It was July of 1936, sticky hot, perhaps ice cream someplace I hoped, but I was acutely aware that ice cream might not happen this day. The steel bars of the old Mystic Bridge in my hands were hard and warm, as the sun had hours of penetration and I had one hour to spare within my dramatic playground out over the Mystic River we called “The Oily” with observant regard for its rainbowed surface. Having slipped inside the girder work of a cage-like support angled at 45 degrees, my eyes went directly down on a boat about to pass under the bridge loaded with iron junk, old cold steel, surely lots of brass and copper from junk yards and junk wagons all over Boston. Long lengths of copper and brass, gleaming in the mess, looked like sandwich parts between dark iron crusts. The bridge sat between Boston’s Charlestown borough, proud as the Bunker Hill Monument, off across the borough and uphill from me, and Chelsea, a city as small in area as one can imagine, but lined with petrol tanks and ship piers, ships that traveled the high seas from countries around the globe … the coming-from and the going-to so different.
I wondered where this ship was going, why junk was the cargo, all that clap-trap debris of the deserted, from wayside conglomerations and ruins and cast-offs that old men in thick white whiskers and beards picked up in horse-drawn wagons and now and then a small red truck with high red sideboards, a step up from the horse vehicle, for delivery and sale at junkyards in the area. The answers came later, in one fell swoop of destiny. There was a singular difference in the cargo of outgoing ships and the junk wagons; the ships only carried metal while the junk wagons also carried scrap paper and cardboard baled tight with rope or wire or old neckties whose patterns still showed off their styles, and bales of old rags in new patterns.
That July of 1936 saw me on vacation from Miss Finn’s first grade class at the Kent School, not far from Hobie’s Beanery, in a garage of all places, nor far Abie’s Market on one strategic corner of the Loop-the-Loop, and the Bond Bread factory. All of them memorable for one or more reasons, and I still have the note Miss Finn sent home to my parents: “Please don’t move away until I have taught all the Sheehans.” Miss Finn thought my sister Patricia and I were her bright stars; we were readers at this early age, taken in hand by a paternal grandmother and a paternal grandfather for the grasp of one of “the three Rs.” (We had no idea, my sister Pat and I, that we were bound for Marleah Graves’ second grade class at the Cliftondale School in Saugus, only a dozen miles away, and a host of new classmates bound to be SHS ’47.)
And yet here I was adventuring within the structure of a monster bridge, a structure that continually enticed me with solid come-ons. Once, a few months earlier, I had traversed over the river’s water as the bridge opened to let a ship pass under its span. That one-time terror became, for a free lancer kid, a constant challenge to do it again, to out-do my first fear, to be, as my father used to say, “One of the survivors of the times that flag about us.” I knew what he was referring to … always hungry for the thin meals that came from nowhere into my mother’s hands in our third level kitchen on Bunker Hill Avenue; some of those Depression-era meals so immemorial they are most memorable the longer I hold onto them. Let’s say about 87 years now, stretching on, keeping cover. An instance would be a Sunday meal purchased for a dollar after church: at Hobie’s Beanery a quart of baked beans and a loaf of brown bread and the balance spent in Abie’s Market, closed on Sunday but entered via the back door for all the lamb kidneys I could get from Abie. Abie favored us too, for my sister once told him, “You grow the best lamb kidneys of all, but they still stink up the house when they’re getting cooked.” He loved her honesty and winked his appreciation for me, and I couldn’t wait to tell my parents; good news was always in order.
If my father knew I was in that cage-like support, he’d whale the tar out of me; my mother would cast a stern look, shake her head, begin to cry at the possibilities. But … and a big imaginative BUT, my grandmother, likely on that same July day, put on her pert little black hat, grabbed her black shiny pocketbook and took the first bus that came by her corner of Highland Avenue and Trull Lane in Somerville, a few miles away, the tall, elegant lady of manners, most correct speech, possibly the softest hands I’ve ever known, and words that often said, “We are born to read.”
More than three-quarters of her life were spent binding books at Ginn & Company in Cambridge, with hundreds of rejects landing on our shelves from inside her shiny black pocketbook, those very books calling out, making demands, crying for attention to favored paragraphs beginning the longest lingering that bunches of words ever had. (The High Lama saying in Lost Horizon, “For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here. For here, we shall be with their books and their music, and a way of life based on one simple rule: Be Kind! When that day comes, it is our hope that the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread throughout the world. Yes, my son; When the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled and the meek shall inherit the earth.”)
