Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Man in a Pinch

Man in a Pinch
Author: Tom Sheehan

He was thinking if he had a deep jacket pocket he would thrust his right hand into that pocket, hide it. But of course, he couldn’t. That right hand was laying back there on the rock, near the stump of the tree that had fallen back on him, pinned his hand on the rock.

All on his own, he had come this far. He was in the forest alone, his best pal and fellow woodsman Eddie gone further south a long time now, and the blood was still pooling in his lap… a mass of blood, from that arm without a hand, that arm without a wrist.

Ginger would surely throw his jeans in the trash pile.

He remembered the first time, on a camping trip thirty or more years earlier, Eddie had said, “Between a rock and a hard place.” Now he knew. Before it had been a reach of words, a mere expression; now it was hard fact.

Left handed, leaning and twisting his frame, awkward with virulent pain talking trash talk to him, he turned the key in the Jeep ignition and heard the engine cough into life. Of all things, he was thinking about payback. The constant oil changes were paying off, those seemingly casual gestures at maintenance that in themselves could hold a whole life together for the long run, if you could hang on for the long run.

His feet played with clutch and gas pedal, measured torque and searing pain in the same breath. Looking down into his lap, at that mess, he didn’t know how long he would last. How much was unthinkable, imaginable? In through the steering wheel he reached again, stretching, daring, like a gymnast in a weird exercise, somebody watching and nobody watching, and shifted into second gear. The sounds of doubt rose, personified, striking like the heart of a bell, shaking his whole being. He thought about crawling through life… inhaling lead paint residue, coal gas and dust from the mines, breathing it, stuffing his lungs with it, tasting it, life in the slow lane.

His mind wandered again. Found pain. Came back.

The Jeep transmission made a grinding sound as if he hadn’t guided the splines at the correct entry. He heard metallic misery. The pains he knew, there was more than one of them, coming from more than one source, were ripping through him. Ginger and Paulie came as vague light reflections on the surface of the windshield. No way could he tell if they were on the outside of the glass or on the inside. His kin. Her skin. Oh, her skin was as pink and as keen as ever, the clear shine yet evident, still broadcasting the life within. How rich she was in body. How she could mesmerize him. Once he had told her she was lucent and rutilant and she had smiled an acceptance at the unknown words, trusting his mind in all the matter of words. How was he so damn lucky? She was in the rearview mirror too. Ever present Ginger. Oh, God, he’d miss her and Paulie like he all ready missed his right hand, half his forearm. How had he done it? If he had hit the stop bar on the chain saw, it would have shut off immediately. Was he that lucky? Or unlucky. He had come this far. How far could he go? Perhaps to the main road would carry it off.
The wheels slipped on the edge of the rough road, branches slapping at him and the windshield, riding on the fenders and the hood, trying to hit him. Darkness and dimness came in quick little shifts of light, and vagueness and peril. If the engine ever quit on him, it would be over and done with. Up ahead there was the lingering promise of a fork in the road. There was a fork in the road. Only one turn would get him to the main road, to Route 50, catch somebody coming from Clarksburg, heading to Parkersburg, a doctor en route, perhaps some traffic, perhaps an observant driver, perhaps an off-duty EMT or a fireman. Maybe a nurse. He could only pray for a doctor, perhaps a day-off doctor with a fishing rod in the back seat, a creel heavy with supper’s trout, a rainbow filling the creel with dreamed promise, one hook still imbedded in his jaw.

The other way at the fork ended nowhere but at the impassable stream. He tried to think of the left turn and the right turn. Was the right turn the right turn? Was left right or right right? Why all these mental games when the blood was still pooling? Brightest red and still pooling. “In the trash with them,” Ginger would say, pointing out the back door, her skin shiny, her hair flame red, and her lips full of promise. Paulie’d see everything with his big blue eyes.

And the voices, of course, were evaluating his foray into the deep woods… alone.

The last night, before going off to Florida for good, Eddie had said, “Now hear this. This is the captain speaking. Do not go gentle into the good woods alone. Never alone. We made that rule a dozen years ago. It still holds true. Even if I have to go away, get me to the new job, move five kids over half the country, do not go gentle into those good woods.” Of course, he was playing Dylan Thomas games with him, this non-poetic friend. He said it again, “Do not go gentle into those good woods.” He did not know Eddie had studied that poem, though he knew every line from Gilbert and Sullivan. Poems were anathema to him, except his poems, the few he showed to Eddie. But it was Eddie’s way… he had struck out on his own, reached for poetry, or a little sense of it. Had come away with the gentle warning… Do not go gentle into those good woods, into that deep forest. Not alone.

