White Feather


“What, not a Who, it’s a What,” Wade Blanton said, as he wiped sweat from inside the band of his wide-brimmed Stetson hat.

Shug Coffey whistled as he stuck his finger within the diamonds of the hastily constructed chicken-wire enclosure behind Blanton’s cantina just outside Nogales, then whispered, “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it, even in pitchers.”

“Careful there, pardner, I’m not sure or not if it bites, and when I stole it from Padre Robledo, I was kinda in too much of a hurry to ask.”

Shug jerked back his finger, letting his breath out in a low whistle again as he stared at the winged creature chained to the hard-packed Sonoran Dessert sand inside the fence.

He walked to his horse, fished in the saddle bags, returning with a pair of leather sacks and said, “All right, I’ll take it, though I still say two thousand pesos seems an awful steep price…even for an angel.”

Combined a couple of prompts for this story. Canadian writer Sarah Salecky as her readers to write a story in which the dialogue had no question marks, yet started with the line, “What.” Lillie McFerrin asked that her readers write a five sentence piece of fiction based on the word FENCED. I think I obliged, using two meanings for that word.  Stolen ol’ Gabriel was being sold, fenced, from behind an enclosure in which he was held captive, fenced.

The Rose

The rose
weighs heavy
in his hand.
All around
he feels
their eyes,
upon him,
solemn faces,
flat and gray
as rain-spattered
He gives her
his rose,
weighty with
meaning, but
too late.
Here, all around
stare angels’
fat and gray
on rain-spattered

If Wishes Were Horses

Miss Viviane Nimue—I knew her name from the plate on the doorbell for apartment 310—was an old spinster lady who would sit staring out onto Lake Avenue every evening from her window in our brownstone, a candle lit next to her, until she went to bed.

“I wave to her every afternoon as I come up the front steps, being the good neighbor and all, and it’s like she’s a mannequin or something…no recognition, no response at all,” my girlfriend Lynn said one night in June.

“Maybe she’s expecting someone, waiting, wishing, a Mr. Right maybe, to ride up on his white steed and whisk her away from all this,” I said, half-laughing.

“Get real, Ben,” Lynn said, “and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride…and let’s face it, Sir Galahad is never going to tie up to a meter out there on Lake Avenue to rescue old Viv .”

In August, about a week after the old girl passed away, Lynn and I were sitting on the front steps when a white Ford Mustang pulled up and an elderly man wearing a silver Van Dyke and what Lynn later said was a Bond Street suit stepped out, approached us and said, with a quite proper English accent, “Pardon me, but is this the home of the lovely Miss Viviane Nimue?”

Based on Lillie McFerrin’s Five Sentence Fiction prompt word: WISHES.

Beating of the Heart ~ A WIP

This WIP is a story related to me by my mom about her grandparents, Pat and Elizabeth. Young Lizzie left County Kilkenny, Ireland, for a better future in America. Pat left and traveled a long and arduous journey for a future with her. It was in Albany, the center of my maternal and paternal familial universe, they reunited and built that future.

I found the bare details of this story’s main action in our local newspaper’s This Day In History section, under 100 Years Ago Today. There was my great-grandfather’s name and what happened that day during one of the longest hot spells in the city’s history.

I’ve still got a lot of work to  do on it, too much tellin’ and not enough showin’ for starters, but I’ll give you all a look anyway. The story’s working title (still) is…

Beating of the Heart

State & Pearl

Corner of Broadway and State Street in Albany, early 1900s.

Patrolman Pat Shortall knew it was time for a cool beer when he felt the stream of sweat run from beneath his domed hat, down the back of his neck and inside the snug collar of his blue wool uniform. Even the backings attaching the ornamental brass “APD”s to the collar burned his throat.

This was the fourth day in a row temperatures rose above 90 in Albany. Horses and people were dropping dead or near-to all over town this July of 1912. Tempers were growing short.

The curse of my fathers sure as hell did when I blew up at Bridie last night, he said to himself. And to think of what I’ve been through to marry that girl. Daft, I must be.

