What I saw from the hillside overlooking the new Porter Ranch development, San Fernando Valley, November 1, 1997
Little white cars crawling away to work and shop.
Little matchstick houses huddled along the ridge, as though that would save them when the clouds mass and the hurricane of wind and rain explodes them to bits of plastic and melting stucco and washes it all down the gully, to pile up against the culvert dam, smashed beyond recognition. (Never mind, K Mart is open 24-7, we can get more.)
The flyaway tiled roofs stuck on like afterthoughts from a set of Lincoln Logs, will go first, making the air a blizzard of red dust, deposited evenly over a square mile of land. Great machines will roll over the Barbie bits and the Nintendo buttons and the Jeep Cherokee headlights and the exploded picture tubes and the plaster statues of David and the fire retardant drapes and all the glass and plastic, crushing and grinding it down to an indigestible sparkling colorless pyramid of trash.
Truckloads will carry it to the incinerators and the melted remains will be molded into cubes fifty feet square. Hueys will airlift them to Century City where they will be dropped, one at a time, until a huge tower rises up, visible for miles, teetering on the smashed Broadway Bullocks Macys Robinsons Nordstroms May Co beneath it.
From the hills, a glint can be seen from the tower on a clear day. Rain will soak the ground and fire release the seeds and animals drop their nurturing shit, and when the people who hunt and gather die, their bodies will return to the soil, and the land will slowly heal.
TownshipThe noon whistle gave out its accustomed self-important blast, stubbornly calling back workers to a mill closed for a generation. Pat Blakley barely heard it, contemplating a withered dahlia with a frown of disappointment. Yanking up the whole plant, she peered in disgust at the powdery soil sifting off the roots. The garden had looked so lovely when they had driven by with the realtor. Larkspur and lilac against the weathered gray shingles of the Cape cottage. What was such a sandy soil doing here so far from the sea? she thought irritably. The neighbors' gardens don't look so wonderful either, she thought, straightening up. She made a mental note to ask that nice Mr. Oliver - wasn't he in biology or something? - whether this had been a particularly dry winter. But of course that wouldn't affect the soil, would it? Still puzzling, she tossed the dahlia on the spot where she planned to start a compost heap and rinsed her hands off under the hose. Well, it was always like that when you moved, she reflected, have to get used to a place, pay attention to the old-timers' talk until you'd a sense of it. It was just new, unfamiliar, nothing more than that.
Deep under the granite bedrock, beneath the stone foundation of the county courthouse, sand shifted.
Six feet under the matted thatch on the Common, where the tough old roots did not reach, the last of the winter snowmelt seeped away through rock dry fissures. With nothing to hold it, soon it was gone, leaving a powdery dryness behind.
At 2 p.m. Artemis was at ease, lounging against the chunk of cement he had dragged in, solid stone close above his head. The storm drain was cool and shadowed. A salt-rusted Ford, the postman's old black Dodge two door, and Kemp's delivery boy on his 10 speed, passed across his narrow field of vision. He liked to be in the dark, invisible, while the bright unconscious life of the town went by a few feet from his hideout.
Ten minutes later, his head twitched up as alert as a dog's ears. In a moment, as he reached behind him for his dirty shoulder sack with one hand, the other snaked through the grate to pull the latch free. Another moment to glance up and down the deserted street, and he was out and loping along.
At the front window of the dignified old Victorian just over the railroad bridge, Luther nodded approvingly at the green velvet draperies framing the sunny street scene. When he inherited Walter Moody Funeral Services, several of his uncles' friends had recommended Hemet Oliver highly. "The best," they had murmured, "He'll know what you need. And not pricey." Stepping closer to the tall windows, he examined the long vista of Main Street visible between the yews and old roses, the details as clear as a scene through the small end of a telescope. Maude Gilmore crossed slowly on her way home with a paper sack from the A&P. He knew she would sit for a moment on the bus bench before going on the rest of the way, likely stopping off at the library just out of his sight.
He was judiciously considering the carpet, a bit worn by the door, and what Hemet might recommend, when the phone purred at his elbow.
