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Fiction #223
(published April 21, 2005)
So There I am Painting the House, Two Floors Up
by Tom Sheehan
My neighbor Harland Recklin says, "You shouldn't be on any goddamn ladder at your age." I admit I am lucky and tell him, "I am 77-years of age and able to handle a few measly rungs on a ladder. Like the old ironworkers used to say, 'It ain't the fall, it's the sudden stop that gets you.'" The temp is a nice early October 62 degrees. The sun is on one side of the house and I'm on the other side and I hear a car coming around the far corner and it's going like hell, the tires screeching and I can feel the driver leaning at the wheel. There it is, a lump in the throat being known, the body twisting itself involuntarily, one deep breath aborted in a rush. "Whoa!" I say under my breath. You know what premonitions are, don't you, the kind that start in your feet, snake through your bowels like they own you and make the shivers come out the back side of your neck cold as popsicles. They're real, like chilblains, shivers punched by the cold or, even worse, an old electric extension cord you've found, somewhat ragged and frayed, but for sure a little too late for the matter at hand.

The car turns the corner nearer my house. It slows and pulls into the parking area of the old Scotts woolen and shoe mill across the street from me. The car's a recent vintage Chevie. I'm not sure of the year, though my eyes are decent; the car's black, has an antenna of sorts, and one hubcap is missing on its left side. And the mill's been converted into a personal storage center, a somewhat post- Revolutionary War/pre-Civil War kind of structure of red brick they still call Colonial and the bricks they still call red mickeys as if only the Irish are yet making them in an old kiln just around the corner.

The place is three floors high and has been refurbished for a clean presentation to the neighborhood. Bricks have been blasted clean, new windows and doors installed, the parking lot repaved. All looks neat and clean for a change. Business for the new facility is minimal at first, for my less-than-expert eye, but is expected to climb. Similar facilities are out on traffic-jammed Route 1 leading into Boston, the major reason I suppose for this location selection. I am familiar with the building's red bricks, normal floor structure, and entrances used throughout the years, legal or illegal. For years as a kid I caught alewives in the channel locks behind the mill where a waterwheel once ginned up operational power. A long time has passed since I thought about the alewives in their mad dash up the river, how we'd put rocks or broken chunks of red mickeys from the mill and a flashlight in a glass milk bottle, place the bottle in one of the step locks and watch the alewives swarm to the light. We'd often catch them by hand. I haven't seen any alewives for a long time. Nor any quart glass milk bottles for that matter.

It's Sunday and normally not a business day for the storage outfit, but these days with Blue Laws being punched out who knows what's coming down. There are six entrances to the place and the Chevie with the missing hub cap pulls close to one of them. Two men get out. They look around the way some men seek out a gaming place or look for a way into Mother Shannon's place at the other end of town. They see nobody, including me, because I'm up on the ladder almost entirely hidden behind a single cherry tree I've been cultivating for over sixty years. I've never eaten one cherry, and I have to tell you the tree is on its last legs. Yet it's scraggly enough to hide me and the ladder as if camouflaged to do the very trick. I couldn't be hidden any better in the dark.

With a lack of gallantry they pull from the car a young female and hustle her on unsteady legs into the building. Already some aspects in view are not running true to form; Sunday, tire sounds still at an echo, their looking around suspiciously, and the crude manner in which the young female was hustled inside. I've been near the edge before. I feel the nicks of the edge and keep myself tightly against the ladder and the house, mouse-still, the brush dripping paint down on some of my late flowers, though not on the house.

I think the petunias are getting colored.

I'm inert and alert and hold my position. From some past page of my life I distinctly remember the feel of an Ought-Three sniper rifle cradled in my arms, my eyes dissecting a hillside. Christ, I haven't felt this way in more than half a century. My knees, I swear, are about to buckle. I hear Recklin's voice coming back to me, but more like a premonition than an echo.

I hold my position. About ten minutes later the two men come out and I have not stirred from my post, like an old seaman on the lookout mast. They slip into the car and drive away. I cannot get the license plate, though I try to see it without straining my head. They drive toward the road out of town.

I'm at decision time. Do I call the police? Did I see what I thought I saw? Is the woman in there doing some kind of errand or appointed task? Does she have a problem? Is time important in all of this? Hell, I'm the only one around.

