The Midwest |

Fording the Street

by Colin Fleming

Ever since I retired on the southern side of sixty years old, I have spent at least a couple hours a day at the Highland Park Historical Society, here on Chicago’s North Shore. My background in corporate law means that I am a research fiend at heart. I enjoy digging through old books, and piecing together scraps of narrative. I also enjoy art—maritime art especially—and have managed to assemble a tidy little collection that my wife, Tamsin, adds to each Hanukkah. Our arrangement is simple, if less than traditional: I forgo eight days of gifts for one sublime canvas that she picks out for me at our favorite Chicago art gallery. My requests never vary: the painting must be old, authentic, and it has to be put the smell of sea salt in my nostrils.

            I attribute this penchant to my Cape Ann roots, back in Massachusetts. My great uncle was a sailmaker in Gloucester. The area wasn’t quite as hardscrabble then as it is now, but it didn’t exactly dovetail with Manchester-by-the-Sea, which is where we lived, before we moved to the Midwest, after my father bought up a printing factory.

            Manchester was the next town over from Gloucester, but it had a Highland Park element to it; that is, there was no shortage of manicured gardens and privet hedges and various totems of social privilege, and an almost cloying sense of limitless sums of money. Gloucester was all dive bars frequented by fishermen getting drunk at ten in the morning, and rusted keels and barnacle encrusted moorings and a veritable symphony—an extremely dissonant one—of curse words. Even at nine years old, it appealed to me immeasurably, and how I loved it when my father would visit his uncle at his Gloucester sail loft and take me along with him.

            I was heartbroken when we moved, but like any child, I adjusted, and my brother Noah and I filled up the spaces of a lot of days by exploring the ravines and cliffs near our house that overlooked Lake Michigan, and taking trips to the country store where we bought our Topps baseball cards. I had a particular affection for the gossip of the old-timers, especially when one of them referenced a painter who had lived in a shack at the northernmost part of Millard Park, a guy they considered the town’s great villain of yore.

            This painter, according to the country store crowd, painted only river and lake scenes, and was supposedly the stylistic disciple of a great maritime artist. One whom—and this really pricked up my ears—hailed from Gloucester, oddly enough.

            I didn’t know it at the time, but the Gloucester painter they were talking about was Fitz Henry Lane, an artist I’d later become obsessed with as my appreciation for the pictorial arts deepened. As Tamsin will warn our guests at dinner parties, it is not advisable to allow me to start talking about Fitz Henry Lane after I’ve had a couple glasses of Cabernet. A Lane canvas is far too dear for us to ever be able to afford, but the shelves in my den are stuffed with Lane biographies, catalogs, provenance reports, and scholarly treatises. Lane understood sunlight in a way that I’d wager few men ever have; his harbor skies are dappled with it, but not in that treacly Thomas Kinkade style—more like burnished antique brass, turned into liquid, and flecked in the interstices between cloud and horizon.

            I figured the historical society post would be a good gig to pass the time, and keep my mind busy, while allowing me to feel like a judicious arbiter of the town’s official record of the past.  I reported to Noah, as he had once reported to me at the law firm. My first task was to organize the alternately fraying, mildewed, burnt, or malodorous books that occupied the society’s “hold.” Which is to say, a former water closet that jutted out the back of the building, half above ground, and half below.

            The work was as boring as you’d expect—there were lots of datebooks that detailed assorted coming out balls, and a ton of polo contests, which was the big Highland Park sport back in the day. It was all slog and grind—to Noah’s amusement—until the day I finally made it to the very back of the hold, and the last carton of books. Sweet relief—but not quite, as it turned out. I suppose I should have suspected that something was up, or at least a little off, when my eye caught sight of a thick, ornately designed, obviously well-traveled book, at the top of that carton. It wasn’t like the flimsy accounts of Highland Park’s late nineteenth century social scene. For starters, it looked like it had swollen to twice its original size. This book had done some living.

