Since the last installment, published on September 14, no one has been knocking down my door to demand the next installment, but here it is anyway. I think it is a good story and I hope you do to. Chapters 14 through 17 of Running:
14—a little light history
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That was the sort of thing that would slow him down, as he cranked and cranked his way through microfilmed pages of newspapers nearly a hundred years old.
Jesus, he thought, what a great Christmas present. If only old W.J. were in business today, Will would buy a truckload of the things. He would send one to Dean Martin, whose liver could undoubtedly use the boost. Jimmy Carter could kiss his piles goodbye as soon as he strapped on J. Horne’s Electro-Magnetic freakin’ Belt. And Ronald Reagan would certainly benefit in a hundred ways with relief from his countless undisclosed degenerative diseases. If only the damned thing were guaranteed for four years.
Will had never really been very interested in history, well aware that it was written by the victors in all cases; but this area of the country was steeped in enough fascinating true stories to fan the sparks of his interest into at least a glowing bed of embers. And, after all, he was in search of fire.
He had begun by closely scanning two books in particular: George G. Bruntz’s History of Los Gatos and James Edwin Addicott’s Grandad’s Pioneer Stories. Poring over them at home, he had learned that there had been several fires of significant proportions in the city’s past.
There had also been not an insignificant number of murders.
References abounded to scores of murders in the late nineteenth century, rampant highway robbery (Will could understand the popularity of this last pastime, the winding mountain roads thick with hiding places), and frequent cattle rustling and stick-ups in town.
Of the murders, public stabbings of drunks and wives took second place only to the victims of the infamous mass murderer Lloyd Majors. Old Lloyd, who ran a saloon beside the Christian Church on West Main Street, was fond of robbing and murdering intentionally overserved clientele and then tossing their lifeless bodies into a lime-filled pit in his cellar. Will wondered if Lloyd would stare at the dead bodies before tossing them downstairs to decompose. If so, he mused, old Lloyd might earn the nickname “Stare and Toss It Majors.”
Nothing like a little Farrah Fawcett Majors joke to lighten up reality.
Majors never came to justice for these killings, discovered only after he was hanged in Oakland for his part in hiring two thugs to find and steal the hidden savings of two Summit farmers. The farmers refused to talk, despite having most of their fingernails pulled out. The hoodlums shot and killed them both.
Reporting back to old Lloyd, the hired goons were bought off with “$5 each, and a shot of whiskey and told to get the hell out of Dodge” or in this case, Los Gatos). Majors clumsily attempted to cover up the dirty deed by arson and left town himself, wreaking criminal havoc in Oakland before he was apprehended there.
Will could picture this guy in wild and dangerous Oakland, but here in Los Gatos? Quiet, sleepy, little Los Gatos?
There were accounts of other misdeeds, but in none of could Will—wired Will, tired Will, Will of the bloodshot eyes—garner any connection with his own currently daunting problem. He felt farther away from a solution than ever.
In the “Fires and Fire Protection” chapter of the Bruntz book, he found accounts of two fires in the late 1880’s. The first destroyed the Los Gatos Co-operative Winery, then located in the area that was now Villa Avenue, behind the current Los Gatos Civic Center. In addition to the building, a thousand gallons of brandy were lost, burning late into the night. Much machinery and distilling apparatus were lost as well.
That must have been quite a blaze, thought Will: Los Gatos, one gigantic heated snifter.
The other fire made Will sit up and take notice. He once again stayed late at the library, this time with a particular research mission. In the little typing side room, he sat leaning over into the ancient film viewer to read from the Los Gatos Times, July 31, 1891, reading...
A DISASTROUS FIRE!
SUBSTANTIAL BLOCKS AND LARGE BUSINESS ESTABLISHMENTS REDUCED TO ASHES.
Quick Work of the Flames.-Efforts to Save Exposed Property.-Narrow
Escape of the Whole Busi-
ness Portion of Town.
