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Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Family Tree

By Christopher Leeson

John Roth's grandmother had been a wild flapper during the Roaring Twenties -- an orphan born out of wedlock to a mysterious great-grandmother whose name was not known.  John often wondered about his roots in childhood and as a young man worked hard in his spare time to fill in what was a short and very sketchy family tree.

John studied genealogy books to learn how to research difficult cases such as his.  He eventually went to the town where his grandmother had grown up in an orphanage, but they would tell him nothing until he bribed an official.  What he found out from the sealed records was that the woman who had left his grandmother Rose at the foundling home in 1906 had called herself "Maddie Smith" and had given a San Francisco address.

The city was close by, and so he soon traced the address to the old Barbary Coast district.  There John discovered that the old address was still standing, preserved as a historical home.  But it had never been a real home, anyone would have realized that.  The sign outside revealed that it had instead been a high-toned bordello which had closed after the 1906 quake.  It was not currently open for tours, being temporarily shut down for repairs.  After a visit to the managing office at city hall, John received permission to explore the edifice, accompanied by a tour guide who knew the property well. 

The edifice that had been called home by Maddie Smith turned out to be a priceless time capsule from an era of opulence, extravagance, and sin, when men were dashing rogues, women seductive sirens, and the well off lived for ostentatious pleasure.

Had his ancestor actually been an employee in such an establishment, a fille de joie?  John should have felt embarrassed thinking that, but instead he reacted with a bit of amused excitement.  It was almost a relief to learn that his unknown ancestor had not been some uneducated immigrant servant, or been a drab turn-of-the-century housewife, but a flashy bad girl, one who had perhaps liked handsome men and pretty things.

She must have been very attractive to have found work in an upscale brothel, John thought.  No wonder Maddie had given up her child for adoption; there was no way for a cathouse girl to do a child justice while living such a life.  But maybe the family's red-hot had blood run deep despite this; maybe Grandma Rose had inherited her wild ways from a harlot mother.  With that possibility in mind, John closed his eyes and concentrated, meditating on his exotic surroundings, trying to get the feel for the gay and wicked lifestyle that his progenitor had obviously lived.

John had never visited any building with such a powerful ambiance; the past seemed to vibrate in every drape, in every piece of furniture.  Even the glittering sunlight on the windows evoked a kind of magic.  He found himself guessing -- usually correctly -- what was around each corner.  John felt deja vu and started to fantasize that he had known this house before, perhaps as one of its rakish customers reincarnated.

Coming to an upstairs door, something made him stop in front of it.  John guessed -- knew -- what he would find behind that magnetic barrier.  He lifted the latch and saw that he had been right!  It was a colorful bedroom done in the late Victorian style.  He then made the leap of faith, though he couldn't say exactly why, and convinced himself that this had been the very room where Great-granny once Maddie lived and worked.  If she had been the one who had occupied it up until the hour of the quake, it would have made her the very last person to dwell there.  It pleased John to think that no strangers had occupied it later to blur her aura with theirs.

When the guide went off to the restroom, John slyly checked out the closet, filled with the clothes of a vintage hottie.  Saloon girls in Technicolor Westerns had worn colorful garments like these and he tried to imagine a living, breathing girl who could do them justice.  Pouring through the lingerie, he realized that he was liking his newly-discovered ancestor more and more.  He hadn't much fantasized about naughty girls before, but making these discoveries about Maddie made him feel kindly toward her.

It was then that John noticed the glint of a small bejeweled pin in the shadows.  The odd thing was that where it lay there should have been no light for it to reflect.  It actually seemed to bit giving off light of its own accord.  Had it belonged to Maddie herself?  Impossible; the city people would have found it long before this.

He picked it up; the jewelry felt warm and made his fingers tingle.  At the same time, his feeling of being elsewhere -- somewhere other than in his own time and place -- became even stronger.  "Great-grandmother," he suddenly murmured, "I wish I could have known you."

Suddenly, old-time music filled the house.  John turned and found himself looking into the face of a beautiful young woman.  Her hair was blonde and wavy; she was wearing long gloves and an old-time corset, black and trimmed with red lace.  His first thought was that she had to be a historical reenacter who was working here.  He opened his lips for an apology.  Just then, he heard a man's booming voice yell, "Madeline!  Get back here!"  The shout had come from the hall outside, and he also detected the mutter of many voices underneath the music.

When John glanced back at the girl, he realized that he was looking at his own reflection.  That made no sense, unless he was dreaming.  He leaned closer to the looking glass and the girl pressed her face up close to his.  Then it was like thoughts were passing between them.  He thought he knew what she was thinking.  An incredible explanation an once occurred to him.  Could it be that he experiencing a vision from the past? 

But the room still felt solid, not ghostly.  He touched the cold, hard mirror.  Was the girl haunting the glass?  It was then that he chanced to glance down at himself and saw to his amazement that he was wearing the same lacy corset.  The body inside it was absolutely not his own.  He touched himself, frantic to prove that the vision was an illusion, but what he felt was warm and soft.  Also, the arm he had used was slender and covered to the elbow by a black velvet glove.

At that moment, John realized that Madeline had not really been named Smith, but Dunbar -- a name that meant nothing to him.  Why had it leaped into his mind so strongly?  At the same, John was sensing -- remembering actually -- other anomalous things, memories of faces, faces of people whom he had never known but who still seemed important and familiar.  Were they Maddie's memories; was it she who had known them?  Was he channeling her thoughts like a psychic would?   

"Get out here, Madeline," the man with the foghorn voice yelled again, "or I'll come in and drag you out by the hair!"

"Jacob -- that loudmouth bastard," John thought.  But who was Jacob?  Instinct warned him that Jake was a bastard's bastard, a person that one had to walk easy around.  But, at the same time, John realized that the year was 1905.  What made him so sure of that?  Had his powerful affinity for Maddie's ghost, the ghost whose glamor that had reached out to him the instant that he had entered the room, called his spirit back across more than a century?  Or did were they having this uncanny meeting because John Roth was, in fact, Madeline Dunbar's reincarnation?

He ran his gloved fingers over his body again.  If he had been drawn into the past, his essence had not arrived as a mere phantom.  Sensation informed him that he was occupying Madeline's very flesh and blood.  But yet, as John paused to think about it, it felt so unalarming.  She was no spirit, but a living being. He felt her heart beating, he felt the perfumed air being drawn into her lungs, and he felt the draft that wafted over her bare shoulders.

There came the sound of a shattering bottle and some raucous laughter from the hall.  This broke his train of thought.  The very idea that there might be living people from the last century standing so close by fascinated John -- or was it Madeline who was fascinated?  Overcome by curiosity, she stepped out into the hall and, putting her hand on her hip, regarded the partying crowd from the doorway.  Something in the jovial spirit of the crowd made her want to smile.

The tour guide returned to an empty room; John Roth was soon reported as a missing person.


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