By L. Shapley Bassen
The John Brown House Museum displayed a relic of Roger Williams, who was not a Brown relative at all. Like most relics, this one was grotesque and apocryphal. The guide had already begun the museum’s last daily tour. She was interrupted by a late arrival.
“Who was John Brown?” he demanded.
The elderly docent didn’t miss a beat. She explained: “This is not the house of the John Brown ‘a-mouldering in the grave’ Civil War abolitionist. The John Brown who built this mansion in Providence was an 18th century merchant whose ships were part of the China and Triangle Trade. He owned iron works and a chocolate factory nothing like Willie Wonka’s.”
Most of the small group laughed on cue, most heartily a honeymoon couple in love with the world.
“Upstairs, you will see a painting of the 1772 attack on the HMS Gaspee, three years before the Boston Tea Party! John Brown was the leader of the attack. That was this John Brown.”
The docent paused and then pointed to a glass case mounted on the wall.
“Here, you see an apple tree’s root,” she said, referring to the case’s contents. “Roger Williams was buried in a corner of a yard not far from here. When he died in 1683, he was shoveled into an unmarked grave. Nearly 200 years passed before someone decided to give him a proper burial. In 1860, they found an apple tree root had entered his coffin. It’s ‘the tree root that ate Roger Williams.’ And here he — remains.”
Above more laughter, the impatient man raised his voice, “It’s John Brown’s house? Then why Roger Williams?”
It was the week after the 2016 Presidential election. Matt Tillinghast groaned again.
“Something bothering you, Old Man?” the impatient man shot back.
Cell phones cameras instantly witnessed.
“No flash,” said the docent, the white-haired woman suddenly sounded like her patrician forebears.
“Toothache,” Tillinghast, a retired professor, lied.
The guide resumed: “This luxury 18th century carriage,” she gestured at the vehicle also on display, “was John Brown’s, but you’ll be seeing other Historical Society collection items throughout the Museum, not necessarily belonging to the Brown family. Roger Williams was the founder of Rhode Island.”
Glaring, she dared further rudeness. Tillinghast stayed behind as the others followed her out of the chilly carriage room. It was almost half past the tour’s start at three p.m. He’d had lunch with a former colleague and couldn’t face the empty house. A cold draft wafted through the glass arch above the door, with waning light of the November day.
He examined the root’s spine, where it branched into legs. He could hear his wife say, “We live on history’s doorstep.”
Sally’s ashes filled an urn on a fireplace mantel, their dispersal awaiting the Thanksgiving return of their far-flung children. Abigail was an Air Force pilot in Anchorage, Perry in Beijing with his husband, both math professors, also probably CIA, parents of twin IVF babies. Life pared down to acronyms. Their youngest, a lawyer in Jackson Hole, had her first baby only two months before Sally died. Alaska. China. Wyoming.
Tillinghast touched the relic case and thought, a small mercy: Sally had not lived to see the election outcome. What a big woman she had been, withered to a wick by October. Tillinghast read the relic’s plaque. How big had the patriarch’s prostate been at death? What a contrast between his epic life and reduction to this absurdity. What was Hamlet’s line? What was a “bunghole?”
He would Google later. He caught up with and completed the tour. After, conversing with Sally in his head, he walked the route he knew that Roger Williams had daily repeated into oldest age, even on winter days far colder than this November one. Before bed, he saw the 11 o’clock TV news report: the relic of Roger Williams had been stolen.
Before 9 a.m. the next morning, his front doorbell rang. Tillinghast was a prime suspect. Police arrived with a warrant. Three local/network vans arrived soon after, televising the deep front porch, showing off its wood filigree and multi-colored Victorian paint. A detective stood facing him across the dining room table.
Detective Melito thought the professor’s gaunt height and leaning gait explained his university nickname ‘Tilting Tillinghast.’
“That’s my wife,” Tillinghast said to an officer who replaced the pewter urn onto the fireplace mantel.
He and the detective sat down.
“You remind me of Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies,” Melito said. “How Rylance wasn’t anxious. Rylance was, ‘Would it help?’”
