Patricia Morin

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"Knotted"

“Twiddle-dee, Twiddle-dum, a Fisherman’s Bend, and then you’re done.” Herbert Harley sang as he twisted the polypropylene rope around his short, stubby fingers. “Can’t use this one near the docks, it floats. Wouldn’t want anyone to see the rope float.” He laughed aloud as he tightened the strand around the other two. “The tighter the strands, the greater the strain they can hold, Herby. Remember that.” He laughed again. “Rememmem, remem…memmember, When.” Herbert sang what he could of a classic tune. Herbert loved the oldies, even though he was only forty-two.

Herbert Harley shoved old, used coffee mugs to one side of his comic-book-cluttered Salvation Army coffee table, with reels of different roping material sitting around his sofa and near his feet. An old small-screened TV seemed lost resting on the oversized white marble fireplace mantle stacked with wire, paper, and heavy metal cutters.   

The polypropylene rope was smooth and slippery and he’d have to secure it with an extra half-hitch knot. He twisted the knot as tight as possible while bobbing his bald head up and down. “C’mon baby, do the twist.” He sang to the full range of his discordant voice, the beat in his head, making up the words, “My daddy’s asleep way under ground, slept with the maid outside of town, they no longer around, but baby, I can twist.”

Herbert loved his little cottage on the edge of San Juan Island near Mulno Cove. He glanced at the old Seth Thomas clock on a water-stained, oak table near the front door. His Mother would be calling soon. Said the same thing every day at noon. Then the Meals-on-Wheels guy, Gary, would be delivering his lunch and dinner. Mr. Gary, Herbert called him, had to set the aluminum plates on his kitchen table, and felt the need to look around the house to make sure Herbert was okay. Gary would also peek into the refrigerator, and then stare at the knots on the couch, then ask him if he took all his pills.

The doctors made Herbert take the meds after the Air Force gave him a medical discharge—he’d refused to be with people after his only friend died, and one day just kept singing, “You’re in the Army now and not behind a plow.” That was his second breakdown.

Gary tried to make conversation about Herbert’s work, but Herbert would just grunt. It wasn’t that he disliked Gary, although he didn’t like him either. Sometimes Gary humored him, and his mouth would smile but his eyes wouldn’t. Gary’s questions annoyed him, too. And nothing Gary said reminded him of any songs.

“Hello Mother.” Herbert forced a formal speech. “And how are you this fine May first?” He didn’t hear what she said. He sang a song title in his mind. “It’s May, It’s May, the lusty month of May.

“Herbert! Herbert! Can you hear me?” Mother shouted into the phone. “Pay attention, Herbert.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mother. My mind was wondering. I’ve almost completed my new assignment.”

“The assignment you gave yourself, you mean? The one where you make your own rope and tie every knot that was ever invented?”

“Why, yes. I’m so enjoying it.” He gazed out the window and spotted the Meals-on-Wheels van heading up the driveway. “Listen, Mother, lunch and dinner are here.”

“All right, Herbert. Go and eat and I’ll ring you up tomorrow. But do watch the news tonight, Herbert. There was a trucker murdered not far from you, and he was tied to a tree with a trucker’s hilt.”

“Trucker’s hitch, Mother. It’s a hitch. A hitch secures an item to a post, hook, ring, loops drop over an object.” Herbert was pleased with himself for memorizing this.

“Oh, well,” Mother interrupted. “He was left for the animals, he was. Odd, your hobby. Makes me think of father and how he hung himself. It’s dreadful, Herbert. Do you think of father when you make those knots?”

“Oh, did they show the knot, Mother? Was it lovely?” He smiled as he added to himself, “like the merry month of May?”

“They didn’t show the knot. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, then.”

Herbert hung up as Gary knocked on the door.  

“Hey, Mr. Harley. How goes it?”

“I’m fine, Mr. Gary,” Herbert answered tersely. “Go check out the kitchen and then leave. I’m busy today.”

“Tying more knots?” Gary passed the sofa on the way to the small, turn-around-in-a-circle-to reach-everything kitchen. He opened the refrigerator and checked its contents. “You ate yesterday’s lunch and dinner. That’s great. Your social security benefits have been extended. Your mother is very good about all the paper work, and getting your doctors to sign-off on you. Take your pills?”

“Yes. What’s for lunch and dinner?”

“Today we have a turkey sandwich for lunch and pot roast for dinner with those little red potatoes you like, and cherry jello for dessert. Don’t forget to eat the salad. Greens are good for you.”