She was, on that day or one just like it, bent on travel and transportation and relocation … of our family. “Find some grass and trees for the boy, friends for the girls, room to breathe, throw arms and yells into the sky, climb the hills, fish the ponds, let them be.” A hundred times I had heard her say to my father, “Let them be, James. Let them be,” That BE was stretched as far as she could send it. Too much too soon she had seen more than once; in our own doorway the drunk of early morning advertising his hard, harsh night, half alive, meaning half dead, sprawled in his helplessness, his loss, extravagance afoot gone prone, a disastrous sight for an elegant grandmother, bookbinder, dreamer, mover of families. There was a better place. Perhaps she had paused as I had on that same elocution of the High Lama, where each of us had seen Hugh Conway nod his head in universal agreement, in solitude’s assessment. Some grandmothers are like that; lucky us.
That grand day of decision, she went via Somerville/Everett Station/Malden Square to find a big silver Hart Lines bus that simply said “Saugus” on its destination sign. She found a third floor apartment in Cliftondale Square beside Hanson’s Garage, near Joe Laura’s Barbershop and Louie Gordon’s Tailor Shop, and gave acute directions to my father … take them elsewhere. That’s how we were bound for Saugus, where the green grass grew, huge fields of it.
We had, of course, moved before … several moves ahead of unpaid landlords, in the midst of Prohibition and the Great Depression, and my father’s pay of $28.00 a month as a Marine. We weren’t taught frugality; we learned it first-hand.
Ahead of the moving van, he took me for my first ride to Saugus. We crossed “my bridge” on the way. Eventually we went along the river and a small fleet of lobster boats (I mentioned that I’d never had lobster and my father said, “Don’t worry anymore,” as he tousled my hair), cruised through the awed parts of town full of green grass in exorbitant spreads, lusty farms teeming with crops taller than me, rode the Turnpike that headed all the way to Newburyport … and beyond? I heard the hum of traffic in prolonged sprints rather than the in-town screeches of a daring rider performing a Loop-the-Loop, tire cries as high-pitched as police whistles. Then we circled around until we had seen the three ice houses along the banks of Lily Pond and huge fish, which were carp, roiling in wide circles on the surface and kids jumping off a rocky place into the pond. A few older folks, on the far side, were almost in the darkness of trees as thick as parade crowds, swinging their fishing lines out over the pond where the leaning sun leaped westward back across the Turnpike. And one canoeist, motionless, most distant but ever since a part of this history, dazzled in the sun’s rays, such a far cry from the drunk in the doorway who startled and started my grandmother on her own crusade, her own trek here … a journey for family preservation.
I was locked into Saugus already, the images flying through me from the river and the pond and a small, decrepit building with high black letters on its gray side that almost squawked out “Shadowland.”
“It used to be a ballroom,” my father said, qualifying my curiosity. “Looks like it’s gone into the Nevernever land.”
But I could tell he was up to something, something special, something to fit, “Find some grass and trees for the boys.” It was the male connection. It would not be a place where he’d say to the girls, “This is where you’ll play with your dolls, or practice early make-up treats, wear dresses and gowns and high heels that are too many years bigger than you.”
We spun a quick left hand turn and a broad field swept out in front of me, with uniform chalk lines at uniform distances, a gridiron. Then and still now, longer than I could run ahead of others, a baseball diamond in one corner backstopped by a huge tree looking surely able to trap foul balls in its thick spread.
In the air was a hush, minutes long, a declaration, a testament. He waited while the images came and went, then simply added, “This’ll be for your brother and you. The girls will find their own places. They always will.
I didn’t know the names yet of coming heroes and teammates, but I knew right then, beforehand, what would be the robust images of Iron Mike Harrington, Eddie Shipwreck Shipulski, Bazooka Bob Burns, Heavenly Gates, and then Doug and Bruce Waybright (Notre Dame), Art Spinney (BC and the 1958 game with his Baltimore Colts beating the New York Giants), Frank Pyszko (with 5 interceptions in one game), Bob Kane, Ernie Anganis (teammate forever), John and Fred Quinlan (John the best of the lot of them), Soupy Campbell (born to work and suffer and be admired), Gene Decareau, George Miles (Guts and Glory himself), Andy and Frank Forti, Sardie and Richie Nicolo, Cushy Harris, Saugus 14-Lynn Classical 12, Saugus 13-undefeated Melrose 0 (twice- 1941 & 1944), Saugus 21-undefeated Revere 0, the sharing, the warmth of friendship, hard working two-a-day practices starting in 1943 with Coach Dave Lucey), trekking off to Korea with four years’ worth of opponents, sharing the Main Supply Route in a single file walk with Lynn Classical’s Jimmy Varzakis as we swapped positions in the Iron Triangle of 1951 under the leadership of Young-Oak Kim, Korean-American, for whom I carried a 300 command radio as he directed the whole Iron Triangle attack. Once a highly decorated officer in WW II Europe in the Nisei 442nd Battalion, a lieutenant when I first saw him and a Lt. Colonel when we parted. That day of parting he stood at the tail end of a six-by truck of home-bound soldiers, deep in Korea, having earned “rotation status,” and asking, “Is Sgt. Sheehan aboard?” I wanted to duck. I wanted to get home. I wanted to write. I had things to say, and I thought he wanted to keep me for another tour.
