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The Old Man of the River by Tom Sheehan  

Posted by Scott Wilson

There were times, Musket Jack Magran swore, he could hear a dog pissing in the night, another drunk pissing in another alley, a moth touching down on a lighted globe or, between his ears and his fingertips, humming and vibrating, the vast platelets of the Pacific Rim moving on each other their endless rhythms. In tune with the universe was he, had been forever, and tonight was no different. He had his booze, he had his sack for the night, he was in touch.

Pieces of a broken moon splashed on the dark blue waters of the river and shot off the ripples of a late wake, a small craft having passed by minutes earlier against the other bank, a craft without night lights, dark, sly, faintly noisy, like a ferret in the rushes. It had been down river, possibly out to sea. Musket Jack Magran, groggy from sleep yet ears cocked, bones still bearing an ache in his old body, could hear the fading engine’s hum from upstream darkness, where trees on the curved banking and a small copse of birches gave off vertical neon, slim arrows in a quiver, catching moon traces. Skullduggery without lights, he whispered as darkness swallowed up sound, as night crawled back to its place of keeping, the gathering of silence and darkness.

On the deck of someone’s lobster boat tied up to the T-shaped pier at the Lobster Co-op’s landing, Musket Jack Magran had begun another night free of rent. His old canvas shelter-half, infantry issue, its Army legend imprint long faded, not mated for thirty-odd years, edges frayed and stringy, the sheen gone to lively abrasions, still kept the dew and late dampness off his single blanket. He knew the odd stars; on five continents he had slept out in the night, and on islands and territories too numerous to mention.

Now and then he’d swear the water lapping at the dock or the sides of the boat was hypnotizing him, melodies lingering in the sweep and ripple, old station or post songs mostly without words, the wide world at call and command… China Night… Japanese Rumba… Manila Moon… The Maids of Mandalay… and, for brief catches, Lily Marlene, underneath the lamplight by the garden gate. It was better sleeping on an odd lobster boat on the river than under the steel bridge or up above the pier on a park bench, old ladies too nosy or too solicitous, or old men looking for company or a voice in the darkness. Side benefits came easier on strange boats; general silence within darkness, the long and rhythmic inland reach of the sea, time passing off its melancholy and letting him handle it on his own terms. In another five or six weeks he’d think about hitching a ride south from a gypsy truck driver. On this night, like the others on numerous occasions, came back the old promise he’d made to himself in too many dry and arid infantry posts that some good part of his life later on would be spent on the water, the obverse life of a sailor, the eternal hum coming off that span about him. These lobster boat nights were part of that promise.

The last burp of the boat whispered to him from the bend of the river, beyond the silvery copse. His large ears, derided by many for years, were keen for sounds and had saved him and comrades in numberless firefights or skirmishes. For the bracing of comrades, being called “Wingsy” by some, “Elephant Ears” by others, he readily absorbed and accepted the ability to hear the click of a rifle in the mountain or jungle darkness, or on the wide sands of the Sahara Desert.

Then, for a lucid moment, another piece of the moon falling across his eyes, he heard again his father on the porch back in Vermilion, Ohio talking about Black Jack Pershing, a perfume of cool sweet breath coming off Lake Erie, Canadian air at its best. In another moment, as if in a movie, he saw himself caught in his tracks on a distant post at distant years as Call to the Colors came to him, hauntingly clear and infallible. All this time the tune was still riveting, making shivers at his spine, making dictates, driving his mind for known or unknown reaches. What post it was he could not remember, some place off in the vast world of his adventure, but he heard the bugle as clearly as that same revered moment, and then came the command in his father’s voice. He flirted with an argument about memory’s structure but quickly gave it up. The last ghostly purr of the faint motor sound brought him back. Two nights earlier, just after midnight, the same boat, or one sounding just like it, and without night-lights, had crawled by his night bed, the deck of another lobster boat.

Not only a free sleep brought him to the river, or the toss of the sea, but also an occasional beer found in a cockpit or cooler, forgotten with a good day’s catch. Tonight he’d found a six-pack and drank two cans, putting the empties back in place, draping the plastic loop around the cans. And a half pack of butts with a lighter, quick treasure. Yet his mouth was sour for the find, his palate sassy. The low hum of the dark boat having faded completely, he whispered half aloud through that sour mouth: Tomorrow night, from the other side, from the Lynn side, I’ll watch for that boat. Something tricky in the wind, I’ll bet. What moves in darkness sure isn’t light. From the other shore, eastward under the moon, from a distance on the Lynn side, came the closing of a door, a faint yap of a dog at relief, a hushed command, the door closing again on the night.

