Beyond the Western
When Henry Palmer’s sister remarried, to a wealthy man, she gave her house to Henry who promised he’d move in as soon as possible, to keep it secure, to be a useful watch guard. Henry, in fact, was thrilled. He had always loved the old house, and a mere hundred yards from the historic First Iron Works in America, now promoted as a National Park. The reconstruction of that site he had worked on for parts of ten years as a youngster, on vacations from school and college, weekends, as well as odd holidays.
He knew it well, every shovelful, every probe rod thrust into once-known earth, now unknown earth, Mysteries came with excitement, excitement with discoveries, this rare chunk of earth unfolding itself beneath him, beside him, once again revealing its innards, a site on the operating table of history.
Now, deep into his 92nd year, comfort coming with new ease, he sat daily in a favorite chair looking out a window down over the Iron Works, at the bend of the river, at buildings at the far edge of the river where the rest of town announced itself, with a block of stores, a gas station, police headquarters, the lone fire station in town.
And now and then, at an angle, across the street at a house most likely built at the same time frame as his new home, circa 1742, a face at a gable-end window of a steep roof constructed to fight off New England snows, often peppering the region. with sudden and thorough storms of winter.
Henry could not be sure, but a number of times he had seen the face at that gable or attic window, the face of a young girl, young as 7, old as 10, with golden blonde hair.
“Must be an attic retreat for her,” he’d said to himself each time, and promptly forgot each incident, so much to grasp for his attention, introduce the changing times that came to those who saw those changes, measured their impact, guessed at their future.
Some days, he watched traffic speed around the near corner, seeing near accidents, a few cars sliding slightly on a road wet from recent rain.
A few more times he watched for her when traffic was light, but there was no regular schedule. She’d be there one day, one week, and the not seen for weeks.
One day, when a car slid too close to the edge of the road, it bumped off the telephone pole in front of the house across the street. The collision unnerved him, coming with a harsh echo. Bones in his body jumped in a sudden cluttering, threw him off kilter.
Reality, in its dangerous phase, clutched his soul; If that unknown child had been standing there, as though waiting for a school bus, she could have been killed. Shivers ran through his body, a host of them taking charge of his whole frame for a long session of control. Quick recollection, in a starker core of reality, told him he had never seen a school bus make a stop there, though several passed by each morning and again each afternoon, the to-and-fro of education.
As if driven by curiosity, plus a sense of mystery, Henry began to keep a steady watch, until he realized he had never seen the girl outside of that house, never from any other spot but that high gable window.
Captivity. Imprisonment. Kidnapping of long duration filled his mind. Who provided her with food? How was food served to her? Why, whatever way?
Those cycles began, with definition, to gnaw at him, disturb his usual quorum of comfort, take over his wakeful hours, claw at him in his sleep.
The concern began a stretch of alertness, for a few weeks went by when he did not see the girl in the window. His impatience was marked by imagined reality, edges of it with pincer-sharp incision. A known pain returned with steady intrusion, some days his bones in the torture of arthritis at knees, elbows, in his toes as he fell asleep in the chair.
A relentless comparison of ailments hit him, and he wondered what might be targeting the girl in her plight. He did note the appearance of two men who came out of the house always on separate occasions and drove off in different vehicles, gray and black sedans. They appeared as shadows, appearing slowly, disappearing quickly.
He assumed there were two or more apartments in that other house, from several air conditioners mounted in as many windows visible from his chair.
Then, on one warm day, July beginning to pump itself up, exert its summer muscles, the school buses as well as school children on vacation, she appeared in the window. He was elated, eased, leaned with some difficulty out his window after pushing up the screen, and waved at her, twisting himself clumsily, but with a mustered effort.
He was surprised at her reactions. She first appeared to look back over her shoulder, then, as if reassured of some alternative, turned back toward him again, to send back her own wave, exuberant, one-handed at first, and then with both hands, like a declaration of joy or applause for a feature presentation on television.
His heart jumped anew.
He called an old teammate, Dutch Williss, now a retired policeman, and explained the situation. “Something weird or rotten is going on there, Dutch. I swear I never saw the kid outside the house, never get on or off a school bus, never played games, never jumped rope. Seems like she’s never been a kid. What do we do, Dutch?”
“Well,” Dutch said, an old authority in command of his voice, “we can’t just run in there without a search warrant. It’s the plain simple law. There are rules to protect both sides, in such a case as this.
Palmer said, “Explain it all to me, Dutch, quick as you can.”
Dutch started counting on his fingers, even as he recited the observant laws: “We get a search warrant when we’re able to convince a neutral judge, one not attached to our case, that we have proof or probable cause a crime is being committed in a house or building and that we have evidence of a crime. We, the police, can go into a house in hot pursuit of a person we have authority to lock up, to look for evidence: like we have reasonable grounds to believe there is evidence available in the house, drugs or weapons being paramount for reasons, and we can forcibly enter a house if it’s probable that evidence is being destroyed, if a suspect is trying to escape, or if someone is being injured or harmed in any manner.”