“Hey, Patty, a beer kin I gitchoo?” Otto Olendorff said with a laugh from the wide open front door of his tavern near the corner of Broadway and State Street.

“Nah, Otto, thanks. Maybe I’ll join you after me shift’s over. I could use it. Keep it cold for me, will ya?”

“You bet, Patty. How’s Brigid doing in this heat? She didn’t fare too well last year, if I remember. What with losing the baby and all.”

“Ah, she’s suffering just like everyone else,” Pat said. Bridie was still pining for a little one, though. He loved the girl beyond all reason, but she was driving him crazy with her sighing, crying and staring at him, as if he had done something wrong. A baby would come along in time.

“She’ll be fine,” Pat said.

His wife Brigid, called Bridie since she first drew breath in the village of Knocktopher, County Kilkenny, had begun praying to a Saint Gerard. Her confessor, Father Tremblay, had told her, “Bridie, darlin’, this holy martyr of Mother Church is the patron saint of expectin’ mothers. You say a few novenas to the holy man, conduct your, uhh, wifely duties, and you shall have a little one soon enough, God bless.”

If she keeps up this nattering nonsense, she’ll be needin’ one of those miraculous conceptions, God forgive me, Pat thought, wiping sweat from his red face. If I didn’t love my sweet girl so, I’d be goin’ over to the whores on Green Street like the other coppers. But I do love her.

Bridie and her sister had left Ireland three years before, bound for America and jobs as housemaids in the mansion of Albany hotel owner and restaurateur William Keeler.

Pat promised Bridie he would follow her and they would be together. He wrote to her every week for a year with that message, until he found a sponsor to pay for his immigration to America. That trip did not come easily. First came the trip to Nova Scotia in steerage on that Italian freighter out of Cork. Then Pat rode the empty livestock cars to Minnesota, where he worked another year on the farm of a distant relative who had come to the States before the American Civil War.

But his love for Bridie, the little girl who would walk barefoot to school, carrying her only pair of shoes to keep them from wearing out, never faltered. Nor did hers for her hero who fought anyone who made fun of the skinny girl who left school at 12 years old to help work her father’s scratch of a farm.

The day he knocked on the servants’ entrance of Keeler’s Albany mansion and Bridie answered, smothering him in hugs, kisses and tears, he knew all his efforts were worth every mile, every scar, every lonely night.

The heat today reminded him of the light-headedness he felt sitting in the hallway of Keeler’s home two weeks later. At the time, Pat was uncertain if it was caused his nerves or the stiff white collar Bridie bought him at Lodge’s on Pearl Street.

“A fine gentleman like you should have a new collar showing, even if his suit isn’t perfect,” Bridie had said. “And I’m afeared this suit has seen better days.”

She was right, Pat recalled. He had borrowed an outfit from his friend Jack Burke, who worked as a pall bearer at the Maginn’s funeral parlour.

“Bridie, how long will we have to wait?” he’d said.

“You’ll wait until Mr. Keeler calls for you, Padraig. Now sit up straight and give me your hat. You look lovely. And when you meet the great man, shake his hand and say, ‘Very pleased to meet you, Sir.’ And for God’s sake, please don’t swear. Please?”

“Damn it, Bridie, I…”


Down the paneled hall, a door opened. Bridie’s sister Mazie’s head poked out and she stage-whispered, “He’s ready now.”

As he had that afternoon, Pat gulped, his throat near-dry. Only today he spat a sorry excuse for a spit onto the cobblestones of Broadway. He cringed with guilt, not so much for being a copper sullying the streets he protected, but for expectorating within, well, spitting distance of the Broadway hotel where Keeler made his vast fortune.

A loud yell and laughter resounded from within the tavern. Olendorff turned and glared into the dim light within.

“Gott damn!” he said.

“Everythin’ all right, Otto?” Pat said.

“Ja, yoost another vild boy, tirsty and too hot,” Olendorff replied. “Nothing I can’t handle, Pat. Vee’ll settle him down.”

“All right, I’ll be seein’ you later, Otto,” he said over his shoulder.

