Monday, January 1, 2018

Shag DeBrillen, Brickie (or The Usual Flat-out Failure at Most Things Unexceptional) by Tom Sheehan

A lowly bricklayer witnesses a possible crime and hears the voice of his mentor in his head coaxing him to rise to the occasion; by Tom Sheehan.

As Shag DeBrillen was about to turn the corner in the suburban area where he lived, he spotted a lone car a short ways down the town road. He whistled. It was an Impala, an oldie, an olden golden, a gem of an antique. With the six ports in the rear end looking like gun ports on a fighter aircraft, he affirmed it was a '63. The car was parked at a siding and the driver, leaning out the window, was talking to a young girl of ten or so that Shag assumed was on her way to school.

An illusion? An old car, a young girl, not much else to look at, or take your eye to the quick. Sometimes what you see is not what you see.

It was early October and school year had recently started. Soon, he thought, the leaves would begin to change color, the big silver maple directly across from him soaking up the early sunlight, the threat of change poised and real in its broad cast of leaves. The nights would come cooler in a matter of a week or so, the year looking at its cold ending.

The front of his old Pontiac, a '76 Bonneville, with the Indian head yet proudly mounted by his own hand on the hood, nosed out into the cross road. Shag DeBrillen knew another minor accident would probably finish off the car. He'd had enough of them, he recalled, a few snickers mixed in with the recollections. So the car was driven gingerly, as Stockwell his plumber buddy had noted: "Hey, man, ole Shag drives the bucket like it was Aunt Mindy's sewing machine, I swear to God."

Shag had a piece of sheet metal and an old wire coat hanger wrapped around the muffler. Each day he'd tighten up the coat hanger or add a new one, wary of the cops who had warned him about excess noise, Trupote being the nastiest about it, a smartass rookie to begin with. Tenuous at best, a front end rocker arm sent tremors that were known in his hands and arms at each turn on the road. The amount of oil usually burning now in the old engine, he surmised hurriedly on numerous occasions, would float a rowboat. Besides, the exhaust smell was real and dark. Unreliable was the word, working its way in on a daily basis. At 168,000 miles the old sedan was counting the miles as well as the days. It was just about good enough to get him to the next wall he was working on. One more solid day's work in the offing; another brick, another tier, another wall.

Suddenly, up there ahead of him, a hand snaked out of the Impala and snatched the young girl, perhaps ten years old he said again to himself, into the car.

Shag sat straighter in his seat, quickly upright and his foot locked onto the brake pedal. Blond tresses, bleached from constant sun, fell over his forehead the hot summer had painted a dark tan. He felt as inert as a concrete block. Something almost physical caught in his throat, caught and grabbed on harsh as fishing barbs. For a fraction of a moment he thought he would choke. Mary Gibbons, now mysteriously gone these many years, leaped into his mind. Once more he saw her pretty face ringed with dark curls in the seat right beside him in Mrs. Stone's third grade class. She'd been pretty as a picture. Once her slip had shown as white as snow. That glimpse was more than half his lifetime earlier. A breathtaking dizziness flooded his head and his hands froze on the wheel. From that last day going home from school, not a soul had seen pretty Mary Gibbons. Twenty years of nothing.

The Impala, in a surging motion, took off down the town road, dust lifting behind it in a minor contrail. The rear ports, like a logo or a full name across the back of the vehicle, kept saying Chevie.

Shag DeBrillen earlier in age had blown about all his schooling and then his one attempt at a GED. Plain and simple it came up for him... books and numbers had little place in his life. He was a brickie; of that he was absolutely positive. His hands told him where he belonged. That perfect line necessary on a wall was scored into his eyes. It had been there since the day Marsellaise, the old neighborhood mason, had shown him eighty years' worth of tricks of the trade.

"Illusion is important to a mason," Marsellaise had said. "Make it work for you. Then do your thing." Shag took that release all the way, figuring he already had a head start on things; he had worn his hair the way he wanted to, ever since his father had beaten him for not wearing it the way "grown and proud men do."

Shag knew brick laying and cars and little else.

Now decisions came abruptly at him, the kind he felt he was not capable of making. In a kind of desperation, he began to talk to himself. At least the sound was there: There's no illusion here. No second sighting down the line of a wall, no chance to reset a stone or brick in an otherwise perfect wall. Can't use a piece of string for this.