            I kicked a footstool back towards the rear of the hold, sat down on it, and plucked this interloper out of its box. The cover was as hard as plywood. It had been painted ultramarine, like some particularly gelid sea. Streaks of coppery gold were graven at the top, as though they represented autumnal rays of sunshine scored into the horizon. In the center of the cover were the words A Thorough Examination of The Genius of Fitz Hugh Lane, By His Lamented Disciple, Sebastian Hamiils.

            This was odd. I opened the book a quarter of the way through. Each page on the left-hand side was a copy of a Lane painting—I recognized most of them—by Hamiils. They were rendered in pastels on the coarse white paper, with various annotations at the bottom, in black ink, many of which centered on Lane’s technique. Each following page invariably presented a Hamiils original—in the same pastels—modeled on the preceding Lane work, but with Lake Michigan pressed into service as a salt-free doppelgänger. Flipping onwards, I began to see less and less of the lake, and more and more of the Highland Park ravines that Noah and I had once explored. Only, these series of ravines had a river—more like an aggressive stream—visible at the bottom. The works had titles like Elegy for the Burncan River, and The Burncan River—Will She Yet Be Saved?

            I remember thinking that Hamiils must have been a full-on loon. Even if he had superb judgment in whom he chose to admire. But as I kept turning the pages of the book, an uneasy feeling began to assert itself in my stomach. About three-quarters of the way through, I was downright queasy.

            I love Fitz Henry Lane. But he was absolutely nothing as an artist compared to Sebastian Hamiils. It was like watching my dad get bested for the first time. There was a dimensionality to Hamiils’ work that made me feel as though I had entered into his works themselves. I felt surrounded by ravine walls, rather than the ugly ochre-colored trappings of the historical society’s back room.

            The final portion of this codicological wonder featured increasingly cryptic marginalia, with autobiographical asides about various personal relationships that I couldn’t understand. Hamiils’ creations, so rustic for much of the volume, became dominated by misshapen stars perched low over his beloved ravines, which started to look like the smiles of devils, buried face up in the earth. 

            The last work was titled O, How You Have Swallowed Her. Hamiils' saltbox shack—a reoccurring visual throughout the book—was submerged by roiling waves that surged up from the bottoms of his jagged chasms. This was unsettling enough. More so was the fireball of a comet that was swiftly descending, earthward, from out of an obsidian-dark sky. The year 1910 was scratched in the bottom right-hand corner as a date. By then, I could barely see in the encroaching darkness of the cramped historical society hold. I rose from my ad hoc seat and was about to put down Hamiils’ singular book, when something compelled me to flip over this final pastel, like I knew something would be waiting for me on the back.

            There were several words, in pencil. It was these words, initially, that suggested to me that I should try and do right by Sebastian Hamiils. Maybe I was just looking for some cause to fill up my days, like the retired life just wasn’t enough for a person like me. But those sure were some suggestive words, all the same, even if you’re gainfully employed with more work than you can handle.

            Everyone lies. Everyone dies. But I did not kill anyone.           

That was a Friday. I about badgered Tasmin to death over the weekend to join up with me in my would-be investigation, but sometimes there’s no moving her.

“Okay, Tully, I get it. You’re looking for the next challenge in life. That’s fine. That’s sweet. I’m glad you’re working with Noah again. But honestly—this painter of yours is just some crazy dead guy who had one too many glasses of absinthe. Some Middle Western variety. There’s nothing for you to do here. Now: what’s it going to be today? The Maltese Falcon, or Strangers on a Train?

            “Maybe he did something to anger some bigwig and it put the whole town against him. And things escalated from there. Let’s go down to the lake. Let’s see if maybe...”

            “Listen to you. You’d think you were Miss Marple.”

            Admittedly, she was on the verge of stalling my attempts at ratiocination, but I managed to cool my intensity, and did a nice little job, all in all, in convincing Tamsin that my interests in Hamiils were really quite benign—the idle curiosity of an art buff. A fine sell job. Enough so that she agreed to take a walk with me down to the lake and forestall yet another DVD screening of a film we’d both seen two dozen times. Naturally, our Scottish Terrier, Macduff, liked nothing better than a brisk ramble. It pleased me to think of the three of us as an older, wiser iteration of Nick and Nora Charles and Asta, though I certainly kept my Thin Man musings to myself.