“My lawyer daughter will never forgive me if I answer any questions. Or for anything, if history repeats itself. Which, given that no one ever learns from it, is likely. A bunghole is the hole in the middle, not the top, of a cask, keg, or barrel through which liquid is poured in or drained out. Also, obscenely, the anus,” he offered.
That morning, after the police gave predictable orders and departed, Eleanor phoned. The story was all over cyberspace and national TV.
“Controlling interests of the media want us distracted, Dad,” Eleanor said, adding as if it followed, “and we’re not coming for Thanksgiving. Perry and Abigail, we had a conference call. Whatever you decide about the urn is okay.”
“Just as well.”
“What happened yesterday, Dad?”
“Just as well,” he repeated. “I’ll watch for you on Facebook. You may see me in the paper.” He laughed at himself. “I mean online.”
Later, he shrugged about Thanksgiving. Thankful for what? Sally? The election? Arrest? Catastrophes all. He un-set the dining room table, mentally revisiting the tour group for alternative suspects. The glass case had been broken, but his fingerprints were the only ones found.
Jack Melito was a good detective and a contented man. He could lose a few pounds, but he wasn’t too tall or too short. His wife of twenty years said he was “just right.” He preferred burglary to homicide and never expected any case of his to get attention.
He liked the professor for saying, “’Be not afraid of greatness: some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ Malvolio quotes the letter he believes was sent to him, but it makes him look crazy. As I look to you.”
Jack didn’t think Tillinghast was crazy. He saw the cremains urn on the dining room fireplace mantel and the absence of ashes below. In subsequent conversations, Jack treated the professor more as consultant than suspect, asking him about others on the museum tour the afternoon of the robbery, about the man who’d been aggressive.
“The real mystery is why the lout ever visited any museum,” Tillinghast said.
Jack joined him on his walks from the debatable location of Roger Williams’s home, where now Tillinghast daily parked his car, to southernmost Fox Point overlooking the river and Atlantic beyond. Lout, having paid with cash to enter the museum, was unidentifiable.
“I used my credit card for admission and bought the Museum’s book irresistibly subtitled, A Passion for the Past.”
“I know,” Jack said. “You had a toothache that day?”
Tillinghast’s gloved hand briefly cradled his cheek. “No, just a ruse to get through a moment. My favorite book reviewer was Richard Eder. Best intro paragraph about ‘the king’s toothache’. February of 2001, before 9/11. ‘Yes, said the court magician, he can of course remove the royal toothache. The problem is that he will have to put it somewhere. And so, after lodging successively in the palace chairs and tables — which promptly fly to pieces — the toothache ricochets into the jaws of the court cat, whose clawing frenzy proceeds to do worse to the king’s cheek than the tooth had done to his gum.’ I’m sure it’s occurred to you, Jack, that it was none of us in the tour. Crime is often an inside job, don’t you think, philosophically speaking?”
“Evidence, not philosophy, is what I need,” Jack said.
“Po-tay-toes, po-tah-toes. I’m told that matter is slow energy.”
They continued walking south on Benefit Street. It was a bright, cold November day, but the sun still felt warm on their shoulders and glinted off windows and chrome.
“Why are you doing this?” Jack asked. “You walk like the leaning Tower of Pisa. Why don’t you fall down?”
“When you push against a wall, it pushes back.”
“No one’s going to buy that apple root,” Jack said.
Tillinghast gestured at 18th century clapboard townhouses they passed. He squinted through sunglasses. “Look at these relics: getting old is like a silent movie you’ve got to caption yourself,” he said. “Time’s a scrim. I hear old music, I see grey forms moving beneath colorized surfaces. I see myself walking with Roger Williams. I ask him things I couldn’t when I wrote his biography. Now, he answers.”
Jack enjoyed Tillinghast’s feints. “Got your Williams bio out of the library – and the book that went with the documentary you did for PBS. Wife bought a copy for our twelve-year-old. She’s crazy about it. Longtime Benefits of Benefit Street. We streamed your documentary, too.”
“They won awards.”
“I’m just saying.”
“You’ve looked into me. I’m not flattered.”
“You shouldn’t be.”