The gas pedal kicked at his tromped foot. Perhaps I can get the number on the registration plate. It's all I can hope to do; there'd be no way this old junk can catch that other car. The engine coughed and kicked and sounded just like old Marsellaise the day he died at the end of a long wall, a day's work done, a lifetime of work done. It had been ten minutes before the work day was supposed to be over when the old gent kicked over, true to the bitter end.

In the rearview mirror he saw the plume of black exhaust flowing out behind him. Momentarily he smelled the exhaust, and then discounted it. The picture of the girl's mother came to him, cleaning the kitchen from the breakfast meal, probably a yellow apron about her waist like his mother used to wear, yellow as the morning sun in the early slant or a whistling canary, planning lunch or the evening meal, pleasant time on hand. Oh, damn, this could be the worst of days for her and she has no idea yet. No idea!

The engine snorted and kicked back again at his pedal foot. The smell of oil was heavier, the wake of exhaust as wide as the road behind him. In the back seat his trowels rattled against one another and one clinked against the hammer head, sounding out the single tick of a clock. An empty plastic bucket fell off the seat. If there's a car behind me, I can't see it. Maybe a cop's back there. I damn sure wish a cop was there. I need a cop. I need a cop. What the hell can I do in this claptrap! Goddamn it!

He stepped on the gas again. The car shook again. Down the road ahead of him the Impala was pulling away. A half mile down the road a yellow Bluebird school bus had a side red octagonal flag flung out at its pick-up stop. Two or three cars were stopped coming from the other direction. One was a pick-up truck. I wonder if it could be Stockwell on his way to work. I hope so. That Dodge of his can do a 100 if he wanted it to. The abductor's Impala slowed and stopped and Shag crept up behind it and got the number on the plate. 781-Q77. That's easy, he said to himself. He wrote the number boldly on his arm with his stubby work pencil. The figures were scrawling and uneven but fully legible. On a second thought he wrote the number on his jeans. The pencil felt as though it was cutting into the skin of his thigh.

Shag spoke aloud; I should get out of the car and approach the other car, rip open the door, get the guy out before he can take off. But the guy will see me and take off. I'll lose time. I've got to be smart about this. Here I am, a goddamn brickie. What the hell can I do? I need a cop. Ain't that a laugh. He could hear the echo of his voice, helpless and languid, distant as a star. Once when he was sick he had felt like this. Never had he begged for anything, not when sick, not even for his GED. I need a cop. I need a cop. He looked behind him, back down the road, the exhaust fumes momentarily thinned out and the air clearer. Nothing was in sight behind him. Nothing as far back as he could see.

The red arm on the bus folded and a Buick came past the bus from the other way. The Impala snaked slowly out over the double line and dipped back as the pick-up came abreast of the bus. It was not Stockwell's truck, but it was a speedy new Dodge Ram 2500. It came beside Shag. Its engine roared and then flew past him. In front, the Impala slipped around the bus and headed down the road. Shag could not see the girl moving in the car. Oh, damn, he said. The sound of his voice was fainter, receding with his hope.

Marsellaise's voice came in a rugged whisper. Illusion, it said. Illusion. That old man was still trying to teach him something, Marsellaise being noisy again.

A police car came out of a side road and headed toward him. Marsellaise was still talking to him, now noisy and incoherently it seemed, a mesh of gibberish and accent from an old man long gone. The white and blue said it was a state police cruiser, one man behind the wheel. Shag shook his head, trying to shake off the voice, the sense of illusion still at him, the loudness. He was trying to concentrate on something. It was difficult, the damn voice of the old mason refusing to let go. Pretense, Illusion, it kept saying. What was Marsellaise at? Where was his voice coming from? This blue and white car was real, wasn't it? Shag leaned over the wheel, faked inertness, lack of attention, yet kept the Bonneville straddling the double traffic lines. The shadow of the cruiser slipped beside him with a roar. The squeal of brakes came from behind. Shag leaned on the gas pedal. The old bucket had some life in it yet, something beside the guttural grunts. But not enough. Moments later the cruiser roared up behind him.

Ahead the Impala was moving off as small as the head of a pencil.

Shag came to an abrupt stop. He leaped from the Bonneville as the trooper came out of the cruiser directly behind him. Shag waved his arms, tried to scream, his blond curls shaking all over, the tanned face red with excitement. The eyes were popping in his face like glazed saucers. Desperate breath rushed into and filled his throat. Words tried to claw their way through, almost scratching his throat. He looked like an actor in serious trouble, on stage, forgetting his lines, the audience on the edge of their seats. Then he pointed up the road, out of town. "That Impala, plate number 781-Q77. The driver grabbed a little girl back there."

