Shag DeBrillen, Brickie
(or The Usual Flat-out Failure at Most Things
As Shag DeBrillen was about to turn the corner in the suburban
area where he lived, he spotted a lone car a short ways down
the town road. He whistled and told himself it was an Impala,
an oldie, an olden golden, a gem of an antique. With the six
ports in the rear end looking like gun ports on a fighter aircraft,
he affirmed it was a ’63. The car was parked at a siding
and the driver, leaning out the window, was talking to a young
girl of ten or so that Shag assumed was on her way to school.
He wondered if he was looking at an illusion of sorts, not thinking
he was really seeing what he was seeing; there was too much nothing
around the scene. An old car, a young girl, not much else to
look at, or take your eye to the quick. Sometimes what you see
is not what you see.
It was early October and school year had recently started. Soon,
he thought, the leaves would begin to change color, the big silver
maple directly across from him soaking up the early sunlight,
the threat of change poised and real in its broad cast of leaves.
The nights would come cooler in a matter of a week or so, the
year looking at its cold ending.
The front of his old Pontiac, a ’76 Bonneville, with the
Indian head yet proudly mounted by his own hand on the hood,
nosed out into the cross road. Shag DeBrillen knew another minor accident would probably finish off the car. He’d had enough
of them, he recalled quickly, a few snickers mixed in with the
recollections. So the car was driven gingerly, as Stockwell his
plumber buddy had noted: “Hey, man, ole Shag drives the
bucket like it was Aunt Mindy’s sewing machine, I swear
Shag had a piece of sheet metal and an old wire coat hanger
wrapped around the muffler. Each day he’d tighten up the
coat hanger or add a new one, wary of the cops who had warned
him about excess noise, Trupote being the nastiest about it,
a smartass rookie to begin with. Tenuous at best, a front end
rocker arm sent tremors that were known in his hands and arms
at each turn on the road. The amount of oil usually burning now
in the old engine, he surmised hurriedly on numerous occasions,
would float a rowboat. Besides, the exhaust smell was real and
dark. Unreliable was the word consciously coming into his vocabulary,
working its way in on a daily basis. At 168,000 miles the old
sedan was counting the miles as well as the days. It was just
about good enough to get him to the next wall he was working
on. One more solid day’s work in the offing; another brick,
another tier, another wall.
Suddenly, up there ahead of him, a hand snaked out of the Impala
and snatched the young girl, perhaps ten years old he said again
to himself, into the car.
Shag sat straighter in his seat, quickly upright and his foot
locked onto the brake pedal. Blond tresses, bleached from constant
sun, fell over his forehead the hot summer had painted a dark
tan. He felt as inert as a concrete block. Something almost physical
caught in his throat, caught and grabbed on harsh as fishing
barbs. For a fraction of a moment he thought he would choke.
Mary Gibbons, now mysteriously gone these many years, leaped
into his mind. Once more he saw her pretty face ringed with dark
curls in the seat right beside him in the Mrs. Stone’s
third grade class. She’d been pretty as a picture. Once
her slip had shown as white as snow. That glimpse was more than
half his lifetime earlier. A breathtaking dizziness flooded his
head and his hands froze on the wheel. From that last day going
home from school, not a soul had seen pretty Mary Gibbons. Twenty
years of nothing.
The Impala, in a surging motion, took off down the town road,
dust lifting behind it in a minor contrail. The rear ports, like
a logo or a full name across the back of the vehicle, kept saying
Shag DeBrillen earlier in age had blown about all his schooling
and then his one attempt at a G.E.D. Plain and simple it came
up for him... books and numbers had little place in his life.
He was a brickie; of that he was absolutely positive. His hands
told him where he belonged. That perfect line necessary on a
wall was scored into his eyes. It had been there since the day
Marsellaise, the old neighborhood mason, had shown him eighty
years’ worth of tricks of the trade.
“Illusion is important to a mason,” Marsellaise
had said. “Make it work for you. Then do your thing.” Shag
took that release all the way, figuring he already had a head
start on things; he had worn his hair the way he wanted to, ever
since his father had beaten him for not wearing it the way “grown
and proud men do.”
Shag knew brick laying and cars and little else.
Now decisions came abruptly at him, the kind he felt he was
not capable of making. In a kind of desperation, he began to
talk to himself. At least the sound was there: There’s
no illusion here. No second sighting down the line of a wall,
no chance to reset a stone or brick in an otherwise perfect wall.
Can’t use a piece of string for this.
The gas pedal kicked at his tromped foot. Perhaps I can get
the number on the registration plate. It’s all I can hope
to do; there’d be no way this old junk can catch that other
car. The engine coughed and kicked and sounded just like old
Marsellaise the day he died at the end of a long wall, a day’s
work done, a lifetime of work done. It had been ten minutes before
the work day was supposed to be over when the old gent kicked
over, true to the bitter end.
In the rearview mirror he saw the plume of black exhaust flowing
out behind him. Momentarily he smelled the exhaust, and then
discounted it. The picture of the girl’s mother came to
him, cleaning the kitchen from the breakfast meal, probably a
yellow apron about her waist like his mother used to wear, yellow
as the morning sun in the early slant or a whistling canary,
planning lunch or the evening meal, pleasant time on hand. Oh,
damn, this can be the worst of days for her and she has no idea
yet. No idea!
