MJ Politis, Ph.D.
Melanie Hamilton, M.D., didn’t know much about the world around her, but she did know that at the present time she had just left a space and time defined as Los Angeles, 1920. She also knew that this small town founded by a rowdy bunch of cowboys, working stiff Latinos and outcast Easterners half a century ago was about to blossom into something a lot bigger. She knew that most of the Westerns were being written in New Jersey and for the most part filmed there, through Thomas Edison’s contacts with equipment he wanted to stay in the East. She knew that this genre of story-telling in print and on screen was not going to go away, despite the fact that there were few real Cowboys left and, unless they were in the mountains south of the Rio Grande or north of the 49th parallel, wild Indians. She knew that writing Westerns was a man’s business, designed to serve the interests of men, and that being established in that genre was the most effective way her, so far unpaid and under-published, skills as a wordsmith could have an influence on men, and women. She also knew that despite the recent Amendment to the US Constitution that finally allowed all women to vote, few would go to the poles, and even fewer would vote according to their conscience rather than the wishes of their husbands.
But the still-single 35 year old, born and bred in very urban upscale New York physician also knew that she was a woman who would not bow down to any man. Melanie had clawed rather than climbed her way into becoming a doctor. A small-framed, big-brained woman who had cured the physical and mental ills of so many men and boys, many times having to pretend to be a nurse so she would have access to them. A woman who knew she was smarter than most of the men around her, and certainly more caring than such, which made her even more intelligent, and alone. A woman who somehow didn’t fit the WASP blue-blood heritage she was told that produced her. A woman who was brought up by a man-serving mother with whom less was said and more was withheld in any conversation, from both directions. A woman who was now an orphan, courtesy of an automobile accident involving her mother’s overpriced Rolls Royce Phantom I hitting a horse drawn ice-delivery wagon when the brakes on the former failed, instantly killing her father and putting her mother into the best of hospitals with the worst of injuries. A woman who now had to endure, and honor, one last request from her mother, delivered on her death bed.
“See to it that this woman is taken care of, and that you do everything you can to make her last days in the realm of the living peaceful and meaningful,” Melanie re-read yet again on the copy of the Will she had received in the mail as she walked through the hallways of the Sanitorium in Denver, past the guards who seemed to be more concerned with keeping patients in rather than un-infected people out. “You will be well compensated by my estate and by God for doing so,” the pledge in Melanie’s mother’s Will, put into print an hour before she passed due to un-repairable injuries. Injuries that maybe Melanie, if she had stayed at home in Long Island like a good, obedient and properly married off society girl, could have treated. Or, maybe not. It all was academic now.
Melanie showed her credentials to the orderly at the ward where this special patient, or perhaps soul, was being held. She looked away, seeing her reflection in the glass. She found herself primping up her stylishly chin-length bobbed hair under a fedora, then noticed in the reflection three traditionally clad nurses with long hair tied up in tight ‘granny’ buns who were not any older than herself looking disapprovingly at the trousers she was wearing. “It’s called liberation,” Melanie smiled at them.
“So’s death, ta the poor souls in this here ward anyway, Miss Hamilton,” the very male Orderly whose boots reeked of horse hair and cattle dung said as he pointed to a hastily put up sign above him with a western twang that made him sound both authentic, and illiterate.
“Doctor Hamilton,” Melanie reminded the jaundiced, and armed, yahoo whose breath reeked of tobacco of booze as she read the sign above the door reading ‘Spanish Flu Ward’ in paint that was still drying. “A Doctor who has been assigned to see a patient by the name of Maria Gonzales,” she continued, knowing fully well how deadly, and contagious, and painful, this new epidemic that came back with the Doughboys from France was.
“Assigned by who, ‘Doctor’ Hamilton?” the out-of-work cowboy asked with a sneer, more like a guard than a than an orderly.
“By the head of the hospital,” she said, placing her scarf over her mouth with one hand, handing over a letter from the Chief of Medicine at the hospital with the other.
“Whose signature I don’t quite recognize, Doctor Hamilton,” the guard replied with a sadistic grin.