All of this history is traceable to that elegant lady with a shiny black pocketbook, soft hands, a thirst for the good word of the language, who bound books for more than half a century, who dreamed of a place of green fields and thick trees, never knowing at the outset it was Saugus, where Indians once danced and prayed on Round Hill, where Captain Kidd might well have come up the river with his catch to bury, where young Scots were surely indentured at the First Iron Works in America, where a Yankee carpenter or builder did leave a talisman coin on a sill of my house built in 1742 and a worn high-button shoe of his daughter square-nailed to a beam above our kitchen window, another fetish, which my father called an “anting-anting” from his Philippine days in the Marine Corps.
The junk collectors never knew they were selling parts for Tokyo Tojo’s battleships, aircraft carriers, Zeros in quick flight. Neither did I. In other forms that load of junk hit me for years on end. Images, couplets, lines came and were gathered, remain yet like pieces of this wall of me … but a long time before things fell into place, when hearing my father’s advice; “Crow a little bit when you’re having good luck; Own up, pay up, and shut up when you’re losing. Fishing is the great solace in sports. It’s for the mind, not the hook. It’s the time when you measure wins and losses in the truest angle of all, a slant of unbearably beautiful Saugus sunlight through morning’s alder leaves, water’s whisper of confidence on rocks you think you can hear later in the night, the pointed miracle of a trout beating you at his game, letting you know the wins and losses do come and do pass by, even when you’re standing still.”
It’s like the game of golf or the game of pool … the green is highly coincident. And early in sports, at the edge of my first failure, marked by the touch of his hand on my shoulder: “You come into this life with two gifts, love and energy, and words and sports are going to take both of them for all you’ve got.” I think his heart remembered a loss, his knees their pain. When they took his leg off, the pain did not leave him.
But the reminders stick like old gum under theater seats on late Saturday evenings … I who lost a brother and nearly lost another remember the headlines, newsreels, songs of bond-selling, gas-griping, and movies too true to hate, the whole shooting match of them. The entire Earth bent inwards, imploding bombs, bullets, blood, shrieking a terrible bird cry in my ears only sleep could lose. Near sleep I could only remember the nifty bellbottom blues he wore in the picture my mother cleaned and cleaned and cleaned on the altar of her bureau as if he were the Christ or the Buddha, a new tall, skinny statue finding a pedestal in my mind, but he was out there in the sun and the sand and the rain of shells and sounds I came to know years later moving up from Pusan, breaking out of the perimeter, bound north to the Yalu River. I never really knew about him in the globular way until he came home from the Navy, stepped off the train in Saugus Center and I saw his sea bag decorated with his wife’s picture drawn by his hand, and a map and the names Saipan, Iwo Jima, Kwajalein … the war.
The memories stand still at times, forced into place, hardening me, stiffening the joists I rest upon, bearing recall, the fast moment being retrieved, lost, found again, fireworks on the Fourth, a May Monday of silence at Riverside Cemetery, a friendly-forces face from Bethlehem or McKees Rocks or the Windy City knocking at my door several times near midnights, the lasting moments caught again in surprise, elegant, heroic, so sassy, talking back to me later on a Saturday afternoon as I drink a beer, as it comes again without prejudice, in this new millennium where I know again full well the weight of an M-1 rifle on a web strap hanging on my shoulder, the awed knowledge of a ponderous steel helmet atop my head, press of a tight lace on one boot, wrap of a leather watch band on my wrist, and who stood beside me who stand no more.
The old Mystic River Bridge is gone, replaced by new a new structure with photographic toll collection; so are some cities I have visited in khaki, those blasted to smithereens saving a million lives here, losing unknown thousands there, still know about Young-Oak Kim, now celebrated by the name of a school in California, talk now and then to Pete Leone in McKees Rocks and Frank Mitman in Bethlehem, both in PA, and Bob Breda in North Riverside, Illinois, and wonder about them, and know most of all those who have moved with eternal motivation … who stand beside me no more.
Like Stan Kujawski, star Chicago softball pitcher, the Mechanical Wrist, radioman from three wars, who wore down from his wars and rests now in Calumet City, Illinois … Rest, Ike, forever.
Nor stands that elegant lady with the huge, shiny black pocketbook, bookbinder, director of traffic, mover of families, steadfast reader, enforcer of the trade, who opened so many doors with her work, her sly gifts, her coverless books, those rejects for the poor lot of readers still carrying the hunger for word upon word, sound upon sound, hearts wrapped with consummate adjectives.
