Tom Sheehan ~ Shankhill at Humboldt Haven

A half snicker came up through his throat. Consciously Francis Pikethorn, known as Wiggles, licked his lower lip and his fingers rolled against each other in an expression of suspense. There was, of course, the long wait and the dry throat. The hours since the last drink were quickly counted at the back of his mind. Brushing the thick sandy-colored hair out of his eyes with a flick of his thumb, he thought that controls were easy this morning. He flicked the thumb again and saw no momentary twitching, no delay in his commands. A day dried out sat well on him, as the saw would if he had wood to rip cut.

“It’s got to be the house,” offered his partner and brother-in-law Abel. “We have to create something provocative, interesting, damn different about that old house, about Shankhill. Make the place shine if we can. Or spout ghosts or break out in a case of the crabs for all I care. It needs a friggin’ transfusion. Hell, it could burn down in five minutes if we let it. Even most of the drunks have shied away from the place over the years. Ever since the Carringtons, both of them, died in there.”

He continued, his face showing real concern for the old couple. “Oh, the shame of it all, the very damn shame. I heard they were nice folk, decent folk.” When he said “decent” it sounded like “dacent,” almost plunking him in his own backyard in the old country.

Wiggles, as he was called by few other names to his face though inebriate a third of his days, leaned out over the planning table. He nodded at “dacent” but was drawn and tired to his last bone and spoke more about their troubles. “If we don’t get the loan and don’t get the house, we might as well fold up this old two-man company and blow it away. I admit, Abel, I’ve blown a few bucks. But I never missed a minute’s work. Always gave it all I had. But we need this damn loan or we’re history. There’s nothing else out there for us, like dying with an empty spade in hand or a hammer without a nail.”  

Pressing his hands down on the tabletop, he stared at them for a long time. His hands were the tapering, long but gnarled hands of the laborer, as if a violinist had encountered other rude tools in life. Scars were as proud as badges on their backsides. One thumb had been found by a three-pound hammer in an errant swing. One arthritic-looking knuckle sat toad-like on the left hand. It had been a long time since the hand had made a tight fist. Not that Wiggles had gone without the need, Saturday night being what it is for a knockabout.

Blue-eyed, pasty-faced Wiggles looked at his partner, Abel Damfort. Abel was early-forties neat, high forehead, green eyes under woolly dark brows, thick against the short sleeves of his shirt. He had a remnant brogue Wiggles thought would have long disappeared.

Able listened closely as Wiggles continued.   “Before we know it, we’ll be as much history as the house. Something’s tied to that place like a soft disease or a wild dream locked in the walls. That’s all I can say. Almost cancerous. Something out of the past. Nobody lets on about it from where I sit, but it’s there. Our future, for certain, is tied up in that old house.” He made a half fist with each hand, while his eyes were locked in search for what he didn’t know.

Wiggles again found himself caught in a new trap, could feel it squeezing on him. Words kept coming out of a dark tunnel, out of someplace he swore he did not know, had never been to. And then there was the little sense of pain that rode in him. He wanted to say discomforts but knew he’d be lying to cover his ass. He kept thinking: That one harsh pain is a stupid little pain, though agonizing at times. It’s kind of brittle, like chunks of metal or sparks behind my eyes, squinting now all the time, or thinking I’m squinting. I’m not sure. Jeezus, I must be some kind of mausoleum. A walking museum of crap and crap shoots, booze and broadsides.

“Think the bank is holding something back?” Abel’s voice matched his face, somewhat masked, reserved, asking for surprises all the time, and not getting them. Not with Wiggles. Without doubt he thought that he, Abel Damfort, was the rock in this tenuous partnership.

Wiggles Pikethorn shook his head, thinking he was coming out of a fog. “Look, Abel, honest injun, I’m not hung over as usual. But I spent a sleepless night looking at reality. It came to a stop sign on my nightly reveries. I’m not sure if I was caught up in self-incrimination or lost opportunity. Balancing one on the other gets a moment of ease. Doubts keep bugging me, too. Jennie haunts me, her gone off like that, without a true word it seems.”