They paused on the corner of Benefit and Thomas. Tillinghast looked down the steep hill.
“Down there, where the Woonasquatucket joins it, story goes that in Roger Williams’s time, salmon ran so thick, fisherman could walk on their quivering backs across the Moshassuck without getting their feet wet.” He gestured at the four restoration houses of the Providence Art Club on Thomas Street closer to them, pointing his finger at the single Painted Lady that stood out, Tudor brown wood against mustard yellow stucco.
“Sally said blue-bloods congealed there. I tried going to a Philharmonic performance at the Vets last week. Season tickets ordered last March. But the new second violin was sitting in Sally’s chair. Her hair is white and long as Rapunzel’s.” As they resumed walking, Tillinghast added, “So I had to leave.”
A month later, not long before the solstice and Christmas, two snowfalls had been washed away by rain. Frigid December temps followed. Tillinghast was again retracing the footsteps of Roger Williams. The robbery case had also gone cold and was eclipsed in the media by reports of Russian interference in the Presidential election and the fall of Aleppo. The professor had told Jack he intended to sell his house and move west by spring, and the law put up no obstacle. Jack had said he hoped until then he might look in on Tillinghast from time to time.
“Time to time has always been my preference,” Tillinghast repeated as he headed toward Fox Point. But he shivered when the detective reappeared. Wickenden Street was busy with holiday shoppers, and in the air was indeed a feeling of Christmas, including silver bells as doors opened, and inside stores, the Musaked songs.
“Not going as far as the ferry today, Professor?” Jack asked, quickly raising gloved hands. “I’m not here on official business.”
“Sally used to say, ‘Lord love you for a liar.’ What were they made of in the 17th century? I can’t take this walk again. I officially give up today. Roger Williams escaped Britain to Boston to Salem to Plymouth to Seekonk to Providence.”
“With a hat on his head, I’ll bet,” Jack said.
The professor touched his thick white hair.
“Sally always nagged me. I was seven when the WWII ended. I remember men in uniforms. When they came home.”
“Was your father in it?”
“I only remember when he came back. He put his cap on my head. I took it off and threw it at him. I’m 77. Sally was just 70.”
“My Dad’s 77. I’ll drive you back up to Bowen Street?”
“No, I cheated today. I started from the house.”
“President Street, then.”
Tillinghast pointed to a photoshopped poster in a storefront. Above a cartoon, its caption: NOT MY PRESIDENT.
“Let’s get indoors. Amy’s Place,” Jack said as they passed the café, “get something hot to drink.”
Tillinghast followed, and the detective brought steaming mugs of cider to a small bistro table overlooking the street. They stirred the hot drinks with cinnamon sticks.
“Roger Williams,” the professor said, as if he’d been asked a question, “was always warned by loyal friends when it was time to flee. The house sold on the first day it was up for sale. I just bought a condo overlooking the Pacific.”
“The relic still on your mind?”
“And yours. Williams should be on Mount Rushmore. He deserved a marble memorial in DC equal to Lincoln’s.” Tillinghast sipped his cider. “Now this country’s elected Hamlet’s bunghole and his Russian proctologist. Roger Williams is an anthem. Mr. Liberty of Conscience. Little Rhody, the smallest state with the biggest idea,” he raised the hot mug in a toast.
“No one knows the Gaspee burning was before the Boston Tea Party, either.”
“You talked to the museum docent,” Tillinghast nodded. “I’ve been walking in Roger Williams’s footsteps, and you’ve been in mine.”
Tillinghast paused, looking straight at Jack, and then continued: “After a generation of English crimes, Massasoit’s son burned down Providence. Williams rebuilt. Twentieth century, they turned the river into a parking lot. What –?” Tillinghast whistled and tapped a reggae rock beat.
Jack sang, “‘Don’t it always seem to go? / Don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone / They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot.’”
“Yellow Taxi, Counting Crows,” Jack said.
“First, Joni Mitchell. 1970. I saw that river uncovered in my lifetime. The beautiful Waterfires on it. But no salmon in it.”
“Didn’t he have any flaws?”