Damage, $75,000.-Insurance, $35,000
A few minutes after ten o’clock Sunday night, one of the most disastrous fires in the history of Los Gatos, broke out in the wooden building in the rear of Place & Fretwell’s furniture store. When first observed by night watchman E.F. Reynolds and others, the flames did not seem large, but Mr. Reynolds lost no time. Giving instructions to parties west of the bridge to get the hose east as quickly as possible, he started for the Presbyterian church to ring the alarm-bell, crying out fire on the way. In the meantime the flames, which had been smouldering in Place & Fretwell’s finishing rooms, burst out with the fierceness of a young tornado. By the time Mr. Fretwell, who saw it from his room in the Rankin Block, could get over to his place of business the fire had entered the salesrooms. He opened the door and took 9ut his jewelry work-bench and tools, but dropped the latter on the sidewalk and before he could go back to get them the flames had shot out at the door so hot that he could not go near.
Dr. Callender went into his drug store and found no fire, but in a few seconds the destroying elements bursted in and enveloped the room.
G.S. McMurtry and Bernard Lee entered the Los Gatos Store, but explosions of cartridges in H.J. Richardson’s hardware establishment had begun a rapid fusillade and were followed by an encore from the Los Gatos Store, hence Messrs Lee and McMurtry beat a hasty retreat.
The hose was coupled in two sections, one to the hydrant at the east end of the bridge, the other to the hydrant at the northeast corner of the Taylor property. It was soon seen that the hardest fight would be to save the Arlington on the east, and the stove and tinware establishment of G.R. Lewis, so one section of the hose was operated at the east and the other at the west, while men with buckets and wet blankets fought the flames which burst forth many times from the buildings on the south. T.W. Cox and others applied the fire hose belonging to the Ice Company to protect the Ice Works. Many willing hands were at work taking the goods from the stores of Lewis and Marks on the west ant the harness and buggies from Mr. Woodhams’ and the groceries and feed from Whitney & North’s. While the fight was raging on all four sides, the atmosphere was calm but the heat was almost stifling.
The great danger to The Arlington caused necessary alarm and the furniture was removed as fast as possible, while the flames gained on the building. The tall tower, the small turrets and the windows on the west, were points that could not be well reached. The water could only be thrown to the finish on the southwest corner occasionally, and the heavy cornice was soon burned off and fell with a crash over the heavy porches below, scattering the flames. This building burned slower than the others. Within an hour from the time the flames touched the outer walls, the building collapsed, all the walls going out except the south side which fell in, the main tower having probably directed its movement in that direction.
Dr. McMurtry and a few faithful men plied small hose and wet blankets to the Doctor’s residence on the exposed side, saving the building.
Still another gang were at work with water on the Rankin Block to put out the live coals which hailed down on it.
The west wall of the Willey Block divided the flames on the west so that the fire from the burning of Towle & Mansur’s store and the Barnes building, could be controlled by a well directed and continuous use of water. This was not chance game and to the worthy effort of a few men belong eth saving of not only the buildings of Lewis, Seanor and Woodard, but the bridge and possibly the west part of Town.
By 11:40 the flames were under control, but not until some of the best business establishments of the town were destroyed. The origin of the fire is unknown, but is thought to be incendiary.
The mail in the general delivery of the postoffice was saved, the drop-letters and the mail in boxes being destroyed.
During the fire several explosions occurred. After the flames were fairly under control the magazine in the rear of H.J. Richardson’s hardware store went off. A tunnel had been made in the side of the hill where the powder was stored. The earth and stones were scattered in every direction. John Baer, who was in the Ice Works at the time, was knocked down, but not seriously injured. The explosion was heard for miles.
The following buildings were destroyed: The Arlington hotel, C.H. Woodhams’ carriage and harness establishment, the San Jose Water Company’s office, the Los Gatos Store and I.O.O.F. Hall, the Postoffice building, H.J. Richardson’s hardware building and the plumbing shop of E.W. Potter, the Willey Block, Towle & Mansur’s fruit store and H.W. Barnes’ art store.