Abel Damfort said, offhandedly, “We don’t mention her at home though we hope she’s getting along. But no matter what we do, we don’t get to change the mind of the bank. Against us since the start they’ve been, the lot of them. It ain’t just your drinking, Wiggles, ‘cause they know nobody with a saw and a day dried out is any better than you are. Hell, you about put all their houses together and in order, and all of them needing the mend to boot. Shankhill was shitty enough for them right here in old Humboldt.” He tossed his head in salute of a distant memory crossing his mind.

“What do we do?” Wiggles said, his face looking like the used end of a cork, his eyes in a state of sadness that people noticed early about him. He added, “I wish I had a cool one in my hands now. It makes thinking so much easier. It finds words for me I couldn’t find otherwise. Not a hint of them.”

Wiggles, partly musing, looking over Abel’s head as if he were looking into a mirror back of a friendly bar, said, “We have to keep it historical, even if it is over 150 years old. Them damn historical buffs keep saying that over and over. It’s like they got the bank hypnotized, but hell, that’s always been part of our plan. So what can we do to make that historical house more attractive? The old couple, the Carringtons, going within a day of each other, carried it for a while, but the old die everyday. It wears off.”

Abel’s face warmed. “It’s marvelous that old man Carrington lived in the house all his 93 years. And her not much behind him at that. That’s about all I know, ‘cept the house has always had some mystery tied to it, like a tail on a lost kite. Must be something I don’t know.” Abel’s brogue rolled in on itself. “What did his nibs Verikjon have to say at the bank? That one’s an odd lot if I have the say on him.”

“Oh, Victor’s okay in his own way. I tossed down a pint or two with him at the alleys a few times. Said it straight out to me: ‘We know how good you are with the hammer and the saw, but you’re always on the edge, Wiggles.’ He’s one of those always using the nicknames, warming your ass for you before they kick it, know what I mean? ‘Some of us think when you fall we’ll be left holding the bag. That’s how simple some prospects can be looked at. There has to be another dimension besides you and your partner to make this house project seem bigger than what it is.’ I appreciated he didn’t dodge me like old man Shillings always did.”

They talked and mused a while longer and Abel left to do errands. Wiggles Pikethorn, passing Calder Murphy’s Bar, let his thirst and dry throat have their way. Long before the day was over, Jennie floated in the mirror behind the bar beside the front elevation of the Carrington house. She wouldn’t let go, no matter where she was, where she had ended up. And he was damn sure he was not going to let go the opportunity with the Carrington house. He was on the griddle and he knew it.

*

It was after midnight, the stars hammered in place over Humboldt and the whole valley as if bright nails had been slammed with a six-pound peen onto the dark sky. Somehow, in a comfortable stupor, as he might call it, Wiggles had found his way to the house against the side of the hill. The two huge double-trunk maples out front were catching the breeze and bouncing like chunks of sherbet. It was said old man Carrington had split them as saplings with a keen knife in prospects of having four children. The idea of eternity struck Wiggles, seeing an image of the young Carrington full of hope. Life sucks, Wiggles thought, thinking about the Carringtons subsequently spending almost a century here without any kids. It made him lonely, desperately lonely, and he could go no farther in thought than half eyeing Jennie down the line someplace hosting someone else with her goodness. And minor retribution for his own life style piled on its weight in its own way.

Through the leaf clusters and fractured-hand limbs of the maples, he saw a dozen stars in their nightly revolutions. A minor glimmer of a shooting star came in sight and he heard himself say, “They always come back.” It was his one stand in life. He was not sure he said it in response to the revolution of the nightly stars, or his thinking about people nearing the point of no return. He further acknowledged that man and stars were in some mix of existence whose solution was a mere grasp away from him. It was a glare of light that fast retreated.

Myriad thoughts notwithstanding, before long he found himself in the keeping room of the Carrington place, a room that ran the whole back end of the house. The huge walk-in fireplace was cold looking, monstrous, out of place, as if to say it would be the last surviving part of the structure. The house-wide landing above the fireplace, on the second floor level, still held a worn rail with oddly thick balusters. No doubt it had prophesied children for years on end; company for the split maples out front, he affirmed. But it was the silence of the keeping room that gunned down Wiggles and he sat in a lone chair left in a corner, sweet as an afterthought, a condition of hope, and a place for at least one more visitor. Eternity bounced around him, with a sense of time that few men can measure. He was sure of this.

Within himself he was for a long time, bouncing ideas, himself being bounced around. What eventually drove him to such an odd errand he had no idea, but he was dynamically pushed and pulled by powers other than his own. In short order was in the cellar of the old house.

