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 shifted from the middle of her retelling of the ‘Roger’ relic story and explained, “This is not the house of the John Brown ‘a-mouldering in the grave’ song, the abolitionist of the Civil War. The John Brown who built this mansion in Providence was one of Rhode Island’s most prominent 18th century merchants. His ships were part of the China and Triangle Trade, and 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. He was one of the Rhode Island patriots who met at Sabin’s Tavern in Providence and from there rowed down the Providence River, destroyed the Gaspee, and wounded her captain, Lieutenant William Dudingston. That was this John Brown.”
The docent paused and then pointed, “Here, mounted on the wall behind this glass case, you see an apple tree root. Roger Williams was – historians debate this — buried in a corner of a yard not far from here near Bowen and Benefit Streets. When he died in 1683, he was shoveled into an unmarked grave. Nearly 200 years passed before someone decided to dig him up and give him a proper burial. In 1860, greasy earth was found, a sign that a body had been there. And they also found something else — an apple tree root. The root had entered the coffin. It curved where Roger’s head should have been and entered the chest cavity, growing down the spine. It branched at the two legs and then upturned into feet. It’s ‘the tree root that ate Roger Williams.’ And here he — remains.”
Above more laughter and one groan in reaction to the pun, 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?”
Cell phones cameras instantly appeared to witness the angry tourist.
“No flash,” the white-haired woman suddenly sounded like her iron patrician forebears.
Tillinghast placed his palm on his cheek.
“Toothache,” he said. Forty years at Brown, emeritus now, had prepared him for confrontation.
The guide resumed with strained grace, “This luxury 18th century carriage,” she gestured at the tall green and gold vehicle also on display in the colonial garage, “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. The Wampanoag Chief Massasoit had gifted him land across the Seekonk River – now East Providence — but Williams had to flee English pursuit and instead negotiated a fair deal with Narragansett sachems in 1636 for Providence itself. And the 1892 portrait of The Burning of the Gaspee is, as I said, upstairs. The artist’s mother was a Bristol, Rhode Island DeWolf, also of the infamous slave trade.”
Glaring, she dared further rudeness. Diplomatically, 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. Three of the four walls of the colonial garage were brick, the long one built above a primitive stone base foundation. The John Brown coach stood beside what in the distant past had been an opening wide and high enough for it, now closed in by two white windowed doors. Was that where the cold draft was coming from? More glass arched above the doors to the high ceiling, letting in the waning light of the November day.
The elderly academic studied the Roger Williams relic. A long, twisted apple root. By what psychological phenomena did such things acquire value? He could hear Sally, his recently deceased wife, who had enjoyed visiting this Museum and any like it, scolding, “How, as a history professor, can you not care about living on history’s doorstep?!”
He examined the root spine where it branched into legs. Tillinghast knew he’d been accused of not caring. But he did, just about some things and about others not at all. He had gone on university missions to Sudan and Haiti. But Sally had admonished him for avoiding travel and for the renovation that had given their Victorian house a modern interior.
“Emerson said ‘Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,’” he quoted. “I won’t be a tourist in my own life.”
“Who said that?” Sally had asked.
Sally’s ashes remained in an urn on the fireplace mantel in the dining room of their home on College Hill. The burial or dispersal awaited discussion at Thanksgiving. Their far-flung children would otherwise not consider making the trip again after her funeral. Abigail was the eldest, a Bicentennial Baby born in ’76, an Air Force Academy grad/pilot in Anchorage married to another officer, parents also of three. Their son Perry, born in ’81, was in Beijing with his Chinese-American husband, both math professors, also CIA, Tillinghast believed. They were parents of twin IVF babies. Life pared down to acronyms.
The surprise of ’86 had been their lawyer daughter Eleanor, married and living in Jackson Hole with a Shoshone Yellowstone reservation activist. She’d had her first baby only two months before Sally died. Alaska. China. Wyoming. Tillinghast sometimes thought of his children as eggs that cuckoos had put in his nest, but befitting one of the RI Philharmonic’s second violins, (“never second fiddle!”), Sally had musically recited all their children’s/ grandkids’ names as biblically-connected begats. This always cued Tillinghast’s set piece:
“King James elevated his handsome lover, George Villiers, to be Duke of Buckingham. George’s incompetence caused Parliament to twice try to impeach him. James rescued George by dissolving Parliament both times. The public blamed George and his physician, Dr. Lambe, a Rasputin-type, who was assassinated. Then when Prince Charles was kinged,” Tillinghast always checkers-gestured, “a popular song went: ‘Let Charles and George do what they can, / The Duke shall die like Doctor Lambe.’ No surprise, Duke George was stabbed to death in Portsmouth, another English town name reborn in Rhode Island. The translation of the Bible for King James had been led by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes of Pembroke College, Cambridge.”
Bowing to Sally, Tillinghast always concluded, “Your mother was in the last American Pembroke Class of ‘71 before Brown University readmitted its feminine rib.”
