Author: Tom Sheehan
Jadon Calix was complex and complete, yet here he was with simple dawn playing him like strings on a violin, teasing him out and about in the universe, along with a godforsaken, obviously stinking, lone Adidas sneaker. In one particularly bright shaft of light, perhaps a mental shaft he later confessed, he had seen the single sneaker on the beach, harsh as an old idea left behind to ferment for itself. The toes of the sneaker faced the sea, as if the supposed late owner had been at departure, or at contemplation most sincere.
Jadon Calix loved the beach in the morning, especially when the Gulf was quiet. He’d been up much of the night, knowing that in a few days he’d have to leave Louisiana and head back north. Two months hardly seemed enough, yet he would have to leave. The generosity of the Bredens had been overwhelming. Their son Paul had been his comrade, had died in his arms right out on the Iraqi desert. He had been able to tell Paul’s parents how it all happened, down to Paul’s last words. “Find my Louisiana, Jadon, you’ll love it.”
Jadon Calix loved the endless beach because he had known terror on the desert. Though that desert was halfway around the world, it was too recent to forget. Amazement overpowered him when he realized sand was the one constant in both lonely places. Now, with the sand compact under his feet, not shifting between tides like odds in a betting parlor, or boats hooked by hawsers out on the Gulf, he fully contemplated the differences of the sandy geographies.
An inner message told him the day itself was different too. Earlier, much earlier, the sun had come on slowly, like a surprise was at hand. The rim of the sea, at the eastern horizon, bloomed the way a new orchid comes, first purple and then an orange-purple and then, in an attempt at utter beauty, a slow gracious lavender, as if evening had taken the place of dawn. It crept up on Jadon, and then, like a sudden change of mind, it banged him right between the eyes when he saw the lone sneaker practically haloed.
His handsome face erupted with intrigue. That face bore a solid chin and a happy smile, a kind of opponent of that solid chin. He had deep eyes that both sought and delivered messages in quick instances, the blond head often tilted with curiosity telegraphing its existence. Mrs. Breden, the day he came knocking at their door, saw the most attractive young man on the porch from one of her windows, telling her husband, “I swear this is Paul’s friend, Jadon Calix. He’s about the handsomest man I’ve ever seen, with all due apologies, my dear, a few years removed.” She chuckled immediately, knowing he would somehow bring some new life back into their darkened lives. They rushed him into their home with a gracious welcome and thanks.
Now, on the beach, the combers coming slowly, he wondered if the sneaker belonged to a one-legged, one-footed beachcomber. He laughed lightly at himself, dawn rosy with him, sharing its outlook and full prism. It was worth wondering, he confirmed, his mind leaping around and about, getting himself shifted here and there purposefully. Did such a one-legged man play the drums? The piano? Gamble? Tap time with one foot? Show impatience? Share shots and beers? Bull his way in bed in spite of an infirmity?
Three or four more times that morning, gulls calling, air sweet and salty at the same time as he walked up and down the beach, eyeing rounded stones, collecting glass particles worn smooth by the ocean’s play, kicking remnants and other shards of life, he passed by the sneaker, still outbound it appeared. Though it was somewhat worn, beat up in whatever game it might have been at in its days, he knew at one time it must have been one of the gaudy, outspoken types, styling at least for all it was worth and at a hundred and twenty bucks a pair. Times change, he argued.
Jadon could not call back all the nights when Paul’s words came down upon him again like a message out of the sky, from far off, the tone of his voice thin and narrow and weak, as if escaping from a star wobbling on the horizon. Much of it haunted him as a task left undone, a promise not kept. Never then could he go back to sleep, Jadon’s other messages coming back also, the way one memory sharpens another, hones it into shape, grabs on for all of dear life, not willing to let go. Often he thought it was like knowing barbed wire in the dark.
Another statement of Paul’s kept coming back; the time when they were in a reserve area, the weapons out of hand, the stars promising difference, an edge of a breeze without sand in it loose as blades. “There’s so much adventure there, Jadon. Don’t miss out on it. Between the Gulf and the bayous there’s a whole lot of crawl space. Find some of it. I did. I loved it. You will too.”
That probably started it off, a simple reaction one splendid morning when Paul wouldn’t let go. He got up early, after another sleepless but remarkable night, called his boss telling him he was not coming in to work any more, that he was going to Louisiana. In three days he knocked at the door of Paul Breden’s parents.
They had given him the run of their summer home for two months. “Down on the Gulf, son. Paul loved it there.”
