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Fiction #457
(published October 22, 2009)
The Poet and the Half-way House
by Tom Sheehan
His wife Millicent had cheated on him and she would pay, but to Everett Harley it was much deeper than being unfaithful; she had constantly touched, with ridicule, what she thought was the most fragile element of his being, poetry; so he made up his mind that he'd not allow her any pardon for her perils; no rhythm in leniency, no white space in the matter, no alliteration at all, at all. That's why he carried this day the small chain saw in the back seat of his car.

In one final look at his end of Bailey Hill, appearing as though he was on a secret mission, Everett Harley rested his eyes on the house sitting on Sunnyside Avenue where the soon-to be exalted poet Elizabeth Bishop had spent two years of her life, and one of those years as a freshman at Saugus High School. The fact that they had shared the same desk and chair at the high school, but five years apart, convinced him he was driven to share the same seat by the same teacher. It brought him full bore into poetry, as if a muse's hand was guiding him. All the damned way in, he would affirm time and again to anybody who cared about that turn of events, his patient but growing interest in newly discovered magic. The butt of jokes in a game huddle about his poetic bent, and noises in the locker room he could discern with ease, only made him love more the new words she spun and the white space utilized in her poems. His character traits had arisen, formed and cemented: love of words in rhythm, the music in them, and the quickness to rebel against tough situations, or to resolve them by dint or deed. He did everything he could to nurture the connection with the poet now gaining renown, making for herself a special place in the world, a girl with whom he had undoubtedly shared numerous spaces on this hill.

Millicent thought he was ever on a lark.

Now, early on this day starting the 1963 vacation for him and most of his co-workers at the GE Plant in Lynn, forty-year-old Everett Harley had stopped his 1958 Buick Century convertible in front of his house, a small Cape Cod cottage with deeply weathered cedar shingles on Bailey Hill. At the front stoop, two red window boxes held flowers not watered in a week. Three days of Boston Globes sat below one window box, forgotten in other pursuits by the occupants; Everett, his wife Millicent, and her brother Andrew who lived in a part of the house. Andrew had his own bath, kitchenette and bedroom, all necessary construction accomplished by Everett at Millicent's insistence. "He's family, Everett. That's what counts."

This day he could hear the echo of those words, their edges still sharp.

With a hard and abrupt thrust of his foot, Everett set the emergency brake, slammed the door open and jumped out of the front seat. His moves were all quick, exhibiting emotion. He was tall, muscular, and blond-headed in a handsome Norwegian way. Like his eyes, his shirt was a pale green; he wore dark denim pants and black and white, ankle-high sneakers. With another quick athletic move he pulled the chain saw from the convertible's rear seat. Wetting two fingers at his mouth, he touched a few saw teeth to test their sharpness and, satisfied testing sharp steel, climbed a ladder leaning against the Cape Cod cottage. He clambered his way to the peak where he positioned himself astride the ridgepole. Once he got his bearings and his balance on the pitched roof, a slightly exorbitant lean to his frame, the roof angle apparently no longer precipitous, he carefully pulled twice on the starter cord to get the saw going and began to work it down through the shell of the house. The saw bit deeply, sputtered now and then, and crawled through the different layers and stratas of wood. Each noisy thrust of its chain, positive and healthy, his right arm steady at the task, bit deeply, and the engine's roar echoed throughout the neighborhood.

By 6:30 that evening the house, floors included, was sawed in half, from the peak ridgepole down through both parallel side walls and the underlying sills sitting on a foundation slab. Swirls of sawdust and plaster dust during the long day swirled about the house much as a small engine exhaust paints the air. That image was beefed up by the burnt fumes of an oil and gas fuel mixture, the occasional chain searing of a good hardwood beam or board, the chatter of the chain finding a seated nail that could make a listener grimace.

Near neighbors, hearing the noise of the saw, stirred from their kitchens or yard duties during those hours, watched from open porches or front lawns. The day was an otherwise pleasant one in early July with occasional high-white clouds looking the texture of Marshmallow Fluff and a tolerably decent breeze out of the west. Others, hearing about Harley's one-man show, sauntered for a look-see from wood-shrouded homes straggling along the sides of the hill. Gathering slowly at first, they watched from a pardonable distance and mostly in silence. Others, out of deeper curiosity, keener, waited for Harley's wife Millicent to come home from work at the Lynn Hospital, and her brother Andrew. They felt like insiders, sharing an occasional nod, an eyebrow's illuminating lift.