God, he was coherent!

The trooper smiled and said, "This your car? You Shag DeBrillen? You old Trupote's favorite driver in these parts? I haven't seen one of these things since my Uncle Henry was around." His hand was on the fender of the Bonneville. "Man, I heard all about you. Tru says he can hear you coming before he sees you. That a fact?"

"Listen, that '63 Impala driver grabbed a little girl back there about a mile. Yanked her right into the car. You gotta do something about it."

"I don't gotta do anything about nothing! Old Trupote said you had a hundred stories. This another one? A new one?" The trooper cocked his head, noting that he was tuning in the loud muffler. A smile crossed his face.

Shag heard Marsellaise's voice coming from behind his car. Illusion, it said. Illusion.

Lie, it also said. Lie like hell or force the issue.

"It's gonna be your ass, not mine, when I tell this story."

"Don't threaten me! You got a rep, that's for sure. I heard about the time the pawn shop was ripped off and you gave the locals a plate number because you saw something. Cops chased an old teacher of yours almost to the New York border. Scared the damn hell out of her and she said you were paying her back for something she'd done to you years ago."

Shag came back quickly. "That was an old maid busybody who manufactured that. I gave a number and the dispatcher screwed it up. In this case, it's the little girl who's threatened." He pointed down the road out of town. "A couple of more miles, out of the lake region, and they'll get away. That's when your ass will be in a wringer."

The trooper smiled. "I don't take to threats. Trupote said you had a talent for this stuff. Could lie like a trooper." He smiled at his own words. "Play the game for all it's worth."

"Well, think about her mother sitting home and you're sitting here shaking your dick at the side of the road 'cause you caught a guy with a loud muffler and her little girl is grabbed by some guy and making it out of town right about now." He again pointed out of town, the small pencil dot of an Impala barely visible at a big curve in the road as it began a sweep around Lake Chagmond.

With no expression on the trooper's face, Marsellaise's voice came back. Lie like hell, it said. Lie like hell because she's worth it, that little girl. And her mother putting around the kitchen right about now, dumb as she'll ever get.

The old vision came back. Marsellaise was scribing a line with a string, pegging it. At one point he put stress on the string; "Right about here. Here's where you do a little double dip, an eye catcher. This grabs their eye, right here. You know you can't make a wall that looks straight without them saying their piece about it. Here's where you lie like hell." He had snapped the string.

Shag was thinking in Marsellaise's words: "Make a good excuse for this and you're home free with the whole thing." So Shag said, "What's your name, officer?" He put a smirk on his face.

"You want my badge number too, wise guy. 6-7-2, and remember it." His rancor was still riding the air when Marsellaise took the opportunity to come back. The trooper put his thumb behind the badge and nearly popped it into Shag's face. "6-7-2!" The smirk was returned wholesale with the gesture. "I think you'll find out sooner than later, my friend, that when you're talking to the police you better drop the wise-ass stuff. It'll do you better in the long run."

The car, said Marsellaise. The car. The car. Then it came heavy. The cruiser. Damn it, Shag, the cruiser. Then he punctuated his words. Illusion, he said, his voice suddenly softer, testing him, cajoling. It's our only chance!

To Shag, the our was all inclusive. It meant the little girl, her mother and father, perhaps siblings, 6-7-2 with the smirk still on his face, Marsellaise, and of course, the Pariah, the loser, Shag himself caught up again. Life will never change, he thought. I might have thought I'd been shortchanged forever, but now's not the time. A tree caught in the morning sun almost blazed up on the side of the road as the sun smashed into it. Summer was gone. Fall was here. Winter was coming. Loneliness, terror of the worst sort, could be coming to a mother behind him, toward the center of town.

Down the road Shag looked, out of town. And the telltale dot of the Impala was gone. Panic reared its ugly head, and then backed off as he tried to visualize the map of the area. What side roads there were. What was the nearest intersection for the Impala to find flight? Who patrolled out there if it wasn't this obnoxious son of a bitch? The whole string of summer cottages along the one side of the lake snaked into his mind. They'd all be shut up now, the summer traipsed away and gone, nobody around.

