I – The Catalyst
The solitary ride back to Salem devastated Janek. He stayed in his apartment, slept little, ate nothing, and drank excessive amounts of tequila. Death wasted his days and exhausted his sanity. When he did sleep, he dreamed of flies crawling on rancid dead bodies rotting on the back porch. When he was so drunk that he couldn’t stand up, he sobbed until his throat hurt and his eyes burned. Eight days later, he realized that he had to decide what to do with his life.
He arrived at the office of his employers, Doyle and Stromburg, at ten o’clock in the morning. Before he went inside, he dissembled his grief and put on the guise of his profession.
“I’ve come to discuss your generous job offer,” Janek said when he was seated in Thomas Doyle’s office.
“You have come to turn down the position. Am I right?”
“I thought this might happen after your family passed.”
Janek was surprised to hear his family’s death was common knowledge. No one had come to his apartment to offer condolences.
“Are you thinking of leaving Salem?”
“Have you a destination in mind?”
“I can recommend some accounting firms in San Francisco that are looking for good people. It might do you good to get as far away from here as possible.”
Janek stared at Thomas. San Francisco? That seemed drastic.
“I have to settle my parents’ estate and sell the farm.”
“Those things can be handled by correspondence. Your friend Patrick Bright is an attorney. He can take care of everything.”
Janek looked at the floor and said nothing.
“I know this is a dreadful decision, and I know you are suffering. You have as much time as you need to think things over.”
“I don’t … have time. I can’t stay here.”
“Then it is settled.”
Janek looked at Thomas.
“I will have the appropriate letters drawn up today and delivered to your apartment. I am sorry about your family. No one should have to endure such a tragedy. Stay in touch and let me know how things work out for you. There will be a position here for you if you decide to return.”
Thomas’ compassion touched Janek’s despondency. He wiped at a rouge tear. “Thank you. I won’t forget your kindness.”
On Tuesday, August 20, 1872, with two carpetbags and the letters of recommendation from Thomas Doyle, Janek Walesa boarded a train on the Oregon and California Railroad. The train took him to the end of the railway line in Roseburg, Oregon. He wrote letters to Patrick Bright and the Wilkersons saying he was going to San Francisco and would be in touch. He mailed the letters at the train station in Roseburg.
From there, he paid for passage on a merchant wagon train bound for Eureka, California. The wagon train turned westward at the California state line, then south down the coast. Janek talked to no one unless it was necessary. Guilt and grief demanded his attention. They were his sole companions until shame pointed out his weaknesses and taunted him for leaving his dead family behind in graves few if anyone would visit.
His mind wandered.
“Come here and see your baby sister,” his mother said. She held what seemed to five-year-old Janek to be a bundle of blankets in her arms. He wasn’t sure what to think about a baby sister.
“Look, Janek! I caught a butterfly!”
He looked at his four-year-old sister’s out stretched hand. A small yellow butterfly rested on Liv’s palm. Its delicate wings were still.
“Be careful not to crush it.”
“I will!” Liv said and laughed as she skipped away to a place Janek couldn’t see.
Aron handed him a hammer. “This is why you’ll go to college son.”
“What does this have to do with … Father?”
The wagon train arrived in Eureka, California on the morning of Friday, September 6, 1872. Eureka was a bustling lumber town on the coast, near Humboldt Bay. Clipper ships and schooners filled with people who were looking for investments or work arrived at the docks daily. Eureka and the surrounding areas offered opportunities in mining, logging, and fishing. Cruise ships originating in Portland, Oregon docked in Eureka on their way to points south.
Eureka’s ebb and flow of teeming hordes made Janek uncomfortable, and he heeded his urgency to escape. The next stagecoach departure was scheduled for Saturday morning. The overnight wait was more than he could bear, so he went to the harbor in search of another means of transportation. The only vessel offering passage was a schooner preparing to sail south to a small town called Ferndale. Janek leaned against the rail on the schooner’s stern and watched the blue water rush by.
Suddenly, he heard someone say, “Where’re you headed?”
He turned and saw a man, smiling. The man appeared to be the same age and height as Janek. He had green eyes, and his long dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck.
“Are you speaking to me?” Janek said.
“Never been. I’m Evan O’Malley, the first mate on this schooner.” He thrust a hand toward Janek.
Janek shook Evan’s hand. “Janek Walesa.”
“Where’re you from?”
Janek didn’t want to have a conversation with this man, but etiquette required an answer. “Oregon.”
Evan nodded and grinned. “I’ve been to Portland many times. There’s plenty to do there if you know what I mean.”
Janek had no idea what Evan meant. He remained silent.
“What kind of work do you do?”
Evan whistled and let out a little chuckle. “You went to college?”
“I don’t like math. It takes too much concentration.”
Janek supposed a response was required, but he was given a reprieve when the captain called for his first mate.
Someone shouted, “Arriving in Ferndale!”
Janek saw a rocky shoreline ahead and the mouth of a river to his right. The schooner slid in silence up the Eel River toward a dock where several smaller boats were moored. After he disembarked, he stood on the dock and wondered how he was going to get to Ferndale.
Evan jumped onto the dock and said, “Follow me.”
Janek picked up his bags and fell into step beside Evan.
Ferndale was more settled and prosperous than Janek expected. Main Street was lined with businesses as well as a post office and city hall. Dodd’s General Mercantile Store was one of several ornate storefront buildings.
Janek said, “I need somewhere to stay tonight.”
“That’s where we’re going,” Evan said. “I have a friend who runs a boarding house.”
They entered a neighborhood east of Main Street. Janek noticed a church steeple protruding above the roof tops. He kept glancing at it. Evan stopped and opened a gate in front of a large white house with a widow’s walk on the roof and a sign on the door that read:
The Old Virginia Home
Evan entered without knocking. Janek remained on the front porch. He heard Evan calling for someone inside the house. A feminine voice answered, and then a woman in her early thirties opened the door.
“I’m Lise Anders. Evan tells me you need a room for tonight. Come in and I’ll get you settled.”
Evan was standing in the entryway when Janek followed Lise into the house.
Janek said, “Thank you for your help, Mr. O’Malley.”
“It’s my pleasure, Mr. Walesa,” Evan said as he opened the door to leave. “Oh, a southbound stagecoach comes through here tomorrow afternoon. I thought you might want to know.”
Lise Anders led Janek into the parlor. “Please sit down.”
Janek sat in a chair in front of a small desk and watched Lise unlock a desk drawer. She was average height and small boned, but her slim waist accentuated the curve of her hips and full bust line. Her soft features and blond hair and blue eyes reminded him of his mother.
Lise removed the registration book and a key from the drawer. She opened the book and slid it across the desk to Janek. “Write your name and home address,” she said, handing him a pen.
He stared at the book. Is this what I have been reduced to—a homeless man?
“Is something wrong? Surely you can write.”
“I have no home address.”
“Well then, just write your name. The room is one dollar a night, which includes breakfast and dinner.”
Janek paid Lise.
She led him upstairs to his room on the second floor. “Dinner is at six o’clock in the dining room. Will you be eating with us tonight?”
“Breakfast is served between seven and nine o’clock in the morning. I’m sure you’ll be hungry by then. If you need anything in the meantime, you can find me in the kitchen.”
When Lise had gone, Janek stripped off his clothes and lay on the bed. His familiar companions guilt, grief, and shame joined him. Loneliness consorted with this miserable group. He wondered what his real motive was for leaving home. Sorting through his emotions with his companions interjecting their opinions was exhausting. He dropped off into a dreamless sleep.