Postmaster Lyndon removed the few articles saved from the Postoffice to the south room in the Farmers Union building, where improvised boxes and pigeonholes were made to assist the work of the office. The books in the safe were all right but all the stamps were run together. A Postoffice Department agent was down on Tuesday to adjust the loss, but the matter of a permanent location and the refitting of the office will be attended to later on, yet the inspector and Mr. Lyndon will hurry matters as fast as circumstances will permit.
By Tuesday noon all the safes which went through the fire were opened and the papers were found to be well preserved. Of course the books were badly damaged.
The newspaper report continued with a detailed list of how much financial loss had been inflicted on each business, as compared to how much insurance each one had carried. Nearly every business had been grossly underinsured.
Will turned off the old machine and rewound the microfilm with one hand, rubbing his tired eyes with the other. He felt at least as confused as he was intrigued. The descriptions of explosions and flames and, yes, the whole scene painted by this primary source account fit, locked in with his dreams and waking hallucinations; but still there was something important he had not set eyes on. Some connection not yet made.
All his current conjecture would not prepare him for the truth, some of which he was to learn the next day, when his lunch hour inspection the raft of old photographs along the south wall of the library’s lower level would lead him to a few revelations, a set of new questions, and his own commission of a slightly criminal deed.
The entire wall was filled with framed photographs. They lined up like movie-goers, like school children, like white crosses in a military cemetery. They stared back from the wall at anyone who chose to stare at them.
They did not accuse; they did not indict; they did not blame. Locked within their uniform thin black picture frames, they pressed against the glass that contained them, seeming to state, matter-of-factly, “What is past is indeed just that. We are present.”
The most elegant brick buildings still stood beside wood framed shanties, stood now and forever upon the captured image of the ground to which, in fact, they had long since surrendered to history.
Crowds of people, forever assembled, posing self-consciously under blaring summer sun, seemed to share a common doubt that all this folderol would amount to anything. There was a formality about them that truly conjured up the most basic magic of the frozen image. These human beings were into something heavy here: They were bequeathing something to posterity.
And here they were.
Charged as it was by his intense bouts of research, Will’s whole being seemed to tingle with anticipation. He felt a gently recurring shock of recognition as he absorbed one scene, then another, and then moved on to yet another. All were at least minimally described by matching black framed, typed captions.
Civil war veterans line up for parade, Memorial Day 1885. The Union flag is a ghostly cloud at the end of its staff, unable to hold its pose for the requisite long exposure.
The May Day Parade float presented by the Imperial Home Bakery in 1900. Horse drawn coaches, horses and coaches alike standing draped with banners proudly proclaiming, “ACE CREAM SODA TODAY,” NEW PROCESS IMPERIAL BREAD, TRY IT, and “WE STRIVE TO PLEASE ALL TASTES.”
A large crow at the train depot, gathered together at that river of steel to greet President and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison on May 1, 1891. Hundreds of dark clad backs to the camera, the image of a stationary train slashing the photograph, all detail lost to distance. Near the center of the foreground only one sun bonneted little girl, her face featureless, is turned toward the camera holding her mother’s hand. She is too small to see over the heads of those in between her and the President, and too old for her mother to hold in her arms. She probably has to pee.
From one photograph to the other Will carefully progressed, forward and backward into time, until, glancing at his watch, he realized he had spent all of his lunch hour plus the better part of another one lost, completely, totally, lost in the wall full of eternity.
He dashed upstairs and babbled apologies, immersing himself in work, organizing books on a cart according to that key precedent set by Mr. Thomas Dewey and then filing them in their appropriate places on the shelves with the vigor of a true penitent.
He didn’t want to be perceived as a slacker, but his guilt over his misstep was mixed with aggravation over being forced by schedule to abandon the wall. He had neglected to eat, an occurrence not unusual these past days. Who could think of food when he was, like the ghosts who posed stiffly for those old photographs, into something heavy?
He spent the rest of the day in that half here, half there condition, knowing at the heart of his heart that a little more time spent in front of that wall (that wall, the wall) would yield him answers upon which his very sanity depended.