In one corner of the vacant cellar that ran halfway under the house, the other half a sort of crawl space beneath one half of the keeping room, he found a construction of wood. It was an immovable box of sorts. To it he took an old pry bar that hung on a wall remnant of an old coal bin. The air had kept its coal smell as sharp as ever, like a taste of kerosene touching his tongue. After much effort, some teasing of nail and wood, squeaks and screeches becoming part of night, he uncovered a deep-throated, fully constructed well.

He had no idea the well was there. No moisture smell came to him and he went back to his truck and grabbed a strong flashlight and a droplight. The lack of moisture bothered him. Had a well been dug, stone-throated down to nothing on the side of the hill? Was it loss to match the split maple hopes? Was it another sign of hapless times? Another seed buried forever? Watermarks should be everywhere, he said to himself in rationalization.

Under the light Wiggles saw no residue or remnant of water signs. No ground water. No stains on fieldstone sides. No harsh alga dressage climbing the circular rock wall. Nothing down there but what looked like a clump of rope more than thirty feet down, piled like a long-dead hemp snake on the floor of the well. The flashlight showed little else. He lowered the droplight and saw no more evidence of water. At length he noticed a break in the wall under a large lintel-type stone more than halfway down the throat of the well. It all rushed at him, the mystery of the house, the clump of rope at the foot of the well, the lack of water evidence, and the break in the wall of the well.

Suddenly Jennie came to him again. He wondered about her and then about the Carringtons. Finally he wondered about the strange pressures and powers working his poor soul. He imagined stars in strange orbits.

Aloud, to the bare cellar, to the house in general and to no one in particular, he said, “A bit more suds in me and I’d be down there exploring.” Then, all of it coming down on top of him, the house, the Carringtons, Jennie, himself, he went back to his truck and got the tow rope and a wheel of pulley ropes and a single construction pulley. Hanging the rope-fall from an overhead beam that was directly over the well, he noted how worn and round the beam was.

While his construction mind was trying to fathom the latest discovery, Francis Parkinson Pikethorn, known as Wiggles to a thousand people, lowered himself into the Carringtons’ dry well. The droplight, now connected to a long extension cord, went down with him. There was, he kept noting as he lowered himself into the earth, absolutely no signs of moisture. But he could feel the presence of time. With each release of his weight on the lead rope, with each foot captured in his descent into the well, he felt the presence of time. “Wiggles Pikethorn,” he said loudly, his voice bouncing in the tight stone constriction, “is going back in time.” There was no doubt about it. Oh, now’s the time for a cold one, he thought.

*

In the morning the banker Victor Verikjon looked out his window. To his associate he said, “Here comes that Wiggles Pikethorn again. Man, he looks like a load of crap this morning. Another night on the town, I suppose. But now he’s got his damn lawyer, Garson Caruthers, with him. Slippery Lou they call him. What the hell have they got going this morning? This might give a kick start to our day.” He put away the paper he had been scanning, sipped his coffee, and sat waiting for something new for the new day.

The outlandish pair, the seedy-looking part-time drunk and the carefully clad lawyer, in a suit an embalmer could be caught in, was ushered into the banker’s office. The secretary, with a raise of her eyebrows, said, “Mr. Pikethorn and Mr. Caruthers to see you, Mr. Verikjon.” When the door was closed behind her Victor Verikjon thought he could smell pure applejack floating on the air. It was as much signature as Wiggles Pikethorn usually could offer on either side of the dotted line.

“Good morning, gentlemen. I would assume this is a surprise visit to all parties.” Verikjon said it directly to Caruthers who smiled back, understanding partners of commerce at two points of view.

Wiggles spoke to the banker even as Caruthers started to say something. “The last time we talked, you said we could move on with this deal if there was something new to add to the pie. You said we had to have an extra edge. I guess it is your way of saying I can’t get done what I want to do unless I get help from someone or something besides you and the bank.”

Wiggles had his hand up in front of Caruthers so he could not interrupt. “Hold on, Garson. I want to make sure we agree on the promise Victor made the other day.” He paused, looked at Verikjon and then at Caruthers. “I just want it squared away right up front so we know where we’re starting from.”