Now, on his final morning, he was recounting all of it.
Something took him back to the sneaker, as if Paul was directing him. He heard him say, for the hundredth or more times, “There’s so much adventure there, Jadon. Don’t miss it.”
He picked up the sneaker. It was dry. Had not been in the water in some time, full tide had been mere inches away. Maybe an incoming wave had tossed it higher on the beach. Jadon looked for the mate, for a footprint, for a place from which it might have been tossed. All the beach was pristine for this day, as far as it had advanced.
He put his hand inside the open heel. He felt queasy, someone’s sweat, the way sneakers gather up sweat and stink, maintain it. If it had been in the water and was now dry, it might be clean enough. Clumsily he felt the shape of something inside the sneaker, jammed into the toes. The lacing was tied tightly about the object, as if to keep it contained inside the sneaker. Intrigue came upon him. Fishing inside, he felt a tube-like
structure, a small round container.
Undoing the lacing with a little difficulty, he pulled the container out. It was a much like that used by druggists to dispense pills, plastic, but there was no prescription label attached.
The little plastic bottle had a tight white cap on it and a note, clearly visible, inside. The note was dry. The printing was somewhat neat and legible.
Whoever finds this: My name is Carlton Maxwell. I was visiting in Chapacteau.
I was looking for a canoe that got loose and floated off downstream. I saw some men kill a man and carry him on their boat. They caught me and took me too.
I have no large bottle to send a message in, just this medicine container I found in the water. I am alone among these men. I’m afraid I can’t be saved. I have seen nobody for days, no boats either. I do not know what date this is.
These men stole something and carried something aboard along with the dead man. They carried me off with them and tied me up and later made me work. They said they’d kill me. I don’t remember how many days it’s been. Two or three times they locked me below the deck during daylight hours. But one night, when they thought I was sleeping after they were drinking a lot, I got my hold of a small can of paint. If you find this, my fingerprints in paint are on the underside of many surfaces on the boat. The gunnels, the bottom of a door, on the hinge side of hatch cover. I’ve hidden them there as proof of my abduction. I know they will throw me overboard when they are done with me. They tossed the dead man overboard, when we were far at sea, like he had never even been there.
I have no idea where I am or where they were headed. If I jump off I know I will drown. I would do it if I saw a boat near, but they lock me up below deck when a boat appears.
I know the sneaker will float. The medical bottle carries air. I threw both sneakers overboard. I bet the other one sank.
The gent they killed and threw over the side when we were a couple of days out was Black Martin. They talked about him and something about the Carousel Lounge and another murder they had committed there but he had gotten in the way. His fingerprints are in paint on a note I have hidden below decks under an emergency container.
If anyone finds this, the boat has a number on the side that says LA 9176 WZ but I could tell that some of the figures had been swapped in places because of the background.
If you can find them, please find me. If my friend had not died in Iraq, I bet he would be the one to find me.
That last bit crushed Jadon.
Jadon’s complexity was a simple outlook on what he wanted to do in life… but he was yet to find that one view that would lock up his energies. The note he read at least a dozen times climbed down through him and back up out of some cell or recess. If he went to the police with it, they most likely would laugh him out of the station. Of that he was sure. A note in a bottle in a sneaker! How ridiculous! Don’t bother us! He was ultimately sure that they would see no reason for the sneaker to be involved in any real situation. It was a huge joke.
But Jadon saw immediately that the small tube might float forever on the sea and not be seen; whereas the sneaker, from its inception, from its first design, was an eye-catcher and most perfectly suited for this final errand. Plus, there was the loss of its mate and it would be useless until the end of time.
He wished that Paulie was standing by. “Hey, old buddy,” he said a number of times, “wish that you were here. We had some great conversations, saw some things with the exact same eye. I know you’d believe this,” and he held the note aloft again.
A whole series of things hit him, a sequence of events that he might swear, if forced into a confrontation about their inception, had come to him from Paul Breden, late of this world. He saw the police laugh again, not at the note, but at the sneaker. So he made half a dozen copies.
The police, of course, did not laugh him out of the station, but did say it was a far-fetched joke of sorts. “A sneaker?” the sergeant at the desk said. “When’s the tap-off for the next game? We’ll get back to you, son.”
“Can you check to see if this Maxwell guy is missing?”
“Right to it, son. We’ll have it checked out. We’ll look for him, you can bet on that. That’s a promise.”