“Jello again? I hate jello.”

“I know, I know. Tomorrow is apple pie.” Gary scanned the living room. “Where’s your TV tray?”

“I put it in the closet. Need room to make knots.”

Gary walked over to the only closet, moved some things around, and withdrew the TV tray. “Here you go. It was right next to your coat and dirty shoes. Did you go for a walk?”

“In the backyard to check the roses.”

“Good. You need to get some fresh air.” Gary opened the TV tray in front of the couch. “Now you’re all set up and I can leave in peace.” He strutted toward the door and stopped to study two knots lying on the coffee table. “What are these two called?”

“One’s a fisherman’s bend and the other’s a hunter’s knot.”

“Creative.” Gary leaned over to study them. His light brown hair fell into his dark brown eyes. He stood and his thin frame towered over Herbert’s short stocky build.

“Aren’t they lovely, Mr. Gary?” Herbert asked. “They’re very neat and tight.”

“If you’re into knots, I guess they are. You take care, man. I’ll see you tomorrow. I know you don’t go out much, but you should take a walk around the neighborhood. It’s beautiful today! Sandy gonna clean tomorrow?”

“Yes, every two weeks, both her and the gardener come. Same day. Wednesday.”   Herbert sang to himself. “Sandy, you’re a fine house cleaner, what a good life you should have.” His head moved from side to side, and he snapped his fingers to the tune of “Brandy.”

“You singing to yourself again, Herbert?” Gary smiled. “Hope it’s a happy song. See you tomorrow.”

* * *

Sandy examined Herbert’s knots. She always asked a lot of questions, and that made Herbert nervous. He was brief, but that didn’t deter the inquiry. 

“Why do they have so many names?”

“Lots of knots.”

“Do fishermen really use this knot or did a fisherman invent it?”

“Fishermen use that bend. A bend joins two ropes. It’s also called a grapevine bend, but I like fisherman’s bend.”

“Is Warren coming today?”

“Yes, he’s cutting the scrubs.”

“Oh good. I know someone looking for a gardener.”

Herbert nodded and escaped into his small bedroom off the kitchen, near the front door, while she dusted and vacuumed and cleaned. Sometimes she would use the phone to make dates with men. He picked out a new comic book from his bookcase. He wouldn’t stop reading until Sandy yelled that she was leaving.

She would greet Gary today. Gary liked her, Herbert could tell. Would Gary bring the apple pie? She’d leave soon, after Mother called, and she’d wait for Warren in the backyard, under the oak tree.

“Mother is on the phone,” Sandy yelled at noon. “Do you want me to bring you the phone, honey?”

“No. I’ll talk to her tomorrow.” Herbert shouted, but his mind sang the lyrics to Annie’s theme song, “Tomorrow.”

“Okay.” Sandy answered just as loud. “I’ll be leaving soon. Warren will be here in a few minutes to cut the lawn. We’re going out to eat after he’s done.”

He knew Warren impressed her with his big muscles, and white-tooth smile, and fake tan. Who cared about an all-year tan in Port Friday? The guitar sounded in his head, and a soft sultry voice whispered, “Smooth Operator.” The song continued as he shouted it out to the world, but only in his mind.

“Did you hear me, Herbert?”

“Yes, Sandy. Now go. I have work to do.” He forced his most officious voice.

“Okay, honey. I left you a few of those chocolate bars you like, and some ice cream. Vanilla. Gary’s here now. I’ll tell him. Enjoy, and don’t eat it all today.”

Hebert’s heart leapt with joy. Ice cream would go nicely with apple pie! “Thank you, Sandy! Ask Mr. Gary if I he got my apple pie.” Yeah, what a nice girl she could be, Herbert sung to himself.

Herbert heard the door open. It wasn’t a minute later that Gary yelled into the bedroom. “Got your pie, Herbert. But you know I have to see you or I can’t leave the food.”

Herbert opened his bedroom door and stepped out. “Now you can both leave. I have work to do!”

Sandy smiled, and then waved. “Gotta go. You take care and I’ll see you in two weeks.”

“Wait up, Sandy. Gotta talk to you.” Gary rushed through the delivery, forgot about the TV tray and asking Herbert about taking his pills, and scooted out after Sandy. Good, Herbert thought. Now he’d make the noose that killed his father, the Hangman’s Noose.