            We walked for about an hour, with Tamsin and the dog keeping near the beach while I ventured from time to time into the fringing woods, before taking up my post again by my wife’s side. There is a rock that is never completely submerged, no matter the water level, which every local knows. It’s about fifteen yards offshore, down a ways from Millard Park, where the ravines are at their steepest. I thought, perhaps, that I had seen it depicted in Hamiils’ book. Those pastels were increasingly abstract though, or at least not wholly representational. A black splotch often appeared to be a meteorite as easily as it might have been a boulder, or a cannonball, or a plain black splotch, for that matter. But one such black splotch was rendered just offshore, and I wondered if it wasn’t that very wave-worn landmark that Tamsin and I soon found ourselves staring at.

            “You two...wait here. I’m going to take one last look in the woods.”

            “Really, Tully. Enough is enough. The dog is shivering.”

            He was at that. But if I could man up for a few extra minutes, I figured he could as well. I pushed back through the brambles that were festooned with fallen leaves. I was, in effect, at the bottom of a ravine that rose thirty or so feet before me. Ancient tree roots jutted out of its sides. This was one of the craggier, nastier ravines I had seen. But taking a few steps back, I could see that the ground at the top was level, and that the grass, in one rectangular area, had ceased to grow, like it had once been rooted up, never to return.

            I was turning to leave when I swiveled back around for a final glance, thinking I would try and guess how old some of the protruding tree limbs were. But then my eyes settled on something back deeper in the ravine, a pile of something that looked incongruous amongst all of the flora and fauna. Just a bit, but incongruous all the same. I scurried over to it, as fast as these old legs will go. Tamsin was calling my name; later, I would tell her that I couldn’t hear her because the surf and the hoots of a screech owl drowned her out. But the reality was that I wanted a few moments alone with what turned out to be several pieces of worm-eaten two-by-fours—which crumbled in my hands—and what may have been the busted-up frame of a shack, about the size of a modern tool shed. I’d like to see Miss Marple beat that.

            I arrived at the historical society early on Monday, after attending one of our boring town meetings the night before. I couldn’t wait to root around and see what else I could find before asking Noah what he knew about Sebastian Hamiils.

            “You mean the Halley’s Comet guy.”

            “No, I mean the painter. Have you seen his stuff?”

            “I haven’t. Not many people around here have. Whatever there was of it that was on display, once upon a time, was taken down. After he killed those people with the whole comet thing.”

            Noah is a pretty skilled leg-puller, and while you can’t always tell when he’s joking, you generally know when he’s leveling with you.

            “How do you kill someone with a comet?”

            “You don’t. But you can be a quack who poisons people who are scared of comets ending the world. Tamsin phoned me last night, you know. While you were at your meeting.”


            “And she said that maybe I should help you, but not encourage you too much.”

            “Sounds like her.”

            Noah smiled at me. “Yeah. You might want to have a look at this”—he flipped a small leather-bound book at me—“before you start trying to organize any Sebastian Hamiils parades.”

            I spent the next several hours with that volume. It was, in essence, a folk document, comprised of the testimonies of various locals, from Hamiils’ time, who had accused the painter of everything from sorcery to plague-spreading to a sort of enamel-based alchemy.

            The volume was not printed, but rather handwritten, with about twenty contributors. The language was all over the place, but the general charge was consistent: Hamiils had attempted to circumvent nature—and the apocalypse too, I guess—with a potion from the stream that ran by his saltbox shack. It was this stream, so proclaimed one Avina Cahen, to which Hamiils attributed his gifts. 

