You need to find a publisher for this.
I was having the dream again.
Like before, I was walking through a grove of palm trees (which struck me as kind of a strange since I've never seen them, except maybe in a magazine or on television). They were tall and slightly curved, like a giraffe's neck, and were heavy with coconuts. The dream usually ended here, with me walking down the beach, the sun warming my face. This time, though, something different: with a loud snap, one of the coconuts fell to the ground at my feet, settling into the sand. I reached down to pick it up, and then jerked my hand back suddenly. It had a mouth; the coconut did, which was grinning and full of white coconut teeth. What the hell is this, I was thinking, as I backed away and came up hard against another palm tree. I shrieked as I felt something poking into my side.
The coconut laughed, wobbling back and forth. "Rise 'n shine," it said. "Rise and --
"-- shine," I heard, snapping out of my dream and nearly knocking out some of Black Jack's teeth as I jerked upright in my sleeping bag. He was leaning over me and prodding me in the side. "Let's get a move on, Sancho...tempus fugit."
"Jesus, what time izzit?" The fog was clearing just enough for me to know what a stupid question that was. Jack doesn't own a watch. The old coot packs just about everything but a watch. I pulled my arm out of the sleeping bag and looked at mine: six o'clock. If I'd had a coconut handy, I would have hit him with it.
Black Jack's an early riser. Amazing thing, too, considering how often he tucks himself in with a bottle. But he's up at dawn, usually rummaging around and making all kinds of racket. Considering I live on his little plot of heaven, that makes me an early riser, too.
Black Jack gets up slowly. I hear joints popping as he does so.
"Big do'ins today, my boy," he says. "Big do'ins." He stretches, arms out to his side. More popping.
"Go to hell, Jack." I'm still half asleep and it comes out like "goda 'ell shack."
He laughs. "No time for that, sorry. They're renovating over at St. Cec's, and I have my sights on a prime bit of salvage I saw out by their dumpster yesterday. A fine piece of flotsam born up on a wave of opportunity. No more imprecations, now...out of the bag with you and greet the sun!"
He always talks this way. A lot of flowery language I don't understand and he won't explain. I don't think he does it to show off, that's just the way he is. The man's got some education in him and it just leaks out.
I pull myself out of the bag, grumbling for the millionth time about what craziness must have come over me to hang around with Jack as long as I have, and notice the chill in the air. I pull a pair of fatigue pants out of my duffle bag and slip them on along with a heavy plaid shirt I bought the day before at the Goodwill. Still shivering, I grab an old sweatshirt and pull that on, too. Rolling up the bag, I tuck it up against a corner of the shack. It's a little bit of this, a little bit of that, the shack is. Corrugated tin, wood pallet flooring, other stuff we've salvaged out in the yard when the trackmen aren't around. Grabbing a pack of Camels, I pulled aside the shower curtain we use for a flap and greeted the day.
Black Jack, leaning over the Coleman, smiles as I shuffle over and sit down next to him on a plastic bin.
"Water's boiling, Sancho. Fortify yourself." He hands me the jar of instant and a plastic cup. I like my coffee strong, and figure an extra spoonful won't hurt on a day like this. Pouring the water into the cup, I rock it slowly between my hands feeling the warm spread up my arms.
In the meantime, Jack eases himself down into an old lawn chair and starts munching on some old bagels we bought at the bakery over on Randolph. We like to go over there on Saturdays when Fiona is working the counter. She gets a kick out of Jack and the way he talks her up with his "Fiona, thou art fair as a day in May" stuff. Actually, Fiona's pretty homely if you ask me, but she throws in an extra bagel or Danish sometimes when the boss isn't around, so I just nod and smile as Jack carries on.
I watch as he dunks a piece of his bagel into a jar of peanut butter and then works it around in his mouth. Jack's left most of his teeth behind him, and has the rest working overtime. I reach into the bag next to us and pull out Fiona's freebie for the week, a long john, which I balance in one hand with my cigarette while taking sips of my coffee in the other.
When Black Jack has finally finished gumming his breakfast he turns to me, nodding his head and smiling that damn gapped-tooth grin of his. I must look like hell and he knows it. "Another great day 'neath the arch of heaven, eh Sancho?" he says, laughing so hard he breaks down into one of his coughing fits.
