Death at the Hotel: Part 2
Part Two: At Dutch Flat
vy Susan Pierce
I. “It’s unsettling,” Auntie Ag said as the custom van made its way east on Interstate 80.
Lewis called the van The White Cloud because Sissy had added every possible comfort when he “tricked it out”. He wanted his elderly Aunt to be as pain free as possible when he and Lewis took her out for short excursions in beautiful northern California.
It was Saturday morning and the Bliss family was on its way to morning tea at the Dutch Flat Hotel. The drive from their home in Auburn would take about half an hour. Sissy, half-listening to what Auntie Ag was saying, was busy planning the morning logistics.
If there was one thing Sissy took with him when he retired from military service, it was the importance of logistics. Failure to plan produces planned failure, and failure was not an option.
He had learned from Edith Dickey that the hotel, the town’s museum, and the little general store were grouped closely together, and that there were chairs, some of them rockers, arranged along the front of the hotel. If Auntie Ag stayed true to form, she would probably rather relax and do some people watching from a comfy chair in front of the hotel than trek through the museum and store, but the close grouping of the buildings meant the men could go exploring yet still be handy if Auntie Ag needed anything. She could rock and observe, they could browse, and he’d have them all back home by noon. Logistics.
But Sissy also knew that, in civilian life, the detail was to plan logistics in such a way that Lewis and Auntie Ag would think it was a relaxed, even spontaneous, outing. All they would see was the duck drifting gracefully across the pond. No one would see his little feet kicking three hundred times a minute just beneath the surface. Life with Lewis and Auntie Ag taught Sissy that no one wants to feel organized by someone else. Plan. Kick like crazy. But make it look like you’re drifting gracefully.
Auntie Ag felt safe and relaxed in her back-seat recliner as the White Cloud made its way into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “It’s unsettling,” she repeated. “Mind you, he doesn’t come every night,” she continued. “But he did come last night. I thought he wanted to steal my hat, but now I’m not sure.”
Sissy’s attention snapped back to the present. He knew Auntie Ag was suffering from mild dementia in her old age. He knew, too, that she sometimes had trouble distinguishing between what was real and what was imagined. The trouble was that as long as he had known her, Sissy himself was never quite sure where she drew the line was between fact and fantasy. He supposed it didn’t really matter, as long as she was content.
But recently, Auntie Ag hadn’t been entirely content. He worried she was becoming the littlest bit paranoid. This was the second or third time in the past few months that she talked about a man in her bedroom trying to steal her hat.
“Don’t know who that guy could be, Auntie Ag . . . ” Sissy winked at Lewis. “You want me to get you one of those EMF meters Scotty w as talking about at dinner last night?”
“Flam-o-Meter, was it?” Auntie Ag tried to remember. “Something to do with bad wiring?”
“Or ghosts . . . ”
“Ghosts? Yes, that was it. Sissy, dear, are you saying you think my bedroom is haunted by the ghost of a man who steals ladies’ hats?”
“No, no” Lewis assured her. “Don’t worry, Auntie. There aren’t any ghosts in your room.”
Auntie Ag smiled and her eyes twinkled. “How would one know, really?” she asked teasingly. “If you saw a ghost, I mean. What would a ghost look like?”
Sissy laughed. “It wouldn’t look like little lights going off on some kind of Gerry-rigged contraption.”
Lewis said, “It would look like a puffy white cloud. Or a kid with a sheet over his head.”
Auntie Ag tittered. “And I suppose any ghost would answer to the name of Casper?” She heard the announcer’s voice in her imagination: A smashingly well-hit return straight at Lewis’ feet! Advantage – Bliss! And the crowd went wild.
II. The short drive from the freeway exit to Dutch Flat was beautiful. The narrow asphalt highway wound its way through the rolling hills beneath a canopy of green. Red and white wild flowers flowed along each side of the road. As the White Cloud rambled down the last grade the Bliss family began to notice well-kept houses with well-kept gardens in bloom.
“Ah,” Auntie Ag sighed, “this does remind me of England. So many different shades of green. Green is a symbol of the life of the Church, you know. Quite beautiful, isn’t it?”
At the bottom of one hill was a small, red building. On it was a white sign with black letters which read, “Depot.” Near the top of the next hill each side of the road was flanked by a handful of little white “ sticks and stones” buildings. Stick buildings were made of lumber; stone buildings were made of river rock.