“He came over one morning with some of his paintings on his back and that tame raccoon of his—the filthy beast—nattering away at his side. Why, you all know me—I don’t care for the dirty and ill-bred, but I do like my fineries, and if Mr. Hamiils’ work is good enough to hang in our main public meeting room at the town hall, I guess I can hang one or two of his pictures in my sitting room. I swear that raccoon looked about ready to bite me, but Mr. Hamiils just tossed him an apple rind and he ran off behind that big poplar tree of mine near the Levy’s place. “Halloa, Ma’am,” he said to me—these ruffians these days are so informal—“would you maybe care to consider the purchase of one of my new pictures?” Well, I’ll admit, they were as pretty as he was dirty, and I bought two. I didn’t know then, of course, what he would do to young Polly Levy with that evil brew of his. I tried to be gracious and make small talk with him without being too ingratiating—I respect the divisions of society, even if people like Mr. Hamiils do not—and I asked him how he made his paintings so realistic looking. “It’s the Burncan, Ma’am. The stream by my house. It’s almost like an elixir for me. Why, I think there’s something heavenly in it.” My word. I’d never heard anything so blasphemous. I bid him good day, and hurried back in the house with the paintings.”

            A lot of the testimonies mentioned the raccoon, who went by the name of Glycerin. An Owen Hamils alleged that it was a rabid creature, and that it would attack anyone but the painter, who had some mystical hold over it. Owen Hamils was clearly one of Sebastian Hamiils’ stauncher enemies, enough so that the painter added a second “i” to his name—Owen bragged of watching the civil name-changing ceremony at the town hall—to disassociate himself from the man who lived several hundred yards away, according to the census records:

            “I would shoot that creature and we would have us some raccoon stew if it weren’t always jumping up on that crazy painter’s shoulders. If my hand were to jerk I could end up carted off for murder and he ain’t worth that. But that don’t mean he deserves to keep living here or even living after what he did. The others at least went quick. That poor Levy girl though. I ain’t never seen suffering of that kind.”

            I remembered reading about various scientists predicting the end of the world when Halley’s Comet came around in 1910. The comet had elicited fear across the globe, to various degrees, whenever it passed over the earth, every seventy-six years, but never like it did in 1910. For one thing, it was determined that it would be passing closer than ever that year—so close that it would likely run smack into the planet. Or, if that likelihood were somehow averted, there was a prevailing belief that toxic gases from the comet would wipe out the earth’s population. The fears proved a veritable bonanza for quack nostrums, who offered a range of potions that would, supposedly, stave off the harmful effects of the gas.

            People were so certain that the end was nigh that everyone in the town stayed indoors. Excepting, that is, the Levy family—good old Mrs. Cahen’s neighbors—and the Lewin and Wasser clans. They began having supper outdoors in a kind of makeshift Passover Seder.

            The Lewins and the Wassers also lived near the lake’s edge, and were familiar with Hamiils from his various painting-hawking visits. The Levys had one girl, Polly. The Lewins and the Wassers were childless, but several siblings lived amongst them. All told, the dinner parties were made up of eleven members. Someone—Polly, it seems—had the idea of asking Hamiils to paint a group picture, for posterity, such as it was.

            My best guess is that Polly was six or seven years old. She does not speak for herself in the record, but rather through her father’s voice. He describes her as a precocious girl, and one who was not only fond of the “grubby” Hamiils, but also keen friends with his pet raccoon, whom she fed bits of granola, to her mother’s horror.

            “So, what do you think?”

            I had no idea how long Noah had been in the room with me. Maybe he had never left.

            “Well, it’s absorbing, I’ll say that.”

            The various accounts talked about how Hamiils turned up with his painting materials, and a flask. The flask contained not spirits, but rather water from the Burncan River, which barely existed at the time, being a seasonal stream that was then being reabsorbed into the earth. He insisted that everyone take a mouthful of water before he began painting.

            “There’s something life-giving about that stream. Even if you don’t feel it, and even if it don’t matter none to your body. It helps me get on with my painting. Water just makes everything more real. You could ask Mr. Lane, though I doubt any of you folk have heard of him.”

            Polly bounded over, petted Glycerin, and took a swig. So did eight other members of the party, having decided to play along with the painter’s eccentricities. They were relieved to have the distraction, I suppose.