I just roll my eyes and think about my sleeping bag.
Jack gives me just long enough to finish my coffee, by then he's stored away the Coleman and is shifting from side to side in those old overalls of his. I know what's coming, of course. Black Jack's had some crazy idea buzzing around inside his head since he stopped by to watch some of the renovation work at St. Cecilia's the day before, and won't let go off it.
"That's it, continental breakfast is over," he says finally. "We gotta go. I've unearthed a treasure in the leavings over at St. C's and I'm disinclined to give it up. Get yourself up, Sancho, the race is to the swiftest."
There's no arguing with the man when he's like this and, besides, I'm getting curious. Hell, it's not as if my calendar is full. As we begin to leave and start climbing the hill up to the street, Black Jack stops abruptly. Turning, he says, "You made sure the iron was unplugged didn't you? I don't want the palatial estate razed simply because you felt your trousers need a good pressing before we left." He lets go a cackling laugh. This is the old man's standard joke.
Black Jack's palatial estate (and lately, mine) is a concrete pad under the old Como Avenue Bridge near one end off the freight yards. The bridge straddles the line between St. Paul and Minneapolis, which suits Black Jack. He says it affords him "a more expansive view of his domain." Figures. The edges of the bridge jut into the freight yard, giving us decent cover from the wind, and an old water pump down near one of the switches still works. I guess the trackmen used it at one time for something or other. There's even a stand of old cotton woods down the track a bit which lately has provided some color what with the change of seasons. A couple of street lights from the bridge and a few out in the freight yard provide enough light to see pretty well at night, and a dirt path at a break in the fence takes us right down to home sweet home. For a while, the coupling and uncoupling of trains used to keep me awake at night. The booming sound would echo under the bridge like thunder. Made it hard to sleep. Now that I've gotten used to it, I kind of like it. Jack says that's because it's "white noise," whatever the hell that is.
Like Jack, I'm not much on shelters until the weather or the police make it difficult to stay outside. Guess I'm afraid I'll get used to it and lose my edge, maybe become one of those rundown old men that stare into their soup and mumble to themselves. Jesus, anything's better than that. So we share a shack with a view of the Great Northern line. It's not much, but it's pretty nice digs, considering.
Jack and I grab the number six cross-town over to Snelling Avenue, and then transfer over to the bus that will take us down to Saint Cecilia's on the West Side. He doesn't say a word the entire trip. That's the way he is: one minute you can't shut him down, the next you can't shut him up. But all the while his eyes are gleaming as he rubs his hands together chuckling to himself. I've gotten used to it.
I'll tell you what I know for fact about the man -- though it's a whole lot less than what I guess. To start with, Black Jack is neither -- he's a white man and he's said goodbye to at least seventy years, maybe more. And his name isn't Jack -- told me as much when we first met a few weeks earlier. I respect a man's privacy, but for some reason, it drove me nuts early on -- not knowing his name -- so I tried to trick it out of him when we was drunk. I got a lot of opportunities, but they all ended the same way...
"Your name. It's Tom, right?"
"Not even close, m'boy."
"George...you look like a George."
"...and his coat of many colors!" he'd giggle leaning back in his creaking lawn chair and taking a long pull on his flask.
"That's a palindrome, you know."
Another one of Black Jack's fifty-cent words I'd never heard of. "What's a palindrome?"
"Never mind, keep guessing!"
"Sam? Carl? Jesus, what is it?"
"Nope, nope, and not even close. But Carl...hmm...that reminds me of this pimp I knew in down in Topeka..."
And off he'd go on some tale about Carl the pimp, or Louis-with-the-tattoos, or Pete the chalk artist, until he drifted off -- or, as was usually the case, shuffled over to the shack to break out another bottle.
I can tell you that about Black Jack, too, he likes his drink. His tastes run to Scotch, but mostly I've seen him taking pulls from cheap red wine. Whatever's on sale. He doesn't grumble about it, though -- says he an equal opportunity drinker, as he twists the cap off his latest bargain and pours it into his prized possession: a silver whiskey flask. He keeps it with him all the time. It's dented on one side, and tarnished from all the use it gets, but he holds on to it like life itself. Which I guess it is, the way he showers his attentions on it. He keeps the flask tucked away in his breast pocket. Once, I asked him why he did this -- why he didn't just carry the whole bottle in a bag, the way he likes to drink. He patted his pocket and said this way the pounding of his heart would add a bit of kick to his drink.