Harley, a few of them knew, was a poet of various sorts, ever dreaming of original poems and white space, trying to find words with creative associations, finding new ways after rummaging through myriad publications and reading other poets, seeking the madness of poetic mystery, the calling he believed reserved to few among them. At the spot where he alighted from the convertible, a particular viewer in one quick span would see the Atlantic Ocean, the Boston skyline with the Tobin Bridge just over a dozen years old, and the Rumney Marsh running as wide as a cross country race out of Saugus and clean through Revere. Elizabeth's view, Harley figured, would have included the old Mystic River Bridge, a miniature contrast to the replacement Tobin Bridge now leaping Chelsea to Charlestown, the high fields of iron touching the endless sky with affection only he knew as real.

For a long time he had been aware that Elizabeth had nearly the same two-year view from her home on Sunnyside Avenue on the other end of the hill, the very hill that he lived on. He would brag a little that Miss Redbairn, the English teacher, finding hope and promise in him, had shown him Elizabeth's report card from 1925. That was after he told her he had found "The Tree" she had written about after she had left the school and went by car or train to that private school in Swampscott for a year and then Walnut Hill School in Natick where the poem was published in the school publication in 1927. A classmate of Harley's had found a copy of the magazine containing Elizabeth's poem. She gave it to him, knowing of his interest in Elizabeth. The tree, he was convinced beyond any doubt, was over on Sunnyside Ave, behind the old Shepherd house he had scouted out and circled in the dark one stormy and electrical night. That night he was enamored and excited, sometimes unable to keep his breath controlled. Far at sea, sudden and fierce illuminations from a chain lightning storm shocked the skies the way a naval battle would appear to distant observers; cannonades of sea artillery rocking heaven and hull. For a few fierce hours he sat beneath the tree's leaves and limbs whispering in the animated breeze, seeking the same divination she had found, some of the same answers, as the distant light from lightning reflected gem-like above him.

Millicent, soon thereafter, had laughed at him when he placed a framed copy of the poem on his mantel and, unbeknownst to her with that move, had served up the first serious and unforgettable dent in their marriage.

The dents continued, a series of them becoming routine, and the harder he strove at what turned out to be his first love, the further she moved away from his thoughts and his person. They acclimatized in a yo-yo fashion of partial and odd separations until he saw her late one evening enter the home of a widower at the far end of the hill. An upstairs light came on, the shade came down, and a shadowed embrace took place before the light went out for close to an hour. Harley, in a frightening moment of illumination that twisted through him, knocking staid parts awry, was both angry and relieved. He would try to control his vanity; if they lived in the deep woods of Maine, it would be easier.


On this day of the saw, no other autos were on the street, a slowly winding road approaching the top of the hill where Harley's house sat on a plot of 1.2 acres with a small line of maples on the downhill backside. Leaves of the maples were thickly green and moved with a touch of music in them. The grass on all the nearby lawns was richly green, and flowers in small beds were lively and spread colorfully; red and purple impatiens, a long bed of geraniums perpendicular to one house and the street, a rose bush wrapped about a split rail fence, nothing outlandish or expensive in the mix. No children were about, except at the lower end of the street where a group of five or six of them was gathered for a game of Ringo-leev-ee-oo. In the air was the faint buzz of a pleasant summer evening coming to perfection. It was mid 1963, one great war long over in Korea and one, still hidden but just as far away, was about to sneak its head around the corner. None of these observations, though they had great matter in them, had anything to do with Everett's determination or the saw in his hand.

Across the road, a slight way down from the crown of the hill where Everett Harley's house was being dissected, Harold Tarbox, a retired fireman who loved the peace and quiet at this end of town, heard the saw at work. After a minute's study, and shaking his head at some inner agreement, a kind of assumption to boot, he said to his wife Priscilla, "Our pal Everett is apparently exacting a demand of sorts. I think he's sawing the house in half. This is what you'd call division, diversion, or ultimate separation." Then he answered his own question: "Damned if it isn't." Again, he nodded his head in self-agreement, and said, "Can't blame the man a whole lot. I would have put my money on him."