Time was running as fast as the Impala. Shag felt the now-or-never crunch pounding down on top of him. It was worth it all, even what he could see coming at him, as clear as he could ever see anything... and the mother in her apron, in her kitchen, oblivious to all of it. He tried to keep the little girl's fate out of his mind. Tried not to see her in some helpless position, some animal of a man hovering over her. The shock went through his body, snapped into the back of his head... he swore he could hear Mary Gibbon's laughter, see her face once more, the brown hair, the red lips, the big eyes. Perhaps he heard her cry out, an endless plaintive cry that would last forever. He shivered and caught himself at the edge of something new. Marsellaise was as near as ever, that good old son of a bitch brickie not letting go, not leaving him.

Coyly Shag said, "I thought you were getting a flat tire when I saw you coming," thinking, If he's as stupid as he looks, I'll have a chance.

6-7-2 looked at the street side of his cruiser, bending over, being sure. One hand touched the rear tire as though he didn't believe his own eyes. The other hand was on his holster, as if he were still in class at the academy and being put to a test. The tire was okay. He walked to the back of the car and bent to look at the other rear tire.

That's when Shag heard Marsellaise as if he were standing just behind him, sharing the same shadow.

Now! the single word was like a roar.

It hit Shag between the eyes like a baseball bat in the hands of the Red Sox rightfielder Trot Nixon or the big guy David Papi Ortiz, world champs, the two of them.

Now!

Swearing the whole world could hear the long-dead mason, he leaped at the car, praying not to stumble, not to screw up again, not to fail miserably at perhaps the only good thing he might ever do in his whole life. Pulling the door open, he jumped into the cruiser, snapped the door lock down and jammed the engine into Drive.

The gears ground harsh as an old cement mixer, then caught, meshed, brought a sudden speed to the take-off. With a roar the cruiser leaped off the shoulder, spent rubber leaving smoke, and rocketed down the road. 6-7-2 leaped, cursed, and went for his gun. From behind him and from the other direction, cars were coming. He holstered his weapon. The portable radio came off his hip. He yelled into it.

Other than being a brickie, Shag knew he could drive. He'd been driving, whether anyone liked it or not, since he was eleven, more than once at the wheel of a "borrowed" car... his father's, his Uncle Harry's, Bert Wills' who lived next door and always left the keys in the car after a night on the town. Good old Bert never missed the car on a dozen occasions. The last ride was the best, the cop's chasing Shag over half the town, and he slipped out of Bert's car and into the house without anybody the wiser. Ten minutes later he saw Bert, shaking his head, yelling, being hauled off by the cops. Shag had laughed himself to sleep.

The cruiser was now doing about 80 miles an hour as Shag began the loop about the lake.

The lake surface, off to his left, through trees, cottages, cabanas, was a silver blue, catching a piece of the morning sky in it. Yet it was a cool blue, making his fingers feel icy. Another shiver came to him as he thought of the coming winter on an open staging, the unset bricks piled at hand on the staging, the wind blowing out of the northeast, some arrogant son of a bitch of a boss yelling up from a heated truck cab down below. The sun poked fingers through decorative camp trees, in gaps between the cottages and cabanas, and spread itself in the maple treetops off to his right, color catching as if being crayoned in at the same moment.

In the straightaway, as the curve about the lake was left behind, there appeared no pencil-dotted Impala ahead of him. Christ, he could be gone forever... and the kid with him. Shag tromped on the accelerator and felt his back punch against the seat. He'd get this son of a bitch car up to a 100 if he could. If the Impala got to the turnpike he'd have a cold shot in hell of finding it, and the kid with it.

Even then the old mason wasn't letting go. Shag heard Illusion again, Marsellaise's voice coming as if from the back seat, another unauthorized passenger.

The radio popped alive. "Unauthorized driver at the wheel of a stolen state police car, westbound out of Saxon on the lake road. Driver is dangerous. Post blockade short of the turnpike exit. Trooper afoot at the Hanscombe Road intersection. Needs assistance."

Hell, they'd be on him in minutes, the Impala probably going right on by them, the little girl maybe knocked unconscious in the back seat. He tromped harder on the accelerator.

And then, his heart near pounding in his chest, pressure building in his head, his hand now sweaty instead of cold, he caught sight of a glare of light between two small and obviously empty cabins on the edge of the lake. It was like a barrel of a rifle from a distant point and John Wayne or James Arness picking it out of a vast expanse of otherwise darkness. It was the six rear ports of the Impala, all six of them blinking at him at the same time. He was dead sure about it, and the vehicle was parked between the two small buildings, and partly under a small clutch of trees.

