face, old Chief of Boats Snorkel Boatwright. “Hey, Snorkel, what brings you up from down under? They let all the water out of the tub?”

The boy’s laughter burst out of him again, tapping his cane on the ground, making more exclamation marks. “I know him,” he said. “He’s the guy at the gas station. Sometimes we stop there for gas.” The tip of his white cane came to rest against one of the Trot’s wheels. Trot guessed him to be about eleven or twelve years old. He had already decided that the dark glasses were not going to hide much about Dim Johnny.

“I used to see,” the boy said. “I remember what my mother looks like. She says I’m her savior ‘cause I keep her looks frozen in time. She’ll never get any older. Makes me feel good.” His head moved off at an angle as if posing, but Trot guessed he was keying in on some feature of his mother. “She has the biggest, softest, kindest eyes you can imagine. Like Oreos. That’s really what I see. But it’s a secret I’ll share with you. One I can’t tell her, that I can’t remember all of her face. I’m happy it’s the eyes. Big, soft, brown. She never has to know, does she?” There was affirmation heard if affirmation was ever said.

“Not on my account. What happened?” Trot said, staying in place with something remarkable happening to him, finding it difficult to do so. Unknown pleasant tremors were at deep core work.

“Nobody really knows. It started getting darker each day, a bit at a time. They took me to half a dozen doctors, but they couldn’t find out anything. Then one day,” he shrugged his shoulders, “it was all gone. At first it was dim, then dimmer, then nothing. Some kids began to call me Dim Johnny, like the game your pals pulled on you. But you guys were all hurt, weren’t you? You were a sergeant, huh? Gramp said he could run a war with sergeants. What about the generals?”

“You only need one of them, Johnny. The rest become errand boys. Gramp’s right. So are you. We were a hurting army, the bunch of us, but we were winners. Tell me, is your hearing now excellent or special? I’ve heard stories from some guys.” Trot had seen how Johnny’s head would turn according to introductions of a sound, a noise, a bit of music from a distant radio, a single trumpet warming up for the parade. He wondered about handling disparate sounds, unidentified sounds; how would they be classed or sorted, or even referenced.

“I can hear music in anything. I can tell a note of the scale from a hundred yards away. Lots of songs I know by just hearing a couple of notes together. Oh, they have to be kind of special. I have to get some help. I’m only a kid, you know.” He laughed all over again and it made Trot feel warmer inside, the core touched again.              There came a sudden balance in all of it, thought Trot, as Dim Johnny, too much of the spotlight on himself, said, “What do you do Trot?”  Enough of me it seemed to say, and said honestly with a righteous reserve. Manners it also said.

Trot Hibbs flicked a thumbnail against a spoke in a wheel.

“That’s an A Flat,” Dim Johnny said, adding, “if that’s a test note.” He laughed aloud and tapped his cane again on the cement walkway. It was just the way Trot used to do with a cue stick playing pool in the Old Rathole before the war. It was akin to applause or ovation. Johnny continued, “I wish I could make money with it. I’d really like to help my mother and father. He gets odd jobs now and then and he’s not really in the best shape. I guess worrying can do that to you. Gramp used to say that, too.”

“Well, I make things out of iron. I try to bring out objects I see in old metal pieces. Some people call it art. Some call it junk. But I love doing it. It’s special salvage.”

“Boy, I’d like to see some of it. Could we do that? I mean, I’d like to touch some of them, see what you’re saying to me, if you know what I mean. My hands can remember my grandfather’s face, how he used to read to me. He had big ears, a heavy chin, sometimes when he talked his jaw cracked. My dad doesn’t have time to read like that. He’s always worrying about something happening that never happens. Never once.”

“Sure, if you get the okay from your folks. I live there in that alley. All my stuff is there. You go in along the fence and a wall only two feet off the fence. The wall says my stuff is going to be all over the place. You have to be careful and stay against the edge of the building, against that wall. It’s an old garage I live in. Fixed up pretty good. Yell out my name.”

“Sure,” Dim Johnny said, “I’ll yell out, ‘Hey, Trot, what you got?’”

Banford J. Trot Hibbs, for the second or third time was warmed right down to his missing toes.

Sleep eventually came to Trot Hibbs that night, after the Memorial Day parade, after saying goodbye to the boy, after a long siege on Kwajalein sand was relived again. In that sense of silence, he thought about the boy’s good spirits.

