Skink at Survival
Stout memories continue with me today, of the year 1938 when I was ten years old: blond, positive in my thinking, looking for the next size boots, hungry much of the time. The summer was warm and soft and languid—riverbank laziness, bare hook in water, mouth of a breeze at my ear, grass like a bedspread comforter. Then September’s grand, memorable and utterly terrifying hurricane slammed against the side of our three-decker house, as boisterous as an icebreaker working frozen Boston Harbor. I thought it would turn the building over on its side, leaving all of us huddled and exposed on the first flight of steps in the front hall. Lastly, Skink Hanscombe, eternal imbiber, errant but harmless citizen, began his wispy glide around the edges of my life.
It was a mystery at first, what attracted me to Skink the town drunk, homeless and adrift save for an occasional gift of a bed, who never raised a hand, or his voice for that matter, against anybody. During my morning paper route, tossing Boston Globes and Travelers and Records and Posts onto a hundred or so porches and front steps through the center of town, I had seen him so many times being slipped out of the police station. To enough eyes, though, he was the most harmless tenant of all. Skink was what one might call an upright drunk. But other things came to my eyes and mind about Skink, and they stayed with me forever.
Skink was long and lanky, over six feet, and not many spare parts to him at first note. Many times, I’d heard my mother say he was “rather consumptive-looking.” His high cheekbones sat like the shiny halves of stickballs, the sunken cheeks saying he was always sucking on his gums. A darkness dwelled in his eyes much of the time, as though Skink was still measuring all his options, all the chances he’d had and hadn’t used.
His shaggy, dark hair was that of a lost pup, falling boyishly from under his soft felt hat. His thin bony hands twirled constantly, as if a tool was missing from their grasp. His peculiar gait, a deliberate reach of his right foot as he walked, toe-first, groping for something he knew would not be there. Later on, I found out about that delicate step.
My father pointed out that Skink always carried a paperback book inside his ill-matched suitcoat, the bulge noticeable like a holster might hang there. I never saw a title. I’d picture him stealing a moment to read a bit of poetry or The Call of the Wild, The Red Badge of Courage or Lord Jim, the same tastes that swept down the line to me in those early years.
At other times, I’d seen him slide out of a cellar window behind the Town Hall after absorbing all heat from the municipal furnace. The janitor, blind except to want, knew all town officials frowned publicly on such hospitality.
My ultimate attraction to Skink took me personally into secrets and shadows I held on my own, into testable memory, searching for what had granted him a warmth when he first reeled into my life—immediate, acceptable, but not without its mystery. It was more than the boyish lock on his forehead, pennant-like; his haunting eye-search so visible to me, and the acceptance by other people older than me. Slowly, with caution that ten-year-olds call upon when fiercely determined, I began to search the labyrinths of my short history. I looked for reasons.
In time, after turning over the smallest stones, it seemed to me that Skink was a substitute put into my life to take the place of someone who’d been called away. That transaction was not announced; no drum roll, no trumpet blare. It just happened. One day it was there. Such needs come from loneliness, a void scooped out of the middle of your existence; from an unknown desperation playing with your soul, not ever sure what’s eating at you. But the need nourishes itself.
You don’t always have control of it. Skink was not the first, nor would he be the last, in my lifetime; several such dependencies arose at different times, filling different needs. Skink was obviously one of the stark and joined similarities in my life.
A bit earlier for me there had been an old recluse, face so full of character it made me shudder when close up. He had sprung out of nowhere to fill the void left by my paternal grandfather. It was a void demanding a patriarchal image. So coming to me in my need was Jack Winters, stolid neighbor with the rugged and highly individual old face. He was a standoffish, but firmly footed friend, a no-nonsense elder clinging to life in his most rigid manner. He became a magnet for me, a youngster at loss. I had intimately known one grandfather but had never seen the other. I had measured the loss even then.
Later, after a headlong crash of a small passenger plane into the frozen expanse of Lake Erie, taking my lone brother from me, his body never recovered, one close friend stepped into the breach to fill the void left by that sweet prince. For over forty years, we never raised our voices in anger, never gave the other any advice, letting territories be what they were, factions and factotums at their appointed places.
A lost son will not be replaced, but sooner or later other young men will rise from my shadows, from the mists of my past, and I will love them, and my daughters will beam through their full days. I’d willingly settle for such accounting. Substitutes have a way of counting.
