I – The Catalyst
On Monday morning, Janek and Lise met in the boarding house parlor. She read his diploma and letter of recommendation.
“Mr. Doyle was taken by you and your work,” she said, handing him back his letter of recommendation. “I’m not a bit surprised.”
She tried not to stare at him. His physical beauty coupled with his gentle and educated way of speaking was intoxicating, but the attraction she was developing for him wasn’t sexual. It was something she couldn’t explain. Her heart yearned for Christer, but that feeling faded when she was near Janek.
“Why did you leave Oregon? It seems you had every opportunity there.”
Janek had not formed a credible allegory, which to him represented an acceptable lie. He had to suppress his pensive avoidance and melancholy behavior, which served to encourage intrusiveness. He feigned cheerfulness. “I needed a new start. Mr. Doyle suggested San Francisco.”
Lise nodded, but looked unconvinced.
“I know nothing about you,” Janek said, steering the topic away from his life.
She saw through his charade. “I promise not to pry into your life any further.”
Janek mentally sighed.
“My parents emigrated from Denmark over forty years ago,” Lise said. “I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. They had just died when I met Christer. We married a few years later. Christer believed we could have a better life in the West with all the land to be had for free. We had nothing keeping us in Richmond, so, thirteen years ago, we boarded a ship bound for Los Angeles and ended up here. He died two years ago. He was a wonderful man, and I miss him terribly.”
“I’m sorry. No one should be alone.”
“I have been alone and lonely, but your arrival in Ferndale has begun to mend my spirit.”
“What do you mean?”
Lise wondered what had encouraged that vagary.
Janek was looking at her, but not in an expectant manner. He looked apprehensive.
“Do you hear that?” Lise stood up. Her eyes widened a little as she cocked her head and listened. She took several small steps, stopped, and then walked to the kitchen. Janek followed her. The kitchen was deserted. The other boarders were gone for the day. There was no sound except crackling embers in the firebox.
Lise walked onto the back porch then into the backyard. Janek trailed behind her.
“There’s no one here except you and me,” Janek said. He grabbed Lise’s arm and turned her around to face him. “What did you hear?”
“I thought I heard murmuring.”
Janek thought this was an intimation of what had happened to him in the church. He looked around the yard, and then back to Lise. The last thing he wanted to do was arouse unfounded fear by mentioning his experience in the church.
They contemplated one another for a few seconds before Janek followed Lise back into the house.
Three weeks later, Janek was still staying at Lise’s boarding house. He had taken on more accounting work and was meeting with Lucas Dodd, the owner of the general mercantile store, at the kitchen table when Evan appeared at the kitchen door.
“Good morning. I don’t mean to interrupt, but I’ve letters for Janek,” Evan said.
“Good morning,” Janek said.
“I’m surprised to see you, Evan,” Lucas said. “I thought you’d be gone by now.”
Evan went to the stove and poured a cup of coffee. “The schooner’s coming to pick me up on Monday morning. I’m planning on spending this weekend drunk and unruly. Would the two of you care to join me?”
“You know I will,” Lucas said.
Lucas Dodd was twenty-six and single. He inherited the general store and the apartment above it after his father died. With no surviving family, his life revolved around the store and a few friends. He worked hard all week and spent his Saturday nights drinking and playing poker at the Palace Saloon. He was sandy-haired and tall with a slim build and had the innocent face of a boy. While he had an even temperament, if provoked, he revealed the heart of a lion. Lucas was one of the few men in Ferndale whom Evan liked and trusted.
“I’ll be on the porch,” Evan said.
“There’s no need. We’re done,” Lucas said. He stood up, gathered his papers from the table, shoved them into his satchel, and said, “I’ll see you both tonight.”
“You said you had letters for me?” Janek said when Lucas had gone.
Evan handed him two envelopes. “One of them is from Eureka, and the other is from Salem. I hope its good news.”
Janek opened the letter from Eureka.
“This letter is from an accounting firm. They want me to interview for a position. I’m not looking for something permanent.”
Evan set his coffee cup on the table. “Aye, well I think you should go anyway. I’ll be there for a few days before we start our lumber runs up and down the coast. I can show you around.”
“I’m supposed to make enough money to move on to San Francisco. I’ll be wasting someone’s time if I go for the interview. It’s not ethical.”
“To hell with that, you have to look after yourself! I don’t understand how a smart guy like you found himself near penniless. Do you think you got robbed?”
“I wish I knew.”
Evan’s voice took on a serious tone. “You know, sometimes things happen for a reason. Maybe losing your money was fate. I know you’re running away from what happened to your family, but maybe you’ve run far enough.”
Janek’s heart quickened and he felt his chest tighten. “I told you about my family?”
“Aye, the day we went to the church. You don’t remember?”
Janek rubbed his chest without thinking. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t remember telling Evan something so important.
“I won’t breathe a word to anyone,” Evan said. “I know you’ve been carrying this burden with you all along. Some days it seems worse than others.”
“Do you think I’m going crazy?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I thought you were a lunatic. In fact, I’d like to see you stay for a while.”
Janek exhaled a soft laugh of relief. “I appreciate your honesty and discretion. This is not your problem, therefore, there’s no need for you to keep secrets for me.”
“I’m your friend, that’s all. I have to get back to the house. I’ll see you tonight at the Palace.”
Janek went to his room and opened the letter from Salem. It was from the law office handling the probate on his father’s will. The letter read:
September 12, 1872
Dear Mr. Walesa,
We have received your request for probate concerning your father, Aron Walesa and mother, Freya Walesa’s last will and testament. This office will be happy to represent you at the hearing that is scheduled for October 15, 1872. At the time of the settlement, we will act as your agent for the sale of the property in Albany, Oregon.
Enclosed, you will find the documents authorizing us to act in your behalf. Please sign and return them without delay. You will receive notification of the outcome of the probate hearing. If all is in order, the property will be put up for sale in accordance with the terms stated in the enclosed documents.
Patrick Bright, Attorney at Law
Janek tossed the documents to the floor and ran his hands through his blond hair. He needed to rid himself of his constant companions: guilt, grief, shame, and loneliness. He was inundated by a state of mind foreign to his nature. It was like a malignant tumor, and he had no idea how to cure it.
There was no one he could talk to apart from Evan. The church was the only place he could hide from his constant companions. Despite his unsettling experience in the church, he decided to spend the afternoon sitting in the pew in front of the pulpit.
He walked to the church and entered the courtyard. When he touched the knob on the vestibule door, he heard murmuring. He took three steps backward and scowled at the door. The murmuring amplified into the voices of a thousand lost souls begging for a human life.
Janek rubbed his face to clear the imploration from his mind. The murmuring stopped. He contemplated the door and thought, I am going crazy.
He went back to the boarding house.