A mysterious midnight singer causes a stir in Sgt. Culberson’s sleepy neighbourhood; by Tom Sheehan.
For the third night in a row, Cavan Woodmarsh (long, lean, young, often caught up in a dream) strolled to the far end of Riverside Cemetery with a guitar over his shoulder in a case the long road had beaten up as badly as old shoes. Most things about him were soft, suitable, acceptable… the long fingers, the readily available smile, a detectable aura packing no punch other than immediate belief carried in his voice. His gait was sure, and his eyes somehow fit midnight’s deep color. Hurry did not accompany him, though, nor any sign of stealth. The prime silence was now and then cluttered by a post-midnight automobile on a distant road; but Cavan had earlier, on the two previous nights, found acoustical acceptance while playing the guitar beside a tall marble mausoleum where inscribed names capitulated to darkness.
This night he sat on a small stone bench, perhaps a mourner’s bench, he thought, and drifted further into the darkness.
Like all nights of magic, music came out the other side.
He half believed he had perfected a new song.
Soon thereafter, on the hill beside the cemetery, Sewell Grafton was sure of the odd disturbance. It was a guitar he heard, and faintly, over the chords, a word that sounded like a broken prayer. Halleluiah, it said in soft and stretched out pieces, as if being parsed in English classes he once hated… Ha… lay… loo… yaaaaa. Again… Haa… laaay… loooo… yaaaaaaa, the syllables longer in breath, and rising uphill from old Riverside. It ran again, leaped again, carried past long breath up the slope of the hill, surmounting ledges, hardness, his ear.
If neighbors on the hill heard that one among them had called police about the lilted Halleluiahs, they’d know it to be Sewell Grafton. A hundred to one it’d be Grafton. Two of the neighborhood women on the hill, one with a tongue loose as flannel pajamas, had reiterated what Grafton’s dying wife had said on her death bed, “This is one tough way to get rid of a husband, by dying.”
With a stab of decision, Sewell Grafton was on the phone to the police station. “I’ve had about enough of this revolutionary, holier-than-thou music, this midnight crap going on. It’s a disturbance of the peace, that’s what it is, and I want something done about it. It’s damned sacrilegious coming from the cemetery.” He took in a deep breath, tried to quell the rising anger taking over his whole person, and simply said, “Now.” He said it a second time, keying his intensity, “Now.” He could feel the sincerity of his threat, and measured the momentary silence from the other end of the phone line. He knew he had delivered the threat even as he heard the strummer again, from below in the cemetery. “Down there in the cemetery, he’s some Hippie probably licking his chops,” he muttered, to the dark night in general and to no one in particular, not even to the officer on the phone.
For the second or third night in a row, July crowding him on his porch, the trees alive, the flowers leaking into the sweltering heat coming to him from the nearby cemetery, only minor uncertainties in the air, Grafton had thought he heard music, strumming music, chorded music, but not his kind of music if he had a kind of music to favor. Practically to the very minute of his phone call, he thought it came from a neighbor’s raucous radio or television. All as if one of their kids, banging up the volume even though distant, was trying to get even with someone. Maybe out to disturb him; he’d had the thought before, though he didn’t know why, never knowing what his dying wife had said when she left this world nine years before.
The music, in spite of the late hour, seemed to him also, at that same moment, to be something else. The arrows of that thought clustered clearer in his mind, as the cemetery seemed to be revealed as the source.
Here, on his piece of the Henshit Mountain above the cemetery, but really a minor hill of two hundred or so feet, Sewell, in lonely retirement for all of those nine years, sat his uneasy way on the porch for better part of most days, and often long into nights whether melodious or not. Solitude became him, thinking it was his due, that all of good silence had been earned. At these sittings he had his old daydreams. He sat with his feet up on a soft but deep red and rugged ottoman. He sometimes kept his eyes closed for long minutes of deep ecstasy. He smoked cigars in spite of all threats, medical, social, and otherwise, thinking there was nothing wrong with a long, rich drag when he was alone, regardless of what it carried off or brought in upon itself in exchange. Silence, after all the harsh sounds of his life, was often one beautiful thing… it touched what he thought was his soul… his belief extending that far. It calmed him. His last ten years of work as a telephone solicitor, collecting the garbage of pennies for many causes, had colored his vision of life. Silence was his due… no more excuses, no lies, no hate plowing right through the ether at him. No abrupt hanging up of phones after a three minute delivery so smooth it promised to rankle no one but his own feelings in retrospect.
