Bartlett House by Patricia J. McLean and Duane Poncy ©2004, 2010

Emmy had met him that night, the night of his lecture. He hadn’t really expected her to come. After his presentation, they left the Historical Society together. It was evening. Will was reluctant to let Emmy walk off without him. “Where did you park?” He asked.
     “I didn’t drive. I live downtown.” Emmy said and pointed toward the west.
     He was going north and east. Still, he could offer to walk her home. Or to buy her a drink. Emmy had come to hear him. Had she also come to see him? Or was he an old fool?
     “I don’t actually feel like going home, yet,” Emmy said. She drew her eyebrows together as if her thoughts gave her pain. “What you were talking about tonight, it makes you believe in evil, the way people are so eager to destroy each other. How do they reconcile it? What made those white folks think it was alright to run the Chinese out of their homes and businesses?”
     “I don’t think they spent very much effort trying to justify it,” Will answered. “Greed and fear are powerful motives.”
     Without thinking about it, they had started walking and were strolling down the center of the park blocks, the same ghostly trees overhead that Will had delighted in during the sun break just a few days previous. March could not be denied tonight. There was a wind. Both Will and Emmy wore winter coats, scarves, and hats. It was cold enough for these precautions, but not bone-chilling. Not like Providence, he thought remembering that a March evening in Rhode Island, whipped by wind off the Atlantic could push your breath back down your throat and freeze your belly. Or did the cold he remembered have a different source altogether; childhood is difficult to sort out sometimes.
     “So, tell me more about Louise Bryant and the Belligerents. What were they about?”
     Will smiled, “Sounds like a rock band.”
     Emmy laughed. Will continued, “They were cultural radicals, mostly. Beats of a different era, but more political–socialists, anarchists, feminists, freethinkers. They were writers and artists experimenting with Free Love and trying to create ‘The New Socialist Man’, as Oscar Wilde called it.”
     “Free Love can’t really work–do you think?”
     “Probably not. But the idea of Free Love meant something different to the radicals of a century ago. It wasn’t just about sexual freedom. The theory was that if society could be arranged so women weren’t economically dependent upon men, they would cease to be socially and emotionally dependent as well. They would then be free to engage with men as equals and to have relationships based purely on love or pleasure.”
     “There would still be loneliness.”
     “Not in the perfect socialist world,” Will teased. “No loneliness allowed.”
     “So Catherine fooled around with Free Love, and had a love child.”
     “And she must have paid a terrible price for it in those times.”
     “Why were they so repressive? It seems like they had no tolerance for anything that was different from the norm. Whatever that is.”
     Will and Emmy reached the end of the park blocks. In front of them was the dark brick front of the exclusive Arlington Club. A few second floor windows were lit, but from his angle of view, Will could not see anyone. He pointed it out to Emmy, “The Arlington Club. Reed’s father was persona non grata there for awhile because he was involved in bringing some of its members to justice over timber and land fraud. Your great-grandmother’s father could have been one of them.
     “I suppose that, and several thousand dollars, might get me in the door,” Emmy said. But she didn’t seem interested in the club and its elitist province. When they had crossed Morrison Street, she brought the conversation back to the lecture. “They were afraid of themselves, weren’t they?”
     “Isn’t that the most terrifying thing for all of us?” Will asked. “Do you want to go in here?” He motioned to the door of Park Place Restaurant and Bar.
     Emmy wrinkled her nose, a motion of distaste, but she said, “Why not? It’s cold and I’m too poor to catch Yuppie fever.”
     Will laughed and gallantly opened the door. “Madam.” He bowed and waved her in.
     Emmy inclined her head meeting his mock chivalry with the appropriate corresponding gesture.
     They passed quickly through the restaurant under the watch of the headwaiter. In the warm bar they peeled off their coats laying them over the back of an empty chair and tossed their hats on the seat. Will removed his scarf, but Emmy left hers hanging loosely around her neck. She picked up the drink menu card and sighed. “Six bucks for well drinks. I work most of an hour for that.”
     A waitress appeared to take their orders. “I’ll have a beer, something dark and bitter,” Will said. “How about a bottle of this?” He pointed to a micro-brew on the card.
     “That’s very good. And you?”
