Hand upon the Brow
by Tom Sheehan
Briggs Wragrum’s life as an expiator began early.
It was not announced or decided; no telegrams or headlines or heart murmurs propounding it. It just happened that way, a long time ago. At odd moments I can bring back a deal of his industry, as an observer from various vantages, now and then fair portions of that observation given over from a few close friends, gossip traveling the streets, from Briggs’s friends as well as mine. That early beginning, though, must have caused Briggs untold moments of frustration, his keeping his own counsel from day one. Briggs’s brother Shag said it outright and on many occasions, tipping his head at first in odd salute, later his drink: my brother’s no snitch.
Shag’s eyes could tear a face apart if let be. But Shag did not know it all.
And I, observer of ordinary means but devoted, had to piece most of it together from the outside. Oh, I knew both of them, Briggs and Shag; in the hallways dark as Hades, in dank-dark-dismal cold-water tenement cellars full of tricks and ruses of games deep as hide-n-seek, on starry roof-tops where we shared basketfuls of moonlight, pigeons we made out doves, dreams set out on the horizons floating away from us on city lights fringes, and the ensuing darkness that unknown outlands sent back in silent stretches of night. The small band of us, mixed bag and blessing, tossed into the cauldron of shaping, came off as survivors with wide talents; we could shinny up or down downspouts from bedroom windows no matter the height, scale innumerable walls, hide when not yet dark, find a mouthful in barren pantries or ice boxes. Hungry, ever cool or hot in the grip of The Depression, we lived paired up with dreams and rock-hard fists.
And this journal of Briggs the Expiator, from the first day observing, was locked in my head as tight as one of those fists. Only an expanse of time could free it.
The youngster Shag came out of the four-story tenement building’s rear door onto Ferrin Street and the road-wide bulge of cobblestones, the late afternoon sun bouncing sheen on the cobblestone pan faces, the gutter an electric ribbon lit up. Behind him lay the dim interior of the cold-water flats, clutter haven, abysmal, usually rank; there, like marks of the century, hallway wallpaper hung loose in wide sheets or acres of it lost to the trash bin, paint non-existent or near so on every wooden surface, a damp nose-filling odor of bad fruit hanging in the air that assailed him in the halls, otherwise empty even of sound. The metallic ceilings of the hallways were gnarled with seas or clouds of rust. Yet the kitchen he left had a worn shine on linoleum, a small counter with scrubbed surface, a sink that seemed not to have collected a dirty dish, in a corner a prim stovetop almost at luster. These he left behind him, and he was sure a look to the end of Ferrin Street would not bring an image of his father coming home from the docks, the heavy shoulders lowered at wages, head bent in solace, three-and four-deckers burying him in shade nearly clandestine. The out-world father was forever cast in shadow, in doubt, into questions at times about his salutary being. Shag couldn’t remember the last time he had seen the breadwinner in daylight; and now and then, as if spectered, he came but a voice in the night, and a voice not to be intruded on.
Shortly thereafter into one pocket, the movement as sly and quicker than could be discerned by the most watchful of store clerks, six-year old Shag Wragrum, a smiling, disarmingly-sweet-faced tow-headed youngster, wearing a black jacket, a faint red signal like a nova star from birth decorating the higher bridge of his nose, one eye tooth apparently winning a battle against the others in his mouth, slipped a candy bar into a wide pocket of his flannel jacket. He could, that boy, lean against a wall as if he had not taken a breath in half an hour, at least not an exuberant breath. Shade or shadow he could be, or a still piece of cast light; dismantled, innominate by choice, ill-defined, all at once.
The candy bar cost all of a nickel.
Less than an hour later, under the eyes of the same custodian of the small variety store in Boston’s Charlestown district, and right across the street from the main gate of the Navy Yard, Shag’s equally sweet-faced twin brother Briggs, his nose likewise marked with the faint red spot denoting something deeper than brotherhood, a similar tooth at odds with his others, blood pumping danger and excitement through his heart in small bursts, placed a restituted candy bar back into the same open candy box on an old door set on barrels in the store. Thirty open boxes of candy with all their toothless intentions graced the spread of that door in the store’s small interior. Outside the wind announced intentions on all windows, February calling out its name down the length of the city street and against frail and opaque protection. The clerk Kosko the Pole said, “Want nothin’?” and Briggs, coming past his brother’s shadow, said, “Naw, I gotta go wait supper,” to which Kosko smiled his disbelief.