Across the street and down a block, Miss Peters glanced up from stamping dates on a pair of identical Nancy Drews for a pair of giggling ten year olds. She noted the spotless windows, the floor swept clear of the leaves tracked in by the after-school crowd, the neat stack of book repair supplies brought up from the cellar. "We'll see you at seven then, Mr. Quincy," she said, raising her eyebrows to turn the statement into polite inquiry.
"Oh, more like 6:15, Miss Peters. I got to get the stack wood in tonight, seems like rain to me."
"Oh, fine, yes, 6:15 then; young Janet will be coming in for her shift - just a few minutes now," she agreed as he held the door for Mrs. Gilmore, coming in. "Hello, Maudie, I've something new from your mystery writer set aside for you..."
Quint pulled his cap down against the slant of late afternoon sun and zipped up his parka as he strode off. Dropping his janitor's thoughts like a parcel to be picked up again later, he pursed his lips and began to consider the best course for them to take.
Tony opened the street door for them, their brief greetings harmonized by habit with the pleasant jingle of the bell. He paused to pull down the shade with the emergency phone number printed on the street side, and turned the key in the lock. Audrey Peters had a key, and Artemis would let himself in at the back. Following the three others through the empty pharmacy, he made a quick count of the spruce gum display and reminded himself to ask Hemet for another order. In the back room of the pharmacy, Luther, Hemet and Quint had found chairs or boxes to sit on and Luther was consulting a note on the back of a library card.
"Animal, vegetable, mineral or unknown?" he enquired genially, raising his eyebrows at Quint. Artemis snorted, from behind them, "Mineral, I'd guess. Stone and iron, dust and grit." Audrey's key scraped in the lock and she nodded quietly to the men as she pulled up a fourth box to the table. Quint nodded, too, but did not reply as his hands moved in the old familiar ways, sweeping up the sticks, opening to let them fall, pounding the desk softly. Luther leaned over his shoulder as they settled into stillness. All six breathed out at once, a sigh of recognition. The dust of the room settled into well known patterns, boxes of pills subtly aligned themselves on the shelves, an alley cat a few feet away on the other side of the wall was seized by a sudden desire to sit still and lick every hair in its dingy coat into place.
Artemis' left hand came down first, firm on the warm green felt of the desk blotter. Luther's next, then Quincy's, Hemet's, Audrey's and Tony's; Luther said a single word, there was a murmur of assent. The pattern changed - the six dissimilar hands - dark, light, pampered, weathered - created the star again, palms up.
A moment passed slowly. The room was absolutely still. Out in the alley, the cat jumped sideways, turning a few feet away to gaze back in alert concentration, her ears flickering as she tried to identify the source of the energy that had disturbed her.
"It's the Howell place," Hemet said. The others nodded, although no more than a few others in town would have recognized it by that name.
"Find Elias," Luther murmured. "Not dead yet, I believe."
Tony raised his eyebrows. "His kid Dave comes in all the time. He usually gets a tube of Dentu-Cream for his Dad when he picks up his insulin."
"Mm," Hemet added, pursing his lips, "I'd think he'll still be out at Maude's. Rented that tiny room in the back some years ago."
"That's not right, then, is it?" Quint said. "The Howell place was built by Ezra Howell, that would be his, ah, great grand dad. He should be the one watching over it."
"He should," Luther agreed. "Then let's see to it."
"I'll go," said Artemis quietly. Hemet nodded. "And the rest of us will keep an eye on the Howell place. Nothing will get out of hand."
Artemis came out into the alley quickly and quietly, a frown pulling his brows down over his quiet gray eyes, and moved off toward the street. The cat ignored him, watching the door. A moment later she was purring raggedly, her ears flickering at the jangle of bells, but concentrating on the saucer of milk and scraps. Tony hunkered down and idly stroked her bony back as she ate.
“No crisis,” he thought. “Luther and Quint know what they're doing.” He'd ask Hemet or Audrey for the history; as a newcomer in town he was often the junior member when they met, but he didn't mind. It was an honor, really, to have been asked to join, and he knew that his particular knowledge of people's aches and pains, secret addictions and weaknesses was valuable. Standing up and yawning, he straightened the trash cans and glancing critically at the faded paint on the door, went back inside.