Of course, all that dropped out of context and contention. Nothing made the papers, not a word surfaced about a missing person. No face. No person. No memory. And Jadon Calix was by himself in the matter.
Of course he never saw Maxwell, who never rose up any place in the Gulf. Three months later, Jadon came back to Louisiana, Paul Breden constantly after him to “find” his Louisiana. And he kept thinking it meant to find Maxwell.
The Bredens, knowing of his plight, allowed him use of their summer home again, and another turn at the beach. He started policing boatyards, the old boat registration number and all its possibilities computerized at first and then locked into his mind. He put an ad in the newspaper about a missing person named Maxwell. There were no replies, not a single one after two more months.
One day, at a lunch counter near a boatyard, he met a girl who was working at a painter’s easel. Her black hair, dense as a jungle, hung over her eyes and he wondered how she could be making much of what she was looking at, or studying, he later admitted. She was painting a scene of a boat at a pier and the pier in a motionless harbor. It was pretty damn good, he thought. She was a pretty damn good painter and her name was Judi Pless. She had known Paul Breden in grade school. Interest was heightened in both directions when he told her Paul’s last words. She liked Jadon immediately thereafter.
The sudden intensities he found in her paintings, the “hold” put on energies that any moment might leap from a hundred sources, captivated him. It was not the colors that did it, or the mix of them by shading and whatnot, but the imprisoning of the collected sense of energy. He found that she had brought some fantastic marine life to a still picture, which would soon go back to work, but for the moments of her study of it, the intensity was in painted surfaces.
Judi was very curious about him, and more so when he explained how he felt about her capture of energy. Her intrigue grew quicker over lunch and coffee.
“Where up north do you come from?” she said, brushing hair out of her eyes, letting him see the sparkle suddenly residing there, the interest coming focal. The shape of his face pleased her, the eye of the artist making measure, finalizing in a way an acceptance.
“From a little town north of Boston about a dozen miles.” She liked how he looked at her when he talked, as though his eyes were hungry. “It’s called Saugus, but just a few miles away, on the ocean, is a place called Nahant.” She also liked his juxtaposition of interest points. “Once, long ago, I saw an exhibition of paintings there by a marine artist. All of them of huge ships and derricks and wharves and gantries and stevedore gear of all kinds, from ports all around the world, Scotland, England, India, like energy at rest in busy harbors. Your work reminds me of his work, but of all of his paintings there was one simple one with a few dories tied up loosely at the ocean’s edge, at a place in Portugal, by the mouth of the Aveiro River. Ropes were tied from the dories to branches driven into the sea bottom. It was the difference from the huge gantries and ships that haunted me at first, and then I saw what he had left out of the picture, and what he wanted me to see, I was convinced of that. So I wrote a poem about it, about what I saw that wasn’t there.
Slowly, without a bit of hesitation, sure of his own words fitting the intent of his message, he recited the poem for her, her eyes steady on him as if making him her new study, her chin beginning to soften in a tell-tale way, lips slightly ajar:
Small Boats at Aveiro (from a painting set in Portugal by Peter Rogers, Nahant marine artist/They sit at Aveiro by the river’s mouth,/Their bows scattered as compass points,/Small scoops on an interminably huge sea/Rising to the ever imagined yet illumined line/Of sight where the gallant Genovese/Fell off the known world/ They are not/Deserted, though faintly cold for oarsmen/Who walk down this beach behind me,/Stomachs piqued and perched with wine,/Salted hands still warm with women, mouths/Rich of imagery and signals.
Sons are left/Who later come down this beach/To these small boats topping the Atlantic,
Gunnels but bare inches from the Father/of Oceans, coursed to the stalked anchorage
by thin ropes and a night of tidal pull.
At Aveiro I stand/Between commotion and that other, silence;/Inhaling spills of kitchens, olla podridas /Riding the ocean air with a taut ripeness,/Early bath scents, night’s wet mountings/And varieties peeled and scattered to dawn,/And see boats move the way sea and earth/Move against a distant cloud.
I question hammer/And swift arc that drove pared raw poles/Of their moorings into the sea floor, picture/A mustachioed Latin god laughing at his day’s/Work while waving to a lone woman on the strand;/And see her, urged from kitchen or bed, in clothing/Gray and somber, near electric in her movement/And scale of mystery, eye the god eye to eye./Such is the mastery of eyes./Inland, before dawn hits,/An oarsman, tossed awake, knows an old callus where/Atlantic sends his swift messages, for up through/Toss of heel and calf, through thew of thigh/And spinal matter, radiant in a man’s miles of nerves,/These small boats, gathered at Aveiro,/Tell of their loneliness.
