Restoration of Sanity
By Dave Benneman
Acorns crunched beneath the tires of George Shaw’s truck as he drove into circular driveway guarded by ancient oak trees. The musty air smelled of abandonment and rotting vegetation. The scents combined with the sting of the chilly autumn morning, cloaking him in a dark shroud of depression. Fall was the Harbinger of Death in George’s mind. Winter could arrive any day, and for the first time since he started his business, he didn’t have enough work on the books to keep his crew on. The invitation to look at this job gave him hope until he learned the Hysterical Society was involved.
At the end of the polished black hood of his F-250 stood a neglected one-hundred-fifty-year-old plantation style home, faded to the same lifeless shade of grey as the October sky. On the expansive porch, in spiked heels, stood his appointment. He parked next to her Lexus, and then grabbed a tape measure and clipboard off the passenger seat. “This day won’t be a total loss.”
Long legs led the way to a shapely rear. At his approach, she spun on her heels. The business-grey wool suit had red pin stripes and a tight skirt with a strategically placed slit at the back, which finished just below her knee. George got a tasty glimpse of her thighs before she turned around. A conservative red silk blouse and shoulder length raven black hair as shiny as George’s truck completed the look.
“You must be George.” She extended her right hand and flashed a smile that completely undermined his foundations. The toe of his boot caught on the first step, which sent him sprawling. His chin landed inches from her shapely ankles. Heat radiated off his neck and face. Tilting his head up to apologize, he found himself looking up her skirt.
Hastily he turned away. “Sorry. I’m not usually clumsy.” In his peripheral vision, he caught sight of her hand offering to help him up. The lack of a ring on her hand did not get past him. “Just have the demolition crew haul me away when they get here.”
Her light laugh floated above him. “Don’t be silly, everyone falls sooner or later. I’m sure you have fallen harder than that in your line of work.”
He dusted himself off. “Somehow it’s not as embarrassing in front of a bunch of beer drinking, loud mouthed, wood butchers who depend on me for their checks.”
“I’m Shari O’Brien, with the Bucks County Historical Society.”
“George Shaw, Blue Moon Restoration, contractor, and klutz, nice to meet you.”
“Let me show you around a little.”
“Lead the way and I promise to stay on my feet.” He followed her inside. “I did a little research on the property after your call. It has quite a story to tell. I hope you don’t mind my jumping ahead, but if I can cut to the chase here I might save us both a lot of time.”
Shari stopped just inside the entrance hall and looked back. Framed in the massive space she appeared fragile. “By all means.”
“It’s been my experience that groups such as the Historical Society mean well, but rarely have the funds to restore a property this large the way it should be done.” He tried to bite back his next thought, but his jaws kept flapping. “That is to say, the way my firm would do it. So if you have a budget number in mind?” He needed this job, but he would not do it half assed.
She straightened and gave him a hard look. “I have to say you do get right to the point. I didn’t call you out here to waste your time, Mr. Shaw. I too, have done my homework. We’ve already decided to offer you a position as a consultant until we can develop a scope of work. You would be paid to do the research you’ve already started. The plan is to establish the property’s place in Bucks County’s history. I actually represent a group of businessmen who are interested in restoring this property.
“We,” she gestured to George and herself, “will work closely with the Historical Society. When the project is complete, they will become the custodians of the property. So you see, money isn’t really the issue. Now, would you like to see the property, or do you want to refer me to someone else?”
“I didn’t mean to offend. It’s just…”
“Fine.” She spun on her heels and continued into the house. “Now that we’ve gotten the crudities out of the way, let’s have a look at what we’re up against.”
“As I mentioned, this grand lady has a great story to tell,” George tried to recover his equilibrium.
“Then you probably know the home was built around eighteen-fifty by Dr. Hood. He also owned the surrounding three thousand acres on which he raised cattle and horses.”
“If I may?” George interrupted. “It was a gentleman’s farm. Dr. Hood treated the locals of their ailments. In return he received labor and produce as payment. His passion was horses. He raised everything from Clydesdales to Arabians. The real story is his young wife who abhorred slavery. She convinced her husband to take part in the underground railway, providing a hideaway, food, and medical treatment to slaves fleeing the South. Many of them stayed on to work for the Hoods as free people. Mrs. Hood and her work as an abolitionist is the human-interest side of the story.