            A day or two later—there are conflicting reports in the accounts—Halley’s Comet passed overhead. Nobody died. And then Mrs. Lewin took ill; her husband followed. Both died. Four other members of the dinner party followed, with Polly succumbing last, having taken the longest. Hamiils was blamed, and the survivors enlisted the likes of Owen Hamils to mete out revenge. But then the heavens opened up. There were flash floods, and most people kept indoors, fearful that Halley’s Comet had come to get them after all, only in a less than supernal—and more fluvial—fashion.

            When the flooding ceased, the revenge party set off for Hamiils’ shack. Several testimonies stated that Owen Hamils appeared relaxed and satisfied—“like a fat cat”—as though he knew something no one else did.

            “That shack was plum gone when we got there,” one of the Lewin men alleged. “We looked into the ravine and there was the roof of it, jammed down there. The flood must have got him. ‘Good riddance,’ Owen said. I wouldn’t bet that he didn’t have something to do with this. If he had gone down there and seen that Hamiils needed help, I wouldn’t want to count on that kind of mercy.”

            Noah and I stared at each other.

            “What, Tull?”

            “I think he watched him go over. Or threw him in after he got out.” 

That, unequivocally, was that, I thought. I didn’t expect any more eureka moments from the saga of Sebastian Hamiils. I settled into the business of the historical society, while attending my town hall meetings at night. The life, in other words, of a restless retired man.

            My new job under Noah’s reign was to sort through the boxes of undelivered—which often meant unclaimed—mail. I don’t know how many times the town’s mailman of yore must have shirked his duties for some midday fishing, but there were a lot of letters. I’d open them absent-mindedly, as I daydreamed about owning a Fitz Henry Lane painting and how I’d display it. More often, though, I snuck away for a couple of hours to flip through Hamiils’ Lane study. It never failed to strike me how cumbersome the book was, with its bulky covers the size of the roughhewn shingles that you see on the earliest frontier houses.

            Several weeks into my tedium, I came across a letter from one Yarden Cavina, who, as a quick check of the town’s census register revealed, was the sister of Avina Cahen, who had moved to Missouri. She was probably every bit as sexy and good-natured too, I thought to myself. Yarden had not enclosed a letter for her sister. Rather, she had placed a newspaper clipping in the otherwise empty envelope. Within seconds, I was screaming for Noah. The headline told me all I needed to know. DISEASE RIDDEN ILLINOIS MEAT SHIPMENT KILLS THREE IN QUINCY, MO.

            As Noah and I learned, there was one meat supplier in Highland Park at the time: Kohn’s Wholesale Meats, on Prospect Avenue. They shuttered their doors shortly after the Halley’s Comet scare, to be replaced by another meat-supplying establishment on Sheridan Road.

            The Kohn’s proprietors were community stalwarts, with a cousin having married into the Cahen family a couple generations before the time of Avina and Yarden. Tamsin made one of her little jokes when I told her.

            “I guess those folks got hold of a bad batch of brisket. The anthrax variety.”

            I’m a pretty stoic guy, most of the time, but I knew I was on the verge of bawling my eyes out like some child, and Tamsin must have known it too.

            “Tully? I was only kidding. Hey. Hey. Tully.”

            “Don’t you understand? The point isn’t them. It’s him. I’m going to help this man, Tam. It is imperative that I help this man.”

            She put her hand over one of mine.

            “Okay, Tull. So help him then.”


            “Yeah. Do what you need to do.”

I know that people eventually began to think that I had lost it. And truthfully, I don’t know what got into me. It wasn’t a problem, really, clearing Hamiils’ name, but that seemed to be more a case of indifference than anything else, just waving through another matter of business at a desultory town meeting. But that wasn’t enough for me.

            “Our first priority must be to refloat the house. We can’t go back in time, but we can reverse what happened here, in a manner which would have meant something to a great artist like Hamiils. The papers will send people, the media will pick it up, and we can finish the ceremony by restoring the house to its original position, and it can be a museum. What could be better than that?”

            I pitched my idea for months. No dice. Eventually, I ended up organizing my own ceremony for Sebastian Hamiils. I hired the construction team that had done some repair work at the historical society, and they did what they could to fashion a shack from the wood salvaged from Hamiils’ original home, along with some new lumber from the Home Depot.