Well before dawn he slipped off the boat and made his way around the lobster shack and up the road heading into town. Few cars moved on the road, but their lights danced on his face as he moved towards a morning of washing dishes at Smokey’s Diner, where lobster boat crews swallowed breakfast like a Lenten fast was over. Their breakfasts were mountainous, as if they’d be at sea for a week. And they talked as they ate, part of the ingestion process, noisy and garrulous like someone gargling and getting rid of a bad night. He loved to listen to them, their gripes as timeless as the tides, sea stories like barracks stories with characters rising from their oratories like people off-stage in a play, not seen but heard from. “Friggin’ line was cut by knife, ain’t shittin’me none, them assholes from Bev’ly!” “Swear she’s got these humungous tits you can tie knots in!” “When she straddles, man, you fucking disappear from the face of this here good earth.”

Often they were subject to poor fortune and seas that turned savage in eye flashes. But they were a vibrant bunch in spite of their lot in life, hard drinking and hard swearing, riding at times the crest, at times not. Jack had seen hands and fingers mangled by sudden ropes or arthritis or the curses of salt water, arms laced with scars so deep they could make you wince. He’d seen storms that sat in some men’s eyes long after the wind had faded on-shore. Like watching a late movie, he said to himself.
Dud Whelmsly of all of them intrigued him the most. Dud, to Musket Jack’s eyes, was built like a Budweiser keg with short arms and short legs, the lord of the realm perhaps, perhaps of the river and the fleet itself, but a voice with a threat of music in it. “Goddamit, Smokey, repeating this all the time just about spoils my day…don’t break the yolk in my egg sandwiches. Let ‘em break themselves and sop in, the way I like ‘em. Let ‘em sop into them there bulkie rolls, goddamit!” Jack almost broke a gut the night Smokey came out of the men’s room right behind the counter zipping his fly, the hopper flushing, and started to mold two hamburger patties for Dud. "How'd you want them hamburgers, Dud?” he had said. Dud had looked up from his newspaper spread across the counter, looked around the room, caught a few eyes, bent his head in the way he had of doing it and said, “Well, Smokey, might’s well cook the piss out of them two little fuckers.”

Now this morning, the sea out there for the moment calm, the noise here intense as the day loomed in front of them, there was talk among the lobstermen of thievery, missing lobster traps, lines cut. Some unknown force, out and about the good earth, was lining up against them. There was talk of a night watch and Coast Guard involvement. The small diner hummed with a loose vengeance and anger. It was a recent activity obviously grown out of hand. Eyes often spoke as loud as words, layers of cigarette smoke cut by their stares, revenge working the horizon.

“He comes under my knife he’s chum bait,” burly fisher Fall Dixon said, patting the near-Bowie blade sheathed at his belt line. That patting hand was enormous in its spread, and bulbous as though an arthritic warrior had lodged there. The years of seawater and salt, hawsers and traps, inured skin and bone and callus with a quick identity. Fall, like Dud, would be known hands-down in a crowd, lobsterman.

“I’m suspecting he must sure know his way around what he’s at,” Dud offered, half pivoting on the counter stool, a page of the paper twisting with him.

“What the hell does that mean, Dud?” The voice was from behind a newspaper in the corner.
“Simple,” Dud said. “One a us or knows us too good. The price down, what a small catch does to a man’s day. Anyone know anyone wants a boat real bad?” He stared out the diner window, not letting his gaze rest on any man, effecting neutral for what it was worth, yet it was like slipping a knife point into the clasp of a sea clam or quahog. It was harsh intrusion, the room itself being cut.

Musket Jack saw rather than heard the silence. Heads lifted, eyes aimed like pistol sights, jaws froze on words. Union and divinity and brotherhood were once again at the forefront. Musket Jack, for all his downhill slide through a whole lifetime, knew what was happening there on the line. He could feel its net, had lived within it, depended on it; Hug Scroggins’ dive on top of the grenade seemed a hundred years since came back with ferocity; and followed Little Davie Davenport’s sucking up pieces of his own grenade. They had made and broken many a day. The elitism of fragmentation, its hunger and global dissemination, leaped at him. These lobstermen all about him were certainly now in the throes of some kind of war. Hostilities had begun in part, he was sure.