On the right, fronting a long block, was the Dutch Flat Hotel. Directly across from it was a large, rectangular empty lot. To the left of the lot stood the Masons’ Lodge; to the right was a small general store which was set back from the street by a small, shaded garden.
An old-fashioned wooden sidewalk, raised off the ground and covered above, ran along the front of the Dutch Flat Hotel. A hand full of comfortably-cushioned chairs, some on rockers, stood along the walk facing the street.
“How lovely,” Auntie was pleased and relieved. “I’ll just sit on that porch and perhaps sip something cold. I shall sit there and notice the morning.” Of course there was no guarantee that anything worth seeing would come along. But seeing and noticing were quite different things. From a chair in front of the Dutch Flat Hotel, Auntie Ag could see and notice and the possibilities were unlimited.
III. Sissy helped Auntie out of the custom van. Lewis brushed off two rockers and found a little table to set between them. Lewis went into the Hotel and, a few minutes later, returned with a napkin and a cold drink. “Raspberry iced tea!” He set it on the table with a flourish then bowed.
The British have never been famous for liking iced tea. But Agatha Bliss was always appreciative of receiving a gracious gesture. She smiled and thanked Lewis. She took a sip. “Good heavens,” she blurted out unexpectedly. “This is delicious!” Then, Auntie Ag chugged nearly half the glass.
“Pace yourself, Auntie,” Lewis giggled. “You might have to drive us home.”
“Do stop, darling. I’m quite sure this is alcohol free. But whatever it is, it’s certainly not iced tea. It’s marvelous.”
“Then I’ll just run inside and top it off for you.” With that, Lewis darted back into the Hotel.
Sissy sat in the second rocker just across the little table from Auntie Ag and scoped out the little town, which consisted of the Hotel flanked by half a dozen small buildings. In the center, across from the Hotel, was the empty lot. Sissy wondered if the lot had been created when the ladies of Dutch Flat eventually dropped a couple of Chinese sparklers down the brothel’s chimney. He chuckled. The possibility delighted him.
“Auntie, will you be alright here for a while?” he asked when Lewis returned with a fresh raspberry iced tea. “I thought Lewis and I might walk down that little street to the right. We might go as far as the Methodist Church. You know, stretch our legs a bit. Then we’ll double back and take a look at the museum on the corner. I’ll check in with you when we get back to the corner. Maybe you’ll want to join us for a stroll over to the general store.”
Logistics, Plan B, Sissy thought. Be ready. Be flexible. Adjust to the lay of the land.
Lewis rolled his eyes as if he were reading Sissy’s mind. Then he cleared his throat, saluted, and barked out, “Sir! Assembled and ready to go, Sir.”
Off they walked, down the wooden sidewalk. They turned right at the corner and were no longer visible as they marched onward toward the old church.
Auntie Ag took a sip of her raspberry iced tea and was delighted. It was a beautiful morning. The rocker fitted her perfectly. She closed her eyes after a second sip and said to no one, “I do think if I were a cat I’d be purring right now.” Suddenly, she knew she was not alone. Her sparkling blue eyes flashed open.
IV. “I am so sorry, madam.”
A man was sitting in the second rocker vacated by Sissy, just across the small table from Agatha Bliss. He took off his oddly tall hat and set it on his knee. “I do hope I did not awaken you.”
He was lanky and had a boyish charm even though he was probably in his mid-thirties. His eyes were intelligent and soft. His curly hair fell to just beneath his shirt collar. It was pushed behind his ears which made them stick out just a bit. The black coat went down to his mid-thighs and seemed a bit snug in the shoulders. It was certainly well-worn and, Auntie Ag thought, He’s grown since he first got it. Beneath the coat the young man wore a red and white checkered vest, a white shirt, and a brightly colored neck scarf.
His face was long and he had an especially broad expanse between his nose and upper lip. Auntie thought it was a perfect face for a large moustache. Instead, the man was clean shaven except for a narrow line of chin-whiskers which ran from ear to ear just below his jaw bone. Auntie wondered if the chin-whiskers resulted from some sort of compromise with a wife, a happy compromise between No-beard and Pro-beard factions. He looked fit, intelligent, and kind. Auntie Ag liked him.