The engine snorted and kicked back again at his pedal foot.
The smell of oil was heavier, the wake of exhaust as wide as
the road behind him. In the back seat his trowels rattled against
one another and one clinked against the hammer head, sounding
out the single tick of a clock. An empty plastic bucket fell
off the seat. If there’s a car behind me, I can’t
see it. Maybe a cop’s back there. I damn sure wish a cop
was there. I need a cop. I need a cop. What the hell can I do
in this claptrap! Goddamn it!
He stepped on the gas again. The car shook again. Down the road
ahead of him the Impala was pulling away. A half mile down the
road a yellow Bluebird school bus had a side red octagonal flag
flung out at its pick-up stop. Two or three cars were stopped
coming from the other direction. One was a pick-up truck. I wonder
if it could be Stockwell on his way to work. I hope so. That
Dodge of his can do a 100 if he wanted it to. The abductor’s
Impala slowed and stopped and Shag crept up behind it and got
the number on the plate. 781-Q77. That’s easy, he said
to himself. He wrote the number boldly on his arm with his stubby
work pencil. The figures were scrawling and uneven but fully
legible. On a second thought he wrote the number on his jeans.
The pencil felt as though it was cutting into the skin of his
Shag spoke aloud; I should get out of the car and approach the
other car, rip open the door, get the guy out before he could
take off. But the guy will see me and take off. I’ll lose
time. I’ve got to be smart about this. Here I am, a goddamn
brickie. What the hell can I do? I need a cop. Ain’t that
a laugh. He could hear the echo of his voice, helpless and languid,
distant as a star. Once when he was sick he had felt like this.
Never had he begged for anything, not when sick, not even for
his G.E.D. I need a cop. I need a cop. He looked behind him,
back down the road, the exhaust fumes momentarily thinned out
and the air clearer. Nothing was in sight behind him. Nothing
as far back as he could see.
The red arm on the bus folded and a Buick came past the bus
from the other way. The Impala snaked slowly out over the double
line and dipped back as the pick-up came abreast of the bus.
It was not Stockwell’s truck, but it was a speedy new Dodge
Ram 2500. It came beside Shag. Its engine roared and then flew
past him. In front, the Impala slipped around the bus and headed
down the road. Shag could not see the girl moving in the car.
Oh, damn, he said. The sound of his voice was fainter, receding
with his hope.
Marsellaise’s voice came in a rugged whisper. Illusion,
it said. Illusion. That old man was still trying to teach him
something, Marsellaise being noisy again.
The police car came out of a side road and headed toward him.
Marsellaise was still talking to him, now noisy and incoherently
it seemed, a mesh of gibberish and accent from an old man long
gone. The white and blue said it was a state police cruiser,
one man behind the wheel. Shag shook his head, trying to shake
off the voice, the sense of illusion still at him, the loudness.
He was trying to concentrate on something. It was difficult,
the damn voice of the old mason refusing to let go. Pretense,
Illusion, it kept saying. What was Marsellaise at? Where was
his voice coming from? This blue and white car was real, wasn’t
it? Shag leaned over the wheel, faked inertness, lack of attention,
yet kept the Bonneville straddling the double traffic lines.
The shadow of the cruiser slipped beside him with a roar. The
squeal of brakes came from behind. Shag leaned on the gas pedal.
The old bucket had some life in it yet, something beside the
guttural grunts. But not enough. Moments later the cruiser roared
up behind him.
Ahead the Impala was moving off as small as the head of a pencil.
Shag came to an abrupt stop. He leaped from the Bonneville as
the trooper came out of the cruiser directly behind him. Shag
waved his arms, tried to scream, his blond curls shaking all
over, the tanned face red with excitement. The eyes were popping
in his face like glazed saucers. Desperate breath rushed into
and filled his throat. Words tried to claw their way through,
almost scratching his throat. He looked like an actor in serious
trouble, on stage, forgetting his lines, the audience on the
edge of their seats. Then he pointed up the road, out of town. “That
Impala, plate number 781-Q77. The driver grabbed a little girl
God, he was coherent!
The trooper smiled and said, “This your car? You Shag
DeBrillen? You old Trupote’s favorite driver in these parts?
I haven’t seen one of these things since my Uncle Henry
was around.” His hand was on the fender of the Bonneville. “Man,
I heard all about you. Tru says he can hear you coming before
he sees you. That a fact?”
“Listen, that ’63 Impala driver grabbed a little
girl back there about a mile. Yanked her right into the car.
You gotta do something about it.”
“I don’t gotta do anything about nothing! Old Trupote
said you had a hundred stories. This another one? A new one?” The
trooper cocked his head, noting that he was tuning in the loud
muffler. A smile crossed his face.
Shag heard Marsellaise’s voice coming from behind his
car. Illusion, it said. Illusion.
Lie, it also said. Lie like hell
or force the issue.
“It’s gonna be your ass, not mine, when I tell this
“Don’t threaten me! You got a rep, that’s
for sure. I heard about the time the pawn shop was ripped off
and you gave the locals a plate number because you saw something.