“Aside from that, the doctor built some unique architectural features into the home, such as a shaft from the icehouse to the main house. He utilized convection air currents to create the first air conditioned home.”
“You learned all that in just one day? I’m quite impressed. I see I’ve made the right decision selecting you to spearhead this project.”
“May I ask how you heard about Blue Moon Restoration?”
“One of the men I represent suggested we look into your company. Do you know the law firm Johnson, Johnson, and Johnson?”
He chuckled, suppressing his distaste for lawyers. “Can’t say I do.”
Her phone buzzed softly in her purse. “Speak of the devil.” She held her phone up. “I’ve got to take this.”
He waved and made a gesture indicating he was going to look around. His footsteps echoed in the empty spacious rooms, drinking in the workmanship. Hand-planed moldings, vaulted plaster ceilings, and in-laid hardwood floors. He marveled at the condition of the twelve-foot high double hung windows designed to circulate air to cool the house in the temperate months.
Outside he inspected the wrap around porch, structurally sound but in dire need of cosmetic work to restore it back to its formal glory as the pre-entrance of the home. He felt the weight of the second story windows staring down on him through their multi-colored panes as he passed through what must have been beautiful gardens in their day. Now plastic soft drink bottles and paper coffee cups littered the grounds Instead.
Stone steps led to a cellar. He activated the flashlight on his phone and went down to inspect the foundation. Futilely, he waved one arm through the air to keep the cobwebs off his face. The dark strengthened the further he ventured from the entrance. The walls were coated with a crystalline substance. Probably a reaction of the lime in the cement used to hold the stones in place.
The emptiness of the basement felt endless. He should have found the front wall by now. The basement couldn’t be larger than the house. He made a mental note to measure it later. A shuffling noise left him holding his breath. He listened. Deafening quiet. “Hello, is someone down here?”
Murmuring voices floated on the air. Slowly he turned around trying to pinpoint what direction they came from. “Ms. O’Brien?” He didn’t like the shrill sound of his own voice. Something scrabbled across the dirt floor. He spun searching for a rat. The air grew warm and carried the strong scent of unwashed bodies. The pungent smell over whelmed him. Someone was living down here. Squatters. He scanned the area with his useless phone, the light reaching only a few feet in front of him. “Come out where I can see you. I mean you no harm.” Of course, that wasn’t true. He meant to evict them. Sweat formed on his face and ran into his eyes.
The murmuring returned. Louder than before. “I’m calling the police if you don’t show yourself.”
A flickering orange glow appeared, accompanied by a metallic rattle. George closed his eyes for a moment to improve his night vision. The flickering grew brighter until George made out the whites of a pair of eyes. Straining to see he made out a black man clothed in tatters. He held a dangerous looking sickle in one hand and a lantern in the other. “What are you doing down here?”
“The Missus sent us. My Ruby be needin’ some doctorin’.”
A vague gesture led George’s gaze to the silhouette of a woman on the floor. He directed his feeble light at her. She lay in a pile of dirty straw, her belly swollen. In her mouth, a stick was nearly bitten in two. Tears streamed down her face. “It’s our first. My Ruby’s a-scared.”
George pulled off his new company jacket and laid it between the woman’s legs. He’d seen a video of an emergency delivery in a first aid class he took years ago, but that didn’t prepare him for the reality of this. “Okay Ruby, I know it hurts.” He took the stick from between her teeth. “Pant, you know, like a dog.” He demonstrated, and then reached for his phone. “No service. That’s great. Just great.” He turned to the man who belonged to Ruby. “We need water and some clean towels.”
The man looked down at him stupefied.
“Go, get some help. Tell Ms. Obrien to call 911.”
The young woman stifled a scream. George glanced down. The crown of the baby’s head was visible in the light of his phone. “Pant Ruby, pant.” Again, he demonstrated. “You scream all you want.” He adjusted his jacket. “It’s almost here Ruby, don’t push.”
He looked up astonished to see the young man watching him.
“What are you still doing here? Go! NOW!” He pointed with one hand indicating the direction.
“I can’t leave my Ruby.”