     “Same,” Emmy said. “Dark and bitter. You’re not describing yourself are you?” She commented after the waitress left.
     “Probably.” He wanted to ask her if it made her nervous, but he thought it was presumptive. Why should it matter how he was unless she was interested in him and of course she couldn’t be. “May as well drink dark and bitter. It reminds you that life is mostly uncomfortable.”
     “Mostly?” Emmy lifted an eyebrow. “That depends on a lot of variables. Don’t you think? I mean we have it pretty good here. Most of us. Except, of course for that ever-increasing segment of the population which is trampled under the boot of…Yeah, well mostly it is dark and bitter. But we can’t, I can’t, allow that to be everything. There has to be some hope, some good times.”
     “Maybe it isn’t all despair in the dark,” Will said. He meant it. The dark had some comfortable corners if only through familiarity. More comfortable than what he was feeling right now when he dared to look at her, and he was daring to look most of the time.
     Near the end of their beers, Emmy pulled a slip of folded paper out of her coat pocket, unfolded it and smoothed it out on the table between them. “This is the address to the Bartlett house. I’ve wanted to see it, but I’m…It’s really stupid. I’m afraid to go. I don’t know what I’ll see or not see.” She pushed the paper toward him. “It’s not far from here. Ten blocks maybe.”
     Will took his reading glasses out of his pocket and read the address. It was all of ten blocks. Probably more. “It isn’t far,” he agreed. “Let’s go.”
     “No kidding. You’d really walk up there with me. Tonight?” Emmy appeared genuinely pleased that he wanted to go with her. “You don’t know how much I appreciate this. I really owe you.”
     By the time Will and Emmy reached the street where the Bartlett house stood, they were out of breath, but warmed up by the climb.
     “Sorry, I didn’t think it’d be halfway up the hill,” Emmy said.
     It wasn’t halfway up the hill. It was closer to the base of the West Hills. Yet it was uphill from where they had come. As the elevation increased so did the “rent”. They were among the large old Victorian era homes that had been the showcases of wealth for nineteenth century timber barons, and land speculators, builders of the city, of its bridges and bordellos. Portland had certainly had its share of the latter. The city fathers and mothers were primarily New Englanders who did not leave their Puritan creed behind in Massachusetts or Maine. Bringing it with them, they also brought with them the antithesis–a wantonness which seems always to accompany excessive repression. So, downhill from these mansions, close to the water, in the path of flood and corruption, were taverns and brothels and the working women and men whose labor helped to fill the mahogany halls of the wealthy with rosewood and teak, and hang chandeliers in their dining rooms.
     Between the riverside and the hillside stretched the homes and shops of the in-between people. Most of them also made money in one way or another for the people who lived above them. That was the lay of the city in its early days. But no city ever sleeps, especially new cities, and twentieth century Portland was no exception, it was constantly evolving. The rich were always moving to higher ground. The former homes of Portland’s version of high society were divided into apartments or offices, converted into restaurants, or torn down and replaced by something that always seemed less grand, no matter how immense. A significant number of citizens did not think that this last instance was progress. Consequently there was a fairly strong preservation society roaming about the streets seeking candidates for historical status.
     What Will and Emmy stood in front of that night was the rarest exception to the prevalent fates of these fine homes. The Bartlett house was empty, which was unusual for the area, but more than that it was abandoned. A four foot high stone wall topped with three feet of wrought iron fence ran the length of the block enclosing the house and grounds. A large padlocked gate composed of closely spaced iron bars prevented any but the most slender of trespassers from entering the drive. Because the property was elevated from the street and because the house was three stories high, much of it could be seen from the sidewalk where they stood. The light of streetlamps was enough to reveal that there were no curtains on the windows, a few of which were boarded over. The condition of the grounds underscored the plight of the house. Grass survived in isolated clumps surrounded by weeds. Winter-killed morning glory vines covered shrubs and girdled the trunks of trees as if the coarse hair of some giant had been snagged there. One of these trees was an old enormous oak that stood part way between the house and the gate. There was a scar on this tree that, even in the dim light, was large enough to be recognized as the stump of an amputated branch.
