The bubbled antique glass of the Columbia Gazette Office felt cool against her forehead as Jeri leaned against it. Against her will, she found herself panting like a dog and figured it was her body’s defense mechanism against stress. At her feet, Andy sat in enforced decompression mode. Jeri had pulled him out of the Fallon Hotel in such a hurry that he screamed as though she had forcefully pinched him or caused him some form of intense and unusual pain. Luckily for the two of them, nobody was around to stare and pass judgment because, unfortunately for Jeri, Bloody Murder was always the scream of choice for Andy, regardless of the severity of physical interaction. Whenever he behaved that way in public, Jeri knew that he could not, and as a parent she would not allow him to, continue that kind of behavior in public. It took awhile, but she had instinctively found that “shutting him down” as quickly as possible was best for him any everyone else within earshot.
Since the traditional Time Out method that her friends used with their kids didn’t work for her, Jeri tried multiple methods of discipline until she landed on the only thing that finally worked, for both frustrated mother and out of control child. Using her arms to firmly fold Andy’s body down into a ball, then making sure to use the same intonation and pitch every single time, she would say the words, “Sit Down. Head Down. Time Out. Now.” The first few times it was a nearly impossible task, but as time passed, each time she did it, she noticed Andy’s resistance breaking down in incremental bits. Now, having done it over and over again, the same way each and every time – immediately and without fail (no matter where they were or who was watching), Andy reluctantly responded, but did so positively. It was one of a handful of ways that convinced Jeri that she was going to have to work with her son, chipping away in small portions, to ultimately get her little square peg to fit into society’s round holes the best she could.
Autism had made Andy respond to the world in a variety of quirky ways since he was about 18 months old, but since they’d arrived at the Fallon Hotel, it seemed that he was changing again, but this time… in a bizarrely abnormal-normal way. One minute Andy was the same child he’d been for years, the textbook example of everything Jeri had read about children with autism, yet in the last two days he was exhibiting signs of being neurologically typical – a child who is present. But Andy wasn’t at all present-day present.
Tears rolled down Jeri’s cheeks as she realized that something was seriously wrong with her beautiful boy. Something that was so much more than she was prepared to deal with, even armed as she was with all of the pamphlets and books that the world had to offer about autism.
At the same time, it was upsetting to Jeri to think that something odd was happening to her, too in the middle of all of this. Was it possible that the stress of leaving her marriage behind and thinking she could somehow start a new and peaceful life was making both mother and son a little crazy?
“Come on, baby.” Leaning down, she gently lifted Andy by the elbows. “Maybe the crazy lady was right. Or maybe Mommy is the one who is crazy. Either way, I think we’re going to have to go to the museum now.”
Taking their time, Jeri kept one hand on Andy’s shoulder, no matter how much he flinched and tried to pull away, as they walked down Main Street. She would gently pull him back, slow him down, and softly talk to him about how important it was to look into the windows as they went past.
The first storefront was the Pioneer Emporium with its hand-painted windows advertising “Household Goods, Sundries and Provisions.” Items filled up every square inch that the eye could see.
They crossed over Fulton Street, giving them a chance to look into an antiquated book shop and the dry goods store. They paused in front of the barber shop’s old fashioned red, white and blue pole which still made Jeri wince. It had grossed her out as a kid, after her father told her that the pole represented bloody bandages and veins, since the town’s barber typically not only cut hair and shaved faces, but performed surgery and blood-letting, as well as extracted teeth. She shuddered, but wondered if the current barber on duty would cut Andy’s hair using only scissors, since the sound of electric clippers caused him to tantrum each Jeri’s stylist had tried. Surely, an old fashioned barber would understand a request like that. At least, she hoped.
At the corner of Main and State Street they stopped in front of the Columbia Museum, partly so Jeri could catch her breath and also so she could reassess this new visit to the old building. As a girl she remembered wishing she could spend the entire day taking her time going through the exhibits, but her parents were impatient and insisted they would have to see the whole town by dusk. Even when she came as an adult, her husband wasn’t interested in the items on display and as a result, they’d barely spent ten minutes glancing at the ephemera and memorabilia. She found it interesting that as a child, she knew that Columbia was not a place to rush through and she didn’t feel any differently standing at the front door now. Surely, a person needed a couple of days, at the very minimum, to absorb it all. As they walked through the front door, Jeri found that somehow, even with the strange circumstances of the handful of hours since they’d been there, she still felt that way.