The comparisons in Skink’s case were eventually convincing. After spading up my small garden of memories, I came at length to my Uncle Johnny and the last picture of a man whose indelicate warmth I had loved with abandon. Laid out icy and dirty and stiff on my mother’s bed he’d been. An oil tablecloth hastily spread its blue pattern of teapots and watering cans under him. The doctor hovered over him, and my father cut away the frozen laces on Johnny’s boots so that they could be removed. His last breaths were noisy and significantly irregular, each of them countable and singular in that small room with its tight walls, high and thin. It held a bed slight in its expanse, a string of rosary beads over the headboard, a small chest of drawers standing like a delicate miniature, a narrow-slatted chair.
Such were the final, thin veneers of a corruptible and simple life. Death, right down to the dreadful aroma, lurked about us, heady and defiant—Hades and Limbo and the River Styx, hanging by a thread of that defiance.
I was four years old then. I had sneaked upstairs when they carried Uncle Johnny in. He was nearly frozen to death, beard white as starch, tears frozen round as pearls on his cheeks, his mouth slowly filling with a subtle blackness. They had found him on the railroad tracks, close to the Malden City dump, where he must have been headed. There was the dump master’s little shed with its huge and hospitable cast iron stove. As many as six or seven drunks and homeless dregs would be able to put their frosted feet up on a thick cast iron rim and fight the night away, any night of the week, any night of the year.
Uncle Johnny drank, a whole lot for sure, but had been kind to me, my brother and sisters, and my mother—his sister. She said he had never been right since his return from France and the infantry in 1918, just the bones and clatter of the fine young man he had once been, nothing much else left of him, except his innate kindness and thoughtfulness. “The gas, you know,” she had said, tipping her head in a knowledgeable way.
Uncle Johnny tipped his cap to old ladies and mothers, to funeral corteges, to any member of the ministry, to any legless or armless man who might have been his comrade in “The Great Stink,” as he called World War I. He didn’t work, not a day that I remember, but drank, easing his life down that corruptible and inevitable trail to the railroad tracks and dread siding that final night. I had, without reserve, loved that romantic and pitiful soul the way a child loves a warm mystery. I was never sure of which questions to ask, so I asked none.
Somehow, for undeclared reasons early in my strange acquaintanceship with Skink, I became irresistibly drawn to him. I found him warm, friendly, and trustworthy. He became, slowly but surely in place, Uncle Johnny’s substitute, filling a void in my life that demanded to be filled. He was so much like the gentle and pained veteran, another host of small kindnesses and innate politeness. Never once in all the time I delivered papers and made my collections, many of them loose or in envelopes inside storm doors, dropped in mailboxes or cast like dice under mats, were any of those coins ever taken. And Skink had seen me, time and time again, extracting my few coppers from their appointed hideaways.
I began to think of him as one of my morning companions who moved slowly and surely alongside me. There was the milkman and the bakery driver, and the foot patrolman who eased through the grayness of early light the way I thought the Holy Spirit moved—floating, footless, nearly soundless, whispering of identity and dignity, and all’s well with the world. If I was ever attacked and robbed of my meager two cents per copy, I knew all of them, including Skink, would have come quickly to my side. Never a doubt of it, not for a moment. All of them had my implicit trust. All of them occupied significant space in my mind. All of them glided at the very edges of my life: dreamy creatures, costumed, almost touchable, and worthy.
Skink was part apparition and part character of life, a source of measurement for me. I bet I had seen him a hundred times, in the grayness of evening or dawn’s false light, the way one might see an animal, like a raccoon on tiptoes at a hedge, shadowy but as company, moving at the edges of my small journeys. He was countable, even though shadows moved on him, or he moved on shadows. Once I had heard him talking to a patrolman on the night beat, who told him to head off someplace to get his sleep. “Sleep only comes when you’re trying to get away from something,” Skink had said.
I can hear his voice now: soft, low, wet, tooth-defined, the words spilling out in the evening, saying something it took me almost forever to decode.
In his high school days, Skink had been a remarkable scholar and athlete, top of his class, the strong-armed, long-armed pitcher in baseball, and a sure-handed speedy receiver on the football team. Dartmouth had beckoned and he was set to make the quick journey north, the third of our graduates in four years so selected. Tall, thin, dark-haired, handsome in a traditional way, he spent the summer driving an ice truck, hustling up staircases carrying huge cakes of ice cut in January and February from Lily Pond.