Judi Pless nodded her understanding, then said, “Now I see what you meant by capturing the energy in my paintings.” She, in that short moment, had been captivated herself, could feel it working through her body, making strange demands in its own right, leaving a trail her mind would follow later in the night. “You’re the first one ever to say that, how I felt about a stand-still. That’s marvelous, how you say that, how you said it. Now tell me what really brings you down here to Louisiana again, whatever it is beyond Paul Breden.”
She was expecting something entirely different from this man, a kind of intensity that enveloped him, that was broadcast from him in spite of his most handsome profile. She admitted he had taken her breath away with her first look at him. The depth acclaimed in his eyes was new to her; and she had begun to measure it. All he said in the following moments still came as a total surprise. This stranger, this Jadon Calix, was clearly invasive, had a way of inserting things, of creating interest. She almost said aloud how interesting he was, the words being tasted on her tongue, at her lips. Movement came through her loins, she was positive; it had been a long time for such a breech of faith, swearing there’d be no men so soon coming at her at an angle, designing from the outset.
Jadon Calix read Carlton Maxwell’s note to her, his voice steady, his eyes as riveting as anything she had ever seen, seeing what was driving this man.
Then, an angelic light falling on her face, her hair suddenly in place as if set forever, she made him read Carlton Maxwell’s note a second time. She kept nodding as if each scene or part of a scene was being set for her eye, for her mind, locking it up, keeping it for added contemplation. “There are things there, in that note, that grab me and then twist me. It’s like I am seeing things he did not say, like your Nahant painter friend that made a poet out of you.” He thought her to be in that trance-like attitude she called on when she was studying a subject to paint. Jadon could feel her deep resonance, as if she were searching for meaning or resolution. “The police won’t help?” she said. “They don’t care? How can that be? They should pursue all possibilities. Every damn one.”
They talked about other things that interested them, the sea, how it touched in harbors, how harbors touched her, and, lately, him here on the Gulf. They spoke about the Pacific Rim and Pacific Platelets and the California Faultline. It was like a classroom filled with interests. The Old Man and the Sea, came and went, along with South Pacific and Moby Dick. She was stunned when Jadon told her that Michigan had the longest shoreline of any of the original 48 states, where she thought it would be Florida or Maine or California. She did not doubt his knowledge.
Jadon, despite all his other interests, was smitten with her, drawn continually to her good looks, the way her hair would often seem to catch itself in a very special light, as if those shared lights were setting up her pose. And the message in the Aveiro River poem kept popping up in the conversation. She came back to it a number of times as if a new thought had struck a tangent with it. “I think Carlton Maxwell is saying the same kind of things that Peter Rogers said; find the missing boat, find the missing fingerprints. I think he’s really saying ‘find the missing men who killed that man and dropped him at sea,’ and,” she paused, brushing her hair back, staring at Jadon as if she was looking through him at another scene, “’find those men that killed me.’ I think it’s very obvious that he’s been murdered. They couldn’t and wouldn’t keep him around this long, not with the slightest chance of him getting loose. We have to find that boat. It all boils down to that.”
“There’s a lot of water out there, a lot of boats in ports, and hundreds of miles of shoreline. How do we do it?” Jadon was torn in his attention span; Judi Pless was working all the secret places in his body, all of them, and it began to unnerve him.
He was, at one moment, about to kiss her, thinking how good it would feel, how good she smelled, the way she could look at him as if he could be, would be, a subject for a new painting. And in that one moment of indecision, when he felt at a total loss for all that he felt, Judi Pless leaned over and kissed him right on the lips. “I never do that,” she said, “never. I think something might happen here. I’m hoping that it does.”
Jadon almost caved in at that kiss. He remembered Paul Breden out on the Iraqi desert, the mortars, the car bombs, and he could smell the scent of death. But this marvelous woman had cut through something a long time ignored with a simple yet not so simple kiss. “I hope so too,” he said, feeling his mouth drying up, a choke catching in his throat,
a bubble threatening to burst in his chest, his fingers gone itchy. The dawn from an earlier day came back to him in its lavender touch; he could smell the lilac bush his brother had planted some twenty years ago, how a spring evening in the backyard could almost fracture him, and he was almost overwhelmed.
But Judi Pless left that alone for one second more.