And now some damned Hippie was out on the night! Again.
At a repeated chord from downhill, the edge of his mind stiffened, then his jaw, and at length his backbone. Now he knew that the music was rising to grate him from the darkness of Riverside Cemetery, a plunging 100 yards down from his porch and a quick jump across Winter Street. It was, without a doubt, a guitar in the hands of some wise-ass kid.
The night desk man at the police station looked over his shoulder at Sgt. Culberson. “It’s that pain in the ass again up on Henshit Mountain. Old man Sewell. Says somebody’s down in Riverside Cemetery having a concert. Wants it stopped. ‘Now!’ he says.” He rolled his eyes in accent.
Culberson rolled his eyes in answer. “I’ll check it out. Be right back. Want a Duncan’s?” His tall and athletic frame rose to a distinctive six feet and four inches, his eyes bright, his hair prematurely white that gave him a handsome middle life look, ladies measuring him as virile from the outset. Crinkly crows’ feet made his face pleasant, thoughtful, calm. He’d been through a couple of wars of his own and wore the trappings well, as was said about him around town: “Culberson’s been where some of us have never been, and hoping it stays that way.”
“On you, I’ll take it.” The desk man’s nod was both an acceptance of appreciation and one of respect.
The headlights of the cruiser knocked out a slim tunnel of darkness as Culberson started down the middle road of Riverside Cemetery, the windows open as he listened for the upstart music. Inscribed stones, hundreds of faces marked with names, some he knew, many he didn’t, flashed data at him from the edges of each plot beside the road.
In a moment, in a stab of light, the name of George Hanover thrust itself from the past. The sergeant remembered the old man whittling on the steps of the house across the street from him, the tiny wooden soldiers that old George Hanover would drop into his young hands, him a wide-eyed general with an army of troopers in his back yard, leaded ones and wooden ones, infantry and cavalry and small armored columns, and the special soldiers he painted up with true uniforms. Then, in those young days, the neatness for him was most important, more important than the uniform, but not now, his now wearing the badge, the chevrons, and the golden braid.
He shut off the engine, shut down the lights as he saw again the image of George Hanover falling over from the very same steps, a half whittled Civil War soldier squeezed in his hand, the working knife fallen somewhere at his side, his breath gone elsewhere too. The whole scene caught at his heart all anew. Distinctly, down to the tarnished blue and marked remains of the uniform as if in a photograph, he saw that one Civil War piece sitting yet on his mantel at home, the lone remnant of his young days at war on the lot-wide spread of sandy dunes in the back yard.
He let the images drift away into the darkness, that flight too he had known many times, memory a continual part of his make-up, the past often sitting the same seat with him or running around in his head, directly behind his eyeballs. The punctuation he knew and the stumble to death and had been able to read much of it since that day an old man had squeezed him dry.
Darkness, in sudden realization, had often hidden both good and bad surprises; he was prepared for either.
For long moments he heard no sound at all, no music, no strum of an instrument he thought he would be hearing, no sweet pickings. Sewell, for that matter he realized, really was a cranky old man. It was not the first time he had called the station, late at night, about some rowdiness or noise, feeling picked upon; self-appointed pariah of Henshit Mountain.
Culberson wondered at length what motivated such people, how they might measure themselves coming up in others’ eyes, think what the world might think of them, if that mattered in the first place.
Cocking an ear, he turned his head sideways and stood still as a pole. The darkness thickened as though in a cake mix, all ingredients tossed in and coming up dim as chocolate, thick with promise. Some parts of music there were that he loved, could spend hours listening to: the Three Tenors, Andrea Bocelli with the fair English singer, Sarah Brightman, some guitar guys in the army that sounded as if Hank Williams senior was back at the mike, pure country with a soul echoing loss and pain, and the sad joys of love. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Lost Highway took turns at revelation.
For moments he was locked into the sweetest reverie one’s mind can imagine. His body grew slack, then went into a momentary lift where light and music and touch overcame him. He was home in a kind of happiness he had not felt in a long time. It was fluid. It touched his skin. It swam about him. He could taste it. But he heard no music as he tensed in apprehension. Counted breaths went their way, sly as footpads in escape.