“I can’t do this.” George glanced down and saw the baby’s head, covered in silky black hair poking out. He bit his tongue until it bled to keep from passing out. Resigning himself to the task at hand he crouched low and extended a hand to support the baby. “Keep panting. Good girl. It’s almost here.”
Sweat burned George’s eyes in spite of the cool. After the head popped out, the baby slid into his waiting hands. “It’s a boy.” He yelled in his excitement. The only thing keeping him from losing it was the adrenalin raging through his veins. He wrapped the baby in his jacket and passed him to the mother. “I just delivered a baby! Damn. Double goddamn! What’s his name?”
“Jeremiah, Jeremiah Johnson.” They were the first words he heard her speak. She moved Jeremiah to her waiting breast and sighed.
“Wait here,” he said needlessly. “I’m going to get you some help.”
He ran through the basement, keeping his head down and watched his phone for the first sign of a signal. Not until he topped the steps did he stop. He panted when the operator picked up. “I just delivered a baby at…” He couldn’t remember the street address. “It’s the old Hood plantation house on Township Line Road.” The operator rattled off an address. “Yeah, that’s the place.”
“George Shaw.” Shari clipped each word coming up behind him.
He turned to see her stalking towards him, looking none too pleased. Ignoring her, he continued talking to the 911 operator, “The mother’s name is Ruby Johnson. I think they’re homeless.”
“Mr. Shaw! I’ve been looking all over for you. Where the hell did you disappear to?” Stepping from the back door, Shari looked as if he’d pissed in her Wheaties.
“A man, maybe thirty-ish, the mother, and the baby. Damn right, I’m staying on the line until they arrive.” He heard the dead air of hold and turned his attention to Shari. She was charging across the yard. Not an easy task in those shoes.
He waved and smiled. “Hey, I was in the basement and the most amazing thing…”
“You were in the basement all this time? You must be kidding me.”
“No, I just delivered a baby to a woman down there. I think they may be living there.”
“You what?” She stopped right in front of him, nostrils flaring.
“I delivered a baby.”
“Down there?” She motioned with her hand. “Why didn’t you pick-up my call?”
“No signal.” He shrugged.
She started down the steps. “Are you coming?”
“I’m going out to the road to wave the ambulance in.” He heard a small voice and realized he’d forgotten the 911 operator. “I’m still here.” He started toward the road waving to Shari as she descended the steps.
Out at the street he thought about what had just happened. The man’s deep southern drawl. Moreover, who sent them down there? Mrs.. Mrs. who? Dizziness washed over him. A shake of his head cleared cobwebs. He saw the flashing lights of an approaching patrol car. He disconnected the call and put his phone away. Desperately he tried to regain his equilibrium. A shiver racked his body. He’d wrapped the baby in his jacket.
“Did you call in a medical emergency?” The officer asked for the second time, jerking him out of his spinning thoughts.
“Yes. There are two people in the cellar. I think they may be living there. The woman had a baby.”
The cop started pulling away. “Wait here for the ambulance.”
“Around the back of the house,” George yelled after the departing patrol car.
The ambulance barely slowed before turning into the driveway. George jogged after them. When he rounded the house, he saw the officer, two E.M.T.s and Shari all in conversation. Why weren’t they bringing out Ruby and Jeremiah?
“What are you waiting for?” he said as he reached the huddle.
“Are you Mr. Shaw?” the cop asked.
“Of course,” he snapped.
“Can I see some I.D?”
“Yeah, but someone needs to go down and check on the baby first.” He handed over his driver’s license and spun on the paramedic. “Go get them, for Christ’s sake.”
“Relax Mr. Shaw.” The officer took him by the elbow and one of the paramedics took him by the other one. “Everything is under control.”
They guided him to the ambulance and had him sit down. The second paramedic slipped a blood pressure cuff on his arm while the first shined a light in his eyes.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
“Mr. Shaw, do I have permission to draw your blood for a drug screen,” Paramedic number two asked him.
“Hold on.” He pulled his arm away.
The cop grabbed him hard enough to make him wince. “There is no baby down there, Mr. Shaw.”
George relaxed and smiled. “You probably didn’t go far enough. It’s a ways in there.”
“I’ve looked.” The cop held him with his intense blue eyes. “There is nobody down there.”
