Stevie loses track of why he’s out here. No thought for the future. Thinking of nothing at all. The wind behind, Not cold. No icy fingers probing at his neck, between the buttons of his coat. His exaggerated gait, Only way to walk in snow on sand. Generates enough heat to make him comfortable. He opens his jacket. Unties the scarf around his neck. Holds its ends in his hands. Enjoys the cool air. His pulse beating in his ears.
A glow! Dim. As the scud clears, Bright orange. He alters course stumbling off the path. Veers towards the light. Quickens his pace. His jacket falls open. A fountain of sparks rises from behind a low dune a hundred yards ahead.
“Wo’ah! What’s that?” Words expelled with his fast breath. Looking towards a high point of the seaside dune, A break in the snow. The top of the nearest dune blocks his view. He runs ahead. It falls away. A vista opens across a circular depression. Sparks fly, climbing a jet of smoke and flame that swirls away on the wind.
He sets off at a jog towards this prodigy. Coming down off the dune, crossing a basin covered in Lichens, Bayberry, and Beach Plum. Nothing taller than waist-high. Dark, low scrub. Patches of bush silhouetted against the fire. Everything tinged by this ruddy light. He rushes on. Another dune in his way. A pulsing orange glow illuminates the underside of the clouds.
This is really happening!
In the strengthening moon-glow a bright fire lights up the sky. He can see his way clearly. Turning, following a lane between the deepest drifts, he skirts his way around a final hummock. The glow reflects back at him off the next dune.
He stops. Follows the pillar of fire down to its base, A glowing red cylinder. A stove pipe! A flat-arced roof puts what’s below in shadow, lost in darkness. The roar reaches him, Chimney fire.
A wild-haired figure silhouetted against the light dances on the rooftop. A heavy pail in one hand, tossing sand. A ladder sticks-up above the roof. Stevie runs for it. The old man turns his way. Spots Stevie. Yells out, “SONNY! CATCH THIS!” Tosses his pail. “FILL IT WITH SAND! FILL IT WITH SAND!” Jumping up and down, hands clasped to the ladder-rails. He kicks his legs back like a mule in his agitation.
Stevie finds the pail. Turns to the snow drift by the wall. Scoops up snow and sand together. Races to climb the ladder.
The old man’s high pitched voice cuts through the roar, “THE’AH’S ANOTH’AH BUCK’IT INS’ITE! GO GIT IT! GO GIT IT!”
Stevie backs down. Runs around the corner to an open doorway. A lantern hangs above a rough wooden table. The stove-pipe’s bright red. The sides of a rusty, potbellied stove glow. Running in, The lid’s off. Driftwood! He sees a large branch stuffed into the firebox. Blazing away! Smoke and flames sucked into the stove by the chimney-fire’s powerful draft, How kin I grab it? He reaches for a great pair of tongs behind the stove, Hot! Wraps his scarf around his hand and arm. Grabs a scrap of toweling off the table, sending china and cutlery clattering. Twisting it around his other hand, he plies the tongs. Manages to pull the stick out of the stove.
Smoke and flame rise off the charred wood. Heat flickers across his face. Its lower end reduced to a blunt point, a bright red coal. He staggers out the door. Transfixed by the checkered pattern of cracks, wisps of blue-white, green, and orange flames rising off it. He tosses it. A muffled sizzle as it sinks into a snow bank. Shoves the hot tongs and his blistering hands deep into the snow before running back inside. The old man jumps up and down, yelling, “BRING THE BUCK’IT!”
Stevie goes back inside. Puts the lid back. Kicks the vents closed. Reaches up with the tongs to turn the damper. The pipe glows red. He can see the damper-plate through its walls, White hot.
The stove roars and splutters with a violent chugging, Could jump right off its feet! Shatter the stove-pipe! Jets of flame shoot from the damper-pin’s holes. Smoke rings puff out to either side. One last, tremendous cough and shake, The worst is over.
Wisps of smoke trail across the ceiling. Smolder around the pipe, Roof could still catch fire! Stevie looks for the bucket.
Nev’ah saw this place befo’ah. Nev’ah got this far No’th ‘cept on the surfman’s path. Dunes crest every few hundred yards, hiding this spot from view, Seen a few old shacks. Weathered walls jutting out of the sand. Half-buried in a dune, Hermits. Tales of the old Moon-cussers….
Must be off’n a wreck! Wreck-wood & driftwood! Roof & walls look odd… A deck-house? A schoon’ah cabin? The overhead has a gentle crown. Enameled, vee-grooved boards run over nicely proportioned cambered beams with finely chamfered edges. The stove-pipe runs through a galvanized deck ring. A heavy casting with a u-shaped trough meant to hold water and dissipate the heat, Prob’bly why the shack’s still standin’!