From Tuesday to Friday Artemis pulled weeds at Crowthers'. On the weekend, Carl Hoeffer discovered a need to clean up an old woodpile. "Can't think why he left it that long, Artemis," Helga complained. "We've had the gas in two years now." One thing and another Artemis was down on the south end of Parch Street all week. He liked to sit under Mr. Crowther's big maple for lunch and sometimes Elias would come out from next door for the mail and say a word, but mostly he'd peer out and see Artemis and decide to go later and just sit at the table in the shadowy back kitchen with the tea cooling in front of him.
Maudie always had a word though, and on Monday he'd given her a hand with her packages when the old lock stuck on her side door.
“Just needs two hands,” she'd sighed, “Old things take a little TLC is all.” Artemis nodded, and when she'd fetched him a glass of water he said casually, “Heard they were looking for somebody over to the Old Howell Place.” Maudie had agreed, “A disgrace, and right there in the middle of town. Now that'd be just the thing for a single man without no attachments.” Her gaze wandered absently toward the close-curtained windows of her back kitchen as Artemis handed back the glass with a muttered, “Thanks, got to get back to that ragweed. Looks about to burst.”
“And Elissa with her hayfever - such a trial,” Maudie clucked. “You go on, now,” she added unnecessarily; Artemis was already ambling down the well-worn path behind her peonies toward Crowthers' back yard.
"Yessir, the sticks knew," Hemet confirmed to the others. "There's an aura around that house you could cut with a butter knife." They all nodded; there had not really been any doubt, but it was always best to proceed in an orderly way.
"Well, that's decided then," Luther said briskly. "Artemis?"
"Maudie'd be better off with a youngster around than that depressed old coot. There's a man ready to move, he just don't know where."
"Isn't Maudie's grandson Mark about due to come back home and rediscover Janet Barry's girl?" Audrey wondered innocently.
Luther looked startled, nodded and turned to Tony. "Morse's could use someone in the store, why don't you see about getting him a job. Didn't he work last summer there?"
Tony grinned, "When Jeannie Barry started up as the bookkeeper. I'll see to it Monday morning."
The Howell place sat facing the town common, paint peeling off the cornices and spattering the weeds around the pillars of the carriage entrance. There was a rumor that it was haunted, which seemed to flare up at the end of October and die away soon afterward with a dispirited regularity. The Assessor's office probably knew who owned it, and it was probably the First National Bank. No one connected it with Elias Howell; no one thought about Elias Howell much at all.
Next Sunday after church, Hemet, Audrey and Tony sat at The Town Cafe's worn formica table with cups of black coffee and Francine's fresh cruellers.
"Elias' brother had some money, but he died in the War and his son moved out West, Ohio, I think,” Audrey said. “The Howells built most of the old buildings in this town; not the library, that's Carnegie, but the A&P block, the bank; they had the old mill, they used to produce half the thread in this part of the State, right here in town."
Tony shook his head. "I've never heard of them – I wondered about that big stone monument in the cemetery."
"Well, that's all right," Hemet said. "Times change. New people move in, new history gets created. But it's slipping too far. The old gets bottled up in a place like that, then the secrets in the cellar begin to fester, sort of mold without any air to freshen them up. Saw it happen before, but we were too late then. Burned right to the ground."
Tony was startled. "The Quaker Chapel?"
Hemet nodded. "No Quakers to be found to bring it back in time. They were welcome here in town, you know, when they were pushed out nearly everywhere else, came with alot of gratitude but a lot of fear. Lots of secrets in that old place and it just got too heavy without the leavening of telling."
"Then that's what Elias has to do," Tony said, understanding. "Though I don't see how..."
Hemet smiled as he put down two dimes under his saucer and stood up. "Neither do we, but there you are. It will happen or it won't, that's not our job. If the town is meant to be healthy, our minor surgery will do it, I guess. I think I'll go on over to see Grace at the elementary school. Maybe they could use some help on the playground."