Then, a string at a time, each a distal note, a guitar’s exhalation crawled out of the darkness.
Faintly, on an upward lift of air, a zephyr of sound came to him from way down at the east end of Riverside, a scattering of notes that might have been jumbled on the air, a mix of keen sounds. Then he caught a chord of it, something soft and memorable, saying, deep inside, that he had heard it before. As quick as it had come, it faded away, as if a wind has tousled with the zephyr of air.
Culberson knew he was caught between something highly unlikable and something likable, cresting at the moment in the back of his mind as a kind of favorite from his past, an ambivalence exerting itself through the life of his senses.
The long-time policeman thought himself dwarfed, made meek and mild, at the discretion of gods or god-like essences he might not have known before.
Upon measurement, he thought the strummer, the picker, to be a pretty good musician, having a belief in notes and what was to follow, to be melodious, to be warm, to cover and protect him here in the absolute darkness. But he was not sure of the voice thence coming at him on a sheet of slightly moving air, a thin element of voice, one on the alto side of the ledger. Voices, he knew, those voices that become favored ones, you had to warm up to, had to embrace, whether by repetition of favored songs, by the poetry they carried or by a story from their words, or else, by chords so beautiful and plentiful on the ear, they would not leave you in any hurry, words you could hum into music, remember like a fond face, a fair glance at beauty itself.
The far voice transmitted itself, reached, found a new level where warmth accompanied each following note, and ran the chords into a touching beauty.
Now, in this place, in this space, he was an in-between-er, struck and stuck there betwixt the new and the old, the moving and the sedate, the fresh and the stale. This night, he said to himself so as not to disturb the sounds reaching him, was at a critical juncture.
He had no idea of who the musician was, what he looked like, or what had happened earlier in the Center, when the beat officer, from his cruiser, spotted the tall young man walking slowly down the street with a guitar case slung by a hunk of rope over one shoulder. He had not recognized the late walker. Had not seen him before. Finding curiosity and wonder yanking at him for answers, he pulled the cruiser beside the young man.
“You from around here, son? I haven’t seen you before. Where you heading? Get a late start home? Need a lift?” Cautiously, he looked around to check if anybody else was about. Nothing but harmless shadows hovered in places.
“I was supposed to meet a pal and we were going to practice a few songs, but he never showed. I’m new here, living with my aunt and uncle on Winter Street for the time being. The gray cape with the porch screens still leaning against the house, like they’ve been all year, maybe a couple of years.” A slight smile warmed his face. “I promised I’d put them up, for my uncle, Ned Garvey. Know him?”
“I know the place, and know him. Good luck on that. I hope they’re in good shape. They sure are kind of a landmark on the street. What’s your name, son?” The policeman’s voice had warmed up.
“Any good on that thing?” he said, as he pointed to the guitar case.
“I can celebrate a lot of things with it, including freedom and deep thought.”
The beat officer on wheels felt himself caught in place. He nodded and released the foot brake, easing away from the young man. “Good luck, kid. I mean it.” Shortly he had a Bruce Springsteen song on his radio, a night rider and cohort in dark patrol.
Culberson knew none of this that had happened a bit earlier, even as he decided to lock up the cruiser and proceed on foot to where the music was coming from. His memory gave him a quick shot of a marble mausoleum, a stone bench, and the chain link fence that marked the end of the cemetery. He marked where the house of an old teacher of his was still painted pale blue on the other side of the chain link fence. Names of a few pals, now and then a partial view of a friendly face, came as company to a name, all buried at that end of Riverside.
He carried a flashlight in one hand, the beam shut off, as he started down the middle road in the black of night. It was close to one o’clock, a small disturbance puffed about in the air as if a flock of birds had lifted off into the night sky, and the new stretch of music clearly came to him from the heart of something other than darkness. He could feel it, not an immense declaration, but nevertheless a subtle incision into his psyche.
A hurried listing of adjectives swam upward within him as the music stretched itself in long reach. Things moving at him were nostalgic, moody, real, even before he heard the commencing words of a song he’d not heard before, not that he was any great aficionado of music. Halleluiah crawled to his ears out of a far crater, cavern, cave, moving within itself and echoing at the same time… making its own space… demanding space… Ha… lay… loo… yah… Ha… lay… loo… yah… Ha… laaay… loooo… yaaaaah. It was not a church song, as something else was vibrating in it, a touching, a reaching, a contemplative self-searching soul at its own observation and lamentation.