I descend the ladder, cover the can of paint, and leave my brush dipped in the paint. Routines are hard to let go, I say to myself, an old man crossing another road. The OPEN sign is not flashing. The door they used to get in is locked, but another door is ajar. I enter into a new service area. The newly installed elevator is, according to the cage light, on the third deck. I call out, "Is anybody here?" No answer. I walk up the stairs to the second floor, shiny paint and railings and décor greeting me, and yell again. No answer, so I continue through more newness to the third floor. The place is set off by doors, maybe a hundred of them on interior walls. There are wheel tracks of a handling cart on the floor. They lead to and away from a cubicle with a number posted on the door. Unit 315 is printed on a small placard mounted on the door.

"Is anybody here?" My words get muted and overpowered.

There is still no answer. I note the handling cart in the corner. The flat surface is stained red. I deem it fresh blood rather than old paint. In the air is the smell of blood, or what I think is the smell of blood. It's been a while for me, this blood stuff, since the kid down the street went over the handlebars of his bike right on top of my front steps. Or Billy Pigg from old Catawba died in my arms in Mung-dung-ni in Korea. His last word was, "Shit." I can smell his blood like it was yesterday. It's stale, like an old refrigerator long unplugged. I stand in front of the cubicle, listening at first, for a moment unsure of my hearing, and then yell out. "Is anybody there?" I have to yell out a second time. I'm convinced the woman is inside even though there's no answer. I pound on the door. "Is anybody in there?"

No reply, but I'm still convinced. The blood stain won't let me depart. The smell hangs on, too. Billy Pigg won't let go. Never has.

I kick the door and then pound on it. "Is anybody in there?"

I hear a soft moan, a stifled moan, a frog's voice, something clumsy and guttural, a diaphragm stretching for all it's worth. All of it owns panic. My breath balls some place between lungs and lips, builds on itself and then comes loose, like I'm answering the moan.

The door has a padlock on it. Oh, Christ, what do I do now? Breaking and entering already marked up against me. What's next, malicious destruction of property? I look around, desperation working full force, my whole body rubbery or jellied. Was combat like this? A sniper on the hill out front sighting you down a long barrel. Isn't it funny the things you think of under pressure? I can distinctly hear my granddaughter Alexa saying, as she tapped at my belly, "It must be jelly because jam don't shake like that." But other parts of my mind are working; it's the old attention span, reaction agenda, survival kicking itself awake; a fire ax, I recall with sudden clarity, is hanging on a bracket on the second floor wall. I retrieve it and make short work of the hasp and padlock. Wanton destruction a mark by itself? Now I hear deep breath calling for escape from my chest, thigh muscles suddenly and absolutely gone rubbery and aquiver. I can hear Harland yelling from his front steps, "Hey, old man, you're too goddamn old to be on that ladder." Perhaps I am too old to be here, ax in my hand, the moan now an unsure echo. I swear I will piss my pants. I remember that feeling too damn well. Some place at the back of my overactive head, threatening me, says, "Incontinent hero. Pants pisser." Laughter.

When I swing the door open on a cubicle about twelve feet deep and five feet wide, I see a girl of perhaps 27 or 28 years of age with duct tape on her mouth, at ankles and wrists. She is much younger than me, fresher, newer, her skin honeyed and golden. Her dark blue skirt is askew and pulled high on her thighs. She is twisting her legs in a quick but continual act of modesty. She is wearing no hosiery but her underpants are snowy egret white and her legs are long and tanned. If I had time I'd remember someone from the far past, I think, but I don't have time. Other than her predicament, she looks young and vitally healthy. Obviously she's been tossed on top of a pile of canvas. Blood is coming from her left hand, not copious but flowing, and has stained her white sweater. The white and the red speak deep violence, the kind that sets me off. I inhale a sense of anger and cut the duct tape from her with a pocket knife I've been carrying for more than forty years for this one emergency.

She is shivering. "Don't let them find me," she begs. Her eyes, blue enough to begin with, are huge and full of fear. They are like platters on the mantel at home, old Royal Blue Irish platters, mother's heritage china.

"Please, don't let them know you found me."

"I have to call the police." I was sure I would. I didn't know what the bloody injury was.