Cops chased an old teacher of yours almost to the New York border.
Scared the damn hell out of her and she said you were paying
her back for something she’d done to you years ago.”
Shag came back quickly. “That was an old maid busybody
who manufactured that. I gave a number and the dispatcher screwed
it up. In this case, it’s the little girl who’s threatened.” He
pointed down the road out of town. “A couple of more miles,
out of the lake region, and they’ll get away. That’s
when your ass will be in a wringer.”
The trooper smiled. “I don’t take to threats. Trupote
said you had a talent for this stuff. Could lie like a trooper.” He
smiled at his own words. “Play the game for all it’s
“Well, think about her mother sitting home and you’re
sitting here shaking your dick at the side of the road ‘cause
you caught a guy with a loud muffler and her little girl is grabbed
by some guy and making it out of town right about now.” He
again pointed out of town, the small pencil dot of an Impala
barely visible at a big curve in the road as it began a sweep
around Lake Chagmond.
With no expression on the trooper’s face, Marsellaise’s
voice came back. Lie like hell, it said. Lie
like hell because she’s worth it, that little girl. And her mother putting
around the kitchen right about now, dumb as she’ll ever
The old vision came back. Marsellaise was scribing a line with
a string, pegging it. At one point he put stress on the string; “Right
about here. Here’s where you do a little double dip, an
eye catcher. This grabs their eye, right here. You know you can’t
make a wall that looks straight without them saying their piece
about it. Here’s where you lie like hell.” He had
snapped the string.
Shag was thinking in Marsellaise’s words: “Make
a good excuse for this and you’re home free with the whole
thing.” So Shag said, “What’s your name, officer?” He
put a smirk on his face.
“You want my badge number too, wise guy. 6-7-2, and remember
it.” His rancor was still riding the air when Marsellaise
took the opportunity to come back. The trooper put his thumb
behind the badge and nearly popped it into Shag’s face. “6-7-2!” The
smirk was returned wholesale with the gesture. “I think
you’ll find out sooner than later, my friend, that when
you’re talking to the police you better drop the wise-ass
stuff. It’ll do you better in the long run.”
The car, said Marsellaise. The
car. The car. Then it came heavy.
The cruiser. Damn it, Shag, the
cruiser. Then he punctuated his
words. Illusion, he said, his voice suddenly softer, testing
him, cajoling. It’s our only chance!
To Shag, the our was all inclusive. It meant the little girl,
her mother and father, perhaps siblings, 6-7-2 with the smirk
still on his face, Marsellaise, and of course, the Pariah, the
loser, Shag himself caught up again. Life will never change,
he thought. I might have thought I’ve been shortchanged
forever, but now’s not the time. A tree caught in the morning
sun almost blazed up on the side of the road as the sun smashed
into it. Summer was gone. Fall was here. Winter was coming. Loneliness,
terror of the worst sort, could be coming to a mother behind
him, toward the center of town.
Down the road Shag looked, out of town. And the telltale dot
of the Impala was gone. Panic reared its ugly head, and then
backed off as he tried to visualize the map of the area. What
side roads there were. What was the nearest intersection for
the Impala to find flight? Who patrolled out there if it wasn’t
this obnoxious son of a bitch? The whole string of summer cottages
along the one side of the lake snaked into his mind. They’d
all be shut up now, the summer traipsed away and gone, nobody
Time was running as fast as the Impala. Shag felt the now-or-never crunch pounding down on top of him. It was worth it all, even
what he could see coming at him, as clear as he could ever see
anything… and the mother in her apron, in her kitchen,
oblivious to all of it. He tried to keep the little girl’s
fate out of his mind. Tried not to see her in some helpless position,
some animal of a man hovering over her. The shock went through
his body, snapped into the back of his head… he swore
he could hear Mary Gibbon’s laughter, see her face once
more, the brown hair, the red lips, the big eyes. Perhaps he
heard her cry out, an endless plaintive cry that would last forever.
He shivered and caught himself at the edge of something new.
Marsellaise was as near as ever, that good old son of a bitch
brickie not letting go, not leaving him.
Coyly Shag said, “I thought you were getting a flat tire
when I saw you coming,” thinking, If he’s as stupid
as he looks, I’ll have a chance.
6-7-2 looked at the street side of his cruiser, bending over,
being sure. One hand touched the rear tire as though he didn’t
believe his own eyes. The other hand was on his holster, as if
he were still in class at the academy and being put to a test.
The tire was okay. He walked to the back of the car and bent
to look at the other rear tire.
That’s when Shag heard Marsellaise as if he were standing
just behind him, sharing the same shadow.
Now! the single word was like a roar.
It hit Shag between the eyes like a baseball bat in the hands
of the Red Sox rightfielder Trot Nixon or the big guy David Papi
Ortiz, world champs, the two of them.