The man's a mystery to me sometimes.
Like I said, I met him a few weeks earlier.
I had hitched into St. Paul from Helena with about $150.00 dollars in my jeans -- the last of the cash after the unemployment dried up -- and the hopes of finding some construction work. Construction my trade...well, was my trade before the housing boom hit bottom out West. I'd had steady work for a time, then less and less as the talk of "downturns" and "slow housing starts" picked up. For me, the words meant "no paycheck." For a while I got by on the small savings I had tucked away. When that disappeared, "loans" from a few friends helped me squeeze by. I hated taking the money, but I thought it was just a matter of time before things turned around again. They didn't. Bills went unpaid, my friends drifted away (or maybe it was me). I was evicted from my apartment, and soon discovered the world of food banks, shelters, and too much time on my hands. If I'd had a wall, I would have seen the writing on it.
One day I pulled together what money I could and bought a backpack and a decent pair of walking shoes.
I drifted for a while, through a half dozen cities and countless lines. Looking for work and food -- sometimes finding it, sometimes not -- and trying to make plans that never seemed to hold together. I ended up in St. Paul, still carrying the few tools I hadn't pawned in my backpack -- a man's not much without a skill, and a skill relies on tools. With the fall chill coming on, I knew work would be scarce, but I was tired of traveling and thought I'd lay up here for the winter before I headed south. I'd heard the Twin Cities wasn't the worst place in the world. Had to be better than Helena.
The sky had gone slate gray that morning and a cold drizzle had begun to soak through my fatigue jacket. The construction sites weren't hiring and there was nothing to do but find a place to sit and think for a while. With the address I got out of a phone book, I walked the seven blocks to the Kellog Street Shelter.
I'll tell you something about shelters and kitchens, you visit enough of them and everything blurs together after a while -- the food, the faces. I try to stay out of them when I can. It's my way to making sure I don't start blurring too much...you know, becoming part of the furniture.
I had come in around lunchtime and got in line for something to eat. Mostly there were men waiting for their turn at the stainless steel counter and the steaming pans, but there were a couple of women with kids, too. One little girl, maybe seven, maybe eight, turned around to look at me. She had an old Barbie Doll in her hand and was holding it by one of the legs. I smiled at her, but she just stared back with blank eyes. Kids in places like this -- Jesus, it's hard to get used to.
I got a plate of food and a cup of coffee, then went and found an empty table near the front window. I wasn't too hungry and was just moving the food around on my plate while I waited for the rain to let up. I had built up a small mound of mash potatoes on one side with a piece of hard roll floating in the gravy at its center; a ring of green beans was pushed up around the base.
"Ah, the classic medieval fortification," I heard a voice say. I looked up to see an old man with a plate of food pulling out a chair across from me.
The man sat down heavily. "I said I was admiring your model of the classic medieval fortification. Yup, it's all there." He prodded at my mash potatoes with the tip of a plastic fork. "The hilltop providing a strategic advantage and unobscured vantage point." His fork now made an inspection of my green beans. "The baffle of low walls and debris forming the perimeter." He pointed at the gravy. "And of course the moat and the castle proper to serve as the last line of defense."
"Yeah...whatever you say. Now if you don't mind..." I started eating, purposely stirring together the food into a shapeless mess.
"So much for the classic rules of engagement," I heard him say, as he leaned over his own plate.
I turned to look out the window at the falling rain and the umbrellas rushing by. Everybody's hurrying somewhere these days. Gotta be somewhere, gotta go somewhere...nobody sits still anymore.
A flash of color caught the corner of my eye and I turned back to the old man. He had pulled out a huge red bandanna and was tucking it under his chin. Smoothing it out, he looked up and grinned.
"They say manners make the man!" he said as he began eating.
