Hard old Oysterville reveals itself

<p>Wrongdoers from pioneer times make their ghostly presence known to this columnist as we near the haunted holiday of Halloween.</p>

    There is a ragged border to the town of Oysterville, the stiff bones of old pine and the green chin-whiskers of stretching, bending ferns and the cutting sheaves of raw grass. Unnumbered, unnamed roots paw the dirt, scraping the earth for food. Beyond a gravel road the grass grows green on the other side, pinched by the paws of man and the running boards of proper houses.

    This circle of Oysterville, this school, this church, this ghost of a courthouse, the whispers of an old jail, all stiff with men in starched collars and bowler hats; high necked women in crinoline and cotton, smarty boys in short knickers and striped shirts. Find a place and close your eyes: the black exhaust, the blue fumes, the clatter of old Fords and the whirring of Packards, the clip-clop of black buggies drawn along by white horses.

    Sit inside the church, very still and all alone, and sweep your mind up into the silence. There is more than calm here, there are souls moving about. Nothing to be seen, no listening to be done, but don’t move a single muscle, not even in your mind. The place will absorb you.

    But it is the jail that I come for today, an empty space crowded in the green broken teeth of a time long ago. I’m old, arthritic and fat; I don’t wander much anymore, I can’t walk on uneven surfaces very well. My hips are dry and rusted, I’ve got a sack of cookies in the front seat, I’m preparing myself with enough excuses to forget the whole damn thing. The sky is gray and rolling, I’m sure to get stuck in the rain. I’ll go to all this trouble and fail to capture the spirit of the place.

    I’m embarrassed by this quenching of my courage. In a long heartbeat I’m out of the car and stepping down into the wilderness.

    Ten feet from the car and I’m lost and alone. I have in my mind a picture of where the jail should be (if someday I should wish to build one), and head for that place. I want to gaze among the treetops and summon the sky of 1891 (or some such year) back into place. I want to be a tough guy. I want to be dangerous. I want to feel arrested.

    For an hour (maybe more, time doesn’t seem to be worth much here), I sit cross-legged on the soggy ground. I close my eyes and let my mind drift away on the folds of clouds.

    “Hey you, hey kid!” A voice calls out. I lift my head, someone is calling me from the jail.

    I grab at the ground. My hands are dirty, I’ve been pawing at the grass. “Yeah you!” An arm reaches out into the damp, darkening air. I approach cautiously. He smiles at me, but I know his smile is fake. “That’s right, come here.”

    I am inches away from his grasp. He wants someone to talk to, he wants cigarettes, he wants a woman, he wants whiskey. Another man stands beside him and slightly behind. Wait a minute … these are prisoners … these are bad men.

    All of a sudden I miss my car. I miss my bag of cookies. But he looks so much like me! Different because of a different age, a different time, but the same features. The same big head, the same fat cheeks, the same unkempt hair, unruly chin.

    Both men are pushing against the bars, their facial features flattened by the hard, black steel. Suddenly shots ring out, their faces twist, their fingers slide down the bars. I run to the jail window and look inside. Blood like child’s paint, blood is everywhere.

    Through the window I see masked men with heavy sunken eyes and slumping shoulders. Blue smoke snakes away into the ceiling. Rifles and sidearms are cradled at their side. They march silently from the jail.

    I turn away, I’ve dug too deeply into the belly of this town.

    Leave your heroes alone, they were hard people from a hard time — forgive them and love them in equal measure.

    Wayne Downing is a refugee from Seattle. He lives in Ocean Park with his wife Cecelia. His daughter, son-in-law (and grandson) live in Long Beach, Calif.

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