“Oh, not at all,” she answered. “I was just resting my eyes and enjoying the sounds of the morning. I thought I may have heard a faint trickle of water. Is there a stream nearby?”
“My goodness! You are certainly observant, madam. Yes, there is a canal running along the side street beside the Hotel. The tong Chinese are digging irrigation canals and sewers all over Dutch Flat. I do not think I have ever seen a race of men more willing to work hard than the Chinese.”
Auntie Ag was impressed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard a young man begin a conversation by genuinely complimenting the work ethic of someone else. “Were there many Chinese in Dutch Flat?” she asked.
“My goodness, yes. We have as many Chinamen as we have whites. We must have nearly three thousand by now working in the gold fields and mines. And, as I said, they are digging our water system. They will soon begin building the railroad.” The man’s face lit up when he mentioned the railroad.
Lady Agatha Bliss was fascinated. She realized that she was speaking in past tense verbs but he was speaking in the present tense. She had seen no construction, no Chinese, and no gold mines. Yet this man spoke as if Dutch Flat were a thriving metropolis teaming with activity. Very curious, indeed. It seemed as if they were in the same place at very different points in time.
“Railroad?” She was curious as to what the man would say. “Is there going to be a railroad?”
“Oh, my goodness! You must be new to Dutch Flat.” The man scooted forward on his chair, moved his hat to the small table, and planted his elbows on his knees.
“Yes, indeed. There is going to be a railroad stretching across the entire country.” He sat up straight and began gesturing with his arms and hands. “From the Atlantic to the Pacific. Why, people and goods will travel across the continent without walking or riding one of those bone-cracking, horse drawn wagons. The ‘iron horse,’ that’s what will make these United States a nation. Are you familiar with the term, ‘iron horse’? I am speaking of the steam engine. The railroad will run right through this town.”
“Really? How marvelous.”
His enthusiasm was infectious. He went on to describe in vivid detail his surveying trek from Dutch Flat to Donner’s Pass. Auntie imagined she was making every step of the trek with him. She saw the incredible sunsets. She smelled the rain and the forest. She heard the wings of humming birds and the trickle of melting snow running down to fill streams and rivers.
He spoke of the not too distant day when he and his wife would scoop up all their eventual children and put them on the train and take them home to Connecticut to meet their aunts and uncles and cousins for the very first time.
As she listened, Agatha Bliss realized she was swept up into the vision of a man whose heart burned with the flames passion. He wasn’t merely talking about an idea or a possibility. This was a man speaking from the very core of his being. He absolutely lived for his passion. His passion was his work. His work was the transcontinental railroad.
Still, Agatha Bliss wondered. She knew that any number of places employed historical re-enactors – people who dressed, spoke, and even lived as characters from a particular time in a particular location. She might expect that sort of thing in the tourist traps on the Nevada side of the state line. But not Dutch Flat. It was not that sort of place. Dutch Flat was a modest heaven for people who’d worked hard their entire lives and earned the privilege of a lovely garden in the mountains. She was certainly not inclined to think the City of Dutch Flat could afford an historical actor to chat up old ladies in rocking chairs at the Hotel. Nor should it.
A second possibility occurred to her: The unfortunate man was crazy. He genuinely believed himself to be crazy Judah. That would account for the clothing, the enthusiasm, even his pattern of speech. If he believed himself to be Judah, there might even be a certain ring of truth to his apparent passion for the railroad.
But if he were crazy or an actor, wouldn’t someone have interrupted their conversation? A few people had gone into the Hotel while he chatted away, but no one seemed to even notice him. They smiled and nodded to her, but not to him. A handful of people visited the museum and a dozen or so more went into the little store across the street, but no one looked at him. If the man were the local lunatic, one would think someone would cast a wary eye in his direction. But no one did.
She took a sip from her raspberry iced tea. A third possibility, she thought, was that she was asleep. Could this experience be a waking dream? Could it be nothing more than her own imagination? She took another sip. She dampened her handkerchief with the condensation on the outside of the glass and then dabbed her eyes and throat with it just a bit.
No, she thought, I’m not dreaming. I can see and hear and taste and feel. Curious, indeed.