"Please don't. They'll do something awful to me and to you. They took me here because they can't get out of the city. Too many people, including the police, are looking for them. They know about that storage place. I heard them talking. They robbed their own crooked bosses. They're desperate. They think I can lead their bosses to the money they stole, but I don't know how that is. I think my friend must know, but I don't. They didn't want to kill me, but I don't know what they'll do to her. I think they've gone to find her. I hope she's gone out of town. I know they'll be back."

"Why'd they pick this place, this room?" I point at the cubicle.

"It was open, the lock was hanging there. They just shoved me in, said they might be back."

The tears are blue, I swear, in her eyes, like a lagoon on a South Pacific island that left my mind long ago. .

I pick her up. She weighs in at a pound and a half. There is a vague memory in my mind, in my arms, of holding something like this, something golden, something for an old man at recall. I take her downstairs, stand her on her wobbly legs and lead her across the street to my house. We call the cops anyway, because I don't want those guys scouring around my neighborhood.

I go to get something for her cut, which is still bleeding. When I come back she's gone. Poof!

The cops come and hear my story, write some notes, shake their heads, and leave. I don't know if they believe me. Then they go see the cart and the blood and the broken hasp and the ax on the floor. They say they will be back.

I call Dagnon my carpenter friend down the street and tell him. He came from near New Orleans to take care of his sister who went and he stayed. I like him. Sometimes he doesn't need to be asked for his help; he just appears, him and his normal three-day beard I think is a disguise in his social life. I get a lock off my garage door. We go into the old factory and look the place over. He replaces the hasp on the door of the cubicle. Dagnon does things easier with tools than I do. We're sitting there and hear a car coming. We hide around the corner and hear two men talking as they come up the stairs. They go directly to Unit #315 like they owned it. They step inside and one man says, "What the hell is this?"

I think they are surprised that the girl is gone. Me and Dagnon jump from our hiding place around the corner, slam the door on them and snap the lock on the hasp.

There is a lot of screaming from Unit #315. We rush down the stairs and call the cops from my house. The same cops come back. They're smiling at me and Dagnon.

"Come with us, boys," they say as they lead us across the street. I feel like a kid finally caught sneaking into the place a half a century ago. The premonitions, though lessened, return. I can feel them. My mind jumps through small hoops. From nowhere but the back of my head I see the school of alewives clustered around a glowing milk bottle. I wonder where some of my old fishing pals have gone, like Donnie Junkins and Ray Maes, what has caught up to them in life. Talk about reaching.

All that passes quickly at revelation; we have locked the chief of detectives inside Unit #315. The chief and his #1 investigator. They are embarrassed, the uniformed cops have trouble holding back their giggles, me and Dagnon want to sneak away like in the TV commercial.

Nobody has any idea who the girl is or the two guys that locked her in Unit #315. An investigation will go on, we are promised.

I tell Dagnon the only thing I really remember is how long her legs are.

He smiles and says, "If you wuz me you'd say the same t'ing, you." He pats me on the back. "You could shook the blood one more time, you. Maybe find something lost, eh?"

Payment for favors is not what he wants, but a few moments in the day. "You got some wine, you? I got no place to go but tomorrow, me."

We celebrate our small adventure. He stands up and says, "The shave calls, me." He strokes his chin. "Maybe I see the lady next door, her. The legs ain't so long, hers, but say t'ings."

I think how wine and legs can talk.

A week goes by, and more. The painting is done, even to the peaks of the house, and my flowers in uneven rows are turning brown as if someone spit tobacco juice on them. I start snipping them off. I count the months of my 78th year, check my double-trunk maple tree in its yearly distress. Dagnon, the perambulating Cajun butterfly, waves from the corner. I think he is clean-shaven again. He's forever a listener, in the cycle of cycles.

There are no cops. No noisy cars. No strange men. No word. No trouble. It's like nothing ever happened. October crawls to November. The sky is different every day, yet gray as ever. All things say winter is on the prowl; the old bones, a space under a door I forgot to close up, a maple branch against the house in a slight wind testing its touch, the ever increasing hum of the oil burner. The leaves, turning over in their fashion, are all going back to the earth.

The knock at my door is not ominous at all, though the mystery I'm reading is. I have promised myself I will finish it this morning so I can start the next book itching me all the way from the tabletop, the author's name familiar, striking for recall, perhaps the same character in the somewhat same pickle. I'm unsure. Ten books are stacked on the table for winter. They warm me. I'm at a second cup of coffee. I look up from my favorite Morris chair and drop my book. It's her! She's back. Even before I stand I know she's still in trouble. Her eyes look like they've been patched in place. Smallness leaps at me, she seems half a person. Her hair is scraggly and I think of the cherry tree on the other side of the house, skeletal, like the remains of hands.