The duty sergeant halted in his steps as the small piece of the music hung over him and then dove into his own soul. Ha… laaaay… loooo… yaaaaahhhh. The sense coming at him was plaintive, he said within. For the moment he could find no other word to carry his feelings.
And then wondrous, he thought, some out-of-this-world element clutching at him, or leaping up from his innermost person as the haunting but sparse words made the deepest impression on him he could imagine. It was indeed making itself memorable and he was aware of the impact; haunting, sparse, riveting, grabbing him, stopping him in his tracks there on the middle road, forcing him to listen, to attend.
Plaintive, he said again, and pensive. Again, wondrous
In a wild moment of self analysis, he could not decide if the song rose up through his body or fell on him, grabbed him or stabbed him, touched his own reservoir of being or passed cleanly through his body and his senses and went elsewhere, perhaps like an x-ray, full of mystery but producing its mission, or the idea of electricity itself moving magic on wires without resistance. The mood created was greater than any magic he might have known. The darkness, he thought, might have a great deal to do with the impact, and the singer being unknown to him, singing in that darkness deeper than black was meant to be.
And right in the midst of that magic and measurement, life, in all its vagaries, its quick twists and turns, took entry. There came the strident, acidic yells of an angry man, who Culberson figured must be old man Grafton come down from his Mount Sinai, otherwise known as Henshit Mountain, screaming his own midnight disturbance at the unknown singer, guitarist, musician, magician. “Hey, you son of a bitch, I called the cops on you for disturbing the peace, and if they aren’t going to do something about you, I goddamn will!”
Those words gave Culberson the impression that a two by four or a baseball bat was being waved as wand of threat. Even as he began to run toward the singer, he tried to picture what Grafton looked like, having seen him a few times at Town Meeting making other wild demands. Nothing came to him but a Teddy Williams swing at the plate, slightly upper-cutting in its swing, demonstrative in its aim.
He ran faster, the flashlight suddenly stabbing a small tunnel of light ahead of him on the pavement of the road, bouncing on stone faces, names he could not read.
It appeared to Culberson that Grafton was about as far from the singer as he himself was, his voice coming from on high, probably from just inside the stone wall that lined the cemetery on Winter Street and ran the whole length of Riverside. In his mind’s eye he could even see the bronze marker in the sidewalk noting the walk was laid by the WPA in the depressed ’30s.
In those few moments, all the magic disappeared, the lamentation, the mystery, the internal glory that had warmed Culberson warmer than he had been in a long time. Downhill went the mood, the coveted tones, the music of the plucked and strummed strings. Reality came like a curtain closing down on a great Broadway show’s final performance.
“It’s about goddamned time someone from the police got here. I called it seems forever ago. This crap, this midnight sneaking about, has been going on for too long and I, for one, am damned sick and tired of it.” His arms stabbed the air, semaphoring.
Culberson flashed the light on the singer, then on the screamer off the hill. Here they are, he thought, and here I am, right smack in the middle. It was like being between heaven and hell, for the music still flavored him, clung at him, and Sewell Grafton was yet screaming and cursing at the musician, now standing open-mouthed but song-less against the shining granite slabbed mausoleum, his guitar hanging by his side. His thin and pale face, as if nutrition had been a recent problem, cut at the sergeant, tossed his mind back onto a few highlight photos of other singers as though they were looking for the next meal and needing it. He also noted the guitar case was completely opposite in condition from the instrument itself, a reflection of a distant light source coming off its wooden surface.
“He’s not hurting you,” Culberson said. “The kid’s pretty good with that guitar, plays real well. You want me to throw him in jail just to shut up some good music? That song he was playing is damned special. I never heard it before, but I know I’ll hear it again. If you are any way attentive to what’s going on around us, you’ll hear it too. That’s a promise I’ll make for the kid.” He paused for breath, thinking Sewell was going to leap down his throat, but saw, in the eyes lit by the flashlight, that the crank was at a pause. “Get on home now, Mr. Sewell. I’ll take care of the youngster. You’re making more noise than he did. I’m sure some of your neighbors haven’t appreciated that. Go on now, go home. SPD has responded to your call. Please go, sir, before there is a confrontation that needs not happen.”