Nor do I see too many guys in sun tans anymore; you know, the old summer Class A uniforms they saved from their promised long weekend leaves, those killers, those formidable young warriors, those hot Omaha Beach swimmers with salt in their noses and into gun barrels and curing half the ills and evils they had ever known as if all were the sole balm from the living god, those St. Lo low flyers of updrafts of gray dawn, Bastogne’s Bullies, bridge-wreckers at Germany’s inevitable edge; friends who passed through my Seoul immemorial times leaving their footprints for my wayward boots to over-shadow, fill in, pass on to this destiny. Of course, they have popped the belt line button, split the crotch in hell’s anxieties, who let their quick waistlines go fallow with beer and dreams’ nutrients, those old warriors of Sundays past without other salves, or Saturday evening’s shelling or unconsumed bombs that threaten Wednesdays sixty years later; those slim-legged survivors who later wore them with their collegiate jackets, myriad sport coat ensembles, slick-cigarette’d, crew-cut topped, freshly shaven, but hinting of slight old world-in-the-face looks that could have toppled their young empires.
You know them, some even now, on a near corner, a block away, just over a mountain or the far side of a simple river, how they came back to play on the green fields as if they had never left the chalk-striped confines, showed the kids how the game used to be played, those Sun Tanners hitting behind the runners, bunters of the lost art when the whole world sat back on its heels that the big sound was now over, put their muscle on the line late in the game when the only thing left was heart and horror at losing, having seen too much for their time, but making do.
Remember them on baked diamonds of the quiet Earth, how there was an urgency to collapse time into a controllable fist, yet how free they were, breathing on their own, above salt water, the awful messages buried behind their brows for all time to come, unstitched wounds and scars amber in late evening’s breezes, like chevrons from their Elsewheres. The truest badges they wore were the sun tans carried home from Remagen and Mount Casino leaves, the march out of the Pusan Perimeter or off Old Baldy and Heartbreak Ridge, out of Yangu and the Frozen Chosen and the long marches along the MSRs, those slim, fit-all occasion trousers, press-worthy, neat, signally-marked with angst and annihilation and world freedom; those narrow-waist emblems of the Forties, the Fifties, neat with tie and shirt, wore cement on summer days of their labors, or roofing tar, some to class and some not, collapsing time again. I write this to celebrate the dual days, a Monday in May when a hush and a soft-shoed parade passes through the middle of town and the middle of memory, and a cooler day in November, a later observation, when old faces come leaping back from a distance, just wanting a moment to be known again.
The hawkers will sell their bright wares, wearing their municipal permits as badges, filling balloons, authorizing plastic toy gun purchases, leaving their remnant discards in cluttered gutters the early sweeper will gather, making money on the sad memorial, dreaming of next Flag Day and the Fourth of July. Popcorn will burst its tiny explosions, ice cream bars will melt, children will think they gambol in a ballpark. Then, then only apparent, I will see some old ball players, the Earth-savers, underground or remembering, chino-less and walking among the very memorable names; comrade, comrade, comrade or one’s teammate, teammate, teammate, illusions of the noisy past, clad in somber pin stripes or cedar, carrying grandchildren, bearing them up from under grass, evoking Monday of all Mondays, those swift ball hawks, those young Earth-dreamers, who survive in so many ways, that legion of names falling across Saugus and every town the way we remember them, a litany of summer evenings full of first names gone past but called for the First Sergeant’s roster: Basil P., Thomas A., Lawrence D., Edward M., Guy C., Hugh M., Arthur D., Edward D., James W., John K., Walter K., William M., Frank P., Howard B., names, settled, softly called, reverent even for this day, across our sun-drenched Stackpole Field and fields everywhere, bat on ball and the echo of a thousand games swung about the air as if time itself has been compressed into late innings, those swift ball hawks in pursuit of the inevitable; oh, young, in May, the whole Earth suddenly gone silent, but bound, bound, Oh bound to build memories, in May, in May, and then, in November, when all the leaves come back to earth.
I remember so many of them caught in the rags of war when the day had gone over hill, but that still, blue light remained, cut with a gray edge, catching corners rice paddies lean out of. In the serious blue brilliance of battle they’d become comrades becoming friends, just Walko and Williamson and Sheehan sitting in the night drinking beer cooled by Imjin River waters in August of ‘51 in Korea. Three men drably clad, but clad in the rags of war. Stars hung pensive neon. Mountain-cool silences were being earned, hungers absolved, a ponderous god talked to. Above silences, the ponderous god’s weighty as clouds, elusive as soot on wind, yields promises. They used church keys to tap cans, lapped up silence rich as missing salt, fused their backbones to good earth in a ritual old as labor itself, these men clad in the rags of war. Such an August night gives itself away, tells tales, slays the rose in reeling carnage, murders sleep, sucks moisture out of Mother Earth, fires hardpan, sometimes does not die itself just before dawn, makes strangers in one’s selves, those who wear the rags of war. They had been strangers beside each other, caught in the crush of tracered night and starred flanks, accidents of men drinking beer cooled in the bloody waters where brothers roam forever, warriors come to that place by fantastic voyages, carried by generations of the persecuted or the adventurous, carried in sperm body, dropped in the spawning, fruiting womb of America, and born to wear the rags of war.
