Sunday, July 3, 2011

"The Idylls of Staff Bickerston" by Tom Sheehan (chapter 1)

This is such an old story to me – about Staff and his rules in life; how they were never formed, but came of themselves like reeds up out of the ground along the lake, or perhaps like frost heaves, not belonging but suddenly there. I am compelled to tell you about him. Once there was a man, his name was Staff, and I came upon him once, fully alive, marveling at the lot given him in this life.
It was a tall, sunny day in Spofford, New Hampshire. There was a breeze off the Northeast and the few clouds in the sky were moving like boats out on a vast ocean. Porched, comfortable, knowing the breeze as fresh as a sassy child as it punched through the screen, Staff Bickerston watched his seven-year old son, Marco, fire pellets of some sort from a crude slingshot at the last few panes of glass in an old hen house. Like an after-thought, the hen house sat out alongside the house and back from the road, eyesore of eyesores to many, but tolerable to Staff. It had been, when he was Marco’s age, his clubhouse, rendezvous, lair, and “trysting place with the angels,” as he had once told his own father. That clutch of wood, he currently assessed, leaning now, awry, its right angles not so right, would soon be a pile of dust and debris, heading back into the earth again, going as it always had at its own speed – first gear – down low, birth to oblivion. He could nearly measure the pace of that journey.

There were readable parallels, or contrasts. Now, too, the grip on his own home was threatened with a near unbreakable string tied to the local bank and its chief administrator and old acquaintance, Lowell Stratton. Lowell was long-faced and Yankee, cut out of an old black-and-white picture of early America. Colonial early. Staff was somewhat of a redhead, blue-eyed, medium height, medium weight, but broad-smiled. Somewhere along the line he was an import. One shake of his head and the quiet but consistent threat that was Lowell the bank man puffed away, and Lowell’s long Yankee face disappeared .

Earlier in the week, he had examined a pellet of Marco’s ammunition, attracted by its sheen in flight. Bringing the sun over his left shoulder, he spoke aloud, nobody around him, his voice steady but quizzical. “Here I am. I'm peering at it, shining it up on my pants, holding it up at the perfect angle to catch the sunlight glint of its polish, but boring through that rich exterior for the core, the stone's essence, the beauty of its exterior aside. Where is it from? What has it to tell us? What has Marco taken from it? What has it given to him?” Pausing, the small stone still aloft, blessing all that had come unto him, he added, “Have another drink, son.” 
Staff marveled at his son’s skill, for the shiny pellets hit with unerring accuracy some of the remaining panes. Marco was both an impish and inventive child having, Staff much earlier had determined, much of his father’s graces for entertainment. As the pellets flew in their near flat trajectory, they gave off a shine or quick luster. Staff wondered what the material was. Enriched mica, he said to himself, fully satisfied with that assumption, and felt again the near-potable breath of breeze on his face. I could get soon inebriated on that stuff, he thought. Not a whiff of preservative or toxic crap in it. Just a drink off the top layer of the lake.
To all but a few people in Spofford, plunked precariously around a small New England lake, Minot “Staff” Bickerston was a loser in more ways than one.  The first thing, they would say, was what little grasp he had on the art of maintenance, the art that most Europeans brought with them when they came here across the span of near four centuries.  Give a structure a good footing, take care of it by some rules of order, and it might last unto eternity. Much of Europe still stood tall, though its roots had traversed more than twice as many centuries, but Staff Bickerston had neither the sense of planning, nor the energy or aptitude, others would say, to preserve what had become his, the big house on the lake, with a goodly spread of ground about it. That he was an idler or a loafer from his earliest days had earned him the nickname of Staff, always at hand to lean on. Acquaintances said he was lazy, an out-and-out idler, a leaner in life. His best friend, Nathan Hawkinns only nodded and said, “Staff’s a dreamer. We all dream, but he goes places the rest of us can’t get to. Or don’t dare.” Nate’s insider’s smile used to drive people crazy when he’d say things like, “Staff pays more attention to a sawbuck in his wallet than a hundred bucks in the bank, because the sawbuck has presence.”
Countless times, though not at harangue, neighbors had heard Staff’s wife, Mathis, say, “The grass needs cutting, Staff. It’s getting to be too seedy. And the porch needs painting.”
“You’re apt to be right on both accounts, Mathy,” he’d say, a chuckle evident in his voice, “and one of these days I might accord some attention to your observations, though I possess serious reconsideration on the matter.”
The neighbors would smile, as they knew Mathis smiled, for Staff Bickerston was, as Nate had said, more dreamer than doer. It was his cut in life, and he paid it a due course of honor. It was pointed out that Staff didn’t paint much or well, nor handle wood’s qualities or potentials any better.
“Grass,” he might have said, “as well as bush and brush, has as much right to grow as the trees in the forest. We keep trimming and cutting back and what we really achieve is the reduction of oxygen production in this world floating through the stars.” Long before the Rain Forest perils had come upon us with the huge slashing of South American jungles, Staff had blown the whistle on loggers. “Our last gasp at air might be from the last leaf left, the final pittance of osmosis. God forbid you have to live on the air your lawn gives off. Talk about troubles at your own due.”
Most people didn’t listen to Staff Bickerston. It would admit too much for both sides of the equation.
From the eighth grade on he had worked in Leon Culbertson’s grocery store, never going any place else in the intervening years, never hoping to go, missing one day in all the time. The pace of groceries was his speed, braced to fit merely three meals in a day and never a continuous onslaught. People seemed to tolerate him at times, as if it were a sly brand of pity; a few loved him, none disliked him with any fervor or vengeance.
But the bank had come at him. The bank had ceased to listen to him as he fell behind in partial or total payments, rushing at the last minute to save his equity, to buy a purchase of time. “Oh, Mathy,” he’d say, “one day it’ll be over. It will be ours again, to give to the boy, to give him a start.”
“You know what he will do with it, Staff,” Mathis countered, the smile at her mouth even as she spoke. “That’s the only thing stops me from going out of my mind… he’ll own up to it just as you do.”
“You love us both?”
For a moment she mused, a piece of sunlight falling across her face, giving her eyes a touch of shadow, and a sense of the old beauty he had always seen in her; cheekbones shiny as new coins, one small scar over her left eye granting perpetual youth of accident. Staff saw the moonlight, like a blade of light, falling across her face out on the lake years ago, the night he knew he was in love with her. He could feel the sense of water drifting through her fingers the way it did that night, the wind with jasmine in it coming to him through her hair as dark as the night sky, the way her skirt rode lightly and daringly on her thighs.
“Where did you go just then,” she said, “back to the lake? Oh, Staff, you’re such a beautiful dreamer and I love you for it, but sometimes…” and she closed her eyes and saw the look on his face that same night when her heart beat faster than it ever had and she knew he was in love with her. They had celebrated that moment all their married life. The moment, for a moment, was real. It warmed her.

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