Fine beams dovetail into wide oak sides, No’aht straight. The walls slant outwards at the bottom and bow from end to end. The far end looks narrower and lower. The center of the ceiling penetrated by a grand skylight, Glass missin’. Flattened ol’ cans nailed to the sashes. Rectangular wooden port-holes along its sides.
Some damage across the end. A wall, cobbled out of mismatched boards and salvaged lathe, runs from floor to ceiling. Roughly cut where it meets the rest of the structure. No flo’ah. Cargo-pallets and some ship’s-gratings run end-to-end and side-by-side over the sand. Lower walls pieced together from broken, mismatched, weathered boards. The far end dives into the dune. Old crates and boxes piled waist-high close things off. Storage crates stacked in a vain attempt to keep flowing sand from pouring in.
The table’s fancy. Carved oak! Stands on heavy, bulbous, fluted legs. It fills most of the space. Golden varnish clings to one leg and the far corner. The rest is weather-worn, sandblasted, worm-eaten, One leg missing at the front. A nail-cask with a chunk of ship’s mast on top, Like a wheel o’ chedd’ah cheese! Holds the table level. Another cask is topped with a round of cork, A seat? Before it a plate and bowl, knife and fork tented by a sheet of yellowed newsprint.
A blasted dory fills most of the space. Its bow wedged into the darkness by the stove. Sheerstrake shattered on the near side. Torn off for most of the boat’s fourteen foot length. Tombstone transom wedged against the wall by the door. Patches of ruddy orange paint glow in the amber lantern-light. A mound of dried cattails inside covered by a layer of lichen. A ratty pillow. A moth-eaten plaid horse-blanket, Must be his bed.
The lantern hangs from a length of bailing wire nailed to the ceiling. Standing in the middle of the room Stevie has the stove in front of him, the table to his right, the dory/bed to his left, the doorway behind. Between the door and the dory’s stern squats an overstuffed arm chair, Must ’a been something rather fine…. Torn stuffing tufts from its arms and wings, Shiny fabric. Greasy where the light hits across the back & the a’hms. Its seat has collapsed into itself. Next to it, by the dory, a metal bucket, Must ’a been galvanized once. What’ is that? A cone of dark brown matter rises above its top. The same stuff forms a cone halfway up its sides, Rotted cork? Huh?
Stevie steps forward. Stops, Not sure I wanna touch it! Don’t need it no mo’ah anyway. No more noise from the roof.
A shadow. The old man stands in the doorway.
In his ragged long-johns he calls out, “WHOOO! SONNY! GLAD Y’AH COME BY!” Spindly limbs. Long white hair, wispy, disheveled. His matted beard runs down his chest. Bright eyes, watery blue. Stooped. A stiff and jerky gait. He holds onto the edge of the door, the door frame, the back of his armchair, diving from handhold to handhold. With his left on the chair-back for support he reaches out to clasp Stevie’s hand.
Stevie backs away at the sight of him, Sore hands. Hot tongs. Tries to hide them in his pockets. Winces. Holds them clasped behind his back.
Presenting a gnarled fist with a flourish, “GEORGE WASHINGTON COOK AT Y’AH SERVICE!” Bright red circles flush his cheeks. A grin shows off snaggle-teeth. Stevie’s reticence brings a furrow to his brow. Sharp creases deepen each side of down-turned lips.
Stevie’s manners wrestle with his wariness. He catches himself. Moves forward to take the old man’s hand. George Washington Cook clasps it. Places his left over their joined fists, pumping furiously. His grin firmly re-established.
Letting go of his chair, he hangs onto Stevie for stability. Staggering, he tugs on Stevie to keep his balance. Stevie winces, Ow! Shrinks back.
The old man appears to take offense. Stevie holds up his free hand, Stop! Noting his red and blistered skin, the old man’s smile returns. He shifts another half step closer, grabbing Stevie by the wrist. Weaving, he examines the boy’s hands.
Held tight by both wrists by a wild old man in a smoke-filled shack in the middle of the night in a snow storm on the dunes! Stevie fights a growing panic.
Means no harm, “Sir, I’m Stevie, Stevie Small. Live up High Head. Pleased to meet you. My hands ’ll be all right. T’was the tongs…. Fo’ah the stove…. Kinda hot!” Stevie manages to step forward, backing his partner within range of his chair. Its arm pressing against the back of his knees George Washington Cook finally drops Stevie’s hand. Reaches for his chair and sits down, pulling on Stevie’s elbow to moderate his descent. He sinks into its collapsed seat with a, Huff! Stevie plants his feet and leans back to keep his balance.
