Beyond the Western
It did not come with electricity or a smash of static on the air, but it was there. Brittan Courvalais, five minutes into the darkness of a new day, a streetlight’s glow falling through his window like a subtle visitor, was caught on the edge of his chair. Knowledge flowed to him, information of a most sublime order, privacy, intimacy, all in one slow sweep of the air; his grandson was just now, just this minute, into this world, his only grandson. He could feel him, that child coming, making way his debut into the universe, and his name would be Shag. And for this life he and Shag would be in a mysterious and incomprehensible state of connection. This, in the streetlight’s glow, in the start of a new day though dawn not yet afoot, he was told.
People of the neighborhood shortly said that the oldest man among them, white-bearded, dark-eyed, 75-year old Brittan Courvalais, loved his only grandchild Shag in a deep and special way. They said there was a virtual connection, a most generous connection between them, more than the usual. At times they dwelled on the love ingredient, and then on the old and the young, the near gone and the coming.
On days when young Shag came by, just an infant in his mother’s arms, the old man’s step changed, his gait changed, his shoulders stiffened, his voice went lyrical. Some heard him singing under the silver maple tree in the side yard, the tone reaching, ascendant, carrying more than day in it or cool evening or a new stab at dawn. Shag would come, put his arms out, and nestle against the old man’s beard. The pair would look into each other’s eyes and the world about them seemed lost, distant, at odds with the very young and the very old. Brittan’s daughter Marta could only beam when the topic was broached, or say, “I don’t know what it is. It mystifies me, but it’s as if they share an infinite else.” She’d smile broadly when she said it, shrug her shoulders, be fully happy in her puzzle.
From just about every aspect, Brittan Courvalais was a very ordinary man, until such time as an extraordinary demand was placed upon him. Neighbors of the old war dog only knew what they saw and heard but a little of the hidden parts of his life, where in the past valor had surfaced when needed. Stories had been told, sometimes whispered. In Korea, it was said, he’d taken on a mountain and the enemy and beat them both. Just after Korea, out on the highway, he’d pulled an unconscious truck driver from the cab of his truck minutes before the whole rig exploded in a huge ball of fire that shut down an overpass for nearly five months. Later, on a cold spring day, skies heavy, off the wash of Egg Rock out in Lynn Harbor, he’d gone under a capsized boat and extracted two unconscious sailors.
And every year since then, without exception, and for the everlasting grace of the neighborhood, the two sailors, on the morning of the Fourth of July, would set up a flag on Brittan’s front lawn, plank down three or four cases of beer and drink them off in a day long salute. Three or four times the truck driver came to celebrate. People said that other unknown visitors would drop by, have a beer, casually say a word or two to Brittan, shake hands and quietly leave, like shadows in a man’s life. Such shadows made more stories, and naturally, with such kicks for a starter, the Fourth always came up a party.
Otherwise, in his quiet and retiring life, Brittan Courvalais raised an exceptionally small patch of tomatoes with an exceptionally good yield, so good that from that little patch some neighbors could preserve a great deal of tomato sauce. That a 75-year old man had such a green thumb was quite acceptable; he’s been around, hasn’t he? That’s why his lawn was generally trimmed and healthy looking, a few beds of flowers hosted a smash of colors every year. His small cottage stood as a marker of time, of the seasons, a sort of contentment in itself. Retirement in a very tolerable neutral gear, life ebbing out in a comfortable wake, long days astern.
And then one afternoon, at a nearby park, when the seat of a swing hit another child and Marta rushed to help, Shag disappeared. Nobody, in all the hue and cry, had seen him go. Nobody had seen anyone carry him off. Hundreds hunted all the fields and pathways. No Shag. On the second day the two sailors came by to help. And the old man sat on his porch sad, morose, and ready to scream. The authorities declared it a kidnapping. Brittan, for four days, sitting on his porch, waited for some word. Marta started to speak one day coming up the stairs and the old man held his hand up, as if listening. He kept his hand in the air for a full five minutes. Marta did not speak. Later that afternoon, when the mailman came by, Brittan Courvalais once more held his hand up for silence. At his next gossip stop, at Jed Hendry’s Barbershop, and again back at the post office, the mailman repeated the story; “The old soldier is listening for something, as if it’s going to come from out of space, a space probe, mind you. Should have seen his eyes, would scare the pants off you. Like he was hearing something!”