     A deep porch swept across two-thirds of the front of the house and disappeared around one corner. The second story rose straight above the porch, the third was dormered, but it was the circular tower that dominated. It formed the northeastern corner of the house. While only the first floor of the rest of the house was basalt, the tower was built of the stone all the way to its roof. There was no open balcony for a widow’s walk, like so many of the old Portland homes had in their turrets. This tower appeared to be more of a fortress than a lookout.
     The slender moon, suddenly emerging from behind a heavy cloud, illuminated the roof enough to see that here, too, vines had encroached and were curled around the five chimneys that marched across the roofline.
     “The moon was a ghostly galleon…,” Emmy started to quote. She broke off and shivered. “Its cold.”
     Will started to turn away from the house, but Emmy didn’t move.
     “What’s that?” she asked, “Is that a candle in the window?”
     Will had not seen it. When he looked, he saw nothing. “It must have been the reflection of the moon. A cloud has covered it again. See?”
     They were walking slowly back down the hill. Emmy was shivering. Will instinctively put his arm around her to warm her.
     “Thanks,” She said. “For the arm and for coming with me.”
     Will tried not to hold her too tight.
     That was when she told him that she had been looking for a family and instead all she had found was an empty, broken house. “I wonder where he is, the man who owns it now. He’d be my cousin, I guess. Douglas Bartlett. That’s the name on the records.”
     “Familiar name, but I don’t know where I’ve heard it.”
     “Look at these places. They had so much. The Bartletts up in that big house had so much. Do you know that my great-grandmother, Catherine Elizabeth, cleaned houses to make a living. She scrubbed their toilets. Grandma said that in the winter her mother’s hands were so rough and cracked that they bled when she came home from work. Why did she have to clean houses? Weren’t they her family? What did they have to do with all that money that they couldn’t help her?”
     Will didn’t have an answer for Emmy’s anger. They were silent for awhile. “Wealth,” He said finally, “is relative.”
     “It’s just not for the relatives,” Emmy smiled wanly. “It’s like the Tao. Call one thing beautiful and another becomes ugly. You can’t have wealth if there is no poverty.”
     “Right. It’s conditional. Wealth presupposes it’s opposite.” Will was on to a favorite subject and it wouldn’t hurt to divert Emmy’s attention away from that dreary specter on the hill. “Wealth always costs too much. It is bought with human life, from the plantation to the cotton mill, from the coal mine to the steel mill, every robber baron, every Carnegie and Rockefeller, owes his fortune to the men and women whose lives were sacrificed for it.”
     “Have I heard this lecture?” Emmy was grinning. “I turn here.”
     They were already at Fifteenth Avenue. Will’s arm was still around her shoulder. He dropped it. If he walked her home, she’d feel obliged to ask him in. Wasn’t that what he wanted? No. Not yet.
     They stood on the corner a little awkwardly. Will reached over and took one end of her muffler and tossed it over her shoulder. “Keep your neck warm,” He said. It was fatherly and it made him cringe. So he blundered on, pulling the muffler up over her mouth, over her nose. Suddenly, she struck his hand away. There was fear in her eyes. “Don’t.” She cried and she yanked the muffler away from her face.
     Will had stepped back. He was bewildered. “I’m sorry. What did I do?”
     Emmy was calm now. “No, Will. I’m sorry. It’s just that I have this…this thing. I can’t stand anything on my face like that. I feel like I’m suffocating. It’s like I can’t breathe.”
     “Something like claustrophobia.”
     “Could be. It’s really cold. I’ve got to get moving and warm up. Thanks, again, for tonight.”
     “I had a good time.” If he hadn’t been such a coward, he would have kissed her.

     
     A cloud passed over the sun, bringing Will back to the present.
     He stood, barely conscious of his wet clothes. He had a destination now, the burnt out remains of Bartlett House. But he intended to get there by the same route he and Emmy had taken that first night. He walked up Morrison to 9th Ave., then turned toward the south park blocks. He took note of The Park Place Restaurant as he passed by it. A little further on he came to the Oregon Historical Society. What had he expected to find here? Was it possible that Emmy was really dead?
     “No.” It came from him loud and sudden and he startled himself almost as much as the couple who, standing nearby, had been admiring the mural painted on the society’s wall. They quickly moved away, glancing uneasily over their shoulders.
      He wanted to bend over the hole in his belly and sob. Tears ran wildly down his cheeks. He should have known…he should have known.

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