Walko, reincarnate of the Central European, come of land lovers and those who scatter grain seed, bones like logs, wrists strong as axle trees, fair and blue-eyed, prankster, ventriloquist who talked off mountainside, rumormonger for fun, heart of the hunter, hide of the herd, apt killer, born to wear the rags of war.
Williamson, faceless in the night, black set on black, only teeth like high piano keys, eyes that captured stars, fine nose got from Rome through rape or slave bed unknown generations back, was cornerback tough, graceful as ballet dancer (Walko’s opposite), hands that touched his rifle the way a woman’s touched, or a doll, or one’s fitful child caught in fever clutch, came sperm-tossed across the cold Atlantic, some elder Virginia- bound bound in chains, the Congo Kid come home, the Congo Kid, alas, alas, born to wear the rags of war.
Sheehan, reluctant at trigger-pull, dreamer, told deep lies with dramatic ease, entertainer who wore shining inward a sum of ghosts forever from the cairns had fled; heard myths and the promises in earth and words of songs he knew he never knew, carried scars vaguely known as his own, shared his self with saint and sinner, proved pregnable to body force, but born to wear the rags of war.
Walko: We lost the farm. Someone stole it. My father loved the fields, sweating. He watched grass grow by starlight, the moon slice at new leaves. The mill’s where he went for work, in the crucible, drawing on the green vapor, right in the heat of it, the miserable heat. My mother said he started dying the first day. It wasn’t the heat or green vapor did it, just going off to the mill, grassless, tight in. The system took him. He wanted to help. It took him, killed him a little each day, just smothered him. I kill easy. Memory does it. I was born for this, to wear these rags. The system gives, then takes away. I’ll never go piecemeal like my father. These rags are my last home.
Williamson: Know why I’m here’ I’m from North Ca’lina mountains, sixteen and big and wear size fifteen shoes and my town drafted me ‘stead of a white boy. Chaplain says he git me home. Shit! Be dead before then. Used to hunt home, had to eat what was fun runnin’ down. Brother shot my sister and a white boy in the woods. Caught them skinnin’ it up against a tree, run home and kissed Momma goodbye, give me his gun. Ten years, no word. Momma cries about both them all night. Can’t remember my brother’s face. Even my sister’s. Can feel his gun, though, right here in my hands, long and smooth and all honey touch. Squirrel’s left eye never too far away for that good old gun. Them white men back home know how good I am, and send me here, put these rags on me. Two wrongs! Send me too young and don’t send my gun with me. I’m goin’ to fix it all up, gettin’ home too. They don’t think I’m coming back, them white men. They be nervous when I get back, me and that good old gun my brother give me, and my rags of war.
Sheehan: Stories are my food. I live and lust on them. Spirits abound in the family, indelible eidolons; the O’Siodhachain and the O’Sheehaughn carved a myth. I wear their scars in my soul, know the music that ran over them in lifetimes, songs’ words, and strangers that are not strangers: Muse Devon abides with me, moves in the blood and bag of my heart, whispers tonight: Corimin is in my root cell, oh bright beauty of all that has come upon me, chariot of cheer, carriage of Cork where the graves are, where my visit found the root of the root cell—Johnny Igoe at ten running ahead of the famine that took brothers and sisters, lay father down; sick in the hold of ghostly ship I have seen from high rock on Cork’s coast, in the hold heard the myths and music he would spell all his life, remembering hunger and being alone and brothers and sisters and father gone and mother praying for him as he knelt beside her bed that hard morning when Ireland went away to the stern. I know that terror of hers last touching his face. Pendalcon’s grace comes on us all at the end.
Johnny Igoe came alone at ten and made his way across Columbia, got my mother who got me and told me when I was twelve that one day Columbia would need my hand and I must give. And tonight I say, ‘Columbia, I am here with my hands and with my rags of war.’ I came home alone. They are my brothers. Walko’s my brother. Williamson’s my brother. Devon’s my brother. Corimin’s my brother. Pendalcon’s my brother. God, too, is my brother. I am a brother to all the dead, we all wear the rags of war.
Thunderous rain kills you, freezing snow fights its way through. Fragmentation waits no one.
Rain’s umbrella spread is odd June’s greatest havoc. You’re one zone distant like a sniper’s bullet beats a thirty ought-six at work, a narrowed focus. Do not know who’s gone dead. Find a medal’s pinned with first hole put on this man’s chest. You were so advised by veterans’ shaking shaggy eyes walking down the trail from mountain horror. Memory carries no foe’s face. Memory’s terror is like a wound, is permanent. It won’t let you sleep but it will wake you at one night’s movie with dead eyes and a comrade’s reaching hand.