Marta and her husband came by each day after their visit to the police station. She’d make coffee, put nibbling food on the porch table, and look at her father’s face. She wanted to reach out and touch him, to be a child again for him, but the look in her father’s eyes frightened her. “I don’t know what he’s going to do, Earl,” she said, “he’s so locked up into something, something so very different.” Then she’d go into the house and cry for an hour or more.
The weight of the world, thus, crushed down on the old man who sat waiting for good news only.
On the sixth day, all hope fading, to some all of it gone, one neighbor saw Brittan Courvalais standing on his porch, his head tipped, as if listening for a bird’s call or someone calling from out of sight, perhaps in the house or down the street. Brittan held his hand in the air as though he was asking for quiet or noting peaceful intentions to an unseen guest. The neighbor looked about and saw no other person except a delivery driver stepping down from his truck eight or nine houses away. Slanting rays of May sunlight were flashing down through young leaves and limbs and falling on Courvalais like pieces of newly minted coin. On the porch floor pieces of shadow or shade were cast like dominoes. A slight breeze talked in the same leaves and began to whisper on the edges of gutters and down spouts.
Two or three times the old man cocked his head, his mouth slightly ajar, stony in intent, inert. The wind whispered, the sun’s rays played tag, the gutters and down spouts answered. Then, as if coming from a slight paralysis, unfrozen for a moment, he picked his jacket off a chair, got into his old Plymouth Duster and drove down the road. At the end of the road he turned left, toward the highway.
Three days later he was still gone.
Marta was beside herself, now with a double worry. And the police came to the house, eventually asking odd questions. First a uniformed sergeant came, questioning, slowly inserting the knife under thin skin. Then, after the topic was broached, a lieutenant of detectives came, a cigar in his mouth as he stepped from the car and came up the front walk.
He didn’t stumble or trip over his words, bringing them up quickly and darkly from the cavern of his chest, half cough and half words, “Why was your father so attached to the child?” “Harrumph. Hack. Hack. Harrumph.”
“He’s his grandchild. He loves him.” “Was it not an unusual love? Is it possible that the old man has taken the baby? Harrumph. Hack. Hack. Harrumph. That right now he’s with him someplace?”
People of the neighborhood began to talk. The mailman heard the talk and carried it. Some of those old stories were, in fact, made up. The old man wasn’t what he appeared to be after all. What have we made him? What kind of a man would drive his daughter into this near madness? You really don’t know, do you, what lurks in the heart of a man.
He’d been mystified by many things in life: the small man down in Homestead, Florida who secretly moved stones weighing many tons, supposedly by himself; a rocking chair sculpted from stone and weighing thousands of pounds, a tall vertical solid stone gate of equal tonnage that swung on small points of balance, seemingly immovable yet moved and placed. How the all-state halfback he played behind when he was a young man told him, just before the big game of the year, that his turn was coming, and there he was rushing on the field breathless in the first quarter. What had pulled him up that mountain in Korea to what he thought was certain death. How had he been able to go into the cold water to save those men after almost drowning under a raft in Lake Hwachon when his unit crossed by rafts mounted on boats with outboard motors and a mortar round had landed right beside them, all of them trussed in full gear? He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten out of the clutches of all that web equipment, or Sanders’ hands pulling at him, hauling him down.
And he never professed to understand the knowledge that came to him about Shag from the moment of the boy’s birth. That they were connected was enough for him. The corners of the boy’s mouth when he smiled up at him were locked behind his eyes.
