Beyond the Western
Badger Martineau was displeasured. Perhaps it was the cheese in his soup, or another point in making age a paramount factor of life. Whatever worked in him, a bit of a grumble, heartburn, it was fleeting, and went its way, fading like an offshore breeze. His granddaughter Alexa had no part in it, he was sure, for she had considerably brightened each day in coming to the house, to visit, to play, to invest time in the dollhouse.
It was the dollhouse he had made for her mother when she was but a child of the same four years; some of it made at sea, most of it made in a corner of the cellar a winter or two. The little house, a scaled down model of the very house he had lived in for more than seventy years, sat in the front room, by a window so neighbors passing by could see it, on a carrousel affair. At night a light illuminated its front façade like a billboard advertisement on the Turnpike. Traveler, take heed. Rest is here.
From his old and mostly battered but comfortable Morris chair by a side window looking down on the river, eventually the sea, Badger could see all the details of the miniature home; clapboard exterior, double chimneys that gave it a Colonial calling and stamp, two floors with a pitched roof. It was painted white as foam in a good and proper wake. More than once the whiteness had made him think of sails thrusting at their lines, grabbing at a West wind. From the backside he could see the partitions of each room, doors of closets, balusters and rails of banisters, carpeted stairs up from the front hall to the bedrooms overhead. Red brick fireplaces, made of grooved paneling, sat on each wall of each room. The monster chimneys, down through the huge archways in the cellar, had great responsibilities in the house, being the ultimate shoulders. Wide maple floorboards added the grandest touch of character, almost screaming out authenticity in their corn syrup shine, their golden patina.
Yet now, for perhaps the eighth or ninth day in a row, or was it more, the unsettlement had come upon him. He had tried to make the point of remembering when the feeling came. And it came when Alexa was in the house. Always then and never at any other time. But he loved the child so much he threw the thought away like a wild throw to first base, too hot to handle. But it came back to him each time. She’d be at the little house, her blonde hair atop her shoulders, humming to herself, talking to imaginary friends, much as he had done at sea on lonely watches, to a sailor lost at sea long ago or a shipmate who had gone ashore from a most memorable cruise and had never come back, a stretch of pure loneliness. The jabber was a monotone, a humming, a companion for silence, and moved the way a small wave seeks a bay or a sandy beach.
This acknowledged point, this quick rush to notice, only made him more disgruntled; but for all his years he was a man of details. Alexa, he saw, could be hours at the house, and nothing would come to disturb him. She would dismantle whole rooms of furniture, reset and re-style one room from another’s goods, make beds face east and west rather than north and south, swap remnants of rugs, change the character of walls, and thus of rooms. None of it would really bother him.
“Alexa,” he’d say, just as a matter of conversation, to let her know he paid attention, to mark a response, “why didn’t you like the way that room was laid out? It was neat and proper just the way a trim ship should be.” Was there reasoning to her decisions rather than some kind of rote? The Morris chair made sounds beneath him as he leaned forward.
“Oh, Grampa, my best friend Joe didn’t like it. He said he was tired of it. He’s such a good boy. I thought I’d let him have his way. You know, like you do me.” The smile floated to him like a lifeline; lost at sea and saved.
“You are a most marvelous and engaging child, Alexa, much like your mother was at the same age.” The strange delights she created ran with the sudden ill feelings he had, as if neutralizing his small despairs.
It was a week later, his mind clear as a bold sky, all his rote now parceled into proper niches that he keyed onto the one missing ingredient; no matter what article of furniture she touched, little happened to him. But when she picked up the miniature rocking chair he himself had made, modeled after his own grandfather’s chair, set it into the exact same position every time in what had been his grandfather’s room for years, at the same window, at the same view down the river, the clutching came over him. Displeasure came at once, a kind of despair moving on him, and though he knew it was not directed by this engaging and delightful child, it was she nevertheless who put it into motion.
The contradiction leaped upon him. The connection was absurd, yet it was there. Down into his soul it went worming, no wake behind it, no dragging lines, no loose wheel at the helm, but straight into his soul. Two days later, when she picked up the chair and put it back in the same exact position, as she had done on every occasion, Badger Martineau knew something occult, strange, perhaps forbidden, was working on him through the innocence of his grandchild. The sense of displeasure grew.
“Alexa, why do you put that little rocker back in the same place all the time?” The old Morris chair creaked and groaned beneath his shifting body as he looked at her kneeling at the dollhouse. For a moment her joy seemed part of the structure.
Like cookies from the jar her eyes looked, wide and spontaneous and yet something else in them, alerting him. To what? Was it her absolute charm? Her sudsy clean innocence and naïveté? “Doesn’t it belong there, Grampa?” Her way was inscrutably honest, direct, and compellingly innocent. The blonde tresses were neatly tied into a small bun on top of her head and her cheekbones leaped out under those fair eyes. “All the other things, the beds, the bureaus, the rugs, the other chairs, can be any place. They belong any place. I think this chair belongs here.” With an outstretched hand, her head twisting back to look at him, her index finger with a knowing and loving move, a soft and sure gentleness, touched the old rocking chair in its place at the bedroom window, the river and the sea beyond it for sure. A relationship was being cemented, and Badger was thinking that she could do it with her eyes closed, when a long forgotten scene came back on him, clear as Irish crystal in Mother’s cabinet.