A four-year old youngster had fallen under one of his rear wheels. Skink’s foot slipped repeatedly off the rubberless brake pedal, panic becoming the log forever lodged in his chest. His foot, from that second forevermore, reached for the elusive and slippery pedal. Existence and being at two levels went their awful and sundry ways.
Neither of the two victims salvaged a moment of their prior lives. Skink’s life, thus and forever, spilled itself in beer, rye, bourbon, whiskey, scotch, vodka, white lightning, wines from most continents and nearly every conceivable valley on earth. There was aftershave lotion, whether icy blue in color or musky as an armpit in aroma, and more than once an almost final bout with automobile alcohol. He learned how to strain potent liquids through sand taken from children’s play boxes or unsliced loaves of bread. His body and his mind had begun their long torturous descent, getting drunk, keeping warm, falling still further away from what had been.
Once, in the bowels of an old foundation of random fieldstones and patched-up red mickeys, smack in a cluster of alders, I came upon Skink and a companion at an illicit laboratory. He wore what nearly always did: a pencil-striped dark blue coat with one pocket torn and hanging, heavy salt-like stains on the shoulders. His pants were black with a thin red stripe, washed out, but still black at a distance. The gray soft felt hat he wore, the kind my father and every other man wore in those days, and probably a thousand years old from the looks of it, perched sort of jauntily on his head, tipped to the sun riding high above us. His hands moved automatically as always, a flurry of nervous energy in them; his eyes dark as dead stars, his long frame throwing the smallest of shadows. Though I spied on him, I felt no sense of distrust, of disloyalty.
His companion was dressed in a nearly duplicate version. Just as nervous in his movements he was, but there was no warmth about him, no acceptance on my part. No substitute, I might have argued if I’d have been lucid at the moment.
Through a crack in the old wall I saw them and their assemblage of anomalous gear, chemists to the end, reprobates for sure, but chemists to the bitter end. Arranged about them were odd bottles, at least half a dozen, full of pale liquid, a wide-mouthed piece of pipe of the kind used for lally columns, and a loaf of bread that might have been straight from a mother’s oven, or her windowsill.
At first I thought they were going to make sandwiches, but Skink cut off one heel of the loaf with the ugliest of knives, tore it in half, and handed a piece to his compatriot. He laughed a guttural and naughty laugh, a backroom laugh I thought, one coming from the celebration of a dirty joke. “Chow down!” he yelled.
They were Romulus and Remus, the seedy pair of them, tearing and gnawing like wolves at each portion. Their few teeth were prominent as bars of a broken grille, gumming a goodly part of the bread, and slobbering words through spaces where teeth had been lost.
Skink pushed the decapitated loaf of bread down inside the pipe, gently nudging it deeper into the iron, much of his fist disappearing. He propped the pipe between two stones. Then he arranged a third in support, set an empty bottle under the lower end, uncapped one of the full bottles and slowly poured its contents into the pipe, onto the open heel of the loaf of bread, onto the lap of the Great Plains grassland.
As they two men laughed and talked, I thought Skink to be a marvel—this swaying, braying, graying drunk of all drunks, this language master, this grand comic of the gutter. I figured, on the very spot, then and there, that I loved him. I figured I owed him. I figured he had a due in life. I figured Uncle Johnny was somewhere looking at me and his counterpart. There’d be a smile on his face. “One for the books,” he’d probably have said.
Then, as if at one end of a telescope, the subject end, or under microscope, I felt Skink’s eyes pierce the slot of my peeking and pass clean through me. He must have seen me, must have seen my eyes, must have recognized me, as it turned out, for in the following days he began to call me Sneaky Pete. It was not distastefully applied, that sobriquet, for it would come lightly and offhandedly across a field, from a bunch of alders or maples whose purpose from the point of creation had been to contain childhood’s secrets, from behind a dark house set back from the traffic of the town center. It would waft on the slightest breeze, as if Skink were playing games with me, as if we were at recess and he was “It.”