“Like being held a prisoner of sorts, kept in an attic, never let out of the house? I’d be damned if I’d stand for that kind of thing. So would you.”
“You’re not sure of that.”
“You damned well know I am. It must be like a jail up there behind that window, a frigging jail.”
That early evening, hos mind confirmed as to what he was up to, a stumbling Henry Palmer crossed the street for the first time in years, though he could not remember the last time. The cane felt like a weapon in his hand as it flicked on and off the asphalt with each step, “The hell with warrants,” he kept saying to himself in a blubbery manner, the drool and spittle dropping from his mouth.
A car whizzed past him, the driver leaning on his horn, the neighborhood suddenly awake to a confusion of sounds and sights, curses tossed in the air, brakes screeching on the road surface, an old man seemingly out of control, alarm of a new sort in the air.
He managed to reach the front door and before he could bang on it with his cane, to demand entrance, he heard a siren’s wail come up the river, assuring him, he thought, that some neighbor had called the police. The wail of the siren came on louder, his cane banged on the front door of the suspect house, a neighbor stepped out of his car and yelled, “Are you okay, Henry?”
One of the two men abiding there in that house swung open the front door. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m gonna call the cops on you.”
“You don’t have to call the cops, mister,” Henry said with excited glee, “They’re already on their way here.”
“What for?” came his reply, “nothing’s wrong here except you banging on our door. One of our tenants is still asleep. He works all night.” He looked back over his shoulder into the darkness of the house behind him.
Henry hit him with the big question: “What are you doing to that child I see in the attic window? I’ve never seen that kid outside the house. Has she been kidnapped, abused, hurt in any way, you ghoul!”
“You’re crazy,” the man yelled. “There’s no little girl in that window. You’re out of your mind. I’ll have the cops run you into jail, stupid old man. You’ll pay for this,”
Henry Palmer felt relieved when a second man came out of the door and exclaimed, “I heard all that claptrap you’ve been spilling. There’s no little girl in here anywhere. Get the hell out of here or I’ll knock you on your ass, old man.”
He raised a mighty fist, just as a police car screamed to a halt in front of the house and a cop leaped out of the car.
“Now you’ll get out of here,” said the second man, convincingly. Hands on his hip saying the same message his words just delivered.
Henry jumped right in with his condemnation. “There’s a kid up there in the attic I only see from my window over there in my house.” He pointed back over his shoulder to a near-image of the house now in front of him.
The second man said again, “There’s no little girl up there in that window in that attic We’ve been telling this old nosey gent, probably lost his mind or something. You must have seen hundreds of old gents like him, all losing it, or lost it entirely. What’s your name, officer?” His voice was clear, smooth, educated to say the least.
“I’m Patrolman Larry Foote, and you know I can’t rush into your home without your permission.” A near shrug relayed the message to Henry Palmer, even as he turned to Henry, saying, “That’s how it is, sir. I’m sure you know that.”
“Yah, sure I do,” returned Henry. “That’d be kowtowing to them rather than me, a cranky old man who’s losing it or already lost it.”
“Yeh, sure,” replied the other speaker from the house, “that’s what I said, and you rush in the house like the old man suggests, and fall down the stairs and break your leg or break your neck, and that’d be our fault, not your fault. That’s all I’m saying.”
Henry butted in, “Exactly.” He turned to the patrolman and said, “Do you remember what I said when you first got here?” He lowered his eyes, studiously looking up at the patrolman, as if calling for his exact words.”
“Sure,” the patrolman said, “You said there was a kid in the window up in that gable. That’s what you said. I remember every word. There was a kid in that window up there.”
Henry jumped back in again, this time stronger than previously. “What did each one of them say, Mr. Foote? Can you remember?”
“Easy enough. They said there’s no little girl up in that window.” Amazement flashed across his face.
Henry exclaimed, “How the hell did they know it was a little girl I saw, with blonde hair like the sun is shining on her all the time. A little girl. A little girl.”
He was shaking. Tears were in his eyes. His cane clattered to the walkway.
Neighbors still talk about the following immediate events, when the two men leaped for their car and roared off, the patrolman on his phone, Henry Palmer reciting the vehicle number long since locked into his memory, the policeman rushing into the house, and five minutes later carrying out the little blonde girl, still crying, and putting her in the arms of ancient Henry Palmer, like a reward of sorts, who hugged her for an hour or more, until other people in other vehicles arrived to do their thing for the little blonde prisoner.
Everybody going past Peter Palmer’s house these later days, wave at the old man in his window, in his favorite chair, his eyes on the passing world.