Swearing the whole world could hear the long-dead mason, he
leaped at the car, praying not to stumble, not to screw up again,
not to fail miserably at perhaps the only good thing he might
ever do in his whole life. Pulling the door open, he jumped into
the cruiser, snapped the door lock down and jammed the engine
The gears ground harsh as an old cement mixer, then caught,
meshed, brought a sudden speed to the take-off. With a roar the
cruiser leaped off the shoulder, spent rubber leaving smoke,
and rocketed down the road. 6-7-2 leaped, cursed, and went for
his gun. From behind him and from the other direction, cars were
coming. He holstered his weapon. The portable radio came off
his hip. He yelled into it.
Other than being a brickie, Shag knew he could drive. He’d
been driving, whether anyone liked it or not, since he was eleven,
more than once at the wheel of a “borrowed” car… his
father’s, his Uncle Harry’s, Bert Wills’ who
lived next door and always left the keys in the car after a night
on the town. Good old Bert never missed the car on a dozen occasions.
The last ride was the best, the cop’s chasing Shag over
half the town, and he slipped out of Bert’s car and into
the house without anybody the wiser. Ten minutes later he saw
Bert, shaking his head, yelling, being hauled off by the cops.
Shag had laughed himself to sleep.
The cruiser was now doing about 80 miles an hour as Shag began
the loop about the lake.
The lake surface, off to his left, through trees, cottages,
cabanas, was a silver blue, catching a piece of the morning sky
in it. Yet it was a cool blue, making his fingers feel icy. Another
shiver came to him as he thought of the coming winter on an open
staging, the unset bricks piled at hand on the staging, the wind
blowing out of the northeast, some arrogant son of a bitch of
a boss yelling up from a heated truck cab down below. The sun
poked fingers through decorative camp trees, in gaps between
the cottages and cabanas, and spread itself in the maple treetops
off to his right, color catching as if being crayoned in at the
In the straightaway, as the curve about the lake was left behind,
there appeared no pencil-dotted Impala ahead of him. Christ,
he could be gone forever… and the kid with him. Shag tromped
on the accelerator and felt his back punch against the seat.
He’d get this son of a bitch car up to a 100 if he could.
If the Impala got to the turnpike they’d have a cold shot
in hell of finding it, and the kid with it.
Even then the old mason wasn’t letting go. Shag heard
Illusion again, Marsellaise’s voice coming as if from the
back seat, another unauthorized passenger.
The radio popped alive. “Unauthorized driver at the wheel
of a stolen state police car, westbound out of Saxon on the lake
road. Driver is dangerous. Post blockade short of the turnpike
exit. Trooper afoot at the Hanscombe Road intersection. Needs
Hell, they’d be on him in minutes, the Impala probably
going right on by them, the little girl maybe knocked unconscious
in the back seat. He tromped harder on the accelerator.
And then, his heart near pounding in his chest, pressure building
in his head, his hand now sweaty instead of cold, he caught sight
of a glare of light between two small and obviously empty cabins
on the edge of the lake. It was like a barrel of a rifle from
a distant point and John Wayne or James Arness picking it out
of a vast expanse of otherwise darkness. It was the six rear
ports of the Impala, all six of them blinking at him at the same
time. He was dead sure about it, and the vehicle was parked between
the two small buildings, and partly under a small clutch of trees.
Shag braked down, went by the two cabins less than a hundred
feet off the road. Don’t squeal the brakes, he told himself.
Easy does it. Leave the cruiser here in the middle of the road.
If 6-7-2 has made contact, someone’ll be here soon enough.
He climbed out of the cruiser, after setting the emergency brake,
leaving the keys in the ignition switch, the engine running.
Behind a clutch of brush and small trees, he picked up a half
dozen stones and made an arrow in front of the cruiser, pointing
back to the Impala. Doubt hit him. He knew it was a cover-your-ass
gesture. It made him sick about himself. He slipped down into
the brush. His heart came pounding again, his hands cold in return,
then hot in a hurry.
He neared the Impala. Silence sat on the lake, now bluer and
brighter, and in the air. There were no cries. No strange sounds.
No struggle evident to his senses, but an overwhelming strangeness
crowding him. He was feeling hatred for something part human,
an ogre, a monster, a child-thief. Bile suddenly loaded his throat
with a sour burning. His hand closed on a rock of good size.
His huge brickie’s hand closed down on it as if it were
a baseball in the hand of Curt Schilling or Pedro Martinez. Two
fingers curled tightly about the rock. He had to stop whatever
was in process right now. Get him out in the open. He’d
take his chances with him, the driver, the abductor, that rotten
son of a bitch. The unknowing mother in her yellow apron in her
quiet kitchen came back to him. The helpless girl leaped into
his mind, her hands reaching for her mother. For her father.
For him. The bile loaded itself again. He gagged and recovered.
In one swift move, standing upright about thirty feet from the
nearest cabin, he fired the rock at the single window facing
him. He missed the window by a foot, but the rock rattled loud
as a gunshot against the side of the cabin. Sounds came to him
from the interior of the cabin. A sudden noise of banging objects.
The scream of a little girl. The sounds of quick bedlam. Back
over his shoulder he heard sirens screaming across the lake as
if a police speedboat were approaching. They were coming from
the turnpike end of the road, he was sure, all out to help a
Then, as Shag turned back, a single male, tall, moving quickly,
made his way out of the cabin. He limped. He had a beard. His
jacket was blue and worn. Even with the limp he moved rapidly,
perhaps desperately. There was another scream from inside. Shag’s
heart pounded as the man raced to the Impala.