Barely out of bed and dressed, near-burnt toast aroma climbing the air, coffee scent its companion, the sun a huge promise coming with a quick slant onto the kitchen table, he heard the yell. “Hey, Trot! What you got?”

Out the window he saw the boy, in a blue jacket, a bag in one hand, the white cane in the other. “Hey, Johnny,” Trot yelled. “Keep coming along the wall, open the first door you come to.”

The boy stood in Trot’s foyer, kitchen, workshop, home. “You burned the toast,” he said. “Your coffee’s like my father’s. Calls it camp coffee from when he went fishing with the guys. He doesn’t fish much any more. You got iron in here? You won’t believe me, but I can smell feathers. D’you just wake up?”

Pronouncements and observations of all kind were not very far from Dim Johnny, Trot had already decided. He swore his toes tingled again. “Come straight ahead. There’s a chair you can sit in. What’s in the bag?”

“My Mom said I had to bring a lunch. She talked to some people about you, swore you ain’t going to hurt me or anything crazy. She knows your cousin Sydney from the phone company. What you got, Trot?”

“You sit there, Johnny, and I’ll put some things in front of you.” Iron and steel sounds clinked in the air. A small measurable thud sounded on the table in front of Dim Johnny. “Tell me what you figure this piece to be, Johnny.”

“Ah, Trot, you don’t have to be careful with me. Everybody calls me Dim Johnny. Don’t worry about it, and I won’t call you Banford.” The giggle was authentic, and the toes tingled for sure.

“Just reach out and tell me,” Trot advised the boy. “A few sharp edges, but not knife-sharp. Just be careful. It’s iron and weighs about nine pounds.” At an aside he said, “About the weight of a Garand.”

“I know about Garands.” He pronounced the name of the weapon correctly. “My grandfather knew what they were. Told me about his.” Then Dim Johnny fondled the piece of iron sculpture. His fingers, like reaching for piano keys in an early lesson, touched the perimeters of the piece. A dozen times his hands, petting, coaxing, almost adjusting to shape, moved across the nine pounds of iron. At one point he snapped a finger against an elevated piece and the note ran around the room. He nodded his head and leaned back in the chair.

“That’s a bird in flight, a hawk with fingertip wings, a hunter. I’d call him Black Hunter. I can feel his head down, looking at the ground, eyes searching. Yeh, Black Hunter.”

Trot Hibbs’ toes were alive, his head swam, his heart leaped. All across the prairie or a mile-wide meadow he could see jackrabbits scattering, could see the shadow of wings patrolling against the sun, wings from another part of day, where daylight emptied itself into. “I couldn’t have named him better. From now on, that’s what he is, Black Hunter. Try this one.” He positioned another smaller piece of work in front of the boy.

Dim Johnny went at this one from the base upward, caressing a column, finding the core of something on top of the column, stroking the mass lightly. Behind dark glasses Trot thought he could see the boy squint his eyes. “This could be a lot of things, but I think it’s a bear in the middle of winter. Maybe a polar bear, but I don’t figure it’s white.” He tapped his fingers on the column. A new sound ran around the room.

Trot Hibbs suddenly realized he had never paid attention to sounds of his own material. Johnny tapped it again; it was musical. There was no way in his mind this was intended to be a bear, but the thought persisted. Maybe that’s why it was not so quickly received by people. He’d keep the polar bear in mind, but would not tell the boy. What was really happening to him was the recognition of a new level of achievement, of selection, of newness itself. And what was it with the happy toes, the phantom toes he had heard so much about over the years. Was all this boy work?

A third mass of metal thudded on the table. “That’s bigger than a Garand,” Johnny said. Again his fingers found the form, froze for a moment, moved on, all parts touched, caressed, known. Trot kept the minute titillation to himself. “I don’t know what it is, that’s for sure, but I’d call it Tomorrow. It promises so much.” He chuckled. “It’s kind of like a poem my grandfather told me once. I didn’t make it up. It’s been there.” But from its mass he brought out the sound of music by rubbing an edge. Trot thought it to be an organ at the low end of the scale.