I watched him a bit as he ate, out of the corner of my eye. Like I said, he was an old man. Had to be seventy if he was a day. Strange looking, too. His face looked like it couldn't decide what it wanted to be and was trying a few different features to see which ones it liked. He had these big, bushy eyebrows sticking out over piggy little eyes, and crooked nose (it looked like it had been busted a few times), thin little lips, and not much of a chin to speak of. And wrinkles, everywhere. His face was one big road map of lines and detours criss-crossing every which way. He wore a faded blue Dutchman's cap on his head with the whitest hair I've every seen poking out all around the bottom. I couldn't tell what else he was wearing -- like I said, it was a big red bandanna. I noticed a couple of green beans were clinging to it...kind of just hanging there for a second before beginning the long roll down to his lap.
I looked up to find him staring back at me, fork half way to his mouth with another green bean balanced on the end. (I wondered if it would get to his mouth safely or join the others on the bandanna.) I guess I had been staring.
"Uh...sorry, I didn't mean to."
"Of course you didn't. You probably didn't have much of a choice -- my beauty is compelling, isn't it?" He winked, popped the bean in his mouth and chewed. It's one of the reasons I rarely show my face here. It's just too much of a distraction for folks. It's Black Jack by the way."
"Black Jack, you can call me Black Jack."
"Right. Uh, nice to meet you."
The old man turned his attentions back to his potatoes, chewing loudly as he shoveled the food in with his fork.
"And yours?" he asked a moment later.
I looked up from my coffee. "My what?"
"Your name. What's your name?"
"Oh. It's--" I never finished the sentence in time for the next question.
"Say, you an architect?"
"An architect. Are you an architect?"
"Maybe an engineer of some kind?"
"Why do you care what--"
"You in a rush? Just indulge an old man, alright?"
"Fine," I said coolly. "I'm an unemployed construction worker looking for --"
"Better yet!" the old man shouted. "I knew this would be a fortuitous meeting!" he said, dropped his fork and rubbing his hands together. A couple of men at another table looked up at us for a moment, decided their food was more interesting, and went to back to eating.
"No, please, call me Black Jack. No need for formality."
"Yeah...uh, Black Jack. Listen, I don't know what the hell you're looking for but you'll have to find it somewhere else." I gave a quick glance out the window. The rain was letting up a little. Just a light mist in the air now. I leaned over to grab my backpack, figuring this was a good a time to leave as any. I never quite made it.
The old man leaned over towards me, the bandanna covering part of his mashed potatoes. "You know, I'm not much on these shelters," he said waving a hand around the room. "How about you?"
"No, not if I have a choice, I guess." Meantime, my wits are finally kicking in. Start pulling your chair out, they say.
"Exactly so, not if you have a choice. And I need your help with mine."
"What are you talking about?" Pull out the damn chair and get up!
The old man leaned back again, pulling a layer of mashed potato back with him. "I don't sleep in places like this anymore -- nope, been robbed twice already. I woke up once and my shoes were gone. Can you believe that? It's no way to live so I've opted for the uncluttered vistas of the great outdoors."
"That's nice, but I --"
"And I need your help with a small renovation project."
That was it. I'd lost my chance to leave. I reluctantly let go of my backpack, knowing I wouldn't be going anywhere until the old man was talked out.
"A renovation project?"
"That's right." He pointed to what was left of my food. "My digs could use a little fortification itself. I've found some corrugated tin not far from where I live which would be a fine replacement for the plastic and cardboard I have now. A fine replacement. Strong fellow like you, building skills and all, it would take you no time to drag a few pieces over, slap 'em up, and there you go..."
"Now wait a minute..."
"Sorry, can't afford to wait too many. I'm an old man and need some new walls what with the cold coming on. Wouldn't take but a few hours of your time. Beside, look at me, I may be blessed with rugged good looks, but not your muscle. So, what'ya say?"
He leaned forward again, his green eyes boring into me. He probably felt he had cast out a good line, but didn't know if I was hooked yet.
"Friend," he said, "we all get old one day...if we're lucky."
I let out a sigh and closed my eyes. I've been told I have a soft heart. I guess I had a head to match. The old coot had me. Knew it too. He hammered in another nail just the same.
"If it helps, consider it restitution for the unmannerly way in which you stared at me earlier."
"Enough!" I said, exasperated. "You need a little moving help, fine But let's just get this done -- now. Okay?"
"Wonderful! Allow me a few more bites and we'll be off."