“Which maybe you will, on these documents?” Melanie shot back with a sharp, academic Southampton blue blood accent, presenting the guard with another envelope, retrieved from under her bra.
The guard gazed at the greenbacks in the envelope with satisfaction, then with desire at the location from which they were retrieved. Then finally at Melanie’s eyes, still wanting more.
“Alright, then,” Melanie offered, pulling out a larger stash of money from her waist-attached purse. She placed it into the jar labeled ‘Children’s and Widow’s Hospital Building Fund’. An act she had done many times for many patients, usually anonymously. Particularly the ones who were related to patients she couldn’t save.
By the way the orderly glanced at the roll of Hamilton, Jackson, Lincoln and Washington portraits, Melanie knew the three chinned bubba bellied stubble faced orderly in white with a black soul would extract more than his share of commission fees from the jar. And that she was running low on cash herself, barely having enough to get train fare back to her home in San Francisco and destiny in Los Angeles. But, if there was one thing Melanie’s mother was, it was being true to her word, economically anyway.
The three local yokul nurses still gazing at Melanie’s short hair and manly urban attire, one of them now with envy, another with fascination, were dismissed by the orderly requesting that they tend to their ‘divinely-assigned’ duties of ‘cleaning bedpans, rustling up some grub and lookin’ as pretty as they can’. Out of habit, fear or trickery, all three smiled, then went on their way. With no one watching, the orderly opened the door to the ward. “Twenty minutes, Doc,” he said to Melanie, as an order and warning. “After that, I ain’t responsible fer nothin’ that happens ta you in there,” he continued in a fatherly tone that, despite its ignorant
If felt like a warning given by Melanie’s father about being too independent, brave or honorable when it comes to dealing with men, or for that matter, other women. Or what would happen to her if in her urge to write the truth about humanity in fiction, like Melanie’s inspirational doctor-author Anton Chekov, she would find herself very broke, ostracized or perhaps dead in fact. Still, Melanie was on a Mission here. Even though the woman who sent Melanie on it kept it was an expert at telling lies, and even better at concealing the truth about anything.
The only thing Melanie had by way of identification of Maria Gonzales was a picture. An old one at that, which by the sepia tone and wardrobe had to be taken at least 50 years ago. Having seen young people age very quickly when their bodies acquired diseases, and being an underappreciated ace at facial reconstruction for soldiers wounded at the Front in France, Melanie had a sense of how young people looked, or would look like, when they became old. Maria Gonzales in her picture had eyes too expressive for her time and large for her small round face. Long black hair flowed over her slender, narrow shoulders. Her aristocratic Mexican presence seemed to be mixed with a small portion of Indian breeding somewhere in her pedigree. Most importantly, she had caring, intelligent and ‘wanting to trust but can’t allow myself to’ smile which reeked of self-infused intensity which honored defiance of herself and serving others, both at the same time. But there was something about this strange perhaps historically-significant woman who seemed to want to say so much to the camera, and those who would look at her photograph, that felt… familiar.
The woman in the bed bearing Maria’s name bore little resemblance to the photograph to any normal or objective observer. Her hair, what was left of it, was white. Her olive Iberian face was ghost white, her slender yet muscular arms now reduced to sticks of bone with thin, saggy slabs of thin tissue which barely looked like viable skin. From her once cautiously smiling lips came a death rattle. But her eyes were still Alive, the coral blue color of such attracting and not letting go of whoever dared, or chose, to look at her. She was strapped to her bed, bruises on her legs and arms most probably caused by futile attempts to release herself from them, or, according to her chart, uncontrollable seizures.
“I’m Melanie Hamilton,” Melanie said to the woman afflicted obviously with more than merely the Spanish flu, still keeping her scarf over her mouth. “And you are Maria Gonzales?” she continued in a soft, slowly delivered voice.
The old woman defiantly shook her head ‘no’, as affirmatively as her painful neck allowed her to do so.
“But the sign on your bed, says Maria Gonzales,” Melanie asked, gently, knowing fully well that patients of her age and in her condition were.
“Not me!” Maria pushed out of her mouth in a voice that Melanie could barely understand. “Who are you?” she pressed, demanding an answer.