The corner speaker spoke. “You’se first hit, Dud. Seen nothin’ that day you went out? You was early enough, I know.”

“Nothing but my lines cut. Lost thirty traps and whatever was caught. Nothing on the horizon. No oil spills. No markers of any kind, but what he loosed from me. Rat-ass bastard’ll get chummed, that’s for sure. I guess nobody here knows anything or they’d be speaking up about now. Never too late, even if it’s your brother or your son or your son-in-law or your old daddy.”

“You swearing to that, Dud, that it’s one us or close to? That’s powerful stuff for breakfast.” It was Napoleon LeMars who Dud had fished out of the Atlantic two years earlier, after twenty-two hours in the water. “I’m going to take an early look. Over by Hatty’s Run, then I’ll come back by the Pines Light.”

“You not fishing today, Nap?” Dud said.

“I’m giving my day up for looking. Somebody else can do it tomorrow. No kids sitting to my table.” He snickered, “Least not so’s I know.” The ladies’ man of their group basked in a moment’s glow, not one hair of his thick crop out of place, pleasant crinkles at his eyes, his Roman nose as clean as the day he was born. “If’n I see anything I’ll let you know. Tomorrow’s somebody else’s day. But, hell, Dud, I don’t know what the hell to look for even.”
Dud was not imperious, but a bit lordly in his advice. “Keep a sharp eye, Nap, for what ain’t supposed to be where you see it. If it’s not in among us, it’s sure like us. That skirmish they had in Beverly back a few years, when they were losing boats and traps and lines galore, it was outside but inside, if you know what I mean. Someone wanted the riverfront or the harbor for commercial stuff the guys of the fleet couldn’t touch in a hundred years. If anybody hears about that kind of thing coming here, we got to sit up right away.”

Fall Dixon came off his stool. “There ain’t been a whisper about someone new trying to get the river cleaned up, and us out of it. Not for a few years now, but it’s always there. That ain’t anything new, but it’s sure been quiet. No snoopers I know of. No real estate guys walking around with little notebooks in their hands or talking into small recorders, getting so frigging lazy at it now. You heard anything, Dud?”

Musket Jack loved to watch Dud Whelmsly operate. He’d seen a hundred company clerks over the years running the whole show of an infantry outfit, and Dud was not unlike them, letting innuendoes and side remarks do the work of order and command. Mere suggestions built slowly on themselves, became laws unto themselves. Questions, posed the right way, in the right tone of voice at the right time, in some measure became fact. It was an art form. Dud’s head lowered on his massive body like a turtle retracting, then he scrunched his eyebrows and looked deeply into Fall’s eyes as he let his baritone voice float across the diner. “What’s a stranger among us, if he’s not a brother?” At an angle he held his suppressed head, for a moment breathless on stage. Musket Jack shook a little in admiration. “What’s a visitor in our midst, if he’s not a brother? Who are we, being alone, but brothers?” It was part of the art form, as if he had gone down into his body to find those words and then shared them.
And it was as if an edict had been posted in Smokey’s Diner, an imperial edict. In the kitchen, looking out through the serving window, the old soldier almost pissed his pants having a good laugh. Dud Whelmsly had said nothing at all, not a damn thing, and here was rapt silence stunning the room as if some ages-old philosopher had made a pronouncement. He could remember no beliefs or espousals except names. Dud could be like Locke or Kant or Descartes or a hundred others floating at the back end of libraries, dust coming down atop their words, dead a hundred years and still making waves just off the river. Dud’s head was still at that most confidential angle, that sharing pose.

“You oughta be in the movies, Dud.” The voice was still behind the newspaper, like a small bell tinkling a few stray cows home.

Dud pretended he didn’t hear that pronouncement. “If there are people who want us off the river, they’ll come at us any way they can. But the pocketbook’s the best way. That’s my traps and your traps. My boat and your boat. My catch and your catch. No boubt adout it!”