Shag threw another rock. This one smashed against the rear window
of the Impala and shattered it. The man heard the sirens. Seeing
Shag, he jumped into the car and the car shook as the ignition
caught in a roar. Sand and debris rose by the rear wheels as
he backed the car. Shag hurled another rock, smashing against
the side of the Impala. The engine died, coughed, started again.
The sirens were closer. The car coughed and gagged and coughed
anew. Then the engine caught again. The Impala swung toward the
road as two police cruisers, one a state vehicle, the other a
town police car, came to a stop beside the cruiser stranded in
the middle of the road. Two uniforms leaped out.
Shag screamed, “Stop him. He’s the one who grabbed
the girl. She’s in the cabin.” He raced to the cabin
as the two more police cars converged on the Impala caught on
an embankment on its underside, the wheels spinning harmlessly,
the old engine letting go its final cries.
Shag DeBrillen, quicker than he’d ever been, ran to the
cabin and found the girl crouched on an unmade bed. She screamed
once more, shook all over, and then her mouth and lips were caught
in a sudden silence. He held his huge and ungainly hand out,
and said, easily, softly, all the kindness in his voice he could
muster. “Your mother sent me.”
Outside there was as single shot. A voice screamed, “Halt.”
“They got him,” Shag said. “They got him.”
The brickie put his arms tenderly around the little girl, and
her arms came around him. She had dark hair and big eyes. Tears
flowed from her eyes. Could be that in the classroom a boy next
to her stole quick glances at her all the time.
Shag thought all that was coming to him would be worth all of
this, this one sweetness in his whole life. He could picture
the girl’s mother, in her canary yellow apron, in her quiet
kitchen, looking out the window, admiring the leaves that were
changing colors, winter down the road a ways yet. As far as she
was concerned, this far in the new day, nothing but winter was
coming her way, nothing out of the ordinary.
I will tell you at the outset that I have seen some puzzling
and imponderable events or situations in my life. That life is
now halfway through its eighth decade. Some of the circumstances
were believable, some not; some I wanted to believe, some I didn’t.
All of them, each instance, whether believable or not, had been
caused or created or somehow set into motion by the attitude
or action of generally distinctive and memorable men and women,
whether for what they were or what they did, or, in some circumstances,
what they did not do. Believe me, the chance of something not
happening is oftentimes as much a story as that which happens.
My wife Agnes was a woman such as I have spoken, and old acquaintance
Tylen Brackus was such a man. As Agnes did things at her own
swift command, Tylen also did things; he moved things at appropriate
rate, though he was born into this life with but one fully useful
arm, the other a mere shaft with a mere hand. His deformity was,
as one might say of him, in miniature.
No god was he, nor was he supernatural in talent. Tylen, to
say the least, as can be said of most of us even on our best
days, was vulnerable or suspect of vulnerability. Yet the man
was equipped with an inordinate amount of energy, an energy that
he simply had to call on. All he had to say was Giddy-up and
it was there. And he was a loner by most standards.
Tylen, I was quite sure at this time, was in the morning’s
mix. It was that kind of a day, and the October clouds were raggy
and less than unique, filled with promise of the ominous sort,
darker than usual, inertia buried in them, as if they were hanging
there for a definite purpose. Out over Pressburn Hill the hidden
sun presented a slightly silver edge on one long cloud that seemed
to hover with a timid grace.
This is how it all happened: for the third day in a row, from
my own little house out beyond the old woodworking plant, long
closed and boarded up, I noted a plume of smoke, a feathery wisp
of it tall and slender, rising flue-like above the trees. I was
as far out of town as you can go before you are someplace else.
I knew that there was nothing either civic or habitable over
that way to demand what could be considered a hearth flue, but
nevertheless I ran my mind about the ground that crawled off
slowly through trees to the top of Pressburn Hill, plotting the
ascendant geography of the area. The small stream in there was
very quiet, the near-silent way it lurked at tree roots, ambling
along until deep winter took hold of it, which it usually did.
The old abandoned rail line that once had brought material to
the plant by the carload or took away products, now had sparsely
visible portions turning to rust. And again I reminded myself:
Nothing much out that way. There was only, suddenly coming to
mind, that small cave in the hillside ledge, like a hole in the
wall for a minor abode. Perhaps a fire might be there. It was
not a known hangout area for a night really, not any place in
there for displaced persons. Yet perhaps the smoke signaled a
morning breakfast fire for a hungry itinerant, his throat dry
and drawn in by the need for food. Or a hunter lost of a night.
I thought the nights had become quite chill of late for any extended
stay. I promised myself I’d check next time I went out
there for mushrooms or on my constitutional.
I put the consideration to my Agnes, for fifty years a sounding
board, a definitive conscience, and the tremble of a daily tuning
fork of all things noisy or noticeable about us. “What
do you make of that, Agnes?” I said, pointing from the
porch out over the bank of trees to the narrow lift of smoke,
now as thin as cigarette smoke above the thickness of trees.