Enthroned the old man lets go of his wrist. Stevie staggers backwards. Catches himself and takes position directly in front of his host.
“OOOFFF! ’SORR’AY ‘BOUT THEM HANDS!’ GIT SOME TALLOW ON’EM, WE WILL! THAT’LL HELP THE SMA’HTIN’! T’WAS SOME BRAVE THING Y’AH DONE THE’AH BOY! SAVED ME PLACE, Y’AH DID! I’M MUCH OBLIGED!”
Hard of hearing. Shouts everythin’. Excited. I expect.
Admiration and gratitude suffuse the old man’s face, Tears in his eyes.
“Oh, that’s aw’right. Don’t hurt much.” Blushing at all this attention and his own belated awareness, I did save this place! Pride straightens his back. Hurt hands forgotten.
The old man looks past him. Stevie follow his gaze. Turning, again made aware of his peculiar surroundings: A pall of smoke overhead. Tendrils swirl down and out the open door.
Stevie jumps to close it, clasping a simple wooden-latch. Ca’hved! Leaded glass. A double gothic-arch across its upper half. Raised-panels below. Thick, beveled ruby-glass and crystal. A stenciled whiskey case lid nailed over a hole features the painted silhouette of a striding Regency dandy sporting a cane and top hat.
Stevie can finally take in the room as a whole. Its bizarre jumble coalesces into an odd sort of order. Everything coated in a deep brown patina, Da’hk’a on the ceilin’. Smelling smoke, Soot and ta’h! Swirled drips, and runs. A pile of gnarled driftwood, Fuel. The upright potbelly stove, Pret-ay rust’ay! Dented sheet-metal trim. A nickel-plated guard gleams across its front, Like a buck tooth. Off’n a wreck too I guess.
Firewood’s not cut to any standard length, Don’t look like they fit?
“Ah, D’yah always run the stove that way?…” He blurts out before realizing, He might take offense. “I mean, y’ah could cut the fi’ah wood t’a fit INSIDE the stove?” His bald declaration softens into a question. Stevie leaves it hanging, Insulted him fo’ah shu’ah!
George Washington Cook lurches upright at the mention of his stove. Heads for it, reaching for hand-holds as he goes, Bare foot! Dirt’ay, yellow nails clicking.
“GETTIN’ COLD IN HE’AH! BETT’AH GIT THIS THING DRAWIN’ A’GIN!” Gathering its lid-handle from a ledge above a makeshift brick firewall, he pushes against the stove’s hot side to keep his balance, setting off a rusty creaking. Testing its temperature, stabbing gingerly with his fingertips. He turns the spring-wire damper. Leaning against shifting and grinding bricks, red dust sifting down the wall, Whack! Smacking it with his handle he opens the lower draft. Rises to pull the lid off.
Smoke billows from the air-starved interior. Oblivious, he turns and grabs a stick off the pile, Twin to the one I threw in the snowbank! Barnacles encrust one gnarled end. Wrapped in tendrils of seaweed. He shoves it into the stove. Pokes the coals with it, sending fresh gouts of smoke, ash, and sparks billowing past his arm.
With an audible, Pop! the fire catches. Its glow, reflecting off his face. A strong draft rushes up the pipe. Smoke draws into the firebox, Mostly….
“AH, THAT’LL DO H’AH! A COLD NIGHT T’A GO WITHOUT A FI’AH!” He turns to Stevie. “WHAT YA’ SAY?! CAN’T HEA’H TOO WELL!” Cupping his hand to his ear, he lurches back to his seat.
Stevie yells back, “OH, NOTHIN’!” Nev’ah he’ahd what I said.
George Washington Cook stops himself. “AH, THE TALLOW! IT’S HE’AH SOMEPLACE!” Turns around again. Heads between the table and the stove, aiming for a pile of boxes, crates, and barrels stacked at the back of the room. Taken aback by the disarray of his table setting he peers at it closely. Looks at Stevie.
“Sorry, I… I grabbed the towel.” Adjusting to a louder volume, “FO’AH THE TONGS… FO’AH THE FI’AH…”
“YES! O’COU’AHSE! Y’A HANDS! THE TALLOW!” Straightening, pointing straight up in the air with his free hand. He turns to rummage, muttering to himself.
“That’s all right… DON’T REALLY NEED IT!” Stevie begins.