Now, Musket Jack also realized, Dud Whelmsly was coming at them with the real ammunition, Topkick stuff. He suddenly realized that Dud knew there was an enemy within and about. Was damn sure about it. And Musket Jack himself had been witness to some piece of it. The fading sound of the midnight engine came back to him, even as dishes rattled and glasses tinkled against one another and silverware was in minor crescendo. The idea of energy came at him, the spurt of it, his blood moving. First it was heat from his task, the water scalding and steamy. Then it was an old convoy climbing the long slight grade of a hill he thought perhaps was outside Wonson on the way out of the Pusan Perimeter. Then it was a flotilla of craft as they crossed Lake Hwachon, a whole battalion of infantry. Then it was the men of the lobster fleet sitting out there in the little stuffed diner, the smoke hanging in the air like old rifle residue and burning cosmoline and spent gunpowder going on a day old and the hurt still in place.

“All I can say is that it’ll probably start at the town bank if that’s what it is. But I’m telling one and all, something’s up and about and it pays us to look close to anything odd. From the landing, and both river banks all the way out to the Big Daddy.”

***

Musket Jack Magran was a listener. He kept his ears cocked for every piece of input. Washed out, but fed well by Smokey, an old soldier himself, the small mountain of morning dishes washed and put away, Jack walked away from the diner at ten of the morning with two fried egg bulkie roll sandwiches in his pockets. Way ahead of time he had planned his move to the other side of the river. If that boat came again, in the slip of darkness, he’d be watching.
After midnight, cloudy, the moon off someplace, the old soldier felt the disturbance in the air before he heard any sound. On the other side of the river, from the Lynn side, after passing through the small yard of boat gear, he had slipped aboard another lobster boat. He had spread his blanket and shelter-half, found two beers in a cooler, had a few nips picked up earlier, strictly for his late watch. Darkness invaded his thoughts. The river, like every river he had ever known, was alive even if mute, from the Pukhan to the Mekong to the Saugus. From deep in his past he remembered a perimeter outpost, two ration cans tinkling on a strand of commo wire as the Chinese infiltrator tried to come up his hill just beyond Lake Hwachon at three in the morning, to try to toss a grenade into the listening post bunker. He felt anew the chill slipping up his spine as he remembered that slight tinkle of cans, and now, under dark clouds on a dark night on somebody’s boat, the small vibrations came to him from the body of the river. The supposedly mute river, its waters trying in vain to catch another tune.

Musket Jack Magran sat up slowly, the shelter-half sliding off his form with the soft grating sound of canvas. That old sourness was in his mouth and a new ache at his shoulders. He cursed a sleeping foot yet caught with tingles. Commiseration was his until the purr and put-put of an engine brought him to attention. There was no moon, no offshore lights falling on the body of the river, but there were shadows. Shadows in spite of their being give measurement, and he peered over the low gunnels, giving least mark to the given contour. Other lobster boats rose dark in the darkness, small radar and radio equipment slim atop their shapes. The water slapped almost in silent applause against his bed boat, the small boat coming up the river sending tremors ahead of its passing. The slow roll of his craft was sensual, the rivers of the world never letting go. He saw a girl on a bed of straw reaching for him, that too had been beside a river whose name was now gone, as was her name. The boat rolled again, slowly, the sound of an outboard came like a whisper. He saw a shadow moving. Then he saw two men on a small dinghy. He heard the splash of liquids. One of the men was spilling liquid from a five-gallon can as they circled around each lobster boat. He recognized the dinghy with the phony spar out front. It was Dud Whelmsly’s dinghy, but neither of the two lank and lean men on the boat was Dud Whelmsly.
Then Musket Jack caught the unmistakable odor, the rich purifying odor, the nostrils-cleaning odor of raw gasoline. They were going to torch the river! They were going to torch the fleet. Tag! He was it! Tag! He was the sole guardian of life and limb and liberty. Scroggins came back, his dive through the air on top of the loose grenade. Little Davie Davenport had carelessly dropped his grenade at his feet. His eyes had gone wild as he looked around at the squad, and then fell down on top of it. They were faces in his night, Scrog and Davie. He saw their eyes, their mouths, their chins. He knew them again, knew that they would never leave him. Had never left him. I’m half drunk, he said to himself, as the dingy circled around another boat, and another five-gallon can spilled against the side of a boat and splashed on its deck. I am the last night guard, he whispered. They were forty feet from him. He was sure he did not know them, sure they were not part of the crews at Smokey’s Diner. That thought sat well with him. What could an old drunk soldier, years past his last hitch, do in such a situation?