Pat strolled south along Broadway, his beat intersecting where the trolleys came to the bottom of the steep State Street hill. People were waiting for the Main Line car to skid, brakes squealing, downhill from the State Capitol.

Glad I’m not working on those filthy beasts anymore, Pat thought. Old man Keeler did right by Bridie when we married, getting me a job as a conductor with the trolley company, but a man comes to America to be his own man.

He’d quit the trolley company, embarrassing Bridie by his tossing the wedding gift from Keeler.

“If I’d have known you would steal my girl from me, I’d never have let her marry you,” Keeler told him when Bridie gave her notice.

Pat turned the corner and searched out any shade he could find on State Street. He pulled the gold railroad watch Bridie had given him on their wedding day from his pocket.

“Think of this as my beatin’ heart for you, Patrick,” she’d told him. “That way, I’ll never be leaving you again.”

Pat flipped open the case and saw it was only 1:45.

“Jesus, two more hours,” he said. He stared at the watch, noticed haze near a crack in the crystal over the gilt 4 and 5. Pat remembered Bridie’s face when she presented it to him, proud and loving. Her man. His girl. Since they were mere sprogs and forever.

“Have to get this fixed before she finds out. The poor dear doesn’t need anymore heartache,” Pat thought.

Pat heard the sound of breaking glass behind him. A big man he didn’t recognize was wailing away on Otto Olendorff in front of his gin mill.

Blowing his whistle four, five, six times, signaling any nearby coppers he needed help, Pat ran toward the melee. Otto was a rough German with hands as big and tough as briskets. But whoever this son of a bitch was, he was beating the barman like a stubborn horse.

Otto went down like he was shot and Pat ran and launched himself at his friend’s assailant.

Pat tackled the burly drunk, who still kept beating the sagging Olendorff. Gripping his billy club, Pat made damn sure he cracked the big man behind the ear. The drunk merely turned and gave Pat a right hand that shivered him, turning the world red. Pat’s billy club flew into the street and his hat, with its glinting police insignia, rolled into the entrance of the tavern.

Though he was a farm boy and not some Waterford harbor tough, Pat knew he could go with anybody for a short while at least.

When the sun glinted on his hat’s insignia, he recalled the flash of the knife-wielding Italian sailor aboard the Santa Elisabetta on the trip to Canada in his journey to follow Bridie.

Instead of the drunk’s meaty paws on him, Pat felt the big hands of the Norwegian farmhand in Kilkenny, Minnesota who had no love for “Papist micks.”

“I can do this,” Pat thought through the haze, as another right hand crashed into the side of his head. “Where the hell is Burke? Where’s O’Shea?”

Pat reached into his uniform pocket and wrapped his hand around the small leather cosh full of lead shot he carried, just in case. He whipped it up and caught the big man beneath the nose with it, covering both of them with a spray of scarlet.

“Aghh! Fucking copper,” the big man bellowed, cocking his red and scraped right hand for another blow. Pat caught him a shot across the temple with his cosh. The big man sagged and grabbed for Pat’s neck, snagging his collar and pulling his head down. Pat heard the rip, saw a big knee coming up toward his face. He twisted and caught the knee in the chest, feeling a crunch and the wind whoosh from his lungs.

As he lay looking up from the sidewalk at a white and red sky, Pat was confused why he thought of their first night together, when Bridie gave him his watch.

Olendorff whacked the big man with a bung starter. It sounded like a gunshot and none of the cheering drunks in the tavern doorway could tell where the blood stopped and the heat-reddened faces began. Once again, one short punch from the drunk put Otto on his back. As the big man reached for the bung starter and raised it to swing down on Otto, Pat jumped on him and hit him once more with the cosh.

A giant left hand reached back, grabbed Pat’s sleeve and threw him to the ground again. Bung starter raised again, blood in and on his eyes, the big man never saw Burke and O’Shea behind him, but felt the barrel of O’Shea’s pistol drop him to his knees. After he fell, it allowed both cops to click on manacles and give him a little of his own medicine as he lay half on the filthy sidewalk and half on the cobblestones of Broadway.

