In this installment of the Bogwillow Chronicles, we meet the Editor of the town paper, who I realize now is a nameless character. I cannot believe I never gave him a name. Though when I think about it carefully it could be because I was shielding his identity as I rather did my own during my early blogging years.
It’s a little long. More of a short story, so come back later if you don’t have a little bit of time to read it right now.
The Catalpa Tree Spoke
It was a damp, cold day at the cemetery. The oak trees were bare except for a handful of tenacious brown leaves that refused to let go their hold on what used to be their life. Featureless gray clouds had hung in the sky for days making us all wonder if the sun was ever coming out again. I had only been there a few minutes and already my feet were cold.
I arrived early to start taking notes. The crew from Veldman’s Funeral Home was already set up with the artificial grass carpeting covering the mound of earth by the graveside, and the beams were set across the open grave to receive the casket when it arrived. The workmen stood around the corner of one of the mausoleums next to the pickup truck talking amongst themselves and hunching their shoulders in their winter parkas, trying to stay warm. I sighed, my breath creating yet another cloud that silently joined the others on this gray day. This was my least favorite job as editor of the Bogwillow Journal.
* * *
“Herbert Foxwell was laid to rest yesterday afternoon at the Bogwillow Cemetery. He was 79 years old when he passed away suddenly at home from a heart attack. Dr. Woodbine was quite surprised. “I had just given him a complete physical a week earlier and he was fit as a fiddle. There are just some things that even modern science cannot explain. I guess it was just his time to go. I will miss him, he was my most challenging chess opponent.”
The funeral was attended by his widow Marita, along with many friends and family members. Their two sons, Bill and Brad and daughter Diana came all the way from Kenwood and Duncan Springs respectively. There was also a sizable contingent of long time friends from Beaver Lodge No. 109 where Herbert had the honor of holding the office of Grand Beaver from 1982 to 1986. They performed a short rite that some of you might be familiar with. It ends with each participant slapping the back of the man next to him with the ceremonial beaver tail. It was an emotional moment.
Herbert was born and raised in Bogwillow and ran the Foxwell Hardware Store for forty-seven years. Just a few years ago he turned the management of the store over to LeRoy Helms who has been doing a fine job. We spoke to him the day after the sad news. “Herbie told me that when he retired, he was going to go home and make bird houses and front porch benches with all those odd bits of leftover lumber he had collected over the years in his garage. He made that bench right out there in front of the store as a matter of fact. Everyone has had a sit-down on that thing. Especially wives waiting for their husbands while they are in here looking at the lawn mowers and what not. I am going to miss the old guy. He was a fine man, a fine man indeed.”
Word has it that several of Herbert and Marita’s family members will be in town for a few days so if anyone would like to drop in, they will be having an open house from 1 to 4 every afternoon until Wednesday. And those feeling the urge to bring food, please be reminded of Marita’s allergy to seafood of any kind.
* * *
I put my notebook away as I watched the last of the crowd leaving in their cars. I was winding my way through the headstones making for the driveway when I came upon the unusual cement slab where the ashes of the Gantry family were buried. It was in the shape of a circle with openings large enough to deposit the urns. On the outside edge of the circle, each urn had a little headstone. There were three generations of Gantry’s here and I stopped a moment to read some of the names. I knew Porter Gantry personally. He had been gone for several years now. As I walked around the slab, I noticed something odd.
There by the side of Porter’s headstone was a pile of four flat stones. The kind that you might choose from the side of the lake to skip across the water. They were about as big around as dollar pancakes, and all different colors and types of stone too, like they had come from completely different places. Now that’s odd, I thought, I wonder who piled those here? I bent down to look closer, and there, sticking out from under the pile was the corner of a piece of paper. I lifted the stones and slid the paper out.
There was a black and white photocopy of a book jacket. “The Catalpa Tree Spoke” by Jace Gantry. I opened up the folded paper and there in an angular but very legible hand were these words:
Sometimes it takes a very long journey for one to find out how important one’s roots are. Perhaps you have to go so far away that they actually break, to feel the loss of their nourishing flow. I just wanted you to know that I have done something with my life, and I am sorry that it took me so long to figure out that what you thought, meant everything to me. Now it’s too late to share this with you face to face, but if there is life after death then you will hear these words from wherever you are. Maybe next time we will do better. Your son, Jace.
“Well, I’ll be.” I said aloud. I hadn’t seen Jace Gantry in years. They had a rocky relationship those two. Porter, a pragmatic man if ever there was one and Jace with his head in the clouds, well, they never did understand each other. When Jace was seventeen, he had run away from home. His poor mother almost lost her mind. The only communication they ever got from him was a birthday card for his mother every year. At least she knew he was alive. And the postmarks were from all over the country. They kept coming even after she passed away, and Porter had put them in the little cedar box with all the others that she had tied together with a scarlet ribbon.