Tomorrow is what we’ll call it from this day on.” Over his shoulder he looked at a pile of iron of sundry shapes, conditions. In his hands he felt each piece. The many times he had fondled them were countless, but the heft continued to be known in his hands. The iron fire engine, but a few inches long he had found as a boy, came back like an exposed negative. It was in the pile in the corner. If there was anything he wanted the boy to know, it was the iron fire engine, thick with rust undisturbed for years. It was like a found poem with him.

He rolled across the room, extracted a few pieces, and brought them to the table. “These are scrap pieces from my pile. What can we do with them? Do you have any ideas?” He pushed the pieces across the table to the boy. His head tilted, his ears cocked, the boy was hearing the metal in a near-silent state, the mere breath of the pieces sliding across the table.

Dim Johnny, mouth slightly open, tongue touching his top lip as if he were tasting sound, touched two pieces together. Trot had never heard that sound before, the tone, the notes coming as the boy touched them along the length of each piece, ringing them, tolling them. Musical notes were coming out of old iron he had banged together a hundred times without regard for sound. Two other pieces came into the boy’s hands. They too made a music Trot Hibbs had not heard before.

“What do we do with this stuff? You’re finding something I didn’t even know was there. But what can we do with it?”

“Well,” Johnny said, “some of the notes are softened by my hands. If you could make a small hole in each end or at the top of each piece, we could hang them by wire loops. Hands just dull the sound, make it too sloppy. I heard my mother talking about some kind of chimes she heard once. We could make chimes. If the sound is good, and I can tell if the sound is good, we can make some chimes. If you shake them against each other and we know what the sound is going to be, we can make music. We could hang them in people’s trees and let the wind play them.”

The partnership of Banford J. Trot Hibbs and Dim Johnny Hardcastle was formed. Trot worked the pieces, bending, cutting, welding, joining, thinning the note of one or another by whatever craft he could bring to bear on it. Oh, he polished them, too, and made them catch the sunlight as well as the ear, pretty pieces, rugged pieces, marvelous pieces. And day upon day he felt the tingle crawling about in his toes and the sands of Kwajalein falling further away from him more with each passing day. The half century that had hung on so long was letting go.

With his incredulous ear, Dim Johnny found the right notes in odd lots, or matched pieces so notes came out of their touching, notes of rare beauty and rare orchestration. Came out of them sounds spilling over Chautenauga Valley and across the river, so that children at school were often pulled from games hearkening to them.

The partnership sold hundreds of pieces to hundreds of people with the passing of five more Memorial Day parades until the morning Dim Johnny found Trot Hibbs still in his wheelchair from the night before.

A few days later the flag was hung part way up the pole at the center of town. Old Chief of Boats Snorkel Boatwright closed his station for the day when there was another minor and extra parade in town, and Dim Johnny rode down the street in Snorkel’s car with Trot Hibbs’ Silver Star hanging from the rear view mirror for all to see.

Johnny swore he could see the gold from the Silver Star, just as he was sure Trot Hibbs’ toes were still feeling their way through a new kind of grass. In his hands he clutched a rusted iron fire engine, about a half-pound of ferric beauty that had become his personal rubbing stone.

Some fifteen years later, from the same garage, Dim Johnny Hardcastle is still selling The Trot Hibbs’ Silver Star Mobiles, famous makers of music.

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Tom Sheehan has published 24 books, has multiple work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield ReviewLa Joie Magazine, Literary OrphansIndiana Voices Journal, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, EastlitRope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, Faith-Hope and Fiction, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of the Net nominations (one winner). Swan River Daisy, a chapbook, was just released by KY Stories. His Amazon Author’s Page, Tom Sheehan — is on the Amazon site.

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Scene at Scott’s Mill

By Tom Sheehan

Old Scott’s Mill on the Saugus River, rebuilt in 1847 after a fire and a long-time employer of hard workers at wool and leather goods and lastly boot protection for soldiers in Viet Nam, had given off odd sounds since the day it closed down, a dozen years earlier in a new century. Now it gave off a sense of passage, spooky passage, which none of us three pals could measure or pinpoint its source.

All the way back to the last holiday we had saved a cache of fireworks, my pals, Sinagna, Injun Joe and Charlie B, each of us twelve years old within three days of each other. “Pals to the end,” we had said, squirreling away the fireworks in Sinagna’s Aunt Lil’s barn leaning from one century into another. Many times we were afraid those hidden prizes would explode in their secret hideaway, our want for noise and excitement so strong, at times like hunger tantrums. But we had saved them for a special occasion. “Promise made is promise kept,” Sinagna had said on Veterans’ Day, his voice hard as wire, though the tantrum pummelled in his gut.