The single ash tree, like an icon in the forest on his last walk through a few weeks earlier with the dog, had called at him again and again. Their kind was leaving fast, fading into the mulch of the forest and few of them growing. The emerald ash borer, a beetle, was attacking them, and all the way from Asia it had come, and the excessive demand for charcoal was cutting their lifeline. This one tree hung on the edge of a flat hearth of a rock, an expanse of many square yards, a blue granite giving off hard promise. The tree kept saying, “I am yours. I am yours.”

For the life of him he could not remember the last time he had seen an ash tree, and when this one went bad, almost overnight, like the emerald ash borer, a dinky beetle, had raped it repeatedly, he had made up his mind to cut it down and bring it home, burn it on Saturday nights, good company for a football game on the television, a six pack of beer or “a glass of good shine from up the line,” a few moments of silence and deep blue flame in the mix of fire. It would be a celebration. He’d tell Eddie about it, masquerading the fact of his lone entry into the woods, the Husqvarna chain saw at his side. It was a horse of a chain saw, and would chew up a Sequoia if needed.

But this last ash tree treated him as a novice, its unusual grotesque trunk twisting the wrong way, falling the wrong way, pinning his arm on top of the large flat slab of blue granite catching at the sun. It would take dynamite to move it. Or a wad of C3 in the right package, like a fuse lies in waiting for a strike to take place in a bowling alley… everything asunder and then some. Fitzhugh from old years came back in his mind, with nasty plastic C3 loads digging foxholes for everybody in the company in Korea in the dead of winter. Until one blast blew off the back of his head. Good old Fitzhugh. Good gone Fitzhugh. He should have been a safecracker; he was so good with the stuff, until the Big Bang. One time he voiced that dream to easy riches, being a yeggman, Second Story Specialist 3. He made everybody laugh, except for the last time.

He was not sure when he realized he could not extract his hand, the end of his arm. It was pinned by a ton of wood trunk, mean as all hell. The blue granite rock had a grip never known, not in these woods. Nobody knew where he was, stupid him, wanting to bring home a surprise for a night out in front of the fireplace. God no. Eddie had said, “Do not go gentle into those good woods,” and here he was pinned down, perhaps for eternity.

The ash tree had spun on him in its fall, the weight of limbs higher than he thought, throwing top weight about like a wrestler, and a curse of a hold and a curse of a throw. He had tried to escape the roll, but a mere piece of bark, crude in shape, ugly by nature, had grasped at his sweater. It took him in. He twisted away and was hooked in by recoil of his own body. He was knocked down by the swinging of the trunk. It fell on his hand. It pinned his hand to the blue granite… his hand and much of his right arm.
The Husqvarna was still purring its pretty song as it lay beside him. Pretty song. Constant song. Could do a Sequoia if needed. Animal sounds rode on a slight breeze coming in from the northwest with a chill, and everything dangerous after a fashion… the coming night, the cold weather promised as ever in early October, toothy critters of various sorts, loss of blood, unconsciousness a promise if the status stayed quo. Darkness sounded its voice, then dread, then death.

He saw the dark headline, the black ribbons of it… Fatal fall. The smell of newsprint came back from wherever. It shook itself loose in his mind. He wondered what else what else was loose in his body… life running loose?

Reality came back: no matter how hard he tried, or how subtly, as if not breathing in each attempt, sneaking up on freedom, he could not move his hand, never mind extracting it. Shock had him in a grip, he was positive. For the moment there was little pain. But it would come. That was a promise.

Other thoughts began to crowd him. Ginger came and went away; the shine fell away with the lost image. He was aware he could never wield the saw long enough or at a proper angle to cut through the trunk of the tree. The gas might last a half hour in the tank of the saw, purring pretty in its song, pretty pretty song. He loved the hum of it and thought of all the hours he had worked on it, keeping it primed and ready; hours on end, humming, humming, tune of his existence, labor his due in life.

Observations came to mind: no other tools were at hand. The Jeep was thirty yards away, his tool box setting on the rear seat, the trailer clean of logs, life at a fulcrum, a bend one way or the other and it was complete for him.

There was only one out for him. His belt, with difficulty, came loose of the loops in his jeans, and he managed to place it, with more difficulty, around his right arm. It was drawn snug, and then tightened around the arm above the elbow. As expected, as if he had known all along, the pain began in earnest, long series of jolts and jabs that rang in his brain loud as bells or sirens. Whenever lightning might hit him broadside from above, he swore he would know it.