She tossed her head nonchalantly, the dark hair bouncing about her face, masking something. “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” she said, and without waiting for an answer, took his hand and walked off toward her small studio at the head of the marina.
Jadon was amazed at what Judi had accomplished in her painting. The studio, to the walls and shelves, was full of paintings of all sizes, and all bordering in or on the sea. Boats. Shorelines. Rocks with a sea pounding at them. Silent sand under the sun. The paintings leaned on baseboards, lay piled on shelves, were hung indiscriminately on three of the walls. Three harbor scenes at dusk hung on what he presumed to be the bathroom door. When he flipped the paintings over, like others he had turned, he saw the legends. “There’s so damn much here. You‘ve recorded all data on the back, just like a newspaper caption, like a journal or a diary of every painting. Your whole life is here. You could spin your whole life right out of these paintings, flip them and make a movie. Still life to action, let the energy loose again. God, you’re ingenious. You’re thorough. You’re so beautiful at what you do. How old were you when you started painting?”
He had come so close to her his breath was held in awed silence.
“My father was painting when I was a kid, he always painted. He’d paint a scene and sometimes throw it away the next day. He was not very good at it, but he was happy mixing and slopping and making crude angles in scenes. My mother yapped at him a lot. Painting was, I think, a way to get away from her. Out in the garage he’d paint anything, whether he liked the scene or not. I wanted to tell him for years, to suggest things, changes, other ways, techniques I could see very early on but I couldn’t do it. I wanted to talk about color mix and shading and linear stuff at an angle, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
Her confession went the whole route, pouring out of her, her face lit up from a mysterious halo. “When he was dying from throat cancer, he said, ‘You always knew, didn’t you? I knew it and you never said a word and I loved you for that. Now take every damn one of my paintings and burn them before your mother thinks she can sell them. I don’t want them seen by anybody. I don’t ever want them connected to you in any way. I know that you knew, even when you were a kid. You were special then. You are special now. You will become very special. Find your place in all of this and then kick the hell out of it. Promise me that, that you’ll kick the hell out of it all.’ He died holding my hand.”
In love! In love! Jadon knew he was in love with this painter with the dark lashes and the dark hair and the light leaping in her eyes. He knew incandescence, the mysterious halo burning about them. He knew what ambience was, how it was meant to be. Was this Paul Breden’s Louisiana? Was this part or all of what Paul knew he’d find in his Louisiana? He kissed her without another second’s hesitation and she trembled and nestled in his arms and then, abruptly, tried to say something, but he was holding her the same way he had held Paul at his dying breath. The end or the beginning was on top of him, around him. The heat of the desert had been overpowering, burning right down through his throat, into his guts all at turmoil. He could taste the acid of gunfire, of shrapnel almost in flight, the dust ready to bury both Paul and him. But in his arms she was struggling, whispering, “The numbers. The numbers. I remember the numbers!”
He could not let go of her. He wanted to hold the moment forever. But she kept saying, kept scratching at reality, “The numbers! The numbers!” Finally, she broke loose, then came back into his arms and kissed him again. It was a long and passionate kiss and then she struggled anew. “I know those numbers, those letters,” and with that broke free of him again and started tossing paintings aside after looking at them. “Help me, Jadon, help me!” she screamed. “I remember those numbers! I remember the numbers, the boat.”
Hundreds of paintings stored in her small studio. It was as if they were old magazines or newspapers to be discarded, the way the two of them tossed paintings aside, off the walls, off the shelves, from piles against the baseboard. And in a moment of serene triumph, her hair thrown back over her brow, her eyes full of fire and knowledge and final resolution, she held up Carlton Maxwell’s boat. The alphas and numbers were there, caught forever on the prow of the hull, even to the distorted shading of the background where the registration numbers had been switched around.
Judi Pless had listed the date, marina, the slip number, the harbor, the city. The whole scene came leaping back at her; the masts and bowsprits of other boats at the marina, a small sloop out on the bay, a boy standing in a nearby dory while holding a fishing rod, a whole ball of energy at an utter and complete standstill.
Jadon Calix could almost see the painted fingerprints on the underside of the railings that dipped down the length of the boat. “Let them duck this one,” he said, as he kissed her again.
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.
Rope and Wire Magazine has more than 260 of Tom's stories on site, a bio and an interview.http://www.ropeandwire.com/
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! http://www.milspeak.org/milspeak/THE_WESTERING-MB_MARCH_2012_RELEASE.html