The next night, Riverside Cemetery, at the far end from the Center, against the small stream working its waters to the Father of Oceans a bare five miles away, was infiltrated by at least one hundred people, mostly young, extremely subdued, quiet, patient, at just past the hour of midnight. All had heard about the night before, about the guitar player and singer, about the noisy crank off Henshit Mountain, about the police sergeant’s claim that he had been transfixed, his whole being, by one song, one voice, for mere moments. They had come to hear, to believe, to place a value on something new. Hoping for it, looking for it, for a matrix of a new music or a new voice. Losing sleep would be worth it, or being late for work in the morning. To some a special song was important, or a new voice to capture and captivate. Before last night, it was apparent, nobody had heard of young Cavan Woodmarsh.
The night was hot and starless and Culberson’s T-shirt was tacky underarm. Out of uniform, on the other side of the stream running beside the cemetery and along the old and unused B&M railroad tracks, in a pal’s back yard on Auburn Court, Culberson and his pal were sharing the moment and a few cold beers. Occasional lights, mayhap cigarette lighters or match flares, gave evidence of the crowd, gathered in hushed testimony, their conduct unimpeachable. Culberson believed he understood why they had come.
“You tell me what you think, Hal, you have a better ear for music than me, that is, if the kid shows up at all. I might have my doubts.”
“It figures,” Hal said, a member of the local fire department and on the inside of all town events from whatever perspective, “that the crank from the hill exerted some influence, but he sure hasn’t bothered that gang of kids over there now, though I know Nora Furbish and her husband Harry are in the mix. They walked down the Court to get there, talking about it as they passed by, and walked all around the Center end of the cemetery to get there. That means they’re interested, if only curious. But we don’t know. They’re on the edge of one element of age, like you said about the in-between-ers and how they’re either joining or leaving one or the other no matter what gear they’re in.”
“I didn’t think you’d remember that little talk of ours, Hal. And speaking about Nora, she’s always been an absolute knockout and therefore always in the mix of talk and such.”
Hal snickered. “You mean dreams count too?”
“With her, absolutely. Always. Saw her once off a diving board, bare-ass ballicky and have never forgotten the sight. Seems a hundred years ago. Dreams count and with this new kid plunker over there too. I think he’s coming now.” He strained to look off into the heart of the cemetery, locking his eyes on small pieces of light falling upon those who had gathered. “Jeezus, Hal, that gang of kids is parting for him like the water parted for Moses. That spells more than curiosity, a kind of respect all rolled into one ball.”
Hal stared too, finding a fleck of amazement coming at him in concert. “How’d you get old crank Sewell off the kid’s back, and yours too?”
“Told him if he found himself running counter to something brand new and good, he was going to look awfully bad on that council seat he’s holding, getting free summer camp for some kids that couldn’t get it otherwise. Told him this new kid could be so connected to that kind of stuff without half trying that it’d be a shame to wreck a great opportunity.” He held a thought for a minor second and continued, “It’s as though he only operates or reacts to threat or fear.”
“‘Nuff said for me,” Hal responded, knocking off another beer, tipping the bottle to his pal in a sum of agreement.
Cavan Woodmarsh, about a half hour past midnight, plunked a single note on the guitar and the single note slipped into the night like a tonal comet. Instantly the dark audience was still, sitting on grass or stones, standing at total attention as if a maestro at the Pops or Symphony Hall had flicked his baton. Culberson and his pal stood rigid in Hal’s back yard, no more than one hundred and fifty feet from the granite mausoleum and the originator of the one note. Both realized they were transfixed, believed they were about to hear new magic come from the young man who had gathered the crowd in darkness, at the end of the cemetery, in a starless but warm night. Moisture sat in abeyance, and mystery, and motion… and all other sound, from every quarter of town and the universe, kept its distance.
When Culberson stared into the darkness it deepened and everything – the gathering of music lovers, the mood of the night, the mood of the town, the mood of two old pals standing in a piece of that darkness – became part of the night’s tone. Something, Culberson said to himself, was reaching for everything the senses knew, the taste of rain, the smell of grass cut that day, the glittering quasi stars almost at eye level, the phantom hands reaching to touch and make a universal connection, the echo of the first note. The lit ends of a few cigarettes showed how well they could replace the stars long hidden by thick clouds promising showers in the hot night, as if a matter of combustion waited its peril.