“Melanie Hamilton,” Melanie replied as she took the woman’s hand. She then released the restraints from her arms and legs. “Doctor Melanie Hamilton!” she repeated, loud enough for a passing nurse pulling a rope out of his pocket to keep her distance. “Who was sent to help you, by…this women.” Melanie pulled out a picture of her mother from her jacket pocket, showing it to the patient. While doing so, Melanie shooed off the nurse like she was an unwanted servant, a trick she had acquired inadvertently from her mother, but one that always worked.
When ‘Maria’ glanced at the picture, her tired, death-welcoming eyes turned into oculars emitting primal rage. With all the strength she could, ‘Maria’ ejected a wad of blood-tinged spit at the picture, cursing it with phrases in Spanish that Melanie had never heard, but struggled to remember for future literary use.
“Then who are you?” Melanie asked, putting matters medical in front of literary, yet again. “Tell me who you are. And what you want me to do.”
Instantly Melanie knew that she had asked Maria, or whoever she really was, too many questions. She prepared herself for a constellation of answers.
“You go here,” Maria pushed out of quivering lips, in Spanish, a language that Melanie had learned despite her mother’s saying it was a useless tongue for American women. Maria requested with her shaking fingers to grab hold of the photograph of herself as a young girl, then a pencil. Melanie put herself in between Maria’s writing and onlookers, which now included a second concerned nurse, a young male doctor who rolled his eyes with condescension, and three other patients whose bodies and minds were well on their way to the other side of the veil. One of the patients, a tall emaciated man with uneven sideburns and a partially shaved off goutee pushed himself out of bed, slapped a children’s sheriff’s badge on his chest and shouffled towards an alarm bell.
“Here!” ‘Maria’ said, pulling Melanie’s attention to her as she continued to write, then lost a grip on the pencil, after writing ‘Utopia Falls, Wyoming’. “Go there, now! Quickly! Get my book, and write yours,” she said before closing her eyes and slipping off into a deep slumber.
The patient sheriff did reach the alarm bell, which brought in orderlies armed with muscle rather than kindness, accompanied by a small framed man in a clean, non-blood tinged suit. “I’m afraid Maria has to get some sleep now, Doctor Hamilton,” the chief administrator of the hospital said to Melanie through a mask that protected him from both the Spanish Flu as well having anyone he spoke to be able to see what he was really saying, and meaning. “We’ll notify you if there are any changes in her condition,” he continued as the restrains were put back on Maria’s wrists and ankles. “Her condition is very contagious. And unless we’re sure you are vaccinated….”
“…I know,” Melanie conceded, fully aware that enlightened madness and insight was a ‘condition’ far more contagious, and dangerous to the status quo, than the Spanish Flu..
Melanie was escorted in a professional manner out of the ward by the hospital administrator, then into a car waiting for her, the driver asking what hotel she wanted to be driven to. Playing along with the game, she requested a drop off at the Drover Inn. She entered, smiled goodbye to the driver, then looked at the scribbling on the back of ‘Maria’s’ photo, looking up the location on a map in the lobby. She couldn’t find Utopia Falls, Wyoming on the map in the lobby. Nor in the library, until she went to the historical section, and found it prominently displayed. In writing that both clear and which appeared ominous.
When Melanie inquired about the fastest way to get to Utopia Falls, the logical answer was of course the railroad. The iron horse that blasted its way through endless stretches of wild grasslands, mountains that defied any engineer to plow a road through, and bridges over rapidly flowing rivers that could swallow up even the best manned ferryboat across that were as high as any skyscraper in Manhattan. Indeed, such means of transportation allowed any mortal to go anywhere, especially those who were far more endowed with muscles between the ears than below the neck. The 1870s maps proudly portraying the Union Pacific Railroad name and its routes clearly indicated Utopia Falls in writing as bold and large as Laramie, and even Cheyenne. But as for the maps printed in the 20th century, Utopia Falls was not mentioned anywhere.