16—a quiet walk home
After work, he walked home slowly, savoring the cool December air, his spirit slinking quietly into a gentle melancholy as he moved like his own ghost through the colored lights of Christmas.
This little town was really quite lovely.
He crossed the Main Street bridge, above the freeway, and paused halfway to gaze at the lights sprinkled twinkling throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The sun from behind the mountains painted wisps of clouds a dayglow pink.
An aerie sad guitar tune unfolded in his mind’s ear. Gentle hammers-on, pensive trills, and plaintive bending notes issued from the strings of his heart through the strings of his memory’s guitar. All was as it has ever been, all was futile, and yet, despite every indication to the contrary, the human heart stubbornly clings to hope.
Will’s own vision scanned the green clad mountains for an answer to his own deepest questions, while beneath him, each one with its own purpose, its own destination, vehicles rushed into and out of the mountains.
Through the wire grid of the sturdy hurricane fence, Will found himself absently gazing into the stream of oncoming traffic that poured toward him and rushed beneath his feet and away behind.
A giant semi-trailer rig approached out of the mountains as if in slow motion. Its primal roar built as it drew closer, the driver now gearing up upon hitting level road after his long steep descent.
The rig was so tall it appeared to be bearing down upon the sole pedestrian on the bridge above it. As the truck drew level with Will, it hung there for the briefest instant. His heart felt the gentle tug his dreams had made familiar (the horse connected with his body, he felt a sharp tug, then a pull away behind) and the sensation was gone. The truck, too, had passed below him. He shook his head, half expecting to feel its contents rattling. He closed his eyes fiercely.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Stifling cold.
He reopened his eyes, blinking to steady himself. He continued homeward, along University, slowly repossessing his senses in the here and now. Old Town’s trees, draped with tiny white lights, danced in the wind. After work shoppers waited in queues of cars for their own turn touring through the parking lot in the half-hearted, likely futile hope of finding a vacant space.
He walked on slowly, dreamily.
The “painted ladies” of University Avenue, the two-toned Victorian houses, smiled at him with fresh Christmas wreathes of holly or eucalyptus. Inside those houses, color televisions filled their front rooms with dancing images and cast flickering shadows upon the darkened walls—negative flames lapping negative walls.
(Flames, bright tongues licking windows. Screams in the streets, explosions in the night.)
He shook his head roughly again, picking up his pace toward home.
When he arrived, the apartment was dark. Flicking on the dining room light he spotted a note on the table.
Boomer mewed and pawed at the patio door, but before crossing to it to let him in, he picked up the note. It was brief, handwritten in Sarah’s pretty, flowing cursive style. It was to slip him just that one little notch more deeply into himself. “Dear Willum,” it read, “I’m working late tonight and I’m really tired, so I’ll see you tomorrow night, okay?” It was signed, with a small m, “me.”
Not “Love, me.” Not “Smooches, Sary.” Not “I love you.” Just “me.”
Will smiled, but only with his lips. His eyes stayed sad. At least, he thought, she hadn’t written, “Fuck you and your nightmares, too,” or “You and your creepy theories can crawl back under the rock you crawled out from and wait for the next full moon to reappear.”
Still, his first mistake had been to talk to Sarah at all about the thing that was beginning to take shape in his mind. He had felt he needed to discuss it and had tried to talk with her about it. He had to admit that the whole thing did sound a little H.P. Lovecrafty or Edgar Allan Poey to anyone who was actually dreaming the dreams and smelling the smells and feeling that tiny gentle tug as those horses, those horses…
(…passed through him as if by magic.)
Will shuddered. It was just as well, he thought, albeit ruefully. He had a little breaking and entering to do tonight.
Please stay tuned. Three chapters of this 26 chapter novella will be published right here on scottmerrickdotnet every Monday until we're done here. Pop back up to the top of the blog and type your email to subscribe for reminders! Coming up next Monday,--Chapter 17, "a little cry" and 18, "miss riley's suspicions"