In one startling moment the old sea captain Badger Martineau saw his own grandfather, the great elder Tilmon Martineau, seaman too, bearded, calling from the chair at the window. “Look, sonny boy, there comes The Lady Esmerelda off her cruise. Six, maybe seven months now. There’ll be jawing and pouring and empty cups this night for Smithson and his crew. I hope the old boy comes by to pay his respects. I took him on his first cruise. Damn well better!” He had leaned forward in his chair, the cane under his chin, one leg under that chin, the other leg off yet in the depths of the China Sea.
It was so clearly enacted it shook him down to his heel. And in the middle of it, like a black space, a void, there was something missing or hidden that continually gnawed its way at him. Alexa had no part in this, he was positive, but the void, the blackness, was there.
Three days on top of that revelation, Alexa at disruption and reassembling the house, the void was still a spot of anonymity in his mind. She picked up the little rocker, the last piece of furniture on the floor and gently placed it back under the bedroom window, the sea and the river surely beyond that view. Looking back at her grandfather the smile was broad and genuine and full of happiness as if she had accomplished one more gallant or thoughtful deed.
“Does something tell you where to put that chair, Alexa?” His cane was leveled in the air at the room on the second floor, at the rocking chair, and his hand shook but a little as he held the cane as an arrow. The old sailor was aware of other trends and twisting going on about him. For the first time in many years the phantom pain came back from the missing foot, the phantom pain from the phantom foot he had lived with for a monstrous stretch of years. That responsible, deadly storm he could feel again and the wind driving its own fury all across the China Sea and the terror and pain of the spar coming down on his leg. Oh, Lord, was this sweet child his messenger of death?…as he thought that spar once was.
“Oh, Grampa, don’t be silly. Chairs can’t talk. Even if they did, would it be chair talk? Or wood talk? Or furniture talk? Would a little kid like me know it?” That ever-delightful light was in her eyes, in the curve of her lips, as she slowly gave a look to her grandmother looking from another room. Her hip swung out in a sudden stance, the woman in the child. Oh, he had seen such things in his long life. He remembered her mother in a moment of silver flashes at the back of his head; whole scenes of her wrapped in the magic and joy of her own young days…and his. No, not this child! Yet he could see his own daughter with a face so dirty and black he could see but her eyes and her teeth, and the widest grin of all across her face. Caught he was in sense and apparition, time swelling and contracting, strange winds indeed. Back into the contour of the Morris chair he went, nestling, waiting for…for whatever.
There it came, in another flash of silver, his hand reaching into his grandfather’s open purse on that very windowsill, taking the gold coin, slipping it into his pocket. Knack Courtis had told him he’d give him tons of pennies for one of the gold coins. Knack had a way of promising the moon, had magic on his tongue, bore deception in his heart. All hell had broken loose at home when the coin was discovered missing. Not a soul offered up Badger's name. It was unthinkable that the godly child would steal from his beloved grandfather.
And the weight of the coin hung on him for years, until his grandfather was gone. Somewhere at sea, under Trade Winds, in the terror of The Horn, that weight was dispatched, it seemed, forever. Now another child had found it and brought it back. God, how foolish had he been. Knack was, at length, nothing but a conniver, a thief. Badger wondered what had happened to the coin. Knack was known to have amassed many coins in his day.
So it was, after added weeks of recall, the displeasure coming alive when only Alexa was in the room, at the dollhouse, at that chair, that Badger Martineau began seeking information about Knack Courtis. Knack, he found out from the milkman, had died in a train crash in Idaho a good dozen years earlier. But there was a daughter living in the next town.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Ma’am, my name is Badger Martineau. I knew your father a long time ago. I know that he collected coins and wonder if that collection is still extant. One of my favorite coins might well have been in that collection.”
“I know of you, sir. I know of your daughter and some of your sons. My father left few things. Property, mostly. He had come into possession of a large parcel of land out west when the train accident happened. The train went right off the bridge. I think just about everybody on board was killed.”
Badger relented and told her the truth about her father’s promise, about the gold coin, about the disappointment. “I think it was a 1905 gold ten-dollar piece. That small theft haunted me for years. I think it has come back again.” He told Knack’s daughter about Alexa’s place in all of it, about the chair, about some kind of relentless pursuit now coming on him. About his doubts and his true considerations.
“I have some few things of father’s, Mr. Martineau. In boxes mostly, one old trunk I haven’t looked into for years. I promise I will look. 1905, you say?”
“Aye, 1905, and a shine you wouldn’t believe.”
A week later, a knock at the door, and Knack Courtis’ daughter Pamela came to his chair. A huge smile was on her face. In her hand she held a shining ten-dollar gold piece. It sat in the palm of her hand like a token straight from Fort Knox. It caught the slanting sunlight as though its surface had been a mirror, the way a wayward coin in the gutter might catch the early sunlight, at a slant, as an eye catcher for an early walker.
Pamela took everything in. She saw a sudden change in the one-legged old man locked into an old Morris chair, his beard egret-white, a gnarled cane hanging on the back of the chair. She caught her breath when she saw the dollhouse in the front room, the beautiful child kneeling at it, the furniture strewn about but being re-assembled one room at a time. The little girl turned and smiled at her. Pamela swore that they were exchanging a secret that the knowledge of everything possible and true was crossing between their eyes.
Knack’s daughter was a happy woman when she left Badger Martineau’s house. The old man had fallen asleep in his chair. The child Alexa had charmed her until her mother had come to take her home. Pamela had some new friends.
And she had one old friend that she called when she got home. He was an old classmate. He owned a coin shop a few miles away. “It was perfect, Sebastian, just like it was the very same coin from out of the past. I thank you, for an old man and for a lovely little girl who plays with the dollhouse her grandfather made many years ago. They are a most happy pair.”