For good measure, Burke gave him a kick to the head before he walked over and helped Pat to his feet.

“And where the fuck have you been?” Pat sputtered through already puffy lips.

“I was way over on the far end of Green Street, Padraig. Came as quick as I heard your whistle,” Burke said.

He didn’t look Pat in the eye, though. Pat knew Burke had been visiting one of the whorehouses on Green Street. What buttons on his trousers were fastened were not in their assigned holes. A situation describing Burke, himself, Pat thought.

“So who’s taking him in?” O’Shea asked. “Jaysus, Patty, you look like shite. You can have him. Besides, shift’s almost over and I’ve got a date with a few cold one’s up Livingston Avenue.”

Pat looked at his reflection in an unbroken part of Olendorff’s front window. His uniform collar was nearly torn off and his sleeve drooped from his left shoulder. And this was the winner of this fight, he laughed.

“You’re welcome, Patty,” Burke said.

“Huh? Oh thanks, boys. I owe you one.”

Walking to the corner, Pat opened the call box and turned the crank inside, requesting the wagon come and pick up his prisoner, who was now sitting on the curbstone. Within minutes, a Black Maria turned off Madison and clattered north to State and Broadway.

“Jesus Christ, Shortall, what the hell happened to you?” the driver asked.

“Just another drunk, buddy,” Pat said. He and the driver hefted the big man, who had identified himself as John Day, into the paddy wagon. Then they climbed up in the front seat and headed for the City Court Building.

“You’re going to appear before the judge in THAT shape?” the driver said.

“I’ll wash up a bit when I get there,” Pat said.

When they arrived, Pat handed Day over to the bailiffs, then walked to the men’s room and washed his face. He winced once when he saw what Day had done to it, and twice more when he rubbed soap on it, and again when he toweled off the dirt and blood.

“Officer Shortall,” the judge said, “do you require any medical attention?”

“No, sir, you honor.”

“Was it only Day do this to you?”

“Afraid so, your honor, sir.”

“And it was you put him in this shape?”

The judge pointed to Day’s swollen mug.

“I may have had a little help, your honor.”

“Before you get back to work, please make sure your uniform is in order and you look at least half presentable. Good job, Officer Shortall.”

“Yesh, thank you, your honor,” Pat mumbled, nudging a loosened tooth with his tongue.

But his shift already was over. As Pat walked up to his house on First Street, neighbors sat on their front steps staring at the scraped and filthy policeman who looked for all the world like some hobo rag picker who found a discarded uniform.

When he approached his house, Mrs. Pangburn from next door sat on the stoop. She gasped at the sight of him.

“Bridie, you better come out here,” she yelled through the open window.

Wiping her hands on her apron, Bridie came to the front door.

“Padraig!” was all she could say.

“Now don’t fuss,” Pat said. “I’m all right. Just a few bumps and scrapes. You should see the other guy.” It hurt when he laughed.

Bridie walked him up the stairs and helped him out of his coat.

“I’ll have this cleaned and mended by morning, Pat,” she said. Her voice sounded like glass breaking and her face took on the look of the girl who stood at his side when he’d met Keeler that afternoon.

Pat grabbed a towel and some clean clothes from the dresser and walked toward the bathroom.

“Darlin’, I’m gonna take me a bath, I think.”

“Well, fetch me those pants so I can get them fixed up, too.”

“Right away. Just a moment,” Pat said. He closed the bathroom door and unbuttoned his uniform trousers. Before he handed them out to Bridie, though, he fished in the pocket and pulled out the pieces of broken crystal and the bent and loose minute hand. He placed the watch to his ear.

“We’re all still tickin’,” he said to himself in the mirror. He placed the watch and its pieces in the pocket of his civilian trousers and figured he could bring it to Olendorff to have fixed. Otto owed him one.

A year later, after little James Patrick Shortall was born, Pat would put the watch in the cradle with him when his son would cry.

“Hear that, Jimmy?” he’d always say. “That’s the sound of your mama’s beating heart.”