Oh, I’ve gone elsewhere at war’s end, at comrade’s loss, as I did when trout fishing with Rommel’s last-known foe when the alders went bare above us, ran blue lightning jagged and ragged as scars on his arms, the proud chest, not a welt in the beginning but Swastika-made, bayonet-gathered somewhere south of France, high-dry Saharan. Leaves, forsaken, set false blasts about limbs; from small explosions came huge expulsions. Frank recalled the remarkable incumbent grace and energy of hand grenades, the godness of them, ethereal, whooshing off to nowhere unless you happened to get in their way, conclusively, incisively. He said, “The taste of shrapnel hangs on like a pewter key you mouthed as a sassy child, a wired can your father drank from which you’d sneak a few deep drafts for yourself in the cellar, nails you mouth-cached, silvered, lead-painted, wetted, iron-on-the-tongue gray-heavy metal you’ve only dreamed of since. Yet, where he’s come to since that eventful sand wasn’t all he knew. On our backs, the bare alder limbs mere antennae in the late afternoon above us, October’s flies grounded for illustrious moments, the squawking at our trespass merely a handful of crows in their magnificent tree kingdom, he brought home the last of his brothers, goggle-eyed veteran tankers, Tinker Tommies under the Union Jack, raw Senegalese old sentries still worry about, dry bodies seventy years under a mummifying sand, perhaps put away forever, and then some.
He thinks old Egypt has a whole new strain of sleepers all these years down the road of their own making, the wrap of sand as good as Tutankhamen had at hand, their khaki blouses coming up a detective’s work, with a special digger’s knowledge, at last citing army, corps, division, regiment, battalion, company, father, brother, son, neighbor, face, eye, lip, hand, soul, out there on the everlasting shift of sand, the stars still falling, angular, apogean, trailing across somewhere a dark night. Here, our worms, second place to uniqueness of fashioned flies, keen hackles, are ready for small orbits, small curves, huge mouths. And his last battle, faded into the high limbs, a flag run up after all this recaptured war, says he knows yet and ever Egypt’s two dark eyes. Frankie’s plaque is flat in cemetery’s clipped green , soldier still who knows a volunteer cuts the grass for his comrades ranked in rows
This appointment came when light tired, this arrangement, this syzygy of him and me and the still threat of a small red star standing some time away at my back, deeper than a grain of memory. I am a quarter mile from him, hard upward on this rugged rock he could look up to if only his eyes would agree once more, and it’s a trillion years behind my head or a parsec I can’t begin to imagine, they tell me even dead perhaps, that star. Can this be a true syzygy, if one is dead, if one is leaning to leave this line of sight regardless of age or love or density or how the last piece of light might be reflected, or refused, if one leaves this imposition? The windows of his room defer no light to this night, for it is always night there, blood and chemicals at warfare, nerve gone, the main one providing mirror and lethal lens, back of the eyeball no different than out front, but I climb this rock to line up with another rock and him in the deep seizure of that stolen room, bare sepulcher, that grotto of mind.
Today I bathed him, the chest like an old model, boned but collapsible, forgotten in a Detroit back room, a shelf, a deep closet, waiting to be crushed at the final blow, skin of the organ but a veneer of fatigue, the arms pried as from a child’s drawing, the one less formidable leg, the small testes hanging their forgotten-glove residuum which had begun this syzygy, the face closing down on bone as if a promise had been made toward an immaculately thin retrieval. And, at the other imaginable end of him, the one foot bloody from his curse, soured yet holier in mimicry of the near-Christ (from Golgotha brought down and put to bed, after god and my father there are no divinities), toenails coming on a darkness no sky owned, foot bottom at its own blood bath, at war, at the final and resolute war with no winner.
Oh, Christ, he’s had such wars, outer and inner, that even my hand in warmth must overcome, and he gums his gums and shakes his head and says, sideways, mouth screwed into his outlandish grin, as much a lie as any look, as devious, cold-fact true, “I used to do this for you,” the dark eyes hungry to remember, to bring back one moment of all those times to this time; and I cannot feel his hand linger on me, not its calluses gone the way of flesh or its nails thicker now than they ever were meant to be, or skin flaking in the silence of its dust-borne battle, though we are both younger than the star that’s dead so they say, as if all is ciphered for me and cut away, I know the failure of that small red star, its distillation and spend still undone, its yawn red as yet and here with us on the endless line only bent by my imagination, the dead and dying taking up both ends of me, neither one a shadow yet but all shadows in one, perhaps a sort of harmless violence sighting here across an endless known.
Ah, Devon, the other muse; The bullet of my spirit hits the runway at Shannon after The Dingle popped out. You crowd me with misery and the pestilence of long hope. I have brought all my nights with me, our silent screaming back and forth, the kaleidoscopic stars and moons serving as soul transmitters, the brittle, unremembered pain numbing my bony joints forever scarred with your injection, the well of tears I’ve spent and hold collected in the explosive bag that veins and aorta serve, and the silent times when my son was born and my nights were cries for him grasping at the edge of life.