And here he was, seven days later, vaguely answering some unlimited connection, some communication, coming at him. He didn’t know where it was coming from, and he had driven endlessly it seemed from the day he had left home, sometimes three or four hundred miles a day, sometimes fifty to sit in the middle of a park or a village green, listening.
Now, on the seventh day, hearing his name and description aired over the radio, also a subject of search, he was on the outskirts of Schenectady. He did not know how he had gotten here, but the urge was unarguable, unimpeachable. Shag was calling him. It had been that way in the beginning. It would always be that way. He knew he was near. The parts of the city spread out, and the possible routes cluttered his mind, but there was notice of a kind pulling him. It was unmistakable. It was Shag. He drove around for three hours, like a moth around a huge glowing light, the last light of the year, October light crowding down on the life of the moth.
And then it was stronger than it ever was. He was beside a mall. The voice on the radio was giving out the description of his car, the registration number, and his description. He was at least three hundred miles from home. Nobody would know him. He parked the car. Six hours later, tired, exhaustion finally coming down upon his body, he sat in a small diner and ate his first meal of the day. Shag had come and gone, but he knew this was the place. It had been so from the beginning. Sanders, all the way from Chicago, had been from the beginning, and the mountain in Korea had been from the beginning. The trucker had always been coming at him, a journey started a long time in the past, like the two sailors caught under their craft, unconscious, waiting for him.
He finished his meal and walked back outside. As he neared the Duster he saw the policeman sitting in a patrol car a few spaces away. Brittan turned to move in the other direction.
“Sir!” the voice said, “Sir!” It was a strong young voice, somewhat friendly in tone.
He turned back to the voice. The young policeman stepped from his car. “May I ask you some questions, sir? Is this your car? Do you have some ID? Are you Brittan Courvalais? Someone spotted you earlier and called it in, said you were hanging around too much. There’s a warrant out for you.”
“I’m looking for my grandson. That is no crime.”
“Why are you here in Schenectady? You must be hundreds of miles from home.” Blue-eyed, pink-cheeked, probably shaved only three times a week, the young officer was dubious, but not uncomfortable. “I checked out your car, and you in the diner. I know you don’t have your grandson with you. Not unless he’s with someone else local. Why’s his name Shag?” He was pleasant in an unpleasant situation.
“I’ll tell you, son. I don’t know why his name is Shag, but it was always going to be that. And I don’t know why I’m here, but something is telling me that he’s near here. I cannot leave this place. I’ve driven over 2000 miles, some of it in circles, around mountains, across bridges and rivers, down beside the huge Finger Lakes, Canandegua on the crown of a hill perhaps just because of its name, something pulling at me, drawing me, and it’s brought me here. I can’t leave here. I’ve done nothing but look for that boy. It’s like he keeps calling for me, but I never hear his voice. It’s a kind of impulse, the only way I can describe it. It beats or hums, but no words to it.”
“I know about names,” the officer said. “My father named me Sawyer. I am Sawyer Billings and had a hell of a time with the name as a kid. My father says he has no idea why it came to him. I handle my dukes pretty good. Had a lot of scrapes over that name.”
“Ever think that’s why your father did it? I know of someone named Lawyer and he makes tackles and interceptions, and he’s pretty tough at that.”
“Not until now, sir. Is there any way I can help you? I can make a report or hold it up. The only one who’d get upset about any delay would be the captain, and he takes enough time off so it won’t matter.”
“Just let me be around here. Whatever it is, it’s very strong. I have to check it out.”
“Where? In a particular store? Nearby?”
“I don’t know. If I knew I’d be there now. I’d have you by the collar pulling you with me. I just don’t know.”
“Well, sir, I’ll sit on it for awhile. My sister was crying about Shag the other day, saying how sad it was. She has two of her own. Father named her Cameron. Never hurt her. She’s a fighter too. But gets sad.” He walked to his patrol car. “I’ll be around. Good hunting, sir.” The car slipped out of the mall like a small animal passing through the brush.