Armed with the assumption that money could buy anything or anyone, Melanie started out asking the clerk at the Railroad Station in Denver if the train going through Southern Wyoming could make a special stop at the location she had extrapolated as being Utopia Falls for a special fee of course. The senior clerk a middle-aged gentlemen with a clean shaven face and a Chicago accent containing no trace of Western twang, and not an ounce of charm or spice in his demeanor, had never heard of Utopia Falls. He informed her that if it existed at all, the wind had taken it away in many directions. Still, Melanie insisted that the railroad line DID go there and that there was a special off line that went directly there. “Maybe the train did go through there,, Ma’am, in the 1870s” the senior clerk at the Denver trains station finally conceded. “But the lines now, the ones that haven’t been torn apart or repossessed by mother nature say different.” Begrudgingly, he produced a large map of the railroad lines in Northern Colorado and Wyoming. “But maybe one of these routes may get you closer to where you think, or want to believe ‘Utopia’ is.”
Melanie’s jaw dropped when she looked at the large network of rails, and drivable roads, that now traversed what was the Old West. Indeed, it was a complex network in which one could not go twenty miles without hitting some kind of path carved into the earth, except for ‘holes’ marked Indian Reservation or nothing at all. The largest ‘nothing at all’ holes in that network corresponded to where Utopia Falls was, theoretically anyway.
“So, it’s a ghost town then,” Melanie surmised.
“If it was a town at all, but if you’re looking for ghosts, I suppose you can find them there, so I heard anyway,” the clerk said with an indifferent tone with a face that revealed absolutely no trace of emotion. “Besides, Utopia is the name of an ideal place and as for ‘Falls’, as there’s no big rivers or waterfalls there, suppose that town means a place where dreams fall apart. Maybe put on those old maps as a warning for those who think there’s gold, glory or something else worth building or getting there.”
Though Melanie outgrew the fear of ghosts at the age of 8, and the fascination with angels when she hit 12, she did sense something ominous about this quest, as well as practical. As for the latter, there were lots of reasons to go to this town with a defeatist name. ‘Mother dearest’s money. The chance to get a story about the Old West that no westerner could come up with, so she could make a name for herself in the East. And, most importantly, the chance to fulfill a promise to Maria, or whatever her real name was, and maybe still is.
As for the train ride to Laramie, it allowed Melanie to fully appreciate just how big the Wild West was. And how different every sparcely populated valley, snow sprinkled meadow giving way to spring, and mountain still holding onto its blanket of snow really was. Each seemed to speak with its own voice, allowing her imagination to put cowboys, Indians, Mountain men AND mountain women into them in the movie writing itself behind her wide open eyes. She envisioned wagon trains traversing the wide expanses being watched by curious buffalo conversing in their own bovine tongues what these ill prepared yet adventurous palefaces were doing here. She imagined herself on a horse interviewing the wagon masters, cooks and pilgrims from every country in the world, along with the bison and on-looking Indians. She couldn’t wait to rent a horse and, by necessity, a guide, to take her to Utopia the way the original settlers, perhaps Maria, arrived there over half or more of a century ago. But after arriving at Laramie, the only option was a car, which she had to buy, which eventually became lame on its two hind quarters with an engine that decided to smoke itself into an early grave once it reached the location which her map, and no road sign, said had to be Utopia. Or maybe it wasn’t.
Utopia was now a scattering of rotten smelling lumber on its way to being petrified wood, broken steel rods that penetrated up through the snow threatening to cut open the feet of anyone not wearing thick heels and fecal-smelling sagebrush inhabited by mice or some other creatures hearty enough to make something of the place. Everything that seemed burnable looked charred, and seemed to smell of such, no matter how much spring snow or winter moss had covered. Indeed, some destructive force of man or vengeful act of nature had vented its full wrath on this place. All but for one building whose sloping roof still kept the snow from falling through, with four walls that seemed to have been repaired by mismatched lumber and metal siding. It was connected by wires to the sole surviving windmill, whose wheels creaked loudly with a ghostlike shrill as its moved in time and tempo with the gusts of wind that kept changing direction. Through windows covered with spider-webs on the inside, Melanie could discern stacks of books and tables which seemed to be covered with medical equipment and scientific instruments from both the last century, and some from centuries still to come.