Oh, Christ, Devon, you smother me, the highs and lows of such long pursuit, the sands shifting over the spectrum of lore binding our ends, as I move the English Ford between obstacle barrels like crude orange chess pieces on a Limerick bridge guarded by a new army, their automatic rifles hung bore down, their faces stiff as clock faces, lips set at nine and quarter past the hour, an army you never knew and yet began.
I impelled myself out of the city ganging at me harsh as Lowell or Lawrence or Worcester
with the ghosts of their mills forcing thousands of aimless steps on every corner, every street, their red bricks inanimate, bearing the wrong breathlessness, usurpers, idle squatters;
then only to find that new army in wayside patrol, slow meandering, a bore-down search
for time, and I know you are near.
Will I find you in Elphin-Mere, by the crude hut of Johnny Igoe, blue and thatched on the far turn, or out from town, toward Cassidy’s, where that lone statue stands, the Gaelic names burning stars. Your army, Devon, imprisons me at Elphin-Mere!
I struggle for the Bulliwicks, moving nowhere in the tide rushing through my limbs,
helpless as my son crib-bound looking up to me, only eyes reaching, and I am my son!
I am that babe beneath the power.
Oh, Christ, Devon, I am you! I am you! And the Bulliwicks fade, the hawthorn fades, sweet smell lost in the granite pull, strong stable smell up in smoke, the Easter names popping bullets of letters in my eyes, and I am caught, we are caught, in a freeze of time. Ah, Devon, will we never go home again? Is your peace in me?
This night I sleep in village disguise beneath a roof without starry eyes, beneath the quilting, quiet fog covering sea and sand and bog, and in that dark of graying ghost I lay my mind out to the coast, let the sea fill all my veins; the dread of deeps and hurricanes, the creaking of the Dutchman’s ship forever eyeless in its trip, touch scarred galleons in their graves, flinch at traffic of the slaves, know some U-Boat’s trembling pause as it slowly sank from wars, feel fears of the Murmansk run where men lay frozen in the sun. Oh, to know, in this gray retreat, the sea is touching at my feet, know here this night at Warren’s Point the sea is balm and does anoint.
What of all the spills that ache here — upland dosage where the delta’s done and settling its own routines, the near immeasurable transfer of land and other properties of the continent chasing down Atlantic ways, shifting nations and cities from directly underfoot, moving towns along the watershed, oozing territories. Oh, how I loved the river feeding the ocean.
I have plumbed the Saugus River at its mouth, found the small artifacts of its leaning seaward, tiny bits of history and geography getting muddied up against the Atlantic drift, suffering at tide’s stroke, roiling and eddying to claim selves, marveling at a century’s line of movement, its casual change of character, its causal stress and slight fracturing under ocean’s dual drives, the endless pulsing tide and the overhead draft of clouds bringing their inland torment and trial, land and loam and leaf running away with the swift sprinters of water, the headlong rush of heading home like salmon bursting upstream for the one place they can remember in the chemistry of life, impulses stronger than electricity, smells calling in the water more exotic than Chinese perfume.
The flounder, sheaving under the bridge at the marsh road, pages of an un-sprung book, one-eyed it always seems, hungering for my helpless and hooked worms, sort over parts of Saugus in this great give-away, and nose into the extraneous parts that were my town, my town.
“Listen,” my father said to me, his eyes dark, oh black during a whole generation, “for a sound whose syllable you can’t count up or down, for what you might think is a clam being shucked, a quahog’s last quiet piss on sand, a kelp bubble exploding its one green-stressed overture.”
He talked like that when he knew I was listening, even at ten years of age.
He wasn’t saying, “Listen for me,” just, “Listen for the voices, the statements along Atlantic ritual, every driven shore, rocks sea-swabbed, iodine fists of air potent as a heavyweight’s, tides tossing off their turnpike hum, black-edged brackish ponds holding on for dear life, holding a new sun sultry as anchovies … all of them have words for you.”
I hear that oath of his, the Earth-connected vow all the sea bears, the echoes booming like whale sounds, their deep musical communication, now saying one of his memorials, “Sixty-years and more, I feel you touch Normandy’s sand, measuring the grains of your hope, each grain a stone; and I know the visions last carved in June’s damp air.” “Oh,” he’d add, “you sons, forgotten masters of our fate.”
Deepest of all, hearing what I didn’t hear at ten, but hear ever since, the hull-hammered rattling before rescue from the USS Squalus, 60 fathoms down off Portsmouth, the sound and the petition count never fading; three quarters of a century of desperation and plea hammering in my ears. Say it straight out: “Some were saved and some were lost. That is a memorial.”
