February 24, 2019

Essay by Tom Sheehan: "Viola's Place or The Shoe in the Wall"

Sheehan, in his 91st year, has published 36 books and multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories, Linnet’s Wings,Serving House Journal, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Eastlit, Frontier Tales, Western Online, Literary Yard, Rope & Wire Western Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Green Silk Journal, Faith-Hope-and-Fiction, etc. He has received 33 Pushcart nominations and 5 Best of Net nominations with one winner, and other awards. Newest books are Beside the Broken Trail, Between Mountain and River and Catch a Wagon to the Stars with 4 in publishers’ queues, including Jock Poems for Proper Bostonians and Alone with the Good Graces and The Keating Script. He served in the 31st Infantry in Korea 1951-52, and graduated from Boston College 1956. His most recent reading was about the First Iron Works in America for The Saugus Historical Society. He has read for 17 years at Out Loud Open Mic in Melrose, MA.

Viola’s Place or The Shoe in the Wall

Day closed in around me, and the night that followed, reverie and recompense fighting for equal space, or so it seemed, for hours on end. I had come down the road for about 30 miles, my car loaded with a good assemblage of scrap wood from packing crates, the heft and feel of each piece hanging on my fingertips, like echoes on the rebound; you know, the kind that refuse to let you sleep, wondering what tree in what forest a man with a purring chain saw in his hand had figured to be good enough for cutting. Their images were locked up tight for me: I had cut wood in the state forest for six years at that point and tree selection had never bothered me, winter warmth with odds had grabbed me from slumber, working with my saw, the split logs in stacks growing each day in measurable cords.

The wood I was salvaging this time was for a complete re-do of our kitchen, much of it as requested by the lady of the house: "More cabinets, more shelving for dishware, food stuffs in their containers, countertop for work, a little more character for a room in this house erected in 1742, a real Colonial." She knew what she wanted and I knew I would get it done, as cheaply as I could; you know, most expenses to be spared, or something like that.

With ideas in mind, I had already torn down a wall, moved the rear door, opened space under stairs for a washing machine, positioned the dryer out of the way between rooms, to make one composite room running the full house, about 32 feet long, that's its whole length. It would be kitchen, den, TV room, with a place for my computer, home base for home hours upon hours, pre-dawn often running into thick darkness; when it's to be done, there's no time like now!

The ceiling became a new adventure when a true woodsman, Paul Jodoin, showed me how to mark a 4"x6" beam as a hand-hewn piece, adding a touch of texture, the whole length of 10 of them. How? Rig an old wringer washing machine with a rolling cutter that would chew at a beam as it was passed over the spinning blade of the rig, chewing odd cuts on one face of a beam at a time as if it had been hewn by an ax in the hands of an old logger. Each beam came authentic, old, passed over by time, hanging above me with a sense of pride and accomplishment, old as the hills, as can be said.

Progress, as it always arrives with hard labor, had to work through occasional obstacles, a rugged hand-fashioned real Colonial nail as stubborn as a deck of cards or an MP on duty or the mailman on his rounds, a board or beam wearing its age too well, now and then a most rugged hand-made spike standing in the way of progress, and eventually, significantly, full of messages, pleas, declarations, perhaps the hopes of a father, came exposed an antinganting (a musical name for a good luck charm) of a girl's high button shoe, one side of its sole worn to a frazzle as if it had been dragged through a torturous life, and which was now found nailed to an overhead beam above one window, hidden from early view, tucked away forever.

I am positive it was a builder's plea for his daughter's cure, a lucky hope nailed in place to bless a new house, a cry for her cure, a wish for happiness for a child suffering long-duress. I knew then as now the shivers of a father at prayers. It seems the caliber of them never changes no matter the curse or the comfort befalls those you love.

The diligence stayed with me, and with it the progress and completion of the whole task, which did not get celebrated with a glass of wine or cold mug of beer, but the last piece of border Formica on the edge of the 10-foot countertop, a tricky dodge on its own for a not-so-far-travelled journeyman; but it's still in place hanging by its sticky fingernails, so to speak. There's no counting the pounds of dough poured and pounded and fashioned into place, how many pizza layers or crusts have been spread in their varied formats by the chief cook of the room, what cakes or pies began and ended there.