Warren knocked on the front door a couple of hours later, and stepped into the living room wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, even though it was cool outside. Herbert had just finished his noose.

“Wow, a noose. Hanging someone?” Warren laughed a fake laugh. “Hear about the guy tied to a tree? The animals got him. Must have been a sight.” He flexed his bicep muscle bringing attention to his tattoo of a knife splitting a red heart.

Herbert pointed to the envelope on the side table near the door. “Running knots tighten around an object when pressure is induced, but it loosens when strain is released.” He sounded like a dictionary. “Your check is next to the clock.”

Warren ambled over to the couch instead of the door and stared at the knots, and the noose. “You’re really into this, dude. Got much more stuff than last time I was here.”

“Bye,” Herbert muttered, then his shoulders rocked, followed by his head. “Bye, Bye, So Long, Farewell, do, do, do do.”

When his attention returned to the room, Warren was gone.

His head rocked back and forth to a new song as he practiced a Climber’s Bowline. “Yeah, son of a preacher man, yeah father, a preacher man.”

And then he remembered the apple pie and the ice cream, and the chocolate bars.

* * *

“The newsman said it was a fisherman’s bend, Herbert,” his mother said. “It was a knot that holds two pieces of rope together. They thought it was the beginning murders of a serial killer. In both deaths, the knots matched the trade of the murdered victim. Isn’t that the oddest thing?”

“Yes, Mother. I watched the news today and they didn’t show the knot!”

“Herbert, who would pay any attention to how the knot was formed?”

“Me. I wanted to see if it stretched.”

“Don’t you feel sorry for the two men who died?”

“Yes, Mother, but I still wanted to see the bend. Some bends are just so sloppy these days, not tight, too much give.”

“I heard it’s been beautiful there the last three days. Have you been out for some walks?”

“No. Just outside in the backyard, near the roses and the oak tree. Gary bought me apple pie and Sandy bought me vanilla ice cream. Yesterday was glorious. Why would I go for walks?”

“So you don’t walk in your sleep any longer?”

“No. I don’t sleepwalk. Why?”

“Never mind. What knot are you making today?”

“I made a hangman’s noose, Mother.”

“No! Herbert, are you all right? A hangman’s noose!”

“It’s one of the knots, and I have to make all the knots, all of them. I bought the book to make all of them. I worked with natural fibers today. Natural fiber ropes are biodegradable. Natural fiber ropes are fun to twist. I twisted three strands. Three strands are strong, Mother. Father’s rope only had two. But natural fibers are more sensitive to the elements—rain, chemicals, sun.”

“How did you know father’s rope only had two strands?”

“From the pieces the police left when they cut him down. I saw him up there before they cut him down, just like you, Mother.”

“I know, dear. Poor Herbert.” Herbert’s mother paused, and Herbert was about to hang up. “I don’t know where all this is leading, you learning to tie knots, Herbert. Would you do me a favor and not make any more knots? Why don’t you go back to collecting comics? I’ll send you money. You know when father hanged himself, you had your first breakdown. Then when that fellow in your Air Force unit hanged himself and you wouldn’t go near anyone and started singing, “You’re in the army now,” you had your second breakdown. I don’t want this to be another one of those times, Herbert. I love you. I couldn’t bare to lose you, too.”

“You won’t Mother. I like this. I can do this well. I’ve read a lot about knots, and I’m making every knot in different materials.”

“You were always a great reader. It’s just that I’m afraid how this might affect you, making these knots. You loved Father, and he loved you, but he hanged himself.”

“And he loved the maid. He was a minister, and he had sex with the maid! That’s why he hanged himself, Mother. The church people wouldn’t forgive him when the maid showed them the pictures.”

“I think so, Herbert. But his side of the family, well, they had problems.”

“I’m going now, Mother.” Herbert hung up on his Mother for the first time since she let him live in her old house ten years ago. It was after his second breakdown; the small cottage was all his mother could afford after his father hanged himself, before she went to live with her sister down in Fort Townsend.

He pushed aside the climber’s bowline and drooped back into the couch. He started singing, “Please Release Me.”

Herbert heart felt heavy and pounded like a drum. Maybe it was all the chocolate he had eaten? He decided to take a nap.

* * *

Herbert heard the doorbell ring in his dreams. No songs. The ding-dong woke him. He glanced at the travel alarm clock he kept next to his bed. 7:08. He looked outside his window and the light had diminished. The whole house was dark. The doorbell rang again, followed by several hard knocks.