A thought came to Melanie as to who the sole inhabitant of this seemingly functional one man laboratory in the middle of nowhere as an old man with a thick white beard in a an Eastern European waistcoat and 19th century wide brimmed stetson hobbled out of the front door, with a welcoming smile on his face. “Mister Tesla?” Melanie inquired, thinking that perhaps the elusive genius who was kicked out of Colorado Springs for tapping the electrical power of the sun and the depths of the earth. And evacuated by Federal order from his Long Island Laboratory for building towers that could transmit electrical current throughout NY City without wires, cables or pollution, which Melanie had seen only after they had been destroyed. “Is this Utopia?”
“To some, yes, and to some no.” the old man said with the diction and mannerism of a hard grading Yale University Professor, as his smile turned into a distrusting frown. He pulled a very low tech, authentic vintage sawed off shotgun from under his coat, pointing it at Melanie’s head. “Whether this is Utopia or not depends on who you are. And what your business is, aside from driving that piece of gasoline powered, air toxifying junk into my facility, expecting me to fix it.”
Melanie raised her right hand into the air and carefully pulled out the photo of Maria with her left. “My business for being here,” she said handing the photo of the young, beautiful, optimistic Hispanic woman to the old, now ugly and bitter beyond cynical man.
After an intense moment he shared only with himself, the old man looked into an through Melanie, still holding the gun on her. “Where did you get this?” he inquired, demanding nothing less than the truth.
“My mother, as part of what she willed to me,” Melanie answered, lowering her hands slowly. As she did, the mad scientist lowered the business end of his shotgun accordingly.
“And the other part of what your mother willed to you?” the old man asked the young woman, in Spanish. This time requesting the truth from a deep and vulnerable place.
“That’s my own business, Sir,” Melanie asserted, in Spanish. “Along with seeing if any of the books in your ‘dwelling’ there were written by her.”
The grimace on the old man’s face eased into a wide smile, which was made even bigger by a loud laughter emerging from his gut. As to what the old man was feeling as he put down his shotgun, looked to the ground, then the sky, then into somewhere behind his eyes with a blank stare, Melanie had no clue. A constellation of emotions seemed to be competing for his consciousness, with no doubt, even more memories behind them. She had never experienced such a lunatic, madman, psychopath, or saint.
Finally, the old man came back to the here and now of 1920’s Wyoming, planet earth. “Come, inside,” he said to Melanie. “I think I’ve been waiting for you for a long time,” he related and confessed as he led her to the ‘house’.
“And if you were waiting for someone else?” Melanie inquired as she walked slowly behind him.
The old man stopped dead in his tracks, then turned around and intensely stared at Melanie for what felt like hours. In those few seconds, she felt as if he had dissected every part of her soul, done exploratory surgery, then reconstructed the mess into a concoction that suited his own purposes. “I know who you are now,” he said, kindly and affectionately. “And you’ll soon find out who you are too. If you listen to what I have to say now, what this woman in the photograph you just met had to say then, and, well…hmmm.” The old man looked Melanie up and down, three times, the stared into her ocular portholes again, unlocking the protective blinds she tried so desperately to keep shut.
“Well what?” Melanie asked, then demanded, doing her hide the stench of fear in her sweating brow. “Are you sizing me up for intellectual amusement, carnal pleasure or cannibal stew? Make up your mind!”
Finally the old man smiled, in the manner of Old Saint Nick and Sir Walter Raleigh. “What do you want me to do for you, who fate has delivered to the doorstep of my humble abode where I negotiate with God on behalf of a hurting, yet undeserving, humanity?”
“The truth about this place, and her,” Melanie answered. “For my own reasons.”
“Which just may be ours,” he speculated with an aura of hope giving new life to his tired eyes. “And if not, I am assuming that you won’t take it personally if I do what Universal Justice demands,” the old man replied, after which he retrieved a rod from the ground. He aimed it at a snake about to help itself to Melanie meat. With the kind of strength that only primal rage could unleash the old man reached down to the still moving snake, breaking off its head with his bare hands. “So, the story of this garden of Eden,” he said with both the optimism of a naïve child who believe in the eternal power of goodness, and the cynicism of an adult whose punishment for living a non-virtuous life was to know too much.