Auntie Ag decided to act. It would be a very rude thing to say. Nevertheless, she had learned in life that on a rare occasion the only way one can possibly get an honest response is to provoke. She was absolutely fascinated. She wanted to nudge the man off his script, if it was a script, and the only way she could do that was to provoke. Lord, she thought, for that which I am about to do, I am most sincerely sorry.
Agatha Bliss looked the man squarely in the eye and said, “Please excuse me. I mean no disrespect and would never want to appear to be argumentative.” She took a deep breath and said, “But I did hear someone, was it Mr. Huntington? I’m not sure. Age does sometimes diminish the events of today in favor of days gone by. But I did hear somewhere that an improved toll road, perhaps even a wooden road, would be built from Dutch Flat to Carson City, Nevada. Not a railroad.”
The young man’s jaw dropped and he jerked back in his chair. His face went completely ashen and he looked as if someone had just bashed him in the head. The light went out of those sparkling, blue eyes. Then he slumped in his chair and stared down at the planked sidewalk, completely crushed.
Auntie Ag was deeply distressed. “One does hear all manner of nonsense. I’m quite sure all that stage and wagon business is rubbish. Uninformed gossip, I’m sure. I did hear that the railroad has raised a good deal of money from local government.”
Life seemed slowly to trickle back into the man. “Oh, yes. Sacramento County is in for eighty thousand dollars and Placer County put up twenty-five thousand. And there’s a rumor that The State of California may allot a great sum to the project. Perhaps over one million dollars!”
“Isn’t that wonderful?”
“My goodness yes. It is wonderful.” His sparkle returned. “I hope you will not take this as an impertinence, madam, but are you from Britain?”
“I live in Auburn now, but recently moved from England.”
“You know,” he said with just the right amount of polite hesitation, “we do have some English investors. Have you ever considered . . . ”
“Hi, Auntie!” Lewis called out from the front door of the little store across the street. “I’ll be right there!”
V. Lewis stood at the street corner and looked both ways for traffic. He immediately felt ridiculous for doing that. He thought, Sure, check for traffic. Traffic! Like Dutch Flat is so noisy, so bustling, so packed with motor vehicles that I’ve got to be careful of getting hit by a bus. It’s so quiet around here I bet I could hear a guy start up the car in his driveway four minutes before he gets to this corner. I hope nobody saw me do that.
He took a couple of loping strides across the street and jumped up to the wooden sidewalk.
“How’re ya doing, Auntie Ag?”
“I’ve noticed that in California,” she said, “pedestrians have the right-of-way. Still, one is never wrong to look carefully before crossing.” The imaginary announcer called out: Game: Bliss!
“Oh, you’re thrilled that you saw me do the only dumb thing I’ve ever done. Well, I’m watching you, girl.” With that, Lewis plunked himself down in the second rocking chair and tossed his car keys onto the little table between himself and Auntie Ag.
Agatha Bliss blinked with a start. Lewis was in the chair. So where was the man?
VI. “Well,” Lewis said with a huff after they were all settled into their seats and The White Cloud was driving back down to Auburn, “We know one thing for sure.”
“And what, exactly, is that?”
Sissy knew Lewis was exasperated. After five minutes Lewis left the museum and went straight across the street to the store. There, he shot the breeze with a mixed group of tourists and locals. Lewis was not the sort of person who, like Sissy, delighted in reading every detail of every label on every wall in a museum. He wasn’t so much a reader as he was a meet-er. Lewis was a people guy.
“What we know for sure is that Hi Dickey’s boy, Scott, is full of it.” Lewis was emphatic.
“Yeah. He said Dutch Flat was haunted. We were all over the place and none of us saw any friggin’ ghosts.”
Sissy gave a scoff of agreement. “Good point.”
The boys up front thought Auntie Ag might be asleep in her recliner until she cleared her throat. “But one does wonder, darlings. How would one know that it was a ghost?”
Was it possible for two human beings living in two entirely different eras to meet for a moment? she wondered. After all, a person can’t be in two places at the same time. But was it possible for two people from two different eras to meet at the same place at the same time? Could past and present intersect for just a moment?
“Thank you both for the morning. You have given me something fresh and fascinating to ponder.” Then she added softly, “It’s so difficult for elderly people to come across something really interesting to think about, isn’t it?” She closed her eyes and smiled within herself. Whenever Agatha Bliss had mind candy to savor, she was content.