“Sally scolded that he wanted women to wear veils to show ‘they had inherited Eve’s corruption.’ I’d counter with his insistence that James I had no right to grant charters since he had no true claim to the land, she’d riposte with Williams later seeking and securing Rhode Island’s charter from the Crown.”
“Mr. Liberty of Conscience?” Jack said.
“He couldn’t conscience liberty without limits. Couldn’t bear Quakers. They were his Temple-table-overturning tantrum.”
“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
Tillinghast looked at his walking shoes. “Feet of clay, all of us,” he smiled. “You still have your mother?”
Jack nodded. “She would’ve also told him where he could put a veil. My parents live in the house I grew up in in Woonsocket.”
“Ah, that translates as ‘thunder mist’. Boston was Shawmut. Roger Williams wrote his Algonquian dictionary on the charter-seeking voyage to England.”
“A condo overlooking The Pacific? Thought you’d go to your lawyer daughter in Wyoming,” Jack said.
“We went out to Jackson Hole, Sally and I. Its Town Square is marked with four arches of piled elk antlers. She said, ‘They look like confiscated elephant ivory piled for burning. And since Gobekli Tepi laughs at Stonehenge and the pyramids, what pathetic relics!’’’
“—li Tepi. Another Sally enthusiasm. A pre-pottery Neolithic site in Turkey older than Stonehenge by 6000 years and the oldest pyramids by 7000. Sally didn’t like Yellowstone. It sits on the largest magma lake in the world, waiting to erupt. Underneath is enough hot rock to fill the Grand Canyon nearly fourteen times over. No, no Wyoming. And don’t get Sally started on the megafloods from Ice Age glacial Lake Missoula! – they sent us further west that same trip to the scablands of eastern Washington State. She’d wanted to go north into Canada, ‘just to see a place named Hecate Strait,’ but she fell for a spot, Fairhaven, overlooking Bellingham Bay. In Whatcom County. ‘Whatcom. What may,’ she said. ‘Atlantic start, Pacific finish. From sea to shining sea.’”
Tillinghast stared out the window at shoppers bracing in the cold. “The things she knew!” He blinked as if waking. “Whatcom. Named for a Nooksack chief, means ‘noisy water,’ like your Woonsocket.” The professor finally noticed they’d emptied their mugs. He held up his cinnamon stick.
“Ready to go?” Jack asked.
They reached for coats, gloves, Jack’s cap. Tillinghast’s back was to him when he sang, “‘Don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ You know where the stolen relic is, Jack?”
“Can’t prove it. Just wanted to let you know the happy irony — the John Brown Museum is thriving in the wake of the theft.”
The old man turned around.
“They’re calling it The Isabella Gardner Effect,” Jack said. “The media attention has increased attendance – by ‘orders of magnitude.’ Evidently, Professor, absence confers more value than presence. The John Brown Museum has a 3-D replica ready to display, but everyone wants to see the broken glass, the empty case, just like the bald frames in the Gardner Museum in Boston. Shawmut. They’ve got waiting lists to get in now!”
Silver bells again rang when they left the café.
On the drive back to President Street, in Jack’s car, the professor said, “I read that a woman at Columbia University made a 3-D model of the whole Universe when It was 380,000 years old, just the size of a lumpy softball,” Tillinghast’s hands formed the primordial round. “Everything that ever was or will be was in It.”
Jack stopped in front of the professor’s house. He looked up at the steps and doorway, thinking of the first morning he’d crossed that threshold. Of the pewter urn and what it now likely contained.
Tillinghast ungloved to reach across and shake hands. “I’ll snail you a postcard, Jack, a replacement relic. You’re a generous nemesis.”
Jack watched the old man walk in his tilting way towards the house. Then Jack also leaned over, lowered the curbside window, and called, “Good luck, Professor! From sea to shining sea!”
L. Shapley Bassen, a native New Yorker now in Rhode Island, was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest for “Portrait of a Giant Squid” She is s a poetry/fiction reviewer for The Rumpus, etc., also Fiction Editor at https://www.craftliterary.com/, prizewinning, produced, published playwright, 3x indie-published author novel/story collections, and 2019, #4, WHAT SUITS A NUDIST, poetry collected works.