Its blue tint, as well, was fading against the backdrop of Pressburn
Round and pleasant Agnes, whom on one occasion, and one only,
I had called Aggie, and that occasion a full fifty years earlier,
turned to me and said, with her soft mouth pursed in certainty, “That’s
breakfast, Dewey. I can smell it.” Her smile was the morning
edition and her yellow apron was still tied at her ample waist,
herself but the matter of half an hour from our own breakfast.
It went with her blue eyes, the yellow apron, for somewhere between
the two they melded in a pleasantness that had wholly shaped
my life. Colors became her, my Agnes, as well as did being ample
and being direct. Warmth, the length of her body, as if bundled,
had long been my night’s certainty.
On this late October morning Lyle Agersea had come up on my
porch roughly at that moment, bringing his last vegetable gift
of the year, a small squash out of his garden. And we talked
about it, that thin thread of smoke, though we both knew he had
come to see Agnes first hand for the day. In his own way he highly
favored Agnes, once having taken her to a picture show a half-century
earlier. You’d have to say there was no quit in Lyle Agersea.
He was as sturdy and as straight and as durable as his denim
trousers, the both of them with patches, with worn spots, proud
of their long and sure delivery, and time left in each. His smile
was direct as he said, “I swear, Agnes, your coffee travels
two acres of crusty ground quick as a boar down a rifle bead.
It is memorable.”
Smooth and friendly Lyle could also have been the history teacher
at the school, knowing a story or two about our neighbors. He
could knock off a story the way some men could knock off shots
of rye or bourbon, the bottle as handy as the grip of it, as
well as the weekend. “Only thing out in that direction’d
be the old freight car they left behind,” he said, pointing
with his full arm and the cup of coffee at the end of it, and
not a tinkle of sound from his steady hand in illustration of
his good health. He thought about his words for a moment and
then added, “When the mill closed, the tracks, at least
most of them, were torn up for scrap metal. For the war, you
know. Trees growed all around it now, like as can’t see
it unless right up close. Them doors was welded shut. Some of
the boys a few times tried to burn it down, that old boxcar,
but never got it full caught. How long since you been out there,
Dewey?” Lyle had a way with questions, as well as storytelling.
I know objects, large or small, at times even huge ones, which
are inactive for long periods of time, seem to sift or disappear
into background. Inertia itself might take them out of a visible
realm. They fade, lose their contours and identities, become
patchwork on the near horizon. Deserted, forgotten, out of touch,
they become like old grave sights where family lines at last
falter and die out. For me, the abandoned freight car was such
Lyle didn’t wait my answer. His face was lively as ever;
clean-shaved, a pinkness on the high cheekbones and wide brow,
his eyes bouncing like aggies in a game, popping here and there. “What
I’m thinking about this morning, Dewey,” he said,
putting that old smile up for Agnes’s second cup of coffee, “is
that Tylen’s due in town pretty damn soon. First good snow
does it. Don’t nobody know where he hurries off to in the
spring, ever since Comerford Mabel up and died on him. What,
been ten years now? Lonely is what gets you lonely. Sure can
say that about Tylen. And clockwork too. First good snow brings
him in. It might be a month of cold running up before it, but
it’s the first snow does it.”
“Ever think about that?” My curiosity had spoken.
“Hell, it’s like he’s leaving no footprints
behind him. Always comes in during the storm, takes up a place
with old Betty Marlin or Elder John, whomsoever’s got a
spare room. And no trail back into wherever he come from.”
“He never looks none the worse for wear,” I said,
remembering how Tylen climbed up out of the grade one or two
years earlier, waved as he walked past the house and into town,
the little bundle of his Matilda wagging off his shoulder like
some Aussie going down the road, casual is as casual does.
“What’s that man do of a summer, you think, the
way he finally comes into town, gets his room, showers, changes
clothes like he don’t want any trail dust falling from
him, giving away his long-hidden abode? He don’t waste
any time finding a woman spend time with, go to a picture show,
have a meal. Saw him get drunk only once and was the first night
he was without Comerford Mabel. Man has a different clock and
a different paddle, far as I can see. Bill Barley at the gas
station said he once stayed inside Elder John’s house without
coming outside the whole month of December. That’s as near
hibernating as any of us can get.”
Lyle kept lighting up when Agnes poured, and kept talking. “He
gets his grub every week or so at Molly’s store, when he
comes to town, looking none the worse for wear. He don’t
look much beat up or worn down for being out there in the woods.
Would think he’d show some of that. But just slips away
at night like he wasn’t here in the first place, that neat
pack on his back, the good hand holding his cudgel, the other
tucked in his armpit like always. None of the youngsters ever
come across him while hunting or fishing. Never see an old fire
or any kind of sign. Like he might just keep going off into the
next county, halfway out being halfway in someplace else. I’d
almost pay to know.” He stared hard into the cup like he
was reading the remnants of coffee grounds.
When the pot was empty and the squash set on the kitchen counter,
as though a promise had been made it would sure to be used before
the day was over, Lyle cut off his visit. In his mottled dungarees
and heavy denim patchwork jacket he crossed the field the way
he had come, the same way to and fro as every one of his frequent
visits, turning once at the big tree to wave back at Agnes, who
would always wait to wave back. Now that’s what I call
a fifty-year romance, Lyle having no quit in him.