Shag braked down, went by the two cabins less than a hundred feet off the road. Don't squeal the brakes, he told himself. Easy does it. Leave the cruiser here in the middle of the road. If 6-7-2 has made contact, someone'll be here soon enough.

He climbed out of the cruiser, after setting the emergency brake, leaving the keys in the ignition switch, the engine running.

Behind a clutch of brush and small trees, he picked up a half dozen stones and made an arrow in front of the cruiser, pointing back to the Impala. Doubt hit him. He knew it was a cover-your-ass gesture. It made him sick about himself. He slipped down into the brush. His heart came pounding again, his hands cold in return, then hot in a hurry.

He neared the Impala. Silence sat on the lake, now bluer and brighter, and in the air. There were no cries. No strange sounds. No struggle evident to his senses, but an overwhelming strangeness crowding him. He was feeling hatred for something part human, an ogre, a monster, a child-thief. Bile suddenly loaded his throat with a sour burning. His hand closed on a rock of good size. His huge brickie's hand closed down on it as if it were a baseball in the hand of Curt Schilling or Pedro Martinez. Two fingers curled tightly about the rock. He had to stop whatever was in process right now. Get him out in the open. He'd take his chances with him, the driver, the abductor, that rotten son of a bitch. The unknowing mother in her yellow apron in her quiet kitchen came back to him. The helpless girl leaped into his mind, her hands reaching for her mother. For her father. For him. The bile loaded itself again. He gagged and recovered. In one swift move, standing upright about thirty feet from the nearest cabin, he fired the rock at the single window facing him. He missed the window by a foot, but the rock rattled loud as a gunshot against the side of the cabin. Sounds came to him from the interior of the cabin. A sudden noise of banging objects. The scream of a little girl. The sounds of quick bedlam. Back over his shoulder he heard sirens screaming across the lake as if a police speedboat were approaching. They were coming from the turnpike end of the road, he was sure, all out to help a brother officer.

Then, as Shag turned back, a single male, tall, moving quickly, made his way out of the cabin. He limped. He had a beard. His jacket was blue and worn. Even with the limp he moved rapidly, perhaps desperately. There was another scream from inside. Shag's heart pounded as the man raced to the Impala.

Shag threw another rock. This one smashed against the rear window of the Impala and shattered it. The man heard the sirens. Seeing Shag, he jumped into the car and the car shook as the ignition caught in a roar. Sand and debris rose by the rear wheels as he backed the car. Shag hurled another rock, smashing against the side of the Impala. The engine died, coughed, started again. The sirens were closer. The car coughed and gagged and coughed anew. Then the engine caught again. The Impala swung toward the road as two police cruisers, one a state vehicle, the other a town police car, came to a stop beside the cruiser stranded in the middle of the road. Two uniforms leaped out.

Shag screamed, "Stop him. He's the one who grabbed the girl. She's in the cabin." He raced to the cabin as two more police cars converged on the Impala caught on an embankment on its underside, the wheels spinning harmlessly, the old engine letting go its final cries.

Shag DeBrillen, quicker than he'd ever been, ran to the cabin and found the girl crouched on an unmade bed. She screamed once more, shook all over, and then her mouth and lips were caught in a sudden silence. He held his huge and ungainly hand out, and said, easily, softly, all the kindness in his voice he could muster. "Your mother sent me."

Outside there was as single shot. A voice screamed, "Halt."

"They got him," Shag said. "They got him."

The brickie put his arms tenderly around the little girl, and her arms came around him. She had dark hair and big eyes. Tears flowed from her eyes. Could be that in the classroom a boy next to her stole quick glances at her all the time.

Shag thought all that was coming to him would be worth it, this one sweetness in his whole life. He could picture the girl's mother, in her canary yellow apron, in her quiet kitchen, looking out the window, admiring the leaves that were changing colors, winter down the road a ways yet. As far as she was concerned, this far in the new day, nothing but winter was coming her way, nothing out of the ordinary.

3 comments:

  1. Great action and excellent character development. I love the image at the end of the brickie tenderly comforting the little girl.

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  2. A taut, emotionally charged story that allows an apparently unexceptional guy to be heroic. Many thanks, Ceinwen

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  3. Wonderful! Engaging prose, interesting characters and tension in the story.

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