“WHAT!? COU’AHSE Y’A DO! HE’AH SOMEWHE’AH!” Turning back. “AH! Y’EAH! THAT’S IT!” He shoves his knee against a keg. Stevie scoots forward. Stoops to move it for him, Save him the trouble. Heavy! He rolls it on its rim out in front of the table.
Must be off a wreck. Like the rest of this stuff! Across its cracked top in smudged black paint he makes out a stencil, a sheep in profile. Ornately scrolled numbers chalked on the side. Looking past it, Three more….
The old man pushes past him. Reaches for the keg, wrenching open half of its split-top. Grabs a handful of yellow grease. A big grin across his face. He clamps onto Stevie’s wrist. Smears it on his hand.
Stevie tries to pull away, He’s strong! Don’t knock him over! He holds still.
“THE’AH! THAT’LL DO Y’AH! GIMM’E TH’AH OTH’A ONE!” Letting go, Stevie takes this opportunity to step out of reach, “THAT’S AW’RIGHT! Got ’nough he’ah. I think!” Passing the ball of fat from hand to hand, looking for a way to get rid of the mess. It melts into his warm skin, releasing a powerful odor of damp wool and rancid mutton.
“GUESS Y’AH DO! HE’AH, PUT THE REST ON THIS!” Cook reaches across the table. Pulls a small cracked plate from under a tent of newsprint, a translucent porcelain saucer in an intricate blue and white design. Reminds Stevie of his grammar-school teacher’s tea-set. He rakes the glob off his palm and hands it back. “THANKS!”
Stevie coughs. Smoke fills the room. A heavy pall hangs low. He’s eager to rub his eyes. The smell of tallow stops him, Where can I wipe it? Reaching for the back of his trousers, Better not….
“HE’AH, USE THIS!” Rummaging another place-setting, Cook hands Stevie a scrap of ratty toweling. A knife and fork, Da’hk, almost black. Heavy. The way they clang together. Must be solid silv’ah!
Stevie’s racked by a fit of coughing, “SORR’AY! The smoke!”
“SMOKE? OH THAT! T’AIN’T NOTHIN’! HELL, MOST PLACES FILLED WITH TOBACC’Y SMOKE! NASTY HABIT!” He reaches for a soft leather pouch on the table. Gently unfolds a flap and pulls out a plug of dark brown chew, shoving it in his mouth. He works the plug around to his liking, slurring his words, “DAMN NASTY HABIT SMOKIN’!”
Returning to his chair he sits back down with a huff, “WHAT’S A LITTLE HONEST WOOD SMOKE T’WEEN FRIENDS? HEH?” He works up a gob of spit. Turns. Leans forward. Sends a stream of runny juice, mostly past the arm of his chair in the general direction of the bucket.
That’s what it’s for! A shiver runs through him. He stops coughing. “Well, I ain’t thought of it that way….”
He can’t take his eyes off the bucket. He forces himself to look back at the old man. Can’t help but stare at his mouth, working up and down, pursing his lips. Brown spittle hangs from his chin. Bits of tobacco cling to his overhanging mustache. Spattered through his beard. What he took for its natural color the result of years of chew.
“PULL UP A SEAT! SMOKE’S NOT A BOTH’AH IF’N Y’AH SET DOWN!” He motions towards the nail keg. “BRING IT OV’AH HE’AH! NO NEED US SHOUTIN’ TO BE HEA’HD!”
Stevie rolls the keg closer, Heavy! “50# 4d” stenciled on its side, Fifty pounds, four penny….
“DON’T GIT MAN’AY VISIT’AHS OUT HEA’AH! LIKE IT THAT WAY! NONE O’ THAT NONSENSE JIBB’AH JABB’AH ALL DAY LONG! A MAN CAN THINK! I DON’T LET ‘EM TRY NOTHIN’ NEITH’AH!” He reaches under the cushions and pulls out a heavy, long barreled, revolver. Holds it out at arms length. A little shaky. Aims it just past Stevie in the direction of the stove.
Mesmerized by the glint off its octangular barrel Stevie’s transfixed. Its black eye weaving in front of his face. The old man’s eyes shining with a rheumy glee.
Stevie raises his hands and leans back against the keg, Don’t slide like a cha’yah! He overbalances. Sprawls on his back. The keg rolls against his leg. A clotted mass of thin, rusty nails dumps out. He lands on them, “Ow!” The rest cascade towards his crotch, “Whoa!” He scrambles to back away. Eyes glued to the pistol. Desperate to get to his feet.