I didn’t realize, until much later of course, that one of Skink’s survival mechanisms was the knowledge he had acquired in his slow and laborious travels, in the variety of his bed and board. Summer nights sprawled out behind a tombstone in Riverside Cemetery provided him the identities of three women who wrestled, each on her own time, in the front seat of the patrol car with Sergeant Farrell, long after midnight, long after the town went idly to sleep. They said that Skink had seen Lonnie Brown making love to both Curtingham sisters, twins at that, in the grove beside Rapid Tucker’s Pond. I heard that a big banker in town had confided to his girlfriend, in her little un-repossessed house tightly set against the tracks, that the only person in town he feared finding out about their covert business was Skink.
Skink wouldn’t tell, but Skink would use that information—anything for a bed as night closed down.
Now and again, but not often, he would whisper to me from a culvert or behind a bush, having set himself down behind a rock on my paper route, “Sneaky Pete, do you have a dime I might use for a time?” Then he’d wink at me.
Uncle Johnny would be all over his face—the eyes, the chin, the taut cheekbones as if being pinched from the inside, sadness spilling from his eyes the way girls can poke it up at melodrama and pain, the need for a drink flushing royally on his face. I would shake my head in amazement and reach into a pocket.
As all that may be, I took the whole scene from that laboratory away with me. I never stayed for the last pour, never knew what they called their final solution—what it was, what it did for them. I could only guess that in its original state it might have poured white and hot and illicitly from the bottom of a Chevy or Ford radiator (or a Reo or Graham or Hupmobile or Hudson or Packard or De Soto, all gone with the times). Or it had been scooped under cover of darkness from a cabinet at the Hood’s Milk Company horse barn, a liniment or antiseptic lotion, not toxic but heavy in its aroma, to be passed through wheat and flour and yeast and brown crust, thus becoming something else.
Skink, through this and other incidents, made me a keen observer of all that went on about me. Not that it was to be traded for cot or bedding. But it could be put away for some other use, perhaps to be related as fiction. Or some part of truth.
Teddy Quinlan’s father was a night patrolman, and he told my father one morning at the paper store that Skink had had a bad night at the station, had cried a good deal of the night away. He had called out the dead boy’s name a number of times. No one needed to explain who the boy was, who now crowded Skink Hanscombe, inevitably, to the end.
His territory shrunk, his abodes became more formalized. Hedda Halsey tolerated him for a short run in her house near the theater, and then a sister eventually brought him in to the back room of her house, a battle won or lost. Skink stayed put with her most of the time, just breaking out every once in a while, knocking down a few with old friends of the main as he might have called them. They were stout hearts, long livers who fought the importunate odds: tittering Dexter, consumptive-looking Ike Wiggins, toothless Tony Pomfret, and a few others; whispering through old haunts, talking to friends who could not leave Riverside Cemetery.
And he called me Sneaky Pete every chance he could, for I had dropped my morning paper route and gone big-time for Sunday’s knockout punch of heavier cash, and then that too fell by the wayside.
At length, I got new classmates in high school, who became teammates who squatted down on the scrimmage line with me and held on for each other’s souls. We spent our time and energy in concert and demanded much of each other. Little was left over.
Uncle Johnny and Skink faded slowly on the horizon, over which one worldly and imperious day came my summons to Korea. Quickly, new zones and new comrades circled the grid about me. Life went spinning away not many feet from me on too many occasions. Thunder was closer than ever before. Earthquakes were common every day. Nights at times were spent in recall on this side or that side of the 38th Parallel, pulling back pieces of our lives, telling tales when we were bunkered down, coming close to bombast and misrepresentation, setting what we thought was yesterday in place one more time.
We shared the ration of beer one warm night at the Puk Han River, and there, Skink Hanscombe was given a host of new friends. We toasted him with raised cans lifted from the cool waters of the bloody river. “A toast to a great name—to Skink Hanscombe!” We toasted his longevity, his long-time passion that was our short-time vocation at the river’s edge where bodies floated in the darkness.
There was mother, apple pie, a Ford or Chevy pickup—America, all sitting square in the same aura with Skink Hanscombe, town drunk, tipper of caps, inveterate reader. Next day we forgot him in the most horrid firefight imaginable. There were no hangovers left over for us. None at all. But Skink Hanscombe had been a quick companion to a squad of infantry who had never met him. Some of them might have taken him off with them, into the long, long day—and into the longer night. He might have been, that gentle tippler, the last name spoken or the last thought provoked for some of them.