So Sinagna and Injun Joe and Charlie B, and me coming late as usual, came together on the special night before the national holiday, and crept up on the backside of Scott’s Mill, closed tight as a fighter’s fist, sitting there beside the slow Saugus River. It was a mill as marked as time itself, whose existence seemed to transcend the town and its beginnings. Now and then it became a shell of nacre the way an early bronze moon could make it eerie and distant and out of this world. It was a piece of another time, another dimension, for none of us could begin to imagine how much workers’ sweat had seeped into the floors for parts of two centuries.

One box and two bags of choice explosives, stashed away for ninety slow-as-snails days, figured in our arms as something Fort Sumter or another historic battle site might have set free. Tonight there’d be a new war on the silence clasping the mill, on the eerie darkness that moonless nights allowed to cling to the mill, and on whatever lurked in it or around it.  We had no idea of what was in the mill.

Lighting our sticks of punk, we stood on the bank of the river and the smell coasted thickly in the night as if an old barn had been turned inside out. Once, earlier, Injun Joe had explained that his grandfather affirmed that punk was made from camel dung. Each of them inhaled the acrid and known and nostalgic smell as it fingered memories of past celebrations filled with “oohs,” and “ahs,” and “ohs.”

All our memories said time was eternal, spilled on a level coming to us and moving away from us, but tonight disruption was the game. Disruption and noise and affirmation of the minor manhood working its endless way down in our genes.

The Saugus River ran away at the foot of the huge red brick building, the calm waters swishing slowly against the cluttered rock dam site at the foot of the red brick building. Above us, ranging out of trees, darkness came plodding on, the near silence moving across our skins asking to be known. Sinagna’s Aunt Lil once had said, “Darkness comes on like a beggar man to close the end of day.”

“It’s only brick,” Sinagna said, his natural spirit bucking up his current assessment. His hand touched the side of the mill, its doors now closed for as long as we’d had been alive; a huge,  ghostly creature of a building, windows boarded up, doors frozen in place with huge spikes; eyes that could not see, mouths that could not speak. There was, however, something else in the touch of that stone, something mossy, something growing, something without a voice, but threatening us.

We had known forever that it was there.

Sinagna, as fearsome as any boy we knew, could feel the presence of something if only in the touch of the stone. Perhaps a creature, but not quite visible; it might not breathe, but it was there. Yet no one, none of our friends or neighbors had ever been hurt. It was what we had counted on, in our perilous argument.

“Yuh,” Charlie B said, feeling the fuzz on the back of his neck with a threat of electricity in it, “so how come they see a glow of flames every Fourth of July. At midnight. From the only window that’s not boarded up. The one way up in the peak out front. Tell me how that gets done. All the floors have been taken out. The whole place is nothing but a shell. So how come so many people have seen a red glow in that window way up there? Even my father said he saw it, expected the place was about to burn down.”

His twelve-year-old face was squeezed into his own questions, his mouth still pursed, his chin and that pursed mouth still asking for an explanation. The three of us were always blue-eyed; now, at this juncture, we were dark-eyed.

Sinagna bristled as only Sinagna could bristle, his jaw prominent, his eyes steely, his breath measured. “How should I know?” he said. “I ain’t been in there. I ain’t seen anybody go in or come out, ever. Maybe it’s like a locked-up Aurora Borealis, like it was caught in there the very first time it was caught. Something crazy, like that. Or a bum gets in there every year to play tricks on us. Like having his own routine. But we promised we’d light it up one way or another. And I’m all for getting inside somehow, anyhow. Maybe plopping off one of the plywood boards over the windows. We all promised.” He was standing tall, asserting some kind of authority that prior bravery had granted him.

“I didn’t say anything about not doing it. I’m not yellow!” Charlie B was breathing heavy as he spoke. And the darkness deepened and a small breath of a wind stirred in the near leafless trees and Charlie B froze straight up as he heard a soft moan come on the small breath of air. It rode over the thick smell of burning punk.