Briggs Wragrum’s life as an expiator, seemingly, had begun that day. Years would add burden to the weight that it was, time upon time, incidents galore. Yet the toothy boy never backed off, never argued or castigated, never remonstrated. Fate had waved its wand.
From the very beginning it was set. When Briggs and Shag Wragrum were born mere minutes apart, to their mother’s surprise and their father’s consternation and endless doubt about his place in the world, one fortuitous star intervened for the pair: as did one black star without light for a million or more years, a star deep in an endless black void setting adrift across space a moaning sound no ear could misunderstand. Down the birth canal Briggs came warm and cuddly and ahead of the troop of two, seeking early comfort, and Shag, cut off in the underpass, his nose too bearing emblazoned red, came scratching and seeking an edge so early in life. The lines and facets of their being were cut and polished; one a giver and one a taker.
And Ilka Wragrum knew it before they were a year old. Alone seven days a week, her husband drawn forever into pier politics, a stevedore marked by cause and loud imploration and profanity, she had the glory of time and thought, idle and otherwise.
From thence the disparities of the twins did not so much collide as carom and fall into the other’s track, often going in opposite directions in tangential reactions. The mother saw them off one day, to visit friends. They’d been in school half a year then. From her window, remembered to a later day, she saw them leaving, stopping at the curbing, one going left and one going right, in their own pursuits. Perhaps that day, she thought continually, the carving of souls was making its ultimate cut, shaping forever what was to come. A shrug she also remembered, perhaps a shivering aspect about her body, and a dark and cool presence invading her most private self, beyond that core where nobody could enter in passion, in either guard or disregard. Knowledge without a voice.
It was the flannel-mouthed Mrs. Lopelli from the third-floor tenement directly across Ferrin Street, sticking her nose in again, who mouthed it in her own fashion, “How come them boys don’t keep company wid each other, strange, eh, Mrs. Rugrump?” Word selection often was one of her armaments in this new world, a cute, sometimes snide way of making points on those about her, putting them in their place she so thought. Having shaken a dust mop out the window, she was watching her neighbor’s sons as well as noting the small cloud, in layers catching sunlight in narrow city travails, settling its light matter on the street. The cool air of the fateful day seemed to weigh the dust down.
Mrs. Lopelli’s massive breasts flopped their milky abundance on the windowsill and Ilka Wragrum could still hear the guys on the corner talking about The Feeder… “There’s one will never fall on her face, boys. Won’t be permitted.” Guffaws, elbows in the ribs, snide-induced snide smiles as secret as gossip of the streets. The hugely endowed one would offer, more in statement than question, “You’d think so close together in coming they’d be pals forever, but it don’t look like it, eh, Mrs. Rugrump?” Her head made a little aberrant toss as if a most proper punctuation mark was being made, adjudicated; this foreigner, this Slavvie, at least, marked.
What neither woman knew, and would not know for a good number of years… Briggs Wragrum always knew where his brother was, who he was with, and often had a damned good idea of what he was up to. So elementary it had become, knowing where a peer was, what route took him there and back, what kind of people peopled those polar routes. The decisions made on those routes or because of those routes were harder to detect, but clues lay everywhere for the observant. Early on, by fate or some other selection process none of the characters were aware of, Briggs became, as a company of one, for his lone brother the self-appointed chaperon, watchdog, guardian at a distance, the brother Cerberus. In Shag’s tracks he followed for much of his life, and just about all of it early on. That he would love his brother all his life was unquestioned, but he loved his mother more. Her love, visible as a flag, never wavered. He’d never let it be at half mast. Not in this lifetime. Not this boy.