From the façade of the mausoleum, like shivering tonal work at a symphonic hall, or clear as a bell at Matins, a second note rose and covered distance so rapidly one had to hold it immediately to memory or hold what it had caused or created within the mind, heart, or soul, as it fled through and past. It was an extension of the first note still holding sway, not all gone away to ether.
Rigid attention asserted itself as broad as the dark night, breaths held, belief taking place.
“Jesus, God,” Hal said and put a half bottle of beer back on the picnic table. “This kid is more than mystery. I bet I heard some of those notes the last few nights and thought I was dreaming. Oh, the dreams we think and talk about. I recognize those notes. Dear God.” A dear, dear night, he thought, was about to come upon them.
It was then that stupid, noisy, cranky, inconsonant Sewell Grafton, unable to change his stance in spite of Sgt. Culberson’s prior and veiled threat to his reputation, once again threatened to destroy some beautiful thing as he yelled out, “No more of that frigging crap, mister. I’ll call the cops again. I’ll get them here pronto.” He spread his arms about, to encompass the gathering. “For all of you.” He started to move forward in the darkness, bare bulbs of streetlights soft as false dawn touching along the base of the hill. He had penetrated the edge of the gathering, knowing he was in the wide plot of the Stockman family, which had an early and steady impact on the town, had once owned the entire hill he lived on.
Grafton’s activities, as well as Cavan Woodmarsh’s, had obviously made the rounds of town. A flutter of noise rose in the cemetery, a very minor disturbance, casual almost, and Sewell Grafton spoke no more. Two very strong young men sat him down between them on the grass of Harland Stockman’s grave. In the flash of a cigarette lighter the engraving would have read Harland Stockman 1890-1981 and Helen Stockman 1899 –. And Helen herself might still be clinging to life, perhaps on the road above the cemetery, or nearby, another of the old breed on for a new ride. The young men were also from Henshit Mountain.
One of them, in the darkness, said, “I am not threatening you, mister, but I am telling you to keep quiet, listen, and I swear that tonight you will be converted from the hell that has been your life.”
“You’ve got no right to do this to me, like that singer has no right to sing at this time of night.”
“Don’t be stupid, Mr. Grafton. Look around you. See the crowd. You’d recognize a lot of faces, people you’ve known or at least been aware of for a long time.”
“I don’t need to be curried by you and a crowd of Hippies. I speak my own mind. You can’t take that away from me.”
“I can do that very easily, Mr. Grafton.”
“By telling people, including you, what your wife had to say about you the day she died. With her last breath, sir, her last breath. I could yell it out now so the whole town would know, not just a few of us off Henshit Mountain.”
Sewell Grafton, seeing his life spinning before him in a dizzying approach, carrying everything with it… the dread moments of meanness, the harnessed cruelty that had blossomed in him on too many occasions, the touch of flesh his hands and knuckles distinctly remembered, sat down atop Harland Stockman’s final home, as though he had fainted. The heat touched his face, came up through his buttocks, and there was a momentary acceptance of Hell at hand.
And, in the assured silence, in the heavy heat and the heavy darkness, off the façade of the granite mausoleum in some perfection of acoustic clarity, came the voice of the tall, lean young singer with the midnight voice many singers yearn and covet for years on end, for full lifetimes.
Halleluiah, he let free, Haaa laaaay looo yaaah. Nobody in the large gathering breathed for long moments, open-mouthed though, waiting more, absorbing what had come at them, Haaa laaaay looo yaaah, the tone of it, the reach of it, the grace of it, the sincere and soaring clarity of his voice and the words, be they words or inner expressions of a thousand granite or marble stone faces and the utter and total acceptance the cemetery carried from that moment on.
Some people there that night, in later days, telling of the experience, said, “Cavan started at the back end of the song and brought us up to creation, back to front, up to creation itself, took us to the beginning, his beginning, and we were knowing it at the same moment. We lived his dream, and we ushered him into the world, the phantom grasp on phantom souls.”
Amen, they could have said: “We knew we had to share him, from that moment on.”