Musket Jack Magran let the shelter-half and thin blanket fall away from his body as he stood in the shadows of the cockpit. “Halt!” he yelled out. “Hold it right there. I’ve got a wild-ass Forty-five aimed at your last can of gasoline. You so much as move a muscle this little cannon of a sidearm’s going to go off with a bigger bang than you ever heard! Now you tie off onto that boat and sit in your little dinghy until I rouse some help or so help me you’re nothing but flames.”

He yelled, loud and hard, for help. Upriver a light went on, and then another. Behind him he heard a door slam. There was a pounding of feet, booted feet, on the Saugus side. He kept on yelling. “They’re pouring gasoline on the lobster boats. Watch your ass! Don’t light anything near a boat.”

“Who’s that over there?” one voice said, throwing a torchlight onto the river, letting the light ray fish around.

Jack recognized Fall Dixon’s voice. “This here’s Musket Jack. There’s two skinny gents who were dousing gasoline onto the boats. They’re tied off to Gunther’s boat here, the Maryanne Kay. I got a Forty-five aimed somewhere near their balls and their last can of gas. Call the fire department if you want these boats saved. They been using Dud’s dingy. Better get his ass down here.”

One of the men in Dud’s dinghy moved. “You move again, feller, and you’re flame. I swear to God you’re flame.” Back across the river he yelled to Fall Dixon, “Better hurry, Fall, my goddam finger is getting tired on this here trigger. These Forty-fives were never any good. I couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with one, but the round’ll go someplace close.”

The night watch of Musket Jack Magran was over. The scramble came: firemen and hoses and decks washed down, police going out to the dingy and bringing the two tall strangers ashore, Dud finding his dingy chain snapped through at one of the lower links against the dock. The smell of gasoline slowly dissipated in the morning air as the dew came down and the tide went out.

One policeman, coming across the river in a small dinghy, said to Musket Jack, “I’ll take that Forty-five now, mister.”

“Shit, man,” Musket Jack said, “I wouldn’t own one of them little cannons for all the tea in China. Never was any frigging good at all, them things, ‘cept you carry it you didn’t have to shoulder a rifle. And that was pretty good unless you had to use a rifle.” He held up his empty hands. He smiled at the policeman.

At Smokey’s Diner, the air thick with cigarette smoke, a brand new pack at his elbow, a pile of scrambled eggs and bacon and a pot of coffee in front of him, the new god of the river told his story over and over again. And the identities of the two men and their connections were swiftly known and more arrests promised. “They must have been casing the river the night before, trying to see who or what was round, what the lay of the land was, what they could get away with.”
The voice behind the newspaper said, “They never counted you being on guard, Jack, no boubt adout that.”
Dud Whelmsly said it at last, his head in that confidence-sharing angle, his voice dramatic but honest, “The Staties’ve been onto something for a long while. Some development company from out of Providence, and you know what that means, wants the river for something big. Maybe gambling or a casino-boat kind of thing. Who knows but them who wanted to put us out of the river. Hell, taking traps never did it, or cutting lines. We’ve been through enough of that crap. This was going to get us big time. Me and Fall’s been keeping an eye for a long spell, but I was too quick to sleep the night before and Fall was out of it last night. Took the old soldier here, half in the wrapper I bet, to stand guard for us, like he’s always done.”

Another spill of Jim Beam went into Musket Jack’s coffee cup. “You got a day of it coming, Jack, and then we dry you out and get you a ride south. No more dishes for you, soldier.”
Musket Jack Magran, an aura of cigarette smoke swirling around his head, his eyes beginning to fish once more, the alcohol putting the quiet down in place, old scars getting buried bone-deep in his body, vaguely remembered a boat ride on a river flowing away from the hills above Leyte. A girl’s dark skin he could recall and the light of stars in her eyes, but could not see her face. The way the Earth shifted under him, quietly but dramatically, came back, the whole range of it. A tune from down a wide river came at him as if night were finally taking leave of itself, a post soldier out on the edge of darkness playing his guitar, while overhead the Manila moon went sailing wherever its voyage took it.

And for long hours no person had called him “Wingsy” or “Elephant Ears.” Not a one.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 9:48 PM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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