"Elias?" Tony asked skeptically. But Hemet just smiled and went out, shrugging on his coat. He and Audrey gave each other a quick hug and smile and went back to their work.
"Caretaker, huh," thought Elias. "What the hell I know about that anyway. Just a place is all." He had listened when Mr. James at the bank had gone on about the insurance, the fire risk, the depressed real estate market, but he hadn't really understood much of it. Maudie'd wanted his room back and he couldn't go live with Dave and that gang of kids - no privacy there, man could hardly think when they were all yammering. "Be quiet enough here," he thought, wandering from room to room. They probably thought he'd maybe set up a kind of apartment in that room off the kitchen, but he felt inclined to just roam around, try out the beds, maybe keep his clothes in one of the big closets in the red room, his toothbrush in the bathroom with the gold faucets.
He remembered how to lay a fire and he began to blow the dust off one of the books in the library at dusk and read until dawn one or twice a week, getting up to poke at the log or put on another from the pile next to the fireplace. It was funny how the old house was always cold, even when it was hot outdoors when he went out for the paper. "I've lived in worse," he thought, shrugging on his old sweater. "This is all right." Janelle Drury came in twice a week - that's what keeps the spiders from just taking over, he thought. He'd asked her to dust that little room, too, now he'd taken off that frozen lock. Like a writing room or some such. One of those old desks with the whatsanames, pigeonholes, all in it.
It was at the desk on a sultry evening when he couldn't get to sleep, that he first saw his name.
The next day, he ambled into the pharmacy, and Tony eyed him critically. "Afternoon, Elias. My, nasty cut; you'll be wanting some more of that antibacterial cream. All kinds of germs around an old house," he fussed mildly, coming out from behind the counter.
"S'fine," Elias grunted. "I'll just take some of that shelf paper and a couple of them shade pull doo-hickeys. Morse's don't carry green."
"The porches are looking just fine," Tony continued, totalling up paper and shade pulls, "you don't see that shade of green much any more."
"Had to go over to Fullerton for that," Elias muttered. He started for the door, hesitated and half-turned. "Thanks," he said.
Hemet was leaning on the driver's side window of Luther's Buick as Quint came up with a roll of weatherstripping over his shoulder. The three men glanced casually over at the Howell place. The weeds were gone, the earth bare but turned, awaiting bulbs for next Spring's blooms. The late autumn light picked out the beveled glass in the door panels, and mellowed the fresh paint.
"Doc Casetta says Jeannie Gilmore's expecting twins," remarked Hemet.
"Runs in the family," said Luther.
"Well, back to work," Quint said, shifting the weatherstripping roll, "that rain last night came right in under the library door and Miss Peters like to have a fit."
"Can't have the town history books molding now," Luther said.
"A few more spots on the National Geographics is more like it," Quint snorted. "She doesn't keep the old stuff right out front like that."
"Very proper," Luther said approvingly. "We are fortunate in Audrey Peters. Knows the value of what she has under her care. Oh, Hemet, Grace says Elias is working out just fine. He seems to have attracted some of the boys in the woodshop, telling them what he's doing over at the Howell place. They're working on hand-carving molding from some old books Audrey helped him find. See you at the service Sunday, Quint. Take care, Hemet."
Luther pulled the Buick out into traffic and Quint strode off toward the library. Hemet gave a last look at the Howell place, as though weighing the advantages of blinds over drapes in the full length windows, and turned down South Street, whistling under his breath.
Wicking up between the cracked bedrock, moisture followed the crumbling rich loam pathways to the thirsty roots far above.
Pat Blakey smiled, shaking her head. She could put in a bed of violets here, she thought. Hemet said he used to catch sight of a bed of violets as soon as he turned the corner from School Street onto Main. Always knew that spring vacation was coming by that splash of purple and green. "Just like that comforter Susan Adams has up in the shop window," he'd said. That was like Hemet, she thought, putting together the past and the present like that. A nice little town, her mother had said when she left last week. Pat was inclined to agree.