Then, I was on a ship on the Pacific, on a train across America, on a bus into the heart of my town, and on foot the last two miles to our house with my duffel bag shouldered light as a pillow. Chevrons on my uniform matched the new wrinkles in my face.
It was dark. The house erupted. Sisters leaped out of their blankets and dreams. My mother gave back more than a year of prayers in a moment of silence in her room. My father and I shared our first beers ever together. Sleep called. I sank onto the couch in the front room. My father began to watch the television, which was but months old. Soon into sleep came the crash at the back door of the kitchen as if a battering ram had smashed its way through.
I leaped from the couch, the wide Sam Browne belt, its broad, brassy buckle a weapon to be contended with, finding its responsive way from my Class A uniform pants to appointment about my fist. There was noise in the den as my father mobilized his own armory, a belt similar to mine stripped from his guard uniform. We crunched against each other at the door to the kitchen, unable to get through at the same time, shoulders banging together in concert and at target for the very first time in our lives. And there in front of us was the dreg of all dregs, soiled, rotten, almost cadaverous, dripping wet from a sudden rain, shaking to the last splinter of bone, eyes ablaze in fear—Skink Hanscombe, my homecoming present.
Still scattering from his long convulsive frame were shards and slivers of glass glittering to the floor. Screams rose from his throat as if he were being crushed by some malevolent monster—Uncle Johnny come back from the dead, the icy pearls of his cheeks come back in their shine. The air was full of a horrid odor, thick and ripe, expansive, leaving room for all of imagination and memory.
Skink stunk to the high heavens. He cried and then he screamed and then he begged for help. “Jayzus! Jayzus! They’re after me! The rotten little bastards of them, they’re after me, they’re being after me!”
And then directly to my father, a moment of lucid light crossing that most pained face, a bare pause at recognition, an eye flicker’s worth of intensity. “Jim, is that you? I’d never hurt you, Jim. Never hurt your boy.”
And my father, tippler and fair wine merchant in his own right, a Marine out of Nicaragua and Guatemala with first-hand knowledgeable of the DTs the Tropics can bring down on a man, shoved me aside. “You’ve earned your sleep.” He pointed me back to my bed.
Skink drank black coffee. My father walked him back and forth from our house to the mill a half mile away, and back again, all through the late night. Then, finally, Skink lay his head on a pillow on a spare mattress earlier tossed into our cellar, all at my father’s recommendation and urging, his Marine’s voice reconstructed and rearmed. Skink slept. I tossed just above him in my own pass at sleep.
My thirty-day leave went as quickly as vacation. The last day my mother said she had heard a funny noise in the cellar. I checked it out. A card table was set up with four chairs in place. Four odd mattresses lined the fieldstone walls. At least six cases of empty beer bottles sat like concrete blocks waiting for a stone mason to set them in place.
She yelled down the stairs. “Is everything all right?” I could picture one hand pressed to her cheek, one hand on the door, ready to help if needed; her head cocked alertly, waiting for an answer. Everything was observable and memorable to me, all the times and all the considerations, all the characters that had filtered in and through my life: Uncle Johnny, old Jack Winters, the ghost that accompanied me on my paper rounds, my guardian of the spirits.
“It’s okay, Mom. Everything’s okay.”
Skink Hanscombe, as always, wherever his hat hung, had been at home—Skink Hanscombe and company.
Tom Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, graduated Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; The Saugus Book; Ah, Devon Unbowed; Reflections from Vinegar Hill; This Rare Earth & Other Flights. His 28 published books include several western collections: The Nations, Where Skies Grow Wide and Cross Trails from Pocol Press; Six Guns, Inc., by Nazar Look, and three titles issued in 2016: The Cowboys, Swan River Daisy and Jehrico. His works have appeared in Rosebud, Literally Stories, DM du Jour, Danse Macabre, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Eclectica, Copperfield Review, La Joie Magazine, Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Western Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, Vine Leaves Journal, Nazar Look, Eastlit, Rope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, FaithHopeandFiction.com, The Cenacle, and more. In process are Valor’s Commission, Keating Script, and three collections.
He has 31 Pushcart nominations, and five Best of the Net nominations (one winner), and short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012- 2015, and a Georges Simenon Fiction Award. He is the 2016 writer-in-residence at Danse Macabre Magazine.
Image Credit: Tricia