I took out my notebook and jotted down the title of the book and slipped it in my pocket. I folded the note carefully and replaced it exactly as I had found it. I decided to get to the library before it closed and see if by some chance they might have this book on the shelves.
I got to the library five minutes before closing time and went straight over to the counter where Selma was putting away the day’s library cards in a big drawer, along with the late fine money box.
“I’m glad I caught you Selma, I am wondering if you have this book in the library.” I handed her the slip of paper.
She looked at the paper and then at me, over the tops of her reading glasses. “Let’s take a look.” She led me over to the card catalog and in a trice made the announcement. “I’m afraid we don’t have it. Do you know when it was published? It takes us a while to get the really new books in you know. We share a circulating new book collection with the other branches in the county. I could call the head librarian in the morning and check for you.”
“No thanks Selma, it was just a whim. I’ll see if I can find it on my own.”
I said, and bid her goodnight.
* * *
Two days later, I had occasion to go to the county seat on newspaper business. I had it in mind to go to the bookstore there and look for Jace Gantry’s book. I went down to the light rail station early in the morning and stood waiting for the train. I noticed Chloe Tuttle standing on the other side of the tracks with her little picnic basket on her arm. The train came and she got on at the other end of the car. I watched her, as she seemed to be unhappy with her seating arrangements. She sat down near a woman and looked at her expectantly for a little while, but made no conversation. Then after a bit, she got up and sat near someone else. I noticed that under her winter coat, which she had unbuttoned because it was warm in the car, she was wearing a pink sweater. She kept putting her hand in the pocket of that sweater like she was checking for something. Pretty soon, she moved again and sat down across from a derelict looking man and looked straight at him. She always was an odd little thing, but today she was really behaving strangely. I could never have imagined our timid Chloe trying to make eye contact with strangers on the train. Who knew what was going on in her mind? Certainly not me.
When the train arrived, she scurried off in the opposite direction that I was going. She was no spring chicken, but that woman was making tracks, looking for all the world, like she was supposed to meet someone, and was late. Now who in the city could possibly be meeting Chloe Tuttle? I shook my head and went about my business.
A few hours later, I finally made it to the bookstore and asked the clerk for some help with my book search. He took me to the autobiographies.
And there, on the shelf, were three copies of “The Catalpa Tree Spoke” by Jace Gantry.
It had the same cover as the photocopy at the cemetery. I opened the book and in the first pages I read:
“To my father. For pointing the way, even though I didn’t take it.”
“My God,” was all I could say.
I bought the book and tucked it in my briefcase and headed for the train station. I didn’t want to start reading it on the train, so I got out a magazine and read that instead.
The sun was going down by the time I arrived in Bogwillow.
The west had turned a delicate shade of peach with a pale blue background and high cold wisps of clouds smeared across the horizon. The winter trees stood in stark and stoic contrast. They looked as if they were trying to remember the evening summer breezes.
My wife was gone for the week, visiting her sister in Alderpoint Bay. I made my way home, hoping there was still some roast beef left in the refrigerator to make a sandwich with.
I got home and built a fire in the fireplace, made a pot of coffee and a sandwich from the hoped for beef and settled in my favorite chair to read the book.
It was a collection of vignettes, taken from Jace’s travels across the country. Poignant encounters with old men, street people, and others who had picked him up hitchhiking. It was very well written. Poetic and insightful. But I knew that Porter would not have appreciated his son’s style, nor would he have understood the multi-layered meanings. I began to feel that it was just as well that his father had never had a chance to read this book, as it might have driven a wedge that would have divided them even more, if that was possible.
Then I came to my favorite story. It was a dream sequence. And it went like this:
I found myself walking in a twilight world, at once strange and oddly familiar. It was late afternoon in winter. What little warmth the sun had brought during the day was rapidly dissipating in the lengthening shadows. One began to think of hot soup and a warm bath waiting at home. But where was home? I walked tentatively down the street not exactly sure which way I should go, searching for some familiar landmark to reassure me. I finally came upon such a sign.
Near the sidewalk, there grew a Catalpa tree. I had walked by it a thousand times in my hometown growing up. It was the exact size and shape that I remembered and with a sigh of relief, I knew I was on Main Street. But something was amiss with that Catalpa and I gave it a second look.