His wife agreed, saying, "He's direct in his statements, we have to give him that." She shrugged one shoulder and added, "Most of his poems are that way. You don't have to guess what he's saying. Not like some of them who put shrouds around their work, like it's really a private thing. . . you can buy it but don't pretend that you understand it."

They looked at each other with most comforting grins, as though they were familiar with all the parts of poetic creation.

Other neighbors, downhill or from distant parts of the hill, hearing the steady roar of the saw or news about its deep cut, gathered slowly on Bailey Hill as if a parade was due. Some, close enough for reaction to a hurried phone call, joined the throng. Like a line at the ticket taker at the old State Theater, they milled about and mostly watched in silence. One, tipping an ear, might have heard an observer say, "Well, what can you expect. He's a poet. And you know the road they travel."

Harley worked steadily, obviously with deep purpose afoot. At odd moments in his journey, perhaps taking a breath, or resting a contorted muscle or an ache in his backside, he'd wave to a confederate or a co-worker or an old teammate, the neighborhood all too familiar. Each one, he balanced in his mind, was an individual who'd agree with the course of action he'd taken. With more than three hours of daylight left, he could finish the task of sawing the house in half. . . and moving it. That, in its self, was prime motive. Separation, he knew, was his due, and time, he hoped, would be a provident ally.

At six-thirty that evening, the day descending in pieces, neighbors not yet at rest, Millicent Harley came home from work at the hospital. She was dropped off at the foot of the hill by a co-worker and started uphill.

The part of the house where Harley supposed he would abide alone in the future, was now located sixteen feet from where it had been at dawn. He'd drawn it that far on rollers with Foster Millbury's tractor, and one whole side of the house was now open, where he'd wall it up again.

The other section, with an inside wall that was now the outside wall, he planned to cover with cedar shingles. Harley raised his hand in salute as the Denny Cronin's Lumber Company truck poked its snout over the crown of the hill, the lumber strapped in place, just as Millicent walked into view. Neighbors studied the couple, as separated that moment as they'd ever be.

"What in God's name is this?" Millicent said, with hands on her hips as she sloughed up her once front walk, the deep gray strap of cement now leading to a portion of half-bared foundation slab. She kept her eyes off the gathered neighbors. Color, though, was full on her face and her hair was tossed about, as one looks coming straight from a wrestling match or similar encounter. The pale green blouse and dark skirt were also in a stage of disarray, and her nylon stockings, someplace between work and home, had disappeared. Her legs, bare of stockings, were the first thing Harley noticed; along with a few close neighbors. The Tarboxes lived closest to them, and shared again a knowing look. Harold Tarbox touched his wife on the elbow and said quietly, "We best go inside, dear," Harold now a neutral in the small war.

The Denny Cronin truck driver, Sandy Nicolo, was unloading his delivery of lumber; sheets of plywood, a bundle of strapping and a clutch of 2x4s that had been strapped on top of the plywood. Along one side of the truck bed were at least 20 bundles of white cedar shingles for siding. The load looked as if it was meant for a new construction site. The driver, a friend of Harley's, was as red-faced as Millicent; he had known her too, and for longer than Harley.

Nicolo said, almost in a whisper to Harley standing at the side of the truck and still holding the small chain saw in his hand, "Can I do anything else for you, Everett, other than unloading this stuff and getting the hell out of here." His complexion was still rosy in the sunset, and he had busily kept his back to Millicent, not once acknowledging her presence.

Harley replied to Nicolo, ignoring Millicent's question, having received it as she intended it, "I'll help you unload, Sandy. I want to put everything on the open slab. I won't get to the siding job today. There'll be some yelling and some talking, and then I'll start all over again, with the hammer. Don't worry about anything else." He put the chain saw on the ground as evening kept in the air the smell of burnt oil, gas and wood sawed through with heated friction.

When the load was on the slab, Nicolo said to Harley, "Good luck in all this, Everett. I hope it doesn't rain."

Everett Harley, half turned around to face his wife, and her brother who had just arrived home from work, said, "That's the least of my problems, Sandy. All I need is room to work."

Tom Sheehan, of Saugus, MA, explains "The fact that Elizabeth Bishop spent a year at Saugus High School in MA gets no mention at all in her biographical works (except for that presented by Michael Hood, Duxbury, MA poet and researcher who has spent lots of time in Saugus on the case). This story was written to extend the fact that some of her work may well have started here on the hill where she lived for two years in her teens."

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