“Oh, Briggsy,” she had said once in a fleet of secrecy, “he’s a bit more daring than you, but has less judgment. Watch always for me. Always.” To her own ample bosom she had drawn her son, her loving, most trusted hand brushing full confidence across his head in a salute the years would remember, no other hand ever again touching him with such grace, or with such command.
All for him was sworn.
The single dollar bill slipped out of a visiting Aunt Grace’s pocketbook, Shag dropping a newspaper over the open handbag and slipping his fingers into green depth, bought a supply of candy; but before the visit was over, from inside his own secret repository, Briggs Wragrum replaced the dollar bill with one he had earned from his small paper route. “You have such darling boys, Ilka,” the aunt said, smothering both of them with loud, wet kisses. “God, I could steal off with them if they was but a little older.” The currency exchange, never noted by anyone other than the watchdog brother, was just another parentally-undetected sin of the star-shadowed brother, one of the pair of the other star.
There was a mix of coins taken from a desk at school when they were in the sixth grade at the Kent School. Briggs was found coming out a cellar window well after midnight. The principal, at first questioning the contents of the milk money jar, said there was not a penny missing, but that the coinage assembled seemed different. Briggs was scolded but said he had been trying to prove someone could get into the school after dark. He said he worried about it. Shag never said a word, to anybody, content to be himself, to let stand what he had wrought after dark.
Ilka Wragrum hugged her warmest son.
Their young lives, into early teens, were spent in a mad flux, and in hasty retreats where decision and command were presences. At stickball on the quiet column of Ferrin Street, they were connoisseurs, broom handles wielded like saber whips, driving the half-balls two to three light poles worth, driving runners ahead of them, sending roars up the shaky sides of tenement buildings that took them and hid them at night. At this they excelled, the pair of them, earning fabulous and infamous nicknames eventually finding their way onto wide doors, walls, cellar beams, hallways in the dim stairwells to the upper reaches of three and four floor tenements, their earliest escape from igcogniti to graffiti. The Golddust Twins was carved, painted or crayoned, and Two-for-four-or-more, or the Pair of Hits, or We Are the Ones!
Ilka Wragrum, graffiti scanning, would know a dark secret, seeing one son a scribe, one not. Without doubt those free moments of her young athletes, under her gaze from the high window, were the best of times; they were observed, they were safe, they had no secrets worth any diversion at game time. It was, other than small providence, the opportunity for the small pain in her upper chest to fade away as if it had never been there in the first place. Perhaps, she might think, one day’s pain does not carry over to the next. Strange ideas cure strange ailments she assured herself. Even with flannel-mouth across the way sharing her small joy, she counted those moments as the lucky ones, for herself, for her children dashing in the street below.
For the boys there were game chases across the tops of near-connected tenements, leaps involved, daring and agility coming as near apoplexy as an adult watcher could maximize and tolerate. Athletes they were, the pair of them, and each with their own secret; for Shag went his own way at thievery with like minions and Briggs, his mother’s hand forever across his brow, followed in expiation.
Probably the one daunting moment in all of this for Briggs was the Whiting’s milk wagon episode, a quick deviation from his normal behavior, and yet one of those stop-and-gos that come along in life: forever after he remembered the abrasive Rorschach of rust left scored on his right leg, from knee to ankle and all down the calf muscle, when it was caught for fearful seconds in the wheel spokes of the milk wagon he had hopped on, grabbing the tailgate with two sure hands and throwing his feet in on top of the axle.
Six years old at the time, his life could have been seriously changed in another second. It was studiously apparent. The absolute clock of clocks he knew then, saw the second hand move hesitatingly and incredulously slow, heard the private ticking as dim as a pocket watch tucked away at the end of a fob, found all about him a salient and clear-cut sense of measurement. Never would he forget, never had he forgotten that moment, the near-vise grip of it with all attendance; horse’s hooves clopping their deliberateness on the cobblestones, the ignorant milkman in the driver’s seat whistling an old song, air filled with the smell of the horse, sour milk, manure hanging in place; his leg being squeezed by spoke rotation, panic smell beginning to rise in his nose as thick as burnt rubber or new road tar, and the glorious Saturday morning sun on his back when he was freed of that rude clasping.