So later that morning, menial chores done, I told Agnes I’d
be taking a spin off through the trees and would be home by lunchtime.
My own good old denim jacket was snug and stood well against
the small breeze coming down the way from Pressburn Hill, and
I carried a good stick for balance and for knocking at things.
Fifteen minutes later I came across the old freight car nearly
buried under the overhang of leaves and limbs from a cluster
of willows and an occasional pine tree. Long ago, after the car
was abandoned, the locks on the doors were welded shut and up
one side I could see where the young arsonists had tried to torch
it; the black scars of that fated attempt lay a dull patina on
the surface of the wooden car, which, in its younger days, must
have been a sour-looking maroon; the drab remnants of that color
showed in corners less touched by the weather, dabs of maroon
an artist had left.
The name of the rail line the car was originally birthed to,
no longer visible, came out of my memory; I could hear the steam
whistle, feel the ground chug and tremble, see the old legend
saunter past the crossing in its spastic fashion near my youthful
home, humping, banging, out on the road, out on the free road:
The Nickel Plate Road. It sang out that name, that tune; The
Nickel Plate Road! The Nickel Plate
Road! Long ago I had savored
its adventurous title, tossed it through my teeth again and again,
day after day, night after dreams, and heard it in the back of
my mind, along with the quickened menu of The
Route of the Phoebe Snow, The Old Lackawanna, The Mississippi
and the Yazoo Valley, The Boston & Maine, Grand Trunk Western,
Delaware Lackawanna and Western, New York, New Haven and Hartford,
Rock Island (oh,
good old Rock Island), Bangor and Aroostock (potato cars for
a mile, it seemed), and the singing again, the Atchison,
Topeka and Santa Fe.
As a youngster I had been mesmerized, hypnotized, sent off on
dreamy adventures by the names posted in great letters on the
sides of freight cars and coal cars, and those little houses
like shanties on wheels riding the end of trains sometimes 200
cars long, where railroad men ate and slept and spent much of
their lives crisscrossing America, watching America grow. Freight
cars on the move. Tankers and coal gondolas on the move. Great
steam engines, puffing, shaking, and beating it down the rails.
The joy of seeing other places used to fluster me with its richness,
the sudden flare of its warmth totally numbing me to the bones.
Not yet subsided, the call of the open road, I swear still making
its call on me with the fact of this abandoned boxcar.
Now, before me, dreams gone down the road, the old boxcar seemed
to sag; rust had touched its great wheels and mild but honest
decay crawled about its face, inertia having painted it anew.
About it too, as much a part of its identity as the old legend,
a slight acidic smell, that of ash or old fire, as if the light
flames the boys had introduced to its sides had permanently touched
the air. The thin memories of smoke I smelled– my grandfather’s
pipe filled with cut Edgeworth tobacco, an orange campfire into
which my friends and I had tossed potatoes waiting the delicious
blackness, the iron monger’s stove at the dump where my
grandfather worked --- even as the wind began to blow, leaves
at temperament beginning their endless and haphazard flights
into the wind and with the wind, and then a very fine snow started
to fall. The ground, quickly, with sudden charm and celerity,
accepted whiteness and wind and my homeward path.
For three long and interminable days, clouds permanently in
place above us, it snowed. It snowed that finely-particled snow
so easy in its promise, so dreadful in its fate, that had driven
me home from the side of the old Nickel
Plate Road freight car.
And we did not see Lyle for a week, until he and the sun showed
up one morning, both frisky, bright, boding chatter as he walked
up the road.
“Agnes,” he said, the lightness on his face and
in his eyes, him brimming with a week’s worth of news and
no-news, “I swear I could smell your coffee clean acrost
the field, clean as gunshot on opening day. I swear, Agnes, it
was that clean.”
The bowl of his hand accepted her cup as he added his choice
bit of news, him practically jumpy all the time with wanting
to tell it: “and Tylen not yet showed his face. Not showed
a minute’s worth! Down to Molly’s they been talking ‘bout
a search party going out there, wherever the hell he be, and
hauling his bottom back in here before he freezes himself altogether.”
A week later Tylen Brackus still had not showed up at Molly’s
store or at Elder’s place.
You have to hand it to Lyle. He got the energy going in them,
pulled the crowd of men together, the sheriff but a paid hand
at that and a little put back in his place by Lyle’s energy,
got them pushing at themselves. “Think of being out there,
the snow putting you in your place, freezing your little ass
off, and only one hand to help yourself. If he needs us, old
Tylen must be sitting beside himself with worry and we have to
get out there.”
So we went, some only as far as they dared to go. Some only
as far as the tree line on Pressburn Hill, the snow too much
to contend with. Some not being such good friends to the one-armed
man. The younger guys cutting away on skis, snowmobiles, one
or two on horseback. Rag tag as you can imagine a small town
And there, under the willows, under the remnant pines, out along
the backside of the closed woodworking plant, the slight and
slender file of smoke issued from one corner of the Nickel Plate
Road boxcar. The small army halted as they eyed the smoky residue
patina left over from the young arsonists. The welded joints
still secured the doors, each great span easily seen as not having
been moved in this recent lifetime.