I watched as the man...Black Jack...finished eating and then carefully cleaned off his plastic knife, fork, and spoon with a paper napkin. The job done, he stood up, pulled away the bandanna, and slipped them into one of the many breast pockets in the overalls he was wearing. I looked closer. The whole damn thing was pockets. I could see where he'd sewn strips of denim and whatnot on to make more nooks and crannies for putting things. He caught me staring again. "Admiring my suit? How kind! It provides the perfect sartorial balance between urbane sophistication and functionality, don't you think?"
I opened my mouth and then quickly closed it again.
As I got up, the Black Jack took a look out the big front window. The rain had stopped, but the wind had picked up. It looked cold.
"Hold up a minute," he said.
Black Jack fished out an enormous wool sweater from a canvas bag, and pulled it on (over his hat). It looked like it had been mended a few times. Over the sweater went one of those cheap vinyl rain ponchos you can buy for a buck at the army surplus store. A bright circle of yellow on the poncho caught my eye. It was one of those smiley face buttons you used to see.
"Let's go, Sancho," he says, as we headed out into gray afternoon.
"My name's not Sancho," I said, hefting my pack onto my back.
He didn't seem to hear me.
That's how we met. I fixed his shack, setting up some walls and even a roof by cutting some makeshift brackets out of some scrap wood he had. I did a pretty good job of it, too.
That night, he fixed me a meal. (Stuff from canned goods, mostly, and cooked up over a portable stove -- pretty tasty, though, with the spices he added.) We spent most of the night talking about the world and they way people seem to fall in and out of it. Actually, he did most of the talking, moving from topic to topic between drinks. I sat there listening to a crazy old man who seemed to make more sense out of things than I could at the moment. By morning I came to see that maybe I needed the sound of another voice as much as Black Jack needed the muscle. He agreed, calling it a "gentlemen's agreement."
St. Cecilia's is a beautiful old church. She sits like a castle on a small hill looking over the West Side through that one big stained glass eye of hers over the front doors -- watching the neighborhoods change and the people be born, grow old, and die. Looks like she's been there forever and, from a distance, looks like she'll probably stay there forever. Up close, though, she's showing her age. I guess the parish felt the same way because they put the collection plate towards a major renovation. Everything from sandblasting, foundation work, and replacing the cracked glass, to new pews, fixtures, and whatnot inside. Six days a week, the crews going at it. Doing everything but hiring.
Black Jack and I got off the bus and walked over to the church. The sun was hitting the front windows just right, throwing off patches of reds and blue...real pretty. For a minute I though Black Jack was going to walk right in the front doors, but he pulled me around the corner heading towards the back where the parking lot and the big construction dumpsters sat. As we rounded the corner, he pointed a bony finger towards a dark object resting up against one of the dumpsters.
"Now what do you think of that, Sancho?"
It was a confessional booth -- three of them in fact, stuck together to make single unit. Nice piece of work, too, solid black oak and hand carved with crosses and some Latin words I didn't understand above each opening. Getting them pulled off their floor mounts and out of the church had scratched them up pretty bad, adding to the wear I could already see, but they were still nice to look at. I had to laugh out loud. Those boxes stood out there looking like God's own phone booths. I half expected to hear a phone ringing and see some angel walking around the corner to answer it.
The laugh was cut short as quickly as it began as the sight of the booths triggered something triggered inside me. It had been a long time and then some since I'd been in a confessional, and I was surprise at how fast the memories came flooding back -- sights and sounds rushing in like a tide.
I was eight and living with my Mom in Idaho. Dad had packed up and left when I was four. Mom took it hard and had to look elsewhere for her salvation. She found it in the church. And soaps. "One for the soul and one for the rest of me," she'd explain.
I remember: confession every Wednesday at 4:00 at St Monica's. "Just the perfect time," she used to say, "so conveniently nestled in between Peyton Place and the news."
Once I asked her why she went so often. It didn't seem like she was doing much wrong to need it.
"My holy obligation," she said solemnly, pulling on the white gloves she used to wear whenever she went to church.
My holy obligation. Truth be told, I think my Mother was stacking up on fire insurance.