The eels squirm and fidget on Saugus farmlands, pitch-black bottom land gone south with rain and years, gutter leanings, great steel street drains emptying lawns and backyards and sidewalk driftage into the river below black clouds. The worn asphalt shingles on my roof yield twenty-five years of granules, and now and then tell that story inside the house.
A ninety-year old pear tree shudders under lightning and offers pieces of itself as sacrifice to the cause, dropping twigs, blasted bark other lightning has tossed into the soft footing, the grayed-out hair of old nests, my initials and hers and the scored heart time has scabbed up, dated, pruned, becoming illegible in the high fancy of new leaves and young shoots. There, too, went my father’s footprints in one April storm, washed away in late afternoon as he lay sleeping in that tree’s hammock; and grease off my brother’s hands from his Ford with nine lives hanging on a chain-fall; and across the street a neighbor’s ashes spread under a pear tree and grapevine an August fire later took captive in dark smoke I still smell on heavy summer evenings.
This is my word on all of this:
It is where the river’s done, where a boy’s hung between the sunlit surface and a pinch of salt, who’s read of twisted souls at sea, knew sweet misery of warming sand, I know how water marks horizon’s dwelling where dark stream and ocean meet twice in the flow of bayside surge and ocean merge grasps the river’s downhill push, losing lush things like the very gravel I have trod, and the locks and boards holding back my river’s horde.
Oh, believe … I have come up by image from the sea in other times, by overhand, by curragh, by slung-sailed ship of oak, afloat a near-sunken log; have crawled sandy edges of the bay, looked back at waters’ merge and flow, found the river’s crawl reversed where floating parts are nursed, toting redwing nests the winds abuse, good ground the rain in swift return hauls down the river … Saugus on the loose.
Ever now, when I fish at the mouth of the river, rod high, and hope too, I catch awful parts of Saugus. I know the stream and ocean meet where I dare dangle my awkward feet, where love-lies-bleeding and the primrose meet, where tempting sea and bay greet all of rhyme and so its clime: The rainbow catches up the horde; Sea color is set by gracious Lord. This, in faith, you can believe; It’s Saugus I can’t lose or leave .One man touches another man with a word, especially the night my father and I listened to Temujin’s life on an old record … heard the song he’d sung I race the river to the sea.
And shadows remembered their routes up the railed stairway like a steppe’s presence, I stood at your counting the days Oh, the I I I I counted wounds he had conquered. The bottle cap moon clattered into his room in vagrant pieces…jagged blades needing a strop or wheel for honing, great spearhead chips pale in falling, necks of smashed jars rasbora bright, thin flaked edges tossing off the sun. Under burden of the dread collection, he sighed and turned in quilted repose and rolled his hand in mine, searching for lighting only found in his memory. Always it’s ahead of me,
In moon’s toss I saw the network of his brain struggling for my face the way he last saw it, a piece of light falling under the hooves of a thousand Mongol ponies, night campsites riding upward in flames, the steppe skyline coming legendary again.
When I stand at the last stone mark of the elegant lady with the perky hat and the shiny big pocketbook of muffins and biscuits and rolls, the lady with the soft hands, the lady of books without covers, who began all of this, and try to deliver a simple phrase, she’ll not hear me, having moved on in her journey, touching all the others in their due, in her due; the lady who once said to me, “Think of the one word you love most, but don’t tell me now, save it for later.” Oh, she tries me yet.
But nothing’s ever over for good; a small spark is ignited; from nowhere, a voice comes clear past a shadow, a whisper gropes on a breath of air; a word says itself again and again.
And I can’t hear it. It lies there waiting for me.
Tom Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, and graduated Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; The Saugus Book; Ah, Devon Unbowed; Reflections from Vinegar Hill; This Rare Earth & Other He has published 28 books, which include the western collections The Nations, Where Skies Grow Wide and Cross Trails published by Pocol Press, and Six Guns, Inc., by Nazar Look and three titles issued in 2016, The Cowboys, Swan River Daisy and Jehrico. He has multiple work in following publications: Rosebud, Literally Stories, DM du Jour, Danse Macabre, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Eclectica, Copperfield Review, La Joie Magazine, Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, Vine Leaves Journal, Nazar Look, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, Faith-Hope and Fiction, The Cenacle, etc.
He has 30 Pushcart nominations, and five Best of the Net nominations (and one winner) and short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012- 2015, and a Georges Simenon Fiction Award. He is 2016 Writer-in-Residence at Danse Macabre Magazine in Las Vegas.
Under consideration are Valor’s Commission (collection, military stories), The Keating Script (novel), and Small Victories for the Soul (poetry collection).
The latest Harry Krisman Mystery Vigilantes East is now available exclusively on Amazon.com. His poetry collection To Athens from Third Base are forthcoming in 2017 from Hammer & Anvil Books.
Read more of Tom’s classic American storytelling in
DM 107 ~ Saugus, a, um