            My voyage was to be a short one—down a portion of Ravine Drive and across Forest Avenue. I had but one street to cross—one street to ford, really, given the pumping fire hoses—and then the shack would take up residence on the ravine’s edge.

            The saltbox shack rocked harder than I expected it would. The few Hamiils paintings that had been cased up in the basement of the town hall—having been ripped from the walls after the Halley’s Comet incident—rattled against the walls. I had hung them in places where I think Hamiils might have hung them, with one in the dead center of each wall, so that there was always a painting that was immediately visible in whichever direction you turned.

            I had one window to look out of as I made my way down the street. The shack had been lifted up on what resembled an enormous dolly, and a mobile hydraulic crane pushed me along as a fire truck pumped water over the road. There was a little bit of a crowd—I had become a talking point in town—and some people clapped as I passed by, with others ducking for cover as the spray of water came pelting off of the pavement. The public was cordoned off from the last little stretch of the voyage. The fire marshal was quite serious about the dangers of doing anything by the edge of a ravine, as I guess they were called in not infrequently to tend to various ravine-related mishaps, most having to do with mopeds. As the shack slowed down, I hopped out, happier than I can probably ever remember being.

            It was a good thing I got out when I did. Someone hit the wrong lever, or something backfired—we never did find out. But for whatever reason, the crane kept pushing. The fire marshal screamed for it to be shut off, I screamed, the crane operator, just as he jumped clear, screamed—didn’t matter. The shack—and the crane—went over the edge of the ravine. It was like watching someone die through the eyes of Owen Hamils.

            I was pretty down for a while after that. I probably shouldn’t have been. The shack going over the edge of the ravine caused more of a sensation than if we’d just stuck it where it ought to have been. There was a Hamiils resurgence—or, at least, a few scholars from universities I’d never heard of came by our house to ask me a range of questions. I was even commissioned to write a monograph myself, with one of the academics pointing out that they would not be able to pay me, but that my work would be read by some of the foremost Sebastian Hamiils scholars.

            “How many are there?”

            “As many as ten, I should venture. But he was a great artist, wasn’t he?”

            Yes, he was. The town sent its remaining Hamiils canvases—after we recovered them from the ravine—to the Art Institute of Chicago, in hopes that they might exhibit them. We also rummaged the historical society for whatever Hamiils paraphernalia we could find. Noah and I kept Hamiils’ own handmade book. I wasn’t sure I could go without seeing it every day. I handled it enough that I began to worry that perhaps I was doing some irreparable damage to it, and one morning I noticed that there was something like a rattling noise coming from the back. The sound reminded me of a football Noah and I once owned as children that had an extra piece of leather bouncing around inside.

            “Noah—have a listen to this.”

            “Please don’t tell me it’s like a seashell now Tully and I’m going to hear the waves.”

            “Just listen when I shake this a little.”

            “There’s something in there. Maybe he stitched up a treasure map in the back cover knowing the town was coming after him.”

            “Stop it.”

            “Give it here. Come on.”

            For whatever reason—maybe just because he’s my older brother, or maybe because he’s always been more practical—I handed the book to Noah. He produced a pocket knife from a desk drawer and proceeded to saw away at the side of the back cover.

            “What the…”

            “Relax. It’s a clean incision. We can get it patched up easy peasy.”

            He cut along the length of the cover’s edge, and then held the book with the binding facing the ceiling. A coarse piece of paper fell onto Noah’s desk. He handed it to me, and I gasped.

            “Do you know what it is?”

            I did.

            On one side of the paper was a pencil sketch of Fritz Henry Lane’s Burnt Ruins of Town House on Dale Avenue. It was not in Hamiils’ hand. On the reverse was a very hastily done Hamiils drawing. It showed his saltbox shack at the bottom of a ravine. There was no title, but there was an inscription: “So we meet, my friend, on this piece of paper, at least. I bid you a handshake in my thoughts. For now I am off. Truly.”

            And, with that, I suppose he finally was.