One Wednesday, when I was home sick from school, my Mom took me along with her to confession. I remember waiting outside the booth for her, counting the colors in the big stained glass windows. One depicted Jesus in a boat. In another, the Virgin Mary was drawing water from a well. Her eyes were etched in the frosted glass and looked sad. Next to me, in the confessionals, the murmuring of voices made the boxes seem like a giant beehive. When she stepped out again, she said "Glory be, now let's get home and warm up the Philco."
I left home when I was sixteen. Mom said she'd pray for me.
Black Jack holds markers all over this part of St. Paul. Again, another mystery to the man. How a broken down rummy can call in as many favors as he does is a puzzler. I think it's the novelty of the man's company because he's such a queer duck. You just never know what's going to come from his mouth, what nerve he'll tap, or what bit of wisdom he's got stored up and waiting to share. I guess people just take a liking to him in spite of their better judgment. Maybe because of it, I don't know. But he calls in the favors, and them come. This time it's Lon Sayers, the only man either of us know with a truck. He looks at the booths and just smiles -- he knows Black Jack pretty well and stopped trying to figure him out a long time ago. Lon's a mountain of a man with a broad chest and heavily muscled arms. The perfect choice for the job. As it is, it still takes Lon and me five minutes of grunting and swearing to get the confessional booths into the back of the truck, a rusted-out Camino that's looks like it's been patiently waiting twenty years for this last chore before it can blow its engine and die happily.
Black Jack, overseeing our work from the back steps, walks up to the car and pats it on a rusted out side panel. "Ah Rocinante, no load is too great for your noble frame."
I look to Lon for some kind of explanation. A shrug tells me he doesn't have one. Like I said: a queer duck.
"Blacky, what you want this damn thing for anyway?" Lon asks, curiosity finally getting the better of him, as he flips up the tailgate and we get into the truck.
"Dunno, Lon. Thought I might need to confess some evening and find myself a bit too far from the church. Since the clergy seem hesitant to visit me at my palatial estate, I thought I'd ease their conscience a bit." Back Jack's face goes solemn for a moment as he says this, then he winks and crosses himself with a blue handkerchief he's pulled from one of his thousand pockets.
Lon finds something terribly funny in this and bends over the steering wheel laughing, his chest rising and falling like a bellows. Suddenly, it's contagious and I find myself laughing, too. A crazy man's craziness rubs off on you, I guess.
Lon finally straights up and wipes a tear from his eye. "Well, we got the goods. Let's get out of here."
"Home, James," Black Jack replies.
Lon starts laughing again.
Unloading the confessional was easier than I thought it would be. Traffic was still thin -- next to nothing on the bridge. Lon checked his mirror quickly then pulled up to the railing above where we lived, cranked back the parking brake, and opened the door, gesturing for me to get out too. Lon was a man in favor of simple solutions and had found the one he was looking for. I was a little less sure as we both climbed up on the Camino's bed.
"Say...uh...Lon?" I said as we shifted the weight of the booth to the side of the truck.
"You don't suppose this is, you know, sacrilege or something?"
"You know, dumping a confessional booth over the side of a bridge."
Lon shook his head, smiling. "Slick, it's only a sin if there's a priest still in it. And I checked...ain't nobody home, okay? On the count of three..."
We gave it the heave ho and over it went, hitting the embankment at the side of the bridge before tumbling down to the bottom in a avalanche of wood and church dust.
Lon said his goodbyes and drove back to St. Paul in his dying Camino as Black Jack and I scrambled down the hill to where the confessional had come to rest. The brackets holding the three booths together must have been the weakest link because now there were three booths lying there like huge coffins.
"Well, well," said Jack, coming up besides me and chuckling, "the one has become three, and the three shall become one. Now, lets get this holy mess under the bridge."
I did most of the dragging myself, catching a few splinters in the process. Black Jack mostly watched while taking swigs from his flask, and then left to go rummaging around for something in an old footlocker he kept in the shack. When I finished, I lit up a cigarette.
Black Jack came back in a few minutes dragging something long and heavy behind him. It was an old sledgehammer with a worn handle.
"Now what the hell do you want me to do with this?" I asked, hefting the sledge and looking it over like I'd never see one before.
Back Jack cocked one of his bushy eyebrows at me. "The growing chill in the air can't have escaped your notice, and I can't abide the smell of burning railroad ties anymore...nope, the creosote is not to my liking. Now good, solid oak for firewood -- that's the ticket. So go to it, Sancho!" He raised up his arms like he was blessing me. "Let the chips fly!"