“We’re not alone,” he said, his hand gripping Sinagna’s arm so hard his fingernails dug into the camouflaged material of Sinagna’s fatigue jacket. He wore it in honor of a lost friend from the other end of the street, lost in Burma, in the war.

“It’s the wind, Charlie,” Sinagna said. “Nothing to it. Just the wind. It’s a midnight wind. Aunt Lil says every wind twisting around the mill has its own voice.”

And then, right then on that night, at or near the stroke of midnight, as if commanded by a presence, an omnipotence, the plywood cover over a peaked window high above our heads pulled away from the window frame with the shriek of nails being yanked. It fell and smashed on the rocks below.

We froze in place, our breaths caught in our throats. And the yearly and eerie light came at last from that high window, a red moving glow the way flames lick at campfire wood. Slow. Sultry. Expectant. Then it glowed a sudden blue, then a red and a green glow. And the moan came again, and faint and distant music trooped in with it as if drums and fifes were playing on the side of Vinegar Hill and were bouncing off the mill’s walls, and firelight swept against the high window like a new fire banked in a furnace. It was music and it was just a step up from silence, and it was so light, so distant, so feathery, so winged, it might not have been. “Now,” it said in an unspoken voice. We were not sure of anything.

Charlie B dropped his bag of fireworks, his in-taken breath merely a small echo riding his body. Right down to his new sneakers he shook. Injun Joe held his box as if it were his last bullet. Something was standing against us in the night and we’d have to protect ourselves. Sinagna, jawboned Sinagna, expeditionary leader, his nerves cut and frayed only a bit, from his glowing punk lit and heaved a long-wicked 2-inch salute at the nearest plywood window.

“There!” he said. “There!” The enemy to be accosted and surmounted.

The explosion ripped into the silence, and the sudden flare of light lit the hooded window and disappeared just as quickly as it had come. The overhead light leaped again, the window suddenly alive in red and blue and then an orange glow. Drums, old drums, beat somewhere, an aged tattoo of drums, a line of drums in a long forgotten parade, a rolling echo from a lost or glorious battle. At first we thought the drums came from Vinegar Hill, and then we realized that they came from inside the mill, off its walls. And fifes came slowly with the drums, and the flames glowed brighter in the high window. And a discipline, each of us noticed, seemed to come with the drums and the fifes, a unity, regulated though faint, all as if under orders, commanded.

And then, with a sudden and profound silence, the light went out. Darkness fell again, more than a beggar this time; a darkness full of time and lineal pursuits, a darkness of summonses and declarations from an insurmountable place, a darkness reaching out to touch us. We shivered in anticipation more than fear. We were present at something unknown but pronounceable, ghostly but real. From Vinegar Hill again it seemed to come, the faint and distant call of mystic notes riding on a wind, riding a thermal the eye never sees; intelligent notes, bugle notes, timeless notes.

Sinagna leaped from his kneeling position. “Listen!” he commanded, his voice stern, demanding, the barking voice of an infantry line sergeant. “Listen!”

Overhead the red glow came back in the high round window near the peak of the mill. And the notes sounded clear and distinct. And they came from inside the mill, not from outside, but from inside Scott’s Mill.

Those were timeless notes coming at us.

With messages in them.

Charlie B and Injun Joe reached for small recognition of the notes, but it was Sinagna who knew them. “That’s Assembly that’s playing. I heard it on Tim’s web site. That’s Assembly. I heard it on a web site. I downloaded a whole mess of them, but that’s Assembly.” In his voice was heard a definite change, as though he might have snapped to attention in the ranks.

Mesmerized, we heard more bugle calls, some Sinagna knew and some he didn’t. He was not flustered. “Call to Arms,” he said proudly, listening again, nodding his head, “and Boots and Saddles” a few moments later, and then, still distant notes coming to them, “First Call,” and “Call to Quarters,” and finally, the sounds now down inside us, touching at our souls, standing at attention in the dark, he said in that deepening voice, “To the Colors.”

Our blood froze. We were rapt and enraptured, transplanted but in place, something crying to get out of us, to have a voice of its own. Each of us felt it in his own way, yet somehow acknowledged the sharing.