The museum was a dusty place, best described as a gray place – void of all color, as time and dust had robbed the encased items of their original hues. Even so, it was still as exciting as Jeri remembered, with colorful information about the town and its inhabitants in every nook and cranny waiting to be discovered. Display cases filled with artifacts and papers that would give a glimpse into the lives of the miners and other occupants of Columbia, California back in the 1800’s. As fascinating as all of that was, all Jeri was interested in today was the possibility of information that might help her understand the brand new, strangely old issues that seemed to be haunting her boy.
Ruth was standing near the back wall of the building, talking to a small group of older women wearing matching purple sweatshirts and all clutching pamphlets advertising nearby Mercer Caverns, Moaning Caverns, BigTreesState Park and other recreational activities to see in the area. Pointing to a photograph, Ruth was telling them about community dances back in the day. “Well, most holidays around these parts featured a Grand Ball of some type. They were usually sponsored by the many clubs in town, the military and the fire companies. They were big deals, too! Full of colorful decorations, lively music and sumptuous suppers. Oh, and the firemen would come from all around and those fellas were treated almost like they were West Point cadets, they were just so terribly important what with all the threat and danger of fire up in this area. As you can see, they were also pretty handsome!” The women giggled and thanked Ruth for her knowledge and hospitality and made sure to drop money into the donation box on their way out.
Looking around the building as she approached Ruth, Jeri noticed there were only a handful of people wandering about, mostly out of earshot. “Excuse me, Ruth? I know you’re going to think I’m a complete fruitbat, but I have some unusual questions to ask you.”
Ruth smiled and sat down on a stool. “Likely about Ezra, I suppose.”
Jeri’s shoulders slumped. Unsure of whether she was peeved or pleased that Ruth knew why she was there. “I don’t even know where to begin.”
Glancing over to check on Andy, Jeri noticed he was bent down over a display case, intently looking at a collection of photographs, his nose pressed against the glass. “Oh, Andy! Don’t press against the glass like that…” Jeri started to walk over to him, but Ruth stopped her and pulled a cotton cloth from her apron. “Aw… don’t worry about it. Glass cleaning comes with the territory. Let him enjoy.”
Jeri leaned her head back, looking up at the ceiling and exhaled any and all air from her lungs. “Ruth. Can you explain what’s going on? What is happening to Andy? To us?”
Tucking the cloth back into her apron, Ruth shook her head. “Well, first thing you need to know is that as the Museum Docent, it doesn’t look particularly good for me to really recount anything but factual history, but honestly — ever since I arrived here, I’ve been pretty fascinated by the fictional history, too. I’m not gonna lie.”
“Great. I get it. So, what? You’re going to tell me a few ghost stories to try and scare me out of town? Is this some scheme cooked up by you and the management of the hotel to drive me off in order to get full rates for my room?” Jeri folded her arms defensively.
Ruth stood up and pointed her finger at Jeri. “No. I’m not here to drive you out or scare the pants off of you. But, I do have an idea of what might be going on and…” She was interrupted by the creak of the front door as it wildly swung open and a large family walked in, all talking at once and loudly.
In a hoarse whisper, Ruth smiled at the family, but addressed Jeri. “When you’re ready to hear me, I’ll talk. Until then, pardon me — I’m going to go about my usual business of dealing with the real world.”
As she walked away to greet the newcomers, it occurred to Jeri that Ruth seemed like a level-headed, mature woman who loved history and was probably the exact type of woman who would be a fan of James Randi, the famous scientific skeptic who devoted his time debunking claims of supernatural and paranormal activity. Still, whatever light Ruth was going to shed on what was going on, or seemed to be going on (in Jeri’s mind?) was questionable to her at this point.
Again, the front door to the museum swung open and shut with a loud creak, as the large family left as quickly as they came in. Ruth walked back to Jeri, who was now slumped over the donation box. “They really wanted a bathroom and I’ve found that even hardcore historians will walk on by when their bladders are involved.” Sitting back down, Ruth leaned in and patted Jeri on the shoulder. “Well now, you’re still here. And, where were we?”
“Ezra.” Jeri pressed her lips together.
Ruth smiled. “Ezra.”
The two women locked eyes. Ruth squinted slightly.
“Hmm. I can only hope that you won’t think me crazy if I tell you what I’ve pieced together over the years, Jeri. I’m going to ask that you take it with a grain of salt and know that I’ve not ever found a shred of documentation that this boy ever existed, here in Columbia. But I believe he did. I believe he does, if that makes sense.”
Weakly, Jeri nodded.
Ruth put her fingers to her lips. “Please understand, I’ve not had any interaction with this child, but based on the reaction of the people who have, it’s hard for me not to believe. The stories I’ve collected over time, are not only very compelling and believable, but I’ve managed to connect almost all of them with actual places, dates and names. I feel I have a pretty good idea of who Ezra was, well – is, and what happened to him.”