“I wrapped it my jacket to keep it warm.” He motioned to himself. “See no jacket.”
“Will you allow the paramedic to draw your blood?” The cop asked again.
“Look here officer,” he read the nametag on the cop’s shirt, “Sullivan. You can have as much blood as you want, after you let me show you where they are.”
The cop seemed to think that over. After conferring with Number One, the cop nodded his head. “Okay, but I’ll need to cuff you.”
“What for?” George yelled.
“Right now you’re in some serious trouble for reporting a fraudulent medical emergency. I am taking you into custody, if you don’t cooperate.”
“Fine.” George stood, turned, and placed his hands behind his back. Willing to do anything to get help for the mother and baby.
Both the cop and the Number One were armed with intensely bright LED flashlights, which they swept back and forth as they escorted George through the cellar. One on each side with a hand on his biceps. George wasted no time moving quickly to where he’d delivered Jeremiah Johnson, only to stop abruptly. “They should be right here. I’m certain. There was a pile of straw. The guy had a shuttered lantern. He turned around in a circle. There.” He motioned with his head, “My tape measure, and clipboard.”
He stared into the distance, and a cold sweat bathed his face. Panic, fear, and confusion all fought for space in his brain. There was no sign of the woman, her baby, or the man. “It was here, I know it was. Right here.” He stamped his foot on the dirt floor.
“Let’s keep looking, shall we?” Number One suggested.
“Can’t be. I held the baby in my hands. This isn’t happening,” George muttered. “Where could they have gone? They were there. I saw them. Touched them.”
Sullivan and Number One patiently walked him around the cellar until they arrived back at the steps. Above ground, there were now two additional patrol cars. George saw Sullivan and Number One slowly shaking their heads. Another officer took notes and nodded as Shari O’Brien talked animatedly.
Sullivan removed his cuffs from one wrist and sat him down on the rear of the ambulance again. “Do you remember our deal, Mr. Shaw?”
He held out his arm. Number Two drew his blood.
“How do you feel?” Sullivan asked.
“It was so real. I, I, I…”
“Have you been drinking or using any other substances?”
“How about prescription drugs? Are you taking anything? Maybe you’re having a bad reaction to–”
“Nothing.” He stared down at his feet and smelled fear oozing from his pores.
“The medics are going to take you to the hospital to get you checked out.”
“Sure. I guess.”
Sullivan put the cuffs back on, in front this time and very loose. “Procedure. I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
George allowed Number Two to guide him into the ambulance. He lay on the stretcher and was strapped in.
Sullivan hung around until the drug screen came back, wished George luck and left to do paperwork. After being admitted, every doctor in the tri-state area came in and asked him the same questions. In between, they ordered tests. Blood work, x-rays, and now he was sliding into a tube for a brain scan.
Around midnight they had finally left him alone. He studied the ceiling. I blew that job. It would have carried us through the winter and I blew it. He was still awake when the sun came up. Around eight A.M. a doctor he didn’t recognize came into his room with a wheel chair.
“Good morning Mr. Shaw, I’m Dr. Hammond. Hop in. We’re going for breakfast.”
In the cafeteria, they ate and talked about everything except his experience from the previous day. After multiple cups of coffee, Dr. Hammond wheeled him through the hospital until they reached his office. A fancy walnut paneled room. George read the diplomas on the wall for the doctor’s work in psychiatry.
“Make yourself comfortable, George. May I call you George?”
“Sure. The couch is for me I guess.”
“Sit anywhere you like. You can take the chair behind my desk if you please.”
He shrugged, but chose a comfortable looking armchair.
The doctor selected its twin and sat facing him. “I’ve been over all your tests, consulted with all the doctors who poked and prodded you yesterday. The truth is, we can’t find anything that would explain your episode.”
“So the consensus is, I’m crazy.”
“There are many things that can trigger a psychotic episode. Although, I’ve never heard one quite like yours before. Are you under a lot of stress?”
“No more than the usual.”
“You run a small remodeling business, is that right?”
“Close enough. I specialize in period restorations of old buildings.”
“Could it be related to your work?”
“Maybe, things are looking a little thin for the winter. But doc, yesterday I would have sworn to you I delivered a baby in that basement. Today it sounds unbelievable to me too.”