The door of Scott’s Mill popped open right beside us, and the faint and still far-reaching notes came to them, and horse hooves tromping on hard ground and the clumping of hundreds and hundreds of boots on packed gravel. We looked inside, amazed, frightened, and a line of horse troops, grey and blue cavalry, passed in review, eyes-righting us, moving past us in formation. Others came clothed in a dozen or so different uniforms, Johnny Reb grey, Yankee blue, Army O.D., Airman’s blue and Sailor blue, dress Marine and fatigue Marine, war on top of endless war, time on top of immemorial time. They were illustrations of all wars, and all losses, and the ranks were thick and heavy and dense with the souls of innumerable warriors.

From a post in the ranks, well back in the ranks, a deep and resonant voice came to us. “We’re coming home, boys. We’re coming home and we don’t have to go off anywhere anymore. Not this night. Not ever. We’re all the ones who never came home, but we’ve been waiting for you. We’ve tried every Fourth of July for years. It’s only on the Fourth of July that we can come home.”

From a limitless distance, evoked and called at one side of the mill’s interior, they came, a long endless march of men, shoulders back, heads up, coming home after their own eternity; Gettysburg, Stone Mountain, San Juan, Chateau Thierry, Omaha Beach, Kwajalein, Chosin Reservoir, Heartbreak Ridge, Dak To, deserts and jungles too numerous to mention, all the odd points of the fiery Earth, and all the harsh graves of that eternity.

“Eyes right,” the deep voice said, commanding, and then, as if stating a memorial of their own kind, added, “We did it for the young un’s and for the old-timers, too.”

Sinagna stood as tall as he’d ever stand. He motioned us to attention as new notes came on the thin, cool air. “Retreat,” he whispered, the huskiness suddenly at home in his voice, arrived manhood in his voice, spine upright, nerves in place.

 

“That’s Retreat,” he said again, his voice still deeper, resonant. The sombre notes carried for long moments and the line of troops and horsemen stood at attention, just the way Sinagna and we stood our ground.

And then, more distant than any call ever heard before or ever afterward, spilling  first out of a summer darkness and then out of a resounding radiance hitting us straight one, the smell of burning punk as acrid as spent gunpowder crawling in the air, a lone and distant bugle’s notes came riding another feathery and light thermal from the very ends of time.

“You’ll not forget this night, will you, boys?” And the deep voice was gone and the troopers were gone and the horsemen were gone, and the lights drifted off to night again, and a single and momentary note from a still more distant bugle hung itself on the pinnacle of air as Taps ended the most memorable holiday of all time.

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Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951. Books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short SpansCollection of FriendsFrom the Quickening.  eBooks: Korean EchoesThe Westering, (nominated for National Book Award); from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum (NHL mystery)Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment,and An Accountable Death. Work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Copperfield ReviewCahoodaloodalingLiterary OrphansOcean Magazine, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, 3 AM Magazine, Nazar Look, Eastlit and Rope & Wire Magazine. He has 24 Pushcart nominations. In the Garden of Long Shadows published by Pocol Press, 2014, to be followed by The Nations, about Native Americans.

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Knickers

By Tom Sheehan

I was fighting it all the way, wearing knickers, me, twelve going on thirty it felt some days, dreams about Ginnie Wilmot practically every night now, the morning dew being the vague remnants my father spoke about with a smile on his face, new hairs in my crotch, my mother wanting her boy to look neat, my father looking at the horizon almost saying this too will pass. It was his one-shoulder shrug that carried verb and noun in its arsenal. I had early discovered that he did not need a lot of words.

My mother was looking at her choice of two hats, checking them out in the mirror on her bureau. A dried flower was creased in cellophane in one corner of the mirror; I’d heard some reference about it but had declined interest. My father’s picture, him in a Marine uniform, was framed in a second corner, my sisters and me in another, in our Sunday best a year earlier. A palm frond from Palm Sunday twisted itself across the top of the mirror. I think the hats were as old as I was. I knew she would pick the purple one. Her eyes announced the decision prematurely; again, an article of speech. Much of the time we were a family of silence, where looks or shrugs or hand gestures or finger pointing said all that was needed. My cousin Phyllenda had given the hat to her. “You’ll look great in this one.” I could never tell my mother Phyllenda’s boyfriend had swiped it from a booth in Dougherty’s Pub in Malden Square where he’d go of an evening or two. I’d seen them talking an evening on the porch, Dermott’s hand up under Phyllenda’s dress and it not yet dark.