I looked from the sledgehammer to the confessional booth, and then back to the Black Jack.
He was wearing the kind of smile I just hate that says: I'm patient, I'm happy to wait while your brain catches up with what you body's getting ready to do. Maybe he was right. I sure as hell couldn't find an argument. I stamped out my Lucky and went to work. It didn't take too long. The wood was solid but old, and a few good smacks broke down the boxes pretty well. When I was through with the sledge, I broke down some of the larger pieces by propping them up against a big piece of cinder block and snapping them through with my boot. I couldn't bring myself to break up the carved pieces, though. I could tell someone had spent a fair amount of time working on them. They were just too pretty tear apart; they'd go in the fire as they were.
I lit another Lucky and started gathering up the firewood, placing the pieces next to the short green drum Black Jack used for his fires. There was already a few sticks up wood there, but not much. I stacked the oak next to it, placing the panels with the crosses on them carefully on top.
The nights had been mild up to now and I and the drum hadn't seen use since we met, so I had never really paid much attention to it. The drum had been sawn in two at some point, was a was covered in chipped green paint. When I looked in, I could see a thick layer of ash at the bottom and some stones.
"The rocks store the heat and then radiate it for quite a while."
I spun, startled, to look at Black Jack. For an old man carrying around the crap he does, he can sure move quietly when he wants to.
I looked back at the drum. "Yeah, that's what I figured they were for."
There was a clear sky that night and the stars were twinkling brightly that way they do in the autumn. It reminded me a lot of the October nights I used to love as a kid, when I'd be leaning back against of the big maple in our back yard watching my breath cloud up in the cold and trying for figure out for the hundredth time what people used to see in the spread of stars that they could imagine pictures of hunters, and dogs, and dragons, and whatnot. To me it was a magical connect-the-dots. Figure out the right starting point, draw the right lines, and some secret message would be revealed. Maybe a map to some far away planet, or some powerful word that would open doors into other worlds...something I knew I could discover if I just looked for the pattern in the sky a little bit longer. The stars would wait patiently for me to figure it out. Of course in no time at all, my fingers and toes would get cold, and Mom would start hollering from the porch for me to come in and get to bed. I'd ignore her until I saw a falling star, and I always did. I'd make my wish, with numb fingers crossed for luck, then pivot on my Red Ball Jets and fly like the wind inside to the warmth of the bed covers.
The stars hadn't changed, but everything else had. My Mother had died five years earlier, I was sleeping under a bridge now, and was starting to think that maybe the memories were somebody else's.
And I knew that somewhere, far away, another boy was probably looking up at these same stars. Full of hope, curiosity, and plans as I'd once been. I wondered if he'd be luckier.
We sat quietly for a while, watching the fire lick its way up the last bit of the older firewood Black Jack had collected before we met. I looked up at the high curve of the bridge, its old brickwork and newer steel supports flickering from our fire, and decided I needed to walk. I got up and pulled my jacket out from the shack, slipped it on, and started out across the gravel and dirt to the first westbound track.
"Nature calling?" Black Jack asked.
"Something's calling," I said, quietly, turning to face him.
He must have seen it in my eyes right then -- known where my thoughts had been -- because his face went thoughtful for a moment, his features seeming to soften a bit in the orange glow of the fire. There was a moment of silence between us. In the distance there was the sound of crickets.
"Solvitar ambulando," he said, and there was a kindness in his voice I'd never heard before.
"What's that mean?"
"In walking, all things are solved."
"Maybe so," I said, turning and heading off into the darkness, "maybe so." Behind me, I could hear Black Jack pulling pieces of the black oak from the stack and tossing them into the drum. I followed the westbound spur a few miles. Counting ties and track switches, thinking about everything and nothing in particular. I walked a long time -- it was near midnight when I got back. I was tired, chilled, and had left without my cigarettes. I figured I'd smoke a couple and then turn in. I was surprised to see the fire still burning as I came up to the shack. Not just burning, but roaring, the flames shooting up from the drum like it was a volcano. The bridge's brickwork glowed like they had just come from an oven and the heat from the drum washed over me like a wave.