But for the longest time that child's shoe kept returning to my thoughts, how she might have won a foot race by graceful default of friends, how many she might have lost with taunts in the air instead of cheers, how a father or mother might have suffered for her in silence or prayer.

I shared some part of small miseries.

I studied the shoe sitting on a shelf above my bench in the cellar, a contest of attraction from the year 1742 when the house was built. It sat alone, as if by choice, in dimness, half light of early dawn, at a reaching edge of moonlight from behind a cloud softened by its light seeping in a low window. Going down stairs into that lonely working spot, it was the first object to reach my eyes; heading up, snapping the light switch off, it was the last thing I saw, and what I carried away with me.

The haunting was real. Her sounds were real. At times I'd hear her pleas, another time her short laughter on those rare occasions when she might have found humor, it too often lost, too often aimed at herself.

Once, in my reading, the word compartmentalization leaped surely but clumsily off the page, waiting my assimilation, or a lost image waiting on recovery. Ideas, we all are aware of, have springboards of their own design and implementation. All they call for is attention.

I looked at remnants of the wood, realizing I had some still piled up in the cellar, scrap, odd ends, corners, slabs, you name it, at hand the residue of a completed task. I hardly ever threw anything away that had a minute, an hour, a whole month or more left in its service. Now it worked on me, the spans of it, plans of it at some order of formalization, basically it assumed a framework of captured emotions. It was a miracle how it climbed out of its darkness, how it stretched yet its fingers, how I caught it like ball in a wide curve off the pitcher's mound.

Pieces fell into my hands, or my fingers pulled a piece from the lower part of a pile. Partially stained, a few of them caught my eye in a hurry, a name rose from a far corner.  I heard her being called home, called to a house or cabin built by the man who built this house, who nailed her wounded shoe above one window in the kitchen, nailed so it would never be seen but do the thing, the deed, the hope that an antinganting called on, that tokens did, or good luck charms at their best. I heard him call out her name, not insistently but containing enough softness to secure her attention. "Viola," said he, sweet as an instrument, as sweet as a chord, as soft as a finger touching one's own brow in the search for an answer, a solution, an echo lost in the thinking.

"Viola," he whispered, faint, fading, agreeing that her shoe could be placed elsewhere.

I would not let that shoe sit alone again, would not let it be unshared, unaccompanied, would have its friends and companions. 12 x 24 it would be, enclosed in glass it would be, its side depths at 2 1/2 inches, deep enough for the shoe and deep enough for its company. I planned on 5 or 6 compartments.

I'm a pack rat, a collector of things connected or colored or emblematic of conditions, standings, resolves, responsibilities. I found my father's Marine Corps medallions, the Corps insignia, an award medal for an honor of some sort (the reason long gone), my Combat Badge from the Korean War 1951-1952, my Army dog tags carrying my identification ( Army serial number, my blood type, my religion), two gold miniature footballs awarded from Saugus High School football competition, and last but not least the single souvenir I had slipped into my dungaree pockets at the site of the First Iron Works in America, that I can see from my den window, a matchlock pistol recovered from under one third of a waterwheel found near-rotted under Central Street. The road had been rerouted for the reconstruction effort. I had worked on the site from1948-1950, and summers of 1952-56 when I graduated from Boston College after separation from the Army.

I placed Viola's shoe in a compartment by itself, toes pointing right, high button laces rising four or so inches above the worn heel and worn sole, a place of her own, foot first. but not alone.

Below Viola's section I added old square nails pulled from walls of my own kitchen/den construction, a few hinges, a door latch, each piece signifying an era of the house.

In the bottom section split in two, I placed a collection of colored marbles/Aggies I had dug up from gardening work about the grounds of the house, even digging up the driveway for the Iron Works archeologist looking for the passage of a water canal that powered the bellows of the furnace fires.

It was completed in a matter of days, with glass inserts placed over each compartment, Viola's place, the name steady now in its calling, no limp, no pain, no more suffering, a child at rest ... forever.

~Tom Sheehan

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