He glanced out the living room window and spotted a big sedan parked in his driveway.

“Hello?” he called out toward the door without turning on a light.

“Mr. Harley, Herbert Harley?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Det. William Anderson. May I come in?”

Herbert opened the door. The detective looked like a muscle-bound ex-marine with crew cut and blue eyes. 

“Do you have to come in?”

“Yes. I need to ask you a few questions. Your mother called and she’s concerned about you.”

Herbert let him in and turned on a light. Anderson immediately walked to the couch and studied what was on the table, even though Herbert remained at the door, holding it open.

“Your mother said you like to make knots.”

“Why did she tell you that?” Herbert’s stomach ached. Was he in trouble?

“Have you heard about the two murders? One off Cattle Point Road and the other in Jensen Bay?”

Herbert continued to stand at the door. “Saw it on the news. Why did Mother tell you about my knots?”

“She said your father hanged himself. You took it bad, had a breakdown. Also, told me you used to sleepwalk. Now after you tell her you made a trucker’s hitch, a trucker is found dead attached to a tree in the Park. Then, the fisherman tied to his boat in Jensen Bay with a fisherman’s bend attached to a ring using a trucker’s hitch. Coincidence?”

“Yes. I go outside sometimes, but mostly not. I make the knots inside. I don’t sleepwalk anymore.”

“Can I take a quick look around?”

“No. You can leave. I’m hungry and haven’t eaten dinner.” His heart raced and his fingers tapped against his thighs. “I Wanna be Free” echoed over and over again in his mind. 

“Herbert, Herbert!” Anderson snapped his fingers in front of Herbert’s eyes. “Come back to me.”

“I’m here. You done?”

  “Herbert, I have a favor to ask of you. I would like to know if anyone has seen you do these knots. Has someone else talked to you about them?”

Herbert stood still as he described Gary, Sandy, and Warren.

“I checked the names your mother gave me,” Anderson explained. “They all have been in some kind of petty trouble, but nothing as big as murder. Do you think any of them could have used these knots to kill someone?” Bill asked.

“Warren, maybe. I don’t like him.”

“I want you to call them and tell them to come tomorrow. This is what I want you to do. I want you show Gary one type of knot, Sandy another type of knot, and Warren yet another type of knot. Don’t let the other two see anything but the knot you show them. Can you do that?”

“The second part, not the first. Have Mother call them. I don’t want to talk to them on the phone. Mr. Gary comes every day, but Sunday. Saturday, he leaves food for two days.”

“Okay, we’ll have your mother call the other two.” Anderson walked out the door, then turned around. “You okay with this, Herbert?”  

“You don’t think I hurt them, do you?”

“One step at a time.” Anderson’s forefinger wagged at him. “One step at a time.”  

“Will you come tomorrow?” Herbert yelled to him, remaining stationed at the door.

“In a few days.” Bill answered. “Just remember, each of them can only see one knot on that table. I’ll call you so you an tell me which knot each one saw.”

“Okay. I can do that,” Herbert said as he slammed the door behind him. It would be hard, he thought, but it would be fun. He crooned at the top of his voice, “It Don’t Come Easy.”

* * *

“I never thought you killed anyone, Herbert! Now stop yelling at me! But there was too much of a coincidence. I know you never leave the house, and yard, but you did sleepwalk for many years. I just wanted to be certain that these terrible things had nothing to do with you, or anyone you know.”

“Mr. Gary’s coming. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Herbert hung up and sang. “Food, Glorious Food.”

“So what knot are we working on today, knot man?” Gary carried his food into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and looked around. “You ate all that chocolate? You must have been up all night.” He opened the freezer. “Well, you left some ice cream, I see. Good. I brought you more pie.”

“Thanks. I’m working on a knot that people use for climbing. This one is a flying bowline, a triple bowline for when you have to anchor three spots when you climb.”

“Looks like those loops are tight.”

“Yep. Isn’t it pretty?”

“No, Herbert. Knots are not pretty to me. Sandy’s pretty.” He laughed. “See you tomorrow.”

* * *

“A thief knot?” Sandy asked. “For thieves?”

“It’s an old Boy-Scout knot. You tie your tent with it and if someone comes in, you can tell because they confuse it for another knot. It’s clever.”

“Yeah. Why did your mother want me to come today? You okay?”

“Oh, I ate all your chocolate yesterday.”

