Vague Visages Short Stories: The Housatonic Revenge by Mike Ashcroft


Editor’s Note: All of Vague Visages’ short stories are free-to-read.

You could forgive the residents of Danbury for not wanting to acknowledge the frequent visitors to the house on Osborne Street. Set back from the road, it had a clear view down quiet, tree-lined Summit Street towards Wooster Cemetery, and although the well maintained two-storey town house with a white picket fence and manicured shrubbery was in keeping with the character of neighbouring properties, it simply wouldn’t do for illustrious visitors to the city to become acquainted with quite how close to the polished surface such base pleasures might reside. The city had been incorporated back in 1889, a nod to the fact that their thriving local industry now touched the heads of almost a quarter of all well-dressed gentlemen in the country. Now, too, in 1903, the geographic importance of Danbury would be marked by the opening of Union Station, the jewel in the crown of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, creating the Consolidated Road that would soon bring 125 trains a day through the city, with the commerce and consumers that go hand in hand. The upwardly mobile of Osborne Street, chests puffed out and noses somewhat ridiculously in the air, would quicken their pace in an attempt to ignore what they saw as a blemish on their shiny metropolis, and they certainly wouldn’t be heard referring to The Erethismic Beaver by name.

Inside, the ground floor had been opened up as one space, with the grand central staircase in the middle leading up to the bedrooms. From the bar against the left hand wall, Hairy Josephine, the dim lighting still creating a shiny patch on her bald pate, surveyed the same typical Tuesday night scene she had quietly watched over since she opened the joint some twelve years back; old Priapic Seth in the corner tinkling on the ivories, some rendition of Hamilton Hill’s “A Bird in a Gilded Cage,” if she recognised it right, over the chatter of the men drinking at tables across the room. She’s distracted by a movement at the other end of the bar where Clive Proctitis wakes with a violent jerk and demands another pisco sour, the Peruvian way. As she mixes the liquor with lime juice, syrup and egg whites, forgetting the bitters, she fixes her gaze on Proctitis; he is a short, irascible barrel of a man, his pock-marked face and shrimp-like eyes offset by a bushy red moustache. Glancing up to the balcony, she sees her girls peering out from behind the banister, trying not to be seen by the cop. Jade and Jasmine know from experience not to dally with this rogue law man, and Daisy will learn quick enough from them if she’s smart and wants to last long in this line of work; Proctitis has a penchant for playing the disciplinarian schoolteacher, and the first time they found this out Jade went a week unable to earn, or being able to sit down for that matter. Josephine slides the tall glass along the bar towards Proctitis, who grasps it and slurps greedily; he screws his face up in disgust and sprays his mouthful across the bar — you forgot the bitters, he yells at Hairy Josephine, who sighs and makes her way out from behind the bar towards a door at the back of the room — I’ll get a cloth, she mutters to herself.

Josephine rummages in the small, cluttered kitchen before she finds a rag to clean up in the bar. Before heading back, she sticks her head out into the back room where Berkman Fiasco and his gang are holed up; you boys better keep quiet, Proctitis is in residence, she whispers. Berkman looks up and nods shyly in thanks as the landlady leaves; he’s sat on a crate, crouched over a scale model of streets and buildings, occasionally adjusting the position of one piece or another, wringing his swollen red fingers as sweat drips from his forehead and a trickle of blood creeps out of his left ear. Victor Bakunin — tall, thin and pale — sits astride a wobbly chair off to the left, hands shaking as he mixes neat ethanol with Still River Spring Water in a dirty glass, throwing it back with abandon. Sat on the floor on a hessian sack at the back of the room, leaning against the wall, is Sham Zapata, just seventeen years old and sporting a virgin wispy beard, his face in the shadow of a hat better suited to climes several thousand miles to the south and west. He has his left boot in his hands, packing a hole in the sole with rabbit fur he found on the hillside on his way over from Bethel — it’s like a tribute, he says as Bakunin glares at him suspiciously, to Zadoc Benedict. You know, he came up with this way of felting, small animal hides and the like. Bakunin grunts and pours himself another drink; Sham continues manipulating the fur to fit the hole in his boot; Berkman obsessively shuffles the pieces of his model, eventually looking up at his comrades — we’re ready to start, he says.

In the bar, Hairy Josephine has cleaned up and mixed a fresh drink for Clive Proctitis. She’d like to have him kicked out, but the trouble that would cause, the whole of the sheriff’s office coming down on her like the frozen waters of the Kohanza Reservoir. To be fair, he’s calmer now with a sour in his hands, regained his composure and remembered why he’s there; surveying the bar, he’s on the lookout for known anarchists, troublemakers who might be hell bent on de-railing the station opening. Proctitis has it on good authority there’s something nasty in the water. The crowd tonight seems pretty unremarkable though; the Edelstein twins, joined now by Jade and Jasmine, which makes Proctitis a little angry, are slurring badly but still parting freely with their hard earned scratch, their claims to be well connected more theatrical loose talk than anything; Billy Tucker, who had once been arrested in possession of a dog-eared copy of Lucifer the Lightbearer, but was part of the mob who drove Weber out of the Millard factory, and confused at best; and Joseph Warren, who despite having a similar name to the godfather of American anarchism, had done nothing more than own a copy of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which he said he’d found in the street and was using as toilet paper, several torn out pages backing up his story. It was a slow night, but better than Mrs Proctitis’ devilled eggs and insipid Poor Man’s Pudding.