© Joseph Hesch 2014

Conversation in Libby Prison

Libby painting
Libby Prison by David Gilmour Blythe, 1863

In a dark third-floor corner of one of the great spaces where Union prisoners of war are confined in the former warehouse called Libby Prison, a young soldier from western Ohio is talking to an older man, a yellow stripe on his uniform pants, captured a week earlier at Frederick Hall, Virginia. It is Sunday, March 19, 1865 and distant church bells ring  through the glassless, barred windows.

What did you tell ‘er, Pete, after they captured you at Winchester, after the Rebs paroled you, after the Infantry mustered you out and you went home to…where…Albany? What did you tell ‘er, and what did she say, when you told ‘er you were goin’ back ?

What ‘d she say when you went an’ jined the cavalry? What did she think of her man, ‘most forty, climbing on a horse to chase Rebs ‘round Virginia at your age? What’re you gonna tell her if we ever get outta stinkin’ Libby Prison? If, like them whispers I been hearin’, Grant’s got that ol’ fox Lee cornered in the henhouse somewhere ‘tween here an’ Lynchburg, then what?

What’ll you say when you get back to her all skinny from eatin’ green hardtack and corncakes. rancid bacon an’ bad water? Will you tell her about seein’ what you seen? What’ll she say when she sees you?

Peter Snyder rose from his pallet in that old Richmond warehouse, smiled a tired smile into Micky Shelby’s freckled face and said, I vill say, “Mama, home I’ve come.” Und she und the kinder vill hug me. Und she vill say, ‘Velcome home my Peter. Kiss your Papa, liebchen.’

Dot’s vat she’ll say, Mick. Und later in bed I’ll tell her the elephant I’ve seen too much, and I’ll never leave her, ever again.

Over at dVerse Poets Pub today, my friend Grace is looking for poems that tell a family story. I tried, but could only come up with this sketch. I simply had to write it. The old soldier is my great-great-grandfather, Peter Snyder, a German immigrant who loved his new country so much he enlisted at age 35 as soon as the call went out for men to serve the Union cause. I only found out this story while doing a little research a couple of years ago and wondered about Peter. Today, I put some flesh on those old bones.


The Song Remains the Same

The song comes on, in the random,
shuffling way life occurs,
the happenstance of seeing one another
across a parking lot and you
studiously ignoring or maybe
running away. The song comes on
and I’m confronted with the
old decision to ignore, or to skip,
or to turn the whole thing off.

The song comes on, and once
I’d hit Repeat because once
I connected it with you. Even now
I do, seeing you in the long ago,
before the collapse of
a make-believe house constructed
on some fantasy Sandman’s leavings.
All those nights of

So the song comes on and I reach
for the Skip button to run from
its first two bars. I know each beat
and note by two memories. And I pause.
The heartbeat of it, the voice,
they don’t belong to you anymore,
they belong to the song.
And the song remains the same.
I’ve changed, hit my Skip button.
Turn it up.

Threshing Room

Square-cornered morning sunlight pours
through the window and onto the bar room floor,
dust specks floating in the box-shaped ray
crawling closer to the window and a date with noon.
The day crowd only notice mahogany and bottles
and maybe faces, multiplied as in a housefly’s eye,
as the bottoms of glasses rise over their empty horizons.

At the end of the bar, a man in black looks up
from his crossword puzzle, its ink, his vision, smudged
from the slosh of his three-boilermaker breakfast .
He departs after tossing a crumpled buck on the bar
and steps into an afternoon as empty
as his last glass. At a nearby park he sits on
an empty bench in the small mid-day shade.

His suit and the paper bag in which he carries
six cold cans of Genny are stained in their sweat.
He empties and tosses each green can, as if it
was a seed to be scattered by a prairie farmer.
But it’s not. It’s like his days, mere husks left
on the threshing room floor, where the shadows
crawl longer, closer to his horizon and date with night.

Over at the dVerse Pub site, my friend Shanyn Silinski is asking for poems like seeds, growing something from them. As I always do, I twisted that request a little bit, darkening it and drying it to something different. Back to my gritty city poems.