“Is there any specific requirement for it?” Wiggles continued. “Extra value? Greater promise? A matter of publicity for the bank? A conditional or promised buyer for the project once finished? Do they all fit or does any one fit more than another?”

Both Garson Caruthers and Victor Verikjon were somewhat caught by the force of Wiggles introduction to the day and to the project. The part-time drunk seemed, even in his evident misery, well in control of himself and the situation.

Verikjon replied, “Like I said, Wiggles, some aspect of any one of those would throw additional weight behind our decision and in your favor, but it must be something concrete and promising. We know you’ve done excellent work elsewhere, but the threat of your daily activities weighs on us. I am sure you can understand that. I know you’re like a jackhammer when you work. It’s the chances that bother us.”

He paused like all bankers pause, a mark of punctuation, and rose from his seat. His hair was thin, his eyes were deep, and he looked his age. “In banking we don’t like chances that are not in our favor. It’s the nature of the beast that we are. And we’re always using other people’s money. It’s our role in life. That compounds our watchfulness. It controls us.” He paused, looked at Caruthers who shook his head, and then said to Wiggles, “What have you got to add to the pie?”

“Well,” Wiggles said, “if I told you we had a gold mine on the property, that would set you off, wouldn’t it? But I won’t say that, nor can I say we have a grip on something concrete.” For a brief second Verikjon saw a smile on Wiggles’ face. “But I can tell you that if you agree it’s enough to get the deal done, with what I’ll tell you, have we got an agreement? Have we got a deal? That’s all I want to know, and Garson here is judge and witness.”

Verikjon leaned over his desk, his jowls hanging a bit, a bit of color now in his face, thick eyebrow hairs in varied directions. “How far do we have to extend ourselves, Wiggles? You speak a chunk of mystery here, far as I’m concerned. You haven’t said anything yet I can hang my hat on. What’s going on? Put yourself in my shoes, me with more than half the valley giving me their money to take care of. If you don’t come up with something pretty quick, I’m afraid I’ll have to go back to some real work.”  He smiled at Wiggles and then Caruthers. “Not as hard as you guys work, but I still get tired at the end of my day.” The full business pose was there for the banker; the locked fingers, the hardened eyes, the chameleon smile.

Wiggles knew it was coming down to the brass tacks. Put up or shut up. What if it all came apart, all around him? Fell in a heap at his feet? Again? He wondered what Jennie was doing this morning. Was this the kind of thing that had driven her off that morning in a fatal huff? Jeezus, was there any lingering justice in this world for a man who never wanted to hurt a soul in his entire life?

He wondered what Abel had gotten himself into this morning on his list of favors to do for people, taking up as much time as he himself did with the booze. All the ideas were popping up around him, all the balances and imbalances, all the just and unjust things. They came the way they did when he sat alone at a bar, the noise moving around him, doubts coming like the rounds of drinks, the slipping away of some element of resolve, of character. Jeez, he could write a book about it.

He had to bring it all back. He took a breath and let it go. “What if we, here in old quiet Humboldt, were one of 58 or 60 particular sites in the country? Very special sites.  Would it mean something to you? What if we could prove, without a doubt, that history had walked right under our goddamn feet, what would you say to that?” He let it all go out of him, that energy coming from somewhere else. If he had a hammer in his hand he could drive a sixteen-penny nail with one smashing swing. He knew it in his sudden fists even as the arthritis answered back.

“What if we were on the golden path, not gold mines, but something else, what would you say?” The old-time energy was creeping and crawling at the back of his neck. Jennie once said to him,  “There was a time you could be near lethal with that energy, with whole sides of houses and barns going up in a fantastic hurry, the adrenaline running at fever pitch for you.” Jennie, oh Jennie, could be witness to all of this, if only if she were here.

He felt himself sliding off, running off at the mouth, breaking away from the target. How could he tell that what he had seen? What he had found? It had been so crystal clear last night and this morning when he first woke up, everything in bright focus, all the angles and the shadows coming alive. The whole scene had been at once almost exhilarating in its revelation. The whole breadth of it all, the marvelous extent of it all. Now, it had retreated to a small distance, some shambles of shadows falling with it. Would it up and leave him again? Had it already done so? Oh, sweet Jeezus, he thought, the hammer or the shot glass! What a choice! What a choice!