Black Jack was hunched down beside the fire, eyes staring into the flame as if he was looking for something in the coals. He didn't notice me as I walked up next to him. I thought he might be more drunk than usual, but his flask wasn't out and there were no bottles in sight. Just small pieces of oak scattered about a smaller woodpile that I'd left. He'd been feeding the fire pretty steadily and the crackling and popping of the burning wood sounded like firecrackers.
I pulled of my jacket and sat down besides him. He still hadn't moved or spoken. There was a sheen of sweat on his face, and I noticed some of his hair was singed. As I sat staring at the old man, a large piece of burning wood shifted in the fire sending sparks and embers flying in all directions. One landed on Black Jack's shoe. When he made no move to flick it away, I did.
"Jesus, Jack, what the hell are you doing, trying to set yourself on fire?" I laughed, nervously.
He turn to me slowly, looking at me at me with eyes red from the smoke. As he smiled, I watched moisture trickle down one check and fan out across the wrinkles of his face like a river coming to a delta. Maybe it was a tear. Maybe.
"Do you hear them, Sancho?" he whispered, at last.
"Hear what, Jack?"
"The voices....I...I hear them all. The unburdening, the release. Can hear them?"
He was shaking a little. I reached out to steady him.
"Jack, I don't hear noth'in."
He turned back to the fire. "The wood absorbed it all...has steeped in it, taken upon itself the task the confessor could not. The sins, the transgressions, the hushed secrets -- all of it from the most innocuous vice to the most wicked act. Confessed and forgiven. It's all here, held tight by the grain and the knots...now the fire has set it all free!"
Jack grabbed hold of my arms. Hard. There was a craziness burning inside him like the fire he had fed.
"You hear it too, don't you?" His eyes went wide, and he shook me as he spoke. "Thousands of voices! Listen! A chorus of forgiveness sought and granted. Years of murmured atonements thick in the smoke...it permeates the air. Jesus, boy, listen to it!" Then he doubled over, breaking into a fit of terrible coughing. Too much smoke and excitement.
I pulled him up and away from the flames, gently. Then cocked my head, listening -- as much to calm him down than anything else. Nothing. Just the sound of burning wood and Jack's labored breathing.
"Jack...I don't hear...uh...look, it's late. What say we talk about this in the morning, huh?" It was a pitiful excuse for an answer. It sure wasn't the one Jack wanted to hear, and I expected to hear him start raving again. But he didn't. Instead, he turned back to the fire for a moment. He shook his head slowly, his hands clutching at something invisible in the air.
"The voices..." he whispered. "Sweet forgiveness." He seemed to slump down a little; his hands falling to his side.
I got him to the shack and helped him on to his cot. He made no fuss about it. I pulled his shoes off and covered him with some blankets, then sat and watched him until his breathing slowed and the shack was filled with his loud snoring. I smiled: one more thing I had put up with from this old man -- this crazy coot who had somehow gotten under my skin and past my angers and fears to become my friend. I was suddenly afraid for him. I'd be gone in the spring -- I think he knew this -- and the time was coming when the weather and his age and what his flask held would become a burden he couldn't carry any longer. He'd drink more and eat less. There'd be fewer trips beyond bridge, less contact with his small circle of friends, until one day somebody from Social Services would ease down the hill, peek in the shack, and find him.
I shuddered, more from sadness than from the growing cold. I needed a cigarette. Getting up, I turned to go outside again, then stopped. I turned and, lifting up a corner of his blankets, gently reached into the old man's breast pocket and pulled out his silver flask. It was still full. I placed it on the floor within his reach and went outside.
The fire had burned down; only the occasional flames came peeking over the edge of the drum. Burning itself out like Jack had, I thought. I sat down on an old plastic container near the fire and pulled out my cigarettes. I fished in my pockets but couldn't find my lighter. Reaching carefully into the drum, I pulled out a burning splinter of wood, held it briefly to the end of the cigarette, and took a deep drag.
Before throwing it back in the fire, I watched as the small flame at the end of the stick snuffed out, leaving a gray ribbon of smoke curling up into the cold night air.
I sat there until the fire died, watching the last of the flames lick across the oak, listening for something...anything...in the charred wood and embers. But I heard no voices. Only the sound of an old man snoring, the crickets, and, off in the distance, a train moving out into the night.
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