Now, 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 display plaque. How big had the patriarch’s prostate been at death? He considered the contrast between the man’s epic life and his reduction to this absurdity. What was Hamlet’s line? How the dust of Caesar plugged a bunghole? What was a bunghole?
Although his smart phone was in his pocket, he would Google later. He caught up with and completed the tour. After, conversing with Sally in his head, he walked north as far as Bowen Street and back south to the water at Fox Point, the route he knew that Roger Williams had daily repeated into his oldest age even on winter days far colder than this November one. It was only before bed that 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. Tillinghast had already taken the swing down and stored it in the detached garage, above which was a guest apartment for whichever children’s families arrived later than siblings who filled bedrooms inside the house. Now it hosted uniforms and plainclothes. A detective stood facing him across the dining room table which he had set a week early.
Detective Melito watched Tillinghast approach the table. His extreme height, gaunt frame, and leaning gait were a surprise even though the detective knew the professor had been called Tilting Tillinghast on the Brown campus. This referred to his walk and possibly to Don Quixote.
“That’s my wife,” Tillinghast said to an officer about to lift a pewter urn on a fireplace mantel.
He and the detective sat at the table.
“You remind me of Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies,” Melito said. “When Tom Hanks questioned him? How Rylance wasn’t anxious. Rylance was, ‘Would it help?’”
“A fine movie,” Tillinghast said. “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.
The detective noted Tillinghast’s rhythmic, plosive speech. Professorial? A stroke?
That morning, after the police gave predictable orders and departed, Eleanor phoned. The story was all over cyberspace and national TV. In Jackson Hole, Wyoming? In the post-election news cycle, how big a story could anything from tiny Rhode Island be?
“Controlling interests of the media want us distracted, Dad,” Eleanor said, adding as if it followed, “and we’re not coming for Thanksgiving. I wanted to let you know as soon as I heard from Perry and Abigail. We had a conference call. Whatever you decide about Mom’s – the urn – is fine with us. None of us can get away. Christmas is even worse.”
“Just as well.”
“What happened yesterday, Dad?”
“You must’ve drawn the short straw to call me. Get a job done asap. You were always like that.”
“Like you’d know what I was always like.”
“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.”
When he got off the phone, 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 fingerprint was the only one 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’d convinced her not to call him Goldilocks, especially once he began balding. He preferred burglary to homicide and never expected any case of his to get the attention of his Major or Captain, let alone major media.
He liked the professor, who had replied, “’Be not afraid of greatness: some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ That’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio quoting the letter he believes was sent to him, but it makes him look crazy. As I look to you.”
But 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 his impressions of the others on the museum tour the afternoon of the robbery. The detective asked about the man who’d been aggressive.
“The real mystery is why a lout like that would ever visit any museum,” Tillinghast said.
Jack repeatedly 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, the bay, and Atlantic beyond. Tillinghast was unsurprised that Lout, paying with cash to enter the museum, was unidentifiable.
“I used my credit card for admission and bought the Museum’s book besides. Irresistibly subtitled, A Passion for the Past.”
“I know,” Jack said. The museum lacked video surveillance which also made locating the others in his group difficult.
“You had a toothache that day?”
Tillinghast’s gloved hand briefly cradled his cheek. “Oh, that. No, just a ruse to get through a moment. Came from my favorite book reviewer that 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 you doing this?” Jack asked.
“You walk like the Tower of Pisa. I don’t know why you don’t fall down.”
“When you push against a wall, it pushes back.”
“No one’s going to buy that apple root,” Jack said.
“With the media frenzy, it’s hot enough to self-combust. And easy to replicate if you go by what’s online.”
“Not a monetary motive?”
“Stupid opportunistic vandalism? Zeitgeist?”
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 with the clear plastic sheets 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 fled from Britain to Boston to Salem to Plymouth to Seekonk to Providence.”
“With a hat on his head, I’ll bet,” Jack said, tapping his own.
Mirroring, the professor touched his thick white hair.
“Sally always nagged me, but I wouldn’t. I was born in ’39. Seven when the war ended. I remember men in uniforms. When they came home.”
“Was your father in it?”
“I don’t remember when he went away. Only 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?”
“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. He should be on Mount Rushmore. He deserved a marble memorial in DC equal to Lincoln’s.” Tillinghast sipped his cider. “Now this country elected Hamlet’s bunghole and a Russian proctologist. Roger Williams is an anthem. Liberty’s torch. 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.”
“What’s in your cider?” Jack asked.
Tillinghast looked down at the mug. “Memories?”
“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, ‘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. ‘Catastrophes that happened and waiting to happen.’ 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 recited, “‘Don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ You know where the stolen relic is?”
“Can’t prove it. I 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 what they call – ‘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 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. What It is to Hamlet’s Hecuba or us to It – that’s another mystery for future detectives.”
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, 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!”