Changing Course on The River That Ran Two Ways

In the western distance,
Hendrick Hudson’s crew rolls
ten-pin balls, the native ghosts
having confirmed the literal
and figurative truth Mahicantuck
The River That Flows Two Ways —
wasn’t yet a one-way float to Glory.
That’s the legend anyway.
But the white thunder eventually
rolled over the red man,
just as this afternoon storm
overruns Today, washing me
another step along this stony shore.
The flood tide of my youth
has changed course, drowning the fire
that blazed within this body
that cracks like thunder whenever
I fight its inevitable course
down this river, which now flows
only one way.

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The Hapgood and I

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She sits there and watches me as I think about her, like some ancient Muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. To me, she is a silent litany of mysteries, questions she can never answer and I will never know. And I think I prefer her that way.

She admits being a Hapgood — one of the Boston Hapgoods, a shapely bunch — but she came to me from North Carolina. She’s old, her dark skin cold against my cheek, and I wonder how many cheeks she had pressed against hers in her long life.

Did she ever travel west of the Appalachians? Was the dust of the West brushed from her when our West really was, before it became just another character in a television script, where clean-shaven and well-pressed men never are seen traveling on the trail with one like her. I know the real men of the West did, though. In 1850 they almost all did.

I’m sure she provided for her family, helping bring food to their table, because I can still smell the sulfur on her breath, even after all these years. She still will click back her hammer to half- and full-cock, exposing the nipple that suckled brassy cups of fire in a time before my United States of America went from a plural “are” to a singular “is.”

Did she protect her people from harm? Did she ever spit blind, unfeeling death in anger while in the arms of her man, maybe at another Yankee like her? I hope she never pointed her long brown finger at someone in dusty blue, or at a painted American in red. Even so, that’s why I call her she: Capable of taking care of her family and willing to fight—hard—to do so. I’ve known mothers like that. I sincerely hope she didn’t.

Her silence is probably for the best, though. I know she had no say upon whose arm she rested, how they used her, how they abused her. One of them eventually broke her forearm right where my hand holds her today. Those were rough times.

I’m told she could probably still do what she was brought into this world to do over a century and a half ago. But she’ll never do it while she’s mine. Now she sits and inspires me to think of other years, of other men, of their families and farms. To me, she represents a time when our flags flew fewer stars, when our nights were darker and seemingly flew many more stars than I can see from my porch tonight.

I’m going to find her a simple and elegant place to rest the remainder of our days together. But she’ll never be far from my reach, because to look all the way down to that little bead at the end of her barrel is to look back almost two centuries, to glimpse stories I’ve yet to know from times I’ve never seen, stories the Haploid, in her silent way, will tell me and then we’ll tell others.

I’m by no means a gun guy. Never was. I am an American history guy, one who often writes of those times when this nation still had a frontier. I purchased my antique Hapgood rifle (Maybe it’s a fowler, I don’t know. See? Not a true gun guy.) as a piece of Americana to help inspire my historical fiction. It gives me something palpable from those times to hold, to infuse me with imaginings of what I hope become fictive reality. I wrote this essay last December, as much to spell this out for myself as for anyone else. I needed an explanation for why I — of all people — would own such a device. Simple. To me, the Hapgood is a piece of history I can hold in my hands. This country’s history. Our history. Nothing more.

April 26, 1865 (Do They Remember?)

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The Lincoln funeral procession passes through downtown Albany on April 26, 1865

I wonder how many of them
here on this dark day remembered
the President’s last visit to the city?
Do they know the actor was in town
that day, too? Do they know
that each performed that night?
The President, to grumbles and chides,
in the Capitol and Governor’s house,
and the Actor, to bouquets and accolades,
on the boards of the Gayety on Green Street.

Do they recall the weapons flashing
through their tears on this second visit?
How that first crowd, raucous and angry,
had to be clubbed back by the butts
of soldiers’ muskets that soon would
spit fire in the gleam of southern battle?
Do they remember the actor, handsome
and passionate, appearing in The Apostate,
had fallen upon the Albany stage and
pierced his own chest with a dagger?
Do they wonder what if?

The crowd now weeps as the casket
rolls by on this street where men both
slept that night and one now sleeps
for all time. A moan follows the casket
along Broadway and up State as if riding
the swags of black crepe where once
stripes and stars directed a course
from this city on the Hudson to a nation on fire,
where two lives crossed paths once,
then again on the way back to Springfield.