“Shag,” he said limping but safe aboard the sidewalk, rubbing his leg that in another second might have been wrenched from him, torn asunder from the hip, or bent and misshapen forever, Shag knowing the small miracle, “I know I was saved.” They vowed never to hop milk wagons ever again, so help me God, each one taking from the escape a sense of value, neither one knowing their mother, hands clasped, a minor sense of horror having passed through her as sure as the evil torment promising explosion in her body, watched from her window. And torn by the promises of her sons as much as that which had invaded her body. She could not put names to any of the intrusions.
Whenever Briggs wanted that moment and all that gave it company, a new day being spoiled by his brother, new release on the horizon, it was there for him. It shaped much of his life, as much a tool of his shaping as his brother’s ways, or his mother’s imploration with her hand of faith across his brow. That other message she had sent he had not fathomed as yet, or dared not. It was as if there was something else unsaid but to be understood. He dared not ask her what that message was. He would not ask Shag.
At the wharf one night their father disappeared, too noisy at work, too much mouth for some and spokesman for others. He went off as if he really was an invisible man in their lives. The only trace could be the ponderous Atlantic, repository of innumerable sins, crowd cover of the widest order. The boys cried, Ilka Wragrum knew again the silent pain coursing freely through body. Debating within herself their lives coming she saw Briggs in command, Shag following, and knew it to be mere argument for the sake of argument. Pain, she knew, had other names.
The boys were seventeen when her soul was finally eaten up by her body and their aunt provided a roof for them, a room at the end of the hall on another third floor, one block closer to City Square, one block up-town. When Shag stole a car and left it at the corner, practically under the window of that room, Briggs snuck out after midnight and drove it to the school grounds and left it there. Hand upon the brow.
A week later there was a robbery at Abie’s Market a few blocks away. The next night, well after midnight, another window was broken at Abie’s. The fat little storekeeper found his stolen money on the floor beneath the broken window. All Charlestown knew that Shag had scored and Briggs had replied. Hand upon the brow.
The coverage continued for a number of years, and the split widened; transgressor and expiator at their chosen rounds. But there never was a blow-up, never a confrontation between the brothers that any of us knew of, never a finger pointed. Old timers shook their heads, never having seen the likes of the pair. Hand upon the brow.
When a sixteen-year old neighbor, Camp Judey, became pregnant local denizens figured the stonewall had been met; Briggs tried again, but not so eagerly. Finally a difference had risen. Hand upon the brow.
Of course I have to report it ended when the whole world dumped down on that other hand; in the other hand, in Shag’s hand. A small revolver with a single bullet, though errant in its way, inescapable in its pursuit, found one man dead. One man dead and one pair of handcuffs. One brother who could not break out of jail and one who could not break in. Shag Wragrum became a lifer and his brother, the touch upon him yet, became a priest. They had gone out of the house one day, as their mother watched from her high window, and each had gone his own way, one up Ferrin Street and one down Ferrin Street in the heart of Charlestown, the wide sea around them closing in at the docks, and the stars proposing, setting demands.
© Tom Sheehan
Bio note: Sheehan’s books are Epic Cures and Brief Cases, Short Spans, Press 53, NC; A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, Pocol Press, VA. His work appears in Home of the Brave, Stories in Uniform and Milspeak Anthology, Warriors, Veterans, Family and Friends Writing the Military Experience. He has 14 Pushcart nominations, Noted Stories for 2007 and 2008, Georges Simenon Fiction Award, and is included in Dzanc Best of the Web Anthology for 2009 and nominated for Best of the Web 2010 and 2011. He has 175 short stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. Print issues include Rosebud (3) , Ocean Magazine (7) among others. He has hundreds of internet publications of prose and poetry, and has published 3 novels (An Accountable Death, Vigilantes East, and Death for the Phantom Receiver, a football mystery) and 5 poetry collections including This Rare Earth and Other Flights; Ah, Devon Unbowed; The Saugus Book; Reflections from Vinegar Hill. He served with the 31st Infantry Regiment, Korea, 1951.