Victor Vickjon saved him. The banker saved him! Of all people, it was the banker who pulled him up from that runaway he felt he was becoming. “What the hell are you talking about, Wiggles? Slow down, man, and tell us what you’re at.” To Caruthers Vickjon sent a quick look of doubt or question. Perhaps he was not sure what it was. “What have you come up with now?” The long hairs in his eyebrows hung like obscuring lines over his eyes. He squinted. His thin hair was thinner, but his eyes were darker, in a study.

Like the North Star, like the belt line at Orion’s middle, like the cluster of the Seven Little Sisters weeping directly over his head last night, down through the clutter of the split maples, Wiggles knew Jennie would be back. She would revolve through him again. Like the stars, he knew she would come home again. It was the ultimate chance for him. The only chance. Chance played its tune for him. But the stars, being forever, came back on him.

“Last night, late last night, I went back to the house. Down in the cellar there’s a phony well.” Victor Vickjon was staring at him. Caruthers was shaking his head. Out there, had Jennie stopped and turned around? “Halfway down the well I found an opening. I had a drop line with me and a flashlight. It’s a big opening, a big time opening. A chunk of it pushes in and you go through a wide a tunnel and there’s a huge room, a cave back in there. A big cave big as this room, I swear to God.” His voice had deepened. At the back of his head the energy was recouping itself. The possibilities were back. Jennie would make that turnaround, they would have the loan, the project. Maybe he had taken his last drink.

“Is it a gold mine, Wiggles? An old gold mine?” Vickjon was standing beside his chair, his face a solid mark of interest.  “My god, man, what is it?” He brushed the bushy hairs out of his eyes.

All the energy, all the possibilities, came back for Wiggles in one sweet surge. “It’s going to be the new historical site for the Underground Railroad. Right here in our own backyard. There’ll be a sign announcing it, in gold letters. Letters as bright as the sun. I looked on the Internet. I think there are only about fifty some places listed now. This one will be different, I swear! This one has Harriet Tubman’s mark all over it. There are a couple of letters there in perfect shape. They were written to her by some guy named Thomas Garrett in Wilmington, Delaware. He was part of the whole thing. And there’s a map with some Safe Houses or Safe Stations marked on it. I tell you it’s like the goddamn Freedom Trail itself.”

He had to catch his breath. They were staring at him. “There’s a small leather bag might prove to be hers. There’s sleeping places and blankets and still some canisters of bread from the Army of the Republic during the Civil War. There’s an old Johnny Reb uniform in a canvas bag. I swear to God you’d think they just left out of there last night and headed for Canada. All of them, whoever was there who knows how many nights. Harriet Tubman herself. Or Frederick Douglass.  Old man Carrington’s people must have dug that place up, built a house on it. Who knows. But now we have it. I tell you the shivers went popping through me like they never went through me before.”

He paused again, the rush still in place. “We’re sitting here, in the Empire State, less than an hour out of Canada. Hell, freedom’s ringing all around us. Can’t you hear the damn echoes of it?”

And Wiggles Pikethorn thought that out there somewhere, not too far, Jennie had halted under the morning star. She would be looking back this way over her shoulder, in the same exact, offhanded but loaded way that she could tease him with no end in the old days. It was as if every room she left the bedroom was next upcoming. He could also remember the energy that had been transferred to his body and brain as he lay down in the Harriet Tubman’s cave to get a nap in on history’s deeply imbedded rack of memories. And an unknown voice, a faraway voice, came to the back of his mind singing about going down to the river to pray.

Victor Vickjon, upright like a statue, the banker’s smile frozen on his face, thrust his hand across the desk toward Francis Parkinson Pikethorn, otherwise know as Wiggles. “You have your loan, Mr. Pikethorn. It’ll be a distinct pleasure to do business with you.” His brows were electric with expression.

 

Tom Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, and graduated Boston College in 1956. Co-Editor of A Gathering of Memories, Saugus 1900 – 2000, Tom has published 28 books, has 30 Pushcart nominations, a Best of the Net award, two short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012- 2015, and a Georges Simenon Fiction Award. 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 was named Danse Macabre’s 2016 Writer-in-Residence.

Set in the legendary American West, Tom’s latest collection Jehrico ~ Many Stories of a Mexican Boy Making His Way in the Old West (Hammer & Anvil Books, 2017) is now available in quality paperback exclusively on Amazon.com.

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