Her voice is squelched, narrow, coming down an alley, beseeching. "Please let me in. I trust you. I have no place to go." The sun behind her is still climbing up the porch. I can almost feel it against the house, touching, penetrating, leaving parts of November behind. At that moment the furnace kicks on again in its now never-ending cycle. I can keep in tune with the hum of the burner echoing like a whisper about in the house. Then I remember her long legs, the golden length of them. From the distance I can hear Dagnon saying, "If I wuz you, you, oh boy!"

I open the door and take her hand. She is cold. I sit her in the Morris chair and pour a mug of coffee. She sips it, afraid it will burn her lips. The eyes over the mug are almost dismantled. They wander. I know they're not seeing what they're looking at. She shivers again. "They killed her. The police were at her apartment. I got there and saw the lights flashing from their cars. I went in to a diner and wanted a coffee, but I couldn't drink it. I heard the men in there talking about her, my friend. They stabbed her. She was all taped up and they stabbed her."

She sipped the coffee again. The mug was oversized in her hands. Her eyebrows looked like little tents. The small nose was more petite because of the brows. Her lips were just starting to find some pinkness. "I saw two men sitting in a car near the diner. They were watching the cops busting around. I think it was them. I slipped out the side door behind them and walked here. I don't know where to go. I can't go home. I haven't been home since I left here. I trust you." She was smaller than ever.

"Did you get the registration number of the car? Was it the same car?"

"Yes, yes it was. It's here on this pad of paper, but I couldn't go to the police. I trust you."

"I'll get it to the police."

"But they'll come here. Somehow they'll come here."

"Not if we do it right. I'll tell them I suddenly remembered the plate number coming out of my sleep. I'll tell them I saw it in my dream just like it was. They can make the connection. It won't involve you. I want you get some rest. I won't tell the police about you. They don't need you if they get those guys for the murder of your friend."

She goes to sleep on the couch. I cover her with an afghan. The oil burner hums its tune again. I call Dagnon and explain it all to him.

"What you do wit her now, you? You got a gun they come, them? I bring my shotgun, serve them right. I wish my gator gun come wit me from down gator country."

The Cajun armorer comes with a shotgun in a burlap bag. We put it under the couch, but he stands guard while I call the police.

The cops come and talk to Dagnon and me. The two detectives are there too, and then go off. For nearly two days she sleeps in the spare room upstairs. I leave food for her at the door. The first day she does not touch anything. The second day she eats. She stays a week with me, most of it in the spare room upstairs. She never goes near a window, never goes outside. Now and then, even at a distance or beyond a door, I can hear her breathe as if it's through a balloon.

The upshot of it all is the police get the two guys in the car, and their prints are on pieces of duct tape from the murder scene. They've also kept the duct tape that bound the wrists and ankles of my new guest and find a match there also. But they have no name and no complaint about the abduction. She tells us her name is Shirley and does not want to get in on it, wants no publicity at all. She says she is scared to death they have other friends, or their bosses will get in on it too.

Dagnon says, "What's it feel like, you, wit her in the house, so young, her?" He rolls his eyes.

"She feels like a daughter come home at last from downtown," I tell him, the long legs forgotten, and their golden sheen.

Dagnon nods and shrugs his shoulders, and says, "I betcha." He is not there next day when she slips out of the house again while I am at the store.

I tell Dagnon, "She's probably still scared because we're just old amateurs and can't promise her much more than our word, but we know that's as good as gold."

"She don't know we good forever, us." He winks the knowing wink.

Nearly a month later we each receive a package in the mail from Los Angeles. $5,000 in cash, in rubber bands around a bread wrapper from a local bakery. A small "s" sits on a piece of paper in a pack of $100 bills as if some alien has left a brand. There's not even a scent of her in the mix, nothing golden, nothing youthful.

Business at the old Scott's Mill picks up considerably, Dagnon takes his lady friend next door on a cruise, and I am halfway through the pile of books on my table while winter moves its resolution.

I admit I'm still thinking about the money in the mix of it all, and wondering what a daughter would have been like.

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