His abrupt movements startle the old man. He lunges to rise. Lowers his hands to boost himself. The pistol slips. Falls to the floor. Its hammer releases as it hits, FIZZZZ… BANG! A puff of orange flame. Billows of gray smoke. The revolver bounces on the floor. Comes to rest, spinning on a grate.
An almost instantaneous, THWACK! The slug hits the cabin-side behind Stevie’s head with a Thud. The tinkle of glass.
Stevie jumps to his feet. Runs for the door, turning to keep his eyes on the old man.
He stops, Was an accident. The look of pain and fright on the old man’s face, “OHHH!!!! BOY! Y’A A’WL RIGHT???!!! I’M SORR’AY! Y’A HURT?”
Stevie stands in the center of the room, letting the old man turn him from side to side. Run his hands up and down. Afraid he’ll find some terrible wound.
“’S A’WL RIGHT! T’aint Hurt! Y’AH MISSED ME!!!” A grin spreads on the boy’s face at the sound of this, Like the playground! He laughs out loud, “Y’AH MISSED ME!” Like the sound of that! Cowboys and Indians!
George Washington Cook settles down. Convinced there’s no damage. “THAT WAS A CLOSE ’UN! DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED?”
The old man circles. Spots the gun on the floor, trailing a wisp of blue smoke. He grabs at his chair. Stoops to pick it up, brings the chamber to his face. Sniffs its muzzle. “MUST BE THE DAMP! DAMN THIN’ MISFI’YAHED! GOTTA DRY H’AH OUT! MIGHT COME IN HAND’AY SOMEDAY!” Hefting the revolver, he turns towards the stove.
Not the stove! Stevie runs to intercept him. “K’in I see it?”
“OH, WELL, SHO’AH!” Smiling at the boy’s interest. A few more looks towards the stove. The old man starts to wonder why he’s up. Gravitates back to his seat. Formally hands the pistol to the boy, twirling it on his finger to pass it stock first.
Feeling the heft of the gun, Heavy. Still warm from firing and the old man’s hands. The grips are smooth walnut. A bloom of mildew spreads from beneath a tarnished, silver-plated, brass back-strap. He turns it from side to side. Lantern-light glints off the hemispherical dome of its frame. An engraved image on the cylinder. Turning it gently in his hands, Stevie makes out a tracery of sails and rigging, Two ships on the left. A group of small’ah ones….
“THE TEXANS BEATIN’ THE MEXICANS IN ’43! SEE THE DATE THERE? SIXTEEN MAY, EIGHTEEN HUN’AT AN’ FO’HTY THREE!” He leans in close to the boy. Their faces inches from the burnished metal. “COLT 1861 NAVY REVOLV’AH! THI’HT’AY SIX CALIB’AH! SEVENT’AY SIX GRAINS O’LEAD AT EACH SHOT! FI’ YAHS SIX CAH’TRIDGES AS FAST AS Y’AH CAN SQUEEZE THE TRIGG’AH!”
Stevie turns the gun around to examine the barrel. Square sided where it meets the cylinder. Beveled to eight facets for most of its length. He cradles the barrel, Smooth. A patch of discoloration, incipient rust-stains, mars one side. Chamfers gleam. Under the barrel a loading lever clicks and shifts slightly as he handles the revolver.
He turns the muzzle. A flat, machined face chamfered around the rim. Another inside the opening. Leery of looking straight into the barrel he peers in at an angle. First from one side then the other. Straightening his back, he resolves to sight straight down the barrel, Fuzzy blackness. Dumb to his interest it gives nothing back.
He leans forward, nose pressed to the side of the muzzle. The room reeks of burnt powder. Hot metal and acrid primer fumes, intoxicating. The taste of fresh blood in his sinuses, coppery and dangerous.
“GO RIGHT THROUGH A MAN AT TWENTY FIVE PACES!”
Stevie lowers the gun. Looks the old man in the eye, A splintered hole by the lantern…. Rising from his crouch he walks to the table. Sets down the revolver with a solid, Thump. Runs his eyes and his hand all over, searching for the spent ball.
A jagged hole in a sheet of newsprint with a singed fringe shows him where it came to rest. Reaching under the edge he pulls the shot away. The date on the newsprint, February 17, 1898, Lead’s still warm. So heavy! Lead always feels like that…. A flattened side. A jagged edge where it hit the wall.
Stevie’s knees give a little. He swallows hard, Could’a died.
He walks back. Stands the nail keg back up and sits down. “Whe’ah d’yah git the gun?” Stevie looks long and hard at George Washington Cook.
“WH’IN I JOINED THE UNION NAVY, 1861….”
A Navy offic’ah? Him?
Fifty years ago…?