A few hours after the patrol car had departed the parking lot, his neck stiff, an old injury talking through his knee, he woke with a start. Now it was stronger, that call of Shag, that disruption on the air. He shook his head, looked for the patrol car, walked toward the mall. It came again, stronger, not a voice, not words, not his name, but a humming, a vibration, near electrical. Twice he went past one store, only to come back and feel the announcement again. This was it. Again he looked for Sawyer Billings or his car and saw neither.
He entered the store, an open building that seemed to spread as wide as three football fields. He could smell popcorn, flowers, and the burnt skin of chicken frying. Should he stay by the door? Was it the only way out of the store? Would he be here for hours? No, he would be active. He would pursue the feeling, the sensation, that vibrating hum still coming at him.
Scanning the store for the silhouette of someone carrying a child, he picked an aisle and started down it. Back over his shoulder he looked, afraid he might miss something, and looked down side aisles. A hum of voices came to him, a caustic static that intruded on the vibrating hum. A wife arguing with her husband. A father calling for his son to hurry. A brother teasing a younger sister. Then, from another aisle, the next one over, beyond the display of electric cords and lamps and shades and rows of batteries and bulbs in blue and white boxes, he felt his grandson. He felt Shag.
Back he went to the main aisle, crossed over, looked down the aisle. The silhouette was exclusive; a woman holding a child. A man near her was looking at a display of security alarms, a big man, wide across the shoulders, in worn dungarees and work boots. The woman was in her late thirties, dark hair, red lips. She hummed to the infant in her arms.
The eyes of Brittan Courvalais met the eyes of his grandson Shag. The boy’s head came up off the woman’s shoulder. Brittan stepped closer, saw the curve of a smile on the child’s lip as if it were juxtaposed on the back of his brain. He was ready to grab the boy when Shag said, “Gampa.” The woman spun on her heels, looked into Brittan Courvalais’s eyes, saw some kind of trouble or ownership there, said, “Harry,” in a very demanding voice. “We have to go. Now! Now, Harry!”
The big man also spun around. Courvalias screamed, “Get the police. This baby’s been kidnapped. This is my grandson Shag.” He reached for the child. The woman spun away. The man pushed him. His knee pained its whole length. The mountain was in front of him again. The frigid waters of Lake Hwachon were there again for him. He reached, grabbed the man’s arm, pulled him at himself, and tossed him against a display. Boxes tumbled.
The woman screamed. “Help! Help! He’s trying to steal my baby!”
A man rushed down the aisle and went to grab Brittan’s arm.
“Brittan yelled, “Quick, get the police. Sawyer Billings is outside in the police car. Get him! Hurry.”
His fist closed around the woman’s wrist. The baby let out a yell. Their eyes locked again. Then Brittan’s eyes locked with the woman's eyes. It was then she knew her first terror. It was so very real, so unexpected. Everything was going to be so perfect. They had only been looking for a simple night-light so she could peek in on the baby, so he wouldn’t be frightened in his new room. A simple night-light.
But that turned badly too.
Officer Sawyer Billings, having spent several off-duty hours at the mall watching the old man from a distance, with a line open back to the station, was Johnny-on-the-spot. He came rushing down the aisle, boxes tumbling from shelves, people falling against displays, the small drama gaining force and notoriety. With lots of noise, a scuffle of sorts, people now crowding the same aisle, gawking at the mix of players, handcuffs were soon on the big man.
On one knee, finally down and out of it, the man cursed at the heavens and the gawkers. The woman screamed a terror as the baby was taken from her arms by Billings and lovingly put into the arms of his grandfather, a suddenly tired old man, weary from road-frazzle, the long search, the endless beat that had set at his ears.
Brittan Courvalais, with Shag nestled once again against his beard, his heart not yet at rest, heard no more humming but in the trade-off was feeling the ultimate joy. He could just about hear the phone ringing at his daughter’s home all of 300 miles away.