We ought to have a name, says Sham, you know, for when we’re famous. Can we focus on the plan, snaps Berkman, his cheeks glowing red and glistening with sweat. Bakunin grunts, pouring another drink. Maybe something that situates us, you know, our place in history, what we’re doing or where we’re from, rambles Sham. What are you talking about Zapata, rages Berkman, this is irrelevant — I was on the bench next to Weber, tamping down on a beaver fur Ushanka, the type the hunters prefer to wear, when the foreman dragged him out; holding my breath, ankle deep in stagnant water, I felt a kinship with Albert. He wasn’t the only one wished Czolgosz hit McKinley higher up, but in the end the result was the same, with the mystery bullet doing the job after all. Does that situate us enough, yells Berkman. Sham hangs his head; Bakunin opens his eyes and mumbles something — the Housatonic Revenge. I like that, grins Sham, forgetting the dressing down he just got. Berkman pulls at his hair; can we get back to the plan, he says, exasperated.

Clive Proctitis slips off his bar stool, resting his head next to his empty glass as he undoes his zipper and urinates at great length, audible to everybody in the bar during a break in Seth’s playing, and a hush falls over every table. The Edelstein twins get to their feet and make their way over, as Proctitis looks around at them, still pissing; Hairy Josephine raises a hand to ask them to step down. She places both hands on the bar, bringing her level, face-to-face with the drunken law man — I’d like you to leave now detective, she says, her voice firm and steady as if talking to a disobedient child. Proctitis tucks himself away, pulls up his zipper and burps in Josephine’s face; the twins step forward and each places a hand on the short man’s shoulder. He lashes out, knocking their arms away and in the process overbalances and falls in a puddle of his own making; staggering up and towards the door, he turns around — I’m watching you, he says, as he disappears out into the night.

Berkman points to the L-shaped building at the centre of his model. Crafted from matchsticks and balsa wood, painted crudely to show distinguishing features, it sits among other less detailed pieces in plain wood. Union Station, on the corner of White and Patriot, says Berkman, buff and brown brick with sandstone trim, ninety nine by one twenty three feet, gable roofs on both wings, hipped-roof dormers on the north and west elevation. The grand opening is tomorrow, starting at ten, says Berkman. It’ll be busier than The Midway during the Fair, Sham interrupts excitedly. Exactly, says Berkman, annoyed; the crowds will be on the lines, back across to the yard — we need to be as close as possible to the canopies over the platform, you know, to optimise the damage. I got nails from Meeker’s Hardware, across the block from the station, grunts Bakunin — it’ll go with a pop like the Kohanza dam. Did you put in shards of danburite, like I said, stammers Sham, excited again. Shut up Zapata, says Bakunin gruffly. The canopies run alongside tall windows, made to look like sidelights, continues Berkman; a hint of Colonial Revival style, like Richardson’s Buffalo State Asylum — have you been there? Is this relevant, growls Bakunin.

This is where we need to put it, says Berkman; he points to a spot next to the platform halfway along the track side of the building, his hand shaking and his eyelids twitching nervously. Hairy Josephine opens the door from the kitchen, shocking Berkman whose arm goes into full spasm; the model buildings scatter across the floor as he cries out in pain.

The next day, after spending the night under the stars at the graveside of Albert Afraid of Hawk, the exotic Oglala Sioux tribesman who he’d seen die on stage the year before during a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Sham Zapata oversleeps and doesn’t make it to the station till long after the crowds have dispersed. Victor Bakunin, still drunk from the night before, clutching the bottle of ethanol in one hand and a sack of explosives and nails in the other, gets his position all wrong. Even if he hadn’t left the detonator under the floorboards in his boarding house room, the fact that Berkman had got confused (and put his model back together incorrectly after his seizure) meant that the blast wouldn’t have got close to damaging the station from where Viktor stood. Making his way through the crowd, beady eyes peeled for action despite still reeking of stale urine and pisco sour after being locked out of the house by his wife, Clive Proctitis cuts a sorry figure, the public he serves backing away from him in disgust.

Up on the platform, tears trickling down his cheeks, Berkman Fiasco feels his fingers start to twitch, as he watches strangers on a train, the first to pass through the station. He closes his eyes, and can’t remember where he is, or what he might be doing there.

Mike Ashcroft (@mikeashcroft23) lives in Kendal (UK) and writes prose fiction, stand up comedy, film scripts, film criticism and book reviews. He also posts some of his work at oubliar.wordpress.com.