Poem #23 of NaPoWriMo. Writers Digest was looking for a history poem and I recalled what happened in my home town almost exactly 150 years ago today…President Abraham Lincoln’s casket came through town on its way back to Springfield, Illinois. Being a bit of a history buff, I recalled some coincidences of the President’s first visit to Albany on February 18, 1861. I wondered if any of the people lining the street as the casket passed wondered the same things I did. This long piece poses those questions for which we have no answers.

Don’t Blink

Rolling through the valley,
you pass the canal and mill towns,
the farms that string like an antique necklace
all the way to Albany. Near Dolgeville,
I saw a once-was farmhouse and barn,
empty of family and stock.
The barn’s roof rested on the milking floor,
empty birds’ nests in its beams and joists.
Yet the house still stood, though canted
toward the Mohawk.
It looked to be held up by one window,
which stood almost plumb and middling strong
for the time being, staring as it always did,
out at the path where the cows once
rumbled in and lowed for their milking.
“Don’t blink” I said to myself as I rushed by,
“because someday this will all be gone.”
“Don’t blink,” I begged the house, whose
sad swirled-glass eye looked out
on one more hollow bead in the
necklace leading all the way to Albany.

The Open Gate

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“Did you not set a guard or lock the stockade gate?” The Fort Orange commander asked Simon Schermerhorn, wincing as a surgeon bound up his wounded leg, of the massacre at Schenectady the night before.

“It was so cold, sir, and we had sent out Mohawk scouts to forewarn us if any French or their native allies were coming, so we felt safe and…not exactly,” Schemerhorn said, dropping his chin to his chest and sipping more hot rum to warm him from his freezing cold ride along the Mohawk River to Fort Orange.

Outside, the wind blew the deep snow, almost obscuring the trees from the guards set along the fort’s western stockade, the one facing the place named for Mohawk phrase for “beyond the pines,” where a French and Indian raiding party might be lying in wait to attack after sacking the village, killing many inhabitants still in their night clothes and carrying off many captives.

“With all that potential for attack and wiping us all out, what do you mean, ‘Not exactly,’ Herr Schermerhorn?” the commander said.

“Well, sir, it was horrible cold and we were feeling fairly safe, waiting to hear from our scouts, so we left the stockade open and did set a guard of…two,um, snowmen,” Schermerhorn said, wincing again, but not in pain.

With a slight simplification and distillation, here is a conversation between Simon Schermerhorn and the military commander of what would one day be my hometown, Albany, New York. On the night of Feb. 8, 1690, Schermerhorn escaped the massacre of the village of Schenectady and, wounded in the leg, set off on horseback through the snow and cold, following the Mohawk River east, to warn the garrison at Fort Orange. Legend has it the authorities in the village were feeling safe that night and indeed did set a guard at the open gate of two snowmen. This five-sentence fiction was inspired by the anniversary of that night and Lillie McFerrin’s prompt word, OPEN.

Warrior in a Place of Ghosts

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Plenty Horses, photo via Wikipedia

The fickle winds swirled me around, like I was
a snowflake dashing among the bullets
and over the frozen dead at Wounded Knee.
I, who could read the spirit of The People
and also read the books of the Wasi’chu.
I, who was shunned as neither Brulé nor white.
I, a ghost in the land of the Ghost Dance.

After I shot the yellow leg leader
of the Šahíyena scouts who hunted and
drove us to that place where the winter winds
tossed away our life and lives like dried leaves,
I once again became one of The People,
not a murderer as the Whites said.
I was a warrior, only now one in a place of ghosts.

On December 29, 1890, a detachment of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment entered a camp of about 350 Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota people at Wounded Knee Creek to disarm them before returning to the Pine Ridge Reservation. But then a shot rang out, and some 300 Lakota men, women and children were gunned down. The Wounded Knee Massacre is viewed as the end point of the so-called “Indian Wars” between Native and European American people.

But a week later, a young Brulé man named Plenty Horses, recently returned to the Rosebud Reservation from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, shunned by his people for being like a White and by the Whites for being Indian, shot and killed Lt. Edward W. Casey, commandant of the 8th Cavalry’s Cheyenne Scouts. By doing so, he hoped to regain standing among his people as a warrior.

Charged with murder, Plenty Horses was eventually acquitted based upon his need to be regarded as an enemy combatant in order to provide a validation of the Army’s massacre at Wounded Knee. It was indeed, a time and place buffeted by winds of hatred, confusion and tragedy. I hoped to somehow express that “world turned upside down” state of Plenty Horses’ unique situation on the anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre with this piece.

Beating of the Heart ~ A WIP

This WIP is a story related to me by my mom about her grandparents, Pat and Brigid. Young Bridie 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 is…

Beating of the Heart

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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…”

“Padraig!”

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