But for now, there was no other way out of it. He prayed all his keen and persevering maintenance would prove itself, as he shifted the Husqvarna into position, held it over his own wrist, squeezed the trigger, raced that purring beauty into a high dance of danger and dropped it onto his wrist. He dared not pass out. The bones, the sheer, thin bones of that arm shattered under the impact. The teeth of that ugly son of a bitch tore through skin and bone. Those teeth rapped like lightning on the rock face. Threw hundreds of sparks into the air. Clattered into silence.

He left his hand behind. He crawled away and left his hand behind, and part of his arm. And his ugly Husqvarna chain saw. The ugly red saw! Clumsily, he crawled a dozen feet at first, away from the rock, toward freedom, toward the Jeep. His keys luckily were still in the ignition. If they had been in his pocket, in the right side pocket of his jeans, he’d have to drop his pants to get the keys.

The engine turned over. Glory for working gear, he thought, for good oil, for true maintenance. Testing the horn, he blasted it and blasted it again, and again, as if the lonely blare, the raucous blare, would drown out elements of his pain, a shred of pain, a shard of pain, any piece of his pain. Now, in earnest, with the remnants of sanity and judgment, he began to measure his endurance and condition, his whereabouts. The whole lottery of his chances.

The Jeep responded to his stubborn left hand, his knees guiding the steering wheel at some point, and the blood still pooling up in his lap. Images leaped at him for grasping. He pictured his mother at her knitting or darning, the needles at work, her lap a collection of all kinds of sewing gear. The kitchen was so small, the fireplace so big, she might have been inconspicuous. Once there was a blue apron with smiling monkeys on it. Blue monkeys. He remembered the blue monkeys. For a fraction of a second, he saw her face, and then she went off with Ginger, off with Paulie, to where blackness seemed to be resurrecting itself.

The rugged Jeep crawled at his commands, along the road, beside the log he had moved on his way in rather than maneuvering around it. Fortunate planning. A turn right was the right turn, he was sure, and found the steep banking he’d have to climb to get up on the paved road. He needed to be on the road and prayed no one would run into the side of the Jeep. Soon it would be dark. Too soon it would be too cold for him. If he got onto the road, he’d have to pray for traffic.

The accelerator responded to his foot, and in first gear that was difficult to find with his left hand, he climbed up the sharp incline and grounded the Jeep on the crown of the road. The engine shut down abruptly, shaking the carriage of the vehicle, shaking his arm. Pain shot into his brain. Passed into his brain from that lost hand, the lost wrist, that portion of an arm. The trailer was exerting a torque on the Jeep, trying to hold it back, draw it back down the incline. At a point of balance, at a fulcrum wedge under his life, Ginger and Paulie on one side of the road, him on the backside of survival, came light and noise in stiff argument.

In his head lights faded in and out. The sound of the horn beat in his ears. He could feel the light going away at the back of his head. He knew he would be cold. Ginger’s face was looking at him, shining in the fading light. He heard Eddie saying, “Do not go gentle into that good wood.”

That other horn, that other alarm, was diesel in nature, loud diesel.


Bio note: Tom Sheehan served in Korea, 1951 and lives in Saugus, MA. Books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans, Press 53; A Collection of Friends; From the Quickening, Pocol Press.  He has 18 Pushcart nominations, in Dzanc Best of the Web 2009, and 263 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. His newest book, from Milspeak Publishers, is Korean Echoes, 2011. Another eBook, The Westering, will be issued shortly by them and will be followed by at least 8 more. His work is in/coming in Ocean Magazine, Nervous Breakdown, Stone Hobo, Dew on the Kudzu, Faith-Hope-Fiction, Canary, Subtle Tea, Red Dirt Review, Nontrue, Danse Macabre, Nashwaak Review, and Qarrtsiluni.

The 21 short stories crafted by Tom Sheehan in The Westering tell of the pioneering of those who came from many countries, many customs, many cultures, and brought much of that mix with them to create the American West as we now know it. Their pursuits, their dreams, and the harsh life they entered are gathered in The Westering – a search for new footholds, new visions, new adventures. They came from nations all over the globe, carrying visions that drove them onward; and in these pursuits they rose, they fell, they faulted, they were often exalted or saluted, they served, and many survived the harshest rigors. Master storyteller Tom Sheehan captures these characters and their stories with vigor, compassion, and love of craft that brings the past to life while leaving readers aching to discover their own frontiers. Read an excerpt!