A May Sunday was a bit snappy this early with the sunrise. “There will be hundreds of people at Nahant Beach today.” Both the radio in the bedroom and the kitchen were on; her music almost mute in the background. She looked out the window across Cliftondale Square, across the green of the traffic circle and the new green of elms already leaping at full growth against the sky. On the third floor we lived, yet not as high as some of the elms. Gently a nod was spoken, an affirmation. “They are waiting for summer at the beach,” she added. “They go walking on the beach looking for it. It’s over the horizon a few weeks yet. We will go right from church. You will wear your new green suit.” At length it had become her trip-hammer approach, the hard music. In that voice I felt the agencies of iron and slag at a mix. “You don’t know how proud I am of you in your new suit. And two pair of pants, at that.” For sure, iron and slag in her words, the new and the dross. At her lighting up about the new suit, I cringed. Two pair of pants seemed eternal, would carry me into high school, into football, the mold of the locker room, pal-talk growing the way my older brother would nod, owning up to all I had heard. Hell, there’d be knickers, for God’s sake, for girls, lots of them prettier than Ginnie Wilmot who once sat across a log flashing her white underpants at me so that something happened in my throat, something so dark and dry and dreadful that I can taste it yet.

Simon Goldman it was who sprung the suit on my mother, little shrunken Simon with the poppy eyes and the red face, on Saturday morning collecting his due of pennies she yet owed on a parlor set. “It’s green herringbone tweed, my Helen,” he said, in that possessive delivery he must have developed early in his game. “It has two pair of pants. For you yet cheaper than anyone. Resplendent he will be in it. Resplendent. No boy in this whole town has a suit like it. And the famous golfers wear knickers, I’ve seen them in newsreels at the theater. Hogan and O’Brien and Downey, McDevitt and Fitzpatrick, McHenry and that Shaun whoever from Swampscott.” He was inventive, you had to admit. I’d have said a liar as well as a schemer. “Two pair of pants. Green. Herringbone. Think of the message.” His eyes almost fell out of his head, dropping Ireland almost at his feet, dropping it at her feet. I almost pushed him down the stairs, he was at it again, selling her, saying it was a bargain, saying you people are climbing the social ladder on my advice and merchandise. Truth is, she cautioned me once, only once, on how I should remember Simon. “I found him,” she had said, “he didn’t find me.”

The worst part of it all, putting on the suit, the knickers with knee length socks, was having to take off my sneakers. I thought they were welded to me. I thought I’d wear them forever. I belonged in sneakers, foul or fair, “But not in your new suit.” It was as if her whole foot had come down on the subject. My father lifted his chin, flicked his head aside, gave off a mere suggestion of a nod, shrugged his shoulders. This too shall pass. With a knife he could not have carved it deeper.

In my new greenery we headed for Nahant Beach, me in my green knickers, four sisters all dolled up in the back seat of the old Graham, the titters and snickers behind their hands, my unsworn vow becoming animate at the back of my mind, a prowler on the outskirts of a campground.

Up front, in her purple hat, a purple dress with a big collar, a black pocketbook with an over-scored but lustrous patina, my mother looked straight ahead, playing now and then with the knob on the radio, trying to catch La Scala or New York out for a morning stroll.

She stared at nothing she might wish to have. Beside her, between her and my father in a car borrowed from my uncle, was the second pair of green herringbone knickers. Not knowing why they were there, I nevertheless felt my father’s hand in it. I wondered if there had been an argument’s movement along with the package, or behind it. Arguments I had heard, about dozens of things, then quiet discussions. Once it had been about the radio one could hardly hear. “Music has shaped me,” my mother once said, “from the very first touch to the very first clench of fist..” That’s when I knew she loved the brass of a band or an orchestra, not just the oompa of it, but the cold clear energy of horns clearing their throats with melodies one could only dream of.

“Toot the horn,” my mother said. “Now there’s Dolly Donovan.” Her wave was thorough and friendly. No message hung on its signal. “She’ll be at the beach. Maurice will bring her.” I did not deflect a message in that pronouncement: it came anyway. Maurice bid and Maurice done. Some laws, it seemed to say, were carved in stone. It could have said Life is more than being made to wear greenknickers, but I wouldn’t let it.