Dr. Hammond made some notes on a legal pad. “I’m going to release you. I’d like to see you next week to make sure the medical guys haven’t missed anything. Does that sound like something you can do?”
George nodded. “Sure. Does it get me out of here?”
“Call my office tomorrow.” The doctor handed over a business card. “My office manager will give you an appointment.”
George recognized the address. It was an old warehouse recently converted to luxury office condominiums. He grimaced.
Hammond had the phone to his ear. “Can you send an aid to take Mr. Shaw back to his room?”
“I can walk.”
“Sorry George, hospital policy. Zero falls and all that.”
“When do I get out of here?”
“I’ll start the paper work right now. You should be gone before lunch.”
Back in his room, George found his clothes. He grabbed his cell phone to make a call but he had no signal. That little thought had him reliving the event of the day before. Had it been only yesterday? It seemed long ago and far away now. He considered that a good thing. Maybe it would disappear into the vacuum of his mind, the place things go when there is no more room in the file cabinet.
He stopped at the nurse’s station, holding his cell phone in the air. “I need to check messages.”
“Follow the signs for the Atrium.” She pointed in the general direction.
In the Atrium, he checked his messages. One from his bowling partners He missed last night. They would be pissed if they had to forfeit a match on his account. What the hell was he going to tell them? Two from his crew leader. They could wait. A half dozen from Shari O’Brien. What was that about? He had blown that job. His finger brushed the call back button and the phone started to ring.
“This is George Shaw from Blue—”
“Oh my God, George, how are you?”
“I’m good. They’re releasing me now.”
“I’ll pick you up.”
He absently scratched his head. This was not the response he expected. “That’s not necessary.”
“Someone wants to meet you. How about I set up lunch?”
“I’d rather get my truck and go home for a shower.”
“I understand. He’ll be disappointed. I’m leaving now. I’ll pick you up out front.”
The line went dead. She sounded happier to talk to him today than she did yesterday, before he made a mess of things.
“Mr. Shaw. I need you to sign some forms.” A dumpy, middle-aged nurse approached him armed with an iPad and a wheel chair. She tapped the screen and scrolled to the bottom.
“What am I signing?”
“This one says that you are who you say you are.”
“This one says that you will pay us.”
“This one is an affidavit swearing that I provided the best possible care during your stay.”
He paused and looked at her nametag. “Should I put Edna in here somewhere?”
“I’ve already taken care of that.” She smiled.
“You’re a free man, Mr. Shaw. Unless you stiff us on the payment, in that event I will visit you at home, in the middle of the night. It won’t be pleasant.”
He laughed. “Thank you Edna, for providing a level of care eclipsing my demanding expectations.”
“Get in Mr. Shaw.” She pushed the wheelchair toward his ankles. “Flattery won’t pay the rent.”
Edna passed him off to another aid that delivered him to the front door. He stepped into a brisk fall afternoon with a low ceiling of gunmetal-gray clouds. A horn blew and Shari O’Brien pulled up.
He slid into her Lexus. “This is very nice of you, but—”
“Nonsense.” She wheeled out of the driveway.
“Where are you going? My truck is the other way.”
“We are stopping by to see Mr. Johnson first.”
“The lawyer? What for. I’m not in any shape to meet anyone right now. Are you suing me or something?”
She laughed. “Nothing is wrong and we’re not suing. I can appreciate how you’re feeling. Honestly, I told him we were going to have to find someone else for the project, but he insists on having you. He told me in a very convincing way, to get you in his office as soon as possible.”
His mind raced. He may still have this job if he can pull himself together. He turned and looked out the window. It wasn’t until then he realized how fast she was driving.
“I don’t get it. Are you sure you’ve never met him?” she asked. I mean after yesterday’s…”
“Episode, that’s what they called in the hospital. My episode.”
“When I told Mr. Johnson what had happened he got a little tense and told me to get a hold of you. I thought he might go to the hospital himself.”
Before long, they were driving the narrow one-way streets of Doylestown. She expertly parallel parked in front of a beautiful old brownstone. The shingle read Johnson Johnson and Johnson, Attorneys at Law. Even in his current state of agitation, he couldn’t pass up a chance to admire Shari’s legs as she mounted the steps.