Molly’s husband Clocker said it must be on fire and none
too soon as far as he was concerned, everybody knowing his boy
Charlie was one of the group which had set that last match. “No
way in or out of that car, boys,” he said. “It’ll
burn for sure this time.”
The snow was drifted high against one side of the freight car,
and we were about to pass by, leaving it to smolder or whatever
it was at, when I knocked at the side of the car with my cudgel.
A weak knock came back.
“What the hell!” Lyle said, as I knocked again.
The weak knock came back.
“Someone’s in there, boys. Must be old Tylen.”
“How in hell could he get in?” said Clocker, trying
to push against the huge door. “Didn’t go this way.
Try the other side.” A few of the boys trudged to the other
side and came back. “Didn’t get in that way either.”
They buzzed a spell, the lot of them, snowmobile engines shut
down, two horses mouth-clasped, and in a moment, when wonder
and concern was hitting at them, the weak knock came again.
“Jeezus, God!” Albert Binworthy, the old submarine
sailor let out. “Sounds like the Squalus out there off
Portsmouth, down a couple a hundred feet and the boys banging
out the last message. Jeezus, God!” A chill hit the back
of my neck like the edge of a blade.
The weak tapping came again. It hit me suddenly that if it was
Tylen, there was a way in. I slipped under the end of the car,
snow going up my sleeves, down my neck, my eyes searching for
an opening, a way in.
I saw a twist of black conductor wire tight up against one of
the great axles, and saw where it went through a hole drilled
in the bottom of the car. It was electrified I knew. It looked
like Tylen’s work more and more. I crawled a bit further.
I heard Lyle yell out, “You all right down under there,
Dewey? You all right?”
The weak tapping came again for a moment. Then all I could hear
was the whisper of wind as it tried my neck for openers, as it
came the length of the freight car and brought the total chill
with it. “Dewey,” Lyle yelled again, “Agnes
be well pissed off at you if you mess up down there.” The
silence came then as all paid attention again to what Lyle was
It was the shape of it that caught my eye. The squareness of
it. The right angles of it. The lines of it. A trap door of sorts
cut up into the floor of the car. I pushed at it. At first there
was minimal resistance, then a wisp of air hit at my face, and
the whole section slowly lifted away heavy as a slab of granite.
I stood up, my head and shoulders passing up into the body of
the abandoned freight car. Light hit me. A bulb glowed. The tapping
came again. I saw the small rosy redness of an iron stove. I
saw two chairs. I saw a radio dial. I saw a cord of wood piled
against one end of the boxcar. I saw a full size bed in the other
end of the freight car, and the crude and deformed hand of Tylen
Brackus pointing his stick at me, and him saying, “Is that
you, Dewey? Damn it, boy, I knew you’d get here. Got myself
in a poke of trouble. Broke my arm week or more ago I guess.
Couldn’t lift the trap door to get out of here once I got
in here, seems like it’s been a long haul for me now.” He
fell back on the bed, finally letting himself go, knowing that
help was now at hand. I think he fell asleep.
With some difficulty we got him out of the car and onto Nate
Murphy’s snowmobile for a quick ride to Doc Fenton’s
office beside Molly’s store.
It was all reconstruction after that. How he dismantled each
unit that would not pass through the trap door, all of it done
under the car itself. The bed. The stove. The crates he used
for books and storing stuff. We’d found a radio. A fan.
Knew how he tapped into the old electric wire circuit by the
mill and laid a line all down the old track bed. Wonder hit us
at how we had not seen anything amiss, had not a clue, and piece
by piece little insights, forgotten little twists, began to come
to light as the whole episode brought itself together. Misplaced
or lost or junked articles came back into memory. The radio was
Bit Murray’s, thrown out at the landfill, as well as Fred
Lewis’s old Franklin stove. Paul Lavelle swore the bed
was his honeymoon bed last seen at the backside of his barn.
He’d completely forgotten it under weed and brush. Everybody
had a take about one or more of the furnishings.
To this day, long after Tylen, one snowy night at Elder John’s,
chased Comerford Mabel all the way home, it’s always been
the picture of him with the one good arm and that one twisted
little arm and the twisted little hand, perhaps in darkness under
the freight car but hardly in distress, taking things apart for
their last transport, for there was the night, later on, that
the car went up in flames, the fire fully caught and naught but
the wheels and axles and steel framework left.
And I was seeing it all, all the marvelously imponderable things
of life in all its makeup: Lyle hit by lightning one day crossing
the field, just after his old girlfriend set the last cup of
coffee in the cup of his hands; and Molly’s husband Clocker
breaking his neck after falling down the stairs with his arms
loaded with dishes, and Doc Fenton lost in a snowstorm and found
frozen after a tough delivery of a newborn, and that utterly
silent morning when my ample and round and direct Agnes was not
warm against me for the first time in our lives together. Just
like I had seen Tylen Brackus, at night, under the freight car,
working at those terrible odds he always faced up to.