“Well, as close as I can figure Ezra was probably born in 1848 or 49 to a father and mother who were Argonauts, residents of England who left to seek a new life and perhaps their fortune in California, sailing to the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama. Of all the ways to get to California, this was a incredibly treacherous journey, which required trekking through the jungle via canoes and mules for almost a week to get to the Pacific side, and after all that, they would then have to board a ship for San Francisco. For many years, various members of the staff over at the Fallon Hotel have told me that they have heard the boy talk of his mother, who died of cholera on the journey and that he and his father arrived they went to live at Mrs. Denoielle’s boarding house on the east side of Main Street. Now, there was a young teacher named Adelaide who is on record as being the town beauty here in the 1851, which was the coldest winter on record, and she may have been one of Ezra’s first caregivers, while his father likely looked for gold. When Adelaide married, I believe she left Ezra behind with his gambling father, who was too busy playing Monte and Faro at The Long Tom Saloon, to be involved with his young son. At least, stories have been told that Ezra didn’t have many memories of his father. He may have died in the first big fire of 1854, or by some other nefarious method, because there were plenty of ways for a man to die in those days, but one guest at the Fallon said Ezra patted her head in the middle of the night, and called her “Miss Bella, the Fandango girl.” One of the maids said that Ezra claimed he loved as much as he would have his own mother.”
Searching for a tissue in her purse, Jeri found her eyes had teared up, thinking of how hard life would have been for a little boy like Ezra during the Gold Rush, especially with no parents or family to take care of him.
Mindlessly, Ruth handed a pad of paper and red crayon to Andy, who was now seated at an old school desk in a corner.
“Now, at this point the next bits of information have no verification, just more stories from different folks. There was this psychic from San Francisco who came down to attend a “Titanic Dinner” held at the City Hotel. It’s this fun, theatrical evening where musicians play the same music that was performed on this ship the night of April 13th and into the morning of the 14th in 1912. The kitchen chefs serve up the same six course meal and they have character actors playing the parts of Unsinkable Molly Brown and the Captain. During dessert, bells ring, the lights flash on and off and iceberg warnings are issued. At the end of the evening, as everyone was leaving this noted psychic leaned up against her Mercury Mountaineer in the parking lot and started talking about Ezra according to some of the guests who’d walked her to her car. They just thought she’d had too much sherry or was continuing the role playing from earlier in the night. But, one of the busboys, who’d been dispatched by the hostess to take the lady a go-cup of strong coffee, told me that the psychic was going on and on about the fire broke out in 1857.”
Wrapping her arms tightly around her body, Jeri looked over at Andy who was quietly pressing his red crayon to the paper, filling it with red dots.
Ruth licked her lips and pressed them tightly together. She shook her head and continued. “The busboy said the psychic lady was upset and crying. She said that Ezra had hid in a building on the east side of Columbia, which everyone had said was completely safe and deemed fireproof. Records show that the buildings whose walls were only eight inches thick were not really fireproof at all. The only structures that defied the flames were building that had walls eighteen to twenty four inches thick. As a result, the entire portion of town enclosed by Pacific Street on the north, Columbia Street on the east, Main Gulch on the south and the west side of Broadway on the east were all consumed by fire. The psychic said that the body of a boy was discovered in the laundry chute of a building between Broadway and Columbia streets, but try as I might, I have never found a death certificate confirming that. They say that the psychic lady went further into her post-Titanic trance, wailing that Miss Bella was heartsick about what happened and spiraled into alcoholism and was never the same after. She said that because of her drunkenness and the fact that there was nobody to come forward to claim and bury Ezra, he was placed in an unmarked grave in the public cemetery. There are a number of unmarked graves up there, but nobody knows which one is his.”
Over in the corner, Andy covered his ears and began to whimper.
The door to the museum flung open and startled Jeri. Not noticing until then that her mouth had dropped open, she closed it. The bladder family had returned and there was a low buzzing noise, as one of the kids was humming on a kazoo.
Jeri darted over to Andy. “Oh, Ruth. I’m not leaving because of your story. It was truly mesmerizing. I’m leaving because I’m pretty sure Andy’s about to ramp up into a tantrum because of the noise and I need to get him out of here.”
Covering her ears, Ruth laughed. “Want to get me out of here, too?!”
“Ruth, thank you again for the dinner invitation, we’ll see you at 6pm and we’ll have a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider with us.” Taking Andy’s hand, Jeri start to make a quick exit, then turned around, smiling warmly at the wise woman still seated on the stool. “Oh, and Ruth? I don’t think you’re crazy.”
Photo Copyight 2010 Troy Montemayor