“That’s a lot of chocolate, honey. Were you sick?”

“No, my heart pounded. Mother wants you to come and clean my bedroom next week.”

“Why didn’t she just tell me that over the phone?”

“Cause I wanted to see you. Show you my new knot and ask if you would bring me chocolate next week, too. Mother wouldn’t ask you that.”

Sandy laughed. “Okay, next week I’ll come and bring you chocolate.”

“And ice cream, vanilla.”

* * *

“I’ll cut some of the rose bush down, like your mother asked. She said there was another check.” Warren scanned the side table and spotted the envelope. “What are you working on there?”

“A surgeon’s knot.”

“What’s that?”

“The surgeon's knot is a modification to the reef knot. It adds an extra twist that makes the knot more secure. Surgeons use this knot to tighten sutures. Surgeon's knots are used for many things though, like fly fishing, and well, stuff like that.” Herbert heard his rap and it pleased him.

“Very interesting.” Warren nodded. “Gotta go.” He walked to the side table, picked up his check, slipped it into his jean pocket, and left.

Herbert was proud. He wasn’t sure he could do it. He didn’t think any of them would harm someone, but he helped the police and had fun picking out knots. Now for ice cream and apple pie, a gift to himself for being so good. “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie,” kept him bopping to the refrigerator.

* * *

One week later, Herbert stretched in his bed. The sun shone on his feet and it made him smile. He should keep the blinds open more often, he thought. “Good Morning, Sunshine” filled his head as he washed his face, brushed his teeth, and decided whether or not he would have the hardboiled eggs he had delivered from the deli, or the rest of the apple pie and ice cream he had Gary and Sandy bring for him again. The apple pie and ice cream won, hands down.

He slipped on the blue jeans he had worn for the last four days, and the T-shirt he had worn for the last two. It read in bold white numbers on a black background,

2 + 2 = 3. His muddy shoes left stains near his bed.

Never mind that right now, he chided himself. Apple pie and ice cream await you.

The knock on the front door interrupted his reverie. His knot book only had fourteen more knots to go. He had worked with all of the roping material and had liked the nylon the best. Would it have made a difference if his father hanged himself with a nylon rope? Not much, but he wasn’t certain. Herbert considered the differences. Nylon had good load-bearing, could absorb shock, immune to rot, absorbed less water, and didn’t float, although it did stretch. It’s strong, Herbert thought, but it did stretch.

The knocks became louder. The doorbell rang, too. Should he answer it? He knew who it was. He knew why Anderson was there. Anderson had found their killer. Did he want to talk to him?

“Herbert, open the door. I know you’re in there! I just want to talk to you!” Anderson yelled from the outside door. “Come on, Herbert. Let me in.”   

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Herbert sat still and pulled some of the nylon rope from its lead.

“Nylon rope doesn’t get mildew,” Herbert whispered. “It doesn’t break down quickly in salt water.” He tied some strands around his hand. “It is resistant to chemicals and also to oils.”

“If you don’t open this door, I’ll break it down!” Anderson yelled.

“I’ll be right there!” Herbert stood. “I gotta do something first!”

Herbert carried the rope with the hangman’s noose through the side door, out to the back porch, picked up the Salvation Army wooden, armless chair, flung the rope over the branch of the old oak tree, stood on the chair and kicked it as hard as his short stubby feet would allow. 

Herbert could see Anderson running as fast as he could toward him. “Herbert, don’t! You’re not the killer!”

“I know that.” Herbert let go of the rope and fell to the muddy ground. “It wouldn’t have mattered what rope my father hanged himself with. He actually picked the best one for hanging, though.” Herbert watched Anderson’s eyes widened. “Natural fibers don’t stretch like these do. It was the best and tightest choice.” Herbert pulled the rope down and smiled at the detective. “It was Warren, right?”

“No, Herbert. It was Gary.” Anderson looked at him oddly, then at the rope in his hand. “Gary brought meals to the neighbors of both of the victims. He was fired from his last job in Seattle, and several jobs before that, and he moved all the way up here to get away. He was suspected of poisoning one of the meals with wild mushrooms, but was never charged. They had no real proof. But we had the three of them followed and sure enough, Gary was stalking a climber. We got him before he tried to kill the woman.”

“Mr. Gary? Hmm… Well then, good. I hope the next food man will bring more pie and cake. I’m going to have some ice cream. Good bye.” Bye, Bye, so Long, Farewell echoed in his head.