In the rearview mirror I caught my father’s eye. “We might as well see what Forty Steps looks like today, and then come back to the beach.” The gears downshifted as he swung the corner down Boston Street in Lynn. We had come over the bridge spanning the Saugus River. In my nose the salt was alive, and pictures came with it. The gulls, by the hundreds, whipped a frenzy. Waves dashed on the rocks of Nahant, especially where Forty Steps climbed upward from the froth of water. The lobster boats, working yet, bobbed out on the Atlantic. Under sunlight majestic white sails of sloops and schooners and sailboats from Elysium, Islands of the Blessed and Marblehead darted like skaters before the wind. On that same wind brigantines and caravels and corsairs leaped from my reading, taking me away from green knickers and Nahant all the way back to Elysium and Ginnie Wilmot, the salt spray clean and sprightly and the dry vulture of taste yet in my throat from one glimpse of white underpants. Would that mystery, that sight, never go away?

The Graham, brush-painted green, lumpy for the tour of Nahant where Cabots and Rockerfellers and Lowells and Longfellow himself once sat their thrones, cruised along the Nahant Causeway. In the slight breeze you could feel the sun bleaching stones, sand, the inner harbor’s glistening rocks throwing off plates of light like the backs of hippopotami caught in a satin lacquer. People dressed for church and late dinners and nights on the town walked along the beach, their best clothes akin to badges of some sort.

“My, look at that white hat with the huge brim,” my mother said, pointing out a woman holding a man’s arm, three children at their heels. The girls were still giggling behind their hands, restrained while my father was driving, on their best behavior. Once on the beach they would become themselves. And I would set about de-suiting myself.

When we strolled over to the Forty Steps, the waves talking to us, the crowd of people on all approaches, I saw other boys in knickers, but no herringbone green tweed. No iron mother holding her whip and her pride in one hand. A few giggles and harrumps I heard, the way my grandfather could talk, making a point or two on his own. No question in my mind they were directed at my pants more than the whole suit. These people could also nod, shrug, gesture, make sense without words. I wondered what made me want to read in the first place, seeking all the adventure of new words, in this wide world of the body’s semaphore, so expressive, so legitimate.

I knew it wouldn’t take long, not at Nahant, not at the edge of the great ocean itself, not here where the Norsemen and Vikings and Irish sailors were flung to across the seas with Europe behind shoving them relentlessly. My parents, arm in arm, walked on pavement, the girls broke free with yells, I fled down to the rocks at the ocean’s edge. With an odd gesture, my mother lifted a hand to her face, as if surprise dwelt there to be touched, to be awakened, to be lifted for use. That’s when I knew she was the smartest person in the whole world. She had seen it all coming, had practically choreographed the whole thing, and my father thinking he was in control all that time. At last she had measured me against all other boys in knickers. And found something wanting.

Green is as green does, I could almost hear myself say as I slipped on the rocks heavy with seaweed still with salt, still with water, still with an unbecoming dye residing pimple-like, blister-like, pod-like, in its hairy masses. It was more like sitting down in puddled ink, that intentional trip, trying to be a loving son, finding it so difficult in green knickers, obeying more primal urges.

“What a mess you’ve made of yourself,” she said when she saw me, that hand still in surprise at her face. “Go up to the car and change your pants. I brought the other pair along,” so you could get rid of them also she seemed to say. My father had found the horizon to his liking, the thin line of boyhood and manhood merging out there on the edge of the world; no shrug of the shoulder, no sleight of hand, but a look outward that was as well a look backward. I saw it all.

I’m so damned lucky, I said to myself, loving them forever, and then some.

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Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment, Korea 1951 and graduated from Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short SpansA Collection of FriendsFrom the Quickening.  He has 24 Pushcart nominations, and 365 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. Recent eBooks from Milspeak Publishers include Korean Echoes, 2011, nominated for a Distinguished Military Award and The Westering, 2012, nominated for a National Book AwardHis newest eBooks, from Danse Macabre/Lazarus/Anvil, are  Murder at the Forum, an NHL mystery novel, Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment and An Accountable Death. His work is in Rosebud (6 issues), The Linnet’s Wings, Ocean Magazine, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine and many internet global sites and print magazines/anthologies including 3 AM Magazine, Nazar Look and Eastlit. A new collection of short stories, In the Garden of Long Shadows, will be issued by Pocol Press this summer. 

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