For one thing, it was fully leafed out, impossible in winter, and for another it was in bloom. But such blooms as had never been seen on any Catalpa I knew about. The tree was loaded with beach ball sized whitish membranes. I had to go see what this was all about and reached up both hands and pulled one off the tree. The membrane was very thin and yielded to my hands as I spread it apart. And out onto the ground spilled hundreds of pale pink blossoms with dark fuchsia centers. I was delighted by this and laughed out loud. I felt I should check once again to make sure I had the right tree. I took a few steps back and looked up at it and sure enough, the Catalpa stood as plain as day trying to look ordinary, when in fact it was nothing of the sort.
I began to feel that perhaps the nightmares of my youth could be dispelled if my home town had become such a magical place. I walked further, hoping to see some familiar homes and became disoriented yet again, as the expected houses had been either torn down and replaced with new or radically remodeled so as to be unrecognizable. The trees in the yards were still the same, and the lilacs and snowball bushes stood without leaves, but in their familiar places.
Even the old fashioned rambling rose clung to the fence, where I had picked many a simple pink blossom for my mother. It was covered now with frostbitten rosehips and moldy withered leaves. But the house that should have gone with it was distorted and shrunken, covered with a new coat of garish turquoise paint. Mrs. Cooke never would have put up with such an outlandish color. Never.
Then I came to the place where the Leonard Lawson apartment house used to stand. It had been a grand old house from a hundred years ago that had been split up into apartments after Mr. Lawson’s death. There used to be two giant oaks in the front yard. It had even been elegant in its old age and reduced circumstances, still a house to be gazed upon with pride.
But the sight that met my eyes in the growing gloom of that winter night made my heart stand still. Someone had torn down the house, cut down the trees and replaced them with an equipment rental store with blue aluminum siding and cheap tin roofing. It was lit with two huge glaring floodlights that seemed to suck the life out of all they illuminated. The snow blowers, roto-tillers and riding lawn mowers behind the chain link fence outside looked an odd, washed out maroon instead of their true vibrant reds. Equipment ghosts, hunkering in the contrasting shadows of the buzzing lights. Worst of all, the sidewalk had been torn out, and the Vinca vines that used to grow there were gone. In their place asphalt and serpentine gravel, ugly and sharp, spread out welcoming only cars or pickup trucks and turning a cold shoulder to pedestrians.
From somewhere, I could only imagine it was from the place where the oak trees used to stand, there came a sound. A thin high wail of pain. How could this happen? How could they tear down that wonderful old house, where people used to live and sit on the front porch and listen to the acorns drop and roll off the roof? And if it had to be torn down, why oh why did it have to be replaced by this monstrosity? Why oh why do we build such ugly, ungracious, uninviting, horrible buildings that shun people on foot, leave them no place to walk gracefully by in safety? Is the whole world to turn into asphalt and gravel and glaring blue buzzing lights? Or places where the only purpose is to take our money for inferior goods, with storekeepers whose politeness only lasts as long as one business transaction. After which, you suddenly become a stranger again. Because of this we wander as exiles wherever we go.
Where was the town I used to know? Even if its narrowness, and the fact that it seemed to be inhabited by a bunch of eccentric xenophobes had driven me out like a leper, (or so I thought). This town, and these people at least could appreciate the beauty of older simpler things. They were willing to put up with a little inconvenience in exchange for constancy, and respect for the work of hands that had lived before their own. And who remembered you were one of them, even when you behaved like an idiot. You at least were their idiot. Their familiar fool. And that allowances were to be made for until you came to your senses.
The wail from the ground grew to a cry, and the cry to a scream and the scream was coming from my own mouth. I suddenly found myself awake and panting in the tumult of my bedclothes with tears in my eyes.
“I must go home. Before it’s too late…” was my only thought.
The book lay in my lap. My coffee had gone cold, and the bread on half my sandwich was already growing stale and hard. The fire was reduced to clear red coals crumbling into a shapeless mass. Tears were in my eyes too. Such a sensitive soul this boy was. No, he was a man now wasn’t he? Was it too late? It certainly was for his parents. But not for Jace. And not for Bogwillow.
I considered doing an editorial on the book, but thought better of it. I wasn’t sure if the town was ready to hear about the revelations of a prodigal son. And who knew? Maybe he was on his way back right now. Maybe when he had left the note, he was sizing up the town with new eyes. Maybe I would get to meet him one day, and shake his hand. Maybe he would raise children here and show them the Catalpa tree that still stood on Main Street, right next to the Leonard Lawson apartment house.
I made up my mind right then, that the first thing in the morning, I was going to go down there and take a picture of that wonderful old place. That would be the best time of day. The house faces the east, and it will look good with the morning sun shining on it. And right after that, I would walk the streets and take a look at Bogwillow through the eyes of its true, if late blooming friend, Jace Gantry.