A tall handsome black man met them at the door. “You must be George Shaw.” He extended his hand and gave George an energetic shake. “Shari, thank you so much, I’ll see that Mr. Shaw gets home.”
George recognized the expression on her face before she could recover. He got the same one yesterday from her when he emerged from the cellar. Thoroughly pissed best described it.
“Are you sure Jeremiah?”
“Absolutely, I’ll call you later.” He opened the door for her. “Everything is fine. Take the afternoon off.”
George steadied himself on a doorway. Shari was saying something he didn’t catch. Jeremiah Johnson? This shit isn’t happening. It doesn’t happen, never happens to him. A dream maybe? He’d heard of waking dreams.
“Mr. Shaw?” Mr. Johnson gave his shoulder a gentle shake. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah, sure.” He turned his attention to the big man. “I’m tired is all. I didn’t get much sleep in the hospital.”
“Please.” Mr. Johnson indicated the direction. He led the way down the hall, then stopped, rapped on the door, and then opened it. “Dad, Mr. Shaw is here.” Pushing the door open, he led George in and closed it. “Mr. Shaw, this is my father Jerry.”
An elderly black man with silver hair came around his desk, grasped George’s hand in both of his, and shook it. “It is very nice to meet you, Mr. Shaw. Please have a seat.” He indicated a leather, overstuffed couch, and then sat next to him. His son took a seat in a matching chair opposite them. “Can I get you anything? Water, coffee, scotch, something in between.”
“No thank you, Mr. Johnson.”
“My father is Mr. Johnson. Call me Jerry, please.”
“Okay Jerry, why am I here?”
“Why don’t I get right to it. After hearing the crazy story from Shari yesterday, I called in more than a few favors and obtained transcripts of your statements to the police and hospital staff. Be assured I didn’t get any of your medical records. Your story stayed consistent throughout the ordeal.”
“How does that concern you?”
“You told Officer Sullivan, you delivered a baby for Ruby. Who, in turn, named the baby Jeremiah Johnson. You no doubt have noticed the fact that it is my name as well as my son’s.”
“Hard to miss after the last thirty-six hours.”
“I’m sure. What you cannot know is that my great great grandmother’s name was Ruby. We know that she gave birth in the basement of the Hood Plantation and named her first son Jeremiah, after her father, who died in slavery. That Jeremiah was the first in my family to be born a free man. What followed was a tradition of naming our first born sons Jeremiah.”
George groped for firm ground to stand on. “I’ll take that scotch now.” His world seemed to be swirling like a tempest.
“JJ, pour us all one will you please?”
The younger Mr. Johnson got up and went to an armoire. “How do you like your scotch, Mr. Shaw?”
“In a glass. And call me George.”
Jerry laughed. “In a glass, that’s a new one hey, JJ. I guess drinking from the bottle in a brown paper bag is gauche these days.”
“So you see George, you witnessed the birth of my great grandfather yesterday.”
George accepted the glass from JJ and took a healthy swallow. “That doesn’t seem to surprise you.”
“Surprise, no. Stupefied, maybe.” Jerry placed a hand on George’s knee. “However I’ve had a head start on you I’m afraid. You no doubt wondered why we selected you for this project.”
“The subject came up.”
“It was your company name and logo George. How did you come to name your firm Blue Moon?”
He shrugged. “It sounded better than George Shaw Restoration.”
“Over the past thirty-six hours I’ve reconciled hard facts with family legend handed down orally through the years.” Jerry sipped his scotch. “So tell me George, do you think you saw a ghost yesterday?
“I don’t know what I saw. Maybe you think I’m nuts too, but when I handed that baby boy to his mother, it felt as real as sitting here feels.” George emptied his glass and let the alcohol warm his throat.”
“I don’t think you’re nuts. I can’t explain what happened any better than you can. I do have something I want you to see.” He nodded at his son.
JJ got up. He returned with a large garment box and set it on the coffee table in front of his father.
“In this box is an item that has been handed down through five generations of our family. It belongs to JJ now.” Jerry leaned forward and lifted the lid. Inside was an obviously very old, and well-used denim jacket, now preserved in a vacuum sealed bag. Something embroidered on the left breast caught George’s attention. A full moon crossed by a claw hammer above the words Blue Moon Restoration.